It isn't easy being a Cubs fan. Everyone who knows baseball knows that. Everyone who can count to one hundred knows that. The Cubs' misfortune isn't just unlucky, it's cruel.
It's like that sign that restaurants and bars love to hang on their walls which reads: "Free Beer Tomorrow." Most patrons understand the joke. Tomorrow never comes. Don't forget your wallet.
The Cubs have a similar sign that reads: "Wait 'Til Next Year."
The problem with the comparison? For other teams, next year finally did come. And for Cubs fans, it isn't funny.
From March to September, Cubs fans got exactly what they wanted. Actually, they got exactly what they expected. The team pitched well, played good defense, and hit. Then they coasted into the playoffs with 97 wins and a division crown. We all know what happened next.
Now Jim Hendry has an extended contract and a job to do.
The team’s weaknesses are few in number, but for most people there is one that is painfully obvious: a severe lack of lefties in the lineup. As it stands right now, the team has four returning lefties: Kosuke Fukudome, Mike Fontenot, Micah Hoffpauir, and Felix Pie. Jim Edmonds is a free agent and may decide to come back, but he may just as easily retire.
Fukudome was supposed to fill the void as a left-handed power hitter. He did fine for a little while, but he didn’t hit for power from day one and it wasn’t long before his average dropped. Despite his troubles at the end of the season, he was given a shot in the playoffs. That shot didn’t even last three games.
Fontenot hit almost as many homeruns as Fukudome in less than half the at bats and by the end of the season he hit 48 points higher. Except for games where he was inserted at second base, the only left-handed bat in the lineup would often be the pitcher’s spot. Of course, if Fontenot plays second full-time, then DeRosa would need to play in right. That would leave one outfield spot (most likely centerfield) to potentially add a lefty.
Micah Hoffpauir could be the perfect man for the job. His stats in the big leagues weren’t too shabby and the ones from Iowa speak for themselves. But unless the National League adopts the designated hitter or Derrek Lee feels like moving to the outfield, Hoffpauir doesn’t really have a position to play. While he is an average to above average first baseman in my estimation, his skills in the outfield are undeveloped and don’t project well for considerable improvement.
Felix Pie had high expectations coming into last year. He ended up having a decent season, but his best stretches came while he was playing in Iowa.
The other weaknesses on the team aren’t all that weak and centerfield is the only real question mark. Yes, you’d always like to have better depth in the bullpen and rotation, but the Cubs are about as secure in both areas as any other team in the major leagues.
As I said before, Micah Hoffpauir would be perfect to fill the left-handed void. If he could step up and become a serviceable outfielder, then the problem is pretty much solved.
Another option that some fans are considering is putting him at first base and trading Derrek Lee. His decline in production the past few seasons has Cubs fans worrying. The trade would allow the Cubs to add another left-handed bat in the outfield via free agency, too.
The problem here is that there are very few first basemen that play defense of Lee’s caliber. There are even fewer (if any) that can also hit as well as he did this past year, even with the lesser production. In addition to that, Lee is a great clubhouse presence. I just don’t understand the move.
There are about twenty left-handed or switch-hitting outfielders in free agency that Jim Hendry could decide to sign. The list of players ranges from proven (but past their prime) players such as Ken Griffey, Jr. and Garret Anderson to guys that are a little more of an unknown commodity like Joe Borchard and Laynce Nix.
To me, a couple of guys stick out as being pretty interesting.
First and foremost is Mark Kotsay. The way he played for the Red Sox down the stretch and in the playoffs really caught my attention. He could easily be a left-handed Mark DeRosa and, though he may not have the power that many fans want, I don’t think anyone will question his ability to hit.
Eric Hinske, on the other hand, flies under the radar of most fans. He hit well last year and plays better defensively than most people give him credit for. Also, he’s been to two straight World Series. I’m sure Cubs fans wouldn’t mind that run continuing in blue pinstripes.
Other than those two, the most interesting free agents are Adam Dunn, Ken Griffey, Jr., and Milton Bradley. Adam Dunn can flat out mash, but he isn’t that great defensively and there are only a handful of guys who strike out more often. Griffey doesn’t hit or field like he used to, but he’s still better than a lot of other guys out there. Bradley was once a five tool player and, if he can stay healthy, he might be one again.
Before spring training Felix Pie, Sam Fuld, and even Ronny Cedeno were being considered for starting in center. Then the Blue Jays released Reed Johnson and, in May, the Padres released Jim Edmonds. Jim Hendry signed both and the platoon that resulted worked quite well.
Johnson will definitely be back and, as previously stated, Edmonds might retire. Assuming Edmonds doesn’t return, Johnson will most likely need someone to platoon with because of his Byrnes-esque style of play. If Felix Pie can make the necessary adjustments at the major league level, the job might be his to lose.
If Pie doesn’t step up, Fukudome may fill the role. He played some centerfield last year and did well, so there is no reason to believe that he couldn’t platoon at the position. And who knows, maybe it will allow him to get back to the production he showed early last year.
Sam Fuld could be the dark horse. He seemingly came out of nowhere two years ago, but fell off the map last season. If he can return to what made him the Arizona Fall League MVP in 2007, he may just take the job.
Ryan Dempster, Kerry Wood, Bob Howry, and Jon Lieber are free agents. The way Jim Hendry handles these four players will be a huge factor in how the pitching staff fares next season.
According to ESPN, the Cubs are ready to give Dempster a four-year deal. Based solely on his performance last year, he deserves it and hopefully he’ll continue his winning ways. Unless last season was a complete fluke, he shouldn’t end up being the next Carl Pavano and the rotation should be in good shape.
Kerry Wood deserves to be back as closer. I can’t imagine seeing him in any other uniform and Cubs fans hope that they will never have to. But in the unlikely event that he doesn’t return, the Cubs are ready. Carlos Marmol may be the next great closer if he can learn to control his amazing stuff and Jeff Samardzija proved that he can handle the pressure of the big leagues.
Lieber’s best days are behind him and his ability to stay healthy should be a question mark. There are other players, such as Sean Marshall, that could easily fill his role. Howry had a less-than-stellar season, but if he’s willing to take a pay cut, I see no reason to not bring him back.
In more recent news, the Cubs have recently been tabbed the frontrunners for Jake Peavy. If the Cubs were to acquire him, don’t be surprised to see Jason Marquis on his way out. He had made it clear last year that he didn’t want to be in the bullpen and with Zambrano, Harden, Dempster, Lilly, and Peavy available, he would have no other choice.
Less Is More
Centerfield should be perfectly fine with a platoon of Fukudome and Johnson. Both are great defenders and have the ability to hit well. That would then open up a spot in the outfield for Micah Hoffpauir, who would act as the left-handed bat everyone wants. Then Felix Pie would be ready as the fifth outfielder, a great defensive replacement, and a pinch-running option off the bench.
Having Jake Peavy on the team would be great so long as the Cubs don’t have to part with key players. I would assume that Geovany Soto, Aramis Ramirez, and Alfonso Soriano are untouchable, but Lee (who would only be involved in a three-way trade since the Padres have Adrian Gonzalez), DeRosa, Theriot, and Johnson are vital to the way this team is structured.
If all else fails, the Cubs have plenty of talented guys already in the system. Chances are that somebody would step up into any hole the team may have.
And don’t forget that it’s cheaper to replace from within. Since the economy isn’t doing that well and the Cubs don’t know who their owner is going to be, it might not be a bad idea to save up.
So remember this mantra and repeat as necessary: Less is more.