Chicago Cubs May Need To Expedite Changes if Team Struggles This Season

Bob Warja@@bobwarjaSenior Writer IMarch 20, 2010

The Chicago Tribune's Paul Sullivan wrote an article about how the Cubs roster may change if they don't win this year. While I usually find Sully's columns to be less than noteworthy, he has hit the nail on the head with this one.

Yes, there seems to be a lot riding on the 2010 season. While new owner Tom Ricketts keeps saying positive things about GM Jim Hendry, you have to think that he at least "nudged" Hendry to bring in Greg Maddux this offseason.

Meanwhile, there are those who think Maddux could eventually replace Hendry as GM.

I think it is a bit premature to suggest something like that happening so quickly after this season, since Maddux has no prior experience running a franchise.

Still, one can't help but wonder what Ricketts is really thinking whenever he looks at the team's bloated and unproductive payroll. Sure, Hendry has led the team through much more success than previous GMs, but those guys didn't have the advantage of a top-three payroll to work with.

And, as Sullivan points out, some contracts are due to come off the books following this season, so it just may make sense for the Cubs to embark on a semi-rebuilding process, especially if they miss the playoffs again this year.

I say "semi-rebuilding" because they will still be hamstrung by big contracts like those of Carlos Zambrano, Alfonso Soriano, and Ryan Dempster. So, unless they can somehow move that money, it is not like the Cubs can completely start over.

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Yet, Aramis Ramirez can opt out of his contract following this year. For that to happen, he would have to have a healthy and productive season. Otherwise, taking the money he's guaranteed next year would still be his best option.

So far, the early warning signs have been dubious for Ramirez. He has a bad shoulder that he decided to rehabilitate rather than have surgery on, so it will continue to be a source of concern.

Also, the Cubs are insisting that his inability to throw is the result of "forearm soreness." As we know, whenever the forearm is involved it usually points to the elbow as well. Tommy John, anyone?

Cubs fans had better hope Ramirez won't need it. Xavier Nady went through that, and although he can still hit, it will limit him in the outfield for some time. And that throw from third base is a much tougher one to come back to.

Maybe Ramirez moves to first base if the Cubs don't re-sign Derrek Lee, who is free-agent eligible following the season, while Josh Vitters takes over at third? 

That is, if Vitters can ever learn to take a walk. Otherwise, he will need to hit over .300 to be of much value as an offensive player.

Additionally, Ted Lilly may leave after 2010, following a very nice run as one of Hendry's best signings ever.

And while I hate to temper your enthusiasm, Cubs fans, Tyler Colvin is still a very good fourth outfielder and probably nothing more, despite his strong spring training. This isn't just my opinion; scouts such as Keith Law have seen him this spring and still hold that same opinion.

Spring stats mean nothing. Yes, they mean something to the player who is trying to win a job, but they are meaningless as predictors for how well the player will do during the regular season.

I realize that many Cubs fans have no stomach for a rebuilding process, especially after waiting forever for a championship team. But unless this team surprises, and perhaps even if it does, it is clearly getting older and needs to add youthful talent.

Some of that "youth" (relatively speaking) may come from the manager's chair. This may be Lou Piniella's last season, especially if the team doesn't win this year. By most accounts, Ryne Sandberg is poised to take the reins, with Maddux possibly being his pitching coach.

Of course, most everyone expects Starlin Castro to be the team's starting shortstop in 2011, if not sooner. And we have to hope that Geo Soto can regain at least some of the form he showed in his rookie year.

If he can, that will mean young players at short, catcher, third base (if Ramirez leaves), and possibly first (if Lee moves on). And the bullpen will likely feature some good-looking youngsters like Esmailin Caridad (although he's not a prospect at 26) and Andrew Cashner (if they abandon the starting idea and put him in the 'pen where he belongs).

But where is the pitching? Three-fifths of the rotation appears set for next year, with Zambrano, Dempster, and Randy Wells (assuming last year wasn't a fluke) set. But there doesn't appear to be any stud young pitchers on the horizon.

Jay Jackson looks to be the best of the lot, but there really isn't much in the way of major league-ready pitching at the minor league level. Sorry, but I don't see Jeff Samardzija ever making it unless they move him to the bullpen.

Still, there is a lot of change potentially on the horizon, and a lot of it may depend on what kind of season the Cubs have in 2010. If the Cubs fall out of contention early, they need to prepare for 2011 sooner rather than later.

Unfortunately, with guys like Piniella wanting to win and potential free agents wanting to have the best stats possible, Chicago's front office may not want to start looking at the "kids" or trading vets during the season, regardless of how much the Cubs struggle.

"I don't think you ever think about anything like that," Lee said. "You only worry about winning games. All the other stuff takes care of itself. I don't think that's ever a concern."

That's fine for you, D-Lee, and OK for now, but the Cubs as an organization have to plan for beyond this season, especially if they stumble early.

That planning may be hampered by a veteran manager unlikely to have any interest in rebuilding, a GM looking to recoup some value from his $140 million payroll, and a new owner wanting to impress the fans.

Recognizing the potential conflicts of interest, I suggest that Ricketts starts to break up the Cubs at midseason unless they are above .500 and in contention.

Otherwise, Ricketts shouldn't hesitate to give Sandberg and Maddux the experience they want, allow Castro some major-league playing time, and try to dump players who may not be around next season, providing they are willing to go.

However, that may be easier said than done.

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