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Chicago Cubs: Does White Sox Signing of Adam Dunn Affect North Siders?

Reports have surfaced that the Chicago White Sox have signed free agent first baseman Adam Dunn to a four-year, $56 million deal. After reading that statement, a collective sigh may have been audible on the other side of town, though each individual may have had a different reason for joining the chorus.

On the one hand, Adam Dunn is a consistent left-handed power hitter that would have looked great in the middle of the Cubs lineup. On the other hand, Dunn is not exactly known as great defender at any position and will not only cost the Sox a reported average of $14 million per year, but also a first round draft pick in 2011.

Does this signing really affect the Cubs, though? Not necessarily.

Had the Cubs made this move, their offense would have been immediately upgraded. But they would have also added the second-most error prone first baseman in the majors from 2010 to the third-most error prone team in the majors from 2010, cost themselves a second round draft pick (their first round draft pick is protected) and likely committed themselves to too much salary to add a quality arm to the rotation or bullpen.

It is precisely that second set of reasons that led me to believe that Dunn was not a serious target for the team in the first place.

What his signing most definitely will do is set a reference point for negotiations with other free agent first basemen. Although I’m sure that a $14 million salary isn’t too surprising to anyone, the contract should be a valid counter-argument for teams to use in contrast to the rather large salaries owed to Ryan Howard over the next seven years.

For players and agents that were hoping to capitalize on Howard’s gargantuan extension, it may provide a reality check. For the Cubs and other teams looking to sign a first baseman, it may quicken negotiations.

Of course, with Dunn off the market, there’s a chance that teams could scramble for the first basemen that remain, bumping up their offers in the process. Since the Cubs are trying to control costs and add a few key pieces to their puzzle, such circumstances wouldn’t be ideal and may shrink the pool of players that they’re negotiating with.

What would be ideal for a cost conscious club are negotiations with more cost-effective options concluding before the bigger fish finalize their contracts. It’s for that exact reason that Scott Boras prefers to drag out negotiations for his clients as long as possible.

If a few more of the bigger names fly off the board, then the best move might be to wait until most first base positions are filled across the league, reducing competition to a minimum and increasing the restlessness of free agents, and hope that a good option remains. Until that point, however, it might be wise to at least entertain the idea of striking quickly.

What remains to be seen and may, to a certain extent, counteract the point that I just made is that the signing of Dunn might increase the likelihood of Paul Konerko going elsewhere. Although I have no expectation of the Cubs pursuing the soon-to-be 35-year-old, other teams will be making a stronger push for him, lessening the market pressures that would normally be expected with Dunn’s absence.

If, on the other hand, Konerko were to re-sign with the White Sox, the situation would be reversed. With, for all intents and purposes, one first base position filled by two first basemen, supply would be shrinking at a faster rate than demand and may cue the start of the aforementioned scramble.

In the end, however, there are still going to be plenty of available first basemen on the market, so any effects that are seen this year will be less than they would be in other years. The exact effects that this will have on the market should be much clearer in a few days, assuming that the reports are accurate, but the affect that this signing has on the Cubs will most likely be minimal.

In the off chance that a run on first baseman does occur, though, look for the Cubs to either sign a first baseman at the Winter Meetings in Orlando next week or wait out the market with Tyler Colvin as their backup plan.

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Chicago Cubs: Looming Offseason Decisions, Part V (External Options)

This is the final part of a series of articles outlining the decisions that the Cubs will need to make this offseason. You can read part four by following this link.

Jim Hendry has already said that he’s more concerned about making “two or three really good moves” than relying on the splash factor of one move. So, for those of you looking at the big name free agents with large price tags, or even a potential trade for Adrian Gonzalez, don’t get your hopes up too high.

Instead, look for the Cubs to get guys that fit the team and their budget. In all likelihood, one of those moves will be acquiring a first baseman and the other one or two will be adding some pitching, either in the rotation, the bullpen, or both.

At first base, the North Siders will be looking for someone who exhibits power from the left side and is good enough with the glove to lessen the impact of Aramis Ramirez’s fading defensive abilities and Starlin Castro’s growing pains.

Although one of the best left-handed sluggers over the past decade, Adam Dunn’s fairly high asking price, his defensive shortcomings, his type A status, and the almost certainty that the Nationals will offer arbitration, the overall cost in dollars, defense, and draft picks is just too high for serious consideration. I’m sure the team will do (or has already done) their due diligence on the off chance that he isn’t offered arbitration and his price tag comes down, but they’ll be concentrating elsewhere.

Adam LaRoche, Lyle Overbay and Carlos Pena are the most likely free agent targets, each with some pop from the left side and at least an above average glove. Of course, each player has more than their share of strikeouts, but Overbay and Pena draw some walks to offset that.

Depending on his asking price, Aubrey Huff should also get a look, although he isn’t as known for his defense as the prior trio and is the eldest among the four (by one month over Overbay). I’m sure the Cubs would love to have a season of 35 doubles, 26 home runs, 83 walks, and only 91 strikeouts from their first baseman, but the Giants will probably make a very good push to keep him.

On the trade market, there’s absolutely no reason to not inquire on what collection of players it might take to land Adrian Gonzalez. With his Gold-Glove-caliber defense, 30 to 40 home run power, high walk totals, and his $6.2 million 2011 salary, he’s too great of a bargain to not look into. But it’s the cost in players in return, which teams like the Red Sox might drive up, that makes the proposition less likely.

Another player the Cubs have been linked to recently is the Rangers’ Chris Davis, a young left-handed hitter with great power, experience playing both corner infield positions, and some glaring plate discipline issues. It’s certainly an intriguing possibility, reuniting hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo with one of his former students, and leaving the option open to move Ramirez to first, should the need arise. Although there has been little mention of this trade since the story broke, I could see it happening.

If the Yankees decide to sign another outfielder (Carl Crawford or Jayson Werth, perhaps), then don’t be surprised if the Cubs become linked to Nick Swisher, son of former Cubs catcher Steve Swisher. Although he had a significant dip in walks last season, Nick had always drawn a ton of walks and has continued to hit around 30 doubles and 30 home runs each season.

If the Cubs are instead looking for someone to take a flyer on to compete with (or in a reserve role behind) Tyler Colvin at first base, then you might see names like Hank Blalock, Eric Chavez, Brad Hawpe, Eric Hinske, Mike Jacobs, or non-tender candidates Willy Aybar, Dan Johnson, and Casey Kotchman bandied about.

There are a number of ways that they could go with starting pitchers, but I fully expect the Cubs to look into both Jon Garland and Javier Vazquez. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see them take a chance on one of Erik Bedard, Jeremy Bonderman, Jeff Francis, Kevin Millwood, Brad Penny, Jarrod Washburn, Brandon Webb, Chris Young, or (if he’s non-tendered) Chien-Ming Wang.

Of that bunch, I find Garland to be far and away the most likely to end up with the Cubs. That’s not to say that he will or that the others won’t, but he has put together a pretty nice resume since being traded from the Cubs to the White Sox, including eight solid years with the South Siders and a very nice season with the Padres in 2010. Also, he might not demand quite so much money as the other options, making the potential negotiations go smoother and quicker.

As far as potential trade targets go, they may talk with the Rays about the availability of Wade Davis, Matt Garza, Jeff Niemann, and James Shields, but your guess is as good as mine about starting pitchers they might trade for.

To bolster the bullpen, I’m sure the team would be interested in re-signing Kerry Wood, but he would need to be willing to take a pay cut off of his $10.5 million salary in 2010. Other targets could include Grant Balfour, Chad Durbin, Frank Francisco, Jason Frasor, J.J. Putz, Jon Rauch, or Takashi Saito, depending upon their demands and whether or not some of them (Balfour or Francisco) are offered arbitration.

The only other free agent that I could see the Cubs signing is not a pitcher or first baseman, but a second baseman. Although such a move is pure speculation on my part, I believe that Orlando Hudson would be a great addition.

Hudson plays great defense, can hit well for a second baseman, provides a little bit of speed on the basepaths, and may have a somewhat modest salary seeing as he’s never earned more than $6.25 million in a season. Such a move obviously means that one or both of Jeff Baker and Blake DeWitt would be sent on their way, but the signing of a player like Hudson could be a move that makes the Cubs’ 2011 playoff chances seem like less of a long shot.

Finally, there is one last way that the Cubs might add a player. With one spot open on their 40-man roster and the Rule Five Draft approaching, there is the possibility that the team could take a chance on someone left unprotected in another organization. Since I expect the North Siders to sign at least one free agent, I would be surprised to see them fill the last spot on their roster with a player eligible for the Rule Five Draft, but it could happen.

Just make sure to keep an eye out this offseason. The moves that end up having the biggest impact on this team might not be those involving bigger names.

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Chicago Cubs: Looming Offseason Decisions, Part IV (In-House Lineup Options)

This is part four of a series of articles outlining the decisions that the Cubs will need to make this offseason. You can read part three by following this link.

After Aramis Ramirez exercised his $14.6 million player option, the Cubs’ only true free agent was Xavier Nady. Since then, Brad Snyder was outrighted off the 40-man roster and opted to join Nady in the pool of free agents, leaving the Cubs with only 15 position players.

That’s obviously a number that will need to increase, but most of the spots on the Opening Day roster will probably be filled by players from that group. For instance, I fully expect Darwin Barney, Starlin Castro, Tyler Colvin and Geovany Soto to be lining up along the third base line come April 1.

Castro and Colvin each have their share of things to work on, but each showed enough talent with both the glove and the bat to start for this team; Soto had a few injury issues, but proved that he is one of the better hitting catchers in this league after a disappointing sophomore campaign in 2009; and Barney may very well be the perfect backup infielder—a talented and versatile defender with enough of a bat to fill-in when necessary.

I’d also be very surprised to see that roster without the likes of Marlon Byrd, Ramire, or Alfonso Soriano.

After Ramirez’s 2010 season that featured poor defense, a drop in offensive production, and a myriad of injuries, teams won’t look to acquire the veteran third baseman until they see exactly how well he bounces back in the early goings of the season, especially since he has no-trade protection via his ten-and-five rights. And at $14.6 million, he’s too expensive to simply release him and eat his salary unless he completely collapses.

Soriano actually improved defensively and in almost every offensive category, but his full no-trade clause and the four-year, $72 million commitment that comes with it leaves him in almost the exact same situation. The lone difference is that trading Soriano at any point in 2011 without taking on a very large portion of his remaining salary would qualify Jim Hendry as a miracle worker, especially in the wake of last year’s Milton Bradley-Carlos Silva swap.

Byrd, on the other hand, will likely return because he is fairly cheap ($5.5 million salary in 2011) and was a catalyst for the 2010 Cubs on both offense and defense. Even if his production were to fall off somewhat, he would still offer value as a clubhouse presence and mentor to the younger players.

Of course, Byrd might get moved if too many younger players prove themselves ready for big league action. For instance, what would happen if Sam Fuld, Brett Jackson and Brandon Guyer all did exactly that during spring training?

As previously stated, Soriano isn’t going anywhere. So if Kosuke Fukudome isn’t traded or Colvin remains in the outfield, then those three players would take up the other three outfield spots and Byrd would need to find somewhere else to play.

If both Fukudome and Colvin remain, then only two of those three would be needed to push Byrd out. And the possibility could still exist that Snyder could be re-signed in much the same way as Angel Guzman—on a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training—and eventually play his way onto the team, which would only require one of Fuld, Jackson and Guyer to accomplish the task.

As you may already know, Fuld is a strong defender and base-stealing threat that draws a lot of walks and doesn’t strike out a whole lot. In fact, he might develop into a classic leadoff hitter if given the opportunity, though he would need to bounce back from a lackluster 2010 season. After being among the final candidates to make the roster out of spring training last season, I expect him to be a front-runner for one of the outfield spots.

Guyer, the Cubs’ 2010 Minor League Player of the Year, and Jackson, the Cubs’ first round pick in 2009, are both top outfield prospects for the Cubs who can hit, play good defense, and steal their share of bases. Just like the Cubs’ 2010 Minor League Pitcher of the Year Chris Archer, Guyer is eligible for the Rule Five Draft in December, meaning that he’ll most likely be added to the 40-man roster.

Since he’s also three years Jackson’s senior, I’m left to assume that Guyer would have the upper hand on landing a roster spot, although I can’t assume that either player would make the Colvin-like jump from Double-A in 2010 to the majors on Opening Day.

Snyder, whose chances seem dim after not being re-signed to a minor league contract, put up huge numbers in Triple-A last year (.308/.381/.568) while stealing 19 bases and playing very good defense. If he is re-signed, he could be the dark horse that forces someone out the door.

Most likely, no matter what happens with other players, the Cubs will try to relieve themselves of most of Fukudome’s $13.5 million to clear some room for the other outfielders. I’m skeptical of the market that exists for him, but management only needs to find one team offering the right package, which I do believe will happen.

The infield is a little more straightforward as it will probably consist of Barney, Castro, Ramirez, and at least one of Jeff Baker and Blake DeWitt. In all likelihood, both Baker and DeWitt would stay as a platoon at second base with the former starting against lefties and the latter against righties, but the team might feel the need to have a better offensive backup to Ramirez at third than what Baker, Barney or DeWitt would offer.

From within the organization, the most likely candidate would be Marquez Smith, who hit .314/.384/.574 in 91 games at Triple-A Iowa and can play good defense at the hot corner. Josh Vitters was the Cubs’ top pick in 2007 and may make his own way up to the big leagues before too long, but he is probably better off spending another year in the minors after a less-than-stellar showing at Double-A Tennessee and a season-ending injury to his middle finger.

It gets a little murky over at first base, though.

Micah Hoffpauir is the only true first baseman on the roster, but Colvin’s name has already been thrown into the fray and Ramirez may be a consideration if his defense declines any more. The possibility exists that Nady might return, but it’s been well-covered that the Cubs would like to have a left-handed bat added to the lineup, which would be easiest to do at first base. Nady is a right-handed hitter.

Hoffpauir had a pretty good offensive season in Iowa (.283/.368/.529), putting up the seventh-best wOBA (.386) in Triple-A and improving his walk rate considerably (up to 11.3 percent from 6.7 percent in 2009), but seems to be an afterthought in the minds of almost everyone involved. With no minor league options remaining, he’ll get his final shot at the role in spring training, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in a different uniform come the regular season.

I expect the Cubs to be looking hard for external options at first base, but if they do look internally, the most likely scenario would involve Colvin re-learning the position.

Finally, although it may not be grabbing many headlines, one of the most important decisions will involve the men behind the plate. Soto is entrenched as the starter, as he should be, but his continued problems with injuries may force the Cubs to replace his backup, Koyie Hill.

Unlike first base, this position will definitely be filled from within. With Welington Castillo and Robinson Chirinos on the 40-man roster, two players who have shown the ability to hit in the minors and are known as good defenders behind the plate, Hill will have some competition. If the team believes that Soto’s health is a legitimate concern, then Hill might even be non-tendered in favor of one of the younger and better hitting alternatives.

Don’t forget to look out for part five of this series, which will go over some of the team’s external options, expected to be up at some point in the coming week.

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Chicago Cubs: Looming Offseason Decisions, Part III (In-House Pitching Options)

This is part three of a series of articles outlining the decisions that the Cubs will need to make this offseason. You can read part two by following this link.

Ryan Dempster, Carlos Marmol, Sean Marshall, Jeff Samardzija, and Carlos Zambrano are all pretty safe bets to break camp with the Cubs when they finish up in Mesa next year.

Marmol and Marshall did more than enough to earn whatever salary raise they end up getting this offseason. Dempster didn’t have his best season, but he put in 215.1 strong innings with 208 strikeouts (one less than his career high) and a 3.85 ERA.

Samardzija, who is out of minor league options and has a no-trade clause that allows him to reject trades and waiver claims, will likely get a shot at the fifth spot in the rotation, but break camp in the bullpen.

Zambrano had a whirlwind season, but finished strong enough that there should be no doubt that he will remain in the rotation. He has a large salary and no-trade protection, but the main reason that other teams might shy away from acquiring him is his frequently stated intent to retire at the end of his current contract. Even if the Cubs wanted to trade him, which they have repeatedly denied, his value to other teams isn’t necessarily the same as it is on the North Side.

The next closest thing to a sure bet is Andrew Cashner, who will, in all likelihood, be in the bullpen. But the possibility does exist that he could be sent to Triple-A Iowa to be stretched out as a starter instead of throwing him into the fray on day one. This assumes, of course, that the Cubs wish to develop him as a starter right away rather than having him spend another year in the bullpen, or molding him for a permanent late-inning role.

With two rotation spots and four bullpen spots already (for the most part) locked up, there are still six players needed to fill out the twelve-man pitching staff that I anticipate they’ll field.

The organization certainly has no shortage of left-handed pitchers to choose from to fill those spots, though. John Gaub, Tom Gorzelanny, John Grabow, Scott Maine, and James Russell are all set to return to the organization in 2011, but only so many can find a seat alongside Marshall in the bullpen.

Gorzelanny will probably return to the Cubs’ rotation next year, but the Illinois native might get moved if the organization finds another southpaw starter to take his place. If such a find were to be made, that could mean that Gorzelanny moves to the bullpen (as he has done a few times these past two seasons) or that he gets traded in an attempt to land another piece of the puzzle.

More likely than not, to avoid the matchup problems associated with having more lefties than righties available in relief, there will be only three southpaws in the bullpen. This means that if Gorzelanny moves to the bullpen, Grabow might see the end of his Cubs tenure, or that all three of the young lefties (Gaub, Maine, and Russell) might be sent back to Triple-A.

Of course, if Gorzelanny isn’t in the bullpen, either because of a trade or because he remains in the rotation, then the picture becomes less cluttered. In that situation, which I find to be much more probable, and under the assumption that Marshall will be healthy, there’s no reason that the remaining left-handers have to come via trade or free agency.

In other words, two of Gaub, Grabow, Maine, and Russell would stay and two would go. Since Grabow’s $4.8 million salary is not necessarily an amount that the team would be willing to eat by releasing him, Grabow would probably only leave this team via trade, an unlikely scenario considering his recent performance and injuries.

Then, assuming a left-handed starter (Gorzelanny or someone else) will be occupying a slot in the rotation, two starters will still be needed.

The top candidates going into spring training will most likely be Carlos Silva (unless he’s traded) and Randy Wells, for the simple reason that they have the most major league starting experience of all the internal candidates, and each has had some recent success doing it: Wells in his rookie season of 2009 and Silva in his first sixteen starts of 2010.

But other players such as Casey Coleman, Thomas Diamond, Jay Jackson, Cashner, and Samardzija could get their own shot at making it. So if one or both of the aforementioned front-runners is removed from contention through injury, poor play, or trade, look for the youngster with the best spring training performance to get his shot.

Those left on the outside looking in for the final rotation spots would then join Justin Berg, Esmailin Caridad, Rafael Dolis, Angel Guzman, Marcos Mateo, Brian Schlitter, Jeff Stevens, and others in pursuing the final bullpen spot.

Guzman showed promise between 2007 and 2009, but, after being hampered by elbow and shoulder injuries, it is unknown whether he will be fully healthy coming into next season. If Cubs management doesn’t have faith in his ability to pitch this upcoming season, there’s a chance that he’s non-tendered and let loose to free agency.

On the other hand, if they don’t non-tender him, I would be hard-pressed to believe that he wouldn’t get a very fair (and perhaps somewhat forgiving) chance at making the team, since he is out of options.

Also, with the Rule Five Draft coming in early December and Chris Archer eligible for selection, look for the Cubs’ 2010 Minor League Pitcher of the Year to be added to the 40-man roster and get his own shot at making the Opening Day roster in 2011.

With the indication of a decrease in payroll for 2011, and the announcement that the difference will be allocated towards scouting and development, I don’t expect the team to make any significant free agent pitching acquisitions.

They will likely look to trade away the $4.8 million owed to Grabow and the $8 million (including his 2011 salary and 2012 buyout) owed to Silva, but the injury problems experienced by both players should make that difficult.

Although I don’t expect the 2011 pitching staff to be completely without turnover, I do suspect that there will be many faces familiar to this organization taking the mound on the North Side next season.

Don’t forget to look out for part four of this series, expected to be up at some point in the coming week.

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Chicago Cubs: Looming Offseason Decisions, Part II (Manager)

This is part two of a series of articles outlining the decisions that the Cubs will need to make this offseason. You can read part one and introduce yourself to their current situation by following this link.

The Chicago Cubs have technically been without a manager since Lou Piniella stepped down on August 22 and without a manager for 2011 since he announced his intention to retire a month earlier.

Several names have been thrown about since then, including bench coach Alan Trammell, Triple-A manager Ryne Sandberg, announcer Bob Brenly, Joe Girardi, Fredi Gonzalez, Eric Wedge, Bob Melvin and Pat Listach.

But as time has passed, the list has gotten thinner and thinner.

Trammell was one of the first names, if not the first name, removed from the list after Cubs general manager Jim Hendry explained that Alan would not be the team’s interim manager because he would not be a candidate for the job next year.

Gonzalez and Brenly each removed themselves from consideration after the former turned down the opportunity to interview for the Cubs’ position in mid-September and the latter explained later that month that, for both personal and professional reasons, the job just wasn’t the right fit for him.

Reports surfaced last week that Listach, the third base coach for the Nationals and former minor league manager for the Cubs, was no longer being considered and Wedge’s name disappeared from the list after he was announced as the Mariners’ new manager on Friday.

Girardi is obviously a qualified candidate with links to the club, but he’s a little too preoccupied right now to even consider the possibility. So for now, the process has moved on without him.

Team owner Tom Ricketts met with the remaining candidates on Tuesday, which still included Wedge at the time,  but also included the one name I have yet to mention.

Of the three remaining candidates, he has the most managing experience (17 years), the highest win total (1,161), the highest career winning percentage (.511), the most league championships (three), the most World Series championships (two) and the most Manager of the Year awards (two). 

He’s also an Illinois native, spent three seasons (2003-2005) managing the Cubs’ Triple-A team in Iowa, has been on the Cubs’ major league coaching staff since the end of the 2006 season and put up a 24-13 record as the team’s interim manager after Piniella stepped down.

Alright, so the league championships came from the Midwest League, the Pacific Coast League and the Dominican League. And yes, the World Series’ that he managed were the Triple-A World Series and the Caribbean World Series. In fact, aside from his stint as the Cubs’ interim manager, all of his experience has come in the minor leagues.

Still, Mike Quade is due a long, hard look at a managerial opening. If people think that Ryne Sandberg has paid his dues by coaching in the minor leagues the past four seasons, then Mike Quade deserves a freaking medal for what he’s done.

Of course, that’s not a slight to Sandberg. He’s a Hall of Fame second baseman who played almost his entire career for the Cubs and has done a pretty good job these past few years in the minors.

But if you take playing careers and name recognition out of the equation, Quade clearly comes out ahead. Sandberg has less time coaching in this organization, less managerial experience overall and no big league coaching experience at all.

It’s easy to understand why Quade is considered the front-runner at this point. And, for a team that’s a little more cost-conscious, he provides more advantages than just his experience and familiarity with the organization.

If the Cubs were able to wait for Girardi and actually signed him to take the helm on the North Side, not only would he likely demand one of the larger coaching salaries in major league baseball, but he would probably want his own guys on the coaching staff, as would Bob Melvin.

Although small change in comparison to player salaries, hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo is only one year into his three-year, $2.42 million contract and pitching coach Larry Rothschild just exercised the 2011 option on his contract.

In all likelihood, Quade would keep the staff intact, which has other benefits as well. Not only would the team save some money, but they would save themselves from having any transitional period whatsoever, since that already took place while he was the interim manager.

Sure, there have reportedly been no calls by other clubs asking to interview Quade about their managerial opening, but this isn’t about other teams. This is about who would best fit the situation that the Cubs have in front of them.

The organization will probably wait for the Yankees’ season to be over before they make any decision so that they can talk to Girardi, but I honestly don’t see him leaving the Yankees to manage anyone else. Then, once Girardi is officially out of the mix, look for Quade to get the nod.

In the meantime, you might want to pay close attention to the Yankees’ progress in the playoffs. Once their season ends, the Cubs’ managerial search should follow shortly thereafter.

You should also look out for part three of this series, expected to be up at some point in the coming week.

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Chicago Cubs: Looming Offseason Decisions, Part I (Introduction)

I’m sure that there are more than a handful of Cubs fans who are under the impression that the organization will acquire a few impact players this offseason, much like the post-2006 and post-2007 offseasons. However, the fact of the matter is that the team’s current 40-man roster will need to be tweaked quite a bit before any additions can be made.

To begin with, only two players on the team’s final 40-man roster can leave on their own volition: Aramis Ramirez and Xavier Nady.

Since Ramirez has already made it clear that he will be exercising the $14.6 million player option on his current contract, the only player that might be leaving via free agency is Nady, who the Cubs might need at first base.

After Ramirez exercises his player option, he will then be one of nine players with a major league contract in effect for 2011. The other eight are Alfonso Soriano ($18 million), Carlos Zambrano ($17.875 million), Ryan Dempster ($13.5 million), Kosuke Fukudome ($13.5 million), Carlos Silva ($6 million by Cubs, $5.5 million by Mariners), Marlon Byrd ($5.5 million), John Grabow ($4.8 million), and Jeff Samardzija ($2 million).

Of those nine players, only two players are completely without no-trade protection: Silva and Byrd.

Among the other players on the roster, seven are eligible for arbitration this offseason: Jeff Baker, Tom Gorzelanny, Angel Guzman, Koyie Hill, Carlos Marmol, Sean Marshall, and Geovany Soto.

Sam Fuld, Jeff Gray, Micah Hoffpauir, and Jeff Samardzija are all out of options. Thomas Diamond, Bobby Scales, and Randy Wells each have the right to refuse an outright assignment to the minor leagues. Outfielder Brad Snyder has both the right to refuse outright assignment and no remaining options.

Together, that’s 23 players (two catchers, four infielders, five outfielders, and twelve pitchers) who would need to make the active roster out of spring training to guarantee themselves a spot in the organization. And that’s before you take into account players like Darwin Barney, Andrew Cashner, Starlin Castro, Tyler Colvin, Blake DeWitt, James Russell, and twelve other players on the current 40-man roster.

It’s also before you factor in some young players who could make their ascension to the big leagues in much the same way that James Russell and Tyler Colvin did this past year.

Minor League Pitcher of the Year Chris Archer, Minor League Player of the Year Brandon Guyer, Chris Carpenter, Brett Jackson, Jay Jackson, or Josh Vitters are all early candidates to make such a rise, but the first two (Archer and Guyer) might have the best start out of everyone that is currently off of the 40-man roster. That’s, quite simply, due to the fact that they will almost certainly be added to the 40-man roster this offseason in order to avoid being picked up by another team in this year’s Rule Five draft.

So what decisions need to be made this offseason, what moves could realistically happen, and who’s going to be managing this team next year?

To find out, you’ll have to check in for part two of this series, expected to be up at some point in the coming week.

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Chicago Cubs: Carlos Zambrano’s Mid-Season Detractors May Have Spoken Too Soon

On August 17, 2007, it was difficult to see exactly how stable the Chicago Cubs would be in the long-term.

There were still seven years left on Alfonso Soriano’s contract, four left on Aramis Ramirez’s, and three on Derrek Lee’s and Ted Lilly’s, but Soriano, Lee, and Lilly were all heading into their age 32 seasons. Young players like Rich Hill, Sean Marshall, Carlos Marmol, Angel Guzman, and Ryan Theriot had shown some promise but weren’t far enough into their careers to even approach status as a known quantity.

Michael Barrett, who was eventually traded, and Jacque Jones were having much worse offensive seasons than expected. Mark Prior, who was later released, had season-ending shoulder surgery before the season, and Kerry Wood was only 5.2 innings into his comeback as a full-time reliever.

And then there was the ownership situation.

Back in April of that year, all shares of the Tribune Co., the parent company of the Cubs at the time, were bought out by Sam Zell. The new owner immediately announced his plans to sell the team, Wrigley Field, and possibly even the naming rights to Wrigley Field.

So when the Cubs announced that they had reached a five-year, $91.5 million agreement with 26-year-old ace Carlos Zambrano, buying out his first five years of free agency, it was clear that they were trying to lock up someone that North Siders could count on for years to come.

The talent was clearly there and he had already put up some impressive numbers for a young pitcher. Between 2003 and 2007, Zambrano struck out 7.9 batters per nine innings, held batters to a .224/.315/.346 batting line, kept up a 3.30 ERA, and averaged 215 innings pitched every year.

But Zambrano’s temper had already become a topic for discussion after his altercation with Barrett in June of 2007. Meanwhile, his velocity had already begun to drop. Also, in his five seasons of being a full-time major league starter, 2007 was easily the worst up to that point.

His 2008 campaign would have set a new low point for Carlos (relatively speaking) if not for his September 14 no-hitter against the displaced Astros with an arm fresh off of 11 days rest. Rather than bouncing back the following year, 2009 followed the same trend as the previous two and was the second straight season below 200 innings with only 169.1 on the year due to two stints on the disabled list.

Coming into this season, Zambrano had dropped 15 pounds, his cutter, and, supposedly, his attitude. Expectations were high, including from manager Lou Piniella, but Z’s strong performance in spring training was followed by an ugly season opener against the Braves, three sub-par outings, and a switch to the bullpen.

He had his ups and downs in his five weeks as a reliever, returned to the rotation with three more sub-par starts, and had a very solid outing against the Angels on June 20.

Then all hell broke loose.

In the first inning of an interleague game against the White Sox, Zambrano gave up four runs on four hits. He then had a now-infamous tirade in the dugout directed towards his teammates’ effort on the field, was removed from the game, and was suspended indefinitely.

Opinions flew about what the Cubs should do with the big right-hander, but the vast majority stayed within the same theme: get rid of him however you can.

The Cubs put Zambrano on the restricted list on June 29, announced that he was going to be evaluated by professionals and undergo treatment for his anger issues, and made it clear that he would return to the bullpen when he eventually did come back.

After four minor league outings in late July, he finally returned to the big league team for three unimpressive outings from the bullpen before returning to the rotation once again.

So what has he done since then?

Well, he’s averaged 6.1 innings per game in nine starts, posted a 1.42 ERA, racked up 7.9 strikeouts per nine innings, and held opposing batters to a .194/.315/.235 batting line.

His walk totals have been less-than-stellar, leading to the .315 opponent on-base percentage I just mentioned, but he has otherwise been the sort of pitcher Cubs fans had hoped for when he signed his deal just over three years ago.

Now the Cubs might have their ace back after a three-year hiatus. And he’s still just 29 years old.

The fact that he’s performing at this level with his velocity near the lowest levels it has ever been is very encouraging for the simple reason that it might very well signal his maturation as a pitcher. If he has also matured as a person, then all the backlash towards his tirade earlier this season might be an overreaction in hindsight.

Rather than being the impetus for his departure from the only organization he’s ever known, his tantrum might have been the wake-up call he needed to get his career back on track for its final two or three years.

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Jeff Samardzija Begins Campaign for Possible Spot in Chicago Cubs’ 2011 Rotation

With the athleticism that made him an All-American wide receiver, a frame suitable for a future workhorse, and an arm that’s both live and fresh, he fits the physical standards for your prototypical major league pitcher.

With a focused demeanor on the mound that could become a formidable presence in the coming years and the kind of work ethic that can only come from within, he has the intangibles you wish for too.

The only thing that Jeff Samardzija has always needed more of is experience. Of course, that’s just how it is when you grow up playing multiple sports.

He lettered in baseball, football, and basketball in high school, never missing a start in over 160 games between the three sports. He even played some hockey in his youth, helping to exclude him from summer and fall baseball and basically leaving him with one-third the practice and playing time of his peers right from the outset.

Continuing as a two-sport athlete on a football scholarship to Notre Dame didn’t exactly help him find time for baseball, but even then he played in every football game for four years and never missed his turn on the mound.

It was only in 2007, at the age of 22, that he finally got to concentrate solely on the one sport he loved the most.

He’s had his share of struggles since then—both in the majors and the minors, in the rotation and the bullpen, in this season and the last. But he’s also shown glimpses of what he could one day become, such as his debut in the big leagues back in 2008, when he allowed only seven earned runs in 27.2 innings.

When Carlos Silva was scratched from his start against the Cardinals Monday night due to tendinitis, the 25-year-old was called upon to take his place. With all of his minor league options used, it was an important test for an undeniably gifted athlete.

Although by no means perfect, the hard-throwing righty got the job done and helped the Cubs defeat Jaime Garcia, a potential National League Rookie of the Year candidate, by a score of 5-1.

Using a minimalistic windup, Samardzija featured a fastball that was consistently between 93 and 96 miles per hour. He also used his slider and splitter a good deal, both sitting in the low to mid 80s and both being thrown with much more confidence than they had been earlier this season.

His command was a little shaky, leading to four walks and a hit batter, but he was effective enough in 5.2 innings to not allow a single run to score and to allow one fewer hit than his counterpart.

Once he gets a little more comfortable with his secondary pitches, it wouldn’t surprise me if he went back to a more conventional windup to the benefit of both his velocity and movement. He just needs to get better command of all of his pitches first.

There’s still plenty of room left for improvement, but Monday night was at least an encouraging sign for the future. He even hit an RBI single in the top of the second inning to give himself a two-run advantage.

When he makes his next start, most likely against the Marlins in Miami on Sunday, the Cubs’ brass will be paying close attention to help inform their decision on what to do for next year. Maybe you should keep an eye out too.

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Lou Piniella Steps Down, Mike Quade Steps Up for Chicago Cubs

Lou Piniella began his career in professional baseball in 1962 as an 18-year-old outfielder for the Cleveland Indians‘ Class D affiliate Selma Cloverleafs of the Alabama-Florida league.

After 23 seasons playing professional baseball (including 18 big league seasons), another 23 seasons managing in the big leagues, and a few seasons as a general manager or broadcaster, “Sweet Lou” likely put on a big league uniform for the final time Sunday.

It was just over a month ago that Piniella made public his intention to retire, so we all knew this day was coming before too long. What we didn’t expect was that it would be coming this soon, mainly because he originally intended to retire at season’s end.

More than that, I’m sure that Lou didn’t expect his farewell to come on such substandard terms. As Koyie Hill said, “I don’t know if you could’ve scripted it any worse.”

His Cubs career ends with no playoff wins. His final season’s record sits at 51 wins and 74 losses, 21.5 games out of the division lead. His final game was an ugly 16-5 loss.

And the whole reason he’s stepping down with 37 games left to play is because his mother is sick.

No matter what you thought of Lou Piniella the manager, you have to respect Lou Piniella the man. He deserved better than this.

In the meantime, long-time minor league manager and major league third base coach Mike Quade will replace him on at least an interim basis.

Alan Trammell, who filled in for Lou when other family matters took him away from the team earlier this year, will not be taking over this time because, as Jim Hendry explained, Trammell will not be considered for the position going forward and Quade is “a strong candidate for the future.”

In a second half that has seen (and is seeing) many players getting chances to show what they can do for the chance at a bigger role in 2011, it’s sort of fitting that a member of the coaching staff will be getting looked at for his own promotion next year.

And, should that promotion come to fruition, it shouldn’t take much acclimation from Cubs fans.

Yes, it helps that we’ll have more than a month’s worth of games to ease us into the change. But now, instead of fans howling for “Lou” whenever the manager comes out to argue, all they have to say is “Q.”

It’s a small first step, but it’s a start.

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Chicago Cubs: Lee Traded, Fuld Recalled, Colvin Getting Reps at First

In a move that was slightly surprising, Derrek Lee was traded to the Braves on Wednesday.

It wasn’t really a surprise that the Cubs wanted to trade him. After all, they did try to make a swap with the Angels involving the veteran first baseman not too long ago.

And it wasn’t a shock that someone would want the former triple crown candidate. Not only has Derrek Lee put together some very good seasons in his career (not the least of which came just last season), but he’s a great clubhouse presence that will serve a contending team such as the Braves well as they try to make a run at the World Series.

What was unexpected, to a certain extent, was that the 34-year-old would waive his no-trade clause after refusing the earlier trade to the much-closer-to-home Angels. Lee’s explanation was simple enough, though:

“It just felt right,” Lee said. “The main thing is we have six weeks to go and Atlanta is in first place and they’re playing great baseball. I understand what Jim’s trying to do here, so it just felt right.

“The chance to go to the postseason, it’s hard to pass up,” said Lee, who already has a World Series ring from the 2003 Marlins. “[The Braves] have a great organization, and I’ve always respected Bobby [Cox]. The timing [with the Angels deal], it just didn’t seem right then. The Angels were close but not right there. Moving your family for that period of time — this time, it seemed right.”

So, with Lee’s consent, he was sent to the National League East leading Braves in a familiar looking exchange. Stop me if you’ve heard this before.

A 34-year-old veteran position player with an expiring contract is sent packing for a package of three minor league pitchers: a 19-year-old starter and two relievers in their early twenties.

This time around it was Lee to the Braves for Robinson Lopez, Jeff Lorick, and Tyrelle Harris. In December of 2008 it was Mark DeRosa to the Indians for Chris Archer, Jeff Stevens, and John Gaub.

Considering that Archer is now tearing it up for Double-A Tennessee, and both Stevens and Gaub were contending for major league roster spots coming into spring training, you can’t blame the Cubs for going back to the same formula. Cubs fans can only hope that this trade proves to be at least that fruitful.

Another surprise came in a corresponding roster move.

While it was originally thought that Micah Hoffpauir would get called up to take Lee’s spot on the 25-man roster (the 30-year-old was already on his way to the airport), that transaction couldn’t be completed. Hoffpauir had yet to spend the required ten days in the minor leagues since being optioned to Triple-A Iowa last Friday.

In his stead will be outfielder Sam Fuld. If nothing else, Fuld should provide good defense, a patient eye at the plate, and a base-stealing threat for a team that, at times, has been lacking in each of those areas.

Just as Hoffpauir was getting his chance to prove that he’s deserving of a roster spot for 2011 when he filled in for Lee last week, Fuld is probably getting his chance to prove that he can stay on the North Side as a backup outfielder.

Recent news out of Chicago may mean a bigger role could be available for the 28-year-old, though.

Although Xavier Nady and Jeff Baker will be filling in at first base for the time being, and Micah Hoffpauir or Bryan LaHair could do the same if they get recalled later this year, Tyler Colvin has begun taking grounders at first base.

It might just end up being a short-term move to give the team more options at the position. After all, the 24-year-old outfielder hasn’t played the position since doing it part-time as a sophomore at Clemson University. But in an organization that doesn’t have any (somewhat) immediate first base options under the age of 27, the idea of sticking the young left-handed slugger at the position is an intriguing possibility.

At the very least it would make Colvin as versatile as a left-handed player can become defensively. If he can start at the position next season, however, then the team wouldn’t have to sign a high-priced free agent this offseason or shift the problem to third base by moving Aramis Ramirez across the diamond.

If he truly shines at first base, it could keep the organization from worrying about the position for many years to come and allow outfield prospects to get more playing time and get it sooner.

That’s where Fuld might benefit. Why?

Well, the Cubs starting outfield next year will almost certainly include Alfonso Soriano and Marlon Byrd, but the third spot (assuming, for the sake of argument, that Colvin is at first base) is not quite solidified. Nady might not be re-signed, Kosuke Fukudome might be traded, and Brett Jackson probably won’t be ready just yet.

That situation would leave roster spots open for three outfielders (one starter and two backups). The way I see it, Fuld and Snyder will get two of those spots unless they prove themselves undeserving.

Then, if one of them will be starting, Fuld might have the advantage.

That might seem counter intuitive since Snyder is having such a good offensive year in Triple-A this season, but he offers something Snyder doesn’t.

With Colvin, Ramirez, Byrd, and Soriano likely forming the heart of the order, Castro likely staying in the two-hole, and Geovany Soto not being much of an option to leadoff, the team would be looking for that role to be filled by their second baseman or remaining outfielder.

The Cubs have been looking for someone to fill that role for quite some time now and nothing says “leadoff hitter” like a contact hitter who draws a good amount of walks, doesn’t strike out a whole lot, and can steal his share of bases.

Fuld fits that mold better than Blake DeWitt, Darwin Barney, or Snyder. He probably fits it better than anyone the Cubs might acquire, too.

So, in a matter of only a few days, the look of this ballclub may have changed dramatically going forward. And it’s all because of one measly trade.

How can you not love this game?

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