Another way of asking this question is have the moves Jim Hendry made in the offseason improved the team and have the moves their division rivals made improved those teams more?

On the latter score, though the Brewers have improved their pitching, they have done so at the expense of their rather suspect defense. On balance, they remain a very flawed team. Let’s remember they had CC Sabathia for the better part of a year and they lost.

The same can be said of the Cardinals, whose major move has been adding an aging Lance Berkman as their everyday left-fielder, in the process weakening an already weak outfield defense. Adding Theriot as their regular shortstop doesn’t help them offensively or defensively, as the Cubs and Dodgers can readily attest. 

Aside from locking up Joey Votto, the Reds have made incremental moves suitable to a small market team. Their performance last year was a surprise, and with Dusty Baker managing their young pitchers, one would not be amiss in thinking their achievements might turn out to be a flash in the pan.

The truth is that all these teams, the Cubs included, are in that range of mediocrity where they are likely to win between 80 and 89 games no matter what and where a little bit of luck or someone having a breakout year or acquiring a difference-maker at the trade deadline will put them over the top. 

All that is predicated on the fact they play in a mediocre division. If they played in the AL East, they’d all be bringing up the rear and each GM pretty much knows it. 

In fact, that is one of my major gripes with Jim Hendry, that he is intent on building a competitive team in a weak division, not on building a really good team that will go to the World Series and win it. I’ve made this comparison before, both in my blog and in these pages. Look at the history of the Phillies in this decade, starting from pretty much the same place and having about the same budget, and you will see what I mean.

Getting back to the main question, though, you can argue that the Cubs were and always have been legitimate contenders in the NL Central, that so long as they replaced Derrek Lee with a decent first baseman, based on their performance after they dumped Piniella, they had as good a shot as any of their serious rivals.

Hendry is surely of this mindset. He thinks the Cubs lost last year because they underachieved as a team; that because Ramirez was hurt and Lee had a bad year, their offense was lacking; that the middle of the bullpen was just bad and they lacked a reliable right-handed setup man most of the season.

So Hendry announced that the Cubs needed just a little tweaking to be back in business, a first baseman, a veteran starter and a right-handed setup man. He got all of these, and on the cheap as well if you discount future considerations.

Pena will hit home runs and he’ll probably bat at least .250. He cannot be any worse than Lee was, especially on defense, and he bats left-handed. So that’s a plus even though they probably should have gone all-out for Gonzalez if they were willing to mortgage the farm for the likes of Garza.

Kerry Wood fell into their lap. If he had not, the Cubs were unlikely to have solidified their bullpen with a decent free agent and freed up any of their prospects to potentially fill out the back end of the rotation. But Wood is a plus nonetheless if they use him properly.  He’s not an everyday guy anymore, and the Cubs are fortunate to have Marshall as a left-handed alternative for eighth inning duty.

Trading for Matt Garza was the other big move. The more you look at his stats, the more you think he is by no means the pitcher the Cubs or at least Jim Hendry think he is.

He will eat innings though, and notwithstanding some of the comparisons Sabermetricians are making to Tom Gorzelanny (sometimes statistics can be misleading), he is an upgrade and he does stabilize the rotation, even though the Cubs seem to have paid a Cliff Lee or Zack Greinke price for a pitcher who is at best a Ryan Dempster.

So based on all this, the Cubs are bound to be better and comparing them to their principal rivals, they are likely to contend. With a couple of breaks, they have a good shot at the playoffs where they will get killed by the Phillies if they get that far along. This is the best case scenario, and as a Cubs fan I hope it happens and anyway it will give us all something to watch this summer.

In Part II, I will look at the 2011 Cubs in an alternative and ultimately less optimistic fashion, taking the view that although the Cubs’ offseason moves make some sense if you think becoming a contender in a weak division makes a difference, they make less sense if you think building a genuinely good team, a championship team, should be the only goal. 

I have to warn you, though, I will still conclude they could win the division with a little luck.

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