We’ve been engrossed in seasonal merriment (read: drunken stupor) over the past few days, so haven’t had an opportunity to move the ball forward on our Free Agency Report. But fear not, faithful readers, for today we continue this epic series with a look at the Cubbies. Missed any parts of the series? Fear not. Catch up on your reading:
Having returned to post-season play in 2007, the Cubs looked hungry to take the next step in 2008, riding a dominating offense to an NL-leading 97 wins. The team appeared poised to deliver on Ryan Dempster’s pre-season call that they would win it all. However, if this team hopes to end a World Series victory drought that has now topped 100 years, first it’s going to have to win a playoff game. Two consecutive sweeps in the NLDS must have this team wondering what it needs to do to take it to the next level.
No one encapsulates the Cubs’ playoff failures the past two years more than Alfonso Soriano, who has gone a combined 3-for-28 in pulling his best Alex Rodriguez imitation.
But when it comes to the regular season, there’s been nothing wrong with the Cub attack. Last season, they paced the NL in scoring, on-base percentage, slugging and OPS. Ryan Theriot took another step forward in his second season as a full-time player, scoring a career-best 85 runs and leading the team in hitting; Aramis Ramirez had another strong year at the plate, showing more patience than ever before; Jim Edmonds looked completely revitalized after arriving in a mid-season deal, slamming 19 homers in just 250 at bats with the Cubs; and despite once again missing a good chunk of the season to injury, Soriano was extremely productive when he was in the lineup.
The Cubs’ pitching staff was also pretty darned good in 2008, holding its opponents to the lowest BA in the NL. After arriving from the A’s in a mid-season deal, Rich Harden was particularly unhittable.
Team speed, however, was a weakness. Theriot paced the team with 22 swipes, but he stole 28 in 2007 despite 64 less plate appearances. This is an area the team has already address this offseason, penning free agent Joey Gathright, a speedster perhaps capable of stealing 40 bases if he could ever hold down a full-time job.
The Cubs will also be looking to beef up its bullpen this offseason. While the Kosuke Fukudome signing has yet to pay big dividends, the Cubs aren’t shying away from Japan, currently looking at a couple of veteran Japanese relief pitchers to help shore up the bullpen.
The Cubs are clearly committed to building a winner. But can they take it to the next level and break through to the NLCS? With a whopping eight free agents to deal with (although two have already re-signed, and two others have signed with other teams), there will be plenty of turnover this offseason as Chicago looks to reload to take another shot at breaking its more than century old World Series jinx.
Henry Blanco, C: Blanco erased the memories of a lost 2007 season, in which a litany of injuries limited him to 22 games during which he could barely hit his way out of a paper bag. The back-up catcher received more action last season, and responded with a career-best OBP as he bounced back nicely. Among the top back-up backstops in the game, Blanco has generated interest from the Marlins. Baltimore is also seeking a back-up catcher, but has yet to approach Blanco.
Ryan Dempster, RHP: Dempster made a surprisingly seamless and rather triumphant return to the rotation last season, enjoying a career year in which he finished sixth in NL Cy Young voting. He definitely did his part to back up his guaranteed World Series win. Accordingly, the Cubs wasted no time in re-signing the Canadian hurler to a four-year, $52-million deal last month.
Jim Edmonds, OF: It was definitely a tale of two seasons for Edmonds in 2008. Unable to get on base to save his life, he looked about as done as done can be over the first few weeks of the season in San Diego. In fact, after just 90 at bats, the Padres decided to eat his $6 million salary and release him. Signed by the Cubs, his patience returned and he looked better than he had since his career years with the Cardinals back in 2003-04. Now would be a great time for the veteran to pack it in, but considering how strong he was down the stretch, Edmonds would like to play another season. The Reds might have been a good fit until they landed Willy Taveras, so it’s unclear where Edmonds may land. He has expressed an interest in staying with the Cubs, for what it’s worth, but I don’t expect Chicago to bring him back.
Chad Fox, RHP: Fox made it back to the majors for the first time since 2005 after overcoming elbow woes. The team rewarded him by re-signing him to a minor league deal with an invitation to Spring Training. Odds are, he won’t make the team, even though you can’t help but root for a guy who has worked so hard to make it back.
Bob Howry, RHP: Howry suffered through his worst full-season ever, so it was not a shock that his workload was down – especially in the second half, when he was particularly rancid. Undeterred, the suddenly willing-to-throw-cash-around Giants penned him to a one-year, $2.75 million deal, gambling that he will return to being one of the game’s better set-up options.
Jon Lieber, RHP: Even pitching almost exclusively out of the bullpen, Lieber still couldn’t stay healthy in 2008, and it was only his strong command that enabled him to put up some decent results when he did pitch. Lieber has a lot to prove, so he’s the kind of pitcher who will likely land on a low-budget team willing to give him an inexpensive, but incentive-laden contract. Toronto, perhaps?
Daryle Ward, 1B: Brought in a couple of seasons ago to help beef up the bench, last season Ward was unable to duplicate his fine 2007 debut with the Cubs, with his numbers suffering almost across the board. Granted, an early-season back injury may have affected his power, but he was even worse in the second half. At this point, it’s possible Ward will have to settle for a minor league deal.
Kerry Wood, RHP: Wood stayed moderately healthy and enjoyed a fine season as the Cub closer, striking out batters at a higher rate than at any time since his landmark rookie season way back in 1998. Cleveland quickly pegged him as the answer to its closer woes, signing Wood to a two-year deal. The loss of Wood (and to a lesser extent Howry) means a weaker bullpen in Wrigley, something the team must address. Carlos Marmol will compete with newcomer Kevin Gregg for the closer job in 2009.
Next: We continue our tour of the Senior Circuit with a stop at another Central Division destination — Cincinnati.