[Author's note: I really wouldn't have made this its own diary, but it ended up being so very long that I wasn't sure I had much of a choice. I know there are a lot of threads about these sorts of issues, and this is only one take on it. But I hope it's at least informative.]
Print this out. Carry it around in your pocket. Love it, need it, feed it and care for it.
First off, it's the...
People We Already Owe Money To
I understand that this is not a small amount of money. And that we haven't even signed any free agents yet. But it's nothing like the salary commitments of the Yankees or Red Sox. It's a manageable figure for an organization like the Cubs. I'm pretty sure we could sign A-Rod and Fukodome while still having '08 payroll under the White Sox's amount, and they have fewer revenue streams in the same market. It's not a death sentence.
So let's take a look at our team, piece by piece, and see where we can upgrade.
Catcher -- .239/.304/.369
This is quite a bit of suck spread around between mediocre players, like Kendall and Barrett, and downright bad players, like Koyie Hill and Rob Bowen. Geovanny Soto wants to remind you that he in the answer here. Move along.
Shortstop -- .254/.309/.331
More sucking as a group. Cesar Izturis' line of .246/.298/.304 goes a long way towards explaining how bad these numbers are, but Ronny Cedeno (.203 .231.392) and, yes, Ryan Theriot (.266/.326/.346) were pretty underwhelming at the dish, too.
The Wizard of Iz is available as a free agent -- unless the Pirates decide they like his option too much to resist, which is a Pirates kind of thing to do -- and he is pretty representative of the kind of mediocrity at this position available. Alex Rodriguez would be a risky and expensive solution to this position. And a trade for the decline phase of Miguel Tejada is just the sort of "three years too late" sort of move you've come to expect from the franchise.
You could make a case for the incumbent Theriot keeping the job, but I suspect that case has more to do with t-shirt sales and lack of other options than it does with what's best for the franchise. His hot start and "playing the right way" have done a lot to keep the fan base from realizing that Theriot -- while an upgrade on Izturis, thank the lord -- is trending pretty close to replacement-level at shortstop. I suppose the nicest thing you can say about him is that he's everything that David Eckstein is without the wildly-overpriced contract Eckstein is about to command in free agency.
The wild card is Ronny Cedeno. I know his 2006 was worse-than-Neifi bad, and that his numbers from this season look even worse at first blush. But his perhipials look pretty good, and there's reason to think that in a larger sample size he could build on his development in AAA from this season. And his .190 isolated slugging percentage could be very promising for a young shortstop. It's hard to figure out what the organization's take on him is, though.
Center Field -- .254/.305/.404
The trend at the positions where the team was underwhelming at is largely indecisivness, which I think underscores Lou's attempt to make a hog's breakfast where there weren't slops to be had.
I know that Jacque Jones' second half bought him some grace from a section of the fanbase. And his numbers from this year (.285/.335/.400) and his numbers from last year (.285/.334/.499) are staggeringly similar. But his first half was staggeringly awful, and he seems to have lost a good chunk of his power, moving him from an above-average offensive presence to just getting by. His $5 million contract may get some interest from a team looking for a one-year stopgap, especially since he's shown plus defense in center field this season.
Most of the free agent center fielders are either one-year stopgaps, like Kenny Lofton or Darin Erstad, or long, expensive flirtations with someone's decline phase, like Andruw Jones and Torri Hunter. I suppose we could try the Aaron Rowand Experiment -- see how long it takes baseball's most reckless fielder to kill himself against the bricks of Wrigley! -- or bring back Corey Patterson.
Felix Pie and Eric Patterson provide better options -- Pie's defense is already everything you'd want it to be, but Patterson's bat probably takes less time to acclimate to the majors. It wouldn't be criminal to keep Jones around for the last year of his contract, but the kids provide more upside potential, and playing them now definately provides for a more promising '09 for the Cubs, even if '08 could be something of a wash.
Right Field -- .293/.375/.419
Not actually horrible, if not exactly whelming. Cliff Floyd's .284/.373/.422 and Matt Murton's .281/.352/.438 are virtually indistinguishable; the fact that Floyd's OBP was higher, while Murton lead in slugging -- is kinda ironic and therefore useful for trivia purposes, but I'm not sure it's analyitcally meaningful.
Neither one was particularly gifted with the glove, although I think it's safe to say that Murton shows better potential for improvement in that regard than Floyd, and probably was the better choice defensively this year. Floyd may not be returning next year, so the position may end up falling to Murton full-time as a default.
Japanese import Kosuke Fukodome has the potential to be an impact player at the position, and will be a free agent -- no posting fee required. Otherwise, you're looking at a laundry list of mediocrities, injury risks and clubhouse cancers; if you sign Milton Bradley you get all three!
One creative solution would be to move Soriano here; certainly he has the arm for it, as well as the range. The question is if he can make the mental adjustments necessary while remaining comfortable, and with his seemingly-fragile ego that would be a roll of the dice. Oh, and then you have to find a left fielder. Most of the free agent left fielders suck just as badly as the right fielders -- hell, they're mostly the same people.
There are two questions here. One is, do we bring back Daryle Ward? I don't see a reason why we wouldn't. His $1.2 million option is very reasonable, and his production for us has been outstanding.
The other question is, can Blanco handle the backup catching? That's something that Hendry and the team's medical/training staff are going to have to look into; I certainly can't answer that. Kendall seems unlikely to want to be Soto's backup, so I wouldn't worry about him overly much.
The decision points here are pretty simple. A decison needs to be made about the Kerry Wood experiment. Yes, he pitched. No, he wasn't particularly bad at it. But is he worth a contract again? Is he really any better than letting one of our seemingly-endless supply of young minor-leage relief specialists take the role? That depends on what he's looking for in a contract and what his physical says.
The other questions -- where can we dump Will Ohman? Because we can, and probably will. And do we shop any of our veterans? Ryan Dempster is probably the most likely trade candidate, and I'd take any reasonable offer I get for him. There's good depth in the bullpen, and it's not like he's the next Mariano Rivera or Trevor Hoffman, and while it wasn't the best notion to jump horses in mid-stream, we can start thinking about it now that we've forded that river. It's not like we lack for a viable closer candiate in-house.
Once again, there is a creative solution to the closer position (if we can move Dempster in trade, as he does have some value): Jason Marquis. It's the pitching equivalent of the Peter Principle: put him where he can do the least damage. It limits the innings he pitches and frees up a rotation spot for a more worthy candidate.
One note: Mariano Rivera will be a free agent. The Yankees will probably resign him, but if they don't -- well, you always at least TALK to first-ballot Hall-of-Famers when they reach free agency.
It's the second-best in the NL from '07. Jason Marquis is troubling, but unless they can move him in trade (unlikely) or follow my closer suggestion (less likely) his job is probably safe at least to start the year.
But with Marshall falling out of favor, there could be competetion for the fifth starter's spot. Sean Gallagher is an option I'm very fond of, but Kevin Hart's performance in the bullpen this year might make him the favorite if Marshall can't get back into Piniella and Rothschild's good graces.
There is nothing in free agency worth having here. Not even a cheap reclaimation project -- the shortage of good pitching this year means expensive reclaimation projects. Let other teams dumpster dive for pitching.
DeRosa's job at second base should probably be considered pretty secure, unless the Cubs want to try Alex Rodriguez there. It seems pretty apparent that the organization thinks that Eric Patterson doesn't have a future at the position.
If the club wants to make a trade, the aforementioned E-Patt and any of our "surplus" of young pitching (whichever of Hart/Gallagher/Marshall doesn't nail down the #5 spot in the rotation) is the best trade bait we have to offer. Matt Murton could be moved in a deal if an impact bat for right field is signed.
Of the players leaving in free agency, only Ward and Wood deserve any real discussion. Monroe and Trachsel can be shown the door in the most expedient fashion possible. It won't hurt to ask Kendall if he'd be willing to play backup, but it probably won't be productive. It's doubtful any of them will bring draft picks of note for Type A/B compensation, so offering them arbitration probably isn't warranted.