This is the one you've all been waiting for -- the thoughts I have about what sort of 25-man roster, including position players, pitching rotation and bullpen I think the Cubs should put on the field in 2009. I'm also going to make a comment or two on the coaching staff, which by and large did a fine job in 2008 (well, at least until October 1, they did). This is a long post, so I'm going to make you click through to read the rest, rather than show about 3,500 words on the front page. (You're about to find out why this took me so long!)
The key question that must have Jim Hendry and Lou Piniella and everyone else in Cubs baseball management scratching their heads is, "How could a team that won 97 games in the regular season not only lose in the playoffs, but look like a bunch of scared high school kids?"
If you have the definitive answer to that question, incidentally, let Hendry know right away. I'm sure he'd like to know.
The knee-jerk response, of course, would be to pull out the handy 2009 complete free agent list and choose one from column A, one from column B; simply identify the best players and throw money at them until it sticks, increase the payroll, because, after all, that's the best way to win, right?
It's not, and I think that should be obvious by now -- the Yankees of the last several years prove that out. Since they started signing every player in baseball, as that classic 2003 Onion article put so cleverly, they have made the playoffs every season (until 2008), but have won no World Series since 2000 and made it twice in the eight years following, without a win.
We'd take that, of course, but the lesson is: when the Yankees were winning titles, they did it through putting a fine team on the field that had, in large part, been developed in their own system, complemented with good role players (Scott Brosius, Paul O'Neill), instead of simply trying to put an All-Star team on the field. It is worth noting that as soon as Alex Rodriguez left the Mariners, they had several of the best seasons in their history -- and as soon as he signed with the Rangers, they had three of the worst in theirs. Following his signing with the Yankees, they ended a run of appearing in six World Series in eight years -- they haven't been there since. Now, I'm not blaming A-Rod for the Yankees' failures; the point is that simply salivating after someone because he's on a free agent list and puts up gaudy statistics doesn't make a team a winner.
Another team that's a poster child for spending money foolishly is the Dodgers. Sure, they made the playoffs, largely because Manny went nuts there for two months. Without him they'd likely have finished under .500, and I'd bet they'd like back all the money they wasted on Juan Pierre, Andruw Jones and Jason Schmidt, three of the worst free-agent signings ever.
So for the Cubs, I say stay away from the big-time free agent signings; more often than not, they fail -- though I think Alfonso Soriano has helped the Cubs, he appears to NOT be a good postseason performer and I know there are many here who'd rather see him gone (note: ain't gonna happen). I think the Cubs can, without major surgery and with making some very minor tweaks including adding the very role players that have helped some teams win, take that next step to a title.
It's important to first remember that Jim Hendry is on the cusp of signing a contract extension that will, essentially, keep him and his management team in place for three more years. Since it seems clear that Lou Piniella will not manage past 2010, that also means two other things: that the Cubs will, as they have the last two years, go all out to win sometime before Lou goes, and also that Hendry will be the one to put in place Lou's successor. The 2009 Cubs may be built with both things in mind -- win now, and also put a base in place that will help them be a perennial contender. Further, keep in mind that as long as Lou is in charge, players he likes are going to play no matter how much any of us would like them gone, and players in Lou's doghouse get there and stay there. Just ask Scott Eyre about that -- he's a happy escapee from that doghouse, now that he's in the World Series.
So let's begin -- as is traditional with these sorts of thoughts, I'm going to organize them by position. And as I go through by position, I'll try to construct a logical and reasonable facsimile of what I think the April 6, 2009 25-man roster will look like.
Catcher: here's one place where the Cubs don't have to worry. Geovany Soto hasn't yet been named 2008 NL Rookie of the Year, but he will be, and I'd be surprised if it wasn't unanimous (and no, I don't want to hear the VORP arguments about Joey Votto. Soto was far more valuable to his team than Votto, and was outstanding at a far more difficult defensive position). Where some of us disagree is over the value of Henry Blanco, who, admittedly, is getting old at 38. His value as a mentor to Soto cannot be overstated. Is he worth his $3 million option? I say yes, although I have heard the Cubs are going to attempt to decline it and sign him to a lower-value deal. To do so they may have to give him two years. I'd still do it.
First base: Here's where we begin to dismantle the two-time division champions. Longtime GM Branch Rickey used to say, "Better to trade someone a year too early than a year too late". Very true, I think. And with that, I think it's time for the Cubs to say goodbye to Derrek Lee. D-Lee is a class act and has given us five (mostly) good years. He will be 34 next September, has two years left on his deal, and a year from now I suspect will be almost untradeable. With that, unload him to the Giants. D-Lee is a native of northern California (Sacramento); the Giants seem to like getting hold of older players who still have something left in the tank; and they can afford him. In return, I'd like Matt Cain and lefty reliever Alex Hinshaw. Don't slot Cain into the rotation yet, though; I'll explain why later.
To replace Lee, it will require a trade and a free agent signing; I'm going to suggest a platoon, and there's a reason for that. First, acquire Aubrey Huff from the Orioles. Yes, I'm aware that it's nearly impossible to trade with the dithering Andy MacPhail, but I'm guessing it'd be relatively easy to take Huff's contract ($8 million in 2009) off MacPhail's hands. Send them Sean Marshall, Ronny Cedeno, Michael Wuertz and Micah Hoffpauir for Huff and Luke Scott, who's in line for a large raise as an arb-eligible player in 2009. While Huff had a fine year playing full-time, as a platoon player he'd be even better -- he hit .321/.382/.607 vs. RHP. You'd be giving the Orioles a rotation starter, a starting SS, a strong setup man, and someone who could replace Huff at DH (Hoffpauir). They already have a replacement for Scott in Luis Montanez, the former Cub #1 draft pick at SS who, shockingly, has apparently reinvented himself as a power-hitting outfielder. This deal makes sense for both teams, and later, you'll find out the reason I want Scott. See below, also, for Huff's platoon partner.
Second base: Mark DeRosa is on the last year of his three-year deal, coming off a career year. He'll be 34 in February and isn't likely to replicate his 2008 season. Still, even if he played only at his 2007 level, he's a valuable player who can play multiple positions, and Mike Fontenot is a capable backup. Here, we make no changes.
Shortstop: The bottom line at SS is this: no matter how many SS are free agents (Furcal, Cristian Guzman, Orlando Cabrera, etc.) or may be available by trade (Khalil Greene), Lou loves Ryan Theriot. I don't want to start another round of Theriot-bashing here, but the reality of things is: no matter what any of us thinks, Ryan Theriot is going to be the Cubs' starting SS in 2009.
Third base: Aramis Ramirez.
Backup infield: As noted above, Mike Fontenot returns as the backup 2B. But you are going to need another backup middle infielder, because above I dealt away Ronny Cedeno, and perhaps another hitter. Here's where you go to the bottom rungs of the free-agent list and sign someone: perhaps Alex Cintron, who the Cubs had in camp last spring and who nearly made the team. Others: Felipe Lopez can play several positions and is only 28; Mark Loretta is versatile but is 36; Pablo Ozuna had a couple decent years as a White Sox backup; Juan Uribe can also play several positions, but might want a starting job; Willie Bloomquist can also play multiple spots and played for Lou in Seattle.
Of those, I think I'd go for Cintron, who is a switch-hitter and wouldn't be that expensive (he made $1.9 million in 2008 and $1.6 million in 2007 -- you could probably have him for about $2.2 million.
And then I'd sign Kevin Millar to back up first base and outfield. Yes, this is likely to be controversial -- Millar, after all, is 37 and had a pretty bad year in 2008. But Ryan Dempster, who was supposedly the "loosen up" leader in the clubhouse, says he'd love to play with Millar (again -- they were Marlins teammates from 1998-2002), and Millar is the one credited with inventing the Red Sox "idiots", the ones who made the amazing comeback in 2004, the guys who won because they threw off the yoke of jinxes. Millar does have some power (25 doubles, 20 HR last year) and has a .361 lifetime OBA. But there is value in him beyond his statistics, and yes, that is important when you play a game where 25 men basically spend six months together in close proximity.
Outfield: We are stuck with Alfonso Soriano. Phil Rogers' column yesterday suggested Jim Hendry might go after Manny Ramirez, but to do so would require dumping Soriano's deal (if you hate him in LF, you'd despise him in RF). The Dodgers, presuming they'd lose Manny, might be interested -- but in order to push Soriano off on them, you'd probably have to take one or more of LA's bad contracts (the same Pierre, Jones and Schmidt deals I mentioned above). I personally don't have the least bit of interest in any of those three.
So keep Soriano. He can carry a team, at least in the regular season, and then hopefully, someone else can in October.
In center field, I'd give one more year to the productive platoon of Reed Johnson and Jim Edmonds. It will not come as cheaply as the $1.6 million combined the Cubs paid to those two last year -- Johnson's probably in line for a $4-$5 million one year deal (if not a multiyear deal) and Edmonds will probably get close to the $8 million he got combined from the Cardinals and Padres in 2008. Yes, it's a risk; there's always the risk that Edmonds could fall off the face of the Earth in 2009. But Cub CF -- and Johnson and Edmonds combined account for 139 of the 161 games there -- hit .290/.374/.484 with 23 HR and 101 RBI. Even 2/3 of that production would be great, considering Johnson and Edmonds provide fine defense.
Now, you're going to find out why I made that deal with the Orioles to include Luke Scott. Meet your 2009 starting right fielder, Luke Scott. I firmly believe that the Cubs and Kosuke Fukudome are going to reach an agreement that will allow both sides to, with face saved, get out of the remaining three years of the deal signed last year -- probably with several million dollars of buyout -- and Dome, who is deep in Lou's doghouse (and you all know that once there it's nearly impossible to get out), will return to Japan. Scott, who hits RHP very well (.269/.346/.492 last year) would play most of the games, with Mark DeRosa playing some others and Millar perhaps a handful (though he hasn't played any RF since 2005).
So your Opening Day 2009 Cubs position player roster, if I'm in charge, reads as follows:
C: Geovany Soto, Henry Blanco 1B: Aubrey Huff, Kevin Millar 2B: Mark DeRosa, Mike Fontenot SS: Ryan Theriot 3B: Aramis Ramirez INF: Alex Cintron OF: Alfonso Soriano, Reed Johnson, Jim Edmonds, Luke Scott
13 position players would begin the season, just as last year. You'll note Felix Pie is not listed there, and you're about to find out why.
Starting pitchers: Re-sign Ryan Dempster to a three-year deal with a mutual option for a fourth season. The dollar amount isn't that critical because Dempster loves playing in Chicago and would likely give Jim Hendry a hometown discount, particularly after Hendry signs Dempster's buddy Millar. There is risk here: Dempster was horrid in the NLDS and yes, he could regress. But I think Dempster learned his lesson last offseason and is willing to work hard to keep his near-Cy Young form.
Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly and Rich Harden are under contract for 2009 and, presuming they all keep in shape and work to fix any unresolved problems left over from '08, will be, along with Dempster, one of the best top fours in baseball in 2009.
Jason Marquis, who was the best fifth starter in the game last year, will, under my scenario, bid a fond farewell to the Cubs and re-emerge in his hometown, New York, for either the Mets or Yankees, both of whom could use an inning-eater like Marquis. In return for one of the Big Apple teams taking over the $9.875 million left on Marquis' contract, all the Cubs require is to get a face-saving prospect or two.
And that leaves the fifth spot open. But you're saying, having read my epic saga so far, "Wait! Didn't you trade for Matt Cain 17 paragraphs and a blockquote ago?"
Yes, I did, but Cain isn't going to pitch a single inning in a Cub uniform. Instead, he's headed to the Marlins, along with Felix Pie (told ya I'd get to that!) in exchange for Ricky Nolasco.
The reason Nolasco is on the trading block should be obvious. The Marlins operated with the lowest payroll in the majors last year, and Nolasco made the major league minimum of $390,000. His 15-8, 3.52 season with 186 K's (8th in the NL) made him one of the top pitchers in the league last year, and he's arb-eligible... which would probably make him a salary of at least $7 or $8 million, which would be close to half the Marlins' total payroll. There's no way they'll do that. Cain is scheduled to make a more reasonable $2.65 million in 2009 and $4.5 million in 2010; the Marlins can handle that and Cain becomes their #1 or #2 starter, and Pie their starting CF (freeing up Jeremy Hermida for trade, and if the Luke Scott deal becomes impossible, Hermida, who is 9-for-27 with 4 HR lifetime in Wrigley Field, might be an enticing target, and Sean Marshall and Michael Wuertz, who I'd send to Baltimore for Scott, could be the starting point for a deal for Hermida, or you could make one huge deal for Hermida and Nolasco). Finally, getting Nolasco back, just at the time he's probably headed to his peak years (he's 26 in December) would right the massive wrong Jim Hendry did when he sent him away for Juan Pierre three winters ago.
Your 2009 Cub starting rotation:
Ryan Dempster, Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly, Rich Harden, and Ricky Nolasco (not necessarily in that order).
Bullpen: Just as I'd re-sign Dempster, I'd re-sign Kerry Wood to a two-year deal to close with a mutual option third year. Carlos Marmol returns to set Wood up, and Jeff Samardzija (who I still think is better suited to relief than starting) fills the 7th-inning role that Bob Howry failed so miserably at for most of 2008. Howry departs to free agency -- he might, because the free-agent rankings take into account the last two years, even bring a draft pick if someone signs him.
Alex Hinshaw, acquired from the Giants, becomes the LOOGY (LHB hit .205 with only 1 HR off him last year); Neal Cotts remains as another lefty who can go longer. Chad Gaudin and Angel Guzman should round out the bullpen, or perhaps some other righthander will come out of spring training, or there are over 80 other free-agent relievers on the above-linked free-agent list.
Your 2009 Cubs bullpen:
Kerry Wood, Carlos Marmol, Jeff Samardzija, Chad Gaudin, Angel Guzman, Alex Hinshaw, Neal Cotts
I'm not going to get into specific dollar amounts, but just looking over what I've done here, I have removed $13 million of Derrek Lee's deal (and Bob Howry's $3 million and the $1.2 million Daryle Ward earned is gone too); that's $17.2 million gone, probably eaten up with the additional money paid to Johnson, Edmonds, Dempster and Wood (above and beyond what those men made in 2008, a total of $15.5 million -- it'll take about twice that to retain those four). In addition, subtracting the $11.5 million that was due to Kosuke Fukudome in 2009 and Jason Marquis' $9.875 million should cover Aubrey Huff's $8 million and whatever is paid to Luke Scott and Ricky Nolasco. That might make this roster cost virtually the same as the 2008 team, something that ought to be manageable given the uncertain state of the sale of the team and the overall economy.
And that, I believe, is how you build a team. Not "blowing it up", not throwing multiple millions of dollars at a free-agent dartboard, but carefully, taking advantage of the assets you already have to keep a team performing at a high level, and take it to the next one.
Manager/coaches: I still like Lou Piniella, but just as any manager will when you get to know him well enough, he drives us nuts with some of his in-game decisions and use of his bench and bullpen. One thing that I think Lou failed us in both last year and this is his approach to the postseason. He managed games in the NLDS in 2007 and 2008 as if it were May 1, not October 1. When Ryan Dempster was in trouble in game 1, why wasn't Ted Lilly -- who wasn't going to pitch for three more days -- warming up? Other teams use starters in relief in the postseason; why can't the Cubs? That's just one example. The fact that Lou didn't really treat the last week, against contending teams, as playoff type games, bothers me, especially the last regular season game vs. Milwaukee, where he put a spring-training pitching staff out there. We all know what might have happened had the Cubs won that game, which would have forced a Brewers/Mets playoff -- what if the Mets had won that?
Anyway, that's done and gone. But Lou has to learn a lesson from those failures, too.
I think the entire coaching staff will return, with the possible exception of Matt Sinatro, who may go back to Seattle. If that happens, do not be surprised to see a familiar face, a very popular one, on the coaching lines at first base in 2009 -- Ryne Sandberg. Sandberg did a very good job at Peoria the last two years, improving from year to year, and he has made no secret of his desire to manage in the big leagues. Promoting him to the major league coaching staff would be a good first step toward getting him the experience he needs to do that.
So there you have it -- what I'd do, starting as soon as possible, to give the Cubs a winning roster in 2009. Naturally, there are always the unforeseen -- injuries, declines, career years -- but this, rather than just buying every free agent in sight, I think is the way to do it. These are, FWIW, my thoughts only and don't represent any inside information... except for exactly one of the potential transactions I've mentioned, which I have heard the Cubs are interested in making. Speculate away -- I'm not telling. Go Cubs. Let's win it all in '09.