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Building A Cubs Champion: 2010 Edition

Last year about this time, I made this post discussing what I thought should be the makeup of the 2009 Cubs.

Brave, isn't it, of me to post that link when I'd just as soon forget about it. I was shouted down and laughed at (people are still giving me grief for the Kevin Millar thing, and they were absolutely correct), and had the Cubs put that 25-man roster on the field last April, they'd undoubtedly have had a much worse season than they did in real life (case in point: Alex Hinshaw, who I thought was an up-and-coming LOOGY, threw only six major league innings in 2009, posting a 12.00 ERA).

So let me go about this project this year in a different sort of way. A year ago (actually, October 20, 2008 was the date I wrote the post about my proposed 2009 roster) we were all still stunned and angry that the 97-win team that had dominated the National League all season went three-and-out in the playoffs. This was before Lou's "we've gotta get more lefthanded" mantra led us to the Milton Bradley disaster, before popular favorites Kerry Wood and Mark DeRosa were let go, and a lot of us were wondering, "How can we make a team that good into one that will win 11 games in October?"

Jim Hendry and Co. were asking themselves the same question, obviously, but came up with the wrong answer. Without rehashing what we've rehashed all summer long, clearly, it didn't work -- and not just because of Hendry's moves, but because players like Alfonso Soriano, Geovany Soto and Mike Fontenot seriously underperformed their 2008 numbers by considerable margins and for various reasons, and because Aramis Ramirez, who is the Cubs' best hitter, missed 50 games with a dislocated shoulder and wasn't at full strength the rest of the season, eventually playing in only 82 games.

I believe in what new owner Tom Ricketts said at his introductory press conference: that the Cubs already have the talent that can win the World Series, and only need a few tweaks to bring the club back to pennant-contending level. I'm also going to assume that what we've heard about player payroll is correct: that it will be increased, if only "slightly", from 2009, and thus will wind up at (approximately) $145 million. That will rank third in baseball, behind the Yankees and Red Sox.

Thus, instead of trying to build a roster simply by picking pieces from here and there, let's use that $145 million to put together a winning team.

Let's begin with players we know will be with the team next year, and their payroll figures (all numbers from the excellent site Cot's Baseball Contracts). These players are under contract for 2010 and will definitely be on the team, followed by their contract amounts:

Alfonso Soriano, $19,000,000 Carlos Zambrano, $18,875,000 Aramis Ramirez, $16,500,000 Kosuke Fukudome, $14,000,000 Ryan Dempster, $13,500,000 Derrek Lee, $13,000,000 Ted Lilly, $13,000,000

That's $107,875,000 for seven players. The Cubs also owe Jeff Samardzija $1,000,000 on the major league portion of his deal (whether or not he throws a major league inning) and $500,000 to the long-ago-released Luis Vizcaino, who pitched 3.2 innings in a Cub uniform. We're now at $109,375,000, leaving "only" $35,625,000 for 18 more players to fill out the Opening Day 25-man roster. That means there are going to be a fair number of minimum-wage players in 2010, because among the players remaining, a number of them are arbitration-eligible, meaning they will be in line for raises.

The first order of business is to remove Milton Bradley from the premises. We have had many long debates about whether and for whom he should be traded, but I believe this is top priority for Jim Hendry and will happen sooner rather than later. Disagree if you wish, but I think the best of many not-so-great scenarios is to send him -- and Aaron Miles -- to the Giants for Aaron Rowand. Between Bradley and Miles, they are owed a total of $23.7 million; Rowand is owed $36 million. Since in doing a deal like this, you would be relieving the Giants, essentially, of $12 million (approximately) by taking the third year of Rowand's contract, Hendry should ask the Giants to split the difference and pay half of Rowand's 2012 contract, which would split the total dollars (approximately $60 million) between the two teams, about $30 million each.

This would also accomplish equalizing the 2010 payroll -- or come close -- to what Bradley and Miles would have been owed ($11.7 million) and what Rowand is owed ($12 million). I think the Giants would be willing to do this, because you are taking $6 million off their 2012 payroll, while leaving their 2010 and 2011 payrolls where they are now, since Bradley is owed $12 million in 2011.

I concede that Rowand has had two pretty poor offensive seasons in San Francisco (at least in part due to injuries). But in 2007, he had a fine hitting year in Philadelphia, and I believe that he has at least a chance to return to that level in Chicago. If you were looking at the possible acquisition of Rowand in a vacuum, you wouldn't do it -- but the necessity of removing Bradley from the team makes this probably about the best way to accomplish that. At best, this could turn into a Hundley-for-Grudzielanek-and-Karros sort of deal.

So, now the Cubs have a center fielder (with Fukudome moving back to his original position, right field, improving the outfield defense at two spots), but we are now at eight players and have only $23,625,000 left. They're fortunate that Geovany Soto is not yet arbitration-eligible, so let's say the Cubs bump him up to $825,000 from the $575,000 he made in 2009. That's a pretty good raise, given the bad year he had. Now we're at $22,800,000. Backup catcher Koyie Hill made $475,000 in 2009 and had a good year for a backup. Let's move him up to $600,000, leaving $22,200,000.

I'm going to leave the double-play combination alone for 2010. It's likely that by 2011, Starlin Castro will be the Cubs' starting shortstop -- but for now, because Lou and Jim like them, Jeff Baker and Ryan Theriot will return. Baker made $415,000 in 2009 and had a good run after he was acquired from Colorado -- one of Hendry's best moves last year. Let's pay him $500,000, and Theriot $700,000, both up from 2009. That's 12 players, and $21,000,000 remaining for the other 13 -- we're getting to the point where we can actually think about signing a free agent or two or making a deal.

Among our 12 signed players so far are nine hitters -- so, given the current fad of having 12 pitchers on your staff, we have room for four more offensive players. I like Andres Blanco and Sam Fuld -- both performed well in backup roles in 2009. Neither hits much, but both play outstanding defense and neither is going to be expected to start more than a handful of games. Fuld made $401,500 and Blanco $400,000 (the minimum) in 2009, and let's give them both raises to $425,000. We are at 14 players and have $20,050,000 left. We'll need one more outfielder and also a guy who could fill the role that was filled in 2007 and 2008 by Daryle Ward, and in 2009 by Micah Hoffpauir.

Sad to say, I'm non-tendering Micah. He's 30 in March and didn't really do well most of last year -- he's a one-dimensional player, since he's really not a very good outfielder, and didn't do well in the dimension (hitting) he was supposedly good at. Since we're no longer locked in to the "lefthanded" mantra of a year ago, the Cubs can put the minimum-wage Jake Fox -- bumped up to $500,000 for his good performance of a year ago -- in this slot, and re-sign Rowand's close friend Reed Johnson for $3 million to fill in when his buddy hits the brick wall at Wrigley too many times.

So, we now have $16,550,000 left for nine pitchers -- which means we're going to have to fill most of the bullpen with minimum-wage guys. That's actually fine with me -- look at the disaster that was Aaron Heilman last year (in my opinion, Heilman should be non-tendered) -- and the Cubs have a couple of real good prospects, in my opinion, to fill middle-relief roles in Justin Berg and Esmailin Caridad. They get the minimum $400,000 each, leaving $15,750,000 for seven more pitchers. It was reported earlier this week that the Cubs are negotiating a two-year deal with John Grabow; reported figures are "between $6.5 and $7.5 million" for the two years. Let's assume for this post that it's in between, and Grabow gets $3.5 million for 2010. We've got $12,250,000 left and six spots to fill on the pitching staff. Carlos Marmol is going to close; he made $575,000 in 2009, so let's bump him to $800,000. Angel Guzman will be his primary right-handed setup guy (Grabow's the lefty setup guy, or should be, if Lou would ever use him right). Guzman made $421,500 in 2009; he could be renewed at $500,000.

Our payroll drawer is nearly empty (you can almost count the remaining Benjamins, right?); we have $10,950,000 remaining and still need to fill three spots, one in the pen, and two in the starting rotation, and here's where it gets a bit dicey (and this is why I left this part for last). First, you can fill one of the starting spots with Randy Wells, who made the minimum last year and certainly deserves a raise; let's put him at $750,000 (or maybe even a bit less; he's renewable, meaning you don't have to give him that much of a raise until he's arb-eligible next year), leaving $10,200,000. The Cubs have five free agents: Rich Harden, John Grabow, Kevin Gregg, Chad Fox and Reed Johnson. I already re-signed Johnson and Grabow above; Gregg and Fox, thanks for your service, see you in another uniform next year (and please, Jim, not another minor-league invite for Chad Fox. He's done).

But what to do with Harden? If you offer him arbitration, he'll almost certainly accept. To paraphrase Longfellow's nursery rhyme, "When he's good, he's very, very good; when he's bad, he's horrid". If Harden accepts arbitration, he's likely to get pretty close to all the remaining dollars in the drawer -- so reluctantly, we say goodbye to Rich, without the arb offer, unless you can somehow agree ahead of time to get him to sign for $8 million or so. That's not unreasonable given his $7 million salary in 2009 and his mediocre performance.

For the sake of argument, then, let's say we have this $10,950,000 available for our two remaining spots. One of those spots is going to go to Sean Marshall, who, I believe, deserves another shot at the starting rotation after doing a good job as a swingman in 2009. Lou misused him as a LOOGY -- Marshall can clearly do better than getting one LH batter out -- and I'd like to see Sean, now 27 and with four major league seasons under his belt, get a shot at starting. Sean made $450,000 in 2009, and could be paid $600,000 in 2010. In this scenario Samardzija makes the team, likely because the Cubs are paying him the $1 million whether he makes it or not. Otherwise there are other possibilities, including Arizona Fall Leaguers John Gaub and Andrew Cashner, or maybe someone else who will have a good spring (and please, let's not have another David Patton scenario), for this final spot.

That leaves $10,350,000 (or just under $10 million if you use Gaub or Cashner, who would make the minimum). You could consider signing someone like Jon Garland, who just got his option declined by the Dodgers and is a free agent. Garland made $7.25 million in 2009 and had a "typical" Garland year, which is as an inning-eater; you could probably get him for about $8 million for 2010. Garland has made at least 32 starts for eight straight years, and has pitched no fewer than 191.2 innings in any of those eight. Doing that would take the pressure off the staff, especially if Ted Lilly isn't ready for Opening Day, and would let Marshall play the "swingman" role again. Or you could give that last rotation spot to Tom Gorzelanny, who made $433,000 in 2009, and save the money for a midseason acquisition.

Note that I haven't gone all DeRomantic here and proposed bringing back Mark DeRosa, although I think he'd still be a solid addition, even at age 35, for the right price, and a note in this St. Louis Post-Dispatch article indicates the Cubs may indeed make DeRo an offer. I also haven't retained Mike Fontenot, who could probably be traded -- I mentioned above non-tendering Heilman, but it may be possible that both Fontenot and Heilman could be dealt, even for low-level prospects. In fact, my 2010 team as proposed above has only two players (Rowand and Garland) who were not with the Cubs at some point in 2009 -- unless they decided not to go with Jake Fox in the bench role and instead signed a free agent (or one who soon will be) such as Ross Gload or Chad Tracy, whose option was declined by the Diamondbacks yesterday. Still, despite all the travails, injuries and bad performances in 2009, the Cubs won 83 games. With performances returning to career norms, better health and a little luck, just a few tweaks could have us returning to the postseason in 2010.