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Published:February 11th, 2007 11:43 EST
Cubs Earn the Meat of the NL Offseason

Cubs Earn the Meat of the NL Offseason

By Nick Pauly

My column last week highlighted the two best and worst offseasons in the American League, with an anecdote that the AL mostly went softly and soundly, as no club had a truly outstanding or terrible winter.
The National League, on the other hand, went through significant changes—changes that measured over $120 million in some cases.

Barry Zito signed the largest contract for any pitcher to date with the San Francisco Giants; longtime Astro Jeff Bagwell finally retired; and Mike Piazza left the National League for the first time. The Diamondbacks donated an arm and a leg to get back an old and injured Randy Johnson and proceeded to sign him to an extension.

But none of those headlines were sufficient to bump their respective NL clubs into this column, in which I discuss the two most and least improved National League teams.

Heading up:
1. Chicago Cubs-They spent quite a bit of money this winter, but the North side of Chicago came away with some top-notch talent and a reason to hope.

The Cubs drew 40,000 fans more often than Kerry Wood and Mark Prior went down with injury; as a result, the club should be more than able to maintain its revenue even after such a winter spending spree.
The big acquisition, of course, was Alfonso Soriano, inking an eight-year $136 million deal - the fifth boldest in the history of Major League Baseball. Where he will place in the lineup is anybody's guess, but after becoming the fourth 40-40 man in baseball history, Soriano will fill the void left by Juan Pierre and much, much more.

But the Cubs went beyond the big moves to improve the ballclub, starting with the hiring of Lou Piniella. Dusty Baker became Chicago's scapegoat of the last couple of years, and Chicago seemed to give up on him as a result.

Since the 2003 NLCS, the Cubs motto has been: Our rotation will be good so long as Wood and Prior are healthy. Well … they haven't been healthy ever since, and general manager Jim Hendry took the first step toward some guarantees, bringing in Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis with multi-year deals. While neither pitcher brings eye-popping stuff, Lilly and Marquis will offer some stability behind Carlos Zambrano, so that if (and when) Prior and Wood go down, the Cubs won't have to dig down to AA for their solutions.

Also factoring in the signing of outfielder Cliff Floyd and super utility man Mark DeRosa, the lock up of Aramis Ramirez, and the trade for reliever Neal Cotts, I will go out on a limb and predict a 10-15 game improvement over last year's 66 wins for the Cubs.

2. Los Angeles Dodgers-In early October, it appeared as if the Dodgers had the best-rounded team in the postseason for the NL.

But reality set in quickly; they were relying on a 40 year-old Greg Maddux on a major down-slope of his career, on Hong-Chih Kuo with five career MLB starts, and on an injured Brad Penny to fill out the rotation.

LA took immediate action, signing for three years Jason Schmidt, one of baseball's most dominant pitchers, and inking southpaw Randy Wolf to a one-year contract.

If Brad Penny can keep his back straight, and Chad Billingsley can extract his 2006 second half over an entire season, Hollywood's team could feature the fiercest rotation in the National League.

The Dodgers also compensated for the loss of outfielders Kenny Lofton and J.D. Drew by reeling in Juan Pierre from the free agent pool, known for his pesky hitter and base runner when the situation most calls for it, as well as former World Series hero Luis Gonzalez.

Heading down:
1. Washington Nationals-The Nats were the National League's best team during the first half of 2005, and it has been a downhill tumble ever since.

No fault of the Nationals, the off-season letdown began with the retiring of manager Frank Robinson. Robinson had been one of the best things going for the Nationals, bringing respectability to the organization after he led the Montreal Expos to a second place finish in 2002, initiating a hard-nosed effort from every player.

Since November, the Nats have let go of their star second baseman Jose Vidro and slugging right fielder Jose Guillen, and traded their most reliable innings-eater in Livan Hernandez.

And of course, Washington was unable to offer their superstar left fielder Soriano the beastly contract he received from the Cubs.
What did the Nats do to compensate?

For starters, they brought in "surefire" MVP candidates Tony Womack, Jorge Toca, Abraham Nunez, Travis Lee, and Robert Fick, along with Ray King and Jerome Williams.

2. St. Louis Cardinals-Had the Cardinals been eliminated in the first round of the postseason, this would not be much of a concern. But considering the 2006 World Series Champions finished the regular season with just 83 wins, there is reason to believe the Cards won't quite get there this year.

First and foremost, the Redbirds disposed of their postseason pitching heroes, as Jeff Suppan signed for big money with the Brewers and Jeff Weaver moved to Seattle.

Despite the emergence of Adam Wainwright and Chris Duncan onto the scene last year, Jason Isringhausen and Jim Edmonds are only getting older.

The second base swap of Ronnie Belliard for Adam Kennedy is an improvement, but even if the Cardinals do reach a win total around that of 2006, the improvements of the Cubs, Brewers, and possibly even the Astros could significantly dampen St. Louis' chances of a repeat.

*This column was published in the Rutgers Daily Targum, Jan. 26, and modified for the SOP, Feb. 9.