February 23rd, 2007 11:11 EST
Chicago Cubs Preview
By spending more money than any other team this offseason, the Chicago Cubs displayed a commitment to winning, but also just a little bit of desperation and nearsightedness.
Maybe the Cubs forgot how good their team would have been before injuries tore down the foundation last season. Maybe they just cannot count on the team being any healthier this season. Whatever it is, they signed some of the free agent market’s biggest and most overpaying contracts.
Alfonso Soriano was by no means a bad signing. He was the outfielder they needed, or the second baseman, take your pick. The position versatility he brings, even though he is only mediocre at any of them, is nonetheless advantageous to the Cubs.
However, after Soriano, it would seem their major signings were over. After all, Derrek Lee is still an upper echelon first baseman and hitter. Aramis Ramirez is among the league’s best hitting third basemen, and Carlos Zambrano is the game’s best young ace. There was another decent signing, which brought Mark DeRosa from a utility role in Texas to a starting second baseman job and will bring some offense to the middle infield to go with Cesar Izturis’ defensive prowess.
But the Cubs left the wallet open and spent like they just got a promotion. Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis were both grossly overpaid. If things go as the Cubs hope, Lilly and Marquis will be the fourth and fifth starters. There are not many number four starters making $10 million a year (as Lilly will).
This hopeful thinking would involve a healthy Mark Prior and a young Rich Hill living up to expectations for a full season. If Prior and Hill can go two-three behind Zambrano, the Cubs would be the clear favorites in the National League Central.
However, Prior has not been healthy for an extended amount of time in two years and Hill has only shown spurts of greatness at the major league level. The Cubs would probably be perfectly thrilled if only one of those young guns panned out this year.
Kerry Wood is the final piece of the puzzle. However, he will not be a piece of the starting rotation puzzle. The medical staff has suggested, and the coaching staff had agreed, that Wood will spend his season in the bullpen, and could possibly become the closer if he stays healthy and performs. He definitely has the stuff to close. His fastball is one of the game’s best when his arm is on right.
There was one more signing, and it occurred Tuesday afternoon. Carlos Zambrano and the Cubs settled on a contract, keeping the twp sides from going to arbitration. He will now be paid $12.4 million for this season, not a bad deal for his performance compared to other signings.
Zambrano has not had significant health issues and has some of the games most lively pitches. His fastball is electric, and his breaking pitches seem to go from the strike zone to the dirt in an instant. He is one of baseball’s sure things this season.
What is not a sure thing is the Cubs’ bullpen. It largely depends on the starting rotation. Those who would replace Prior and Hill can be key bullpen pieces. Upcoming prospect Angel Guzman is a terrific talent who the Cubs would like to train in the bullpen instead of throwing him into the starting rotation. Sean Marshall has already been thrown to the wolves, but could be solid out in a long relief role.
Cubs fans and management obviously want the closer role to be taken by Wood, but if he cannot do the job it is left for the inconsistent Ryan Dempster and ineffective Bob Howry to fight for.
No matter how much money the Cubs may have spent or wasted, the hitting has a chance to be excellent and in the National League Central, they still have a legitimate chance at winning the division.
Barring injury, the batting order will be the best in the division, maybe in the National League. Alfonso Soriano is obviously an offensive juggernaut. Mark DeRosa is underrated and could hit well in the number two spot. Aramis Ramirez brings power and Derrek Lee is an RBI machine when healthy. Catcher Michael Barrett is perfect for a five or six spot in the order. Jacque Jones could be on his way out, but until then he is a solid offensive player. Matt Murton could emerge as the five hitter if his ascent continues.
The wild card is prospect Felix Pie, who would make Jacque Jones a goner. Pie is a true centerfielder in the Juan Pierre mold. He is a speedster who can get on base and get around the bases. He actually seems to have a little more pop than Pierre. Pie could appear as a regular in Wrigley by the end of the season.
Others that could see the rotation: Angel Guzman, Sean Marshall, Wade Miller
This team has a lot riding on oft-injured body parts, but if most of them hold up, this team is the favorite to win the Central Division on paper, even with the defending World Champion Cardinals looming.
The Dodgers are on deck, with the Mets in the hole.