Mooney: Cubs facing a Giant offseason

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Mooney: Cubs facing a Giant offseason

Friday, Nov. 5, 2010
6:10 PM

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

The San Francisco Giants were 41-40 on the Fourth of July and by the beginning of September there were strong odds that they wouldnt even make the playoffs.

The Giants hadnt won a World Series in 56 years or since moving to the West Coast and as soon as they clinched Monday night five of their players became free agents.

Thousands upon thousands flooded downtown San Francisco on Wednesday for the championship parade and within hours the Giants had declined their 2011 option on World Series MVP Edgar Renteria.

You could argue that there is no baseball offseason. The Cubs completed their organizational meetings on Friday in Mesa, Ariz. The free-agent market opens Sunday at 12:01 a.m. EST. And in three-plus months pitchers and catchers will be reporting to spring training.

Like the Giants, the Cubs may have their regrets. Combined Barry Zito, Aaron Rowand, Alfonso Soriano and Kosuke Fukudome will cost around 370 million spread across 24 contract years and not one is still really viewed as a core player.

Cliff Lee, Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth could each command a nine-figure contract across the next few weeks. Philosophically and with a push from new ownership the Cubs are moving away from those types of reactionary signings.

It did not go unnoticed that the Giants leaned on four homegrown starters Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Jonathan Sanchez who were responsible for eight of their 11 postseason wins.

This was not a marquee group (of hitters), Cubs manager Mike Quade said. The whole group (just) lived on that pitching and they did enough offensively (to) get things done. (The) pitching can take you a long way.

The Cubs could use another starter, and will need a first baseman, preferably someone whos left-handed. Aubrey Huff remained unemployed through the middle of January before the Giants made a minimal commitment one year at 3 million and he wound up leading the team in almost every offensive category.

The Cubs could try to find similar value and flexibility. Speculation will center on Adam Dunn, but any team looking for a first baseman will have options: Huff; Carlos Pena; Lyle Overbay; Lance Berkman.

Someone will pay for Derrek Lees leadership and Gold Glove defense and hope he gets healthy and again produces at a high level. Any team would improve with Paul Konerkos bat and clubhouse presence. Adrian Gonzalez and Prince Fielder should hit free agency after the 2011 season.

There is also depth to the pool of free-agent relievers. Reuniting with Kerry Wood would play well at the press conference, but he will be 34 next year and went on the disabled list last summer with a 6.30 ERA.

But Wood dominated once he was traded to New York, and the Yankees are constantly trying to ensure that their bridge to closer Mariano Rivera is secure. Will another team ask Wood to close? Could he get a multi-year deal somewhere? What will be his priorities?

Teams are always searching for bullpen help, and this winter you can find former closers (J.J. Putz, Frank Francisco, Brian Fuentes), relievers from playoff teams (Jose Contreras, J.C. Romero, Jesse Crain) and pitchers who have done it in the American League East (Scott Downs, Jason Frasor, Grant Balfour).

That could be the quickest way for the Cubs to improve. The Giants blended their bullpen pieces through the draft, trades and free agency. They finished 66-6 when leading after six innings in the regular season, and went 8-1 during the playoffs in that situation.

The Cubs went 22-32 in one-run games. Eighty-three of their games were decided by two runs or less. What if a stronger bullpen could reverse the outcome in two close games each month? That would mean 12 more wins, a total of 87, which definitely makes you a factor in a weak National League Central.

For the Cubs, payroll projections are fuzzy, beyond the expectation that it will be lower than the approximately 145 million allocated on Opening Day 2010.

Its not an issue for us, general manager Jim Hendry said. We feel like whatever number (it) is, were going to have a successful offseason and be able to add a few pieces for Mike and his staff.

Thats all part of the job. Its not a question of how much money you get to spend. Were not going to need an overhaul here. I think we all felt a lot better about the club at the end of the year, the way some of the kids progressed.

Whether or not the Cubs are overestimating their 24-13 finish, the roster will have a similar look next season. But the players on the margins can make a huge difference.

The team that holds up the trophy in any sport its whos playing the best at the end and (the Giants) were really one or two games from not getting in. So it can change that quickly, Hendry said. They had a bunch of guys that just played well together and got hot at the right time. And once you get in its like we always said if you can get in often enough then sooner or later you can knock that door down.

Patrick Mooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. Follow Patrick on Twitter @CSNMooney for up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

Cubs: Ben Zobrist's path back to October and a possible three-peat

Cubs: Ben Zobrist's path back to October and a possible three-peat

MESA, Ariz. – Ben Zobrist is focused on a personal three-peat, not worrying about a changing of the guard or any awkward moments with Javier Baez. Cubs manager Joe Maddon has repeatedly said that Zobrist will be the primary second baseman and another "Javy Being Javy" highlight reel from the World Baseball Classic won't change that thinking right now.

Zobrist sees the big picture better than almost anyone else in the clubhouse after going undrafted out of Eureka High School in downstate Illinois, perfecting the super-utility role Maddon envisioned with the Tampa Bay Rays and helping transform the 2015 Kansas City Royals into World Series champions.

While Baez started all 17 playoff games at second base last year, bursting onto the scene as the National League Championship co-MVP, Zobrist became the World Series MVP with his clutch hitting and still has three seasons left on his $56 million contract.

Maddon didn't spare anyone's feelings during the playoffs, turning $184 million outfielder Jason Heyward into a part-time player, giving a quick hook to major-league ERA leader Kyle Hendricks and shunning relievers not named Aroldis Chapman.

"We haven't had an extended conversation about it," Zobrist said. "But at the beginning of spring, we talked about it. I think his words were: ‘I really think rest is the next improvement in player performance.' Learning what rest means, what good rest is for players and what kind of rest certain players need versus others.

"That doesn't necessarily mean just because you're 35. It could mean you're 25 and you still got to take care of yourself and make sure you're getting the proper rest. Because we have such a deep team, he's able to do that at any given point in time and still feel confident about the team we have on the field.

"It's a good problem to have when you have really good players not playing and sitting on the bench. We had that all last year and we had guys accept their role and just buy into the team concept.

"The makeup of this team is the same, basically. We've got a few new guys and they've got the same mindset, so I anticipate more of the same."

Injuries are one variable that prevents Maddon from getting too stressed out about dividing the playing time over 162 games while the NCAA tournament is still going. Zobrist's stiff neck felt good enough to hit leadoff and play right field in Tuesday afternoon's 10-7 loss to the San Francisco Giants, seeing his first Cactus League action since March 19.

Zobrist plans to play again on Wednesday in Mesa and catch up with more at-bats on the minor-league side of the complex. Assuming Zobrist and All-Star shortstop Addison Russell (stiff back) are ready for Opening Night, Baez will be an NLCS MVP, all-WBC talent waiting for the right matchup or break in the schedule or to sub in as a defensive replacement.

"It's pretty impressive, looking around at the young talent in this clubhouse," Zobrist said. "All throughout spring training, we've seen there's definitely other talent coming, so this team is poised to have a good, long run of success. If everybody stays healthy and we stay together, this is a very good team.

"The biggest thing that I go into the season with this year is we have to be healthy and we have to make sure that we don't relax too much. That's the temptation for teams that just won, to go: OK, well, we're tired, because we had a long season last year and you kind of just assume things are going to go as well as they did.

"You can't assume anything. No matter how good this team is, we have to still go out and execute and perform – and that's going to determine where we are in the standings."

In real time, as the Cubs experienced their lowest moments during last year's regular season, Zobrist correctly pointed out the exhaustion factor while the team played 24 days in a row, losing 15 of their last 21 games before the All-Star break.

What looks like overwhelming depth on paper should help the 2017 Cubs survive and advance into October.

"It's huge," Zobrist said. "It's up and down the lineup on offense. It's all throughout the pitching staff and on the defensive side. It's so deep that you can absorb a little bit of injury here and there.

"With that being said, there are certain guys that you just don't want to lose. So we got to protect everybody. We got to protect our horses – both on the mound and in the lineup – and just make sure that we have our key cogs in there. And if we do, we're as good, if not better, than anybody out there."

Cubs return Rule 5 lefty Caleb Smith to Yankees as roster comes into focus

Cubs return Rule 5 lefty Caleb Smith to Yankees as roster comes into focus

MESA, Ariz. - Matt Szczur vs. Tommy La Stella - and a combination of right/left, outfield/infield and contractual considerations - appears to be the final decision as the Cubs shape their Opening Night roster.

The Cubs returned Rule 5 lefty Caleb Smith to the New York Yankees on Tuesday and assigned injured non-roster players Jemile Weeks and Chris Dominguez to minor-league camp. That left 27 players still technically in the mix, though depth catcher Carlos Corporan isn't really part of that conversation.

The projected eight-man bullpen would look like this: Wade Davis; Koji Uehara; Pedro Strop; Hector Rondon; Carl Edwards Jr.; Justin Grimm; and lefties Mike Montgomery and Brian Duensing.

Szczur, who is out of minor-league options, could be a good fourth outfielder on a team that didn't have so much depth and World Series expectations, making him a potential trade chip for pitching. La Stella offers infield insurance and a left-handed bat off the bench.