Is next year here yet…?

By Dave Fultz

Like most Cubs fans, I watched the postseason end as the last out of our 2007 season was recorded Saturday night.

And just like most Cubs fans, I felt the frustration of watching another promising Cubs team underachieve in the playoffs.

Well, after giving it a few days to settle in, I’m about ready to look forward to what the Cubs will do this winter to try and defend their title as National League Central Division Champs.

Congratulations are due to general manager Jim Hendry and team president John McDonough. Their vision this offseason – and willingness to open up the checkbook – took the North Siders from worst to first in the NL Central.

And while winning the division is nice and all, Cubs fans want one thing and one thing only: a World Series win. All of us had to go to work or class on Monday morning and hear the jabs that were sent our way from White Sox and Cardinals fans.

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I’ve had about enough of that.

So, while there is still plenty of October baseball left to be played, I’m going to cut to the chase and start the hot stove league season right now.

The team has committed almost $400 million in payroll over the last year and an uncertain ownership situation could hinder the ability of the Cubs’s brass to roll the dice on any major free agents this time around.

The impending sale of the team really could not have come at a worse time. As it is constructed now, the nucleus of this team only has one or two more peak years left before the window to possibly win a pennant will close.

So for this look into the future, let’s assume that the ownership situation is at least stable enough to allow for business as usual this offseason.

The Cubs were just outplayed by Arizona in the NLDS in every facet of the game. This doesn’t mean that the Cubs are hopelessly untalented in every way, it just means that they had a bad series at the worst possible time.

For a team that lost almost 100 games a year ago, the Cubs were able to improve dramatically by adding stability to the team in areas where they had struggled mightily in the past.

Carlos Zambrano is now the centerpiece of the starting rotation and Ted Lilly and Rich Hill – despite their poor performances in the playoffs – give this team the foundation it needs for the next few seasons.

Those three will be at the top of a rotation that could be filled out by any of a number of pitchers. Jason Marquis had a terrible second half and Lou Piniella didn’t even consider using him in the playoffs.

Marquis, along with the ever-rehabbing Mark Prior, and youngsters Sean Marshall, Kevin Hart and Sean Gallagher should go into spring training next season vying to fill out the final two spots in the rotation.

Now, Marquis could also be shopped around to other teams and the Cubs may look to free agency for insurance once again, but this is the most unlikely scenario.

At catcher, Geovany Soto should be given every opportunity to win the starting job next spring. He was the Pacific Coast League MVP at Triple-A Iowa this season and had a strong showing during his September call-up. He is already better than Jason Kendall, whose future with the team is still unknown.

The infield is all but set with Aramis Ramirez and Derrek Lee remaining at the corners and Ryan Theriot sharing the middle with Mark DeRosa.

There has been talk that the Cubs enter the Alex Rodriguez sweepstakes this winter and this would cause one of two things to happen: Either the Cubs would move Theriot to second base and DeRosa to a likely platoon in right field, or they could try to shop Aramis Ramirez to offset some of what would surely be a monstrous salary for A-Rod.

The outfield has many options and this is most likely where the Cubs could add through free agency. Torii Hunter, Andruw Jones and Aaron Rowand (whom I would love to see in a Cubs uniform) will all be free agents this offseason and would likely be much more realistic than a run at A-Rod.

Signing anyone in centerfield, or allowing that job to go to Felix Pie, would either cause the Cubs to trade Jacque Jones or platoon him in right field with Matt Murton or DeRosa.

The bullpen was much improved with the emergence of Carlos Marmol and the return of Kerry Wood. If Wood is brought back for next season, he, Marmol and Bob Howry could all compete for the closer job if Ryan Dempster falters.

Aside from possibly adding a left-hander to replace the frustrating Will Ohman, the bullpen will most likely look the same next season.

If the Cubs can make just a few changes, they should be able compete for the NL Central crown again next season. The playoffs are a different monster altogether, so this team just needs to take it one step at a time.

First up, make good decisions this winter and take it from there.

All this talk has me excited; is next year here yet?

Dave Fultz is a junior in Communications. He can be reached at [email protected].