Cubs’ stove to warm up at winter meetings

By Dave Fultz

Baseball’s hot stove has been simmering since the season ended and will really heat up this week as the annual winter meetings get under way.

My excitement for the winter meetings was boiling over Sunday and was only matched when I saw the Illini were on their way to Pasadena.

These meetings traditionally see the most action of the baseball offseason because they gather the general managers of every team into one place with a collective mission of improving their ball clubs.

It was at last year’s winter meetings that Cubs GM Jim Hendry made the biggest splash of the offseason, signing Alfonso Soriano to a monster deal. And then, even while he was in a hospital bed hooked up to an EKG machine, Hendry hammered out a deal with free-agent pitcher Ted Lilly.

These stories are things of offseason legend now, and these signings — along with a few others that totaled nearly $300 million – helped to turn the Cubs around in just one season.

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This offseason is very different from the last in that the Cubs do not have nearly as many holes to fill, and Hendry will have many more options with less to accomplish this time around.

Cubs fans on my favorite forum – yes, I read and post on a baseball forum in December – rejoiced over the last week or so with the release of these two pieces of news: First, the ever-loyal Kerry Wood announced that he had taken less money to stay with the Cubs and have a shot to close games next season. Next, the Cubs “missed out” on signing free-agent middle infielder Kaz Matsui, a player who got royally overpaid by the Astros on the strength of a good postseason with the Rockies.

So, what is left on Hendry’s to-do list while he is in Nashville?

With the return of Wood, the bullpen appears set as the Cubs move forward toward next season.

The team expects Wood, Bob Howry and maybe Carlos Marmol to compete for the closer spot during spring training next year, with Ryan Dempster getting an opportunity to start.

The Cubs are also set at first base, third base and left field as the big boppers – Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez and Soriano – return to anchor the offense.

The club seems content with allowing impressive youngster Geovany Soto to step in behind the plate full time next season. Soto batted .353 with a .424 on-base percentage and 26 home runs en route to the league MVP at Triple-A Iowa last season before being called up in September.

That still leaves some question marks in the outfield, middle infield and starting rotation that the Cubs hope to answer – or at least discuss – during the meetings this week.

The team has in-house options that could probably produce well if given the opportunity to fill any of these holes, but Hendry is in search of upgrades across the diamond.

Let’s start in the outfield. Hendry has made it known that the Cubs are going to go hard after Japanese free-agent outfielder Kosuke Fukudome. Fukudome, 30, declared free agency last month and will likely make the move to the United States.

The Cubs are expected to make the highest bid for Fukudome, who has a near-.400 career on-base percentage in Japan and can probably play either center field or right field.

Along with Soriano, the Cubs also return the highly touted Felix Pie, Matt Murton, Sam Fuld and Angel Pagan. All of these guys will battle for playing time in spring training.

While Ryan Theriot became a fan favorite after securing the starting shortstop job last summer, his production at the plate leaves much to be desired. Hendry and Lou Piniella have been quoted as saying they would like to add a left-handed bat in the infield that could bring some speed to the team.

Theriot and Mark DeRosa were good enough to get this team to the playoffs, but some tweaking is in order if the Cubs want to make it back.

The starting rotation seems mostly set but a few questions still linger around what was a strong unit a year ago. Staff ace Carlos Zambrano will again be joined by Ted Lilly and Rich Hill, barring a trade.

What remains to be seen is who will grab the remaining two spots. Dempster will be given a shot, Jason Marquis is still with the club and Sean Marshall pitched well enough last season to be given consideration.

There are others within the organization who will also challenge these three if there aren’t any additions in this area.

It wouldn’t surprise me to see the Cubs make a couple of trades to either free up some salary or add a key piece to the puzzle, but it seems as if any moves will be dependent on whether or not Fukudome decides to sign on.

With all of this buzz and speculation, how could any fan not be excited?

It just goes to show that some of the most exciting baseball strategy doesn’t take place on the diamond or in the dugouts, but rather in the dead of winter at a Nashville convention center.

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