News From Terre Haute, Indiana

September 7, 2009

'Till It's Over: It’s been rough year but no need to break up Cubs' core

By Craig Pearson

Chicago Cubs general manager Jim Hendry is only in the first year of a three-year contract, and aren’t back-to-back division championships enough to keep him around despite this year’s season filled with bad luck?

OK, it’s been more than bad luck with the injury bug; however, blaming Hendry for the changes in the offseason is not the answer to the Cubs’ future.

Several players, the main one being Alfonso Soriano, have had down years, and in Soriano’s case, his season totals are going to plateau at this point in his career. Yes, everyone knows that even without the knee pain he’s been fighting, he’s a liability in the outfield, making his 8-year, $136-million contract look ridiculous. Soriano’s irrelevant at this point though: he’s not going anywhere, and all fans can do is hope he gets it together next year.

As for the other Cub outfielder getting booed on a regular basis, Milton Bradley, he is not far off the expected level of hitting Hendry expected.

After his extremely slow start, Bradley’s been among the most reliable Cubs in July and August. His on-base plus slugging in those two months are .878 and .911.

Compared to the $18 million Soriano made this year, Bradley’s $7 million is a bargain. He leads the team in on-base percentage at .394, and he should have been an invaluable part of a lineup filled with weapons to drive in runs.

Geovany Soto’s huge fall from his Rookie of the Year season in ‘08 has obviously hurt, and Ryan Theriot hasn’t had the same season he had in 2008, when he had a .387 on-base percentage and 73 walks to 58 strikeouts. His on-base mark of .334 in 2009 means he belongs in the bottom of the order with Soriano in 2010.

Even with Soriano slumping all summer and apparently playing through knee pain, a healthy Aramis Ramirez could have helped the Cubs build a lead in the NL Central behind the solid pitching they were getting from the starters.

Manager Lou Piniella, who Hendry said will definitely be back next year, probably should have entrusted third base to Jake Fox when Ramirez went down, but it’s hard to blame the closer situation on Lou when Carlos Marmol had so much trouble throwing strikes through July.

The Kevin Gregg collapse and the injuries to Ted Lilly and Ryan Dempster and Carlos Zambrano would have derailed the hopes for a division title, but with Ramirez healthy the Cubs would have at least been in a position to compete with Colorado and company for the wild-card spot and join the crapshoot that the MLB playoffs have become.

But the future is the real issue.

Repairing the Cubs’ offense, one of the best in baseball in 2008, is the pre-eminent task going forward.

Derrek Lee, who hit his 30th and 31st homers Monday, has shown he’s got a couple big RBI seasons left in him, and Ramirez is in his prime. Kosuke Fukudome has been as steady as anybody by hitting primarily against right-handers this season, and he’s definitely a top-of-the-order option.

Finding a productive second baseman — no, it’s not Mark DeRosa — has to be a priority. Angels’ free-agent-to-be Chone Figgins could play there while adding versatility and speed. A less expensive option might be Akinori Iwamura, who Tampa Bay might deem expendable after Ben Zobrist’s breakout season.

And it’s not a lost season since the Cubs have found young players to help veteran leaders, whether it be in the field or in the rotation.

Offensivley, Fox’s first full season in the majors has been productive, and he has shown he can fill in at both corner outfield spots, both corner infield spots and even catcher if needed.

And rookie Randy Wells inserted himself into the Rookie of the Year conversation with the season he’s had. With a little run support earlier in the season, he should be the Cubs’ only 15-game winner. Wells is a gamer who knows how to pitch, and he might make Rich Harden expendable if the price for the injury-prone right-hander is too high.

Hendry added a great left-hander to the bullpen, John Grabow, so whether they let Gregg move on in free agency or sign him to a much cheaper deal to help the bullpen, the Cubs’ bullpen could be strong in 2010, assuming Marmol will have finally learned that walks are his enemy.

With the big contracts the Cubs have in place, it’s no time for Cubs’ management to panic and break up the core of this team. Staying the course is the best, if not only, option.

Craig Pearson can be reached by e-mail at craig.pearson@tribstar.com or at (812) 231-4357.