By Brian Gillespie, MLB Analyst (Sports Network)
2004 FINISH (89-73) - Third Place (NL Central)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: C - Henry Blanco, OF - Jeromy Burnitz, RP - Chad Fox, INF/OF - Jerry Hairston Jr., RP - Stephen Randolph, RP - Scott Williamson.
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: OF - Moises Alou, C - Paul Bako, SP - Matt Clement, RP - Kyle Farnsworth, OF - Tom Goodwin, OF - Ben Grieve, 2B - Mark Grudzielanek, SS - Ramon Martinez, RP - Kent Mercker, OF - Sammy Sosa.
PROJECTED LINEUP: Corey Patterson (CF); Derrek Lee (1B); Nomar Garciaparra (SS); Aramis Ramirez (3B); Jeromy Burnitz (RF); Todd Walker (2B); Todd Hollandsworth (LF); Mike Barrett (C)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Mark Prior (RHP); Kerry Wood (RHP); Greg Maddux (RHP); Carlos Zambrano (RHP); Glendon Rusch (LHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Joe Borowski (RHP)
MANAGER: Dusty Baker
Wrigley Field will have a different feel to it this season, as Slammin' Sammy Sosa, the face of the Chicago Cubs' franchise for 13 years, won't be there to do his daily sprint out to right field.
While it was sad for the franchise and its fans to see Sosa go, it doesn't necessarily mean that jettisoning him to Baltimore was a bad thing. In fact, it was simply the best thing that Cubs general manager Jim Hendry could have done.
Sosa had bowed out early on his team in the 2004 season finale and complained about being moved down in the lineup by Dusty Baker, forcing the club's hand. It didn't help that his skills seemed to be quickly diminishing last season, as his batting average fell 20 points to .253 in the final two months of the campaign. Sosa also played in just 126 games due to injury, his lowest total since 1992 when he was still with the Chicago White Sox.
Despite making many enemies in the clubhouse and struggling with his consistency, Sosa still belted 35 homers and knocked in 80 runs. Chicago will need offseason signee Jeromy Burnitz to ease the pain of losing Sosa's powerful bat with a solid season in right field.
Jerry Hairston Jr., the lone major league-ready piece that came to Chicago in the Sosa deal, will challenge for playing time in the outfield while spelling Todd Walker at second base. Hairston saw action in 86 games for Baltimore last season, recording a pair of homers, 24 RBI and a .303 batting average.
Outside of the returning Corey Patterson in centerfield, the Cubs' outfield will look much different this season. Veteran leftfielder Moises Alou has moved on to San Francisco, leaving veteran Todd Hollandsworth, Hairston and Jason Dubois to pick up the pieces. Alou takes his .293 average, 39 homers and 106 RBI with him.
The Cubs' rotation will be a bit thinner this season as well with the exit of hard-throwing youngster Matt Clement. With Clement in Boston, the Cubs will be forced to rely on lefthander Glendon Rusch to become their fifth starter. Rusch did a nice job in a spot starting role last season, but he's not on the level of Clement.
Young righthander Sergio Mitre may be leaned on to do more than his fair share this year, as it appears duel aces Mark Prior and Kerry Wood aren't going to be able to stay healthy. Prior struggled with inflammation in his right elbow in spring training, while Wood was ailing with tightness in his pitching shoulder. To make matters worse, closer Joe Borowski suffered a non-displaced fracture near his right wrist late in spring training and could be out until early May.
The left side of the Cubs' infield is the clear strength of their team with Aramis Ramirez at third and Nomar Garciaparra at shortstop. Ramirez became the team leader last season, tallying a .318 average with 36 homers and 103 RBI. For his efforts, Ramirez earned an impressive one-year contract worth $8.95 million.
Meanwhile, Garciaparra, once thought of as the cream of the crop at shortstop in the league, has been relegated to excepting a one-year, $8.25 million deal. Garciaparra and his agent had wanted a long-term deal in free agency, but chose to take the short contract in hopes of skyrocketing his value after this season. After being dealt from Boston to the Cubs before the deadline last season, Garciaparra hit .297 with four homers and 20 RBI.
Garciaparra and current Cubs second baseman Todd Walker know each other well, as the two of them played for Boston in 2003. Walker, known much more for his bat than his defensive prowess, didn't have his best season at the plate last year, posting his worst batting average (.274) since 2000 as a backup to Mark Grudzielanek. The Bakersfield, CA native did hit 15 homers and knock in 50 runs.
Chicago first baseman Derrek Lee is not an easy out either, as he hit .278 with 32 homers and 98 RBI last season. Lee, an eight-year veteran, has registered 30-plus homers the last two seasons and 20 or more in five consecutive campaigns.
The Cubs will rely on catcher Michael Barrett to handle the pitching staff this season. Barrett will no longer have to fight for time with Paul Bako after posting career bests in homers (16) and RBI (65) last season. The 28- year-old also posted an impressive .287 batting average in 134 games.
The pressure will be immense on the shoulders of Burnitz this season, as he will try to make the Cubs' fans forget about Sosa. Burnitz, no spring chicken at the ripe age of 35, revitalized his career in batter-friendly Colorado last season. The Oklahoma State product hammered 37 homers, one short of his career high, while posting 110 RBI and a.283 batting average. Burnitz has averaged 31 homers and 96 RBI in his nine-year career.
Patterson provides the Cubs with a speedy lead-off man that can set the tables for the big bats behind him. The five-year veteran played in a team-high 157 games last season, stealing a career-high 32 bases while hitting .266 with 24 homers and 72 RBI. Patterson also committed just one error and tallied eight outfield assists in 333 total chances.
Hollandsworth will have to fight hard to keep Hairston and DuBois off the field. The 31-year-old did a nice job in a reserve role for the Cubs last season, hitting .318 with eight homers and 22 RBI in 57 games. Look for either Hairston or Dubois to unseat him sometime this season.
Wood and Prior comprise the top young pitching tandem in the league, but health questions continue to haunt them. Wood's muscle-jarring mechanics are hard on his body, leading him to injuries such as his current shoulder issue. The 27-year-old made a career-low 22 starts last season, missing more than a month and a half because of triceps tightness. Wood threw 140 1/3 innings, tallying an 8-9 mark with a 3.72 ERA.
Prior was limited to just 19 starts last season, as he suffered from a hamstring injury that forced him to miss the first two months of the campaign and a tender elbow which slowed him in July. The USC product posted a career- high 4.02 ERA and went just 6-4 in 118 2/3 innings of action.
On most teams, future Hall-of-Famer Greg Maddux would be a top-two starter, but he is just part of the Cubs' depth in the rotation. Maddux has won 305 games, four Cy Young awards and 14 Gold Gloves in his illustrious career. The 38-year-old was solid again last season, recording a 16-11 mark with a 4.02 ERA.
Carlos Zambrano became the horse of the rotation last season, going 16-8 with a 2.75 ERA (4th-NL) in 31 starts. Zambrano, who will be working on a one-year, $3.76 million contract, ranked sixth in the NL in BAA (.225), eighth in strikeouts (188) and 10th in walks (81).
Rusch, Mitre and Ryan Dempster will duke it out for the fifth spot in the rotation. Dempster was thought to be a candidate to be a closer in the offseason, but the Cubs have decided to keep him as a starter or long reliever. This spot in the rotation will likely be constantly changing throughout the season.
The Cubs will need their starters to be successful because their bullpen lacks talented options. With hard-thrower Kyle Farnsworth and veteran lefthander Kent Mercker gone, the Cubs will rely on 38-year-old lefty Mike Remlinger and talented set-up man LaTroy Hawkins, who now becomes the closer because of Borowski's injury.
Borowski is expected to be out until at least the middle of May. He suffered a tear in his rotator cuff that limited him to 22 appearances last season. The 33-year-old went just 2-4 with an 8.02 ERA with nine saves and two blown opportunities.
Hawkins, a quite capable eighth-inning pitcher, proved that he's not ready to be a closer last season, as he blew nine save chances while recording 25 saves. The former Minnesota Twin did register a 5-4 mark with a 2.63 ERA in a career-high 77 appearances.
Twenty-six-year-old righthanders Jon Leicester and Michael Wuertz, and left-handed Arizona castoff Stephen Randolph will handle the long relief duties for the Cubs, while Chad Fox could also be thrust into a finishing role.
Hairston will be the most versatile of the Cubs' bench players, as he can play both the infield and outfield. The Naperville, IL native played a lot of right field last season, while spending 13 games along the infield. In his young career, Hairston has hit .261 with 26 homers and 160 RBI.
The Cubs also inked veteran catcher Henry Blanco in the offseason. Blanco will provide an excellent defensive replacement for Barrett on occasion. The Venezuelan played 114 games for the Twins last season, committing just seven errors and 45 assists.
Don't forget about veteran reserve shortstop Neifi Perez, who has a very capable glove. Perez split the 2004 season between San Francisco and Chicago, hitting .255 with four homers and 39 RBI.
The Cubs' future looks bright with such an outstanding pitching staff, but nagging injuries to Prior and Wood, plus the latest blow to Borowski could end up killing them. However, if Prior and Wood remain healthy, Chicago could be near the top of the NL Central for most of the year and can make a serious run at the National League pennant.