By Jason Garcia, MLB Analyst (Sports Network)
2003 FINISH (88-74) - First Place (NL Central); lost in NLCS to Florida
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: C - Michael Barrett, RP - LaTroy Hawkins, OF - Todd Hollandsworth, 1B - Derrek Lee, INF/OF - Jose Macias, SP - Greg Maddux; RP - Kent Mercker, 2B - Todd Walker
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: RP - Antonio Alfonseca, 1B - Hee Seop Choi, SP - Shawn Estes, OF - Doug Glanville, RP - Mark Guthrie, 1B - Eric Karros, OF - Kenny Lofton, C - Damian Miller, 1B - Randall Simon, RP - Dave Veres, INF - Tony Womack
PROJECTED LINEUP: Mark Grudzielanek (2B), Corey Patterson (CF), Sammy Sosa (RF), Moises Alou (LF), Derrek Lee (1B), Aramis Ramirez (3B), Alex Gonzalez (SS), Michael Barrett (C)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Kerry Wood (RHP), Mark Prior (RHP), Greg Maddux (RHP), Carlos Zambrano (RHP), Matt Clement (RHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Joe Borowski (RHP)
MANAGER: Dusty Baker
The Cubs won their first playoff series since 1908 with a victory over the Atlanta Braves in the NLDS, but came up short to the eventual World Champion Florida Marlins in the League Championship Series after the fateful Steve Bartman fan interference incident in Game 6.
After falling five outs shy of the World Series, Dusty Baker's Cubs figure to be stronger this season. The power of Derrek Lee at first base and Aramis Ramirez at third will supplement the strength of Sammy Sosa and Moises Alou in the outfield.
Former Braves ace Greg Maddux is returning to the Windy City to finish his career where it all began. Maddux joins an already impressive, but young staff to round out one of the best starting rotations in the game. He undoubtedly will serve as a mentor to the Cubs' younger hurlers, bringing a calming influence that can help them get the team over the postseason hump.
The Cubs already have Kerry Wood and Mark Prior at the top of their staff, two young powerful righthanders who combined for 32 wins and a staggering 511 strikeouts last season. The team will also bring back Matt Clement and Carlos Zambrano, 14 and 13-game winners, respectively, last season. Prior is expected to be on the disabled list to start the season due to a sore Achilles tendon, but he may only miss one or two starts.
The Cubs' offense ranked right around the middle of the pack in runs scored last season, but they bolstered their attack with the acquisition of Lee. The Cubs will also have the luxury of centerfielder Corey Patterson, who was well on his way to a breakout year in 2003 until a torn ACL just before the All-Star break ended his season.
With all this in mind, it's hard to believe that meaningful games won't be played at Wrigley Field in September as the Cubs will likely do battle with Houston for the top spot in the division.
Defensively, the Cubs are solid up the middle with veterans Alex Gonzalez and Mark Grudzielanek forming a reliable double-play tandem. Ramirez, however, is shaky. He has limited range and led the majors with 33 errors at the hot corner last season, holding a double-digit margin over any other third baseman.
Lee's defensive talents were finally recognized as he won his first Gold Glove in 2003. At 6-foot-5, Lee provides a big target at first and can cut down on bad throws, particularly from the mistake-prone Ramirez.
Lee belted a career-high 31 home runs last year despite playing in one of the most unfriendly power-hitter ballparks. Just 41 of his 129 round-trippers with the Marlins came at Pro Player Stadium. Cubs fans can expect Lee's power numbers to go up, as moving to Wrigley will be a blessing, especially when the wind is blowing out.
Behind the plate, former Expo Michael Barrett takes over for Damian Miller, who started 103 games last season. Barrett's main concern will be handling the pitching staff and getting the most out of Chicago's greatest strength. Any production he provides with the bat out of the eighth slot will be a bonus, but he surely will want to improve upon a career-low .208 clip from 2003.
In 2003, Grudzielanek enjoyed his best season in four years atop the Cubs' batting order, but will surely be pushed by new addition Todd Walker at second. Walker started for the Red Sox last season and could have maintained a starting role with a host of other clubs, but instead signed with Chicago in hopes of once again going to the postseason. He could emerge as a starter if Baker wants to add a lefthanded bat to his righty-dominated lineup.
Ramirez eclipsed the 100-RBI plateau in 2003 for the second time in his six- year career. He filled a major void for the Cubs last season at third base, hitting 15 homers and knocking in 39 runs in 63 games after coming over from the Pirates.
Gonzalez smacked a career-best 20 homers last season, but carried a paltry .229 batting average. He fared much better in the two slot, where his OPS was .753, over 250 points higher than when he batted seventh. Still, if Baker's spring training lineups are any indication, Gonzalez will probably find himself in the seven hole unless Patterson struggles to produce at the top of the lineup. Considering the remarkable difference in Gonzalez' numbers however, don't be surprised if Baker bats Gonzalez second and slides everyone down a notch as Patterson really flourished in the third spot ahead of Sosa last season.
The Cubs usually know what they're getting in right field from perennial All- Star Sosa. He still strikes out a lot, but should have no problem putting up his usual gaudy numbers, particularly with the extra protection Lee provides in the lineup. Sosa, who has six straight seasons with at least 40 homers and 100 RBI, has never been known for his glove in right, but his arm is still above average. Sosa's 40 homers and .279 average last year were his lowest numbers since 1997 (36, .251). He missed 25 games last season, some of them coming from his corked-bat incident.
The 24-year-old Patterson is on the verge of stardom. He was on pace to drive in 100 runs last season and his average hovered around .300 before a devastating injury ended his season. Not a pure power hitter, Patterson must concentrate on driving the ball into the alleys rather than hitting home runs. He is quick on the bases, and provided he can learn the art of stealing bases, has the potential to swipe 30 bags. Patterson also has the ability to become an exceptional defensive center fielder with good range and a strong throwing arm.
Alou isn't getting any younger in left field, but appears to be primed for another good season in the middle of the order. If he can stay healthy, the 37-year-old Alou can be expected to hit around .275 with 20 homers and 85 RBI. A clean-up man in his second year in Chicago last season, Alou could be forced into the five hole by Lee. On the field, Alou is probably most remembered for the catch he didn't make in Game 6 against the Marlins in the infamous Bartman incident.
When Maddux is your third starter it speaks volumes about what the Cubs are trying to accomplish this year. General manager Jim Hendry did a fabulous job at building the rotation to even greater heights. This is one of Chicago's best rotations ever and Maddux's signing enhanced a Baker bunch that set a major league record with 1,404 strikeouts last season.
Maddux, who started his major league career with the Cubs until leaving following a contract dispute in 1992, doesn't have the ability to go deep into games consistently as he did earlier in his career. While Maddux's ERA in 2003 (3.96) was its highest since his first full season in the big leagues (5.61), look for the savvy righthander to bounce back and be an effective change of pace for Baker behind young guns Wood and Prior. The soon-to-be 38-year-old Maddux has never been a power pitcher, instead relying on changing speeds and supreme control.
The 23-year-old Prior, in just his third campaign, more likely than not, will continue his ascension to being one of the most dominant hurlers in the game. He went 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA in 2003
The 26-year-old Wood, the major league strikeout king last year, should be able to improve upon his 14-11 mark from 2003.
Zambrano, still two months shy of his 23rd birthday, and Clement, who was 14-12 with a 4.11 ERA, are no slouches either. Much of the Cubs' success could hinge upon the slimmed-down Zambrano, who could become an exceptional pitcher if he can keep his exuberance from affecting his focus.
Joe Borowski will anchor the staff in his second season as the team's closer while free-agent acquisition LaTroy Hawkins and Kyle Farnsworth will compete for the primary right-handed setup job. Farnsworth is a fireballer that bounced back from a terrible 2002 campaign with 92 strikeouts in 76 1/3 innings in 2003. He surely will be called upon numerous times to bridge the gap from starter to Borowski.
Newcomer Kent Mercker joins fellow southpaw Mike Remlinger out of the pen as the only lefties on the entire pitching staff. Juan Cruz will serve as the long man and occasionally get penciled in as a spot starter, as will Todd Wellemeyer.
The main additions to Baker's bench in the off-season were Walker and Todd Hollandsworth, but gone are outfielder Troy O'Leary and first baseman Eric Karros. Chicago also added infielder/outfielder Jose Macias and brought back reserve infielder Ramon Martinez and catcher Paul Bako. Tom Goodwin will provide a speedy option off the bench as a fourth outfielder.
All of the aforementioned reserves are capable of being role players, but if injuries press them into the regular starting lineup, the Cubs could be in trouble as Walker is the only one with proven production as an every-day starter.
The old adage says that pitching and defense is what gets you to the promised land, and the Cubs will rely heavily on the former to successfully defend their Central Division title. If all goes according to Baker's plan, by the time teams get adjusted to the hard heat of Prior and Wood, hitters will be baffled as they try to slow their bats down to make contact with Maddux's crafty repertoire of pitches.
Still, one only has to look at last year's Los Angeles Dodgers to realize that pitching can't do it all. The Dodgers were the only team in the majors to allow less than 600 runs, but also scored the fewest runs in the league en route to finishing out of the playoffs. Teams need balance to last until the end of a rigorous 162-game schedule.
Chicago's lineup is improved over last season. Sosa, as usual, will carry the load but look for Lee and Patterson to be the key cogs in the team's success. The Cubs' faithful surely hope that injuries don't play a major role, because depth is a question. It's very possible for the Cubs to win at least 95 games in 2004, paving the way for a second consecutive playoff appearance. Standing in the way though are the Houston Astros with Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte. However, if all goes well, the famed 'Billy Goat' curse could be disbanded and the Windy City might be renamed Titletown come October.