The Cubs finished last year on a disappointing note by sliding out of the Wild Card race in the season's final week. Fingers pointed in a number of directions. The bullpen imploded. Where was the clutch hitting? Where was Sosa during the last game of the year? Regardless of who you blame, coming within five outs of the World Series as the team did in 2003 and then not making the playoffs the next year left a very bitter taste in the mouths of many fans. General Manager Jim Hendry's approach has been to rid the clubhouse of any possible distractions and what's left is a team that can still contend in the Central division if it stays healthy.
Right-handed pitcher Matt Clement (free agent); Left fielder Moises Alou (free agent); Right fielder Sammy Sosa (trade); OF Tom Goodwin (free agent); 2B Mark Grudzielanek (free agent); C Paul Bako (free agent); RHP Kyle Farnsworth (trade)
1: LF Jerry Hairston Jr.
2: 2B Todd Walker
3: SS Nomar Garciaparra
4: 3B Aramis Ramirez
5: RF Jeromy Burnitz
6: 1B Derrek Lee
7: CF Corey Patterson
8: C Michael Barrett
Last year's team had no problem hitting the long ball – the Cubs hit 235 homers, setting a franchise record. But home runs did not always equal wins and too many of the team's home runs came with no one on base. That plus a lack of clutch hitting proved be the team's main offensive weakness. Hoping to help cure that problem this year will be Todd Walker stepping into an everyday role. During the May and June when he was filling in for Grudzielanek, Walker had one of the highest on-base percentages on the team and Dusty Baker hopes that having him near the top of the order helps score more runs.
At last month's Cubs Convention Baker mentioned that as of that moment Patterson was still the team's leadoff man, but with the addition of Hairston Jr., that could change. Perhaps Baker missed the final month of the season when Patterson all but destroyed a number of key rallies with an untimely strikeout. Whether Patterson develops the mental state of a leadoff hitter is the one of the team's biggest question marks, but odds are Hairston Jr. may get a chance to leadoff.
This year's lineup will depend heavily on a healthy Nomar and Aramis to help carry the offensive load. They'll be helped out by Lee, and Burnitz, who replaces Sosa in right field. He will be expected to replace what was a powerful outfield with Alou' 39 home runs and Sosa's 35.
Rounding out the lineup is Barrett who, until the final few weeks of the season, was a nice surprise offensively for the Cubs.
C Henry Blanco
IF Jerry Hairston Jr.
IF Neifi Perez
IF Jose Macias
OF Jason Dubois
Signing Blanco to backup Barrett so far has been the lone big addition to the team's bench. Blanco has had success in the past and should serve as a more than capable replacement for Barrett, but the rest of the bench is questionable. Hollandsworth has been a solid pinch hitter and fourth outfielder, when he's healthy, and Perez was a pleasant surprise towards the end of last year filling in for an injured Garciaparra, but both player's career trends show that they can't be trusted in much more than a reserve role.
RH Kerry Wood
RH Mark Prior
RH Greg Maddux
Regardless of the potential holes in their lineup, most Cubs fans sleep easier at night knowing that the team has one of the best starting rotations in baseball.
Kerry Wood and Mark Prior both are coming off disappointing and injury-filled seasons. Wood never quite hit his stride and ended up with only 8 wins, and Prior only showed his brilliance the last few weeks of the season — highlighted by a brilliant 16-strikeout performance against the Reds in the final week. A healthy season for both is imperative this year if the Cubs hope to stay in contention.
Zambrano had a breakout season last year and earned a number of votes in the CY Young balloting. He was among the league leaders with a 2.75 ERA but showed occasional lapses in concentration and had a habit of letting his fiery temper get the best of him. But as he gets older (he's only 24) and gains more experience, Zambrano will continue to scare opposing batters.
Long-time Maddux critics are eager to point to 2005 as the year he finally fails to reach 15 wins. Maybe that will happen or maybe it won't, but the Cubs can count on Maddux to be the symbol of professionalism and class on a team that occasionally forgot about that. Maddux struggled to find a groove at the beginning of last year but ended up sharing the team lead with 16 wins along with Zambrano even with his highest ERA in 17 years.
Rusch will have a chance in Spring Training to earn the fifth spot in the rotation and if he pitches the way he did last year, there's no reason to think he won't earn it.
MR Latroy Hawkins
MR Joe Borowski
LR John Leicester
The Cubs failed to sign a closer this off season and instead stressed that their closer was already on the team. But just who that person is, no one knows. It could be Hawkins, who closed for the team after Borowski went down with arm problems. Hawkins didn't particularly shine during his stint as closer — especially in the final week when he blew a number of key saves. If he can return to the setup role he is much better suited for, and more comfortable in, Hawkins should provide more than adequate middle relief.
Another possibility is Dempster, who has never closed before. He looks like he might have the best chance and publicly has stated he's interested in the role.
Borowski was fantastic in 2003, and seems to be getting written off after an injury plauged '04, but could be a sleeper candidate although he too had problems early last year.
BIGGEST QUESTION MARK:
Who will it be? It's unsettling to many fans that this issue has not been fully addressed after the team suffered so much from failed save situations last year. Finding a trustworthy closer should have been Hendry's primary concern and, so far, it hasn't been.
Is it possible for a former MVP and Batting Champion to be a breakout player? In this situation, yes. Nomar showed flashes of brilliance in his few months with the team last year before he went do with an injury, but the team is in desperate need of a huge year from the shortstop. And he's more than capable of delivering. Eager to prove his detractors wrong — and to guarantee himself a fat contract he missed out on last year — he should thrive at the Friendly Confines.
Right now the Cubs are no longer the favorites to win the division — and that may be a very good thing. This is not a team that does well as the favorite and may thrive in a sleeper role. If the starting rotation stays healthy, if the closer situation sorts itself out, and if Hendry is able to add a powerful bat to the outfield the Cubs should be able to contend with the best of them. But then again, those are a lot of "if's"….