Commentary

Dempster among the Cubs' top offseason priorities

Originally Published: November 7, 2008
By Phil Rogers | Special to ESPN.com

The Cubs, under manager Lou Piniella, returned to the playoffs for a second consecutive season. But their 100-year World Series drought continued as they were swept in the first round for the second season in a row, this time by Manny Ramirez and the Los Angeles Dodgers.

CHICAGO CUBS
GM: Jim Hendry
Manager: Lou Piniella
'08 record: 97-64, 1st in NL Central
Chicago Cubs '08 payroll: $117.9M, 8th MLB
Runs scored: 855, 1st NL
Runs allowed: 671, 15th NL
OPS: .797, 1st NL
ERA: 3.87, 3rd NL
Fielding percentage: .983, T-9th NL

With Ryan Dempster and Ted Lilly both winning 17 games, the Cubs captured the NL Central with 97 wins. Catcher Geovany Soto delivered a performance worthy of Rookie of the Year, but everything fell apart in October. The Cubs, who led the majors with a plus-184 run differential, were outscored 20-6 by the Dodgers after being outscored 16-6 by Arizona in the 2007 Division Series.

Primary needs

The flaws are in the eyes of the beholder. The Cubs have built one of the strongest teams in their history, with no glaring voids, but have gone all Alex Rodriguez in the playoffs. If they could import one ideal player, he would be a team leader with an October résumé, and it wouldn't hurt if he was a left-handed-hitting run producer, as Kosuke Fukudome failed to fill that need. Raul Ibanez is on their radar.

Free agents

RHP Ryan Dempster, RHP Kerry Wood, CF Jim Edmonds, RHP Bob Howry, OF/1B Daryle Ward, RHP Jon Lieber, RHP Chad Fox

Both Dempster and Wood are Jim Hendry loyalists who love playing at Wrigley Field, but that doesn't mean they'll be snaps to re-sign. Both have been bargains and could receive tempting offers if Hendry isn't able to keep them off the market. Edmonds filled a role in 2008 but will probably be allowed to walk to open a spot for Felix Pie. Howry could be deemed expendable.

Trade bait

Fukudome, with three years and $38 million left on his contract, is probably an immovable part. Ditto left fielder Alfonso Soriano, a repeat October offender who has six years and $106 million left on his contract. If Dempster re-signs, the Cubs could have pitching to trade, possibly Jason Marquis or left-handers Sean Marshall and Rich Hill, the latter hoping to get his career turned back around this winter in Venezuela.

Farm aid

Jeff Samardzija, the former Notre Dame wide receiver, contributed to the bullpen down the stretch and would love a shot to join the deep starting rotation. Micah Hoffpauir, a 28-year-old first baseman who has been learning to play the outfield, batted .358 with 27 homers and 108 RBIs in 104 games between Triple-A Iowa and Chicago and could be ready for a real opportunity. Jose Ceda, a Lee Smith type, is rising fast and could emerge as a set-up man if Carlos Marmol winds up in the closer's role.

Outlook

Hendry faces difficult decisions with a roster loaded with veterans with long-term, expensive contracts. He may have no choice but to stick with the same core group of players, as Carlos Zambrano, Aramis Ramirez, Derrek Lee, Soriano and Fukudome are owed a combined $289.5 million over 18 seasons. All five have no-trade clauses. The availability of Jake Peavy clearly intrigues Hendry, who is afraid of losing Dempster.

It's been almost two years since the Tribune Company announced plans to sell the team, but the deal is as cloudy as ever after Wall Street's recent retreat. Club chairman Crane Kenney embarrassed the organization by bringing in a Greek Orthodox priest to bless the Wrigley Field dugout before Game 1 of the Dodgers series. So much for Piniella's ongoing efforts to distance the Lovable Losers from their sad history.

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has its Web site at www.chicagosports.com. His book, "Say It's So," a story about the 2005 White Sox, is available in bookstores, through Amazon.com and by direct order from Triumph Books (800-222-4657).