Why I Like This Cubs Team. . .

. . .with Jim Hendry on the hot seat: Subtract Mark DeRosa. Add Milton Bradley. Subtract Kerry Wood. Add Kevin Gregg. Add no starting pitching. Revamp the bullpen and make it worse. One bad decision after another. Often mentioned as an Executive of the Year candidate, Hendry should be lucky to escape as an executive FOR the year —  unless he delivers a shakeup, and soon.
 . . .with Ted Lilly and Randy Wells on the mound: The veteran and the rookie give professional performances every time out. Wells is a converted catcher getting a fast and hard trial in the big leagues, and he’s been the Cubs’ top pitcher since his callup — despite receiving absolutely no run support. Lilly will forever be The Man Who Should Have Pitched in the 2008 playoffs. As for the rest: Carlos Zambrano has the million-dollar arm and five-cent head, as Crash Davis would have said. Ryan Dempster looks like he would better serve the Cubs as their closer (again) instead of as a starter. Rich Harden looks like a permanent DL fixture. Sean Marshall is starting to look like he could join a long line of young pitching ruined by pitching coach Larry Rothschild.
 . . .with Micah Hoffpauir on first: The kid (OK, he’s 29) can hit, and he can hit in the clutch. Watch him go the opposite way in RBI situations, as Keith Hernandez and Mark Grace used to do. He’s the needed left-handed run-producer in the lineup, and the power will come. Notice how Derrek Lee’s hitting has improved with the added time off provided by the “unofficial” platooning at first, although the power seems to be slipping away.
 . . .with Milton Bradley on the DL: At least  he can’t make a fool of himself there. Ugh.

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“Ohio”

That’s phonetic Japanese for greeting someone warmly –- as in: "Hello, how are you, can you play right field, get on base and hit with at least little power?"

The Cubs are hoping for many assertive nods of agreement from Kosuke Fukudome, who brings good career numbers and a surgically repaired elbow from Japan for somewhere around $50 million over four years. He’s penciled in for right field, in front of new signage written in Japanese, but the Cubs have to have their fingers crossed that he can also play center field.

Adding a left-handed bat is supposed to be critical to improving the Cubs’ lineup, and it certainly can’t hurt. But without spending a week crunching numbers, my gut tells me the Cubs’ problem has more to do with how they swing the bat instead of which side they swing the bat from. Their big hitters are almost comical against pitchers who change speeds and throw breaking balls. No patience, no willingness to work the count, no real skills in hitting to the opposite field (which now comes under the heading of "situational hitting"). Maybe Fukudome can add some of those ingredients. Anybody remember the sacrifice fly, for example?

But now the question of the day is Mark Prior, and "whatever it takes" to get him signed should be approximately the tax rate on Fukudome’s deal. It’s all Monopoly money, anyway. A couple of years at $4 million a year is next to nothing in baseball’s steroid-inflated currency. In any event, it’s not good business to let a 27-year-old right arm just walk away with nothing in return, without even offering a reasonable deal with some chance of connecting. Baseball is all about risk with upside, and Prior’s arm has lots of upside that’s worth significant risk.

My own bias is always in favor of pitching, never giving it away if you don’t have to. Even if it spends half the season on the disabled list. Maybe I’m just a ****** for pitching, but a guy who won 18 games at age 23 always looks good to me, as long as his arm is still attached to his shoulder. Plus, last year’s results are essentially the best of what you’re going to see on the mound from Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis. Maybe Rich Hill still has some upside to go, but that staff as a whole is not likely to make big leaps over last year. Prior has more upside than anyone else the Cubs could move in or move up.

Pitchers and catchers report in two months. Ichiban. Domo arrigato.

Tender time

Wednesday is the deadline for "tendering" or "non-tendering," the curious baseball terminology for offering a player a contract. So this might be the last opportunity to say that cutting loose Mark Prior would be dumb, dumb, dumb for the Cubs.

You just don’t give up on an arm that good. Prior is only 27 years old – he is almost exactly 15 months older than Carlos Zambrano. Whatever propaganda the Cubs have been spreading through the media for the last couple of years, and whatever the hints they’re trying to drop now, Prior has had two horrific baseball injuries. Both were from memorable on-the-field smashups: the Brad Hawpe line drive that broke his elbow, and the Marcus Giles collision near second base that wrecked his shoulder.

We’re talking about a pitcher who was a legitimate Cy Young Award contender in 2003 (18-6, 2.43 ERA, 245 strikeouts in 211 innings). Prior’s strikeouts-to-walks ratio is better than 3-to-1 for his career (757 strikeouts, 223 walks in 657 innings).

Cutting Prior loose would be shockingly, incredibly dumb. Given what the Cubs endure every day with Zambrano; given what they are paying Alfonso Soriano; given what they paid Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis a year ago; and given what they’re probably willing to pay for Kosuke Fukudome from Japan – given all that, Prior is a bargain at whatever the cost of a new contract.

Cubs GM Jim Hendry already looks like he’s coasting in this offseason. Now the question is whether he’s also heading downhill.

Slow start to offseason

Just as they started off cold last season, the Cubs look suspiciously like they are starting off cold in the offseason. While the winter meetings are still more than a week away, and spring training is about 12 weeks away, the Cubs and GM Jim Hendry already have been non-participants in several moves that could have offered significant upgrades.

Shortstop Edgar Renteria went from Atlanta to Detroit right after the World Series. Free agent center fielder Torii Hunter has now signed with the Angels. Free agent closer Francisco Cordero (44 saves with Milwaukee) is headed to Cincinnati, for Dusty Baker’s expected one-year-wonder in turning around of the Reds. Since the Reds led the world in blown saves last year, Cordero by himself could close much of the gap between the Reds and the top of the middling talent in the NL Central. And how about the White Sox picking up shortstop Orlando Cabrera from the Angels?

There’s been a little addition by subtraction for the Cubs, with Cliff Floyd, Jacque Jones, and Craig Monroe moving on. The outdated playing field infrastructure has been renovated. But team president John McDonough has moved on, to preside over the revamping Blackhawks. And no word that a sale is any closer to being completed.

Let’s hope for some news – any news will do, besides Barry Bonds being indicted and Alex Rodriguez making himself and Scott Boras look silly. The offseason is already dragging, and winter is closing in. Let’s hope the Cubs will start heating things up a little. You can’t have a Hot Stove League without feeding the fire.

Reflections and speculations

The free agent frenzy officially begins on Tuesday, and believe it or not, there actually are questions beyond which team will sign Scott Boras.

Yes, anyone signing A-Rod is actually signing Boras, because A-Rod works for Boras and not the other way around. Boras will want 10 years with the ability to opt out of the contract any time he wants. Don’t worry: Boras always finds somebody ready and willing to sign his regular-season big-numbers guy, who seems to get severe dry-mouth in October. Then he wants another $100 million.

It’s a game, if not a scam. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice….

Cubs GM Jim Hendry already missed a shot at a solid shortstop when Edgar Renteria went from Atlanta to Detroit for a couple of good prospects. Now Hendry’s best free agent options for shoring up his middle infield are at second base, where Colorado’s Kaz Matsui or the Mets’ Luis Castillo could offer an upgrade to a needed everyday doubleplay combination. Incumbent Mark DeRosa is better as a super-utility player, though he might also be the best right fielder on the Cubs roster right now.

On the other hand, is Hendry still after shortstop Rafael Furcal, who he wanted to sign last year? Furcal’s availability would seem to depend on the Dodgers signing A-Rod and installing him at shortstop. Dodgers GM Ned Colletti might prefer to deal for Florida’s Miguel Cabrera to fill the hole at third base, although Cabrera has been putting on weight by the sackful in the last tree years and will want a gazillion to sign a long-term deal. His numbers are pretty good, though.

How good are Hendry’s connections in Japan? He could do some one-stop shopping for a pitcher – righthander Daisuke Yamai — and a right fielder – Kosuke Fukudome. Yamai pitched eight perfect innings for the Chunichi Dragons in the final game of the Japan Series (Hitoke Iwasi closed out a perfect ninth inning for the championship). Fukudome, 30, is a left-handed doubles hitter and RBI guy with a high on-base percentage, along with a big-time arm in the outfield. Japanese players are usually sound in fundamentals, which would be a welcome change on the Cubs.

There are four top free agent center fielders available: Torii Hunter, Andruw Jones, Aaron Rowand and Mike Cameron (who starts the 2008 season with a 25-game suspension for taking what sounds like an amphetamine). And Vernon Wells might be available by trade. With that market, do the Cubs really want to take the chance that Jacque Jones will be their opening day center fielder by default? What if Felix Pie can’t shorten his swing and still looks like a non-hitter?

The speculation about Ryan Dempster becoming a starter next year doesn’t solve anything, unless the Cubs are going after somebody like Milwaukee closer Francisco Cordero. Two pitchers the Cubs absolutely need to sign: Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. They can’t be dim enough to let Wood walk and/or low-ball Prior as an invitation to leave. You don’t give up on guys who can throw like that, although the Cubs have spent a lot of time and effort trying to make Prior look like a head case. But even if he is, he has that bolt of lightning for a right arm. Dumping Prior would be dumb, dumb, dumb.

Is Florida really considering a trade of lefty Dontrelle Willis? If so, the Cubs can begin talks with two lefties to offer, Rich Hill and Sean Marshall. Willis had an off-year for a foundering Florida franchise, but he’s another guy with an arm to covet. Especially since the Cubs originally had him and gave him away.

Take it to the bank: Scott Rolen plays third base somewhere other than St. Louis next season. A Minnesota rumor has popped up, but don’t count out the Yankees. Or Boston, if Mike Lowell wants a longer deal than the Red Sox want to give him. Lowell will be 34 in February. Remember when 34 seemed old?

Good news: Less than 100 days until Spring Training.

The offseason begins

Rockies in six: Now that was a great call, eh?

Nobody was going to beat the Red Sox the way they were playing. If they weren’t already making all kinds of money, you’d say they were "money players," like the Yankees of the 1950s. Maybe it’s even more impressive that the Red Sox were as focused and determined as they played in the World Series, without needing the checks to pay the rent. Their dominating run actually goes back to the back-to-back-to back home runs by Kevin Youkilis, David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez in the last game they lost to Cleveland in the ALCS.

The quality of the pitching was obvious, but even more impressive than the overall hitting was the fact that the Red Sox didn’t have a single weak at-bat in the entire World Series. Even the Game 3 starting pitcher, Daisuke Matsuzaka, came up with a hit and drove in two runs after having only four at-bats in the entire regular season. Boston hitting coach Dave Magadan has to deserve a lot of credit.

Looking ahead for Boston, there are a couple of decisions which will have an impact around baseball. Obviously, the first is whether the Red Sox jump into the bidding on Alex Rodriguez. Don’t forget, they actually had acquired A-Rod from Texas before he ended up with the Yankees, but Boston’s contract realignment didn’t meet the specs from MLB’s legal eagles.

Can anyone imagine the numbers to be thrown around with A-Rod already making $25 million a year? Agent Scott Boras has A-Rod and Andruw Jones in his free-agent lineup. Question: does he work for his players, or do his players work for him?

Back to the Red Sox: Do they lock up third baseman Mike Lowell, a pro’s pro? Why would you not re-sign him after the year and the playoffs that he had? Do you bring back Curt Schilling (attn: Cubs), or do you make the transition to one of the strong young arms on the staff like Jon Lester or Clay Bucholz? Do you look for an upgrade at shorstop, although Julio Lugo (attn: Cubs) was terrific in the Series after a so-so-season? Do you dangle Coco Crisp (attn: Cubs and White Sox), with Jacoby Ellsbury looking like a sure winner in center field? Do you start looking for a young catcher to ease in behind Jason Varitek, or do you stick with Doug Mirabelli as the designated backstop for knuckleballer Tim Wakefield?

There’s at least one interesting question in Colorado as well: The Rockies seem to have three capable centerfielders (attn: Cubs and White Sox). None showed up well in the Series, but then none of the Rockies did besides rookie pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez. Among Willy Taveras, Ryan Spilborghs and Cory Sullivan, who stays and who moves along in center field? But overall, how would you like to go into next season with the Rockies’ lineup, especially now that they’ve seen the Promised Land?

There are now less than 110 days until Spring Training in 2008. Now we’ll see what the Cubs have in mind.

Then again…

That pick — Colorado in six — doesn’t look so good today, does it? Well, that’s why they play the games. Let’s hope it actually becomes a serious Series.

But now you have do have to be serious about Josh Beckett as a Big Game Pitcher. Dominating the way he dominated Game 1 elevates him to an elite level in the World Series.

Tonight, after James Taylor sings the National Anthem, we’ll find out whether Game 1 was a wakeup call or a knockout punch for Colorado. Coming away from Fenway with a split would make it a totally different Series for Colorado. The Rockies are still a very good baseball team, but they’ll need to start hitting against Curt Schilling tonight. If the Red Sox get to rookie Ubaldo Jimenez right away, it could be another long night on the way to a short Series. Which, after the long wait, would be too bad.