Chicago hope hinges on health

Steve Henson
Yahoo Sports

Editor's note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the offseason of every MLB team before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series is in reverse order of team quality and continues at No. 9 with the Chicago Cubs.

2009 record: 83-78
2009 finish: Second place, National League Central
2009 final payroll: $141 million
Estimated 2010 opening-day payroll: $140 million

OFFSEASON ACTION

The Cubs' offseason was noteworthy not for what the team acquired but for what it shed: Milton Bradley(notes) and the Tribune Co. In exchange, Chicago picked up Marlon Byrd(notes), Tom Ricketts and a spring training facility to be built later.

New outfielder Byrd might not have Bradley's pop (then again, he might: Byrd hit a career-high 20 home runs for Texas in 2009 while the injury- and outburst-prone Bradley hit only 12). New owner Tom Ricketts might not have Tribune's corporate heft (then again, who needed an ownership group better known for gutting world-class newspapers than for fielding a winning baseball team?). But a club that had reached its boiling point will cool to a simmer, and everybody can get back to lamenting no World Series title in 102 years.

Not that optimism will prevail at HoHoKam Park this spring, despite the recent decision of the Mesa, Ariz., city council to spend $84 million on a new training complex for the Cubs near the current one. The team isn't any better than it was a year ago. Healthier, perhaps. But not better.

General manager Jim Hendry remains saddled by one of baseball's most extravagant contracts, the eight-year, $136 million deal he handed left fielder Alfonso Soriano(notes) before the 2007 season. In all its back-loaded glory, the contract will pay the hobbling slugger $18 million each of the next five seasons.

Six other players will be paid between $12 million and $17.75 million in 2010: Underperforming outfielder Kosuke Fukudome(notes), first baseman Derrek Lee(notes), third baseman Aramis Ramirez(notes) and starting pitchers Carlos Zambrano(notes), Ryan Dempster(notes) and Ted Lilly(notes).

No wonder Hendry had to be frugal simply to keep payroll around the $140 million mark, bringing in Byrd and Xavier Nady(notes) to compete in the outfield. Nady is recovering from a shoulder injury and might not be ready for defensive duty by the start of the season.

The only other significant acquisition was Greg Maddux(notes), who, alas, won't take the ball every fifth day but will serve as an advisor to Hendry.

REALITY CHECK

While the NL Central isn't exactly a dominant division, every team except the Pirates takes a strong stab at the title periodically. By basically standing pat, the Cubs are projected to again finish behind the Cardinals and could have trouble holding off the Brewers and Reds.

That first World Series title since 1908? Dream on.

At least fans – and players – soon will have more to distract them from the futility than ivy-covered walls. Among Ricketts' first moves as owner were to green light a remodel of the home clubhouse complete with a players' lounge and build an ice skating rink outside Wrigley Field for fans.

On the field, everything must fall in place for manager Lou Piniella's team to make the playoffs. Starting pitching could be fine if Zambrano and Lilly are healthy. Ryan Dempster and Randy Wells(notes) are set, and a decent fifth starter should emerge from a group that includes Jeff Samardzija(notes), Sean Marshall(notes), Tom Gorzelanny(notes) and Carlos Silva(notes). Walk-prone Carlos Marmol(notes) will be the closer, without competition for the first time.

Offensively, getting full seasons out of Soriano, Ramirez and Lee is key. Catcher Geovany Soto(notes) has dropped 40 pounds since waddling his way to a .218 batting average last season and might be poised for a return to his Rookie of the Year form of 2008. The Cubs' defense will be average at best.

Average, in fact, sums up the Cubs. And $140 million is a lot to pay for average.

Cubs in Haiku
Newest addition
to Billy Goat/Bartman curse:
Soriano deal

Next: Atlanta Braves