Can the Cubs live up to their contracts?

Carlos Zambrano needs to direct his anger at hitters and live up to his huge contract

Editor’s note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the offseason of every MLB team before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series continues with the Chicago Cubs.

2010 record: 75-87
Finish: Fifth place, NL Central
2010 final payroll: $142.4 million
Estimated 2011 opening day payroll: $131 million

Offseason action

In December the Cubs signed first baseman Carlos Pena to what his agent, Scott Boras, termed a “pillow contract,” the perfect remedy for a club in hibernation for more than a century. What better, after all, than a $10 million cushion on which to lay their sleepy heads?

Since the halcyon days of 2007 and 2008 (when division titles were followed by crushing three-and-outs in the playoffs), the Cubs have been drawn deeper into the Central abyss, gravity doing its thing against the underachievers and corpulent contracts.

To make matters worse, one of their own – Ryan “The Riot” Theriot, a through and through Cub man before bouncing to the Dodgers and then the Cardinals – told a St. Louis radio station he is, “Finally on the right side of the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry.”

Alas, there was hardly an argument to be made in Chicago, where in any baseball rivalry the wrong side is generally manned by the Cubs.

If nothing else, the fifth-place finish allowed general manager Jim Hendry the opportunity to start on 2011 last summer. And by the time September rolled around, he’d shipped out lefty Ted Lilly(notes), ailing first baseman Derrek Lee(notes) and, of course, the middle infielder Theriot.

Then, long before 70-mph gales blew the roof off Wrigley Field’s press box, Hendry had signed Pena and reliever Kerry Wood(notes) and acquired right-handed starter Matt Garza(notes) in an eight-player trade with the Tampa Bay Rays. He’d also promoted Mike Quade from interim manager to the fulltime guy, replaced pitching coach and North Side whipping boy Larry Rothschild (who took a job with the New York Yankees) with minor league pitching coordinator Mark Riggins and dealt left-handed starter Tom Gorzelanny(notes) to the Washington Nationals for three prospects.

Not surprisingly, that left the Cubs with many decisions still to make, but none that had to be settled immediately. Eh, they’ll sleep on those.

Reality check

Take a below average pitching staff, supported by a below average offense, backed by a well below average defense, prop it up with the game’s fourth-highest payroll, and what the House of Ricketts received in return was another lost baseball season on the North Side.

What it also gets is the potential for more of the same, given the terms and outlays remaining on so many contracts, including those for Alfonso Soriano(notes) (four years, $72 million), Carlos Zambrano(notes) (three years, $55.2 million with vesting option), Aramis Ramirez(notes) (one year, $16.6 million – with ’12 buyout), Kosuke Fukudome(notes) (one year, $13.5 million), and Carlos Silva(notes) (one year, $13.5 million – with ’12 buyout, minus $5.5 million paid by the Seattle Mariners).

Hendry’s hopes are for bounce-backs from Soriano and Ramirez in particular, composure from Zambrano, consistency from Fukudome, larger pants from Randy Wells(notes) (“I maybe got too big for my britches,” he told Chicago reporters of his fall-back sophomore season) and some pitching options to emerge from the handful of candidates to fill out the rotation and bullpen.

Over just two years, the Cubs were caught and overrun by the Cincinnati Reds, St. Louis Cardinals and, just this offseason, the Milwaukee Brewers. Yet on the occasion of Ernie Banks’ 80th birthday, they certainly aren’t without talent or a chance.

At the risk of drawing any conclusions from an also-ran in September, the Cubs did finish capably under Quade, winning 19 of their final 29 games. And many view the AL East-toughened Garza, at 27, as an emerging ace, in spite of gopherball tendencies that might not play well at Wrigley.

Beyond Zambrano, Garza and Ryan Dempster(notes), the Cubs will identify their fourth and fifth starters from a group that includes Wells, Silva, Sean Marshall(notes), Todd Wellemeyer(notes), Braden Looper(notes), James Russell(notes) and their first-rounder from ’08, Andrew Cashner(notes).

Offensively, Pena, the man on the pillow contract, twice in the past four seasons hit at least 39 home runs, though his batting average in those four seasons has fallen from .282 to .196. His on-base and slugging percentages followed in kind.

Hendry, then, is asking a lot of players to live up to their contracts, to return to their means, and to come to their senses. Basically, to wake up and play.

Cubs in haiku

Ronnie to the Hall
It’s better than none at all
In memoriam

Next: Washington Nationals