Hot Stove: Cubs have plenty to deal with

Hot Stove: Cubs have plenty to deal with

CHICAGO -- Finishing fourth with a sub-.500 record was tough enough without having the crosstown Chicago White Sox win the World Series to contribute to a frustrating season for the Chicago Cubs.

Cubs general manager Jim Hendry has a long list of things to do to erase bad memories of a 79-83 season. He did get a head start by signing closer Ryan Dempster to a three-year deal on Oct. 1 before the regular season ended. The Cubs also picked up the 2006 options for second baseman Todd Walker and relief pitcher Scott Williamson. They signed lefty Glendon Rusch and infielder Neifi Perez each to two-year deals. Hendry is far from finished revamping the Cubs lineup.

"We've got a lot of priorities," he said Tuesday. "We've got a lot of things that need to get better. If you start prioritizing early, then it will not enable you to get a guy like [Derrek] Lee."

Acquiring a first baseman was not on the Cubs' wish list when the Marlins approached the team about Lee, who was dealt to Chicago in November 2003. This past season, Lee won his first batting title and second Gold Glove.

"You can't say, 'I'm going to get this guy or that guy,'" Hendry said. "Sometimes those people aren't available. You have to be prepared to go in a different direction if you don't get one of those upper-echelon guys."

Hendry and his staff met last week in Phoenix to set up their game plan. Here are some of the areas to be dealt with:

1. The outfield: As of today, it's difficult to pick the three starting outfielders. The Cubs chose to not pick up Jeromy Burnitz's option, so right field is vacant. Is Matt Murton ready to be the full-time left fielder? His .321 average in his rookie season impressed the staff, and he was sent to the Arizona Fall League to get used to the mental and physical grind of a long season. And what to do with Corey Patterson? He spent two weeks reworking his swing with Minor League hitting coach Von Joshua in Arizona.

Cubs scouts will keep an eye on talented center field prospect Felix Pie, who is playing for Licey in the Dominican Republic. Pie has not played above the Double-A level, but could be very close to making the giant step to the big leagues.

2. The starting pitching: Hendry doesn't want to be caught short-handed because of injuries. Kerry Wood is progressing well following arthroscopic shoulder surgery, but the Cubs won't know if he's ready to return to the rotation until pitchers and catchers report in mid February -- and may not know then. Mark Prior has yet to pitch a full season, although his injuries have been mostly fluke incidents (line drive off his elbow, collision at second). Greg Maddux turns 40 in April, and hasn't been as effective as years past.

Jerome Williams is young, and the Cubs are hopeful he'll report to Mesa, Ariz., in shape. Add Carlos Zambrano to the mix, and the Cubs could be set. But Hendry would like to add another starter just in case. It's a cliche, but a team can never have too much pitching. The Cubs will look into the free agent market and inquire about pitchers like Kevin Millwood, A.J. Burnett and Matt Morris.

3. The middle infield: The Cubs have Walker and Perez signed, but that doesn't mean they'll be the starters on Opening Day.

"We may not be finished in player acquisitions in the infield, or we may be," Hendry said. "It depends how things shake out over the next couple months."

The Cubs also have young Ronny Cedeno, who will be playing second base and shortstop this winter in Venezuela. Nomar Garciaparra wants to play shortstop, but the Cubs are a little gun-shy after two injury-shortened seasons by the two-time batting champ. If Garciaparra was willing to switch to the outfield, he most likely would've been signed by the Cubs by now. Hendry said he planned on talking to Garciaparra's agent this week during the general manager meetings in Indian Wells, Calif.

Free agent Rafael Furcal is available, and has expressed an interest in the Cubs. Signing Furcal would take care of two matters -- leadoff and shortstop.

"He's had a great career there [in Atlanta] and he's earned the right to make the decision to stay or leave," Hendry said. "Obviously, he's a great player and if he choses not to go back, then we would have some interest."

Who will bat leadoff is an issue with the Cubs.

"The great, great leadoff hitters are very hard to find," Hendry said. "Some people have them and they stay in that role and do well. Obviously, last year our leadoff situation was among the poorest in baseball."

4. The bullpen: With Dempster set, the Cubs don't have to worry about a closer. Despite solid years by Michael Wuertz, Roberto Novoa and Will Ohman plus the return of Williamson, the 'pen can use some help. Left-hander John Koronka did not allow a run in 13 innings in relief in the Arizona Fall League and will be considered for a bullpen spot next year.

5. The bench: Perez could be on the bench, or he could be a starter. It depends on who else the team adds. Also on the wish list is another left-handed bat.

If the White Sox did anything, it's prove the importance of good starting pitching, defense, and teamwork. That's good baseball. The Cubs will have some money to spend. Their projected payroll will again be around $100 million, and they should have about $30 million to work with. Plus, they will not be restricted because of money owed to Sammy Sosa, which should make things easier for Hendry.

"I think it'll be a challenging situation because I don't think there is a ton of depth in some areas in free agency," Hendry said of his offseason workload. "I hope the rest of the industry feels that way and it will be a more active trading market. Maybe it'll be more of a potential trade market than people lining up to buy free agents."

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.