The Cubs had high hopes for Kosuke Fukudome when he arrived in 2007, but he hasn't provided the same pop he did in Japan. Milton Bradley was supposed to be the guy in '09, and he was shipped to the Mariners after one tumultuous season. In the last few years, they've tried Jeromy Burnitz, Fred McGriff, Jacque Jones, Hee-Seop Choi, and even Matt Stairs.
This offseason, Cubs general manager Jim Hendry is once again looking for the perfect left-handed, middle-of-the-order hitter. If he's a first baseman, that solves two problems. When Derrek Lee joined the Cubs in 2004, Hendry didn't have to think about a replacement or even a backup first baseman. With Lee gone via trade and backups Xavier Nady (free agency) and Micah Hoffpauir (Japan) off the roster, the Cubs find themselves with a big hole.
Is there a lefty who can fit in the Cubs' budget? We may find out at the Winter Meetings, which officially begin Monday in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
Although many fans and even Cubs pitcher Carlos Zambrano would like to see Adam Dunn's big bat in the lineup, the team will likely lean more toward a more economical and defensive infielder. Shortstop Starlin Castro is coming off a 27-error rookie season. Not only do the Cubs want a left-handed bat, but someone who can catch the ball. Lee, a three-time Gold Glove winner, spoiled them.
The Cubs aren't limited to thrift store shopping, but do have to be more cost-concious. They have $103 million committed to players next year, plus Jeff Baker, Koyie Hill, Carlos Marmol, Sean Marshall, Tom Gorzelanny, and Geovany Soto are on the arbitration-eligible list. Those six players combined made $6.125 million in 2010. Expect a final '11 payroll around $130 million.
First base isn't the only concern. Although the Cubs appear to have plenty of depth pitching-wise, they would like another innings-eating starter and an experienced right-handed reliever. Don't look for Hendry to be waiting in line to court free agent Cliff Lee.
Why more pitching? There are too many questions regarding the rotation. Carlos Silva, acquired last December from the Mariners for Bradley, surprised the Cubs with his strong start. Will he do it again? Randy Wells will be entering his third season, which means no more talk about a sophomore jinx. Will he be more consistent? Lefty Tom Gorzelanny wants to start but may be better suited to a relief role, similar to what Sean Marshall has done. Would he accept that?
The Cubs do have youngsters waiting in the wings in Casey Coleman, Chris Archer and Chris Carpenter (not the Cardinals' ace, but a 25-year-old right-hander who was a third-round pick in 2008). The reality is, they will likely start in the Minors in 2011.
There was a youth movement in the bullpen, with 12 rookie pitchers utilized in 2010. There's also been talk about veteran Kerry Wood returning to the bullpen, but he's coming off a season in which he was paid $10.5 million. At that price, he's not in the Cubs' budget.
Cubs manager Mike Quade knows he'll have several young faces in the mix when he opens his first Spring Training camp in Mesa, Ariz., this February. Given a two-year deal after guiding the team to a 24-13 record in the final six weeks, Quade has plenty of energy, a good work ethic and baseball smarts. But right now, he faces the same problem Lou Piniella did at the start of the 2010 season, which is how to find playing time for talented outfielder Tyler Colvin.
The Cubs' first choice is to keep Colvin in the outfield, even though he has played some first base in high school and college. They could open the 2011 season with Colvin, Fukudome, Alfonso Soriano and Marlon Byrd trying to squeeze into three spots.
Soriano, who turns 35 in January, accepted moving to the No. 6 hole and that he needs days off to stay fresh. Byrd also was banged up at the end of the year and may need more breathers. Colvin could be asked to sub at first, and Quade can then rotate everybody to provide enough at-bats so everyone's happy and productive. It could work.
But Hendry still needs to find the right lefty.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.