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Cubs aim to build on opening salvo at Meetings

Cubs aim to build on opening salvo at Meetings

Cubs aim to build on opening salvo at Meetings
CHICAGO -- Once again, the Cubs head into the offseason looking for more balance in the lineup, and this year, they got a headstart by signing free agent David DeJesus before the Winter Meetings.

A left-handed hitter with a career .292 average against right-handers, DeJesus is projected as the Cubs' starting right fielder. When he does, it'll be his first game ever at Wrigley Field. He's spent his career with the Royals and Athletics.

That's one item Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer can check off their to-do list. Epstein, the Cubs' president of baseball operations, and Hoyer, the new general manager, took care of their No. 1 item by hiring Dale Sveum as manager.

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Now, their attention shifts to the roster. They want to improve the defense -- and DeJesus will help -- as well as fill some openings in the rotation. They're looking for another left-handed bat, most likely at first base. DeJesus is another attempt at finding that perfect lefty bat for right field. Remember Jeromy Burnitz, Jacque Jones, Milton Bradley, and even Kosuke Fukudome?

During the next week, there will be plenty of rumors linking the Cubs with prime free agents Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder. It's hard to imagine the team committing to anyone on a long-term contract; it's still saddled with three years, $54 million remaining on Alfonso Soriano's deal. But the only thing certain about Epstein and Hoyer is their unpredictability.

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"As I've stated in the past, we're a major market team and we're going to be involved across the spectrum," Hoyer said of the rumors regarding the team and Fielder and Pujols. "I'm not going to address whether we're on or off individual players other than the fact that we're in contact with a lot of teams and a lot of agents and we're doing everything we can to improve the team for next year and the future."

Baseball executives get together in Dallas for the Winter Meetings next week. Let the fun begin.

Club needs:

Starting pitching: Matt Garza, Ryan Dempster and Randy Wells will be back. Carlos Zambrano is a huge question mark. Jeff Samardzija would like a spot in the rotation. There isn't much depth in the farm system, and if the Cubs learned anything from last season, it's that you can never have enough starting pitching. They entered Spring Training with eight possible starters, and had to scramble when Andrew Cashner and Wells were hurt.

First base: Carlos Pena did deliver 28 homers and 80 RBIs, and his .225 average was an improvement over the .196 he hit in 2010, but he batted .175 with runners in scoring position. Bryan LaHair, 29, was named Pacific Coast League Most Valuable Player after hitting a franchise-record 38 home runs and driving in 109 for Triple-A Iowa. Is LaHair ready for the big leagues full time? Epstein has said he believes some players simply need a chance. The Cubs could take their chances with LaHair, who played in Venezuela this offseason, or search for someone else.

Third base: Aramis Ramirez is gone, searching for a three-year deal with a contender. He's the top third baseman in the free-agent market. The Cubs do have young infielders in the system in Josh Vitters, DJ LeMahieu and Junior Lake, but can any of them produce the 20-plus homers and 90-plus RBIs Ramirez contributed in six of his eight seasons in Chicago?

Who they can or need to trade:

Zambrano: The righty can be dominating and, five days later, infuriating. The Cubs would accept the good Zambrano, but he has some fences to mend. He was embarrassed after his outing Aug. 12, which is why he left the ballpark and told teammates he was retiring. That was his last start for the Cubs this past season. Epstein laid down the rules in a face-to-face meeting in Chicago, telling Zambrano he had to earn his way back. The Cubs do need pitching, but not the distractions. If Epstein could convince another team to take the right-hander, who is owed $18 million next year, and could get Zambrano to agree to go (he has a full no-trade clause), the Cubs would part ways.

Soriano: The outfielder, who turns 36 in January, did drive in 88 runs, his best RBI total in five seasons with the Cubs. But it also was the second season in which he batted fifth or lower rather than leadoff. He also hit .244 (.238 with runners on base). He's owed $54 million over the next three seasons. If the Cubs could get his contract off the books, it would certainly help Epstein and Hoyer.

Top prospects:

OFs Brett Jackson and Matt Szczur; SS Lake; 3B Vitters; 2B/3B LeMahieu; Cs Welington Castillo and Steve Clevenger; and Ps Chris Carpenter and Jeff Beliveau.

Jackson's arrival is the most anticipated. He batted .256 at Double-A Tennessee, but responded when bumped up to Triple-A Iowa, hitting .297 in 48 games with 13 doubles, 10 homers and six stolen bases. Castillo can hit (.286, 15 homers at Iowa); Clevenger is moving up quickly (.295 at Tennessee; .407 at Iowa). Lake and Vitters both played well in the Arizona Fall League, and Vitters' versatility was tested, as he played first, third and the outfield.

Big contracts they might unload:

Zambrano is owed $18 million next season and has a full no-trade clause. Soriano is owed $54 million over three years.

Arbitration eligible: Jeff Baker, Blake DeWitt, Garza, Koyie Hill, Geovany Soto, Wells.

Payroll summation:

The Cubs head into the Winter Meetings with about $73 million committed to seven players. With Ramirez off the books, the Cubs have some wiggle room. The 2011 payroll was $134 million, and they are not expected to go over that figure next year. When Epstein took over the Red Sox after the 2002 season, he signed David Ortiz to a one-year, $1.25 million deal and Bill Mueller to a $2.1 million deal. Mueller won the batting title in '03, and Ortiz became Big Papi, hitting 31 homers and driving in 101 runs. Epstein & Co. need to find that kind of magic again.

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.

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