Cubs looking to upgrade offense
GM Hendry seeking lefty slugger to balance out lineup
CHICAGO -- Cubs general manager Jim Hendry heads to the Winter Meetings with a much shorter wish list than a year ago, but that doesn't mean he'll have more time to visit the Grand Ole Opry Resort in Nashville, Tenn.
In 2006, the Cubs were one of the most active teams in the offseason, spending $300 million in signing free agents Alfonso Soriano, Ted Lilly, Jason Marquis, Mark DeRosa and Daryle Ward. The overhaul was necessary after a 96-loss '06 season. The meetings also showed how hard Hendry works. He completed the Lilly deal while undergoing an EKG at an Orlando, Fla., hospital, and then underwent an angioplasty that night.
Hendry, who changed his eating habits and upped his exercise routine since then, is hoping the team makes headlines, not him.
The Cubs won the National League Central title in the first season under manager Lou Piniella, and head to Nashville for the Winter Meetings, which begin Monday, with far fewer holes to fill.
At the top of the list is finding a left-handed power hitter to complement the very right-handed lineup, which includes Soriano, Aramis Ramirez and Derrek Lee. There's an opening in right field following the trade of Jacque Jones to the Detroit Tigers for infielder Omar Infante.
"Our initial moves, as we cleared our deck a little after the season, clearly show we'll go after a quality left-handed-hitting outfielder, either in the free-agent world or through a trade," Hendry said. "We'd also like to add some left-handed hitting on the bench or in a versatile role.
"We don't have a lot of moves, but we feel the moves we need to make are just as important as the moves we made last year," he added. "We have some inventory on the 40-man roster and we'll be prepared to make a significant trade if it comes our way with the inventory. We'll grind it out every offseason like we usually do and go to camp with a better club than last season."
The Cubs took care of one of the offseason priorities on Monday, when they signed Kerry Wood to a one-year, $4.2 million contract. Wood will compete with Bob Howry and Carlos Marmol for the closer's role, vacated by Ryan Dempster's move to the rotation. Wood compiled a 3.33 ERA in 20 relief appearances in 2007 and received several multiyear offers from other teams.
"Chicago's home, and that's where I want to be, and that's where I call home," Wood said about his decision to stay. "It was a pretty easy decision. Chicago's been great to me, and I think it's the place I want to stay and win."
The Cubs do have depth on the pitching staff with Carlos Zambrano, Lilly, Rich Hill, Marquis, Dempster, Sean Marshall, Kevin Hart and Sean Gallagher in the mix for the rotation. Hendry said he wasn't actively looking for another starter.
"To say how it will look for sure on the 14th of February when they hit the field [for the start of Spring Training], it might not be the same and it might be that group," Hendry said.
The Cubs finally head into a season with depth in the 'pen and some candidates for the long-relief role.
Hendry did meet with free-agent infielder Kaz Matsui before Thanksgiving, but Matsui has reportedly opted to sign with Houston. The Astros are in need of a regular second baseman with the retirement of Craig Biggio, while Matsui would've shared second with Mark DeRosa in Chicago.
"We've had dialogue with free agents and we've had dialogue with clubs about trading," Hendry said. "Besides having interest in Matsui, we've talked to other clubs about potentially trading for some left-handed help that play other positions besides right field. We have some ideas. But to my knowledge, nothing is imminent, and we'll try to get something done before Nashville."
Another player on the Cubs' radar is Japanese outfielder Kosuke Fukudome, who has declared free agency in Japan and may move to the Major Leagues. However, he is being courted by several Japanese teams.
Because of the pending sale of the Tribune Co., the Cubs may not have ownership in place until mid-2008. That isn't holding Hendry back.
"Like last offseason, Jim and Lou and Randy [Bush, assistant general manager] have put together a good plan," said Tribune Co. executive Crane Kenney, who has been the liaison between the ballclub and the Tribune for five-plus seasons. "We're going to get better quick, just like we did last year.
"We look forward to taking the next step from this previous season for our fans," Kenney said.
Ward will be back with the Cubs after the team exercised a mutual option, and Scott Eyre chose to stay, exercising his player option for 2008. The Cubs did decline club options on outfielder Cliff Floyd and pitcher Steve Trachsel.
Among the players who are arbitration-eligible are Neal Cotts, Mark Prior and Michael Wuertz. Prior is coming off arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder. The Cubs would like to keep him, but what complicates matters is that the right-hander will be a free agent after the 2008 season.
If the Cubs sign him to a one-year deal for 2008, and he isn't able to pitch until August, and then he choses free agency and leaves for another team, that means the Cubs would've paid him for two months. He received $3.575 million in 2007 and didn't make one start. The Cubs have invested a lot of money in Prior, and in a perfect world, a two-year deal with incentives through 2009 would make more sense. The deadline to tender arbitration-eligible players contracts is Dec. 12.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.