Taking care of business In a story that will go down in Winter Meetings history, Cubs general manager Jim Hendry agreed to terms with pitcher Ted Lilly while Hendry was hooked up to an EKG machine in an Orlando hospital on Dec. 6. Later that night Hendry had an angioplasty performed.
Bush league On Dec. 21 the Cubs promoted Randy Bush to the newly created position of assistant to Hendry. The Cubs insist this move was in the works since early October and had nothing to do with Hendry's health scare at the Winter Meetings.
Shoot first When Hendry (now 51) was 6, he first saw Lou Piniella play high school basketball in Florida. Last October he hired Piniella as the Cubs manager. Hendry said Piniella was a star on the hardwood and averaged 30 points per game. Piniella said: "I was the designated shooter. Thou shalt not pass."
Cub Nation shrinking While the announced home attendance was more than 3 million for the third year in a row, there were an astounding number of no-shows in August and September for the last-place Cubs. Also, television viewership went down to the point where their ratings were lower than the White Sox for the first time in more than two decades.
Ryno's the boss Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg has his eyes on managing at the big-league level and took the first step when he accepted the job as skipper of Class-A Peoria. The legend had not been involved on the minor-league level since 1981. But he says he is looking forward to some of the long bus rides. "A lot of people have to pay money to ride the bus and I get to do it for free. ... It's a part of the fun," Sandberg says.
Name game The Cubs removed the last names from their home jerseys in 2005 and 2006. But the names are scheduled to return in 2007.
In concert In 2005, Wrigley Field hosted a pair of Jimmy Buffett concerts during the Labor Day weekend. Plans are in the works for a pair of Fourth of July concerts with the Dave Matthews Band at the park. A significant portion of the profits goes directly to the Cubs.
Diaper dandies The Cubs used 16 rookies in 2006, including nine pitchers. Rookie pitchers started 78 games with the Cubs last year, which was the second most in the majors to Florida (95). With the exception of Rich Hill, it's a long shot for the other young starters to crack the rotation in 2007.
K club Cubs pitchers fanned 1,250 batters in 2006 to lead the majors in strikeouts for the sixth straight season. The last team to lead the majors in K's six years in a row was the Dodgers, who did it seven consecutive times from 1957-63.
The Cubs will find out if $300 million can go as far as it used to. They finished 66-96 in 2006, good for last place in the National League Central, and between hiring manager Lou Piniella, signing some of their own free agents (including Aramis Ramirez to a five-year, $75 million deal) and other free agents on the market (including Alfonso Soriano for eight years at $136 million) the Cubs are hoping to turn things around.
Critics say the Cubs have spent money foolishly, but general manager Jim Hendry disagrees.
"The people we put large investments in are great, great players," Hendry says. "I don't think there is anyone in the world who wouldn't want to have Alfonso on the team or Aramis."
There will be big money and big expectations for a team that hasn't won a World Series for 98 straight seasons.
Carlos Zambrano is a proven ace. But after that, the rotation is full of question marks. Ted Lilly (four years, $40 million) is coming off one of the best seasons of his career with Toronto but has a 59-58 lifetime mark. Jason Marquis (three years, $21 million) was 14-16 with a 6.02 ERA for St. Louis last year and hopes that pitching coach Larry Rothschild could help him reverse that trend. Left-handed youngster Rich Hill showed signs of brilliance in August and September, but he hasn't yet pitched a full season in the majors. And the No. 5 pitcher could either be sore-shouldered Mark Prior or sore-shouldered Wade Miller. Youngsters who picked up valuable playing time such as Sean Marshall and Juan Mateo could also vie for the final spot or be on call if the Cubs suffer the vast injury problems they've encountered over the past three seasons.
Ryan Dempster will get the first shot at closing despite the fact that he went 1-9, blew nine save opportunities and did not record a save after Aug. 14. Kerry Wood heads to the bullpen after enduring numerous arm injuries the past three campaigns, and fans are thirsting for the fireballer to get a shot at closing. But the Cubs will have to see how much his arm can withstand before making that type of switch. Left-hander Scott Eyre (3.38 ERA in 2006) and right-hander Bob Howry (3.17) will return as the setup men. If Dempster falters and Wood doesn't appear to be ready to close, Howry could be in line to take over.
Cesar Izturis had hamstring injuries in 2006 and didn't show Cubs fans very much after he was acquired for Greg Maddux on July 31. But he is billed as one of the top defensive shortstops in the game and has a Gold Glove Award to prove it. Second baseman Mark DeRosa hasn't had consistent work at a single position in his career, but the Cubs feel he can be their regular second baseman for the next three years.
Ramirez was criticized for his lack of hustle on some plays both on offense and defense and for his struggles in April and May after first baseman Derrek Lee broke his right wrist. But Ramirez finished with a .291 batting average and a career high in homers (38) and RBIs (119). Lee, on the disabled list for the first time during his major-league career, was limited to 50 games but should be back in the dominant form he displayed in 2005.
This area is in a state of flux. Soriano, who can hit 40 homers and steal 40 bases and played left field for Washington last season, won't play center, according to Piniella. The Cubs could move Soriano to right and place Jacque Jones in center. But there is also a chance Jones, who reportedly requested a trade after 2006 season, could be dealt, which would open the door for top position prospect Felix Pie to make his major league debut in center. Matt Murton (.297, 13 homers, 62 RBIs in 2006) returns in left field, although they brought in veteran Cliff Floyd to platoon with him.
Michael Barrett hit .307 with a career-high tying 16 homers before getting hit in the cup with a foul ball on Sept. 2 and missing the rest of the season with an intrascrotal hematoma. The Cubs are crossing their fingers there will be no lingering effects in 2007. But as insurance, they re-signed backup Henry Blanco to a two-year deal. The 35-year-old Blanco is a .225 career hitter, but he hit .266 and tied a career high with 37 RBIs in 2006. He is one of the top defensive backstops in the game and has thrown out 41 percent of would-be basestealers during his career.
Infielder Ryan Theriot hit .328 in 53 games last year and has a great shot at making the club as a backup shortstop and second baseman in 2007. Left-handed-hitting Daryle Ward hit .308 last year with Washington and figures to be a top backup right fielder and first baseman. Outfielder Angel Pagan can play all three outfield positions and is a dependable hitter. One of the storylines to watch is whether 2006 Opening Day shortstop Ronny Cedeno (who played 151 games) will have a strong enough spring training to stay with the club this year.
Interim Cubs president John McDonough demanded during his first press conference that the Cubs win a World Series. With the money the bosses let Hendry dole out so far, they mean business. When Piniella was hired, Cubs fans were happy with the fact that he has a reputation of being fiery, and they were bombarded with television highlights of him yelling at umpires and throwing bases. But the seasoned veteran may not live up to that reputation. "Look, I'm not proud of those things," Piniella said. "I take pride in the fact that I won over 1,500 games as a major-league manager ... hopefully at 63, I won't have that kind of fun on the field anymore."
With the National League Central seemingly void of a powerhouse, the Cubs hope the numerous moves they made in the offseason will translate into a postseason appearance. The Cubs made the splashiest moves of any of the Central Division teams, but they also had the biggest climb to make.