The Cubs recently picked up a $7 million club option on starting pitcher Rich Harden. Harden started 12 games for the Cubs during the 2008 season. Harden had a 5-1 record with a 1.77 ERA and 89 strikeouts in those 12 starts. Harden made a combined 25 starts for the A’s and Cubs in 2008 – the most starts in a season since he started in 31 games for the A’s in 2004. Harden would have been eligible for arbitration if the Cubs did not pick up the option. Following the Cubs quick exit from the 2008 post-season, Harden was examined by doctors at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Harden has right shoulder rotator tendinitis and slight instability in his shoulder, but does not need surgery to correct the problem. Harden and the Cubs are confident that a rigorous off-season conditioning program will allow Harden to re-gain the strength to endure the entire 2009 regular season.
For $7 million, the price to pay for Harden is worth the risk. Even if the Cubs only get 20-25 starts from Harden and have to skip a few starts to keep him fresh during the long season, it will be the wise route to take. Harden is known for his hard work ethic and is willing to pitch with mild discomfort in the shoulder area. Harden will make a great second or third starter for the Chicago Cubs in 2009.
Following the Harden move, the Cubs now need to focus on a few other important open areas. Ryan Dempster and Kerry Wood are both free agents. Dempster won a career-high 17 games in 33 starts for the Cubs, with a spectacular 2.96 ERA. Kerry Wood saved 34 games in his new closer role – all that despite missing a month with a perpetual blister problem on his right index finger. Both players love playing in Chicago, but many teams will try to tempt them away from the Friendly Confines of Wrigley Field with lucrative long-term deals. The Cubs should make a strong push to make sure that these 2 locker room mainstays are still wearing Cubbie Blue Jerseys in 2009.
The Cubs also need to clarify their outfield situation. Alfonso Soriano is signed through 2012 in left field, but center field and right field are wide open. Jim Edmonds and Reed Johnson performed admirably in center field in 2008, but Edmonds is a free agent and Johnson is arbitration-eligible. I would keep Johnson and let Edmonds go, but continue to look for another center fielder who could add some spark to the top of the order. Japanese sensation Kosuke Fukodome started off the season with a bang and helped the Cubs off to one of their best starts in years. But his .217 batting average after the all-star break was brutal. If the Cubs can work some magic to bring out the Fukodome from the first 2 months of the season, then that will allow the Cubs to have a very deep 24-man roster. If Fukodome’s struggles continue in 2009, however, that may mean using Mark DeRosa more in Right Field (his preferred position is second base), which hurts the Cubs outfield defense and forces the Cubs to look to fill a void at second base. Mike Fontenot is an option, but the Cubs could also look to sign a free agent second baseman who could also hit in the leadoff spot. Is everyone ready for those Brian Roberts rumors to start rolling in soon? (Roberts is the Orioles second baseman and a leadoff hitter who has been the center of numerous trade rumors to the Cubs for the last 2 seasons).
In any event, despite having the best record in the NL in 2008, the Cubs have many areas that need to be addressed if the Cubs intend to win even just 1 game in post-season play in 2009. Let’s hope Jim Hendry, Lou Pinella are already putting their heads together to devise the game plan that will actually lead the Cubs past the Division Series in the post-season