Four Chicago Cubs players have filed for free agency, and 4 other players could file very soon. Ryan Dempster, arguably the Cubs best starting pitcher in 2008, filed for free agency on the 1st day that players were eligible to file. Dempster was one of the most reliable starters for the Cubs, making 33 starts and pitching 206 2/3 innings. He finished the season with a 17-6 record and a 2.96 ERA. Dempster also struck out 187 batters, good for 7th in the National League. The Cubs need to make signing Dempster a priority. With Carlos Zambrano missing several starts in 2008 with shoulder tendinitis and “dead arm” and Rich Harden always a potential disabled list candidate, the Cubs need to keep Ryan Dempster to take pressure off the dependable bullpen. Dempster just finished off a 3-year, $15 million contract and will likely give the Cubs a “hometown” discount to stay on the north side. Dempster loves it here in Chicago and GM Jim Hendry should be able to make it work with Dempster on a long-term contract for the 31-year old starter.
Center Fielder Jim Edmonds also filed for free agency. The 38-year old signed with the Cubs in May after his release by the San Diego Padres. Although Edmonds hit only .256 on the season, he did give the Cubs some left-handed pop in the lineup against right-handed pitchers by clubbing 19 home runs. While it would be great to keep Edmonds around, I don’t think Hendry will go more than another year with Edmonds. And Edmonds will most likely retire or seek a 2-year deal for some security. The Cubs should be able to avoid arbitration with Reed Johnson and let Johnson compete with young prospect Felix Pie for the 2009 center field position. Worst-case, they could use another platoon situation with Johnson and Pie to play the match-up depending on the starting pitcher.
Relievers Bob Howry and Chad Fox also filed for free agency. Howry struggled during the 2008 MLB season. Howry lost 5 games and racked up a 5.35 ERA, and was largely ineffective all season long. Fox battled injuries again in 2008, and I do not expect either player to re-sign with the Cubs.
4 other Cubs players could file for free agency – closer Kerry Wood, first baseman Daryl Ward, catcher Henry Blanco, and starting pitcher Jon Lieber. It is imperative for the Cubs to sign Wood to a mutually agreeable deal. Although Wood is an injury risk, he did make 65 appearances in 2008, logging 66+ innings. Wood saved 34 games for the Cubs with a 3.26 ERA and 84 strikeouts. He did miss time in August with a nagging blister injury, but it was unrelated to his pitching arm and his off-season regimen and weight loss has clearly transformed the long-time starter into an effective closer. The 1-2 punch of Carlos Marmol and Kerry Wood was one of the best in 2008, and if Wood struggles or gets injured, Marmol can easily slide in to fill the closer role. The chance of a Wood injury is worth the risk in order to solidify one of the best bullpens in the National League. As with Dempster, Hendry should be able to work out a “hometown” discount deal to keep Wood in Chicago. Both Wood and the Cubs have invested a lot in each other over the last 10 years and there is no reason to think the 2 sides won’t reach an amicable agreement over the next 2 weeks.
Catcher Henry Blanco has developed an excellent repoire with the Cubs pitching staff during his 4 years with the Cubs. Although he is getting up in age (37), if the Cubs could sign him to a 1 or 2 year deal, it would be a good idea. Daryl Ward came through with some clutch hits in 2008, but he may be looking for a long-term deal or a place where he can do more than just pinch-hit. And Lieber did not perform as expected by the Cubs and then dealt with injury issues towards the end of the season, so I don’t expect Lieber to be back with the team in 2009.
In addition to addressing the center field and right field issues and the pitching staff, the Cubs will need to decide how they want to proceed with their pursuit of a true lead-off hitter. Always-mentioned Brian Roberts (the 2nd baseman for the Baltimore Orioles) would fill a great void for the Chicago Cubs. Roberts hit .296 for the Orioles in 2008, scoring 107 runs (3rd in the American League) and stealing 40 bases (4th in the AL). Roberts’ 82 walks and .378 on-base percentage were also good for 8th in the AL. Slot in Roberts ahead of Ryan Theriot, Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez, Derrek Lee, Mark DeRosa and Geovany Soto, and you would have a pretty potent lineup. Roberts is still under contract with the Orioles and dealing with Owner Peter Angelos is always a crap-shoot, but Hendry has to try to re-kindle talks with the Orioles in order to get a deal done with the Orioles before the start of the 2009 campaign. Speed at the top of the order helped the Rays and Phillies advance to the 2008 World Series. The Cubs bats fell silent in the post-season the last 2 years and having a lead-off hitter than can manufacture a bunt single or walk to start off a game can always take away some of that playoff anxiety. After doing a lot of talking the last 2 years about Roberts, Hendry needs to find a way to get a deal done this time around.