The 2009 Free Agent Preview, Part 1
Welcome to the first day of real content since the Cubs slipped quietly into that good night. I've decided to break up the Free Agent Preview into Two Parts - in the first, we'll talk about all the free agents on the Cubs and what should happen to them, and in the second we'll discuss the free agents on the market and whether or not the Cubs should pursue them. As usual, all information will be derived from the insanely valuable MLB Trade Rumors Guy, who was kind enough to link us at the end of last week and gave us almost as many hits as Deadspin and Fark combined.
Part One - Cubs on the Move
C Henry Blanco - $3MM mutual option for '09 with a $0.3MM buyout. Current rumors have the Cubs exercising the buyout in an attempt to bring him back for less than 3 million for another year. Need I also remind you that Henry just might retire? Hank White will turn 38 next year and he is a year removed from neck surgery.
As a Cub, Blanco has been in town for four seasons, which is quite a tenure for a backup catcher. He is clearly valued by the organization, and he's delivered unto them a surprisingly good bat. In 208 games and 576 at bats, Blanco is batting .255 with 27 doubles, 15 homers, and 78 RBI. Not bad at all for a backup catcher with a career .227 AVG.
Why He Might Go: Age, injury, and the unlikeliness that Hendry will want to pay him 3 million next year may all contribute to a departure. And like we said, he just might hang it up.
Why He May Stay: Blanco is clearly loved by the organization and has the respect of his pitchers. He's one of the few catchers out there who's not afraid of Carlos Zambrano, and he legitimately looks like he spends his off-season in a maximum security Venezuela prison. You can't overlook that kind of intimidation factor.
I think Blanco will be back. Although the Cubs have a couple of young, talented catching prospects in the minors, none of them are ready, nor able, to do what Blanco does for the team.
IF/OF Daryle Ward - He of the unspellable first name and the bulbous bottom had a pretty terrible year as Lou's dedicated pinch hitter. It's not out of the question to think he might bounce back next year, though, and put up numbers which are comparable - if not superior - to his career totals.
Why He Might Go: At his age, expense, and defensive inability, it doesn't make a lot of sense for Ward to return. Especially when you consider that the Cubs carry an extra pitcher, it makes more sense for all your bench players to be more defensively versatile than a guy like Ward is.
Why He May Stay: If Lou and Jim agree with my assessment that Ward will bounce back next year, then they might offer him a deal for a bit less than what he made in '08 to see what he can do for the team. But, chances are, this won't happen.
In reality, with Micah Hoffpauir serving as a younger, healthier, more effective and less expensive version of Ward, Daryle has seen his last game at Wrigley Field in Cubs blue. However, Hoffpauir might be a mistake as well, but that's a story for a different series.
CF Jim Edmonds - Edmonds came to the Cubs directly from the scrap heap in early May. He proceeded to play 85 games, bat .256 with 17 doubles, 19 homers, 49 RBI, a .937 OPS, and a few spectacular defensive plays out in center field. Make no mistake - the Cubs wouldn't have been as strong a team this season without Edmonds hobbling around in the outfield.
Why He Might Go: His age should play a huge factor on this decision. Edmonds is also injury prone and will likely see diminished returns in '09. The Cubs also are unlikely to have given up entirely on Felix Pie, who will be 24 next season and batted .300 in his call up to Chicago in Septemer.
Why He May Stay: Hendry tends to appreciate and reward good play. If Jim feels that Edmonds remains the best option in center, he may offer him a relatively low-income one or two year deal with a lot of incentives.
In all likelihood, Edmonds is gone, or at least he should be. It was great that Hendry went to the well in May and pulled out a guy who'd do huge things for the Cubs, but Edmonds continued to decline with the team in the latter months of '08 and I'd bet he'll be a bust next year.
SP Ryan Dempster - A former starter turned reliever turned closer converted back to starting, Dempster had a career year at the age of 31. He went 17-6, with a 2.96 ERA, and struck out 187 batters while walking only 76. Dempster has only pitched 200 innings or more 3 times in his career. He walked 97 in 226.1 innings of work in 2000, he walked 112 in 211.1 innings in 2001, and he walked 93 in 209 innings in 2002. Oh, and he walked 7 against the Dodgers on October 1st.
Why He Might Go: There are a lot of question marks in Dempster's future. Was it a fluke season? Will he ever put up these kinds of numbers again? The likelihood of Dempster matching this season's totals have got to be slim, and not only do we know that, but so must the Cubs, Dempster, and his agent. If I was him, I'd be pushing for a 4 or 5 year deal at 14 to 15 million a season. If I was the Cubs, I wouldn't pay that kind of money if you put a gun to my head.
Why He May Stay: At this point, Jim Hendry should have a reputation. He does not let players leave if he values them. Just ask Aramis Ramirez, Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez again, and Carlos Zambrano. All three men have come upon free agent years as Cubs, causing Cub fans everywhere to lament their inevitable departure, only for them to sign what could amount to sweetheart deals, keeping them in Chicago for less than what they would have gotten elsewhere. If Hendry can work that magic with Dempster, he'll be back.
If - and it's a big if - Hendry is able to lock up Dempster for 3 years at about 36 million total, I'd be ok with his return. I have to think that Dempster can probably do what he's been doing for 3 more years, and it frees up Hendry to deal Marquis and make room for Samardzija in the rotation. But if Dempster decides that a 4 or 5 year deal is a must, and if he concludes that his value starts at 14 million per year, then the Cubs will need to say goodbye.
MR Jon Lieber - At 39 years of age, and after a season of nagging foot injuries, Lieber is probably done as a pitcher. It's too bad, really. Apart from a few really bat beatings at the hands of the Reds, Lieber was a valuable relief pitcher who put up surprisingly good numbers.
Why He Might Go: See the text above. Liebs is old and injury prone, and Hendry will likely be looking elsewhere for help in the bullpen this year.
Why He May Stay: A moment of insanity on Hendry's part, perhaps?
Hey, it was cool that Liebs came back this year and he really was better than his 4.05 ERA indicates. Did you know that in 46.2 innings of work, Lieber allowed 21 earned runs? Did you know that of those 21 earned runs, 13 came against the Reds? 13!! Subtract 13 earned from 21 and 7 innings from 46.2, and Lieber had an ERA of 1.82 against the rest of the league last season.
MR Bob Howry - Make no mistake, I was glad the Cubs signed Howry 3 years ago and, for 2 of his 3 seasons, he gave the team a reliable arm. Unfortunately, this wasn't one of those 2 seasons - Howry had a 5.35 ERA in 70.1 innings of work, surrendering 13 homeruns in the process.
Why He Might Go: At 35, Howry has lost his effectiveness as a reliever. I'm sure he'll catch on somewhere, he may even get a one year deal, but Howry's value is greatly diminished after he did his best Human Gas Can impression this season.
Why He May Stay - It was clear to most of us even before the All Star Break that Howry was a shell of himself, and yet Lou kept trotting him out there day in and day out this year. Maybe Howry will continue to work his magic on Lou this off season, getting the team's skipper to stump for him with Hendry.
In reality, Howry is long gone. Thank God!
CL Kerry Wood - I suppose we can call the conversion a success. Kerry Wood missed a month because of a blister problem, and he still managed to throw in 65 games, 66.1 innings, and save 34 in the process. Woody struck out 84, walked only 18, and if Lou uses him correctly he could be on his way toward becoming one of the most dominating closers in the game.
Why He Might Go: He will always be an arm injury concern, but there are probably teams out there that will take a risk on him. Chances are, while the Cubs will want to keep him, they will not be able to outbid rival teams.
Why He May Stay: Wood has become the surprising poster child for organizational loyalty. In this day and age, he has taken more than one single-year contract to stay in Chicago. He is loved by Hendry, he loves the organization, and he would probably be willing to play in Chicago for fewer dollars and years.
I'm betting Wood will be back. It probably isn't out of the question to see him take a 2 or 3 year deal for minimally 5 million or more a season.
I would surmise that Blanco and Wood are the most likely to return. It's probably an even toss with Ryan Dempster, unless Hendry values him more than I do and is willing to make an unecessary long-term investment for a short-term return (ala Soriano). Ward, Edmonds, Lieber and Howry have probably donned a Cubs cap for the last time, unless they are invited to the Convention someday.
Tomorrow morning, we'll have Part Two of this series - a look at the Free Agents who might help the Cubs.