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Cubs already stacked before Meetings

Cubs already stacked before Winter Meetings

CHICAGO -- In Jim Hendry's first offseason as the Chicago Cubs general manager, he made one deal before Thanksgiving and that was a trade for catcher Damian Miller in November 2002.

This offseason, Hendry has been busier, motivated by a 66-96 record and last-place finish in the National League Central. The team had signed six free agents, including two of the top names on the market in Alfonso Soriano and Aramis Ramirez, before the holiday turkey was defrosted.

"I'm very happy the way things have gone so far," Hendry said. "Usually things don't go this fast. We've done four, five things that we felt were important."

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New Cubs manager Lou Piniella is probably pretty happy, too. Yet Hendry and the Cubs have more work to do heading into the Winter Meetings, which begin Monday in Orlando, Fla.

Soriano, who signed an eight-year, $136 million deal on Nov. 20, and Ramirez, who inked a five-year, $75 million contract on Nov. 12, were key pieces to the puzzle. Adding Mark DeRosa -- who signed a three-year, $13 million deal on Nov. 14 -- ends the revolving door at second base.

The lineup now is Soriano, Cesar Izturis, Derrek Lee, Ramirez, and some combination of Michael Barrett, Jacque Jones, Matt Murton and DeRosa. That's not bad. But there are some holes, starting with the starting pitching. The Cubs aren't building around Mark Prior and Kerry Wood anymore. They could've handled losing one or the other last season, but not both.

No one is sure what to expect from Prior, who is doing his shoulder exercises six days a week in San Diego. Wood did re-sign with the Cubs, agreeing to a one-year, $1.75 million incentive-loaded contract. But he'll be in the bullpen.

Here's how much things have changed: Carlos Zambrano was the Cubs' fourth starter in 2003. Now, he's the ace of the staff.

Zambrano and southpaw Rich Hill fill two spots, and Hill will do so only if he picks up where he left off in September, when he was 3-1 with a 1.93 ERA. Lefty Sean Marshall (6-9, 5.59 ERA in 2006) also could be in the mix.

The Cubs are bringing Wade Miller back, but don't know if the right-hander is 100 percent recovered from arthroscopic shoulder surgery in September 2005.

Hendry will try to fill some of the openings through free agency, and was more likely to focus on the second tier of free-agent pitchers on the market such as Gil Meche, Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis.

With the departure of Juan Pierre via free agency, center field is vacant. Soriano is projected as a starter in right, with Jacque Jones possibly moving to center. Jones has played 461 games in left, 440 in right, and 159 in center, and the majority of those starts in center came during his first two years with the Twins in 1999 and 2000. He's willing to make the switch, and hopefully won't get off to a slow start. Jones batted .285 with 27 homers and 85 RBIs in his first season in Chicago.

The lineup is very right-handed, and the Cubs would like to add a lefty. Piniella also has talked to Hendry about what he wants on the bench. They're keeping catcher Henry Blanco but have vacancies.

The Cubs have been dubbed the Yankees and/or Red Sox of the Midwest with their soaring payroll, which could reach $115 million in 2007.

"I don't pay much attention to it," Hendry said of the comments. "All I know is that the people we put large investments in are great, great players. I don't think there's anybody in the world who wouldn't want to have Alfonso on the team, Derrek Lee, or Aramis. I think there'd be a line pretty deep of anybody who could afford to have those three on their ballclubs. We're not going to have nine guys in the lineup making double-digit millions. When you have those three guys, you're trying to win."

Which is what the Cubs are trying to do. John McDonough, named interim team president on Oct. 1 to replace Andy MacPhail, said, "It's time to win. It's time to win the World Series."

That's something the Cubs haven't done in 98 years.

"We all got together after the season when John became president, and we said we didn't want to go through what we did last year," Hendry said. "That wasn't any fun.

"We didn't go into this without a plan," Hendry said of his spending spree. "Hopefully, by the new year we'll have a better ballclub."

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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