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Entering Meetings, Cubs like roster

Entering Meetings, Cubs like roster

CHICAGO -- Baseball is holding its annual Winter Meetings next week in the perfect locale for the Cubs: Las Vegas.

That doesn't mean the front-office staff will be camped out at the roulette tables at the Bellagio, which is where the Meetings will take place from Dec. 8-11. But the Cubs are expected to gamble that the roster that posted the best record in the National League in 2008 is good enough to return to the postseason in '09.

Lou Piniella and his team won their second straight NL Central title in '08, led the Major Leagues in run differential and ranked second in runs scored. The offense disappeared for three days in October, when the Cubs were swept for the second consecutive year in the first round of the playoffs, this time by the Los Angeles Dodgers.
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Piniella has made it clear he wants another left-handed bat for the middle of the lineup. The Cubs could resolve that next week. Do they add someone from the free-agent market, which includes potentially high-priced options, such as Raul Ibanez and Bobby Abreu? Do they make a deal for someone such as the Royals' Mark Teahen?

Or, do they place their bets on Kosuke Fukudome, and hope the Japanese outfielder returns looking more like the player the Cubs thought they'd signed?

Fukudome, who struggled to hit .257 in his first season in the U.S., could move to center and share time there with Reed Johnson. That would create an opening in right field, which is about the only vacancy the Cubs have.

The Cubs do have Micah Hoffpauir in-house. He batted .362 with 25 homers and 100 RBIs at Triple-A Iowa and hit .342 with the big league club. But defensively, he's no Fukudome. Felix Pie is better defensively and has the speed that Piniella covets, but the 23-year-old hasn't been able hit Major League pitching consistently.

Teahen, who batted .255 in 149 games for the Royals, isn't a glitzy addition. His on-base percentage and average have both gone down the past three seasons. But he is left-handed and is available after the Royals added Coco Crisp.

The Cubs do have a limited budget, especially with the team's ownership still in flux. They have $62 million committed to Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez, Derrek Lee, Fukudome and Mark DeRosa for 2009, and another $55 million owed to pitchers Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly, Jason Marquis, Ryan Dempster and Rich Harden. That doesn't give Cubs general manager Jim Hendry much wiggle room in the '09 payroll, which wasn't expected to be higher than last season's $120 million.

Next season's rotation has the potential to be one of the best in the NL, but there have been rumors that the Cubs are trying to make it better by adding 2007 NL Cy Young Award winner Jake Peavy. His contract guarantees him salaries of $15 million in '10, $16 million in '11, and $17 million in '12.

After signing Dempster to a four-year, $52 million deal on Nov. 18, the Cubs have said they can't afford Peavy, too. The Winter Meetings are a perfect stage for rumors, so any time Hendry is spotted talking to San Diego GM Kevin Towers in the lobby, expect an update at the top of the hour.

Having apparently parted ways with Kerry Wood, who saved 34 games in 2008 in his first season as closer, the Cubs want to find another arm for the bullpen. Carlos Marmol is projected as the closer next season, and Kevin Gregg, acquired from the Florida Marlins for Minor League pitcher Jose Ceda, can finish games when needed.

Hendry isn't the type to sit quietly on the sidelines, and Cubs chairman Crane Kenney has said it's business as usual while the ownership situation is sorted out. The Cubs will likely make some noise next week, but it won't come close to the 2006 offseason, when they spent $300 million. That flurry followed a 96-loss season. The Cubs won 97 games in '08.

"As far as we're concerned, we're coming off a season when our club won a lot of games, and it's not an old club, which is good," Hendry said. "The general nucleus is solid. We'll shuffle the deck in two or three areas and try to get better before we get to camp, but it's not like we need an overhaul."

Piniella, who won the NL Manager of the Year, will talk out loud about his wishes for the team but has said he will defer to Hendry when it comes time to make the roster decisions. As Piniella said, getting swept by the Dodgers felt as if he'd been run over by a semi-truck. Nobody on the Cubs wants to feel that pain again.

"We know we've got to change a few things," Piniella said. "Listen, this is no rebuilding. We have a good baseball team. We've just gotten cold at the wrong time two years in a row."

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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