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NL Central report card: Grading the offseason

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NL Central report card: Grading the offseason

Monday, Feb. 7, 2011
4:48 p.m.

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

While digging your car out of the snow, your mind drifts to Arizona sunshine. The end of the Super Bowl signals the beginning of baseball. Within days, pitchers and catchers will report to spring training.

There was yellow police tape around the sidewalk at Clark and Addison after the storm ripped off a Wrigley Field panel. By Sunday night, the graffiti had been removed from the side of the Harry Caray statue at Sheffield and Waveland.

Jim Hendry had a tight budget while remodeling the 2011 Cubs, but pulled off several accounting tricks to add a power-hitting, Gold Glove first baseman (Carlos Pena), a bullpen game-changer (Kerry Wood) and a front-line starter (Matt Garza).

There is a certain segment of the fan base that will never trust what the Cubs general manager does. But those moves addressed the three biggest needs identified at the organizational meetings.

If you asked us back then in October (and) we knew (we) only had room for three big pieces, Hendry said, if wed have taken those three names around Halloween, wed have jumped up and down.

The Cubs also retained Mike Quade, a manager comfortable in the job and popular within the clubhouse. Overall this grades out as a B and should be enough to hang around in the National League Central, which hasnt won a playoff series since 2006. Heres a look at how the rest of the division rebuilt this winter.
Brewers: A-

This is a small-market team trying to win now. Milwaukee decided to keep Prince Fielder for his walk year and unloaded its farm system for two accomplished starters who wont be free agents until after the 2012 season.

The Brewers hope Zack Greinke will again pitch like a Cy Young Award winner, re-energized after moving out of Kansas City. Shaun Marcums numbers, like Garzas, should improve outside the brutal American League East. With Yovani Gallardo, already an All-Star at 24, this rotation could work into October.

A lineup anchored by Fielder, Ryan Braun, Corey Hart and Casey McGehee shouldnt have any trouble scoring runs. It will be up to a first-year manager Ron Roenicke, the former Angels bench coach to make it work. No pressure.

Reds: B

With a surplus of young pitchers and a good core of position players, the Reds should be a factor for years to come. The pieces are already in place. Cincinnati reached extensions with manager Dusty Baker, NL MVP Joey Votto, pitcher Bronson Arroyo and outfielder Jay Bruce. World Series MVP Edgar Renteria was added to the bench.

The defending division champion gets the benefit of the doubt.

Im an old-school guy that says Cincinnati is the favorite because they won it (last year), Quade said. Theyre young, theyre talented and theyve won it before. Dusty does such a good job why not? But Im also an underdog player, so well see how that all shakes out.

Astros: C-

Their identity began to change last July, when the Astros traded Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman, two faces of the franchise. Those deals eventually produced players the Astros are trying to build around, like first baseman Brett Wallace and pitcher J.A. Happ. Houston remade its middle infield with Bill Hall and Clint Barmes, but didnt create much buzz.

The Astros, who havent made the playoffs since their run to the 2005 World Series, need a new direction. Their most crucial decisions will be made off the field in 2011, as chairman Drayton McLane has put the team up for sale.

Pirates: D

Credibility is a major issue when you lose 105 games and havent enjoyed a winning season since 1992. Pittsburgh wont be a destination for free agents, so its front office will be judged on what it does in the draft, international market and player development.

The Pirates made a good hire in Clint Hurdle, an experienced manager who once took the Rockies to the World Series. They did modest deals with first baseman Lyle Overbay and pitchers Kevin Correia and Scott Olsen. It wont be enough to finish above .500.

The Pirates have a beautiful downtown ballpark, in a great sports city with teams that win Super Bowls and Stanley Cups. Those fans deserve better.

Cardinals: Incomplete

The Cubs rolled their eyes at Ryan Theriots comments, and from the right side of the rivalry the shortstop will get a chance to show that hes more than a one-dimensional singles hitter.

The Cardinals are also overlooking defense with Berkman, hoping that at the age of 35 he can play the outfield again. Yet in bringing Jake Westbrook back to a rotation that includes Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia, they should have the pitching depth to stay relevant into September.

All that ignores the Albert Pujols question that hangs over the franchise. This will be pass-fail: Either sign him to an extension before he reports to Jupiter, Fla., or he walks into free agency as the 300 million man everyones talking about next offseason.

PatrickMooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. FollowPatrick on Twitter @CSNMooneyfor up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

On and off the field, Nico Hoerner proved he should be a big part of 2020 Cubs

On and off the field, Nico Hoerner proved he should be a big part of 2020 Cubs

Even before his surprise mid-September call-up, things were shaping up for Nico Hoerner to be a big part of the 2020 Cubs.

Now it looks like a certainty after the way he played in his 20-game cup of coffee in the final few weeks of 2019.

The organization's top prospect excelled at every level after the Cubs made him a first-round pick (24th overall) in June 2018. A broken wrist cost him two months this summer, but when he returned to Double-A Tennessee, the Cubs had him playing second base and center field in addition to shortstop, his natural position. That only boosted his value, as the Cubs clearly have holes at both center and second that they need to address this winter.

When he was pressed into duty after injuries to Javy Baez and Addison Russell, Hoerner proved the moment was certainly not too big for him. He hit .282 with a .741 OPS and 17 RBI in 20 games while playing solid defense at shortstop and displaying his great contact skills. 

While it's not unheard of for 22-year-olds to come up and immediately make an impact in the big leagues, Hoerner's case was particularly impressive given he played just 89 minor-league games and had not taken an at-bat above the Double-A level.

And Hoerner didn't just turn in solid production on the field — he was actually credited with helping provide a spark to the rest of the club, even though the season ultimately didn't end up the way the Cubs wanted. 

"He's been a little bit of a spark plug for us," Jon Lester said at the beginning of the Cubs' final homestand. "Any time you add energy like that, especially the naiveness of it — just not knowing what to expect and just going and playing baseball. Sometimes we all need to get back to that. Sometimes we all need to get back to just being baseball players and not worry about what else is going on surrounding us."

His former manager, Joe Maddon, called Hoerner a "differencemaker" down the stretch and felt confident he could stick at shortstop long-term.

It was also Hoerner's attitude and temperament that really drew rave reviews. Everybody — from Maddon to Theo Epstein to fellow teammates — were blown away by his sense of calm and confidence even while playing in pressure-packed big-league games. Those are the intangibles the Cubs have loved about Hoerner since they drafted him and don't expect that to change anytime soon.

"This is the type of human being he is," Epstein said. "He processes things really well he has strong character, he's in it for the right reasons, he's got a great family. He's really an invested member of the organization, a teammate and a winner."

This is the way he's always been, as his mom, Keila Diehl, explained to Kelly Crull in an interview on NBC Sports Chicago's broadcast on Sept. 14.

"He's just not full of himself," Diehl said. "He could be, and he's just not. ... He's just like this nice, ordinary guy — no attitude. Always brings a lot of energy and positivity to any team he's on."

That's exactly the guy we saw in Chicago in the final three weeks of the season. 

So as he recovers from his first full season of professional ball, Hoerner is in a position to forge a huge role for himself in Chicago next year. At the moment, it's reasonable to expect that to come at second base, but his ability to play shortstop might very well make Russell expendable this winter, especially with MLB Trade Rumors projecting the latter would be due $5.1 million in arbitration in 2020. 

The Cubs made it a point to get Hoerner some playing time at both second base and center field in the final two games of the 2019 season and he could at the very least offer a depth option in the outfield. 

His versatility, intangibles, and competitive drive present an intriguing package and his offensive skillset can help bring some diversity to the Cubs lineup. Hoerner is not really a power hitter at this point in his career but his hand-eye coordination and contact ability provide a refreshing style to this offense.

Simply put, Hoerner is just a good *baseball* player and profiles as the type of guy that can help any winning team in some capacity. 

The only question now is: Will the Cubs stash him in the minors for the early part of the season or let him continue to develop at Wrigley Field?

“We don’t ever draw it up that a player’s gonna skip Triple-A," Epstein said at his end-of-season presser. "It’s not determined yet where Nico’s gonna start next season, but given his mental makeup, given his skillset, who he is as a person, we felt that was something under the extraordinary circumstances that he could handle. I think it’s important that player development continues at the major-league level. 

"These days, it’s becoming a younger player’s game. If you look around baseball, the best teams have young players dominating. Yes, it’s not linear. There’s gonna be regression at the major-league level. But our players have had some real regression that’s taken them a while to dig out from. That’s something that we have to solve — finding ways to finish development off as best you can in the minor leagues, but understanding too that you need to create an environment at the major-league level with players who are expected to perform night after night are still developing, still working on their weaknesses, still making adjustments to the league." 

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Report: Giants interested in Cubs first base coach Will Venable for manager opening

Report: Giants interested in Cubs first base coach Will Venable for manager opening

The Giants' search for a successor to now-retired manager Bruce Bochy has led them to the North Side.

According to NBC Sports Bay Area's Alex Pavlovic, the Giants are interested in Cubs first base coach Will Venable for their own managerial opening. San Francisco's interest is intriguing, as Venable went to high school just outside San Francisco in nearby San Rafael. His father — Max Venable — played for the Giants from 1979-83. 

Venable also interviewed for the Cubs' manager job earlier this month, telling the Chicago Sun-Times that his interest is in the "organization in general." He is one of several internal candidates for the Cubs' job, along with bench coach Mark Loretta and front office assistant David Ross.

The Cubs also interviewed Joe Girardi and are set to meet with Astros bench coach Joe Espada and former Phillies manager Gabe Kapler.

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