The regular-season success hinged on two things: solid starting pitching and a new-look offense that stressed getting on base with regularity. The result was that the Cubs led the NL in runs scored, walks and on-base percentage.
The biggest surprise might have been right-hander Ryan Dempster, who moved from closer to the starting rotation. By the end of the season, Dempster was the ace of the staff, finishing with a 17-6 record and 2.96 ERA.
The worst fears of manager Lou Piniella were realized in the short playoff. Since midseason, Piniella lamented the lack of quality left-handed hitting in the lineup. In the NLDS, the Dodgers threw all right-handed pitchers at the Cubs, and the Cubs scored a grand total of six runs in three games.
Things didn't figure to be that bad. Right fielder Kosuke Fukudome, a left-handed hitter, played so well in April and May that he was voted onto the All-Star team. But Fukudome began fading before midseason, and that left a gaping hole on the left side of the plate.
Center fielder Jim Edmonds, also a lefty, had an admirable year, but he went into prolonged slumps.
The Cubs might have to look for a bona fide leadoff hitter, either from within our without, because left fielder Alfonso Soriano appears better suited to hit in the middle of the order, probably fifth or sixth.
Because of Fukudome's fade, GM Jim Hendry will have to shop for a lefty bat, for insurance or for everyday play, this offseason.
Middle relief also turned into a problem late. Right-hander Bob Howry, a free agent, probably won't be back. The Cubs have to determine whether right-hander Chad Gaudin can be a go-to guy in the middle and whether right-hander Jeff Samardzija is a starter or reliever. Samardzija started in the minor leagues, but the Cubs used him in middle to late relief after his July call-up, and Samardzija had good results overall.
--SS Ryan Theriot led Cubs regulars in batting average (.307), on-base percentage (.387) and multi-hit games (58). His OBP jumped from last year's mark of .326, and that could tempt the Cubs to make him their leadoff hitter next year and drop Soriano down to fifth or sixth, where he can better use his power. Theriot's defense and range are adequate and sometimes his arm leaves something to be desired, but overall he was a huge plus.
--Fukudome went 1-for-10 in the NLDS, and Piniella even sat Fukudome in Game 3 against Hiroki Kuroda, against whom Fukudome had success in Japan. Piniella seemed fed up with Fukudome as September wore on. The Cubs are toying with the idea of allowing Fukudome to bring a hitting coach with him next spring from Japan. It might be the language barrier, but Fukudome and hitting coach Gerald Perry haven't gotten on the same page. Hendry is expected to chat with Fukudome before Fukudome heads back to Japan for the winter, but his poor performance in the second half is forcing Hendry to look for more left-handed hitting help.
--2B Mike Fontenot has made the Cubs take a look at letting him start next year. Fontenot is a left-handed batter, something the Cubs need. He plays creditable defense and can hit the ball with authority. If the Cubs move Soriano down in the order, they can mix and match their top two in the order: Theriot, Fontenot and CF Reed Johnson.
--Soriano endured his second consecutive miserable playoff, and that might hasten his move from leadoff to the middle of the order. Soriano was 1-for-14 (.071) against the Dodgers after going 2-for-14 against Arizona last year in the NLDS. Good teams can game-plan Soriano perfectly, throwing him sliders low and away and watching him flail away. When Soriano isn't on base or hitting home runs, the offense usually doesn't go.
--1B-OF Micah Hoffpauir did not make the postseason roster, but the Cubs had him working in Arizona in case they advanced. Hoffpauir is no kid at 28, but he hit 25 homers and drove in 100 in only 71 games at Class AAA Iowa (Des Moines).
The Cubs look to be strong contenders for the NL Central title for at least a few years to come. They ended this year with 97 wins, and the roster isn't "old" in most key places. Many key veterans are signed to multiyear deals, but center field once again could become a question mark.
BIGGEST NEEDS: Middle relief became the weak link on a generally strong pitching staff, particularly in the second half. The Cubs have spent big bucks on their bullpen in recent years, acquiring such pitchers as Howry and LHP Scott Eyre. But their best production has come from homegrown products such as RHP Carlos Marmol and, for much of the second half, Samardzija. If the Cubs don't trust CF Felix Pie for 2009, they'll have to look for help there to go along with Johnson.
FREE AGENTS: RHP Kerry Wood, RHP Ryan Dempster, RHP Bob Howry, CF Jim Edmonds, 1B-OF Daryle Ward, RHP Chad Fox, RHP Jon Lieber
The Cubs want to re-sign Dempster, but they want to see how many years Wood wants. The Cubs probably won't go much past a year and an option for Wood, whose health is always a risk. Howry is as good as gone. The Cubs probably will let Edmonds walk even though he helped them after the Padres released him. Ward showed his age, and his pinch-hitting touch wasn't what it was. They'll likely bid him goodbye. Lieber and Fox are at the end of their careers.
ARBITRATION-ELIGIBLE: RHP Michael Wuertz, LHP Neal Cotts, CF Reed Johnson, SS Ronny Cedeno, RHP Chad Gaudin
The Cubs haven't gone to a hearing since a long-forgotten regime got to that point with Mark Grace in the early '90s. Hendry would like all five players back, but the Cubs likely will have trouble re-signing all five without incident. The Cubs weren't happy with Gaudin, who hurt his back at the end of August and pitched poorly upon his return in mid-September.
IN LIMBO: C Henry Blanco, LHP Rich Hill, LHP Sean Marshall
The Cubs have a club option on Blanco, a valuable mentor to Rookie of the Year candidate Geovany Soto. They probably won't pick it up, instead choosing to negotiate a lesser deal. Hill was a part of the rotation on Opening Day until developing command problems and then coming down with a back ailment. The Cubs could look to trade Hill and/or Marshall. Marshall, because of his versatility, could fetch something in return.
The Cubs will keep a close eye on the cranky right shoulders of RHPs Carlos Zambrano and Rich Harden, both of whom missed time down the stretch.
Soto came down with a sore left hand and wrist, and that hampered his hitting. A winter of rest should help.
Soriano will have to work hard in the winter so that his legs don't give out, as they've done in his two seasons with the Cubs.