General manager Jim Hendry finds himself with an ultra-tight budget and a host of players with three to five years of service who are arbitration-eligible and will get good-sized raises this winter.
Of the three free agents, only Johnson seems to stand a realistic chance of coming back to the Cubs, and he'd probably have to take an incentive-laden deal to do so.
Harden was the subject of much discussion this fall, but the Cubs never had any intention of offering arbitration to a pitcher with a history of shoulder problems. The 28-year-old did make 26 starts this year, but he had to be shut down for the final two weeks of the season because of "fatigue."
Harden made $7 million this year, and the Cubs felt he would jump at a chance at arbitration. The Cubs had concerns on two fronts: the money and Harden's injury history.
Fox (finally) appears to be at the end of the line after an injury-plagued career as a reliever.
Johnson, whom the Cubs like as a right-handed-hitting backup, was limited to just 65 games this year because of back problems and a broken foot. He made $3 million in 2009, and the Cubs cannot afford the raise Johnson might get in arbitration.
--INF/OF Jake Fox and INF Aaron Miles went to Oakland in a trade for RHP Jeff Gray and two prospects. Miles was a major disappointment after the Cubs signed him to a two-year deal. He hit only .185. Fox is a man without a position, but Oakland felt he could help as a first baseman/DH type.
Gray went 0-1 with a 3.76 ERA in 24 relief appearances with the A's this year. The Cubs say he has a power arm and has hit 95-97 mph "on a regular basis." He figures to compete for a bullpen job in spring training. He has one minor league option left, giving the Cubs some flexibility.
The Cubs also received RHP Ronny Morla, a 21-year-old Dominican who went 1-7 with a 4.86 ERA in 17 games (12 starts) in short-season ball this year, and OF Matt Spencer, a 23-year-old who batted .289 with 19 homers and 91 RBIs in high Class A and Class AA in 2009.
--RF Milton Bradley was still on the Cubs' roster as Hendry prepared for the winter meetings. However, it appeared Hendry was making progress on trading Bradley, whom the Cubs suspended in September for contract detrimental to the team. Bradley is owed $21 million over the next two years, and the Cubs have been trying to create a competitive marketplace (or the illusion of one) for him to lessen how much of that money they'll have to eat.
--SS Ryan Theriot figures to man that position on opening day, but minor league phenom Starlin Castro has got people talking. The talk is that Castro could make the team out of spring training and that Theriot would move to second base. That wouldn't be a big shift for Theriot, who came up as a second baseman and has played 79 big-league games there. It wasn't until 2007 that manager Lou Piniella moved him to short after Piniella became disenchanted with Cesar Izturis. Theriot is an average defender who might even benefit from a move from short to second.
--OF Kosuke Fukudome played center field in 113 games this year after being the Cubs' regular right fielder in 2008. The Cubs would love to move Fukudome back to right, where he prefers to play and where he has had better success. A trade of Bradley would have to happen first. Then, the Cubs would have to sign or trade for an everyday center fielder. The names of Marlon Byrd (Texas) and Mike Cameron (Milwaukee) have come up. Fukudome's .375 on-base percentage was a 16-point improvement over his OBP in 2008.
--INF Andres Blanco was helping himself during winter ball in Venezuela with a .296 batting average and a .356 on-base percentage. Blanco, a slick fielder at shortstop and second base, impressed the Cubs with his glove and range over 53 games this year. He batted .252 with one homer and a .303 OBP. Piniella said he liked Blanco's defense but that he wanted him to improve his on-base ability. Blanco, 25, first came up with the Rangers in 2004. He'll battle for a utility spot in spring training.
BY THE NUMBERS: 147 -- Starts at shortstop for Theriot in 2009, the most by a Cub since Shawon Dunston made 150 starts at short in 1988.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Obviously, a lot of these guys have done a lot of good things for the organization. It's not out of the realm of possibility that somebody might be back from that group. At the same time, as we go forward, the amount of dollars at stake in arbitration is not conducive to what we want to do at this time." -- Hendry, on not offering salary arbitration to the team's free agents.