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Cubs future more promising than present

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Ken Rosenthal

Ken Rosenthal has been the FOXSports.com's Senior MLB Writer since August 2005. He appears weekly on MLB on FOX, FOX Sports Radio and MLB Network. He's a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Follow him on Twitter.

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Believe it or not, there is hope for the Cubs.

Not this season — don’t be ridiculous. But the Cubs, who visit the Dodgers this weekend (MLB on FOX, Saturday, 4:10 p.m. ET), actually will be in position to rebound quickly.

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Money is coming off the payroll. Young players are on the rise. Too many bad contracts remain, and the Cubs do not figure to gain much flexibility if they assume large chunks of salary to move players such as right-hander Carlos Zambrano and outfielder Kosuke Fukudome. But let’s not forget the big picture.

The Cubs’ $146.6 million payroll not only is the third highest in the majors, but the highest in the NL Central by more than $50 million. No other team enjoys such a financial advantage over its division rivals, and the Central is largely mediocre. There simply is no excuse for the Cubs to remain down for long.

Of course, there is no excuse for this season’s debacle either, which is why Lou Piniella almost certainly will not return as manager and why Jim Hendry could be out as GM.

The Cubs’ new owner, Tom Ricketts, must decide whether he trusts Hendry to a) hire the next manager and b) manage future payrolls. The best argument for keeping Hendry – and yes, there is one – is the team’s foundation going forward:

• Three rookies – outfielder Tyler Colvin, shortstop Starlin Castro and right-hander Andrew Cashner – are emerging as championship-caliber players.

• Four-fifths of the team’s rotation – right-handers Ryan Dempster, Randy Wells and Carlos Silva and lefty Tom Gorzelanny – will be back next season.

• Right-hander Carlos Marmol, one of the game’s top closers, and lefty Sean Marshall, an effective setup man, are under control for two more years.

Heck, even the 2011 outfield should be OK. Colvin figures to take over full-time in right. Center fielder Marlon Byrd is a first-time All-Star, selected by his fellow players. Left fielder Alfonso Soriano ranks fifth in OPS among NL outfielders – though yes, he will play the final four years of his deal from ages 35 to 38.

At least some other contracts are expiring.

Nearly $30 million will come off the Cubs’ payroll with the departures of three potential free agents – left-hander Ted Lilly, first baseman Derrek Lee and outfielder Xavier Nady. Third baseman Aramis Ramirez could opt out of his deal after this season (the Cubs wish) or earn $14.6 million next season in the final year of his contract.

Not only are the Cubs poised to regain financial flexibility, but they also could add to their prospect base over the next three weeks, however modestly. Their most desirable trade chip is Lilly, but lesser players such as second baseman Ryan Theriot and outfielder Xavier Nady also could be moved.

Lilly almost certainly would waive his limited no-trade protection to join a contender. Lee, who has a full no-trade clause, should think about doing the same; he will further damage his market value if he continues to struggle in the second half with a non-contender. The Cubs could even bench him for Colvin, who played first base at Clemson, though it is doubtful they would pick such a fight with the well-respected Lee.

More young players are coming. Center fielder Brett Jackson, the team’s first-round pick out of Cal in 2009, is performing well at Double-A. Third baseman Josh Vitters, the No. 3 overall pick in 2007, is struggling at that level, but is only 20. Single-A shortstop Hak-Ju Lee eventually could force Castro to another position. Pitchers such as right-handers Jay Jackson and Casey Coleman should be ready to contribute soon.

Tim Wilken, the team’s scouting director since December 2005, delivered virtually all of the Cubs’ young talent. The dismissal of Hendry likely would lead to Wilken’s departure, too; the two attended high school together in Dunedin, Fla. Oneri Fleita, the team’s vice president of player personnel and head of international operations, also is close to Hendry; he played for the GM when Hendry was the coach at Creighton University.

Thus, if Ricketts fires Hendry, the Cubs likely will need to start over. Happens all the time in baseball. But some Cubs officials contend privately that the previous ownership helped trigger this mess, pushing the front office into a win-now mode to make the team more marketable for potential buyers.

The strategy was ill-conceived; Ricketts might have paid $845 million for the Cubs, Wrigley Field and 25 percent of Comcast Sports Net Chicago even if the team had not been in the process of producing three straight winning seasons for the first time since 1970-72.

The strategy, at times, also was poorly executed; Hendry made some head-scratching decisions, awarding an eight-year, $136 million free-agent contract to Soriano, a player who had no position, and a three-year, $30 million deal to Milton Bradley, a player who was unstable.

Then again, Hendry also made his share of good moves, stealing Lee and third baseman Ramirez from low-revenue clubs looking to shed payroll in trades. Some of his contracts (Lilly, Dempster and Byrd to this point) worked out well. Others (Lee, Ramirez, even Zambrano) did not look so egregious at the time they were signed. Lest anyone forget, the Cubs won three division titles between 2003 and ’08.

Ricketts has every right to choose his own GM, and this season is disappointing enough for him to justify a change. But whether Ricketts retains Hendry or hires someone else, the Cubs will be in pretty good shape. Not today, not tomorrow. But soon.

Tagged: Cubs, Ted Lilly, Aramis Ramirez, Derrek Lee, Ryan Dempster, Carlos Zambrano, Xavier Nady, Tom Gorzelanny, Carlos Marmol, Tyler Colvin

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