Cubs open checkbook, raise expectations

Was there any event that summed up baseball's wacko winter better than this:

A general manager's signing a free-agent pitcher to a $40-million contract while hooked up to an EKG machine?

This actually happened, you know. In real life. And of course, this occasion could have involved only one team -- the Cubs.

This was a winter in which the insane number of dollars (all 1.65 billion of them) bestowed on a stunningly run-of-the-mill free-agent class gave lots of baseball men a near-coronary. But only one man -- Cubs GM Jim Hendry -- tried that literally.

He needed an angioplasty after suffering chest pains at the winter meetings. But let history record that at least it didn't stop him from signing Ted Lilly.

"While I'm lying there, hooked up to the EKG, my phone rings," Hendry said. "I see the area code, so I know it's him. So what am I gonna do? I've gotta talk to him."

Hey, of course. Eight minutes later, Lilly was a Cub. And Hendry had a story to tell for the rest of his life -- even though he feels compelled to throw in this minor footnote for the sake of honesty: At the time, he thought he was a healthy man taking a quick test before getting back to business.

"I didn't find out until 20 minutes later that I had a problem, so it's not quite the heroic act it's been portrayed to be," Hendry laughed. "But on the nutball side of the story, what am I doing with the phone in my hand at a time like that, anyway?"

The answer: What else would he be doing? Jim Hendry spent the entire offseason with that phone surgically attached to his hand. Obviously.

As the Cubs head for spring training next week, they'll be hauling along 11 newly signed free agents, four of their own free agents whom they re-signed, a couple of new pitchers they traded for and one record that Bud Selig hopes will never be broken:

This team committed more dollars in one offseason ($317.55 million) than any franchise in the history of baseball -- or the history of dollars, for that matter.

OK, in truth, we shouldn't count the $10 million the Cubs dangled to sign manager Lou Piniella or the $10 million it took to lure Notre Dame's Jeff Samardzija away from football. So technically, they didn't quite spend $300 million on free agents.

But $297.55 mil is still a record. And it doesn't change the reason we've chosen the Cubs as the hottest story of the year. This isn't about the dollars. This is about the motivation and the powerful context behind that shopping spree.

The Cubs didn't spend that money just so Hendry could find out what it feels like to be Donald Trump. They spent it because they recognize the urgency to wipe out the tiresome talk about billy goats, Steve Bartman, 1908, 1945 and the same old Cubbies.

They spent it because it's time to win.

"I'm very conscious of our fan base and the whole Cubs situation," Hendry said. "But I don't look back and say, 'Gee, it's been since '45 [since they've been to a World Series].' I look back and say, 'I thought we could get this done in 2003 and 2004, and we didn't do that -- so now we've got to fix it.'"

Well, there's nothing like 300 million bucks to fix what's broken. And while dollar signs alone don't fix everything, they sure beat the lack thereof.

So granted, the Cubs still have questions about health, top-of-the-lineup on-base percentage and how the pieces will fit in their outfield. But it's safe to say they're a lot better off with Piniella, Alfonso Soriano, Lilly, Cliff Floyd, Mark DeRosa and the rest of their 300 Million Club than they would look right now with none of the above.

"We owe it to our fans to get back in the game," said Hendry, now entering his fifth season as GM. "We had 3 million people go through the turnstiles last year in an awful season. And we owe them."

Hendry still recalls looking around, during the seventh inning of the final game of last season -- a season in which the Cubs lost more games (96) than every team in baseball except the Royals and Devil Rays. What he saw, amazingly, was 33,000 people still hanging out in the seats of Wrigley Field. That sight told him something.

It was yet one more reminder that "we've got a lot of people who really, really care about the Cubs," the GM said. "We won 66 games last season, and these people deserve better than that."

So last October, Hendry painted a picture of the offseason landscape for his bosses at the Tribune Company. He told them it would to cost a minor fortune to keep third baseman Aramis Ramirez from opting out of his contract and bolting. He told them it would take a major fortune to sign the best free agent out there -- Soriano.

What his bosses then told him, incredibly, was not: "Wouldn't it be cheaper to sign Fernando Tatis and Jason Grabowski?" Instead, what he heard was: "Go get 'em."

For the sake of full perspective, we should acknowledge here that there are folks in baseball who believe the Tribune Company's true motive for that message was desperation to restore value to the franchise before the team is put up for sale. But whether that's true or not, it clearly isn't corporate equity that drives the people who run the Cubs, play for the Cubs or, maybe most of all, manage the Cubs.

Granted, it didn't exactly drive Lou Piniella away when he heard the Cubs were about to start spraying negotiable checks in all directions. But on the list of reasons Piniella took this job, there's about as much chance he was motivated by the Tribune Company's bottom line as there was that he was motivated by the opportunity to fulfill a lifelong ambition to study the chemical composition of ivy.

"The losing [in Tampa Bay] got to me," Piniella said earlier this winter. "And I don't have the patience or the time to sit and wait for another two or three years 'til things fall into place. So this is the right situation for me."

In other words, Hendry said, "Lou was the right fit because he's all about winning."

With Piniella on board and the go-do-it edict from the board room, Hendry kicked off the offseason with a five-year, $75-million deal for Ramirez. The third baseman has his critics, who wonder if he would rather be a guy than the guy. But his numbers after July 1 (24 HR, 76 RBI, .650 SLG) were almost indistinguishable from Albert Pujols' (23 HR, 70 RBI, .651 SLG).

"And getting Ramirez done right away," Hendry said, "helped us get Soriano."

By then, there were a half-dozen teams lined up for Soriano. And if you believe the buzz, the Cubs were just about last on Soriano's shopping list before he met with Piniella and Hendry at the GM meetings in November.

But Piniella's powerful talk about the turnaround he was going to make sure took place got Soriano's attention. And by the end of the meeting, "I could tell Soriano and Lou clicked," Hendry said.

That click would have meant zilch, though, if it hadn't been accompanied by the $136 million the Cubs eventually attached to it. Initially, they offered $122 million for seven years. Then, when they became convinced the Angels or Dodgers or someone else would have had no problem offering an eighth year, the Cubs went to eight and $136M.

In a sane world, eight years is obviously way too many for a guy who will be 38 by the end of that deal. But in this case, "it wasn't like we did 136," Hendry said, "and everyone else was at 105."

So less than two weeks into the free-agent signing period, Soriano was a Cub. And that signing was the magnet that helped pull in the rest of the free-agent cast -- De Rosa, Lilly, Jason Marquis, Daryle Ward and Floyd. Well, that and another 86 million bucks, that is.

Add in the re-signing of Kerry Wood and Wade Miller, and the deal with the White Sox for left-hander Neal Cotts, and no one disputes that this team is much better. But how much better? That's the $300-million question.

"Oh, they're good," said one AL executive. "But they spent a lot of money -- and they still didn't solve all their problems."

"We owe it to our fans to get back in the game. We had 3 million people go through the turnstiles last year in an awful season. And we owe them."
-- Jim Hendry, Cubs GM

So now it's time to tackle those problems. Is Soriano going to be able to play center field in the Wrigley wind tunnel? And if not, who does?

Will enough fly balls get caught the days Soriano, Floyd and Jacque Jones are all in the outfield? Was closer Ryan Dempster's shaky finish (7.32 ERA, 0 for 4 in saves after Aug. 14) just a slump?

Is a change of scenery enough to cure Marquis (6.72 second-half ERA)? Can Floyd stay healthy? Will Piniella be so driven to win right now
that Felix Pie, Matt Murton, Ronny Cedeno and other young players will drop off his radar screen?

And then there's a mystery that is going to sound verrry familiar:

"For them to win," said one NL executive, "they're going to have to have a lot of luck with [the health] of Wood and [Mark] Prior."

But after years of essentially structuring their team around Wood and Prior, this year is different. Hendry might hope that Wood can move to the bullpen and morph into "a tremendous one-inning reliever." And the GM might hope Prior comes back and pitches like "the old Mark." But these Cubs are no longer depending on that.

They've assembled a lot of arms so, in Hendry's words, "we can cover those innings" if Wood and Prior aren't healthy enough to pitch them. Well, depth is always vital. But that doesn't mean Wood and Prior aren't still, in many ways, exactly what they have been for three years -- the two biggest X factors on any roster.

"If all their players play at the level they'd like them to play at, they're better than the Cardinals," said one front-office man. "But can they count on that? I don't know."

In all honesty, Piniella and Hendry don't know, either. But at least their heart, their soul and their corporate checkbook are in the right place.

"I don't want to be the general manager of the Cubs and just sit back and watch people come to the ballpark and have a good time," Hendry said. "Since 2003, the bar got raised. And I welcome that."

Even if he has to spread out his welcome mat in the emergency room to prove it.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.