Less than a month remains before the Cubs report to spring training (yes, in Mesa), but with several key pieces of business still undone (top arbitration cases, at least two more acquisitions), they've barely reached what amounts to the midterm of their off-season work.
Here's a look at the quality of the work so far. The Cubs' midterm off-season grades, by subject:
CHEMISTRY - A.
After flunking last year's class, GM Jim Hendry aced it this semester, getting rid of Milton Bradley last month in a trade for underachieving, big-contract pitcher Carlos Silva and - this is the key to the high mark - cash. Seattle included $9 million in the deal, two-thirds of which is over and above the difference in the players' contracts.
MATH - D.
The 2010 portion of the money Seattle included in the Bradley deal covered the cost of free agent center fielder Marlon Byrd's salary, essentially giving the Cubs Silva and Byrd for Bradley (at least in terms of a restricted 2010 payroll). Byrd's three-year contract and re-signed free agent pitcher John Grabow's two-year deal are both backloaded to make this year's portions work within 2010 limits - but not backloaded so heavily to make Byrd's deal look out of whack past '10 or Grabow's to be too large a burden to handle next year. That nifty numbers work is what made this a passing grade.
But it's how the Cubs arrived at their solution that lowered the grade. They made the formula too complicated with the steps that led to this winter (with acquisitions such as Bradley, Kevin Gregg, Aaron Heilman and Aaron Miles). They lost credit for all the subtracting they needed to create addition. Consider they'll pay $1 million this season for Miles to play in Oakland. Hard to find much extra credit in that one.
READING - C-plus.
It took a lot of work for the Cubs to struggle through a virtual Moby Dick in reading and responding to the market for Bradley. By comparison, reading the free agent market has been a breeze, with several options at the Cubs' choice positions early, middle and - now - late.
Hendry, like most GMs, knew lots of good players would remain on the market late in the winter during a second straight recession economy. And with the Cubs' wish list relatively short and their needs - fourth outfielder, setup reliever - relatively plentiful, those two loose ends at this late date are nothing to be concerned about.
PENMANSHIP - Incomplete.
Not enough signings to evaluate yet, particularly among key arbitration guys Ryan Theriot and Carlos Marmol. Not to mention the two fairly significant spots on the 25-man roster yet to be filled. This grade will have to wait.
SOCIAL STUDIES - A-Plus.
It took most of a year to master this section, but the Cubs are acing the subject this winter. Byrd's got a great reputation among teammates, fans and former employers. Silva, for all his struggles, is a good guy who cares enough and works hard enough to rebound from his lousy two-year stretch in Seattle if his shoulder/body allow. And signing Greg Maddux to work with the pitchers and assist Hendry in the front office was an inspired extra-credit move.
ECONOMICS - B-minus.
So far so good, albeit with limited tests on the subject so far. The biggest part of the final grade will have a lot to do with whether they can avoid their first arbitration hearing since 1993 (Mark Grace) and settle with Theriot and Marmol before it gets that far. How quickly they do it figures to relate directly to how quickly they move on signing their fourth outfielder and last reliever.
GEOGRAPHY - F.
No sooner did new owners take over than team president Crane Kenney advocated an earth-is-flat approach to spring training as the Cubs threatened to move from Arizona to Florida - in the face of decades of progressive team flight in the reverse direction.
A thinly veiled strong-arm tactic to get Arizona to ante up with a luxurious new complex to compete with the fancy new facilities west of Phoenix resulted in what seemed obvious from the beginning: The Cubs are staying put, and in a few years they'll have a gleaming new spring complex that will be the envy of baseball, chock full of state-of-the-art rehab facility and practice fields/cages, upscale neighboring shops, restaurants and hotels, and a grander, larger stadium with ticket and parking prices sure to match.
This may have been the necessary business approach to getting what the Cubs feel they've earned and deserve as Arizona's marquee draw. But their grasp of baseball geography in the process was remedial-level at best.