The Chicago Cubs are trying to answer the following riddle over the course of the 2007: What do you get for spending $296.05 million on free agents in one offseason? It wasn’t much in the first month, as the Cubs finished April with a 10-14 record. The team has picked up the pace in May, going 5-1.

“We’re playing more relaxed now and everyone is having fun,” said Cubs left fielder Alfonso Soriano, their biggest off-season catch. “I don’t think we were relaxed early in the season. I think it’s taken us a while to kind of put everything together.”

The pressure is certainly on the Cubs this season. No major league team spent more money on free agents than they did last winter; the San Francisco Giants were a distant second at $209.03 million. Before putting the Cubs and the rest of its holdings up for sale, the Tribune Company authorized General Manager Jim Hendry to spend liberally in attempt to revitalize a franchise that had fallen fast since its Game Six and Seven meltdowns in the 2003 National League Championship Series cost the Cubs their first World Series appearance since 1945.

The first order of business for Hendry after a dismal 66-96 finish gave the Cubs the worst record in the NL in 2006 was to fire Dusty Baker and replace him with Lou Piniella, a classic case of switching from ice to fire. Piniella only agreed to leave the Fox broadcast booth after a one-year hiatus from managing if the Cubs promised to spend money to field a contender, as Sweet Lou had chafed for three years under the penny-pinching ways of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and former owner Vince Naimoli.

“As soon as I talked to Jim Hendry the first time, I was convinced this was the place for me,” said Piniella, who has a 1,534-1,435 record in 20 seasons as a manager. “Chicago is a great city, the Cubs are a great franchise, and Wrigley Field is a great ballpark. You put that all together with a commitment to winning and that made this a very attractive job.”

Hendry made it more attractive for Piniella when he first re-signed third baseman Aramis Ramirez for five years and $75 million, and then plucked prize outfielder Alfonso Soriano from the market with an eight-year, $136 million contract. Hendry followed that up by adding lefty Ted Lilly (four years, $40 million), former Cardinal Jason Marquis (three years, $21 million), second baseman Mark DeRosa (three years, $13 million), outfielder Cliff Floyd (one year, $3 million) and first baseman Daryle Ward (one year, $1.05 million). The Cubs also re-signed catcher Henry Blanco for two years and $5.25 million, and perpetually injured pitching phenom Kerry Wood for one year and $1.75 million.

Whether the Cubs get fair value back for their financial outlays will only be answered over the full course of time. However, we can at least take an educated stab at the question by seeing how much MORP values each player over the life of his contract. (Since MORP only projects value five years out, we’ll look at Alfonso Soriano just through the 2011 season.)

Here are each of the Cubs’ free-agents signings with the value of his contract and the projected value by MORP:

Alfonso Soriano     $79,000,000   $61,300,000
Aramis Ramirez      $75,000,000   $63,875,000
Ted Lilly           $40,000,000   $22,900,000
Jason Marquis       $21,000,000    $7,900,000
Mark DeRosa         $13,000,000   $14,075,000
Henry Blanco         $5,250,000    $8,375,000
Cliff Floyd          $3,000,000    $6,275,000
Kerry Wood           $1,750,000    $1,675,000
Daryle Ward          $1,050,000    $1,025,000
Totals             $296,050,000  $187,400,000

MORP sees the Cubs recouping only 63 percent of its investment, as DeRosa, Blanco and Floyd are the only players who projected value surpasses what they will actually be paid.

In terms of VORP, the Cubs’ free-agent signings haven’t fared badly this season. Holdover first baseman Derrek Lee‘s club-leading 20.6 figure is nearly three times higher than the Cubs’ next highest position player, Aramis Ramirez, and Wood is excluded because he has spent the entire season on the disabled list after missing all of last season while recovering from shoulder surgery, but so far, what the Cubs have gotten isn’t too shabby:

Marquis  13.0
Lilly    11.2
Ramirez   7.2
Soriano   6.5
DeRosa    3.8
Ward      3.1
Blanco    1.5
Floyd     1.4

While Soriano has no background in finance other than affixing his signature to the fifth-most lucrative contract in baseball history, he feels the new-look Cubs will prove to be worth the money. “You look at this team and it’s a very good team,” Soriano said. “I don’t think we have any real weaknesses. I think we’re pretty solid everywhere. I think we’re going to be in the race all year.”

Although Milwaukee has come charging out of the gate, it shouldn’t take a great season for anybody in the NL Central to stay in the race. The biggest knock on the Cubs by other executives and scouts around baseball is that the pieces Hendry has assembled don’t necessarily seem to fit into one neat puzzle. The Cubs are perhaps overloaded with outfielders, and until they shipped Ronny Cedeno to Triple-A Iowa, had at least one too many light-hitting shortstops (Cesar Izturis still on the roster).

Piniella has reacted to the roster his GM gave him by constantly shuffling his lineup. He has already used five different starting right fielders, four left fielders, and three center fielders, second basemen, third basemen, and shortstops. Furthermore, he has tried seven players in the No. 2 spot of the batting order. At least for now, he is committed to playing rookie Felix Pie in center field, moving Soriano back to left, where he shined for Washington last season after spending the first five full seasons of his career as a second baseman.

That leaves Floyd, Jacque Jones, and Matt Murton fighting for playing time in right field. Floyd, in his 15th major-league season, and Jones, a nine-year veteran, have been starting players throughout their careers, and a strong case can be made that the 25-year-old Murton is better than both at this stage.

“I’ve got ideas, but they’re my ideas, OK?” Piniella said when asked about how he would get all of his outfielders enough playing time. “I don’t need to share them every day with everybody, if you want to know the truth. I think I know what I’m doing with this. I get asked every day, and I don’t have the answers every day. What can I do? It’s hard rotating them all. We’ll just continue to play different lineups and get everybody some playing time.” Piniella then stopped and smiled. “I’d rather have it this way than not have enough (quality) players to fill out my lineup card,” Piniella said. “This isn’t exactly the worst problem a manager can have.”

While the Cubs may never truly settle on a lineup, their starting pitching has been very good this season, as they have finally moved on from waiting for Mark Prior and Wood to regain their 2003 form. Prior won 18 games in ’03, but only 18 games since, and is lost for the season after undergoing shoulder surgery last month.

Marquis (2.08 ERA in 38 2/3 innings), Lilly (2.78, 45 1/3), and left-hander Rich Hill (1.73, 41 2/3) have given the Cubs a lift, particularly with ace Carlos Zambrano putting up an uncharacteristic 5.80 ERA after 40 1/3 innings. One school of thought is that Zambrano is distracted by impending free agency after Cubs tabling talks on an extension last month when Sam Zell bought the Tribune Company but kept the team on the market. Another theory, advanced by BP’s Will Carroll, is that Zambrano may be hurting, as evidenced by a lower arm slot in his delivery. Regardless, the Cubs’ rotation ranks fifth in the NL with a 3.61 ERA.

The Cubs’ offense has also looked better in May as Chicago is averaging 5.5 runs a game this month after scoring 4.7 a game in April. Soriano has hit .419/.438/.710 in 32 plate appearances in May after hitting .270/.308/.392 in 78 plate appearances last month. “I’ve felt from the beginning that once we started hitting with a little more consistency, you’d see us start winning more baseball games,” Piniella said. “You see things starting to come around for this ballclub. It’s taken awhile for everything to come together but I like the direction we’re headed in now. I think it’s a really good club.”

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