Though the Cubs are playing out the string in what has turned into a disappointing season, there is still intrigue surrounding a franchise that will now make it 101 consecutive seasons without a World Series title. That’s because Tom Ricketts has agreed in principle to buy the Cubs and Wrigley Field from Sam Zell and the Tribune Company for $845 million.

No one associated with the Cubs is sure exactly what Ricketts plans to do with a team that, considered prohibitive favorites to win their third straight National League Central title when the season began, now stands 10½ games behind the first-place Cardinals in the division standings with three weeks remaining. “Everyone is kind of wondering what’s going to happen,” Cubs third baseman Aramis Ramirez said. Ricketts is reluctant to talk about his plans for the Cubs until the sale becomes complete sometime during the offseason. However, it would seem likely that he will have some changes in store for a team that is 72-68 after winning 97 games last season.

First baseman Derrek Lee has as good of a feel for the Cubs and their clubhouse as anyone on the roster, as he is in his sixth season with the team. He knows what he would tell Ricketts if consulted. “I know you never completely keep a team together from one year to the next, but I hope they bring back basically the same team next year,” Lee said. “I don’t think we need to make big changes. I think we have a good club.”

The record indicates otherwise but Lee is adamant that the Cubs can contend next season with the same cast. “I know what our record is but the talent is here,” Lee said. “It’s just a matter of a lot of guys not having the types of seasons they normally have. It’s unfortunate that so many guys haven’t lived up to expectations but it’s just been one of those years. It’s baseball, and stuff like happens sometimes. There’s really no rhyme not reason for it other than it’s baseball.”

General manager Jim Hendry was handcuffed from making moves during the season because of the unsettled ownership situation, and he remains in a holding pattern until Ricketts officially takes control. However, Hendry know what he would like to do in the upcoming offseason. “I like our pitching and that’s why I feel we can have a good club next year,” Hendry said. “We need some offense, though. We’ve definitely come up short in that department this year. If you have the pitching, though, you always have a chance.”

The Cubs are 10th in the National League in runs scored with an average of 4.4 a game and 12th in the league in team-wide EqA. A number of players being counted heavily have not come through. Right fielder Milton Bradley has a .279 EqA after being signed to a three-year, $30-million contract as a free agent last winter, a far cry from his .337 mark with the Rangers in 2008. Left fielder Alfonso Soriano‘s EqA is .247, and he will succumb to left knee surgery after admitting this past week that he has been playing in pain most of the season. Catcher Geovany Soto‘s mark is .252 a year after he was the NL Rookie of the Year and delivered a .288 EqA.

The Cubs would like to add a leadoff hitter, and are said to have great interest in Angels third baseman Chone Figgins, who can become a free agent at the end of the season. The Cubs would also love to offload the final five years and $90 million of Soriano’s contract, as well as the last two years and $21 million on Bradley’s deal. However, they have almost no chance of moving Soriano, and the number of teams interested in the temperamental Bradley would seem to be limited.

At least the Cubs are fifth in the league in runs allowed at 4.2 a game. Left-hander Ted Lilly (4.4 SNLVAR, .569 SNWP), rookie Randy Wells (4.3, .563), and Carlos Zambrano (3.3, .523) have performed well, though Ryan Dempster (1.9, .457) has struggled after re-signing as a free agent for four years and $52 million last season. Rich Harden (2.7, .502) is eligible for free agency at the end of the season and the Cubs will probably let him walk and give his spot in the rotation to left-hander Tom Gorzelanny, who was acquired from the Pirates in a trade on July 30. Some around the Cubs would not be shocked if they tried to trade Zambrano this winter, as he continues to test the patience of management with his immature behavior. In the bullpen, the Cubs made a major mistake in signing Kevin Gregg as a free agent last winter to replace Kerry Wood as closer rather than promoting set-up man Carlos Marmol, who eventually claimed the job last month. Gregg’s WXRL is 0.286, while Marmol’s is 3.757.

Manager Lou Piniella says he takes full responsibility for the disappointing season, though he doesn’t elaborate on what exactly he should have done differently. The 67-year-old sounds like a man who will try to take one more crack at breaking the Cubs’ championship drought next year before moving on as his contract expires at the end of the 2010 season. “I’m at the end of my career, and all I can do is the best I can,” Piniella said. “It’s been a tough year but we’ll come back next year, try to enjoy ourselves and give it another shot.”

As is well know, the Phillies won the last two NL East titles in dramatic fashion, rallying in September to overtake the Mets each season. They made up a seven-game deficit in the final 17 games in 2007, and came back from a 3½-game deficit in the final 16 contests last season. This season, the Phillies have been in the driver’s seat in the division for much of the second half and have a five-game lead.

However, manager Charlie Manuel doesn’t like the way his team has been playing with the lead as they have gone 8-10 in their last 18 games. While Manuel’s removal of Brad Lidge from the closer’s job has generated plenty of headlines in the last week, the manager is also perturbed with the approach of his hitters. “I think we definitely know how to play but when I see us chasing balls on the ground, chase them in the dirt, swing at balls over their heads, we’re talking about professional hitters,” Manuel said. “So, yeah, I started to wonder about it. I don’t know what it is. Are they trying too hard? Are they tight? We have no reason to be tight. Don’t tell me that being in first place with a big lead isn’t better than sweating like hell in second place. But you know what? I kind of sense that with some of those at-bats we put on that we don’t have a clue what we’re doing. That’s what I see. I know we’re better than that, and it kind of eats at me.”

Manuel would also like to see his entire team play with a greater sense of urgency to wrap up a third straight division title. “We played tremendous baseball last year the last five, six weeks of the season,” Manuel said. “Best baseball we ever played. Well, I’ll tell you what, I’m not going give our lead up and say, ‘OK, we’re going to start here even in the league.’ No, we’re not going to do that, because I don’t know if we’d come through or not. I like our chances better where we’re at but, at the same time, we have to win some games.”

The Nationals‘ Jim Riggleman finds himself finishing a second straight season as the interim manager of a team trying to avoid finishing with the worst record in the major leagues. Riggleman replaced John McLaren as the Mariners‘ manager last season on June 19, and they finished with the second-worst record in the majors at 61-101, a game and a half ahead of the Nationals, who finished 59-102. This year, the Nationals have the worst record at 49-93, and their next closest pursuers are the Pirates, who are 54-86.

Though the Nationals are going nowhere, Riggleman said he is hesitant to play many of the young players who have been called up since the roster limit expanded from 25 to 40 on Sept. 1. Riggleman, like Herm Edwards, believes you play to win the game. “When we play baseball, we’re supposed to try to win,” Riggleman said. “Last year in Seattle, we were trying to win. We weren’t just trying to play it out and draft Steve Strasburg next year. We were trying to win the games. I think that, if I’m a paying fan, I want to see the team trying to win. I want the manager trying to win. I want intensity. I want players playing hard. I want guys running balls out. I want effort and preparation, so all those things in a perfect world will carry over into the future.”

It should also be mentioned that Riggleman is hoping to land the manager’s job on a full-time basis, though it seems unlikely. However, Riggleman said a manager’s status should have nothing to do with the lineup he puts on the field. “If I send out a message to the ballclub that we’re going to put our Triple-A callus out there on a daily basis to see what they can do, well, it’s not a good time to evaluate talent,” Riggleman said. “Who do you do it against? Do you do it against the Phillies? I think we would be insulting the Marlins and Braves, who are chasing the Phillies. Do you do it just against the Braves but not against the Phillies? The competition throughout the league indicates that for the fairness of who is the best team in the division, you’ve got to put your best people out there to play against those guys.”

The July 31 non-waiver trading deadline has become almost like a national holiday to baseball executives, analysts and fans. Should Congress ever officially declare it a national holiday-an extreme long shot, to be sure-perhaps they could call it Theo Epstein Day. That’s because nobody has been better at the trading over the past two seasons than the Red Sox‘s GM.

Epstein was in a sticky situation at the deadline last season when left fielder Manny Ramirez had become such a distraction that he had to go despite his usual outstanding production. Though he had little leverage in trading Ramirez, Epstein was able to ship him to the Dodgers and only gave up reliever Craig Hansen and outfielder Brandon Moss to the Pirates as part of a three-team deal that brought in Jason Bay; Bay had a .302 EqA for the Red Sox last season and has a .306 mark this season. Meanwhile, Moss has played his way out of the Pirates’ starting lineup, and Hansen has not pitched since April 19 because of a rare nerve condition in his neck.

Esptein struck again this year at the deadline when he acquired catcher/first baseman Victor Martinez from the Indians for right-hander Justin Masterson and pitching prospects Nick Hagadone and Bryan Price. Martinez has a .320 EqA with the Red Sox and they hold an affordable club option on him for $7 million club next season. Martinez has helped the Red Sox top the American League wild-card race as they hold a three-game edge on the Rangers with 22 to play.

“Our process at the trade deadline has remained the same since 2003: Assuming we have a realistic chance of reaching the postseason, we try to improve the club for the stretch run while maintaining a long-term focus, both in the terms of the players/contracts/(compensatory) picks that we acquire and the players we have to surrender,” Epstein told the Boston Herald‘s Michael Silverman.

Bay has a unique perspective of Epstein’s deadline work as he was part of it last year. Bay has been impressed. “Ultimately it comes down to how bad do you want it?” Bay said. “Everyone wants something but are you willing to give it up? In Victor’s case, (the Red Sox) gave up a lot of young guys, and because of that you have to know what you’re getting. I think they did know. A lot of teams make trades and there’s a lot of hemming and hawing but this is one of those places where everything you do is scrutinized. You do a trade, especially a deadline deal, it seems like they’ve been fairly big. You’d like to think they always work out, but you’ve got to have the (guts) to do it, put it that way.”

MLB Rumors and Rumblings:
The Braves are considering trading right-hander Javier Vazquez in the offseason to add some much-needed offense. … Astros closer Jose Valverde plans to test the free-agent market at the end of the season, meaning he is likely as good as gone. … Cubs right-hander Jeff Samardzija, the former star wide receiver at Notre Dame, denies speculation that he is considering quitting baseball to give the NFL a shot. … The White Sox plan to re-sign Freddy Garcia to round out a rotation that will include Jake Peavy, Mark Buehrle, John Danks, and Gavin Floyd. … The Cardinals want to re-sign super-utilityman Mark DeRosa before he can because a free agent at the end of the season. … The Padres plan to retain interim hitting coach Randy Ready, who was promoted from his job as manager at Triple-A Portland in July to replace the fired Jim Lefebvre. … The Twins plan to make a push to re-sign right-hander Carl Pavano, who can become a free agent at season’s end. … The Nationals would like Cristian Guzman to move to second base if they acquire a shortstop via trade or free agency over the winter.

Three series to watch this week, with probable pitching matchups (all times Eastern):

Marlins at Cardinals, Monday-Wednesday (September 14-16)
Ricky Nolasco vs. Todd Wellemeyer, 8:15 p.m.; Sean West vs. Adam Wainwright, 8:15 p.m.; Josh Johnson vs. Joel Pineiro, 2:15 p.m.

Rockies at Giants, Monday-Wednesday (September 14-16)
Jason Hammel vs. Tim Lincecum, 10:15 p.m.; Ubaldo Jimenez vs. Barry Zito, 10:15 p.m.; Jorge De La Rosa vs. Matt Cain, 10:15 p.m. (ESPN)

Angels at Red Sox, Tuesday-Thursday (September 15-17)
John Lackey vs. Daisuke Matsuzaka, 7:10 p.m.; Joe Saunders vs. Paul Byrd, 7:10 p.m. (ESPN); Ervin Santana vs. Josh Beckett, 7:10 p.m.

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Great--if depressing--take on the Cubs. However, they traded one of their top pitching prospects for Kevin Gregg. While signing him would have been a mistake, trading Jose Ceda for him was criminal.
Jim Hendry has signed numerous, back-loaded, expensive contracts to poorly performing and aging veterans and his performance this off season was horrible. If he was "handcuffed" financially it is because he caused it himself.
I read the bit about the Nats wanting Guzman to move to 2B in 2010 in the Washington Post this week with the same "if they acquire a shortstop via trade or free agency" qualifier. On the same day you folks post this here, you also post a Q&A with Ian Desmond, calling him the Nats' shortstop of the future. When does BP project the future to be starting for Desmond, since it doesn't look like the Nats think it'll be 2010?
My bad on Gregg. I totally forgot about Ceda, which makes the deal even worse. As far as Desmond, they'd like him to get a little more time at Class AAA to start next season but I imagine he'll be the shortstop at some point by midseason.
John, they did sign Gregg to a one-year deal to avoid arbitration, which might have been what you were thinking of.
I would add about Desmond that a lot may depend on what the Nats do about second base in the offseason. Assuming Desmond continues to play anywhere near the level that he has shown thus far, and assuming the Nats don't bring on anyone new at second, I can't see Desmond staying at Syracuse while Alberto Gonzalez and/or Pete Orr share second for the big club. OTOH, if the Nats do something like sign Hudson or trade for Iwamura, Desmond may start the year in AAA while Rizzo works on a Guzman trade.
Do you know how serious the Braves are about shopping Vazquez, or is it just something they're kicking the tires on?
Desmond started at 2b before moving to ss in a double switch. Given his high error rate at shortstop (though he has the range, right?), is he destined for a move to 2b? Were many/most of his errors throwing errors? He shore did airmail (email?) that one he made in his first game, in which he got his first major league hit, rbi, then home run, then error...getting all of them out of the way on day one, as one announcer said.
Marmol hasn't been all that great either, walking nearly a batter an inning. On another note, if the Cubs are really targetting Chone Figgins, it sounds like they'll be making the same aging veteran mistake. Do you really sign a 32 year old leadoff hitter whose prime asset besides his on-base ability is his speed? I hate to say it because I love the guy, but the Cubs easiest position to upgrade might be shortstop where Theriot is also getting older, will start to get expensive, and isn't contributing all that much. He's basically putting up Cesar Izturis numbers without Izturis's defense. Offhand I'm not sure which shortstops are available though... The Cubs need to focus on their farm system more and let the major league team play it out as it is... this was a team that led the league in offense last year (and had a pretty good defense). They should rebound slightly, even given their age. However, each of the contending teams this year has a quality major league _and_ minor league squad to provide quality backups incase of injuries. The Cubs just can't go about buying starting lineups anymore since other organizations have so much more depth.