To hear many fans and media members tell it, the three biggest problem children on the Cubs are Aramis Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Zambrano.
Tuning into WGN radio's postgame show the other night, I wasn't at all shocked to hear host David Kaplan call Ramirez "a dog." But I was a bit taken aback by Kap's over-the-top emphasis on his description, as he almost gleefully spit out, "a DDDOOOGGGG" when talking about Ramirez.
Of course, Kaplan was saying all this from the safety of the studio. I'm not sure he'd call Ramirez that to his face.
Even TV analyst Bob Brenly, a more measured critic of Ramirez, sounded a sympathetic tone toward the player, who was clearly in pain as he rounded the bases on a double the other night.
The long and short of it is that all three of these players are likely to be back in 2011, and it'll be up to the manager, either Mike Quade or somebody else, to get the most out of them.
Here's a look at each player.
Soriano: This will go down as one of the most egregious signings in all of sports. General manager Jim Hendry is culpable, as are his then-Tribune Co. bosses, who added two years to what Hendry offered Soriano, just because they could.
You can look at Soriano's situation optimistically or pessimistically. The optimist would say the eight-year, $136 million deal is half over. The pessimist would say the deal is only half over, that there still are four years and $72 million left on the contract.
Soriano works as hard as any player in baseball. But he'll be 35 in January, and his best days are behind him. He has not had a good month this season since May. If he's going to be here, the best way to handle him is the way Quade has done it: Move him down in the lineup and give him a day off or two days off a week.
That's not much bang for all those bucks, but there are few other options.
Ramirez: It's pretty audacious to call someone a "dog" when that player dislocated a shoulder last season and has played with a bad thumb and a sore quadriceps this year.
When healthy, Ramirez has been the team's most potent offensive force the last few years, bar none.
That doesn't mean he shouldn't get his fair share of criticism.
Ramirez tried to play it coy earlier this year when repeatedly asked whether he'll exercise his $14.6 million option for 2011. Of course, he will. And if he were to walk away from that kind of guaranteed money, the Cubs would gladly take the financial windfall and worry later about who plays third base.
I'm told Quade has quietly and privately talked with Ramirez about getting in front of more groundballs at third base. The message seems to have taken.
Ramirez sounded almost wistful last week in Milwaukee when he talked of being 32 and not wanting to play much longer. That, again, had fans questioning his desire.
There should be at least one more contract awaiting Ramirez. That, and the right manager, should keep him motivated to have a good 2011, health permitting.
Zambrano: How do you figure this guy? He squandered yet another opening-day start, wound up in the bullpen and eventually in anger-management treatment.
Since rejoining the rotation in August, Zambrano is 6-0 with a 1.59 ERA.
After beating the Cardinals Wednesday night, he talked again of ... retirement.
"Like I said, I don't think I will be playing any more after these three years, and I will enjoy any moment, any situation, anything that I can enjoy in the big leagues," he told reporters. "A friend of mine told me any time I'm batting I look excited, I look happy, more than when I'm pitching.
"So I want to mix it up. I want to have 50-50. When I'm pitching, I want to have the same enjoyment, the same motivation I have when I'm hitting, what I'm doing right now."
He's owed $17.87 million next year and $18 million in 2012 with a vesting option for 2013. The money alone (never mind the baggage) figures to be enough to keep Zambrano a Cub, unless they want to eat some more money.
Having Zambrano back might not be the worst thing. He has shown of late that he still has the stuff.
If the Cubs can just keep him away from another opening-day start and they don't panic by sending him to the bullpen again, they might be able to make this thing work for two more years.
Then they can give him a nice retirement ceremony.
Tracking the trio
Aramis Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Zambrano have been key players since the Cubs won division titles in 2007 and 2008 before failing to make the playoffs the next two seasons. Here is a look at the numbers for each beginning in '07: