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Pena for now ... Pujols for later?

CLEANING UP?

Manager Mike Quade said he’s not sure yet where his new middle-of-the-order slugger will bat, but here’s one lineup possibility for next season:

SS Starlin Castro (R)

RF Tyler Colvin (L)

CF Marlon Byrd (R)

1B Carlos Pena (L)

3B Aramis Ramirez (R)

LF Alfonso Soriano (R)

C Geovany Soto (R)

2B Blake DeWitt (L)/Jeff Baker (R)

Note:

Most of Pena’s career at-bats have come in the 4-5 spots of the order (with the same number of games in both spots).

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM



LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Whether the signing of slugging first baseman Carlos Pena becomes a Sheffield-bruising success in 2011, the one-year length of the contract could make it a blockbuster fit for the Cubs in 2012.

Baseball insiders in the lobby of the Dolphin Hotel here at the winter meetings already are starting to whisper the big name they think the Cubs might be in position to target next year as a free agent: Albert Pujols, the top of a pool of potential free agent first basemen that could include Prince Fielder and, after Wednesday’s deal, Pena.

The Cubs aren’t entertaining public conversation about things that far down the road. But they made no secret of looking at shorter-term fixes for their biggest roster need going into this winter of payroll squeezing and creative roster remodeling as they looked ahead at potential longer-term solutions for the position — including San Diego’s Adrian Gonzalez until the Red Sox swooped in over the weekend to land him in a big trade.

They’re also looking ahead at a payroll that should be flush with room to work a year from now — even with half of Pena’s $10-million salary deferred to ’12 — as $40 million comes off the books in expiring contracts for just three players (Kosuke Fukudome, Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Silva).

What happens in the next 10 months with team performance, Pena’s performance in particular and how quickly the Cubs’ promising young prospects mature will have a lot to say about what the Cubs specifically target for what could be a serious playoff push in 2012. And while they’re not willing to speculate on that now, the Cubs do say they’d like to maintain as much flexibility as they can.

But how the Cubs have positioned themselves with the Pena signing has to make the rival Cardinals squirm at least a little.

If St. Louis can’t get what figures to be a mega-extension done with Pujols — and indications are that basic parameters for a deal aren’t even close to being established, even as the sides talked more during the winter meetings — the Cubs will be positioned uniquely among big-revenue teams to be aggressive. The Red Sox, of course, have the position secure now, along with other such big spenders as the Yankees (Mark Teixeira) and the Mets (Ike Davis).

For now, the Cubs and Pena — a Gold Glove fielder with a great clubhouse reputation — are focusing on each other and what they can get out of what Pena called a ‘‘platform season’’ that could allow him to raise his free agent value significantly for next year.

General manager Jim Hendry, who had Pena at the top of his wish list from early in the off-season, said he’s optimistic about the ‘‘high-character’’ Pena’s ability to rebound from a .196 season in 2010 that was hampered by a nagging, painful case of plantar fasciitis — and that nonetheless included 28 home runs and 84 RBIs.

And if Pena, 32, has that rebound year, a long-term extension for the lefty-hitting slugger and former American League home run champ might trump any thoughts the Cubs might have for outside pursuits.

‘‘We felt strongly that he could [rebound], and we are hopeful that he has a really good year and continues the process forward with us,’’ Hendry said, singing the praises of Pena’s power, ability to draw walks, Gold Glove fielding and personality. ‘‘It’s not a gamble. It’s a real good fit.’’

Pena, a former first-round draft pick of the Texas Rangers, said he grew up watching the Cubs on TV in the Dominican Republic and later when his family moved to Boston, and he looks forward to reuniting with his hitting coach from his rookie year, Rudy Jaramillo.

‘‘I just thought this was the perfect fit for me,’’ he said. ‘‘And who knows? After a great season, then the future will look even brighter.’’

Meetings buzz

The Cubs turned their focus to pitching after the signing and hoped to make one more acquisition before leaving the meetings today. … One possibility remains shoulder-rehabbing Brandon Webb, with the clubs involved in extensive medical background work on the former Cy Young winner. … The Cubs spoke to the Royals about pitcher Zach Greinke and the Rays about Matt Garza and others, but don’t expect to have the resources to make either happen.



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