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No doubt about it: The pressure's on for Cubs

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GM Jim Hendry has said he doesn't feel the Cubs need to make a splash this offseason.

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So much for Cubbie Swagger. Almost four years after Lou Piniella coined the term in his first year as Cubs manager, he's not the only part of that equation that's gone from the North Side.

It might be hard to imagine, but a few more weeks like the last few and Cubs fans soon could look back fondly at Tribune ownership -- at least the last two or three years of it.

Oh, for the days of $136 million glove-challenged left fielders, $21 million fifth starters and profanity-spewing, goateed, lame-duck owners-

Maybe that recent period in franchise history doesn't exactly qualify as a golden era, but it made for some intriguing, even exciting, winters -- along with a couple of postseasons (albeit brief ones).

These days, it's about filling big-market roster needs with middle-market financial strength as the Cubs trim payroll by about 10 percent from last year's opening total while continuing to chew on hefty, back-loaded contracts that take up most of the payroll without returning more than fractions of value.

Free-agent crop shrinking

In fact, as general manager Jim Hendry and the Cubs face the winter meetings in Orlando, Fla., this week, they already have been caught looking lately more often than Milton Bradley with a man on third.

Would-be targets Adrian Gonzalez (all but traded from the Padres to the Red Sox), Lance Berkman (signed by the Cardinals), Jake Westbrook (re-signed by the Cardinals) and Javier Vazquez (signed by the Marlins) are off the board. The Cubs either were unable to compete as aggressively dollar-for-dollar or unwilling to compete as aggressively prospect-for-prospect as the teams that landed those players.

No easy solutions

Meanwhile, the Cubs face the winter meetings still officially without a pitching coach after losing one of baseball's best, Larry Rothschild, to the Yankees (look for Mark Riggins or Lester Strode to be unveiled this week) and still needing a first baseman, starting pitcher and right-handed reliever just to fill out a roster that nobody's going to pick to win the pennant.

All this against a backdrop of continuing bad press by new, billionaire-family ownership to get public money for ballpark renovations in a bad economy, not to mention headline-stealing moves by the White Sox that are starting to make the Cubs afterthoughts in the city.

Clearly, the Cubs embark on the winter meetings with more in play than a first baseman and a couple of pitchers, and more at stake than making a flawed roster a little more competitive.

Coming off a fifth-place season -- with a first-year manager in place, a roster that promises more questions than answers by spring training, no big-splash acquisition in sight and mourning the passing of their most popular broadcaster since Harry Caray -- the Cubs are in identity flux, if not crisis, as they approach their next move.

The face of the franchise- With Piniella and Derrek Lee gone, Ryne Sandberg taking his talents elsewhere after finishing second to Mike Quade in the managerial sweepstakes and Carlos Zambrano an overpaid enigma, it probably means the face of the franchise belongs to chairman Tom Ricketts. In the best of times, he has said, that's the last thing he wants, and in these less-than-best of times, it could be his worst nightmare.

The solution isn't easy, and it might not come until 2012, when this transition from high-priced-veteran contenders to home-grown-core contenders might start bearing postseason fruit.

A challenge for Hendry

But if they want to return to high relevance quickly, and in the short run give fans a reason to sell out the Cubs Convention again, the clock starts ticking Monday, when the meetings open at Disney World's Swan and Dolphin Resort.

Will free agent Carlos Pena be as good as it gets in replacing Lee at first base- Is a former Cy Young winner with a rehabbing shoulder -- Brandon Webb -- exciting enough for you-

Hendry has said that he doesn't believe he needs to make a splash. Without a lot of room to work under his payroll ceiling, he might not have a choice.

But Hendry's at his best when he's talking trade. And while Gonzalez no longer is on the market, look for Hendry to talk to as many GMs about trades as he does player agents about their clients.

If he can find a taker for at least half of what's left on Kosuke Fukudome's $13.5 million final year, there might be room for some kind of splash.

If not, maybe Ricketts can get a Zambrano amusement tax out of the big shots in Springfield to help fund a Cubs effort to sign Cliff Lee.