MESA, Ariz. — Greg Maddux and Andre Dawson are gone. Shawon Dunston, who played in only 18 games last year because of back surgery, isn't sure he is any better.
The Chicago Cubs wouldn't seem to be either, but Manager Jim Lefebvre looks at it differently, insisting that his outlook is more than spring optimism.
"Maddux won 20 games and the Cy Young Award," Lefebvre said. "He had the best year of his career. Dawson had another good one. We still finished six games under .500 and 18 games behind (in the National League East).
"Two guys don't make a team. Sure, you miss guys like that, but we took the money that would have gone to Maddux and Dawson and spread it over seven guys.
"Our pitching and depth are vastly improved, and we're one of the most improved teams in a division (the National League East) that's up for grabs."
Lefebvre's enthusiasm is contagious. He can make a case. But sometimes seven aren't more than two.
It remains to be seen how much leadership and production the Cubs lost when Maddux rejected their five-year, $27.5-million offer to accept a $28-million deal with the Atlanta Braves and Dawson went to the Boston Red Sox for two years at $9.3 million, saying the Cubs never got serious or showed him the respect he deserved.
"It isn't my area, but we made an effort to keep them," Lefebvre said. "The (Chicago) Tribune Company (which owns the Cubs) may have a lot of money, but there are limits."
The Cubs drew the line with Maddux and Dawson after making a then-record deal with Ryne Sandberg a year earlier. They were still forced into free agency by what Lefebvre called a "virtually nonexistent farm system."
The payroll jumped from $32.9 million to almost $40 million through the signing of six free agents and a $1.375-million compromise with Greg Hibbard, who was eligible for arbitration after his acquisition from the Florida Marlins.
"The main thing is, our depth is so much better," Lefebvre said of Hibbard and the six free agents. "We had so many injuries last year that when we got into the bench, when we tried to make double switches and other moves of that type, we were very vulnerable."
The Cubs signed:
--Jose Guzman at $14.35 million for four years to fill Maddux's spot in the rotation.
--Candy Maldonado at $3.4 million for two years and Willie Wilson at $1.4 million for two years to supplement the Dawson-less outfield.
--Randy Myers at $11 million for three years and Dan Plesac at $3.2 million for two years to stabilize a bullpen that blew 19 of 55 save opportunities.
--Steve Lake as the backup catcher at $275,000 after Joe Girardi went to the Colorado Rockies in the expansion draft.
The way Lefebvre sees it, his rotation includes four pitchers--Mike Morgan, Frank Castillo, Guzman and Hibbard--who have each thrown 200 or more innings in a season, and a fifth, Mike Harkey of Cal State Fullerton, who has potential if he can shake the injuries that have hampered his development.
Lefebvre also said that Dawson's 22 homers and 90 runs batted in could be replaced in several ways: A return to health and offensive form by Steve Buechele and Sammy Sosa; the continuing development of catcher Rick Wilkins, the productivity of a left-field platoon of Maldonado and Derrick May, and the contributions of center fielder Wilson, who returns to a full-time role at 37.
The infield--even with Dunston's uncertainty--is second to none, Lefebvre said. The slick fielding Rey Sanchez and Jose Vizcaino could continue to replace Dunston, with Mark Grace at first, Sandberg at second and Buechele at third.
It is anticipated that the $14.2-million addition of left-handers Myers and Plesac to a bullpen that already includes left-handers Paul Assenmacher and Chuck McElroy will eventually produce what it was partly intended to--a trade from strength.
The most persistent rumor has McElroy and Castillo going to the Seattle Mariners for starting pitcher Randy Johnson, though the Cubs might be in a battle for Johnson with the cross-town White Sox, who have reportedly offered George Bell and Wilson Alvarez.
Things look brightest in the spring, of course, but the Cubs have been this route before. There is one indisputable aspect, however, to Lefebvre's rose-colored view: The NL East is definitely up for grabs. The domination of the Pittsburgh Pirates is definitely over.
"No team managed by Jim Leyland will ever be totally crippled, but when you lose Barry Bonds, Doug Drabek and Jose Lind on top of what they had lost the year before, the Pirates are definitely going to come down a notch or two," Lefebvre said.
"I mean, it's amazing how fast things change now in baseball. Toronto seemed to have everything in place, then (Dave) Winfield, (Tom) Henke, (Jimmy) Key, (Kelly) Gruber and Maldonado are gone. There aren't any super teams. One injury can be devastating. No one has depth."
The Cubs, at least, have more than they had. They just don't have Maddux and Dawson.