The Case Against Jim Hendry: Exhibit B – Free Agents
(This is part two in an ongoing series concerning Jim Hendry’s various failures as the General Manager of the Chicago Cubs. Click here for part one.)
I have a niece and a nephew–both toddlers–who love to go to the grocery store. They’re both very extroverted little kids, and they like waving and smiling at strangers, riding in the carts, looking at all the brightly colored boxes, bags, and cans on the shelves, and occasionally sneaking some extra items into the cart.
It’s hard to make sense of all the things that catch their eyes in store. At any moment, you can look down into the cart and find a can of beets, a stray potato, a bag of pork rinds, or a cap gun. There’s not necessarily a specific reason why they grabbed any one of those things and threw it in the cart–they simply wanted it, so they took it. I’m partially tempted to let them go crazy and fill a shopping cart one of these days, just to see what bizarre collection of items they might assemble.
That’s kind of what it’s like to have Jim Hendry as the General Manager of your baseball team. You don’t get the sense he goes into the store (re: free agency) with a detailed shopping list in-hand. Instead, like my niece and nephew, he’s content to roam the aisles looking for something shiny or colorful to catch his eye.
To be fair, Hendry has had some success in the free agent market. It’s not as if he only ever purchases the MLB equivalents of chewing gum, mop handles, and tin foil. Even the most reckless shoppers will occasionally buy something worthwhile, or even find a bargain. But those successes stand out as the anomalies in his track record, and for every good signing he’s made, you can name several others that didn’t pan out.
Hendry likes to grab players off the MLB scrap heap, reviving careers that other teams had given up on. Ryan Dempster was coming off what could have been a career-ending injury and Tommy John surgery*, and Reed Johnson had been tossed aside by Toronto in favor of other more productive, less injury-prone players. Both guys revived and extended their careers with the Cubs, and contributed to the playoff runs in the late 00’s.
*At the time, a full recovery from Tommy John surgery was not a guarantee, and the recovery time was projected–and still often is–at more than a year. Dempster was one of the first players to significantly shorten his recovery, returning to the mound in less than twelve months and becoming a fixture with the Cubs pitching staff.
Currently, Carlos Pena looks like he also fits into this category. I covered the iffiness of his contract last week–his career numbers didn’t wow many, and there weren’t a lot of teams lining up to sign him after the season he had last year. But I won’t deny that his hot bat of late has been a welcome addition to a team sorely in need of offense. There’s still a long way to go before we know if the money we’re paying him is worth it, but for right now, he looks like he’s another Hendry reclamation project that has worked.
But for every Dempster, Johnson, or Pena, there’s a Xavier Nady, Neifi Perez, Kent Mercker, Chad Fox, Chad Tracy, John Mabry, Joey Gathright, or Doug Davis who Hendry tried and failed to bring back to baseball relevence. While it’s nice to rescue a guy from the brink of retirement, Hendry has become overconfident in his ability to find talent where other people don’t see it. He’s given a lot of money and several roster spots away to guys who weren’t worth either.
Hendry’s also had some success picking up veteran free agents whose best years might be behind them. Both Marlon Byrd and Mark DeRosa were over thirty years-old and coming off career-high seasons when they signed as free agents with the Cubs. Both signings were shaky prospects for Cubs fans–could they maintain and exceed the high level of production from their contract years? DeRosa proved he was worth what Hendry paid him and probably a lot more, becoming the best super-utility player in the game in his two-and-a-half seasons with the Cubs**. And Byrd was elected to the All-Star team in his first season with the Cubs, and has become the veteran anchor of our outfield***.
**One of the most annoying trends in reviewing Hendry’s tenure as GM is his tendency to trade away his best acquisitions for very little in return. DeRosa was maybe his most overachieving free agent ever, and he spun him away to the Indians for a handful of pitching prospects. I’ll tackle his trade record in a future post, but you can’t read some of these names without being frustrated at how their careers with the Cubs came to an end. More on that below.
***Having his face crushed by a pitch obviously hasn’t helped his numbers this season. He’s hoping to return to the team soon, possibly even early next week. Unless he’s gun-shy in the batter’s box or suffers another setback, he’s either one of the Cubs best trade options or a key part of the rebuilding process ahead under a new GM.
I’ll even throw Gregg Maddux’s return to the Cubs into this group, as Atlanta had essentially given up their aging superstar. While his best statistical seasons were behind him, Maddux brought his years of experience and deep well of baseball wisdom to a young pitching staff that needed some maturity. In his short time back with the Cubs, he secured his 300th win and his 3,000th strikeout, and healed some of the wounds that remained from his departure for Atlanta and a higher paycheck a decade earlier.
But again, for every Byrd, DeRosa, and Maddux, there was a Shawn Estes, LaTroy Hawkins, Cliff Floyd, Scott Eyre, Kevin Gregg, Aaron Miles****, Jacque Jones, Kosuke Fukudome, and Milton Bradley*****. Each of those players was over thirty when Hendry signed him to the Cubs, and every one of them–to varying degrees–was unable or unwilling to live up to the value of their contracts. Jacque Jones was not the power-hitting lefty the Cubs were looking for. LaTroy Hawkins and Kevin Gregg routinely collapsed under pressure–not a characteristic Cubs fans appreciate in their closers. Milton Bradley conned Hendry into thinking he wasn’t still a head case. And Fukudome is only now showing signs of being more than a platoon outfielder.
****The Aaron Miles signing in particular has always irked me. As I said above, DeRosa was the best super-utility player in the majors. In his time with the Cubs, he ably filled six different defensive positions. He was a rare luxury, and I was frustrated that Hendry let him go for such a small return. But it really became an insult to Cubs fans when he tried to sell us on the supposed versatility of Aaron Miles, a light-hitting utility infielder. In reality, Miles was a disaster at any position, and when Aramis Ramirez went down with an injury, Miles’ lack of versatility forced Mike Fontenot to learn to play third base on the fly, which in turn hurt Fontenot’s production at the plate. While Miles’ contract was not the worst Hendry has given out, you could make an argument that it was one of the more damaging to the team.
*****Just a note about Hendry and outfielders. In five consecutive seasons, Jim Hendry signed a free agent outfielder to the team (Jacque Jones in ’06, Alfonso Soriano in ’07, Kosuke Fukudome in ’08, Milton Bradley in ’09, and Marlon Bryd in ’10) for big money. Starter money. That meant that young guys like Felix Pie, Matt Murton, and Tyler Colvin never really had a consistent opportunity to develop into everyday players (Colvin may get his shot if Fukudome is traded, or possibly next year, but nothing is certain with Hendry at the helm). For a guy who gets a ton of (mostly undue) credit for the farm system underneath him, Hendry has actively done a lot to stifle and frustrate the progress of his own minor league prospects. Explain that one, Hendry-defenders.
Perhaps Jim Hendry’s most productive free agent signing was also his most unusual. Hendry closed the deal with Ted Lilly from his hospital bed after an emergency angioplasty during the MLB’s 2006 winter meetings. At the time, Lilly was not one of the primary free agent pitchers on the market. At thirty years-old, he was definitely in the second tier of available pitchers–behind overrated free agents like Gil Meche, who got more press attention, and signed for more money. But in his three-and-a-half years with the Cubs, no starter was more consistent or productive for the team. In fact, during the Cubs back-to-back playoff years, Lilly served as an invaluable stopper, repeatedly breaking up losing streaks. While his time in Chicago was too short******, Lilly was one of the better pitchers the Cubs have had in many years, and for my money, Jim Hendry’s best free agent pickup.
******Again, Hendry dumps his best free agents in stupid trades, bringing back little value aside from the money saved. In Lilly’s case, he didn’t even save much money, making the trade all the more inscrutable. More on that in the coming weeks–for now, just know that he negates much of the good will these signings might supply by turning his stars away in trades for pennies on the dollar.
Which brings me to Alfonso Soriano. After the collapse of the ’06 season, Hendry had an open checkbook and a mandate from the Tribune Company to drive up the value of the team as they prepared to sell the Cubs. Hendry–who had famously swung and missed the previous offseason with Rafael Furcal–went hard and fast after the best free agent available that offseason, Soriano. The result was the eight-year, $136M that financially handcuffs our team to this day.
I am of two-minds about the Soriano signing. On the one hand, it represented a step in the right direction for the Cubs. For too long, we had not been major players in the free agent market, instead settling for second-tier veterans, aging stars, and reclamation projects (see above). Signing Soriano got the attention of the league, and made it clear that the Cubs weren’t content to stay lovable (cheap) losers. It was the big splash kind of move that I and many other Cubs fans had long hoped and waited for.
And it hasn’t been a total waste. Throughout his time with the Cubs, Soriano has carried the team for stretches with his bat. He was a key part of the potent offense that carried the Cubs to the playoffs in ’07 and ’08, and he’s a homerun threat every time he comes to the plate. And he’s got a deceptively good arm for a converted infielder.
But he is abysmal in left field. He inexplicably hops to catch fly balls, making routine plays into complicated, acrobatic fiascoes. He’s paranoid about hitting the brick walls at Wrigley Field. He’s got an uncanny ability to play a routine single into a double or a triple for opposing hitters. He’s also had injury problems throughout his Cubs career, and his broad strike zone continues to grow with every at-bat.
What I see most of all in the Soriano contract is a lack of forethought. Yes, he was the best player available at the time. But Hendry failed to consider–or flat-out ignored–a number of key factors. Age was a big part of it. Soriano was listed as thirty years-old when he signed with the Cubs–he was at least that, maybe more. By the time his contract is up, he’ll be thirty-eight (or older). Hendry also wasn’t worried that his advancing age would bring with it injuries, or that Soriano would have a hard time adjusting to the nuances of the Friendly Confines. And he didn’t consider how cementing Soriano in left field would create a log jam with some of his best young hitting prospects, several of whom had to learn to play first base before they could make it to the majors.
In the end, I look at the Hendry’s deal with Soriano like an offensive lineman who recovers a fumble, shakes off several tackles, powers into the end zone, and jubilantly celebrates, unaware he’s scored a safety for the other team. Yes, it was a big move–no doubt the biggest of Hendry’s career. And if Soriano’s deal ended this season, I’d say it was defensible. But looking ahead at three more seasons of Soriano’s unmovable albatross of a contract, I think it’s clear the damage Hendry has done outweighs any value he brought back to the team.
That’s why he needs to be fired, and fired soon (today?). With $50M coming off the books this offseason, the Cubs will have the resources to make some significant moves and rebuild a winning team. His own track-record clearly shows Hendry cannot be trusted to spend that money wisely. Like a blind guy at a buffet, you never know what he’ll bring back to the table.