Friday, July 15th, 2011
(This is Part 3 in an ongoing series about the failures of Cubs’ GM Jim Hendry. Click here for Part 1 and Part 2)
We’re currently in the middle of one of the busiest times of the year for baseball front offices–the period between the All Star Break and the end of July. It’s when, to paraphrase a line from The Shawshank Redemption, teams either get busy winning, or get busy dying*. Expect a flurry of trade activity in the next few weeks, when contenders try to add any missing pieces, and losers try to unload players with any value and restock for the future.
*Hope is a good thing in baseball; maybe the best of things. And we’ll enjoy it again next spring–possibly sooner, if the Ricketts can lure Jim Hendry out to the yard and shoot him in the head (metaphorically speaking).
The Cubs have been sellers since early June, when they slipped ten games below .500. Honestly though, you could rightly say we’ve been out of it since the first week of the season, when we lost two-fifths of our starting pitching staff, and had no viable replacement options. Since then, we’ve been (unsuccessfully) treading water. And you might assume our early dismissal from contention would give us an upper hand in the trade market, since we’ve known for so long that we would be sellers.
But that kind of proactive, plan-ahead thinking is not one of Jim Hendry’s strong points. Instead, he’s a champion of the “Wait and See” method of team management. As little as three weeks ago, Hendry and his executive staff and scouts had a series of meetings to determine the direction of the team. Nevermind, Jim, that a poorly assembled roster, mathematical probability, and roughly a hundred and fifty years of professional baseball history strongly suggest that the direction of your team has already been decided. That he thought the future was even in doubt should be a major concern for all Cubs fans**.
**More recently, Hendry asserted that there won’t be a Cubs fire sale this season. You know, because we’re just one or two pieces away from contending. Right you are, Jimbo.
No, instead of getting out in front of the rest of the league and making the first big splash in the trade market, Jim Hendry waited. For all we know, he’s still waiting. And given his spotty trade record, that might actually be the best thing for the Cubs.
Under Jim Hendry, the Cubs have made trades for a variety of reasons. He’s had some good luck unloading disgruntled players (Sammy Sosa***) and bad contracts (Milton Bradley) onto other teams, and he’s even had marginal success when he had to bring back a bad contract (Carlos Silva) in return.
***In the case of the Sosa, he even managed to bring back some value to the team in Mike Fontenot (so far the best of Pat Hughes’ “Little Lefthanders”) and Jerry Hairston (he of the tape measure foul balls).
Hendry’s also done a few trades as favors to the players, most notably his trade-deadline deal to send Greg Maddux to the playoff-bound Dodgers. While he only managed to bring back Cesar Izturis, the trade was nothing more than an attempt to give the future Hall-of-Famer one more shot at postseason glory. Last year, there was similar motivation behind trading Derrek Lee to the Braves.
And of course Hendry’s defenders are quick to point out the steals he’s enjoyed in some of his past trade. Back in 2003–when Hendry still had that new GM smell–he traded Jose Hernandez, Matt Bruback, and Bobby Hill to the Pirates for Aramis Ramirez and Kenny Lofton. You know the rest–Lofton and Ramirez helped carry the team to within five outs of the World Series. After falling short in the playoffs, Hendry seized on the Marlins’ post-championship fire sale, trading Hee-Soep Choi and Mike Nannini for Derrek Lee. In less than six months, Hendry’s shrewd trading**** had brought together the anchors our infield and lineup for the rest of the decade.
****Despite my general disgust with Hendry, these two trades were very good. Of all the players he gave up, Mike Nannini lasted the longest, grinding out a career in the minors through 2008. It’s safe to say Hendry got the better end of the deals.
That’s not to say all the big pieces Hendry has traded for over the years have been the ones the Cubs were missing. Prior to the 2006 season–and after he famously swung and missed on signing free agent Rafael Furcal–Hendry traded pitching prospects Sergio Mitre, Ricky Nolasco, and Renyel Pinto to the Marlins for speedy lead-off man Juan Pierre. Hendry hoped Pierre would mirror the success of Kenny Lofton back in 2003 by getting on base ahead of the Cubs’ power bats. His plan never came to fruition, as Pierre started cold and stayed that way through most of the first half of the season. He did eventually get his stats up high enough to score a major free agent contract from the Dodgers the following offseason, but not before the Cubs were already well out of contention.
However, we’re not looking for a couple more pieces to take us the rest of the way–we’re not buyers this year. Not even close. We’re sellers, and we need to part off the veterans we can to bring back younger pieces to build on. And that particular kind of trading has not been a Jim Hendry’s strong suit.
In 2004 the Cubs were primed to be sellers. Coming out of the All Star Break, we were seven games out of first place. By the following Monday, we were nine games back–throughout the rest of the season, we’d never get closer to first place in the NL Central. Even the trade deadline addition of Nomar Garciaparra couldn’t provide a bump in the standings.
And while hope was high within the fanbase, the front office should have known that particular team had a use-by (win-by) date. Like today in 2011, there were several contracts and a lot of money coming off the books for the Cubs. But instead of trading productive players like Mark Grudzielanek, Matt Clement, and Moises Alou, Hendry let them all walk as free agents at the end of the season. He did manage to trade away his problem children–Sosa and Kyle Farnsworth–but the pieces he brought back to the team did not replace what he’d given up, or the other holes on the team created by the free agent exodus.
Instead of adding the pieces it might take to get the Cubs over the hump and back into contention in 2005, Hendry re-signed a few free agents (Nomar, Todd Hollandsworth, Glendon Rusch), signed a few stop-gap players (Jeromy Burnitz, Chad Fox), and called it a day. That was the beginning of a precipitous, multi-season collapse that led to finishing thirty games below .500 in 2006, cost Dusty Baker his job, and put the Cubs into the desperation mode that led to signing $300M worth of contracts before the 2007 season.
The Cubs were again positioned to be sellers after back-to-back postseason failures in 2007 and 2008. But once again, instead of trying to part off a team that had the best regular season record in baseball, Hendry tried to fix the Cubs’ problems through free agency.
The one notable trade he did make after the 2008 season was a half-measure at best. Hendry parted ways with Cubs 2B and super-utility player Mark DeRosa, sending him to Cleveland for a trio of pitching prospects–Chris Archer, John Gaub, and Jeff Stevens. And while pitching prospects are always nice to have–especially for the Cubs who always seem to need more pitchers–the trade didn’t accomplish much.
To begin with, none of the three pitchers has amounted to much for the Cubs. Stevens has made a few appearances in middle relief, but can’t seem to stick with the team for too long. John Gaub’s name is occasionally mentioned as a possible starter in the future, but he was MIA when the Cubs badly needed starters earlier in the season. And Chris Archer’s only value was as a key piece***** of the trade to bring Matt Garza to the Cubs this past offseason.
*****I like the Garza trade, but if Archer was really so valuable, why did we have to send so many other players to Tampa Bay in that deal? Until Archer has some consistent success somewhere, I’m inclined to think he was overrated, both by the Cubs and by anyone who defends the DeRosa trade.
But more important than the pieces Hendry brought back to the team was the hole that DeRosa’s absence created. In early May, Aramis Ramirez injured his shoulder–he’d go on to miss almost half of the 2009 season. With DeRosa gone, the Cubs were keen to try Mike Fontenot out at 2B, and signed diminutive utility infielder Aaron Miles to replace DeRosa’s versatility. However, Miles was a disaster at 3B, and for the small portions of the season when Miles himself wasn’t on the DL, he took Fontenot’s spot at 2B. That forced Fontenot to move across infield and learn to play 3rd on the fly, which in turn killed his production at the plate. Instead of having DeRosa to back up Ramirez and Fontenot fill in for DeRosa, the Cubs spent most of the season playing musical chairs across the infield. Whatever value Hendry thought he was bringing to the Cubs by unloading the last year of DeRosa’s (cheap, relative to his value) contract was negated by the disaster his absence created.
Last year was no different. The Cubs were nine games out of first place after the All Star break, and had shown few signs of life before it. What was Hendry’s big trade move? He trade Ted Lilly and Ryan Theriot to the Dodgers for Blake DeWitt and a couple inconsequential minor league players. Theriot had turned into a malcontent after moving from SS to 2B to accommodate Starlin Castro’s rise to the majors, and his time with the Cubs was over one way or another. But Lilly had been the Cubs most valuable starting pitcher since he signed with the team, and all it took to pry him away from Hendry was a backup infielder. Hendry could have salvaged the deal after the season–Lilly was very vocal about wanting come back to the Cubs when his contract expired that offseason. But Hendry didn’t consider that an option, assuming Lilly’s price would be too high and shoehorning a young relief pitcher (Andrew Cashner) into Lilly’s spot in the rotation.
That’s what being a seller looks like to Jim Hendry, and that’s why he needs to go. While the Cubs have a lot of money freed up after this season, there’s not much available in the free agent market that will immediately fix their problems at a reasonable price (we don’t need another Soriano-type contract). They need to make a big splash in this trade market if they’re going to improve the team–they need a cannonball. Jim Hendry only knows how to bellyflop.
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