Whoa, Jimmy, or What Good is a GM Anyway?

Mordecai BrownerAnalyst IJuly 6, 2006

IconLet's play a game.  You're the general manager of a baseball team that is currently 31-54, good for 5th place in the N.L. Central.  Despite your $95 million payroll — the 7th-highest in baseball — experts now mention your team in the same breath with the Pirates, Devil Rays, Braves, Nationals, and Royals.  Of your two highest-paid players, one is destined to be the all-time leader in simulated game victories, and the other is hitting .252.  To make matters worse, your team is consistently dead-last in walks taken and walks allowed.  This might have something to do with your brilliant $4 million-a-year manager, who has said before that "I think walks are overrated unless you can run...most of the time [players who can't run are] clogging up the bases for somebody who can run."
In other words, it's a bad situation.  The question is, what do you do about it? 
You might think the no-brainer choice is to can everyone, trade away what you can, keep your young talent, and rebuild.  But apparently, Chicago Cubs general manager Jim Hendry's answer is to "sit back and reflect on the first half" during the upcoming All-Star Break, according to a recent AP article.  Uh, Jim, that's a nice start, but what exactly were you doing during the 7-22 month of May?  Were you buying playoff tickets?  Drinking mint juleps in your skybox?  Oh yes, I remember now: you traded for offensive powerhouse Phil Nevin, who is hitting .242.

In three short years, the Cubs have gone from the League Championship Series to the toilet bowl.  Only a few names are left from the 2003 roster, which means that despite all their wheeling and dealing, Hendry and manager Dusty Baker have taken the team nowhere but down.  Which brings up two central questions:  what does it take to get fired anymore, and what good is a general manager, anyway?

The answer to the first question seems to be related to the fact that the Cubs as a business have reaped record profits over the last few years.  If you can still sell-out Wrigley Field while losing, why worry about winning?  While such logic may seem myopic to the long-term businessman or even the most simple-minded follower of baseball, money talks and profits generally mean greater job security.

But it's the second question that truly intrigues the mind.  Imagine that the Cubs had done nothing over the last two decades except re-sign their own draft picks and play the best people in the organization.  Their pitching staff would currently consist of the following: Carlos Zambrano, Dontrelle Willis, John Garland, Mark Prior, and Greg Maddux.  Maddux and Jamie Moyer would have been in the starting rotation for the last decade. Granted, however, the Cubs have been horrendous in developing offensive talent.  In this little fantasy, their top position players would be Ronny Cedeno and Corey Patterson, and there never would have been outsiders like Ryne Sandberg, Andre Dawson, Sammy Sosa or Derrek Lee. But there also would have been Joe Carter and Rafael Palmeiro.  Perhaps if the Cubs no longer had the option of picking up mediocre free agents, they'd put more of a focus on developing position player talent.

It's just a simple thought experiment, and I don't seriously think the Cubs would have won anything by standing pat over the last few years.  But what if a team just eliminated player acquisitions and played the hand they were dealt?  It's hard to imagine that the Cubs could be any worse off this season if that had been their plan all along.  The Marlins this year are playing with two superstars, some mediocre veterans and a hoarde of unproven youngsters—and they have five more wins than the Cubs.

What good is a GM?  I think the obvious answer in this case is none—the GM is hurting the team.  And perhaps in no area has Hendry hurt the Cubs more than in waiting—waiting with  the belief that they had a shot this year, waiting to delay a hard decision about Baker's future with the club.  It's highly probable that no GM would have the team faring any better.  But as such, it becomes incumbent on the current one to do what is obvious to every baseball fan out there: back up the truck, and overhaul the whole organization.  That means firing Baker, his pathetic coaching staff, and putting about 20 guys on the trading block.

But good ol' Jim Hendry?  He'll get back to us after the All-Star Break.