New Chicago Cubs owner Tom Ricketts essentially gets a pass in his first season. Even if he had been inclined to replace under-achieving general manager Jim Hendry and Hendry’s cohorts, he lacked the time. Ricketts and his family endured a nightmarish process to purchase the Cubs and related properties for $845 million from the complicated ownership of crusty real estate magnate Sam Zell.
Offseason baseball business already had begun when Ricketts officially took over last Halloween. Someone had to assemble the 2010 Cubs, and Hendry the incumbent was the only practical choice. When you’re attempting to close a difficult deal of that magnitude, finances precede overhauling the operation’s infrastructure.
No one really knows how Ricketts views Hendry. So far, he has sent mixed signals. Initially, Ricketts said it would take time to make the Cubs a championship club and that the key was a more fruitful farm system Observers inferred that the new owner was less than thrilled with what he was inheriting--a ballclub composed of aging veterans on huge, heavily backloaded contracts. Ricketts has been more complimentary of Hendry since then.
This is where I come in. It is my duty as a lifelong Cubs fan, 30-year season ticketholder, sportswriter-author and arrogantly self-appointed baseball expert to implore Ricketts to can Hendry and his associates after this season.
The replacement process must start now. Behind the scenes, Ricketts needs to hire baseball experts as consultants to identify his next general manager.
Ricketts will need to eat at least one contract. Hendry will have two years remaining on his 4-year pact after the 2010 campaign. No big deal. Pay the man, wish him well and upgrade the most important position in your entire business.
I like Jim Hendry the person. So does everyone in baseball. Hendry is an earnest, honest straight shooter who cares about his people. He’s a baseball lifer and a 365/24/7 workaholic.
He’s not a terrible general manager either. In his seven full seasons at the helm, Hendry has produced three NL Central titles and a 587-545 record. This is actually a less than impressive body of work given the high payrolls at his disposal, but Hendry will have no trouble getting another job in baseball.
The bottom line is that the Cubs desperately need to take a new direction. Hendry’s baseball mindset is stuck in around 1995. He is 100% old school. The Cubs are arguably the least sabermetrically savvy of the 30 franchises.
Seven full years since all the “Moneyball” furor, it is clear that the most successful baseball operations have taken what’s known as a hybrid approach. They incorporate the best of the old and new schools. They still value subjective observational input from their scouts, but they invest heavily in statistically minded experts. The Cubs’ brass has not only been resistant but often disdainful of newer-wave data.
It’s difficult for any team to win and harder still when you’re the Cubs fighting 101 years of ongoing futility and the pressures that go with that. But it’s downright foolish to evaluate players in this era without factoring in useful numbers.
Hendry began his GM run in 2003 by hiring the ultimate anti-stathead manager in Dusty Baker. They got off to a deceivingly great start. Hendry’s first big move was among his very best. He pawned catcher Todd Hundley, a colossal free-agent failure, on the Dodgers and got back serviceable players in Mark Grudzielanek and Eric Karros.
In midseason, Hendry exhibited one of his skills, that of plundering small-market teams in sell mode. He snatched up-and-coming third baseman Aramis Ramirez from the Pirates and also landed temporary leadoff man Kenny Lofton. After the season, he grabbed stud first baseman Derrek Lee from the Marlins, who were conducting a white sale after winning the World Series.
The ’03 Cubs won their division behind the dominant starting pitching of Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, Carlos Zambrano and Matt Clement. After beating the Braves in the first round of the playoffs, the Cubs were routing the Marlins 10-0 after five innings of Game 2 of the NLCS. Hoisting a white flag, Florida manager Jack McKeon began subbing.
Dusty Baker, the dumbest manager I’ve witnessed in 55 years of closely following baseball, kept Prior in the game for 116 pitches and seven-plus innings. Baker had ridden the 21-year-old Prior hard in September. Here was an obvious chance, in a 12-3 blow-out, to rest him up for a possible Game 6. Asked about it after the game, Dusty said he wanted to keep Prior on the same workload. Say what?
Prior tired in the infamous top of the eighth inning of Game 6. Cubs fan Steve Bartman reached out for a catchable foul fly, shortstop Alex Gonzalez booted a routine double-play ball and the Cubs fell apart. Kerry Wood had nothing in Game 7, and Chicago lost again.
As is his wont, Dusty kept abusing pitchers’ arms in 2004 and continued to favor outmakers in his lineups, including the 1-2 spots. Meanwhile, the players whined about everything. Neither Hendry nor Dusty ever interceded while the inmates ran the asylum. Dusty feuded the whole season with TV announcer Steve Stone. The players picked up on that and began to complain about Stone’s comments. The Cubs, a very talented team and finally healthy the final week, had the wild-card lead and a favorable schedule but choked. Sammy Sosa, the antithesis of a team leader for a decade, left early and without permission on the final day.
In 2004, the Red Sox won the World Series to end their 86-year drought. To pour more salt in Cubs fans’ wounds, the opponent was the NL Central arch-rival Cardinals. Chicago’s crosstown White Sox won the next year to halt an 88-year dry spell. The NL representative was another Cubbie division foe, the Astros. In 2006, the Cardinals went all the way. It was harder than usual to be a Cubs fan.
The Cubs fell to 79-83 in ’05. They plummeted to 66-96 the next year, finishing last behind the Pirates. For inexplicable reasons, Hendry let Dusty complete his 4-year contract.
I permanently lost faith in Hendry when he launched the 2004-05 offseason by signing Neifi Perez and Glendon Rusch to 2-year contracts. The Neifinator was well on his way to cementing his legacy as one of the worst offensive performers in the game’s history. Hendry had picked him up after he had been cut by both the Royals and Giants. The flailing Neifi was past his prime and remarkably inept at reaching base , but he could still pick it at shortstop. His optimal market value was a backup at slightly more than a minimum 1-year salary Rusch was a roly-poly but decent lefty swingman with a checkered history. Another marginal type worth only a year at modest bucks. No one was shocked when both players reverted to suckdom.
The Tribune ownership promoted the aggressive John McDonough from marketing director to president after the embarrassingly futile '06 season. McDonough handed a virtually blank check to Hendry to go on a $300 million “win now” spending spree.
The big signing was Alfonso Soriano for eight years and $136 million, which brought howls from baseball’s establishment, including Padres’ CEO Sandy Alderson. Soriano’s assets were home-run power and stolen-base speed. He was a hacker who wasn’t very good at reaching base. He had been a horrible second baseman who was moved to left field, where he threw pretty well but tracked batted balls as if he were allergic to them. He wasn’t a great player, and he figured to lose almost all his speed and a lot of his power through his age-31-through-38 seasons.
Soriano has aged even faster than expected due to leg injuries. But that doesn’t excuse Hendry. In my opinion, he committed a fire-able offense. And Chicago will be hampered long after Hendry is gone. Fonzie is due $18 million this year and each of the next four.
The Cubs won division titles in 2007 and 2008 but looked terrible and tight while getting swept both years in the first round of the playoffs. But every GM inherently brings mixed results. Hendry’s haul before ’07 brought in a solid lefty starting pitcher in Ted Lilly. He got a season for the ages from super utilityman Mark DeRosa in ’08.
Conversely, Hendry’s first Japanese import has been a semi-bust. He signed Kosuke Fukudome to a 4-year, $48 million contract. Fuku is a skilled right fielder and a patient, high-OBP hitter, but he lacks power, doesn’t hit lefties well and falls into lengthy slumps while cork-screwing his front leg and swinging around it weakly and prematurely.
After the 2008 season, Milton Bradley reportedly charmed Hendry over dinner, and the Cubs’ GM decided to commit three years and $30 million to baseball’s pre-eminent nutcase. Another transgression that easily could cost a general manager his job. If you insist on taking a risk on a player who’d shown the emotional stability of an infant for nine years, you do not commit for more than a year. Bradley didn’t play well and alienated everyone in Chicago except Oprah until he was suspended the last two weeks. Hendry shipped him to Seattle for rotund finesse pitcher Carlos Silva in a swap of brutal contracts.
One can learn a general manager’s tendencies by analyzing his lesser moves as well as his higher-profile transactions. Hendry tends to “buy high” in the marketplace, and he also has a Dustyish fetish for scrappy, little guys who don’t do much except to produce too many outs. He signed utilityman Aaron Miles to a 2-year, $4.5 million contract before 2009. But why? Miles, a marginal talent, was coming off an aberrational career year with the Cardinals. He predictably stank with the Cubs and was dispatched to Oakland in another Hendry bail-out maneuver.
Most of Hendry’s moves clicked in 2008 as the Cubs won 97 games. The worm turned in ’09. The Cubs struggled to 83 wins, and their core players started to show their age with declining performances and more frequent injuries.
Chicago continues to promote Carlos Zambrano as an ace-caliber pitcher, and they’ll certainly keep paying him as one (nearly $18 mil per for the next three years) He also has a no-trade clause, a perk Hendry has handed out like candy. But Big Z is now an inconsistent No. 3 type whose arm and stuff have deteriorated steadily after Dusty rode him hard early in his career.
The statistical experts peg the 2010 Cubs to win about 79 or 80 games. As I write this, the Cubbies stand at 5-7 against a relatively soft schedule. Because of all his backloaded contracts, Hendry could not afford to fortify a thin bullpen despite a $146 million payroll that ranks third in the majors.
Ryan Theriot is back for a third year as a starting shortstop who lacks shortstop skills and ought to be at second. Hendry signed a decent corner outfielder in 245-pound Marlon Byrd to patrol center field. It appears Hendry didn’t get the memo that defensive range and speed are more important as run-scoring has declined markedly since the 1998-2001 height of the steroid era. He made a slow team even slower.
The most basic method to assess a general manager’s performance is to compare how his teams rank in won-lost percentage and payroll. Hendry scored a +2 in 2003 with the ninth best record and 11th highest payroll among the 30 teams. He graded –4 in 2004, tying for 11th best record while spending the seventh-most sum. Hendry fell to –9 in ’05 and –21 in ’06. From –4 in ’07, he got back in the black with a +6 in ’08. The Cubs’ ’09 payroll jumped to third at $135 million while the team's record ranked 16th for a –13.
It’s a simple but imperfect system. The Yankees perennially rank No. 1 in payroll, but baseball is too unpredictable for the Yanks to post the best record every year. On the other end, it’s much easier for a poor team to outperform its tiny payroll.
But there’s no escaping that Hendry’s teams outperformed payroll rank only twice in seven years or that his aggregate tally is an ugly –43. We also are doing him a favor by measuring only regular-season games. Hendry’s postseason record is 6-12, including 0 for his last 8.
Mr. Ricketts says he’s committed to winning the World Series. Given Hendry’s track record and old-school limitations, he’s extremely unlikely to bring home the bacon. Seven years without even a World Series appearance was more than enough. His eighth season should be his last.
The new owner has the luxury of six months to make his most important decision. It’s not just about firing Hendry and his regime, but identifying and hiring the sharpest baseball people available. We Cubs fans deserve that.
Stay tuned for an adaptation from Mike's book "Public Bonehead Private Hero: The Real Legacy of Baseball's Fred Merkle," part of B/R's Guest Columnist Series, which highlights professional writers in the world of sports.