What's the problem? The problem is that the Cubs have only scored 386 runs. They are dead last in all of baseball in that regard. The next-worst team is the Washington Nationals, who have scored 434 runs (although the Nationals play in a tougher hitter's ballpark than the Cubs). The Cubs' pitching isn't all that bad; their 4.69 ERA is 10th out of 16 NL teams, and they actually lead the league in strikeouts, with 701. Their defense efficiency of .708 is tied for 2nd-best in the league. So while their defense is fine and their pitching is at least average, their hitting is abysmal. Which is why they're a hopeless team on pace to post a 63-99 record this year.
Many articles have appeared in newspapers across the country demanding the firing of Dusty Baker. And I agree; Dusty must go. Not only is Dusty's use (and abuse) of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood a big factor in their injury troubles, Dusty has also proven to be clueless when assembling a lineup. Dusty selects a lineup based on hunches and bizarre opinions, which often leads to ruin. The presence of Neifi Perez, Tony Womack and Jose Macias have shown Dusty's poor understanding of how runs are actually scored. So Dusty should go.
I don't think that Dusty is the only one that should get the boot. While many people have called for Dusty's ouster, very few have spoken out against Cubs GM Jim Hendry. So I'm going to take this opportunity to argue why I think Jim Hendry should be fired as GM of the Cubs; this move is just as important -- if not moreso -- than the Baker dismissal.
Let's start by taking a look back at Hendry's tenure with the Cubs. Let's look at the problems he faced and the decisions he made, and see if there weren't any better options facing him. And if Hendry continually ignores the good choices and makes the bad ones, then that's a pretty good argument for his dismissal.
Hendry took over the GM position from Andy MacPhail after the 2002 season; the same point when the club hired Baker as manager. Hendry inherited a team talented team that had just finished a 67-95 season. The lineup included superstar slugger Sammy Sosa, slumping but valuable outfielder Moises Alou, still-potent first baseman Fred McGriff, surprise slugger Mark Bellhorn and young center field prospect Corey Patterson. Despite these quality players, though, the team managed to score just 706 runs, 11th-best in the NL.
The Cubs also had some top-notch pitchers. Kerry Wood was coming off a 12-11 season where he managed a good 3.66 ERA along with 217 K in just 213.2 IP. He was backed up by Matt Clement, obtained from the Marlins in a trade, who managed a 3.60 ERA with 215 K in 205 IP. Veteran Jon Lieber contributed just 141 IP, but they were strong ones: 3.70 ERA, 12:87 BB:K ratio.
But the real story of the Cub rotation was the promotion of star prospect Mark Prior. Prior exceeded all expectations by managing a strong 3.32 ERA in 19 starts, posting a brilliant 38:147 BB:K ratio in 116.2 innings of work. Another star on the horizon was 21-year-old Carlos Zambrano, who managed a 3.66 ERA and 93 K in 108.1 IP. So the Cubs had, going into 2003, quite possibly the best starting rotation in baseball.
The bullpen was much more problematic. Closer Antonio Alfonseca (who came over from Florida in the Clement deal) struggled through the season, posting an ERA of an even 4.00 with just 19 saves and 9 blown saves, a dreadful ratio. Backup Joe Borowski pitched well (2.73 ERA), as did young long reliever Juan Cruz (3.98 ERA in 97.1 IP). But the 'pen was seriously hampered by Jeff Fassero (6.18 ERA) and Kyle Farnsworth (7.33).
YEAR 1: 2003 (88-74)
Hendry allowed pitcher Jon Lieber and first baseman Fred McGriff walk away as free agents. In the case of Lieber, it was a wise move; Hendry had several younger (and cheaper) options for the rotation. It was a similar deal with McGriff, just turned 39 years old, whom the Cubs felt could be replaced by prospect Hee Seop Choi and trade acquisition Eric Karros.
The Karros trade was completed in December, and turned out to be a godsend for the team. The Cubs got Karros and second baseman Mark Grudzielanek. These two were fairly high-priced veterans, but they still had some good baseball left in them. In return, the Cubs surrendered catcher Todd Hundley (a huge salary drain at this point in his career) and nondescript reliever Chad Hermansen. The trade would help set the left side of the Chicago infield and also cleared Hundley's salary off the books.
To replace Hundley, the Cubs traded away two minors leaguers to get Arizona backstop Damian Miller. Miller wasn't much of a hitter, but had gained a good reputation for handling pitchers out in Arizona, having caught both Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling. And at $2.7 million, he was fairly cheap.
Hendry also looked to fill some holes by signing a few low-level free agents. He signed reliever Mike Remlinger - fresh off an excellent season in Atlanta -- to a pretty expensive deal, at least by middle relief standards. He also signed veteran Shawn Estes for $3 million to serve as a possible 5th starter and insurance policy. He signed veteran closer Rod Beck to a contract, but Beck never made the majors and was released before June.
Other notable signings: outfield base stealer -- and otherwise talentless player -- Tom Goodwin; reliever Dave Veres; and pinch hitter Lenny Harris. Hendry seemed to favor the veterans a bit too much, perhaps, but he had secured a temporary first baseman (Karros would be a free agent after the year), a solid second baseman, and a solid catcher. He also made the wise decision to pass on re-signing McGriff and Lieber, and even managed to dump Todd Hundley's salary. So the first off-season went rather well for Hendry.
The season got off to a pretty good start for the Cubs. They were right in the thick of the NL Central race, although it was already clear that it would be a close race, with Houston, Chicago, and St. Louis all contenders. As the season went on, no one was able to take a commanding lead, and the Cubs eventually found themselves in first place.
On June 20th (with the Cubs in 1st by 1/2 game), Hendry traded the suddenly punchless Mark Bellhorn to the Rockies for strikeout master Jose Hernandez. Hernandez wouldn't prove to be much of a solution, and the Cubs would eventually send him on to the Pirates. Third base was the one big hole in the Chicago lineup.
With the trade deadline approaching, the Cubs were hanging on for dear life in the NL Central race. As of July 23, they had fallen into 3rd place, 5.5 games behind the streaking Houston Astros and 1.5 games behind St. Louis. Something had to be done. They had one of the league's best pitching staffs, but their offense was far behind that of Houston and St Louis.
It was at this point that Hendry went into action: he completed a trade with Pittsburgh that sent away Hernandez, a minor leaguer and failed prospect Bobby Hill in exchange for Aramis Ramirez, Kenny Lofton, and cash. It would prove to be one of Hendry's best trades.
Ramirez was a defensively indifferent third baseman who had shown flashes of offensive brilliance. At the time of the trade, Ramirez was 25 years old and had started the season 280/330/448 for Pittsburgh. After the trade, Ramirez hit a disappointing 259/314/491, but that was better production than the Cubs had been getting from the hot corner. And it proved to be a good deal in the long run, as Ramirez has taken up residence as one of the league's best-hitting third basemen, finally solving a problem that had plagued Chicago since Ron Santo's retirement.
The trade acquisition who actually did the most to help the Cubs in 2003 was Kenny Lofton. An ugly injury had sidelined CF Corey Patterson, and the Cubs had tried several solutions (including Tom Goodwin) with little to show for it. Hendry pegged Lofton to fill the hole in center, and Lofton did just that. After the trade, Lofton hit an excellent 327/381/471, better even than Patterson had managed. It was, all in all, a great trade for Hendry. It served his purposes in the short run by filling the team's holes, and even proved good in the long run, since the team gave up little in return and was able to secure Ramirez as their third baseman of the future.
Hendry showed his overactive acquisition gland by acquiring Randall Simon and Tony Womack via waivers in August. At the time of the Simon trade, the Cubs had climbed back to within 1/2 game of the Astros, and Cubs fans (and reporters) were getting very excited at the chance to reach the postseason. Neither Simon nor Womack contributed much at all to the team, but at least neither was that expensive, nor did they require giving up any top prospects.
As August moved into September, the team was (mostly) out of Hendry's hands. On September 1, the Astros and Cardinals were tied for first place, with the Cubs 1.5 games out. Two weeks later, the Cardinals had plummeted out of the race and were 5 games back, whereas the Cubs were hanging in there at just 1.5 games behind Houston. Finally, on September 22, the Cubs tied the Astros for the division lead. The lead went back and forth, until September 27. The day began with Houston 1/2 game out. But the Cubs swept a double-header from Pittsburgh, and Houston lost to Milwaukee, meaning the Cubs had clinched the NL Central.
The tally at the end of the season wasn't overwhelming; an 88-74 record just 1 game ahead of Houston. But getting into October baseball was a milestone for the Cubs. And with their dominant pitching, it looked like they might stand a chance.
Hopes were raised when the Cubs knocked off Atlanta in a 5-games NLDS. It was the first postseason series the Cubs had won since 1908. They got off to a 3-1 lead over the Florida Marlins, but ended up blowing the series in dramatic fashion.
In any case, the season had to be considered an overall success. The young pitchers had succeeded brilliantly, and Hendry had helped cobble together an adequate lineup to get the team to 88 wins. With money to spend in upgrading the roster and the prospects of seeing their young team get even better, the Cubs went into 2004 looking to improve even further.
YEAR 2: 2004
Players lost to free agency after 2003 included: Kenny Lofton, Eric Karros, Randall Simon, Antonio Alfonseca and Shawn Estes. It wasn't such a big loss; Alfonseca and Simon were bare contributors, and Estes had turned out to be a big dud in the rotation (5.73 ERA in 28 starts). Lofton and Karros were still valuable, but the Cubs felt they could replace them with a healthy Corey Patterson and prospect Hee Seop Choi.
Then, the Cubs decided to sign as many free agents as humanly possible.
The biggest signing was the inking of Greg Maddux to a 3-year $24 million contract. It was a great publicity move, bringing Maddux back to the team he was drafted by. But good thought Maddux was, some wondered if he would be earning his $9 million in 2006, at the age of 40.
The Cubs also made noise by signing LaTroy Hawkins to serve as their closer. Hawkins had been a mainstay of the Minnesota bullpen for years, but hadn't seen great success as a closer. The Cubs were willing to try, and ended up paying Hawkins $7.5 million for 2 years before trading him to San Francisco.
Other notables: the Cubs re-signed useful 2B Mark Grudzielanek and backup outfielder Tom Goodwin; they got another 2B in Todd Walker (whose defensive limitations would imply a platoon with Grudz); another backup outfielder in Todd Hollandsworth; reliever Kent Mercker; vanilla starter Jamey Wright, and infield backup Damian Jackson. They also nabbed former Marlin Ryan Dempster, despite the fact that they knew going in that injuries would limit Dempster to very little work in 2004.
Not content with this fleet of free agents, Hendry also sought to add money the old-fashioned way; through trades. The biggest was the one that nabbed Derrek Lee from the Marlins for Hee Seop Choi. Lee, a Gold Glove winner, was an underrated hitter and proved to be a very worthwhile acquisition in the years to come. The Cubs also traded away catcher Damian Miller -- whose bat had been weaker than advertised -- to Oakland for Michael Barrett, a better hitter whose weakness was defense.
On the face of it, the Cubs had added a good deal of payroll, but it still hadn't changed the fact that they were a team with a dominant pitching staff and a potent lineup. Many picked them as favorites to repeat in the NL Central.
Hendry's first major trades were meant to give the Cubs something else at shortstop besides the utterly disappointing Alex Gonzalez. Rey Ordonez and Ricky Gutierrez were "veterans," yes, but they were also past their prime defensively and just plain awful hitters in the first place.
On July 31, it was clear that the Cubs were not going to repeat in the NL Central. That's because the Cardinals got off to a 66-37 start and were in the midst of a rampage through the NL to 105 wins. And when the day opened, the Cubs were 2 games behind San Diego for the Wild Card race.
What had gone wrong? Injuries, first and foremost. Prior and Wood, who many thought would be the next Koufax and Drysdale, both suffered injuries that not only hampered their quality, but also held them to a combined 259 innings, nearly half the total the team wanted. Glendon Rusch was able to pick up some of the slack (3.47 ERA in 16 starts), but rookie Sergio Mitre failed in his bid to be the 5th starter (6.62 ERA in 9 starts). It also must be said that Greg Maddux was no longer pitching like Greg Maddux; the ace's ERA was 4.02, better than the league average, but not what the Cubs had paid for.
Offensively, the biggest problem was the hole at shortstop that Hendry kept trying to fill with weak-hitting glove men. It also didn't help that Corey Patterson wasn't progressing at the plate (266/320/452), and that a series of bizarre injuries limited superstar Sammy Sosa to a very un-Sosa-like 253/332/517 hitting line.
But on July 31, Hendry's top priority was filling the hole at shortstop. So he took part in a daring 4-team trade with Boston, Minnesota, and Montreal. The Cubs sent off spare parts Brendan Harris, Alex Gonzalez, and Francis Beltran to the Expos (thank you, MLB partisans). In return, they got Nomar Garciaparra from the Red Sox (as well as outfield prospect Matt Murton).
Nomar was a huge name, and it was a huge trade for the Cubs. They gave up very little and were able to get a star shortstop. But there were question marks surrounding Garciaparra, who had been severely limited by injuries in 2004. He only got in 43 games for the Cubs, but he did hit an impressive 297/364/455.
Hendry further sought to help the team with more waiver-wire deals for spare parts. The acquisition of Neifi Perez did nothing, although Dusty Baker soon developed an unnatural attraction to the completely useless hitter.
The Cubs hung right in the Wild Card race, and on September 1, they were just 1 game behind San Francisco and 1 game ahead of San Diego. Then, something funny happened; from out of nowhere, the Houston Astros burst into the Wild Card picture. While most people were taking bets on either the Cubs or the Giants, the Astros suddenly appeared, and on September 10, they were tied for the lead with San Francisco, just percentage points ahead of Chicago. The race stayed tight; 10 days later, the Giants led the WC by 1/2 game ahead of Chicago, who were 1/2 game ahead of Houston. When September ended, the Cubs were just 1 game behind the Astros and Giants, who were tied for the WC lead.
A loss to the Braves on October 1 dropped them to 2 games back, and another loss to Atlanta the next day eliminated them from the Wild Card chase altogether. A victory on the last day of the season was small consolation; they were 3 games back of the Astros and 2 behind the Giants.
After being considered favorites for the Wild Card for much of the season and even holding the lead for so long, it was a heartbreaking fall when the Cubs blew the lead and missed the postseason. The most immediate fallout came on the season's final day. Sammy Sosa left the game early -- Sosa claimed he stayed later, until garage security cameras proved otherwise -- and his teammates took their revenge on Sosa's giant stereo. It could have been Kerry Wood, or Todd Walker, or Kent Mercker -- but the only thing we know for sure is that Sosa's teammates, tired of the Superstar double standard the team set for him, vented their frustration on his huge noisemaker.
More fallout was to come in the offseason, with the most significant piece involving Sosa himself.
YEAR 3: 2005
The 2005 season could be subtitled: Mistakes were made. Jim Hendry's first season as GM went fairly well, and you could at least excuse most of his missteps. It was in 2005, though, that things began to trend from "understandable" to "he did what?".
After the 2004 season, Nomar Garciaparra, Todd Walker, Moises Alou, Mark Grudzielanek, Todd Hollandsworth, and Kent Mercker were granted free agency. This was mostly good news. Hollandsworth and Mercker were easily replaceable parts; and while Alou was still a potent hitter, he was also 38 years old and not quite worth the risk of a top-notch salary. Grudzielanek was still valuable, but not desperately so, and the Cubs filled the 2B hole by re-signing Todd Walker.
After much hemming and hawing, Garciaparra signed a 1-year deal to return to the Cubs for a little over $8 million. It was a fair amount of money, but it was also a 1-year deal, and so risk was limited to 2005. The Cubs didn't see many other options to fill their hole at shortstop, so Hendry decided to gamble on Nomar.
So going into the 2004-5 offseason, Hendry's top priorities were this: a shortstop (which he did, signing Nomar), a corner outfielder (not to mention a 4th outfielder to spot Sosa), and some bullpen help. Perhaps most importantly, Hendry needed to add one or two starters to serve as Plan B in case Prior, Wood, or both lost significant time to injury.
The latter problem Hendry signed by re-signing Glendon Rusch. This was a mistake. Rusch had pitched quite well for the Cubs in 2004, filling in for the Wood/Prior injuries with a 3.47 ERA and a 33:90 BB:K ratio in 16 starts. Therefore, Hendry re-signed him for $2 million. What Hendry should have realized was that the 2004 Glendon Rusch was not the real Glendon Rusch. Rusch presently sports a 4.88 career ERA, and was coming off a 2003 where his ERA was 6.42 in 19 starts with Milwaukee. Rusch simply wasn't as good as he pitched in 2004, but Hendry made the "1-Year Mistake" that so many general managers make. The 1-Year Mistake is when a GM rewards a player based on 1 year of play, ignoring all prior years of contradictory play. In future, this will likely be known as the "Adrian Beltre Mistake." Luckily, all it cost Hendry was $2 million and the mistaken impression that he'd solved his starting pitching problem.
Hendry then went on to make another one of his trademark mistakes, although (to be fair) it's a mistake common to GMs with too much money. Hendry spent too much free agent money on overpaid veteran role players. Instead of focusing on his core problems, Hendry was handing out $1.2 million to Henry Blanco and $900,000 to Todd Hollandsworth. He also signed the non-productive Chad Fox and the ever-injured Scott Williamson to help in the bullpen, but to be fair, the two combined made barely $1 million, although they did take up roster space.
Big news was made on February 2, when Hendry traded the embattled Sosa to Baltimore for Jerry Hairston, Jr. Hendry ended up sending along enough cash to cover most of Sosa's 2005 salary, but he made the decision that it would be better to save a little money and have Jerry Hairston than to pay all of Sosa's salary. This move, at least, worked out well. Although Hairston hit terribly with the Cubs in 2005 (261/336/368), he at least did better than Sosa, who hit 221/295/376 in just 380 ABs in Baltimore.
The problem was, though, that Hendry now had to find a way to replace both Alou and Sosa in the lineup. The Cubs had lost a big chunk of offense in the offseason. Hendry took steps toward solving that problem by signing Jeromy Burnitz to a 1-year $4.5 million contract. Considering Burnitz's past, it was a risky deal, even though the money involved wasn't significant. And although Burnitz wasn't awful in Chicago, his 24 HR were countered by a .258 batting average and a .322 OBP, unacceptable from a corner outfielder in Chicago.
But solving the bullpen problems was one of Hendry's stated off-season goals. I must say (off the subject though it may be) that every GM goes into the offseason talking about improving their bullpen. Every ballplayer succeeds and fails. And, in the scheme of things, relief pitchers are much less important than starting pitchers and everyday hitters. However, a relief pitcher's failures are much more dramatic than that of any other player. Fans (and reporters) remember blown saves, and they smolder in their heads for days after. So many GMs seek to calm the rage of fans and reporters by spending far more money on the bullpen than is warranted. Such is the case with Hendry, who has spent a great percentage of his free agent budget on relievers, often to the detriment of the rotation and the lineup (with 2006 the most obvious example).
Keeping this in mind, it was an odd move when, on February 9, Hendry traded reliever Kyle Farnsworth to the Tigers for relief prospect Roberto Novoa and two minor leaguers. It's true that Farnsworth was getting a pretty big raise in arbitration money and was one year away from free agency, but it's odd that a GM would trade away a potential solution to your problem sitting right out there on the bench. Farnsworth was mercurial, yes, and no one knew how he would perform in 2006. And so it was with great regret that Hendry saw Farnsworth put together the best season of his career with Detroit (and then with Atlanta, after a trade).
The season did not get off to a promising start for Chicago, with Mark Prior on the DL and Kerry Wood soon to follow. With those two gone and Glendon Rusch turning into a pumpkin (4.52 ERA), Hendry traded expensive closer LaTroy Hawkins to San Francisco for starter Jerome Williams. Hawkins hadn't actually pitched too poorly in Chicago, but he did have a penchant for blowing saves. While it may have been worthwhile to keep him around in middle relief, Hendry decided to send him away (the blown saves having made Hawkins decidedly unpopular in Wrigleyville). Williams was a fading prospect with San Francisco, but did help support the Cub rotation when he arrived (3.91 ERA in 17 starts after the trade).
Injuries compounded injuries when Nomar Garciaparra went down early in the year. He would miss most of the season before returning, although he did manage a decent 283/320/452 hitting line in his 230 ABs. he was replaced by Neifi Perez. Perez hit well upon being given the starting job, causing Dusty Baker to fall victim to the "1-Year Mistake" and actually convince himself that Perez had suddenly become a good hitter. Sure, as the season wore on, old Neifi reared his ugly head (he finished with an eyesore 274/298/383 batting line), but that reality didn't penetrate Dusty's noggin. But to be fair, Hendry is the one who signed Perez and didn't go out to get another option for Dusty (not that Dusty would have used him).
With Hawkins gone, the Cubs decided to get creative and make Ryan Dempster, a former starting pitcher returning from a long injury, their closer. It turned out to be a good choice; whereas Dempster may have been more valuable as a starter, he may not have ended up pitching as well as he did, posting 3.13 ERA with 89 strike0uts in 92 innings(!).
In the absence of Wood and Prior, who was making all of those starts? Carlos Zambrano -- who has somehow managed to avoid any ill effects from Dusty Baker's abuse of his right arm -- managed a 3.26 ERA in 223.1 strong innings, striking out 202. Zambrano was an ace and a godsend.
Unf0rtunately, the rotation suffered from a lack of depth. As mentioned earlier, Glendon Rusch wasn't able to stop the bleeding. Greg Maddux (4.24 ERA) was no longer pitching like Greg Maddux, but more like a league-average innings eater with a bigger salary. Jerome Williams, the trade acquisition, did pitch well. But other than that, who did the Cubs try?
They tried prospect Sergio Mitre (5.37 ERA in 7 starts), prospect Rich Hill (9.13 ERA in 4 starts) and prospect Jon Koronka (7.47 ERA in 3 starts). Other than that, the Cubs could only hope that Prior and Wood would get healthy. Prior, upon his return, managed a respectable 3.67 ERA in 166.2 inings of work. But Wood only threw 66 innings (4.23 ERA), as a May injury proved to be season-ending.
In the lineup, there were two surprise developents. One was the ascencion of Derrek Lee from All-Star to Mega-Star. Lee had a career year for the ages, hitting 335/418/662 and almost single-handedly keeping the Cubs in contention. It was not a sign of things to come -- Lee's career averages are 276/363/501 -- but it was a fine year from an underappreciated player. A player who, it must be noted, Jim Hendry had the foresight to trade for and (eventually) sign to a contract extension.
On the other hand, there was the very unfortunate case of Corey Patterson. Patterson was a 5-tool prospect who unfortunately never became much of a baseball player. Patterson had weaknesses -- strikeouts, mostly -- but had still managed to be a fairly valuable player. In 2003, Patterson hit 298/329/511 before regressing a bit in 2004 to 266/320/452. Still, those weren't bad numbers for a good defensive center fielder and a fine base stealer. Dusty Baker's mistake was in thinking that Patterson should bat leadoff, because of his base-stealing. Baker's baseball wisdom apparently hadn't progressed past the Dark Ages, and Corey predictably struggled (with the boos of Cub fans descending upon him -- not Dusty).
But 2005 was a new low: Patterson was hitting 215/254/348 before his demotion to the minor leagues. It's unclear what made him suddenly become a terrible hitter (and the least popular man in Chicago). But it effectively ended his career as a Cub.
So although Hendry was getting fine production from Derrek Lee, Todd Walker, Michael Barrett, and Aramis Ramirez in the lineup (as well as Carlos Zambrano and a decent bullpen) -- he had some pretty big problems to fill. He tried to find someone to fill the outfield holes, but neither Jody Gerut nor Matt Lawton were the answer to his problems.
As the trade deadline neared, an unfortunate reality loomed: the Cubs weren't contenders. The Cardinals were once again running away with the NL Central, and even the Wild Card was only a remote possibility. Hendry traded off Hollandsworth and Lawton before packing it in for the season. The Cubs finished 79-83, a thorough disappointment for a team thought by many to be favorites for the Wild Card.
Thoughts turned to 2006. And it was in the 2005-6 offseason that Jim Hendry, in my opinion, earned his pink slip.
YEAR 4: 2006
Jim Hendry had some big problems going into the 2006 season. He was the GM of a very, very rich club that had dramatically underperformed expectations for two years running, for starters. But he also had a lot of holes to fill on his roster, and even the coffers of the Chicago Tribune seemed unlikely to be able to fill the Cubs' needs.
First and foremost, the Cubs needed an outfield. Hendry had proven unable to replace the contribution of Sosa & Alou, and it was imperative to secure the services of outfielders who could hit. As it stood in the offseason, the most likely starting outfield for the Cubs was Matt Murton/Corey Patterson/Jerry Hairston (Burnitz had been lost to free agency). While Murton was a good prospect taken from Boston in the Nomar deal, the Patterson/Hairston duo looked underwhelming to say the least. The Cubs threw in the towel on Patterson when they traded him to the Orioles for two low-level prospects. That meant that the Cub outfield was, as it stood, one of the worst in baseball, and it was up to Hendry to find some upgrades.
Hendry also needed a shortstop. I give the man far too much credit to think that he actually wanted to see Neifi Perez as the everyday shortstop (I give no such credit to Dusty). The Cubs were set in the rest of the infield: Derrek Lee at first, Todd Walker at second, Aramis Ramirez at third, and Michael Barrett behind the plate.
Oh, and how about that rotation? Both Mark Prior and Kerry Wood were scheduled to return for 2006, but the odds that both would make it through the season unscathed were astronomical. Hendry would need to overpack his starting rotation in order to account for the inevitable injury to one or both. He could pencil in Carlos Zambrano as his #1 starter, and Greg Maddux as his #4, although Maddux was only getting older, and less likely to earn his salary. For the #5 spot, Hendry had Jerome Williams as well as prospects Sergio Mitre and Rich Hill. The odds were good that one of the three could hold down the job, but it still put the club in hot water if/when the injuries hit.
The bullpen was in a state of relative stasis. Dempster was no great closer, but he was good enough for the time being, especially considering the more pressing needs the team faced. Will Ohman and Michael Wuertz had done good work for the team in 2005, and the future was promising for young Roberto Novoa. Considering that Scott Williamson was expected back from injury, the bullpen was at least in stable condition. Some support would be good, but it was not top priority; more attention should be given to adding depth to the starting rotation and especially to securing the outfield.
It was thus with some surprise that Hendry deemed the bullpen his top priority and proceeded to foist money upon it. Amazingly, the team decided to give a 3-year, $11 million contract to Scott Eyre. It's arguable that any middle reliver deserves such money, especially from a team that could better dispose of it elsewhere. Eyre was coming off a season where he posted a 2.63 ERA in San Francisco; but then the season before, his ERA was 4.10. Eyre would be 33 years old in 2005 and was by no means a dependable source of quality innings. So to drop $11 million on him was ludicrous.
But Hendry then compounded his ludicrosity by signing middle reliever Bobby Howry to a 3-year, $12 million deal. It's not as if middle relievers in baseball were regular getting this kind of money; Hendry was breaking boundaries by committing his team to near-historic contracts to middle relievers who weren't even all that great. Spending that money on a relief ace is one thing; but Howry could hardly be deemed one. He was, like Eyre, a good middle reliever, with a relatively solid track record -- much better even than Eyre's. But middle relievers are a notoriously volatile investment -- especially for those well over 30 (Howry soon turns 33 himself).
The keystone of my argument, though, isn't about how good Eyre and Howry are. I do mean to point out that they are less than great and much older than anyone you'd want to sign for 3 years, but that's really immaterial. Even if both Howry and Eyre matched the production of their greatest seasons, the deals would not be worthwhile. $11 or 12 million paid to any middle reliever is a tough thing to justify. Especially -- especially for a team with much more pressing needs. Middle relief comes much lower on the totem pole than a starting outfield and a starting rotation. General Managers, Jim Hendry included, often have a tough time grasping this. Or, if they do grasp it, they are unwilling to stand up to the fans and reporters and admit it.
But Hendry, of course, wasn't done. As for the outfield problem, Hendry started by trading for Florida CF Juan Pierre. This move was lauded all over baseball -- mainly because of Pierre's basestealing abilities, his high average, and his ability to "energize the lineup." First of all, if Juan Pierre's presence can actually cause his teammates to suddenly acquire better hitting abilities, I'll eat my hat; secondly, while Pierre does steal a lot of bases and hit for a high average (.305 career), there are other things to consider. Pierre's career batting line coming into 2006 was 305/355/375. While that isn't bad, it's not exactly great. Even 57 stolen bases (Pierre's 2005 total in Florida) aren't even remotely as valuable as people think they are. Pierre is a poor defensive center fielder, so that's not in his favor. But when he hits for a high average, he can be pretty valuable.
But here are the two big reasons against Hendry's trade: 1)Pierre is approaching free agency, and thus the Cubs won't be assured of his services in the long run, and 2) Pierre was coming off a suspiciously poor season in Florida. In 2005, Pierre hit 276/326/354, which is just rotten, even in that ballpark and with the 57 steals. Is it just an off year? Hard to tell. Pierre's just 28 years old, so he's fairly young yet. But 3 of his 6 seasons in the majors were spent at Coors Field, so it's just hard to tell for sure what kind of hitter he really is.
Was it a bad decision by Hendry? I'll admit that Hendry was dealing from desperation, but Juan Pierre isn't that much of an improvement over Corey Patterson, not so much as people think. His skills are vastly overrated, he's coming off a very poor year at the plate, and he's approaching free agency. I believe strongly that there was a better center fielder to be had, for far less money ($5.75 million). And consider that the Cubs had to give up Sergio Mitre and good pitching prospect Ricky Nolasco to get him from Florida. Conclusion? Bad trade. Either Hendry gave in to the pressure and made the trade everyone expected him to make (which isn't the sign of a good GM), or he doesn't have enough baseball intelligence to see through Pierre's limitations (ditto).
To fill their hole in right field, the Cubs signed free agent Jacque Jones to a 3-year, $16 million deal. Let's talk about Jacque Jones: he's another tremendously overvalued player (the Cubs seem to find them often). Jones is a power hitter with terrible plate discipline. This results in a low OBP, since his batting average isn't very good either. He's not bad defensively, but that's a relatively insignificant trait for a corner outfielder. He's a poor base stealer. Sound attractive to you?
Jones had two seasons -- 2002 and 2003 -- where he hit over .300, and thus was able to gain some value. Then he had two season -- 2004 and 2005 -- where hit much less than .300. Let's look up close:
2002: 300/341/511, 27 HR
2003: 304/333/464, 16 HR
2004: 254/315/427, 24 HR
2005: 249/319/438, 23 HR
Jones is 31 years old. Me being a sensible person, I sense a player who's on the decline. And since he wasn't really that good in the first place (especially for a left fielder in the American League playing half his games in the MetroDome), he doesn't sound like a prime choice to shore up my offense. Jones is basically a 20-homer guy with hitting abilities that are otherwise below-average, considering his status as a corner outfielder and his circumstances. There are dozens of guys like that in baseball, but the Cubs found the only one who was overrated enough to earn a $16 million contract. And Jim Hendry signed said contract.
At shortstop, the Cubs had the novel solution of turning to a prospect, Ronny Cedeno. This was quite a surprise, especially given Dusty Baker's bizarre, self-defeating fetish for veterans. I'm surprised that Dusty didn't have a clause written into his contract guaranteeing 200 ABs for Neifi Perez. Cedeno is a good prospect, especially in terms of defense. But Baseball Prospectus 2006 expresses doubts about his chances of developing into a big-league hitter; they say that he is likely to "struggle for a year or two before settling in as a genuinely useful hitter in the big leagues." The decision to make Cedeno the starting shortstop isn't a bad one at all for a team concerned primarily with the future; but it's puzzling coming from a team that has otherwise auctioned off the future for the here and now. While Cedeno may be the best long-term solution at shorstop, he is not helpful to Hendry's desire to contend this year.
And what did the Cubs do to the starting rotation? The Cubs . . . did . . . nothing. This could be the most damning charge against Hendry, even moreso than the wasted millions thrown at Eyre and Howry. In 2005, Hendry was burned by not having competent backups for Prior and Wood. In 2006, Hendry made the exact same mistake. It's even less forgiveable this year; Prior and Wood are even more injury-prone, as proven by yet another year of injury. The young pitchers aren't quite ready to fill in for them, and two of the contenders went to Florida in the Pierre deal. Carlos Zambrano is one of the most abused pitchers in the majors, a candidate for a debilitating arm injury any day now. Greg Maddux is getting very old. Jim Hendry had to have a Plan B for when Prior and Wood went down. But he did not.
What has been the result? I mentioned it some at the beginning of the article. Not only is the Cub offense in tatters, but the Cub pitching has predictably suffered from a lack of depth. The Cubs are one of the worst teams in all of baseball, a horrific fall for a team that seemed headed for a bright future after 2003. Some have blamed part of this season's struggles on an injury to Derrek Lee. And yes, it's true that the injury has hurt the Cubs, although Lee can hardly be expected to hit like Albert Pujols every year. Not only that, but the Cubs compounded their troubles by trading Jerry Hairston, Jr. to the Rangers to get first baseman Phil Nevin. The Rangers did send along some cash to cover part of Nevin's $10 million+ salary. But while Nevin is still a decent hitter, he was not worth the effort by far.
So what is my final analysis of Jim Hendry? I think that Hendry, as a General Manager, does not respond well to pressure and panics. I think this is illustrated by the rather good job he did at the beginning of his tenure, degenerating to a disastrous 2006 season that has left the franchise in tatters.
The Cubs can ask themselves a simple question: Are they better now than they were 4 years ago? The answer is, most definitely, no. All of that failure isn't attributable to Hendry, of course. Dusty Baker carries his share, if not the lion's share. The multitude of injuries to Kerry Wood and Mark Prior may have happened anyway; and not all of Wood's career came under Dusty's watch. But the fact remains that Baker's manhandling of the two prize pitching prospects has not only severely damaged their careers, but nearly torpedoed the team as well. Baker has every appearance of a total incompetent, whereas Hendry at least seems a competent fellow, at least when not under pressure. And while I can't imagine how intense those pressures may be, I have to lay a major fault at the feet of Jim Hendry.
The Cub franchise is at a crossroads; they need to start tearing down and build for the long haul. They were in a prime position to establish a consistent winner 4 years ago, but that was then. The time has come for a new approach to baseball in Chicago. The first to go should be Dusty Baker, I agree. But the second to go, unfortunately, is Jim Hendry.