Chicago Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts watches as the Cubs take on the Houston Astros at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Ever since the announcement of Jim Hendry's dismissal as Cubs general manager, I had been looking at this day to write about the Cubs' search for a new general manager, largely because today is the Cubs' first off day since then.
At first, I thought I might post a list of candidates -- obvious and not-so-obvious -- and write about their pros and cons. But then, I decided that's pretty much what everyone else has done and is doing. And you all know most of the names, anyway. Why bother repeating work that's being done at every other outlet?
Yesterday, I was thinking about exactly what approach to take when this happened:
The San Francisco Giants have recalled outfielder Pat Burrell from a rehab assignment and have reinstated him from the 15-day disabled list and have purchased the contract of infielder Brett Pill from triple-A Fresno, club Senior Vice President and General Manager Brian Sabean announced today. To make room on the roster, the Giants have designated outfielder Aaron Rowand and infielder Miguel Tejada for assignment.
Two veterans who, between them, are owed about $15 million through the end of next year, were simply jettisoned.
And I thought, "When have the Cubs ever done this? Eaten tons of money just because it was the right thing to do for the team?" And the answer, at least during the nine years of the Jim Hendry regime, is "Never." Oh, sure, they dumped Carlos Silva during spring training this year, eating his contract, but Silva had to pretty much diss the entire coaching staff and make management essentially throw him out in order to do that.
And that's the very first quality a new general manager for the Cubs needs. Follow me past the jump for details and other things I'd like to see Tom Ricketts look for.
The new general manager has to be able and willing to make tough decisions for the good of the team. In the Giants' case yesterday, Brian Sabean -- with approval of ownership, presumably -- decided it was better to give two players a total of $15 million to do nothing rather than have them continue to inhabit the San Francisco clubhouse as the Giants attempt to come back from a six-game deficit in the NL West with less than a month to go in the season. The two proverbial "elephants in the room" for the Cubs are the contracts of Carlos Zambrano and Alfonso Soriano. The Zambrano situation may be resolved by an arbitrator soon; the best the Cubs can hope for is that they get a bit of salary relief from the (approximately) $20 million Big Z is owed, and he's made a free agent.The Soriano situation is more complicated, since he's owed $54 million for the next three years, but consider what my Baseball Nation colleague Grant Brisbee wrote about the Aaron Rowand situation at McCovey Chronicles:
Rowand, though? They owe that guy $12 million next year. They'll have to pay him regardless. It's amazing that they'd just cut him. He was a sunk cost, for sure. He wasn't worth a roster spot. But it's hard for an organization to admit that. Maybe, just maybe, he could find what he'd lost next season and be a contributor. I don't believe that. You don't believe that. But the people writing the checks might hold out some hope because, oh man, that's a lot of money.
So instead of $12 million going to the fifth outfielder, the Giants will pay at least $12.5 million for their fifth outfielder. That extra $.5 will go to someone making the minimum, like Darren Ford. Or it could go to someone even more expensive. The Giants will pay more money than they had to for a fifth outfielder because Rowand was so bad. That's something I never expected them to do. It's the right move, but it's a bold one that's easy for me to call for behind a computer screen.
This is essentially the Cubs' situation. They have to pay Soriano regardless; it's a sunk cost. What if they keep Tyler Colvin -- who has improved -- in right field, and the (relatively) inexpensive Marlon Byrd in center, and give Brett Jackson the left field job in 2011 and release Soriano?
They'd be paying $18.5 million for a left fielder in 2011. They are likely to get better production from Jackson than from Soriano, who will be a year older and (presumably) slower. Why not do this? Why not make, as Grant said, the "bold" move that's also the "right" move?
Under Jim Hendry, a move like this would never, ever, ever be made. The new general manager has to be willing to do things like this. Hendry was a players' GM, often looking out for their best interest even when it wasn't the team's.
That has to end.
The new general manager has to be more interested in using advanced metrics to analyze players. In the Sun-Times yesterday, Gordon Wittenmyer wrote that he agrees with this, but he quotes some current GM's as saying that's not the be-all and end-all:
"It’s a delicate balance," San Francisco Giants GM Brian Sabean, speaking before the Cubs’ 5-2 victory Tuesday, said of the trend to lean more heavily on sabermetrics as a scouting and evaluation tool than on skill sets and personality traits. "There’s certainly a time and place for it, and you have to check off that box.
"Having said that, it’s a people game. Building your club is also about relationships and communication. We all know how to use statistics and all know how to use analysis to make an educated decision and look forward, but should it — or does it — rule the day, in my opinion? I don’t think so. I think most people would admit you need it, but there’s a feel that goes along with it."
Another GM chimed in:
"We use Sabermetrics; we use numbers," Milwaukee Brewers GM Doug Melvin said. "But you’ve got to decide which ones you want to use. Sometimes the problem is there’s somebody coming up with a new formula all the time. It’s like in a science lab. Before you even know if the one works, they’re trying to find something else."
It was pretty clear that the use of advanced metrics was a low priority in the Hendry regime. Whoever the new GM is -- whether he's a younger guy with an MBA or someone with a lot more experience, like Sabean or Melvin (and I'm not suggesting that the Cubs hire either of those men, or even that they're available; they probably are not) -- he has got to strike a balance between scouting and statistics.
The new general manager has to end the buddy system of hiring. We saw this kind of thing happening with managers not only under Hendry, but under previous GM's Andy MacPhail and Ed Lynch, too. Jim Riggleman, Don Baylor, Dusty Baker and Lou Piniella all brought along their old pals from -- well, wherever, to join them on their coaching staffs. This is how we wound up with nonentities like Dan Radison, Gene Glynn, Wendell Kim and Matt Sinatro as Cubs coaches. This sort of thing reached its ridiculous peak with the hiring of Mike Quade -- an old pal of both Hendry and assistant GM Randy Bush -- as manager this year, and the hiring of the minor league coaching staff that accompanies him. Kirk Gibson, a manager with about as much major league managing experience as Quade entering this season, is doing far better with the Diamondbacks. Why? Well, part of it is better players and part of it is Gibson's no-nonsense attitude, but another part of it is the fact that Gibson has two former major league managers assisting him as coaches (Baylor and Alan Trammell). Granted, Trammell and Gibson were teammates and friends for years with the Tigers -- but that was a team that won a World Series, and contended for years. Quade's bunch doesn't have near that kind of credibility.
The new GM has to put aside friendships and hire the best people for the job. They can learn to get along together later. I'm still of the mind that Ryne Sandberg is the man that should be hired next year -- and this is not to start that firestorm again, but to make a point -- and IF he is in fact named Cubs manager, the first thing the GM should do is reach out to Jim Riggleman to be Sandberg's bench coach. Riggleman has 12 years' major league managing experience -- and was Sandberg's last manager when he was playing, too. The entire coaching staff needs to be replaced for a fresh start.
This is a chance for Tom Ricketts to put a real stamp on the Cubs as his ownership enters its third season. The Cubs have operated the same way for far too long; it has produced some achingly close playoff misses over the last eight years, but not the World Series title we all want to see. The things mentioned above aren't necessarily the direct causes of those playoff failures, but they have led to a culture in the organization that rewards friendships instead of winning. Baseball is a people business and whoever is hired as GM should not forget that; a GM hired who sits in his office crunching spreadsheets and ignoring relationships is never going to be a winner.
But at the same time, the new GM has to usher in an era of accountability where no one is safe unless they are productive in their jobs. If that means eating $54 million of Soriano's contract so the franchise can move into the future, so be it.
Tom Ricketts has a chance to influence the Cubs in a positive way for decades to come if he makes the right choice for general manager. There are quite a number of good candidates; I'm not even going to name any of them here. As I noted, you all know who they are. According to David Kaplan, Ricketts is doing his due diligence:
While no interviews are taking place yet two other baseball sources told me that Ricketts is reaching out to several people in the baseball world to compile data on all of the candidates and he is gathering varied opinions on the best way to proceed as he rebuilds his club both on the field and off. "Ricketts is talking to as many baseball insiders as he can to make sure that he is as prepared as possible for when he starts conducting interviews. He is asking all of the right questions but while he is hoping to land an established name it is more likely that he will have to hire an unproven candidate or a lesser known sitting general manager if previous GM experience is that important to him," one league source told me.
I'm not a baseball insider, but the above are my opinions, for whatever they're worth. One thing is for certain: whoever is hired, at the very least, must change the team culture in at least the three major areas I've outlined here. If he (or she, as there's at least one woman whose name has been mentioned) can do so, the future of the Cubs can be very bright indeed.