I suppose this post could have waited till next week, but once again we are faced with more than 48 hours between games -- for the last time in 2009 -- and so I thought I'd start some discussion this morning with these things that I think were done poorly by Cubs GM Jim Hendry since the end of the 2008 season.
Hendry got a three-year contract extension (through the 2012 season) after last year's successful regular season, with the hope that 2009 would be even better. It didn't work out that way; Hendry had about as bad an offseason last year as any GM in recent memory, but with new ownership poised to take over, it isn't the right time to blow everything up and start over. Hendry will be given at least one more year to get things back on the track we thought the Cubs were on during their two-year run as NL Central champions in 2007 and 2008.
Some of the problems with the 2009 Cubs were not Hendry's fault and many of them were beyond his control. It's not Hendry's fault that Aramis Ramirez dislocated his shoulder four weeks into the season and missed a total of 75 games (through yesterday). A-Ram produced above his usual level (.906 OPS, compared to his career level of .847) and I think we all agree that the Cubs missed his production in the two months he was out from mid-May to mid-July, not to mention that he wasn't at full strength on his return. To have produced the way he did after the All-Star break -- without complaining -- is a credit to Ramirez's work ethic and ability. It's not Hendry's fault that Alfonso Soriano played most of the year injured, though he perhaps could have insisted harder that Soriano have arthroscopic surgery in June, and maybe he'd have been ready in September. It's not Hendry's fault that all the Opening Day rotation starters spent time on the disabled list, forcing the Cubs to have 21 starts made by guys (Sean Marshall, Kevin Hart, Tom Gorzelanny and Jeff Samardzija) whose performance can best be called "uneven". (The Cubs were 9-12 in those 21 games.)
Credit where credit is due: give Jim credit for recognizing that Randy Wells could help the team as a starter, though I don't think anyone could have guessed he'd be as good as he has been. Credit for giving Koyie Hill the backup catcher job; he's been very good in that role. And credit for getting John Grabow and Gorzelanny for, essentially, nothing; Grabow will likely be retained as a key part of the 2010 bullpen and Gorzelanny, though his performance has been up and down, does have talent and will be in the mix for the 2010 rotation.
With that in mind, below the fold you'll find ten ideas Hendry must internalize and go by as he builds a roster for 2010. (Not necessarily in priority order.)
1. Stop fixing "problems" that do not exist. I think this is one we can all agree on; the troubles with the 2009 Cubs began with the decision made at the organizational meetings last fall that "we're not lefthanded enough", a mantra particularly of Lou Piniella's, due to the Dodgers' RHP-centric pitching staff in the 2008 NLDS. The Cubs didn't lose that series because of a lack of LH batters, but since Lou (and the rest of the staff) thought that was the reason, they went out of their way to identify a "lefthanded, middle-of-the-order bat" that they could insert behind Derrek Lee and ahead of Ramirez. We are all familiar with the expensive disaster that produced so I won't rehash it here. I caution Hendry about this because they are about to do the same thing -- fix a nonexistent problem. "We need a speedy leadoff man", goes the managerial mantra. Well, no, Lou, you don't. A leadoff man's primary job is to get on base. You already have someone who can lead off and do that -- Kosuke Fukudome, who ranks 8th in the NL in walks, despite having almost 100 fewer plate appearances than the leader (Albert Pujols). The Cubs are 22-13 with Fukudome leading off this year (that's a 101-win pace for a full season). The last time Hendry went after this type of player, he traded three useful minor leaguers for Juan Pierre. Jim -- do not get sucked into this trap again.
2. Stop bidding against yourself for players. The first argument against this, you might think, is "Jason Marquis", but Marquis did what he was asked to do -- if the Cubs had kept him this year and he had produced the way he did in Colorado, the Cubs would have gotten fine 4th or 5th starter value for the $7 million a year average per year over the life of Marquis' contract. True, Hendry could have likely had Marquis for less, since no one else had expressed interest at the time. And you can't make the argument "Alfonso Soriano" about this, either, because Soriano had been offered six-plus years by the Phillies and seven by the Angels; the Cubs were determined at the time to make a statement in the free agent market. Soriano was the top free agent after 2006, and yes, the Cubs overpaid to get him. He may still be healthy and productive enough to be worth the deal, at least for the next 2-3 years. (Heaven help the Cubs in years 7 and 8, though.) No, what I'm talking about is paying $30 million for three years' worth of the iffy Milton Bradley when absolutely no other team was even after Bradley, much less offering three years. Or giving a two-year contract to Aaron Miles for any amount of money, when we now know there was at least one option (Andres Blanco) right in the Cubs' own farm system who could have done a better job for the league minimum. Advice to Jim: when you're thinking about doing this, don't. Just don't.
3. Stop giving out contracts that are longer than they need to be. Related to the last point, there was no need to give Marquis a three-year deal; two plus a mutual option would have likely done it, and then if the Cubs really did want to deal him last year, they could have arranged for the other team to pick up the option (if that team wanted him badly enough) or simply decline the option and let him go to free agency. This is particularly true in the case of Marquis; the return for him (Luis Vizcaino) was worthless, because the Cubs wound up dumping him and eating the contract. The same thing applies to the Miles and Bradley deals.
4. Stop trading for guys you think are good because you liked them five years ago, or are fond of their college coach. You don't have to guess who I'm talking about here; his name is Aaron Heilman. (And several years ago, his name was Michael Barrett.) It's great for a GM to be loyal to his players, and Hendry is someone a lot of MLB players want to play for, for this very reason. But any Mets fan could have told Hendry that Heilman had lost whatever command he had last year -- you should have heard the booing for Heilman when he came in at Citi Field, louder than I think I've ever heard for any returning former player -- and though Heilman has been better the last six weeks, he still was not worth losing Felix Pie (Pie, though he went to Baltimore, essentially was part of this deal because Garrett Olson, who was acquired for Pie, was part of the deal to the Mariners for Heilman). And really, Jim, isn't it time to stop the Notre Dame-Wrigley Express? As far as I can tell, there are four active major leaguers who went to ND: Heilman, Samardzija, Craig Counsell and Brad Lidge. All of those guys have issues. Enough already.
5. Stop handing out one-year renewal deals to players like candy. Chad Gaudin didn't throw very well and had a noted off-field incident in 2008. He didn't figure to play a major role in the 2009 rotation or bullpen, yet the Cubs signed him to a $2 million deal in December to avoid arbitration. Then he stunk it up in spring training, forcing the Cubs to simply release him and eat the contract; the Padres and Yankees later got replacement-level production for the league minimum. The Cubs could have gotten this sort of production out of Justin Berg or Esmailin Caridad, as it turned out. Gaudin should have been non-tendered in December.
6. Don't waste half a year's roster spot on a Rule 5 pick that your manager isn't going to use. Maybe David Patton would have pitched better if Lou Piniella had actually used him more than once every five games. We'll never know, obviously, but Lou essentially wasted a roster spot by relegating Patton to pitching in blowouts or in long extra-inning games. The Cubs could have used an extra bench player -- since Aaron Miles was useless -- because Lou was working with what was for all practical purposes an 11-man pitching staff. Lou and Jim deserve equal blame for this one -- and I hate to say it, but BCB poster BLou was right about this one. At this point, maybe it's best for the Cubs to stay out of the Rule 5 draft for a while.
7. Do more careful evaluations of your prospects and young players to maximize their value, whether it be in the major league lineup or in trades. It's clear now that the entire organization was split on Felix Pie's progress. Two years ago, his trade value would have been a lot higher than "Garrett Olson", and of course, now it's probably far higher than that again. Hendry sold on Pie at the lowest possible point, and he and Lou together dragged down a former top prospect's trade value (they did the same with Rich Hill, who could have been dealt after the 2007 season for a pretty good return, although few would have suggested it after Hill put together such a good season). This is another reason why it's silly to have played Bobby Scales in left field for even one game. Scales is a great story and maybe he's a 25th guy on someone's roster next year -- but his trade value is close to zero. Jake Fox, on the other hand, might either be a useful spare part for the 2010 Cubs or might have some trade value, but scouts aren't going to see it if he sits on the bench, Lou. This is where a GM has to have some input with his manager, not simply let the manager dictate the roster. In general, GM's shouldn't be making out lineups -- but Hendry, in this case, could have let Lou know that Fox should have been playing (and Fox should have also been playing 3B from the day after A-Ram went down, too).
8. Don't automatically think that you have to sign expensive free agents to get better. Last offseason, rather than sign Milton Bradley, the Cubs could have approached the White Sox for Jermaine Dye. Dye could have been available by trade; at the time it appeared the White Sox were trying to dump contracts. In fact, I wrote about this possibility last November. Dye didn't have a great year, but he was at least as good as Bradley without the baggage, and with Dye having a $12 million mutual option that will almost certainly be declined by the White Sox, he might be available for not too much money and years (see points 2 and 3). There may be other players available like this -- and, in fact, Hendry almost has to use this route to be able to move Bradley's contract. Magglio Ordonez is almost certain to be on the block, and though he had a terrible season, it's possible he could rebound and he's a lifetime .308/.389/.513 hitter in Wrigley Field (relatively small sample size of 90 PA). NOTE! Do not assume that because I mentioned Ordonez, he is the ONLY player I'd go after for such a deal. He's only one example. Another such player is Luke Scott, who would have looked pretty good in a Cubs uniform in 2009, and who is likely headed for a hefty raise in arbitration. Maybe the Cubs can do that if they can trade Bradley elsewhere. The point of all this to Jim Hendry is: get creative, the way you did when you pulled off the Nomar Garciaparra deal in 2004.
9. Get "good clubhouse guys". I mean, this should be a no-brainer. Any Cubs fan who's been around even for ten years knows that the 2003 Cubs, managed by a player's manager, Dusty Baker, succeeded in part because they had strong clubhouse leaders, Eric Karros and Damian Miller. Miller and Karros were sent packing before 2004, and the 2004 Cubs, despite having more talent and ability than the 2003 version, collapsed in the final week. The acrimony there was visible in public, with players calling the press box to bitch, along with some high-profile public trouble between the team and its broadcasters. I'm not saying those were the only reasons for the success or failure of those two teams, but they clearly did have some impact, particularly with a players' manager like Baker who pretty much lets the clubhouse run itself. If there are no strong player-leaders, such a clubhouse is an "inmates running the asylum" situation and the results are predictable. Similarly, the Cubs lost strong player-leaders Mark DeRosa and Kerry Wood after 2008 and added one player who reportedly was not a good clubhouse presence. NOTE! I am NOT saying that the Cubs must go out and reacquire DeRosa and Wood. However, I am saying that I believe all successful teams have players like this in their clubhouse. Hendry needs to identify some such players who can both do this and be productive in the lineup, and acquire a couple of them. Without trying to ignite the stats debate again, I believe having guys like this does matter. (Of course, they should also be good players -- that goes without saying.)
10. Think outside the box. Jim Hendry did this when he managed to dump an unproductive Todd Hundley on the Dodgers and get back two useful players in Mark Grudzielanek and Karros, without whom the Cubs might not have won the division in 2003. He did it again in 2004 when he engineered the four-team trade that got Nomar to the North Side. He needs to be creative in his thinking again this year. Don't fall prey to the "this is what's wrong with us and we are going to go fix that no matter what it costs" thinking that helped ruin the 2009 Cubs. Be ahead of the curve; that's what helped the Cardinals do so well this year. Also, this could apply to the idea that Hendry might be able to find solutions just by looking in his own system for next year (say, Andres Blanco, Justin Berg, Esmailin Caridad) rather than scouring the waiver wire for someone else's discards (as he did this year with the Aaron's).
There may be more lessons than just these ten, but going by these simple precepts might help Jim Hendry build a 2010 Cubs team that will once again be the favorite to win the NL Central -- and this time, actually do it.