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March 19, 2010

One-Hoppers

Hendry's Window

by Christina Kahrl

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Since getting tabbed to take up the reins mid-way through 2002, Jim Hendry's run as a general manager boasts three division titles and five winning seasons in the seven full years he's been at the helm, success that trumps Leo Durocher's run with the club, which started back before the summer of love. Cubbie-fan faithful love their summers at Wrigley Field now more than ever, with attendance topping three million for six consecutive seasons--as far as putting cash in the till, that's the best run the franchise has ever had.

Which sounds swell... except that there's trouble in paradise, for Hendry's club, and perhaps Hendry as well. With the Ricketts family taking over the team this winter, this isn't a case of what have you done for me lately, but what have you done for me. The veteran team he's assembled is a win-now ballclub that didn't win last year, and whose window may already be shut. The average age in the lineup was over 30 last season, and swapping out a 32-year-old Milton Bradley for a 32-year-old Marlon Byrd doesn't turn back time any for a crew of offensive regulars that should count just one regular under 30: Geovany Soto. Talking about positive vibes with new hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo is swell, but Jaramillo's bag of tricks doesn't include unpacking the even more pleasant hitting environment in Texas he had the advantage of working with.

If the offense is going to bounce back from last season's disastrous 12th-place finish in TAv, it's not going to be Jaramillo who is the key factor, it's going to be getting a slimmed-down Geovany Soto to hit more like he did in his rookie season, and enjoying a healthy campaign from Aramis Ramirez. Simply going off of the Equivalent Runs produced by Soto and Ramirez in 2008 as a baseline, getting those two back in action could total up to 50 runs of difference in the offensive ledger, or five wins in the standings, easily the difference between October and front-office executions. Similarly, whatever hope the Cubs have on the mound depends on veteran starters staying healthy and producing. As with Soto, seeing Carlos Zambrano come to camp lighter on his feet is a step in the right direction; getting Ted Lilly back soonest will be equally important. For all of the fascination in the failures of the bullpen last season, and the calls for Hendry to make a deal to add a veteran reliever now, before it's too late, the pen wasn't that much worse without Kerry Wood.

Even then, making any kind of deal is hamstrung by successive failures in the draft. There's no major help on the horizon in terms of position players or pitchers who can alter the club's reliance on the aged, and not nearly the kind of depth that would allow Hendry to deal from to acquire that last veteran player (or three) this club needs. And can the club really afford the additional financial commitments that would push payroll well past $140 million? Here again, as spectacularly disappointing as Hendry's track record for accumulating prospects has been, the massive long-term financial commitments made to merely decent performers like Alfonso Soriano or Kosuke Fukudome put the club in a hole not just now, but in 2011 as well—the North Siders are already set to spend more than $100 million on a team that hasn't won a playoff game since 2003.

With a pre-season PECOTA projection of a record around .500, the window's already narrow, even in the parity-empowered National League. Best Cubs club of the modern era or not, if that's all there is, tearing down Hendry's team might be a chore best handed to somebody else.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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