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October 20, 2010

GM for a Day

Chicago Cubs

by Ben Lindbergh

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As GM for the day, I’m setting this article’s agenda. So while it might be poor form, allow me to lead with a table:

Year

Payroll ($)

NL Payroll Rank

Winning Percentage

NL Winning Percentage Rank

2010

146,609,000

1

.463

13

2009

134,809,000

2

.516

8

2008

118,345,833

2

.602

1

2007

99,670,332

3

.525

6

2006

94,424,499

3

.407

16

The Cubs’ trajectory over the past several seasons has loosely followed the plot of Martin Scorcese’s Casino: vast sums of money have changed hands, a new family seized power, and a successful operation arose where formerly none had thrived, only to be undone by its own profligacy and poor judgment. Naturally, the proceedings have been punctuated by a few Pesci-caliber meltdowns along the way. If the events of Jim Hendry’s tenure were adapted for the screen, one could easily imagine the world-weary GM narrating, “In the end, I wound up right back where I started,” as “The House of the Rising Sun” reached a crescendo and a bat-wielding Alfonso Soriano flailed away at the broken and bleeding body of a billy goat (which, like most of the intended targets of Soriano’s swings, would lie buried in the dirt).

Hendry inherited a 2002 Cubs team that went on to finish fifth in the National League Central; eight-plus years down the road, he finds himself performing a postmortem on a club that recently finished in an identical position, albeit with a more respectable record. The deceased went 75-87, and was spared the ignominy of cellar dwelling only by the happy circumstance of sharing a division with the Pirates. In between those fifth-place bookends, Hendry built a winner, but he did so at a steep cost that continues to hamstring the organization’s efforts.

During the 2006-07 offseason, Hendry committed nearly $300 million to outside talent, which may or may not have played a role in the angioplasty he was forced to undergo at the ’06 Winter Meetings. Shelling out stacks of cash for pricey wins on the free-agent market isn’t the most elegant way to build a winner, but one can’t deny that it worked: Hendry transformed a worst-place team into a first-place team in the span of a single offseason, while a more gradual rebuilding plan might have taken years.

The 2007 squad that sent the Cubs back to the postseason for the first time since the Bartman debacle in 2003 was deeply flawed, but the 2008 club was unquestionably the class of the National League. The downside of the free-agent fixer-upper approach to rebuilding is the short shelf life of the reconstructed product: even a youth movement eventually gets expensive, but at least theoretically, its building blocks don’t reach the wrong side of 30 until their team has enjoyed ample opportunity to contend. Since recruiting well-established mercenaries inevitably requires payment for past performance, a free-agent-for-all like the one in which Hendry indulged invariably sets the clock ticking at about a quarter to midnight.

Those 15 minutes were fun, but after developing a distinctly orange cast last season, the roster turned full pumpkin in 2010, leaving Hendry with a payroll fit for a winner and a collection of players fit for fifth place. Courtesy of the Cubs bats’ mass disappearance during their last two abbreviated trips to October, Hendry and owner Tom Ricketts are left holding the tab without even a single Division Series victory to show for it.

The Cubs’ 75-87 record was a perfect match for their third-order record, so there’s no way to sugarcoat their lack of success. Were I anointed the Cubs’ GM for a day, I’d spend my first few minutes at the helm creatively cursing my predecessor, since the back-loaded, long-term pacts inked by Hendry have left little room to maneuver. Ricketts would reportedly like to cut payroll before next season (and who could blame him), but he and Hendry won’t achieve that goal by sitting around and waiting for contracts to expire. The Cubs’ roster contains only one free agent—Xavier Nady—and the albatrosses elsewhere on the roster will most likely prove extraordinarily resistant to migration.

The Cubs already have $102.5 million allocated to players in 2011—with a frightening $38 million of that ticketed for Soriano and Carlos Zambrano alone—and that figure is set to rise after arbitration, which should award raises to Geovany Soto, Carlos Marmol, Tom Gorzelanny, Sean Marshall, and Jeff Baker. The Cubs have six players slated for salaries well over $10 million (though Seattle will pick up a sizeable portion of Carlos Silva’s), and the North Siders probably won’t be able to unload any of them without eating the balance or accepting equally undesirable outlays in return (although the Red Sox have been linked to Aramis Ramirez).

Chicago’s bullpen was bad enough to warrant a foray into what’s shaping up to be a fairly rich relief market, but the starting pitching doesn’t qualify as a glaring problem. Zambrano won seven of his final nine starts, posting a 1.06 ERA and striking out 54 over that 59 2/3-inning stretch, although a .218 BABIP hid his 31 walks over the same period. His velocity isn’t what it once was, and his 4.30 SIERA suggests that regression might be looming, but defense-independent statistics have never fully come to grips with Zambrano’s apparent ability to limit hits and homers on balls in play. Of course, even an unlikely return to Cy Young form would be a mixed blessing for his employers, since a first- or second-place finish in next year’s voting (or a top-four finish in 2012) would activate his $19.25 million option for 2013. Beyond Zambrano, the Cubs’ rotation features scant ace potential, but more than enough depth to convince them to lock Jeff Samardzija in the bullpen and throw away the key.

Just two seasons removed from ranking second in the National League, the Cubs’ TAv fell to a 14th-place .253, dragged down by the lowest walk rate this side of the Pirates and Astros. Only Soto and Kosuke Fukudome accepted free passes at a significantly above-average rate; Soto, the Cubs’ best hitter, was often buried near the end of the lineup or benched altogether in favor of the weak-hitting Koyie Hill, a perplexing pattern that reflected either a catastrophic failure in talent evaluation, or an effort to protect an ailing shoulder that required arthroscopic surgery in September. Either way, a healthy Soto in the heart of the lineup would give the Cubs a boost in 2011, as would an expected rebound by Ramirez.

With the departure of Derrek Lee in mid-August, first base became a black hole. Adam Dunn would be one way to fill it, but given his defensive shortcomings and the Cubs’ already extensive collection of high-priced veterans, the team would be wise to go with a one-season stopgap until 2012, when Fukudome, Ramirez, and Silva come off the books just as a number of big first base bats hit the market. Wrigley Field is well-suited for left-handed power, and the likes of Russell Branyan, Adam LaRoche, Lance Berkman, or Lyle Overbay (or even Aubrey Huff or Carlos Pena, if they could be convinced to settle for a single year) might be willing to capitalize until the Cubs can take a shot at convincing Adrian Gonzalez or Prince Fielder to follow suit. With four players competing for three spots and no obvious platoon solution, the Cubbies will have to get creative with their outfield alignments; Tyler Colvin might be stretched as an everyday option, but it would be a shame to condemn him to a Francoeur-like future by denying him potential development time.

Until Tuesday, one more vacancy remained to be filled, since Lou Piniella’s departure left the Cubs’ collection of on-field talent without an officially sanctioned dugout doyen. Like many a freshly minted GM before me, I might have been tempted to succumb to the overwhelming urge to install one of “my guys” in the skipper’s office, thereby consigning Mike Quade to the managerial recycling bin. However, since I’ll be vacating his office at the end of the day, Hendry did well to remove the “interim” tag from the veteran coach, who steered his team to a 24-13 record following Sweet Lou’s swan song, earning the respect of both his players and his general manager in the process.

 Contention isn’t out of the question for the Cubs in 2011, but the overstuffed state of the roster will limit what their GM can do to improve their chances over the next several months (let alone the course of a single day), and help from the farm isn’t imminent. Hendry has little choice but to wait for the passage of time to bail him out of the mess he created, and hope that he’s still calling the shots when the payroll again permits more flexibility. The next presidential term will be nearly half over by the time the team frees itself of the last vestiges of its post-2006 spending frenzy, but if Ricketts’ recent ode to developing from within turns out to be something more than lip service, the organization’s next attempt at Curse-breaking might meet with more success.  

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

Related Content:  Cubs,  Jim Hendry

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