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August 19, 2011

Manufactured Runs

Multifold Changes

by Colin Wyers

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It’s the end of an era for the Cubs. Tom Ricketts, public face of the Ricketts family trust that bought the team in 2009, announced this morning that general manager Jim Hendry had “stepped down,” which left out the little detail that he was given a bit of a shove first. It’s become increasingly clear that the Cubs have needed a new direction for many years, and now they certainly are going in a new direction.

Nobody will accuse Hendry of being the world’s greatest GM, but he is perhaps taking more than his fair share of the blame from Cubs fans. Ricketts was careful to avoid turning Hendry into a scapegoat, praising him for his work and dedication. Today’s press conference shed some new light on the baffling behavior of the Cubs this past month; Hendry was informed of the decision to move on back on the 22nd of July, just over a week before the trade deadline. He was asked to stay on to finish signing the team’s amateur draft picks, and he agreed. This explains the inactivity of a man nicknamed “Trader Jim” for his wheeling and dealing ways; taking a laissez faire approach gives his successor more freedom.

Explaining it doesn’t necessarily remove the frustration entirely—if a trade package for someone like Marlon Byrd or Matt Garza was out there, it should have been taken. But while that’s a cautionary note about how Ricketts operates, it shouldn’t be a mark against Hendry, who agreed to stick around under what must have been difficult circumstances for him. At his farewell presser, Hendry was on the verge of tears on a number of occasions. When asked what he was going to do next, he said simply:

Well, I will, you know, hopefully be a better dad. I got two great kids, you know, need to spend more time with them. It’s such a consuming profession that I don’t think until the music stops you sometimes realize what went by. So I got to do a little better job there at home. And then I’ll just kind of gather myself. I’ve done nothing but be really consumed by the Cubs for a long time, sometimes to a fault, probably. Probably my enthusiasm a few years back and aggressiveness to try to finally knock that door down probably led to a couple of decisions I shouldn’t have made that ended up being not good for the organization and certainly didn’t turn into more wins.

I think that’s an appropriate epitaph for the Hendry years. Nobody could question the man’s dedication to the Cubs; one of his most famous acts as GM was signing free agent pitcher Ted Lilly while he was in the hospital getting ready for an angioplasty. He presided over some of the best Cubs teams of the Tribune era, both in terms of record and reaching the playoffs. It’s disappointing—to both Cubs fans and to Hendry himself—that none of those appearances turned into a World Series win and that there weren’t more of them, but a full accounting of his tenure has to include his successes as well as his failures.

In order to understand the Cubs going forward, it’s also important to understand the conditions Hendry had to work under. We call them general managers, but I think it’s instructive to think of them as field generals. They are given objectives and resources to achieve them. They set strategy, they give input to their higher-ups, and they execute the plans. But they don’t come up with the goals or, ultimately, decide what resources will be at hand to achieve those goals. This is not to say that criticism of a general manager is off-limits or to excuse a GM’s faults as the responsibility of management, but at the end of the day, a general manager is a functionary. Some are better than others, of course, but in the final accounting, an owner is responsible for what transpires.

Since 1982, Cubs ownership had been the Tribune Company, whose primary business was in newspapers, radio, and television. The Cubs’ relationship with the Tribune Company has not been wholly detrimental; one could argue that their relationship with the Tribune-owned WGN stations, both radio and television, was a substantial contributor to the large, national fanbase the Cubs currently enjoy.

Still, the Tribune Company primarily prized the Cubs for the content they could provide to their media empire rather than as a desirable asset in their own right. In a sense, Tribune did what teams like the Yankees and Red Sox have done—made the team sign friendly TV contracts as a way to shift profits outside of the purview of MLB’s revenue sharing and to another business they controlled. Unlike the Steinbrenners of the world, though, Tribune always viewed the broadcasting, not the ballclub, as their primary business. As a result, the Cubs fell into a state of neglect until the Tribune Company had no choice but to try and turn the franchise around.

Hendry had already been GM for a few years at this point, having taken over the reins from Andy MacPhail, who moved upstairs to become the president and CEO. The role of president has, until recently, meant more to the Cubs than it might have to other teams. Because nobody in the Tribune knew or perhaps cared about the day-to-day operations of the baseball team, the president would fulfill much of the role an owner might in another organization—setting goals, giving the GM approval, etc. The president still would have to go hat-in-hand to his bosses at Tribune if anything required significant money, of course, but in terms of baseball ops, they had a lot of power. So let’s look at the leadership Hendry had during his tenure.

MacPhail, of course, comes from a long line of baseball executives and, at times, seemed more interested in doing business the old-fashioned way than in doing what was best for the Cubs. He was profiled by Sports Illustrated when he was still the golden boy who ran the Twins—rather than the man who presided over decades of Cub and Oriole mediocrity—and this quote pretty much sums up MacPhail’s philosophy:

"I don't think MacPhail believes winning a World Series and losing $10 million is a successful season," says Pat Reusse, a columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "He's intrigued by the challenge of running a team with limited resources."

MacPhail might have been intrigued by the challenge, but Cubs fans who saw a Tribune company with many millions and no World Series wins were certainly disinterested. When MacPhail moved on to Baltimore, the Cubs turned to John McDonough, a marketing executive who knew a lot more about Beanie Babies than about baseball. His legacy is mixed. He kept attendance up during some pretty lean years for the team on the field, but he’s also the man to blame for the seventh-inning stretch guest conductors, which started off as a touching tribute to Harry Caray and has ended up as a way for a succession of increasingly annoying celebrities to plug their latest venture. When promoted to team president in 2006, he boldly proclaimed the goal was to win a World Series. The trouble is that his plan to win a World Series was to inject himself into the negotiations for Alfonso Soriano:

It also has been well documented that what drove the price so high had nothing to do with the baseball operations side of the team, nor Jim Hendry. It came directly from the top of an organization that was about to put the club up for sale and needed a quick-fix big splash in the free-agent market to make the product more attractive. Former Cubs president John McDonough admitted in 2007 he closed the deal himself, adding years and value to it.

So, you know, that turned out well.

After McDonough, the Cubs turned to Crane Kenney, a former Tribune general counsel who is still with the Cubs organization due to a desire to maintain continuity as the Ricketts took over. The Cubs are done maintaining continuity. Kenney remains aboard, but the new GM will report directly to Tom Ricketts, effectively cutting Kenney off from the decision-making process in terms of baseball operations. In his press conference, Ricketts explained the timing of the move:

As everyone here knows, we said day one was square one for everyone in the organization. And so we got to about the middle of last month, and I just felt it was time to move on, and as soon as I had made that decision along with the members of the board who are my siblings, I went to talk to Jim [Hendry] about it. … I think that if we had come in guns ablazing, changing everything on day one, I think the likelihood of making a mistake is much higher than it is having this year-and-a-half or two years of experience to help me think through what’s next for the baseball organization.

That’s the important takeaway from today’s announcement—not that Hendry is gone, but that Tom Ricketts and his fellow owners are starting to flex their muscles and exercise control of the team. And they have a plan:

Our focus will be on what we focused on the last couple years here, and that’s player development.  We believe very strongly that the way to build consistent success in an organization is through identifying talented players, bringing them into the system and developing them into productive players at the major league level. … [The next GM will] have to share a commitment to player development. … We’ll look  for guys that maybe have a stronger analytical background than we have here. … But I think we all have to keep that in perspective. The sabermetric stuff is important, but it’s just a piece. We’re not running the baseball organization by a computer model.

It’s too easy for those of us who care about the “sabermetric stuff” to focus on the “computer model” comment and ignore the rest. One of the vestiges of the Tribune era of management has been the lack of an infrastructure in the front office. The team had the smallest front office in MLB under the Tribune and has been slow to adopt any kind of advanced analysis. They brought on Ari Kaplan as the manager of statistical analysis, but by himself he’d be hard pressed to do the sort of things teams like the Rays and the Indians (much less the Red Sox or Yankees) are doing. The Ricketts are sending a signal today that they’re prepared to change this. For the first time in decades, the Cubs truly have leadership. It’s yet to be seen whether or not it’s good leadership, of course, but it’s an encouraging first step.

It's not one that's likely to be well-recieved by Cubs fans, some of whom likely have visions of Albert Pujols in their heads as we head towards the offseason. This is a Cubs team that is girding itself for a long rebuilding, not a quick fix. Cubs fans are tired of being patient, so fireworks are to be expected. But if the Ricketts can pull it off, they can give the city of Chicago something new: a Cubs team capable of the sort of sustained competativeness they need to break their World Series drought.

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

23 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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SaberTJ

Great article Colin. Thanks

Aug 19, 2011 16:31 PM
rating: 6
 
jrfukudome

Well done.

Aug 19, 2011 18:46 PM
rating: 1
 
evo34

It's certainly implied in this article, but I think it needs to be stated explicitly: Hendry has had a top 10 payroll to work with for each of the past seven years, has enjoyed a well-below-average strength of schedule, and yet has a .500 record over this time span. That's fairly tough to do, even after factoring in some of the erratic behavior from ownership described above. Unrelatedly, I wonder if Dave Littlefield has kept his job.

Aug 20, 2011 00:37 AM
rating: 2
 
Richard Bergstrom

I'm a Cubs fan, but I am chagrined by my fellow Cubs fans who enjoyed ripping Jim Hendry and seemed to think that Darwin Barney was the savior for a new era. I love the Cubs, but I enjoyed being a fan more when they were the loveable losers. During Hendry's tenure, they went to the playoffs more times in those few years than they had in the previous century... which created some very spoiled Cubs fans.

Was Hendry the best GM? No. I think he had some good strengths with dumpster diving and evaluating prospects, but tended to give star-level salaries to merely good players. However, it's not like he was Omar Minaya during his tenure with the Mets or Jim Bowden with the Nationals.

Aug 20, 2011 01:39 AM
rating: 0
 
eighteen
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Hey, you spoiled Cubs fans: You've gone to the playoffs 4 times in the last 14 years - and got swept in 3 of 'em. Don't you feel great about that, you spoiled fans of the only major market club in a division that feeatures Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Houston, and Milwaukee? Don't you feel great knowing that since 2003, you've won fewer playoff games than Milwaukee, Houston, Tampa Bay, and Cleveland? Isn't it great looking across town at the World Series flag flying at the Cell?

The Cubs are an abject failure first and foremost because of their "fans."

Aug 20, 2011 11:55 AM
rating: -5
 
Peter7899

2005 is getting farther and farther away there pal. Dunn and Rios... how's that working out for ya?

Aug 20, 2011 12:23 PM
rating: -2
 
eighteen
Other readers have rated this comment below the viewing threshold. Click here to view anyway.

I'm not a Sox fan, "pal." My point was that the White Sox, in the same city but with vastly lesser resources, have won a World Series recently, while the Cubs have not.

Sorry you needed that spelled out for you, "pal."

Aug 20, 2011 14:12 PM
rating: -9
 
Richard Bergstrom

I don't think he's your pal, buddy.

(South Park Reference)

Aug 20, 2011 18:34 PM
rating: 3
 
jrfukudome

Did you post this on MLBTR?

Aug 20, 2011 20:06 PM
rating: 1
 
evo34

Bowden's and Hendry's situations were not at all similar. Bowden basically performed inline with his decaying payroll.

Aug 21, 2011 22:54 PM
rating: 0
 
amazin_mess

I'm a Mets fan, and even in our darkest hours, I'm thankful I'm not a Cubs fan.

Aug 20, 2011 05:13 AM
rating: 2
 
adambennett

Kim Ng seems like an obvious choice for the next Cubs GM.

Aug 20, 2011 06:15 AM
rating: 9
 
amazin_mess

I really do hope they get someone good. Ng would be a good choice. If they won it all with her, they'd put a statue of her outside of Wrigley.

Aug 20, 2011 06:30 AM
rating: 2
 
jj0501

The insight on the Soriano signing was appreciated. I knew there HAD to be more to the story.

Aug 20, 2011 07:06 AM
rating: 6
 
rrvwmr

Im willing to give Hendry a free pass on the Soriano signing, he needs it b/c his body of work beyond that is still putrid.

The first trade he made as a GM was a good one and we've been waiting for his next good one for 9 years. He got Aramis from pittsburgh for a song and hasn't done a thing to help this team since.

The overall takeaway from watching him build a roster is that he truly doesn't understand what it takes to win a championship. the 2007 and 2008 teams were fine if the goal was to win a mediocre division, they were never going to win a world series, they couldn't even win a playoff game.

maybe soriano wasn't his idea but when no other team in baseball was pursuing him, hendry gave jacque jones 5 million a year. he just didn't get it. his vision for a team that might be able to win a world series was way off the mark.

It was also painful to watch him mismanage the value of any sort of young up and coming player the cubs had under his watch. It behooves a team to know beforehand how good your own players are, how many times did the cubs have a 'great prospect' that he would let lose all of their value and then trade them away on the absolute low points. how many prospects did he trade away before realizing they could maybe be able to contribute? how could anyone expect him to acquire players of value in trades when he didn't even realize which players in his organization were any good and which were overrated? everyone certainly makes mistakes but when you only make mistakes then there is a problem.

the baffling thing is the credit he got here for so long, how many years did it take watching teams from smaller markets run circles around the cubs before the team and the fans realized we were at a prohibitive competitive disadvantage with hendry at the helm.

beyond all of that, the one player over the last 15 years that could have been a career cub and someone that universally loved by every fan, kerry wood, hendry ran out of town for absolutely no reason, a final black mark on his shameful record.

how is ricketts not in tampa right now with a blank check for friedman trying to lure him up here. what is not computing? some people have shown without a doubt that they 'get it'. why not hire one of them?

Aug 20, 2011 10:39 AM
rating: -2
 
Peter7899

Wow. I don't even know where to start on that one, but me try anyway.

1. Derek Lee, Kenny Lofton, Rich Harden all were trades that worked out for the Cubs. I'd say he was pretty good at aquiring that extra piece when he needed to, and gave up very little to do it.

2. Cubs won 97 games in 2008. They were the best team in baseball that year, let alone the winner of a 'mediocre' division. They had 8 Allstars. Playoffs can be a crapshoot, but make no mistake that team was a juggernaut.

3. How cares about giving Jacque Jones 5 million?

4. Mismanage up and coming players? For every Corey Patterson or Felix Pie there's a Carlos Zambrano, Carlos Marmol, Kerry Wood, or Mark Prior that worked out pretty well for the Cubs.

Get your facts straight before you start trashing a team you obviously have no clue about.

Aug 20, 2011 12:36 PM
rating: 6
 
Richard Bergstrom

Many teams don't even have enough player development to have swings and misses like Patterson and Pie. The Cubs put out a lot of useful major leaguers under Hendry's watch. He's also done well with retreads like Dempster. He just whiffed on paying above average players like superstars.

Aug 20, 2011 18:37 PM
rating: -1
 
rrvwmr

You should try harder

the trade for aramis included lofton, so that was part of the same move i already gave him credit for and which is well deserved.

Derrek Lee was a few days away from being non tendered by the marlins before hendry acquired him. he had one good year for the cubs and the one month we really needed him, september of 2004 he was nonexistent as was the rest of the team outside of aramis and sammy.

Rich harden fell behind in his only playoff start in the first inning ending our season.

I went to 20 games in 2008, it was awesome. they were a great regular season team that was overmatched the minute it was faced with playing top line competition. they were a good team with great depth for the long haul but toe to toe with the other top teams they were at serious disadvantage in terms of having no true Ace starters and an unbalanced lineup.

Carlos Zambrano, pretty hard to give anyone a medal for having him around boy are the cubs blessed to have zambrano around right now. where would we be without zambrano? i perish at the thought. marmol leads the league in blown saves. these are decent major leaguers, not championship pieces.

Wood, my absolute favorite player on the team was run out of town by hendry for no reason. so any credit i would give him for having him he loses on the back end.

prior was great for a year or two, speaking of first round picks since prior who have we taken in the first round thats actually made any sort of impact?

i think it will be pretty hard for you to come up with some bullet points of those. there are NONE.

the below comment mentions dempster and that was an astute move so now we are up to about 3 or 4 in 9 years. awesome.

Not only did he let C the P and pie lose all their value but he also couldn't get rid of nolasco fast enough.

he also was terrible when it came to being a seller at the deadline, he once made a daring acquisition of cesar izturis, calling him an all star. what more did we need to know about that move that we didn't learn when piniella essentially banished cesar 3 weeks into the following season.

lastly, i care about jacque jones because it perfectly captures just how little understanding he had for how to compete in the current landscape. you don't pay 5 million to players who stink.

im surprised you are posting here because your comments sound like those of someone that drinks only the kool-aid the chicago tribune endlessly spewed about hendry instead of actually watching what was happening.

vast resources, the weakest competition in MLB and middling results at best. thats all there is to know.

now that you have made me respond i think my opinion of his body of work went even lower. thanks for enhancing my depression.

Aug 21, 2011 10:14 AM
rating: -2
 
WaldoInSC

Colin, thank you for an insightful, balanced and educational article. One quibble about this comment:

... and Cubs fans who saw a Tribune company with many millions and no World Series wins were certainly disinterested.

Cubs fans are the very opposite of "disinterested," which means "neutral." I think you mean to say they are "uninterested."

Aug 20, 2011 19:32 PM
rating: 2
 
Scott Gilroy

Very Good Article. Thanks

Aug 21, 2011 10:48 AM
rating: 0
 
Mike W
(830)

This is yet another in a long line of apologies for Hendry by BP writers. I used to think that BP must have, or have had, some relationship with Hendry to be so frequently talking around his failures. But while many people have not been fans of his, there remain a lot of people who still feel he wasn’t that bad, and I no longer think this is a BP-only phenomenon. I think there is some sort of (perhaps willful) blindness in play here, relating to the lack of success the Cubs have historically had, making Hendry look competent by comparison.

To me, Hendry has been an abject failure on a number of levels. I think that when the defense of a GM rests with a couple moves that worked out well, such as signing Lilly, or getting Aramis Ramirez from Pit, you have kind of a 13th-chime of the clock thing going on. With the Ramirez trade, EVERYONE thought that was highway robbery. The story of that deal isn’t how brilliant Hendry was, but how stupid the guys on the other end were. Good for Hendry to have been the guy on the other end of the phone, sure, but who would not have made that deal? Signing Lilly was just another example of Hendry thinking, “Well, I have a hole at this position and I have this much to spend, sooo . . . hey, Ted Lilly.” What I want to know is, is a GM doing a poor job only if NONE of his deals ever work out?

Let’s look at the farm system, from where Hendry came. The Cubs’ system was known for, and still is known for, being terrible at providing instruction. Few Cub prospects exit their system being any better at plate discipline than when they entered it. And at the major league level the Cubs were usually at or near the bottom in OBP. The few position players who meaningfully contributed to the major league team were usually guys who came out of nowhere and were very raw (Castro, Colvin), or guys who were never big prospects, who were brought up because of an unexpected hole at a position and who probably would have been sent right back down if they didn’t get hot at the right time, and probably surprised noone more than Hendry when they became useful (Theriot, Fontenot). I think it is foolish not to give Hendry some credit for these players, but the farm system itself seems to have done little to contribute over the last decade (or more). How many players have MATURED, or GROWN in the system in the last ten years?

The one failing of Hendry’s that BP has historically been able to note is his lack of a plan. His MO has been to look around each winter, identify the two or three biggest holes in the major league roster, and throw as much money as ownership has allotted at those positions, which is one reason he has sometimes wildly overpaid for people. It is also one reason many fans I know, including me, have lost interest in the Cubs. There is no continuity, no plan evident, just a piecemeal patching together with big checks. I’m at an age where I can’t root for laundry anymore, and that’s what the Cubs offer, nothing more. Unless you like to, and are able to, drink beer on weekday afternoons.

Hendry has been very, very fortunate in presiding over the Cubs when they played in a soft division and began to be able to spend a LOT of money. That he got to the playoffs three times in ten years is simply not much of an achievement in that environment. He leaves behind a mess that warms the hearts of Brewer, Cardinal and Pirate fans.

Aug 22, 2011 06:13 AM
rating: 0
 
sbnirish77

Check Jim Hendry's bio ... he could have stopped after being a baseball coach at Creighton and he would have forgot more about baseball than Andrew Freidman will ever know.

Nice model the Rays have ... be terrible for 10 years ... get draft picks only others can dream of ... get to the playoffs once ... sign so few stars that you play to an empty stadium except when the Yankees or Red Sox are in town .. get a finance model such that you can't even sign or keep at-market free agents

The Cubs have been to the playoffs more times than the Rays in the last decade and bulit a brand at least sold a lot of tickets

Being financially efficient while winiing is even less important now that Rickets owns the team ... winning YES ... doing it within the artifical BP construct of financial efficiency NO



Aug 23, 2011 17:38 PM
rating: -1
 
R.A.Wagman

You have completely misread the Rays' approach. And I'm not a fan of their club. There is nothing artificial about financial efficiency. Just look at the Mets for proof. And the Cubs, for that matter. They wasted money on players they could not afford to sit, losing the opportunity to bring in better players and play better. Financial efficiency is good even with a bigger budget.

Aug 24, 2011 04:46 AM
rating: 1
 
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