The Chicago Cubs have fired general manager Jim Hendry.
The unceremonious dumping of Hendry as his team slumps to a fifth place finish despite the largest payroll in the division by some $25 million underscores the successes of the early Hendry era. From Hendry’s promotion to GM in 2002 to 2008 the Cubs won three NL Central crowns, including the 2003 season, in which they reached the infamous Bartman NLCS. By no means were the Cubs a dynasty — a fact made brutally obvious by their struggles post-2007 — but such success was new to the Cubs organization. The Cubs made three playoff appearances from 1984 until Hendry’s ascension to the GM position; creating a winner in the North Side has, for one reason or another, not been an easy task for a baseball man over the last century.
The 2008 team was probably the best of the bunch, winning a stunning 97 games and relegating the best Milwaukee Brewers team since 1982 to a Wild Card finish. But the championship window for the Cubs was likely limited to that year — older or declining players like Jim Edmonds, Ted Lilly, Mark DeRosa, Derrek Lee, and Kerry Wood were key contributors, and only two position players under 30 were Geovany Soto and the rather mediocre Ryan Theriot. The cost of assembling the 2008 team turned out to be simply too great to work around the declining talent.
The Cubs paid too many good players elite money. Alfonso Soriano contributed a .280/.344/.532 line in the first year of a much — and correctly — maligned eight year, $136 million contract. Carlos Zambrano posted a good-but-not-great 118 ERA+ in his first year of a five-year, $91.5 million contract, which he may not even play out — Hendry’s last move as Cubs GM was the suspension and disqualification of Zambrano following his blowup two weeks ago. Those are only the two most egregious of the eight-figure contracts the Cubs would pay out over the next few years to good but mostly undeserving talents — we can add Kosuke Fukudome, Derrek Lee, Milton Bradley, Aramis Ramirez, Ryan Dempster (probably the best two of these deals) and Ted Lilly to that list as well.
These contracts wouldn’t have mattered with better drafts, though, and a large market team like the Cubs could survive some bad contracts with star talent coming up through the system. But the only impact player added to the team since 2008 has been Starlin Castro — and he is, or at least will be, a star — and that’s simply not good enough. And it certainly doesn’t help that the Cubs dealt three potential MLB players in Chris Archer, Hak-Ju Lee, and Robinson Chrinos to the Rays for Matt Garza. Garza has pitched well for the Cubs, but the incompetent defense and lack of surrounding talent makes one wonder if his impact will mean anything, or if the Cubs will have to settle for a smaller return later on as part of a genuine attempt at rebuilding.
But these are the Chicago Cubs, and although that has meant general incompetence from 1908 on, we saw from 2003 to 2008 that the Cubs have the economic resources to contend. If managed right, though there should be little doubt they could gain a foothold at the top of the division. Sure, the Cardinals have the organization in place to compete consistently as well, and the Pirates have assembled a ton of top talent, and the Brewers have shown every once in a while they can put a great product on the field. If the Cubs owners can put a group in charge with the right vision, though, they can use the economic resources at their disposal — second to none in the division, and until the Mets and Dodgers get their act together, second to none in the National League — to ensure years like 2010 and 2011 and decades like 50s, 60s and 70s never happen again. With a proper front office in charge, we could see the name Chicago Cubs take on a whole new meaning, much like the rebirth of the Boston Red Sox last decade.
Of course, the rebirth of the Chicago Cubs can only happen if those in charge at 1060 West Addison make the right decisions, and they haven’t for over a century. For now, long live the Cubs, those lovable losers of the National League.