Court is back in session. Jim Hendry is on trial.
If you missed my last post, the prosecution (myself) laid out a pretty good case for Hendry’s incompetency as a GM and now it’s the defense’s (myself) turn to convince the judge (myself) and jury (multiples of myself) that Hendry’s done more good than harm to an organization that hasn’t won a World Series in over a hundred years.
My opening argument in defense Hendry, without consideration of the evidence at this point, is to say that he's had nothing but the team’s best interest in mind when it’s come to getting the best players available and making moves whenever the Cubs needed a boost in any aspect of the game. He has been more aggressive than any GM the last three years (maybe Brian Cashman or Omar Minaya in New York being the exception) in securing the most touted talent on the market to give the Cubs a chance to contend, which they have two of the last three seasons. A GM is responsible for getting the players and then it’s on them to perform. Hendry can’t be blamed for the failings of the players that on paper should be better.
Now it's time for the evidence for aka the five best moves of Hendry's time as a General Manager. Let's start with the fifth best:
Exhibit A: Trading for Rich Harden on July 8, 2008
The Cubs were rolling happily along in first place in early 2008. Then Milwaukee traded for Cy Young winner C.C. Sabbathia. Cub nation looked to Hendry to answer that tremendous deal and he delivered, unloading a bunch of average players just exploring their big-league potential in SP Sean Gallagher, OF Matt Murton and OF/2B Eric Patterson to secure the dominant-when-healthy Harden and an extra reliever in Chad Gaudin.
Skeptics were worried about Harden’s health being a factor, but this was a move to give the Cubs an extra shot in the arm to make the rotation dominant come post-season play. Had the Cubs managed to put runs on the board against the Dodgers, Harden might’ve worked out.
Don’t blame Harden and don’t blame Hendry. This was the absolute right move for the team at the time as it was reasonable to expect Kosuke Fukudome to get better and right field not to be an issue.
If there were injury problems, the Cubs wouldn’t have had to attach themselves to Harden beyond 2009. This season, he’s missed short time, but his command has been suspect and his pitch counts unreasonably high. Had the Cubs competed more in 2009, he would’ve been an asset.
Harden is the most recent example of Hendry aggressively filling the exact need the Cubs had, getting him for a great price and getting the results – for the most part – from him.
Exhibit B: Signing Mark DeRosa on November 14, 2006
Just as trading DeRosa was one of the worst things Hendry did, signing him was one of the best. In 2006, Hendry traded 2B Todd Walker to the San Diego Padres because he was in a contract year and on the down end of his career. Mark DeRosa fit a similar personality and statistical profile (only he hit right-handed). As you might expect, DeRosa put up career numbers with the Texas Rangers in a contract year at age 31. Sound like someone we know? This time, however, the gamble paid off.
DeRosa emerged as a team leader and hit .289 with 31 HR and 159 RBI in two seasons with the Cubs. He played six different positions: both outfield corners and every spot on the infield. He kept the Cubs afloat when players at these positions (Aramis Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano) were injured.
Simply put, DeRosa turned out to be more than a utility player who would fill in for a year at second base. He was an incredible bargain at 3 yrs/$13 million with the way he glued together the middle of the order.
Hendry rarely found that kind of value in a player and it might have made the difference between the Cubs contending in ’07 and ’08 and being the real deal for as much of the regular season as they were both years.
Exhibit C: Signing Ted Lilly on December 15, 2006
Ted Lilly had pitched in the AL nearly his entire career and it turned out that a move to the NL was just what the doctor ordered. Lilly has been one of the best third starters in baseball as a Cub, including a much-deserved All-Star selection this season. At 4 yrs/$40 million, Lilly has been the fairest deal dollar for dollar that Hendry’s made.
On paper, Lilly looked pretty high risk. He had a 4.52 ERA in three seasons with Toronto. He was, of course, 30 years old. His 160 Ks were the positive and he managed to start at least 30 games each of the last four seasons except one. The money seemed a bit high, but Hendry had a feeling the move to the NL would benefit Ted. He was right.
Lilly has a 3.70 ERA in nearly three seasons with the Cubs, his best by far for any team. He also has nearly 500 strikeouts, more than any Cubs starter since 2007. He also has the fewest strikeouts of any starter in the last two years, unless you include Rich Harden’s limited time as a Cub, but even then he’s only got eight more than Rich.
Lilly has another year left on his contract, and as the Cubs’ only sure-handed lefty, you can bet that he’ll be coveted next season, even if the Cubs are out of it and trading him would look good. As for beyond 2010, Hendry will have to make a call about what to offer, if anything, to a 34-year-old pitcher. Either way, nothing takes away the incredible value Lilly has been for these years as a Cub.
Exhibit D: Trading for Derrek Lee on November 25, 2003.
In a bid to get back at the Florida Marlins and solve the hole at first base that hadn’t been adequately filled since Mark Grace (and Hee Sop Choi wasn’t panning out), the Cubs traded Choi and a minor leaguer for Lee, an absolutely lopsided deal.
Lee was only 27 at the time (shocker, I know) and had shown he could hit decently for average (.270s the last couple years for Florida) and especially for power (over 25 HR the previous two seasons). He’d also just won a golden glove. And the Cubs gave away nothing.
I could’ve made that kind of deal in my sleep, but it doesn’t take away Jim Hendry solidifying first base for many years to come with a great athlete and team leader.
Despite a bit of a dark period after injuring his wrist and back, cutting into his power and base-stealing numbers and making him a bit streakier in 2007-08, Lee has been nothing short of an incredible talent.
Lee was one of the most dominant players in the game in 2005 and had it not been for injury, he might have continued in that vein for years to come. That season, Lee hit .335 with 46 HR and an OPS of over 1.000. He won a gold glove, silver slugger, made the All-Star game and finished third in the MVP balloting. This season, Lee has gotten both his power numbers (33 HR) and average (.307) back to stellar range. He has a year left on his contract and despite salary considerations, is a player worth keeping around in his contract year (his no-trade clause might make that the case anyway).
With the exception of Exhibit E, Lee was a heck of a signing (despite being so early in Hendry’s career), especially in an off-season where the Cubs were coming off such tremendous disappointment in the post-season. Hendry couldn’t have gotten a better player for as little as he gave away.
Exhibit E: Trading for Aramis Ramirez and Kenny Lofton on July 23, 2003.
Taking over mid-season as GM, Jim Hendry came out and delivered a sensational deal that rocketed the Cubs to the playoffs in 2003: trading for Pirates youngster Aramis Ramirez and veteran center fielder Kenny Lofton, giving up only Jose Hernandez, a prospect and Bobby Hill.
Ramirez had been with Pittsburgh for more than five years including two full seasons. In 2001, at the age of 23, he hit .300 with 34 HR and 112 RBI. Before he was traded to Cubs in 2003, he was hitting .280 with 12 HR and 67 RBI. Having seen plenty of him playing in the NL Central, Hendry saw a lot of years of production ahead for the 25-year-old Ramirez and didn’t hesitate to bring him over as soon as the Pirates made him available.
In his first three full seasons with the Cubs, Ramirez hit over .300 averaged over 100 RBI a season and hit over 30 HR in each of those years. He finished twice in MVP voting and made the All-Star game in 2005. Resigning him in November 2006 was unquestionable and he should make it all five years of that contract mostly intact. This year’s separated shoulder and recurring groin issues have kept Ramirez from being an elite player, but he’s far and away been the Cubs’ most valuable run producer in the last five years.
Given Chicago’s history with third basemen, trading for Ramirez and locking him up through the height of his career was easily the smartest thing Hendry did. First basemen like Lee come along often enough and so do left fielders, but not guys like Aramis playing the hot corner. Depending on whether he’s on the team when the Cubs win a World Series, his name will either go in just below or just above Ron Santo’s in terms of best third basemen to wear Cubbie blue.
Closing Argument: Jim Hendry, despite his many bad calls, is largely responsible for putting the pieces together that led to half of the Cubs’ playoff runs in the last 63 years, all within a six-year time frame. An aggressive GM is going to get just as much flak as he does praise. His worst misses have all happened to come in the same season. But in all honesty, the only reason Cub fans have had something to cheer about in the last half century is partly because of what Hendry has done. You’re going to get the good with the bad and Hendry should get the respect that he’s earned. It might not have led to a World Series yet, but you can’t say the Cubs didn’t have their chances – chances Hendry helped give them.
And now for a quick recess so that I, the jury, can deliberate. I think I made fair and largely unbiased arguments for both sides. You’re still probably wondering what the charges are exactly that Hendry will be found on, but this isn’t that kind of court.
Verdict: I, the jury, find that Cubs GM Jim Hendry is guilty of overlooking key factors in signing and trading players (namely age), over-committing to specific players and overpaying them, but also innocent in that he’s driven to help the team and proven he can get big names to sign with the Cubs and put a playoff-caliber team on Wrigley Field.
Jim Hendry should be retained with the new ownership, as he has been and as his contract dictates. Before I wrote this, I was all about starting fresh and finding someone who can better handle the Cubs large payroll, not over-committing it and overpaying players who aren’t in their prime.
Now, I look at the mess Hendry has left for himself with a huge payroll on an uncompetitive team, tons of injury concerns and practically no expiring contracts, and I imagine myself saying to Jim “you got us into it, you get us out.” Hendry has proven he deserves a chance to cut losses and find a way of giving this team a chance to compete while it still has its key pieces in tact. The window is rapidly closing and Hendry has to find a way to open it again. If he can’t do it this season, well then, he’s proved he doesn’t deserve to be the GM.
As a GM, you have always be looking ahead and taking into account what might happen in certain scenarios. You can’t account for everything, but you have to ask “what will my team look like in a year? Two years? Five Years? If my longest contracted player has knee surgery after his third year of eight?” As much as I doubted it, I really don’t know if Jim Hendry left himself outs or devised plans of fixing things if his moves went wrong as they have.
He’ll be under a nasty microscope, but we owe Hendry a chance to fix our team and bring it back to the playoffs next season. If he can’t do it or at least show signs of improvement, he doesn’t deserve his job, because that means he screwed it up when he signed all these players the last three years. As a GM, you take risks on certain players, but if you’re good at your job, when those risks don’t pay off, you can easily make adjustments. We had a case of that this year. Now Jim, it’s time to begin righting the ship. Save us the trouble, and do it next year.