Eighteen months ago, I hypothesized that Jim Hendry was one of the five best General Managers in baseball. This breakdown came a couple weeks after the Nomar Garciaparra trade, the 2004 deadline deal supposed to put the Cubs over the Wild Card hump. At this point in time, Hendry (with help from Andy McPhail) had built a club that was a few outs from the 2003 World Series, and in good position to make runs in 2004 and 2005. My high regard of Hendry was no unique thought at this time.
However, like Cub fans have become so used to, the 2004 team wittled during the last two months, missing the Wild Card by three games. Hendry stayed creative during the ensuing winter, and went to Spring Training that many heralded as a club capable of winning the NL Central, and even, the World Series. Again, thanks to injuries, underachieving and Neifi, the 2005 team failed to meet expectations.
Like his manager, Hendry enters the 2006 season in a place where no one would have thought just a year and a half ago: on the hot seat. Recently, I had a reader e-mail me asking for updated thoughts on Jim Hendry. "My question is, do you still feel the same about him? He's not looking that smart anymore," the reader questioned. Today we'll breakdown the last two winters to see if Hendry has indeed taken a step back as a General Manager.
After the 2004 season, Hendry's first order of business was declining options to Moises Alou and Mark Grudzielanek. Given Alou's presumably declining skillset, few questioned the thought of letting the 39-year-old Alou sign elsewhere. And with Todd Walker still on the Cub roster, retaining Grudzi would have simply been a lost cause. Curiously, two weeks later, the Cubs then gave Neifi Perez a one-year deal to stay in Chicago. It is impossible to know, of course, what role Dusty Baker played in this decision, but this is certainly one of the worst decisions the Cub front office made in 2004.
Knowing little about the direction the market was headed, especially in regards to starting pitching, the Cubs acted quickly in signing Glendon Rusch to a two-year deal. It was a very cheap contract for the team to sign, and Rusch was one of the most versatile players on the team. Again, this is a "win." In the next few weeks, the team would also choose to retain the likes of Todd Walker, Jose Macias, Todd Hollanswroth and Nomar Garciaparra. Henry Blanco was given a two-year, guaranteed deal to take over the back-up catching spot. No great shakes, but hardly a damning move.
Besides trying to find a solution to the Nomar situation (which was solved with a low-risk one year deal), the key to Hendry's 2004-2005 winter was finding a home for Sammy Sosa. With about a week before pitchers and catchers reporting, the Cubs traded Sosa to the Baltimore Orioles for Jerry Hairston, Mike Fontenot and Dave Crouthers. The Cubs were criticized for not maximizing value, but retrospectively, acquiring more than a bag of baseball's for Sosa is a positive. Hairston would, at the very least, play his part in keeping the Cubs team OBP afloat in 2004. He would also sign Jeremy Burnitz that day to fill Sosa's spot, and while Burnitz outplayed Sosa during the 2006 season, Hendry didn't show the creativity here that Cub fans love.
The last order of business before the 2005 season was to create a bit of depth within the bullpen. Hendry started with a few creative acquisitions, signing veteran Chad Fox to a minor league deal, and signing a Scott Williamson who was still recovering from Tommy John surgery. Seeing as though the Cubs got some (mediocre) contributions from both players, Hendry should be given a thumbs up. He then traded disgruntled right-hander Kyle Farnsworth during Spring Training to the Tigers, receiving Roberto Novoa, Scott Moore and Bo Flowers. Novoa has a good, wild young arm and Moore has about a 10% chance of making the Bigs. This is one of the few times Hendry might regret a trade he made.
Two minor trades also made to shore up the bullpen were acquiring Stephen Randolph and then Cliff Bartosh in hopes to fill a LOOGY role. The Cubs spent too much focus on this, and even trading Bear Bay is too much. The real problem is that just months before, the Cubs had undervalued a southpaw in their own system, exposing Andy Sisco to the Rule 5 Draft. Many of the reasons for this decision, Cubs' brass says, is related to an undefined off-the-field incident. But when the difference between two talents is that of Sisco and John Koronka, it shouldn't matter. Simply put, I believe this to be the big, red mark on Hendry's resume as Cubs GM, which is why I'm so hard on him for it.
All in all, this was just about as mediocre an offseason as it gets. The Cubs did little to really improve their offense, and entered the 2005 season with an outfield of Jason Dubois, Corey Patterson and Burnitz. With the offensive production that comes from those players, and the fact that the pitching staff quickly was injured, it's no surprise the Cubs ship sunk quickly.
As usual, during the '05 year, Hendry was as busy as any General Manager. When LaTroy Hawkins became a scapegoat for the team's struggles in May, Jim traded him to the San Francisco Giants for Jerome Williams and David Aardsma. I cannot stress how good of a trade this is. However, his other big trades were a weird triangle of going from Dubois to Jody Gerut to Matt Lawton to nothing in the matter of weeks. While Matt Murton seems to be the best player of the bunch, safely secured on the Cubs roster, it's very confusing to understand why Hendry did this.
And then, with a few more August trade dumps, the Cubs season ended. Hendry entered this current offseason needing a plan to: improve the outfield, middle infield, top of the order and bullpen. As is the case with every Cubs winter, expectations were high, and rumors of Hendry's firing even existed.
First, let me start with the worst. Despite the fact that the Cubs 40-man roster is filled with serviceable young arms, the front office made a point of going after relievers with familiar names. First, Hendry quickly re-signed Ryan Dempster to an expensive three-year, $15.5 million contract. I never thought this to be horrible, but the general consensus was that Hendry was overpaying based on about two months of data. The other big spots that needed to be filled were the set-up and LOOGY roles, and this is when the Cubs fell flat on their faces. In the course of two weeks, before the winter meetings, the Cubs signed Scott Eyre and Bobby Howry to three year contracts. Three years, to two very mediocre relievers! Look at it this way: in 2008, the Cubs will still be paying Dempster, Eyre and Howry about $13 million. Yuck.
As far as the rest of the winter, let's just say the Cubs entered free agency with a plan: Rafael Furcal. As usual, the team also believed they had the money to match any offer, and quickly offered Furcal a five-year, $55 million contract. The team looked like the favorites for weeks until the Dodgers swooped in and signed Furcal to a more expensive three year contract. Simply put, this was devastating to the Cubs, who then were willing to accept Ronny Cedeno as an everyday player. Oh, and they are bringing back Neifi as well, just in case Dusty needs his veteran fix during the season.
Needing to fill the leadoff spot, Hendry then quickly jumped at Marlins CF Juan Pierre, trading three pitchers for him. The Cubs are one of the few organizations that can trade three B-/C+ talents and get away with it, so I won't criticize the deal too much. If Pierre falters in 2005, however, this deal has the potential to look very bad.
Like at shortstop, the Cubs didn't take long in accepting Matt Murton as their everyday 2006 left fielder. That left only right field on the shopping list, for which Hendry filled with Jacque Jones. I was a backer of this trade, where most other people I have spoken to hate the deal. While Jones is a clear improvement over Burnitz, it is true the Cubs will enter Spring Training all-but-accepting a below-average outfield.
One last order of business in the outfield was trading Corey Patterson. Again, we aren't privy to the negotiations for Patterson, so it makes little sense to do anything but criticize the final trade. "But he once had better offers on the table," is simply not fair game unless it's common knowledge. In the end, the fact that Chicago received even two players for Patterson is worth trading him. For Padres fans out there, Corey was the Cubs Sean Burroughs.
This was basically the Cubs winter. The team also struggled with 40-man roster management again, trading the likes of Jon Leicester and Jermaine Van Buren to make room for people, and then still losing Juan Mateo in the draft. This seems to be the most substantial weakness that the current front office regime has.
Jim Hendry has never traded away a prospect worthy of any real value in the end. In fact, in almost every trade he has made, he gets the better end of the bargain. Eighteen months later, I still think that Hendry is one of the five best GMs in the game at making trades.
However, I'm no longer willing to unequivocally say he's one of the game's best GMs. It has been awhile -- in fact, since my article was written following the Nomar trade -- that we have seen the creative version of Jim Hendry at the helm. As the Cubs report to Spring Training in about a week, expectations are the lowest they have been since 2002. I've always been the first person to blame Dusty Baker, but this time, Hendry needs to prove to me that I'm pointing my finger at the right scapegoat.