Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Cubs' Hendry Gets Vote of Confidence, Craps Pants

The sports equivalent of the kiss of death was delivered to Cubs General Manager Jim Hendry this week. New owner Tom Ricketts wanted him to know where he stood in time for the mid-summer classic, of course. The Cubs have one All-Star, Hendry's centerpiece of last offseason, Marlon Byrd. Outside he and Carlos Silva (whom everyone who'd seen el hipopótamo pitch the past two seasons assumed to be dead weight), no one else on the $145 million roster deserved consideration.

How does that happen?

Somehow, Hendry has assembled a team built around the long ball, but can't hit home runs. With these mismatched parts, the Cubs have managed a dreadful 3-9 record against the perennial worst team in the National League, the Pittsburgh Pirates. In fact, the Pirates actually are the worst team in the National League right now. The Cubs at 39 wins and 50 losses are looking at the NL Central-leading Cincinnati Reds, who are leading the division and look to be a contender for the first time in a decade, running 9.5 games ahead. But even if the Cubs had managed to beat the Bucs two-thirds of the time like the rest of the league, the 3.5 game gap might still seem unsurpassable with an offense that wishes it were as robust as an argument that Barack Obama should be made King.

Aramis Ramirez hit .317 with 43 strikeouts in an 82-game, injury-shortened 2009. He has 53 strikeouts with a .207 average in 62 games played in 2010.
I would forgo a rundown of the stats, but Aramis Ramirez' production is so mind-blowingly terrible that he has had to hit .361 so far in July to bring his average up to .207. It simply must be written to be believed. But it would be a mistake to blame the entire debacle on a man who has been one of the most consistent hitters in baseball the past several years. As a team, the Cubs are eleven points below the league average with runners in scoring position at .252. But it gets worse. They are hitting .229 with men in scoring position and two outs. Even the Royals think that's awful. Overall, the team hasn't hit, but not only that, they haven't hit in crucial situations. To kick a dead horse, the team, just over a month into the season had six regular starters hitting over .300 (Byrd, Soriano, Soto, Theriot, Fukudome and Lee), but were in the lower third of the league in runs scored. The Cubs have blown more quality starts than I can count on two hands thanks to both poor offensive production and middle relief pitching, but the starting pitching isn't without blame. They've only helped their (nearly) lights-out closer, Carlos Marmol, get 19 save opportunities in 89 games.

New Cubs Owner Tom Ricketts (center-left) and his sibling partners enjoyed their new toy. But that was before the season began.
So we're about to begin the second half, and it's time for most Cubs fans to start pointing fingers. Lou Pinella has been less than outstanding as manager, but he can only make use of the players the organization has under contract. I doubt that after spending $600 million just this past winter, Tom Ricketts is interested in looking in the mirror and wondering if he's good enough, or smart enough.

Hendry has good reason for that mess in his pants, even considering his positives. He's begun to resuscitate a minor-league system that had nearly flat-lined when management gave away Old Trusty's heart pills, desperate for a championship run after the Bartman incident in 2003. But today we have Tyler Colvin, Andrew Cashner and, certainly foremost in the minds of most, Starlin Castro, who appear to be the real deal and look forward to being solid contributors.

Marlon Byrd - File Under: Great Signing
Milton Bradley - File Under: Terrible Signing
Such contrast has been a hallmark of the Hendry era.
And the contract situation? Ted Lilly has earned his money. Ryan Dempster has been good. Ramirez wasn't a bad deal, even including his atrocious season so far. It was an under-market deal at the time, and his 2010 wasn't something that even the greatest of baseball minds predicted. And to say that Marlon Byrd is a solid professional would be on par with describing the death of George Steinbrenner as merely the passing of some baseball guy.

But then there's Soriano. Alfonso is still producing like a respectable major leaguer (if you discount his defense... deeply), but is not worth anything near his contract. Hendry can thank Carlos Silva for bailing him out of the Milton Bradley fiasco (lest we forget how hopeless that situation looked at the end of last season). All things are now normal on planet Zambrano after his meltdown and decommissioning. The crazy bastard isn't performing near the level to make him worth the headache of having him in the clubhouse, let alone take home an ace's salary. We continue on to Fukudome (who many fans love, but just can't put together a complete season), Jason Marquis, John Grabow (only a two-year deal), Scott Eyre, et al.

Carlos Zambrano in his natural state.
Considering the evidence, Hendry shakes out to be an average baseball GM with an above-average budget. Given a lower limit on payroll, he probably would have made the same mix of good and bad deals with different players. It's not like he wandered over to the Cubs front office while the Pirates were in town. The average MLB GM tends toward below-average results. Results that, as they say, are good enough for government work. Tough they claim otherwise when addressing the ticketholder, organizations tell us all exactly what they consider acceptable by revealing the amount they're willing to invest in their product (See: Los Angeles Clippers). The average MLB payroll in 2010 is $86,761,528. Cubs ownership has budgeted Hendry for nearly twice that, and he is about to find out that when you spend $145 million of someone else's money, every year, "good enough" tends to last about as long as Mel Gibson in South Central. We should know better than to ask, "What's that smell?"


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