The Cubs wield great financial strength, which gives them an advantage over the bulk of their competition. But as their ranking indicates, they haven’t necessarily put those resources to best use.
Present Talent – 74.17 (t-22nd)
Future Talent – 75.00 (t-20th)
Financial Resources: 83.46 (t-5th)
Baseball Operations: 71.67 (29th)
Overall Rating: 76.46 (19th)
The FanGraphs staff does not have a particular affection for Jim Hendry. Not only do his 2011 team and farm system rank in the bottom third of the league, but the entire baseball operations ranks ahead of only Houston, which isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement for one of the longest-tenured GMs in the game.
Hendry took over the Cubs on July 5, 2002, when the team had a 34-49 record. They went 33-45 the rest of the way, but then experienced a 21-win improvement in 2003, winning the NL Central and making it to Game 7 of the NLCS before ultimately falling to the Marlins. The run certainly bought him some favor in Chicago. Since then he has produced a mixed track record.
For the Cubs, the baseball ops score goes hand-in-hand with the financial resources one. It’s not as though they’ve performed poorly since Hendry took over. In three of the eight years of his tenure they’ve finished below .500, but in another three years they made the playoffs. For many teams, perhaps most teams, that would be considered a favorable set of outcomes. But for a team that wields the financial might of the Cubs, the inconsistency comes as a disappointment.
In terms of trades, Hendry has a decent, perhaps even good, track record. Trading for Kenny Lofton and Randall Simon in 2003 helped them in their World Series quest. (Hendry also receives praise for acquiring Eric Karros and Mark Grudzielanek before 2003, even though they represented downgrades at their respective positions.) Getting Aramiz Ramirez along with Lofton was an even bigger steal. He won huge on the Derrek Lee trade. Acquiring Rich Harden in 2008 proved a solid move, as did swapping Milton Bradley for Carlos Silva last season. He even turned a profit on Tom Gorzelanny. There are some losers on the list — trading Ricky Nolasco and Juan Pierre, for example, but for the most part Hendry’s trade record has been a net positive.
The problem is the way Hendry has deployed his considerable financial resources, which has come mostly in recent years. Sure, signing Jeromy Burnitz in 2005 might not have been a great idea, but it was only a one-year deal. Re-signing Nomar Garciaparra might not have worked out, but it was a swell enough idea. Perhaps the only glaringly bad move, in both process and results, that Hendry made before the 2006 off-season was continuing to employ Neifi Perez. There were some good moves mixed in there, too, such as bringing back Greg Maddux and signing Ryan Dempster (the first time, though the second was quality, too).
In 2006 his track record took a turn for the worse. It started with the eight-year, $136 million contract for Alfonso Soriano. Perhaps Soriano was worth a $17 million annual investment, but not for eight years. After a stellar debut season, Soriano’s production has, not surprisingly, declined. Even with a rebound in 2010 he was worth only 2.9 WAR. His three-year, $21 million deal for Jason Marquis that same off-season was also misguided — Marquis, remember, had produced a 6.02 ERA the year before, with a nearly matching FIP. Ted Lilly‘s $40 million deal worked out well, but it was almost negated by Marquis.
Hendry was quiet the next few offseasons, save for re-signing Ryan Dempster. It was a risk move, considering Dempster had just moved back to the rotation after years in the bullpen, but the move has worked in Chicago’s favor. But the next offseason Hendry again misguidedly handed out a multi-year deal – Milton Bradley for three years and $30 million. Only the Silva trade fixed that. And while it wasn’t a major move, paying $7.5 million for two years of John Grabow wasn’t a well-advised signing. While we’re at it, neither was two years and $4.9 million for Aaron Miles.
There is also the team’s draft record to consider. Since Hendry took over in 2003, this is the list of the team’s draft picks who have made the major leagues, whether with the Cubs or another organization: Jake Fox, Sean Marshall, Casey McGehee, Mitch Atkins, Eric Patterson, Sam Fuld, Sean Gallagher, Jerry Blevins, Micah Owings, Donnie Veal, Tyler Colvin, Jeff Samardzija, Josh Donaldson, Darwin Barney, James Russell, Andrew Cashner, and Casey Coleman. Few names stand out, and one that does, McGehee, was placed on waivers, only to realize success elsewhere. The 2005 draft was particularly poor. Veal was the only pick to make the majors, and that came only because the Pirates selected him in the Rule 5 draft.
Every GM has blemishes on his track record. General Managers with big market teams are prone to them, because they can afford to outbid others on big talent, and we know that it’s not a rarity for big talent on the free agent market to provide less value than their contracts suggest. But, again, this is more about the baseball operations in relation to the team’s strong financial position than it is strictly about a poor GM and front office. For the last two seasons the Cubs have ranked third in the league in payroll, spending a combined $269.62 million. For their efforts they have won just 158 games, finishing second with 83 wins in 2009 and fifth with 75 wins in 2010.
For a while it appeared as though the Cubs were headed for big things. They made some splashes, and in 2007 and 2008 won the NL Central. But behind the scenes things weren’t completely set in place. The Cubs might have finished second in 2009, but there were definite problems abound. Before last season we ranked them No. 18. You can basically look at Dave’s summary there and say the same thing about the team this year. The first line in his concluding paragraph has aged well. “When I try to balance the strengths and weaknesses, this is where the Cubs end up – in the middle of the pack, getting less out of what they have than most clubs, but having enough to keep them from being too bad.”