A Lame Beggar
I am unable, yonder beggar cries,
To stand, or move; If he say true, he lies.
One of the MLB’s most backward leagues, the National League Central, appears primed for a face lift. The weakest NL league is within reach of establishing itself as dominator and shaking its beggar reputation.
The Houston Astros, presently undergoing an ownership change, have become bedfellows with rumors about the Rays de facto general manager Andrew Friedman and the Rockets’ shrewd GM Daryl Morey.
Meanwhile, the Cubs have already undergone one faux-firing this season (last week, an internet rumor spread like whipped butter on the toast that is Twitter, proclaiming the Cubs had fired GM Jim Hendry) and the team is now fighting the odds to have a winning season. The rampant speculation with the Cubs has formed the central narrative that Hendry faces a win-or-be-gone season, and this year’s sub-.500 start has alerted the gravediggers.
What could a regime change in Houston and Chicago mean for the NL Central, a division burdened with excess teams and limited success? Possibly a lot.
From 2000 through 2010, the NL Central has averaged a .486 winning percentage, while the other two NL divisions are a few points above .500. Granted, they have an extra team in the division, which increases their odds of having a stinker season within the division, but having two large markets — Chicago and Houston are the 3rd and 4th largest cities in the US, respectively — flounder so consistently suggests the presence of underlying weaknesses within the division’s leadership.
Over the last decade, the Cubs have compiled a losing record (.496) and three playoff runs, while the Astros have managed a winning record (.510) on the strength of some early-decade 2nd place finishes, reaching the Great Crapshoot 3 times in 10 seasons.
Observers and top-hat-wearers may balk at my cries of concern for the NL Central: “How can a 30% playoff appearance rate be a badge of dishonor?” protest the high fa-lutin’ detractors. “The sport is all about booms and busts — cycles of strength followed by periods of rebuilding.”
Well, after we consider the relative wealth and prominence of these franchises, coupled with the more recent overhauls of such teams as the Red Sox and Rays, it seems more unreasonable the Astros and Cubs cannot find the leadership necessary for long-term, sustainable success. Step one to that progression will be the acquisition of premier talent — front office talent: the scouts, analysts, and negotiators sporting histories of success (within or without of baseball).
For Chicago’s yuppie team to succeed, they need to reinvent their 100-year-old model of winning a few and thinking about next year. The Cubs have a developed and effective scouting department, but tragically lack any legitimate statistical analyst wing to balance out the process. If they can establish a competitive front office, they could easily press themselves into the ivy league of competitors.
Recently, certain baseball gurus have opined that firing ol’ Jim Hendry would be a misstep. I really do not agree the franchise has been wildly successful under Hendry’s regime, but I do think the man has been an above-average evaluator of talent, a gentleman who has made many successful transactions as well as many preventable bad ones.
The Cubs would be probably fine without Hendry, but possibly even better if they could move him back to his forte, scouting, and bring in a compliment of analysts to augment his staff. Either way, the Cubs, who have the payroll potential of an untapped gold mine, will not find success — consistent, year-after-year success — with Hendry running the show like the Lone Ranger GMs of yester-decades.
After the team made mincemeat of the late 1990s, the Astros have seen an unsuccessful GM turnover (saying goodbye to Gerry Hunsicker may be the worst thing to happen to the Astros in 20 years), a slew of losing and uninspiring seasons, and a future most describe has “bleak” or “Terminator 3-esque.”
It is hard to undersell their sudden descent into infamy. The Astros went from playing in the NLDS 4 out of 5 years to kicking sand at the Pittsburgh Pirates in the NL Central’s children’s area. They went from Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell to Brett Myers and Bill Hall (figuratively speaking).
If the new ownership group does the unthinkable and wrangles away Andrew Friedman (which seems rather unlikely given Friedman’s more-than-amenable relation with the Rays owner, Stuart Sternberg) or even reacquires Hunsicker, the franchise may well be again just two seasons away from dominance. It is too early to tell if the new Astros’ ownership would be willing to open the coffers, but one can only imagine how much raw power a complete and “enlightened” leadership group could wield in the National League.
Not only would a powerhouse NL Central — one making more prudent moves and exploring market inefficiencies — change the landscape of the National League, it could ultimately realign the accepted norms of the sport as a whole. In the early 2000s, OBP and power were largely undervalued assets. Imagine if, instead of just the Red Sox, As, and Yankees taking advantage of this opportunity, there were instead 5 bidders for Kevin Youkilis in draft or Jason Giambi in the free agent market. Suddenly draft boards get re-written and contracts get bigger. What was once a three year window of inefficiency has tightened into one off-season.
It is impossible to say with certainty how the Astros or Cubs will approach their impending leadership changes, but we can say with certainty: Both franchises have the chance to make some major improvements and go quickly from beggars to barons.