When Tom Ricketts bought the Chicago Cubs in October 2009, one of his first stated priorities was to change the way the team did business when it came to player acquisition and development. Ricketts noted that the team’s inefficient history with free-agent aggressiveness and trades that decimated the farm system would inform all his decisions about organizational philosophy. He also said he would place trust in GM Jim Hendry. As it turns out, those were contradictory statements.
In political science, there are all sorts of theories on the mechanisms of domestic and international political interaction. One of the most intelligent, though, at least by my reading, is the strategical perspective. This paradigm emphasizes leaders as individuals, and recognizes certain things that can be hard to swallow but must be recognized:
- Leaders are self-interested rational actors.
- Faced with a dilemma, leaders are generally able to identify the most advantageous course of action.
- If the long-term interests of a leader’s constituency and the leader’s immediate self-interest come into conflict with one another, the leader will nearly always choose the selfish course.
Jim Hendry is the Cubs’ leader. He is their critical decision maker. And he is a shrewd, rational, self-interested executive. He’s also a great guy on a personal level, or so I’ve been repeatedly told, but in the end, he makes decisions (consciously or unconsciously) out of a drive for self-preservation.
That self-interest is starting to diametrically oppose the long-term interests (the pursuit of a consistent winner and an eventual World Series title) of Hendry’s constituency (the fans), just the way most Presidents’ self-interest eventually diverges from the long-term interest of the nation. Like George Bush and Bill Clinton and everyone who came before them, Jim Hendry is concerned about job security. He is concerned about his legacy. He is concerned with the public perception of him, and (here is something about which not even Presidents usually have to worry themselves) with his bosses’ evaluation of his job performance in the short term.
All that led Hendry to get aggressive this winter. Even as the team continues to trim payroll, he added Carlos Pena, Kerry Wood and a bevy of low-risk veterans in search of enough help to turn a 75-win team from 2010 into an 85-win semi-contender in 2011. He also traded for Matt Garza, sending two of the Cubs’ top five prospects to Tampa Bay in order to land the high-upside starter. As he had done in each of the three previous offseasons, Hendry aggressively patched whatever holes he could find with his team, trying desperately to maintain competitiveness even at the expense of long-term prognosis for sustainable success.
That kind of gambit has worked for him in the past, as in 2003, 2004, 2007 and 2008, and for that reason, many (including me) gave him the tenuous benefit of the doubt. In a rapidly developing vacuum of NL Central talent during Spring Training, it even looked like it might work.
Less than a week into the season, though, the bootstraps by which Hendry had been pulling himself and the team upward have snapped. On Wednesday, the Cubs placed both Andrew Cashner and Randy Wells on the disabled list, and each could miss as much as a month. Wells has a forearm strain, while Cashner strained his rotator cuff. Cashner won the fifth starting job in camp, yet another signal the team was committed to winning in the short term, but after just one big-league start, he is bound for two weeks of uninterrupted rest before even beginning to rebuild arm strength. It could be Memorial Day before Cubs fans see the fire-balling Texan again.
In the meantime, the team will have to make do with the likes of Casey Coleman, James Russell, Thomas Diamond, Jay Jackson and/or Jeff Samardzija. If those options sound unappealing, it’s because it was never supposed to come to this. Praying that only one starter (at most) would hit the DL at a time, Hendry gave Carlos Silva, Todd Wellemeyer and Braden Looper their walking papers. Unless the Cubs intend to pursue a free agent like Jarrod Washburn, they now have only their marginal in-house options with which to work.
The starting rotation, for a moment, was the strength of this club. If they were going to win the NL Central, it was going to be because all five of their starters were very capable of throwing 175-plus innings, winning 12-17 games and posting ERAs under 4.00. Losing Wells and Cashner so soon may be a blessing in disguise: Without them, even for a month or two, this team is essentially a non-contender, and Hendry has a chance to replenish the farm system with which he has recently taken such a slash-and-burn approach for regrowth.
By July 31, Aramis Ramirez ought to be dealt. Triple-A third baseman Marquez Smith could hit 20-plus home runs over a full big-league season and would be a fun guy to see play at Wrigley this summer. If the team can find a taker for Marlon Byrd or Kosuke Fukudome, they should pull the trigger and call up Brett Jackson or a stop-gap outfielder from Iowa. These moves need not even signal capitulation: The team would get much less expensive but not much worse if one or more of those players were dealt. Under the right conditions, Hendry might even be wise to unload Geovany Soto (who needs to fetch a huge return in order to make the trade worthwhile) and recall inexplicably demoted catchers Welington Castillo and Max Ramirez.
This is no obituary. Anything can happen in the next 156 games, and if Garza turns out to be a true ace (or if Alfonso Soriano keeps hitting the way he has thus far, or if Starlin Castro wins the MVP) the Cubs can still compete. For now, though, Hendry’s constant gamble seems to be a lost bet and sunk cost for another year, and investing current assets with the goal of augmenting future value seems like the way to go. It may be those will be Henrdy’s last moves, because as long as he continues to make Ricketts’ statements about team philosophy ring false, he dares the new owner to make an example of him and demonstrate organizational accountability to the mission at hand.
This rotation will be good for the next few years, so the next thing on the agenda is to turn the perennially anemic offense into the sort of juggernaut it so briefly was in 2008. If the sun is already low in the sky for this 2011 team, then the consolation is the long shadow, stretching all the way up from Missouri, of Albert Pujols’ impending free agency.