Chicago Cubs Long-Term Focus: Free Agency in the Stormy Present

Posted on April 15, 2011

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In very late 1862, Abraham Lincoln became obsessed with freeing the slaves. It had always been an ambition of his, of course, but he had largely set that issue aside in order to better focus his attention on saving the union through military action and what we in modern political society would call coalition building. Lincoln was willing to put off full emancipation, at least early on in his presidency, in the name of a less violent resolution to the conflict between North and South.

By December of 1862, though, that patience with the process was gone. The war was not going well; the south had an edge, if anything, and certainly no reason to concede anything to Lincoln or the Union on the issue of slavery.

In those days, the State of the Union Address was rarely a spectacle, and it certainly did not happen on a schedule as it does today. Presidents sent semi-regular remarks to Congress whenever they had an especially strong hankering for some new initiative. Lincoln sent such a set of remarks to Congress on Dec. 1:

“The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present,” Lincoln wrote in his closing paragraphs. “The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise–with the occasion.”

One month later, he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and although from a strict Constitutional law perspective it held little enforceable authority, that gesture set the tone of the war on its ear. The North drew encouragement from Lincoln’s leadership and from the apparent momentum they had created for freedom.

One hundred and fifty years later, in the Land of Lincoln, the Chicago Cubs are as adrift as was the Union that December. For Chicago GM Jim Hendry, another offseason marked by stopgap measures, incoherent acquisitions and overextension of resources has given way to another season of flitting from one hole in the dam to another, trying in vain to plug them all at once. This year, the critical burst came when the team lost Randy Wells and Andrew Cashner to arm injuries before the sixth game of the season.

Just as Lincoln did, Hendry has three constituencies to serve at once:

  1. New owners Tom, Peter, Laura and Todd Ricketts, who have promised accountability and a winning team in short order. They are to Hendry as the generals of Lincoln’s army were in those days: Lincoln’s lack of tactical savvy and his impatience with immorality made him as unpopular with his own military as Hendry (a great guy but a poor negotiator) is with his investment-minded bosses.
  2. The on-field unit, including Mike Quade and the Cubs roster itself. The parallel here is to the troops in Lincoln’s time, where morale was very low late in 1862 and the feeling of stagnation extended beyond the battlefield.
  3. Cubs fans, an increasingly impatient mass who have flocked to Wrigley Field with much less than their usual persistence thus far this season. This is the crucial comparison: Hendry needs to act swiftly and decisively in order not to lose a large mass of followers who until very recently had shown singular exuberance for the cause. Lincoln was in a similar position.
In order to satisfy those groups, Lincoln got hard-nosed about freeing the slaves. In order for Hendry to satisfy his public, he needs to bring home some hardware, and it all begins with a rediscovery of his sometimes doggedness in free agency.
The past in Cubs nation was indeed quiet. Even after modest surges toward contention in 1998 and 2001, the fans expected little and got even less from the Cubs. In 2003, though, the team fell heart-breakingly short of a World Series berth, and like a pack of dogs smelling fresh meat for the first time in generations, Cubs fans woke with a jolt and began agitating irrepressibly for consistent winners.
From 2003 onward, the fans filled Wrigley to its gills. They became one of baseball’s most impassioned fan bases, however briefly, and at their behest, Hendry and the pre-Ricketts Cubs shelled out huge sums to field winning teams in 2004, 2007 and 2008. The fans, understandably unsatisfied by a lack of forward progress toward a World Series, coaxed Hendry and company into overextending themselves with half-loaf measures in 2009 and 2010.
Lost in a whirlwind of experiments, some failed, Hendry hardly noticed when the fans stopped showing up and lost a bit of intensity as the summer of 2010 wore on. He and the Rickettses pressed onward with their scorched earth strategy of acquiring expensive players (Milton Bradley, Kevin Gregg, Carlos Silva, Marlon Byrd, Matt Garza) and destroying them from the inside out. It was all in the name of budget control and it predictably failed. The 2010 team won only 75 games and the 2011 iteration is headed that way, too.
Now, then, Hendry is where Lincoln was. Now is the stormy present. It is December in Cubs country, and if Hendry intends to start the New Year coming with a bang, he needs to prepare for a winter where he will make bigger waves than ever before. In the winter of 2006-07, he spent hundreds of millions, but spent them badly: Alfonso Soriano’s contract is an albatross, Jason Marquis was as bad as advertised and Carlos Zambrano’s contract extension was an overpay from Day 1. Like Lincoln, Hendry needs the public to be complicit in his plan to turn things around. He needs a committed fan base the way Lincoln needed a reinvigorated citizenry.
The big-ticket item, the Emancipation Proclamation of free agents, is Albert Pujols. He is the not the wisest available investment but he makes the boldest statement. More logically, Hendry could chase Prince Fielder down, and try to draw CC Sabathia in as well.
I have already written about the mechanics of those potential signings on this blog, so I will spend no more time on them. Suffice it to say that Hendry could turn this franchise around in a hurry by inking those two players, and that succeeding in that endeavor, unlikely though it may be, would be Hendry’s Gettysburg.
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