Jim Hendry - Warts and All - Derek Smart
And Now Cubs fans, the moment you've all been waiting for... Jim Hendry. One of our Goat Rider favorites, Derek Smart, weighs in on "Saint Jim" and gives him a pretty good report card. You can read much more of Derek's keen insight and wit over at Cub Town... but read this article first.
No one's lap dog, am I. Therefore, look away if you've come to witness unconditional adulation of the sort normally reserved for puppies, astronauts, and distributors of free money, as no such thing will be included in this review.
However, one should not take this to mean that I have a low opinion of the work of Cubs' GM Jim Hendry - quite the opposite. In fact, his work in some respects is so good that it makes criticism of his deficiencies more necessary - after all, how might one achieve perfection without knowledge of one's flaws?
Unfortunately, Hendry's flaws are many, but the good news is that they all fall into a single category that I will simply call, "Details". It's the little things that tend to elude our man Jim, and so I'll take some time to point some of them out.
First and foremost, Hendry seems incapable of building a solid bench, and in so doing tends to overvalue the set roles he has in his mind. My interpretation of his ideal is that one's bench has a left-handed bat with some power, a speedy outfielder, a middle infield defensive specialist, a defense-first backup catcher, and a super-utility player with a little pop and on-base skills.
There's not a ton wrong with that if you can find the right people to fill the spots, but what seems to happen when Hendry is building a bench is that when confronted with a dearth of high-quality candidates for each role, rather than switching gears and finding the best player available while still filling positional needs, he acquires someone of questionable ability who fits the mould he has in mind.
The poster-child for this tendency of Hendry's is, of course, Jose Macias, a man who does everything, but none of it well, particularly with a bat in his hands. I can already hear some of you now: "Derek, this is such a tired subject, just let it lie. Besides, you couldn't even see a Major League pitch, let alone hit it, yet here you are criticizing someone like Macias. When you can hit better, then you can talk, but until then, keep your flappin' yap shut."
The charge that Macias could outhit me is absolutely true. But then again, so could your younger sister and countless infants with scarcely the coordination to prevent their hands from hitting their own faces, so you'll pardon me if I find the point moot.
What is relevant to the discussion is the veneer of usefulness that Macias represents, more than Macias himself. It's the idea that a player's ability to move around the diamond and perform pale imitations of Major Leaguers is in itself a skill, when in fact, it's little more than athletic play-acting of dubious quality - I'm not a ballplayer, but I play one for the Cubs.
I understand the theoretical desirability of such a super-utility player, and men like Rob Mackowiack and Ryan Freel are excellent examples of the breed, but having one for the sake of having one isn't the way to go. Unfortunately, it's how bench construction has gone for the majority of Hendry's reign.
The other detail area that Jimmy H skips out on is bullpen assembly, and here it's less about the issue with positional reserves of putting square pegs into square holes too large for them to fill, than about a basic failure to distinguish "expensive" from "good".
True, there are no $10M relievers here - Hendry at least understands that only an elite few are even close to being worth Wagner/Rivera money - but throwing money at veterans the likes of Mike Remlinger, LaTroy Hawkins, Kent Mercker, Mark Guthrie, and Dave Veres hasn't paid off.
If there's good news to be had on this front, it appears that Hendry is doing some learning on the job. A willingness to use the likes of Michael Wuertz, Will Ohman, Cliff Bartosh, and Todd Wellemeyer - all making at or near the league minimum - while taking chances on older damaged goods like Chad Fox and Scott Williamson, are positive signs.
There is risk inherent in these propositions - young players may not perform, and the damaged goods may stay damaged - but Hendry appears to be coming to the understanding that if other clubs can treat relievers as fungible parts and still build successful bullpens, then there's no reason he can't do it too.
Young players can be had for cheaper and longer, and if they flame out, as relievers of all ages are wont to do, then your financial investment doesn't preclude you from divesting yourself of the trouble. Besides, you'll save yourself some hefty change in the process, and you never know when that extra $5-8M might come in handy.
So, while he appears to be making progress when it comes to understanding how to construct a solid, cheap relief corps, one area he needs no help in is what I like to call, "The Big Stuff," and the fact that this is where he excels is what elevates him into the upper echelon of front office personnel.
What do I mean by "Big Stuff"? To put it in straightforward terms, it's the acquisition and retention of the club's impact players. Extra wrinkles include the creativity involved in making the deal, and value received versus value expended - both areas where Hendry generally excels. Let's look at some highlights of the big moves that built the current squad:
- Kenny Lofton and Bobby Hill to Pittsburgh for Aramis Ramirez
- Hee Seop Choi to Florida Marlins for Derrek Lee
- Damian Miller to Oakland A's for Michael Barrett
- Todd Walker signed as free agent
- Greg Maddux signed as free agent
- Francis Beltran, Brendan Harris, Alex Gonzalez, and Justin Jones to various teams for Nomar Garciaparra
You'll note that the Cubs' entire 2005 Opening Day infield was acquired - mostly through trade - since just before the 2003 trading deadline, and that if Ramirez is removed from consideration, since the 2004 offseason. That's an impressive collection of talent Jim Hendry got other teams to cough up, and without giving away the store in process.
He's also done a bang-up job of signing and extending the deals of these individuals, getting excellent value in nearly every instance, the Gold Standard being the deal extended to Derrek Lee, which pays him $7.67M this year, and $8.67M in 2006. It was a fine piece of work before his early breakout this season, and it's doubly so now.
The deals up the middle were also nicely done. Todd Walker's $2.5M deal was a steal, even with his time on the DL, and getting Nomar to sign for $8.25M plus incentives was an excellent risk, and was a better move than committing huge dollars over many years to Edgar Renteria or Orlando Cabrera. That the move hasn't, and may never, pay off doesn't mean it wasn't the right one. It was high risk, high reward, and was a better gamble than the other options available.
This is a skill of Hendry's that I think is underrated - the ability to pass when the cost of a deal is too high. In other words, the deals Hendry didn't make, particularly this offseason, are another sign of his excellence.
One example from this winter was the club's obvious need for a closer, and while there were several on the market, as I mentioned above, Hendry seemed to understand that there are only certain individuals worth big money in the role.
Refusing to give in when the market for men like Troy Percival and Armando Benitez goes haywire is smart management. Sure, it leaves you with a hole to fill, and we've all seen the unfortunate result of that so far this season, but there's something to be said for not panicking in the face of privation. I, for one, would rather be dealing with this issue from the Cubs' current position than the positions presented to their teams by the recent injuries to the men mentioned above.
Hendry also could have gone crazy with filling the hole in the outfield, and while it would have been lovely to see Carlos Beltran patrolling Wrigley's center field, the price he garnered was simply too steep - putting oneself in a financial position where one snapped knee ligament puts you in the hole for years isn't the smartest business plan.
It also would have been fun to see Magglio Ordonez switching sides in the eternal battle between Chicago's North and South, but again, his demands were far too large for the likely return on investment, and the Tigers are just beginning to feel the sting of their acceptance of his terms. That Hendry didn't roll the dice here is further evidence of his healthy aversion to excessive risk.
Jim Hendry isn't a perfect GM. He misses the boat on little things that could garner him a win or two over the course of the season, and those failures can be infuriating to those of us who love to look too long and too closely at such things (myself very much included).
Yet, despite these maddening tendencies, he truly gets it when it comes to the larger things that put his team in a position to win without sacrificing the future. He understands the sort of talent that will pay big dividends, and while he's far from a sabermatrician, he has an actuary's eye for value that increases his club's chances for victory over both the long and short term.
Would I like to see better management of the details? Of course - I'd certainly have fewer red-faced hours of contemplation - but if forced to choose between a GM who understood the value of a high-OBP pinch-hitter, and one who could get a deal done at the trading deadline for a player with the potential to carry the team into the playoffs, I'll take the Macias-lover every time.