Goatriders of the Apocalypse

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Reader Blog: This cup overfloweth with pointlessness

The Cubs and Sox will now play their annual interleague series (plural) with the Crosstown Cup on the line, an actual, literal trophy that will go to the team winning the majority of the six match-ups.

I never cared about the back-and-forth, intense, heated games that the Cubs and Sox have played ever since 1997, but I will now! A trophy, you say? Will it be gold? Will the players be allowed to carry it around with them for a day like they do with the Stanley Cup? Does Tom Ricketts have anything better he could do with his time?

And here's the worst thing: if the teams split the six games, as they have done four of the 10 years in which they've played a home-and-away format, the team that wins the last game gets the trophy. How is that fair? I say, for this year, give it to the team who outscores the other (if there's a tie), and in the future, when they split 3-3, the team that "owns" the trophy simply keeps it. Until the other team can take it away by winning a season series, it stays wherever it is.

But now I've spent a full two paragraphs analyzing this absurd, Little League-style award that none of the players will give a damn about, and that makes me angry. This isn't technically a BAD idea, just a pointless one. I hope I never hear someone utter the words "We won the Crosstown Cup!" even if it's a Cubs fan saying it.

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Reader Blog: Weekly awards

Baseball can be a funny game. The Cubs were yet to have a winning week (2-4 in Week 1, 3-3 in Week 2), and, as of Thursday, were 1-3 this week after barely being competitive against a Mets team that had been struggling. The Cubs then headed to Milwaukee to take on a Brewers team that had absolutely obliterated the Pirates in their previous series. Three dominant games later, the Cubs have their first three-game winning streak of the season, their first winning week (4-3), and have scored more runs than their opponents for the first time.

Ryno of the Week: Randy Wells put together two strong starts, but this week's award has to go to a hitter--several Cubs put up video game numbers over the last seven days. First, I thought: "It's got to be Soto--he reached base 64 percent of the times he came to the plate!" But then I realized Marlon Byrd had 13 hits last week along with six runs scored and four RBI, despite the fact that he didn't even play yesterday.

But Ryan Theriot did him one better, literally. He had 14 hits, scored five runs and drove in six, capping his week with a 5-for-6 day that raised his average over 40 points.

Honorable mention: Alfonso Soriano

Goat of the Week
: When it comes to the Cubs, I think the thing I want to see most right now is Aramis Ramirez bust out of his slump. It's painful to watch. He was 2-for-25 this week with seven strikeouts. It's really weird to see him swing and miss at 85 mph fastballs over the middle, isn't it? Please break out of it, Aramis. I can't take it any more.

Dishonorable mentions: Jeff Baker, Xavier Nady

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Reader Blog: Juan Cruz

The question comes up in this discussion. Who is Juan Cruz?

Well, after a fairly long career, I think we know what we have here.

Cruz is a fly ball pitcher who strikes out a ton and walks way too many. His tendencies make him generally hard to hit but when he does get hit, he often gives up home runs and needs to blow people away to get out of tough spots.

Unfortunately, his most recent performance (2009 I'm talking about) suggests that he is still doing all the bad things he does but has seen a marketed drop off of his K rate:

K rate by year:

2007: 12.84
2008: 12.37
2009: 6.79

So, if he's closer to a 12 K's per 9 IP pitcher, the Cubs should take a shot, if he's closer to the 7 K per 9 guy from last year, forget it.

One point in his favor is he's K'd 11.8 batters per 9 in 2010 before being released.

I think he's a better pitcher than Justin Berg. As a matter of practice, that is the only hurdle he has to jump. If there's even a little chance he can be the dominant pitcher from 2007 and 2008, he's worth the minimum salary.

I agree with Kurt. Let's give him a try.

Reader Blog: Thank you, Brewers, may we have another?

Three of the Cubs' seven victories in 2010 have come over the Brewers. But there's no need to feel bad about that; after all, Milwaukee is a divisional foe and you have to win games in your division in order to have a good season.

Ryan Dempster had his fourth strong start of the season (out of four), going 7.2 innings for the second straight start. He has left all of his starts with the lead, though he only has two wins to show for his efforts. (Hopefully Carlos Zambrano was able to get a good view of Dempster's efficient outing from his new perch in the bullpen. Speaking of Zambrano, Cubs fans saw a very unfamiliar sight when he warmed up in the bullpen in the eighth inning. No doubt it was a stimulating sight for some fans but a rather agitating one for others.)

The Cubs brought a balanced offensive attack to Miller Park--they've now scored at least six runs in all four of their games against the Brewers this season; they've only scored that many in two others games this year! Every starter had at least one hit, and Dempster joined the party with two sacrifice bunts. Chad Tracy was just barely able to make his first start of the season before Ted Lilly did, and he had a single and played very well defensively at third. Also, Tyler Colvin hit a ball 10,000 feet.

This is the second time the Cubs have roughed up Jeff Suppan in less than two weeks, and they'll have the chance to do the same to lefty Doug Davis tomorrow (he was touched up for six runs in just 3.1 innings in the Cubs home opener). Soriano, Soto and Ramirez should all be fresh after having a day off on Friday.

Perhaps the Cubs benefited from the favorable road crowd--a good friend of mine attended Friday's game and said it was at least a 50/50 split in terms of Cubs/Brewers fans in attendance, and he said it felt like 75/25 in Chicago's favor as the Cubs fans were able to cheer unabated given that the team scored early and dominated throughout. Hopefully Miller Park will be transformed into Wrigley North over the weekend as well.

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Reader Blog: Does Rudy Jaramillo deserve blame for the Cubs' offensive woes?

The Cubs are 22nd in the majors in runs, below offensive juggernauts such as the Royals, Nationals, and A's (who have household names like Adam Rosales, Cliff Pennington and Rajai Davis in their lineup). This got me to thinking: is Rudy Jaramillo, the highest-paid hitting coach in the majors, to blame?

Let's dig a bit deeper into the statistics. Through Thursday, the Cubs were 15th in the majors in OBP (.328). This has never been Jaramillo's strong suit--the Rangers were 12th in the AL in OBP last season, and finished outside the top five in four of the five seasons prior. Still, the Cubs are at least in the middle of the pack.

Home runs have always been a specialty of Jaramillo-coached teams, and the Cubs are 12th in the majors with 17. Eight of those came in their six home games, whereas they've hit just nine in 10 road games. The Cubs are just slightly below average--16th--in OPS (.731).

So while the Cubs are doing okay-but-not-great in the aforementioned statistics, they're doing significantly worse when it comes to getting runs across the plate. Hits and walks simply aren't being converted into runs. Jaramillo's Rangers teams scored 800 or more runs for 13 straight years, whereas the Cubs are on pace to score only 648 runs. The Cubs' lack of timely and clutch hitting are problems Jaramillo can't control.

Some don't buy into the concept of clutch hitting, or performing under pressure. But I think in baseball, more than in other sports, some players tend to be more clutch than others. After all, though baseball is a team sport, it pretty much always comes down to individual match-ups--one hitter versus one pitcher. And right now, it seems that several of the Cubs' players are pressing at the plate when they have an opportunity to do some real damage.

It's always difficult to measure the impact of a hitting or pitching coach. Under Gerald Perry, the Cubs led the NL in OBP in 2008, then struggled mightily in '09, leading to Perry's ouster. Additionally, the Cubs' run total would start to look a lot better if the 3 and 4 hitters--Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez--got locked in. But at least for the moment, it looks like Rudy Jaramillo has the Cubs being patient at the plate and getting their share of hits. Unfortunately, those same hitters are failing to produce with men on base, resulting in a poor showing in the only offensive statistic that truly matters--runs scored.

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Reader Blog: Prospecting with Jim Hendry

Bobbie Brownlie 

Ryan Harvey

Mark Pawelek 

Tyler Colvin 

Josh Vitters 

Andrew Cashner 

Brett Jackson

Those are the Cubs' first round draft picks since 2002. Colvin is the first to make it to the major leagues. You know about him. Chances are you know about Vitters, Cashner and Jackson as well. This is a big year for Vitters. Despite hitting .444 in big league spring camp this Spring, Vitters didn't draw a single walk, and was reassigned to High - A Daytona, where he has a .300 OBP and is OPSing only .657. Last year, split between A - Peoria and High - A Daytona, Vitters had an OBP of .314 and only walked 12 times in almost 500 plate appearances. Not. Good.

Of course if you know anything about Tyler Colvin's minor league career, you know I could be describing him as well. Tyler raked his way onto the big league club this Spring, but he failed to draw a single walk in all of Spring Training. In limited action (27 plate appearances) this April, Colvin has drawn 3 walks and K'd 5 times, for a respectable OBP of .346. He's also played the OF well in limited playing time. This is encouraging, but its an extremely small sample size. It would be the first time in Colvin's professional career that he's shown any kind of strike zone judgment.

Unfortunately, this is the type of position player that Hendry continues to favor. Both Colvin and Vitters were toolsy ameteurs with little regard for the strike zone. Brett Jackson has shown more patience early in his professional career, but his BB% has dropped from 20% in rookie ball, to 16% at low - A Boise, to 8% at A - Peoria. Jackson is a college hitter, so its not as if he's very young for his level. This isn't an encouraging trend.

As for the pitchers, Brownlie and Pawelek were absolute busts. Brownlie is with his third organization and has a career FIP over 5.00. Pawelek hurt his arm tripping over his X Box, and then picked the controller back up and continued playing. He's with the Reds' High - A affiliate right now, praying he doesn't get called up to the big league squad. Dusty Baker has a taste for rookie pitchers' bone marrow. Sucks it right out of their pitching arms. Look it up.

Here's the point: The Cubs have not done well in the draft, and its cost them at the big league level. When you can't develop your own high performing ballplayers, you have to buy them from someone else. That's how you end up with Milton Bradley in RF. Most of the top teams in baseball have star players on the big league roster playing for less than they would receive in free agency. Let me walk you through it:

NYY - Robinson Cano was worth 4.7 WAR last season, and was only paid $6 million.

Boston - Kevin Youkilis was worth 6 WAR, and Dustin Pedroia was worth 4.9. Together they were paid $8 million.

Tampa - Evan Longoria was worth 7.2 WAR. Ben Zobrist was worth 8.3 WAR.Carl Crawford was worth 5.5. This team would have finished with the best record in the National League. Their triumvirate of home grown stars made less than $10 million together, most of it going to Crawford.

Minnesota - Joe Mauer put up 8 WAR despite missing an entire month of the season. Unreal. Morneau, Span and Kubel were all above 3, and Morneau likely would have topped 4 WAR if he'd been healthy. Scott Baker put up 3.5 WAR while making less than a million dollars.

You might inquire how the top NL teams did. It's the same story in the Senior Circuit:

Philadelphia - Chase Utley was worth 7.6 WAR. Ryan Howard was worth 4.9 WAR. Jayson Werth totaled 4.8 WAR.The Phillies actually paid for Howard and Utley, who earned $11 and $15 million a piece, while Werth was a steal at $2.5 million.

St. Louis - Pujols was worth 8.6 WAR.Wainwright was worth 5.7 WAR.Together they earned about what Soriano is being paid in a single season.

Los Angeles - Matt Kemp was worth 5 WAR. Clayton Kershaw was worth 4.2 WAR. Jonathon Broxton somehow contributed 3 WAR as a CLOSER. He's good, folks. That production cost the Dodgers less than $3 million. Or a weekend in Cabo for Jamie McCourt.

Colorado - This team is the Rays of the National League. They are an absolute pipeline of above average, cost controlled talent. Ubaldo Jimenez (he of the no hitter last week) was worth 5.7 WAR.Troy Tulowitzki was worth 5.5 WAR. Jason Hammel contributed 3.8 WAR. Jorge De La Rosa put up 3.7. They got all that for less than $4 million. And they have a host of great players who will make a huge impact this season, like Carlos Gonzalez, Ian Stewart and Franklin Gutierrez.

Lets look at the Cubs now. Care to guess how many homegrown players put up 4 WAR or better last season? The answer is NO ONE. Only Zambrano and Wells even topped the 3 WAR mark, making them above average but not great pitchers. And for the record, Soriano's WAR last season was slightly below zero. For the uninitiated, that implies the Cubs would have been better sending an average AAA outfielder out to LF instead of Soriano. He was paid $17 million for his efforts.

Conclusion:

The ability to develop star players is key to sustained success in today's major leagues. No team, not even the Yankees can simply spend their way to a World Championship. The Cubs continue to scuffle in player development, which is the root cause of their woes in free agency. The free agent market should be a supplement to your roster, not the bedrock on which your team is built. The Cubs entire OF was bought in free agency, and it's a below average group making a ton of money. This isn't working. Unless the Cubs can begin to perform better in the draft, in international free agency, and in developing their young prospects, they will not challenge for a title. I'm excited about the minor leagues for the first time in a long time, but there are plenty of warning signs from even our best prospects. The 'untouchable' Starlin Castro has the same hack first, ask questions later mentality that has held back Vitters and I suspect will limit Colvin. Cashner may not be able to start at the major league level, although I hope the Cubs resist the urge to bring him up now and put him in the bullpen. And years of Korey Patterson/Bobbie Brownlie/Felix Pie/Jeff Samardzija failures have left me a jaded, bitter fan. The farm system just hasn't gotten it done under Hendry's supervision. The Cubs aren't getting the right players into the system, and they aren't developing the players they do have properly. Jim Hendry should be fired.

Reader Blog: Cubs finally find the road to victory

The Cubs scored just 319 runs on the road last year (compared to 388 at home), more than only Houston, San Francisco and Pittsburgh. Every time they were in a park other than Wrigley, it seemed to be as difficult for them to score one run as it was for Frodo to trek to Mordor and destroy the ring. YOU SHALL NOT PASS ... third base. The offense constantly looked uncomfortable on the road. Or uninterested. Or unable. Definitely un-something.

Unfortunately, this trend has continued here at the beginning of the 2010 season. Nineteen runs in the first eight road games. One run combined in two games started by Jonathon Niese and Mike Pelfrey, respectively, to begin this series with the Mets. A road batting average (.195) that makes you wish Mario Mendoza was on the roster.

In fact, the Cubs had yet to score more than five runs in any road game this season. That is, until Wednesday. They finally broke out the bats, scoring nine runs by banging out 14 hits and drawing nine walks. Alfonso Soriano was 3-for-4 with a home run and came just a double shy of the cycle. He appears to be in one of his patented hot streaks--he has 13 hits in his last 28 at-bats.

On the mound, Carlos Silva continued his rather unbelievable early season success, allowing just two hits and one run in six efficient innings. There's no need to get carried away and assume Silva's name will be etched on the Cy Young Award when the season concludes, but it is worth stepping back and enjoying the apparent resurgence of a player the Mariners dumped in exchange for a guy who can't seem to count outs, and when he does, does so with his middle finger. Silva is now 2-0 with a 0.95 ERA, the latter being good for sixth in the majors. Pretty amazing, even if it is only three starts.

But Wednesday's game wasn't all positive. While I know he's the one guy we all just know is going to break out of it eventually, I'm going to allow myself a bit of worry about Aramis Ramirez. I'm honestly not sure that I've ever seen him look this bad. Normally a disciplined hitter, he has struck out  in 20 of his 67 plate appearances, and walked just five times. He has exactly one multi-hit game, way back on Opening Day. The Cubs' offense has had a lot of problems this year, but Ramirez's .194 OBP has to be at the top of the list.

But enough of that. The Cubs got a nice win and will look for the series split against (gulp) Johan Santana tonight. It will be a match-up of lefties with Tom Gorzelanny going for the Cubs.

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Big move: Big Z heads to bullpen

With Ted Lilly's impending return to the starting rotation, Cubs fans were scratching their heads wondering which starter would move to the bullpen. Carlos Silva's been the most reliable starter thus far. Moving Tom Gorzelanny there would mean the team would have more lefties in the 'pen than righties. Ryan Dempster and Randy Wells look rather comfortable in their roles.

And then there was Z.

To put it concisely, I like the move. In many ways Zambrano has been the Cubs' least productive starter over the last year plus. And one of his biggest flaws is his tendency to have an elevated pitch count, meaning he doesn't go deep enough into games.  As a reliever, he will only be asked to throw an inning or so at a time.

So the Cubs essentially trade out Zambrano for Lilly in the starting rotation, which to me is a win. And then they trade, say, Jeff Gray for Zambrano in the bullpen. Also a win. It's a bold move that could certainly backfire, but I think it's worth a try.

Oh, and I completely reject the thought that this is a bad decision simply because Zambrano is making so much money. The $18 million he'll earn this year is a sunk cost--he's getting the money either way. Therefore, what's important is to do what management believes is best for the team, regardless of what relievers and starters are "supposed" to earn.

Reader Blog - Starlin!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I'd like to see more plate discipline but we have a player here!

Castro hit his first HR of the season last night. HIs fielding percentage and range factor are Up at shortstop and he's hitting .380 on the season.

I'm sure that .380 is partly the residue of luck but the guy makes contact. He has now fanned a total of 117 times in his minor league career (1030 PAs). He has struck out 7 times this year and has also hit 7 extra base hits. He's driving the ball and making contact. He's stolen 4 bases in 5 attempts and he seems to be playing good defense. Other than the plate discipline, he's nearly perfect. I'd like to see the Cubs show some patience here. Leave him in Double A for one more month at least and then move him to Triple A.

Having studs like Castro will make 2010 and 2011 easier to take while we wait for the inevetible post 2011 spending spree.

Reader Blog: Trade Winds

Jim Hendry has been the Cubs GM since mid 2002, so we’ve got a lot of trades to look at. I’m going to highlight one or two from each season that strike me as particularly important or illuminating.

2002: Cubs trade Todd Hundley&Chad Hermansen for Mark Grudzeilanek&Eric Karros.

Hundley is my least favorite Cub of all time. He was shitty.  He was overpaid. And he was a mean son of a bitch. The Cubs handed him a 4 year, $23.5 million contract before the 2001 season. In his two years as a Cub, Hundley totaled 579 plate appearances and posted an OPS below 700. For those who prefer batting average, Todd hit .187 and .211 in 2001 and ’02. He’s most famous in Chicago for flipping off the home fans while rounding the bases after a home run. He was like Fukudome without the production, pleasant demeanor or sobriety.

Somehow, Jimbo convinced the Dodgers to take this sad sack off our hands, and send us something useful in return. Both Grudzeilanek and Karros contributed to the division winning squad in 2003. Grudz became our starting 2B, and he could inside out the ball to the opposite field as well as any hitter I’ve ever seen. I’ll never forget watching Karros videotaping the playoffs from the Cubs dugout during the NLCS. It really felt like he was one of us. He wasn’t a bad platoon first baseman either.

Oh, and Hundley was pumped full of steroids for much of his career. So there’s that.

2003: Cubs trade Jose Hernandez, Matt Bruback&a PTBNL for Aramis Ramirez, Kenny Lofton&Cash.

Cubs trade Ray Sadler for Randall Simon.

2003 was Hendry’s finest season. The Cubs would not have won their division that season were it not for Ramirez, Lofton and Simon. Lofton and Simon are long gone, while Aramis remains as the greatest Cubs 3B since Ron Santo. And Hendry gave up practically nothing to get them. Thanks, Pittsburgh!

2004: Cubs trade Hee Seop Choi for Derrek Lee.

Cubs trade Brendan Harris, Alex Gonzalez&Francis Beltran for Nomar Garciappara & Matt Murton.

The Choi for Lee deal rivals the Aramis Ramirez trade for the best of Hendry’s career. Clearly, Jim was on his game in the early nineties. Choi never realized his potential, and is probably best remembered for being carted off the field after an in game collision with Kerry Wood.  Derrek’s achievements speak for themselves. He is my favorite Cub, and I will be sad to see him go if this is truly his last season here.

As much as the Nomar trade did not work out, I believe now as I believed then that is was the right move to make. The Cubs SHOULD have won their division that season and were trying to add the missing piece for a postseason run. Obviously things didn’t work out. Mercker bitched, LaTroy imploded, Sammy stepped out, and the Cubs massively underachieved and missed the postseason altogether. The following April, Nomar suffered the most excruciating injury imaginable, and that was that. He was on the DL until August, and by that time the only interesting question left was whether DLee would win the 2005 NL MVP. The Cubs finished 21 games behind the Ratbirds, who won 100 times that year.

2005: Cubs trade Sammy Sosa & Cash for Jerry Hairston Jr., Mike Fontenot and David Crouthers.

Cubs trade Ricky Nolaso, Sergio Mitre & Renyel Pinto for Juan Pierre.

2005 was the first year that Hendry really pissed me off.  These two trades, which neatly wrap around a lost season, signal a real change in Jim’s ability to maximize value on the trade market. Let’s tackle the Sosa deal first. Sosa was a diva who didn’t mesh well with his teammates. He was getting older and was obviously on the decline. He still hit 35 HR in 2004. He should have brought more in return than he did. I believe he would have, if not for the systematic way the Cubs undermined any leverage they might have had in trading him. As you all undoubtedly remember, Sammy left the ballpark 15 minutes into the final game of the 2004 season. This became public, and it shortly became obvious that Sosa would never be welcomed back into the Cubs clubhouse. When 29 teams know you have to trade a guy, 29 teams will not give you good value in return. Fontenot was the only piece worth mentioning here, and he’s a platoon 2B who was nearly DFA’d by the club this past offseason.

Then there’s Juan Pierre. Hendry’s worst trade as the Cubs’GM. Full disclosure. I despised him then and I still do. Maybe it’s because, along with Josh Beckett and Pudge Rodriguez, I still associate him with the 2003 Marlins. Maybe it’s because he posted a crappy OBP with zero power. Or his limp dick outfield arm. Or maybe it’s because we lost 96 games and I needed a scapegoat. Here’s why this trade still pisses me off to this day: Ricky Nolasco is awesome. He’s exactly the kind of player the Cubs need to keep if they are going to be successful. And Jimbo traded him for one subpar year of a crappy player on a terrible team. GAHHHHHHHHHH.

2006: Cubs trade Greg Maddux for Cesar Izturis.

This one is more emotional than anything else. Hendry traded Maddux to the Dodgers to give him a shot at winning a championship. Respect.

2007: Cubs trade Rocky Cherry and Scott Moore for Steve Trachsel.

WTF? Cherry and Moore were no great shakes, but I can’t begin to fathom what Hendry was hoping to accomplish here. Trachsel was old and finished. Trachsel made a few starts, didn’t pitch well, and was left off the postseason roster.

2008: Cubs trade Sean Gallagher, Matt Murton, Eric Patterson & Josh Donaldson for Rich Harden & Chad Gaudin.

Cubs trade Jose Ceda for Kevin Gregg.

Like the Nomar trade, the Harden deal was a well meaning, but ultimately failed attempt to improve the team for a deep postseason run. I saw Harden’s first Wrigley Field start in person. He was DOMINANT. If memory serves, he went 7 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 10 K. I was convinced he was the missing piece.  Two years later, the Cubs have no rings, and Harden struggles to get out of the third inning with fewer than 100 pitches thrown. At least it doesn’t look like those prospects amount to much.

Kevin Gregg was a disaster and I'm glad he's gone.

2009: Cubs trade Mark DeRosa for Jeff Stevens, John Gaub and Christopher Archer.

And the Trixies wept.

2010: Cubs trade Milton Bradley for Carlos Silva & cash.

Cubs trade Aaron Miles, Jake Fox & cash for Jeff Gray, Ronny Morla and Matt Spencer.

Two things are obvious to me about these most recent trades: First, it is far too early to say anything definitive about these deals.  Second, they were all about Hendry fixing his free agency mistakes from the previous offseason. That’s never a good thing for a GM. I was furious with Hendry for suspending Bradley for the last 15 games of the 2009 season, as it robbed him of any leverage he might have had in trade talks. I was furious all over again when the Cubs traded for Silva, who has been one of the worst pitchers in baseball for the last several years. Now I’m just sort of numb. I know Silva isn’t an ace, and his sub – 1.00 ERA is the product of small sample size. I’d be thrilled if he finished the year with an ERA under 4.50, and right now that looks like a possibility. As for Gray, at least he got AAron Miles out of here. Meh.

Conclusions:
Hendry made a number of brilliant trades early in his GM career. Since 2004, he’s been significantly less productive in the trade market. It’s not clear whether other teams simply got smarter, Jim lost his touch, or something else altogether, but Hendry hasn’t had an obvious win since the trade that brought Derrek Lee to Chicago. Hendry’s trades aren’t getting it done anymore. He should be fired.

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