And there was joy in Mudville.
Last Friday, the baseball world learned that longtime Cubs GM Jim Hendry had been let go, ending a run dating back to July 2002. It would be an understatement to say that Cubs fans received this news well. If there was any complaint, it’s that it hadn’t happened earlier.
That might sound strange, as the Cubs had some considerable success under Hendry. They went to the postseason three times, nearly won a pennant once, and another time possessed the National League’s best record. Ultimately, the team did win more games than it lost under Hendry—barely (749-748). This is all true, but Hendry’s tenure still felt like a disappointment.
Hendry was like a fighter punching under his weight. He had success, but it wasn’t as impressive as it could’ve been. With some of the deepest pockets in the league, shouldn’t he have won more than barely half his games?
Let’s do some digging here. Under Hendry from July 5, 2002, through Aug. 18, 2011, the Cubs posted a 749-748 record, ranking 15th among all baseball teams—just behind the Marlins and ahead of the Astros.
Let’s look at payroll. Below lists the total payroll spent by all 30 teams in the Hendry era (with the 2002 and 2011 payrolls prorated) along with clubs’ win-loss record:
Team W L Pct Hendry Era NYY 900 595 0.602 $1,775,121,140 BOS 866 633 0.578 $1,207,393,290 NYM 737 758 0.493 $1,093,920,615 CHC 749 748 0.500 $983,946,131 LAA 841 659 0.561 $962,046,116 PHI 838 658 0.560 $948,378,757 LAD 774 722 0.517 $927,266,415 SEA 690 805 0.462 $857,050,196 ATL 819 677 0.547 $854,792,634 CWS 787 710 0.526 $849,753,518 STL 831 668 0.554 $835,615,714 DET 701 798 0.468 $825,405,513 SFG 780 716 0.521 $822,258,755 HOU 744 754 0.497 $781,204,114 BAL 634 862 0.424 $676,649,347 TEX 759 744 0.505 $670,856,457 TOR 758 740 0.506 $626,254,126 MIN 809 687 0.541 $624,635,836 ARI 712 786 0.475 $615,118,807 COL 715 784 0.477 $598,858,612 CIN 707 791 0.472 $596,859,038 MIL 718 779 0.480 $568,745,850 OAK 785 711 0.525 $541,797,807 CLE 729 766 0.488 $538,782,589 DCN 660 835 0.441 $504,867,285 SDP 726 774 0.484 $502,068,648 KCR 616 885 0.410 $490,800,333 PIT 628 865 0.421 $396,920,729 FLO 749 747 0.501 $376,395,777 TBR 697 799 0.466 $365,050,879
So the Cubs spent nearly a billion bucks on players under Hendry, the fourth-highest total of any team. And for all that, they only went .500. Meanwhile, of the other six teams to spend over $900 million, five posted winning records. Those half-dozen teams averaged a .552 record.
To put it another way, Chicago spent over 2.6 times more money than the Marlins, resulting in one fewer win (just like in the 2003 NLCS). Closer to home, Hendry spent $134 million more than crosstown GM Kenny Williams of the White Sox and lost 38 more games.
All this might be underestimating Hendry’s financial advantage. Three of the bottom 10 payrolls came from the NL Central, a claim no other division can make. The five non-Cub teams in the NL Central spent an average of $636 million while the NL West teams averaged $693 million, and the NL East clubs dropped $756 million on salaries.
And the NL Central got what it paid for, posting an overall winning percentage of .487 during the Hendry era, the worst of any NL division. The AL Central was a tad worse at .486, but the NL Central was still a little weaker. The six-team NL Central’s record is bolstered by playing more games against division opponents, and those must come out to a .500 average. Adjust for that, and Hendry’s Cubs played in baseball’s weakest division.
Chicago’s three division titles pale in comparison to the seven times they led the division in payroll under Hendry. And in 2002, 2004 and 2005 their team salary ranked second in the NL Central. Last year they spent nearly as much as Cincinnati and Milwaukee combined and finished behind both of them. Hendry spent money, but he didn’t get the value from it that he should have.
The fixation phenomenon
Hendry had a big problem: He fixated. Hendry fixated on players and did whatever he could to sign them. Not sign a player like him, not a similar player—just that specific, exact player. He’d fixate on someone and, to make sure he wouldn’t lose that person, he’d offer that guy a large chunk of cash.
A few individual cases particularly stood out. The best example was Milton Bradley. Prior to 2009, the Cubs needed a corner outfielder with some pop in his bat who hit left-handed. Bradley, coming off a career year in Texas, fit the bill. However, so did Bobby Abreu and Adam Dunn, both also on the free agent market. Abreu was a bit older, and Dunn the worst of the three on defense, but then again, both were far more consistent and less injury-riddled than Bradley.
But once Hendry fixed his sights on Bradley, it no longer mattered that there were similar players out there. He had to have his man—similar men just didn’t exist.
To secure Bradley, Hendry signed him to a three-year contract for $30 million. A month later Dunn and Abreu each signed on with different teams for a combined sum less than $30 million. Both proved to be far more productive on the field while Bradley had a series of controversies leading to the Cubs suspending, and them dumping, him in 2009.
There’s also Jeff Samardzija. He was a two-sport star at Notre Dame who Hendry drafted and then broke the bank to sign just to make sure he didn’t go to the NFL instead. Samardzija has had his moments but really hasn’t been anything special with the Cubs.
Hendry could even fixate with secondary players. Take Neifi Perez, for example. The Cubs landed Perez after the Giants released him outright. (And the Giants had picked him up only after the Royals waived him.) After the offensively challenged Perez did better than expected , Hendry signed him to a two-year deal for $2.5 million per season. Really? Was there so big a market for a non-hitting infielder dumped by his last two teams that you had to pay him that much?
Or there’s Glendon Rusch. He led the league in losses with Milwaukee in 2002 and then went 1-12 in 2003, and Hendry took a low-cost flier on him for 2004. When Rusch did a decent job as a swing man, Hendry fixated on getting him to return, and inked Rusch to a two-year deal worth nearly $5 million. Rusch proceeded to post an ERA+ of 82 during that contract.
All GMs have bad contracts; that just goes with the territory. But Hendry’s fixation on certain players and willingness to spend a little extra to get the guys he wanted had a nasty cumulative effect on the team.
Here at THT, in a piece on team payrolls at the outset of the 2006 season, Maury Brown looked at the teams with the highest median payroll, which is to say which squads spent the most on the 13th-highest-paid player on the 25-man roster.
Hendry’s Cubs—in the midst of the contracts to Perez, Rusch, and many more—ranked third, with $2.5 million spent on their 13th-highest player salary. Only the Yankees and Red Sox topped them. Most clubs paid a million or less for their median man. The Cubs lost more than 90 games that year.
Bill Veeck once said the problem in baseball isn’t the high cost of talent, but the high cost of mediocrity. That was Hendry’s problem. He did sign some good players and made several nice moves, but it’s the bad contracts that best explain how so much money could yield iffy results. Hendry’s better free agent signings usually seemed like getting market value instead of bargains.
Driving 'em out of town
Also, there was a rather distressing trend on Hendry’s teams. They may not have won the most games, but over the last several years they lead the league in vilified players.
Time and time again, the same scenario would play itself out. A player—typically one who already had a bad reputation for off-field conduct—would do something stupid and wrong, leading to a barrage of criticism. The Cubs would respond not by handling matters in-house, but by throwing the guy under the bus.
Hendry and the Cubs would make it clear they no longer wanted that player on the team, and in doing so completely undercut their own bargaining position. It happened repeatedly—with Sammy Sosa, with Milton Bradley, currently with Carlos Zambrano, and to a lesser extent with Michael Barrett. Heck, they even dumped their announcers, Steve Stone and Chip Caray.
I have no interest in trying to defend the actions of any of those players (and certainly not the broadcasting “skill” of Chip), but there was an infuriating trend. I’d never seen the Cubs have such a collection of players they felt they must unload, regardless of cost.
Ultimately, it seemed one of two things must be the case. Either Hendry was the worst judge of character in baseball and constantly found himself signing the worst people in baseball, or he did the worst job handling players in baseball. Or both. Regardless, it’s it doesn’t speak well of Hendry’s operation. I think a lot of the problem stemmed from how Hendry handled the situations.
Here’s a quick comparison. In July of 2010, Chicago witnessed two simultaneous ongoing baseball dramas. On the north side, the team’s relationship with Carlos Zambrano reached a new low. Zambrano got into a dugout argument with first baseman Derrek Lee. The Cubs pulled Zambrano from the game and immediately suspended him. Then they put him on the restricted list, and he missed more than a month.
Meanwhile, on the South Side of town, rumors swirled that the volatile relationship between GM Kenny Williams and manager Ozzie Guillen had bottomed out and that the two nearly came to blows in an argument. The Sox didn’t make a big deal of it, handled things internally, and shrugged it off. They certainly didn’t let it affect their season. They were mature about it.
Not-so-coincidentally, the Cubs continually declare a player to be so cancerous to their team they must remove him, while the Sox took A. J. Pierzynski—considered by many to be the most cancerous player in all baseball—and turned him into a franchise pillar.
For all the problems and needless drama Zambrano generates, until the Cubs started suspending him, the situation regulated itself pretty well. Zambrano would blow his stack, say or do something stupid, then calm down the next day and apologize. Things didn’t change until the Cubs started suspending Zambrano before he had a chance to calm down. And since then, the situation has changed for the worse.
Let’s look at Bradley again. Before Hendry honed in on him, the mercurial outfielder had a definite reputation as a head case. He’d played on six teams in nine seasons and earned a bad reputation for himself in almost every stop. Yet Hendry decided he needed Bradley. Not a player with similar skills as Bradley, but the man himself. And upon arrival, Bradley acted exactly as you’d expect him to, having problems off the field and with his attitude.
Hendry acted completely flummoxed and caught off-guard. Bradley was acting in character—who could have foreseen that? Not Hendry, apparently. For that matter, Zambrano has always acted up, but that didn’t stop Hendry from giving him a five-year contract for more than $90 million a few years ago.
Hendry suspends people or puts them on the restricted list, making it clear to anyone that these guys aren’t welcome on the roster anymore. From a purely baseball point of view, there isn’t much to be gained by driving player after player out of town in a manner that makes it hard to get anything in return.
It’s doubly frustrating. First, it isn’t the most professional thing in the world. Second, it’s frustrating because publicly feuding with a player hurt Hendry's ability to trade the guy. It’s like the team treats these concerns as public relations problems first and baseball matters second.
Sympathy for the Hendry
Despite it all, Hendry is at the very least the best Cub GM in the last 25 years, and arguably the best in the last 70 years.
Trivia question: Before Hendry, who was the last Cub GM to have a winning record? Answer, Charles Weber, GM from 1939-40. He was also the first official GM in team history. (Previously a team president functioned largely as a modern GM, and some of them did very well on the job, most notably Bill Veeck Sr., father of the Hall of Fame owner). At the very least, Hendry is the best GM since Dallas Green back in the 1980s.
Hendry’s successes weren’t entirely due to money. He has made some very nice moves. That was especially true in his early years, when his forte was in quality trades.
His best move came in the 2003 pennant race. After Cub center fielder Corey Patterson went down with an injury, Hendry sent various bits of flotsam and jetsam to Pittsburgh in exchange for talented veteran Kenny Lofton. Oh, and the Pirates threw in Aramis Ramirez, too. It would be a great trade if it were just for Lofton, but adding Ramirez made it absurdly one-sided. Plus, it helped the Cubs make the postseason that year.
That trade wasn’t an isolated incident. Prior to the 2003 season, Hendry traded Todd Hundley for Eric Karros and Mark Grudzielanek. Hundley had six hits for his new team while the Cubs gained half an infield.
In 2004, a multi-team trade landed the Cubs injury-plagued veteran Nomar Garciaparra along with interesting prospect Matt Murton for virtually nothing in return. He also turned prospect Hee Seop Choi into All-Star Derrek Lee in a trade with Florida. Chicago’s trade for Barrett also worked out well.
More recently, despite some nasty and very public feuding with Bradley, Hendry did a nice job making the best deal he could there, trading him to Seattle for Carlos Silva, who pitched surprisingly well for most of 2010.
Hendry had his good moments, but being the best Cub GM in decades says more about the franchise than it does about Hendry. He led the Cubs to sporadic success, but ultimately, the last decade has been a period of underachieving. That previous periods in club history were even worse is not a mark in Hendry’s favor.
References and Resources
Payroll info came from Baseball-Reference.com for 2002-10. For the 2011 season, I did a Google search and found it listed at USA Today.
History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail.
Read more great baseball stuff at The Hardball Times.