Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Jim Hendry, prudent?

Like many Cub fans, I'm frustrated with the big money, long term contracts the Cubs have generously doled out the past few seasons. What's worse, most of the contracts have no trade clauses and have subsequently handcuffed the Cubs in terms of payroll flexibility. On a smaller scale, the Cubs have wasted money on medicore relievers, most recently with the $7.5 million dollar contract awarded to John Grabow.

So color me surprised when the Cubs officially named James Russell as part of their opening day roster. Jim Hendry said that Russell was better suited for the spot than any relief pitcher he could have acquired. I had to read that twice.

I do like Russell, he's a polished pitcher with decent, if not great stuff -- and I'll admit that there is no way he can continue his torrid spring pace. However, that's not the point. The point is that middle relievers are among the most unpredictable lot in baseball. No other role seems to see such fluctuation in performance from year to why not go with a fresh armed rookie who won't cost you much and has a realistic chance of outperforming some random veteran off the scrap heap? In fact, the Cubs are going with three rookies: Esmailin Caridad, Justin Berg, and Russell to go along with the relatively unexperienced Jeff Samardzija and an untested closer in Carlos Marmol.

This decision was somewhat forced by budget constraints and Hendry did have limited funds but it's not like Hendry didn't have any money. He just chose to spend what little he had on other, more important needs. He picked up Marlon Byrd to play an average CF, something they didn't get last year from Kosuke Fukudome. The move has the additional benefit of moving Fukudome to RF, where he is an excellent defender - so the Cubs upgraded defense at two positions with one move. They also picked up Xavier Nady to come off the bench and provide some offense. Just as importantly, it's an insurance policy in case Soriano is injured or performs as miserably as he did last year. Nady can also spell Fukudome against some lefties, against whom he struggled mightily last season. He spent an additional 950K on Chad Tracy, an excellent pinch hitter who provides a lefty bat in an otherwise righty dominated team. Like Nady, he's also an insurance policy for an injury prone player - in this case, Aramis Ramirez. Those two moves make the Cubs better equipped to deal with injuries to key players than they were last year. The Cubs can now survive an injury or three and not have to fill in players that would have decimated their offensive production; the way players like Aaron Miles, Reed Johnson and Andres Blanco did last season. They also give Lou Piniella the opportunity to give multiple players an occasional breather without fielding a lineup that could only compete in the 6 foot and under league. This should keep an aging team fresh over the long season. So think of Nady and Tracy like artificial preservatives. Sure you'd rather not have to use them all the time, but at least they won't kill you in the short term.

So kudos to Hendry for seeing the bigger picture this offseason. Sure, there were still some mistakes, he paid too much for both Grabow and (considering his health issues) Nady. I would have liked to have seen one less year on Byrd's contract too. But I'm not going to get too nitpicky. At least they weren't huge long term deals and at least they didn't spend that money on unpredictable middle relievers. Those low cost rookies have every bit the chance to help the team as some of the would-be overpaid journeymen.


  1. Hans, I found your blog thanks to link on MLBTR. Interesting stuff. I'm not a big Jim Hendry fan and I think his strategy of going with young relievers is entirely money-driven rather than a change in his philosophy. If Tom Ricketts had agreed to a higher payroll I don't think there's any doubt Hendry would have signed a few "established" relievers for $3-$4M per year like he did Grabow. Russell, Berg and perhaps Caridad would have been sent to the minors in that scenario. Instead, we'll get to see how these youngsters perform in the big leagues. There's a good chance all 3 will perform better than any reliever Hendry could have signed on the open market. I still fear Hendry might sell the farm at the deadline to trade for a Heath Bell or a Jason Frasor. I hope I'm wrong.

  2. Thanks, Scott. MLBTR is a great, great site...definitely my favorite baseball site. Good writers and many of the readers are very knoweldgeable about the game.

    Anyway, you may well be right about Hendry. We have to see how he does with some money in his pocket before we can truly believe he saw the light. I have some small hopes in that he at least didn't force the issue.

    I hope you're wrong too..especially about Frasor. Toronto is reportedly asking for a lot and he's the kind of guy Hendry has gone after in the past - a reliever coming off a career year. Hopefully, this obsession of his doesn't resurface midseason. I'm really liking Caridad as a reliever. Good stuff, good control...Fangraphs did a nice write up on how much more of a swing and miss pitch his fastball was as a reliever. I look for him to surprise a lot of people this year.

  3. How long before Tyler Colvin and Starlin Castro carry this team to the playoffs? I can't wait for the "hungry" rookies to take over!! I get leary of long term contracts (Soriano, Fukedome) and look forward to Rookies that want to 'earn' their keep. Should be exciting to see how it unfolds. Thanks...Great site!!!

  4. Thanks Ronny! Wouldn't it be great if we could just shed those huge contracts and just start over? We'll have to settle for the prospects coming through in waves. This year 4 rookies broke through so far, hopefully starting a trend that will continue over the next 3 years.

    If Colvin can develop better discipline at the plate, the Cubs will have a hard time keeping him out of the lineup. Right now, he can be a valuable contributor by helping keep an aging team fresh and injecting some youthful energy. He might be best served right now by Piniella picking and choosing some good matchups for him as he continues to develop. We all got a glimpse this spring of the kind exciting talent that Colvin and other young players possess. But I'm afraid that, unless Soriano or Fukudome get hurt or perform miserably, we won't see Colvin as an everyday player until next year at the earliest.

    There's mixed opinion as to when Castro will supplant Theriot at SS. I've talked to some who believe it will be before June while others think he'll just be a September call-up. A lot probably depends on what Fontenot and Baker do at second. If they can hold the fort and give decent production, the Cubs may choose to wait. But... prospects like Castro have a way of forcing team's hands, so we'll see. He may just force his way into the lineup. I know I'll be checking those AAA box scores everyday!

  5. Colvin is no more than a fourth OF'er and he will likely be playing for Ryne Sandberg in about a month. Like Josh Vitters, he won't take a walk and has been facing pitchers in the spring who won't be on major league rosters. Spring training stats mean nothing.

    As for Hendry, he made this mess that caused him to have three rookies in the pen. It wasn't any shift in philosophy, it was payroll driven.

  6. That's pretty much what I was saying in my Colvin piece too. My guess is 4th outfielder if he doesn't change his approach. He has generated some excitement this spring, though. I'm willing to let it play out before I write him off completely, but the zero walks are a huge concern. He can't skate by with that for much longer.

    I'll try and tackle the Vitters situation soon, but I think aside from the low walk rates, he has a different skill set at the plate than Colvin. We could go into more detail about it then.

    Lastly, I believe Hendry had the leeway to add a reliever financially. I don't think it was a lack of funds, that stopped him from getting someone like Frasor. Toronto, by some accounts, wanted a good prospect or two - at the very least we know that AA said he didn't want "fringe prospects" in exchange for Frasor. They likely priced out the Cubs and the Twins, both of whom reportedly inquired. In my opinion, there was a deal to be made if Hendry was willing to give up the right prospect(s). Looking back on Hendry's history, he's been more stingy with prospects than he has with the Tribune's money -- and it hasn't always been a good thing. He refused to include Pie to obtain Roberts, and wound up dumping him for Greg Olsen, who he converted into Aaron Heilman (like to have that one back); he had the pieces to get Peavy but didn't pull the trigger...I think the same thing happened here with Frasor. It wasn't about the money, it was about the prospects.

    Refusing to obtain a solid reliever may still come back to haunt us. 3 rookies and a Smardzija sounds more like a bad movie than a solid bullpen plan. And maybe you're right, maybe budget-wise Hendry just didn't have any choice in the matter. Admittedly, I'd feel more comfortable with at least one more proven veteran back there. But based on his history, we can't rule out that Hendry just didn't want to give up a Hak Ju Lee or a Chris Carpenter for one year of Jason Frasor -- and I can't say I'd blame him if that were the case.

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  8. I also believe that the Tribune played a big role in driving that payroll up as they desperately tried to increase the value of a sinking team. With attendance lagging, they wanted a contender with a big name player--like Soriano was at the time. Not saying Hendry was an innocent pawn...but I think the Trib was the driving force behind that frenzy, then sold the team and made their gazillions without worrying about the aftermath. I think people give them a free pass and it's easy to take target practice on Hendry. But it's hard for me to believe that this was solely Hendry's responsibility and the Tribune had no hand in it. Things are never that simple.

  9. Let's hope that Sweet Lou thinks with his Managerial Instincts, instead of the payroll, and recognizes the time to make the change with the hot hand. Watching Castro today only makes you wonder how long of a slump Fontenot and Baker need to be in, in order to make the change? Being a huge Cub fan, I hope it doesn't come to this....and the 'Rookie stars' always seem to flop... but you never know.

  10. I think my next write-up may be on Castro. I've had a couple of requests to put something up...I love to watch that kid hit.