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 year...so 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.