Coming into today, I can’t say I had more than a surface-deep opinion on Jim Hendry. I don’t follow the Cubs as closely as I do other teams, and while I knew that Cubs fans didn’t like him, I’d never done enough research to form an opinion more than, “Eh, he’s not the best.” And now that Hendry has been fired by the Cubs, I’ve done plenty of research and spent the day reading around…yet I still don’t know exactly what to think about him. Hendry is a tough knot to untangle.
I don’t think you’ll find any Cubs fans out there that criticize Hendry’s character. From all reports, he’s a stand-up guy that cared deeply about his players and the Cubs franchise. Heck, he stayed on for multiple weeks after he was fired, for the sole purpose of helping the Cubs sign their draft picks and transition smoothly. If that’s not dedication, I don’t know what is.
But the Cubs are currently adrift without any real focus or direction. They are on pace for their second straight fourth place finish in the NL Central, and they haven’t had a strong, competitive team since 2008. And yet, Hendry built this team as if he intended to compete this season, signing Carlos Pena and trading for Matt Garza. Did Hendry misevaluate the Cubs’ place on the win curve? What was his plan going forward? Did he necessarily have one? With all these questions swirling around him and the Cubs, it’s about time Hendry moved on.
So what exactly was Hendry? A good GM? Bad GM? As you’d expect, the answer is somewhere in between.
Hendry was the GM was for the Cubs for a considerably long time – 9 seasons, from mid-2002 to mid-2011. And over that time period, the Cubs went through a roller coaster ride in the standings. They made it to the playoffs three times, nearly reaching the World Series in 2003 and peaking at 97 wins in 2008, but they also lost 96 games during one season and had a sub-.500 record during four seasons. The Cubs’ record from 2003-2011 was 716-702 – not horrible, but also not anything particularly amazing.
But get this: over Hendry’s tenure, the Cubs accrued the seventh-most Wins Above Replacement (WAR) of any team in the majors. Check it out:
To play with the full data set, check out the Google Docs file.
I still can’t get past that fact: the Cubs were seventh in baseball in WAR. Seventh. That’s higher than I would have ranked them off the top of my head, and it gives me pause when thinking about Jim Hendry’s legacy. The Cubs certainly spent their fair share of money – fourth most in baseball over this time period, behind only the Yankees, Red Sox, and Mets – and they were one of the most inefficient teams in baseball…yet if you have money to spend, you can afford to be inefficient. Who cares how you do it, as long as you’re still bringing in talent and making your team competitive.
Yet as much as WAR loves the Hendry-era Cubs, their actual record fell in the middle of the pack. The Cubs had the 13th-most wins in the majors over this time period, while the Angels – who had nearly the exact same budget and WAR as the Cubs – had the fourth-most wins.
Why did the Angels do so much better than the Cubs? If I knew the answer to that, I’d probably be working in a front office right now. The Angels overachieved and the Cubs underachieved, but good luck figuring out exactly why. Was it the culture of the teams? Rotten luck? The curse of a goat? Damned if I know, and that’s part of what makes it so tough evaluating Jim Hendry.
Yes, Hendry is the GM that gave ouch-inducing contracts to Alfonso Soriano, Milton Bradley, and Carlos Zambrano. But he is also the same GM that acquired Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez for spare parts, and got great value for both those players over their tenure with the Cubs. He may have given Carlos Marmol a 3-year, $20 million contract to be a closer, yet he also signed Ryan Dempster to a 4-year, $52 million contract that has worked out quite well. He acquired Chris Archer from the Indians for an aging Mark DeRosa, and then turned the still-wild Archer into Matt Garza a few years later.
If Hendry had a fault, it’s that he was too loyal to his long-tenured players, and he had too much faith in players aging gracefully. But even then, Derrek Lee was paid $13 million for producing 2.0 WAR in the last season of his contract, and Aramis Ramirez is currently pulling in $14.5 million for 2.6 WAR. These aren’t great deals, but they’re also far from an egregious overpay. In fact, once you get beyond the Soriano contract, it’s difficult to find a player that Hendry signed that didn’t provide at least close to market value. Heck, I still don’t get the Marlon Byrd signing, but that contract has worked out much better than I ever could have imagined.
Hendry was no Theo Epstein, but he was also far from a Steve Phillips. Cubs fans should certainly be glad that their team has decided to move on – it was past time for a new direction and focus — but I think Hendry deserves more credit and praise than he is receiving. Even if for some reason the Cubs otherwise underperformed, Hendry did acquire plenty of talent. And he did lead the Cubs to the postseason in three out of his nine seasons. If for no other reason, he deserves a respectful golfclap and tip of the hat on his way out the door.