When Hendry was at his best from late 2002 through mid 2005, he was building a winning team by adding players around an established core. The Cubs in that era featured the pitching of Wood, Prior, and Zambrano, an offense usually led by Sosa, Lee, Alou, and Ramirez, and a bullpen that never could seem to find a consistent closer. All Hendry was doing was filling holes, tweaking around the edges, and trying to find a closer. In fact, we could make the case that he acquired a large part of that core in Lee and Ramirez, and then proceeded to build around it. Either way, the team was assembled very successfully with a mix of good trades, free agent signings, and a healthy dose of players (mainly pitchers) from the farm system.
And then Sosa fell apart, the juggernaut of a rotation was sunk by persistent injuries, and by the end of 2006 the Cubs were both terrible and up for sale. Between 2006 and 2009, Hendry had one goal… win now at all costs to help improve the team’s sale price. This is the window in which his worst trades took place, and some of his bad free agent signings as well. On the other hand, he produced a team that won 97 games one year and finished in first two years in a row. Unfortunately, as was the case with Hendry’s previous winning team, it had no staying power and by 2010 the Cubs were right back in oblivion.
The lesson here, I think, is that Hendry does very well when left to his own devises. When he is ordered to win now, we get bad trades and awkward free agent contracts. This is when we see the Soriano contract signed and the rash of bad trades that have a total WAR of -28.6 take place. But when he is allowed to build up his way, making moves that make sense and building around a core that is in place, we see a totally different GM who had a total net WAR of nearly 60 in just a three year span.
Hendry is still accountable for the bad moves in that latter era, but we can’t evaluate Hendry just on those moves. To make another analogy, if we only look at Shaq’s record shooting free throws, we’d say he was a terrible player. But when we look at his entire career, a totally different picture emerges. I’m not saying Hendry’s career is as good as Shaq’s was, but if we only look at the time when Hendry was forced to win now we won’t get a complete and accurate perception of his career. When ordered to win now at all costs, he did exactly that. The Cubs won 97 games in 2008 and Sam Zell rode that success into an extremely high return when he sold the Cubs. It was rushed job built on back loaded contracts, no trade clauses, and some very bad trades, but the Cubs were successful. Unfortunately, no team built that way will have any staying power, and that inevitably led to the situation the Cubs are in today.
Going forward, I think the current situation bears more of a resemblance to the 2002-2005 era than the 2006-2009 one. The Cubs are not under pressure to win now, but instead are being instructed by the owners to build up a winner around the core that is in place. The big difference is that this time, unlike in 2002, that core includes a strong farm system that they are committed to building on.
So is Hendry the man for the job this time like he was in 2002? We’ll see. There are other options at GM out there who might be able to do more with the Cubs have to offer, but it is demonstrably false to claim that Hendry has been terrible for the Cubs or that his run as GM has been a disaster. On the whole, his trades have helped the team far more than they have hurt it. With the exception of the Juan Pierre deal, he has not dealt away any prospects who (so far) have gone on to have good careers away from the Cubs. To the contrary, he has turned several deals in which the Cubs gave up very little into a crop of young relievers who are now an asset for the team.
One thing this analysis does not address is Hendry’s track record on hiring managers. As good as he has done bringing in coaches, he seems to consistently get the wrong guy in as a manager, and Quade is looking like he is no exception.
At the end of the day, I have to say I think the Rickett’s family is handling the Hendry situation exactly right. They are looking around to see if there is someone out there who they would rather have, but recognizing that, on the whole, Hendry has done pretty well as a GM and that it would be foolish to burn that bridge too early. The Cubs could possibly do better than Hendry, but the simple reality is that he has not done a bad job, and that the Cubs could certainly do far, far worse.
No matter who the GM is, I expect that the Cubs will be fighting for the Wild Card next season, at worst, and they will continue to focus not on a building a one-year-wonder, but on building a Yankee style dynasty that will be near the top of the league for years..