Is it time for Cubs to consider regime change?
In view of recent developments and historical trends, the question must be asked: Is it time?
Is it time for a regime change with the Chicago Cubs' baseball operation?
If you listen to talk radio or read any of the baseball-related sites on the Internet, including the Daily Herald's blog, Chicago's Inside Pitch, the populist answer would be a resounding yes.
And you know what? Those voices might be right.
Cubs general manager Jim Hendry is doing something few major-market GMs get to do: rebuild for a third time.
Hendry took over in 2002, and his run has been characterized by spectacular quick rises and steep drop-offs.
The 2003 team made a 19-game improvement from 2002, and the Cubs came within five outs of the World Series. The 2004 team won one more game than in '03, but it did not make the playoffs, and the team descended again, bottoming out at 96 losses in 2006.
Fueled by an unprecedented spending spree, the 2007 and 2008 teams both made the playoffs, with the '08 team winning 97 games. It was at the 2007 Cubs convention when Hendry uttered his famous words of, "We're going to get good, and we're going to stay good."
Today, the Cubs appear to be in free-fall again, as they take a record of 23-31 into St. Louis to face the first-place Cardinals, an organization that has been a model of consistency and excellence while the Cubs have hiccupped along. Since 2003, the Cardinals have a cumulative record (entering Thursday) of 747-605 for a winning percentage of .553. Included were two 100-plus winning seasons and one 90-plus winning season. The Cardinals played in the 2004 and 2006 World Series, winning in '06.
The Cubs, on the other hand, have a record since '03 of 685-663 for a winning percentage of .508. The '08 team was the only one in that span to win at least 90 games.
More damning to the Cubs is the record in that same period of the Florida Marlins, a team that has had player payrolls and attendance figures a fraction of that of the Cubs.
The Marlins' record since '03 is 688-661 for a winning percentage of .510. They beat the Cubs on their way to winning the 2003 World Series.
The last time this space suggested regime change was in 2006, when Wrigley Field was dotted with hundreds of empty seats near the end of that disastrous season, causing team president Andy MacPhail to lose his job.
This year, there have been thousands of empty seats, and fans who do show up seem tired of a team that is last in pitching, last in fielding and is getting outslugged in its own ballpark, where the Cubs have a poor home record of 12-19.
But a regime change is not a certainty this season, and it if does happen there's no guarantee it will be done correctly.
Team owner Tom Ricketts has shown no inclination to fire Hendry, whose contract runs through 2012. I'm sure Ricketts anticipated such a question Wednesday, when he chatted with media members but skedaddled when it became clear reporters wanted to go on the record.
Personally, it's difficult to talk about firing Hendry, who is as honest and accessible as any baseball executive in the game. There's an old-school appeal to Hendry, who likes to shoot the breeze with the media and who works the phones and the winter meetings like GMs of old.
Hendry's critics, however, say he's too old-school, that the Cubs have ignored sabermetrics for too long and focused on players' "tools" and "character."
That brings up perhaps the cruelest irony of Hendry's tenure. The one time the Cubs talked sabermetrics and went out of their way to cite a player's on-base percentage and OPS was with Milton Bradley. And what finally caused the Cubs to show Bradley the door? A "character" issue.
The Cubs have been called "inefficient," and that spending spree of a few years back is exacting its price now with a bad team saddled with immovable and expensive contracts.
We're done with the easy part now. People have criticized Hendry and his record, and they want him gone. Fine.
Now comes the hard part. Who is your new GM, and do you trust this organization to pick the right guy if and when it determines a change has to be made?
Ricketts is not a baseball guy. Neither is team president Crane Kenney, a holdover from the Tribune Co., the previous owners.
Before Ricketts took over, I suggested several times the Cubs hire a "baseball man" as president, someone to oversee and advise Hendry. (They could have given Kenney a different title.) Pat Gillick, who built the great Blue Jays teams of the past, would have been my first choice. I also mentioned John Schuerholz of Atlanta Braves fame.
If the Cubs keep Hendry, I'd still love to see them bring in a guy like Gillick or Schuerholz.
The bottom line is that if ownership wants to make a change at GM, it's going to have to get some expert consultation before making a hire.
There are other, perhaps unintended, consequences to firing Hendry.
Likely to follow Hendry out the door would be scouting director Tim Wilken, farm director Oneri Fleita, assistant GM Randy Bush (unless he got the GM job) and other scouts.
I'm sure a lot of people would be fine with that, too, but they'd have to be patient because upheavals like that can set an organization back temporarily before it gets its bearings again.
Wilken's drafts have been interesting, and he'll be conducting his sixth for the Cubs in a few days. He has deepened the Cubs' farm, but there is no projected superstar working his way up. Fleita has made significant inroads in Latin America, and under Paul Weaver and Steve Wilson the Cubs are doing better in Asia.
Whether you want Hendry gone or not, the Cubs need to use their built-in advantage as the biggest-market team in the National League Central to win consistently instead of finishing behind the likes of the Pirates and Brewers, as they've done too often.
Hendry answers to Ricketts, who answers to a higher authority in the paying customers. And they're making their displeasure known through their absence.
Whether it's a new GM or not, something needs to change here. And soon.