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Scrub the Cubs

It's only gotten worse since this was first posted more than a week ago. Cubs broadcaster Bob Brenly the other night praised the Minnesota Twins organization for instilling the philosophy of its style of play from the lowest minor leagues and up, in just one of many recent comments indicating the Cubs problems run far deeper than Dusty Baker. We think they run far higher - right into the executive suite.

The Cubs almost blew it two weeks ago when they took the first two games of a three-game series from the Cardinals. A sweep would have been a disaster. Going 6-4 on their road trip before rolling into Houston this week was dicey enough. Thank God the Astros completed a three-game sweep Thursday and sent the Cubs home to Chicago pretty much in the same sorry shape they were in when they left.

Because the worst thing that could happen to the Cubs is to go on a little winning streak. It would feed the illusion that this team is simply a healthy Derrek Lee and Kerry Wood and Mark Prior away from contending. With Dusty Baker at the helm.

That way lies madness.

The Cubs problems start at the top and permeate the organization. They need to blow it up and start again.

You might think that's what the Cubs have been doing for 90-some years, but actually it's not.

The Cubs, at least in recent history, have never blown it up.

Instead, they collect a new set of journeymen every season and send them out to, well, not slaughter exactly, but the purgatory of grinding mediocrity.

1. Dennis FitzSimons is the Tribune Company's CEO, and thus the man ultimately responsible for the Cubs. Unfortunately, FitzSimons has his hands full with matters more pressing than the Cubs right now - which is part of the problem. A baseball team ought to be owned by a person whose singular focus is on that team. With the Tribune Company's very existence on the line, FitzSimons can hardly be bothered to worry about the Cubs, except as a non-core asset that could deliver half a billion dollars or so in a sale.

But as long as FitzSimons is the man responsible for the team, there is only one thing he can do to make a difference and meet his responsibilities - and it's not spending more money on payroll. He should fire Andy MacPhail.

2. Andy MacPhail is the Cubs president. He was brought in from Minnesota in 1995 and the team is no better off now than it was when he arrived, and in many ways you could argue the organization is worse off. Minnesota, meanwhile, has thrived.

MacPhail was a successful general manager in Minnesota, which leads us to one of two conclusions: He's in the wrong job here and should be demoted to general manager, where his true talents lie, or he merely benefited from an excellent organization in Minnesota - something he has failed to build here.

Organizational culture is everything. The Twins draft, acquire, and develop players with brains who are well-versed in the fundamentals - or become so quickly due to a system instilled largely by former manager Tom Kelly. The Twins are a strongly managed organization through-and-through, with a reputation for shrewdness that extends from their executive suites to the ability of their scouts to scour the low minors for talent.

The Cubs are no such thing. Their farm system, just for starters, is a mess. Look at the Cubs roster: It's full of retreads from other organizations. The Cubs system has simply failed to produce. Even prospects used in trades have been busts. Remember when Bobby Hill, Hee Sop Choi, and Corey Patterson were the cornerstones of the future? And all those before them?

There is no use rehearsing the whole, sorry list of failed prospects. Let's just say it's clear that talent evaluation and development does not seem to be the Cubs' strong suit.

The Cubs don't seem to learn any lesssons from the teams that do it right. It's not just the Twins. Look at the Oakland A's. They, too, have an organization-wide philosophy, and they draft and acquire players who fit that philosophy - namely that on-base percentage and measurable performance trumps batting average and physical potential.

Look at the Atlanta Braves. They also employ a system-wide philosophy, namely that their pitchers specialize in control not velocity, particular when it comes to pitching low and away, and their position players master not just situational hitting but situational defense. The Braves also try to follow a philosophy of not calling up prospects when they first cross the threshold acceptability but a year after that, so they arrive as finished, polished products.

The success of the Los Angeles Dodgers in their glory days was due in large part to scouting and development, with an unusual knack for turning out Rookies of the Year. Even new-school franchises such as Florida and Arizona have been able to put together championship teams, dissemble, and rebuild again. (It's worth noting that the San Francisco Giants, under the direction of savvy general manager Brian Sabean, have rolled right along without Dusty Baker.) We don't even need to address the unique situations of the stupendously rich New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox to understand that, as former Bulls general manager Jerry Krause was vilified for saying, organizations win championships.

(The Cubs' bungling in scouting continues unabated and will hamper the team for years: With the No. 13 pick in this year's draft, they took outfielder Tyler Colvin, who was ranked No. 170 by Baseball America. That's right - baseball's scouting bible ranked 157 other players as better than Colvin. And it's not as if Cubs scouts and management have earned the benefit of the doubt, so alarm is indeed the proper response.)

(For that matter, when it comes to evaluating and managing talent, consider how the Cubs might be faring if the team still had Moises Alou (.330/9/31/.394 OPB); Mark Grudzielanek (.302/.340 OBP); a revived Mike Remlinger (3.48 ERA); a revived Corey Patterson (.289/7/24/.337 OBP/27 SB); Kenny Lofton (.313/.371 OBP); Nomar Garciaparra (.351/7/41/.413 OBP); Ricky Nolasco (5-3/3.06), Dontrelle Willis (a relatively tough year with a 4.39 ERA, but we've seen what he can do); and whoever else I've forgotten. And consider how long this has been a Cubs problem. Take left field, for example, and what has transpired there since Luis Gonzalez left to appear in All-Star games and win a World Series - with Mark Grace - for the Diamondbacks. In an alternate universe, the Cubs are a dynasty.)

Teams with troubled management - surprise - tend to fare poorly on the field, year-in and year-out. Look at Baltimore, Tampa Bay, and Kansas City. That's the class the Cubs are in.

As team president, MacPhail is responsible for the organization. Just what has he done to merit his cushy compensation package?

MacPhail's latest bungle was rewarding Jim Hendry with a two-year contract extension for two sub-par seasons - after coming within five outs of a World Series - in which he failed to put competitive teams on the field. Not to mention the mistake of hiring Baker, a move that was popular here but didn't exactly make the rest of the league jealous. Baker's phone was not ringing before the Cubs called.

MacPhail's failures go beyond performance on the field and the putrid farm system. His arrogant and tone-deaf manner have alienated both the City of Chicago and Wrigleyville in battles over rooftops, bleacher expansions, falling concrete inside the ballpark, and, it seems, any other issue he touches. Wind screens, anyone? Is there, in fact, anything that MacPhail has done right?

If someone could compile a list of his accomplishments, I'd be happy to publish it.

This is an organization that has managed to alienate two of the best ambassadors any team could hope for - Mark Grace and Steve Stone. How do you run the best analyst in baseball out of his job? (Wonder why Cubs TV ratings are down? It's not just because the team sucks. With a broadcaster like Stoney, as it was with Harry Caray, fans will tune in anyway and follow the season, no matter how bad, because it is the Cubs, and because it is not just about a single season, but a long-running mini-series whose ending is still unwritten and whose plot twists get weirder and weirder. But no one wants to go through a long, hot, slog escorted by Bob Brenly.)

Now MacPhail has called Tribune beat writer Paul Sullivan on the carpet, expressing the notion that the Tribune should be a Cubs house organ, according to Sullivan, and pushing to have him removed from his job, according to the Sun-Times.

MacPhail has also allowed the advertising creep that Harry Caray once warned against to desecrate baseball's great cathedral, with the red brick behind home plate, for example, now spoiled by an advertising box, ads increasingly taking up more space inside the ballpark, and no doubt more tacky crap planned to go along with the tiny, overpriced hot dogs and dumb cell phones in the bullpen.

If MacPhail's cluelessness isn't apparent, it was in this interview with the Tribune in which he said he "sensed' the frustration of Cubs fans. Are you sensing this, Andy?

(And what was the deal with that interview, Tribune? Was it a kiss-and-make-up job? Why wasn't it conducted by Sullivan? Why was Friendly Fred Mitchell picked for the assignment? Did Mitchell ask about the Sullivan meeting? Were there ground rules?)

FitzSimons may or may not keep his job, depending on how he handles the Tribune Company's boardroom imbroglio and the company's downward spiral on Wall Street. FitzSimons is lucky in that regard. He can still save his job if he performs well enough. The results of MacPhail's performance are already in on the field, in the ballpark, in the radio booth, in Wrigleyville, and at City Hall. His work is done. There is absolutely no case that has been or can be made that he ought to continue in his job, if merit has anything to with it.

And if MacPhail goes, that means Hendry goes too.

3. Jim Hendry is the Cubs general manager. A new president will want - and should get, particularly in this situation - his or her own general manager.

Hendry gets points with the media - and the public - because he isn't a suit. He is a baseball guy, and wreck of a mess of one at that - he's rumpled and disheveled and passionate and hard-working. Everything reporters love (and ought to be themselves).

Hendry is a slight improvement over his predecessor Ed Lynch, who made some trades that looked good on paper but never resulted in a good team. Hendry has had more money to work with, and he has worked some magic. His trades for Aramis Ramirez, Nomar Garciaparra (and Matt Murton), and Derrek Lee are most often cited as evidence of his skills.

But let's take a closer look. Ramirez, when hot, can slug with the best of them. But what kind of team are you building with him at third, Michael Barrett behind the plate, a succession of poor fielders in left, a revolving door at shortstop, and three second basemen (at one time four) on the roster, none of whom can field?

A few other organizations would trade A-Ram's hot streaks for a better glove and a better brain - especially, again, if the team is built around a philosophy.

Meanwhile, Garciaparra hit .280 in time limited by injury with the Cubs, and now may win a batting title in Los Angeles as the Dodgers' first baseman. Lee is a great player, but even if he stays healthy once he returns - and there's no reason to think he won't except that the Cubs organization seems to have a particular problem keeping its players healthy - he won't necessarily put up the same numbers he put up in 2005 every year.

Still an obviously excellent acquisition.

But then, Hendry's problem isn't in acquiring good players. It's building a full roster. He seems able to only address one weakness at a time. For two seasons in a row he has focused on rebuilding the bullpen, but has counted on journeymen such as Glendon Rusch and Jerome Williams to fill holes in the rotation. And he has left the lineup listless.

The rosters Hendry builds make no sense. If the Cubs lack fundamentals, that is more Hendry's fault than Baker's. The Cubs seem to acquire players who aren't very smart or disciplined. (Barrett, for one, is not only a poor defensive catcher, he doesn't seem to know the rules either.)

What does it add up to? Even with Lee in the lineup the team is built, as it seems to be every year, around a lot of Ifs. If Juan Pierre returns to form . . . if Ronny Cedeno blossoms . . . if A-Ram stays healthy and focused . . . if Matt Murton can develop some power and defense . . . if Jacques Jones becomes a more complete player than he was all those years in Minny . . . and if pitchers with no history of staying healthy suddenly stay healthy.

Tell me, what is the philosophy of the Cubs? Are they a team built on pitching and defense? Are they a team built on power? Are they small ball? Big ball? Are they a team with tough outs who work to extend pitchers and rely on on-base percentage and clutch hitting? Are they a team built on young prospects coming of age? Wily veterans?

They are nothing. Nothing but a muddle. Year-in and year-out.

And that's why Jim Hendry must be fired. A team blaming its poor performance on the loss of a single player - even if he is their best player - is a team not built to win. It's pathetic. And don't throw around the names of Wood and Prior. How many short memories are there out there? I thought last year was the year when the Cubs blamed injuries for their plight. Or was that 2004?

Seems like it's every year.

Maybe the trainers ought to be fired too.

4. Dusty Baker is the Cubs manager. He shouldn't be any longer. It hasn't worked. Let's just face that fact. The Cubs and Dusty Baker are a bad fit. Baker seems to function best managing talented veterans who police themselves on teams that don't need strategic acumen. He is gifted at keeping clubhouses like that happy, where he can be - like the "cool parent" who is a "friend" to their children - the "cool manager" whose first priority is "protecting" his players.

That doesn't work on a team like the Cubs, where instead he has become such an enabler that he should start attending Al-Anon meetings.

The most galling of Baker's flaws, though, may not be the way he casts players in the wrong roles (like trying to force Corey Patterson to be a leadoff hitter) or the way he stubbornly sticks with some of his veteran players too long (flip the lineup upside down; Pierre batting eighth might do him and the team wonders) or the way he fails to hold players accountable (in just the latest example, Baker defended Barrett punching A.J. Pierzynski. The Cubs should have suspended Barrett themselves before waiting for MLB.)

No, the most galling of Baker's flaws is the way he treats this team as if it belongs to him and his players, like it is their own private club whose prissy sensitivities come first. It's not, and they don't. This is our team. We'll be here long after these jokers are gone, long after they have besmirched the Cubs jersey like so many before them and split town. (Hell, Baker never even moved here; his home is still in California.)

Trying to discern what Baker can justifiably be blamed for and what isn't his fault is a fool's errand that obscures his inability to adapt to the situations and conditions he finds his team in. He has done nothing to show he can be a difference maker with this organization, and to bring him back because "it's not entirely his fault" is like saying things are "not that bad" and insisting against all available evidence that they might get better. It is the way mediocre managers in mediocre organizations think.

5. The Cubs had the right idea when they hired MacPhail. He was supposed to be this organization's Billy Beane or John Schuerholz. They still need someone like that to come in and remake the organization; MacPhail just hasn't turned out to be the right guy.

The right guy would be someone bold enough to not just fix the team's internal baseball operations, but with the ability (simply by lacking the chips on MacPhail's shoulders) to make amends with Grace and Stoney and re-connect the franchise to those besides Ron Santo who have meant the most to it and its fans. Find a place for Rick Sutcliffe and Rod Beck and Randall Simon (!). Hell, give Brant Brown something to do. Bring Tom Trebelhorn in every year to re-create his firehouse chat. Change perspective. See the rooftops and Wrigleyville and the purity of Wrigley Field as the blessings they are, not as obstacles to making a few more measley dollars. Be the good guys, and enhance your brand - and thus the value of the franchise.

It starts at the top. Can anyone seriously argue that this Cubs management team hasn't failed?

They have, in fact, failed far worse than the players they have put on the field. Now it is time for their release. They are out of options.

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Posted on Nov 13, 2019