Cubs improved under GM Hendry, but pressure is on
Posted: Monday March 19, 2007 11:43AM; Updated: Monday March 19, 2007 12:28PM
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MESA, Ariz. -- The Cubs seem a lot looser now than they've been in years prior (sorry, poor word choice there). Speaking of the overall plan of organizational relaxation, one Cubs cohort said, "It starts at the top."
That person could easily have been talking about new manager Lou Piniella, a genetically fun guy, but he was really talking about new club president John McDonough, who begs folks around the Cubs to let loose and have a good time, and especially not to let the past get them down.
Even general manager Jim Hendry seems to be pretty carefree for a man who acknowledges that the pressure is squarely on him this season. Considering the history of the club and normally low expectations, it's somewhat unusual that only two rough years led to the ousting of manager Dusty Baker and put Hendry on the hot seat. In another big Cubs change, rather than relying on the lure of Wrigley Field and the tradition of sun and beer to attract fans, Hendry was given $300 million with which to improve his last-place club. With that comes honest-to-goodness expectations. Hendry understands this as much as anyone.
"I expect us to have a better club, and it's my responsibility if we're not," says Hendry, one of 10 baseball GMs (a rundown of the rest of the 10 is below) who could be feeling some extra pressure this season.
"I think we're going to have a lot better club ... But I truly don't go to work worrying about my own situation."
Hendry knows that if all the luxury purchases, starting with Alfonso Soriano but hardly ending there, don't substantially improve the Cubs, that $300 million spending spree may be his last act as Cubs GM.
"I've been here twelve years now .... They've been great to me. It's time we do better," Hendry says, flatly.
There's nobody who worked harder than Hendry this winter in lining up talent. Some could claim some of the Cubs contracts seem player-friendly (few around baseball look like bargains, though potentially, I'd count Piniella for $10 million over three years and second baseman Mark DeRosa for $13 million among them). Or they could quibble that Hendry would have been better off locking up ace pitcher Carlos Zambrano earlier, especially before Barry Zito broke the bank in San Francisco to the tune of $126 million; although, with agent Barry Praver in town now, there's great optimism there'll be a new five-year contract in place for Zambrano by around Opening Day.
Hendry suffered a heart episode at the winter meetings, but you couldn't tell it by seeing him down here. "I'm fine," he says about one subject he won't dwell on.
Putting all that aside, the Cubs should be a lot better, maybe by as many as 20 games from the 66 they won last year. In a division that was won last season with 83 victories (by the eventual world champion Cardinals) and still looks wide open, the Cubs should have by far the best everyday lineup and could easily steal it. Old Cubs hopefuls Kerry Wood and Mark Prior suffered spring setbacks, and Piniella says that they need to "shore it up defensively" and need a good year from their closer, Ryan Dempster. Yet Piniella asserts, "I expect us to have a darned good team. Our fans are going to enjoy this team,"
It would have been nice to have been able to lure a front-of-the-rotation starter to Chicago, but Zito cost a mint and rumors that Jason Schmidt wanted to stay on the West Coast bore out when he spurned interest from several Midwest teams, including the Cubs. In any case, Piniella seems fine with a rotation of Zambrano followed by free agents Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis and youngster Rich Hill (and the fifth to be named later).
"We were in last place," Hendry says, "so we have a lot of people to pass." But if they don't pass a few, Hendry knows his time may expire.
Hendry is far from the only GM on the hot seat entering this season.
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