As you may have heard, Dave Littlefield is out as Pirates general manager, a move that was long overdue. The link gives a summary of some of the lowlights of his tenure, but the general theme is that the team spent those years mired in a consistent state of mediocrity, never making an effort to get out.
But what happens when a mediocre team makes that effort? You get the 2007 Chicago Cubs. The Cubs have been roundly bashed in the media for handing out $300 million of contracts in the offseason. Meanwhile, analysts bash them for throwing another $91.5 million at Carlos Zambrano and $5 million at Jeff Samardzija, and for trading two living, breathing players for Steve Trachsel.
What's damning here isn't that these were all mistakes, but that they were predictable mistakes. If you draft Len Bias number 2 overall and he dies tragically of a cocaine overdose, that's not your fault. But if you take Sam Bowie because you decide your team needs to be built around a big man, you deserve every ESPN Classic replay of Michael Jordan doing this to your team in the Finals.
Is there anyone out there who saw the headlines of the Alfonso Soriano contract and thought "$136 million? Wow, what a bargain!" or "World Series, here we come!" All the Cubs fans I know reacted to the Jason Marquis signing a lot like this. The Samardzija pick was bashed almost instantly. Indeed, he has been a tremendous disappointment as a pro; perhaps there was a reason that 29 other teams decided he wasn't worth the money.
As for Zambrano, he's one of my all-time favorite Cubs, but he is definitely not the kind of pitcher I want to throw $90M+ at. Big Z's declining peripherals and constant attempts to get himself injured don't endear him to me, but apparently they did to Cubs GM Jim Hendry, whose job appears safe for now.
Hmm. Hendry's job appears safe. Why? I'm not trying to defend Littlefield, but if he had the authorization to spend $400 million, I don't think he could have done a worse job with it than Hendry did. As it is, the bargain-basement Pirates enter today's action less than 10 games behind the Cubs, who would be out of contention in any other division in organized sports.
Perhaps Hendry is still feeding off the reputation of well-timed 2003 trades for Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez. Maybe so, but in the same year Littlefield gave away Aramis he also acquired six years of cost control on Jason Bay and five on Oliver Perez in exchange for a declining Brian Giles. That's one hell of a coup, and it makes up for a lot of his failings.
Sure, the trade for Matt Morris was inexplicably stupid, but I could (and will) say the same thing about Steve Trachsel. Yes, Littlefield drafted Brad Lincoln over Tim Lincecum, but can anyone defend the Cubs' track record of player drafting and development? The best position player they've produced since 1990 is probably Corey Patterson, and you can't mention his name on the North Side without bringing up visions of him hacking away at a pitch over his head.
Frankly, the big difference I see between these two is that one of their teams has a large built-in fan base, giving their GM the resources to overpay for a .500 ballclub. It's too bad that ownership doesn't see it that way, because if they did the Cubs would have a better front office and a brighter team outlook.