Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Owner Fan or Owner Winner?

By R.A. Monaco
August 24, 2011

In the 1980’s baseball entered a new age—it became big business. Entrepreneurs like Phil Wrigley one at a time were being replaced by corporate entities like the Tribune Company, which owned not only the Cubs but television station WGN and the Chicago Tribune. Similarly, teams like the Angels, once owned by Gene Autry and the Dodgers, formerly owned by the O’Malley family come to mind too.

On into the 90’s the synergy of possibilities of corporate ownership, the brass ring of strategic tax maneuvers and media rights were just too golden an opportunity for Corporate America, so it seemed. Corporations like The Walt Disney Company which owned the ABC broadcast television network and cable television network, ESPN purchased the Angles. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, owner of the Fox network (which also owns broadcast rights to MLB games) too had discovered nirvana, or so they thought and purchased the Dodgers.

Players, now free to go to the highest bidder, all had agents to do their negotiating, sophisticated men who could talk to the general manager on equal—and sometimes superior—footing. With the establishment of the big corporation-agent relationship, the players no longer had a personal relationship with the ball club. Owners like William Wrigley and Tom Yawkey in Boston had known every player personally and treated some of them as sons. Paternalism has since died in this new system era. As player compensation grew, team executives increasingly stopped seeing their performers as people. Kids have stopped trading bubblegum cards and began only to look at the value of the cards and the team owners in kind see only the cost of their players. It’s probably true these days that fans identify more with their home team broadcaster than the players themselves.

More and more the owners became disillusioned and bitter with how much they’ve had to pay the players—worse they’ve vented their self-inflicted frustrations onto the public. Owners continue to dangle millions of dollars in front of free agents, and after the player accepts the money, the owner begins grumbling that the player is getting too much money. Who put the cannon to these owner’s heads--do sports writers ever ask?

The most important skill in the new age of bank account competition and fungible free agency is to know whom to pay and keep happy and whom to discard—submit your resumes’ at Clark and Addison. The Cubs, have consistently over the years allowed their brightest stars, including potential Hall of Famers Lee Smith, Greg Maddux, Andre Dawson, Rafael Palmeiro and Rick Sutcliffe to get away.

Last year, the Cubs farm system included pitcher Chris Archer, shortstop Jak-Ju Lee, and outfielder Brandon Guyer who were all traded to Tampa Bay in the Matt Garza deal. While Matt Garza threw seven scoreless innings against a treacherous Cardinals line-up on Saturday to record his sixth win of the year, it’s hard not to flinch when we reflect on former Cubs that got away.

The Matt Garza trade hurt the depth of the Cubs’ minor league system to be sure, but that isn’t to say that the trade was a bad one either. According to Marc Hulet, who contributes scouting reports on MLB prospects and is considered one of the 100 most influential Canadians in Baseball thinks that the Cubs have some good lower-level depth. Jim Hendry was a player development guy and there is every reason to think that, while thin, there’s some decent talent to start building on for the next Cubs’ GM.

Commissioner, Bud Selig, 29 other teams and baseball fans around the world are about to find out if Cubs owner, Tom Ricketts is secure enough in his baseball acumen to sort through the dogma of organizational baseball and recognize who the up-and-comers are in the MLB potential GM pool. The stakes are large, 103 years and counting. Now, the question to be answered is whether Tom Ricketts can do his own thinking-- this is major league competition, he's not just an owner he's on the team. My suggestion, if I'm allowed another is to avoid being enamored with “industry experts” and think outside the box.

If the fate of the Cubs is going to change Tom Rickets must graduate from being an owner-fan to an owner-winner. Being a winner in the major league baseball arena isn’t only about money or what “industry experts” tell you--in baseball, more than commonly understood, instincts matter.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Cubs' Luck - Jim Hendry Out!

By R. A. Monaco
August 20, 2011

Hendry’s out! That’s right, the axe has fallen at Wrigley and for the Chicago Cubs the timing couldn’t be better.

Not much explanation is needed, reciting a few names like Milton Bradley, Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Zambrano and compiling a 212-236 record overall should be enough to satisfy those who would question owner Tom Ricketts' decision to terminate Jim Hendry despite his 9 years at the helm. Sure, he’s won three division titles in his first six seasons, but his ambitious 2007 spending spree has left the Cubs with the league’s third highest payroll, little flexibility, a fifth place team and a next-to-worst record in the National League.

According to reporter Dan McGrath of the New York Times/Chicago News Cooperative, the next general manager of the Chicago Cubs will come from outside the organization. Tom Ricketts is said to be consulting with “industry experts” and a national search is supposedly already under way.

Since Randy Bush, Hendry’s assistant, will act as an interim general manager it’s unlikely that a permanent selection will be made prior to the end of the season though names like Kim Ng, Andrew Friedman and Rick Hahn are being tossed about. Serious discussions with some worthy potential candidates may be contractually prohibited during the remainder of the season. That doesn’t really leave much time when you think about what needs to happen between the end of the season and the first week in December which is when the MLB winter meetings usually take place.

The name most frequently mentioned as a potential candidate to run the Cubs is the once gifted pitcher Pat Gillick, who began his front office career in 1963. As a general manager he has five division titles and collected three World Series rings, most recently in 2008 with the Philadelphia Phillies and before that with Toronto (1992 and 1993). It’s hard to argue against the Hall of Famer’s successes, particularly since we’re now talking about a senior advisor to a current first place team in the NL East--never mind that the 73 year old former GM of the Phillies has said he isn’t willing to consider a lateral move or step down to the Cubs GM spot.

Outside of fantasy baseball, the Cubs need to be looking for an up-and-coming baseball executive that is ready and has something to prove too. Under the circumstances, saving a few nickels rather than paying-up for someone like Gillick, couldn’t hurt either. I like the idea of incentives too, don’t you?

Traditionally, the scouting director position has been considered a stepping stone for future GMs. Ricketts would be well advised to be exploring this pool of potential candidates and demand that the next Cubs general manager be a seasoned major league executive with a demonstrated record of recognizing amateur talent and graduating them to the big leagues. He should be looking for the type of executive that has shown the ability to execute an organizational strategy that drafts, signs and develops enough prospects within their own minor league system to replenish the major league roster and maintain a stash of trade chips as well.

It certainly wouldn’t hurt for the next Cubs GM to have experienced, firsthand, the challenges and virtues of frugal player development spending either. In short, the new Cubs GM would have honed the skill of knowing what he’s looking at long before dollars are spent—sorry Kim Ng and others if that leaves you out.

According to team owner Tom Ricketts’ vision, the next Cubs’ general manager will emphasize player development and have “an old-school appreciation for physical tools”--presumably he’s thinking of someone that has been in charge of scouting operations. Exactly what Ricketts meant by having a “familiarity of advanced statistics” is unknown. Possibly, Ricketts is referring to some variation of sabermetrics, the computer system that projects statistics using proprietary formulas to analyze past stats and predict future outcomes. He might consider using those advanced statistics to identify an objective pool of potential GM candidates—just a suggestion.

With that said, and before he’s lured elsewhere, allow me to throw Logan White’s hat into the ring of potential candidates for the Cubs' top job. Logan White, the current Dodgers assistant general manager in charge of scouting, meets, if not exceeds, Tom Ricketts' list of qualifications. White has the demonstrated successes that will ultimately earn him the opportunity to challenge the next level of organizational baseball somewhere. Just my opinion, but he might be one of the best, if not the best, available candidates up to the challenge of putting an end to the Cubs' 103 year drought without winning a World Series.

Drafted in the 23rd round of the 1984 amateur draft, Logan White spent three years as a pitcher in the Seattle Mariners organization. White’s scouting experience is extensive. Prior to joining the Dodger organization in 2002, he served as a scout for the Mariners, West Coast Supervisor for the Padres and seven years with the Baltimore Orioles as scout and cross-checker.

Now in his fifth season as Assistant General Manager and prior to being promoted in 2007, White served as Director of Amateur Scouting for five seasons with the Dodgers. In that role, he headed up the draft selections or signings of 22 players, including three All-Stars who have appeared in the Major Leagues for the Dodgers over the past four seasons – Tony Abreu, Chad Billingsley, Jonathan Broxton, Blake DeWitt, Scott Elbert, A.J. Ellis, Chin-lung Hu, Eric Hull, Kenley Jansen, Matt Kemp, Clayton Kershaw, Andy LaRoche, Brent Leach, James Loney, Russell Martin, James McDonald, Russ Mitchell, Xavier Paul, Eric Stults, Ramon Troncoso, Cory Wade and Delwyn Young.

With White in charge of amateur scouting, the Dodgers have been able to build a club that has a core of homegrown talent and has reached the NLCS twice in the past three seasons despite ownership adversity. White’s history of success in the draft contributed to the Dodgers being named Baseball America’s 2006 Organization of the Year.

Importantly, the Dodgers amateur scouting strategy under White has paid dividends. The team has graduated numerous draftees to the Major Leagues, including Billingsley, Broxton, Kershaw and Elbert. Moreover, his scouting successes haven’t been limited to the first few rounds either. The Dodgers 17th-round pick in 2002, Russell Martin, now with the Yankees, emerged as a two-time All-Star catcher, while Matt Kemp, who's having a breakout season this year, was a sixth-round selection, earning Gold Glove and Silver Slugger honors in 2009.

There’s much more that can be said about Logan White and the strategic decisions that go into Tom Ricketts' next move, a decision that definitively puts the Ricketts brand on the history of the Cubs. If it was my money, I’m looking for a guy like Logan White who knows how to allocate limited resources and who’s always championing the young players as the most efficient tool of organizational stability and growth.

I began by first saying, that the Cubs' timing couldn’t be better. In that phrase I was, in reality, referring to the current state of affairs within the Dodger’s organization and a potential opportunity for the Cubs to snag one of baseball’s best, up-and-coming executives—Logan White. While the organizational successes of the Dodgers have been overshadowed by Frank McCourt’s tragic mismanagement, his divorce and unresolved issue of team ownership, problems with the Court and finances, his former law firm and the MLB Commissioner’s Office, those problems may prove a change of luck for the Cubs.

In baseball, the definition of “luck” is when opportunity meets preparedness, for the Logan White and the Chicago Cubs that time, I hope, is now.