July 5, 2006
Jim Hendry has seen this, and he's still evaluating? That's what the Cubs' general manager said on Tuesday in Houston, just before he suffered through another disappointing performance by Mark Prior and ham-fisted catcher Michael Barrett.
But if there's anyone around Wrigley Field who expects Dusty Baker to still be the manager after the All-Star break, I haven't talked to him.The body of evidence is in, accumulated day by painful day during the team's 111-143 unraveling since the next-to-last weekend of the 2004 season, and time has run out on Baker.
He has been just another manager without Barry Bonds (or even Sammy Sosa) in the dugout, and there are only two questions now: Will he last through this weekend's series in Milwaukee? And, more importantly, who replaces him?
You're going to be hearing all the familiar names in the next week, with most of the talk about Lou Piniella, the happily retired Tom Kelly and TV color analyst Bob Brenly (unless he takes his name out of consideration). Jimy Williams, one of the worst managers in history, would love another chance. Ditto Jim Fregosi, Lloyd McClendon and Tony Pena.
But the Cubs are dying for stability, and somehow didn't get any of it after seemingly gaining credibility by first hiring Don Baylor, then raising the ante with Baker. By hiring big names and never taking a step back, they sent a message that they're going to give veterans the benefit of every doubt and as a result haven't created an environment conducive to developing young players.
It's that lack of development that has left them running in place. Club President Andy MacPhail properly identified the problem when he was hired almost 12 years ago, but somehow he and Hendry haven't solved it. The least they can do now, it seems, is take player development into consideration in replacing Baker--that and tip their caps to the White Sox.
On the day that Jerry Reinsdorf passed out World Series rings at U.S. Cellular Field, he assured me he had never had a chip on his shoulder about the Cubs. In fact, he said, he had a great relationship with Tribune Co. Chairman/President and CEO Dennis FitzSimons and MacPhail.
Let's hope Hendry is open-minded enough to put Reinsdorf to the test by seeking permission to interview Razor Shines, the Sox's excellent manager at Triple-A Charlotte.
Shines is everything the Cubs need. He's a fundamentals-first, proven winner who spent only 68 games in a 16-year playing career in the big leagues. He's not going to entertain anyone with stories about Henry Aaron, but like Tony La Russa or Bobby Cox, he understands professional baseball from the ground up.
Shines has served a seven-year apprenticeship in the Sox's farm system, taking his teams into the playoffs the last three years and guiding Triple-A Charlotte to a best-in-the-minors 54-29 record this season. His teams are a combined 61 games above .500 the last four years, outscoring their opponents by a combined 342 runs the last two seasons. They have a compelling trait of ranking annually near the top of their leagues in on-base percentage.
He has had good teams to work with, but give him credit for bringing out the best in them. His patience helped center fielder Chris Young (traded to Arizona in the Javier Vazquez deal) develop into one of the best prospects in baseball. His encouragement and tireless hitting of ground balls helped Josh Fields develop into a solid third baseman.
As a group, Shines' players walk; the ones playing for Baker in Chicago haven't, always finishing lower in league rankings in on-base percentage than batting average. Maybe Shines could help break some bad habits by veteran players while making Wrigley Field a more welcoming place for guys like Matt Murton, Rich Hill and Felix Pie.
The last three times the Cubs have changed managers in midseason, they have hired an interim manager to finish out the year and then made their permanent hire in the winter. Here's hoping the first name Hendry announces this time around still will be in the dugout in April. Otherwise, the last three months of the season will be wasted, as they were when Bruce Kimm took over for Baylor in 2002.
In Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez, Jacque Jones, Ronny Cedeno, Murton and perhaps Juan Pierre and Barrett (is it time for him to be a utility man, not a primary catcher?), the Cubs have a nucleus to complement a quality pitching staff--now if they can only keep Lee healthy and find two or three more starting pitchers. Whoever replaces Baker needs to spend the second half of the season evaluating what he has and what he needs for 2006.
Hendry, of course, already has done plenty of evaluating. That's why it's impossible to see him staying the course with Baker and his coaches.
Baker was a good hire, but it hasn't worked. The Cubs need Hendry's next hire to be a great one.
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