Some positive things happened under Jim Hendry's tenure: In his first season as Chicago Cubs general manager in 2003, the club won 88 games and reached the NLCS. The Cubs won another NL Central division title in 2007 and in 2008 won 97 games, the most for the Cubs since 1945. Unfortunately, both seasons ended in depressing sweeps in the first round of the postseason and were then followed by three disappointing seasons with bloated payrolls. In the end, Hendry followed the same path as Andy MacPhail and Ed Lynch and Jim Frey and Dallas Green and Bob Kennedy and Salty Saltwell and John Holland: He failed to get the Cubs to a World Series.
It was time for the Cubs to fire Hendry. Although you can give him credit for building the 2008 team that won the most games in the National League, it was his failure to understand how that team was a house of cards ready to collapse and how that led to the current situation: The Cubs have the sixth-highest payroll in the majors and are 54-70, sitting in fifth place in a weak division. Last season, the Cubs had the third-highest payroll and finished 75-87. No GM is going to keep his job with high payrolls and losing records, but to make matters worse, the Cubs are a boring, old team without an obvious bright future. The only regulars younger than 28 are Matt Garza, Starlin Castro and Darwin Barney, and Barney is not a championship-level player long-term. Even signing Albert Pujols this offseason wouldn't fix the Cubs.
How did the Cubs get here? Let's turn back to 2007. That was the year Hendry signed Alfonso Soriano to an eight-year, $136 million contract. Soriano had been terrific with the Nationals in 2006, posting the best season of his career with 46 home runs, 41 steals and a .277/.351/.560 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) line. But he was also a player who had posted a .316 OBP the previous two years in Texas and came with a mediocre glove. There was no way to justify that kind of contract; simply put, Soriano was not an elite player. No player who fails to get on base 35 percent of the time can be paid like one of the best players in baseball. Although Soriano helped the Cubs in 2007 and 2008, the contract is now an albatross bigger than the hole in Soriano's swing -- he'll make $19 million per season through 2014. With a .283 OBP, it's difficult to justify a bench position for him, let alone a starting job.
In 2007, Hendry signed Carlos Zambrano to a contract extension in August. "His best years are ahead of him, and the Cubs know that we have one of the top pitchers in baseball for a long time," Hendry said at the news conference. One of the top pitchers in baseball? Really? Zambrano had posted a 3.41 ERA in 2006 and led the major leagues in walks with 115. At the time of his signing he had a 3.86 ERA, on his way to again leading the league in walks. But Hendry made him one of the highest-paid pitchers in baseball -- and this despite Zambrano complaining all season about his contract and getting into a brawl earlier in the season with teammate Michael Barrett. Considering his hothead reputation and the number of innings he pitched at a young age, Zambrano's decline into mediocrity and knucklehead reactions were all too entirely predictable. Everybody saw it except Hendry.
Six of the eight regulars on the 2008 roster were older than 30, with only 25-year-old Geovany Soto and 28-year-old shortstop Ryan Theriot on the "young" side. Yet the only addition Hendry made for 2009 was to add ... Milton Bradley. Yes, that one didn't work too well. The Cubs have been too right-handed at the plate for years, a problem Hendry was unable to fix. He traded Ted Lilly and got nothing but Blake DeWitt, who couldn't beat out Barney. He failed to build any pitching depth in Triple-A, meaning the Cubs had to resort to guys like Casey Coleman and Doug Davis in the rotation this year, guys who predictably got hammered. The minor league system hasn't been productive.
So, yes, it was time for Hendry to go. He's well-liked in baseball circles, and I'm sure he'll get a job with another organization. As for the Cubs, it's back to the drawing board. Assistant GM Randy Bush takes over for now, but I'm sure owner Tom Ricketts will go outside the organization for a new GM. I wish the guy a lot of luck ... after all, the Cubs are already paying $65 million next season just for Soriano, Zambrano, Ryan Dempster, Marlon Byrd and Carlos Marmol.
Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.