Bradley fiasco shows Cubs’ evaluation process needs fixing
The Chicago Cubs did two things right Sunday: telling Milton Bradley to go home for the rest of the season and timing the announcement expertly to coincide with mania over the Chicago Bears’ comeback win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. If you can’t hide big breaking news on a Friday afternoon, then do it when all eyes are on the Bears.
What comes next is far more difficult.
Disposing of Bradley and the $20 million still owed for the next two seasons is tough enough. If incoming owner Tom Ricketts takes charge early enough in the off-season, he’d be advised to find a way to eat that contract, either outright or in a subsidy to an American League team that could use Bradley as a designated hitter. On-line trading whiz Ricketts is savvy enough to find some way to write off or minimize that big financial bite.
But Ricketts then needs to craft a long-term fix to the process which brings mistakes like Bradley to Wrigley Field.
As aggressive as general manager Jim Hendry has proved himself since assuming his job officially in 2002 (he made trades for the previous year as a GM-in-training under Andy MacPhail), he and his organization display flaws in evaluating character and adaptability to the tough playing conditions in Chicago.
Bradley had thrown up red flags all his career with his volatile behavior. Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington got through to him, to a degree, in 2008. But if Washington and his staff were the main guys polled in scouting Bradley the person, then the job was incomplete. As a secondary team in a Cowboys-dominated market, there’s little pressure playing for the Rangers.
Bradley’s biggest previous emotional meltdowns took place in a big market under the microscope, as a Los Angeles Dodger. That should have been a telltale sign to avoid this guy.
No doubt Bradley talked a good game in persuading the Cubs to sign him last winter. He briefly seduced me during his introductory press conference in January the situation was different and Chicago would finally provide a baseball home for him. I even wrote he could rack up MVP numbers with that kind of attitude. Unfortunately, it was wishful thinking for Bradley, the Cubs and me. The real Bradley was soon exposed. See a previous blog about my experience with the outfielder, who stiffed me three times in four days after he had committed to doing an interview for my syndicated baseball radio show “Diamond Gems.”
Prior to Bradley, the Cubs seriously whiffed on free-agent outfielder Jacque Jones in 2006. A positive, low-key chap who thrived in the family atmosphere of smaller-market Minnesota Twins, Jones was out of his league amid the pressure of the Cubs Universe. Chicago scouts somehow missed Jones’ throwing problems, in which he’d sometimes emulate a quarterback intentionally grounding the ball. Jones got off to a slow start as a Cub, enduring merciless booing and ending up at the end of Lou Piniella’s bench in 2007. One year after he left the team, his career was over. But before he faded away, in a brief stint with the Detroit Tigers, Jones was so bitter he refused to talk about Piniella.
Another ex-Twin, LaTroy Hawkins, did not handle the Cubs experience well. His homecoming — he had grown up in nearby Gary, Ind. as a Cubs fan — was disastrous when he was miscast as a closer. Between the boos and a dicey relationship with the media, Hawkins had to be dispatched to the San Francisco Giants two months into his second season in 2005. At the time, Hendry said he dealt away Hawkins for his own good.
Other examples of character-misjudging were catcher Todd Hundley and infielder Neifi Perez. First baseman Phil Nevin was a pill during his three-month Cubs tenure in 2006.
Eventually, the Cubs will have to do something with Carlos Zambrano, whose emotional age seemingly is getting younger as the days flip off the calender and Big Z heads toward 30. The Cubs have tolerated too much bad behavior already from a man who should be mentally settled and secure for life via a $91.5 million contract. More about a possible solution to the Zambrano dilemma in an upcoming essay here.
The overall Cubs problem seems two-fold: Hendry not putting enough of a premium on character, and not getting enough good information from his scouts about potential acquisitions.
In the former, Hendry has to establish a “Cubs Way” of conduct and standards. He’d be wise to emulate the Atlanta Braves, who will take a lesser player with better character and try to uplift his on-field production, rather than acquire a supremely-talented but flawed player. Bobby Cox tolerates no bad apples in his clubhouse; they don’t gain entrance in the first place. And if they develop poor attitudes, they’re publicly reprimanded, a la Andruw Jones being pulled from center field in the middle of an inning, or released outright, as Robert Fick discovered after crashing into Cubs first baseman Eric Karros in a dirty play during the 2003 Division Series.
At the same time, Hendry’s pro-scouting apparatus must be fixed once and for all. He’s either getting bad information or not enough information. There are whispers that Hendry’s employ of close associates does not serve him well. To be sure, you need a posse of folks in whom you can trust. But what if, like players, some scouts simply can’t cut it anymore?
Still another project is boosting the farm system so the Cubs produce enough impact position players to prevent such buyer-beware acquisitions detailed in this stream of consciousness. Again, we’ve discussed the development dilemma in a previous post.
Milton Bradley will be one expensive lesson for Tom Ricketts. The new owner’s learning curve must end there.