As many of you probably are, I'm flummoxed by some of the recent negativity toward the Cubs and their front office. Much of it has been spurred on by the Paul Sullivan comments that Tom wrote about last week. I'm not sure about Sullivan's motivation here. Did he really think the Cubs were going to turn this around this year? Surely he had no such illusions. Perhaps it's just frustration talking.
It's certainly not based on reason or any sense of perspective.
We've talked about the rebuild here for quite some time now. We knew from the start that it would be difficult, but we'd hoped to see some sort of growth while unearthing a couple of finds by the end of the year. I still do.
Consider these the growing pains.
So instead of the immediate gratification that guys like Paul Sullivan demand, I decided this morning to try and add some historical perspective.
The readers here have a good sense of history and many of you were around, or at least know about, the Dallas Green rebuilding era that began after the 1981 season. In 1981, the Cubs were coming off a season where they were the worst team in baseball. They'd traded away their star reliever in Bruce Sutter - a trade that yielded future starting 1B Leon Durham. Green inherited just two starters from a team that would come within one win of the World Series just 3 years later. One was Durham and the other player was a 24 year old defensively oriented catcher who hit .256 with 4 HRs in 1981. With patience, Jody Davis would blossom into a power hitter with a knack for the clutch hit.
Then Dallas Green went to work.
Green's first deal came in December of 1981 when he traded their best and most popular starting pitcher Mike Krukow for what then St. Louis Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog called "a sack of garbage". That sack contained Keith Moreland, Dickie Noles (a talented pitcher with questionable makeup), and a pitcher named Dan Larsen. Noles was a flyer, as many of Green's pickups were at that time, but Moreland would turn out to be the keeper and he would play a big role (in more ways than one) in the banner 1984 season.
The next big deal came when Green traded another popular player, SS Ivan DeJesus. DeJesus was 28 at the time and had started to show signs of decline already. At any rate, at his age, he certainly would have been past his prime by the time the Cubs were ready to contend in a few years. Green shipped him off for veteran SS Larry Bowa, who would serve as a veteran presence and a stopgap solution, and a 22 year old infield prospect named Ryne Sandberg. Sandberg was the real prize, though not everyone considered him a top prospect at the time. Green was one guy who did.
Then when Sandberg, a third baseman, started the year 1 for 32, some had to wonder if the Cubs got completely hosed on this deal. It was a different time then, however. Cubs fans and the Chicago media hadn't tasted success and weren't craving the instant gratification that some demand now. Sandberg was kept in the lineup, adjusted to big league pitchers, and eventually became the MVP in 1984 and went on to a Hall of Fame career. In 1982, however, he had a line of .271/.315/.372. Hardly the stuff to dream on. Meanwhile, the Cubs, behind a rotation filled with the likes of Noles, Randy Martz, and a popular but now aging junk-balling pitcher named Fergie Jenkins, finished the season at 73-89. After all, Rome was not built in a day and the Cubs were a much bigger project.
In year two of the rebuild, the Cubs added a couple of pieces to their lineup. They moved Sandberg over to 2B and signed veteran Ron Cey to man 3B, yet another stopgap solution, although Cey would play a bigger role than most of Green's stopgaps. Keith Moreland, who was a super-sub the year before, was given the starting RF job. They brought up one of their own top prospects, an exciting but raw outfielder named Mel Hall. Hall wouldn't last very long with the Cubs, but he built up enough value to help the Cubs in a trade later.
Green also gave up on a one-time highly regarded prospect named Pat Tabler, shipping him off to the crosstown White Sox for lefty Steve Trout, who would become the first key member of the 1984 rotation.
There was more talent on this team and they even got our hopes up for a while, winning 8 of 9 games to pull within one game of .500 in July. They got within 2 games of first in what was a weak division. If this were the Cubs today, I can almost hear the media clamoring to make a deadline deal to get that final piece or two that would put them over the top.
But Green waited one more year.
He knew that the rebuild wasn't finished yet. He was right, the Cubs finished 71-91, two games worse than they did the year before.
I've highlighted Green's early successes, but have only hinted at some of the failures: the short-sighted stopgap solutions (Dick Ruthven, but more on that later), flyers that didn't work (Bump Wills, Dickie Noles, Chuck Rainey), and failed prospects (Larsen, Scott Thompson, Carmelo Martinez, Reggie Patterson, Don Schulze) that occurred during Green's first two years.
It's part of the process. You fix some holes, even if it's temporary. You find out what you have and what you don't have. You don't go in chopping heads. It wasn't always pretty but, in the end, Green hit more than he missed.
Then 1984 came. Green replaced the volatile Lee Elia and instilled veteran Jim Frey as manager. The Cubs added to the lineup with another shrewd trade. In late spring training, they dealt relievers Bill Campbell and Mike Diaz for two starting outfielders: Gary Matthews and Bobby Dernier. Dernier became the leadoff man (.356 OBP, 45 SBs) and Matthews was the #3 hitter (.291/.410/.428). The biggest change to the rotation was acquiring RHP Scott Sanderson in a 3 way deal to help shore up that rotation. The opening day starter that year was Dick Ruthven, but his status as the top Cubs starter would be short-lived.
The Cubs got hot early, winning 9 of 11 games in May to go 26-15 and two games up in the division. And then Green did something that shocked Cubs fans everywhere.
He traded the team's most popular player yet, Bill Buckner -- right in the middle of a hot streak, for a then starting pitcher named Dennis Eckersley. Eckersley was 4-4 with a 5.01 ERA at the time and he was coming of a 1983 season in which he went 9-13 with a 5.61 ERA. Most people thought he was done. This deal didn't make a lot of people happy at the time, but your goal as a GM isn't to make fans happy, it's to build a winning team. Do that and the fans will love you no matter who you trade. Green knew that and you can bet Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer know that too.
But Green wasn't done. Moreland's emergence as a solid everyday player and the additions of Matthews and Dernier allowed the Cubs to trade Mel Hall, who struggled against lefties and was becoming a platoon player. The also traded top prospect Joe Carter, who would go on to a long successful career highlighted by a World Series-winning HR for the Toronto Blue Jays. But the trade was still worth it.
The Cubs return was backup catcher Ron Hassey, relief pitcher George Frazier, and a pitcher with a 4-5 record and 5.15 ERA named Rick Sutcliffe. The Red Baron wound up going 16-1 the rest of the way to win the NL Cy Young and help lead the Cubs to their first postseason appearance in 39 years.
The Cubs would fall just short and break our hearts as they always do, but there is much to be learned about building a team and showing some patience and perspective.
The Cubs could have given up on Sandberg, they could have kept fan favorite Bill Buckner or top prospect Joe Carter, they could have went for broke the year before in a team that in hindsight we know was going nowhere. But they didn't. There were flyers who didn't pan out and prospects who never lived up to expectations. And there were bad trades -- Dick Ruthven was traded for LH reliever Willie Hernandez, who would go on to win the AL Cy Young and MVP as a reliever, something the Cubs could have used in their playoff collapse as they blew leads in all 3 of the final games to lose the series 3-2. No GM wins every deal, not even ones as shrewd as Dallas Green was.
Progress isn't linear, as Theo has said. It goes in fits and starts, as we saw in 1983, when the Cubs looked better -- then worse again -- before really taking off in '84.
Rebuilding involves trial and error, a period of evaluation, hard work, a little luck, and most importantly...time and patience.
Filed under: Rebuilding