Looking back at another Cubs rebuilding era

Looking back at another Cubs rebuilding era

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



Leave a comment
  • John, thanks for the perspective and the trip down memory lane.

    I still can't understand how some people are already starting to criticize the FO. Do they expect some sort of magic wand which will solve all the problems at once? Of course there will be flyers and stopgaps and good ideas which don't pan out. As long as more good moves are made than bad, then progess is made. When and if that stops happening, then it may be time to start questioning. But not now, after 7 months of the new FO.

  • In reply to CubsFanInNorway:

    Your welcome. That is exactly true. One thing I should add is that there needn't be gradual improvement, the 1983 Cubs showed signs of life, but still wound up worse than the 1982 team in terms of final record -- and then it all came together in 1984.

    It'll come together, maybe when we least expect it.

  • Exactly. "Progress isn't linear". It may not even be monotonic.

  • In reply to CubsFanInNorway:

    That was the line I was trying to remember! Thanks. I'm adding it to the piece :)

  • Great piece, as always, John. In reading your article, I couldn't help but think that the current team might actually be in a better position to compete going forward than the 1982 team was. We already have a few pieces that could end up being major contributors as the FO builds a winner.
    Castro is looking very good, and he is getting much better all the time, with Rizzo on the way in the next month or so. Brett Jackson, in spite of his struggles, still could be a very solid player as could, possibly LaHair, depending upon what Theo and Crew decide to do with him.
    We also have a couple of pieces to the rotation already in place with Garza, Shark and possibly Wood.
    While some building blocks are in place, there is still a lot of work to do.

  • In reply to supercapo:

    Thanks and that's a great point. The Cubs already have some young players who are ready to contribute. I can see Theo adding a piece or two at a time, keeping what works, throwing out what doesn't -- then when the team gets close, you take the big gamble, as he did with Nomar when he was in Boston. There are some parallels with successful rebuilds and the Cubs seem to be on that track.

  • Great piece partner! My favorite era because 1982 was the first year I watched the Cubs from opening day through. I remember Sandberg being on the 10th inning show with Harry after he broke out of the rough 0-32 or something start and thank god it didn't happen in this day and age.

  • In reply to Tom Loxas:

    True. The Cubs saw that through and they may have had the luxury of a less demanding media and fan base, but I remember doubt creeping in about Sandberg even back then.

    Even after he got on track,that first year slash line looked like something a utility infielder would put up. We can all be grateful the Cubs stuck with Ryno.

  • fb_avatar

    Hey, enjoyed this article John, you are right on the money as always. I also have fond memories of 1982 because that is when I really became a Cubs fan and started watching the games. I was only 7 at the time but I remember God's honest truth is that Ryne Sandberg was my first favorite Cub, and remains so through today, not because of his greatness, but I actually felt sorry for him being a rookie and starting 0 for 30, so I started to root for him, and he started to do better. In my youthful naivete, I probably thought my cheering for him had something to do with that! I remember my Dad taking me to the games back then, I think it was a game in 1983 where there were a tad under 7000 fans. It will be interesting to see if we approach that in this day and age if we lose 100 games. I doubt that will happen though. Good old "bull durham" hit a home run in that game to help win it!

  • In reply to Gary Kueper:

    Haha! I'm slightly older, my first favorite player was Bill Madlock. And when the Cubs traded him for Steven Ontiveros and the remains of Bobby Murcer, I vowed never to root for the Cubs again. That lasted until the next game came on.

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to John Arguello:

    John, thanks for a great article. I too was a Bill Madlock fan. I loved the animosity between him and Ted Simmons and to this day will never understand that trade. I hated both those players we received on the team. I followed Madlock for a while and I too was following the Cubs the next game. I also was a huge Ryne S fan. I remember him that first year and seems he had double power consistency and a great glove. He and Bowa sure worked well together.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    "Haha! I'm slightly older, my first favorite player was Bill Madlock. And when the Cubs traded him for Steven Ontiveros and the remains of Bobby Murcer"

    Speaking of Ontiveros and Murcer, if you've seen the infamous 23-22 game (which looked like yesterday except with Kingman hitting bombs that made yesterday's taters look like popups) they both played in it.

    Also... among the relievers who got shelled were Bruce Sutter, Willie Hernandez and Donnie Moore. Not bad pitchers as it turned out.

    So even in the late 70's the Cubs weren't without talent. They were obviously pretty clueless about who were keepers and who were not, though.

  • In reply to eaton53:

    I remember them well. I believe Ontiveros made the last out in that game by tapping out to the pitcher. I remember a kid had snuck a radio to school and we were listening in whenever we could, when we found out the Cubs were coming back, I remember us all racing home to catch the exciting comeback and the heartbreaking finish.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    The game was on MLB Networks "All Time Games" a few years back... I had it DVR'd but lost it when I got an upgrade.

    Among the highlights: Ontiveros did homer in the game. But the big highlight was the longest HR I've ever seen when Kingman's 3rd blast landed in the front yard of the 3rd house down Kenmore.

    I still can't believe a ball could be hit so far by a non-roider. His first two weren't chopped liver either... they both came close to landing on a rooftop.

  • The past is the past. (re)bulding starts with now. The next 2
    months will really tell us what Theo's long term plans
    really are.

  • In reply to emartinezjr:

    Those who don't remember the past are doomed to repeat it. Or in this case, not to repeat it.

  • Very cool piece. I wasnt born until 1983 and 1989 is the first season i really remember so i never got to experience the dallas green era proper and i found it very interesting to hear the details on how he constructed that roster. I especially liked the part about not going for it in season 2 because the process wasnt complete, it takes that kind of restraint, patience and vision to do a total rebuild instead of the throw a bunch of money at free agents strategy we are used to. Reactionary short sighted cubs fans like sullivan can bitch and moan but i take comfort in the fact i believe this FO could care less what people like him think and that they will stick to their strategy. I hate watching the cubs lose as much as anyone but I want to compete for titles every year, i want division championships and several world series titles, i want to burn the phrase "loveable losers" from the english language and if it takes 2-3 100+ loss seasons to reset the foundation, shed salary and make that happen, so be it.

  • In reply to Andrew13:

    Thanks! Of course, Green pretty much constructed the 89 roster, though he was no longer around. It could have been even better, but Jim Frey traded away Green/Goldsberry draft picks like Rafael Palmeiro and Jamie Moyer.

    Totally agree with your sentiment. Let's do this right, even if it's a little painful in the beginning.

  • I wasn't alive during this time, so I won't even act like I really knew what was going on. But it seems to me like Dallas Green just took a bunch of flyers on guys who everybody else gave up on. Either he got really lucky, or Dallas Green was reading Bill James baseball abstract. There's nothing here that suggests guys like Sutcliffe and Eckersley were going somehow perform better once they became Cubs. I just feel like it was a bunch of unexpected value acquired in trades that were meant to slash team payroll, rather than an effort to build a champion.

  • In reply to elusivekarp:

    Good intuition. He took quite a few flyers. Many worked: Dernier, Eckersley, Sutcliffe, Moreland...even Sandberg to some degree. Others, like Dickie Noles, did not.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    I just don't really see how we herald him as such a great GM. Sure, he understood the rebuilding process, but too much of his success seems to have been luck.

  • In reply to elusivekarp:

    Some, but you always need luck. Green (or actually Goldsberry) did build a tremendous farm system that produced Greg Maddux, Rafael Palmeiro, Mark Grace, Jamie Moyer, Joe Girardi, and a few other quality MLB starters.

    The long term plan worked too, but Jim Frey wound up dismantling that. The Cubs were set up to win in the 90s but they got greedy for short term gains and threw it away.

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to John Arguello:

    Yea, like trading Palmeiro for Mitch (the Wild Thing) Williams. You just had to live through the losing year after year after year and never winning a division title even and then see the Cubs start to show life. I grew up in southern Illinios which was Cardinal country (I think they're all homers). The abuse you for liking something other than the norm and then they bring in a guy who won a world series, who was not the norm. I remember him come storming out of the Philly dugout and tv showing him yelling *F* bombs at the umps. (It was a kinder, gentler world back then :) He took over my team and you could see and feel momentum changing. Anyone whoever remembers Sandberg homering off Sutter in the 9th to tie the game and again in extra innings to win the game and put the Cards (the evil empire in the NL East at that time) in their place and led the Cubs to their first title. I can't explain the incredible joy and happiness Cub fans experienced. I started rooting for the Cubs in 1969. This was 1984. Was it luck? Maybe. All the "new ways" to evalutate players was not in place, but Green and Goldsberry were fabulous to do what they did and every Cub fan can feel this "IT" that Theo and Jed are doing now. I believe!

  • In reply to Hal McCarty:

    Jamie Moyer was in that deal too. And the worst thing is that the year before he traded Lee Smith away for Calvin Schiraldi and Al Nipper. If he would have kept Smith to begin with, he never would have had to make that trade for Williams.

  • fb_avatar

    The Krukow deal pissed me off big time, he was a top of the rotation young arm heading into his prime..I really felt they would have gotten more else where but Green was familiar with the Phillies system...An exciting thing about that era was also how many rumors were floating around..I recall one before Cey was aquired that had Billy Buckner going to the Yankees for Willie Randolph, Dave Righetti and a 3rd player who the Cubs and Yankees couldn't agree upon that ultimately killed the deal.. Anothe rrumor had Billy Buck going to the giants for Bill Laskey a good pitcher in his day and a young outfielder named Chili Davis.. Bottom line is this, that was a rebuild of the minor and major leagues at the same time, wouldn't a comparison to the John Holland/Durocher Cubs of late 1965/66 be more of where we need to go and compare.??? That being said Green would have won us multiple championships here had he been allowed to do what he wanted, I think Theo will as well..

  • In reply to Luigi Ziccarelli:

    Great stuff, Luigi. Maybe you're right...but I can't say I was around for that 65-66 rebuild. I was not yet even an idea.

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to John Arguello:

    It was before my time by 4 years John, but the premise of what then Cubs GM John Holland and Leo Durocher did is exactly what Theo and Jed need to do with the roster..First off near the end of 1966, Holland dealt 2 Ryan Dempster type starters, Bob Buhel and Larry Jackson to the Phillies for Fergie Jenkins, Adolfo Phillips and of John Herrestein..Secondly, he dealt older reliever, Lindy MacDaniel to the giants for Randy Hundley and the future #3 starter Billy Hands..In 2 deals you get 2 EXCELLENT starting pitchers and 2 everyday players for older guys who weren't gonna be of any help in 3 years..Granted with salaries and GM's not willing to deal prospects it may be harder but not impossible.. John, has your opinion on trading Garza changed with his inability to field his position??

  • In reply to Luigi Ziccarelli:

    His defense is puzzilng, but I don't want to say that I'm against trading Garza. You always have to listen. I'm just against trading him unless you can really get a package you're comfortable with.

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to John Arguello:

    Agreed John, but if this defensive tendency keeps occuring it will further hurt his value, plus the Cubs down the road when were good.. Remember when Steve Sax had that problem? It was easier to ship him to the Yankees and ChiSox as a DH cause he could still really hit

  • In reply to Luigi Ziccarelli:

    I remember both of those Buckner rumors Luigi, and at the time he was my favorite Cub so I was worried. However, Green wanted to move Durham to 1b and was focused on moving Buck. There was even a rumor of moving Buckner to LF or even 3b if they acquired Garvey as a FA.

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to Tom Loxas:

    Tom, I was of the school that Durham should have gone before Buckner...Loved that guy!! Still one oif my all time fav Cubs!!!

  • In reply to Luigi Ziccarelli:

    I was a fan of both, but I was one of the few okay with the move. Cubs had a logjam in the OF and they needed SP. I remember when Durham made that big error in 84, on of my good friends said, "See, Billy Buck would have never made that error." Of course, we know what happened two years later.

  • fb_avatar

    Lets face it you need luck and you gotta be agressive. and no one was more agressive than Dallas Green

  • In reply to Luigi Ziccarelli:


  • fb_avatar
    In reply to Luigi Ziccarelli:

    Yes I agree also Luigi.

  • Finally! Thank goodness for the Padres.

  • In reply to CubsFanInNorway:


  • Nice article John. I'm glad there are some people out there that know that if you are looking to build a winning formula that it will take a while.

    I believe the catcher you are talking about in the Sutcliffe trade was Ron Hassey. I think you just made a typo, but wanted to let you know.

  • In reply to Alex:

    Yes, good catch (no pun intended). I did mean Hassey :)

  • Really a great read, John. And a great example of why it's much too early to say whether Jed and Theo have done a good job with this franchise or not.

    You list some flyers that Dallas Green took, and they weren't all grand slams. By definition, these are low-percentage plays. So it's ridiculous for fans to bitch about how one of those flyers (Bowden, Ian Stewart, Mather, Volstad) didn't work out. We don't need EVERY one to work out. Just some.

  • In reply to Taft:

    Thanks! Very true... you need enough of them to work out where you can find a few pieces and then supplement them with good, established players.

  • You da man, John. The history you addressed was fun to read about even though it ended in FAILURE as FAILURE nonetheless...Nice things are bound to happen to a team that begins with nothing and has low expectations. The trick is waiting..patience....spending good money on a poor product. We all share your unbridled Ernie Banks optimism but until the product produces a return on entertainment investment for the fans, huge numbers of sane people, including Paul Sullivan, will be keeping their cash in their pocket. John I hope you are being paid enough.

  • In reply to gposner:

    Hey...if you like reactionary, cynical writers who take the easy way out and appeal to base emotions, then go read Sullivan and Rosenbloom. You're never going to find that here.

  • so in hindsight, i have a great 2015 year to look forward to.

  • In reply to lokeey:

    2014 :)

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    2014 will be a good year. 2015 will be a GREAT year.

  • In reply to lokeey:

    You're probably right. Hopefully its' 2015 and beyond.

  • Thank you for more logic and common sense on this site. Great article. Patience is key. Once one objectively realizes how bare bones our farm was and how aging and laden with bad contracts our big league club is, it's easy to see how this is gonna take some time. Years, especially with the latest CBA. Thanks again for spreading perspective to the impatient.

  • In reply to Bill:

    Thanks Bill. Rebuilding is never easy. Sometimes it's good to look back to remind ourselves. It'll happen, but it won't happen overnight...

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to John Arguello:

    It won't happen overnight...anyone who thinks it does with the disfunctional team we had last year is only fooling themselves...It takes time to clean house and unlike the NFL or NBA it takes longer to develop talent in the MLB..2014 sounds about right...The lesson to be learned by the Dallas Green era is that we have to see it thru with Theo and Co, Dallas was oh so close and the Trib didn't give him a chance to finish by kyboshing his decisions then Frey and Himes set us back 10 years!!!

  • In reply to Luigi Ziccarelli:

    Agreed. 2014 is a best case scenario, I think. The Cubs have to have enough of a foundation where they feel comfortable spending on a veteran or two.

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to Luigi Ziccarelli:

    Himes was worst Cub GM IMO EVERRRR. Am I yelling? Damn straight. Losing Maddux...I'll never forget...I'll never forgive.

  • In reply to Hal McCarty:

    For me it's Jim Frey. He completely tore down what Green built and set the Cubs back 10 years. Himes was awful too because he didn't have the people skills for the job. Frey infuriated me because he was constantly being outwitted by other GMs. He was in over his head.

  • fb_avatar

    Tom, the most HATED of all Cub killers, not only did he kill us un the NLCS, he made it look like he was gonna sign with the Cubs that previous offseason!!! He never had ANY intention of leaving So Cal...I used to love Garvey before that BS!!!

  • One thing I like about Epstein is he strikes me as the kind of guy who is not going to stop building the roster after the team becomes good. The Cubs of the last 100 years or so have not really had a run of sustained success. I don't mind if he takes five years to get us to that point, because I believe that once we become winners, we're going to stay winners.

  • In reply to SVAZCUB:

    Agreed. He's going about this the right way and once he gets the team there, I think you can count on them competing year in and year out. I hope he doesn't start spending wildly once they're on top, but he likely won't have to since he won't have to compete with the Yankees.

Leave a comment