On Sunday, before the non-waiver trading deadline, the Chicago Cubs stood at 42-65, 23 games under .500, matching their largest deficit since the end of the 2006 season. They seemed a mismatched bunch of over-the-hill veterans and kids who might never make it as major league regulars -- seemingly a perfect opportunity for general manager Jim Hendry to "back up the truck" and ship some of the under-producing vets to other teams. And it was a busy deadline; on the final weekend alone, 13 deals were made involving 19 teams. 44 players swapped sides in these July 30 and 31 trades.
And yet, when the dust settled, here was the complete trade deadline work from Jim Hendry:
July 28: The Cubs trade outfielder Kosuke Fukudome to the Indians for outfielder Abner Abreu and pitcher Carlton Smith.
That's it? One deal involving a player whose contract expires at the end of this season and who wasn't expected to be back, in exchange for a pair of marginal minor leaguers? The Cubs reportedly got calls about Carlos Peña, Marlon Byrd, Carlos Marmol and Jeff Baker but rejected any and all deals for those players, even though the Braves seemed quite interested in Byrd due to their outfield injuries; he might have brought a haul similar to what the Astros got for Michael Bourn.
No, said Hendry. He attempted to explain to the Chicago Tribune's Paul Sullivan:
"I wasn't expecting a high percentage of likelihood of something significant being done," Hendry said Sunday. "You do what you can. A lot of things can still happen. Last year we made two trades in August -- (Mike) Fontenot and (Derrek) Lee -- and got some respectable prospects back in that deal. I think the days are gone when it has to be done by the deadline.
"Everybody gets all (upset), 'If you didn't do something by 3 o'clock today, this is a disaster.' I don't put much stock into that. The guys we kept, for the most part, are guys that still have a chance to be involved next year. And if we do make a trade or two in August, that's no more or less significant than if we made them today."
That may very well be true; Peña could be one of those players if the Cubs can't land Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols via free agency; again, though, Peña is not likely going to ever be part of a Cubs playoff team.
And one thing about doing a July 31 deadline deal -- or several, as the Astros, another team having a miserable season, did -- is to send a message to your team and fans that the way the team is currently constituted isn't working and you need to retool now, rather than wait until August, or the offseason. Hendry's statement that some of the players not dealt "have a chance to be involved next year" denies this reality; this is an aging core that had a decent run from 2007 through '09. It's now two years later.
One of Jim Hendry's best traits is that he is very loyal to his players, who in turn love playing for him. But that loyalty is also one of his worst qualities; it means that players he likes are sometimes kept far beyond their sell-by date.
If Hendry can't fix this mess, it's incumbent on Cubs owner Tom Ricketts to find someone who will.
It's instructive to compare Hendry's relative inaction to similar lack of action from the also-lowly Royals, who made only two minor deals before the deadline, trading backup infielders Mike Aviles (to the Red Sox) and Wilson Betemit (to the Tigers), but hanging on to possibly tradeable pieces like Jeff Francoeur and Melky Cabrera, or maybe even a starting pitcher like Bruce Chen, who's having an unexpectedly decent year at age 34 and isn't part of Kansas City's future.
No, Dayton Moore stood pat and kept his team intact, except the two veteran utilitymen.
The difference is that the Royals have young players like Billy Butler, Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer and the finally-seems-to-have-figured-it-out Alex Gordon, who are a solid core for a possible contender-to-be. I'd argue that the Royals are on the cusp of contending in a weak AL Central. Moore doesn't have to make moves just to make them; Francoeur and Cabrera aren't great players, but one or more of Butler, Moustakas, Hosmer or Gordon might be -- and Francoeur and Cabrera can be good complementary players on winning clubs. Both, in fact, have already been exactly that.
Two teams, both mired well under .500, took against-the-grain approaches to dealing at Sunday's deadline. It may be well into 2012 before we find out whether either or both did it right.