Shortly after the Cubs season abruptly ended with a loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks in the National League Division Series, Chicago general manager Jim Hendry was thinking about next year.
The Cubs did win the NL Central Division for the second time under Hendry. But there's work to be done. Hendry met with his staff, including assistant general manager Randy Bush, to discuss candidates for the 40-man roster, get updates from the medical staff, and settle some business issues. This week, the Cubs' top scouts gathered at Wrigley Field to set up a preliminary offseason plan.
"You can't get too specific, and you can't hit the ground running tomorrow and start calling people," Hendry said, "but we're discussing different ways to improve the club, to set up the club, who we think we can count on, who might be in a different role."
The next phase will be the organizational meetings at the end of October in Arizona. On Thursday, Hendry discussed what's next for the Cubs with MLB.com.
MLB.com: Did anything that happened in the NLDS help you in terms of determining what needs to be done to make the Cubs better in 2008?
Hendry: Not necessarily. From June 1 on, we were the second-best team in all of baseball. It wasn't like in April or May we beat the Rockies five out of seven. We finished the second half and played extremely well to get in, and we got beat. That same team that looked so good against us [in the NLDS], they turned around and in the next four games, got swept. I thought the Phillies were the best team in the league in September -- that's what our scouts were telling us. When we played the Phillies, it was a tough match for us. And they were three and out [against Colorado]. It's baseball. If Cleveland beats Boston, it doesn't mean Boston wasn't the best team in the American League over 162 games.
MLB.com: So you don't say, "OK, we need to add players to improve situational hitting?"
Hendry: No. You have to look at it globally. In the second half, we were saying we need to get better on this and that for next year. That was talked about and kicked around before somebody had a bad game in the playoffs. We're not going to turn our back on Rich Hill, for example, because he had a bad game, or say, "Gee, Ted Lilly was terrible that night [in Game 2 of the NLDS] -- what are we going to do with Ted?" We wouldn't have been playing in the postseason without Ted.
You want to improve and you want to change things. Even if you're the World Champions, I think you come into camp next year with four or five different guys on your roster. That's the way the game is now.
MLB.com: Will most of those changes come from within the Cubs system or will you be active in the free agent market?
Hendry: I don't know. It's too early to tell. One thing we've been good at in the offseason is with new acquisitions and the free agent signings, which were very good last year, but you can't predict outside help. You can't predict somebody wants to come to your place. We've had a good track record -- people want to play here. Trade-wise, we tried to make a trade or two that would've been as significant or more last year than probably any of our free agent signings except [Alfonso] Soriano, and sometimes they don't work out. The other team isn't obligated to trade you their better players.
MLB.com: I have a tough time convincing fans that.
Hendry: That's OK. We haven't made a lot of bad trades over time. You try to look at ways to help your club. If you want to make a trade, you have to go into the offseason thinking you have to have something that's going to help them, as much as the guy you're going to get is going to help you.
You probably get a hundred suggestions [from the fans] -- "Why don't they trade this guy and that guy and get so and so?" Those guys, they're talking about the other team might not want to trade. I think a great majority of the GM's feel the same way I do, that if you're going to make a good trade in the modern day now, it's going to have to be talent for talent.
Every club is doing exactly what we're doing. Every club is putting their plan together, the one or two things they really need, the things they'd like to get to augment the club. You have to be cognizant of that. You say, "I'm willing to help you maybe even a little more than I'm getting back at times to get that fit." That's what we'll try to do.
MLB.com: Is finding a regular catcher a top priority?
Hendry: I'm happy with [Geovany] Soto. I think Soto has a great chance to be the catcher on Opening Day.
MLB.com: Does the Tribune Co.'s situation and the pending sale of the Cubs affect what you can do this offseason?
Hendry: I don't think so. I believe in the near future, I'll get the payroll for the offseason. I have no complaints about how we went about our business in the last 12 months. Everything that [team president John McDonough] told me and [Tribune executives Dennis FitzSimons and Crane Kenney] above John told us that we would be able to do last offseason and this season, they backed that up. There's been no indication that we're not going to do anything but go forward.
I commend the company for allowing us to try to put the best product on the field in very tough times for them. It's very admirable to sit in this seat, knowing what they went through in the last 12 months, and whether it was all the things we did in the offseason and signing [Carlos] Zambrano for $91.5 million, there was never a "No."
I believe our payroll will go up [in 2008]. I don't know how much. If it stayed the same or close to the same, I wouldn't complain about it.
MLB.com: Will there be any changes to manager Lou Piniella's coaching staff?
Hendry: I'll go see Lou this next week [to discuss that]. We won the division, and I felt [the coaches'] work ethic was good. I think you have to give the coaching staff credit, not just Lou, when you're in last place at the end of May, and you end up having the fortitude to win the division.
MLB.com: The Cubs farm system has been maligned in the past, and this season produced several standout players who contributed.
Hendry: We felt last offseason, the farm system was better than advertised. When the big league club had a bad year, like last year, and somebody doesn't come up and be Willie Mays right away, the whole farm system was maligned. It wasn't easy to sit back all winter and watch [player development director Oneri Fleita] take some abuse I knew he didn't deserve, and I'm glad for him now [to be rewarded with a promotion]. [The Cubs' farm system] was never maligned in the general manager world by my peers. I think a lot of people critical of our farm system couldn't name 10 people in our farm system.
The other thing that people don't realize is that way larger than 50 percent of the equation of player development is your scouting department. It doesn't matter who you are, but if you don't have the talent to begin with, it's hard to develop them. We now have arguably if not the top, certainly one of the top three scouting directors in baseball [in Tim Wilken]. You have a 20-year history with Tim and you can put his record up against anybody. I see an upswing in our farm system after his first two Drafts. If he can do that for three or four more, and we're increasing our commitment in Latin America, and increasing our commitment in Asia and Europe, we'll get even better. Do we have a little gap of the same kind of players maybe the last two drafts from a couple previous? Yes. Maybe some of the guys we were high on in Tim's Draft, maybe they won't pan out.
I can promise as a general manager, I have zero worries that between Tim Wilken, and Fleita, and [scouts] Paul Weaver and Steve Wilson in the international market we will have a continual flow of Major League players.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.