Over the past two years, Jim Hendry has hammered out a $136 million contract for Alfonso Soriano, signed Ted Lilly while hooked up to an EKG machine hours before undergoing an angioplasty, conveniently omitted the whole yarn about a curse in his sales pitch to Kosuke Fukudome, and spent hundreds of hours and a few hundred million dollars on other moves to revitalize a Chicago Cubs franchise in need of the full "Dr. 90210" treatment.
The Cubs' general manager laughs, then, when reminded that perhaps his biggest maneuver of all didn't work – or at least hasn't, and is on a ventilator if not quite toe-tagged. The proposed trade for Jake Peavy is Hendry's Moby Dick and Sistine Chapel, his evanescent masterpiece. In its six-week lifespan, the Cubs' pursuit of the former National League Cy Young winner took on so many incarnations that it turned a fairly milquetoast offseason for Hendry into a giant Sudoku.
"Whenever there's a player of that caliber, you certainly have an obligation to look into it," Hendry said Tuesday evening. "At the same time, the volume of talent that would've gone back, and to take on the contract, was too much."
Should that remain the case, it leaves the Cubs … right about where they ended last season. Whether that's good or bad boils down to perspective, one of those glass-half-full-or-empty questions. This being Chicago, and these being the Cubs, the glasses are drained to the very last drop, numbness ever necessary.
Hendry was braving traffic and snowy roads as he highlighted his offseason dealings thus far: re-sign starter Ryan Dempster, trade for late-inning reliever Kevin Gregg and, on Tuesday, add free-agent speedster and backup outfielder Joey Gathright. On the docket remains a left-handed-hitting corner outfielder, be it Bobby Abreu, Adam Dunn or the switch-hitting Milton Bradley.
Bradley appears to be the Cubs' first choice, but he is seeking a three-year, $30 million deal, according to a non-Cubs source, possibly a tad long and a tad steep in Hendry's view.
Otherwise, yeah, Kerry Wood is gone, and so are a few others of limited consequence, but the Cubs should return nearly the same outfit that won 97 games in the regular season. They were far and away the best team in the NL, easy money to cruise into the World Series and favored there, too, to break their 99-year drought without a championship. Then something intervened – be it horrid play or the billy goat's blight – and the 2008 season registered like a bottle of '47 Cheval with a rotten cork.
Peavy was – is – the Cubs' potential salvation, a lockdown ace who would join Dempster, Lilly, Carlos Zambrano and Rich Harden in a dream rotation. Forget the New York Yankees and their $250 million spree to land CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett. With Peavy, the Cubs are peerless.
So what clogged the deal, and what, conversely, could play Drano? The answer, much like the trade itself, is full of layers that give greater insight into the Cubs and their current limitations.
Hendry called the decision not to trade for Peavy "strictly baseball related." That's a half-truth. Had the Cubs found a team willing to offer fair return on starter Jason Marquis and his nearly $10 million salary, it would have cleared enough room in the Cubs' payroll to take on the $11 million owed Peavy this season.
Already, the Cubs have committed $125.675 million to 15 players for next season, and that doesn't include the $4 million signing bonus gifted to Dempster. Estimating $10 million for the free-agent outfielder and another $6 million to fill out the roster with a backup catcher and pre-arbitration players already playing in Chicago, and the total outlay is more than $140 million, the range around which Hendry must operate.
As much as Hendry would love to play the money-tree game as he did in 2006, when the Cubs spent more than $300 million in the offseason, it's no longer feasible – not with the team up for sale going on two years while its owner, the Tribune Company, goes through bankruptcy filings.
"We have a respectable payroll," Hendry said. "We don't have a lot of work to do or that kind of money to spend. We've got the nucleus of a very good club. We're trying to tinker a little bit.
"It's more than sufficient enough to be successful. We're not going out on five-, six-, seven-year deals without an owner in place."
Peavy's current deal runs four years for $63 million, and the exercising of a $22 million option for 2013 would likely be a necessity for him to drop his no-trade clause. So the kibosh on five-year deals seems malleable, mimicking the entire charade that is the Peavy talks.
First it was Atlanta. Then Chicago. San Diego general manager Kevin Towers said at the early-November general manager meetings that Peavy should be dealt by the early-December winter meetings, that "the train's kind of left the station." Then it derailed. And was fixed, with the Braves close to a deal. Until they weren't. Which thrust the Cubs back into it, and so close. But not close enough.
"I guess this is part of the job," Hendry said. "Most of the talks we have end up without much to show for. A lot of time gets spent on deals that never happen."
The thought of the Peavy trade ending so ignominiously goes down like a shoe-leather sandwich. Hendry offered four players, then five, put together a three-team proposal and tried to engage a fourth club, exhausted all his angles and still didn't pull anything off – yet.
There is hope because there must be. This is Chicago, after all, and only here would the state's governor prioritize blackmailing the Cubs – the poor, poor Cubs – alongside his other duties, such as running the state and allegedly putting an empty Senate seat on eBay.
Yes, Rod Blagojevich, the shamed governor, threatened to deny state money for renovating Wrigley Field unless the Chicago Tribune fired members of its editorial board. As if the sale and the bankruptcy and the Peavy miss weren't pain enough for the Cubs.
Makes a man yearn for those halcyon days of angioplasties.
- Jim Hendry