I wonder if Jim Hendry watches Josh Hamilton and wonders "what if?" at all.
He should. And Cubs fans should always lament "what if" when it comes to baseball's best player.
Oct., 2006: - Cubs finish up a last place season in Dusty Baker's final year. Jacque Jones, acquired at the beginning of the year, was a bright spot hitting .285 with 27 HR and 81 RBI.
Heading into the offseason, Hendry had to feel good that he had a productive outfielder in place.
Nov. 20, 2006:, The big splash - Alfonso Soriano signs for 8 years, $136 million to play the outfield.
Now, there is only a hole in right, but Hendry signs Ted Lilly (Dec. 15 - 4 yrs, $40 mil) and Jason Marquis (Dec. 19 - 3 yrs, $28 mil) to round out the rotation.
Dec. 7, 2006: Cubs pick Hamilton off the Tampa Bay roster in the Rule V draft.
Hamilton was clearly done in Tampa, having fallen from grace as the No. 3 overall pick in 1999 to a drug addict who was trying to turn his life around. At that point, no one really knew if he'd ever be good at baseball again, as he had never appeared in a major league game.
Except, maybe, the Cincinnati Reds.
Dec. 7, 2006: The Cubs flip Hamilton for cash to their division rivals.
Feb. 1, 2007: Cubs sign Cliff Floyd to play right field for 1 year, $3 million.
So in all, Hendry spent $139 million two outfielders, one of which was going to anchor the Cubs for the next decade.
The moves worked - in 2007 the Cubs went from last to first, winning the NL Central with a record of 85-77 under new manager Lou Piniella before losing to the Arizona Diamondbacks in three games in the National League Division Series.
Here is what happened in the outfield:
LF - Soriano: 33 HR, 70 RBI, .299 avg. in 135 games
CF - Jones: 5 HR, 66 RBI, .285 avg. in 135 games
RF - Floyd: 9 HR, 45 RBI, .284 avg. in 108 games
There was also a 25-year-old Matt Murton making noise, hitting .281 with 8 HR and 22 RBi in 94 games. 22-year-old "phenom" Felix Pie was also around, appearing in 87 games.
The present looked solid, and the future bright for the Cubs outfield.
Meanwhile, in Cincy, Josh Hamilton not only made it through his life issues, but made his major league debut and became the summer's best individual story, hitting .292 with 19 HR and 47 RBI in 90 games.
In the winter of 2006-07, Hendry let go of Floyd and traded Jones to Detroit. Now, he only had 1 outfielder.
At this time, Hamilton was being traded to Texas.
Dec. 12, 2007: Kosuke Fukudome signs for 4 years, $50 million. But, there are still some holes in the outfield.
March 25, 2008: Reed Johnson signs for 2 years, $4.3 million.
May 14, 2008: Jim Edmonds signs for 1 year, $290,000 (San Diego paid him $8 million for releasing him).
In 2008 the Cubs were the best team in the National League, winning the Central again with a record of 97-64. But, they lost to the Dodgers in three games in the NLDS in a heart-breaking sweep.
Here is how the newly constructed outfield fared.
LF - Soriano: 29 HR, 75 RBI, .280 avg - 190 games
CF - Edmonds: 19 HR, 49 RBI, .256 avg. - 85 games
RF - Fukudome: 10 HR, 58 RBI, .257 avg. - 150 games
Reed Johnson hit. 303 with 6 HR and 50 RBI in 109 games. Murton and Pie were non-factors.
As the Cubs were becoming the best team story in sports, Hamilton blew up and once again became best individual story. The 27-year-old hit .304, led the league with 130 RBI and mashed 32 HR in becoming an All-Star for the Rangers.
Unlike the year before, the outfield situation seemed a bit unsettled on the North Side - Fukudome was a bust, Edmonds and Johnson were clearly not ong term answers
Jan. 9, 2009: Milton Bradley signs a 3-year, $30 million contract to play right field.
The Cubs, and Bradley, melt down in 2009 but finish in second in the NL Central with a 83-78 record.
LF - Soriano: 20 HR, 55 RBI, .241 avg. - 117 games.
CF - Fukudome: 11 HR, 40 RBI, .259 avg. - 146 games
RF - Bradley: 12 HR, 40 RBI, .257 avg - 124 games
Johnson came back to earth as well, hitting .255 with 4 HR and 22 RBI in 65 games.
While the Cubs were struggling to win their 3rd straight division title, Hamilton was once again an All-Star, despite an injury-plagued season. He hit .268 with 10 HR and 54 RBI in 89 games.
After 2009, the Cubs traded Bradley after just one year. They now needed to replace him and Johnson.
Dec. 11, 2009: Marlon Byrd signs for 3 years, $15 million.
Jan. 26, 2010: Xavier Nady signs for 1 year, $3.3 million.
The Cubs fall apart in 2010 and Lou Piniella retires before the season ends. The team finishes 5th in the NL Central with a record of 75-87.
LF - Soriano: 24 HR, 79 RBI, .258 avg. - 147 games
CF - Byrd: 12 HR, 66 RBI, .293 avg. - 152 games
RF - Fukudome: 13 HR, 44 RBI, .264 avg. - 130 games.
Like 2007 with Murton, the Cubs had a young outfielder show promise. 24-year-old Tyler Colvin hit 20 HR with 56 RBI while batting .254 in 135 games.
In Texas, Hamilton helped the rangers win the AL West with a .359 average, 32 HR and 100 RBI in 133 games. He was once again an all-star, is the likely AL MVP and now has the Rangers on the brink of eliminating the New York Yankees and heading to the World Series.
If the Rangers can win one of the next three games, it would leave only the Seattle Mariners and the Washington Nationals (formerly Montreal Expos) as the only teams to have never reached the World Series.
It's clear now that since Dec. 7, 2006 the Cubs made the wrong individual move by dumping Hamilton for nothing. In hindsight, he was on the way back, and it probably would have been worth the minimal risk to send him to Triple A for the year.
To add insult to injury, Hamilton only made $550,000 each year from 2007-2009. He finally made just over $3 million this year through arbitration. Of course that number will go up the next two years, but he won't be a restricted free agent until 2013.
Since Dec. 7, 2006, Hamilton has made just under $5 million while making three all-star games (and possibly winning the MVP this year), hitting 93 homers, driving in 331 runs and hitting .311 in 468 games.
In that time span, the Cubs have spent about $81 million on 7 different outfielders who have gone on to hit a collective .269 with 102 HR and 461 RBI in 1,188 total games.
Fukudome will be allowed to walk after the 2011 season, meaning another outfielder will be needed. Perhaps it will be Colvin. And Byrd's deal expires in 2013, when Hamilton is finally allowed to be a free agent.
The three "emerging" prospects in that time - Murton, Pie and Colvin - have combined to hit .251 with 31 HR and 116 RBI in 384 games. Murton and Pie are no longer with the Cubs.
I guess the question is this - would the Cubs have rather had Josh Hamilton manning center (or right) the last four seasons rather than any of the seven guys they shelled out $81 million for?
Would Hamilton have stayed clean? Would he have been the same player?
Would the Cubs have won two straight division titles and have three straight winning seasons?
My answer is yes, all the way around. It's been documented that Hamilton was on the right track after leaving Tampa, and there was a reason the Rays picked him No. 3 overall. The guy can play.
Production wise, the Cubs have had a powerful lineup the last few years, potent enough to allow him the kind of baserunners and protection the Rangers have offered.
It's impossible to say Hamilton's presence would have gotten the Cubs to the NLCS or World Series in '07 and '08, or helped them win the division again in '09. That's too much of a reach, especially with the way the team was dominated.
But what is clear is this - that simple, little move - one made with no thought of consequence, has indeed had many in just four seasons.