Over the next few months, the Cubs will have a golden opportunity to reverse the club's recent misfortune. (And by "recent," of course, I'm talking about the last 100 years or so.) Right now, they’re searching for a new general manager to replace Jim Hendry, who was fired in July after nine seasons. Of the possibilities being debated internally, by far the most intriguing scenario involves hiring Walt Jocketty away from the Cincinnati Reds.
I know this might be painful, but imagine for a moment that you are a Cubs fan. Now picture this: With one hiring, the Cubs could weaken not one, but two National League Central division opponents, increase their chances of luring an all-time great hitter to Wrigley, and stick a thumb in the eye of former manager Dusty Baker. Delicious, no?
No one should be surprised that the Cubs might covet Jocketty's services. He is the reigning MLB Executive of the Year after all, an award that he has won three times. Jocketty's teams in St. Louis and Cincinnati have won eight division championships in the past fifteen years, including two pennants and one World Series.
Only one of those division championships (2010) has come during his current tenure with the Redlegs, but it is generally considered to be among his most impressive accomplishments. Cincinnati had been a moribund franchise, barely sniffing the playoffs in the fifteen years previous to last year's NL Central crown-winning team. Jocketty deserves his share of the credit for the Reds' impressive 2010 season.
So, yes, Walt Jocketty has the sparkling résumé, but internal discussions within the Chicago front office present an ideal sequence of events that make his hiring even more attractive. Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, like Jocketty, is in the final year of his contract and appears to be ready to leave St. Louis if the right opportunity were to arise. Reuniting with his former GM from the St. Louis glory days of the early to mid 2000s seems like a natural fit. That's especially true if the duo can convince a certain free agent-to-be to join them on the north side of Chicago.
Cardinals superstar Albert Pujols, obviously, is the key. The Cubs are expected to make a serious run at Pujols after this season, when the slugger hits the free-agent market. He would certainly fit nicely at first base and in the middle of a Cubs lineup that is in desperate need of some pop. It's not unreasonable for the Cubs’ brass to believe that Chicago's chances of luring Pujols are enhanced by bringing Jocketty and La Russa on board, and Jocketty's hiring is the linchpin to this dream scenario.
The question must be asked, however: Why would Walt Jocketty leave Cincinnati? Despite a disappointing 2011, the Reds have a young, talented roster, and there's no reason to believe that they won't be a factor in the NL Central race for the next few years.
From Cincinnati's perspective, however, there are some red flags. As noted above, Jocketty's contract expires after this season and there has been plenty of evidence that he just doesn't see eye-to-eye with Reds manager Dusty Baker regarding the composition of the Cincinnati roster and player roles.
It's also not unreasonable to think that Jocketty may be getting frustrated with the budget limitations in Cincinnati. Following last year's division championship, it was clear to everyone that the Reds needed to improve at shortstop and left field, and that they needed to find a caddy for Scott Rolen, for if or when Rolen went down with the inevitable season-ending injury. Jocketty addressed none of those needs, unless you consider Edgar Renteria, another year of Jonny Gomes, and Miguel Cairo (who has actually been better than expected) to be reasonable solutions for a team aspiring to another division title.
After signing MVP Joey Votto to a three-year deal and locking up emerging stars Johnny Cueto and Jay Bruce to long-term deals (plus handing out a ridiculous contract to Bronson Arroyo), it's likely that there was no money left to address the team's clear weaknesses. Jocketty would face no such limitations in Chicago.
(Cubs fans won't want to hear this, but it's equally likely that Jocketty really considered Renteria and Gomes to be ideal solutions. This is the guy, after all, who thought Willy Taveras was the solution to the Reds' problems in the leadoff spot.)
Then there's this: Jocketty "bristled" when asked about his future in Cincinnati, but had no hesitation in talking about the attractiveness of the Cubs job.
"I’m sure everyone feels that it’s an attractive position because it’s a storied franchise and one of the great brands in the game,’’ said Jocketty, whose teams have finished ahead of the Cubs in 11 of his 17 seasons as a rival GM. ‘‘There’s a lot of history, and it’s a great challenge, because they haven’t won a championship there in a long time. And I think everyone believes that they’re the ones that would hope to be able to break that streak.
‘‘Plus you should have great resources to work with there. At least you’ve got the new ownership that seems to be aggressive in wanting to win."
For his part, Reds owner Bob Castellini says that he wants both Jocketty and Baker to return next year. By all reports, Jocketty likes and respects Castellini, but the lure of a big-market opportunity may be too much for Jocketty to pass up.
Walt Jocketty certainly seems like a natural fit in Chicago. Given the well-documented enmity between Tony La Russa and Dusty Baker -- who remains unloved by the Cubs faithful -- and the possibility that Albert Pujols might follow, the hiring of Jocketty could set off the perfect storm. Yes, this could be a very interesting offseason on the north side of the Windy City, indeed.