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The case for keeping Cubs general manager Jim Hendry

As ugly as 2011 has been Jim Hendry has set up Cubs for better things long term. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

As ugly as 2011 has been, Jim Hendry has set up the Cubs for better things in the long term. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: July 21, 2011 2:16AM

Here’s something you probably won’t read anywhere else around Chicago anytime soon:

Cubs ownership not only should keep general manager Jim Hendry through the end of his contract next year, but they should consider an extension.

Talk about a Sun-Times exclusive.

The ever-present ‘‘Fire Jim Hendry’’ crowd never has been louder than it has this season as a team with no expectations still has managed to underachieve. Hendry is being blamed for everything from back-loaded contracts and a lack of pitching depth to J-Lo’s breakup and the high price of gas.

But the fact is, this is still the guy who assembled the final pieces of the 2003 team that came within a routine play at short of reaching the World Series, the same guy who rebuilt the team into a back-to-back division champion in 2007 and 2008 and the same guy who rebuilt a scouting and player-development system that finally is starting to produce impact position players for the first time in decades.

He’s also the guy who gave Milton Bradley a three-year, $30  million contract.

So there obviously are two sides. And that’s part of the point.

Lost in the fan and media disgust for a team that looks like it might reach 100 losses are the strengths Hendry brings to the job in general, and specifically with the Cubs, looking ahead.

And don’t bet the house that the next GM will be an improvement, especially considering the cast of baseball newbies and wannabes who figure to be making that hire. Considering some baseball insiders believe Josh Byrnes and Ned Colletti would be near the top of the Cubs’ list, head-hunting fans might want to be careful what they wish for.

Maybe that’s where the Pat Gillick rumors come in, with chairman Tom Ricketts, through a spokesman, on Wednesday denying a report that Cubs ownership had spoken to Gillick, presumably about joining the organization in a high-level advisory position.

Despite Ricketts’ professed respect and admiration for Gillick, this week’s Hall of Fame inductee is similarly employed already with the Philadelphia Phillies, he lives in Seattle, he’s 74, and he has said he has no desire to be deeply involved in day-to-day operations of a team. It doesn’t seem a fit on his end.

And despite an outside source last week suggesting that White Sox assistant GM Rick Hahn would soon be hired by the Cubs in some capacity, high-level Cubs sources shot that one down, too.

Regardless, a decision on Hendry — and, possibly, by extension, manager Mike Quade — looms.

Ricketts said last month he supports his GM but offered no assurances he’ll keep Hendry through the final year of his contract. Hendry won’t address the issue publicly, saying repeatedly he has been treated well in two years under Ricketts ownership and understands and accepts whatever direction the family wants to take.

That direction should include Hendry, whether fan politics make that a tough sell or not.

The decision isn’t about this year. In fact, everybody involved saw this coming. Maybe not 21-games-under-.500 horrible, but the suits knew these bad contracts would come home to roost and probably lay an egg.

Former owner Tribune Co. spent lavishly on curb appeal leading up to their 2007 for-sale announcement, knowing that the next owner would pay the bills. It took three years for the Rickettses to buy the team, and they knew the numbers inside and out, saw the beginning of the decline in 2009 before ever closing the deal, and came in with a plan that included scaling back payroll spending while ramping up player-development spending.

That long-term view has come at short-term cost on the field, even as Hendry has tried to maneuver to fill roster holes with a tightened budget the last two winters.

The Kerry Wood, Carlos Pena and Matt Garza acquisitions weren’t nearly enough to cover injuries and flaws of this team, but the Garza trade ultimately will be measured after he’s had a chance to take a front-line role as older pitchers cycle out.

This year’s problems were also exacerbated by the unexpected loss of Hendry’s longtime pitching coach, Larry Rothschild, hired away by the New York Yankees, who now have the fourth-best staff in the American League despite their own depth problems.

If you blame Hendry for Bradley, Kosuke Fukudome and Soriano, you also have to give him credit for Starlin Castro, Marlon Byrd, Darwin Barney and Garza.

The Cubs certainly have a lot of problems, and Hendry has said he’s accountable as the GM.

But he might also be their best answer for turning this mess around.

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