I’ve racked up a lot of windshield time in the past week as you may have read, and when you find yourself behind the wheel for extended periods of time, particularly when your motorized vehicle presents to you your current Miles Per Gallon (MPG), it’s fun to make up games to pass the time.  My personal game this trip was to maximize my MPG at all times. 

Now there are a lot of ways to improve the MPG of your car.  The first of which is to minimize the amount of time The Wife gets to drive.  Talk about killing your averages.  Secondly, when in doubt, coast.  I took my foot off the accelerator on pretty much every downhill and let our momentum carry us.  This is a huge factor in making up for any MPG lost due to the previous scenario.  Thirdly, the physics those country bumpkins in NASCAR use called “drafting” is real.  Using the diagram provided, there is great gas efficiency found in letting the car ahead of you break the wind to minimize resistance on your vehicle and cruise at a more efficient rate.  It’s science.

You can't see the swirls in real life unless you're the creepy kid in 'American Beauty' with the plastic bag and a camcorder

 So while I got my arms around the concept of drafting on the open road, little did I know there was a bit of a clinic going on on the subject back here in Chicago.  With Major League Baseball, the NBA, and the NHL Drafts all occurring in the past few weeks, our collection of General Managers seem to be getting the hang of things and building each of our community sports teams for the long run. 

As noted previously in this space, the general responsibilities involved in the role of the General Manager for any sporting organization are definitely my favorite aspects of professional athletics.  It very much scratches my ‘find things first’ gene in that I would take more pleasure in being the guy that found Starlin Castro on a dirt field in the Dominican Republic, or put the right combination of pieces around Derrick Rose, than being the manager or coach who called the crucial timeout or made the late game substitutions.  I have no trouble putting my faith in a chef as long as I know I provided him/her the best ingredients I could find.  So with that said, let’s take a look-sie at how our respective teams have done in recent weeks restocking their pantries.

 Chicago Cubs

With the Cubs reaching a low water mark of 15 games below .500 as of Sunday, Jim Hendry (the Cubs GM) finds himself sitting on the proverbial hot seat this year.  The Ricketts family has owned the team for the past two years and the product appears to continue to get worse on the field.  Now I would firmly argue that they knew this was coming as they closed on the sale during the Milton Bradley Season after the Cubbies had peaked and the downward spiral had begun, with a lot of big contracts still waiting to run out.  So the past two off seasons Hendry has had to put a competitive team on the field while reducing payroll as the family begins paying off their debt and investing in the minor league teams and a top of the line baseball academy in the Dominican Republic.  Now I am down with this plan as that is how I would run my organization – build from the bottom up (a twist on the ‘found it first’ fetish) – but the empty seats in Wrigley speak volumes.  It’s Hendry’s job to put a winning product on the field, outside factors aside, and it just hasn’t happened in2+ years now, mainly due to contracts he gave out mind you, so yes, his job under the microscope. 

With that in mind, back in early June, Tom Ricketts was in the war room watching Hendry and Tim Wilken (the Director of Scouting) do their jobs in bringing more talent into the minor league pool.  After years of drafts that have produced ‘solid’ if unspectacular talent to build the farm on – think Theroit’s, Fontenot’s, Barney’s, and Soto’s of the world – this year the approach appeared to be to go after the boom or bust potential.  In baseball teams have an option to draft seniors directly out of high school and then convince them that getting on the road to their pro career in Idaho is a better plan than going to college and being stars on campus, or pick kids who are three years removed from their high school graduation (usually after their Junior year of college).  While the current Cubs system to date has been built on college kid who are more developed but perhaps don’t have quite as high of ceilings, this year there was a definite turn to taking the high school kids who may be great but also has a greater potential to turn out a bust.  It’s generally these players that become the Pujols’ of the world while also having a greater risk of being a greeter at Walmart before the age of thirty.

With their first pick the Cubs selected Javier Baez – a high school shortstop from Florida who apparently just mashes the ball and is going to most likely fill out and end up at third base.  Many scouts say that he has the fastest bat in the draft and was born to hit baseballs.  In the second round the Cubs selected a tubby left-handed first baseman – Dan Vogelbach – that crushed a ball 508ft in a homerun derby this year.  Talk about boom or bust.  The rumor out of Mesa (where the Cubs war room was housed) was that Tom Ricketts (the CEO) said, “money is not an object, take the best player” time and again and that they did.  High profile kids by the name of Trevor Gretzky (yes, that Gretzky), Shawon Dunston Jr. (yes, that Dunston), and Dillon Maples (a kid set to play football at North Carolina) were all taken before the 14th round despite each reportedly being all but a lock to go to college.  Essentially Ricketts said, draft ‘em and we’ll make them an offer they can’t refuse, and that my friends is how you build a farm system.  If these kids start picking to wear Cubbie blue instead of deciding to loft their beds this fall, all of a sudden the minor leagues will end up stocked like a trout pond.  Having promising minor leaguers allows you to let expensive players walk away rather than having to pay exorbitant sums to keep them, allows you to make trades when needed, and makes for a more fun team to cheer for (see the homegrown 2010 Blackhawks compared to the bought off the street 2011 Heat as Exhibit A).  There’s no way to say how each of these kids are going to turn out and whether they’re even all going to pick to play for the Cubs this summer, but it’s this mentality and approach that is going to bring the Cubs up to the Boston/Tampa Bay/Texas level of organizational efficiency which is definitely a good thing.

Chicago White Sox

I guess they took some guys who will probably stink.  None of them have the last name ‘Guillen’ so it appears that Kenny Williams is learning.  It should be noted that Oney Guillen, Ozzie’s son and one time Sox farmhand, tweeted that Kenny is an idiot for not picking his younger brother who was draft eligible.  Who wouldn’t want to cheer for this team right?

In all seriousness the Sox did not have a first round pick this year due to the Adam Dunn signing (he of the over 100 strikeouts including 7 of his last 8 at-bats, and 14 total hits at home as of this writing).  Not much was expected of their draft and I have yet to hear any degree of buzz about it.  By the time the Sox picked somewhere in the 40s I believe Tampa Bay had made six selections (literally).

Chicago Bulls

I gain respect for Gar Forman and John Paxon by the day.  It appears that they just get it at this point as to how to run a basketball team.  While everyone in Chicago wanted to use all of the Bulls three picks between #28 and 43 on the next great starting shooting guard who will lead us to the promise land GarPax (as known from this point forward) knew that you don’t find the next Kobe Bryant with the 28th pick in a weak draft.  So what did the Bulls do?  They took a 6’ 10” kid from Montenegro named Nikola Mirotic who most scouts felt would have been a top 5 selection however he has a contract with Real Madrid in Spain that will keep him overseas for at least two more years.  General thinking would lead one to say, ‘why would you draft someone who can’t play for you until 2014?’ and the answer to that is the Bulls don’t need him yet.  Remember, this team went to the Conference Finals a month ago and is going to be good for the next few years.  What they did not need were three rookies trying to learn the ropes while the rest of the team played for a title.  So while young Mr. Mirotic learns to play professional basketball on someone else’s dime for two years, the Bulls will have his rights when he’s grown up a bit and can come contribute right away.  The same approach was used for Toni Kukoc in the 90s and Omer Asik last year.  It’s savvy GM-ing is what it is.  That’s the kind of move the Spurs pull every year and people wonder how they keep having new good player arrive on their doorstep each fall. 

With the other first round pick the Bulls took Jimmy Bulter from Marquette who is the feel good story of the draft.  If you like the movie The Blind Side you’ll dig Jimmy’s story.  Basically Jimmy is a hard working kid who knows his role on defense and will let nothing stand in his way from shutting down the LeBron’s and Wade’s of the world.  His addition brings that nose to the grindstone approach the team is looking for from a 12th man and allows GarPax the ability to shop Bogans/Brewer this year in a trade to bring back a scoring 2-guard when the situation presents itself.  Well played good sirs.

Chicago Blackhawks

If what GarPax did on Thursday night was good, then the work of Stan Bowman (the Hawks GM) this weekend was magnificent.  In finding takers for Brian Campbell and his $7.1M/year over the next five years salary, as well as getting a first round pick for Troy Brouwer (who they were going to let walk as a free agent anyways), Bowman positioned the Hawks to be in contention for Lord Stanley for the foreseeable future.  In a league where there is a hard salary cap of $64M this year, it is very tough to justify 11% of your payroll on any one player, let alone one that is not even the best at his position on the team, and not even an All-Star.  In one fell swoop Bowman was able to move one of the most untradeable contracts in the league - and reduce the number of gingers on the roster to zero - which makes him a hero in my book.  Sure Campbell and Brouwer will be missed but there are kids by the names of Shawn LaLonde and Dylan Olsen ready to take Campbell’s place (former 3rd and 1st round picks respectively) as well as rugged wingers named Ben Smith, Kyle Beach, and Jeremy Morin chomping at the bit to assume Brouwer’s role.  Salaries aside, I think each of these moves were great and needed just so the Hawks can continue to promote the talent they’ve collected, but with the extra money saved they’ll be able to extend Patrick Sharp (much to The Wife’s desire) and fill in with quality Free Agents as opposed to guys willing to play for the league minimum as they did last year.  The result will be in deeper third and fourth lines where the Hawks found themselves wanting for scoring and grit when push came to shove last season. 

On top of everything else, with all the draft picks they collected, the Hawks pretty much had the unanimous best draft from ESPN.com and  Sports Illustrated (well, they put them in the Winners group).  The Hawks had 11 picks overall and their first four in particular were all very well received by the media as getting good value (i.e. getting the 14th ranked player with their #18 overall selection).  Very impressive Stanley.

So while I spend my time jetting across the countryside, lying in wait for a GM opening for one of my beloved Chicago teams, I can’t help but take my hat off to my predecessors as the sports scene around here seems to be rounding into shape.  At least I have Jerry Angelo and his botched draft day trades to count on for a job opportunity just over the horizon.