Commentary

The white elephant deal

The Cubs' Milton Bradley nightmare is over, but is Carlos Silva the answer?

Updated: December 18, 2009, 10:48 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- Our long civic nightmare is finally over. Forget about our sky-high sales tax, malfunctioning parking meters and impending snow-covered roads.

Jay Cutler's 22 interceptions and the 2016 Olympic bid disaster have nothing on Milton Bradley's 40-RBI season.

With a proverbial gun to his head, Cubs general manager Jim Hendry dealt his $30 million headache to the Seattle Mariners on Friday for $6 million in salary relief and Carlos Silva, in that order.

This was a baseball white elephant party. My trash for your garbage. Your abdominal pain for my headache.

[+] EnlargeMilton Bradley
Shelly Castellano ICON SMIMilton Bradley batted .257 with 12 home runs and 40 RBIs with the Cubs last season.

You get the picture.

Meanwhile, Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik is earning a reputation as one of baseball's brightest minds. Just this week, he picked up Cliff Lee and ridded his team of one of former GM Bill Bavasi's many expensive mistakes. Hendry was the GM With No Clothes at the winter meetings. No matter how he spun it, everyone knew he had no leverage with Bradley.

"In hindsight, it was an acquisition I'm responsible for that didn't work out," Hendry said on a conference call. "I bear the responsibility for that not working out."

Hendry is sufficiently self-aware to know the effect of the Bradley deal on his reputation, joking that it will be on his tombstone one day. Every GM has made a bonehead deal or two, so they can sympathize. But with Hendry essentially bidding against himself for Bradley, not to mention Alfonso Soriano, he's not exactly lining himself up for GM of the Decade honors.

The biggest mistake Hendry made, aside from giving a one-year player a three-year deal, was expelling Bradley from the team in September. By that point, Hendry knew Bradley didn't fit with the team, whose varied parts were struggling themselves. With his negative personality mixed with his negative performance, Bradley made himself a target of the fans' ire at home and on the road.

But had he done enough to warrant expulsion? A behind-the-scenes tiff with hitting coach Von Joshua, spouting off again in the media and being generally useless at the plate angered Hendry, the one guy who invested the money and truly respected Bradley. But if you know you want to deal him, why would you purposely lower his trade value?

Maybe Hendry, a proud baseball man, figured Bradley's value couldn't get lower and decided he needed to make a point. Or maybe he just panicked.

It was a trying season for the entire organization, with the specter of new ownership hanging over their heads and the lingering feelings of unrealized expectations from the second straight playoff sweep.

Bradley was the wrong choice for this team. It may sound silly, but the Cubs' clubhouse dimensions demand players who don't mind a crush of attention. There is a fishbowl atmosphere, watching eyes everywhere. Bradley's never had a backslapping relationship with reporters, at any stop. If you ever meet a reporter who has covered Bradley, buy them a beer and ask them for a story. You will be entertained.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Silva
Peter G. Aiken/US PresswireCarlos Silva was 1-3 with an 8.60 ERA last season with the Mariners.

"There's no way that I'm going to be fairly portrayed or represented," he said in a conference call, according to Chicago Breaking Sports.

Bradley had a snappish, defensive relationship with Chicago reporters, enacting his own media ban and seeing problems where there weren't any.

There was at least one incident that set a bad tone -- a Chicago Sun-Times story with a tabloid flair on possible race-related conflicts. The story touched on comments from ex-Cubs like LaTroy Hawkins, Dusty Baker and Jacque Jones. The story was framed in a way that made Bradley the center of a story that had, frankly, no merit at the time it was published as the season was barely a week old.

Still, you can't blame a headline for 40 RBIs. You can't blame negative vibes for negative performance. Not at $10 million a year.

Bradley had some other problems. Supposedly, personal stuff affected his play. He's too quiet to be a clubhouse lawyer, but he's just moody enough to be a negative influence.

Think about it this way. You're out with some friends and one person is complaining about the service, ruing his life. The vibe is affected. Bradley was consistently dour, and since no one knew him, it crippled his ability to interact with teammates. The unrealized expectations of the team made it much worse.

"The people I talked to had nice things to say about Milton," Zduriencik told reporters after the deal. "They thought he was a good teammate and a guy who cares. Sometimes players need space and you give them space."

Hendry said similar things after his dinner with Milton. Joe Maddon, whose Tampa Bay club was in the running for Bradley last year and again this year in trade talks, said he had a delightful lunch with Milton. It's like you hear one thing about him and ...

"Then you sit with him and you get a totally different perspective on him," Maddon told a Tampa Bay newspaper at the winter meetings. "I found him to be a bright, thoughtful, family-oriented kind of a guy. So I thought he was interesting."

This type of PR-speak cracks me up. It's like Maddon and Hendry expected Bradley to flip the table over and spit in their Pinot Noir. But because he can hold an amiable conversation over chicken Parmesan, everyone must be wrong about him.

Bradley has always been a complicated guy. Nice one minute, surly the next. It's not that unique.

He should have an easier time in Seattle, away from the pessimism and history of the Cubs. But plenty of teams have bet on Bradley before, and none has ever been satisfied.

Bradley is history now, and in return the Cubs get Silva, one of the worst values in baseball. He was paid $18 million the past two seasons, going 4-15 with a 6.46 ERA in 2008 and 1-3 with an 8.60 ERA in eight games (six starts) last year. His 2009 dollar value, as judged by Fan Graphs by transferring his wins above replacement into value on the free-agent market, was negative $400,000. Bradley's deal, amazingly enough, was $4.7 million. Both were obviously far less than their commensurate salaries.

The common opinion is the Mariners got the better of the deal, even if they're paying the Cubs $9 million, a third of which covers Silva's higher salary, but in reality, Silva, who has been reliably bad since 2006, has nowhere to go but up, even at $11.5 million the next two seasons (with a $2 million buyout in 2012). There are plenty of pitchers who have struggled in the American League, only to find success in the Senior Circuit.

In truth, both players will likely prove to be disappointments, but that's how those white elephant trades go.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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