Could you imagine Jim Thome wearing a Cubs uniform?
What about Raul Ibanez? Pudge Rodriguez?
Former Cubs general manager Jim Hendry stopped by the CubsTalk Podcast recently with David Kaplan and Luke Stuckmeyer and the current New York Yankees executive dropped a couple of big names when asked who he wished he could’ve signed.
The most notable player was Jim Thome, a Hall of Famer revered by White Sox fans for his time on the South Side.
Thome was a free agent in the winter before the 2003 season and according to Hendry, the Cubs would’ve signed him if not for Hee Seop Choi.
“Oh yeah,” Hendry said. “Well Jim and I were old friends — for how well you could be. I mean, he grew up in Illinois and I had gotten to know him over the years. Love Jim Thome. And Jim Thome, I’m convinced today, if we didn’t have [Choi], would’ve been a Cub. … I remember having a couple chats with Jim over the years and I know part of him would’ve really wanted to.”
Hindsight is 20-20 so it’s funny to look back and think Choi — a failed prospect who was out of the majors before his 27th birthday — was the reason the Cubs couldn’t get one of the greatest sluggers of the decade. But at the time, Choi was looked at as a potential star — a 23-year-old ranked by Baseball America as the No. 22 prospect in the game.
And like Hendry said, neither Choi nor Thome could play anywhere else.
Thome ultimately signed with the Philadelphia Phillies and would’ve made a major difference on the 2003 Cubs (he led the NL with 47 homers and drove in 131 runs with a .958 OPS), but it all worked out pretty OK for the Cubs. The next offseason, Hendry traded Choi to the Marlins for Derrek Lee and the big first baseman wound up having a fantastic career with the Cubs.
“Obviously Derrek played great for us and if it weren’t for Albert Pujols, Derrek would’ve been MVP once or twice,” Hendry said. “But yeah, who wouldn’t have wanted Jimmy? If it was an American League team, I would feel comfortable saying that could’ve happened.”
Thome played for the Phillies for three years before being traded to the White Sox, where he became an instant fan favorite. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame earlier this year.
Among the other moves that he wished he could’ve pulled off, Hendry — who served as the Cubs GM from July 2002 until August 2011 (shortly before Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer took over) — threw out a 2008 trade for Raul Ibanez that fell through.
The veteran outfielder/DH was already 36 in 2008, but hit .293 with an .837 OPS, 23 homers and 110 RBI in 162 games for the Mariners. Part of the issue, Hendry said, was the crowded outfield the Cubs already had at the time — including Alfonso Soriano, Jim Edmonds and Kosuke Fukudome.
The Cubs led the league in runs scored that year en route to 97 wins but they failed to win a single postseason game, scoring only 6 runs against the Dodgers in a three-game NLDS sweep. L.A. needed only 7 pitchers in that series – all of whom were right-handed – while the Cubs’ top 6 hitters were all right-handed as well, illustrating the major problem in Hendry’s eyes.
Hendry also confirmed the Cubs were never close to signing Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez prior to the 2003 season, but did say the Hall of Fame catcher came to Wrigley Field for lunch and a meeting (though the two sides never even exchanged numbers).
Rodriguez ultimately signed with the Florida Marlins…who came within five outs of being eliminated by the Cubs in the NLCS only to rally back to win the series and then claim a championship over the Yankees.
But you knew that already…