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Is 2015 a Historic Start for the Chicago Cubs?

Thursday, April 23rd, 2015

The 2015 season is only two and a half weeks old and the Chicago Cubs have a record of 8-6. They may have played only 14 games…but there has been more joy, excitement, drama and fun than in the previous 3 seasons…combined.  Aside from those four nouns I used in describing the season thus far…just how good of a start has it been? How does it compare to Cubs’ seasons past? Is it even a benchmark worth comparing?

I am 46 years old…actually 46.5.  Most people refer to themselves as “life-long” fans of their respective favorite teams.  I just don’t feel right saying “I have been a fan for 47 years!”…because I haven’t been.  Born in the tumultuous year of 1968…if you would ask me in 1972 or ’73 who my favorite baseball team was… I would most certainly say the Cubs.  I remember arguing with the dreaded Sox fans on my block when I was 6.  However, in my personal timeline of Cubs’ fandom I would refer to these years as B.O. (Before Obsession) I had a favorite player (Rick Monday), and many times I knew if they had won or lost…but that’s about all I could tell you.  I was much more interested in comic books, action figures, and waiting for the ding-ding man to drive down our block.(also known as the ice cream man, Good Humor man or Mr. Softee)

Conversely, 1977 is the season I would declare as Year 1 of my Cubs’ fandom, or A.O. (After Obsession).   I followed every game, could recite all of the player’s statistics, and lived or died with each win or loss. Therefore, the 1977 season has been a point of reference in my previous columns…and in my book as well.  Obviously the older I get, the more of a database I have to analyze from my Cubs “Year 1” or starting point.

As we Cubs’ fans sit here on April 23, 2015…the Cubs’ season has had an exhilarating start! We have 9th inning come-backs, multiple Rookie of the Year candidates, and a winning record.  From my Year 1…I have never seen a season start with as much flare…and with mega-prospects impacting the early portion of a season.   Yet, from a sheer bottom line performance comparison…how good of a start is this?

I realize that 14 games is a very small sample size…but a record of 8-6 looks glorious compared to the last 5 years at this point:

2010- 5-9    2011- 7-7    2012- 3-11  2013- 5-9    2014- 4-10

Yes…Yes I know, it’s only 14 games…yet the beginning of a season is scrutinized much more…fair or not.  A start of 3-11 or 4-10 spurs trade deadline anticipation in late April.

Using my Year 1 of 1977, here are the Cubs best and worst records after 14 games respectively:

1985- 10-4

Ah…a season right in my wheelhouse!  I had finally recovered from the disaster of 1984 and the Cubs looked like they were going to make amends for the massive disappointment of the previous season. The same team that finished one game short of the World Series was kept intact, and things initially looked rosy. The ’85 Cubs stood at 35-19 on June 11th before a (gulp) 13 game losing streak derailed the campaign. Injuries to Rick Sutcliffe, Steve Trout and every other pitcher on the team sent the team spiraling down to a 77-85 finish.  The Cubs would fall even further back in 1986, and the window closed on this incarnation of our favorite team.

1997- 0-14

Oh my…I forgot/repressed this or something. 0 and freakin’ 14! The Cubs opened up with 10 straight games against the eventual World Series Champion Florida Marlins and the powerhouse Atlanta Braves (with Greg Maddux…argghhhh!).  The closest the Cubs would get to .500 was 24-33.  Amazingly, this team only lost 94 games after this wretched start.  The 1997 season was a train wreck in many ways. The Cubs did not have a starting pitcher with an ERA below 4.20.  Sadly, 3/5ths of the rotation (Geremi Gonzalez, Kevin Foster, and Frank Castillo) have all passed away…a tragic and eerie footnote to this putrid season. A fact even more catastrophic about the 1997 Chicago Cubs? -Mel Rojas was the teams’ closer.

If we examine the Cubs’ record after 14 games during their play-off seasons from ’77-14 there is remarkable consistency: 1984- 8-6, 1989- 8-6, 1998- 8-6, 2003- 8-6, 2007-5-9, and 2008- 9-5.  Translated…the Cubs are a lock for the play-offs this year.

I am joking of course, yet history has proven that the Cubs have very little chance when they don’t at least get out of the blocks well.  From 1977 to 2014, 2007 is the only year in which the Cubs would have a losing record after 14 games and finished above .500. Therefore when the Cubs start slow…they are usually dead in the water. A caveat to this would be that the Cubs have only had 9 winning seasons of 38 seasons since my Year 1 of 1977.(…depressing)

Yet in 7 of those 9 winning seasons (small sample size alert…again) the Cubs stood at 8-6 after 14 games. So while I wouldn’t go making any play-off plans just yet…the Cubs, historically speaking, have had a good start.  After finishing 9 percent of the season they are still in the race!

…which is something we haven’t been able to say in a while.

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The Cubs’ Pitiful History of Opening Day Positions Players (since 1977)

Thursday, April 9th, 2015

The Cubs lost to the Cardinals on opening night 3-0.  I imagine the vast lot of you knows this already, unless you were in a cave somewhere…or scrubbing toilets aboard a ship for a strange cult.  I was disappointed, as you were…but I rebounded quickly.  In my mid-40’s (closing in on “upper mid”) I have finally grown up.  I am still “in to” the Cubs almost as much as when I was a 9-year old…I just don’t react like I did as a 9-year old. I quit doing that in my late 30’s. What I mean to say is I don’t live or die with each Cubs win or loss.  Nevertheless, Opening Day does seem like much more than one game…doesn’t it? (especially against the dreaded Cards!) I imagine most fandoms view opening day this way, but Cubs’ fans take in dread like oxygen.    Thus the loss to the Cardinals and Adam Wainwright was difficult for many. I am ready to move on to the next 161, yet still have a bit of “opening day spirit” (I still haven’t taken down my opening day decorations) left over from Sundays’ debacle.  I decided to research the worst opening day starters at each position for the Cubs…and put together a really awful 9 player contingent.  I put in a couple self-imposed conditions:

  1.  I only went back to 1977. Why 1977 you ask? Well that’s the summer that this 9 year old boy began following every game.  In some ways it my A.D. if you will. (I hope I didn’t offend any ones religious sensibilities, unless you belong to the aforementioned cult)
  2. I only included players who started at the position on one opening day for the Cubs.
  3. I used WAR (wins above replacement) for my statistical analysis, because unlike Hawk Harrelson, I want to prove to you young bucks I can “get down” with saber metrics. OPS (on-base plus slugging) is actually my favorite statistic…but only deals with offense.

Hence using that criteria, here are 9 pitiful position players who started for the Chicago Cubs on opening day (with a brief comment or two thrown in):

CATCHER      2002  TODD HUNDLEY                                         0.4 WAR

Todd’s father Randy is also a former Cub, who when called upon in the Cubs’ radio booth has displayed an insightful baseball mind. Todd displayed that by 2002, he was washed up as a player…and that he could never button up his shirt.

1st BASE        2012  JEFF BAKER                                                  -0.4 WAR

Poor platooning Jeff is only on this squad by default…this is a position in which the Cubs have had few one year opening day starters. Bill Buckner, Leon Durham, Mark Grace, Derek Lee and now Anthony Rizzo take up most of the past opening day’s spots at first base.

2ND   BASE     1981  JOE STRAIN                                                   0.4 WAR

After the Manny Trillo years, yet prior to the Ryne Sandberg era…young Joe Strain was an extremely forgettable player the Cubs acquired from the Giants.  The 1981 opening day line-up of the Cubs was shockingly awful.

3rd   BASE      1981 KEN REITZ                                                      -0.8 WAR

Reitz was acquired along with Leon Durham for Bruce (cough) Sutter.  There were actually worse third sackers than Reitz who started in multiple years. (I am looking at you Kevin Orie and Gary Scott!) Did I mention that the 1981 Cubs’ opening day line-up was frightful?

SS                    1998    JEFF BLAUSER                                               -0.6 WAR

Did you forget the Cubs had him…or maybe you just blocked it out?  Blasuer was a Cubs’ killer as both an opponent and a member.

LF     1990    LLOYD MCCLENDON                                                  -1.6 WAR

Another platoon casualty here…McClendon did enjoy some nice moments for the Cubs.  If you never saw him play…you missed Harry Caray pronounce his name about 13 different ways…McClennan, McClenlen, McClendand, MacLyndon, McLandin…

CF     1980    CARLOS LEZCANO                                                                 -0.4 WAR

I was so excited that this rookie was starting the season in center for the Cubs in 1980…that excitement was gone by May 1st.

RF     2009    MITLON BRADLEY                                                                  0.3 WAR

Settle down! No really…settle down!  I get it…you are still angry at Milton.  In fact, if Milton were to be introduced at Wrigley in 2015…I think he would be booed louder than AJ Pierzynski, Satan, and Steve Bartman…combined.

SP     1991    DANNY JACKSON                                                     -1.8  WAR

The Cubs first major foray into free agency included signing George Bell (pretty much a bust), Dave Smith (definitely a bust) and Jackson. (a colossal bust) Of course in true ex-Cubs fashion, Jackson rebounded and helped the Phillies advance to the 1993 World Series.

Does this appalling trip through the gallery of Cubs’ opening day lineups past make you feel any better in 2015? Certainly none of the starters from the other night will ever appear on a collection like this in the future?

Jorge Soler? No way…never! Dexter Fowler? Highly…highly…doubtful. Chris Coghlan? P…p…probably not? David Ross? (Symbolically pulls collar away from neck) I kid…I kid…we all know that 2015 is going to be different.  All things Cubs’ related are going to go smoothly.

…unless you need to use the bathroom.

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Cubs Spring Training Flashback to 1982 and a Flash-forward Game

Friday, March 20th, 2015

I was 13 years old in the spring of 1982. I know, I know, many (most?) of you weren’t even born at that time.  In March of 1982 I was gathering as much info regarding my beloved Cubs and spring training.  In 1982 I had just two means of knowledge acquisition regarding Cubs’ spring training news: 1. to “hope” the late Tim Wiegel would mention the days’ spring training games on his 10:25 sportscast on the ABC news and 2. search for any scraps of info in the daily sports pages.   Around mid-March of that year, I stumbled across an article about a Cubs’ rookie that was dazzling the team in Arizona.  The article stated that the player was a phenomenal athlete and this wunderkind was a possibility to start the season in center field, shortstop, second base or third base.  Psychologists would refer to my memory of this article as a “flashbulb” or “snapshot” image…a recollection so vivid, that it is burned into your psyche forever.  Cubs’ fans acquire “flashbulb” memories more often than most fan bases…and yes, most of the time they are negative. (Actually “scarring” might be a more appropriate term)

Twenty-three years later (ironically), the Cubs are loaded with rookies.  Most Cubs’ fan today can find all the information they need about Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Javy Baez, Jorge Soler, and the Cubs’ cast of hundreds (okay, maybe not hundreds) of other prospects.  Numerous prospect lists and scouting services have Bryant, Soler and Russell as potential All-Stars…or at least strong Major League contributors.  In 1982 coverage of prospects and rookies was miniscule compared to today…perhaps that’s why that article remains embedded in my brain. At a time when there was little prospect coverage, and a period when the team had few heralded rookies, what I read in mid-march in 1982 filled me with hope.

The rookie in the 1982 article (as most of you surmised) was Ryne Sandberg.  Sandberg would make the team out of spring training and be the Cubs’ opening day third baseman (the great Bump Wills was manning 2B).  There was no talk of service time, getting an extra year, etc.-Sandberg just made the big league club.  Cubs’ fans were excited about Sandberg, but I doubt any of us would have wagered that he would be a Hall of Famer one day.  In fact, if you were watching in early ’82… Hall of Famer was the last thing you would have been thinking.

Sandberg started 0-19 and 1-30…before having his first 2 hit game against the Pirates on April 17th. (I was at that game…I know you are happy for me)  Ryno settled in and ended up hitting .271 with 7 home runs, 54 RBIs, and 32 SBs.  He finished sixth in Rookie of the Year voting behind Steve Sax (winner), Johnny Ray, Willie McGee, Chili Davis and Luis DeLeon. (Not many Hall of Famers in that group) Sandberg would win his first of 9 straight gold gloves at second base in 1983, win the National League MVP in ’84, appear in 10 all-star games, and get inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2005.(F%&k you Joe Morgan!)  On the day Sandberg was elected, I reflected back again on the article I had read in March of ’82…and I felt really flippin’ old!

Unfortunately we Cubs’ fans know that Ryno was the exception rather than the rule in regards to Cubs’ rookies.  For every Ryne Sandberg rookie season, there has been a Jerome Walton (flash in the pan), Kevin Orie (pretty much a bust) and Gary Scott (complete bust).  Yet now with good reason, Sandberg-like expectations are set for rookies Jorge Soler, Kris Bryant, and Addison Russell…as well as should be considered rookie Javy Baez.  These guys are different…right????

So here is the question which is the genesis of my “flash-forward” game; will any of these players have Hall of Fame careers?  I know none of us can predict the future (…yet), and there are too many variables to even mention…but if you had to bet…what would you do?  In the comments section or via Twitter…give your answer to the following scenario:

You have two million fictional dollars to wager that have the potential to become real dollars if any of the following players eventually make the Hall of Fame: Javy Baez, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, and Jorge Soler.  You may wager on all four, you may wager on just one. But wait…you can wager $500,000 fake dollars (that will turn real) if you bet on none of them making it. (that makes it a bit tougher…doesn’t it)  You have to bet on the players…or against them.  I am a gambling man by nature (line from the film Stripes), so I am taking the plunge.  I would go with $1.25 million on Bryant, $500,000 on Russell, $150,000 on Soler and $100,000 on Baez.  Yes…I am hedging a bit, but I believe in diversification.  “None of them” for the 500 grand is probably the safest bet…but I am going for the big money.

No one would have wagered on Ryno back in the spring of ’82…what do you think of this crop of Cubs’ rookies?

This column is in no way an endorsement of the evils of gambling and other games of chance.

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The End of the Cubs “Maddon-ing” Lack of Managerial Instability?

Thursday, March 5th, 2015

I love HBO.  I consider it to be the finest network in the history of the universe; The Sopranos, Deadwood, Game of Thrones, Curb Your Enthusiasm, True Detective and on and on and on.Another of my HBO favorites is Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. While Bryant may not be everyone’s cup of tea (unless you like your tea with a dash of arrogance), I think the show’s segments are exceptionally captivating more times than not.  In April of 2012 one of the pieces was a feature on then Tampa Bay Rays’ skipper Joe Maddon.  The segment centered on Joe’s unique leadership style; using humor and fun, while still getting grown men to play hard for him.  The section of the show also focused on Maddon’s ability to prod his teams to overachieve.  I had already formed a positive opinion of Maddon as a manager prior to this viewing, but the Real Sports episode cemented Joe as one of the guys in the game I really admired.  Never (I can’t emphasize that “never” enough) in my wildest, wildest Cubbie dreams did I ever think Joe Maddon would be managing the Cubs.

It is for this reason, that I have constantly caught myself saying “I can’t believe the Cubs got Joe Maddon” at random times since last fall.  The idea is still too surreal for me. The Cubs have gotten their man before (i.e. Baker, Piniella), but this time they landed the guy many consider to be the man.  Skeptics will say that Joe will ultimately fail like Dusty and Lou before him, and that certainly would seem to fit with our beloved team’s history.  Nevertheless, irrespective of the wins and losses, I am excited about a different aspect I believe Maddon will give the Cubs: stability.

In my critically acclaimed (and soon to be updated) book Beyond Bartman, Curses &Goats: 105 Reasons Why It’s Been 105 Years, Reason 94 is the Cubs’ total instability at the managerial position.  Of all National League franchises, would you care to guess which team historically has had the most managerial changes?

I bet you answered correctly.

In the chart below, this fact will be illustrated with clear data.  I researched every National League franchise and came up with their AMT (Average Manager Tenure).  The AMT is not really a complex formula; I divided a team’s total number of managers by the number of years they have been in existence since 1908. (1908 is year one in regards to data collection in my book for reasons obvious to a Cubs’ fan.)  The only caveat is I only included men who managed at least 25 for their respective club, so interim managers were included…but their 25 game stints seemed like a less “interim” starting point for me.  Below are the 16 current National League franchises, complete with their AMTs, and World Series appearances and titles.

Numbers can be confusing, a little scary, and one can manipulate them in many instances. However, if this chart makes sense to you, there are two overwhelming conclusions that can be drawn.

  1. The Cubs have the worst AMT amongst all National League franchises since 1908.  The Marlins, a team with two World Series titles (you know, in case you forgot about that one in 2003), is the only team that is close.  For the last 106 years the Cubs have changed their field manager (on average) every two seasons.  Think about that for a minute…starting all over again…every two years!
  2. The teams that have represented the National League in the World Series over fifty percent of the time since 1908 have AMTs of 3.9, 4.9 and 5.7 respectfully.  The Cardinals, Giants and Dodgers have AMTs that double and almost triple (in the Dodgers’ case) the Cubs.  There may be a bit of a chicken/egg conundrum here…good players on good teams equals a long and successful managerial career.  Yet a number as low as the Cubs’ 2.0, indicates a history of impatience and poor decisions.

This brings me back to my school-girl like giddiness over the hiring of Joe Maddon.  For a fan that has seen the likes of Herman Franks, Preston Gomez, Lee Elia, Jim Essian, Tom Treblehorn, Mike Quade and the aforementioned Baker and Piniella, this just feels different to me.  I see Maddon managing the Cubs for at least five seasons, which would be double their current AMT!  Call it a hunch, blind-faith, or whatever you would like, but that segment I watched about a manager I never dreamed would be a Cub one day stuck with me.

Recently I read some spring training quotes from Maddon talking about his affinity for The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm (ahem…HBO).  Joe even mentioned one of his prize possessions is a signed 8X10 of Larry David, the creator and star of Curb Your Enthusiasm.  I wonder what Larry thinks about the Cubs’ new manager?

…he’s pretty, pretty good!

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The Final Frontier: The Cubs’ Convention

Friday, January 16th, 2015

I used to have an ongoing argument with one of my co-workers; which franchise is cooler…Star Wars or Star Trek? Having seen Star Wars (now referred to as Episode IV: A New Hope) three times in the theater as an eight year old, it’s pretty obvious where I stood on the divide.  I never had any interest in Star Trek as a kid, although I may have had a toy or two.  As I aged, and “Trekkies” and their conventions were labeled as gatherings of basement dwelling nerds, (see the classic William Shatner SNL sketch) I became further entrenched in my Star Wars preference. (In my defense this was prior to the putrid prequels… Damn you, Lucas!) Perhaps I was stereotyping Star Trek fans…but I never planned on attending a convention to validate or refute my preconceptions.

I had also never attended the convention for my favorite baseball team until last year. (I really don’t have a phobia of conventions…I did go to Beatle Fest when I was in college.) However, after authoring a semi-successful (and very well- reviewed) book, I was “chosen” to be a vendor at the 2014 Cubs’ Convention.  Unfortunately when you are “chosen”, you still have to pay for the booth and hotel room…but that’s what my accountant is for.  It was a great experience, and I came away with three overarching themes for the weekend.

  1. It was Fun

It was surreal and humbling to be in this place; my booth next to the great Pat Hughes, signing and fortunately selling about 110 copies of my book.  The days were long, yet the time flew by as I sat at my booth the entire time, my brothers the beneficiaries of my convention passes to all of the presentations. I loved interacting with the fans, signing my book…people wanting me to sign for them (hence the “surreal” feeling).  These types of moments have been the most rewarding part of the book writing experience, just meeting and talking to people.

One family I met was particularly intriguing. They informed me they were close personal friends of the Bartmans. Yes…that Bartman family.  Being that I have always been a Steve Bartman sympathizer and never in the least bit held him responsible for the 2003 disaster, (heck…it’s one of the reasons I wrote the book!) I asked if they could get a copy to Steve and they agreed to try. Unfortunately, he declined the offer.  Leaving me to wonder if he did not realize my book exonerates him, or that the poor guy is still suffering from shell-shock.  If you are out there, Steve Bartman, I would still love to get you a copy!

Other than that missed rare opportunity, the interactions at my booth were wonderful, humbling and just plain fun….and I look forward to it again on Friday, January 16, 2015.

  1. It was Weird

Okay, here is where the Star Trek connection comes in. I think a portion of Cubs’ fans who attend the convention are the equivalent to Trekkies.  I mean this in the nicest way, (Does that sound sincere?) but I felt like I was in an alternate Cubiverse. The outfits: hats that would make Elton John blush, jerseys with names of players who played ten games for the Cubs, and loads and loads of people cavorting in Cubs pajamas.  Cubs’ tattoos were also aplenty; in fact, one fellow with the numbers 10, 26, and 14 emblazoned permanently on his shiny dome. (Google it…please)

Yet the weirdest part of my weekend occurred in the men’s room (Insert your own joke). I must warn you, this story borders on the tasteless. If you are easily offended, you may want to skip to the next section.  As I was standing at the urinal in one of the luxurious (seriously…they are very nice!) washrooms of the Sheraton, I was startled by an incredible noise emanating from one of the stalls.  It sounded…all at once…like a murder taking place, a birth occurring, or some regurgitating an entire marching band.  I am NOT exaggerating; it was like nothing I ever heard before or since. (In fact, back to Star Wars…it was a sound possibly reminiscent of what a Wookie’s washroom might sound like). I was honestly frightened, and decided to finish my business and hightail it out of there. Alas…I was too late. The door of the stall flew open like an old western saloon door and out walked an individual I instantly recognized.

I really don’t want to besmirch or embarrass this person too much, so I will conceal his identity as much as possible…and if you don’t want to know, skip ahead to the next section. The man who walked out of the stall was dressed in a full Cubs uniform, is a self-appointed Cubs’ mascot and his name rhymes with Donnie Boo-Boo.

  1. Pat Hughes is Awesome

I was very excited to find out my booth was located next to the Cubs’ radio play-by-play voice.  When he arrived to his booth, I approached him stating, “Mr. Hughes.” He immediately stopped me and said, “Call me Pat.”

Of all the experiences of my initial Cubs’ Convention, my impression of Pat Hughes will always remain the strongest.  Even if I were the world’s most proficient writer, I could not do justice to the grace and humility this man showed.  Throughout the weekend, he was constantly under siege for photo-ops and autographs…requests that make many celebrities and semi-celebrities run away screaming, as if this is beneath them.  “Pat” treated them all as if they were all old friends, remembering many by name, and taking time to engage with each of them.  I was truly amazed, and I wish others handled “celebrity status” with the same modesty and elegance. I learned that I should try to emulate Pat in any future endeavors dealing with people, but his is a lofty standard.

The 2015 Convention is almost upon us, and this year should have a much more positive vibe with Joe Maddon, Jon Lester and prospects galore! I highly recommend it if you have the opportunity. I have decided to give it another go this year.  I hope to sell some books, meet some people, and hopefully experience all of the weirdness and fun again.

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2015 Free Agent Pitchers: My Quick Take

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

I think the Cubs signed Jon Lester this week…at least that’s what I heard? No really, apparently his “friends” expect him to sign with the Cubs. I am not sure which of his friends said this or even how many friends Jon Lester has. I have a lot of friends…many of whom I am not sure I would label as “friends” more like “acquaintances” or even “potential acquaintance”.   Hopefully these were some of the closest friendliest friendly friends that Mr. Lester has. I just imagine this: Jon Lester’s cousins’ friends’ sister said she saw Jon at 31 Flavors last night; and she said she heard Jon say he is most definitely possibly considering thinking about the idea of signing with the Cubs.

All rumors from “friends” aside (and the cast of Friends), the Cubs will have money to spend, and Lester could be a prime target. If you want to see a FULL list of potential free-agents…I would advise against looking at it. It’s a bit like going through your grandparents attic…you will find some valuable things…but much of it is worthless and smelly. So, I did the digging for us…and I will list some potential Cubs’ targets. I will examine the possibility of that player becoming a Cub, and add my own take/opinion. I decided to focus on pitchers this week, because we all know the Cubs’ are totally set at ALL other positions forever!(seriously, I may tackle other needs later)

JON LESTER

I am going to have to disagree with Jon’s friends; I am not sure I see it happening. If he would sign a contract similar to what Cole Hamels has left on his deal (4 years at $90M plus) then the Cubs will be in. If it takes a 6-7 year deal…I wouldn’t blame the Cubs’ for passing. I will give this a POSSIBLE. 4 for 100(maybe)… 5 for 125(pushing it)…6 for 150(no thanks)

MAX SCHERZER

If it’s true that Scherzer turned down a 6 year $144 M deal during the offseason…I see no way Cubs top that. If they pass, it’s not because they are cheap…I just think without a warranty guarantee on his velocity…it would be a really bad signing. I give this signing a chance of NO WAY. Some team is going to over pay…and they may be stuck with a Justin Verlander type contract…without the benefit of Kate Upton being around.

JAMES SHIELDS

Shields has been a consistent starter for the past for seasons. Shields will be 33 on Opening Day 2015 and unless he goes to the Roger Clemens’ Fountain/Pharmacy of Youth (…hey, I worked that one in again!) he is not going to improve. Never underestimate the AL to NL benefit though…Shields could be dominant for a year or two in the NL. I give it a chance of SLIGHTLY POSSIBLE, but with most of the guys in this group it will all come down to the length of the deal.

JUSTIN MASTERSON

Masterson’s has a history with Theo and Jed; therefore this is definitely POSSIBLE. I hate to rely on my fantasy baseball experience here…but I would say, please GOD NO! The Cardinals (the smartest baseball organization in the history of the universe)…are finding out that his velocity is down, and his “rockings” are up…way up. Masterson is currently sporting a 5.94 ERA this season, and 11.25 for the Cards. (Geez…that’s too bad) He may yet turn it around this season, but he is maddeningly inconsistent….and he is murder on your fantasy team’s ERA.

JORGE DE LA ROSA

If you are a Simpsons’ fan like me; when you see his name you may think of Santos De Los Halpos. If the pitching market doesn’t go completely crazy (not bloody likely), De La Rosa is a lefty who could benefit from playing somewhere not named Coors Field. De La Rosa has put up pretty decent numbers including an ERA plus of 126; for non-Saber types, this adjusts for his ball park and 100 is considered league average…so De La Rosa has been good again this year. He will be 34 next season, so a 3 year deal would probably be max. POSSIBLE

SCOTT FELDMAN

Maybe we can sign him to a one year deal, and then flip….oh yeah.

JOSH BECKETT

I am highly in favor of the Cubs signing Josh Beckett…as long as they have a time machine and get the 2003 version of Josh. NO CHANCE

JASON HAMMEL

Whenever players get traded away midseason…there are usually people who say “They can sign him over the winter anyway”….the problem is, it almost NEVER happens. However, I would not dismiss the possibility with Hammel. Hammel found his greatest success as a Cub, and a return to the NL on a reasonable 3 year deal (?)…and I would say SLIGHTLY MORE THAN POSSIBLE.

FRANCISCO LIRIANO?

MLB Trade Rumors does not list him as a free agent, but Baseball Reference does…I am saying he is…and if he is, I want him. His injury history may deflate his price, and he will only be 31 next season. If anybody out there could settle this for me, I would greatly appreciate it…Free Agent or Not? Assuming he is, I would still put him as DOUBTFUL due to teams that will overpay. Full disclosure, I watched him pitch the other night and I was just drooling over the way his change-up was diving away from righties and he was hitting 95 on the gun…that was just one outing…so I probably shouldn’t ever be a scout.

BRANDON MCCARTHY

While not the sexiest name on the list, he has been pitching really well since being traded to the Yankees. McCarthy will be 32 next season, and peripheral numbers outshine his traditional baseball stats. Example: McCarthy’s FIP (fielding independent pitching) has been much lower than his ERA, the last 4 seasons…meaning he has pitched better than his ERA suggests. I could see the Cubs taking a “flyer” on McCarthy if he remains unsigned close to spring training, but otherwise…I say HIGHLY DOUBTFUL.

There are too many variables for one to accurately predict if the Cubs will wind up with any of these arms…but just for the fun of it…I will complete a quick wish list, then I am interested to hear what you have to say. Mine would be

  1. Lester 2. Liriano   3. Shields  4. De La Rosa   5.Hammel

I have already mentally prepared myself for the possibility of the Cubs getting NONE of these guys. Oh, and before we get your opinion…here are the guys I deemed not good enough to include:

Kevin Correia, Chris Capuano, Gavin Floyd, Aaron Harang, Roberto Hernandez, Josh Johnson, John Lannan, Colby Lewis, Paul Maholm, Jake Peavy, Edinson Volquez, and Jerome(we had him like ten years ago) Williams

I told you there wasn’t much else to see on the list.

I did not include pitchers that have either a club or player option and are likely to remain with their current clubs.

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Are the Chicago Cubs at the Tipping Point?

Wednesday, August 6th, 2014

95,242. That’s my place in line.

This morning I decided to sign up for the Cubs’ season ticket waiting list.  I did so knowing I would have no chance of having them anytime soon. Considering I will have a child in college for 12 of the next 13 years, my disposable income will be…let’s just say… limited. I joined just to see where I would place on the list. I have heard unconfirmed (maybe one of you can confirm) reports that waiting listers were getting calls just last winter from the Chicago Cubs…stating that their numbers had come up and they could get tickets.  If this is true, and anyone passed…that person may be waiting a long time for another opportunity.

I know very little about the ins and outs of season tickets and ticket brokering, but I know a little about supply and demand.  For the last couple of summers, I have heard angry callers to sports radio begin conversations with “I am a season-ticket holder, and…” they then rant about Jeff Samardzija being traded or whatever other move they are upset about.  My thought when I hear these rants? Get rid of your tickets then. I have a friend who has a ticket business on the side…and I have listened to him lament for the last 3 summers regarding the Cubs.  This may sound insensitive to those who have had tickets for the last 3 summers, and watched bad, bad baseball…but they didn’t have to keep them.  Yet if you did, I think you are about to be rewarded for your patience.  I view season tickets like stocks…buy low, sell high. If you bought Chicago Blackhawks season tickets in 2006, the idea would have seemed rather silly. Yet, in 2014, those lucky enough to have done so have 41 sold-out dates each year to use or sell at their leisure….and they have benefited greatly during two Stanley Cup runs.

I spoke with my long-time friend, Dale Bradley, a financial adviser with 25 years of experience, of Bradley Investment Center in Evanston…and a Cubs’ season ticket holder for the last 20 years. In regards to his tickets, Bradley stated; “You love them and you hate them…when times are bad you are tempted to sell.  When times are good, they are golden”. In my opinion…times are about to be very good for the patient ones.

This brings me to my “Tipping Point” regarding the Chicago Cubs.  The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell is a book that combines economics, human nature, and social trends.  The book may be a bit “thinky” for some, but here is how Gladwell defines a tipping point: “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point”.   Gladwell demonstrates messages, ideas, products and behaviors that race like wildfire through our society…after reaching their tipping point.  In my opinion, as year three of the Theo Epstein regime comes to a close…the Cubs are either at a tipping point or on the precipice of one.

Am I just a Cubbie blue Kool-Aid drinker?  I will let the reader be the judge, as I give my reasons why the tipping point for the Cubs’ organization is nigh:

  1. Before we get to the fun stuff (players)…lets address an off the field issue.  It appears as though the renovations to Wrigley will finally begin.  With the way this issue has played out, I will keep my fingers and toes crossed, but the Cubs finally give the impression that they have their “ducks in a row” on this. The dark cloud regarding future revenues concerning the park…might finally be lifting.  In fact (fingers crossed, fingers crossed), we may see some of these changes take root during the 2015 season.
  2. The contract of Alfonso Soriano (the equivalent of two Presidential terms) is finally off the books in 2015.  Not including players eligible for arbitration, the Cubs currently have $31.2 million allotted to salaries in 2015.  Let’s give them a modest payroll of $85 million for 2015…you are looking at a heck of a lot of dough the Cubs will have to allocate to free-agents.  They will not enter 2015 with a $40 million dollar salary.  However, I would like to caution those of you who already have Jon Lester in the 2015 Cubs’ rotation…if Lester wants anything more than a five-year deal…that might not be where the money goes.  Regardless of Jon Lester and other top of the line free-agents, the Cubs will have the flexibility to sign, and trade for contracts they have not had for the past six off seasons.
  3. Recent events, the call ups of Arismendy Alcantara, Kyle Hendricks, and now (cue, shining light coming through the clouds) Javy Baez, have me thinking that Theo and Jed are ready to at least compete in 2015.  They have stated numerous times they like to call players up to stay…if that’s true, these players will be on the opening day roster in 2015.  A line-up that will include the current NL home-run leader in Rizzo…and perhaps some of the other amazing offensive prospects the Cubs have in the system. These call-ups signal to me that the regime is not concerned about tanking the last two months. I am not alluding that Baez, Alcantara and Hendricks are going to give the Cubs a winning record for August and September…but I get the feeling that the regime isn’t  worried as much if the pick 3rd or 7th overall next June.
  4.  I know some people will always be suspicious of prospects…but when you have respected national writers stating that this may be the best assortment of position prospects ever assembled…you can dismiss those thoughts of Ty Griffin, Corey Patterson and Felix Pie. Jorge Soler, Kris Bryant, and Kyle Schwarber seem to hit home runs daily.  Alcantara (yes, small sample size) has looked as smooth to me as any prospect in recent memory upon arriving in the Majors.  The Cubs system is “boiling over” with offensive potential.  The “graduation” of these prospects will not leave the minors barren of talent, as players such as Eloy Jimenez and Gleyber Torres will ascend to the top of prospect lists.
  5. Almost under the radar, the Cubs have done an excellent job of stockpiling young power arms for the bullpen.  Justin Grimm has shown flashes, yet still inconsistent. (side not…you don’t have to pitch him every day Ricky) Hector Rondon has stepped in nicely as the current closer, and Neil Ramirez has been filthy for most of the season.  Pedro Strop, although not as young, has displayed his magic slider recently.  At Iowa, the Cubs actually may have the two best power relievers in the system in Armando Rivero (83 k’s in 54 innings) and Arodys Vizcaino.  The Cubs could enter spring training next year with 6-7 relievers who throw 95 mph.

I have had this Tipping Point concept floating in my head for the last month or so…and I finally decided to own it.  I loved Gladwell’s book and the analogies made sense to me.  Some of you may take a much more pessimistic view about 2015 for the Chicago Cubs…and that’s fine. If you do have a negative outlook on the future for the Cubs…please try to convince the 95,241 people ahead of me on the season ticket list that they should drop off.

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A Belated Cubs’ Hall of Fame Point

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014

I am old…okay 45…not that old.  My experience as a Cubs’ fan growing up was much different than many of you. My favorite players were Rick Monday, Rick Reuschel, Bruce Sutter, Bill Buckner and Bobby Murcer. Of course in the ‘80s,  I was a huge fan of Ryno and the ’84 team  However as I aged, and the players were the same age as me…and then even younger than men…it just kind of felt weird.  The last player that I was truly just a “fan” of was Greg Maddux.  Oh I love watching Rizzo, and ‘Mendy might currently be my favorite Cub, but I have viewed players through a different lens for many years.

So Maddux is the last one whose cards I collect, am proud to have his autograph, etc.  Obviously, I was not a happy fan when he went to Atlanta.  Therefore when I wrote my book (not a plug), I knew that the Cubs’ handling of the situation was going to be one of my main “reasons”.  Instead of rehashing what I wrote, I have decided to include an excerpt from the book(not a plug).  This section comes from Reason 91 “The Crimes of Larry Himes”:

Greg Maddux could have stayed with the Cubs; he even wanted to stay with the Cubs! Larry Himes is the man most responsible for the exit of Greg Maddux. The following excerpt (an excerpt within an excerpt!) is from the November 22, 1992 edition of the Rome Daily Times:

            The Chicago Cubs decided Saturday to give up bidding for 1992 CY Young winner Greg Maddux. General manager Larry Himes said that a $27.5 million, five-year offer which Maddux rejected in July still stands-but maybe not for long. Himes said the offer will be withdrawn as soon as he signs someone else.  “I looked at myself bidding against myself and decided to stop.” Himes said.

Himes wasn’t bidding against himself; he was bidding against the Yankees and the Braves.  Himes’ “bidding against myself” statement may have been an attempt to paint Maddux and agent Scott Boras as unreasonable or greedy.  A few facts shred any argument that Himes would make in that regard:

  1. 1.     Maddux was ready to sign a five-year, $25 million extension the previous winter until it was Himes who dragged his feet on the deal and did not return a call to Maddux and Boras.  This event prompted Maddux to go into the 1992 season without a deal in place.
  2. 2.     Maddux eventually signed with the Braves for $28 million over five years…a whopping $500,000 more than the Cubs’ offer. 
  3. 3.     The Yankees were offering Maddux a reported $ 9 million more than the Braves; if Maddux was greedy…he takes the Yankees deal.

Mr. Himes made a horrendous mistake that cost Cubs’ fans the prime years of arguably the greatest pitcher of all time.  I am not sure if Mr. Himes was lacking intelligence, was too arrogant, or let his pride get in the way.  If Himes would have simply beaten the Braves offer by $1-2 million over the course of the deal, Maddux likely remains a Cub.  The Tribune Company had the money; Himes went and spent it on the wonderful Jose Guzman, Randy Myers, and Candy Maldonado combination!

The Chicago Cubs decided that they did not need or want Greg Maddux anymore; and that decision was made by Larry Himes. This idiotic choice earns Larry Himes the distinction of being Reason 91.

Ugh! I get angry just reading that again! The reason I felt it relevant is that during his HOF induction speech on Sunday Maddux stated “I went to Atlanta to start a family and win a World Series…sorry Chicago”. On Monday I heard longtime Chicago scribe, and Maddux confidant Barry Rozner reflect on that comment:

“That was a little revisionist history by Greg, he didn’t want to leave Chicago, he was kicked out of the house”.  Wow…let that sink in.  355 wins, 17 straight 15 wins seasons, the only pitcher with 3,000 strikeouts and less than 1,000 walks…and the Cubs kicked him out.

If you have never been to the Hall of Fame, its great of course, but it’s out in the middle of nowhere and there is like one way in…and one way out.  You seemingly drive forever down a never ending road, and then have to back track on the same road to get back to normal civilization.  I had absolutely zero interest in going to Cooperstown this weekend…because to me it wasn’t a celebration…at least not as a Cubs’ fan.  To me, it was a grim reminder of one of the most incompetent decisions my favorite baseball team has ever made.

Wow…that was kind of depressing.

Well…let’s try this…Jake Arrieta is pitching awesome! Rizzo leads the NL in homers! It seems Bryant, Baez, and Russell are doing something remarkable every day! Barney got traded!

Ahhh…that feels better.

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Grading the Cubs at the All-Star Break

Thursday, July 17th, 2014

When I am not blogging or writing critically acclaimed books about the Chicago Cubs, my “real” job is as a Social Studies teacher.  This fall I will begin my 24th year as an educator.  It is for this reason, that I use the prototypical A-F grading scale when assessing most things in life; a movie, television shows, music, food…anything!  I find this grading system much better than using say…stars.  The A-F system seems more tangible to me, and it allows the nuance of using pluses and minuses.  The differing variation this system permits allows more accuracy and meaning…in my opinion.  However, before I use this system to evaluate the performance thus far of the 2014Chicago Cubs, I have to add a caveat…I rarely award anything an A+.  An A+ has to be absolutely flawless…two examples would be The Sopranos and Goodfellas (yes…I find the mafia interesting!).  I just realized that I really didn’t need to even address my A+ theory, because the Cubs have no A+ players.

For the purpose of this exercise, I am only going to grade players who are currently on the roster (like a class roster I suppose)…so Jeff Samardzija, Jason Hammel, and Jose Veras(yuck!) will not be graded.  So here goes…to debate, laugh at, or agree with…my assessment of the 2014 Chicago Cubs at the All-Star break:

NEIL RAMIREZ                   A

Ramirez has been dominant, as evident by his 11.9 K’s per 9 rate.  The question going forward is whether the Cubs will keep him in the ‘pen or try him in the rotation? At this point, Ramirez is the most valuable commodity from the Garza trade.

ARISMENDY ALCANTARA                  A

Yes, I know, I know…very small sample size, but he is currently on the roster.  For five Major League games, Alcantara has been phenomenal (1.139 OPS).  Aside from the limited stats, by the “eye test” the kid looks like a player to me…smooth in everything he does.

JAKE ARRIETA                   A

Considering that only Clayton Kershaw was more dominant over the last month and a half, Arrieta gets an A even with a smaller sample size due to an early season injury. Arrieta leads the Cubs in most advanced metrics on Fangraphs…even when including the two Oakland cast-offs.

ANTHONY RIZZO               A-

A great first half, but Rizzo’s OPS has dipped below the .900 mark recently…and I would like to see him cut down the K’s just a smidge.

JAMES RUSSELL                B+

Here’s hoping he has pitched himself into a trade (an LOB percentage of 82%!)…a couple of early outings keep Russell from an A-.

STARLIN CASTRO              B

His awful, inexcusable base-running decision on Sunday made me drop him from a B+.  I have been a Starlin defender all year but that miscue (making the 1st out on a passed ball with the bases loaded), should never happen.  His walks are up, power numbers are good, yet not enough defensive improvement to warrant an A-.

WESLEY WRIGHT              B

If you like advanced metrics like WPA (winning percentage added by the pitcher), then Wrights numbers aren’t quite as good as they look…in 8 of his 34 appearances he has decreased the Cubs chances of winning.  His recent numbers have been good, and he is a flip candidate as well.

HECTOR RONDON             B

Rondon’s grade probably should be higher (I like to be tough on pitchers…I have had complaints from parents), but apparently Hector did something to the BAPIP family. While all of his other numbers have improved remarked ably, the .358 BAPIP seems to be a statistical anomaly.

LUIS VALBUENA       B

This grade would have been higher without a bit of a tailspin lately, but I have personally done a 180 on Luis…his defensive metrics aren’t awful, he is versatile, and he has some of the better at bats on the squad.  Valbuena would be the prototypical Oakland A’s type player.

EMILIO BONIFACIO          B (currently on DL)

I really don’t think his first two weeks fooled many Cubs’ fans into thinking he was going to challenge Ted Williams .406…but even after cooling off (in a big way), Bonifacio still has value…to the Cubs or another club.  I am in the minority, but I would like to see the Cubs’ sign him to a reasonable 2-3 year contract.  His versatility and elite speed make him an asset…and we can’t trade ALL of the veterans.

PEDRO STROP           B-

Strop’s 15.4 % HR/FB ratio stands out like a big zit. (Sorry…how about a mole, or a wart?) Strop is one of those maddening guys that looks so, so nasty on occasion.  Strop is a possible flip candidate.

JUSTIN RUGGIANO & CHRIS COGHLAN            C+

I am grading these two together because these two former Marlins’ stats are almost identical! They are like twins, except one bats right-handed and the other is a lefty.  I actually think Ruggiano’s early season injury hurt the Cubs more than we realized…both are now possibly trade bait.

BRIAN SCHLITTER C+

Yes, he looks like Jesus…although I think he also looks like the lead singer from the fictional rock group Stillwater from the film Almost Famous….thus I refer to him as Jesus Stillwater or Fever Dog. (The group’s faux hit single) I have concerns with Schlitters’ low K rate of 4.68 regarding future success…but he has stranded 71% of runners and has a groundball rate of 57.5%.  He has pitched well enough that apparently Ricky Renteria thinks he needs to pitch in every game.

WELLINGTON CASTILLO                   C+

Did anyone else notice that the Cubs’ best stretch of the season happened to be when John Baker and Eli Whiteside were doing the catching? Oh, definitely not for their offense…but the pitching was very good during that stretch.  Castillo’s offense isn’t bad for a catcher, and I will admit that the C+ may be based on one play; when I saw Castillo gun down Billy Hamilton with ease. (Probably shouldn’t determine a grade based on one play)

JUSTIN GRIMM                   C

Grimm shows promise, and he may also suffer from Ricky’s “he can pitch every day plan”. I will throw out the metrics here and just offer an assessment based on the “eye test” again.  Grimm’s fastball appears straight, and at 92-94 that won’t play as a reliever.  I think a conversion back to a starter would be best for Grimm; work on command of that fastball, and develop complimentary pitches.  He’s 25, so I still see much upside.

TRAVIS WOOD          C

Yes…this might seem a bit high for a guy with a 4.96 ERA, but I am giving Travis a break. (Call him a teacher’s pet if you must)  Wood still has 10 quality starts, and a couple of really, really (really) bad outings killed that ERA. I think he gets up to a solid B- by the end of the term. (season)

CARLOS VILLANUEVA     C-

That Carlos gets a passing grade at all may anger some people, but he also has a high BAPIP (.369). At this point in his career Carlos seems to be able to fool a team once through the line-up, which is…ahem…a little tough to do as a starter.

NATE SCHIERHOLTZ        D+

A very slow start, coupled with a career year in 2013 needs to factor into Schierholtz grade not being a bit lower. However, I can’t sugar coat a .564 OPS for an outfielder.

JOHN BAKER             D+

With Baker’s paltry offense, I can’t believe I am passing him.  Here’s why; he was Hammel’s personal catcher, and that worked out pretty well…so Baker avoids the F.

JUNIOR LAKE & MIKE OLT               D+

There two are long overdue for parent/teacher conferences! Their prodigious pop keeps them passing, but their at bats are really tough to watch right now.  Here is what I can’t figure out; are they being coached?…and if they are, they must not be listening.  I was only a high school coach, but I am confident that I see things in their approach and mechanics that should be altered.  These two are way too young to give up on.

EDWIN JACKSON     D

Cubs’ fans favorite punching bag has once again been a huge disappointment.  I won’t even get into ALL of the (mostly ugly) numbers, just this…he needs to at least start getting 6 innings in his starts. Complaining about his contract is silly, $11-13 million a year for 2 years…please…do we forget 2010 when we had Zambrano, Sori, Fukudome, and a washed up D-Lee…eating up over $80 million?  From all accounts he’s a great teammate, just let him pitch and hope (pray?) for the best.

DARWIN BARNEY     D

Yes, he still makes defensive plays that make me go “wow”, and he is a slightly (emphasis on slight) better offensive player than he has shown.  Yet he has had the better part of four seasons to hit now…it’s time to pull the plug.  Alcantara, or any of the other 50 Cubs’ infield prospects with more offensive upside, need to start getting at bats.

RYAN SWEENEY       F

Why is he on the team? That is all.

DALLAS BEELER, TSUYOSHI WADA, CHRIS RUSIN, & KYLE HENDRICKS        INC.

These players have basically just been added to the class.

BILL MUELLER (HITTING COACH)                               INC.

Too early for me to make an accurate assessment…Castro, Rizzo making huge bounce backs, but I see some of the same things over and over again(Lake & Olt). Chris Coghlan recently credited him for his resurgence…so I will wait until the end of the year to assess Mr. Mueller.

CHRIS BOSIO (PITCHING COACH)                                 A

This is the third straight year that Bosio has turned a project into a very valuable flip candidate…and more pitchers seem to be improving than regressing.  The guy is doing something right.

RICKY RENTERIA              C

Some may feel he deserves more time as well…but personally I have been frustrated with his over managing of the bullpen.  I realize that Wood and Jackson rarely give him 6 innings, and he HAS to use the pen…but I have seen many games when he has used 5-6 pitchers and could have easily done it with 3-4.  The bullpen wearing out this season won’t matter much, unless one of them gets injured. On the positive, you have to give him partial credit for the Castro/Rizzo bounce backs.  Renteria also appears to be an upgrade over Svuem in how he deals with the media.  My gut says he will be okay…of course I thought the same about Mike Quade. (I kid, I kid!)

Now it’s your turn! Agree, disagree, tell me I am stupid…I am very interested to hear your opinions,

…class dismissed. (I don’t think I have ever said that in 24 years…kids just get up and leave at the bell…looking at their phones as they walk out the door.)

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