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The Most Overrated Teams in Baseball

Tuesday, February 24th, 2015

At the start of spring training every year, two big questions cycle through baseball media: First, who won the offseason? Second, what teams are contenders in the coming season? These lists tend to have a significant overlap. Inevitably, certain teams look quite overrated by mid-season. These are the three teams that I think are the most overrated heading into spring training.

San Diego Padres

Overrated By: Traditional baseball media.

Reason the Padres Are Overrated: The sum of their new pieces is less than their parts.

The Padres were probably the most active team in baseball this off season, making numerous trades before concluding the winter by signing starting pitcher James Shields to a 4 year deal. Individually, I liked some of these trades. I thought both the Wil Myers and Justin Upton trades were good ones. To me, though, the Matt Kemp trade is going to cause the Padres a lot of trouble, and I don’t think the Padres will get the value out of Shields that a team that doesn’t play half its games in Petco would.

Kemp can still hit, as he showed in the back half of last season, but should be left field only these days, if he should be playing the outfield at all. Considering Kemp’s negative defensive value, I thought the Padres vastly overpaid for Kemp. At their current contracts, including the amount of Kemp’s contract that Dodgers are covering, I would not have traded Yasmani Grandal, a young catcher with excellent receiving and on base skills, straight up for Kemp. Despite my belief the Padres overpaid for Kemp, had they JUST traded for him and Myers, they could have hid Kemp in left field and it would have been an overall offensive upgrade.

Then, however, the Padres signed Justin Upton, another left field only player. Reports indicate that the Padres intend on playing Upton in left, Myers in center, and Kemp in right. That is going to be an epically terrible defensive outfield playing in one of the most spacious outfields in baseball. It will also put two players who have been injury prone, Myers and Kemp, in situations where they will be more likely to get injured because they will be playing more demanding positions. The Padres could fix this by convincing Kemp to play first base and using a combination of Cameron Maybin and Wil Venable in center, but they don’t seem inclined to do this.

On Shields, my one question is if the Padres, who are able to turn a host of mediocre pitchers into guys with results that make them look like solid number 2 starters because of their home park, should spend money on free agent pitching. I have no issue with the length or dollars in the Shields contract, but just don’t know how much better his numbers will be in Petco. Clearly, if he ends up with an ERA in the low 2s with the move to the NL West and Petco, it will be a great move independent of any advantage Petco delivers.

I just have a feeling that outfield defense is just going to hurt the Padres too much, and they’ll hover around .500, which would be a huge disappointment considering the hype around the Padres seems to have them hanging with the Dodgers at the top of NL West.

Chicago White Sox

Overrated by: Traditional baseball media.

Reason the White Sox Are Overrated: Lack of depth.

I’ll admit it: I have loved what the White Sox have done since Rick Hahn became their GM following the 2012 season. In two short seasons, he’s improved the MLB product while getting rid of dead money on overpriced players and improving the farm system. And I really liked the White Sox’s moves this off season. It made the South Siders more competitive this year while not giving up any prospects who project as above average regulars. I even kind of liked the David Robertson signing, despite the fact that I pretty much never like giving big multi-year deals to relievers. The White Sox desperately needed a bullpen upgrade, and Robertson was the best reliever available with a significant track record of success.

But I just think the team is too shallow to really hang with the Royals, Tigers, and Indians for a full season. They could get essentially no value from at least second and third base, and I’m not an Avisail Garcia believer in right field either, although Garcia is definitely young enough to surprise me with some good health.

They just need so much good health, though. They don’t have good enough replacements if Adam Eaton or Melky Cabrera go down. While the front 3 pitchers in their rotation, Chris Sale, Jeff Samardzija, and Jose Quintana, are among the best front 3 starting groups in baseball, it’s not clear they have decent 4/5 starters, much less anyone who could fill in if one of those top 3 guys miss significant time on the DL, if Carlos Rodon isn’t ready for a starting pitcher’s workload.

The White Sox are definitely moving in the right direction, but in a tough division I see them winning just shy of 80 games, and not truly contending in 2015.

Chicago Cubs

Overrated by: Segments of the fandom.

Reason the Cubs are Overrated: Expecting too much from young players.

And here we are. Cubs fans are rightly excited for the 2015 season. Anthony Rizzo and Jake Arrieta were two of the best players in the NL in 2014. Starlin Castro returned to his career norms as a very good offensive shortstop, and perhaps a bit beyond them in the power department. Jorge Soler had a solid debut in September. The bullpen looks as well setup as anyone to be awesome. The Cubs signed Jon Lester and Jason Hammel to shore up the rotation, and vastly improved the receiving skills of their catchers. They traded for Dexter Fowler, who should put up the best numbers for a Cubs leadoff hitter since Kenny Lofton’s half season with the Cubs in 2003. The waves of young position players coming to Wrigley has begun, with uber hitting prospect Kris Bryant likely to debut at the Friendly Confines in 2015.

I expect the Cubs to be significantly improved in 2015, with a prediction of an 82 win season. But I have seen a lot of Cubs fans (significantly less so at this site than others) with playoff dreams in their comments. And I by no means want to discourage that sort of excitement, but for the Cubs to be a playoff team in 2015 a lot has to go right with a high percentage of Bryant, Soler, Javier Baez, Addison Russell, and Arismendy Alcantara. That just can’t be predicted at this juncture.

However, I do feel my prediction on the Cubs are subject to the widest error bars of these three teams without a surprisingly high number of injuries or a big time mid-season trade occurring. That’s a good news/bad news scenario because it means I wouldn’t be surprised if the Cubs won 90 games this season and made the playoffs, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if the Cubs lost 90.

Unsurprisingly, if you peek around at the “who won the off season” lists, you’ll see these three teams at the top. Which is a solid reminder that, to win the off season, odds are you had a lot of holes to fill and might not be that good despite spending a boatload of money or trading a lot of prospects.

One side note: Within a few days of my late piece on my view on baseball’s demographics issue posting here, Andrew McCutchen, arguably both the best current African American player and player who grew up poor in America, on a very similar issue, which can be found here and I feel is worth a read: http://www.theplayerstribune.com/left-out/

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Baseball’s Misunderstood Demographics Problem

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015

My car has an odd feature on it where WBEZ, Chicago’s NPR station, gets a lot of static when my rear defroster is on. As such, on cold winter mornings I spend my brief drive to the train station flipping between ESPN Radio and the Score, typically deciding whether I can tolerate Mike & Mike talk about football generally or Mully and Hanley complain about the Bears particularly more. This morning, however, the Score featured a conversation about baseball, meaning Mully and Hanley won. Unfortunately, their topic of choice was how baseball fans are too old, so the game needs to be sped up to attract the young ‘uns.

There are legitimate reasons to institute things like a pitch clock. I’m not necessarily in favor of a pitch clock, but there are arguments to be made for it. However, I’m not writing about that today. Today, my focus turns to the misunderstood demographic problem in baseball.

Baseball has a demographic problem, although it’s not the one that everyone thinks it is: that the fans are too old. Nor, even if that was the real problem, is there any legitimate solution for 8 year olds not watching baseball games.

I, along with many of my peers, did not have cable in 1989. I turned 8 late that summer, and that was the first year I fell in love with the Cubs. I would get home from school or camp and catch the last few innings of the game, thankfully being unaware that a closer who walked nearly 6 batters per 9 innings was a bad thing. Of course, I essentially had no options of anything else to watch. I had 4 or 5 channels: it was baseball or bust. Sure, I had an NES, but I had either beaten all my games, or their status as Nintendo hard got me to give up on them.

Kids these days have more entertainment options than I could have imagined. Look, they’re just not going to choose turning on a live sporting event of any type over their iPad, or their Xbox, or Nickelodeon and Disney Channel.

And teams, including the Cubs, know this. The Cubs have been moving as many day games to night games as possible for nearly three decades because weekday day games just don’t draw the ratings they used to, or the ratings of night games.

Yet baseball is financially as healthy as ever. Team revenues and team values are skyrocketing. Teams that go on sale are being bought by very successful businessmen at these high values. These teams are not being bought with the idea that they will lose value 10 or 20 years down the line as the old guard of fans die out.

My inclination is that this misunderstanding comes from comparing baseball to football when, really, no sport should be compared to football. Football gets a massive boost from two things: First, each team plays only once a week, with the vast majority of them all playing on one day. This helped turn football Sundays into a social event, where friends and families will get together to just watch the game. No one is getting together on a Tuesday night to watch every baseball game on television.

Second, and even more importantly, fantasy football is by far the easiest fantasy sport to play. Whereas fantasy baseball and basketball remain relative niche endeavors that require daily attention, nearly everyone I know is in at least one fantasy football league involving a meaningful monetary award. Whereas baseball fandom remains regional, this has turned football fandom national. The Bears may have been terrible last season, but if I needed 18 points from DeMarco Murray on Monday night to win my fantasy matchup, you could bet that I’d be watching the Dallas Cowboys once my kids went to bed despite the fact that I don’t care about the Cowboys. Or really much anything from Dallas.

Baseball should be compared to basketball and hockey, and, on a fan basis, it’s doing just fine. Like basketball teams, good baseball teams generally draw strong attendance while poor teams don’t, with a few franchises buoyed by history and a few hampered by poor arenas.

Baseball’s actual demographic problem comes not from the fandom, though, but from the demographics of its best young players. Baseball is a very expensive sport, especially compared to basketball. A baseball field requires several times the space of a basketball court, and requires exponentially more maintenance.

Also, of all the major sports in the US, baseball is the one where pure athletic talent, size, strength and speed, isn’t enough to succeed. Sure, many of the greatest players, the Mike Trouts and Andrew McCutchens, are phenomenal athletes. But there are plenty of guys who are as big, strong, and fast as Trout and McCutchen that just can’t tell a slider in the dirt from a fastball on the outer third. This need to not just be a gifted athlete but to have advanced baseball skills to draw scouts’ attention has led many with MLB aspirations for their kids to obtain private lessons, or send their children to private schools with superior baseball programs.

Most often this has been cast as an issue of a the diminishing numbers of African American baseball players, but I think it’s a larger issue than that. For American kids and teenagers with legitimate aspirations to play either a college or professional sport, baseball has become a game for rich kids. While poor, athletically talented Dominican and Venezuelan kids are being brought to baseball academies at age 14 to catch up to their American peers, American kids are stuck with their random parental assignment through high school. If you take two kids with the exact same athletic ability, drive, and desire, but one has upper middle class parents and the others are just scraping above the poverty line, the prior would have had access to training and coaching the latter could only have dreamed of.

And this is what MLB should work on: getting these resources, in some manner, to our poorer urban and rural areas. The MLB shouldn’t focus on the fact that these kids aren’t watching baseball. That’s not going to change unless we go back to four channels and a radio. What they should really worry about is that a lot of kids aren’t playing the game, and especially that a lot of talented athletes aren’t playing the game into their high school years.

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Why Jon Lester Should Not Get David Ross as His Personal Catcher

Tuesday, January 27th, 2015

As with most who will be writing about the Cubs this week, I’m going to start with something brief on the great Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks. I am too young to have watched Ernie play, but he has been a constant presence in Cubdom for so long, that it just seems… wrong… that he no longer will be a physical presence with the team. I really have nothing to say that others have not said more eloquently in the last several days. I am, however, grateful that I work right around the corner from Daley Plaza, where the statute of Banks will be placed from Wednesday through Saturday, so I will be able to pay my respects to Mr. Cub.

On that note, though, we all know what Ernie would want more than anything else: a World Series championship on the North Side in 2015, so we’ll turn to my topic of the week on something that could affect the Cubs’ results in the coming season: Jon Lester and his catcher. When the Cubs signed Lester, a lot of people thought that the Cubs would make a run at his personal catcher in Boston in 2013 and the first half of 2014, David Ross.

While it made sense for Lester to have Ross as his personal catcher in Boston, it would not in Chicago. In 2013, the Red Sox’s primary catcher was Jarrod Saltalamacchia, an offense first catcher with somewhere between below average (in 2013) and utterly terrible (in 2014) pitch framing skills. In 2014, the Red Sox brought in A.J. Pierzynski, a terrible defensive catcher as well as a poor framer, to the start the season as their primary catcher. As a defender and a receiver, Ross was a huge upgrade over the regular starter.

This was an upgrade worth giving Boston’s ace pitcher, even with Ross being terrible offensively against right handed pitchers. While Lester has very good stuff, he is not an overpowering pitcher, with fastball velocity averaging just under 92 miles per hour last season. He succeeds as much on excellent control, especially over the past couple of seasons, as anything else. And when you rely on control, getting those strikes on the edges, or just outside the edges, called as strikes is vital.

Moreover, Lester’s biggest weakness is controlling the running game. His pickoff move is essentially non-existent, and we saw in the AL wild card game what could happen to him without a competent battery mate when Geovany Soto went down with injury midway through the game.

Yet all these reasons present in Boston to give Lester the defensive minded backup catcher are not present in Chicago. The Cubs have two excellent defensive catchers and pitch framers in Ross and Miguel Montero. Montero hits right handed pitching, but struggles against left handed pitching, while Ross does the opposite. However, there is not a meaningful difference in defensive and receiving prowess between the two: they are both very good in both skills. Lester doesn’t need the defensive minded backup here because the primary starter is also defensively strong, and the Cubs will be a lot better offensively running a straight platoon with Montero and Ross whenever possible. Since playing to Montero’s and Ross’s offensive strengths is what is most likely to improve the team, that should be the Cubs’ priority in choosing who starts on a day to day basis.

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The Importance of the Bullpen for the 2015 Cubs

Tuesday, January 13th, 2015

From May 17 through July 4 of 2014, the Cubs were one of the better teams in baseball, going 25-19 (a .568 winning percentage, which is a 94 win pace) over the 44 game stretch. Yet, after that game, the Cubs went ahead and traded what had been their best two starting pitchers to that point, Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, to the Oakland Athletics for Addison Russell, Billy McKinney, and Dan Straily. We all know why the Cubs were sellers despite the impressive month and a half run to Independence Day: through May 16 the Cubs went just 13-27, digging a hole that almost no team could surpass.

But why were they 13-27 over the first month and a half of the season? There are two primary reasons. First, the Cubs spent April with a largely ineffective Carlos Villanueva filling in for a rehabbing Jake Arrieta when the Cubs couldn’t avoid throwing a fifth starter. Second, and more importantly, the Cubs’ bullpen was terrible. Over the first 40 games of the season, a pitcher coming out of the bullpen tallied the loss in 11 games. In the final 122 games of the season, a reliever was tagged with the loss in just 14 games. While win-loss record is not a good way to determine pitcher effectiveness, it’s generally a bad thing when your relief core gives up the go ahead run in more than a quarter of your games.

So what was the big thing that changed with the Cubs around May 17? None of the prospects had been called up. Mike Olt was in the middle of his more extended period of being allowed to flail at every breaking pitch thrown at him in his stint as a semi-regular starter at third base. Junior Lake was getting regular playing time. The biggest thing that happened was that the bullpen went from “oh dear, this is bad” awful to quite good.

The bullpen went from having an ineffective Jose Veras closing, along with an injured Pedro Strop and a mediocre James Russell as setup men at the start of the season to what I see as one of the more underrated bullpens in baseball heading into 2015. The Cubs have four power right handed relievers who can get hitters from both side of the plate out: Hector Rondon, Neil Ramirez, a healthy Strop, Justin Grimm, and free agent import Jason Motte. Another hard throwing right hander, Cuban import Armando Rivero, is just about ready for the Majors, and at least one of the Cubs’ glut of fifth starters is likely to end up in the bullpen. While I’m rooting for Jacob Turner to put enough together to be the fifth starter due to his upside, he could be a very good relief pitcher with just some minor adjustments right now.

The Cubs are going to have to rely on this vastly improved (and quite inexpensive) bullpen early in the year as the prospects and second year players (yes, Baez and Alcantara are now considered second year players), when it wouldn’t be surprising for the Cubs to go on some extended runs where they struggle to score runs. If the Cubs’ pitching, including its underrated bullpen, can keep them in the race over the first half of the season, the Cubs will be in a great position to make a run in the second half as the young hitters (hopefully) continue to come along.

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Prospect Watch: Albert Almora and Kyle Schwarber

Tuesday, December 30th, 2014

I’ll admit it: this is the first offseason in half a decade that I am more excited about the Chicago Cubs’ Major League team than the prospects in their minor league affiliates. However, that does not mean that prospects should be ignored. To the contrary, the Cubs near unanimously considered top farm system in baseball is the primary reason so many analysts are so high on the team, and even after Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler are no longer considered prospects due to losing rookie eligibility, the Cubs will still have one of the best systems in baseball.

Our first look goes to two of the three first round selections by Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, Jason McLeod, and company: 2012 first round pick Albert Almora and 2014 first round pick Kyle Schwarber.

Albert Almora (CF, 20 years old)

2014 Stats:
Dayt0na (High A): 385 PAs, .283/.306/.406, 11.9% K rate, 3.1% BB rate, .123 ISO, .305 BABIP, 100 wRC+, 6 SB, 3 CS
Tennessee (Double A): 144 PAs, .234/.250/.355, 16.0% K rate, 1.4% BB rate, .121 ISO, .267 BABIP, 64 wRC+, 0 SB, 1 CS

Analysis:
There are two camps on Almora, the optimists and the pessimists. The optimists see an elite defensive center fielder who strikes out very little and generally at least held his own in the minor leagues, with the sole exception of his Double A promotion last season, while being very young for each league he played in. The pessimists see Josh Vitters without the power at the plate, a guy who does not strike out but with no discernible approach, resulting in a lot of weak contact. They also see a guy who will have average power at best and doesn’t walk, leaving it hard to see how a guy with a low OBP and mediocre slugging rate can be a Major League regular, much less someone worthy of the sixth pick in a pretty strong draft.

I split the two, but fall more into the pessimist camp at the plate. I am very concerned about the complete lack of approach that Almora has shown to date. He is too much of a see ball/hit ball hitter without having the sort of power to make that approach work. It is pretty simple: he has to walk more to be successful. He does not need to be an above average walk guy; if he gets the walk rate into the 7-8% range that will also likely mean he is waiting for pitches he can drive more, and he can succeed with that sort of walk rate and a low K rate. But he cannot succeed walking in less than 3% of his plate appearances over a season.

Everyone appears to agree he is an elite defender in center field, a premium defensive position, which should at the least give Almora more opportunities to find success at the plate. You can live with Josh Vitters’s bat if the player is also providing elite defensive value. You cannot live with that bat when it’s also connected to Josh Vitters’s glove.

The few reasons I remain somewhat optimistic about Almora at the plate, though, are his young age and reported makeup, which is supposed to be among the best in baseball. However, if he is as eminently coachable as his makeup would infer, he needs to show it this season. Almora will likely slide into the back half of most Top 100 prospect lists, although I would expect to see him closer to 51 than 100. He has the ability to make a huge jump, but could also slide off the lists entirely and be precariously close to the dreaded “former prospect” status if he does not improve.

Likely 2015 Starting Spot: Double A Tennessee

MLB Debut: Mid-2016 to mid-2017.

Kyle Schwarber (C/LF/1B, 21 years old)

2014 Stats:
Boise (Short Season A): 24 PAs, .600/.625/1.350, 8.3% K rate, 8.3% BB rate, .750 ISO, .533 BABIP, 397 wRC+, 0 SB, 1 CS
Kane County (Low A): 96 PAs, .361/.447/.602, 17.7% K rate, 11.5% BB rate, .241 ISO, .419 BABIP, 197 wRC+, 1 SB, 1 CS
Daytona (High A): 191 PAs, .302/.393/.560, 19.9% K rate, 13.6% BB rate, .258 ISO, .328 BABIP, .166 wRC+, 4 SB, 0 CS

Analysis
Many analysts were surprised when the Cubs took Schwarber with the 4th pick in the MLB draft because they felt Schwarber was, in the long run, a first baseman in the Major Leagues. This would mean he is blocked by the Cubs’ current best player, Anthony Rizzo, and it is a huge risk to draft a first baseman that high because the bat has to be so good for the player to provide elite value. The Cubs, however, felt that Schwarber was the best available college bat, had a shot to stick at catcher, and could at least play a survivable left field.

Schwarber’s bat provided all that could be hoped for and more, dominating three levels after participating in a full college season. He lapped the other 2014 draftee in the argument for best college bat, Michael Conforto (selected by the Mets with the number 10 pick), and the only question in regards to his bat is if he will be able to keep this up as he enters the upper minors next season. Most firmly believe he will continue to mash.

The real question with Schwarber is “what is his MLB position?” The Cubs sent him to instructs at their Mesa, Arizona, facility in October to determine whether they wanted to keep him catching or end that experiment now. Of course, if Schwarber could catch even half the season he would massively increase his value, as very few catchers can hit like Schwarber, particularly from the left side of the plate. But he is a work in progress there, so that will also slow down his ascent to the Majors.

After one week, the Cubs decided Schwarber can catch well enough that they will keep working him at the position next season. What exactly Schwarber’s breakdown between catching and left field will be in 2015, I am not exactly sure, but I would bet you’ll mostly see Schwarber catching and then getting truly rested by DHing on the majority of days he doesn’t catch.

If Schwarber continues to stick at catcher, you probably will not see him in the Majors until at least late 2016, with early 2017 being more likely. If he is moved to left field permanently, he could be up as early as late 2015 if the Cubs contend and think his bat could help the club.

Likely 2015 Starting Spot: Double A Tennessee

MLB Debut: Late 2015 (if not catching anymore ) to early 2017 (if sticks at catcher).

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What Other Moves Will the Cubs Make This Offseason?

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014

For the first time in more than a half decade, the Cubs were among the most active teams at the Winter Meetings. They added one of the two best available free agent pitchers in left hander Jon Lester, brought back Jason Hammel to help solidify the middle to back of the rotation, and traded for catcher Miguel Montero. As the Cubs’ signing of reliever Jason Motte showed yesterday, though, the Cubs are not done this offseason. While the rumors of what they are looking for vary (a big bat in the outfield or a bench veteran with a great clubhouse reputation?), these are the moves that I think are most likely. As a quick note, though, I’m not including “just getting rid of a guy” moves, so Edwin Jackson is not included here despite a pretty high likelihood of not being on the roster by the end of spring training, despite being due $22 million over the next two seasons.

MOST LIKELY CUBS TO BE TRADED:

Welington Castillo (C): There are two primary reasons that the Cubs brought in Miguel Montero to replace Welington Castillo as the team’s primary catcher. First, Castillo does not hit right handed pitching well. Montero, who bats left handed, has done most of his offensive damage over his career against right handed pitching. Second, Castillo is among the worst pitch framers in baseball, while Montero is one of the best.

While a Montero/Castillo platoon clearly makes sense from an offensive perspective, from a receiving perspective the Cubs would face a big drop off during games against left handed pitchers. And there is a veteran free agent backup catcher our there who also hits left handed pitching very well, without the huge decrease in pitch framing ability: David Ross. Ross also was Jon Lester’s personal catcher for the last few years in Boston, and would probably be cheaper through free agency than Castillo would be in arbitration.

Short version: if the Cubs bring in Ross, Castillo will be traded. If they don’t, Castillo won’t.

The likely return for Castillo is hard to predict because, aside from being a poor pitch framer and receiver he’s a good defensive catcher. He throws runners out at a strong rate and generally controls the running game well. So a team that emphasizes pitch framing, which more and more are every year, would be willing to give less for Castillo than a team that isn’t yet convinced by the framing data. He’d be worth someone who is at least useful, but probably no one to get excited about. Castillo is predicted to receive $2 to $2.3 million in his first year of arbitration in 2015.

Luis Valbuena (3B/2B):  Heading into the offseason, I wasn’t sure what the Cubs were going to do with Luis Valbuena. He’s a starting caliber 3B or 2B on most teams, and at least worthy of being the strong half of a platoon on nearly any team. Moreover, as a guy who builds a lot of his value by drawing walks and playing solid defense, he won’t get as much through arbitration as the 25 home run types who don’t otherwise get on base. He’s predicted to make about $3.1 million in his second year of arbitration.

Here’s the rub: once Kris Bryant comes up, likely in mid-April after the extra year of team control is secured, Valbuena won’t have a starting spot on the Cubs if Bryant is initially plugged into third base as most expect. You typically don’t get the most value out of a starting caliber player by sticking him on your bench, since another team that needs that starting caliber player will probably have someone else that you need. Yet the Cubs still had a potential need for Luis Valbuena, at least at the start of the offseason: Javier Baez insurance. Baez clearly needs to make a lot of adjustments to succeed at the MLB level, and it’s not clear that a demotion to Triple A isn’t in his future next season.

Enter Tommy La Stella. La Stella is not an ideal starting second baseman, but he can hold the position down respectably long enough for the Cubs to not feel their only backup plan to Baez is promoting Addison Russell earlier than they want to.

Valbuena could bring a good amount in a trade due to his value over the past two seasons and relatively cheap last two years of team control.

Travis Wood (SP):  The Wood story is pretty well known: he was great in 2013, but likely in an unsustainable fashion due to more average peripherals. In 2014 he was just all around worse, with not only having his results fall to his peripherals, but having his peripherals get worse. It’s essentially presumed at this point that Travis Wood has the first shot at the fifth spot in the rotation, but I’m not positive the Cubs won’t add another starting pitcher before all is said and done.

Even if the Cubs don’t add another starting pitcher, Wood could be dangled towards the end of spring training if Jacob Turner impresses, or Tsuyoshi Wada just clearly looks like the better option. Unfortunately, at this juncture it is unlikely Wood would bring much in the way of return. Due to his strong 2013 performance, Wood entered arbitration at a pretty $3.9 million in 2014, and that’s going to guide his arbitration award upward over the next two years as well. Odds are, at the most, you’re getting some other play who is approaching being overpaid in arbitration that also struggled last season. If this were one of the last three years, the Cubs would hold on to Wood in the hopes he could regain value. With the Cubs looking to compete in 2015, they might not feel that is an option now.

THE TARGETS

The Pitchers

Kris Medlen (SP): The starting pitching market has really thinned out over the last week, with really just Max Scherzer and James Shield at the top before you get to the fliers. The Cubs won’t be in on either of those top two guys, so we can go straight to the fliers. I was going to list Brett Anderson as my favorite among them, but he signed a 1 year, $10 million deal with the Dodgers last night. So my new favorite on that list is Kris Medlen, who was non-tendered by the Braves. Medlen was a quite good pitcher for the Braves as recently as 2013, and no one was better in the second half of 2012. The problem with Medlen is that he’s going to be coming off his second Tommy John surgery, which does not have the successful return rate as guys who have had their first Tommy John surgery. If the Cubs sign Medlen, they’d probably want some rather team friendly option to keep him for 2016, since he probably won’t pitch in the Majors until close to mid-season.

Too numerous of arbitration eligible mid to back of the rotation options to list that potentially could be available via trade: These would be the guys that the Cubs would be most likely to receive in a Valbuena or Wood trade. For Valbuena you probably get a legitimate mid-rotation guy with a couple of years of arbitration left. For Wood you probably get a little less.

The Outfielders

Colby Rasmus (CF): The Cubs have reportedly met with the former Cardinals top prospect, who has solid power and plays good center field defense, but doesn’t get on base and strikes out way too much. He’d have to be a guy the market passes over for me to be interested, a guy on a one year prove you can put it together deal. My biggest problem with Rasmus is that there’s some team out there that shouldn’t view him like that: a team that doesn’t strike out a lot but also doesn’t hit for a lot of power. The Cubs of the near future will only be that team if something goes really, really wrong with the prospects.

Nori Aoki (RF/LF): While Aoki doesn’t come with the former prospect credentials that Rasmus does, he could be a great fit for the Cubs. He gets on base through a combination of an average walk rate and extremely low strikeout rate, posting at least a .349 OBP in each of his three seasons in the Majors. He’d be a great table setter for the Cubs in front of the multitude of power bats. Also, while Aoki’s rather… interesting… fly ball routes have become the stuff of legend, he’s a decent outfielder, and should be helped by moving from right field to left, which he would with the Cubs.  Personally, this is a situation where I’d prefer the former Brewer to the former Cardinal.

Jonny Gomes (LF): Gomes has long been said to be a guy the Cubs want to bring in to be a part of a left field platoon with Chris Coghlan if the Cubs don’t add a regular there. I don’t really get it, largely because I don’t see how he’s any better of a hitter than Justin Ruggiano and Ruggiano is a far superior fielder. I understand that Gomes is supposed to be an awesome clubhouse presence, but that should only be a consideration if the players are otherwise pretty equivalent, or one of the players is an outright clubhouse cancer. I just don’t think Gomes is Ruggiano’s equal at this point. And if I don’t think you’re Ruggiano’s equal, it means I don’t think you’re a very good baseball player.

Justin Upton (LF): The Braves already traded Jason Heyward to the National League’s version of the evil empire this offseason, and are rumored to be shopping Justin Upton, who is in the last year of his contract, as well. I know what you’re thinking: it’s going to cost way too much to get a guy we’d only have for one season! My retort: look at what the Cardinals gave up for Heyward: a starter who lacks the secondary pitches to be a top of the rotation piece and a prospect who most think is more likely to be a reliever. Plus, the Braves didn’t get that for just Heyward. They got it for Heyward and Jordan Walden, a quality relief pitcher in his own right.

If the Cubs are going to trade Luis Valbuena for a current MLB player, they should at least reach out to the Braves to see if they could exchange him for Justin Upton. Valbuena provides the Braves with a significant and cost effective solution at third base for two years, which should appeal to them. Upton would provide the Cubs with a veteran middle of the order bat who could take some pressure of some of the prospects next season. The real question is if the Cubs should be trying to trade Valbuena for a current player, or use him to continue to keep the farm system stocked.

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Why Have No Significant Pitching Free Agents Signed Yet?

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014

Once the Toronto Blue Jays outspent the Cubs on top free agent catcher Russell Martin by guaranteeing a fifth year, the free agent focus on the North Side turned to the strong starting pitching market. With two aces in Max Scherzer and Jon Lester, a guy one step behind in James Shields, and a host of second and third tier starting pitching options headlined by Brandon McCarthy and Francisco Liriano, this is the best group of free agent pitchers to hit the market in several seasons. It also happens to match a big need for the Cubs, who have holes at the top of the rotation aside from Jake Arrieta, and have publicly stated that they intend to: (a) add a couple of starting pitchers this off season; and (b) address the top of the rotation for at least the medium term through the free agent or trade markets between now and the start of the 2016 season.

So here’s the news on all of those starting pitchers. First, several teams are in on Jon Lester. Lester has met with the Cubs, Red Sox, Braves, and Giants. The Red Sox have reportedly made an offer for between $110 million and $120 million over 6 years, and yesterday’s rumors indicated that they are willing to go up to $130 million to get the guy who headlined their rotation for most of the past seven years back. The Cubs reportedly offered Lester 6 years/$138 million. The Giants are expected to make a significant offer, but no numbers have come out yet. Lester would have to take a huge pay cut to go to the Braves. Most expect Lester to either go to the Cubs or the Red Sox, but I think that’s a bit of a premature guess before we see what the Giants offer.

Second, A.J. Burnett took a $4 million pay cut to leave the terrible Phillies so he could return to the much better Pittsburgh Pirates.

That’s it. Literally, there are no meaningful rumors on Scherzer, or Shields, or McCarthy, or Liriano, or even on Aaron freaking Haarang.

Nor will you hear anything on these pitchers, at least for the next several days. That’s because every single one of these pitchers and their agents are waiting for Jon Lester. Jon Lester is going to set the market here, and he’s going to have to be the first domino to fall. Once Lester is signed, Scherzer is going to use Lester’s deal as baseline for his demands. As in the “you better offer me more if you want me to take your offer seriously” type of baseline. Once Scherzer signs, the teams looking for someone who can at least fake being a number one in a rotation will turn to Shields. The teams who aren’t comfortable giving Shields the sort of money he’s looking for will call McCarthy’s and Liriano’s agents. Or Jason Hammel’s. Or Brett Anderson’s, if they’re looking for a reclamation project.

So, until Lester signs, my suggestion is to just relax and save your energy. Odds are that free agency is going to become a much wilder ride once he does, especially with the winter meetings happening next week.

As to the question of where Lester is going to sign? My bet is that he’ll sign where he gets offered the most money. Right now, reports are that the Cubs are offering the most, but the Giants could change that, and the Red Sox could always decide they can in fact go up to $150 million for Lester. He might offer the Red Sox a chance to match the highest offer from other teams, but if Lester was so dead set on pitching in Boston, I have a feeling a deal would have been done already. I’ll give the Cubs slightly better odds than the Red Sox and Giants, although there’s always the mystery team to be concerned about as well. If the mystery team is the Cardinals, however, we may need to cancel Christmas.

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Can the Cubs Compete in 2015 if Starlin Castro Is Traded?

Tuesday, November 4th, 2014

Since the end of the regular season, the Cubs front office has made it clear that they intend to compete in 2015. Signing Joe Maddon to one of the richest managerial contracts in baseball only confirmed that. It’s fairly clear what the Cubs actually need to do to compete next season in addition to Anthony Rizzo and Jake Arrieta proving their 2014s were not flukes. (1) The prospects (Baez, Soler, and Alcantara should be up on Opening Day, Kris Bryant will be up a couple of weeks later at most, and Addison Russell could be ready mid-season) need to contribute. This doesn’t mean that they all need to be stars, or even that none of them can be busts. As an overall group, however, they need to succeed. (2) The Cubs need to add top to middle of the rotation starting pitching. (3) The Cubs need a much better overall performance from their outfield.

In regards to number 2, most believe that the Cubs are going to sign two free agent pitchers this season, one from the top tier (Lester and Scherzer, with Shields as the fall back) and one from the middle tier (too many  to list, but includes Brendan McCarthy, Ervin Santana, and Jason Hammel). A minority, however, believe the Cubs will sign one big name pitcher and trade for another pitcher. TheCubs would have two options for what to give up in such a trade: (1) a prospect like Javier Baez or Addison Russell; or (2) Starlin Castro.

This piece is not to debate the merits of specific Starlin Castro trades, although I could see some potential matches depending on what the front office is looking to do. The Cubs could try do something like trade Castro to the Mets for a package headlined by someone like Noah Syndergaard, taking the potential risk and reward of using their 3 time All Star shortstop to obtain a near MLB ready prospect with ace potential. Or the Cubs could try to match up with the Nationals for Jordan Zimmerman if the Cubs were able to come to an extension with the Nationals’ right hander, which would also solve a short term (2B is their weakness if Rendon plays 3B) and long term (Desmond is likely gone after 2015, so they’ll need a shortstop) problem for Washington.

The question I’m examining, however, is if the Cubs could actually claim to be “competing” in 2015 if Castro isn’t slotted in as the opening day shortstop. Castro was worth 2.9 fWAR last season. For the sake of argument, let’s say that Castro would have stayed on that pace had he stayed healthy and been worth 3.5 wins above replacement while taking something around 99% of the plate appearances at shortstop. If the Cubs trade Castro, they need to replace those 3.5 wins.

On top of that, the Cubs were poor last season at second base, so the Cubs need to find a way to improve that middle infield position. I’d argue the Cubs should be looking for about 2.5 WAR from second base next season, which is pretty much exactly league average performance. This is in part to set reasonable expectations for Javier Baez, to be a league average player this coming season, not a superstar. If these numbers panned out, that provides a total of 6 wins above replacement from the middle infield.

If Castro is in the fold, the answer to “where do those wins come from?” is pretty simple. You count on Castro for the 3 to 3.5 WAR he’s been good for in 3 of the last 4 seasons, hope Baez becomes a league average, and have Valbuena as an early season fallback option if Baez continues to struggle so greatly making contact. But what if Castro was gone?

Second base actually wouldn’t be that great a concern. A Luis Valbuena led platoon should put up 2.5 to 3 WAR (Valbuena alone was worth 2.7 fWAR last season and 2.1 fWAR in 2013). The problem would be that you’d have no real backup option to Baez at shortstop until Addison Russell is ready, which could be in June, September, or in 2016. Baez definitely has the talent to become a great player as early as next season, but can the Cubs really bet on a player who struck out 41.5% of the time in his first short MLB stint to be anything more than league average in his age 22 season?

Not if they truly intend on competing in 2015. If the Cubs want to fight with the Cardinals and Pirates for playoff spots, Starlin Castro should be a Cub in 2015. Despite the prospect talent the Cubs have at the position and their need for high end pitching, now is not the time for the Cubs to trade their All Star shortstop. If Baez makes the necessary adjustments next season and Russell looks like the real deal, the Cubs can examine moving Castro a year from now with no diminution in value because of the long term team friendly nature of his contract.

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I Really Want Joe Maddon as the Cubs’ Next Manager

Tuesday, October 28th, 2014

Before I delve into the topic of this post, I wanted to touch briefly on the tragic death of St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Oscar Taveras. There are times when we are reminded of the unimportance of the actual results of baseball games, even World Series games, and Sunday night was one of those times. My thoughts and heartfelt condolences are with the families and friends of Oscar Taveras and Edilia Arvelo.

About a week ago, the big non-World Series news was that longtime Tampa Bay Rays Manager Joe Maddon made use of a clause in his contract that allowed him to opt out after Andrew Friedman left the Rays to become the Dodgers’ President of Baseball Operations. Maddon has long been viewed as one of the best managers in baseball, particularly for his willingness to use modern analytics, which many managers appear to avoid using. This, and his likely desire to be among the top paid managers in baseball, makes him a good fit for the Cubs. In fact, he’s such a good fit for the Cubs that many think the Rays may ask Major League Baseball to conduct an investigation to determine if any collusion occurred if Maddon and the Cubs consummate the deal. Personally, I hope that deal gets consummated. I really, really want Maddon as the Cubs’ next new manager.

Now, let’s start by being honest about what managers do not do. Managers do not turn bad teams into good teams. But they can improve teams by a game or two through setting the lineup in an optimal manner and using the bullpen well. Or they can lose their teams a game or two by failing in those areas. While I’ve never heard any complaints about Maddon’s usage of his bullpen, he especially is the current king of setting the best lineups possible.

My favorite feature of Maddon’s managerial style is his understanding of reverse splits. Too many managers load up a batting order with opposite handed hitters against any starter. But Maddon has understood longer than any other current manager that not all pitchers are more effective against same handed hitters. Indeed, pitchers who primarily feature a fastball/change up repertoire often feature reverse platoon splits; they are more effective against opposite handed hitters than same handed hitters. Maddon will load up lineups with same handed hitters against these starters because he really delves into the numbers.

Now, this also means that Maddon changes his lineups, at least slightly, on a near nightly basis. This doesn’t mean that you’ll see Anthony Rizzo batting 2nd one night, 6th the next, then 4th, etc. You’ll likely see Rizzo batting somewhere between second and fourth every night even if Maddon is the manager (another strong argument for Maddon is that he might be able to convince Rizzo to embrace batting second) If you’re an old school type who believes that a manager should set a line up and stick with it unless someone gets injured, Maddon will drive you batty. However, if you believe that the manager should set the best possible lineup each given night, you’ll love him.

This is not a dig at Rick Renteria, who I think did quite good work this season and improved as the season went along. I’d feel quite badly for him that just this level of timing did not work out. But Maddon’s too good to pass up on. And, if the Cubs do make the playoffs in 2015 or 2016, I know I’ll be a lot more comfortable with Joe Maddon calling the shots than any manager making their first run at the postseason.

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