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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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Could the Cubs Be Chicago’s Premier Sports Team?

Tuesday, October 21st, 2014

Everyone knows that, deep down, Chicago is a Bears town. Sure, north and south siders go at each others’ proverbial throats all spring and summer, but once fall hits we’re all friends again. Well, maybe only on Sundays until the baseball season is over, but the point remains. The NFL started with the Chicago Bears. Aside from Michael Jordan, the most sacrosanct figures in Chicago sports are Bears: Payton, Butkus, Ditka, Halas.

But go back to 1994 with me. A 13 year old kid really wants a Starter jacket because, for some insane reason, every teenager wanted a Starter jacket in 1994. Preferably a Chicago Bulls jacket. He’s at the store to pick up some winter clothes with his mom, and there are Bulls jackets and Bears jackets. The Bulls jackets are full priced, which is a vast overspend for a mediocre piece of outerwear. The Bears jackets are available on a big discount. The mom makes it clear that the full priced Bulls jackets are not an option. The boy settles for a Bears jacket. When the boy first starts wearing him to school, he isn’t teased per se, but he’s asked why the heck he’s wearing a Bears’ jacket. There are Bulls jackets all around him. He’s the only one in a Bears’ jacket.

In case you didn’t realize it, the boy was me. And no, I do not feel traumatized by not getting a Bulls starter jacket. However, a mere 20 years ago, the Bears were not Chicago’s first sports priority. The Bears were midway through a horrendously mediocre 1990s, while the Bulls were one of the best teams in basketball even during Michael Jordan’s first retirement, which would end about six months after the Bears jacket purchase. Chicago was a Bulls town. The Bears played second fiddle, at the least.

Again, it appears that the Bears are mired in a run of mediocrity. Having tied their next few years to Jay Cutler, a quarterback unlikely to ever win a meaningful game, Chicago is ripe for a new team to get behind. Sure, the Blackhawks have been and should continue to be awesome, but hockey is something of a niche sport throughout the US, even in Chicago. The Bulls are a good team, but will they ever get past Lebron? Even if they do, does Derrick Rose have it in him to be the media presence that Jordan was? Does he even want that?

Could the door be open for the Cubs to become Chicago’s number one sports team? The Cubs appear to be on the verge of their longest run of competitiveness… well… ever. When the Cubs win a World Series, whether it be this decade or some other, it will be the single biggest sports story of that decade in North America. Wrigley Field is being renovated. The Cubs have the best set of prospects either side of the city has seen in a long time. Some of them, along with Anthony Rizzo and Jake Arrieta, have star potential. All reports I’ve seen indicate that Kris Bryant has the type of personality that, along with his prodigious power, could make him the biggest star in the game. And, quite frankly, I don’t believe that many young White Sox fans are so invested in their team that they wouldn’t flip to the Cubs if the Cubs are a consistent winner and the White Sox aren’t.

Sure, some things work against the Cubs reaching that level of prestige now that weren’t working against the 1990s Bulls. Fantasy football was a game for only the most intense of football fans and sports gamblers then. Now it is played by a huge proportion of sports fans, while fantasy baseball remains a game played by a small number of die hard baseball fans. The NFL and their partners have been more and more successful turning every NFL Sunday into a full day event.

But cities that are baseball towns first, football towns second, do exist, with Boston and St. Louis being the foremost among those. Could Chicago join them? For the first time in a long time, the answer to that question could be yes.

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Revisiting My Terrible 2014 Cubs’ “Award” Winner Predictions

Tuesday, September 30th, 2014

My apologies for being gone from posting for about a month. Unfortunately, my oldest son was dealing with a set of not very serious but very annoying and time consuming (from the parental perspective) maladies that resulted in my writing time evaporating. With that taken care of, though, we now return to your regularly scheduled analytics-based programming.

Early in the season, I made a host of predictions regarding which Cubs would win a host of awards. Well, a host of fictional awards. And man, were my predictions terrible. Of my 7 predictions, I was right on only one: Least Valuable Cub. On the “good fictional awards” front, here’s the short version: Anthony Rizzo and Jake Arrieta were really, really good in 2014.

Most Valuable Player
Opening Day Guess: Starlin Castro (SS)
End of Season Winner
: Anthony Rizzo (1B)

This actually wasn’t a horrible guess, as Castro was the Cubs’ second most valuable every day player according to both fWAR and rWAR despite missing the last month of the season due to an ankle injury. And my reasoning was solid. If Castro rebounded following his poor 2013 campaign, Rizzo needed to become an elite hitter to be more valuable than Castro. Of course, Rizzo went ahead and became an elite hitter, posting a 5.3 fWAR, tied with Miguel Cabrera and Jose Abreu for the best in baseball among first basemen.

Cy Young
Opening Day Guess: Jeff Samardzija (SP)
End of Season Winner: Jake Arrieta (SP)

I guessed that Samardzija would not be traded this season, and was clearly wrong on that front, as Samardzija was no longer a Cub by the time Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum got finished with those aliens. Yes, that was a terrible Independence Day joke. Also, like everyone in baseball not affiliated with the Cubs’ organization, I did not see Jake Arrieta’s emergence. On a start for start basis, Arrieta was as good as any pitcher in the National League not named Clayton Kershaw, and was the Cubs’ best pitcher by a country mile. Arrieta very likely would have been the winner here even if Samardzija was not traded.

Rookie of the Year
Opening Day Guess: Mike Olt (3B)
End of Season Winner: Tie between Neil Ramirez (RP) and Kyle Hendricks
(SP)

Olt was awful at the MLB level, striking out in nearly 39% of his plate appearances and batting just .160. At age 26, the odds of him having a meaningful MLB career are slim to none at this point. Ramirez came up and put up a phenomenal year out of the pen, showing both the ability to tally strikeouts and limit walks. Hendricks exceeded expectations after coming up, pitching to a 2.46 ERA over 13 starts and undoubtedly earning a spot on the 2015 Opening Day starting rotation. Jorge Soler earns an honorable mention for his solid debut in right field, but was only up for a month.

First Player Traded
Opening Day Guess: Nate Schierholtz (RF)
Actual: Samardzija and Jason Hammel (SP)

Schierholtz was terrible this season, and the Cubs eventually designated him for assignment and released him. The Cubs’ first trade of the season ended up being their biggest: Starting pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the Oakland A’s for their top two prospects, Addison Russell (who is a Top 10 prospect in all of baseball) and Billy McKinney, as well as starting pitcher Dan Straily.

Least Valuable Player
Opening Day Guess: Junior Lake (OF)
End of Season “Winner”: Lake

Hey, one I was right on! FanGraphs had three players as equally terrible for the Cubs at -0.9 fWAR (Ryan Kalish, Schierholtz and John Baker), but Baseball-Reference breaks the tie by having Lake at -1.4 rWAR, besting (or is worsting the right word?) the other Cubs by -0.3 WAR. Lake remains an interesting physical talent with terrible baseball skills. I’d still like to see the Cubs try to convert his cannon of an arm to the mound, where he could be a late innings reliever fairly quickly with any semblance of control.

Player Who Will Look Most Improved Despite Changing Nothing
Opening Day Guess: Edwin Jackson (SP)
End of Season Winner: Luis Valbuena (3B)

Jackson would have been the worst starting pitcher in baseball by ERA had he thrown enough innings to be eligible for the ERA title, but he just missed that one. While I stand by my argument that in 2013 Jackson’s issues were bad luck as much as anything else, in 2014 he was just terrible with his walk rate climbing and his ground ball rate tanking. Valbuena did most of the same things at the plate this season that he did in 2013: walked, hit for a modest amount of pop, struck out around a league average or slightly better amount. Yet his OPS climbed 68 points this season. What was the difference? In 2013, Valbuena’s BABIP was .233; this season, it was .294.

Most Actually Improved Player
Opening Day Guess: Welington Castillo (C)
End of Season Winners: Rizzo and Arrieta

Looking back on this, Castillo may have been my worst prediction at the start of the season. His solid offensive batting average and on base percentage in 2013 were propped up by a .347 BABIP (of all people, I should be looking for a BABIP regression), and the hope that Castillo would improve his pitch framing abilities was solely that, a hope. Reports are that Castillo’s pitch framing remains below average, and his BABIP dropping to .288 was the primary cause of a 60 point drop in his OPS from 2013 to 2014. As discussed above, Rizzo emerged as one of the best hitters in the National League and Arrieta emerged as one of baseball’s best starting pitchers, clearly being the most improved players on the team. According to fWAR, Rizzo was worth 3.6 more wins in 2014 than he was in 2013, and Arrieta was worth 4.8 more wins. In other words, Rizzo and Arrieta were the reason the Cubs won 7 more games this season than they did last season. If you throw Castro in that mix, you could argue that those three players are the reason the Cubs didn’t lose 100 games again.

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