Author Archive

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.

Like what you see here? Never miss new content. Follow Us:

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.

Like what you see here? Never miss new content. Follow Us:

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.

Like what you see here? Never miss new content. Follow Us:

It’s Time to Stop Comparing Javier Baez to Gary Sheffield

Tuesday, August 19th, 2014

Javier Baez has truly amazing, turn the wind around with the power of his wrists, bat speed. I saw him live for the first time last Wednesday, when he sent a screaming line drive on to Waveland for his first Wrigley Field home run. His bat speed led to comparisons with the king of elite bat speed from the prior generation of players: Gary Sheffield. You heard the comparisons when Baez was drafted. You heard them as he sped through the minors. You heard them when he was promoted to the Majors, and over the past two weeks numerous outlets have shown side by side swings of Baez and Sheffield.

But is Sheffield actually a good comparison Baez?

In short, no, he is not. Sheffield had elite bat speed that went along with an advanced approach at the plate not only from the day he hit the Majors Leagues that led to him walking more than he struck out over his career (13% walk rate, 11% strikeout rate), but also in his short time as a prospect in the Minor Leagues, where Sheffield struck out in just 8.5 % of his plate appearances and walked more than he struck out. On the other hand, Sheffield was a very poor defender both as a shortstop very early in his career, and as an outfielder after that. Despite his defensive issues, the primary reason Sheffield is a fringe Hall of Famer as opposed to a sure fire one is time missed due to injuries, particularly in his prime.

Aside from the bat speed, Baez has nothing in common with Sheffield aside from being drafted and moving through the Minors as a shortstop. Baez has an approach at the plate that needs a lot of work, with a 38.7% strikeout rate and a 3.1% walk rate in his brief Major League career. His similar issues in his minor league career, particularly a high strikeout rate (26% for his minor league career), were also widely reported. On the plus side, Baez should be at least an average defensive second baseman, with good odds of ending up as above average to plus at the position.

In other words, aside from the bat speed and some bat waggle, Baez and Sheffield have nothing in common as Major League baseball players. If you want a better comparison for Baez, look to recent Cub Alfonso Soriano, who had elite power but also tallied a lot of strikeouts. Baez won’t steal nearly as many bases as Soriano did through his prime (Soriano stole at least 30 bases in 4 of 5 seasons before joining the Cubs), but should play far superior defense to Soriano at second base, where Soriano was terrible. And if Javier Baez ends up being Alfonso Soriano with better defense, that would be a great result for the Cubs. Well, as long as they don’t decide to lock him up to an 8 year, $138 million contract starting his age 31 season.

Like what you see here? Never miss new content. Follow Us:

What to Expect from Javier Baez

Tuesday, August 5th, 2014

Nearly a month ago, the first fruits of the Cubs’ elite farm system reached Wrigley Field when the team recalled Arismendy Alcantara. Tonight, Javier Baez, one of the Cubs’ top three prospects and one of the top ten prospects in baseball, makes his Chicago Cubs debut at second base against the Rockies at Coors Field.

Whereas most Cub fans felt that Alcantara was ready for the call up, Baez is a bit more controversial due to an extremely slow start in Iowa and season numbers (.260/.323/.510, 23 HRs, 8% walk rate, 30% strikeout rate) that are good, but not indicative of destroying the PCL. In particular, the high strikeout rate concerns many Cub fans and prospect analysts.

However, Baez’s season is probably best described in three separate portions. The first is from Opening Day to May 16, when he was terrible. The second is from May 17 to June 30, when he was much better. The third is from July 1 to August 3, when he was flat out awesome.

Opening Day to May 16: 122 PAs, .145/.230/.255, 36.9 K%, 8.2 BB%, 3 HRs

May 17 to June 30: 176 PAs, .310/.358/.563, 29.5 K%, 7.4 BB%, 8 HRs

July 1 to August 3: 136 PAs, .300/.360/.675, 24.3 K%, 8.1 BB%, 12 HRs

This type of progression is not out of the ordinary for Baez. Since moving up from the Low A Peoria Chiefs to the High A Daytona Cubs in 2012, Baez has struggled upon reaching each new level before, eventually, dominating enough that he spent no more than four months at any level of the minors.

The Cubs have been fairly aggressive in promoting Baez, moving him up a level once he showed a month or so of consistent performance demonstrating improvement on his problems upon each promotion, typically dealing with his overaggressive approach leading to struggles with improved breaking pitches he saw as he moved up. This call up is right in line with that approach.

But what should we expect from Baez in his first stint in the Majors?

I’d caution not to set expectations too high. As I stated above, Baez struggled at each of the three highest levels of the Minor Leagues before adjusting, and he will consistently face pitchers with better stuff and control than at any prior point in his career. Nor would Baez be the first elite prospect to struggle in his first stint in the Majors and have a bright career soon thereafter. Antony Rizzo’s struggles in his first call up to San Diego in 2011 were widely reported, hitting just .141/.281/.242 in 153 plate appearances. Rizzo has emerged as one of the best hitters in baseball this season. Mike Trout, who has a meaningful chance of being the best baseball player many of us have ever seen when his career is finished, hit just .220/.281/.390 in his first 135 plate appearances in the Show.

If Baez hits .250/.300/.400 and keeps his strikeout rate below 30%, I’ll be fairly pleased. If the slugging percentage is .450, meaning he’s making solid enough contact to get to his power, I’ll be quite happy. Anything beyond that from a 21 year old middle infielder with historical troubles upon moving up to a new level making him MLB debut? Well, my wife may need to tell me stop doing my ridiculous happy dance a few times over the rest of the season.

But if Baez does struggle, people should hold off on the Felix Pie/Gary Scott/etc. comparisons. When your worst case scenario is sending a 22 year old player back to Triple A for a half season to work on a pitch recognition and plate approach refinement, you’re in pretty good shape.

Like what you see here? Never miss new content. Follow Us:

Who Is the Real Travis Wood?

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

Travis Wood was one of the few bright spots for the 2013 Chicago Cubs. Wood was the Cubs’ lone All Star in 2013, when he posted a 3.11 ERA in 200 innings over 32 starts, good for 4.4 rWAR, Baseball-Reference’s WAR calculation. Wood was also the Cubs’ most consistently good pitcher by a significant margin, particularly after the trades of Scot Feldman and Matt Garza. This led to some talking about Wood as a potential rotation cornerstone, maybe a solid 2 behind whomever the Cubs find to be their ace in 2015 or 2016. It was hard to find a Cubs fan who didn’t think Wood was at least a very good 3 in most rotations.

Unfortunately, 2014 has not been as kind to Wood. In 116 innings over 20 starts he pitched to a 5.12 ERA, a below replacement level performance (-0.4 rWAR on the mound). So which is the real Travis Wood? The one who looked like a potential near piece to build a rotation around in 2013, or the one who has provided more value in the batter’s box than on the mound and looks like he perhaps should face competition heading into 2015 to earn a spot in the starting rotation?

The answer is neither. A pitcher’s ERA correlates highly with 6 peripheral statistics: strikeout rate, walk rate, ground ball rate, home runs per fly ball, bating average on balls in play (BABIP), and left on base rate (LOB%). A pitcher with high strikeout, ground ball and left on base rates, along with low walk and HR/FB rates and a low BABIP will have a very, very good ERA. But the ability of these statistics to provide information regarding what to expect from a pitcher going forward varies greatly.

Strikeout. walk, and ground ball rates are the most predictive of these peripherals. Unless a pitcher’s stuff improves or declines, or if a pitcher meaningfully changes the way he pitches (which few do successfully), the variation in these peripherals tends to stay fairly small on a season to season basis. The predictability of HR/FB seems to depend on the pitcher. Some pitchers have an ability to control whether their fly balls leave the park, although a majority do not. BABIP and LOB% tend to not be predictive season to season, although some pitchers do have lower natural BABIPs than others.

The sabermetrics community developed two statistics to use the more predictable peripherals to determine, given an average BABIP and left on base rate and a neural ballpark environment and defense, what a pitcher’s expected ERA is. The first, FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) looks at K/9, BB/9, and HR/FB. FanGraphs later developed xFIP, on the basis that most pitchers exert greater control on whether ball are hit on the ground or in the air than they do on whether the balls that are hit in the air clear the outfield fence or not. The question of whether FIP or xFIP is more predictive for any particular pitcher rests on the question of if the pitcher has that ability to induce fly balls that do not become home runs at a reduced rate, or if he is allows balls to fly out of the ballpark with abandon.

In 2013, Wood’s FIP was 3.89, and his xFIP was 4.50. So Wood outperformed his FIP by more than 3/4 of a run, and outperformed his xFIP by over 1.25 runs. As Wood’s BB/9 is a a full walk higher in 2014 than it was in 2013, those numbers have gone up in 2014, but not drastically so: his FIP is 4.29 and his xFIP is 4.69.

So what’s causing the 2 run difference between Wood’s 2013 ERA and his 2014 ERA? BABIP and LOB%. In 2013, Wood posted well batter than average in both of those peripheral statistics, putting up a .248 BABIP (league average hovers around .300) and stranding 77.4% of base runners (league average hovers around 70%, with a few percentage points making a big difference in ERA).

To this point in 2014 Wood has a .315 BABIP and stranded just 66.2% of men who get on base. With 7% more of the runners he faces getting on base, and 11% more of the runners who get on base reaching home plate, Wood’s ERA has ballooned.

It’s not all bad news, though. Wood continues to show an ability, like many left handed pitchers who induce more fly balls than average, to limit the number of home runs he gives up on fly balls, consistently keeping that number between 6.3% and 7.4% (league average is around 10%, with, again, small changes resulting in big ERA differences). This means that Wood’s FIP, which for his career is about 1/3 of a run lower than his xFIP, is a better indication Wood’s true talent.

In other words, Wood’s expected ERA is between the high 3s and low 4s, not the low 3s  ERA he posted in 2013 or the low 5s ERA he currently has.. That turns Wood into a solid, innings eating, 3/4 type in a starting rotation… just like the Cubs thought they were getting when they signed Edwin Jackson prior to 2013. But he’s not a 2, and no one should expect him to be.

So what does this mean for the long term with Wood? Well, if he is willing to sign a long term extension well below market value for a pitcher like him (say $10 million per year in the free agent seasons he would give up), it would like still be worth it for the Cubs to do so. But if he’s looking for a big payday, the Cubs should go year to year with him through arbitration and let him leave via free agency or trade him if they have better options.

Like what you see here? Never miss new content. Follow Us:

What to do with Edwin Jackson?

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014

Heading into the winter of 2012, the Cubs’ biggest free agency target was right handed starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez, offering him a 5 year, $75 million deal. Unfortunately for the Cubs and their fans, Sanchez made it clear that he wanted to stay with the Detroit Tigers, the team he was traded to the previous summer, and gave the Tigers the opportunity to match or beat any offer he received from other teams. When the Tigers offered Sanchez a 5 year, $80 million deal, the Cubs moved on to plan B: Edwin Jackson, on a 4 year, $52 million contract.

While no one ever thought Jackson was as good as Sanchez, evidenced by the nearly $30 million difference between their contracts, Jackson had been a solid mid-rotation starter who could eat innings from 2009 to 2012. Yet while Sanchez found the next gear in his career since the start of the 2013 season,  progressing from a solid 2/3 to an ace caliber pitcher in 2013, Jackson took several steps back. While he’s eaten up innings, he’s done it at well below replacement value according the Baseball-Reference’s WAR.

There was an argument last season that it was just bad luck or random variation. His FIP and xFIP have been better than his ERA as a Cub (4.98 ERA, 3.79 FIP, 3.86 xFIP in 2013; 5.64 ERA, 4.26 FIP, 4.04 xFIP in 2014) and his strikeout and walk rates were close to his more successful stretch from 2009-2012, particularly last season. But we’re nearly 300 innings in, he has not been able to get consistent results (except when they’re consistently bad), and nearly 27% of batted balls against him in 2014 have been line drives (league average is 20%), leading credence to the argument that he’s being squared up by opposing hitters this season.

The real question, with nearly two and a half years and approximately $27 million left on Jackson’s deal and the Cubs likely looking to be more competitive next season, what can the Cubs do with Jackson?

The all the stars aligning answer is some fringe contender thinking they can fix what ails Jackson and offering to take a fair amount of the money off the Cubs hands for some lottery ticket prospect.  But is there a team that desperate, or a general manager that dumb with the Phillies being terrible? Probably not. The best target may actually be the Yankees, who just need arms to throw innings with all the injuries they’ve dealt with, and are always capable of adding payroll, but I’d be surprised if Cashman would take on a struggling 30 year old starter with a contract that long this month.

Should Jackson not be tradeable, as presumed, the Cubs really have no choice but to keep pitching Edwin Jackson for the remainder of 2014 to see if Jackson can turn it around. If he can’t? Can the Cubs really go into 2015 planning on Edwin Jackson throwing 180 innings or more? I don’t think so. It would mean admitting an expensive mistake, but not as expensive as continuing to throw Jackson as is out there every fifth game, particularly considering the Cubs’ ability to find solid mid-rotation arms on short term deals. The next two and a half months, though, are going to be very important for the future of Edwin Jackson’s career, and the construction of the 2015 starting rotation.

Like what you see here? Never miss new content. Follow Us:

What the Samardzija and Hammel Trade Means for the Rebuild

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

Following the Cubs’ sweep of the Red Sox last week, I planned on writing about how the Cubs could be legitimate competitors in 2015 without blowing up the farm system or spending insane amounts of money. So late on the Fourth of July, I hopped on MLB Trade Rumors on my phone, intending to check which catchers are scheduled to hit free agency after this season. There, right on the top of screen, I saw that the Cubs traded Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the Oakland A’s for a package headlined by shortstop and top ten prospect in baseball Addison Russell. The Cubs also received the A’s second best prospect, outfielder Billy McKinney, and Dan Straily, a fairly successful starting pitcher with the A’s last season before struggling this year. The big prize, however, was undoubtedly Russell. Suddenly, I knew the post on the Cubs competing in 2015 would be delayed.

I know a fair number of Cubs’ fans were hoping, expecting, whatever verb is appropriate, to get high ceiling, near MLB ready pitching for Samardzija at the least. The rub, however, is that teams generally don’t trade high ceiling, close to the Majors pitching prospects mid-season for established MLB pitchers, even for very good pitchers like Samardzija. Instead, they promote those prospects to the Majors mid-season, if they’re contending.

Beyond that, even if they Cubs had been able to pick up two Aaraon Sanchez types (top 30 prospects in baseball), that’s not as good of a return as one top ten prospect like Addison Russell. Also, the abundance of fantastic Cubs’ hitting prospects, which includes three top ten prospects (Russell, Javier Baez and Kris Bryant), along with four other position player prospects who would fall into many top fifty lists (Arismendy Alcantara, Albert Almora, Kyle Schwarber, and Jorge Soler), gives the Cubs a host of options to complete the rebuild, and in relatively short order.

Trade Prospects for Elite Starting Pitching

Joe hit on this one in his write up of the trade on July 5. The Cubs could put a package of position player prospects together better than what any other team could offer on any starting pitcher who might become available via trade, including David Price.

Yet I don’t think the Cubs are going this route. There are too many pitchers like Price, top of the rotation arms right around age 30, hitting free agency for the Cubs to send a load of prospects for one of them. If someone like Chris Sale, who is signed long term to a fairly team friendly deal, became available, that would change my opinion. However, the odds of someone like Sale becoming available anytime soon are somewhere between the odds of me winning the lottery and my son becoming the King of England.

Keeping All The Prospects

Yes, this is a legitimate possibility, particularly if the Cubs think Kris Bryant is a better long term fit in an outfield corner than the hot corner. If this route was taken, there’s a high likelihood that the line up in mid-2015, and by early 2016 at the latest, would include some combination of Starlin Castro, Russell, and Baez at shortstop, second base, and third base, Anthony Rizzo at first base, Arismendy Alcantara in center field, and Jorge Soler and Kris Bryant in the outfield corners. That is a lineup with a ton of potential that would cost a grand total of approximately $17 million for seven starting position players, and allows Albert Almora and Kyle Schwarber to continue progressing in the minors.

With that much cost savings on position players, including top prospect insurance in the minor leagues, the Cubs could open the flood gates on pitching spending without mortgaging their ability to compete. They could easily sign a Max Scherzer or Jon Lester while having plenty of money available to pick up a second tier starter like Justin Masterson or Ervin Santana.

Trading for Giancarlo Stanton 

The Cubs have been very clear about the type of veterans they will target as they become competitive: in prime (e.g., still in their 20s, preferably as far away from 30 as possible) star caliber players. Unfortunately, these types of players rarely make it to free agency, and get $200 million-plus contracts when they do. This off season, though, the Miami Marlins are fairly likely to shop Giancarlo Stanton, one of the best hitters, and arguably the best pure power hitter, in baseball. Stanton does not turn 25 until November.

If the Marlins shop Stanton, the Cubs would be in a great position to make a deal for the power hitting outfielder. While the Marlins have a lot of young, elite pitching talent in their system, much of which is already in the Majors, their offensive prospects are more solid starter types or role players than potential stars. The Cubs could offer Javier Baez, who has a big boom or bust potential, Albert Almora, a Christian Villanueva or Dan Vogelbach type, and a Pierce Johnson type of pitching prospect while still maintaining a very solid farm system.

This move makes sense for the Cubs if they think that Bryant can handle third base long term. Looking at the same late 2015/early 2016 lineup time frame, the Cubs would have Rizzo at first base, Russell and Castro in the middle infield, Bryant at 3B, Stanton and Soler in the outfield corners, and Alcantara in center field. 

Stanton could particularly appeal to the Cubs because his offensive performance is already the best case scenario for any of the Cubs’ top prospects. Stanton is hitting .308/.406/.566 with 21 home runs through Sunday, July , which are MVP contender numbers. 

A couple of concerns would accompany any deal for Stanton. Stanton has dealt with knee issues in the past, but they’ve been more of the nagging variety than skill eroding injuries. An injury history like Stanton’s is a risk a team just has to take to sometimes to obtain a player like Stanton, and a discount shouldn’t be expected because of it if he remains healthy through the last half of 2014. The Cubs could also shift Stanton to left field, which is a bit less demanding than right field. 

Also, Stanton will enter his second of three years of arbitration in 2015. The Cubs would likely require an agreement on an extension with Stanton prior to any trade becoming official, and even with a pre-free agency extension discount any free agent eligible years covered by the extension would likely, and should, cost the Cubs at least $20 million per season, and probably $25 million or above. Would that be worth it for a middle of the order containing Stanton, Anthony Rizzo, and Kris Bryant? Only time would tell, but I think that would be one fun middle of the order to watch.

Odds are we won’t know what the Cubs plan to do with their brigade of position player prospects until the offseason. Whichever route the Cubs take, though, the Cubs are on the cusp of building what very well could be the best Cubs offense of my nearly 33 year lifetime without signing a single free agent starting position player.

Like what you see here? Never miss new content. Follow Us:

The Best Option for Cubs Ace of the Future May Not Be Who You Think

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

Off the top of your head, name the Cubs’ starter with the most strikeouts per nine innings and best ERA? No, it’s not Jeff Samardzija. He also has the best ground ball rate among Cubs’ starters, and the second lowest walks per nine innings? Not Jason Hammel either. He has the lowest FIP and xFIP of any Cubs’ starter by more than half a run too. Travis Wood? Nope.

It’s Jake Arrieta, the pitcher who many groaned to see be the biggest piece the Cubs received in return for Scott Feldman early last July. Sure, Arrieta was a highly regarded prospect in the Orioles organization, where he was named a Top 100 prospect in both 2009 and 2010. But he never converted his plus stuff into results, and for the most part was unable to even convert it to consistent strikeouts, at least not without also giving up far too many walks.

Some adjustments to his pitches and pitch selection, though, have given the 2014 the Cubs a decent sized look at the dominance many thought Arrieta could achieve. Through his first nine starts, Arrieta sports a 1.98 ERA, 2.31 FIP, 2.66 xFIP, 9.90 K/9 and 53% ground ball rate, besting all other Cubs’ starters on those rates. On top of that, only Jason Hammel has allowed less walks per nine innings (1.87) than Arrieta (2.70).

The only negative to Arrieta’s 2014 is his average of less than 6 innings per start, compiling 50 innings in his 9 starts to date. The Cubs, however, heavily influenced that rate by being extremely cautious with Arrieta during his first three starts of the season after he missed the first month of the season due to minor shoulder soreness. After averaging under 4 and a half innings per start over those first three games, Arrieta averaged just over 6 innings in his most recent half dozen starts, throwing less than six innings only once.

The small sample size caution should be noted because Arrieta has only pitched about a quarter of a season’s worth of innings, but the peripheral statistics pointing to a meaningful possibility of sustainable success (strikeout rate and walk rate in particular) are among the first statistics to stabilize.

Quite simply, no one would have guessed Jake Arrieta would do what he is doing this season. Just as many people in the industry thought the Cubs should have converted Arrieta into a reliever. But if he can keep performing like this all season, the “will this pitcher be extended” talk won’t focus on Samardzija or Wood. Instead, the discussion will be if the Cubs should try to lock up Arrieta through his early 30s just as he enters arbitration.

Q: Who is the only Cub to steal at least 20 bases in a season at age 40 or above?

A: Click Here

Like what you see here? Never miss new content. Follow Us: