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Don’t Panic (Yet)

Friday, May 20th, 2016

It’s been a frustrating week. We’ve been riding high all season with this ridiculous start, but we all knew (even if we didn’t want to admit it to ourselves) that the Cubs weren’t actually going to maintain this pace and win 140 games this season. The most annoying part is who we lost to: two of the worst teams in the league. Such is baseball.

Most of this is just the ebb and flow of a season and regression to the “true” talent level of a club. The Cubs are definitely one of the best teams in baseball, they’re just not 140-wins good (no team is). We still have the largest lead of any division leader, so it isn’t time to panic yet (right?).

What would I change about this team right now? Nothing. If you watched some of these recent losses closely, you noticed that the team was still putting up good ABs and hitting the ball hard–many of those liners were just hit right at a fielder. You can’t ask for more from a player.

The only thing that concerns me (a little) is the number of whiffs on balls in the strikezone during the game on Thursday. If this starts becoming a trend, I will actually start to worry a little bit.

The pitching has been great lately, though. If it wasn’t, the Cubs might been swept in the last two series.

So, would you make any changes right now? Is it time to panic, or should we ride this out, trusting that the offense can’t slump forever? The Giants have been scorching hot lately, so this series will be a real test. Let me know your thoughts!

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The Importance of Depth, Versatility, and Maddon’s Brilliance

Friday, May 6th, 2016

Before we get to baseball, I want to give a shout out to the bossman, Joe. We’re all glad you’re doing better–here’s to a speedy and full recovery.

OK, back to the best team in baseball.

“Depth is everything in the modern game.”–Theo Epstein.

Recent events have clearly illustrated the truth behind the prez’s words.

After being remarkably healthy last season, the Cubs have had more than their share of injuries in 2016. Kyle Schwarber, seen as one of the main cogs of the offense, went down 3 games in. Miguel Montero, the starting catcher, is on the DL. This is a double-whammy, since Schwarber’s injury was a blow to the catching depth as well. Jason Heyward, the big free agent prize from this past offseason, has missed games with a wrist injury (which has, apparently, contributed to his slow offensive start). One of the actual depth pieces, Matt Szczur, who has been playing very well, is on the DL himself. For most teams, these kind of injuries would derail the season from the get-go. As for the Cubs?

They’re 21-6.
[Update: 22-6]

How has this been accomplished? Depth, versatility, and the brilliance of their manager, Joe Maddon.

Theo and Jed have said many times that they spend the bulk of their time “worrying.” Worrying about injuries, ineffectiveness, unforeseen circumstances, etc.. They dream up worst-case scenarios and build the organization around those. So, when Schwarber went down, I guarantee that they had asked themselves: “What if Kyle goes down with an injury, what do we do then?” The contingency plan was already in place. It’s this ability to see beyond the immediate circumstances and think long-term that makes Theo and Jed so good at what they do.

Versatility goes hand-in-hand with depth. It’s no accident that the Cubs roster is loaded with players who can play well at multiple positions. This team had many “Ben Zobrists” before the actual Ben Zobrist even joined the club. Kris Bryant has played both corner outfield spots in addition to 3rd base (in fact, I think it’s time to consider Bryant an outfielder, at least for now), Javier Baez has already played all 4 infield positions, and we know he can handle the outfield as well. Heyward subbed in for Dex in CF last night (after a BS ejection). Tommy La Stella has seen time at both 2nd and 3rd. Zobrist, of course, can play all over, including spending time in RF lately. You don’t have to have as many actual players if those players can play multiple positions. This is all by design.

Of course, Joe Maddon is the perfect manager to maneuver these chess pieces. I’ve always been a Maddon fan, and I was thrilled when the Cubs hired him, but I’ve been even more impressed than I thought I would be. They guy just gets it. I think the key attribute that makes Joe so successful is his ability to think independently and critically–he doesn’t just do things or make decisions because it’s “conventional wisdom” or “tradition.” He does many things that no other manager has done or would do, yet they seem to work well. As a teacher, I try to get my students to think critically about their practice–if we examine what we do with a critical eye, and we find real evidence that it is working, then we should continue those practices with even more confidence. However, if we aren’t afraid to question traditional practices, and we find better ways of doing things, we should have the courage to go against the grain and do what’s most effective. I think this is where Maddon really makes his mark.

Take batting practice for example. The Cubs are known to take the least amount of batting practice of any team in baseball. Yet, they have the most runs scored in all of baseball. Joe has said that batting practice is “the most overrated thing we do.” During his introductory press conference, Joe said that he thinks guys are swinging too much. Now, this goes against conventional thinking. If someone is struggling at something, they should work on it more, put in more hours, until they get better, right? Not necessarily so. As a musician, I know that practicing more can actually strengthen bad habits, and that sometimes it’s best to step away for awhile and attack things with a new approach. The same can be said for hitting. This is why Joe said that he wants his guys to have interests outside of baseball and not get to the park too early before a game (how many times has a coach told you to spend less time at the park/gym?). Last year, when Addison Russell was struggling at the plate, did Joe demand that he get to the park early and take extra batting practice? No. He assigned Russell a book to read and quizzed him on it every day to make sure he was reading it. Why? He wanted Addy to get out of his head at the plate and stop worrying and over-thinking. Russell’s numbers at the end of the season improved.

Another bit of conventional baseball wisdom is that moving guys around defensively will hurt their offensive game. While there’s no doubt this is true of some guys, Maddon has said several times that he thinks moving guys around on defense can actually help their offense. Why? If a player has to focus on defense, he is thinking less about offense, and his mind is free to relax and react at the plate. Have you seen Kris Bryant’s numbers since he’s been moving around to the outfield? I’m not saying that this defensive move has caused his offense to improve, but there’s no doubt it hasn’t hurt it, and he’s provided more value to the team overall by being versatile defensively. Here’s another fun fact that may go against intuition: after moving players all over the field, the Cubs are well better than average defensively!

Something as seemingly silly as the themed road trips may actually be helping this team play better on the field. In the pregame interview the other day, Joe talked about how having to wear those silly suits out in public helped players realize that it doesn’t matter how they look–they need to get over and forget about the superficial things and focus on what’s important…and Joe believes that really carries over to the field. Once players (or any of us) can let go of the silly distractions in life and focus on what’s important, we’re able to focus and perform at a higher level. “Never let the pressure exceed the pleasure” isn’t about not being serious in your work–it’s the opposite. It’s about not letting distractions that don’t really matter (like appearance, old-school “rules” of the game, the media, taking oneself too seriously) go and focusing in on the present task at hand. You just don’t hear baseball managers speak with this sort of depth and sophistication on big-picture ideas like this.

I hope everyone is taking time to really enjoy this team. We haven’t seen our guys play like this in a long time, maybe ever.

Have a great weekend. May your “W” flag fly high, may your brats sizzle on the grill, and may your cap look as cool as Pedro Strop’s.

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Scoring without Hitting and Making Adjustments

Thursday, April 21st, 2016

Getting on base is everything.

The Cubs have clearly demonstrated this principle so far this season. Despite having several key players with low batting averages (Rizzo and Heyward are both hitting well below .200, while Soler, Russell, and Zobrist are all hitting .224 or lower), the Cubs are 2nd in all of MLB with 78 runs on the season (they’re only 15th in total hits). The Cubs’ patient, “selectively aggressive” approach has paid-off, as the team leads MLB with 70 walks, leading to a .347 OBP, 3rd-best in MLB. Of course, they also have the best record in all of baseball.

The team’s performance so far also illustrates the point that OBP is more valuable than slugging. This is why OPS, although a convenient stat to quickly get a picture of a players overall performance, is imperfect: it overvalues slugging. The Cubs, with the 2nd-most runs (and best record) in baseball have only the 14th best slugging% and the 10th best OPS. It’s the OBP, driven by walks, that has led to the run scoring. I hope this also underscores how worthless a stat batting average is: the Cubs are only 17th in that category. Runners on base lead to runs.

Statistics aside, we can just watch the games, and these principles are obvious. With a patient approach, leading to lots of baserunners via the walk (and having the nice side benefit of wearing down the starting pitcher and getting into the bullpen early), a team doesn’t have to string together several hits in a row (what advanced stats guys call “sequencing”). One timely hit (or wild pitch or error) can score multiple runs. That’s why you’ve seen the Cubs have a few innings this year in which they score more runs than they have hits. The issue with relying on stringing together multiple hits in a row is that a lot of chance (luck) is involved with hitting.

Don’t believe me? One of the best new pieces of evidence we have is exit velocity. Take the example from Monday night’s game: Jason Heyward put three balls in play, 2 at 110 mph, and 1 at 102 mph (the average exit velocity is 88 mph). Even without that data, just using your eyes, you could tell that Heyward absolutely smoked those balls. What happened? They were all hit right at defenders. That, my friends, is bad luck. It just exists. Kris Bryant, on the other hand, hit two soft dribblers that fell for hits. Do you see where I’m going with this? Batting average is just a bad stat–we’re simply used to using it because someone, a long time ago, decided it was the stat that was going to be highlighted. It was an arbitrary decision.

OK, so, over the first week of the season, the Cubs were drawing tons of walks and scoring tons of runs. However, this is professional sports, so we know that the opposition is going to make adjustments, and that’s exactly what happened. In the Rockies series, the Colorado pitchers had success against the Cubs by throwing strikes early in the count. You can’t pile-up walks if pitchers can pound the zone consistently. Mike Leake also had success early in the Monday night game by throwing strikes. So, now it’s up to the Cubs hitters to be able to make adjustments and counter a strike-thrower when they aren’t getting the walks. This is where hitting, and especially slugging, is going to have to improve.

…and it will! There is no way that Heyward and Rizzo will hit below .200 for long. This team is also full of powerful hitters that will start putting the ball into the bleachers on a regular basis, so I’m not worried. I expect the Cubs to be among the top teams in slugging when it’s all said and done (in addition to being among the top in OBP). This is why I would be so scared if I were an opposing team: the Cubs have the best record in baseball, score among the most runs, and they haven’t even started hitting yet. This team, my friends, is GOOD.

Also, it doesn’t hurt that we’ve had the best pitching in MLB so far!

Enjoy this team. Savor the moments. Have a disco-ball-and-champagne party after every victory!

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Predictions for the 2016 Season

Friday, February 19th, 2016

Let’s face it. We’re all champing at the bit for some baseball, even spring training. We’ve obsessed over the offseason moves (incredibly, there are still several free agents unsigned), but the Cubs are almost certainly done at this point (at least with major moves). Despite the daily barrage of pics and quotes from pre-spring training, there really isn’t that much significant news to report or discuss right now.

So, let’s just have some fun. I’m going to publish some predictions for the upcoming Cubs season, which means I’m risking looking pretty bad when the season is over…but, like I said, it’s all in good fun.

Of course, the goal here is for you to respond with your own predictions in the comments so we can compare notes in October.

Prediction #1: The Cubs will win 95 games (2 less than last year), but will be a better team than the 2015 squad. They will win the NL Central.

I’ve seen some writers predict that the Cubs will win 100 games, and I think that’s crazy. It’s not that I don’t think the Cubs can win that many games–they certainly can–it’s that I would never predict that any team would win that many. Also, you may be asking: how can a team that loses 2 more games be a better team? Statistical variance, my friends. The Cubs won many one-run games last year, and those wins tend to be pretty random. So, the Cubs could have a few less “breaks” going their way this season, but still be a stronger team compared to their rivals and win the division (and go deeper into the playoffs).

Predication #2: Homerun Totals

Bryant: 31
Rizzo: 30
Schwarber: 24
Soler: 19
Heyward: 18
Russell: 14
Baez: 13

Prediction #3: Gold Gloves

Russell (ss)
Heyward (cf–he’s going to be better than everyone thinks, guy is a super athlete and an extremely hard worker)

Prediction #4: MVP Voting

Bryant will finish 4th; Rizzo will finish 8th (this is just a wild guess that I probably shouldn’t even attempt)

Prediction #5: WAR Ranks (2016 total)

1. Bryant
2. Arrieta
3. Rizzo
4. Heyward
5. Lester
6. Zobrist
7. Schwarber

Prediction #6: Prospects

We’re now past the point that we’re relying on prospect call-ups as a main factor with the big league club. However, I think a few prospects will make their way to Wrigley this summer and contribute in a non-zero way: Carl Edwards (bullpen); Albert Almora (late-season call up as a CF defensive sub late in games (as Heyward moves over to RF)). I don’t think we’ll see Willson Contreras before September unless there is a major injury to Montero or Ross. He just needs more time to develop the bat.

Prediction #7: Pitcher Wins and RBIs

Who cares?

Prediction #8: World Series

This is one prediction I will NEVER make!

Fun Tidbit:

I live in the Dallas area now, and the Rangers are giving away season tickets to any fan that can hit a homer at Globe Life Park. If I really put everything into a swing, hit the sweet spot, used an aluminum bat, and the wind was howling out…hey, I think I could get within 150 feet of the warning track.

Happy Friday!

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My Top 5 Cubs Moments of 2015

Tuesday, December 29th, 2015

As we approach the new year, we are inundated with (mostly lame) “Best of” lists. Well, friends, I’m here to bring you yet another one of those egregious lists.

Disclaimer: this is my list. These may not actually be the top, most important, best, or your favorite moments from the season, but I’ve been given this space for now, so you’ll just have to put up with my take for a moment–not sorry. Also, I’m only going to include moments from the regular season, since the postseason was amazingly glorious all by itself (except, er, for that ending). Finally, I’m not going to include anything from the offseason, so you won’t see the Joe Maddon or Jon Lester signings. So, in the immortal words of Casey Kasem, let’s start the countdown.

5. The Schwarber Game

This is the moment when we went, “oh yeah, we have that guy, too.” On July 21, just over a year after being selected with the 4th overall pick in the draft (a pick that was roundly criticized by many, include, ahem, *cough* a few commenters on this blog), in Cincinnati, in front of scores of friends and family (he grew up nearby as a Reds fan–Votto was his hero), Schwarber blasted a mammoth (come on, dude doesn’t hit any other kind) homer to tie the game in the ninth, and then another to win it in the 13th. What a night that must have been for him. He’s going to be our Jim Thome for years to come (and no, he won’t catch, at least not primarily).

4. Bryant’s Debut

No, he didn’t get a hit. Yes, he struck out 10,000 times and looked really bad, but remember, this is my list. This moment makes the cut because I was at Wrigley to witness this game, and I can tell you, it was the most electric regular-season-in-negative-million-degrees-meaningless-game I’ve ever attended. The entire crowd stood for every one of his at-bats and lived and died with every pitch. After each inevitable strikeout, the crowd moaned as if we just lost Game 7. After such an fantastically historic rookie season, it’s easy to forget just how long it took Bryant to hit his first homer (I believe it was around 700 at-bats), but the kid makes adjustments and looks like a keeper to me.

3. Bryant’s Walk-Off (well, one of them)

July 27: The Cubs had lost a zillion games in a row and everyone was depressed. We had given up a big lead to the lowly Rockies. Bryant saved the day with a rocket into the dark Lakeview night. Everyone cheered. It was awesome.

2. Sweeping the Giants

I have to admit, after we were swept by the Phillies (the Phillies), I thought that our youth and good luck from the first half (we won so many one-run games, the outcome of which can be pretty random) had finally caught up with us. You can only dodge the coin-flip and the regress-to-the-mean dragon for so long. This four-game sweep of the defending champs in early August bounced us over the Giants for the second wild card spot and announced to all that this team was for real.

1. Arrieta’s No-Hitter

I watched this on TV, but I stood and shouted and leapt with every pitch. I celebrated after the game as though I was in Wrigleyville. A signature moment for a pitcher, a team, a fan. Thanks Jake.

Honorable mention:

All of Addison Russell‘s defensive plays; Rizzo’s brilliant season being almost overlooked; magicians in the clubhouse and on the field; Bryant knocking the videoboard onto Waveland, killing thousands; Lester actually being really good–stop whining; Joe Maddon giving players reading assignments; the inspired benching then re-starting of Castro.

Thoughts? Submit your list in the comments.

I hope everyone is enjoying the holidays. Happy New Year. Never let the pressure exceed the pleasure.

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Baez/Soler Trade Rumors & Lackey Signing Signal a New Phase in the Plan

Tuesday, December 8th, 2015

It’s great to be back. Although this was the most exciting Cubs season in recent memory, I’ve just been too swamped with other things to write for this blog. I’ve really missed it, and I’m thankful that Joe has welcomed me back.

The Winter Meetings are upon us once again from my homeland of Nashville. I don’t typically watch MLB Network, but I have to admit that it’s pretty fun to watch the channel during the Winter Meetings. There’s no rumor too small or ridiculous for them, and it makes for some interesting speculation. Of course, Twitter is really the ultimate time-waster this time of year.

The Cubs, of course, have been the subject of many rumors this offseason. Early on, we heard that David Price was headed to the Northside. Subsequently, the Cubs were pegged for a reunion with Jeff Samardzija. Recently, there have been rumors that the Cubs and Braves were discussing a Jorge Soler/Shelby Miller swap. Conversations on Monday surrounded the possibility of a Cubs/Rays trade involving Javier Baez and multiple arms from Tampa Bay.

The Cubs’ moves so far this offseason: signing 37-year-old John Lackey to a 2-year deal and bringing back Trevor Cahill on a 1-year, 4.25 million dollar deal, along with recent (trading Soler or Baez) are signals that The Plan has shifted into a new phase: WIN NOW. It’s clear that the rebuild is over: the young core is in place, key veterans have been added, and the team has their ideal manager. For the past few seasons, the tactic has been to acquire young assets though draft and trade while shedding expensive veteran contracts. The new phase really began last offseason with the acquisition of Lester and Maddon, although those were both “get them while they’re available” type moves rather than full-bore “win now” moves. After the young players proved that they will be solid (or better) major leaguers, now is the time to really go for it.

None of this is to say that the front office will abandon their overall strategy of building a team that can win over the long-haul. The Cubs current “win now” phase is much different than it was in 2008 when the Tribune Co. was trying to win in the short term to raise the value of the team in preparation for a sale. Yes, we may trade some young MLB players or prospects, but we’re not going to do something that gives us a slight increase to win this year but hurts our chances in the long run. This front office understands that the playoffs are a crapshoot, and the best way to win a championship is to buy a lottery ticket every year…not just every decade. The Cubs’ financial position also doesn’t allow unlimited spending. No, this is not the Ricketts being cheap–this is simply a symptom of not having all the revenue streams in place yet. They are working on it. Increased success on the field will bring increased revenues, of course, as will the improvements to Wrigley Field. The really big increase in payroll, however, should coincide with the new TV deal that will take effect in 2019.

So, we’ve turned the corner. Instead of waiting to see which prospects would pan out, we have a good sense of who will be on the team going forward, and a better sense of the value players could bring on the trade market. As an aside, I want to point out how amazing it is that all of Bryant, Schwarber, Russell, Soler, and Baez (yes, I’m including him) panned-out. All of them should be above-average to All-Star-level players. It’s amazingly rare that a team has a success rate like that. I was prepared for at least one or two of them to bust. It’s really a testament to the Cubs scouting and coaching.

Anyway, it appears that Bryant, Schwarber, and Russell aren’t going anywhere, which leaves Baez and Soler as the most likely trade candidates. I think Baez intrigues with his bat speed and stellar defense (and the fact that the Cubs are set at SS with Russell). I know the Cubs love Soler’s bat and upside, but I think they’re going to be looking to improve their defense (especially with Schwarber playing left), and Soler still has some work to do there.

That being said, I don’t think the Cubs will just give either player away. The Lackey move was brilliant: sure, they’d like to get another starter still, but they can now afford to wait for the best deal, since they have Lackey on board, and they could field a very solid starting rotation today without any further moves.

So, what would and Baez or Soler trade look like? The two potential scenarios most often mentioed are Soler or Baez to Atlanta for SP Shelby Miller or Baez to the Rays for one of their relievers plus a young starter. Here’s my take: Shelby Miller really intrigues me, and if the Cubs add him, I would be really excited. Would I do Soler for him straight-up? Eh, the fan in me says “no.” Soler’s upside remains ridiculously high, especially with the adjustments he made late in the season. On the other hand, I couldn’t complain if we added Miller to the rotation. Also, from what I’ve heard about a potential Baez to TB trade, I’m underwhelmed. I don’t think you trade Baez, who still has monster potential, for a 4th starter with 3rd starter potential. We already have pitchers like that, and Baez is a rare talent. I want to be really impressed with a trade. If such a trade isn’t possible, I say we stand pat now and add at the trade deadline if it seems really necessary for a playoff push.

For the rest of the offseason, my wishlist would be: sign Jason Heyward (checks so many boxes), trade for a young starting pitcher (and try to do it with prospects only, which means Soler and Baez stay), and maybe ad one more bullpen arm (although I’m a fan of our bullpen as is, so I wouldn’t complain if we stand pat there, either).

What do you think? What would be a reasonable trade involving Soler or Baez? Should we sign Heyward?

Things are happening fast and furious right now, so if news breaks that changes things tomorrow, I’ll try to update this post with the new info.

It’s great to be back!

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The Baez Problem

Friday, May 29th, 2015

Javier Baez’s struggles with the big-league club last season were well documented. We saw flashes of extreme power potential, but the pitch recognition issues and patience issues, which led to an enormous strikeout rate, squandered that potential. Baez, as widely expected, was sent down to AAA to make some major adjustments to his swing mechanics and approach. Unfortunately, at the beginning of the season, Baez lost his sister to complications from spina bifida and spent a few weeks on the bereavement list.

With all of this on his plate, it would be understandable if Baez experienced a “lost season” (or, at the least, a lost half-season). However, the adjustments that the coaches have made to his mechanics, as well as his hard work on pitch recognition and patience, have seemingly paid off so far. His line is Iowa is currently 295/376/495. His line at Iowa last season was 260/323/510. His power is close to the same (he’s been especially powerful lately), but the on-base percentage is up significantly. More importantly, his strikeout rate is down to an “I’ll live with it” 24.8%, while his walk rate is up to a nice 8.3% (those numbers at AAA last season were 30.0% and 7.8%, respectively). It’s a small sample (relatively speaking) but if you watch Baez at the plate, he really has made some significant modifications. He’s standing closer to the plate (reminiscent of Anthony Rizzo…speaking of which, I REALLY wish Soler would stand closer to the plate) and he quieted some of his pre-pitch hand movement and leg kick. Even after these rather major changes, his overall line has still improved. This is a good sign.

So, the question is, what would you do with Baez? Do you leave him in AAA for the foreseeable future to keep working on this approach, or do you call him up soon? I think the crucial factor in this decision is whether you believe the Cubs have a legitimate shot to be a serious factor in the playoffs this year. If you don’t, there’s no reason to rush him back to the big league club. Leave him in the minors, let him get more reps with the new approach without the pressure of a playoff hunt, and make sure you maximize his development for the future. If you think the Cubs do have a chance to be a playoff threat, then you have to ask yourself if calling up Baez makes the team better. Remember, this is not a zero-sum game, calling up Baez will require movement of the players already on the roster.

These are the scenarios that I see as the possibilities if you do decide to call up Baez soon (remember, Baez has been playing 2B and SS at Iowa):

1) Baez plays 2nd base, Russell moves to 3rd. Bryant moves to LF.

2) Baez plays 3B, Bryant moves to LF.

3) Baez plays 2B, Castro moves to 3B, Russell moves to SS, Bryant moves to LF.

4) Baez plays SS, Castro moves to 3B, Bryant moves to LF.

5) Baez plays SS, Castro moves to 2B, Russell moves to 3B, Bryant moves to LF.

6) Baez/Russell play 2B/SS (whichever), Bryant stays at 3B, and Castro is traded.

If you pick option 6, you’ll have to come up with a plausible trade scenario…and would Theo/Jed really sell low on Castro? That’s what you would be doing at this point. Short of trading Castro, there doesn’t seem to be a way you could bring up Baez and not move Bryant to LF. Are the Cubs ready to give up on him at 3B? The bat will obviously play anywhere, but it’s all the more valuable in the infield.

What do you think, dear reader?

Have a great weekend…here’s to a good series again the Royals.

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Cubs’ First-Round Draft Options

Friday, May 15th, 2015

The Major League Baseball draft is rapidly approaching (it begins on June 8). It’s always seemed strange to me that, unlike other sports, the MLB draft takes place during the season. I know it coincides with the end of the high school and college seasons, but it just seems to me like it would make more sense to figure out a way to have the draft in the offseason. The NBA and (especially) the NFL have done a great job of using the draft to keep their sports in the spotlight, even in the offseason. Oh well, that’s a discussion for another post.

Let’s get to looking at who the Cubs might select with their first-round pick. They’re picking a little bit lower in the draft than in years past, but they still have the opportunity to get a high-impact player with the number 9 overall pick. We all hope that the Cubs won’t be picking this early for a long, long time, so this could be the last “high-stakes” draft of Theo’s tenure.

Let’s look at some predictions for that #9 pick from mock drafts:

John Manuel from Baseball America: Carson Fulmer, RHP, Vanderbilt

Jonathan Mayo from MLB.com: Walker Buehler, RHP, Vanderbilt

Ryan Fagan from The Sporting News:  Tyler Jay, LHP, Illinios (Go Illini!)

Kiley McDaniel from Fangraphs: Trenton Clark, OF, Richland HS (TX)

As you can see, the prognosticators are all over the place. It’s always hard to predict the MLB draft, especially as far down as the #9 pick (there isn’t even much of a consensus this year regarding the #1 pick)…and it’s especially difficult to predict what this front office will do. Did anyone predict that they would select Kyle Schwarber last year? Everyone has had them picking a starting pitcher in the first round for several years in a row, but they’ve always gone for the big bat (and hey, how does that Kris Bryant over Jonathan Gray pick look now?). Of course, picking a little lower in the round, having a system completely stacked with offensive talent (remember, Javier Baez, Arismendy Alcantara, Kyle Schwarber, Dan Vogelbach, Albert Almora, Junior Lake, Billy McKinney, Gleyber Torres, and Eloy Jimenez are all still in the minors), and having a team starting to compete at the major league level may all add up to the Cubs selecting a pitcher this year. Here’s the thing: the Cubs see players as assets, so I think they will simply take the best player on the board regardless of position–that’s why it’s so hard to predict what they will do, since we don’t know how they have all these players ranked on their board.

So, what do I want to see the Cubs do? If he’s available (and there is disagreement as to whether he will be), I don’t see how you could pass on Brady Aiken. In case you don’t remember, Aiken was the #1 overall pick of the Astros last year, but they didn’t sign him because of concerns over his elbow. As it turns out, Aiken had elbow surgery and is on the mend. Yes, you would be taking a gamble choosing him, but ALL draft picks are gambles. If someone with ace potential slides to #9, I think you have to pull the trigger–especially since he’s the type of player that could be contributing to the rotation as soon as next season if his rehab goes as planned. Hey, we’ve seen guys win Cy Youngs post-Tommy John surgery. There’s no reason to think he can’t heal and be as effective as he was before. Heck, maybe he got his surgery out of the way early, and he’ll be fine from now on…but, at #9, I’d take 2-4 years of a frontline starter and be happy with it. Imagine a near-future rotation of Lester, Arrieta, free-agent (someone like Jordan Zimmerman), Aiken, and Hammel…add that to a blossoming offensive juggernaut, and you have a perennial playoff contender.

So, who would you like to see the Cubs select in the first round? Do we keep piling up position-player assets, or is this the year to go for the almost-ready-to-contribute starting pitcher?

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Ups and Downs Illustrate the Uniqueness of Baseball

Friday, May 8th, 2015

Although the season is still young, we’ve already been through some ups and downs with this Cubs team. We had an outstanding April, but May has been a little less kind (at least results-wise…you still have to love the offensive approach and development of the young guys). I’ve thought a lot in the past about how baseball is truly unique among the “big four” sports, and I think this rollercoaster type season is a good illustration of that.

In basketball, although players can have cold shooting nights or games in which they lack their usual mental focus, good players rarely go through prolonged slumps (short of injury). This is because an elite player’s athleticism can take over in this sport. If LeBron is having a cold shooting night, he can always muscle up and drive to the basket, overwhelming his opponent with athleticism, size, and aggressiveness. His height-weight-speed ratio stays the same and is relatively “slump proof.” Also in basketball, good players can make the players around them better. A good point guard can set up his teammates with effective passing and dribble-drives. An elite offensive player can facilitate easy baskets for his teammates by drawing double teams. So, even a player who would be having an off shooting night can still produce if his teammates put him in a favorable position by their play.

In football, the “system” can put players in a position to succeed. In this sport, teammates rely on working together as a cohesive whole to make plays successful. So, a player can often thrive in a particular system and be much less effective in another. Also, a great quarterback can make his receivers much more productive than they would be with an average QB, turning mediocre receivers into borderline Pro Bowlers. Almost any receiver playing with Peyton Manning is going to put up huge numbers. Receivers can also help their teammates by drawing double teams, and a good running game can help receivers get open by forcing single coverage (and an effective passing game can open up running lanes for backs).

Baseball, however, is inherently different. Athleticism, to some degree, is a prerequisite to success in baseball, but great athleticism never guarantees success in this sport. Baseball is a game of discreet skills, and these skills must be developed within their own domains. This is why you rarely, if ever, see an 18-year old drafted right out of high school who immediately starts for the big league club and finds success–much less becomes a star. On the other hand, early draft picks in football and basketball are expected–even counted on–to start for the major league team right away and become not only contributors, but the centerpiece of the team from day one. This just can’t happen in baseball. The skills required to play the game must be developed over time–they are not just the result of raw athleticism.

Another major factor that separates baseball from those other sports is the fact that baseball players take turns on offense. There are no offensive assists, ability to draw double teams, or complex systems that can highlight the batter’s strengths while obscuring his weaknesses. The batter is alone in that box, and his success or lack thereof is unrelated to those around him. Sure, the approach of teammates can be inspiring and a good model for others, but it’s still up to that individual player to produce without any direct help from others…and he must do this facing a pitcher who is pitching to him based on a personalized plan of attack.

To me, the current player who highlights baseball’s uniqueness to the highest degree is Javier Baez. Since he entered professional baseball, scouts have raved about his natural ability, labeling his bat speed best in a generation. He has all the tools you look for in a big-time prospect. However, those athletic tools, which would allow for instant success in other sports–don’t guarantee success in baseball because baseball is skill-based. The skill that Baez still needs to improve upon a great deal is pitch recognition. All the bat speed in the world will do no good if a player can’t recognize the pitch being thrown to him when it leaves the pitcher’s hand. This is why Baez can kill minor-league pitchers who don’t have developed secondary pitches, but he struggles to hit major-league pitchers who have command of their secondary offerings. Some claim that pitch recognition can’t be developed past a certain point, so there is reason to worry that Baez may never produce anywhere near the level that his athletic gifts might otherwise allow.

Baseball is also a game of adjustments. Even when players establish themselves in the major leagues, it’s not enough for them to “keep doing what they’re doing.” Pitchers will make adjustments as a scouting book is established on a player, and the hitter must make adjustments to those adjustments. We’re seeing this process now with Jorge Soler. He’s established that he can hit big-league pitching, but now the league has adjusted to him, and it’s up to him to make the adjustment in return. I have no doubt that he will make the necessary adjustments (we’ve seen some glimpses of an improved approach the last few games)–it’s just a matter of how long it will take. Of course, the best example of a player who has gone through a few adjustment periods and is now one of the best hitters in baseball is Anthony Rizzo. Let’s hope the other young guys can make adjustments as well as he did.

All of these tendencies–adjustment periods, the gap between athleticism and skill–are magnified with a young team. Joe Maddon was brought in as a steadying influence, since he has a reputation for being able keep everyone on an even keel as they make these adjustments and develop skills that allow them to play consistently at high levels. This mental approach to development may be one of the most important factors in overall team success. If the young 2015 season is any indicator–recent tough losses not withstanding–the future looks bright.

 

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