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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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The Shape of Trades to Come

Friday, May 1st, 2015

In a recent Tribune piece, Cubs GM Jed Hoyer expressed that, although it’s still too early to predict, the Cubs hope to be in a position to be buyers later this summer, rather than sellers. How’s that for progress? Before the season, Theo Epstein spoke about how important a good start would be the key factor in determining the course of the team’s actions later in the summer. Good start: check.

So, what moves might the Cubs make to build toward a playoff run this season? There has been quite a bit written about the need to acquire more relief pitching, given the bullpen’s woes of late, but I think that getting Justin Grimm and Neil Ramirez back (which we hope happens sooner rather than later) would be better than any external move the team could make. The bullpen was considered a strength of the team at the beginning of the season, before the injuries, and I think that could be the case again later this summer, even without any acquisitions. Also, talking about middle relievers bores me.

In other areas, the Cubs might look to add another starting pitcher if they remain in the playoff hunt and believe that another frontline starter would put them over the top. If Arrieta continues to deal, and Jon Lester returns to form in the near future, and don’t see adding a starting pitcher as a pressing concern. However, if we have the chance to make a run, and an arm is available for a reasonable pricetag, you have to pull that trigger. The name on everyone’s lips is Cole Hamels, and that would definitely be a major coup if it happens. Side note: can you imagine adding Cole Hamels this summer (who is under contract through 2018) and then signing someone like Jordan Zimmerman or David Price this offseason? Mmmmmmm, doughnuts…. Lester, Hamels, Arrieta, Zimmerman/Price, your grandmother as a starting five would be epic…and pair that with another year of experience for all the young hitters…OK…drifting into fantasyland…must stop…

OK, back to this season. As for position players, I suppose the Cubs could look at adding someone in LF, although: 1) Chris Coghlan has had an underrated season so far. He’s been hitting the ball very well, (he’s hit into a ton of bad BABIP luck) and he hasn’t killed us on defense and 2) it’s possible that Baez, Alcantara, or LaStella return to the big league club and Bryant moves to LF. I don’t think a move here is necessary unless injuries force the Cubs’ hand.

In any case, it’s seems like eons since the Cubs were in a position to even talk about being buyers at the trade deadline, and it feels good to be on this side of the fence. Of course, with a young team, there will be a lot of ups and downs, but the consistent patient approach that this team has displayed makes me optimistic that the downturns won’t be too long or profound. It’s certainly a great time to be a Cubs fan!

Check out the VFTB homepage: the playoff odds stand at 61.8% on May 1. How awesome is that?

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The Plan: Looking Back and Looking Forward

Friday, April 24th, 2015

Cub fans have been hearing about “The Plan” ever since Theo and company took over the team in October 2011. The Plan has been hotly debated–with staunch defenders (I count myself firmly in that camp) and skeptical detractors. Now that The Plan seems to be coming to fruition, let’s take an overview of what has happened so far, and what might be coming down the road.

Building the Team

Although Theo and Jed never explicitly stated the specifics of their Plan to rebuild the team (because, of course, that would have been ill-advised), we’ve been able to infer the strategy pretty clearly. They have focused on polished, powerful college bats in the first round of the draft, focused on pitching by attacking it with quantity in round 2 and beyond, supplemented pitching with free agency and trades, and found role players and veterans to fill in around the young position players through free agency and trades. So, why the focus on position players early in round 1? Albert Almora, Kris Bryant, and Kyle Schwarber were the three first-round picks made by Theo and Jed the last three years (and Javy Baez was selected with the first round pick the year before Theo arrived). With some good arms on the board, they decided to stock up on position players because (and I’m making educated guesses here): 1) In a climate of decreased offense and power in baseball, power becomes a “market inefficiency,” 2) hitters, especially college bats, are more of a “sure thing” (although that doesn’t really exist) than pitchers, and are less prone to injury, 3) even though the Cubs were loaded with bats, you can never have too much of a good thing, because not all prospects pan-out (more on that later) and you can always use players as trade bait if you truly can’t find a place for someone to play, 4) they actually did think these picks were the best players available at the time. Although the jury is still out on Almora, Bryant is already making a splash at the big league level, and Schwarber has done nothing but tear the cover off the ball since being drafted.

This year, we’ve seen some of the young stars finally come together on the MLB squad. With the call-up of Addison Russell on Tuesday (a reminder, we got Russell for THREE MONTHS of Shark, and we have Hammel back (plus, we still have Billy McKinney, a very nice player in his own right), we have an infield featuring 2 all-stars, 2 players who we expect to make multiple all-star appearances…and they are all 25 years old are younger and on team-friendly, long-term control. What other team can say this? This sounds like a Plan coming together perfectly, if you ask me. This young core has been supplemented with pitching through free agency (Jon Lester, Jason Hammel) and trade (let’s remind ourselves that we got Jake Arrieta, who looks like a true ace, AND Pedro Strop for Steve Clevenger and Scott Feldman–any GM who completes a trade with Theo should be fired immediately!). In the outfield, we landed star-in-the-making Jorge Soler from Cuba (sort of it’s own category) and Dexter Fowler through trade. Oh, and let’s not forget Joe Maddon.

Going Forward

The Cubs still have some issues to address before this team is ready to compete for WS titles consistently.

The Outfield: Jorge Soler is the only member of the outfield I see as a long-term fixture. Dexter Fowler might be signed to a short extension, but I think the Cubs are hoping that Albert Almora turns the corner with his approach and starts looking like the CF of the future. This is a huge year for Almora, but even if he breaks out, I don’t see him contributing to the big league club until mid-2016 at the earliest. He’s still just in AA, and he has a long way to go with the bat. As for left field: it’s possible that Kris Bryant or even Kyle Schwarber take over this position eventually, but the Cubs may look outside the organization this offseason to address this need.

The Rotation: I’m not worried about Lester right now: he’s still in spring training mode (talk to me in a month, though). Arrieta, as I mentioned above, looks like a true ace and a potential Cy Young candidate. I think the Cubs will aggressively pursue a free agent starter this offseason in what looks like to be a stellar FA SP class. I have my eye on Jordan Zimmerman in particular, but there should be tons of great arms available. Adding a top-flight starter to compliment Lester and Arrieta would really make that rotation scary.

Javier Baez: It’s hard to believe that we’ve arrived to this point. Javy Baez seems almost like an afterthought after being one of the most hyped prospects in recent memory just a year ago. With the infield featuring Rizzo, Castro, Russell, and Bryant, it just seems like the Cubs don’t need Baez to work out anymore. Of course, it would be amazing if he did–imagine adding that kind of power to an already crazy-powerful lineup. If he can make adjustments that improve his pitch recognition and reduce his strikeout rate just a little bit, his power, plus his defense in the middle infield, could really make him a valuable player–especially since he won’t be counted on to carry the team. If Baez does pan out, then the Cubs have a great problem. I think they’ll probably move Bryant to LF (despite him playing CF lately!) and shuffle Baez, Castro, and Russell around as needed. Brsides the offense, it would be great to have 3 true shortstops manning the infield. I have to admit that I’m somewhat pessimistic about Baez’s future, but that’s the difference between now and the past: my pessimism for Baez doesn’t affect my optimism for this team.

Historically, the Cubs’ problem has not been not winning the World Series–that’s a symptom of the underlying disease: not making the playoffs consistently. I’m often disappointed when the lottery numbers come out and I find I didn’t win, but then I realize that I never bought a ticket! Playoff appearances are like lottery tickets, and the Cubs’ issue is that they’ve never bought enough of them. This team, with it’s young, long-term-cost-controlled core, is built to compete for the playoffs consistently year to year…and if you buy enough of those tickets, one of them will eventually hit.

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Does Baseball Need to Change?

Friday, January 30th, 2015

The game of baseball has changed many times over the years. Like any successful endeavor, baseball must evolve to stay fair for players, exciting for fans, and yes, as much as we may not like to think about it, marketable to a wider audience (and the advertisers who covet those eyeballs).  While baseball’s attendance and TV viewership are both healthy at this point, its never bad to be proactive if making changes could enhance the future popularity of the sport. Modifications to the game have included raising or lowering the mound, adding the DH in the AL, and, most recently, adding instant replay challenges. There has been a flurry of news recently in regard to proposed changes to game, from banning defensive shifts (covered by Brian here - I agree that it’s not necessary), to installing a pitch clock, to forcing all pitchers to face a minimum of two batters. Those last two ideas relate to what seems to be the primary concern of those waving the “change or die” flag: shortening the length of the game. It seems clear that game length is the primary concern of MLB right now. From a Yahoo! article by Mike Oz:

“In September, MLB initiated its “Pace of Game” committee that would be exploring ways to speed up games, which had reached a record 3:08 in 2014. In 1984, the average game time was 2:40, so MLB has added almost 30 minutes in 30 years.”

The Pitch Clock

The pitch clock experiment began in the recent Arizona Fall League, and the 17 games in which it was used were an average 10 minutes shorter than the average AFL games the previous season. The pitch clock will now be used in AA and AAA this season (along with a rule requiring the batter to keep one foot in the batter’s box). In this scenario, pitchers have 20 seconds to come set on the rubber, or a ball is added to the count. Of course, Rule 8.04 already exists, which gives pitchers 12 seconds maximum between pitches, but umpires don’t enforce it. Many in the media are for this change:

Pitch clocks are (eventually) coming to baseball – SB Nation

MLB needs a pitch clock — and support for the idea is growing - New York Daily News

The Pitch Clock Is Getting Closer – Deadspin

…and others are against:

A pitch clock in Major League Baseball? No thanks … - Hardball Talk

Major League Baseball doesn’t need a pitch clock - Bless You Boys

…and then there’s are own Jon Lester (no surprise here):

Jon Lester is firmly against pitch clocks in baseball - Yahoo!

My opinion? Instituting any sort of clock is a major change for the game – not that major changes are necessarily bad. However, I think I’d prefer if the umps just enforced Rule 8.04. I know umps probably don’t enforce it because there’s no clock, but I think they could handle this if they were empowered by MLB.

Pitchers Facing a Minimum of Two Batters

Ken Rosenthal recently wrote a column entitled: “Make Relievers Face More Than 1 Batter for Faster Game, More Offense.” Guess who ol’ Ken reports the idea came from…yes, your very own President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein. It is an intriguing idea. I’m thinking about all the ways it would change strategy – from bringing in relievers and pinch hitters to bullpen construction. This was just an idea floated at the GM meetings and taken up by Rosenthal – no formal proposal has been made.

So, what do you think? Have baseball games become too long? If so, and if they need to be shortened, are these the right strategies? Are there other ways to shorten games that won’t affect gameplay as much as these ideas? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Have a great weekend.

 

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Boo! The Scariest Scenarios for the Cubs

Friday, October 31st, 2014

[So Joe will let me keep this image, I'm going to say that it came from cubs.com. You should immediately go to the site and purchase one of these stencils. You'll have it for next Halloween!]

Happy Halloween, fellow Viewers! It’s great to be back. Since we’re celebrating a holiday, I thought I’d have some fun and talk about some of the Cubs’ scariest scenarios. I’m going to rate each one on a 10-point scary factor scale.

1. The Cubs don’t get Joe Maddon.

BREAKING NEWS: The Cubs have dismissed Rick Renteria, clearing the way for the hiring of Joe Maddon (read the press release from Theo here). Multiple sources are reporting that the press conference announcing Maddon as the next manager will take place on Monday. Best of luck to Rick Renteria, who worked hard for a long time to get this opportunity.

2. The Cubs strikeout in their pursuit of free-agent starting pitchers.

It’s well known that the Cubs intend to sign one or two starting pitchers this offseason, with the consensus top choice being Jon Lester. Theo has stated as much, and he’s hinted that they’d like to get a top tier starter (e.g., Lester, Shields, Scherzer) and a second-tier guy (e.g., Masterson, Hammel, McCarthy, Peavy). The bidding could get out-of-hand, though, and there’s no guarantee that the Cubs get someone like Lester or Shields. The young talent on the offensive side is either here or coming very soon, and we have the dream manager on board. Adding a TOR-type pitcher plus another dependable arm is just what this team needs to start competing now.

Scary Factor:  :twisted: (8/10) – The only thing that keeps this from being a 10 is that there is a very strong FA starting pitching class coming up next offseason.

3. Javier Baez turns out to be a bust.

The bat speed is all-time great. The athleticism is outstanding. The positional value should be phenomenal. He has a track record of being able to adapt to new levels of competition…but what if it never comes together for Javy? What if that epic power potential is squandered because of his pitch recognition problems?

Scary Factor:  :evil: (5/10) – A few years ago, this would be a disaster. Now, though, the Cubs have stockpiled so much elite, young offensive talent, a bust of one or two of them won’t destroy the team. We still have Rizzo, Soler, Bryant, Russell, Schwarber, etc… It would hurt, for sure, but it wouldn’t kill.

There’s no bust factor with Javy’s halloween costume, though Javy being Manny! (from Javy’s Instagram account: javy23baez):

Yes it is Javy Being Manny.

4. The planned revenue-enhancing additions to Wrigley Field (signage, Jumbotron) are further delayed/halted by more lawsuits.

There were reports last week that the Ricketts may be in talks to purchase some of the rooftop buildings. This would seem like a logical move: threaten to destroy the value of the buildings by erecting signs, then buy them at a discount as the owners bail. So, I’m not too worried that the signage plan will be derailed, but it could be delayed by some lingering lawsuits against the Landmarks Commission. Although the Cubs have tons of payroll flexibility right now, that comes from starting from a low-point (old, big contracts have come off the books, most of the team’s talent is on young “first” contracts or team-friendly extensions). The total dollar amount will probably not be increasing, though. For the future, the Cubs will need expanded payroll flexibility, so having these additional revenue streams is important.

Scary Factor:  :oops: (4/10) – It’s an important piece of the plan, but I think the signs will happen, but even if they are delayed a bit, the imminent TV deal will make everything OK.

 

What are your scariest scenarios for the Cubs?

Have a great Halloween – it’s an exciting one for Cubs fans!

 

 

 

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