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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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The Cubs’ Weird Week

Friday, August 22nd, 2014

 

A lot of strange things happened in Cubland this week. Let’s recap.

1. Tarpgate

There was a LONG rain delay Tuesday night as the Cubs’ groundscrew had some issues with the tarp once rain hit. It was only about a 10-minute shower, but it dumped enough water on the field to make the surface unplayable. The grounds crew took a ton of flak for this (and they were no doubt embarrassed), but this really seems like a freak occurrence. There was no rain in the forecast – and no rain visible on the radar – so the morning crew was cut from 20 to 17 (a standard procedure). There were also reports that the tarp was put away improperly the previous time, but you have to believe that a full crew would have been able to handle it. Bruce Levine has the full story here.

In any case, after about a 4 1/2 hour delay, the game was called – and since 4.5 innings had been played, and the home team was in the lead, the game was deemed official, and the Cubs were awarded a win. The Giants were understandably upset and filed a protest. Amazingly, against every pundit’s prediction, the protest was honored and the game resumed on Thursday (after another rain delay!). It seems like a dangerous precedent to set – after all, it’s in the rules that a game is official if called after 5 innings (or 4 1/2 if the home team has the lead). To their credit, the Cubs’ did apparently offer to resume the game the next day. It all didn’t matter in the end in this particular case, as the Cubs held on to win 2-1.

2. Starlin Castro takes bereavement leave.

Starlin Castro’s cousin and three close friends were killed in an auto accident in the Dominican Republic, and Castro has taken bereavement leave. We wish Starlin and his family all the best as they try to get through this difficult time.

3. Edwin Jackson goes on the DL with a “lat injury.”

Edwin Jackson has not been good at throwing baseballs this season. His stuff is still there, but he seems to have no command or confidence. Although he’s long denied that he was hurt, he finally went on the DL with a “lat injury” this week. Call me cynical, but I think this is simply a phantom injury that accomplishes a couple of things: 1) It gives Edwin an excuse to take a breather and get his head on straight and 2) it gives the Cubs a chance to get some starts for their new pitchers Jacob Turner, Felix Doubront, and Dan Straily (and maybe others). If Jackson comes back this season, I predict he’ll pitch out of the pen. Who knows? Maybe he’ll have some value down the road as a reliever. To his credit, Jackson is making no excuses and stated that he has a lot to prove to the team and the fans. Let’s hope he finds his way back into a productive role.

4. Some rooftops sue city, but not Cubs

They’re challenging the Landmark Commission’s decision to allow for the outfield signage that blocks their views, claiming that the view of the rooftops from Wrigley is part of what makes it unique, and thus a landmark. Seems like a stretch.

5. Matt Szczur, Logan Watkins, Zac Rosscup called up

Not weird, but notable. Logan Watkins was once an exciting, fast-rising prospect, but his bat has really cooled off over the last couple of years, and Arismendy Alcantara has surpassed him as the super-sub of the future.

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Welcome to the Bandwagon

Friday, August 8th, 2014

Today, Javier Baez made his Wrigley Field debut. For those of us who have followed Cubs prospects the last few years (“prospect hipsters” according to Jon Greenberg), this marks the beginning of the long-awaited turnaround. Perhaps this is the “Tipping Point” that Chris wrote about.

I totally understand that most fans are casual fans. That is, they keep up with the overall play of the big league club and don’t care too much about the minor leagues – I get it. I also understand that even more serious fans aren’t going to be interested in the teams’ prospects as much as someone who writes for a blog or is active in the Cubs Twitter community is. Most fans are going to lose quite a bit of interest if the major league club isn’t playing well…or, they will complain loudly that this team is the “same old losers”/Ricketts is a cheap bum/Theo is overrated/whatever. Now that the prospects that many of us were following and anxiously anticipating are finally making it to the big league team, many bandwagon fans will follow. You know what? I’m OK with that. After all, we’re all on the same side, and I think Cubs fans spend a little too much energy criticizing each other (it happens out in the bleachers all the time). Yes, I find it absolutely frustrating when I hear ignorant folks criticize the front office for moves that they totally don’t understand (it’s usually the same people that argue that wins are the most important stat for a pitcher), but I’m ready to welcome those fans aboard the prospect-driven bandwagon with open arms. Come on in, it should be a fun ride.

I have a theory about why so many baseball fans don’t see to understand the farm system/prospect development aspect of baseball. I blame the NFL and NBA. In those leagues, players who are drafted (especially those who are early-round picks in the NFL and lottery picks in the NBA) can often step right into the starting lineup of a team and contribute right away. In those sports, if you are a gifted athlete, you can use your talents to play the game at a high level right away while learning the finer nuances of the sport as you go. Baseball is more about applying athleticism to discrete skills – and those skills simply take time to develop. You can be the greatest athlete in the world, but if you can’t recognize pitches at the plate or control a breaking ball, it’s all for naught. It’s very rare to have a player like Bryce Harper who can come straight out of high school and play at the major league level. Many casual fans – who are influenced by the way things work in those other sports – don’t understand this need for skill development. I’ve had friends ask me why it took Javier Baez (if he’s so great) so long to make the majors – and he’s TWENTY-ONE YEARS OLD.

So, like I said, I get it. It’s up to those of us who follow prospects to educate those who don’t understand, although it can be difficult in the face of so many losing seasons. It’s been fun to follow these prospects in the minors the last few years, but I am looking forward to shifting my attention to the big league club. I just hope that the “casual” fan can appreciate the planning and patience it took to build the system the way it was built – the pay-off is coming. After all, all great players were once prospects. I mean, we can’t all own Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler Tennessee Smokies shirseys.

In other news:

  • The Cubs completed the trade for Marlins’ starter Jacob Turner, and the Cubs gave up a pair of minor league relievers – Jose Arias and Tyler Bremer. This is a slam-dunk no-brainer for the Cubs. Turner is a former top prospect with good velocity, solid stuff, and promising peripherals. He’s been down lately, but the potential is there. With Chris Bosio’s track record of success working with these type of pitchers (see Arrieta, Jake), it makes so much sense to make this deal. Arias and Bremer’s absolute ceilings were as middle relievers, and they are a dime a dozen (have any of you stayed up late to see Arias/Bremer stat lines from recaps?). Turner had to be added to the 25- and 40-man rosters, so the Cubs DFA’d Ryan Kalish, who showed so much promise during spring training.

[As an aside, I remember being laughed at in the comments when I mentioned that the decision to keep Bosio on the staff was a great one because of his work turning around pitchers and increasing ground ball rates through work on the two-seam fastball – and it was by the same guy who defended pitcher wins.]

  • The Cubs did not complete a trade for Cole Hamels, whom they had claimed off waivers from the Phillies. Apparently, the Phillies were asking for Addison Russell as the beginning of any package, and I think it makes sense for both teams that the trade wasn’t made right now. At least we know that the Cubs were willing to take on his hefty contract, which is a great sign (and should – but won’t – silence critics who say that Ricketts won’t spend money). Perhaps they will revisit acquiring Hamels in the offseason.
  • The Cubs held a private workout at Wrigley Field for Cuban 3B/OF free agent Rusney Castillo. Scouting reports on Castillo vary from top-of-the-order impact player to good fourth outfielder. The Cubs seem to be interested, especially since they did the “sell job” of working him out at Wrigley rather than at their spring training facility in Arizona. It will be interesting to follow this story. The Cubs could certainly use another outfielder going into next season, even with the impending arrival of Jorge Soler and Kris Bryant.

 

Happy Weekend!

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Cubs Trade Deadline Recap

Friday, August 1st, 2014

It was a crazy day on Thursday as the MLB trade deadline arrived. It was the best trade deadline I can remember, with many huge names being moved, many surprises, and many moves made at the very last minute, adding to the excitement.

Around baseball, you had Jon Lester going from Boston to the A’s (Billy Beane has gone full Brad Pitt on us), and the Tigers countering by getting (stealing? – we’ll see) David Price from the Rays. How good do those rotations look now? I wonder how much Hammel’s struggles since joining the A’s contributed to the decision to trade for Lester (I would imagine quite a bit). By the way, I think the Cubs look REALLY smart by jumping the market and trading Shark and Hammel at the beginning of the month. The pitching market became really crowded yesterday, and Hammel has regressed since the trade. If we found ourselves competing with a crowded starting pitcher market plus a scuffling Hammel? No way we get the return that we got from the A’s on July 4th. I mean, I’m much happier with what we got then I would be as a Rays fan today (I know some of them, and let me tell you, they are miffed).

To me, the most confusing move was the Marlins-Astros trade. The Marlins are trying to win this year (I can’t blame them for that), but they gave up a ton. They moved 3B Colin Moran (the sixth overall pick in last year’s draft!), OF Jake Marisnick, RHP Francis Martes and a 2015 compensatory draft pick to the Astros for starter Jarred Cosart (he of the 4.41 ERA), utility man Kike Hernandez, and OF Austin Wates. Think about this: The Astros pretty much got the #1 and #4 draft picks last year, and they’ll have the #2 pick (since they didn’t sign Brady Aiken this year) plus whatever pick the wind up getting through their record next year (so, they could wind up picking #1 and #2) – PLUS they’ll have a compensatory round pick next year as well. Even though they didn’t sign their first pick this season, they’re going to have a crazy top-end system after next year’s draft. What did the Marlins get for this? A young starter who perhaps isn’t all that good. Maybe he helps them win a few more this year, maybe not. Meh.

OK, onto the Cubs moves. There were basically three transactions yesterday, so let’s take a look:

The Cubs received their player to be named from the Dodgers in the Darwin Barney trade – and hey, he isn’t nothing! Jonathan Martinez is a young pitcher who may actually play in the big leagues one day! That’s much more than I was expecting to get from Barney (honestly, I thought we’d just get a bit of salary relief and open up a roster spot). Martinez is a top-20 organizational type player – he was ranked the #11 Dodgers prospect by Baseball America. He’s 20, so he has some time to develop, but he’ll probably end up as a middle relief guy – hey, I’ll take it.

The second transaction the Cubs made was trading for Red Sox pitcher Felix Doubront. Doubront was a former Theo Epstein International Free Agent signing who was ranked as the #5 Red Sox prospect just three years ago (and that was in a good system). The lefty has the stuff the be a starter in the big leagues, but he’s been inconsistent – and he’s had his share of drama recently. He has been explicitly unhappy about being moved from the rotation to the bullpen. I know you generally want to avoid drama on a team, but perhaps this can be used to motivate him. Chris Bosio has had incredible success with reclamation projects like this recently – and Doubront’s numbers are actually a little better than Arrieta’s were when he came over from Baltimore. I’m not saying that we should expect that level of success, but if he can be a solid member of a rotation, it was more than worth the low price we paid – a player to be named after the Rule 5 draft (don’t worry, it will be a low-level guy, not someone on whom we’re counting on for the future). For now, Doubront has been placed on the disabled list with a, ahem, *cough* real leg injury, so the Cubs won’t have to find a spot for him on the MLB team right now. Isn’t it convenient that this injury would pop up right now? I mean, what are the odds?!

The third transaction the Cubs made, of course, was trading Emilio Bonifacio and James Russell to the Braves for catching prospect Victor Caratini. Apparently, this deal came together no sooner than 45 minutes before the deadline. The clubs had talked about Boni and Russell independently, but the deal came together when a package was suggested. This deal aligns with the Cubs FO’s trading philosophy as of late: rather than trading players individually for a quantity of prospects, they have been packaging players to yield a better quality prospect in return (and, in this case, kicking in more salary to up the level of the prospect). This was also the strategy employed in the Shark/Hammel trade this year and the Feldman/Clevenger trade last year. Caratini is a switch-hitting catcher who was ranked as the #7 prospect in the Braves system by Fangraphs. MLB already has him as the Cubs #13 prospect (and we’re talking about the #1 system in all of baseball), so it’s obvious that at least some scouts believe he can stick at catcher and make a big-league team. If he can indeed stick at catcher, his bat profiles very well there. Catcher was definitely the weakness of our farm system, but after this trade and the last draft, we have a handful of intriguing prospects at the position. If even one of those emerges, you’d be elated.

As with all transactions in sports, only time will tell who “won” the trade. This front office’s trade record has been pretty stellar in the past, so there’s reason to be optimistic. None of the transactions made yesterday were franchise-altering – no players envisioned in future plans were traded away, and no future all-stars were likely obtained in return. However, it’s these types of smaller moves that add up to an overall competitive club.

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A Look at Potential Free Agent Pitching Acquisitions

Friday, July 25th, 2014

Hello Friends. It’s been a minute. I write to you from sunny Denton, Texas, where it is a refreshing 102 degrees.

We all know about the impending rise of the Cubs’ positional super-prospects, with Baez, Bryant, and Soler waiting in AAA and Russell and Almora right behind them in AA. Add in Kyle Schwarber, who looks like a fast riser, Alcantara already playing full-time on the big league club, and Castro and Rizzo playing at an all-star level, and the Cubs offensive future looks bright indeed.

So how about the starting rotation? Although the Cubs do have some interesting pitching prospects, they are either 4/5 types (e.g., Kyle Hendricks, Dallas Beeler) or a few years away from the big leagues (Jen-Ho Tseng, Pierce Johnson, this year’s draftees like Dylan Cease), and there doesn’t seem to be a sure “ace” in the making among the group. Well, I still think the Cubs are well-positioned to build a solid rotation over the next few years. First, they have built the most highly-regarded farm system in baseball by stocking up on elite positional talent, so they have the pieces to trade for pitching when appropriate. Second, they have cleared salary off the MLB squad, so they should have the money available to pursue free agent pitching (they should also have increased revenue from the Wrigley renovations, but that’s another article).

When done in the right way, I think acquiring pitching through free agency and through trades is a lower-risk proposition than spending first-round draft picks on pitching. We’ve seen this philosophy played-out in the Cubs approach to drafting over the last few years. Select a high-ceiling/high-floor positional player with the first round pick, and then attack pitching through volume with the remaining picks. Why do I think this strategy is the right way to go? Simply put, pitchers are a huge risk. Pitchers can break down at any time. Just look at the rash of Tommy John surgeries this year, not to mention the failed signing of first overall pick Brady Aiken, whose MRI results scared the Astros (and he didn’t even have any injury yet!). By choosing safer positional players with early picks (Bryant, Almora, and Schwarber look like really smart picks so far), you reduce the risk of drafting a player who is a higher injury (and thus, bust) risk and you replace that risk with a lower risk: pursuing a pitcher with a track-record of success through trade or free agency. I didn’t really get what this FO was doing when they selected Kris Bryant over Jonathan Gray last year, but that just shows you what I know – he’s now the #1 prospect in all of baseball.

With that in mind, I thought I’d take a look at a few pitchers who will become free agents after this season. Remember, just because a pitcher has done well in the past and is on the market doesn’t mean it’s always a good idea to throw the bank at them. You want to pay for what a pitcher will do in the future, not what they’ve done in the past, and it’s a rare event when a big, long-term contract given to an older-than-30 pitcher works out.

John Lester

Career Stats: 3.65 ERA, 3.61 FIP, 120 ERA+, 2.61 SO/BB

2014 States: 2.50 ERA, 2.60 FIP, 157 ERA+, 4.58 SO/BB

Lester is having a fantastic year, and he has a relationship with Theo Epstein from his time with the Red Sox. There seems to be mutual respect there. Lester seems like a no-brainer, but he is 30, and is certain to begin a decline over the next few years. What would be a reasonable contract for him? We offered Shark 5 years and 85 million, and it seems like Lester would command more than that on the open market. Are we going to be competitive enough in the next 2 years or so to make paying him big money in is age 33, 34, and 35 seasons worth it? I guess it depends on how much you think the team will improve with the additions of Baez, Bryant, and Soler next year. Even though these guys are awesome propects, they will be rookies. I wouldn’t hate it if the Cubs signed Lester, I just don’t want to regret years 4, 5, 6 of his contract if we can’t put it together in the first 3.

Max Scherzer

Career Stats: 3.64 ERA, 3.46 FIP, 116 ERA+, 3.36 SO/BB

2014 Stats: 3.37 ERA, 3.06 FIP, 1.21 ERA+, 4.03 SO/BB

Scherzer, the 2013 AL Cy Young Award winner, has always been solid, but he’s really come on the last two years. He has everything you want in a front-line starter, but he will turn 30 next season. I think I’d like Scherzer over Lester if they could be had for the same contract, but I think Scherzer is going to cost a king’s ransom on the open market. The fact that Scott Boras is his agent doesn’t help.

Justin Masterson

Career Stats: 4.16 ERA, 3.83 FIP, 96 ERA+, 2.03 SO/BB

2014 Stats: 5.51 ERA, 4.09 FIP, 68 ERA+, 1.66 SO/BB

Masterson, an all-star in 2013 (although he had a better year in 2011), is having a down year. However, this may be an opportunity for the Cubs to sign him to a shorter, “prove yourself” deal. If the Cubs could get Masterson on a 2-year deal, I wouldn’t hesitate to strike. If he can revert back to his 2011-2013 self, you have something, either as a piece of a competitive rotation or a trade chip. If not, you’re not saddled with a long-term albatross. I like the potential for a bargain here. Masterson will turn 30 in March.

You can see the theme here: It’s become very difficult to find front-line starters on the free agent market younger than 30. That’s why I was so enthusiastic about trying to sign Tanaka, since he was 25 and only cost money (and those type of pitchers just don’t make it to market these days). Tanaka is another illustration of just how risky signing pitcher to big contracts is – even if he was young and had a track record of durability.

There are a few other names on the market, like James Shields (he’s 32) and Brandon McCarthy (31) that could be interesting targets for shorter deals. It will also be interesting to see if the FO goes for any more of those one-year flip candidates again, since they’ve been so successful with those in the past (Scott Feldman, Jason Hammel, etc…). At some point, though, the team will have to stop flipping and start accumulating long-term pitching assets.

Until next time, have a great weekend.

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A Look at Starlin Castro’s Turnaround

Tuesday, May 20th, 2014

It feels good to be back. I’ve been in the middle of a big move, and I’m still in a sort of limbo, but you, dear reader, have remained in my heart.

There hasn’t been much to get excited about as far as team accomplishments this season, but there have been some individual performances from young players that allow me to have hope for the future. Anthony Rizzo has shown tremendous maturity and patience at the plate, Shark is pitching out of his mind, Mike Olt has shown RIDIC power, and some of the young bullpen arms look outstanding. Today, though, I’d like to focus on the player who had the most question marks surrounding him coming into this season: Starlin Castro.

We all know the story of Castro’s 2013: it was awful. Apparently, there were attempts by the management to get him to adjust his approach to become a more patient, “selectively aggressive” hitter that just didn’t work out. To recap, his 2013 numbers were .245/.284/.347/.631 which was good for a -0.6 WAR and 72 OPS+ (by far career lows). [as a quick review for those that need it: WAR is Wins Against Replacement (so Castro in 2013 actually performed worse than a AAA replacement shortstop) and OPS+ is a normalized On-base plus Slugging metric in which 100 is league average – so Castro was 28% worse than league average – this was the first year he didn’t have a 100 OPS+ or better].

It’s early in the season, but there’s no mistaking that Castro seems like a different player this year. Even without looking at the statistics, it’s obvious that Castro is driving the ball more, and he seems to be having more “fun” out there this year (does having fun lead to better production, or does better production lead to having more fun? I tend to think it’s more of the latter, but there’s probably a two-way relationship there). As for the numbers, they’re absolutely fantastic: .302/.341/.491/.832 with a 1.3 WAR (which is awesome – remember, WAR is cumulative, so to have that number in May is great – his career-high WAR for a season is 3.4, which he posted in 2012) and a 123 OPS+ (career high is 111 in 2011). Again, it’s early, but his slugging percentage is 60 points higher than his career high, as is his OPS. If this holds, this will be Castro’s best season by a significant margin. So far, Castro has been the second-best offensive shortstop in all of baseball (behind only Troy Tulowitzski, who is out of his mind).

The most striking difference is found in the power numbers. I’ve already referenced the career-high (so far) .491 slugging, but a look at Castro’s ISO can give us even more information [quick review: ISO (Isolated Power) is a measure of a player’s raw power and is calculated by subtracting batting average from slugging percentage, which gives us a metric for extra base hits per at bat]. Castro’s ISO this year is a very-excellent (and career high by far) .189 (his previous career high was .147). [side note: Mike Olt’s ISO is an insane .275 – dude basically either strikes out or hits a home run.] Castro already has 6 home runs and 12 doubles.

So, why is Castro playing so much better this season? Is it because he’s abandoned the “experiment” from last season and returned to his pure, “see-ball-hit-ball” instinctive approach? Or, is that “experiment” finally paying-off? After all, the point of that experiment was for Castro to wait for pitches that he can drive for extra-base power. Is it the positive influence of Rick Renteria? Is it the absence of the influence of Dale Sveum? Should we credit new hitting coach Bill Mueller? Is it simply a result of Castro’s natural maturation (after all, he’s still only 24)? Is he working harder now? Is his personal life in better shape? Is it due to the energy brought in by players like Bonofacio? Is it due to pressure from minor league players knocking at the door? Honestly, we’ll never really know, and I suspect that it’s a complex combination of all of the above. After all, human beings are messy, complicated creatures, and our behavior is rarely due to one factor. I’d love to hear your thoughts about Castro in the comments. Do you think he is going to sustain this over the course of the season and moving forward? If you wanted to trade Castro before, have you changed your mind?

Next time, I’ll have some thoughts on the upcoming – and very important – MLB Draft. Later!

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