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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 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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