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Why Javier Baez Should Start in AAA

Friday, March 21st, 2014

Before I get into my thesis, check out this photo (props to Brett at BleacherNation.com for turning me on to this):

Take a look at where that pitch is – just a few feet from home plate. Take a look where Baez’s bat is: pointed almost straight at the pitcher. No way he gets that around and makes contact, right? WRONG! How does he do it. BAT SPEED OF THE GODS. Right after this moment, he hit a 450+ ft. homerun to center field.

So, Baez has proven he is ready for the big leagues (with a league-leading 5 homeruns this spring) and should break camp with the team, right? I mean, it’s not like the Cubs have tons of great players, so we should just go ahead and see what we have with this kid, right? WRONG! Here’s why:

1) Baez could still use development. Remember, he’s never seen an at-bat in AAA. You might be saying, “…but, he’s killing MLB pitching, who needs AAA?” Well, keep in mind that 1) he’s not hitting these homeruns off of Clayton Kershaw (many of these pitchers will be in MiLB as well, 2) pitchers in spring training are often working on spotting the fastball, so they aren’t always using their repertoire in the same way they would during the season, and 3) Baez has looked really bad at times striking out on breaking balls way outside the zone. Baez is always going to kill mistakes – there’s no doubt about it, but his pitch recognition skills leave much to be desired. He pretty much swings at everything – if a pitcher makes a mistake, it goes 500 ft., but if a pitcher spots a breaking ball, Baez is going to swing and miss more often than not. The comparisons of Baez to Gary Sheffield in terms of bat speed are apt – the difference is that Sheffield had great pitch recognition skills, even as a teenager. There are some that believe that pitch recognition cannot be developed past a certain age. That might be true, but it’s worth giving Baez a little more time in the minors to work specifically on that skill.

2) All that said, Baez might break camp with the MLB club this spring if it weren’t for long-term financial concerns (HUGE props to Justin Jabs at baseblog94.com for a great rundown of this issue). Here’s the short version: players make the league minimum for the first three years of their careers; in years 4, 5, and 6, they are eligible for arbitration (and thus more money); after 6 years, they are eligible for free agency. To clock a year of service time, a player has to log 172 days in the majors. So, if the Cubs wait until late April, they avoid losing an entire year of pre-free agent years. If the Cubs were a team on the cusp of a playoff berth, OK – maybe you don’t care about the long-term consequences and keep him on the roster now to go for it this season. Obviously, the Cubs aren’t in that position, so there’s absolutely no reason to lose that year.

3) There’s also a reason he might not be called up until July: the Super 2 rule. The top 22% of players (in terms of service time) that have less than three years of service time but more than two are eligible for arbitration a year early (after 2 years instead of 3). The cutoff for Super 2 is July. So, there is another reason that we might have to wait awhile to see Baez at Wrigley.

As Joe pointed out on the podcast (which, btw, you should go to iTunes and check out), many young players are being signed to long-term deals before they reach free agency, so this shouldn’t be a factor, right? The Cubs will just sign him to a long-term deal long before he reaches free agency. This is probably true, but Theo has stated that the team policy is to buy one of the free agent years and to include a second in a team option. So, the team will have more equity in a player if they have more years of pre-arbitration or pre-free agency left when the contract is negotiated. The team is giving a player a contract sooner than they “have” to, so they have more leverage. These service-time issues are still factors in this scenario.

So, even though I’ve stated that Baez is already my favorite player, I’m more than happy to wait to see him at Clark and Addison for all the reasons I’ve discussed above. I think it will be worth the wait.

Until next Friday…

 

 

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Infield Logjam Looming for Cubs

Friday, March 7th, 2014

The Cubs may have a classic “nice” problem in the near future. Several of the team’s top infield prospects will either be on the major league team coming out of spring training – or will be pounding at the door. There’s not enough room on the team for all of them in the future, so something will have to give. Obviously, it’s nice to have a plethora of good, young talent. If a player doesn’t help your team directly, he can be a big part of a trade package that brings something back in return (such as pitching).

Here’s the promising group of players that I’m considering:

Starlin Castro – The incumbent starter at SS, looking for a bounce-back season. Jed Hoyer has recently restated his confidence in Starlin, and he will definitely be the opening day starter at SS, barring an unforeseen complication with his recovery from a mild hamstring issue.

Mike Olt - Once a top-25 prospect in all of baseball, Olt fell off last year, apparently due to eye issues. Reportedly, those issues have been resolved, and Olt is seeing the ball well again. He’s hit for some nice power so far this spring. He’s been prevented from playing third base so far due to some shoulder soreness, but reports have him returning to third soon. Before the eye issues, Olt was projected to have 25-homerun potential with an above-average to excellent glove at third.

Javier Baez – We all know what we have here. One of the top prospects in all of baseball with an all-world power tool. The major question is whether he will stay at SS or be moved to 2B or 3B (he’s been working out at both positions). Some scouts say that Baez’s upper body will fill-out more, which may make him more likely to play third (he certainly has the arm for it), but he may play more 2B in the near term. His power will play well anywhere on the field. His glove probably projects to above-average to excellent at 3B.

Kris Bryant – Again, we all know what’s up with Bryant offensively, but recent reports indicate that the FO is optimistic that Bryant can stick at 3B (at least for now). Many have assumed that Bryant would eventually be moved to the outfield, but his bat (which is good enough to play anywhere), would be even more valuable in the infield. Epstein has said that there’s no hurry to move Bryant off the position.

Arismendy Alcantara – One of the more popular prospects in the system among fans who follow MiLB closely, Alcantara is a switch hitter with excellent speed and good pop. He projects as a top-of-the-order hitter who can get on base (and steal a few). Jason Parks of BP has described him as “Jose Reyes lite.” Alcantara brings several things to the Cubs lineup that are currently missing – speed and pop from the left side. He’s likely to play 2B at the major league level.

Christian Villanueva – Perhaps overlooked, Villanueva had a great season at AA Tennessee last year, posting a .261/.317/.469 line with 19 HRs and 41 doubles, and scouts say he has gold glove potential at third. He’s apparently been impressive so far in camp.

For the purposes of this exercise, we’ll assume a couple of things: 1) Anthony Rizzo is locked-in at first base (the Rizzo/Vogelbach question is something will address at another time), and 2) All of these prospects pan-out to be viable major leaguers (this almost certainly will not happen, but since this can’t be predicted, we’ll just go with this for now).

So, what do you do? For the short term, do you give Olt the shot this season at third? What does that do to Valbuena, Murphy, and Barney? Who do you want/who do you think plays on the big league club in the future? Where do they play? Does anyone get traded? Does someone come off the bench? Is that the best way to get value from that player? I have my own thoughts, but I’d love to hear yours first.

Other bullets:

  • Have you seen that ridiculous interview with Ken Griffey Jr.?
  • Cubs single-game tickets go on sale TODAY at 10 a.m. central on Cubs.com. I’m planning to attend my first opening day at Wrigley this year. It’s the 100th anniversary of the park, so I’m pretty excited about it.

Have a nice weekend!

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Baseball is Back; Theo Talks Prospects

Friday, February 28th, 2014

It always feels great when baseball returns. The Cubs played their first spring training game yesterday against the Diamondbacks. Shark got the “start” (2 innings) against Bronson Arroyo. There wasn’t much insight to be gained from the action on the field – since it’s the first game, guys were in and out of the game very quickly – even the broadcasters were having a hard time keeping up. Starlin Castro looked great in his 2 at-bats, smoking a line-drive double to right center in his second at-bat. Mike Olt did nothing with his two at-bats, and the big-time prospects didn’t make it into the game, so we’ll have to wait for Baez-Bryant-Soler-Almora highlights.

Rick Renteria did his first in-game interview as Cubs manager. I know those things are always sort of awkward (the manager is trying to pay attention to the game while speaking to the broadcasters), and I know Rick was probably a little nervous doing this for the first time, but man, is that guy LOW KEY. That’s not a bad thing, but I think I nodded off 3 times when he was speaking (the content – the most important part – was just fine).

This was the first game in the brand new Cubs park in Mesa. I have to admit, even though it’s a corporate, suburban nightmare simulacrum of Wrigley, it looked pretty fun. This game set the Cactus league record for attendance at over 14,000. The dimensions of the outfield walls are a replica of Wrigley (the walls are moved back a few feet to compensate for the thinner, drier air of AZ), and the grandstands have that Wrigley look as well (there’s even replica brick behind home plate). That’s where the similarities end, however. The player facilities at this new park are state-of-the-art. The training facilities, weight room, batting cages, video rooms, theatre, etc. are amazing. It’s going to be a real downer for the players to leave those facilities and return to the horrendous  player facilities in Chicago. I suppose we’re getting a taste of what the Wrigley facilities could be if the renovations ever begin.

The most interesting part of the WGN broadcast was surely the interview with Theo Epstein. There are so many great quotes that make me feel good about the future of the team:

  • “You want wave after wave of prospects. When these kids come up to the big-league level, you want another wave that’s knocking at the door in the high minors. You want to avoid a gap. One bad draft can set an organization back for years because it creates a vacuum, and you often have to fill that vacuum from a position of desperation from outside the organization, and you can make mistakes that way.”
  • “We attack [pitching depth] with volume through the draft every year, and we try to get an arm back in every deal we make.”
  • When asked about the timeline of prospects coming up to the minors: “When people ask me, ‘when is player X gonna get here,’ I try to shift the question from ‘when’ to ‘how.’ How is he gonna get here? We don’t focus on timing as much as we do getting the player as fully developed as possible in the minor leagues. Our goal is to develop each prospect to their maximum potential physically, mentally, and fundamentally. We have individualized development plans for each player, they have them in writing, they sign off on them, they contribute to them. So when we talk about what it will take to get to the big leagues, we point them back to the plan. Here are your weaknesses physically, here are your weaknesses fundamentally, here are your weaknesses mentally, and here’s a plan to get better in those areas. When they turn those weaknesses into strengths, that’s when they’re ready for the big leagues. It’s not a question of time, it’s rounding out their development. You only get one chance to develop a player in the minor leagues – you can do an awful lot of damage by calling a player up too early.” This is my absolute favorite quote. I love the emphasis on a player’s accountability and ownership of their own development. I love that they sign a written copy of their own development plan. As a teacher, I always try to emphasize process with my students, so I’m thrilled to hear Theo speak about “how” over “when.” You can argue the merits of Theo’s plan, but you certainly can’t argue that he doesn’t have one.
  • Good news for those that have lamented the bullpen woes of late: “We’re pretty excited about the power arms we have now [in the bullpen]. We have plenty of depth in the bullpen this year, we’ll have two left handers, some more power arms with good breaking stuff, some swing-and-miss stuff. Knock on wood, but we have a chance to get off on the right foot with the pen this year. The last couple of years, the pen has cost us early, and it has a chance to be a strength for us out of the gate this year.”

I’m excited to finally have on-the-field action to write about, and I’m looking forward to our discussion from now until October. Hey, if you haven’t checked out the VFTB podcast, give us a try. You can subscribe to us on iTunes, where we always appreciate your ratings and reviews. We’d also love to receive your questions for our mailbag segment.

Until the podcast Monday night, have a great weekend, Cubs fans!

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More Prospect Love, Budweiser Deal, Starlin Batting Leadoff?

Friday, February 21st, 2014

Hello friends. I write to you from several thousand feet above the Atlantic as I return from my assignment covering the Winter Olympics in Sochi for VFTB. I’ll have a report for you on our next podcast. Speaking of podcasts, make sure to subscribe to, rate, and review the VFTB podcast on iTunes.

The last of the Top 100 prospect lists is out from Baseball America. As expected, the Cubs once again make a fine showing. Here’s the breakdown of the Cubs on the list:

5. Javier Baez
8. Kris Bryant
28. C.J. Edwards
36. Albert Almora
41. Jorge Soler
87. Pierce Johnson
100. Arismendy Alcantara

Almora is a little lower on the list than others, but that can probably be attributed to his injuries. If healthy, I believe we’ll see him climb up the board rapidly this summer.

Here’s some tweets from Baseball America’s Ben Badler (@BenBadler) that should make you feel all nice:

“”Why did the Rangers ever trade C.J. Edwards?” -pretty much every team in baseball #BA100″

“The scariest thing about Javier Baez isn’t his freakish bat speed or power. It’s how much he improved all around last year. #BA100″

“Jorge Soler should be a Top 25 prospect next year as long as he’s healthy. Bat speed, 70 power, good approach. Could be a monster. #BA100″

Other bits:

  • Patrick Mooney reports that Starling Castro will likely hit leadoff to start the season.
  • Bruce Levine tweeted that the new Budweiser deal will pay the Cubs $10 million a year for next 14 years.
  • The Cubs released the 2014 TV broadcast schedule.
  • Theo Epstein spoke to Jesse Rogers, and it seems that the GM may regret emphasizing “parallel fronts” in the rebuilding process.

Hey, if you’re into Twitter, follow me, why dontcha? @powell_sean

Until the podcast Monday night…have a good one!

 

 

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You Own the Cubs: Now What?

Friday, February 7th, 2014

There’s not a ton of Cubs-related news at the moment, so let’s play a game.

Scenario: Imagine you are suddenly the new Cubs owner/president/general manager/demigod.

Rules:
1) You must start from the current real-world scenario facing the Cubs. Roster, finances, farm system, draft position, etc.. The Cubs can’t suddenly have a $200 million payroll out of the blue (although you can create a plan to help make this happen).

2) You can’t go “back in time” and sign FAs that have already been signed or makes trades for players who have already been traded this season. You must start from today and move forward.

Now, go forth and get us a championship. You are free to approach this however you’d like, although here are some issues that I urge you to consider.

1) What would you do in the very near term regarding the major league roster? What’s the lineup and starting rotation? Who is in the bullpen and on the bench? Who gets sent back down to the minors?

2) Prospects! When do you call up or promote minor leaguers? Where do they fit in to the major league lineup once they’re there?

3) What trades would you pursue – this offseason, during the season, and next offseason?

4) What would be your overall long-term strategy? What would you do differently than the current FO?

5) How would you handle the financial situation? Think about rooftops, Wrigley renovation, radio and TV deals, etc..

6) How long would you keep Clark?

I’m looking forward to seeing what you come up with!

By the way, if you haven’t done so already, please check out Episode 1 of the View from the Bleachers podcast! It was a total blast to do, and I’m chomping at the bit for the next episode. Please subscribe to us on iTunes and remember to rate and review!

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Tanaka Tears, Prospect Love, Garza, Rooftop Battle

Friday, January 24th, 2014

I have to admit, I’m disappointed we didn’t sign Tanaka. I knew we only had an outside shot, but it’s not often that you get a chance to sign a 25-year-old, TOR-potential pitcher—with nothing to lose but money. I do appreciate that the FO put in a good offer (I do believe that there was a real, honest effort to land Tanaka, not just a show for fans), and I’m encouraged that they had the financial resources to do so. There have been various reports as to what the offer actually was (some have said that the Cubs would have been willing to go up to the 7-year, $150 million range if that would have been required to land him), but it really seems like Tanaka was going to go to the Yankees no matter what. Really, I can’t blame him. If I were moving to Japan to play baseball, I’d probably want to go to the team with the longest winning tradition, in the biggest media market, with a chance to win now (well, maybe not me, since I’m an underdog kind of guy, but most people would probably choose that path). Anyway, we’re left to watch Tanaka from afar. Of course, Tanaka may wind up being more Igawa than Darvish, but there’s risk with any player.

In happier news, the Cubs’ farm system is rocking the charts these days. Baseball Prospectus just put out their list of the Cubs top ten prospects, and it goes as such:

1. Javier Baez
2. Kris Bryant
3. Albert Almora
4. Jorge Soler
5. C.J. Edwards
6. Arismendy Alcantara
7. Pierce Johnson
8. Dan Vogelbach
9. Christian Villanueva
10. Jeimer Candelario

If you have a subscription, you can read the scouting summaries of each prospect. I don’t want to give too much away, but here’s a teaser: the words “Miguel” and “Cabrera” are included in the Javier Baez write-up.

Speaking of Baez-induced drool, BP’s Jason Parks (@ProfessorParks) said this in a chat the other day in reference to Baez:

“One front office source told me that thinks Baez has hall of fame potential. No don’t go crazy with one projection, but if you really believe in the bat–meaning you think he will reach his offensive projections–35+ home runs is possible, all from a left-side of the diamond home. This is an extreme opinion, but not all that crazy when it comes to potential. Javier Baez could have a very special bat; the hand/eye, the bat speed, the raw strength are elite. If he puts it all together, he could be one of the best players in the game. If he stays healthy and consistent once he achieves that level, the hyperbole and hype of the present won’t seem so crazy.”

In other news, the Brewers have apparently signed Matt Garza to a four-year, $52 million deal, although, as of Thursday night, the Brewers weirdly denied that a deal was completed. My guess is that they are waiting on the medicals (which, for Garza, wouldn’t just be perfunctory—he’s had well-documented elbow troubles in the past). If the Brewers do sign him, I have some advice to Renteria: bunt!

Brett Taylor (a former lawyer) over at Bleacher Nation has a nice write-up on the lawsuit the rooftops are bringing against Marc Ganis, a sports consultant who worked for the Cubs, for what amounts to defamation. If you can stomach it, give it a read. It may be the first in a long line of litigation.

On that note, have a nice weekend!

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Will Tanaka be ‘The Man’ in Chicago?

Monday, January 20th, 2014

Bruce Levine got everyone excited with some tweets on Saturday that made the Cubs sound like the frontrunners for Tanaka. Here are some examples:

@MLBBruceLevine:

“Wake up tweeters! Cubs made Tanaka a real offer to be there ace and grow with their other talented young players.” [sic]

“Japanese source said Tanaka loves a challenge and wants to be the man. All that is waiting for him at Clark and Addison.”

“MLB source believes Cubs are lead team for Tanaka.”

David Kaplan (@thekapman) chimed in with this yesterday:

“Finally, NL scout I just talked to believes Tanaka is worth risk, + Cubs willing to spend huge. However, not a contender is huge impediment.”

Besides the obvious issue of landing a potential top-of-the-rotation arm, there are broader implications for the team. If the Cubs have made a serious offer, one that competes with and possibly beats other offers (and there have been many reports from various sources to indicate this) it is an indicator that the team is willing and able to spend money when the team needs it. If this is the case, it’s reassuring, since there have been doubts about ownership’s willingness to spend. As for Tanaka, it sounds like the Cubs are trying to sell him on the idea of “being the man” in Chicago – essentially, he’ll go down in baseball lore if he helps bring a championship to Chicago. We should know within the next few days if this strategy worked.

Speaking of finances, it appears that the Cubs and the rooftop owners are closing in on a deal that would allow the renovations of Wrigley Field to commence. The Ricketts have been unwilling to begin the renovations until the threat of a lawsuit from the rooftops was off the table. Tom Loxas over at Cubs Insider did some nice reporting on this issue.

What do you think about MLB’s expanded replay rules?

I love these alternate throwback jerseys the Cubs will be wearing this season. What do you think?

 

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WWTD? (What will Tanaka do?)

Friday, December 27th, 2013

I hope everyone had a great Christmas. 

Let’s try an exercise. Here’s the scenario: First, imagine you are not a Cubs fan (this is probably harder for some than others). Second, imagine you’re Japanese pitching phenom Masahiro Tanaka (stay with me here). Third, imagine you have the option of signing with any major league team. Which team would you choose? Would you automatically go with the highest bid? Do you want to play on a team with a rich tradition of championships like the Yankees? Do you want to go to a team loaded with win-now major league talent like the Dodgers? Do you want to play in a market where you can maximize endorsement deals and media exposure? …or, do you select a team who is a few years away from being competitive, plays in a historic ballpark, hasn’t won in 100+ years, and (might) offer you the biggest contract (i.e., the Cubs)? Would a chance to bring a championship to this team matter? Do you even know the history of the Cubs?

Multiple reports have indicated that the Cubs will be “all in” on Tanaka. Perhaps they’ve been saving and “shaving” payroll in preparation for this opportunity. Maybe they see this as the first step toward competitiveness over the next 2 to 3 years. It is a rare thing to be able to land a talent of this caliber and to lose nothing but money.

So, for now, let’s assume that the finances will be there (something we won’t be sure of until the deal is made public). What would it take to convince Tanaka to come to Chicago? Even though it’s my favorite city (and I’m not a Chicagoan), I have no idea how known Chicago is in Japan – or how popular the Cubs are there. If Tanaka knows something of Chicago, maybe they have a chance, but if he sees it just as a city in the middle of the country with a bad team (and poor player facilities), would it even be possible to land him at all? Fukodome did sign with the Cubs, but he’s not in the same league as Tanaka as far as demand. Will the Cubs have to overwhelm Tanaka with a contract offer that is significantly larger than other offers? Could – and should – the Cubs do that?

So, imagine you are in Tanaka’s shoes right now. What would you do? What factors would determine your course of action?

Have a safe and happy new year!

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Winter Meetings Recap: What’s Next for Shark? Plus Tanaka, Wada, Ruggiano, Cutler

Friday, December 13th, 2013

As expected, there wasn’t much action from the Cubs during the Winter Meetings (and they certainly didn’t make any significant moves). Most of the action around the league came last week, so the meetings themselves were sort of a letdown. Here’s a quick recap of the moves the Cubs did (and didn’t) make this week.

  • First, the Rule 5 draft: The Cubs lost reliever Marcos Mateo to those pesky Diamondbacks. Mateo injured his arm a couple of seasons ago, but he’s been killing it in the DR lately. In the minor league round, the Cubs lost 1B/DH Justin Bour to the Marlins, pitcher A.J. Morris to the Pirates, and OF Julio Borbon (remember him?) to the Orioles. It wasn’t all losses, as the Cubs did select catcher Charles Cutler (no relation to Jay, I assume) from the Pirates. He’ll add organizational depth at a position that desperately needs it. The Cubs players I most feared would be selected (Jae-Hoon Ha, Eric Jokisch, Matt Loosen, Marcus Hatley) were not selected…so that’s good.
  • The Cubs traded OF Brian Bogusevic to the Marlins for OF Justin Ruggiano. Why trade an outfielder for an outfielder? It’s all about the platoon. The Cubs were (oddly) stacked with left-handed outfielders on the major league roster (Bogusevic, Sweeney, Schierholtz), so the team needed a right-handed OF for a platoon (none of these guys are great full-time starting options, so I imagine that Ruggiano will platoon with Sweeney and/or Schierholtz, depending on who has the hot hand). Ruggiano has a career .256/.328/.506 line against lefties, and seems to be a nice defender (especially in the corners, although he can play center as well). This trade isn’t going to make the front page, but it’s definitely one of those “value at the margins” type deals.
  • The Cubs signed 32-year-old left-handed reliever Tommy Hottovy (great name, huh?) to a minor league deal. Eh, maybe he turns into something decent for the middle innings…relief pitching is such a crapshoot, it’s really a numbers game.
  • The Cubs have shown interest in John Axford, but so have many other teams.
  • Joba Chamberlain agreed to a deal with the Tigers.
  • Roberto “Fausto Carmona” Hernandez signed with the Phillies.
  • As we go to press, the Cubs have signed free agent pitcher Tsuyoshi Wada. Wada, formerly of the Japanese league, was signed by the Orioles before the 2012 season – and immediately underwent Tommy John surgery. He was recuperating last year, so he may be ready to go full-steam ahead now. This is the classic Theo/Jed buy-low reclamation project. There’s virtually no risk, since it’s a minor league deal. Don’t look for him to begin the year in the rotation – although he did get an invite to Spring Training.
  • The two big names that are on everyone’s mind are, obviously, Jeff Samardzija and Masahiro Tanaka. In fact, I think the lack of movement on these two, plus David Price, was responsible for the “frozen” state of the winter meetings. Once Tanaka is posted (and signs with someone), the market for Price and Shark should crystalize relatively quickly. I’m too scared to even make a prediction on Tanaka. For Shark, I was thinking that he was definitely going to be traded this offseason. Now? I think it’s 50/50 that we go into the season with Shark and see if we can’t catch a team desperate (either through injury or an unexpected good season) at the trade deadline. Since there’s absolutely no panic to trade him right now, I think Theo will wait it out to get the best possible return. If 2 months of Garza can net Edwards and Olt, we really should wait for a much bigger return for Shark, considering he’s under control for 2 more years.
  • MLB, in an attempt to curb collisions at home plate, is outlawing plate-blocking by catchers and “targeting” by baserunners.
  • Ron Coomer is your new Cubs radio analyst.
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