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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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Enemy Territory: Why My Visit to Busch Stadium Was So Disappointing

Tuesday, April 15th, 2014

I was in St. Louis last weekend for a conference, and it just so happened that the Cubs were in town for a series against the Cardinals. I got to attend the games on Friday night and Saturday afternoon. I won’t recap the games here, since that’s been done elsewhere (although, obviously, Friday night was AWESOME and Saturday sucked). I would, however, like to share my experiences as a Cubs fan in Cardinal land – and why it was so disappointing.

I knew that there would be plenty of Cubs fans at Busch – there always is. So, I wasn’t expecting to be all alone in blue. What I did expect – in fact, what I was looking forward to – was some aggressive, good-natured (or even not-so-good natured) ribbing/heckling/etc.. I expected to hear it from the gloating Cardinals fans. As I donned my Cubs shirt and headed down to the stadium, I was imagining the kind of things I would hear (I was sitting in the cheap seats, after all), and what some witty, sharp responses might be. Hell, Cubs fans in the bleachers heckle EACH OTHER incessantly during games at Wrigley. Much to my disappointment, I wasn’t harassed one bit. Not even a joking “Cubs suck.” Not a single “Wrigley Field is a dump” or “Starlin Castro is awful.” Nothing. Although I enjoyed watching the games, I was severely let down by the lack of back-and-forth with the Cards fans.

I have a larger point to make here. We always hear (mostly from those in the national media, as well as Cardinals fans themselves) that Cardinals fans are “baseball’s best fans” (@BestFansStLouis is a hilarious Twitter follow, by the way) because of their supposed knowledge of the game and respect for visitors. What I felt at Busch stadium wasn’t respect – it was apathy. During Friday nights game, when the Cards were down 2 runs in the 8th, at least two-thirds of the stadium emptied. All those who left were Cards fans. This was on an absolutely gorgeous FRIDAY night. I was at the Cubs’ home opener 2 weeks ago. It was 35 degrees with 30 mph winds. The Cubs were down 7-2 in the bottom of the 9th – and almost no one left. It was a stark contrast to atmosphere I saw in St. Louis. I wonder if winning so much makes fans like this – or if fans in St. Louis would be this way no matter what…

The thing that irked me the most, though, was Ballpark Village. This is the Cardinals’ completely contrived, corporate, vanilla version of Wrigleyville. Here’s the tweet I sent out when I visited Ballpark Village after the game on Saturday:

Ballpark Village comes complete with its own rooftop building. It looks very much like one of the Wrigleyville rooftops (it’s across the street from the park, there are bleachers and a bar on top, fans can see the game from the roof, etc.), but it differs in major ways: the Cardinals own the building, and the attendance on the rooftop counts as attendance for the ballpark. Interestingly, Ballpark Village is on Clark Street. You can’t blame the team for cashing-in on what’s obviously something that fans enjoy – but the fact that it imitates the ballpark atmosphere of your hated rival seems so strange. I guess what I’m saying is that this is another piece of evidence that Cards fans may lack passion. Do you think that the Yankees would build something that looks like Fenway? Again, is it the winning that makes these guys so complacent, or is it something inherent in the nature of St. Louisians? (is that a word?)

The Cardinals giveaway on Friday night was a Michael Wacha bobblehead. I was originally going to run a contest looking for the most creative way of destroying the bobblehead (I was going to post video of it on the site). I thought that I could probably do more good with this thing, though, so I’ve decided to auction the bobblehead on ebay and give the proceeds to Cubs Charities. So, spread the word to all those Cards fans you know.

Catch ya later…

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Report from Opening Weekend at Wrigley

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

I was fortunate enough to be able to make it to Chicago this weekend for the 100th Opening Day at Wrigley. So, instead of diving in to a particular topic about the team, I thought I’d share my experience for those of you who couldn’t make it.

I don’t teach class on Thursday afternoon or at all on Friday (have I mentioned how awesome it is to be a college professor?), so my wife (who is a teacher and was on spring break) and I flew up on Thursday afternoon. I met my brother and his friends (who were attending their 5th straight home opener) around 10 a.m. on Friday morning to get in line for our bleacher seats. While we were in line, the “unofficial” mascot Billy Cub came by…you may have heard that he’s been in the news lately.

The gates opened a little after 11, and we promptly took our seats in the left field bleachers. Since this was the home opener of the 100th season, so I guess I was expecting something really special to happen before the game. I know the official anniversary is later this month, but I was hoping for something beyond the usual “announce everyone on the clubhouse staff’s name” opening day stuff. Anyway, at least we weren’t kicked out of the park before the game even started.…and it was cool to see some of our fine military folk during the anthem:

As for the game, well, it was a dud offensively, but the pitching staff looked great again. Travis Wood did allow a homerun to Chase Utley, but I can tell you that it was definitely wind-aided – it was one of those rare cold games at Wrigley when the wind was blowing out (to right field). Welington Castillo’s homer, on the other hand, was a line drive right into the teeth of the wind. After the game, we had some fun in Wrigleyville, where I got to meet a few fellow bloggers and some people who I’ve only previously “Twitter met.”

I was also able to catch the game on Saturday. There’s no need for me to recap the game for you – that’s been done elsewhere. What I can do, though, is show you this:

That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, that’s our very own C-A-P-S holding up a VFTB sign (check out Joe’s post from yesterday for a close-up). Yes, CAPS, I saw you – sorry we didn’t get to meet in person, maybe next time!

Dear readers, I have to share with you one of the great regrets of my life. After the game on Saturday, I left to go hang with a friend downtown, while my brother and his friends stayed to hang in Wrigleyville. A few minutes after I left, this happened:

Yep, that’s my brother on the left, standing right next to FERGIE FREAKING JENKINS. I’ll never live this one down.

I’m headed to St. Louis to watch the Cubs series for a conference next weekend, so perhaps I’ll have some interesting stories to tell. It’s always fun to enter the lions’ den.

If you haven’t yet, check-out our swell podcast. We just recorded quite a dandy.

Before I go, since we’re all doing it, I thought I’d share some music. This song’s definitely no party anthem, but the musicianship and songwriting are incredible. Every pop singer who lip syncs on TV should be forced to watch this 100 times.

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