Archive for the ‘General’ Category

It Matters Again, and that’s a Good Thing

Thursday, March 26th, 2015

This past weekend, as I combed the Cub universe for news and tidbits, I stumbled across a warning flare of sorts.  This little diddy about Jon Lester and his “Dead Arm” sent me for a small spiral.  Strangely, I smiled, thinking how long it has been since I cared about a Cubs ace and an arm injury? Five years? Six maybe?

Along with that were the commenters across the webosphere talking of doom and gloom…

“Here we go again” yells one put out fan.

“What do we have to do to win a World Series in this century”, Screams another with just the right amount of pitiful to sound like a Cub fan, “no chance if Lester goes down!”!

I mean, it is good to see fans thinking this way, and honestly, something in me is caring again about the Cubs fortunes, but let’s not get crazy, we ain’t goin’ to the World Series!  I started thinking about all the heartache and discontent I spent as a fan for the last few years and I thought up the timeline below.  This basically charts out my years as a Cub fan, a modest, yet proud, 17 year stretch, which goes something like this….

1997 – A 14 game losing streak to start the season, Sandberg retires for the second time, and Harry Carey dies. My first visit to Wrigley Field.

1998 – Sammy Sosa, Kid-K , Brant Brown, a post-season

1999-2002 – Wind screens (it feels like there was a whole lot of nothing here?)

2002 -2003 – Mark Prior, Dusty Baker, and Bartman (no , it wasn’t his fault)

2004 – The Chip Carey / Steve Stone era ends with some drama and a disappointing season

2005 – 2006 – Towel Drills and blisters (much like the 1999-2002 gap, a weird bunch of nothing?)

2007-2009 – Lou Piniella, some fairly average teams that I believe over-achieved, Sam Zell, and Milton Bradley, which gave me a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach before the ink could dry on the contract.

2010 - The Cubs have new owners, and Ron Santo Dies

2011 – Ricketts hires Theo Epstein & Co.

2011 -2013 – The team is disassembled, it feels like a cleanse of some sort, but came to the realization that we will not win for a while because we are doing the largest rebuild ever, of not just a roster, but the entire Cub system, way of thinking, way of life.  I think they even changed the hot dogs that the vendors sell.

2014 – Theo’s rebuild starts to gain steam along with Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, Kris Bryant and Renovations followed by more rooftop drama

2015 – ???

There is torture, misfortune, and then just plain confusion.  It’s gonna take some more heartache to undo what has already been done to the Cub fan base over the last 75 years (trying to think of every fan still alive, not just my timeline).  I felt desperate at times and other times completely disconnected. There were some seasons where I checked out by July and others where I hung on every pitch until the last fatal blow.  Here we are getting all excited again because we have a few good prospects (one great one), a true staff ace, and a new outlook on life from April to September…dare I say beyond?  The vision that started about three quarters the way down that timeline above is now taking hold, but what is realistic?

It seems not a day goes by that I read something sensational about Kris Bryant and an overly positive prediction for the Cubs as a whole but I have to admit, I am a little pessimistic. There will always be a pessimist inside me as a Cub fan.  Until that final out is recorded, because of all the other final outs and the way they came about, I will hold out all hope and wait, as a burned fan being cautious. I am damaged goods!

Look what the Red Sox fans had to endure! Hell, they had to come back from insurmountable odds and a couple prior trips to the post-season to win that first series.  We aren’t the Marlins for god sake, we can’t just rip it down and retool inside of a season. We have way too much bad mojo debt built up to make this easy.So Lester going down for a few games in spring is just a blip. Shake it off because we’re gonna need to get tougher for what’s coming.

The Cub fan (AKA, damaged pessimist) in me realizes, as you should, we may not go to the post-season this year or next, but take some solace in the fact that there is a plan in place, it is working, and Cub baseball matters again, and that’s a good thing.

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As a little side note, here is a piece by Joe Posnanski that I like to read before each Cub season.  In a way, it is a roundabout explanation of the Cubs history and a set of theories as to why haven’t been able to win it all. It is fittingly titled “The Cubs”.

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Sammy Come Back

Wednesday, March 25th, 2015

If you had told me a little over a decade ago that in the year 2015 that Manny Ramirez would be a welcomed and highly valued part of the Cubs organization, while Sammy Sosa would be a pariah, I would have asked to have your blood alcohol levels checked. Prior to his abrupt exit from the team at the end of the 2004 season, Sosa was generally a beloved member of the team. He was a large part of bringing a level of excitement to Wrigley Field that fans had not seen for many years. Personally, the 1998 home run race played a significant role in my renewed interested in baseball (the 1994 strike was hard for 12 year old me to accept), and Sosa became a favorite of mine then, and has always sort of remained on that list for me. Sadly, my list of favorite players from my growing up years is also a list of players who will likely never see the hall of fame because of real or alleged steroid use, but that’s another topic. I won’t say much about the end of the 2003 season, for fear of picking at some old wounds, but ultimately I credit Sosa with being a notable part of the resurgence of the Cubs franchise in the last 15 years or so. It may be a stretch, but I firmly believe that the fans and organization were pushed to such a state of unrest with “the curse” after the 2003 season that the major changes we’ve seen since were forced into action. If not for a very real chance at going to the World Series 12 years ago, we might still be seeing the “lovable losers” take the field year after year.

Maybe I’m giving Sosa too much credit, so let’s take a look at what might be the reason for his forced distance from the team:

  • His last game with the team. I’ve mentioned it already, but on October 7, 2004, he showed up late, and then left very early without ever playing an inning or even putting on his uniform.
  • His steroid use. It was revealed several years after the fact that he tested positive in 2003, and even after he had firmly denied using anything in 2005.
  • The corked bat incident.  He says he accidentally brought a batting practice bat to the plate the day, and that’s the reason for the corked bat. His bats were later checked, and all of them came back clean.
  • His altered appearance in recent years. Far be it from me to judge, but to be frank, it looks as though he’s trying to out Michael Jackson the King of Pop himself.

While all of these things put together don’t seem to spell a recipe for a guy you’d want representing your team, I’d like to go back to Ramirez, because my contention is simple: If we are now going to be okay with “Manny being Manny,” then I think we also have to be okay with “Sammy being Sammy.” After all, Ramirez never played an inning for the Cubs prior to joining the AAA Iowa Cubs as a player-manager last season, and Sammy Sosa represents a very important piece of Cubs history. But let’s look at Ramirez’ history for a moment:

  • His steroid use. Ramirez tested positive three times, and was essentially forced into retirement in 2011 after the third positive test.
  • He manipulated a trade to the Dodgers in 2008. And certainly, I don’t expect that I have to remind everyone who swept the Cubs in the 2008 NLDS. I still weep.
  • He shoved a traveling secretary when he couldn’t be supplied with the tickets he wanted in 2008.
  • A domestic violence incident that led to his arrest in 2011. He reportedly slapped his wife during an argument and she hit her head on the headboard of their bed.

At risk of seeming like I’m piling on, I’ll just stop there. A simple search of “Manny being Manny” will give you a pretty clear picture.

What seems odd then is the reality that one of these players is embraced by the organization and placed in a role where he mentors young players and top prospects, and the other is treated almost as if he never existed. Some of this may be due to a personal desire on the part of Sosa or Ramirez to be a part of the Cubs system or not. It’s possible that Sosa just doesn’t want to have anything to do with the Cubs these days, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. What does seem to be the case is the difference in willingness to apologize and accept ownership of one’s mistakes, which Ramirez has mostly done, while Sosa has not. It’s easy to be critical of Ramirez’ past and question his mentorship of players half his age, but so far, the evidence points in Ramirez’ favor. These days, “Manny being Manny” seems to be a good thing. Could Sosa do the same? Provided a willingness to embrace responsibility for past mistakes, I think he certainly could. And the Cubs should be working to facilitate that reality.

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Prospect Watch: C.J. Edwards and Pierce Johnson

Tuesday, March 24th, 2015

While the top of the Cubs’ farm system is loaded primarily with position players, and the majority of the most exciting Cubs’ pitching prospects will be in High A or below next season, the system does have a couple of legitimate starting rotation prospects who should pitch in Triple A Iowa as the season starts, and could contribute to the MLB team later this season: C.J. Edwards and Pierce Johnson.

C.J. Edwards (RHP, 23 years old)

2014 Stats

Tennessee (Double A): 10 GS, 48 IP, 2.44 ERA, 2.92 FIP, 8.63 K/9, 3.94 BB/9, .234 BABIP

Analysis

Among Cubs pitching prospects in the upper levels of the Cubs’ farm system, C.J. Edwards has the highest ceiling. Edwards’ fastball sits 91-95 with solid movement, and he also throws a curveball that could be plus consistently with continued work to go along with an average change up. Two plus pitches and an average third pitch is solid middle of the rotation stuff, and if Edwards can get the change up to even a fringe plus pitch you’re looking at number 2 in a rotation type of stuff.

The big question with Edwards is his durability. He’s listed at 155 pounds, which means he weighs the same amount as me despite being five inches taller. And I do not exactly have a build you’d look at and say “that’s a MLB pitching prospect”. With Edwards, this isn’t a young Tim Lincecum who is throwing 180-plus innings a year with analysts saying the wheels are going to fall off because he’s too small to maintain this type of performance for more than a handful of seasons. Edwards has never thrown more than 116.1 innings in a professional season, which he did in 2013, and was limited to 68.2 innings (20.2 of which were rehabbing a shoulder injury that kept him out much of the season) in 2014.

This has led to a big disparity in prospect gurus rankings of Edwards. While both MLB.com and Baseball America continue to view Edwards as a potential starter and rank him as a top 50 starter, Baseball Prospectus and ESPN’s Keith Law see Edwards as a reliever only, and as such don’t have him in their top 100 lists.

Edwards was quite good when he pitched in 2014, but 2015 will likely be a year for him to prove he can hold up to a starter’s workload, or a year where he’ll show his long term future is in the bullpen. If Edwards cannot start, I’d be curious if he could fit into a role similar to the role Dellin Betances filled with the Yankees in 2014: a high leverage, multi-inning reliever. But there would even be questions if Edwards could hold up to that workload. At worst, though, Edwards should slot in as a solid late inning reliever along with Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, and Neil Ramirez by 2016.

Likely 2015 Starting Spot: Iowa (Triple A)

Likely MLB Debut: Mid-2015 to early 2016

Pierce Johnson (RHP, 23 years old)

2014 Stats

Kane County (Single A): 2 GS, 11 IP, 2.45 ERA, 4.30 FIP, 6.55 K/9, 2.45 BB/9, .115 BABIP
Tennessee: 18 G, 17 GS, 91.2 IP, 2.55 ERA, 4.27 FIP, 8.93 K/9, 5.30 BB/9, .242 BABIP

Analysis

When the Cubs picked Pierce Johnson with their sandwich pick they received in free agent compensation for Aramis Ramirez in 2012, many thought the Cubs could have gotten a steal. Johnson’s draft stock dropped from a mid-first round grade primarily due to a forearm strain in his final college season, combined with arm action that led scouts to believe more arm injuries could be in his future. The stuff, though, was considered solidly mid-rotation, and many thought the Missouri State product could be a fast riser.

Johnson hasn’t exactly been a disappointment, but he hasn’t exactly lived up to expectations either. He’s generally pitched pretty well, but he hasn’t moved as quickly as hoped and the arm action remains troubling to some, both from health and control standpoints.

In regards to Johnson’s 2014 statistics in Double A, I do think he needs to be looked at pre-injury and post injury. Prior to hitting the DL with a hamstring injury in mid-May, Johnson put up a 4.39 ERA and posted a BB/9 rate of 8.10. When he returned, Johnson posted a 1.80 ERA and a 4.15 BB/9. That walk rate is still too high, but it’s at least not epically terrible and indicates to me that Johnson wasn’t right in his first stretch of 2014.

While Johnson doesn’t have quite the same durability questions as Edwards, this is a big year for him to prove that he deserves a spot in the Cubs’ long term rotation plans as well. To do so, he’ll have to stay healthy and limit walks in the hitter friendly Pacific Coast League.

Likely 2015 Starting Spot: Iowa

Likely MLB Debut: Mid-2015 to mid-2016.

As a final note, the Cubs have another pitching prospect, Armando Rivero, in Iowa who could be a big time contributor to the bullpen. As a bullpen only guy, he’s not considered a big time prospect, but he could be the first guy up if one of Rondon/Strop/Ramirez/Grimm/Motte struggle or get hurt, and I’d suggest checking out his stat line on your website of choice.

 

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How To Reform the Intentional Walk

Monday, March 23rd, 2015

It is no longer an if, but a how as for major changes coming to the game of baseball. From lowering the seams in college level baseballs, to the wide spread discussion of adding a count-down clock to speed up the pace of play, it is clear that baseball as a whole is moving towards quicker and more exciting games. Major League Baseball is already limiting stepping out of the box, and this is likely just a start.

In recent years, it has become a popular trend to shake our heads in disgust when a hitter attempts to drop down a bunt. Almost regardless of where they are in the lineup, the bunt receives a sigh, with fans and analysts stating that the bunt has no value, and is merely a waste of an out. Many would prefer to see the bunt removed from the game entirely. In the right situation, though, the bunt is a sound strategy, and no one can argue against a suicide squeeze being thrilling.

Stars fuel professional sports. Fans pay large sums of money to see big name players perform in the spotlight. Sure, seeing Chris Valaika bat is alright. Anthony Rizzo, on the other hand, is the type of player that fans will stay glued to their seat to watch. It is for this reason, among others, that the intentional walk needs to be eliminated from the game of baseball.

The strategy behind the intentional pass is two-fold. It can be to take the bat out of the hands of a superior hitter in order to face an inferior hitter, or it can be to set up a force at a base. Either way, but especially in the former of the two, the defensive team is taking a cop out approach to garner an advantage. There is no skill to it, nor is there suspense. In essence, it is baseball’s version of the “Hack-A-Shaq” tactic that the NBA is currently working to eliminate.

The means of going about eliminating the intentional walk would be difficult, and would likely, in a best case scenario, be as arbitrary as the newly implemented blocking the plate rule. In an article that he wrote for his personal website in 2011, Joe Posnanski suggested that a two-base walk be the punishment for a four-pitch walk. He concedes that this would likely not work, though. One method to reducing the intentional walk could be the implementation of a pinch runner.

Allowing a base runner is never a positive outcome for a pitcher, even if it does put certain plays into effect. The added base runner increases the probability of runs scoring in the inning. That being the case, the intentional walk is rarely a smart move. Like bunting, though, it is an abused strategy that happens to often and in the wrong situations. This summer, for instance, in a Northwoods League baseball game, a pitcher decided to intentionally walk Washington State’s Will Sparks, loading the bases with a four-pitch walk.  The next man up, Kevin Kaczmarski of Evansville, unloaded on the first pitch he saw and promptly cleared the bases. This is not an isolated case of this being a bad strategy.

Say, hypothetically, that the Cubs still had Tony Campana (with a functioning knee). With a policy that allowed for a team to sub in a pinch runner for just that time spent on the bases, a team would be less likely to pitch around a dangerous hitter. Sure, you can walk Rizzo, but you have a legitimate stolen base threat to worry about now. A bases empty intentional walk and a steal of second base gives the team the same run scoring probability as an actual double. This strategy would play up the importance of speed on the basepaths, and teams would probably take their chances of allowing the double. If this happened to be the outcome, the best players would not lose the opportunity to bat in big moments. Yet there are a number of complications that play in.

The criteria for a new intentional walk, four straight balls, could in actuality punish pitchers that have terrible control. While this could actually weed out some of the worse pitchers from the game (Carlos Marmol would be gone in a week), it could do unnecessary damage to the defending team. This would absolutely put more weight on the arbitrary decision making of the umpires, though the league clearly has no problem with that, as evidenced by the blocking the plate rule.

With base runners on, the threat of a stolen base would be moot, and so teams would walk batters at the same rate as they currently do. For this scenario, teams would be granted a fourth out for that inning. These might seem like far-fetched ideas, though they would actually be relatively simple to implement.

When buying tickets to see their team play, no fan is thinking, “I can’t wait to see an intentional walk”. Fans want to see offense, something that has gone by the way side in this era of dominant pitching. College baseball has taken some initiative and lowered the seams on their game balls in an attempt to bring more runs and excitement. By altering the implications of intentional walks, Major League Baseball could take an even more innovative approach to adding offense.

My suggested rule alterations may or may not make sense for the game, though they are something of a starting point for discussion. Baseball at every level is looking to become more exciting, and the way to make that happen is to drop the intentional walk.  Make pitchers face elite hitters in tough spots, and give the fans some drama.

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Cubs Spring Training Flashback to 1982 and a Flash-forward Game

Friday, March 20th, 2015

I was 13 years old in the spring of 1982. I know, I know, many (most?) of you weren’t even born at that time.  In March of 1982 I was gathering as much info regarding my beloved Cubs and spring training.  In 1982 I had just two means of knowledge acquisition regarding Cubs’ spring training news: 1. to “hope” the late Tim Wiegel would mention the days’ spring training games on his 10:25 sportscast on the ABC news and 2. search for any scraps of info in the daily sports pages.   Around mid-March of that year, I stumbled across an article about a Cubs’ rookie that was dazzling the team in Arizona.  The article stated that the player was a phenomenal athlete and this wunderkind was a possibility to start the season in center field, shortstop, second base or third base.  Psychologists would refer to my memory of this article as a “flashbulb” or “snapshot” image…a recollection so vivid, that it is burned into your psyche forever.  Cubs’ fans acquire “flashbulb” memories more often than most fan bases…and yes, most of the time they are negative. (Actually “scarring” might be a more appropriate term)

Twenty-three years later (ironically), the Cubs are loaded with rookies.  Most Cubs’ fan today can find all the information they need about Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Javy Baez, Jorge Soler, and the Cubs’ cast of hundreds (okay, maybe not hundreds) of other prospects.  Numerous prospect lists and scouting services have Bryant, Soler and Russell as potential All-Stars…or at least strong Major League contributors.  In 1982 coverage of prospects and rookies was miniscule compared to today…perhaps that’s why that article remains embedded in my brain. At a time when there was little prospect coverage, and a period when the team had few heralded rookies, what I read in mid-march in 1982 filled me with hope.

The rookie in the 1982 article (as most of you surmised) was Ryne Sandberg.  Sandberg would make the team out of spring training and be the Cubs’ opening day third baseman (the great Bump Wills was manning 2B).  There was no talk of service time, getting an extra year, etc.-Sandberg just made the big league club.  Cubs’ fans were excited about Sandberg, but I doubt any of us would have wagered that he would be a Hall of Famer one day.  In fact, if you were watching in early ’82… Hall of Famer was the last thing you would have been thinking.

Sandberg started 0-19 and 1-30…before having his first 2 hit game against the Pirates on April 17th. (I was at that game…I know you are happy for me)  Ryno settled in and ended up hitting .271 with 7 home runs, 54 RBIs, and 32 SBs.  He finished sixth in Rookie of the Year voting behind Steve Sax (winner), Johnny Ray, Willie McGee, Chili Davis and Luis DeLeon. (Not many Hall of Famers in that group) Sandberg would win his first of 9 straight gold gloves at second base in 1983, win the National League MVP in ’84, appear in 10 all-star games, and get inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2005.(F%&k you Joe Morgan!)  On the day Sandberg was elected, I reflected back again on the article I had read in March of ’82…and I felt really flippin’ old!

Unfortunately we Cubs’ fans know that Ryno was the exception rather than the rule in regards to Cubs’ rookies.  For every Ryne Sandberg rookie season, there has been a Jerome Walton (flash in the pan), Kevin Orie (pretty much a bust) and Gary Scott (complete bust).  Yet now with good reason, Sandberg-like expectations are set for rookies Jorge Soler, Kris Bryant, and Addison Russell…as well as should be considered rookie Javy Baez.  These guys are different…right????

So here is the question which is the genesis of my “flash-forward” game; will any of these players have Hall of Fame careers?  I know none of us can predict the future (…yet), and there are too many variables to even mention…but if you had to bet…what would you do?  In the comments section or via Twitter…give your answer to the following scenario:

You have two million fictional dollars to wager that have the potential to become real dollars if any of the following players eventually make the Hall of Fame: Javy Baez, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, and Jorge Soler.  You may wager on all four, you may wager on just one. But wait…you can wager $500,000 fake dollars (that will turn real) if you bet on none of them making it. (that makes it a bit tougher…doesn’t it)  You have to bet on the players…or against them.  I am a gambling man by nature (line from the film Stripes), so I am taking the plunge.  I would go with $1.25 million on Bryant, $500,000 on Russell, $150,000 on Soler and $100,000 on Baez.  Yes…I am hedging a bit, but I believe in diversification.  “None of them” for the 500 grand is probably the safest bet…but I am going for the big money.

No one would have wagered on Ryno back in the spring of ’82…what do you think of this crop of Cubs’ rookies?

This column is in no way an endorsement of the evils of gambling and other games of chance.

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GirlieView (03/19/2015)

Thursday, March 19th, 2015

GirlieView Definitions

  • Lizzie = A funny, timely quote made on the VFTB site by our writers or commenters.
  • Lizard = The best Lizzie.
  • MVL = Most Valuable Lizzie’er: The person with the most Lizzies in the period under review (usually the past two weeks.)
  • Top 10 of the 2014-2015 Offseason = The folks with the most aggregate Lizzie points YTD (1 point for every Lizzie, 3 points for every Lizard.)

As you already know, this is all completely subjective and according to my whims.

Lizzies

  • (unless you like your tea with a dash of arrogance)
  • AMT is directly proportional to unluckily high BABIP, which is know to be due to the vagaries of line drives batted into the field of play. A fine stat.
  • Cubs Baseball (on radio) Today! Of course had I actually read the chit-chat section above, I would have known that was already common knowledge.
  • In a troubling development, the Chicago Cubs announced today that they are adding performance enhancing drugs to the minor leaguers. Apparently somebody named Phil has been assigned to bring Coke to those most susceptible to the temptations of drugs that will help them gain an edge.
  • Shwarb just hit a salami in his first AB. They started the game without an ump behind the plate. Good stuff.
  • Olt – 2 run HR, go Mike.
  • I will be in Mesa next weekend, woo hoo!
  • Cubs bullpen was in mid-season form today.
  • Am I the only person who will be at the VFTB spring training dinner next weekend?
  • That I like. I can continue seeing baby Cubs right here. The Eugene Emeralds with the threatening looking sasquatch logo. Clearly superior to the Hillsboro Hops, some sort of green plant thingy with a ball cap and eyes.
  • I’m going out on a limb and saying the green plant thing is a hop.
  • Looks more like something else that’s legal here in WA and a few other places.
  • …And Jackson is in mid-season form.
  • Perhaps the Cubs could drop him off at the Goodwill then take the tax deduction. Any accountants ok with that?
  • The Cubs have held him as an investment for more than one year which means they should receive a donation equal to their basis. Doubt it would stand in an IRS audit though.
  • I still say the rebrand him the “BP coach” and keep him on as a the batting practice pitcher for a team-wide confidence boost.
  • If you are scheduled to pay a dude $22M over the next 2 seasons he ought to be able to do something for the club. He could always clean the players cars, help out with doing the team laundry, throw some BP, do some bullpen catching and help out the grounds crew.
  • The Cubs should use Jackson as a goodwill ambassador. Have him hand out baseballs in the bleachers. The Cubs would not be losing any money because if he was pitching those same balls would have landed there anyways, and the Cubs would benefit by not giving up the runs. It might also build up Jackson’s self esteem.
  • Plunk Cardinals – that’d be worth $22M.
  • Carrie Muskat (aka Lizzie)
  • Smart too. He knew this was 3 outs before tossing it to the fans.
  • I love spring training for if no other reason we are still in contention. Everybody is an MVP and Cy Young candidate and the losses don’t matter.
  • I don’t care so much about a winning record; but winning A game, that’d be nice. 0-for-Spring is a crappy omen.
  • Got one!
  • I think the pitcher should hit lead off, just to get the out out of the way so everyone else can hit without a rally killer coming up to bat.

Lizard

  • BASEBALL IS BACK!!!!!

Shout Outs

  • Big shout outs to Chris Neitzel and Emily Litella for their first 2014/2015 off-season Lizzies!!!! Thanks for being here!

MVL

  • Congratulations to Doc Raker, Jedi, and Seymour Butts who share our Most Valuable Lizzie-er award this time! Way to go Doc, Jedi, and Butts!

Top 10 of the 2014-2015 Offseason (one point for each Lizzie, three points for the Lizard)

1. Eddie Von White
2. jswanson
3. Doc Raker
4. Seymour Butts
5. Doug S.
6. Jedi
7. Noah Eisner
8. Dork
8. Jerry in Wisconsin
10. Joe Aiello

Chit Chat

  • The next GirlieView (Thursday, April 2, 2015) will be the last “off season” edition, halleluiah! Not that I haven’t enjoyed it, but we’re all ready for real baseball! I’ll wrap up the off-season standings at that time and start fresh in-season thereafter. I will tell you, the standings are the tightest they’ve ever been in the many years I’ve been doing this. The first three slots are separated by only one point apiece, with others in-range as well. It’s like a playoff race! Good luck and have fun with it!
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April in Iowa – The Kris Bryant Story

Wednesday, March 18th, 2015

Yes, I’m here to bang the Kris Bryant drum along with many, many others. There’s a reason, however, for so much attention that’s being paid to a guy who has yet to actually bat in a major league game. And whether you fall on the side of putting him on the 25 man roster for Opening Day or on the side of waiting until later in April to extend club control by a year, what you should agree on is how silly it actually is that a rule is in place that forces baseball teams to do things like this year after year. Bryant is most definitely not the first player to be in this sort of situation. One can very easily look back at the debuts of notable stars over the course of the last 6-7 seasons and find several examples of players who made their debut a few weeks or months into the season, in spite of the fact that they had already displayed appropriate readiness and performance to have been called up much earlier.

If the decision of whether or not to add Bryant to the major league roster was based purely on talent and performance, we most definitely would have seen him last season, probably in August. If you look at just the numbers and then consider the fact that he was not called up with roster expansions at the end of the 2014 season, it would be either laughable or maddening, if you didn’t understand the reasoning behind it.

That reasoning is fairly simple (though, in my opinion, flawed). When teams draft a player, they are generally granted 6 years of control before the player can become a free agent. For the first three years the player is usually paid at or very close to the league minimum salary, and then for the next three years they are eligible for arbitration, which typically means they have the opportunity to make more money. The 6 year clock, however, doesn’t start until the player reaches the majors. When they are called up, that clock starts, no matter when it happens. A “year” of service time comes to 172 days on the major league roster (days, not games), and this does not include days during the playoffs, but just during the regular season. What that means then, is that after a player has spent 1,032 days on the major league roster, he can become a free agent at the end of that season.

What teams have discovered though, is that keeping some players on their team after that service time is expired can be very costly, and sometimes can’t be done (that’s why Jason Heyward will be wearing a Cardinals uniform this season, rather than a Braves one). So what major league teams do is delay a player’s debut so that they can buy themselves an extra season of team control. Guys like Mike Trout, Evan Longoria, and most recently, George Springer have made debuts in the majors at least a few weeks into the season, and often well after their minor league performance has surpassed their current level.

So then we come back to Bryant. By all indications, he’s very likely to be a significantly valuable piece of the Cubs puzzle for several years. Bryant is 23 years old now, so at the time when his service time is likely to end, he’ll be 29 or 30, which can mean that the Cubs will have him for his prime years (26-28 or so), but it’s not uncommon for players to remain productive for a few years after they turn 30, so keeping Bryant in a Cubs uniform beyond 2022 could end up being something that we want to be able to do. But then the question is whether to hope for the future and keep him for an extra year, or call him up now knowing that he’ll be a valuable part of our offense all season long. Let’s take a look at the arguments for both sides:

The case for starting in Chicago:

I’ll admit my bias here, but attempt to present the arguments for Bryant being at Wrigley on April 5.

  1. He’s clearly ready – There’s really no reason other than service time to legitimately keep him in Iowa. Again, if this were based strictly on performance, we would have seen him make his debut last season at some point.
  2. The Cubs could contend – We’re all trying to temper our expectations this season, but for the first time since 2009 or so, we feel like we could be watching at last a playoff game or two this year. We also recognize – or should recognize, at least – that the NL Central is going to be a hard division to win. With that in mind, the offense that Bryant could provide in early April may help to win a few games that could be very, very helpful at the end of the season.
  3. You can’t predict the future – Sure, it seems like he’s going to be a good, if not great, player, but we don’t actually know that, of course. So delaying his call up because of what we hope he could be doing in 2021 or 2022 may be all for naught. Best to use him now, and worry about contracts later.

The case for starting in Des Moines:

There’s really just one reason, and as I’ve already described, it’s all about service time. I won’t pretend that working on his defense or his strikeout rate (the reasons the Cubs will be forced to give to explain sending him to AAA) really has anything to do with it. 15 days or so in Iowa will probably be all it takes for the Cubs to have an extra year of control down the road. This could be the difference between losing Bryant when he’s 29 vs. losing him when he’s 30. I’m not necessarily assuming that he’ll bolt for a large contract when his 6 years are up, but his agent is Scott Boras, so…

I fully expect that the Cubs will talk about the need to work on his defense at 3B or LF (or both) or his strikeout rate and they will send him to Iowa to start the season. Baseball internet and Cubs twitter may just explode at that point, but then he’ll be called up a few short weeks later, hit a home run in his debut, and we’ll forget all about it. All things considered, I think the smartest baseball move is to ignore the raving corner of the Cubs fan base that wants to see him right way, and tell them to buy tickets to Iowa Cubs games in April if they want to see him play.

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Prospect Watch: Addison Russell and Billy McKinney

Tuesday, March 17th, 2015

The Cubs’ farm system was already arguably the strongest in baseball as July 2014 started. When the Cubs traded starting pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel for the Oakland Athletics’ two best prospect, shortstop Addison Russell and outfielder Billy McKinney, that “arguably” part disappeared.

Addison Russell (SS, 21 years old):

2014 Stats:

Mesa (Rookie): 50 PAs, .196/.260/.348, 2 HRs, 6% BB rate, 26% K rate, .152 ISO, .226 BABIP, 66 wRC+, 1 SB, 0 CS
Stockton (High A): 18 PAs, .188/.278/.188,0 HRs, 11.1% BB rate, 33.3% K rate, .000 ISO, .300 BABIP, 31 wRC+, 1 SB, 0 CS
Midland (Double A): 57 PAs, .333/.439/.500,1 HR, 14% BB rate, 14 % K rate, .167 ISO, .385 BABIP, 173 wRC+, 3 SB, 2 CS
Tennessee (Double A): 205 PAs, .294/.332/.536, 4.4% BB rate, 17.1% K rate, .242 ISO, .305 BABIP, 141 wRC+, 2 SB, 2 CS

Analysis:

When the Cubs obtained Addison Russell, they gained one of the most difficult to acquire and valuable pieces in baseball: a top ten overall prospect. Russell fell to Oakland at the eleventh pick in the 2012 draft after he bulked up before his senior season of high school. Scouts who saw him that season saw 70 raw power, but also saw a guy who was unlikely to stick at shortstop. In response, Russell lost the weight  after the draft and quickly established himself as an at least average defensive shortstop, likely better, with plus arm strength.

Russell missed much of the first half of the 2014 season with a hamstring injury, which is why he had stops in High A with the A’s and rookie ball after his trade to the Cubs. He showed the solid power and ability to hit for average that was expected following his return to Double A after the trade, although a higher walk rate would be more in line with his career numbers.

The most interesting question with Russell is what the Cubs will do with him when he’s ready? He’s arguably the best defensive shortstop above A Ball for the Cubs, with most scouts seeing him as a better shortstop right now than Starlin Castro. But, if the Cubs succeed this season, I think it would be unlikely that the Cubs would try to cause any issues by moving Castro off the position as long as he continues to be serviceable there. Russell could also replace Javier Baez at second base if Baez continues to strike out too much to get to his power, or he could move to third base if Bryant struggles there defensively, where Russell could bulk up and potentially reach bigger power numbers.

This could also mean that Russell’s MLB debut waits until 2016. In any case, once Russell debuts he is expected to be a mainstay in the Cubs’ infield for years to come.

Likely 2015 Starting Spot:  Triple A Iowa

MLB Debut:  Mid-2015 to early 2016

Billy McKinney (OF, 20 years old)

2014 Stats:

Stockton: 333 PAs, .241/.330/.400, 10 HRs, 10.8% BB rate, 17.4$% K rate, .159 ISO, .267 BABIP, 92 wRC+, 5 SB, 3 CS
Daytona (High A): 210 PAs, .301/.390/.432, 1 HR, 11.9% BB rate, 20.0% K rate, .131 ISO, .377 BABIPO, 136 wRC+, 1 SB, 0 CS

Analysis:

In many, if not most, systems, McKinney would be a top five prospect. Indeed, he was widely considered the A’s second best prospect prior to the July 4 trade after only Russell. In the Cubs’ incredibly deep system, on the other hand, McKinney is more a back end of the top ten type of prospect.

McKinney’s biggest issue is that he only has one plus tool. The good thing for him is that it’s his hit tool. Aside from that, however, McKinney is corner outfield only with limited power, meaning he might project better as a second division starter or fourth outfielder.

This is not to say there isn’t a lot to like about McKinney. There’s a ton to like about him, especially his work ethic. Every single tool of his is thought of higher by scouts today than it was when he was drafted, and that’s solely due to hard work and coachability. But with the Cubs’ stacked hitting prospects, the Cubs might get the most value out of someone like McKinney by trading him as he approaches MLB readiness, which could be as soon as this summer depending on how he performs in his Double A debut.

Likely 2015 Starting Spot:  Tennessee

Likely MLB Debut: Late 2016 to mid-2017.

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What Park Factors Mean for Prospects

Monday, March 16th, 2015

By this point, everyone familiar with the Chicago Cubs is aware of the impending beat-down that Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and Jorge Soler will be performing on pitchers. Trevor Bauer has already fell victim to the Cubs’ middle of the order heavy artillery, and he will be far from the last. Though while music to every Cub fan’s ears, moonshot home runs are becoming old hat. Some have even questioned whether Bryant, Baez and Soler were part of the bleacher demolition team, and contributed by leveling the seats with their home runs. This is probably not the case, but the three have the capability of altering Wrigley Field in another way.

Park factors are a means of assigning standardized metrics to baseball field dimensions to determine how the field affects the game. In context, they can measure a player’s individual performance in a stadium, or that of a whole team. The altitude, such as in Coors Field and the massive in-play foul ball area in O.Co Coliseum are two examples of these factors. Also playing in, obviously, is the quality of the team on the field. Like any sabermetric, this is far from perfect, as it leaves out many of the uncontrollable reasons that teams succeed or fail (injuries are one item not taken into account). Cutting through a complicated explanation of how factors are calculated, the most important thing to know is that a score of 100 is neutral. If a park has a rating below 100, it is considered a pitcher friendly park, and a plus-100 rating means a park is hitter friendly. The 100 scale can be applied to a multitude of different aspects of the game, such as hits, doubles and home runs.

In 2014, Wrigley ranked 23rd overall in the runs scored park factor category, sitting at 93. The last time that Wrigley ranked in the top 10 in the home run park factor measurement was 2010. For the most part, though, Wrigley has hovered around the neutral area. With some almost laughably bad lineups at times in recent years, the fact that the team has been able to stay primarily middle of the pack speaks to the fact that Wrigley is actually an offense friendly park. Recent Cubs lineups playing in, say, Petco Park or Safeco Field would likely put up considerably worse numbers.

Principal Park in Des Moines, the home of the Iowa Cubs, has spent much of the last decade being a pitcher friendly park. Consistently under 100 in the runs factor and home runs factor, it is not a place where massive offensive campaigns are the norm. In other words, a player mashing eight dingers in 103 at bats is something to take note of. Contextually, and not to compare the two, Giancarlo Stanton hit home runs at around a six percent rate overall last season, against Bryant’s near eight at home. Bryant hit nine percent on the road. No, this is not to imply that Kris Bryant will be as good or better than Stanton. It is merely to put into context the colossal season that Bryant had in ’14.

In 44 Principal Park at bats last season, Soler had only one home run, and struggled mightily. On the road, Soler hit home runs at a 10 percent clip and batted .379. Baez hit home runs at a five percent rate at Principal Park, as opposed to six-and-a-half percent on the road. These are small sample sizes, and too much weight should not be put on them. What they are, though, is a trend. Power hitters consistently hitting worse at home is a good indication of others things weighing in. In this case, park factors are pertinent.

It is common practice to temper our expectations for players such as these three. Maybe it’s the Cubs fan in us, the cynicism that overtakes us due to years of sadness and falling short of expectations. We are constantly reminded that at least one of the big three is going to bust, and it isn’t rational to expect Bryant to be the first player to hit triple digit home runs in one season. But here is your daily shot of optimism.

Park factors are very real things, and while not perfect, tell a great deal about a stadium and the players that play within it. A player having a great deal of success in a pitcher friendly park should benefit in some fashion from moving to a more hitter friendly park. It is not a guaranteed key to success, but giving advantages to players with already well above average skill sets is gravy. Yes, Bryant and Baez need to substantially cut down on their strikeouts, but for a moment, cast that aside, and focus on the positive that will be the switch from Principal Park to Wrigley Field.

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