July 20, 2017

REBUILDS

The White Sox made another big trade, getting rid of three major league players for three prospects and a relief pitcher.

The White Sox are following the Cubs tear down style of rebuilding their organization.

The Sox may have the best farm system in the game with 9 Top 100 prospects.

But if you look at what these rebuilds represents a key level: failure.

Failure of a team's existing draft and developmental skills of players they targeted for the minor leagues.

Only 2 of the Sox Top 10 prospects were drafted by the team (SP Fulmer and C Collins). The rest of the top prospects have been acquired through trade or international free agency.

This style of burn down the major league roster to acquire a boat load of prospects is a risky venture because not all prospects pan out to be major league players. In addition, the team is going to have a rough time winning at the major league level. Sox attendance has been historically tied to the team winning games.

This plan also is couched as a long term solution to correct mediocrity but it is a short term hit or miss operation. If the prospects you acquired do not become All-Star caliber players (or even good major league players), your major league roster is devoid of trade assets to try and second rebuild operation.

The Dodger way has been to draft well, have exceptional development programs in the minors, to create the ability to promote every season  a rookie-of-the-year candidate. In the last few years, the Dodgers called up impact players Corey Seager, Joc Pedersen and Cody Bellinger. Add a home grown ace like Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers have the luxury to trade veterans or pick up key free agents on an annual basis to meet specific needs.

The Cubs reaped the highest reward from its rebuild: a championship. But now a year removed, the Cubs have struggled to maintain the championship caliber. Last year's players are not hitting, fielding or pitching like they did last season.  Was 2016 an fluke? Is 2017 more the norm?

And the Cubs now find themselves with their prized prospects on the major league roster, and their farm system weak after trading away the remaining high prospects for needs such as a closer in Chapman last season and a starter in Quintana this year.  The Cubs have been caught in a trap of their own making; the team was built to win with the existing roster for the next few years. If they cannot perform up to the front office expectations, then this would be a huge set back for the organization.

July 13, 2017

AFFORDABLE STARTERS (REVISED POST)


The following column was to be posted tomorrow. It was a discussion on why the White Sox could not trade starter Jose Quintana, since he is the most affordable starting pitcher in baseball.  But game changing news today:

CHICAGO (ESPN) The Cubs and White Sox pulled off a blockbuster deal with the White Sox sending lefty Jose Quintana to their crosstown rivals for Cubs top hitting prospect Eloy Jimenez as well as top pitching prospect Dylan Cease.

The Cubs are also sending Single-A infielders Matt Rose and Bryant Flete to the White Sox to complete the deal.

Jimenez, a 20-year-old outfielder, is the No. 5 prospect in baseball, according to ESPN's Keith Law.
Quintana, 28, is 4-8 with a 4.49 ERA this season after going 13-12 with a 3.20 ERA last year. He has a career 3.51 ERA and fills an immediate and long-term need for the Cubs as they're short on starting pitching. They rank eighth in the National League in starter's ERA plus employ pending free agents John Lackey and Jake Arrieta.


"It is always extremely difficult to trade a person and player like Jose Quintana," White Sox general manager Rich Hahn said in a statement, "but difficult as it was, this deal moves us closer to our goal of building a team capable of contending for multiple championships over an extended period of time. Jose, our scouts and coaches throughout the organization deserve a tremendous amount of credit for his development from a minor league free agent signee to one of the most sought-after talents in the game."

The Cubs have been looking to add to their pitching staff, which has performed much worse this season that in last year's World Series run, but they did not want a rental. Quintana is under contract through 2020, earning $8.85 million, $10.5 million and $11.5 million in 2018-20.

The following post still discusses the concept of affordable starters. The Cubs acquisition of Quintana is a huge deal for the defending champs. And it was quite unexpected since the Cubs had been discussing affordable pitchers with the Tigers.

The original post:

MLB general managers favorite buzz phrase is "affordable starters." Every team is looking to acquire affordable, young (cheap), controllable (years on contract before free agency) starters (who can throw 200+ innings per season).

It is like trying to find unicorns in the local forest preserve.

Traditionally, teams developed their own rotations from drafting quality pitchers. However, many teams have abandoned this hit or miss strategy to buy or trade for starting pitchers. A free agent veteran costs more money because there is a proven track record. A minor league prospect also has a track record but no major league experience to determine if his stuff will make it long term in the majors. The best hitters often feast on the weakest pitchers.

Contending teams are always looking to upgrade their pitching staffs in late summer as insurance against injury or dry spells. But teams that are out of contention now want a King's ransom for any pitcher who may have a promising career.

The White Sox are still looking to get two Top 10 prospects and at least one major league ready position player in trade for Jose Quintana. Quintana had been a solid #2 starter behind Chris Sale. He has not gotten the run support from Sox during his career, but he has been a solid performer.

Quintana, 28, in 172 games has a career 50-54, 3.51 ERA, 1.250 WHIP and 21.1 WAR.

This year is stats are down (but lately improving.) He is 4-8, 4.49 ERA, 1.323 WHIP and 0.9 WAR.

The most important feature about him is his team friendly contract. He is signed through the 2020 season for $31.9 million. That is less than 5th starter money these days. His average WAR salary value per season is $20 million. Clearly, he is a bargain starter.

So the White Sox are justified in asking for the moon to trade Quintana. It seems to be a done deal except for a trade partner.

But should the White Sox trade their #1 starter?

Only if you believe Carlos Rodon can be your #1 in the future. Rodon, 24, in 2.5 years has a 19-18 record, 3.93 ERA and 1.414 WHIP and 3.0 WAR.

The saving grace is that the White Sox have built up a massive amount of quality pitching arms in the minors. Of their top 20 prospects, 10 are pitchers: Kopech (2), Giolito (4), Lopez (5), Fulmer (6), Burdi (8), Hansen (10), Dunning (11), Adams (12), Stephens (14) and Flores (19).  Beck and Holmberg have already been promoted to the major league roster.

Kopech, Giolito, Lopez and Fulmer will be promoted to the bigs within two years as starters. Burdi's 100 mph stuff projects as the new closer. By 2019, the White Sox could have a 9+ deep starting staff.

But that presumes that none of the prospects have arm injuries or the yips when they face major league hitters. The White Sox coaching staff does have a track record of developing starting pitchers so there is hope very soon for a pitching windfall.

But the Sox could be even stronger if they kept the durable Quintana in the rotation. That way the team does not have to rush a prospect to the major league club. And Quintana is THE affordable, controllable pitcher that any team, including the White Sox, will always look for their roster.

July 11, 2017

BREAK DOWN

Two games under .500. Five and one-half games behind the NL Central leader.
The Milwaukee Brewers would have been thrilled with that position prior to the All-Star game.

But it is the Cubs that are in that unexpected position, looking up at the rebuilding Brewers.

It has been a rocky 2017 campaign for the Cubs. The team has only one 5 game win streak and one 4 game win streak. The team has one 5 game losing streak and two 4 game losing streaks.

The vaulted Cub defense from 2016 has been terrible. The Cubs are 14th in the NL in errors and 13th in the league in fielding percentage.

The offense has not been exempt from criticism.

Runs Scored: 399/ 11th in NL
Hits: 706/14th
HR: 117/6th
BA: .239/14th
SB: 26/14th

The pitching numbers show a sad tale as well.

ERA: 4.10/5th in NL
CG: 1/6th
SHO: 0/10th
Runs Allowed: 399/5th
Earned Runs Allowed: 358/4th
Home Runs Allowed: 105/7th
Strikeouts: 763/4th
Walks: 309/10th

The cringe worthy stat is 1st Inning starting pitching (from ESPN):

Pitcher            2017 ERA             2016 ERA
Lackey             6.35                          4.01
Lester               7.85                          3.76
Arrieta              6.50                          2.52
Anderson         21.94                         4.30
Hendricks         5.73                          3.72
Butler               4.09                           8.04
Montgomery    7.11                           4.37

Rotation:          7.34                           3.85


A few years ago, the White Sox had a similar problem with a few of their starting pitchers. Steve Stone remarked that a rough first inning to him meant that the pitcher did not throw enough warm-up pitches prior to the game. He was not in game condition. The first inning was really the last stages of a normal warm up routine. Some pitchers coming off injury or protecting from injury tend to cut back on warm up tosses. The Cubs went into spring training with the direct order not to overwork their starting pitchers who threw into November. But that order may have carried over into the regular season.

A couple of Cubs starters also remarked that there was going to be an adjustment to the pregame rituals since the bullpen was no longer on Wrigley Field. Pitchers said they used to get positive energy from the fans in the stands when they warmed up. But now that they are under the bleachers, they do not get the crowd noise, the atmosphere of the pregame or the exact weather conditions on the field.

The Cubs have broken down in all phases of the game: hitting, pitching and fielding.

The excuses have to be laid to rest this late in the season:

The team is still young; they will get better. Except, there is no historical evidence that the young players hitting below .230 are going to hit .300 when they have never hit that high in the major league careers. There is something to the sophomore slump in the majors because the other teams find weaknesses in their opponents, especially batters.

Once the summer heats up, so will the bats. This is a false myth. In Chicago, it has been above average in temperature since May. The Cub bats have been consistently mediocre all season, especially with runners in scoring position.

The NL Central is weak so the Cubs can easily come back to win it. No one believed the Brewers were contenders but they have been on top for most of the season. They believe they can win it. Their make-up contest blow-out against the Cubs was a statement game. The team will get back its best starting pitcher, Chase Anderson, from his second oblique injury. Rumors have it that the Brewers could trade for Jose Quintana which would solidify their rotation for a stretch run. In addition, the Pirates came to town before the break and beat up the Cubs. They may have turned their season around with a revived Andrew McCutheon.

The Cubs won it last year; they know what to do to win it this year. This assumes that the 2017 Cubs are the same as the 2016 team. The current Cubs are missing the leadership of David Ross (especially when it comes to talking to the starting pitchers). The team is also missing its lead off hitter in Dexter Fowler. As a carryover from Game 7, the team may have stopped listening to sugar-coated hipness of Joe Maddon's happy team routine. The Cubs accomplished a serious goal last season in winning the World Series. This year, the Cubs do not have the same type of goal or a sense of urgency to contend.

More die-hard fans feel that the 2017 Cubs will be a major disappointment and they may end the season a below .500 club. It will really depend on whether the Cubs can start off hot after the All-Star game.

July 7, 2017

BEAT DOWN

Yesterday's make up game had the underpinnings of a Cold War border crossing.

The Brewers were upset that they lost a precious day off for this make up game when the Cubs canceled a game in May when the bad weather never showed up.

The Brewers felt the Cubs front office (which has control of the start until the line up cards are exchanged with the home plate umpire) could have changed the day game to a night game to let the expected bad storms to pass. But the Cubs did not do so. They just canceled the game and scheduled a make up contest a day game after the Brewers played a night game.

It seems like a pretty petty thing for the Cubs to do. In May the Cubs were shuffling along. In July, the Cubs continue to shuffle along. Meanwhile, the Brewers used the clear diss to motivate themselves to pistol whip their rivals.

The blow out of the Cubs was done early. It was so bad that Joe Maddon admitted by the 5th inning he was talking to players about being the position mop-up pitcher in the late innings. A game of rock-paper-scissors between Jon Jay and Tommy LaStella allowed Jay to throw a slow pitch perfect 9th inning.

If Maddon joked about the end of the game as comic relief for a terrible performance, then the Cubs have more problems. The call up of Schwarber after 11 minor league games showed some desperation with the lack of offense. The Cubs were only averaging 4.5 R/G this year compared to 5.3 R/G in 2016. In the spring, Maddon wanted his team to average 6 R/G. Also, Mike Montgomery, who had been the most consistent pitcher since his promotion, got lit up by the Brewers.

You had the perfect storm. You had the Brewers who were mad at the Cubs for being disrespected; you have the Cubs who cannot seem to get their act together for two games in a row.

With the loss, the Cubs fall to 4.5 games behind the Brewers. Everyone keeps on talking about the Brewers not having the players to sustain a playoff run. But they continue to prove the division wrong. Everyone continues to believe that the Cubs will get a post break streak and cruise to the NL Central title. But that spark, if it was to be Schwarber's return, is fizzling (he is now hitting .168). 

Writers try to pry a silver lining out of the dark cloud of the season with this stat: 70% the rest of Cubs opponents are under .500. But in reality, that stat does not matter since the Cubs are under .500 too.

At a certain point, someone will have to call this "a lost season."  This Brewers game may be looked at in September as the downward fall of the Cubs championship defense.

July 5, 2017

MIDSEASON CHIPS

The Cubs entire infield started the 2016 All-Star game. This year, no one will.

Wade Davis is the sole Cub representative. Kris Bryant may get a bench slot if he is voted in by the fans.

The Cubs are stumbling to the break with a .500 at best record. Totally disappointing. Totally frustrating. Totally unexpected.

Who would have thought that the best Chicago player this season would be Avi Garcia? The White Sox outfielder has blossomed to a .318 BA, 11 HR, 51 RBI, .362 OBP and 2.9 WAR so far this year.

The Cubs are in an odd position, 3.5 games behind the Brewers. Milwaukee is supposed to crumble with the lack of starting pitching and a young team. But the Brew Crew continues to chug along in first place.

Which makes the Cubs decisions harder to make by the trade deadline. Are the Cubs buyers? Sellers? Or will they just stand pat and ride out the season?

It would seem the latter may happen by default.

No team will give up front line starting pitcher(s) without a King's ransom. And the Cubs better trading chips (like Schwarber) have struggled all season.

Look at a position comparison:

Is Russell a better shortstop than Baez? Russell may have slightly better range, but Baez has a better arm. Russell has regressed this season; some say it is his bum shoulder. That makes Baez almost untradeable since he can play three defensive positions.

Is Zobrist a better 2B/OF than Happ? Zobrist was the first Super Sub when Maddon was the Tampa skipper. Zobrist had a massive WAR because of his defensive skill sets. But Zobrist has struggled this season at the plate and with a wrist injury. Happ got called up early because of the offensive stuggles. He has provided some HR potential while he learns to play the outfield on the fly. Since Happ has upside, he suddenly becomes an untradeable asset because of his versatility.

Would any other team take Russell and/or Zobrist in a trade? Perhaps if a contending team had a key starter get hurt. But they will not be willing to pay top dollar for either one.

So the Cubs are stuck with many veteran chips in a depressed market. If there are moves to make, it may be for the shot-in-the-dark AAAA player to shore up the rotation as a spot starter.

June 30, 2017

QUALITY CONTROL

Peter Gammons was on local Chicago sports radio this morning. The discussion centered around whether the baseball was "juiced" with the rash of home runs this season.

Gammons believes that the ball was not intentionally altered to create a ball that travels farther. He thinks there may be changes in the manufacturing process which could lead to such results.

Mike Mulligan stated that he has discussed the issue with pitching coaches who believe that the baseball itself is different. That the stitches are harder. Jake Arrieta sweats so much that he had a hard time gripping the current ball. They thought that is why Arrieta's command is so much different this season that the last two.

Gammons thought that was an interesting comment. Also, based on the Nate Silver and USA Today articles on the baseball conspiracy theories, Gammons said he took a current ball back to his office to compare with older ones he had there. He said that he found that the current baseball seams are much lower than the older models. He thinks that if the seams are lower, that may cause the ball to spin or bite less, which would mean less breaking action on curves and sliders.

Arrieta in his prime had biting action but also was able to hit his spots. Gammons thinks that is the major problem with pitching today is that pitchers are not able to consistently hit their spots. He said David Price is having problems hitting the corners even though his velocity is back up to the mid-90s. Price is uncharacteristically leaving fastballs over the heart of the plate.

Gammons also thinks that the detailed analysis of swing planes and launch angles is also contributing to higher home run totals. He says batters are now learning to hit the ball in the air. He says that they are squaring up pitches more for towering home runs to deep center field or with opposite field power. If the baseball is not moving as much as before, the batter is getting a flatter pitch to hit - - - and hit hard.

It could be the combination of the baseball manufacturing process where the seams are lower, the grip weaker for pitchers, and ball movement less that has contributed to the soaring home run rate.

But not to be discounted, Gammons remarked that the strike zone has shifted this season. Umpires are not calling the lower strike. Before, pitchers were getting calls near the ankle. Today, the strike zone has moved up from the thigh to the letters. Gammons thinks that is also a contributing factor because pitchers are forced to throw pitches higher in the zone -- a position where batters can hit them harder.

The Cubs-Nationals series was clear evidence that the balls thrown at the bottom of the strike zone were not called by the umpires. Cub pitchers got extremely frustrated with the strike zone. On the flip side, pitchers are told that they have to adjust their strategy to match an umpire's strike zone calls. But if the umpire is not calling the lower 6 inches of the plate, that is a huge in-game adjustment. If you are a pitcher whose "out" pitch is a slider in at the knees, and that pitch won't get called - - - then you are in trouble.

That may have been Arrieta's last start in a nutshell. He walked 6 batters which set off the Nationals running game against his slow delivery to the plate. A frustrated Miguel Montero voiced his displeasure at being blamed for a record 7 steals against the battery combination - - - and lost his job because of his truthful comments. But Arrieta's command has been an issue all year. He has reverted to his performance stats when he was in Baltimore, to the chagrin of fans.

An altered seam on baseballs, a different strike zone and batters learning to put the ball in the air have all had an impact on home run derby season in major league baseball.

June 28, 2017

WALKING ON EGG SHELLS

Jake Arrieta does have a slow delivery to the plate when runners are on base.
Runners can get a good jump on him.

Miguel Montero is an average catcher with a below average throw out ratio
of runners trying to steal.

Of course, that is a bad combo. And the Nationals stole a team record 7 bases last night to prove it.

So after the game, Montero goes off and blames Arrieta for the 7 steals (even though one of his throws bounced 20 feet in front of second.)

Anthony Rizzo publicly blasts Montero's comments as being "unprofessional."

Normally, these spats are kept behind clubhouse doors. But it shows that the 2016 Happy Happy Cubs clubhouse is not that cheery anymore. One incident sparked a wild fire explosion which quickly led to the front office designating Montero for assignment. Players must have been walking on egg shells for the underwhelming performance for one rant to turn into a job termination bullet.

That means the Cubs have 10 days to trade him (like they did this week with LHP Rosscup) or Montero becomes a free agent (and the Cubs must pay the remaining balance on his large 2017 contract).

The Cubs have not put together consistent total games together all season. The Cubs are mired in a .500 record by playing like an average team. The Montero release is not a turning point in the season but evidence of the open, bleeding sore that is the 2017 season.

Some believe that Maddon lost his position as leader during Game 7 of the World Series. The players only meeting led by Jason Heyward was meant to show the world that the players could win the game in spite of their manager's questionable moves. Maybe Maddon's happy talk and laid back behavior has worn thin with the roster. The players certainly have not shown the drive to succeed like they did last year. The off-season was filled with celebration, admiration and endorsement deals. The Cubs basked in their great accomplishment to the detriment of this season's preparation.

Now with nagging injuries cropping up around the team, and objective performance stats waning on all fronts, the front office is also walking on egg shells. The expectation of ownership and fans was high - - - to repeat the World Series. Ricketts have poured millions into the Wrigley Field experience but if the Cubs tank this year, that investment is at risk.

Montero being released so quickly is a symptom of a greater Cub problem. He may just be the first man in the lifeboat in a sinking season.