January 19, 2017

THE BAEZ QUESTION

Bruce Levine was on Chicago radio this week discussing the Cubs situation with Javy Baez.

The scope of the discussion centered around the Cubs need to acquire young, controllable starting pitchers. The Cubs will have a real problem at the end of the season if Lackey retires and Arrieta goes to free agency (both expected to do so.)

The Cubs have many trade chips to get a young starter, but management is cautious about trading any of "their guys."

The roster squeeze problem is Javy Baez. He believes that he deserves to be a full time player. He has great defensive skills at all three infield positions with 62 defensive runs saved over average fielders.

Baez also excelled at the plate, hitting a respectable .273, 14 HR, 59 RBI, 12 SB in 450 PA.

The blocks of Baez being a full time starter is the Cubs favoritism towards Kyle Schwarber, who has been labeled "untradable" by the front office, and WS MVP Ben Zobrist, who is also a super-sub.

Schwarber appears to be penciled in as the regular left fielder (despite his injury history). That means that Zobrist will have to play second base as Addison Russell is the starting shortstop and league MVP Kris Bryant is locked in at third. This assumes that Justin Heyward can correct his swing to be a productive offensive player in right field.

The only way Baez plays full time in the field is there is a misfortune to some other player.

Levine stated that the Cubs feel Baez is too valuable to trade because if the third baseman, shortstop or second baseman gets hurt, Baez can step in and the Cubs don't lose any potential production.

Normally, if a young player is blocked by a veteran under contract, other teams will make solid offers to acquire him. In the speculative trade market, the Cubs could trade Baez straight up for White Sox starter Jose Quintana, a young starter with four years of contract control.

The clubhouse issue will be whether Joe Maddon can get Baez enough playing time to keep sharp during the season. It would seem that at best, Baez could get three starts a week while Maddon rests Bryant, Russell and Zobrist. But that would only occur later in the season.  And whether Baez is mentally tough enough to accept a super-bench role on the club, especially if other players are struggling at the plate (Heyward) or in the field (Schwarber).

For some, this is a good problem to have; too many good players on the roster competing for playing time. But the question will remain throughout spring training: is Baez more valuable to trade or stay?

January 15, 2017

CASTRO

SNY reviews the Starlin Castro trade:


How Castro fared in 2016:
There were positives, yet some results left something to be desired concerning Castro's performance last season. It is difficult to get upset with 51 extra-base hits from a second baseman, but Castro has room for offensive improvement after hitting .270 with a .300 on-base percentage and a .433 slugging percentage (.734 OPS, 93 OPS+ and 94 wRC+). In his first full season as a second baseman, Castro wasn't awful at the position, but the club hopes he can improve in the department in which advanced metrics cast an ill light (-8 defensive runs saved).

Castro's OPS was significantly higher than the collections of players from 2014 (.693) and 2015 (.683), so in that respect, the Yankees received improved production from the position without spending an exorbitant salary (just under $8 million in 2016 and $10 million in 2017). Better, the Yankees ended up receiving Adam Warren, whom they traded for Castro, back in the Aroldis Chapman deal last summer, so the move was more or less like signing a young free agent.

What to expect in 2017
With seven years of major-league experience under his belt, if Castro is going to turn into an elite player, the time should be now. Unfortunately, Castro's inability to be more selective at the plate will likely deter him from turning in the monster season that he could with a different approach at the plate.

Castro has averaged just 3.67 pitches per plate appearance in his career (league average during the time frame was 3.83) and his career contact rate at pitches outside the zone is 66.9 percent (league averages have sat between 62-64 percent during his career). I'm not suggesting that Castro try to work more walks -- that's completely out of his comfort zone (his career-best walk rate is 6.2 percent in 2014; the league average was 7.6 percent). However, he might benefit from swinging at better pitches in an effort to increase the potential balls he contacts result in base hits. Castro could further work to reduce strikeouts, in which he set a career-high rate (19.3 percent) in 2016.

In his early seasons with the Cubs, Castro benefited from an inflated batting average with balls in play (BABIP) which elevated his on-base percentage. As his BABIP dropped in subsequent seasons, so has his on-base percentage. Castro getting on base just 30 percent of the time is a hindrance to the lineup and something he has the capability to remedy.

It is safe to assume that Castro can minimally attain 50-plus extra-base hits again in 2017. The upside with Castro is 60 extra base hits -- think 35 doubles and 25 home runs. The frustrating part with Castro is that he continually leaves people wanting more. The talent certainly exists, but whether Castro has the necessary drive to push himself enough to elevate his game is questionable.
In the field, any improvement would again come from Castro putting in extra effort. Castro has the benefit of having a full season playing second base under his belt, so the growing pains should be diminished. While Castro has the ability to turn in the fantastic play, the mind lapses and being a poor position for routine grounders drag his performance and metrics down.

Bottom line
Castro is a fine player. The Yankees are not breaking the bank to employ him and at the moment he is not blocking any minor leaguers. However, while Castro flashes spurts of brilliance at the plate and in the field, the knock is taking his talent and matching it with full-blown effort through an entire season. Until Castro improves his approach at the plate and his all-around focus, he will be viewed a nice piece, not the elite star he has the potential to reach.

MY TAKE:

The Yankees clearly won the trade by obtaining Castro and getting Warren back (because Chapman was leaving for free agency at the end of season and the Yanks had no chance of winning the AL East).

Castro had a 2.1 oWAR and a 1.2 overall WAR in 2016. Warren contributed a negative 0.9 WAR when he was with the Cubs.

Granted, Ben Zobrist had a better year. He had a 4.2 oWAR and 3.8 overall WAR in 2016. 

With the emergence of Javy Baez, we don't know how much playing time Zobrist will have in 2017. But it is clear that Castro did not have a starting job in Chicago so he had to be traded to give Joe Maddon the championship roster pieces.




January 9, 2017

THE SIXTH MAN

The Cubs are planning to go with a partial six-man rotation in 2017.
In 2016, resting the veteran starters in the second half helped in the playoffs.
But the problem to be addressed in spring training is that lack of starter depth.

The current rotation of Lester, Arrieta, Hendricks, Lackey and Montgomery is solid, but many of these veterans logged personal maximum innings in 2016. How fresh or sharp will they be in 2017?

The problem continues to be that the Cubs have failed to develop their own starting pitching.

Rob Zastryzny is slated to start in AA Iowa as the emergency starter. He went 1-0, 1.13 ERA in 8 games with the Cubs in 2016 (1 start). He is a lefty who went 10-5 in the minors with a 4.31 ERA. He may project to be a Travis Wood long relief/spot starter candidate.

The Cubs are also counting on Jake Buchanan. He went 1-0, 1.50 ERA in 2 games for the Cubs in 2016 (1 start). In AAA, he went 12-8, 4.34 ERA in 22 starts.

Also in the mix is Aaron Brooks. The ex-Royal, 26, went 1-1 with a 7.71 ERA in limited AAA action. His career MLB record is 3-5, 8.38 ERA.

Montgomery's promotion to the rotation does cause a weakness in the bullpen. Monty was a long reliever who could be spotted for work in any inning. If the Indians use of Andrew Miller in the playoffs will be a blueprint copied by many other teams, Montgomery seems comfortable in that role. He has not gone a full season as a starter.

The other unknown is the durability of Lester, Arrieta and Lackey. Will Maddon ease up on them in spring training and in the early part of the season? Is that why the Cubs will break camp with an 8 man bullpen? Probably.

Zaztrynzy, Buchanan and Brooks do not instill confidence in case of a starting rotation fail.

There are two guys currently on the market that would fit the bill as stop-gap starters: Travis Wood and Jason Hammel. In a pitching market devoid of quality starters, both Wood and Hammel have not gotten much free agent love. The Cubs bought out Hammel's option so he is not really on the radar to return. Wood wants to return to being a full time starter, with a better command of his fastball. Remember, starters make more money than relievers.

The Cubs will still have to make at least one off-season move to add depth to the rotation. The Cubs continue to harp about acquiring young, controllable arms. A player with quality stats and 4 years of control is sitting on the White Sox fire sale inventory, Jose Quintana, but the price the Cubs would have to pay stops the discussion before it even begins. Quintana, 13-12, 3.20 ERA with a 5.2 WAR in 2016, is the type of player the Cubs would need if either Lester or Arrieta goes down with a serious injury.

The six-man rotation concept is good in theory. However, if you don't have the pieces to make it work, it messes up the entire pitching staff.

January 4, 2017

MIDWINTER REPORT

As the Cubs hit the midwinter mark of the off-season, the 2017 roster is fairly well set.

The Cubs said the team will break camp with 13 pitchers (including 8 relief pitchers).

The starting rotation (pending an unexpected trade) is set: Lester, Arrieta, Hendricks, Lackey and Montgomery.

The bullpen may have one or two open spots. But at the moment, the 8 men are: Davis, Rondon, Uehara, Strop, Edwards, Grimm, Duensing and Pena.

The starting lineup is fairly well set (with a potential of three to four platoon spots). The roster currently will hold only two catchers (with Schwarber's knee injury taking him out of his natural position).

Regular starters will be: Contreras (c), Rizzo (1b), Zobrist (2b), Russell (ss), Bryant (3b), Schwarber (lf), Jay/Almora (cf), Heyward (rf). Baez will be rotated in at 2b, ss and 3b to rest/move Russell, Bryant, and Zobrist, the latter into LF against left handed pitching.

The short bench will be led by Baez, then Montero, Szczur or LaStella. Again, there is no natural first baseman on the roster to back up Rizzo.

The current roster turnover/new position stands at 20 percent (5 of 25 players).

The major free agents from the Cubs’ 2016 roster: outfielder Dexter Fowler, catcher David Ross (who’s retiring), starting pitcher Jason Hammel, and relievers Travis Wood, Trevor Cahill, and Aroldis Chapman. Those six players combined for 8.3 WAR last season  primarily through Fowler’s 4.2 WAR. 

In theory, their replacements (Davis, Montgomery, Uehara, Duensing, Montero and Jay) need to average 1.39 WAR each. That seems plausible.

December 31, 2016

THE METS BOUNTY

The Mets will again start the new year with one of the league's most impressive starting rotations. And an impossible task to try to keep this core of hard throwing starters on the team for the long term.

As the New York Daily News reported recently, GM Sandy Alderson has the task of trying to control the rotation for longer than their current projected arbitration years.

The idea of a contract extension is that a team offers guaranteed money through a players’ arbitration years in exchange for the first few years of the players’ free agency. Usually the player gets less money than he ideally would get on the open market, but more than he would in arbitration. They are assured that money whether he suffers a long-term injury or his level of play drops off. For a team built around pitching and these young arms in particular (and a team whose farm system is light on top pitching prospects) these decisions are going to be an increasingly important part of shaping the franchise’s future over the next few years.

Alderson said he would not rule out talking to a pitcher’s agent about an extension during the 2017 season, but indicated it was not something he was contemplating before the Mets get to Port St. Lucie.

“I am not going to say we would do or we are not going to do it,” Alderson said of looking to lock up one of their talented young arms long term during the season, “but heading into spring training, it’s not likely going to happen.”

Matt Harvey will be the first of the Mets’ young arms who will test the team’s future plans. He is in his second year of arbitration eligibility and under the Mets’ control for just two more seasons. This is really the last winter the Mets could expect any possible value in an extension. After an All-Star season in 2013, he missed 2014 after Tommy John surgery. He pitched 218 innings, a record for a pitcher in his first season back from the elbow surgery, going 13-8 with a 2.71 ERA in 2015. He struggled most of the 2016 season with command and was shut down in early July after surgery to address the circulation issues associated with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome.

Jacob deGrom, who was given an extra year of arbitration through the Super-2 designation this winter, would be the ideal candidate for the Mets to discuss an extension with this winter.
DeGrom had a disappointing 2016, going 7-6 with a 3.04 ERA, after a Rookie of the Year season in 2014 and a stellar 14-8 (2.54 ERA) season in 2015. He had Tommy John early in his minor league career and was shut down early in 2016 to have surgery to move the ulnar nerve in his elbow.
Harvey said earlier this month that the surgery had relieved the issues of numbness in his fingers and he is seeing results as he works through his offseason throwing program. DeGrom was still waiting to begin his throwing program earlier this month when he spoke to reporters. Older than Harvey, deGrom will be 32 when he finally reaches free agency and could be more open to the idea of an extension.

Zack Wheeler is in his first year of arbitration eligibility and reaches free agency after the 2019 season, deGrom after 2020 and Stephen Matz and Noah Syndergaard are only under control through the 2021 season.

So the Mets have a wealth of starting pitchers for the next two seasons. However, the Mets are still running a tight team budget. As much as the talent of the franchise rests with starting pitching, the field position lacks key superstars. Re-signing Yoenis Cespedes was a mandatory cost to hold the fans' off-season attention. But with David Wright's continuing health issues, and no natural center fielder on the roster, the Mets do have glaring holes in their line up.

It is doubtful that the Mets will trade any of their starters to close the line up gaps with hitters. The Mets need to have depth at starter because its power arms are prone to injury.

December 27, 2016

QUINTANA MARKET

Jose Quintana is an under-the-radar ace. He is only 27 years old. He is under team control for four more years at a very low salary.  In five major league seasons, he has gone 46-46, 3.41 ERA, 1.242 WHIP and 20.5 WAR. By most estimations, he is more valuable trade chip than Chris Sale.

When the White Sox were dealing at the Winter Meetings, everybody was on the table. There were rumors that several teams were interested in Quintana: the Astros, the Mets, and the Nationals. But once Sale was traded to the Red Sox for the best prospects Boston had available, the price for Quintana apparently went up. And once the Nationals seemingly overpaid for CF Adam Eaton, talks on Quintana have become whispers.

There are other teams that have been kicking the tires. The Orioles do not have the top level prospects to cut a deal, and they are unlikely to deal two players off their 25 man roster as part of a package.

The Mets are in a similar position, but they are looking for bullpen studs rather than starting pitching.

Even though the White Sox are rich in minor league starters, GM Rick Hahn continues to stockpile arms. The Mets will not part with Steven Matz in a Quintana deal.

The Rangers are always an odd-fellow in the trade market. The Rangers always prize starting pitchers as acquisition targets. But it is unclear whether the Rangers have enough depth to pull off a multi-player deal.

A team with an potential excess of starting pitchers is the Dodgers. Injuries mowed down its entire rotation. It will start camp with eight or nine legitimate major league starters. Adding Quintana would not make much sense, but the Dodgers could be the conduit of a three team trade to move some of their excess starters to another club in exchange for a starting second basemen.

But the one team that still is trying to get a deal done is the Pirates. The Pirates would love to have a cost controlled starter to throw behind Gerrit Cole. Pittsburgh did re-sign ex-Yankee Nova but the team wants to maintain its budget with players who value exceeds the price. However, moving Andrew McCutchen to the White Sox is not part of the discussion.

The White Sox have received enough fan support to go through the rest of the off-season without making any further moves. But Quintana, because of his highly favorable contract, will continue to draw interest. Ironically, the Cubs main message this off-season has been to acquire a young, controllable starting pitcher. Quintana is the that pitcher.

December 20, 2016

THE GRINCH

From the beginning, the one golden business philosophy of the new Cubs ownership has been that no one else except the Cubs should profit from the Cubs in Wrigleyville.

It did not matter that Lakeview businesses such as bars and restaurants have been serving the community for generations (even when the Cubs product could not draw flies). Ricketts strong belief is that no one is entitled to make any direct or indirect money off his team.

No wonder there has been a contentious relationship between the Cubs and the neighborhood. The suit against the rooftop owners was a prime example. Even after the settlement, Ricketts attempted to block them out of business with new jumbotrons. The residents have pushed back on the unilateral demands of the Cubs, but the Cubs have steam rolled the city council to ask for more and more exceptions to the general business rules.

The Ricketts massive redevelopment plan in and around Wrigley Field is clearly "overzoning" for the residential neighborhood. The density and traffic concerns of the area was not truly addressed as the council rubber stamped the development in a time when Chicago is still reeling from the 2008 real estate collapse.

The Cubs sued a man who was selling on the street corner his own Cubs newsletter. Despite the First Amendment rights of publishers, the Cubs were trying to muscle out anyone who would "compete" with their vendors selling game programs. It would seem petty to try to drive out a man trying to sell programs to help support his kid's education, but the Cubs took the matter to the federal appellate court, which gave me a mixed ruling - - - including a statement that the Cubs themselves were violating a city ordinance against peddlers around Wrigley Field. In response, the Cubs quietly lobbied the city to change that ordinance for the team's benefit.

The Cubs placed their own souvenir shop across the street from Wrigley to compete with the other street merchants. The team pushed the envelope by offering official player signed game jerseys.

The Ricketts wanted the triangle space to be an unregulated, open air beer garden. Even that was too much for police and fire to handle. But this is part of the plan to capture every single dollar spent in a mile radius of the park. The idea of more Wrigley concerts is a way to try to diminish other live entertainment venues like the Cubby Bear. It is also a means of the Ricketts family trying to maximize revenue from Wrigley Field when baseball is not played. It is apparent that whole concept that Ricketts wants to create their own year round entertainment center like Disneyland.

But just as sinister of motivations is how the team treats its most loyal fans, the season ticket holders. Season ticket holders paid top dollar for years of horrible Cubs baseball. The Cubs have been near the top of the league with the most expensive ticket prices. Fans were rewarded during the bad stretch with the advent of "dynamic" ticket prices - - - you had to pay more for games with good teams. All prices inside the park increased as well, making it very difficult for an average middle class family to attend games.

So with the World Championship team of young controllable core of players, the Cubs first reaction was to significantly raise ticket prices 6 to 31 percent. The highest toll is being collected on the prime box seats season ticket holders, who are also being pushed to buy "memberships" in the exclusive lounge to be built under Wrigley Field. This lounge is to keep the high rollers inside the park before and after games so they spend their booze money inside Wrigley. Some called the rise in ticket prices a slap in the face to loyal season ticket holders.

Well, the slap has turned into a full sucker punch. The Tribune reports today that many season ticket holders have lost 2017 seats because the Cubs were upset that many "sold" their tickets during the playoffs for greater than face value. The Cubs already collected the face value on the tickets. But the team is upset that it "lost" the secondary market "profit" on those tickets. It is a really tenuous argument. The Cubs set the price of the tickets and collected the money. The Cubs did not lose anything except the notion that someone else is making money instead of the Ricketts clan.

The Cubs claim that its crackdown is to keep tickets in the hands of people who actually plan on attending the games. It is also a way for them to try to maximize revenues, or at least prevent others from profiting handsomely over their popular product, according to the Tribune story.

The Tribune story states that the Cubs season ticket holder agreement is a "revocable license."
Season ticket licenses are renewed on a yearly basis, the club said, "at the sole discretion of the team." The license agreement includes language advising fans their plan may be canceled if tickets have been purchased "for the purpose and intent of reselling the tickets on the secondary market."

It is ironic since the Cubs have been for years "reselling" their own tickets through their own ticket broker. And Major League Baseball has an official partnership with StubHub makes it easier than ever for fans to sell and buy tickets with a few clicks of a button or swipes of the finger. For high-demand teams like the Cubs, the puzzle is how to capture the maximum amount of dollars without alienating loyal and longtime fans, while keeping at least some prices affordable for the average fan, those who study sports business told the Tribune.

So instead of rewarding the most loyal fans who spent the most to support their team, season ticket holders get the harshest brunt of the Ricketts greed. It just puts into focus one of the realities of this era of the Cubs. The fans truly love and admire the players and coaches, but they do not like the owners.

During the playoffs, I told friends that a Cubs World Championship would be the WORST thing that could happen to the Ricketts family. The Ricketts have not completed the bulk of their real estate development work. They have not generated any new revenue from the McDonald's block or the new triangle building. They are spending millions of dollars with the expectation that more people will flock to their venue to see the Cubs.

But one of the driving forces for fans to come to Cub games was the 108 year championship drought. They came to be a part of history, when the curse would be broken. Many paid dearly to attend games or be around the park during the World Series. It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment.

And that moment finished with a World Championship.

And that diffuses and crumbles one of the foundations of Cub fandom: the lovable losers are no more. People have their championship season. They have their World Series merchandise. They have the lifetime memories of the World Series run. Nothing will surpass that emotion.

So there is little reason for the average person to pay 31 percent more to watch in person the 2017 Cubs. Many will save their money for next year's expensive playoff games by watching games on TV. And for a few, once the top of the mountain was reached, there is no need to climb the trail again. They will become part-time, causal fans.  And those new fans who were caught up by the hysteria of the bandwagon, will probably drop off and return to their normal, non-sports centric lives.

All those elements bode for less revenue opportunities for the Ricketts because the Cubs peaked a couple of years too soon to capture all the Rickettsville revenue.