February 24, 2018

CAMP BORING

The Cubs opened spring training with no real jobs on the line. The Chicago roster is set. Only injury or a complete collapse by a player would affect the Opening Day roster.

The rotation is set: Darvish, Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, Chatwood.

The bullpen is set: Morrow, Strop, Cishek, Edwards, Deunsing, Montgomery, Wilson, Alvarez, Grimm.

Position players are set: Contreras, Bryant, Russell, Baez, Rizzo, Schwarber, Almora, Heyward, Happ, LaStella, Zobrist, Gimenez.

The starters appear to be locked in: LF Schwarber, CF Almora, RF Heyward, 3B Bryant, SS Russell, 2B Baez, 1B Rizzo, C Contreras.

The only possible change points are:

1. Grimm. He was not very good in 2017, but the team must like him enough to go to an arbitration hearing against him. The issue is whether the Cubs want to protect AAA starter Eddie Butler, who is out of options, as insurance in case a starter has an injury. Butler would then take Grimm's place as a long reliever in the pen.

2. LaStella. He is always on the bubble because the team has many players who can be "super utility" guys at multiple positions. But Maddon likes LaStella for pinch hitting duties. The only change could happen if outfielder Peter Bourjos makes an impression to become the 2018  Jon Jay 2.0.

The Cubs continue to have the daily lineup issue at lead off. There is no natural lead off hitter on the roster. Will Almora get the chance to lead off and be the every day center fielder? Or will he platoon with Happ?

The only other possible change would be if there was a serious injury to a starting pitcher. One of those position players would have to be used as a trade asset to acquire a proven starter since the minors will not yield a replacement level prospect in 2018. With the acquisitions of Darvish, Quintana and Chatwood, the Cubs are making the statement that it is a World Series of Bust season.

February 20, 2018

SPEED BUMP

The Commissioner wants the game to speed up. He is foaming at the mouth to do something to get players to move the game along. The driving force behind this "speed up play" is not to make the game better or more enjoyable, but to appease advertisers and to try to get attention-deficit kids to watch games.

Both reasons are not good enough to change the fundamental concepts of the game.

The Sun-Times quotes Cubs pitcher Jon Lester among the high-profile players who don’t like baseball’s latest efforts to speed up the pace of play. “It’s a terrible idea,”  he said. “It’s all terrible.”

On Monday, MLB announced rules and policy changes that include speeding up pitching changes and, most conspicuously, limiting mound visits without a pitching change to six per nine innings. That includes visits from teammates on the field, including the catcher.

There is no penalty at this point for a seventh visit; the umpire is simply charged with disallowing it.

“I get the mound-visit thing,” said Lester,  “But also, what people [who] aren’t in the game don’t understand is there’s so much technology now, there’s so many cameras on the field, that every stadium now has a camera on the catcher’s crotch. So they know the signs before you even get there.
“Now we’ve got Apple watches. Now we’ve got people being accused of sitting in a tunnel [trying to steal signs]. There’s reasons behind the mound visit. He’s not just coming out there asking what time I’m going to dinner or ‘How you feeling?’ There’s reasons behind everything, and I think if you take that away, it takes away from the beauty of the baseball game.”

Baseball is a game played at its own pace. There is no shot clock or timer. Games can last two hours to two days (with rain delays). 

Baseball officials have been kicking around ideas of a pitch clock to make pitchers throw quicker. Pitchers say if they are not ready to throw (with a proper grip and sign) then it become dangerous. Officials even thought about limiting the number of pitching substitutions per game, but that creates a roster nightmare and could induce injuries and longer games if a manager cannot pull an ineffective pitcher.  Some teams are thinking about bringing back golf carts to shuttle relievers from the bullpen. But will that really speed up play?  Others indicated that stop the practice of the reliever or any pitcher getting 8 warm up pitches at the start of their inning. But again, warm up tosses are important for the pitcher's health.

Besides, there have been plenty of pitchers like Mark Buerhle who could command a game, pitch quickly, and finish under three hours.  A pitcher and catcher pregame strategy session on how to pitch the game is a fundamental key for efficient game play.

Probably the biggest time waster in the game is not discussed very much: it is the batters constantly adjusting their armor, gloves and caps between every pitch. If you want to speed up play, once a batter gets into the batter's box for the first pitch, there would be no time out (unless there is a physical reason such as dirt or bug in a batter's eye.)  If a batter steps out of the box, the pitcher can throw a pitch for a strike. Stop the batter from taking time after every pitch would speed up the game, somewhat. At best, 20 minutes?

Replay decisions are only supposed to last 5 minutes, but sometimes take 15. 

The advertising time between innings will not change, and that is something that can be controlled easier than player conduct on the field. Teams want advertisers to fill time slots. Teams also want long enough breaks between innings so fans can feel they can go to concession stands.

MLB is wrong to try to pin their perceived problems on slow pitching. The game was not made to be a robotic video game. The ebb and flow of the game makes each contest unique.

Besides, with the push for sports gambling in professional sports, MLB may follow the NBA blueprint to allow their spectators to "bet" on each play. In order for that to occur, there needs to be some time between the last pitch and the next one in order to place bets. 

As some veterans have said in the past, if there is an issue on field of play, let the players resolve it among themselves.

February 16, 2018

CC THIS TO AGENTS AND PLAYERS

The New York Daily News published an article from Yankees spring training which puts into focus the current frozen free agent market from the viewpoint of a veteran player near the end of his career.

CC Sabathia told the Daily News he knows exactly how he'd feel if he was in Jake Arrieta's position as being an unsigned free agent after spring training has started for teams.

"I'd be panicking," Sabathia said. "I don't know him at all, but just to see guys in spring training getting ready and things like that and you have a family and you're trying to figure stuff out factors into how you pitch and play."

Sabathia said the off-season moved slow for him to get a deal. "Everything was kind of moving slow for me, too," said Sabathia, who signed a one-year, $10 million deal to remain with the Yankees. "I just thought that was kind of the pace of the off-season, but I've never seen what we've been going through this year. It's crazy. I was just happy I was able to get (my deal) done."

The paper cites many factors have been cited as possible reasons for the offseason hot-stove freeze, which has caused a rift between the league and the players' union, but Sabathia gave an interesting perspective on the issue.

"It's a combination of all of them," Sabathia said. "When I was a free agent you got paid off of what you did. Now guys are going to get paid for what they can do throughout that contract. It's just a different landscape in baseball, the way teams are changing. GMs are getting younger and smarter and they want to get more value out of their players."

Asked about the possibility of a strike, Sabathia replied: "I don't know about that. Maybe we shorten the years that you go to free agency. Make it four years instead of six, so guys that have a chance to be in their 20s going into free agency instead of 30."


Sabathia is a veteran pitcher who was once a premier starter, fell to hard times, and mounted a comeback to continue to play in the majors. But he sees the writing on the wall that many agents and players apparently do not see. The structure of team management has changed from the old school baseball scouting system to a hybrid of new, young, tech smart and stat driven analysis. And clubs have decided that going younger (and cheaper) does not hurt their product or prospects for a post-season. You don't need a veteran all-star stocked roster in order to get to the playoffs. So the economics of the game is rapidly changing; the players union got caught in the winds of change with no avenue of recourse until the next collective bargaining meeting.

February 12, 2018

YU ASKED FOR IT

The Cubs have now replaced starters Jake Arrieta and John Lackey with Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood.

Is it good enough?

The Astros won the World Series with a starting rotation that had the following performance:

Fiers 8-10, 5.22 ERA, -0.6 WAR
Morton 14-7, 3.62, 1.8 WAR
Kuechel 14-5, 2.90 ERA, 3.9 WAR
Peacock 13-2, 3.00 ERA, 3.0 WAR
McCullers 7-4, 4.25 ERA 0.9 WAR
Verlander 5-5, 1.06 ERA, 1.8 WAR.

Astros rotation core:  63 wins (of 101 total), 9.8 WAR.

The Cubs new rotation:

Lester, 13-8, 4.33 ERA, 1.0 WAR
Darvish 10-12, 3.86 ERA, 3.8 WAR
Hendricks 7-5, 3.03 ERA, 3.3 WAR
Quintana 11-11, 4.15 ERA, 2.2 WAR
Chatwood 8-15, 4.69 ERA, 2.1 WAR.

The Cubs rotation core: 49 wins, 12.4 WAR.

The key to the Astros success was the fact that they had four bullpen pitchers with ERAs under 3.00 who could close out games.

As for the Darvish contract, under the old WAR valuation standard, his 3.8 WAR equates to a value of $20.9 million/season. The Darvish contract averages $21 million per season. Apparently, the Cubs offered the 6th year to get under the luxury cap and to get the deal done. One could suspect that the Brewers and/or Twins offered Darvish $125 million so the Cubs upped the ante by only a small amount.

The Darvish deal does help stabilize the pitching rotation which is still extremely thin in the minors. Eddie Butler, who is out of options, may have to kept in the bullpen or be lost after spring training.

The Darvish signing keeps the Cubs as expected divisional champs in the NL Central.


February 3, 2018

NEW PARADOX

In the past, players were given new contracts based upon past performance. Mega-deals like Albert Pujols Angels' contract has been a disaster because as the superstar aged, his performance was bound to decline. Teams are more aware of "dead money" deals having a substantial negative impact on their team's payroll and finances (aren't the Mets still paying Bobby Bonilla?)

This off-season has been a turning point. General managers are not paying for "past" performance as much as looking forward with new metrics to determine if a free agent is worthy of a $100 million deal.

When the news broke that the Cubs avoided arbitration with Kris Bryant by inking him to a record $10.8 million deal, I thought the Cubs overpaid to keep him happy. Some believe teams give large contracts to controlled players as a means of trying to get a "home town discount" when they reach free agency.

Bryant's large contract allowed Mookie Betts to best the Red Sox at his arbitration hearing, earning a new deal at $10.5 million.

The consensus standard measure for player value has been WAR. In the past, $5.5 million in value was attached to each 1.0 WAR. In other words, a starting position player (2.0 WAR) should be making $11 million.

When we look at the Bryant contract on a valuation standard, he had a 6.1 WAR in 2017. Under the old standard, his value was $33.55 million. He played well above his salary. In his 2018 deal, Bryant's salary valuation is only $1.77 million/WAR.

The same is true for Betts. His performance standard last season was worth $35.2 million. Under his 2018 deal, Betts' salary valuation is only $1.64 million/WAR.

Both the Cubs and Red Sox expect that Bryant and Betts will have equally good seasons as last year. They are both young and have not hit their "prime" production years.

But if big market teams look closely, their current superstar players are getting good contracts well below past FA dynamics. Bryant and Betts are being paid at a rate one-third of the old FA standard. Some would say Bryant and Betts would have been the top two free agents if they were not arbitration eligible. So if these players are getting under $11 million, why should any other FA get more?

Players and agents may not sense this economic earthquake shift in valuation considerations.

It was reported Yu Darvish had one five-year contract offer. But apparently, he rejected it since it has been two weeks and he remains unsigned. It may have been from the Twins or the Brewers (who have moved on to discuss trading power hitter Domingo Santana to the Rays for SP Chris Archer.) One report had Darvish looking for more than $150 million. Any long term deal would put the 31 year old pitcher past his "prime" years.

If Darvish is looking for a 5 year/$150 million contract, the annual salary hit to a team would be $30 million. Darvish's 2017 WAR was 3.8. Under the old WAR metric, his value would be $20.9 million. Under the new metric, it is only $7.6 million. There is an ocean of difference between these two figures. And that is why both sides seem to be waiting out the off-season, playing payroll "chicken."

But the teams do have an incentive not to flinch or cave. The big money teams, the past spenders who set the free agent marketplace, has all decided that the luxury tax hits and loss of draft position is more costly in the long run that signing expensive free agents in a "win now" annual business model. Teams see young core controllable players on the Cubs and Astros rosters wearing championship rings. They want to copy that blueprint for success.

The longest contract signed this off-season was Lorenzo Cain and the Brewers: 5 years, $80 million. Cain had an excellent 2017 campaign. He had a 5.3 WAR. Under the old system, his performance value would be $29.15 million. Cain signed his deal with an average salary of $16 million/year. Under the new metric, he is getting $3 million/WAR, a 45 percent discount from the past standard.

Players want to get paid what they are worth. But the definition of worth is rapidly changing in baseball. As spring training gates open in less than two weeks, it will be interesting to see how many Andre Dawson situations will happen at the fence line. (Dawson was a FA with no suitors. So he went to Cubs camp with a blank check and asked the Cubs to give him a contract on the team's terms.)


January 26, 2018

TAPPING THE KEG

The Milwaukee Brewers have clearly indicated that they are "all in" for the 2018 season.

The Brew Crew has traded for disgruntled Marlin outfielder Christian Yelich in a deal which gives back four prospects to Florida.

The 26-year-old Yelich hit .282/.369/.439, with 18 home runs, over 695 plate appearances with the Marlins last season. He should slot in as Milwaukee’s everyday center fielder, and may be the club’s leadoff man in 2018. Yelich is young, productive and under cost control through 2021. The move not only gives the Brewers a star-caliber center fielder, but one at a minimal cost for years to come.

The cost for Yelich wasn’t cheap. Milwaukee gave up four players in the deal, including their number one prospect, Lewis Brinson (#16 in MLB) .Also in the deal are outfielder Monte Harrison, their No. 5 prospect (#75 in MLB), infielder Isan Diaz their No. 9 prospect and Jordan Yamamoto, according to Baseball America.

Brinson, 23, is the key to the deal. He has limited major league experience, but he has hit .287/.353/.502. Brinson is considered major-league ready, and should have an opportunity to be a full-time starter with the Marlins in 2018. Harrison, Diaz and Yamamoto have yet to play above High A so they’ll likely spend 2018 in the minors.

Then, the Brewers made a surprising move by signing outfielder Lorenzo Cain to a five year, $80 million contract. The Brewers now have a glut of outfield talent: Ryan Braun, Domingo Santana, Keon Broxton and Brett Phillips. The surplus of outfielders means the Brewers can trade one in a deal to get a quality starting pitcher if they cannot land free agents Jake Arrieta or Yu Darvish (for whom reports said has been given an offer by the club).

Cain had a great season with the Royals in 2017. He hit .300, 15 HR, 49 RBI, 26 SB and a 5.3 WAR. Paired with Yelich, who hit .282, 18 HR, 81 RBI, 16 SB and 3.9 WAR, Milwaukee may have the best outfield in the NL with Santana hitting .278, 30 HR,85 RBI, 15 SB and 3.0 WAR.

The Brewers were in the hunt late into last season. The new additions have dramatically improved their chances at a wild card or division title.

January 25, 2018

HOF 2018 CLASS DISCUSSION

It was announced that the Hall of Fame has elected four new members.

Chipper Jones, Vladimir Guerrero, Jim Thome and Trevor Hoffman compose the BBWAA's 2018 National Baseball Hall of Fame class.

The only person that had any real debate was Hoffman, a closer. Many HOF junkies still cannot grasp the fact that closers, with limited innings per year, are Hall of Fame worthy. Many think of closers as being the "NFL kickers" of baseball; a member of the ball club but mostly on the roster for "chip shot" points.

Previously, five pitchers are currently in the Hall, chiefly for their accomplishments as relief pitchers: Goose Gossage, Hoyt Wilhelm, Rollie Fingers, Bruce Sutter, and Dennis Eckersley.  Eckersley, who was considered the first modern closer pitching exclusively in ninth inning situations, also had a significant career as a starting pitcher and even threw a no-hitter in 1977. Another pitcher entered the Hall in 2015 was John Smoltz, who was primarily a starter, but spent four seasons as a dominant reliever for the Braves.

The history of baseball began with the starting pitcher pitching the entire game. It was expected when he took the mound in the first inning, he would be on the mound to the last out in the 9th. Early century teams had only a few pitchers on the rosters to begin with . . . a three man rotation was not out of the question. Lanky, rubber arm pitchers were the norm in the dead ball era.

Then in the 1920s and 1930s, the concept of a "fireman" came into the game. A relief pitcher would come into the game to "put out a fire" or rally by the opposing team. In the past, a starter was really only taken out if he had gotten injured or shelled beyond hope of recovery.

The lone fireman concept evolved slowly into the modern bullpen, where a manager has seven or eight relief pitchers on the roster to mix and match against hitters in every single game. From the modern bullpen concept, the 9th inning "closer" emerged as the most valuable reliever on a staff.

Closers are used when a team is ahead in the final inning by 3 runs or less. The "save" concept was created by the dean of baseball writers, Jerome Holtzman, as a way of trying to quantify the effect a relief pitcher has on the game's outcome. Many people have been critical of the "save" stat as being overblown to irrelevant. Purists believe that every inning has the same importance; getting three outs.

Others suggest that the "pressure" of closing a game is a special skill that not all pitchers can handle. One example of this was the Cubs 2016 mid-season trade for Aroldis Chapman, a dominant closer who helped the Cubs end their long championship drought.

Indians manager Terry Francona added the concept of a "stopper" in Andrew Miller to the bullpen mix. He used Miller in any inning, from the third to the 9th, to put out rallies or to keep the game within reach. The idea of a floating "closer" to be used throughout the game has increased the overall importance of the bullpen depth.

The Kansas City Royals, on their run to a championship, decided that an unstoppable bullpen was more valuable than a dominant starting five rotation (which is hard to find). By having a set of terminators for the 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th innings, all the Royals asked their starters to do was to throw 5 quality innings.  It saves wear and tear on their starters, and gave the entire bullpen "ownership" of games and victories.

Whether Hoffman or any relief pitcher is worthy of a Hall of Fame plaque is one of those baseball discussions that fans and writers will have forever.