March 25, 2017

FIVE REASONS

There are good reasons for the Cubs to repeat their championship in 2017. There are also bad reasons why the team will not defend its crown.

FIVE REASONS CUBS CAN REPEAT

1. Kyle Schwarber.

Having Schwarber for a full season is a significant upgrade to the offense. His serious knee injury downgrades the offensive depth at the catching position, and adds to left field negative defensive stats, but Schwarber is the inspirational contact hitter the Cubs lineup really needs to help settle it into a consistent machine.

2. Experience.

The experience factor is huge. The current Cubs now know how to win. They know how to pace themselves through a season. Pitchers are now more savvy on conserving their energy for a long season. Position players know how Maddon likes to move them around on the field and in the line up.

3.  Wade Davis.

Davis is no Chapman, but he is a quality closer. Last season, Davis went 2-1, 1.87 ERA, 27 saves and 1.131 WHIP for a 1.8 WAR.  He will add the stabilizer to another bullpen in the midst of a retooling. If Davis cannot go, the Cubs have some insurance with Rondon, Strop and Uehara who have closed games in the past.

4. Less Pressure.

The Cubs enter this season with less expectations. Fans are still drifting on Cloud Nine with their first multi-generational championship season. They are not clamoring for a repeat with the drumbeat of a spoiled brat. The players themselves have less pressure on to win a championship. They can continue to relax and play the game instead of grinding out wins. This Cubs team is best when it takes a carefree approach.

5. Javy Baez.

Baez was the most electric player in the World Baseball Championship (WBC) series. He now rates as an international superstar player. He has the skills and the flash to become a national baseball icon. The Cubs will have to get him more playing time because his talent demands it. And the fans want to see him play.

FIVE REASONS CUBS CANNOT REPEAT

1. Injuries.

Some core aspects of the team are young. But the starting pitching staff (Lester, Arrieta and Lackey) have experience but there is always the nagging thought of reliability. The Cubs went through 2016 without a significant long term injury to key players. The odds are against them this year. When Rizzo had back tightness early in spring training, it was dismissed quickly. But if you look at the roster, there are positions like first base and starting rotation that is devoid of quality depth.

2. Rotation.

Maddon has set his rotation: Lester, Arrieta, Lackey, Anderson and Hendricks.  Lester deserves the status of being the ace of the staff. Arrieta has been unreal at times. Lackey being the 3rd starter shows the level of concern. He is at the end of the line as a 5th starter. Brian Anderson is the new guy having a terrible spring. But Mike Montgomery has not blown him away to earn the starting spot. In fact, Maddon likes Montgomery as swing man in the bullpen. Hendricks being the 5th starter may be the best one in the National League, but it is a protection move from the career workload of innings pitched last season. This season's rotation does not seem as strong as last year's.

3. Log jams.

The players get along. The clubhouse seems to be a happy place. But this year there will be some tension over the amount of playing time for position players. There will be public debates on how much playing time Baez gets as compared to Zobrist, Schwarber or even a LaStella. Even though Maddon can move players to multiple positions, he will not be able to appease each of them because they believe they have earned a full time starting position. Depth is a great asset but it can be a liability of dissent. If the Cubs have significant injuries, one or more of their young players could be pressured to be traded to shore up the roster. That can create tension between the manager and the front office.

4. Malaise.

The Ricketts family's 2017 focus is not on the Cubs but all its real estate projects around Wrigley Field. The Chicago real estate market is not in rebound mode. For the second consecutive year, Cook County and Chicago led the nation in population flight. The large corporate base that used to spend millions on sky boxes and luxury tickets has been tempered in the metro area. The Cubs raised ticket prices an average of 31 percent in order to capture more revenue from the Cubs while the slow construction of new revenue sources goes on. Epstein has acknowledged that the Cubs did not do much this off-season because he is under a strict budget cap. Ricketts does not want to spend any money on baseball luxury taxes as he had to do last season. As such, Epstein is again cornered with having to find a creative solution to a money squeeze. The last thing he wants to do is to trade away young, cheap and talented players to shore up his pitching staff. But he might have to do it since the organization has no minor league pitching depth.

5. Maddon.

Maddon kept his team loose and on the same page since his tenure as the Cubs skipper. His magic act has led to a championship. He deserves some credit for the team's success. But his juggling act, tee shirt slogans and funny bits can prove to be tiresome to some veteran players who may want more professionalism on the team than a fraternity carnival. If there was a tipping point against Maddon, it was in the Series where many of his moves got immediately questioned by both players and fans. One can pinpoint the players only rain delay meeting that could be the first rail split between manager and his players when they decided to win the series in spite of their manager's moves. Maddon still needs to both motivate and develop his players through another season. He now has to balance bigger egos and real competition for positions. It will be a new minefield to navigate especially when the local press is ready, willing and able to criticize his every move.

March 22, 2017

A SURPRISE EXTENSION

In Chicago, the talk was about possible extension for Champion Cub players like Kris Bryant or Jake Arrieta.  But it is the White Sox that raised eyebrows with a long term signing of their second year shortstop.

The Tribune reports the  Sox have signed 23-year-old shortstop Tim Anderson to a six-year contract extension.
The contract includes two club options that would give the Sox control of the 23-year-old through 2024 and would bring the value of the deal to $50.5 million if both are exercised. Anderson likely would have been arbitration-eligible for the 2020 season and a free agent after the 2022 season.
It is being reported that no player with less than a year of major-league service time has ever signed such a lucrative deal. Anderson, who hit .283/.306/.432 last year and struck out nine times as often as he walked in 410 at-bats while playing solid defense, will attempt to become the first homegrown White Sox position player to amass 10 WAR with the team since Joe Crede, who last played with the team in 2008. The story notes that Fangraphs only projects Anderson for a .260/.284/.381 batting line.

The White Sox have done well in drafting and developing pitching prospects. But the organization fell into a deep, dark hole when it came to developing position players and hitters. Anderson is really the first farm system position player that fans saw real potential.

But to knock out an extension THREE years before any normal club would even think about one is strange. Rookies often show promise in their first call up, but there is never a guarantee that they will put together a long term career. There is an air of desperation to calm the nerves of fans who don't like the concept of a "total rebuild." But this marks Anderson as one of the White Sox's new "core" players that the team will be built around. It seems like a risk that did not have to be taken so soon.

March 21, 2017

SPRING CLEANING

Spring training is meant for players to get back into the "swing" of baseball.

No one has had more attention on his swing than Jason Heyward. He spent the off-season changing his 2016 swing into a better, less rocking, more stable thus reliable stroke.

But he is only hitting .132 in camp. He has 6 RBIs but only 5 base hits. He continues to pull grounders to second base. His set up may be different, but the result is the same.

Joe Maddon spoke with ESPN Chicago about Heyward.

Some scouts think the changes to Heyward's off-season routine has not changed his overall swing.

“I had a scout sit in my office two days ago and say the opposite,” Maddon said over the weekend. “He thinks it’s entirely different. He kind of liked it. Regardless of what a scout says in the stands, it doesn’t really impact my feelings at all. I know what I’m seeing -- a totally different swing. The guy that says it’s the same, I’m totally disappointed in the scout, actually.”

But another scout saw the flaw. “He has an arm bar [straight arm] and he’s late,” one NL scout said. “When you’re late, everything breaks down.”

Last season, Heyward's approach in the box was too "handsy." He was rocking his hands front to back with a chicken swing arm motion. It is a busy set-up with a lot of moving parts. Every batter has a trigger move to start his swing. In Heyward's case, depending on the rocking motion as the pitch is thrown, he has to "catch up" to his trigger point.

By contrast, Kris Bryant has a very quiet set up. His bat rests nearly perpendicular to his shoulder. He waits and makes a samurai level to upper cut swing in the zone. He is already set in his trigger position before the pitcher throws the ball.

Off-season videos of Heyward showed a different set up. He did not have the chicken swing nervousness. His hands stayed more central. However, he still has a level swing through the zone so he is not elevating the ball on contact.

I thought that Heyward should have gone to see Bryant's father, who is a batting guru who helped perfect Bryant's swing. Or sought advice from a hitting professional like ex-Cub Darryl Ward who constantly talked with teammates about hitting, contact and how to hit in situations.

But perhaps Heyward is getting too much advice that it has become a mental thing.

Regardless, Heyward will find his bat in the lower third of the line-up.

March 9, 2017

PITCHING STAFF

The only key spot left for discussion is the Cubs' fifth starter.

The main rotation is set: Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks and John Lackey.

The fifth starter spot will go to Mike Montgomery or Brett Anderson.  Montgomery showed his versatility coming out of the bullpen in different situations. But at the end of the season, he was semi-promised to return to the rotation. But with the Cubs organizational starting depth weak, the Cubs signed oft-injured Anderson to compete for a position.

It is still early in camp, but the numbers after 2 games played:

Montgomery: 0-1, 2 IP, 0.00 ERA, 2.00 WHIP
Anderson: 1-0, 3 IP, 6.00 ERA, 1.33 WHIP

Joe Maddon has said that he could use both Montgomery and Anderson in hybrid pitching roles.

"The big thing with both of them (is) neither one has really been stretched out anywhere close to 200 innings over the last couple years. So we're thinking it's almost like a hybrid moment. Maybe fold one back into the bullpen while the other one starts. And vice versa. Or just jump a sixth guy in there now and then to keep the other guys from being overworked too early," Maddon said.

"It's in theory right now. We haven't actually laid it down on paper. We feel pretty fortunate. If everybody stays healthy, you got six guys that you like right there. It's hard for anybody to say that. That's the point. These guys have not been really satisfactorily stretched out over the last couple years," Maddon concluded.

Because of the amount of work the five starters did last season, Maddon has been cautious with his front line arms. It is possible that he will break camp with 6 starting pitchers, and keeping one as a long reliever-spot starter to control the number of pitches and innings for his veterans like Lester and Lackey. A spot start could add a "rest" day for each starter.

The bullpen seems set with Wade Davis the new closer. He will be joined by Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards, Koji Uehara, Justin Grimm and Brian Duensing.

That means the Cubs will probably break camp with an extra pitcher on a 13 man staff. Which means that the final roster battle will be on the last bench player, whether it be a utility infielder or 5th outfielder.

The 12 position players would appear to include Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Javy Baez, Ben Zobrist, Kyle Schwarber, Anthony Rizzo, Willson Contreras, Miguel Montero, John Jay, and Jason Heyward. That would leave 2 spots between Matt Szczur (who is out of options), Tommy LaStella or Albert Almora. With Schwarber, Bryant and Zobrist able to handle outfield duties, it would be surprising if both Szczur and Almora would make the final cut.

March 4, 2017

THE NEW RULES

In the age where sports executives make new rules for the sake of making rules, the 2017 baseball will have the following changes:

1. THE NO PITCH INTENTIONAL WALK

Debated for years, baseball has decided the time has come to "speed up" the game by discarding the traditional four intentional pitches outside the zone to create a "clear pass" to first base.  Instead of lobbing four pitches to the catcher standing nowhere near home plate, the pitching team's manager now just needs to signal to the umpire  that he wants an intentional walk and the batter gets to go to first base with no pitches thrown.

This is a dumb and unnecessary rule change. One of the basic tenets of the game is that the pitcher has to throw a ball to a batter at home plate. Professional baseball is not youth tee-ball. The rule rule takes out strategy from the game. I have seen a batter with going from an 0-2 count in a clutch situation get to 2-2, when the pitching manager calls for an intentional walk. The 3-2 pitch was thrown to the catcher in the opposite batter's box. But the next pitch was fired down the middle for a called strike three. The pitching team lulled the batter to sleep. Also, I have seen numerous times a team try to intentionally walk a batter to load the bases for a force out at home plate with runners at second and third. I have seen pitchers throw wild pitches on the intentional walk leading to the runner on third scoring on the play. These examples are part of the history and drama of a baseball game.

Struggling pitchers will like the new rule. For many, intentional walks disrupt their mechanics and location for the next batter, usually causes a big inning to erupt. In an era of closely guarded pitch counts, the batting team wants a starter to throw 4 pitches, even if lobs, to get an intentional walk. It will get a pitcher out of the game quicker if he has to throw more pitches. This is especially true for closers - - - if you have to walk 2 players for a home force, that is 8 pitches throw against a normal inning of 12 to 18. If you make a closer throw more than 20 pitches in an inning, that could cause him to be unavailable in the next game of the series.

The stated reason for the move, "speeding up the pace of play," is spurious once you consider that the batter's stepping out after each pitch to re-set their gloves and guard equipment takes more time than a four pitch walk.

2. TIME DEADLINE FOR REPLAY CALL

A manager now has only 30 seconds to decide if he wants to challenge a play or invoke replay review.

Every team has a replay employee in the suite or clubhouse who calls to the dugout on whether it is a good challenge. Managers cannot always take their players word or reaction.

The stated reason for replay in general is to get the call on the field right. The unstated reason for replay is that it calmed the gambling industry against blown calls and irate bettor conspiracies.  Human umpire judgment has always been part of the game. But only subjective judgment calls are reviewable (balls and strikes are not) so if it is so important to "get it right," then every play should be subject to replay review. But an open ended replay discussion would bog down the pace of play.

3. UMPIRE REVIEWS MOVE TO THE 8TH

After a manager is out of challenges, umpires can get a replay review going starting in the eight inning instead of the seventh.

Again, if you want to get calls correct, why is there an arbitrary after the 7th inning condition on umpires reviewing a play? A game could be won or lost on a play in the 5th, 6th or 7th and not just in the 8th or 9th innings.

4. SHORTER REPLAY REVIEW TIME

A new rule requires a  conditional two-minute guideline for replay officials to make a decision during a replay review, though there are exceptions.

The league office wants to speed up the game to keep it under 3 hours. Replays can be time consuming delays, especially for a pitcher on the mound.  If it is beyond 3 minutes, many pitchers start soft tossing with their catcher to keep their arm loose. The problem with this hard deadline for review is that it is counter-productive to the goal of getting the call right. Rushing a call may not get a full review of all angles of the play. What happens at the two minute mark? Does the line to the league office cut off? Does a manager lose his challenge if nothing is decided? Won't there be more managerial conferences if someone wants to protest going over 2 minutes?

5. FIELDERS CANNOT MARK THE FIELD

Fielders are now prohibited from the use of a marker of any kind on the field to create a type of reference system.

It has recently come to the attention of fans that players on the field carry with them "defensive position" sheets, whether in their pocket or on a wrist band (like NFL quarterbacks with plays).  With all the data mining analysis of baseball, defensive play charts per batter (and his tendencies) can be very valuable to defenders.

So some infielders have begun leaving marks on the dirt to where to position themselves. So what? It is just dirt. What is the competitive advantage or disadvantage to the other club. Their fielders can go out and erase those marks in the next half inning, or put down their own guide posts. Also, this rule does not affect baser runners from marking their leads against pitchers.

6. DEFINED ILLEGAL PITCH MOVES

Baseball was confronted with quirky pitchers who have herky-jerky wind-ups that start and stop (to confuse the batter). Many players believe these motions were balks.  Baseball now bans abnormal wind-ups by stipulating that a pitcher may not take a second step toward home plate with either foot or otherwise reset his pivot foot in his delivery of the pitch. With runners on base, it's a balk, with no one on base, it's an illegal pitch.

This rule goes to the mechanics of pitching. Before a valid pitch can be thrown home, a pitcher must have one part of his anchor foot touching the rubber. In order to make a valid pick off move, the pitcher must disengage from the rubber and not move more than 45 degrees toward home plate when throwing to a base.

Deception is part of baseball. But uniformity as to the standard of pitching in general is more important.

7. COACHING BOX RULES

Base coaches must now stand in their coach's box prior to a pitch being delivered. They are  allowed to move outside the box after a ball is put into play.

When 110 mile per hour pulled screamers down the line hit a base coach, fans groan because of the inherent danger. But it makes little sense to require a base coach to start the pitch sequence near the foul line, in harm's way, when he can move immediately after the pitch is thrown. It makes more sense to move the base coach box nearer to the dugout. But more ball parks have less foul ground (including Wrigley Field) so most coaching boxes will always be nearer to the playing field than the dugout. 

This is a rule that will never be enforced. Umpires only care that the base coaches are not interfering with their line-of-sight in making their calls. The better rule would be to allow the coaches to set themselves anywhere they feel comfortable.  Or, eliminate base coaches all together if safety is a major concern.

March 1, 2017

SPRINGING AHEAD

The Cubs apparently still have a swagger during the first weeks of spring training. The champions return basically their World Series championship club for 2017.

But there is clearly an unspoken word: caution.

In the first 5 spring training games, none of last year's starters has pitched an inning.

It is clear that the arms that threw deep into the stress of the post-season are not being put into a normal spring training routine. One could assume arm rest is still more important than working loose to gain mechanics and control.

It makes sense with Jon Lester and John Lackey pitching with age. Kyle Hendricks threw a personal best in number of innings pitched. Jake Arrieta seemed to wear down at the end of the season after putting together a mythical 1.5 year dominant pitching stretch.

The Cubs can afford to be cautious with its starting rotation because it is the weakest link in a possible repeat.

The front office has collected a bunch of AAA starters to work most of camp, hoping that one or two may show enough promise to challenge Mike Montgomery for the 5th starter or be an emergency 6th or 7th starter if Lester or Lackey fails during the season.

Theo Epstein indicated before camp that the Cubs are going to be cautious spenders and trade partners. It is a clue that the Cubs are at their baseball operations budget ceiling. Tom Ricketts abhors getting caught paying luxury taxes to MLB (which happened at the end of last season). It will be very hard for the Cubs to replace one of their 5 current starters if any one goes down with a significant injury.

The only way to compensate for that would be to trade one or two young position players for young, controllable (inexpensive) starting pitchers. Most teams guard their pitching prospects more than their own family members. Besides, the front office loves their young players too much to let them go.

February 16, 2017

MADDON BEING ?

Spring training usually opens with hope and optimism.

But Cubs camp opened with the strange ramblings of its manager, Joe Maddon.

Maddon spent a great deal of time inarticulately trying to explain his tee-shirt slogan for the 2017 campaign. It left the packed room of reporters puzzled by his statements.

Maddon rambled on with his buzzwords for the new year: uncomfortable, authenticity and heart. In a long speech, he tried to communicate that he wanted his players to continue to feel "uncomfortable" in order for there to be growth. He wanted his players to retain their authenticity. Except, Maddon was not really discussing his desire that his players retain their reliability. He was off in his own tangent. He also stressed that he wanted the team to retain its Heart, which may or may not refer to the players resolve and love of the game.

Maddon, having won the World Series, could have been more reserved and stately in addressing the media. It raised immediate questions of whether Maddon's 2016 routine is going to work in 2017.

In 2016, Maddon kept his squad loose with antics, dress up days and pajama flights. He wanted his young squad to keep playing the game fun. It was a pressure valve release mechanism. The team bought into his management style.

But some writers question whether the "rain delay" players meeting in Game 7 changes the Maddon coaching chemistry. It was the players who were upset with Maddon's decision making in Games 6 and 7. The bottom line from numerous sources after the series confirmed that the players took it upon themselves to win the championship in spite of Maddon's moves. It was not a full blown mutiny, but it was the first crack in the genius armor.

Some pundits do not believe that grizzly veterans like John Lackey or Jon Lester are going to put up with the off-the-field clubhouse antics of magicians, side shows and zoo animal diversions. Some believe it is time to take the club to a professional level. The players are now veterans. They know what it takes to win a championship. They do not need to be coddled or treated like children.

And things may not be perfect in 2017. The Giants won a world series, then failed to get in the playoffs the next year, then won it all again the following year. Baseball is a game of attrition. The Cubs weathered Kyle Schwarber's lost season and Jason Heyward's batting slump. The Cubs lucked out with a healthy and productive five man rotation.

There were many questions that have not been answered by the Cubs. The off-season collection of cast-off starters to stock AAA Iowa enough to hold the rotation together for a full season when Lackey may be on his last fumes? Will Mike Montgomery become a quality starter or fade to an expendable arm like he did in Seattle? Can the Cubs pitching staff overcome the losses of Jason Hammel and Travis Wood's contributions? Will the young players like Schwarber and Javy Baez get enough playing time to soothe their egos?  Will Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant continue to improve or will they have a regression year as the league studies their tendencies?

If Maddon continues to be the lovable, hippie uncle to his players, one wonders how long will it take for the players to zone out and disconnect from the Maddon circus wagon. The showman needs to show the baseball world that last year's managerial run was not a fluke. Early statistical projections have the Cubs sitting at 91 wins, which is more than a 10 percent decline from 2016. It is clear that media honeymoon period with the media is over. Maddon is going to get more criticism in 2017 than in the past. His team is expected to repeat, a feat that has not been accomplished since the Big Red Machine of the 1970s. This spring Maddon may need to re-invent himself to meet this challenge.