November 23, 2020

SHUFFLING THE DECK CHAIRS

 Everyone knows the Cubs are a sinking ship. Tom Ricketts continues to declare "biblical" losses during the 2020 season. Theo Epstein could not part the sea of red ink. So Theo decided to bail; he cut a deal where his friend, Jed Hoyer, would retain his job with the new President title. The move saves Ricketts $10 million in Theo's 2021 salary. (The Athletic reported that recently the Cubs laid off 100 employees which we assume does not count the scouting and minor league staff let go early in the year.)

The Cubs are still a highly leveraged (debtor) team. The Ricketts family is also highly leveraged due to their overbuilding around Wrigley Field. The pandemic crushed their real estate holdings as many tenants, including Joe Maddon's restaurant, went out of business. Tom Ricketts had convinced his parents that the Cubs were a money making machine even in bad times (under the Tribune ownership).


But the Cubs bowing out early in the playoffs since the World Championship has hurt the club, both financially and structurally. Theo and Jed put all their eggs in early first round (can't miss) prospects like Bryant, Schwarber, Almora and Happ while overpaying for free agents to fill roster gaps (especially in pitching.) 

Since 2016, the team core (Bryant, Rizzo, Baez, Contreras and Schwarber) have not lived up to high expectations. Instead of a dynasty, the Cubs gained one World Championship (which was a generational accomplishment not to be dismissed in their legacy). But as 2021 is around the corner, the cupboard is bare.

Three fifths of the starting rotation is gone to free agency. The core of Bryant, Baez, Rizzo and Schwarber are in their final contract years. The Cubs minor league system is devoid of any major prospects. The system ranked 26th with Nico Hoerner the only Top 100 prospect.


2021 appears heading toward a "crash and burn" season. The pundits believe the Cubs should trade their pending free agents to get something for them (other than a compensation draft pick). But others note that those players are coming off bad seasons so they have little trade value. A few writers even speculated that the Cubs could non-tender Schwarber to save his projected $8 million arbitration award. No team is going to take Bryant and his $18.5 million projected salary as a rental player, especially with his injury history and poor 2020 stats.

The only players with real trade value are Darvish and Hendricks. But Hoyer cannot be insane to trade away his remaining starters for prospects. Internal candidates to fill the rotation are Mills, Alzolay and Rea. Ian Happ was the only player to show a break out potential to other clubs. But trading Happ leaves Almora the sole center field candidate.

Even though money came off the books (Lester, Chatwood, Quintana), that money appears to be lost in 2021 as Ricketts clearly indicated that the payroll must come down substantially. As of today, there is not one AAA player who projects to be a starting MLB player. 

Another problem is that the fan base may not support another complete tear-down rebuild. The Cubs were good enough in a bad division to have middle round draft picks but it will be more hit and miss since the scouting department was gutted in 2020. Player development has always been an issue for this team. Hoyer indicated that he may rely more on advanced stats than scouting eyes. But that has been the problem with stat overload on major league players (and a rotation of coaches preaching new approaches). 

The Epstein era had the Worst of Times and the Best of Times and now fades back to the Worst of Times. For diehard Cub fans, the White Sox resurgence with young, exciting players, is going to be bitter pill to swallow as the Cubs begin to wallow.

October 29, 2020

THOSE DARN SOX

Reporters, insiders, pundits and fans are perplexed by the White Sox pivotal off-season move.

MLBTR reports on the announcement and immediate ash fall.

The White Sox announced today that Hall of Famer Tony La Russa is returning to the organization as their new manager for the 2021 season. La Russa has agreed to a multi-year deal according to Scott Merkin of MLB.com.

La Russa managed the White Sox from 1979 and ran through the 1986 season. It appears that La Russa was owner Jerry Reinsdorf’s pick from the beginning. Indeed, ESPN’s Jeff Passan stated that the move to hire La Russa was purely a “Reinsdorf decision” while noting that others in the organizations “have concerns” about La Russa’s ability (or lack thereof) to connect with the club’s young core.

It’s been nine full seasons since La Russa last managed at the MLB level, with the Cardinals, and the game has changed considerably since that time. Data from clubs’ analytics departments has increasingly made its way into in-game decision-making, often generating polarizing reaction from fans, and the sport as a whole has moved to embrace aggressive defensive shifts and pitching strategies that defy the conventional wisdom which permeated big league dugouts during La Russa’s last run.

Since that time, La Russa has remained involved in the game in a variety of roles, most notably serving as the Diamondbacks’ “chief baseball officer” from 2014-17 — a stint that is remembered more for his role in overseeing one of the more lopsided trades in recent memory than for the team’s performance in that time.

After moving on from skipper Rick Renteria, it was reported that the White Sox wanted an experienced manager with a winning pedigree, which prompted many onlookers to speculate about Hinch and former Red Sox manager Alex Cora. La Russa does fit the bill on a fundamental level, having spent 33 years a Major League manager during which time he’s posted a .536 winning percentage, taken home six pennants and won three World Series titles.

Still, to say this hiring bucks the industry trend at this point would be making a colossal understatement, and the decision to bring La Russa aboard has already generated a rather perplexed reaction from those within the game and pundits alike.

LaRussa can be considered an old school hard liner, but he was in the forefront of creating the modern bullpen assignments in managing a pitching staff (more credit could go to pitching coach Dave Duncan). There is a question whether LaRussa's presence will upend the current roster chemistry that exceeded expectations in 2021.

There is no doubt that Jose Abreu can keep the numerous young Latin players in line. It is the vocal, clubhouse guys like Tim Anderson and Dallas Kuechel who could be a concern. They know they are ready, willing and able to win. Will LaRussa be a help or a hinderance?

It was also puzzling that the White Sox did not interview any other candidate. League rules require at least a minority interview, and it is claimed that LaRussa qualifies because his mother was born in Spain. But it did not matter because who is going to ruffle the feathers of Reinsdorf, who is still considered a leader of the MLB owners.

The other key decision points to come will have LaRussa's input: coaching staff and free agent roster decisions. The White Sox need to shore up starting rotation depth and middle relief. Right field is still an open for someone to take it. Will the Sox retain second catcher James McCann or go with their two minor league catchers? Is Michael Kopech ready physically and mentally to assume the #3 starter role in 2021? Or do the White Sox spend money on a big free agent arm like Trevor Bauer (another off-the-cuff speaker who can rub some people the wrong way).

 For years, local media has reported that Reinsdorf desperately wanted to win another World Series. It probably stung when the Cubs won in 2016, putting the White Sox back into little brother position. But the building excitement is on the South Side as the Cubs have hit a hard financial wall and barren farm system.

October 8, 2020

THE BIG CHANGE IN THE LITTLE SHOW

 The current MLB and minor league cooperative contract has expired. MLB is making a dramatic move on how it treats the minor league system.

In the past, the minor leagues were independent ball clubs. Minor league teams created their own leagues. Those leagues then made agreements with MLB in regard to player contracts. MLB teams draft and sign players to contracts. Those contracts are "assigned" to a minor a league club that has a working developmental agreement. Major league teams helps pay certain costs and provides staff such as head coach and pitching staff to minor league teams. Minor league teams were responsible for scheduling games, paying players, and coaching them for promotion. But not all players on a minor league roster have a major league agreement. During a season, a minor league team can "sell" or assign their player contracts to their affiliate major league team. In the past, this is how many smaller minor league owners made a good deal of money for their teams.

In 2020, the minor league system, relying on attendance as a major revenue source, shut down. 

As a result, MLB teams decided to create 60 man squads (40 man roster plus another 20 players). The teams split them into an active roster (for most of the season) and a training squad at a separate location to fill in for injured players. It did provide top prospects the opportunity to reach the major leagues quicker than the normal path.

The MLB split squad concept worked well. We thought that MLB may decide to eliminate the minor league system in favor of a modified in-house training squad. But MLB had a bigger fish to catch.

MLB had been hinting that it wanted to eliminate at least 40 minor league teams from their affiliate status with major league clubs. Minor league baseball teams, especially the lower classes in small rural markets, were upset by that proposal. 

MLBTR reports that changes for MLB and MiLB’s working partnership have been moved forward.  The agreement between the two entities recently expired, and MLB now plans to bring the minor league system under their governance. MLB took a big step towards accomplishing their goals this week.

MLB released a statement announcing their plans to transplant the minor league offices to MLB’s headquarters in New York City, per Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times. Shaikin also notes that MLB is now referring to minor league clubs as “licensed affiliates.”

By joining the offices to MLB headquarters, the minors are now a branch of MLB, notes Maury Brown of Forbes. Part of this process is the hiring of Peter Freund and Trinity Sports Consultants to help MLB and their new “licensed affiliates” transition. Freund owns minor league clubs at three levels, and he is a partner with the Yankees. His broader responsibilities will be in spearheading MLB’s efforts to build a cohesive minor league system and “implementing a modern approach to player development,” per MLB’s statement.

It would seem that the old independent clubs are now being turned into minor league "MLB franchises" like your local McDonald's or Burger King. If true, MLB (and/or MLB clubs) will get to set standards and practices that all minor league teams must follow.

MLB has taken a lot of heat for their movement in this direction, specifically for insufficient minor league players salaries and the cutting of some 40 teams from the minor league system. Minor league ballplayers recently won early round of class action litigation when the Supreme Court denied MLB’s appeal, thereby granting players to move forward on their labor payroll lawsuit against Major League Baseball. Basically any minor league player since 2009 can now join the suit in suing MLB for violation of minimum wage laws. This is one of the many issues that MLB hopes to address over the coming months.

But one thing is certain: the traditional minor league system is going to drastically changed by MLB.

October 5, 2020

THE ROAD AHEAD

 The Cubs dismal playoff run ended in another whimper.

Since the 2016 Championship, the Cubs have steadily gone down hill in October.

And it is surprising since they had home field advantage for this run.

The promise of a Cub dynasty was an illusion.

Theo Epstein has one season left on his contract. He will leave the Cubs because he is being handcuffed by the Cubs business side and the bitter taste of bad contracts which led to his down fall.

The Cubs only have 16 players under contract for 2021 (assuming the Cubs are not stupid to exercise $25 million option on Lester).

The projected payroll for those 16 is still $162 million.

Another $16 million is minimum to fill out 40 man roster. That is $178 million.
You have your starting OF and IF in tact, but no bench.
And you only have two starting pitchers (Darvish and Hendricks).
And you are stuck with Kimbrel as your closer (Jeffrees is a FA).

Consideringwe estimate  Ricketts lost at least $75 million on baseball and his failing real estate development (many tenants went bust during the pandemic), the Cubs will not spend any money (again) as the core 4 become free agents after 2021 (Rizzo, Bryant, Baez, Schwarber). There will be no "let's go for it" final charge by this team. It looks more likely it will fizzle before the end of next spring training.

The prospect of another LONG rebuild is here. The Cubs minor league system is barren. Epstein did not draft and develop one quality starting pitcher during his tenure. The post-2020 pandemic season may lead to a very tense stand-off with the players union in the last year of the CBA. Owners will demand lowering the luxury tax (as a means of repressing salaries). Owners will probably try to keep the 60 man bubble taxi squad program in lieu of spending millions on a minor league system that did not play in 2020. (It is important to note that minor league players won the first part of their class action lawsuit against minor league owners and MLB for being paid less than the minimum wage.)

Another fall out from 2020 is that the Cubs (and most clubs) terminated most of their scouting and training staffs in order to save money. The Cubs were an administrative top heavy organization so it is doubtful that Epstein in his final year will have the budget to spend to re-hire his former troops.

If the Cubs 2020 was a lost season, then 2021 could be a dead one.


September 22, 2020

KEY PLAYOFF STARTER

 Most baseball writers believe there will be several major upsets in the first round of the playoffs.

The reason is simple: it is a short series, best of three.

Any professional baseball team can win a series. The whole season is based upon short series. 

Because of the shortened MLB season, each 2020 game had an equivalency of three regular games. If a 2020 team had a three game losing streak, it felt like it was a 9 game losing streak. Slow starts made teams bottom dwellers for a long time.

Most writers also felt that most clubs would be around .500. In the NL, it was a closer prediction. But as with last season, there has been a surge of pitching and a lack of hitting as the season winds down. The simple reason is that pitchers have again found that the high fastball is a good chase pitch. And umpires are calling it.

Pitching and defense wins championships. This season will bear that out.

But in the first round of the expanded playoffs, starting pitching will be the key. The first game of the series is worth about 3 regular playoff games (in a best of five match). It sets the tone. It gives the victor some breathing room.

But in reality, the starter in the second game is more important. Game 2 is either total victory or clawing back from the dead. Elimination games often put more pressure on the team that can close out their opponent. Some reverse psychology is at play. Good teams with good chemistry can change their fortune in an elimination game behind a quality starter.

The Game 2 starter can get the team a rare playoff off-day in a series sweep or keep his team alive to fight for another day.

If you are a manager, I would advise to set up your rotation with your BEST starter for Game 2. There is more at stake in Game 2 than Game 1. Game 3 is going to be a nervous wrecking ball for both clubs, so a veteran starter would be a preferred choice.

Because there will be no travel days because of the bubble playoff format, teams cannot just rely on three starters. Four man rotations will be a must. A too clever manager may throw a bullpen, all hands on deck fire drill.

You could probably slot your first series Game 2 starter as your second round No. 2 with the possibility of being a short rest Game 5 starter if necessary. If not, then he can move into the No. 1 role for the pennant series.


August 19, 2020

NEW ARMS RACE

In baseball, an Arms Race was the assembly of the best starting pitching rotation. Teams invested heavily on aces and strike out pitchers. But the game has now evolved into data sets, analytics and pitch counts. Starters no longer eat up 7 innings or more per start. Most are lucky to finish five.

The trend is to bolster the bullpen and find a quality set-up man and closer. The new Arms Race is getting a stacked line up of home run hitters.

The Twins led the majors last season hitting 307 HRs in 162 games, or 1.90 HRs/game.

The White Sox rebuild has focused on getting more power hitters in the line up. So far in 2020, it seems to have worked. In 2019, the White Sox hit 182 HRs (15th in the AL) or 1.13 HRs/game. In 2020, they have hit 38 HRs in 24 games, or 1.58 HRs/game. That is approximately a 40 percent jump in HR production.

 The Twins have hit 37 HRs in 2020 in 24 games or 1.54 HRs/game. This is approximately a 19.5 percent decline in HR production.

Suddenly, the offensive playing field has leveled off between these two AL Central rivals. Emphasis now returns to pitching to off-set hitting thereby setting off another Arms Race.

July 30, 2020

WORSE THAN HORRIBLE

The Cubs bullpen may be the worst collection of arms in a century.

 It is the most glaring weakness on a ball club that has started out at 4-2.

In the short 2020 season, 10 percent has been played.

Overall, the pitching staff is not doing well: 4 W 2 L 5.43 ERA 53 IP 39 H 32 ER 27 BB 1.245 WHIP

But the bullpen is a black hole of badness: 0 W 0 L 9.65 ERA 18.2 IP 18 H 20 ER 20 BB 2.036 WHIP

 The answer to this problem is clear: the Cubs failed to address the bullpen issues. The reason was management refused in the off-season to spend any money.

Instead, you have pitchers coming out of the pen you have never heard of; some making their major league debuts, some long term minor league journeymen, or some who have not thrown in two years a major league pitch. The bullpen is a bunch of reclamation projects with a slim hope that one will catch lightning in a bottle.

Cub fans are stuck with this horror show. With the expanded playoffs of 16 of 30 teams, no one is really going to trade anyone at the deadline. And some teams, like the Marlins, are toxic viral clusters so why infect your team with another problem?

Can the offense score 6 runs or more each game to counter-balance the bad bullpen? NO, of course not.
 
And that is why this season will be worse than expected.