February 17, 2020

THE GENIE IS OUT OF THE BOTTLE

It was only a matter of time when the Truth would leak out about the Cubs disappointing post-championship seasons. Javy Baez recently ran out into the media highway to drop a few bombs on himself and his teammates.

The Associated Press reported that Baez said  the Cubs were lacking last year when it came to their pregame routines and work ethic. “We had a lot of optional things, not mandatory, and everyone kind of sat back on that — including me. I wasn’t really going out there and preparing for the game. I was getting ready during the game, which is not good,” Baez said. “But this year, I think before the games, everybody should be out there as a team, stretch as a team, be together as a team so we can play together.”

Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein said last week he could think of only two times in 18 years of running major league clubs that he felt “basic organizational standards for work, preparation and behavior” were not being met. (One can easily say that was a shot at Joe Maddon's management style, being a "player's manager.")

New skipper David Ross said at the end of the day, from a manager's standpoint, coaches try to get players prepared and put them in the best possible situation to succeed, but baseball has “always been about the players.”

“So for (Báez) to say that, and saying the group feels they can turn it up a notch, I mean, that’s a powerful message they are sending,” Ross said. “This is never about the manager. It never should be about the manager. When you're in that locker room, the players are the ones affecting the outcome.”
(Ross is defending Maddon because he is right: players have to take the responsibility themselves to prepare for games.)

If the lack of preparation was a problem, then the front office is also to blame. The baseball executives have spent millions on new analytical labs, new coaches and trainers to tell players how to hit and pitch. Theo hired and fired three batting coaches in three years. We suspect that after a while, the players just tuned out everyone.

Dusty Baker, also a players' manager, often said that he left his players alone in their game preparation. He often cited that the players are "professionals" and professionals know how to act. He was relying on his own experience as a player (in a vastly different time.)

Ozzie Guillen was a vocal leader. But he continually stressed the fundamentals and principles of the game. Before the first game of every series, he scheduled mandatory fielding drills for all his players.

Theo wanted performance over potential in 2019. He did not get it because his players did not get the message. The reason is simple. The lack of any farm system talent and budget constraints means that there is no new players pushing the existing core to play their best. There is no real competition for starting position roster spots. There is a lack of urgency and drive if you know that there is no one on the team ready, willing and able to take your job.

The Cubs organization is in a total mess. Ross brings back the championship cred, but it may not translate to a strict manager berating his friends and former teammates to tow the line.  How will he change a culture that has had the players merely going through the motions? It is not that Ross can sit players for not trying hard because he has to win now.

February 13, 2020

JUST STOP

MLB executives have too much time on their collective hands.

While the fan base shrinks, MLB is trying to "juice" up the product with a reality show concept for the playoffs.

First, reality shows suck. Second, if your business model is based off of CHEATERS then just film the Astros 24/7. Third, MLB continues to offend their loyal followers with stupid ideas. Just stop.

The idea of adding four more wild cards to the playoffs is NOT for the benefit of the fans. No, it is merely a new source of revenue to the owners.  It does not enhance the fan experience if you expect playoff fans to sit through snow delays in mid-November.

The dilution of the sacred 162 game schedule is at stake. The record book is hollow ground. The best baseball teams are the ones who grind out the most victories. They should be rewarded for their efforts. They should not have to sit around for a week while additional .500 wild card teams play a best of whatever game series.

The stupid idea that higher wild card seeds can "pick" their opponent in a televised circus should be DOA. Who is going to watch that half-hour train wreck when every GM will pick the opponent with the worst record. Why have fan wrath or job insecurity if you "pick" the best opponent.

Also, in the current division system, three division champs automatically make the playoffs. That means teams with "better" records could miss out of the playoffs. Fans want to see the "best" teams in the playoffs. Either realignment or a smaller playoff system would be a better answer to the current proposal.

Divisions may be used only for scheduling purposes. The top four winning records in each league will be seeded for a best of 7 series opener to a best of 7 series pennant championship. The sudden death wild card round still puts less emphasis on "team" accomplishment for the entire season. Would you rather see two 100 win teams duke it out for 7 games instead of a couple of dogs trying to best 2 wins out of three series?

One major criticism is that the season is too long. Well, it can be shortened by mandating that every Sunday contest be a family doubleheader. Not one of those "split" contests, but an old fashion day at the park. Owners hate the idea of losing a full "gate" but with the outrageous concession prices they can easily make up the difference. But the other problem is that teams have out priced their target market: young families and children. It is too expensive to go to a game. That should be addressed before ownership tries to force feed another round of unneeded playoffs.

January 3, 2020

THE FALL OUT

The house of cards that is our Chicago Cubs seems to falling down after another disappointing end to a season. The 2016 championship seems to be a distant memory. The idea of dynasty seems to be fantasy.

But nothing compared to the Ricketts family's fantasy that the Cubs were a money making ATM machine.

With Maddon's release, the Cubs have moved on to David Ross. But many other things have moved on from the Cubs.

Maddon's Post, a restaurant in the new Ricketts outside-the-park commercial development, abruptly closed after seven months. This is the third restaurant/bar in Ricketts' properties to have closed in the past year. The problem must be that the Ricketts overdeveloped the area, put in high lease rentals, and the businesses could not be profitable.

Also moving on is local over-the-air Cubs games. WGN will no longer broadcast any Chicago sports teams (it began in 1924). The Cubs Marquee Network launches in approximately 50 days. But it has no on-air talent, it has de minis cable contracts in the metro area, and no programming announcements to fill 24 hours/day. Kasper and Deshaies contracts expired at the end of the 2019 season. Hughes and Comer radio contracts may expire at the end of 2020.

The news broke as the season ended that the Ricketts family overspent on the Wrigley renovations by $600 million. That was not unexpected considering they decided to phase the work over three years instead of one intense project. The fact that the Ricketts overspent for the team (by an estimated $500 million) and doubled the cost on Wrigley, the Cubs operations are not generating enough revenue to off-set those financial hurdles.

The fall out from these financial stumbles is clear in that Theo has been handcuffed in spending. He can barely sign dual contracts for minor league reclamation projects. The Cubs are already over the luxury tax threshold by $10-18 million. It means the team must shed current star players in order to get into the business side's budget figures. The rest of the league knows the Cubs want to shed payroll so the trade market will not be as generous as Theo would want it to be to fill the depth and holes in the current roster.

There are problems with the rotation, the bullpen, lead off hitter, and center field that have no solutions in the minor leagues. Free agency and money was to fix roster problems during this "championship window" but Theo overspent to get the 2016 championship and now dead money deals have painted the team into a corner.

It appears the team revenue and finances will not allow the Cubs to be free spenders to acquire talent. They will have to operate as a small market team with the debt burden of a major franchise. If the Cubs' opening roster is the same as 2019, how are fans supposed to react? Three years of underperforming is not a oddity but a trend.

The Cubs were more popular when they were the Lovable Losers. Once the championship happened, die hard fans got their once-in-a-lifetime thrill. Now, many do not want to spend premium ticket and concession prices for a bad team.

December 5, 2019

A PILLAR IN CF

The Cubs have many issues to resolve by spring training 2020.

An aging starting rotation.
Core players nearing the end of their contractual control.
Ownership enforcing a hard cap on spending.
Major line up holes to fill.
A bullpen that needs reconstruction (again).
A farm system that is sub par.

The Cubs have almost no farm assets to trade for a quality major league player.
The only trade assets are current roster players (Bryant, Contreras, Schwarber and Rizzo). But the front office overvalues and keeps "their guys" unless there is an attitude change.

One of the position black holes has been center field. Heyward is a gold glove RF. He needs to be moved back to that position (and bat 5th or 6th in the lineup where he had his best batting average in 2019). Albert Almora appears to be a utility player. He had been given the opportunity to win the CF job, but he failed.

To solve two problems are once, the Cubs should consider signing free agent CF Kevin Pillar. Pillar is a plus outfield defender, with a plus 11 runs saved. He can play CF. Last year, he hit .259, 21 HR, 88 RBI, 14 SB for the Giants. The Giants non-tendered him because estimates were that his $5.8 million salary would jump to $8-10 million in 2020.

Whether the Cubs can afford Pillar at that level is questionable. Whether the Cubs need to sign him to fill two roles is not in question. It would be a much more stable lineup, even if the Cubs made no further moves.

1. Pillar CF
2. Schwarber LF
3. Bryant 3B
4. Rizzo 1B
5. Baez SS
6. Contreras C
7. Heyward RF
8. Hoerner 2B
9 Pitcher

In this set lineup, Bryant protects Schwarber, Rizzo protects Bryant, Baez protects Rizzo and Contreras protects Baez.  It makes opposing pitchers have to plan carefully through the top of the Cubs lineup.








November 21, 2019

ALL-CHICAGO

Winter baseball in Chicago usually revolves the debate between Cub  and White Sox fans on whose team has better players or a better chance to win next season.

The Cubs path has been in a disappointing decline. The White Sox path has been rebuilding but stalling on development of starting pitchers.

A side by side comparison of the current 40 man roster players (2019 WAR). (*= injury year; R = Rookie Year).

SP1:  Giolito (5.6) v. Hendricks (3.9) 
SP2:  Kopech (0.1*) v. Darvish (3.0)
SP3: Cease (-0.2) v. Lester (1.7)
SP4:  Lopez (0.5) v. Quintana (0.7)
SP5: Rodon (0.1 *) v. Mills (1.0)

Giolito was clearly the best starter in Chicago. Kopech and Rodon were injured. Cease disappointed (but he may have been rushed to the majors). Hendricks and Darvish had good years. Lopez and Quintana are nearly wash. Lester is on the twilight of his pitching career. If you were going to give anyone an slight edge (3 to 2), it would be the White Sox with youth and potential vs. Cubs you saw what you have season. Rodon has experience Mills does not.

C:  McCann (3.8) v. Contreras (3.1)  McCann has a very quiet but better season than Contreras, who is now the trade bait rumor of the day.

1B: Abreu (2.4) v. Rizzo (3.9)  Rizzo had to grind away to get his normal stat season; while Abreu surprised as an AL RBI machine with league leading 123.

2B: Sanchez (2.1) v. Hoerner (R)  Sanchez won a gold glove and the Cubs second base position has been a black hole.

SS: Anderson (4.0) v. Baez (4.8) This is closer than people think, but the nod is still to Baez for his dynamic running ability and defense.

3B: Moncada (4.6) v Bryant (3.6).  Moncada had a quiet monster season for the White Sox, significantly better than Bryant.

The infield selection yields in favor of the White Sox by a 3 to 2 margin.

LF: Jiminez (1.4) v. Schwarber (2.3)  Schwarber had his best full season in LF, but he is still compared to Adam Dunn. Jiminez still has more potential. Both are not good defensively. It is almost a wash, but based upon last season the edge goes to Schwarber (who also may be trade bait).

CF: Robert (R) v. Almora (-1.0)  It is not often that an unproven rookie would get the nod, but Robert is projected as a serious 5 tool stud. Almora has been terrible in his opportunities to win the CF spot.

RF: Garcia (1.6) v. Heyward (2.0). This position currently stands as almost a wash, but if you have to chose, Heyward for his defense.

The Cubs outfield squeaks out the nod. But both teams will have to address their weak outfield positions.

Closer: Colome (1.0) v. Kimbrel (-0.5) The White Sox did not trade their closer at the deadline even though he had value. He will have more value with a better team as the White Sox project in 2020. Kimbrel has been terrible. He was beyond rusty; he was bad. But the Cubs are stuck with him.

Overall, both bullpens are going to churned by both teams so you cannot gauge how it will turn out into after spring training.

In the current state, the Cubs and White Sox appear pretty even. The Cubs could continue to decline and the White Sox could rise to meet as .500 clubs in 2020. That would not be surprising.

November 1, 2019

THE COLLABORATOR

David Ross is the new Cubs manager.

It really did not surprise many people.

But it is a surprise hire if you thought the Cubs were ready to win in 2020.

It was no surprise because Cubs ownership needed a new "face" for the franchise after letting Joe Maddon go to the Angels. For all the "marquee" players on the roster, it was Maddon who talked to the press at least twice daily. Ross becomes the new hire because he was a popular, folklore figure from the 2016 championship team. He has a reputation of a good clubhouse leader. He had a "get in your face" attitude with his teammates. Whether he can transition from being a teammate to being their boss is an open question.

If Maddon was the only thing holding the Cubs back from a long 2019 post-season run, then one would have assumed that his replacement would be an experienced, championship caliber manager (Girardi). But the Cubs clearly signaled that they did not want to have an independent dugout voice.

The Cubs continue to spend a fortune on more layers of administrative baseball staff (like new directors of hitting and pitching) to feed more technology and information into the current team coaches (who are not going to lose their jobs with the Ross hire). Theo and Company have built a front office like baseball is a video game that they can control from their skybox. Reams of analytical data has replaced an experienced manager's gut instincts.

The press conference attempted to stress the "qualifications" of Ross to be the next Cub skipper.
Theo said the club had been grooming Ross to be the manager since he left the team in 2016. He has been a special assistant. He sat in on scouting meetings. He sat in the amateur draft. He spent this spring training shadowing Maddon. Ross said that he wanted to become a manager when he was a player, so he observed and learned from Bobby Cox and Maddon.

Not lost on anyone is the fact that Ross has not managed at any level. Ross has not coached at any professional level. If the Cubs were grooming him to take over for Maddon, why did not Ross manage a Cubs minor league team? He had three years to get some managerial experience.

But he did not. And the Cubs did not think it was necessary. Why? Because the Cubs are not looking for a manager but a front office collaborator. A person the GM and staff can control.

Just as an experienced manager would demand a working knowledge of what the team would do for him (i.e. spend on free agents, the health of the current roster and farm system) and a pledge from ownership to spend money in the off-season (as Maddon received from the Angels), Ross was in no position to get those promises. And the Cubs could not offer them.

Tom Ricketts clearly stated that the 2020 Cubs would rebuild from within, which was another clear statement that the Cubs would not be spenders in free agency. With the farm system one of the worst in baseball, and Theo's inability to draft, develop and promote a major league starting pitcher, next year's Cubs will be the same team unless major star(s) are traded for young talent.

But as the Nationals showed you can win a championship by getting rid of your franchise player (Harper). However, it only works when you have a young rookie phenom like Soto to take his place. The Cubs have a roster construction problem. There are no minor league prospects pushing for a major league roster spot.

Will Ross be a figurehead or will he put his own stamp on the Cubs? That is the million dollar question. No one has inferred that the players quit on Maddon. The complaint was Maddon was not getting the best out of the talent on the roster. But it may be that the front office continues to overvalue their talent.

A slow start. A rash of injuries. The first real 2020 crisis will show whether Ross will be an independent voice of accountability or another Cubs PR person.

October 18, 2019

MARQUEE NETWORK

It was announced yesterday that the Cubs Marquee Network signed its
first carriage deal with AT&T's DirectTV (dish) and U-verse (cable) platforms.

No terms were announced, as in how much it will cost subscribers per month.

The Cubs floated numbers around $6 to $12 per month.

The Marquee contract was part of a deal where Sinclair, the Cubs partner,  bundled its 21 regional sports networks into one deal with AT&T to carry their networks.

DirectTV is going with the business model of being Sports heavy in content
while DishTV is cutting or eliminating sports programming to be the
cheaper alternative in the Dish industry.

Also, AT&T has been trying to get its cable platform (fiber optic network) users to move to Direct TV
to save costs of maintaining cables.

I could not find a reference to AT&T's cable market share for Chicago, but
nationally it appears that Comcast has 57% share to AT&T's 8%.

On the bad news side of things, 92% of Cub fans in Chicago metro market could be
blacked out of Cubs games (The Dodgers Network disaster), or at best, 43% could receive it (highly doubtful Comcast is going to carry a competitor and small cable operators are not going to pay hefty new carriage fees.

In reality, the best outcome for the Cubs is actually a 14% decrease in market availability
from the expired Comcast arrangement. Good work Crane Kenney. Good work Tom Ricketts.

In addition, the Marquee Network has no marquee names in the talent department. Len Kasper and Jim DeShaies contracts expired in October. The radio crew may have one year left on their deals.

Bob Costas was interviewed this week. He was asked if wanted to be the face of the Cubs new network. He said he was not contacted but he would say no. He was not interested in local baseball broadcasting at this point in his career. David Kaplan turned down an offer to be the "face" of the Cubs network which was a telling sign by the self-proclaimed number one Cubs fan.

Besides having no "face" of the new network in place, there have been no program announcements other thanthe 150 games of the 2020 season. How will Marquee fill 24 hours a day? That is the expensive question.