December 14, 2018

WHITE SOX FREE AGENCY

The 2019 White Sox have a payroll of around $34 million. The rebuild has stripped the club of most of its veteran contracts. So, in theory, the team is poised to spend money on free agents. However, during Reinsdorf's tenure, the team has only spent $64 million total on one player (Jose Abreu).

But the buzz from the Winter Meetings has been that the White Sox have been talking to the superstar free agents like Bryce Harper. Most people scoff at the prospect of a superstar signing with a 100 loss team.

But the real bottom line for superstars is to go where the money is because
that is why they have high power agents.

There is growing case that teams like the White Sox are the only big dollar landing
spots for Harper, Machado, Kuechel, etc. If the White Sox want a marquee player
to be the face of the franchise, they can pay him and still not even break an $80 million
payroll because of the rebuild. They can be selling (like the Cubs did with Lester) all the
great (pitching) prospects in the minors so the turnaround will be quick.

The Sox drew 1.6 million fans in 2017. If Harper adds 5,000/game attendance (405,000)
the gross revenue could increase by $20 million (based on 2017 average cost to attend game)
which would be 2/3 of Harper's salary.


High attendance high payroll clubs like the Cubs do not have any ball park revenue growth
to justify signing a big money free agent.  Signing Harper would not increase attendance revenues at Wrigley Field. 


Would a superstar like Harper want to be the "brand" of the White Sox. Clearly, if he was, he would get local endorsement deals and his No. 34 jersey would be a top seller. But those in Washington think Harper's personality does not fit that role. He wants to be plugged into a veteran, high win team who can win a championship or two. That is why he has been trolling the Cubs to sign him so he would not have to "carry" the team.

There may be a mystery team in the Harper sweepstakes. For example, the Giants are saying they are in a state of change. They are willing to entertain offers on Bumgartner. They have only 12 veterans on the roster but the projected payroll for 2019 is around $175 million. Adding a $30 million player is feasible to be under the luxury tax threshold, but you could spend the same amount and acquire 5 or 6 second tier free agents to actually create a competitive roster.

Harper's agent, Scott Boras, is still playing the preachy waiting game. It did not work well for last year's client, J.D. Martinez, who signed a team friendly deal with Red Sox prior to the start of spring training. One would think an agent would want to get a deal done sooner than later because teams are now more focused on trading for roster changes than signing free agents.

December 10, 2018

PAINTED INTO A CORNER

Have you noticed that the Cubs have not been mentioned in any
trade rumors or free agent negotiations?

I heard last week on the radio that one reason may be that
Theo "borrowed" from this year's baseball budget to pay for
Darvish, Morrow and Chatwood. So that may be a bitter pill
on any future spending because it was already spent.

Plus, Darvish, Morrow and Chatwood represent $41.5 million
in 2019 payroll. Add in Heyward, it jumps to 61.5 million
or almost a third of 2019 total payroll budget.

The Cubs are on the hook for $158 million on 13 signed players.
The Cubs still have to sign 27 other players to make the 40 man
roster - - - with some expensive arbitration players like Bryant
in the mix.

The projected salaries for the arb players:

  • Kris Bryant (3.171) – $12.4MM
  • Kyle Hendricks (4.081) – $7.6MM
  • Javier Baez (3.089) – $7.1MM
  • Addison Russell (3.167) – $4.3MM
  • Kyle Schwarber (3.086) – $3.1MM
  • Mike Montgomery (3.089) – $3.0MM
  • Carl Edwards Jr. (2.134) – $1.4MM
That totals at least $38.9 million. I think Bryant will get more.

That leaves another 20 players, even at the minimum of $555,000
or $11.1 million creating a current projected payroll of
$208.00 which is dead on the luxury tax number.

This is the corner that Theo has painted himself in.

And last week, he admitted that 2019 is going to be difficult.

On Thursday, Epstein  called the 2019 season a year of ‘‘reckoning’’ for the organization.

As the SunTimes reported,  Epstein  made it clear that, barring moves that free up significant payroll space, the Cubs won’t be adding a nine-figure commitment to their books for the fourth time in five years.

The big, problematic contracts with large balances are clear:   Jason Heyward’s $184 million deal  Yu Darvish’s $126 million contract, and  the $25.5 million owed to right-hander Tyler Chatwood the next two years.

‘‘You can’t just keep shopping without making things fit for your roster and for your payroll and the situation that you’re in,’’ Epstein said. ‘‘I understand the desire for a big name every winter, and there are winters where we do acquire a big name and there will be winters where we don’t acquire a big name. I don’t know what category this winter will fall into yet, but there’s a chance that it’s going to be a winter where we don’t acquire a big name from outside the organization.’’

Nothing is more telling that the Cubs are up against the payroll wall than:

1. Having to trade Smyly's $7 million contract in order to exercise the $20 million option on Hamels.

2. Not having $4 million extra to spend to re-sign Chavez to stabilize a bullpen that will now not have Morrow at the start of the season (he had late elbow surgery in November after sitting out the second half of the season).

Other media outlets outside of Chicago have reported that other teams have heard that the Cubs do not have money to spend to sign top tier free agents. 

Adding to the problem is that the Cubs have very little trade capital. The Cubs farm system is near the lower ranks in MLB. On a scouting scale of 20-80, the Cubs best prospect rates 50. And the Cubs best prospects are at the Class A level. The only trading chips then are on the major league roster, but those candidates (besides Baez) had very down years.

The Cubs overspent in the past years after they tanked to stockpile high draft choices. The plan worked and a championship was won. But the plan was unsustainable when ownership was directing massive resources ($750 million) on non-baseball improvements and business enterprises. The Cubs team is left high and dry with their old roster and bad contract decisions.
 
2019 will be a year of transition. The Cubs players could rebound to have a chance for another championship. Or the team could see their championship window shut. There are no guaranteed dynasties in sports even if you throw a lot of money at it . . .  just think of the 1985 Bears.

December 8, 2018

THE SHIFT TOWARD OFFENSE

More and more sports leagues are trying to increase "offense" and "scoring" in order to lock in casual viewers into fans.  There is almost a video game expectation that sports leaders want to market toward the public whom are immersed in their Fortnite and other battle royale games.

MLB has been whining about its game for a long time. First it was too much pitching. "Women love the long ball" campaign helped fuel the specter of the steroid era and juiced baseballs. Second, it was pace of play. Games were getting too long, people could not pay attention. Third, it was "engaging" the fans during games by pushing MLB stat and fantasy apps on their phones (ironically, causing fans in the stands to pay less attention to the actual game.)

The current bane of the MLB is the over-gospel use of advanced stats to "improve" the game. The current foil is the defensive shift. The shift is ruining the game, so they say. It is taking away hitting, run scoring - - - offense.

There is nothing against the rules about where you can place fielders on any given play, except for the pitcher, who has be in contact with the rubber 60 feet 6 inches away from the plate, and the catcher who has to sit in the catcher's box behind the plate. Otherwise, a team could place the seven other fielders in the infield - - - as close to the plate as possible (in bunting situations).

Advanced statistics provide data that shows tendencies of hitters. But even general experience will tell you that certain hitters are "pull" hitters and others "slap" or opposite field hitters. Pitchers have been taught to pitch against those tendencies. But adding another fielder, usually in the short outfield, takes away base hits, or so is the theory.

Yahoo Sports notes that the overall analysis of the shift is unclear.

The usage of shifts has gone from a rarity to begin the decade, to almost routine in 2018.
In 2010, Fangraph’s data on the frequency of defensive shifting shows that the Tampa Bay Rays under manager Joe Maddon employed the shift against a league-leading 261 batters.

In 2018, Maddon’s Cubs actually employed the lowest number of shifts to opposing batters with 631. But that low number is still nearly 150 percent higher than the league high just eight years ago.
In fact, only five teams, the Cubs, Angels, Padres, Rangers and Cardinals, shifted for less than 1,000 batters in 2018. The Chicago White Sox set the pace, shifting for 2,150 batters. Overall, teams shifted 17 percent of the time during the past regular season, which is nearly one in every five batters.

It has undeniably become a big part of the strategy across MLB. But has it really impacted the game in a negative way?

The success rate varies, and like all aspects of baseball relies on a degree of luck. Fangraphics digested the types of shifts being used, and the accompanying success rates. The five teams that shifted most frequently (infield and outfield) in 2018 did so an average of 11.9 times per game, with opposing batters averaging 3.3 hits against per games. That’s a .277 batting average. The five teams that shifted the least averaged five shifts per games. Opposing batters averaged 1.5 hits, or a .300 average.

Does that mean shifting more is better? Does that tell us that shifting is even having a notable impact? Not necessarily is the correct answer to both, yet there’s a crowd that’s convinced it’s unfairly dragging down offense in MLB.

There are some variables those numbers don’t account for. It doesn’t tell us the number of times a shifted defender saved a hit, or how often a hit went through his vacated position. But the overriding numbers tell the real story. Shifting does more to get people talking than it does to drain offense from the game.

The best way to counter a shift is to hit the ball where they are not. To stop the shift, a batter needs to be able to place the ball in the vacated area. And that usually means bunting the ball for a base hit. But that is viewed as a cowardly or unmanly way to get a hit. But it is not. It is part of the game. But players and agents focus more on the glamor stats: like HRs and RBIs than whether you got a measly bunt single.

It would be nice to hear the view of the late Tony Gywnn on the shift controversy. He probably would have told you that a batter has to make the adjustments. If you looked at his hitting chart, you could see that he sprayed the ball to all parts of the ball park. He was not a pure pull hitter, or an opposite field slap hitter. Just as others were taught to hit the ball "up the middle" to get solid contact, Gwynn was a pure hitter capable of adjusting his swing to the pitch, circumstance and the elements. But that type of hitting dedication is rare. It would seem scapegoating the shift instead of telling players to adjust is the easy way out to jump start some more offense.

There are old schoolers who just go by the mantra "hit em where they ain't." Some hitting coaches are now focused in on "launch angles" and contact velocity as the statistical means to get past the shift, because harder ground balls get through the shift faster, and no one can catch a HR ball except a fan in the stands.

Baseball should do nothing to affect the strategy evolutions in the game. Let the shift ride out its fad until the next great Big Data thing happens.

December 1, 2018

THE REHAB TOUR

I was reading comments on a Cubs fan blog, and there is a growing consensus is
that the Cubs organization is quickly falling back into the Tribune ways, i.e.
a crappy organization. When the Trib spent, it was spent unwisely. When the Trib wanted to sell the team, it went small market.

The penny pinching, small market mentality has now seeped to the surface.
Fans were promised a dynasty now see the window closing rapidly.
They are realizing that Ricketts spent all his time and resources building
outside of Wrigley Field than building a second championship team.
The core talent that Theo touts may not be as impressive as the 1929 Yankees.
And the minor league system is now horrible, with no help in sight.

I think fans are getting mad because the Cubs are not tied to talks to ANY notable
free agent, first tier or second tier. They can't understand why they let their best
relief pitcher, Chavez, walk over $4 million when Theo spouted off that performance
now counts more than potential
(we are looking at Chatwood's $36 million contract).


The baseball world still cannot figure out why the Cubs had to trade Smyly and his $7 million contract in order to re-sign Hamels. Why did the Cubs pay Smyly millions in 2018 just to rehab his arm? He would have done it without being on a major league DL. But he was "an asset," or "insurance policy" for the rotation in 2019. But in reality, he seemed to be an expensive budget line item.

We have not heard any updates on Bryant's shoulder. If we compare it to the Bears' Trubisky shoulder watch, it seems more grim. Trubisky was day to day with an apparent shoulder bruise or strain. He is expected to be back for the Rams contest in 8 days. Bryant sat out 6 weeks and came back the same - - - unable to fully follow through on his swing. Is there something more on Bryant's shoulder that we do not know about? 

Running through 3 hitting and pitching coaches in 3 years seems to be counterproductive - - - will the new coaches be able to improve underperforming players like a magician? Or is bringing in new coaches merely an illusion to cover-up the mistakes of the front office?


Is 2019 going to be the Rehab Tour? Russell, Chatwood, Darvish, Edwards, Bryant,
Schwarber, Contreras - - -  are they all going to rebound to have career years??






November 28, 2018

MADDON SPEAKS

At a charity event in Florida, the Tampa Bay Times caught up with Joe Maddon.

He had several things to say about his new approach in 2019, the status of Jim Hickey and not having a contract extension.

Maddon says he plans a significant change for next year in his managing style with a shift to more on field coaching work, which is apparently tied to baseball ops president Theo Epstein saying he expects Maddon to be "re-energized" by the challenges after last season's disappointing finish.
"That will be the part that will be  different," Maddon said. "I've always kind of stayed free of coaching because I really want to stay out of coaches' way so they can do their job. I've always felt that is the right way to do it. But this year I'm going to get a little more hands-on involved in actually coaching. I think that's where the comment came from. …. I actually want to do less before the game talking to the media and whatever and try to get on the field more often."

Maddon said last week's departure of pitching coach Jim Hickey was not health related but said he couldn't get into specifics of what the "personal reasons" were. "He's fine," Maddon said. "He's not ill. His health is fine."

When asked about his lack of a contract extension, Maddon was nonplussed. He compared the situation as being a "free agent" not a "lame duck."  He compares the situation to Manny Machado and Bryce Harper playing out their contract to get a new, better one. Players often do better in "contract years."  Maddon is not worried about his future.

The three takeaways from the interview:

1. Maddon left too much coaching decisions to his staff in 2018. There will be no excuses for the 2019 results. He is going to take a more active approach in all phases of the players approach and execution. Whether he can get back to developmental basics with his players is going to be interesting.

2. Maddon was not phased by Hickey's departure or bitter by it. Perhaps there was something non-baseball related in the move. Maddon will now have new hitting and pitching coaches for the third year in a row. But he did not deflect it as a criticism of the organization or management.

3. He still wants to manage. He wants to succeed with the Cubs. He is preparing his 2019 campaign like a superstar free agent in his contract year. He is managing for a new contract, with the Cubs or some other organization.

November 21, 2018

THE ISLAND OF JOE

After weeks of speculation, pitching coach Jim Hickey resigned for "personal reasons."

Most people do not buy it. Hickey was a friend and colleague of Joe Maddon from his Tampa days. The Cubs won 95 games. The Cubs made the playoffs.

But the front office is bitter by the Wild Card bounce. Now, for the third straight season, the Cubs will have a new hitting and pitching coach. So much for stability. And Maddon is not getting a contract extension, so he will be a lame duck manager.

What did Hickey mess up in order to be bought out to resign his position? The front office spend money on starters Tyler Chatwood, Yu Darvish, reliever Steve Cishek and closer Brandon Morrow. Only Cishek had a good season (80 relief appearances, 2.18 ERA). Chatwood was an uncontrollable disaster, Darvish was hurt and Morrow's injury history took him out for the second half of the season.

Despite the free agent flubs, the Cubs pitching staff year end NL stats were as follows:

2nd in Wins (95)
2nd in ERA (3.65)
4th in Saves
1st in IP
5th in Hits Allowed
4th in HR Allowed
14th in Walks
12th in Strikeouts

The last two bottom of the league states (BB/K) shows that the pitching staff had control issues, but despite those issues won 95 games and was second in team ERA.

Just as hitting coach Chili Davis was brought in last season to improve contact rate, OBP and opposite field hitting, he was fired apparently because his message did not "mesh" with the younger players. Epstein was highly critical that the Cubs offense collapsed in the second half of the season.

The Cubs hitting ranks were:

4th in Runs Scored
11th in HRs
13th in SB
4th in Walks
7th in Strikeouts
1st in Batting Average
2nd in On-Base Percentage (OBP)
6th in Slugging
6th in Total Bases

In today's stat era, having a hitting coach on a team that ranks first in BA and second in OBP would be praised as being successful. The two under performing categories were HRs and SBs, but stat gurus now discount the stolen base as obsolete in the modern game. Despite being middle of the pack in walks, slugging and total bases, the Cubs still won 95 games.

The team stats show that in one respect the Cubs overachieved to win 95 games. Some writers think 2018 was Maddon's best managerial season as he juggled injuries and player slumps in both hitting and fielding. But Maddon critics still think he is failing to develop the young core into superstar talent.

There is mounting circumstantial evidence that there is a rift between ownership, baseball operations and the team (coaches and players). The idea that the Cubs had to dump salary to exercise the option on Cole Hamels set off "small market" alarm bells that the Cubs were not going to spend over the $206 million luxury tax cap. The team is projected to bump up near that cap amount after arbitration awards to their existing players. In Boston, Epstein buried his bad signings and dead money deals by going out and overpaying for big name free agents. That escape plan is not going to happen for 2019. His roster is trapped by bad contracts and under performing young players. If he is going to re-work the roster, it will have to be through trades but the Cubs minor league system has no great major league ready prospects to pull off a mega-deal.

The tension between Epstein and Maddon is clear. Epstein said that Maddon should have not thrown Morrow three days in a row (which allegedly caused the season ending arm injury). But Morrow's injury did not stop the Cubs from winning 95 games as Pedro Strop came in to spot close (until he got hurt running the bases in a move universally critical of Maddon's managing move). It is clear that the front office is hiring the next coaching staff, not Maddon. They have isolated Maddon from gathering his own coaching staff and loyalty. Whether that is a move to force Maddon's hand to resign we do not know. But Maddon's personality is not the type to walk away from a fight, even within the organization. The Cubs cannot outright fire Maddon because he is the figurehead who brought desperate Cubs fans a multi-generational World Series championship.

The firings of Davis and Hickey were sacrifices to ownership for not fully monetizing the season. Someone had to take the brunt of the blame for not going deep in the playoffs (and thus having a large revenue shortfall). It is highly unlikely that a new hitting coach is going to turn .240 career hitters into .300 hitters or a new pitching coach is going to turn Darvish into Cy Young or Chatwood into a All-Star starter.

How Maddon will react to this back office soap opera will be telling; he can either go through the moments in 2019 or try to re-ignite the loose, highly spirited championship locker room. Some believe that Maddon's goofy events worked well with rookies and young players because it made them not "think" about hitting or batting. But as the years went on, Maddon's carefree stunts lost its message and the players seemed to tighten up. It is not that Maddon has lost players confidence, but he lost his edge as a player-friendly manager. At times, coddled players need some tough love (and much of that is messaged through the manager's assistant coaches). If Hickey and Davis' departures are because the players did not get along with them, then this is the beginning of the end as teams that have the players run the asylum are doomed (like late in Dusty Baker's Cub tenure.) We know Epstein wants to be close to "his guys" in the locker room and conversations with players had impact on the Davis dismissal.

If the front office wants a remote control manager who will run the pre-programmed line up and field calls driven by stat percentages, then Maddon is not that type of employee. He still has enough old school baseball instincts that defy new conventions. Change is coming to the Cubs dugout sooner than we as fans expected before the start of the 2018 season.

November 16, 2018

A SURPRISING NEW DEAL

I am more surprised than the average fan.

MLBTR reports that MLB signed a huge deal with Fox.

MLB reached a new seven-year, multiplatform agreement with FOX Sports spanning the 2022-28 seasons. Eric Fisher of Sports Business Journal reports that the contract’s rough value is a staggering $5.1 billion — a near-50 percent increase over the total value of the existing agreement between MLB and FOX. Bloomberg reports a similar total figure and notes that on an annual basis, the agreement represents a 36 percent increase over the prior contract.

Major League Baseball owners approved a three-year, $300MM streaming rights deal with DAZN, wherein DAZN will offer a weeknight show whose coverage bounces from game to game throughout the league — “similar to NFL RedZone.”

Under the terms of the television agreement, FOX Sports and FOX Deportes will retain exclusive rights to airing the World Series, one of the two annual League Championship Series and two of the four annual Division Series and the All-Star Game. FOX will also continue to air a pair of games each Saturday, with today’s release indicating that the number of regular season and postseason games aired on FOX will begin to increase in 2022. FOX also secures expanded streaming, social media and highlight rights, per the announcement.

It’s an enormous windfall for the league and one that further places a spotlight on the ever-increasing revenue available to Major League teams in today’s game — even as league-wide attendance dips and World Series ratings fell dramatically. The financial specifics of each team (or of any team) remain unknown as such information (including revenue sharing figures) is not made publicly available.

But in a general sense, each team will benefit by $170 million or around $24 million/team/year starting in 2022.

From a media standpoint, this is not based on the traditional Nielsen TV ratings book. The rights purchase includes multiplatforms, which would include mobile, streaming, on demand, or the next viewing technology platform (such as the next Facebook). Fox is trying to capture those distribution channels, but it is unclear if this Fox deal hampers the growth of MLB's own internet game applications and subscription based streams.

One thing is certain: the news of this huge extension will be on the minds of the superstar free agents who will not take any idea that the owners are poor or hitting a rough revenue patch.