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.

February 9, 2017

STOP RULEMAKING

Why do people in charge of sports have an incessant need to tinker with the rules in order make themselves seem important?

Major league baseball is going to experiment with rule changes on how extra inning games will be played in the future.

One of the great assets of baseball is that it is timeless. The basic rules have been in place since its inception. The ebb and flow of the game, with pauses between pitches, makes it the most social of sporting contests. Fans can converse while watching the action. And the foundation of the game is the inning, three outs and winning at nine or extras. Baseball has no time limit. It is one of its greatest charms.

But that will change in an artificially stupid rule which demeans the most sacred aspect of the sport: statistics.

Major League Baseball plans on testing a rule change in the lowest levels of the minor leagues this season that automatically would place a runner on second base at the start of extra innings, a distinct break from the game’s orthodoxy that nonetheless has wide-ranging support at the highest levels of the league, sources familiar with the plan told Yahoo Sports.

A derivation of the rule has been used in international baseball for nearly a decade and will be implemented in the World Baseball Classic this spring. MLB’s desire to test it in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League and Arizona League this summer is part of an effort to understand its wide in-game consequences – and whether its implementation at higher levels, and even the major leagues, may be warranted.

“Let’s see what it looks like,” said Joe Torre, the longtime major league manager who’s now MLB’s Chief Baseball Officer and a strong proponent of the testing. “It’s not fun to watch when you go through your whole pitching staff and wind up bringing a utility infielder in to pitch. As much as it’s nice to talk about being at an 18-inning game, it takes time.

So what? Fans love long, extra inning games. It makes managers work their rosters. It makes players do unprepared things - - - like infielders becoming relief pitchers or relief pitchers playing the outfield.

If MLB is so worried about long games (which must have some basis in their network television contracts), then shorten the game to seven innings (which be abhorrent to traditional fans). No, it must be that television broadcasters want nice, neat and tight 3 hour sports program blocks. But baseball is a round peg that you cannot fit squarely in a box.

This new rule of putting a runner on at second to start an extra inning is stupid. If you have a pitching duel of a zero zero tie after 9, why reward teams by gifting a runner in scoring position? Fans want the pitchers to battle it out to the natural end.

This new rule is as crazy as having the managers come to home plate if a game is tied after 9 innings to play three rounds of rock-paper-scissors. The outcome has little to do with the fundamental principles of the game.

January 24, 2017

A LEFTY QUESTION MARK

The Cubs signing lefty Brett Anderson for $3.5 million with incentives to make a $10 million pitcher is another exhibit on how desperate the team is to get starting pitching depth.

In 8 big league seasons, Anderson has only started 30 games twice. And in his 8 big league seasons, he has only had one good year, in 2015, when he went 10-9 3.69 ERA. He has a career 7.3 WAR (0.9125 career average WAR). He is a career 38-43, 3.86 ERA, 1.318 WHIP.

He is injury prone. He only was in a few games last season. Anderson, who’ll turn 29 on February 1st, made just four major league starts last year after missing the bulk of the season due to back surgery.

Reports indicate that Anderson, if he is healthy, will compete with Mike Montgomery for the 5th starter spot. Montgomery looks to be the clubhouse leader by a wide margin due to his end of season and post-season record. Back injuries are tricky conditions as they tend to flare up over time. Anderson is just 28 but is coming off his second back surgery in three years, having undergone an arthroscopic procedure during spring training last year.

The Cubs need to have eight quality starters in camp. They only will have six actively seeking a 25 man roster spot. With the pitching market must be so thin, it is still strange that Jason Hammel has not received any offers. Hammel went 15-10 in 30 starts, with an 3.83 ERA and 1.1 WAR for the Cubs. He was bought out of his option in November. Hammel struggled at the end of last season (which was his habit) so he was not on the post-season roster. But considering the lack of experienced starters on the market, the Cubs selecting an injured pitcher over Hammel puts a label "damaged" goods on his back (is it a clubhouse attitude issue? a mechanical breakdown issue? a financial issue?) From an objective analysis, Hammel appears to be a more reliable pitcher than Anderson.

January 19, 2017

THE BAEZ QUESTION

Bruce Levine was on Chicago radio this week discussing the Cubs situation with Javy Baez.

The scope of the discussion centered around the Cubs need to acquire young, controllable starting pitchers. The Cubs will have a real problem at the end of the season if Lackey retires and Arrieta goes to free agency (both expected to do so.)

The Cubs have many trade chips to get a young starter, but management is cautious about trading any of "their guys."

The roster squeeze problem is Javy Baez. He believes that he deserves to be a full time player. He has great defensive skills at all three infield positions with 62 defensive runs saved over average fielders.

Baez also excelled at the plate, hitting a respectable .273, 14 HR, 59 RBI, 12 SB in 450 PA.

The blocks of Baez being a full time starter is the Cubs favoritism towards Kyle Schwarber, who has been labeled "untradable" by the front office, and WS MVP Ben Zobrist, who is also a super-sub.

Schwarber appears to be penciled in as the regular left fielder (despite his injury history). That means that Zobrist will have to play second base as Addison Russell is the starting shortstop and league MVP Kris Bryant is locked in at third. This assumes that Justin Heyward can correct his swing to be a productive offensive player in right field.

The only way Baez plays full time in the field is there is a misfortune to some other player.

Levine stated that the Cubs feel Baez is too valuable to trade because if the third baseman, shortstop or second baseman gets hurt, Baez can step in and the Cubs don't lose any potential production.

Normally, if a young player is blocked by a veteran under contract, other teams will make solid offers to acquire him. In the speculative trade market, the Cubs could trade Baez straight up for White Sox starter Jose Quintana, a young starter with four years of contract control.

The clubhouse issue will be whether Joe Maddon can get Baez enough playing time to keep sharp during the season. It would seem that at best, Baez could get three starts a week while Maddon rests Bryant, Russell and Zobrist. But that would only occur later in the season.  And whether Baez is mentally tough enough to accept a super-bench role on the club, especially if other players are struggling at the plate (Heyward) or in the field (Schwarber).

For some, this is a good problem to have; too many good players on the roster competing for playing time. But the question will remain throughout spring training: is Baez more valuable to trade or stay?

January 15, 2017

CASTRO

SNY reviews the Starlin Castro trade:


How Castro fared in 2016:
There were positives, yet some results left something to be desired concerning Castro's performance last season. It is difficult to get upset with 51 extra-base hits from a second baseman, but Castro has room for offensive improvement after hitting .270 with a .300 on-base percentage and a .433 slugging percentage (.734 OPS, 93 OPS+ and 94 wRC+). In his first full season as a second baseman, Castro wasn't awful at the position, but the club hopes he can improve in the department in which advanced metrics cast an ill light (-8 defensive runs saved).

Castro's OPS was significantly higher than the collections of players from 2014 (.693) and 2015 (.683), so in that respect, the Yankees received improved production from the position without spending an exorbitant salary (just under $8 million in 2016 and $10 million in 2017). Better, the Yankees ended up receiving Adam Warren, whom they traded for Castro, back in the Aroldis Chapman deal last summer, so the move was more or less like signing a young free agent.

What to expect in 2017
With seven years of major-league experience under his belt, if Castro is going to turn into an elite player, the time should be now. Unfortunately, Castro's inability to be more selective at the plate will likely deter him from turning in the monster season that he could with a different approach at the plate.

Castro has averaged just 3.67 pitches per plate appearance in his career (league average during the time frame was 3.83) and his career contact rate at pitches outside the zone is 66.9 percent (league averages have sat between 62-64 percent during his career). I'm not suggesting that Castro try to work more walks -- that's completely out of his comfort zone (his career-best walk rate is 6.2 percent in 2014; the league average was 7.6 percent). However, he might benefit from swinging at better pitches in an effort to increase the potential balls he contacts result in base hits. Castro could further work to reduce strikeouts, in which he set a career-high rate (19.3 percent) in 2016.

In his early seasons with the Cubs, Castro benefited from an inflated batting average with balls in play (BABIP) which elevated his on-base percentage. As his BABIP dropped in subsequent seasons, so has his on-base percentage. Castro getting on base just 30 percent of the time is a hindrance to the lineup and something he has the capability to remedy.

It is safe to assume that Castro can minimally attain 50-plus extra-base hits again in 2017. The upside with Castro is 60 extra base hits -- think 35 doubles and 25 home runs. The frustrating part with Castro is that he continually leaves people wanting more. The talent certainly exists, but whether Castro has the necessary drive to push himself enough to elevate his game is questionable.
In the field, any improvement would again come from Castro putting in extra effort. Castro has the benefit of having a full season playing second base under his belt, so the growing pains should be diminished. While Castro has the ability to turn in the fantastic play, the mind lapses and being a poor position for routine grounders drag his performance and metrics down.

Bottom line
Castro is a fine player. The Yankees are not breaking the bank to employ him and at the moment he is not blocking any minor leaguers. However, while Castro flashes spurts of brilliance at the plate and in the field, the knock is taking his talent and matching it with full-blown effort through an entire season. Until Castro improves his approach at the plate and his all-around focus, he will be viewed a nice piece, not the elite star he has the potential to reach.

MY TAKE:

The Yankees clearly won the trade by obtaining Castro and getting Warren back (because Chapman was leaving for free agency at the end of season and the Yanks had no chance of winning the AL East).

Castro had a 2.1 oWAR and a 1.2 overall WAR in 2016. Warren contributed a negative 0.9 WAR when he was with the Cubs.

Granted, Ben Zobrist had a better year. He had a 4.2 oWAR and 3.8 overall WAR in 2016. 

With the emergence of Javy Baez, we don't know how much playing time Zobrist will have in 2017. But it is clear that Castro did not have a starting job in Chicago so he had to be traded to give Joe Maddon the championship roster pieces.




January 9, 2017

THE SIXTH MAN

The Cubs are planning to go with a partial six-man rotation in 2017.
In 2016, resting the veteran starters in the second half helped in the playoffs.
But the problem to be addressed in spring training is that lack of starter depth.

The current rotation of Lester, Arrieta, Hendricks, Lackey and Montgomery is solid, but many of these veterans logged personal maximum innings in 2016. How fresh or sharp will they be in 2017?

The problem continues to be that the Cubs have failed to develop their own starting pitching.

Rob Zastryzny is slated to start in AA Iowa as the emergency starter. He went 1-0, 1.13 ERA in 8 games with the Cubs in 2016 (1 start). He is a lefty who went 10-5 in the minors with a 4.31 ERA. He may project to be a Travis Wood long relief/spot starter candidate.

The Cubs are also counting on Jake Buchanan. He went 1-0, 1.50 ERA in 2 games for the Cubs in 2016 (1 start). In AAA, he went 12-8, 4.34 ERA in 22 starts.

Also in the mix is Aaron Brooks. The ex-Royal, 26, went 1-1 with a 7.71 ERA in limited AAA action. His career MLB record is 3-5, 8.38 ERA.

Montgomery's promotion to the rotation does cause a weakness in the bullpen. Monty was a long reliever who could be spotted for work in any inning. If the Indians use of Andrew Miller in the playoffs will be a blueprint copied by many other teams, Montgomery seems comfortable in that role. He has not gone a full season as a starter.

The other unknown is the durability of Lester, Arrieta and Lackey. Will Maddon ease up on them in spring training and in the early part of the season? Is that why the Cubs will break camp with an 8 man bullpen? Probably.

Zaztrynzy, Buchanan and Brooks do not instill confidence in case of a starting rotation fail.

There are two guys currently on the market that would fit the bill as stop-gap starters: Travis Wood and Jason Hammel. In a pitching market devoid of quality starters, both Wood and Hammel have not gotten much free agent love. The Cubs bought out Hammel's option so he is not really on the radar to return. Wood wants to return to being a full time starter, with a better command of his fastball. Remember, starters make more money than relievers.

The Cubs will still have to make at least one off-season move to add depth to the rotation. The Cubs continue to harp about acquiring young, controllable arms. A player with quality stats and 4 years of control is sitting on the White Sox fire sale inventory, Jose Quintana, but the price the Cubs would have to pay stops the discussion before it even begins. Quintana, 13-12, 3.20 ERA with a 5.2 WAR in 2016, is the type of player the Cubs would need if either Lester or Arrieta goes down with a serious injury.

The six-man rotation concept is good in theory. However, if you don't have the pieces to make it work, it messes up the entire pitching staff.

January 4, 2017

MIDWINTER REPORT

As the Cubs hit the midwinter mark of the off-season, the 2017 roster is fairly well set.

The Cubs said the team will break camp with 13 pitchers (including 8 relief pitchers).

The starting rotation (pending an unexpected trade) is set: Lester, Arrieta, Hendricks, Lackey and Montgomery.

The bullpen may have one or two open spots. But at the moment, the 8 men are: Davis, Rondon, Uehara, Strop, Edwards, Grimm, Duensing and Pena.

The starting lineup is fairly well set (with a potential of three to four platoon spots). The roster currently will hold only two catchers (with Schwarber's knee injury taking him out of his natural position).

Regular starters will be: Contreras (c), Rizzo (1b), Zobrist (2b), Russell (ss), Bryant (3b), Schwarber (lf), Jay/Almora (cf), Heyward (rf). Baez will be rotated in at 2b, ss and 3b to rest/move Russell, Bryant, and Zobrist, the latter into LF against left handed pitching.

The short bench will be led by Baez, then Montero, Szczur or LaStella. Again, there is no natural first baseman on the roster to back up Rizzo.

The current roster turnover/new position stands at 20 percent (5 of 25 players).

The major free agents from the Cubs’ 2016 roster: outfielder Dexter Fowler, catcher David Ross (who’s retiring), starting pitcher Jason Hammel, and relievers Travis Wood, Trevor Cahill, and Aroldis Chapman. Those six players combined for 8.3 WAR last season  primarily through Fowler’s 4.2 WAR. 

In theory, their replacements (Davis, Montgomery, Uehara, Duensing, Montero and Jay) need to average 1.39 WAR each. That seems plausible.