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.

October 15, 2019

THE OFF-SEASON

The Cubs have a monumental work load this off-season. Whether ownership and management realize it is another story.

Front and center is a new managerial hire. The question is whether the new manager will be more effective than Maddon, or will he be handcuffed by front office hires. Maddon had to accept the rotation of coaches hired by the front office. A new, experienced manager would want to hire his "own guys" to make sure his philosophies are implemented with the players. But the Cubs clearly do not operate that way. The front office has embrace high technology and advanced statistics to the point that they believe a baseball game is no different than a computer game. It is more than likely the new Cubs skipper will be a figurehead manager.

For a long time, we have been on the roster construction issue. The Esptein Cubs have drafted quality hitters, but only Kris Bryant has proven to meet expectations when not injured. Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora and Ian Happ have become platoon players. You cannot field a team of .235 hitters and expect to win.

Where are the area needing upgraded improvements?

1. SECOND BASE. There has been a convention of players who tried to play the position. No one has made a lasting impression as a starting second baseman. Theo & Company have fallen into the Jim Hendry trap of drafting and promoting multiple second basemen to play various positions (not well). As it currently stands, is Addison Russell your starting 2020 second baseman? (cringe). Or is it unexpected rookie call up Nico Hoerner? (maybe).

2. CENTER FIELD. Albert Almora had an opportunity to take the CF position but failed. He cannot hit major league pitching. Jason Heyward played center to the detriment of his defense and his offense. When he was playing right field and batting 5th or 6th in the line-up, he was nearly a .300 hitter. When Maddon moved him to center and lead off (out of necessity) he crashed to a .117 hitter. Everyone expects Heyward's untradeable contract to be parked in Right Field in 2020.

3. CLOSER/BULLPEN.  Brandon Morrow was a dead money contract from the get-go. Craig Kimbrel is looking like Morrow 2.0. The bullpen is going to be churned and burned again because the Cubs minor league system is not producing any quality arms. Dillon Maples has a fastball but no control. James Norwood has no long run consistency. Duane Underwood could be the next Carl Edwards. You have the journeyman club of David Phelps, Danny Hultzen, Alec Mills, Rowan Wick, Brad Weick and Kyle Ryan. Of that group, maybe two or three will stay on the roster.

4. STARTING ROTATION. The starters suddenly got old and bad. It was a year long struggle just to complete five innings. Jose Quintana was the most consistent pitcher but he was not great. The professor, Kyle Hendricks, got schooled for most of the second half. Cole Hamels will not return. Jon Lester may have no gas left in the tank. The fifth starter has been a lingering problem since Tyler Chatwood failed to be demoted to the bullpen. The Cubs have only two potential arms in minors: Adbert Alzolay, who was rocked in his spot starts, and Colin Rea, a rehab pitcher who was the best player on the 2019 Iowa Cubs. There may be two or three openings in the rotation for next season.

5. LEFT FIELD. Fans like Kyle Schwarber in left. The front office loves Schwarbie. But even with the Cubs own mantra about big data requirements like OBP, Schwarber fails. His defense is still sub par. His offense is confined to a homer or bust mentality. With his natural short swing, he takes too many pitches and strikes out too often. Is he a trade candidate? Yes. Will the Cubs get a good return? Probably not because DH candidates do not command much trade value. Besides, which team is desperate to find a young Adam Dunn?

There are at least 10 positions that need to be upgraded by the Cubs. Ten. That is an expected  40% roster turnover. It has to be done. It has to be painful. The Cubs window for a championship slams shut in two years when Bryant, Baez and Rizzo become free agents.

Ownership does not appear inclined to spend money in free agent to fix holes. The pending Cubs network is looking like a financial disaster. The Marquee Network has no distribution platform. Cable and dish-tv services are rebelling against regional sports channel subscriber fees as cord cutting continues to rake the industry.

The front office will have to try its stars in order to bolster the roster. But Theo does not like to trade "his guys." Do you trade Bryant for 2 or 3 major league ready players plus prospects? Two years ago that was unthinkable. Today, it is a viable option. But Bryant may not have the most trade value. Javy Baez is the most exciting player. Willson Contreras is a rare catcher with power. Baez and Contreras could fetch the most off-season trade returns. Both are not Theo & Company draft picks but they are part of the core and would be hard to replace.

But something will have to change or the Cubs will continue to slide in the NL Central.

October 5, 2019

THE NEXT SKIPPER

The Joe Maddon era is over. He was the most successful modern Cub manager during a five year tenure. But his message failed to get another championship.

There have been references to championship fatigue, "Winner's Traps," etc. After 2016, the Cubs team has been in a slow decline. Expectations were high; player performance was sliding down. Theo Epstein railed against "potential" and "performance" during spring training. He claimed everyday was a playoff game. The Cubs then stumbled out the gate. The Cubs never had a long winning streak to cause separation in the NL Central.  All phases of the team faltered down the stretch.

The Cubs have a major decision to make: who will manage the rest of the Cub championship window. The Cubs have two years left before Kris Bryant becomes a free agent. That is the window to win. But the Cubs ownership has tapped out on money as the front office has exceeded the luxury tax threshold (again). For the past two years, Theo's moves have been costly mistakes. What manager wants to come to a team that is financially hand-cuffed and on the decline?

As it was noted by Joe Girardi many times, there are only 30 such jobs available. It is a unique club. You take the opportunity if you can get it. Girardi really wants to manage the Cubs. He was on his own personal, local publicity tour. He has the experience, winning attitude and character to lead a team. He did so in the sports world's toughest market, New York.  But he is viewed as an expensive, old school manager.

The trend is to hire an inexperienced former player or executive that the front office can control like a puppet. Teams have invested so much in advanced stats that they are forgetting baseball fundamentals for spreadsheet data.

One has to remember that all of Maddon's coaches were not his hires. The three hitting and pitching coaches the last three seasons have all been management decisions. Theo and Jed Hoyer wanted to impose their philosophies on the team. Clearly, it did not work out well.

Part of the problem has to be that when a young team wins early, they get cocky and complacent. They do not think they have to work hard in order to win. They think they are as good as their championship ring says they are. They think they can just turn it on at any time and win again. But it does not happen. They press and then they fail under the pressure because they did not put in the hard work to repeat.

The Michael Jordan Bulls championship runs were fueled by Jordan's own personal drive to excel at the highest level and to win multiple championships. The 2016 Cubs did not have that drive. They sat on their laurels. Maddon did not make the players accountable for their underperformance.

But part of the blame lies with the front office which provided Maddon with a bad roster. The rotation was no longer a strength as the older pitchers began to break down. The bullpen has always been a mess. When you spend money on closers who cannot throw or who cannot pitch, that is a problem. The team overvalued its core players to the point of having no competitive depth. And the scouting and development departments horribly failed to draft any reliable talent to help the major league club.

A Cub managerial candidate has to consider the health of the team he is expected to lead to victory. There will be other major vacancies this off season (Mets, Angels, Padres, Pirates).

It is expected that the Cubs will hire a first time manager, The reasons are simple: cheaper and controllable. The Cubs are not going to spend $5 million on a proven, veteran manager. The going rate for a first time, no-experience candidate is less than $1 million.

There is an old saying "you get what you pay for." Some out of the blue selections have won (Hinch, Cora). But the new Cubs skipper comes into a clubhouse that has a lot of baggage. The players have not faced the consequences of their performance flaws. There is no one in the minors pushing to take their jobs.

David Ross is expected to be given an offer. Ross was a vocal clubhouse leader. It is one thing to be a player or teammate but it is another to be the boss. It will be difficult to turn his friendships into employer-employee relationships.

If Ross is not the hire, then the Cubs most likely will tap one of their internal executives or advanced scouts to run the team to make an analytical impact on the strategy of the season. Many players have quietly said that they are being overloaded with information before and during games. By having a new skipper being an evangelical leader of the stat age may be a bigger turnoff than Maddon.

September 21, 2019

A PEEK INTO 2020

The Cubs are going to have a difficult 2019 off-season.

Whether the team sneaks into the playoffs or crashes & burns in St. Louis, the on-paper team has not lived up to expectations after the 2016 World Series. A dynasty it did not become.

There should be changes. It is almost certain that manager Joe Maddon ($6 million) will not be re-signed by the Cubs. In an era of paying managers a million bucks, Maddon is a dinosaur. It is not that he will not get work. National columnists believe he will land either with the Angels, Giants or Phillies.

Gone from the 2020 Cub roster is an easy exercise of expiring contracts:

SP Hamels ($20M), IN Zobrist ($12.5M), CL Morrow ($9M), RP Cishek ($6.5M), RP Strop ($6.25M), RP Kintzler ($5M), IN Delcasco ($1.5M/ buyout).  Approximately $62.5 million will be shed from the current payroll. But that figure alone does not give the front office much firepower to retool the club.

The starting rotation became a collective laboring crew. 2020 will have Lester, Darvish, Hendricks and Quintana as starters by default. The 5th starter projects to be AAA SP Colin Rea, who had an MVP minor league season at Iowa. Also in the mix would be RHP Chatwood or reclamation project LHP Hultzen.

The bullpen is going to have major turnover as well. For good or ill, Kimbrel is the closer. Wick and Ryan have earned a spot on next year's roster. The jury is still out on Underwood, Mills, Maples and Weick.With an added man on the 2020 roster, one could easily see another relief pitcher for a 15 man pitching staff.

The question remains whether the position core is good enough to compete next year.

OF: Schwarber, Almora, Happ, Heyward
IN: Bryant, Baez, Bote, Russell, Rizzo
C: Contreras, Caratini

Every single one of these players has had up and downs in 2019. The concept of having a roster of multi-positional utility fielders has run its course. The platoon situation has not worked well for the Cubs in CF and 2B. There is still a glaring need for a traditional lead off hitter. New age stats be damned: the Cubs need contact hitters with high BA to manufacture runs in close games.

Of the 11 position players above, it is possible that 4 of them will not be on the 2020 opening roster. Russell could easily be replaced by Nico Hoerner. Bryant, Almora, Happ and Caratini could be trade chips for a load of prospects since the Cubs minor league system now ranks as one of the league's worst.

Even if the Cubs sign a young ace pitcher (Gerrit Cole) or a real veteran lead off hitting second baseman or center fielder, is that squad any better than the Cardinals or the Brewers?

September 19, 2019

NEW PITCHING STAFFS

As baseballs are flying out of ball parks at record numbers, the whole concept of a pitching staff is slowly beginning to change.

Starters are no longer geared toward pitching to contact or going complete games. It is now a rarity that a starter goes past 7 innings.  The new normal is 5 innings. This puts a huge strain on the bullpen, which is now bloated to at least 9 relievers.

Some managers are using "bullpen" days to get through series. The relief corps pitch the entire game, usually 2 or 3 innings for long relievers and then the set up men and closer.  A few managers have decided to start a tough reliever to get through the top of the order, then bring in their normal starter in the second inning. This avoids seeing the opponent's top three hitters three times in a game (as stats show a dramatic fall off in pitching performance the third time through the line up card).

The need for bullpen arms absorbing more innings per season is not lost on GMs (or player agents). Middle relievers or swingmen have had steady salary increases in free agency because teams now find Andrew Miller type relievers golden (they can be middle inning "stoppers," long relievers or even closers).

There are still several stud "ace" starters in the major leagues. But there are turning into baseball's dinosaurs: high salaries and less performance.

The real push for change in starting pitching is going to be economic.

The Cubs example is telling: the team was squeezed by an business mandate not to go over the luxury cap of $206 million. The five starters are being paid $85.5 million for 2019. That is 41.5% of the lux cap space. The 9 relievers in the bullpen are being paid $55.6 million. That is 27.2 % of the lux cap space. In total, pitching at the start of the season took up $141.1 million (68.7%) of payroll budget. Or an average of $10.1 million/pitcher.

That only leaves $64.9 million to be distributed to 11 position players (for an average of $5.9 million per player.) This is why the Cubs could not make any major off-season moves for position bats because it is hard to find very good every day players for $6 million/year. Veteran bench players get that kind of money.

The budget dollars will be allocated away from pitching toward hitting if traditional starter roles are going to be decreased in the near future. (We have discussed the concept of pitching pods in the past; a system where 3 pitchers are grouped together to pitch a game; 4 pods equal 12 pitchers - - - with two additional relievers in reserve. It is a modified bullpen game but with designated pitching squads instead of a traditional rotation.)  A pitching staff of relievers may cost $6 million/arm or $84 million, which is still less than the Cubs opening rotation cost of $85.5 million. Then you almost have double the amount to spend on position players.

Will this work? We will not know until it is tried and tested in a real season(s).

September 10, 2019

THE TEAR DOWN PROJECT

The baseball world was shocked when the Red Sox dismissed President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski less than a year after winning the World Series.

The reasoning for the termination of the man who helped produce a championship is vague. There is speculation that there was a rift between baseball operations and ownership/business side of the organization. There is speculation that the Red Sox are saddled with big money contracts that can quickly turn into dead money deals. There is always the rivalry with the Yankees, who have overcome 26 injuries to runaway with the AL East title.

Ricketts fancies himself as a follower of the Red Sox baseball operations. He wants to create an outside venue for fans (and profit) like Boston did around Fenway Park. The Cubs also have a split organizational structure: one baseball side and one business side. It has been clear for years that the Cubs baseball side has been at odds with the business side over payroll and spending issues.

Theo Epstein is also sitting on several potential dead money deals with the second highest payroll in the majors. He also has brought in many new players who have not helped the team surge into first place. The team is currently floundering in second place in the NL Central and losing a grip on the second wild card.

Someone will be the scapegoat. He was chosen last off-season: Joe Maddon. Maddon did not get a contract extension because the team does not want him (and his $6 million salary). Theo has been rotating coaches in Maddon's dugout to little success. Four batting coaches in four years has not improved the offense. Pitching has become erratic at best. Baseball is trending toward management hiring cheap, inexperienced and controllable managers. Maddon does not fit that role.

The farm system has not produced any sustainable help for this team. In fact, the farm system rates near the bottom because Theo has not drafted and developed one starting pitcher in his tenure with Chicago. This major flaw has a cascade affect on the team and its financing as he paid dearly to acquire pitching. With little help in the minors available, this off-season will come after a disappointing season. What will happen?

It is possible that the roster will have to be blown up. But it would have to be a dramatic change in attitude because Theo overvalues "his guys." He does not trade "his guys." He always talks about his championship core of starters. But many of these core players are breaking down with injuries, underperformance or pending free agency. The farm system is devoid of talent to make quality trades. Trades would have to be made from the current 40 man roster.

The current roster is filled with platoon situations, utility players and aging veterans. The starting rotation will be Lester, Hendricks, Darvish and Quintana. Hamels will not be re-signed. The bullpen will have to be retooled as well.

Your 2020 outfield appears to be Schwarber, Happ/Almora and Heyward. You cannot trade Heyward's contract. Schwarber has turned into an Adam Dunn DH. Happ and Almora are too inconsistent at the plate to have a .225 platoon in CF. Can you trade Happ and/or Almora? Yes, but they would get little in return because they are not proven starters. Can you trade Schwarber? Yes, but a DH/LF will not bring any great return.

Your 2020 infield appears to be Bryant, Baez, Russell/Garcia/Kemp/Hoerner and Rizzo. Rizzo is tradeable but lost in first base depth throughout the league. No one is desperate for a new first baseman. Bryant and Baez are good trade chips. Bryant, if healthy, could bring in 5 players in return (including quality minor league prospects). Baez could bring in a good haul, too.  But the one who could bring in the most MLB ready starters is Contreras because a power hitting, good catcher is very hard to find. Could the Cubs have a Caritini/Lecroy platoon in 2020? Yes, but its production would pale without Contreras.

If the 2019 Cubs get brushed aside like last season, then wholesale changes should be on the way. The business side is going to push hard for cost reductions since the new Cubs network launch is going to be a financial dud. If the Cubs management believe this current team is still a championship caliber one, then nothing will change and the final result will be disappointing fans. Fans could take trading away the heart of your core players if you got exciting young talent in return (since the championship is still in everyone's back pocket.) Otherwise, this is a slow and painful death to the bottom of the standings.