October 30, 2013

THE PLAN

ESPNChicago's Jesse Rogers had a column this week which basically endorsed the Epstein-Hoyer Cub rebuilding plan. It is all about beefing up the minor league system and developing home grown talent.

The author acknowledges that half of the fan base has bought into the plan. The other half has not because there is no guarantee that it will work.

What Rogers does not mention are the critical "risks" of an all-minor league rebuild plan:

1) Less than 6% of all prospects make the major leagues, and less than 3% are starter caliber.
The percentages are less for international players.


2) The assumption is that Epstein and Hoyer can evaluate talent (or hire the right scouts).


3) Their first international signee was a Cuban LHP named Concepcion, who signed a multi-million dollar deal and vanished from the minor league rosters this year (I mean, there was no article at all on him, injured, cut or otherwise).


4) Just signing prospects does not mean that the team can develop them into major league talent. The Cubs have a history of great five tool prospects (Patterson, Pie, etc) who have failed.


5) The problem with the plan is that the Cubs are stashing their prospects in the low minors and holding them back from advancing quickly through the system. Some organizations do not require a year to year promotion plan through the minors (Rookie, A, A+, AA, AAA) because there is so much wear and tear a player has in his shoulder, arm, etc. The Cubs plan appears to keep prospects off the roster for five years or more. 


6) Even if the prospects get to the majors, you need the right coaches to continue to develop them, teach them adjustments, etc. That was the reason Sveum was fired because of the regression of Rizzo and Castro. 


This year's playoff teams did have home grown talent on their rosters. The Cardinals called up several young contributors during the season who performed quite well. But the playoff roster does contain numerous free agents (Beltran, Holliday, etc.) who are the foundation for the team's success.

Critics of the Cubs plan claim that it is a near sighted approach. It focuses only on developing draft picks and international signees instead of improving the major league product. Critics also note that the front office has no Plan B if this minor league rebuild plan fails.

October 28, 2013

CHEAPER ALTERNATIVE

Robinson Cano's people have said they want their client to sign a new $305 million deal. This is on par with Alex Rodriguez's last fat contract.

Cano is the premier free agent this off season. But no one believes he is worth $305 million.

Part of the puffing could be that it appeared that the Dodgers were spendthrift West Coast sailors. The team had a hole at second base to add to their All-Star line up. Cano was hoping to use the Dodgers as leverage to squeeze another team, including the Yankees who are about to grow old and lose several players.

But the Dodgers did an interesting and smart move. They signed Cuban infielder Alexander Guerrero on a four-year, $28MM contract that could reach $32MM via incentives, according to MLB.com's Jesse Sanchez.
 
Guerrero, who will turn 27 this December, will be able to hit the open market entering his age-31 season, which should allow him to sign another strong contract if he is able to live up to his potential.

Guerrero batted .290/.402/.576 with 21 home runs in 328 plate appearances in his final season in Cuba's Serie Nacional. That line, along with the .316/.406/.586 that he slashed from 2010-12 in his age 23-25 seasons, was enough for his agent to compare Guerrero's power to that of Dan Uggla. While that comp should be taken with a grain of salt, the bar is set pretty low for Guerrero in the Majors, at least among his new peers; Major League second basemen slugged just .376 this year as a group. 

This signing takes the Dodgers out of the Cano sweepstakes. It fills a need with another Latin player just as Yasiel Puig did this year.

October 27, 2013

BA ROOKIES OF YEAR

Baseball America has named its 2013 All Rookie Team.

The average age of the following players is 23.5 years.

C: Evan Gattis, Braves
AgeAVGGABRH2B3BHRRBIBBSOSBCSOBPSLGOPS
27.24310535444862102165218100.291.480.771

1B: Matt Adams, Cardinals
AgeAVGGABRH2B3BHRRBIBBSOSBCSOBPSLGOPS
25.28410829646841401751238001.335.503.838

2B: Jedd Gyorko, Padres
AgeAVGGABRH2B3BHRRBIBBSOSBCSOBPSLGOPS
25.2491254866212126023633312311.301.444.745

3B: Nolan Arenado, Rockies
AgeAVGGABRH2B3BHRRBIBBSOSBCSOBPSLGOPS
22.267133486491302941052237220.301.405.706

SS: Jose Iglesias, Tigers
AgeAVGGABRH2B3BHRRBIBBSOSBCSOBPSLGOPS
23.30310935039106162329156052.349.386.735

OF: Wil Myers, Rays
AgeAVGGABRH2B3BHRRBIBBSOSBCSOBPSLGOPS
22.2958733249982301353319052.353.482.835

OF: A.J. Pollock, Diamondbacks
AgeAVGGABRH2B3BHRRBIBBSOSBCSOBPSLGOPS
25.269137443641192858383382123.322.409.731

OF: Yasiel Puig, Dodgers
AgeAVGGABRH2B3BHRRBIBBSOSBCSOBPSLGOPS
22.3191043826612221219423697118.391.534.925

DH: Kole Calhoun, Angels
AgeAVGGABRH2B3BHRRBIBBSOSBCSOBPSLGOPS
25.28258195295572832214122.347.462.809

P: Jose Fernandez, Marlins
AgeWLERAGGSSVIPHRERHRBBSOBB/9SO/9WHIP
211262.1928280173111474210581873.029.750.98

P: Gerrit Cole, Pirates
AgeWLERAGGSSVIPHRERHRBBSOBB/9SO/9WHIP
231073.221919011710943427281002.157.671.17

P: Shelby Miller, Cardinals
AgeWLERAGGSSVIPHRERHRBBSOBB/9SO/9WHIP
221593.0631310173152655920571692.968.781.21

P: Hyun-Jin Ryu, Dodgers
AgeWLERAGGSSVIPHRERHRBBSOBB/9SO/9WHIP
261483.0030300192182676415491542.307.221.20

P: Julio Teheran, Braves
AgeWLERAGGSSVIPHRERHRBBSOBB/9SO/9WHIP
221483.2030300186173696622451702.188.241.17

P: Trevor Rosenthal, Cardinals
AgeWLERAGGSSVIPHRERHRBBSOBB/9SO/9WHIP
23242.637403756325224201082.3912.901.10


































October 26, 2013

EXPANSION

The Red Sox went from a disastrous implosion to the World Series in a year. The team did so not by rebuilding but re-tooling its existing roster to fill in the needs in order to be competitive. It worked.

The Cubs have decided to blow up the entire organization and start from scratch. The major league roster has been filled with AAA players because in reality, any waiver wire move means that claimed player is valued or ranked 1,200 or higher (30 teams times 40 man protected rosters). The Cubs have been running their organization like an expansion team. So how long did it take the last four expansion teams to find success?

In 1969, Montreal Expos were awarded a franchise. Throughout its history, it has garnered only 2 playoff appearances. It's first winning season happened in 1980 (90-72). That was 13 years after it started the franchise. It's first playoff appearance happened in the strike shortened 1981 season, losing in the NLCS. It took another 20 years for the team, now the Nationals, to reach the playoffs in 2012.

In 1993, Miami was awarded a franchise. Throughout its history, it has 2 World Series championships, 2 pennants in 2 playoff appearances. It's first winning season happened after 5 years in 1997 (92-70) and a championship. The next WS championship happened in 2003, 11 years after its initial charter.

In 1998, Tampa came into the league. Throughout its history, it has 1 pennant and 3 playoff appearances. It's first winning season came  after 11 years in 2008 (97-65) when they lost in the World Series.

Also in 1998, Arizona came into the league. In its history, it has 1 World Series championship, 1 pennant and 5 playoff appearances. It's first winning season came in year 2 (100-62), losing in the LDS. In year 4 of existence, the Diamondbacks won the World Series in 2001.

If we take these examples, we find that it takes a modern expansion team 7.75 years to obtain a winning record and approximately 8 years to make the playoffs.

The Cubs have completed only year 2 of the rebuild with little prospects of improvement in 2014. Taking the past as a guide to the future, the Cubs will need at least 5 more years of rebuilding to become a competitive/playoff team. That projects to 2018 which is beyond the prior guesses from local media pundits. That is long time to wait.

If the Cubs current 10 percent decline in annual attendance continues during this long rebuild process, it is estimated that by the time 2018 rolls around, attendance would be down 876,000 patrons to about 1.535 million. Attendance is a key barometer of fan support. The pure expansion team model can lead to tough times at the box office and further constrict payroll when the time comes to "fill in the gaps" during free agency.

October 25, 2013

MANAGERIAL SEARCH

Acta, Renteria, Wedge, Hinch, Lovollo and Martinez are sounds a dry heaving, constipated dog would make as it laid dying in a city park.

There are a few conclusions about the Cubs managerial search:

1) If the Plan was to hire Girardi or bust, Epstein crapped out.

2) If the Plan was to hire another "interim" manager for the next two years until the valuable prospects leave the comfort of Class A to 2016-17 promotions to the majors, that does not sit well with the media or the fans.

3) If the Plan was to find the "next" great manager (like a Girardi or Maddon), then why are the Cubs interviewing candidates that no other team with a vacancy cared to interview?

The fan consensus is that none of the reported names for the next skipper screams confidence.

The Cubs are a bad team. The Cubs will continue to be a bad team.  The coaching fraternity is a small group. They are aware that the Cubs job "beats up and wears down" even the most seasoned and experienced managers (like Piniella).  Like it or not, fans and the front office may have to come to realize that the Cubs managerial job is not prized possession for any manager who wants to keep his long term legacy in tact.

The next manager must buy into the Plan that the entire future of the major league team is sink or swim with 21 year old prospects in the low minors. The team is not going spend on free agency to field a competitive team in the near term. It is Homegrown or Bust.  Many potential candidates who did not interview for the job may not want to be boxed in into such a narrow focus.

However the managerial search ends, it really does not matter in the big picture. This looks to be another caretaker hire.

LIKABILITY FACTOR

Likability.

Everyone wants to be liked by others.

It is human nature. Part of our collective behavior.

Even during the mostly dark days of Cub fandom (the 1960s, 1970s), Cubs fans still liked the players on their team.

The reason for that was a) there were players who were always upbeat (Ernie Banks); b) there were players who really showed they enjoyed the game (Ron Santo); c) there were quiet professionals who performed well (Billy Williams); d) there were players who were workmen like, blue collar types (Rick Reuschel); and e) players who took accountability for their mistakes and promised to do better (Fergie Jenkins).

It is easy to be loyal when the team that you root for is out there hustling, trying to do their best, not whining or making excuses, and accountable to their fans. You really can't fault a person who is doing his best.

So even when the Cubs had bad teams during those eras, the likability factor was still strong in the fan base. Some fans embraced the American connection to the underdog. The Cubs were underdogs for most of current fans childhoods.

Yes, times have changed. There is more money pouring through the gates. Players are no longer part-time professionals but multi-millionaires. Teams are more interested in their "brand" revenue than wins or losses.

During the Ricketts era, it is getting increasingly difficult to like the Cubs. The touted moves for new players have fallen fairly flat. There are no "exciting" players. There are a few fan favorites, like Darwin Barney, who hustle in the field, but are major flaws that would not make them starters on any other club. There is a growing rumbling of excuses and management snips especially by pitchers who have seen their staffs traded liked day old fish at the seaport market.

The Cubs players are pretty bland and non-descript. They have little personality. They play a boring brand of baseball (no emphasis on hit-n-run, steals, taking an extra base, spectacular defense, etc.). Some would say they have just been "going through the motions" for most of the past two seasons.

And the marketing campaign that new, young, fresh, exciting talent is "coming soon" is like a fading billboard in a corn field that said "coming soon: amusement park" to the local kids. It does not help the here and now.

Winning can bring back fans. But how a team wins is just as important for the stability of the team fan base. The Cubs currently have no direction in dealing with their fan base.

October 23, 2013

THE FORMULA

The St. Louis Cardinals have advanced to the World Series. Again. Nothing distresses long time Cubs fans than the success of the rival Cardinals.

The Cards are a hybrid franchise: a small market team that has a big market fan base. They are what some called a "middle market" team as a result.

A Card fan breaks down the consistency of the organization as follows:

Strong farm.
Low-priced homegrown talent.

Smart trades.

Smart free agent signings.

Smart non-signings (cough, Pujols, cough)

Good managers.

3 million+ a year through the gates. 


A good farm system is only as strong as the players in it. For that to happen, the front office must have an excellent scouting staff to find the diamonds in the rough. The organization must have a clear, set and consistent training method for all their minor league players. The Dodgers had a successful track record of teaching fundamentals and how they expected their players to play in the big leagues. This means that the minor league system must have coaching staffs that a) buy into to team training program; b) have the teaching skills to convey those principles; and c) the experience to make adjustments to help players succeed at each level of progress.

The major league minimum salary is about $500,000. The average major league player salary in 2013 was $3.65 million. Basic math shows that if you can plug in two or three home grown players on the 25 man roster (bench, bullpen or otherwise), you immediately save $9.3 million in payroll (which can be used to sign free agents).

Smart trades mean that you get what you expected in return. Trading veterans for prospects is more risky than trading prospects for a known commodity like a veteran. Trades are most important to fill immediate roster needs.

Free agent signings have two components: the age of the player (his expected performance life over his contract) and the deal (salary times years). Many organizations got caught in the trap of signing desirable free agents for extended years beyond their useful contributions. They "overpaid" in the back end in order to sign the player to the here and now play off run. Short sighted FA signings usually cost a team in the long run because it eats up the budget and causes inflexibility in future roster moves.

Many teams believe it is important to re-sign your club's own free agents. The fans have a connection with their star players, so some teams listen to the marketing department and re-sign players who may be over the hill but our popular with the fan base. Again, this is another potential trap that will cost a team in the long run.

There is a debate whether a baseball manager really affects the win loss totals. In some statistical analysis and general discussion, the consensus appears to be that a good manager can win a team 1 or 2 games per year; a great manager could win a team 3 or 4 games per year; but a bad manager can lose a team 4 games or more. This proposition presumes that the manager is using his roster to the best of his player's abilities. That the manager is putting his players in the best position to succeed. Generations ago, teams kept their managers for decades. There was some consistency that the field boss would not change. Players came to expect what their manager wanted from them. Today, managers have short tenures because of their win-loss records have a major impact on attendance or fan interest (the bread and butter finances of a team).

A consistent product on the field, with good fundamentals will bring fans to the ball park to support their team. Every fan buys a ticket to the game with the expectation that his team is going to win that day. Even if his team loses, the fan will be happy if his team was competitive, that the players hustled on the field, and that they did not lose on some bonehead mistakes. Fan loyalty is a hard thing to break unless the organization really screws up the way the team plays on the field.

NOT A GOOD TIME

Chicago based sports media columnist Ed Sherman recently reported that the both the WGN-TV and WGN radio contracts are up for renewal in 2014.

A couple of key points he made:

1. Just before the Tribune sold the team to Ricketts in 2009, it restructured the radio-TV deals with its affiliates, probably to increase the "value" i.e. broadcast revenues in order to get a higher sale price. It is estimated that the station pays $10 million per season, which is on the high end for MLB teams. Now this short term boost in fees is about to expire. 

2. The Yankees recently renewed its radio broadcast deal for $15-20 million. That means that the Yankees receive approximately $123,000 per game for radio rights fees. For the broadcaster to break even, it would have to charge at least $6,000 per commercial break during the entire game cast (pre-and-post included).

Sherman reports that WGN is looking for a large discount from the Cubs on rights fees because a) the team has been dreadful the last two years, and b) ratings and revenue from broadcasts are way down. He states that WGN has been losing money on its Cub broadcasts.

This puts ownership in another partially self-inflicted bind. Another traditional revenue source, broadcast fees, is set to go down just like attendance. There is no other sports station in Chicago that can put the Cubs as a premier program. A move to an FM station would dramatically decrease the broadcast range and therefore produce lower overall ratings and ad revenues. The decline in the general public's interest in the Cubs, based upon their losing seasons, continues to effect all baseball operations.

Further, it is not a good time to try to increase broadcast revenue in Chicago. The metro-area still has not recovered from the collapse of the construction industry and home sales due to the fiscal cliff. Unemployment and underemployment are above national averages. Disposal income is tight. Corporate advertising in all local media is down. Ricketts bought the team at its peak during a financial bubble and now has to bail water in a sinking economic downturn.






FULL STORY

Losing: Sagging ratings, expensive right fees have WGN-AM looking to rework deal with Cubs

My latest Chicago Tribune column is on WGN-AM 720 and the Cubs.
You also can access via my Twitter feed.
From the column.
*******
If the Cubs want to continue their long relationship with WGN-AM 720, dating back to 1925, they likely will have to do it at a reduced price.
Strapped with an expensive rights deal and sharply declining ratings because of the Cubs’ struggles on the field, WGN is exercising an option to re-open their contract with the team.
Broadcast sources say WGN is losing significant money on the Cubs broadcasts, with listeners and advertisers tuning out a team that has lost 197 games in the last two years.
Cubs games still will air on the station in 2014, but beyond that, the two sides will have to agree on a new deal.
WGN-AM President Jimmy de Castro declined to discuss any of the specifics of the situation. However, he stressed several times that he hopes the Cubs continue to be on WGN.
“Like any contract, there are periods where you do a business analysis,” de Castro said. “Both the Cubs and WGN are looking at it. We love our partnership and we hope it continues forever. The contract calls for us to take a look at it and we’re going to do that.”
In other words: Forever will end abruptly if the money isn’t right for WGN.
Broadcast insiders say the current contract calls for WGN to pay as much as $10 million per year to Cubs (“Maybe more,” said one source), making it one of the most expensive in Major League Baseball.
The Yankees recently signed a deal with WFAN in New York, calling for an annual payout estimated in the $15-20 million range.
The Cubs reportedly did a new contract with WGN in 2009 in advance of Tribune Co. selling the team to the Ricketts family. Back then, the Cubs were one year removed from back-to-back playoff appearances in 2007-08. They still were considered a hot commodity, attracting strong ratings on both TV and radio.
- See more at: http://www.shermanreport.com/chicago-radio-news-sagging-ratings-expensive-right-fees-have-wgn-am-looking-to-rework-deal-with-cubs/#sthash.A2CATBZK.dpuf






FULL STORY

Losing: Sagging ratings, expensive right fees have WGN-AM looking to rework deal with Cubs

My latest Chicago Tribune column is on WGN-AM 720 and the Cubs.
You also can access via my Twitter feed.
From the column.
*******
If the Cubs want to continue their long relationship with WGN-AM 720, dating back to 1925, they likely will have to do it at a reduced price.
Strapped with an expensive rights deal and sharply declining ratings because of the Cubs’ struggles on the field, WGN is exercising an option to re-open their contract with the team.
Broadcast sources say WGN is losing significant money on the Cubs broadcasts, with listeners and advertisers tuning out a team that has lost 197 games in the last two years.
Cubs games still will air on the station in 2014, but beyond that, the two sides will have to agree on a new deal.
WGN-AM President Jimmy de Castro declined to discuss any of the specifics of the situation. However, he stressed several times that he hopes the Cubs continue to be on WGN.
“Like any contract, there are periods where you do a business analysis,” de Castro said. “Both the Cubs and WGN are looking at it. We love our partnership and we hope it continues forever. The contract calls for us to take a look at it and we’re going to do that.”
In other words: Forever will end abruptly if the money isn’t right for WGN.
Broadcast insiders say the current contract calls for WGN to pay as much as $10 million per year to Cubs (“Maybe more,” said one source), making it one of the most expensive in Major League Baseball.
The Yankees recently signed a deal with WFAN in New York, calling for an annual payout estimated in the $15-20 million range.
The Cubs reportedly did a new contract with WGN in 2009 in advance of Tribune Co. selling the team to the Ricketts family. Back then, the Cubs were one year removed from back-to-back playoff appearances in 2007-08. They still were considered a hot commodity, attracting strong ratings on both TV and radio.
- See more at: http://www.shermanreport.com/chicago-radio-news-sagging-ratings-expensive-right-fees-have-wgn-am-looking-to-rework-deal-with-cubs/#sthash.A2CATBZK.dpuf

October 22, 2013

BARRIERS

One of the possible needs the Cubs have in their next manager is the ability to speak Spanish. With the Cubs emphasis on Latin American international prospects, this may be the key to the final development of those players.

"If you seriously aspire to be a manager in the big leagues, there is a baseball "book" that one must learn. Alongside that book, you must practice Spanish," former Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said during a 2012   interview with ESPNdeportes.com. "Of 25 players on each roster, sometimes there are between eight and 15 players who speak Spanish. If you can't talk on a personal level with them, you take the risk of losing one thing you could fix if you speak his language."

The importance of speaking Spanish is to be able to connect with players. "I don't think it's something I thought would help in the game," says La Russa, whose father is Italian and mother is Spanish. "But it was important to establish a relationship with the Latino baseball player. I always thought that when you spoke to them [in Spanish], they felt they would not get confused, that they wouldn't understand something different. And I always thought they felt more at home."

Dusty Baker agrees. "The ability to speak two languages, especially Spanish, helps me not only to be able to communicate, but also to understand their problems, their culture," Baker says. "When you speak to them in their language, you have a deeper understanding of where they come from, and you show respect and esteem." Baker, Mike Scioscia, Mike Matheny,  and Joe Maddon learned to speak Spanish fluently. La Russa and Lou Piniella, who grew up in bilingual families in Tampa, Fla., both spoke Spanish during their long managerial tenures. Even so, there may still be tension and blow ups between manager and player, as with Piniella and hot-tempered Carlos Zambrano.

Manny Acta, Fredi Gonzalez and Ozzie Guillen -- natives of Venezuela, Cuba and the Dominican Republic, respectively -- are fluent in Spanish. They can also relate better to young Latin players who need to make significant adjustments in their life in professional ball in the U.S.

There is a cultural barrier when Latin players come to America. English is the predominate language and American way of doing things may come as a shock. But some Latin players think there is a lack of respect if a coach or manager cannot speak to them in their own native language.

The future road map for the Cubs travels through Latin America for talent. A Spanish speaking manager and/or bench coach would be useful tool in rebuilding the major league roster. But having a non-speaking manager has not stopped other clubs from making the playoffs. The Cubs still need to find the next great manager to lead the team.

October 20, 2013

CHARMED REASONING

When Tom Ricketts and his family bought the Cubs, he had the grand assumption that the Cubs drew 3 million fans whether the team won or lost. The place was always packed with a diverse fan base. First, there were the older traditional baseball fans who brought friends and family to the park to pass on the game to the next generations. Second, there were the corporate suite companies who used season tickets to wine and dine customers or vendors. Third, there were the young North Avenue beach crowd who found that one could soak up the sun, beers and babes in the bleachers rather than ruining some cargo shorts on a lake beach.

There were two consistent factors for the Tribune's late era success: the marketing of the historic charm of Wrigley Field and the free flowing tavern atmosphere in the stands.

Win or lose, the people had a good time or good experience.

But then, the financial collapse threw the economy into a deep recession. Such an economic event changed the reasoning that people would come to Wrigley win or lose. Corporations immediately cut back on travel and entertainment budgets, including sporting events. The free spending young bleacher crowd suddenly found themselves laid off and back living with their parents, unable to afford the party lifestyle around Wrigley. The seniors on fixed income saw their investment returns dry up when interest rates were artificially dropped to zero return. Large out-of-town group bus sales dropped off with the spike in gasoline prices and the new cost of living with real inflation in the grocery aisles.

The average American and average business had to circle their wallets to really budget their resources. Luxury items such as sporting events had to take a back seat to paying mortgages, credit card bills, or school expenses. Many people found their nest eggs, their home equity, vanish. They topped out on the debt limits. They found themselves working paycheck to paycheck. Small business owners also felt the hit of late payments, slowing orders and bankruptcy.

Ricketts bought the Cubs at a premium price during the final stages of a inflated financial bubble. His highly leveraged purchase still continues to drain resources from Cub operations. The Cubs payroll has declined under his ownership because he said it was "unsustainable."

So in this current economic environment, Ricketts has an ambitious plan to renovate Wrigley Field. He says he needs to "save" the old 100 year old landmark as part of his $300-500 million project. The Tribune deferred most of the required maintenance at Wrigley for decades. The park does need serious attention. But the boa constrictor wrapped around the Save Wrigley marketing campaign is the Ricketts family's real estate develop in and around Wrigley Field.

If one goes back and reads a year's worth of Crain's Chicago Business, or the newspapers local business sections, you will find that various businesses continue to have a difficult time in the Chicago metro area. Long established restaurants and bars have closed. Downtown hotel construction came to a halt with the decline of convention tourism. Several hotels went into foreclosure/bankruptcy reorganization. Service businesses like fitness clubs have high overhead costs and transient clientele. The general consensus is now is not a great time to start a new business from scratch.

But the Ricketts redevelopment plan incorporates all of those risky ventures: new restaurants, new bars, a new hotel, a new fitness club, new retail stores. Does it make a lot of sense to flood the Lakeview neighborhood with so many new business operations?

The idea that the redevelopment tied to the charm of Wrigley Field will generate new revenue for everyone is a myth. The Ricketts and the existing businesses are all competing for the same fan dollar. With more than 600,000 fans not showing up for games in the last two season, there are actually less fan dollars coming into the neighborhood.

Another factor that is not discussed often is that the actual changes in Wrigley Field itself may in fact ruin the charm of the ball park. Traditionalists and landmark preservationists liked that Wrigley did not have an electronic jumbotrons or large advertising signs that modern parks have plastered in their outfields. If that part of the fan base dislikes what Wrigley will become, they will stay home. Those were the type of fans who came to the game, win or lose, just to be part of the Wrigley heritage.

Ricketts reason for spending hundreds of millions of dollars is to create new revenue sources. You have to spend money to make money. However, most of these new revenue sources will not help the baseball team. The Cubs franchise is merely a sideline observer to the family's business glasnost.

The same failed reasoning that the Cubs always sell out can be applied to the redevelopment tied to the old charm of Wrigley Field. If one dramatically changes Wrigley Field, for some there will be no reason to come to games.

October 19, 2013

INFIELD HELP

As we discussed, the Cubs upper level minor league system has no upgrade in talent for the 2014 Cubs major league roster.

With the front office focus on the low minors and acquiring multiple prospects in trades, the Cubs have only looked to the second tier of free agency to fill gaps in the starting pitching corps.

However, it is apparent that the Cubs infield underperformed as a unit.  The third base platoon may have put up respectable gross numbers in some areas, its BA and OBP were below par. Rizzo at first base was in the middle of the league in terms of production (which shows how down the 1B position is in the NL). Castro's woes at short put him near the bottom with a negative 0.1 WAR. And Barney was was of the worst overall starters at second, despite his stellar defensive stats.

So if the Cubs are going to at least "try" to make an effort to show some life on the corpse that is the Cubs, lest not another Edwin Jackson signing, but to shore up the infield via free agency, here are the names that are available (player age):

Second basemen
Yuniesky Betancourt (32)
Robinson Cano (31)
Alexi Casilla (29)
Jamey Carroll (40)
Omar Infante (32)
Kelly Johnson (32)
Nick Punto (36)
Brian Roberts (36)
Ramon Santiago (34)
Skip Schumaker (34)

Shortstops
Clint Barmes (35)
Willie Bloomquist (36)
Jamey Carroll (40)
Alexi Casilla (29)
Stephen Drew (31)
Rafael Furcal (36)
Alex Gonzalez (36)
Cesar Izturis (34)
John McDonald (39)
Jhonny Peralta (32)
Brendan Ryan (32)

Third basemen
Yuniesky Betancourt (32)
Jamey Carroll (40)
Eric Chavez (36)
Jerry Hairston Jr. (38)
Brandon Inge (37)
Casey McGehee (31)
Placido Polanco (38)
Mark Reynolds (30)
Juan Uribe (34)
Kevin Youkilis (35)
Michael Young (37)

The Cubs have already said that they will not spend big money in the free agent market this off-season. Since the Cubs are "all in" on the youth movement,  none of the 33 year old or above players will be on the radar. Looking at the 30 or under crowd, we find only Casilla and Reynolds.

Casilla can play short and second. In his 8 years with the Twins and Orioles, he has a career .248 BA, 12 HR, 157 RBI, .302 OBP, 80 SB and career 4.1 WAR. Last year he only hit a measly .214.

Reynolds can play third and first. In his 7 years, lastly with the Orioles and Yanks, he has a career .233 BA, 202 HR, 586 RBI, .300 OBP, 52 SB and career 6.3 WAR. Last season he hit 21 HR, 67 RBI with a .220 BA.

Both Casilla and Reynolds are not prime free agents. They both grade out to bench-utility level players at this point in their careers. Reynolds has always had the power stroke but it is a feast and famine approach to hitting which Epstein-sabremetrics people abhor.

So it is highly unlikely the Cubs will upgrade their starting infield next year via the free agent market.

October 18, 2013

OVERPAYING FOR NEED

The Chicago White Sox made a Cuban defector the highest paid international free agent in the history of the sport.

MLB.com reports that the White Sox will sign Cuban first baseman Jose Dariel Abreu for six years and $68MM, The deal is pending a physical. This deal easily beats the Dodgers Yasiel Puig's 7 year/$42 million deal.

Abreu, 26,  set a Cuban home run record in 2010-2011 and was named league MVP. He had played five seasons in the Cuban Serie Nacional through 2008 hitting .295 and slugging .467. After 48 games in 2008-2009, he was batting .345/.368/.600, earning the infielder a spot on Cuba's WBC squad.  He did not make the final cut and finished the season with a .346/.441/.630 batting line.

In 2009-10,  Abreu had his best year yet, hitting .399/.555/.822 with 82 runs, 30 homers, 76 RBI and 74 walks to 49 strikeouts in 89 games. He tied for 6th in the Serie Nacional in runs, tied for third with 25 doubles, tied  for second in home runs,  was third with 235 total bases, tied for 4th in walks, led with 32 intentional walks,  was second in average, and led in slugging percentage.  He was named the All-Star first baseman.

Abreu continued to improve in 2011-12 with one of the greatest seasons in Cuban history. He hit .453/.597/.986 with 79 runs, 93 RBI and 33 home runs in only 66 games. Despite missing 23 games due to bursitis in his shoulder, he broke Despaigne's home run record with 33. 

In 2012-13,  Abreu produced at a .382/.535/.735 clip with 13 home runs, 37 runs, 36 RBI and 37 walks in a shortened 42 game season.

Abreu has plenty of international game experience. His team won the 2010 Intercontinental Cup,   their first Gold in an international tournament in three years. He hit .292/.320/.500.He was the All Star first baseman in the 2011 Baseball World Cup hitting .442/.478/.721 with 3 home runs and 10 runs in 11 games. In the 2013 WBC,  he  was 9 for 25 with a walk, double, 3 home runs, 6 runs and 9 RBI in six games.

Front offices believe Abreu is a "finished" product ready for major league action. However, several scouts believe that Abreu has holes in his swing and is a poor defender. He was been compared to Ryan Howard or Barry Bonds in power.  Some experts have had concerns about Abreu's bat speed,  his athleticism and defense skills. As such, a few project Abreu more of an Adam Dunn type player: batting around .240, with 25-30 HR per season.

Why would the White Sox overpay for the Cuban version of Dunn, a player already on their roster? First, Dunn is in the last year of his disappointing contract. Second, this means Paul Konerko will not be back with the club. Third, Abreu has more upside potential than either Dunn or Konerko at his point in their careers. Fourth, Abreu is locked up for what should be his "prime" productive years as a player. If Abreu can give the Sox a jolt like Puig did for the Dodgers, then the contract makes sense.

PROSPECT AGE PROGRESSION

Brian Creagh of an SB nation affiliate researched the ages of all the minor leaguers in 2013 to determine a starting point for prospect evaluations.


His analysis gave the threshold or "mean" age of prospects at each minor league level:

Level Age Threshold
R 16.71
A- 19.13
A 19.59
A+ 20.34
AA 21.39
AAA 22.65


The reason for finding a mean age at each development level help determine whether a prospect's age at current level helps or hurts that player's stock. Age is a valuable factor to use because it is factor because the average major league player's career is relatively short. It also shows a maturity factor for younger prospects handling the pressure at various levels. Age is also a factor in the level of competition throughout a prospect pre-professional career. For example, a player performing better than his older peers at one level could be considered a better prospect long term.

The average age at rookie ball would be around 17, which is high school, which makes sense. Most high schoolers do not have major competition in their team sport. Low A ball bumps up to 19, which is the first promotion for high school draft talent. This area includes short season leagues. At A ball, the age jumps about 1/2 year to 19.5, which again makes sense. High A ball (like Daytona), the age is just above 20, which would be about 2.5 years for a raw high school player or a junior college draftee. Double A is about 21 years old which would be first promotion for junior college type prospect, and for a college senior. AAA is around 23 years old, which is the large age gap because players reaching AAA may be position blocked at the major league level. But a 23 year old would be a college senior (redshirt) or senior draftee approximately 2 years in the organization.

So the average promotion path from the raw data is fairly consistent with common sense.
A rookie league prospect will take approximately 3.5 years to reach High A on the verge of AA.
An A level prospect will take approximately 2 years to reach AA. (This gives a young rookie player 1.5 years to get on track).
A AA prospect is expected to be promoted to AAA in a little over a year.

Even a general rule of thumb promotion curve of one year at each level, a 17 year old rookie would be expected (or hoped) to excel at each level: 18 at low A ball, 19 at  high A ball, 20 at AA and 21 at AAA. And this is why many scouts and GMs no longer use the "prospect" tag on a player who is 24 or 25.

 We get the perception that the Chicago teams are holding back their prospects in the minors. But the Cubs had four players age 23 on the major league roster this year: Rizzo, Castro, Lake and Watkins, the the former two having previous big league experience. If one argues that pitchers take longer, the Cubs had only 24 year olds make brief appearances this last season: Grimm and Cabrera.

The White Sox seem to promote quicker and more toward the norm. The White Sox had six players 23 or under on their roster this season: A. Garcia, Semien, L. Garcia, Gonzalez, pitchers E. Johnson and Webb. The White Sox also had three pitchers with a lot of major league experience: Sale, Quintana and Reed.

The often named prospects in the Cub system (mean age) and their ages:

Daytona (A/20.34): Bryant (21), Soler (21), Vogelbach (20), Baez (20), who was promoted to AA in season.

Tennessee (AA/21.39)): Ha (22), Szczur (24), Alcantara (22), Jokich (24), Ramirez (24), Kendricks (24), who was promoted to AAA in season.

It may more a factor of where an initial draft choice is placed than age with the Cubs. It may be a gambit on the Cubs number game where the shear volume will statistically produce more talent. Holding back talent in lower levels may make those prospects appear to be better (against younger competition). It also may be a tell that certain prospects hit their ceiling at a certain level and their careers stall there for several seasons, hence the older age level. So if you draft AND develop correctly, there is no reason why the Cubs or White Sox cannot move their best prospects quickly through to the majors.

October 16, 2013

BIG MONEY TEAMS

The four finalists in Baseball's post season have one thing in common: high payrolls.

Even the mid market Cardinals spent at the end $125 million in payroll, which is a top 10 spending team. The Dodgers spent their new billion dollar cable deal to try to buy the Series, but money cannot get you everything (see, the Tigers the past few years).

But in the postseason, the payroll numbers tilt toward where the real money is spent: on starting pitching. Pitching can dominate the post season as teams begin to play tight.

This is the time where reputations are enhanced for starters like Verlander, Lester, Kershaw, Wainwright or Sanchez. This is why these guys command $100 million plus contracts.  They are truly definitions of "aces."

It has been true since the start of the game that a great starting pitcher can sell game day tickets at any ball park.  It is probably the allure that the best pitcher in the game is throwing that day; and that as a fan you could see something special like a strikeout record, a no-hitter or a perfect game.

The network is probably hoping for a Dodger=Red Sox finale to get the biggest TV markets on board for the Series. Likewise, a Detroit-St. Louis match up would leave both coasts outside the main event which the network would find unappealing to the causal fan.

Baseball is a profitable industry which can support those lofty ace pitcher contracts.

But the market between the big money teams and the bottom feeders is growing. The Astros entire payroll was less than $55 million, a number that would only pay half of a stud ace's contract. Or, in perspective, pay for less than 2.5 ace starters in the rotation.

There is always the question that looms over the sport: how long can the television money increase when viewership continues to splinter among cable, internet and mobile distractions? The era of the team-centric local cable channel may be the thing of the past as the pioneering Yankees began to divest from their golden goose, the YES Network. 

Which puts more emphasis on team owners unwilling to spend $125 million per season on talent to play the "small market card:" try to find diamonds in the pile of prospects who you can have under contract for 5 years at reasonable contract terms. Tampa Bay has been successful at this type of program, trading away quality starters like James Shield and Matt Garza (and position players like Carl Crawford and BJ Upton) before their price tags would skyrocket. If the Tampa Bay model was so easy, every team would do it and have payrolls under $75 million. (The Rays payroll ended at $87.8 million this season)

October 15, 2013

SCAPEGOATS

We have come upon the 10th anniversary of the infamous Cub meltdown in the 2003 NLCS.

The Cubs were five outs away from going to the World Series for the first time since 1945. Wrigley Field and the surrounding streets were packed with fans. The Cubs took an early lead in Game 6, with rookie Mark Prior mowing down the Marlins. Then in the 8th inning, myth and aghast took over.

ESPN showed its 2003 special last night, and ComcastSports Chicago will show their special tonight.

The direct consequence of these specials and other media coverage is that myth will continue to overshadow the reality of that series and the alleged fan interference play.

There was no fan interference. The biggest part of the myth is that there was fan interference on a fly ball. There was an umpire less than 10 feet away from the play, looking directly at it, and he did not call fan interference. By rule, a fan interference on a fly ball in the field of play would have resulted in the batter being called out. Since that did not occur, the fact is that no fan interference happened on that play.

However, Moises Alou's temper tantrum incited the crowd. Alou was never a great defensive left fielder. By all agreements, he was below average. It would have been a difficult catch for a better outfielder. His arm was bent with his glove over the wall. He even admits that "six arms" were reaching for the ball, not just one fan in head phones. The ball did not land on the field of play but into the front row seats, where another fan got the ball. Steve Lyons on the Fox broadcast telestrated that there were about six fans reaching for the ball, which was natural, normal occurrence. It was a historic playoff game so fans were on their feet. Eric Karros, the Cub first baseman, thought nothing about the play, until he saw Alou's reaction. That got Prior to point down the line for umpire assistance. Manager Dusty Baker popped his head out of the dugout, but did nothing to calm the situation. Rightfielder Sammy Sosa would later remark the Alou reaction got the team unfocused for the rest the game.

Prior had thrown more than 112 pitches at that time. Suddenly, there was a "incident" that caused the place to change its vibe. Broadcaster Steve Stone believes today that even though Prior was pitching well, someone from the bench, the manager or pitching coach, needed to go out to the mound and get the team back on the same page. That was not done. The lack of team focus became apparent shortly thereafter when shortstop Alex Gonzalez booted a routine ground ball which opened the flood gate for an 8 run Marlin inning.

The Wrigley crowd turned into a stunned lynch mob against the fan who did nothing wrong. For those who still believe to this day that "fan interference" cost the Cubs a championship are still fooling themselves. The Cubs LOST three games in a row to lose that NLCS. The Cubs were up 3-1 in the Marlin series. The Cubs hosted Game 7. The Cubs were leading the Marlins 5-3 going into the 5th inning (18 outs from the World Series). What most people forget is that Kerry Wood walked the pinch hitter (9th spot in the order) to lead off that inning. Then the Marlins formidable lineup of Pierre, Castillo, I. Rodriguez, Cabrera, Lee and Lowell clipped Wood for 3 runs in that inning that gave the Marlins and the lead they held to the end.

The incident in Game 6 played no part in the Cubs Game 7 loss. Or if it did, it was on the Cub players like Alou and Aramis Ramirez, who after Game 6, booked a flight home to the Dominican Republic to leave after Game 7. Some people would say that showed a lack of confidence or heart when players have checked out on the season with an important game to play. There were plenty of other instances where Baker mismanaged games. He did not trust his bullpen so he rode his starters. He did not manage Game 7 like a Game 7, win or go home, when he left Wood to struggle in the important, game changing 5th inning. The bottom line is that the players did not perform as well as the Marlins in crunch time. But instead of accepting the blame for their failure, the Cubs, including Baker, pointed the finger at one fan, forever seizing on a scapegoat to deflect criticism.

A scapegoat is an innocent victim who is used to absolve others of their misdeeds. If one goes back to 2004, you can begin to see the sea change of fan emotions toward their lovable Cubs. The curse began to turn into curses. High expectations for the Cubs did not pan out. In 2004, the Cubs for the most part were not very likeable. They groused about their broadcasters, they made excuses in losses. They began to underperform. As a result, some fans began to feel regret over the Game 6 incident.

So the Cub myth of the Billy Goat curse had morphed into a media circus about a fan scapegoat costing the team a championship. And this attention to find a scapegoat continues on. During the final stages of the Tribune era, fans were constantly on Alfonso Soriano. He was supposed to win championships. Despite being the best player on the team, he was the scapegoat when the Piniella Cubs laid a goose egg in two post-season appearances. The whole situation wore Piniella out to the point of early retirement. Soriano, and his large contract, was blamed by fans for the Cubs sudden fall from winning to perpetual losers. The team could not make any moves because of the budget constraints of Soriano's deal. This is also a myth, because an owner can authorize as much spending as he wants in baseball. It was a convenient trap by the new owner to decrease payroll which he called "unsustainable" while at the same time diverting family resources to massive real estate projects around Wrigley Field.

A scapegoat takes attention away from the real problems. No matter what the front office says, Dale Sveum was the scapegoat for the team's poor performance for the last two years. Sveum was hired because he was a hitting coach; he played the major league infield position; he was supposed to be a good instructor-teacher for the young players. The Plan was to eventually seed the roster with homegrown minor league talent. But the whole "plan" assumes that the organization has the minor league scouting and development gurus to make that happen. Since Castro and Rizzo regressed badly this last season, and fans readily saw this fact, something had to give in order to deflect decreasing ticket sales and to try to capture waning fan interest while the rebuild stalls.

Scapegoats are now part of the Cub legacy. It is not a kind way of running a sports franchise.

INTERNAL UPGRADES

It is pretty clear that the Cubs could look to upgrade every position on their roster.

In fact, most GMs take a critical view of their past season to determine where the critical areas that need an immediate upgrade and how to accomplish that task.

SECOND BASE: Darwin Barney is a fan favorite. He is a good defender, but a horrible bat.
Alternative: Logan Watkins was brought up for a long stretch of the season, but sat mostly on the bench, getting only 42 PA in 2013. He hit like Barney did, around .211. So this does not appear to be an internal upgrade.

THIRD BASE: Luis Valbuena became the default third baseman last season. But he has a poor batting average and average fielding skills.
Alternative: Donnie Murphy was taken off the waiver wire and suddenly found a power stroke, hitting 11 HR but only 23 RBI with a .255 BA. Some believe that a platoon at third base may be sufficient. The minors only have struggling Josh Vitters and Mike Olt at third base in AAA. Neither seems to be a likely candidate to upgrade the position next year.

LEFT FIELD: It would appear that Junior Lake became the default LF for the team, but tailed off in 64 games to hit only .284, 6 HR and 16 RBI.
Alternative: Brian Bogusevic, in 47 games, hit 6 HR, 16 RBI with a .272 BA. So, he is one in the same type player and not an upgrade.

CENTERFIELD: David DeJesus started the year in center, but it seems that Ryan Sweeney will be the starter next season. In 70 games, he hit .272 with 6 HR and 19 RBI.
Alternative: Bogusevic and Lake are the same reserve outfielder players in terms of production.The best minor league outfielders in Iowa were cut by the Cubs, Julio Borbon and Dave Sappelt.

FIRST BASE: Anthony Rizzo is a core player for the team, but he regressed poorly last season.
Alternative: The Cubs really have no depth at first base in the system. At AAA, Brad Nelson, 30,  hit .271 with 20 HR, 71 RBI but he has been 4 years removed since a small stint in the majors with the Brewers in 2009. He is not a viable alternative to Rizzo.

CATCHER: Wellington Castillo has become the main catcher for the Cubs, but he may have started some injury issues.
Alternative: The Cubs have no major league caliber catcher ready in the system.

SHORTSTOP: Starlin Castro is another core player for the future, who regressed this season.
Alternative: The buzz is around Javier Baez, who tore up A and AA ball this past season. However, Baez is still a full year away from promotion to the majors. He still needs to work on his defense. But fans can see an offensive production upgrade from Baez over Castro.

RIGHT FIELD: Nate Schierholtz had a career year because for the first time in his career he was a starter. Well, mostly a starter as he played in 137 games and hit .251, 21 HR, 68 RBI. Those are not great power numbers from a power position.
Alternative: There are no minor league or AAAA alternatives in the system because the other main outfielders in Iowa, Darnell McDonald and Ty Wright, did not show much power or RBI production.

So it is pretty clear that the Cubs have no internal options to upgrade any position in 2014. And since Theo Epstein said that the team was not going to spend on any significant free agents this off season, none of these positions appear will be upgraded by management.

October 14, 2013

PHIL ER UP!

If history continues to repeat itself, the Cubs will sign one or two starting pitchers this off-season with the sole purpose of rehabbing them in order to flip them at the trade deadline. Usual candidates include pitchers coming off arm surgery, or who have not had a good season in three years.

The free agent starter crop (age) includes:

Bronson Arroyo (37)
Scott Baker (32)
Erik Bedard (35)
A.J. Burnett (37)
Chris Carpenter (39)
Bruce Chen (37)
Bartolo Colon (41)
Scott Feldman (30)
Gavin Floyd (31)
Jeff Francis (33)
Freddy Garcia (37)
Jon Garland (34)
Matt Garza (30)
Chad Gaudin (31)
Roy Halladay (37)
Jason Hammel (31)
Dan Haren (33)
Roberto Hernandez (33)
Tim Hudson (38)
Phil Hughes (28)
Phil Humber (30)
Josh Johnson (30)
Jeff Karstens (31)
Scott Kazmir (30)
Hiroki Kuroda (39)
Colby Lewis (34)
Ted Lilly (38)
Tim Lincecum (30)
Paul Maholm (32)
Shaun Marcum (32)
Jason Marquis (35)
Daisuke Matsuzaka (33)
Randy Messenger (32)
Ricky Nolasco (31)
Roy Oswalt (35)
Mike Pelfrey (30)
Ervin Santana (31)
Jason Vargas (31)
Edinson Volquez (30)
Chien-Ming Wang (34)

Several pitchers are poised for long term, big money contracts: Arroyo, J. Johnson, Garza, Nolasco, Pelfrey and Santana. These players are all off the Cub radar.

Also not in the mix are former Cub projects who have gone on to better things: Baker, Feldman, Maholm, Lilly, and Marquis.

You then have a crop of pitchers with down seasons who need to work through their issues: Volquez, Haren, Francis, Lincecum Hughes,and Kazmir.

Then you have the class of old pitchers whose time may have past: Kuroda, Hudson, Halladay, Garcia, Oswalt, Carpenter and Colon.

Then you have the pitchers with injuries or histories of injury problems: Floyd, Wang, and Garland.

Of all the pitchers on the list that fit the Cubs M.O. on scrapheap reclamation projects, Hughes, Humber and possibly Floyd fit the bill. Hughes was 4-15, 5.19 ERA last year for the Yankees. He has fallen out of favor and needs a change of venue (and less pressure) to regain his form. Humber is a former White Sox pitcher with a no-hitter on his resume, but has been lost for the last two seasons. He would come cheap. Floyd's last full year was in 2012 where he went 12-11, 4.29 ERA for the White Sox. And injury derailed his 2013 campaign early.

Given the Baker expensive debacle this year, I think the Cubs would look toward Hughes and Humber as 4th and 5th starters next year, with the idea of moving them at the trade deadline.

October 12, 2013

CUB AUTOPSY

Even when the Cubs fielded bad teams in the past, so long as players hustled and tried their best, fans were most forgiving of their "Lovable Losers."

But times have changed. Losing is not a viable option for players, management or fans.

The Epstein Era was supposed to change the losing culture that has engulfed the franchise for more than century of doom and gloom. But Epstein's two full seasons at the helm has led to a franchise record 197 losses. And the immediate future does not seem too bright.

The Cubs had 55 players in 2012 and 56 players in 2013 wear the uniform during the season. That is double the active roster for a team. The roster churn has to have some negative effect on the team. Pitchers like Jeff Samardzija are angry that 40 percent of the starting rotations were traded away. Conversely, management seems to take some pride in that accomplishment and the fact that 2.6 million tickets were sold to see the Cub product in 2013.

In a pass-fail world, how well has the Epstein major moves done for the Cubs?

1. The trade of Andrew Cashner for Anthony Rizzo.
Some people may argue that this is an "incomplete." But Cashner has come back from injury to become a middle rotation starter for the Padres. Rizzo was given a huge contract extension, then regressed badly this year. That may be a wash, but Rizzo was touted as a gold glove first baseman and nothing I have seen shows he has the instinct and positioning to become one.

2. The trade of Tyler Colvin and DJ LeMahieu for Ian Stewart and Casey Weathers.
FAILURE. Stewart may be the biggest bust in a decade. He was always injured, did not play third especially well, and then became a malcontent. Even though Colvin struggled in Colorado, LeMahieu would have been just as good as the casting call of journeymen infielders. Weathers has been a non-factor in the minors. The ramifications that the team did not replace Aramis Ramirez's production at third meant that the team has overcompensated in trying to find a young prospect for third (Josh  Vitters, Mike Alt, Christian Villeuneva, and Kris Bryant.)

3. The trade of Sean Marshall for Travis Wood and Dave Sappelt.
PASS. Anytime you can trade a reliever for a quality starter, it is a good deal. Sappelt amounted to nothing as a 6th AAAA outfielder. Marshall helped the Reds get to the playoffs as a lefty 8th inning specialist.

4. The hiring of manager Dale Sveum.
FAILURE. The new front office put all their manager candidates through a battery of tests and interviews to find the right person for the job. They chose Sveum over several other candidates. Sveum was not fired for his win-loss record, but because Epstein's two core youngsters, Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo, regressed this season. You can't have a manager in charge of a young team who cannot continue their talent development. But that is the reason why Sveum was hired in the first place. He was an experienced hitting coach and major league infielder. Even if you put more blame on the front office roster construction, that would also point to a failure by Epstein to give his chosen manager the tools to win.

5. The trade of Paul Maholm and Reed Johnson for Adroys Vizcaino and Jayne Chapman.
FAILURE. Maholm has been a quality left handed starter for the Braves while Vizcaino has yet to pitch in the majors after numerous setbacks from Tommy John surgery. There is no guarantee that Vizcaino will ever pitch for the Cubs, but Epstein staked his reputation on rehabbing injured pitchers into quality assets.

6. The trade of Matt Garza for Mike Olt, Justin Grimm, Neil Ramirez and C.J. Edwards.
PASS. The Cubs were never going to re-sign Garza, so team was in a bind to unload him. The front end of the deal seems suspect because Olt was terrible in his major league debut, and with post-concussion issues, he was awful at Iowa. Grimm is another one of those guys who has major league experience but stumbled badly (see Jake Arrieta) who the Cubs think they can turn around. The two low minor pitchers, Ramirez and Edwards, have potential but some scouts believe they may be projected only to bullpen pieces.

7. The trade of Ryan Dempster for Kyle Hendricks and Christian Villanueva.
PASS. Dempster was at the end of his career, and like Garza, the Cubs had no need to re-sign him. Hendricks turned out to be the Cubs minor league pitcher of the year, and will start in Iowa in 2014 as its Number One starter.

8. Construction of the 2012 and 2013 major league rosters.
FAILURE. The Cubs spent more than $232 million on major league payroll to get 127 wins or approximately $1.83 million per victory. In 2012, the Cubs had 12 position players with a 0 to negative WAR. In 2012, the team had 18 pitchers with a 0 to negative WAR. A total of 30 players were below replacement level (AAA) or more than half the total of all players that season. In 2013, the cubs had 10 position players with a 0 to negative WAR. In 2013, 14 pitchers had a 0 to negative WAR. A total of 24 players were below replacement level (AAA) or almost have the total of all players this year. Approximately 49 percent of the Cubs roster over the past two seasons was not major league talent.

Clearly, there has been more failures than successes in the Epstein era.

October 11, 2013

DARK CLOUD

If there is a dark cloud hovering over the Cubs, it may be tied to its loyal fan base.

The Cubs have sent out a notice requiring season ticket holders to put down an immediate deposit for next year's tickets. It signals that the team needs to accelerate its off-season cash flow after another losing season.

A losing season that showed a remarkable number of no-shows at games. It is estimated that out of the 2.6 million tickets sold for Wrigley games, 820,000 people did not show up to watch. Even if the no shows only spend an extra $10 during the game, that is $8.2 million in lost revenue (which was almost 10 percent of the opening day team payroll.)

But the more worrisome trend for the bean counters is that if those 820,000 no shows turn into non-ticket buyers. With the Cubs estimating that each patron is worth $25-$50 per head, that could turn into a $30.75 million revenue shortfall in 2014 if the Cubs paid attendance falls to 1.8 million.

The last time the Cubs fell to 1.8 million attendance was the last year of the Jim Frey era, in 1986, when the team finished 70-90 after two good previous seasons.

The idea of losing baseball income at the same time as spending hundreds of millions of dollars on construction projects is a huge lose-lose for the Cubs. No wonder the Cubs have not pushed forward with any major reconstruction projects this off-season.

The Cubs have been historically bad. Under Ricketts ownership, the team has amassed a record 375 losses in four years. Under Epstein's leadership, the Cubs have lost a record 197 games in two seasons. The closest previous mark was 193 losses in 1965-1966 and 1961-1962.

Supporters of The Plan continue to state that the Cubs had to lose games in order to rebuild their organization from the ground up. Except, that is a partial fallacy. The rebuilding of the minor league system by signing young prospects has little immediate impact on the major league roster. Yes, the team may lump all the costs and expenses of player development and MLB payrolls, but those aspects are separate and distinct. By lumping a new farm system with the current team, the Cubs have managed to divert attention to the major league roster towards the glowing reports of future stars.

But fans pay big money to watch a major league team play at Wrigley Field. And in the past four seasons, that has been a difficult proposition.

Also, the part of the fan base that continued to go to Wrigley Field just to go to Wrigley is also in decline. Older sentimental fans are reaching retirement age, on fixed incomes, and may not be able to afford season ticket packages. This has been reflected with the loss of large group sales during the summer from out-of-state tour groups. The problem is that this fan base will be lost because their Wrigley Field is going to dramatically change with the addition of a jumbotron and more signage.

Further, season ticket holders must now ponder whether the new front office actually can pull off their grand plan. Their major league talent evaluations and veteran signings have not been very good (as the team record shows). And it is a hard Castor oil pitch to tell existing season ticket holders that they should keep their seats for several more years of bad Cubs teams in order to have a front row perch when the prospects arrive to turn things around. It is no longer "Wait Till Next Year," but "Wait Several More Years." A premium ticket price to watch a AAA team is no bargain in any major league city.

The Cubs are coming to a narrow cross roads. The historic losing is turning off loyal fans. The Ricketts business model of full houses no matter what the team record has been shown to be a mistake. The transformation of Wrigley and the surrounding properties is no guarantee of success on the diamond. We may be watching a major market franchise fall through the mid-market team level to struggle as a small market team for years to come.

October 10, 2013

POST-SEASON AUTOPSY


MADDUX

Chicago sportswriter Bruce Levine last night gave CSN viewers a bombshell story.

For the entire hour, a dour David Kaplan was pining over Joe Girardi's decision to stay with the Yankees. Kaplan had been one of the vocal pundits who said that Girardi would be coming to Chicago. So in the discussions about a Plan B managerial search, none of the panelists were keen on A.J. Hinch or Manny Acta, who may be considered two of the worst candidates available.

At the end, Levine said if the Cubs wanted a high profile hire, it would be Maddux. But no Mike Maddux, the Ranger pitching coach who interviewed two years ago for the Cub job. But his brother, former Cub and Brave Greg Maddux.

Levine said he knows that Maddux wants to manager. He has no experience managing at any level. However, Levine said that if Maddux were to manage, he would have his brother as pitching coach, former manager Bobby Cox as his bench coach, and Henry Blanco as his bullpen coach. Levine said that he spoke to Cox who said he would be Maddux's bench coach.

Cox is one of the best managers in his era, winning in both Toronto and Atlanta. His career managerial record is 4508-2504, .556 winning percentage; 5 pennants and 1 World Series championship.

Mike Maddux is considered one of the better major league pitching coaches. However, when Greg Maddux was playing, he was probably the best pitching coach in the dugout. Many players have told stories about Maddux sitting on the bench and accurately predicting what the opponent pitcher was going to throw. Greg knew the art of pitching and strategy. He shared his views with younger players. That is how he was so effective. I always thought he would make an excellent pitching coach.

But he apparently wants to manage, but not do the dirty minor league apprenticeship that Ryne Sandberg had to endure to get his shot.  That adds to the risk of hiring Greg Maddux because even though he was a great pitcher, a good teammate, and person with a high baseball IQ, it is different trying to appease 25 different player personalities, try to instill a winning culture, and make in-game decisions as a manager.

If the Cubs hired Greg Maddux, it would be a high profile coup . . . . especially if his coaching staff would include Cox.

But there is no indication that the Cubs are interested in such a hire. The new Cub way is to toss out the old Cub tradition, as evidenced by the team throwing out 2011 Cub convention memorabilia and Ron Santo mementos in a dumpster outside Wrigley Field. A Maddux hire would put too much power in the manager and dilute the control that the front office wants to retain.

UPDATE: Kaplan tweeted this afternoon:

So I checked in w/Greg Maddux to see if he is interested in the Cubs job? "No thank you. I want to have time to be with family in summer."

October 9, 2013

SAY IT AIN'T SO, JOE!

If the Cubs management was on the same Kool-Aid boat as much of the Chicago media that Joe Girardi would be the next Cub skipper, then all hands on deck as that boat just sunk.

MLBTR reports that the Yankees announced that they have re-signed manager Joe Girardi to a four-year deal that will keep him in place as manager through the 2017 season.  Girardi, 48, was at the top of the Cubs' wish list this winter, but he'll be back in the Bronx for a seventh season in 2014.  Girardi will earn $16MM over the course of the deal plus bonuses, according to Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com

There is much egg on the face of Chicago columnists and TV pundits who had no doubt that Girardi would be the next Cub manager. Whatever their Cub and Girardi "sources" were, they were dead wrong.

And it should come as no surprise. Girardi is comfortable on the big stage, and the Yankees are Broadway. The Yankees are in a much better position to compete than the Cubs. The Yankees will spend $180 million next year, while the Cubs will fall to around $80 million. The Yankees have as much or more tradition than the Cubs. For professional reasons (wins, losses, pennants, championships, legacy), the Yankees offer more long term than do the Cubs to Girardi.

If Girardi was the sole Plan A for the Cubs, then there will be a big scramble to find a Plan B. The Cubs are now on course to find a new Dale Sveum Light, just as Dale Sveum turned into a Mike Quade Light.

OUTRIGHTS

The Cubs have begun to trim their protected 40-man roster.

MLBTR reports that the Cubs announced that OF Darnell McDonald, C J.C. Boscan, and RHP Trey McNutt cleared waivers and were outrighted to the minors and off the 40-man roster. In addition, RHP Rafael Dolis, RHP Zach Putnam and OF Thomas Neal were taken off the disabled list and outrighted off the 40-man roster. With these moves, the Cubs’ 40-man roster currently stands at 37 players.

To outright a player means a club  assigns a player to the club’s minor league affiliate without the right of recall. The player is removed from the 40-man roster.


A player assigned outright to the minor leagues for the first time in his career must accept the assignment. Thereafter, a player has the choice of:
  1. rejecting the assignment and becoming a free agent immediately, or
  2. accepting the assignment and become a free agent at the end of the season if he has not been returned to the 40-man roster.
A player with 3 years of Major League service may refuse an outright assignment and choose to become a free agent immediately or at the end of the season.

A player with 5 years of Major League service who refuses an outright assignment is entitled to the money due according to the terms of his contract.

Of the players moved, only two have been on the radar of Cub fans: Dolis and McNutt.

Dolis, 25, was a big reliever who had played 40 games for the Cubs in the last 3 seasons. He had a record of 2-5, 5.48 ERA in 44.1 IP. He had 4 saves, but a career 1.556 WHIP and negative 1.0 career WAR which shows he was plagued with control problems. This outright signals that Dolis is not in next year's plans.

McNutt, 24, was drafted in 2009 (32nd round) by the Cubs. He quickly moved up the minor league ladder to AA ball in 2010. But his career has stalled because of injuries and inconsistency. This year he went from AA and Rookie ball to post 2-5 record, 2 saves, in 29 GP, 33.1 IP with a 1.345 WHIP.

When a minor league player who is 24 or 25 has not established himself in the major leagues, he no longer has the "prospect" tag attached to his career path.  Teams do not count on "late bloomers" to be big or everyday contributors at the major league level. McNutt's path has curved toward a bullpen role, if any, in the future.