August 30, 2014

THE TIME LINE IS NOT HERE

Cubs president Theo Epstein told reporters that the team will have the financial wherewithal to add to the payroll in the coming years due to its young core of prospects playing at the major league level. The core prospects are on team friendly deals, several years away from arbitration or free agency.  Epstein said he never looks at one off-season and decides that he has to get something done that year, but he expects to add impact starting pitching from outside the organization in the next 18 to 24 months.

The latter part of the story is the key element. As media columnists and radio pundits "expect" that the core will ramp it up next year in collective production, they also "expect" the Cubs to pull the trigger and go out and sign two "impact" players, like a Jon Lester (who may cost $140 million or more). But Epstein is foreshadowing the opposite.

He is not going to commit to spending money this off-season. Eighteen months brings the Cubs to the trade deadline in 2016. And the outer limit is spring of 2017. But these goal posts can continue to move, farther away to 2020 (when the old local media deals expire).

So Epstein is quietly signaling that the front office is not convinced (rightly so) that the core will actually perform at a high enough level in the next two years to "justify" spending hundreds of millions of dollars on quality, proven starting pitchers.

 The Cubs rebuilding program has this built in Catch-22. The team does want to grow cheap, controllable players through their minor league system. In order to draft the best talent, the major league team needs to lose. Losing does not help sign talent in the free agent market. Once the prospects arrive at Wrigley, there is no guarantee if any or all will become impact major leaguers. If the team's new core does not pan out, then there is no reason for Ricketts to approve spending millions for pitching for a bad club.

Besides, the concept that the "business side" needs to catch up with the "baseball side" is another built-in diversion in case the Cubs rebuilding program falters. Epstein claims there is plenty of money in the future, but any idea that the payroll savings are being banked in the past three years is an illusion. Ricketts has a highly expensive real estate project to build in and around Wrigley. That is the business side priority, not the baseball team. The hundreds of millions to be spent on pitching more likely will be spent on brick and mortar projects.

August 29, 2014

HOW THINGS PLAY OUT

The excitement continues to swell like an Off-Broadway production in dress rehearsal as Jorge Soler is promoted to the major league roster.

The Cubs Way is nearly ready to debut.

There are many ways to look at the new way.

First, in the best light, the prospects and young players the Cubs have acquired will play beyond expectations like the championship caliber teams like the Marlins or Rays. Those clubs came out of small market nowhere and won pennants. But even those teams could not sustain themselves purely on their own home grown talent (since most left prior to free agency).

Second, the prospects and young players give us a reasonable expectation of being good, but not great, ball players. Over time, they may gel into the 2005 White Sox, and push through to a championship.

Third, the prospects and young players have statistically average careers. The team can hover around .500 if its pitching holds up. This is like the Kansas City Royals, who are just getting out of another 15 year rebuild cycle. They had touted prospects that got to the majors and did not excel to a juggernaut line up like the big market, big spending teams like the Red Sox or Yankees.

Fourth, the prospects and young players mostly play below average. They follow the cursed string of recent prospects like Brett Jackson, Josh Vitter, Junior Lake. For all the hype, the team as constructed only ebbs and flows around 75 wins per season.

Fifth, the prospects and young players don't pan out long term, due to inability to adapt or being plagued by injury. The total fail scenario is something that no one wants to talk about - - - especially ownership and the front office. If this happens, the risk-reward bet will probably crater the franchise in a huge hole.

It is highly unlikely that the Cubs will hit on all their prospects. It is likely that one or two will be very good players if healthy. But a team needs a balance between veterans and young players, skill and luck, and ways to avoid a culture of losing. Final success will only be objectively measured by the number of wins, number of pennants, and number of championships.

August 28, 2014

FALLING CHIPS INTO PLACE

This is a diagram of the Cubs state of team rebuilding. The Cubs hope that the right side of the diamond will be solid and stable. The left side of the infield will be in transition soon, as the team likes Russell at shortstop more than Castro and Bryant really wants to play third in the majors (even though he may wind up in left field). Alcantara is holding the CF spot until Almora arrives in several years. Even so, there are two starting unknowns when the team is ready to compete: catcher and left field/third.

Bruce Levine believes that the Cubs will show marked improvement next season. Peter Gammons believes the Cubs should be competitive in 2017. They may be optimistic.

The risk-reward is that the push of prospects to the majors will work out. That means the team has a cheap roster of good players under their control for six seasons. If they don't work out, then the Cubs are back to square one.

There is a huge unknown going forward: pitching. Arrieta, Hendricks, Wada may look good this year, but that is no guarantee that they will not slide like T. Wood has this season. Edwin Jackson is not an option for 2016 but he is under contract and virtually untradeable. Perhaps a trade of Castro for major league ready pitching will help.

Fans and pundits believe that even if the chips don't fall exactly to plan, the Cubs could just go out and "buy" the necessary pieces (starting pitching, closer, hitters).  But the evidence points to the Cubs continuing to run a small market budget until 2020 television consolidation.

What is lost on most is the fact that the Cubs will not have the WGN TV money next year. That is going to be a big revenue hole to fill. Declining attendance and increased no-shows do not help either. If the Cubs are constricted financially by debt service and lost operations revenue, the team will not be a player in the free agent market this winter.

August 27, 2014

ANOTHER ERROR

If this is true, then the front office needs to be fired.

According to Bob Nightengale of USA Today, the Cubs rejected a trade offer that would have sent right-hander Edwin Jackson  to the Braves  for outfielder B.J. Upton. They were teammates while with the Rays a few years ago. The two sides discussed the deal before the trade deadline in July.

A Jackson-for-Upton swap would be the epitome of a bad contract-for-bad contract deal. Jackson is owed approximately $24 million through the 2016 season while Upton has roughly $49 million left on his deal, which runs through 2017. Nightengale says Atlanta would have had to kick in quite a bit of money to facilitate a trade.

Jackson, 30, is 6-14 with a 6.09 ERA in 26 starts and 139 innings for the Cubs this year. He is 14-32 with a 5.47 ERA since signing a four-year, $52 million contract prior to last season. Jackson was just placed on the disabled list with a lat strain and there's been talk of moving him to the bullpen.

The 30-year-old Upton is hitting .208/.282/.329 (71 OPS+) with nine home runs and 18 stolen bases this year, which is better than the .184/.268/.289 (54 OPS+) line he put up last season. The Braves gave Upton a five-year, $72.25 million contract prior to 2013.

Apologists for the Cubs not pulling the trigger on the deal state that since the Cubs, who have a ton of position player prospects on the way, the team don't need someone like Upton clogging up payroll and a lineup spot. However, this is clearly not the case. The Cubs have no legitimate starting outfielder on the roster; Upton would have been their best OF player this season. The Cubs have a second baseman patrolling center field for the first time in his professional career. And if Upton does bounce back with a change of scenery, let the rookies "earn" a starting spot.


In my opinion, it is much easier to get a veteran hitter back on track than a pitcher that plain sucks.  The Cubs regularly play players hitting under the Mendoza line so having Upton on the roster would not have been unusual. And if did not perform well, sit him on the pines like Schierholtz.

It is not that Jackson helped his cause by being an innings eater. He only averaged 5.3 IP/start. He led the majors in earned runs allowed. And he was brutal in the first two innings, leaving the Cubs well behind in games he started. Jackson amassed an unbelievably bad NEGATIVE 1.9 WAR this season.

If some other team wanted him, you trade him faster than lightning. Period.
But the Cubs failed to do so. A major error by the front office because there was no reason to keep him.

August 26, 2014

JRW NOTES

When Yoshi Wada was throwing a no hitter on Sunday, more than ten times as many viewers were watching the Little League Championship featuring Chicago's Jackie Robinson West All-Stars.

Chicago's Little League champions are a compelling story. City kids who have stable, two parent households, supportive coaches teaching fundamentals, the confidence to overcome adversity and a sense of pride in themselves and their sport. The maturity and sportsmanship shown was well beyond the average 13 year old.

Even though they lost to a powerhouse Seoul, South Korean team, Jackie Robinson West is still the pride of the U.S.A., the highlight of the Chicago baseball season.

After watching several games in the LLWS, major league baseball can learn a few things.

There were no controversy about the umpiring which I think is because no matter who was behind the plate, there was a very consistent letters to knees strike zone. A consistent strike zone is the key to speeding up the tempo of the game.

Another is that the pitchers go the baseball back, found their point on the rubber, and threw. There was hardly any batters getting out of the box after each pitch to adjust something. Pitchers may have only two signals (fastball or curve), but the rhythm between pitcher and catcher was very sound.

And the pitchers were not just throwing toward the plate. They understood the basic concepts and strategy of pitching: throwing inside to set up an outside pitch.

Hitters were also very polished in their approach. A few did overs-wing at times, but they made adjustments as the game went on. By shortening up their swing to make contact on fastballs, the hitters were spraying the ball hard all around the yard.

The coaches also understood that speed is an important part of baseball. Using speed on the base paths puts pressure on the defense which led to a few errors, extra bases and better scoring opportunities.

Yes, some players were out of position on defensive throws or covering the bag or hitting the cut-off man, but there were some kids who really can pick tough hoppers and throw accurately across the diamond.

What the national audience saw last weekend were kids playing baseball for the love of the game. And this seems missing in most of major league baseball.

August 25, 2014

HERALDED PROSPECTS

When rookie shortstop Gordon Beckham arrived on the South Side, he had a quick start which propelled him into the "can't miss" category. In 2009, he hit .270, 14 HR and 63 RBI with a 2.1 WAR. Sadly, that was his best major league season. He went to play second full time, and was a Gold Glove caliber defender.

But after 5.5 years with the Sox, Beckham batted only .244, 61 HR, 276 RBI and 5.9 WAR. The "can't miss" prospect with the confidence to be an All-Star turned into a "can't hit" major leaguer.

Beckham's case is not unusual. Less than six percent of all minor leaguers make it to the majors, and very few have All-Star caliber careers. Beckham is the latest example of how an accomplished minor league prospect can make an initial splash in the Show, but fail to have a good career.

So the White Sox traded Beckham to the Angels for a player to be named or cash.

Beckham lasted longer than the Cubs Brett Jackson, who was also traded this summer for nominal return. Jackson was a highly anticipated five tool centerfielder who could be a cornerstone player for the Cubs for a decade. His major league career lasted only 44 games.

Even today, highly regarded prospect Javy Baez is wowing the crowds with massive home runs. But Baez also is a strike out mess (being punched out more than 43 percent). In his first 17 games, Baez has hit 5 home runs, but struck out 30 times. He is only hitting .214. It is feast of famine. It is almost an exact repeat of Jackson's struggles.

Even players who have a good track record can begin to falter for no apparent reason. Travis Wood's last outing against the rain soaked Giants was termed "an Edwin start," a Cub term of art for a bad performance. Wood's performance has become to noticeably slide from his excellent 2013 season (4.4 WAR) to this year (negative 0.4 WAR).

Even the best prospects may only give a team a slight, one year jolt in performance. The lesson is clear: there is still a major leap from AAA to the majors. More than 90 percent of those prospects don't make a long term career out of their opportunity.

August 24, 2014

DUMB ARTICLE

If you write an article in a prestigious publication, readers generally give it credence because of the reputation of the publication. A recent short article in the Wall St. Journal shows that even the best newspaper in the country prints dumb things.

The author tries to connect two facts to glean an absurd conclusion.

He states that when the Tribune owned the Cubs, it treated the team as just another entertainment program. It sold the idea of the Cubs as loveable losers, a drama reality show before reality shows, on the national WGN Superstation. As a result, the author claims that Wrigley Field became a sell-out entertainment (party) venue for many people.

He then states when the Ricketts bought the Cubs, they changed the focus of the team from entertainment to a winning baseball operation. As a result, attendance has dropped dramatically over the years.

Anyone true Cub fan knows what has been going on with the team and new ownership.

First, Tom Ricketts only got his Dad to buy into buying the franchise when he remarked that the Cubs sell out whether they win or lose. That observation was placed at the height of the last economic boom when the 20-something city yuppies found out that spending a day in the bleachers was better than North Avenue Beach because Wrigley offered sunshine and beer.

Second, the party crowd left Wrigley when the financial crisis hit. Chicago has not recovered as fast as the rest of nation. Once the causal drinkers left, baseball fans were left to ponder what was happening to their team.

Third, the Ricketts have systematically cut the team payroll, which is not indicative of building a winning team. Fans realized that for the past three years the Cubs have tanked their seasons to get high draft picks. The Cubs traded away veteran quality pitchers for prospects, leaving the organization without many potential major league caliber starters. The Cubs are the midst of a historic season to season losing records.

Fourth, the declining attendance directly reflects two things: the high cost of Cubs tickets and the quality of baseball shown by the home team. Fans have been asked to pay premium prices for minor league caliber performance. It is not that hardcore fans are turned off by the new front office "trying" to build a winning team.

Sixth, there is a growing feeling that the public has grown tired with the excuses, the political snafus and the penny pinching by ownership. The no-shows have increased more than tickets not being sold. Over Ricketts ownership, the Cubs have lost 1/3 of their gate.

Seventh, the tourist fans who come to see the 100 year old ball park, with its manual scoreboard, ivy covered outfield walls, and landmarked vistas will soon be gone when Ricketts puts up seven outfield scoreboards and signs.

The idea that the Cubs are struggling because Ricketts has tacked the organization to try to win is a ridiculous conclusion. The real cause for the anti-Cub effect squarely points to the Ricketts themselves, who overpaid for the franchise, overplanned their real estate developments, are sidetracked by the fact they want to turn Wrigley from baseball field to a multipurpose entertainment complex and clueless on how to run a business in Chicago.

August 23, 2014

SOUR GRAPES

Sour grapes and more excuses. It has come a trend with the Cubs front office.

First, they said their original plan of overspending on hard to sign draft player and international prospects was derailed by the new CBA.

Second, Epstein realized a year or more into the gig that the Cubs were highly dependent on gate attendance for baseball operations. And since the revised plan was to tank several seasons in a row to get down payroll and get a higher draft pick, he found himself prospect rich but cash poor.

Now, Epstein is grumbling about the Cardinals receiving a bonus draft pick in the 2015 draft.

 St. Louis got a bonus pick for the 2015 First-Year Player Draft (just after the first round) for the Competitive Balance Lottery. The Cards have made the playoffs 10 times since 2000 and advanced to the NLCS and have drafted extremely well the past decade.

Epstein told CSNChicago  “I could talk all day about the Cardinals and how much we hold them in high regard. That’s a fantastic franchise. They have been for the better part of a century. They do extremely well from a baseball standpoint, and from a revenue standpoint. That’s probably the last organization in baseball that needs that kind of (an) annual gift.”

He continued. “Because it’s not necessarily the type of thing that they need, given their performance on the field and off the field. They do a fantastic job. It just doesn’t seem like something they need at this point.”

The Cardinals are eligible for the Competitive Balance Lottery because they play in one of the 10 smallest markets (by population) in Major League Baseball. USA Today writer Bob Nightengale predicts that the Cardinals will use this high draft pick as trade bait to land Rays ace David Price. If so, Epstein will have more bitterness for his interdivisional rival. Welcome to Chicago, Theo. It is not Red Sox-Yankees, but it is close.

August 22, 2014

THE K MACHINE

The Cubs have recently been a strike out machine. Double digit team K totals in the box score is an alarming trend.

It seems the team has no batting philosophy.  A team of young free swingers are bound to get into trouble.

But there was time when a batting coach could instill a real, fundamental change in a team's approach to hitting. The White Sox hired Charley Lau as batting coach and he changed the batting style of the the entire team, including Frank Thomas.  Lau set down a series of hitting rules that basically keyed off proper weight distribution and a level swing path:

Law Lau's Laws on Hitting
No. 1
Use a balanced and workable stance.
No. 2
Use a proper grip.
No. 3
Get your weight back before striding.
No. 4
Start your bat in the launch position.
No. 5
Stride with your front toe closed.
No. 6
Maintain flat hands through the swing.
No. 7
Keep your head still and eyes down.
No. 8
Use a fluid, tension free swing.
No. 9
You must have lead-arm extension and a good finish.
No. 10
Employ solid practice habits.

August 21, 2014

TARPGATE

It is one thing for a team to want to lose, i.e. tank a season.
It is another to break the rules in order to lose.

There is a real problem with the league office's decision to uphold the Giant's appeal on the rain called Tuesday contest at Wrigley Field. The game was official when the rain came down and made the field unplayable, even after 4 hours of delay. It was not a mechanical issue, as the Wrigley tarp is a manual operation.

The Giants were livid because they believed the Cubs grounds crew were lax in trying to get the tarp rolled out onto the infield. By the time the tarps were placed, there was standing water on the infield. Loads of drying agent and sand could not correct the saturation.

However, the difficulty with the tarp was not mechanical, but Mother Nature. The intensity of the rain made the tarp heavy. Also, reports that the Cubs have cut back on the number of grounds crew members in a cost-savings measure probably raises more eyebrows than the game suspension issue.

The rule clearly states that the game is official after 4.5 innings if the home team is in the lead. That is what happened Tuesday. The rule also clearly states that such a game is not suspended if rain does not allow resumption of play. That is what happened Tuesday.

The Giants were still not happy. The team is in a close pennant race. Every win counts. The manager believed it was "unfair" not to conclude the game because of the alleged botched tarp placement. Any rule can be interpreted as unfair if you are on the brunt end of a ruling.

But as Brian Hanley remarked on the radio this morning, he was more concerned with the Cubs GM Hoyer not sticking up for the letter of the law. He has never heard of a general manager in any sport consenting to removing a win from his team. And I agree with that statement; the Cubs front office was too remorseful after the incident to the point of waiving the rule in the eyes of the league. And this only makes sense if the Cubs want to lose games if the plan is to get the number one draft pick next year. Hoyer and Epstein are always telling the media that they are looking for loopholes in order to leverage an advantage; by agreeing to take a win from their record by breaking the rules is clearly a strange way to meet their plan objectives. It is also a major middle finger to the fans, especially those who left Wrigley thinking they saw a victory. No fan wants their team to lose on purpose, let alone break the rules in order to lose.

The strained explanation by the league:

Major League Baseball announced today that Executive Vice President for Baseball Operations Joe Torre has upheld a protest filed by the San Francisco Giants regarding the calling of their rain-shortened game against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field on Tuesday night.
An examination of the circumstances of last night’s game has led to the determination that there was sufficient cause to believe that there was a “malfunction of a mechanical field device under control of the home club” within the meaning of Official Baseball Rule 4.12(a)(3). Available video of the incident, and conversations with representatives of the Cubs, demonstrate that the Cubs’ inability to deploy the tarp appropriately was caused by the failure to properly wrap and spool the tarp after its last use. As a result, the groundskeeping crew was unable to properly deploy the tarp after the rain worsened. In accordance with Rule 4.12(a)(3), the game should be considered a suspended game that must be completed at a future date.
In addition, Major League Baseball has spoken with last night’s crew chief, Hunter Wendelstedt, and has concluded that the grounds crew worked diligently in its attempt to comply with his direction and cover the field. Thus, there is no basis for the game to be forfeited by the Cubs pursuant to Rule 4.16.
Who in their right mind was calling for a forfeit? The Giants were looking for a suspended game. 
Apparently, it was the information provided by the Cubs that the team failed to deploy the tarp "appropriately" because it was not properly rolled up after the last use? It is a tarp that is on a roll. 
It is not rocket science. And if the grounds crew worked "diligently" to cover the field to avoid a forfeit, then that same finding would have negated the ruling on suspending the game.

THE NEW MAN

Rob Manfred is the new baseball commissioner. He is Bud Selig's preferred successor, but it took a few votes from owners to get him through. 22 owners supported him, while there were 8 strong holdouts for the other candidate, Red Sox chairman Tom Werner.

Manfred has been a baseball executive with the league office. His primary duties have been negotiating labor peace with the union, and to implement and enforce the new drug policies.

Werner, as an owner, was touted by White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf. Reinsdorf has always believed that the baseball commissioner should look out for the interests of the owners. And the best way to do that is to have an owner or former owner in charge. Reinsdorf thought that an owner would have better insight on the pros and cons, and operational issues that all ball clubs would face in the future. In addition, Werner has the expertise in television and media operations, which is the key revenue areas for the sport.

It would seem that the majority of baseball owners deemed labor peace over expanding television revenues.

Many baseball writers stated that baseball is in decline (at least from an attendance situation). Baseball games last too long. Less kids are playing the sport. There are so many other activities people participate in that baseball is falling down in popularity. The primary job of the new commissioner is to stem the falling tide.

There are storm clouds on the horizon. Baseball has become more and more dependent on television revenue. As a result, baseball has saturated the airwaves to the point of become static noise to many viewers. There is no longer appointment television, like the Game of Week, because viewers can see games every night. Even the most ardent cupcake eater will stop consuming cake after a while.

The new Dodgers local television deal should be a wake up call that cable television ceiling is finite. Billion dollar revenue deals may be a thing of the past. More people are cutting their cable cords. Distributors like cable and satellite companies refuse to pay large carriage fees for new sports channels. Younger viewers are consuming more of their entertainment content in mobile platforms. If baseball is to capture that mobile youth market, someone with industry vision needs to be in charge.

That may have been one of the motivations for the Werner candidacy: keeping the golden goose golden.  The other may have been a harder line stance against player salary increases, since that is the biggest expensive of any club. Clayton Kershaw's $200 million deal sends shivers through other owners spines and pocket books. Reinsdorf always believed that a starting pitcher should never get more than a 4 year contract. He was right, statistically, that starters would break down after that time, creating dead money on the payroll. Some owners want to try to cork the free agency dollar tsunami by placing a hard liner as commissioner instead of a negotiator-peace maker.

The one unknown going forward is how Manfred sees himself as commissioner. In the other sports, commissioners have taken upon themselves to be the visionary sheriff to create an immediate legacy on their sport. As a result, dumb mistakes and overreaching can occur. A commissioner is supposed to protect the game and its traditions, and not to remake it in his own image.

August 20, 2014

LAST NIGHT

It was probably symbolic of the entire season: the Cubs were rained out at Wrigley while the Sox played on the South Side without a drop of precipitation.


ASSUMPTIONS

A recent Grantland piece attempted to counter long time worn baseball expressions like "pitching wins World Series," "you cannot have enough pitching," and "good pitching beats good hitting."

The author takes the view that the Cubs, by rebuilding their farm system with dynamic hitters instead of golden arm pitchers, are doing the right thing. The article fails to make the post-season point that "pitching and defense" wins championships.

Current case in point is the Kansas City Royals. In their current decade long rebuilding process, they have stumbled into first place in the AL Central not by hitting, but by the best outfield defense in the majors and solid pitching from starters and the pen. The Tigers have a powerful hitting line up, but fell out of first place when their starting pitchers began to get hurt.

Also, with the rash of TJ injuries early in the season, many teams were scrambling to find pitchers. Teams with pitching prospects kept them instead of using them as trade bait. The Cubs were able to get two premium prospects from the A's for two proven starters.

The article assumes that a great hitting team will take down an army of pitchers during the season and better quality staff in the playoffs.  But the numbers show that even the best hitters today only get a hit every 3 out of 10 at bats. Home run hitters ring up a dinger maybe once in every 16 plate appearances.

To assume the Cubs are doing their rebuild "the right way" because it is different begs the question: if it is right, why are the other teams doing the opposite?

For every Clayton Kershaw, there are 40 Edwin Jacksons. There are only 4 aces in a deck of cards (7.7 percent) which is good analogy because even if every club has its "ace" Number One starter,  that is 20 percent; but in reality, the bottom teams don't have the same type of dominate pitchers so overall it is really around 10 percent of starters are aces.

It is not to say that the Cubs were wrong in obtaining as many bats as they could. The team has been an offensive offense for years. Taking the best college hitter in Kris Bryant is what I suggested before the draft. Taking Kyle Schwarber was a reach for a catching prospect, but he was another top college hitter. But one must realize that in the first two drafts, Epstein and Hoyer took mostly pitchers - - - and none of them have panned out so far.

August 19, 2014

SIX WEEKS

There are about six weeks to go in the regular season.

This is home stretch for contending teams.

Six weeks usually means one thing: you better be within six games of first in order to have a realistic chance.

Managers know that it is very difficult to catch a divisional leader. The goal is to shave 1 game behind a week to close the gap. The exception to this rule is when you play a leader head-to-head then you can make up more ground. At this point, most divisional leaders do not melt down unless they are killed by major injuries, so the 1 game/week is a fairly reasonable standard.

With six weeks to go in the season, what teams still have a shot at winning a playoff berth?

The Yankees and Blue Jays are outside the threshold at 7 and 7.5 GB the Orioles.

The Tigers (1.5 GB) and Indians (6 GB) are behind the surprising Royals.

The A's and Angels are in a dead heat in the AL West with Seattle 5.5 GB.

The Nationals have widen to a 6 game lead over the Braves.

The Brewers have a 3 game lead on the Cardinals and 5.5 game lead on the Pirates.

And the Giants are 3.5 GB the Dodgers.

16 teams are still in the pennant chase.

By MLB having half the teams still in the hunt, interest in baseball should be strong until mid-September.

August 18, 2014

A LITTLE LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN

A Sun Times article today paints a bad picture of Chicago professional baseball.

Jackie Robinson West All-Stars, a local team performing the Little League World Series, are crushing the pro teams when it comes to TV ratings.

The pre-teens’ Sunday afternoon battle against Las Vegas’ Mountain Ridge scored a 4.6 rating for WLS-Channel 7, according to ABC.

That means about 161,000 households in the Chicago market watched Jackie Robinson West fall 13-2 in their first defeat of the Little League tournament.

The White Sox faced off against Toronto at the same time Sunday in a game televised on WGN-Channel 9.The Sox game had a 1.0 rating, or about 35,000 local households — less than a quarter of the number tuned into the Little League game.

The Cubs didn’t fare a whole lot better than the Sox — ratings wise — in their game against the Mets, which started a bit earlier Sunday at 12:10 p.m. Shown on Comcast SportsNet Chicago, that game drew a 1.6 rating, or 56,000 households in the Chicago market.

Jackie Robinson West, the first all-black team to make it to the Little League World Series in three decades, notched a 2.4 rating on ESPN Thursday for its tournament opener at Lamade Stadium in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania. This rating still outpaces the CSN ratings for this season for Cubs (1.5) and Sox (1.4) telecasts.

It is apparent that Chicago baseball fans would rather watch little leaguers than major leaguers. JRW is a great news and feature story, and there are probably a lot of bandwagon jumpers watching them on television. But that is the point: people will watch winning teams play baseball.

RANDOM THOUGHTS

I could of random thoughts from last week:

1.    Javy Baez is going to have back problems some time during his career.  Even Kasper and Deshields mentioned the amount of torque unleashed when Baez swings past the plate.  The full upper body twist and less movement in the legs is like a professional golfer coiling for a tee shot. And most professional golfers will admit that the number one injury on tour is a bad back.

2.    The new home plate collision rule is turning into a monumental waste. The rule was to protect the catcher (specifically All-Star Buster Posey and his multi-million dollar contract) from being plowed over Ray Fosse style. But the rule makes no sense that forces a catcher to move off the plate then matador back toward a sliding runner.  There should not be a special rule for home plate outs. The baserunning rules should be consistent - -  - when a player gets the ball, he can block any base to apply a tag. If he blocks a base before he has possession of the ball, the runner is safe by fielder interference. Simple rule. Simple application.

3.    Cub fans see the prospects coming up through the system. They are excited about renewed hope. But at the same time, they fall under the spell of the current Cubs, believing that Lake, Ruggiano, Sweeney and Coghlan are important pieces for the future. They are not. They are a collection of 5th outfielders/bench players who have been major pieces in a run of 90 plus loss seasons.

4.    Many sports pundits in town shutter at the thought that the White Sox in 2015 may have a starting rotation of four left handed pitchers (Sale, Quintana, Danks and Rodon). They fear that with the majors being mostly right handed hitting, that the Sox will be at a major disadvantage. But if a pitcher is good, he can get out right handed hitters. And this is not unprecedented - - - the Kansas City Royals in 1982 with Larry Gura, Paul Splittorf, Bud Black and Vida Blue won 90 games.

5.   Baez's first Wrigley Field home run went onto Waveland. My first thought was that this type of moment will be gone when the new outfield signage is installed at Wrigley. No more homers flying out of the park.


August 17, 2014

NEXT YEAR

Wait until Next Year.

The wait has been a long, long time.

The wait may almost be over, some say.

Some say, that the Cubs pipeline of prospects will be this century's gold rush.

Some say, that the Cubs  are only a few pitchers away from being truly competitive.

Some say, that is what the team says every year.

No one truly knows what the time line for the Plan is, but we can make an educated guess on what the front office and the fans would like to see in 2015:

An infield of the "core" players:

3B: Bryant
SS: Castro
2B: Baez
1B: Rizzo
C: Castillo

An outfield infused with new young players:

CF: Alcantara
RF: Soler

More likely, Bryant will wind up in LF, Baez at 3B, and Alcantara at 2B. That will still leave hole in CF which Almora is supposed to fill by 2017. Or, by 2016, Baez stays at second, with Russell playing third with Alcantara still in CF.

It seems the starting rotation is not going to land an "ace" free agent due to the prohibitive cost and years in such a deal. The plan has been to cut down the payroll, not spend like a drunken sailor.

The rotation seems to be falling into this shape for 2015:

1. Arrieta
2. Hendricks
3. T. Wood
4. E. Jackson
5. Doubront or J. Turner (with the other becoming a long reliever/spot starter).

It is not an overpowering rotation. However, collectively it is fairly cheap.

So despite all the expected roster churn, the 2015 Cubs don't seem to be that much different than the current 2014 club.

August 16, 2014

BEWARE VAULTED PROSPECTS

MLBTR reports that the Diamondbacks have acquired Cubs former first-round pick and top prospect Brett Jackson for minor league reliever Blake Cooper.

Jackson, 26, rated as one of the game’s top 100 prospects from 2010-12, according to both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus (he topped out at No. 32 on BA’s list and No. 44 on BP’s list). Jackson was sold as a "five tool" player - - - hit for average, power, with speed and very good defensive skills. When his stock was at its highest, BA likened him to Jim Edmonds, noting that he had that type of ceiling at the plate, if not that type of Gold Glove caliber defense in center field.

However, Jackson’s swing-and-miss tendencies caused his stock to plummet, as a problem he looked to have eliminated at the Double-A level resurfaced in Triple-A and still has yet to be corrected. Jackson was batting just .210/.298/.348 with a 37.3 percent strikeout rate for Triple-A Iowa this season and will look to deliver on some of his once sky-high potential in a new organization.

Jackson only had a brief stint in the majors. In 2012, he was called up and played in 44 games. In 142 plate appearances, he hit .175, 4 HR, 9 RBI, 59K, 22 BB for a 0.1 WAR. His strike out rate of 41.6 percent led to his permanent demotion. Jackson quickly faded off the Cubs top prospects list, and at one point was further demoted to AA. Like many other touted "can't miss" prospects, Jackson never filled his potential. This appears to be a change of scenery move to clear a 40 man roster space for the Cubs.

Cooper, also 26, was a 12th-round pick by the Diamondbacks in 2010 and reached Triple-A for the first time in 2014. Though he’s struggled to a 6.00 ERA in 24 innings there, Cooper was excellent at Double-A this year, posting a 1.85 ERA with 8.2 K/9 and 2.6 BB/9 in 34 frames. His command has faltered since moving up to the top minor league level, as he’s walked 17 hitters in his 24 innings at Reno. The 5’11″, 190-pound righty has never ranked among Arizona’s top 30 prospects, according to BA, and he didn’t rank on MLB.com’s midseason list of the D’Backs’ top 20 prospects either. In parts of five minor league seasons, Cooper has a 3.27 ERA with a 217-to-98 K/BB ratio (seven of those free passes were intentional) in 236 2/3 innings.

There is caution in this trade story. Javy Baez continues to rack up strike outs. In 45 plate appearances, he has 17 Ks for a rate of 37.8 percent, which is too high for a major league player. The pressure to conform and adjust to major league pitching doomed Jackson's fate. He could not cut down on his strikeouts which torpedoed his value as a hitter. Baez is currently in the same audition mode as Jackson had in 2012.

August 15, 2014

ROOFTOP LAWSUIT TWIST

The players in the Wrigley reconstruction saga all felt that the rooftop owners would sue the Cubs to stop the team from blocking their landmarked views. Yesterday, most of the rooftop owners sued, but not the Cubs but the city.

The rooftop owners sued the city for violating several constitutionally protected property rights.
In its six count complaint, the rooftop owners allege the landmark commission violated the administrative review act and case law in the conduct of its hearings; that the commission violated its own governing ordinance; that the commission violated due process and equal protection by acting beyond its legal authority; that the city is arbitrary in its landmark designations or application; that the city under the color of law violated the owners civil rights under §1983; and that city should be enjoined from allowing permits or construction to happen at Wrigley Field because the rooftops would be irreparably harmed.

As a result, the rooftop owners will probably win because the city's landmark commission
failed to follow basic legal requirements for a zoning/administrative hearing.

In 2004, the Illinois Supreme Court made it clear in Klaeren v. Village of Lisle that
zoning hearings are administrative not legislative functions. As an administrative hearing,
the principles of due process must be followed to allow anyone with a property interest at
stake to participate, give evidence, cross examine witnesses, etc. As such, the government
body must make findings of fact and conclusions of law to support zoning decisions.

As alleged in the complaint, the city's landmark commission did not allow the rooftop owners
to participate at all in the course of the Wrigley landmark review process, i.e. present
witnesses, evidence or cross-examine the Cubs witnesses. If that is the case, the landmark commission did not follow clear Illinois law and its decision can be summarily reversed.

The lawsuit also claims that the commission violated its own governing ordinance in allowing the Wrigley reconstruction, by re-writing the ordinance with legislative powers it does not have.
If the commission acted beyond its own legal authority, then its decision would be null and void.


By suing the city for violations of due process and equal protection, the rooftop owners avoid a confrontation with the Cubs over the 2004 settlement agreement language which both sides claim a different interpretation on whether any expansion can block views. The lawsuit alleges that the Cubs have received $40 million during the revenue sharing agreement, or about $4 million per season. The irony of this is that many in the advertising community believe that the Cubs would not get much more in annual revenue from the new signage. So blocking the rooftop views will not significantly increase the gross revenues to the team since the rooftop revenue would dry up.

Two things can happen in this lawsuit.

First, the judge can rule that the city violated its own ordinance and Illinois law. The approval of Wrigley construction would be declared null and void and the Cubs would be back to square one.

Second, the judge could rule that the city, through its approval process and final city council vote, met the spirit of the law and uphold the administrative ruling. Then the Cubs could go forward with the approved plans. 

However, in either case, there probably will be an appeal. And appeals take years to work their way through the system. As a result, Ricketts four year time table to do all his real estate development work will be stretched out another two or three years.

Which leads to the following possible reactions by the Cubs ownership:

One, reaffirm their position that no work will be done if there is a lawsuit pending against the reconstruction. That means the Cubs will not be spending any money for improvements to the ball park (which some believe may be cover for the declining revenue and bank loan covenants that may restrict the reconstruction expenses to begin with). 

Two, the Cubs move forward at their own risk with the reconstruction projects (including the non-landmarked issues like the new clubhouse or hotel-commercial projects).

Three, a move some fans come to consider now as a real possibility, that the Ricketts throw up their hands and say the situation is unworkable, and begin the search to find a new home for the team in the suburbs or out of state. If the Ricketts truly have $500 million of their own money to spend on a baseball facility, they can go and build a state-of-the-art entertainment complex with ample parking in the suburbs.

Fourth, throw up their hands and sell their interest in the team to a third party. But since the team is in a mess financially and politically, it would be doubtful that the Ricketts could recoup their entire investment in the team and surrounding real estate holdings.

One can never guarantee how a court will rule in any litigated case. But what is certain that this lawsuit will again divert attention away from the baseball team issues.

IN THE DUMPS

The Chicago Tribune's sports media columnist, Ed Sherman, recently reported on how bad the Cubs ratings have fallen since its 2008 peak. He wrote that the Cubs ratings have declined 72 percent from a peak local rating of 600,000 households to around 50,000.

This report appears to verify WGN's claims that the Cubs poor ratings made it reopen its contract with the Cubs because the station was losing allegedly $200,000 per broadcast.

By comparison, the current viewership is around what the entire Blackhawk fan base was during the dark era of William Wirtz, when home games were not televised and the team was not very good. But winning championships turned around that hockey franchise into a premier NHL club.

It is one thing that fans don't come out to the ball park and spend hundreds of dollars in tickets, parking and concessions. It is another thing that fans could watch games at home for free, but feel that spending three hours in front of the TV set is a form of cruel and unusual punishment. Bad teams and the drumbeat of losing will eventually turn off even the most die hard fan. Other media reports indicated that the Cubs were tagged with 0.0 ratings during the end of last season. That is Houston Astro bad.

The Cubs cannot get a new unified local radio-TV deal until 2020 when the exclusive Comcast cable deal expires. Until then, local TV games that used to be shown on WGN are up in the air. Other local stations are not going to pay and invest large sums of money to produce a program with minimal ratings. The Catch-22 for the team is that the Cubs have been so bad for so long, the recent ratings do not correspond to what the team wants to get for its broadcast rights. Stations cannot get advertisers to pay premium fees for poor viewership. Without advertisers, there is not profit incentive. Media conglomerates are getting squeezed by various alternative entertainment platforms. They are more cautious than ever in paying for programming.

50,000 followers may be a great figure for an internet web channel, but not for a professional sports team in the third largest television market.

The team may be forced to "buy" local airtime like those weekend information programs in order to show next year the 50 or so WGN telecasts. That means the team has to pay for the production costs, the talent, and get the advertisers and sponsors for each game lined up in advance. If some question whether the Cubs have the intelligence to run their own network, the only Exhibit of competence so far is the zig-zagging Wrigley Field renovation project, its fumbles and delays.

Perhaps it won't matter until 2020. The team may not be ready to compete by then, so if no one watches the Cubs, nothing will be lost (or gained). The theory is that once the team begins to win again, the fans will come back in droves - - - willing to pay any price to jump on a championship bandwagon. Consumers, especially for non-essential items like entertainment, are going to be a harder sell in the future because a) the economic picture is still poor; b) millennials are more negative toward their prospects and opportunities; c) people are actually saving more income than spending it; and d) baseball may not be as popular as it once was as the new American immigrant base is more passionate about soccer.

August 14, 2014

PAN OUT

Even broadcaster Len Kasper, who butters his toast on the Cubs logo, admits that not every prospect in a team's system will pan out and become a good major league player.

Kasper likes that the Cubs have many touted prospects in their minor league system. He also believes that one or two may become All-Stars. He also thinks that one or two may never make it to a Cub uniform, probably traded for needed pitching.

This radio conversation was brought about by his initial impressions of Javy Baez. With all the attention on Baez's promotion, Kasper has not seen enough to make any clear conclusions except that he believes Baez is better suited in the middle of the batting order.

There have been side by side comparisons to the swings of Baez and Gary Sheffield. Both had long quick hacks through the hitting zone. Sheffield had a 22 year major league career. He batted .292, with 509 HRs and a career 60.2 WAR. With such a small sample size, no one can really project Baez having such a good career.

One thing I have noticed is that pitchers are taking advantage of Baez's free swinging approach. With 13 Ks in his first 33 AB, a strike out rate of 39.3 percent is too high. But pitchers are not just getting him out on sliders or curves, but on high fastballs. In fact, pitchers do not seem to back off throwing heat to Baez. Normally with young, aggressive rookie hitters, pitchers set up hitters with off speed breaking balls. Then, the rookie needs to quickly learn how to adjust to major league pitching strategy.

It could be a macho thing, too. Pitchers who face a highly praised rookie may want to get him out with their best stuff, which is usually the fastball.

Will the Cubs try to tinker with Baez's swing in order to tighten it up so he makes more contact? The team did try to tinker with Starlin Castro's swing, which led to a reversion at the plate. The Cubs wanted to place Baez in the second hole to get as many at-bats this year as possible so when the eventual first slump takes place, Baez has time to adjust and get out of it. This is preventative medicine approach to hitting so Baez can start next season without the fear of having slumps or not having the knowledge to get out of one. If Baez can handle early adversity, he may pan out to be a good major league player. Or he may turn into another Corey Patterson.

August 13, 2014

BEST OUTFIELD CATCH

It is probably over.

The best Cubs outfield catch of the season will be awarded to 65-year-old Mike Pullin, of Rochelle, Illinois, who snared in spectacular fashion, Mark Reynolds blast during Monday night's game.


August 12, 2014

SPENDING SPREE

Now that the fans are hyped up to spending Ricketts phantom money on pitching for 2015, a quick review of the potential free agent class, per MLBTR:

Brett Anderson (27) – $12MM club option with a $1.5MM buyout
Josh Beckett (35)
Chad Billingsley (30) – $14MM club option with a $3MM buyout
Joe Blanton (34)
A.J. Burnett (38) – mutual option
Chris Capuano (36)
Bruce Chen (38) – $5.5MM mutual option with a $1MM buyout
Wei-Yin Chen (29) – $4.75MM club option with a $372K buyout
Kevin Correia (34)
Johnny Cueto (29) – $10MM club option with an $800K buyout
Jorge De La Rosa (34)
Ryan Dempster (38)
Gavin Floyd (32)
Yovani Gallardo (29) – $13MM club option with a $600K buyout
Jason Hammel (32)
J.A. Happ (32) – $6.7MM club option
Aaron Harang (37)
Dan Haren (34) – $10MM player option if 180 innings reached in 2014
Roberto Hernandez (34)
Hisashi Iwakuma (34) – $7MM club option with a $1MM buyout
Josh Johnson (31) – $4MM club option
Kyle Kendrick (30)
Hiroki Kuroda (40)
Jon Lester (31)
Colby Lewis (35)
Francisco Liriano (31)
Paul Maholm (33)
Justin Masterson (30)
Brandon McCarthy (31)
Brandon Morrow (30) – $10MM club option with a $1MM buyout
Felipe Paulino (31) – $4MM club option with a $250K buyout
Jake Peavy (34)
Wandy Rodriguez (36)
Ervin Santana (32)
Joe Saunders (34)
Max Scherzer (30)
James Shields (33)
Carlos Villanueva (31)
Ryan Vogelsong (37)
Edinson Volquez (30)
Jerome Williams (33)


For all the promise that the Cubs could assemble an All-Star rotation by this Christmas, the above list is really very thin of "ace" material. Most of the pitchers on the list are past their prime, injured, bouncing from club to club as journeymen, and AAAA quality relievers in training. With teams on the cusp of winning pennants like the Yankees, Red Sox, Orioles, Angels, Mariners and Tigers willing to spend big money on stars, the Cubs will not be on the radar as a great landing spot for the 2015 FA pitching crop.

Lester, Scherzer, Shields, Liriano and Santana seem to be the best options which means the high cost alternatives to one's own pitching prospects. Lester, Scherzer and Shields will be pushing $20-22 million/ year long term deals. Liriano and Santana may be second tier value, but still pushing $17-19 million per season in mid term deals.

August 11, 2014

THE SHIFT

There is sudden push to change happening inside the Cubs.

Veteran journeymen are getting pushed off the roster by younger, untested players.

It seems that around August 1st, there were new marching orders on the North Side: bring in the kids.

The team is still on pace to lose more than 90 games this season.  Attendance trends continue to be moving lower. Less attendance means less top line revenue. Less top line revenue means less money to pay for the expensive and now four year Wrigley reconstruction projects.

The end of this season is a litmus test for the organization: what kind of players do we have now.

Despite having their best player, Kris Bryant, stuck in AAA for the rest of the year to avoid the service time running to free agency, the Cubs seem desperate to change the major league roster and to energize new ticket sales or recapture the "hope" for the future. The Javy Baez HOF coronation seems to be tempered now that in his first 5 games he has gone 6 for 23, 3 HRs and 10 Ks. He has made some mistakes at second base, and most observers believe he is not suited for that position.

Jacob Turner, who was claimed off waivers, has quickly arrived at Wrigley to bolster the fading bullpen. Turner, however, projects more as a starter or at least that is what the front office is hoping for next year. 

The shift from veteran journeymen to young minimum salary players can be cynically said to be a cost savings move by Ricketts. But the media continues to harp that the Cubs would be in the position to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on ace free agent pitchers like Jon Lester or James Shields. But it would have been more cost efficient to keep Jeff Samardzija than try to land a Lester for a 2015 team that still does not project to win 75 games. Star pitchers want to go to teams that can win championships. Despite the change of the new youth movement, the Cubs do not project as a championship caliber team. That is why it is very rare for a Marlins, Rays or Padres team signing an ace free agent pitcher - - - their culture and roster is not appealing to free agents who want to win now.




August 9, 2014

TURNER

Once one of the best Tiger pitching prospects, Jacob Turner wound up in a trade to the Marlins, who for head-scratching reasons, put him on waivers to clear a 40 man roster spot.

Just as bizarre, the woeful Rockies, in need of pitching, passed on Turner. The Cubs, next in line, put in a waiver claim. And apparently, got the young, prized pitcher for two minor leaguers.

The Tribune’s Paul Sullivan reports that two Class-A pitchers will be headed to the Marlins, and Keith Law follows up by saying hat it’ll be a pair of relievers, neither of whom is well-regarded.

Turner, 23, is a former first-round pick of the Tigers, and it wasn’t long ago that he was regarded as one of baseball’s top prospects. Acquired by Miami as the centerpiece to 2012′s Anibal Sanchez/Omar Infante deal with Detroit, Turner has struggled with the Marlins and was designated for assignment because he is out of minor league options. While the Marlins reportedly had lost patience with Turner after his struggles in both the rotation and the bullpen, the move is a curious one for a team that typically doesn’t spend much; cost-controllable starters with this type of upside are hard to come by, and Turner’s rotation spot will reportedly be filled by journeyman Brad Penny,  making this decision a puzzling one, to say the least, according to MLBTR.

Though Turner’s ERA jumped from 3.74 last year (in 118 innings) to 5.97 in this year’s 78 1/3 innings, Turner’s K/9 rate, swinging strike rate and average fastball velocity have all increased (though the velocity is likely tied somewhat to his eventual transition to the bullpen). Meanwhile, his BB/9 rate has dipped from 4.1 to 2.6. He’s also seen his ground-ball rate spike from a solid 45.7 percent to a strong 51.3 percent this season.

Turner, who signed a Major League deal out of the draft (before the CBA banned such contracts), has a $1MM option for next season and can be controlled via arbitration once he has accumulated three years of Major League service. He’s controllable through at least the 2018 season for the Cubs.

From the Cubs 2015 prospective, Turner may fall into the fifth starter role or long relief. Since the Cubs need young starting pitching, one will think that the Cubs will hope Turner can be an effective starter in spring training.

August 8, 2014

AHEAD OF ONE'S SELF

People are VERY excited by Javy Baez's coronation to the majors.

He is on pace to hit 162 HR and 270 RBI.

That would be awwwwwwww . . . . not gonna happen.

Baez has the free swinging approach similar to Starlin Castro when he made his splashy debut.

Fans are cheering Epstein and Hoyer for bringing the excitement back to Cub nation.

Again, Baez may be part of the plan but technically he was not part of Epstein's plan.

Castillo, Castro, Alcantara and Baez appear to many to be part of the "core" players that the team will be built around. Epstein's concept of "core" players was made early in his duties here as a means of telling the world that he was going to conduct a long, slow minor league system rebuild and re-stock the club with new, quality prospects.

Castillo, Castro, Alcantara and Baez have something else in common: they were all signed during the Jim Hendry era of Cub baseball.

It is not to say that when he first arrived Epstein can't play the cards he was dealt.

But he cannot take credit for fully developing any of the potential star players.

Kyle Hendricks was a Rangers prospect.
Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop were Orioles prospects.
Anthony Rizzo was a Red Sox prospect and Padre minor leaguer.
Hector Rondon was an Indians prospect.
Chris Coghlan was a Marlins prospect.
Travis Wood was a Reds prospects.
Edwin Jackson was a journeyman pitcher; the same with many bullpen arms and utility players like Luis Valbuena, Justin Ruggiano.
Junior Lake and Chris Rusin were also Henry prospects.

Epstein and Hoyer have churned the Cubs major league roster. And there have been some promotions of Cub minor leaguers to the Bigs. But at the present moment, none of the Epstein-Hoyer scouted and signed players have reached the majors.  So, at best, their talent evaluation grade is incomplete.

TINKER TO SECOND CHANCE

It seems that Tom Ricketts spends all day in his office tinkering with the Wrigley Field architectural legos. The rehabilitation plans for the park are constantly in flux. It took a FOIA request by the Tribune to find out what is actually in the "final" plans. From the fragmented reports, this is what I think is the current plan:

The first phase of the plan is to get the 7 outfield signs in as soon as possible. To do so, the back bleacher walls are to be moved 6 feet into the street; and the bleacher extended 12 feet over the streets. The new outfield signs will be anchored on this new structural support. The bleachers themselves are going to be mostly torn down in order to a) construct the under-the-bleachers bullpens and b) rebuild the outfield brick walls and ivy. Two light poles will be installed in the outfield corners. The new bleacher configuration may also support another bar/restaurant hidden under the bleachers near the gates.

The strangest part of the new plan are three "bunker" suites. We think that they are going to be constructed underground where the box seats abut the old LF bullpen area. The underground suites will have no view to the field, but will have a concourse to new box seats apparently in the area of the old Cubs bullpen. It would seem that the existing box seat sections will have to be torn up in order to construct these new bunkers, possibly in conjunction with the new clubhouse plans. Likewise, the RF box seats will be added extending from the visitors dugout the the bullpen to the foul pole.  The likely result of these changes is that there will be little to no foul territory. 

If you are puzzled why there is so much underground building, it seems to be the only way to monetize every single inch of Wrigley Field space. I really don't recall the public outcry for new luxury suites that have no view of Wrigley Field. I don't see stuffing a bullpen staff into a hot livestock pen under the bleachers on hot summer days is going to make them any better pitchers. And for all those Cub fans who still blame Bartman for alleged interference, without any foul territory there will be more fan "plays" in the future.

But what is really amazing is that the city approved a plan and the final submissions have substantial changes. The Tribune reported that the outside facades now will have large electronic ribbon advertising signs (like Times Square). But at the same time, Ricketts wants Wrigley Field to be put on the National Historic Register, so he can get a 20% tax break on the reconstruction costs. But clearly, Ricketts is not "preserving" the old park in its original state; he is totally transforming it into a Disney entertainment complex.

And now, the time line for the reconstruction will span four off seasons. So the work will not be completed until Opening Day 2018. And there were reports that the baseball operations will not have the freedom to spend until the business side maxes out on the revenue side. So the Cubs as a baseball operation may be handcuffed until 2018. Unless of course, the construction plans change - - - again.

August 7, 2014

ID THE CORE

Here is the Cubs current roster:

ROTATION:
RHP Jake Arrieta
RHP Edwin Jackson
LHP Travis Wood
RHP Kyle Hendricks
LHP Tsuyoshi Wada
BULLPEN:
RHP Hector Rondon (closer)
LHP Wesley Wright
RHP Justin Grimm
RHP Brian Schlitter
RHP Carlos Villanueva
RHP Pedro Strop
LHP Chris Rusin
CATCHERS:
John Baker
Welington Castillo
INFIELDERS:
1B Anthony Rizzo
2B Arismendy Alcantara
SS Starlin Castro
3B Luis Valbuena
INF Chris Valaika
INF Javy Baez
OUTFIELDERS:
LF Chris Coghlan
CF Junior Lake
OF Ryan Sweeney
OF Justin Ruggiano

Objectively, which players will be part of the team during transition to competitve team and which players are CORE starters?

ROTATION: Arrieta, Jackson and Wood are going to be around for the next few years, but by the time the Cubs are competitive (maybe in 2018), they may not be still on the roster. Wada is a transition veteran pitcher. Perhaps Hendricks may be considered as a core rotation guy but he still needs to learn a steady out pitch since he does not have a dominate fast ball.

BULLPEN: Villaneuva, Schlitter, and Rusin are all AAAA guys holding a spot on a bad team. Strop and Grimm were acquired by the front office, but are replaceable as well as Wright. Maybe one could stay on as a bullpen specialist for the next few years. Rondon is being groomed as a closer so he appears to be potential core player.

CATCHER: Castillo is the core catcher by default since the Cubs organization had no catching depth until the draft. The Cubs paid a ton for Brave prospect Caratini so he may be the core catcher of the future.

INFIELDERS: The Cubs have used a vast collection of bench utility players to man the infield. Castro and Rizzo have been deemed core players for the future, however more and more Castro trade rumors will circle the press this off season. Alcantara started off fast but is returning to Earth, batting .255. He may be a transition player until Addison Russell and Javy Baez both hit the majors, for whom the front office has identified as core players.  Baez has arrived like the team savior, which is overhyped expectation. Valbuena and Valaika may be supersubs on a competitive team, likely not the Cubs down the road.

OUTFIELDERS: Not one outfielder listed is considered a core player.

So maybe, at best, there are 5 "core" players on the Cubs 25 man major league roster (20%).

This shows that there still is a long way to go in the competitive rebuilding process.

 

August 6, 2014

WAIVER CLAIM

MLBTR recaps a very odd chain of events:

The Cubs have claimed Marlins righty Jacob Turner off revocable waivers, ESPN.com’s Jim Bowden was first to report (on Twitter). (Chris Cotillo of MLBDailyDish.com also reported the claim by the Cubs, on Twitter. Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports first tweeted that Turner had been claimed by a National League club.)

A deal is likely, of course, because Turner was designated for assignment and therefore would ultimately go back onto waivers if Miami were to pull him back. In that event, the same waiver priority order would apply. Only the Rockies (worst record in the National League) had a higher priority than the Cubs, meaning that Colorado passed on the chance to add the 23-year-old, once-hyped righty. That, seemingly, is a mystifying decision for an organization that has been clamoring for young pitching, especially given Turner’s increasing propensity for generating grounders.

Meanwhile, the Cubs seem likely to add yet another interesting young arm in need of a fresh start. In addition to showing a willingness to sign and flip veteran free agents, Chicago has targeted struggling-but-talented young pitchers through trade. After picking up Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop last year in the Scott Feldman deal, for instance, the Cubs recently took Felix Doubront off of the Red Sox’ hands.

From the Marlins’ perspective, this move comes at an odd time. Had the team decided to part with him just a week ago, it would have had a much stronger position from which to craft a trade. Instead, Miami’s only leverage against the Cubs would be the possibility that Colorado might not pass on Turner a second time if he were to reach outright waivers.

Turner was a highly touted and near untouchable Tiger prospect. But he has had trouble reaching the hype. He seems to be another down pitching prospect that the Cubs want to fish for (like Arrieta.)

In 53 GP over four seasons (40 in the last two), Turner has a record of 9-21, 4.77 ERA, 1.462 WHIP and career WAR of 0.1. Nothing to write home about. 

Perhaps the release of Nate Schierholtz (to activate Fujikawa from 60 day DL) would be a better "catch" for the Rockies than a seemingly AAA pitching prospect in Turner (since the Cubs are playing the Rockies currently, there may have been some discussions about not taking someone off the wire).

It is doubtful that the Marlins, a mixed up organization to say the least, has any leverage to get a quality player from the Cubs since they have already made it known that Turner is not going to be kept on their 40 man roster. At best, maybe a low Class A pitcher like the Cubs got from the Dodgers for Barney.


THE SHOW

The Savior came to the majors last night.

He went 1-6, 1 HR, 1 RBI and 1 GWRBI.

My initial impression of Javy Baez's start:

1. He has an extremely long swing. Whether his fast bat speed is enough to adapt to major league pitching speed changes and breaking balls is going to be the key to success.

2. He was batting in the second hole, so he was told to take more pitches. It was probably to calm his nerves and make him think situationally at the plate. The manager indicated that Baez will stay in the No. 2 slot in the order.

3. Free swingers typically have more streaks, good and bad.  His approach to hitting seems more like a young Starlin Castro than an Anthony Rizzo. By promoting him during a lost season, the team is hoping Baez can learn how to get out of cold streaks and make adjustments before next year. If called to make a guess, Baez will be like Castro but with a lower batting average and more home runs.

4. First impressions can be deceiving, especially if a fan buys into the hype. Recall Junior Lake exploded onto the scene last year in his first professional series.

5. I don't know if he will stay at second base. Alcantara is a smoother defender at second. But there is general philosophy by the Cubs that the players are good athletes and good athletes can adapt and play many positions. I think that generalization only goes so far. Defensively, Baez may have better skill sets at third. But then, Kris Bryant is currently at AAA third, but now projects to being a corner outfielder. But Jorge Soler is going to be promoted in September, also as a corner outfielder. In some scouting reports, Baez also projects to being a corner outfielder.

MYTHS AND REALITY

It is getting harder to slash through the propaganda thicket of the Cubs public relations department. One of the soothing fairy tales making the rounds this year is that the Cubs will be in excellent shape to go out and acquire top pitching free agents.

The story goes that since the Cubs failed to get Tanaka or another major free agent last year, the $75 million plus price tag has been "saved" for future acquisitions.

Except, that cannot be possibly true.

Ricketts and the business side of the club does not give Theo and company a pot of money each season to "bank" and spend whenever they choose. Since the various articles dealing with the Cubs finances have been making the rounds, a pattern has emerged that the Cubs loan covenants that tie payroll to attendance hogtie the team from making any major moves.  Loan covenants are complex and one sided assurances written by banks to protect their money. An approval of an annual budget, including payroll, would be a standard covenant for bank approval. So the baseball operations is not "banking" in a free agency savings account millions of dollars while the team tanks.

The other part of the story is that the Cubs will be aggressive buyers this off-season. They will be players in the free agent pitching market, going after Jon Lester or James Shields. But the reality is that the Cubs don't have $100 million to spend on one player. And the reality is that spending $100 million on a starting pitcher for 2015 does not make the club any better or thrust it into divisional contention. Besides, the business model has been to trade away expensive starting pitching (Garza, Dempster, Maholm, Feldman, Smardzija and Hammel).

The Cubs have to have some story to keep the fans coming to the park through the end of the year. The Cubs need to have a better story to get season ticket holders to renew this winter. The team can't be as bold as Jerry Jones of the Cowboys who printed and sent playoff tickets to his 2014 season ticket holders.

The current core pitchers, Arrieta, T. Wood and E. Jackson, won't be around when the time comes to actually build a contending pitching staff. The team won't spend a fortune on starters until the inexpensive home grown talent takes root at Wrigley. The plan is to have low cost position players as starting fielders. Then, the team can buy proven veteran pitchers instead of developing a staff. But if the Cubs prospects don't pan out as a class, then the incentive is increased to not spend any money at all. Then, the Cubs will have to start over again.

August 5, 2014

THE TEASE

Rick Morrissey and Rick Telander were on the sportstalk TV show and basically lamented that the Cubs rebuilding process is nearing a brick wall from their interest. They acknowledge that the Cub front office has a plan. They have heard all about these great prospects. They are aware of the task of rebuilding an entire minor league system. But they have come around to the notion that it is unfair to the fans not to have a competitive team on the field.

It has finally begun to sink into local writers that the Cubs plan is narrow and short sighted. Morrissey finally asked the real question: it is fine to concentrate on rebuilding the minors, but there is no rule against building a major league roster at the same time.

The Cubs have created their own new front office mythology that the Boston guys are working their magic that got the Red Sox two championships.  The Red Sox made big trades and signed free agents in order to become a championship team. It was not a fully home grown team.

And the writers now believe that they have heard enough of "hope" and "prospect" and "the plan" to care less. Players are only prospects when they are not on the major league field. And we can only tell if they are any good if and when they reach the major league diamond. Until then, the discussion is irrelevant because fans of the Cubs want to see major league victories, not illusory minor league fantasy stats.

And they also raise the nuclear question. What if four years down the road, the majority of the prospects don't pan out, and the Cubs continue to muddle with 90 loss seasons?

David Kaplan remarked that the front office would be fired. But that does not make up for seven seasons of futility. Telander even made the point that the team does have a covenant with their long time and loyal fans to put a major league product on the field. And the Cubs have not been doing their duty. And that is why many fans are upset with their team.

For whatever reason, whether it is pure stubbornness, stupidity or financial restraints, the front office is not changing the way it is operating the major league team. They continue to tear down the roster by trading away major league talent for minor league prospects. The pantry shelf is now bare; Starlin Castro is now the longest tenured Cub on the roster. And when James Russell and Emilio Bonifacio were traded at the deadline, their teammates seemed happy that they were leaving the team to go to a better club and a chance to win. Some fans react to this in a depressed way, thinking the Cubs have become the Walmart of the Majors - - - a discount store for major league players for other clubs.

Unless catching prospect Victor Caratini turns out to be the next Johnny Bench, the Cubs effectively traded $6.5 million in assets to the Braves for nothing. And that is a bitter pill to swallow.

The team's off off-Broadway production of HOPE is ending. If the writers have come around to find it a joke to continue to promote a dead horse, the general public is not that far behind (or ahead of the curve with the declining attendance numbers).  

But the show may turn into a tease soon enough. The current roster is so thin now, there is nothing stopping a promotion of any prospect. In fact, rumor has it that Jorge Soler will be at least a September call up because he would have been through a third of his $30 million/9 year contract. Fans would also like to see Javy Baez in September, but Jed Hoyer continues to knock down his time table (in a small market ritual to keep better prospects from earning service time "too soon" as to accelerate arbitration years). 

August 3, 2014

THE PRICE IS LOW

Jed Hoyer was on the sportscasts late last week after the trade deadline. He continued to mutter the mantra that "hopefully" the Cubs won't be sellers next year; that "hopefully" their top prospects will be reaching the majors soon; and "hopefully" things will fall into place so they can go out and get pitching a few years afterward.

Hope does not float a boat.

The trade of two major leaguers, Russell and Bonifacio, for a Class A catcher and CASH makes sense only if you believe David Kaplan's statement that the Cubs are tied by their loan covenants to only have a payroll of 110 percent of attendance revenue. The trade was a salary dump and a cash infusion for the Cubs. However, other reports indicate it was the Cubs who gave Atlanta a million dollars to "get the prospect they wanted." (If so, the move would be double the amount owed Russell and Bonifacio for the rest of the season, so the Braves get two major leaguers for free (?) What kind of deal is that for the Cubs?).  Putting the moves for the past several seasons, and salary dumps together, there is more circumstantial evidence that the Cubs do not have the fiscal pieces to make any significant changes to the ball club. One caveat to this analysis is that the Cubs sported a $144 million payroll at peak attendance; but now payroll has been slashed in half (but attendance has not). If the lenders are pressing loan covenants on the team, that means the bankers are not comfortable with their loan risk, even if the club is current in its payments.

Cubs peak attendance was around 3.2 million fans. Current projects show this season to be close to 2.4 million. That is a 25 percent drop under Ricketts ownership. Using the Cubs own internal revenue number per fan attending games, the Cubs lose $56 million in revenue this year from the peak years.

But still, at 2.4 million fans at an average face ticket price of $35 million, the payroll budget would still be around $92 million, and not at its current $75 million level. The "savings" has to go somewhere - - - to debt service or to the ever-changing Wrigley renovation plans.

There is also conflicting information on the broadcast fees. The Tribune has reported that the old WGN-TV deal paid the Cubs $250,000 per game while Comcast pays $500,000 per game. Earlier reports had Comcast only paying $350,000 per game. Even if the Cubs wanted to raise the rights fees $100,000 a WGN contest, that is only maybe another $5 million per season. With all the additional signage in Wrigley, advertising executives speculate that it will only bring in perhaps $10 to $14 million in new revenue. So basically, the Cubs cannot make up lost attendance revenue from new broadcast fees or additional Wrigley advertising.

And it appears despite all the "hope" messages, the financial situation is not going to change. The real problem is that people will not commit to a season of premium major league prices for minor league talent. The Cubs front office is positioning itself to have the playing field occupied by players at the major league minimum salary levels in half of those positions (LF, CF, 3B, 2B). A team dominated by rookie minimum salary prospects is the definition of a struggling small market team.

If we assume that the debt and ownership structure prevents the Cubs from operating like a real baseball team, then Ricketts is solely blame for accepting those terms. It also shows that if the payroll is so fixed that the team cannot truly make deals to bring in high quality players like David Price because their salaries breach a loan agreement, then the franchise is in quicksand.

Tampa Bay gave away Price to the Tigers.

The Tigers acquired David Price from the Rays by trading Tigers center fielder Austin Jackson  to the Mariners, with Nick Franklin (from Seattle) and Drew Smyly (from Detroit) heading to Tampa. Minor league shortstop Willy Adames is also going to Tampa from Detroit in the deal

MLBTR notes that the move brings and end to near-ceaseless speculation regarding the now-former Rays lefty, who has been one of the game’s best pitchers in recent seasons. Still only 28, Price is under control for one more season through arbitration, though he will certainly not come cheap.

Playing this year on a $14 million salary, Price will be in line for a big raise next year. Of course, one key element of his value lies in the fact that his new club will have an opportunity to explore an extension. The reason that Price figures to draw a big salary next year is obvious: he has continued to be outstanding. At present, he owns a 3.11 ERA with a remarkable 10.0 K/9 against just 1.2 BB/9 over 170 2/3 innings.

The return for the Rays is not particularly splashy, but delivers obvious value. Smyly, 25, was outstanding last year as a reliever and has since converted into a solid starting option. He carries a 3.77 ERA through 100 1/3 innings, with 7.8 K/9 and 2.8 BB/9 and a 36.9% ground ball rate. While his strikeout numbers are down since moving to the rotation, he can be controlled through 2018.

The 23-year-old Franklin, meanwhile, seemed without a future in Seattle after the club added Robinson Cano. Though he has spent time at both short and second, many observers believe he is better suited for the keystone going forward. He had a solid 2013 at the MLB level (.225/.303/.382 in 412 plate appearances), and though his numbers were off this year in limited action, Franklin has continued to swing a big stick against Triple-A pitchers.

Then, there is Adames, who could be something of a wild card in the deal. Just 18, he has a promising .269/.346/.428 slash line through 400 plate appearances at the low-A level this year. He entered the year as Baseball America’s 30th-ranked Tigers prospect, but appears to be raising eyebrows around the game.

Seattle  managed to address its center field need without giving up an indispensable prospects of the future. In fact, the 27-year-old Jackson will be at least a mid-term piece for Seattle. He is playing on a $6MM salary this year before hitting arbitration for the final time. He currently sports a .270/.330/.397 line that is approximately league average (as it was last year). With solid contributions in the field and on the bases, the Marineres believe he is certainly an above-average big league starter.

The Rays were still in playoff striking distance when the trade was made, signaling a white flag moment for the team. The Rays could have kept Price and traded him in the off-season. The only upside of the trade for Tampa is that they got three players who they can control and manage salary effectively for the next few years.

But Detroit now has a powerhouse post-season pitching staff, anchored now by the last THREE Cy Young Award Winners. It is a trade like this that moves the fan interest needle to HIGH. Clearly, based on the players moved, the Cubs had enough prospects and bodies to acquire Price from Tampa, but the Cubs (being perpetual sellers) were not even in any reported trade conversation. If the Cubs cannot make blockbuster deals for major league stars now, what is going to change this off-season to make it happen?

August 2, 2014

NOT WINNING SOON

When the Cubs traded James Russell and Emilo Bonafacio to the Braves, one would have hoped the package would return a major league ready player.  You know, trading two players on your active roster should bring something back, right?

Russell and Bonifacio traded for a 20 year old Class A catcher named Victor Caratini, my immediate thought is that the Cubs really don't want to win very soon.

Look at the trades made and the return:

Samardzija for Russell (AA), not coming to majors until 2015-16.
Hammel for McKinney (A), not coming to the majors until 2016-18.
Straily (AAA) may not be a replacement level starter in 2015.
Russell and Bonifacio for Caratini (A), not coming to majors if at all until 2018-2019. 
Barney for J. Martinez (A), not coming to the majors if at all until 2018-2019.
PTBNL for Doubrount, who may pitch in #5 starter rotation mix in 2014 or 2015.

So the Cubs traded five players on the major league roster for
one (1) pitcher who was demoted to the bullpen;
one (1) pitcher who was demoted to AAA; and
four (4) prospects with various degrees of hype.