February 27, 2016


The key comparison between the 2015 Cubs playoff run and the 2016 higher expectations is whether Ben Zobrist will perform better than Starlin Castro.

This is the tale of the second baseman. Castro was a salary dump move as part of the jigsaw puzzle that allowed the Cubs baseball brain trust to add players. The swap of Zobrist for Castro is the key.

Zobrist earned extremely high WAR numbers in Tampa by being the super sub. Now, he is supposed to be the everyday second baseman.  Can he hold up for a full season at one position?

And considering he had an exceptionally deep fall out last season playing for Oakland and KC, will this trend continue?

Zobrist hit .276 in 126 games in 2015. He had 13 HR, 56 RBI and 3 SB.

By contrast, Castro in 151 games hit .265, 11 HR, 69 RBI, 5 SB.

While in Tampa, Zobrist was a WAR machine:

2009 8.6 WAR
2010 4.6 WAR
2011 8.7 WAR
2012 5.7 WAR
2013 5.0 WAR
2014 4.9 WAR

Last year, it fell to 1.9 WAR or just below starter level.

The best years of Zobrist's career were under Joe Maddon. He needs to have a solid 4.0 WAR with solid defense for the Cubs.

February 26, 2016


Everyone reported last Tuesday that Dexter Fowler had agreed to a three year, $35 million deal with the Orioles.

So it was quite strange to have the Cubs announce two days later that Fowler had re-signed with Chicago.

For a lot less money.

Fowler denies that he had a verbal agreement with the Orioles for 3 years/$35 million.
ESPN reports the one-year deal with the Cubs, which came together late Wednesday when Fowler drove down from Las Vegas to take his physical, is for $8 million. It also includes a $9 million mutual option for 2017, which the Cubs can buy out for $5 million.

Cubs president Theo Epstein and agent Casey Close stayed in touch throughout the off-season after Fowler turned down the Cubs' one-year, $15.8 million qualifying offer. But Fowler said another deal to his liking never came about with another team.

Now Baltimore is notorious for being quite picky over player physicals. Yovani Gallardo just restructured his free agent deal with Baltimore because the team allegedly "failed" his physical. Some think the O's are extremely cautious on free agent deals. Others think it is a staged ploy to renegotiate with a player.

But at the end of free agency market with the start of spring training, rosters are pretty much set. Fowler had been the odd man out in the outfield free agent version of musical chairs. In Baltimore, he would have been slated as their left fielder. With the Cubs, he is back to last year's position, CF.

The signing works for the Cubs at many levels. First, it moves Jason Heyward back to where he wants to play: RF. A happy Heyward is a productive Heyward which is what the Cubs need this season. Second, it solves the lead-off problem. Fowler will return to the spot where he scored 102 runs. Third, even though Heyward could play CF better than Fowler, Heyward is much better RF than Soler by miles. Fowler and Heyward in the outfield is an upgrade over Heyward and Soler. Fourth, it moves Soler to LF in a probable platoon with Schwarber.

In order "to make it work," Epstein had to trade Chris Coghlan to Oakland for a bad pitcher, Aaron Brooks, who had a 6.71 ERA in 9 starts last season. This trade was clearly a salary dump of $4.8 million.

This gives Fowler another year with a contender to boost his free agent status after 2016. He has the incentive to match or improve on his 2015 campaign.

February 24, 2016


Spring training begins for players to solidify their positions as major leaguers.

The NL Central's starters are pretty much locked in stone. It will be the bullpen and bench players that may have the most activity and evaluation to get to Opening Day rosters.

But fans will debate which team is best now.

One way is to compare each player position by position to rank which of the three is better. Trying to be as objective as possible, here is the breakdown:

Using the team's own current depth charts, which NL Central team is the best
by player to player position comparison? 3= best, 1 = worst

                    CUBS                        CARDINALS                     PIRATES
LF  Schwarber    1                          Holliday    2                        Marte  3
CF Heyward       2                         Grichuk       1                     McCutheon 3
RF  Soler             1                        Piscotty     2                        Polanco 3
3B  Bryant         3                          Carpenter     2                    Kang   1
SS Russell        1                           Peralta      3                        Mercer 2
2B  Zobrist         2                          Wong         1                      Harrison 3
1B  Rizzo           3                           Moss         2                       Jaso  1
C    Montero      1                            Molina        2                     Cervilli  3
SP Lester         1                            Wainwright    2                    Cole  3
SP Arrieta         3                           Garcia         1                      Liriano 2
SP Lackey        1                             Wacha      2                        Locke 3
SP Hendricks   2                           Leake      3                           Niese 1
SP Hammel       2                           Martinez      3                     Vogelsong 1
CL Rondon        1                           Rosenthal    2                    Melacom 3

                        24                                           28                                     32

Starting Rotation: Cubs 9, Cardinals 11, Pirates 10. Very close.
The Cubs infield is tops while the Pirates is the worst.

Columnists have speculated that the Cubs could win from 101 to 92 games this year. Most believe the Cardinals will not repeat their victory total from 2015 because of the loss of Heyward and Lackey.

February 22, 2016


This is something unexpected, out of left field:

I hear the Rickets family, who own the Chicago Cubs, are secretly spending $'s against me. They better be careful, they have a lot to hide!

That's a Donald Trump Twitter rant. Republican candidate Donald Trump. Leading presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Trump is a TV B-celebrity. He is a pompous, egotistical blowhard who is trying to bully his way into the White House. He has no platform except his popularity fueled by his outrageous statements. He has struck the independent, anti-establishment voting bloc. He is a junk yard dog snarling at the gate if he senses anyone is going to invade his territory.

Joe Ricketts created a Political Action Committee to funnel money against President Obama during his re-election. He also owns a digital media company, DNAinfo, which covers politics. The Ricketts family made their fortune by owning a stock brokerage firm. Joe Ricketts represents the conservative Republican base.

In some ways, Trump is running against the GOP conservative base. So Ricketts is a natural enemy. But Trump's rhetoric is worse than his bite because he uses rash generalizations without any factual foundation. How he has lasted so long spewing mindless, disconnected thoughts has the national media baffled and confused.

Besides, U.S. election laws make it very difficult to "hide" political spending. The Supreme Court decision that allows individuals and PACs to spend unlimited amounts of money in an election under the realm of free speech puts billionaires in charge of the political discourse.

NBC News reported that Joe Ricketts, was involved in this year's race early, giving $5 million to the super PAC backing Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, but Walker dropped out in early September after quickly burning through his stock of cash. Ricketts hasn't publicly backed another candidate. 

So what if Joe Ricketts is backing a different GOP candidate? In the paranormal, paranoid world of Trump, anyone not with him is the enemy that has to be attacked and destroyed.

I'd still like to hear what Trump thinks Ricketts has to "hide." Besides the depth in the Cubs starting rotation.

February 20, 2016


For the past two years, the White Sox have been aggressively going into the market to fill holes in the lineup.  For the most part, people were happy (on paper) of the work done by GM Hahn. This off season is no exception.

But despite all the moves and quality drafts of pitching, the White Sox still have several glaring holes and questions going into the 2016 season:

1. DH. After Dunn and LaRoche, the designated hitter slot is turning into the new dark hole that the third base position was after Joe Crede. The trade for D'back prospect Matt Davidson seems like a bust. Bringing in Mike Olt at the end of last year was a Hail Mail Pass after the game was over. This is still a continually issue for the Sox.

2. SS. Alexi Ramirez had faded and his time was up. Tyler Saladino is back at his natural position, but he did not show any bat potential last season. His competition, Carlos Sanchez, did not shine at the plate either. You can "hide" a great glove, no hit player in an AL line-up, IF you have a solid DH and good overall offense. We may see top prospect Tim Anderson arrive in the majors earlier than expected if the Sox need to win now.

3. RF. Avi Garcia is working his way out of town like Carlos Quinten did.  He had not blossomed like Sox management had hoped.He his .257, 13 HR, 59 RBI but had a negative 0.3 WAR. The Sox were rumored in play for some of the vaulted OF free agents, but apparently upper management would not commit to anything more than three year FA deals. J.B. Shuck does not seem to add any pressure for improvement in Garcia in RF.

But if you ask die hard Sox fans the Number 1 issue on their team, a good number would say manager Robin Ventura. Ownership is very loyal to Ventura. Initially, he did not want to be a field manager. He was looking to work up the executive ranks. But after the Ozzie nonsense, the team wanted to get a professional, easy going, good media guy. But Ventura has not worked out well as a manager. The team continually gets off to horrible starts, and he does not seem to have the players pushing to be their best. Ventura is in the last year of his current contract. Some think Ventura may be holding back the team and costing them victories. But in the end, last season's roster underperformed and had an a lower than average baseball IQ that cost them many games.

February 17, 2016


A quality prospect pipeline is the key to long term success. That is what Theo Epstein has been preaching since he arrived in Chicago.

The Cubs’10 best prospects ranked by Baseball America (with my commentary):

1. Gleyber Torres: Still only 19 years old, the Venezuelan shortstop finished last season at advanced Class-A Myrtle Beach. Another reason why Starlin Castro was expendable; Torres will be major league ready in three years just as Addison Russell is reaching his professional stride. It gives the Cubs more infield flexibility or a valuable trade chip in 2020.

2. Willson Contreras: The potential catcher of the future won a Southern League batting title with Double-A Tennessee last year. If the Kyle Schwarber catching experiment fails, Contreras will quickly move up to the major league club. David Ross will retire after this season, so Contreras has the possibility of becoming the starting catcher in 2018.

3. Ian Happ: The Cubs hope the ninth overall pick in last year’s draft can become a reliable second baseman. If not, they believe in the switch-hitting profile at the University of Cincinnati. Jason McLeod – the vice president overseeing scouting and player development – used a comparison from his time with the Boston Red Sox: Jed Lowrie with a little more power. Happ is another Theo "pick the best hitter available" draft choice. Instead of going for need (pitching) Happ enters a potential crowded infield unless they ask him to develop multiple skills (which Maddon likes in his players). Happ played all 67 A level games in the OF hitting .259 with 9 HR and 33 RBI. He could fast track if his hitting improves into a 4th OF player.

4. Duane Underwood: Probably the most promising pitching prospect in a farm system that doesn’t have many projectable frontline starters, though right elbow inflammation limited him to less than 80 innings last season. Theo and Jed have a terrible resume on drafting and developing Cub pitchers. To date, no one has made the major league roster. All pitching arms have been acquired in trade. It may be the philosophical question of draft hitting, trade or acquire pitching but the Cubs have used more than 47 percent of their selections on pitchers.Underwood, 21, has been stuck in A ball for the past three years.

5. Dylan Cease: There are only 24 innings on the right-hander’s professional resume, but the Cubs used money saved from Schwarber’s below-slot deal to take a chance on a Tommy John case with 100-mph velocity. “The upside is tremendous,” McLeod said. “But where he is right now is very, very far away. He’s one of the guys we’re really excited to see coming into 2016.” The White Sox have been extremely successful in drafting and developing power arms, usually the best college pitcher available. This may be the Cubs first real keeper in the Epstein era, but he probably grades out as a back of the bullpen arm.

6. Albert Almora: The first player drafted here by the Epstein administration (sixth overall in 2012) is projected to begin this season as Triple-A Iowa’s center fielder. Almora stock as the #1 prospect continues to fade. He is now listed as the #5 prospect but some other team scouts don't see a great impact major league player. A full 2015 season in AA led to a .272 BA and .976 fielding average. He is scheduled to start at CF in Iowa. It will be interesting to see if Heyward struggles in CF whether the Cubs will be forced to move up a CF prospect.

7. Billy McKinney: The Oakland A’s packaged their 2013 first-round pick with Russell in the Jeff Samardzija/Jason Hammel trade and the outfielder has put up a .798 OPS during his minor-league career. McKinney has moved past Almora to the #2 prospect. He also played in AA last year, batting .285 with .986 fielding percentage. At some point either McKinney or Almora will be the odd man out on the roster.

8. Oscar De La Cruz: With mid-90s velocity and a 6-foot-4, 200-pound frame, the Cubs hope this right-hander can develop into a middle-of-the-rotation starter. But he is still years away, approaching his 21st birthday and with no experience above the A-ball level. In three years of rookie and A ball, he has 28 starts, going 15-4 with 2.60 ERA and 1.063 WHIP. Those are quality numbers but will he be promoted quickly through the system? He may be another three plus years away from a major league try out.

9. Eloy Jimenez: Coming out of the same international class as Torres, the Cubs gave the outfielder a $2.8 million signing bonus in the summer of 2013. In 2 seasons at rookie and A ball, 99 games total, he has hit 10 HR, 60 RBI, .262 BA. He projects as a corner outfielder but since the signing there has been little buzz about his game.

10. Jeimer Candelario: The Arizona Fall League Fall Star appears to be blocked as long as Bryant is playing third base on the North Side. He has been around since 2011 in the system. Last year in A-AA, he hit 10 HR, 64 RBI,.277 BA and .951 fielding percentage at 3B. He will probably stay at AA to start 2016 and may wind up as part of a trade for starting pitcher down the line.

The Cubs landed six players on MLB.com’s rankings of the 100 best prospects in the game: Torres (No. 28); Contreras (No. 50); Happ (No. 76); Underwood (No. 77); Almora (No. 86); and McKinney (No. 88).

Baseball Prospectus included six Cubs prospects on its Top 101 for 2016: Torres (No. 41); Contreras (No. 57); Happ (No. 67); McKinney (No. 74); Almora (No. 83); and Eddy Julio Martinez (No. 97).

Of the top 10 Cubs prospects, Contreras seems to be the sole lock to be an important Cub piece in the near future. 

February 15, 2016


The only way for Major League Baseball to get serious on banning illegal substances from the game is to enforce its existing rules to the fullest extent allowed under the current CBA. The Mets have learned that lesson very quickly last week. Whether the players will see this as a wake-up call, we still do not know. From the NY Post:

That’s three strikes for Jenrry Mejia, and he’s out.

The right-hander, who pitched for the Mets in five of the past six seasons, has become the first player in baseball history to receive a permanent suspension for using illegal performance-enhancing drugs. Major League Baseball announced Friday that Mejia, 26, committed a third offense under its drug program — all within the last year — this time testing positive for Boldenone, an anabolic steroid.
The suspension can last as little as two years, however, if Mejia succeeds on an application, as is his collectively bargained right, for reinstatement.

Hector Gomez, a Dominican sports journalist, reported late Friday that Mejia denied any wrongdoing.
“It’s not like they [MLB] say,” Mejia said, according to Gomez. “I’m sure I did not use anything.”
Mejia, who had been pitching in winter ball in his native Dominican Republic, added, “I will appeal. Win or lose, I have a lot of faith. I have to clear my name. … I will not stand idly by. I will take this case to the bitter end.”

It’s possible Mejia was referring to the reinstatement application down the road. He already had his chance to appeal before the verdict was announced.

Mejia got caught while still serving his second infraction, which drew him a 162-game suspension last July 28; he had 99 games left and was due to return to the Mets in late July. His first suspension, lasting 80 games, went into effect last April.

“We were deeply disappointed to hear that Jenrry has again violated Major League Baseball’s Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program,” the Mets said in a statement. “We fully support MLB’s policy toward eliminating performance enhancing substances from the sport. As per the Joint Drug Program, we will have no further comment on this suspension.”

“I honestly can’t find the words that would correctly convey my disbelief,” said former Met Michael Cuddyer, who played briefly with Mejia last season before retiring in December.

As per the Joint Drug Program’s terms, Mejia can submit his application for reinstatement no earlier than one year following the imposition of his suspension — Feb. 12, 2017, in other words — and his case must be heard by the commissioner within 30 days of filing the request. The commissioner must then notify the player of his decision within 30 days of the hearing.

Even if the commissioner ruled in Mejia’s favor, the pitcher still could not become an active player until he completes a two-year banishment. If the commissioner ruled against Mejia — and you can expect MLB to be quite unsympathetic to such a plea — then Mejia could take his case to an independent arbitrator. Once again, if the arbitrator decided that Mejia could come back, the suspension still would last for two years. So Mejia can’t pitch in organized baseball until 2018 at the earliest.

February 13, 2016


The Cubs avoided an arbitration hearing with Jake Arrieta.

AP reported that the sides agreed to a $10.7 million salary for the 2016 season. That marks the highest salary on a one-year deal for a pitcher with four years of service, the AP notes. Arrieta and the Cubs were set to go before an independent arbitrator but now can simply focus on the season ahead.

Arrieta, 29, is in his second of three years of arbitration eligibility. He had filed for $13 million while the Cubs countered at $7.5 million. The $5.5 million gap was the largest among players who did not come to terms with their respective teams by the January deadline. The $10.7 million salary is $450,000 above the midpoint between the two submitted figures.

Theo Epstein has prided himself on the fact that he does not take his players to hearings. They settle.

Players often come out of contested arbitration hearings with negative attitudes towards their clubs because general managers have to present a "negative" case against them. However, having a team policy of "no hearings" does give the player's agent more leverage on a settlement deal.

The $10.7 million settlement is the highest arb deal, beating out David Price's $10.1 million.

Arrieta is being paid for an excellent 2015 campaign. He now becomes the ace of the staff. Whether he can stay healthy after a record number of innings pitched is going to be the key to the 2015 campaign. He threw 45 percent more innings in 2015 than in 2014.

Many people have thought that the Cubs now should try to lock up Arrieta on a long term deal. However, players will not give up the chance to test the free agent market. He becomes a free agent in 2018, so the Cubs have two more years of service time with him. The Cubs would rather use the limited budget resources to fill the roster gaps than pay Arrieta on a long term deal. 

Clearly, the championship window has opened for the Cubs. It has a realistic two year window because that is how long they will control Arrieta.

February 11, 2016


The White Sox continue to shore up the roster for a 2016 fight.

The White Sox have officially added free agent righty Mat Latos to  a one-year, $3 million deal. It’s a straight guaranteed deal with no incentives or options.

Latos had his best year with the Reds in 2014, going 14-7, 3.16 ERA.. But in 2015 he kicked around to three teams and had a poor 4-10 record, 4.95 ERA, average 1.305 WHIP but a negative 0.5 WAR. There are reports that Latos has become a clubhouse issue.

For the White Sox, it is a cheap alternative to shore up the back of the rotation. Chris Sale, Joe Quintana and Carlos Rodon are the top three starters. After that, Erik Johnson and John Danks are penciled in at #4 and # 5.  Carson Palmer and Spencer Adams, the #2 and #3 prospects in the organization, appear to start the season in AAA Charlotte but probably will make the team sometime in 2016.

Latos, 28, can give you 30 starts. He is right hander on a staff dominated by lefties. He is a cheap option for a fifth starter.

It really puts Danks White Sox career on the end platform.  In 2015, he went 7-15, 4.71 ERA, 1.413 WHIP. Danks, 30, is owed $15.7 million in the last year of his contract. Danks has been underperforming since signing his big deal contract.

GM Hahn is giving lame duck manager Robin Ventura more tools to try to win now. 


February 10, 2016


Sports Illustrated recently had an article on MLB hitting.

With run production well down because of a new era in quality pitching, several teams including the Mariners, are taking a second look at hitting instruction.

The Mariners' winter camp program was “Control the Zone.” The Mariners' instructors talked about concepts such as “getting into good counts,” “being selective but aggressive” and “being in a good position to hit” with “separation on the back side” wrote Tom Verducci.

But the syllabus also included the key acknowledgement that modern baseball has changed so much that hitters have to learn how to make contact with two strikes. The two-strike approach, which disappeared for a generation, is not just back, but is also once again a fundamental part of winning baseball.

“They heard a lot about a two-strike approach and the value of putting the ball in play,” said first-year Seattle general manager Jerry Dipoto. “This may or not be factually accurate, but I think it’s harder to draw a walk in today’s game than it’s ever been,” Dipoto said. “There’s been a debate among people for years that there are players that have the walk ‘skill’—it is something they possess. The one thing we do know you can affect as a hitter is reducing the number of strikeouts. As long as you are able to control the zone in that way with two strikes and put the ball in play good things can happen.

I recall many stories of how Greg Maddux would sit in the Cubs dugout and "call" the game to whomever was sitting next to him, before the pitcher threw a pitch. Maddux was a student of the game. He knew before he went to the mound his pitch selection sequence and how each batter would be looking to hit. Maddux used his knowledge to freeze batters with a two seam fastball that would tail back over the plate.

Great pitching is part talent and part scouting your opponent.

The same is true with great hitting. Great hitters know their pitching opponents strengths and weaknesses. I recall Darryl Ward telling young Cub hitters during a game what to look for when you faced this pitcher. Ward was an excellent contact hitter; he could foul off a dozen pitches until he found one he could turn on.

Ward knew what the pitcher threw, but he also had a great grasp of the strike zone. If you have a comfort level of being able to consistently reach all four corners of the zone, then you can get the pitch you want to hit.

Most major leaguers "sit" on a fastball. But then during a count of off-speed, breaking pitches for strikes, they get nervous. They start looking for a slider and get caught looking at an inside fastball.

Some batters have the mindset that they will only wait for a pitch in the zone, at the perfect swing plane, so they will not swing at all. In essence, they are waiting for a pitcher to make a mistake over the plate. This is a game of chicken. More and more pitchers fall into this game by trying to nibble at the corners to avoid contact, when in fact, they lose sight that only one in four batters will actually get a hit off him. The odds increase if a pitcher gets behind in the count.

This new revival of the "two-strike" approach to hitting is really a return to basic baseball fundamentals. And that is a welcome change.

February 6, 2016


Adam Eaton was the White Sox starting center fielder. For most White Sox fans, Eaton has been a terrible liability since the Sox acquired him from Arizona.

He is a Jekyll and Hyde player. His stats look good on the surface, but fans of daily games saw Eaton running into outs, playing bad defense, missing cut-offs and showing a low situational baseball IQ.

Eaton hit .287, 14 HR, 56 RBI with a 3.9 WAR. That looks pretty good for a lead off hitter.

But that WAR includes a negative 1.1 dWAR.

Clearly, the White Sox are looking to upgrade their outfield and defense talent.

That is why Dexter Fowler has been mentioned as a possible free agent signing.

But Fowler poses two problems. One, it takes Eaton, 27, to the bench. He won't be happy about that.

Two, Fowler signing would cost the White Sox the No. 28 pick in the June draft. The Sox No. 10 pick is protected so this is the Samardzija compensation selection.

The White Sox have enough young pitching in the pipeline to really go after the two best available college hitters in the draft and push them along to the majors like the Cubs did with Bryant and Schwarber.  The No. 28 pick may have more value than Fowler's asking price for a long term deal.

February 4, 2016


It has been a long time since both Chicago baseball teams have been put in a "win now" mode.

The Cubs are soaring on 2016 expectations of greatness after getting to the NLCS championship game.

The White Sox won the 2015 off-season, but failed to connect on the field. Instead of sitting back and hoping for change, the Sox went out and corrected three glaring position holes: third base (Frazier), second base (Lawrie) and catcher (Avila/Navarro).

The problem with both the Cubs and White Sox is that they may be playing the hardest divisions in baseball.

The White Sox have to contend with World Series champion Royals, another re-loaded Tigers squad, the young rotation of the Indians, and the quickly improving Twins.

The Cubs finished third with 97 wins. The Cardinals and the Pirates may not have made splashy off-season moves, but most of their key core players are still on the roster. The Cardinals will get Wainwright back from injury. The Pirates have a very good young outfield corps.

It would be a rare feat to have both the Cubs and White Sox in the post-season. But 2016 could be one of those rare occasions if both teams do not stumble out of the April gate.