August 19, 2017

THE FUTURE

There has been one constant throughout the history of baseball: owners desire to make a profit.

In order to keep a competitive balance (and profit sharing), MLB has a luxury tax on payrolls currently pegged at $195 million. The penalty for going over the ceiling is 50 percent to 92 percent. This is a soft salary cap where big market teams like the Dodgers and Yankees can easily absorb.

But the future is rapidly changing that overspend model. The Yankees sold most of their interest in the YES Network, which was the cash cow that fueled those free agent filled teams. The Dodgers got a billion dollar team network deal with TW, which turned into a bust when cable operators balked at paying high subscription fees.

The cable industry, the tinder for the rapid rise in profits and player salaries, is losing three million subscribers a quarter. The biggest reason was the surcharge of sports network fees on monthly bills.  The second reason was the internet and other means of consuming sports than television sets. The third, and possibly most glaring reason, is that the younger generation is less interested in traditional sports franchises. Young kids are more involved in their technology of video games and e-sports than play baseball in the park. In addition, teams have made it almost cost prohibitive for a family to go attend a major league game.

The outside profit center for many teams, the publicly financed sweetheart ball park deal, like the cable money is going to go extinct. Not one publicly financed sports stadium has created an "economic boom" for the municipality. In fact, the associated debt with those deals can be crippling taxpayers. With more and more cities, counties and states in massive fiscal holes and bankruptcy, the community revolt against such capitalism welfare projects will end.

But on the other side, star players are looking for massive contracts. Bryce Harper nears free agency with agent speculation that he will demand anywhere from $30 million to $50 million per season. ESPN opined that Harper could easily become the first $500 million player in sports history. When baseball franchises are worth at the high tide level of $1.5 billion, a superstar player's demand for a third of the team value makes the business model absurd.

Teams are no longer owned or controlled by millionaires looking to massage their country club egos with sports championships. Most teams are corporations who have to answer to shareholders. Investors demand return on their capital in the form of dividends, earnings and appreciation. The easy cost control item on a team is payroll.

In the near future, baseball as a game will fundamentally change. There are growing calls to eliminate much of the subjective, human element of game by turning ball and strike calls over to computer grid technology. In essence, the game will be played without umpires - - - merely sensors and real time play reviews at the league office. But even the elimination of umpires will not drastically alter the erosion of the economics of the game.

If the next generation of fans accept virtual reality for reality, then baseball will probably forge ahead to create a digital platform to replace the timeless past time. Whether it be 3D or holographic representation of past, present or computer generated players, baseball could morph into super computer super charged video game.

Fans like their fantasy leagues. They like their smart phone apps. If baseball was compressed into a graphic rich, high octane video game, many would watch. The elimination of players, ball parks, infrastructure costs, team travel, etc. is like a dream to a team accountant.  If the owners can keep a fan base happy without incurring normal costs, then it is virtual game on.

Since most states have privacy and image rights laws, the new virtual baseball game would probably be run by superstar programmers than old player profiles. Instead of expensive Bryce Harper batting third for the Nationals, it could be RobotOF127. The league could set input parameters for team programmers in setting up algorithms for player stats/performance guides. The league would then run on its own servers simulated games using those team rosters. Whether there would be an real time manager making decisions or strategy calls would be possible. It would also be possible that teams would employ a few gamers to act as pitcher, hitters and fielders to add a "human" element to the simulated game.

Simulated games could be played quicker than real ones. Simulated seasons could be finished rather quickly. Playoff games could be subscription or theater events across the country (or across the globe).

One could argue that this is merely a technological fantasy. That there will always be enough players wanting to play professional sports to field teams. That may be true, but in some sports there is a major shift on whether the health risks outweigh the playing time. More parents are taking their children out of contact football at earlier ages. Even professional players are retiring early because of the current research on the ramifications of concussions. Football could be the first major sport to have a serious personnel shortage. In addition, marketing executives note that in order to capture fans early, those kids need to appreciate the sport, i.e. have played it at some level. That is the fantasy connection between seeing your favorite player juke through the line for a touchdown then going outside to play football with friends.

The same could hold true for baseball. It is a time consuming and expensive spectator sport. The lure of going to the ball park for a game is that it was a social event. There was enough time between pitches to converse with friends. But in this internet age, people are less social. They don't see the need to spend three hours talking to other people at an event. They can poke, text or email them.

All consumption of all forms of entertainment are under fire. Baseball is just one option in this ever changing landscape.

August 16, 2017

THE BOLDEST MOVE

Jeffrey Loria is the worst MLB baseball owner. He is a crass, arrogant and flippant businessman who even sued his Marlin season ticket holders. But he was clever enough to bamboozle a brothel stadium from the taxpayers of Miami. Now, he is in the midst of trying to sell his team for $1.2 billion to an investment group led by former Yankee Derek Jeter (who wants to put no money into the club but have an equity position and total control over the franchise.)

The Marlins weak attendance and fan base mirrors its weak performance. Despite the millions in incentives and baseball revenue sharing, the Marlins are expected to lose $60 million this season.

When a business wants to sell at top dollar, it needs to massage its balance sheet to make a buyer think he is getting a great deal. The only way a small market club can do that is to cut payroll, the team's largest cost center.

News filtered today that the Marlins star player, Giancarlo Stanton, cleared waivers. After the trade deadline, teams put their players through waivers to clear them for possible August trades prior to the September 1 playoff roster deadline. (The other use of the waiver system is to try to get rid of an expensive contract.)

The Marlins are committed to six players $95 million in 2018 ($25 million is to Stanton).

Stanton, 27, hit his 44th HR of the season. He has achieved 5.2 WAR so far this year. At a salary of $14.5 million, his performance has outpaced his contract by $14.1 million. Next year, his contract jumps to $25 million. He is signed for 10 years at $295 million, but he can opt out after the 2020 season at age 30 (after being paid $77 million for three years).

Stanton is a legitimate superstar. He already has a 32.7 WAR. In 7.5 years, he has 252 HR, 634 RBI, .359 OBP, .268 BA.

Here is the argument for a blockbuster trade for Stanton:

1. He is young.
2. He is proven hitter.
3. He immediately makes any lackluster batting order better.
4. He is under long term control.

And his contract is such that if the market in 2020 is $30 million per year (Harper potential deal), then he will opt out - - - and the team acquiring him by trade now is only out $77 million.

For the Marlins to take the PR hit to trade their star player, Miami will need to get a substantial return for Stanton: cheap controllable major league players and top prospects.

In the current situation, the Cubs may not have enough assets to acquire Stanton, who would be the perfect solution to the left field platoon situation.

The package the Cubs would have to offer to get Stanton:

1. Baez or Russell.  A controllable middle infielder with defensive skills is a premium position. One would think Miami, catering to Latin market, would prefer Baez's versatility over Russell (including injury history).

2. Schwarber. Even though Theo-Jed adore their Baby Ruth wannabee, there would be no position left for Schwarber if Stanton is acquired (since Heyward's best position is Gold Glove RF).  Miami could use Schwarber as a trade flip to an AL club for more prospects.

3. Almora. The Marlins need to market hometown players to their fans. Almora is young and talented to be a long term marketing piece.

4. Edwards. The Marlins would prefer to get a starter (like Hendricks) but the Cubs cannot spare one. A bullpen piece with some upside would off-set the weakness in Cub farm prospects since Edwards has a major league track record.

5. One of the Top 4 pitching prospects (De La Cruz, Albertos, Alzolany, or Lange) and/or International Bonus pool money.

If you look at this possible transaction from a long term Cub prospective, Stanton fills a need to provide offense, solidify the outfield and give protection to Bryant and Rizzo in the batting order.
It is also an affordable transaction.

The Cubs have $55 million in contracts coming off the books at the end of the year (net $46 million with Quintana's salary for 2018). Stanton's salary in 2018 is $25 million, leaving $21 million to sign a free agent starting pitcher.

If any team trades for Stanton, it would not be a blockbuster move - - - but a nuclear one.

August 14, 2017

THE ZONE

The Cubs were upset with a called third strike on Ben Zobrist which ended the game.

Borderline calls are part of baseball, but the Cubs took exception to one that creates a loss.

If one play can turn a game, so can one pitch (especially the last one) goes the logic. If you can review a play at second base, why cannot you review a called third strike.

MLB has the pitch track technology at every ball park. The square in the corner of your TV screen is the alleged strike zone. But since there is a human element hardwired into the game, each individual strike zone is determined by several factors: the position of the umpire, the position of the catcher, the size of the catcher, how the batter stands in the box and to a lesser extent pitch framing. It is common knowledge that some umpires call high strikes while others call wide strikes. Pitchers are taught to adapt to the umpire calls during a game.

It has always been spurious for a manager to run out to home plate to argue a ball or strike call. A manager in the dugout has one of the worst positions to view the location of a pitch. At best, he can see the height of the ball but nothing else.

The only people who have a clear view of the pitch location are the catcher and the umpire. Next would be the pitcher but he is at a distance away from focus on the edge of home plate. Next, the batter who more often than not is concentrating on the baseball and not the imaginary plate glass strike zone at the edge of the plate.

The players with the next best view would be the shortstop (with a right hander pitching) and the second baseman (with a left hander pitching).  Other than those individuals, no one else has even a remote chance to call a pitch a strike or a ball.

Technology is available to to determine linear location of an object. Tennis uses laser tech to determine if a ball crosses the end line. But that is a single purpose sensor.  To have a similar feature calling balls and strikes, you would need horizontal and vertical lasers the width of home plate but also a grid sensor to determine that the ball crosses inside the strike zone. You would basically have to have two adjustable poles on either side of the batters boxes creating a horizontal grid and the front corners of home plate with lasers to make the square. There is an immediate safety concern with lasers close to ball players, and poles near the field of play (such as slides at home plate). In addition, the plate lasers can get covered with dirt which could create sensor errors.

But the fastest technology for depth and space perception is still the human eye.

A well trained umpire can adjust the strike zone for each batter. At the very least, he can be consistent in his calls. Baseball rules require a "fair" game for both sides, not a perfect contest.

August 1, 2017

AT THE POST

There was a surprising number of big name starting pitchers moving prior to the trade deadline. Sonny Gray went to the Yankees and Yu Darvish went to the Dodgers after the Cubs acquired Jose Quintana. Even lefty starter Jamie Garcia got traded TWICE before the deadline.

It has been said that in spring training, you build a roster to win 162 games. But at the trade deadline, you build a roster to win a playoff series.

This year's trend seems to be a blend of the old way and the new way. The old way was to stock up on four power pitchers to hold down the opponent in a short series. In 2016, the Cubs starters cruised with quality start after quality start. But the Royal and Indians way is to stock up on a strong bullpen to close out games after the 5th inning.

The Cubs added a front line starter in Quintana, who has gone 2-1, 2.37 ERA for the Cubs. With his addition, the playoff rotation would be: Lester, Arrieta, Quintana, Hendricks.

By adding closer Justin Wilson, the Cubs have the option of using him like Cleveland did with Andrew Miller: as a "stopper" in any inning. Maddon had tried to use Mike Montgomery in that role, but Montgomery appears to be better suited for long relief.

But can the Cubs shut down an playoff opponent with just its bullpen? Rondon and Strop can be good but inconsistent. Montgomery has been consistent. Duensing appears more and more like a situational lefty specialist. Uehara and Edwards would be 7th inning hold guys. Wilson can be the set up man and spot closer while Davis continues to be the prime closer.

The Cubs have five pitchers with experience closing games - - - which should mean that they are familiar with high pressure situations and can get anyone out.

But in a pressure situation, a manager can forget how to manage his bullpen. Last year, Maddon rode Chapman too much in the playoffs because he did not trust his bullpen. Maybe this year, Maddon will not have to ride Davis.

The other major roster move was getting Alex Avila from Detroit to be the back up catcher. By all reports, Avila is a good clubhouse guy and leader. However, he is in a contract year - - - and wants to be paid next season as a starting catcher. He will get limited playing time behind Contreras which will hurt his off-season value. Whether that will be an issue for Avila is something that only time will tell. On the flip side, Avila is now on a team that can contend for a ring.

The Cubs have started to play better since the All-Star break. The roster tweaks show that the front office is committed to repeat this year.

July 28, 2017

BARGAIN SALE

When the White Sox shopped Chris Sale, the team wanted to receive top value in return.

The Red Sox acquired Sale. To date, Boston has to be thrilled with his performance.

In 21 starts this season, Sale is 13-4, 2.37 ERA, 211 K, 0.876 WHIP and 5.3 WAR.  He is clearly on pace for serious consideration for MVP voting.

The White Sox received several highly touted prospects for Sale: infielder Yoan Moncada, rated the #1 prospect in baseball by some scouts,  hard throwing pitcher Michael Kopech along with  minor leaguers Luis Alexander Basabe and Victor Diaz.

Moncada has made his Sox debut. He hit his first major league HR off the Cubs. He projects to be one of GM Rick Hahn's "core" players in the rebuild. The Sox did not plan to rush him to the majors. But in 23 ABs, he is hitting only .130, with 1 HR and 5 RBI.

The trade will make sense for Chicago if Moncada is an above average middle infielder with power and that Kopech becomes a #1 starter in the majors. Power pitchers have a tendency to break down faster due to control issues.  Sale became a dominant starter when he learned to pull back his velocity, change speeds and play to soft contact to preserve his arm from stressful innings.

The White Sox have a strong history of developing quality pitchers so it seems Kopech is in a good system to succeed. If the White Sox get two All-Stars for one, then both teams can claim they got a bargain in the trade.



July 20, 2017

REBUILDS

The White Sox made another big trade, getting rid of three major league players for three prospects and a relief pitcher.

The White Sox are following the Cubs tear down style of rebuilding their organization.

The Sox may have the best farm system in the game with 9 Top 100 prospects.

But if you look at what these rebuilds represents a key level: failure.

Failure of a team's existing draft and developmental skills of players they targeted for the minor leagues.

Only 2 of the Sox Top 10 prospects were drafted by the team (SP Fulmer and C Collins). The rest of the top prospects have been acquired through trade or international free agency.

This style of burn down the major league roster to acquire a boat load of prospects is a risky venture because not all prospects pan out to be major league players. In addition, the team is going to have a rough time winning at the major league level. Sox attendance has been historically tied to the team winning games.

This plan also is couched as a long term solution to correct mediocrity but it is a short term hit or miss operation. If the prospects you acquired do not become All-Star caliber players (or even good major league players), your major league roster is devoid of trade assets to try and second rebuild operation.

The Dodger way has been to draft well, have exceptional development programs in the minors, to create the ability to promote every season  a rookie-of-the-year candidate. In the last few years, the Dodgers called up impact players Corey Seager, Joc Pedersen and Cody Bellinger. Add a home grown ace like Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers have the luxury to trade veterans or pick up key free agents on an annual basis to meet specific needs.

The Cubs reaped the highest reward from its rebuild: a championship. But now a year removed, the Cubs have struggled to maintain the championship caliber. Last year's players are not hitting, fielding or pitching like they did last season.  Was 2016 an fluke? Is 2017 more the norm?

And the Cubs now find themselves with their prized prospects on the major league roster, and their farm system weak after trading away the remaining high prospects for needs such as a closer in Chapman last season and a starter in Quintana this year.  The Cubs have been caught in a trap of their own making; the team was built to win with the existing roster for the next few years. If they cannot perform up to the front office expectations, then this would be a huge set back for the organization.

July 13, 2017

AFFORDABLE STARTERS (REVISED POST)


The following column was to be posted tomorrow. It was a discussion on why the White Sox could not trade starter Jose Quintana, since he is the most affordable starting pitcher in baseball.  But game changing news today:

CHICAGO (ESPN) The Cubs and White Sox pulled off a blockbuster deal with the White Sox sending lefty Jose Quintana to their crosstown rivals for Cubs top hitting prospect Eloy Jimenez as well as top pitching prospect Dylan Cease.

The Cubs are also sending Single-A infielders Matt Rose and Bryant Flete to the White Sox to complete the deal.

Jimenez, a 20-year-old outfielder, is the No. 5 prospect in baseball, according to ESPN's Keith Law.
Quintana, 28, is 4-8 with a 4.49 ERA this season after going 13-12 with a 3.20 ERA last year. He has a career 3.51 ERA and fills an immediate and long-term need for the Cubs as they're short on starting pitching. They rank eighth in the National League in starter's ERA plus employ pending free agents John Lackey and Jake Arrieta.


"It is always extremely difficult to trade a person and player like Jose Quintana," White Sox general manager Rich Hahn said in a statement, "but difficult as it was, this deal moves us closer to our goal of building a team capable of contending for multiple championships over an extended period of time. Jose, our scouts and coaches throughout the organization deserve a tremendous amount of credit for his development from a minor league free agent signee to one of the most sought-after talents in the game."

The Cubs have been looking to add to their pitching staff, which has performed much worse this season that in last year's World Series run, but they did not want a rental. Quintana is under contract through 2020, earning $8.85 million, $10.5 million and $11.5 million in 2018-20.

The following post still discusses the concept of affordable starters. The Cubs acquisition of Quintana is a huge deal for the defending champs. And it was quite unexpected since the Cubs had been discussing affordable pitchers with the Tigers.

The original post:

MLB general managers favorite buzz phrase is "affordable starters." Every team is looking to acquire affordable, young (cheap), controllable (years on contract before free agency) starters (who can throw 200+ innings per season).

It is like trying to find unicorns in the local forest preserve.

Traditionally, teams developed their own rotations from drafting quality pitchers. However, many teams have abandoned this hit or miss strategy to buy or trade for starting pitchers. A free agent veteran costs more money because there is a proven track record. A minor league prospect also has a track record but no major league experience to determine if his stuff will make it long term in the majors. The best hitters often feast on the weakest pitchers.

Contending teams are always looking to upgrade their pitching staffs in late summer as insurance against injury or dry spells. But teams that are out of contention now want a King's ransom for any pitcher who may have a promising career.

The White Sox are still looking to get two Top 10 prospects and at least one major league ready position player in trade for Jose Quintana. Quintana had been a solid #2 starter behind Chris Sale. He has not gotten the run support from Sox during his career, but he has been a solid performer.

Quintana, 28, in 172 games has a career 50-54, 3.51 ERA, 1.250 WHIP and 21.1 WAR.

This year is stats are down (but lately improving.) He is 4-8, 4.49 ERA, 1.323 WHIP and 0.9 WAR.

The most important feature about him is his team friendly contract. He is signed through the 2020 season for $31.9 million. That is less than 5th starter money these days. His average WAR salary value per season is $20 million. Clearly, he is a bargain starter.

So the White Sox are justified in asking for the moon to trade Quintana. It seems to be a done deal except for a trade partner.

But should the White Sox trade their #1 starter?

Only if you believe Carlos Rodon can be your #1 in the future. Rodon, 24, in 2.5 years has a 19-18 record, 3.93 ERA and 1.414 WHIP and 3.0 WAR.

The saving grace is that the White Sox have built up a massive amount of quality pitching arms in the minors. Of their top 20 prospects, 10 are pitchers: Kopech (2), Giolito (4), Lopez (5), Fulmer (6), Burdi (8), Hansen (10), Dunning (11), Adams (12), Stephens (14) and Flores (19).  Beck and Holmberg have already been promoted to the major league roster.

Kopech, Giolito, Lopez and Fulmer will be promoted to the bigs within two years as starters. Burdi's 100 mph stuff projects as the new closer. By 2019, the White Sox could have a 9+ deep starting staff.

But that presumes that none of the prospects have arm injuries or the yips when they face major league hitters. The White Sox coaching staff does have a track record of developing starting pitchers so there is hope very soon for a pitching windfall.

But the Sox could be even stronger if they kept the durable Quintana in the rotation. That way the team does not have to rush a prospect to the major league club. And Quintana is THE affordable, controllable pitcher that any team, including the White Sox, will always look for their roster.

July 11, 2017

BREAK DOWN

Two games under .500. Five and one-half games behind the NL Central leader.
The Milwaukee Brewers would have been thrilled with that position prior to the All-Star game.

But it is the Cubs that are in that unexpected position, looking up at the rebuilding Brewers.

It has been a rocky 2017 campaign for the Cubs. The team has only one 5 game win streak and one 4 game win streak. The team has one 5 game losing streak and two 4 game losing streaks.

The vaulted Cub defense from 2016 has been terrible. The Cubs are 14th in the NL in errors and 13th in the league in fielding percentage.

The offense has not been exempt from criticism.

Runs Scored: 399/ 11th in NL
Hits: 706/14th
HR: 117/6th
BA: .239/14th
SB: 26/14th

The pitching numbers show a sad tale as well.

ERA: 4.10/5th in NL
CG: 1/6th
SHO: 0/10th
Runs Allowed: 399/5th
Earned Runs Allowed: 358/4th
Home Runs Allowed: 105/7th
Strikeouts: 763/4th
Walks: 309/10th

The cringe worthy stat is 1st Inning starting pitching (from ESPN):

Pitcher            2017 ERA             2016 ERA
Lackey             6.35                          4.01
Lester               7.85                          3.76
Arrieta              6.50                          2.52
Anderson         21.94                         4.30
Hendricks         5.73                          3.72
Butler               4.09                           8.04
Montgomery    7.11                           4.37

Rotation:          7.34                           3.85


A few years ago, the White Sox had a similar problem with a few of their starting pitchers. Steve Stone remarked that a rough first inning to him meant that the pitcher did not throw enough warm-up pitches prior to the game. He was not in game condition. The first inning was really the last stages of a normal warm up routine. Some pitchers coming off injury or protecting from injury tend to cut back on warm up tosses. The Cubs went into spring training with the direct order not to overwork their starting pitchers who threw into November. But that order may have carried over into the regular season.

A couple of Cubs starters also remarked that there was going to be an adjustment to the pregame rituals since the bullpen was no longer on Wrigley Field. Pitchers said they used to get positive energy from the fans in the stands when they warmed up. But now that they are under the bleachers, they do not get the crowd noise, the atmosphere of the pregame or the exact weather conditions on the field.

The Cubs have broken down in all phases of the game: hitting, pitching and fielding.

The excuses have to be laid to rest this late in the season:

The team is still young; they will get better. Except, there is no historical evidence that the young players hitting below .230 are going to hit .300 when they have never hit that high in the major league careers. There is something to the sophomore slump in the majors because the other teams find weaknesses in their opponents, especially batters.

Once the summer heats up, so will the bats. This is a false myth. In Chicago, it has been above average in temperature since May. The Cub bats have been consistently mediocre all season, especially with runners in scoring position.

The NL Central is weak so the Cubs can easily come back to win it. No one believed the Brewers were contenders but they have been on top for most of the season. They believe they can win it. Their make-up contest blow-out against the Cubs was a statement game. The team will get back its best starting pitcher, Chase Anderson, from his second oblique injury. Rumors have it that the Brewers could trade for Jose Quintana which would solidify their rotation for a stretch run. In addition, the Pirates came to town before the break and beat up the Cubs. They may have turned their season around with a revived Andrew McCutheon.

The Cubs won it last year; they know what to do to win it this year. This assumes that the 2017 Cubs are the same as the 2016 team. The current Cubs are missing the leadership of David Ross (especially when it comes to talking to the starting pitchers). The team is also missing its lead off hitter in Dexter Fowler. As a carryover from Game 7, the team may have stopped listening to sugar-coated hipness of Joe Maddon's happy team routine. The Cubs accomplished a serious goal last season in winning the World Series. This year, the Cubs do not have the same type of goal or a sense of urgency to contend.

More die-hard fans feel that the 2017 Cubs will be a major disappointment and they may end the season a below .500 club. It will really depend on whether the Cubs can start off hot after the All-Star game.

July 7, 2017

BEAT DOWN

Yesterday's make up game had the underpinnings of a Cold War border crossing.

The Brewers were upset that they lost a precious day off for this make up game when the Cubs canceled a game in May when the bad weather never showed up.

The Brewers felt the Cubs front office (which has control of the start until the line up cards are exchanged with the home plate umpire) could have changed the day game to a night game to let the expected bad storms to pass. But the Cubs did not do so. They just canceled the game and scheduled a make up contest a day game after the Brewers played a night game.

It seems like a pretty petty thing for the Cubs to do. In May the Cubs were shuffling along. In July, the Cubs continue to shuffle along. Meanwhile, the Brewers used the clear diss to motivate themselves to pistol whip their rivals.

The blow out of the Cubs was done early. It was so bad that Joe Maddon admitted by the 5th inning he was talking to players about being the position mop-up pitcher in the late innings. A game of rock-paper-scissors between Jon Jay and Tommy LaStella allowed Jay to throw a slow pitch perfect 9th inning.

If Maddon joked about the end of the game as comic relief for a terrible performance, then the Cubs have more problems. The call up of Schwarber after 11 minor league games showed some desperation with the lack of offense. The Cubs were only averaging 4.5 R/G this year compared to 5.3 R/G in 2016. In the spring, Maddon wanted his team to average 6 R/G. Also, Mike Montgomery, who had been the most consistent pitcher since his promotion, got lit up by the Brewers.

You had the perfect storm. You had the Brewers who were mad at the Cubs for being disrespected; you have the Cubs who cannot seem to get their act together for two games in a row.

With the loss, the Cubs fall to 4.5 games behind the Brewers. Everyone keeps on talking about the Brewers not having the players to sustain a playoff run. But they continue to prove the division wrong. Everyone continues to believe that the Cubs will get a post break streak and cruise to the NL Central title. But that spark, if it was to be Schwarber's return, is fizzling (he is now hitting .168). 

Writers try to pry a silver lining out of the dark cloud of the season with this stat: 70% the rest of Cubs opponents are under .500. But in reality, that stat does not matter since the Cubs are under .500 too.

At a certain point, someone will have to call this "a lost season."  This Brewers game may be looked at in September as the downward fall of the Cubs championship defense.

July 5, 2017

MIDSEASON CHIPS

The Cubs entire infield started the 2016 All-Star game. This year, no one will.

Wade Davis is the sole Cub representative. Kris Bryant may get a bench slot if he is voted in by the fans.

The Cubs are stumbling to the break with a .500 at best record. Totally disappointing. Totally frustrating. Totally unexpected.

Who would have thought that the best Chicago player this season would be Avi Garcia? The White Sox outfielder has blossomed to a .318 BA, 11 HR, 51 RBI, .362 OBP and 2.9 WAR so far this year.

The Cubs are in an odd position, 3.5 games behind the Brewers. Milwaukee is supposed to crumble with the lack of starting pitching and a young team. But the Brew Crew continues to chug along in first place.

Which makes the Cubs decisions harder to make by the trade deadline. Are the Cubs buyers? Sellers? Or will they just stand pat and ride out the season?

It would seem the latter may happen by default.

No team will give up front line starting pitcher(s) without a King's ransom. And the Cubs better trading chips (like Schwarber) have struggled all season.

Look at a position comparison:

Is Russell a better shortstop than Baez? Russell may have slightly better range, but Baez has a better arm. Russell has regressed this season; some say it is his bum shoulder. That makes Baez almost untradeable since he can play three defensive positions.

Is Zobrist a better 2B/OF than Happ? Zobrist was the first Super Sub when Maddon was the Tampa skipper. Zobrist had a massive WAR because of his defensive skill sets. But Zobrist has struggled this season at the plate and with a wrist injury. Happ got called up early because of the offensive stuggles. He has provided some HR potential while he learns to play the outfield on the fly. Since Happ has upside, he suddenly becomes an untradeable asset because of his versatility.

Would any other team take Russell and/or Zobrist in a trade? Perhaps if a contending team had a key starter get hurt. But they will not be willing to pay top dollar for either one.

So the Cubs are stuck with many veteran chips in a depressed market. If there are moves to make, it may be for the shot-in-the-dark AAAA player to shore up the rotation as a spot starter.

June 30, 2017

QUALITY CONTROL

Peter Gammons was on local Chicago sports radio this morning. The discussion centered around whether the baseball was "juiced" with the rash of home runs this season.

Gammons believes that the ball was not intentionally altered to create a ball that travels farther. He thinks there may be changes in the manufacturing process which could lead to such results.

Mike Mulligan stated that he has discussed the issue with pitching coaches who believe that the baseball itself is different. That the stitches are harder. Jake Arrieta sweats so much that he had a hard time gripping the current ball. They thought that is why Arrieta's command is so much different this season that the last two.

Gammons thought that was an interesting comment. Also, based on the Nate Silver and USA Today articles on the baseball conspiracy theories, Gammons said he took a current ball back to his office to compare with older ones he had there. He said that he found that the current baseball seams are much lower than the older models. He thinks that if the seams are lower, that may cause the ball to spin or bite less, which would mean less breaking action on curves and sliders.

Arrieta in his prime had biting action but also was able to hit his spots. Gammons thinks that is the major problem with pitching today is that pitchers are not able to consistently hit their spots. He said David Price is having problems hitting the corners even though his velocity is back up to the mid-90s. Price is uncharacteristically leaving fastballs over the heart of the plate.

Gammons also thinks that the detailed analysis of swing planes and launch angles is also contributing to higher home run totals. He says batters are now learning to hit the ball in the air. He says that they are squaring up pitches more for towering home runs to deep center field or with opposite field power. If the baseball is not moving as much as before, the batter is getting a flatter pitch to hit - - - and hit hard.

It could be the combination of the baseball manufacturing process where the seams are lower, the grip weaker for pitchers, and ball movement less that has contributed to the soaring home run rate.

But not to be discounted, Gammons remarked that the strike zone has shifted this season. Umpires are not calling the lower strike. Before, pitchers were getting calls near the ankle. Today, the strike zone has moved up from the thigh to the letters. Gammons thinks that is also a contributing factor because pitchers are forced to throw pitches higher in the zone -- a position where batters can hit them harder.

The Cubs-Nationals series was clear evidence that the balls thrown at the bottom of the strike zone were not called by the umpires. Cub pitchers got extremely frustrated with the strike zone. On the flip side, pitchers are told that they have to adjust their strategy to match an umpire's strike zone calls. But if the umpire is not calling the lower 6 inches of the plate, that is a huge in-game adjustment. If you are a pitcher whose "out" pitch is a slider in at the knees, and that pitch won't get called - - - then you are in trouble.

That may have been Arrieta's last start in a nutshell. He walked 6 batters which set off the Nationals running game against his slow delivery to the plate. A frustrated Miguel Montero voiced his displeasure at being blamed for a record 7 steals against the battery combination - - - and lost his job because of his truthful comments. But Arrieta's command has been an issue all year. He has reverted to his performance stats when he was in Baltimore, to the chagrin of fans.

An altered seam on baseballs, a different strike zone and batters learning to put the ball in the air have all had an impact on home run derby season in major league baseball.

June 28, 2017

WALKING ON EGG SHELLS

Jake Arrieta does have a slow delivery to the plate when runners are on base.
Runners can get a good jump on him.

Miguel Montero is an average catcher with a below average throw out ratio
of runners trying to steal.

Of course, that is a bad combo. And the Nationals stole a team record 7 bases last night to prove it.

So after the game, Montero goes off and blames Arrieta for the 7 steals (even though one of his throws bounced 20 feet in front of second.)

Anthony Rizzo publicly blasts Montero's comments as being "unprofessional."

Normally, these spats are kept behind clubhouse doors. But it shows that the 2016 Happy Happy Cubs clubhouse is not that cheery anymore. One incident sparked a wild fire explosion which quickly led to the front office designating Montero for assignment. Players must have been walking on egg shells for the underwhelming performance for one rant to turn into a job termination bullet.

That means the Cubs have 10 days to trade him (like they did this week with LHP Rosscup) or Montero becomes a free agent (and the Cubs must pay the remaining balance on his large 2017 contract).

The Cubs have not put together consistent total games together all season. The Cubs are mired in a .500 record by playing like an average team. The Montero release is not a turning point in the season but evidence of the open, bleeding sore that is the 2017 season.

Some believe that Maddon lost his position as leader during Game 7 of the World Series. The players only meeting led by Jason Heyward was meant to show the world that the players could win the game in spite of their manager's questionable moves. Maybe Maddon's happy talk and laid back behavior has worn thin with the roster. The players certainly have not shown the drive to succeed like they did last year. The off-season was filled with celebration, admiration and endorsement deals. The Cubs basked in their great accomplishment to the detriment of this season's preparation.

Now with nagging injuries cropping up around the team, and objective performance stats waning on all fronts, the front office is also walking on egg shells. The expectation of ownership and fans was high - - - to repeat the World Series. Ricketts have poured millions into the Wrigley Field experience but if the Cubs tank this year, that investment is at risk.

Montero being released so quickly is a symptom of a greater Cub problem. He may just be the first man in the lifeboat in a sinking season.


June 26, 2017

TEN PERCENT SOLUTION

Joe Maddon thinks the Cubs have been playing better in the past week.

The team has gone 6-4; mostly due to the spark of Rizzo in the lead off spot.  However, it has been feast or famine for both hitting and then pitching which keeps the Cubs mired at .500.

Even if the Cubs play at a 6-4 pace through the end of the season, they would win 90 games. 90 games could win the NL Central as most people believe the Brewers do not have the pitching to contend late in the season. Both wild cards are expected to come from the NL West.

With Schwarber demoted, Russell with a shoulder issue, Hendricks have finger tendonitis for more than a month, Zobrist has nagging injuries, Heyward on the DL, things are much rougher this season than last year's championship run.

The biggest missing pieces have been:

1. Lead off hitter. Fowler was the catalyst for the Cubs offense. As noted, for 140 years, your lead off hitter got on base, the second hitter moved him over or got on, setting the RBI table for your best hitters in the three and four slots. Bryant and Rizzo should be hitting 3 and 4. But there is no one Maddon trusts to lead off or bat second.

2. Consistent starting pitching. Arrieta is still an enigma. He has reverted to his Baltimore problems. Lackey is just about out a gas. Butler is a fifth starter which means that he can throw innings but not much is expected from him except to eat innings. The lack of starters going deep into games is taxing the bullpen. Long relief has been the premium this year, and now that Montgomery is in the #4 spot in the rotation, the Cubs are carrying an extra arm in the pen.

3. Lack of focus. It seems the Cubs are not playing with the same enthusiasm as the club did in 2016. It may be natural for a champion to let down his guard. He was won the trophy. He expects to be treated like a king. He wants to bask in the glory of his accomplishment. He wants to hold on to his place in history. He wants to reap the rewards. There have been so many Cubs with new endorsement deals and media shows that it has to have some level of distraction. There is not a concrete goal in place where the team can focus on to achieve. Getting back to the Series is not the same as remembering they won the Series.

The national baseball writers still believe that the Cubs will turn things around and play like last year's team. They still believe there is plenty of time to get on a "hot streak."  Remember when Maddon said the Cub bats would come alive in the hot weather? This June was one of the hottest on record and the Cubs bats are still in a funk.

Sending Schwarber down to the minors may have been the wake up call the team needed, but many may have slept through it. The Cubs are expected to make several major deals by the trade deadline. But finding a professional lead off hitter and a quality starter will be tough.

June 17, 2017

DRAFTING PITCHERS

In the 2017 draft, the Cubs selected 25 pitchers.  61 percent of their choices were pitchers.

20 of the 25 pitchers were in college.

7 of the 20 college pitchers were seniors.

19 of the 25 pitchers were right handed.

What does this mean?

As we have written about in this blog before, the Cubs in the Theo era have drafted more pitchers than position players. However, Theo and the gang have yet to develop one home-grown starting pitcher.

Instead, the first round emphasis had been on pure bat skills (Bryant, Schwarber, Happ, Almora).

But as this season has shown, you cannot always count on a starting staff made up of free agents (Lester, Lackey) or trade (Hendricks, Arrieta, Butler, Montgomery).

A well run organization moves players through their system on an annual basis. At each level, a prospect has to show improvement or it is time to cut bait. Players want to move up to the next level because you get more time with better coaches and better competition to hone skills.

High school prospects normally are targeted for Rookie Ball. It makes sense because the talent level is entry and a team has years of control over an 18 year. High schoolers are raw talent, usually the best player on their team or high school conference. They may be local studs but there are still years behind a college player in terms of total hours of baseball development.

Also, a 2014 draft study showed if you're going to spend a first-round pick on a player, it seems like you'd be better off drafting a college player who has a 75.39 percent chance of one day playing in the majors than a high schooler at 58.00 percent.

A team can hold onto a minor league prospect for 7 years. But there is a limitation on the number of players a team can have at each level:

Here are the roster limits by league:

Triple-A: International, Pacific Coast — 25 active.
Double-A: Eastern, Southern, Texas — 25 active.
Class A Advanced: California, Carolina, Florida State — 25 active; 35 under control; no more than two players and one player-coach on active list may have six or more years of prior Minor League service.
Class A: Midwest, South Atlantic — 25 active; 35 under control; no more than two players on active list may have five or more years of prior Minor League service.
Class A Short-Season: New York-Penn, Northwest — 35 active. No more than three players on the Active List may have four or more years of prior Minor League service.
Rookie: Appalachian, Pioneer leagues — 35 active. No more than three players on the Active List may have three or more years of prior Minor League service.
Rookie: Arizona, Gulf Coast leagues — 35 active. No player on the Active List may have three or more years of prior Minor League service.
Rookie: Venezuelan Summer, Dominican Summer — 35 active. No player on the Active List may have four or more years of prior Minor League Service. No Draft-eligible player from the U.S. or Canada (not including players from Puerto Rico) may participate in the DSL or VSL.

The Cubs, if they would sign all 41 players (highly unlikely) would need to release 41 players from their minor league system. Signability is an issue with both high school and college players. Normally, college seniors have little leverage because they cannot pass on signing to go back to school for another year. High schoolers have the option of going to college or signing a pro contract. College juniors have the most leverage; they have more experience/track record than high schoolers but can go back for their senior year if they fall below what they think is their signing bonus amount.

By drafting 7 college senior pitchers, the Cubs insure themselves of at least 7 news arms in their Class A minor teams for next season. If they hit on 40 percent of the rest of the pitchers, that is another 6 prospects in the mix.

The Cubs management realizes that it needs to draft and sign more and more pitchers to get a statistical edge that at least one or two will make it to the major league roster as a starter.

June 15, 2017

BY THE NUMBERS

Forty percent of the season has been played but the Cubs are still stuck in a bad neutral position. Nothing is consistent except their inconsistency.

People are trying to find out what is wrong with the new Cub dynasty. Maddon said yesterday maybe "youth" is to blame.

Both hitters and pitchers are to blame.

In 2016, the Cubs hit .256 BA (6th in NL). In 2017, the team is hitting only .235 (14th).  It is more than an 8 percent drop in production.

In 2016, the Cubs scored 808 runs (2nd in the NL). In 2017, the team has scored only 304 runs (8th). The Cubs 2017 run scoring is down 6 percent from 2016.

In 2016, the Cubs had 1409 hits (7th in NL). In 2017, only 517 hits (14th). It is an 8.6 percent decline in hits per game (8.7 vs. 7.95).

In 2016, the Cubs 199 HRs (5th in NL). In 2017, 90 HR (5th). The current Cubs are hitting more HR/G than last season, but scoring less runs.

In 2016, the Cubs stole 66 bases (11th in NL). In 2017, the team has 18 SB (last in NL). That is a 27.7 percent decrease in stolen bases.

In 2016, the Cubs walked 656 times (1st in NL). In 2017, the team has 260 walks (1st). Walks are only down 1.25 percent this season.

In 2016, the team OBP was .343 (1st in NL). In 2017, it is .324 (9th). That is more than a 5.5 percent decline in production.

For team pitching, it is more severe.

In 2016, the team ERA was 3.15 (1st). In 2017, team ERA is 4.20 (5th). It is more than one run higher this year. It is a 33 percent increase in ERA.

In 2016, the Cubs were best in hits allowed at 1125. In 2017, the staff has allowed 542 hits (5th in NL). That is 1.40 more hits per game (a 20 percent increase).

In 2016, the Cubs walked 495 batters (7th in NL). In 2017, the staff has walked 223 (9th in NL). That is a 12.5 percent increase in walks.

In 2016, the Cubs truck out 1441 batters (3rd in NL). In 2017, it is 593 (4th).  The 2017 Cubs are striking out more batters this season 9.12/G vs. 2016 8.9/G.

In 2016, the staff WHIP was 1.110. In 2017, it is 1.308. That is a 17.8 percent increase in WHIP.

The 2017 Cubs have maintained or done better than last year in only these categories:

HITTING:
Home Runs
Team walks

PITCHING:
Strike Outs

The striking double digit declines come in pitching categories (ERA, hits allowed, walks allowed, WHIP). There is more than 8 percent decline in hitting categories (BA, hits per game, stolen bases).

June 14, 2017

MAKING GREEN

The Cubs have announced three more private clubs for season ticket holders. Underneath the entire bowl of box seats will be private clubs where season ticket holders can spend a lot of money for an exclusive place to eat and drink before, during and after the game. The infield clubs have no views of the field and the bleacher club will have a peek into the Cubs bullpen.

It is another aspect of the Ricketts family trying to seize every dime from Cub fans who come to Lakeview for games.

But there is more.

ESPN's business sports reporter, Darrem Rovell, the Cubs are marketing to their season ticket holders a "piece" of the championship season. Literally, a piece of the ivy from 2016.

The  Cubs are offering up leaves of ivy that covered Wrigley Field's outfield wall last season to season ticket holders — and the price tag is $200 per leaf.

From Rovell:

The team emailed premier clients and season ticket holders on Tuesday offering the Ivy leaves that cover Wrigley Field's outfield walls from the 2016 season. Typically discarded when the ivy turns to red and sheds its leaves in November, the team, after the 2016 historic season, instead chose to collect the leaves for the first time and have them each authenticated with a hologram.

2,016 leaves will be sold. $403,200 in additional revenue to the Cubs.

How much more will premier season ticket holders have to pay to support their team?


June 10, 2017

LOAD UP THE BUS

Joe Maddon has never been shy about using platoons.

He says that he needs to keep his bench players "fresh" so he tries to start them at least one a week.

A platoon situation in the major leagues is really a concession that the team does not have one full-time major league player at that position. You have a player who may hit right handers better than the other guy, and thus the lineup card is dictated purely by match-ups.

The Cubs have found themselves in an unusual Triple Platoon situation. Ian Happ, Albert Almora and Jon Jay are all playing regular center field for the Cubs. Add in the occasion move of Jason Heyward to center to have Ben Zobrist in right, center field has become a summer park district program.

Center field production is one of the many Cub 2017 issues.

Almora has played in 49 games. He is hitting .268, 3 HR, 12 RBI, .322 OBP.
Newcomer Happ has played in 24 games. He is hitting .213, 5 HR, 10 RBI, .315 OBP.
Bench player Jay has played in 49 games. He is hitting .296, 0 HR, 10 RBI, .386 OBP.

You don't think your center fielder will be the tops in any category (Colorado's Blackmon is an exception in RBI), but the leaders in categories show how far off the Cubs players are:

HR leader: Judge 18.
RBI leader: Lamb 56.
BA leader: Zimmerman .365.
OBP leader: Trout .461.

Contributing to the Cubs offensive woes is that default starting LF Kyle Schwarber is hitting a season low .170, 10 HR, 25 RBI, .297 OBP. Also in a funk (on and off the field) is Addison Russell. He is hitting only .209, 3 HR, 19 RBI and .291 OBP.

Normally,  Happ, Schwarber, and Russell would be candidates to be sent down to the minors to work on their game (physically and mentally). But there is no one in Iowa is begging for a promotion. The best CF is Jacob Hanneman, but he is hitting .400 in only 5 games (0 HR, 3 RBI). He must have been hastily promoted because in AA he only hit .180, 1 HT, 6 RBI in 34 games. Likewise, the Iowa shortstop, Ozzie Martinez, is hitting a light .219, o HR and 8 RBI in 40 games. The best Iowa middle infielder this season was Happ.

In one respect, the Cubs could load up the bus and send a bunch of players to Iowa. But in another respect, there is no one worthy of being called up to fill their places.

June 3, 2017

QUICK FADE

In 2015, Pirate OF Andrew McCutcheon was on top of the baseball world. He was an All-Star. He was 5th in the MVP voting. He was only 28 years old. He was a leader in a resurgent, young Pittsburgh club.

He was rumored to be in trade talks (his contract expires in 2017). But the Pirates kept him to anchor CF and hit third in the lineup.

In 2015, McCutcheon hit .292, 23 HR, 96 RBI, .401 OBP, 4.9 WAR. Great production. Great teammate. Great clubhouse leader.

Then in 2016, things quickly began to turn. He hit .256, 24 HR, 79 RBI, .376 OBP and a negative 0.7 WAR. At age 29, his plate discipline (OBP) and defense began to diminish.

Now, 51 games into the 2017 season, writers are saying it is shocking that a 30 year old former All Star is a shell of his former self. He is hitting only .217, 8 HR, 24 RBI, .290 OBP, and negative 0.4 WAR. He can no longer handle center field duties.  For an entire season, he projects to hit .217, 24 HR, 72 RBI, .290 OBP and negative 1.2 WAR.

One would think that injuries would be the cause of the massive production drop. In 2014, he had an oblique injury. In 2015, he was hit by a pitch on his elbow. Since then, there has been no reported major injury news.

This season he has been benched for lack of production, and dropped in the lineup to #6 (where he has recently responded with a GW HR).

But no one is seeing a great turnover by the former All Star.

Baseball is a hard and cruel game. There are so many moving mental and physical parts that a break down in one element can signal the end of a career. It is still shocking to see it happen so quickly to a player of the caliber of McCutcheon.

May 30, 2017

OUT OF ORDER

Fifty games into the season and the Cubs ship still lists in the harbor.

A .500 team with flaws in each element of the game is not what we expected from the defending world champs.

Either Maddon believes (hopes) or expects his lineup to start to produce factory perfect six run games by getting on base and bashing homers. But the only consistent thing so far is inconsistency.

Slumping players are still playing big roles.  The discouragement is growing daily. The excuses no longer sound legit after two months of play.

The bold experiment of Schwarber in the lead off spot is over. He did not get on base to set the table for Bryant and Rizzo. His strike out rate of 33% was too high with his low batting average of .181.

The Cubs have no prototypical lead off man. Fowler was the table setter last season (but is struggling himself in St. Louis.)  Zobrist has been moved into the spot, but he is not a speedy, run manufacturing type player.

If you were going to set the order based on merit alone. it would look something like this:

1. Bryant 3B
2. Rizzo 1B
3. Zobrist LF
4. Happ CF
5. Contreras C
6. Heyward RF
7. Russell SS
8. Baez 2B


May 24, 2017

IS IT A DUNN DEAL?

Kyle Schwarber continues to get a lot of attention in Chicago. He is a fan favorite. He is a likeable, blue collar player. He has done great things since arriving on the scene. He has the most post-season home runs in franchise history. His epic return for the World Series after a serious knee injury is a story of legend.

But what is Schwarber?

Is he the new Bambino? Or is he something else?

People are perplexed because Schwarber has the label of being a "pure" hitter. He gets contact. He can drive the ball. He has a good eye. He is an "on base" machine. But the myth may have overtaken the man.

Schwarber's first season in 2015 showed promise. At 22, he played in 69 games, had 232 AB, hit 16 HR, 43 RBI. His batting average was only .246. He struck out 77 times (+33% of the time).

In 2016, his season was lost due to an outfield collision. He returned to become a World Series hero.

Now, at age 24, he has played 41 games. In 156 AB, he has 7 HR and 19 RBI. He has a .186 BA. He has struck out 51 times (32.7%).  The low batting average and continued high strike out totals is a real concern.

A comparison that comes to mind is Adam Dunn. Chicago fans remember Dunn's time as a struggling White Sox at the end of his career.

Dunn debuted at age 21 for the Reds. In 2001, he played in 56 games, hit 19 HR, 43 RBI, hit .262.
In his first full season at age 22, he hit 26 HR, 71 RBI, .249 BA.
In his third year, he hit 27 HR, 57 RBI, .215 BA.

Dunn played in 14 seasons. He ended his career with 462 HR, 1168 RBI and .237 BA.

The question is whether you would accept Schwarber with a Dunne-like career.

The expectations and initial comparisons had him starting at Babe Ruth to being another Anthony Rizzo, a .300 hitting power bat near the top of the order. But Schwarber has yet to sustain a high batting average in his major league career. 

The Cubs want to keep Schwarber in the daily line up because of his bat. But look at the other players missing time because of it: Almora, Happ and Jay. Happ has taken the local media by storm. In 31 AB, he has hit 2 HR, 5 RBI, .323 BA playing mostly out of position in the OF.

The log jam of young players is a positive for the Cubs. But there will be a point of diminishing returns if they do not receive sufficient playing time in order succeed.

Schwarber was once considered an untouchable trade chip. We will have to see if the front office changes its mind on him.

May 18, 2017

NEW ARM OLD STORY

Steve Stone once said that all bullpen arms are failed starters.

The Cubs under Theo have failed to draft and develop one starter of their own.

The streak continues even though the team called up one fading prospect.

The Cubs have optioned infielder Jeimer Candelario to Triple-A Iowa and added Pierce Johnson to their bullpen.

Johnson — the first pitcher the Theo Epstein regime drafted for the Cubs — will be available to make his big-league debut against the Cincinnati Reds.

Johnson — the 43rd overall pick out of Missouri State University in 2012 and the compensation for losing free agent Aramis Ramirez — struggled with command issues and health problems as a starter and pivoted toward a bullpen role last summer.

Johnson went 2-0 with a 3.21 ERA in 12 appearances for Iowa this season, putting up 21 strikeouts against 11 walks and 15 hits through 14 innings.

But when Johnson was drafted, the front office painted the picture that he was the prototype pitcher the Cubs would stock pile in the minors. It never happened. Even though more than 50% of all Cub draft selections have been pitchers, none have made the majors as a starter. The inability to develop a home grown starter is the black hole in the Cubs organization. Every team is desperate for pitching, especially quality inning-eating starters. The premium spot is an ace starter. The inability to develop starters has led the Cubs to the market to overspend on free agents and pitchers on the decline in their careers.

But as we have seen this season, a starting rotation can crumble quickly. A five-man Opening Day rotation now looks for a 5th starter, and two replacements for Arrieta and Lackey when their deals expire at the end of the year. Some predict that Arrieta and Lackey may not last the entire season. It then gets to the proposition of Peter stealing to pay Paul; trading the depth of position prospects to either rent or take on a bad contract at the deadline for an experienced major league starter.

May 16, 2017

A TIME FOR CONCERN

The Cubs stand 18-17 record, 3.5 GB the Cardinals in the NL Central.

Some pundits believe that there is no reason to panic. Everything will be fine. The Cubs will come around. The team has too much talent to fail.

Except that is mere hope and expectation. An objective view of the 2017 season finds:

1. 22.8% of the season has been completed.
2. The Cubs record is upside down from last season.
3. The 2016 Cubs had two starters who hit over .290, hit 30 HRs and drove in 100 RBIs.
4. The 2017 club has only one player hitting over .290 or on pace to hit 30 HR (with 7, Bryant).
5. No current player is on pace to drive in 100 RBI.
6. No Cub starting pitcher is on pace to win 20 games, let alone 18 (accomplished by 2 last year).
7. The only starter on pace to exceed his win total from 2016 is Lackey (on +1 pace to win 12 games).
8. There is no current starter on the team who can replace Hammel's 15 win total from 2016.

The 2016 Cubs had a winning percentage of .640 (103 wins). If the Cubs "turn it around," as the bandwagon drivers claim, in the next 125 games, the Cubs would win 80 games for a season total of 98 (5 games worse than last year). However, that means that the Cubs have to win every series played for the rest of the season.

As the team has played, it is more realistic to divide the remaining 125 games by three. 42 games at 66 winning percent; 42 games split; 41 games at 33 percent equals 66 more wins (or a total of 84 wins). The Cubs have not had a long win streak this season. The starting pitching and lack of hitting is the reason. Even if you factor in a 9 game win streak, but a third (33%), third (50%) and third (55%), you project only to 63 more wins or a .500 season.

The major excuse is that Kyle Schwarber will eventually hit and drive base runners from the lead off position. Except, his post season legend is more than his current track record. In 106 major league games, 370 AB, he is only hitting .219 with 21 HR and 57 RBI. In a full 162 game season, that only projects to 32 HR, 87 RBI.  In 2017, he is only on pace for 20 HR, 56 RBI. 

He may not get more dramatic contact. In 2016, his strike out ratio was 33.2 %. In 2017, his strike out rate is 32.8%. In the next 500 AB, he has a projected chance to make bat-to-ball contact 20 more times, and at his current BA pace - - - 4.38 more hits. Can all four be game winners? Probably not.

Schwarber is not the only player to blame. It is systemic. And if fans do not want to accept that their team is not the same as last season, then you will have something in common with the Giants fans after their post-championship seasons of despair. 

Then, there is another view that the Cubs' front office will right the ship by acquiring new starting pitching with all the young talent in their organization. It is clear that the Cubs tried to show case 3B Candelario, but he went 1-7 but showed some above average defense. Happ was brought up and hit a home run in his first game, solidifying the minor league Baby Schwarber bat legend. But the problem with Theo and Jed is that they have fallen in love with their young players so much they won't trade them easily. Especially when they view them as insurance against veteran injury (such as the current MASH unit of Heyward (thumb), Russell (shoulder), Zobrist (back), Jay (back).

The last beef is the remark that the season is still early. People oddly place more significance in late season wins than early season wins. But in a 162 game schedule, wins in April count equally with wins in September. There is no "bonus" fraction for winning games at the end of the season. It is a clouded perception because most fan interest peaks after August when the pennant races come into view.

What were the preseason expectations?

100 win season: need to play .656 baseball (better than last year) to achieve goal
95 win season: need to play .616 baseball to achieve goal
90 win season: need to play .567 baseball to achieve goal

Those figures show how far behind the Cubs currently are in their goal to repeat in the NL Central and contend for a second championship.

If the front office, the fans and commentators are not concerned about the state of the Cubs, then they are a mild state of denial.

May 12, 2017

THE BUTLER DID IT!

One trope in mysteries is that a band of people are together in a mansion when during the course of the evening a person is murdered. Everyone immediately begins to suspect every guest, every motive, every nuance, until it is revealed at the end the butler did it.

The Cubs mysterious bad season has a Butler going to the mound to murder the Cardinals.
Or so we hope.

But Eddie Butler has a career 6-16 record in 36 games played (28 GS), with an ERA of 6.50, 1.770 WHIP and a negative 2.7 WAR. And he is touted as the fifth starter savior?

The hope lies in the small Iowa sample size: 5 starts, 1-0 record, 1.17 ERA, 1.109 WHIP in 30 IP with 17 Ks, 8 BB.

Can he hold back the staff's double digit 1st inning ERA disaster?

The Cardinals are in first place, 2.5 games ahead of the slumping Cubs. In St. Louis, the home town folk will want their team to stomp on the Cubs' collective neck to get some real separation in the NL Central.

Joe Maddon has run out of excuses ("fatigue," "championship hangover," "cold weather," "distractions") since the calendar has turned over to May.

Between #1 starter Lester and closer Davis, the pitching staff has been a mess. No one has been consistent. The Cubs had been carrying 9 pitchers in the bullpen just to try to survive long games which led to several starters pitch hitting in extra inning contests.

To compound the pitching woes, the Cubs defense has been below average. One person remarked when Rizzo had the day off, the Cubs fielded four second basemen to play the infield. Zobrist has not been good in any outfield spot. Baez is trying to make every play a Sportscenter highlight reel instead of getting sure outs.

It is clear that the Cubs lack focus. It may be hard to get yourself up to do a daily grind when you have already won a championship, but this team is young and should be hungry enough to continue history by winning multiple championships. That means laid back Joe needs to start sitting players when they screw up to send a message (remember all the tough love Starlin Castro received when he was a Cub?)




May 8, 2017

108 & OUT

It took 6 hours and 5 minutes to shatter many records. The 18 inning Sunday night contest between the Yankees and Cubs was the longest interleague game in history. It also crushed the number of strikeouts in a game with 48. Of the 108 outs, 44.4 percent were by strike out. Yankees set a franchise record by striking out 26 batters in a game, while also recording a history 22 strikeouts on their own.

The Cubs used 22 players, including 8 pitchers. Only 8 batters got a hit during the marathon game.
The Cubs mounted a 9th inning comeback, erasing a 3 run deficit off Yankees star closer, Chapman.

But during the game, Baez hit a stinger foul off the top of his foot. Hobbled, he stayed in the game and played second. Rizzo was hit on the forearm with a fastball. He also stayed in the game in some pain, but an x-ray later showed no broken bones.

The Cubs had 108 outs but could only score 4 runs in 18 innings. The Cubs left 18 runners on base (10 courtesy of Yankee walks). 108 was a magical number in 2016. But in 2017, it merely reflects the doldrums of the post championship hangover the Cubs are experiencing this season.

The Cubs got swept by their mirror cousins. The Yankees, the old money team that used to try to buy championships with expensive free agents, now boasts a young core as talented as the 2016 Cubs. Rookie outfielder Judge leads the majors with 13 HRs. Outfielder Hicks provides speed on the bases. Gregorius and Castro are a young double play combination. The Yanks boast two quality catchers in Sanchez and Romine, who can also play first. 

The Yankees are 20-5 while the Cubs are slumping at 16-15. If this was a statement series or a test of how good your team is, then the Yankees won by a wide margin. The Yankees have quietly emerged as the best team in the AL East because the ongoing bean ball war distraction between the Red Sox and Orioles.

May 3, 2017

THE ROTATION

Pitching coaches will often say in spring training that you have to wait five regular season games to tell how well your starting pitchers are going to be for the season.

The Cubs have reached that point. It is not pretty.

The starting rotation after 16% of their season complete  is not on pace to be an average starter.

Lackey: 2-3, 5.10 ERA, 30 IP, 9 BB, 1.333 WHIP -0.3 WAR
Lester: 0-1, 3.68 ERA, 29.1 IP, 9 BB, 1.432 WHIP 0.3 WAR
Arrieta: 3-1, 4.66 ERA, 29 IP, 8 BB, 1.310 WHIP, -0.1 WAR
Hendricks: 2-1, 4.18 ERA, 28 IP, 12 BB, 1.214 WHIP, 0.2 WAR
Anderson: 2-1, 6.23 ERA, 21.2 IP, 12 BB, 1.846 ERA, -0.5 WAR

The starting rotation has accumulated a total negative 0.4 WAR.


It is the high ERA and high walk totals that is killing the rotation.

May 2, 2017

IT'S NOT EARLY

"It's still early."

That is the catch phrase from those who want to put pink lipstick on a pig.

The sample size is too small to make accurate projections.

But a month into the season with 25 games played does give one pause to reflect on one's team.

The Cubs are in first place with a meager 13-12 record. The .520 pace is only good for a projected 84 wins, a significant decrease from 2016's 103 victories.

The 2016 Cubs started off to a blazing 25-6 record and never looked back.

So, what is the difference?

One could argue the Cubs are still in championship hangover mode. Spring training was more like spa days for the veterans. There was no competition for starting jobs. The players knew they were good because they had bathed in champagne.

The Cubs returned 4 of the 5 starting pitchers who combined to have an exemplary season. But Brett Anderson, the often injured, new #4 starter replacing Jason Hammel has been a disappointment. He looks a little like Travis Wood, but he throws like an arthritic old man.

But none of the other starters have been very sharp. Velocity has been down. The coaching staff is not worried thinking April would be the month to get past any "dead arm" problems.

The bullpen is currently 4-5 with 4 blown saves. Wade Davis seems to be a good closer when he is on, but there is still times his set up men (Uehara, Strop, Montgomery, Rondon) get lit up.

The defense has been disappointing. Javy Baez has made 3 errors in 39 attempts at second base. It may affect his hitting as he is only at .222 BA, .275 OBP, 2 HR, 6 RBI with 21 strikeouts. But Baez is not the leader in Ks. Contreras has 22K/70 AB; Bryant has 27K/99 AB; and Schwarber has 35 K/97 AB.

The team is 7th in the NL with a team BA of .251 but 12th with 227 strikeouts.

Len Casper said that Joe Maddon believes that putting players in "uncomfortable" defensive positions, i.e. playing outside their natural position, helps them relax at the plate. The concentration on defense takes the pressure off their hitting.  In a crazy blow out last night, Maddon had all three of his catchers play new positions: Schwarber made his debut at catcher; Montero played first base; and Contreras played third base. Maddon will be shaking up the line up to get his players to believe the game is still "fun."

When one says it is too early to worry, just remember that games played in April count as much as those played in September. A win is a win and a loss is a loss. Everyone expects the Cubs to play better, especially in a weak division. But April has put the spot light on the team's weaknesses.

April 26, 2017

DRAFTING VALUE

Tomorrow begins the annual NFL draft. It is now largely a media event. The NFL wants to create a circus atmosphere to enhance fan interest for fall ticket and merchandise sales. It is essentially a meat market auction for college talent. But it is wrapped in inconsistent statements, philosophies and dumb moves.

Leading up to the first selection, the hype is on the "skilled" positions such as quarterback, running back or "edge rusher."  But most of this smoke is misguided tripe. The NFL has made the running back position a mere commodity. Running backs get burned out quicker than most positions so teams now have RB squads to carry the ball during the season. Most GMs figure they can find a quality back in the 4th round of any draft.

The "edge" rusher is the bling for defensive stat coaches who look to the "sack" as the key to a strong defense. The sack is an overrated marker. A good offensive tackle can neutralize an edge rusher, who is usually a thinner, quicker version of the defensive end. A great sack machine can have 15 in a season, but in reality that is probably less than two percent of the player's defensive snaps. Most edge rushers only look to sacks, so the other 98 percent of the time they are a non-factor.

The most focus in pre-draft mocks is the quarterback position. It is still the glamour spot on any team. Every owner wants a "franchise" quarterback to be the "face of the team."  It is said that without a franchise QB, a team cannot win a Super Bowl (but tell that to Doug Williams.) Columnists admit that teams "overvalue" the quarterback position in the first round of the draft because quality, pro-ready quarterbacks are harder to find. The reason is simple: colleges are not running pro-style offenses. If a college education is supposed to prepare young men and women for their careers, college athletes does not prepare QBs for the pros because college coaches are all about winning to retain their huge salary and benefit packages. That is why some teams will reach to the lower college ranks to pick a Carson Wentz, who played a pro-style offense in college.

Another reason why QBs get picked in the first round is that the CBA allows teams to keep a QB an extra (5th year) under the rookie contract. Teams rarely put a rookie QB in charge of the offense so they use the first professional year for training and development. But there is another school of thought: baptism under fire. Some old coaches believe that it is better to put a rookie into battle right away so he can learn at "game speed."  The biggest difference between college and pros is that in the NFL the opponent is bigger, faster and more skilled than college competition.  The more reps a player gets against that talent level, the quicker a team will know whether their player is going to make it.

The scouting consensus is that none of the top 4 QB prospects is "worthy" of a first round selection. But everyone concedes that at least 3 QBs will be drafted in the top 15. If teams stuck with their internal valuations, all the quarterbacks would fall to the second round - - - and if a team needed to draft one, that would be the place to do it. Part of the reason for over-drafting a QB is to appease fans of bad teams. Drafting a new QB means that there will be competition at the most important position on the field. Competition should bring out the best in a player.  But some front offices have taken competition out of the equation. The Bears never brought in a new, young QB to compete with Jay Cutler. The team did not want a "quarterback controversy." Cutler was their QB, period. As a result, the Bears did not draft a successor to Cutler. The position languished under Cutler, but it was reasoned that Cutler still had "potential" to get better. He never did. Now, the Bears have the third draft pick - - - and the team is still uncomfortable in selecting a QB.

Many teams tell us the overriding strategy on their draft boards is to select "the best player available." This strategy can lead to mismanaging resources and overdrafting a position of strength. Teams are supposed to use the draft to make their teams better. To improve the overall talent pool. If a team is in desperate need for a cornerback, select a cornerback - - - not a running back who has better "numbers."  Old school scouts and GMs scoff at the Combine as being an irrelevant side show. Who cares if a offensive line man can dead lift a Mack truck twenty times if he is a traffic cone when it comes to pass protection. How high a man can jump, his 40 yard dash time, his "wing span" and cone drill time is meaningless because an NFL game is not made of those drills. The only thing a good general manager should ask is "can this kid play football?" Does a prospect have the football IQ to adapt to the professional level? Does he understand the fundamental concepts of the playbook? Does he understand his role and assignments on the field? You can tell the quality of the NFL product has diminished because there are so many "combine heros" on the field who do not know what they are doing - - - especially glaring in the secondary when a free safety is running around like he is trying to herd cats.

Draft boards are closely guarded secrets. Sports media tries to find ways to get scoops on how their local team plans to draft. But most of the dialog is misinformation. If a team thinks Player X is the best player on their board, they will not hype him so some other team will take him before their pick. Likewise, some teams will say a player with off-the-field issues will not impact his status on their board, when in fact some coaches and GMs will eliminate that player totally from any consideration. The Commissioner's complete discretion in player discipline has made some teams extremely uncomfortable in drafting drug users or domestic abusers because of potential long suspensions for a second offense.

There is also misinformation from the clubs who continually state that the "prime" rounds are in the middle. But this philosophy makes little sense. If you value third round talent more than first round talent, then you should always trade your highest picks for multiple middle round selections. It is a method of covering for first round mistakes or blunder picks, such as picking an injured first rounder who never makes it on to the field.

In 2011, SB Nation did a review of the 2000-2007 drafts for all pro selections. The results contradict the middle round philosophy.

Round 1:  In each of these years, 31 players were taken in round 1.  Out of those players, 13, 16, 10, 13, 15, 10, 13, and 10 in years 2000-2007, respectively, have made the Pro Bowl.  In only one year did at least half the players drafted in round 1 eventually become Pro Bowlers.  The average for the 8 yrs is 12.5.

Round 2:  Again, 31 players were drafted in round 2 in each of these years.  Those becoming Pro Bowlers number 5, 11, 4, 6, 2, 5, 6, and 5, for an average of 5.5 per year.  This is less than 1 in 5 players drafted in this round.  Again, 2001 appears to behave been a banner year.

Round 3:  The numbers in round 3 are: 1, 3, 2, 2, 6, 2, 0, and 0, for an average of 2.0, or less than 1 in every 15 players chosen (note that compensatory picks make the number of players chosen in rounds 3-7 higher than 31).

The average for Round 4 was 2.375, for round 5 it was 1.625, for round 6 it was 1.5, and for round 7 it was 0.75.

The author's conclusion was the odds of finding that Pro Bowler are not that good, even in the first round (40%) And the odds of finding quality talent after the first round drops significantly as the second round is only 20%, the third round 6.7%.   It shows  how important it is to address your biggest need(s) in the first round or two. The odds are that your team will not pick a pro bowler in any round of the draft. 

If you look at it objectively, even the best GM over a seven year draft cycle will only pick 6 pro bowl quality players or around 12% of total picks. An average GM over the same time period may only select 3 pro bowl quality players.

So, an NFL team needs to draft their primary, urgent needs each and every draft cycle; not the best player available but the best player at the position of need available. If you bet on the best player but he will not play because of a current starter is a veteran, then what is the point of stockpiling talent? And that does not help the problem positions on the team.

Drafts get screwed up because the nature of the clock and GMs, coaches and owners who disagree in the war room when they are on the clock. For years, commentators would wait for a team like the Raiders to pick someone out of the blue which would have a cascade effect across the rest of the NFL teams. That is part of the drama of the draft that NFL executives like to see. 

But year after year, teams drafting lower in the order like the New England Patriots, seem to find more talent than the lowly Cleveland Browns. But the Pats do not necessarily draft or sign the fastest, strongest or more impressive Combine stars. They draft football players.

April 18, 2017

THE CURSE REVIVED

The Cubs continued to bask in the glow of the championship.

But that light is turning dark.

The Cubs have lost 4 home games in a row for the first time in three years.

The championship hangover continues.

And then there is the weirdness about their diamond rings.

When shown after the ceremony, it was learned that on the inside there was an image of a goat.

Why is there a goat on a Cubs ring?

When Ricketts purchased the club, they were adamant that they did not believe in any curses. When Epstein arrived in town to run the team, he said he did not believe in curses - - - and he came from Boston, the home of the Bambino Curse. He said building a quality organization leads to championships. And he backed up his words with an aggressive and painful rebuilding program.

So by putting a goat on the championship ring, the Ricketts have directly acknowledged the mythical curse. There was no logical reason to do so. And some fans, seeing the Cubs are in a slow, bad baseball start, will believe that putting the goat on the championship ring has revived the curse.

But as gracious and generous the Ricketts family was at the ring ceremony, the Sun Times reported that there is an another strange twist in the Cubs championship. The paper reported:

The Cubs organization is handing out World Series Championship rings to players and other employees, describing the bling as a “priceless memento of the greatest championship quest in all of sports.”

In fact, each ring does have a price — $1, to be precise — even though appraisers say they could fetch anywhere from $50,000 to $250,000 on the open market.

That’s because the rings come with strings attached. The Cubs are discouraging ring recipients from selling the hardware. But if they get the urge, the Cubs reserve the right to buy each ring back for $1, according to a memo the organization is asking each ring recipient — including players — to sign.

“We regret the formal nature of this memo, and we do not intend for this information to overshadow our joy in being able to provide this ring to you,” the memo states. “However, we think it is important to communicate this information to you.”

Those planning to sell “or otherwise transfer your ring,” must give the Cubs written notice of “the proposed transaction and a complete accounting of the terms. If the Cubs elect not to purchase the ring, then you may transfer it according to the terms you provided to the Cubs; however, each subsequent owner shall also be bound by these terms in the event of a subsequent proposed sale or other transfer.”

The memo makes an exception for rings that are given as gifts — say to a child, spouse or grandchild. Cubs spokesman Julian Green stated that it was not unusual for this stipulation.

However,  Sun Times contacted the White Sox about their 2005 championship rings, The Sox said the rings given to players and staff had no conditions attached to them. The Sox said that the rings were gifts to the players who could do whatever they wanted with them.

And sports writers have never heard of this stipulation in past champions.

It seems like a petty power grab by the Ricketts to assert control over their players and their assets. The players "earned" those rings by performing at the highest level. The players success has directly increased the Ricketts' value of the club by approximately two billion dollars. So why are the owners trying to seize back the $70,000 ring if a player needs to convert it to cash?

It is the same reason why Crain's reported earlier in the year that the Ricketts push to control the surrounding Wrigley Field blocks is pushing old neighborhood merchants farther and farther away from the facility. By pushing away the competition, the Cubs are casting a monopoly upon fans coming to games with pre-game merchandise sales at their huge new store and beer or food stands outside the park. It comes down to the Ricketts continuing philosophy (that blew a part the rooftop settlement)  that only the family has the right to make any money off the Cubs. And this includes the players and their championship rings.

 We all know stories of players after their careers are over who become down on their luck. Many players do not save their wealth, or find themselves making poor investment decisions because their focus was on their career and not business. Many athletes get into bitter, expensive divorces where cash is the only way out. So the Ricketts have effectively "cursed" their future former championship players with a "generous gift" that is only worth $1 outside the family. Experts believe that a championship ring of Bryant, Rizzo or Lester could command $250,000 or more on the open, auction market. But instead, the Ricketts want fans to pay them  $10,000 for a cheaper replica of the ring.

The whole ring dynamic tarnishes the Cubs championship.
 

April 17, 2017

THE HANGOVER

Last season, it took the Cubs 31 games to lose their 6th game of the season.

In 2017, it took 12 games.


A 19 game swing even early in the season is a huge red flag.

There is probably a huge championship hangover, with all the celebrations and
spring press expectations for a repeat.


The players off-seasons were probably quite different than seasons past in having to deal with the celebrity interaction with fans about the championship.

The Cubs were only swept once last season. The Pirates took that honor over the weekend when the Cubs re-tooled bullpen blew up.

Most people believe the Cubs will be fine. The Reds are not sustainable in first place in the NL Central. The Cardinals are in panic mode after dropping to dead last without a pulse. The early season is not a prediction of October. But, every game counts the same in the end. The Cubs are only on pace to win 81 games, which would be a huge nuclear meltdown if it would occur.

There was no drama, no real competition in spring training. It was a quiet, professional work out. The pundits believed that it would take 5 appearances before the pitchers would get into their groove.

The concern about new closer Davis was wrong. He is off to a good start; 1-0, 6 G, 2 SV, 0.00 ERA, 0.75 WHIP.

It is the middle of the bullpen that has been surprisingly bad.

Grimm: 6 G, 9.53 ERA, 1.59 WHIP
Strop: 6 G, 0-1, 9.00 ERA , 2.00 WHIP
Uehara: 7 G, 3.18 ERA, 1.41 WHIP
Montgomery, 0-2, 4 G, 3.00 ERA, 1.67 WHIP

The WHIP numbers indicate control issues which have led to half of the team's current losses.

It looks like the back end of the pen is set with Davis at closer, and Edwards and Rondon as 8th inning set up men. But since Maddon does not want to overtax his starters early in the season, long relievers like Montgomery and Grimm have to step it up. The bridge to the back end of the pen is broken.

What will cure a weak middle bullpen? An explosive offense. 
The Cubs team batting average of .240 ranks 7th of 15 in the NL.
The Cubs 47 runs scored is 11th in the NL.
The Cubs 9 HR is last in the NL.
The Cubs OBP of .366 is 3rd in the NL.

The Cubs can get on base, but cannot get timely hitting to score adequate runs.  

The tipping point will be May 1. That is when you will really know if your team is a contender or a pretender.