August 24, 2017

5 & 7

Barring an epic collapse, the rule of thumb is that a team can realistically make up one game per week in the standings.

There are approximately 5 weeks left to go in the season.

The Brewers are 3.5 games behind the Cubs. The Cardinals are 4.5 games behind.

The NL Central rivals may be looking more toward a tightening wild card race than a division win.

But the Cubs still have 7 games left with each of the Brewers and Cardinals. That means that the Brewers and Cardinals are not out of the race even if they trail by 7 games before meeting the Cubs.

Another rule of thumb is that a team needs to take care of business in its own division. The only two teams left with an above .500 record are the Brewers and Cardinals. The Cubs still need to play well against division teams in order to avoid a bitter September surprise.

August 19, 2017


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


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 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


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.