March 6, 2015

SHOWCASE OF INCOMPETENCE

A few of us are actually dreading Opening Night at Wrigley Field.

We know why ESPN decided to have it as the first national marquee game: a) the rivalry; and b) the promise of the debut of the New Wrigley Field. A + B = Ratings.

But we will be shown a construction site instead.

And as I have predicted, a pretty wicked backlash from out-of-town traditionalists who may not have realized that "landmark restoration" means "compete overhaul" in the Ricketts playbook. There will be hues and cries about the destruction of the cathedral of baseball with its huge electronic scoreboards, signage and pure commercialism.

The bleachers won't be done.
The new bathrooms won't be done.
The triangle improvements won't be done.

The Cubs brashly thought the city would exempt them from construction hours because of the delays.
A property so important as Wrigley should get allowed 24/7 construction noise, pollution, debris and traffic.  The mayor and building department told the Cubs bluntly, twice, no!

Then Crane Kenney had the bruised ego to sigh that "they'd have to live with the decision." There was no decision! The law is the law. If the Cubs did not know the law, or think they are above the law, then management is delusional. And to think that a winter construction plan would go smoothly in Chicago is also delusional.

Instead of ESPN giving the nation a public relations golden tour of a new Wrigley Field experience, the pregame will be filled with incomplete structures, piles of work debris, and comments from angry neighbors. We still do not know how the 2,000 bleacher season ticket holders will like their exile from their seats (probably to the upper deck if they want to see the games in person).

The tenure from Clark and Addison has been one of raised nose arrogance; that management is "smarter than the rest of us." This same management team has put the Cubs in the playoffs with greater than normal expectations, even though the actual baseball club is not significantly different than last year's team. If Baez can't stop striking out, who takes his place? Journeyman LaStella? If the Cubs want to keep Bryant for an extra contract year of control, that means bust Olt mans third base for a third of a season? And what if Soler gets hurt? The outfield depth is worse than soggy corn flakes.

This spring is not going to be the showcase that anyone could have imagined last September.

March 5, 2015

GOING TO WAR

Depending on what era in history, a general has to count on one element of his army in order to achieve victory.

In baseball, that is the starting rotation. So much emphasis and money is put into five arms.

The Cubs are probably going to war with these five starters: Lester, Arrieta, Hammel, Hendricks and T. Wood.

The Cubs rotation, if they match last year's production, would generate 14 WAR.

Lester: 3.6
Arrieta: 5.3
Hammel: 3.1
Hendricks: 2.9
T. Wood: -0.9
______________
Total: 14.0 WAR

In contrast, the champion Giants starting rotation accumulated 8.1 WAR.

Bumgarten: 4.0
Hudson: 1.5
Vogelsong: 1.2
Peavy: 2.1
Cain: -0.7
______________
Total: 8.1 WAR

The Giants had several starters with injuries so it cobbled together a 6th, 7th and 8th starter. But it was the timely offense that made up the slack in SF's championship run, with a 22.3 oWAR to a pitching staff total 15.2 WAR. The Giants win percentage above average was .505.

It is debatable what is replacement value for a starting pitcher (a .500 record? or more tied to run production .300?) as a factor of team wins. A GM would like a replacement pitcher to win at least half their starts; but realistically a third is probably a better gauge (since the burden falls more to the bullpen).

Each team has 162 games to start. Each rotation pitcher probably, on average, will take the mound around 31 times. So a set rotation covers about 155 games. A replacement team would average around 65 wins. The Giants patched together an 88 win season, meaning the offense carried at least 15 games above pitcher replacement (almost double value than the starters).

The Cubs won 73 games with batting WAR of 7.7 and pitching WAR of 15.7, almost a mirror image of the Giants. The Cubs primary starting five had a collective 7.2 WAR. Again, if one thinks that the 2015 rotation will be much better (by 7 games), this gets the Cubs projected to an 80 win season if the offense remains the same (which may be the case with the young players and league adjustments).

So the Cubs will really have to rely on their starters to carry the team.

March 4, 2015

FA SPENDING

MLBTR has a fantastic chart on this off-season free agent spending, by team. It gives baseball fans a harsh perspective on their sport.

Total free agent spending to date is a whopping $1.769 billion on 96 players.  The average free agent got a deal of $18.43 million, with average annual salary of $9.78 million.

The other surprise in the team rankings was that the Cubs and White Sox each signed 6 free agents, for a total of $191 million and $134 million. That puts the Cubs #3 and White Sox #4 on the list of big spenders.

It is also interesting to note that former "big spenders" like the Angels (last place with only one free agent for $500k which is major league minimum salary), Phillies (spending only $7 million on 3 players) and the Dodgers  (spending $61 million on 4 players) have cooled off dramatically from prior years. The Angels have been choking on several dead money deals, the Phillies are imploding by old veteran contracts and the Dodgers still can't digest their past deals. So past spending is not a clear path to future results.

March 3, 2015

MADDONING EXPECTATIONS

The local Chicago baseball beat writers really like Joe Maddon. He is a colorful guy. Down to earth. Has some good quotes. Makes their jobs easier. A few are starting to put him on a pedestal of the greatest Chicago sports coaches.

But he hasn't won a Cub game yet.

As posted earlier, Maddon was a sudden "find" in the off-season, just as valuable as a free agent pitcher. Maddon left Tampa Bay in such a quick fashion, the MLB is still investigating a tampering charge filed by the Rays.

Maddon has had great success with the small market Rays, who had to continually field teams with low payrolls and few stars.

Now Maddon leaps the ladder to a big market, big spending, historic franchise.

He was brought on board to teach young players how to be professionals, how to maintain a good clubhouse, and to win games.

How Maddon performs will be the final win loss record of the Cubs.

There are a few concerns. Maddon has said that his new players have immediately earned "his trust," and that players will have to learn to trust him. That seems to be a backwards approach. One earns trust through action. You can't trust a player to put down a suicide squeeze if you have never seen the player play.

Maddon also states he has a hands-off approach with his players. He believes that it is up to each player to be ready game in and game out. They are professionals, they should know what to do to personally prepare. This is a classic "players' manager" code. However, with a young team without strong leaders (Starlin Castro has publicly admitted he wants no part in any leadership role), a manager needs to be more involved in teaching the proper routines and habits to his club.

Without seeing and managing any of his squad, Maddon leads the Cubs championship expectation parade. A cooler head would have walked back the divisional title talk. A cheerleader is one thing; a pro manager needs objective assessments in order to adapt to game and series situations.

Fans hope that Maddon is the real deal.  We have seen established managers like Lou Piniella and Dusty Baker fail with the Cubs. Maddon has yet to realize that managing the Cubs is such a different animal than he could ever imagine. The honeymoon period may be a short one if the Cubs have their traditional slow start.

March 2, 2015

PROTECTING THE STAR

The Miami Marlins intend to protect their lone superstar with a custom helmet. Since Giancarlo Stanton got hit in the face, and subsequently signed a $100 million plus deal with the Fish, the team needs to protect its investment.

The helmet looks like a hybrid batting and football face guard helmet. It will be interesting to see if Stanton has any vision issues with the metal guard in picking up launch points of various pitchers.

With the league trying to mandate that pitchers were protective skull caps (to lessen the impact of hot shots up the middle), the evolution of baseball protective gear has been slow. But with so much money invested long term in player contracts, teams now have the incentive to protect their circus animals to avoid dead money issues.

February 28, 2015

SPRING BATTLES

I mostly agree with Yahoo Sports! assessment of the key spring training roster battles for the Cubs.

The fifth starter competition is probably going to be the one the media will focus upon. Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks are the starting four.  The 5th spot will be won by either Edwin Jackson (ouch), Travis Wood (who turned down 4 year deal before 2014 season, ouch again), Ysuyoshi Wada (who has hamstring issues), Felix Doubront, Jacob Turner or long shot Eric Jokisch.

Third base is a caretaker position for the first two months. It is doubtful Kris Bryant makes the opening day roster. So, terrible Mike Olt (the former #1 prospect in the Rangers organization), Tommy LaStella or Arismendy Alcantara are the probable contenders for the spot. Perhaps, the Cubs attempt to move Javey Baez to third, and train Bryant to learn left field.

Some think Alcantara can be Maddon's new version of Ben Zobrist, a multi-positional player who could hit. Alcantara appears to have a back up CF role (with Fowler's acquisition), and back up roles at second and short stop.

Second base is Baez's spot to lose. If he can't cut down on his strike out ratio, he may start the season in Iowa. That would probably leave a platoon of LaStella and Alcantara at second, and gives third to Olt by default.

February 27, 2015

POSITIONING

The Cubs have publicly said that Welington Castillo still has a place with the team.

The idea of having three catchers on the major league roster is really out of the box. With most teams adding an additional pitcher, the position bench is pretty thin. Thus, the rise of the super-sub like Emilio Bonifacio.

There are two reasons for management's comments. First, it is a way to bump up the "trade value" of a surplus catcher. There are many teams that are in need of a quality, major league ready backstop. But no one has pulled the major trigger since the Blue Jays signed Russell Martin. The Jays former starter, Dioner Navarro, had an excellent season so he wants to be traded to start somewhere else. But the Jays have not tried to move him.

Navarro is a better hitting catcher than Miguel Montero, David Ross or Castillo. Navarro's return to the Cubs would have made more sense than replacing Castillo with Montero and Ross, who will be the personal catcher for Jon Lester. Personally, the Montero trade was not an upgrade over Castillo.

Second, there may be some concern that either Montero, who has had two declining years in a row for Arizona, or Ross, who is at the final stage of his career, may break down leaving the Cubs with a huge catching hole since Kyle Schwarber is years away from a big league promotion.

In his major league career, Castillo has only played one game at first base. Otherwise, he has been a catcher. So Castillo does not have the experience to become a super-sub and play multiple positions such as 1B, LF or 3B, the latter two to be manned by journeymen.

The Cubs could try to deal from catching strength if some clubs have spring training injuries to their starting catchers, but at this point that is a long shot. 

It is not to say that Castillo would not be better than the 25th man off the bench. But it is a luxury to carry three catchers. It means that a team has a set 8 man daily lineup, which clearly the Cubs do not have.