August 1, 2014

ALL IN

Oakland knows that dominate starting pitching wins playoff games.

It made another huge trade to acquire an ace.

The  A’s on acquired Boston Red Sox starter Jon Lester, the playoff-tough left-hander who can be a free agent at season’s end, in an all-in effort to win the AL West and make a deep October run, baseball sources told Yahoo Sports.

The addition of Lester comes 26 days after the A’s acquired ace right-hander Jeff Samardzija of the Cubs, and so they have remade the top of their rotation. They already had Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir.

The agreed-upon trade will send Lester and outfielder Jonny Gomes to the A’s. In return, the Red Sox, embarking on their second roster makeover in two years, receive outfielder Yoenis Cespedes  and, critically, a competitive balance pick in the 2015 draft. Cespedes, 28, can become a free agent after the 2015 season. In his third major league season, Cespedes is batting .256 with 17 home runs and 67 RBI.

This deal shows the trigger of the A's. Jason Hammel, also acquired from the Cubs, has struggled in Oakland, going 0-4 with a plus 5 ERA and plus 2 WHIP. It appears Hammel is destined for bullpen duty or a DL stint to regain his form.

Boston came away with a fabulous return for Lester, who was going on the free agent market at the end of the year, probably looking towards a Kershaw megadeal.  The Red Sox get a legitimate starting outfielder with power in Cespedes.

And he is a critical point when looking at the Cubs trade with Oakland. It is now perfectly clear that the Cubs are purely focused on obtaining and stockpiling prospects than known major league talent. If the Cubs received Cespedes in the Samardzija-Hammel deal as well as a 2015 draft pick and either Addison Russell or Billy McKinney, it would have been a better deal since Cespedes instantly becomes the best outfielder on the major league roster by a mile. Cespesdes bat gives instant protection to both Rizzo and Castro in the line up. 

As Oakland is clearly "all in" for this season, it is also clear that the Cubs have folded their hand for 2014 by continuing acquiring prospects and not major league players. The danger is that the Cubs are hoping that these prospects, when the cards are dealt with the their major league promotions, will turn out to be aces.

There is just another concern about how the Cubs make trades. After the Lester trade, the Twins have acquired leftyTommy Milone from the A’s in exchange for outfielder and ex-Cub Sam Fuld. 


Milone lost his rotation spot with the Athletics earlier this month when the team acquired Samardzija and Hammel and any hope of him regaining that spot likely faded with Oakland’s morning acquisition of Lester.  The 27-year-old Milone had asked to be traded somewhere that he had a chance to start, and Minnesota certainly fits that bill.

Milone had pitched to a solid 3.55 ERA with 5.7 K/9, 2.4 BB/9 and a 38.4 percent fly-ball rate in 96 1/3 innings this season. He owns a 3.84 ERA with 6.5 K/9, 2.0 BB/9 and 36.8 percent ground-ball rate in 468 2/3 innings for the Nationals and Athletics. He is eligible for arbitration for the first time this off season and can be controlled through the 2017 campaign. 

And since Oakland has shown all its trade cards that would or should have been apparent when the Cubs were selling their pitchers, the Cubs passed on another major league ready arm in Millone, who fits a pressing need for Chicago: starting pitching. A controllable pitcher with a solid ERA and a good ground ball rate would be a good fit in Wrigley. It is clear the Cubs could have given Oakland a Fuld type outfielder (pick anyone: Sweeney, Schierholtz, Coghlan, Riggiano or Lake) to pick up Millone or someone like him. This another piece of evidence that the Cubs are holding back on rebuilding the major league roster with major league experience for the long haul.
 
Statistics and expectations are the trading blocks of prospects. But how they actually play under the pressure of ML games is another thing. Bill Madlock was on the radio and he said in his day the only stats that mattered were wins for pitchers and hits for hitters. He knows about the new sabermetrics and new stats like OBP, but he remarked that OBP is meaningless if you are station to station runner versus a person like Rickey Henderson who could turn a walk into a triple. The object of the game is to score more runs than one's opponent, not to have a better sabermetric spreadsheet.

July 31, 2014

ANOTHER ARM

Mark Gonzales of the Tribune reports:

The Chicago Cubs are close to acquiring left-hander Felix Doubront from the Boston Red Sox, according to a scouting source.

Doubront, 26, is 2-4 with a 6.07 ERA in 17 games (10 starts) and has allowed 10 home runs in 59 1/3 innings. But the Cubs apparently believe Doubront has plenty of upside as they saw when they acquired Jake Arrieta from the Baltimore Orioles last July. It is hard to catch lightning in bottle, especially for a second time, but that seems to be the Cubs Plan A.

Doubront won't be arbitration eligible until 2015. He has a lifetime record of 26-22 with a 4.82 ERA. He struck out 167 batters in 161 innings but allowed 24 home runs in 2011. He will earn $586,000 this season.

The Cubs, under the leadership of President Theo Epstein, have acquired former Red Sox pitchers Michael Bowden and Daniel Bard in past seasons. Both pitchers played for the Red Sox when Epstein was the general manager. Both turned out to be terrible with the Cubs.

What the Cubs should be asking the Red Sox is about Jon Lester, but Lester is heading to megamillions free agency. And the Red Sox are double digits out of first place in the AL East so there is little reason to trade Lester if they want to re-sign him in the off season.

Cubs infielders Emilio Bonifacio and Luis Valbuena are the most likely nominal in-return trade items still on the block. Both infielders can be useful utility players for a contending team.

July 30, 2014

THE LONGEST TIME

Here has been the pattern of Edwin Jackson starts: watch just the first inning. Game over.

Last night, the pattern held true, with the Cubs down 3-1 to the Rockies.

Nothing more to see.

It was just as well.

The Cubs set a few records.  It was the longest game in club history at 6 hours 27 minutes. So much for the early morning curfew.

And the first Cub position player, John Baker, got the pitching victory. It had never happened before in club lore, not even by accident. Also, Baker scored the winning run in the 16th inning.

Both the Rockies and the Cubs used up their entire bullpens by the end of the 15th inning. The Rockies, which are as bad as the Cubs, had not scored since the first. Colorado used a starter while Rick Renteria went to Baker, who had not pitched in jest since the Cape Code league.

The Cubs had to grind through more than 6 hours of action in order to get a victory from an Edwin Jackson start. Early in the game, there was some discussion whether Jackson would be demoted to the bullpen or even released. But neither makes any sense since the Cubs really have no starter to replace him.

Jackson has a pattern of giving up runs in the first inning. Lots of runs.

Steve Stone remarked earlier this season that some pitchers do not take enough warm up pitches in their pregame routine. It means that they do not have their arm stretched fully for speed and control. In other words, the first inning and higher pitch count is a result of not being fully warmed up. Then pitchers seem to settle in after the second inning. One could wonder if this is Jackson's problem (since he really did not have it when he was with the White Sox and pitching guru Don Cooper).

If that is the simple solution, it will save an already taxed bullpen, which had reliever Neil Ramirez's arm fatigue go on the 15 day DL (instead of Iowa for "rest" because of player's union objection since a disabled player still gets major league salary and service time).


July 29, 2014

WADA YA KNOW

After 9 seasons in Japan, and 3 injury plagued U.S, minor league years, Yoshie Wada got his first NL win. On the Cub pre-season depth chart, he ranked around the club's # 10 starter.

Wada reminds me a little of Ted Lilly just before Lilly retired. There is no overpowering stuff from this left hander. And in reality, he is not part of the long term answer.

In fact, no one of the Cubs current pitching staff is the long term answer. Other clubs have asked on Jake Arrieta, and the Cubs said no. Arrieta is under team control for 3 more years. But will the Cubs actually be competitive in three years?

The answer is no. And the reason is pitching, or the lack thereof.

Edwin Jackson is horrible. Travis Wood is perplexingly bad. Chris Rusin, Dallas Beeler, and Kyle Hendricks are AAA fodder. Grimm could be stretched out to be a starter in 2015, and James Russell wants to be one too (but his track record is really bad). There is no one arm to build an entire staff around.

I really don't see Ricketts writing Yankee size $200 million checks to acquire the best starting pitchers in the winter of 2017.  So many of the best prospects will have to be traded in order to build a quality major league staff of veteran talent. But that seems to be contrary to The Plan.

You can try to outhit the competition, but over time pitchers have an advantage over hitters. Hitting prospects are usually easier to develop, have a broader resume, than pitchers. Pitchers tend to have more development issues with body mechanics, arm slot changes, and adding new pitches in the mix. Pitchers can go through high school and college with a plus fastball and a change up. Major league starters need at least 3 quality pitches, especially since major league hitters live off fastballs.

Wada joins a growing list of journeymen pitchers on the Cubs roster. It is not his fault. But his destiny is written on the new Wrigley bricks.

July 28, 2014

HOF

No one can really argue that the six men inducted into the 2014 Hall of Fame did not deserve the honor.

Maddux, Glavine and Frank Thomas were all All-Star/MVP caliber players during their eras.

Cox, LaRussa and Torre all had long managerial careers, with plenty of playoff teams and at least one World Series title.

The Hall is in the process of changing its rules. Instead of a player being on the ballot for 15 years (if he continues to get 5% of the vote), it is going down to a 10 year window.  Many have argued that if you are a Hall of Fame player, you should get on the ballot in the first year.

Yes and no. Yes, a player's stats don't change as the ballots pass from year to year. Yes, if you are Hall worthy, waiting a decade does not make a lot of sense. But, there are a few "no" issues. There are several sportswriters who believe that no one is entitled to first ballot selection, unless you are the monster equivalent of Babe Ruth, who totally transformed the game. So there is a current ballot bias. Also, each voter can only select up to ten candidates. And to get into the Hall, there needs to be 75% approval.  Last year, 571 members voted. One needed to get voted in by 429 votes.

Besides ballot bias, there is also hometown and league bias. There is very little turnover in the sportswriter membership. Many will have to write columns about their own hometown players on the ballot. And many may not have seen much of the other league players (but with today's overexposure on internet and MLB.com that excuse should fade over time).  So many voters are pressured to "waste" their votes on players who will not get 75%.

Since 10 years only gives a player a shorter chance to be elected to the Hall, writers may actually not use all their 10 selection votes in an attempt to narrow the process further to truly "worthy" candidates. In the same process, a worthy candidate may lose support quicker after a couple of years and never have a chance to be elected by the writers.

There has been no reason stated for the rule change. It could be to allow players falling off the ballot to be reviewed by a veteran's committee. But history has shown that the veteran's committee is a harder vote to get than from the writers.

July 26, 2014

A RIVAL

It used to be no matter what, there was an intensity when the Cubs played the Cardinals. In baseball Civil Wars, the front lines in the territorial loyalties splits Central Illinois in half. No matter how good or bad the opponent's record, fans were "all in" in rooting for their team to win.

A series sweep over one's rival takes the sting out of a 100 loss season.

Or it used to.

Since the financial crash of 2008, the Cubs-Cardinals series has been in decline. The buzz was lost. Ticket prices got expensive, and the quality of baseball got weak. Then it got lopsided with the Cardinals making deep play off runs while the Cubs struggled under new ownership.

In a rare occurrence, 41,500 people actually showed up to Wrigley Field to watch the Cubs play the Cardinals. Now, perhaps half of the crowd were St. Louis fans, but this was the best crowd of the year. And the Cubs scraped to a 7-6 victory in a see-saw contest which saw home runs, errors, base running mistakes and wild pitches.

One game does not revitalize the rivalry because while the Cards are a competitive team year in and year out, the Cubs continue to be mired in its self-proclaimed AAA exile.  When many fans and season ticket holders lost interest in the season before it started, Chicago does not have rabid fan base it once had to drive the rivalry forward from generation to generation.

Fantasy leagues has also contributed to the lack of pure rivalries. Since fantasy players use baseball players from every team roster, they begin to root for individual players over individual teams. This dilutes the rivalry experience. A fantasy and Cub fan may have Matt Holliday on his team roster - - - so it is hard to root against him when he hits a home run.

Cubs-Cards is turning into a light verbal cue of two old guys in a nursing home, one being a ex-Marine and the other an Army veteran. Which service was better? But at some point, they will both forget that they were in the service altogether.

July 25, 2014

FUTURE CALLS

In the financial commodity business, there are instruments in which people can lock in a specific price for a good for delivery at a future time. These future calls are used to hedge against wild market swings in price. If you lock in a price you are willing to pay today for delivery next January, a business can budget more accurately than trying to buy the goods in January at open market prices. If you lock in lower than that market price, then you are ahead of the game.

The Cubs original plan was to have their wave of future call-ups of their top prospects several years from now, around 2017-2018, based upon the slow promotion of talent in the low minors.

But after the Samardzija and Hammel trade, there had to be a sudden budgetary shift inside the Cubs front office because the team is now moving to promote young players faster than expected.

Very few people thought Kyle Hendricks would be called up this soon, even in spot starter duty. The same was true for Dallas Beeler. But since the Cubs system is so thin on starting pitchers, the front office's hands were tied. But since they performed pretty well for rookies, it returned the near dead "hope" moniker to Cubland.

Then the call-up of A. Alcantara was a surprise to replace Darwin Barney who was on paternity leave for a couple of games. Alcantara had a blistering start (very much like Junior Lake the year before). And when Barney returned to the club, he was Wally Pipped, given his release as Alcantara had taken his roster spot.

Now, terrible third baseman Mike Olt was been sent back down (in order to get Wada on the roster for another spot start), there is speculation that the open 40 man roster spot will be filled by Javy Baez, who has been taking grounders at second in Iowa. Baez is either the Cubs #1, #1A or #2 prospect, depending on your scouting service.

With Alcantara moving the CF, Baez going to play second and Olt being demoted to open up third base, the whispers of an early Kris Bryant September call up are in the air. Bryant has hit at every level in the minors, so there is no reason to waste his at bats in AAA (even though Epstein said there was no way Bryant was making the team this year.) If Bryant does get a late season call up, the Cubs have altered their plan to try to win sooner than later.

The Cubs are so far behind (on the business side) that the baseball operations has to take the lead in order to stem the tide of red ink. Adding young, exciting prospects to the major league roster does create interest from a fan base that had written off this season.

If Bonifacio can get his legs again and hit, he will be traded before the deadline. If a team is looking for a 5th outfielder, Coghlan is gone. Or Sweeney. Or Lake. In other words, the trend is to open positions for the call-ups. Jorge Soler, who is on the 40 man roster, has been promoted to AAA ball. It is expected that he will get a September call up and play RF.  Soler, who has been set back by hamstring injuries, was one of the new front office's "big" signs so they want, and need, to see some tangible results from Soler.

The view that the September Cubs will be more interesting than the April Cubs is apparent. The call-ups present a dress rehearsal for the Future Cubs. It is also possible that such a newly constructed squad will stem the tide of dropping gate and increasing no-shows which have hurt the Cubs team finances. Do not forget, no matter what is said, the Cubs and its owners are all about the money.

It is possible that a September Cub line up could be:

1. Alcantara cf
2. Castro ss
3. Rizzo 1b
4. Bryant 3b
5. Baez 2b
6. Soler rf
7. Castillo c
8. Lake lf

There are a lot of "slash" hitters in that line-up, and the possibility of high strike out rates. Is it enough "hope" to bring fans flocking back to the ball park? Only the future will tell.