August 19, 2014

SIX WEEKS

There are about six weeks to go in the regular season.

This is home stretch for contending teams.

Six weeks usually means one thing: you better be within six games of first in order to have a realistic chance.

Managers know that it is very difficult to catch a divisional leader. The goal is to shave 1 game behind a week to close the gap. The exception to this rule is when you play a leader head-to-head then you can make up more ground. At this point, most divisional leaders do not melt down unless they are killed by major injuries, so the 1 game/week is a fairly reasonable standard.

With six weeks to go in the season, what teams still have a shot at winning a playoff berth?

The Yankees and Blue Jays are outside the threshold at 7 and 7.5 GB the Orioles.

The Tigers (1.5 GB) and Indians (6 GB) are behind the surprising Royals.

The A's and Angels are in a dead heat in the AL West with Seattle 5.5 GB.

The Nationals have widen to a 6 game lead over the Braves.

The Brewers have a 3 game lead on the Cardinals and 5.5 game lead on the Pirates.

And the Giants are 3.5 GB the Dodgers.

16 teams are still in the pennant chase.

By MLB having half the teams still in the hunt, interest in baseball should be strong until mid-September.

August 18, 2014

A LITTLE LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN

A Sun Times article today paints a bad picture of Chicago professional baseball.

Jackie Robinson West All-Stars, a local team performing the Little League World Series, are crushing the pro teams when it comes to TV ratings.

The pre-teens’ Sunday afternoon battle against Las Vegas’ Mountain Ridge scored a 4.6 rating for WLS-Channel 7, according to ABC.

That means about 161,000 households in the Chicago market watched Jackie Robinson West fall 13-2 in their first defeat of the Little League tournament.

The White Sox faced off against Toronto at the same time Sunday in a game televised on WGN-Channel 9.The Sox game had a 1.0 rating, or about 35,000 local households — less than a quarter of the number tuned into the Little League game.

The Cubs didn’t fare a whole lot better than the Sox — ratings wise — in their game against the Mets, which started a bit earlier Sunday at 12:10 p.m. Shown on Comcast SportsNet Chicago, that game drew a 1.6 rating, or 56,000 households in the Chicago market.

Jackie Robinson West, the first all-black team to make it to the Little League World Series in three decades, notched a 2.4 rating on ESPN Thursday for its tournament opener at Lamade Stadium in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania. This rating still outpaces the CSN ratings for this season for Cubs (1.5) and Sox (1.4) telecasts.

It is apparent that Chicago baseball fans would rather watch little leaguers than major leaguers. JRW is a great news and feature story, and there are probably a lot of bandwagon jumpers watching them on television. But that is the point: people will watch winning teams play baseball.

RANDOM THOUGHTS

I could of random thoughts from last week:

1.    Javy Baez is going to have back problems some time during his career.  Even Kasper and Deshields mentioned the amount of torque unleashed when Baez swings past the plate.  The full upper body twist and less movement in the legs is like a professional golfer coiling for a tee shot. And most professional golfers will admit that the number one injury on tour is a bad back.

2.    The new home plate collision rule is turning into a monumental waste. The rule was to protect the catcher (specifically All-Star Buster Posey and his multi-million dollar contract) from being plowed over Ray Fosse style. But the rule makes no sense that forces a catcher to move off the plate then matador back toward a sliding runner.  There should not be a special rule for home plate outs. The baserunning rules should be consistent - -  - when a player gets the ball, he can block any base to apply a tag. If he blocks a base before he has possession of the ball, the runner is safe by fielder interference. Simple rule. Simple application.

3.    Cub fans see the prospects coming up through the system. They are excited about renewed hope. But at the same time, they fall under the spell of the current Cubs, believing that Lake, Ruggiano, Sweeney and Coghlan are important pieces for the future. They are not. They are a collection of 5th outfielders/bench players who have been major pieces in a run of 90 plus loss seasons.

4.    Many sports pundits in town shutter at the thought that the White Sox in 2015 may have a starting rotation of four left handed pitchers (Sale, Quintana, Danks and Rodon). They fear that with the majors being mostly right handed hitting, that the Sox will be at a major disadvantage. But if a pitcher is good, he can get out right handed hitters. And this is not unprecedented - - - the Kansas City Royals in 1982 with Larry Gura, Paul Splittorf, Bud Black and Vida Blue won 90 games.

5.   Baez's first Wrigley Field home run went onto Waveland. My first thought was that this type of moment will be gone when the new outfield signage is installed at Wrigley. No more homers flying out of the park.


August 17, 2014

NEXT YEAR

Wait until Next Year.

The wait has been a long, long time.

The wait may almost be over, some say.

Some say, that the Cubs pipeline of prospects will be this century's gold rush.

Some say, that the Cubs  are only a few pitchers away from being truly competitive.

Some say, that is what the team says every year.

No one truly knows what the time line for the Plan is, but we can make an educated guess on what the front office and the fans would like to see in 2015:

An infield of the "core" players:

3B: Bryant
SS: Castro
2B: Baez
1B: Rizzo
C: Castillo

An outfield infused with new young players:

CF: Alcantara
RF: Soler

More likely, Bryant will wind up in LF, Baez at 3B, and Alcantara at 2B. That will still leave hole in CF which Almora is supposed to fill by 2017. Or, by 2016, Baez stays at second, with Russell playing third with Alcantara still in CF.

It seems the starting rotation is not going to land an "ace" free agent due to the prohibitive cost and years in such a deal. The plan has been to cut down the payroll, not spend like a drunken sailor.

The rotation seems to be falling into this shape for 2015:

1. Arrieta
2. Hendricks
3. T. Wood
4. E. Jackson
5. Doubront or J. Turner (with the other becoming a long reliever/spot starter).

It is not an overpowering rotation. However, collectively it is fairly cheap.

So despite all the expected roster churn, the 2015 Cubs don't seem to be that much different than the current 2014 club.

August 16, 2014

BEWARE VAULTED PROSPECTS

MLBTR reports that the Diamondbacks have acquired Cubs former first-round pick and top prospect Brett Jackson for minor league reliever Blake Cooper.

Jackson, 26, rated as one of the game’s top 100 prospects from 2010-12, according to both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus (he topped out at No. 32 on BA’s list and No. 44 on BP’s list). Jackson was sold as a "five tool" player - - - hit for average, power, with speed and very good defensive skills. When his stock was at its highest, BA likened him to Jim Edmonds, noting that he had that type of ceiling at the plate, if not that type of Gold Glove caliber defense in center field.

However, Jackson’s swing-and-miss tendencies caused his stock to plummet, as a problem he looked to have eliminated at the Double-A level resurfaced in Triple-A and still has yet to be corrected. Jackson was batting just .210/.298/.348 with a 37.3 percent strikeout rate for Triple-A Iowa this season and will look to deliver on some of his once sky-high potential in a new organization.

Jackson only had a brief stint in the majors. In 2012, he was called up and played in 44 games. In 142 plate appearances, he hit .175, 4 HR, 9 RBI, 59K, 22 BB for a 0.1 WAR. His strike out rate of 41.6 percent led to his permanent demotion. Jackson quickly faded off the Cubs top prospects list, and at one point was further demoted to AA. Like many other touted "can't miss" prospects, Jackson never filled his potential. This appears to be a change of scenery move to clear a 40 man roster space for the Cubs.

Cooper, also 26, was a 12th-round pick by the Diamondbacks in 2010 and reached Triple-A for the first time in 2014. Though he’s struggled to a 6.00 ERA in 24 innings there, Cooper was excellent at Double-A this year, posting a 1.85 ERA with 8.2 K/9 and 2.6 BB/9 in 34 frames. His command has faltered since moving up to the top minor league level, as he’s walked 17 hitters in his 24 innings at Reno. The 5’11″, 190-pound righty has never ranked among Arizona’s top 30 prospects, according to BA, and he didn’t rank on MLB.com’s midseason list of the D’Backs’ top 20 prospects either. In parts of five minor league seasons, Cooper has a 3.27 ERA with a 217-to-98 K/BB ratio (seven of those free passes were intentional) in 236 2/3 innings.

There is caution in this trade story. Javy Baez continues to rack up strike outs. In 45 plate appearances, he has 17 Ks for a rate of 37.8 percent, which is too high for a major league player. The pressure to conform and adjust to major league pitching doomed Jackson's fate. He could not cut down on his strikeouts which torpedoed his value as a hitter. Baez is currently in the same audition mode as Jackson had in 2012.

August 15, 2014

ROOFTOP LAWSUIT TWIST

The players in the Wrigley reconstruction saga all felt that the rooftop owners would sue the Cubs to stop the team from blocking their landmarked views. Yesterday, most of the rooftop owners sued, but not the Cubs but the city.

The rooftop owners sued the city for violating several constitutionally protected property rights.
In its six count complaint, the rooftop owners allege the landmark commission violated the administrative review act and case law in the conduct of its hearings; that the commission violated its own governing ordinance; that the commission violated due process and equal protection by acting beyond its legal authority; that the city is arbitrary in its landmark designations or application; that the city under the color of law violated the owners civil rights under §1983; and that city should be enjoined from allowing permits or construction to happen at Wrigley Field because the rooftops would be irreparably harmed.

As a result, the rooftop owners will probably win because the city's landmark commission
failed to follow basic legal requirements for a zoning/administrative hearing.

In 2004, the Illinois Supreme Court made it clear in Klaeren v. Village of Lisle that
zoning hearings are administrative not legislative functions. As an administrative hearing,
the principles of due process must be followed to allow anyone with a property interest at
stake to participate, give evidence, cross examine witnesses, etc. As such, the government
body must make findings of fact and conclusions of law to support zoning decisions.

As alleged in the complaint, the city's landmark commission did not allow the rooftop owners
to participate at all in the course of the Wrigley landmark review process, i.e. present
witnesses, evidence or cross-examine the Cubs witnesses. If that is the case, the landmark commission did not follow clear Illinois law and its decision can be summarily reversed.

The lawsuit also claims that the commission violated its own governing ordinance in allowing the Wrigley reconstruction, by re-writing the ordinance with legislative powers it does not have.
If the commission acted beyond its own legal authority, then its decision would be null and void.


By suing the city for violations of due process and equal protection, the rooftop owners avoid a confrontation with the Cubs over the 2004 settlement agreement language which both sides claim a different interpretation on whether any expansion can block views. The lawsuit alleges that the Cubs have received $40 million during the revenue sharing agreement, or about $4 million per season. The irony of this is that many in the advertising community believe that the Cubs would not get much more in annual revenue from the new signage. So blocking the rooftop views will not significantly increase the gross revenues to the team since the rooftop revenue would dry up.

Two things can happen in this lawsuit.

First, the judge can rule that the city violated its own ordinance and Illinois law. The approval of Wrigley construction would be declared null and void and the Cubs would be back to square one.

Second, the judge could rule that the city, through its approval process and final city council vote, met the spirit of the law and uphold the administrative ruling. Then the Cubs could go forward with the approved plans. 

However, in either case, there probably will be an appeal. And appeals take years to work their way through the system. As a result, Ricketts four year time table to do all his real estate development work will be stretched out another two or three years.

Which leads to the following possible reactions by the Cubs ownership:

One, reaffirm their position that no work will be done if there is a lawsuit pending against the reconstruction. That means the Cubs will not be spending any money for improvements to the ball park (which some believe may be cover for the declining revenue and bank loan covenants that may restrict the reconstruction expenses to begin with). 

Two, the Cubs move forward at their own risk with the reconstruction projects (including the non-landmarked issues like the new clubhouse or hotel-commercial projects).

Three, a move some fans come to consider now as a real possibility, that the Ricketts throw up their hands and say the situation is unworkable, and begin the search to find a new home for the team in the suburbs or out of state. If the Ricketts truly have $500 million of their own money to spend on a baseball facility, they can go and build a state-of-the-art entertainment complex with ample parking in the suburbs.

Fourth, throw up their hands and sell their interest in the team to a third party. But since the team is in a mess financially and politically, it would be doubtful that the Ricketts could recoup their entire investment in the team and surrounding real estate holdings.

One can never guarantee how a court will rule in any litigated case. But what is certain that this lawsuit will again divert attention away from the baseball team issues.

IN THE DUMPS

The Chicago Tribune's sports media columnist, Ed Sherman, recently reported on how bad the Cubs ratings have fallen since its 2008 peak. He wrote that the Cubs ratings have declined 72 percent from a peak local rating of 600,000 households to around 50,000.

This report appears to verify WGN's claims that the Cubs poor ratings made it reopen its contract with the Cubs because the station was losing allegedly $200,000 per broadcast.

By comparison, the current viewership is around what the entire Blackhawk fan base was during the dark era of William Wirtz, when home games were not televised and the team was not very good. But winning championships turned around that hockey franchise into a premier NHL club.

It is one thing that fans don't come out to the ball park and spend hundreds of dollars in tickets, parking and concessions. It is another thing that fans could watch games at home for free, but feel that spending three hours in front of the TV set is a form of cruel and unusual punishment. Bad teams and the drumbeat of losing will eventually turn off even the most die hard fan. Other media reports indicated that the Cubs were tagged with 0.0 ratings during the end of last season. That is Houston Astro bad.

The Cubs cannot get a new unified local radio-TV deal until 2020 when the exclusive Comcast cable deal expires. Until then, local TV games that used to be shown on WGN are up in the air. Other local stations are not going to pay and invest large sums of money to produce a program with minimal ratings. The Catch-22 for the team is that the Cubs have been so bad for so long, the recent ratings do not correspond to what the team wants to get for its broadcast rights. Stations cannot get advertisers to pay premium fees for poor viewership. Without advertisers, there is not profit incentive. Media conglomerates are getting squeezed by various alternative entertainment platforms. They are more cautious than ever in paying for programming.

50,000 followers may be a great figure for an internet web channel, but not for a professional sports team in the third largest television market.

The team may be forced to "buy" local airtime like those weekend information programs in order to show next year the 50 or so WGN telecasts. That means the team has to pay for the production costs, the talent, and get the advertisers and sponsors for each game lined up in advance. If some question whether the Cubs have the intelligence to run their own network, the only Exhibit of competence so far is the zig-zagging Wrigley Field renovation project, its fumbles and delays.

Perhaps it won't matter until 2020. The team may not be ready to compete by then, so if no one watches the Cubs, nothing will be lost (or gained). The theory is that once the team begins to win again, the fans will come back in droves - - - willing to pay any price to jump on a championship bandwagon. Consumers, especially for non-essential items like entertainment, are going to be a harder sell in the future because a) the economic picture is still poor; b) millennials are more negative toward their prospects and opportunities; c) people are actually saving more income than spending it; and d) baseball may not be as popular as it once was as the new American immigrant base is more passionate about soccer.