October 20, 2014

INCREASE THE FLOOR OVER THE CEILING

Fangraphs has an interesting article on the Orioles rise to contention in the highly competitive AL East.

Fangraphs concluded that GM Dan Duquette has done an excellent job in focusing on raising his team’s floor while many clubs are more focused on raising the ceiling.

I have always thought Duquette was one of the brighter GMs in the game. He has not gotten the glowing press that other big market GMs tend to get. Most teams are looking to obtain All-Star caliber talent. A team of quality players, like the Yankees and Dodgers or Angels, should win a boat load of games.

The Orioles are not in the same financial atmosphere to try to buy a pennant. Instead, how a roster is created and sustained can yield very good results.

No doubt Duquette has created a deep Oriole roster, many relatively unknown players.

Fangraphs looked to see how it could calculate the floor for a team. It used negative WAR as a means of illustrating the base talent level for a squad. If you have negative WAR players on your roster, then your floor is lower than Replacement Level (AAA) talent.

Over the past three seasons, the Orioles have received the sixth-lowest cumulative negative WAR total, suggesting that while they may not always have a lot of star power, they don’t stock up on expensive stars while punting roster spots at the bottom of their 25-man group.

Fangraphs noted in 2014, Baltimore gave just 3.2 percent of its innings to negative-WAR pitchers (league average, excluding Baltimore, was 13.4) and 3.2 percent of its plate appearances to negative-WAR position players (league average, excluding Baltimore, was 19.4).

This follows a pattern that new Dodgers GM Andrew Friedman used when he was with the Rayswho have had the lowest negative WAR total over the past three seasons.

In contrast, the 2012 Cubs who lost 101 games had 22 players with a negative WAR. In 2014, with 89 losses, the Cubs had 19 players with a negative WAR. The 12 game improvement shows that the bottom was raised by 3 less negative WAR players and better performance from higher ceiling starters.

October 19, 2014

THE HIGH COST

It has been reported that the Pirates will make a qualifying offer of $15.3 million qualifying offer to star free-agent catcher Russell Martin. 

Rumor around Chicago talking heads believed the Cubs would make a major pitch for Russell in free agency.

The Pirates had tried to re-sign Martin with a multiyear offer during the season, but it was rejected.  The qualifying offer itself represents quite a raise for Martin, although a huge season has set him up to prosper in free agency. Martin hit .290 with 11 home runs and 67 RBI, posted a .402 on-base percentage and a 5.5 WAR.

Martin's big season would seem to make the qualifying offer logical for the Pirates, who don't have revenue to match big-market teams in the open market. If the Pirates lose Martin, they would get a compensatory pick in the June draft.

Even though Martin has premiere numbers for a catcher, paying a backstop $16.0 plus million per season is a risky gamble for any club. Martin will want a multiyear deal in excess of the current "floor" of $15.3 million. And some team will probably meet his demands.

The Cubs may want people to think they are in the discussion on Martin, but there is no compelling need to overspend on a catcher at this time. The priority is on pitching. The Cubs have an adequate catcher in Wellington Castillo. And the front office has high hopes for Kyle Schwarber, who tore up the minors in his first professional season. Scouts think Schwarber could be a solid #3 hitter.

October 18, 2014

THE NEXT MANAGER

Rick Renteria has three years remaining on his Cubs contract. A great deal of Cubs observers believe Renteria is only a caretaker manager. He is supposedly good with young players; a teacher. But he does not have the track record to take a ball club from Point C to Point A (World Series).

What managers could be available in four years?

Current skippers whose contracts expire with Renteria are Bryan Price (Reds), Terry Francona, Walt Weiss, Don Mattingly, Bob Melvin, Bruce Bochy and Ryne Sandberg.

Bochy will probably get extended with the Giants, due to their current long term success. Mattingly does not seem to have the tools to get a superstar team to the next level. Weiss and Melvin are like journeymen players, meh. Sandberg is going to get an extended look in Philadelphia during its pending major roster overhaul. So this possibly puts Francona in play.

The Indians have continued to struggle as a small town franchise. It's player development profile has stalled and their prospects underperformed. Francona has a Boston connection with Theo Epstein. Francona is a big time manager, winning for the Red Sox. But at the same time, he helmed one of the great team implosions.

Cub fans would still like Joe Girardi, but he has 4 years left on his Yankee deal. And he had the chance to become the Cub manager, but declined to say in New York. If the Cubs are going to wait for Girardi, it could be a long and fruitless wait.


October 17, 2014

A MID-SUMMER DREAM

A fan posted this mid-2015 lineup card for the Cubs:

C: Castillo
1B: Rizzo
2B: Castro
SS: Russell
3B: Baez
LF: Bryant
CF: Alcantra
RF: Soler

SP: Scherzer/Shields/Lester
SP: Arrieta
SP: Wood
SP: Whatever
SP: Whatever

The surplus of young shortstops are fit into four starting positions. And Kris Bryant moves from third, his natural position, to left field. In fact, half of the starting eight will be playing a new position.

It is fine to speculate what your team could, should, or would look like in a perfect (fantasy) world.

Yes, Baez could be better than Valbuena at third. Yes, Castro could move over to second. Bryant moving to left would be better than Coghlan.

But the poster stumbles across the Big problem that will hold back promotion of young talent and the signing of free agents: starting pitching.  If you think 40% of your rotation is "Whatever," i.e. replacement level AAA talent, then the team won't draw an elite starting pitcher. So the Cubs midsummer dream projects into a nightmare: 60% of your rotation is in flux.



Can the front office rework the starting rotation into a competitive five? If it was that easy, every team would be able to do it. The Cubs have the young talent to trade for proven pitchers, but it seems that the brain trust has fallen in love with their prospects to the point of hoarding them. This may be because this is their plan, their players and they need to prove to the world that they know what they are doing. Many organizations fall into this trap of overvaluing their own prospects and not seeing the big roster needs.

October 16, 2014

RICH GET RICHER

The rich get richer, especially in baseball.

The Dodgers may not have won the World Series this year, but they won the executive wars.

ESPN reported that the Dodgers have hired former Rays general manager Andrew Friedman as their new president of baseball operations.

Ned Colletti, who has been the Dodgers' general manager since 2005, will remain with the club in a new role as senior advisor to the president and CEO of the Dodgers, Stan Kasten.

Sources said that Friedman, in his role as president of baseball operations, will have the ability to hire a general manager.

Landing the 37-year-old Friedman is a coup for the Dodgers. A handful of teams have tried unsuccessfully to poach the talented young executive with a Wall Street background, who piloted the small-market, budget-conscious Rays to six consecutive winning seasons and four playoff appearances after taking over in 2008.

"Andrew Friedman is one of the youngest and brightest minds in the game today and we are very fortunate to have him join our organization," Kasten said in a statement. "The success he has had over the past nine years in molding the Tampa Bay Rays team has been incredible."

 Friedman had been one of the names in management circles when Theo Epstein was hired by the Cubs. Friedman has actual experience in building a farm system for a competitive small market team. Epstein was from the big market, free spending Red Sox.


October 15, 2014

FABLES & FOIBLES

For some it still has the cringe of walking down a dark, blind alley to find a serial killer; "five outs away from a World Series."

The 2003 Cubs were soooooooooooooooo close, yet so far away from making dreams come true.

And despite the public lynching of an innocent fan for alleged fan interference of a foul pop, the Cubs lost Game 6 by a butchered error by shortstop Alex Gonzalez and poor managerial decisions of Dusty Baker. And people tend to conveniently forget, the Cubs also lost Game 7 so the team lost its chance for World Series glory, not some kid named Bartman.

It is easier to find excuses than rely on the facts. Why some people wear the Cubs curse as some badge of honor is strange. Normal fans want their team to win, and not justify the losses by some cosmic fate.

The unintended consequences of the 2003 implosion continue to this day. This is when Wrigley Field was The Place to be  . . .  the bleachers will filled with drunken yuppies, sell out after sell out, a real party atmosphere around the park. It was in this intense environment Tom Ricketts noticed that the Cubs as a business drew massive support (money) win or lose. He would later convince his father to invest in the Cubs since it was like buying a money printing press.

So the fortunes of the entire franchise turned in 2003 as Ricketts became the owners of the club.

The heady days of Tribune spending and free spending housing boom would soon crash and burn in 2007, taking the Tribune into bankruptcy and the Cubs being sold. By most objective standards, the Cubs franchise has steadily gone down hill since the Ricketts purchased the team and its assets. Team performance cratered, attendance fell dramatically and ownership was more interested in real estate construction projects or fighting with the neighbors than getting a 2003-type competitive ball club on the field.

There was an instant myth that the Cubs were "saved" from the evil corporation by a billionaire family promising instant success and championships. It would not be a business, but run as a cherished community monument. But what we have learned since those initial press conferences is that the family has not put money into the team due to high debt load restrictions. Instead, the family has bought up property to build commercial venues to make Wrigley a 365 day destination spot like Times Square. Instead of rebuilding the major league roster with expensive major league talent, the money has been diverted to create an enclosed electronic signage wonderland inside Wrigley Field. The Ricketts have been more guarded with spending money than previous owners.

In the grand scheme, the Cubs have been set aside as the ugly stepsister. The Cubs are merely a tenant playing at Wrigley Field. The business side of the team is calling most of the shots. Perhaps some day, the Cubs will turn into a Cinderella story, but it is unlikely.

October 14, 2014

5 IN 3

Theo Epstein remarked that the front office has compressed five years of work into the last three seasons. He was mainly talking about rebuilding the Cubs minor league system. He continues to believe, or at least publicly says, that the Cubs will be competitive in 2015.

But as he said "We are ready to compete,"  he told season ticket holders that "progress is not linear" and that they wouldn't "sell out" the future just to make 2015 "the year."

This is the "I told you so" point when the Cubs don't make a big free agent splash prior to spring training. And he most likely made mention of this because the Cubs won't be active this winter, to the level of the fan base expectations.

There are many other clubs farther along in competitive mode who may truly believe that they are just one or two players away from a post-season run. Even the Brewers, Reds and Pirates are in that win-now mode. The Cubs current payroll sits well below those three clubs, but there are the slumbering big market giants ready to get back into the game - - - the Red Sox and Yankees are the spending monsters ready to pounce this off-season. Even the teams that were a hair length away from moving on in the playoffs, the Dodgers, Angels, will have money to spend to get to the next level.

So Epstein's annual take of when the Cubs will turn things around is another 15 month or so extension. This pushes off the final diagnosis of the rebuild plan to 2016.

Only two players have shown lasting consistency: Castro and Rizzo. Both had bounce back years which means they have learned their profession: the need to adapt in order to succeed.

The rest of the new portion of the roster is unproven. Baez, Alcantara, Lake, Soler, Watkins, Arrieta and Hendricks are still unproven over an entire season. The rest of the major league roster is journeymen. Epstein may find solace that his team is on the cusp of doing something major. But that major move may be more wins, but it is just as likely to be more losses. Rookies and sophomore slumps are too common in baseball. 2015 looks to be a classic shakedown cruise.