October 31, 2014

CLASSLESS

NBC Sports reports that the baseball managerial fraternity is upset with both the Cubs and Joe Maddon. They are both called "classless" in the alleged booting of current manager Rick Renteria.

There are only 32 managerial jobs. It is a unique club. At the time Maddon opted out of his Rays contract, only the Twins had an open vacancy. Three other clubs just hired a new manager. And the Cubs after the season strongly stated that Renteria would be back in 2015. The Cubs then went out and hired a new hitting coach to complete next year's staff.

So when Maddon gets a chance to flee a sinking Tampa franchise, he does so. But most people think he would not jump ship unless someone, through his agent, told them he had a bigger landing spot than just Minnesota. And this potential "tampering" situation is what has the ire of Rays ownership, who feel backstabbed since Maddon publicly said he was staying with the team after GM Andrew Friedman left for the Dodgers.

Now, Cubs cheerleaders say "it's just business." Renteria is not guaranteed a job as skipper. But neither are fans guaranteed a championship by the front office, despite what the new fable is being spun to sell tickets for next year. Now some fans may rejoice in the fact that the Cubs are now getting down and dirty, doing back alley questionable deals - - - in the name of winning. But other people inside the game have long memories.

Theo Epstein is on the clock. He has only two years left on his deal. The pressure is on him to win sooner than later, despite being handcuffed by the "business side" of the organization. It is the budget restrictions which may have led Epstein to make a big name splash with Maddon, to cover the flak for not being able to land a top tier FA pitcher.

Since the Monday reports that it "was a done deal," by Friday morning there is no deal announced by the club. Maddon's agent stated that he was talking to several clubs, which can mean that there are other teams with managers who are willing to torpedo their current field leader, or it can mean that Maddon is trying to make the Cubs bid against themselves for his services.  Either way, this shows how rocky the road is for the Cubs to get anything done.


October 30, 2014

MAD ON MADDON

When Rick Renteria was hired as manager, he was touted as a guy who can develop young players, especially Latin talent with language issues.

Under Renteria's first year, the Cubs won 7 more games. That was pretty good.  Does that give Renteria a 7.0 WAR as a manager? No. Most experts believe that a manager wins or loses two games a season. A few believe that a baseball manager has the least influence in the play in any major sport.

In 2013, the Cubs has an offensive WAR of 15.9 and a pitching WAR of 10.5.
In 2013, the Cubs had an offensive WAR of 12.2 and a pitching WAR of 15.7.

Total WAR comparison: 26.4 to 27.9, an increase of 1.5 WAR.

Is this a better measure of Renteria's influence on the 2014 club? Perhaps.

But one has to consider the offense decreased but the pitching staff improved.

The key differences between seasons were three new starters:

Arrieta 5.3 WAR vs. 0.7 WAR (2013 Arrieta)
Hammel 3.1 WAR vs. 0.9 WAR (Feldman)
Hendricks 2.9 WAR vs. 1.5 WAR (Garza)

These three 2014 pitchers made an 11.3 WAR improvement over their 2013 counterparts. But the staff WAR only went up 5.2 WAR. The other starters, especially Edwin Jackson (-2.3) brought the pitching WAR down dramatically.

Joe Maddon's Rays won 92 games in 2013, and lost in the AL divisional series.  In 2014, the Rays stumbled to 77 wins, a decrease of 15 wins. Some Tampa Bay writers believe former GM Andrew Friedman left town because the well of young minor league prospects, the golden goose of the franchise, was drying up and a major rebuild was going to take shape now. Maddon may have seen the writing on the wall, too. At 61, he is in the last run as a major league skipper. He wants to win a World Series to cap his career. Tampa does not seem to be a serious contender in the highly charged AL East. At his age, he would want to win now.

When Maddon surprised the baseball world by opting out of his contract, every major league team except the Twins had a 2014 manager.  The Cubs had already said Renteria would return as the season ended. But does Maddon really fit the Cubs?

 Maddon is a "celebrity" manager - - - a proven winner, especially hard to do in a small market. That is the resume highlight. He puts a new face on the team. He is good with the media. It also strikes me that if the Cubs continue the small market payroll, Maddon would be a good puzzle piece.

On the negative side, Maddon could sit a season and have many more choices with free spending teams. Writers say that the motivation to leave the Rays is that he wants to be paid as a premier manager. He may not be comfortable with the Cubs rebuilding plan, or the lack of pitching depth. He may need real assurances that the Cubs will spend big money to shore up the roster in 2015 before committing to a four year deal.

History is also not on the Cubs side. There was a great deal of hope each time the Cubs hired a "name" manager: Dusty Baker, Don Baylor, Lou Piniella.  Each of those proven winners crashed and burned with the Cubs. Piniella remarked after his tenure he had no idea about the expectations and pressures managing the Cubs. It wore him out.

The other problem Maddon faces in negotiating with the Cubs is that the team already has finalized its coaching staff for 2015. A manager would like to bring his own people, if possible, to fill the vital roles of bench, hitting and pitching coach. But that would not be the case if Maddon joins the Cubs.

As of this post, the reports of Maddon coming to terms with the Cubs have been tempered by other reports claiming that negotiations are still on-going, but expect a contract to be concluded soon.

REALITY CHECK

As Gordon Wittenmyer wrote last month, the Cubs are not in the position to be big players in free agency.

Despite the growing hysteria that the Cubs are going to spend millions to get Joe Maddon, and hundreds of millions to sign Jon Lester and/or James Shields, the off-season motto should be "get a hold of yourselves."

Yes, the Cubs will search for more pitching during the winter, but any payroll flexibility is caused by big contracts falling off the books and as Wittenmyer reported, a $20 million in savings by baseball ops from its 2014 budget.

One has to analyze this closely to find the reality in the Cubs finances.

The Cubs baseball operations has had a "hard" budget, meaning that it was not allowed to exceed a gross number. As a result, the Cubs baseball operations were squeezed in saving as much money today to try to spend tomorrow.

The dead money coming off the books in 2015 is only $14.2 million. If this is considered the "savings" from the 2014 budget, then that is the additional money available to spend. Or, if you are thinking Epstein did save another $20 million in operational costs, then the Cubs could spend $34.2 million more in 2015.

The base line number for the Cubs payroll in 2015 is currently stands  $31.6 million. If one adds in the arbitration costs to retain players, the Cubs payroll may reach $60 million. But that is not guaranteed.

At the end of 2013, the Cubs promised that its payroll would increase $20-35 million. It went from $107 million down to $93 million, which was $21.5 million below the average major league payroll as compiled by Baseball Prospectus.  The Cubs payroll numbers have dropped every year in Ricketts tenure. It probably could drop more because Ricketts construction costs for the Wrigley renovations and the real estate ventures outside the ball park are now in full swing. 

“Eventually it’ll mean some more revenue, but the big mechanism by which we’ll realize significantly more revenue is really the TV deal,” Epstein said. “And the Wrigley improvements will help move the needle. But the paradigm shifter is really the TV deal.”

Another reason a new wave of spending is not going to happen soon is that the Cubs see the youngsters being "competitive" in 2015.  ‘‘So we’re not going to sell out to win in 2015,’’ Epstein said.

Even if the Cubs have $20 million to spend, that will still mean that the Cubs 2015 payroll will only be $80 million, another drop of $13 million in player contracts year over year. And $20 million is not going to pay for one year for an elite pitching prospect. It may not even be enough for an all-star catcher, when this year's qualifying offer is $15.3 million.

And then, for those who think Maddon is the man, his $5 million plus annual salary has to come out of the same hard baseball budget. So the real reality check for fans is that the Cubs will continue their second tier signings of pitchers needing a change of scenery or coming off TJ surgery in the hopes of catching more lightning in a bottle like with Scott Feldman or Jason Hammel.


October 29, 2014

TO CHICAGO

The Sun Times reported Giants pitcher Jake Peavy has a idea: a package deal for the Cubs - - - Jon Lester and himself.

“No, I’m not offering a package to the Cubs,” he said, clarifying the impression he made while talking about himself, the Cubs and his pal Lester. “There’s a package deal out there for any team.”
Lester and Peavy added to a mix that might include star manager Joe Maddon running the show?

Peavy raved about his time in Chicago with the White Sox as a great experience.

What makes more sense than the Cubs is the White Sox. The Sox are much closer to being really good than the Cubs. Jose Abreu is a young Frank Thomas. The Sox starting rotation is very good. The defense has improved. 

The Cubs still only have a few proven players, like Castro and Rizzo. The Cubs can only sell "hope" that all the prospects will become major league talent, while the Sox need to upgrade catcher, left field and the bullpen.

If a fan dreams of an All-Star rotation, the White Sox with Peavy's package:

Chris Sale, Lester, Carlos Quintana, Peavy, Carlos Rodon.

October 28, 2014

FALLING STARS

Yahoo  Sports reports that the 2015 World Series, despite having great characters and interesting storylines, has hit a ratings low not seen since the first Series broadcast in 1947.

 So why are so few Americans captivated by the drama?

The dynamic, too-young-to-worry Royals that brought Kansas City its first pennant since 1985 and the colorful, resourceful San Francisco Giants back to their third Series in five years have split the first two games.

Yet the ratings for Fox’s game one broadcast were the lowest since the Fall Classic was first televised in 1947, continuing a steady, decade-long slide in the television audience for postseason baseball.

Have Americans, in their 21st century over-stimulated haste, at last lost their patience for the leisurely pace of the game?

“It has now become widely acknowledged,” says  Henry Blodget, “that even Major League Baseball is starting to recognize just the pace of the game takes forever.” While he notes that some game-hastening rules are being tested in the minor leagues, in the majors long breaks, tedious pitcher rituals and TV cutaways cause games to drag.

This year the typical game in the majors this season exceeded three hours, the longest average duration ever. Three decades ago, games were almost a half-hour shorter. MLB, an otherwise thriving industry in terms of attendance and revenues, and its newly elected Commissioner Rob Manfred has assigned a committee to figure out ways to quicken the pace of play. However, the players in the Arizona Fall League are having a tough time adjusting to the new pace of play rules.

Blodget notes that pro football continues to dominate in TV mindshare, with its built-for-TV physical drama and mayhem, augmented by runaway interest in fantasy football and gambling. Tellingly, the NFL’s Thursday night regular season game last week drew 25% more eyeballs than did World Series game one.

October 27, 2014

ADDED RISK

The news that Cardinals OF prospect Oscar Tavaras was killed in an auto accident is a sad event. The 22 year old had a bright major league future. He was killed when his car veered off the road in the Dominican Republic.

There are a host of issues that are quietly under the radar when dealing with foreign players.

The world is a dangerous place.

A few years ago, Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos was kidnapped and held for ransom in his native Venezuela.  Players and their families are prime targets in underdeveloped, poor countries.

There is also an underlying question of lack of team supervision when foreign players return home for the off-season. What players do with their time is not monitored; some play winter ball, some get fat and rest. Some get wrapped up in family dramas. There is always a concern that a third world environment can impact any person's health, welfare and safety.

Since major league teams are investing more resources on Latin American and foreign talent, the normal risk assessments are higher. The political winds in one country could lead to adverse actions against a country's "rich" which include ball players. Visa and passport snafus are common place prior to spring training. With the hysteria about diseases from foreign lands, immigration standards may also change in the coming months.

Teams will probably view the added risk of foreign players as just another cost of doing business. Some try to minimize the risk by keeping the prospects in the AFL. But young kids probably get homesick and want to return home to their families. It is a balancing act.


2016 PITCHER MARKET

The Cubs real look at solid starting pitching is best viewed in the reality that if the prospects pan out in 2015, then the Cubs will look to shore up the rotation in 2016.

MLBTR lists the current 2016 FA class:

Starting Pitchers
Clay Buchholz (31) – $13MM club option with a $245K buyout
Mark Buehrle (37)
Trevor Cahill (28) – $13MM club option with a $300K buyout
Jhoulys Chacin (28)
Bartolo Colon (43)
Ross Detwiler (30)
R.A. Dickey (41) – $12MM club option with a $1MM buyout
Marco Estrada (32)
Doug Fister (32)
Jaime Garcia (29) – $11.5MM club option with a $500K buyout
Jeremy Guthrie (37) – $10MM mutual option with a $3.2MM buyout
Tim Hudson (40)
Scott Kazmir (32)
Ian Kennedy (31)
Mat Latos (28)
Mike Leake (28)
Tim Lincecum (32)
Kyle Lohse (37)
Corey Luebke (31) – $7.5MM club option with a $1.75MM buyout
Kris Medlen (30)
Bud Norris (31)
Ross Ohlendorf (33)
Mike Pelfrey (32)
Rick Porcello (27)
David Price (30)
Ricky Romero (31) – $13.1MM club option with a $600K buyout
Jeff Samardzija (31)
Alfredo Simon (35)
Jordan Zimmermann (30)

There is clearly more good quantity in this list than in the 2015 free agent class.

Price, Zimmerman, Latos, and Fister are top tier candidates.
Samardzija, Kennedy, Leake, Lincecum, Porcello, Buchholz and Kazmir are second tier candidates that would probably interest the Cubs more than the top liners (in terms of long term investment).
Short term flyers would inlcude Chacin, Detwiler, Medlin and Pelfrey.

If the Cubs are going to spend, this is the market more suitable for their financial restrictions.