Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Cubs Spring Training Preview...

For the first time in over a century, the Cubs will report to Spring Training as the defending World Series Champions.  The 108 year drought is over, now the quest to win it again, begins. 

Last year manager Joe Maddon used “Embrace the Target” as the team’s rallying cry.  This after an improbable playoff appearance in 2015 and a trip to the NLCS.  Now the target is firmly on the Cubs’ backs as the 2017 season begins. 

This year according to MLB.com, at Maddon’s opening press conference today, the themes will be: 1. Be uncomfortable, 2. Authenticity, 3. That's Cub, and, 4. Don’t forget the heartbeat.  Interpret how you want, but it seems like Maddon won’t stand for complacency off of last year’s performance and crazy offseason.  An offseason that included countless appearances on late night and daytime television programs and a trip to the White House. 

As for the actual baseball outlook, Maddon plans to emphasize many of the same principals he did last season, telling MLB.com, "I think we have our best opportunity to repeat by pitching and playing defense that we've done in the past.”

Most of the core group from last season is back.  The notable exception is Dexter Fowler, who signed a free-agent deal with the Cardinals.  While Fowler’s prowess at the top of the order (.277/.393/.449) will be missed the Cubs do have several options at this spot. Realizing that the entire infield returns, including swing guy Javy Baez is certainly a plus. The emergence of his game in the post-season, combined with the way Addison Russell bounced back in the playoffs has fans drooling over the possibilities of what is to come.  Add in All-Stars Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist and NL MVP Kris Bryant and the optimism is at all time high levels.  

Looking at the outfield, the Cubs will use a platoon of Albert Almora Jr, and Jon Jay in CF. Kyle Schwarber will be the main man in LF at least to start the season, and the thoughts of him being healthy and in for the long haul this year is a plus.  Jason Heyward’s down season offensively didn’t affect his defense, and the 184-million dollar man has been working on his swing all off-season.  He has to be better this year than last right? 

As told to MLB.com
The rotation returns basically intact.  Jason Hammel is gone to the Royals, with Mike Montgomery getting the first shot at the 5th spot this spring. Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lackey are all back and coming in off of respectable seasons a year ago.  Brett Anderson adds some depth if healthy. The free-agent made only 4 starts for the Dodgers last season (after undergoing back surgery in March 2016), but in 2015 won 10 games in 31 starts in LA. Keep the names Caleb Smith (Rule 5 Draft pick), Eddie Butler (acquired from Rockies) and Alec Mills in mind for further pitching depth. 

Some changes were made in the bullpen this off-season.  Aroldis Chapman signed as a free agent with the Yankees, Trevor Cahill is now with his hometown Padres and Travis Wood signed with Kansas City yesterday.  Wade Davis is the new closer.  The Cubs gave up Jorge Soler in a trade with the Royals to get him. Davis made only 45 appearances last year after going on the DL with a right forearm strain, but he saved a career best 27 games. He was the closer on the Royals World Series Championship in 2015, and had an ERA of only 0.94.  A proven commodity and a guy that used to pitch for Maddon in Tampa Bay, makes the loss of Chapman easier to take. Many of the familiar faces are back, including Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, Justin Grimm and Carl Edwards Jr will feature prominently. Newcomer Koji Uehara will provide some veteran experience in the back end of the pen. 

The biggest one as mentioned a bit earlier will be production from the leadoff spot.  Fowler leaves a big hole at the top of the lineup.  Early contenders to fill in the blank so to speak are Kyle Schwarber and Ben Zobrist. Of the two, Zobrist has the most experience (duh!) in the spot. All time Zobrist is a .238/.330/.376 slash line hitter, with 17 homers in 705 career appearances in the top spot.  Schwarber has just 8 career appearances as a leadoff hitter, hitting .375 with an OBP of .375 as well.  Zobrist offers a switch hitting option, while Schwarber is a good contact hitter.  Neither are the ‘pototypical’ leadoff hitters, but that notion has kind of gone by the wayside recently.  An option that could evolve later, with some seasoning and development is Almora Jr.  This is worth keeping an eye on as the Spring moves along. 

Will Kyle Schwarber catch this season? According to the beat reporters on scene in Arizona the plan is to use Schwarber in LF everyday, and be the third “emergency” catcher”.  He meets with doctors today to see if he can be cleared to catch. 

Who will catch Jon Lester?  With David Ross in retirement, here’s your answer…


Seemingly the Cubs have an excellent chance to repeat this season.  Lots of things still have to go right.  Health is always an issue with every MLB team, as they traverse the 162 game schedule in only 6 months time.  Don’t expect too many surprises when it comes to the 25 man roster to open the season.  This team should repeat as Central Division champions for sure, but will face some big competition when it comes to the NLDS and NLCS.  This team though is built to win, with depth and versatility.  Bottom line: Repeat. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

MLB Considering Changes to Extra Innings Rules...

One of the most interesting games I ever broadcast was an extra inning game between the Padres and the Rockies in San Diego.  It was April 17 2008, which bled into April 18, after 22 innings, 42 players and 6 hours and 16 minutes of baseball. The contest didn't feature a single position player pitching, but did use a total of 15 hurlers, many needing to go multiple innings.  Who won?  Oh it was the Rockies 2-1.

I bring that game up because Major League Baseball is considering a change in rules when it comes to extra innings games.  The proposal which will be tried out in the rookie level Gulf Coast League and Arizona League this year, will place a runner at 2nd base to begin each inning after 9 frames are completed.  This is according to a Yahoo Sports report published online Wednesday. MLB will study the in-game scenarios this year to decide if the rule should be used at higher levels of minor league ball or even at the Big League level.

A variation of this rule has been used in international baseball for almost 10 years and will be used in the World Baseball Classic this spring. 

Joe Torre, MLB's Chief Baseball Officer was quoted as saying, "Let's see what it looks like." The former Yankees manager and major leaguer, is a strong proponent of the testing. "It's not fun to watch when you go through your whole pitching staff and wind up bringing in a utility infielder to pitch. As much as it's nice to talk about being at an 18-inning game, it takes time."

"Its baseball. I'm just trying to get back to that, where this is the game that people come to watch. It doesn't mean you're going to score. You're just trying to play baseball."

This line of thinking is wrong on so many levels in my opinion.  Take Torre's first point, about not wanting to see a position player wind up pitching in a game. First of all, it's a rare occasion. I'm sure those in attendance (those who stayed for all 16 innings) at the Cubs/Rockies game July 29, 2014, would beg to differ at how fun it was to watch then Cubs catcher John Baker pitch. Not only did he pitch, he scored the winning run and became the 1st position player to ever win a game in the history of the franchise. Fans enjoyed it. The players enjoyed it. The game played itself out as it has for over a century.
                        As mentioned in a Yahoo.com Sports Report

The only people that didn't enjoy the outing by Baker, were then manager Rick Renteria who didn't want to overuse his bullpen and then Colorado manager Walt Weiss who's team couldn't get to the Cubs catcher.  Weiss saying, "I think he was smart enough to know that if he stayed below the hitting speed he was going to be effective and that's what he did."

Again, these are rare happenings in baseball and to over react to change the rules of the game to speed it up like this is insane.

Cubs catcher John Baker pitches in extra innings 7/29/14
In this day and age of minute attention spans, I'm not surprised that baseball is thinking in this way, but come on, this game has been great for so long, this particular change seems unnecessary.  Why not a home run derby after 9 innings instead?  That way the game will end sooner. Much in the way the NHL has used the shootout (another horrible rule to me, a tie is a point in hockey, leaving without a winner is fine with me) and soccer goes to penalty kicks.

Extra innings is filled with drama, strategy and management of a team's pitching staff and bench.  Don't 'dumb this down' for the hard core fan base.

Not only will this rule change how the games are decided, but how will statistics be affected?  Former Major League pitcher and now MLB Network analyst, Dan Plesac took to Twitter today "...who (pitcher) gets the L or W? Is it a TEAM loss or win?" Very good question. Baseball is a game with statistics for everything.  How will these new extra inning games be scored in respect to not just W's and L's for players, but ERA, FIP, batting average w/RISP and so forth?  I know this is a minor point, but one that does need to be thought about, considering how, stats equal dollar signs for players come contract time.

There is a simple solution. I've said this countless times before, expand the roster.  Not to 40, not even to 30. Seems like 26, 27 or even 28 might do the trick.  Even if you want to do it like the NFL does, where you have a 53 man "roster" but dress only 45 at game time, do a 30 man, and dress 26-28.  If you think that's too many how about a 27 man roster, with 25 eligible each night, but one player can be designated to be activated only in extra innings. I'm spitballing here, but this has got to be better than a drastic change to an already great game.

I understand that things have to change to survive sometimes.  Its just difficult to see the rationale behind this type of move.  I am willing to see how this experiment in the minors turns out. Will it shorten extra innings?  Will it save time?  Will it save pitchers' arms? I guess where there's a will there's a way, but is it the right way to go?