It Was a Badly Good Season (I Guess), So Now What?

If some Cubs fans considered the 2017 season to be disappointing, then, by comparison, 2018 was an unmitigated disaster.

It certainly feels that way mere hours after a disappointing 2-1, 13-inning loss to the Colorado Rockies in the NL Wild Card game, but it’s not really like that. Or is it? Yes, there were plenty of injuries to deal with. Yes, there were 42 games in 43 days to close the season. Yes, they were tired. (Newsflash: All teams are tired by the end of September.) The simple fact remains that the Milwaukee Brewers caught fire in the final weeks, and the better team won the division. With the St. Louis Cardinals also having an excellent stretch run, the Cubs played like a 3rd place team in the last month, going 17-13 in their final 30 games. Although that seems decent enough with a sizable division lead like they had entering the month, each loss proved crucial with those two teams hot on the heels. Still, 95 wins and a trip to the postseason despite major issues first with the rotation, later with the bullpen, and throughout the season with the lineup, shouldn’t necessarily be something to bemoan. And yet the eye test all year was at best mercurial and at worst, awful.

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So what went wrong?

Typically, most fans wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) gripe too much about a 95-win campaign that had their team as the best in the National League for the majority of the season and make the playoffs. Unless of course, expectations are so high that anything other than a division title and deep postseason run feels like failure. Such is now the state of the Cubs and their fans. Did the players just fail to execute? Were there poor coaching decisions made? Are some of these guys just not what they were expected to be? Did the league adjust? All the above, perhaps. But while the lack of a sustained power run had the Cubs and their fans feeling stuck like a duck in a pen, the issues that led to this quick playoff exit more or less began last year.

0 for the offseason

Winning the offseason seems kind of cool when you’re slated to dominate, but it doesn’t always translate to success. Pitching was addressed last winter by Theo Epstein & Co. in a big way but the moves as a whole failed monumentally. Closer Brandon Morrow was a risk to take on given his injury history, and overuse of him in the second half by Joe Maddon compounded the chances for a problem. Sure enough, what started as elbow pain led to a season-ending shutdown. Yu Darvish was the big splash for the Cubs, but he was awful from the get-go before, aptly, a season-ending injury. Tyler Chatwood was a flier taken by the front office and despite having promising stuff, was even worse than Darvish. Although the team seemed to win games he pitched, he had an amazing inability to throw strikes with any consistency whatsoever. If Chatwood was attempting a pre-spectacles Rick Vaughn impersonation, he nailed it something fierce. The big moves made by the front office in the offseason backfired, no question. (The acquisitions of Cole Hamels and Daniel Murphy later on however, were excellent. But that’s another story.)

40 games

That’s how many (39 in the regular season) games the Cubs scored 0 or 1 run. That’s just about every fourth game. That number put them second in MLB, just one behind the hapless Baltimore Orioles who had 40. Now for a team with a powerful, well-rounded and deep lineup, this simply shouldn’t happen. The Cubs still managed to finish 4th in runs scored in the NL, but the biggest dents came before the All-Star break when starting pitching was erratic. After the break, there was a noticeable downslide in production that didn’t level off when the starting pitching got dialed in. They were always fighting a level of disparity there. Nobody expected this hitting crisis though, and yet here it is. Injuries again played a part, as Kris Bryant missed significant time and Anthony Rizzo and Jason Heyward among others all spent time on the DL at different parts of the season as well. Hey, it happens. But that still doesn’t explain scoring just two runs in the final 22 innings of the season – at home – in crucial games. Not to mention very sporadic run production all throughout September, including splitting a key four-game series against the Pittsburgh Pirates when they may has well have went to the plate batless during the first two games.

What now?

Changes should at least be coming somewhere in the lineup for 2019. With the exception of a major jump from Javy Baez that put him in MVP consideration, the only consistency was found in Rizzo and 37-year old Ben Zobrist who eclipsed the .300 mark for the first time in his solid career. Heyward and Albert Almora were real good in stretches, but not sustained. Willson Conteras fell off massively in the second half. Daniel Murphy was outstanding when he first joined the club in August before going largely silent in the final couple weeks. There are plenty of adjustments to be made there. Murphy is not likely to be back in ’19, and it may very well be time to move on from some others despite their upside. The twist here is figuring out how to navigate the roster with regard to the checkbook, as entering 2018 the 25-man roster was essentially locked up for the next three years.

As for the staff, that’s another issue altogether. In addition to “Panic Joe’s” (Maddon’s questionable in-game alter-ego) strange tactical style, he also added Jim Hickey and Chili Davis during the offseason to handle the pitching and hitting duties, respectively. The latter of whom is under scrutiny after an offensive season, especially on the vital stretch run, that left a lot to be desired.

“As an offense we need to mature a little more and develop a little more,” Rizzo said. “At times we did this year as a unit. And at times, not so much.”

In the end, the players must execute. But some things are open to further inspection. The offensive struggles, even if indirectly related to Davis’ tutelage, point to another debatable move by Maddon. Coupled with his celebrity manager status and occasional disagreements with Epstein and Jed Hoyer over the usage of his bullpen (which directly led to key injuries), not all may be coming up roses in the clubhouse.

Yet the Cubs wasted little time today announcing that Maddon would return in 2019, the final year of his contract. While quelling any speculation before it got out of hand, this still sets up two subtexts for next season: If the team starts out hot and wins consistently, they’re “playing for Joe.” If they struggle early on, then “Joe must’ve lost the clubhouse. Fire him.” This may or may not affect the simple desire to just play baseball, but it’s worth noting.

In some ways, even despite arguably the best managerial job of his Cubs tenure through most of the season, Joe is further under the microscope than ever before. Should Epstein have let him go, it would not have been unprecedented: The Red Sox, Yankees and Nationals all replaced their managers after making the postseason last year. All the credit in the world can – and should – be given to Maddon for transforming the clubhouse culture and being the ideal ringleader for the new Cubs regime. But it’d be fairly easy to opine that the buck stops there with him. It might be equally easy to draw comparisons to other iconic Chicago coaches who were great with personnel but less so at actual coaching, contributing to a degree of perceived underachievement (see: Mike Ditka). Maybe the $6M on his contract for his final year matters, or maybe Epstein & Co. want to play this second window out with as much common ground as possible. Maybe both.

In any event, some things are due to change, perhaps significantly for 2019.

On a side note, the 2017 and 2018 seasons just go to show how abnormally perfect the 2016 season was for the Cubs in terms of health, production, pitching and defense. It all came together that year in a way that is rarely, if ever, seen. Perhaps that’s why the bar is raised to such a skewed level. But I digress.

Even more so than after the 2017 season, the 2018 winter should be very interesting in Cubland.

Photo credit: (Google search) https://www.thinglink.com/scene/982390609039851522

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This 75th is a Real Peach! (Preview)

The state of Illinois celebrates its bicentennial in 2018, and subsequently, another milestone celebration is to take place: The 75th anniversary of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.

Why is the 75th of the AAGPBL significant where Illinois is concerned you may ask? The answer is because Illinois’ own Rockford Peaches were one of the original four teams in the league.

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Rockford Peaches, 1943

In recognition of both the state’s 200th and the Peaches’ 75th, a feature story is set to appear in Celebrate Illinois: A Bicentennial Retrospective, a special edition of Shaw Media’s own Neighborhood Tourist magazine this June. The following are nonlinear excerpts from the piece:

Heading into 1943, baseball was in jeopardy amid the throes of World War II. With resources being shifted to the war effort and pro teams’ rosters depleted due to military induction, the professional game was in danger of being stopped. It was during this uncertain time that Major League Baseball executives stepped in to pursue a creative way to help keep America’s pastime continuing. Chewing gum magnate and then-owner of the Chicago Cubs, Philip K. Wrigley, along with Brooklyn Dodgers’ owner Branch Rickey among others, hatched their solution: The AAGPBL. Four Midwestern teams made up the original league: The Racine Belles, South Bend Blue Sox, Kenosha Comets, and Rockford Peaches.

The Peaches played their home games at venerable Beyer Stadium, located at 245 15th Avenue in Rockford. They were one of only two teams to play in every season of the AAGPBL’s 12-year history (South Bend Blue Sox) and were also one of the most successful, having won championships in 1945, 1948, 1949 and 1950. During that time the Peaches regularly drew large crowds to Beyer and became both a local and national sensation. With their team name derived from their unique peach-colored uniforms (actual peaches were used in the dye to make them), fans were joyed to watch them play the game – in its best, hardnosed form – but with some extra on-field theatrics where applicable. When asked about the latter, Peaches player Eileen Burmeister shrugged, and with a thick layer of self-deprecation, said “If God meant for us to play baseball, he would’ve made us any good at it.” The league became so popular in fact, that the original plans to end it in conjunction with the war’s completion in 1945 were shelved and the AAGPBL continued until 1954.

In the ensuing decades after the league’s end, much of its appreciation had sadly waned. That is, until Hollywood stepped up. While it was largely a work of fiction, Penny Marshall’s wonderful 1992 movie A League of Their Own reminded the masses what the Peaches and the AAGPBL meant to baseball and America. The influence this pop culture parallel of an important historical time had on people like Laura Daniels, a high school English teacher from Joliet and aficionado of the Peaches, was palpable. “After seeing the movie, I began to learn more about the real-life teams in the league. As a baseball fan, I found their backstories fascinating.” Daniels said. The movie ignited nationwide renewed interest in the league and the genuine respect found therein by people like Daniels was common. “As a curious little girl at the time, I found confidence and began to have genuine admiration of these women. We should be so lucky to have had that much historical impact literally built in our own backyards.” The movie was a smash, and it reminded folks that nearly 50 years earlier, the real Peaches were just getting started.

Wrought with the fright of the war, a part of America’s greatest generation answered the call in a different, remarkable way. Though the scale of the cultural impact these women had on the game of baseball as well as the nation itself wouldn’t be fully realized until years later, the Rockford Peaches and every other team in the AAGPBL showed everyone how America’s game is truly more than just a game.

Happy 75th, Peaches!

… full story coming June 2018.

 

Sources: http://www.rrstar.com/article/20140525/SPECIAL/140529678

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rockford_Peaches

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All-American_Girls_Professional_Baseball_League

Photo Credit: http://www.aagpbl.org/index.cfm/teams/1943/rockford-peaches/2

Angry Attack: Cubs’ visit to Rivals Park in 1920 marred by stabbing

The following is non-edited, curated content from a story I wrote that appeared in the Joliet Herald-News on March 21, 2018. 

 

Joliet was a happening place nearly a century ago.

With burgeoning local businesses and a strong sense of civic pride, plus the bonus of being a just short train ride to Chicago, “J-Town” was the place to be in a growing suburbia.

Social pastimes were also wildly popular as the roaring twenties began, in which baseball featured prominently. As it still is today, Joliet and the surrounding areas were a hotbed of baseball talent.

The Joliet Rivals Club, founded in 1907, were no strangers to baseball, having fielded local teams dating back to their early years. Even the Chicago Cubs paid a visit in the fall of 1920 to play against the Joliet Rivals, a semi-pro team named after the very park they played at. Sources also refer to the team by their former name, the Rivneas, a combined name of the Rivals and Northeastern A.C.’s of Joliet, who’s World War I-era roster was comprised of several former major and minor leaguers.

That the Rivals-Cubs game itself was played was not surprising, as in those days most major league clubs scheduled exhibitions against local semi-pro or college teams on their days off. These unofficial games were a means for the team to have real game action instead of a practice, and to give local teams and their fans a chance to see big league stars in action up close.

One such contest took place here in Joliet, on Thursday, September 30, 1920. The circumstances that surrounded this game however, have made it a rather infamous, if forgotten, episode of Joliet folklore.

With the Cubs en route, the buildup to the game was strongly publicized, with multiple articles appearing the week of the game in the Joliet Evening Herald News. An overflow crowd of more than 5,000 paid spectators (roughly 13% of Joliet’s population at the time), turned out on game day, more than twice filling the 2,000-seat capacity of Rivals Park (formerly Theiler’s Park before the Rivals Club purchased the property in 1919), on the corner of Broadway and Russell streets. Hundreds more crowded along the streets beyond the outfield, battling for the slightest vantage point. A parade to the ballpark from the downtown Elks Club where the Cubs were staying got the festivities underway, and once at the park fans shelled out 25 cents for a grandstand ticket, while the big spenders handed over a whopping $1 for a reserved box seat. Joliet mayor William Barber added to the fanfare by tossing the ceremonial first pitch on that autumn afternoon.

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Rivals Park in Joliet, IL circa 1920.

Joliet native Abraham Lincoln “Sweetbreads” Bailey took the mound for the Cubs in what was one of his only six career starts. Bailey, primarily a relief pitcher in his three-year major league career, held a 4 to 1 lead in the fifth inning when the Rivneas mounted a furious comeback that the Cubs couldn’t answer. Much to the delight of the overflow crowd, the Joliet club emerged victorious by a final score of 5-4. This of course was a tremendous triumph for the hometown team to knock off the Cubs, exhibition game or not. But the excitement didn’t end there.

Immediately following the game, as the Cubs players walked to waiting cabs to be taken back to their hotel, a fan emerged from the grandstand and waylaid Cubs third baseman Buck Herzog, igniting a fierce fight. During the scuffle, a friend of the instigating Jolietan brandished a knife and slashed Herzog across the hand and leg. Seeing the brawl unfold, two Joliet players, Frank Murphy and Nick Carter stepped in to subdue the attackers, ending the melee. Herzog returned to his hotel, no worse for wear except for what was later called a “slight scratch” on his hand.

As the story goes, the fan accused Herzog of being “…one of those crooked Chicago ballplayers” before launching his assault. This is significant when considering the motive behind the attack. It’s a longshot, but there is the possibility that the fan, if only a casual one, got his Chicago teams confused and was mistakenly referring to Buck Herzog as Buck Weaver, who just that very week was suspended along with seven of his teammates by Charles Comiskey amid accusations of throwing the 1919 World Series. This misidentified burst of violence then would be doubly ignorant if so, since Weaver’s banishment was highly unjust itself (though that’s another story altogether). But in an era long before the internet or even player names and numbers on their jerseys, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that the attacker assumed this third basemen nicknamed “Buck” from Chicago was in fact the other third baseman nicknamed “Buck” from Chicago.

On the contrary, it is much more likely that the attacker was in fact referring to the well-known, open accusations Buck Herzog received just a few weeks earlier for conspiring to throw a game on August 31st against the Phillies at Wrigley Field.

“I’m sorry it occurred,” Herzog said, “but I couldn’t resist punching that fellow when he called me a crook.”

Although gambling on, and even throwing games had been occurring for decades, the breaking news of the Black Sox scandal forced the game of baseball at all levels to take a long, hard look at itself as it faced an uncertain future. If an outside force such as gambling could infiltrate baseball, heralded as the cleanest of games, then anyone accused of conspiring against the game was met with a multitude of harsh reactions. We will likely never know the full truth of the reason behind the attack on Herzog at Rivals Park that day, but it is interesting to speculate on both possibilities nonetheless.

Baseball continued as usual at Rivals Park until 1934, when the ballpark was redesigned to accommodate professional softball and later Little League baseball on the site. In doing so, Joliet’s first illuminated softball diamond was conceived. In recent decades, the Rivals Club has shifted focus away from organized sports, and now shares the lot with Haunted Trails amusement park. Yet the historic club remains an important, active participant in an ever-changing, but still baseball-rich Joliet, much as it did in 1907.

And certainly as it did when the Cubs came to town.

Special thanks and photo credit to Richard Rivera, Joliet Rivals Club President.

 

 

Sources:

Joliet Rivals Club, A Centennial Celebration: 1907-2007 by Marianne Wolf

Joliet Evening Herald News, September 26-Oct 1, 1920, microfilm at the Joliet Public Library

Chicago Daily Tribune, Oct 1, 1920

365 Oddball Days in Chicago Cubs History by John Snyder

https://cdnc.ucr.edu/cgi-bin/cdnc?a=d&d=MT19201001.2.25

 

 

Yu essentially have three years

Ok, so while that headline is just one of countless puns associated with new Cubs ace Yu Darvish’s first name, it’s more or less true: The Cubs have an extremely encouraging three-year window that begins now.

Call it the second three-year window of Theo’s plan, if you will.

The first such pane was a rousing success from 2015-2017, with three straight trips to the NLCS bracketing that oh-so-sweet World Series title in ’16. With pitchers and catchers commencing their first workout of the 2018 season later this week, Phase 2 of the plan has begun with a bang, with the signing of Darvish to a 6 year/$126 million (possibly $150 with incentives) contract. While seemingly a lot of cash, this deal puts Darvish’s AAV at $21 million and even with that hit, the Cubs are still well-under the luxury tax limit which means if Theo & Co. need to add a piece at the break, they’ll be in a very comfortable position to do so.

On the roster side, assuming that any opt outs don’t occur for at least three seasons (which very well could be by design as you’ll see), this Cubs rotation as it looks right now is solidified for at least that long. Jon Lester has three years left on his original deal, Kyle Hendricks won’t be in the arbitration camp for another year, Jose Quintana should stay put for another three years if the Cubs pick up his options, and another new Cub, Tyler Chatwood, inked a three year deal too.

Breaking the rotation down in terms of rollout, though it’s anyone’s guess as to how skipper Joe Maddon and new pitching coach Jim Hickey will adjust it, the rotation could look like this: Darvish – Lester – Quintana – Hendricks – Chatwood, with Mike Montgomery in the very valuable long relief/spot-starting role. I’d think most Cubs fans would feel pretty confident in such a staff, and rightfully so, as it’s one of the best in baseball.

Factor in the big paydays that are coming in the not too distant future for several of the superstar position players, and you have a pretty enviable situation with at least two and likely three years with excellent chances for more deep playoff runs with this roster effectively locked up. And that’s just the immediate future.

Of course, the Cubs expect to be good for many more years after these next three and there are a couple of huge factors to facilitate that long-term success of the club. First, there are some very lucrative revenue streams that are either just starting to flow in or have yet to be tapped, highlighted by a mega TV deal after the 2019 season. Secondly, behind the scenes of all these big club goings-on, is that this steadiness allows proper time and resources to replenish and restock the farm system with the best talent the front office can find. History shows they have a pretty good track record of such a thing.

Once again, the Cubs front office has made moves that show they’re not only going for it right now, but they have orchestrated it with a tremendous business savvy that will serve the organization well for many years. Buckle up, Cubs fans. Yu (ok, sorry!) won’t want to miss this.

An interview with baseball historian and author, Gary Livacari

Today we’re honored to spend a few moments with baseball historian, author, editor of the greatest page in the history of facebook, and lifelong Chicago native Gary Livacari! In addition to contributing content to SABR‘s great BioProject and several books, Gary has just published the fantastic Memorable World Series Moments, a collection of great stories from various fall classics of yesteryear, going all the way back to 1909. In this book, Gary compiles all the interesting, humorous and strange tales from some of the greatest World Series’ and their heroes of past eras with a reverence and boyish fascination that we, as baseball junkies, can all relate to.

GaryBook

Gary, thanks for joining us today!

My pleasure!

So tell us, how did the idea of writing this new book come about?

I’ve always enjoyed writing, especially about baseball history, which is a subject I love and one that I happen to know a little bit about. I’ve been a SABR member for many years and have done numerous biographies for the SABR BioProject. For the longest time, I had been saying to myself it would be nice if I could combine my love of writing with my love of baseball history. I would often say to myself that “I have a book inside me somewhere, but I just don’t know what it is yet.”

That was the situation about four years ago when Ron Bolton asked me to join him as an editor of the Old-Time Baseball Photos facebook page. I started writing two or three short essays per week on different topics related to baseball history. It proved to be a great outlet for me, writing about subjects I enjoy. One of the continuing topics I wrote about over the years was “Famous World Series Incidents.” As time went on, I realized that I had written over 25 essays on different World Series’. Then the light bulb  went off: Why not compile all these essays into a book? There was my book, sitting right in front of my nose the whole time! So that became the genesis of the book, Memorable World Series Moments. 

Did you self-publish, or go through a publishing company?

I self-published. Amazon makes self-publishing, both e-book and paperback, very easy if you’re somewhat computer and tech-savvy. I had the entire project up and running and finished within six weeks, and it cost me very little. There’s a very limited audience for a niche subject matter like mine, so finding a conventional publisher for my idea would’ve been out of the question. So six weeks after coming up with the idea, I became a published author!

Why did you choose that particular publishing route so quickly?

One of my friends gave me the book Publish and Profit by Mike Koenigs. The theme of the book is how easy it is to self-publish, and how becoming a published author adds immensely to your credibility. It establishes you as an “expert” while opening up numerous doors (speaking engagements, etc.) Plus, it’s enormously self-gratifying. I suddenly had people asking me for my autograph which I humorously refer to as my “15 minutes of fame.”

What were the main differences in writing content for the book compared to your website, Baseball History Comes Alive! and the facebook page, Old-Time Baseball Photos?

Very little difference because my book is a compilation of short essays I had written and posted on my site and facebook page. I just did some editing prior to publishing the book. Plus I added to the book something I call Gary’s Handy-Dandy World Series Reference Guide. This is a compilation of World Series records and other bits of baseball trivia related to the World Series I had been collecting over the years. I thought this would be a good place to publish it.

Do you have a favorite chapter or story you wrote, and why?

My favorite chapters are the ones about famous World Series “goats” like Fred Snodgrass in 1912, Heine Zimmerman in 1917, Freddie Lindstrom in 1924, Ernie Lombardi in 1940, and Mickey Owen in 1941. For some reason, I had always been interested in these types of stories. Even as a little kid I had heard of these incidents, and always felt some sadness for these players who were blamed for losing the World Series. With just a little research, I found that almost invariably they were blamed unjustly. So I was glad to have the opportunity to write about them, hoping to do my little bit to set the historical record straight.

What was your biggest challenge and biggest reward from writing this book?

The biggest challenge was learning how to format the manuscript for publication completely by myself after I had finished the writing. I wanted to prove to myself that I was capable of solving all the technical issues that arose, so that it would be truly self-published. I found a couple e-books on the internet on self-publishing, and, to my amazement, I was able to complete the project without too many stumbling blocks. The biggest reward has been the positive feedback I’ve received. Most of the people who bought the book seem to genuinely like it!

What is it about baseball history in general that you find so appealing and interesting?

That’s an interesting question. I’ve been a Cubs fan since 1955 when I was 5 years old. I have fond memories of sitting on my Grandfather’s lap watching Cubs Sunday doubleheaders on our old black-and-white TV after Sunday dinner. I’ve been a baseball fan ever since. Those were wonderful old days, so there’s definitely an element of nostalgia for the past locked into my psyche. I’ve often said if you ask any baseball fan how he became a fan, you’ll almost always find a story similar to mine.

There’s just something about the “old days” of baseball that I’ve always found fascinating. I wish I could find the words to express this fascination. I think it’s basically an intangible, almost subconscious thing. I know it’s there, but I can’t really explain it. I’ve always been an avid student of American history (I’m somewhat of an authority on the Civil War), so perhaps that has something to do with it. In studying baseball’s past you can’t help but learn a lot about America’s past. Baseball is just intertwined into America’s history. But it’s deeper than that, part of one’s “makeup.”

Any plans for publishing more books in the future?

You bet! Now that I’ve got the first one successfully under my belt, I’m constantly tossing ideas around in my mind. And I wouldn’t mind doing something with Mr. Kevin Trusty!

Neither would I! I think we could come up with a fascinating project(s) and look forward to seeing what’s on the horizon there. Thanks for your time Gary, and congratulations on a great book! 

Thank you!

 

Buy Memorable World Series Moments here

Visit Baseball History Comes Alive!

Check out Old-Time Baseball Photos on Facebook!

Some History Is Hard to Repeat

If you ask Cubs fans to describe the 2017 season, many will say, “disappointing.” Perhaps that’s because of the way the season ended, in a completely flat offensive effort in the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Maybe it’s also because something just looked off about this team all year, and they never fully clicked for whatever reason.

The tunnel vision vantage point may feel somewhat bleak, but stepping back, the panoramic view is pretty damn bright.

For if this season was “disappointing” and yet still yielded a 92-win Central Division title and a playoff run to the NLCS for the third straight year, that’s something to be pretty content with given Cubs history.

There’s that word again: History. As in, the past. As in, last year is over. As in, I think that’s where some of the fans’ disdain for how this season went down began. Here, then, is a good time to remember one of the chief lessons in baseball: No team, game, or season is ever the same.

The Plan worked. 2016 was magical. Not just because of the 108-year World Series drought ending, but in the way it happened. It was as close to an ideal season as any team could have. Literally a dream come true for long-suffering Cubs fans. In addition to having the deepest and most talented team in all of baseball, the Cubs enjoyed a red hot start that carried throughout the whole season save for a rough stretch just before the All-Star break. More importantly, this was a team with the rarity of near complete health all season save for Kyle Schwarber, who’s absence before coming back to be one of the World Series heroes was perfectly filled by the depth and flexibility of his teammates. Throw in the NL MVP, two Gold Glove winners in your starting nine, and two of the five starting pitchers in your rotation finishing second and third in Cy Young Award voting, and you have a recipe for a Championship season. And so it was done. (Not without three exciting series’ in the playoffs capped off by the greatest Game Seven of all time of course, but that’s another story altogether.)

2016 was as close to perfect as it gets. 2017 was not. And that’s ok.

For whatever reason, this year’s team stumbled early and often. The starting pitching wasn’t nearly as sharp, many bats slumped at once, there was a rash of injuries to several key players who missed significant time, the bullpen didn’t always hold serve and the platinum defense of 2016 regressed significantly. It took until after the All Star break for something to finally set right with this group, when they emerged from 5.5 games back on July 15 to win the division at the end of September. But still, something just didn’t look right.

There were notable offensive quirks by many players throughout the year. Kris Bryant hit .295 with 29 homers but only drove in 74 runs. Kyle Schwarber knocked out 30, but only hit .211 and that was due to a surge after coming back from the minors where he was sent after a couple months of living far below the Mendoza line. Addison Russell wasn’t the same, missed time with an injury and didn’t duplicate his production from the year before. Stalwart veteran Ben Zobrist had his struggles, and battled his health all season. Willson Contreras was having a monster year before being sidelined on the DL. Jason Heyward, under much scrutiny after a dreadful ’16, actually managed to hit 30 points higher and improved across the board in every offensive category, and yet still didn’t really pass the eye test and was benched for the second straight year in the playoffs for lack of production. Not that it was just him though, the entire team went flat against the Dodgers, losing four games to one and scoring only eight runs in the five games, all on home runs. The book was closed on 2017 with a major ebb, after not a lot of flow.

As I sit here writing this and listening to the excellent (and in context, very atmospheric) Pearl Jam – Let’s Play Two: Live At Wrigley Field record, I perhaps should be disappointed in the way this season ended, but I’m really not. In fact, I’m encouraged. For a team that battled through a lot of injuries, inconsistent play, individual struggles, and balls-to-the-wall competition in the division from the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals (and earlier, the Pittsburgh Pirates), and still emerge with a third straight trip to the NLCS…well, its something I never thought I’d see in my lifetime. So really, 2017 wasn’t all that bad.

Granted, I’d be furious right now had 2016 not happened. In fact, I might start to believe that it never would happen.

In some ways, 2017 sort of felt like playing on house money. Sure I was hoping for a repeat, but baseball is the hardest sport to land a consecutive championship, so expecting one was a little unrealistic, even with the bulk of the 2016 team still here. The good thing however, was there was no pressure anymore. For all of the erroneous Curse believers, it was gone. Mission accomplished, and now we as fans could focus on the present and no longer the forlorn barrage of “what ifs” and “there’s always next year’s.” Cubs fans expect to win now, and make deep playoff runs, and for the third straight year, that’s what happened. Now this team can gear up for 2018 with a renewed focus, new faces on the roster and on the coaching staff (following the firing of pitching coach Chris Bosio yesterday), and perhaps a sense of unfinished business too.

Just remember, no team, game, or season is ever the same.

Four months until Spring Training…

Sources: https://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/CHC/2017.shtml

https://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/CHC/2016.shtml

2017 MLB Predictions

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Well folks, here we are! The 2017 season has arrived (today is Opening Day in fact, so I realize I’m a bit late on this.) I debated all offseason on whether to do a predictions post, but in the end, and by the end I mean about 4 minutes ago, I decided why not? So, here goes it, my prognostications for this year:

AL EAST

  1. Boston Red Sox – They’re loaded. Having David Price banged up to start the year won’t help, but picking up Chris Sale will, as he historically has dominated the division.
  2. Toronto Blue Jays – Balanced and potent. They should be in the picture.
  3. Baltimore Orioles – Talented and consistent, and Buck Showalter will keep them relevant.
  4. New York Yankees – Could easily finish higher. 2-5 in this division could end up anywhere.
  5. Tampa Bay Rays – Should be competitive, but an overall lack of offense will likely keep them at a distance by September.

AL CENTRAL

  1. Cleveland Indians – Like Boston, they’re loaded and hungry. Will the 69-year World Series drought come to an end?
  2. Kansas City Royals – Injuries decimated them last year. If healthy, they should contend.
  3. Detroit Tigers – Getting older, but don’t count them out just yet.
  4. Minnesota Twins – Imploded last year but they have lots of youth and talent. If they can gel, they can finish higher.
  5. Chicago White Sox – Finally in a needed rebuilding mode and seem to be doing it right. Some feel there’s still enough there to be competitive all season, but it could be a rough year on the south side, especially if the long-rumored trade of Jose Quintana actually happens.

AL WEST

  1. Houston Astros – Good talent mix up and down and they’re ready to win. Dallas Keuchel is the key cog in their rotation. If he bounces back, it’ll be a huge plus for them.
  2. Texas Rangers – Solid, though may need to find an arm or two. Should be in the race all season.
  3. Seattle Mariners – Could be a sleeper team. Balanced lineup, little gray area on their pitching staff, but they feel ready to win this year.
  4. Los Angeles Angels – Should be better if they stay healthy but not quite ready to challenge the division.
  5. Oakland Athletics – The rebuild continues.

NL EAST

  1. Washington Nationals – Will we see the Baker Effect part II? Lots of pressure for this team to advance in the playoffs. They have the roster to do so.
  2. New York Mets – The most formidable starting rotation in the bigs, but they must stay healthy. If they do, this team could be extremely dangerous.
  3. Miami Marlins – Talent to be competitive, but depth and potential emotional hangover from the tragic death of Jose Fernandez will be factors.
  4. Philadelphia Phillies – Continuing rebuild, but trending up. Could grab a few more wins than people expect.
  5. Atlanta Braves – Lots of people seem high on this team to finish middle or upper in the division. They still are likely a year away, but like the AL East, positions 2-5 could be in any order.

NL CENTRAL

  1. Chicago Cubs – The defending World Champs are the best team in baseball, unequivocally. Sustaining that success now becomes the challenge, but this team has the depth, youth, flexibility and brains to do so.
  2. St. Louis Cardinals – Instantly better with the signing of Dexter Fowler, but losing Alex Reyes for the season was an unexpected blow. Still, there’s enough here to remain in the playoff picture.
  3. Pittsburgh Pirates – Arguably the best outfield in baseball and plenty of promise in the infield too. Will it be enough to climb back into the race?
  4. Milwaukee Brewers – Need pitching. Likely a mid-lower division finish looms.
  5. Cincinnati Reds – The full rebuild continues.

NL WEST

  1. Los Angeles Dodgers – Strong overall team and Dave Roberts proved in his first year as skipper he’s a trusted leader. If Rich Hill steps up to solidify their rotation, another division title awaits for these guys.
  2. San Francisco Giants – Picking up Mark Melancon was huge for them to bolster their bullpen, but a lack of big bats in their lineup could be a detriment. Still, a team of very good, dependable players will keep them on pace with the Dodgers all year.
  3. Colorado Rockies – Another potential sleeper team who could surprise. Pitching is always a question mark here, but there is a very potent lineup and solid defense that could enable this team to win.
  4. Arizona Diamondbacks – New managers always bring some new questions, but overall a lack of depth will be a major hurdle come the dog days of summer.
  5. San Diego – In rebuild mode.

There you go, folks. We’ll see how it shakes out as the season progresses and check in at the All-Star break to see how my semi-educated guesses are playing out. Enjoy the season!

 

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