All In: A Gutsy Trade for a Maligned Closer

The blockbuster trade between the Cubs and Yankees which landed controversial closer Aroldis Chapman in Chicago in exchange for a hefty load of quality prospects has created quite a stir to say the least.

I won’t get into the details, or offer any opinions on Chapman’s offseason situation which has created the moral and ethical disdain with which he is largely viewed, but rather try and interpret this trade objectively. First of all, this is a gutsy, “go for it” move by the Cubs, and it makes them better in the here and now. An elite, extremely talented reliever like Chapman not only fills a glaring need, it also solidifies the bullpen as a whole by slotting guys down. Furthermore, it prevents Chapman from ending up on another team’s, possibly a playoff competitor’s, roster. Would you rather face a guy like him with a game on the line, or have him pitching for you?

In exchange, the Cubs had to part with their top prospect Gleyber Torres, highly regarded minor league outfielders Billy McKinney and Rashad Crawford, and big league swingman pitcher Adam Warren. This may sound like a lot to give up for a rental, but here we see one of the main benefits of the Cubs’ efforts to stockpile their farm system with capable, talented players: Trade chips. The Yankees made out extremely well in this deal, getting Warren back who was very effective for them both in starting and relief roles last year, and a slew of young talent which will be ready for the big club in the very near future as they reload. On the Cubs’ end, both Torres and McKinney were more or less blocked on the big league roster for the foreseeable future. That’s not to say they were expendable per se, just that their upward path was a little less clear with the young core in place on the big club. Warren, for his part, simply did not work out as the Cubs had hoped. In short, this is a win-win trade for both teams from a baseball perspective. Even if the Cubs overpaid for Chapman, well, so what? They overpaid for Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist too. But in today’s game with the incredibly high dollar figures attached to player value, it’s less about overpaying and more about fit. To that extent, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have not missed on too many puzzle pieces to this point.

Not all fans are happy with this trade of course, almost exclusively due to the domestic violence accusation Chapman received last winter. Such a situation and the various amounts of circumstantial evidence paints a bleak picture and is counterintuitive to the type of positive character stipulations that the Cubs organization has sought to uphold in recent years. But if Cubs fans who are understandably upset from that perspective can temper their cognitive dissonance and realize that this move made the team better, on the field that is, then all parties should be satisfied. At least to some degree.

This trade is aggressive, it serves a need, and it shows that this is really it – the Cubs are all in and are legitimately going for it right now. If it works, it’s brilliant. If not, it’s bad. But the gamble ensures the rest of the 2016 season should be interesting ’til the living end.

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Checking In At the Break

Well, here we are at the end of the All-Star break, with regular season play resuming tomorrow. With this pause in the daily action, let’s take a look at how things stack up now vs. where I predicted them at the end of Spring Training.  Some prognostications were spot on, while others turned out to be polar opposite. You just never know what is going to happen in a given baseball game, much less a whole season.

American League East 

  1. Baltimore: I dropped the ball here. Picked them fifth, but they are in first. Their offense has been as good as expected, and some surprising bullpen work has helped a lot.
  2. Boston: Picked them second, and here they sit. Solid team. Division title still possible.
  3. Toronto: Picked them third, they are in third. See Boston. Tight race here.
  4. New York: Thought they’d be much better. Picked them first, but they had a disastrous start that has been hard to recover from.
  5. Tampa Bay: Picked fourth, they will finish last. Bad start and little consistency.

American League Central (completely opposite of what I predicted! Knew this division would be a crapshoot.)

  1. Cleveland: Picked fifth, they sit in first. Great arms and potent offense.
  2. Detroit: Picked fourth, but this resilient bunch is squarely in the WC Race.
  3. Chicago: Picked third, and that’s where they are. Red hot start through April and May, but very streaky since. Still solidly in WC contention.
  4. Kansas City: Picked second, but injuries have decimated this group. Still, they sit above .500 and are in the WC hunt themselves.
  5. Minnesota: Picked first. What a disaster. Total 180 from 2015.

American League West

  1. Texas: Picked them first and that’s where they are. Very solid club.
  2. Houston: Awful April, bounced back strong since. Picked second.
  3. Seattle: Good start, dangerous team. WC still possible? Picked fourth.
  4. Oakland. Picked fifth, but they’ll finish better. Mediocre overall.
  5. Los Angeles: Colossal trainwreck despite talent. Worse yet, they still have to pay Albert Pujols for five more years, and Josh Hamilton another year to play elsewhere.

National League East

  1. Washington: The Baker Effect has worked and it looks like they’re headed for a division title. Picked second.
  2. New York: Picked first, but some key injuries have hindered them. Still in WC race.
  3. Miami: Picked third, they are in third. Solid team in the WC race and headed for a strong finish.
  4. Philadelphia: Picked fourth. Real good start, improvement across the board but the Phils are still a year or two away from contending.
  5. Atlanta: Picked fifth. They’re bad.

National League Central

  1. Chicago: Picked second. Historical start, but some injuries plus a rough stretch in the last few weeks before the break brought the northsiders back to earth. Still a sizeable lead in the division.
  2. St. Louis: Picked first. Squarely in the WC race, but overall not as strong as they were in 2015.
  3. Pittsburgh: Picked third. Solid overall club, another WC contender.
  4. Milwaukee: Picked fourth. Below average team, will avoid the cellar.
  5. Cincinnati: Picked fifth. They waived the white flag over the winter.

National League West

  1. San Francisco: Picked first. Even better than expected, impressive having the best record in baseball at the break considering the run the Cubs had been on.
  2. Los Angeles: Still in the hunt for the WC, strong team, but having Kershaw on the DL doesn’t help. Picked second.
  3. Colorado: Picked fifth. Potent offense is giving this club a shot at a .500 season.
  4. San Diego: Picked fourth. They are a fourth place team, not sure what else to say.
  5. Arizona: Picked third. Was expecting more from this club. Injuries have not helped at all.

There you have it, folks. Once again, baseball proves to be the craziest sport to predict. The second half of the season is set to get underway and who knows what’ll happen…

24 in 24 Has Been a Rough Ride

Beginning back on June 17, the Cubs entered a brutal stretch of 24 games in 24 days, with the bulk of those on the road. With six games remaining in that block, it’s been a far from enjoyable marathon.

The 24-game batch got off to a roaring start with a three-game sweep of Pittsburgh. But then St. Louis rolled into town on June 20, sweeping the Cubs in three, and triggering the first four-game losing streak for the Northsiders, capped off by a loss at Miami. After dropping two out of three to the Marlins, the Cubs rebounded with a road sweep of the hapless Reds, only to then be decimated in four straight by the Mets. The Reds came into Wrigley and extracted a little revenge, grabbing two out of three, bringing us up to the current date, a day after the Atlanta Braves steal a win at Wrigley in a makeup game from April.

In all, the Cubs have managed just a 5-13 record in their last 18 games, including two separate four-game losing streaks. What is happening here?

In short, they look tired. It’s no excuse, but over the last few weeks, certain things are very noticeable. First and foremost, the starting pitching, which has been the bread and butter all season, is not nearly as sharp. One through five in the rotation have become prone to ineffectiveness, high pitch counts, walks, and giving up home runs. A lot of home runs in fact. In various times during this stretch the Cardinals, Marlins, Reds and Mets have all bashed Cubs pitchers to 7+ runs in a game. Much of the defense hasn’t looked as sleek-footed either, adding to the struggles. Part of this conundrum can be traced to who’s behind the plate. While rookie phenom Willson Contreras has performed very well in his limited time, it’s a still a small sample size to this point. Miguel Montero has struggled mightily all season both in the field and behind the plate, and with a long stint on the DL one may wonder if he’s been really hurt all season. That leaves 39-year-old David Ross, who has been highly touted this year, and for good reason. The simple fact is the best version of this Cubs team, at least defensively, is when Ross is on the field. The snag there is you just can’t play Ross daily, and now he’s on the 7-day DL for concussion protocol. With a history of concussions in his career, there’s no telling how another bell-ringing could affect ‘ol Gramps.

Offensively there has been a lot of inconsistency as well. Whether that’s partially due to injuries (Dexter Fowler’s absence has been extremely impactful) or virtually a new lineup every day,  it’s hard to tell. There have been some bright spots: Rookies Albert Almora Jr, and Willson Contreras have begun their MLB careers with distinction, and Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant continue to slug well.

The good news: The Cubs still hold an 8 game lead in the NL Central, and are 19 games over .500 for the season. As we’re seeing, it’s great they got off to such a roaring start and built that cushion, because things change faster than people think in the game of baseball. More good news: All the above is correctable. Players will get healthy, pitching and defense can get sharper, and the bats can find consistency. It’s not a question of if.

There’s a whole half of baseball left to be played. Besides, I’m sure most Cubs fans would rather they struggle in June-July than September-October, right?

Heyward Injury Another Chance For Master Mixologist Maddon

If the St. Louis Cardinals ever did write some mythical book on how to play baseball, Chapter One would be titled “How To Win With Injuries.” Cubs skipper Joe Maddon may need to take a page from that chapter, right now.

First, Kyle Schwarber is lost for the season in a horrific collision in Arizona in early April. Now, Jason Heyward suffers an injury while making an absolutely incredible catch in San Francisco. The nature of Heyward’s injury, or the time he may be out, has yet to be determined at the time of this writing.

The catch itself, was nothing short of amazing. According to StatCast, the ball hit by Denard Span traveled 385 feet with an exit velocity of 103mph. It sailed out to the deepest part of AT&T Park, nicknamed “Triple’s Alley” for good reason. Heyward somehow tracked it down before crashing, in a torso-twisting fashion, into the wall, suffering an apparent oblique/midsection injury. Very, very few players could have made that catch.

To throw salt in the wound, the kneejerk reactions were brutal. One may expect some jabs from Cardinals fans over this, but oddly enough some of the most idiotic viewpoints came from Cubs fans and even local radio personalities who ran the gamut in social media commentary from being glad he got hurt “because he wasn’t producing anyway,” to criticizing his effort on the play because it was “meaningless.” Seriously. Maybe it’s just me, but there are two principles I’ve always stuck by, in any sport, or really any situation in life itself:

  1. Never, EVER, celebrate or be glad when someone gets hurt.
  2. Never, EVER, criticize, judge, or blame someone for giving 100%.

How long Heyward may be out remains to be seen, and (most) Cubs fans are hoping for the best case scenario. For while his bat was just slowly heating up, his defense has been incendiary from day one, and proof that run prevention can be equally as important as run creation. It’s a shame that some fans forget that fact. In the meantime, this gives Crazy Joe Maddon another chance to play toy soldiers, something he loves doing. Matt Szczur coming off the DL will be a much needed element, in addition to extended outfield time for Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler. For the latter, let’s face it, his table is ready. In a perhaps ironic twist, Soler was a star in last night’s game, with two hits including a home run and several excellent defensive plays. He will need to continue that production as he has quickly gone from a useful piece to a key cog.

Read that chapter, Crazy Joe.

Those Baseball Gods, They’re Funny Guys

Baseball is the weirdest of all games, that much we know. It also provokes intense amounts of superstition, sometimes to ridiculous levels, in players, coaches and fans alike. At times like these, or when any sort of streak is apparent, it’s difficult for some of us not to stop and wonder, “hmm…”

With the red hot starts for both the White Sox (15-6 and the best record in the AL) and the Cubs (15-5 and the best record in the NL), naturally much “what if” chatter, often of the absurd variety, has begun. But certain situations have arisen during the course of this otherwise normal business day, however, that are likely pure coincidence, but peculiar nonetheless. For me personally, those who know me understand that my superstitions and awkward OCD routines are borderline lunacy. I may reach far in connecting my illogical-logical dots, but when sequences like this happen, I skypoint to the Baseball Gods with a knowing “I hear ya, fellas!” Take today for example:

  • Several callers, texters and tweeters to AM 670 The Score this morning were posing questions like “Are these Sox for real?,” “What if the Cubs and Sox were to meet in the World Series? Would the city survive?,” “Could we have a repeat of 1906?” and so on. Nothing unusual there, but keep reading…
  • At a routine meeting, it became known that my client is the great-niece of former White Sox catcher Billy Sullivan, who played in the 1906 World Series as part of the infamous “Hitless Wonders” against the Cubs. I’ve known this client for years and never knew this amazing fact. Billy’s son, Bill Jr., also had a long MLB career and played in the 1940 World Series, becoming the first father/son duo to play in the Fall Classic. The rest of her family are Cubs fans and recently posed the question, “what if they play each other in the…” oh stop me, you get the idea.
  • At a quick glance, there are downright eerie comparisons between Sullivan’s career and that of current Cubs veteran catcher David Ross. Eerie as in, they’re virtually the same player. (More on this in an upcoming article.)
  • After my meeting, the managing editor in my office (and a huge Mets fan), asked me if I think the Sox are for real and would the city survive if there ever was a Cubs/Sox World Series? He did not pay attention to the radio station chatter that I did this morning, or knew of my meeting. It was a random conversation. By this time I was literally laughing.
  • The Cubs currently are on pace to match or exceed the 1906 Cubs .763 winning percentage, while the White Sox current team batting average is right on pace with their 1906 counterparts, hence the nickname “Hitless Wonders.” Neither of these is likely to happen, but it’s a fun comparison nonetheless.

Am I suggesting that the stars are aligned, that “this is the year” (a battle cry that this Cubs fan has grown to completely despise), or that both teams are destined for a 1906 rematch in the 2016 World Series? Of course not. It’s only April after all. But in the here and now, both teams are playing strong, inspired baseball and winning, at the same time, and at a pace not seen in decades.

Granted, these little situations are hardly connected, except for their coincidental nature amid much excitement for both teams. But with my acknowledgement of the sheer bizarre, and belief that some driving, external, ethereal force contributes to the strangeness of our pastime, I wonder, a little bit, if the Baseball Powers-That-Be are smirking.

Just a little.

Rivalry Renewed

Strap in, folks.

Tonight marks the first Cubs/Cardinals series of the season, and the first time these two foes will square off since the Cubs eliminated the Cardinals from the 2015 NLDS.

What’s different this time?

The blood. It’s gotten even more bad between these two teams. Fueled not only by the Cubs’ much heralded playoff series win, but it was then compounded when Cardinals free agents John Lackey and Jason Heyward signed with the Cubs during the offseason. The latter player has drawn particular ire from Cardinals fans, as he accepted less money than what the Cardinals offered to play for the rival Cubs.

What to expect?

Good, old-fashioned, hard-nosed baseball, that’s what. In a twist of irony, it also just happens to be John Lackey’s turn in the rotation tonight. He will take the bump against his former team, in his former home ballpark. Heyward too, makes his return to the ‘Lou, and if various online publications and social media posts are any indication, he could receive a less-than-welcome reception from the Cardinals faithful. Misdirected though such disdain may be, considering Heyward played in St. Louis for just one season, it’s still going to be a situation worth keeping an eye on.

Baseball’s best rivalry begins an exciting new chapter tonight.

A Monumental Date In Baseball History

“Life is not a spectator sport. If you’re going to spend your whole life in the grandstand just watching what goes on, in my opinion you’re wasting your life.”

– Jackie Robinson

Today we celebrate Jackie Robinson Day across the country. On this day in 1947, Robinson made his MLB debut on Opening Day at Ebbets Field, helping the Dodgers to a 5-3 win over the visiting Braves. And history was made.