Tagged: Cubs

Life after Never: The 2017 Chicago Cubs

Image result for miguel montero jake arrieta

It had been over a century since the Chicago Cubs last won the World Series, and their last National League Pennant came just six months after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt. While the 2016 Cubs winning the World Series should not have been a shock to baseball fans–they were loaded with young talent and good veteran starting pitching, their roster was built by Theo Epstein, and they were in the NLCS the year before–they shocked the world because of the lovable loser legacy of their jersey and their ballpark. If you thought nothing in the world could top 2016 for the Cubs and your fans, you would not be wrong, but their 2017 season has been underwhelming to this point, even without the context of history, fate, and destiny.

The Cubs currently hold a record of 43-43, four and a half games behind the surprisingly good Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central. They struggled early on, and they could very well go on a run, take back the division, and finish 2017 right where they were the last two seasons. But they are not the juggernaut they were before. They are not the only expected good team that has underperformed in the first half–the San Francisco Giants currently hold the second worst record in Major League Baseball–but the Giants were not expected to be right there with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals (or perhaps better than both) the way the Cubs were–and the Giants have three World Series titles in the bank for this decade after not winning any in their first 50 years in San Francisco. 

As the Cubs’ struggles are going on–from Jake Arrieta’s drop in velocity, to Kyle Schwarber getting sent down to the AAA Iowa Cubs, to Miguel Montero getting traded to the Toronto Blue Jays for publicly criticizing Arrieta–I know the baseball operations people are still working long days trying to put out the best possible product, but it seems like Cubs fans are still just happy to have 2016. On the field, the Cubs are proving that chemistry is overrated, that it’s a product of winning, not the other way around. Off the field, Cubs fans are experiencing a long-awaited championship hangover of their own.

In 2016, the Cubs had five position players (Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, and Dexter Fowler) and two starting pitchers (Arrieta and Jon Lester) elected to the National League All-Star team. In 2017, all those players except Fowler (who signed with the St. Louis Cardinals as a free agent) are still on the Cubs, but their only All-Star representative (prior to announcing replacement players) is new arrival closer Wade Davis. This would make the Cubs the first World Series champion to not have any players from their World Series team in the following All-Star Game. I defend Cubs fans by pointing out the fact that the last time they won the World Series was a quarter century before the first All-Star Game, and they might not know any better, but they had seven guys voted into the game last year, so they clearly know how it works.

The plight of the 2017 Cubs reminds my of the 2005 Boston Red Sox, but with significant differences. The 2005 Red Sox experienced a greater amount of roster turnover from the curse-breaking season before, as Theo had built that team more through free agency and trades than through the farm system like he would go on to in Chicago.

Pedro Martinez signed with the Mets. Derek Lowe signed with the Dodgers. Orlando Cabrera signed with the Angels. Pokey Reese signed with the Mariners, but never played in another Major League game. Dave Roberts was traded to the Padres. The 2005 Red Sox had a different look to them, with guys like David Wells, Matt Clement, Edgar Renteria, and Jay Payton taking their places. It wasn’t the same. Renteria struggled, and my uncle referred to him as “Rent-A-Wreck” that year. Payton was designated for assignment after publicly complaining about playing time (Trot Nixon was Boston’s everyday outfielder in those years, and with Manny Ramirez in left and Johnny Damon in center, the fourth outfielder mostly played when there was a lefty starter and Nixon was sitting). In spite of all that, the Red Sox still went 95-67 and made the playoffs as the American League Wild Card. They were swept in the ALDS by the eventual World Series champion Chicago White Sox. It was not a bad season by any stretch of the imagination, but after the emotional lows and highs of 2003 and 2004, it was dull.

As a Red Sox fan, I wondered if the 2005 Red Sox were all baseball ever could be after seeing 2004 happen. I did not have to live through most of the drought, and it still felt like a once in a lifetime thing at the time. My grandfather was born in 1925, died in 2000, was a Red Sox fan his whole life, and never got to see them win it all. I saw them win it twice while I was in high school. Nobody alive today remembers the 1908 Cubs. Most Cubs fans alive today did not even remember them in the World Series, and even then, it was before television and before the Major Leagues were integrated. Even the 1945 Pennant team was ancient history.

This is why I was actually pulling for the Cleveland Indians  in the World Series last year. Beyond my personal affection for Terry Francona, Mike Napoli, Francisco Lindor, and Andrew Miller, the plight of the Indians fan seemed more like the plight of the Red Sox fan before 2004. They had not won since 1948, and in my lifetime, transformed themselves from being Cubs-esque to being Red Sox-esque. The quintessential Cleveland sports movie is about a down on their luck Tribe team that improbably has a great season, but they don’t even get to the World Series in that movie! Major League came out in 1989, but then the Indians took the World Series to seven games in 1995, before falling to the Atlanta Braves, and again in 1997, before falling to the Florida Marlins. They lost the World Series again in seven games in 2016, and just like that, they are as far removed from their last title as the Red Sox were in 1986, when they lost the World Series in seven games for the fourth time since 1918.

I thought the Cubs needed to get close and feel the pain of losing in the World Series before actually winning it. I thought it was Cleveland’s turn. I thought it would be best for baseball to still have this incredibly long drought intact. But baseball is not pro wrestling, and the best storyline is not what always happens. While the Indians can add this to their legacy, and that will make it even sweeter if and when they do win it all, it’s the Cubs and their fans who have to figure out what comes next for them. For a century, their identity was losing, and their fans, like Red Sox fans, wore it as a badge of honor. It takes time to figure out life after that championship you never thought would happen, and even if the Cubs turn their season around, their new identity is still a work in progress.

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Well, so much for paying Jon Lester. So much for extending John Lackey. So much for Jonny Gomes getting a chance to break the record for most pinch hit home runs  in a Red Sox uniform, a record set by the great Ted Williams. We’re having a fire!!!! …sale. This is not what I expected less than a year removed from the Red Sox winning the World Series, but I’m working my way through the stages of grief as the Red Sox attempts to rise from the ashes of this fire sale.

When I first started writing this article, only the news items about the Jon Lester (along with Jonny Gomes) to the Oakland Athletics and John Lackey to the St. Louis Cardinals trades had broken, but that wasn’t all. Relief pitcher Andrew Miller and shortstop Stephen Drew within the division, with Miller being dealt to the 1st place Baltimore Orioles for minor and Drew going to the New York Yankees, who will be in Boston to face the Red Sox this weekend. In addition, starting pitcher Jake Peavy was dealt to the San Francisco Giants last weekend, and former starting pitcher (recently demoted to the bullpen, much to his dismay) Felix Doubront was sent to the Chicago Cubs earlier this week. That’s seven players who contributed to the team that won the World Series ten months ago, including the pitchers who earned all four World Series wins (Lester won two games, Lackey and Doubront each won one). Lackey, Lester, Gomes, Peavy, and Miller are joining teams that will be playing in October in all likelihood, and while the Yankees are having their struggles this year, Drew is joining a team that will have a vacancy at the shortstop position to fill this winter for the first time in nearly 20 years, so it’s a good place for him to be. I thought the Red Sox would be making trades this summer, but I am pleasantly surprised by the return they got on the players they traded away.

In Yoenis Cespedes, the Red Sox acquired an All-Star power hitter, who was batting cleanup on the best team in baseball this season, and who has won the Home Run Derby each of the last two years. Cespedes is part of the major surge of Cuban-born talent we have seen emerge in Major League baseball in the last few years along with Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig, Cincinnati Reds closer Aroldis Chapman, and Chicago White Sox first baseman (and likely 2014 American League Rookie of the Year) Jose Abreu. The biggest issue I had with moving on from Jon Lester (besides deciding that a guy who has proven he can perform at the highest level at Fenway Park, in October) is that the return wouldn’t be worth it. I was afraid of giving away Lester for minor league prospects that would never be successful at the Major League level. Cespedes has proven it. He’s already there. He’s 28 years old, and still hasn’t reached his ceiling. I had no idea A’s GM Billy Beane would give up his team’s biggest power hitting threat in a year when they have a reach chance to win it all, but that’s exactly what he did. For all the books and movies written about Beane over the years, he is still a general manager who has been in the same city for over a decade, yet has never won the World Series. He needs to win it to truly validate his reputation. Other teams have caught up and used the player evaluation practices he made famous in Moneyball, the Red Sox being the most successful example, but he still hasn’t broken through. Beane is hoping a two month rental of Jon Lester can outweigh what Cespedes could bring to the batter’s box in the playoffs.

Oakland can now go into October with a pitching rotation of Lester, Sonny Gray, Scott Kazmir, and Jeff Samardzija (acquired last month in a trade with the Cubs), which is just about as scary as the rotation the Detroit Tigers have, now that they have acquired David Price from the Tampa Bay Rays and not have the last three American League Cy Young Award winners (Price, Max Scherzer, and Justin Verlander) on their roster. It should make for a great playoffs, even without the Red Sox.

For Lackey, the Red Sox got bespectacled right-handed starting pitcher Joe Kelly and former All-Star outfielder Allen Craig. It’s amazing to see the exchanges of talent that have taken place between the two teams who faced off in the World Series last fall. I was impressed by Kelly in the playoffs last year, and Craig was a major reason why the Cardinals had been able to let Albert Pujols, who is right up there with Stan Musial and Bob Gibson on the list of all time Cardinal greats, walk in free agency and follow his departure with a trip to the NLCS in 2012 (before falling to the eventual champion San Francisco Giants) and a trip to the World Series (before falling to the eventual champion Boston Red Sox). Kelly was off to a great start this season before getting injured, and Craig’s production had taken a dip this season, but the acquisitions of these two players help the Red Sox going forward, adding offense to an outfield that has struggled mightily at the plate this season, and adding a quality starter to a rotation that saw its top two pitchers traded away this week. In my opinion, this is a huge haul for John Lackey, who asked for a trade as soon as the trade rumors for Jon Lester, and who would be playing for only $500,000 in 2015 and if he didn’t get an extension, he might decide to retire. Now, that’s St. Louis’ problem, but their a contender again this year, and they know as well as anyone how good Lackey can be in the playoffs, since they were on the losing end a year ago.

Before the trade deadline, the narrative was one of a wealthy, but overly thrifty baseball club squeezing every dollar out of a franchise southpaw, who they did not think was worth it. I was ready to hammer them if the return was not great enough, and I fully expected it to be. The Sox had made big deals at the deadline in the past under this ownership, but when they traded away Nomar Garciaparra and Manny Ramirez, they got pennies on the dollar in return. In both cases, they were not going to bring the star player back, and in Nomar’s case, they went on to win the World Series, an we were all okay with it.

I heard Mike Felger talking on 98.5 The Sports Hub before the deadline talking about the way fans view the Red Sox compared to the Patriots, and he brought up an interesting point. Whenever the Pats cut bait with a star player (like Wes Welker or Richard Seymour, for instance) fans call into the radio station defending the move and proclaiming their trust in Bill Belichick, and saying that it’s all part of his master plan. When the Red Sox decide to part ways with a guy like Lester, the fans panic and think the team has no idea what they are doing. The thing is, the Red Sox under John Henry and the Patriots under Robert Kraft have been the most successful franchises in their respective sports since buying their teams. After decades of futility, these two 20th Century punchlines have become models for how to win in baseball and football in the 21st Century, and you could argue that the Red Sox have actually been more successful. The Patriots never finished in last place after hiring Belichick, but the Red Sox have been a playoff team more often than not in a sport where it’s much harder to make the playoffs. We’re quick to second guess the Sox because of Bobby Valentine, because of the ten years Roger Clemens pitched after leaving Boston, because the Red Sox ownership will put their team’s logo on anything to sell it, but act like they have the spending power of the Oakland A’s or the Tampa Bay Rays when one of their home grown stars approaches the open market, and because the 86 years without a title began when the Red Sox traded the greatest baseball player of all time to the New York Yankees to finance a Broadway show.

More than anything, baseball is an easier sport to second guess, because I have more hands-on experience playing it as an organized sport (eight years of organized baseball to only one year of organized football), and a lot of people are the same way. Half the fun of watching baseball is trying to play skipper from the living room couch. I didn’t like the idea of dealing away Lester, and I’m still holding out hope that he’ll be back in Boston in 2015, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t impressed by what the Red Sox pulled off this week.

Manny Gets To Be Manny Some More

It was announced that Manny Ramirez will be joining the Chicago Cubs organization as a player coach for the AAA affiliate Iowa Cubs. That’s right. Manny’s back, and he’s working with Theo Epstein once again. This is good news for baseball.

Manny Ramirez is one of the great enigmatic superstars in the history of professional. He was lazy, yet also hard working, calling it quits in the middle of games, but spending long hours in the weight room and the film room, honing his craft, and studying every pitcher. Over the years, with the Cleveland Indians, Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago White Sox, and Tampa Bay Rays, Manny accumulated 555 career home runs and a .312 career batting average. He may have played the idiot card more than any of the other Idiots who won the World Series in 2004, but nobody puts up numbers like that, steroids or otherwise, by just sitting back and letting things happen.

While Manny’s tenure in Boston didn’t end well, he was still worth more than twenty million per year when they Dodgers re-signed him in the 2008 offseason. Although his Major League career ended with multiple PED suspensions, he still belongs in the Hall of Fame because lots of players took steroids, but very few were better in the batters box than Manny Ramirez.

Manny will always be a fan favorite in Boston, regardless of the way things ended. He was the MVP of the 2004 World Series, and had a monumental role in ending the Red Sox’ 86 year championship drought. The guy was just awesome. Now at 41, he probably doesn’t have enough left to mash at the Major League level, but he can still bring a lot to the Cubs organization. As a player coach, he can show Chicago’s young hitters how to hit, and pass his wisdom along to a baseball club that is committed to building through the farm system, and is even more starved for a championship than Boston was a decade ago.

He’s still away from Cooperstown, and his best moments in the batter’s box are behind him, but I’m glad Manny is back in baseball. There will never be another Manny Ramirez, and we should treasure him as long as he wants to be a part of the National Pastime. He’s not what he used to be, but it just makes sense that he’s still there. Baseball is fun, and Manny is a fun player. He keeps playing for the same reason the Rolling Stones still tour: they have a fun job, and as long as it’s still fun, they’re going to keep doing it until people stop paying them. Manny is a baseball player the way Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are rock stars. It’s what they do. They might not be as relevant as they used to be, but it’s still a way cooler way to live than what most people get to do.

Time will tell if the Manny Experiment works out, but in the meantime, the Cubs don’t have much to lose. The Cubs are horrible, but one of the most exciting personalities baseball has ever seen is helping out in AAA Iowa. It’s something.

MLB Predictions 2014 Part II

It’s March. Spring Training is underway, and the weather is going to start to get warmer. Soon enough we will have baseball again. It will be tough to top what happened in 2013 (full disclosure: I’m a lifelong Red Sox fan), but the start of baseball means a rebirth and a fresh start once again. I’m not good at predicting what will happen, but that doesn’t mean I won’t try.

NL Central

1. St. Louis Cardinals. The Cards are the class of the National League. Albert Pujols signed with the Angels in 2011, and Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa retired that same winter after an improbable run to the World Series, and they’ve been just as good ever since. The Cardinals outlasted the Pirates and Dodgers to get back to the World Series in 2013, but came up short against the Red Sox, much like they did in 2004.

The Cardinals have a deep farm system and they can replace aging superstars more easily than anyone with the young talent they’ve drafted. Their pitching is strong, and Yadier Molina is the best catcher in baseball, both behind the plate and in the batter’s box. They have one of the tougher lineups in the National League with Molina, Matt Holliday, Allen Craig, and newly acquired shortstop Jhonny Peralta going to bat for them. The Cardinals have one of the best starting rotations in baseball, headlined by Adam Wainwright, and Michael Wacha, who proved to be an elite even under the bright lights of the playoffs in 2013. Mike Matheny is a great young manager who has taken St. Louis to the NLCS and the World Series in his first two years, losing to the eventual champion both times. This year, I expect them to be there again.

2. Pittsburgh Pirates. They finally did it in 2013. Now, the Pirates have high expectations heading into the season for the first time since Barry Bonds was starting for them in left field. After getting into the playoffs as a wildcard, they stayed in it by beating the Reds in a one game playoff series, but could not get past the Cardinals in the NLDS.

Andrew McCutchen is the reigning National League MVP, and the best thing to happen to the Pirates organization since a man named Barry Bonds. Russell Martin had and incredible year behind the plate for the Bucs. They play in a tough division, but the Pittsburgh fans who had seen the Steelers and Penguins reach the finals of their respective sports six times since the Pirates last reached the playoffs, are hungry for a trip to the World Series. The team is relatively young, and Pirates skipper Clint Hurdle has them playing good baseball. I expect them to get back to the playoffs and maybe even make some noise this time around. If they falter, it might be because players like Martin and pitcher Francisco Liriano fall back to earth. Last year, the Pirates and their fans were just happy to be there, but not that they have ended the twenty years of futility, the expectations are a bit higher.

3. Cincinnati Reds. It’s a new era in Reds baseball. After firing manager Dusty Baker despite three playoff berths in the last four years, decided to promote pitching coach Bryan Price to be the club’s new skipper. Pitching coaches are a lot like special teams coaches in football, in that they are important to an effective coaching staff, but very few of them ever get offered head coaching positions. Since John Farrell, who previously served as pitching coach for the Red Sox from 2007 to 2010, has enjoyed success as a manager, it seems more and more teams will be willing to consider pitching coaches as management material.

The Reds have one of the best hitters in baseball in Joey Votto. Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce are good hitters as well. Cincy’s pitching is the teams greatest strength, at least in the regular season, with Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey highlighting the starting rotation and Aroldis Chapman emerging as one of the best young closers in the game. The Reds have been to the playoffs three times in four years, but have had early exits each time. The core of this roster is entering its prime, and the expectations are high. Dusty Baker is out of a job because they couldn’t deliver on his watch. Major League Baseball’s oldest team is tired of living in the past. The Reds may have the most recent championship of any major professional sports team in the state of Ohio, but that was the year I was born (1990, against the Oakland A’s), and they are due. Fans don’t want another great regular season, but if they don’t even get that, then things could get ugly.

4. Chicago Cubs. One of these years, the Cubs have to turn it around, right? It could happen this year, but there are a few good teams standing in their way. Theo Epstein drafted well while he was with the Red Sox, and now Boston has one of the best farm systems in baseball while also competing for the World Series. Epstein won quickly in Boston because he inherited what was already a good roster built by Dan Duquette. Building a championship roster is easier if you already have Pedro Martinez and Manny Ramirez on your roster. Theo was the executive to ended a championship drought that began in 1918. Now he has a chance to end one that started in 1908. If he won were able to bring championship pennants to both Fenway and Wrigley, then he could go down as the greatest baseball executive of all time.

The Cubs have some pretty good young players who still have the potential to be great. 23 year old All-Star shortstop Starlin Castro is the biggest name of the bunch. After strong seasons in 2011 and 2012, Castro’s production fell off a bit in 2013, batting only .245 with 10 home runs, but the Cubs are hoping for a bounce back in 2014. Anthony Rizzo is another young player to look out for. New manager Rick Renteria is not the most exciting managerial hire, but hiring the biggest name isn’t always the best idea. There are still a lot of questions that need to be answered about the Cubs, but that’s what the regular season is for. Theo turned one franchise around already, but he’s going into his third regular season running the Cubs and if progress isn’t made, the Lovable Losers might be looking for a new executive come November.

5. Milwaukee Brewers. The Brewers aren’t necessarily the worst team in the NL Central, but they were the most disappointing one last year. Ryan Braun’s suspension was a blow to baseball and may have cost Braun his friendship with Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The days of the Brewers contending for the World Series just a few short years ago seem like a much more distant memory. Prince Fielder signed with Detroit and has since been traded to Texas. Zack Greinke got overpaid by the Dodgers. The Brewers were one of the most fun teams in baseball in 2011, but now they’re just a shell of their former selves.

Matt Garza is a Brewer now, but he hasn’t pitched to the level of his name recognition since he left the Tampa Bay Rays. Rickie Weeks is a pretty good player, if a little overpaid. Aramis Ramirez and Francisco Rodriguez have seen better days. The Cubs might be worse than the Brewers, but my expectations for this team are the lowest of any in this difficult division.

In conclusion, the NL Central is by far the National League’s toughest division, but I expect the Cardinals to remain on top. The Pirates and Reds will still be in playoff contention, and the Cubs are x-factor that is very intriguing from a front office standpoint.

In Theo We Trust?

Theo Epstein is in the midst of his third winter as the man in charge of the Chicago Cubs, but he’s still not giving Cubs fans much to be excited about. Epstein was the general manager who led the Boston Red Sox to their first World Series championship in 86 years when they won in 1918, and a second title in 2007. In 2011, he left the Red Sox for the Cubs to have more control over baseball operations and for a chance to become a legend in the world of baseball executives. Winning in Boston is one thing, but to also be the guy to lead the lowly Cubs, the most miserable franchise in professional sports, he could be the greatest executive of all time. Since then, the Cubs are still among the worst teams in baseball, while the Red Sox team he left in the hands of Ben Cherington followed up their hitting of rock bottom in 2012 with a World Series title in 2013. Should Cubs fans still have faith in Theo to take them to the promised land?

First off, let’s compare the levels of misery that the Red Sox and Cubs had been through prior to Theo Epstein. A lot of people like to lump Red Sox fans and Cubs fans together as kindred spirits, but the reality is that Cubs have been so much worse throughout their history that it’s not fair to compare. The Red Sox went 86 years without winning the World Series, but at least they were relevant in the years between. The Sox made it to Game 7 of the World Series four times in that span, falling to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1946 and 1967, the Cincinnati Reds in 1975, and the New York Mets in 1986. There were other years where they were close, falling to the Yankees in heartbreaking fashion most notably in 1978, 1999, and 2003. When the Red Sox only managed 69 wins in 2012, it was their worst season in 50 years, but for the Cubs that’s a much more regular result. The Cubs last won the World Series in 1908, and last reached the World Series in 1945. They have the occasional year like 2003 or 2008, but inevitably crumble in October. They’re the Cubs. That’s what they do. After that, they fall back to earth the following year and become the awful team we know and love yet again. With the Cubs, losing is familiarity, with the Red Sox, losing is agony becuase they were so close to winning.

The most overrated aspect of Epstein’s job performance in Boston was his ability to to actually build a championship roster. In reality, Theo inherited a very good roster built by Dan Duquette. The Cubs may have had some young talent in the system when Theo arrived in Chicago, but the Red Sox of the early 21st Century already had Jason Varitek, Derek Lowe, Tim Wakefield, Nomar Garciaparra, PEDRO MARTINEZ, and MANNY RAMIREZ. That’s right. It’s a lot easier to build a World Series winning roster if the roster you’re given already has one of the best right handed pitchers and one of the best right handed hitters in the history of baseball on it. In 2005, Theo left the Red Sox during the offseason, but was brought back before the 2006 season started. During the interim, Epstein’s assistants Jed Hoyer (who is now the Cubs’ GM still working under Theo) and Ben Cherington (who is now the GM of the Red Sox) made a franchise altering trade that Theo never would have made when they sent shortstop prospect Hanley Ramirez to the Florida Marlins in exchange for starting pitcher Josh Beckett and veteran third baseman Mike Lowell. Even though things did not end well with Beckett and the Sox, this was a good deal for the team. The Red Sox do not win the 2007 World Series without this deal, as Beckett was the ALCS MVP and Lowell was the World Series MVP that year. It’s hard to give Epstein a ton of credit for that one.

The Red Sox and the Cubs are both committed to building their teams through the draft and their respective farm systems, but so far Ben Cherington is looking like more of a genius than his former boss. Epstein and Cherington did a good job of drafting and developing prospects who are now producing for the Red Sox. The Cubs’ farm system was in bad shape when Theo took it over, but he’s been reluctant to make any big free agent signings to help the team compete in the meantime. Cherington won a World Series by striking a balance between young prospects like Xander Bogaerts and Will Middlebrooks and affordable veteran signings like Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, David Ross, and Koji Uehara to go with the core of David Ortiz, Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, and Jon Lester, who were all on the 2007 team. Epstein is being patient with the farm system, but if he was in a different city, his seat might be a little hotter going into 2014.