A Story of Fandom

I don’t write a lot from a “fan’s” perspective on here.  I try to write as objectively as possible.  I use a lot of statistics.  I use a lot of numbers that I know can get pretty boring for people who don’t care about the analytics side of the game.  This is all very intentional.  I don’t want to be accused of writing something a certain way because of my own fan-based biases.  I’ll admit that I have them.  I’ll even admit the possibility of some of my writing being influenced by them.  But, I try my best to keep my fandom out of my blogging.

So, I hope you’ll indulge me a little today, as I take just this once to talk a little about the team I’ve been watching since I was 10 years old.

I was in 4th grade.  It was March.  I was probably already signed up to play t-ball – the only sport I ever really wanted to play.  And, in my 10-year-old mind, I began to process the fact that I didn’t really have a favorite team.  I had sort of followed the Giants, because that was my first t-ball team.  But, now I was playing for teams named after businesses – like Blue Ridge Trophy.  So, who was I going to root for?

Somewhere along the way I had latched on to the Chicago Bears as my NFL team.  I don’t even remember why.  But, Jim McMahon and Mike Singletary and “The Fridge” were the first sports team I ever root for.  So, I decided – again, keep in mind I was 10 – it only made sense for me to root for a baseball team from the same city.  So, I thought about it, and decided, “Ok.  I’ll be a White Sox fan.”  I shared this information with a classmate of mine named Kyle.  And he said, “What about the Cubs?  They’re in Chicago, too.”

I had completely forgotten about the Cubs.  So, I had a bit of a dilemma on my hands.  Within a week of this conversation, I was scanning our local television guide after school to see if there was any baseball on TV that day.  Low and behold . . . the Cubs were actually going to be on TV!  I was shocked by this, since I lived in North Carolina.  So, I turned the TV on to this station I had never heard of – WGN.  And, I watched.  I watched as the Cubs played the Seattle Mariners.  I listened to the voices of Steve Stone and Harry Caray.  And, I … was … hooked.

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By the end of that 1989 season, I was completely and totally immersed in Chicago Cubs fandom.  To this day I could name every starting position player on that team, but I won’t bore you with that.  But, to say I was wrapped up in the team featuring Sandberg, Grace, and Dawson, is an understatement.  I loved the fact that they won their division.  And, I was so excited to see what they could do in the playoffs.  But, they lost the NLCS to the Giants (ironically enough) in just 5 games.  I was sad, to be sure.  But, I knew that they would have another shot next year . . . oh, how naive I was.

Over the next 27 years, I would root for the Cubs no matter what.  There were so many seasons that started off looking like they were going to be promising, but by June or July, it was obvious they weren’t going to be a contender.  There were some exciting years.  1998 was fun – back before we had any idea what was powering McGwire and Sosa.  2003 was really exciting, up until the very end – 5 outs away from uncharted territory.  But, the glimmers of hope were few and far between.

That all changed in October of 2011.  I had heard rumors, but dismissed them as wishful thinking.  But, as my wife and I sat in a pizza place in Indiana with our 2-year-old son, I was ecstatic to see on the TV screen that the Cubs had actually hired Theo Epstein away from Boston.  This was going to be a turning point.  I knew it was.  Because if anyone could turn a franchise around that had endured decades of losing . . . well, Epstein had already proven he could.

The next 3 seasons were rough.  Well, sort of.  On the one hand, it was tough to see your team lose 90-100 games every year.  But, I was never one of those Cubs fans who was always screaming “this is our year!”  I was realistic about their situation, and I knew they had some terrible contracts, and a mediocre farm system.  So, I watched as Epstein broke down the feeble excuse for a quality team that he’d been handed, and I paid careful attention to the farm system.  My son (whose middle name is Ryne, by the way) got his first game-used ball when the first baseman tossed it up into the stands to him at a Tennessee Smokies (AA) game – where we went to see Kris Bryant play.

When the 2016 season rolled around, I did everything I could to keep from getting too excited.  The Cubs were the odds-on favorites to win it all, according to Vegas.  They had made multiple big splashes in free agency, with Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist.  The youngsters that had made it to the NLCS the year before were a year older and more experienced.  And, they started out on a tear.  They won 27 of their first 35 games (.771 win pct.), and all my friends were asking me if I was buying World Series tickets.  I blew it off as just a good streak.  “The season is long,” I would say.  “They’re bound to go through some rough patches.”

And, they did.  Once.  From June 20th – July 10th, they went 6-15.  But, that was it.  They didn’t lose another 15 games for nearly 2 months.  They finished with the best record in baseball, and were the prohibitive favorite in the NL.  But, I tried to remained calm.  “They’re still very young,” I would say.  I even wrote a blog post here, explaining why the Cubs wouldn’t win it all.  I think I did that, in part, to help me remain realistic.

But, I watched with eager anticipation as the team I had been rooting for more than a quarter century did the unthinkable.  They beat the Dodgers to go to the World Series.  I was so choked up, I could hardly talk to my nephew who immediately called.  The unfortunate soul who, as a child, had followed in my footsteps to become a Cubs fan, but had also chosen his own team to root for in the AL … the Cleveland Indians. We couldn’t believe they were going to actually have to play each other.

Many years ago, I had told my wife that if the Cubs ever actually did make it to the World Series, I was going to have to go to a game.  After all, how often do we expect that to happen?  But, as this amazing season unfolded, that thought never even crossed my mind.  I knew the price of a single ticket would be astronomical.  So, I didn’t even consider it.  That is, until the Cubs were ahead 3 games to 2 in the NLCS.  My wife actually brought it up.  She said, “You know you have to go.”  I tried arguing with her – though, I must admit, I didn’t put up a big fight.  So, as the Cubs were in the process of winning game 6 of the NLCS, I bought two tickets for World Series Game 1 in Cleveland – tickets to Wrigley were 3x the cost, and I was going to be happy just to be there.

What an incredible experience that was.  No description I could ever give would do it justice.  Sure, the Cubs lost – and didn’t look good doing so.  Sure, the Cleveland fans ragged me about my Ryne Sandberg jersey – mostly in a friendly way.  Sure, it was bitter cold, and we were  in the upper deck where the wind was biting through every piece of fabric we were wearing.  But, it was completely and totally worth it.

As the World Series unfolded, I wasn’t terribly surprised that the Cubs were down 3-1.  Disappointed? Sure.  But, I was still trying to keep it in perspective.  It’s just a game.  It’s just a sport.  It isn’t life or death.  Then, they won game 5.  Then, they won game 6.  Friends and family members were constantly asking me how I was holding up.  I kept telling them that I was just happy that there was actually going to be a game 7, at this point.

I’ve watched game 7 of the 2016 World Series at least 5 times now, including the live broadcast.  I will never forget that experience.  The roller coaster of emotions.  Rizzo’s conversation with Ross about being a glass house of emotions.  Having to turn my phone off after Davis hit that HR in the 8th off of Chapman, because so many people were texting or messaging me.  And, then, there was this…

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As long as I live, that image will be etched in my memory.  And, Rizzo’s face as he stood at 3rd.  And Almora tagging up to get to 2nd base on Bryant’s fly out (possibly the most important play of the game).  Every time I watch these events unfold . . . I get chills.  I even get a little choked up.  Even now, after almost 4 months of soaking in all of the joy and celebration of my team finally winning it all.  It’s every bit as exciting as it was when it happened.

That’s something I didn’t expect.  I always wondered what I’d do if the Cubs actually won it all.  And, for the most part, I’ve kept fairly calm about it.  I don’t ever want to be one of “those” kinds of fans that likes to rub it in everyone’s face.  But, I never expected all those emotions to linger the way they have.  And I believe, as much as anything else, it’s because I remember that 10-year-old boy.  I remember how excited he was about his newfound love for a team.  I remember how desperately he wanted to go to Wrigley Field and just see a game.  I remember how he was disappointed year after year when his Cubs didn’t do well.  And, I want to tell him, “Don’t give up.  It’s worth the wait.”

Why the White Sox Will Continue to Flounder in Mediocrity

13550859955_d990a0a3dd_zI was pretty surprised yesterday when I heard the news that the Red Sox had landed Chris Sale from the White Sox.  I honestly didn’t think they were going to even attempt such a move, because they just came off of a 93-win season in which they won their division and lost to eventual AL champion Cleveland.  And, their biggest loss was clearly on the offensive side (Ortiz), so I assumed they would make that priority #1-9.

But, none of that is why I was eventually flabbergasted by this trade.  What I simply find unbelievable is that the White Sox were willing to trade arguably the 2nd or 3rd best pitcher in baseball for nothing more than what they received from Boston.  Let’s start with this:  since the beginning of the 2013 season, only Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer have a higher WAR (according to Fangraphs), or more strikeouts than Sale.  Only Jake Arrieta, Kershaw & Scherzer can lay claim to a lower WHIP.  And, only Kershaw and Josh Tomlin have a better K/BB ratio.  This is no middle reliever.  This is no mid-rotation starter.  And, this is no average ace of a staff.  He is clearly one of the absolute best in the game.

On top of those numbers, there is the financial side to consider.  Sale is going into his age-28 season.  The Red Sox are guaranteed to have him for 3 years.  And, those will be prime years.  What will it cost the Red Sox? – $38 million.  To put that into perspective, Rich Hill (who is a full 10 years older than Sale and has put together a really solid season just once in 12 years) just signed a contract that will cover those same 3 years . . . for $48 million.  There are 34 starting pitchers that will make more than Sale in 2017 – 3 of whom are going to be pitching behind him in the same rotation (Price, Porcello & Buchholz).  So, the Red Sox are getting 3 prime seasons out of one of the best pitchers in the game, at an extreme discount.  This, in the midst of an off-season in which everyone knew the starting pitching market was going to be particularly thin.  Hill may very well have been the best starter available among free agents this winter.

With all of this in mind, wouldn’t you expect the White Sox to walk away with a treasure trove of players?  Shouldn’t you expect them to bring in a haul that includes both major league ready players and prospects?  After all, didn’t we see something like this just a year ago?  Do you remember what the Diamondbacks sent to Atlanta in order to get Shelby Miller?  A Gold Glove caliber major league outfielder (Inciarte) who could hit leadoff, and was just 25 at the time; the #1 overall draft pick from the 2015 draft (Swanson), who was already ranked as the #10 prospect in all of baseball (and Arizona’s #1 prospect), and plays a premium position (SS); and, the D’backs’ #3 prospect (#61 overall), a near major league ready pitcher who is likely a mid-rotation starter (Blair).  Granted, I believe pretty much everyone considered that trade heavily lopsided in the Braves’ favor.  But, considering the fact that it was for a mid-rotation starter in Miller, I would have expected that package to be a jumping off point for anything the White Sox would consider in return for Sale.

But, it obviously wasn’t.

I had heard rumors that the Nationals – who seemed to be the frontrunners to land Sale – were willing to part with both of their top 2 prospects in a package for Sale.  That would have been Lucas Giolito (#3 prospect in baseball), who looks ready to start at the major league level next year, and has the potential to develop into an ace; and Victor Robles (#10 prospect in baseball), who is a crazy fast outfielder and may be a legit 5-tool player in a couple years.  I thought that was a pretty good place to start, if you’re going to be giving up 3 years of one of the best pitchers in the game, and trying to rebuild via trades.  Especially in a year when there are so few pitching options for competitive teams to go after.

But, alas, the White Sox have proven once again that they don’t seem to understand market value.  Or the fact that they were the ones holding all the cards.  It appears as though they have rushed into the first offer that appeared to be a little better than others they were hearing.  Take a look at what they’re getting:

  1. Yoan Moncada – yes, he’s the #1 prospect in baseball, and will likely be major league ready next year, playing 2B and drawing potential comparisons to Robinson Cano.  He’s an excellent prospect.
  2. Michael Kopech – he’s now the White Sox’s #2 prospect.  Sounds good, right?  Well . . . he was only the Red Sox’s #5 prospect, and is only #30 in baseball.  He has the potential to be a frontline starter, but since he was drafted in 2014, he has struggled with command of not only his pitching, but also his off-field life.  Suspended for 50 games for a stimulant, and broke his hand in a fight with a teammate.  Not exactly what I would call a top-tier prospect.
  3. Luis Alexander Basabe – he’s now the White Sox’s #7 prospect, and was Boston’s #8 prospect.  He’s not in the top-100 prospects in baseball, which is a significant drop-off from the first two names here.  If he pans out (which would be at least a couple more years), he could be a nice switch-hitter with power in the outfield.
  4. Victor Diaz – he barely cracks the White Sox’s top-30 prospect list at #29.  He’s a long way from the majors, and even his best path is as a late-inning reliever, if he makes it.

Do you see what I’m seeing?  The Red Sox were able to land one of the best pitchers in the game, and the only real significant piece they gave up was Moncada.  They didn’t have to give up Henry Owens or Eduardo Rodriguez, a pair of very young and talented LHP’s who have just begun their major league careers.  They didn’t have to give up Andrew Benintendi, their #2 prospect, and my early pick to win ROY in the AL next year.  They didn’t have to give up Rafael Devers, their #3 prospect, and the #1 3B prospect in baseball.  They didn’t have to give up Jason Groome, their #1 pick in this year’s draft, and the #1 LHP prospect in baseball.  The Red Sox should feel great about this move.

It’s as if they went shopping for a pitcher, and found themselves a Black Friday steal!

White Sox fans, on the other hand, should be shaking their heads.  Yes, you have a middle-infielder in Moncada that has the potential to be a perennial All-Star.  But, tell me this:  what about this package is any better than what the Braves received for Shelby Miller?  Maybe if Kopech, Basabe, and Diaz all reached their potential, you could say the White Sox received one more productive player than the Braves did.  But, is that really the difference between the value of Shelby Miller and Chris Sale??  I hardly think so.  Even the Nationals’ willingness to part ways with their top 2 prospects seems like a better deal than what the Red Sox gave up.  Even if all the Nationals added to the package were B-list prospects that were a long way from making it to the majors.

Just further evidence that White Sox management doesn’t seem to understand how to put together a team that will consistently compete.  Not that we should be surprised, since they had one of the best pitchers in the game for 5 years, and never did anything with him.

Why the Cubs Won’t Win It All

1908, right?  I mean, that’s reason enough right there, isn’t it?  The next closest team in baseball with that kind of futility is the Cleveland Indians, who have been waiting for a World Series title since 1948.  But, for those who don’t believe in “curses” or that kind of extended bad “luck,” there is an expectation that at some point, the streak is going to end.  Especially the way the league continues to strive to find ways to create parity within the game.

So, maybe this is the year, right?  After all, this Cubs team looks really good on paper.  They have the best team ERA in baseball (3.09), which includes the best starting rotation ERA in baseball (2.92 – better by more than half a run than anyone else!).  They have the best team WHIP in baseball (1.11).  They have scored the 2nd most runs in the NL (709), behind only the thin-air-induced run-scoring of the Rockies.  They have the best OBP in the NL (.341 – 2nd only to the Red Sox in all of baseball), are 2nd only to St. Louis in the NL in OPS (.767).  They have Cy Young candidates (Arrieta, Lester, Hendricks), they have MVP candidates (Rizzo & Bryant), and they have legitimate Gold Glove worthy defense at 3 positions (Rizzo at 1B, Russell at SS, and Heyward in RF).

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Add to all this the fact that they went out and got a flamethrowing closer in Aroldis Chapman to bolster their bullpen, and it just seems like a great team, top to bottom.  But, as we have seen many times over the years – once you reach October baseball, all bets are off.  The regular season records and stats are practically meaningless.  So, the purpose of this post (and hopefully others like it), is to take a look at some of the finer details of the team, and consider what has the potential to be their downfall in the postseason. For the Cubs, let’s take a look at 3 things…

1. Record Against Better Teams

While the Cubs do possess 90+ wins already, and are near to clinching the division with almost 3 weeks left in the season, those numbers are at least a little inflated.  32 of their wins (and just 11 losses!) have come against the bottom 3 teams in their division – Pirates, Brewers, and Reds – all of whom are below .500.  In fact, when you look at the other 5 teams in the NL that are competing for a playoff spot – Nationals, Dodgers, Giants, Mets, and Cardinals – the Cubs are a combined 21-20.  That isn’t exactly blowing away the competition.  And, it should be reason enough for Cub fans to curb their enthusiasm at least a little.

2. Stolen Bases

The secret is out on the Cubs’ pitching staff – you can run on them.  Granted, they may not allow a ton of baserunners.  But, when they do . . . watch out.  There are only 3 NL teams that have allowed more stolen bases – the Braves, Padres and Rockies.  That’s three teams that aren’t anywhere close to making a run at the playoffs.  And, the other secret that’s out – aggressive baserunning can be the difference between scoring a run, and stranding a runner at 3rd.  Particularly in the playoffs, when you expect to be facing some of the toughest pitchers in the game.  Just look at the Royals and the Giants the last couple years.  Both were teams that put the ball in play, and put the pressure on the defense with their baserunning.  A team that gets really aggressive against the Cubs, could reak havoc.

3. Clutch Hitting

One of the most important ingredients for success in October is a team’s ability to keep pressuring the pitching and defense of the other team.  So, even when there are two outs, hitters aren’t giving away at-bats.  And, when there are two outs, with a runner in scoring position, you must take advantage of the opportunity in playoff baseball.  Unfortunately, the Cubs rank 11th in the NL, and 25th in baseball, in batting average with RISP and 2 outs (.216).  Much of this is a product of their youth, and their tendency to be eager-swingers.  This could come back to haunt you in the Fall.

The Cubs look like a very good team.  But, when you dig a little deeper into the numbers, there is reason to hold off on buying those World Series tickets – at least, for now.

Why the Angels Should Do the Unthinkable

I remember reading something (or maybe hearing some analyst) last winter talking about Mike Trout.  Of course there was a great deal of praise to be given, considering he has yet to finish lower than 2nd in MVP voting in any full season of his career.  But, then something was said that I thought was absolutely insane – should the Angels trade him?  My initial reaction was, “You don’t trade arguably the best player of this generation while he’s in his prime!”  It was an absurd suggestion.  Unheard of.  Unthinkable.  But, then . . .

15133579244_7652b07359_oThe same Angels team that finished just 1 game out of the playoffs last season, has turned in one of the more disappointing first halves this year.  At the time of my writing, they are 14 games below .500 (36-50), 16.5 games behind division-leading Texas, and 11 games behind in the Wild Card standings.  They possess the 3rd worst record in the American League – in spite of having the 6th highest Opening Day payroll in all of baseball.  If this could all be explained away by injuries to key players, then there would be no need for this article.  You would expect a bounce-back year in 2017, if not sooner.  But, that simply isn’t the case.  Yes, they’ve had a reasonably high number of pitchers with injuries.  But, it isn’t like they were lighting it up before going on the DL.

So, the injury bug isn’t to blame for this team’s lackluster performance.  They simply don’t have much talent surrounding Trout.  The greatest evidence to that point is the fact that Trout is the only All-Star representing the Angels on Tuesday.  How does that happen?  You have one of the best players in the game (at 24 years old).  You’re operating in the 2nd largest TV market in the country (giving you a significant revenue advantage over most of the teams in the game).  And, yet you have only been able to put it all together once in this player’s 5-year career – a brief playoff appearance in 2014, when you were swept in the ALDS.  I feel bad for Mike Trout.  I feel bad for a guy who goes out there and plays as hard as he does, and who performs at such an incredibly high level – and has nothing but individual awards to show for it.

And, do you know what makes it even worse?  It isn’t getting better any time soon.  The Angels have the consensus WORST farm system in baseball.  If you look at any ranking of current minor league systems, you’ll see the Angels at the bottom every time.  I read one analyst who said that not only were the Angels the worst farm system right now, but they might be the worst system in baseball history.  The absolute best prospect they have right now is a catcher currently playing in A-ball, who isn’t even ranked in the top 100 prospects in all of baseball.  One analyst went so far as to say that he didn’t think the Angels’ best prospect would even crack the top 10 of any other team!  So, not only is there little-to-no help coming up from the minors any time soon, but they have no trade chips to offer teams willing to trade high-quality players.

So, maybe the Angels could just spend more money to get better, right?  Not this offseason.  Strasburg signed a new contract with the Nationals, so the one legit ace that was going to be on the market is no longer available.  And, if you’re looking for significant offensive help, there’s only one real option this year:  Yoenis Cespedes (assuming he opts out of his Mets contract).  And, considering how thin the free agent market is, someone is going to significantly overpay for his services.  Not that the Angels are unfamiliar with doing that very thing (Pujols, Wilson, Hamilton, etc.), but one bat is not turning this team around.  And, once you get past Cespedes, this free agent class really looks more like a list of quality pieces that will help a team on the cusp of the playoffs.  And, the Angels need a lot more impact than that.

What’s the answer?  What should they do?  In case you didn’t see it coming:

The Angels should trade Mike Trout.

The longer they hold on to him, the longer it is going to take for this team to become relevant again.  Trout is the kind of franchise player that would help the Angels restock their farm system.  His talent level is so high, that I wouldn’t be shocked to see a team willing to offer 4-6 A-list prospects, and perhaps a couple B-listers, too.  That kind of return on a trade could potentially make the Angels competitive as early as 2018.  Because they’re already going to have a top-5 pick in the 2017 draft, which would likely add to their haul for Trout.

The tricky part of a trade like this is deciding who has the talent in their farm system to offer what the Angels need, and who would be willing to take on Trout’s salary (which isn’t going down anytime soon – $20 mil. in 2017, and $34 mil. in ’18-’20).  Considering how much the Angels should be looking for ways to win sooner rather than later, I would think they should be willing to pay a portion of Trout’s salary, if the right prospects are coming back in return.  After all, when have the Angels shied away from spending money?

So, after looking through several farm systems, considering what the team has on its payroll in the next few years, I believe there’s one team that stands out as a potential trade partner:

The Atlanta Braves.

Think about that for a minute.  The Braves are opening a new stadium next season.  Isn’t a trade like this something that can get fans excited again?  Especially a trade for a guy that would immediately become the face of your franchise for the next 4 years (at least).  The Braves also have one of the deepest farm systems in the game right now.  They are consistently ranked in the top 2-3.  And, it’s a system that is absolutely loaded with pitching talent – something for which the Angels have a desperate need (starting rotation with an ERA well over 4.00, closer with an ERA approaching 5.00, etc.).

The Braves are in the #9 television market in the U.S. – right behind Boston, and just ahead of Houston.  What this means is that they don’t have to be stingy with their payroll.  They may not want to climb into the $175 million echelon (where the Angels actually are), but a payroll in the $140-150 million range sits comfortably in the middle of the league, right around where other competitive teams sit (Royals, Blue Jays, Orioles, etc.).  And, to offset some of the cost, initially, the Braves could send Nick Markakis to the Angels, which eliminates $11 million over each of the next two seasons.  If the Angels are willing to cover some of Trout’s salary, in exchange for the right prospects, even better.

A move like this, for the Braves, would give a much needed spark to a fan base that has grown weary of seeing their favorite stars traded away.  It’s also reasonable for a team like Atlanta to take on a contract the size of Trout’s, because the vast majority of their core players are young, and will be making league minimums for the next 3-5 years.  Not to mention the young players that are coming up to the majors in the next year or so – like Dansby Swanson, Rio Ruiz, etc.  Just think of it, Braves fans . . . an outfield of Ender Inciarte, Mallex Smith, and Mike Trout.  That could be one of the best defensive outfields in the game.

Of course, the Angels wouldn’t let go of Trout for nothing.  On the Braves’ side, I would say the only player in their system that should be “untouchable” is Swanson.  He’s a top-of-the-order talent that you just don’t trade away (ahem – are you listening, Arizona?).  Outside of that, though, the Braves should be willing to offer almost anything the Angels want.  They have another top-tier shortstop (Albies) in the system that could be blocked by Swanson, unless he switches to 2B.  They have a 3B prospect (Riley) that has great potential, but will take a year or two longer to develop than the previously mentioned Ruiz.  Either or both of these guys could be on the table.  Depending on what position players the Angels might expect in return, seven of the Braves’ top 10 prospects are pitchers.  I would see no problem in sending a couple of those on in a trade for Trout.  Especially since the Braves just drafted a top-tier prospect with the #2 pick in this year’s draft, and look to be set up with a top-5 pick in next year’s draft as well.

So, why not send Nick Markakis, Austin Riley (3B), Kolby Allard (LHP), Tyrell Jenkins (RHP), and Braxton Davidson (OF)?  The Braves farm system is one of just a handful that could absorb a blow like that.  And, it would make the Braves relevant their first year in their new stadium.  Particularly if they went after a quality free agent piece like a Neil Walker, for example.  Consider a lineup with Swanson, Trout, Freeman, Walker, Inciarte, and Smith.  Plus, the Angels would immediately begin building toward the 2018 season, instead of languishing through another 3-4 years (or more) before they finally start seeing results from having high draft picks.

It’s time.  It simply is time for the Angels to pull the trigger, and do what’s right.  Not only what’s right for Mike Trout (who deserves better than what he has around him in LA), but also what’s right for the fans who have little desire to watch Mike Trout and a bunch of also-rans lose for the next 4 years.

2016 All-Star Ballot (part 1)

Every team in baseball has played more than 40 games, at this point.  And, you know what that means . . . we’re half way to the All-Star break!  So, I thought it was about time to discuss who is looking like an All-Star this year.  Emphasis on this year.  Unlike some voters, I don’t really care what a guy did last season, and whether or not he was “snubbed” from the Mid-Summer Classic a year ago.  How are you performing right now?  Are you putting up All-Star numbers?  If not . . . better luck next year.  Well, that, or you have about another month or so to get your act together if you want my vote(s).

Since it’s still early in the season, we won’t spend a ton of time discussing each position.  But, I do think it’s worth taking a look to see who is actually performing like an All-Star.  Because, there may very well be some surprises.  Keep in mind, the stats listed are all prior to last night’s games.

Catcher

AL – This is always one of the more difficult positions for me.  Trying to find the appropriate balance between offensive production, and defensive prowess is debated more behind the plate than anywhere else on the diamond.  At this point, though, in the American League, the decision is fairly easy:  Matt Wieters (BAL) – .283/.330/.455, 4 HR, 16 RBI.  There’s only one catcher in the AL with more than 100 PA’s that is legitimately out-performing Wieters offensively (McCann), and Wieters is lightyears ahead defensively.  On the flip side of that coin, there’s really only one catcher in the AL that is significantly better than Wieters behind the plate (Perez), and Wieters is head and shoulders ahead of him offensively, at this point.  So, for now, I believe Weiters is the best balanced candidate in the AL.

Others to watch:  Brian McCann (NYY), Jason Castro (HOU), Salvador Perez (KC)

NL – The catcher position in the National League is perhaps a little easier to decide:  Wilson Ramos (WSH).  Ramos is far and away the best offensive catcher in baseball, at this point.  His .347/.389/.525 slash line is especially impressive at a position that doesn’t really emphasize offense as much.  And, Ramos is middle of the pack defensively.  Depending on the metrics, there are about half a dozen catchers in the NL performing better than Ramos behind the plate.  But, only 2 of those are even having slightly above-average seasons offensively (Posey & Castillo).  For now, Ramos’ offense is so much better, that I think he deserves the vote.  But, if Posey heats up offensively, or if Molina or Lucroy make strides on defense to surpass Ramos, there could be a lot of fluctuation here.

Others to watch:  Buster Posey (SF), Yadier Molina (STL), Jonathan Lucroy (MIL)

 

First Base

AL – The choice here is easy:  Miguel Cabrera (DET).  Now, while I said it was an easy choice – that doesn’t mean it isn’t close.  Hosmer is just a notch behind Cabrera in pretty much every offensive category.  And, Cabrera even has him beat defensively at the moment.  Cabrera is quietly having another impressive season – .315/.388/.537, 9 HR, 26 RBI.

Others to watch:  Eric Hosmer (KC), Carlos Santana (CLE), Chris Davis (BAL)

NL – Another choice that was pretty easy, but still very close:  Anthony Rizzo (CHC) – .240/.379/.526, 11 HR, 34 RBI.  The bizarre thing about Rizzo’s stat line is that his OBP, and ultimately his OPS (which leads all NL first basemen), are both very high, in spite of the fact that his batting average is as low as it is.  But, that just further proves how obsolete of a stat batting average is becoming.  Rizzo is also one of the top fielding first basemen in the league.

Others to watch:  Brandon Belt (SF), Paul Goldschmidt (ARI), Chris Carter (MIL)

 

Second Base

AL – Wow.  There are some second basemen in both leagues that are having really impressive seasons, but likely won’t get close to starting in the All-Star game.  Mainly because there are two guys having unbelievable seasons.  In the AL, it’s Jose Altuve (HOU) – .328/.413/.582, 9 HR, 27 RBI, 15 SB.  If he keeps this up, he could be in the MVP discussion.  Well, if Houston doesn’t continue to tank, that is.

Others to watch:  Robinson Cano (SEA), Ian Kinsler (DET)

NL – Potential MVP candidate in the NL:  Daniel Murphy (WSH) – .387/.420/.607, 6 HR, 28 RBI.  He’s playing so well, I don’t think there’s more than one second basemen in the NL that has a shot at catching him before the break.

Other to watch:  Ben Zobrist (CHC)

 

Shortstop

AL – What a loaded position this is in the American League!  And, loaded with youth, which means we get to enjoy this for several years to come.  Right now, my vote goes to:  Xander Bogaerts (BOS) – .346/.397/.495, 4 HR, 25 RBI, 6 SB.  Bogaerts is also an excellent fielding shortstop.  His overall numbers are leading, but not necessarily overshadowing, others at this position.  So, there could be a decent amount of fluctuation between now and July.

Others to watch:  Francisco Lindor (CLE), Carlos Correa (HOU)

NL – While this is another position that often places an emphasis on defense, the two best offensive shortstops in the NL are so far ahead of everyone else, I’m going to ignore the fact that they are both a little below average with the glove.  Right now, my vote goes to a guy you’re going to have to write in:  Aledmys Diaz (STL) – .352/.386/.599, 6 HR, 23 RBI.  Taking the place of the injured Peralta, Diaz has played his way into the starting job, regardless of what happens to Peralta in my mind.  And, while Story had the hot start to the season, Diaz is batting almost 70 points higher, and his OPS is 40 points higher.  Plus, Story is striking out at an alarming 31.9%, while Diaz only 9.2%

Others to watch:  Trevor Story (COL), Zack Cozart (CIN), Corey Seager (LAD)

 

Third Base

AL – Two more no-brainers here.  In the American League, we’re looking at another potential MVP candidate:  Manny Machado (BAL) – .308/.367/.610, 12 HR, 26 RBI.  And, Machado is arguably one of the best gloves in the game – regardless of position.

Others to watch:  Nick Castellanos (DET), Travis Shaw (BOS), Josh Donaldson (TOR)

NL Nolan Arenado (COL) – .307/.383/.620, 14 HR, 34 RBI, and another excellent fielding third baseman.  Arenado isn’t as far ahead of the rest of the pack as Machado is, but it’s enough to say he’s the clear choice.  But, don’t be surprised if one or more of these others catch up with him.

Others to watch:  Kris Bryant (CHC), Matt Carpenter (STL)

 

Outfield

AL – It kinda makes me chuckle that no one is even talking about Trout, in spite of the season he’s having (.321/.411/.564, 10 HR, 31 RBI).  It’s almost like we just expect that from him now.  But, probably even more surprising was my third choice in the outfield: 1) Jackie Bradley, Jr. (BOS) – .342/.413/.618, 8 HR, 33 RBI; 2) Mike Trout (LAA), and . . . 3) Michael Saunders (TOR) – .322/.388/.570, 8 HR, 15 RBI.  Be honest – who saw that coming?  And yet, he is the clear choice, as everyone else is well behind him in overall offensive production.

Others to watch:  Mark Trumbo (BAL), Nelson Cruz (SEA), Jose Bautista (TOR)

NL – I don’t think there are any surprises here, other than perhaps the order: 1) Yoenis Cespedes (NYM) – .298/.381/.660, 14 HR, 35 RBI; 2) Dexter Fowler (CHC) – .316/.435/.533, 5 HR, 21 RBI, 6 SB; 3) Bryce Harper (WSH) – .260/.451/.565, 11 HR, 30 RBI, 7 SB.  Braun is neck-and-neck with Harper in overall offensive production, but lags way behind in defense, which is why Harper definitely gets the nod here.

Others to watch:  Ryan Braun (MIL), Christian Yelich (MIA), Stephen Piscotty (STL)

 

And, if you don’t know who to vote for at DH . . . you probably need to start reading a different blog.  Hahaha.  Let’s just say it’s your last chance to see him in the Mid-Summer Classic.  Happy voting!

Why The DH Isn’t Baseball

I have been a fan of the National League style of play for as long as I can remember.  At first, it may have been prompted solely by my choice in favorite team (I’ve been a Cubs fan since 1989, when I was 10 years old).  But, over the years, I have grown to appreciate the National League style as a style that incorporates more of what the game of baseball is supposed to be.  National League teams tend to be grittier, more willing to press and grind out runs by any means necessary.  Meanwhile, American League teams are more frequently the kinds of teams that are waiting for the 3-run HR trot.  There’s nothing necessarily right or wrong with either style of play – it’s a personal preference.  And, let’s not forget that there are exceptions to these rules of thumb – I love watching the Kansas City Royals, because they play much more like a National League team (Eric Hosmer‘s dash for the plate in Game 5 of the World Series will be forever etched in my memory).

That being said, I believe one of the contributing factors to the difference in styles is something that should never have taken place – the Designated Hitter.  When you look back at the history of it’s use, you’ll find that while it had been discussed for decades, it only gained real traction in the late 1960’s.  However, if you consider the kind of pitching that was going on in that era (Carl Yastrzemski won the AL batting title in ’68 with a .301 batting average), everyone was struggling at the plate.  This wasn’t just a “pitchers can’t hit” issue.  So, in an effort to increase offense around the league, the DH was put in place in 1973, on a trial basis.  And, baseball was forever changed.

Fast forward 40+ years to today (though, you really don’t have to go that far forward to find these results).  Now, we look at a guy coming up to the majors who has some power.  But, he’s not very good at fielding any position on the diamond (not even first base).  So, instead of treating him like a baseball player should be treated – instead of making him work to hone the craft of catching and throwing the ball the way he should – we say, “well, he’ll make a good DH in the American League one day.”  In other words, let’s not worry about getting a player to play all of the game, as long as he’s good at one part.  Instead of being interested in a 5-tool player, we’re now satisfied with a 1-tool player.  As a result, we have more and more Evan Gattis‘ – a guy who is a detriment to his team in the field, is sub-par at getting on base (.294 career OBP as I’m writing this), will strike out at a high rate, but can hit some home runs (averaging 23 per year).  Since he can’t do but one thing well . . . let’s make him a DH.

Fans of the DH will point to the likes of David Ortiz as their hero.  First of all, believe me when I say that Ortiz is the exception.  2015’s DH list is littered with guys like Gattis, Adam LaRoche, C.J. Cron, and Billy Butler.  But, secondly, let’s not ignore the fact that Ortiz isn’t just below-average in the field . . . he’s awful.  A total of just over 2,000 innings at first base (a National League equivalent of about a season and a half), and he has 22 errors to date.  Twenty-two!  At, by far, the easiest position on the field to defend.  Pedro Alvarez (a guy shifting from third base) was the only NL first-baseman to have more than 9 errors the entire 2015 season.  Oh, and guess where Pedro is this year . . . DH’ing for the Orioles.

In recent years, and particularly this past offseason, I was troubled by the increasing discussion of the “need” for the DH in the National League.  I would like to suggest that the only “need” regarding the DH in baseball . . . is the need to do away with it!  We’ve already seen how it creates one-dimensional players, rather than legitimate baseball players.  And, this has become problematic all the way down even into the college ranks, where the DH is now the norm – further escalating the issue of the 1-tool player.  But, I also would like to consider more carefully the arguments in favor of the DH, and why they don’t actually hold any water.

The DH Produces More Offense

On the surface, this sounds like a legitimate argument.  After all, we see plenty of pitchers batting below .100, and taking swings that look worse than my 7-year-old son’s.  But, when you look at offensive production across the league, you’ll find that just having a DH in the batting lineup, instead of the pitcher, doesn’t necessarily translate into that much more offense.  Over the last three seasons (ever since Houston moved to the American League, and there were an even number of teams between the two leagues), the AL has averaged 670 more runs per season than the NL.  That sounds like a lot, doesn’t it?  But, when you break it down, between the teams, that translates to less than 45 more runs per team.  That’s 0.28 runs per game per team.  So, the average American League game is going to have barely more than half a run more than the average National League game.  I don’t think that extra half of a run per game is the kind of offensive explosion that will create more baseball fans (one of the reasons “more offense” is used as an argument in favor of the DH).

So, why isn’t the DH producing more significant offense?  Money.  Plain and simple.  Instead of paying 8 position players “starter” salaries, American League teams now have to essentially pay 9.  And, when a guy that only does one thing is getting $7-10 million per season, or more, the team is going to have to make sacrifices at other positions.  So, in many cases, you get a shortstop or a second baseman that’s above average defensively, but because he only hits about .240 (and offensive numbers drive the salary train), you can afford to have him in your infield and the power-hitting DH.

What proponents of the DH often do is compare the average DH to the average pitcher.  But, that’s an unfair comparison.  Yes, the DH is taking the pitcher’s spot in the lineup.  But, because of the way American League teams have to organize their budgets differently, I say the comparison needs to be between #9 hitters.  Generally speaking, the #9 hitter in your lineup is your lightest hitter.  In the National League, that’s almost always your pitcher.  If you look at this year’s stats so far – there are 5 American League teams (Astros, Angels, Indians, Twins and Rays) in the bottom 10 in batting average from the #9 spot in the lineup.  And, there are 3 National League teams (Diamondbacks, Cardinals and Cubs) that are in the top 10.  The American League has a .219 average from the #9 spot, while the National League is batting .187.  Last year wasn’t much different (.228 in the AL, .182 in the NL).

While the “more offense” argument sounds reasonable on the surface – the reality is that there is no lack of offense in the NL just because pitchers are batting.

The DH Protects High-Priced Pitchers From Injury

Again, on the surface, this sounds like a very rational argument in favor of the DH.  That is, until you get down to the nuts and bolts of it.  This argument received a lot of attention last year when Adam Wainwright suffered a torn achilles while running to first base.  The outcry was, “See?! If he hadn’t had to bat, this never would have been an issue.”  Even Wainwright himself chimed in with a similar sentiment.  Meanwhile, everyone seems to forget how injury prone Adam Wainwright has been in his career.  He missed the entire 2011 season due to Tommy John surgery – not related to batting.  In 2008, he missed more than 1/3 of the season due to a finger strain in his pitching hand – not related to batting.  So, of the potential 9 seasons Wainwright has had in his career as a starter, he has suffered significant injuries in 3 of them.  Who’s to say that the next time Wainwright had to cover first base on a ground ball, he wouldn’t have blown out his achilles anyway?

High-priced players are going to get hurt.  For the 2008 and 2012 seasons, David Ortiz was paid nearly $28 million – and he only played 109 and 90 games, respectively, due to injuries.  Injuries happen when you are playing a sport.  Pitchers get hurt throwing the ball (right, Shelby Miller?).  Pitchers get hurt covering first base (Garrett Richards, 2014).  Pitchers get hurt when the ball is hit hard back at them.  If we’re going to create new rules or positions just to keep pitchers from ever getting hurt, then we’re going to have to resort to letting pitching machines do all the pitching.  Adding the DH to the National League is not going to prevent a significant number of injuries to pitchers.

The Bottom Line

In the end, the DH is nothing more than a band-aid solution to a perceived problem with offense.  Instead of adding the DH to the National League, it should be eliminated from the American League.  No more 1-tool players.  Let’s get back to having baseball players playing baseball.

Buy or Sell

One week down . . . 25 to go. With that much baseball left to play, you would think people would hold off on making too much of what has happened in just 5-7 games. But, as we often do, we get wrapped up in stories that get us excited early in the season. So, here are 3 trends I think we should “sell” (aka – don’t expect it to continue), and 3 we can “buy.”

SELL

1. The 5-1 Cincinnati Reds. Beating the Pirates 2 out of 3 is nice. But, it was at home, and neither win was dominant. And a sweep of the Phillies? Not exactly something to brag about, since the Phillies are probably the worst team in the NL. So, that 5-1 record is pretty deceptive. 

2. The 5-0 Orioles. The last remaining undefeated team. Sounds pretty good, right? Well… who exactly did they beat? The Twins and Rays. Two teams likely to finish at or near the bottom of their respective divisions. And, Baltimore’s offense wasn’t exactly on fire – 4.5 runs per game. When they face some good competition, we’ll have a better idea who Baltimore is. 

3. Trevor Story (COL). It’s a nice story (yeah, I said it), the way he has started the season. But, let’s be real, folks. Every game he has played thus far has been against a lot of mediocre pitching in the thin air of Coors Field. The guy had an .817 OPS in the minors. Don’t get me wrong – that’s not bad. But, this isn’t the next Tulowitzki. He’s going to come back down to earth, and I hope you weren’t foolish enough to trade for him in your fantasy league. 

BUY

1. The 4-1 Royals. So many “experts” were picking the Tigers or Indians or maybe even the White Sox to win this division. Here’s my question: what has changed? The Royals still have the best defense in baseball. They still have one of the top 2 or 3 bullpens. They still have an offense that puts the ball in play and pressures your defense and pitching. And, they still have starting pitchers that – while they may not be All-Stars – will pitch a lot of innings with a bend-don’t-break approach. It should surprise none of us if KC reaches a 3rd consecutive World Series. 

2. The Chicago Cubs offense. Through their first 6 games, they are averaging 7 runs per game – best in the NL. Obviously they won’t keep up that pace, especially this week in the cold air in Chicago. But, the additions of Heyward and Zobrist have helped round out an offense that got a little too homer-happy when it got to the NLCS. This now is an offense that is 2nd in the NL in OBP, leads the league in walks, and has some pop as well (6th in HR). 

3. The mediocrity that is the AL West. I was shocked to see a lot of folks picking one or more Wild Card teams to come out of the AL West before the season started. But, if you look at the division today, you’ll see what I expect we’ll see at season’s end. There’s only one team with a winning record right now – the 4-3 A’s. I’m not saying Oakland will win the division. Just that 84-86 wins is probably all you’ll need here. Every team has major holes that will be exploited by the better teams in the AL. Whether it’s offense (OAK – 3.28 runs/gm against so-so pitching; LAA – nothing beyond Trout), pitching (HOU – worst ERA in AL; TEX – very suspect beyond Hamels & eventually Darvish), or just plain mediocrity (SEA – middle of the pack in pretty much everything), this is not an exciting division.