All Streaks Come to an End

Last night, in the 4th inning of a game in Toronto, Francisco Liriano did something that no one had been able to do in the last 7+ months … he struck out Mookie Betts.  It has been an amazing run for Betts.  129 plate appearances in the regular season since his last strikeout (September 12th of last year).  It was the longest streak by a Boston player since 1975, and the longest in baseball since 2004.


Even with his incredible streak over, however, Betts still has an opportunity to make history.  Since 1947, only 5 players have struck out so rarely that they averaged at least 48 AB’s per strikeout.  The incredible thing about that list is that Nellie Fox accomplished the feat 6 times from ’51-’62!  In fact, every season in which Fox was a full-time player (’50-’64), he never struck out more than 18 times in a season.  

Currently, Betts is averaging one strikeout per 49 AB’s.  To put that into the context of a season – that’s about 11 K’s spread out over an entire year.  The last player to come close to that kind of number was Dave Cash, in 1976.  That year, Cash led the league in AB’s (666), and only struck out 13 times.  

But, the difference between Betts and the rest of the guys on the low strikeout list is Betts’ ability to hit for power.  Cash never hit as many as 5 HR in a single season, and had a career SLG of .358.  Fox had 35 career HR, and a .363 career SLG.  The only man to make the list with legitimate power in his bat was Yogi Berra.  Berra struck out just 12 times in 1950, when he also hit 28 HR and drove in 124.  

If Betts can continue to be as diligent as he has been at avoiding strikeouts, he has an opportunity to join some extremely elite company.

Great Expectations – National League

I love the beginning of the baseball season.  If it were possible, I would take several days off every April, and just watch baseball all day.  The start of a fresh season with all of the unknowns, all of the anticipation, and of course, a lot of different expectations.  As I mentioned last week (Great Expectations – American League), there are frequently unreasonable expectations that fans have for their teams.  Like the Cubs fan who said “this is our year” for the last 40 years, and felt like they had accomplished something by finally being right.  So, let’s take a look at reasonable expectations for 2017.

NL EAST

  • Atlanta Braves (68-93; last in division) – The Braves have centered their rebuilding focus primarily on high quality pitching prospects.  My biggest concern is the fact that this is a much slower rebuild than the development of position players.  The middle of the infield looks like it will be great for years to come, once Albies and Swanson are playing together every day.  But, for now, the Braves are filling in with a lot of short-term contracts, which could provide trade opportunities at the deadline in July.  And, after going 10-20 against 4 of the 5 worst teams outside their division, this team should naturally see some improvement.  Reasonable Expectations:  75+ wins, young players make strides toward being competitive in 2018.
  • Miami Marlins (79-82; 3rd in division) – The Marlins have had very little movement, other than signing Volquez to take the top of the rotation after the tragic loss of Fernandez.  So, in addition to losing the one quality starter in the rotation, they did nothing to improve the offense.  How does a team with the 2nd best team batting avg. in the NL score the 3rd fewest runs?  By not taking advantage of opportunities (10th in RBI’s with RISP).  And, until Stanton can stay healthy for a full season, there’s no one to fear in that lineup.  Reasonable Expectations:  Drop back a little to around 70 wins.
  • New York Mets (87-75; 2nd in division; lost Wild Card game) – Bruce did not play well in NY after the trade (.219/.294/.391).  You would expect him to be back to his usual 25-30 HR and .800+ OPS form this year, which makes this a formidable lineup. If the pitching staff can live up to expectations, this seems to be a team poised for a great season.  The biggest challenge to improvement will be the Nationals – they went 7-12 against them last year, and that was a huge factor in the Nats winning the division.  Reasonable Expectations:  Compete for the division title; possibly make a deep playoff run.
  • Philadelphia Phillies (71-91; 4th in division) – The Phils have a very young offense that isn’t littered with a lot of firepower (scored the fewest runs in the NL in ’16).  But, as they mature, they could be very consistent, even against better pitching staffs.  However, their own rotation has been pieced together, and isn’t exactly intimidating.  Plus, their bullpen had an ERA over 5.00 last year.  And, this team doesn’t seem to be headed anywhere real soon.  Only one legit top-tier prospect that’s close to MLB ready (Crawford), and several of their best prospects were just drafted last year, and won’t be ready for a few years.  Reasonable Expectations:  with other teams in this division taking steps forward, I think the Phils will drop back to the bottom of the division.  Good news is, after getting to pick #8 in this year’s draft, there’s a good chance they’ll be in the top 5 next year.
  • Washington Nationals (95-67; 1st in division; lost NLDS) – Think of it this way: the Nationals won 95 games with their marquee player having arguably the worst full season of his career, and with just 73 games from phenom Trea Turner, and the worst offensive output from Zimmerman in his career.  What does that mean?  The Nats are legit World Series contenders.  Reasonable Expectations:  At minimum compete for the division; look for a strong playoff run.

NL CENTRAL

  • Chicago Cubs (103-58; 1st in division; Won the World Series) – I know it’s been said a lot, but do you realize the Cubs could actually be better this year?  A full season of Schwarber.  A full season of Contreras.  Baez playing regularly.  Russell, Bryant, & Rizzo all maturing as hitters.  This offense could be one of the most productive ever. Plus, Arrietta wasn’t his dominant self for half the year last year, and the bullpen had obvious holes that have now been filled with Edwards, Uehara, and Wade Davis.  Reasonable Expectations:  Division title; but don’t expect another World Series run – the only NL team to win back-to-back titles since 1922 was the ’75-’76 Reds.
  • Cincinnati Reds (68-94; last in division) – The Reds finished with the worst record in the National League a year ago, and were only 4 games better than their 2015 record.  In fact, since they lost the Wild Card game in 2013, they haven’t been better than 10 games under .500.  And, legitimate impact from prospects like Senzel and Garrett is still a year or two away.  One of the worst pitching staffs in baseball was left basically untouched (4.91 ERA in 2016 – only Arizona was worse), and they’re already starting off the year with DeSclafani, Bailey, and Mesoraco on the DL.  Reasonable Expectations:  Hopefully can use Cozart and maybe Storen as mid-season trade bait for some prospects; hopefully don’t see 100 losses.
  • Milwaukee Brewers (73-89; 4th in division) – Even with NL HR champ Carter, this team was tied for 25th in all of baseball in runs scored last year.  Maybe that’s why they decided they didn’t really need him anymore, and let him go to free agency.  And, after trading Lucroy to Texas, this offense only has one real threat in Braun. The farm system is very strong, but it will be a couple years before it impacts the major league team.  Reasonable Expectations:  Hopefully avoid 90+ losses.
  • Pittsburgh Pirates (78-83; 3rd in division) – After three consecutive playoff appearances, the Pirates slipped just below .500.  They had a terrible record against the division-winning Cubs (4-14), and only 1 game over .500 against the rest of the division.  So, they need to improve there, if they expect to be in the playoff hunt this year.  But, this is a team that has a good offense, when clicking on all cylinders, an excellent defensive outfield, and if they can perform up to expectations, their starting rotation could be one of the best in the league.  Reasonable Expectations:  Probably not able to compete at the top of the division, but a Wild Card spot would be a successful season.  85+ wins is very reasonable.
  • St. Louis Cardinals (86-76; 2nd in division) – The Cardinals missed the playoffs for the first time since 2010.  What had as much to do with it as anything was the way they played down the stretch.  Just one game over .500 over the months of August and September.  And, despite scoring the 3rd most runs in the NL, the pitching staff was middle of the pack (7th in team ERA).  And, while the addition of Fowler means the offense is likely to run more smoothly, the pitching staff remains unchanged.  And, any hope they thought they might get from a young Reyes went out the window with Tommy John surgery.  That, on top of other injuries to the pitching staff means this team is starting off on a tough foot.  Reasonable Expectations:  Similar record; compete for a Wild Card spot.

NL WEST

  • Arizona Diamondbacks (69-93; 4th in division) – A.J. Pollack at the top of this lineup is a difference-maker.  Losing him at the beginning of last season took an immediate toll on this team’s chances.  However, I remain unconvinced that Greinke has the mental makeup to be an ace.  And behind him is not exactly a string of dominating pitchers.  Without any significant additions to the pitching staff (Walker doesn’t count, since he has had an ERA over 4.00 the last two years), I don’t see much chance for improvement over the staff that had the worst ERA in the league a year ago.  Reasonable Expectations:  Better offense = a few more wins, but pitching is the name of the game.  75+ wins should be considered a success.
  • Colorado Rockies (75-87; 3rd in division) – This was a team that underperformed at a fairly significant level.  The Pythagorean algorithm based on their runs scored and runs allowed suggests this team should have won 80 games.  One of the biggest factors in this is that they were just 12-20 in one-run games.  A pitching staff that performs okay when you take the thin air out of the equation (7th in ERA away from Denver), should keep them in some games, because the offense is pretty anemic once they get away from Colorado (10th in the NL in runs scored).  Reasonable Expectations:  .500 is what this team legitimately feels like.  Especially in this division.  Not enough offensive firepower or pitching prowess to overtake the big boys.
  • Los Angeles Dodgers (91-71; 1st in division; lost NLCS) – Four straight division championships, but the closest this team has come to the World Series was last year, when they lost the LCS in 6.  The amazing thing about this team is that they have been very good, and keep bringing up impressive prospects.  Pederson, Toles, and Seager the last couple years, Urias will be in the rotation all year this year, and if he gets a chance Cody Bellinger could be an impact rookie this year.  There’s a reason PECOTA predicted them to have the best record in baseball this year.  Reasonable Expectations:  At least compete for the division.  This is a legit World Series contender.
  • San Diego Padres (68-94; last in division) – One of the 8 teams that has yet to win a World Series doesn’t look like they’re any closer to doing so.  They were 10th in the NL in both runs scored, and team ERA.  Quality outfield prospects Margot and Renfroe could be the beginning of an improved offense, but they are both very young and are going to take a little while to make big impacts.  The starting rotation is mostly made up of guys cast aside by other teams.  In a division that seems to have improved everywhere else, this is a team that is waiting for the farm system to develop.  Reasonable Expectations:  Avoid 100 losses, and draft well, as they continue to develop their prospects.
  • San Francisco Giants (87-75; 2nd in division; lost NLDS) – The Giants continue to be a postseason threat, and continue to make very reasonable signings.  Yes, they paid a lot to secure Melancon at the back of their bullpen, but this was an obvious hole in last year’s team – leading the league with 30 blown saves.  The offense really seemed to underperform, considering their lineup.  But, this contributed to a complete collapse in the second half of the season – a 30-42 record which clearly cost them the division.  Reasonable Expectations:  With the closer in place, they should compete for the division, and may very well be a World Series contender … again.

Great Expectations – American League

With just days before games that count, nearly every fan is hoping for a big season from their team. Then again, “fan” is short for “fanatic.” So, it should come as no surprise that many fans have unreasonable expectations for their team. With that in mind, instead of making specific predictions regarding records, awards, or playoffs, let’s consider what kind of expectations each fan-base ought to have. Understanding, of course, that it’s a fool’s errand to expect fanatics to be reasonable. So, fans, be prepared to be offended!

AL EAST

  • Baltimore Orioles (89-73 in 2016; t-2nd in division; lost AL Wild Card game) – This is a team that seems to just be getting older. Nearly all their regular position players are 30+, and the starting rotation leaves a lot to be desired (especially with Tillman looking like he’ll miss the start of the season). An exciting year for the Orioles would be another 85-90 wins, and a playoff appearance. But, more reasonable expectations likely have this team hanging around .500.
  • Boston Red Sox (93-69 in 2016; 1st in division; lost ALDS) – Don’t underestimate the loss of Ortiz. I’m not sure anyone else in this lineup is legitimately feared by opposing pitchers. And, this team was 4 games under .500 last year in one-run games, while 30-11 in blowouts. But, the addition of Sale, and the hope that Price’s injury doesn’t have a big impact on his season means this team just got harder to score on, while no one else in the division took significant strides forward. Reasonable expectations: 90-ish wins & playoff appearance; possibly a playoff run.
  • New York Yankees (84-78 in 2016; 4th in division) – Definitely a team on the rise, while their average age continues to drop. Gary Sanchez, Aaron Judge, and Greg Bird could be the next Jeter/Posada/Williams core. Sizeable holes in the pitching staff, so it isn’t championship time again. Yet. Reasonable expectations: compete for a Wild Card spot, maybe even the division.
  • Tampa Bay Rays (68-94; last in division) – Very good, young pitching staff. One that will likely have contending teams drooling at the trade deadline. But, other than Longoria (and Kiermaier at times), the offense isn’t stout. And their better position player prospects are still a year or two from having a big impact on the team. This team would be better if they were in a different division (losing record against all but Toronto last year). Reasonable Expectations: Get closer to a .500 record (75+ wins?), make smart trades, and draft well.
  • Toronto Blue Jays (89-73; t-2nd in division; lost ALCS) – Back-to-back ALCS losses has to sting for a team whose average age suggests they need to be in “win now” mode. Even with the loss of Encarnacion, this offense has all the fire-power you would need to go deep into the playoffs. A full year with Liriano in the rotation will be a nice complement to Stroman, but does the bullpen have what it takes? We’ll see. Reasonable Expectations: Compete for the division; make a playoff run. BUT, don’t be surprised if age/injuries catches up with this team, and they fall down to around .500.

AL CENTRAL

  • Chicago White Sox (78-84; 4th in division) – Just two off seasons removed from what appeared to be going “all in,” the White Sox have completely reversed course and are selling off every part of their team that they can.  Sale is gone, Eaton is gone, and Frazier and Quintana aren’t likely to finish the season in Chicago. Don’t be surprised if Melky Cabrera and Brett Lawrie don’t at least get consideration from contenders near the trade deadline. 90+ losses is virtually inevitable. Reasonable Expectations: Top 10 (maybe top 5) draft pick in 2018.
  • Cleveland Indians (94-67; 1st in division; lost World Series) – Edwin Encarnacion, a full season of Andrew Miller, healthy Danny Salazar, Carlos Carrasco, and Michael Brantley (maybe). All signs point toward a team that was within a win of a championship being even better. But, one could also point out that several Indians had the best season of their career in 2016, including most of the starting rotation, the closer, Jason Kipnis, Rajai Davis, and Carlos Santana.  Is it reasonable to expect repeat performances?  I say not.  Reasonable Expectations:  85-90 wins; compete for the division.
  • Detroit Tigers (86-75; 2nd in division) – A second half surge had them in the hunt for a Wild Card spot last year.  This is definitely an older team that has had injury issues lately.  But, if they can avoid the injury bug, this offense is a force, and the starting rotation is very solid 1-4.  The big question mark is the bullpen, which was 24th in MLB last year with a 4.22 ERA, and has remained untouched this offseason.  That could come back to bite them.  Reasonable Expectations:  barring injuries … compete for a Wild Card spot.
  • Kansas City Royals (81-81; 3rd in division) – A very disappointing follow-up to back-to-back World Series runs.  But, injuries were a huge factor last season.  And, with several core players in their contract year, this may be the last time we see this group together.  They may have the Rookie of the Year playing 2nd base (Mondesi), and even with the loss of Davis, this bullpen is excellent (remember the name Matt Strahm).  Reasonable Expectations:  bounce back year – 85-90 wins, and compete for the division.
  • Minnesota Twins (59-103; last in division) – Remember when the Twins seemed to be one of those teams that knew how to compete while playing in a smaller market?  Well, you probably don’t if you aren’t at least in high school.  It’s been 13 years since they won a playoff game, and 15 since they won a playoff series.  At least they play in the same division as the fire-sale that is the White Sox.  Reasonable Expectations:  70+ wins would be something to be proud of.

AL WEST

  • Houston Astros (84-78; 3rd in division) – After an abysmal April (7-17), the Astros were playing catch-up all season, and the one team they just couldn’t seem to beat (4-15 vs. Texas), won the division.  Just a .500 record against Texas would have put the Astros in the Wild Card picture.  The acquisition of McCann behind the plate is a major upgrade.  A full season of Bregman, and a healthy starting rotation has this team poised to do big things.  But, the Rangers aren’t just going to hand over the division. Reasonable Expectations: 90-win range, compete for division, possibly play deep into October.
  • Los Angeles Angels (74-88; 4th in division) – What a lot of people didn’t notice was how much better the Angels played in the 2nd half last year.  They were on pace for 95 losses at the All-Star break, but actually played a game over .500 the rest of the way.  One big factor was their pitching staff – they allowed 4.75 runs per game in the first half, and only 4.16 per game in the second.  If they can build on that momentum, and stay healthy, they could turn things around.  Though, they still play in a very competitive division.  Reasonable Expectations:  .500 record, maybe compete for a Wild Card spot, if things fall just right.
  • Oakland A’s (69-93; last in division) – Well, as bad as things were last year in Oakland (25th in team ERA; 28th in team OPS), it doesn’t look like it’s getting better soon.  A starting lineup that consists of mostly castaways from other teams (Lowrie, Plouffe, Alonso, etc.), and a rotation headed up by the one trade-chip this team had until he had a horrendous 2016.  And, the farm system isn’t what it used to be – no prospects in the top 50 in baseball.  Reasonable Expectations:  anything less than 90 losses would be a victory.  But, don’t count on it.
  • Seattle Mariners (86-76; 2nd in division) – For a team that doesn’t have any real standout names (other than King Felix), they played extremely well a year ago.  Seattle finished 3rd in the AL in runs scored, and 3rd in the AL in team ERA.  Though, a blistering hot September (18-9) played the biggest roll in their final record – a September that included 2 series each against Oakland and LA, and a series against the Twins.  And, a strength of theirs from a year ago – the bullpen – has lost some key pieces.  Reasonable Expectations: in a competitive division, I think a Wild Card spot is the best hope for this team.
  • Texas Rangers (95-67; 1st in division; lost ALDS) – Similar to the 2015 Astros, the Rangers were incredible at home (.654 win pct.) and mediocre on the road (.519).  They also had an unbelievable record in one-run games (36-11), which you just can’t count on repeating.  But, they have all the offensive firepower you could ask for, and if Darvish can stay healthy, he’s a part of a nasty 1-2 punch with Hamels in the rotation.  Reasonable Expectations:  drop back to the pack a little; compete for the division.

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.

chicago_cubs_logo

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.