Saturday, November 7, 2015

Special Comment: Chicago Cubs 2015 Report Card


These were some rough years.

If you can believe it, in 2009 the Cubs still had most of the parts from their 2007 and 2008 playoff runs.  Now we know that they fared terribly in both of those playoff performances, but they had a good team.

Does anyone remember Jake Fox?  Is Ryan Theriot still playing?
I think I speak for everyone when I say we need to locate Jake Fox and bring him back.  We need "the two Jakes."
I think it was the next year when Zambrano uttered "we stinks" and management changed directions.

I was in Brooklyn for the end of the 2010 season, all of the 2011 season, most of the 2012 season, and more than half of the 2013 season, so I didn't follow as closely as I would have liked.

It's surprising to see just how many players from the 2009 club were still on the 2013 club.  You could call the Cubs from 2006 - 2013 "the Soriano years."  Alfonso Soriano defined the Cubs.  He was paid a ton of money to stay on the team for a long time, and he put together a couple decent seasons, but for the most part they just tried to load up the team with stars--at least the few they'd be able to afford--and struck gold by chance.  Really that was 2008.  I'm surprised they made it in 2007, but 2008 they had a legitimately good year, and it was depressing as hell to get swept by the Dodgers.

They ripped it up and started again in 2011, and by 2013 had a few of the names that are oh-so-familiar today: Rizzo, Castro, Arrieta, Travis Wood.

Let's take a brief moment to remember that team with a sad picture.

This is Soriano saying goodbye and passing the torch to Rizzo as the unofficial team leader.

Last year they still blew chunks, but improved on their record from 2013.  They added Baez, Soler, Coghlan, Hendricks, Rondon, Strop, Grimm, and Addison Russell.  Those all look like pretty savvy moves right now.

I was skeptical, okay.  I thought 2015 would be a good year, but I didn't expect a playoff run.  Then they hired Joe Maddon.

Joe Maddon: A+

When Maddon was hired, this team instantly announced itself as a serious contender.  Maddon was perhaps most famous for taking the lowly expansion team of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays (actually enduring back-to-back 90 loss seasons in 2006 and 2007) into the stratosphere and annual contention with the always-stacked Yankees and Red Sox.  They never won the World Series, but they went there in 2008, also making the playoffs in 2010, 2011, and 2013 before imploding in 2014.  The Rays still really wanted Maddon for 2015, but he opted out of his contract.
Maddon is a tad eccentric.  At one point this season he hired a magician to perform a show for the players before the game.  I think once he got a bunch of penguins and let them loose in the clubhouse. Near the end of the season he made all the players have a pajama party for the flight leaving L.A. Could you imagine such shenanigans from Lou Piniella or Dusty Baker?  Of course, it was just such an attitude that this team needed.  He did some weird things, like bat the pitcher 8th, but I think that strategy worked out pretty well for everyone.  The team just found ways to win under him.  They could never be counted out, and came back from behind to win many times.  He came to the team and wanted to buy everyone in the Cubby Bear a shot and a beer.  He wanted to cultivate a fun and inclusive atmosphere for the players as well as the fans.  He accomplished that and has become a beloved figure in the city. My hope is that he will manage the team for a very long time--until he officially retires from baseball.  Everyone knows I love Ryno, and I wanted him to be the manager during the Sveum and Renteria stints.  Even though he had problems with the Phillies, I still would like for him to come back to the organization.  In any case, regardless, I am over the moon for Joe Maddon and there is nobody else in major league baseball that I would rather have as my team's manager.

Welington Castillo was traded early in the season, so my favorite player was gone, but it was time for a new favorite, now being graded for the third time.  He went from B+ in 2013 to A in 2014.

Jake Arrieta: A+

Really he deserved an A- last year.  He was 10-5 with a 2.53 ERA.  Compare that to this year's 22-6 record with  a 1.77 ERA, with a no-hitter on top, and you have this year's Cy Young award winner.  Jake is the best pitcher they have had in years.  Obviously, Carlos Zambrano threw the last no-hitter, about 7 years earlier.  That was a great moment, and I apologized for Zambrano for years after, saying he would make a comeback.  But Zambrano was really more of a power pitcher and hitter than a finesse pitcher.  Jake can throw hard, but he possesses undeniable finesse, and most importantly for a pitcher, confidence and emotional stability.  Zambrano could fly off the handle at any given moment.  Arrieta is almost unflappable.  I got scared when he got hit by that pitch late in the Wild Card game against the Pirates, but he knew not to get involved in the fracas.  It took Jake a while to get to this point, but that's what makes this rise to his elite position in the MLB all the more great.  You may not get drafted first, or arrive with a huge signing bonus, but if you put in hard work for about five or six years, you can be as good as anyone has ever been.  It's a bit early to say Jake is the best pitcher the Cubs have had since Greg Maddux.  It remains to be seen how the next 10 years will go, but given what I have seen, he's extremely special and for me at least, the MVP.

Anthony Rizzo: A

Was Rizzo better than last year?  It's hard to say.  He hit .278 this year, so slightly lower than .283.  He had 31 home runs, or one less than last year (tied for 18th in the majors with Mark Teixeira).  But then....yes.  He was definitely better than last year.  I'm not giving him an A+ though.  A+ is reserved for true superstars, like, oh say Mike Trout (Trout is just sick).  He was better than last year because he added 23 RBIs (tied for 11th in the majors with crosstown star Jose Abreu), and played in 20 more games.  He was just a rock at first base, the same way he was in 2013, playing in all but 2 games.  He made the All-Star team again.  He has just over 100 home runs in his career and he just turned 26.  He's not Trout, okay, we can't already say he's destined for the Hall of Fame (Trout is 23 and already has 139 homers).  But he sure looks good.  If Chase Utley is going to be a Hall of Famer, than Anthony Rizzo is also going to be a Hall of Famer.  It's just a matter if he can achieve the longevity.  He's got a great group of players around him for support, and he's emerged as one of the leaders.  There is no need to upgrade at that position.  I hope Anthony Rizzo effectively establishes himself as the perfect hybrid of Mark Grace and Ryne Sandberg, the power hitting first baseman I always wish we had.

Starlin Castro: B+

Was Starlin better than last year?  Immediately he gets dinged down to an A- for the batting average slipping from .291 to .265.  I know he had a bad stretch this season.  I went to a game with my brother in August and it was right around the moment the Cubs were contemplating the Chase Utley pickup.  My brother said Starlin was terrible and that he was no longer part of the "plan" for the team.  This depressed me because Starlin, at this point, is their consummate veteran.  It was nice that he made a comeback near the end of the season.  I don't know, I ding him down to a B+ because I thought "A" was too generous last year.  The only year he deserves an "A" for is 2011, when he had 674 at bats and 207 hits to lead the league.  I still like Starlin and hope he remains on the team.  Unfortunately when I googled him for these stats, the first results that came up were all about trade rumors.  I don't know who they could get in return, and I think the minor league system is still in pretty good shape, but you know about this team and prospects: the more the better!  I'm on the fence about Starlin, but I err on the side of keeping as much of the core together as possible, and if there's been any core in this whole rebuilding process, it's been Starlin.

Travis Wood: B+

Travis took on a new role this year, somewhat similar to what happened to Edwin Jackson.  The difference is Edwin Jackson is gone and Travis Wood performed admirably in his role out of the bullpen.  The most unfortunate thing about this is that he did not get to bat as much.  He still got 30 at bats, but hit 0 home runs, whereas he hit 3 home runs in both 2013 and 2014.  He's not Carlos Zambrano, exactly, but he is one of the best hitting pitchers in the game.  I think it's fair to say that Jake replaced him as the most threatening hitter among pitchers.  Regardless he was a pretty solid reliever most of the time and I think he's earned his place on the team for at least another few years--he'll only be 29 next year--because he's the perfect guy for long relief.  I don't miss Sean Marshall quite as much as I used to--though I liked him, Wood is probably a more valuable player at this point.  I don't think Marshall even played in 2015, but I did find it interesting that Ernie Banks performed the ceremony for his second marriage.

Kris Bryant: A

Kris Bryant made his MLB Debut on my 32nd birthday, and I was at the game.  He sucked.  He got a golden sombrero.  But a day or two later, he turned it on and never stopped.  Simply put, he was awesome.  Is he Mike Trout?  I don't think so.  (Look at Mike Trout's rookie season and tell me there will ever be a better rookie of the year by doomsday).  Instead of hitting .326 like Trout, he hit .275.  Instead of stealing 49 bases, he stole 13 (and he weighs 20 lbs less than Trout).  Instead of scoring 129 runs like Trout, he scored 87.  HOWEVER, where Trout only had 83 RBIs, Bryant knocked in 99.  And he wasn't very far behind with 26 home runs to Trout's 30.  While these numbers are certainly solid, Bryant also struck out 199 times--60 more than Trout, though he did also draw 10 more walks.  Bryant also played in 151 games.  He was pretty much a rock.  He's not totally insane like Trout, but he's the same type of player.  He should win Rookie of the Year and be a major part of this ballclub for the next decade plus.  He also has the most popular MLB jersey somehow, which may have something to do with his beautiful, beautiful eyes.  Even Jake said that after engaging in a sensual hug with Bryant, his "oppo pop increased significantly."  Therefore if the Cubs want to win the world series next year, more teammates must hug Bryant sensually.

Kyle Schwarber: A-

Schwarber gets an A/A+ for his performance in the playoffs, but it'd be unfair to Bryant to give him an A when he only played in 69 games.  He still hit 15 home runs, which would put him on pace to be among the best power hitters in all of baseball.  He hit 5 home runs in 27 at bats in the playoffs.  It wasn't enough, but some of those moments were huge--particularly the one that got stuck on top of the "schwarboard."  Schwarber's batting average was a bit weak at .246 but in the playoffs it went to .333.  He's a rookie. He performed in the clutch.  I was just really impressed by him on the whole, and felt a little excited whenever he came to the plate, like he was a real threat.  Maybe he was the biggest threat on the team in the playoffs.  Regardless, it should be fun to see how he might perform when he gets to play for an entire season.  You can't call a team a dynasty before they've won anything, but if they do, it will be because of players like him--and they deserve to be kept around for the long run.

Chris Coghlan: B-

Former rookie of the year Chris Coghlan is not exactly a disappointment, but a serviceable utility player.  He showed some real pop in his bat at times, but probably had a weaker season than last year.  His batting average dropped from a solid .283 to a perfectly average .250.  He got one more hit than last year with 55 extra at bats.  In the post-season, he posted an .083 average, going 1 for 12.  I've got no problem with them keeping Coghlan but of all of the so-called "everyday players," he is one of the weaker links.  Of course, he did come up with some really big hits at times, and it seemed like he went on a tear towards the end of the season, but I never got that excited when he came to the plate (except when he was streaky).  He had the same number of RBIs as last year (41).  For a left-fielder, the Cubs should really have someone putting up 70+ RBIs.  Schwarber may be that guy next year.

Jorge Soler: B+

I gave him an A- last year, and that's a bit inflated.  Soler had a monster postseason, so he gets boosted.  I can't quite boost him to an A- for the postseason alone, but look those numbers: .474, 3 home runs, 5 RBIs, 6 runs in 19 at bats.  However during the season he was a bit more pedestrian.  He only played in 24 games last year, but he hit 5 home runs.  This year he played in 101 games and hit 10.  I don't think he's in danger of getting traded, but I would not trade him unless it was a part of a deal for David Price or something.

Dexter Fowler: A-

Fowler deserves no better than a B+, but he gets boosted for having a decent postseason.  I mean, they only beat the Pirates in the Wild Card because of him, Schwarber and Jake.  Fowler had a good year, though, and I like him a lot as the team's lead off hitter.  Don't get me wrong--for me, Soriano will always be the greatest lead-off hitter, just because it was such an audacious concept--but Fowler was a more traditional lead-off guy and had a whiff of Soriano about him.  His 17 home runs were good for the best in his career.  His 20 stolen bases were the most he's had since 2009, when he was 23.  149 hits and 102 runs and 84 walks are all career bests.  And, okay, he struck out 154 times, which is also a career high, but you can make a pretty good case that this was his best season (2012 with the Rockies is the only other comparable one).  He played in 156 games this year, another career high, and most importantly, he's a free agent.  Don't leave us, Dexter!  We love you!  That said I think Mike Trout plays the same position so if the Cubs can steal him away from the Angels for like, 10 prospects, I'd be okay with that.  If the Cubs had over.

Miguel Montero: He is good

Miguel is only a few months younger than me, so I like him.  This wasn't necessarily his best season, but it was a pretty good one for him too.  He didn't make the All-Star team (and I heard plenty of times that he was a "former All-Star catcher"), but basically for playing in 113 games, hitting 15 home runs is pretty sweet.  He coined the hashtag "we are good," so that is my explanation for his grade.

Davis Ross: He is okay

I also like David Ross because he is one of the oldest players in the league (though technically only one day older than my older sister, Lindsay, who became a massive Cubs fan this season, making a savvy season ticket deal, which benefited me three times).  [ED. Lindsay requested that I use her proper name (she is not interested in vague anonymity) and acknowledge that she has been a devoted fan of the Cubs since 7th grade, which is approximately 1990.] Here are some of the other old players, so you can see why I like this statistic:
(13) Carlos Beltran - 38
(12) David Ross - 38
(11) A.J. Pierzynski - 38
(10) Matt Thornton - 39
(9) Jason Grilli - 39
(8) Joel Peralta - 39
(7) David Ortiz - 39 (turning 40 in 2 weeks)
(6) A Rod - 40
(5) Torii Hunter - 40
(4) Rafael Betancourt - 40
(3) Ichiro - 42
(2) Bartolo Colon - 42
(1) LaTroy Hawkins - 42 (turning 43 in December)

Bartolo Colon wins the award for being the most ridiculous player of the year.  Interesting that he pitched for the Expos in 2002 and almost took them to the playoffs.  He is listed at 285 but that has to be a joke.  He's gotta be close to 300.  Whatever.  I just can't take my eyes off the screen when Bartolo's pitching.  He won't be Moyer-esque, but I'm interested to see how much longer he can stick around.  Show me any other 42 year old that can start 33 games for a team that goes to the World Series.

Back to Davis Ross: he was okay.  Sometimes, when he caught for Jon Lester, my brother[-in-law] would say, "Well there's two automatic outs each time through the lineup."  And yeah, Ross was a weak hitter (.176 with 1 home run in 159 at bats), but he was solid defensively and he was brought in as a clubhouse guy.  I think it's fair to say the Cubs had one of the best clubhouses in baseball in 2015, and I don't want to attribute that all to David Ross, but I think he fared well as an elder statesman.

Javier Baez: B-

I was pleased by Baez's progress, though he played in less games in 2015 than 2014.  That shows how the Cubs were trying to "showcase new talent" in 2014 as a draw for fans, but how they got serious in 2015.  Baez hit .289 this year, compared to .169 last year.  That stat alone is all I need to say.  He only struck out about 1/3 of the time instead of almost 1/2 the time.  He may be playing infield with Addison for many years to come, but the situation with Starlin must be addressed first.

Addison Russell: B+

Look, .242 isn't a great batting average, but he did hit 13 home runs.  He started in the postseason until he got injured.  People really like him.  He's only going to get better.  Is he better than Starlin?  I don't know!  I can't tell!  But he's younger.  And come on, I know, Starlin is still young too!  But this Cubs team might as well be shouting "Youth is truth!  I wish old rhymed with lies!"

Tommy La Stella: B-

He came up near the end of the year.  I don't know what to say about him.  I'm surprised he made the playoff roster.  I think he was a speedster, and a backup utility player.  It's a good combo to have.  He probably switch hits, or hits from a different side than Addison Russell or Starlin Castro or something.  I think he's a good fielder.  I dinged him down to a B- because he went 0 for 10 in the playoffs.

I don't feel like writing about Arismendy Alcantara and his 26 at-bats (though it's nice we still have him, and Almora, and a couple other guys that we might get to see in Spring Training), or Matt Szczur's 72--but what about Chris Denorfia?  He was okay, I think.

Jon Lester: B+

Jon Lester is famous for having a sub-.500 record (11-12) that doesn't present the full picture.  His ERA was a solid 3.34 and he pitched over 200 innings and struck out over 200.  You can't blame a guy if his offense doesn't turn it on that day, for whatever reason.  Maybe it's just me, but it seemed like there were a whole bunch of times that Lester pitched really well, only to have the Cubs lose 1-0 or something.  Look at Game 1 of the NLDS where the Cardinals touched him early, and he pitched solidly into the eighth inning, only to let another run or two slip through at the end.  The numbers do not represent the full picture.  However, his batting average is terrible, and he knows it.  When he got his first hit of the season after 80 some at bats, he tweeted that .031 never felt so good.  Everyone got super congratulatory in a mock way and it was hilarious.

Kyle Hendricks: A-

Hendricks may not have had a more impressive season than Lester (even if his record looks better), but for what he delivers, for the price, and the expectations, he gets a boost.  He was 8-7 with a 3.95 ERA.  Solid.  And he threw 180 innings.  (And I may have been a bit generous giving him an A last year--but he proved himself over the length of the season this year.)

Anyways, Kyle Hendricks earned $510,000 in 2015.  You want to know how much Lester earned?
Not quite 40 times as much, but you get my point.
Maybe Hendricks deserves an A and Lester deserves a B.
I don't hate people for having money (that much), and I think Lester is a good dude and I'm glad he's on our team, but man, when you get paid that much, doesn't it lead to some kind of complex when you compare yourself to Hendricks?
Like, Hendricks is DAMN WELL earning every fucking penny that he's getting paid.
It's hard to justify yourself getting paid $20,000,000 a season unless you compare yourself to Jay Cutler or Derrick Rose or, now, Jimmy Butler.  But Lester is on that level, and he's locked up for a long time, and he's basically the big veteran dude that is going to anchor the rotation.  I don't think anybody (except me) guessed that Jake would overtake him as the ace apparent and obvious choice for the Wild Card game.
You know how much Jake made last year?
This year he made about $3,600,000.  I'd say he's fairly paid.
And you know what--a lot of players and agents and shit need to look at Jake and be like, yes, he is fairly paid.  He doesn't deserve to get paid $20,000,000 a year even if he's the greatest pitcher of the 21st century (for which the 2nd half of 2015 makes a strong case).  Nobody deserves $20M.
There needs to be a dramatic restructuring of inflated salaries across the sports and entertainment industries.  Sadly, that's a laughable proposal.
I know Jake's going to get a lot more, and I'd say he deserves $10M.  All I know is, if I was making $20M, I'd feel like the luckiest guy on earth.  I'd be generous with everyone and would spend money to try to make myself happy and would not be wary of it running out.  What I mean is, I would not allow myself to get depressed because of lack of money.  I believe that a lot of depression comes out of lack of financial options or feelings of hopelessness and inability to advance.  There might be another sort of depression that comes from feeling you are not performing at the level you should for the amount you are being paid, but all I'm saying is, it's a thing man.  It's a thing.  You get the big contract, and your motivation to perform just gets sapped, because you're locked in.  You can be like Jay Cutler ($22.5M, though honestly I think all the hatred inflicted on him is half absurdist--people use him as a scapegoat on a surreal level--and he's not that bad--though for 16 games that really is gross overpayment).  Or you could be like Marian Hossa ($7.9M) and just be awesome.
End rant.

Jason Hammel: B+

Technically, if Hendricks is getting an A-, then so should Hammel, because his numbers look better: 10-7 with a 3.74 ERA.  I don't know why I ding him except that I presume he's getting paid more and because I just didn't feel quite as confident when he was going to the mound.  Maybe it's this: Hendricks still pretty much felt like a rookie this year and there is no telling how much higher he might go.  Hammel wasn't graded last year because he ended up on the A's, but he had better numbers last year, surprisingly.  I think he turned in a very solid respectable performance this year but I just don't know where he belongs.  I guess I ding him because his postseason performance left a bit to be desired.  Overall though, I believe he should stay a part of the rotation.  There are four solid starters on this team--it just remains to be seen who will be #5....

Hector Rondon: A-

Rondon is the closer.  We know our closer and that's what matters.  He only got 30 saves (and it appears there were 34 save opportunities--4 blown saves is not a good stat) but the Cubs probably won too many games by more than 3 (or 4 or whatever that rule is).  He had an awesome ERA of 1.67 and somehow got a record of 6-4 (though I know we shouldn't put too much stock in the records of relief pitchers).  69 strikeouts in 70 innings, and kept his opponents' average at .212.  He also brought the emotion--as closers must do--whenever he got the winning out.  You need a closer that gets excited for the team.

Pedro Strop: B+

By contrast, look at Pedro Strop.  My mom often complained about him and worried when he came in, but apart from his record, he looks pretty close to Rondon.  His ERA is a bit higher at 2.91, but that's still pretty good (for a reliever).  He struck out 81 in 68 innings and kept opposing hitters at .167.  So yeah, he was good.  He gets dinged because I trust my mom.  He probably deserves an A- as well, because I gave him a B+ last year too, and I think he did improve slightly.

Justin Grimm: A-

Grimm was pretty much their go-to middle relief guy (Grimm in the 7th, Strop in the 8th, Rondon in the 9th, if memory serves) and he had a better year that last year, which was very good anyways.  His ERA was a sparkling 1.99 and he kept opposing hitters to .178.  He didn't lead the team in appearances again--and he only had 49.2 innings pitched total.  He pitched 20 more innings last year, but his ERA was also nearly 2 runs higher.

I guess Neil Ramirez is still on the team (he pitched in 19 games and had respectable numbers) and Clayton Richard actually performed well down the stretch and pitched perfectly in the playoffs, but I don't really know what to say.  I always get kind of exhausted writing these report cards by the time I get to the relievers.  Basically Clayton Richard is as good as the other three main guys listed above (Rondon, Strop and Grimm), and if Ramirez returns and pitches well, I think you've got a very solid bullpen here indeed.  Zac Rosscup.....he might be a step down, maybe a "B," but there are no total disasters on this team.  There is nobody for which I want to say, "He must go."

Many will stay, but a few inevitably will have to go.  We didn't get quite as close as we did in 2003, but this felt like a more exciting year.  The difference is, most of the same pieces will be in play next year, and we can still do better...

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