Monday, September 30, 2019

Chicago Cubs 2019 Season

They have not been mathematically eliminated (as of September 23) [Ed. It happened on 9/25], but it is time to write the obituary for the 2019 Cubs. The one game I attended was on Thursday, September 19 against the Cardinals. Frankly, this was probably the best game to be at, in terms of being there to see important things happen, and hopefully good ones.

They were not good things. They were terrible things. 

In a 4-game series where we hoped to creep up, keep pace, or even eclipse the first place Cardinals (2 games up on the morning of 9/19), where we needed to win at least 3 out of 4, we got swept, and the season is over. We were excited to have the chance to prove we deserved to be in the postseason, moreso than either the Brewers, Nationals and Cardinals. All season long up until the end of August, nobody would have said any of those teams were better than the Cubs. This was a straight up collapse. I have never, in my life, seen a 4 game series that has reversed their fortunes so dramatically (the NLDS sweeps by the Diamondbacks and Dodgers were only 3 games each).


I think now (9/24) mathematical elimination has occurred. So now it is time to take inventory of many things. Instead of grading all of the players, we will comment on the most notable, and situate them within their own context. 

Craig Kimbrel: Overrated

I was consistently amazed by the voices that came to his defense every time he blew another game. He may be a future Hall of Famer but it will not be due to his work with this team (this year, at least). He signed a "bargain" $43 million 3-year contract, but really it's a 2.5 year contract, and he should pay back the fans the $14.3 million he earned for the 20.2 largely ineffective innings pitched (or is that prorated, and is that why Ben Zobrist's inactivity allowed this to happen?). Blowing the game in a non-save situation on 9/19 was bad. We should have won that game. He shouldn't have been used in a non-save situation. I have not seen him do well in that role, so that could at least make sense. But then there were the back-to-back pitches on 9/21 that were launched into the bleachers. If I was at that game, I might have risked a lifetime ban from Wrigley for running out onto the field, a la my 7th grade basketball coach's brother with Randy Myers back in the mid-90s. He didn't blow the whole season. He really didn't. He just blew 2 of the most crucial must-win games of the season. What happened on 9/21 really was the death blow for the 2019 season.

Suggestion: Use a different GnR song to run out to in non-save situations. "Sweet Child O 'Mine" does not properly capture the atmosphere of the scenario.

Tyler Chatwood: Underrated

People were complaining about how much he was going to be paid for 5 years last year, myself included. Compared to HoF-er Kimbrel, he could hardly ever be blamed. It's not like I'm able to watch every inning of every game. I rate players (this year) on a highly unscientific system based on my sense memory impressions of how often I remember them f---ing things up. I can hardly remember any times Tyler did that this year. He shouldn't have been removed on 9/21 and he should have been used on 9/19. I'm so happy for him for how he turned it around. Baseball is a strange game so I hope there is no reversal next year.

Highlight: 3 inning save on 8/4/19; heroic performance on 4/29/19; another game I can't remember when he pitched like 3-4 scoreless extra innings sometime in April or May (5/17/19?)

Nicholas Castellanos: Accurately Rated

Castellanos is this year's Cole Hamels. You have to sign him this off-season, for at least 1 or 2 years. His performance in the month of August was remarkable. Somehow he did not win Player of the Month or any Player of the Week awards but anyone who watched this team knows that he was by far the most explosive player of that month. Before the implosion that began on 9/17 (one week ago!) he was the sparkplug of the team. Baez went down but Castellanos was there to soften the blow, and Nico Hoerner came up and performed about as well as anyone could have expected. True, Castellanos got shut down just as often as the rest of the offense got shut down, but in at least a few of those games, he provided the only runs or hits. He is basically one of the greatest hitters of doubles in history. Do not let him slip away. I heard someone (I think on 670 The Score) say that he was "one-dimensional." Ostensibly this is because he's not a "plus" defensive player and doesn't possess particularly blazing speed and is only "really good" at hitting right-handed pitching. I don't buy any of that. Sometimes people are just meant to be in certain places, and will flourish when they find themselves there. Castellanos has been at his best (since high school, if we are to believe his brother) on the Cubs and if they want to seriously compete over the next couple years, they will do well to keep him here. (Unfortunately, his agent is Scott Boras. I don't think Castellanos is a greedy dude--he said as much, and that he hates thinking of baseball as a business--but Boras does.)

Highlight: Crying during radio interview after hearing Joe Maddon praise him.

Steve Cishek: Overrated (and overused)

One of the few pitchers firmly entrenched within Joe Maddon's circle of trust, Cishek is hailed by many as the most consistent reliever. He has a "rubber arm." He made a ton of appearances. I do not think he was nearly as effective as he was in 2018. I wouldn't say he was terrible, and I wouldn't say he was the best reliever. He may have blown more games than Craig Kimbrel. I do not think Joe was right to trust him as often as he did. Relievers are notoriously unpredictable on a year-to-year basis (see the trainwreck that was Brandon Kintzler down the stretch in 2018 vs. the 2019 Rolaids Relief man version of the same person) so I would bet on Cishek next year. If he was a little down from his 2018 self in 2019, perhaps he will be a little up in 2020.

Lowlight: Walking in winning run on 4 pitches on 9/10/19.

Javier Baez: Accurately Rated

Javy had a weaker 2019 than 2018. He won't be finishing 2nd in the NL MVP race (that would be last year's winner, whose recent absence seems to have emboldened his teammates). That said, his thumb fracture appeared to be the first death knell of the season. Yet it wasn't. When he improbably appeared as a pinch runner on 9/19, the crowd chanted his name, and he eventually scored. But then Kimbrel blew it. And then on 9/21, because Kimbrel blew it, he was brought into pinch hit as the true last ditch effort of the season. It was quite thrilling to hear Len Kasper say, "David Bote is next, but he's leaving the on deck circle, and wait, it's Javier Baez!" He proceeded to strike out on 3 pitches, but it was unmistakably an iconic moment, regardless of the unfortunate result. 

Highlight: Every tag, every extra base taken, every stolen base, every clutch hit buoyed by the chanting of his name.

Cole Hamels: Accurately Rated

Hamels was the blockbuster move of 2018, the move that should have vaulted them safely into the postseason. (Their overall 2018 performance looks pretty good right now; the Brewers have been something else entirely these past two Septembers.) Hamels started off the year in outstanding fashion, and slowly appeared to fade around the All Star break. He was a borderline selection. I believe he was injured at the time. He was good enough to make that team, basically. He went through a number of minor injuries. He has basically reverted back to the Texas Rangers version of himself at present. I do not think he will be re-signed. However, I would certainly consider him a viable option, in a role similar to that of the one John Lackey played in 2016/2017. I personally hope very much that "Hollywood" returns.

Bryzzo: Accurately Rated

Do. Not. Break. Them. Up.

Highlight: Rizzo coming out to the Undertaker's walk-up music batting leadoff against the Cards on a sprained ankle on 9/19/19; Kris Bryant, after game-winning grand slam against the Cards on 5/6/19: "This is the type of baseball that's super fun to be a part of."

Kyle Schwarber: Underrated 

A lot of people do not think Schwarber will be on the Cubs in 2020. Of course I can't be blind to reality, but I can fight against it. So I'll make the case for keeping him. Yeah, I'll be the first to admit, he's going to be a much more valuable component to an American League team. And where do you keep him here--Left Field forever? He did volunteer to catch again when the Cubs needed to get both Martin Maldonado and Jonathan Lucroy for separate injuries to Willson Contreras. But you have to assume he is your everyday starting left fielder. Then (if I am the architect of this team) you have Nick Castellanos in right, and Jason Heyward in center. That is not his natural position but it is just going to have to become that. (This may be a minor reason that most people don't believe KS or NC will be retained.) Maybe you can platoon him and J-Hey and NC in left and right, and have a more natural center fielder, an honest to God leadoff hitter in the mold of Dexter Fowler. The infield, well, you have Bryant, Baez, Hoerner, and Rizzo and Contreras. Tough to top that unless you had Whit Merrifield. But you don't. As for Schwarber, I think there was a truly observable marked improvement in his performance, and it was definitely his best year, apart from his abbreviated and heroic performances in 2015 and 2016. He led the team in homers. His OBP was actually 20 points higher last year but his OPS is 40 points higher (slugging 60 points higher). He played in slightly fewer games last year, but also has 30 more RBI this year. Look, they can take or leave Schwarber. He'll be an attractive piece in a deal with an AL team. But I'm nostalgic and while the window is still open for another year or two, I keep him until his free agent year, retain the core that made the 2016 story so good, so that the sequel could be even better. You've got to keep the guys together. But does that include....

[Highlight: 13 pitch at bat ending with home run on 5/17/19.]

Addison Russell: Accurately Overrated

I don't think so. Not unless he pledges 50% of his 2020 salary towards domestic violence prevention (after his children and their mothers are provided adequate support). Because look, he is a good shortstop. He's a good #8 hitter. He's good with Baez as a double play combo. But Baez has evolved into a shortstop and Nico Hoerner has emerged. I believe the Cubs have made good on their pledge to help be part of the solution, rather than the problem. I do think the team's support was enormously helpful for his personal and professional growth. Had he been summarily dismissed, the Cubs would get cred for being "woke" but that's about it. I think they played that element reasonably well. Unfortunately Addison's production didn't win him many more fans back. Or rather, he didn't win many of his critics over. Russell's story will likely play out elsewhere....let us hope it doesn't turn into a Jorge Soler/Eloy Jimenez/Gleyber Torres/Dylan Cease-type situation. Those guys were prospects but Russell is still only 25.

Willson Contreras: Underrated 

A lot of people seem to think Willson is also firmly on the block, and a very desirable addition to any team. Nobody thinks Willson is bad. Willson is the only one that thinks Willson is bad. He is notoriously hard on himself and plays with more passion than anyone else on the team. He is a good defensive catcher and an excellent offensive catcher. People have said he is not good at pitch framing or blocking balls or something (I don't think anyone says he's not good at throwing out baserunners; he is probably the best at pickoffs). I've heard people say they're going to go after Yasmani Grandal. I'm sure he's a very good player too, but how is he an upgrade over Willson? If they want to restock their minor league talent pipeline, they can unload him, but if they want to win in 2020, I don't see why you let a good thing go. In a season marred by injuries, he still put up excellent numbers. 

Jason Heyward: Accurately Rated

I don't think he'll ever be the player they "thought they were getting," but he looked more like that guy in this year than any other. Most people seem to think the team will dump his salary if they are able, and I wouldn't bet on that. Most importantly, he just turned 30, and while he's not quite as exciting  as and doesn't have as high a ceiling as he did in the early 20-teens, he has steadily improved each year with the Cubs. (Technically his batting average was higher last year but I think many would take this one over last--and many would also rate him as a league-average-player.) 

Highlight: Admitting to Rizzo in a post-game locker room interview that he felt blessed to have his body; posting Instagram pic of said body from his boat (tie; both after game-winning performances).

Pedro Strop: Overrated 

As much as I love Pedro Strop, and as much as I hope they will sign him to a 1 year contract, if I am saying Cishek and Kimbrel are overrated, I have to say he is also overrated, for the two or three games he blew. On the longview, without looking at any stats (as I'm trying to do with most of this) I seem to remember him having an excellent first half and a very disappointing 2nd half. For his infectious clubhouse persona, he should be kept. I would hate for this to be the last chapter in his story.

Brad Wieck/Rowan Wick: Accurately Underrated

The two non-John Wicks were the two biggest secret weapons in the Cubs bullpen. Rowan was the more accomplished of the two. Let's be clear about something: the Cubs bullpen was pretty good, all things considered. It's true, they were terrible at the beginning of the year. A few of their players went away (Montgomery, Edwards Jr., Brach) and a few came in, and they were better. The Wick/Weick combo, like Bryzzo, cannot be broken up!

Highlight: When that guy thought Brad Wieck's 12-6 curve was going to hit him in the head and ducked down and then it fell perfectly into the strike zone.

Brandon Morrow: Unrated

Can we hate someone for being injured? Or can we just call their contract a waste. Make no mistake - I love Brandon Morrow. He will probably go down as my favorite Cubs player that almost never played (the Nomar era is ultimately somewhat forgettable). For the 25% of the length of his contract that he actually played, he was outstanding. Who knows what will happen to him. We could play the "what if" game on multiple levels. I don't think he'll be back on the Cubs. I do hope, however, that he hasn't yet given up on his career. I would love to see him come back next year and start a glorious third act to his career (kinda sucking for a long time, suddenly becoming a superstar reliever/closer [and injured as Cub], and ending as a serviceable master of the Hold).

Highlight: Injury from putting on pants (because I suffered the same injury on 7/4/18).

Ian Happ: Accurately Rated

Happ memorably led off the 2018 season with a home run out of the gate, then 3 strikeouts. He spent the first 3/4 of the season in AAA. Then he came up and was pretty solid. Why wasn't he more of a leadoff hitter? Too many strikeouts, perhaps, but he has been noticeably better about making the most of his at-bats this year. He's an above average player. He could totally become a 2019 Tommy La Stella (we still don't know if he's for real now, though). He screams "trade piece" along with Schwarber and Contreras and Bryant (please no). There's places he can play (CF, 2B) but I don't think he's inspired enough confidence to have the everyday starting job. He's still very young and 2020 will be a crucial year.

Highlight: "Ghosting is bad. Don't ghost. Just tell them what's wrong," on the Cubs YouTube channel.

Brandon "Salt" Kintzler: Underrated 

Terrible in 2018. Fantastic in 2019. Keep or drop? I say keep. Give him another year at $5MM. Pitchers in their 36th year can still be good. Give him Brandon Morrow's former role.

Highlight: None. Relievers don't get highlights. That's what sucks for them. Their highlight is not being hated.

Albert Almora Jr.: Underperformer

Even though his 358 plate appearances (including 80 in the leadoff spot) were far too many, according to certain podcasters, Almora brought everyone together this year. His walk up music, while hardly original, turned Wrigley Field into a 20,000 person karaoke event, and perhaps its closing refrain will be a bittersweet ode, as he may not be back again this time tomorrow. And while he inadvertantly caused a tragedy, his reaction revealed a depth of humanity rarely glimpsed in the world of sports. I have ALWAYS been afraid of getting hit by a foul ball. The prospect is truly terrifying. And something horrible had to happen in order for change to occur, but netting will be extended across both leagues, and games will be safer in the future. Almora should not be praised (nor held responsible) for this traumatic event, but the way he handled it was so honorable that the crowd at Wrigley Field gave him a standing ovation in his first plate appearance back home after the incident. He also has great hair and great style and he is still a good fielder (though some naysayers will call him out for a couple crucial errors). True, he doesn't play many positions other than center field---but was anyone complaining about him in the first half of 2018, when he briefly led the National League in hitting, or when he crucially tagged up on a fly out in Game 7 of the World Series? Almora probably should have spent about as much time in AAA as Ian Happ did this year (or as much as Kyle Schwarber did last year). I'm not sure what to do with him. I would still give him another chance at spring training next year. If he continues to struggle at the plate, then it may be time to move on. But he's a fan favorite, and I personally lean in the direction of keeping as many people from the 2016 team together as we can. 

Highlight: 15:1 ratio of spectacular catches to botched reads.

Ben Zobrist: Accurately Rated

People love Ben Zobrist in Chicago. He may retire. It would be really great if he signed a low cost 1 year contract a la David Ross and do a true farewell tour, uncomplicated by a devastating marital breakdown. His 2018 statistics were arguably the best in his career. This was obviously a weaker year for him. He deserves to go out on a higher note. Even if he doesn't, he can rest easy knowing that he was the World Series MVP for the Chicago Cubs.

Highlight: Suggesting to Joe Maddon that he be replaced by David Bote, leading to a triumphant game-winning hit on 4/29/19.

Daniel Descalso: Overrated (upon acquisition)

Just for that one semi-joke article showing through statistics that Daniel Descalso was a better situational hitter than Giancarlo Stanton. Stanton only played 18 games in 2019, and it would be interesting to see if he still did more than Descalso, who showed a brief flash of prowess at the beginning of the season, and promptly took a dive for the rest of the year. He was the big acquisition in the off-season and I'm just sorry it didn't work out better for all parties involved. 

Victor Caratini: Underrated

This one is easy. Totally underrated. He's gotten better every year. He's the ideal backup catcher. Nothing he is straight up bad at. No one expects backup catchers to be offensive forces and Caratini wasn't at first, for his first couple years, but this might be his breakout season. No longer an automatic out. 

Highlight: Two home runs off DeGrom on 8/30/19 while subbing for injured Rizzo at first base, sealing the sweep of the Mets.

Entire Team: Overrated and Underperforming and Rarely Boring

Overall: We should have been contenders. Before the monumental collapse, we looked very good. We destroyed Pittsburgh. Did anyone else notice those 3 games? That was insane. I was at riot fest all 3 days and I got the notifications from the Gameday App and I was like WTF! It's amazing to think of how the chips were down, and they needed to bring up Nico Hoerner and how he had performed! And it looked as if they might make it. But we know how it ended.

Oh and Joe Maddon is a Hall of Famer and I loved him since the minute they signed him. I was impressed by what he was able to do with the Rays and he did not disappoint here. I'm sorry to see him go but the relationship ended after 5 very successful years. Not everyone can be Bruce Bochy or Bobby Cox or Joe Torre. But he's every bit as great as them, and maybe better. I hope one day I get to meet him but our lives can be so busy, and he must have so many people trying to talk to him anyways. The third "big name" manager we've had in recent years (Dusty and Lou before him), he was the manager we always needed and the manager we deserved. Still think I would have made 2 bullpen decisions differently than him to avoid two losses this year, but 2 games wouldn't have made a difference this time. His witticisms will be missed: "Never let the pressure exceed the pleasure."

Oh and I know I forgot Jon Lester and Jose Quintana and David Bote and Kyle Ryan but they were all good. Sometimes up, sometimes down, and desirable overall (Kyle Ryan is an underrated pleasant surprise). We know two will be back, and I hope the other two are as well.


Top 5 Podcasts

(1) Cubs Related Podcast

Even though this podcast can't come close to the type of access that the Cubs Talk podcast has, both Corey and Brendan have established themselves as broadcasters and made a case for themselves as serious baseball minds that deserve to be paid to do what they do. Their personas play off each other fantastically. I mean, how amazing would it be to hear Corey interview Jon Lester? There could be no better time, as he prepares for his final contract year...

Highlight: "If Dante had written you and I into his inferno, I'm pretty sure this would be our ring of hell, where we're longing for tyler chatwood to come in and save us, as the bastion of command that he is." (4/5/19); "I fucking love Jon Lester." The Explicit Episode (9/27/19)

(2) Away Games Podcast

Kevin and Adam do not appear to have designs on a career in journalism, but they tend to read the room. They highlight how ridiculous it is to care about and follow this team, particularly as New York City transplants. Why not just root for the Yankees now? Of course that's blasphemy, but I know you have to throw SOME small measure of support behind the team of your adopted home (obviously, fuck the New York-See-You-Tomorrow-Mets*. Also, fuck Clint Hurdle). Corey and Brendan often delve into this from the opposite coast perspective but purely to diss the Dodgers. [Query whether we actually want the Dodgers to win the World Series to get it out of their system, or to get there again and fail again.] They harped on the same points (i.e. their hate for Addison Russell) but they also struck the perfect balance between analytics and dialectic verve. They cite some stats, but they don't overdo it. (Cubs Related uses more stats, but they also put an episode out after each series, which is probably the perfect frequency.) Once a week is not often enough that I'll skip an episode, which is why Locked on Cubs has slipped for me. I even skip a Cubs Related episode if I'm a day or two behind. I don't skip episodes of this. As long as they still care, I still care. It also helps that the episodes generally run between 30 and 45 minutes. One week of games can be a lot of material to cover but they always manage to hit the highlights. Consistently entertaining, they should be given a bundle of tickets each season, or have the Cubs sponsor a stand up showcase they curate (including a contractually-obligated Ryan Dempster cameo).

Highlight: Adam's WTF visit to Randy Rosario's house in the Dominican Republic shortly before Spring Training. 

(3) Cubs Talk Podcast

Call me crazy but it seemed like Luke Stuckmeyer took over the lion's share of hosting duties from Tony Andracki this season. He is probably slightly better because he is less wonky. I feel like you need to be a little wonky to be a sports journalist. Luke is a sports broadcaster. Writing about sports podcasts forces one to question the essence of what we consider "broadcast journalism." Of course, journalism is grounded in objectivity, even as we witness the gradual erosion of such foundational tenets. One must always consider the source. Obviously, sports journalism is strongly tinted by fandom. This is less problematic than in the realm of political reporting. Regardless, though this is NBC Sports, and though it must be scrubbed for explicit language, magic is often wrung out of these episodes. Who could forget Kelly Crull's preseason interview with Willson Contreras? It was often referenced to highlight his feelings on his second half performance in 2018, but I will remember him crying while talking about the political situation in Venezuela. (There may be no crying in baseball, but Castellanos, Contreras, and Almora prove the fallacy of that outdated truism.) 

Highlight: David Kaplan describing his near death experience; the Twitter feud between David Kaplan and Yu Darvish. 

(4) Wrigleyville Nation Podcast

I felt really embarrassed and s***ty for saying Jeremy sounded drunk on his show last year. He doesn't sound drunk. He sounds like drunk Kai Ryssdal. It took me a minute to understand this show. To know that his cousin is (almost) always high atop Wrigley. What does that mean? I wonder if he lives in a high rise along L.S.D. or if it means something else, because he certainly didn't say "down in the gutter" or something when the team was faltering. It is sort of the yin to Away Games yang: once a week, more informative and analytical than entertaining. Also keeps things fresh, as there is usually a 2nd guest as well.

(5) Locked on Cubs

Putting this in slot #5 (lower than last year) shouldn't be construed as a slight because this podcast fulfills a very distinct need: recaps after every game. I do lament the departure of Ryan Davis. Sean Sears is fine, but he does not have the same dry, sarcastic, straight up depressing and hilarious presence that Ryan had. So I will listen whenever he appears as a guest. 

Highlight: Blue Chew ad reads.

*Apologies to my dear friend Aaron James for this unfair dig at his team of choice. The Mets should not be hated for what the Cubs did to them in the second half. Better to say Fuck the Cards, or as Corey said, in an inspired moment, "We are going to let Mike Schlitt (sic) and his band of idiots from St. Louis win this division over my dead body. The Cardinals are so mediocre, it's disgusting that we are in this position, that some sub-90 win Cardinal team has a chance of winning the NL Central in this Cubs window. It cannot stand....don't let this evil disgusting Cardinals team managed by another one of those morons that they give a contract to and hire to run the team, do not let them win this division." 9/4/19