Friday, November 12, 2010

The Cubs Offseason Plans

Now that we have covered the Cubs managerial hiring (and it looks like most of you agreed with me), it's time to  look at the on-field product we can expect in our Cubs future.  I think we can all agree that the Cubs are going nowhere fast.  As we have seen from the past few World Series champs/contenders (minus the Yankees), home grown talent is the key to victory, as is adding the right, low priced veterans.  So then we ask, "Oh hey, do the Cubs fit that situation?"  Anyone can answer that question with a resounding no.  For the upcoming 2011 season, they have $102 million dedicated to just nine players. Nine. Which would be great if those players were named Albert Pujols, Evan Longoria, and Cliff Lee, but they aren't.  Those players are actually named Carlos Silva, Alfonso Soriano, and Carlos Zambrano.  But then don't the Cubs have a great farm system with young talent ready to burst into the league? Nope. The Cubs prize prospect was pitcher Jeff Samardzija, but he has disappointed so far and is overpaid himself.  Josh Vitters is coming along much slower than desired and the best thing to come out of their system has been SS Starlin Castro, who wasn't really supposed to be anything.

Despite their already high payroll and reduced expectations, the North Siders do need to fill out their roster for the 2011 season.  The current positions of greatest need look to be first base, the bullpen, and the starting rotation.  A backup catcher is needed, but is not a priority.  Let's discuss first base, as this is the biggest, and really only, hole (there has to be a better way to say that).  Despite his status as a fan favorite, Derek Lee underperformed over his 6 years in Chicago. His last productive season was in 2005, when the Cubs finished under .500 and 4th in the NL Central.  He also has been one of the many Cubs who failed in every aspect in high stress situations (read: the playoffs).  So I was not sorry to see him go, but now he needs replacing.  First base requires power at the plate first and foremost, followed by competency in the field and maybe getting on base now and then.  The Cubs current source of power, Soriano and Aramis Ramirez, are wildly inconsistent.  What does all this mean?  The Cubs need a consistent 1B power hitter who won't fold under pressure.  There are only a handful of players in the MLB who fit that role and none of them are available in free agency (and dammit Tigers fans, you have one of them).

There are, however, first baseman available to get the Cubs through their current downswing.  The most talk is of Adam Dunn, who has spent time in Cincinnati and Washington and has serious power.  However, he is a defensive liability and will not come cheap.  Cubs owner Tom Ricketts has already stated that there would be no increase in payroll for the 2011.  I think an Adam Dunn signing would scream mid-2000's Cubs, throwing too much money at the best free agent out there (Alfonso Soriano, anyone?)  With a switch in managers, I think that Jim Hendry has this year to prove that he can continue to be the Cubs GM.  While I would like to see him go regardless, a season of good decisions will probably save his job.  Adam Dunn is not someone you want to sign to a long term deal, so you would be looking at 3-4 years at maybe $15-$17 million a year. That is too much for a team that is transitioning (or should be).  Another option being discussed (at least on the blogosphere) is a trade and long term sign of Adrian Gonzalez.  He has been at the center of the Padres offense for the past few seasons and it would be exciting to see what he could do with a competent lineup.  While he only has one year left on his current deal, the Padres will still demand a nice prospect package to compliment their young and rising pitching staff.  While getting Adrian Gonzalez and locking him up for the prime of his career would be fantastic, I don't think the Cubs can pull it off. They just don't have enough talent in their system to pull a trade like that off without giving up what little pitching talent they have.  It would take Hendry becoming very creative with the small stockpile of middle infield talent that is in the farm system.  The remaining options look like an Adam LaRoche/Carlos Pena type - guys who can mash, but have trouble making contact and strike out at a high rate (this is also Adam Dunn). However, they are both better defensively and will definitely cost less. They could also move Tyler Colvin to first, as the Cubs outfield is pretty crowded, but I want more power out of my first baseman. My choice here would be Carlos Pena.  He did have a down year, but I like what he can do defensively and his down contract year means less money for a shorter time.  The Cubs last year really lacked a guy who could come up with the big HR, and Pena can provide that.  He also comes from a clubhouse that has been to the World Series and can maybe provide some looseness in the clubhouse along with Quade.  His ability to hit compared to what it will cost to get him makes him the best choice.

As for the next supposed biggest need, I don't know what to say.  The bullpen on any team is always such a crapshoot. Spending more that $10 million total on a bullpen is, in my opinion, a mistake.  Despite their struggles last season, the Cubs actually found a few pieces in their pen that work.  Whether that lasts is another question.  Carlos Marmol had a solid season, posting better numbers better than his career average (1.18 WHIP, the most important stat for relievers) and grabbing 38 saves for a sub-.500 team.  Sean Marshall has proven himself a useful long reliever for the past 3 or 4 seasons.  Andrew Cashner showed flashes of competence and guys like James Russell and Justin Berg finished the season strong.  So, I would just like to see the bullpen kept the way it is. I know I said that the bullpen needed looking at, but that is just what people are saying.  The only time the Cubs should get a solid relief man is if they actually are in contention.  The only guy I would like to see signed is Kerry Wood, because he means a lot to the organization, he's a class act, and he may take a very nice hometown discount.

The Cubs could also use another starting pitcher.  However, there is not really that much out there.  Cliff Lee is obviously the prize pickup, but there is no way the Cubs will outbid the Yankees or the Rangers for his services.  The rest of the field looks pretty bleak, with names like Jon Garland, Andy Pettitte, Carl Pavano, and Aaron Harang.  Pavano is interesting because of his solid 2010, but the odds of him repeating that are not good.  He will also probably be priced too high, as the modern MLB way overpays mediocre pitching.  I name I like is Javier Vazquez.  He was very disappointing with the Yankees last season, but he had a 2.87 ERA over 219 innings pitched with the Braves, an NL team.  If the Cubs can get him for a fair price, I'd like to take a chance on him.  He is probably past his prime, but he could probably eat some innings as the Cubs number 4 guy.  The Cubs 2011 rotation looks to be Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster, Randy Wells (who I think could have a bounceback 3rd year), Tom Gorzelanny (who could be moved to the pen), and Carlos Silva.  I want Silva gone as there is no way there is anything left in the tank.  They also have Casey Coleman and possible Andrew Cashner to rotate between starting and the pen. Vazquez should be able to fit in to the rotation as well as anyone.

In the end, the Cubs should be setting themselves up for a good 2013 season.  By this time, a large chunk of their bad contracts will be ending or in their final season and guys like Geovany Soto, Starlin Castro, and Tyler Colvin are the leaders of the team, both in the clubhouse and in all the stats.  If the Cubs are serious about trading for a guy like Adrian Gonzalez, they will also need to talk/play up some of their mid-level prospects, especially the middle infielders.  The 2011 season is all about installing a new attitude in the Friendly Confines.  Tom Ricketts wants to make changes to the field and the farm system, smartly putting less money into bad players and more into scouting and development.  For the first time since the Cubs choked in the 2003 NLCS, there aren't high expectations heading into a season.  But if the Cubs follow the plan that I (and many others) have laid out, there should be a brighter future on the North Side.  Who know, maybe Ozzie Guillen will be dead by then (or at least out of baseball).

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Mike Quade was the right choice

Hopefully at some point I'll talk about current or upcoming sports issues. But there are some things that happened to my favorite teams in the past month or so that I really should discuss. Today, it is the hiring of Mike Quade as Cubs manager, which will hopefully lead to some talk on the Cubs of the near future.

In their current state, the Cubs are going nowhere. Nowhere, nowhere, nowhere.  And, of course, it kills me to say that.  They are riddled with bad contracts and have a pretty weak farm system. They are also in a division with 2 teams that are considerably better.  The Cardinals have Albert Pujols and a superior rotation and the Reds are a rising franchise with great young talent (though they carry the albatross that is Dusty Baker). They have already made a few moves in the right direction personnel-wise prior to hiring a manager.  Parting ways with Derek Lee was a good choice, as was trading away inexplicable fan favorite Ryan Theriot (Tigers fans, think Brandon Inge without the HR's and maybe a few less strikeouts).  It was a bummer to part with Ted Lilly, but he only has a few more good seasons in which the Cubs would be lucky to make the playoffs.  The Cubs did find a budding young star in SS Starlin Castro, a potential OF leader in Tyler Colvin, and still have a great closer in Carlos Marmol.  Catcher Geovany Soto is taking steps in the right direction and Blake DeWitt is a serviceable young 2B.

Leading up to the Cubs managerial hiring, many people were asking me what I though about the candidates for the job.  I narrowed down to 4 people, although my favorite was not one of them.  The one most were talking about was Ryne Sandberg, he of Cubs second base legend. I was lucky enough to see the end of his career growing up and can appreciate what he meant to the franchise.  I was also happy to see the Cubs give him the chance to manage in their farm system.  However, I felt like the choice was only fueled by his status as a fan favorite.  The Cubs fanbase are one of the dumber fanbases in the MLB (along with you Tigers fans, sorry).  Many Cubs fans were willing to have a former Cub pulled in front of their eyes and then call it a day.  This thought blows my mind.  How can you think that manager's popularity could lead to wins?  By hiring a former Cub, aren't you embracing a player that was part of a franchise that last won a World Series 4 years before the Titanic sank?

Joe Girardi was another much talked about option, but again, for poor reasons.  You can talk about his title with the Yankees all you want, but then ask yourself, what did Joe Girardi have to do with it?  He is an overrated manager that won with the most talented team in the league.  He makes poor managerial decisions and doesn't have a successful track record with bad teams.  Eric Wedge was also mentioned, but I would not want any part of a manager that blew it time after time with one the the most talented teams of the early to mid 2000's, the Cleveland Indians.

Before I discuss why I like Mike Quade, I want to present my personal choice for the Cubs skipper - Bob Brenley, who is currently the TV color man. I love listening to his insights on the game of baseball and his understanding of the Cubs organization.  He led the Diamondbacks to the 2001 World Series title in what was the most exciting WS in my memory.  I feel he would bring a lot to the table and help the Cubs forget able their losing ways.

Now onto Mike Quade.  The Cubs needed a man who could effectively transition the team and help them forget about the recent past failures and the pressure they have to win.  They also need someone to develop the young talent that they do have.  Quade fulfills both of these requirements.  As he was leaving, Lou Pinella admitted that the enormous pressure on the Cubs to win a World Series led to a lot of his failures as a coach. This was very evident in both of the Cubs early exits from the playoffs as well as the cashing in of the 2010 season.  Quade, although from the Chicagoland area, is mostly immune to the Cubs franchise and as a new MLB manager, is fairly carefree.  This attitude should help loosen up the clubhouse, especially for those players that have been in the organization for a while.  He also has spent a long amount of time coaching in the minors (about 20 years worth) and can help Castro, Colvin, and Soto step up to the next level.  Quade's only real flaw seems to be that, like Stan Sitwell, he suffers from alopecia and can't grow hair.

If anything, Quade will, for the first time in a decade, bring lowered expectations into the Wrigley Field clubhouse.  If these two years don't work out recordwise, they won't really have lost anything.  The development of young talent while we wait for all the bad contracts to expire is the most important thing on the North Side and Mike Quade is the right man for the job. If he can continue the way he ended last season, it could be a good season for the Cubbies.

Monday, November 1, 2010

On the Michigan-Penn St. Game

Before I leave for Florida for a few days, I want to touch on the state of the Michigan football.  Many people, including myself, felt very confident going into the Penn St. game in Happy Valley.  Michigan was coming off a bye week, so any lingering injuries should be healed up.  The Lions were, and are still are, having a down year.  There offensive line was being compared to Michigan's 2008 line, which many Wolverine fans will remember as one of the worst in school history.  The offense was being led by a walk-on quarterback, and the backups were freshmen.  The usually vaunted defense at Linebacker U was down and riddle with injuries.  Even star player Evan Royster was having a poor year.  With the year Denard Robinson was having, I figured that no matter how badly the D played against a weakened PSU team, the offense would be able to make up the points an then some, giving the Blue a fairly easy win.  As we know, I was pretty wrong about that and like all UM fans, I have some fairly major concerns with the state of this team.

I have stood by Rich Rodriguez since he got here, which admittedly was easier since I have really only been a Michigan fan since I came here as a student in 2006.  While I am a fan of pro-style, smashmouth Big Ten football, I knew that the spread offense that RichRod would bring would be very exciting.  Being told and understanding that we need the right players and that those right players were definitely not in the system.  I sat through my junior and senior year, waiting patiently for the promised offense to scored at will.  It was disappointing to miss out on 2 years of bowl games, but the hope for future teams seemed to make up for that.

After starting off the 2010 year well against subpar talent and seeing the emergence of a future Big Ten star, the losses to MSU and Iowa were frustrating, but both teams were better and older than us.  Even coming into the season, we knew the defense would be bad, really bad.  I knew very little about Greg Robinson except for his bad head coaching stint at Syracuse, but I figured he was just in that category of good coordinator and bad head coach.  So now here is where I state my issues with this team.

The single most troubling thing for me is the lack of preparation for this game coming off of a bye week. I had stated earlier this season that it had looked that we didn't seem to prepare for an opponent, especially for MSU.  Maybe I don't know enough about the spread offense, but I know that the heart of football, any football, is the execution of a set gameplan, then adjusting at halftime depending on what the opponent is showing.  The play I love to see them run is when DRob tucks it for a second, takes 2 hard steps to the line of scrimmage, and then hits a slanting wideout for a 15+ yard gain.  Setting this up is key, of course, which requires a few carries from Robinson and maybe a quick slant to Roundtree.  However, their tendency to run Vincent Smith up the gut, especially on short yardage situations, has quickly grown frustrating, especially with Stephan Hopkins proving himself worthy and the pure talent of Robinson.  I do not expect the offense to score on every play, that would be completely ridiculous.  But Michigan is a team that needs to score first and put pressure on the other team's offense.  UM's defense, which I will get to later, simply does not allow them to be able to get back into games when they are down by more than 2 scores.  This has been the case for the last 2, now 3 games.  Something needs to change on their first drive.

So now the defense.  I actually found myself not getting frustrated with them against PSU, or at least not as frustrated as I probably should have been. Frustration for me comes when a team plays below it's level of talent.  While coaching is mostly to blame, there is no doubt that the talent on this defense, outside of Mike Martin, is MAC level.  However, those responsible for that talent are the ones we really have to blame as I said.  Defense, in my opinion, relies on positioning and energy.  Coaching is directly responsible for the first and partially responsible for the second, more than you would think.  College players are different that NFL players in the sense that there is need for energy to come from coaches.  Many of the best college defenses today, such as Alabama, have a youngish DC that can fire their defense up before each series.  That excitement that a DC can give his D is a major piece in recruiting defensive talent.  Greg Robinson provides neither expertise (or competency) in running a defense during a game, nor the energy his team needs to come out with that killer attitude.  Did anyone catch RichRod going berserk in the defensive huddle right before they made 1 of their 2 defensive stops?  That was needs to happen throughout the game.  The talent is an issue, a big one at that.  But what makes a good coach? Doing the most with the least.  Robinson basically admitted after the game that Cullen Christian, a true freshman, was in the game just to see what worked.  A bye week and a poor first half, along with the poor performance this whole season, needs to lead to some change in the defense. They are being continuously shredded by the same play.  I can understand getting beat downfield.  The secondary is pretty slow.  But the TE/large WR drag across the field that goes for 10 yards is unacceptable.  I lost count how many times PSU ran this against us and got a first down.

As for what happens next, wow, I don't know.  I was so sure of a victory against the Nitany Lions that it's hard to make rational decisions, but here it goes.  Even though there are a few D recruits for him, Robinson needs to be let go. His methods are useless and he shown no means of improvement.  UM needs to clean house on the defensive staff side and to go to Alabama or the equivalent and grab a defensive assistant, preferably a linebackers coach. But that really can't happen until the season ends.  With one win needed for bowl eligibility and their head coach's job at stake, Blue needs to come out with the killer attitude that has been missing since the Notre Dame game.  Illinois is a winnable game considering the Denard factor and Purdue is downright awful this year.  The parallels between the 2009 and 2010 are haunting, but can be fixed if Michigan can find that will to dominate.  Stephen Hopkins needs to start or at least see the majority of the snaps.  Smith is not the team's best back and it's obvious Shaw isn't healthy, even though we have been told otherwise.

I will be at the Big House on Saturday hoping for change, but cheering on the Maize and Blue none the less.  For now, it's off to see the launch of Space Shuttle Discovery.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Note About This Blog

As I sit here on another NFL Sunday in what is arguably the best time of the sports year, I feel as if I need to start writing about sports for the public, if just for my own sanity.  The boredom of post-graduate unemployment will get the best of any person. I have no journalism background, save that A- I got in high school rhetoric.  But I think I can handle a bit of sports writing, even if it is just opening my brain onto the page.  After all, it's not rocket science, and believe me, I actually know rocket science.

I hope my all-encompassing love of sports will come out in every post.  My goal is to discuss sports through my favorite teams.  The bad news for all of us is that my favorite, the one I live and die by, is the Chicago Cubs.  Luckily, I'll also mention some things about the Blackhawks and the Bulls, and maybe some Bears on the pro level.  Collegiately, I am a Michigan Man.  I'd like to think that I have a great passion for the football team, even through the tough time we are in now.  I do credit Michigan for giving me a deep love for hockey (yes, you , Wings fans). I also want to talk about some of the off-the-field issues that surround sports, like the idiocy of EPSN or the LeBron saga.

I encourage you all to comment frequently.  Hopefully I will be checking the comments on a daily basis and may even start a new conversation with a post based off quality comments. Also, never be afraid to disagree with me.  Those who know me know that I am most passionate when my thoughts are challenged. On the most part, I am open to all arguments and love hearing about an issue in another light.  I leave you with this picture, because it is what made my summer and is also my man crush with the best trophy in sports.