Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Theo the Savior

I'm going to try to post more frequently, like maybe once a week. This is one of the best times of the sports year,  so I need to do some thought sharing/ranting about what I know best (or at least pretend to). Let's start with the Chicago Cubs acquisition of Theo Epstein.

If you squint, you can see the halo
The Cubs are set to name the Boston Red Sox general manager to become their new president of baseball operations [EDIT: It just became official and was announced on Tuesday, during the off day of the fall classic).  Owner Tom Ricketts was out to make a big splash as a new GM, with names like Brad Pitt Billy Beane, Brian Cashman, and Andrew Friedman joining Theo at the top of the list to replace Jim Hendry, and it he has.  Let's pause here and talk about Jim Hendry for a second. He came into the season on very thin ice, his team riddled with bad contracts and underperforming players.  It was an odd ending for a man who started off his tenure very promising. He acquired Aramis Ramirez and Kenny Lofton in 2003, as well as few other moves that propelled to Cubs to their first playoff series win since 1945 (and withing 5 outs of the World Series, which makes my heart hurt to type).  He got Nomar Garciaparra (from Theo Epstein) in a deadline deal in 2004, which was a great move considering who he gave up.  This is where I believe things were taken out of his hands. Give a franchise that is so associated with losing a small taste of victory and they will give anything to get there again. I'm not trying to give Hendry a pass, but I think he was overpressured to add big names and free agent talent, like Alfonso Soriano.  Either way, it was clear the Hendry's time was done. The man I wanted for the job was Andrew Friedman, the GM of the Tampa Bay Rays.  His ability to scout and acquire young talent is the single most important impressive thing in today's MLB.  Teams like the Rangers, Rays, and Braves show the league how crucial it is to develop a farm system to continually feed players into the majors and acquire key veterans for a playoff push. Friedman showed he could do all that with a absurdly low payroll.

Theo is coming into a pretty dire situation.  Big paychecks, a weak farm system, and a lack of baseball fundamentals have killed the Cubs for the past few years.  My biggest issue with the Cubs, and what drives the losing, is a complete lack of identity and direction.  Think of the best teams and they all have a strategy; the Yankees pay for big bats, the Braves stress pitching, etc.  Look at this year's World Series teams, the Cardinals and the Rangers. The Cardinals use Tony LaRussa to overstrategize their way to wins, and have a number of dependable role players (and Albert Pujols doesn't hurt). The Rangers want pitchers who eat innings and a crazy strong lineup that is dangerous from top to bottom.  These teams both had front offices that said, "Here is my plan, let's build to it and not waver from that path."  The Cubs don't have that, which leads to only one identity-losing. Think of North Siders roster.  How would you say they built their team? What do they value? How do they plan to win games? These are all questions that must be answered for a team to contend.  And this isn't for just on the field stuff. What is the identity inside the clubhouse? When the BoSox won the Series in 2004, they had Kevin Millar and Johnny Damon leading their whole "Cowboy Up" thing. This past year, the Brewers had a goofy yet cocky attitude that carried them into the NLCS.  Epstein's first challenge is to establish a direction for this team.

I guess he was the best hitter ever
Theo will not actually be the GM for the Cubs, but will instead take on the role of "President of Baseball Operations." Basically, he will oversee everything, from the big league roster to the farm system, and be the man to set the direction of the franchise. Epstein will be bringing his former protege, Jed Hoyer, who had been the GM of the San Diego Padres.  What guys like Theo and Hoyer bring to a team is their understanding of sabermetrics.  For those who don't know, sabermetrics is a specialized, objective analysis of baseball, which was made most famous by Beane and "Moneyball".  They include stats like Batting Average on Balls In-Play (BABIP), which looks to identify over or underperforming players, or On-Base % plus Slugging % (OPS), which adds the ability to get on base to the ability to hit for power (a OPS over .900 is considered excellent).  One of my favorites is Wins Above Replacement, or WAR. This looks to see how many wins a team would get with a certain player over a "replacement level" player.  This gives an actual stat to how valuable a player is to his team. For example, the single season WAR for Babe Ruth in 192 was 14.7.  This means that if you replaced him with an average replacement player, your team would win 14.7 fewer games.  Sabermetrics are (for the most part) able to quantify scouts analysis like, "Great vision at the plate," or "He has game-changing speed." It is a great tool to build teams and analyze up and coming talent, especially in a sport that is as hit and miss as baseball.

Seid and I compared the situations that Theo came into to what he would be seeing in Chicago from a roster perspective.  How do the 2011 Cubs compare with the 2002 Red Sox?

C - CHC Geovanny Soto vs. BOS Jason Varitek: Statistically, the are very similar. We can use a metric we just learned about, OPS, and see that both catchers have essentially the same percentage.  Soto has more power, Varitek had a better  average.  From leadership and defense perspective, I will take Varitek. His work behind the plate and in the clubhouse is key to taking a team deep into the playoffs.

1B - CHC Carlos Pena vs. BOS Tony Clark: Both are lame duck players. Pena was exactly as advertised, leading the team in HR's and strikeouts, but was only on a one year contract. Clark was disappointing and was replaced by the likable Kevin Millar.  Between the 2, I would definitely choose Pena. 1B will be a big spot to fill, just as it was in 2002. Both Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder will be on the market, but will demand long and lucrative contracts. More on this later.

2B - CHC Darwin Barney vs. BOS Rey Sanchez: These players both have very similar stat lines-a .315 on-base % and low power numbers. Barney has better speed number and just finished his rookie season. I'd take Barney between the 2, but Sanchez was replaced by the underrated Todd Walker in 2003. There isn't a great market for second base, and I think Theo will see what he has in the youngster.

Help me Stari-Lin Kenobi, you're my only hope
SS - CHC Starlin Castro vs. BOS Nomar Garciaparra: This is a toss up, big time.  Castro is undoubtedly the Cubs best player, leading the MLB in hits at age 21.  He still has potential to grow into and has a bit of work to do on his defense. Garciaparra was in the prime of his career at this point, posting great all around numbers and doing it all for the BoSox.  If I'm making a run at a title in the next 2 years, I'd take the veteran Garciaparra.  In the Cubs case, Castro is perfect because he has so much ahead of him and has the chance to be the centerpiece for the next 15 years.

3B - CHC Aramis Ramirez vs. BOS Shea Hillenbrand: On the surface, ARam has better numbers. He lead the Cubs in slugging % last year. However, his numbers in the past few years have come once the Cubs are already out of the pennant race.  These players are pretty similar, with neither really standing out as great. Hillenbrand was replaced by Bill Mueller in 2003, which was a good move for the Red Sox. Ramirez has an expensive team option that can get picked up, which could go either way. The Cubs want to shed payroll, but there are no other options at 3B for 2012, unless prospect Josh Vitters is ready to go.

LF - CHC Alfonso Soriano vs. BOS Manny Ramirez: Oh my. This one is no contest. Ramirez was in the prime of his HOF career, while Soriano flouders under the weight of a huge contract and is the poster child for the Cubs underperformance.  Both have been rightfully accused of playing in their own little world, but Manny was still able to do amazing things. There is no situation where I take Soriano over ManRam.

CF - CHC Marlon Byrd vs. BOS Johnny Damon:  This one is another no-brainer IMO, and I'm going to go with Damon.  Both are great clubhouse guys, and I love watching Marlon play. I don't think I've seen a man enjoy the game of baseball as much as he does.  However, Damon's stats overcome that. Damon had great speed mixed with a bit of power that made him an ideal top of the order guy.

RF - CHC Tyler Colvin  vs. BOS Trot Nixon: The Cubs had a myriad of rightfielders in 2011, but Colvin will be the man that Theo will inherit.  He was unable to build on a nice rookie year and finished 2011 with  an OBP of .204 and only 6 HR. He did have a strongish end  to the year.   Nixon was considerably higher in all offensive  categories and was in the prime of his career.  I'd take Nixon if I'm building a playoff team, but Colvin could prove that he is worth something in  2012.

SP - CHC Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza, Randy Wells, Andrew Cashner, Carlos Zambrano vs. BOS Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe, John Burkett,  Frank  Castillo, Tim Wakefield: Theo got 2 fantastic pitchers in the primes of their careers in Martinez and Lowe. Both have sub-2.60 ERA's in 2002, while the Cubs didn't have a single man under 3.00.  Matt Garza had the lowest ERA with a 3.32 and also led in K's with 197. The rest had ERA's just south of 5.00, Cashner was injured for most of the year, and we all know what Big Z's deal is.  I won't even address the back half of the BoSox rotation, because that top-2 is great for a GM to build on, plus Tim Wakefield was a capable number 4 or 5 in 2002. Again, Boston's starters are the easy choice here, and it really isn't close.

CL - CHC Carlos Marmol vs BOS Ugueth Urbina: I'm not going to touch rest of bullpens, because those are always in flux. Urbina had 40 saves for the Red Sox, but wasn't anything special. Theo dumped him for Keith Foulke, and Urbina eventually went to jail for trying to kill his farm workers. Marmol had a stellarr 2010, but followed up by blowing 10 saves in 2011. He was very inconsistent and his performance hinges on his ability to control his nasty slider. I take Marmol because he still has some great talent, and the trend of up and down performances of closers.

Theo's performance in Boston has been highly scrutinized over his time there. He did bring on a number of bad contracts, like John Lackey, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Julio Lugo, as well as some questionable trades.  However, he did do something no GM in Boston had done in 86 years- He brought them a World Series, and then another one in 2007.  In my books, that speak for itself, especially since the  2007 team had a large quantity of home grown talent. Epstein displayed a keen sense for spotting value in up-and-coming talent and underappreciated veterans.  The ability to develop a respectable farm system is what I am looking forward to the most, and is something that Tom Ricketts has promised to pour money into, saying today, "In his new role, Theo will be given the resources and opportunity to build a strong foundation and the winning culture that our organization and fans deserve."  Guys like Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youklis, Jon Lester, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Jonathan Papelbon all came up under Epstein.  He also was able to acquire players like David Ortiz and Curt Schilling, who keyed championship runs, as well as Adrian Gonzalez,  who could make a case for AL MVP in 2011.

So here we are. Theo was officially introduced by the Cubs today and had some good things to say about what he plans to do as the mastermind of the Cubs.

"I am so excited to spend your money."
  • "It truly feels great to be a Cub today," and his new job "the ultimate challenge." (couldn't be more right there)
  • "Our goal will be to build the best scouting department in the game," He stressed "sustained success" and noted that the Cubs' 2011 draft marked a "clear philosophical change" in his eyes. (as I said above, this is the
    most important contribution)
  • "I firmly believe that we can preserve the things that make the Cubs so special and over time build a consistent winner, a team that will be playing baseball in October consistently and a team that will ultimately win the World Series."
  • "When I got to Boston they hadn't won in 86 years. We didn't run from that challenge. We embraced it. We decided the way to attack it was to build the best baseball operation that we could, to try to establish a winning culture, to work as hard as possible and to bring in players who care more about each other and more about winning than the people around them thought or the external expectations, the external mindset. That's something that is going to be important to us here as well.
As a first step with the Cubs managerial situation, Epstein intends to meet with Mike Quade in person over the next week.  Epstein also intends to "take a creative look at the big league team."  I think this means that Quade is done, and I think this is for the best.  Despite me saying that Quade was the right choice, he looked to be in way over his head the whole season and continually played veterans like Reed Johnson over Colvin in a lost season.  Names like Ryne Sandberg and Terry Francona will float around as replacements for the Cubs skipper.  He also has some personnel decisions to make, such as what to do with Carlos Zambrano and Aramis Ramirez, as well as potentially taking on Pujols or Fielder to play first base for the next 10 years.

In the grand scheme, this is a good move for the Cubs and a potetially history-making decision by both the team and Epstein. If he can take the Cubs to a MLB championship, he will go down with Mike Ditka in Chicago sports lore. However, if he fails, he loses the genius tag he earned in Boston and the Cubs stay where they are. The North Siders needed a serious change in the front office and a new sense of direction, and Theo provides that.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Michigan at Midseason and Post Season Baseball

So I haven't blogged in quite a bit. Things have picked up here in redneck Maryland.  I have been gone many weekends, visiting Ann Arbor, Boston, and Dayton. I've also been doing some preparation for a rotation with a contractor in Seattle and Palo Alto to design with a new piece of fuels lab equipment for 6 months. Mike Thompson can relate ("I understand how tedious blogging is now. It takes me at least 3 hours per entry...").  But enough about me. You want to hear me rant.

I was inspired by Mike Thompson's blog about his European shenanigans (read it here) and his thoughts on our little brother from East Lansing. I have his permission to quote him in this post, because he is spot on.  So let's start with the Michigan-MSU game from this past weekend.

Every Wolverine fan knew this was a huge game for Michigan.  Outside of maybe Notre Dame, UM had not played a quality opponent, or at least one that we would be able to judge ourselves against the nation's top teams. The trends were pretty much all in favor of Michigan, IMO. MSU had a weak O-Line against one of Michigan's strengths (a weak offense overall really), Hoke pumping up the game, and oh yea, Denard.  The first drive was so promising, with the Blue moving down the field and Denard being Denard.  But that's where it ended. Michigan's linebackers couldn't stop anything, which always will lead to losses (aka 2008-2010).  Al Borges clearly freaked out about a few short runs and began trying for long passes in high winds.  These don't work in low winds for Michigan unless Junior Hemingway out-leaps the DB.  What happened to the offense Michigan ran against Minnesota I will never know. Either way, Michigan was clearly outprepared and outplayed and have an embarrassing 4 game losing streak to MSU.

The story everyone is focused on, especially in Ann Arbor, is the, ahem, questionable sportsmanship of the Spartans.  Missed the game?  Check out some of the MSU antics:

Win or no win, every Spartan player, coach, and fan should be horrified at that display.  William Gholston was responsible for not one, but two ejectionable offenses. Marcus Rush (#44) was put right back on the field after throwing Denard to the ground well after he threw the ball.  It's sad to say this, but it seemed like MSU would have been happy with a loss if it mean Denard Robinson left the game injured.  And then ESPN color man Chris Spielman pulled out this gem after one of the personal fouls- "Dantonio represents clean, hard hitting football." Are you serious? He continued to put people in the game who deserved to be thrown out and
has not been afraid to reinstate players who participate in criminal activity. But it doesn't just stop at Dantonio. It is running amok in the Spartan fanbase. I'm going to generalize a bit and of course I realize that there are great MSU fans and bad UM fans.  But it's hard to watch MSU fans.  Here is where Thompson says it best - "They act like children and then complain about being called such, making us feel like they are definitely definitely children."  This is so true.  You've heard the phrase before, play like you've been there before. MSU is not capable of this, like, at all. I get that UM-MSU is the Spartan Super Bowl and that this game makes their whole year, but to not care about an opposing player's well being in the "spirit" of winning? That is so wrong. I'm not from Michigan and didn't grow up in the UM-MSU atmosphere, so this game never meant as much to me. I didn't have to hear kids I went to high school with go on about how dominant the Spartans are.

I'm sure the whole "little brother" thing is pretty annoying for Sparty. But it's not like it wasn't deserved. Michigan has won twice the games MSU has in the series and Sparty does act like someone's little brother. They get overly excited to win against someone with more history, when that older team has way more important things to worry about (tUoOSU), but go and cry to mommy (Tom Izzo) when things don't go their way.  Win or lose, Sparty acts with zero maturity.  MSU can't win against UM forever.  It will be fun to see how MSU fans act once Michigan starts to win again.

MLB Playoffs

The 2011 World Series is set and for the 66th straight year, the Cubs are absent. Oh well, maybe next year (and look for a possible post on the Cubs new GM and offseason plans).  The St. Louis Cardinals will face off against the Texas Rangers in this year's fall classic. If you remember, I picked both of these teams to miss the playoffs (and even the Cardinals to finish 4th in the NL Central).  Neither of my World Series picks, the Giants and the White Sox, even made the postseason.  If you also remember that I am a Cubs fan, you will realize I have no idea how to evaluate a winning baseball team.

I think that this World Series shows why the MLB playoffs needs a little tweaking.  I am not saying that neither of these teams deserve to be here.  I am just questioning how a wildcard team can play with basically zero disadvantage and then gets home field for the World Series.   I'm sure I've shared my feelings on the All-Star Game deciding home field advantage (if not, I THINK IT IS STUPID BUD SELIG YOU STUPIDPANTS).  The wildcard shouldn't have a major disadvantage or anything, but there should be some bonus to winning the division. I also think that the LDS is too short.  I like that there are only 8 teams in the MLB postseason, as opposed to half the league in the NHL and NBA, especially when it comes to pitching.  However, I don't see the reason why all the series can't be 7 games. I think this helps the better team out slightly by getting rid of fluky performances and requires a much more careful handling of the pitching staffs.  In short, my fix for the postseason is all 7 game series and a better record means home field.

This is sure to be seen again in the 2011 postseason (sorry,
Tigers' fans)
As far as the series goes, look for both teams' bullpens to be heavily used. Both of these bullpens are a huge reason that the teams are where they are.  Each team has starters that have the potential to do great things, but have zero consistency outside of Chris Carpenter.  It will all come to whether or not the Cardinals can survive the Rangers offensive onslaught.  Texas' lineup is very solid from top to bottom and all of them have the ability to come up in clutch situations. These games could all turn very sloppy, very quickly.  I don't think the Cardinals have the pitching to keep the Rangers offense at bay and they don't have the offense to be able to catch up in multiple games.  The lack of pitching in this series for me means a short one and another year of a weak WS since 2002.  I'm calling the Rangers in 5.

NHL Opening Week

The 2011-2012 hockey season is underway and my Blackhawks are 2-2. I expect a middling record while coach Joel Quenneville figures out the lines and how all the new pieces will fit together.  Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa look like they will absolutely dominate this year as long as the latter stays on the ice. They should be able carry the team until my boy Jonathan Toews ends his yearly October funk and does what he is capable of. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook should soon find themselves on the blueline together again, heading up a deep defensive corps and a goalie looking to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump.  The Hawks also added a lot more grit to the team this year, which will hopefully help them be strong down the stretch.

Many experts are picking Chicago to take the Central this year, but I don't think so. The Red Wings look very dangerous and have gotten out to a quick 4-0 start.  The forwards are of course stellar (any team with Pavel Datsyuk will be).  The key this year will be the D-men. The back line is where I think the Wings fell short last year, despite the Herculean effort of the ageless Nick Lidstrom.  The only thing standing in the way of the Wings are injuries, which have led to earlier than expected (in Wings terms) exits from the playoffs. If they can keep their guys on the ice, I fully expect the Wings to take the Central (which is the strongest division in the NHL).

My pick last year for the Stanley Cup Finals (Washington in 6 over LA) was very wrong.  LA suffered from injuries and a lack of depth, while Washington just can't win in big games.  The Kings fixed some of that by acquiring Mike Richards and Simon Gagne in exchange for some excellent young talent. Washington just has to show they can win when it counts, and until then, they should not be trusted.  Last year's Finals teams, the Bruins and Canucks, both took steps backward. The Canucks are still weak on the back line and Luongo has to think about his Finals' performance all season. Boston is still a great team, but they seem to be falling prey to the hangover that plagued the Hawks last year.

Onto my picks for this year.  I know what I said about not picking teams you can't trust. However, I feel real good about the Sharks this year. They got a proven defenseman in Brent Burns and swapped Dany Heatley for Martin Havlat, who has shown he can perform in the playoffs.  They have gotten to the doorstep so many times that I feel like they can push through, much like the Canucks in 2011. From the Eastern Conference, I love the Tampa Bay Lightning. They surprised everyone by going to the Conference Finals with a young squad and a couple of key veterans. Sound familiar? The Blackhawks stormed into the 2009 Conference Finals before losing to a more deserving and talented Detroit team, much like the 2011 Bruins.  The Hawks came back the next year and took the Stanley Cup.  Steven Stamkos is the real deal and the team has the Red Wings touch in Stevie Y (like the Blackhawks and Scotty Bowman...see what I mean!?) That's why my 2012 Stanley Cup Final prediction is the Tampa Lightning over the San Jose Sharks in 7.  By that time, we should all be able to watch the coolest goal horn ever lighting up on national TV:

That will do it for now.  I will hopefully be posting soon on the Cubs activity since their season ended and my offseason plan for the team, along with a few thought on the NCAA, NFL, and NHL (and lolz not the NBA).