Tag: Chicago Cubs

Chip Hale, Dave Stewart, Tony LaRussa

2015 Preview: Arizona Diamondbacks


Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2015 season. Next up. The Arizona Diamondbacks.

The Big Question: There’s nowhere to go but up, right?

Since winning the National League West in 2011, the Diamondbacks have turned in three straight disappointing seasons and finished last season with the worst record in the majors at 64-98. Tony La Russa was hired as chief baseball officer early on in the year, which essentially signaled that Kevin Towers and Kirk Gibson were living on borrowed time. Sure enough, they were both fired in September.

Tasked with taking the franchise in a new direction, La Russa hired one of his former pitchers from the Athletics, Dave Stewart, to serve as general manager while De Jon Watson was brought over from the Dodgers as senior vice president of baseball operations. Chip Hale, who has coached with the Mets and Athletics in recent seasons, was then brought aboard for his first managing opportunity in the big leagues.

Stewart was outspoken when he was an agent and he has already said his fair share of interesting things as Arizona’s general manager. Most notably, when the Diamondbacks were briefly courting right-hander James Shields in free agency, he said they were more of a “true baseball team” as opposed to teams which are more geared toward analytics. This was likely just an attempt at a sales pitch to appeal to a player they only had a small chance of actually signing, but it’s not the first impression you want after the grit-centered philosophy of Towers and Gibson fizzled out.

Getting back to contender status is going to be a process. The team’s big offseason move was signing Yasmany Tomas to a six-year, $68.5 million contract, but the third base experiment has been a bust so far and he’s still learning to hit major league pitching. Interesting arms like Jeremy Hellickson, Rubby De La Rosa, Allen Webster, Robbie Ray, and Yoan Lopez were brought in over the offseason, but this is a team that is going with Josh Collmenter as their Opening Day starter. He would be a back-end starter on a good staff. After dealing catcher Miguel Montero to the Cubs, Stewart didn’t seem so keen (or didn’t have the budget) to acquire a suitable replacement, so Tuffy Gosewisch stands to get most of the playing time in the early going. Peter O’Brien, who Stewart was hoping could be a solution behind the plate, was having trouble throwing the ball back to the mound this spring and could be bound for the outfield. Barring a last-minute move, this could be the weakest catching situation in the majors.

This lineup has a couple of interesting pieces in place, which I’ll get to in a minute, but expectations are understandably low for 2015 in a division which also has the Dodgers, Giants, and Padres.

What else is going on?

  • After finishing second in the NL MVP balloting in 2013, Paul Goldschmidt was well on his way to a comparable follow-up last season by hitting .300/.396/.542 with 19 home runs and 69 RBI across 109 games before he suffered a broken hand on a hit-by-pitch in early August. He’s back to 100 percent now and remains the shining light on this roster.
  • Aside from the excellence of Goldschmidt at first base, the infield is in flux. Assuming Tomas doesn’t work out at third base, young Jake Lamb is a possibility there, but Aaron Hill could also get some time at the hot corner if the D-Backs go with Nick Ahmed at shortstop and try Chris Owings at second base. Trading Hill, which has been rumored, could clear the way for all of the youngsters to get playing time. I’m guessing we’ll see that configuration sooner or later.
  • This outfield has a lot of moving pieces and not all of them are ideal fits. A.J. Pollock is locked in as the starting center fielder while Mark Trumbo appears set to start in right field, but David Peralta, Ender Inciarte, Cody Ross, and Tomas are also in the mix. Trumbo and Tomas in the corners might not be pretty. They also have similar offensive profiles. Which is to say, power without much patience.
  • This rotation doesn’t look particularly strong right now, but it figures to get better as the season moves along. Patrick Corbin and Bronson Arroyo are both working their way back from Tommy John surgery and should be ready to return by mid-season. Things didn’t go as planned for top prospect Archie Bradley last year, but he could surface in the majors soon with a good showing in Triple-A.
  • Perhaps my favorite story to watch with this team will be Daniel Hudson, who has lost much of the last three seasons due to a pair of Tommy John surgeries. The 28-year-old returned for three relief appearances down the stretch last year and has flashed mid-90s velocity this spring. It’s unclear if he’ll be used as a starter or reliever, but here’s hoping he can finally stay healthy and deliver on the promise he showed in the early part of his career.

Prediction: This could really go either way with the Rockies, as they look like two of the weakest teams in the majors, but I’m going to say a repeat of Fifth Place, NL West.

Felix Doubront granted his release by the Cubs

Los Angeles Dodgers v Chicago Cubs

After entering spring training with an eye on the fifth starter job, left-hander Felix Doubront has been given his release by the Cubs.

Doubront really struggled during Cactus League action, allowing nine runs on 17 hits (including two home runs) in seven innings across four appearances.

The Cubs and Doubront avoided arbitration over the winter by agreeing to a one-year, $1.925 million contract, but contracts through arbitration aren’t fully-guaranteed. Instead, he’ll get 45 days of termination pay, which Patrick Mooney of CSNChicago.com says works out to around $473,000.

Doubront showed diminished velocity last season while putting up a 5.54 ERA over 14 starts and seven relief appearances, but he’s still just 27 and has shown some potential in the past. He should find a new team quickly.

2015 Preview: Chicago Cubs

kris bryant

Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2015 season. Next up: The Chicago Cubs.

The Big Question: Are they ready to contend?

It has been 106 years since the Cubs won a World Series championship — the longest title drought in North American professional sports — and they haven’t appeared in a Fall Classic since 1945.

Is this their year? Is it finally gonna happen?

Answering that would require predicting the unpredictable — MLB’s playoffs — but the 2015 Cubs could very well be in the conversation when October comes. From the starting lineup to the starting rotation to the much-talked-about farm system, there’s talent everywhere in this organization — an organization that has been built and rebuilt and rebuilt again.

Cubs president Theo Epstein has done this latest rebuild properly, amassing a pool of young, cost-controlled players who appear capable of feeding an extended run of success. Kris Bryant, pictured above, was ranked the game’s No. 1 prospect in late February by Baseball America after batting .325/.438/.661 with 43 home runs and 110 RBI in 138 games last season between Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa. He should be up in the majors for good around mid-April. Five other Cubs prospects made Baseball America’s 2015 Top 100 — shortstop Addison Russell (No. 3 overall), outfielder Jorge Soler (No. 12), catcher Kyle Schwarber (No. 19), right-hander C.J. Edwards (No. 38), and outfielder Billy McKinney (No. 83). Schwarber and McKinney aren’t expected to contribute at the major league level this season, but the others should.

Soler, who signed a nine-year, $30 million deal with the Cubs in 2012 after defecting from Cuba, posted a .903 OPS with five home runs and 20 RBI over his first 24 games for Chicago in 2014. He will be the starting right fielder when the 2015 campaign kicks off on April 5, and the 23-year-old is already being trusted at cleanup.

Batting third in front of Soler will be 25-year-old first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who broke out last season with a .913 OPS and 32 home runs. One of Epstein’s first moves as Cubs president was acquiring Rizzo from the Padres, and Theo locked Rizzo up about a year-and-a-half after the trade to a team-friendly seven-year, $41 million contract extension with club options for 2020 and 2021. Epstein personally selected Rizzo in the sixth round of the 2007 MLB Amateur Draft when he was still the general manager of the Red Sox.

Bryant, Soler, and Rizzo should be the cornerstones of the Northsiders’ offense going forward and they’ll probably be plenty potent in their first year together at the major league level.

What else is going on?

  • Another potential offensive cornerstone is 22-year-old infielder Javier Baez, who was rated the the No. 5 prospect in the game by Baseball America prior to the 2014 season. He struck out 95 times in 52 games as a rookie, but Baez possesses rare bat speed and jaw-dropping minor league numbers. In 2013, he put up a .920 OPS, 37 home runs, and 20 stolen bases in 130 games between High-A and Double-A. The hope is that he can develop a little more plate discipline and settle in as the Cubs’ long-term second baseman.
  • Not satisfied with waiting for some of the internal options to grow, Epstein and Co. executed a pair of well-received trades over the winter that shored up holes at catcher and center field. Veteran backstop Miguel Montero, a two-time All-Star, was acquired from the Diamondbacks in December for right-handers Jeferson Mejia and Zack Godley. Dynamic center fielder Dexter Fowler, a capable leadoff man, was picked up from the Astros in January for right-hander Dan Straily and third baseman Luis Valbuena.
  • The biggest offseason move for the Cubs was signing left-handed starter Jon Lester to a six-year, $155 million free agent contract. That’s a ton of scratch for a 31-year-old pitcher, but the Cubbies print cash and they’ve been waiting to flaunt it. Lester registered a 2.46 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, and 220 strikeouts in 219 2/3 innings last summer between the Red Sox and A’s. He’s the ace the Cubs needed. Following him in the rotation will be Jake Arrieta, Jason Hammel, Travis Wood, and Kyle Hendricks. Arrieta is a former top prospect of the Orioles who became a post-hype darling in 2014 with the Cubs, producing a 2.53 ERA, 0.989 WHIP, and 167 strikeouts in 156 2/3 innings. Hammel was traded away from the Cubs last July as part of the Jeff Samardzija deal and then re-signed this winter to a two-year, $18 million free agent contract. Hammel had a 2.98 ERA and 1.02 WHIP in 108 2/3 innings last year for Chicago before struggling out in Oakland. It’s a sneaky-good group, and the Cubs have the chips to make in-season upgrades.
  • Joe Maddon worked miracles with young, low-budget teams in Tampa Bay and seems like the perfect manager to lead the Cubs into this new era of success. He signed a five-year, $25 million contract with Chicago last November after using an opt-out to escape the Rays following their big front office change.
  • Wrigley Field is in the first phase of a massive renovation that probably won’t be fully completed until 2019. The bleachers and brand new video boards were the main focus this offseason, and a combination of bad winter weather and structural issues caused predictable delays. The bleachers aren’t going to be finished until sometime in June, so there will be an eeriness in the outfield on Opening Night against the rival Cardinals and for the following eight-plus weeks. It’s a 101-year-old building, but anyone who has visited Wrigleyville knows that it’s worth preserving. Cubs fans are well-schooled in the virtue of patience.

Prediction: If everything goes right — Bryant becomes an instant star, Baez learns to lay off the junk, and shortstop Starlin Castro sharpens his game — the Cubs will be a factor in a deep divisional race. But they’re probably one more year away from making the big jump. This team finishes third in the National League Central and just out of the reach for the second National League Wild Card spot with 84 total wins.

2015 Preview: Pittsburgh Pirates

mccutchen hurdle getty

Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2015 season. Next up: The Pittsburgh Pirates.

The Big Question: Can the Bucs make a third consecutive trip to the postseason?

In 2013, the Pirates snapped a painful 20-year October drought and advanced through the National League Wild Card Game to the NLDS, where they lost in five games to the division-rival Cardinals.

In 2014, the Pirates made it back to the National League Wild Card Game but fell to the eventual World Series-champion Giants.

Postseason baseball is an expectation now in Pittsburgh, and this 2015 group looks amply equipped to keep the tradition going. Let’s start with the outfield, which might be baseball’s best …

Andrew McCutchen, starting center fielder, has finished top three in the National League MVP voting each of the last three seasons. He posted a career-high and National League-leading 168 OPS+ in 2014 and he doesn’t turn 29 years old until October 10, 2015. A good defender to boot, “Cutch” is probably the second-best overall position player in the major leagues. Starling Marte, the Pirates’ 26-year-old starting left fielder, batted .291/.356/.453 with 13 home runs and 30 stolen bases in 135 games last season. He’s getting better every year, and the Pirates have him under contract through at least 2019 at a very team-friendly rate. Gregory Polanco, right field, was ranked a top 10 prospect by Baseball America before the 2014 season. He struggled in 89 games as a rookie, but well-built 23-year-old has all the tools to become a star.

These three can hit, field, and they’re all in or very near their baseball prime.

In the starting rotation the Pirates also have a couple of building blocks: Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano. Cole battled a right lat injury in 2014 that limited him to 138 regular-season innings, but it shouldn’t be a lingering thing and he has looked sharp this spring in the Grapefruit League. The former No. 1 overall pick (2011, out of UCLA) boasts a 3.45 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, and 8.4 K/9 through his first 255 1/3 career major league innings. He’s only 24 years old and under club control through 2019. Liriano was the biggest bargain of the offseason, re-signing with the Pirates for three years and $39 million in a free agent market where Ervin Santana scored four years, $55 million. Liriano has delivered a 3.20 ERA and 9.4 K/9 in 55 starts over the last two seasons with Pittsburgh. He’s only 31 years old — the same age as $155 million man Jon Lester.

It’s a strong core, and with a few surprises from other players on the roster the Pirates should be in the mix all year for another Wild Card spot and maybe even the National League Central title.

What else is going on?

  • Francisco Liriano has never pitched more than 200 innings in a season, and neither has Gerrit Cole. Pittsburgh will be hoping that changes in 2015 because the rest of the rotation is a little bit iffy. A.J. Burnett left money on the table to sign with the Bucs this offseason and he had great success in 2012-2013 under Pirates coaching coach Ray Searage — the new go-to reclamation project guru — but the 38-year-old righty posted a rough 4.59 ERA and 1.41 WHIP in 34 starts last summer with the Phillies. He might be beyond saving. Charlie Morton had a pedestrian 96 ERA+ in 2014 and Vance Worley is due for some serious regression after managing a 2.85 ERA and 1.21 WHIP in his first 110 2/3 innings with the Bucs.
  • Top pitching prospects Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow may be able to provide some help in the second half. Taillon, the No. 29 prospect on Baseball America’s latest Top 100, is on his way back from Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery. He’s expected to start pitching in minor league games in May. Glasnow, No. 16 on Baseball America’s Top 100, hasn’t appeared in a game above High-A ball but looks to be a fast-riser. Baseball Prospectus recently ranked the Pirates’ farm system eighth overall.
  • Josh Harrison broke out in 2014 just as Pedro Alvarez’s defensive issues at third base began to boil over. Alvarez has been moved into a first-base platoon with Corey Hart and Harrison enters 2015 as the starter at the hot corner. Harrison was a 2014 National League All-Star and even earned MVP votes after batting .315/.347/.490 with 13 home runs and 18 stolen bases in 143 games. The 27-year-old began the 2014 season as a utilityman. It was quite a rise, though his past numbers suggest he is in for a dropoff.
  • Losing catcher Russell Martin to free agency leaves a sting, but the Pirates did pretty well to fill the void in acquiring Francisco Cervelli from the Yankees last November for lefty reliever Justin Wilson. Cervelli, 29, has batted .293/.372/.449 in 223 plate appearances over the last two seasons and is decent defensively. He shouldn’t be expected to carry that kind of batting line over a full starter’s slate, but something remotely close would be great. Cervelli is hitting very well in the Grapefruit League this spring.
  • Jung Ho Kang drew interest from a range of Major League Baseball teams this winter after hitting .356/.459/.739 with 40 home runs and 117 RBI in 117 games last season for the Nexen Heroes of the Korea Baseball Organization. But it was the Pirates who landed him with a $5,002,015 posting fee and four-year, $11 million major league contract. Kang was a superstar in South Korea, and the usually-frugal Pittsburgh front office surprised a lot of people by nabbing him off the international market. $16 million isn’t a big amount of money for most clubs, but it is for the Pirates. Kang, 27, is expected to open the 2015 season in a utility infield role. If his defense is good enough, he could eventually steal playing time from shortstop Jordy Mercer, who batted .255 with a .305 on-base percentage in 2014.

Prediction: McCutchen, Marte, and Polanco will help lead the Pirates to a second place finish in the National League Central and a third straight appearance in the National League Wild Card Game.

Google Maps made Edwin Jackson miss his start Tuesday and things went downhill from there

Chicago Cubs v St. Louis Cardinals

As if enough things haven’t already gone wrong for Edwin Jackson during his time with the Cubs.

Jackson showed up too late to start yesterday’s game against the A’s because Google Maps sent him to the wrong ballpark. I’ll let Patrick Mooney of CSNChicago.com explain:

“I actually put it in Google Maps and typed in ‘Oakland Athletics spring training complex,’” Jackson said. “It took me to the old one. I know, it’s crazy, but, yeah, that pretty much sums it up. A crazy, crazy way to start a day.”

Jackson left before the team bus and wound up at Phoenix Municipal Stadium, which is now home to the Arizona State University baseball team. The Cubs still keep a Mesa mailing address by the Tempe/Scottsdale border, with Google Maps saying Sloan Park is 3.6 miles away from Hohokam Stadium.

Because he was late the Cubs had Blake Parker pitch the first inning and then Jackson entered the game later, at which point he allowed eight runs in 1.2 innings of work.

Jackson has two years and $22 million left on his contract, but after back-to-back awful seasons in Chicago he’s not even a sure thing to get the No. 5 spot in the rotation. At this point–warning, bad joke coming!–the Cubs wish he couldn’t find Wrigley Field.