Tag: Chicago Cubs

Bob Melvin

2015 Preview: Oakland Athletics


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 Oakland Athletics.

The Big Question: Can the A’s reshuffled roster put them in the playoffs for the fourth straight year?

When I was assigned the A’s preview by that jerkwad who assigns the team previews around here, I gotta tell ya, I was a bit concerned. As a team that cruised for months and then collapsed, the A’s were already the sort of team that is the hardest to predict. Then they went and reshuffled the roster this past winter and who in the heck knows what to think? If I had any hair I’d be tearing it out by now.

But then I remembered: the A’s do this kind of crap all the time. Really, they do.

They have been to the playoffs three years in a row, but they’ve done it a bit differently each time. Last year we were asking whether they could survive without Jarrod Parker and Grant Balfour. Heading into 2012 they were the odds-on favorite to be the worst team in the AL West and all they did was win 94 games after shipping out Trevor Cahill, Andrew Bailey, Gio Gonzalez, Hideki Matsui, Josh Willingham and David DeJesus and bringing in Yoenis Cespedes, Bartolo Colon, Seth Smith, Jonny Gomes, Parker, Josh Reddick and Brad Peacock. Nothing is as constant as change in the Oakland A’s clubhouse. And, at least in recent years, the change hasn’t mattered because the same GM is running the show who has seemingly always run the show. And while no one would ever choose to deal with the particular constraints Billy Beane has to deal with, he has literally been written into a history as a guy who mixes and matches whatever is on hand and somehow always makes it work. Or usually makes it work. He certainly makes it work a lot better with Bob Melvin than he did before. The both of them are just good at putting seemingly disparate pieces together.

So you look at the 2015 A’s, who have lost Jeff Samardzija, Jon Lester, Jason Hammel, Derek Norris, Josh Donaldson, Brandon Moss, John Jaso and a ton of other guys and who have brought in Ike Davis Ben Zobrist, Jesse Hahn, Billy Butler, Brett Lawrie, Marcus Semien and a ton of other guys and you could totally, reasonably say “damn, this is a mess.” Or, you could realize that the A’s have shuffled the deck like this almost every offseason, that absolutely no one has had a great handle on what the A’s would do from year-to-year the past several seasons and that, lo and behold, they are usually in the playoffs come October and that, maybe, they’ll be just dandy.

I don’t know if they’ll suck or be dandy. I have to answer that Big Question above with “I have no idea.” But neither do most of you. In some ways this makes them among the most interesting teams in baseball this and every year. But what I won’t do, and what no one else should do, is to lazily say “the A’s blew the team up” this past winter and conclude that they’re rebuilding or that they’re toast or something. Because it’s not been the case in recent years, and you sort of have to trust what Beane and company are doing until it stops working, don’t you?

What else is going on?

  • As for the brass tacks of the various parts of this team, it’s fair to say that the rotation will be pretty good. Certainly at the top, as Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir return. Beyond that there are a lot of question marks, but a LOT of arms who could potentially answer them. Drew Pomeranz, Jesse Chavez and Jesse Hahn will likely be the first three up behind Gray and Kazmir, and all three were above-average starters last year. Waiting in the wings is Kendall Graveman, Sean Nolin and Chris Bassitt. Or maybe Graveman makes it. He’s started four games this spring and has allowed only one earned run. And hell, Barry frickin’ Zito is still banging around. The point is that there is a good bit of quality and depth here, even if the younger dudes are unproven.
  • Lineups? Who needs a set lineup? The A’s haven’t had one in a long time. Sure, they’ve had regulars, but in the past couple of years I’d guess that Bob Melvin has ran out a good one hundred different lineup combinations each season. You do things like that when you have, like, three catchers who can hit. Or, like this year, you have Ben Zobrist who is the player most likely to pull a Bugs Bunny and play all nine positions in a single game. Coco Crisp starts in left, but he could see time in center if things don’t go right. Craig Gentry can likewise play anywhere. The infield is far more unsettled — almost a complete turnover from 2014 — but Zobrist gives them flexibility. Ike Davis and Brett Lawrie are most famous for their status as disappointments, but you don’t become a disappointment without first having promise. If either of these guys even play up to close to their level of potential, the offense could be a huge strength here.
  • Billy Butler is probably the most “famous” import on this year’s club. And his best years — particularly in the power department — seem to be behind him. But he’s actually an improvement over what the A’s trotted out at DH last season. They probably overpaid for him, but the A’s don’t overpay too often. When they do, it’s because they had a big need. And at DH they had a big need.
  • In the pen, Sean Doolittle will get a late start to the year, but he’s expected to be healthy soon and around for most of the season. Tyler Clippard cost Yunel Escobar and will make a lot of money for a setup guy this season, but see above about overpaying for a need. There is a lot of depth here too as many of those guys mentioned above in the rotation section could see time in the bullpen too. As could the aforementioned Barry frickin’ Zito. Flexibility is the key with this club. In every single aspect. One might even say that flexibility is . . . the new inefficiency?

Prediction: With great uncertainty comes great excitement. And fear. And with great flexibility comes potentially great comprises. This A’s team could break in any number of ways. They have the potential to suck or be great. And as recent history in the pre-season prediction business has shown us, teams who are hard to figure in March tend to be way better than the ones who have a set narrative.

But I’m still gonna hedge and say Third Place, American League West. And fully expect to be wrong in one direction or the other.

Kris Bryant homered twice again

Kris Bryant

Cubs third base prospect Kris Bryant hit another pair of home runs on Saturday in Cactus League play against the Mariners, giving him eight in 10 spring games — by far the most among all hitters. Jose Bautista, Michael Cuddyer, J.D. Martinez, and Steve Pearce are tied for second with four each.

Bryant hit a two-run home run in the first inning off of Felix Hernandez, then went yard again in the fourth inning with a three-run shot off of Kevin Correia. He also walked in the third inning. It wasn’t even Bryant’s first multi-homer game of the spring — he hit two against the Angels on March 12 as well.

The Cubs planned to have Bryant start the season in the minors, but his performance this spring may be forcing their hand. If Bryant does indeed start at Triple-A, Mike Olt would handle third base in the interim.

Cubs scratch Jon Lester from start with “dead arm”

jon lester getty

Gearing up for the first season of a six-year, $155 million deal with the Cubs, left-hander Jon Lester has been scratched from his scheduled Saturday start with what the team is calling a “dead arm period.”

“Dead arm” is the phrase pitchers and teams tend to use when something clearly isn’t right but there also isn’t a clearcut injury to be found, so it’s typically viewed as relatively minor until proven otherwise. In this case Cubs manager Joe Maddon expressed confidence that Lester will be able to take his next turn in the rotation and make the Opening Day start as planned.

Lester has basically been injury free for the bulk of his career, starting 31 or more games every season since 2008. That includes 32 starts and 220 innings for the Red Sox last year.

2015 Preview: Boston Red Sox

Ortiz Ramirez Sandoval

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 Boston Red Sox

The Big Question: Can the Sox go from Worst to First once again?

The Giants win the World Series in even years. The Red Sox stink in even years. It’s quite a pattern.

The Red Sox aren’t counting on that being a pattern, however. They decided to help it along by improving an offense that was near the bottom of the American League in runs per game. The big additions: Pablo Sandoval at third base and Hanley Ramirez in left field. The Sandoval contract may look bad later, but it should certainly help the offense now. Ramirez, when he’s healthy, provides a nice bat, but he’s never played in left field and his presence there creates a roster crunch of outfielders with three guys — Mookie Betts, Rusney Castillo and Shane Victorino filling the other two positions. And don’t forget about Jackie Bradley Jr., who is still hanging around. At the moment both Castillo and Victorino have some health issues (Castillo is set to return this weekend) and of course, Ramirez is not exactly a portrait of durability, so that may clear itself up on its own.

The rotation has received a makeover as well, but it’s an open question as to whether it’s good enough to push the Sox back to the playoffs. Jon Lester was traded away and didn’t come back via free agency, so the Sox went with something of a volume approach with their starters. Rick Porcello is coming off a fine season for the Tigers, but it was his first year in the past five with an above average ERA+. Justin Masterson, before last year, looked to be a budding ace, but he struggled mightily in both Cleveland and St. Louis. Porcello seems like the better bet to approximate an ace — so many of his statistical issues of the past few years can be laid at the doorstep of the Tigers’ horrendous infield defense — but neither one is your prototypical stopper. The hope is that Clay Buchholz can return to ace form he showed before getting injured in 2013, but he has either been feast or famine since then. Mostly famine. In Wade Miley and Joe Kelly the Sox have guys whose ceilings seem to be in the back-of-the-rotation. Which is fine if that’s all they’re expected to do. If the three guys up top falter, however, it could be a less-than-fantastic staff.

The lineup will be better than it was in 2013. The rotation, well, it’s really hard to say. In both of the Sox’ recent last place finishes, they didn’t feel like a last place team heading into the season. Likewise, this year’s edition feels like it could be a really competitive club. But they will require a lot of things to break right, especially with the rotation, but also with the development of young position playing prospects like Betts, Castillo and Xander Bogaerts. That is not the stuff of a last place team, but it’s no guarantee whatsoever of a first place team, and they shouldn’t be the favorites to finish as one.

What else is going on?

  • Benches are often afterthoughts in the minds of fans, but the Sox’ bench will have some big names on it and will likely give John Farrell a lot of flexibility. Jackie Bradley Jr., Allen Craig, Daniel Nava, Brock Holt and whichever of the Betts-Castillo-Victorino crew isn’s starting is pretty cool.
  • Koji Uehara fell off big in the second half last year. Health? That’s what he and the Sox say. But he’s also gonna be 40 on Opening Day, so you have to wonder. Beyond him it’s a revamped bullpen with guys like Anthony Varvaro, Alexi Ogando and Robbie Ross added to the mix. Junichi Tazawa is still solid. Edward Mujica and Craig Breslow are still hanging around. Not the team’s strength, not it’s worst weakness. Most of it depends on Uehara keeping up his usual level of strong work.
  • I like catching combos like Christian Vazquez and Ryan Hanigan. Neither are offensive stars, but both rank extremely highly in pitch framing metrics. I can’t say I understand how those work, but if reality is even close to what the people talking about the numbers say it is, they’re going to steal a lot of strikes for that pitching staff. That will be especially helpful for sinkerballers like Procello and Masterson.
  • The Sox’ minor league system has gotten a nice boost lately and Blake Swihart and Yoan Moncada have gotten a ton of ink. That’s nice, but neither will be contributing to the 2015 Sox. Or, if they are, it means everything that was supposed to go right for the club has gone wrong.

Prediction: I don’t like all of the uncertainties with that rotation. I don’t know that Dustin Pedroia will return to form. I don’t know that Pablo Sandoval is good enough to truly elevate that offense (note: his fame is based way more on the playoffs than recent regular season dominance) and I don’t know if it’s fair to expect (a) Hanley Ramirez to be healthy all year; and (b) the youngsters to all take the big step forward they are capable of taking. John Farrell doesn’t need a Hail Mary completion for this club to contend, but he does need a lot of things to break in his favor. Because it’s baseball, not all of them will.

I think the Sox will be in the playoff hunt all year, but I don’t think they’re be a dominant team. Or as good a bet as the Orioles to win the division. Even a weak division. My guess: Second Place, American League East.

Joe Maddon on Javier Baez: “Of course, there’s a chance he doesn’t make the team”

javier baez

Javier Baez has been penciled in as the Cubs’ starting second baseman, but manager Joe Maddon made it pretty clear that the job is hardly being handed to him.

Maddon told Patrick Mooney of CSNChicago.com:

Of course, there’s a chance he doesn’t make the team. There’s no lock in regard to that. I talked about the entitlement program. It doesn’t exist. Everything has to be earned.

Baez has lots of long-term potential as a middle infielder with 30-homer power, but he struck out a ton in the minors and then hit .169 with 95 strikeouts in his 52-game debut for the Cubs. Those struggles have continued this spring, which is why it might be Tommy La Stella or Arismendy Alcantara playing second base on Opening Day while the 22-year-old Baez tries to get on track back at Triple-A.

At the same time, Maddon also made it clear that he realizes the strikeouts and out-of-control swings are part of the overall package that contains Baez’s big-time power potential, saying: “I think it bothers the fans more than it bothers me.”