Elephant in Room at Winter Meetings

Regarding the state of the Cubs entering the December 2017 Winter Meetings, one should probably start with the elephant in the room.

Given his monthly paycheck, Jason Heyward will play every day or at least the days that can’t be justified as “rest,” and so the question becomes, where do you play your weakest hitter? Usually it’s shortstop or centerfield. Because Heyward roams right field like a centerfielder and also has a strong, accurate arm, he wins Gold Gloves there. But that’s a little unfair to other RF’s, who in addition to displaying a strong arm are required to hit with power. Heyward barely hits like a centerfielder and he’s a tad slow in the field and on the bases. But center is the only place he fits. I’ll pencil him in there for next year (and the four following).

That takes care of the elephant in the room, but unfortunately it also takes care of Albert Almora, whom I would prefer to have out there gliding around like–well, like DiMaggio. (There, I’ve said it.) He doesn’t hit like DiMaggio, but he hits better than Heyward.

I don’t necessarily like Ian Happ in right field, but there may still be a way to get Happ in the lineup and also fill the position in right field, where, I’m predicting, there will soon be a vacancy. Happ played a little third base in the season-ending series at home against the Reds, and I thought he sparkled in that role. Happ is no twinkletoes: he’s a little heavy and doesn’t glide to the ball smoothly, whether at second base or in the outfield. Third base requires no gliding, just quick reflexes and hands.

With Happ at third and Bryant moving to right field and with Heyward quietly–very quietly–holding down center, maybe the elephant exits the room.

In terms of the Winter Meetings, my guess is that Almora, out of necessity, gets traded, maybe along with Russell. Happ stays, Schwarber stays, Caratini stays.

Mallee had one job

Cubs fire Mallee!

Good: he deserves it. He had one job, to straighten out Heyward.

Heyward’s swing is a little slow. To fix that he could swing faster–which Mallee had him working on all last winter–or he could swing sooner. Heyward doesn’t like to swing sooner, because he’s a thoughtful, patient man who doesn’t like to swing at a bad pitch, or swing early on a breaking ball, and risk looking like he was fooled.

To hell with looking foolish. On a hitter’s count, think fastball, go all-in, and get the barrel out front where the ball is. You’ll save the team money on bats that break when you make contact too close to the handle. You’ll also save fans at Wrigley disappointment when the drives that start out promisingly–big man, big swing, good launch angle–seem to hit a wall and drop straight down, because you didn’t get the barrel on them.

It’s not rocket science. I called for Mallee’s canning last year, and I’ll call for someone else’s head next year if he doesn’t do something about this elephant in the Cubs’ room.

Pitching Prospects: Looking toward 2018

This is our ranking of pitching prospects going into 2018.

Prospects are ranked according to the formula K9-(H9+BB9). That’s strikeouts per nine innings minus the sum of hits-per-nine and walks-per-nine. Thus we only look at four numbers–innings, hits, walks, strikeouts. What else is there? Well, age is a factor. The lower the age, the higher the upside. The years work against you when you’re 25 and over, because you won’t get better and thus won’t be as good in the majors as you are now. But in the spirit of keeping things simple, I would rather not try to quantify the age factor. The reader will be expected to keep two balls in the air, the player’s age and my rightmost-column number based on innings, hits, BBs and Ks.

To make the list, you have to have pitched at least some innings at A-ball (South Bend) or higher. If you do that, then you’re on the list and your numbers at Eugene and even rookie league in Arizona are counted.

According to this ranking, the interesting starting pitchers on the Cub farm are Rucker, Alzolay, Swarmer, Frankoff, Tseng, Robinson, Hatch. (Cease, their best starter prospect according to this ranking, was sent to the White Sox in the deal for Quintana.)

The interesting non-starters on the list are Jhon Rhomero, Pedro Araujo, Dillon Maples, Dakota Mekkes, Craig Brooks, Jake Stinnett, Manuel Rodriguez, Yapson Gomez, Steve Perakslis, Elvis Diaz, Daury Torrez, Brad Markey, Chad Hockin, Alec Mills, Felix Pena–I’ll stop at the top fifteen. I give their first names because these are mostly unfamiliar names to many fans, including this fan. I omit the names of two relievers, Jack Leathersich and Pierce Johnson, who rank quite high but were cut loose by team management recently. That may seem an anomaly, but consider that they were both age 26. I would say that at the end of your age-26 year with this team and with no proven ability to pitch in the majors, your time has run out. By this rule, next year will be make-or-break for Dillon Maples with the Cubs.

Two-way baseball

A big Cub advantage and value-add (although it’s never mentioned) is that in the late innings, everybody out there can catch. Other teams are not so scrupulous about defense. Maybe the Brewers win the game Thursday if Broxton makes a fairly routine catch at the wall on Jay’s fly ball leading off the tenth. It would certainly be routine for Almora.

Teams deserve to lose if they don’t play two-way baseball. It’s a big advantage we’ll have over the Nats, too. It helps that Eaton is not expected to come back for the postseason. Michael Taylor plays CF like Broxton. I don’t think Turner is too great at SS, either. And Murphy, of course, is Uggla-ugly.

Alex Gonzalez, who shares 2003 Game 6, 8th inning NLCS ignominy with Bartman, was a Dusty-era bat-first shortstop.

Then there’s glove-first Javy, gaining maturity as a hitter, getting closer and closer, I think, to being the league’s MVP.

Trade bait

Russell, Baez and Happ are one middle infielder too many, and it will be interesting to see which one will be considered expendable, perhaps in the next offseason (or the one following) or perhaps much sooner if we consider Theo’s urge in the heat of July to push his chips toward the middle of the table. My expectation is that Baez and Happ stay.

Russell and (obviously) Baez are better gloves than Happ, but Happ can also get by in the outfield. And although any of three could become a slugger at some point, Happ came that way out of the box. It’s why they can’t get him out of the lineup. Even discounting his league-leading nine home runs in six weeks at Iowa, his thirteen for the Cubs project to forty over 600 at bats. With a 23rd birthday next month, Happ is six months younger than Russell, who is a year younger than Baez.

Most playoff games are tight, and that’s where Baez excels. He never tenses up. He might have found a permanent place at third base, but Bryant is showing himself fully equal to that job. On the principle that a player belongs at the hardest spot that he can handle competently, Bryant stays at third, Russell and Baez contend at shortstop, and whoever is left deals with Happ at second. It’s a bad time to be Ben Zobrist.

Will another shoe drop?

I knew they would trade Eloy, because that’s their MO, as long as they have a chance at the playoffs. The minor-league pitcher surprised me, because he’s supposed to be a stud and they need pitching, but Epstein tries not to rely on pitching prospects. So it was all inevitable once you appreciate Epstein’s boldness. He’s a real leader. The team will respond immediately to their leader’s aggressiveness.

I’m still amazed that last year he traded Gleyber Torres for a half season of Aroldis Chapman. I didn’t realize that was the case until, a few weeks after the World Series, Chapman said that the Cubs had never spoken a word to him about a contract. Theo would say they traded Torres for a parade.

That said, they could use another starting pitcher, and Baez wins the ultimate contest for value at shortstop (and now they have Happ to play second), so why wouldn’t Addison Russell be tradeable? The only answer to that is that Russell is having a down year professionally and personally.

Epstein’s boldness may be contagious, judging by how the Bears and Bulls behaved recently on draft days. I think it usually pays off, doesn’t it? Faint heart never won fair title.

Prediction

With the Cubs’ minor-league teams approaching the halfway mark (around seventy games), here are two predictions:

Tell me who the Cubs’ two best prospects are and I will tell you that they will be traded before the deadline. I’m referring to position prospects only. The Cubs certainly won’t be trading Dylan Cease. It’s arms like his that they will be trading for.

Dillon Maples will find his way to the big-league roster this season, probably sooner rather than later. He’s another elite arm.

Prognosis

Lester, Hendricks, Davis, maybe Edwards. You see any other good pitchers on this team? Any on the way?

The Cub brass needs a deal like the ones that once netted them Schilling and Beckett. I think that’s going to be their MO just like is was in Boston, because McLeod can draft hitters all day long but pitching talent eludes him.

They traded Hanley for Beckett and Gleyber for Chapman, so everyone is eligible, including Eloy.

Maddon knows nerves

At the time, I thought Maddon was overmanaging, but there’s something I might have been overlooking, something that was made vivid in the recorded conversation between Rizzo and Ross: the bad case of nerves that was afflicting the younger players like Rizzo but maybe not the more experienced ones like Ross. Maddon had to be careful to place most of the pressure on players who were veteran enough to handle it. Chapman was one of those players.

Rizzo’s voice was cracking while he tried just to talk about how nervous he was. We saw hints of shared nervousness on the field in various bobbles and weak underhand tosses plus several unaccustomed missed scoops throughout the postseason by Rizzo himself. By game seven, the Cubs were a great defensive team playing at about 75% efficiency. But the greatest display of nerves was by Carl Edwards, who got to two outs quickly, but then, one out away from being the guy who “catches the catcher” in his arms to begin the 108-years-deferred celebration, found it physically impossible to throw a ball over the plate above the knees, and had to be relieved. Maddon knows nerves, and tried very hard not to put Edwards in that spot in the first place. But Chapman was worn out. The immaturity/unreadiness of the rest of the bullpen is the reason he was worn out.

Edwards is a cool customer compared to Strop and Grimm, who cannot be given the ball in a save situation, let alone this one. Edwards had two saves this year, compared to zero by Strop and Grimm. Montgomery had looked tired and given up a walk and a hit in a one-inning appearance the day before. Rondon developed a sore triceps in August and needs the offseason to recover fully. Lester was himself tired by the eighth inning.

But what about the day before, when Chapman was summoned while the Cubs led by five runs? Two things: one, you go all out in elimination games, just to be sure you’re not saving someone for a game seven that never gets played; and two, you don’t actually want to watch two or three slumping Indian hitters break out with hits late in a game six. Let them continue to nap.

Maddon’s solution is a) win the Series anyway despite a tired and vulnerable closer, and b) let the nerves suffered this year cure themselves over time.

I thought, by the way, that Maddon was brilliant when he sent Chapman back out in the bottom of the ninth with instructions to throw mostly offspeed pitches. Not only was it brilliant but it actually worked. It’s hard to hit 103 even when you know it’s coming; but Chapman didn’t have 103 on Wednesday. So he resorted to what is commonly referred to as “pitching,” and was able to retire hitters easily with a mere 97 after softening them up with 89. Imagine Chapman having to pitch! I like my gods when they’re down-to-earth, with a touch of humanness, like Chapman (and Maddon) in game seven.

Guessing game

John Smoltz did a pretty good job of analyzing what everybody could see last night during game five of the World Series–everybody, that is, who wasn’t occupying a spot in the Cub dugout. What Smoltz diagnosed was Cleveland’s strategy with Baez at the plate. Throw him a first-pitch strike, Smoltz said, and then throw him chase pitches after that. After one strike, Baez would reliably swing at anything. That seemed to be Cleveland’s strategy, and Baez played true to form every time.

If Cleveland can tell its pitchers how to approach a hitter, then why can’t the Cubs say something to Baez? Why can’t they give him a script to follow? Here is a script that might have changed the odds at least somewhat in our favor: you, Javy Baez, may swing at the first pitch, but after that you must keep the bat on your shoulder for three pitches or one called strike, whichever comes first.

Whose job is it to rein in Baez, to curb his improvisational tendencies? I’ve heard Maddon say that he doesn’t give advice to his hitters. (He’s not Dale Sveum.) Not that he doesn’t have advice, but he doesn’t think it wise to get between a player and his skills coach, whether it’s hitting or pitching. The job of giving in-game instruction to Baez belongs to Mallee, the hitting coach.

I’ve been tempted to write about Mallee for several months now. I thought he should be fired, simply because the Cubs had a huge investment in Heyward and Mallee wasn’t helping him. Even if Mallee was giving helpful advice to everyone else in the lineup, Heyward was the one who mattered because he can’t be traded or benched. If the Cubs need to fire a hitting coach every season for the next seven years while they wait for Heyward to get back on track, so be it. Hitting coaches are fungible, expendable.

So it was nothing personal against Mallee, although, watching Baez the last several games, it’s starting to get personal. I have an observation or two to add to Smoltz’s.

Baez does frequently swing at first pitches, and they are usually fastball strikes; but he doesn’t do much with them. Invariably, he swings late at first-pitch fastballs. I’m no hitting coach, and I can’t break a swing down and analyze its components. But hitting is not all physical; and pitchers are mostly taking advantage of a weakness in Baez’s “approach,” a mental component of his game.

I think you have a better chance of hitting a fastball–of not being late–if you’re “looking fastball.” This means that you guess a little, and maybe cheat a little. You sell out, with the result that the swing might be early and awkward if you guessed wrong and the pitch is a breaking ball. But so what, it’s strike one, the same as if you had swung late on a fastball. Baez is a natural, instinctive player who, on the defensive side, where events happen somewhat randomly and unexpectedly, succeeds by letting the game come to him. In the batter’s box, the pitcher is not behaving randomly, trying to throw strikes and missing by a little here and a little there. He may purposely throw a pitch in the dirt, outside, followed by another similar pitch. And then another. He is following a plan. Baez needs a plan, if only so that he can put himself in the pitcher’s shoes and ask himself, If you were the pitcher, would you throw Javy Baez a strike on oh-and-two (or one-and-two or two-and-two)?

Baez needs a counter-plan. He needs help. No one is giving it to him. He can’t hear Smoltz. If he’s hearing anyone, it’s Mallee: apparently the sound of silence.

This business of chronically being late on fastballs also applies to Heyward. That’s interesting, since they have the same coach. Unlike Baez, Heyward seems very bright, cerebral even; but that doesn’t mean he’s not hearing, and giving himself, bad advice. Let’s assume that Heyward’s problem, like Baez’s first-pitch problem, is that he’s not “looking fastball” and not timing fastballs as though they were flung by a pitching machine dialed up to 96. As a thought experiment, imagine Heyward selling out on fastballs for at least a couple of pitches per at-bat. Don’t you think, under those circumstances, this huge fellow would occasionally square up a fastball and hit a bomb? Heyward hit seven home runs this year, one each in July, August and September. His longest traveled 401 feet. You can see it here. It landed in about the fifth row above the 368 sign in left-center in Wrigley. In summary: in 592 plate appearances, Heyward hit one ball 400 feet.

Dexter Fowler is an interesting contrast to Heyward. He’s a stringbean to Heyward’s jolly green giant. Fowler knows who he is, what he’s trying to accomplish. Basically, he tries never to swing at a ball. Like Heyward a big target, Fowler walked 79 times in 2016 compared to Heyward’s 54 (in 41 more PAs). In order to do that, Fowler must never be caught guessing. He’s not looking fastball, so when he gets one he has to catch up to it, which he is often able to do with his very quick late swing. Against Kluber the other day, Fowler hit two fastballs about as well as he can, but just was able to drive them to medium right field. Even so, he hits twice as many home runs as Heyward, but the pitches I see him really getting his body into are breaking balls, where he simply has more time to get everything moving in the same direction.

Heyward is trapped somewhere between Dexter Fowler and the slugger everybody has always wanted him to be. Today he is Fowler without the quick swing. He refuses to “look fastball.” He could probably do some damage on an offspeed pitch if someone would ever put one in his wheelhouse, but why would that ever happen?

Hitting with power is not rocket science, but it is a guessing game. A hitter may need to be coached on how to think like a pitcher and make an educated guess about what’s coming.