Brett Jackson’s (failed, but smart) steal attempt of third and Starlin’s new loot.

 

Brett Jackson was just trying to help his team win a ballgame, dammit.   

Close, but no Cohiba cigar…

 

In the top of the 9th inning of Sunday’s series finale against the Cincinnati Reds, center fielder Brett Jackson stepped to the plate in a 4-4 game, with one out, and found himself facing arguably the game’s most dominant closer at the moment, Aroldis Chapman. Admittedly, I didn’t have much faith in Jackson, for a few reasons: Jackson hits left-handed, and lefties are hitting only .108 with an OPS of .310 against Chapman, as of today. Jackson is a rookie. I have seen Chapman pitch several times, and he’s done nothing but embarrass hitters. He didn’t merely retire them. He embarrassed them.

So was I ever surprised when Jackson took a 99-mph Chapman offering and laced it into the left-center gap for a standup double. Up next was the 8 hitter, catcher Steve Clevenger. Clevenger, of the .222 batting average and slugging percentage that resembles more of a good batting average (.304) was faced with the task of either driving Jackson home, or at least moving him over to third. Like Jackson, Clevenger hits left-handed, only he doesn’t have the pop that Jackson does. I seriously doubted that lightning would strike twice in the form of back-to-back lefties being able to get a hit off Chapman, so I had absolutely no qualms with what Jackson did on the 1-1 pitch to Clevenger.

On the pitch, Jackson attempted to steal third. He was thrown out, and the play wasn’t relatively close. This, of course, elicited a few “stupid” responses from the peanut gallery on Twitter, but I don’t think the play was stupid at all. In fact, I think it was a very smart baseball play. It was just poorly executed, from the very beginning.

Yes, I’m aware that Chapman routinely throws his fastball in the upper-90s. I’m also aware that Reds catcher Ryan Hanigan had an unimpeded throw to third, with a lefty at the plate. However, Jackson had a few things working in his favor. From what I have seen, Chapman does not use a slide step from the stretch. His delivery is not as “unorthodox” as it is from the windup, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that he’s quick to the plate from the stretch. Also, I saw neither Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips or shortstop Zack Cozart really making much of an attempt to keep Jackson honest at second. I suppose when you are playing behind a closer who strikes out about half of the hitters he faces, you just figure you don’t need to worry about baserunners.

Jackson, who is probably the team’s fastest baserunner, did not have a very good lead. He didn’t have a good jump, either, and during yesterday’s Cubs game, color commentator Bob Brenly stated as much, saying that Jackson was pretty much at a standstill when he took off for third. A poor lead and worse jump combined with a pitcher who delivers seeds to the plate and an unimpeded throw for the catcher will usually result in the baserunner being thrown out, regardless of how fast he is.

I believe this was a smart baseball play because Jackson was in scoring position with the 8 and 9 spots due up, and not the top of the order. Clevenger hasn’t shown much with the bat and if Chapman would have had to face the 9 hitter, we would have had to rely on who, third baseman Josh Vitters or catcher Wellington Castillo to get the job done? Castillo has the best bat of the three, but is certainly no Mike Piazza or Carlton Fisk with the stick. Hitters are hitting only .137 against Chapman and don’t draw many walks, either. So the cries that there could have been another hard-hit ball or base on balls were misguided, to say the least.  If Jackson safely stole third, then the Cubs would have been a weak single, moderately deep fly out, error, balk, wild pitch or passed ball away from scoring the go-ahead run. It’s a hell of a lot easier to score that way than pray to JesusAllahBuddha that the bottom of your order will pull a hit out of the bag.

Well, Of course, if Jackson were safe, I’m sure more people would have called it a smart play. I liked the aggression, and the (hopefully) understanding that the Cubs were about as screwed with him on second as they were when no one  was on base, largely because of the man on the mound. Jackson received no ire from me for the decision, and won’t if the Cubs are in a similar situation in the future and he attempts the exact same thing.

Well, I guess the “Trade Starlin” crowd can go away for the time being.

It was reported Sunday that shortstop Starlin Castro agreed to a 7-year, $60 million contract extension with the Cubs. The new deal covers four years of arbitration and three years of free agency, which saves the Cubs from having to pay Castro much, much, much more money in the future. Starlin was thought to be able to qualify for arbitration as a Super Two player at the end of the season, as well.

With it being well-known that Theoyer were looking to move as many pieces as possible with the intentions of restocking the Cubs’ depleted farm system, some characters thought that Castro should have been at the top of list. A 22 year-old shortstop who’s nowhere close to his prime and already a two-time All-Star, some felt that the haul the Cubs would have received in exchange for Starlin would have been more than enough to part with the baby-faced wunderkind. Some even suggested that the Cubs already have a replacement-in-waiting in shortstop Javier Baez. Baez, while talented and only 19, has yet to play above the high-A level. Perhaps Baez will be better, but it’s absurd to predict that without even having seen Baez square off against AA talent, which is usually where the cream of the crop in terms of prospects hone their skills.

Even though he can be maddeningly frustrating at times, I still view Starlin as the Cubs’ best player, and I’m positive that he’ll only get better. He’s regressed a bit at the plate this season, but has hit .320 with an OPS of .870 over the last two weeks. Starlin has been less selective and has swung and missed more, but he’s already set a career high in homers and will also set a career high in RBI, so long as he stays healthy for the remainder of 2012. What’s impressive is the fact that he has improved in the field this season, essentially across the board. Yes, he is still prone to the occasional mental hiccup, but I guarantee that he has already grown tired of being singled out for it, and hopefully, realizes that it’s for his own good, and not to show him up.

Although I am not a Tampa Rays fan, I liked their early extension of southpaw starting pitcher Matt Moore. There are some young players in Major League Baseball who are worth it, and guys of Matt Moore and Starlin’s caliber indeed fit that mold. I’m also happy to see Theoyer work ahead and not paint themselves into a corner by not extending Starlin now. At this pace, Castro surely would have improved to the point where by the time he reached free agency, his asking price could have very well been exorbitant.

The deal is not official yet, but the groundwork is in place. Barring any unforeseen hang ups, the deal will be done in roughly 1-2 weeks. Now all Starlin has to do is worry about self-improvement and this bargain of  a deal will go down as one of the best in Chicago sports history.

 

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