Russell Martin: He’s no Scott Servais, but he’ll do

Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Russell Martin is undoubtedly the best catcher on the free agent market, and a match for the Cubs. However, foregone conclusions are for suckers.  AP Photo -- Charles Rex Arbogast

Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Russell Martin is undoubtedly the best catcher on the free agent market, and a match for the Cubs. However, foregone conclusions are for suckers. AP Photo — Charles Rex Arbogast

31 years old and originally from Ontario, Canada, Russell Martin is a free agent at a very good time in his professional baseball career. Besides the fact that Martin is in a free agent class with fellow backstops J.P. Arencibia, John Buck, Ryan Doumit, Nick Hundley, Gerald Laird, Wil Nieves, AJ Pierzynski, David Ross, and Geo Soto–none of whom is really worthy of a starting job anywhere–Martin’s 2014 season was arguably the best of his career.

Stats, and the match.

Offensively, Martin finished with a triple slash of .292/.402/.430 and career-high wRC+ of 140. He also finished with a career-high fWAR of 5.3 and wOBAof .370, both good for third among Major League catchers in 2014 with at least 400 plate appearances. His isolated power (ISO) dropped for the third straight season to .140, but he did manage to rack up a solid 31 extra-base hits in 460 plate appearances while improving his walk rate for the fourth straight season to 12.8%. To round things out, Martin finished 19.4 offensive runs above average, good for fourth at his position.

Martin was very good behind the plate in 2014 as well, helping guide a Pirates pitching staff to much success (3.31 catcher’s earned run average, or “CERA”) and the team, a second consecutive postseason berth. Always above average in the run game, Martin threw out 39% of attempted base-stealers in ’14, just a tick off the 40% mark he put up in ’13. He was 14.9 defensive runs above average in ’14, fourth among catchers with 400 PAs, and right behind the 15.3 runs of the Chicago Cubs’ Welington Castillo. In addition, Martin finished second in stolen base runs (rSB) with 6 (again, just behind Castillo), sixth in good fielding play runs (rGFP) with 3, sixth in calculated passed pitches (CPP) with 57, and first in defensive runs saved (DRS) with 12.

Although there are a number of teams who would enjoy Martin’s services, most namely the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago White Sox, it appears that Martin and the Cubs would be the best fit. The obvious parallel between the Pirates and Cubs is that Martin played with young guys on the Bucs, a number of whom had progressed through the Pirates’ farm system since they were drafted. With the Cubs, Martin would be playing alongside young, fellow “core” guys who have been Cub lifers. As he was counted on to provide stability and leadership in a young Pirates clubhouse, he will likely be counted on to do the same in Chicago, even with the addition of new manager Joe Maddon and leadership of GM Jed Hoyer and club president, Theo Epstein. It appears the Cubs have already met with Martin and it’s easy to assume that Martin came away impressed with the club’s presentation.

The Incumbent.

Another part of this equation is the current Cubs’ “starting” catcher, Welington Castillo. At 27, it was thought not very

Cubs catcher Welington Castillo had a relatively fine 2013, but his subpar 2014 could have the Cubs looking at other backstop options.

Cubs catcher Welington Castillo had a relatively fine 2013, but his subpar 2014 could have the Cubs looking at other backstop options.

long ago that Castillo would be the Cubs’ catcher of the future. Likely, these things were thought immediately after a 2013 season in which Castillo posted a wRC+ of 107, DRS of 19, and fWAR of 3.3 in 113 games for a very, very bad Cubs team. 2014 came, and Castillo’s production dropped off quite considerably. His wRC+ dropped to 91, DRS to 5, and fWAR to 2.2 as the Cubs began taking their final steps towards baseball respectability.

It’s quite possible Castillo could still be the catcher of the future. Defensively, according to Fangraphs, he is still one of the league’s better catchers, and Martin isn’t far ahead of him in that area, even when going by advanced metrics. In addition, Castillo is just a year removed from also showing some of the offensive ability needed to be a productive, everyday catcher, and I can’t believe that has been lost, despite a 2014 for Castillo that simply was not very good.

Trend. Blip. Trend. Blip. Tr…

Martin’s offensive production should come with some red flags. Yes, a .402 OBP is very, very, very pretty, but Martin hadn’t posted an OBP above .347 since 2009, when he triple slashed .252/.352/.329 for the Doddgers. His OBP numbers in between 2009 and 2014, you don’t ask? .347, .324, .311, and .327. Those are actually respectably numbers for a regular catcher, but the Cubs wouldn’t be paying for that production. They would be paying more for his 2014 production, through at least 2016, I assume. Managing to hit .290 while being a regular catcher is difficult, but it’s somewhat aided by having a BABIP (batting average on balls in play) of .336, Martin’s highest mark since 2008. Once a strength, Martin is no longer a threat to steal bases the way he was early in his career, when he stole 60 bases in his first 4 seasons. Although you don’t exactly need your catcher to steal bases, I believe his decrease in production in that area is also a sign that he’s lost some of the athleticism that made him one of the league’s better all-around catchers. And while Martin isn’t exactly “old,” he has caught over 9,500 regular season innings to date and has caught in at least 107 games in every year except 2010. The first name that comes to my mind when thinking about Martin in free agency is 30 year-old New York Yankees catcher Brian McCann, who has also caught over 9,500 regular season innings. McCann just endured arguably the worst offensive season of his career after signing with the Yankees as a free agent last offseason, hitting 23 homers in ’14, but failing to post an OPS above .700 and, according to Fangraphs, coming in at 7.5 offensive runs below average. I’m not saying Martin will falter in the exact same way that McCann did, but the term “wear and tear” is associated with catchers for a very good reason.

The kids? Well…

The Cubs have depth on the farm when it comes to position players, but you’d have to venture far down the organizational rankings before finding a full-time catcher, and 27 year-old Rafael Lopez, while the closest to the majors, does not exactly inspire hope. 2014 first-round draft pick Kyle Schwarber caught in 20 of the 72 games he played in his first professional season, but he does not project as an everyday catcher, especially if the Cubs would rather have him on the ML club sooner than later. 21 year-old switch-hitting Victor Caratini came to the Cubs on July 31 in exchange for Emilio Bonifacio, James Russell, and cash, but is at least 2-3 years away from knocking on the Major League door. Also a third baseman, it appears the Cubs would rather Caratini focus on his work behind the plate, as he didn’t make one appearance at the hot corner in his 14 games with the Cubs’ Class A affiliate.

What are the Cubs to do?

Martin will likely seek at least a four-year contract, wherever he plays. Four years and $64 million seems fair, but he’ll probably wind up getting $80 million over five. The price is right, but the length is a tad long, if I’m Hoyer. However, Martin may very well be a better catcher than Castillo over the next two years and by then, it may be easier to move Martin to second base or the outfield to give him a break during the week (and from all of those terribly draining day games at Wrigley), while also allowing for someone in the Cubs’ system (Schwarber? Caratini? Boise Hawks’ catcher and 21 year-old left-handed hitting Justin Marra?) to begin making the transition to everyday Cubs’ catcher. As I noted above, foregone conclusions are for suckers, but the pieces (Martin, Cubs, money) definitely appear to fit. That’s got to mean something, right?

Dr. Edwin and Mr. Jackson.

Jackson in a 4/2 road start against the Pittsburgh Pirates.  Justin K. Aller -- Getty

Edwin Jackson in a 4/2 road start against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Justin K. Aller — Getty

Twice upon a time, Chicago Cubs starting pitcher (and definite journeyman) Edwin Jackson was one of Major League Baseball’s top pitching prospects. Then a Los Angeles Dodger, Jackson was widely regarded as a minor league arm to look out for, even though he hadn’t yet turned 20 years old. Jackson tore through the minors and made his ML debut on his 20th birthday, out-pitching Cy Young Award winner Randy Johnson to earn his first ML victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks. After his first “cup of coffee,” his numbers looked very promising: 4 G, 3 S, 22 IP, 2-1, 2.45 ERA, 17 H, 2 HR, 19/11 K/BB. Sure, his FIP (what a pitcher’s ERA should have looked like over a given period of time) was 4.12 and he struggled with control, not even posting a 2/1 K/BB ratio, but there was much reason to believe he would be at the least a good starting pitcher for years to come.

Unfortunately, Jackson spent the next two years going from the big leagues to the minor leagues and back, trying to regain the control that made him one of the minors’ best arms just a few years prior. In 2004 and 2005, he posted this line: 15 G, 11 S, 52.1 IP, 4-3, 6.88 ERA, 62 H, 9 HR, 29/28 K/BB. No longer a guy the Dodgers felt was a “can’t-miss” prospect, he and southpaw Chuck Tiffany were traded in January of 2006 to the then-Tampa Bay Devil Rays for pitchers Danys Baez and Lance Carter. Jackson pitched almost exclusively out of the bullpen in ’06 before becoming a full-time starter in ’07. He rebounded from a poor ’07 campaign to win 14 games in ’08, tying a then-Rays (Tampa Bay dropped the “Devil” after the ’07 season) record for most wins by a pitcher. The Rays made the postseason and reached the World Series before losing to the Philadelphia Phillies, but Jackson didn’t make a start, instead pitching 3 games out of the bullpen. Despite the demotion, it appeared that the 24 year-old Jackson would be a part of a scary Rays rotation and even scarier Rays team for a long time. And then, he was traded not even three months after the season, to the Detroit Tigers for outfielder Matt Joyce.

Since, Jackson has been traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks, Chicago White Sox, Toronto Blue Jays (for who he never pitched; traded later that day) and St. Louis Cardinals. He threw arguably the most bizarre no-hitter ever against the Rays in 2010. He made 30 starts over 2 seasons for the Sox, putting up a 11-9, 196.2 IP, 3.66 ERA, 174/57 K/BB line. He “unfortunately” won a World Series ring with the Cardinals in 2011. Jackson, after not getting much serious attention on the free agent market after that season, signed a one-year deal with the Washington Nationals, putting up respectable numbers in a great starting rotation before finally finding a little security and stability, thanks to your Chicago Cubs.

On January 2, 2013, Jackson signed a 4-year, $52 million contract with the Cubs, with $8 million of it allocated as a signing bonus. Promising, durable starter? Yes. Frustrating-as-all-hell starter? Yes.

2013 was…not so great for Jackson. He didn’t reach the 7th inning until his ninth start and lost 8 of his first 9 decisions, posting a ghastly 6.29 ERA along the way. Over roughly the next seven weeks, however, Jackson was one of the better pitchers in baseball, going 6-3 and seeing his ERA drop more than a point and a half while showing better control and working deeper into ballgames. Although “EJax” went on to lose seven of his next eight decisions, he didn’t pitch all that poorly, allowing 3 earned runs or less in six of his final eight starts. Final 2013 line: 31 S, 8-18, 175.1 IP, 4.98 ERA, 197 H, 16 HR, 135/59 K/BB. Jackson was immediately placed into the “free agent bust” category after the season, and for fairly good reason.

Was there really good reason to label him a bust? Jackson’s FIP was 3.79, a pretty good sign. His BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was .322, GB% (Ground Ball percentage) a career-high 51.3% (I don’t count 2006 because of the small sample size) and FB%, (Fly ball percentage) a career-low 28.4%. While Jackson had his outings in which he was absolutely shelled, the numbers above (and having actually seen most of his starts) will tell you that wasn’t always the case. Nearly. His HR/9 (home runs given up per 9 innings) was a respectable .82, so it’s not like he was allowing dingers left and right. And while it’s hard to blame the defense behind him when they posted a cumulative 26 DRS (Defensive Runs Saved), good for ninth in the majors, a lot of that was due to three regulars: 1B Anthony Rizzo, 2B Darwin Barney, and C Wellington Castillo, who posted a combined 46 DRS. In summation, Jackson was somewhere in between a below-average and bad luck starter, basically.

Enter 2014. I didn’t believe for a nanosecond that Jackson was as bad as his 2013 line, but I didn’t have the utmost confidence that he would rebound fully. Through 11 starts: 3-5, 63.2 IP, 4.81 ERA (3.22 FIP), 66 H, 4 HR, 61/24 K/BB. Now, say hello to both Dr. Edwin and Mr. Jackson:

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Believe me when I write that that’s essentially what Cubs fans have dealt with since EJax became a member of the Cubs. 2013 is in the past, but 2014 is certainly salvageable…provided Jackson never has to pitch in the first two innings ever again. In the first two innings, Mr. Jackson has been absolutely unpleasant: 22 IP, 9.41 ERA, 38 H, 3 HR, 20/12 K/BB. An opponent OPS of over 1.000 only makes it worse, as well as the fact that in a few starts, he’s given up an early lead his teammates provided him with. Over the next 3 innings, we have Dr. Edwin: 31.2 IP, 2.01 ERA, 19 H, 1 HR, 30/8 K/BB. Dividing starts by thirds, Jackson is a different pitcher in innings 1-3 than he is in innings 4-6, and I’m not exactly sure what can be done to rectify this issue.

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There’s no disputing that when EJax is on, we all enjoy seeing Dr. Edwin go to work. But, when he’s off, which is seemingly every other start or inning, Cubs fans (myself included) turn into angry villagers with pitchforks looking to run the monster (Mr. Jackson) out of town. It wouldn’t even be entirely accurate to say that he has one good start, then one bad one, and so on and so forth, because again, he goes from crud to champ sometimes from inning 2 to 3.

I feel all any of us can really hope for is that EJax falls somewhere in between good and bad, providing durability and reliable pitching. At $11 million a year, he’s not exactly expensive, but when an athlete is making 8 digits a damn year, you’d expect a bit more than inconsistency and maddening displays of prowess, failure, prowess, failure, etc. It doesn’t help matters that he’s pitching on a Cubs team that is probably a little worse (no Sori or Garza) than last year’s club, leaving the error-prone Jackson little room for, well, error. He may right the ship. He may not. He probably will. He probably won’t. Whatever the case, Dr. Edwin and Mr. Jackson are here to say. Let’s just hope that Dr. Edwin learns how to better suppress Mr. Jackson so long as he is a Chicago Cub.

Each 2014 Chicago Cub, in a (somewhat baked) nutshell.

Today is officially Opening Day for all of Major League Baseball and yes, that includes the Chicago Cubs, bless their incompetent hearts. If you haven’t already heard or read, the Cubs have a plan that involves not spending absurd amounts of money on free agents just to do so, as well as rebuilding their farm system so that it produces multiple significant contributors at the Major League level, as opposed to one every decade. I will give a brief rundown of each 2014 Chicago Cub, from 1-25 (not including several Cubs who will begin 2014 on the disabled list).

Pitchers.

SP Jeff Samardzija: The de facto ace of the Cubs’ staff, “Shark” is mostly a good starter who shows flashes of very good on occasion. He’ll likely be traded before the July 31 deadline or decide that life as a fourth receiver on the Bears isn’t so bad at all.

SP Edwin Jackson: I didn’t quite get the signing of Jackson to a 4-year, 52-million dollar deal before the 2013 season, which is really 44 mil after a signing bonus of 8 million. He was bad in 2013, but his FIP and xFIP suggests he’ll be better in 2014. Because, advanced metrics.

SP Jason Hammel: The former Baltimore Oriole was good a few years ago. Yeah…that’s about it.

SP Travis Wood: The southpaw was good in 2013, making 32 starts and posting an ERA of 3.11 in 200 innings. I doubt he’ll be as good in ’14, but I am looking forward to seeing him pinch-run late in a close ballgame.

SP Carlos Villanueva: Villanueva, a veteran swing, can keep his job by simply not being awful. Easier said than done.

LHP James Russell: Russell has been very good out of the pen the last two seasons and has made me forget all about my affinity for Sean Marshall.

RHP Pedro Strop: Strop could probably close for this team, but that job belongs to Jose Veras at the moment. Don’t worry, Pedro. After July 31, the gig will likely be yours.

RHP Justin Grimm: Grimm is just 25 and was a part of the trade that brought former Cub starting pitcher Matt Garza to Texas. Grimm was excellent in just 9 innings for the Cubs after the swap, and I guarantee Theo and Co. are praying he’ll be decent in ’14.

LHP Wesley Wright: The lefty and former Houston Astro should prove to be a valuable arm out of the pen and more importantly, adds to the color at Wrigley. Literally.

RHP Hector Rondon: Rondon had control issues in 2013, but then again, he was a Cubs pitcher in 2013, so it makes sense.

RHP Brian Schlitter: Schlitter graduated from Maine South High School, in Park Ridge, Illinois. And he’s tall.

RHP Jake Arrieta: I’ve liked Arrieta for a while now and was actually happy when he became a Cub after coming over in the Scott Feldman deal. He has the potential to easily fill a spot in the middle of the rotation, provided he’s healthy and not, you know, terrible.

RHP Kyuji Fujikawa: Fujikawa wasn’t all that bad–despite his numbers–before being shelved for the rest of the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. He’s still on the DL and probably won’t miss losing in relatively frigid temperatures.

RHP Jose Veras: Veras signed with the Cubs because obviously, he wants to pitch in low-pressure situations before being dealt to a contender during the peak of the season.

Catchers.

John Baker: I assume Baker is on the big league club because it’s wise to have at least two catchers on the 25-man roster and starter Wellington Castillo isn’t a robot, contrary to popular belief.

Wellington Castillo: A defensive stud, Castillo only has to get his bat going on a more consistent basis and he can be recognized as one of the game’s better young catchers. Catchers are so great, aren’t they?

Infielders.

SS Starlin Castro: After a bad 2013, things can’t possibly get any worse in ’14. Well, they definitely could, but I highly doubt they will. Expect Starlin to slash .300/.340/.420 and enrage old, White baseball writers in Chicago for years to come.

1B Anthony Rizzo: When everyone was gushing over the lethal work Rizzo was putting in as a minor leaguer in the Cubs’ system, I was patient to see what he would do at the ML level. Last year was definitely rough for him, but like, Starlin, he should improve this season. If not, I will begin chants of “Vo-gel-bach” wherever I go.

2B Darwin Barney: Barney is a whiz with the glove. At the plate, he stinks. If this were still 1955, Barney would be the perfect second baseman. Unfortunately for Barney, this is 2014, so start hitting the damn baseball, Darwin.

3B Mike Olt: I fully expect Olt to hit 25 homers and post an OPS+ of at least 105 because he can see now. I miss Valbuena already, though.

2B Emilio Bonifacio: I’d love it if Bonifacio could wrestle the job away from Barney. Then again, it’s not saying much to beat out Darwin Barney for that spot.

3B Luis Valbuena: Oh, Luis. You got robbed, man.

Outfielders.

Ryan Sweeney: I like Sweeney. Sure, if my team were legit title contenders, there wouldn’t be a spot for him, but yeah, I like Sweeney, nonetheless.

Junior Lake: Lake will have his “man” moments this season and if opposing pitchers have made adjustments, will frustrate the hell out of me even more.

Nate Schierholtz: Anyone else expect Schierholtz to not come close to duplicating his 2013 campaign? At best, he should be league-average. Good for the Cubs because they’re the Cubs.

Justin Ruggiano: Ruggiano’s OPS from 2011-13, yearly: .673 (2011), .909 (2012), .694 (2013). So…this means we should brace ourselves for Super Ruggiano in 2014, right?

Ryan Kalish: Not much should be expected of the 26 year-old pride and joy of Red Bank, New Jersey. Although, fist pumps after wins should be kept to a minimum.

Don’t try to figure out Edwin Jackson.

Cubs starter Edwin Jackson put it together in July, winning 3 of 5 starts and posting an ERA of 1.83.

Cubs starter Edwin Jackson put it together in July, winning 3 of 5 starts and posting an ERA of 1.83.

When the Cubs signed right-handed starter Edwin Jackson to a 4-year, $52 million contract this past offseason, I had mixed feelings. For beginners, Jackson is a durable, above-average starter, something the Cubs desperately needed and still need. On the other hand, the nomadic righty–Jackson has played for 8 teams in his 10-year career so far–has struggled and still struggles with bouts of inconsistency. There’s no arguing that Jackson is armed with a pretty healthy pitching arsenal, but it seems that for whatever reason, there is still potential left to be tapped.

The part of me that frowned on the hefty deal for Jackson was only validated after his first 10 starts. To that point, he was 1-7 with a 6.11 ERA in just 53 innings pitched. Jackson did suffer from a bit of bad luck here and there, as he wasn’t often hit hard, but hit often. Although anyone with sense expected a bad 2013 from the Cubs, no one was pleased to see the team’s big offseason acquisition stink it up the way Jackson was. It’s possible that Jackson hit rock-bottom in his 11th start, on June 2nd against the Arizona Diamondbacks. At Wrigley Field, Jackson gave up 12 hits and 5 earned runs (7 total) in an eventual 8-4 loss. Jackson’s record dropped to 1-8 and his ERA increased to 6.29. As far as 2013 was concerned, the Cubs weren’t getting close to a return on their investment in regards to Edwin Jackson.

But then, Jackson finished June on a somewhat respectable note, going 3-2 with a 4.65 ERA and 23/9 K/BB numbers in 5 starts. I was prepared to take that as about as the best we could possibly see from Jackson this season. The enigmatic Jackson had always shown flashes of dominance at times, but was mostly one of those “what if” guys who almost drew your pity. Once one of the top prospects in all of baseball, Jackson  never became the ace that he was predicted to be and instead, became simply, reliable. So going into July, I was just hoping that Jackson wouldn’t stink it up.

Of course, baseball happened. Jackson pitched well in consecutive starts–and wins–against the Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals, respectively. He pitched well enough to win in an eventual road loss to the Colorado Rockies before working into the 7th in a comeback road win against the San Francisco Giants. Jackson finished off July by posting his 3rd-best game score of 2013, pitching 8 innings of one-run ball against the Milwaukee Brewers. Making this start even more impressive was that Jackson’s start was interrupted by a 66-minute rain delay, but he returned to finish the 6th inning as well as the 7th and 8th in a 6-1 Cubs home win.

There probably weren’t too many starting pitchers worse than Jackson through his first 10 starts. By contrast, I’m not sure there have been too many who have been that much better than Jackson has been over his last 10 starts. In that span, Jackson’s line is:

6-3, 64.1 IP, 45 K, 15 BB, 52 H, 3.08 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 4 HR

That’s not exactly “scarily dominant,” but again, I’d bet that Jackson has been at least one of the better starters in baseball over the last 4-6 weeks or so. The contract he signed this offseason was the first long-term deal of his career, and it was only made more important by the fact that he was the first “big” signing of the Theoyer regime in Chicago. It’s safe to say that he may have been trying to do too much early on, or was just being Edwin Jackson. Regardless of whatever the case was, Jackson is giving the Cubs what they need, which is a durable above-average starter who gives them a chance to win more times than not. Keep it up, EJax.

Baseball is strange.

If you are a fan of baseball, then you are clearly a fan of oddities and surprises. Baseball is a sport that can be extremely unpredictable, and this can be both frustrating and entertaining. Everyday, I’m sure that as long as a Major League Baseball game is played, something weird will happen. Whether on the field or off, here are a few things I’ve found strange about the 2013 MLB season to this point. (In no particular order)

  • LA Dodgers LHP Clayton Kershaw is still without a contract extension. MLB owners and general managers have become much smarter over the last few years. Instead of allowing their control over homegrown players to expire, making them free agents, they have begun to give long-term extensions to players well before they hit free agency, and sometimes, even arbitration. Pitchers Matt Moore, Wade Davis and Ubaldo Jimenez, and position players Paul Goldschmidt, Jose Altuve and Carlos Santana were all extended by their respective teams before reaching two years of service in the bigs. Chicago Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro and first baseman Anthony Rizzo also received lengthy extensions early in their career. So how did we go from June to the trade deadline, with no extension in sight for Kershaw? Could someone explain why the Dodgers would take on so many large salaries and not “take care of” undoubtedly, their best and most important player? I don’t know. The LA Times reported over a month ago that Kershaw was upset that talks about his potential extension were leaked. That makes sense, I guess. All I know is that every team in baseball would do whatever it takes to acquire a pitcher of Kershaw’s caliber. He won’t be a free agent until after the 2015 season, giving the Dodgers plenty of time to work something out, but I guarantee others are already plotting. It’s not often that a 25 year-old southpaw coming off 3 straight seasons of a sub-3 ERA, 30+ starts/200+ innings and an ERA+ of at least 133 are even remotely available. Weird, but it will probably change soon.
  • Milwaukee Brewers CF Carlos Gomez has become a real baseball player, and a pretty good one, at that. One of my favorite baseball teams to watch just a few years ago was the Minnesota Twins. I am a fan of fundamentally sound baseball and while I’m not naive enough to believe that fundamentals begin and end with the Twins, I suppose their emphasis on it during games is what won me over. A player that seemingly never fit their scheme was CF Carlos Gomez. The 6’3″, 215-lb speedster always seemed to be in his own world whenever I saw the Twins play. It wasn’t very difficult to tell that Gomez was not without talent, but it also wasn’t very difficult to see that apparently, Gomez was still learning how to play baseball. He was traded to the Brewers in November, 2009 for SS JJ Hardy and struggled pretty badly his first two seasons in Milwaukee. After a solid 2012, Gomez has been one of the best centerfielders in all of baseball in 2013 as well as an All-Star. Through 100 games, Gomez has a triple slash of .303/.350/.550 to go with 17 HR and 52 RBI and is playing the best defense of his young career. It’s good to see Gomez finally seem to put it together, even if it sometimes comes at the expense of the Cubs.
  • Jean Segura’s adventures on the basepaths. I was fortunate to have been watching this game live, and my head damn near exploded when this happened. That, is baseball.
  • The Pittsburgh Pirates are on track for 82. 82 wins, that is, which would give them their first winning record since 1992, also the last year they made the postseason. With closer Jason Grilli on the shelf and their offense in need of a bat, as well as lefty starter Francisco Liriano taking almost everyone by surprise, some are simply waiting for the other shoe to drop and the Bucs to somehow find a way to miss the playoffs, similar to the 2011 and 2012 season. Currently at 64-42 and atop the National League Central, the Pirates could finish 18-38 and still finish 2013 with a winning record. I don’t see this team playing under .333 baseball the rest of the way, at all. While I’m not sure that they’ll hold up down the stretch against the St. Louis Cardinals (1.5 games back) and the Cincinnati Reds (6 games back), it is absolutely wonderful to see a franchise filled with so much ineptitude over the last two decades play this well, this late into the regular season.
  • The Chicago Cubs are employing a strategy. A REAL STRATEGY. I’m well aware that even though the Cubs have played surprisingly well in 2013, they’re still 10 games under .500. I understand that most of the team’s brightest prospects are at the lower levels and probably won’t make an impact at the big league level until 2015, at the earliest. In spite of $500 million in renovations to Wrigley soon to come, I do realize that renovations don’t translate to wins on the field. Still, dammit, it’s so much less stressful to watch the Cubs go through 162 games of a lost season and know that a plan is in place. Hell, a viable plan, if I can be so generous. Theoyer decided that with 2013 (and possibly 2014, too) being a lost cause, the plan would be to stockpile as much young talent as possible. How? By signing veterans to cheap, team-friendly deals in the offseason, hoping they pan out, and jettisoning any talent on the Major League roster that isn’t relatively young. So far, Scott Hairston, Carlos Marmol, Scott Feldman, Matt Garza and Alfonso Soriano have been moved, and the youth the Cubs received in return has been mostly praised. An already-strong farm system is now unequivocally one of the entire league’s best. There are definitely still kinks to be ironed out in regards to the ML roster, but with a few interesting free agents on the horizon as well as plenty of pieces on the farm to promote or include in a blockbuster deal, things ain’t too bad for the Cubs right now, all things fairly considered.

Sayonara, Mr. Soriano.

Today, the Chicago Cubs officially traded leftfielder Alfonso Soriano to the New York Yankees for pitching prospect Corey Black. The Cubs will pay $17.7 million of the $24.5 million remaining on Soriano’s contract after he waived his no-trade clause and accepted a move back to the team that gave him his start in the majors. This move was inevitable, and so was the mixed reaction from the Cubs fanbase, which ranged from “Finally, that lazy bum is outta here” to “WE’LL MISS YOU, AL!!!”. Attempting to be as objective as I can, though, he was both a joy and sometimes, pain to watch during his tenure with the Cubs.

Love…

Oh, the joy when it was reported that the Cubs, fresh off a 2006 season that was and is arguably the worst of my lifetime, were aggressively pursuing free agent LF Alfonso Soriano, previously of the Washington Nationals. Then-new Cubs manager, Lou Piniella, speaks Spanish fluently and it was suggested that this would only put the Cubs further ahead of other teams. It also helped matters that the Cubs’ brass had been given the green light to throw large amounts of loot at players.

Before Sori signed his mammoth 8-year, $136 million contract, he turned down extension offers of $50 million and $70 million from the Nationals. The Houston Astros and Philadelphia Phillies expressed interest, the latter looking for protection for a once-frightening first baseman, Ryan Howard. Supposedly the Los Angeles Angels offered Soriano $80 million over 6 years plus the chance to play second base, but he obviously turned down the chance to botch grounders while forcing Howie Kendrick to play out of position.

Allegedly, Soriano wanted a contract similar to the 7-year, $119 million one that a 27 year-old, switch-hitting centerfielder Carlos Beltran had received from the New York Mets after the 2004 season. Never mind that Beltran had just missed the 40-40 plateau in ‘04, or that in the postseason, he hit .435, slugged 1.022 and hit 8 homers while driving in 17 in just 12 games. I assume that while even Sori had to have known that he wasn’t the player, at 30, that Beltran was at 27, he brought a different skillset, especially from the leadoff spot. Soriano has been listed at 6’, 180 pounds for as long as I’ve known, which makes his hitting 24 homers in 78 games at the cavernous RFK Stadium in 2006—once the decrepit home of the Nationals—all the more impressive. In 131 games batting leadoff, he put up a line of .294/.368/.588 for a Nationals team that was downright awful. He led all National League outfielders in assists in his first season as an everyday outfielder. It didn’t seem that he would break down over the length of a long contract, in part because of his slender frame.

The signing just made sense, even though I think mostly everyone knew the years and money were too much, collectively. The Cubs would get their leadoff man, a 30-30 guy at the least for the next 4-6 years, and someone who could make things happen at bat, on the bases and in the field. A freakin’ dynamo.

All was well even though Sori started off very slowly with the Cubs. What mattered was that he was a man possessed in the last two weeks of the regular season, hitting .367 and slugging .833 as the Brewers finished choking away the division, allowing the Cubs to win the 2007 division crown. While I don’t agree with some opinions that he singlehandedly carried the Cubs to the playoffs, it was shocking that he finished only 12th in MVP voting. The Cubs were 73-61 in his starts and if Soriano played all 162 games in ’07, his numbers extrapolated would have been 40 homers, 84 RBI, 50 2B, 23 SB. Hell, even if he could have gone out there for 150, his line would have been 37/78/47/21. Hitting leadoff. And on a 2008 Cubs team that was in my opinion the best in all of baseball, he almost matched his HR-RBI numbers (29-75) while equaling his ’07 stolen base total of 19 and walking more (43 to 31) while playing in only 109 games due to injury. It’s scary to think that this was a leadoff man on a pace for 40 HR/100 RBI if he could have managed to play 150 games, at the least.

With two division crowns—albeit two embarrassing sweeps that we won’t discuss right now—in the first two years of what appeared to be a new regime of sorts, there really wasn’t much reason to bitch about anything Cubs-related.

The pain.

Again, there was something funky about this deal from the start. Signing a player who is 30 years old to an 8-year contract is just risky business, even if he’s been a healthy player throughout his career. To compound this mistake, Sori was given a back loaded deal which called for him to make just $41 million from his age 31-33 seasons, but $95 million from age 34-38. Topping it off was the dreaded no-trade clause. If it wasn’t bad enough that his albatross of a contract would scare off potential trade partners, the Cubs gave the man the ability to be presented with an opportunity to be moved and respond, “Nah, I’m good.”

For his gaudy contract, I do not fault Alfonso Soriano. Nor do I understand why anyone of sound mind would. I love pizza, and if someone were to offer me $136 million over 8 years to eat pizza about 200 days a year, I’d happily sign my eating rights away. However, there will always be some resentment towards the player in this kind of situation because he, well, signed the deal. It’s true; professional athletes have taken cuts in pay. But this was Soriano’s first chance at a long-term, sizable contract. It’s not the Cubs’ fault that they were duped by a pretty good player who had always been surrounded by great—and sometimes advantageous—circumstances.

First, Soriano became the Yankees’ everyday second baseman in ’01, at 25 years old. 25 is probably about that age when most organizations figure whether or not a prospect is ever going to cut it, but Sori’s situation was different. He had already spent a few seasons playing in Japan. It was rumored that he didn’t like the rigorous practice and workout routines, which is how he ended up “privately” auditioning his skills for a few Major League teams and ended up with the Yankees. I’m not aware of his organizational ranking before 2001, but I can assure you that on a roster like the Yanks’ around that time, he wasn’t going to be counted on to be a savior.

After being traded to the Texas Rangers, he was given the chance to play a more prominent role on a young, Buck Showalter-led team that featured a lineup with first baseman Mark Teixeira, shortstop Michael Young, third baseman Hank Blalock and Kevin Mench. Despite playing in a hitters’ park with good hitters around him in the starting lineup and on the bench as well, Soriano wasn’t quite the force that he was on the ’04 team that finished 89-73, but wound up third in the division. After a better ’05 but a much worse team record, he found himself in DC where again, he put up monster numbers in a losing effort.

You’re damn right I noticed that Soriano was more than likely trying like a madman to get to the 40-40 mark in a lost 2006 season with the Nationals. I had only seen him play in the outfield a handful of times, but didn’t understand why he thought he could go from second baseman to centerfielder so easily. His reported defiance of then-Nats manager Frank Robinson in 2006 irked me, mostly because I love Frank Robinson and if he tells your ass to go play middle second field, you just find a glove and go do it. I figured someone was going to wildly overpay Soriano, but just didn’t honestly believe that the Cubs had the balls to do it. Skill-wise, Sori has never been the ideal leadoff hitter from a prototypical standpoint. He strikes out way too often and doesn’t walk nearly enough. He definitely had his times during the Cubs in which he put them on his back for several weeks, but there were also substantial stretches of play in which the guy was simply hard to watch, whether chasing a wayward slider for the umpteenth time or misplaying a ground ball. I think it’s insane when fans comment on athletes and the effort they put in, but I’d love for someone to prove to me that Sori gave 100% effort, every day he was out there. This is not an indictment of Sori, but rather the realization that it’s almost unreasonable to expect any person to give maximum effort at such a high level on a repeated basis.

Moving on.

It would be great if we could just like and dislike professional athletes as we choose, within reason, of course. I once argued with some character on Twitter that booing a guy like Sori, especially when you’re a fan of the Cubs, is perfectly fine. It’s perfectly fine in the way that fans can get him to take a curtain call after having a fantastic day at the plate. I have booed Soriano for taking a rather circuitous route on a misplay of a fly ball only to eventually commit a throwing error. I have defended Soriano after a few geniuses booed him for not running to first after a dropped third strike…even though first base was occupied and there were less than 2 outs. There have been times when Sori looked every bit worth the 8 years, $136 million. And there have definitely been times in which I’ve wanted to see him moved for a sturdier Gatorade cooler and Big League Chew. I don’t see the purpose of giving him a standing ovation should he have another plate appearance in Wrigley. On the same note, I wouldn’t understand why anyone would harbor hard feelings towards him. He won’t get credit from me for being a “class act” or “pro’s pro.” The man gets paid a king’s ransom to play a kid’s game. The least he could do is be not an asshole.

Nothing against Sori, but I won’t miss him all that much, only because players come and go with such a frequency nowadays that if you are really into a particular team, it would be unwise to let sentiment creep into fandom. Sure, he was a mostly good player, and sometimes he was very good. But he and other former Cubs had a window of opportunity, and I feel that his exit has officially closed it shut. This deal is symbolic in just that sense.

Because I saw the man play over 6-, 700 times, I’ll remember the poor plate discipline, defensive miscues, baserunning errors, mental lapses and frustrating trips to the disabled list. At the same time, I’ll remember his ridiculous plate coverage, all of the incredible outfield assists, the bursts of speed, clutch performances and his ability of late to play through the pain and be a productive player. Alfonso Soriano was a Cub, and nothing else. I thank him no differently than I would Juan Guzman, Kevin Foster, Scott Servais or any of the other guys who put on that Cubs uni, only to later move on.

Junior Lake. NBA Summer League. TRADES.

23 year-old Cubs IF/OF was called up in time for the start of the team’s current road series against the Colorado Rockies. I admit, I was excited about the news. The Cubs have the opportunity to showcase young talent, in a lost season. Why not take advantage of that as soon as possible? So, when I heard that not only would Lakwme be promoted to the big leagues, but play center field as well…yeah. Yeah, yeah, Lake has only played 2 games so far, so there’s no need to cite any superficial numbers. And while Lake wasn’t by far among the more celebrated prospects during his time on the farm, he was still on the radar; a top-20 guy, easily. Despite the on-field calamities, it’s great that Cubs fans can at least get a glimpse of the future in some form.

I think I love you, NBA Summer League…

I am in love with baseball, but sometimes I mess around with basketball. There is an artistry to the game at times that is better than anything in any other sport. Perhaps it has to do with the overall rhythm of the sport, or that if you had to play basketball on wax, it would probably sound like jazz, but it’s hard to deny just how smooth basketball can be.

And then there’s the NBA Summer League, a tournament-style league for NBA rookies, hopefuls and some vets who still aren’t basketball players yet. It is sloppy, ugly, herky-jerk, selfish, clogged, bogged down, dumbed down and for every Gary Neal, there are dozens of 20-somethings from the league who won’t spend their June playing in the NBA Finals. They’ll be back home, working a “gig” until it’s time for basketball again.

Yet, as awful as the NBA Summer League is most of the time, I now have found that it is not “wack.” It’s simply different. These are different players, different refs, different coaches (mostly) and different circumstances, almost entirely. So what if 90% won’t do much in the following calendar year, 1st-round picks included? The playground-style is appealing, which is often the case because players are trying to make a statement. Fans get behind no-name guys after a mini-hot streak. EVERY PLAYER WEARS DIFFERENT SNEAKERS. The regular season may be jazz, but it’s summer is definitely gangster rap.

Do something, Theoyer!

Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer know more about the Cubs and baseball than I do, generally speaking. I am man enough to admit this. They shouldn’t feel pressured to do anything by someone such as myself, regardless of what Jim Hendry or Steve Stone told them. So if Matt Garza is still a Cub because they weren’t happy with the medicals of the Rangers’ prospects, I don’t understand any perceived fault in that. If they didn’t like the return, so be it.

Admittedly, I’m anxious to see how they handle this Matt Garza mess. I’m sure there will be more difficult hurdles to overcome down the line, but this whole “Garza Trade Watch” crap is annoyingly exciting. Trade him, keep him and re-sign him, keep him and let him go in the winter for a compensatory pick; any choice and the front office will take shit for it. This is why I love baseball. This is why I love Cubs fans.