2020 Final Standings

In the summer of 1984, I was 9 years old and that is the earliest summer that I’ve been able to identify a specific baseball game that I attended.  For the next 36 years, I’ve been to a least one game and, in more recent times, it has become one of the defining activities of my summer.  Until this year, when the corona virus shut down the season for nearly 4 months and the remaining 2 went off without fans.  Of course, it also was the first season both Chicago teams made the post-season since 2008.

Now that both teams have been eliminated, it is fair to say that they are moving in opposite directions.  After 7 straight losing seasons, the White Sox rebuild finally started to show the promise that had been promised, finishing in second place and posting their highest winning percentage since 2005.  There is still some room for improvement, especially in the starting rotation, and the way the last week of the season went down is a valid cause for concern, but the future does look a whole lot brighter on the south side than it has in quite some time.

On the north side of town, you get the feeling that the contention window is closing rapidly.  After missing the playoffs last year, Theo Epstein said that major changes would be in play heading in to 2020.  For various reasons, the only big change was in the manager’s office and the team that ultimately took the field in 2020 was nearly identical to the 2019 version.  As this shortened season went on, the results didn’t look all that different either.  Thanks to early season success and a COVID outbreak for the Cardinals, they were able to coast to the division title, which again masked some of the team’s hitting problems.  Those problems came to the forefront in the quick 2 game series against the Marlins.  With big pieces of the core heading towards free agency in the next 1-2 years, and coming off a season with crashed revenues and even lower offensive production, it may be difficult to make any substantial moves while getting reasonable value back in return.

Adios Addison

When the Cubs first acquired Addison Russell on July 4, 2014, they thought they were getting a cornerstone of their rebuild that would roam the middle of the Wrigley Field infield for years to come.  In 2015, he supplanted Starlin Castro at shortstop and, the following year, he hit a grand slam in game 6 of the World Series, helping the Cubs win their first title in 108 years.  3 years later, his time with the team has come to an end, as the Cubs declined to tender him a contract on Monday.

On the field, Russell has failed to take that next step.  His OPS+ dropped in both 2017 and 2018, before rebounding slightly this year.  He was sent to Triple A this summer after admitting he needed to be “more familiar” with the team’s signs.  On top of his diminishing performance, his off the field baggage made keeping him untenable.

Russell missed the first 28 games of 2019 to complete his domestic violence suspension tied to a September 2018 Instagram post by his now ex-wife containing accusations of physical and emotional abuse.  After initially denying the accusations, Russell decided to accept the suspension without appeal and agreed to participate in a comprehensive treatment program.

By all accounts, the Cubs should have cut bait last offseason, but they decided to take a chance at recovering any value Russell still had and tendered him  a contract for 2019.  The same was not true this time around.  President of baseball operations Theo Epstein boiled down the decision to a financial one, saying, “We decided to non-tender Addison Russell today simply because the role we expected him to play for the 2020 Cubs was inconsistent with how he would have been treated in the salary arbitration process.”

With the emergence of Javy Baez, there isn’t a pressing need for Russell’s services.  Given the bad press the team has weathered over the past few years around Russell and their acquisitions of Aroldis Chapman and Daniel Murphy, it was time to cut bait.  To be perfectly honest, this is probably the best move for Russell as well, giving him the opportunity to re-start his career somewhere else, without the scrutiny of the Cub spotlight.

What To Do With Addison Russell?

When the Cubs first acquired Addison Russell on July 4, 2014, they thought they were getting a cornerstone of their rebuild that would roam the middle of the Wrigley Field infield for years to come.  In 2015, he supplanted Starlin Castro at shortstop and, the following year, he hit a grand slam in game 6 of the World Series, helping the Cubs win their first title in 108 years.  And its been downhill since then.

On the field, Russell has failed to take that next step.  His OPS+ dropped in both 2017 and 2018.  He set career lows in home runs in 2017 and again in 2018.  His errors per chance increased both years.  That alone would leave reasonable questions about his future with the franchise.  His performance on the field, however, is nothing compared to the nightmare he has turned into off the field.

In June of 2017, an Instagram post by a friend of his wife’s accused Russell of domestic violence.  Russell denied the accusation and, while MLB opened an investigation, he wasn’t suspended.  At the 2017 All Star Game, Scott Boras, Russell’s agent, seemed confident that his client would be absolved of any wrong-doing.  “I think we know the facts of that and the foundation of social media,” Boras said that day.  “I don’t think there is any support to (the allegation).”

Everything was quiet until late September 2018, when Russell’s now ex-wife posted on Instagram, detailing some of the physical and emotional abuse that she claims Russell put her through.  Russell again denied the allegations, but was placed on administrative leave for the remainder of the season, including the playoffs.  On October 4, Russell was suspended for 40 games, retroactive to September 21 and spilling into the beginning of the 2019 season, becoming eligible to play on May 3, barring any early season weather issues.

Per a statement, Russell decided to accept the suspension without appeal and will also participate in a confidential and comprehensive evaluation and treatment program, which will be supervised by MLB’s Joint Policy Board.  “After gaining a full understanding of the situation, I have concluded it’s in the best interest of my family to accept MLB’s proposed resolution of this matter,” Russell said in the statement released by his attorneys.  “I wish my ex-wife well and hope we can live in peace for the benefit of our child.”

The Cubs had an easy out at that point, but instead decided to tender Russell a contract for 2019 last month.  President of baseball operations Theo Epstein called the decision a “procedural step” and said it did “not represent the finish line nor rubber stamp his future” with the club.  “It does, however, reflect our support for him as long as he continues to make progress and demonstrates his commitment to these important issues,” Epstein added.  In a statement released by the Cubs, Russell said, “Since accepting my suspension, I’ve had time to reflect on my past behavior and think about the next steps I need to take to grow as a person.”

Earlier this week, more details about the abuse were released by Russell’s ex-wife while additional allegations were made by a former girlfriend and mother of Russell’s daughter.  Unfortunately for the Cubs, they can’t rid themselves of Russell now even if they wanted to.  Until Russell signs a contract for 2019, he is in a bit of a limbo.  That is, assuming, that the Cubs want to rid themselves of Russell and the headache that he brings to the table.

With the emergence of Javy Baez and the availability of Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist, there isn’t a pressing need for Russell’s services.  Given the bad press the team has weathered over the past few years regarding their acquisitions of Aroldis Chapman and Daniel Murphy, one would think it would make sense for the Cubs to move on at this point.  It would also likely be beneficial for Russell to re-start his career somewhere else, without the scrutiny of the Cub spotlight.

Playoffs!

2016playoffs

For the second consecutive year, a Chicago team is in position to start selling playoff tickets to their season ticket holders.  The Cubs are running away with the National League Central title and are looking for their first World Series appearance since 1945.

Thanks to a randomly selected combination assignment, I would end up with tickets to a home Wild Card game, should the Cubs collapse like its 1969, all Division Series home games, the home games 1 and 3 of the Championship series, and, due to the AL winning the All Star Game, games 4 and 5 of the World Series.  Unlike past playoff appearances, it seems I would have my normal tickets for the first two rounds, before moving much closer to home plate but 7 rows up for the World Series.

The Cubs have little left to prove in the regular season and will need to exorcise some post-season demons after getting swept out in their last 3 appearances as the organization starts to reap the benefits of the years of work starting with the hiring of Theo Epstein in 2011.

The Starlin Castro Era

Starlin+Castro+Chicago+Cubs+v+San+Diego+Padres+2sR4jFdXnUplBefore Kris Bryant, before Addison Russell, before Anthony Rizzo, there was Starlin Castro.  Hailed as the next big star when he debuted as a 20-year old in 2010, Castro quickly became a bright spot on what had become a disappointing Cub team, finishing 5th in Rookie of the Year voting.  2 years later, he signed a long term deal intended to keep him on the north side of Chicago through 2020.  Unfortunately, continued defensive lapses, sagging offensive production, and, chiefly, the emergence of Russell as the new long term solution at shortstop made Castro expendable.  Yesterday, the Cubs announced they had come to an agreement to send Castro to the Yankees for pitcher Adam Warren and shortstop Brendan Ryan.

Castro’s tenure with the Cubs had its ups and downs.  A 3-time All Star, Castro was the lone young star on the team when Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer took over baseball operations following the 2011 season.  During the long rebuilding process, he, along with Rizzo, were the faces of the franchise.  But his frequent defensive lapses, where he would lose concentration and find himself unaware of what was going on around him, caused embarrassment and occasional punishment.  This past season, as the rebuilding efforts were starting to bear fruit, Castro found himself losing his starting job and relegated to a part-time player at a new position.  His Cubs tenure ended with a 2 for 16 performance in the NLCS loss to the Mets.

The Cubs wasted little time in replacing Castro, announcing the signing of Ben Zobrist to a 4 year deal prior to announcing the trade.  Zobrist had been a favorite of Joe Maddon’s in Tampa and looks to be the starting second baseman for the Cubs heading in to 2016.  Meanwhile, the expectation is that Starlin Castro will now fill that same role for the Yankees.

Playoffs?

2015playoffsFor the first time since 2012, a Chicago team is in position to start selling playoff tickets to their season ticket holders.  The Cubs hold a slight lead on the second wild card and are preparing for their first post-season appearance since 2008.

Thanks to a randomly selected combination assignment, I would end up with tickets to a home Wild Card game, should the Cubs overtake the Pirates, all Division Series home games, the first 2 home games of the Championship series, and games 3 and 4 of the World Series.  Unlike past playoff appearances, it seems I would have my normal tickets for the entire run.

The Cubs still have some work to do on the field to make sure all this preparation isn’t for naught, but the organization is starting to reap the benefits of the years of work starting with the hiring of Theo Epstein in 2011.

A Dog & Pony Show

cubseventOver the weekend, the Cubs put on a number of presentations for their season ticket holders reviewing the progress over the past year and the plans for the upcoming year.  I attended the early presentation on Saturday, which featured President of Business Operations Crane Kenney, general manager Jed Hoyer, and radio play by play man Pat Hughes.

Crane Kenney kicked things off with a review of that morning’s official ground breaking for the newly dubbed 1060 Project, the rehab and expansion of Wrigley Field.  He followed up on that with multimedia presentations covering, among other things, the new spring training facilities, the new baseball academy in the Dominican Republic, and the goals behind the renovations at Wrigley Field.

Jed Hoyer was next on stage, covering the baseball side of things.  His initial focus was on the development of the major league roster, including Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, and, surprisingly, Luis Valbuena.  The pitching staff remains a work in progress and should be a focal point of this offseason.  Hoyer also went out of his way to point out that signing Edwin Jackson may have been a mistake.  Finally, Hoyer addressed the young future of the team, starting with Javy Baez, Jorge Soler, and Arismendy Alcantara, covering both the successes they had and the struggles they faced in the big leagues.  He followed that up with a look at the minor leagues, including Kris Bryant, Albert Almora, Addison Russell, Billy McKinney, and Kyle Schwarber.

When Hoyer was done, he was rejoined on stage by Kenney and moderator Pat Hughes for a brief Q & A session with the audience.  Nothing of much substance was covered during this part of the presentation.  Overall, it was a well put together event with only one downside: an audience full of demented Cub fans.

One older gentleman spent the time before the program began telling everyone who would listen that Theo Epstein has no business holding his job because he once attended a panel at the Cubs Convention wearing a red shirt.  While focusing in on red being a “Cardinal color”, this scholar has missed out on the fact that it is also one of the colors of, yep, you guessed it, the Chicago Cubs.  Another fun group of gentlemen were the mid-20s former frat boys sitting behind me who wondered 1) why there were so many women at an event for season ticket holders and 2) if throwing your wife down a flight of stairs should really count as domestic violence.  The Cubs spent the afternoon trying to convince their customers to renew their season tickets.  Some of their fans did their best to undo the efforts, just by being themselves.

The Future Is Now?

darwin-barneyThe Cubs finally reached down to their highly-touted farm system back on July 9th when they called up Arismendy Alcantara, a 22 year old who had signed with the Cubs following the 2008 season, to take Darwin Barney’s spot on the roster while he went off to have a baby.  Thanks to the subsequent trade with Oakland and the All-Star break, the Cubs managed to keep Alcantara with the big league club.  Today, with Emilio Bonifacio due to be activated off the disabled list, they could have sent him back down and continued to work towards possibly contending at some point down the line.  Instead, the Cubs decided to stick with Alcantara, for the time being at least, and designated new papa Darwin Barney for assignment.  For the first time in the Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer era, the Cubs went with a legitimate prospect at the big league level over the established, if less talented, veteran.

What does this mean for Barney?  Well, the Cubs have 10 days to either trade him, release him, or convince him to accept a minor league assignment.  Since he became a regular in 2011, Barney has steadied the right side of the Cubs infield, even winning the Gold Glove in 2012.  Each year, though, his offense has declined, to the point where he was not going to get regular playing time even if he stuck with the Cubs.  There are contenders out there, namely the Blue Jays or the Giants, who are looking for help at second base, but might need more offense than Barney can provide.  Chances are he will end up being released, free to sign a minor league deal with the team of his choosing.

Barney’s time with the Cubs coincided with my not going to very many Cub games, so I’ve only seen him play in person 4 times in his 5 seasons with the club.  Ironically, he did hit in those games, going 5 for 15.  His time with the Cubs was numbered, as eventually the “Core Four” and other prospects, like Alcantara, will be given the chance to take over.  Unfortunately for him, the Cubs decided that, at least for Alcantara, the future would start now.

A Party 100 Years In The Making

1922-Chicago-Cubs-UniformThe Cubs, headed up by Theo Epstein and Crane Kenney, put on a dog and pony show for their season ticket holders over the weekend, where Epstein gave updates on the on-field product and Kenney gave updates on the plans to rehab Wrigley Field.  I had planned on attending the session on Saturday at noon, but found myself unable to make it downtown.  However, it doesn’t seem as though I necessarily missed much that hasn’t been reported online elsewhere.

The big news coming out of the presentations was the plans for next season surrounding the 100th anniversary of Wrigley Field.  A commemorative patch will be on the sleeve of the home jersey and the side of the cap.  There will also be a new road alternate jersey, based on those worn during the 1920s.  They gray jerseys will have “CUBS” across the front, in the same font as the 1922 jersey.  The lettering will be blue with a thin white outline, and the player’s number will be on the lower left in red with white outline.  Blue piping will run down both sides of the buttons and around the collar, while blue and white piping will be near the cuff of each sleeve.

There will be 10 straight weekend homestands dedicated to the 10 decades at the ballpark, beginning with the 1910s.  On Fridays of those homestands, the team will give a unique bobblehead honoring an individual or event from that decade.  On Sunday, the Cubs and the opposing team will wear uniforms from that celebrated decade.  Concession stands also will present decade-themed food.

While the 10 bobblehead giveaways could be awesome, the lack of night games on Fridays means that I will not have tickets to any of those games.  Depending on who (or what) it is, it may be worthwhile to make an extra trip for one or two of them.  The throwback games on Sundays could also be a good time.  The Washington Nationals are coming to town smack dab in the middle of the season, meaning they would have to be included as one of the 10 consecutive homestands.  Assuming the throwback uniforms they will wear are those of the Expos and not of the Senators, that game gets bumped up on the list of those I need to attend.

The season tickets for next year will move away from the Topps baseball card motif they’ve had the past two years and will have historic scorecards from the stadium’s history, not just for the Cubs, but for the Bears and Blackhawks as well.  If the last two years are any indication, they will be impressive.

Nostradamus Wept – NL Edition

With 81 games in the books, we are officially at the halfway point of the 2012 season.  The so-called experts at Sports Illustrated made some pre-season predictions that are looking a little off a this point.

Team Won Lost

Predicted

Wins

Predicted

Losses

Comments
NL East
Washington Nationals 47 32 84 78

The Nationals were expected to improve this year, but they appear to have taken a giant leap forward.

New York Mets 44 38 75 87 One of the surprises of the first half, the Mets were thought to be also-rans following their off-season ownership troubles.
Atlanta Braves 42 39 82 80 The Braves have kept a steady ship following last season’s late collapse.
Miami Marlins 39 42 89 73 The Fish surrounded a great May with struggles in April and June.
Philadelphia Phillies 37 46 94 68 Injuries to Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Roy Halladay have kept the Phillies out of their usual spot in the pennant chase.
NL Central
Pittsburgh Pirates 45 36 70 92 Last year the Pirates flirted with respectability for the first time since 1992 before faltering after one bad call cost them a game.  This year, they may be for real.
Cincinnati Reds 44 37 89 73 The Reds are right at their expected pace.
St. Louis Cardinals 43 39 87 75 The defending champions have dealt with the loss of Albert Pujols and Chris Carpenter better than anyone expected them to.
Milwaukee Brewers 38 43 84 78 After finally winning the NL Central last year, the Brewers have struggled after losing Prince Fielder.
Houston Astros 32 50 57 105 The rebuilding Astros have been a little better than expected in their final season in the National League.
Chicago Cubs 31 50 66 96 The rebuilding Cubs have been a little worse than expected in Theo Epstein’s first year as the savior of the franchise.
NL West
Los Angeles Dodgers 46 37 83 79 The Dodgers had a surprising first half, sparked on by their ownership change.
San Francisco Giants 45 37 90 72 The Giants have had an eventful first half, with a perfect game and 4 straight shutouts.
Arizona Diamondbacks 39 42 88 74 The DBacks struggled in the first half, and that was before losing Daniel Hudson for the season.
San Diego Padres 33 50 70 92 The Padres have been a little worse than expected in the first half.
Colorado Rockies 31 50 79 83 The Rockies have struggled in the first half and have turned to a 4 man rotation to try and turn things around.