Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Jim Hendry, prudent?

Like many Cub fans, I'm frustrated with the big money, long term contracts the Cubs have generously doled out the past few seasons. What's worse, most of the contracts have no trade clauses and have subsequently handcuffed the Cubs in terms of payroll flexibility. On a smaller scale, the Cubs have wasted money on medicore relievers, most recently with the $7.5 million dollar contract awarded to John Grabow.

So color me surprised when the Cubs officially named James Russell as part of their opening day roster. Jim Hendry said that Russell was better suited for the spot than any relief pitcher he could have acquired. I had to read that twice.

I do like Russell, he's a polished pitcher with decent, if not great stuff -- and I'll admit that there is no way he can continue his torrid spring pace. However, that's not the point. The point is that middle relievers are among the most unpredictable lot in baseball. No other role seems to see such fluctuation in performance from year to why not go with a fresh armed rookie who won't cost you much and has a realistic chance of outperforming some random veteran off the scrap heap? In fact, the Cubs are going with three rookies: Esmailin Caridad, Justin Berg, and Russell to go along with the relatively unexperienced Jeff Samardzija and an untested closer in Carlos Marmol.

This decision was somewhat forced by budget constraints and Hendry did have limited funds but it's not like Hendry didn't have any money. He just chose to spend what little he had on other, more important needs. He picked up Marlon Byrd to play an average CF, something they didn't get last year from Kosuke Fukudome. The move has the additional benefit of moving Fukudome to RF, where he is an excellent defender - so the Cubs upgraded defense at two positions with one move. They also picked up Xavier Nady to come off the bench and provide some offense. Just as importantly, it's an insurance policy in case Soriano is injured or performs as miserably as he did last year. Nady can also spell Fukudome against some lefties, against whom he struggled mightily last season. He spent an additional 950K on Chad Tracy, an excellent pinch hitter who provides a lefty bat in an otherwise righty dominated team. Like Nady, he's also an insurance policy for an injury prone player - in this case, Aramis Ramirez. Those two moves make the Cubs better equipped to deal with injuries to key players than they were last year. The Cubs can now survive an injury or three and not have to fill in players that would have decimated their offensive production; the way players like Aaron Miles, Reed Johnson and Andres Blanco did last season. They also give Lou Piniella the opportunity to give multiple players an occasional breather without fielding a lineup that could only compete in the 6 foot and under league. This should keep an aging team fresh over the long season. So think of Nady and Tracy like artificial preservatives. Sure you'd rather not have to use them all the time, but at least they won't kill you in the short term.

So kudos to Hendry for seeing the bigger picture this offseason. Sure, there were still some mistakes, he paid too much for both Grabow and (considering his health issues) Nady. I would have liked to have seen one less year on Byrd's contract too. But I'm not going to get too nitpicky. At least they weren't huge long term deals and at least they didn't spend that money on unpredictable middle relievers. Those low cost rookies have every bit the chance to help the team as some of the would-be overpaid journeymen.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Update: The Social Experiment has been shelved

According to Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune, the Cubs are going with Chad Tracy over Kevin Millar. Tracy is the better player and the better fit for that last spot on the roster because of his lefty bat and his ability to play a decent third base. With Aramis Ramirez prone to injury the past few years, this is a good insurance policy. This was an excellent baseball decision by the Cubs. Dumping Bradley because of his negative influence was one thing but the Cubs did well by not overreacting and adding a guy on positive personality alone.

The Cubs Social Experiment

Maybe this sounds familiar...A couple of guys in charge get together and decide to perform a social experiment. The bet is that they can take a previously productive person and transform him into an unwanted social outcast while simultaneously taking a jobless, no-good jokester and give him a position of leadership within the organization. You may think I'm talking about the movie Trading Places, but I'm actually talking about our Chicago Cubs. The guinea pigs in this case are not Dan Ackroyd and Eddie Murphy, but Milton Bradley and Kevin Millar.

There is some precedent to this kind of experiment. The University of Washington recently performed a study to answer the question, "Does One Bad Apple Really Spoil the Bunch?". The study did find that a negative personality has strong influence on the rest of the group. The negative attitude can spread quickly and adversely affect the mood and transform a previously productive group into a dysfunctional one. It also found that no amount of "good apples" could stem this tide of negative influence.

Enter Jim Hendry and Lou Piniella and their own version of the "experiment". In 2009, the Cubs introduced their bad apple, Milton Bradley, to a group of apples that won 97 games. Despite having positive teammates like Ryan Theriot, Ryan Dempster and Derrek Lee, Bradley's negative influence did indeed overcome these positive influences and the Cubs' clubhouse became a gloomy one, and, coincidentally or not, the previously successful team won just 83 games and finished well behind the St. Louis Cardinals. It appears on the surface that one bad apple did spoil this bunch. Moreover, Bradley became such a pariah that the only way the Cubs could unload him was to take the worst pitcher in baseball over the past two years, Carlos Silva, in exchange. Other teams would only take Bradley if the Cubs would have also agreed to pay nearly all of his salary. In it's own perverse way, you could say the first part of the "experiment" was a complete success.

Now comes part 2 of this two-year "experiment". The Cubs are bringing in the unwanted, unemployed would-be comedian Kevin Millar. Millar is a "good apple" but he is no-good on the field. The 38 year old is slow and his hitting and fielding skills have eroded signifcantly as he has aged...but teammates always like him and he keeps the clubhouse loose. The teams best hitter, Aramis Ramirez, said this about the results so far this spring, "It is a huge turnaround," third baseman Aramis Ramirez said. "We've brought in some great guys. Kevin Millar, you can't find a better teammate than him..." It appears that, on the strength of his likeability, Millar is on the verge of landing a job with the Cubs.

While in the movie Randolph and Mortimer Duke bet a dollar to see if they could pull of their social experiment, the Cubs are betting a roster spot on Millar. A roster spot that would have otherwise belonged to a more useful-on-the-field player in Andres Blanco, who has since been traded. So will the second part of the "experiment" hold true? Will Millar be transformed from an unemployed, unwanted player to the Cubs clubhouse leader? Will the removal of one bad apple in Milton Bradley and the addition of a good apple in Kevin Millar return the Cubs to a functional unit again? Stay tuned...this is an "experiment" that is still in progress.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Tyler Colvin: Budding Star or 4th Outfielder?

After a scintillating spring, Tyler Colvin has defied the odds and made the Cubs opening day roster. The question is what do we make of him now? Some are ready to have him replace either of the frustratingly well-paid duo of Alfonso Soriano or Kosuke Fukudome. Others think this spring is too small a sample size, and we should reference his minor league numbers for evidence that Colvin may be nothing more than a 4th outfielder in the long run.

If you think he's a future star, then you may be a little worried that he will be sitting on the bench and missing out on important development time in AAA. I, for one, think he's right where he belongs at this point -- as the Cubs 4th outfielder.

Here's why...

Colvin has posted incredible numbers this spring: The Cactus League leading .468 average, the .710 slugging percentage - he's even stolen a couple of bases. But there is another statistic that stands out: Zero walks. Tyler Colvin has been a good, but not great hitter in the minor leagues. In his best season last year he hit .300, but with his low walk total, that translated to a rather pedestrian .328 OBP. If Colvin had another attribute, such as 30 homer power or speed to steal 30 bases at a 75% rate or better, you could overlook that. But he doesn't. If he played a stellar centerfield, you could easily live with a guy who hits .270 with about 15 hrs, even with a low OBP. But he doesn't do that either. He's a corner outfielder and corner outfielders are expected to be offensive assets for your team.

I have seen some improvement with Colvin ths spring. He's put on 25 lbs of muscle. Just as importantly, he has learned to turn on the ball and hit it with more authority. However, this can be neutralized to some degree by major league pitchers who will exploit his aggressiveness. If he's swinging at pitcher's pitches, he just won't consistently be able to take advantage of that added muscle and adjustment in his swing.

What Colvin does well is a little of everything. He plays good defense at all 3 positions and especially at the corners, but it's not gold glove caliber defense. He runs well, but his long stride and lack of burst don't bode well for stealing bases at an effective rate. He hits well, but not well enough to overcome his low walk rate. He has some pop in his bat, but if he isn't swinging at good pitches, he will struggle to hit 20 homeruns. To me, that adds up to a solid 4th outfielder. Can he improve? Of course, he's already a far better player than he was at this point last year and who's to say he won't continue to work on his game. Nothing is set in stone and I would like nothing better than to see Colvin improve and consistently put up big numbers. But until that happens, we will continue to see glimpses and flashes like we have this spring.