Cubs

Batter Stock Watch - 2013 Preview

Batter Stock Watch - 2013 Preview

David FerrisCSNChicago.com contributor
In our last Batter Stock Watch of the season, we'll focus on player values for the 2013 fantasy year. Consider these angles and comments as you work on keeper-league decisions, or keep them tucked in your mind for draft season next spring. 
Buy
Eric Hosmer, 1B, Royals: Sometimes a short memory is the best thing you can have at the draft table, especially when it comes to someone we all felt good about 10-12 months ago. Hosmer's plate discipline hasn't been a problem in 2012 - he spiked his walk rate up to 9.5 percent and only had a marginal bump in strikeouts - and that .259 BABIP is unlikely to return. And it's not like Hosmer hasn't been squaring up the ball - his line-drive rate didn't move from his rookie level. You'll get a discount on Hosmer next spring, and you should take full advantage of it. There's significant profit potential here. 
Freddie Freeman, 1B, Braves: Eye and finger problems held Freeman's power back in the middle of the year, but otherwise it's been a solid building season for him (walk rate up, strikeout rate down, line drives 26.2 percent of the time). If Freeman can make a little more progress against left-handed pitching (he's been static there through two seasons), he has a chance to be a star. His BBK rate is almost an even 11 for the second half, which is outstanding for anyone and especially a middle-of-the-order hitter. 
Sell
Adrian Gonzalez, 1B, Dodgers: Although he knocked a couple of homers in Sunday's victory at Cincinnati, it's a case of too little, too late in Los Angeles. Gonzalez hasn't been anything special since the shocking trade from Boston (.255.308.427), even though he insists his shoulder isn't bothering him. Maybe it's time to accept that Gonzalez, now in his 30s, is no longer a needle-mover at first base, no longer someone to target in the first 25 picks or so. Hitting in Chavez Ravine could also be a concern: his career slash in that stadium is a mediocre .227.313.382. Let's move along. 
Drew Stubbs, OF, Reds: If Hollywood decides to draw up Trouble With the Slider, Stubbs should apply for a leading role: no batter in the majors struggled with that pitch more than Stubbs this year. Alas, when you're whiffing almost 30 percent of the time overall, there aren't too many offerings that put you in a positive frame. As much as the Reds have been patient with Stubbs (and they love his defense), even they might be ready to admit it's time for a more traditional leadoff man in Cincinnati - someone who can make contact and get on base would be nice. If the Reds move on from Stubbs, they might make a play for B.J. Upton. 
Mike Aviles, Utility, Red Sox: The category juice was fun while it lasted (13 homers, 14 steals), but Aviles also brought a .283 OBP and substandard defense to the equation. The Red Sox finally realize Aviles isn't good enough to start every day, and the rest of the American League probably recognizes this as well. Look for Aviles to settle into a 300-350 at-bat role at the front of someone's bench next year. 
Hold
Austin Jackson, OF, Tigers: At first glance his .376 BABIP might seem like a crazy outlier, but consider a few things: Jackson has dynamic speed, he's posted a 23-percent line-drive rate this year, and his career BABIP is a robust .372. Maybe it's unrealistic to expect the baseline to remain in such lofty heights, but Jackson can't be gauged against the league average in this stat. We would like to see progress on the bases - Jackson only has 11 steals as we go to press - but batting in Detroit's loaded lineup has its advantages (97 runs). Jackson turns 26 next February, so there's still room for growth here. 
Chase Headley, 3B, Padres: His road stats almost look too good to be true (.924 OPS, 18 homers, 62 RBIs, even 11 steals), but it's not like Headley didn't produce in roomy Petco Park (.784 OPS, 11 homers, 41 runs, 46 RBIs). The home dates might be more fun in 2013: there's talk of the club moving in the outfield fences. Even if the dimensions don't change in Southern California, Headley looks like a safe play entering his age 28 year. The low profile of the Padres also adds to the screened price. 
Carlos Gomez, OF, Brewers: He'll never be the pinnacle of patience, but he did trim his strikeout rate by about three percent this year and he remains a plus player in the field and on the bases (35 juicy steals). And the 16 homers really shouldn't come as that big of a surprise: Gomez has been a touted prospect since the middle of the 2000s, and he carries a wide frame at 6-foot-4, 210 pounds. The batting average will never be a secure thing with Gomez, but heading into his age 27 campaign next year, we'll project 18-20 homers and 40 steals - at an affordable roto price. Gomez finally knows he's a regular in the Milwaukee lineup, one of the team's cornerstones - don't overlook that emotional consideration. No young player wants to be jerked in and out of the lineup.

Cubs go quietly into winter, their reign as defending champs finally over

Cubs go quietly into winter, their reign as defending champs finally over

The armchair psychology went like this: Force the Los Angeles Dodgers onto the plane, let them think about it during the long flight to the West Coast, get in their heads during Friday’s day off and feel all the momentum and pressure shift in this National League Championship Series.

At least that’s what the Cubs told themselves and the media, whether or not they actually believed it, playing the kind of mind games designed for lesser teams. From Theo Epstein and the top of baseball operations down, the Cubs had enough connections to the 2004 Boston Red Sox to hope they could become only the second team to overcome an 0-3 LCS deficit.

That dream officially ended at 10:15 p.m. on Thursday when Willson Contreras lined Kenley Jansen’s 93.3-mph cutter at backup shortstop Charlie Culberson, another symbol of Dodger Way game-planning and the overall depth to withstand the loss of All-Star Corey Seager as he recovered from a back injury. The mosh pit formed in the middle of Wrigley Field, where it got very quiet except for a few sections of Dodger fans cheering and Gary Pressy playing the organ.

The Cubs are no longer the defending World Series champs after an 11-1 loss that had no drama or suspense and felt more like a getaway day. There will be no Game 6 or Game 7 this weekend at Dodger Stadium.

“I only experienced winning,” said Albert Almora Jr., a rookie outfielder on last year’s forever team. “Jon Jay told me: ‘Look at the expressions on their face when they’re celebrating on your field and let that sink in and learn from that and build from that.’”

You believed Almora, a baseball gym rat, when he stood at his locker and said: “It hurts.” But when the clubhouse doors opened to the media roughly 30 minutes after the final out, you didn’t really feel any tension in the room, more like a collective exhale, a time to sit around and drink a few Presidente beers and realize that the Dodgers deserved to go to the World Series for the first time since 1988.

“They just flat-out beat us,” said Kris Bryant, who got the first hit off Clayton Kershaw, a garbage-time homer in the fourth inning when the Cubs were already down 9-0.

Bryant is everything you could ever want in a franchise player – diligent on the field, polished off the field, even more productive in many ways after his MVP campaign, someone who doesn’t even drink during clinch celebrations – but even he admitted he still felt the World Series hangover that bugged the Cubs.

“I was just looking back at last year,” Bryant said. “I didn’t get home until like November 10 last year with all the festivities after winning and stuff. I think that really caught up to some of us this year. So I don’t know, maybe the extra time to recoup, maybe train a little harder. I am getting older, so I got to watch that.”

The reporters chuckled along with Bryant in a room where the sound system played classic rock like Dire Straits and Tom Petty. The Cubs know they should be good again in 2018 – and for years after that – and didn’t exactly sound devastated.

To be honest, Wednesday’s thrilling Game 4 win felt like the Super Bowl for this team, Jake Arrieta getting a standing ovation and tipping his cap before signing his free-agent megadeal somewhere else, Wade Davis having the guts to finish off a 48-pitch, two-inning save and the Cubs feeling the adrenaline rush of staving off elimination for another night.

When Jon Lester saw the media gathering by his locker, he joked: “What? I didn’t do s---. Why the f--- do you want to talk to me?”

“Obviously, nobody likes to lose, but we’ve been in the NLCS for three years in a row,” said Lester, who raised the bar for expectations when he signed a $155 million contract with a last-place team after the 2014 season. “You know how special that is. I know everybody kind of goes back to the first half of the season and they like to nitpick. But we won the division, made the playoffs and made it to the NLCS.

“Sometimes, you’re not always going to be in the World Series. The Dodgers are a really good team. They’re playing really good baseball right now. This series showed it. Sometimes, it is what it is, and you just kind of move on.”

The Cubs had Lester, a three-time World Series champion, lined up for a Game 6 that is no longer necessary. Jose Quintana – who shined against the Washington Nationals in the last round and battled Kershaw to a draw in Game 1 – didn’t give his team a chance this time.

Quintana, a signature trade-deadline move made with multiple playoff runs in mind, allowed runs in the first and second innings and left the bases loaded in the third for Hector Rondon, who watched Kike Hernandez drive the second of his three home runs into the right-center field basket for a grand slam.

The Cubs were desperate enough that John Lackey, five days before his 39th birthday, pitched two innings in what was likely his last game in a big-league uniform. Lackey kept walking out of the clubhouse and declined to speak with reporters: “No, I’m good, man.”

“It’s not easy to be the best,” outfielder Jason Heyward said, “but that’s what you want. You don’t want easy. You don’t want to expect to be going home every year. You want to be in October. You want to have a chance to win the World Series. And you want to be one of the teams that expects to be there.”

That’s what the Cubs will be next year, when the last day of the season won’t have the same big-picture perspective. It will be either a stinging loss or spraying champagne.

“Seems like a hundred years ago, right?” Lester said about his decision to sign with the Cubs. “It’s one of those Catch-22s. You look at it as it’s a disappointing season for the simple fact that we didn’t make it to the World Series. But you got to look at the positives, too, in that moment whenever you get on a plane to go home.

“We gave ourselves a chance. It just didn’t happen this year. We got beat by a better team. We beat them last year (in the NLCS), and they beat us this year, so you got to tip your hat sometimes, and you move on. We’ll be ready to go in spring training.”

Sluggish offense plus Dodger pitching equaled disaster for Cubs in NLCS

Sluggish offense plus Dodger pitching equaled disaster for Cubs in NLCS

Your National League Championship Series final: Cubs 8, Enrique Hernandez 7.

When the Cubs look back at why they struggled in the NLCS and what they’ll need moving forward, many questions are likely to involve fixing an offense that was dormant for almost all of the postseason.

Thursday night’s 11-1 loss in Game 5 of the NLCS to the Los Angeles Dodgers put an exclamation point on a lopsided series, one in which the Cubs were outscored 28-8. Hernandez nearly matched the Cubs’ entire output in the clincher with three home runs and seven RBIs. While the pitching shares much of the blame, a Cubs offense that produced a .168/.240/.289 slash line and scored 25 runs this postseason is perhaps an even bigger culprit.

“(The Dodgers) pitched very, very well from start to finish,” said utility man Ben Zobrist. “It was tough to overcome that. We are going to get our homers. But as a whole, I felt like they kept us off-balance and they kept us from having good quality at-bats consistently. When we did get something going it wasn’t much. It was one run here or there or a couple runs here or there. But they pitched a great series, kept us from really exploding like they can as an offense.”

The Cubs’ bats have been ice cold for the entire postseason. Aside from a nine-run showing in their Oct. 12 NLDS-clincher over the Washington Nationals, the Cubs never appeared to be as formidable a bunch as they were in 2016.

Their scores by game entering Thursday’s loss were: 3, 3, 2, 0, 9, 2, 1, 1 and 3.

By the time the Dodgers plated two early runs off Jose Quintana, the Cubs looked to be in for an uphill battle against three-time Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw. That condition was upgraded to next-to-impossible by the time Hernandez blasted a grand slam off Hector Rodon in the third inning to put the Dodgers up 7-0.

As it were, the Cubs finished with four hits and didn’t score until Kris Bryant homered to make it 9-1 in the fourth inning. It was Bryant’s first round-tripper of the postseason.

The struggles of Bryant and teammate Anthony Rizzo were well-documented. The pair produced a combined .169/.210/.206 slash line with two home runs, nine RBIs, three walks and 28 strikeouts in 81 plate appearances. Bryant thought it had to do with a team that was worn down running into outstanding pitching.

“It’s a little of both,” Bryant said. “It took a lot out of us that first series, some really good pitching with the Nationals. Obviously with the Dodgers, too. I think they had a group of players that really turned it on at the right time and were clicking whereas we didn’t. That was the difference. But a ton of credit to them, they just flat out beat us.”

Bryant and Rizzo weren’t alone in their struggles.

The leadoff position alone went from a force of life in 2016 with Dexter Fowler to virtually no production this postseason. Jon Jay, Albert Almora and Zobrist went a combined 4-for-36 with three hit by pitches from the leadoff spot.

Catcher Willson Contreras (.748) was the only Cubs regular to finish with an OPS above .700. Javier Baez produced a .451 OPS, Zobrist registered a .416 and Jason Heyward finished at .403.

By comparison, the Dodgers have six players with at least 20 plate appearances this postseason with an .800 or better OPS. That doesn’t of course count Hernandez, who made only his fourth start of the postseason and went nuts. He homered off Jose Quintana in the second inning to give Los Angeles a 2-0 lead. His grand slam in the third after Quintana exited put the game out of reach. And Hernandez’s ninth-inning blast off Mike Montgomery to center was icing on the Dodgers’ cake.

Figuring out how to remedy their offensive issues figures to be one of the Cubs’ top priorities this offseason. One way the team could help jumpstart Bryant and Rizzo is by acquiring a better leadoff hitter, something they lost when Fowler departed via free agency last winter. The team saw its production from the leadoff spot drop from an .815 OPS in 2016 to .745 in 2017.

“We did enough to beat Washington and that’s all you need in the postseason,” Rizzo said. “We didn’t do enough to beat the Dodgers. They pitched better than we hit. End of story.

“They’re good. There’s no excuses. You’ve got to play better. But at the end of the day, it is what it is. It’s baseball. You hit the ball at the guy or you don’t.”