Cubs

Cubs: What we learned at the winter meetings

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Cubs: What we learned at the winter meetings

Thursday, Dec. 9, 2010
1:02 PM

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla.- Rolling suitcases in hand, the baseball industry escaped to sunlight Thursday morning, getting out of the bubble. And not a moment too soon for the executives sequestered for days in their hotel suites.

Reporters scrambled around the lobby of the Swan and Dolphin resort late Wednesday night when word spread that Carl Crawford had agreed to a deal with the Red Sox. Instantly heads dropped down to BlackBerry devices to check the terms of the contract - seven years and 142 million.

At least that was real news ( props to The Boston Globe for breaking it) about an impact player. Most of the roughly 96 hours inside the Walt Disney World complex were filled with nonstop Twitter updates on fringe guys. It made you want to order room service.

"A lot of guys aren't going to the lobby and having some social hour late in the evening," Cubs general manager Jim Hendry said. "Guys are going to their rooms because every time you talk to somebody it's on a blog. We all read stuff that we're on this guy or that guy, half the time we're not but I understand (the media) profession's changed, too.

"It's a very aggressive world (and) everyone wants to get in on some stories and sometimes we kind of smile up here. We have a social conversation with somebody or (we're) talking about something not even related to baseball, and by the time we get back to the room we're trading for so-and-so."

So before refreshing MLBTradeRumors.com one more time on your laptop, this is what we learned about the Cubs as they leave the winter meetings and head home to pay tribute to Ron Santo's extraordinary life.

Carlos Pena became the No. 1 target. Multiple sources indicated that the Dodgers had no intention of trading James Loney to Chicago, and the Cubs weren't very high on Adam LaRoche. They wanted a middle-of-the-order presence and a Gold Glove defender and found it in Pena (nevermind his .196 average and 158 strikeouts last season).

As Pena said, "Maybe they overlooked some things because they believe in my strengths, not my weaknesses."

The Cubs and Pena are using each other for a year. After the 2011 season, the Cubs are free to pursue another first baseman (Albert Pujols?) and Pena could be in line for a monster contract if he generates 30 homers and 90 RBI.
Scott Boras is the most interesting man in the world. The powerful agent isn't a Dos Equis spokesman, but he has his own unique language of 'pillow contracts' and 'platform years.' The outlines of Pena's one-year, 10 million agreement were formed with Greg Maddux, Hendry's special assistant, sitting across from his long-time agent.

"It's just very special that a man can do things on his own terms in the game of baseball," Boras said, "because the game itself is the tiger, it's the force, it's the thing that removes you in many situations from the game."

Hendry, who enjoys a good working relationship with Boras, has simply said that Maddux can have any job that he wants in baseball. Boras would never leave it at that. Imagine the conversations when he's selling his clients behind closed doors.

"Greg has so many abilities and so many aptitudes," Boras said. "Every time he is in any facet of the game, teaching, working with the team, growing the game, it allows the game to be its optimum."

Mike Quade is cool with Starlin Castro. The Cubs manager plans to travel to the Dominican Republic in January to visit with the young shortstop. Still months away from his 21st birthday, Castro is playing for Moises Alou's winter-ball team.

The media framed Quade benching Castro for two games as a turning point in his six-week job interview, but looking back the manager doesn't see it that way.

"I felt like a much bigger deal was made out of it than it should have been, but I get it," Quade said. "It had nothing to do with Mike Quade, believe me. I thought it was the right thing to do for Starlin Castro and for the organization. I believed it would benefit him and I just thought it was a good time to try and get his attention.

"You move on. It's the kind of stuff that you do on a regular basis. And you guys never hear about when you're down in Des Moines, when you're in Huntsville, Alabama, or wherever the heck else I've been. But he handled it marvelously."

There's still some money left, just not enough for Zack Greinke. Fans should lower their sights, the lobby buzz made Matt Garza sound unrealistic, as well as their expectations for Brandon Webb. The Cubs remain intrigued about the Cy Young Award winner's potential, and concerned about the health of his right shoulder.

New pitching coach Mark Riggins said he thinks there are already seven or eight rotation options to take to Arizona (the more the better) and the organization continues to discuss the possibility of making Andrew Cashner a starter.

Whether or not Cashner remains in the bullpen, the 24-year-old is a prism through which you can view the entire team. The Cubs aren't writing checks to solve their problems. They're banking on this wave of prospects.

"It's a theme that you just can't get away from, he needs to get better," Quade said. "Hopefully he's had a great winter and comes into spring training just (saying): 'Give me the ball.' That's what I expect from a young guy with that kind of talent."

Patrick Mooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. Follow Patrick on Twitter @CSNMooney for up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

The bullpen's rough stretch continues as Cubs blow two saves in series opener

The bullpen's rough stretch continues as Cubs blow two saves in series opener

Sound the alarm, the Cubs’ bullpen issues are back. 

Friday afternoon’s culprits were Brad Brach and Steve Cishek, who together allowed three earned runs on five hits over 2.2 innings of work in the Cubs’ 6-5 loss. It was the second blown save of the season for both pitchers. 

“I was locked in today, I really was,” Cishek said. “It was just a lack of execution. I’m not going to make any excuses.” 

After spending much of the last six weeks being one of baseball’s most reliable groups, the Cubs’ bullpen has hit a rough patch of late. Over the last two weeks, only the Red Sox have more blown saves than Chicago. In that span they rank 21st in ERA, 16th in FIP, and most foreboding of all, 4th in BB%. 

“The last couple times around we’ve had shorter outings from our starters, and I think that’s kind of caused us to use them more recently,” Joe Maddon said. “But they’re fine. They’re fine. It’s just one of those days, man.” 

It’s true that the Cubs’ bullpen is still relatively fresh; they’ve pitched 168.2 innings in 2019, more than only eight other teams. Over the last two weeks, however, they’ve pitched 48.2 innings - which is 8th most in the league. They came into Friday’s game shorthanded, as Maddon noted that they were looking to avoid using Brandon Kintzler, Carl Edwards Jr., Tyler Chatwood, and Kyle Ryan. 

“[Cishek] probably didn’t have a full tank,” Maddon said. “Probably ¾ maybe. So the stuff wasn’t as clean or crisp.”

Cishek declined to comment about how energy he felt he had on Friday. Only Tyler Chatwood has thrown more relief innings than Cishek over the last week, and both Chatwood and Kintzler rank among the top-20 most-used relievers going back to mid-May. 

“Those guys always get it done,” Kyle Hendricks said. “They’ve been being used a lot in the last few days, so they can’t come in every time and get the job done. But they’re making their pitches, and attacking, and there’s nothing more you can ask for. We know they’re going to be there for us, and they have been all year.”

Late innings have been especially difficult to navigate over the last few series. After the two blown saves today, the Cubs are now 9-for-20 in save situations on the year. There are internal reinforcements coming, though, as Pedro Strop is close to returning from his hamstring injury. 

“It’s more experienced guys coming back into the fold,” Maddon said. “Guys that have done that.

“When Strop comes back, then all these guys get pushed back. It’s just lengthens your bullpen. It lengthens it. By having him there, with what he’s able to do in the last inning or two. Stropy will lengthen us out.”

And while the noise to go get another proven reliever grows, and the date that signing Craig Kimbrel without losing a draft pick nears, the Cubs are confident that a few rough outings from a good group, going through a tough stretch, is no reason to panic. 

“I still think we’re in a good spot,” Cishek said. “As the fans ride the roller coaster, we do too. There’s ups and downs throughout the long season. We started off slow, then we rode a hot streak for a long time. It’s going to happen again, we’re going to be fine.”

Wrigley Field's outfield demands a lot, but the Cubs are answering the call

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USA TODAY

Wrigley Field's outfield demands a lot, but the Cubs are answering the call

There’s no one reason that you could point to that explains why the Cubs have gone 27-12 since their horrid first road trip. You could point to Javy Baéz’s continuous star turn, or the rotation exceeding even the loftiest expectations so far. You could point to Kris Bryant’s healthy shoulder, or Brandon Kintzler’s sinker -- like plenty of people have -- and you’d be right. What’s gone under-discussed, at least in the eyes of some, is just how good the Cubs’ outfield defense has been.

“Who doesn’t love defense?” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said earlier in the week. “This group here, when everyone’s on the field and the really good defenders are out there, it’s as tight as I’ve had. The difference being I think is that the outfield defense has gotten better in the last couple years here.”

The numbers back it up. MLB keeps a statistic called Outs Above Average (OAA) that tries to convey just how good an outfielder is vs. replacement level. For the Cubs, Albert Almora is doing much of the heavy lifting, as the center fielder is worth 4 OOA -- good for 4th best in baseball -- on his own. Jason Heyward is holding is own with 2 OOA so far, and Kyle Schwarber continues to struggle (-2 OOA). As a team, here’s how many Outs Above Average the Cubs have been worth since they started keeping track in 2016:

2016: 22 (2nd)
2017: - 7 (20th)
2018: 0 (14th)
2019, so far: 4 (6th)

“I think we’ve got a lot of great athletes on our team,” Almora said. “We’re playmakers and I think we have a great coaching staff that puts us in the right spots.”

Another useful metric that Statcast keeps track of is called Directional OOA. Basically, MLB designates six directions (front right/middle/left and back right/middle/left) and gauges which direction certain teams and fielders are best at running. Almora, at least this year, has been strongest running in and left:

That was on display yet again on Friday, when Almora broke in and left to rob Derek Dietrich in the second inning:

When asked, Almora admitted that he was surprised to learn that, instead thinking that he was better in and to the right. He’s not wrong, either: in each of the previous three seasons, Almora’s finished with the most OOA coming in and to the right.

“I think most [routes] are pretty instinctual to me,” he said. “I kind of sell out when it’s a little runner. Sometimes I dive and don’t get to it because in my mind I’m programmed to where, if it’s hit to me, I’ve got to catch it.”

Heyward, on the other hand, has been stronger to his right his year:

“I just think it’s about your position” Heyward added. “You can say someone is really good at one thing, but if they don’t get as many plays to this way, or that way, you don’t really know.

One interesting wrinkle about the Cubs’ outfield is that neither Schwarber, Almora or Heyward have been worth an Out Above Average going straight backwards, and generally haven’t been great going backwards in any direction. One explanation? Between an unforgiving brick wall and the outward-jetting net that sits on top of it, robbing homers basically isn’t possible at Wrigley. Knowing that drastically changes the read on fly balls.

“You know you’re not going to go back as hard,” Heyward said. “If someone hits the ball over your head, most likely it’s going to be a double if it’s off the wall. There’s definitely differences between here and and the next place.”

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