An Ode to Joel Quenneville

I haven’t updated this blog in over 6 months.  Part of it has been on account of the fact that I haven’t been able to think of anything to write, and part of it has been because I’ve been incredibly busy—working during the summer, seeking a job for the following one, and trying to keep my grades up in what is my second semester as a college undergrad.  But seeing Joel Quenneville relieved of his duties as the Head Coach of the Chicago Blackhawks today spurred me into action.

My dad grew up playing hockey; he played competitively all the way through college, and continued to play recreationally as he moved into adulthood.  But I never found myself interested in hockey—for one, I couldn’t skate to save my life, and hated falling on my butt so consistently.  The main reason, though, might have been because my hometown team, the Blackhawks, were pretty bad, and didn’t broadcast any of their games on local television.  The team had made the postseason once in the past decade, and that, combined with their archaic media policies, made them a laughingstock throughout the sports world.

After President John McDonough was brought into the organization in 2007, a massive culture shift began within the organization.  McDonough, along with owner Rocky Wirtz, who took over the team after the death of his father, Bill, knew they needed to undertake some drastic changes in order to get a moribund team back on track.    So when Coach Q was first brought into the Blackhawks organization as a scout back in 2008, many suspected that it would only be a matter of time before he replaced the team’s head coach at the time, the legendary Denis Savard.  Despite Savard’s solid relationship with youngsters Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, the organization didn’t seem to believe they, and the rest of the team’s core, were progressing as fast as they could have.  And so, four games into the 2008/2009 season, Savard was let go, and Quenneville was installed as the head man.

Of course, in hindsight it was easy to see that the roster that GM Dale Tallon had established was destined for something special.  Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook led the team in average minutes per game the prior two seasons.  Patrick Kane led the team in points.  Savard had the foresight to name Toews captain.  But nobody could have possibly anticipated the incredible run that the team went on, and that was spurred on by Quenneville.

The first full season with Q behind the bench made that especially clear.  It was Quenneville’s decision to give more playing time to Niklas Hjalmarsson, sticking him next to wily veteran Brian Campbell to form the team’s shutdown defensive pairing.  It was Quenneville’s decision to start rookie Antti Niemi in the playoffs over the more experienced (and more expensive) Cristobal Huet, and his decision to move defenseman Dustin Byfuglien into a forward role, often on the first line with Kane and Toews.  Both of those decisions were instrumental to the team winning their first Stanley Cup since 1961.

Quenneville’s impact on the squad’s success reached its peak in his efforts across the next two seasons.  After Niemi and Huet were forced to leave due to cap constraints, Quenneville and his staff helped develop youngster Corey Crawford into the stud that he is today, in addition to continuing to provide an environment for guys like Toews, Kane, and Keith to become internationally recognized superstars.  Players like Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Ben Eager, and Kris Versteeg left within that timeframe, as well, but Quenneville made due by providing increased roles to guys like Nick Leddy and the duo of Bryan Bickell and Dave Bolland, who became household names in Chicago after their contributions to the team’s win over the Bruins in the 2013 Stanley Cup Final.  He helped work in multiple mid-season acquisitions, including Michael Frolik, Johnny Oduya, and Michal Handzus, almost flawlessly.

As the salary cap continued to dog the ‘Hawks, Quenneville continued to work his magic.  Important depth pieces like Leddy, Bickell, Bolland, and Ray Emery were all forced out the door; Handzus retired.  But Quenneville gave big roles to guys like Brandon Saad and Andrew Shaw, who were critical cogs of the roster for the next couple seasons and were unable to find anywhere near the level of success they did in Chicago after they, too, were forced to depart.  He lit a fire under Crawford by starting hometown-hero Scott Darling in five of the first six playoff games in 2015; upon his return to the lineup in Game 7, Crow turned in a virtuoso performance to lead the team on to the next round.

Off the ice, Coach Q was a perfect fit for the Chicago sports environment.  His mustache made him somewhat of a fashion icon, spurring multiple social media pages.  His passion to see the game succeed in the city after decades of poor performance was evident in every game he coached, but also in every press conference he gave, every camp he led, and every community event he attended.  He, along with also-fired assistant Kevin Dineen, established their homes in Hinsdale, a Chicago suburb, and fully integrated themselves into that community.  It became almost commonplace to see him at his favorite diner, Page’s, and in the annual Fourth of July parade, hoisting the Stanley Cup above his head as the community looked on in awe and appreciation.  He made hockey fans out of so many people, myself included—I can safely say that I wouldn’t be as passionate, or know as much, about this team if it weren’t for Q.

Quenneville certainly had his flaws—regardless of people’s thoughts on Q’s firing, the organization had some rationale to relieve the coach of his duties.  His relationship with Stan Bowman was not fantastic, and the two disagreed often as to the type of players that the team should be acquiring and playing on a regular basis (Brandon Manning is the best example this season). While his reputation for being difficult on younger players is largely unfounded—though the struggles of guys like Tyler Motte and Nick Schmaltz can support that claim—the one he gained for messing with lines so much, which largely stems from his disconnect with Bowman, that it effected team morale and performance was warranted; Toews, normally silent on issues within the team, even admitted as much. The team missed the playoffs last season, and is currently on a five game losing streak.  The power play, helmed by Quenneville and Dineen, has been atrocious, and the penalty kill hasn’t been much better.

With that said, it is undeniable that Quenneville is one of the greatest coaches in the history of the Blackhawks, the city of Chicago, and the game of hockey.  His legacy of three Stanley Cups will never be forgotten in this city; the image of his mustachioed-face lit up in a massive smile, looking down over a championship celebration with a sea of red-clad fans that he helped created, won’t either.  He deserves the greatest possible honors that the franchise could bestow upon him; he will be sorely missed behind the Blackhawks’ bench.

Come back next week for my analysis on why this decision was made and how the team will move forward

2018 White Sox Season Preview

Last season wasn’t a great one on the field for the South Siders—they finished 67-95, fourth in the division, and said goodbye to arguably their most talented pitcher in Jose Quintana, as well as two of their best field players, Todd Frazier and Melky Cabrera, in mid-season trades.  That being said, we also got a glimpse of the bright future the team is shooting for—top prospects Yoan Moncada, Lucsas Giolito, and Reynaldo Lopez all cracked the Show last year, showcasing some of the immense talent that gives them team one of the nest farm systems in the game.  While this season figures to be much the same in terms of game results, we may see some more of their fellow prospects reach the majors, and if the performances of Giolito and Lopez so far are anything to go by, a lot of games could be exciting to watch.  So, on that note, here is my overview of the 2018 Chicago White Sox:

Outfield:

LF- Nicky Delmonico

CF- Adam Engel

RF- Avisail Garcia

Out of the three projected starters from last year, only one of them, Garcia, is expected to start the season with the bug club.  The 26 year-old finally managed to put things together at the plate after a couple seasons’ worth of on- and off-the-field struggles, hitting for an excellent .330 average, bashing 18 homers, and establishing himself as a good compliment to Jose Abreu in the middle of the order.  A lot of the team’s offense will figure to come from those two, and Garcia is going to have to prove that last year wasn’t a fluke, but rather a sign of better things to come.

The other two outfielders are significantly less experienced—both made their MLB debuts just last season.  Delmonico is probably the better of the two—he hit .262 in 43 games with the club, getting playing time in left and at third base.  That flexibility will make him a valuable commodity on this year’s squad, especially if he is able to maintain the level of performance with the bat (and his glove) that he did last year.  Engel’s a bit of a defensive whiz, but didn’t offer much else last year; that being said, he had a great spring training, which is good because there’s really nobody else that could really challenge him for a spot at this point.  He’ll need to continue hitting as well as he has in the spring, though, to prevent guys like Charlie Tilson or Leury Garcia stealing some of his playing time.

Infield:

3B- Yolmer Sanchez

SS- Tim Anderson

2B- Yoan Moncada

1B- Jose Abreu

C- Welington Castillo

DH- Matt Davidson

The left side of the infield is made up of guys that I think have underwhelmed a little bit the past couple seasons, though for different reasons.  Sanchez hasn’t gotten a ton of playing time the past few seasons, with guys like Moncada, Todd Frazier, and Brett Lawrie blocking his path to playing time.  This has prevented him from really ever getting into a rhythm at the plate.  Based on this team set-up, I see him as the starting third baseman for now; however, he could shift into a back-up role if one of the team’s top outfield prospects make the bigs, as I think the team holds Nicky Delmonico in higher regard than Sanchez, and his primary position is third, not left field.  Anderson, meanwhile, has been the team’s everyday shortstop for a good part of the last two years and has all the athletic tools to be a star.  However, he’s had an inconsistent glove and some exceptionally poor plate discipline.  There’s no real challenge behind him in the system yet, but he needs to continue on his current level of performance—he’s been on fire to open the season—because if he doesn’t, with the rumors surrounding Manny Machado this past off-season, if I were Rick Hahn, I’d be acquiring him to replace Anderson and not Sanchez/Delmonico.

The right side of the infield has among the greatest star potential out of every pairing in the league.  Moncada was obviously the crown jewel of the Chris Sale trade, and while he struggled a bit with the bat in his time in the majors last season, he’s only 22, and has shown many a burst of power, or speed, that made him one of the game’s best prospects last year.  Abreu, meanwhile, is the steady veteran presence on the team—the slugger didn’t quite bounce back to the highs of his rookie year, but hitting 30 dingers while batting over .300 isn’t too shabby.  His role as a cog in the middle of the order is crucial; so, too is his status as one of the older, longer-tenured players on a team loaded with up-and-comers.

The other two projected starters, Castillo and Davidson, don’t really fit into either of the main tropes on this year’s team, seasoned veterans and youngsters.  Castillo started hot in his career with the Cubs but tailed off a bit while still remaining an adequate catcher.  His presence will be ideal for some of the inexperienced arms that will take the hill for the team this year, and he’ll offer a better bat than any of the team’s backstops from last year.  Davidson, meanwhile, was highly regarded after being acquired from Arizona in 2013, but didn’t get extensive playing time until last season, when he flashed some of the power that made him one of the team’s top prospects at the time he was brought in.  He might not be able to provide much more than that power and provide Abreu with a couple days off at first, but certainly has the ability to build off of last season’s burst of power.

Bench:

C- Omar Narvaez

IF- Tyler Saladino

UT- Leury Garcia

Narvaez was the one of the main men behind the plate last season, but figures to be the back-up this year with the addition of Castillo.  In all honesty, the role suits him pretty well—he isn’t super great with the bat, but he can have his moments, and is an excellent defender and pitch framer, both of which are valuable commodities in catchers nowadays.  He’ll be a nice piece to keep around.

Saladino is probably capable of starting over Moncada, and, I believe, is close to being on par with Anderson, but the other two are more highly-touted, so he’ll have to make do with being the first guy off the bench.  I still expect him to get in 80-100 games somehow, and his flexibility will be helpful to a team that doesn’t have much in the way of middle infielders in the pipeline.

Garcia’s main positions are second and center, but can play virtually anywhere; that being said, I expect him to see most of his time in the outfield.  He might not last long in Chicago if Rick Hahn feels the team’s young outfielders are ready for the big time, but until that happens, he’ll be the reserve outfielder.

Rotation:

Carlos Rodon- LHP

James Shields- RHP

Miguel Gonzalez- RHP

Lucas Giolito- RHP

Hector Santiago- LHP

I know that Shields is was the Opening Day starter, but I feel that Rodon will be the real ace of the team this year—the lanky lefty struggled mightily with injuries last year, with those problems carrying over into the start of this season.  However, if he can find a way to consistently control his pitches, he has the potential to be a high-end starter for years to come, especially with a pitch as excellent as his slider.  Shields will, probably, be unable to pitch up to the standard that his salary would normally require, but his ability to eat some innings will be nice for a team that doesn’t seem to have as deep of a bullpen as it did last year.

The back end of my ideal rotation features two veterans and one young gun.  Gonzalez, who was traded away last season but returned for another stint with the club, is, like Shields, a good innings-eater.  His ceiling is lower than the former Ray’s, but his floor is higher, and should be a solid option throughout the year, assuming he doesn’t get traded again.  Giolito, meanwhile, had a pretty good spring, especially in hitting a good velocity with his fastball, and should be provided ample opportunity to work on honing his off-speed pitches, particularly his nasty but inconsistent curveball, to grow into the immense potential that made him the centerpiece of the Adam Eaton deal.  Lastly, I know that Carson Fulmer and Reynaldo Lopez figure to play roles in the rotation going forward, but I believe that Santiago deserves the last spot for a couple reasons.  None of the trio had particularly good springs, but I feel Santiago was sharper as he got into better game shape, and having another lefty in the rotation instead of straight righties behind Rodon would help provide a little bit of balance.  That said, if Lopez or Fulmer are performing well enough to warrant more starts while not stalling their development, I’m all for it.

Bullpen:

Carson Fulmer- RHP

Luis Avilan- LHP

Danny Farquhar- RHP

Gregory Infante- RHP

Nate Jones- RHP

Aaron Bummer- LHP

Juan Minaya- RHP

Joakim Soria- RHP (closer)

The team’s bullpen was what kept it hovering around contention in the first half of the season, and it netted them a couple of good prospects once it was dismantled in July.  This year’s edition is not quite as strong, nor quite as deep, but it does have some exceptional players.  I think that a long reliever/spot starter role is the best role for Fulmer at this point in his career, so he’ll slot in here.  Aaron Bummer can also fill a similar role throwing from the left side.

Moving towards the back of the ‘pen, Farquhar and Minaya have perhaps the greatest potential to be the Tommy Kahnle’s of this season, while Avilan provides Rick Renteria with a lefty specialist for shorter appearances that Bummer wouldn’t be useful in.  Nate Jones and Gregory Infante make up what I believe to be one of the more underrated set-up duos in the game, and while they may not be pitching in a lot of situations where the team holds a lead, they’ll be exceptional nonetheless.  Jones, in particular, could catch eyes come mid-season and could snag a decent prospect.  The primary closer is penciled in to be Soria, who was traded to the team from the rival Royals this past season.  He wasn’t super effective in the past two seasons, so while I expect him to get most of the chances to close, expect Jones to get some chances, as well.

Possible Call-Ups:

OF- Eloy Jimenez

OF- Micker Adolfo

Reynaldo Lopez- RHP

Thyago Vieira- RHP

Jimenez is certainly the team’s top prospect now that Moncada should be locked into a full-time role; I’m putting him here, though, because of the sheer amount of prospect talent that this club has.  The DR native, who was the centerpiece of the Jose Quintana trade, has been wowing scouts for month with his incredible power and athleticism; I think the team would love to maintain his service-time so that they can maintain control over him for another year, but if he continues to rake in the minors, they might not have a choice in calling him up.

Adolfo is another big, athletic outfielder from the DR that has the potential to break into the line-up at some point this year.  Adolfo’s been in the team’s system for a while—he was signed back in 2013 as a 16 year-old, and his struggles with the bat, and with injuries, have kept him down the team’s prospect list.  That being said, he reportedly looked pretty solid this winter before hurting his elbow, and getting him some playing time at a higher level could be important to the team in determining if he will be an important part of their long-term future.

I think Lopez, the “less-regarded” of the two righties sent over from Washington last season, has a ceiling above his fellow former National, Giolito, and close to that of the team’s other fireballing prospect, Michael Kopech.  He had five quality starts in his eight times on the bump with the big club last season, and certainly has the talent to be a back-end starter this season, as evidenced by his solid start against the Blue Jays.  That being said, I think that another year of seasoning in AAA would be good for him, especially in helping him establish confidence in his off-speed pitches.

Vieira obviously didn’t start the season with the Sox—he’s got an incredible fastball, but it doesn’t have the consistency, or the complimentary pitchers, that other hard-throwing relievers like Craig Kimbrel have hung their hats on.  That being said, the Brazilian, who was acquired from Seattle in exchange for international bonus pool money, has some intriguing potential.  If he can establish some control, and a second pitch, he could prove to be a valuable asset in the heart of the ‘pen for the next couple years—or a possible trade chip as soon as this July.

Top Prospects:

3B- Jake Burger

OF- Luis Robert

Michael Kopech- RHP

Burger tore his Achilles in a spring game in mid-March, so we won’t be seeing any of him this season.  However, the team’s first round pick from last year reminds me a lot of a better version of former White and Red Sox infielder Kevin Youkilis.  Burger is a bigger player, but he’s got a lot of pop, and in his brief spring appearances seemed to showcase some good discipline at the plate for a younger guy.  Third base is one of the major holes in the big club right now, and I think Burger has the ability to fill that role for the team for years to come.

Robert is one of the best of the club’s immense stash of exceptional outfield prospects.  The 20 year-old Cuban, signed last season, is a tall, lanky specimen; he doesn’t quite have the power of Jimenez, but he’s still got it, and has shown himself to be a better fielder and baserunner than his countryman.  If he can continue to improve his ability to get the bat on the ball after he returns from injury—he’s out for around the next month and a half or so with a thumb injury—he could be a star.

Kopech is probably the most easily recognizable pitching prospect in the organization—partly because of his flowing locks and hard fastball, and partly due to his reality star girlfriend.  Despite the possible off-field distractions that the righty has faced (and is currently facing), he has the stuff to be a true top-end starter.  Like most young hurlers, he needs to continue to develop his off-speed stuff, but he already has a pro-level fastball to build on for the future.

Possible Surprises:

OF- Blake Rutherford

OF- Charlie Tilson

Robbie Ross Jr.- LHP

Dylan Covey- RHP

Rutherford was the centerpiece of the deal that sent David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle to the Yankees.  He isn’t as flashy as many of his fellow prospects, but he’s a pretty solid contact hitter and has solid fundamentals in every aspect of his game.  He might not make it above AA ball this year, but he might also go on a tear that sees him streak through the minors and earn a September call-up.

Tilson’s injury issues last year were a huge drag on the New Trier graduate’s development—he was considered the frontrunner for the center field job last year, yet was one of the first cuts in spring training this year.  If he is able to work back to full strength and utilize the athletic gifts that caused his unlikely rise to the border of the bigs, he has a pretty good shot of getting playing time ahead of some bigger prospects so the team can preserve their service time.

Ross was a solid reliever for the Red Sox in 2015 in 2016, but struggled mightily last season while being bogged down by back issues.  Solid lefty relievers are a dime a dozen, so if Ross is able to regain his mojo, and one of the younger specialists that are currently projected to make the team struggle, Ross could end up appearing in 30-40 games.

To say that Covey had a rough 2017 would be an understatement; in his first year in the majors, the former first round pick (taken one pick after Chris Sale, coincidentally) didn’t win a game and had an ERA over 7.  That being said, there’s a reason he got to the big club—he doesn’t have any one out pitch, but he can control his arsenal relatively well, something which the team clearly holds in high regard, or else they wouldn’t have tried to stick with him throughout his struggles.  I doubt that he gets a lot of action this year, but could be a good back-end starter by the time summer rolls around.

Season Prediction:

Projected Order

2B    Moncada

LF     Delmonico

1B    Abreu

RF    Garcia

C      Castillo

DH   Davidson

SS     Anderson

3B     Sanchez

CF     Engel

The Sox are not going to be good again this year.  They don’t have as many tradeable pieces as last year’s squad, which is indicative of the level of major league talent they currently possess.  That being said, the summer could be fun—we may end up seeing guys like Shields, Gonzalez, Garcia, and Davidson shopped around as the year goes on.  We’re also very likely to see at least a couple of the big guns from the system come up to get their first taste of the Show.  That won’t prevent the team from providing a generally poor product—they should be one of the two worst teams in the American League, along with the rival Tigers—but environment around the whole organization is positive, and if you can look past what are sure to be some icky looking results in the win-loss column, this could end up being a fun and rewarding year for many fans of the South Side squad.

Please note that this roster reflects my preference for the team; the current roster may have players in the minors that are in the majors, and vice versa, and players that I have penciled in on my ideal roster my currently be on the DL.

2018 MLB Season Preview

The Chicago Cubs are about to take on the Miami Marlins in the first game of the 2018 MLB season!  This year the league decided to schedule every team to play on Opening Day, which allows every team and their fan base to get in on the fun as the season kicks off.  Last year, two teams with long histories of late post-season stumbles, the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers, gave us a fun-filled World Series that saw the ‘Stros bring home their first ever championship to a city still dealing with the recovery from Hurricane Harvey.  The team is incredibly confident that they’ve got the ability to repeat this year—brazen comments from star pitcher Justin Verlander made that very clear—but many teams have the talent to make the trek to the title.  Will Houston be able to hang on to the Commissioner’s Trophy at the end of this year, or will another team manager to snatch it from their grasp?  Here are my predictions for the upcoming season:

 

National League

 

NL West

Los Angeles Dodgers (#1)

Arizona Diamondbacks

Colorado Rockies

San Francisco Giants

San Diego Padres

This division isn’t weak per se—I think the AL Central is the worst in the baseball, and the NL East is a (somewhat) close competitor—but LA should have no problems with cruising to the top here.  Their rotation gives me a bit of concern, since they’ll have to depend on some back-end starters that have an extensive injury history, but Clayton Kershaw and their loaded young line-up anchored by Corey Seager are good enough to make it work.  I would have put the Giants second, but the fact that they could be without their top two starters for up to two months will put a real dent in their ability to get something going this season.  As such, I’ve got the D-Backs at number two here.  They’ve got one of the best players in the game in first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and a decent supporting cast, with a solid rotation headlined by Zach Greinke and a good sidekick in the line-up in AJ Pollock.  That being said, I don’t think said line-up is balanced enough to get them into the post-season—it’ll be close, but I think they’ll miss out.  The Rockies, meanwhile, have the opposite problem—their batting order, anchored by Nolan Arenado, is loaded with solid hitters, and they’ve got a pretty good bullpen.  Their rotation, though, outside of Jon Gray is a little shaky, and will see them drop down the pecking order in this division.  The Padres will bring up the bottom—they have an interesting mish mash of players with some decent bats, the most prominent of which is new signing Eric Hosmer.  However, they have the worst of both of their rivals’ worlds: neither their rotation nor their order have much depth.  They’ll linger at the bottom until their top ranked farm system produces some MLB-caliber players.

 

NL Central

Chicago Cubs (#2)

Milwaukee Brewers (#1 WC)

St. Louis Cardinals (#2 WC)

Pittsburgh Pirates

Cincinnati Reds

The Cubs were well on their way to their second straight appearance in the World Series before running into the buzz saw that was last year’s Dodgers.  To level up and try to topple their rivals, they took two of their pitchers, starter Yu Darvish and reliever Brandon Morrow.  They have enough talent to hang with LA, but they have a significantly more difficult division, so I don’t think they’ll be able to quite match their record.  They’ll be closely followed by the Brewers, who made two of the biggest moves this past off-season in acquiring outfielders Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich.  They’ll come into a line-up that already features some strong performers, like slugger Ryan Braun and versatile Travis Shaw.  Their rotation doesn’t have any real high-end arms, but they’ve got enough firepower in their bats to carry them to the post-season.  The Cardinals, meanwhile, made a major outfield addition of their own, bringing in Yelich’s former teammate Marcel Ozuna and creating what is arguably one of the most talented trios in the game.  They have some serious injury concerns with their pitchers, most prominently with former ace Adam Wainwright and key reliever Luke Gregorson—but as is the case with the Cardinals of the modern era, they are incredibly balanced in every aspect of the game, and should have enough to get back into the play-offs.  The Pirates would have had enough to challenge them for that second wild card spot, but they got rid of two players who were arguably their best in righty Gerrit Cole and longtime outfielder Andrew McCutchen.  If they catch fire early on they could make some real noise, but expect them to deal away some of their remaining replacement-level players to restock their farm system.  The Reds, meanwhile, have Joey Votto and… not much else.  They’ll have ample opportunity to reload with high draft picks over the next couple years; here’s to hoping they’re good again before Votto retires.

 

NL East

Washington Nationals (#3)

Philadelphia Phillies

Atlanta Braves

New York Mets

Miami Marlins

This is a huge season for the Nats—Bryce Harper is widely expected to leave the nation’s capital after this season and they haven’t won a play-off series with the star right fielder on the roster, so this might be their only real chance to fulfill their potential.  Harper anchors a good line-up, and the Max Scherzer-Stephen Strasburg duo is perhaps the best in baseball; that’ll be enough to win the division, but I think the Cubs and Dodgers are just a bit deeper and will finish with better records.  Behind them, the young Phillies are a popular dark horse in the race for a wild card spot this season.  Unfortunately, I still think they’re a year or two away—Jake Arrieta was a good addition, as was Carlos Santana (he’ll take some pressure off of budding star Rhys Hoskins)—but I still think they’re lacking another solid rotation arm.  They’ll be competitive before long, though.  In the now, they’ll be fighting for that wild card spot alongside the Braves, who I expect to surprise some people this year, and the Mets.  I think Atlanta’s rotation is underrated, and there are enough solid hitters around superstar Freddie Freeman for Atlanta to make some noise in the standings, and that doesn’t even take into account top prospect Ronald Acuna.  As for the Mets, they certainly have enough talent to be among the best teams in the game, but the best teams are able to stay both healthy and consistent, and this team is always bound to be unable to accomplish at least one of those things.  As for the Marlins… the less said about them, the better.  Take pity on Starlin Castro and JT Realmuto.

 

American League

 

AL West

Houston Astros (#3)

Seattle Mariners (#2 WC)

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Oakland Athletics

Texas Rangers

Houston was a feel-good story last year—in the midst of the crisis their city was facing in the rebuild from the hurricane that decimated property across the South, the ‘Stros played incredible play-off baseball to pull out their first World Series in team history.  This year, they’ll get a full season from Justin Verlander, as well as from another star righty in the form of former Pirate Gerrit Cole.  Almost any other year they’d be good enough to earn a number one seed, but the Yankees are so good, and the Indians play in such a weak division, that they’ll have to settle for being number three.  The Mariners, meanwhile, are one of the more underrated teams in the game—sure, they have the longest play-off drought out of any team in the four major sports leagues in the US, and they’ve underperformed relative to their talent level for years.  But they also added Dee Gordon to a strong line-up headlined by Robinson Cano, and while former ace Felix Hernandez is on the way down, others, like Mike Leake and James Paxton, are on the up.  I expect this team to sneak into that second wild card spot.  To do so, they’ll have to fight off their division rival Angels, who made the biggest splash this off-season with their signing of Japanese superstar Shohei Ohtani.  They’ve also made some less heralded moves, such as signing Zach Cosart and trading for Ian Kinsler, to boost their push.  However, I just don’t see their pitching staff as being good enough to warrant a play-off berth.  The bottom two will consist of the Rangers and A’s.  I’ll give the advantage to Oakland, who had the 5th best offense in the league during the second half of last season, over the aging Rangers, who have a very uncertain rotation and an offense that, outside of Adrian Beltre, won’t really strike fear into the hearts of opposing pitchers.  They could flip-flop, but regardless, I don’t expect either team to be very good.

 

AL Central

Cleveland Indians (#1)

Minnesota Twins

Kansas City Royals

Chicago White Sox

Detroit Tigers

The Indians will have a fairly simple season—they get to play a bunch of games against three teams that seem to be in the midst of full rebuilds and more against a team that doesn’t quite match up well against it.  Just based on that alone, they should be able to snag the number one seed in the AL with ease.  Their season will be judged on whether or not they’ll be able to achieve post-season success, which I’ll talk about a bit later.  On our way down, the Twins are really the only other team in this division with a shot at the play-offs.  They made some smart additions this season, acquiring Lance Lynn, Jake Odorizzi, and Logan Morrison in a flurry of off-season moves.  That being said, I still have some doubts about their line-up—they’ll need solid seasons from both Bryan Buxton and Miguel Sano, and I simply don’t think those guys are at a level where they can provide them yet.  Another year of development and another bat, though, and these guys could be a good dark horse contender next season.  Of the three rebuilders, the Royals have the most top-end talent—Danny Duffy, Salvador Perez, and the newly re-signed Mike Moustakas are all still around, so that will prevent them from going into an all-out tank.  That being said, they’ll be active in trying to get rid as many guys as they can that don’t have long-term potential, so expect to see Duffy and Moustakas in trade talks come mid-season.  The White Sox, meanwhile, have perhaps the least high-end talent of any team in the division, but also have the best farm system.  Once some of their top picks reach the bigs, they should have enough to pull themselves out of the basement.  The Tigers still have Miguel Cabrera at first and guys like Jordan Zimmemann and Michael Fulmer in the rotation, but somehow contrived to finish with the worst record in the game last year, so while those guys still could be top-flight players, the rest of the team should be poor enough to let them finish with the top pick in next year’s draft.

 

AL East

New York Yankees (#2)

Boston Red Sox (#1 WC)

Toronto Blue Jays

Baltimore Orioles

Tampa Bay Rays

This division is consistently the most exciting in the game—there always seems to be at least three teams that have legitimate shots at post-season glory, and I think this year is no different.  The Yankees have gotten a lot of attention for how incredible their line-up is going to look this year, and that makes a lot of sense—it’s been a long time since a pair with as much power potential as Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge have been on the same team.  That said, I think it’s the team’s pitching staff, which is deep enough that former A’s ace Sonny Gray is penciled in as the number three starter and that excellent pitchers like David Robertson and Dellin Betances are merely set-up men for Aroldis Chapman, will carry the team to the top seed in the league.  The Red Sox will be nipping at their heels the whole season—they won the division despite some poor performances at the plate, and just added a power hitter of their own in JD Martinez.  They won’t quite be good enough to topple the mighty Bronx Bombers—I’ve got some concerns about the consistency of the back end of their rotation, both on the field and off of it with injury concerns—but they should have no issues snagging a wild card place.  The Blue Jays will be making a strong push for the other spot, especially seeing as how their star third baseman Josh Donaldson is likely to test free agency after this year.  They have an incredibly balanced batting order, but similarly to the Red Sox, I have concerns about the back of their rotation, and their top-end talent there, and in the bullpen, isn’t quite up to scratch for a play-off caliber team.  I think they, and the Twins, will just miss out.  The Orioles and Rays are both in tough spots—they have decent teams with stars (Manny Machado and Chris Archer, respectively) that rival any in the game, but they’re in a division that has what are arguably the two most talented teams in the AL.  They won’t struggle, but they won’t have enough to make the play-offs, so it’ll be interesting to see what they do with their two big names, both of whom have been in trade rumors since last fall (my prediction: Machado stays put, while Archer is traded to some team in California, with the Dodgers, Giants, and Padres all being players).

 

Awards

 

National League

NL MVP: Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals

This figures to be Harper’s last season in Washington, and I think he’ll be especially motivated to make a difference and truly establish his legacy.  His closest competitor should be a duo of Dodgers (Cody Bellinger and Corey Seager), but the slugging Las Vegas native should take the title.

 

NL Cy Young: Carlos Martinez, St. Louis Cardinals

I’m kind of tired of Clayton Kershaw winning so may awards, so I went with a wild card pick here.  Martinez figures to be the ace of an improved Cardinal team, and he’s got the stuff to make a real breakthrough this year.

 

NL Rookie of the Year: Ronald Acuna, Atlanta Braves

This is as close to a no-doubt pick as there is, really—Acuna looked incredible this spring, and he has the potential to be a superstar within a couple seasons.  No other prospect with a real chance of touching the majors this year has that potential.

 

NL Comeback Player of the Year: Adam Eaton, Washington Nationals

I admit that I’m a little bit biased with this one—Eaton was one of my favorite players with the White Sox before he was traded.  That being said, there was a reason that “Sparky” was acquired for a couple of solid prospects last off-season—he’s a very talented outfielder, and I fully expect him to bounce back and make a difference for the Nats this year.

 

NL Manager of the Year: Dave Martinez, Washington Nationals

For all the good that Dusty Baker did in managing Washington during the regular season, never winning a play-off series is a big blemish on his resume.  I expect Martinez to be able to steer his team to a solid season and at least one series win, which should be enough to earn him the award.

 

NL Best Offseason Acquisition: Tyler Chatwood, Chicago Cubs

The Cubs’ signing of Yu Darvish has gotten all the headlines, but I think that, for the money, Chatwood is a significantly better signing.  He pitched well in a tough Colorado environment last year, so while Wrigley Field is no pitcher’s paradise, he should be able to take advantage of not having Coors Field as his home park and leverage that by turning in another solid season.

 

NL Worst Offseason Acquisition: Eric Hosmer, San Diego Padres

I actually really respect Eric Hosmer—he’s an exceptional hitter that made things tough for my White Sox many times over.  That being said, to get a six year deal, worth a ton of money, in this money, is a big investment; that it was made by a team that doesn’t really figure to contend for a couple, when Hosmer’s salary might look slightly ridiculous, made this one a bit much for me.

 

American League

AL MVP: Mookie Betts, Boston Red Sox

Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge will get a ton of attention all season long, but I think that Betts will benefit immensely from the addition of JD Martinez.  It’ll free him up from a lot of pressure and allow him to excel, so that, combined with his excellent defense, should win him this award.

 

AL Cy Young: Chris Sale, Boston Red Sox

THIS HAS TO BE THE YEAR.  Seriously, though: the inconsistencies of the 2015 White Sox probably cost Sale a chance at this award in his last season in Chicago, and he was on track to win the award last year before a poor final two months saw him drop off.  If he doesn’t win this year, I won’t have much hope for one of the greatest lefties of his generation to ever win the award (until I stop thinking he will).

 

AL Rookie of the Year: Shohei Ohtani, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Ohtani’s poor performance in spring training gives me pause in picking him to win this award; he made the team, but I think that had a lot to do with his salary and name recognition than his actual value to the team at this point.  That being said, I think he’ll be able to settle in by mid-June (faster at the plate than on the mound), which is more than enough time to develop into a good enough player to win this award.

 

AL Comeback Player of the Year: Tim Lincecum, Texas Rangers

This is a bit of an ambitious pick, especially considering the struggles “The Freak” endured the last time he appeared in the bigs.  That being said, his effort to regain a real role on a pro team is commendable, and he certainly has the natural ability to make his winning of this reward entirely possible.

 

AL Manager of the Year: Terry Francona, Cleveland Indians

The Yankees have gotten most of the attention this off-season, but remember that I have the Indians being the top team in the AL.  I think that somebody in the organization deserves to be commended for that, and I think it’ll be Francona.

 

AL Best Offseason Acquisition: Neil Walker, New York Yankees

Walker might not even be a full-time player, for the Yankees or some other team, by the time this season comes to an end.  That being said, the consistency he brings with his bat is incredibly valuable, especially at his current salary.  If he can maintain his status as the team’s starting second baseman, he could prove to be one of the most underrated signings of the last decade.

 

AL Worst Offseason Acquisition: Alex Cobb, Baltimore Orioles

I could type basically all of the things about Baltimore’s acquisition of Cobb as I did about San Diego’s signing of Hosmer—this was a big outlay for a team that doesn’t figure to be super competitive in a market that was even less competitive.

 

Playoffs

 

National League

Wildcard

St. Louis Cardinals over Milwaukee Brewers

 

Division Series

Los Angeles Dodgers over St. Louis Cardinals

 

Washington Nationals over Chicago Cubs

 

Championship Series

Los Angeles Dodgers over Washington Nationals

 

American League

Wildcard

Boston Red Sox over Seattle Mariners

 

Division Series

Cleveland Indians over Boston Red Sox

 

New York Yankees over Houston Astros

 

Championship Series

Cleveland Indians over New York Yankees

 

World Series

Los Angeles Dodgers over Cleveland Indians

I didn’t have enough time to discuss the play-off match-ups before I needed to publish this, so if you have any questions on why I see those playing out the way I do, or any comments on any other parts of this piece, please contact me here.

A Leaving Legend

This past Wednesday marked the dawn of a new era in Chicago Bears football.  New head coach Matt Nagy gave a press conference at the NFL combine discussing some of the players that could be part of the team’s future.  It was fitting, then, that later in the day, there was a large announcement regarding a player from the team’s past.  One of the most memorable Bears of the last decade, a man that came to the city with a chip on his shoulder and no hair on his head who was forced out of town due primarily money.  I am talking, of course, about the departure of quarterback Mike Glennon.

OK, so maybe the lanky launcher’s release isn’t really much of a surprise—he would have been paid around $15 million next season, which is a huge amount of money for any player, much less one that would be a backup.  Glennon started his first four regular season games in a Bears uniform before being benched for the team’s incumbent first round pick, Mitchell Trubisky.  Glennon will certainly not be missed—his immobility and poor decision making on the field, combined with his exorbitant salary off of it, made him a polarizing figure.  The loads of criticism he received warranted more often than not, and he was one of the worst starting quarterbacks in the league during his time behind center.  That being said, while Bears fans are right to be thankful that Glennon is now gone, it’s worth taking a deeper look at his one year in Chicago.

The first, and possibly most important, thing I want to address is that it is certainly not Glennon’s fault that he was massively overpaid.  Sure, he made out well, and that makes it hard to feel sorry for him at all.  However, the money he received colored his reputation black, whereas I believe that all of the blame for this should fall on the team’s general manager, Ryan Pace.  Pace and his team have made some smart decisions during the GM’s time in Chicago—Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen are an excellent one-two punch in the running game, Leonard Floyd has been a solid pass rusher, and Akiem Hicks looks like a potential star along the defensive line.  However, Pace has also made some very poor decisions, with decisions at the receiver position—which include, but are not limited to, the drafting of Kevin White and letting Alshon Jeffery walk—being among the most egregious.  Glennon’s deal, though, might go down as one of Pace’s more baffling decisions.  The buyout fee—$2.5 million—was relatively small, so that saves this from being Pace’s worst choice, which remains drafting White.  However, seeing the deals handed out to guys like Nick Foles and Case Keenum, both of whom were free agents along with Glennon last off-season and had more impressive performances on their resumes, makes Glennon’s look comparatively atrocious.  So too did the many reports that the team wasn’t bidding against anyone else for Glennon’s services.

Another one of Pace’s errors during Glennon’s duration in Chicago leads me to my second point—that he was doomed from the moment he signed his deal.  Quarterback is the most important position in the NFL, and if you don’t have a plan at the position, then you won’t be competitive in the league.  When Glennon’s contract was announced, Pace touted the quarterback as a player that could be a long-term starter for the team that had the potential to alter the team’s drafting strategy.  While it wouldn’t have made sense for Pace to reveal the team’s plans, it certainly didn’t prepare anybody for what was to come.  The decision to trade up and draft Trubisky had to have taken a lot of consideration on Pace’s part, and yet he didn’t see fit to let the man he committed at least $17.5 million to in on his thinking until after the pick was made.  Trubisky’s selection left the former Buccaneer as a lame duck, talked up as the potential long-term solution at arguably the biggest position in all of sports only to be upstaged by a hotshot rookie.  To both his and Trubisky’s credit, both men were incredibly poised throughout the year during what had to have been an incredibly awkward situation.  Glennon’s comments made it incredibly clear that he would continue giving his all no matter what, and even after he was benched, the fact that he remained a team captain was a testament to his mental fortitude and value as a leader, which are traits that Pace and former head coach John Fox seemed to lack last season.

The final point relates to Glennon’s play—it became very clear by the time that he was benched that Trubisky is a significantly better player.  That being said, Glennon was hamstrung by Pace, who chose not to provide any of the dependable big-bodied targets that Glennon thrived with during his stints of extended playing time.  This comes back to Pace’s baffling decision to let go of Alshon Jeffery and place Kevin White in an important role—knowing White’s history, not having a backup plan could only come back to haunt the team.  Of course, White was ineffective in limited playing time before being lost to a left shoulder injury, while the loss of Jeffery’s perceived replacement, Cameron Meredith, to a torn ACL, highlighted how poor the team’s depth was.  The top receivers this past season were Kendall Wright, a talented but inconsistent slot receiver, and Josh Bellamy, another slot receiver whose hands are notoriously atrocious.  Glennon was also hampered by Fox and offensive coordinator Dowell Loggins, who finally figured out how to cater their offense to their quarterback around week 14, when the season was long lost for both the team and its week one quarterback.  Neither of these things excuses Glennon’s horrendous turnovers, or his general lack of awareness of both where his receivers were or where the pass rush was coming from.  That being said, he did almost lead his team to a win over the defending NFC champs in his first regular season start, and he was at the helm for a win on Pittsburgh, neither of which can be overlooked.

Just in case I haven’t made it clear—I, too, will not miss Glennon.  Watching a quarterback that was unable to move to make plays or sense pressure, and thereby causing useless turnovers, was extremely frustrating, even knowing the team would be bad this year.  That being said, I have a lot of respect for him—he was a player whose GM didn’t cater to his limited skill set that worked under a coaching staff that reached some of the highest levels of incompetence in Bear history, yet despite his poor performance was well-regarded by his teammates.  His failures are emblematic of how bad things had gotten under Fox, but also give me pause about the performance of Pace.  The jury remains out on him as far as fans are concerned—he’s had his share of both hits and misses in both the draft and free agency—but I feel I am a bit more worried than most.  Trubisky flashed some solid potential last year, so there definitely is hope.  However, if Pace’s handling of Glennon is a sign of things to come, then the GM and his departed quarterback will almost certainly become the most prominent faces of the team’s continuous failures of the past decade.

4 Suggestions for the Blackhawks’ Off-Season

To say that being swept in the first round of this year’s NHL play-offs was a major disappointment to the Chicago Blackhawks would be a drastic understatement.  Yesterday’s season-ending press conferences made that abundantly clear.  The team certainly isn’t going to rest on their laurels, though—this off-season is sure to be an entertaining one, with the expansion draft to take into account, and the Entry Draft taking place in Chicago, and after such a poor conclusion to the year, the ‘Hawks are sure to be very involved.  What exactly they do, though, is up for some debate.  Here, I give the four things that I think the team should do as they prepare for the 2017-18 season:

 

Don’t panic

Yes, the team got blasted in the play-offs against a division rival, and are just a year removed from losing to another team within the Central.  Because of the yearly salary cap crunch, they figure to be priced out of the markets for Scott Darling and Richard Panik, lose Johnny Oduya and Brian Campbell to either retirement or free agency, and see Trevor van Riemsdyk picked up by the Las Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft.  But there is a lot of talent on a team that won the regular season title in the Western Conference—guys like Ryan Hartman, Nick Schmaltz, and Tanner Kero stepped into important roles this past season, and guys like Vinnie Hinostroza, Gustav Forsling, and Tyler Motte are poised to take that next step.  The pipeline goes deeper, too, with top prospects Ville Pokka and Alex DeBrincat only a short ways away from being potential role players on the big squad.  With all of that in mind, there’s no need to panic, and that’s not even accounting for a core that has won three Stanley Cups in the past eight seasons.

 

Give serious consideration to trading a key core player or two

If I had my way, though, that core wouldn’t be together much longer.  It was abundantly clear that this team was not good enough to be competitive against a team as good as the Predators.  If Stan Bowman’s comments in his press conference yesterday are anything to go by, changes are probably going to happen.  The thing is, though, that with the current salary projections for next season, unless the cap ceiling goes up more than it is expected to, there’s actually nothing that the team really can do.  This article by the Blackhawks blog Second City Hockey makes it very clear that, even after the presumed losses of van Riemsdyk, Panik, Campbell, Oduya, and Darling, that the team is basically right on the line in terms of cap dollars.  Other teams will be quick to recognize this, and the man that would be an ideal salary to dump, Marcus Kruger, would probably require a prospect or a draft pick to take on his contract, which, considering how much the team will have to rely on their youth in the coming years, would not be ideal.  Therefore, I think that the team should put some thought into trading a guy that has a higher salary, but would also net a greater return, allowing for increased depth and talent throughout the roster.  I also feel that everybody should be in play except for Toews and Keith—and yes, that includes fan-favorites Patrick Kane, Artem Anisimov, and Artemi Panarin.  Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Corey Crawford would get the most consideration, but after two straight play-off failures, it’s clear the league has caught up to the Blackhawks, and if they need to deal a big name to regain their swagger, then so be it.

 

Target players that are good with the puck

When the team makes some moves, they’re going to need to target some guys that are really good with the puck.  And I’m not talking guys like Patrick Kane, who can dangle with the best in history, but guys like the departed duo of Andrew Shaw and Teuvo Teravainen, who were among the top 40 forwards for individual Corsi percentage this season.  For those unfamiliar with the statistic, Corsi measures how many shots—on net, off net, or blocked—that take place for and against a team when a certain player is on the ice.  Like any advanced statistic, Corsi is flawed—a USA Today article published back in November suggested that some players are willing to take shots at poor times just to boost their percentage—but it is generally a good indicator of how well a player can keep possession of the puck.  The Stanley Cup-winning Blackhawk teams finished in the top-10 in overall Corsi percentage, but slipped to the middle of the pack this year, especially on the top line, where Jonathan Toews’ primary line mates, Nick Schmaltz and Richard Panik, were below 50% Corsi.  There were many reasons why Nashville’s top line dominated Chicago, but I’m sure that the fact that all of their first line forwards have better possession numbers than any of the Blackhawk forwards has something to with it.  If the team is constrained to looking at fairly economical options for new players, they should look towards acquiring guys like Mark Stone of Ottawa and Kyle Clifford of Los Angeles via trade, and players like Brett Connelly of Washington and Sam Gagner of Columbus in free agency, if they aren’t priced out of Chicago’s range.

 

Find better balance on the blue line

In my last post, I noted that Joel Quenneville had a lot of trouble coming up with consistent defensive pairings as the regular season drew to a close, and that played a contributing factor in some of the baffling plays made by Blackhawks defensemen in their first round loss.  The acquisition of Johnny Oduya made the problems incredibly stark, but the issues in the back of the team were there before he re-joined the team from Dallas—Seabrook and Campbell are usually relatively reliable veterans, but they struggled to find their game, especially offensively, throughout the year.  Now that the team figures to get (relatively) younger on the back end, they won’t have to worry as much about being outpaced as badly as they were against Nashville, but they do need to place a premium on making sure that the pairings that they end up forming will work together in both zones.  If that doesn’t happen, and the inconsistencies that each individual player displayed in this year’s play-offs continue to plague the team, then they’ll have virtually no chance of regaining their old dominance, especially when the teams that have dominated the post-season so far, the Predators and the Ducks, have such deep blue lines.  The way the current roster is set up, my parings would probably be Keith-Hjalmarsson, Seabrook-Kempny, and Pokka-Forsling, with Rozsival as the 7th man, but after such a disappointing finish to the year, nothing, nothing at all, is guaranteed.

What are your thoughts about what the team should prioritize this off-season?  Comment what you think below, or contact me here.

 

 

 

 

Why The Blackhawks Lost in the First Round… Again

The expectations for the Chicago Blackhawks coming into this season were not terribly high for one of the best teams in recent memory—their loss in the first round of the play-offs to archrival St. Louis, and the annual retooling due to salary cap constraints saw a lot of rookies make the opening roster.  Their division opponents looked pretty good, too, with the Blues, Predators, and Wild all looking like dangerous threats to win the conference.

As the season drew on, though, hopes for a Stanley Cup began to rise in earnest.  Two of the team’s rookies, Nick Schmaltz and Ryan Hartman, stepped up big time on the offensive end.  Veterans Marian Hossa and Artem Anisimov both exceeded expectations.  After slows starts, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane found their grooves.  Corey Crawford was his usual steady self.  Bowman even managed to bring back Johnny Oduya in a trade with Dallas.  All of this led to the team overtaking in Minnesota, who led the conference for most of the year, to take the top spot from their division nemesis and go into their play-off series with Nashville flying high.

As quickly as the team rose, though, they fell apart just as fast against Nashville.

There were warning signs going into the post-season; Anisimov was expected to jump right back into his spot as the number 2 center despite not having played in almost a month with a lower body injury.  Crawford looked a little shaky to close the season.  Coach Joel Quenneville hadn’t been able to figure out good defensive pairings after the addition of Oduya.

That being said, nobody expected the team to get outplayed as thoroughly as they did over the past week.  Corey Crawford stood on his head to try to keep his team in it, but he might’ve been the only real positive.  The Predators, who came into the seasons expecting to be the class of the West after adding PK Subban to their already loaded blue line, were inconsistent throughout the year, but put it together quickly in this series, handing Chicago their first play-off sweep since 1993.  The Preds’ top line of Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, and Viktor Arvidsson were incredible on both sides of the ice.  The team’s defenseman, especially Roman Josi, shut down the Blackhawks’ offense and provided some solid offensive contributions as well.  Pekka Rinne allowed only 2 goals in the entire series.  Nashville certainly played well enough to win this series, but it wouldn’t have been as easy as it was if it weren’t for some problems that the Blackhawks had.  Here are just a few of those issues:

 

Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith played terribly

It would be harsh to say that these two were the worst players on the team in this post-season—those honors would go to a (still clearly hobbled) Anisimov and Ryan Hartman, respectively—but they certainly did not play at a level anywhere near what they are capable of.  The captain isn’t known for being a scorer, but he is typically a good possession center, a creator with the puck and a solid defender without it.  None of the positives manifested themselves in any of the four games, though, as he was thoroughly dominated by Johansen in almost every facet of the game, including face-offs (more on those later), and the only point he put up all series came late in the 3rd period in tonight’s game when Nashville’s victory was all but assured.  Keith, too, had little impact on the offensive end, a theme that he’s had throughout this season, and his poor decisions with the puck in his defensive end led to many preventable chances for the Predators, who managed to convert on at least one of Keith’s misplays into an important goal.

 

Face-offs

Winning face-offs isn’t necessarily a marker of success—the teams that ranked in the bottom three for face-off percentage this regular season, the Edmonton Oilers, the Blackhawks, and the Pittsburgh Penguins, all were phenomenal teams—but the hole that Chicago put themselves in at the dot this series was not helpful.  They won 120 out of 254 face-offs overall, a clip that was very similar to their regular season numbers, but those numbers were inflated in their Game 1 loss in which their entire game outside of face-offs was anemic.  They were especially poor in their defensive zone, as many of Nashville’s goals came off of a win in the face-off circle.

 

Defensive chemistry

Similar to the return of Andrew Ladd last year, the acquisition of Johnny Oduya was supposed to solidify an area of weakness (a lock-down defenseman to play alongside Niklas Hjalmarsson) with an old Blackhawk in an effort to boost the team to another Stanley Cup.  If anything, though, the veteran’s presence only served to destabilize the pairings the team had worked to establish all season.  The Hjalmarsson-Oduya pairing didn’t work out; neither did the Keith-Seabrook pairing.  Both Oduya and Brian Campbell played so poorly in the series that Quenneville had 7 defenseman suit up for the final game, and they ended up allowing 4 goals regardless.  The team’s best blue liner was almost certainly the much-maligned Trevor van Riemsdyk, who was smart with the puck and made a couple of poke checks that saved goals that made have made Blackhawks defeats look even worse, and he could be gone next season with the expansion draft coming up.  Acquiring Oduya was a good idea in theory, but it didn’t end up looking like a good move for Stan Bowman.

 

The team’s role players couldn’t maintain their regular season pace

The reason that the team was able to win the regular season conference title was because of the big plays they got from their lesser known players.  Ryan Hartman was among the best rookies not named Auston Matthews or Patrick Laine.  The same could be said for Nick Schmaltz.  Richard Panik had a career year, and Tanner Kero was a revelation after being called up from Rockford.  Outside of Kero’s performance in the face-off circle, these players, and the other non-elite Blackhawks, were unable to keep up their high levels of performance in the post-season.  Panik and Schmaltz were so easily dominated that they were both demoted from the top line.  Hartman’s biggest contribution may have been getting a ten-minute misconduct penalty in Game 2, and Kero was a zero when his team had the puck.  It’s a lot to ask of these guys to be as good as supporting casts of old, but their play as a group wasn’t anywhere near being up to scratch for the team to be successful.

It’s clear, then, that the team has a lot to work on for next season.  So where should Bowman, Quenneville and company look to improve?  Check back here on Sunday to see my thoughts on how the team can recover from this brutal series loss.

Have your own thoughts on why the Blackhawks lost this series, or on how they can work to get better next year?  Comment on this post below, or contact me here.

 

2017 White Sox Season Preview

Last year’s White Sox had all of the talent to contend for a play-off place.  As the season drew on, though, inconsistent performances and clubhouse turmoil cost manager Robin Ventura his job and saw Rick Hahn undertake a major re-evaluation of the team’s future.  Now, this year’s team not will not only have a new manager in Rick Renteria, but a new ace and a new lead-off hitter, as Hahn flipped Chris Sale and Adam Eaton to the Red Sox and Nationals, respectively, for prospects.  With all the new talent coming up the youth pipeline, there’s a lot to be excited about for the future of the team.  However, the future might look a little bit different.  Here’s my preview of the upcoming 2017 season for the White Sox:

 

Outfield:

LF- Melky Cabrera

CF- Charlie Tilson

RF- Avisail Garcia

On a team that could soon be full of youngsters, the current corner outfielders for the Sox are among the most veteran members of the team.  Cabrera is the oldest player on the team, and Garcia is one of their longest-tenured players.  In addition to being among the team’s older players, they have consistently been amongst the most frustrating—Cabrera has consistently hit for a decent average in Chicago, but his power numbers and play in the field have always left something to be desired, and injuries, combined with an inconsistent work ethic, have doomed Garcia to a fate of being a bit-part player instead of the guy with the potential to jack 30 bombs a season.  With both of them only one year away from free agency, I’m sure that they’ll perform well, but it’ll certainly be too little, too late from many fans’ perspectives.

The revolving door at the team’s center field position will continue this year, with the Wilmette native Tilson, who was acquired for Zach Duke in a trade with the Cardinals this past July, figuring to be the main man.  Tilson was once rated as one of the top ten prospects in the deep St. Louis system, and has consistently demonstrated great skills on the field and on the bases.  However, he struggled at the plate after reaching the higher levels of the minors and has had a couple of injury issues since joining the tram.  He’ll need to improve his skills at the plate to have a chance of cementing down a spot that’s been filled with uncertainty since Aaron Rowand manned the positon back in 2005.

 

Infield:

3B- Todd Frazier

SS- Tim Anderson

2B- Tyler Saladino

1B- Jose Abreu

C- Omar Navarez

DH- Cody Asche

The players that started last year at the corners—Frazier and Abreu—remain in place from last year’s team, but everything other position has a drastically different person in place.  The former Cincinnati Red had a decent first year in Chicago, becoming a fan favorite while hitting lots of home runs and striking out a bunch; he figures to perform roughly the same this year.  Abreu, meanwhile, has seemingly slowed down a little bit since his phenomenal rookie year.  Major league pitchers have begun targeting his weaknesses, and as the focal point of an offense that doesn’t have a lot of pop, he figures to see less good pitches than he has in previous years.  He’ll have to make some adjustments to stay among the upper echelon of power-hitting first basemen in the league.

Up the middle, the Pale Hose have two youngsters that may not be very good with the bat, but are excellent athletes and should both be key contributors on any future teams.  The more highly touted of the pair, Anderson, has long been slated to be a solid pro.  He showed his skills on the base paths and started to utilize his speed and power towards the end of last season, showing why he was considered the team’s top prospect last year, and figures to continue his solid play into this year.  Saladino, meanwhile, has come out of seemingly nowhere to be a fairly productive role player for the Sox.  He’ll eventually have his place taken by Yoan Moncada, but is an adequate placeholder, and a good future reserve, for the team.

The other two projected starters here, Navarez and Asche, don’t jump off the page at you; that’s probably because there’s not a whole lot about their games that really stand out.  Navarez will get playing time by virtue of his good pitch-framing skills, but hasn’t demonstrated much ability to hit major league pitching, while a guy who has 33 career home runs is slated to start at a position that is largely known for gaudy power numbers.

 

Bench:

C- Kevan Smith

2B- Yolmer Sanchez

OF- Jacob May

I recognize that Smith is probably a guarantee to start the season in Charlotte, especially because of his weaknesses at the plate.  He’s a good defender, though, and his familiarity with the pitching staff holdovers, as well as with manager Rick Renteria, should, in my opinion, earn him a roster spot for Opening Day.

Sanchez, formerly known as Carlos, is another guy that isn’t all that great at the bat, but whose defense should earn him a spot on the team.  He won’t see much playing time, since the guys in front of him figure to play a part of the team’s future, but will be a valuable reserve, and left-handed bat, to have around.

I didn’t expect May, a former third round draft pick in 2013 that hasn’t exactly excelled in the minors, to play a role on this year’s team.  But in a year in which there are lots of available roster spots and where we should expect the unexpected, the versatile outfielder has had a great spring and has essentially played himself onto the roster.  He could see a lot of time, too, especially with Tilson’s foot issues and Garcia’s frustrating inconsistencies.

 

Rotation:

Jose Quintana- LHP

Carlos Rodon- LHP

James Shields- RHP

Miguel Gonzalez- RHP

Derek Holland- LHP

Now that former ace Chris Sale is in Boston, it’s Jose Quintana’s show now.  There’s still a pretty decent chance that the lefty gets shipped somewhere this year, whether it be before the season starts or towards the trade deadline, but assuming he’s on the team to start the year, he’ll finally get a chance at being “the man” in a big-league rotation.  Behind him, Rodon is probably the only guy that showed any real type of consistency last year; he’s got some control issues to work out, but still has one of the most underrated fastballs in the game and is a good compliment to Q at the top.

The other three guys in the rotation are… shaky, to say the least.  James Shields was acquired mid-season last year in hopes that he would recover the form that made him elite in Tampa Bay and Kansas City; he ended up being worse after the trade than before it, and that’s saying something.  Miguel Gonzalez was picked up after being released by the Orioles last year and was incredibly inconsistent.  Derek Holland is coming off of major shoulder surgery.  All of these guys have the potential to be as good as #2 pitchers, but the issues that they’ve had—control problems, injury issues, and lots and lots of homers allowed—won’t go away fast; I expect them to have a pretty tough year.

 

Bullpen:

Zach Burdi- RHP

Zach Putnam- RHP

Michael Ynoa- RHP

Cory Luebke- LHP

Dan Jennings- LHP

Nate Jones- RHP

Jake Petricka- RHP

David Robertson- RHP (closer)

The Sox bullpen is going to see a lot of action this year, especially if Quintana is traded away.  That much is incredibly clear.  Outside of Nate Jones, Dan Jennings, and David Robertson, though, there aren’t many guys to be overly confident about.  There’s a couple of guys punching above their weight (Putnam and Ynoa), a couple guys trying to rebuild their careers after some injury issues (Luebke and Petricka), and a youngster (Burdi).  They have some good potential, but if you’re looking for a big area of concern on this team, both in the present and the future, this is it.

I’m also a little bit concerned that Burdi, who was drafted last year after throwing some impressive innings as a starter/closer hybrid at Louisville but profiles more as a closer in the pros, is a good fit for this roster at the moment—Jones and Robertson have the back end of the ‘pen locked down—but if Robertson, who was heavily involved in trade rumors this off-season, gets moved, it’ll have been a good choice to choose the local kid for the major league roster as opposed to some of the more highly-touted starters that the team recently acquired (more on them later).  For now, I don’t think he’s a great fit, and hope that if he does make the roster that it isn’t a detriment to his career.

 

Possible Call-Ups:

3B- Matt Davidson

IF- Yoan Moncada

OF- Peter Bourjos

That Davidson is currently in consideration for a roster spot this season is a testament to the hard work that he’s put in over the last 3 years in Charlotte.  He batted .268 last season, which wasn’t brilliant, but he flashed some of the power and fielding ability that inspired the Sox to trade for him in exchange for Addison Reed.  If Cody Asche or Carlos Sanchez struggle at all, expect to see Davidson get an extensive shot in the big leagues this season.

Moncada is well-known to be the team’s top prospect, but since he has the most big-league experience of all the team’s up-and-comers, I’m putting him here so we can talk about all of the incredible youngsters coming up in the team’s system.  Moncada is a freak athlete that is already exceptional in the field, and once he figures out some holes in his swing, he has the potential to grow into a player very similar to what Astros star Carlos Correa is now.  He’ll see the bigs at some time this year, and he’ll make an immediate impact.

Bourjos, who came up with the Angels, is not a fantastic hitter, but he’s shown enough competence at the plate, and enough excellence in the field, to stick around in the majors for a while.  His bat will (theoretically) keep him behind a couple other players, but with Tilson’s injury history and Jacob May’s rawness, Bourjos could see some time—he might even start the season with the Sox if Tilson starts the season on the DL.

 

Top Prospects:

Reynaldo Lopez- RHP

Michael Kopech- RHP

Lucas Giolito- RHP

C- Zack Collins

Carson Fulmer- RHP

Lopez certainly looks the most polished out of any of the prospects that the Sox acquired after trading away Sale and Eaton.  In fact, were Lopez not sent down to AAA the other day, I’d have thought he’d stayed with the big club, in a role similar to the one that Sale had when he was initially called up.  He’ll get some time to polish his stuff for a little while, and I bet that he’ll be called up within a couple months; he doesn’t have the ceiling as some of his fellow youngsters, but he’s sure to be a consistent fixture before we know it.

Kopech is one of the freakiest pitchers at any level—his fastball has touched 103 in-game, and he has the potential to eclipse 105 one day if he keeps up his unorthodox workout routines.  He struggled with his control and attitude when in Boston’s system, so he’ll start in either A or AA, but if he lessens his focus on speed and puts a little more effort into locating his pitches, he’s got the chance of being a bigger, stronger version of Justin Verlander.

Giolito was the biggest name that the Sox got in the deal for Adam Eaton.  Out of anyone, the former high school draft pick has the best stuff—mid 90’s heat, a big breaking curve, and a sneaky good changeup—but has gotten hammered in his limited big league action, as his effectiveness fluctuates like a roller coaster.  Personally, I see him turning into more of a Jon Adkins than a Stephen Strasburg, but if he can fulfill his potential, he’ll be a frontline starter for many years to come.

Collins is one of two homegrown prospects that profiles as one of the 100 best in baseball.  His college career actually very closely mirrors Kyle Schwarber’s- both were bigger, solid-hitting catchers that many viewed to be reaches as draft picks, but ended up raking in rookie ball.  The former Miami man hit a bit of a wall in Single A, so he might take a bit longer than Schwarber to develop, but he certainly has the potential to reach the Cubs star’s level.

Fulmer has been overshadowed by Collins and the profiles of the bigger-named prospects the team has acquired in trades, but we can’t ignore the former Vanderbilt star’s ability.  He struggled in his limited time in the majors last year, and he certainly needs some adjustments in the minor leagues, but there’s a reason Rick Hahn made him a first round draft pick.  I don’t expect him to see any time in Chicago this year, but if he does, it’ll be because he’s flashing the ability that makes him a potential future ace.

 

Possible Surprises:

C- Geovany Soto

UT- Leury Garcia

SP- Chris Volstad

Catcher is probably the weakest position of the current major league roster, and Soto has a fantastic opportunity to eke another year or two in the big leagues.  His bat has really fallen off a cliff these past couple seasons, but he’s always been pretty solid against lefties, and his veteran experience could be valuable to a team that’s sure to be filled with young faces.

Leury Garcia doesn’t fit the traditional profile of a utility player—he’s a little on the small side but he is capable of playing in both the infield and the outfield, and showed that he is a very capable backup while filling in for Adam Eaton when he was injured back in 2013.  His best spot now is probably in the infield, though, and I think he’ll see the big club if either Sanchez, Saladino, or even Asche (Frazier moves to DH) struggle to get going.

On the pitching side of things, Volstad is another veteran that has a chance to make a difference for the Sox this season.  The 6’8” starter last pitched for an MLB team back in 2015, but in a league that greatly values hurlers that have one exceptional pitch, Volstad’s sinker has always been a good out pitch.  It has the potential to boost him into spot starter role if the team’s young guns struggle, or if they’re searching for an innings-eater at the back of the rotation.

 

Season Prediction:

Projected Order

SS    Anderson

2B   Saladino

1B   Abreu

3B   Frazier

LF    Cabrera

DH   Asche

RF    Garcia

C     Navarez

CF   Tilson

I recognize that I’ve been fairly negative in my outlook for many aspects of this year’s team for the Sox, and rightly so—they’ve got some pretty glaring weaknesses, and they don’t really have much of a chance to contend for the play-offs, much less make them.  Assuming that Frazier and Abreu stick around for the season, they’ll have a somewhat competent offense, and if Quintana stays, then they might even have a chance of being better than the Twins this year.  The way this rebuild is going, though, I can’t see Rick Hahn keeping Q around for the whole year.  The Sox offense will end up around league average, but after the team’s ace is traded, their pitching staff will merely be adequate, and in a league where the talent level is rapidly growing, that won’t be good enough.  They won’t be too terrible, though; that adequate offense will allow them to top the Twins and stay out of the cellar in the AL Central.  That doesn’t mean that they won’t end up as one of the worst five teams in baseball, because they certainly will be; but they’ve got some pieces of a future core that will surely lift the Sox back into the national spotlight real soon.

Please note that rosters have not yet been finalized, and that the 25-man roster, and the other sections listed, are just predictions.

2017 Cubs Season Preview

The 2016 Chicago Cubs will forever be remembered as the team that finally broke the longest championship drought in professional sports history, coming back from a 3-1 deficit to topple the Cleveland Indians.  During last year’s run to victory, stars were born and legends were made; the big guns performed when it mattered, and role players stepped up to bring the team their first title in 108 years.  Now, the “Lovable Losers” have to prepare to defend their title.  Their core is still in place, but some little changes around the edges could ultimately make or break how successful they are in accomplishing their goal.  Will they be able to reign supreme for a second straight season, or will another club manage to topple them from their throne?  Here’s my outlook for what the Cubs will look like in this coming year:

 

Outfield:

LF- Kyle Schwarber

CF- Jason Heyward

RF- Ben Zobrist

In this roster configuration, I’m attempting to maximize the line-up potential that Joe Maddon has at his disposal.  It’ll be interesting to see what the manager ultimately does with Zobrist, the hero of Game 7 of the World Series; he started at second base for most of last season, but if we’re trying to maximize offense here, it’ll be tough to keep a guy with as much firepower as Javy Baez out of the line-up (more on that later).  So Zobrist will have to find his way to right, a position that will force the team’s most expensive player, Heyward, over to center, at what could be a defensive detriment to the team.  The former Cardinal’s contract looks more and more like an albatross every time he steps into a batter’s box—he still seems to be struggling mightily with his swing, and moving him to center is not only a misuse of his talents, but prevents one of the team’s best remaining prospects, Albert Almora, from getting reasonable playing time.  There’s a high chance, though, that Maddon looks at how Baez’s production fell off in the World Series and sticks Zobrist back in the infield, allowing Heyward to play his regular spot; there’s really no certainty in that regard.  The only thing that is certain is that Heyward, despite his huge contract, really needs to pick it up if he wants to assure himself of regular playing time on this incredibly deep and talented roster.

The only outfield spot that’s really locked down is one that, six months ago, nobody could have ever anticipated.  Kyle Schwarber’s remarkable comeback from his knee injury early last season, his presence in the World Series, and the impact that he made in his limited time made it clear that he deserves a spot in this line-up.  With a full off-season to continue his rehab, and to prepare for what could be his first full season as a full-time starter in both the majors and the outfield, the former Indiana man should continue his development into a power-hitting superstar.

  

Infield:

3B- Kris Bryant

SS- Addison Russell

2B- Javier Baez

1B- Anthony Rizzo

C- Willson Contreras

Arguably the two biggest position players in the entire National League will man the corners for the Cubs this year.  Bryant, who won the NL MVP award last year, didn’t have incredibly mind-blowing statistics, but the third baseman’s combination of solid contact, strong power, and nifty fielding make him one of the most valuable players in the game.  Rizzo, meanwhile, had himself a career year at the dish last season, batting .292 and knocking in 109 runs, and while his performance in the post-season wasn’t exactly up to scratch, it was his leadership abilities that really took center stage, as his enthusiasm helped buoy his team, especially when they seemed down-and-out following the Cleveland Indians’ win in Game 4 of the Series.  Both men will be essential if the Cubs are to have any chance of repeating.

The two youngsters up the middle are models of consistency and inconsistency, steadiness and streakiness.  The consistent one, Russell, might never be a star at the bat—he batted .238 last season, and he struck out (135) more times than he got a hit (125)—but he still managed to come up big when it mattered, as he knocked in 95 runs from a spot low in the batting order, and his defense saved many a base hit for the team’s pitching staff.  He’ll never be elite, but you know what you’ll get from him.  His double play partner, Baez, has the potential to be one of the greatest hitters at his position in baseball history.  He’s a freaky athlete with quick hands and top-level power, as evidenced by his many moonshots, but his aggressiveness has made him even more prone to strikeouts than Russell, and he’s fairly error-prone, having not fully mastered playing second base yet.  He should put up enough power numbers to hold down most of the playing time at second, but if Albert Almora or prospect Ian Happ find their strokes, and the back end of the rotation proves to be a problem for the team, expect Baez’s name to be floated in some trade rumors.

The man behind the plate, Contreras, was a mid-season call-up that caught fire as the regular season came to a close and essentially won the starting role based on that performance.  I worry about his transition to being a true full-time guy, especially with David Ross no longer present to give day-to-day guidance, so I don’t think he’ll see as much time as many expect, but in a couple years I reckon he’ll be one of the most complete catchers in baseball.

 

Bench:

C- Miguel Montero

2B- Tommy La Stella

OF- Jon Jay

OF- Matt Szczur

Montero won’t be happy playing in a reserve role for another season—he made that abundantly clear—but with David Ross retired and the man in front of him, Contreras, preparing to play in his first full he’s guaranteed to get more playing time than last season.  Playing for what could be his last good contract, I actually expect Montero to get the most playing time behind the dish this year.

There’s actually a pretty high chance that La Stella doesn’t end up on the roster—as I mentioned earlier, it’s likely that Jason Heyward will start the season in right, which would force Ben Zobrist to second base, Javier Baez to the bench, and…  La Stella to the minors.  In this scenario, though, the versatile infielder is kept around to provide a veteran presence off the bench.

Jay was signed to help fill the void left when Dexter Fowler departed for St. Louis, and he’ll do just that—help fill the void.  A lefty, he actually hit better against lefthanders last year, so he’s capable of taking at-bats in any situation.  For that reason, he figures to have an important role somewhere down the line.

There’s a chance that Szczur could end up not being on the big club this spring, but there’s a couple reasons that I see him beating out Almora for a roster spot—the former multi-sport star at Villanova is out of options, and since Almora hasn’t quite demonstrated that he’s capable of hitting major league pitching yet, I think that the gritty veteran makes the team.  If he struggles, though, or if Almora rakes in the minors, expect the team to gauge what interest there would be in him on the trade market.

 

 

Rotation:

Jon Lester- LHP

Jake Arrieta- RHP

Kyle Hendricks- RHP

John Lackey- RHP

Brett Anderson- LHP

You know that your team has a strong rotation if a guy that figures to be the long-term third starter, Hendricks, led the league in ERA last season (Hendricks will open the season as the 5th starter, due to the team’s desire to thrown John Lackey against his old team, St. Louis).  Jon Lester recovered his mojo in his second year in Chicago, finishing with a career-low 2.44 ERA, and earning the right to be the ace of this deep staff.  Arrieta, the bearded warrior, struggled in the second half of last season, but on a contract year, I expect the big righty to try to pick it up a notch in search of a big new deal.  Then there’s Hendricks, a man whose pinpoint control brought him to new heights last season.  I’m sure that he’s due to fall off a little bit, but if it’s only a little, the 27-year-old has a chance to be the future ace in Chicago in the vein of what the legendary Greg Maddux once was.

The back end of the rotation will be filled out by a couple of veterans looking to show that they’re still worthy of being members of a championship team.  Lackey is known to be a great leader (not to mention incredibly fiery) for this squad, and his 3.36 ERA last year proves he’s still got it, but I’m a tad worried about how long he can continue to be effective, especially as his innings decrease.  The best older pitchers rely on their ability to control their pitches and eat innings, and his 188.1 innings last year were his least since his horrendous 2011 season in Boston.  Behind him will be Anderson, who is coming off an injury-filled season with the Dodgers but has the stuff to be a solid mid-rotation option.  At this point, though, I can’t see him making it through the whole season unscathed; he’ll pitch well when he’s available, but if he tops 20 starts I’ll be incredibly surprised.

 

Bullpen:

Carl Edwards Jr.- RHP

Justin Grimm- RHP

Mike Montgomery- LHP

Brian Duensing- LHP

Pedro Strop- RHP

Hector Rondon- RHP

Koji Uehara- RHP

Wade Davis- RHP (closer)

When it became clear that the Cubs weren’t front-runners to bring back Aroldis Chapman, and that it was unlikely they could sign the other two big-name free agent closers, Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon, the team’s front office worked fast.  They flipped Jorge Soler, who has star potential but has struggled for consistency in his two full years with the big club, to Kansas City in exchange for Davis, who was the best closer on the trade market.  He may not have the power pitch that Chapman had, but the former Royal might actually be more consistent, and his presence will keep the 9th inning in good hands for this year’s team.

Jed Hoyer also made a couple of shrewd free agent pick-ups to fill some needs.  With former closer Hector Rondon figuring to move back to his hybrid set-up/middle relief role, a true set-up man was needed, so Hoyer signed former Red Sox reliever Koji Uehara, who, at 42, is still capable of being incredibly effective.  Travis Wood’s departure also left a hole for a left-handed reliever in the ‘pen, so Hoyer inked veteran Brian Duensing, who has great splits against lefties, to a deal.  He won’t see as much action as Wood, but he could yet prove to be a useful piece.

The hold-overs from last year’s roster will complete what could be one of the most underrated bullpens in all of baseball.  There’s a couple fire-ballers (Edwards Jr. and Grimm), a couple of guys with great control (Montgomery and Strop), and Rondon, whose arsenal doesn’t have anything that particularly stands out but is very effective in high-leverage situations.  The best of the bunch is probably the man who finished off last year’s championship victory, Montgomery, who could see some time as a starter if Brett Anderson struggles.

 

Possible Call-Ups:

3B- Jeimer Candelario

CF- Albert Almora

LHP- Zac Rosscup

Candelario didn’t get much playing time after being added to the 40-man roster this past July, and while it’s evident that he still needs to work on figuring out major league pitching, he’s fared well in the minors, as he hit .333 in Iowa before being called up.  His versatility—he can play any infield spot except first—and speed could also make him a valuable reserve at some point during the year.

Almora is certainly talented enough to start the season in Chicago, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he did, but I still think that he needs to have better control of the strike zone before I think he really deserves to get real playing time for the duration of the season.  He’ll get called up at the first sign of injury or struggles for any of the outfielders, and he’ll surely be an important part of the team down the stretch, but I just feel he should start the year in Iowa.

Rosscup hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2015, owing to the poor spring he had last year that caused him to start the year in Iowa and the shoulder surgery he had last May that forced him to miss the season.  As a lefty specialist that has pitched in parts of three seasons in the Show, though, Rosscup could find a role at the back end of the team’s ‘pen, especially if Brian Duensing struggles.

 

Top Prospects:

Dylan Cease- RHP

2B- Ian Happ

OF- Eloy Jimenez

Most of the Cubs’ big prospects have cracked the big leagues, but that doesn’t mean that the cupboard is bare; far from it.  We’ll start with Cease, a flame-throwing righty that can hit triple digits with every pitch.  As with all high-speed pitchers, though, he’s had some issues with locating his pitches, and the organization is still working out if he would be better suited as a starter or reliever.  Either way, as long as he can figure out how to reign in his heater, he’ll be a big arm to have when he finally makes it to the Show.

Happ has been absolutely on fire in spring training, batting a robust .407 as of this writing, but has yet to play a single professional game above AA.  That being said, his progress at the plate is really turning heads, and his ability to play multiple positions—he played mostly outfield in college, but spent most of his time last season at second—makes him a very valuable asset.  If he continues to see the ball well, he could well work his way into playing time with the big club, especially if Matt Szczur ends up leaving the organization, before many could have anticipated he would.

Of course, his path to outfield playing time might be slowed a little bit by Jimenez, the team’s top prospect.  Jimenez seems to be what many people hoped Jorge Soler would be—a big, solid athlete with impressive defensive instincts and upper-deck power.  Jimenez is still a little bit too aggressive at the plate, and breaking pitches seem to give him a decent amount of trouble, but the talent is there, and if he can continue to improve—his average in the minors went from .227 in his first season to .329 last year—the 20-year-old outfielder is sure to have a great career in Cubbie blue.

 

Possible Surprises:

IF- Jemile Weeks

OF- Jacob Hannemann

Weeks, the younger brother of former Brewer, and Cub tormenter, Rickie Weeks, is a do-it-all type player that can play virtually every position on the field and has some speed to burn.  There’s still a lot of good prospects that should see the bigs before Weeks ever would, but everyone knows how much Joe Maddon values guys that are able to fill gaps all over the field, and Weeks fits that bill.

Hannemann doesn’t rate among the team’s top 15 prospects—perhaps because the 25-year-old former third round pick has really struggled with minor league pitching, still not proving that he can handle moving to a level above AA.  That being said, there’s a reason that the Hawaiian was such a highly regarded draft pick.  He’s a good athlete and has shown that, despite his general struggles at the plate, he’s not all that bad at putting the bat on the ball.  If he’s able to figure out his swing, he could end up being a Shane Victorino-lite, a late-bloomer from the Island State that’s quick and makes good contact.

 

Season Prediction:

Projected Order

CF    Heyward

LF    Schwarber

3B   Bryant

1B   Rizzo

2B   Baez

RF   Zobrist

SS    Russell

C     Contreras

P     Lester

The Cubs have what is arguably the most talented team in all of baseball, and coming off their first title in a very, very long time, they’ll be anxious to prove that they can go above and beyond last year’s miracle.  Ultimately, though, I don’t think they’ll win it all this year.  I’m worried about the drop-off that Kyle Hendricks will almost certainly face, as well struggles Jake Arrieta had last year, and what could happen to the team if both aren’t always on their groove.  I worry about the back of the rotation and their ability to maintain consistency.  I worry about the outfield, and the uncertainty about who is going to get playing time, and if those players are going to be deserving of that time.  Besides, with the parity that baseball has, it’s near impossible to repeat.  This team is excellent, and they’ll certainly challenge for the World Series, but I think that the small weaknesses that the roster does have will compound on themselves just enough to prevent the Cubbies from repeating as champions.

Please note that rosters have not yet been finalized, and that the 25-man roster, and the other sections listed, are just predictions.

Ode To Chicago

I typically plan out my blog posts weeks, if not months, in advance.  I knew I would write about social image and the NFL in September, and that the election and the NBA would be topics in October.  After October, though, I basically hit a wall—I had no idea what any possible topics could be, no one thing that I felt passionate enough about to churn out a post on it.  Even as this year moved into November, I still had no idea what to write about.

It eventually came to me from a very common source—sports.  For the first time since 201, I sat down to watch the final game of the World Series, a match-up between my hometown Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians.  I’m a White Sox fan, so watching the Cubs play so deep in the post-season had me a little salty, but since I have a lot of friends back home that support the Cubs (and two that support the Indians) and can appreciate a good game of baseball, I settled in to watch the two teams battle for supremacy.

Of course, the game didn’t just end up being a good game of baseball—it was a legendary game that will go down in history as one of the best championship-deciders in the sport’s history, and possibly in the history of American athletics.  As you all know, the Cubs eventually pulled out an 8-7 victory after 10 innings, winning their first World Series in 108 years.  In the aftermath of the victory, Chicago went berserk—there were celebrations virtually everywhere, culminating in Friday’s parade, which was reported to be the 7th largest gathering in the history of humanity.  Taking all of that in from my dorm room, I finally knew what I would write about.  I’d write about how Chicago is the best damn city in the country.

To counter me, some people might try to hold up more populous cities, like New York or Los Angeles.  They might hold up cities with a more rich history, like the one where I currently attend school, Boston, or Philadelphia.  They might hold up some popular regional urban areas—Atlanta or Charlotte, Miami or New Orleans, Houston or Phoenix, Seattle or Portland, Denver or Salt Lake City.  None of them can hold a candle to Chicago.

We’ll start with athletics, because that’s what inspired me to write this post.  In the last 25 years, big-four Chicago teams have brought home 11 championships—two more than any of the closest competitors—and that’s not even including the title brought home by the Chicago Fire Soccer Club in the budding MLS.  And these just weren’t any championships, either—these were dominant ones, in which nobody stood a chance.  The Bulls were the dominant team of their era, hauling in six titles in eight years.  The White Sox went wire-to-wire in the American League and only lost one post-season game.  The Blackhawks won three championships in five years and established themselves as a hockey dynasty.  The Cubs were favored to win it all this year from day one, and win it all they did, breaking a 108 year curse in the process.

One of the highlights of watching a game at the Cubs’ legendary Wrigley Field is enjoying the breathtaking skyline of the city from the seats.  Chicago was one of the pioneers of the skyscraper, and it has among the best, and most architecturally appealing, collection of them in the country, headlined by the Willis (Sears) Tower and its world-famous Skydeck.  Of course, these tall towers aren’t the only notable pieces of architecture that the city features.  There’s also the Old Water Tower, one of the few buildings to survive the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.  There’s the multiple residential structures designed by the incomparable Frank Lloyd Wright.  There’s the cathedrals that not only provide Chicagoans with a place to worship, but a place to at which to marvel at their beautiful designs.

There’s more entertainment than just athletics, too—you can head to the Field Museum and see the first complete skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus Rex to ever be discovered or head across to street to one of the largest aquariums in the country.  There’s also the Adler Planetarium, a National Historic Landmark, or the Art Institute that features Seurat, Picasso, and American Gothic, one of the country’s most “mainstream” pieces of art.  If museums aren’t your thing, you can head to a theater and catch a performance of the smash hit Hamilton, or walk over a few blocks and laugh your head off to a performance of the Blue Man Group.  For more outdoorsy folk, you can walk around the massive Millennium Park, or the equally large Grant Park, checking out the popular Cloud Gate or utilizing the outdoor skating rink, or take a walk along Michigan Avenue and marvel at the wonder of Lake Michigan.  The Magnificent Mile is also a fantastic place to go shopping, as it is lined with every brand name store that you could possibly imagine to cater to your every desire.  For a more family friendly option, you can visit Navy Pier, or enjoy one of the city’s 24 beaches.

Any great city also has to have some great food, and Chicago is a phenomenal place for that, as well.  The city is the home of deep dish pizza, and fostered the growth of some of the country’s best foods, like Italian beef, Cracker Jacks, and brownies.  There’s more than that, though—Michelin starred a record 26 restaurants in the city for the upcoming year, indicating that the quality and uniqueness of the Chicago culinary scene is constantly improving.

Chicago’s education system is pretty fantastic, too.  43 colleges and universities are proud to call the city home, educating hundreds of thousands of this next great generation.  The city’s high schools, both public and private, old and new, are renowned throughout the country for both scholastic and athletic excellence, and the middle schools and elementary schools that are scattered within local communities set the baseline for these high performing institutions.

This city has its flaws, there is no doubt—the high-priced living that is a feature of virtually every city.  The violence that has gotten the city into the national spotlight, and the false perceptions of both minorities and the police that come along with it.  The political corruption, from the alderman to the people trying to make something of the Chicago Public School System and all the way up to the mayor’s office.  The stressed infrastructure of both city streets and municipal airports that comes from heavy usage and is enhanced by a lack of proper funding.  The weather, which can fluctuate between all four seasons in a matter of hours and leaves you more annoyed with some clouds than you ever thought you could be.  Chicago isn’t anywhere close to perfect, and everyone that knows anything about it will tell you that.

But the best part of the city, its people, make sure that these things aren’t what define Chicago.  If you took the time to take a closer look at the Cubs’ parade—or any of our championship parades, really—you’ll see what Chicago is all about.  The diversity among the population, and the compassion among all of the various communities throughout the city.  The kindness that is shown to everybody, whether they are from the city or not.  The joy that people exhibit—not just for big moments like World Series championships, but for the little things, like getting a smile from a random stranger.  The organized chaos that embodies the unmatched passion of each individual person.  The love that every person has for the amazing city that they get to call home.

Since I’m still in college, I don’t exactly know where my life is going to take me yet.  For all I know, my future could lead me to a place I could have never possibly imagined.  Wherever I go, I know that in my heart, that my only real home, my only true home, will forever be the great city of Chicago, the best there is and the best there ever will be.

Angels in the outfield? YES indeed!

just1mike's Blog

…Michael’s 17th birthday at Wrigley and the Cubs are going

to the World Series…

It’s happening and Michael wrote about it in his April 10th post after returning from Arizona where he took in two spring training games,

Growing up a Cubs fan, I have been used to heartbreaking baseball. It seemed like every year I would always say, “there’s always next year.” Well, I am glad to say that next year is NOW.

You are so right Michael, NOW is here and your Cubbies are headed to the World Series after a Game 6 impressive win at Wrigley Field.

Cubs postseason play kicked off on a very special day, and that was Michael’s 17th birthday on October 7th. That night was the first playoff game at Wrigley against the San Francisco Giants and Michael’s family was there to honor him and cheer on his beloved team. It was an emotional night…

View original post 279 more words

Derrick Rose and Abuse in Sports

I am a proud Chicago sports fan.  In many years, that is a quite disappointing fandom, this one included.  The White Sox drastically under-performed expectations.  The Blackhawks got knocked out of the play-offs in the first round for the first time in forever, and they’ve started this season very poorly.  The Cubs have been perennially bad for a very, very long time (though are good this year, which is a major conflict in my White Sox-leaning heart).  The Bears had a horrible 2015 season, and have started off this new-year on a bad note by losing in very ugly fashion.  The Bulls missed the play-offs this past season, too, but initiated a roster turnover this off-season to help improve, and the featured move of that turnover was the trade point guard Derrick Rose.

Back when the Rose trade was announced, I wrote a post honoring his time in his hometown uniform, about how great he was for the city, both on and off the court.  Now, I am starting to regret some of my words.  Part of that regret can be tied back to Rose’s comments about the city not “appreciating” him, or on how the New York team that he finds himself on now is the most talented one he’s ever been on.  But most of it stems from the current rape accusations that Rose and two of his friends are facing in Los Angeles.

For those of you unfamiliar with the case, a woman filed a civil suit against Derrick Rose about a year or so ago, with the complaint being that the point guard and two of his close friends drugged her, trespassed into her apartment and gang raped her while she was unconscious on Aug. 27, 2013.  The case has been in the trial phase for about a week and a half, and has garnered much national media attention for the drama that seems to be unfolding within the courtroom.  (For more in-depth information on the case, please click here).

Rape is one of the biggest problems in our society.  7% percent of all rapists are convicted, which is a very, very small number considering the seriousness of the crimes.  Many of those rapes go unreported, for a variety of different reasons from the understandable embarrassment that a victim might feel to the truly horrifying reason of being afraid of victim shaming (which, sadly, happens all too often).  Other cases are thrown out due to “lack of evidence,” or some other preposterous rationale that gets the criminals out of punishment.  Some stories are genuinely made up, sure, but jumping to the conclusion that the person accusing someone of rape isn’t telling the truth is a horrible, horrible mistake to make, considering how many of them are real cases and how many rapists do not end up with proper punishment.

When it comes to sports, many athletes, unless they are strangely reviled, are often given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to making a major mistake.  People assume that because they are athletes, because they frequently in the public eye, that they can do no wrong.  When athletes are accused of committing a crime, no matter how heinous, many thousands of loyal fans will often leap right in to defend the athletes, and some continue to defend them for a long period of time, regardless of what evidence has been presented.  For all that I know, Rose may completely innocent of rape.  His accuser may be someone attracted to Rose who didn’t get her way but still wants to be in the spotlight.  However, I can’t find myself believing that that is the case.  There have been some very viable attempts by Rose’s defense team to discredit Jane Doe’s reason for accusing the point guard of rape, but considering the negative publicity that she is sure to be getting from many of Rose’s most vocal supporters, I feel that she is probably not in it for money or fame, but for justice.  Rose’s vagueness in answering questions concerning the night being brought into question is also pretty telling for me- he created more questions about the turmoil surrounding him.  Rumors about an out-of-court settlement of been floating around, as have rumors of when the grand jury in his case will actually convene; regardless, it really hurts to think that one of my hometown’s biggest stars may have just thrown away his career, especially deciding to engage in something is terrible as sexual abuse.

Sadly, many athletes besides Rose have been accused of some form of abuse in recent years.  Among them, former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was filmed on tape hitting his wife in an elevator before dragging her out of it.  In December of 2014, professional basketball player Jeffery Taylor was suspended by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver for 24 games after being convicted of domestic assault.  The following month, former pro baseball player Milton Bradley’s appeal of his sexual assault charges was dropped, meaning that he had to serve jail time.  In June 2015, retired NFL safety Darren Sharper pleaded guilty to drugging and raping three women in different cities across the country.  Los Angeles Kings defenseman Slava Voynov faced deportation to Russia after being convicted of a misdemeanor violence charge against his wife last fall.  These cases, along with Rose’s, have received a lot of media attention.  Some people have complained that they have received too much attention, that the focus on the athletes takes away from attention that should be being paid to the people getting abused that won’t make the headlines.  While they are right, I think that there is something else that these people should be complaining about- why professional leagues, and their teams, are not going above and beyond to combat this abuse.

Professional athletes are some of the most prominent role models in the entire world.  For that, they are held to a higher standard when it comes to personal conduct.  To me, that means that the leagues that these athletes are a part of, and, as an extension, the teams in that league, must also commit to a higher standard of conduct.  Pro sports are a vehicle for many, many great things- the NFL is relatively racially sensitive.  Both the NFL and MLB have been big promoters of breast cancer research.  The NBA has NBA Cares, which runs many local programs for underprivileged kids.  The NHL is working hard at improving the safety of hockey players, from youth levels on up.  However, when many of these professional leagues have been faced with crimes involving abuse, many of them have not done the right thing.  Some leagues have made mistakes with punishment- NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has made comments denouncing the acts of Voynov and the (supposed) acts of Patrick Kane, the Chicago Blackhawks star who was accused of rape before last season, but Bettman permitted Kane to attend the Blackhawk training camp and allowed Voynov to practice with his team while being investigated (the fact that the Kings were open to Voynov practicing in the first place is bad in its own right).  NFL commissioner Roger Goddell’s punishment of Ray Rice was not properly considered and was eventually overturned.  A problem faced by all pro sports leagues, though, particularly the MLB, which has had many former players convicted of crimes involving abuse, is that, just like most major media/advertising entities today, they done poorly with condoning crimes involving abuse, and making awareness of abuse and abuse a major talking point.

That isn’t to say that sports leagues and teams have done nothing to combat the problem of abuse, but considering the seriousness of abuse, it’s one that hasn’t been addressed enough.  Chicago sportswriter Jon Greenberg made a fantastic point in his article on the situation surrounding Kane and his rape controversy last year.  He wrote, “The Blackhawks could help combat sexual assault before it begins by funding workshops, clinics and speeches for this age group. They can help talk to the kids about sexual assault when they’ll still listen.”  Obviously, with Kane’s case being sex related, Greenberg’s thought is a little more specific than targeting all forms of abuse, but, in the grand scheme of things, it’s a great idea.  D.A.R.E programs are instituted in elementary and middle schools across the country- including my hometown, a suburb of Chicago- to teach kids about the dangers of drugs.  So why can’t there be a more widespread, and more impactful, curriculum on abuse, better than the Robert Crown programs that have such limited influence?  And why does it have to be just one pro organization, a team that may happen to have a player under investigation for sexual assault- all professional sports leagues can make a point to prove that this is a major issue.  And shouldn’t adults be targets of a similar message, too?  Just like there are major campaigns involving not drinking or texting while driving, there should be more commercials, and more athlete spokespeople, speaking up about the terrors of abuse, and encouraging victims to seek help, and providing information on how victims’ friends can assist in efforts to make sure the victim recovers and the abuser gets his/her proper punishment.  Considering how big of an issue abuse is, and considering how high profile athletes are, bringing light to this issue will make people more vigilant, and more informed, about abuse, which is something that our culture, in or out of athletics sorely needs.

A Tribute to Derrick Rose

Wizards v/s Bulls 02/28/11

I’ve underestimated Derrick Rose for a long time.

When the Chicago Bulls were lucky enough to land the number one overall pick back in 2008, the majority of people seemed to favor the team taking Rose, who had just finished a phenomenal freshman year under Coach John Calipari at Memphis, with that pick.  I was in the minority that believed that Kansas State forward Michael Beasley should have been the Bulls pick.  Both players were young, with high scoring totals and high ceilings, but I felt that Beasley’s versatility would make him the better selection.

Rose won the Rookie of the Year award with 111 first place votes; the next highest vote getter got 5.  Beasley got 0.  Rose led his underdog team to within one game of defeating the defending champion Boston Celtics, tearing through a strong defense headlined by wily veterans like Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett with a quiet confidence; Beasley did not start a playoff game that season.

Even after the amazing playoff performance Rose put on, I still did not have a lot of faith in him; he had shown some top-level athleticism, no doubt, but it seemed like he was a little bit selfish with the ball, especially for a rookie, and I didn’t think that his shooting numbers would be any greater than mediocre, at best, and that those two things would hold him back.

Rose made his first All-Star game in his second year, and in his third year, absolutely blew up, becoming the youngest player in NBA history to win the MVP Award while leading the Bulls to the league’s best record and an appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since the great Michael Jordan had donned a Bulls jersey.

When Rose suffered his first major knee injury as a pro, crumpling to the ground in a play-off game against the Philadelphia 76ers, I felt horrible for him; I also felt that his life as a starting point guard, much less an elite point guard, was over, that the injury, which kept him out for over a year, would rob him of his trademark explosiveness and turn him into a run-of-the-mill backup, struggling to hit 40% of his shots while occasionally finding a moment of brilliance.

He may not have come back as strong as many had expected, but by averaging almost 16 points per game in his first month of playing competitive basketball in roughly 18 months, Rose proved his toughness and determination were beyond incredible.

After he sustained his second knee injury, tearing the meniscus on the knee opposite to the one that he had previously injured, I thought that his fate as a star that burned bright, but burned fast and faded out faster, was essentially cemented, that two major knee injuries for a guy that lived and died by his ability to be shifty, whose shot was still nothing special, would end Rose’s career with a whimper.

Of course, I was wrong again.  Rose returned at the beginning of the 2014-15 season, and he showed that he still had the ability to take over games, as evidenced by the 32 points that he dropped on the Washington Wizards midseason.

Shortly after that game, Rose injured his knee, again, putting myself and other Bulls fans everywhere back onto an emotional roller coaster.  This injury, I felt, would be the one to truly destroy the point guard’s confidence, to undermine all of the hard work that he had put in recovering from his previous two injuries and make him into a shell of his former self.

Of course, Rose came back two months later, putting in a couple of clutch playoff performances, including a game-winning three pointer at the buzzer to defeat LeBron James and the archrival Cleveland Cavaliers.

Now, Derrick Rose is gone.  Traded, that is- to the New York Knicks, in a package deal that sends center Robin Lopez and two point guards to Chicago.  In my opinion, the trade looks like it could be a good one for the Bulls- the team was able to get Rose’s astronomical salary off the books while getting a starting center (Lopez), a potential stud at point guard (Jerian Grant), and a steady veteran guard (Jose Calderon) in return.

Of course, the one way that this trade could really blow up in Chicago’s face is if Rose, whose seemingly constant injury problems and perceived lack of effort have made him a divisive figure in the recent years, completely rejuvenates his career with the Knicks.

If I’m being completely honest, I don’t think that it’s going to happen- I feel that Rose’s knees, which have taken tons and tons of abuse, just won’t hold up well enough for him to re-establish himself among the upper echelon of point guards in the league.  I also believe that Rose might be the third option, at best, on a Knicks team featuring Anthony and upcoming big man Kristaps Porzingis, and that won’t give him an opportunity to really showcase his talents.

But then again, I’ve underestimated Derrick Rose for a long time.

Regardless of what the ultimate result of this trade is, I’d like to give a big thanks to Derrick Rose for a phenomenal 8 years with the Bulls.  If Dwayne Wade put Chicago basketball back on the map, Rose made sure everybody knew it was back; he made the Bulls exciting, into real contenders.  He put in a lot of performances that were truly awe-inspiring, making seemingly impossible plays seem almost normal.  His dedication to Chicago was unbelievable; he became a role model for children throughout the city and the state, especially to fellow Chicagoans Anthony Davis and Jahlil Okafor, who followed his path from the inner city to the NBA.  His impact on the organization, and on the entire game of basketball, cannot be understated- though I hope my hometown team makes out better in this deal, I wish Rose the best in the Big Apple.

 What Happened to the Blackhawks?

Perhaps I should have seen this coming.  Perhaps I should have known that this team’s struggles at the end of the season were indicative that maybe this team just wasn’t as good as people thought they would be.  Perhaps their lack of a real positive vibe, a real “it” factor, should have set off bells and whistles in my head.  But I didn’t- going into the playoffs, I was fully confident that my hometown Chicago Blackhawks, with their drive and talent and experience, would, at the very least, have a chance to play for the Stanley Cup for the fourth time in seven years.

Well… so much for that dream. The St. Louis Blues, who have had plenty of off-seasons to wallow in their playoff letdowns while their rivals celebrated success, defeated the ‘Hawks in 7 games, advancing into the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since 2012.  In no way, shape, or form did the Blackhawks lose this series- the Blues played with unmatched grit and determination, and their stars, players like Vladimir Tarasenko and David Backes, stepped up in clutch moments.  However, that doesn’t mean that it’s still baffling to see Chicago gone after the first round.  Here are a few reasons that I feel the ‘Hawks will be making early tee times this summer:

 

Lack of defensive depth

Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman did a phenomenal job of retooling the Blackhawks’ forward lines with a couple of shrewd mid-season trades.  Richard Panik, who played unbelievable on the top line next to Jonathan Toews, was acquired in January for a trade that sent the underachieving Jeremy Morin to Toronto.  Former ‘Hawk Andrew Ladd was brought back to Chicago in a deal that sent a first-round pick and the disappointing Marko Dano to Winnipeg.  Dale Weise, who scored the go-ahead goal in the 6th game of the Blues series to allow it to go to a seventh game, and Tomas Fleischmann were acquired for a second round pick and Phillip Danault.  However, as in recent years, Bowman wasn’t able to help the team improve its defensive depth.  Last year, this didn’t come back to haunt the team, as Johnny Oduya performed reasonably enough to help the trio of Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Nicklas Hjalmarsson lead the way to a Stanley Cup.  This year, however, there were some issues with the top 3.  Keith was suspended for the first game of the series.  Seabrook made a decent amount of costly turnovers.  Hjalmarsson was hobbled by the crazy number of shots he blocked.  In past championship seasons, if these three were struggling, guys like Oduya, Michal Rozsival, or Nick Leddy stepped up their game.  The guys on this year’s team, however, just weren’t up to the task- Rozsival struggled, and the alternatives to the gritty veteran were the inexperienced Trevor van Riemsdyk, the offensively adept but defensively shaky David Rundblad, and the mistake-prone Erik Gustafsson.  Each of them had their moments- a puck that went off of TVR’s skate won Game 1 for the Blues, Rundblad wasn’t hitting on his passes, and Gustafsson committed a turnover that led to Troy Brouwer’s series-clinching goal.  While offense is certainly important, it’s pretty clear that upgrading at the blue line- finding a top-4 defenseman- will be key to Bowman’s offseason plans.

 

Exhaustion

It seemed that, at times, the Blues simply wanted it a lot more than the Blackhawks did.  I really don’t think that was the case- Jonathan Toews leads a core of players that, despite all their recent success, is still hungry for victory- but I think that Chicago just simply didn’t have the legs that their opponents did. In the past seven post-seasons, dating back to the first of the Blackhawks’ most recent Stanley Cups, Chicago has played 22, 7, 6, 23, 19, 23, and 7 games in the playoffs, totaling 107 games.  Many of those games finished in overtime, and after the first Cup win, many of those games were especially grueling, since everyone had bulls-eyes on their backs.  The Blues, in the same time period, have played 0, 0, 9, 6, 6, 6, and 7* games in the playoffs, which comes out to 33 games.  Of course, there were fresh legs that cycled into the Blackhawks’ rotation, such as Artemi Panarin, and more grizzled players that came to St. Louis, such as Troy Brouwer, but as a whole, Chicago was much more worn down, and it really showed- the Blues were livelier whenever they needed to be.  Hopefully, having an early start the summer will help the ‘Hawks recover some of their energy.

 

Not converting (important) chances

There were certain times where both teams absolutely dominated a game- Chicago’s second period in Game 6 is probably the best example of that.  However, based on what I watched, I felt that St. Louis happened to have had more dominant moments.  Imagine my surprise, then, when I found out that the ‘Hawks had outshot the Blues by seven shots per game and outscored them by a total of three goals throughout the series.  Despite this, the Blues managed to win the series.  Some of it can be attributed to Brian Elliott- he played unbelievable throughout the series, and if the Blues make it into the Stanley Cup after eliminating the Blackhawks and the equally-potent Stars, he deserves some major Conn Smythe consideration- but a lot of it comes down to poor execution on Chicago’s part.  That Andrew Shaw was the team’s leading goal scorer was very telling- Toews was nowhere near the offensive force he usually is, being stonewalled by Elliott on a couple of 1-on-1 opportunities.  Patrick Kane only had one goal, and his shooting seemed to be a little off.  Panarin struggled to find a rhythm.  Ladd hit the pipes as many times as he hit the back of the net.  It also seemed like Chicago’s big guns couldn’t step up when they needed to, as opposed to the vets from St. Louis, like Backes and Brouwer, who won the first and last games of this series with some truly remarkable plays.

 

Special teams

Chicago had an interesting reversal of strengths when it came to man-advantage situations this season.  In past years, the team’s power play units had struggled while their penalty kill units excelled.  This year, it was the complete opposite, and that was especially evident in the playoffs- out of all the teams that played in the first round, the ‘Hawks had the third best power play percentage and the third worst penalty kill percentage.  That is not necessarily a problem in and of itself- the San Jose Sharks had similar stats to the Blackhawks, and they managed to completely dominate the Los Angeles Kings.  The problem is how the team managed to accumulate the stats that they did.  A couple of the power play goals that the team converted were in situations that didn’t exactly make a difference in the game- Shaw’s strike when the team was dominating Game 6 is a perfect example of that.  Also, the team’s poor penalty kill played a major impact in the result of the game- Jaden Schwartz scored the game-winning goal in Game 3 while his team was on the power play, and the two goals that St. Louis scored on the power play in Game 2 are the difference between a Blues win and a Blackhawks win.  As the Sharks have shown, you can be successful while having a good PP and bad PK, but the Blackhawks need to convert, or prevent conversion, in the most crucial situations more often.

 

So now what?

It’s obvious that Mr. Bowman has some work to do.  There are a couple of people that I expect to see back- Shaw, who seems to be a top priority for the team, Fleischmann, who should be cheap, and Panik, who played exceptionally well in the playoffs- but even after retaining those players, and some other more minor pieces, the roster will still have some holes.  Assuming my math is right, I anticipate the team having about $2 or 3 million in cap space after its re-signings (and guys, I’m obviously being optimistic by putting Ladd in there, but a boy can dream, right?).  I feel that they should dedicate about it to signing a 4th defenseman- a guy like Roman Polak or Kevan Miller- and if re-signing Ladd doesn’t work out, spending about $2 million on a third-line forward Lee Stempniak or Dominic Moore while also signing a defenseman should be the team’s priority.  Of course, there’s always a chance that Stan the Man has some tricks up his sleeve.  Maybe he is able to convince some skilled veteran looking for a Cup to take significantly less money to come to Chicago, like he did with Brad Richards, or find a team to take on some, or all, of Bryan Bickell’s obscene salary.  Assuming that he doesn’t, though, here’s what I’d like to think that the team’s rotation could look like next year.

 

Panik-Toews-Teravainen

Panarin-Anisimov-Kane

Ladd-Desjardins-Hossa

Fleischmann-Kruger-Rasumussen

 

Keith-Hjalmarsson

Seabrook-Miller

van Riemsdyk-Rundblad

 

Crawford-Darling

 

Extras: McNeil, Motte, Mashinter, Pokka, Gustafsson

 

 

 

 

2016 White Sox Season Preview

Along with the San Diego Padres and Boston Red Sox, the Chicago White Sox were among the busiest teams last off-season, acquiring big Jeff Samardzija in a trade with Oakland, signing Melky Cabrera and David Robertson to big deals, and inking relievers Zach Duke and Dan Jennings.  The moves didn’t help the Sox all that much, as they finished 76-86, missing the playoffs for the 7th consecutive season.  This year, Rick Hahn didn’t make as many major moves, but the ones that he did make seem to have made the team much better, and much more balanced, than they were last year.  Will the team be able to reach its expectations, or will it fall short again?  Here is my outlook for the White Sox’ 2016 season:

 

Outfield:

LF- Melky Cabrera

CF- Austin Jackson

RF- Adam Eaton

Just like last year, the Sox signed a big name player to fill a spot in their outfield.  Of course, the deal that Austin Jackson signed is much shorter than the one that Melky Cabrera got last offseason- the centerfielder, who ended last season on the North Side, got a one-year deal worth only $5 million.  However, he hits for a decent average and is a pretty solid base stealer.  The number one reason why he was brought in, though, is probably because but he provides something that the Pale Hose sorely lacked last year- good defense.  Both Cabrera and former center fielder Adam Eaton were major contributors to a defensive effort that was, by far, the worst in the league last year, and Jackson, a terrific athlete, will track fly balls and line drives far better than Eaton did last year, something that should limit the pressure on the two corner outfielders.

Hopefully, this lessened pressure will allow Eaton and Cabrera to focus on improving with the bat.  In 2014, Eaton’s first year in Chicago, he only played in 123 games, but he played phenomenally, batting .300 and providing a spark as the team’s leadoff hitter.  In 2014, Cabrera played like an all-star, hitting .301 when he was with the Blue Jays.  Last year, though, Eaton started the batted a combined .192 in April and March, and Cabrera had one more hit than he did in 2014 in 19 more games.  Both men picked it up as the season drew to a close, and they’ll need to continue hitting well in order for the team to improve on their league ranking in runs scored (28th, only more than the horrendous Phillies and Braves).

 

Infield:

3B- Todd Frazier

SS- Jimmy Rollins

2B- Brett Lawrie

1B- Jose Abreu

C- Alex Avila

DH- Avisail Garcia

There is a distinct possibility that the left side of the infield could be manned by two veteran newcomers this season.  One of those is Frazier, who was acquired in what might have been the best trade in the offseason.  While he strikes out a decent amount and doesn’t hit for a great average, Frazier is a great clubhouse guy and will slot in nicely behind Jose Abreu as the first legit power threat at third base that the team has had in my lifetime.  On his left should be Rollins, the veteran who struggled with injuries last year in Los Angeles.  The 37-year old doesn’t have as much pop as he did when he was a megastar in Philadelphia, but he did hit 13 homers and had only 9 errors in 134 appearances, something that could only boost the Sox’ abysmal D from last year.  He’ll provide a good stop-gap until Tyler Saladino discovers his bat or Tim Anderson makes the big leagues.

The other major trade that the Sox pulled off this offseason was to acquire Rollins’ double-play partner, Lawrie.  To say that he has been a mercurial presence is an understatement- he was touted as a future superstar in both Toronto and Oakland before being traded away from both teams, but his talent is undeniable.  He could be the x-factor in the team’s run at the playoffs- if he’s able to live up to expectations, he can help carry the team to the postseason; if he struggles to find a place in the clubhouse, the team could be thrown into further disarray than what it’s already in.  The anchor of the infield is obviously Abreu, who struggled a bit last year as pitchers learned his weaknesses yet still managed to knock in 101 RBI’s, and he will be counted on as the focal point of the team’s offense, just as he’s been the last two seasons.

Another newbie, Alex Avila, figures to be the left-handed bat in a platoon at catcher, and with all the right handed starters in the division, figures to see the most playing time.  He has an intimate knowledge of the AL Central, having spent all of his 7-year career as a Detroit Tiger, and while he seems to have lost most of the hitting ability that made him an All Star in 2011, he has a .251/.358/.423 line against righties for his career, which isn’t all that terrible.  The DH this year, now that Adam LaRoche is officially retired, falls to Garcia, who struggled mightily in his first full season in the majors last year.  Now that his expectations are very low and he doesn’t have to worry about wielding a glove very often, he might be able to reach his potential, but until he proves he can figure it out, I see him as one of the team’s biggest liabilities.

 

Bench:

C- Dioner Navarro

2B- Carlos Sanchez

SS- Tyler Saladino

I’ve always thought pretty highly of Navarro since his breakthrough season for Tampa Bay back in 2008.  The tubby backstop has a career average of .270 against left handed hitters, which will do wonders to help the Sox’ poor offensive results from the catcher position last year and isn’t too terrible at hitting righties, in the case that Avila struggles at any point.

Sanchez struggled at the plate last season after being called up to replace fellow youngster Micah Johnson, but kept his job for the rest of the season due to his superior defense.  Knowing how injury-prone Lawrie has been over the past couple years, and how temperamental he has been in a couple of instances, having Sanchez on the roster is insurance is probably in the team’s best interest.

Saladino and Rollins are currently in a battle for the shortstop position that I think the vet will pull out.  However, with the former Phillie’s age and production being possible question marks, I think that keeping Saladino with the big club is the right move, as he impressed in his limited action last season.

 

Rotation:

Chris Sale- LHP

Jose Quintana- LHP

Carlos Rodon- LHP

Mat Latos- RHP

Erik Johnson- RHP

Basically the entire team fell below expectations last season, and the pitching staff was no exception.  Even the normally infallible Chris Sale saw his ERA balloon to 3.41 last season.  However, it’s expected that the lanky lefty will bounce back with a better defense backing him up on the field and more stability in the rotation behind him.  Jose Quintana will move up to the number two role, while Carlos Rodon, perhaps the team’s best hurler last season, will fill the number three spot.  These two lefties, who have styles that are drastically different from Sale’s, seemingly give Robin Ventura a three pitchers that no team would want to face.

The back of the rotation, however, generates nearly as many questions and doubts as it did last year.  Latos figures to be the #4 starter, and he has the potential to be a #2 guy, but his temper and weight are both very hard to predict, and he has struggled since being signed away from Cincinnati last season.  I would love to see Erik Johnson, last year’s International League Pitcher of the Year, fill the number 5 spot in the rotation (it won’t happen, but a boy can dream), because I think he has the potential to be special.  However, he has limited experience, and had a couple of up-and-down outings in his few major league appearances.  Even though these guys are certainly better than last year’s options, they might be just as inconsistent.

 

Bullpen:

John Danks- LHP

Zach Putnam- RHP

Zach Duke- LHP

Matt Albers- RHP

Dan Jennings- LHP

Nate Jones- RHP

Jake Petricka- RHP

David Robinson- RHP (closer)

The ‘pen was not the greatest last year, but were far better and far more consistent than they were back in 2014, having accumulated 3.1 Wins Above Replacement as a unit, and with all of the main guys returning, they figure to do about as well this year.  Obviously, a guy as expensive as Danks isn’t going to see himself in the bullpen at all- he’ll either be starting or designated for assignment- but I feel that, at this point in his career, the lefty is better suited to be a spot starter and long reliever than he is to be a guy that gets the ball every fifth day.

Staying with the lefties, both Zach Duke and Dan Jennings, who were signed last offseason, saw their ERA’s spike sharply last year, but they are still among the best specialists in the game, and figure to have better seasons with a better defense and more stable rotation.

When it comes to righties, the main guy is obviously the closer, Robertson, who saved 34 games last year and gave Sox fans a guy they could trust at the end of games for the first time since Bobby Jenks (!!!) was in his prime.  The rest of the bunch, while nowhere near as heralded, were pretty good last year, too- Putnam struck out a career-high 64 batters, while Albers, Jones and Petricka finished with ERA’s of 1.21, 3.32, and 3.63, respectively.  It’ll be important for them to maintain their consistency in order for them to have a shot at the playoffs.

 

Possible Call-Ups:

UT- Leury Garcia

OF- JB Shuck

Scott Carroll- RHP

Leury Garcia doesn’t fit the traditional profile of a utility player, but he is capable of playing in both the infield and the outfield, and showed that he is a very capable backup while filling in for Eaton when he was injured back in 2013.  I think he’ll see the big club if either Rollins or Saladino struggle to get going.

Shuck impressed in limited action last season, finishing the season with an acceptable OPS of .689.  The signing of Jackson knocked him out of a roster spot- keeping Sanchez in the big leagues to back up a volatile Lawrie is probably in the team’s best interest at this point- but if anything happens to any of the team’s outfielders, Shuck will be the first guy to be called up.

Scotty Carroll, who has bounced up and down between the majors and the minors over the past couple seasons, is a very capable long reliever, as he showed last season, and he could fill in for an injured starter if he was needed.  His age and consistency are a couple of considerable question marks, and that’s why I think he’ll start the year in the minors, but he will be a quick call-up if anything happens to anyone on the staff besides late-inning relievers.

 

 

Top Prospects:

SS- Tim Anderson

OF- Courtney Hawkins

Carson Fulmer- RHP

Anderson, the Sox’ first round pick in 2013, is the prospect that is the most likely to see significant playing time outside of the minors this year.  Even though the team seems to have a need at shortstop, many believe that the speedster won’t see the majors until sometime later this year.  However, whenever he does make the big club, he figures to be a fixture in the middle infield for many years to come.

Hawkins was the team’s first round pick the year before they drafted Anderson.  He has seen a lot of playing time this spring and has occasionally showcased his undeniable athleticism, but he has struggled mightily at the plate in the minors.  He’s capable of making a splash somewhere down the road, but he still has a lot of work to do (something that doesn’t reflect well on the Sox’ drafts before Rick Hahn started having a larger role in baseball operations).

Fulmer, the team’s most recent top pick and its top prospect, has looked certainly looked the part.  He has some iffy mechanics, which messes with his control, but he has some decent speed to his fastball, and his jerky pitching motion didn’t stop him from being dominant in college (nor did it stop Chris Sale, I might add).  The former Vanderbilt ace needs some polishing in the minor leagues, but he could be a late season call-up if he can control his pitches.

 

Possible Surprises:

1B- Adam LaRoche

3B- Matt Davidson

1B/OF- Travis Ishikawa

LaRoche seems very content with his decision to retire, and that could be a good thing for the Sox after all the drama he’s caused (combined with his lack of performance).  However, if he chooses to come back to baseball, the Sox still have his contractual rights, and they could try to eke some at-bats out of him if he and Kenny Williams can patch up their differences.

Davidson was acquired in a deal with the Diamondbacks back in 2013 in exchange for former Sox closer Addison Reed and was thought to be a steal. However, he batted a dismal .199 in AAA in 2014, and despite the team’s struggles at third last year, was never called up to the majors.  He still has the potential to be an everyday player, and has looked pretty good so far this spring, but right now, he’s stuck behind Frazier.  If he continues to prove he isn’t a bust, though, he could soon find his way on to the big league roster as a reserve infielder.

Ishikawa making the roster and having an impact may not be a huge surprise- the retirement of LaRoche left an opening for a backup first baseman, and the veteran, who had his share of important hits during his two playoff runs with the San Francisco Giants, is an able replacement.  The fact that he is even able to be in this position, though, is a surprise, and there is a chance that the Sox decide to go in the direction that I seem them going, which is keeping eight relievers and having Abreu play virtually every day.

 

Season Prediction:

Projected Order

RF   Eaton

LF   Cabrera

1B   Abreu

3B   Frazier

2B   Lawrie

CF   Jackson

C     Avila

DH  Garcia

SS    Rollins

I made a mistake in underestimating the Royals last year- despite losing ace James Shields, KC still dominated the Central division and went on to win the World Series.  I won’t make that mistake again- as much as I like the moves that the Sox made this off-season, I don’t think that, as a club, that they are good enough to topple the defending champs at the top of the division.  I also feel that the Tigers, who added some major firepower on the mound and at the plate with the signings of Jordan Zimmermann and Justin Upton, will bounce back quickly after missing the playoffs for the first time in 5 years last season by snagging the first wild card spot.  That leaves the Sox in a battle with the Rangers, Angels, Red Sox, Rays, and division-rival Indians for the second spot.  The South Siders will have enough to overcome the Angels and Rays, but the other two teams will be too good for the club to knock off- I just don’t think that the Sox will get enough from their outfield offensively, and I’m worried that the drop-off that the rotation suffered last year is a sign that maybe it doesn’t quite have the balance that it should.  The team will go 83-79 and miss the playoffs, but they won’t be near as big of an embarrassment as they were last season, hopefully a sign of things to come.

 

Please note that rosters have not yet been finalized, and that the 25-man roster, and the other sections listed, are just predictions.

Cubs Season Review

Outfield: A-

The player that most people will remember from this year’s outfield group is rookie Kyle Schwarber, and rightly so- the former Indiana slugger displayed some truly astounding power this season (That homer that landed on top of the scoreboard at Wrigley?  Nuts!).  There were many other contributors, though, to this very solid grade.  Dexter Fowler was a fairly consistent leadoff hitter that stole 20 bases.  While he did struggle with injuries, and had a power output that was lower than many expected it to be, Jorge Soler provided a decent average (.262) and a couple of important base knocks.  Chris Coghlan, who started the year in left field, and Chris Denorfia gave the club a very capable pair of veteran backups, and another relative vet, Matt Szczur, filled in nicely when Fowler was hurt in the middle of the season.  Deadline acquisition Austin Jackson didn’t make too big of a contribution, but did have a couple nice hits, and defensive plays, that helped out the Cubbies.

Infield: A-

The players at the corners of the infield were among the best players, not just on this team, but in the entire league, this season.  Rookie third baseman Kris Bryant lived up to all the hype that surrounded his call-up in April and is almost a shoo-in to win the NL Rookie of the Year after knocking in 99 runs and playing very steady defense at third.  Anthony Rizzo cemented himself as the best all-around first baseman in the league, jacking 31 homers while saving 8 runs with his glove.  The middle infield wasn’t quite as impressive, but were still productive.  Starlin Castro started the season slowly and playing shortstop, but later in the season he moved to second and improved greatly, coming up with a couple of clutch hits.  His replacement at short, Addison Russell, frequently flashed the potential that made him the heralded centerpiece of the trade that sent Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to Oakland, and he still has plenty of room to grow.  Reserves Tommy La Stella and Javier Baez did not get a lot of playing time and were somewhat unsteady, but at times showed that they are capable of being good fill-ins for the current starters.  Miguel Montero was underwhelming with his bat for a guy that got paid $12 million this season, batting a dismal .248, but both he and his backup, David Ross, were exceptional with their gloves and provided veteran leadership to a very young team.

Rotation: B-

Jon Lester was brought in to be the ace of the staff for the team this year, but that role ended up falling to the force of nature that is Jake Arrieta.  The 29-year old righty won 22 games and had a miniscule 1.77 ERA this season, and is one of the two frontrunners for the NL Cy Young award.  For his abilities, Lester had a relative off year, considering that his statistics in the NL (the league that typically has pitchers with better ERA’s) were worse than his stats last year playing in the AL, but he should be able to bounce back next year to be one of the best, if not the best, number two pitcher in the game.  The two pitchers behind the big stars, Kyle Hendricks and Jason Hammel, are solid back-of-the-rotation options, and each of them had a couple of impressive outings this season.  But in a league in which extremely deep pitching staffs are virtually a necessity to playoff success, the 3 and 4 guys in the Cub rotation only threw for 180 and 170.1 innings, respectively, and were frequently pulled early in games by manager Joe Maddon.  The two men that got the most starts as the number 5 guy, Travis Wood and Dan Haren, were decent, as far as 5 starters go, but as both men are fly ball pitchers, they both had some trouble with the small dimensions of Wrigley Field.

Bullpen: A-

There was nobody in the Cubs ‘pen that was extraordinary this season, but the grade that they receive is based on the pitchers’ consistency, even while being used many, many times.  The man with the most appearances, Pedro Strop, pitched in 76 (!!!) games this past season, picking up 28 holds and finishing with a respectable 2.91 ERA.  Hector Rondon solidified the closer position for the first time since Carlos Marmol was good (it’s been a while), appearing in 72 games and saving 30 of them.  Outside of those two, there were other people that had a significant effort coming on in late innings for the Cubs.  3rd year man Justin Grimm was a strikeout machine, averaging over 12 K’s per 9 innings, and veteran Jason Motte was relatively impressive coming off of Tommy John surgery.  The two lead lefties, James Russell and Zac Rosscup, were both hit fairly well by the opposition- Russell finished with a 5.29 ERA and Rosscup had a 4.39 ERA- and were fairly inconsistent throughout the year.  On the whole, though, this year’s relievers were extremely consistent.

Coaching: A+

Joe Maddon was brought in from Tampa Bay to provide a veteran baseball mind, with playoff success, to stabilize a very young team with very high hopes, and the Pennsylvania native did just that.  Maddon and his staff mixed and matched their lineups to perfection, used the right pitchers at the right times, and brought nurtured the Cubbies’ young core into manhood very quickly, allowing them to exceed expectations and make it to the NLCS before anybody really expected them to.  A great job by the coaches.

Front Office: A

This season’s success was the result of a master rebuilding job led by Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer.  Patience, fantastic scouting, well-worked trades, and impressive free agent signings all led up to the establishment of this year’s squad.  A great year for the Cubbies’ brain trust.

 

Overall: A-

 

Looking to the Future

It’s fairly obvious what the Cubs are going to go after this offseason- a big name pitcher to work with Arrieta and Lester.  Zach Greinke and David Price are the two big names that the Cubs are rumored to be interested in, and I think Price is the most likely man to come to Chicago, due to his past relationship with Maddon.  There are other, less subtle areas that might need some improvement, though, in order for the Cubs to be successful in the playoffs next year- another lefty bullpen arm, and perhaps a consistent, power-hitting outfielder.  Whatever ends up happening, though, it’s obvious that the team is in good hands with Epstein and Hoyer.