Buster Olney: Chicago Cubs

Timing key in Cubs' call-up 

August, 5, 2014
Aug 5
Javier BaezAP Photo/Chris CarlsonJavier Baez has hit .310 with 12 homers and a 1.063 OPS over his past 30 games.
If this all plays out the way the Cubs hope, their collective journey will reflect that of Javier Baez, with failure preceding great success. The middle infielder started terribly in Triple-A this year, but as player development executives will tell you, this is a good thing, really. Because slumps in the big leagues are inevitable when your swing isn't right or you struggle to adjust to how pitchers are adjusting to you, and you have to learn how to dig your way out.

Baez did that at Triple-A Iowa, gradually learning to lay off pitches out of the strike zone, learning that if you ignore the slider in the dirt, it gives you a better chance to get pitches in the zone. This is a message reinforced by the Cubs' new minor league hitting guru Manny Ramirez, who seems to have had an immediate impact on the young players he has worked with and has been impressed with Baez's skills, which have blossomed.

Think of Baez as the college freshman who got a lot of C-minuses in the first marking period but now has graduated from Triple-A with honors: Despite being more than five years younger than the average player in the league, Baez racked up 23 homers and a .510 slugging percentage.
ST. LOUIS -- Manny Ramirez offended a whole lot of folks who work under the Major League Baseball umbrella during his career.

OK, more than a lot. Maybe hundreds. Maybe thousands.

Start with Jack McCormick, the Boston Red Sox’s traveling secretary, who was physically accosted by Ramirez because McCormick couldn't come through on a last-minute request.

How about the employees of a St. Petersburg hotel, who were left to clean up the damage that Ramirez did to his room -- something so offensive that the Red Sox were asked to vacate the premises in the middle of the night. Or the clubhouse attendants whom Ramirez stiffed repeatedly, instead of just doing what every other player does and paying his dues. Or those teammates who constantly covered for him.

Or Frank McCourt, the former Los Angeles Dodgers owner who signed Ramirez to a two-year, $45 million deal following the 2008 season, only to see Ramirez immediately be suspended for the use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) and then finish out his time with the Dodgers as a shell of the superhero he had been before. Maybe that doesn't meet the legal definition of fraud, and certainly McCourt is not a sympathetic figure, but Ramirez essentially took money under false pretenses.

Or how about John Henry, the Red Sox owner who signed Ramirez's checks for years, only to watch the outfielder appear to stop competing early in the summer of 2008, in what seemed to be an effort to force Boston to trade him so that he could get a new contract. Ramirez's behavior was so egregious that the Red Sox felt compelled to deal him, certain that he would continue to sabotage their efforts to win through the working definition of passive-aggressiveness.

Somewhere near the top of the list of those he wronged -- maybe at the very top of the list -- was Theo Epstein, the former general manager of the Red Sox. He saw the absolute worst of Manny being Manny, and often was the one left to deal with the fallout; it was Epstein who had to arrange the trade of Ramirez to the Dodgers, in which the Red Sox had to kick in dollars to get rid of one of the best hitters in the big leagues. If anybody has reason to never forgive Ramirez for his behavior, to hold a lifetime grudge, it might be Epstein.

So there's something to be drawn from the fact that it's Epstein, who now oversees baseball operations for the Chicago Cubs, who has hired Ramirez to be a minor league player-coach -- and to be clear, this is much, much, much more about Ramirez being a coach than a player.

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The market for Jeff Samardzija 

May, 17, 2014
May 17
SamardzijaJonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesJeff Samardzija, a free agent after the 2015 season, could be dealt sooner by the Cubs.
The playoff field expanded from eight to 10 teams for the first time, giving more teams more chances at trying to make it to the postseason, making it less likely that clubs would become sellers before the July 31 trade deadline. Generally speaking, the market moved slowly.

But the rebuilding Chicago Cubs distinguished themselves last summer in their willingness to discuss trades. First, they moved Scott Feldman to Baltimore after the right-hander got off to a good start. They then swapped Matt Garza to the Texas Rangers and received what was generally considered to be the best package of the trade season: high-end pitching prospect C.J. Edwards, third baseman Mike Olt and right-handers Justin Grimm and Neil Ramirez.

Edwards was hurt earlier this season in Double-A, but the 20/20 hindsight perception of that trade within the industry is that Chicago did very well -- so well, in fact, that some rival executives believe that this trade helps frame a working model for what the minimum price will be for right-hander Jeff Samardzija.

“So you have an idea of just how expensive it will be,” one evaluator said.

Yes. Very.

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Lester/SamardzijaUSA TODAY SportsJeff Samardzija and Jon Lester should thank Homer Bailey for raising their salary expectations.
Homer Bailey's career ERA is 4.30, and he's had two seasons in which he has thrown over 200 innings. He has not pitched to the level of a Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, or even a Matt Cain. He's never had any kind of a vote for the Cy Young Award, and has never been picked for an All-Star team.

But Bailey has managed to shift perceptions in the market, when he got a six-year, $105 million deal from the Reds in February. To agents and players, this deal seems to represent a new benchmark that has ratcheted up their expectations. For some club officials, the Bailey contract represents one giant wrench dropped right into the middle of salary machinations.

So if you're sitting in Jon Lester's position, as a star left-hander with two championship rings just five months from free agency, a $70 million offer from the Red Sox might appear almost ridiculous, within the context of the Bailey contract. If you are in Jeff Samardzija's spot, more than a year from free agency, the Bailey deal might redefine the range of what kind of deal you seek.

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Oscar TaveresScott Cunningham/Getty ImagesOscar Taveras has continued to show why some scouts think he is a future All-Star.
CHICAGO -- Yadier Molina was part of the St. Louis Cardinals team that was repeatedly within a strike of losing the 2011 World Series, and so were Matt Holliday and Jon Jay and Daniel Descalso and Allen Craig and others. They know what a crisis is, and the early-season offensive funk for the Cardinals isn’t that.

A six-game deficit in the NL Central in the first week of May isn’t a five-alarm problem, and besides, the collective personality of the Cardinals isn’t prone to overreaction. They know how challenging their early-season schedule has been, and how cold it’s been. As some of the St. Louis hitters took their turns in batting practice, they spoke confidently about the turnaround to come, because Craig is not a .220 hitter, Jhonny Peralta isn’t going to hit under .200 all year, and they’re sure they’re better than this.

But they lost again to the Chicago Cubs on Saturday; they were shut down again, and shut out. The Cardinals rank 26th in runs, and Lance Lynn will try to salvage the final game of the series on "Sunday Night Baseball" (8 ET on ESPN and WatchESPN).

This is not a crisis, but this has gone on long enough to prompt more change. From Derrick Goold’s story Sunday:

The Cardinals won a pennant by stringing together hits last season, building an offense around an uncanny -- and likely unrepeatable -- .330-batting knack with runners in scoring position. The sentiment in the clubhouse after Saturday’s loss was, as [Jon] Jay expressed, “We know we have good hitters on the team and guys are going to hit.” They can cling to their hitting history as an indicator of future success. In the meantime, the manager and general manager have sought different ways to spur the offense.

[Mike] Matheny has used 26 different lineups in 31 games. He has called off batting practice. He has changed how hitters orbit around No. 3 hitter Holliday. He’s replaced starters.

“This is the stuff I ask every day: What are we missing here?” Matheny said. “It comes down to creating some confidence. It can be personnel. It can be how we go about playing.”

The Cardinals may well recall Kolten Wong soon, and Matheny might continue to juggle the lineup. But the big card that St. Louis has yet to play is the promotion of star outfield prospect Oscar Taveras, who is hitting .301 with power in Triple-A.

If the Cardinals make that move, it would create a whole different set of complications. Somebody would have to sit. Taveras is not regarded by rival evaluators as a strong defender, but with Craig in right field and Holliday in left field, Taveras would need to play center field. Peter Bourjos is an elite defender, but he has struggled at the plate and is on the bench; Jay is hitting .257 with a .329 on-base percentage.

First baseman Matt Adams is hitting .333, so if the goal becomes improving the offense, it probably wouldn’t make a lot of sense to shift Craig to first base to open up right field for Taveras.

Matheny told Goold the other day that Taveras has been checking off all the boxes in his preparation for the big leagues, and when asked about that Saturday, Matheny replied, “He can hit.”

This much they know, and they know they need to start hitting better and playing better.

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Starters who could hit trade market 

April, 29, 2014
Apr 29
David PriceJared Wickerham/Getty ImagesThe Rays may trade David Price before he becomes eligible for free agency after the 2015 season.
The Astros traded away Lucas Harrell on Monday, but he won’t be the last pitcher traded this season, of course. The market is a long way from fully developing, from being fully defined by failures and successes.

A long-time executive said last week that he hasn’t received a single trade call yet because a lot of teams won’t know for many days whether they will be buyers or sellers.

But an early forecast of what may develop based on the first results of this season would probably include some of these names:

David Price, Tampa Bay Rays

Tampa Bay decided to keep David Price for the outset of the 2014 season because the Rays didn’t find an acceptable offer for the left-hander over the winter, and because they had reason to believe they could win the AL East. But the Rays' context changed significantly when Matt Moore blew out his elbow and Alex Cobb went on the disabled list. Tampa Bay will be relevant in the playoff races only if its rotation is effective, and as of this morning, the Rays rank 25th in overall rotation ERA, and 24th in innings pitched.

The Rays may well hang on to Price throughout the entire season, in keeping with their history of contending; Tampa Bay has its problems, for sure, but there does not appear to be a powerhouse team in the division, either.

But rival officials continue to believe that Price will be traded some day, given his spiraling salary, and the Rays figure to do their due diligence, at the very least, and answer the phone if interested teams call.

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MLB must stop service time gimmicks 

March, 24, 2014
Mar 24
George Springer Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images
George Springer probably will file a grievance against the Houston Astros sometime in the weeks ahead, because what the Astros will do in the weeks ahead will make no sense in any world other than Major League Baseball.

On one hand, the Astros think so much of the outfield prospect that they offered him a $23 million contract, to be paid out over a seven-year deal, even though he has never had a major league at-bat. (He turned down the offer.) Springer, 24, had an OPS over 1.000 across Double- and Triple-A last season, and is regarded as one of the top prospects in baseball.

On the other hand, when the Astros' season begins next week, the team will do what has become standard operating procedure for major league clubs: They will hold Springer down in the minors until they can mitigate, as best they can, the financial advantages he might gain from being promoted.

Think about how dumb that really is for the industry of professional baseball.

Did the Indianapolis Colts bury Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck in some developmental league? No, they played them when they thought they were ready to play.

Did the Cleveland Cavaliers concoct false pretenses to prevent LeBron James from playing in the NBA? Of course not.

But every year, Major League Baseball teams will tether their best prospects to the minors because it makes financial sense for them to do so.

Mike Trout and Bryce Harper weren't promoted by their respective teams until the end of April in 2012.

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Starlin CastroAP Photo/Matt YorkStarlin Castro is a piece of the future the Cubs have already invested in -- with mixed results.
Earlier this week, we looked for some holes in the Top 300 fantasy rankings for Messrs. Berry, Karabell et al. In the name of fairness, it’s worth expressing some regret over the placement of a particular team in our Future Power Rankings, which came out Thursday.

Namely: I’m really, really surprised we have the Cubs as high as No. 7.

That's over the Tigers, who have made the playoffs every year lately. Over the Braves, who just locked up one of the youngest cores of stars in the big leagues -- Freddie Freeman, Andrelton Simmons, Craig Kimbrel, Jason Heyward, Julio Teheran -- and had the second-most wins among NL teams last season. We had the Cubs over the Tampa Bay Rays, who have won as many postseason games in the past six seasons (12) as the Cubs have won in the past 78 years. We have the Cubs over the Yankees, who may not have run the most efficient franchise or farm system in the past decade but who have a habit of qualifying for games in October.

If you reverse-engineer the polling results, you can figure out how it happened

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Ranking strength of early NL schedules 

February, 26, 2014
Feb 26
Starlin CastroNuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune/MCT/Getty ImagesStarlin Castro and the Cubs are not getting help from their early-season schedule.

In following Tuesday's column ranking the American League's early-season schedules, Wednesday we have the National League. The teams are ranked toughest to easiest in caliber of early-season schedule.

1. Chicago Cubs

Games vs. teams with records of .500 or better in 2013: 31 of first 40.
Home/away: 18 of their first 40 are at home.
Notables: The Cubs basically get to run an NL Central gauntlet in the first quarter of the season, with 21 of their first 40 games against the Cardinals, Reds and Pirates.

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Cubs new manager will connect quickly 

February, 4, 2014
Feb 4
Rick RenteriaAndy Hayt/San Diego Padres/Getty ImagesRick Renteria, a former bench coach of the Padres, was named Cubs manager in November.
Rick Renteria dreams in two languages: Spanish and English. This is not unusual for folks who know more than one language. But when he speaks in his sleep loud enough to wake up his wife, there's one common denominator. He's talking about baseball.

Renteria is the new manager of the Chicago Cubs, bearing a reputation for having a personality that pushes players. "His personality is a big driver," said Josh Byrnes, general manager of the San Diego Padres, for whom Renteria worked as a coach before being hired by Chicago. "He's definitely got an infectious personality."

But Renteria's ability to speak two languages fluently has been viewed by potential employers as a major attribute, and he is thought to be especially good at connecting with young players, partly because of his understanding of language.

"The best managers connect to all players," Byrnes said.

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Boston being unfair to Torey Lovullo 

November, 6, 2013
Epstein, Lovullo, HenryGetty ImagesTorey Lovullo appears to be caught between Theo Epstein and Red Sox owner John Henry.
The Yankees haven't issued uniform No. 6 since Joe Torre left after the 2007 season, because the folks at the top of that organization recognize that there will be a day -- possibly next summer -- when Torre will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Torre was an excellent player, with 2,342 hits, nine All-Star appearances and an MVP Award, but his 12 seasons as manager of the Yankees push his candidacy over the top: He was the on-field leader of baseball's last dynasty, with the Yankees accumulating four championships and five World Series appearances in the span of six years. He was the perfect personality to manage a near-perfect roster, and the success of those teams, in the post-free-agency era that began in 1976, is unparalleled.

Torre is an important part of the Yankees' history, which is why the time will come, after he is celebrated in Cooperstown, that No. 6 will be retired in Torre's honor, with all of the attending pomp and circumstance.

Because it's the right thing to do, no matter the strain that occurred as Torre left the organization. There are personal relationships that were damaged along the way, and most or all will never be repaired because of what was done and said when he departed and because of what is contained within the pages of Torre's book. The split was ugly, unquestionably.

But like two divorced parents who do right by their children, the Yankees and Torre have chosen to set their differences aside when it comes to the treatment of their shared history. Torre has not boycotted Yankee Stadium, nor turned his back on the Yankees' organization; the Yankees never exiled Torre.

When the Yankees honored Mariano Rivera at the end of the season, Torre was part of the ceremony, and introduced in the same way that Bernie Williams, Paul O'Neill, Tino Martinez, Jorge Posada and others were introduced. There was no hint of bitterness.

Which was the right thing to do. Because they all understand that what they accomplished together belongs to the ages, to fans, and should never be overshadowed by lingering personal feuds and disputes.

The Boston Red Sox won the World Series in 1918 and did not win another for the next 85 years. But finally, in 2004, they won again, with a memorable group of players that Johnny Damon dubbed as the "Idiots." The general manager of that team was Theo Epstein, and three years later, with Epstein serving as GM, they won again. Two championships in four years, transformative success for the Red Sox -- success shared by John Henry, Tom Werner, Larry Lucchino, Epstein, Terry Francona, the staff and the players.

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Why Baker is out as Reds manager 

October, 4, 2013
Dusty BakerAP Photo/Al BehrmanDusty Baker, after leading the Reds to a wild-card appearance this season, was fired Friday.
BOSTON -- There was a moment in the midst of the Reds' playoff loss to the Pirates the other night when Dusty Baker walked over to Johnny Cueto and looked directly into his eyes. He tried to connect, cajole and encourage. It was classic Dusty, whose strength as a manager was built on the fact that he connects with players -- not because of any X's and O's, but because he likes people, and supports people.

This is why scouts have always said that Dusty's teams have played hard for him.

But the Reds' front office clearly wanted more than that, which is why Baker was fired. Cincinnati's major league roster was steeped with talent this year, from its deep rotation to the presence of two on-base machines in Shin-Soo Choo and Joey Votto to the dominance of closer Aroldis Chapman. Club executives believed the team had the potential for a championship and instead it was bounced quickly from the postseason, fading down the stretch before playing just one playoff game.

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Mets' struggles creating value 

September, 28, 2013
Sandy AldersonRich Schultz/Getty ImagesThe Mets' disappointing season has likely earned Sandy Alderson's club a protected draft pick.
The New York Mets’ loss Friday was the 87th of their season. And it was a really important loss.

With that defeat, the Mets moved back into position to have the No. 10 pick in the 2014 draft -- and if this holds over the last two days of the regular season against the Milwaukee Brewers, the Mets’ first-round pick would be among those 10 that are protected against draft-pick compensation.

This past winter, the Mets’ pick was not protected, which affected their aggressiveness in trying to sign Michael Bourn and others. If they finish the year lined up for the No. 10 pick (or better), it could nudge them into pursuit of one of the better free-agent position players who will be available this winter. If they signed a Shin-Soo Choo or a Jacoby Ellsbury, the Mets would have to surrender only a second-round pick in compensation.

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Gold Glove winners, by the numbers 

September, 13, 2013
Manny Machadooy R. Absalon/USA TODAY SportsHis bat has been the revelation. Everyone knew Manny Machado's glove would be good.
This is about the time of year when Gold Glove ballots are dispensed to coaches and managers, and based on my own experience in collecting the votes in past years, I’d say there are two different types of voting styles.

1. Some voters are devoted to turning in the best ballot possible, and will give lots of time and lots of thought to the process before picking their winners.
2. Some voters just want to get it over with and will pick out the first decent name that pops into their heads.

So, in other words, the Gold Glove voters are like the rest of the electorate in this fine democratic society.

Every week, I get an email from Mark Simon of ESPN Stats & Information noting the results of a conference call specifically held to talk about defensive metrics. He’s all over this kind of stuff, so I asked him to give me a pure statistical evaluation of who he thinks should be the Gold Glovers at each position, in each league.

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Why MLB must ban plate collisions 

September, 7, 2013
Prince FielderAP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezA hard collision at home plate caused Giants catcher Buster Posey to miss much of 2011.
A talent evaluator who works in baseball imagined the future testimony aimed at a team -- or all of Major League Baseball -- in a lawsuit filed by a catcher seriously injured while blocking home plate.

"'I was told in spring training by my catching instructor that this is something I need to do,'" the evaluator said, imitating the words that any catcher could say. "'I didn't block home one day and he called me a -----, and he said that blocking home plate is something that every catcher is expected to do.'"

The evaluator jumped into another role, imagining himself as the catcher's lawyer: "'What happened next?'"

Evaluator as catcher: "'I blocked home plate, as I was instructed to do, and now I can't walk.'"

This testimony could be especially effective, the evaluator noted, if it comes from someone sitting in a wheelchair, and if you think that can't happen, maybe you should watch this video of the hit that Harrisburg catcher Brian Jeroloman took in a Double-A playoff game the other night, when he was run over by Erie's Brandon Douglas.

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