Buster Olney: Chicago Cubs

Ernie Banks always felt lucky 

January, 24, 2015
Jan 24
Ernie BanksAP Photo/Jim Prisching"Mr. Cub" Ernie Banks, who played 19 seasons in Chicago, passed away at the age of 83 on Friday.
In the first season of Home Run Derby, Ernie Banks vied against Mickey Mantle for the big money: The winner would get $2,000, the loser $1,000, with $500 bonuses built in for particular achievements. “Pretty lucky,” Banks said, after the first of his homers.

The modesty and the cash payout -- little more than what players would get in a week’s worth of meal money these days -- distinguish Banks as a man of a different time and place, when television was in black and white, when whites were only beginning to understand what it meant to be black in this country, only beginning to affect change.

But Banks was different even in his time, among his peers, seemingly free of cynicism and flush with joy, the way we all hoped someone fortunate enough to play baseball for a living would be. The way we all hope we would be.

Ernie Banks came through Nashville in the late '80s to pitch something – maybe it was a book, or a product – and the man seemed entirely happy, speaking about a love affair with game that he did not seem to take for granted. He praised his teammates and talked about the love of playing a game, about being outside on a warm day. The reality could be more complicated, of course; Wrigley Field can be one of the coldest places on earth, when the temperatures drop and the wind is gusting in from center field.

But Banks did not speak of that. There was no whining, no complaining, no off-the-record back-biting about the newest generation of ballplayers or the increasing salaries they were paid. For baseball, he conveyed only unabashed love; for his good fortune, he expressed only gratitude, and in the other two or three times we crossed paths, that never changed.

Banks was interviewed at the time he received the Medal of Freedom.

“I look at my life, look back, and say, ‘What have I done?’” Banks said. “I think we all do that as we get older in life.

“I think about baseball. America’s greatest pastime. Maybe that’s it -- hitting a baseball, going and catching it, playing against another team, playing against other players. And then it’s over, and what have I really done?

“They show the records. You won MVP awards, you did this, you did that. So it’s very special, as I think about it.”

Colleague Willie Weinbaum sent these notes from an interview he and Jeremy Schaap did with Frank Robinson. Jeremy asked Robinson how he would describe Banks.

“Be ready to listen,” Robinson began, laughing. “Because you are not gonna get much to say. He is gonna do all the talkin'. Ernie loves to talk. He loves the game, but he loves to talk. He loves people. He loved to be around people. And he loves to talk about everything and anything. But Ernie -- don't let Ernie fool you. He's a very smart individual. He knows a lot about different subjects. And you have to be prepared to discuss those things with him if you're around him for any length of time.”

Jeremy asked Robinson about Banks as a large man playing shortstop. “Very graceful,” Robinson replied.

“He was like a dancer. He’s just smooth, very graceful without putting any effort into it, it looked like. And he moved to first base. But he was -- he was a good shortstop. He was a good shortstop.”

• Ernie Banks passed away Friday, and nobody represented a team or a city the way that Banks did, writes Michael Wilbon.

• No other Cub will be adored in the same way that Banks was, writes Chris De Luca.

• Banks leaves this world to play two, and maybe more, writes Rick Morrissey.

• Banks was a man for all seasons.

Tim Kurkjian writes about Banks’ unbridled joy.

Dick Goldstein writes about the Banks mantra in his New York Times obituary of Banks.

Around the league

This is a big concern:

Top 10 infields in MLB: Rockies No. 1 

January, 17, 2015
Jan 17
Troy Tulowitzki, Nolan Arenado and Justin Morneau Getty ImagesThe Rockies have issues elsewhere, but the infield is an enviable one.
Among all the team elements ranked in the ongoing series, getting a consensus on the top infields was the most difficult. At one point or another, more than half a dozen teams were mentioned for the top spot.

This is the fifth installment of the series, which has also covered the top 10 rotations, the top 10 bullpens, the top overall lineups and the top team defenses.

Today, it's the top 10 infields for overall play.

1. Colorado Rockies

The winter has been spent debating the value of Troy Tulowitzki

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Winners and losers of the winter meetings 

December, 12, 2014
SAN DIEGO -- In keeping with tradition, the Rule 5 draft was held on the final morning of baseball's winter meetings Thursday, and typically, executives pull roller bags into and out of that room, dying to get to the airport after four boring days of sitting around waiting for their phone to ring and picking through plates of stale room service nachos.

But that was not the feel this year. No, there were wry smiles all over the place as scouts and club officials chuckled over how this year's meetings turned into some kind of transaction stock car race. The Cubs and White Sox slammed against the news of each other; the Dodgers lapped the field in a Wednesday sprint that carried into Thursday morning; the Red Sox lost the Lester 500 but hit the checkered flag with three pitchers.

In the usual way, there were lots of winners and some losers -- the Giants, for example, who own October every other year but have gotten off to a slow start this winter, missing out on Pablo Sandoval and Lester. They want to make a deal sooner rather than later, assistant GM Bobby Evans says. But in light of the fact that these were not your typical winter meetings, we're going next level on the whole winners and losers thing

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The Red Sox blew it with Jon Lester 

December, 10, 2014
SAN DIEGO -- When David Cone pitched for the Yankees, he had some savvy advice for young pitchers as they tried to cope with the frustration of talking with reporters after a terrible performance -- you know, one of those situations when every choice you make turns out badly, for eight runs in 2⅔ disastrous innings.

“Just tell them you stunk,” Cone would say. “Just tell them you were awful.”

Cone’s strategy wasn’t only about being honest. His feeling was that if you just admitted to mistakes, then you would appear contrite and accountable and, at the same time, once you said you blew it there really aren’t a lot of follow-up questions necessary, and you could move on.

Cone might find temporary work as a crisis manager this morning for the Red Sox, in the face of the avalanche of frustration, anger and shock of their fan base, now that Jon Lester has decided to wear the uniform of the Chicago Cubs rather than return to Boston.

John Henry is the principal owner of the Red Sox, and Larry Lucchino is the president and chief executive officer and most visible member of the club’s leadership. One or both of them should get on a conference call today and steal Cone’s words and simply say: "We blew it."

Because there really is no way to spin this

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Miss on Jon Lester? Here's Plan B 

December, 9, 2014
James Shields, Francisco Liriano & Max ScherzerUSA TODAY SportsJames Shields, Francisco Liriano and Max Scherzer are all still out there.
SAN DIEGO -- A week ago, some folks within the Giants organization thought they had little or no shot at signing Jon Lester. In the past 72 hours, that changed. Now the hope is building for the Giants, backed by their own significant offer. The Cubs have hoped all along that they might be able to get Lester, and some within the Red Sox offices have believed that all things being equal, Lester would value the comfort of a known quantity, his former team.

The Dodgers have always had the ability to throw more money on the table, and while that doesn’t mean everything in these talks, it puts them in the conversation.

For Lester, the choices are distinct.

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Dodgers at a crossroads with Jon Lester 

December, 5, 2014
If the Dodgers really want Jon Lester and he doesn’t have any personal objections to playing in Los Angeles, a rival evaluator mused Thursday, then the Dodgers will get him. Plain and simple. Their pile of money is much larger than any team other than the Yankees -- who are not in the Lester bidding -- and if Lester’s decision comes down to the dollars alone, they will win.

But only the Dodgers and Lester’s agent, Seth Levinson, know exactly how

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Lester deal will set other wheels in motion 

November, 30, 2014
Jon LesterBob Stanton/USA TODAY SportsSome believe Jon Lester will fetch between $135 million and $150 million in his next contract.
Andrew Miller has a free-agent market all to himself, in a sense, as the only elite left-handed power reliever, and in the hours ahead he will choose his next team independent of anything else that happens with other players. There are a small handful of starting pitchers looking for one-year deals to rebuild value, like Brett Anderson. Theoretically, they could sign without being affected by other dominoes.

But many other pitchers -- including those who could be traded, like Oakland’s Jeff Samardzija -- may have to wait for Jon Lester to set the price. Almost everything in the pitching market seems to be on hold until Lester makes his choice among offers from the Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs and San Francisco Giants (and perhaps others). Once that happens, the price ceiling will be established. “Then everything else will fall in line after that,” said one agent.

Lester and Max Scherzer are regarded as the two best free-agent pitchers, but some club evaluators fully expect Scherzer’s contract talks to carry over for weeks, as agent Scott Boras works to make a big deal happen -- something significantly more than the six-year, $144 million deal that the Tigers offered to Scherzer in the spring. Boras’ negotiations often play out way past the winter meetings, and there is so little current buzz around Scherzer that some evaluators and agents theorize that one of two scenarios is developing with the former Cy Young Award winner:

1. He could be out on a limb, some evaluators believe, with his expected price undercut by the extraordinarily high volume of available pitching. “It’s not the best time to be looking for a big deal,” said one GM, noting the many pitching alternatives that can be found for less money.

2. He will be the target of a big, bold surprise strike by some team flush with cash, much in the way that the Washington Nationals jumped on Jayson Werth for $126 million in December 2010. Scherzer might be one among many options, but he is the best right-hander available right now with few strings attached, because he’s a free agent. (A team would have to surrender a top draft pick to sign him.) Sure, you can land Cole Hamels, Johnny Cueto or Jordan Zimmermann, but any interested team would have to trade a major package of prospects in return.

So Lester is viewed as the bottleneck of the moment, and once he goes, an array of trades and signings will follow

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Top 10 shortstops in MLB 

November, 21, 2014
Brandon Crawford, Troy Tulowitzki, and  Andrelton SimmonsGetty ImagesThe priority at shortstop has shifted squarely to defense, something all of these guys play.
The question of whether you’d prefer to have Buster Posey or Yadier Molina at catcher has lots of layers, as does the debate about whether Miguel Cabrera is the game’s top first baseman.

But with Troy Tulowitzki coming back from major surgery and facing an uncertain future, there really is no clear No. 1 among the shortstops. You could take this in a lot of different directions, depending on what you value the most -- a preference for high-end offense, or Platinum Glove-caliber defense, or mere consistency.

Through conversations with team evaluators, general managers and our own statistical analysts, we probably considered four or five different guys in the No. 1 spot at one time or another.

We settled on this ranking of MLB shortstops:

1. Andrelton Simmons, Atlanta Braves

Simmons is not the perfect player, by any means; picking the No. 1 shortstop is not the same now as it was in 2001, when you had your choice of Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Jeter, Miguel Tejada and others. Simmons had a .286 on-base percentage last season, with seven homers among just 29 extra-base hits in 540 plate appearances. It would be very reasonable here to make a case in the No. 1 spot for a better hitter, or maybe two or three others.

But a highly ranked executive put it best

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Tampa's choice on tampering charges 

November, 1, 2014
Joe MaddonKim Klement/USA TODAY SportsWill the Tampa Bay Rays demand an investigation?
Imagine that you are in a position of power with the Tampa Bay Rays and you are convinced the Cubs violated Major League Baseball rules by tampering with Joe Maddon.

What would you do next?

The Rays have a choice between two distinct routes, now that the Cubs have formally announced Maddon’s hiring. The position they are in may not be that much different than the place where Boston manager John Farrell found himself when Yankees right-hander Michael Pineda walked to the mound with a gob of pine tar on his neck in April.

Farrell had the option of simply ignoring what he saw -- what everybody saw -- with the knowledge that a lot of pitchers veer around the written rules, including his own. Farrell certainly is well aware that a lot of pitchers will shave the forearm of their glove hand and cover it with sunscreen, or that they will glop the underside of their caps with pine tar, and in a moment of need, will go to that spot in their ongoing effort to get a better grip on the ball.

But Pineda’s violation seemed so blatant to him, so brazen, that Farrell also had to consider the ramifications if he didn’t do anything -- that he would look like a pushover. He would look like someone who let his team get beat without a fight.

And we know what happened next: Farrell went to the umpires and asked them to check Pineda, and the pitcher was quickly ejected.

From the Rays’ perspective, the way the Maddon situation has played out must be, well, maddening.

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Maddon could add to Cubs' elite build 

October, 25, 2014
Joe Maddon is widely regarded as one of the best managers in major league baseball.Jerry Lai/USA TODAY SportsJoe Maddon is widely regarded as one of the best managers in major league baseball.
SAN FRANCISCO – The Chicago Cubs are not in the World Series and have not been since 1945, but on Friday afternoon, they were the talk of the World Series after news broke of Joe Maddon’s departure from Tampa Bay.

Maddon is not the manager of the Cubs yet, but in the same way that Hillary Clinton is not a 2016 presidential candidate yet. A river of gossip about Maddon going to the Cubs flowed among folks on the field here, and in the offices of other teams, which is why Maddon as the leader of the North Siders is regarded as a fait accompli – and why rival officials fully expect the issue of tampering to come up before this plays out.

Maddon is widely regarded as one of the best managers in the sport, and assuming that he lands with the Cubs, he will be one more elite piece to the growing monster that other teams see forming.

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Donaldson trade looming in A's overhaul 

October, 1, 2014
Josh DonaldsonBob Stanton/USA TODAY SportsIf a teardown of the A's happens, Josh Donaldson is likely to go.
PITTSBURGH -- When you hear Ralph Branca tell the story of Bobby Thomson’s historic home run, he offers a full appreciation of that moment, but the hurt is still there. Dennis Eckersley bears the same tone when speaking of Kirk Gibson’s home run, that small ache about a swing that changed lives.

This is what lies before the Oakland Athletics, whose wild-card game loss to the Kansas City Royals Tuesday night was a microcosm of their season -- the great start, the enormous lead right in the middle, the collapse, the late revival, and then a finish that will forever haunt them.

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Timing key in Cubs' call-up 

August, 5, 2014
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.

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Why did the Cubs hire Manny Ramirez? 

May, 26, 2014
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
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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