Tag Archives: Joe Maddon

Chicago Cubs 2015 Season Preview

This is one of a series of posts in which I will be breaking down every team in baseball. I am by no means a credible source—merely a casual fan who knows a little about baseball and would like to share my observations.

Today we look at the Cubs, whose many years of rebuilding are close to coming to fruition. The signing of free agent Jon Lester to a $155 million contract was their announcement to the world that this is the year they’ll be competing.

Projected Lineup: CF Dexter Fowler*, 2B Arismendy Alcantara, RF Jorge Soler, 1B Anthony Rizzo, SS Starlin Castro, 3B Kris Bryant, C Miguel Montero*, LF Matt Szczur

Projected Rotation: LHP Jon Lester*, RHP Jake Arrieta, RHP Jason Hammel*, RHP Kyle Hendricks, LHP Travis Wood

* new additions

There’s a different feeling in Chicago this year, even before any wins or losses are tallied.

All the stars seem to be aligned to indicate that a new era has begun: A new manager in Joe Maddon, a new ace starter in Jon Lester, and the ever-enduring prophecy on the back of everyone’s mind: The proclamation in Back to the Future, Part II that 2015 will be the year that the Cubs finally win the World Series.

Joe Maddon will be the most important factor in the prophecy being realized. He’s the type of manager the Cubs need right now. He likes to tinker. He won’t bat a struggling Javier Baez in the 2-hole every day. He won’t be afraid to bench Starlin Castro for his mental lapses on defense.

So why shouldn’t this be the Cubs’ year?

Let’s take a look at all the traditional attributes of a World Series-caliber team, and you tell me if the Cubs don’t fit the bill.

Young hitters on the cusp of breakout seasons: check.

If baseball crowned a champion based only on potential, the Cubs would be running away with the title. The Cubs are saturated with young talent, and if even one or two of these guys perform to the level at which they’re capable, that’ll go a long way towards igniting the offense.

Keep in mind that the Cubs have already enjoyed a breakout season from young Anthony Rizzo, who clubbed 32 home runs and finished third in the National League with a .913 OPS last season.

Rizzo is their star hitter, and the rest of the offense is structured around him. This is important, because it means they don’t need to put pressure on the other young guys to carry the offense, but rather to be Rizzo’s supporting cast. Much like the movie Grease, in which Frenchy, Jan and Marty Maraschino were all members of the “Pink Ladies”, but Rizzo was the ringleader who called all the shots.

So from whom can we expect to see a breakout year in 2015? Keep an eye on Jorge Soler, the 23-year-old outfielder from Cuba who enjoyed a short stint with the Cubs last year, but still has his rookie status intact. His power is well chronicled, and while home runs will be a big part of his game, he’s a more dynamic hitter than he gets credit for. He displays patience at the plate, which will be a huge weapon for him once he’s able to harness it fully. Soler reached base at a .383 clip throughout his minor league career, and if he could approach that mark in the majors, it would really help stabilize what has chronically been a very free-swinging lineup.

He also has a cannon for an arm, which has inspired comparisons to Vladimir Guerrero. So just take a second and imagine a 23-year-old Vladdy hitting in the middle of this Cubs lineup. Scared yet?

Kris Bryant is another young hitter who appears ready to terrorize big league pitching. After leading the minor leagues with 43 home runs a year ago, he reported to Major League Spring Training and picked up right where he left off, hitting for an otherworldly 1.652 OPS and easily leading the Cactus League with nine home runs. There is literally nothing else Bryant can do to prove he’s ready for the show.

Bryant will start the year in Triple-A, but the Cubs will likely call him up to the majors within the first month of the season. And once he’s up, he won’t be going back down.

Frontline starters: check.

We know about Jon Lester. But what went slightly under the radar last season was the emergence of Jake Arrieta. A once-prized pitching prospect with the Orioles, he finally figured something out last year, posting a 2.53 ERA with a 0.99 WHIP.

There are reasons to believe his breakout was not a fluke: most notably, he learned to pitch for the ground ball last season. A seemingly simple thing, but you have to realize that a few extra ground balls can drastically reduce the number of homers and extra base hits a pitcher gives up. Arrieta’s home run percentage was a mere 0.8% last year, down from his career rate of 2.5%. Extra base hits? Down to 4.7%, from a career mark of 7.3%.

Arrieta also recently decided he’s Mariano Rivera, and started using the cutter as his primary pitch. This enables him to pitch away from right-handed hitters, further reducing the amount of hard contact against him. The effect of this shows up in his splits: righties managed just a .520 OPS against him last season.

Shutdown bullpen: check.

Neil Ramirez, Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon. None of these guys are household names, but soon this trio will be as well known as the legendary Royals’ troupe of Herrera/Davis/Holland. R-S-R will be the new H-D-H. And who knows—maybe if we’re lucky, we’ll get to see the two trios go toe to toe with each other in this year’s World Series.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Cubs certainly could make the playoffs, but it’ll be a trek to get there. The trials of the season can get to a lot of young players, and these kids need to prove they can make it for the long haul.

I’m a believer though.

Projected Finish: 94-68, First place in NL Central, World Series Champions

Tampa Bay Rays 2015 Season Preview

This is one of a series of posts in which I will be breaking down every team in baseball. I am by no means a credible source—merely a casual fan who knows a little about baseball and would like to share my observations.

Today we look at the Rays, who are ushering in the post-Joe Maddon era with first-year manager Kevin Cash. Maddon was great at a lot of things, but maybe it’ll be a welcome respite for the players to not have to deal with wild animals and Mariachi bands in the clubhouse every other day.

Projected Lineup: LF Desmond Jennings, DH John Jaso*, SS Asdrubal Cabrera*, 3B Evan Longoria, 1B James Loney, RF Steven Souza*, CF Kevin Kiermaier, C Rene Rivera*, 2B Nick Franklin

Projected Rotation: RHP Alex Cobb, RHP Chris Archer, RHP Jake Odorizzi, LHP Drew Smyly, RHP Alex Colomé

* new additions

The Rays said goodbye to a lot of old faces this winter, and lost a bit of their soul in the process.

Joe Maddon, the fearless leader who brought this franchise out of the dark ages: gone. Ben Zobrist, consummate grinder and the most consistently productive Rays player for the past decade: gone.

Who are the Rays without those two guys?

The answer, at least for the immediate future, is not very good.

The offseason flowchart for any small market team starts with the question: Can we compete? If the answer is no, the mission is to get younger. The younger a team can get, the better chance they’ll have at competing a few years down the road.

The Rays’ window closed as soon as they traded David Price away last July. With that setting the rebuild in motion, it was time to clean house. A flurry of trades this winter added substantial depth, though it may not be apparent on the field immediately. Guys like shortstop Daniel Robertson, though you won’t see him in the big leagues this season, are expected to be a big part of the Rays’ future success.

But one guy you will see is Steven Souza, who is already famous for making the diving catch that clinched Jordan Zimmermann’s no-hitter for the Nationals last season. As a major part of the big three-team trade that sent Wil Myers to San Diego, Souza is out to prove he does more than make amazing diving catches (not that the Rays are complaining).

The Rays would gladly take a season like the one Souza enjoyed in Triple-A last year. He won International League MVP as well as Rookie of the Year honors, slashing an outstanding .350/432/.590 with 18 homers and 26 stolen bases. Look for Souza to see a lot of playing time, as he’s one of the guys around whom the Rays will be building.

The Rays’ pitching is in shambles, but only temporarily. Starters Alex Cobb, Alex Colomé and Drew Smyly, as well as closer Jake McGee are all injured to start the season, so the rest of the staff will be stretched very thin.

The good news is that they’re all expected to be back by the end of April, so the Rays will only have to survive a month of digging into the depths of their organization for pitching help.

One guy who will get a few starts in the interim is Nate Karns, one of the organization’s top prospects who until now was expected to be a bullpen arm. But he’s been starting this spring, and has been lights out, posting a 2.03 ERA in four starts. If he can pitch that well in the regular season, I’m not sure if the organization will let him go back to bullpen.

The bullpen appears pretty solid, with Brad Boxberger and newcomer Kevin Jepsen headlining the late innings. Both are dominant right-handers who can keep runs off the board while racking up the K’s.

The righty-heavy corps will be missing injured lefty closer Jake McGee until late April or early May, when he is expected to return to his ninth inning role.

It will be a year of non-contention for the Rays as they take the opportunity to get a good look at their young talent. In a few years, it’ll be up to these guys to usher in a new era of successful Rays teams.

Projected Finish: 70-92, Fifth place in AL East