Cubs’ Top Five Free Agent Targets

10-171460575-smallThe Cubs just finished up what will go down as one of the more memorable seasons in recent franchise history. Yes, it ended at the hands of the hated New York Mets (again), but don’t let that take anything away from what this team did this year. Did anyone honestly expect the Cubs to make the playoffs? Maybe, maybe not. Did anyone think they’d win 97 games? Absolutely not. Yet they did, and they went on to win the NL Wild Card game and then the NLDS. There’s no way that this season can be viewed as anything less than encouraging and a sign of what may lay ahead of us down the road.

Looking down that road, it’s pretty clear that the Cubs need to add to their current roster if they truly want to contend for a World Series championship. And lucky for them, this offseason’s free agent class is pretty jam packed with star players.

Without being completely unreasonable, here’s a look at the top five players the Cubs may target this winter in order of importance.

  1. David Price: Price is one of the game’s best left-handed starting pitchers, and if it wasn’t for Clayton Kershaw, he’d likely be the best. While his career postseason numbers are less than ideal, his talent and ability to dominate any and every game make him possibly the number one free agent pitcher this offseason. The Cubs, without any doubt, must add another quality starter to their rotation. Their lack of starting depth is one reason why they were swept by the Mets. Having a 1-2-3 punch of Arrieta, Price, and Lester would be huge and scary. Add in that Price has made some comments in the past about possibly wanting to join the Cubs and reunite with Joe Maddon, and this scenario is far from unlikely.
  2. Zack Greinke: No one was expecting Greinke to be a free agent this winter, but he is after opting out of the remainder of his contract with the Dodgers. You may be asking why he isn’t ahead of Price on this list, and the reason for that is his age (Price is two years younger) and money. Greinke is likely to sign for a higher dollar amount than Price given what he just did this season, and the Cubs aren’t going to want to pay that amount if Price is still a possibility. Otherwise, they’d likely go for Greinke first. One thing is certain, however, and that is that the Cubs will not sign both Price and Greinke. If they lose out on one, they’ll pursue the other. If they sign one, they’ll give up on the other. The Cubs will go after a starting pitcher, likely one of these two, before anyone else.
  3. Dexter Fowler: Fowler is set to become a UFA, and many believe he played himself into a big contract this season. Depending on what the market becomes for Fowler and the numbers of years and dollar amounts being thrown around are, the Cubs may or may not try to re-sign him. They’ll need to sign a center fielder one way or another, whether it’s Fowler or not. They would like to bring him back, but won’t overpay him to do so.
  4. Jason Heyward: This is a tricky situation. Odds are that Heyward will get more money than Fowler, but Heyward brings a bit more to the table too. He’s not a natural center fielder, but can play the position. Whether the Cubs choose to go this route before the Fowler route remains unknown. Like Fowler though, the Cubs will not overpay for Heyward. If he’s asking for a ridiculous contract, you can count the Cubs out. It all depends on whether or not Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer believe Heyward can be a full time center fielder, and an effective one. Another thing to think about with Heyward is if the Cubs go after him over Fowler, they are now without a lead off hitter. There’s positives and negatives to Heyward.
  5. Washington Nationals starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann (27)Jordan Zimmerman: It isn’t out of the question that the Cubs could potentially sign Price or Greinke, as well as Zimmerman. He likely pitched himself out of a huge deal this year (3.66 ERA and a career high WHIP), so his price may be more affordable now than say a year ago. Signing him along with one of the two previously mentioned pitchers would give the Cubs a formidable rotation and one that could be deadly in the playoffs. If the Cubs can sign Price or Greinke, a potential Zimmerman signing could be the key offseason acquisition.

Starting pitching is one hundred percent the first area the Cubs will address this offseason. Once they sign a quality starter, they’ll likely shift their focus to a center fielder, and then back to another starting pitcher. If the Cubs are able to sign any of the three guys I listed above, that will be big. If they can sign two or even three of them, that’ll be massive. I wouldn’t rule out signing three of them either as long as the money involved isn’t an astronomical amount. Epstein, Hoyer, and Ricketts are determined to bring a World Series championship to the franchise, and they’ll go to extreme, but reasonable, measures to do so.

This should be another fun offseason for the Cubs, and it’s only the beginning.

Blackhawks Lose Keith for 4-6 Weeks

2015 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game SixThe Blackhawks have announced that Duncan Keith will miss 4-6 weeks following surgery to repair “a right knee meniscal tear.” It is unknown when or how the injury occurred, as Keith didn’t miss a shift in the Hawks’ last game against Columbus. Keith is the one player this team could not afford to lose for any lengthy time.

Defense has been the Blackhawks’ biggest problem early on this season as expected. Their blue line was already thin with Keith in the lineup. Now with him gone, they’ll have to play van Riemskyk, Svedberg, AND Rundblad. They may choose to recall Ville Pokka in addition.

It had been reported that Stan Bowman was on the hunt for a defenseman to acquire via a trade over the last couple weeks. With news of Keith’s injury, one would have to believe that Bowman is now pursuing a trade much more aggressively.

With Keith likely headed to LTIR (Long Term Injured Reserve), that will open up over $5.5 million in cap space for the Hawks while he’s out. That’s more than enough space for them to add a contract to the roster in the form of a defenseman. The problem is that when Keith comes back, his contract will go back to counting towards the Hawks’ cap hit, which would make trading for someone now a future problem. They aren’t going to trade for a player who has any kind of hefty salary, as that would force them to dump salary yet again in another six weeks.

So, given that information and the situation the Hawks are now faced with, I’d be surprised if they pulled off any significant trade. I think it’s much more likely for them to go ahead and sign a free agent veteran defenseman, like Lubomir Visnovsky who was cut by the Hawks before the season began. He didn’t look bad at all in camp and would be a cheap addition.

All in all here, this is horrible news for the Hawks. Keith is the one guy they couldn’t lose, and now he’s gone for 4-6 weeks. Playing in the Western Conference was already going to be tough enough, and now the Hawks will have to do it without their top d-man.

Cubs-Mets Preview

MLB: Chicago Cubs at New York MetsIf someone told you on Opening Day that either the Cubs or Mets would represent the National League in the 2015 World Series, you probably would have looked at them like they were crazy. Here we are though, just hours before the first pitch to Game 1 of the NLCS between the Cubs and Mets. Last year, neither team even won 80 games. This season, both won at least 90, with the Cubs winning 97. Needless to say, this was quite a turnaround season for both franchises.

Back in the ’60s and ’80s (both were bad in the ’70s), the Cubs and Mets were pretty big rivals with one another as they both played in the National League East division. When the Cubs moved to the NL Central, the rivalry dissipated as the number of games played between the two teams each season was significantly cut back.

Now, the rivalry will likely be making a comeback.

The Cubs got to this point by drafting and trading for the top hitting prospects available to them. They stockpiled top youngsters such as Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, and Kyle Schwarber to go along with players they already had like Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro. The hope was that these guys would all reach the majors by the end of 2016 and then theoretically become everyday players in the Cubs lineup. No one anticipated the whole group of them to arrive this early to be this good so fast. The Cubs now have themselves one of the best offensive lineups in the game and are loaded with power from top to bottom. Signing Jon Lester and having Jake Arrieta pitch a Cy Young-worthy season solidified this ball club as one of the best by early August.

As for the Mets, they followed the same formula as the Cubs, only they went after the best arms available. Guys like Matt Harvey, Jacob deGromm, and Noah Syndergaard were once just “big name prospects,” but now they’re three of the game’s best pitchers. To go along with that three-headed pitching monster, the Mets traded for Yoenis Cespedes at the trade deadline to bolster their offense. Since that point, the Mets have had the best offense in baseball.

What this series will ultimately come down to is the Cubs’ hitting versus the Mets’ pitching. Here are my keys to a Cubs’ series victory:

  1. Do not let the pressure affect performance. That the Cubs have reached this point of the season is a huge deal for this city and is making national headlines. There is bound to be enormous pressure from the fans and media for the Cubs to win this thing, but they have to ignore all of that and focus on playing baseball.
  2. Be patient at the plate. The Mets know that the Cubs’ hitters led the league in strikeouts this year, and they will no doubt try and get the Cubs to chase pitches out of the zone. It is imperative that the Cubs be patient in the box, see as many pitches as possible, and ultimately drive up the Mets’ pitch counts. The Cubs did a great job at this during the second half of the season, and they need to keep it up.
  3. Javier Baez. Addison Russell quickly became one of baseball’s best defensive shortstops since moving over there from second base. Now, he’s sidelined for at least the whole NLCS with a hamstring injury. Enter Javy Baez. When Baez replaced Russell at shortstop midway through Game 3 against the Cardinals, he made a couple of bad errors that nearly cost the Cubs. He has always been an elite defender, but it looked like the nerves got to him in Game 3 of the NLDS. He needs to put that behind him and get back to his old ways at short. We know what he can do offensively, but he has to be good defensively as well.
  4. Lester and Arrieta. Kind of an obvious one here, but it can’t be overlooked. If these two do not pitch well this series, the Cubs will likely lose. Lester will get Game 1, Arrieta Game 2. Having them both pitch well right off the bat and giving the Cubs a chance to steal one or both of the first two games would be big. Arrieta did not have his best game in Game 2 against St. Louis, yet the Cubs still won. He needs to get back to dominating the opposition like he did the entire second half of the season. Getting first pitch strikes will be huge for each pitcher.
  5. Hendricks and Hammel. After Lester and Arrieta, the Cubs’ starting rotating takes a hit. Both Hendricks and Hammel were able to pitch just well enough in the NLDS to get the Cubs two wins against a tough Cardinals offense. They’ll need to provide more quality innings against the Mets and get at least one win between them.
  6. Lastly, the bullpen. Again, pretty obvious here, but it needs to be discussed. The Cubs’ pen was very good against St. Louis and a huge reason why they are now in the NLCS. To win the World Series, you need a stellar bullpen. Guys like Travis Wood, Trevor Cahill, Clayton Richard, Pedro Strop, and Hector Rondon will inevitably be called upon to pitch in tough spots this series. Their ability to pitch out of those jams could determine the series winner.

These are two opposite teams in terms of how they win games, making it tough to predict who will win. That being said, the Cubs are my favorite to advance. Their one-two punch of Lester and Arrieta, along with their powerhouse offense should overcome the Mets’ pitching. Add in that the Cubs have arguably the best bench in the league, and they’re hard to pick against.

This should be a fantastic series.

-Cubs in six, maybe even five.

On to the Pennant

1383642_616596775058148_1814435643_nTuesday was a historic day in Chicago and at Wrigley Field on the city’s north side. For the first time in the history of the Friendly Confines, a postseason series was clinched on its turf. And given how the Cubs won their National League Division Series, you may say it was worth the wait.

This series also marked the first time ever that the Cubs and Cardinals squared off against each other in the playoffs. Each franchise has been around for over a century, but never had they met in the postseason until this year. The fact that the Cubs were able to win their first ever playoff series at Wrigley Field and that it came at the expense of the Cardinals made this victory that much sweeter.

Cubs fans have been told all about these promising young prospects down on the farm for the past three years or so, and how they would one day be the faces of the franchise. Well, we weren’t lied to. It was those once “promising prospects” that won this series over St. Louis in four games.

10-171460575-smallBaez, Bryant, Castro, Rizzo, Schwarber, and Soler all went deep at least once in the NLDS and accounted for 9 of the team’s 10 home runs hit in the series. It was a power-barrage unlike anything that we’ve ever seen before. If teams around the MLB weren’t already aware of who the Cubs are and just how good they can be, they sure are now.

By defeating the Cardinals, the Cubs won just their second postseason series since 1908 and are now returning to the NLCS for the first time since 2003. Let those stats sink in for second.

These last two games played at Wrigley Field were unlike anything any of these Cubs players have ever witnessed before. The stadium was deafening for each home run, big hit, two-strike count on an opposing hitter, and basically for every out made by the Cardinals. Word on the street is that the Wrigley Field press box even shook a few times due to the bedlam taking place in the stands, and that was just for the NLDS. The atmosphere at Wrigley from here on out might be something that none of us, not just the players, have ever seen before.

And rightfully so.

The Cubs haven’t played in a World Series since 1945, and they haven’t won one since 1908. Over the course of the last century, the Cubs and their fans have been tortured time and time again by bad breaks and bad luck. It’s been a tradition of heartbreak and losing for the Cubs, thus their old nickname of the “Lovable Losers.”

I say “old” because this is a new team with a new attitude and a new identity. Just a year ago, they won only 73 games while finishing in last place in the NL Central Division. Jump ahead to this season, and they’re a 97-win ball club with unparalleled confidence and swagger. They are too young and too dumb to realize the amount of pressure that they’re actually under to finally win a championship. They also couldn’t care less about any goat, black cat, fan interference play, or anything else that people like to stack on to that list. It is because of that mindset, due in large part to their manager Joe Maddon, that this team may just be the perfect combination of players to finally win a World Series for the Cubs.

The Cardinals were without a doubt a stiff challenge, but with the stakes raised even higher now in the NLCS, the Cubs can expect their toughest opponent yet in either the Mets or Dodgers. People want to say “I’d rather play the Dodgers!” or “I want to play the Mets!” To me, that’s the worst thing you can do. The second you wish for a certain opponent, they beat you. Just let that other series play out and take whoever you get. Have confidence in the Cubs for once, and quit worrying about their opponent.

The Cubs are on to the the National League Pennant, and now is when things start to get real. This should be a fun couple of weeks.

Regardless of Tonight’s Outcome, Cubs’ Future is Promising

10-171460575-smallIn 24 hours from now, the game will have been played, a team will have won, and a memorable moment or two will be etched in our minds for the foreseeable future. Either we’ll (hopefully) be talking about a Cubs-Cardinals showdown in the NLDS, or once again next year. But in all honesty, regardless of what happens in tonight’s Wild Card game between the Cubs and Pirates, there’s reason to be optimistic about this Cubs team for years to come.

This was supposed to be a “stepping stone” season for the Cubs, meaning they would hopefully win around 84 games and begin their push towards sustained success with their mostly homegrown talent. Instead, the train arrived a bit early on the north side, and we witnessed this team reel off 97 wins; good for third best in Major League Baseball.

This massive turnaround from last season to this season started last October when the Cubs announced that they had hired Joe Maddon to be their next manager. Then a couple months later, Jon Lester signed on to become what we thought would be the Cubs’ newest ace. The pieces were all coming together.

In spring training we saw Kris Bryant display his full offensive potential while lighting up the Cactus League and becoming the talk of baseball. Lost in his publicity was the performance of other top Cubs prospects such as Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, Jorge Soler, and even Javier Baez who knew he had to turn his game around after a disappointing late summer last season.

None of those guys made the Opening Day roster other than Soler.

After just a couple weeks of the regular season had passed, we finally got the much anticipated arrival of Kris Bryant in the big leagues. Not long after, Addison Russell followed him. Then in mid-summer, Kyle Schwarber arrived way ahead of schedule and turned heads instantly. These guys surrounded Anthony Rizzo in the lineup to create what has to be one of the most feared rosters in baseball.

Following the All Star break, Jake Arrieta started to take over all of baseball en route to what was a Cy Young-worthy season, and one for the record books.

The rest is history.

That this Cubs team won 97 games with such little MLB experience from most of their key offensive contributors is mind blowing. The confidence that these guys have displayed all season long and even heading into tonight’s Wild Card game has been incredible. This new wave of Cubs players may only be in their early 20’s with limited big league experience, but you would never know it. And a lot of that has to do with the leadership of Anthony Rizzo taking these rookies under his wing and instilling in them the right kind of attitude.

After watching this team do what they did this year while taking into account their youth and the fact that they are all under club control for a number of years to come, one can’t help but wonder just how good the Cubs could be in a few years down the road when these “kids” hit their prime. It’s almost scary…

So regardless of what happens tonight, just remember this is only the beginning of what should be many years of success for the Cubs. For what may be the first time ever, we finally have a team that seems destined for a title before too long.

Cubs’ Potential Lineup in Wild Card Game

15-_DSC2491-toresizeToday, Cubs manager Joe Maddon spoke to the media in advance of Wednesday’s Wild Card game between the Cubs and Pirates, but would not reveal who he plans to start in the game. We all know Jake Arrieta will be taking the hill for the Cubs, but that’s about it. From there, there’s a lot of different options.

Here’s how I project the lineup to look Wednesday night:

  1. Fowler, CF
  2. Schwarber, RF
  3. Bryant, LF
  4. Rizzo, 1B
  5. Castro, 2B
  6. La Stella, 3B
  7. Montero, C
  8. Arrieta, P
  9. Russell, SS

With Gerrit Cole being named the starting pitcher for the Pirates, Maddon will likely want an extra left-handed bat in the lineup to counter Pittsburgh’s top righty. That’s where Tommy La Stella comes into play. La Stella has been one of the Cubs’ hottest hitters in recent weeks, and he does it from the left side. In a one game playoff like this, you’re going to want your best hitters in the game. That may mean leaving someone like Coghlan, Soler, or Baez out of the starting lineup, but in a situation like this, it is imperative to put your hottest bats in the lineup.

Another factor to take into account here when looking at that projected lineup is defense. This isn’t the Cubs’ best defensive lineup, but it’s not bad. With the outfield at PNC Park being one of the largest in baseball, Maddon will likely elect to play Kris Bryant in left field instead of Schwarber. Why? Because Bryant is more athletic and can cover more ground than Schwarber. Left field holds a lot more ground to cover at PNC than right field. If it were all about defense, Schwarber probably wouldn’t even be in the lineup, but his bat can become crucial in a game like this.

Speaking of which, the lineup that I have projected above is a pretty powerful one, minus La Stella. Basically every player in the order has serious potential to hit the ball out of the park at any time. This is the main reason why I believe Schwarber will be in the starting lineup. Against a pitcher like Gerrit Cole, who rarely makes mistakes with his pitches, you need a lineup going against him that is full of players who can capitalize on Cole’s mistake(s). Players like Schwarber, Bryant, Rizzo, Castro, Montero, and even Russell can do that.

In these one game playoffs, there’s usually one player that leaves a huge impact on the game outside of the starting pitchers. My pick for that player in Wednesday night’s game is Addison Russell. You may be asking why not a guy like Rizzo or Bryant? While those two can certainly play an enormous role in a game like this, I really like what I’ve been seeing from Russell lately. His defense has always been elite and could be pivotal Wednesday night, but his bat has come alive here over the last couple of weeks. With him likely to be hitting out of the number nine spot in the lineup, his ability to get on base and drive in runs from the bottom of the order could be big.

So there you have it. We’ll wait and see how Maddon elects to construct his starting lineup, but it’s a good bet it will be something similar to what I have listed above.

The Problem With MLB’s Current Playoff Format

635651689308727878-GTY-470483912-72482586Now that the 2015 Major League Baseball regular season has come and gone, we can shift our focus to the playoffs, which begin Tuesday night in New York when the Yankees host the Astros for the AL Wild Card game. While this is always one of the best times of the year in sports, there is a glaring problem with the current MLB playoff format; one that hasn’t been quite as noticeable as it is now.

This year the Cardinals finished with the best record in baseball at 100-62. The Pirates came in at second with a record of 98-64, and the Cubs third at 97-65. All three teams come from the National League Central Division. Because the Pirates and Cubs finished with the second and third best records in the National League, they are this year’s two NL Wild Card teams, and they’ll square off in their one-game playoff on Wednesday night. The winner of that game will face the Cardinals in the NLDS.

Here’s the problem.

Of the three best teams in baseball this year (St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Chicago), only one will make it to the NLCS, and one won’t even make it past the Wild Card game. If either Pittsburgh or Chicago happen to eliminate St. Louis in the NLDS, they won’t have home field advantage against the winner of the Los Angeles Dodgers-New York Mets series. Why? Because they will be the Wild Card team.

Essentially, finishing as the second and third best teams in all of baseball this year will yield the Pirates and Cubs zero advantages in the postseason. Despite both of their records being better than those of the Dodgers and Mets, both Pittsburgh and/or Chicago will have to begin the NLCS on the road, if either team makes it that far. And if either team happens to win the NLCS, guess what? They won’t have home field advantage in the World Series either thanks to the ridiculous All Star Game rule (winning team/league gets home field for the World Series).

So here’s my proposal to Major League Baseball:

Do it like the NBA is now doing it. The team with the best regular season record gets home field advantage in each series. Period. Plain and simple. This would mean eliminating the All Star Game shenanigans that no one seems to like anyways. As it is right now, a team like Pittsburgh or Chicago gets no reward for their incredible season other than a berth into an instant elimination game.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who sees this as a problem, and hopefully the MLB will catch on soon as well.