Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Thibodeau Can Blame Himself for Minutes Limits

Tom Thibodeau is not pleased at all with the minutes limit the Bulls front office has put on certain players. He made that clear following the Bulls Sunday loss to the Thunder. While addressing the media Thibodeau revealed that Joakim Noah was not used much down the stretch because he had reached his mandated 32 minutes per game. But if Coach Thibs is going to be upset with anybody, it should be himself.

The Bulls front office believes heavy minutes over Thibodeau’s tenure have worn players down both physically and mentally. Thibs is notorious for sitting young players for games at a time while the starters are left to carry the bulk of the burden. If Thibodeau had shown any inclination to ease a player back after injury or rest guys in garbage minutes then he likely wouldn’t be in this position.

Whether the Bulls front office is overstepping its grounds in this case is inconsequential. The rule is in place and Thibs has to abide by it. The more pertinent question is why Noah was at his minutes limit so soon that he was unusable by the end of the game. Thibs knows how many minutes Noah could play. Like it or not, that’s the situation. Why weren’t there available minutes down the stretch in a close game?

Thibodeau’s job is to manage his team and if he can’t adjust to what is being asked, then that is on him. It may not be fair or smart but that’s life working for someone else. We all have to face procedural changes at some time in our careers and if we can’t perform then it essentially falls on us.

The marriage between the Bulls front office and head coach feels like it’s coming to a close. It no longer matters who is right and who is wrong. Thibs still has a job to do and a responsibility to his players. It’s time for Thibs to adapt or die.  

Wood, Szczur Winning the Cubs Battle for the 5ths

Two of the most intriguing position battles are taking shape at Cubs camp. The team entered spring training with five candidates to take the fifth starters job and three options to fill the fifth outfielder roll. One candidate in each battle has clearly stepped up and grabbed the lead.

Sometimes the best move a front office can make, is the move it doesn’t make. So far, that’s been the case with Travis Wood. The Cubs were said to be shopping him all offseason but didn’t find a deal they wanted. It was thought that the competition for the rotation position would be deep enough that Wood was expendable. And after his disastrous 2014 season, it seemed to make sense. Wood came to camp in great shape looking to turn things around after he followed his all-star 2013 with a career worst campaign. So far in the hitter friendly Cactus League, Wood has looked more like his 2013 version than the one who put up a 5.03 ERA, 1.53 WHIP and 4.38 FIP. In 10 innings he has a 1.80 ERA and 1.10 WHIP while striking out eight and walking just one.

Injuries have played a part of this battle as young, talented and frustratingly inconsistent Jacob Turner will miss time with an elbow injury and Tsuyoshi Wada is nursing a bad hamstring. Had Wada been healthy and able to perform relatively well in March, then he likely could have been the favorite with the Cubs still looking for a taker for Wood. But as it stands, Wood has performed well and gives the Cubs that second lefty they need in the rotation.

As for Edwin Jackson, his right-handedness is making this an easier decision for the Cubs. Jackson has been predictably inconsistent this spring. He has a 0.00 ERA in 5 innings, but has allowed four unearned runs which can be pointed directly back at his own defensive lapses. The Cubs have three options with Jackson. Keep him in the pen to eat the occasional meaningless innings that pop up, release him and eat the money or they can try to find a taker. The latter is easier said than done.

As for the fifth outfield spot, Matt Szczur has stepped up big. The speedy defensive specialist has been hitting the ball with reckless abandon this spring, compiling a .348/.423/.870 slashline with 3 home runs over 11 games. Those numbers of coarse are nowhere near what can be expected once the season begins, but his ability to play all three outfield positions at an extremely high level makes him a far more valuable candidate than Ryan Sweeny or Junior Lake. Both Sczcur and Junior Lake have one minor league option remaining and Lake has yet to show he is over the contact issues that have plagued him in the early part of his career.

Ryan Sweeney is the other option for the spot, but at 30-years old you pretty much know what Sweeney is. At 25-years-old, Szczur has more upside and offers more tools than the veteran Sweeney and so far has been the surprise of Cubs camp.

There’s still a while to go before the Cubs Easter night opener against the Cardinals at the construction site known as Wrigley Field. That means two and a half weeks of injury risk or wheeling and dealing as the team still has to decide what to do with catcher Wellington Castillo. But barring a move or a pull, look for Wood and Szczur to break camp on the 25-man-roster. 

Monday, March 16, 2015

Cubs Prospects Swing Mechanics breakdown (w/ video)

As I was watching a Cubs spring training game the other day I was paying close attention to the swing mechanics of the young Cubs prospects. They all have very different looking swings, from the more polished aesthetics of Kris Bryant’s opposite field approach to the quickness of Addison Russell and the wild, flailing untapped potential of Javier Baez. I’ve been meaning to get to this piece for days, but was sidetracked by some Bears free agent signings and a 40th birthday party for my brother which featured a lineup of craft beer’s heavy hitters. Now that those issues are behind us, let’s take a look at some swing mechanics, what is successful and what needs work.

Kris Bryant

Bryant has been the talk of the Cactus League, and for good reason. The Cubs’ top prospect is killing the ball with six home runs and an OPS nearing 2.000. What makes Bryant so fascinating is more than just his ability to hit the ball out of the park; it’s where he hits the ball out. Bryant has the capability of becoming the league’s best opposite field hitter the second he steps on a big league field. His power alley lies between the gaps and rarely is he seen pulling the ball down the line. Opposite field power is a rare commodity in big league ball, so let’s look at how Bryant’s mechanics allow him to consistently hit the ball with power to right center.

From the start of his swing, Bryant is quiet and relaxed, with little movement as he begins his swing. From there he goes into a very small step. The front toe comes up a slight bit creating more of a tap than a step. This small step allows Bryant to get his front foot down with little movement to his eye level. Notice his head rocking slightly back then forward. That’s a more preferable movement than the up-and-down that we see from Javier Baez (which we will get to in a bit). With a slight back and forth movement the horizontal sight line remains the same, thus allowing the hitter to get a better read from the time the ball leaves the pitchers hands. While his step is a bit more pronounced, it reminds me of another great opposite field hitter but from the other side of the plate in Jim Edmonds. Edmonds did more of a slight ankle roll than a step, but ultimately allowed him the same ability as Bryant, which was to keep a quiet upper body and stay behind the ball even when a little late.

As Bryant’s foot comes down his hands are in a great hitting position; back, calm and ready to follow his hips. Bryant’s hips begin to open slightly before his arms begin to move forward while his head stays behind on the plate. His hips come through the zone first but his fast hands allow the bat to catch up so both his hips and hands are square to the ball when it arrives in the zone. His swing is a long one, but his calm lower body and ability to stay behind the ball even when late is what generate so much power to right center.

Bryant’s slight uppercut swing enables him to put a great deal of backspin on the ball which is why he is able to get so much distance despite his easy looking swing. That backspin is something his father taught him as a coach. His father spent a couple spings in Red Sox camp in the early ‘80’s and was taught the technique by Ted Williams.

My biggest concern with Bryant’s swing is its length and as he ages and his bats slows a bit he may find himself unable to catch-up with those fastballs that he is able to drive the other way. That’s a problem that shouldn’t arise for maybe ten years down the road.

Addison Russell

Unlike Bryant, Russell generates all his power on a dead pull. He is smaller and far more compact in his swing and will see most of the balls that leave the yard off his bat go out in dead left field or down the third base line. That said, Russell still possess the ability to hit for average up the middle, though directing the ball to right field will prove to be a challenge for the highly talented 21-year-old.

As you can see, Russell starts with an open stance and his hands held high. He takes a small step toward the plate and nearly comes to a complete stop before beginning his swing. Notice the head is completely still as the ball is delivered allowing him to recognize and identify pitch type and location. His hands start from nearly shoulder height, which is higher than Bryant, allowing for a slight uppercut swing.

Russell’s hands are fast and his swing is incredibly compact.  It allows him to do most damage on balls middle-in and his slight uppercut, like Brant, allows him to put a great deal of backspin on the ball. That’s where Russell’s power is generated.

Jorge Soler

Soler is a great deal more active in the box and his swing is loaded with movement, but unlike Javier Baez, Soler’s lower body and hands are more controlled which cuts down on unnecessary movement.  Soler has drastically cut down on his step with the front foot between the time he signed with the Cubs and when he reached the big league level. As you can see in this video, Soler had a huge front step which led to far more movement in his upper half.

Notice the small step and slight ankle turn which allowed his upper half to settle and get a better read on the pitch. The smaller step has a huge impact on head movement. The first video of Soler shows his head moving on both a horizontal and vertical plane. This creates a change in eye level multiple times in the same swing. In the second video you’ll notice far less movement above his shoulders.

 While is stance is open and he has to step in toward the place, he keeps his foot down which in turn keeps his head on a horizontal plane. Like Bryant and Russell, Soler has an uppercut swing that allows him to put back spin on the ball.

One area where Soler can improve is his hips. Most of his power is coming to left and center. His hips are slightly in front of his hands causing him to get out in front of the ball. However, his swing is so quick and wristy he is able to get around on the ball incredibly fast. If he is able to slow down his hips to where they can stay behind the ball, he has the potential to develop an opposite field stroke that would allow him to drive the ball to right and right center with consistent power, though developing that opposite field stroke is a lot harder said than done, and the Cubs may be content to let Soler play pepper with the new video board in left.

Javier Baez

I went in depth here on the changes Baez needs to make to his swing to become a productive hitter at the MLB level.  In that piece I focused on how he faces similar adjustment to his swing that Sosa had to make in the late ‘90’s. I took that approach because they are changes that Cub fans may be familiar with. Now let’s look to it the closest comparison to Baez from a bat speed standpoint and break down the difference between his swing and that of Gary Sheffield.

The first and most glaring difference is the front foot. Both players carry an exaggerated step, but while Sheffield steps directly up and down as a timing mechanism, Baez tends to step up and back. This creates more movement as he has to bring his front foot forward and back down before beginning his swing.  As we’ve discussed with the players above, this causes a change in his eye level making it difficult to identify pitch type and location.  It also appears the step from Baez is being used to generate more power and torque in his swing, while Sheffield’s seems to be using his step as a way to wait back on the ball before exploding through the zone.

The other big difference between the two is extension. Sheffield is able to keep his hands in allowing him to get the bat around quicker and take a more direct route to the ball. Baez on the other hand, has fully extended arms, straight elbows and has his weight distribution out over the front part of his body. This also creates a longer follow through as the chest of Baez is almost facing the dugout at the conclusion of his swing. By comparison, Sheffield’s torso is squared to the pitcher. It may not seem like a big deal where the body is after contact, but it is. Sheffield’s swing is able to find the ball, square up the ball and use both his weight and bat speed to generate power. Baez is simply using his bat speed and is nearly blindly flailing at the ball. The movement to his head, the over-extended arms, being out over the front of the plate, this is all causing Baez to lose sight of what he is swinging at.

All of these players are extremely young and after a few times through the league they will have to make further adjustments. We’ll go back and analyze those adjustments throughout their careers as needed. 

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Albert Almora Still a Big Part of Cubs Plans

Albert Almora is quietly putting together a solid spring training as he tries to rebuild his stature as one of baseball’s top outfield prospects. In 2013 Almora ranked as the Cubs number two prospect behind Javier Baez, but an influx of minor league talent and a relative down year in 2014 and Almora found himself left off a number of top prospect lists.

Almora has fallen behind Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Jorge Soler and on some lists even CJ Edwards, Pierce Johnson and Billy McKinny in the Cubs system. Some fans and experts are beginning to wonder if despite his stellar defensive skills, if Almora will be able to hit enough to make a difference at the big league level.

To that I say; slow down. The 2012 6th overall pick is young. Taken out of high school, Almora started his 2014 season as the third youngest player in the Florida State League playing for the Daytona Cubs and following his promotion to AA Tennessee was the 2nd youngest player in the Southern League. While with Daytona, Almora hit .283/.306/.712 with 7 HR 50 RBI and 20 doubles in 89 games. Not great, but hardly worth getting overly concerned about given his age. Things didn’t go well in Tennessee. Almora’s production dropped to .234/.250/.605 with 2 home runs and 10 RBI in 36 games. The OBP after arriving in Tennessee is absolutely concerning. But when a player, especially one as young as Almora is promoted, there is usually a bit of a learning curve.

In addition to his struggles offensively, Almora was dealing with an issue that weighed heavy on his mind. His father was battling cancer last season and that may have taken a toll on a young player still trying to gain his footing.

While most of the Cubs highly touted prospects have big, powerful bats, Almora has a conflicting style. He is a defense first, gap hitter with 20/20 potential, but not the big 40 HR potential many of his prospect peers possess. Though he doesn’t have ideal speed for center, he gets great reads off the bat and takes superb routes to the ball. That kind of defense up the middle is something the Cubs will badly need in the future far more than they need another masher, if all the other guys pan out.

Almora is likely to start the season at Tennessee after a short stint in 2014 and will have to prove that he can handle the pitching before being considered for Iowa. My guess is he spends all season in AA and if all goes well he will be on pace for a starting job in AAA in 2016 with the chance for a mid-late season call-up.

That timetable isn’t the best for the Cubs, who have Dexter Fowler signed for one season and will be able to make a qualifying offer after 2015. If Fowler has a good enough season to get a big multi-year deal elsewhere, the Cubs would receive draft pick compensation, but it would also leave a hole in center as they wait for Almora to be ready for Wrigley.

The bottom line is the Cubs still view him as a major piece of the future. They love his personality and makeup and that is something that has weighed heavily on the front office as they rebuilt the system. It’s why they drafted Almora in 2012, Kris Bryant in 2013 and Kyle Schwarber in 2014. They love the leadership quality and work ethic in all these guys. If Almora shows the mental toughness to fight through a rough 2014 and have a breakout 2015, you will surely see him back in the top half on nearly everyone’s top 100 prospects list next year. 

Thursday, March 12, 2015

No Reason for the Cubs to Start the Season with Bryant

Kris Bryant hit two mammoth home runs in today’s Cactus League game and once again the drum beats. The voice of those wanting Bryant to start the season Easter night at Wrigley Field is getting louder and seemingly every week there’s another story about the plan with Bryant. Part of me is surprised that it is mid-March and we are still having this discussion. So let’s clear it up once and for all. There is no legitimate reason what-so-ever for the Cubs to start the season with Bryant on the big league club.

I know Cub fans are eager to see a winner, but it’s time to ratchet down those expectations a bit and think rationally. You can have a 22-year-old Kris Bryant for nine games in April. Or you can have a 28-year-old Bryant in his prime for 162 games. That’s it. That’s the whole story. I don’t want to hear anything about “if they want to win now”. They do and Bryant is a big part of that plan. But don’t think for a second that the Cubs brass is looking at 2015 as “the year.” This team, while hugely talented, is still very young and very raw. It’s going to take some time despite what should be huge improvements.

CJ Nitkowski wrote a great piece for Fox Sports on the Braves decision in 2010 to start the season with Jayson Heyward. He mentions the Braves winning the wildcard by a game and Heyward’s early season production likely being a big reason for that. But he also discusses the long term impact of the decision, which resulted in Heyward leaving Atlanta at least a year early and the Braves getting back a diminished return for the outfielder.

The bottom line is this Cubs team is built around bats in their lower-mid 20’s. Rizzo, 25; Castro, 24; Soler, 23; Baez, 22; Russel, 21; Schwarber, 22. Wouldn’t you rather have Bryant for an extra season when this entire entire group is in their prime? The Cubs front office has a responsibility to do what is best for the long term goals of the organization. And while the rule sucks and should be changed in the next collective bargaining agreement, that’s the way the game is played. And the Cubs shouldn’t be faulted or called cheap for doing the smart thing. 

Small Splash, Big Score in Bears Free Agent Haul

The Bears made a splash in the first couple days of free agency. But it was the kind that gets high rankings for Olympic divers, not one of fans knocking down doors to get the newest jersey. The names Parnell McPhee, Eddie Royal and Antrel Rolle may not generate much excitement, but they are low cost and shrewd additions made by a front office that has its hands tied. 

Parnell McPhee (5-year/$38.75m/$15.5 guaranteed):

 With a new defensive scheme come older players best suited for a 4-3. General Manager Ryan Pace will have his hands full trying to find a way to add players more suited to defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's 3-4 base defense. McPhee is a good start. Signed to a five-year $38.75 million deal with $15.5 million guaranteed, McPhee didn't start any games for Baltimore over the past two seasons, but managed to register 7.5 sacks in 2014. He is a fast, high-motor end that at just 26 years-old has a well of untapped potential. 

McPhee joins a group of pass rushers that includes Jared Allen and Willie Young. Both players are more suited for a 4-3 and will see their roles change dramatically. Allen was against a move to a 3-4 defense in Minnesota, but has said he is open to it this time around. And it's a good thing, because just like the Bears are stuck with Cutler for another year, they are also stuck with Allen and his $12.5 million in dead money. 

Eddie Royal (3-year/$15m/$10 guaranteed):

After the deal that sent Brandon Marshall to the Jets the Bears were left with a big need at wide receiver. Alshon Jeffery is slated to step up and become the Bears number one, but they would be without a legitimate number two and three. Eddie Royal presents a stark contrast to the skill set of Alshon Jeffery and Martellus Bennett. At 5'10" 182 pounds, Royal is a burner that plays most effectively in the slot. He has nowhere near the up-side that Marshall brings, but put up similar numbers in 2014. In an injury plagued campaign, Marshall caught 61 balls for 721 yards and 8 touchdowns. Royal hauled in 62 catches for 778 yards and 7 touchdowns. Marshall averaged 11.8 yards per reception while Royal averaged 12.5. The 28-year-old Royal has a familiarity with quarterback Jay Cutler. Cutler was in Denver when Royal burst on the scene with a 91-catch 980-yard rookie season. Royal isn't likely to approach those numbers, but 50-60 receptions and half-dozen touchdowns is a reasonable bet. 

The Bears still have a need for another receiver unless they believe Marquess Wilson and his 6'3" frame can fill the void, that's a blind wager. I'd expect them to add another veteran free-agent or address the void in the middle rounds of the draft. 

Antrel Rolle (3-years/$11.25m/$10m guaranteed):

At 32-year-old old, Rolle is a football dinosaur. NFL players tend to burn-out quickly. Look no further than Brian Urlacher and Jared Allen. One year they are All-Pro caliber, the next they look like a shell of themselves. The good news for the Bears is Rolle does not play on the line and doesn’t take the beating that those players did. Rolle is not an in-the-box safety. His strength is manning center field and ball hawking. Rolle has nine interceptions over the past two seasons and wore a captain patch on some very good Giants defenses. After Marc Trestman's bizarre "different captain every week" strategy, bringing in a veteran presence that commands respect from his peers is an essential addition to a young defense that often times looks confused and out of place. And that's the big reason he is here. What the Bears get in on-field production is of secondary concern to the leadership they are adding. From a production standpoint, Rolle is stepping into some very small shoes left behind from Chris Conte, so at worst a lateral step is worth the addition. 

The Bears have a long way to go toward making sweeping changes. They are saddled with some bad contracts and no other team is willing to take on theBears burden. The front office added some veteran leadership, a new style but similar production at wide receiver and the first piece to a rebuilt pass rush. Spending on big free agents is a good way to make a quick fix, which is exactly what the Bears don't need. They need to wait out a couple of the bad contracts and then make the changes needed to wipe the slate clean. 

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Schwarber Needed at Catcher, Unless there's a Catch

Kyle Schwarber is going to catch because he has to catch. Unless… there’s a catch (sorry, couldn’t help myself). The Cubs first round pick in the 2014 draft carries a big left handed stick and questions about where he can play on the field. That doesn’t sit well with Schwarber. And the Cubs are glad it doesn’t.

"It really fucking pisses me off when people say I can't catch."

Taken out of Indiana University with the 4th overall pick, the Cubs left some draft experts scratching their head. They wondered how can Theo choose another bat for a system that already has Baez, Bryant, Soler, Almora and Alcantara but no top end pitching. Schwarber quickly put those critics to bed with a breakout first season in the Cubs organization that saw him rise to high A-ball and crush opposing pitchers to a .302/.393/.952 slash line.

All the preseason prospect rankings took notice as well. Landing in the top 100 of every list and reaching as high as 19 on the list composed by Baseball America. Schwarder has an elite bat and it comes from the left side. That is invaluable around the league, but unheard of at the catching position. Given the Cubs’ wealth of young bats it benefits both the Cubs and Schwarber to stay put on defense, that is, until he has to.

The Cubs currently have seven infielders in the “system” and only four spots for them. Rizzo is stuck at first along with Russell and Castro penciled in for short and third. The hope is Baez will pan out at second and if he doesn’t, Alcantara might. Then there’s the third base conundrum. Mike Olt is likely to get the start at third to begin the season. Olt has been very steady in spring and looks more comfortable and confident than we’ve seen of him in a Cubs uniform. Kris Bryant is the crown jewel of the system and could take over third base as soon as late April. However, Bryant’s destiny may be in left field because Jorge Soler is entrenched in right and neither Bryant nor Schwarber can play center.

If everything goes according to plan, there is nowhere for Schwarber to play but catcher. And the Cubs are willing to wait on his bat to make it happen. Schwarber has shown an impressive amount of work ethic and determination to improve his receiving abilities. That’s a big reason why the Cubs “reached” to grab him at four. They love his makeup and leadership. From a personality standpoint, he is everything they want in a catcher.

However, there is one catch, as mentioned earlier. The collectivebargaining agreement expires after the 2016 season. With interleague play underway every day of the regular season, there is no doubt the players union will be pushing for a national league designated hitter. A DH in the national league evens out the rules and puts 15 more high priced players without a defensive home into the union’s coffers. Do not overlook the power of the MLBPA in this regard.

If this change happens, then the Cubs can rest easy and use Schwarber as their version of David Ortiz (sorry for the Red Sox comparison, but it’s just so damn relevant). But if the ‘ol boy’s club of Major League Baseball is able to ward off these changes, then the Cubs will need Schwarber to catch, and need it badly. 

The Bears are Stuck with Jay

I guess… Jay is our quarterback. 

That was the message sent from Bears General Manager Ryan Pace and head coach John Fox when they introduced new defensive end Pernell McPhee at Halas Hall. The new Bears hierarchy is bringing along a part of the past as they try to rebuild for the future.

Signed to a massive seven-year $126.7 million offer ($54M guaranteed) by the old boss, the new boss found him nearly impossible to trade. And despite what they say, he tried. Combine his inconsistent play, nonchalant demeanor, whispers about being difficult for coaches and teammates to work with and you get a few shoppers, but nobody is buying. What makes the lack of interest in Cutler so telling is the weak corps of draft picks and free agents at the position. Teams looking to upgrade the most important position on the field with nowhere else to turn still had no interest in Cutler.

Pace’s announcement seemed like a captor reading his own ransom letter, rather than a general standing behind his troops.

“We went through a process of thoroughly evaluating the roster. We're moving forward with Jay Cutler as our starting quarterback.”

Not exactly a ringing endorsement and it shouldn’t be. Jay is “signed” through the 2020 season, but the Bears can release him after 2016 with minimal damage. With 18 interceptions in 2014, Cutler led the NFL tied with longtime nemesis Phillip Rivers. He showed an inability to recognize and avoid pressure. The improvement to Cutler’s game simply hasn’t been what it should be for a player of his skill set entering his 10th season.

The money isn’t the problem with Jay. Play at the quarterback position around the league is at a pretty low level. With the old guard of Manning and Brady coming to an end and nobody but Andrew Luck t fill that hole, there are a plethora of teams that could use a top 15ish quarterback. Most of those teams would be willing to pay the $15-16 million a year for a three year try.

It’s the attitude and demeanor that has opposing GMs keeping him at a Grinch’s distance (39-and-a-half-foot pole). Jay is not a leader. It’s not in his makeup to be the vocal leader and at his age that isn’t going to change. And forgive the abundance of military clich├ęs, but that’s the mindset of the guys building rosters. They want the quarterback to be the field general, the leader, the heart and soul of the team. They want the quarterback that will raise the level of play of the guys around them. And there’s good reason. All the most successful quarterbacks in NFL history carry those traits. Jay sadly does not.

So the Bears are stuck with Jay for another year. And they are stuck with a bit of the old culture lingering around the clubhouse. But there’s a salary cap in the NFL and the Bears really can’t release him and eat the money without it having a negative impact on improving other positions. If they eat Jay’s money, then they are paying him and another starter. That other starter is a defensive lineman or linebacking depth. It’s a safety or extra help on the offensive line. That’s a trade the Bears can’t make no matter how indifferent they are to Cutler, especially if they want to truly rebuild this roster. 

Monday, March 9, 2015

Cutler vs Kaepernick: Who Fits the Bears Better?

If rumors are to be believed, the Bears are shopping JayCutler and have interest in 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. While the Bears are undergoing a rebuild under a new front office and coaching staff along with the loss of longtime staples Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman, the 49ers are similarly searching for a new identity after the loss of Jim Harbaugh, Frank Gore and Patrick Willis. It’s no secret the Bears planned to explore trade options with Cutler, but news that San Francisco is considering parting ways with Kaepernick comes as a bit of a surprise.

This year’s free agent class and draft class are incredibly weak at the quarterback position, and if the Bears are going to find a taker for Cutler’s money that may play in their favor. The same could be said for the 49ers. With few viable options available, the 49ers may be able to get a king’s ransom for a 27-year-old conference winning signal caller. I went into this piece thinking the best route for the Bears is to avoid Kaepernick at all costs, even if it means at least one more season of Cutler. But after sorting through pages of contracts and statistics, it began to look like a move that makes sense for the Bears.

Stat Comparison:

Cutler and Kaepernick are relatively similar from a statistical standpoint. Kaepernick has only started two and a half NFL seasons, while Cutler has nine seasons under his belt. (For the sake of consistency these numbers will represent the 2012-2014 seasons.). But over the course of the last three seasons, Kaepernick has put up comparable, if not better numbers.  

From 2012-2014, here is a list of how Cutler and Kaepernick compare in a variety of categories:

Completion Percentage (three season average):
Cutler: 60.43
Kaepernick: 62.63

Cutler: 9,466
Kaepernick: 8,380

Cutler: 66
Kaepernick: 50

Cutler: 44
Kaepernick: 21

Yards Per Catch (three season average):
Cutler: 11.3
Kaepernick: 12.7

QB Rating (three year average):
Cutler: 86.36
Kaepernick: 92.1

While Cutler leads in yards and touchdowns, Kaepernick has fewer than half the interceptions, throws for a higher completion percentage and has a high QB Rating. Add in Kaepernick’s mobility and the argument starts to shift considerably. In two-and-a-half seasons as a starter Kaepernick has run 259 times for 1,578 yards. Cutler has run 103 times for 542 yards. By no means am I the type to argue in favor of a rushing quarterback. I have yet to see one win a Super Bowl and until that happens, I will be a doubter. However, with Cutler at the helm, sacks have been a major issue. There is no doubt the Bears offered Cutler subpar offensive lines throughout his tenure, but the last two seasons weren’t nearly as bad as the seasons prior. Cutler also has the tendency to hold on to the ball too long and step into rather than away from pressure. Increased mobility that could be offered by Kaepernick may help alleviate that issue, thus making the offensive line more productive. Yes, Kaepernick was sacked an alarming 52 times last season, but Cutler also suffered a 52 sack season in 2010 when the Bears were one win from a Super Bowl.


The biggest obstacle blocking a trade of Cutler is his inflated contract. Jay is guaranteed $15.5 million next season and another $10 million the season after if he is on the roster past Thursday. Kaepernick has a base of $10.4 million this season with a $15.27 million cap hit and roughly $9.9 million in dead money. After this season, Cutler’s dead money shrinks to $6 million, while Kaepernick’s is $14.79 million. Both players become free agents after the 2020 season, but the dead money is off both deals after the 2018 campaign. From 2015-2018 Cutler is owed a total (both guaranteed and non-guaranteed) $66.5 million, while Kaepernick would cost $71.26. Factor in that Kaepernick is four years younger than Cutler and again, the scale tips a slight bit toward Kaepernick.


One of the biggest knocks against Cutler is his locker room and on-field leadership. He is not a vocal type and has rubbed a number of teammates and coaches the wrong way over the course of his career. I’ve spoken personally to a number of former teammates that off-the-record would tell me what they really thought of Jay as a teammate. Let me tell you, it’s not good. Kaepernick can be an odd dude as well. But if what the Bears are looking for is a complete culture change in the locker room, then a move from Cutler to Kaepernick would make a great deal of sense.

The Verdict:

All things being equal I’d take Kaepernick over Cutler given the position the Bears are in. While I keep hearing the word “potential” used with Jay, he is 31-years-old and what you see at this point, is pretty much what you get. Some of that harvestable potential may still exist in Kaepernick. While he is far from a great quarterback, he would be a fine place holder for a couple seasons, and that’s something Jay can’t be at this point. Not after the rumors of the front office wanting him gone and the separation from his favorite target in Brandon Marshall.

If the Bears could find a way to deal Cutler and flip a similar package for Kaepernick it would be the wise move to make. But Kaepernick is likely to cost a lot more. And if there is a huge gap in the asking price, the difference between the two is simply not worth it.

Cub Fans Need to R-E-L-A-X

As the Cubs competitive window inches open I can feel the stress of expectation in some fans. A simple look at twitter following a Cactus League loss or a Javier Baez strikeout and it’s clear that after years of losing, Cub fans are eager to watch a winner. As painful as it may be to heed advice from someone wearing green and gold, Cubs faithful need to follow Aaron Rodgers’ lead and “R-E-L-A-X”.

The 2015 Cubs will be a much improved ball club. After three years spent tearing down the organization to build it back up, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are finally at the point where they can worry about the big league club. They told us the plan the day they held their first press conference, and haven’t wavered from it since. This organization needed more than just a rebuilt roster. It needed rebuild facilities in Mesa, Chicago and across the minor league system. It needed a rebuilt farm system that had failed to produce meaningful big league talent for decades. It needed a rebuilt international scouting department that could focus on the wealth of talent outside the country’s borders. It even needed e-mail and a few people that speak Spanish. This was one of the largest teardowns of an American professional sports franchise that I can remember. And it was absolutely necessary.

The Cubs brass told fans they would be active in free agency when the time was right, and the 2014-2015 offseason   proved to be that time. The addition of veterans Jon Lester, Miguel Montero, David Ross, Dexter Fowler and Jason Hammel give the Cubs some much needed veteran presence, but they are still an incredibly young team. The Cubs front office has identified a player’s prime as 27-32 years old. And most of these Cubs have a while to go before reaching the lower end of that age range. Point being, that the Sporting News may be at least a couple years premature in their prediction of the Cubs reaching the promise land.

That got me thinking about the average age of World Series winning teams. While doing some research I came across another Sporting News article. One that was written three years ago, but had some very relevant information as it pertained to my questions.  In the piece, Bo Mitchell from Sports Data figured the average age of starters for each position for Championship teams over a 25-year span (1986-2011). As expected, the Cubs are still kids compared to these averages:

Average World Series winner: 28.6
Cubs projected starter: Miguel Montero: 31.2

First Base:
Average World Series winner: 29.1
Cubs projected starter: Anthony Rizzo: 25.2

Second base:
Average World Series winner: 27.9
Cub’s possible starters:
Javier Baez: 22.1
Arismendy Alcantara: 23.1
Tommy LaStella: 26

Third Base:
Average World Series winner: 30.1
Cub’s possible starters:
Mike Olt: 26.2
Kris Bryant: 23.1

Short Stop:
Average World Series winner: 27.9
Cubs projected starter: Starlin Castro: 24.4

Average World Series winner: 29.9
Cubs projected starter:
Dexter Fowler: 28.4
Jorge Soler: 23
Chris Coghlan: 29.3
Denorfia: 34.2

Starting Pitcher:

Average World Series winner: 29.6
Cubs projected starters:
Jon Lester: 31.1
Jake Arrieta: 29
Jason Hammel: 32.2
Kyle Hendricks: 25.1
Travis Wood: 28
Edwin Jackson: 31.2
Tsuyoshi Wada: 34
Jacob Turner: 23.3
Felix Doubront: 27.1

Average World Series winner: 29.8
Cubs projected closer: Hector Rondon: 27

While age, by no means, determines the success of a team or player, it’s a pretty good gauge for when most players reach their statistical peak. As you can see, the Cubs are very young, coming in years below the average age of a World Series starter at nearly every position. This is not to say the Cubs youngsters can’t put together an historic year and over perform their projections. Or that this particular group of players won’t be ahead of the curve when it relates to adjustments to life in the big leagues. What it does is point out just how silly the timing is on championship predictions as we head into 2015, especially considering this core is likely to be together for years to come.

The Cubs farm system has been evaluated by many experts as historically strong. The promotions of Alcantara, Soler and Baez last season is the tip of the iceberg. Over the next two to three seasons the team will call up more highly touted prospects in Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora and CJ Edwards. All of these guys will play a prominent role in the organization, either as Cubs or used in trades and sent elsewhere. What the Cubs have that previous top ranked systems rarely do, is major market money. This will allow the Cubs to fix any holes from prospects that don’t pan out, or buy the pitching that is needed to compliment the young talented core of bats.

This is year one of what the team is planning on being a long, consistent string of competitive seasons. This year is the Cubs learning to crawl before they can walk. There will be growing pains, disappointments, slumps and losing streaks. There may not be a playoff birth. This isn’t the Cubs of the ‘80’s where the competitive window is open for one season then it’s back to the cellar. Over the next 5-10 seasons this team will have chances to do something great. However, this season it is not World Series or bust. So don’t let the stress get to you. Instead, enjoy a much improved team learn how to win on a consistent basis. That’s something Cub fans have rarely been able to do.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Pace Shows Much Needed Leadership in Trade of Marshall

It’s not often a general manager trades his most talented player and is universally lauded for it. That’s the position Bears GM Ryan Pace has put himself in. Brandon Marshall entered Chicago with a bang and is leaving for the New York Jets with a whimper. And he has nobody to blame but himself for yet another move.

Marshall is arguably the most talent wide receiver to wear the Bears navy blue and burnt orange. He was brought in at the request of quarterback Jay Cutler with full knowledge that he suffers mental problems with a long history of violent and narcissistic tendencies. During his first season with the Bears under Lovie Smith, Marshall seemed to have his problems under control. A vocal advocate for mental health, Marshall was willing to tell his story and flaunt his personal changes. But with a change in leadership under Marc Trestman, came a lack of accountability with Marshall and the rest of the Bears roster.

The Bears were not pleased that Marshall decided to fly to New York on a weekly basis to do an NFL show, but they didn’t tell him no. They allowed Marshall to hold a long, convoluted press conference detailing his history of domestic violence. They laughed it off when he challenged a twitter follower to a boxing match. And despite being the player that made the most noise in a loud and dysfunctional clubhouse, it was Marshall that entered the locker room with t-shirts that read “No Noise”, and passed them out to his quieter and more focused teammates.

In just three seasons Marshall ranks 8th all-time in Chicago Bears history in receptions (3rd among full-time WRs behind Marty Booker and Curtis Conway), 11th in receiving yards (5th among full-time WRs) and 7th in receiving TDs (3rd among full-time WRs). By trading Marshall, they are moving the first legit number one receiver the team has had in generations. They are moving a guy that could overtake those leaderboards in a few seasons. They are trading the most talented player on the 53 man roster.

The move will give the Bears some extra financial breathing room to target free agents. There is an obvious need to rebuild the defense in new coordinator Vic Fangio’s image. But make no mistake; this trade is not about the football or the money. This move is all about silencing the noise that became such a distraction under Trestman.

Pace will now focusing on finding a replacement for Marshall. That is likely not going to come with Marshall’s production. And the numbers he was able to put up are something the Bears could badly use. But that doesn’t matter anymore. What matters is that Pace is fulfilling his promise to construct a roster where the best players are the best leaders. Saying goodbye to Lance Briggs and Brandon Marshall is a pivotal first step in achieving that vision. And are choices that likely leaves quarterback Jay Cutler looking over his under-burdened shoulder. Pace made the difficult football decision, instead choosing to do what is right, ridding the organization of a deal the Bears made with the devil. 

A number of questions remain. Is Alshon Jeffery capable of being a number one receiver? Will the Bears fill the void by addressing wide receiver with a high draft pick or will it be the trade route or a free agent signing? But one thing is clear. The Bears have a new man in charge and he is flexing his muscles and showing the leadership off the field that the franchise lacked so badly on it over the last two seasons. 

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Briggs, Tillman End of the Long Goodbye to Lovie's Defense

It’s the end of a defensive era in Chicago Bears football. Lovie Smith’s dominant Cover-2 defense has found its final resting place. Yes, it feels like it’s been gone a while, but it wasn't. The last two seasons the defense was in hospice, and we were forced to watch the long goodbye.

When the Bears fired Smith following the 2012 season, left behind were Lance Briggs, Charles Tillman and Smith’s playbook. When the team hired Mel Tucker as defensive coordinator, the job came with that playbook, and he was required to use it. And Tucker did just that. What Tucker was left with was the remains of an ancient ruin.

News that the Bears will not bring Briggs back and are likely to see Tillman elsewhere in 2015 is symbolic of the defensive overhaul needed at Halas Hall. Tillman and Briggs were great Bears. Together with Brian Urlacher they led a defense that ranked in the top five in the league three times and a Super Bowl birth with Rex Grossman under center. But with age and injuries comes ineffectiveness.

New defensive Coordinator Vic Fangio is bringing along with him a 3-4 defense. It’s not a system Briggs and Tillman can excel in and by saying goodbye to the old guard; the Bears can usher in a new era.

The 3-4 will open up a new well of options for obtaining a pass rush. No longer will the front office be tied to hand-on-ground defensive ends. Now they can look at the smaller, faster outside linebackers that fit in a 3-4. It’s a defense that is predicated on spreading the pressure around by using a variety of blitz packages.

It will be a shame to see Briggs and Tillman not patrolling the sidelines for the first time in 12 years. And it’s an even bigger shame that they along with Urlacher will never wear a Bears Super Bowl ring. However, Lovie’s era in Chicago is one to be respected. He brought back a long hibernated defensive power house that made the league take notice. His era wasn’t always pretty and there’s a whiff of “what could have been”, but ultimately he did a fine job.

Now it’s time for a rebuild. A new defensive scheme is coming; a new front office is calling the shots and word that the team is shopping Brandon Marshall shows Pace and company are looking for a cultural shift as well. And after the last two seasons, that is something that should relieve Bears fans. 

Baez Swing Needs Sosa-Like Adjustments

Javier Baez needs to change his swing, and the Cubs are working hard to accomplish that. When Baez first arrived in Mesa, he told Jesse Rogers with ESPN radio that the changes he plans to make are based on timing, but now it seems the Cubs are asking him to address specific swing mechanics.

I've gone in depth into the need for Baez to adjust his approach. But now that we know what exactly the Cubs coaching staff is asking him to target, we can go a little deeper into why the changes are needed.

Much of what Baez needs to work on mirror's another former Cub power hitter in Sammy Sosa. Before Jeff Pentland came aboard as the Cubs hitting Coach in 1997, Sosa had a very different looking stance. He held his hands high, causing more movement in his upper body in order to get into a proper hitting position. By keeping the hands up, the hitter's head will move down as he brings his hands down. This causes a change in eye level and sight lines as the ball is being delivered. Pentland convinced Sosa to bring his hands down to letter height.

While there is little doubt Sosa's breakout season in 1998 was helped greatly by is "Flintstone Vitamins", it's also when Sosa made changes to his stance and timing. And while there is no way to pinpoint when Sosa started taking his "vitamins", we can pinpoint a significant difference in his performance directly after the changes were made. One specific change the Cubs want Baez to make is his hands. They want his hands to come down and forward, just like whet Pentland did with Sosa. As you can see, Baez starts his hands in a similar position which in turn makes for a wildly moving upper body as he begins his swing.

As for the bottom half of the body, Sosa also went through massive changes and Baez will have to do the same. One of Sosa's biggest problems in his pre-1998 days was timing. Sosa was frequently ahead of fastballs and couldn't recognize breaking balls. By adding a hitch to Sosa's step, he was able to wait back better on off-speed offerings while staying behind fastballs. That hitch came in the form of a little step back with his front foot. As you can see in this 1993 at-bat against Greg Maddux, Sosa did not yet have that hitch.

And here is Sosa with his timing mechanism.

Baez has a different leg problem than Sosa. While Sammy had a minor leg kick before his changes, Baez has a heavily pronounced one. When this is added to the movement needed in his upper body, it creates a swing that is often out of control. The Cubs are asking Baez to cut down on that step, particularly on two strike counts. The idea being that a solid base will limit movement and allow him to wait back, similar to what the extra hitch did for Sosa.

These changes will not be easy for a 22-year-old who tends to get over excited during games. That rush of adrenaline may result in reverting to what feels natural. And one of the hardest changes to make in the batter’s box is to divert from what feels right.

Baez is very young and will have a lot of growing pains as he adjusts to big league pitching. But adopting these changes may have monumental results. By being proactive, the Cubs are taking the right approach in not letting his bad habits stick around.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Patrick Sharp and the Inconvenience of Ethics

I'm back writing on my own site for the time being, and I have nothing but my stupid conscience to blame. The big talk in Chicago sports all weekend was not the Bulls falling at home and losing another all-star in the process, or Stan Bowman cashing in his future chips to win the hand he now has. No, the big talk was all about who the longest tenured Blackhawk is shacking up with. 

The website I was writing for was at the center of the controversy after publishing a piece under an alias author that went into specific detail of Patrick Sharp's off-ice exploits. The piece noted a number of what were referred to as "heavily vetted" anonymous sources then ran a list of women Sharp was rumored to be sexually involved with. 

I'm always uncomfortable with these types of stories. Simply because a person has a unique skill that allows them to perform in front of millions of interested fans does not give us the right to know what goes on in their home. This counts for athletes, musicians, actors, actresses and anyone else who work high exposure jobs. 

Criticize, speculate and spread rumor all you'd like when it comes to aspects of the job, but the family is off limits, especially without any hard evidence. And if you do choose to cross the line between sports column and gossip column, then the person who is the center of the attack should at least know who is writing the piece. 

To me, there is a big difference between reporting "personal conflicts in the locker room" and reporting specific individual relationships. Even if these rumors are true, they are not based on any illegal activity, all participants were willing and it is an issue to be resolved between a man and his family, not in the public eye. And I'm sorry, but being good at hockey does not give us the right to know unless the involved parties wants us to know. 

Maybe he biggest part of the problem is that the demand for such gossip and speculation. At last check, this particular piece had nearly 300,000 people click on it. That's from a local sports blog. And it's not a surprise. Our culture is incredibly voyeuristic. It's why reality television is so poupular. The average citizen may enjoy looking in on the lifestyles of the rich and famous, but unless we are invited in, we are really just "creepy Rob Lowe", sitting in a tree with binoculars. And while some may be using that approach to generate interest, it is something that I, as a professional news and sports broadcaster, cannot be a part of. I have no hard feelings with
 those who run the site. They have been very kind and professional to me, and I wish them all the best. But sometimes life presents you with a tough choice: do what's best for you or do what's right. And I strive so hard for the latter.

We don't know for sure what happened with Patrick Sharp. If there was an incident with a teammate it happened behind closed doors and neither he, nor any of the women involved offered us the chance to peek. That is their right to keep their lives off the ice private. A family is a very delicate proposition. Life can be messy and the hurdles we face in cleaning up those messes can be very complex. And it is not helped by hearsay and public shaming. 

So instead of being a part of the gossip columns, I'm going to keep my sports thoughts, speculation and rumor on the field. I'll be writing for me, for you and not for money or clicks. 

Friday, February 13, 2015

White Sox Face Big Rotation Decisions

The White Sox have some hard decisions looming when it comes to the starting rotation. The addition of Jeff Samardzija gives the Sox arguably the best righty-lefty combo of any rotation in the big leagues. But that could be short lived unless Jerry Reinsdorf is willing to open the checkbook.

While the Sox can’t be compared to the Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers when it comes to spending, the team has shown a willingness to open the coffers when necessary. Since 2006 the Sox have had an average payroll of $107.35 million, topping out at $127.8 in 2011. That’s a nice chunk of cash, but would likely have to go up if they plan to keep Samardzija and Sale long term.  When Sale becomes a free agent at the age of 29 in 2019 the Sox will need at least $25 million a year to keep him. So on the low end of the salary expectations, that leaves two players eating up nearly 40% of the Sox payroll.

Samardzija is set to become a free agent and all signs have pointed to his desire to test the market. Shark certainly ranks behind Zimmermann and Price in the 2016 class and is likely to command a lesser deal than those two, but an offer in the Jon Lester range (6 years $155 million) would not be far-fetched. When it comes to extending Samardzija the White Sox have a few things working in their favor. He is a lifelong Sox fan from northwest Indiana. He is comfortable in Chicago and with the limelight of the Chicago media. Most importantly, the Sox have Sale locked up for five more seasons at a bargain compared to other aces. They also have big money from the John Danks contract coming off the books after the 2016 season.

At 31 years-old entering his free agent year, this is not only Samardzija’s first opportunity to cash in on a monster deal, it’s also likely his last. Sox can look at the $15.75 million coming off the books from Danks and apply that to an extension for Shark, but they also have an escalating contract with Jose Quintana that sits at a lowly $3.5 million this year, increasing to nearly $9 million by 2018 plus an extra $22 million combined in team options in 2019 and 2020, so that will also eat up some of those savings.

Rick Hahn has done a wonderful job of adding impact talent at a discounted price. Veterans like Adam LaRoache and Melky Cabrera are likely to play above their contract numbers in relation to peers around the league. Add in an MVP candidate in Jose Abreu with a cost controlled contract and the Sox have clearly left themselves some wiggle room.

Perhaps the best course of action for Hahn is to hope the Sox go on an extended post season run and appeal to Samardzija’s highly competitive nature and tug at his heart strings to convince him to sign in the 4 year or 5 year range at $25 aav. But if the decision ultimately comes down to choosing between Samardzija now and Sale later, even if Samardzija means four extra seasons of both anchoring the rotation, I don’t see how they can choose Samardzija.