Tag Archives: Theo Epstein

Comparing Cubs’ Joe Maddon to other top MLB managers

3 Nov

cubs-introduce-joe-maddon 2For me, today was one of the most exciting days in recent Cubs history since, well, when Theo Epstein was introduced as the Cubs president of baseball operations. Today, Joe Maddon would have his introductory press conference as Cubs manager.

As I listened to him talk, he revealed some very encouraging nuggets about his managerial philosophy. For example:

  • he doesn’t like to put pressure on his players
  • the key to player success is not as much their physical talent as much as what’s between their ears
  • he’s a big fan of the Malcolm Gladwell book Blink, which I’m currently in the middle of reading myself
  • he combines old-school scouting eyes with new-school number-crunching.
  • he doesn’t like to wear out his players, particularly as the season grinds on (“being first at the park and last to leave doesn’t impress me”), a criticism of Dusty Baker during his tenure with the Cubs.
  • how important it is to him to have a relationship with his players where they trust each other

Those are all philosophies that I myself uphold as a head coach at the youth baseball level.

But as I listened to all these nuggets, my mind wandered a bit: where does Joe Maddon rank in the list of best MLB managers?

After all, San Francisco’s Bruce Bochy just won his third World Series title in the last five years. Bochy is not big on sabermetrics (though he’s not anti-sabermetrics). But he holds unorthodox philosophies that I myself uphold, such as using your closer in a high-leverage situation—even if it’s in the seventh inning—rather than reserving the closer strictly for the ninth inning, and demoting someone who isn’t performing well even if he’s a highly-paid star (e.g., Tim Lincecum). Maddon apparently won’t do the former.

Then there’s (hack! hack!) St. Louis’ Mike Matheny. He is what Fangraphs called “saber-friendly” (though he’s not completely pro-sabermetrics). On making decisions, Matheny said, “For me, first and foremost is gut instinct. Second is understanding the players. There are things that statistical analysis can’t help with, and the state of the individual players is going to rate really high with me. But is statistical data going to play into every decision? I would say yes. I want to make an educated decision with everything I do.” That sounds eerily like Maddon: the Blink-style gut instincts, resonating with players, understanding the state of the players, and sabermetric data all coming into play in his decision-making.

What’s more, Matheny’s infamous youth baseball manifesto showed that he cared a lot about what was between their ears, that he doesn’t like to put pressure on his players, and that he institutes a respected culture of authority—more attributes that sound like Maddon. Matheny’s managing style is likely a big reason that the Cardinals still had success (two NLCS appearances and one World Series appearance) despite losing their Hall of Fame manager Tony LaRussa and famed pitching coach Dave Duncan.

Other than Bochy and Matheny, it’s hard to say with certainty who the top managers are. Certainly Kansas City’s Ned Yost could be in the conversation but I’d personally like to see more than one year of success before anointing him as one of the best. The Yankees’ Joe Girardi could be a candidate but you have to wonder if your next-door neighbor could be a good Yankees manager given the roster of highly-paid superstars that the Yankees almost always collect.

I was mildly excited when Dusty Baker and Lou Pinella came to the Cubs. But I’m really pumped about Maddon. Given Maddon’s success with the low-budget Rays in the ultracompetitive American League East division, it’s hard not to get excited about what Maddon can do with the Cubs. And if Maddon can indeed help lead the Cubs to a World Series championship, he would automatically shoot to the top of the list of best MLB managers because if you can do what no other manager in the last 106 years has done, you deserve it.



Getting autographs at Wrigley Field

19 Sep
Etha, Erik, Henry & Lu with the Ernie Banks statue before the game

Etha, Erik, Henry & Lu with the Ernie Banks statue before the game

I took my four boys to Wrigley Field last night when the Cubs played the Dodgers. With a limited budget, I only take the boys to one game each year. We haven’t gone the last two years because the team was so bad then, but with top prospects like Jorge Soler, Javier Baez and Arismendy Alcantara, I thought it would be fun to see these exciting rookies…especially for the boys (ages 4, 6, 8 and 14). My boys are HUGE Cubs fans. They know the players just by their faces…even my little boys! It’s a “skill” I used to have as a young boy myself but I never mentioned that to them. I guess where you’re big fans, you’ll naturally be able to do that, but who knew these little kids were so perceptive about the players?!

Anyway, my wife & I decided to take them early to the park to see the Cubs take batting practice. From some web sites, I found that the Cubs would take BP from 5:05pm (when the park opened) until 5:35pm, followed by the Dodgers from 5:35-6:20pm. So I left work early (after getting in early) and met the kids at Wrigley (my wife dropped them off) just before the park opened.

We headed in and discovered there is a “Cubs Corral” where kids 13 and under can watch BP on the field instead of in the stands. You have to get a sticker at the Fan Services booth but they were out; the stickers act as admittance tickets. However, the helpful Fan Services attendant advised me to ask the Cubs Corral ushers if there might be extra stickers. We did, and there were.

The kids entered the Cubs Corral but the Cubs finished BP shortly thereafter. I didn’t notice the time but it seemed really short…like around 5:20pm instead of 5:35. The Dodgers took the field.

Cubs Corral kids watch batting practice at Wrigley Field

Cubs Corral kids watch batting practice at Wrigley Field

If you haven’t attended batting practice before at Wrigley, it’s quite a scene. I’ve taken the kids to Cubs games before but never early enough to watch BP, so they’ve never seen how major league players do batting practice.

When I was a kid (in the 80s), I went to a few Cubs games early enough to watch batting practice and it was nothing like it is today. Back then, there was simply a BP pitcher, the cage, the batter, some other players hanging around the cage waiting their turn, and some other players in the outfield shagging balls. That was it.

Today, there are multiple stations going on, with two infielding groups getting their infield work done while the batter is hitting, a coach hitting fly balls to an outfield group in right field, and another screen in center field to protect shaggers collecting balls into a bucket. A lot of activity, but even here, the shaggers aren’t doing much and are often talking to each other instead.

Well, the Cubs high-tailed it after their BP was done and didn’t sign any autographs for the kids at the Cubs Corral. Not surprising but a little disappointing. My boys hung out there and watched the Dodgers hit. The most impressive Dodgers display was by Matt Kemp, who hit four into the bleachers in one of his short stints in the cage. Some of the other kids in the Corral were calling for Kemp to sign. Initially, he didn’t want to, saying something to the effect of “Why should I sign autographs for you?” About 15 minutes later, he came over to sign, though my oldest son told me he looked rather reluctant. The kids also got autographs from some other Dodger stars, including Yasiel Puig and Adrian Gonzalez.

Cubs catcher John Baker walks by

Cubs catcher John Baker walks by

My boys got bored watching the Dodgers and left the Corral. I asked an usher if we could go to the left field wall to get some Cubs autographs and he said, yes, if we went to Aisle 110 or beyond, we could try there. By the time we got to Aisle 110, the Dodgers were finally finishing up batting practice (it was indeed around 6:20pm). After waiting about 5 minutes, a few Cubs trickled into the dugout. The first out of the dugout was John Baker, who would be catching that night. He didn’t look in our direction, nor walked close by, so my kids didn’t even bother calling out to him.

Tip: stand behind your kids, not with them so that players see the kids and not an adult. I’ve read that players are turned off by adults trampling over kids trying to get an autograph so I want to make it look clear that it’s my boys who want autographs and not me, which is true.

Next out was Tsuyoshi Wada, the Cubs’ starting pitcher that night. My kids started to call out to him at the same time a Japanese girl ran up to the wall and yelled something in Japanese to him. She took off her scarf and Wada looked back at her, not breaking his stride. He nodded at her, ignored us, and kept walking. The girl put her scarf back on and left, so I presume she wanted him to sign her scarf but obviously no success.

About five minutes later, Chris Coghlan walks by with a bat. I don’t recognize him but my kids do. In fact, Coghlan is Henry and Ethan’s favorite Cubs player (at the moment), so they start calling out to him. He walks away, ignoring us as he heads towards the gate door under the bleachers in right field, which is where the indoor batting cage is.

Well, this has been pretty disappointing so far. My oldest son asks if we should go to our seats. I’m always the optimistic type, so I say, “No, there’s nothing to do in our seats now anyway, so we might as well keep waiting here.” Besides, we’re the only ones here at the wall and it’s an amazing view—so close to the players!—, so why hurry to leave?

Just a minute or two after that, Chris Valaika comes right up to us and asks if he can sign something for us. Our kids are excited and he signs my four kids’ items (three baseballs and a fielder’s glove). We thank him and he walks away. What a nice guy! Very cool dude. Much respect for making my kids’ night as our first signer when everyone else to that point blew us off.

Jorge Soler signs my son’s glove

About another five minutes after that, Jorge Soler walks out onto the field. We’re all pretty excited but he’s not that close to us—standing around the foul line—and with his back to us. Soon, he faces us and my kids eagerly call out to him. He smiles and walks up to the boys—and signs their stuff! Wow…super cool! At this point, some other, older kids rush up for autographs but Soler leaves. Not sure if it was because the number of seekers was getting too big or what.

Ryan Kalish signs for my boys

Ryan Kalish signs for my boys

Shortly after that, Ryan Kalish, who was called up in September ostensibly to take over injured Ryan Sweeney’s spot and would be starting in center field tonight, comes over and my boys ask him to sign their stuff. Again, other kids have come up and are asking for autographs as well. By now, the ticketholders of the seats by the wall arrive but they graciously let us stay there while they wait in nearby seats.

Chris Coghlan walks by again to stretch on the field, and again my boys are calling out to him. “Mr. Coghlan! Mr. Coghlan!” No response, so I yell out to him, “Chris, you’re my kids’ favorite Cubs player!”, which I mentioned before was true. Still nothing.

Soon, Mike Olt comes by and my kids happily ask for his autograph. He signs for us too. He would be tonight’s starting first baseman. My kids talk about Olt a lot at home.

Javier Baez comes out on the field and my kids are eagerly calling him. It’s honestly really cute to hear their little voices calling him. “Mr. Baez! Mr. Baez!” But he doesn’t respond.

My four boys watch Jorge Soler and Javier Baez during the National Anthem

My four boys watch Jorge Soler and Javier Baez during the National Anthem

Now it’s the national anthem. My youngest son, who’s only four, doesn’t know any better so he continues to call Baez so I have to teach him that during the national anthem, we need to be quiet and listen. After the anthem, my kids keep calling for Baez—and he comes over to sign! And he signs for my boys first. How cool is that?

Javier Baez signs autographs for my boys

Javier Baez signs autographs for my boys

We thanked the seat ticketholders for letting us hang around in their seats to get autographs and headed to our own seats.

When we all got to our seats, I asked my oldest son if his view of Coghlan was lower since he wouldn’t sign an autograph. To his credit, my son said no. I too don’t have a lower view of Coghlan (or Wada or Baker for that matter), though I must admit I have a much higher view of Valaika, Soler, Kalish, Olt and Baez. The Cubs ended up losing the game (some questionable managerial decisions by Rick Renteria, but that’s for another post) but the boys went home on a really high note b/c they got those autographs—so happy you would think the team won.

In the end, we got five Cubs’ autographs, including Soler and Baez! Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro are out, as well as Alcantara, but I’d call tonight a smashing success for autographs. We even got Kemp, Puig and Gonzalez as a bonus.

I really think we got those autographs b/c those squeaky kids’ voices calling for the players is so cute and irresistible 🙂  And also, I think we got those autographs b/c of persistence. Being patient and waiting, even when it seemed hopeless. Isn’t that a metaphor for life?

In general, I think Cubs players, especially the stars, are great to the fans and don’t act stuck up. A few years ago, my oldest son and I waited in the parking lot after the game and Matt Garza (then the ace of the pitching staff) came over to sign autographs. Not sure if Theo Epstein encourages the players to do it as part of “The Cubs Way”, but that fan-friendly quality helps endear the players (and the team) to the fans. And it made my boys’ night.

Why the Cubs should move Starlin Castro to the OF

23 Nov
Chicago Cubs shortstop prospect Starlin Castro.

Starlin Castro as a prospect

Most people, particularly in the media, love Starlin Castro. While some even dubiously proclaim Castro as the next Ernie Banks, count me as someone who’s not quite as impressed with Castro. While Castro accomplished an impressive feat in ringing up 207 hits in 2011, he needed 674 at-bats (the second-highest in the majors) to do so. In addition, Castro has nowhere near Banks’ power: Castro hit 13 home runs in his first 1137 at-bats while Banks hit 21 home runs in 509 fewer at-bats than Castro. Could Castro develop power later in his career, as some hope? Possibly, though history shows power doesn’t usually develop later unless steroids is involved.
The lack of power isn’t a real concern. But Castro’s iron glove and wild arm is. The 21-year-old Dominican led the majors in 2011 with an amazing 29 errors, proving that his 27 errors in 2010 (second-worst in MLB) was no fluke. FanGraphs posted Castro’s UZR (an advanced fielding metric that estimates a fielder’s defensive contribution compared to a league-average fielder) as -8.7, second-worst in the majors among regular shortstops. His defensive liabilities offset some of his offensive contributions.

Merely accepting Castro’s defensive limitations should not be an option. The question is: what can the Cubs do then?

What to do with Castro?

Some have bandied the idea of trading Castro. It’s not a bad idea. If everyone else is enamored with Castro, why not trade him while his value is sky high and get a bunch of top prospects? After all, the Cubs need help at a lot of positions and you could fill several of those voids with one trade. As the Chicago Tribune reminded, the Rays got several exciting prospects and a major-league defensive contributor when they sent Matt Garza to the Cubs, and the Royals got several top prospects and a major-league defensive contributor when they traded Zach Greinke. Just don’t trade Castro for a couple middle-tier prospects. If Theo Epstein is like Tampa Bay’s shrewd GM Andrew Friedman, then he’ll require multiple highly significant prospects for Castro.

But Castro staying with the Cubs is probably the most likely scenario. Epstein has compared Castro’s defensive issues with an early Derek Jeter, implying that Castro too can eventually win five Gold Gloves as Jeter has. Epstein’s comments are puzzling since he, a sabermetrician, should know that sabermetrics clearly reveals Jeter to have performed well below average for nearly his entire career in baseball (or as one blogger succinctly wrote, “Derek Jeter is a crappy fielder“). Just this past summer, Jeter was dead-last in DRS (Defensive Runs Saved, a metric used to evaluate how many runs a player saved or hurt his team compared to an average player at the position) among regular shortstops (-18), worse than even Castro (-16). In 2010, the last year Jeter won a Gold Glove, he had the fourth-worst shortstop DRS at -13. While Jeter has earned his Gold Gloves for his reputation on some flashy plays, Baseball Prospectus’ James Click cautioned in an article entitled “Did Derek Jeter Deserve The Gold Glove” (the answer is no), “While spectacular effort is a joy to watch, it should not be confused with results.” As performance analysts know, Jeter isn’t even the best SS on his own team (that would be Alex Rodriguez).

Where should Castro play?

The Cubs could keep Castro at SS, but why put up with the defensive struggles when you can minimize it? This was an argument Click made about Jeter, stating that the Yankees should have moved Jeter to CF and put Rodriguez back at SS. While some suggest moving Castro to 3B, I suggest the Cubs remove him out of the infield completely and put him in the outfield.

On occasion, Castro shows a flair for the spectacular play but far too often fails to make the routine play. In general, moving a shortstop to 3B will slightly improve that player’s defensive contribution by 1.9 runs per year. However, it’s uncertain if a fielder as bad as Castro will see that slight improvement. Since Castro bungles grounders and slings wild throws from the shortstop position, it’s quite possible he will also bungle grounders and sling wild throws from the third base position. In fact, it could potentially be even uglier at third base when Castro also must charge bunts/slow rollers and then hurry a throw to 1B.

Moving Castro to the OF instead of 3B would limit damage because not all errors are equal. Outfield errors are rarely on dropping catchable fly balls but instead due to bad throws and bad fielding. Thus, outfield errors almost never turn sure outs into baserunners; rather, the baserunners already exist but they get an extra base or two on a bad throw or poor fielding of a grounder.

On the other hand, shortstop errors always turn routine outs into baserunners. Since baseball’s two most precious commodities are runs and outs, shortstop errors negatively affect both. Not only does the defense not reduce one of the offense’s 27 precious outs, but the offense now also has a runner on base that should not have been there, which in turn creates a higher likelihood for the offense to score runs (run expectancy is always higher with a man on base than with bases empty). Indeed, Castro’s DRS for 2011 was -16, again second-worst among all regular shortstops and far below the average shortstop, the Angels’ Erick Aybar. Baseball Prospectus has shown that moving a SS to LF improves the team’s defense by an average 4.8 runs per year. With Castro, this number would be higher.

So why not put Castro in CF, where his strong arm could be an asset? The main reason is that Tony Campana is a known commodity at CF as a strong defender with great speed and great range, two important qualities for CF. Replacing Soriano, with his marginal arm, with Castro in LF would be a better option defensively.

My suggested defensive changes

In 2011, the predominant Cubs defense, based on innings played, was (DRS/UZR in parentheses):

– 2B: Darwin Barney (-4/+5.1)
– SS: Starlin Castro (-16/-8.7)
– LF: Alfonso Soriano (-5/+3.4)
– CF: Marlon Byrd (-2/+2.2)
– RF: Tyler Colvin (+3/+4.6)

Check out all those negative DRS figures. No wonder the 2011 Cubs defense was so awful.

One suggested defense for 2012 could be (2011 DRS/UZR in parentheses):

– 2B: DJ LeMahieu (+1/+0.8)
– SS: Darwin Barney (+1/+1.0)
– LF: Starlin Castro
– CF: Tony Campana (+2/+4.3)
– RF: Tyler Colvin (+3/+4.6)

The Cubs could then put Marlon Byrd (who was -2/+2.2 in CF in 2011) at 1B, resolving the issue of finding a first baseman. This suggestion would significantly upgrade its defense not only at SS but in many other positions on the field. In addition, learning a new position would be kept to a minimum (a minor adjustment for Barney; while Castro would be learning an entirely different position, it’s an easier position to learn, as would be the case for Byrd learning 1B). And what’s more, this suggestion would substantially upgrade the entire defense without having to trade away any prospects or spend one cent on a free agent.

Glaringly, the biggest problem with this suggested defense is that it puts Alfonso Soriano and his offensive production on the bench. But this would only be one problem for Epstein to resolve, compared to trying to resolve multiple glaring problems, any one of which could spell doom for the Cubs in a close game (the team was 25-28 in one-run games in 2011) or turn a close game into an uncontested loss.

Moving Castro to the OF may seem radical but when the status quo clearly isn’t working, why not put all options on the table? If the Cubs want to seriously compete for a championship, it cannot afford 25-30 errors at the most important position on the field.

Your turn

What do you think? Do you like the idea of moving Castro to the OF? Or do you think Castro should stay at SS and can someday improve from “near league worst” to “average”?

8 Culture Changes Theo Epstein Can Bring The Cubs

25 Oct
Epstein introduced as Cubs Baseball President

Epstein introduced as Cubs Baseball President

Even before former Red Sox GM Theo Epstein was formally introduced as the new Cubs President of Baseball Operations, writers gave their opinions of what he should do with the Cubs. It was the typical assortment of obvious suggestions, like “get rid of Soriano & Zambrano” and “go after free agent Prince Fielder b/c you’ll both help your team while weakening your division rival.”

I don’t like being Captain Obvious but I do like giving opinions. Epstein in his introductory press conference today mentioned several times about changing the culture within the Cubs. So aside from making the culture focus on winning, here are some of my thoughts on what else Epstein can do about changing the Cubs culture.

1. Fire Mike Quade. Okay, so this suggestion was also voiced by some of those Captain Obvious writers, but here’s my spin on this one. Nothing says culture change than firing the manager who brought a losing culture (91 losses) to the Cubs, even while trying to win a few extra games down the stretch of the lost season by playing veterans instead of developing youngsters. Quade also was clueless when asked about Starlin Castro‘s focus issues on the field. Clearly, Quade has no managerial vision. A nice guy who loves to give strange nicknames probably can stay in the organization as a coach of some sort at some level, but managing is over his head.

Some writers argue that Epstein retained manager Grady Little when Epstein took over as Boston GM in Nov 2002 and didn’t hire a new manager until the following season. But Little and Quade share no similarities. Little had just finished a 95-win season in Boston; Quade has just finished a 71-win season.

If Epstein doesn’t fire Quade, Epstein will lose almost immediately all the goodwill built up by his arrival.

2. No long-term contracts unless they are front-loaded, performance-based, or both. In Epstein’s press conference today, he alluded to the fact that he learned from his mistakes (apparently in reference to John Lackey‘s 5-year, $82 million contract and Carl Crawford‘s 7-year, $142-million contract), and that contracts will be based on future performance, not past performance. To have Epstein recognize and declare this is music to Cubs fans’ ears.

Worthless long-term contracts is also a sensitive topic among the Cubs. Alfonso Soriano‘s 8-year, $136 million contract still has three years left. Carlos Zambrano has one year remaining on his five-year, $91.5 million contract. Ryan Dempster is expected to exercise his $14 million player option to return to the Cubs for 2012.

Former Cubs GM Jim Hendry often gave escalating salaries in long-term deals, which is short-sighted. If you’re signing a free agent because he is perceived to be valuable now, why would you then pay that player more money later in his career when his skills are likely to have diminished, rather than earlier in his career?

3. No long-term contracts to people past their prime, or even to players currently in their prime. Epstein also addressed this in his press conference, saying that a player’s prime is roughly between 26-32 years of age. Studies done by Bill James and other analysts confirm that baseball players generally peak in their mid- to late twenties. Lackey was already 32 when Epstein signed him to that five-year mega-contract. Soriano was 30 when Hendry signed him to that eight-year mega-deal. Dempster was 31 when Hendry signed him to a four-year, $52 million deal. See the pattern? Big bucks given to players who are at the tail end of their prime, and then the length of those contracts keep those aging players  chained to their teams for many years past their prime.

Prince Fielder at 27 is in his prime right now. Albert Pujols is 31. Both will seek long-term contracts in the neighborhood of $200 million. Is it a wise investment to pay for a guy whose value can only go down from here?

Consider the strategy that fellow noted sabermetrics GM, Tampa Bay’s Andrew Friedman, employs as described in the book The Extra 2%. Friedman gives long-term contracts to young players, not aging players. Thus, the contracts end when the player is nearing the end of his prime years, capturing those players’ “best seasons without breaking the bank.” For example, when Carl Crawford was 23, he was given a 4-year, $15.25 million contract with two team options (discussed in next point below). Over the duration of that contract, baseball analysis web site FanGraphs showed that Crawford produced $108.9 million worth of value, far outpacing his salary. Once Crawford hit the free agent market for 2010, his prime years were nearly all behind him and it ironically was the Red Sox who overpaid for a long duration of Crawford’s post-prime years.

Another example was the Rays giving 23-year-old rookie Evan Longoria a six-year, $17.5 million contract. This would give the Rays control over Longoria until he was 29 (in 2013). Already, Longoria has far outplayed his contract.

Of course, if Crawford and Longoria didn’t pan out, the Rays would still be on the hook with two long-term contracts, but the risks are much lower when compared to the risk of older players with mega-contracts who don’t pan out, like Lackey and Soriano.

Signing Fielder or Pujols to a long-term contract will be a mistake as soon as the ink is dry. It will be like Soriano redux, trust me…great for everybody during the first year or two, but make you want to bang your head on the wall all the remaining years of the deal.

4. The only “goodie” given out in long-term contracts should be the team option. Hendry was infamous for giving out no-trade clauses in contract negotiations, as well as player options. Carlos Zambrano has a no-trade clause. Derrek Lee had one too. So does Aramis Ramirez. And Alfonso Soriano. If you dealt with Hendry, you probably got one too.

No-trade clauses make trading an unproductive player difficult. The Cubs need to get out of the business of doling out no-trade clauses. They also need to end the practice of giving “player options” in contracts, which gives the player the right to choose whether to stay with the team for an extra season at a pre-determined salary or to enter free agency. Instead, the Cubs need to give “team options” instead, which gives the team the right to choose whether to keep the player or let him leave. Remember Dempster? He has a player option that is expensive for his team (at his age, odds are pretty good he won’t be performing like a $14 million starter in 2012).

Meanwhile, no one embraces team options (aka club options) like Friedman and the Rays. Friedman tacked on two team options to Crawford’s original contract, thus effectively controlling him for six years. The Rays also signed starting pitcher James Shields to a four-year, $11.25 million contract…with not one, not two, but three team options that could extend the deal to seven years but only if the Rays see that Shields continues to pitch effectively for each of those three  years after age 30. Less than halfway through Shields’ deal, the Rays have already made their money back.

Team options are excellent ways to offset the risk/reward of managing players who may or may not be at the cusp of diminishing skills.

5. Let free agents walk. What is a Type A free agent anyway? Does that mean they are go-getters? Um, no. According to about.com, if a team offers its player salary arbitration and the player refuses to accept the offer in order to become a free agent, the Elias Sports Bureau determines whether the free agent is “Type A”, “Type B”, or neither. Type A free agents are those who are in the top 20% in their positional group. Type B free agents are those who are in the top 21-40% of their positional group. All other free agents are neither type. If another team signs your free agent and he is “Type A”, then you get two draft picks: either a 1st round pick or a second round pick (depending on other factors), and a “sandwich” pick between the 1st and 2nd rounds. If your free agent is a “Type B” free agent, you only get a “sandwich” pick. The idea behind such compensation draft picks for signing free agents is to help a team who is losing its top free agent(s) restock its talent.

Let’s go back to the interesting case study of Carl Crawford. As you recall, he left the Rays to sign a long-term deal with Boston…not a good idea as we already discussed. But in addition, Crawford was a Type A free agent. Therefore, when he signed with the Red Sox, the Rays got a first-round draft pick and a sandwich pick, the 24th and 38th overall picks in the 2011 draft. In fact, in that 2011 draft, the Rays got an amazing nine compensation draft picks…that’s 10 of the top 60 players in the draft when you include their normal first-round draft pick! Combine that with the Rays’ top scouting/sabermetrics department and you can be assured the Rays will continue to successfully compete in the cutthroat AL East for years to come.

Epstein talked several times in his introductory press conference about building a “scouting and development machine” with the Cubs”. One of the easiest ways to do that is to pile up high draft picks. After all, it’s much easier to build your farm system with cheap, homegrown talent when you have two fistfuls of picks before the second round of the draft even starts, rather than just the traditional one pick among the top 60 players.

6. Stress defense when evaluating players. According to The Extra 2%, the Red Sox, A’s and a handful of other teams locked onto on-base percentage when using sabermetrics to mine for undervalued baseball players. The idea was that batters can knew how to draw walks would help you score more runs and wear down opposing pitchers faster.

The problem was that defense was ignored when evaluating such players. Teams like the Chicago White Sox highly valued sluggers like Adam Dunn b/c he had at least 100 walks in 7 of his 10 seasons before 2011, in addition to his nearly 40 homer average. Yet Dunn would give much of that value back on the defensive end, and this year, when his batting average was lower than his weight, White Sox fans openly called for his release.

As mentioned in a prior sports post, defense isn’t necessarily more important than offense. But it shouldn’t be entirely shoved aside during player evaluation either.

7. Stress young pitching. Cubs fans know that Jed Hoyer is widely assumed to take over the official role of Cubs GM after the 2011 World Series ends. Hoyer is a fan of Friedman’s moves, so hopefully, Hoyer and Epstein are already aware of the importance of young pitching.

In 2007, Friedman traded young outfield star Delmon Young, subpar infielder Brendan Harris and minor league outfielder Jason Pridie to the Twins for starting pitcher Matt Garza, slick-fielding shortstop Jason Bartlett and minor league pitcher Eduardo Morlan. Hoyer, watching from the Red Sox offices, was quite upset b/c he liked Garza and Bartlett as well and was impressed with Friedman’s ability to make a deal.

In 2011, Hendry made a deal with Friedman for Garza but the Cubs farm system paid for it. The Cubs sent their #1 prospect, starting pitcher Chris Archer, along with outfielder Brandon Guyer, catcher Robinson Chirinos and shortstop Hak-Ju Lee, along with major-league outfielder Sam Fuld. The Rays made the playoffs in 2011 without Garza anyway, while the Cubs with Garza sputtered along to a 71-win season. Sure, without Garza, maybe the Cubs only win 66 games. But smart GMs know that the difference between 66 wins and 71 wins is meaningless.

Footnote: Garza is going to be 28 in a month and has two years of arbitration remaining, so his window of prime years is closing soon. Remember (going back to point #5 above), when Garza becomes a free agent, don’t sign him to a long-term deal; let him walk.

8. Stress value. Despite being “annoyed” by the Rays’ Young-for-Garza/Bartlett deal, Hoyer didn’t think the Rays would be a threat in the AL East before the 2009 season because Hoyer “didn’t think the bullpen was good enough.” And indeed it wasn’t. But Friedman would take care of that.

Back in 2006, Tampa Bay dealt outfielder Joey Gathright to Kansas City for left-handed starting pitcher J.P. Howell, a former first-round pick who had difficulties in the majors. Howell continued to struggle into 2007 but the Rays remained patient. Howell’s big curve fulfilled the crucial requirement that a pitcher have an out pitch against opposite-handed batters, and Howell flashed excellent strikeout-to-walk ratios, a sign of good command. In 2008, the Rays shifted him to the bullpen, where he flourished and by 2009 was the team’s nominal but effective closer.

What’s more, Friedman made a deal at the 2007 trade deadline, sending big right-handed pitcher Seth McClung and his blazing fastball to Milwaukee for reliever Grant Balfour, who was almost 30 at the time of the deal. While Balfour was outside the typical age range for a Rays player under Friedman, some of those years were spent on the disabled list, so Balfour wasn’t 30 years old in baseball mileage. Plus, Friedman trusted his scouts who pointed to Balfour’s long record of success in the minor leagues and his dormant skills, and knew that Balfour’s upside far exceeded the minimal risk of a contract for just over the league minimum. He posted a 1.54 ERA in 2008, striking out 82 batters in 58.1 innings, joining Howell to form a devastating bullpen.

The White Sox kind of had their own value find in picking up Philip Humber, also a former first-round pick, who jumped out to an 8-3 record and a 3.52 ERA in 2011. However, Humber slumped to 1-5 and a 6.15 ERA in his last 10 starts. Still, for sabermetric fans, he had a WAR (wins above replacement) value of 3.5, where average starting pitchers are worth 2.0. So for only $500,000 this year and an above-average WAR, that’s good value.

The bottom line

As you can tell, I’m a fan of Andrew Friedman. But I’m also a fan of Theo Epstein. A big fan. You can’t win more World Series titles than the Yankees over the past ten years and not be impressed. I’m personally very excited that he’s joining the Cubs to lead them over the next 5-10 years. He has a plan. He’s learned from his Red Sox mistakes. And it sounds like he’s already a believer in some of the concepts I’ve described in this post, which would already be a substantial improvement over Jim Hendry. Whether or not Epstein embraces all of the suggestions posted here is not my concern. After all, he’s the one with the resume, not me. I just thought it would be fun to post some of my minor insights.

Your turn

What do you think? Am I off the wall? Do the Cubs need to sign a premium free agent to a long-term contract? Did I miss something on what the Cubs can do to change their culture of losing?