Tuesday, June 28, 2016

GBS Road Trip: Tennessee Smokies

Although the AA Tennessee Smokies (Chicago Cubs) play just a few hours away from where I am in Nashville, I never got a chance to see recent prospects like Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber. Their time at that level was so brief, and it just never fit into my schedule. So when I learned that Ian Happ was promoted to Tennessee last week, I checked the schedule and determined that this past weekend was my only good chance to get over there.

So Sunday morning we drove east and checked out the game at Smokies Stadium that night, as Tennessee beat the Pensacola Blue Wahoos 3-0.

Happ had three hits the night before, including his first AA home run. He picked right up in Sunday's game, and I got to see him get three more hits. Happ clearly is a player on the rise, much like the top prospects before him, who are doing so well in Chicago and Iowa now. He honestly already seemed kind of out of place on the field, even though he'd just arrived.

Of course, he followed this up with another three hits last night (and another home run). So he's 11-for-15 through five games, and his AVG/OBP/OPS are a ridiculous .733/.706/1.973. Maybe Pensacola is just terrible? I know the Cubs want these guys to experience struggles at each level, but so far that isn't happening for Happ at AA.

Overall it was a great experience. For a family of five, we got the tickets, meal vouchers, and three Kid Zone passes for about $4 more than it cost us to see Finding Dory the weekend before. I've been to hundreds of games, including MLB, college, and high school, but living in New Orleans and Nashville my whole life, I've only been to AAA minor league games. I now have to say that AA is a much better value. While I usually go for the "cheap" seats in the outfield (which is like $10-12 for a AAA Nashville Sounds game), at Smokies Stadium we sat five rows directly behind home plate and paid less to do so.

In addition to being able to see Happ play, I was looking forward to watching a few other players as well. I think we'll be seeing the following players at the major league level eventually:

Billy McKinney - I've been keeping an eye on McKnney's progress since the Cubs acquired him in the Samardzija/Russell deal and have written about him here before. He had two hits, a walk, and a run, and he looked great. He's only hitting .264 at Tennessee this year, but the average is improving. His OBP is .365 (up from .346 at AA last season), and his strike out to walk ratio is 35:50.

Victor Caratini - He was 0-for-3 in the game we saw, but he looked good behind the plate in a Tennessee shut out. He's hitting .295 for the season, with an OBP of .386. He has also started 13 games at first base and has not made an error there this season. Originally a third baseman, Caratini could make the catching situation in Chicago even more interesting within the next year or so. If David Ross is truly done and Miguel Montero keeps playing the way he currently is, I think we'll be looking at Contreras and Schwarber as the two main catchers for 2017. Adding Caratini to the mix would give the team a third catcher who also plays other positions.

Paul Blackburn - A 2012 1st round pick out of high school, Blackburn has lowered his ERA each year so far. His career ERA is 3.02, and it is currently at 2.35 following Sunday's six scoreless innings. He's 5-2 for the year with a career record of 25-14. His 84 innings and 53 strike outs lead the Smokies.

Jacob Hannemann - While he hasn't hit for a high average in the minors, Hannemann is exciting on the bases. He stole a base and was caught once on Sunday, bringing his totals in those categories to 25 and 7. He led off the game with a nice slap hit to the opposite field, bouncing it over the third baseman's head. He has only 25 walks and an OBP of .323, but if he gets those numbers up, he'll be fun to watch.

What we missed:

Joe Nathan - Nathan is currently at Tennessee, trying to get back to the majors. It would've been fun to see him pitch, and a healthy Nathan will look nice in Chicago's bullpen.

Brad Markey - Markey started Monday night, so we missed him by a day. He's a 2014 19th round pick out of Virginia Tech who has a 2.13 ERA in the minors so far. He's been at Tennessee all season, and his 6 wins lead the team. His 2.34 is right under Blackburn's and leads Tennessee starters.

Jen-Ho Tseng - Tseng has been a top prospect for a few years now and is currently ranked #24 on the MLB's Cubs list. Through nine starts, he's 3-3 with a 2.98 ERA.

We definitely had a lot of fun. I'm hoping we can make it back there later this season, especially if something like a Gleyber Torres promotion happens at some point.

Friday, June 24, 2016

The Cubs are losing, but the young players are getting experience

The current four-game losing streak that the Cubs are experiencing is not a reason for fans to panic. Not yet, anyway. Yes, it's never fun to be swept by the Cardinals. And you hope to (A) score more than two runs in Miami and/or (B) not see your 8th inning reliever give up those runs in a 4-2 loss. But there is much more going on here.

The Cubs will now try to bounce back from their longest losing streak of the season, yet they enter the weekend with a firm nine-game lead. What's more important, though, is the fact that more young players are getting work at this level here in June.

Remember last year in the postseason when Javy Baez hit the huge home run against St. Louis? Fans love it when Chicago puts these guys in big spots and they come through like that. But it isn't magic. Baez had to get enough time in the league to get to that point. And this is exactly what we're seeing right now with Contreras and Almora (and possibly a couple of relievers as well).

I believe that the front office and coaching staff see Almora and Contreras as key players down the stretch and into the postseason. If this is true, it has to start now. These innings and at-bats might not seem very important here in June. But in September (and hopefully October), every bit of experience could pay off.

This really shouldn't even be a surprise to Cubs fans, as the team is sort of making this a routine now. The only difference now, of course, is the huge division lead. Yes, the lead has dipped to single digits. But give it just give it a minute for things to start to click again.

Furthermore, for a guy like Contreras to get the promotion and to have immediate success seems about right when looking at the team's track record.

For example, take a look at Kris Bryant's and Kyle Schwarber's AVG/OBP/OPS stats from their time at AAA. Bryant's stats were .298/.412/1.037, while Schwarber's were .333/.403/1.036. Those numbers were similar enough that it wasn't a total shock to see Schwarber follow up Bryant's MLB success. Well, Contreras also had very comparable numbers of .350/.439/1.030.

Taking this a step further, I am personally interested in another guy currently at AAA Iowa: Dan Vogelbach. Through 228 AAA at-bats, he's posted a similar .298/.419/.941 at Iowa this season. The average matches Bryant's, while the OBP is better than both Bryant and Schwarber. I know, I know. There's nowhere to play him in Chicago. Of course, we never expected to see Willson Contreras playing first base last night either, did we? All I know is that these other players were obviously ready to come up within 200 at-bats or fewer, and Vogelbach's time could be coming soon.

I assume the Cubs front office is watching all of these stats and more, considering possibly finding  a spot for Vogelbach in Chicago or (more likely) making other teams aware of the numbers as the trade deadline approaches. Either way, the success of Bryant, Schwarber, and Contreras could lead to a call-up or a significant trade when it comes to Vogelbach.

The system is working, and we cannot get caught up in a four-game losing streak and begin to think otherwise. Hopefully in the fall, we'll look back at this time as the week where we saw what Contreras was really capable of: owning the catcher position, filling in at first base, and driving in some of the team's only runs in the midst of its worst losing streak.

Finally, just for fun, I'll point out that Ian Happ is now at AA Tennessee. His numbers at A+ of .296/.410/.885 do compare OK to Bryant's (.333/.387/1.106) and Schwarber's (.302/.393/.952) at that level. As expected, he showed less power but got on base at a better pace than both of them. But he's clearly on the same path!

Sunday, June 5, 2016

More songs about baseball!

Here is another set of baseball songs from Vista Blue! Check out a great review from Faster and Louder, and look for a CD coming soon featuring all 20 of the band's baseball songs recorded so far.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

We're ready for the Olympics. Is Brazil?

We're getting excited about the upcoming Summer Olympics, but obviously there are currently some issues in Brazil that will need to be addressed over the next couple of months.

In case you missed it, check out SNL veteran Maya Rudolph spoofing impeached Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff from the recent season finale. In this clip, Rousseff assures us that there are only a couple of things left to do: "Get one million poo-poos out of the river, and build all the buildings!"

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Baseball Cards: The strange case of Ed Romero

Am I the only one who finds it odd that "Ed Romero" seemed like such a concerned young man in 1988, only to resurface as "Mike Schooler" in 1991, flashing a smile and not having a single care in the world?

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Baseball Cards: Hello?

When your mom decides to call you just as they're taking your picture for your rookie card...

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Cubs Dominate Angels to Begin the Season

Yes, it's only been one game so far, but on Opening Night, the Chicago Cubs illustrated exactly why fans are so excited for this season, firing on all cylinders and defeating the Angels 9-0.

First, consider the fact that Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, and Addison Russell combined to go 0-for-10 with five stikeouts, and the offense still posted NINE runs. In fact, even without a hit, Bryant walked twice, scored twice, and drove in a run.

More importantly, this lineup is so strong, particularly when using the DH in an American League park, that Miguel Montero hits EIGHTH. It's not a surprise that he was the offensive hero in the opener, hitting a home run and driving in three runs. Montero is more of a cleanup hitter than anything else, with more than 1,000 career at-bats hitting fourth in the lineup, more than any other lineup position. Having him at the bottom of the order is just another strength of this Cubs team.

And just yesterday I mentioned that I hoped Matt Szczur would get a chance to contribute before Javier Baez returns from the DL, and of course Szczur knocked in three runs on his only at-bat in the opener.

The Cubs scored nine runs against a good team on a night when one run would've been enough, thanks to Jake Arrieta's dominance. This lineup is intimidating, to say the least. Obviously, teams will beat the Cubs this year. But it won't be easy.

Monday, April 4, 2016

A Look at the 2016 Chicago Cubs Opening Day Roster

There are no real surprises on the 2016 Chicago Cubs Opening Day roster. The team breaks camp with one of the best 25-man rosters in the league, if not the best. After a surprising 2015 season that saw many of the organization's top prospects called up and placed into significant roles, and ended with an NLCS appearance, the Cubs front office made it clear this offseason that the team is being built to win now.

Adding star players Jason Heyward and John Lackey not only improves the Cubs, but it immediately weakens  division rivals (and 2015 NL Central champs), the St. Louis Cardinals. Throw in newcomers Ben Zobrist and Adam Warren, and we can see clear upgrades to a roster that won 97 games last year. That's kind of amazing.

Manager Joe Maddon now has all kinds of flexibility, just as he likes it. Zobrist can play anywhere, and although Javy Baez will be on the DL for the first week or so, he is being groomed to be another Zobrist. Heyward and Dexter Fowler can play anywhere in the outfield, while Kyle Schwarber is actually going to do some catching in addition to playing left field. And of course, Kris Bryant has proven he can do pretty much anything better than pretty much anyone.

On the pitching side, having Lackey jump into the rotation's number three slot behind Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester suddenly has people saying this might be the league's best staff. Jason Hammel struggled a little in the second half last year, but his 3.74 ERA looks terrific for a 4th starter. Furthermore, with 15 wins and a 3.49 ERA over his first 1.5 seasons, Kyle Hendricks could be the best 5th starter out there.

And then there's the flexibility in the bullpen, where the Cubs have somehow piled up effective starters who are now serving as relievers. Warren, Trevor Cahill, Clayton Richard, and Travis Wood could all stretch out as starters if needed, and the Cubs have the kind of offense that could keep the team in contention even if some of these bullpen arms had to become starters.

I should definitely mention Matt Szczur, who I had fun with in a recent post, following all of the outfield moves the Cubs made. In the end, with Baez on the DL, it's Szczur who grabbed the last roster spot for now. What makes it more impressive is that Baez could've easily been replaced by infielder Munenori Kawasaki, who hit an impressive .367 this spring, with an OBP of .446 through 49 at bats. But Szczur, who is out of options, hit .375 to secure the spot and stick with the team, at least for a little while. I'm hoping he gets the chance to make the most of it.

The flexibility doesn't stop with the major league roster, as the Cubs have talented players like Kawasaki and Shane Victorino signed to minor league deals. In addition, the next group of prosepcts could be ready soon as well, and players like Jeimer Candelario, Wilson Contreras, Albert Almora, and others could make things very interesting at some point soon (or could be used as trade chips to upgrade the major league team if/when needed).

As a Cubs fan, this is probably the best team I've ever been able to watch. I'm ready for the season to kick off tonight, and I'm hoping it ends with a World Series win in the fall.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

MLB 2016 Predictions

Here are my predictions for the 2016 MLB season. Yes, I am predicting that the Cubs will win the World Series. Although it's one of those things I just can't believe will ever actually happen, I'd feel pretty dumb if this ended up being the year and I had some other team listed here. There are so many good teams this year, and this was difficult. You can hear some of my thoughts about this on our latest episode of Beers and Baseball Cards. Feel free to tell me why/how I'm wrong in the comments!

NL East
NL Central
NL West
NL Wild Card
NL Wild Card

AL East
AL Central
AL West
AL Wild Card
AL Wild Card
White Sox

World Series
Cubs over Yankees

Monday, March 28, 2016

Beers and Baseball Cards 06

Mike and Brett preview the 2016 MLB season as they open packs of 1992 Fleer and random grab bags of cards. Music by The Ueckers. Thanks for listening!

Jerry Browne's reaction when he learned he was being traded to Oakland...