June 2nd: Waiting for the Cubs to Find Their Identity

Baseball, as Kyle Schwarber will tell you, is a fickle sport. One week ago, the Cubs were coming off a 7-2 homestand, including a sweep of the Reds and a strong three-game winning streak.

Cubs 3Well, it has been a week since the Cubs won a ballgame, and the past six games have been the worst we’ve seen in the Joe Maddon era. A sweep at the hands of the Dodgers would be hard to swallow, but being swept by the lowly Padres was beyond anything Cubs fans could have expected. No one thing is wrong with the Cubs, and it isn’t simply waiting for one or two players to perform at their expected level. There are 20 players on the Cubs who aren’t living up to expectations, and until they do, this is going to be a sub-.500 team.

Going into the 2017 season, Cubs fans were dreaming of what it would feel like to be a modern-day baseball dynasty, following in the footsteps of the late ‘90s Yankees. We had a young, controllable core, a manager who seems to know all the right buttons to push, and a fanbase that had tasted victory and wanted more.

2017 has proven to be less than kind, and Cubs fans are finally getting frustrated. For the first two months of the season, Cubs leadership has claimed that everyone is calm, that things will change, that we will snap out of it any day now. Some Cubs have made the ridiculous claim that it has never been this bad before, forgetting the 108 years of losing that had come before. As a 24 year old, I’ve seen a lot of bad baseball in Chicago, and this hasn’t even broken the surface of how bad it could be.

MLB: Chicago Cubs at San Diego PadresYet, the Cubs have to realize that the struggle here is in the dissonance between how good we SHOULD be and how bad we HAVE been. A team that was supposed to be the greatest offense in the league, maybe in history, is now struggling to hit minor-league caliber pitching. Starters haven’t been able to hold a lead, and the offense hasn’t been able to give them one. The bullpen went through two or three rough weeks to start the year, then got good just in time for there to be no need to be; games were lost far before we got to the 7th inning.

The Cubs roster is too good to stay this bad for long. There will be a moment for the team to click, and for everything to get back into the swing of things. Last year, the Cubs had a similarly awful streak in late June and early July. The All-Star break gave everyone the chance to relax a bit, and then they took off with the division and never looked back. There is a strong chance that is what will happen this year, although the Cubs can’t afford to wait until the mid-July to turn things around. The rest of the NL-Central has been waiting for the Cubs, with both the Brewers and Cardinals losing in bunches as well. The division is ripe for the taking, but the Cubs aren’t in any position to do that until they figure out how to hit again.

The season is young, and there is still plenty of baseball left to be played. But the Cubs have some soul searching to do to figure out what kind of baseball team they can be and how to make that happen. For now, as a Cubs fan, it isn’t fun to watch this team play, and every day comes with the desperate plea that maybe, just maybe, today will be the day that the Cubs remember who they are.

May 18th: A Tale of Two Playoffs

The NBA and NHL playoffs have kept pace with one another, both beginning in early April and continuing through the first few weeks of June. On the one hand, basketball has pitted two powerhouse teams on either side of the bracket, with a virtual destiny to meet for the third time in a row in the Finals. Meanwhile, the NHL has four teams remaining, two of which are competing for their first championships in team history, while a third looks to seal the deal on a dynasty. Two sports in very different places have, by fate of scheduling, put themselves in position for comparison, and the results are striking.

The NBA has always gotten the attention of the American public. ESPN covers basketball to an almost obnoxious degree, with every single game, character, and personality analyzed. Because of NBC’s stranglehold on the rights to the NHL, hockey is, at most, a few moments on any given night of Sportscenter, dramatically preventing the public from getting the chance to see the excitement that goes into a playoff hockey game. The Stanley Cup Playoffs are some of the most intense, dramatic, and exciting contests in professional sports, but most Americans would never know that.

Curry

While there have been a dramatic number of overtime games this year in the NHL, the NBA is dragging out a snooze fest. With some of the largest margin of victory in the history of the league, the Cavaliers and Warriors have made the playoffs “must-miss TV,” with a very low chance of getting to see anything surprising or exciting. There have been a few games of intrigue (Game 7 between the Celtics and Wizards being one of them), and the Finals are supposed to be an epic clash of the Titans, but, in general, NBA fans have had little drama to get them excited or to incentivize tuning in for a game.

One of the reasons that the NHL has been so successful at creating intrigue for the extended playoff season is that their playoff structure stacks exciting matchups early. Intra-division playoff series start each post-season, meaning that teams are facing bitter rivals right off the bat. As the playoffs grow deeper, the gravity of the situation spurs on the intensity, having gotten the boost from prior round’s enthusiasm. The hardwood could learn a thing or two about this by restructuring the divisions in the NBA (which are seemingly worthless now), to allow a playoff structure that would create more engaging and entertaining matchups than watching a top seed abuse a squad with a losing record.

The bottom line is that this spring, two sports have both had the chance to exhibit their greatest chases to the ultimate crown. One of those races has proven to be as exciting and engaging as ever, with matchups that keep the attention of just about all fans of the sport, while the other has put forward a generally unsuccessful attempt to stir up drama where it doesn’t exist. While there is still a ways to go, both sports are forcing fans to choose which they would prefer to watch, and the result may be that the more casuals fans are choosing to watch neither at all. If those fans can’t get the updates and highlights they want on a major network, and are getting highlights that aren’t worth watching, it takes the fun and excitement out of the playoff chase, the time when both sports should be able to shine the brightest.

April 2nd: 2017 MLB Preview

Opening Day will mark exactly 5 months since the Cubs hoisted the World Series trophy, ending the 2016 season. Coming out of Spring Training, every fan is excited to see what the year holds in store for their team. The ZP: Left Fielder predicts how things will go for all 30 MLB teams, and who will make an appearance in October baseball.

NL Central:

  1. Cubs: The most complete team in the bigs, the Cubs will have no problem getting back to the postseason. Many forget that the end of June and beginning of July were miserable months last year for the Cubs, so this Cubs team has a chance to be even better than last year’s champs.
  2. Pirates: A rumor-filled offseason is usually a bad sign, but the Pirates have a deep team and a strong foundation of success. The best outfield in baseball will propel them into meaningful September games, and a core of young talent will keep the Pirates right in the thick of things.
  3. Cardinals: The Cardinals had a middle-of-the-road 2016, and are placing a lot of their hopes on Dexter Fowler, who they poached from their rivals, the Cubs. Fowler, though, had a somewhat unusually successful 2016, and will not be able to solve all of St. Louis’ problems. Look for the Cardinals to show their youth and struggle in the middle part of the season.
  4. Brewers: The Brewers are a hot pick to win a lot of games…in 2018. But, in 2017, they will have to bide their time until their young stars can really emerge. A few strong performers will continue to drive ticket sales, but don’t expect much in the way of team success in Milwaukee this year.
  5. Reds: The Reds are a bit of a mess. With the exception of first base, there is relative youth and inexperience at every position on the diamond. There may be hope that the young talent will put a good team together for the future, but this team is going to lose a lot of games and give a lot of tryouts to rookies.

HarperNL East:

  1. Nationals: The reigning NL East Champs have a deep rotation, terrifying offense, and a manager who knows how to win. The most popular prediction this year is that Bryce Harper will return to form, and, if this spring is any indication, he will return to MVP caliber performance. The only question is whether or not this team can perform well in October.
  2. Mets (WC): The Mets have some of the greatest pitching names in baseball. Except, none of them seem to be able to stay healthy. Yoenis Cespedes is a beast, and will power a strong offense, but there’s no use betting on the Mets if you can’t guarantee they will be on the field. Everyone’s safest bet is a Wild Card spot.
  3. Marlins: The Marlins could challenge the Pirates for the best outfield in baseball, and Giancarlo Stanton is going to be fun to watch, assuming he can stay on the field. With a deep NL East (and a deep National League as a whole), though, this “good” team will not be able to make the turn into greatness.
  4. Braves: The Braves are an intriguing team. They’re young talent is going to shock the league eventually, and they have a lot of strong players to bridge the gap to that youth. I would predict a higher finish, but I think the length of the summer will eventually hurt the Braves’ final results.
  5. Phillies: Last year’s Philadelphia team surprised everyone with how well they did. This year, I expect them to shock everyone with the regression. The team did little to beef up their roster, and haven’t filled any of their needs. The Phillies will stumble in their rebuild, and leave Philadelphia fans begging for football season.

NL West:

  1. Dodgers: The Dodgers were a few games away from the World Series, and spent the offseason working to keep their core intact. I expect this team to regress a little bit, but generally maintain the success of the past few years. If Kershaw can stay healthy, he will single-handedly lead this team to the playoffs.
  2. PoseyGiants (WC): The Cubs ended the Giants’ even-year streak, but this team doesn’t look like they are going to fall back into the pack. With veterans like Posey and Pence, and young stars like Crawford and Panik, expect the Giants to look more like their first-half 2016 selves than their second-half.
  3. Diamondbacks: Arizona was the hot pick for a dark horse last year, and this year isn’t getting quite as much attention. They made very smart moves in the offseason, and have a good group of players to make this an intriguing year. I expect to see the D’backs playing for a wild card spot in the middle of September, and falling just short.
  4. Rockies: Oh, poor Rockies fans. This looked like the year that they were going to try to simply outslug their opponents, and they had a lineup that looked like they just might be able to. The problem is, the injury bug has hit them hard, and their top signing, Ian Desmond, leads an all-star caliber disabled list. The Rockies will be nothing more than “fine” as they try to get healthy during the season.
  5. Padres: The Padres, or, as baseball analysts like to call them, 4-A baseball. San Diego is in for a rough year, with a lineup that feels like everyone is a rookie. The rebuild will be slow, and an all-star selection will be a joke, but at least fans will get to watch a bad team in nice weather.

Russell

AL Central:

  1. Indians: After winning the American League and owning a commanding lead in the World Series, the Indians are everyone’s favorite pick to win the AL Central and the AL all over again. I’m not a full believer in their longevity, but a generally weaker division could spell success for the Land.
  2. Tigers (WC): While the Tigers have certainly gotten old, it is impossible to ignore how good they also are. Detroit has experience and depth, and a pitching staff that, if healthy, can be lights out. This team is my darkhorse pick to contend in 2017.
  3. Royals: The Royals core that took them to back-to-back World Series appearances is going to fall apart after 2017, and this is their last chance to get something done. They’ll be good, but not THAT good, and may sell off an asset or two come July.
  4. Twins: Two years ago, the Twins were a hot pick for a young team on the rise. Now, nobody seems to want to go anywhere near them, as there are huge questions about whether those stars will come to fruition. Expect another year of growing pains, but some big performances from the young studs.
  5. White Sox: Of course, I’m biased as a Cubs fan, but everyone has been trying to tell me for years why the White Sox will be good, and I have been proven correct that they are a disaster. Maybe a sell-off will finally turn their luck? Definitely not this year…

JudgeAL East:

  1. Red Sox: The Red Sox are all in on this year, and their lineup is good enough to get them places. What started as a terrifying rotation is now looking like a question mark, but most of those arms will be able to figure it out come October. The question is not if the Red Sox can win but how far into October they can play.
  2. Blue Jays (WC): Last year looked like it could have been Toronto’s year, until Cleveland spoiled the fun. This year, the Blue Jays bring in a formidable lineup (albeit less a slugger or two), and a rotation that is low-key fierce. This will be a good year up north, and the Blue Jays will be hoping to make the next step through the playoffs.
  3. Yankees: Of any team, the Yankees have the farm system that most intrigues me. They have a stable of bright young stars, and I think all of the pieces are going to come together perfectly. New York is going to be the team to beat for years to come. I’m just not sure if 2017 is the first of those years. This will be an exciting year, but not necessarily THE year.
  4. Orioles: Every year, I predict the Orioles won’t be very good. Every year, they make the playoffs. That being said, I’m going to do my duty of predicting that this team has individual stars and not team success. Now, the ball is in their court to win a Wild Card spot, and prove me wrong yet again.
  5. Rays: The Rays have a lot of talent, and did a good job of doing it on a budget. That being said, the Rays are playing in a very tough division, and don’t have the star power to compete with the Red Sox or Blue Jays. Tampa Bay will play spoilers for the dreams of a lot of other teams, but need to put together some consistent success to make a run of their own.

AL West:

  1. Astros: Well, if Sports Illustrated says it’s your year, then it must be true. The Astros had a great offseason, and look to be in an excellent position to make something happen. Look for Carlos Correa and George Springer to lead the offense at a prolific clip, and the Astros to head into the playoffs with legitimate championship hopes.
  2. Rangers: The Rangers have been there before, and have a solid core. The Rangers also did little to get any better from last year, when their stay in October was momentary. The Rangers are the biggest swing team, in that they could be great and they could be terrible. Expect them to split the difference and compete, without actually sealing the deal.
  3. 04192015-Mariners21Mariners: The Mariners have had two offseasons in a row where they have made a flurry of moves. Seattle is about to prove, though, that not all action is good action, as the team doesn’t look all that better than the one that finished in the middle of the pack last year. It’s fair to assume they will have a similarly “fine” year.
  4. Angels: The Angels are a team that I’m itching to predict as a surprise, but it just isn’t a smart bet. The Angels have a ton of talent at most positions, but don’t have the depth to endure a long season. There will be times this summer of huge excitement, and other long losing periods. We can root all we want, but I don’t think they have 162 games in them.
  5. Athletics: The A’s are a team that often makes a lot out of nothing. That’s good news for them, as they have a particularly large quantity of nothing. There are a lot of decent players, but the sum of the parts isn’t going to blow anyone away, and the As will spend the summer as the AL West punching bag.

March 18th: The Crean of the Crop

After an 18-16 season, Indiana had to make a change. On Thursday, Head Coach Tom Crean was fired after nine years with the program.

Crean’s time in Bloomington has been quite the mixed bag. There have been plenty of high moments, with two Sweet 16 appearances and the famous Kentucky game in 2011 that will live on in the hearts of all Hoosier fans. At the same time, Crean often seemed to struggle to keep his team from making routine mistakes, and keeping turnovers to a minimum.

CreanThis season may have been his most frustrating, with debatably one of his most talented teams incapable of getting out of their own way. Much like the rest of his time at IU, this season saw wins against Kansas and North Carolina, and losses against just about everyone else. It may come as a surprise to some that, in the last hundred years, Tom Crean has the second worst winning percentage amongst IU head coaches (.551).

Crean’s greatest success at IU was his ability to run a program that exuded integrity. He brought in recruits and made a home for them, taking boys and turning them into young men that the IU community could be proud of. Tom Crean served himself well, led a team that understood it’s importance to the school as a whole, and represented the heritage of what it means to be a Hoosier. As a man, he will be missed.

At the same time, as a Hoosier fan, I can’t help but respect the fact that the athletic department has a demand for excellence. After yet another season of immeasurable talent that never came to be, it’s about time to see a change. If Tom Crean wasn’t going to be the guy who produced wins in February and March, we need to go and get ourselves a coach who will.

Over the next several months and years, it is to be expected that Indiana will go through a major culture shock from the loss of our leader. Many players will declare for the NBA draft earlier than they should, and still more will transfer to other schools altogether. But, as a long history of proud Hoosiers will tell you, the championship pedigree and rabid fans will always show up in Assembly Hall.

Tom Crean deserves a massive thank you for all he has done for the Indiana basketball program. He led with integrity, helped to guide young men into the limelight, and demonstrated his values both on and off the court. He has brought the Hoosiers to the doorway of success on a number of occasions. And now is the time for someone to take us over the threshold.

March 4th: Spring Training Bold Predictions

As Spring Training gets underway, teams are taking stock of who is going to thrive, and who is going to struggle in the coming season. Before we get too deep into the thick of things, the ZP: Left Fielder submits 5 bold predictions for who is primed for a breakout season and who is destined for doom in 2017.

almora1. Albert Almora Jr. will slide right into Dexter Folwer’s shoes…and then some.

Dexter Fowler was a huge part of the 2016 team that ended the Cubs’ 108 year World Series drought. His combination of speed, on base skills, and charismatic leadership were a huge plus, and will be sorely missed, as he left for the rival Cardinals this offseason. That being said, there have been questions as to whether Albert Almora Jr. will be able to slide in and fill those big shoes. If he can get reliable at-bats and solid playing time, Almora should be able to get comfortable and solidify himself at the top of the lineup.

He is a defensive wizard who is only a few years removed from being the golden egg in a stacked Cubs farm system. If the Cubs can be patient through a few growing pains, Almora Jr. will be a huge contributor to the Cubs success.

2. Yoenis Cespedes is big, and his numbers will be too.

Every report coming out of Mets camp is telling us that Cespedes came into Spring Trianing bulked up and in good shape. After getting the big contract he’s been waiting for, Cespedes has been able to settle in and ignore the question marks in his future. While some players get lazy after earning their contract, Cespedes has proven that he is hungrier than ever, and that drive combined with a comfort level in New York will lead to massive numbers and huge success for the Cuban super star.

3. The Marlins outfield will continue its brilliance, while the team as a whole struggles.

The Marlins outfield is stacked with talent, from the power of Giancarlo Stanton to the all-around skills of Christian Yellich and the breakout last season of Marcell Ozuna. While the outfield will continue to grow into fantasy assets and ticket sellers, the Marlins’ hopes of team success seem distant. Between a strong division (the Nationals and Mets look to have a strangle-hold on things) and a lackluster offseason, expect these Marlins to serve as an 85 win team, pesky enough to steal wins away, but not good enough to make a playoff run of their own.

MLB: FEB 23 Colorado Rockies Photo Day4. Ian Desmond will prove to be the star that the Rockies paid for.

The Rockies have been blasted for their big offseason splash of acquiring Ian Desmond to play first base. Desmond is an athletic powerhouse, who’s skills will translate well to Denver. While first base is a new position for him, expect his athleticism and dedication to equate to defensive strength, while his bat falls into an already potent lineup. For a team with very little pitching depth, scoring a ton of runs is the only hope for the Rockies. Having Desmond on their squad will only serve them well in that goal.

5. The Mariners will show that sometimes action doesn’t mean success.

Not for the first time, the Mariners were the busiest team in the offseason, tweaking and maneuvering their roster. With the most moves of the winter, many believe the Mariners will be able to end their playoff drought (the longest in baseball). Unfortunately for Seattle fans, action doesn’t necessarily equate to success, and the Mariners will, for the 17th time in a row, find themselves on the outside of the playoffs looking in.

February 14th: Hope Springs

I’ve never gone into Spring Training as a fan of a defending champion before. For my entire life, the start of Spring Training has been the opportunity to look forward to a brighter future, forgetting a rocky season that came to an end. This time around, I haven’t minded the offseason. A season that ends in confetti and trophies is one where you don’t rush quite so fast into the next season. You want to cherish the fun of winning before having to go back to the grind all over again.

Yet, win or lose, the season comes and goes, and before you know it it’s time for baseball all over again. As a Cubs fan and a newly crowned fan of a champion, I’m learning that no matter how much you love winning, you love the game more.

The buzz around Spring Training is just as fresh and exciting as it has ever been. There are positions battles to catch up on and prospects to keep an eye on. There are 29 teams that want to be where we are now, and are all working to take it away from you. Which also leads to the feeling that many have wondered: will Cubs fans still be as committed as they have been in the past, because they’ve been there before?

The answer is that you better believe it. Now that we’ve been there, we know what it feels like to be a champion, know what it’s like to bring an entire city together during a playoff hunt, know what it’s like to host a parade. If anything, Cubs fans just want to get back to that feeling again.

Champion or not, the first day of Spring Training is a celebration. The winter is over, and it’s time to get back to the game. As much as it’s been fun to enjoy the celebration for a few months, now is the time to get back to the beautiful game.

February 5th: An Obituary for Super Bowl Ads

While the Super Bowl action will go down in history as one of the greatest of all time, the advertisements that bookended the game most certainly will not. Fans and critics alike agree that this year’s showing of commercials was lower than in years passed, and seems to continue a trend of the downfall of the Super Bowl commercial as an entity.

Beyond the disappointment of missing out on the cute and the entertaining, the demise of Super Bowl ads makes sense. A 30-second ad spot cost $5 million this year. Yet, advertisers get less than ever for their money than they have in years past.

If we have learned nothing from the last year, it is that the coverage and attention you get without paying for it can be even more enticing than the ones you pay good money for. Social media is full of video snippets, clips, and images that sell ideas, products, and services. Why would you pay $5 million for an ad spot when you could produce the ad and put it on Facebook, claiming that it is an ad you WOULD run? Better yet, can you do something to somehow get other people to talk about your brand without wasting the time on producing any material at all?

Advertising has discovered the need to grow, adapt, and change in much the same way that our attention has over the past few years. As a result, the need to play by the old rules goes out the window, and leads to innovation, competition, and engagement. Unless you are trying to make a statement to a wide range of audiences (many of which didn’t even address the product), you can get far better bang for your buck elsewhere.

The one area of sadness in the changing world is that we lose the mode of storytelling that advertisers have crafted. The ability to tell a story in 30 seconds, to create an emotional reaction by a consumer is an artform, and one that brought more eyes to televisions than any other of its kind. While the tradition of hilarious and touching ad spots during the Super Bowl may be reaching an end, the road paved by these ads will continue to be a vital part of grasping a viewer’s attention for years to come.

So we say goodbye to our old friends: child Darth Vader, Danica Patrick, and a host of celebrity guest stars. The effectiveness of buying that time for such a high price may have gone away, but we will forever understand how to touch the public because of the way Super Bowl ads drew us in and made us ignore the fast-forward button.