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.

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 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.

October 20th: A Cut Above

During last night’s NLCS game, Dodgers’ center fielder Joc Pederson came about one comment away from being thrown out of the game. After being rung up on a borderline strike three call, Pederson gave the home plate umpire an earful, arguing that he should have earned a walk. Clearly home plate umpire Angel Hernandez was feeling generous, because what would have been an easy ejection during the regular season was only a stare-down in a game that mattered that much.

What the camera didn’t show as clearly took place a few innings earlier. During an at-bat in the fourth inning by Cubs star and leader Anthony Rizzo, strike 2 was called on a borderline 3-1 pitch. Rizzo, thinking it was ball four, dropped his bat and began to walk to first base. Upon realizing a strike had been called, he came back, picked up his bat, and proceeded to club a massive home run.

The TV broadcast crew showed footage later on of Rizzo’s next at bat. In it, you can hear a conversation between Rizzo and Hernandez in which Rizzo gives a heartfelt apology for showing up the ump. They share a nice chat, all was forgiven, and Rizzo continued on to have a massive slump-busting night.

These games are the most intense part of the year. Every pitch counts, and both teams are playing like there is no tomorrow. For Pederson to get upset is absolutely normal, understandable even. For Rizzo to keep his cool and behave like such a class act shows just how special he is.

I won’t buy or wear a t-shirt or jersey for players who cheated or committed crimes. I will only represent people who are worthy of the admiration we give to our sports heroes. In the sports world, there are plenty f people who do not live up to the standards set before them, who do not uphold the values of our society. After last night’s game, and after seeing the entire body of his career, I am reminded that I’ll never have to worry about my Anthony Rizzo jersey. I’m proud to be a fan of a player who respects the game and all who make it possible, and a team that has chosen him as their leader.