Tag Archives: Jon Lester

MLB Spotlight Series: Chicago Cubs at Milwaukee Brewers

NL Central lead at stake as Cubs visit Brewers
The most competitive division race in the 2017 MLB regular season thus far is taking place in the National League Central Division.
After appearing to sleepwalk through much of the first half, the defending champion Chicago Cubs are on top once again. However, three teams are within just 4.5 games of the lead.
This weekend, the Cubbies travel just about two hours up I-94 to Miller Park in Milwaukee. Waiting for them will be the NL Central’s second place team, the host Milwaukee Brewers.
The Brewers actually led the division for much of the season. The Brew Crew jumped into first place on May 17, and until this past Wednesday had spent just two days out of the top spot ever since.
The Cubs, meanwhile, were suffering from a serious World Series victory hangover. By the end of May they were two games under .500 and sitting in third place. As late as July 9, the Cubs were still those same two games below the break-even mark.
However, something clicked for Chicago coming out of the MLB All-Star Game break. The Cubs have won 11 of 13 games since taking those four days off. Conversely, Milwaukee has lost nine of their last 11 contests.
Headed into the weekend, the Cubs hold a 1.5 game lead on the second place Brewers in the division standings. That lead is three games in the loss column. There is no doubt that this series in front of their home crowd is of vital importance to manager Craig Counsell and his ball club.
Milwaukee needs to get back on track, and fast. This is a perfect opportunity to let the Cubs know that they intend to stay in the race for the long haul.
For the Cubs, it’s a chance to stay hot and begin to put Milwaukee further back in the rear view mirror. The champs are looking to make a statement: we’re back, and now we’re going to pull away.

PITCHING MATCH-UPS

The weekend starting pitching match-ups are scheduled as follows:
FRIDAY: Jose Quintana (6-8, 4.22 ERA) vs Brent Suter (1-1, 2.84 ERA)
SATURDAY: Kyle Hendricks (4-3, 3.95 ERA) vs Junior Guerra (1-4, 5.22 ERA)
SUNDAY: John Lackey (7-9, 4.97 ERA) vs Zach Davies (12-4, 4.45 ERA)
Quintana was a big trade acquisition two weeks ago from the AL’s crosstown Chicago White Sox. He has been fantastic in his first two Cubs starts, winning both. Suter began the year pitching out of the Brewers bullpen, but started July in the rotation. He has not allowed more than two earned runs since, and three of his four outings were of the Quality Start variety.
Last year’s third place finisher in the NL Cy Young Award vote, Hendricks is fresh off a seven-week stint on the Disabled List. He surrendered eight hits and lasted just 4.1 innings in his first start back earlier this week. Guerra was a pleasant surprise a year ago, emerging as a reliable starter at age 31 after bouncing around the minor leagues for a decade. But this season, MLB hitters appear to have caught up with him. He hasn’t reached the fifth inning in four of his last five starts.
The 38-year old Lackey is the senior member of the Cubs rotation. Now in his 15th big league season, the righty has just seven Quality Starts among his 19 turns so far this year. Davies is a 24-year old who is emerging as a reliable mid-rotation option. He got banged around by the Cubs back in April, but then beat them with a solid effort earlier this month at Wrigley Field.

STATISTICAL COMPARISONS

Milwaukee is seventh and Chicago just 14th in baseball in runs scored this season. However, the Cubs recent hot streak has been spurred largely by an offensive awakening. The North Siders have scored seven, nine, and 10 runs once each and put eight runs on the board three times since the All-Star break. They are averaging exactly six runs per game in that time.
The Brewers hold a slight edge in OPS at .768-.763 for the season. On the basepaths, however, it’s no contest. Milwaukee has stolen 87 bases, tops in all of Major League Baseball. The Cubs are way down at 25th with just 37 bags swiped.
On the mound, the Cubs hold the edge. The Chicago staff has a .237 Batting Average Against, fourth in the game. Milwaukee’s staff at .259 ranks just 18th in the game. In both WHIP (1.27-1.38) and K/BB ratio (2.53-2.35) the Cubs staff holds the edge.
The Cubs are coming off a four game home-and-home with the Chisox in which they won the final three games to capture the 2017 “Crosstown Cup” trophy. They have won five of the nine games against the Brewers so far this season.


This are two teams who have begun heading in opposite directions. The Cubs are on the rise, the Brewers are falling. It’s something that many believed was inevitable. Now it’s up to the Brewers to answer the Cubs challenge. After this, the two teams won’t meet again until the second week in September.

Winter Meetings Heat Up the Windy City

Samardzija, Robertson on South Side, Maddon on North Side

Late last night, free agent lefty Jon Lester announced that he had chosen the Chicago Cubs over his old team, the Boston Red Sox.

With the Lester signing, it became official that not only are the Cubs fully invested in contending sooner rather than later, but that competitive baseball is returning to the Windy City.

Lester is the biggest, but not the only, major Chicago development this off-season, or here in San Diego at the 2014 Winter Meetings. The Cubs have also added a new manager in the respected Joe Maddon, and at these Meetings have signed another pitcher, Jason Hammel, and dealt for a new catcher, Miguel Montero.

But it’s not even just the Cubs who are bringing excitement back to the Chicago baseball scene. On the city’s South Side, the White Sox have made their own splash.

Free agent ace Jon Lester chose the Cubbies over Red Sox

At the Winter Meetings, the Chisox have dealt for starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija, one of the top #2-type rotation arms in the game. Then they signed the top closer available, David Robertson. Earlier in the off-season they added veteran 1st baseman Adam LaRoche and lefty Zach Duke.

All of this activity is showing that both Windy City franchise’s want to return to winning as soon as possible. Each finished with identical 73-89 records in 2014, leaving the Chisox in 4th place in the AL Central and the Cubbies in 5th place in the NL Central.

For now, the Cubs appear to be leaping ahead of the White Sox in overall talent. They have one of the top prospect groups in the game, with a number of youngsters either already in the majors, or poised to make it in the next year or so.

With Maddon at the helm, and with an involved leadership group, the days of losing look to be coming to an end on the North Side. Meanwhile, the South Siders are not sitting back and yielding the town to the Cubs. Watch for even more White Sox moves in the coming weeks.

Hamels Time!

At baseball’s 2014 Winter Meetings in San Diego, the logjam in the starting pitching market has finally loosened. One result should be that Cole Hamels name will again become a hot trade topic.
Free agent lefty Jon Lester finally has made up his mind, settling on the Chicago Cubs as his destination of choice. Francisco Liriano, another lefty, decided to return to Pittsburgh.
Max Scherzer is now the one frontline arm remaining on the free agent market. There are a few #2-starter types such as James Shields, Ervin Santana, and Jake Peavy, and a host of #3-4-5 type starting pitching arms. 
There are also arms available for trade. The Cincinnati Reds reportedly have their entire rotation on the block, but their most valuable arm, Johnny Cueto, would also be at a prohibitive cost, and Cincy appears less inclined to actually pull that trigger.
For any team who wants to not settle for mid-level talent, and add a true ace to its rotation, it’s either pay up in salary to Scherzer, or in a prospect package to the Phillies for Hamels.
The Phillies have talked to both the Red Sox and Dodgers about Hamels already. Each of those teams, runners-up in the Lester sweepstakes, knows what it will take to land him. A 3-prospect package, with at least 2 of those as premium value kids.
Hamels has been characterized as “neutral” regarding a trade, happy to either remain and take the hill as the Opening Day starter next April for the Phillies or pitch for a contender in 2015 and beyond. 
SANDBERG, ON HAMELS: “IF SOMETHING CAME ABOUT THAT WAS FOR THE BETTERMENT OF THE ORGANIZATION, THEN HE WAS IN FAVOR OF THAT”
Just yesterday, manager Ryne Sandberg stated that Hamels was “game to be a Philadelphia Phillie, and if something came about that was for the betterment of the organization, then he was in favor of that also.”
From the Phillies end, this is easily their most valuable asset, and they are in no rush to make a move. With Hamels signed for years to come, they can wait until into the 2015 season and beyond. They certainly can not settle for a lesser package.
I’ve stated on a couple of recent occasions that the Dodgers would be a perfect fit for a trade involving not only Hamels, but also veteran shortstop Jimmy Rollins. We’ll see if any such ideas materialize into reality in the coming days or weeks.

10 Contenders at the Winter Meetings

Aces Scherzer, Lester, Shields hold key to the FA market

As the Winter Meetings got underway yesterday, all of MLB’s major contenders are looking to shore up weaknesses on their rosters.

A number of those contenders have a hole, or at least a weakness, at the hot corner. This should make the only real free agent 3rd baseman of any note, Chase Headley, a very popular and ultimately wealthy man.

There are a number of teams who either were on the borderline, or who actually lost, in 2014 who could jump right up into contention with the right moves. However, most of them need multiple moves still to get there.

The Chicago White Sox have decided that they want to be one of those bounce-back clubs. The Chisox first executed a deal to bring in a strong #2 starting pitcher, Jeff Samardzija, to pair with ace Chris Sale. Then the club signed the top closer on the market, David Robertson.

Much of the rest of the market, both free agent and major trade, is waiting on the decisions of the top three starting pitchers. Once Jon Lester, Max Scherzer, and James Shields make their decisions, it should open the floodgates for the 2nd tier guys, as well as get trade talks heating up for available frontline types like Cole Hamels.

Here’s a look at 10 teams who clearly enter 2015 as contenders right now, 5 in each league, and their more obvious needs, along with some potential fixes that could happen at the Winter Meetings or shortly thereafter.

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Washington Nationals
Team clearly needs an infielder, just where is the question? Anthony Rendon was exceptional at both 2nd and 3rd base. With Ryan Zimmerman now locked in at 1st base, they need to find someone to play one or the other, and find a permanent home for Rendon. Resigning Asdrubal Cabrera is the most logical move. But wouldn’t Chase Headley look great in a Nats uniform?

Los Angeles Dodgers
Do they really believe they have any semblance of a competitive left-side infield? Do they really believe they have a front-line catcher? I don’t, on either count. There has been a lot of talk about Cole Hamels in the media, and great starting pitching can cover a lot of sins. They have an outfield glut to trade from, with Matt Kemp the most likely to go. That still would leave Puig, Ethier, and Crawford with young Joc Pederson ready to play every day. If I’m LA, I’m looking to fill that left-side infield. How about Jimmy Rollins, maybe in a Hamels package? If not, you have the lesser but younger Stephen Drew, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Jed Lowrie troika available.

Saint Louis Cardinals
This looks like a serious NL Pennant contender to me, but for one thing: I’m really concerned about the ability of the rotation to physically hold up. Something tells me they’ll stand pat. But if I were them, I’d reach out and sign one of the free agent SP arms. A proven reliability guy like James Shields would seem to be a perfect Cardinal fit, from where I sit.

San Francisco Giants
The defending World Series champs would love to take a run at ending their every-other-year streak, rather than fall back in 2015. They are finalists in the Jon Lester sweepstakes, which should be announced some time today or tonight. That pursuit aside, they have a gaping hole at 3rd base with the Panda gone. This should be yet another team looking hard at Chase Headley.

Chase Headley might be the perfect Panda replacement

Pittsburgh Pirates
A very interesting team that has been very quiet so far this off-season. Two straight Wildcard appearances for the Bucs have them hungry for more. How hungry? Are they willing and able to spend money? Because if they want to take a next step, maybe even get back at all, they need another starting pitcher, even after bringing A.J. Burnett back, and could use a shortstop upgrade. The shortstop is available on the market in Stephen Drew, Jed Lowrie, or Asdrubal Cabrera. So are the arms, with possibly affordable options like Jake Peavy, Ryan Vogelsong, Justin Masterson and Brandon McCarthy. This is a place that James Shields or Ervin Santana would work well. They could always resign Francisco Liriano. Even a lesser guy like Kyle Kendrick could provide valuable, experienced innings. They need something more, for sure.

Baltimore Orioles
Buck Showalter is good, and in 2014 he was great. But he’s not good enough to make this team win again without addressing the losses of Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis. Let’s say all three of Chris Davis, Matt Wieters, and Manny Machado returns healthy and has a strong season. That’s asking a lot, but with Adam Jones and J.J. Hardy as well, it’s the minimum needed. How about Michael Morse as a LF/DH in Camden Yards? Seems like a match made in O’s heaven to me. This might be a good fit for a veteran who wants to win and can bring some speed, such as Emilio Bonifacio.

Detroit Tigers
Having VMart back and a fully healthy Miguel Cabrera will be huge. But this team needs another run-producer. They could really use it from a corner IF/OF type, even if J.D. Martinez is for real and Nick Castellanos takes a step forward. Melky Cabrera and Alex Rios might be nice fits in Motown. And since this team is in win-now mode, a one-year shot on a 5th outfielder season from Ichiro Suzuki could be a nice Torii Hunter substitute.

Kansas City Royals
A lot came together all at once for the Royals last season. Now Hosmer and Moustakas have to prove they can do it over a full season. There has been talk of breaking up the shutdown Herrera-Davis-Holland back end bullpen trio. Especially with the loss of starter James Shields, that sounds like crazy talk to me. This team needs to find a similar starting pitcher, and all the names mentioned for the Pirates come to mind, especially Jake Peavy. He’s a winner and a staff leader-type. And how about a Colby Rasmus in CF, allowing Lorenzo Cain to possibly become an All-Star rightfielder playing every day there?

Jake Peavy could fit well as a James Shields replacement in KC

LA Angels of Anaheim
Los Angeles, Anaheim, whatever they are, is a very good team. But like a few other very good teams, they have big questions in the rotation, especially if they actually do move C.J. Wilson. A lefty DH/IF/PH bat with experience and pop would be a nice addition. Someone like Kendrys Morales fits the bill perfectly. Emilio Bonifacio checks off a few boxes as well as a versatile switch-hitter. And bottom-feeding one of the lesser expense but reliable SP options would be a good idea, someone in the Kyle Kendrick or Ryan Vogelsong price range.

Toronto Blue Jays
This team has to be taken seriously now. Picking up one of the top players in the game at a position of growing scarcity in 3rd baseman Josh Donaldson, as well as a proven, veteran leader at catcher in Russ Martin, will do that for you. They join a lineup that already included Jose Bautista, Jose Reyes, Edwin Encarnacion. Do you entrust this obvious run at the postseason to the current group of 2nd basemen? How about Stephen Drew to play there, and give you an option should Reyes’ legs act up again? And this team looks like a perfect landing spot for a proven closer like Rafael Soriano, if he can be had at the right price. Asdrubal Cabrera could provide excellent versatility, and Emilio Bonifacio could fit here for all these same reasons.

Phillies, Red Sox, Hamels

Cole Hamels traded by the Phillies to the Boston Red Sox for a package of young players and prospects.

It’s a story that has been percolating for at least weeks, ever since Phillies acting President Pat Gillick publicly stated that the club likely would not win in 2015 or 2016.

Gillick has also publicly stated that everything is on the table. No player is untouchable. The Phils will explore every avenue in order to turn over the remainder of the holdovers from the recent era of excellence in hopes to move towards a bright future.

The Red Sox story has gained traction because it is true. Boston frankly is in desperate need of a starting pitcher of Hamels caliber. They have the pieces that it would take to get such a deal done. But getting the Phils and Bosox together
on an exact trade is proving to be a difficult matter.

I believe that it should be difficult. When making such a deal, from both sides, the cost to your club weighed against the potential benefits can be difficult to gauge. In the end, if such a deal does get completed, it will take a measure of courage on the parts of both organizations.

It’s my hope here to shed a little more light on what is happening, and come at things from both a Phillies and Red Sox perspective. No one can tell you whether a deal will get done or not. No one can tell you what Boston is willing to move. No one can tell you what the Phillies are asking. With that, an examination:

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What the Phillies are, have, and should be asking:

Here is what we are talking about, from a Phils perspective. They are a clearly rebuilding organization, top to bottom. In an off-season of publicly pronounced change, nearly every other interesting piece they have to offer comes with age, injury, and/or financial concerns. Hamels is the exception.

He will turn 31 years old next month, so is not old. He has thrown over 180 innings in 8 straight seasons, over 200 in 5 straight, and has made at least 31 starts in 7 straight, so he is healthy and reliable. He has struck out over 190 batters in 6 of the last 7 seasons, so he is dominant.

He is signed for the next 4 seasons, with a club option on a 5th season. That contract pays him $22.5 million each season. That is a lot, but not for what Hamels is: a true, proven, experienced, healthy, left-handed ace who has been a big winner in a big market. It is cost certainty for a wealthy team in an $8.5 billion industry.

Considering all of the above, the Phillies rightfully should be asking a great deal for his services. The teams needs are plenty, and he offers the only realistic chance to fill at least 2-3 of those needs with talented young players and prospects.

What the Red Sox are, have, and should reasonably expect to pay:

This is the Boston Red Sox we are talking about. Much like the Phils, they have one of the most passionate, involved fan bases in the game. Losing is not an option in Beantown. In 2014, a year after winning their 3rd World Series title in a decade, the Bosox came in last place in the American League East. It is actually their 2nd last place finish in the last 3 seasons.

Mookie Betts is a player that has to be on Phillies list

Boston also has one of the deepest, most talented pools of young players and prospects in the game today. Earlier this year, Baseball America ranked them 2nd, and Baseball Prospectus ranked them 4th in all of baseball in terms of organizational prospect talent.

The Red Sox also have other interesting dynamics. They went from last to champions just a year ago, so they know it can be done. But they compete in a very tough division. The Orioles won the division by a dozen games and are not going away. The Blue Jays are talented, and already making moves like signing Russell Martin, geared at winning now. The Yankees will not sit for long, just on the outside fringes of contention.

Boston can again go from last to champs. They have a core that is not getting any younger, but still talented, with ‘Big Papi’ David Ortiz now 39 years old, Shane Victorino at 34, Mike Napoli at 33, Dustin Pedroia at 31. They need at least one Hamels-caliber arm, and probably two, in order to get back to contending right away. Clay Buchholz at 30 years old is their ace for now. Otherwise, they are counting on a number of young starting rotation options for 2015.

The Red Sox should expect to pay the price of 3 high-value prospects in order to obtain the total package as a player that Cole Hamels offers. Or at least 1 mega-prospect and a pair of strong ones as icing-on-the-cake.

Specifics of a deal

Let’s be specific. I don’t know what Ruben Amaro is asking, and neither does anyone else. He has been criticized for asking for too high a price of his aging veterans in recent months. That may be valid, but even if so, it is completely irrelevant here. Hamels is not an aging veteran, he is an ace starting pitcher in his prime. Asking a high price is completely acceptable here.

I would be looking to get an infielder, an outfielder, and a pitcher in return. I would be starting my own conversations with 2nd baseman Mookie Betts, pitcher Henry Owens, and outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. I would be willing to consider Garin Cecchini as an infield substitute for Betts, and Allen Webster or Trey Ball as subs for Owens. But if I did either/both of those, I may also look for a 4th, younger kid such as Rafael Devers or Manuel Margot to be included.

That is a lot, in the world of prospects. But let’s keep in mind what we are talking about here. We are talking baseball prospects, the overwhelming majority of which are not likely to pan out into big producers at the MLB level. That is simply a fact. They are pretty names right now, with lots of tools. That is all. Potential. Meanwhile, on the Boston end, Cole Hamels is a proven World Series MVP. And the Sox would still have a bunch of strong prospects remaining.

The Red Sox also still have other options. Specifically, they have one major alternate option: re-sign their own former lefty ace, free agent Jon Lester. The problem is, there are a number of teams actively pursuing Lester. He is free to negotiate with those clubs. A few may appear even more likely to win soon, and may offer more money.

Jon Lester free agency decision a key for Boston

Boston likely makes no move on Hamels at least until after it finds out a final Lester decision. But wouldn’t having both lefties in their rotation be exactly what they need? I believe that even if they bring Lester back, the Bosox are treding water from the 2014 bottom dwellers. Adding Hamels makes a legitimate upgrade.

One thing is certain, Ruben Amaro cannot let Hamels go for anything less than full value. You almost never get real value in return for an ace caliber starting pitcher. Look at the records of such deals in history. Look no further than the Phillies own deals involving both Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay just 4-5 years ago. The prospect packages back then all sounded nice. In the end, little to nothing.

There is absolutely no hurry, other than possible risk of a Hamels injury somewhere down the line lessening his value. But he has proven reliable, so that is a slight risk. Waiting into the 2015 season until the trade deadline approaches, or even revisiting this again with teams next off-season after the free agent market settles is a perfectly reasonable strategy.

The bottom line from a Phillies management and fan perspective should be that this is our one near-perfect asset, easily the most valuable that the team controls. Giving it up should be done only to give the club significant potential to cover multiple needs going forward.

With every trade, there comes risk. With any Phillies-Red Sox trade involving Cole Hamels for a trio of highly regarded prospects, there will be risk for both clubs. But right now, these two organizations seem like a near-perfect fit. They just need to find the exact right particulars. And for Ruben Amaro, he simply cannot get this one wrong.