Former Cubs Player Ryan Freel Found Dead

Ryan Freel

Ryan Freel, 36, was found dead in his Jacksonville, FL home on Saturday. Early reports indicate he he died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Freel briefly played for the Cubs in 2009. Jim Hendry aquired him from Baltimore for Joey Gathright in early May. I never understood the trade. Gathright was 28 and Freel a washed up 33-year-old riddled with an achy body.

Granted, Gathright never panned out, but Freel had a (-2) OPS+ in just 14-games with Chicago before he was purchased by the Royals in July. His big league career was over before he ever arrived in Chicago.

“He’s a little guy who lives in my head who talks to me and I talk to him.”
-Freel

That aside, count me among the many fans who appreciated Freel’s constant hustle on the diamond. He was scrappy, a gamer, and apparently won the heart of Hendry, too.

Long live Farney.

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Should Cubs Give Edwin Jackson Four Years?

Edwin Jackson’s career has always been an enigma to me.

On one hand his career stats seem to indicate he’s a slightly above average starting pitcher. On the other, Jackson’s been traded six times before he’s turned 30.

Jackson is durable, an innings eater and an All Star. He’s reached two World Series, won one, and pitched for a team with the major’s best regular-season record as recently as last year.

Yet, not a single one of his previous employers locked him up with a long-term contract, or valued him as a franchise player. How come?

Because Jackson isn’t a difference-maker in a competitive rotation. Jackson, it seems, has been more coveted by opposing teams than he has by his very own, and the love fest with Jackson seems to rub off rather quickly.

That’s why I’m surprised to see the Cubs offering something in the neighborhood of the reported 4-year, $52M contract Jackson is seeking this offseason. Has he really been that undervalued?

That’s not to say Jackson wouldn’t improve the Cubs. This is, after all, a 101-loss team. Plus, you can never have too much starting pitching.

Pair Jackson up with the Cubs’ current stock of starting pitching, including the recently signed Carlos Villanueva (2-yr, $10M), and it’s a formidable rotation heading into 2013.

Not to mention, the Cubs still appear to be entertaining the idea of trading one of their best pitchers in Matt Garza; for what we can’t necessarily assume will be major league ready pitcher(s) at the time of arrival.

Jackson could bridge that gap and add real value to the Cubs in the short-term. But four years isn’t a short-term deal. In fact, it’s the additional two years of the contract that actually concerns me more than the money.

From the Cubs’ perspective I’d like to see Jackson on a 2-year deal. A contract which would enable him to help the Cubs during the early stages of the rebuild, but wouldn’t tie up roughly $26M when the team is looking to make hay in 2015.

Fortunately for Jackson, he’s in the position of leverage; not the other way around. The starting pitching market is thin, he’s still in his prime, 29, and it’s likely he’ll get the four-year deal he’s coveting.

That said, is spending roughly $52M over four years on a slightly above average pitcher a wise investment for the Cubs? Couldn’t that money be better spent on a highly-prized hurler through trade of free agency when the Cubs are actually fielding a more competitive team?

I think so, and my gut feeling concurs.

Now, will I be upset if the Cubs land Jackson? Of course not. But interestingly, Jackson would be the first offseason move by the Cubs I wouldn’t fully understand, even though he would arguably be the most talented player the Cubs landed this winter.

Of course given the Cubs’ resistance to including no-trade clauses in contracts, it’s possible the always tradeable Jackson could be dealt after two, or even three seasons on the North Side.

It seems that’s a bridge the Cubs are willing to cross with Jackson. And according to the morning reports via online and Twitter, it appears both sides are coming close to a deal; and a little too close if you ask me.

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Cubs Institutional Problem

Bullpen Brian

Take a look at what Theo Epstein terms the Cubs’ institutional problem with plate discipline and on-base percentage.

As a quick reference point, the Cubs led the National League in walks in 2008. So it’s easy to see how drastically the number of walks have fallen in just four years.

Meanwhile, the Cubs’ .302 on-base percentage last season was the worst mark in all of baseball, and the fourth consecutive year it dropped from the previous season.

Epstein is trying to right the ship by instilling an organizational-wide focus on ‘grinding-out at-bats’ and developing the bulldog mentality the Red Sox’s lineup became noted for during his reign in Boston. 

The headline move with correcting the problem thus far was Epstein’s decision to replace highly respected hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo with James Rowson midway through last season. Additionally, a newly created position of assistant hitting coach was filled by Rob Deer at the Winter Meetings.

Like most things with the Cubs these days, the turnaround won’t happen in one season. Certainly the club can show improvement in the next couple of years, but reaching the goal will take improved performance from the Cubs’ lowest level minor leagues all the way up through the major leagues.

Epstein is sure to keep a more focused plate approach as a pressing issue throughout the entire organization. It appears to be one of his most strongly held beliefs in creating and maintaining a championship caliber team.

Even the slightest improvement in this area next season could be a keg factor in avoiding consecutive 100-loss seasons, and that’s definitely worth taking a few extra pitches.  

–For a closer year-to-year look at the graph see the bullet points below.

  • A lot was made of Kosuke Fukudome’s patient plate approach upon his arrival in 2008. His keen eye for the strike zone appeared to rub off on his teammates, at least for one year. Four Cubs drew 70 or more walks that season (Fukudome 81, Aramis 74, Theriot 73, D-Lee 71) and Mark DeRosa just missed with 69 free passes.
  • In 2009 only two Cubs topped 70 or more walks: Fukudome 93 and D-Lee 76. Knucklehead Milton Bradley (66) likely would’ve topped the mark had he not been suspended for the final two weeks of the season for acting like a disgruntled clown…reads: conduct detrimental to the team.
  • The real drop off happened the following season when the team’s total plummeted by 113 walks. Fukudome led the team for the third straight season despite playing in 16 fewer games than the season prior. However, not a single Cub eclipsed 70 or more walks. ‘The Fuk’ ended with 64. Geovany Soto was second with 62 and D-Lee’s register just 52 walks while missing significant time due to injuries (109-games).
  • The 2011 season walk totals are somewhat skewed thanks to Carlos Pena. When he wasn’t busy striking out Pena was making headway in setting a new club record for first basemen with 101 walks. But after Pena it was basically hopeless for the rest of the Cubs. Fukudome finished second on the club with 46…and that’s despite playing just 87 games with Chicago before being traded to the Indians on July 28. Soto 45, Aramis 43, and Starlin Castro 35, rounded out the top 5.
    Good heavens.
  • Although there was a slight uptick in walks last season, the Cubs had but one player reach more than 50 walks–David DeJesus with 61. Now the kicker…Soriano was second with 44 and LaHair third with 39. No wonder the Cubs had the worst on-base percentage in baseball (.302).

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One FA Third Baseman Fits Cubs Needs

One issue, among many, with Ian Stewart and Luis Valbuena platooning at third base is their left-handedness.

Valbuena, interestingly, actually hit better last season vs. lefty starters (.235) than he did vs. righty starters (.215). However, it’s not that much better and Valbuena did have 163 fewer at-bats against southpaw starters.

Nonetheless, I’m suggesting it would be more ideal if the Cubs had a right-handed hitting third baseman to fill out the platoon role with either Stewart or Valbuena, not to mention an available right-handed bat to come off the bench.

For a time that player appeared to be Josh Vitters, but unfortunately the kid was completely over-matched offensively at the big league level last season. Ultimately we had to come to terms with the fact Vitters is still too green for The Show and destined to begin next season with Triple-A Iowa.

Meanwhile, aside from Dave Sappelt (bats R) and Dioner Navarro (bats S), the Cubs’ likely bench/platoon players for 2013 are all left-handed hitters: Tony Campana, Brett Jackson, Nate Schierholtz and David DeJesus.

A right-handed bat at third could help the cause, but an already thin free agent market at the hot corner has dried up rather quickly now that Kevin Youkilis succumbed to the Evil Empire and the White Sox swooped in to land Jeff Keppenger.

Of the few remaining names on the list only one makes much sense for Chicago–Brandon Inge. He’s a good fielder, has power and hits right-handed.
Check, check and check.

Detroit released Inge last April after his slow start but he quickly bounced back with Oakland to hit .226/.286/.389 in 74-games. Not great by any stretch, but there’s value found in his 11 HR, his above average fielding and his right-handedness.

Clearly no longer a full-time player, Inge turns 36 in May and likely wouldn’t bring back more than a bag of peanuts in a July trade. Still, it wouldn’t hurt the Cubs to add a veteran presence on its youthful roster (especially if Soriano and Marmol are both traded) and a guy who could straighten out a lefty-lefty platoon at third.

I’m hard pressed to believe any team offers Inge more than a one-year deal this offseason or anything close to his $5.5M price tag from 2012. In fact, it seems Inge is ripe for the taking if the Cubs care to give him a closer look, which might only require a minor league contract and invite to spring training.

What I do know is Inge is no worse than what the Cubs already have at third to open spring camp, and at worst he’s gone before the end of spring training.

There’s a real uncertainty whether Stewart will work out…or Valbuena…or Vitters for that matter. So with a roster chalked full of stopgaps, what’s one more in 2013?

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Cubs Targets For FA Starting Pitchers

The free agent market for starting pitchers takes a steep decline now that Anibal Sanchez has re-signed with Detroit.

Here’s a list of some of the remaining free agent pitchers and where they rank according to Jeff Passan’s (Yahoo! Sports) FA listing. Edwin Jackson, Shaun Marcum, Carlos Villanueva and Francisco Liriano are thought of as possibilities for the Cubs (and no, Big Z is not an option under any circumstance).

  • 12. Edwin Jackson
  • 18. Kyle Lohse
  • 33. Shaun Marcum
  • 39. Carlos Villanueva
  • 45. Francisco Liriano
  • 60. Joe Saunders
  • 76. Carl Pavano
  • 81. Carlos Zambrano
  • 88. Chris Young
  • 99. Kevin Millwood

The pitcher I’d go after is Villanueva. He’s spent the majority of his 7-year career as a swing man with Milwaukee and Toronto. That’s been beneficial in limiting the mileage on his right arm, but leaves some concern over his durability as a starter, which is what Villanueva aspires to be going forward. He’s also one of the more affordable options and could be a ‘flippable asset’ in July.

Jackson is getting a lot of ink as the top pitcher available on the market. He’s durable, in his prime, 29, and coming off a decent season with Washington (10-11, 4.03 ERA, 189.2 IP). However, given the Cubs’ early success this winter in upgrading its rotation (Baker, Feldman) I wouldn’t be fond of adding Jackson at multiple years and the $12-13M price range expected to land his services. The Padres are reportedly the front runner for Jackson offering a 4-5 year deal. That’s too much for my liking.

Marcum, 31, has put together a solid career with Toronto and Milwaukee. In six seasons starting he’s won double digit games three times (12, 13, 13), and has a career (57-36, 3.76 ERA) record. However, Marcum has only twice made 30+ starts (2010-11) and only once pitched more than 200 innings (2011). Most concerning is the fact he battled reoccurring ‘shoulder soreness’ and ‘elbow tightness’ last season. That issue can hardly be overlooked, and one I think the Cubs should steer clear of this winter.

With Liriano it’s all about banking on potential. He’s been terribly inconsistent the past two seasons after finishing 11th in the Cy Young Award in 2010 with Minnesota (14-10, 3.62 ERA). At 29 years old it’s tempting to gamble on Liriano regaining his old form. If he did rebound there’s the chance the Cubs could get quality value in return on a trade. But unless Chicago fails to land one of the three pitchers above, I’d be content with the team investing elsewhere.

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Cubs Kyuji Fujikawa’s Entrance Music

I came across this video of Kyuji Fujikawa, the 32 year old Japanese relief pitcher the Cubs signed to a 2-year, $9.5M deal this offseason.

He’s been the closer for the Hanshin Tigers the past six seasons amassing 202 career saves including a 1.32 ERA in 2012. It seems likely Fujikawa takes over the closer’s role once Carlos Marmol is traded, which I’m assuming happens before spring training.

Nonetheless, I was intrigued by Fujukawa’s entrance music when he takes the mound in Japan. According to Wiki the song is titled “Every little thing, every precious thing” by Japanese rock group Lindberg. And it’s the music playing in the above video.

I must say it’s not what we’ve come to expect for major league closer music. And it will be interesting to see if Fujikawa wants to keep the tradition alive in the states. Apparently the song has a special meaning for him and his wife.

Regardless of whatever music Fujikawa desires to warm up to, here’s hoping he’s just capable of getting three quick outs and a save.

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Cubs Suffering Power Outage

Chicago Cubs HR

It’s clear the Cubs could use more pop in the lineup.

Since leading the National League in home runs in 2004 (the Cubs finished second in MLB to the Yankees & White Sox who tied with 242 HR) Chicago’s seen a steady decline in its overall power numbers.

The threesome of Aramis Ramirez, Derrek Lee and Alfonso Soriano accounted for the lion’s share of home run production from 2007 until the band was broken up in 2010 with the trade of Lee to Atlanta. Aramis was gone a year later and Soriano appears out the door any day now.

From 2009 on the Cubs have had only two players aside from A-Ram, D-Lee and Soriano crack 20+ home runs in a season: Tyler Colvin with 20 (2010) and Carlos Pena with 28 (2011).

Not surprisingly, with Colvin and Pena departed by 2012 the Cubs had but one hitter surpass the 20 home run mark last season: Soriano with 32 HR. The next closest was Bryan LaHair with 16 HR.

The outlook for 2013, unfortunately, isn’t much better. With LaHair traded this offseason to Japan, and Soriano rumored to be headed elsewhere via trade, the Cubs are starved for power at the traditional power positions for an NL team.

Ideally you want your big boppers patrolling the corner outfield and the corner infield. As it stands, the Cubs’ outfield consists of David DeJesus and Nate Schierholtz–who combined for 15 HR last season–and a handful of light-hitting backups. So unless Ian Stewart and Louis Valbuena finally reach their potential, it’s basically Anthony Rizzo as the lone power threat at the corners.

Rizzo of course appears to be a lock to reach 20+ home runs for the foreseeable future. He hit 15 HR in 87-games last year, which projects out to roughly 30 bombs over a full season. And thankfully more muscle appears on the horizon.

  • Starlin Castro could develop more power. His home run numbers have increased in each of his first three seasons: 3, 10, 14.
  • Top prospect Jorge Soler, 20, has all the makings of a dynamic major league power hitter. At 6’3″, 205lbs he’s already displayed majestic power shots in the minor leagues; quickly earning the nickname ‘Soler Power’.
  • Outfielder Albert Almora, 18, who was Chicago’s top-pick in the amateur draft last June, could potentially be a 20+ home run hitter.
  • Shortstop Javier Baez, ranked the top prospect in the Midwest League this past season, has shown plenty of raw power.
  • Brett Jackson still has a shot to be a power guy if his revamped swing this offseason pans out.

There are likely to be other prospects who will show power potential and it’s fair to assume the Cubs will eventually dip into the free agent market to land a slugger. My guess is that would most likely come to fruition next winter, although this offseason is far from over and it’s becoming more unpredictable by the day.

But while it’s nice to think about the Cubs’ power production looking upwards in the seasons to come, it’s worth remembering round-trippers don’t mean everything.

What better example than the world champion Giants? San Francisco not only hit 34 fewer home runs than the Cubs did last season, but ranked dead last in all of baseball with 103 dingers.

Pitching and defense have always been the staples of championship teams, but it couldn’t hurt the Cubs’ anemic offense to park a few more hits on Waveland and Sheffield next summer.

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