Tag Archives: Baseball

Cubs Trade Fukudome, Ask “Please Sir, May I Have Another?”

The Cubs unloaded (female) fan favorite Kosuke Fukudome today, making my #1 blue alternate a collector’s item. In exchange for Kosuke’s services, the Cubs get a pitcher who can’t pitch in AAA (.450 ERA), and a hitter who can’t hit in A (.244 BA, with a 0.18/1 walk-to-strikeout ratio since 2010). They sure are some shrewd barters. In fairness, the Tribune’s Phil Rogers thinks the hitter, Abner Abreu, could potentially be a solid outfielder – he does have 12 homeruns this season. But his article states that Baseball America doesn’t rank him as one of the Indian’s top 30 prospects, so don’t paint me excited.

But don’t take the Cubs for suckers. In exchange for two no-name minor league guys, they also get to pay 83% of Kosuke’s contract. So there’s that.

**update** According to the Chicago Cubs press release, Abner Abreu is in his fifth professional season. So if he continues this blistering move to the majors, we will be fortunate enough to see him strikeout 30% of the time at Wrigley in about 2021. I’m waiting with bated breath.

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The World Baseball Classic – Where’s the Love?

With the passing of the second quadrennial World Baseball Classic, it’s once again time to crown Japan as the champions. And an exciting WBC it was! The United States shook off a poor showing four years ago, and staked a stunning come-from-behind victory against Venezuela, to proceed to the semi-finals before losing to Japan (no shame in that). And the championship game between Japan and North Korea would rival any playoff or World Series game you’ll see in October. When the two teams, whose baseball programs enjoy a pretty strong rivalry anyway, met in the championship, they had already played four times, splitting the games two apiece. It was a classic baseball contest, requiring exemplary defense, solid pitching, timely hitting, and even a tenth inning to decide. Seiichi Uchikawa made just about the best play you will ever see in the outfield. And when the passion both countries posses for baseball is coupled with the historical political tensions between the Japanese and Koreans, this game can easily be seen as more than just a mere contest of skills on the diamond; a comparison of the 1980 United States/Soviet Union Olympic hockey game would not be a specious analogy, even if the animosity isn’t quite as severe.

I was sad to see the United States lose to Japan. But I couldn’t say I was disappointed with Japan winning the championship. The intrigue of a Japan vs. South Korea game aside, I love the way the Japanese play baseball. They play the game the way it’s supposed to be played; hit for average, run when you get a chance, pull the ball to right with a man on first – pretty much just a small-ball team with an emphasis on defense and pitching. I do enjoy the current makeup of the game, but American baseball has turned into hitters swinging as hard as they can at pitches thrown as hard as possible. I understand the irony of this coming from a fan of the Cubs, a team which in recent history has relied a bit too much on strikeouts and homeruns (pop quiz – when was the last year Cubs pitching did not lead the Majors in strikeouts? 2000; and they came in fifth), but I prefer the old-school style of play. Joe Morgan commented that one of the big differences between Japanese and American pitching is the Japanese trust their off-speed pitches in hitter’s counts. As a guy who always preferred Greg Maddux to Roger Clemens, those are the kind of pitchers that I enjoy watching. It’s smart baseball, not just muscle baseball. And baseball really should be more chess than wrestling.

In short, they play the game the way Ryne Sandberg says it should be played.

Certainly the tournament made me long for exuberant discussion – if only I could have found someone to discuss it with.

By all accounts, it was a smashing success; everything that Major League Baseball had hoped it would be . . . if you look at its impact internationally. For Monday night’s championship game, over 40,000 baseball fans packed into a stadium in South Korea to watch the game on the JumboTron, and almost 55,000 showed up for the actual game in LA’s Dodger Stadium. There were some anemic crowds for some contests. Less than 10,000 people showed up for the Japan vs. Cuba semifinal game last Wednesday, but that game was played in the United States, so some tepid reaction is excusable. And just a touch over 13,000 fans showed up for one game featuring the United States in Dolphin Stadium last week, but that could rival any other baseball game played in Dolphin Stadium (one reason the Florida Marlins may leave Miami).

The goal, however, was not to breed further interest in the sport at home (though I’m sure MLB wouldn’t decline the offer), but rather to garner interest across the world in an effort to make baseball a truly global sport. And the truth is it is a global sport. Of the four major sports in the United States, football and basketball don’t share near the international intrigue of baseball and hockey, though basketball has become very popular in some Mediterranean and Eastern European countries.

The problem is, while hockey’s international appeal has a direct benefit on the sport in the United States, as the lack of pronouncability on player’s jerseys will quickly prove, baseball’s appeal has relatively little economic value for Major League Baseball outside of the United States and the Caribbean. The market for players is starting to expand into Japan and Southeast Asia, and clubs are spending more than ever evaluating talent in those areas. But that is sadly being offset by a tendency of youths coming from economically challenged backgrounds in the United States, whom traditionally looked towards baseball to gain wealth, shifting focus to basketball and football instead. MLB is trying to deal with this problem through programs such as RBI, but the sad fact is the only thing keeping baseball from once again becoming a “white” sport is the influx of major league ballplayers from Central America and the increasing number of players from Japan and Southeast Asia.

I know it sounds cold to put the situation into such nondescript socio-economic and racial terms, but the truth is the best athletes tend to come from economically challenged backgrounds, and money is spent by fans where players are being produced. This is an issue that affects both the integrity and quality of the game played, as well as the economic value of the sport. So the World Baseball Classic was established, in part, to try to expand the market globally, producing an increase in both the quality of players entering the league and the markets in which Major League Baseball can financially tap into.

After only two tournaments over four years, it’s hard to tell if this will have any real impact on either of those goals. As for me, personally, even if it is a failure in that regard it would be a measure of pride that my favorite sport is increasing its global appeal.

I love the World Baseball Classic. I love what it represents for the game. I love watching other countries and nationalities compete in the sport outside of the Olympic venue. And yes, I love seeing how the Americans stack up against players from other countries. And even though there was little representation outside of North America and Asia (The Netherlands, Italy, and South Africa were the only three of the 16 not from those two continents), I honestly believe that this is going to be instrumental in spreading the popularity of the game.

But I don’t understand why this love is so seldom shared among my US brethren. I would think millions of baseball fans would jump at the chance to watch good, quality baseball games in March. (Have you seen Spring Training games?? They’re painful!)

One excuse I’ve heard for the bland response is that it competes with March Madness. This is undoubtedly true, and I don’t think you can reasonably expect it to achieve its full potential in the US during this time frame. But that doesn’t explain the complete lack of enthusiasm. If there was any excitement for it, then it would fare well right along side March Madness; they could even compliment each other. Bud Selig said he’d like to eliminate a lot of the off-days during the tournament, which would increase the number of games played on the weekdays (when the NCAA tournament is dormant) and also lessen the amount of time it has to compete against the NCAA tourney. That will help. Some suggest changing the timing, but to when? To November, so they can play baseball in the snow? To July so they can suspend the regular season for three weeks? March is the only logical time to play the WBC, and so fans are going to have to learn to multitask. It shouldn’t be asking a lot. You don’t ignore the Winter Olympics because of the NFL playoffs.

To be fair, there would probably be a lot more enthusiasm in the United States if the United States baseball team was more successful. The American team, while doing well overall, was hardly the dominating force one would expect them to be. And winning breeds enthusiasm. Without Lance Armstrong’s dominance, the Tour de France is just a bunch of people in stupid outfits riding bikes. And who actually thinks the US swimming team would have received constant national attention if it wasn’t for a certain Michael Phelps?

It is possible, of course, that the Japanese are just a better team. That “old-school” baseball really is a superior game and Japanese dominance reflects this. And it’s possible that we are overestimating the superiority of American ball players to other countries. Still, when considering the bad performance of the team in 2004 and the level of play against some countries in earlier rounds, it’s obvious the American team did not perform up to par.

There are a lot of excuses for the American team not playing as well as one would expect. I’m not sure I buy many of them, mostly because the Japanese team played so well. People say that there wasn’t enough time for players to prepare, and that the team couldn’t jell the way other teams could, or that commitments to their Major League teams kept players from being utilized appropriately or playing as hard as they otherwise would have. But there were several MLB players on most teams, and the rest of the Japanese team was comprised of top-tier professionals from a very successful major league program in Japan. There’s no reason why the Japanese could work around these problems but the Americans couldn’t. To me, it was obviously an issue of attitude.

I don’t want to take anything away from the players who decided to play. I know the players who participated in the WBC felt honored to do so, and seemed legitimately disheartened when they lost. Particularly, Derek Jeter obviously really took the tournament to heart, and I appreciate that. However, the overall reaction from Major League players and their teams to the WBC has been lukewarm, at best. Many of the game’s top players seemed to jump at the chance to wiggle out of the tournament. Look, if CC Sabathia doesn’t want to play, he shouldn’t have to. But practically nobody turns down a shot to play in the All-Star game (though I have seen some pretty lame injuries keep players out). Players should view this as another form of the All-Star game, except instead of representing your league, you’re representing your country.

Much of this attitude seems to stem from the ball clubs. They don’t want to take the risk that their players will be injured, or that the early training and stress will wear them out towards the end of the season. This is understandable, but baseball is notoriously a marathon sport, and there should be ways around this without meaningfully affecting your team’s play in September or October. And I don’t think that competing against a team in international play is any more hazardous to a player’s health than competing against another team in spring training. I have no way of knowing for sure, but I’d also be inclined to believe that many ballplayers probably see this as little more than a run through minor-league all-star teams, so what’s the point? We don’t need the WBC to tell us we’re the best in the world (even though we’ve yet to prove it in that venue), so why break our backs for it?

Culture is a hard thing to change, and I’m not sure I know how to do it. My first thought would be to provide monetary incentive to teams for winning games, but that would seem to fly against the spirit of the tournament, and I’m not sure you could award financial incentives large enough for ultra-competitive multi-millionaires to use it as any more of a motivating factor than winning would otherwise be.

Bud Selig said owner’s need to realize this tournament is ultimately good for baseball, and they may have to make some sacrifices for the greater good. I think these sacrifices would actually be quite small, and agree that the ball clubs should fall in line. But I think he’s missing the point. As long as the majority of Major League Baseball continues to see the WBC as a sacrifice teams need to make, they will not have the enthusiasm for the tournament it deserves.

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Cubbies Sweep and Prior Weeps

Friday I said that Daryl Ward has been practically useless off the bench. Actually, as of Friday afternoon he was literally useless, as he had not had one hit in a pinch hit appearance.

Saturday, off the bench, he had an RBI single which scored Mark DeRosa (who’s been one of my better fantasy league pickups, but that’s another blog) which tied the game, and yesterday he hit a two run double which ended up being the winning hit in the final game of a series sweep against the Diamondbacks at Wrigley.

So you know, I’m taking full credit. You’re welcome.

Of course, the other side of that story is Ward pinch hit for Felix Pie. Now, I understand the theory is Pie has nothing left to prove in the minor leagues. Last year he hit .362 with a Bonds-esque .973 OPS, so that certainly seems to be the case. But if a guy can’t hit in the majors, he can’t hit in the majors. And this guy can’t hit in the majors. Meanwhile, Matt Murton is hitting .368 with a .870 OPS in Iowa, so it’s not like he has a hell of a lot to prove, either. But he can hit in the majors; he has a career .295 BA, which most people would think is pretty damn good. And even though his field work’s not as good as Pie’s, he’s not exactly Manny Ramirez or Adam Dunn, either (of course, they would argue that he’s not exactly Manny Ramirez or Adam Dunn, either).

Sean Gallagher had a great game in his first major league start (Zambrano was supposed to start but was held up because of an hour rain delay). He couldn’t make it past the fifth inning, but he has been a reliever for quite some time now so five innings at one go is asking a lot. Not sure I want him to stay in the starting five all year, but he certainly deserves another start or two to see what he can do, and if it seems to be just a fluke then hopefully Rich Hill will have his stuff together by then, or at least Sean Marshall will be ready to step in. And since the rotation includes Jason Marquis, it’s always good to have that one extra guy who can step in just in case.

In other news, Mark Prior is having shoulder problems again. According to the Chicago Tribune, the San Diego Padres (or as Mom would say, the South Dakota Padres) wanted him to be in a minor league rehab assignment by now. Instead, this is his second delay due to shoulder soreness, and he hasn’t even made it out of extended spring training yet. This is a familiar story. In case you don’t recall, last year he wanted to make the Cubs 25-man roster and start the season in the bigs. The Cubbies thought that wasn’t such a good idea, said he would start the season in the minors, and had him pitch in extended spring training. Of course, the Cubs were being complete jerks about the situation. He was fine, but there was nothing he could do because he was “just an employee.” “It’s up the Cubs if they want me,” he said bitterly, joking that he could be in the minor league Futures Game because he was going to pitch so well and show us all. He was shut down by the end of April, and hasn’t played in the majors or minors since.

What a loser.

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Another “Cubbie” Moment

Scott Eyre was activated from the DL today, which was a very important move because the Cubs desperately needed another bullpen lefty. So far all they’ve had out of the ‘pen was Sean Marshall, who used to be a starter and is much better suited to long closing roles than the “face one batter and you’re out” typically reserved for the lefties. As an added bonus, Scott Eyre can be one of the better left-handed relievers in the game, as evidence by his spotless second half 0.81 ERA (however, his final ERA was 4.13, so that should tell you something about his first half struggles). Eyre is one of my favorite players, so I love that he’s back. But there’s one thing about his return which completely baffles me.

Their response for finally getting a second lefty in the ‘pen is to send the first one down.

Marshall has played well this season. Not sparkling, but well. And they really need a long-reliever and a second left hander in that bullpen.

Now, maybe there is a method to their madness. Rich Hill was sent back to the minors because his pitching has so far taken the year off, and John Leiber got knocked around the park in his only substitute start to the tune of four home runs (in the second inning. Not by the second inning; in the second inning.) Leiber had done well out of the bullpen when they needed two or three innings to eat up, so I could definitely understand putting him back in the ‘pen and sending Marshall down to get his arm ready to start again. That would make sense.

Even so, the Cubs’ handling of the major league roster has been questionable, at best. They have an overcrowded outfield that includes Felix Pie, a guy who couldn’t hit a major league pitch with a cricket bat, while Reed Johnson and Ronny Cedeno chew sunflower seeds on the bench and career .295 hitter (and that’s in the big league, folks) Matt Murton shags fly balls in Iowa. There’s an obvious player to send back to the cornfields, but “Marshall” isn’t on the back of his jersey. Daryl Ward, who’s supposed to be their big bat coming of the bench, is hitting a measly .136, and the very few times he does get on base they have to waste another bench player to go run for him. So you have a player who can’t hit, another player who can’t hit, run, or field, and you’re sending one of your two lefty relievers down and keeping a solid hitter with decent speed in Iowa to rot.

As Bob Brenly would say, “Where’s the justice?”

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Today in Washington, Wednesday in Mesa

On Fox News Sunday, Bush gave his critique of Obama, saying “I certainly don’t know what he believes in.  The only foreign policy thing I remember he said was that he’s going to attack Pakistan and embrace Ahmenidajad.”  Evidently he feels like America doesn’t know what he stands for.  Fortunately for us, Barack Obama has given us a fairly detailed account on his plans for American foreign policy under his administration.  I can’t really blame Bush for not knowing what it is, however.  If he wasn’t able to keep up with foreign policy issues when he was running for President, why should we expect him to keep up with another candidate’s?

It’s ironic that such statements were an example of “the old Washington game trying to tear somebody down” when they were directed at him, but seem acceptable when he’s the old Washington guy.  I guess he’s the typical “dish it but can’t take it” type.

What I find especially insulting, though, is that he’s making such negative remarks about Obama when Obama’s policies really reflect some of the few bright moments in Bush’s historically inept foreign policy.  When Obama said he was “going to attack Pakistan” he was saying that the U.S. should unilaterally embark on bombing campaigns inside Pakistan if there is credible evidence that they would help capture or kill Osama bin Laden but the Pakistani government won’t assist with the effort.  You know, kind of like how we attacked Afghanistan and overthrew their government because we had credible evidence bin Laden was there but the Taliban wouldn’t assist with the effort.  In other words, Obama said he would take whatever actions are necessary to clean up Bush’s mess, since, you know, Bush wasn’t able to find the guy.  Of course, there is a big difference; in Obama’s “attack” he said he’d avoid situations like bombing wedding ceremonies. 

As far as the “embrace Ahmenidajad” remark, Obama did certainly say that he would embrace diplomatic relations with Ahmenidajad to help stabilize the region and remove the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.  Remember when Bush said unilateral diplomatic relations with North Korea would be embracing Kim Jong-il but then his hard stance ended up enabling a nuclear-armed North Korea and then all of Asia hated us and the only way he was able to stop it was to finally just talk to the Korean dictator?  Evidently Bush doesn’t.

I guess the question then becomes, how can we expect Bush to know what a Democrat candidate’s positions are when he evidently has so little knowledge of his own?

By the way, don’t you hate when Republicans claim withdrawing combat troops from Iraq would encourage terrorism when Obama said he would keep troops in Iraq to battle al Qaida and will use the withdrawal to increase the focus on Afghanistan?  I sure do.  Of course, God forbid the GOP might have to face the reality that the Iraq war is what caused al Qaida in Iraq and allowed the Taliban to come back in power.

In other political news, Hillary Clinton’s campaign has changed managers.  First she has to give $5 million to the campaign, then she asks for weekly debates, then she gets swept over the weekend, and now she’s changing managers.  Sounds like she’s on the ropes to me.  Of course, she denies it.  I guess she could have a point.  After all, don’t successful baseball teams change managers in the middle of a season all the time?  And don’t companies who are very profitable often change CEOs just to “liven things up a bit?”  And didn’t California elect Schwarzenegger because Gray Davis was doing so well?  Wait . . . my sources are telling me the answer to all of those questions is “no.”  Evidently, only a moron would believe that.  Well, that’s what I pay my crack research team for.  Good catch, guys!

Anyway, we’ll see if Obama can keep it up through March 4.

Finally, Wednesday is one of the most joyful days of the year.  The signal that winter is nearing an end and warmer days are upon us.  A beacon of light in the darkest of every year.  A renewal of hope that could only come from the graces of all that is good and whole in our lives.  I’m speaking, of course, of the day that Cubs’ pitchers and catchers report to spring training.

I’m cautiously optimistic about this upcoming year.  I am a little disturbed when I hear claims that 85 victories could win the Central division, as that is the total the Cubbies had last year and they should be better this year (and we shouldn’t have to suffer the Pinella “break-in” period that took most of last April and May).  The Cubs didn’t do much this offseason, but they were able to keep all their important pieces, shed Mark Prior (addition by subtraction, I think), and sign Kosuke Fukudome (which was huge).

However, two things do worry me.  Namely, they have five pitchers competing for the last two starting positions, and three competing for the closer’s job.  The obligatory argument from the Cubs is that signifies how deep they are in those spots.  The thing is, usually when you have a bunch of people competing for one spot, it doesn’t mean you have a bunch of excellent candidates; it means you don’t have a one.

The Mets signing Santana makes them the obvious favorites to win the NL pennant.  But I do think this year’s Cubbies are going to be a lot of fun to watch.

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