Jealous of the #Cubs

Editor’s Note: This isn’t exactly in the spirit of Christmas, but what the hey.

How could I not be jealous? Sure, they haven’t won a World Series since 1908.

But as a #Phillies fan, watching his favorite team slowly dip their toe in the swampy waters of Rebuilding River, it’s pretty easy to look at what the #Cubs have done and find myself becoming a Wrigley Wannabe.

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Here’s what they’ve done over the past couple years to build the should-be-contender they are today:

FRONT OFFICE

Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer leave the Red Sox (in 2011) to head up the Cubs front office, bringing their combined baseball genius.

They begin their work by drafting smarter and focusing on minor league player development. These efforts turn into big-time prospects Arismendy Alcantara, Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, C.J. Edwards, Kyle Hendricks and Jorge Soler — most of whom will be integral to the Cubs Renaissance — or as I’m calling it, the “Cubsaissance©®™.”

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MANAGER

Joe Maddon leaves Tampa Bay (in November 2014) to manage the Cubs.

Pretty much one of the best and most respected managers in the game heads to Chi-town, and why not? With a pretty tiny budget and not much of a fan base, the pride of Hazelton, Pa., managed six straight years of over .500 ball in the AL East — competing with big-spenders like the Yankees and Red Sox.

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WRIGLEY

The Friendly Confines are getting a new scoreboard with cool video functionality.

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THE BUILDING BLOCKS

So they’ve got 1B and SS covered with young talent in Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro. They have lefty pitcher Travis Wood (a 2013 All-Star) and righty Kyle Hendricks (who impressed in 13 starts last year). And Hector Rondon was a solid closer.

Then there’s the reclamation projects — fireballing Jacob Turner, reliever Pedro Strop, the big-time rebound that is Jake Arrieta, former Rangers high-level prospect Neil Ramirez, and Dan Straily (who won 10 games with Oakland in ’13). There’s even former Red Sock Felix Doubront, who throws hard and has won double-digit games twice. (And pitched in the postseason.)

And of course, the gems of the farm system. In addition to added-via-trade SS Addison Russell, there’s the great draft picks: OF Jorge Soler (power), IF Javier Baez (bat speed compared to Gary Sheffield), 3B Kris Bryant (POWER) and C/1B/OF Kyle Schwarber (moved up twice in his first year as a pro).

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2014 MOVES

Gonna bullet-point ’em for easy reading:

—Signed LHP Tsuyoshi Wada (1 yr, $4MM). He’s 33 and pitched nine years in Japan, but showed he can hang in MLB in 13 starts last year. A solid veteran option for the rotation. (More on the Cubs’ starting pitching below.)

—Traded two minor leaguers for C Miguel Montero. For the price of two not-top-prospects, they got a veteran leader behind the plate who’s solid on offense and defense. And a lefty-batting catcher, to boot.

—Signed RHP Jason Hammel (2 yrs, $18MM). Veteran righty innings-eater. Has signed with the Cubs twice as a free agent — the second time being after they traded him away last year to Oakland. So he wants to be there for sure. And his numbers were kinda awesome as a Cub in 2014. (8-5, 2.98 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 108 IP, 88H, 104K, only 23 BB.)

—Signed LHP Jon Lester (6 yrs, $155MM). Kinda surprising, but not really. The Red Sox didn’t make enough of an effort, Oakland doesn’t usually do the big signings (not very Moneyball), and I didn’t hear much of anything about the Yankees or other big spenders. OH, and ol’ Jon knows the front office guys pretty well from Boston. Which means he knows that there is winning in the future. (And $155 million is a nice incentive, too.) Here’s your #1 starter, Cubs fans.

—Signed RHP Jason Motte (1 yr, $4.5MM). And why not take a chance for that amount? This guy was a dominant reliever for the Cardinals, led the league in saves before Tommy John surgery, and has postseason experience. He’ll probably be a setup guy and serve as insurance for Rondon.

—Signed C David Ross (2 yrs, $5MM). Veteran catcher with a solid bat and hey wait, another Red Sox-connected guy who just happened to catch a whole lot of Jon Lester’s starts! Makes complete sense, and now they have a nice pair of experienced catchers who can hit, too.

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OVERALL

So it started at the top. New leadership with experience in building a winning franchise. They started with the draft and the minors.

When the time was right, they went and got a smart, creative and fan-friendly manager who led his teams to winning seasons despite big obstacles.

And now, the great young talent is starting to present itself. Some is already at the major league level, some will be arriving in 2015 and 2016.

Then they added a bunch of veteran leaders, a clear #1 starter and a deep pool of rotation candidates.

Boom. Contender. And if they’re smart enough (which they are), a possible dynasty. The window for the Cubs is open.

Rejoice, Northsiders. Pretty soon, you’re likely to be “Loveable Losers” no more.

And I’m freakin’ jealous.

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One game away!

UPDATED THOUGHT: How the heck DO you pitch to Manny Ramirez???

After the Phillies’ thrilling victory over the Dodgers in Game 4 of the NLCS, I had a bunch of thoughts:

–Pat Gillick did make some really smart moves. Shane Victorino? Taken in the Rule 5 draft a few years back from – you guessed it – the Dodgers. Matt Stairs? They got him for a crappy lefthanded reliever in a deal that nobody noticed about a month ago.

–Shane Victorino continues to earn my platonic love by being Mr. Clutch. Good power for a little guy. He’s like Lenny Dykstra (circa 1993) without the disgusting chewing tobacco and steroids.

–Game 5 is on against the 3rd and final Presidential debate. Guess I’ll be missing out on the politics. However, I’m sure that CNN, MSNBC, Fox, CNBC, and whoever else will replay it. Or I’ll just YouTube the highlights.

–Hamels vs. Billingsley in Game 5. My man Cole is already a
legend; this could cement it.

–Holy Crap, it was 15 years ago that I stood in my college dorm room, wondering why Mitch Williams was still in the game, with that sick-to-my-stomach feeling that Joe Carter was going to take him downtown.

–IF we win, who would I rather play in the World Series? Even without Manny, Boston is a juggernaut, but they’ve looked kinda weak against Tampa Bay. Tampa Bay has a lot of great young talent, but would they be able to withstand the pressure of the World Series? TB’s manager, Joe Maddon, is supposed to be some kind of genius, so that might not be an issue.

Boston is an interesting story because former Phils manager Terry Francona is their skipper. The only other real Phils/Sox connection is Paul Byrd, who resides in Boston’s bullpen as a long reliever. J.C. Romero was a Red Sox, but that’s not much to build a rivalry.

I don’t think Tampa Bay holds a grudge over the Kevin Stocker-for-Bobby Abreu supreme ripoff trade that the Phillies did with TB years ago, and there’s no real connection other than Rays’ reliever Trever Miller pitching like 10 games for the Phillies 8 years ago.

The networks would probably love a BOS/PHI matchup because of the two major cities involved, but I think the more compelling series (and probably more winnable series for the Phillies) is TB/PHI.

The appeal of fantasy sports

A good friend and actual reader of this blog asked me to address the topic which titles this entry, and I’m quite the obliging fellow, so here goes.

There are three types of people who are drawn to fantasy sports:

–one-time athletes (although current athletes are often fans),

–people who love statistics (and to a lesser degree, sports),

–and gamblers.

Me?  I’m 60% the first person, 35% the second person, and 5% the third.

To explain the overall concept–regular people get to “own” teams of real players from pro sports (or just one competitor, like in fantasy golf or auto racing) and they earn points based on the players’ on-field performance.  The “owner” with the most points wins their league, and often a cash prize.

Why is it so popular?  Because regular schmoes like me get to pretend that they’re six-figure-salaried general managers/vice presidents-of-player-personnel for pro teams, adding and subtracting players from their rosters, trading them to other owners, and thrilling at the competition.

Even somebody like me–who briefly sat the bench for a Division III baseball team–gets to be a big important “owner” while pitting my alleged baseball knowledge and expertise against friends and rivals alike.

There’s a wonderful thrill in being the guy who spots a diamond in the rough, an unheralded player who suddenly explodes and has a career-best season.

And there’s a camaraderie between the millions of men and women who play fantasy sports–comiserating when a superstar gets hurt, getting excited when they have an MVP season, and enjoying life as a sports fan at a deeper level.

Of course, there’s also the lessons you have to learn along the way–like not always choosing players from your hometown team or your favorite team.  Many Red Sox fans suffer in their fantasy lives from not going to get a superstud like Alex Rodriguez just because he plays for the hated Yankees, but that doesn’t hurt the Yanks –it hurts their team.  Even though it’s very difficult to root for a rival player, fantasy owners realize that it’s not the whole Yankee squad you’re rooting for or even a victory for New York–just a homer or two for A-Rod.

Some will contest that fantasy sports detract from the enjoyment of the games, that it’s harder to appreciate an acrobatic touchdown catch when you “own” the defense and it means you lose your game that week.  But I’d like to think that most fantasy players can get past that–because deep down, they’re fans first and foremost.