May 6, 2013
During the final week of September in 2012, the Chicago Cubs lost 5 of 6 to NL West Division opponents, using a starting pitching rotation of Chris Rusin, Jason Berken, Chris Volstad, Travis Wood, and Justin Germano. If you just threw up a little bit in your mouth, and you need to take a minute to rinse and pop in a mint, I completely understand. Rusin, Berken and Germano are back in AAA to begin 2013, with only Rusin remaining in the Cubs system. Volstad is pitching for the Rockies with a robust 8.53 ERA this season. The only one to climb out of that September sink hole was former Reds top prospect, Travis Wood, who one could argue has been the best starter in the 2013 Cubs rotation.
So when the question keeps getting repeated – “Why did the Cubs spend free agent dollars on starting pitchers Edwin Jackson, Scott Feldman, and Carlos Villanueva?” – the answer is probably “September of 2012.” Of course, the question isn’t quite that simple. The deeper question asks, why would the Cubs spend roughly $70 million on starting pitchers for a 2013 season in which they have little hope to compete? The answer remains, no matter what phase of a franchise rebuild the Cubs are in, they could not plan to put a product on the field with a starting rotation of arms like Rusin, Berken, Volstad, Wood, and Germano. Say what you will about the Cubs (you have over a century of material to work with), but the one thing you have to give them: They are not the Marlins.
But looking closer at these specific free agent signings, there are many contract factors that help these deals make sense for the Cubs: Feldman is a one-year flyer at $6 million, which opens up all kinds of second-half options in 2013, and Villanueva’s deal equates to $10 million for two years for a pitcher whose stock has been steadily rising for three seasons. The much heavier Jackson deal is the one most often criticized, at 4 years for $52 million, but I honestly think it’s a fair price for the value the Cubs were seeking from the starting pitching market (not easy to say right now, because EJax has been terrible so far in 2013). Edwin Jackson’s market value was set around $11 million per year, which matches his Cubs contract, but their risk is in the 4 years. Where Feldman and Villaneuva are automatic trade targets for a market always starved for starting pitching assets, no team is looking to trade for 2 or 3 seasons of Edwin Jackson starts. Not at $11 million per anyway. So where is the value the Cubs purchased with Edwin Jackson?
Cubs President, Theo Epstein, and Cubs GM, Jed Hoyer, have been very candid about their approach to rebuilding the franchise, and the “bottom-to-top” standard operating procedure they call “The Cubs Way.” Mirroring the front-office strategies they successfully developed with the Red Sox, Epstein and Hoyer emphasize acquiring talent through the draft, and looking for trades that return prospects. Somewhere much farther down the bullet points on that standard operating procedure is the emphasis on acquiring free agents. Epstein and Hoyer are on the record saying they are not looking to acquire expensive contracts on aging players for the Cubs. Call it “The Anti-Jim-Hendry-Way.” Instead, they employ the same combination of scouting and data analysis made famous in the book and film “Moneyball” to identify free agent assets they feel the market has undervalued. So while seven other teams in the last ten years would have told you something different, the Cubs front office believe that Edwin Jackson is undervalued.
There are two areas I believe the Cubs focused on when evaluating Jackson: 1) Reliability. The term “innings-eater” is overused, and broadly-applied to pitchers of varying and debatable skill levels. Jackson is more than that. He’s a consistent performer. He’s thrown close to, or above, 200 innings the past five seasons, and held his ERA between 3.50 and 4.50 along the way. Not great, not terrible, but reliable. 2) The advanced statistical analysis favored by Epstein/Hoyer is all about measuring skill. Trimming away the traditional game-oriented performance metrics for a player, and isolating what the player does or doesn’t do well. The data is telling the Cubs that Jackson is a very skilled pitcher. (I read Ron Shandler’s Baseball Forecaster as a form of bible study, and the Forecaster shows that while Jackson’s ERA went up in his 2nd half with the Nationals last season, his skills actually improved.)
The Cubs are hoping that staying in one place for awhile will give Edwin Jackson the stability he needs to develop his skills and translate them into a better line in the box score. If that actually happens in the future, Edwin Jackson is either a valuable piece on a competitive Cubs roster, or a viable trade asset, regardless of the number of years remaining on his contract. If the skills don’t develop or translate to Wins like they hope (the short stretch of road they are currently on with EJax), the Cubs still have a bona fide starter who can take the ball for 200 innings per season, and help prevent scenarios where options like Rusin, Berken, Volstad, and Germano are attractive.
- Jackson struggles again, Cubs lose 7-4 to Reds (sacbee.com)
- Cubs lose 4th straight as Jackson drops to 0-5 in 7-4 loss (suntimes.com)
- Jackson struggles again, Cubs lose 7-4 to Reds (seattletimes.com)
- Edwin Jackson is a sign of the Cubs’ times (suntimes.com)
April 23, 2013
So this morning a thought struck me that those of us who participate in fantasy sports are guilty of mock human trafficking. And while trafficking in human beings in the abstract is certainly more socially acceptable (and less illegal) than trafficking in real human beings, there is still an uncomfortable insensitivity inherent in the game. Fantasy sports, at their core, are a form of commodity trading and speculating. One could argue the commodities are not human, but simply buckets of statistics and metrics that match the scoring of the game (there’s some of that insensitivity for you). But nobody drafts a team of raw stats. They draft players, or you know… people.
This line of thought started this morning when I checked my MLB newsfeed and read that Jason Heyward, an outfielder for the Atlanta Braves, had surgery last night to remove his appendix. The human reaction to this story would be empathy. A 23 year old professional athlete had emergency surgery at a hospital unfamiliar to him, Rose Medical Center in Denver, because the Braves are playing an away series against the Rockies (as an aside, Monday’s Game 1 was postponed because of SNOW, so the weather continues to act like Uncle Gary at the Busey Family Thanksgiving). Not an ideal situation for Heyward. Most people would likely project themselves into that scenario and muster some genuine concern for the young man. I’m in that place now, but that was not my initial reaction. I had only read the headline, “Heyward Has Surgery To Remove Appendix” and my immediate thought was of the $37 (real out-of-my-wallet dollars) I paid for the outfielder in my league auction, and how unlikely it would be that I would approach anywhere close to a decent ROI (return on investment) for Heyward. It gets worse. From somewhere in the darkest corner of my reptile brain, some really horrible person was speaking into a megaphone, repeating two words over and over – “SUNK COST.”
Yep. While Jason Heyward recovers in a private hospital room in Colorado, likely lost in a haze of painkillers, with brief flashes of clarity that only punish him with questions about the length of time he will spend on a disabled list, somewhere a thousand miles away, a grown-ass-man in East Central Illinois sits at his computer and curses him for being human. It’s a sick business.
To be honest, I was already pissed with Heyward prior to the appendectomy. It’s early in the MLB season, but a .121 average and only two home runs in 17 games is a very rough start. The early prospectus on Heyward was already shaky, and a fair 2013 ROI was starting to become a long shot. This surgery is simply the black swan event that brings a season into perspective and speaks undeniable truth to a fantasy team owner. Heyward will play more baseball this year. Hell, he may only miss 10 games. But he won’t return full value. He won’t bring good trade returns. Heyward is by all intents and purposes, as far as rotisserie baseball is concerned – SUNK COST.
I wish him the best on his recovery. He seems like a very nice young man.
- Heyward has surgery to remove appendix (mlb.mlb.com)
- Atlanta Braves right fielder Jason Heyward has appendectomy, no word on return to lineup (timescolonist.com)
- Braves OF Heyward has appendectomy surgery (cbssports.com)
- Braves’ Heyward to DL after appendectomy (espn.go.com)