18th annual All-Chicago team

Some habits die hard.

This is the 18th season that Chicago’s two baseball teams have met in inter-league play, and for the first 17 City Series I picked an all-City team for the Chicago Tribune. I’ll make this one my first for MLB.com.

The most fun I’ve had with this was choosing a right fielder in the years when a young Magglio Ordonez emerged as Sammy Sosa was still swatting home runs with regularity. I loved the way Ordonez played — all substance, little style — and frequently gave him the benefit of the doubt when they were both putting up good numbers.

There are some tough choices this year, with an overlap of solid play at certain positions and a shortage of it at others. But the breakdown of my team is pretty much what you’d expect — an abundance of White Sox position players and more Cubs than White Sox on the pitching staff. Here goes:

FIRST BASE: Jose Abreu

Anthony Rizzo is off to a great start, putting up numbers the Cubs would love for him to have through 2021, when the last of their two option seasons on his contract will be up. You can build a lineup around a first baseman with a .931 OPS, which is what Rizzo takes into Monday night’s game. But still … Abreu, yeah. Like Barry Bonds in his chemically enhanced prime, the White Sox’s latest Cuban import makes big ballparks look small. He leads the AL with 12 homers and 34 RBIs and has been solid in the field, already pulling off that rare throw-the-glove-to-the-pitcher play.

SECOND BASE: Emilio Bonifacio

You can argue that he’s somewhat out of position here as he has made more starts in center field (15) than at second (11). But the beauty of a versatile player like the Cubs’ Bonifacio is you can play him where you need him, and our lineup works better with his .377 on-base percentage and 10 stolen bases here. The Royals must be really good if they didn’t need him. The White Sox have given three different players at least seven starts at second base, with Marcus Semien the most productive. But we’ll get to him later.

SHORTSTOP: Alexei Ramirez

Nothing against Starlin Castro. He’s a .300 hitter again — a huge development after the slide he’s had since June, 2012, when Rudy Jaramillo was fired as hitting coach — and while he still commits too many errors isn’t looking as jumpy as he did last season. Castro continues to move around in the batting order but is producing in the cleanup spot. But Ramirez has arguably been the best shortstop in the AL this season, looking like a guy who could win Silver Slugger or Gold Glove. There could be a nice market for him at mid-season but I don’t see the White Sox breaking up their Cuban connection any time soon.

THIRD BASE: Marcus Semien

There’s nothing flashy about his stats but he is a manager’s dream in terms of his fundamentals and how he gets the most out of his ability. Semien must find a way to put the ball in play more consistently because he is productive when he makes contact. His speed and energy have been a major plus as he filled in for Gordon Beckham at second base and now Conor Gillaspie at third base. Long term he might be a shortstop, as that was where he won an MVP in the Southern League last season. Mike Olt gives the Cubs power at third base but is hitting .156 with 25 strikeouts in 64 at-bats. He’s got the rest of this season to start making contact and hitting for average, as Kris Bryant isn’t likely to arrive before 2015.

LEFT FIELD: Junior Lake

No one on the Cubs is more fun to watch than the multi-talented Lake, who is prone to misplaying balls in the outfield and falling down swinging hard at two-strike pitches. But he’s got skills worthy of the number 21 he wears, even if they seem to pop up with only one or two big games a week. His at-bats are being kept down by the Cubs’ platoon tendencies, which makes sense long term only if the Epstein-Jed Hoyer front office see Ryan Sweeney or Ryan Kalish as a long-term fourth or fifth outfielder. I’d like to see Lake get 500 at-bats. Alejandro De Aza hasn’t built off his two home runs on Opening Day.

CENTER FIELD: Adam Eaton

It’s a shame Eaton is on the disabled list. He would have brought a lot of excitement to the City Series with his aggressiveness. He’s been a terrific igniter for the revamped White Sox but long term must answer questions about his lack of durability. He can be electrifying but has to figure out how to stay on the field more. The Cubs have used four different center fielders, with Bonifacio the best. They hoped Justin Ruggiano would click but he’s struggled, in part because of his health.

RIGHT FIELD: Dayan Viciedo

No, I didn’t see this coming. Neither did the White Sox, most likely. They had him on the bad side of a left field platoon with De Aza until Avisail Garcia hurt his shoulder on April 9. But Viciedo has been terrific since getting the chance. He’s hitting the ball hard and uncharacteristically drawing almost as many walks as strikeouts. There’s a belief that he’s learned from working with Abreu as much as hitting coach Todd Steverson. It’s early but very encouraging for a team that believes strongly that Garcia will remain a middle-of-the-order bat when he returns in 2015. That could mean an outfield of Viciedo/Eaton/Garcia for years. Or the White Sox could shop Viciedo for badly needed pitching in the off-season, provided he keeps himself together for a full season. Nate Schierholtz, who the Cubs look to shop at mid-season, is off to a disappointing start.

CATCHER: Tyler Flowers

Who knew? Welington Castillo would have seemed like an automatic choice when the season began but Flowers has outplayed his Cub counterpart, both with his hitting for average and his throwing. He’s gunned down 33 percent of runners attempting to steal so far while Castillo is only 2-for-23. Don’t be surprised if the Cubs test him. Flowers’ emergence is proof of his mental toughness as his 2013 season could have destroyed him. The White Sox seem smart for giving him a second chance, which they did because their pitchers like throwing to him and his shoulder surgery was deemed minor. Castillo is an above-average catcher himself, if not a threat to guys like Yadier Molina and Buster Posey in regard to the NL All-Star team.

DH/BENCH: Adam Dunn and Leury Garcia

Dunn is quietly having a solid season as he provides protection for Abreu. He’s hit five home runs, which is only okay by his standards, but has a 20/30 ratio of walks to strikeouts and a nice .909 OPS. You’d think he’d be made available for trades at mid-season and a team like the Mariners or Royals could use him. Garcia has hit solidly while receiving inconsistent playing time. His speed is an asset. I wish Paul Konerko was a choice here but his playing time has been limited more than even he probably thought it would be and the transition to pinch-hitter is proving a tough one. Ryan Kalish has been the best guy on the Cubs’ bench. Oh, tip of the cap to Adrian Nieto, the White Sox’s backup catcher, who was playing in Class A last year. He’s keeping it together.

ROTATION: Jeff Samardzija, Jason Hammel, Chris Sale and Travis Wood

You can understand why Samardzija isn’t giving the Cubs a discount in negotiations on a contract extension, as it’s criminal that he can’t get more wins. He’s 0-3 with a 1.98 ERA in six starts this season and has only 19 wins in 72 career starts, frequently the victim of a lack of support. His challenge is remaining strong through an entire season as he started strong before fading in 2013. Hammel has been an excellent free-agent signing, pitching so well that you wonder if the Cubs should sign him to a short extension rather than trading him at mid-season. The level of the offers could determine the course of action. Wood too seems a strong candidate for a contract extension but he’s under team control for three seasons regardless. The Cubs could do worse than seeking to add two starters to the trio of Samardzija, Hammel and Wood but have Edwin Jackson signed for two more seasons, which hampers their flexibility. Sale’s uncertain status is a huge concern for the White Sox. Fans should hold their breath until he returns from the disabled list intact. That would be a huge lift for a team looking to find another starter or two to put behind Sale and Jose Quintana.

CLOSER: Hector Rondon

Brought into a tie game against the Cardinals on Sunday night, he gave up two runs to take the loss. But he’s a guy that executives with other teams always notice when they play the Cubs. He could hold onto the role all year but the Cubs are committed to trying to get Jose Veras going strong, as he was signed with the idea of being a mid-season trade chip. Rondon, by the way, is seen as a guy who could emerge as a starter down the road. That was his role when he was a highly regarded prospect with the Indians, and he appears all the way back from the injuries that derailed him there.

SET-UP MEN: Justin Grimm and Daniel Webb

Grimm, acquired from the Rangers along with C.J. Edwards, Neil Ramirez and Olt in the Matt Garza trade last year, has been terrific. He also has a history of starting put seems to have found his niche, with the potential to develop into one of baseball’s top eighth-inning arms. Webb, who the White Sox got when they sent Chicagoan Jason Frasor back to Toronto after the 2011 season, has a big-time arm. He showed it in throwing three scoreless innings against Boston in the crazy 14-inning loss that ended with Garcia on the mound. There’s a reason you hear talk about him having closer stuff.

MANAGER: Robin Ventura

His patience with guys like Viciedo and Flowers is paying off, not that he had a lot of choice. While he might have looked silly running out of pitchers in that April 16 game against the Red Sox, he actually showed admirable restraint in going to Garcia rather than extending Webb for a fourth inning. It was a smart long-term move by a smart guy — and apparently a long-term guy, based on the contract extension he agreed to before the start of the season. Rick Renteria has so far done what he was hired to do, setting a positive tone to help jump-start Castro and, to a lesser degree, Rizzo. But you need a lot of imagination to picture him becoming for Epstein the answer to what Terry Francona was in Boston. The good thing is he’ll have plenty of time to grow into that, as the Cubs still need to add multiple impact players before there’s pressure even to produce a winning season, let alone a playoff spot.

 

 

 

Good tidings for the Hall of Fame

On second thought, maybe the Hall of Fame voting system isn’t really broken. 

Sure, the BBWAA could use some clarification from the Hall of Fame’s Board of Directors on how to handle players linked to the use of performance enhancing drugs. Until something changes, it seems that Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Rafael Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire will never receive even 50 percent of the vote, let alone the 75-percent necessary for election. 

But look at what is happening this year.

I thought for sure that the glut of strong candidates on the 2014 ballot — at least 15, as many as 18 who would be considered legitimate candidates — would splinter voting so badly that only someone like Greg Maddux could be elected. 

In fact, I said that on film in December. Now I’m saying this: Please ignore me if those outdated comments are aired some time between now and Wednesday, when the voting results will be released.

Thanks to the Baseball Think Factory, I feel very confident that Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas will all be elected by BBWAA voters, and I won’t be totally flabbergasted if Craig Biggio and Mike Piazza join them.

The Baseball Think Factory website collects ballots that have been published by voters, generally in newspapers, on websites or on Twitter. It keeps running totals on the site, and history says these early returns — if you want to call them that — tell us most of what we need to know about the election.

A search of the BTF archives showed 194 previewed ballots last year, and 148 the year before. The site correctly used those to predict last year’s shutout and Barry Larkin’s election in 2012.

I compared the final vote totals from those two years to the BTF’s early returns. The greatest difference was Barry Bonds falling from 45.4 percent to 36.2 percent last year. Nobody else changed more than 8.4percent, and that difference was a gain (for Jack Morris in 2013, from 59.3 to 67.7; he also gained 7.9 percent in 2012), not a loss. 

Interestingly, as many players seemed to gain votes as to lose them when the final results were compared to ones from the published ballots. Based on these comparisons, I’m comfortable saying that the BTF early results can predict the outcome within a margin of 10 percent. 

As of this morning, the BTF Ballot Collecting Gizmo, as it’s called, had compiled the results of 133 ballots — about 25 percent of those cast. 

Maddux had received all 133, showing that he has a legitimate shot to top Tom Seaver’s 98.3 percent, which is the highest approval rating in the history of Hall voting (don’t ask me why guys don’t vote for obvious candidates, as I’ve never understood that). But because I expected Maddux to be elected, that’s not big news for me. 

The news is that Glavine is at 97.7 percent, Thomas is at 91.7 percent, Biggio is at 81.2 percent and Piazza is at 72.2 percent. Glavine and Thomas are going to get elected, and Biggio and Piazza could join them to make this a truly historic election. 

I could cry about Morris. It doesn’t seem like voters can get past his 3.90 career ERA, which would be the highest ever for an inducted player. That ERA comes with a notable qualifier, however, as he spent his entire career pitching in the American League during the DH era, something no Hall of Famer can say. Morris is at 60.9 percent in early voting, and the 2012 and ’13 results say he can’t jump from there to 75 percent.

BBWAA voters haven’t elected three Hall of Famers in a year since 1999, when Nolan Ryan, George Brett and Robin Yount went in together. The last time they elected four was in 1955, hen Joe DiMaggio headlined the class. The only time they elected five was in the initial election, in 1936, when the BBWAA voters made Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson and Ty Cobb the charter members. 

To elect three new Hall of Famers this time around is stunning, no matter how clear the cases are for Maddux, Glavine and Thomas. I’ll have to find another adjective if Biggio and/or Piazza join them. 

Somehow, despite all the PED-related angst, the system is working, at least for players who haven’t been tarnished by a link to the scandal. I imagined a lot of possible scenarios from this year’s election, and I’ll admit, this wasn’t one of them. Maybe me and the other  BBWAA voters aren’t really brain dead.

 

 

The annual Hall of Fame ballot dilemma and thoughts on the process

I wrote this on Dec. 27, and it has been sitting around in my computer so long that my viewpoint has completely changed. I hope to post my updated viewpoint and reasons for it later today.

On the Hall of Fame election and my ballot …

After putting it off as long as possible, I am zeroing in on that annual exercise in futility that is the Hall of Fame ballot. The ballot is due to be submitted by Dec. 31, so while I’ve been kicking it around in my head for a couple months I put off the squeeze play as long as possible.

My position couldn’t be more clear: The process is broken due to the overcrowded ballot that has resulted from leaving me and every other voter to play policeman/historian while sorting out the steroid age. I call this “525 voters, 525 standards,’’ because the guidelines are horrifically outdated.

I’m not sure when the voting guidelines were changed, but I’m pretty sure no one had heard of Victor Conte, Patrick Arnold or Anthony Bosch when they were typed under the heading “BBWAA Rules for Election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame’’ for the first time. 

I’ve been voting since 1995, and the first year I filled out a ballot it was a difficult chore. It became impossible when the haze of the steroid years descended. 

Just to be sure, earlier today I checked to see if the “integrity’’ clause was still included in the voting guidelines. I knew it would be, and there it was, included in rule No. 5. Unfortunately, voting is still to be based upon “the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contribution to the team(s) on which the player played.’’

It’s integrity that stumps me. Leave it out and I could say that I don’t feel comfortable enough judging anyone’s character or sportsmanship in a way that would exclude them from the ballot. But in my lifetime nothing has more damaged the integrity of baseball than steroid cheating. 

When there was no testing, a lot of players cheated. I might have too. But like every one of them who did it, all of whom who hid what they were doing, I would have known I was cheating.

So until the Hall of Fame’s Board of Directors updates the guidelines that voters are given, I can’t vote for guys who were identified as steroid users. Just as it is wrong to punish someone based on suspicion, it’s wrong to overlook what it is we do know. 

So Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro and Mark McGwire have never gotten my vote. But I’ve never seen a ballot as messed up as this one, which has at least 15-18 players who would be deserving of votes if we were only judging them on performance. 

I voted for nine guys last season, including Dale Murphy, who didn’t get elected in his last season on the ballot. That means I start this year with eight holdovers (Jack Morris, Alan Trammell, Tim Raines, Jeff Bagwell, Larry Walker, Craig Biggio, Mike Piazza and Curt Schilling).  

 I’ve known for a long time I was going to vote for three first-timers — Greg Maddux, Frank Thomas and Tom Glavine. That means that one of the holdovers has to go, and while I love Walker’s all-around game, I think he’s the first man out (although to be honest I might keep him over Raines if others hadn’t argued eloquently for Raines through the years). 

So with Walker gone, I’m at the maximum 10. That’s great except I wish I could also vote for Mike Mussina and Jeff Kent. 

Mussina stacks up favorably against Schilling when regular-season innings are primarily considered. But I can’t overlook the magic Schilling worked in October with the 2001 Diamondbacks and ’04 and ’07 Red Sox. The guy I watched in those post-seasons was a Hall of Famer, and I can’t say I ever knew I was watching greatness with Mussina (verygoodness, sure, but not greatness).

 As for Kent, he’s the all-time home run leader at second base. While you wouldn’t know it by Robinson Cano’s contract, that record could last a long, long time. His 351 is 120 more than Dan Uggla and 147 more than Cano. 

 Cano would crush him if he hit 30 a year for the next six or seven years but that’s easier typed than done. So let’s hold off on the applause. 

Piazza gets my vote in large part because he’s the all-time home run leader for a catcher, and I’d happily apply the same reasoning toward Kent except I can’t fit him on the overcrowded ballot. 

I’m aware there are other reasons one might not vote for Piazza, Kent and several others that I do vote for. But I don’t think I can assume what I don’t know or overlook what I do know. So here’s where I am … and until the Hall of Fame provides some direction, I’m not going to get a better grip on this. It’s a losing proposition for everyone, which I think will become more clear when the vote is revealed on Jan. 8. 

As much as it seems that guys like Glavine and Thomas should be no-brain Hall of Famers, my guess is that only Maddux will get 75 percent. The more strong candidates on the ballot, the harder it becomes for anyone to reach it. And that will become more of a factor every year that the Hall allows the status quo to exist.

 

 

  

 

White Sox could benefit from Cano rebound

As much as I hate to see Curtis Granderson sign with the Mets, not the White Sox (or even the Cubs), the Friday morning developments in baseball were positive for Rick Hahn, even though the White Sox ge As neral manager didn’t close any deals.

With Robinson Cano shocking Yankee fans, if not Brian Cashman’s front office, an opportunity has opened for Hahn to make a trade that will reshape the mix of a team that badly needs a new look.

Find me a better fit for a Yankee team with no Cano and an extremely fragile, 39-year-old Derek Jeter than Alexei Ramirez, in particular one who is under control through 2016 for less than $10 million a season. With the exception of kids who aren’t going to be traded by their teams, I don’t think you can find any of those. I can’t.

Ramirez, tagged the Cuban Missile by Ozzie Guillen during his electrifying rookie season in 2008, hasn’t developed into the impact, two-way stud that it looked like he would. He had a .792 OPS that season, when it seemed he hit grand slam after grand slam and repeatedly made plays at second base alongside shortstop Orlando Cabrera, and that has slid to .691 over the last three seasons.

He’s not an All-Star player, but is he a better option than Omar Infante, who will be 32 in three weeks and is seeking a free-agent bonanza? It seems to me he is, especially for a team that needs both a second baseman and insurance behind Jeter, who played 17 games last year and could walk away after 2014.

Trading the right-handed-hitting Ramirez would give the White Sox flexibility to reshuffle their middle infield, possibly adding switch hitter Carlos Sanchez, who can be the on-base guy they have lacked in recent years. He struggled as a 20-year-old in Triple-A last season, especially early in the year, but this winter has hit .333 with a .408 on-base percentage in 40 games as a leadoff man for La Guaira.

Sanchez is hardly the only option the White Sox have to play middle infield. Marcus Semien, who was promoted to Chicago in September, was MVP in the Southern League and is an organization favorite but he’s a right-handed hitter, and the Sox are overloaded in that department.

Speedster Leury Garcia, a speedster acquired from the Rangers for Alex Rios, is a switch hitter. Jake Elmore, a right-handed hitter claimed on waivers from the Astros, is a versatile guy. Even base-stealer extraordinaire Micah Johnson, drafted in 2012, could be in the discussion if he hadn’t cut short a stint in the Arizona Fall League to have elbow surgery.

Because he carries himself like a  leader, the White Sox remain committed to getting more production from Gordon Beckham. But if they traded Ramirez they could at least consider moving Beckham to shortstop, which would open second base for Sanchez — or maybe they could send the Yankees both Beckham and Ramirez and go with a middle infield of Semien and Sanchez. 

Probably gone too far there. But I can’t wait to see what Hahn does between now and the time the equipment truck heads to Arizona. Some changes are coming.

Other thoughts:

— While we all love George Kottaras and Wesley Wright, it will be a big blow for those keeping up with the Cubs if the Rakuten Golden Eagles follow through on Thursday’s threats not to post Masahiro Tanaka. Lots of Major League executives believe that the club president, Yozo Tachibana, is bluffing but the Golden Eagles could hold onto Tanaka for another two years rather than accept $20 million as a posting fee. 

If Tanaka is posted, the Cubs are in excellent position to ante up the theoretical $20 million to spend a month trying to sign him. Their 2014 payroll commitments are at about $70 million, including estimates for the arbitration-eligible players they tendered, and that includes $14 million going to the Yankees to pay Alfonso Soriano. They are at a max of $31 million in guaranteed contracts from 2015 forward, so they could just keep increasing their bid to get Tanaka. 

It won’t help them or anyone else that the Yankees missed out on Cano, however, as they might be able to sign Tanaka and stay under the $189 million tax threshold with him out of the picture. The Cubs must hope they spend heavily elsewhere in the next few days as the Tanaka situation sorts itself out.

— While Robin Ventura spent a long time on Wednesday explaining how he can get at-bats for Jose Abreu, Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko, there’s a better chance than you might think that the White Sox will find a market for Dunn. The first potential fit is the post-Cano Yankees but don’t overlook the Rangers, who will be anxious to counter the Cano move, or the Rays, A’s and, yes, even the Astros. The White Sox would certainly have to pay some of the $15 million left on his contract but if they can get a left-handed hitter with shelf life or a good prospect, why not?

“Dunner,’’ as Ventura calls him, has seemingly been a disaster since arriving in Chicago but has 75 home runs and driven in 182 runs over the last two years. That’s worth something, especially at a time when pitching is dominating and power is hard to find, even in the minor leagues.

 

 

Time for Hahn to trade Beckham or Ramirez

Have you seen what Carlos Sanchez is doing in Venezuela?

The switch-hitting infielder who struggled so much at Triple-A in 2013 is back to being himself with Tiburones de La Guaira, controlling the strike zone and making things happen at the top of the lineup. He was 2-for-5 on Wednesday, with a double in a 10-8 victory over Magallanes.

Sanchez is batting .330 with a .430 on-base percentage in 33 games this winter. He needed a strong finish to hit .241 with a .293 OBP at Charlotte but you shouldn’t hold that against him too much.

Pushed aggressively by the White Sox — he climbed through four levels in 2011 and ’12 — he was only 20 years old when this season began, extremely young for Triple-A. And his fielding was as strong as always moving between second base and shortstop.

Sanchez isn’t the only middle infielder of note in the White Sox system. He was effectively passed by Marcus Semien, who was named MVP of the Southern League before spending September in the Major Leagues, and the Sox acquired a switch-hitting base-stealer in Leury Garcia, who came from the Rangers for Alex Rios.

Oh, and no one has forgotten Micah Johnson either. The guy who hit .312 between three levels while leading the minors with 84 stolen bases was continuing his swift ascent in the Arizona Fall League before undergoing elbow surgery, which might be the only thing stopping him from pushing for big-league consideration in the second half of next season.

This is why the White Sox have to find a trade for either Alexei Ramirez or Gordon Beckham. Ideally one of them and another of the team’s attractive trade chips — Alejandro De Aza, Hector Santiago and Dayan Viciedo — could be traded for a catcher or a left-handed bat. Trading Ramirez or Beckham would add to the payroll flexibility, which could help GM Rick Hahn land Curtis Granderson, who would be an excellent fit.

Other things on my mind:

– While adding utility man Jake Elmore (another middle infielder) in a waiver claim from the Astros, the White Sox did not protect either of their two most productive left-handed hitters, leaving Andy Wilkins and Dan Black exposed for the Rule 5 draft. Both are having strong winters, Black in the Dominican Republic (.275 with 5 home runs, 19 RBIs and a .904 OPS in 25 games for Aguilas) and Wilkins in Venezuela (.314 with 3 homers, 21 RBIs and an .871 OPS in 31 games for La Guaira). Both are blocked by Adam Dunn but figure to be interesting guys to look at next spring, assuming they aren’t picked in the Rule 5 draft.

– Northwestern’s Eric Jokisch (11-13, 342 at Double-A) and Jacksonville University’s Matt Loosen were among the notable players the Cubs did not protect. Loosen excited the Theo Epstein regime by going 5-2 with a 1.83 ERA in nine starts for high-A Daytona to start the season but got knocked around after being promoted to Tennessee (3-3, 6.14). They were competing with Dallas Beeler for a spot on the 40-man roster and Beeler surged past them with a strong showing in the Arizona Fall League.

– You’ve got to feel for Daniel Bard. The former Red Sox prospect has a spot on the Cubs’ roster but little ability to locate his fastball. He’s made three appearances in Puerto Rico but gotten only one out while walking nine and hitting three batters. His ERA is 189.00. It speaks to Theo Epstein’s belief in him that he wasn’t cut loose on Wednesday to free up a roster spot.

Can Renteria end the Cubs’ lack of stability?

Will Rick Renteria be The Guy or just another link in the chain for the Cubs?

History, of course, suggests the latter but Tom Ricketts and Theo Epstein really need for it to be the former. This is an organization that needs stability at the top as badly as any in the majors.

No one has managed the Cubs for more than five seasons since Leo Durocher was fired in 1972, and only Jim Riggleman made it that long. That’s an astonishing fact when you consider the quality of managers who have tried to win at Wrigley Field during this time – a list that includes Dusty Baker, Lou Piniella, Don Baylor and Don Zimmer.

Including guys on the job when Phil Wrigley punted Durocher for Whitey Lockman, the other 29 franchises have combined for 50 managerial stints of more than five years. Not every team has had this stability – the Diamondbacks, Royals and Marlins are like the Cubs – but more than half (18) have had two managers work more than five seasons continuously post-Durocher.

The Yankees, Giants, Cardinals, Rangers, White Sox and Nationals/Expos have had three different managers with tenures that lasted more than five seasons, and among those teams only the Rangers and Nationals have failed to be rewarded with a championship season.

When you break down why the Cubs haven’t won, there are a million more sexy reasons that you can theorize about. But the lack of stability has to be high on anyone’s list.

Starlin Castro, for instance, reached the big leagues under Piniella as a 20-year-old in 2010. He’ll be playing for his fourth manager when he reports to spring training in February, with Mike Quade and Dale Sveum following Piniella. That has to be confusing at some point, doesn’t it?

Besides the lack of stability, what has hurt the Cubs through the years? It’s a consistent lack of talent, not a Billy Goat curse, and especially the failure to develop homegrown All-Stars – which has been the primary area attacked by the Epstein regime since it arrived.

When guys like Piniella and Baker left saying they weren’t prepared for all the challenges that came with managing the Cubs, they were giving themselves a way out when the easier thing to say was, “We failed.’’ What’s different between the Cubs and other teams? Sure, there are more day games, and, yes, Wrigley Field is antiquated in terms of having the work space needed to best prepare for games.

Spring training is held in the wrong state (23 of the last 29 champions have trained in Florida, where the humidity helps pitchers). But the overriding issue is the talent hasn’t been good enough and when it was – 1969, for instance – the manager did a poor job with it.

Historically, there hasn’t been an emphasis on player development and scouting nor an ownership that was truly committed to making winning baseball the primary attraction. Phil Wrigley generally sold the beauty of the ballpark and popular events like Ladies Day, and the Tribune Company got caught up in sideshows like Harry Caray and Sammy Sosa, who kept the pot bubbling even when the team wasn’t winning.

The Cubs haven’t gotten nearly their share of passed-along talent talent during the era of free agency, which is in its fourth decade. The most successful free-agent signing came when Andre Dawson literally let ownership fill in a blank contract at a time when Major League owners were found to colluding to reduce salaries. Payrolls haven’t always been at the level that the market size suggests they should be, and ownership hasn’t stayed the course when times got tough.

Riggleman was just figuring it out when he got fired. Baker probably could have done just as well in 2007 and ’08 as Piniella but he’d become a whipping boy for fans and was fired (he helped the division rival Reds win 90-plus games three of the last four seasons before again being fired for not winning in October).

Renteria arrives at a time when the Cubs are finally addressing the primary underlying weakness of the franchise – the farm system. You may not be able to tell it by the team he puts on the field to start 2014 but he is going to get a chance to win in future seasons. If he’s still around in 2019, to start his sixth season, it will be a sign that better days have arrived.

n  Award season begins with the handing out of Rookie of the Year hardware on Monday. Here’s my quick take on ROYs and Managers of the Year, which will be announced Tuesday:

ROY, NL: In completely different ways, young Cubans Jose Fernandez and Yasiel Puig were electrifying. In many years either of those guys would be an easy winner but one is going to have to finish second. Fernandez was more consistent and up all season, so he gets the call over his countryman, as well as Cardinals’ slugger Matt Adams and a strong crop of rookie pitchers. Here’s my ballot after the Marlins’ Fernandez — 2. Puig, Dodgers; 3. Hyun-jin Ryu, Dodgers. (Had the BBWAA expanded the rookie ballot to five, as it did the Cy Young ballot, the Cardinals’ Shelby Miller and Adams would have gotten a call).

ROY, AL: Wil Myers suffers because the Rays waited so long to promote him. Jose Iglesias was a lifesaver for two franchises this season. He was an offensive force out of the gate for the Red Sox, filling in for Will Middlebrooks at third base, and then became the glue guy for the Tigers after GM Dave Dombrowski  realized he was going to lose Jhonny Peralta to a Biogenesis suspension. But I’d still go with Myers because the Rays don’t recover from a 24-24 start without him. The rest of the ballot — 2. Iglesias, Tigers; 3. Dan Straily, A’s (the Rays’ Chris Archer and the Indians’ Cody Allen could have been on a five-deep ballot).

Manager, NL: Easy pick here. Clint Hurdle’s optimism turned around the Pirates, who overcame disastrous second halves in 2011 and ’12 to go the distance into the playoffs this time around. Their run differential wasn’t close to the Cardinals and Reds but they hung with them all season, a tribute to Hurdle’s ability to put the players around McCutchen into the right spots. The runnersup — 2. Mike Matheny, Cardinals; 3. Don Mattingly, Dodgers.

Manager, AL: Terry Francona took over a more positive situation in Cleveland – thanks to off-season acquisitions – than did John Farrell in Boston. The Red Sox obviously have a ton of talent but give Farrell credit for steadying the ship after the tumultuous 2012 season under Bobby Valentine and Francona’s ugly exit the year before. I’m going with Farrell but there would be nothing wrong with Francona winning. My runnersup — 2. Francona, and 3. Joe Girardi, Yankees.

Cubs covet 25-0 Masahiro Tanaka

Major League executives no longer attend the World Series like they once did. In fact, it’s rare to see a general manager at a World Series game if his team is not involved. But there is a destination for GMs this week – that’s Kleenex Stadium in Sendai, Japan.

The Cubs are expected to be among the most heavily represented teams at the Japan Series, with a strong interest in 24-year old right-hander Masahiro Tanaka. He will pitch Game 2 for his Rakuten Golden Eagles, taking a 25-0 record into a game that starts about 5 a.m. CST Sunday.

Tanaka, according to Major League Baseball sources, has become a top priority for Cubs’ owner Tom
Ricketts and his baseball group, headed by Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer. He is expected to be offered up for the posting process by the Golden Eagles after the Japan Series, and the Cubs will bid heavily on it.

So too will all of baseball’s biggest spenders, with the Yankees, Red Sox and Rangers among the teams most frequently mentioned as having interest. The Blue Jays, Mariners, Dodgers and maybe another half dozen teams are also following Tanaka closely.

Two years ago, the Rangers invested over $107 million in Japanese ace Yu Darvish, winning the rights to sign him with a blind bid of $51,703,411 that went to the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters and then signing Darvish for $56 million over six years. The belief that the process to acquire Tanaka will be at least as competitive, in part because Darvish (29-18, 3.34 with 498 strikeouts in 401 innings pitched) has done so well in his two seasons with the Rangers.

Landing Tanaka would be a coup for Epstein, as he perfectly fits the organizational need for pitching and would give Ricketts a player he can promote as the wait continues for position-player prospects Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Jorge Soler and Albertico Almora.

The Cubs participated in the bidding process with Darvish but always viewed as secondary players within the industry. They were runnersup for two other top international free agents, Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes after the 201 season and Korean left-hander Hyun-jin Ryu last year, and appear at least as serious in landing Tanaka as they did either of those two. More than likely, they’re probably more motivated, as they need to do something major with NL Central rivals St. Louis and Pittsburgh looking so strong in October and well situated for the future.

Why Tanaka?

He’s 6-2, 205 pounds with a fastball that tops out at 97 and a splitter that is wicked. He gets a lot of ground balls to go with swings and misses, and he will pitch at age 25 next season, meaning he should be at the peak of his career in 2015, when the Cubs hope to become consistent playoff contenders behind a rebuilt farm system and some well-chosen free agents.

Tanaka broke Daisuke Matsuzaka’s career high school strikeout record and this season broke a record for consecutive victories that had stood since 1957. He was impressive in the World Baseball Classic, striking out 12 and walking none in seven innings, although he missed a chance for a major showcase when Puerto Rico upset Japan in the semifinals at AT&T Park, where it appeared he was on track to start against the Dominican Republic in the finals.

Also worth knowing:

n  Yes, the White Sox did discuss a possible Jake Peavy trade with the St. Louis Cardinals, the team he faced in World Series Game 3, before dealing him to the Red Sox. But talks between the White Sox and Cardinals weren’t serious. The Sox were only going to deal Peavy if they got a major piece back – possibly pitching prospect Carlos Martinez, who looks like a world-beater in the Cardinals’ bullpen – and the need for him in St. Louis wasn’t at the level that would have caused GM John Mozeliak to seriously consider such a deal.

n  There have been no significant hitches in the White Sox’s acquisition of Cuban slugger Jose Abreu, even though it has not been formally announced. The sides agreed to a six-year, $68-million deal on Oct. 17, pending a physical. A news conference is expected next week, and could be held as soon as Tuesday.  It does not appear that the White Sox will try to rush Abreu into action in the Arizona Fall League or even the Dominican Winter League in December. The tentative plan calls for him to use the next four months to get acclimated to the United States before he puts a uniform on in February, when the White Sox report to camp in Arizona.

n  The White Sox suffered a blow when speedy second baseman Micah Johnson experienced pain in his right elbow, which had required surgery before his junior year at Indiana University. He underwent surgery earlier this week, which could limit him when spring training begins. Johnson is a terrific prospect – he helped Double-A Birmingham win the Southern League championship and was on track to push for big-league consideration late in 2014 – but has been injury prone. He hit .561 as a junior at a private school in Indianapolis but missed his senior season of high school because of surgery to repair his left shoulder.

 

Give me the over on Abreu’s 2014 totals

There’s more skepticism out there nationally about Jose Abreu than there ought to be. I’ve thought that since he came to North America, not just since he agreed to a deal with the White Sox.

Some scouts point out that he’s not as athletic as Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig, and speculate that Major League pitchers will be able to find a weakness in his swing to exploit. You can’t argue either of those points.

But the one place where you can make comparisons – especially between Cespedes and Abreu is how they’ve hit in Serie Nacional, and it was Abreu, not Cespedes, who put up historic numbers there. Why wouldn’t that suggest that he can come to Chicago and pile up a stack of numbers that are taller than the ones that Cespedes has amassed in his first two seasons with the A’s – a slash line of .265/.324/.472 with an average of 25 homers and 81 RBIs?

If that’s the over/under on Abreu, put me down for the over, heavy. He’s going to be in a very comfortable situation — even if the White Sox part with one of the two Cubans already in their lineup, Alexei Ramirez and Dayan Viciedo, he will still have a countryman in uniform alongside him – and hitting at a terrific ballpark for a right-handed power hitter.

And at-bats? Hey, if he’s healthy he can go straight to the Major Leagues, as Cespedes did, and play every day, either at first base or as the DH. He will be a focal point for the franchise, just as Cespedes was two springs ago.

This is going to be so much fun to watch.

Also on my mind as the two championship series head toward their Game 6s:

n  As others have noted, the Abreu signing doesn’t mean that Paul Konerko is done as a member of the White Sox.

When he talked to reporters on the last weekend of the season, he seemed to think he might enjoy spending one farewell season in Chicago with reduced expectations on him as a player. He talked about wanting to let his hair down a little bit in the clubhouse, becoming more of a teacher and mentor to younger players, and who better to work with than an impact hitter who is learning the ropes?

It would be challenging to find consistent at-bats for both Konerko and Adam Dunn but they would make a nice platoon, assuming Konerko is willing to play at a major discount. It might be tricky to determine his value on a one-year contract. And don’t assume that Dunn is going to be with the 2014 White Sox.

General Manager Rick Hahn is likely to look for creative ways to move him, either paying some salary to interest a team like the Astros or in taking back a dubious contract to accommodate a trade. Are there any other A.J. Burnetts out there? That trade with the Yankees worked out incredibly well for the Pirates.

n  Next year’s amateur draft is going to be a big story on both sides of Chicago. The White Sox will have the third overall pick, behind only the Astros and Marlins, while the Cubs pick fourth one year after grabbing Kris Bryant with the second overall pick. Baseball America says the 2014 draft will be especially heavy at the top.

North Carolina State lefty Carlos Rodon will almost certainly be the No. 1 pick, assuming he enjoys good health. But after that things aren’t so clear. Here are six guys that BA says will be under strong consideration by the White Sox and Cubs, in the order that they rank heading into the upcoming season.

East Carolina University RHP Jeff Hoffman – He was the top performer in the Cape Cod League and has tools similar to Rodon but hasn’t yet been a dominator at the college level. That should happen this season.

Texas high school RHP Tyler Kolek – He fits the Nolan Ryan/Roger Clemens model perfectly.

North Carolina State SS Trea Turner – He’s ultra-athletic and a polished hitter.

California high school SS Jacob Gatewood — Tremendous power for his age, he put on a show at Citi Field during the Home Run Derby and also won the home run contest in the UnderArmour Game at Wrigley Field.

San Diego high school C Alex Jackson – He’s considered by some as the best hitter available in the draft. He has played all over the diamond so he could be moved from behind the plate, as was Bryce Harper.

Vanderbilt RHP Tyler Beede – The 21st overall pick out of high school, Beede opted for college rather than signing with Toronto. He’s hasn’t yet produced the results to match up to his tools. The Cubs’ Derek Johnson was Vanderbilt’s pitching coach in Beede’s first season there.

DeWitt is who you want your owner to be

When 2027 rolls around, Tom Ricketts will have owned the Cubs for 18 seasons. Here’s hoping that his legacy will be something like that of Bill DeWitt Jr., the former St. Louis Browns batboy who headed a partnership that bought the Cardinals from Anheuser Busch in 1995.

DeWitt, a second generation owner whose father owned the Browns, has maintained the Cardinals’ legacy on the field while growing the brand massively off the field. The extent of that growth won’t be fully understood until 2014, when the team owned and controlled Ballpark Village opens beyond the left-field boundary of Busch Stadium.

It’s going to be a revenue-producing monster, and it’s a great thing for the city of St. Louis, as it will make downtown the place to be on date night, whether the team is in town or not.

Here’s what I love about DeWitt. As we were standing in the stadium and looking toward the project in mid-construction, the part of it that DeWitt most wanted to talk about was the Cardinals Hall of Fame and museum. This is a guy who gets baseball in the way that the White Sox’s Jerry Reinsdorf gets baseball.

DeWitt is so obsessed about preserving the history of the sport that he has been personally bidding on Cardinals memorabilia when they reach auction. He recently purchased a jersey that Grover Cleveland Alexander wore in the 1926 World Series, when he beat the Yankees in Games 2 and 6 and pitched the last three innings of a 3-2 victory in Game 7. Before that, he had won an auction to get one of two known home jerseys worn by Dizzy Dean with the Cardinals.

Such passion is as impressive as the business sense it took to realize there was a choking point for his team in the Albert Pujols negotiations two years ago. The Cardinals wouldn’t have the bargain known as Carlos Beltran if they had decided they had to keep Pujols at any cost, and that was an ownership decision, as DeWitt and his son Bill DeWitt III, the team president, are the ones who would have had to live with it if it blew up.

Also worth saying:

n  Rick Renteria is getting some traction among executives with other teams as a possible Cubs manager. He fits Theo Epstein’s criteria well except that he doesn’t have Major League managing experience. He has coached in the National League for six seasons, including three as the Padres’ bench coach, and managed in the minor leagues. He grew up in California but has a season as Mexican League MVP on his resume as a player.

n  People who have been in Arizona this week are raving about the Cubs’ players. There was a feeling that the Cubs were taking a gamble on Kris Bryant over Jonathan Gray with the second overall pick because they needed pitching but Bryant is a quick-study who looks like the second coming of Ryan Zimmerman, possibly with more power. He’s off to a crazy fast start with the Mesa Solar Sox, going 7-for-14 with two homers and seven RBIs in his first three games in the Arizona Fall League. That’s awfully impressive for a guy who was playing for the University of San Diego five months ago. Another guy to watch from that Solar Sox team – Cuban right-hander Armando Rivero. The Cubs aren’t saying it but they think he can be an important part of their bullpen for at least a few years, beginning in 2014.

 

 

 

The first pitch

Thanks for following me over from the Chicago Tribune, if you are one who did, and hello to those who just stumbled into the room.

The Yankees recently announced that Joe Girardi has left the building, as far as Wrigley Field is concerned, and that means the Cubs will have to head seriously in another direction in their managerial search. As for where they’re heading, we’ll get to that in a moment. But know that despite all the talk – a little of which I may have generated – it is not a surprise that Girardi has opted to take a four-year deal to stay with the Yankees.

The surprise would have been if a sitting manager with the Yankees, well regarded by his ownership and front office, had packed up his office at the house next to what’s left of the House that Ruth built and signed up to manage the Cubs, no matter whether he graduated from Northwestern or Slippery Rock (alma mater of the Cardinals’ Matt Adams, one of my new favorite players). You just don’t leave the Yankees to take over the Cubs, someone explained to me a few weeks ago, and that person was spot on the money.

Girardi did the smart thing by sticking with the Yankees for the full ride, wherever it leaves him from the nightmare that was this season. He only gets to use the go-home-to-Chicago card once, and there might be a team he needs it. This wasn’t it.

Now as to Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer, they can exhale and get serious about finding the guy to replace Dale Sveum. They may already have found him – Manny Acta is a very respected guy, despite that 372-518 record as manager of the Nationals and Indians – but it’s likely that the Rays’ Davey Martinez, Sandy Alomar Jr. and some others will get interviews before we get from here.

One thing I know/strongly suspect: The new guy will be bi-cultural – that is, comfortable speaking Spanish when called upon (mostly in getting into the ears and heads of guys like Starlin Castro, Javy Baez, Albertico Almora, Jorge Soler, Arismendy Alcantara, Rubi Silva and others) and English around us gringos. Acta crosses those bridges extremely well. On the other hand, he didn’t get results in Cleveland, with the performance of Ubaldo Jimenez and Asdrubal Cabrera not exactly suggesting that he’s the guy to turn around Castro. He does have experience, which you can’t say about guys like Rick Renteria, Martinez and Alomar.

How ’bout Ozzie Guillen? If Epstein and Hoyer were bold enough to do that after watching him and Ken Williams knock heads for the last two or three years of Guillen’s generally successful run with the White Sox, well, I’d be surprised. Shocked, stunned, blown away. But it might be a great move too. Guillen is a good baseball man, and far too young to be a wasted resource for the game. If he could be re-trained to talk only about his players, and not himself, he could do just fine.

micahjohnsonMeanwhile, on the other side of Chicago, here are two words to help get you through the week: Micah Johnson. The left-handed-hitting second baseman is a joy to watch, as I saw with a trip to Birmingham during the Southern League playoffs. He led the minor leagues with 84 stolen bases, and he just swiped three in the Arizona Fall League opener. Johnson, a ninth-round pick in the 2012 draft from Indiana University, was hitting second for Glendale, between the Twins’ Byron Buxton and the Marlins’ Colin Moran, both of whom are studs.

Consider his performance in six plate appearances:1) Walks, steal second and scores. 2) Reaches on an error, steals second and third, scores. 3) Grounds out. 4) Doubles, scores. 5) Strikes out. 6) Reaches on infield single.I’ll stick with what I wrote for the Chicago Tribune last month. The kid’s like gravel in a pitcher’s spike. He’s impossible to ignore. I loved what he told me about hoping to get to U.S. Cellular in the near future. “I think if I can focus, be consistent day in and day out, I’ll get to Chicago,’’ Johnson said. “I want to get there as fast as I can, before these legs get old.”

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