The End Part II: For Real This Time

World Series Game 7 ended with an innocent ground ball hit into the teeth of the shift that rolled into the waiting glove of Jose Altuve, who made an easy throw to first to complete a dream season.

The Houston Astros, who were born into Major League Baseball in 1962 as the Houston Colt .45’s, won the franchise’s first World Series by defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers 5-1 on Wednesday, November 1, 2017.

It’s been a journey for the Astros, who lost 100+ games in three straight years from 2011 to 2013, and were bad enough to draw a 0.0 television rating in 2014 – a year in which they lost 92 games. From the ashes of a perennial loser, a champion was built. Like the narrative-slaying champions who preceded them in 2016, the 2017 title-winning Astros reaped the benefits of tanking and built a team of young, cost-controlled, and talented players and mixed it with hungry, grizzled veterans. Houston’s front office was ridiculed by fans desperate for competitiveness, shredded by media decrying their strategy, and hacked by disgruntled former co-workers in a storyline that would have been rejected by any Hollywood writer.

Good for the Astros for pulling through. Job well done in an arena where success comes with a 70 percent failure rate.

But what now?

By virtue of their 2016 World Series title, the Chicago Cubs currently have the shortest championship drought in baseball. But with three titles in 110 years, everyone knows the team has work to do to reach the mountaintop again.

President Theo Epstein’s job to re-open the Cubs’ championship window won’t be easy.

Chicago will likely see Jake Arrieta (free agency) and John Lackey (retirement) walk away. In Arrieta, they’ll lose the franchise’s best big-game pitcher. Lackey’s departure means the team will be without an edgy gamer who teammates loved and fans loved to hate. The two combined to make 121 starts and pitch 724.1 innings over the last two years. Yeah, the task is daunting. But it’s not the only one.

The Cubs need to rebuild a bullpen that faltered in October, and might be doing so without closer Wade Davis – who hits free agency with Arrieta and Lackey. Despite Epstein’s long-time reluctance to pay closers with hefty long-term deals on the open market, Davis is the free agent pitcher most likely to return. To put it in perspective, Epstein hasn’t handed a big-money, multi-year deal to a closer since Keith Foulke in December 2003 when he was the Boston Red Sox’s GM.

Epstein spoke glowingly of the Foulke signing, and also possibly gave us a clue regarding how he feels about the closer position:

“Going without a proven closer (in 2003) … was a result of not having that guy out there,” Epstein said. “We acquired Keith
Foulke because we think he’s one of the best pitchers in baseball. It’s certainly better to have one of those than not to have one of those.”

To be clear, having a good closer doesn’t mean your bullpen is good. Since the Cubs aren’t the only team in search of relief help, patching things together will be challenging. And after a historically awful time at the plate, one could argue the Cubs could use a bat. But I’m rambling, tired, and could use a good night’s sleep.

By the time the Cubs were eliminated from the playoffs in 2015, their holes were glaring. The team signed Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward, Lackey, and re-signed Dexter Fowler with the idea of adding on-base and contact skills, elite defense, and an innings-eating arm. Each player contributed to a World Series title in 2016, making each worth the small fortune the Cubs paid in acquisition costs.

While I don’t believe they’ll spend wildly this offseason, I think this front office won’t go into 2018 not having addressed their very evident issues. The argument behind somewhat fiscally conservative this offseason lies in the free agency class of 2018-19 that looms. Keeping the kind of financial flexibility to sign a player of Bryce Harper’s magnitude should be a top priority for a franchise that doesn’t have the big-money TV deal they need in order to spend dollar-for-dollar with the Dodgers just yet.

Of course, we this offseason and an entire baseball season to be played before we get there. But how do we get through the offseason?

Seriously. Baseball season is over. For real this time.

Because of the World Baseball Classic, we had meaningful games from March until the start of November. There was more good than bad, as home runs and hard-throwers captivated fans. I guess this is where life gets interesting.

Thanksgiving is around the corner and Christmas will be here before you know it. Is it too soon to start planning out New Year’s Eve? Ha. Asks the guy who already has rough sketches regarding trips to Cleveland, Atlanta, San Francisco, and Las Vegas for baseball-related happenings in 2018. I’m not really looking forward to the holidays for obvious reasons. To be honest, I’m more geeked about the Star Wars trailer that premiered during Game 7:

Seriously. I jumped off my couch and started yelling “Star Wars trailer! Star Wars trailer! Star Wars Trailer!” as I tweeted something similar.

Now that it’s is over, I suppose I can return to normal-ish sleep and life schedules. I’ve been living in a baseball-first world for the better part of a month. I wonder if the people I love still love me after a month-long absence. I guess we’ll find out.

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The End

The Chicago Cubs time as defending World Series champions ended in late October, going out with a whimper on a night when Jose Quintana (or anyone else wearing a Cubs uniform that night) didn’t have it as the Los Angeles Dodgers won their first pennant since 1988. However, the Cubs’ reign as World Series lasted a few weeks longer – though it ends tonight.

Sadly, the Cubs’ time as World Series champs will be up at some point tonight … or tomorrow morning, depending on whose bats heat up during the Game 7 showdown between the Dodgers and the Houston Astros. Either team would make a worthy champion, and both will have targets squarely placed on their backs in 2018. To the victors go the spoils, as well as the World Series hangover. Have fun with all that.

I spent much of my day pondering this question:

The easy answer is “all of it.”

It’s hard not to consider that whole week to be the best ever. World Series Game 5 was the greatest game I’ve ever seen, replacing the 2015 NL Wild Card Game in Pittsburgh atop my personal list. I watched World Series Game 6 on a small TV at my cubicle at Tribune Tower while working my shift, hoping it wasn’t the last game I’d watch in 2016. I took in Game 7 with my friends who are pretty much my baseball family.

I celebrated at various points in the night with different people. I had drinks at Toons bar in Wrigleyville/Lakeview with a friend who was an Indians fan. I’ll still never understand why he was so gracious in defeat. I’ll just chalk it up to quality friendships and leave it at that. I attempted to bar-hop late into the night and walked around the neighborhood to get a feel for the moment. I would later catch up with another friend and we’d have breakfast at a greasy spoon diner. I ended my night at home at 4 am, where my mother was still awake watching highlights on MLB Network. We sat, watched highlights, and tried to put into words what we had witnessed the night before.

I went to the Grant Park Rally, because my parents never let me go to any of the six the Bulls hosted in the 1990s.

That week, I spent hundreds of dollars on World Series gear for myself and family. And I’d do it again, too. I watched coverage on the news the morning with my grandmother and gave her a World Series shirt. She was so happy. We did the thing where we wrote on the sidewalk and walls with chalk at Wrigley, which had basically turned into Mecca for Cubs fans who came far and wide just to be there after the title. It was weird, but I totally understood.

I guess this is all a long way of saying the best part of the experience was the numerous little things that made it up along the way.

A year later, I’m in a similar place mentally as I was during the Cubs’ playoff run as I find myself telling myself to enjoy the wins to their fullest, don’t be bogged down by the losses, and enjoy the ride because you never know when it’ll end.

This particular ride is over. We’ll take some time to press the reset button and watch a winter of transaction crawl across our Twitter feeds. Some time in March, the ride resumes. But first, World Series Game 7. Let’s go.

I Knew Charting My Sleep Would Be Wasteful…

… in October.

I started blogging/posting about my sleep patterns, in part, because I feel as if writing about something other than sports gets my brain functioning in a different way and I’m convinced it makes me better at writing sports.

I’m probably going to need something else to write about other than October sleep because playoff baseball wrecks the equation. My sleep efficiency percentage went from the high-80s, low 90s to high 70s since the playoffs started. I don’t believe that’s a coincidence. I’m sure there are things I can do to remedy that and get a better night’s sleep … but I’ll figure it out later.

I made a conscious effort not to drink on Thursday during Game 5 of the NLDS, and yet, I woke up feeling hungover. “I’m never not drinking again.”

Some people make pre-game hype mixes before games. I’ve crafted a playlist of John Mayer songs in the order of his April concert he did in Chicago. It’s one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen, and frankly, started to put me in a good place back in April when I really wasn’t in a good place.

I’m not saying I want summer forever (though, wouldn’t that be great?) but if we can hold off fall until I update my fall wardrobe that would be cool.

I’d continue to ramble if I didn’t have a good chunk of stuff on my plate today. Thanks for reading.

It’s October and I’m an emotional mess

One week into October and I’m already an emotional wreck.

I’ve spent the past week telling myself I’m OK and that things were fine, only for Friday to get here and the butterflies to show up all over again.

“That’s Cub.”

For the first time in my lifetime, the Cubs are in the playoffs for the third straight season. If you’re reading this and you’re thinking “this year feels different” you’re not alone. And that’s because it’s true, 2017 is different.

The 2017 Cubs come into the postseason as the defending World Series champions. People forget that.

And yet, fans/friends/pundits are ask skeptical as ever regarding this team’s chances at a repat. To be fair, the Cubs have quite the challenge ahead of them. The Washington Nationals are a very good baseball team coming off a 97-win season and former Cubs manager Dusty Baker is out for revenge. If the Cubs overcome that monster, odds are they’ll face baseball’s best team – the Los Angeles Dodgers – in the NLCS again. That is if L.A. doesn’t slip up against the upstart Arizona Diamondbacks.

The road to a repeat will be rough, but the Cubs don’t seem to be fazed … so maybe I shouldn’t be either.

Yes, the Dodgers, Nationals, and D’backs all have talented teams. But so do the Cubs. Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant are studs. So is catcher Willson Contreras. The up-the-middle defense of Addison Russell and Javier Baez is as good as it gets – and they both can hit for power, too. Ben Zobrist is a seasoned vet and World Series MVP. Jason Heyward is a $184 million dollar defensive ace. Kyle Schwarber is all of 24 years of age and is already a dadgum postseason legend.

Kyle Hendricks went toe-to-toe with Clayton Kershaw and out-pitched baseball’s best active pitcher in an elimination game to clinch the pennant and tossed an admirable 4-2/3 innings in World Series Game 7 against Corey Kluber. So what’s a matchup against Stephen Strasburg? Jon Lester owns a nifty 2.72 ERA in 49.2 postseason innings since joining the Cubs in 2015. With all due respect to starting Opening Day for the White Sox this year, Jose Quintana is lined up to pitch the biggest game of his career in NLDS Game 3. Jake Arrieta is pitching for a billion dollar (rough estimate) free agent contract in Game 4 (if necessary).

And if the Cubs have the lead in the ninth, Wade Davis – the team’s lone All-Star – isn’t just great, he’s an October legend in his own right having locked down the Kansas City Royals 2015 title. Behind him in the bullpen are Carl Edwards Jr. (who recorded the first two outs in the 10th inning of World Series Game 7), Pedro Strop, Mike Montgomery (who recorded the final out to clinch the World Series win), and a slew of other experienced arms. I guess that includes our good friend #MentholMoose.

I don’t blame you if you cast doubt on the Cubs. And I can’t blame you if you’re not a ball of nerves right now. I’m there with you. But as we did last October, let’s get through this together. As Cubs fans, we’ve been through worse … so, let’s enjoy some postseason baseball.

Winning The NL Central In 2017 Was Hard

Here is an incomplete list of things that happened this year en route to the Chicago Cubs winning the National League Central Division title for the second straight year:

  • Randal Grichuk’s opening-night walk-off against Mike Montgomery
  • Milwaukee’s weather-related beef
  • Having a worse run-differential than the White Sox in May
  • Wade Davis being the only Cub named to the NL All-Star team
  • Wade Davis being the losing pitcher in the All-Star Game
  • Eddie Butler making 11 starts, Brett Anderson adding 6 more, and the two combining to pitch to a 5.65 ERA in 17 starts
  • Brian Duensing beginning the year on the DL.
  • Relief appearances from the following pitchers: Dylan Floro, Seth Frankoff, Jack Leathersich, Miguel Montero, Pierce Johnson, Zac Rosscup, Jon Jay
  • Remember when Jeimer Candelario, Victor Caratini, Mark Zagunis spent a handful of games in the starting lineup?

I can’t stress enough how important it is to cherish what the 2017 Cubs accomplished by winning the NL Central again.

Baseball is hard. Winning in baseball is really hard.

Let’s not forget the Brewers spent 69 days in first place and owned a 5.5-game lead on July 15. The Cardinals had a share of first as late as August 12. Even the rebuilding Reds spent 17 days in first place – that’s three more days than the Cardinals (14) if you’re keeping score at home.

Winning only gets more difficult from here.

According to Ken Rosenthal, the Cubs are just the fifth World Series champion since 2000 to win the division in the following season. By my math, that means 69 percent of World Series winners have not won their division the year after winning it all.

Winning is hard. Repeats are harder.

In the Wild Card era, only the Yankees (1998-2000) have repeated as World Series champions. Those Yankees, along with the Atlanta Braves (1995-1996), Phillies (2008-2009) and Rangers (2010-2011) are the only teams to win back-to-back pennants.

Winning the division might have been framed as pre-ordained by some in the spring, however, it was anything but.

Nothing came easy for the 2017 Cubs. Each of the five starters who opened the season with the team spent time on the disabled list at some point. Jon Lester (shoulder), Jake Arrieta (hamstring), Kyle Hendricks (hand tendinitis), John Lackey (foot), and Brett Anderson (back) each missed turns in the rotation because of an injury.

Every day players including Ben Zobrist (wrist), Jason Heyward (hand), Willson Contreras (hamstring), and Addison Russell (plantar fascitis) were also placed on the DL.

In total, eight returning members of the 2016 World Series champions missed at least 10 days because of a DL stint. This doesn’t count the days Anthony Rizzo missed with a sore back, Kris Bryant narrowly avoided DL time because of a hand injury suffered sliding into third base or an ankle injury trying to catch a foul ball, or any other nagging injury along the way that players pushed through despite a new 10-day DL that was supposed to encourage teams to rest injured players.

What makes baseball enjoyable (to me at least) is that it’s an everyday thing that keeps you interested and entertained from April through September, while also allowing for time to take some big-picture perspective if you allow yourself to not get too caught up in the day-to-day results.

What made this season enjoyable to me was the journey the Cubs took to get here.

You’d think winning 200 regular season games, five playoff rounds, and a World Series over the last two years would buy you some wiggle room in the event of a 2017 hangover, but it wasn’t the case … at least, judging by my mentions on Twitter. And yet, winning the division and putting yourself in the postseason picture washes it all away.

Things like losing all six games in California to the Dodgers and Padres and watching the Cubs lose an 18-inning game on Sunday Night Baseball seem like they happened ages ago. And frankly, I’d be happy not to ever think about those games again.

Assembling consistent winners in modern baseball is difficult. Front offices are smarter. Organizations are deeper. The players throw the ball harder and hit it deeper into the night than ever before. Everyone has analytical skills that can be applied by stat guys, scouts, and sometimes both.

Once upon a time, winning a World Series was easy. Be the best team in your league, capture the pennant, and beat whoever represented the other league in the World Series. Now, you have to win your division or a one-game playoff round, beat two division winners, then knock off whoever comes out of the other league if you want to hoist the Commissioner’s Trophy at year’s end.

For the first time in my lifetime, the Cubs are trying to win another World Series trophy. Now, imagine having that thought on Opening Day 2012.

Sometimes when you can’t sleep…

I bought a memory foam pillow because I thought it was time for a change. So far, so good. I think I might want to buy another. Maybe upgrade from this WalMart brand eventually? I’m open to suggestions. I’m more of a side sleeper if that helps. I threw out some sheets because I wanted something new. Of course, I didn’t come to that realization until after washing them. What a waste of water, time, and dryer sheets. I guess I’m open to suggestions regarding queen size sheets, too.

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The Obligatory Cubs On Memorial Day Post

There’s an old adage in baseball about Memorial Day being the first mile-market of significance of the baseball season. We’re here, and the Cubs aren’t great. In fact, they’ve played mediocre baseball for most of the first two months.

They are 25-24, but luckily only 1.5 games out of first place. The NL Central is kind of a middling mess right now, evidenced by the Pirates being in last place with a 23-28 record – and still just 4.5 games back of first-place Milwaukee. Hey! The Brewers are a thing. I made a comp to Harvey’s Wallbangers that went over a lot of people’s heads earlier in the year. Hit a wiki page or something, guys. I’m not sure if their starting pitching can hang, but they’ve got a handful of flamethrowers in the bullpen and could put up a puncher’s chance as long as Neftali Feliz isn’t handling the high leverage situations.

So, what’s the Cubs deal? Where do I start?

**They miss 2015-2016 Dexter Fowler, who slashed .261/.367/.427 with a .348 wOBA out of the top spot in the order. Fowler (.228/.319/.430) isn’t off to a great start with the Cardinals, but is riding a low .265 BABIP, so progression to the mean is probably on the horizon.

**Meanwhile, the Kyle Schwarber leadoff experiment has been a disappointment. His .177/.297/.348 slash line is ugly, as is his .218 BABIP and .287 wOBA. The 13.5% walk rate is good, but the 29.2% strikeout rate isn’t. He’s already been dropped in the order AND made a platoon player. He’ll always be an October legend (.364/.451/.727 in 51 PA over 14 G) but until he goes on one of those tears again, he should be dropped in the order.

**I’ve been asked a dozen times if I’ve ever seen anything like Jake Arrieta’s rise and crater. And actually, I have. Kind of. I keep going back to three names when I think of the Jake Arrieta Cubs experience.

**The first is Clay Buchholz, a pitcher who had a superb four-year run with the Red Sox from 2010-13, before falling off. From 2010-13, Buchholz was 46-19 with a 3.15 ERA (3.92 FIP), 1.22 WHIP, and 135 ERA+ pitching in the AL East. Injuries have taken their toll on Buchholz, but when he was good, he was really good.

**I see some Rich Harden in Jake Arrieta. Yes, another case where injuries hindered a guy. But when Harden was good, he was stellar. Unfortunately, that stellar arm could only get you five (max: six) innings at a time. Harnessing great stuff is difficult.

**The third name is a little obtuse, but follow me for a moment. R.A. Dickey re-invented himself with the Mets with a dominant pitch (hey, that sounds familiar) during his age 35-37 seasons. He was 39-28 with a 2.95 ERA (3.55 FIP) and a 129 ERA+. At age 37, he went 20-6, struck out a league-leading 230 in 233 innings and stole the NL Cy Young from Clayton Kershaw. And then the Mets traded him to the Toronto Blue Jays in exchange for, among other pieces, Noah Syndergaard. Whoops.

**So where do they go from here? The Cubs will need to get their offense up. It’ll start with improving on a .326 team OBP, which ranks 13th in baseball. That number needs to be in the top-10 to be a factor and in the top-5 to be a game-changer. The rotation needs a boost. Despite Sunday’s blowup, Jon Lester has been fine. And Kyle Hendricks – after allowing 11 ER in his first three starts – has allowed eight earned runs in the six starts that followed, pitching to a 1.96 ERA (3.43 FIP) … or basically what Mike Leake (1.91 ERA, 2.99 FIP) has pitched to all season. The bullpen needs to get settled. Hector Rondon has been streaky. Carl Edwards Jr. has been great despite a walk rate north of 10%. And Wade Davis has been as good as advertised. I’d be super curious to see what kind of deal would keep him around. Jake Arrieta and John Lackey represent $28 million that could come off the books at season’s end. I hate the idea of paying closers, save for the elites. Who says no to 3/$50M?

We’ll check back in on the date I always tell people to ask me hwo I feel about the Cubs/baseball – July 1, which will be my 31st birthday. WOOOOOOF.