Taking Measure of Cubs’ Competition By Scouting Podcasts

I’m a big subscriber to the idea you can’t honestly evaluate your own team without understanding the competition. Thus, I enjoy listening to some of the opponents’ calls of Cubs games via MLB.tv during the regular season. More recently, I dropped in and listened to podcasts from all of the Cubs’ division and league rivals.

One quickly learns other fan bases are just as nervous and home team-focused as Cubs fans. (Quelle surprise! We’re all human.) Only one podcast even mentioned the competition. That was the Pirates’ episode, with the Cardinals and Brewers splitting the vote as to who would win the division. The Cubs got only a passing reference. Take that, parochial ego.

But the exercise proved insightful. Like last year, no NL teams stand head and shoulders above the main pennant contenders, and none presently seem as good as the best AL teams. The NL Central should also be even more competitive than in 2015, even if Pittsburgh and Cincinnati might be hard-pressed to break .500 as some projection systems predict.

Below are a few takeaways from each podcast, and don’t forget to check out podcasts by Cubs Insider contributors. This includes “Cubs Related” by Brendan Miller and Corey Freedman, and “Holy Cow: A Cubs Podcast” from Sean Holland.

Milwaukee Brewers

Last month’s signing of Yasmani Grandal to a one-year deal appears to have quelled any extreme nervousness in Brew Town. WTMJ Radio’s “Extra Innings: The Podcast” even suspects GM David Stearns is well-positioned to snag another quality free agent on a similar one-year deal, citing Craig Counsell’s player-friendly reputation and fun clubhouse as great recruitment tools. That said, something tells me any “Counsell effect“ or “Craig’s List discount” is just the Wisconsin cabin fever talking.

More interesting, Grandal has already dived into trying to learn his new pitching staff. He reportedly connected with Josh Hader to throw a bullpen session while both were in Los Angeles. Ryan Braun also hired an offseason hitting coach to help adjust his launch angle and turn his hard-hit rate into more homers.

Given Milwaukee won the NL Central last year without a great rotation, fans are closely watching Jimmy Nelson’s return from arm surgery. Never an innings-eating ace, his solid 2017 numbers would have ranked him second on last year’s staff in innings and ERA+.

St. Louis Cardinals

Set aside any rivalrous antipathies and check out this week’s episode of “Two Birds on a Bat.” The “Will Goldy test the market?” episode offered a terrific deep dive into all aspects of whether and at what price St. Louis should sign Paul Goldschmidt to a long-term extension. This one was not just for St. Louis fans, as so many of the dynamics involved apply to most franchises: challenges of extending any players, increasingly slow free agent markets, and the looming work stoppage after 2021.

Also very interesting was the discussion of the declining cost of veteran players, particularly free agent center fielders. Dexter Fowler signed for five years and $82.5 million after 2016, which dropped to Lorenzo Cain’s 5/$80M deal last year with Milwaukee, and A.J. Pollock recently signed for 4/$50M with the Dodgers.

The consensus was that the Cardinals desperately need Goldschmidt to sign an extension. The franchise can’t keep trading prospects for just a year or two of control, as they’ve done in acquiring players like Goldschmidt, Jason Heyward, and Marcel Ozuna. That said, the hosts predicted that Ozuna rebounding from a so-so 2018 and Goldschmidt turning in a great contract season would mean the middle of the Cardinals’ lineup (along with Matt Carpenter) could power the team back to the playoffs.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Listening to the MLB Pirates Podcast, one can only sympathize with the plight of Pirates fans. The team had the fourth-lowest payroll in 2018 at $90 million, and that is expected to drop by $15 million for this year’s edition. Still, the fanbase hopes for a .500 season.

This may be a little optimistic. The podcasters feel the Pirates have a strong pitching staff, but both the rotation and bullpen finished in the statistical middle of the National League last year. Chris Archer is the de facto No. 1, even though he hasn’t pitched like an ace since 2015. Jameson Taillon and Trevor Williams are both bona fide mid-rotation arms, and the Bucs bullpen features an enviable three-headed monster in lefty closer Felipe Vazquez, righty set-up man Kyle Crick, and the surprising Richard Rodriguez.

But their discussion of whether sophomore Kevin Newman or newly acquired utilityman Erik Gonzalez (from Cleveland) will start at shortstop put me to sleep. I also learned Bob Nutting was yet another baseball owner to dodge his own team’s fan fest. There’s something to be said about owners who shrink from standing up for their own product.

Cincinnati Reds

Redleg Nation Radio mirrored all the local excitement generated by the Reds’ blockbuster deal for the Dodgers’ Yasiel Puig and Alex Wood. Puig’s recent visit to Cincy to house-hunt and meet the mayor pretty much electrified the city. It seems expectations are exorbitantly high for this oft-injured player who has under-produced each of the past four years. But it is also Puig’s walk year, and he looks to enjoy dominating such a small pond. So anything could happen.

The biggest talk, though, centered on the Reds’ rumored pursuit of Miami’s J.T. Realmuto (now with the Phillies). The catcher would certainly have improved an already formative lineup, but the podcast questioned whether a package including top 2018 draft pick Jonathan India (5th overall) was too expensive for just two years of control. Given how many fewer games catchers start than other position players, the hosts felt trading any top prospects would be better spent on a top starting pitcher or a center fielder.

Los Angeles Dodgers

Like Milwaukee’s Grandal signing, landing Pollock provided a small salve for fans. The True Blue L.A. podcast approved of the signing, but the clearing of so much salary with the Puig/Wood trade had many fans dreaming of a Bryce Harper-like upgrade. Given the team’s frustrating back-to-back runner-up seasons, many fans don’t understand why the Dodgers are pulling back on payroll just as the brass ring is so close.

Related, a condescending interview by team president Stan Kasten also received special venting. In it, Kasten said criticism of the team’s payroll approach lacked an understanding of basic baseball facts and economics. This struck one host as saying, “Fans should root for billionaires to make more money.” Welcome to the baseball and American economy of the 21st century. The wealthy get wealthier and ever angrier.

The recent budget-neutral trade for catcher Russell Martin was applauded as bringing back a veteran leader. However, the loss of Grandal means the Dodgers don’t appear to be closing the talent gap with the top AL teams. Thus, everyone was still clinging to the Dodgers swinging a late trade for Realmuto. Alas.

Atlanta Braves

The Talking Chop Podcast focused on Realmuto, Craig Kimbrel and the Braves’ bevy of top prospects. Even though the Braves have both Tyler Flowers and Brian McCann at catcher, the team had a standing offer on the table all winter for Realmuto. The podcasters felt no team could beat the prospects the Braves had to offer, but they were apparently wrong or the the Braves package wasn’t as sweet as suspected.

Meanwhile, the Braves are playing the waiting game on Kimbrel. A reunion with the 2011 Rookie of the Year was widely welcomed, but fans and organization alike are hoping the number of years and AAV Kimbrel wants comes down to something no higher than perhaps three years at $15 million per.

Interestingly, the hosts weren’t overly sanguine about the Braves’ fortunes in 2019. They expect the team to compete for the division title, but they realize a lot of things went right for the Braves last year and wrong for their rivals. They like the young nucleus, but success in Atlanta is being measured more cautiously by clear development progress.

Philadelphia Phillies

The Phillies were the winners of the Realmuto sweepstakes, but interestingly, The Good Phight was the rare podcast to not mention the All-Star catcher. Instead, the hosts started by stating their desire to avoid any more Harper/Machado talk until the two finally make a decision. But this proved impossible as they eventually dove into dismissing San Diego’s appearance as a last-minute suitor for Harper. They felt it was all a PR stunt to assuage blowback after the Padres opened its books for a newspaper feature story.

They also spent a good amount of time and some scorn on manager Gabe Kapler’s latest scandal. In the past, Kapler has been investigated for accusations of discrimination against a war veteran and an ongoing federal probe into human trafficking of Latin players. The latest news was that Kapler did not report the physical and possible sexual assault of a minor by two of his minor league players while he served as the Dodgers’ director of development.

This podcast was particularly refreshing for including a female host, and Liz Roscher’s comments on Kapler were strong, articulate, and definitely worth a listen. But how frustrating for Phillies fans to be on the threshold of real contention yet saddled with a young manager who too regularly steals the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

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