Column: MLB must capitalize on momentum from Cubs title

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A young Chicago Cubs fan watches the celebration during a rally in Grant Park honoring the World Series baseball champions Friday, Nov. 4, 2016, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

It’s safe to say that MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred is coming off a very good week.

Manfred and his operation just capped off a week where they crowned their newest champion, one that can call itself such for the first time in 108 years. And the lead-up to that moment that some have been waiting their whole lives for was nothing short of gold for baseball’s executives in New York.

The Chicago Cubs’ run to their crown saw them play in some dramatic playoff series, while Wednesday’s Game 7 itself had everything, from late-inning suspense no one could script, to a rain delay that kept the fans in both Cleveland and Chicago on edge (plus the record TV audience), to a 10th-inning rally by the Cubs that gave social media literally days worth of content from fans who were so happy some literally broke down.

And what’s happened since the Cubs’ victory has also left Manfred and his associates smiling, too.

After not winning in over a century, Cubs fans all over the country can’t seem to buy enough championship merchandise, while their victory parade on Friday was one of the largest gatherings in not just U.S. history, but human history.

Some pundits have been saying that MLB is on it’s death bed and has been for a while now, but because of recent events it would almost be fair to expect Manfred to come out and deliver a spin on the old Mark Twain quote, stating, “The rumors of baseball’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.”

Putting the Cubs’ World Series run aside for just one second, at the end of September (which was a good month of baseball in it’s own right) the baseball world said it’s farewell to Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully. During that time we were shown numerous tributes and clips looking back on all the great baseball moments he was there for.

But it was almost as if when fans saw those clips, they were reminded of how great the game is and can be. It was like fans rediscovered the vigor they had for the game years ago.

In many ways, you could almost say that the last couple of months of baseball drama and nostalgia culminating in something some thought would never happen has almost sparked a mini-renaissance of sort in the game.

CHICAGO, IL - NOVEMBER 04: The national anthem is perforemd during the Chicago Cubs World Series victory rally on November 4, 2016, at Grant Park in Chicago, IL. (Photo by Patrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire)

CHICAGO, IL – NOVEMBER 04: The national anthem is perforemd during the Chicago Cubs World Series victory rally on November 4, 2016, at Grant Park in Chicago, IL. (Photo by Patrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire)

Compound this with the fact that the NFL, now regarded as the king of American sports, seems to be in a sort of identity crisis right now. From it’s heavy regulation of the rules, along with the declining TV ratings due to a number of factors, it’s opened the door for baseball to build some momentum and keep it.

And that’s where the hard work begins for Manfred and MLB. Baseball can’t simply just be happy with long-suffering Cubs fans queued up for their chance to throw handfuls of money at vendors in exchange for championship caps and shirts. The game’s leadership will need to figure a way to turn this mini-renaissance into one with staying power.

This effort will likely require Manfred to engage in some out-of-the-box thinking as far as marketing, social media and the ability to put baseball’s best foot forward to casual fans or a younger generation of fans who are said to have more tepid feelings to the game compared to those who are older.

Is baseball in a perfect state right now? Far from it. According to ESPN.com, the American League Champion Indians averaged just 19,650 fans over the course of the 2016 regular season.

That means Progressive Field averaged just 55.7 percent capacity, and while no one expects a sellout every game over the course of an 81-game home schedule, it’s still a number that needs to improve.

Other times Manfred’s leadership has appeared a bit rudderless, from his changing stance on the designated hitter in the National League, to his various ideas to speed up the game, the commissioner has appeared to have trouble forming a single, cohesive plan for baseball under his tenure.

But despite all this, right now is as good a time as any to showcase the sport to a wide-ranging audience.

The energy surrounding the sport and the passion of the Cubs fans alone could make the most casual of baseball fans embrace the game just a little bit tighter.

The post Column: MLB must capitalize on momentum from Cubs title appeared first on Todays Knuckleball.

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Cubs turning sports world on its head

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Chicago Cubs celebrate after their victory for the National League Championship between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field in Chicago, IL. (Photo by Patrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire)

Over the past couple of decades, Saturday nights in October have almost become synonymous with college football. But this past Saturday night, the Chicago Cubs almost singlehandedly turned that connection right on its head.

They did so by winning their first National League pennant and earning their first trip to the World Series since 1945, turning not just the city of Chicago, not just the baseball world, but the whole sports world in a frenzy.

The victory that sent fans spilling out into the streets around Wrigley Field almost immediately made every other piece of sports news secondary.

What happened Saturday in that marquee matchup in Tuscaloosa between Texas A&M and Alabama, or what transpired between Arkansas and Auburn, or whether Ohio State was able to avoid an upset at Penn State almost felt irrelevant.

Instead, the sports headlines of the day centered on the euphoric celebrations and live social media reaction of Cubs fans around the country who couldn’t hide their sheer joy. Fans from every corner who were practically in tears, their only lament being that a loved one who never got to witness such a scene wasn’t still alive to see it.

For years now Major League Baseball, both under the former commissioner Bud Selig and current commissioner Rob Manfred, have wrestled with the questions on how to increase baseball viewership and make the game appointment viewing again — especially during the postseason, as it has lost lots of the cache it carried decades ago.

Enter the Cubs. A team from a major market, with a deeply devoted national fan base and young stars like Kris Bryant, currently in the midst of an October mission to do something that some at times thought might never happen. It’s a wonderful thing that has fallen in Manfred’s lap and something that baseball needs to take full advantage of in the days ahead.

One of the reasons why the World Series has lost some of its luster in recent times is because the series has pushed itself into late-October and early-November, a very congested time on the sports calendar that includes the crucial stretch run in the college football season, the start of both the NBA and NHL seasons, and of course, the monster that is the NFL.

But if there was ever time for baseball to steal away some of that attention, especially from the NFL, which sits atop the mantle that baseball once stood tall upon, now is the absolute perfect time.

Just recently a report came out stating that there’s been a noticeable decline in the number of people tuning in to NFL games. While some of that decline has been credited to the U.S. election taking attention away from football, there’s also a belief that the drop in viewership also has something to do with the increased sterilization of the game through their crackdown on celebrations and the lack of marquee matchups in primetime slots, among other factors.

The amazing story of the 2016 Cubs is the perfect alternative right now to the NFL. And the best part of it is that it’s not a storyline that is manufactured or built up through media hype. It’s organic, built on its own by the team’s stunning change of fortune and through the raw reaction their fan base has displayed. Even those who despise the Cubs could even describe it as moving.

Everyone loves a good comeback story. And while the Cubs are already a great story, if they do what some thought was impossible and win the World Series, then there’s no telling exactly how much their story could dominate the sports world or even the general news cycle.

It’s not out of the question to say that a Cubs win in the Fall Classic could be the biggest sports story in America since the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team beat the Soviet Union at Lake Placid.

After years of wondering how baseball could push their way back to the front of America’s hearts and minds — trying everything from interleague play to a winner-take-all Wild Card Game with varying levels of success — all it’s taken is a lovable Chicago Cubs team.

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Giants have to address closer’s role this offseason

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OCT 02, 2016: San Francisco Giants Pitcher Sergio Romo (54) in his final pitch for the save during the regular season game between the Los Angeles Dodgers verses the San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park in San Francisco, CA. (Photo by Doug Stringer/Icon Sportswire)

For the San Francisco Giants, their offseason mission is clear: They must make adjustments to the bullpen if they wish to make another deep run through the postseason.

The San Francisco bullpen had hiccups in the 2016 season, but late in the season is when the issues became more prominent.

The team coughed up multiple late-game leads and Santiago Casilla lost his grip on the closer’s role in the closing weeks of the regular season after blowing saves in key games to teams like the Cubs and Diamondbacks in September. The Giants went from having a 5.5-game lead in the National League West to finishing the season four games out of first place. That’s a 9.5-game swing, and the bullpen played a big role in that drop.

When the Giants got to October, they tried to mask their bullpen deficiencies as best as they could. Ace Madison Bumgarner threw a 119-pitch complete game in their Wild Card Game against the Mets, and Johnny Cueto followed that up with a strong performance where he allowed just three hits and one run in eight innings of work in Game 1 of their NLDS matchup with the Cubs.

The bullpen had to play a big role in Game 2 after starter Jeff Samardzija was knocked out after just two innings, but it largely held up. Six different pitchers answered the call to the bullpen and they combined to allow one run on three hits and struck out five in six innings of work.

But the bullpen wasn’t able to carry the momentum past that performance. After five innings from Bumgarner in Game 3, another two from Derek Law and one inning from Hunter Strickland, the Giants were clinging to a 5-3 lead in the ninth inning.

Manager Bruce Bochy went to Sergio Romo, who was named the closer in the final weeks of the regular season, but he simply couldn’t shut the door.

He allowed a lead-off walk to Dexter Fowler, and then gave up a home run to Kris Bryant. And just as quickly as the Giants got the lead in the bottom of the eighth, they let the Cubs take it right back.

It took a scoreless inning of work from Will Smith in the 11th inning and two more from Ty Blach in the 12th and 13th innings to put the Giants in position to try to win the game with their bats, which they did in the 13th.

And of course, the bullpen meltdown in Game 4 that gave the Cubs the series win is well documented by now with Casilla and Romo both the main culprits in a ninth inning that saw San Francisco use five different pitchers in the ninth inning to get three outs.

So now the Giants are left having to pick up the pieces and wonder what they have to do to pick up another World Series title.

But it’s becoming quite apparent that any talk of upgrading any part of the roster this offseason should center upon the closer’s role, as both Romo and Casilla have struggled in the role in the past couple of seasons.

Romo finished the 2014 season with 23 saves, a 3.72 ERA, a 0.94 WHIP and 24 earn runs allowed in 58 innings of work and 64 appearances, but since that season he has recorded just six saves as it’s essentially been Casilla’s job in recent seasons.

After collecting 25 saves for the Giants in 2012 and two in 2013, Casilla earned 19 in 2014 and since then he’s picked up another 69. But as he struggled in the role this year some of his key stats ballooned. He went from having a 1.70 ERA in 2014 to posting a 3.57 ERA this year. His WHIP jumped from 0.85 to 1.19 in that span, as his number of earned runs allowed also jumped from 11 to 23.

Towards the end of the regular season, general manager Bobby Evans spoke to Jon Heyman of Today’s Knuckleball and expressed regret for not acquiring a top-line closer at the August 1 non-waiver trade deadline, saying it was something he thinks about “every time we lose.”

Giants management seems to now understand the need; the question now is what the Giants will do to address it.

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In losing, the 2016 Padres actually won

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03 September 2016: San Diego Padres Pitcher Luis Perdomo (61) [11600] Pitches in the third inning during the game between the San Diego Padres and the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, CA. (Photo by David Dennis/Icon Sportswire)

The 2016 baseball season was supposed to be the season of the unremarkable for the San Diego Padres.

Just months after the Padres put a cap on a disappointing 2015 that began with a high payroll and even higher expectations but ended in a whimper, there were almost no expectations as the Padres left Spring Training. Baseball pundits projected the team to finish near the bottom of the National League West standings.

And for the most part, everything played out just as many expected.

The Padres stumbled right out of the gates and they did not score a single run until their fourth game of the season. They began the year losing seven of their first 10 games. By Memorial Day, the team was in last place and already 11.5 games out of first place.

Curious to know how bleak things really were in San Diego this season? The Padres spent all but one day in either fourth or fifth place in the NL West standings (the lone day being April 9) and they never enjoyed a winning streak longer than three games.

As the season dragged on and the Padres continued to stumble around in the division cellar, there was no shortage of speculation of what veteran contract general manager AJ Preller would part with first.

But the first major shoe to drop came on June 4 when the Padres shipped starting pitcher James Shields to the White Sox in exchange for two prospects. The next notable move took place on June 30 when reliever Fernando Rodney, who was enjoying a career renaissance of sorts in his stint in San Diego, was traded to Miami in exchange for a minor leave reliever.

Starter Drew Pomeranz would be the next to go in mid-July, while Melvin Upton Jr., Andrew Cashner and Matt Kemp were all moved in the hours and the days leading up to the August 1 non-waiver trade deadline.

While none of these moves did anything to help the 2016 team improve in the standings or were even made with the here and now in mind, the moves did work in two other respects; they replenished the farm system with new pieces and allowed the organization to get a good look at prospects who could come up and be a part of the future of the organization.

And that’s exactly what happened. Second baseman Carlos Asuaje had a strong season down in the minors and was promoted to the big club at the tail end of the season. He went on to hit .208 with five hits and a pair of RBI in his tryout. Luis Perdomo made 35 appearances for the big club — 20 as starts — and went 8-8 in his last 18 appearances of the season, all of which were starts.

And even outfielder Hunter Renfroe, who was the Pacific Coast League’s MVP this past season, got a quick look with the big club at the tail end of the year to see how he would look in a Padres uniform.

Make no mistake about it, this past season was Extreme Home Makeover: Petco Park Edition. Preller and his staff stripped all the walls in the clubhouse down to the studs and now the actual building begins.

But in stripping the roster down to almost nothing and rebuilding from scratch with prospects like Asuaje, Perdomo and Renfroe, there’s actual hope for the future. The Padres and their fans came to the realization that their organization might not be in such bad shape for the long-haul and that there’s some actual hope for the future.

So, while 2016 was a failure for the Padres in the standings, in many ways it was actually a success. Preller moved trade chips for assets and late in the season they got a look at what could be coming down the pipeline in the near future, and then come to find out the pipeline actually looks to be in decent shape.

The biggest question the Padres face heading into the offseason is how they pull all these pieces together and start to build something that can go up against the best of the NL.

In 2016, the Padres found hope. And that might’ve been their biggest victory of the season.

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Rockies need right skipper at this critical juncture

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Colorado Rockies General Manager Jeff Bridich watches as the team practices at Coors Field on Thursday, April 7, 2016, in Denver. The Rockies host the San Diego Padres in Colorado's home-opener. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Colorado Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich is preparing to embark on one of the most important processes a GM can make – the process to hire a new manager.

While it’s a critical decision every GM faces, his hiring carries even more importance for the Rockies because the franchise finds itself at a very critical juncture.

Under the watchful eye of former manager Walt Weiss, the Rockies were essentially languishing through the most painful stage of a franchise rebuilding process, the stage where they were cleaning house and evaluating what, if any, parts of the organization were going to be of value to them going forward.

And under this stage Weiss had lots of rope and time to work with players. No fan of a team who is stripping the house down to the studs wants to hear this, but those seasons under Weiss were essentially 162 games of glorified spring training. A time of evaluation and experimentation.

But in 2016, the Rockies started to show signs of change. The young pitching the organization invested in started to show some progress, even at scoring-friendly Coors Field. And Trevor Story was making a case to be the National League Rookie of the Year before his season-ending injury in late-August. Suddenly, Colorado’s extreme home makeover had gone from the demolition phase to the actual building stage.

Behind all this was a riff between Bridich and Weiss that actually saw the GM leave the manager out of essentially all personnel decisions over the course of the 2016 season, according to The Denver Post.

The situation came to head the day after the regular season on Monday when Weiss resigned from his managerial post.

But the current state of the roster is the reason why this hiring is so critical. Hire the right person and that manager could help the next stages of the rebuilding process progress or even become expedited. Hire the wrong person and you could derail the delicate process, and after missing out the playoffs now for seven straight seasons, the Rockies can ill afford that.

When looking for a manager at this juncture, one of the key qualities they should have is the ability to work with young players, especially considering the Rockies will have more young prospects coming down the pipeline in the near future.

Players like Story, Jon Gray and Tyler Anderson now have their first year of big league experience under their belt, but they’re going to need a manager and a staff to help foster that progression, listen to them and not be afraid to maybe even work with them on fundamentals through the grind of the regular season.

Essentially, this is going to have to be a manager that loves working with the next generation of young stars and is seeking the opportunity to do it.

The other characteristic that Bridich would be wise to look for is experience.

Under Weiss, the Rockies were at a time and place where they could afford to have a manager with virtually no experience learning on the fly. But if they’re serious about kicking things up a notch and taking that next step in the near future then they’re going to need someone who has led a dugout before, someone who has experience massaging through those everyday ups and downs that take place in a major league clubhouse

Or at the very least, someone who has worked as a pitching coach or bench coach and is ready and qualified to make that jump to skipper.

Bridich and his staff can’t afford to reinvent the wheel or use the position to experiment. They need a sure bet, or at least someone who is ready to take that logical next step.

This will be Bridich’s first shot at hiring a manager, which puts an added emphasis on the hire. Weiss was brought in under former GM Dan O’Dowd and now the Bridich has a golden opportunity to put his stamp on the organization.

A whiff in this hiring could set the Rockies back to square one, but hiring the right person could propel them to that next step of competing for a playoff spot, something that looked almost light years away under the old regime that had so little to work with.

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Rockies made positive strides in 2016

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September 19 2016: Colorado Rockies Infielder, Nolan Arenado (28) during a regular season Major League Baseball game between the Colorado Rockies and the visiting St. Louis Cardinals at Coors Field in Denver, CO. (Photo by Russell Lansford/Icon Sportswire)

At first glance, the Colorado Rockies’ 2016 season looked an awful lot like their other recently-completed seasons. Once again, there will be no playoff baseball for the Rockies. There was no wild card race in Denver over the past few weeks and they spent more time in September taking a look at players who might […]

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How would a baseball “Team North America” stack up?

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August 18, 2016:  Boston Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts (2) at bat during a regular season game between the Boston Red Sox and the Detroit Tigers played at Comerica Park in Detroit, Michigan.  
(Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire)

Major League Baseball’s showcase international event, the World Baseball Classic, is set to take place in March, but right now the National Hockey League’s World Cup of Hockey has taken center stage. One wrinkle in the NHL’s event that has caused a bit of a stir is that there are six countries and two “showcase […]

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Column: Plenty of blame to go around with Giants

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25 AUG 2016: San Francisco Giants Manager Bruce Bochy during the game against the Los Angeles Dodgers played at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, CA. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire)

The San Francisco Giants are dealing with a lot of nagging issues right now, but maybe none worse then their own self-inflicted wounds. And there was probably no better example of that than Saturday at AT&T Park. With the Giants clinging to an important 2-1 lead at home against St. Louis in the top of […]

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Padres moving toward development over purchasing of talent

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10 July 2016: Team USA (11) Hunter Renfroe (SD) during the MLB All-Star Futures Game at PETCO Park in San Diego, CA. (Photo by Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire)

Through the much of the 1990s and the 2000s, breaking the bank was all the rage for MLB big-market clubs. It seemed as if the motto in major league front offices during this time was “he who has the biggest bank account wins.” And it was an era that was fueled by the have’s breaking […]

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Giants prove to be formidable foes despite slump

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May 22,2016: San Francisco Giants center fielder Gregor Blanco (7) runs towards home to score in the bottom of the 5th inning during the regular season game between the San Francisco Giants versus the Chicago Cubs at AT&T Park in San Francisco, CA. (Photo by Samuel Stringer/Icon Sportswire)

The San Francisco Giants have struggled for nearly three months now, while the Chicago Cubs are on the verge of solidifying their place atop of the NL Central standings. So, when the two teams met up for their four-game series at Wrigley Field this weekend, it was going to be a one-sided affair in favor […]

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