Cubs\' Javier Baez Blossoms Into A Star On Kris Bryant\'s Level

BOSTON — October is an unfortunately quiet time for the Red Sox in 2015, with Fenway Park gearing up to host Halloween festivities instead of postseason baseball. It was this time just two seasons ago that Fenway was prepping for the World Series, the Red Sox having vanquished the Tigers to win the American League pennant on October 19 that season.

But while the field may be empty, there's plenty going on in the offices along Yawkey Way. President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, having assembled his new front-office team, is at work trying to turn the Sox from a 78-84 outfit into one that will play deep into autumn.

As the Red Sox sit on the sidelines, baseball's four semifinalists have certainly taken roundabout paths to get here. Over the next few days, we'll look at each team in the League Championship Series and see what Dombrowski and Boston can learn about team-building, and how it can be applied back home.

We tackled the American League yesterday. Today, let's take a look at the National League, where the Mets lead the Cubs 2-0 heading into tonight's Game Three at Wrigley Field.

NEW YORK METS

1. The best way to find an ace is to develop one.

In Saturday night's Game One of the NLCS, the Mets beat Chicago's Jon Lester — the man the Cubs gave $155 million last December. Lester is earning $15 million this season for Chicago while New York's four-man starting postseason rotation pulled in less than $2 million combined.

More than the trade for Yoenis Cespedes or the return of David Wright, that rotation is why the Mets find themselves playing for the National League pennant. It is what kept them in games before the offense found its footing after the trade deadline, and it's what allowed them to sneak by Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and the Dodgers in the Division Series and beat Lester and Jake Arrieta to begin the NLCS. New York has accumulated arguably the game's best rotation through a wise first-round pick on Matt Harvey, a pair of shrewd trades for top pitching talents in Noah Syndergaard and Zach Wheeler, and developmental successes Steven Matz and Jacob deGrom.

The Mets were able to bring those pitchers along on their own timelines, with Harvey coming up late in 2012, Wheeler in 2013, deGrom unexpectedly surging in 2014, and Syndergaard and Matz only when they were ready in 2015. In the process, they’ve held onto arms like Dillon Gee, Jonathon Niese and Bartolo Colon, perhaps not cashing in on higher trade value to avoid rushing their youngsters.

While the depth of the Mets' success harvesting young arms is atypical, it reiterates that the best way to find an ace is to build your own — the way Houston has with Dallas Keuchel, the way Los Angeles did with Kershaw, the way Toronto and Kansas City are trying with Marcus Stroman and Yordano Ventura, respectively. In 2015, Eduardo Rodriguez looked like the best Red Sox starter to emerge from Boston's farm system since Clay Buchholz in 2008. It's a nice start, with Henry Owens and Brian Johnson also showing some promise. Further down the system, Anderson Espinoza and Michael Kopech possess tantalizing arms that could grow into something special.

It's probably not enough just yet to dissuade Boston from pursuing a frontline starter this winter, either in free agency or via trade, costing themselves a lot of money or a lot of young talent. The Red Sox hope they won’t have to do that much more in the future. 

2. Never underestimate the importance of competent depth.

When the Mets were shut out by Kershaw on July 23 at Citi Field, they could almost claim a moral victory: At least they had gotten three hits. That’s how bad the lineup New York threw out there against the game's pre-eminent starter was; a no-hitter or perfect game seemed entirely reasonable when Wilmer Flores, John Mayberry, Jr. and Eric Campbell were hitting 3-4-5. The Mets were sinking, in large part because they hadn’t adequately prepared for predictable injuries to Wright and Travis d'Arnaud or the possibility that Juan Lagares would take a step back from a strong 2014.

Two days later, the Mets dealt for Kelly Johnson and Juan Uribe from Atlanta. Although the smallest of the three trades the team made in the final week of July, it was the one that best comprehended New York's problem at the time: The Mets needed competent major-leaguers in their lineup and on their bench. Platooning Mayberry in a corner outfield spot and riding Campbell until Wright made his eventual return wasn’t going to cut it. Johnson gave New York some pop from the left side — he would hit a huge home run to beat the Nationals late in the season — and Uribe could play third until Wright came back before sliding back to a valuable bench role. Yes, the upgrade from Lagares to Yoenis Cespedes was enormous, but so was the overlooked upgrade from Campbell to Uribe/Johnson.

Often when fans construct next year's lineup in their heads, they ignore the necessity of depth, instead focusing on finding defined roles for the nine everyday players, the five regular starters and the key bullpen pieces. While the Red Sox have talked about compiling depth ever since 2013, they haven't done a good job of it the last two years. Brock Holt may have been an All-Star in 2015, but his best role going forward is probably still as Boston's 10th starter — a guy who can fill in without a defined role. Owens may have impressed this year, but with an injury risk like Clay Buchholz in the rotation, having Owens as the sixth man starting in Triple-A isn't a bad idea. Matt Barnes, Heath Hembree and Noe Ramirez had some nice moments down the stretch out of the pen, but they should be looked upon as depth options rather than Opening Day ones right now.

Finding quality depth is difficult; good players don’t like to play reduced roles. However, with a slew of question marks around the offensive capabilities of Jackie Bradley, Jr. and Rusney Castillo, around Travis Shaw's viability as the sole Plan B behind Hanley Ramirez at first and around even Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa's abilities to bounce back in the bullpen, the Sox better protect themselves around the diamond with depth.

3. The chances to win are rare. Jump on them.

Despite a hot start to the season, the Mets had fallen three games behind the heavily favored Nationals in the N.L. East by July 30. They were farther back in the wild card to Pittsburgh and Chicago. They had just suffered a cataclysmic loss to the Padres on a late home run. Baseball Prospectus put their playoff odds at 30.8 percent; Fangraphs, with its heavier weight on preseason expectations, had them at 15.1 percent. That was the context for New York's deal for Cespedes.

Perhaps a rational fan could have predicted that the addition of Cespedes, who would hit 17 home runs in his first 41 games as a Met, would help transform one of the league's worst offenses into its best. No rational fan could have predicted that New York's ascension would coincide with Washington's implosion, as the consensus preseason World Series pick played four games below .500 the rest of the way. Were it not for the unforeseen (maybe even unforeseeable) collapse by the Nats, even that incandescent stretch by Cespedes could have been for naught, could have been the difference between an 83-win Mets season that ended October 4 and a 90-win Mets season that ended October 4.

It's a reminder that, for all that we think we know about how baseball is going to go, chances to win are precious. Even when the odds are against you, rolling the dice can pay off big.

CHICAGO CUBS

1. Be bold with your timeline.

As the Cubs entered the winter off a 73-win season in 2014, there were some who figured Chicago wouldn’t be big spenders for one more season. While the Cubs could go after Jon Lester now, they could also save that money to try for an even bigger splash with David Price in another year, when the rest of their exciting young core would have more big-league experience.

After all, could Chicago really expect Kris Bryant and Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber to all blossom in the same season? For Starlin Castro to look like his old self after moving to second base? For Jake Arrieta to not only show that his 2014 breakthrough was legit, but to break through a second time on top of that to an even higher level?

Could the Cubs really expect to contend in baseball's best division behind the Cardinals and Pirates?

Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer didn’t buy all that talk. In the face of that, they signed Lester to a six-year, $155 million deal. They signed his personal catcher in David Ross, luring the pair of them with visions of success starting immediately in 2015. They boldly went after Joe Maddon once he became available from Tampa Bay, even if it meant firing Rick Renteria.

We talk all the time about how development isn't linear with prospects, and Chicago's season is a reminder that it isn't that way with teams either. The Cubs aren’t alone. The Mets and Astros each made the playoffs a year earlier than we all thought. Most in the game thought the Royals were crazy for thinking James Shields and Wade Davis were the missing pieces to a contending puzzle back in 2013. And what were the Red Sox doing signing a bunch of complementary free agents after a 93-loss season in 2012?

It was Epstein who popularized the use of "bridge year" in Boston; it's his success in Chicago that suggests it shouldn’t be used much anymore. In the current baseball landscape, if you're good enough to think you're one year from contention, you're probably good enough to contend right now. 

2. Trust your youngsters, but be prepared with backup plans.

In many ways, the Cubs have been the inverse of the Mets this season. Whereas New York has seen a stable of young arms all excel upon reaching the majors, Chicago has seen its young bats react to the higher level with aplomb. The weight of expectation on Bryant's shoulders entering the season was a burden known only to Atlas, and yet the third baseman responded with one of the best rookie seasons the National League has seen in some time. Russell hit more than expected as a rookie, and Schwarber reached the majors faster than expected, hitting a slew of titanic home runs once he got there.

The Cubs, though, were wise to protect themselves in case any of those prospects floundered, as many do, in their first exposure to the majors. Opening Day at Wrigley Field certainly didn’t presage what was to come, not in a shutout loss with too-long lines at the restrooms and Mike Olt and Tommy LaStella starting on the infield. LaStella was one of several competent depth pieces Chicago accumulated just in case, alongside Chris Coghlan (who started a majority of games in the outfield) and Chris Denorfia. No, the Cubs wouldn’t have been as good a team with LaStella playing second had Russell not worked out — but that downgrade alone wouldn’t have ruined them.

Chicago also didn’t quickly cash in on its surplus of prospects by moving a piece like Castro or Javier Baez — both of whom are now starting in the NLCS because of Russell's injury.

In 2014, the Red Sox were caught without adequate backup plans when both Jackie Bradley, Jr. and Xander Bogaerts slumped as rookies. Add in that Will Middlebrooks couldn’t rediscover his 2012 self, and the Sox offense was sunk at three different positions. Adequate backup plans are hard to execute, since they involve asking decent players to take backseats. But it's something Boston has to do this winter should Bradley or Rusney Castillo or someone else falter in 2016.

3. Be creative and adaptable with your bullpen.

Chicago's bullpen may be the ultimate example of throwing darts and seeing what sticks. In their NLDS victory over the Cardinals, the Cubs allowed five runs in 14 2/3 innings for an ERA just north of three. And that was with their reliable closer Hector Rondon allowing two runs in his three innings. The pieced-together sextet of failed starters (Trevor Cahill, Clayton Richard, Justin Grimm and Travis Wood) and reclamation projects (Pedro Strop and Fernando Rodney) allowed Maddon to aggressively pull his starters and the Cubs to finish off St. Louis.

Cahill earned $12 million in 2015 — from the Diamondbacks and Braves. The Cubs signed him in August as a no-risk addition and watched him rediscover his sinker in a relief role. They got Richard from the Pirates in July and twice designated him for assignment in August. Rodney was signed after the Mariners designated him. In short, Chicago took chances on guys who had a semblance of major-league stuff and hoped to deploy them in best-case situations. It's worked to this point.

In the bullpen, more than anywhere else on the field, it comes down to who's hot now. You don’t necessarily dance with who brung you.

This winter, the Red Sox will undoubtedly explore big-name fixes to a bullpen that was one of the worst in the American League. But often it's the under-the-radar additions that create the depth a bullpen needs to endure the season.

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Cubs\' Javier Baez Blossoms Into A Star On Kris Bryant\'s Level

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Cubs\' Javier Baez Blossoms Into A Star On Kris Bryant\'s Level

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Cubs\' Javier Baez Blossoms Into A Star On Kris Bryant\'s Level

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Cubs\' Javier Baez Blossoms Into A Star On Kris Bryant\'s Level

Cubs\' Javier Baez Blossoms Into A Star On Kris Bryant\'s Level

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Cubs\' Javier Baez Blossoms Into A Star On Kris Bryant\'s Level