Monday, April 27, 2015

Cubs Bounce Back to Sweep Reds on the Road

After splitting a four-game set in Pittsburgh last week, the Cubs swept both games in Cincinnati in a series shortened by a rain postponement on Saturday. The 11-inning 7-3 win on Friday night could end up being a huge turning point for the team, as a loss would've dropped the record to .500 at 8-8. Instead, the offense blew the game open while the bullpen shut the Reds down. With the Cubs heading back to Wrigley Field to kick off a three-game series against the Pirates, here are five quick thoughts:

1. This team has 10 wins already. Last year's 10th win came on May 2nd, bringing the team to 10-17. The Cubs haven't had 10 wins by April 26th since 2011, when the 10th win came in the 20th game on April 23rd to even the record at 10-10. It's nice to finally have an April that isn't a slow start that the team needs to overcome.

2. Addison Russell has 12 strikeouts and one huge hit. The kid is coming around, and even with six strikeouts in the two Cincinnati games, he came through with the bases-clearing double to make the difference in Sunday's 5-2 win. Eventually Russell and Jorge Soler will be hitting consistently, and this lineup will be even scarier.

3. Goodbye Brian Schlitter, hello Junior Lake! Contrary to what his awesome beard would lead you to believe, Schlitter is a miserable wreck on the mound in the Major Leagues. On the other hand, while Lake had a terrible season last year, he worked hard last fall, had a decent spring, and is hitting .289 at AAA Iowa. He'll be a great runner/hitter/fielder to bring in late in games. Great move all around.

4. Zac Rosscup and Gonzalez Germen have helped to stabilize the bullpen. The two combined to pitch 3.2 innings in Cincinnati, allowing two hits zero runs, while striking out six.

5. Can Dan Vogelbach play left field?? Forget everything I said in last week's post about the prospect race to LF. Vogelbach is crushing the ball at AA Tennessee, hitting .444 with three home runs, 13 RBIs, seven doubles, a .552 OBP, and an OPS of 1.293. If those Kris Bryant-like numbers aren't enough, he has 13 walks and only five strike outs. Unfortunately, Vogelbach has only played first base in the minors so far. Let's get him in the outfield!

Friday, April 24, 2015

Cubs Split Series in Pittsburgh

The Chicago Cubs won the first two games of a four-game set in Pittsburgh before losing the final two, each by a single run. The team now sits a game above .500 heading into a big series in Cincinnati. Below are five thoughts following the Pirates series.

1. Addison Russell is here. The NL's new youngest player wasn't spectacular (yet), but he did have his first hits and a great RBI double. I love the promotion and his opportunity to learn on the job while playing for a team with a chance to compete now. I do believe Starlin Castro should remain at shortstop, at least until the All-Star Break, and probably the whole year. After that, if they want to find a way to move Russell to shortstop without trading Castro, I'd support that as well.

2. Kris Bryant will let the team know if/when he is uncomfortable. I'm sure the Cubs appreciate everyone's concerns about "putting too much" on Bryant's shoulders by having him hit 4th and play wacky positions like center field. But the kid is so confident in his talent, and he knows what he can and can't do. Although my fantasy lineup would benefit greatly from some LF eligibility for Bryant, if he's more comfortable in CF, then we should just trust everyone involved.

3. What will the Cubs do about the catcher situation? Getting a player like Matt Szczur back up from Iowa would help avoid the whole "Bryant in the outfield" thing and would be a lot easier if the team didn't have three catchers on the current roster. But it's a tough situation. Welington Castillo is obviously the one who will be moved eventually (if any are moved), but the team will not just give him away. Meanwhile, Castillo is hitting the ball well, while manager Joe Maddon loses flexibility within his roster. (By the way, why is no one talking about Junior Lake? I know he underperformed last year, but his spring was decent, and he isn't playing badly at Iowa.)

4. The bullpen quickly went from a strength to a problem. Guess what? Edwin Jackson and Brian Schlitter haven't magically gotten any better, despite the year changing to 2015 and injuries giving them chances to redeem themselves. I know it's shocking, but it's true. The good news is that Zac Roscup and Gonzalez Germen have looked good so far, so maybe there is still hope that this will get sorted out quickly. In the meantime, this team has got to cut its losses with Jackson and possibly give Schlitter one last chance in Iowa. The fans have reached our limit on Jackson's outings, I believe.

5. At least the Cubs aren't brawling with other teams. For a team that looked so awful for the first six weeks of 2014 (13-27 record on May 16), an 8-7 start is wonderful. If Jon Lester is the stopper he's being paid to be, the losing streak will end at two. Impressively, the Cubs were the last team to have a two-game losing streak this season. Bryant and Russell are starters, Jorge Soler looks like a veteran, and Castro has quickly become a leader. The team is clearly headed in the right direction, especially when compared to the other Chicago team. The White Sox are struggling at 6-9, and (former Cubs) ace Jeff Samardzija is fighting more consistently than winning. It's great to finally see the focus for the Cubs remain on the field.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

A Look at the Chicago Cubs Prospect Race to Left Field

The Chicago Cubs played a terrific game against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Monday night, winning the opening game of the series 5-2 and moving to 7-5 on the season. The team was led by rookie Kris Bryant (I guess we'll be saying this a lot this year), who had three hits and three RBIs, along with another walk.

Cubs fans got great news after the game, when it was reported that infield prospect Addison Russell would be called up from Iowa to join the team on Tuesday. With Tommy La Stella injured and Javier Baez suffering through a tough spring training (and now absent due to a death in the family), the team has a need at 2B. Therefore, Russell's future begins now.

Like all Cubs fans, I can't wait to see Russell in the lineup, playing in the infield with Bryant, Castro, and Rizzo. But now, we'll naturally look ahead to the NEXT prospect. Who will be up next?

If the current roster remains healthy, the next open spot for a prospect is likely left field. Chris Coghlan looked great early in the season, but he has definitely hit a rough stretch. As a result, Chris Denorfia, who recently returned from the DL, will get his chances to play in left field as well. But assuming none of the team's current options are able to bring some consistency, it's possible that another prospect could get his chance in 2015.

So just for fun, let's call this the "2015 Race to LF" and name the top five prospects who could have the opportunity to join the Cubs and help in the outfield.

1. Kyle Schwarber - He's first on this list because many of us believe he could be the "next" Kris Bryant. But even if he is, we know he's at least a year away. Bryant likely moved through the Cubs system as quickly as anyone will be allowed to under Epstein and Hoyer. By that logic, we shouldn't see Schwarber until at least 13 days into the 2016 season. Then again, maybe he'll have a great year, and the team will decide he could be the final piece for a playoff run now.

2. Javier Baez - Looking around Twitter and reading blogs, it seems many fans have written Baez off. I'm not even close to being ready to do that, considering he really hasn't had a full shot at the top level. Yes, he struggled in Chicago to close out last season, and his spring was pretty bad. And now he hasn't played a game for Iowa yet. But when he returns, what if he is moved to LF? What if he is inspired? What if he puts it all together? They say these shortstops should technically be able to play anywhere. I wouldn't count this out as a possibility and would love to see Baez playing well and hitting 6th or 7th for the Cubs this year.

3. Albert Almora - If Almora stays healthy and progresses as expected, he should at least be promoted to AAA Iowa at some point this season. He hasn't shown the power we'd like to see in LF, and he obviously is suited better to play CF, but he has made an appearance in LF already this year. If he begins to really play well at any point in 2015, he could land in Chicago.

4. Bijan Rademacher - Almora's teammate at AA Tennessee, Rademacher has only played RF this year. However, he did play 58 games in LF for Daytona last season, and he currently holds a .405 OBP with five RBIS in his first 10 games of 2015.

5. Billy McKinney - McKinney is at Myrtle Beach right now, and there is no way he will make the jump to Chicago this year. Also, like Almora, he's mainly a center fielder. But I think McKinney's future is bright, and he will either play a huge role in Chicago or will be moved for pitching or another need. His acquisition in the Samardzija/Russell trade was highly overshadowed by the other names involved, but his career OBP is .367, including an early .441 mark for this season. McKinney's career minor league walk-to-strikeout ratio of .639 is reminiscent of Jorge Soler's impressive .621 and far better than Bryant's .481, Russell's .454, and Almora's .322. A very long shot, but at this point, you never know who will be next.

Don't forget: Junior Lake and Matt Szczur. One or both of these would likely get a chance at LF before any of these listed prospects.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Cubs Drop First Series of 2015, Kris Bryant Makes His Debut

While all of the buzz this weekend was focused on Kris Bryant's major league debut, the Chicago Cubs managed to drop two of three games to the San Diego Padres and lose their first series of the year. They'll quickly have a chance to bounce back against the Pirates though, with the next series kicking off tonight. Below are five thoughts from the Padres series.

1. Forget the expectations; Bryant was awesome. The Cubs offered James Shields a lot of money this offseason because he's good. Therefore, it should be no surprise that he easily handled Bryant in his major league debut. Still, despite going 0-for-4 with three strike outs, Bryant bounced back to finish the weekend with a .300 average (3-for-10) and a .500 on-base percentage. He'll be fine. The home runs will come.

2. The bullpen isn't perfect after all. After having a great start to the season as a whole, Cubs relievers combined to allow seven runs in 11.1 innings this weekend. The offense bailed out the bullpen for the extra innings win on Saturday, but I'm thinking the bullpen will right back to supporting the offense late in games very soon.

3. I like Starlin Castro hitting 5th. Let's be honest: Bryant will get better pitches to hit with Castro hitting behind him. Coghlan is a good player, but he won't exactly scare anyone into changing their approach against the hitter before him. Coghlan struggled this weekend and had just one hit, but more importantly, we need Castro to get to the plate more often.

4. Miguel Montero needs to start getting consistent playing time. Each of the team's three catchers got a start this weekend, but only Montero had an impact offensively. Of course, his two home runs on Saturday helped the team earn its only win in the series. He was brought to Chicago for a reason and is being paid like a top catcher in the game. I'd like to see him start getting the majority of the work, with Ross possibly catching Lester, and Castillo being used late off of the bench as needed.

5. Jon Lester looks better, and his "spring training" should be over now. He had a couple of bad pitches on Sunday, but if the Cubs had put together some offense, he could've easily earned a win in the game. We know he's been behind since early in the spring, but his adjustment period should be finished now. Let's hope we'll now see the Lester who deserved that huge contract.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

GBS Record Store Day Edition: Vista Blue - Baseball Rock

Help us celebrate Record Store Day by checking out our new band, Vista Blue. The debut album, Good Eye, features all songs about baseball, and it is free to stream or download right here at our bandcamp site.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Kris Bryant Officially Promoted, Putting Addison Russell on Deck

So now that it's settled and Kris Bryant will make his MLB debut on Friday, Cubs fans should begin watching and hoping for Addison Russell's arrival. With a chance to play second base at AAA Iowa during Javy Baez's absence over the last week, Russell is crushing the ball, hitting .355 with seven RBIs in seven games. This follows a spring training where we saw him hit .317 over 40 at-bats while looking like he belonged on the field as much as anyone else.

Before he was traded to the Cubs in the Jeff Samardzija deal last summer, Russell was on track to open this year as Oakland's starting shortstop. Although the middle infield in his new organization seemed fairly jammed up when he arrived, things are slowly working themselves out. Starlin Castro continues to lead Chicago in hitting and has a firm grasp on the shortstop spot for now, but second base seems open due to infield injuries (Tommy La Stella, Mike Olt) and slow starts (Baez, Arismendy Alcantara).

With Chris Coghlan off to a hot start in left field (.304 with two home runs), the lineup is really strong. But imagine it with Russell hitting .300 from the 2B spot.

I imagine the Cubs lineup would look something like this:

1. Fowler
2. Rizzo
3. Soler
4. Bryant
5. Coghlan
6. Castro
7. catcher
8. pitcher
9. Russell

We knew we wouldn't see this lineup coming out of spring training two weeks ago. Now, however, it's only a phone call away. Could we see it by May 1st? June 1st?

First, of course, we'll focus on Bryant and his adjustment to his new home. But if he takes off quickly, as many are expecting him to, "Russell Watch" will begin shortly.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Cubs Win Another Series, Remain in First Place

The 2014 Cubs did not win a series throughout the month of April, finishing the first month of the season at 9-17. By comparison, the 2015 team has not lost a series yet, defeating the Reds 5-0 on Wednesday to earn a second series win after splitting the rain-shortened series with the Cardinals to begin the season. Below are five thoughts about the first place Cubs following the Reds series.

1. Travis Wood is off to a good start. Wood was the clear winner of the fifth rotation spot, and he has been a huge asset in the past. Unfortunately, he was pretty bad at times last year. In fact he allowed at least a run in every start until mid-June, making Wednesday's start (0 ER) very encouraging. Cubs fans would love to see Wood pitch consistently and stay in this rotation all year. With Lester, Arrieta, and Wood throwing, who could've imagined Wood would start the only shutout of the series?

2. Jorge Soler came through. In my last post, I predicted he'd have a big week, and he definitely had a great series, going 5-for-11 with two HRs, five RBI, three runs, and two walks. With other prospects getting all the attention, Soler feels like a veteran at this point. A veteran who may win the league's Rookie of the Year award.

3. The bullpen keeps going. Cubs relievers threw 8.1 innings against the Reds and did not allow a run. The Ramirez injury is scary, and we may lose a crucial piece there. Sure, Schlitter is shaky at times, but Rosscup looked amazing in his appearance on Tuesday. Meanwhile, Motte, Coke, Strop, and Rondon just keep shutting hitters down late.

4. Are we still trying to trade Starlin Castro? I'm personally done talking about it for now, because Castro needs to be seen as piece the team can build around. He has already said he'd move positions if he had to, and he is quickly reminding us how important his bat is. Fowler, Soler, and Rizzo have given the Cubs the big hits so far, but who is leading the team in hitting? Castro at .323. Like always.

5. Kris Bryant watch begins now. Our friends in New Orleans are hoping to catch Bryant in an Iowa uniform tonight, but I'm hoping he isn't even in the park. (Sorry, Brett and Rocky!) Whether he is activated on Friday or Saturday (to ensure a potential one-game play-in at the end of the season doesn't ruin everything), we should see Bryant in Chicago at some point this weekend. Regardless of anything else on the business side of this thing, there's an obvious need at third base at this point. Maybe I'm wrong? But I think it's Bryant time within the next 48 hours.

Monday, April 13, 2015

GP of Louisiana - Fan Experience - Race Day!

First of all, for anyone who has read Part 1 and Part 2 of this GP of NOLA Series, thank you for reading along, and thank you for bearing with my typos. For normal GBS coverage there’s plenty time to get this stuff out as a member of the media or in the solitary of the home office, but this trip is “as a fan” which means my wife, son, brother, mom, dad, cousins, in-laws, friends and more are with me at the track and hanging out in the city at night, and I’m putting these pieces and the pictures together as quick as I can in the late post-midnight hours. This trip started 11 days ago with me running in the Crescent City Classic (article on that later), a week of amazing food and music culminating with the GP of NOLA race weekend, so to say I’m out of energy is an understatement. And with that, Race Day!

So after the qualification rain out it proceeded to rain on/off the rest of Saturday night and well into Sunday morning with periods of overcast non-raining. It was still an upbeat morning,  the local news on TV had reporters out doing coverage on TV, and the New Orleans Advocate had a full page spread in the sports section… even if the writer/editor swapped “mph” in for “horsepower.”

This led to a conversation with my dad and brother on if you could even perceive a 700 mph race with your eyes, hah. Now with the schedule moved up action was on the track at 7am, and if it were just me, I’d have made my way out to the track, but I knew weather was looming and I have a 2 year old son I do not want to test the limits of during a potential rain delay. So we headed to the track at 10am figuring we’d see the Porsche GT3s and Pro Mazda races.

Sadly on our drive the rain came down hard, and by the time we got to the track both races had to be cancelled. Let’s make no mistake right now, a LOT of people are being snarky on the internet about NOLA’s lack of drainage or amount of rain. I lived in NOLA for 25 years. The amount of rain we had in 3 days was more than the monthly average for the month of April, NO track or any amount of additional infrastructure would have been able to drain this much water out; it was a simple fluke of nature, the entire week leading up to this was sunny and 80 degrees.

But this left us with 2 hours to burn while the rain was pouring down, so we were huddled in the Trackside Club along with hundreds of others.

The only problem with the Trackside Club is that none of the PA speakers exist in the club…? Not sure why but you never could hear any updates about what was going on or when things were changing, thank god for phones/twitter. Thankfully teams let us hang in their tents/paddock areas during the rain and check out everything they were doing to prep. Enough can't be said for how friendly the teams were with the fans during all these conditions.

Finally the rain cleared up and the masterful Air Titan and a bulldozer (to push water) went to work taking care of the worst spots on track as fans filed in. If anyone should win awards for this weekend it’s the track workers who constantly kept getting the track ready for racing amidst the worst of conditions.

The second award goes to the fans. The rain was so bad Sunday morning, I was actually getting mentally prepared for them to scrap Sunday and move to Monday and we’d have to fly back Monday and miss the race. I completely don’t hold it against any fan for staying home in the conditions we dealt with; there was serious doubt we were getting a race in… but these stands were packed! Seriously, I think we still managed to be near 80% capacity, and probably 90-95% capacity on the front stretch. (open up that photo and you'll see the back stands filling up as well).

And for folks who have never been to NOLA, the crowd lived up to “Big Easy” everyone was wet but having a blast, we were all laughing about everything and anxious to see some racing. There was a serious roar from the crowd on the call to start engines. And was also happy to see the 2-seater go around in the conditions, though they maybe should have explained it over the loud-speaker, as I had to explain to many folks:

Now the beginning of the race was a masterpiece, all the drivers did a great job on the wet tires and Graham Rahal in particular was a treat to watch as he was picking off 1-2 cars every lap, he was simply in the “Takuma Sato in the rain” zone. Sato himself though, was having car/engine issues so he was never able to materialize his own mastery of the wet track.

Then some drivers got ballsy and started going to red/slicks while there was still water on the track, and this is where things got interesting, exciting and also eventually downhill. Order as getting all mixed up as we were seeing who was willing to blink first for reds. We got to see Tony Kanaan power boating to get out of the swamp in turn 13, and the loudest cheer of the day was when Gabby Chaves got pushed out by a (brave yet maybe stupid) track worker. Sadly Chaves stalled and thus began the downfall of this race. The restarts…

The yellows were unusually long even for IndyCar standards; that’s fine for the first yellow, to do some cleaning; but now with cars packed up plus some water still out there, it became silly. Rahal was making out on restarts like a bandit, Newgarden too. But sadly Coletti found some water trying to make a pass and slicks at speed vs water don’t mix. Then Huertas, then Dracone, suddenly after doing 15+ laps under green, drivers suddenly forgot how to drive again.  When we got restarts and a lap here and there the action was great.

As a fan, I really can’t wait to see more races at NOLA, the track has really come out well, the front and back straights are downright amazing in person, and the passing at the end of them is top notch. The track itself in general is amazing, especially since they listened to IndyCar/Cotman and straightened the back stretch. It may be my #1 and #2 favorite parts of a track right with the Mid Ohio esses and Indy turn 1.

The only downside from a fan perspective is that the “stupid” race control tower blocks your view of turn 1. I say stupid in quotes because obviously that’s more important and was there first, but seriously would be nice to be able to see the cars go all the way to turn 1. See in this photo (and the videos) how you get blocked.

But that being said, I stated on Friday the amazing view you get of the pits, and yeah its awesome come pit-stop time, you look right into the team's stalls completely unobstructed:

SO I’ll have another post later to talk about IndyCar Race Control, the race and all that; this series is just for the fan experience. And I have to say NOLA delivered a race, a great venue, food, and the sightlines are amazing. To top things off, this is bar none THE BEST LOCATION FOR VICTORY LANE EVER. Every track I've been to (I've been to about 10+) Victory Lane is almost always in some VIP un-accessible area. At NOLA they leave the track, and park right next to the f’n grandstands, anyone can walk up and it super open as an area, you could fit thousands of people around the victory stage.

None of the fans or even my family complained about the timed race nonsense (again that piece coming later) they all understood you can’t change a rule once the race has started, everyone was happy and wanting to come back for more, but now it was time to leave. This is where NOLA has some serious work to do. They tried to use the satellite parking/shuttle bus system that the PGA uses for the Zurich Classic (which is right next door), but it simply does not work for the race because unlike golf, everyone leaves a race at exactly the same moment. The Segnette lot is Loyola’s baseball field and is easy to get to, the Lapalco parking is a terrible idea with rain because its parking on the median between the street, and you’d never want to normally park at the Avondale Shipyard. None of them are that close to the track.

It took us over an hour to leave the track and get bused to our car… with a 2 year old… Thankfully we were mostly able to keep him entertained but it was a complete mess, with no one directing the crowd, track staff standing around hanging out with each other, and mud to stand in… We literally stood in this giant crowd not moving for over 30 minutes, eventually it started moving, but all in all it took 70-80 minutes to get from the facility entrance mob to our car in Segnette.

This can totally be summed up as a first year jitters (IF they fix it). Kentucky and Richmond Speedways are bar none the worst post-race situations I've experienced and this was pretty close. A solution seems very simple. There was TONS of pavement at the facility that went unused, and also tons of unused grass lots that can be rocked over, and turn all of that into parking and ditch the buses. Or at least make that parking a premium price and then less people will be on the shuttles.

All the areas in red were un-used and should be made into parking.
I’ll leave it at that, many people will put up with it once, but if they they don’t fix that parking/shuttle mess it’ll start affecting attendance. In fact the issue could be much worse if we had good weather and there were even more fans.

So post-event what are the overall observations. The track is amazing, the go-kart facility is amazing, the sight lines are amazing, the weather was crappy but NOLA Motorsports Park and IndyCar have no control of that.

The track has a few spots that seemed to be collecting more water than others and they should invest some money to upgrade the drainage in those areas. They also need to ditch whoever they used to hire all their workers, and instead they need to upgrade to college students or something. I already talked about the workers kicking us out of the stands after the rain had stopped on Friday, but we had many issues, like concession workers who couldn't do basic math. MY brother gave one a $20 bill, for $13 of food, and she gave him back three $5 bills and five $1 bills. My brother being nice explained to her it was wrong, so then she gave him $3… so then he nicely said “let me do this for you.” But this was one of several concession and track “yellow shirt” stories we had from the weekend, including them standing around and not helping as people tried to get to the shuttles.

For the event itself is was majorly a positive and a great start to being an annual staple. The only adjustments aside from the above notes is #1 they need to coordinate the date better. Not because of The Masters or anything like that, but it was the same weekend as French Quarter Fest in New Orleans and also the Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival which are fairly big events to the area. That being said the race still packed in fans and we all had an amazing time.

The #2 thing they need to do is sort our some additional options for seating. I’d pay a HUGE premium if I were allowed to sit on the other end of the track, say by Turn 1/5. The RV lot on the back stretch looks amazing to try next time, but curious if that will stay there as its slated for housing…

All in all this was a great first event baring all the crazy ass rain that had to be dealt with, and if the drivers could keep their skills along with the red tires its sure to be even greater. Definitely recommend for race fans or anyone wanting an excise to visit New Orleans.

Cubs Win First Series of 2015: Five Thoughts

The Cubs pulled off a great comeback win behind Dexter Fowler's home run in the 9th inning yesterday, winning the series against the Colorado Rockies and posting a record of 3-2 after the first week. This is the best five-game start for the team under Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer, which is certainly encouraging for a team that played .500 ball from mid-May through the end of the season last year, addressed needs in the offseason, and has the game's best farm system almost ready to storm the majors.

Below are five thoughts following the series.

1. The Cubs wouldn't have won this game/series last year. Of course the first seven weeks of 2014 were pathetic, and it seemed to take forever to win a series. But that aside, these were the series the team just couldn't win. Getting to the rubber match and starting the 9th inning down by three runs, that would happen sometimes. Getting the tying run to the plate also wasn't completely uncommon. But coming through with a big home run to win the game and the series? That feels refreshing. Let's hope this is only the start.

2. The offense won this series. In recent years, great pitching has allowed the team to win series. But in a series where the Rockies scored five runs in each of the three games, the Cubs offense had to put up some numbers, and they did. While five runs per game at Coors Field isn't terrible at all, this pitching staff is going to have better series this year (see: St. Louis, earlier last week). It's good to know the offense can overcome deficits when the pitching isn't at its best.

3. Keep the sacrifice flies coming! The 2014 Cubs managed only 41 sac flies all season. This year's team already has four through five games! The ability to score runs without base hits has definitely made a difference and shows that this team is having better at-bats so far.

4. Jorge Soler could have a big second week. He had three hits in the Colorado series and went 0-for-4 on Sunday, but he is hitting the ball. His .222 average should not be a concern at all right now, as these things tend to balance themselves out. I'm expecting a big week from him starting tonight.

5. This roster is working. Carrying three catchers became less of a concern after Welington Castillo's big pinch hit on Sunday. And even with minor injuries to La Stella and Olt, the Cubs were still able to field a quality lineup, with Castillo ready to serve as an emergency third baseman and Travis Wood listed as a potential outfielder. When Kris Bryant is finally added to the roster and the team's minor injuries heal, things will really fall into place. I personally like what Coghlan is bringing to left field, and I love the flexibility of the bench. I guess eventually the team will go to two catchers, and players like Szczur and Herrera may lose roster spots to Bryant, Denorfia, etc. But it's all working right now.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

GP of Louisiana - Fan Experience - Day 2

Day 2 at NOLA Motorsports Park had a little of everything; from the good to the bad to the yummy to the downright confusing, but also lots of fun.

We started Day 2 off earlier so we could catch all the racing on the track, and when we got there it was overcast with the sun somehow still beaming through and making things hot. We started off good watching the Mazda MX-5 series put on some good racing, and then the Prototypes put on an interesting race as we started to sample the unique, only in NOLA, concessions.

My brother sampled some crawfish pasta, I meanwhile got a perfect Roast Beef Po-Boy. Normally you expect concessions to be some watered down version of the local food, chicken fingers in disguise or frozen/reheated versions of food, but not at NOLA. They had some good chefs at the helm making sure they served up genuine dishes, and as I stated yesterday, actual local restaurants on sight in the “Taste of LA” section. So that’s the good and yummy for fans, definitely no other track in the world will have food of this caliber.

But lets get back to those Mazda Prototypes, or lack thereof. They had a single car crash on one of the opening laps (maybe lap 3ish), a double wall tap and into the tires but just some back end damage needing a wrecker/hook, yet somehow it took 15 minutes to clean that up. Finally we’re going back to green, and someone screws up that restart and spins out 4 cars. Checkered Flag… whaaaa!?  Yep I guess the slim IMSA crew doesn't share with IndyCar when they are in town and were incapable of cleaning up a wreck in time to let them do more than 4-5 laps of green.

Then we were treated to an awesome GT-3 Porsche series race. One guy spun on the opening lap and went back to 20th place, and we watched him go full rampage mode and work his way to a battle for 5th by the end of the race (without the aide of any more yellow flags). It was a sight to be seen.

Then the confusing came with the mashup of IndyCar Race Officials and ones I assume are first timers to the area. It’s a first year, I don’t expect everything to be perfect but during the USF2000 race fans were ordered to leave the stands because “weather may be on the way.” Those were the literal words on the screen, it was not raining, it was not looking like it would rain for some time, and it wasn't the same dark ominous clouds we had on Friday. AND remember, USF2000 was still out racing on the track, but no one was allowed to see it. Apparently there were several passes for the lead in the final laps but no one will ever know. So alas all fans got removed from the stands at this point, many just left.

Then the silly. For whatever reason, with nothing more than a drizzle, fans started leaving because no one announced anything we were standing around and not allowed back into the stands… IndyCar for some reason sat around for 30+ minutes to see if it would rain? Who knows. On Twiter the word as they were waiting on lightning in the area… only there wasn’t any. My brother runs the power plant 5 miles from the track, as a result his phone explodes with warnings if there is lightning within a 50 mile radius of his plant so they can do preventative measures to the pant. His phone had not gone off, so Race Control was apparently waiting out being afraid of rain or the possibility of lightning eventually getting to the track.

Make no mistake rain WAS on the way, but here we are sitting around and fans leaving. Eventually they finally decided to go out, no one announced anything, we just figured it out and went back into the stands and this is where the waiting came back as foolish. Drizzle turned to rain but nothing crazy. It produced maybe one of the most exciting racing sessions I have ever seen. Literally best session ever, and many drivers said they were loving it.

Qualifying in the rain, the true equalizer, and when you can see the whole track a sight that just has to be seen. Rooster tails going up in every direction, simply amazing stuff and fans were cheering and loving every bit of it! Sadly it got cut short when real lightning finally showed up near the end of Group 2.

Now if you do simple math, round 2 is 10-15 minutes and round 3 is 10 minutes. Almost the exact amount of time IndyCar sat around twiddling thumbs… Basicly had they started on time qualifying would have happened and we would have had a great lineup of cars with drivers who could handle rain at the front. I think in the end officials thought we were going to have a repeat flash storm like Friday but we never did, and it came back to bite them. The fans that stayed got to see some awesome stuff, but how many stayed when we were kicked out of the stands for a second day in a row, and whats happening on race day with drizzle set for on/off all day???

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Grand Prix of Louisiana - Fan Experience - Day 1

There are many great writers in the media covering the Grand Prix of Louisiana, just look at who we follow on twitter; they’ll have tons of good race coverage. But because Mike and I are both from New Orleans and we’re stoked for IndyCar to finally experience our city (believe me, that’s the direction this is really about), I thought it would be good for fans who aren't able to make it to know what the race is like for a fan, what do you have access to, what will you see here.

So here is a quick recap of the fan’s experience (note, I purposely did NOT get media credentials for this race). #1, parking isn't the most intuitive thing in the world as they've re-purposed some street medians, the parking lot of Loyola’s baseball team (Signette field) and a shipyard, and then they shuttle you to the track. It’s the same thing they do for the PGA golf event at the TPC of Louisiana, so it’s not like they just came up with this idea, it should be somewhat organized (and was for Friday).

The first thing that hits you is that NOLA Motorsports Park is gigantic (which is something to awe at because the facility is currently only half the size of the eventual master plan). The second thing that is astounding is that from the grandstands of the front straight, you can literally see the whole track. Now you can’t see the detail of a pass or a turn on the other end of the track, but you can see the cars go all the way around the track (this pic is of cars on the far end of the track from our seats):

Perhaps the only negative I've got so far is you can only sit around 1/3 of the track, which means you're missing out on a ton of passing zones that I'd pay good money to get a seat for. But as far as seeing the whole track… don’t believe me, here’s video I shot with my simple phone:

Then here’s some shots I took from the top of the grandstand with a simple 55-200 mm lens. Again note no press pass or sneaking up close to a fence, I shot all of these from in the stands.

So being able to see things is one aspect, but the second thing you've likely noticed is how close you are to the action. The grandstands are akin to Mid-Ohio’s old rickety pit houses, in that, where fans walk elevated above the teams, but directly on top of them with an unobstructed view. It’s the same for the pit stalls here at NOLA, there’s no fencing or anything obstructing your view, you can literally reach out and touch tires if you wanted to try.

We chatted with some team personnel at one point in the rain delay and it wasn't awkward, it was very nice. (again, no press/media access for me this race)

The paddock area is as open and friendly as I experienced at any track, but my favorite part is that its right behind the stands so no need to take a long walk. Plus there’s a great “Taste of LA” food station area complete with genuine jambalaya, gumbo, and CafĂ© du Monde beignets! So walking around this track is a treat, and I have yet to try out the Ferris Wheel, or to go check out the “largest go-kart track in North America.” (hopefully tomorrow). Yes they are doing kart racing on race weekend, which, bar none, has to be the greatest idea at any race I've attended: let the fans and kids try their hands at racing while its fresh in their minds.

The only negative at this point is that Louisiana has these crummy torrential downpour rains that last for 10-15 minutes and then the sun comes back out.

We had one of those today and it looks like event staff were clueless about the weather of their own state as they kicked us out of the grandstands... AFTER the storm had passed… Eventually sense prevailed and the track workers stopped trying to make spectators leave the area and went to work on the 2 inches of water collected in the pits and various areas of the track while we passed the time.

Eventually the track was dried and we got to see a few drivers see who could create the biggest rooster tail... just Juan:

Will be back with a day 2 report tomorrow, but so far so good for the inaugural run of a Grand Prix for NOLA...

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Chicago Cubs Grab First Win of 2015

The Cubs didn't need long to claim their first win of the season, defeating the Cardinals 2-0 to even up the opening series at 1-1. Below are some thoughts:

Arrieta might be my favorite player. I've spent the last couple of years thinking Anthony Rizzo was probably my favorite Cubs player. It's been a tough question to answer since Kerry Wood left, because I like them all, yet no one has stood out. (I am a Starlin Castro fan, but more on that in a minute.) However, I think I am near the point where Jake Arrieta claims my top spot. I just love watching him pitch, and I think he does everything right. The front office got a steal when they acquired him and possibly worked a miracle by "fixing" him. Or maybe it was just his time. But if anyone is buying me a jersey anytime soon, make it an Arrieta! (Not that I don't love my Fukudome jersey!)

Castro often comes through when he's needed. I'm going to spend this season bracing myself (and my six-year-old) for a Castro trade, which I assume will happen between now and January 1st. Maybe after the season. Maybe when Addison Russell is clearly ready. Either way, this is a lot easier to consider when Castro is 0-for-2 with two strike outs. It's a lot harder when he smashes a ball up the middle to score the team's first run of the season. I'd love for something to change and for the team to keep him. All else aside, the guy can hit.

Hey, Miguel Montero. Thanks for actually hitting a sac fly. It seems basic enough, but the Cubs have had trouble doing things like that recently. And when Arrieta's pitching, that will win games. You can stay, kid.

The pen is legit. I know I won't be able to write about the bullpen after every game, since that would be boring, they'll have bad games, and they won't even pitch in all the no-hitters Arrieta's going to have this year. But how long until this is a national story? And now James Russell's back?!

Oh, and the Brewers are 0-3. Will they even win a game this year?? They might not, guys. They just MIGHT NOT.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Cubs Drop First Game of 2015

While an eye surgery prevented me from being online much for the past month or so, I guess it really just helped me to avoid wasting a bunch of time writing and talking about Kris Bryant and Scott Boras. But the season has now begun, and even with a 3-0 Chicago Cubs loss in the opening game, I'm so glad spring training is finally over.

Below are a few thoughts about the Opening Night disaster:

Adam Wainwright. First and foremost, he deserves all credit. The Cubs lineup is going to struggle against the league's top pitching, and he's as good as anyone else. This Cubs team is going to have games with double digit strikeout totals, so last night's 12 is not surprising at all. Clearly, Wainwright was ready. On the other hand...

Jon Lester wasn't ready. I know starting on Opening Day is an honor and is symbolic of much more than just the one start. But Lester clearly needed a little more time. Jake Arrieta easily could've filled in. I don't know if Lester should've just started on the DL or simply skipped a turn, but I guess his next start will give us a better idea. I hope he gets into season shape soon, but if that's a bad start for Lester, it's still exciting.

This Cubs bullpen is serious. It wasn't all bad last night, and we got a great look at how scary the pitching staff can be for opposing lineups. When you can bring in Coke, Motte, Ramirez, Strop, and Rondon, you have to feel pretty confident that you will be able to shut teams down on a fairly consistent basis. The bullpen gave the offense every chance to come back. Of course, the Cardinals bullpen was just as good.

So... How will Maddon adjust? The Cubs had chances, and one loss will not end the season. But what will the team do differently now? In four of the first five innings, the Cubs led off the inning with a hit. Only one hitter (Soler) managed to successfully move a runner over on the next plate appearance. One out of four is unacceptable, and it negates any edge you're trying to give yourself through strategies like hitting the pitcher in the 8th spot. In the NL particularly, moving those runners over is crucial. Obviously, if Maddon helps these players make adjustments, then the loss last night is a helpful learning tool.

Can the Opening Night lineup really work? Personally, I didn't love it, but I'm not paid millions to manage the team. I'm OK with hitting the pitcher 8th, but I still think Coghlan would be better hitting 2nd, pushing Soler, Rizzo, and Castro each back one spot. Of course, adding Kris Bryant and Addison Russell to the top six spots in the lineup would also help, although I'm sure I'll write a lot about that as the year goes on.