Aramis, Pena & Big Z: Moving on with mixed results

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Aramis, Pena & Big Z: Moving on with mixed results

Remember when things seemed so daunting for the St. Louis Cardinals?

They had just lost out on the Albert Pujols sweepstakes, as the perennial MVP candidate put his faith in the Angels and went West. Tony La Russa was not going to return as manager and Dave Duncan, arguably the best pitching coach in the game, was slated to miss the entire season for personal issues.

That was just 10 short months ago. Now, the Cards are only one victory away from a second-straight NL pennant.

A lot can change in a year.

Take a look at the Cubs. They finished the 2011 season packed with valuable veterans -- Aramis Ramirez, Carlos Pena and Carlos Zambrano -- and promising youngsters -- Tyler Colvin, D.J. LeMahieu, Andrew Cashner and Chris Carpenter.

All seven of those guys were gone before spring training even started. While the Cubs struggled to a 101-loss season, let's check in on how this group fared.

Aramis Ramirez

Ramirez and the Cubs were synonymous since that fateful 2003 season. He was a staple at third base, bringing consistency to the position for the first time since the Ron Santo days. At age 33, he didn't fit in the Cubs' rebuilding plan and wound up signing with the Brewers, where he almost made Milwaukee forget about Prince Fielder.

Ramirez put together a very solid season, leading the league in doubles (50) and tied for first in extra-base hits (80) with teammate Ryan Braun, whom Ramirez protected in the lineup all year. The Brewers didn't end up making the playoffs, but Ramirez helped key a strong run towards the end of the year and finished with 27 homers, 105 RBI (his first 100 RBI season since 2008), a .300 average and a .901 OPS.

Carlos Zambrano

Big Z was the longest tenured Cub on the roster last year and after a blow-up in Atlanta last August, the soap opera that is Carlos Zambrano came to an end in the Cubs clubhouse. He racked up 125 victories and 1,542 strikeouts in more than 300 games (282 starts) over an 11-year span.

He was dealt to Miami this winter, teaming up with friend and manager Ozzie Guillen, and was deemed as a potential sleeper for the NL Cy Young by former teammate Matt Garza. Zambrano had no such luck, as, after a hot start, he struggled and wound up in the bullpen to finish the season with a 7-10 record, 4.49 ERA and 1.50 WHIP.

Carlos Pena

Pena was only a one-year rental and had a very solid 2011 season, walking 101 times and slugging 28 homers while playing very good defense at first base and bringing a positive attitude in the clubhouse.

But his age (33 this winter) and the arrivalemergence of Anthony Rizzo and Bryan LaHair made Pena expendable this winter and he was not re-signed, instead opting to go back to Tampa Bay. There, Pena hit 19 homers and drove in 61 runs, but managed just a .197 average and .684 OPS, a far cry from his career numbers (.234 and .822, respectively). 2012 marked the second season in the last three in which Pena failed to hit even .200.

Tyler ColvinD.J. LeMahieu

Anybody who's followed the Cubs over the past year has likely heard the much-publicized deal that sent Colvin and LeMahieu to Colorado for Ian Stewart and minor-league pitcher Casey Weathers. Neither Colvin (a former first-round pick) nor LeMahieu (a former second-round pick) was guaranteed to have a place to play in 2012 and the Cubs needed a third baseman, so they took a gamble on a low-risk guy in Stewart. It was Theo Epstein's first trade in the Cubs' front office and hasn't worked out in his favor to date, as Stewart struggled to find consistency at the plate before being shut down with a wrist injury halfway through the season.

Both young players wound up having fairly productive seasons for the Rockies, but they combined for just 34 walks in 699 plate appearances. That kind of aggressiveness doesn't fit in Theo's vision for the Cubs, despite the fact they both hit close to .300  (Colvin -- .290; LeMahieu -- .297) and Colvin added some power, with 55 extra-base hits, including 18 homers.

Andrew Cashner

Cashner was considered to be a major piece for the future when Theo and Co. took over as a flame-throwing right-hander who had as high upside as anybody in the Cubs' system. But after arm issues sidelined Cashner for most of the 2011 season, the new front office was hesitant to put Cashner in the taxing position of a starting pitcher, and traded him to the Padres for Rizzo.

The 26-year-old right-hander had a solid year for San Diego, hurling a 4.27 ERA and 1.32 WHIP while striking out 52 in 46.1 innings. But most of that was as a reliever -- he started just five games -- and he spent time on the disabled list, while Rizzo emerged as a franchise cornerstone for the Cubs.

Chris Carpenter

The rest of the players on this list either had significant playing time in 2011 or figured to be a big part of 2012 and beyond, but Carpenter was a 25-year-old middle reliever with upside for more if he could harness his 100 mph fastball. His claim to fame, of course, was as the compensation for Theo Epstein, making the trek to Boston.

An elbow injury derailed most of Carpenter's 2012, but he came back strong, posting a 1.15 ERA and a 0.96 WHIP in 15.2 innings in Triple-A Pawtucket before appearing in eight games for the big-league Red Sox, struggling to the tune of a 9.00 ERA and 2.83 WHIP.

Notes from the rewatch: A deeper look at David Accam's big game

Notes from the rewatch: A deeper look at David Accam's big game

It's not often that teams win games in MLS by four goals, especially when a red card wasn't involved.

After the Chicago Fire couldn't score one goal against Orlando when the Lions went down to nine men for more than a quarter of the match earlier this month, the Fire put up a four spot against Orlando at Toyota Park on Saturday. The Fire were dominant in every aspect of the game.

David Accam had one of his best games for the Fire and the team had arguably its best performance of the season.

It takes two for a blowout in MLS

There have been 10 games in MLS this season decided by four goals or more. Out of that group, two of those involved red cards (including the Fire's 4-0 loss at Atlanta in March) and two of those were Minnesota's first two games as an MLS team when it was thought they could be the worst team in league history. Blowouts happen in MLS, but the relatively balanced play in the league means both the winning team had to be very good and the losing team had to be very bad.

The Fire may have had its best performance of the season. Nemanja Nikolic said the team was near perfect after the match (in the video above).

Meanwhile, Orlando was without its leading scorer (Cyle Larin) and was coming off a game Wednesday halfway across the country in Seattle. Those factors, plus an overall lethargic showing from Orlando (coach Jason Kreis said his team "didn't have enough energy" at the start of the match) made the Lions susceptible to the beatdown they received.

The expected goals didn't lie

Soccer analytics are still nascent, but expected goals is one of the stats getting more attention. Expected goals track the position of all shots taken in a match and quantify the likelihood of that shot going in. Shots from close are more likely to score so they are worth more expected goals. Each shot's percentage of scoring is added to produce the team's expected goals total.

Often in blowouts, the winning team's expected goals total is lower than the actual goal total because in order to score a large number of goals it probably took a couple low-percentage shots scoring. Teams don't typically create several high-percentage scoring chances in a match. It takes a screamer from distance or a goalkeeper flub to get a high goal total, and the expected goal total won't go up with that as a result.

However, the Fire's expected goal total from Saturday was actually above four. Including the penalty kick, the Fire's expected goal total finished at 4.26, one of the highest totals in the league this year. Meanwhile, Orlando had a miniscule .16 from three long-distance shots.

The Fire scored two goals early and kept creating chances. Nikolic was denied on a close-range volley in the first half and missed an open shot in the second half or else he could have scored more than the one goal.

Without going deeper into the stats, the takeaway is that this game was a blowout, was always going to be a blowout and didn't require particularly efficient finishing from the Fire to be a blowout.

Accam: "I thought I could do anything on the pitch"

Accam's hat trick got the headlines, but he also had an assist on Nikolic's goal. On the assist he showed something he hasn't done often. Look where Accam received the ball on that play:

This is Accam as a playmaking attacking midfielder for one play. He received the ball just past midfield off a turnover, but it wasn’t a classic counter. Orlando had five players behind the ball and he had two Fire players, Nikolic and Luis Solignac, in front of him. He turned, put a move on Antonio Nocerino to give himself the space to set up Nikolic, made the pass and Nikolic finished with his first touch.

Accam's first goal was about positioning. He found a way to get open in the six-yard box, and the backheel was just the exclamation mark to finish the play. His second goal was classic Accam getting behind a defense and being almost too patient to shoot before scoring into an open net.

He showed a little bit of everything Saturday.

Michael de Leeuw tracking Kaka

Just watch Michael de Leeuw, a natural forward, recognize Kaka running into open space and then cut him off and intercept a pass intended for the Brazilian.

Aaron Judge's batting practice homer flies ridiculously far

Aaron Judge's batting practice homer flies ridiculously far

Aaron Judge's batting practice is quickly becoming must-watch stuff.

The 25-year-old outfielder proved that point on Monday, when he absolutely destroyed a baseball onto the Guaranteed Rate Field concourse. 

Just to recap: That ball flew the bleachers and literally one hopped the jumbotron. And while the jury has already ruled that Judge has ridiculous power, this is next-level skill. 

Judge, who's already blasted 26 dingers this season, and the Yankees are in town this week for four games on the South Side. Let's hope he doesn't actually do that when it counts.