Disappointed in 2016, Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez believes team has opportunity in offseason


Disappointed in 2016, Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez believes team has opportunity in offseason

The first full season for Chicago Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez and the first season for coach Veljko Paunovic did not yield notably better results than the year before.

A year ago, the Fire managed just 30 points, the lowest total in club history, and gave up a league-worst 58 goals.

Despite much change within the team and staff, the Fire managed 31 points this year and picked up one fewer win. The Fire scored one fewer goal than last season (42 vs. 43) and allowed the same number of goals.

Rodriguez, when speaking at the final of three Q&A sessions with local media on Tuesday, even remarked that “it’s incredible” how similar the two seasons were.

“When I first came here and I first took the job just over a year ago, I have to be honest, I never for one second saw a last place finish,” Rodriguez said. “I thought that progress would see more results and I thought it would be much easier to show tangible progress than what I think most people can look at this year.”

Still, Rodriguez spoke highly of the additions he and Paunovic made in the offseason, saying all of them “proved themselves as MLS players” to some degree. The Fire do have more younger players that appear to be viable long-term options than a year ago thanks to the emergence of rookie defenders Jonathan Campbell and Brandon Vincent, for example.

But if the on-field results didn’t show the change, where is it?

“I think one big thing that has changed over the course of our eight or nine months with the group is we learned how to compete,” Rodriguez said. “What we didn’t learn was how to win. We had many self-inflicted wounds throughout the year. We unfortunately seemed to repeat some mistakes, some of that can be attributed to youth, some of that can be attributed to lack of cohesion that only comes by being together over time.”

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Many of the players had exit physicals on Tuesday at Toyota Park, although some are already out of town, marking the official start of the offseason. As the offseason begins, the Fire enter rebuilding yet again. The Fire have now missed the playoffs in four straight seasons and six of the past seven.

Rodriguez believes moves made in 2016 have better positioned the club for this coming offseason.

“I know that we’re in a better position on the team’s salary budget than we’ve been in the past,” Rodriguez said. “I know that we’ve assembled a group of very hungry players that are either entering their prime or in their prime. We have two first-round picks. We have two DP slots. We have allocation money. So we’ve set the stage.”

There will be change within the Fire this offseason, but Rodriguez wouldn’t detail if it will be similar to last offseason when just 10 players from 2015 were retained, and two of those were shipped off midseason, or if it would be a more moderate rebuild. Rodriguez said that eight players currently have guaranteed contracts heading into 2017: defenders Johan Kappelhof, Michael Harrington and Joao Meira, midfielders John Goossens and Collin Fernandez and forwards Michael de Leeuw, David Accam and David Arshakyan. Meira’s contract initially had a club option for 2017, but met a clause that guaranteed the contract for next year.

The first date to know for this offseason is Dec. 13, when the expansion draft for Minnesota and Atlanta will take place. Before then, the Fire will have to announce which contract options they will pick up and which they will decline as well as which players they will protect for the expansion draft. After that, most of the moves will likely happen in January, when the international transfer window opens and when the MLS SuperDraft takes place.

“I know already that the first expectation is January and what will happen in January and everyone is pointing to January,” Rodriguez said. “I’ll just repeat it again, for me it’s about getting it right, not getting it fast. It’s about assembling a team that we believe can build and yield a championship program, one that’s sustainable. Today, is the first official day that we’ve begun work on 2017 although we laid groundwork and have been eyeing for this.”

Indians looking like 'Major League' version, while both World Series teams adopt 'Moneyball' practices

Indians looking like 'Major League' version, while both World Series teams adopt 'Moneyball' practices

The Oakland A’s were not the first MLB team to use Moneyball. It was actually the Cleveland Indians that first used a version of advanced analytics. Well, at least the fictional Indians from the 1989 movie "Major League." The main plot of "Major League" is that a rich widow becomes the owner of the Indians after her husband dies. She wants to move to the team to Miami (which did not have a team at the time), and she intentionally signs players and hires a manager who should cause the team to lose games. Losing games would cause attendance and revenues to decline enough that she could move her team to Miami.

In a deleted scene from "Major League," however, the Indians’ owner actually states this a ruse. In fact, she wanted to create a cover story for why she was signing players that were undervalued using more traditional methods. She says she scouted all the players and the manager personally to find the best possible team for lowest amount of money because the team was broke. She created a narrative using herself as the villain to inspire the players to win to spite her and have the city rally around the team.

For many fans of "Major League," this is an incredible plot twist that changes how they view the movie. What is arguably more interesting is that this is almost a perfect summary about how advanced analytics are used in sports today and in particular by the two teams in the World Series: the Indians and the Cubs. In the movie, the owner’s goal was to find undervalued players that could help her team win games. That is thesis of "Moneyball" and perhaps what the book and movie are best known for by most people. However, another interesting part is that owner scouted the players and the manager, as well. That is something that is a common misconception about "Moneyball." In fact, many teams have actually increased spending and/or relied more heavily on scouting while also using advanced analytics more frequently to evaluate players. 

The Indians and Cubs are good examples of this approach. In fact, the current, real iteration of the Indians is almost eerily similar to the fictional Indians of "Major League." The Indians had the 26th (out of 30) highest payroll for the 2016 season yet had the fourth highest team WAR in MLB (WAR is the most commonly used advanced analytic in baseball). This starts with manager Terry Francona. While he did win two World Series titles with the Boston Red Sox, Francona was let go by the Red Sox after the team lost a nine-game September lead for the American League Wild Card to the Tampa Bay Rays in 2011. This included stories that focused on how players were eating chicken, drinking beer and playing video games during Red Sox regular-season games that year. It is easy to see why many teams thought that Francona’s best managing days were behind him when the Indians hired him in 2013 — similar to Lou Brown of the fictional Indians.

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Francona is not the only similarity between the two Indians teams. Catcher Mike Napoli is almost the spitting image of catcher Jake Taylor. He is a veteran catcher brought in more for his clutch hitting and the way he can handle young pitchers. Pitcher Trevor Bauer’s drone accident prior to his playoff start would remind "Major League" fans the antics of Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn. Up and down the Indians rosters are players that many baseball fans have never heard of but are delivering significant results to the team.

The team with the highest WAR total and best record in baseball in 2016 is the Cubs. It is easy to think that the Cubs are the exact opposite of the Indians. More specifically, almost every baseball fan knew of Cubs stars such as Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester. Yet, the Cubs only have the 12th highest payroll for the 2016 season. How could that be possible? Many of the Cubs players are still operating on the deals signed as draft picks. Younger players typically are more cost effective than veterans because players need to have six years of MLB service time before they can become free agents. Finding young players who can have significant impact creates extraordinary value for a team. For example, likely National League MVP Bryant is only making $652,000 this year.

Having younger players on your roster that can make an impact is something that most, if not all MLB teams understand. Finding those players, however, is a different story. Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein has excelled at finding these players. Whether it is drafting players such as Bryant or trading for young talent like Rizzo, Epstein has built a team where the oldest starting infielder is 27. In addition, the team prioritized “building an offense from within and a pitching staff from spare parts. This flies in the face of more than a century of conventional baseball wisdom, which states that (1) pitching wins championships, and (2) a team can never have too much pitching.” The Cubs gained an advantage by taking a different approach to the draft than most teams and then developing a scouting department that would find the players needed to compete for championship.

"Major League" might have been ahead of its time in 1989 using Moneyball concepts, but that time has clearly arrived for both the Indians and Cubs. As Taylor said in "Major League," now there is only one thing left to do with this strategy: “Win the whole f---ing thing.”

Adam is the CEO and Founder of Block Six Analytics. He is also a lecturer for Northwestern University's Masters of Sports Administration and the co-author of The Sports Strategist: Developing Leaders For A High-Performance Industry. Ross is a Partnership Analyst at Block Six Analytics.