MLB Draft

Cubs Central Draft Prep: Beyond #24 – David Lebron Can Hit Some Spots and Miss Some Bats

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By Todd Johnson

With five picks in the top 100 selections in this year’s draft, the Cubs have a legitimate opportunity to remake their farm system at 24, 63, 77, 78, and 99. The draft’s strength lies in a collection of college bats and high school arms. The Cubs are going to get five very good players by the end of the third round. Considering they’ll have two more picks in the top 150, and one more in the top 200, that is eight very good players. Eight!

So far this spring, I have focused on who the Cubs might take at number 24. To go beyond the first round, several factors besides performance come into play as to whom the Cubs might select. Signability is one. Another is projection, and the third is makeup.

As someone who has been following the draft very closely the past several years, I can never tell you what’s going to happen. One reason is some teams are cheap while others gamble on a prospect and even more tend to take the safe route. As a result, it’s hard to predict what’s going to happen.

The Cubs’ draft tendencies have been changing a bit the past couple of years. While USA Baseball and succeeding in wooden bat leagues have been key components in selecting players in the past, the Cubs have also been exploring secondary markets more so than usual. Last year, the Cubs made inroads into high schools in Puerto Rico and picked Nelson Velasquez and Luis Vasquez. The Cubs also went more into Division II schools. Then again, they’ve also gone hog wild on selecting pitchers. I do believe the Cubs will ditch that trend in 2018 as there are several impact bats in the top 100.

Photo courtesy of the University of Tampa

When it comes to pitching beyond the top 100, two arms have caught my attention. One is the University of Tampa’s David Lebron and the other is Cal Baptist’s Justin Montgomery. At the earliest, both could be considered third or fourth-round picks, or, for that matter, anywhere on Day 2 of the draft. Today’s post looks just at Lebron.

Lebron is a senior who has had an interesting collegiate career. Originally from the Miami area, Lebron had Tommy John Surgery at the end of his senior year in high school. He sat out a year and then attended College of Central Florida where he played for two years. In addition to his accolades on the field, he was an honor student off the field.

At 5’11” and 190 pounds, Lebron doesn’t project much physically. However, that does not preclude him from being taken in the draft. While he does not have a starter’s prototypical body, he misses a lots of bats. As a junior, he struck out over 100 hitters in 90 innings and 40% of those he caught looking, an amazing statistic. This spring, Lebron has been striking out hitters at a higher rate than last year at 14.05/9 innings. So far, he has struck out 63 in 41 innings while only walking 10 hitters. A 6.3:1 K/BB rate is outstanding.

Lebron told the Tampa Bay Times that Tommy John surgery actually changed how he pitched. He can still throw in the low to mid-low 90s but Lebron tends to focus on command. Lebron also told the paper:

“… It’s not always about blowing guys away. When you get to the professional level, anybody can hit a 95 mph fastball. It’s about consistently hitting your spots, knowing your location, keeping hitters off balance. That’s what I have learned.”

For Lebron, his own personal story reflects a kind of character of the Cubs look for in their draft pick. His father died when Lebron was in his early teens and his mother has worked hard to support him since. He has worked hard for his own success and he is still trying to improve every outing. On Friday the 16th, he went 7 innings with 11 Ks and no walks while giving up an earned run.

I am really enjoying checking up on how he does every week. It’s hard to tell if he’s going to be a starter at the next level but I think it might be worth a shot to let them try that first before trying to make him a reliever just because of his size.

Next week, I will dig a little deeper into Justin Montgomery’s season.


Cubs Central Draft Prep: Let the Rising and Falling Begin

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By Todd Johnson

I know this is going to sound strange, but the Major League Baseball Draft will be taking place in just a little over 2.5 months. I know…it is getting here fast. Originally, I didn’t want to spend too much time this year making full fledge draft profiles as I had in previous years. Instead, I have been doing previews of groups of players. I’ve done college bats, college arms, high school pitchers, and high school bats. I even took a look at some schools who have several prospects the Cubs might be able to take on day one and two.

With the college baseball season in full swing, several prospects are rising and falling. Some top 200 lists have a little itchy trigger finger when it comes to moving prospects up and down. For example, Baseball America used to have shortstop Jeremy Eierman of Missouri State ranked in the teens on their first top 200 list. After a very poor start, Eierman dropped into the mid-to-late 20s after just two weekends of baseball.

In that range, Eierman could be available for the Cubs. He’s playing shortstop now but he could play third. His bat, however, might be best suited for second base. But for Eierman, Baseball America will probably have to move him back up the list. Over the past week, he went 11 for 20 to move his average up to almost .300 and push his OBP over .400. He also hit his first home run of the year. He looks to be back on pace as one of the top bats in the college ranks.

Two players who used to be ranked in the late to mid 20s might be out of reach of the Cubs if they continue their torrid pace. Third baseman Alec Bohm and outfielder/1st baseman Greyson Jenista, both of Wichita State, have averages in the upper .300s and on-base percentages of almost .500. Bohm has cranked out five home runs in less than a month and it’s not even warm out. I really like Bohm a lot but I just don’t think the Cubs will have a chance to draft him.

Two other players that could be heading the Cubs way are outfielders Steele Walker of Oklahoma and Jake McCarthy of Virginia. Both are ascending players with good hit tools who can both play centerfield. Originally, most lists had them in the low to mid 30s and now they are creeping up. McCarthy, whose brother played in AA for the Tampa Bay last year, could have the better long range hit tool out of the two. MLB Pipeline said the following of McCarthy

McCarthy moved into the starting lineup as a sophomore and promptly hit .338 with a .425 on-base percentage and an ACC-leading 27 steals in 29 attempts. While he didn’t hit well playing for Team USA over the summer, he did find his footing with a solid late stretch in the Cape Cod League. Some scouts aren’t in love with his swing, which features a flat bat path, but others point to a pretty good track record of making consistent hard contact. He hasn’t hit for much power to speak of, but some changes to his mechanics could allow him to tap into his raw pop at the next level. He has a fringy arm, but has the speed and instincts to play center field.

Another rising player who is close to getting out of reach is 6’11” Kentucky right-handed pitcher Sean Hjelle, who has been pitching out of his mind. After Friday night’s start, Hjelle’s ERA stood at 1.35 in 4 starts despite giving up 3 of his 4 earned runs this year in that start. He’s struck out 26 in 24 innings this year while walking only 4.

I’ve also been religiously checking on is former 2015 Cubs draft pick John Cresto. The third baseman spurned the Cubs to go to Santa Clara and he has improved every year. As the 2018 season has gone on, Cresto has been getting better. He is currently hitting .328 with five home runs and 11 RBIs to go with a slugging percentage of .603. I think he could easily be a Day Two target of the Cubs, perhaps somewhere between the third and the fifth round. What I like about Cresto is he does have good size (6’3” and 225 lbs.) and he’s not done filling out.

I still think the Cubs are going to go college bat or high school arm in the first round. With college players already having a month’s head start, the high school season is now just getting underway and many of the northern players will not be getting warmed up until mid April. As a result, they are going to be a lot more fluctuations in the draft.

Now that Jake Arrieta has signed with the Phillies, the Cubs currently have 5 picks in the top 100. That depth could go a long way to revitalizing the system. Next week, I will go through some possibilities for some picks on Day Two of the Draft (Rounds 3-10).

Cubs Central Draft Prep: Elite HS Bats Are a Bit of a Question Mark at #24

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By Todd Johnson

In last Monday’s draft update, I took some short looks at some pitchers who might be available including one player to hone in on. This week’s post will examine several high school position players who could be available for the Cubs to take at number 24.

After college bats, the Cubs  could lean HS arms this year, then college pitchers, and then a high school bat. The Cubs have only drafted one HS bat in the first round the past six summers and that was Albert Almora in 2012. This year tends to be trending more towards college bats in the mid-20s, but there will be a few possibilities the Cubs. There is a very high risk in taking a high school hitting prospect, they tend to take a little bit longer to develop.

Here are a few to keep an eye on the next few months.

Triston Casas – The big first baseman probably has the most power potential of any players in the second tier of high school position players. That first tier of elite position players tends to empty out starting in the early teens and the second tier will pick up in the mid 20s.. I’ve seen Casas be selected in a mock draft anywhere from the low 20s to the high 30s. While he does not fit the mode of the type of athlete the Cubs have picked in recent years, the youngster can play and has played at a high-level in multiple experiences. For the Cubs to take him at number 24, they are going to have to think the bat is special as he is a bit limited defensively. Considering the position that he plays, his odds of becoming a Cub quickly are slim.  In the video below, you get a pretty good look at his size and power.

Xavier Edwards – I could see the Cubs gambling on Edwards as he already is a four tool prospect. The only thing lacking in his game is power. He is 5’10”, but he has excellent speed and an excellent arm and could stick at shortstop. I could see the Cubs taking this kid. He might be a bit undersized, but he is an exceptional athlete. It could be hard to talk him out of his commitment to Vanderbilt. Being able to switch hit at this early of an age is also a major plus.

Joe Gray, Jr. – He might be a reach, but he is a player who has the potential to be a five tool player. Right now, he is not. I will let MLB Pipeline give you his tell of his tape:

Gray has two loud tools in his raw power and arm strength. With his lightning-fast bat and his strength, he can hammer balls out of the park to all fields from the right side of the plate. The Mississippi recruit might have the best arm among 2018 high school position players, having been clocked at 98 mph from the outfield at the Perfect Game National showcase last June, though his accuracy sometimes leaves something to be desired.

2018 Miss. OF Joe Gray has three bombs this season. Here’s one of them. Destroyed. #mlbdraft

Mike Siani is a left-handed outfielder/pitcher from Pennsylvania whose idol is Mike Trout. On most boards, he is usually mid 30s to upper 40s. He might be one of those kids who rises up the boards as it gets warmer in May and early June. An outstanding defender, he is currently committed to the University of Virginia. I have gotten a really good look at him the past two weeks. What makes Siani stand out above the other prospects is that he is in incredible athlete. The more I watched him play, the more I liked him.

Right now, I am not really sold on any these kids being ready to be picked at #24. They come across as early second round picks, which is still good value. I like these four in some form or fashion, but there are better values in the draft. Casas and Edwards stick out from other position players in this tier, but even they need polished up a bit to sneak into the first round. Right now, the best value for the Cubs still is a college bat, then a college arm or a high school pitcher would be next.

Draft Update – Opening Weekend and Following Schools This Spring

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By Todd Johnson

Now that the college baseball season is fully underway, I spent part of Sunday morning checking box scores and game reports from several colleges in both Division I and Division II baseball. For some prospects, it was a rough weekend.

It was sad to see TCU’s Luken Baker take one to the face in the field and have to leave the game. He should be fine. In fact, on Sunday, he came back and was jammed on one pitch but still managed to hit it 400+ feet for a HR. Connecticut curveball specialist Tim Cate struggled in his debut as he gave up 4 earned runs in 5.2 IP. Missouri State shortstop Jeremy Eierman was almost invisible going 2-17 for the weekend. Mississippi State lefty Konnor Pilkington did OK as he gave up 2 earned in 4, but whiffed 6.

Other top players soared. Seth Beer was…Seth Beer. The Clemson outfielder went 3 for 8 with a HR, a double, and 1 RBI. Kentucky’s athletic outfielder, Tristan Pompey, went 8 for 17 (.471) with a HR and 3 driven in for the weekend. And Griffin Conine of Duke went 4 for 8 in his first three games with a dinger and 3 runs plated. In addition, Stanford’s Tristan Beck returned to the mound and looked very good for the Cardinal going 5 innings and striking out six while allowing four hits but no runs. I really like him, too, despite him missing all of 2017 with a bad back.

In following the draft, most years I focused just on who the Cubs might be able to take with their first pick or in a compensation around. This year, I originally felt a little burned out covering that. As a result, I am not into doing the big profiles throughout the spring. However, I unintentionally started focusing in on players the Cubs might able to get with their second round pick at #63 and their two compensation picks in the late 70s/early 80s. With those three picks, the Cubs should come away with a nice haul of talent that should help refurbish the farm system.

For some strange reason, I started looking at several Division II Schools around the country to see if I could find any sleepers. I found a few that will bear watching over the course of the season. It still might be too early to cover all of them it, but it’s not too early to cover some of them.

What seems to be happening in my ever widening expanse to cover possible prospects for the draft is that I am starting to focus more in on programs than on individual players. Some of these are Division I programs and some are Division II schools.

Wichita State
Since day one of my draft coverage, I have been stuck on 3B Alec Bohm and OF Greyson Jenista. Both who, right now, could be around at #24. Both also got off to a great start on opening day as each hit a home run. For now, I am sticking with Bohm as the player the Cubs should take at #24. Despite his lack of defensive prowess, that bat is too special. For the weekend, he hit .545 with 7 RBI in 3 games. Jenista did well, too, hitting .417 with 4 runs driven in. Those two will be fun to watch all year.

Cal Baptist
This school has been a pitching factory the past few years. Next year, the program makes the jump from Division II to Division I. Currently, the arm that I am interested in is Junior Justin Montgomery. At 6’5”, the slender right-hander is trending upward after a great summer in the Cape Cod League. He throws in the low to mid 90s and is developing his secondaries nicely. He got in 33 innings last summer with a 3.00 ERA with 33 Ks and 13 BBs. What I like most is that he improving and developing from year to year and experience to experience. In his first start this year, he went 4, gave up an unearned run on 3 hits and struck out 8. While he is not going to be a first round pick, he definitely should be around for rounds 2-4.

Justin Montgomery

Tampa University
This Division II school has three great pitching prospects. One is David LeBron who is extremely athletic and has K/9 rate of 10.80 in 3 starts so far. Cole Aker, who transferred from North Carolina, has a 2.63 ERA so far in 2 starts while reliever Mark Moclair has whiffed 20 out of the pen in 12 IP for 15.00 K/9 rate.

Logan Gilbert is one of the top draft prospects and the Cubs will have no shot at taking him as he will be long gone by the time number 24 rolls around. Junior Jack Perkins, not to be confused with HS prospect Jack Perkins, was dominant in his Saturday debut going 7.1 IP with 10 Ks.

In addition to Pompey, the giant right-handed starter Sean Hjelle went 6 innings and gave up 1 run as he struck out 3 and walked two while only giving up two hits. It was a nice debut. However, Hjelle was overshadowed by another tall pitcher. 6’7” righty Justin Lewis whiffed 9 in 6 and gave up 2 hits on opening night but did not allow a run. The Wildcats look pretty good.

Florida State
RHP Cole Sands (Carson’s brother) was dominant in his debut with 9 Ks in 5 innings. 2017 Cubs’ draftee Andrew Karp pitched in relief and struck out 2 in 1.1 innings.

Tracking these players and schools should be exciting every weekend. It will be fun to watch them develop over the next three months.

The Weekly – Random News from Mesa, Keith Law Draft Info, and More International Free Agents

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By Todd Johnson

As spring training got underway, I was getting ready for what I call my busy season, which actually began yesterday with a Scholastic bowl tournament. Throw in a history fair and seven nights of Scholastic bowl meets and you have my life through March 15. I am pretty sure I am going to be dragging but it still allows me plenty of time to recoup before spring break starts and spring training ends.

As a result, anytime I had an idea pop into my head this week, I pondered about whether to write a full-blown post about it, or just a small blurb in this column. So, I just cited to get some ideas down now and maybe I can expand upon them more at a later time.

Darvish Impact on Minors
With an opt out clause after two years, that clause does buy the Cubs a couple more years to develop some arms to take Darvish’s place should he leave via free agency. A lot can happen to a pitching prospect in two years. So, it’s a little hard to justify a full-blown post about the topic right now. While some may think that Adbert Alzolay might be one of those who could start in 2020. Thomas Hatch, Duncan Robinson, Alex Lange, Jose Albertos and few more will have their name in that hat.

3 More Coming to Camp
The Cubs invited three more non-roster players to spring training. They were all catchers and many are very familiar to most of you. Cael Brockmeyer, Erick Castillo, and PJ Higgins all got the call.

2 New International Signees
Per Arizona Phil, the Cubs signed two more Cuban international free agents this week. Kevin Moreno is a 17-year-old third baseman who does not have a lot of experience playing international baseball. Pitcher Raidel Orta played in the Serie Nacional when he was 18 in 2014/15. He missed the last two years after defecting. Now at 22, it should be interesting to see just exactly what he has and how much he can improve over the course of the year playing in the US. I’m very interested to see where the Cubs place both prospects after spring training. I made a spreadsheet that has the Cubs last few international classes. Use the tabs at the bottom to go from year to year.

Draft Rankings
Keith Law of ESPN released his top 30 draft prospects (subscription required) for 2018. While he did not place players with teams, he did rank them from 1 to 30. While I can’t get into specifics about who was ranked where, it’s quite clear the Cubs are going to get an outstanding player at number 24. Law’s rankings are quite different from MLB Pipeline’s top 50 and the first 30 in Baseball America’s top 200. His list is a perfect example of the rise and fall of many prospects and the differentiation in evaluation. As a result, one name Cubs fans may want to add to the list is Missouri State shortstop Jeremy Eierman.

A Bunch of Arms
Cubs also moved pitcher Drew Smyly to the 60 day DL and signed reliever Shae Simmons to a split major/minor league contract. The Cubs signed several pitchers this off-season including Anthony Bass, Daniel Camarena, Michael Roth, Dario Alvarez, Randy Rosario, Cory Mazzoni, Kyle Ryan, Alberto Baldonado, Luke Farrell, and Simmons. I don’t think many of these guys stand much of a chance of making the major leagues bullpen and only a few will probably break camp in the Cubs’ minor-league system. I can see Camarena getting an opportunity to start in the minors at either Iowa or Tennessee. Rosario and Ryan have an outside shot to make the major leagues roster but will need some help and the same is true of Farrell, who is more of a starting pitcher. I don’t think Alvarez, Bass, and even the new signee Simmons have much of a shot. I think the Cubs are pretty clear on just exactly who is going to be in their bullpen. I’ll probably talk about this more as spring training wears on and players get some work in.

Coming Up this Week
On Wednesday the “Leveling Up” series begins to wind down as I look at outfielder Nelson Velasquez. On Friday, I should have something for you either about the bullpen or about young Latin arms coming into the system in 2018. On Saturday the 24th, I will be with my students participating in the history fair at NIU and then “Spring Training News and Notes” will take over for “The Weekly” on Sundays until the season begins. I am also pondering a draft article that looks at a few players beyond the first round.

Baseball Card of the Week

The 2018 MLB Draft Will Be Here Quick – Here’s a Short Primer

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By Todd Johnson

It is hard to tell what the Cubs are going to do this year in the draft. The Cubs went hard after pitching the past two drafts and many of those young college arms will be in the upper part of the minors this season. The starting rotations at South Bend, Myrtle Beach, and Tennessee will be the focus for how well the Cubs did in those drafts.

As for 2018, the Cubs could go one of three ways. They could go the best player available route, they could try to begin to replenish the bats that will be leaving in the next 3 to 4 years, or they could continue the recent trend of college pitching. 

The 2018 draft selection pool is deep. The Cubs are going to get a very good player at number 24.  That prospect will likely shoot to to the top of the Cubs’ prospect list. Looking at the current configuration of a couple of top draft prospect lists, and a couple of mock drafts, there’s no consensus on who the top 25 to 30 players are. There’s a lot of variation in the evaluation of draft prospects.

For example, a year ago, Clemson’s Seth Beer was considered to be the consensus overall number one pick for 2018. Now, he’s not even in the top 30 prospects meaning he could entirely miss the first round. A poor summer playing USA Baseball and the lack of a definitive position in the field has been debilitating to Beer’s draft position. Someone is going to take a chance on that bat. However, they are not going to pay millions of dollars for the opportunity.

Most colleges begin playing baseball in the middle of February. And the same is true for high schools in the South and Southwest. Most northern colleges will spend their weekends playing in the deep South before it warms up in the North. Additionally, northern high school prospects are at a loss. Those players will shoot up the rankings in late May as reports come in. It’s a funky process and can be a bit head spinning at times.

There is no doubt in my mind that if I were the Cubs, I would go with a power bat at number 24. They are going to be several high-value targets still available. Seth Beer would be available. Luken Baker of TCU would be another but he is limited to first base.

Right now, there are three prospects that I have my eye on. I would take Wichita State third baseman Alec Bohm as fast as I possibly could. At 6’5″ and 235 pounds, he has a good frame and he can generate some serious power. But most importantly, he has destroyed the ball in wooden bat leagues the past two summers including the Cape Cod League in 2017. That’s always a good barometer for Jason McLeod.

Shortstop Xavier Edwards is a four tool prospect. The young shortstop is currently ranked number 38 on MLB Pipeline’s top 50 draft prospects. He is still growing and has elite speed and a good arm. The issue is whether he will keep his commitment to Vanderbilt.

The only pitcher in my initial inquiry is lefty Konnor Pilkington of Mississippi State. The 6’3” junior has both USA Baseball experience and time on the Cape. MLB Pipeline explains his arsenal:

Pilkington could have three solid or better pitches when all is said and done. He works with an 88-93 mph fastball that tops out at 96, using his 6-foot-3 frame and a high three-quarters arm slot to deliver it on a steep downhill plane. He trusts his advanced changeup more than his slider, which can get slurvy at times.

It is extremely early in the process but those are three names that I like so far. I am sure more names will rise, fall, and rise again the next 5 months. The draft will be here quick.

MiLB Mailbag – Comparing the 2011 Cubs Prospect List to Now

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By Todd Johnson

The final question of this off-season’s minor-league mailbag comes to us from little Cory Alan from South Bend, Indiana. Cory asks: How does this year’s prospect list compare to when Theo took over?

To answer Cory’s question thoroughly, I had to do some digging. First, I went back to the archives at MLB Pipeline to look at their Cubs prospect list from 2011. They had Anthony Rizzo at number one. That list came out after Theo took over. I was able to find BP’s list from 2011 and I think it’s much more indicative of the Cubs system heading into 2011 before the season rather than after.

Here is their top 10 in all its glory, pre-Theo:

1. Brett Jackson, OF
2. Trey McNutt, RHP
3. Chris Archer, RHP
4. Josh Vitters, 3B
5. Hak-Ju Lee, SS
6. Chris Carpenter, RHP
7. Hayden Simpson, RHP
8. Reggie Golden, OF
9. Jay Jackson, RHP
10. Robinson Lopez, RHP

I also found Baseball America’s list. They had Archer at number one, Jackson at two, and McNutt at 3.

Now, it would be easy to sit back and say that today’s system is much better than 2011. But, at the time, I can’t believe I’m going to say this, the 2011 Cubs actually had two top 100 prospects in Brett Jackson and Trey McNutt. The Cubs don’t have a single top 100 prospect today. However, today’s Cubs could have three or more within the next two years, depending on draft picks and development. But beyond the top 10 in 2011, there was not much hope in the system.  Only Darwin Barney is a recognizable name for most Cubs fans from that list.

In all sincerity, there were people who actually believed that Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters were going to be pros in Chicago. People thought Trey McNutt was going to be an arm and that Chris Carpenter was going to make it. In addition, I remember seeing Reggie Golden play for Kane County in 2013 and struggling to hit any pitch that started with a C, but he was one sculpted physical specimen.

It’s obvious, now, that the system in 2011 was not deep at all. It’s not like Brett Jackson was fooling anyone. Lots of top 100 prospects don’t make it in the major leagues – injuries happen, players peak. When Josh Vitters hit .283 with 14 home runs and 80+ RBIs at AA Tennessee, I think most Cubs fans and evaluators thought he was going to be an “it” guy.

By the time the 2011 season began, Archer was gone and General Manager Jim Hendry would be by mid-year. In Hendry’s final act, he drafted Javier Baez, Dan Vogelbach, and Dillon Maples. Soon after, thus began what we think of as the rebuild, but it would be Theo who did almost all the heavy lifting.

Sure, today’s Cubs system does not have one Top 100 prospect…for now. Still, the system is deep, redundant, but just lacks elite talent. However, within two years, several of the prospects led by Jose Albertos, Aramis Ademan, Miguel Amaya, Alex Lange, Jeremiah Estrada, and Nelson Velazquez (who will be at Eugene and South Bend in 2018) could matriculate up prospect lists . It could take a while, but Cubs system could be making a vaunted comeback without having to lose 100 games.