A clarification, not a review, of “Astroball”

Books, MLB, Uncategorized

Luhnow

Some – not all, but some – of Astroball by Ben Reiter came about because of the author’s half-joking prediction in 2014 that the then-worst team in baseball if not one of the worst teams in baseball history, the Houston Astros, would ride their rocket scientists, mathematicians, corporate veterans and Ivy League college graduates who permeate their front office to baseball dominance and a World Series win in 2017.

The story would be interesting but not so easily salable had that freak guess not happened to come true.

But it did.

To his credit, Reiter acknowledges the lightning bolt nature of that prediction/guess/divine intervention– whatever you want to call it – coming to fruition. However, the remainder of the book serves as a love letter to the architect of the Astros’ rise, general manager Jeff Luhnow, to the degree that even his wrongs turned out to be not so wrong; even his mistakes contained a method behind the perceived madness; and any glaring gaffe stemming from arrogance, ignorance or coldblooded inhumanity could be mitigated and explained away.

As the Astros and Reiter bask in the afterglow of the achievement of their ultimate vision, it’s ironic that the relentless criticisms of the organization that had receded into the background rose again with the near simultaneous release of the book and, within 20 days, the club’s acquisition of closer Roberto Osuna who was only available from the Toronto Blue Jays because he was under suspension by Major League Baseball for an alleged domestic violence incident for which he was arrested with the case still pending in Toronto.

In one shot, the Astros regained their reputation for putting performance above people; for indicating that profit takes precedence over right and wrong.

In the immediate aftermath of the trade for Osuna, the handwringing on Twitter and outright criticism by columnists and radio hosts made it seem as if the Astros had never exhibited this type of borderline sociopathic tendencies in the past when it is precisely how they behaved to get so far, so fast. The World Series title and the narrative of how it was achieved gave them an “it worked” safety net.

Suddenly, the intriguing stories of Carlos Correa, Justin Verlander, Carlos Beltran and Sig Mejdal – for the most part, positive portrayals of generally likable people – were jolted back to the ambiguity of some of the Astros’ clever, manipulative and underhanded tactics used to achieve their ends.

What cannot be denied and was shown again with the Osuna trade is the Astros did and do treat human beings as cattle whose survival is based on nothing more than their current usefulness; that any pretense of acceptable and unacceptable behavior hinges on cost and usefulness. The book’s attempt to humanize Luhnow and his staff in contrast with the manner they run the team was immediately sabotaged by acquiring Osuna.

The big questions about “Astroball” should not center around what’s in the book, but what’s not in the book.

Those who are either not invested in the concept of the Astros’ new way of doing things being the wave of the future or did not walk into the movie when it was half over and remember exactly what happened during the reconstruction will wonder about the following:

  • How is the name Andrew Friedman mentioned once for his role as president of baseball operations for the Los Angeles Dodgers and not as Astros owner Jim Crane’s first choice to be the Astros GM – with Luhnow the second choice?
  • How is it possible that the name Jon Singleton, who received $10 million for nothing, is nowhere in the text?
  • Why were the circumstances under which manager Bo Porter was fired completely ignored and treated as part of a planned process?
  • Why was the rushed trade for Carlos Gomez a shrugged off mistake with one sentence dedicated to it?

One man’s reasonable explanation is another’s farcical alibi. Depending on one’s perspective and agenda, both can appear true.

The drafting of Brady Aiken and subsequent attempt to lowball him following an agreed-upon contract was adapted to show how brilliantly conniving Luhnow was for offering the precise bonus amount to benefit the club in the subsequent draft should Aiken reject the offer as they knew he would – in fact, there’s an attempt to make Luhnow look benevolent for how Aiken was treated.

The release of J.D. Martinez is an admitted mistake…but then-manager Porter was blamed because he only gave Martinez 18 spring training at-bats the year Martinez arrived touting a new swing as if Porter was not being told what to do and had any choice in the matter as to who played.

“He (Porter) also couldn’t fail to provide someone like J.D. Martinez enough at-bats for the organization to make an informed decision about him.” (Astroball, page 143)

Are they seriously saying that Porter did not have it hammered into his head what the front office wanted and which players were to be given a closer look; that he was not an implementer of front office mandate with little-to-no actual say-so?

The above quote is one of many in the book that provide a between-the-lines elucidation of what the entire goal of the book is: to tie all the loose ends from that 2014 prediction to the prediction coming to pass, objective truth be damned.

Porter’s firing, rather than being due to the clear insubordination and an attempt to go over Luhnow’s head to Crane regarding how the team was being run, was mystically transformed into a preplanned decision.

Porter and numerous veteran players had an issue with former first overall draft pick Mark Appel being brought to Minute Maid Park for a bullpen session with pitching coach Brent Strom to see if they could fix what ailed him. (They couldn’t.) It was then that Porter and Luhnow were at an impasse and Luhnow was right to fire him. But part of the “process”? After Porter’s hiring when Luhnow made the preposterous statement that he might manage the team for two decades? How does that work? How is this explained away other than it being ignored?

It’s these and many other subtle and not-so subtle twisting of reality that call the entire book and its contents into question on a scale of ludicrousness and goal-setting to cast the Astros in the best possible light, all stemming from that silly prediction from 2014 when it was an act comparable to casually throwing a basketball over one’s shoulder with eyes closed and somehow hitting nothing but net.

One cannot discuss “Astroball” (the figurative New Testament for the reliance on statistics in baseball) without mentioning the Old Testament, “Moneyball”.

“Moneyball” gets a passing mention as the text that kicked open the door for baseball outsiders with ideas that were once considered radical and antagonistic to baseball’s ingrained conventional orthodoxy, but the two stories are intertwined like conjoined twins for whom separation would mean unavoidable death.

Reiter takes clear steps to avoid the same mistakes Michael Lewis made in “Moneyball”. Instead of it being an overt baseball civil war where the storyline was old vs. new and Billy Beane sought to eliminate the antiquated, Luhnow is portrayed as integrating the old guard and formulating strategies to quantify their assessments.

Whereas “Moneyball” took the MLB draft and turned Beane into a “card counter”, Astroball acknowledges nuance and luck in the draft.

While ““Moneyball”” treats the postseason as an uncontrollable crapshoot, “Astroball” implies the same thing without trying to eliminate any responsibility for continually losing as the Athletics have done repeatedly.

Astroball does its best to inclusive, albeit in a borderline condescending way, while “Moneyball” sought to toss anyone not on the train under it and then, for good measure, backed over them to make sure they were dead.

To that end, Astroball is somehow more disingenuous than “Moneyball”. “Moneyball” is how the old-schoolers are truly viewed in the new-age, sabermetric circles while their extinction is pursued opaquely in Astroball, making it easier for them to carry it out.

Those invested in the story being considered true will not give an honest review, nor will they ask the questions as to why certain facts were omitted even if they know the answers.

With that, the narrative of the Astros and their rise under Luhnow and Crane presented in Astroball is complete and a vast portion of readers and observers will believe every single word of it just as they did with “Moneyball”. They get their validation. And it’s irrelevant whether that validation was the entire point, as it clearly was.

Discarding facts from the past aside, the Osuna acquisition drops an inconvenient bomb right in the middle of their glorification. It’s that wart that shows who the Astros really are. If they just admitted it, they would deserve grudging respect. They claim to care about a player’s conduct and give hedging statements as to “zero tolerance” with that “zero” only existing when he’s an Astros employee. In short, they don’t care about Osuna’s alleged domestic assault just as they didn’t care about Aiken; they didn’t care about Porter; they didn’t care about Martinez; they didn’t care about any of the people who were callously discarded because they did not fit into the tightening circle of those who believe what they believe or will agree to subvert their own preferences as a matter of survival in a world they neither know nor understand.

For those who have a general idea of what is truly happening in baseball front offices and do not take these tall tales at face value, the book is entertaining enough in a televised biopic sort of way as long the creative nonfictional aspect is placed into its proper context. That context goes right back to the 2014 “prediction” that would have been largely ignored had it not happened to come true.

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The Mets’ embarrassment could spark real and necessary change

MLB, Uncategorized

Ricco

The Mets’ 4-2 loss to the Braves Thursday could be viewed as “another day, another loss” in a season of promise that devolved into a disaster at stunning speed, even for them. But with each passing day, it grows clearer that the solution to repair what ails the club cannot come from inside the organization. For the duration of Sandy Alderson’s tenure as general manager, assistant GM John Ricco was rightfully viewed as his heir apparent. He preceded Alderson with the organization and his private sector resume largely mimics Alderson’s when Alderson was plucked from a law firm that was representing the Athletics and, with no baseball operations experience, was named the club’s GM. Ricco is also an attorney and worked in the MLB commissioner’s office before joining the Mets.

The transition would have been relatively seamless and moved forward whenever Alderson decided to leave had the Mets not disintegrated in consecutive years as they did in 2017-18.

Alderson has left the club, ostensibly to treat his recurrence of cancer. Seated next to Jeff Wilpon at the press conference to announce that news, Alderson himself essentially said that if it were up to him, he’d fire himself for the club’s downfall following their 2015-16 postseason appearances. So, Alderson is out and not returning. In his stead, they have a tri-head GM of Ricco, J.P. Ricciardi and Omar Minaya. This is unworkable in the short and long term. With clubs looking to deal with the Mets not knowing whom they should call and how long it will take for them to reach a consensus, the team is in stasis. Since the Mets made their highest value targets – Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard – off-limits barring a loony offer, the changes they did make are cosmetic.

The biggest problem for the Mets has morphed from the appearance of disarray to actual disarray.

On the bright side, the Mets are somewhat lucky in that they’re getting an in the trenches view of how Ricco would function as the fulltime GM. That trial run as the club spokesman and potential final decision maker is not helping his case to be given the job. With every press conference in which he serves as the organizational front man, he goes from “the guy whose voice we never heard” to “the guy whose voice we hope to never hear again.” It’s irrelevant whether he’s been a competent and evenhanded voice behind the scenes. He lacks the infectious personality that will automatically make it seem like he at least has a plan and believes in it and can get others to follow him. It’s clinical. He sounds like a doctor telling a patient that tests reveal a sexually transmitted disease. That is not going to work, especially in New York and specifically with the Mets.

Part of the search for the new GM goes beyond any blueprint he or she presents in an interview. It must be a person who can be sold to the fan base and media simply by mentioning the name. Listing potential names is generally a waste of time and more of a function of market research than anything else. Hiring a person who seems to check all the boxes and serves to placate the fans and media is not enough of a reason. Mickey Callaway has proven that.

Alderson is being blamed for the roster construction and the perceived dilapidation of the organization in general, but Ricco and Ricciardi were present and had a significant amount of sway for the entire time Alderson was there. Minaya was the GM who oversaw the rise and fall of the Mets from 2005-10. Can any one of the three make a case that he is the one who should be entrusted to fix this?

This goes beyond picking a new GM who is salable to the fans and has a background and clearly delineated plan. Because they have already stated their intention to contend in 2019, a new GM who might have wanted to trade away deGrom, Syndergaard and any other player of value to boost the farm system, clear some salary and reboot has already been told before interviewing that there will not be a rebuild. Right there, it puts a potential GM at a disadvantage as he will be walking in with parameters and residue from past failures rather than a clean slate.

Wilpon is another issue. He trusted Alderson enough to leave him alone as much as Wilpon leaves any of his underlings alone, but he had two decades of experience in the game from about every perspective a front office person can have. He’d earned the benefit of the doubt. While Ricco is liked within the organization, the first instinct Wilpon will have is to tighten his grip, not loosen it. Add in Ricco’s poor showing thus far as the team spokesman and it cannot work.

The beneficial aspect to the Mets slide toward what will be close to 100 losses is the urgency to act and willingness to change. It will spark the necessary action of hiring a veteran baseball man with experience and flexibility to adapt. Working the owner is part of the job. With none of the three current baseball men running the club capable of doing it, it is vital they find someone from outside – someone to be the baseball CEO; someone who knows what the hell he’s doing.

No replacing Yoenis Cespedes, so here’s another idea for the Mets

MLB, MLB Trade Deadline, Uncategorized

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Yoenis Cespedes, set to have surgery on both heels and expected to miss up to 10 months and perhaps more leaves the New York Mets in a predicament of how to replace his production. He has been riddled with injuries since signing his four-year, $110 million contract to remain with the Mets and the team’s fortunes have spiraled in direct proportion with his absences. When he’s played, they’ve been good; when he hasn’t played, they’ve been bad.

The positive aspect to the announcement is the end to the ambiguity. The Mets had functioned with a daily dread that even when he was deemed healthy, he was one step away from another injury that would keep him out for three months.

So, now they know.

Replacing him is a separate matter, especially considering the uncertainty in the front office with the departure of Sandy Alderson, the current tri-head GM of John Ricco, Omar Minaya and J.P. Ricciardi, and the club’s unknown strategy and payroll going forward.

There are calls for the Mets to tear down the entire structure and rebuild, but such a position is absurd. Trading the likes of pending free agents Asdrubal Cabrera, Jose Bautista, Devin Mesoraco and Jerry Blevins is obvious. Players under team control through 2019 – Zack Wheeler and Wilmer Flores – should be moved if there is a sufficient return, albeit steeper than what they will get for those approaching free agency.

Regarding the idea of trading Jacob deGrom or Noah Syndergaard, what sense does that make when there are three different people who are vying to get the top job and no set plan in place?

If the Mets are truly thinking about trading deGrom or Syndergaard, that is a decision that must be made by the new permanent head of baseball operations, whoever that is.

That brings us to how best to move forward if the Mets truly intend on competing in 2019.

Given the structure of the club being built around pitching and the opportunity to get younger, a spin from Alderson-led strategy of slow-footed, feast or famine players who played station to station and did little other than hit occasional home runs, the Mets have an opening to do something that has not been done full tilt since the Whitey Herzog St. Louis Cardinals of the 1980s: build a team based on speed and defense with the pitchers to back up that strategy.

The Mets have been notoriously slow in recent years. They have been lacking athleticism, devoid of versatility, and shoddy defensively.

The words “small ball” have been largely extinguished if not outright excommunicated from the game like they’re a toxic disease that only anti-vaccination fanatics fail to see the damage they can do, but with deGrom getting losses or no-decisions in 12 starts in which he pitched at least six innings and surrendered 3 or fewer earned runs, would the Mets not have been better-served to get runners on base in the early innings, push the envelope by stealing bases, bunt them along when appropriate, get a lead and force the other manager’s hand to make desperate moves because they cannot fall behind by one run?

This is contingent on starting pitching – something the Mets have in comparative abundance.

Some have indulged in delusional speculation that with the money the Mets will save via insurance payments for David Wright and now Cespedes, they should go big in this winter’s free agent market by pursuing Manny Machado and/or Bryce Harper. Hypothetically, if the Mets were willing to make that level of expenditure, why would players in demand like Machado or Harper want to join the Mets with the club’s reputation for disarray, dysfunction and injury?

More to the point, the type of players who would fit into the aggressive style of play are available should the club be willing to eschew the glossy signing and go for an actual planned construction with players who can do more than one thing.

Ian Kinsler may be 36 and struggling at the plate in 2018, but he remains a superlative defensive second baseman with speed to steal 15 to 20 bases and hit 20 home runs. He’s a free agent, won’t cost a draft pick, nor ask for a long-term contract.

Billy Hamilton is available and despite his poor OPS, he’s a defensive stalwart in center field who, if turned loose, could easily steal 80 to 100 bases.

With Amed Rosario playing better and more aggressively, Brandon Nimmo’s skill at getting on base, the remaining potential in Michael Conforto, hackers like T.J. Rivera and Jeff McNeil who might not bring the precious walks that sabermetrics advocates pine for, but collect hits, would this type of team have a better chance at competing than the ones the Mets have put on the field in 2017-18?

When the club is slumping offensively and is not hitting home runs, what do they do to score? There’s no stopping speed; there’s no viable defense for the panic that ensues when there’s a runner on base who might steal at any moment and the team is aggressively forcing the action with hitting and running, exhibiting derring-do on the bases and showing fearlessness. In games where they’re not hitting or getting on base, their defense will be a contribution.

Since the Mets have failed in every other attempt to fill in and replace costly players who are hurt; with their annual strategies imploding as if that was their intent, how much worse could they be if they did something that hasn’t been done since the mid-1980s – and worked – with their most hated rival at the time that twice sabotaged the dominant Mets teams of Keith Hernandez, Gary Carter, Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry?

Those Cardinals ran wild on the bases, caught the ball, and won three pennants in six years. This is a preferable strategy to the Mets trading their cost-controlled faces deGrom or Syndergaard for “Random Prospects X, Y and Z” and the team couldn’t be any worse than it is now. They’d certainly be more interesting.

What can the Yankees do with Gary Sanchez? Nothin’.

MLB, Uncategorized

Gary Sanchez

Let’s not get into a debate as to the validity of the recurrence of Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez’s groin injury that sent him back to the disabled list. Questioning a player’s pain threshold, how much a supposed injury is affecting his game, and if the organization is making liberal use of the vagaries of MRIs and strains to put a player in time-out in lieu of overt punishment is a maze rife with traps. We can’t know.

Accurate or not, I believe that if this was a key part of the schedule in September or the postseason, Sanchez could play through his ailment. Since it is July and the outrage at Sanchez’s lack of hustle costing the Yankees both offensively and defensively in Monday night’s loss to the Tampa Bay Rays has reached tsunami-like proportions and his ongoing lack of effort has shown no signs of changing, the club came to up with a way to sit him without it being a daily question as to when he’ll play again and if he got the message. It’s easier to do this while he’s batting .188 with an OPS of .699 and an OPS+ of 87.

The references of him being the “best hitting catcher in baseball” are a bit much with these numbers. Perhaps the word “potential” or “in 2017” should be inserted into the statement.

The laziness is secondary to that lack of production at the plate. His bat as a catcher is the entire reason he’s in the lineup to begin with; why there’s justification for the Yankees tolerating behavior from him they would not from anyone else. To put into context how terrible he’s been, let’s look at two former Yankees catchers. For the Arizona Diamondbacks, John Ryan Murphy has an OPS+ of 81 with 9 home runs in around 100 fewer plate appearances than Sanchez. For the suddenly searing hot Pittsburgh Pirates, Francisco Cervelli has an OPS+ of 129 and 9 home runs. Neither Murphy nor Cervelli are the defensive liability that Sanchez is. Both have squeezed every ounce out of their abilities. Can Sanchez say the same? Or is he satisfied to the point of complacency?

He’s not shaky defensively. He’s bad. That badness is compounded by his laziness. If he was hitting as he did in 2016-2017, then the club could grit its teeth and swallow it. But he’s not. The defensive lapses and la-de-da effort has gotten progressively worse the more established he’s become. What’s he going to be like if he has financial security with a $100 million contract and he’s in his late-20s and early-30s?

There are multiple scenarios under which the club could accept it and none are applicable. If he was hitting consistently; if he hustled; if he was simply bad defensively and his issues weren’t due to lack of effort – all are less than ideal, but could be shrugged off given his substantial assets including his cost control and fearsome power.

The catch-22 for the Yankees is that even when he’s 100 percent healthy, the defensive issues are not going away and they’re certainly not going to get better. There will not be an epiphany where he decides that he’ll adhere to the basics of being a functional defensive catcher. He’s in his second full season and already displays a stunning lack of commitment and an overtly shocking lack of interest in improving.

Under team control through 2022, he’ll be the Yankees catcher for the foreseeable future because of his bat and, most importantly, because he’s essentially irreplaceable from within and from outside the organization. If he acted like this as an outfielder, he’d already be gone.

For now, their only option is to wait for his stint on the disabled list to end and hope he got the message. Nothing else has gotten through. At age 25, he’s quickly earning the label as coach-killer because he was a part of why the Yankees parted ways with Joe Girardi and has sparked the first real crisis in the relatively smooth transition to Aaron Boone. Using coach-speak, there’s a good chance that he’s “that guy” or “one of those” meaning he’ll be punished, will be sufficiently chastened for a few days and be inspired to play hard, then revert to the behaviors that got him in trouble in the first place.

Apart from what the Yankees have already done to try and get him in line, there’s nothing else they can do except maintain hope that one day, it will click and he’ll decide he wants to work not just when he feels like it but when he doesn’t feel like it; not when he’s yelled at or pulled aside by teammates, but when no one is watching because no one needs to watch.

Keep subsidizing the Mets’ lies and ineptitude and the lies and ineptitude will continue

MLB, MLB Trade Deadline, Uncategorized

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For the record, when typing the word “lies”, I initially typed “liens” which, when discussing the New York Mets, could also be accurate.

There’s an unfounded and borderline delusional expectation that one day a light switch will turn from off to on and the Mets will understand that random jumping from one philosophy to another, doing just enough to maintain fan loyalty that tomorrow will be different, and a series of moderate changes are no longer sufficient to build a consistently thriving organization whose location in New York City should yield a commensurate bottom to top structure with competent management and proper funding.

The Mets operate on occasional success and point to it as validation of their haphazard strategy. They won the pennant in 2015 and a Wild Card spot in 2016 – isn’t that enough for you?

They spent big from 2005 to 2010 and almost won the 2006 pennant and would have won the World Series had they reached it. If there was the extra Wild Card in 2007 and 2008 as there is now, the Mets would have made the playoffs in both years.

Aren’t you happy with that?

Would’ve, might’ve, should’ve. There’s a time when these words are applicable, but not as a blueprint.

Winning teams that consistently succeed do not operate that way. There are standards. There’s structure. There’s a real blueprint crafted by professionals who can explain why they’re doing what they’re doing and take steps to bring it to fruition.

There are teams like the Mets who are sort of trying and there are teams that are legitimately trying. They’re not saying they plan to make improvements, they make improvements! Now, it’s possible that those improvements will not result in the desired end of a championship, but it cannot be said that they only tried when it was convenient for them and they were selling fans on a mythical product that only occasionally works with the fans (customers) continuing to buy it out of brand loyalty.

Are the Mets as cruel and dismissive of their fans as the media narrative seeks to purvey?

No.

They did spend money in this past offseason and the idea that the Wilpon family does not want to win is preposterous. They’re not operating in the Jeffrey Loria vacuum of profit above all else with nothing – the law, league rules, good taste – getting in their way. There is, however, an aspect of doing just enough to keep the fans coming back and then knowing – not hoping, knowing – that there will be a large faction of customers who will keep purchasing the product no matter what.

Is there a defense for the Mets with the ongoing drama and rumors regarding a potential Jeurys Familia trade? Until said trade is completed, there’s no fair judgment of it.

Is there a defense for the Yoenis Cespedes drama? The Mets were reluctant to trade for Cespedes because of his mercurial reputation and that he was a pending free agent. The trade won the Mets a pennant. Cespedes wanted to stay with the Mets and the Mets were again reluctant amid concerns that once he was paid, he would settle into a lackadaisical “I’ll play when I feel like it” attitude. They re-signed him to a mutually beneficial contract where he could opt out after one year. In 2016, he was an All-Star, a top-10 finisher in the MVP race, and a Silver Slugger award winner. Then he opted out and the Mets, with pressure from the fans and media, re-signed him to a contract worth $110 million. In the year-and-a-half since then, they’ve gotten 110 games played and the constant fear that he will tweak, pull or tear a muscle or claim to have an injury that he could potentially play through just because he feels like taking some time off and is annoyed about something when no one knows what.

Now that he’s back on the active roster and played one game after missing two months, hitting a home run and being that mid-lineup threat, he says he has calcification on his heels and will need surgery to fix it. The recovery time is eight-to-ten months.

The Mets are being whipped for this information when, with Cespedes, there’s a sense that the medical diagnoses are being revealed as they come out of his mouth and the club was completely unaware of this new sequence of events until they heard it for the first time when Cespedes said it.

Are they at fault? Partially for having a strength and conditioning coach who allows Cespedes to bear squat half a ton; and partially for enabling him; but Cespedes is at fault as well and the Mets’ fears of giving him a long-term contract have largely come true.

Despite the objective truth that most of the big free agents who would have filled Mets holes and signed elsewhere have been mediocre at best and terrible at worst; that the players the Mets signed have inexplicably all been disastrous, the fundamental flaws in the Mets structure are the root of the problem.

The Yankees and Dodgers can absorb mistakes because they have the money to do so and the willingness to admit it and swallow it – something the Mets should have and obviously through financial limitation, conscious choice or both – do not. But there are other issues that the Mets face and are based on borderline incompetence. The Yankees and Dodgers have the farm systems to trade prospects for upgrades or to recall those players and have them contribute. The Mets do not and there’s no excuse for it. Having a healthy organization goes beyond money and the willingness to spend it on upgrades at the major-league level; it means having a system that, at minimum, has players who can play competently and the decision makers have the ability to accurately judge them or sell them to other clubs.

That does not happen in Queens.

The media is complicit in the narrative and it garners the desired reaction from already angry fans who need little prodding to respond like a Pavlovian dog. The Mets’ financial situation has been the catalyst for a vast proportion of the expectation that money above all else will be the determinative factor in how a trade like the one they are struggling to complete with Familia plays out. So, it’s easy to rile up the fans when one of the tri-headed GMs, John Ricco, says the Mets are willing to eat money on contracts to get a better return and then that story is flipped upside down as the Mets are negotiating that trade. Saying that they plan to spin terrible 2017 and 2018 seasons around quickly is one thing, taking the steps to do it is another.

Beat writers, insiders and columnists have been spending their time with ludicrous ideas of a Jacob deGrom or Noah Syndergaard trade to the Yankees when even they know it is not going to happen. They seem to get valid information just seconds before it is announced by the club and cannot be trusted any more than “FAKE TWITTER ACCOUNT X PURPORTING TO BE AN INSIDER”.

They too should be ignored.

The fans are the key. The ones who keep buying the product and then complaining about what they bought are making the basic error in how to get a better product: Stop buying it when it’s not good and wait until it is good.

Don’t buy tickets.

Don’t go to games even if the tickets are free.

Don’t buy memorabilia.

Don’t call sports talk radio discussing the team.

Don’t take part in any activity related to the team.

This is simple economics and business. If the entity would like to continue earning a profit and the customers are no longer buying what is being sold, the entity needs to change so the customer will again feel confident enough to spend money on it.

Until that happens, the Mets will keep going as they have with ownership dropping occasional crumbs dropped to loyal fans amid the belief that it will keep them quiet and buying for a few years. And the owners have been right. Once they’re wrong and the fans do not keep swallowing the storyline, subsidizing the lies and ineptitude, things will change. Not before then.

Mets trade candidates: Will they stay or will they go?

MLB, MLB Trade Deadline, Uncategorized

Syndergaard

With Manny Machado the first star name to be traded with just shy of two weeks before the non-waiver trade deadline, let’s look at the New York Mets trade candidates, who will stay and who will go.

WILL BE MOVED

Jeurys Familia

It is a certainty that Familia will be traded. Even if the Mets have an eye on re-signing him, it makes zero sense to retain him for the remainder of this season. They are not making the qualifying offer for a closer so they cannot even make the “draft pick” argument to retain him. They’re not crawling back into playoff contention. There’s no point in keeping him.

Like almost every closer in baseball today, Familia is occasionally shaky. He loses the strike zone and is prone to the longball. However, he does have a predominately successful postseason resume and his fastball is reaching the upper-90s again. There should be a good return for Familia of perhaps two top 10 prospects from an interested organization.

Asdrubal Cabrera

Cabrera will also be traded. Another player who would not receive a qualifying offer from the Mets, he is having a “sing for his supper” season with 17 homers, and an .824 OPS as he heads toward offseason free agency. He has remained on the field for the entire season and would be a solid addition to a contender as a second or third baseman. With that pending free agency, he would not complain about being shifted back to third, opening the door for multiple teams.

They’re not getting a giant return for Cabrera, but a reasonable expectation would be mimicking the Curtis Granderson for Jacob Rhame deal from 2017. Rhame has struggled, but has a promising arm.

Jerry Blevins

Blevins has been miscast as a pure lefty specialist by manager Mickey Callaway. As he too heads for free agency and with a proven track record as a dependable reliever despite his poor results in 2018, the Mets will still not get much for him – a low-level minor leaguer probably outside of a club’s top 15 prospects – but teams will have interest and he will be sent to the middle of a pennant race. Perhaps a landing spot is back where he began his major-league career in Oakland with the surprising Athletics.

MIGHT BE MOVED

Zack Wheeler

The Mets are in a difficult spot with Wheeler. Although his injury history and penchant for losing the strike zone are problematic, he has hit a groove under Callaway and pitching coach Dave Eiland that is clearly giving the organization pause before dealing him when he finally appears to have figured it out.

The offers on the table for him should predicate their next move. If it is a return that surpasses a potential 2020 draft pick from a rejected qualifying offer when he hits free agency after 2019, they should pull the trigger. Short of that, maybe they’re better-served to retain him and hope his evolution is legitimate.

Wilmer Flores

Flores is a free agent after 2019 and it’s difficult to discern whether he’s playing first base regularly because the club is showcasing him or that they have seen more than enough of Dominic Smith to realize that Smith is not the answer and Flores should be playing ahead of him regardless of Smith’s status as a first-round draft pick, service time and trade considerations.

Flores has two positions: first base or DH. With the talk that the DH may be coming to the National League sooner rather than later and Flores’s still untapped 30-home run power and history of late-game heroics, unless it’s an offer too good to refuse, the Mets should hold onto him.

Devin Mesoraco

Mesoraco has acquitted himself well since joining the Mets in exchange for Matt Harvey. Teams might be interested in him via trade. There is an argument that since so many entities insist that based on the numbers Kevin Plawecki is a serviceable starting catcher, the Mets should open the door to play Plawecki every day for the remainder of the season to get a better gauge on him by moving Mesoraco.

A free agent at the end of the season, there is no qualifying offer attached to him – not that the Mets would offer it anyway – so he’ll get a job for 2019. Given the sorry state of the catching market, he could end up back with the Mets. The return would be light, so it makes little sense to trade him.

Jose Bautista

Bautista has rejuvenated himself sufficiently with the home runs, walks and defensive versatility that the Mets could get a middling prospect for him. If that is the case, they need to pull the trigger and likely will.

99.9% WILL NOT BE TRADED

Jacob deGrom

Much of the chatter comes from agenda-driven media outlets and from deGrom’s own representatives.

None other than Michael Kay came up with a Twitter-based poll with shocking results straight out of North Korea or the MAGA/Fox News wing of the Republican party that Mets fans would be fine with trading deGrom to the crosstown Yankees.

Columnists are pushing the idea under the pretense that the Mets can immediately replenish their farm system with a bounty of prospects. While true, it’s also a storyline that generates a lot of web hits, shares and retweets. Just because this is a fact does not mean they should do it.

For his part, deGrom expressed his desire to remain with the Mets, but his agent created a controversy over the All-Star break saying that if the Mets are not willing to sign him to a contract extension now, perhaps they should trade him.

It’s all noise. The Mets are under no obligation to trade him because deGrom has no bargaining power. He’s not a free agent until after 2020. If he says, “Trade me.” The Mets can say, “No.”

And that’s the end of that.

Financially, deGrom would certainly like the security of a $100 million deal or more, but he’ll get $12 million to $15 million in arbitration for 2019. For someone like deGrom, it’s unlikely that he’s a guy who wastes his money frivolously; nor is he Curt Schilling believing that he’s going to be a billionaire with cockamamie schemes.

If the Mets are planning on hiring an outsider as GM, it makes no sense to trade deGrom before knowing what the new GM’s plan is. A caveat is that the question of what the prospective GM wants to do with deGrom et, al. will be asked during the interview process. If the GM wants to trade deGrom and Jeff Wilpon doesn’t, that person is not getting the job. Ultimately, it’s up to ownership. Based on that, they will not want to trade a good soldier who brings fans to the park and is one of baseball’s best pitchers.

The only scenario in which deGrom will be traded is if there is a deal on the table that is so lucrative that the team making the trade will be savaged for it. It’s certainly possible, however unlikely.

Noah Syndergaard

Most of the same factors that apply to deGrom also apply to Syndergaard. That said, there is a slightly better chance that Syndergaard is moved than deGrom. The return would be nearly identical because Syndergaard’s injury history and that he’s not having the all-world year deGrom is will be mitigated by him being four years younger and having an extra year of team control. Syndergaard has expressed his desire to stay just as deGrom has, but Syndergaard’s position sounds more like “this is what I’m supposed to say” than the squeaky-clean deGrom. Syndergaard has more of an edge to him.

Regarding both pitchers, if the Mets are truly intent on doing a quick spin and contending in 2019, then they need to retain deGrom and Syndergaard. Presumably, they know that.

Steven Matz/Seth Lugo/Robert Gsellman

All three would bring back a good return, but it makes precious little sense to trade them when there has been a stated intent to contend in 2019 and they’re part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Once the Mike Matheny veneer was gone, so was Matheny

MLB, Uncategorized

Matheny

As much as the St. Louis Cardinals will deny it and say there was not any one single incident that sparked their sudden urgency to make a change at manager, the tipping point to finally pull the trigger and fire manager Mike Matheny was the revelation that relief pitcher Bud Norris was using various tactics to “teach” rookie reliever Jordan Hicks how to behave like a major leaguer and did so with the tacit and chuckling approval of the manager. The issue was discussed here.

That, combined with the club hovering around .500 and rapidly hurtling toward irrelevance, made it the obvious decision.

Inevitably, the question regarding Matheny’s dismissal will be, “Why?” This answer is more nuanced than saying the team was not living up to expectations or that he lost control of the clubhouse. The reality of Matheny’s dismissal is not the “why” in the conventional sense. If on-field struggles and strategic gaffes were the barometer of Matheny keeping or losing his job, then he would have been fired after 2016 or 2017. Instead, he was given a three-year contract extension after the 2016 season on top of the contract he was already working under, so he’s signed through 2020 making it even more surprising that an owner such as Bill DeWitt agreed to the change. DeWitt is not “cheap” in the literal sense, but he is frugal. If they make the obvious move and hire Joe Girardi as the replacement, Girardi will want a contract commensurate with his resume and that means he’s not taking an entry-level deal. Presumably, DeWitt is aware of this and accepts it for the greater good.

Regarding Matheny, much like players are increasingly assessed by their combination of skills, so too does that apply to managers and front office personnel. It’s no surprise that given the star-like nature of today’s front offices with the entire organizational solar system revolving around it, few managers are blamed for what happens on the field and fired, especially during the season. Matheny is the second manager who has been dismissed during the 2018 season. The Cardinals will be lucky to get the same results the Cincinnati Reds have gotten by replacing Bryan Price with Jim Riggleman.

The root cause of team’s inconsistency and mediocrity is difficult to pinpoint and discern. Looking at their roster and they should not be playing .500 ball. But that was also the case in 2017. On the other side of the coin, should Matheny not be credited for the positive work he did in the first four seasons of his managerial career when he made the playoffs in each and won a pennant in 2013?

The implication that Matheny was completely inept is misplaced. He was hired to fill a role and he did it. He had substantial success during his tenure. Replacing a legend in Tony La Russa and stewarding a team that was transitioning from one rife with veterans and big money players to one that is built more on younger players, sabermetric principles and opportunism along with the ever-present “Cardinals way” was not as seamless as it appeared. History is littered with managers and coaches who took over for a legend, ran a team that was expected to win and failed. So, he was not a failure, nor was he a mistaken hire. Based on results, it’s difficult to envision anyone having done better than Matheny did.

However, as the on-field results declined and the smoldering controversy with how he oversaw and even encouraged Norris’s behavior grew into a blaze, the team continued to play poorly. If the team was not playing well and his status as having superior skills at corralling the diverse personalities in a clubhouse and navigating the difficult terrain of the media were decaying, what was the benefit of retaining him?

Once that veneer was gone, so was Matheny.

The Mets must trade Zack Wheeler before the MLB trade deadline

MLB, MLB Trade Deadline, Uncategorized

Zack Wheeler

It’s easy to become hypnotized by Zack Wheeler’s arm and paralyzed by the fear that just as he appears to figure out how to harness his gifts and seems to be healthy, the New York Mets are debating whether to trade him or not.

There should be no debate. The Mets not only should trade Wheeler before the approaching MLB trade deadline, but they must trade Wheeler. Here’s why:

  • He’s only locked in as a Met through 2019.

Wheeler is under team control for one more season after this one. Given the poor state of pitching in general across the major leagues, should he remain injury-free and be little more than serviceable, that should be worth at least $30 million in the current climate. Despite reports that the Mets are in a stronger financial situation than they’ve been in years – believe it or don’t – the approaching trade/sign decisions on Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard take precedence over Wheeler.

Beyond his arm and the perception that he might have put the puzzle pieces together, a major factor of why Wheeler is so attractive as a trade chip is that he is not a rental and whichever team trades for him will have him for another year at a reasonable price.

His current salary is $1.9 million. A guesstimate of his 2019 arbitration award with his 2018 production should come in at around $4 million. Sure, the argument could be made that the Mets could use that themselves, but with them unlikely to sign him long-term and their status as a contender for 2019 hinging on issues that go far beyond the 150 innings Wheeler might give them in a reasonable scenario, it’s better to maximize his value when it’s at its highest.

  • Barring a miraculous jump, that value will never be higher to the Mets.

Had the Mets traded Wheeler at any point preceding this one, they would have received very little in return. Since he’s pitched far better than his basic statistics indicate in 2018, has regularly gone beyond 100 pitches and provided six innings-plus in 13 of his 18 starts and has been consistently effective, this goes beyond eye-popping velocity and secondary stuff including a new and impressive split-finger. His control has drastically improved; his mechanics are cleaner and more easily repeatable; and he’s taken the ball every fifth day without the multiple maladies that negatively impacted his early career.

Clearly, manager Mickey Callaway and pitching coach Dave Eiland have had a good influence on Wheeler. That he’s healthy right now makes it of greater importance that they think about this logically and are not hindered by “what if?” Wheeler has always been a “what if?” A few months does not eliminate that the answer was rarely positive until now and it remains speculative.

  • He can return after 2019 when the Mets have a better idea of what they are.

Wheeler has been adamant in his desire to stay and, unlike most players, it sounds genuine. He had called Sandy Alderson in 2015 and told him he wanted to stay when he was part of the original trade for Jay Bruce – one year before the Mets acquired Bruce. Alderson said it did influence him.

But this is about current need and pure business. If Wheeler continues his upswing and truly likes being a Met, there’s the looming free agency a year-and-a-half from now. He can return.

The state of the Mets is more pressing in this process than Wheeler himself. Their farm system is weak and they do not yet have a permanent general manager to replace Alderson. They are not contenders and are preparing a selloff of their pending free agents. They are debating what to do with deGrom and Syndergaard. Wheeler is several levels down from those two and is not as franchise-altering should they trade him and it turn out to be a mistake.

Without a permanent GM and a known blueprint as to where the organization is headed – retool or rebuild – nothing major will be done unless a team make a so-called Herschel Walker offer where the question goes beyond the Mets having traded one or both of their aces but to, “They got that much?!?” and openly fleeced the other party.

  • He’s healthy.

Wheeler’s Tommy John surgery was more complex than most and was a case study that the procedure is not guaranteed to succeed in the customary time frame, if it succeeds at all.  After missing two full seasons with the surgery and its aftermath, how far he’s come is notable. That said, it cannot be ignored that he finally got back on the mound in 2017 and missed time with biceps tendinitis and arm fatigue.

Almost all pitchers are one pitch, one move, one step away from a long stint on the disabled list. Wheeler has a documented history of it. While he’s making his starts and providing length, it’s better to maximize that than retain him hoping it’s not a mirage.

***

These same arguments can be spun around to make the case to retain him. However, judging by the Mets’ needs and the current circumstances, it makes zero sense to hold onto him based on a few months when he’s been with the organization for seven years and this is the first since 2014 where he can be trusted to take the ball every fifth day with solid results. Much of that was due to injury, but it was also because there were times when he seemed to have zero clue where the ball was going once it left his hand and his durability was nonexistent.

It’s always a scary thought to trade that type of talent, especially for prospects. When considering all the variables, the wise decision is to move him and do it soon.

On Bud Norris, Mike Matheny and the line in policing the clubhouse

MLB, Uncategorized

Jeff Nelson, Mike MathenyA story reported initially by The Athletic and discussed here by Yahoo brings up an issue that will never change in sports and probably shouldn’t change in sports – how a clubhouse/locker room is handled by the veteran players and the steps said veteran players should take to teach younger players how to behave in the top professional leagues.

In this instance, St. Louis Cardinals reliever Bud Norris is reportedly “riding” flamethrower Jordan Hicks and has been doing so since spring training. Complicating matters is manager Mike Matheny’s role in the situation as he has shed any notion of ambiguity and chuckled about it with tacit approval.

While greater attention has been paid to so-called “hazing”, for many veteran players, there is a belief that they are extending a hand to the young players and helping them by showing them the proper way to act.

Of course, there are the players who are simply jerks and, were it not for their status in the .0001 percentile of having the athletic ability to reach the top level of their sport, they’d bounce from job to job and blame everyone else for their self-inflicted problems. Mel Hall is one. Jon Rauch is another. Both needed to be threatened to stop their act: Hall by Gerald Williams when he wouldn’t leave Bernie Williams alone with the early 1990s Yankees; Rauch by Matt Harvey with the Mets when Harvey was the target of the treatment.

If the player is relatively useless and is lucky to have a job, the organization can take advantage of these issues to have the player serve as an example and get rid of him for his behavior.

Into which category does Norris fall?

He’s not totally disposable as he does have some use. But he’s not someone from whom any organization should tolerate off-field distraction. Fortunately for him, he’s having a very good year as the Cardinals closer.

Still, veterans get their leeway in overseeing the clubhouse sans interference from the manager. Matheny’s mistake is not in signing off on the behavior, but in commenting on it at all. One of the fastest ways for a manager to lose support in the clubhouse is to interfere with the clubhouse hierarchy and how the veterans police it. The clubhouse is supposed to be sacrosanct and the domain of the players. Managers stepping in over such trivial issues tends to explode in their faces.

Part of the manager’s job is assessing the situation and determining if the target of the treatment is being negatively impacted by the behavior; if it is affecting his performance and, by extension hurting the team, or if he’s just being too sensitive to mostly harmless hijinks. If it’s the former, then he must step in for the good of the club and its sole purpose: winning.

With social media and the disappearance of the line as to what the public should and should not know, outside voices who have never been athletes and part of the competitive world of intense scrutiny and pressure they inhabit will transpose a sports organization into a conventional workplace when it is not that and should not be perceived as such.

Some young players arrive in the majors and immediately misbehave. If that misbehavior is damaging the player and the team, the veteran players are correct in addressing it. If that is viewed as hazing, so be it.

As for Norris going to Matheny with infractions that deviate from the oft-mentioned and unabashedly self-important “Cardinals culture”, that’s not going to win him any friends not just with the Cardinals, but throughout baseball. It does cross a line, this time in the opposite direction, breaching the same protocol managers adhere to with their hands-off approach.

Nobody likes a rat. If said rat is costing the players money in fines and perhaps disfavor with the manager and possibly the entire organization, it can easily escalate from a veteran educating a young player to irreparable fissures. While Matheny essentially named Norris as the bullpen capo who keeps the others in line, there remains a difference between Norris following the standard he set in policing the clubhouse and running to the manager as a tattletale.

It’s Matheny’s clubhouse and he can run it as he sees fit. He’s a tough guy and old-school player. He’s extended that to his role as manager. If he’s adhering to that, he should know that the bad far outweighs the good in having a player running to the manager with stories about code violations and that he makes it worse by telling the media about it.

It’s not up to the media or fans to judge any of this, but there should at least be some boundaries on both sides and from all the insider perspectives.

The Mets, their next GM, Random Name X and Random Reporter Y

MLB, Uncategorized

Mets

As random columns and blog postings speculate as to the next general manager of the New York Mets, writers are conjuring names from front offices of other clubs with no context, no inside information as to what the Mets are thinking, and no willingness to use the only genuine way to predict what they will do: history.

They’re pulling names out of their asses based on pure fantasy and selfish agendas. To make matters worse, they fail to look beyond the hot trends of the moment – baseball outsiders, high-end degrees, innovative statistical analysis and ingenuity – and take that first, crucial step by checking to see that the puzzle piece either fits seamlessly or can be altered slightly to kindasorta fit enough to make it work.

To elucidate exactly how clueless the media is in general, one need only look at the timeline of former Seattle Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik and disproven story of how he went from an inspired hire and scouting and stats “hybrid” who had made his way up through the ranks as an old-school, eyeball scout and slowly learned the value of sabermetrics not just to understand them, but to aggressively implement them.

None other than one of the worst columnists in baseball today if not in baseball history overall, Joel Sherman, wrote a Mets-bashing column lamenting that the club had “missed out” on Zduriencik, calling him a “truly Amazin’ exec” in part for that combined knowledge in scouting and stats and in part because he had worked for the Mets in the early-1990s and knew the terrain.

Sherman is one of the “experts” who has and will offer his ideas as to the next Mets GM. In fact, he personifies the widespread nonsense of the entire endeavor.

In a whistleblower-type move, former Mariners scout Tony Blengino revealed the truth after the Mariners fired him by saying that it was he who completed Zduriencik’s application package and that the idea of Zduriencik understanding stats was a ruse.

It was pure payback, it was ill-advised and Blengino was caught in the backdraft of his vengeful revelations, but it served a purpose in that it showed how little the media really knows beyond what they’re told and how their opinions form based on their own insipid and ill-informed interpretations as to what’s really happening inside organizations.

As much as outsiders present their case of how organizations should be run, the reality of how they are run is far different and is adherent to the whims of ownership. If it is an owner who is willing to recede into the background, absorb criticism based on having delegated so much authority to an underling, and accept that it might not work for the foreseeable future if it works at all, then the act of putting all the chips on one philosophy can succeed.

It’s not easy. To imply that other GMs have that all-encompassing power is ridiculous. Not even Bill Belichick is immune to interference and overrule from Bob Kraft.

Regarding the Mets, it’s not about who the Wilpons should hire based on that randomness. It’s about who they will hire.

If you really believe the Mets will pick any one of the names suggested – Chaim Bloom, Kevin Goldstein, David Stearns, Tim Naehring – and give them the same carte blanche that not even Sandy Alderson received, you’re parachuting in with zero understanding of the Mets or are insinuating your own ludicrous beliefs on a situation where they hold no sway.

If the new GM walks in to Jeff Wilpon’s office and says, “I have a trade offer where we’ll send Jacob deGrom to the Yankees and Noah Syndergaard to the Phillies for a combination of nine prospects…” it’s won’t fly no matter how significant the return is, where the prospects rank on various lists, or how smart it seems in the moment.

As alluring as the prospect of a new age GM is, the Mets are not going down that road. With that in mind, wouldn’t it be preferable to have someone the Wilpons trust so they don’t feel obligated to scrutinize every move that is made? Someone they know or at least has a history to give that person some wiggle room?

“Random Name X” from “Inept Reporter Y’s Ass” is not cutting it and it’s not going to happen.