Why was the 2019 MLB Trade Deadline so different from the past?

MiLB, MLB, MLB Trade Deadline

Cashman pic

The 2019 MLB Trade Deadline was radically different from how it was in the past.

There are several factors that factored in with this peculiar turn of events. Certain teams illustrated this more than others.

Yankees

General manager Brian Cashman is getting scorched for his failure to act. At his press conference, he made reasonable sense as to why he didn’t trade for a prominent starter or reliever. Still, “reasonable sense” is not what made the Yankees so alluring to fans around the world. They won a lot and that will certainly draw attention; but there was always action going on. Now, instead of getting the biggest available names who fit their blatant needs and surrendering the prospects necessary to do so, Cashman again cuddled his prospects, many of whom are quietly being described as overrated.

Ignoring whether this is a wise course of action or not, the fundamental reality is that the Yankees of the Steinbrenner offspring are not the same as the Yankees of the Steinbrenner patriarch. George Steinbrenner would not have wanted to hear about Deivi Garcia if he was all that was standing in the way of getting the caliber of starting pitcher that would have made his team the favorites to win the World Series. This, more than any baseball operations philosophy, is why the Yankees have become so passive to the point of appearing impotent.

Arguing that their injured list with Luis Severino and Dellin Betances rehabbing provides them with two “acquisitions” is theoretically sensible, but it’s also Met-like – one that rarely yields the result the team expects. By now, it is wise not to expect anything from either and the Yankees know that.

The current Steinbrenner ownership does not have the unquenchable thirst to win and dominate that George Steinbrenner did. It wants to win, sure. But it’s not fanatical and desperate. Their desire to win is folded in with advancing the brand. Instead of a World Series-or-bust attitude, they’re content to be contenders, have a chanceto win a championship while understanding the vagaries that go into that result, and do not overreact when it is unsuccessful.

The Boss might have understood all this in a rational sense (or he might not have), but his rage inevitably took over and he reacted by firing people, signing free agents, trading for stars and doing something. That is not to imply that capricious brutality is preferable to wise conservatism, but there needs to be nuance. There wasn’t and these Yankees did nothing.

Having cost control with a respectable farm system and flexibility is great, but it is not the Yankee way. It’s the way of the game itself in 2019 and the Yankees in their years of dominance never adhered to what everyone else was doing. They were trendsetters and everyone wanted to play for them. If other teams couldn’t keep up? Too bad.

While shunning Bryce Harper and Manny Machado made financial sense, it might have had a hidden cost in that players are no longer looking toward the Yankees as their ideal destination. If they’re going to treat it as a cruel business, so are we. In retrospect, the Yankees were right to avoid both on the field, but it could have had a radical aftereffect in the greater context.

Hal Steinbrenner has been conscious of payroll and Cashman was a willing cohort as both got what they wanted. Steinbrenner has the immediately recognizable and financially lucrative brand; Cashman gets to show the baseball bona fides that eluded him when he inherited the late 1990s dynasty and bought his way to maintaining contending status. He rebuilt the team and is now perceived in a category with Theo Epstein, Billy Beane, Andrew Friedman and Jeff Lunhow as an architect. Yet the last championship in 2009 came after a half-billion-dollar spending spree.

Every team ownership in New York has been hammered for its faults. The Yankees have largely been shielded from that. However, Steinbrenner expressed his willingness to go beyond the luxury tax and in trading prospects to get what the Yankees needed.

And they didn’t do it.

Was this Cashman? Did Steinbrenner leave it to the baseball people to decide on cost effectiveness? Or was there a wink and nod with Steinbrenner knowing Cashman would “do the right thing” while they made statements to quell rising fan apprehension?

Put it this way: George Steinbrenner would have told Cashman to get pitching and he didn’t care what it cost. Hal Steinbrenner didn’t.

Padres

General manager AJ Preller has been there for five years and they have achieved absolutely nothing concrete. It’s all about ephemeral prospect rankings and lusty gazes regarding his “outside the box” thinking, aggressiveness, lack of interest in making friends and, in some cases, indifference for adhering to moral and ethical standards.

The latest was acquiring another top prospect, Taylor Trammell in a three-team trade with the Indians and Reds.

Most prognosticators love Trammell and he adds to the Padres’ already strong farm system. But when does the transition from rebuild to trying to win take place? There’s a difference between being happy to win and trying to win. There’s no middle ground with Preller. It’s one end of the spectrum with a ridiculous buying spree like in 2014-2015 or the rebuild where he burned the organization to the ground not with a controlled demolition, but arson. There’s the signing of Eric Hosmer; there’s the trading of Brad Hand; there’s the signing of Manny Machado; there’s the trading of Franmil Reyes; there’s the pursuit of Noah Syndergaard.

Which is it? When does this reach its conclusion? Or is this the conclusion?

Maybe “What is he doing?” is the strategy. Always maintain a plausible deniability that he’s failing. This is year five of the rebuild and they’re 20 games behind the Dodgers in the NL West and in “if we have a hot streak” contention for the Wild Card.

The spin from Preller’s first offseason as Padres GM in which he gutted the system he inherited and traded for and signed name players and then pivoted to an ongoing full-blown rebuild happened within his first year on the job. While his system has received laudatory and even beatific praise since then, he is still doing the zigzag of willingness to trade anyone and everyone while simultaneously adding the likes of Hosmer and Machado on big money contracts.

There seems to be a total disregard for actual results, replaced by a reliance on prospect rankings that, one must remember, are completely exterior from baseball front offices!If that obnoxious, arrogant buffoon Keith Law ranks a prospect number 10 in baseball, that does not mean he’s judged the same way by those who are making the actual decisions. It’s a moneymaker. It’s clickbait. Just as there is no award for winning the winter championship, there’s no tangible award for having the best farm system as ranked by some guy.

There is a benefit, though. If and when Preller’s bosses say enough’s enough and ask when the team will start show success on the field, he can point to the praise and prospect rankings and promote it as progress when it is contextually meaningless. When does the plan come to fruition? Year seven? Year nine?

It’s beginning to take the tone of a flimflam man with a modicum of competence who has tricked a wide swath of people and inspired a Manson-like loyalty sans criticism for fear of inundation from his indoctrinated loyalists.

Astros

GM Jeff Luhnow spots vulnerability and compounds that with a willingness to act. Comparing owner Jim Crane to George Steinbrenner is unfair in terms of temperament and overreaction, but not in terms of the hunger to win.

The Astros had several irons in the fire to acquire starting pitching, but would not surrender what the Mets were asking for to get either Zack Wheeler or Syndergaard – namely Kyle Tucker. Then they spun around, gave up a big haul of prospects to the Diamondbacks to get Zack Greinke (not including Tucker or Forrest Whitley) and suddenly the Yankees were KO’d with a shot they did not see coming.

Contrary to the immediate overreaction, this does not mean the Astros are guaranteed a World Series win. In a short series, anything can and usually does happen. But Luhnow’s willingness to deal while still retaining his untouchable prospects is unique. Other teams – like the Padres with Preller – are not simply looking to improve, they’re looking to screw you while they do it. Luhnow will give up value for value. And if it doesn’t make sense, he doesn’t do it.

Once this window of contention begins to close, he won’t patch it with duct tape. He’ll clean house before anyone expects or advocates it and start all over again. That’s why the Astros are where they are.

Mets

Finally, the Mets were caught in the middle of “what are they doing?” with “why are they doing it?”

It’s unlikely that GM Brodie Van Wagenen thinks the Mets are legitimate contenders in 2019. But they’re not at the point where it makes sense to clean out the entire house either. Edwin Diaz and Syndergaard were bandied about in trade talks. Wheeler, a pending free agent, was all but guaranteed to go. Yet they stayed.

With Syndergaard, there was zero point in trading him unless the Mets got exactly what they wanted. For Wheeler, the cost-benefit hinged on comparing the acquisition of prospects to what they will get with the draft pick compensation after making the qualifying offer following this season, re-signing Wheeler or in the unlikely event he accepts the QO.

It’s important to remember that Van Wagenen manipulated the entire MLB Draft to get Matthew Allan – a consensus top-20 talent who fell because he was expected to attend college – at the approximate spot where they’ll get the compensatory pick if Wheeler rejects the QO.

With their recent hot streak that has gotten them within striking distance of a Wild Card and that they added Marcus Stroman to the rotation giving them a devastating starting five of Jacob deGrom, Syndergaard, Stroman, Wheeler and Steven Matz, and there was no urgency to trade anyone. This rotation is tantamount to the “big five” the Mets had long touted as their future with Matt Harvey replacing Stroman, but the Mets only cycled that group once and it was for sentimental “what might have been?” reasons as Harvey was immediately jettisoned after it happened.

As for adding to the bullpen, trading Diaz and adding a few names would have been shuffling the same cards. There’s no guarantee the relievers they acquired would handle New York any better than Diaz; would adjust to the set-up role as Jeurys Familia has not. Rather than change for its own sake, it was better to get Stroman, retain what they had and hope the mediocrity of the National League and improved performances from their own players worked for the rest of 2019 and they could retool for 2020.

***

Teams are no longer passively letting Trevor Bauer and Stroman get traded to obvious contenders, deferring to those whose need is more pronounced and holding their chips – and the good will with their peers – for when they need the help.

The new rule that prevents trades after July 31 had a greater impact than expected. Teams were aware they could not wait out the likes of Justin Verlander and other star players whose contracts likely precluded an August waiver claim meaning they would be eligible to be traded after the “deadline” that was not a hard deadline. Now, it is a hard deadline. Now, the decision as to whether a team was a legitimate contender, a nominal contender, a non-contender or “wait ‘til next year (or, in the case of the Padres, the next-next year; or the next-next-next year), or a team that has surrendered and is adhering to a “plan” is harder to make with any certainty.

There was still a flurry of activity, but much of it was surprising in that the usual suspects who are aggressive in filling holes – the Yankees, Dodgers, Cardinals and Red Sox – were quiet. Teams that are not close enough to first place to warrant a buying spree to go for it still made moves that were in part for 2019, but were largely done for 2020. “Sellers” were few and far between as most clubs have shunned the gutting rebuild and tanking, preferring to lean toward a moderate attempt at respectability and maybe even a lightning strike playoff run. Even teams that were willing to sell big pieces added similarly big pieces before deciding to stand pat. This is better for the game, not worse.

The Giants’ rebuild hits a snag: They’re winning

MLB, MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Waiver Trades

Bumgarner pic

When the Giants hired Farhan Zaidi away from the Dodgers to replace Brian Sabean as the head of baseball operations, they did not do it to maintain the status quo. The Giants were long one of the main holdouts for the old-school way of running an organization, eschewing a deep dive into statistics as the final determinative factor in procuring and retaining players. It certainly worked for them with three World Series titles in five years starting in 2010.

However, the Giants are an organization that knows which way the wind is blowing – perhaps a lingering aftereffect of Candlestick Park – and moved away from the Sabean/Bruce Bochy line of thought and into the same environment which has built and maintained the Bay Area cohabitants the Athletics as well as the Dodgers, which were the two organizations Zaidi worked for before heading to San Francisco.

While the Giants did not go the route of the full teardown as the Cubs and Astros did under Theo Epstein and Jeff Luhnow respectively (and successfully), Zaidi has not concealed his intentions. Over the winter, the most recognizable names the Giants acquired were Pat Venditte (the switch-pitcher), Drew Pomeranz and Gerardo Parra. These were not moves to radically improve a 90-loss team and they definitely were not designed to close the gap with the Dodgers. They were done for veteran competence and players who might yield a prospect or two at the deadline.

If this were the defending champion Giants or the “we’re going for it” Giants, these are reasonable, role players to add to a championship mix. For a club that finished 64-98 in 2017 and 73-89 in 2018, the latter with a payroll of $200 million, sticking to the admittedly successful blueprint from the past was cannibalizing and foolish. Had the Giants wanted that, they would not have gone so far in the opposite direction from Sabean’s methods to Zaidi’s.

There’s a fine line between trying to lose and not caring about losing. The Cubs and Astros, during their rebuilds, “tanked.” They were not “throwing” games, but the teams were so terrible that losing was a natural byproduct of the terribleness of those rosters. This relatively new phenomenon is not all that new. Upon informing Ralph Kiner that he had been traded to the Cubs, Pirates GM Branch Rickey famously told him that they finished last with him and could finish last without him. The idea gained prominence with the Devil Rays/Rays under current Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman by ostensibly saying, “We’re gonna lose anyway, so what’s the difference between losing 90 and 100?”

The Astros and Cubs took it to its logical conclusion and were positioned to do so with the new heads of baseball ops inheriting bloated contracts, dead farm systems, a history of failure and owners willing to hand the keys to them because there was no history to protect and nothing to lose.

The Giants had played poorly; the players who comprised the foundation for those championships were getting old and underperforming; and the template had run its course. Add in that the National League West housed Zaidi’s old team, the Dodgers, and they had exacted a dominance over the division that the Giants could not come near without radical changes to the structure. That radical change was, in short, copying the Dodgers.

In its actions, the Giants tacitly admitted they were moving on from the Bochy/Madison Bumgarner/Buster Posey/Brandon Belt/Brandon Crawford/Pablo Sandoval years – the last remaining residue of the championships.

Manager Bochy’s spring announcement that he planned to retire after the 2019 season put an exclamation point on the organization’s direction. The question as to whether Bochy is really retiring or is being granted the respect to leave on his own terms so Zaidi and his staff can hire a manager whose thinking corresponds with theirs will be answered if Bochy takes some time off and then leaks that he’s bored and will listen to offers to manage.

Posey, Belt and Crawford are under contract for the foreseeable future, but if they are not traded, they will be ancillary players who fit in with the scheme rather than the foundation around which the scheme is crafted. With no contract extension forthcoming for Bumgarner, they had essentially said he was going to be traded by the deadline. The only question was where.

Then, from the nadir of their season so far on June 29 when they were 12 games below .500, eight games from a Wild Card spot and ahead of only the Marlins in the overall National League standings, the Giants started winning. In the subsequent three weeks and after Thursday night’s/Friday morning’s 16-inning win over the Mets, the Giants were 13-2 and gained 5.5 games in the Wild Card standings.

This is where it gets complicated. Having this happen so close to the July 31 trade deadline in the season after August trades were eliminated by MLB, the Giants and every other team must decide on what they are and what they want to be. The second Wild Card has opened so many scenarios to make an argument to stand pat that the fans and media will not accept a club punting on a season when there is the remotest possibility of making a run. It takes an experienced and entrenched baseball operations boss plus a willing ownership to do that.

Some teams will take a wait-and-see approach to their midseason status before acting. The Mets fall into that category, but they are not in the same circumstance as the Giants in that they have enough young talent and starting pitching under contract that they can say they’re going to retool and try and win in 2020. Some will disagree with the philosophy and its ambiguity, preferring the resoluteness of “this is what we’re doing, like it or not.”

The Twins were faced with a comparable conundrum in 2017. Having abandoned their longtime method of running things with the “Twins Way,” they fired veteran GM Terry Ryan and manager Ron Gardenhire, mitigated background architect Tom Kelly and moved on with former Cleveland Indians director of baseball operations Derek Falvey as the Twins new chief baseball officer They had lost 103 games the previous year and were not expected to be anything more than, at most, a 90-loss team. Instead, they hovered around contention for the second Wild Card and a likely one-game dismissal by the Yankees or Red Sox if they made the playoffs.

Instead of having the freedom to do what they wanted with a 100-loss team, Falvey and GM Thad Levine were suddenly saddled with trying to make a playoff run when it was inconvenient to their plans; was a waste of time, energy and assets; and hindered rather than helped. So, they vacillated. They made trades to “improve” as the second Wild Card spot played down to them instead of vice versa. They acquired Jaime Garcia for show, and traded Garcia and Brandon Kintzler a week later as a concession…and then still won the second Wild Card that no one in the front office wanted. They got hammered by the Yankees in the playoff game and were then free to continue their rebuild. Still, loitering around contention might have prevented them from maximizing their best tradeable assets Brian Dozier and Ervin Santana and stagnated what they set out to accomplish. It didn’t hurt them significantly as they are currently in first place, but it didn’t help either.

It might be a bit much to say that Zaidi is displeased that the Giants are playing so well, but it does put a wrench in the machine he’s constructing. Certainly, his life would be much easier if they continued that late-June spiral and freed him to gut the place because, what was the difference?

Now, it makes a difference. Could ownership step in and say it’s worth the shot to get into the Wild Card game with Bumgarner pitching it and see what happens? Absolutely.

Would the fans accept trading a team legend when the club is suddenly in the mix to make the playoffs in a weak Wild Card scrum and vulnerable teams – even the Dodgers – leading the respective divisions? They wouldn’t be happy about it even if the Giants and Zaidi extract a ransom for Bumgarner, Will Smith and Crawford and salary relief for Jeff Samardzija.

Given Zaidi’s background, he will still trade Bumgarner at the deadline and ignore this quixotic leap into the playoff conversation. But the Giants’ hot streak has put that decision from the definite category to the maybe category. Retaining Bumgarner and even adding at the deadline is precisely what Sabean would have done, and that is not what Zaidi or the Giants intended when he took the job.

A note about the Mets bullpen and revisionist history

MLB

Erase the Past Words with Pencil

As catastrophic as the Mets bullpen has been, there is a significant amount of second-guessing, “look how smart I am/give me credit,” and agenda-laden statements masking itself as analysis that is secondary to objective assessment.

This is not a statistical gauging of the Mets’ relievers. It’s a look back at the moves the club made to bolster what they already had and what could reasonably have been expected in terms of performance.

In the offseason, the Mets acquired Jeurys Familia, Edwin Diaz, Justin Wilson and Luis Avilan.

Are these bad acquisitions? Could anyone have predicted that all would be disastrous? And what were the alternatives?

When attacking Brodie Van Wagenen and the Wilpons, there are legitimate criticisms to the hire. However, had Van Wagenen come marching in with a blueprint that so radically deviated from established norms and sought not just to reinvent the wheel, but reinvent one that would turn on Neptune, then it’s justifiable to go over the top in issuing blame. He did not do that.

He signed Familia for three years and $30 million. Had the Mets not done it, someone else would have. He is a historically good – even excellent, if not elite – reliever.

He signed Wilson who in his first six full seasons in the majors appeared in a minimum of 58 games and generally appeared in about 70. He was not solely a lefty specialist and was generally effective as a second-tier relief pitcher.

The Diaz trade was a risky gambit. In its favor, Diaz was dominant in 2018 and had the type of stuff that left hitters inert. To get him, they were forced to surrender two prospects including the sixth overall pick from 2018, Jarred Kelenic. The deal was expanded to include Robinson Cano who has looked every bit of his 36 years after a PED suspension and is combining his trademark lackadaisical act with indifference and defiance. The trade for Cano, however, was to clear the dead contacts of Jay Bruce and Anthony Swarzak. For those who lament the way Bruce and Swarzak have performed in 2019, if they had been this good in 2018, we’re not discussing any of this; it’s likely that Sandy Alderson would have kept his job.

It was a major roll of the dice that looks atrocious now, but cannot be accurately judged for at least five years when Kelenic’s fate will be determined and Diaz will either have gotten acclimated to New York and performed up to his capabilities or he will not.

Avilan was the identical type of signing that every team makes of a longtime MLB veteran who is seeking work and will sign a minor-league contract to earn a spot.

These arms were joining a bullpen that had Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo.

In a preseason assessment, is the following a bad bullpen: Diaz, Familia, Wilson, Lugo, Gsellman and Avilan plus whichever young arms the Mets needed to recall from the minors?

If you say yes, you’re a liar or suffering from confirmation bias.

When discussing potential options in lieu or in addition to the relievers the Mets acquired, big money names like Craig Kimbrel are frequently mentioned.

Signing Kimbrel is in the same ballpark – not identical, but in the same ballpark – of trading Kelenic and Justin Dunn for Diaz. Kimbrel wanted $100 million and he did not back off from that even as his market collapsed and he sat out, waiting. The Mets were not paying him $100 million and no one else was either based on the fundamental fact that he didn’t get it.

Add in the draft pick that would have been Competitive Balance B which was exactly where Van Wagenen and his staff used a clever sleight of hand to get Matthew Allan who Baseball America ranked 16th overall and scared off many teams because he had committed to the University of Florida.

So, pick one. Do you want to hammer the Mets for trading Kelenic and not signing Kimbrel as well, or do you want to hammer them for gutting the system and ignoring any semblance of future planning? You can have one or the other, but not both.

As for the other available “name” relievers? Who’s been good? One pitcher – Adam Ottavino – has been worth the money and he was going to the Yankees, period. Other teams didn’t even really bother pursuing him with any intensity because this reality was known throughout the industry.

Zack Britton? It’s unlikely he was signing with the Mets and they weren’t overpaying for him. His walks are a major worry.

Andrew Miller? His knee injury was a factor and he’s got a 4.15 ERA, a 5.22 FIP and has surrendered 6 home runs.

Joe Kelly? He’s been effective in June, but started horribly and cannot be trusted in a big spot.

Who did you want instead of what the Mets got? Who was better and was moved? Who was available?

Facts hurt, but they’re still facts. No one with any objectivity could have foreseen the bullpen being this rancid.

Some critics, like Buster Olney of ESPN, torched the hire of Van Wagenen from the start. Most others either took a wait and see attitude, lauded many of the moves Van Wagenen made, then sat quietly to see how they turned out before parachuting in with the “I knew it” template. Repeatedly screaming “rebuild” is not a strategy. Yet the moles are popping out of their holes with criticisms and no solutions. And that is not how anything is fixed. Acknowledging the truth is the first step. Then comes fixing it. The factions are incapable – or unwilling – to do that as they wallow in their own egomania and delusions of grandeur.

A lesson for the Mets on the manager from none other than Billy Beane

MLB

Manager definition

As the Mets are resistant to do the obvious and relieve manager Mickey Callaway of his duties, it is difficult to know the justification of retaining him.

His salary is minuscule compared to name managers.

General manager Brodie Van Wagenen is under siege himself for roster deficiencies and did not hire Callaway.

The pitching coach and bullpen coach have already been fired with the relievers pitching at least as badly as they did before, if not worse.

Jeff Wilpon is a target of ridicule for his perceived role in this burgeoning debacle.

And even if they do make a change, there’s no guarantee that they will make the obvious and right move in hiring Joe Girardi.

It’s a trendy shield for teams to assert that managers are largely irrelevant to the overall results of a team and most subscribe to it. This protects them from firing people, paying them not to work and avoids caving to public pressure to hire the decreasing number of “proven” managers who are going to demand a big salary and expect autonomy on the field.

With front offices becoming so immersed in every aspect of how a team is run from top to bottom, the line that general managers never crossed no longer exists. Owners regularly crossed that line with calls to the manager’s office with various orders, but they were the owners. Today’s GMs are younger, hungry for attention, convinced that they know better than the emotional and reactive field staff, and do not want anything to sabotage their algorithms of optimal moves.

The days of Whitey Herzog, Billy Martin, Tommy Lasorda, Earl Weaver, Davey Johnson, Dick Williams and Joe Torre – managers in the truest sense of the word with their own belief systems, preferred style of play and personalities – are gone. The preference is to have a disposable, replaceable and faceless automaton who will carry out the orders of the front office, be the public face of the franchise, not deviate from the plan and play the part of manager rather than be the manager. None of those mentioned would even get a managing job today, except in cases where the owner ordered the hiring over protestations of the front office. They would have problems relating to players who expect to be coddled and know they have the power and could not stand the dissection of every single decision they made with public criticisms from an exponential number of outlets who would never be forced to face them in person.

The altered landscape is aptly described at the end of Casino when Robert De Niro as Sam Rothstein laments how times changed with the corporations taking over Las Vegas:

In the old days, dealers knew your name, what you drank, what you played. Today, it’s checking into an airport. And if you order room service, you’re lucky if you get it by Thursday. Today, it’s all gone. You get a whale show up with four million in a suitcase, and some twenty-five-year-old school kid is gonna want his Social Security Number.

There’s a clear parallel between this perspective and how baseball teams are run.

Billy Beane is cast as the first GM who was publicly portrayed as running the team from the front office. It was Beane who wanted a manager to follow orders. It was Beane who allowed this desire to be out there for all to see. And it was Beane who repeatedly downplayed the importance of managers by discarding them to be replaced by “another guy.” It didn’t matter who.

When he elevated his close friend Bob Geren to the manager’s chair, the Athletics were embarking on another retooling. Geren was the epitome of mediocrity. A vanilla personality who maintained the same blank look on his face regardless of what was happening around him, he certainly fit the role of “some guy” standing at the corner of the dugout and epitomizing the factotum. The results on the field were just as bland as Geren. Never better than .500; never worse than 12 games below .500. They were blah. He was blah.

Eventually, with players complaining about Geren’s communication failures, the team floundering and – perhaps most importantly – Beane’s image reaching fluke status, Geren was dismissed.

Beane steadfastly refused “name” managers in his previous hires with Ken Macha and Geren. This time, however, he did bring in a known entity in Bob Melvin. This was a tacit admission that the model from which he had been working was not a good one. Still, he clung to the tenets when explaining why he dismissed Geren by ignoring player complaints as though they were irrelevant and blaming the media and the speculation infecting the franchise.

Beane’s actions and the aftermath of those actions do not match the rhetoric and that was clearly intentional. He clung to the narrative while deviating from it making it obvious that he knew the other way was not working and was not going to work with a team that did not have the spending power to put a self-sustaining product on the field.

Whereas Geren did not have the resume to protest Beane’s orders and was known to be one of his closest friends, with whom could the players confide if there were issues with the front office? Who had their backs?

Melvin had two previous jobs as manager. In the first, he inherited Lou Piniella’s Mariners as they were just beginning their downward slide. He won 93 games in his first season and the entire club came apart in his second, losing 99 games. He was fired. The next year, he came in second to Wally Backman for the job to manage the Diamondbacks. When Backman was found to have lied on his job application, he was fired and Melvin took over. After four full seasons including one division title and an NLDS win, he was fired 29 games in to the 2009 season as he resisted front office interference and GM Josh Byrnes famously said he wanted someone who provided “organizational advocacy.” Ironically, the person tabbed to replace Melvin and for whom any chance of success was detonated with those two words as he was viewed as a spy, was AJ Hinch – currently considered one of baseball’s best managers with the Astros.

There is no doubt that Hinch’s experience in Arizona is a reason he is now successful in Houston.

The A’s played better under Melvin after he replaced Geren. Then, the next year, they won the first of back-to-back division titles and made the playoffs in the third year as a Wild Card.

Was it the players? Was it the manager? Was it the front office realizing that maybe it was time to give the manager a bit more freedom and respect than they did before? Was it a combination?

Experience. History. Knowing when to push back against the front office. All are key parts of managing that will never change, especially if the team is not the Yankees or Dodgers and does not have the money and personnel to gloss over a nameless, faceless manager who does what he’s told. For most teams, the season hinges on 15 or 20 games where the manager makes the difference. If he’s losing games due to his ineptitude, then it’s time to make that move to hire a person who has a clue.

It benefits the players to have a manager they respect; one who has a salary large enough that he won’t be dumped just to hire the same guy with a different name and face; one who can speak to the media without sounding as if he’s a hostage reading from a script; and one who will make the decisions he feels are in the team’s best interests in the short and long-term rather than because he was ordered to by guys in suits and polos in the front office suite. Even if the players disagree with the manager, a track record gives a certain amount of leeway. “At least he knows what he’s doing” is as good a reason as any to hire a manager who has done it before.

To continually present the manager’s job as meaningless while maintaining the veneer of an all-powerful and all-knowing front office is cannibalistic and destructive.

So many front offices either don’t understand this or are too paranoid and egomaniacal to admit to any level of weakness. But the players know. It would help if front offices did too. Maybe the Mets will learn this before someone else hires Girardi and they take the first step toward fixing what ails them with the simple act of hiring a manager who knows what the hell he’s doing.

The Mets and ending their definition of mediocrity

MLB

Edwin Diaz

Earlier in the week, New York Mets manager Mickey Callaway elicited eye-rolls when he discussed the Mets’ struggle to reach .500 and get on a roll to get beyond the record that is the objective definition of mediocrity. After Tuesday’s doubleheader split with the injury-riddled crosstown Yankees and Thursday’s rain suspended tie against the equally mediocre St. Louis Cardinals, there are certain fundamental realities that the club and the fans must accept and act upon to maintain a glimmer of hope that this team can make the postseason.

Forget Jarred Kelenic

That means stop mentioning Jarred Kelenic.

Stop obsessively tracking the progress of Jarred Kelenic.

And come to the acceptance stage of the grieving process that the Mets no longer have Jarred Kelenic.

They have Edwin Diaz who, despite his struggles, is still a top-three closer in baseball when he’s performing up to his capabilities. He’s in a slump. His advanced statistics have been relatively consistent with his 2018 numbers with the Seattle Mariners. He’s given up more home runs, but that could be a byproduct of his home games being a park where it’s easier to hit home runs at Citi Field compared to what they were in then-Safeco Field, that the ball is clearly juiced, and hitters are going to the plate trying to hit home runs in every at-bat.

The mental aspect cannot be ignored. He knows who he was traded for and what the fans and large factions of the media said when the trade was made. He’s hearing the whispers and seeing the laments. Demoting him, trading him in a housecleaning, rebuilding – none of this is going to happen. Rather than repeat the same pattern that achieves nothing but validate an entrenched confirmation bias, live with what the Mets have and ignore what they traded away.

Dom Smith must play

Certainly, no one is expecting Smith to maintain his basic statistical split of .354/.442/.573. Nor can anyone believe that his advanced statistics of wRC+ of 174 is sustainable. His BAbip is an absurd .417. He’s only had 95 plate appearances, so he’s going to fall back to earth. The only question is whether the landing will be soft and he’ll settle into his minor league splits of .295/.360/.425 or it will be a crash landing of his previous non-production in the majors.

The Mets have openly said they’re not writing lineups based on contracts or veteran status. Smith has played left field adequately. Once Brandon Nimmo and Robinson Cano return, that should not impact whether Smith is in the semi-regular lineup. If that means putting into practice the recent suggestion of Jeff McNeil seeing some time in center field, so be it. If Cano and Nimmo are unhappy about it, it’s simple: When you play, hit. If you don’t hit, you don’t play. If that means Cano will sit if he’s not hitting, he’ll need to sit without complaint.

They must buy – within reason – at the trade deadline.

As mentioned earlier, the idea of a gutting and rebuild is a fantasy from those who have:

A) never run a business

B) are harboring dreams – as inexplicable as they are – that losing 100 games for three years automatically results in a dynasty

The Mets either need to be bold at the trade deadline and add or essentially stand pat and wait for the offseason to make radical changes (that will not include a gutting rebuild).

The Atlanta Braves have been playing excellently and were aggressive in signing Dallas Keuchel.

The Philadelphia Phillies are ravaged by injuries and, with a flurry of trades and roster shuffling, are repeating the same failed blueprint from 2018 when they made panicky maneuvers to fix a flat tire by buying a new car.

The entire National League is flawed. With the Mets’ moves in the winter designed to win right now, they can’t do an about face and sell the likes of Zack Wheeler and Todd Frazier to look toward 2020 and beyond unless they completely collapse and fall double-digits out of the division lead and Wild Card spots.

What is buying “within reason?”

It doesn’t mean gutting the farm system for a rental. It does mean looking for upgrades at positions of need with relievers Brad Hand of the Cleveland Indians, Will Smith of the San Francisco Giants and Cam Bedrosian of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. They cannot sit on the sidelines and expect different results from similar strategies used in the past of waiting out injured players and expecting them to be comparable to deadline acquisitions as they did with Wheeler in 2016, Yoenis Cespedes and Jed Lowrie.

The problem Mickey Callaway won’t have time to fix with the Mets

MLB

Van Wagenen Callaway

Even in baseball’s current landscape of data-centric strategies and tightly controlled implementation, there are fundamental job requirements making it difficult for just anyone to do it. While managerial experience and tactical knowhow is no longer deemed as make or break in hiring someone and other aspects – handling the media, steering the clubhouse, adhering to front office edicts – have taken precedence, there are unavoidable factors that make it necessary for certain clubs to have a manager who can blunt interference from the front office and ownership and make in the trenches decisions that might not come out of the new managerial manual.

As the New York Mets tread water in the National League East and hover around .500, it is abundantly clear that manager Mickey Callaway is not equipped to handle the job as it stands. Either the situation must change making it more tenable for this manager or the manager must be changed. There’s no in between.

Fortunate though they are that the division and nearly the entire National League is mired in mediocrity keeping them within striking distance of a playoff spot, at some point they need to win their own games and establish a level of consistency. That means not blowing games they should win. On this road trip through Los Angeles and Arizona alone, bullpen implosions have cost them two games they should easily have won. Contrary to popular sentiment, the Mets’ bullpen is not unusual in being inconsistent to the point of terribleness. However, the Mets do not have the wiggle room to lose these games and think it will eventually even out.

There are teams that can hire a manager with limited or no bona fides for the job and get away with it. With the crosstown Yankees’ stellar play, it’s difficult not to give credit to Aaron Boone, but he is still functioning as a conduit to the front office with general manager Brian Cashman and his staff calling the shots. Dave Roberts has done nothing but win since he became Los Angeles Dodgers manager, but he too benefits from abundant information and little left to his whims. Those clubs also have resources they’re willing to spend. These things cannot be said about the Mets. The Mets do not have the same margin for error that clubs like the Dodgers and Yankees do. They can survive knowing that the template covers for real-time managerial errors that the numbers crunchers didn’t have time to mitigate with a flowchart of “if this-then that” moves.

If Callaway seems overmatched, he’s only partially at fault for that. No, he did not have any managerial experience whatsoever when he took the job, but his history having played for Mike Scioscia and Buck Showalter and serving as Terry Francona’s pitching coach should have been sufficient for him to have absorbed enough managerial touch and feel that these snap decisions would not be as worrisome as they are. Worse, he says and does one thing and the players and front office will openly contradict him making him appear not to know what is happening in his own clubhouse. This was evident in Saturday night’s loss and Jacob deGrom’s hip concerns being the latest example.

Deciding on who catches based on “catcher win percentage”; denying that there will be a personal catcher system between deGrom and Tomas Nido, but if there is it will be a problem in the playoffs; saying Edwin Diaz would only pitch one inning and then backing off on it after viral critiques and questions – all appear to have come either from the front office or fear of what the front office will say if he exercises the autonomy the manager must have to maintain credibility.

But he has no autonomy, is losing credibility, and does not have the experience or the contract to resist.

Obviously, a chunk of that is because of front office dictates that seemingly stem from reaction to fan anger and media attacks, not because they have examined the problem and formulated a detailed and information-based solution for it even if it is neither popular nor understandable to the critics.

All too often, he is relegated to the organizational puppet whose job is not to manage the team, but to serve as its punching bag, making statements before and after the game that sound like flimsy excuses because he doesn’t know how to frame his words and is too nice to make generic “because I’m the manager” statements that are tantamount to telling the questioner to shut up and mind his or her business without saying it so combatively.

In the past decade, the Mets have not been an organization that entered the season with a relatively accurate interpretation of what they will be, barring injuries and unforeseen occurrences. They have had a series of ifs and maybes with the best and worst-case scenarios dictating the midseason strategy. If they deemed themselves close enough to warrant buying at midseason and trying to win, that’s what they did. If they were trapped in the middle, they stood pat. If they were hopelessly out of contention, they sold players who were pending free agents. There has not been a deep dive into a single blueprint that they would stick to no matter what. Whether that was due to fear or mitigation or both is irrelevant.

Having hired Brodie Van Wagenen as GM, they made clear they are trying to win now. Still, they have not gone all in with that attempt.

After the sweep by the Miami Marlins two weeks ago, Callaway’s job was clearly in jeopardy, but the Mets tried to go the “let’s be fair” route and understood that the team’s woes are not solely the fault of the manager. They gave him a reprieve, to quote Van Wagenen, “for the foreseeable future.”

Fairness is one thing, but acknowledging reality and the inevitable is another. Callaway is not the problem, but he’s clearly not the solution either.

The Mets have two choices: either change the way the team is run from the top and let Callaway handle the job or hire someone who can do the job in this environment. With the division still winnable and the team staggering, something must be done to save the season even if it means that the front office will need to defer to its new manager and pay him a salary commensurate with his experience.

Hiring Joe Girardi, Showalter, Scioscia or Dusty Baker does not mean the bullpen won’t keep blowing games. It does eliminate the randomness in the usage of the relievers; stops statements from being made and immediately backtracked on because outsiders don’t like it; and the manager will have the contract and the cachet to say why he did what he did and not sound as if he’s clumsily trying to talk his way out of a speeding ticket.

The two foundational mistakes that really sabotaged the Nationals

MLB

Nats fight

If the Washington Nationals had a history of banding together and overcoming adversity, then perhaps 2019 could be salvaged. Instead, it is another season – their eighth in a row – in which they have had arguably the most cumulative talent in baseball and are well on the way to underachievement and disappointment. Even in the years in which they fulfilled that talent in the regular season with a win total in the mid-to-high 90s, they flamed out in the playoffs, often in spectacular fashion and via self-immolation.

The failures have not been without reason. Certain deficiencies, strategic mistakes and individual underperformance are obvious. However, there is no excuse for a team with the Nationals’ talent to have had half of those eight seasons go beyond not meeting reasonably lofty expectations and devolving into dysfunction, self-interest, apathy and finally in 2019, disaster.

The question is why. Despite points and justifications that can explain away what happened not just in the four seasons in which they won the National League East and lost in the National League Division Series every time, nor in the seasons in which they faltered and inexplicably missed the playoffs entirely, there were inherent, foundational and systemic flaws that largely contributed to the machine malfunctioning; the puzzle pieces failing to click.

Let’s look at the two main issues. One cannot be fixed without a time machine; the other is unlikely to be repaired in time to win with this still-impressive core.

Me before we

No, it’s not a parody of a sickeningly sweet love story from Nicholas Sparks, nor is it an unearthed Ayn Rand treatise to be released posthumously.

The Stephen Strasburg shutdown is repeatedly referenced as a mistake, but few truly comprehend how that one decision to place an individual’s needs above the team needs fomented cracks in the foundation that eventually expanded to cause the current collapse.

A move designed to protect an asset and acquiesce to an agent’s demands, it also served as an omen. It signaled to the players that the individual’s needs would supersede the team’s needs. It also exemplified a caste system where one set of rules apply for the higher-end talent and the Scott Boras clients, and another set of rules were in place for the lower-level players whose needs were secondary in the team concept.

To some degree, all players are out for themselves. This is not an exercise in altruism. They’re not playing for free and they want to be taken care of contractually. However, there are times when the team must be considered in the context of why they’re playing and competing in the first place: to win.

Strasburg deserves a share of the blame for being so willing a participant in the ludicrous shutdown to “protect” his arm. Boras was doing what an agent does by shielding his client and maximizing his income potentiality. The real guilty party is the Nationals. They allowed it; they took part in it; they did not take steps to mitigate how it would impact the team by giving the pitcher extra days off when they were aware that they were likely to make the postseason.

Ignoring that it did not work in any way apart from getting Strasburg the contract he and Boras wanted, that moment served as a portent of the Nationals’ future whether they realized it then or accept it now.

How do you take a once-in-a-generation arm and sit him out at the most important time of the year that makes or breaks a player and can place him into the pantheon of sports history as it has with Madison Bumgarner under the arrogant pretense that they expected their young foundation to give them one opportunity after another to accomplish what every team sets out to do at the start of a season?

Even if it succeeded in its goal of protecting Strasburg from injury, it was still a mistake not because they lost, but because it sent a signal that it was okay for players to look out for personal interests in lieu of team interests.

Again, this is known, but not said. Once it’s said, there’s no forcing that genie back in the bottle and it has directly contributed to the Nationals’ current plight.

Managerial merry-go-round

The Nationals have been hypocritical and cheap with their managers. Adhering to the trend of a manager following orders and taking short money for the opportunity, they have alternated proven managers with neophytes; gotten “name” managers with a history of success and found front office conduits who do as they’re told or else.

The club’s ownership, the Lerner family, has a net worth of nearly $5 billion. They have never shied away from spending money on players. That said, they have been remarkably hardheaded and cheap with their managers.

Jim Riggleman quit when he wanted his contract option exercised after he oversaw the rebuild that allowed them to draft Strasburg and Bryce Harper first overall in consecutive years and had them in position to draft Anthony Rendon and accumulate the assets to trade for Gio Gonzalez and others.

Davey Johnson has a legitimate Hall of Fame case as a manager, but saw his influence mitigated, especially on the subject of Strasburg, and was then unceremoniously dumped when the 2013 team that was expected to piggyback on their 98-win 2012 campaign in which the shutdown took place by taking the “next step” did not do so. It was then they learned that maybe the “next step” doesn’t automatically come like they’re next in line for the throne.

Next came Matt Williams who was familiar to general manager Mike Rizzo from the time they spent together when Rizzo was the scouting director of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Williams was one of their veteran linchpins. As a manager, Williams was overmatched in every conceivable way and after a series of public and private player battles, the most notably being Jonathan Papelbon choking Harper in the dugout, he was dismissed.

Dusty Baker was hired out of desperation to have a veteran manager who could corral the clubhouse. With no other opportunities as a perceived “dinosaur,” Baker took less money than a manager with his resume would normally demand, won back-to-back division titles losing two tough Game 5s in the NLDS and, after negotiating with Rizzo and both expecting to get a new deal done, he was discarded in favor of Dave Martinez ostensibly because the Nationals did not want to pay Baker who had no intention of taking a low-level contract after he cleaned up the inherited mess and won 192 games in two years.

Martinez was a tough, old-school player and served as Joe Maddon’s right-hand man with the Tampa Bay Rays and Chicago Cubs. Like Williams, he certainly had an impressive resume, was willing to do the job cheaply for the chance, and would adhere to organizational edicts without complaint. In practice, his tenure has been poor and speculation has centered around whether he will be dismissed. He might be. But to imply that this situation is solely his fault is granting an undeserved pass to the front office, specifically Rizzo and the Lerners. He didn’t build that bullpen and expect Trevor Rosenthal to rebound at full strength from Tommy John surgery or for journeymen Matt Grace, Wander Suero, Dan Jennings and Joe Ross to vault over their extra guy status and be key factors. He didn’t sign Jeremy Hellickson and Anibal Sanchez expecting them to man the four and five spots in the starting rotation.

They can fire him if they want, but if they do an about-face and, out of the same desperation with which they hired Baker and they’re willing to pay Joe Girardi or even bring Baker back, could they do better than Martinez given the lack of personnel at the manager’s disposal? If they just hire another puppet (or to use the trendy baseball-synonym for puppet, someone who is “collaborative”), what’s the difference?

***

The Nationals are a team with a pockmarked history of selfishness, categorical cheapness, arrogance and basic stupidity. They’ve managed to turn a team that could have and should have been a modern dynasty along the lines of the San Francisco Giants of 2010 to 2014 and won several championships into a forgettable cast of what might have been. Worse, it could all have been avoided had they the fortitude to acknowledge those mistakes and commit to not making them again. Instead, they have stuck to the script with a familiar result. By now, it should be expected. Even to them.

The Nationals firing Lilliquist doesn’t fix their fundamental problem

MLB

Lilliquist pic

The Washington Nationals firing of pitching coach Derek Lilliquist will elicit analysis, qualifications and questions. Most will point to the Nationals’ other flaws and wonder why the pitching coach is the fall guy just before going into a detailed examination as to why the pitching coach should be the fall guy based on their own philosophical bent.

Regardless, there are several justifications to fire a pitching coach, most of which outsiders – including the media and people from other organizations – cannot possibly know if they are valid in this case. In the end, general manager Mike Rizzo has every right to make a change at any level in his organization. If, as he said when the announcement was made, there were flaws and preparation issues and he wanted to bring a new message to the pitchers, then fine.

However, it’s rarely that simple in any case and particularly complicated with the Nationals.

With the hiring of minor-league pitching coordinator Paul Menhart to replace Lilliquist, the easy answer is to have someone more in line with what the front office wants. It’s difficult to understand what the preparation issues were given that the entire pitching staff is comprised of veterans who have their own routines and know their jobs. Their starting pitching has generally been good. The bullpen hasn’t, but that points to decisions Lilliquist did not make. Mistakes and misuse of the pitching staff fall on manager Dave Martinez, and Martinez is going from inexperienced in 2018 to overmatched in 2019 with the same on-field mediocrity. Are they going to point to Trevor Rosenthal as a reason to fire Lilliquist? By that logic, Rizzo needs to go as well.

What’s often missed in today’s world where large factions of baseball observers and analysts function under the impression that an organization is tantamount to any company where there are executives, managers, supervisors and midlevel workers with duties clear and orders adhered to via clearly delineated lines is that it’s not like that in sports. The players pick and choose what they’ll listen to and if they tacitly decide to tune out a manager, a pitching coach or hitting coach, it’s not the players who will go.

To compound that reality, the Nationals are not a young team where the pitchers have little choice but to listen to the pitching coach and follow organizational edicts. What is Lilliquist, Menhart or anyone else past or present going to say to Max Scherzer if Scherzer doesn’t agree or doesn’t want to hear their recommendations? They’re all veterans. They do what they want.

If it’s a change for its own sake, that’s a reason to do it. To think that it will solve what ails the Nationals – and has ailed the Nationals for eight years – is farcical.

There is a new practice of hiring pure outsiders with new theories, deep analytics, recommendations specifically tailored to the individual rather than an overriding philosophy for all. It might be a trend or it might be the new template. Pitching coaches who pitched in the majors or at least in the minors could go the way of the former player advancing to GM. It doesn’t happen anymore. Whether the change is more about controlling the message than it is about what works and what doesn’t is irrelevant. This is how it is.

Often, a pitching coach’s role is to stand there looking contemplative, go to the mound and say some stuff to the struggling pitcher or to give him a breather, and to try to put organizational edicts into action. Like the puppet managers who proliferate baseball today, many old-school pitching coaches with a track record do not want to stay within those increasingly constraining lines.

Had Lilliquist been an aide-de-camp of Martinez, this could be viewed as a clear shot at the manager telling him that he’s next if the team doesn’t turn around in the next month, but the days of the manager-pitching coach being Siamese twins a la Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan are over. The front office hires the pitching coach and the manager has limited – if any – say about it. There’s a good chance that Martinez was informed after the decision was made and nothing he said or did would change it.

This is a continuing issue with the Nationals. Since 2012, they have had the most talent in baseball. They spend money like a big market club, make savvy acquisitions and develop young players. But they have yet to advance beyond the Division Series in the years they made the playoffs and have had several seasons in which they were preseason favorites and disappointed terribly as also-rans.

Harping on the Stephen Strasburg shutdown in 2012 might seem passé, but it is a flashpoint as to what has ailed this organization and robbed them of at least two championships they should have won led by Strasburg and Bryce Harper. With Harper gone and a young core led by Juan Soto, Victor Robles and Trea Turner, they should be preparing for the next run. Instead, they’re firing the pitching coach in a largely inconsequential maneuver to serve as a distraction for what truly ails them: a fissure in understanding the importance of the manager and a reluctance to pay that manager and give him at least some say in how the team is handled.

They’re fortunate in one respect: the entire National League East is a wrestling match of flaws and mediocrity. This has allowed them to remain relatively close to the top of the division despite their 13-17 start.

Even if they manage to float to the top in this battle of attrition and make the postseason, what reason is there to believe that 2019 will be any different from the other seasons in which they made the playoffs and were bounced in the first round? It does not necessarily need to be another 82-win season to be categorized as a(nother) failure.

Barring a fundamental change in how they treat their on-field staff, what’s the difference who the manager or pitching coach is? They’re not hiring Joe Girardi to manage the team because he’d want to be paid and would want some influence in running the team. Ownership doesn’t want the former and the baseball ops doesn’t want the latter. Firing the pitching coach is cosmetic and does nothing to repair what ails this team and has ailed them for nearly a decade.

Dallas Keuchel fits for the Mets…after the MLB Draft

MiLB, MLB

Keuchel

Let’s say the Mets do what the fans and media are pushing them to do and simultaneously designate Jason Vargas for assignment and sign Dallas Keuchel within the next five days. That would be around April 17.

Presumably, Keuchel has been throwing regularly and is in reasonable shape. Reasonable shape is not Major League Baseball game shape. So, he’d need to go to extended spring training and then make a few starts in Double and Triple-A. Being conservative but reasonable, say he’s ready by May 5 and joins the starting rotation on or around that date.

The MLB Draft is June 3. The Mets would get, at most, five starts from Keuchel prior to the draft. Is it worth the total cost? What are the Mets sacrificing and what are they getting?

Here’s the applicable rule regarding a free agent in Keuchel’s position from MLB.com:

A team that neither exceeded the luxury-tax threshold in the preceding season nor receives revenue sharing will lose its second-highest selection in the following year’s Draft, as well as $500,000 from its international bonus pool for the upcoming signing period. If it signs two such players, it will also forfeit its third-highest remaining pick and an additional $500,000.

The Keuchel contract is secondary and is not the issue. The issue is that the Mets would be surrendering a draft pick to sign him. They would also be giving up $500,000 in the increasingly valuable international spending money.

The same people who called the Mets shortsighted or outright stupid for trading 2018’s sixth overall pick Jarred Kelenic as the centerpiece of the deal to get Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz are screaming that the Mets “all-in for 2019” justification means they should continue that trend by sacrificing a relatively high pick and that international money to get someone who is a stylistically similar pitcher to the one he’s replacing.

It cannot be ignored that the pick they’re surrendering by such a move is in the same general vicinity of where they selected Pete Alonso – another subject about which the media and fans engaged in intense and mostly ignorant debate of how best to handle his service time and whether he should have been demoted for the first two weeks of the season to save a year of team control.

Alonso’s performance aside, the Mets and general manager Brodie Van Wagenen said it would be the best 25 players making the roster. In spring training, Alonso was one of the best 25 players. He made the roster. Everything else is noise. The damage that would have been done not just to Alonso, but to Van Wagenen as he tries to establish himself in his nascent new career as a GM, might have been worse than that extra year of team control that could end up being irrelevant.

There is a limited percentage of fans and media members who want to hear or accept these fundamental realities no matter how fact-based they are. Fewer will want to hear the next fundamental reality that Keuchel, despite being five years younger and far more decorated, is essentially the same type of pitcher as Vargas.

Not the same, but the same type.

He’s touch and feel; will not blow anyone away; needs a solid defense behind him; and if he’s not hitting his spots, he’ll get pummeled.

Sure, Keuchel’s velocity is a few miles superior to that of Vargas, but we’re not talking about 94 to 97. We’re talking 86 to 89 – numbers that make it imperative that both are hitting their spots and have sufficient differential between the fastball and changeup so both can be effective.

They’re not the same, but are similar enough to pause before immediately thinking the problem will be fixed by replacing one with the other.

The arguments for Keuchel are not based on Keuchel himself, per se and those aggressively pushing for him to be signed if not openly demanding it are using an argument that is not based on the same objective facts they purport to use via sabermetrics, but are that of a reactive sports talk caller, delusional blogger or Twitter lunatic.

After the draft, there will be greater competition for Keuchel’s services and he will likely end up elsewhere. But by then, the Mets’ situation and needs will be far clearer than they are now. Perhaps whomever takes Vargas’s spot in the rotation – Corey Oswalt, Hector Santiago, Robert Gsellman, Seth Lugo or by using “the opener” – will have a body of work to make an informed decision if one needs to be made at all and they’ll have their draft pick and international bonus money.

The real competition in the National League in general and the National League East particularly will be known. Teams might throw in the towel on the season and make arms available – arms who were not projected to be available on April 14, two weeks into the season.

The Mets can use Keuchel, but it’s not make or break for their season. The cost is not worth it. Not now, anyway.

Inside the Empire: The True Power Behind the New York Yankees – Book Review

Books, MLB

IMG_1287

It would be a stretch to compare Inside the Empire: The True Power Behind the New York Yankees to a piece by Leni Riefenstahl mirroring content usually produced and presented on the Yankees’ state-sanctioned propaganda ministry, the YES Network. Were that the case, it would have been penned by Jack Curry, had twice the ingratiating obnoxiousness and a quarter of the skill.

Still, within the first 20 pages, the direction of the narrative was clear as the authors – Bob Klapisch and Paul Solortaroff – dumped on, in order, Derek Jeter, Joe Girardi and Joe Torre. Ranging from a Yankees icon to a Hall of Fame manager to a key role player and World Series winning manager, they had fallen out of favor in the Bronx for a variety of sins and were cast out to the purgatory not limited to estrangement, but to open hostility.

This is no coincidence as it occurs simultaneously to avoiding foreshadowing (or foreplay) or any other writerly (or sex-based) techniques and going straight into the borderline pornographic worship of Brian Cashman. Reading between the thinly veiled lines, Cashman could also be referred to as “The Man Who Could Do No Wrong.”

Part of the book’s disappointment and failure is not the story itself, but of the expectations that preceded the news that it was being written in the first place. For those who read baseball tell-alls like Ball Four, The Bronx Zoo and others, a yearlong case study followed by an autopsy regardless of the outcome holds tremendous allure. Unfortunately, the writers retreat to the safety of the current trend of “baseball business” books, most of which pale in comparison to the initial and admittedly interesting while incredibly flawed and misunderstood Moneyball. Post-Moneyball, The Extra 2% was the next and last of the immersing stories that had yet to be told. After that came the love letters to the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Chicago Cubs and Theo Epstein, the Houston Astros and Jeff Luhnow, and a few others, all of which were agenda-based, misleading and largely dull.

It’s tiresome not just because the stories have basically been told, albeit in different forms with a different cast of characters, but because the stories are so repetitive and devoid of criticism. This goes beyond the caveated individual mistakes that turned into learning experiences with substantial blame doled out on others since the main characters certainly couldn’t have been at fault as that would have sabotaged the entire goal of the story: to create a hero even if there wasn’t one.

The book doesn’t enter the realm of The Yankee Years by Torre and Tom Verducci where Torre aired his gripes, executed his vendettas and cemented his self-created and media-promoted visage of a combination Vito Corleone and the Pope, but Cashman and Torre’s perception of what occurred during that time and, by extension, how that impacted his replacement Girardi, are key parts of Inside the Empire.

The baseball business book model might be what publishers are looking for and what editors steer the narrative towards, but for those who want an insider’s perspective, it simply no longer works. We want meat, not cotton candy.

Perhaps Klapisch was scarred by what was, on the surface, a legitimate attempt at a tell-all with The Worst Team Money Could Buy about the disastrous 1992 New York Mets. The book itself was also a disappointment for those who hoped for a day-by-day diary of spending spree, a cast of compelling characters and a promising season that quickly devolved into a nightmare, but it was far better than this patched together mess, a book that tries to appeal to the Yankee fan and retain access while taking care not to offend anyone who is still closely affiliated with the club.

As much as Klapisch says those Mets players labeling him as someone who can’t be trusted did not affect him one way or the other; that he was not intimidated when Bobby Bonilla physically threatened him, for someone like him, who is and has for a long time been under the impression that he was not just a journalist who covers the team, but a peer who sees himself as a player, this is a scar that could have been reopened had he been completely honest about the 2018 Yankees and not diluted the tale so as not to “betray” anyone in whose confidence he was taken.

And therein lies the problem. The authors traded access for the lavishing of praise upon the characters who remained in the Yankee family.

Aaron Judge? Awesome player and human who everyone loves.

Didi Gregorius? Emerging leader whose good humor and affability masks an intense competitor.

CC Sabathia? The Yankees’ version of Yoda.

Aaron Boone? Wonderful guy whose even keeled demeanor was a marked departure from Girardi’s twitchy tightness.

It goes on and on.

At its end, there is an open question of Cashman’s blueprint of power above all else, ignoring situational hitting and strikeouts, wondering whether he would eventually look at the Red Sox and Astros and admit that perhaps adaptation needed to extend beyond the restructuring of the organization and adherence to cold numbers, accepting that the analysts didn’t know everything and there was nuance to the tactics by using the strategic single rather than every swing being for the fences.

The one remaining Yankee who did get criticized was Giancarlo Stanton, but even that was limited to a hand-wringing, halfhearted musing of his positives and negatives.

Gary Sanchez – the player who deserves to be slaughtered for his inattention, lack of fundamentals and bottom line laziness – is largely spared from a deserved lashing.

Boone is protected from criticism for inexplicable reasons that one can only surmise of him being a nice guy who is so completely devoid of any responsibility apart from following orders and providing monotonous platitudes that the team could have won 100 games if they stationed a mannequin in a uniform at the corner of the dugout and used a series of wires for him to perform “managerial functions.”

It all reverts to Cashman and his vision; his goal; his intent when masterfully taking charge of the organization and nudging Hal Steinbrenner into the direction he wanted.

The excuses are mind-numbing and fall into precisely what the late Boss, George Steinbrenner, would not have tolerated not because he was an unhinged, raving lunatic (he was), but because he would have been right not to want to hear that Sanchez’s lackadaisical behavior was because he was injured; that Boone’s absence of fire was a positive; that Stanton repeatedly striking out was part of the $300 million package. Nor would he have quietly acquiesced to the other explanations as to what went wrong as a team that won 100 games was discarded like irrelevant debris by its most hated rivals.

Cashman tried to assuage the concerns of fans and media members who were slowly coming to grips with the reality that this was no longer the Yankees of The Boss by proclaiming the organization a “fully operational Death Star,” implying that the so-called Evil Empire had gotten its payroll under control, rebuilt the farm system sans the Boss’s constant interference and template of preferring to trade young players for proven veterans while spending on exorbitant free agents, and was again prepared to combine tactical decisions with price being no object to return the Yankees to baseball’s pantheon not with a sole championship to break their decade-long drought, but with a team that was set to be the next dynasty.

In truth, it was unabashed hyperbole. Without Darth Vader, there is no Death Star. And The Boss was the organizational Darth Vader and proud of it. Instead, the Yankees’ ultimate weapon is more something out of Mel Brooks with Cashman as Rick Moranis’s “Dark Helmet,” someone who looks unimposing in person, sounds unimposing in practice, and is a technocrat who seized power piecemeal with an admittedly admirable Machiavellian efficiency and has decided to use that power to be like every other supposedly forward-thinking organization in sports and hope for a chance at a championship rather than winning the championship itself. The constant statements about accountability are nonexistent under this regime because no one is getting fired if they fail; players are unafraid of checking their names on social medial for a missive from the deranged Boss; and a Little League credo of “just try as hard as you can” is deemed sufficient.

And that’s not the Yankees that George Steinbrenner built.

The book could have been an exposé of what would otherwise have been a failed season for the Yankees, but was instead a borderline celebration of what they have become with the architects credited for its own sake. Had they ignored the fallout of telling truths that would have angered the organization, the book could have been excellent. Instead, it’s another generic tale about the baseball business, the kind we’ve seen too much of already to be memorable.