Why Brodie Van Wagenen might succeed as Mets GM

MLB, Uncategorized

Mets

As the Mets move toward the finish line in their search to replace Sandy Alderson as GM, reports are stating that Brodie Van Wagenen, Doug Melvin, Kim Ng and Chaim Bloom are receiving second interviews. It has been a ponderous process for the Mets with rumors, innuendo and the familiar mocking the club must endure as a matter of course.

The inevitable questions about control, inherited staff, financial parameters and how much influence Jeff Wilpon will have will continue regardless of whom the Mets hire.

A total outsider like Van Wagenen might be viewed as a blatant attempt on the part of the Mets to reinvent the wheel, but it does make some sense and could succeed.

Let’s look at why.

Understanding both sides.

Any good lawyer will know how to make the other side’s argument. As a longtime player agent and co-head of CAA Sports’ baseball division, Wagenen has relationships with every major-league team and its executives. When trying to maximize the value of contracts and endorsements for his clients, he also needs to understand what the other side is thinking. It’s a short step over the velvet rope from being seller to the buyer.

This is not someone who will be parachuting in with theories, demands and expectations without having the faintest clue as to what really happens in the trenches.

He played baseball at a relatively high level.

Van Wagenen played baseball at Stanford University (as a teammate of Astros manager AJ Hinch). He wasn’t great, but he was serviceable. Playing at a Division I school in the Pac-10 – especially a school like Stanford that does not provide academic breaks to its athletes – is notable.

Many front office staffers are inhabiting a persona based on their environment. Chewing dip and carrying around an empty bottle in which to spit the juice does not make one a peer of professional athletes. If anything, it invites eye-rolling and ridicule from those same professional athletes. Similarly, uttering the lingo of athletes and trying to be one of them is transparent and deservedly ridiculed.

No, he did not make it to the major-leagues. He didn’t even play professionally. But as a former player, he will have a well-rounded idea of what it’s like to play and run a ballgame on the field, limiting the reactive know-it-all responses and insecurity that is inherent from those who cannot say the same and find themselves in an undeserved position as a front office boss, top-tier executive, or well-compensated analyst.

Delegation.

It is highly unlikely that Van Wagenen will be in the middle of every single deal big and small and interfere with the heads of the baseball departments.

The best executives are the ones who hire or retain smart people and allow them to do their jobs. If Omar Minaya, John Ricco, et, al. are part of the deal and will not be replaced, Van Wagenen can accept that and let them work without looking over their shoulder, sowing discord, and making passive aggressive maneuvers and statements to undermine them.

Managing the owner.

For an organization like the Mets, with Wilpon insisting that he will be involved, it takes people skills that a player agent must have to nudge him in the right direction without him knowing he’s being nudged. The idea of autonomy is secondary to this peacekeeping nuance.

Younger GMs are looking for autonomy and control in part because it grants them at least three years of on-field results being irrelevant. That’s three years of job security and blamelessness. They’re heavy on data and short on interpersonal skills. That is not an issue with Van Wagenen who understands the numbers, but also knows how to persuade.

The tactics.

There are repeated demands that the Mets tear the entire structure of the organization down to its exoskeleton and start over. Is that wise? With Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Michael Conforto, Brandon Nimmo and Amed Rosario among others, the team is not destitute at the big-league level. In the minors, the farm system is better than it was given credit for in preseason assessments.

Certainly, when there is a barren farm system, bloated contracts and declining players, it makes perfect sense to gut it and start over. The Mets are not in that position and hiring Van Wagenen is not only a signal that the Mets are serious about contending quickly, but that the Wilpons are ready to give him some money to spend to make that a reality instead of a bait-and-switch to sell season ticket plans with the same digging through the bargain bin, crafting an “if everything goes right” roster and hoping that it somehow works out.

Salesmanship.

What is an agent if not a salesman?

To take the job, he will need to divest himself of any agent-related interests in the players, but the relationships will remain in place because he got his players paid and because most players will be smart enough to realize that he might turn around and go back to being an agent after his tenure with the Mets concludes. Other organizations will know it too.

***

At first glance, the mentioning of player agents running an organization sounds quirky for its own sake. In the case of the Mets and Van Wagenen, it’s a radical departure from what the Mets and the Wilpons have done in the past and, in the grand scheme, it isn’t such a terrible idea.

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The Yankees will not fire Aaron Boone and here’s why

MLB, Uncategorized

Boone pic

Aaron Boone is not getting fired.

Prior to detailing the reasons why this is fact – not speculation – let’s start with a question:

If Boone were fired, whom do you want to replace him?

Before going off on a quick-fire response by saying Joe Girardi or asking for time to scour the web to see who’s available, know this: Boone got the job and will keep the job for precisely the same reasons many are calling for him to lose his job; and if, for whatever reason, the Yankees needed a new manager, they would hire someone exactly like Boone.

To understand why this is the case, it’s necessary to go back to what sparked the transition from what the manager was to what the manager is and how that impacts Boone’s job status and what general manager Brian Cashman wants.

Mitigation vs. Subjugation

When Cashman replaced Bob Watson as GM after the 1997 season, he inherited a manager, Joe Torre, who had been a borderline Hall of Fame player and had managed for two decades. Torre won a championship one year earlier and had the attitude and cachet to make his feelings known while ignoring the front office as to how the team should be run, sometimes insubordinately and profanely. George Steinbrenner was still alive and despite having mellowed ever-so-slightly from the raving mania that defined him through his second suspension in 1990, also needed to be dealt with.

In short, Cashman was in charge, but not in charge. His job was to placate, mitigate and manipulate, not subjugate as is the case today.

To say that Cashman walked into a trust fund worth billions is somewhat accurate. To gain access to that trust fund, however, he needed to subject himself to the irrational abuse of George Steinbrenner for twelve years and deal with the trustee – Torre – knowing that wresting power from the manager would take years, if it ever happened at all.

Torre had his job threatened multiple times and calls for a change grew louder and louder the longer the Yankees’ championship drought lasted. Both Cashman and Torre had grown tired of one another. Cashman for his limited influence with the manager and Torre with the lack of credit he felt he received for the Yankees’ return to glory under his command.

After another disappointing loss in the 2007 Division Series – their third in a row – and having blown a 3-0 Championship Series lead in 2004 against the hated Red Sox, Torre departed in an unhappy break that, in retrospect, was a divorce that both sides secretly wanted and did not openly express; they would have remained together had the lingering issues been worked out.

Throne of Games

The Yankees conducted a limited search for Torre’s replacement and it was the beginning of Cashman’s Machiavellian accumulation of power. Already, he was in the process of rendering impotent the Steinbrenner “Tampa faction” so nothing would interfere with, nor undo, his decisions, for better or worse. Now, he needed a manager. One year earlier, after Torre’s Yankees were stunningly eliminated by the Tigers in the ALDS, Torre’s dismissal was all-but assured and he was set to be replaced by a Steinbrenner favorite and longtime sparring partner Lou Piniella.

Had Piniella gotten the Yankees job, the roster would have been Piniella’s, not Cashman’s. The manager had no qualms about whispering to his close friends in the media – people with whom he’d had relationships for twenty-five years and for whom he was a frequent “unnamed” source for the inside scoop of the asylum known as the Bronx Zoo. The charming, handsome and quotable Piniella was the direct opposite from the nerdy, rodent-like, shifty and droning Cashman.

Whether he would have been an improvement over Torre was irrelevant. He was familiar; he was less imperious and more combustible than the taciturn Torre; and he’d basically write the media’s stories for them.

To be shunted to the side in such a way could have ended Cashman’s tenure as GM or rendered him as little more than a figurehead.

Of course, given the affinity Steinbrenner had for Piniella and Piniella’s magical touch with the media, this was the last thing Cashman wanted even if he felt a change was needed from Torre. From his viewpoint, replacing Torre with Piniella would have made things exponentially worse. Torre remained for one more year and Piniella was hired to manage the Cubs.

After Torre’s departure or firing (depending on whom you ask), the three main candidates to replace him were Tony Pena, Don Mattingly and Girardi.

Pena had managed the Royals, won Manager of the Year for coaxing an 83-79 season out of them in 2003 – their first season over .500 in a decade – and then resigned after 104 losses in 2004 and an 8-25 start in 2005. He’d become a loyal coach for Torre and did not appear to be particularly enthused about managing again.

Mattingly was a former Yankees star who was beloved throughout the organization, among the players, in the media and across the city – even Mets fans liked him.

Girardi had been a key, clutch player for Torre on the 1996, 1998 and 1999 championship teams; he was a leader; and he had the managerial experience that Mattingly lacked, also winning Manager of the Year in 2006 for the Marlins only to be fired by Jeffrey Loria, an owner whose capriciousness and reactivity harkened back to the worst days of Steinbrenner.

Girardi got the nod in part because he was younger than the set-in-his-ways Torre; because he had the experience that Mattingly did not; he was aware of the burgeoning use of advanced statistics and willing to implement them in ways Torre would not; and if it didn’t work out, Cashman could easily fire him – something he could not do with Mattingly or Piniella.

Girardi survived 2008 when the Yankees missed the playoffs for the first time since 1993 and had similar calls for his job as Boone does now and, after a half-a-billion-dollar spending spree on free agents Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, the Yankees won another championship in 2009 with largely the same core that had won for Torre.

The Yankees maintained their level of annual championship contender through 2012 and then, as Cashman finally fully consolidated his power with the death of George Steinbrenner and the full Michael Corleone-style elimination of the Tampa faction, set about a pseudo-rebuild.

To his credit, Girardi kept the team competitive throughout the process and amid the retirements and retirement tours of Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera; with the aging and declining Teixeira; with a patchwork of broken down and available veterans like Kevin Youkilis and Travis Hafner providing little-to-nothing; and trying to develop young players while keeping the team from falling to the depths of 90+ losses.

He coaxed a Wild Card berth with a team that was mediocre at best in 2015; he kept them above .500 for the duration. In 2017, the club made a wondrous jump that not even the front office saw coming and they came within one win of a pennant.

Then, with Girardi’s contract expired and the Yankees going full-bore into the analytics revolution, Girardi was discarded. Technically, he was not offered another contract; for all intents and purposes, he was fired.

The Self-Aware Puppet

To gain some perspective into the Yankees’ good fortune (they’d call it skill even if it isn’t) with their previous managers, the calm and cool Torre was the perfect antidote to the anal retentive and smothering Buck Showalter; Girardi checked off multiple boxes and the Yankees were beyond lucky that one candidate who might have gotten the job, Trey Hillman, took the Royals’ offer first and was a disaster on and off the field. Hillman couldn’t handle the media in Kansas City. Just imagine him in New York.

Unlike previous Yankees managerial searches, the legitimate candidates – Boone, Hensley Meulens, Rob Thomson, Carlos Beltran, Chris Woodward – to replace Girardi all had certain aspects in common: they were younger; they had no managerial experience; they would follow orders; and they would take short money for the opportunity.

Even the one veteran former manager they interviewed, Eric Wedge, had worked in an Indians organization that was run from the top-down. He was not a serious candidate for the job anyway.

All this fits into the new template for a big-league manager, one the Yankees willingly dove into.

Boone pulling Luis Severino too late; starting J.A. Happ in Game 1 of the ALDS; playing Neil Walker instead of Miguel Andujar; putting Brett Gardner in left field instead of Andrew McCutchen; using Lance Lynn instead of one of the big-name relievers David Robertson, Dellin Betances or Zach Britton; letting Gary Sanchez repeatedly get away with overt laziness and rancid defense – none of that matters.

The key question to ask about Boone is not whether he did a “good” job or not.

The key question to ask is if he did the job he was hired to do and the answer is an unequivocal yes.

And that’s what Cashman wanted.

Whereas the front office was forced to deal with managers who had the contract status and the resumes to take or leave front office entreaties, as the power and sway of the manager diminished and the men hired to do the job were disposable and pliable, those entreaties slowly morphed into edicts. No longer does a front office ask a manager to do certain things and hope he does it. They tell him what to do and masquerade it as collaboration. There’s no “buy-in” necessary for the manager because if he doesn’t buy in, he doesn’t get or keep the job.

Boone was hired to consult with the front office and adhere to the pregame blueprint as it was laid out without deviating from that. The decisions Boone made – good or bad – were made before the game started. Having never managed before, he has no feel for the rapid-fire strategies that are viewed as sowing the seeds for the Yankees’ ALDS downfall and loss to the Red Sox because he is not paid to have a feel.

When Cashman does eulogize the season, he’ll utter the familiar platitudes as to the job his hand-picked and remote controlled manager did.

Media critiques and fan anger will not change a thing. Cashman will not have an epiphany and see the “error” of his ways, turning around and hiring a manager who is the exact opposite of Boone just because their plan did not yield the ultimately desired result of a championship.

The reasons Boone was hired have not changed, therefore the manager will not change either.

Don’t expect the Cubs to fire Joe Maddon or for him to walk away

MLB, Uncategorized

Maddon pic

As rough a time as Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon is having with his clumsy response to questions about the domestic violence allegations against Addison Russell, team president Theo Epstein cryptically blaming him for closer Brandon Morrow being lost for the season, and the general perception that after four years and undeniable success his message has grown stale, barring an implosion, Maddon will be managing the Cubs in 2019.

Certainly, the golden reputation Maddon brought with him when he took the job after the 2014 season has lost its shine. The constant stream of canned quirkiness and ever-expanding ego wore thin in Tampa Bay to the point that once the anger of his sudden and unforeseen departure dissipated, there was a sense of relief that he was gone.

The media ate up Maddon’s hiring as part of the Cubs’ crafted narrative of going all in to break their championship curse, but once they had won their World Series, it became easier to dissect the manager with an objectivity that yielded answers to questions that had been glossed over to the degree that they weren’t even asked.

This is beyond the product Maddon sells – Joe Maddon – and into the realm of diminishing returns. As the layers are stripped away, the skeletonized remains show a good, but not great manager who is not well liked within baseball circles due to his penchant for self-promotion and “I’m better than you” condescension. As time passes, that will unavoidably permeate the team he works for.

With these factors, it would come as no surprise if Epstein is getting an itchy trigger finger with his manager. Every manager or coach, no matter the level of success, eventually wears out his welcome. Maddon’s personality only serves to expedite that process. Except it won’t be after this season.

Blameworthy or not, Epstein has never been shy about making proactive changes to his operation. Hitting coaches, pitching coaches – their names have been interchangeable under the Epstein regime. Even the managers that preceded Maddon were disposable and tossed overboard for reasons valid and not.

Maddon is not wholly at fault for much of what has ailed the Cubs in 2018. He didn’t sign Tyler Chatwood and Yu Darvish. He didn’t decide the oft-injured Morrow should be the team’s closer. That the Cubs have overcome those players’ issues as well as injuries that have hindered star third baseman Kris Bryant and made the playoffs for the fourth straight season is due, in part, to the manager.

Leveraging the cohesiveness with the Rays into the reputation as the “best” manager in baseball and exercising an opt-out with a rumored backdoor deal with the Cubs in place gave Maddon the salary, the recognition and the big market he had long sought. That it became a Faustian bargain is somewhat ironic when the Cubs very nearly lost that long elusive World Series because of his strategic gaffes. In the intervening years, his reputation and image have declined precipitously.

Still, his job is secure for two reasons: one, his salary; two, 2019 is increasingly looking to be the last go-round for Cubs’ current construction.

At a reported salary of $6 million for 2019, the Cubs will not simply swallow that money just because factions inside and outside the organization have grown tired of his shtick. That’s a lot of money for Maddon to go sit in a broadcast booth and spout his pretentious nonsense. Even a mutual agreement to part ways and a buyout with all the money being paid over several years can lessen the impact to a degree, but it’s still $6 million. Then there’s the matter of paying Joe Girardi or Mike Scioscia similar money or rolling the dice on a cheap unknown.

To win the 2016 World Series, Epstein overpaid for Aroldis Chapman by sending rising star Gleyber Torres to the New York Yankees. In subsequent seasons, to try and maintain a championship caliber club, other top prospects like Eloy Jimenez were also traded away. As a result, the farm system is depleted, their star position players are growing more expensive, and their pitching staff is aging. That impressive core of position players is still in its 20s and a retooling is more probable than a rebuild. But will they still want to pay Maddon after 2019 when his message is tiresome and his great personality for what they were trying to build has become a grating personality for what they’re going to need to rebuild? He’s not taking a pay cut and he’ll be 65. The sense of this cycle running its course is palpable.

What more is there to accomplish? He’s got his recognition; he’s got his money; and it’s preferable to jump before being pushed. This combination of factors will save Maddon when, if the circumstances were different, he could and should be shown the door, thanked for his service with an audible sigh of relief by the rest of the organization when he’s gone.

If the Mets want Omar Minaya, they should just hire Omar Minaya

MLB, Uncategorized

minaya

For weeks now, the New York Mets have been dropping hints that Omar Minaya is their preferred choice to return to his former role as general manager on a permanent basis. Minaya, who was rehired in spring training as an assistant to GM Sandy Alderson as a troubleshooter to blunt relentless and fair criticism of the club’s minor league system, is a current member of the triad of baseball decision makers along with John Ricco and J.P. Ricciardi. The three have been running things since Alderson’s leave of absence to address his recurrence of cancer. Alderson’s exit has been labeled a firing without a firing. Alderson himself all but said if he were making the hiring and firing decision on the job he’s done in the past two years, he’d have fired himself.

Recognizable names like Ben Cherington, Dan Duquette and Kim Ng among others have been mentioned to replace Alderson, but the looming presence of Minaya is a constant. Already, various incarnations of the same story have surfaced with Minaya either spearheading the entire search or as an inherited, non-negotiable part of any new front office structure.

Whether the Mets truly intend to conduct an exhaustive search or not is known only to them. With the strategic leaks emanating from the club saying Fred Wilpon wants someone more old-school and that Minaya is a candidate to pull a Dick Cheney, be put forth as the person overseeing the vetting process before jumping into the fray himself with a, “hey, how about me?” move, he could very well get the job.

Perhaps it’s calculated and the Wilpons have already made clear to Minaya that once the smoke clears and they can effectively sell it to a perpetually angry fan base and dubious, hypocritical media, he’s the guy.

There is reason to be hesitant to again entrust Minaya with the fate of the organization. However it’s a mistake to base that hesitancy on faux baseball “experts” who are granted a forum and have an inexplicable following as they respond to the mere suggestion of Minaya with such florid and baseless made-for-social-media responses such as “facepalm” or “eyeroll” without formulating a well-organized and cogent critique and what credentials the Mets should be looking for in their new GM instead of those Minaya brings to the table.

Reading Moneyball/Astroball/Whateverball does not make one an expert; nor does having a basic grasp of sabermetrics or the ability to regurgitate stats and scouting terminology while posing as a peer of experienced baseball people. Of course, a critique of Minaya’s time as Mets GM can be done. There were positives and negatives to the regime, but that can be said about any executive in any business.

During Minaya’s first tenure, the club relied on antiquated strategies even for the time-period as the sports information boom had yet to explode and permeate the game as it has today. Advanced statistics were scoffed at and ignored. While the aggressive spending on Pedro Martinez, Carlos Beltran and Billy Wagner worked in the immediate aftermath, the patchwork to fill holes and salvage the remnants of their near misses from 2006 to 2008 resulted in a series of sunk costs and declining, injured veterans. The farm system was decried at the time, but in later years, it was found to be far stronger than that the prospect rankings suggested. Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Jeurys Familia, Lucas Duda, Steven Matz among others were already present.

As innovative and advanced as statistical analysis has become, every team has a department dedicated to using the new metrics to assess players. They’re mostly working from the same playbook with subtle differences in how diligently they rely on the numbers. With much of the playing field leveled by these advancements, something of a necessary reversion is taking place with a greater reliance on the unquantifiable and eyeball assessment – something Minaya is good at.

When he’s doing crisis control, such as clumsily firing Willie Randolph, when Tony Bernazard was accused of abusive and arrogant behaviors, or dealing with incidents like Francisco Rodriguez beating his pseudo father-in-law in the clubhouse family room, he’s repetitive and clueless.

There’s no debating that Minaya has a checkered past as Mets GM and is certainly not the type of person who fits in the mold of this era’s preferred top baseball executive. If they’re going to do this, the key to its success is to examine and understand Minaya’s strengths and weaknesses and remove the weaknesses from the equation.

When flashing his glittering smile in a finely tailored and stylish suit while introducing his glossy new free agent signing or trade acquisition, Minaya is great – one of the most charismatic baseball executives around. His ability to persuade players to believe in what he’s doing and sign with the Mets when the club’s history and inherent issues – namely the Wilpons – would normally give pause to any player and agent with options is notable and impressive. Even when he doesn’t get what he wants at first, he revisits the idea and makes it happen where the player has no choice as he did with trading for Carlos Delgado one year after he spurned the Mets’ free agent pursuit to sign with the Florida Marlins.

Letting him head baseball operations and leaving Ricco to do the hatchet work and organizational spokesman stuff when the inevitable problems crop up can work.  Certainly, Minaya is not the guy to hire if an organization is looking for the creation of a new algorithm. That this is even up for consideration and knowing how Minaya operates as a Euro-fútbol manager who buys international stars implies that the Wilpons were not lying when they said their finances are stabilized and they’re ready to start pouring money into the team again. Why else would it be floated that they’re considering a move of Amed Rosario to center field unless they’re ready to unleash Minaya to do what he does best and go on a big game hunt for Manny Machado to take over at shortstop?

The easy answer for the Wilpons is to follow the current trends and hire a 30-something numbers guy with an impressive degree from a high-end school and let him or her move the Mets into the present and future with a technocratic tilt. Besides the reality that doing that doesn’t guarantee success on the field, more damage can be done when hiring a top executive due to outside pressure than by hiring someone who has known flaws but is trusted and familiar to ownership. Already any outsider is handcuffed by inheriting Minaya and Ricco while simultaneously needing to mitigate Jeff Wilpon. That hire might be told when getting the job that there will be reasonable autonomy, but that will last until the new baseball “boss” walks into Wilpon’s office with a trade proposal that will yield five prospects for deGrom and receives a bemused hiccuppy laugh followed by, “We’re not trading deGrom.”

Then what?

Minaya knows the deal and he loves the Mets. The Wilpons trust him. He’s well-liked throughout baseball. If he’s allowed to stay in his lane, he could legitimately achieve what the club has been pushing since mid-summer amid mocking and ridicule and return the Mets to contention by 2019.

Rather than adhering to what will get them better media coverage and nods of approval from those whose opinions are irrelevant, they should do what they’re comfortable with. If that means rehiring Minaya, so be it.

What do the Yankees do with Gary Sanchez?

MLB, Uncategorized

Sanchez passed ball

The New York Yankees have run out of alibis for Gary Sanchez. The “Joe Girardi was too hard/soft on him,” “he’s a work in progress,” “he’s young,” “he’s got plenty of room for improvement,” “he’s injured” storylines have run dry like The Fast and the Furious films only with Sanchez, it’s “The Slow and the Lazy.”

How should they deal with him?

If Sanchez played any other position, it’s likely he would have been traded already. But he doesn’t. He’s a catcher. Even in this era of the launch angle, hitting the ball in the air and everyone trying to hit home runs, finding a catcher who will hit 30-plus home runs is nearly impossible. The market is not exactly saturated with top-tier backstops with Sanchez’s talent, lackadaisical and indifferent or not. He has a cannon for an arm and has, in the past, been successful throwing out base stealers. This somewhat troublesome combination tightens the vise the organization is in.

The simple solution is to move him to another position. While there have been numerous catchers who have successfully transitioned from behind the plate to third base or the outfield (Joe Torre, Todd Zeile, Josh Donaldson and Brian Downing to name a few), Sanchez has two positions where his expectations would be reasonable and he could concentrate on hitting: first base and designated hitter.

Given Greg Bird’s struggles and the likelihood that Luke Voit’s sudden success stems more from a lack of familiarity on the part of the pitchers than a miraculous career jump when he’ll be 28 early next year, the position could be available in 2019 if they choose to make it available.

What this boils down to, however, is the Yankees placating and essentially rewarding Sanchez when he has not earned such accommodations with his work ethic, attitude and performance. Already, they have given him a pass other players would not have been accorded because of his talent and, more importantly, the position he plays occupies.

His offensive numbers have been horrendous in 2018, but for that, he does deserve something of a pass. Or at least those numbers must be placed in the proper context.

An OPS of .694 and an OPS+ of 83 is embarrassingly bad, but he does have 15 home runs in 300 plate appearances. His on-base percentage is still slightly shy of .100 points above his batting average. He has hit in absurdly poor luck with a .191 BAbip; his line drive percentage is down significantly and that is worrisome, but if he does deserve something of a do-over, it’s at the plate.

That does not address his deficiencies nor justify his behavior behind the plate.

For a functional catcher, blocking balls in the dirt and getting on the same page with the pitchers is non-negotiable. Making matters worse is that the problem with passed balls can be fixed relatively easily if he simply does what a catcher is supposed to do, what a catcher is trained to do by dropping to his knees and corralling balls in the dirt so they don’t roll between his legs, ricochet of his glove or shin guards and bounce away. Then he compounds those terrible fundamentals with a total lack of hustle.

After the debacle in Tampa Bay where he repeatedly slogged in a “fat guy trying to lose weight by jogging” way after the seemingly endless number of balls that ended up behind him or bounced away to the left or right and then ended the game by not running out a ground ball, he was put on the disabled list with a groin injury.

Let’s suspend suspicion of the injury that kept him out more than a month was part legitimate and part time-out to sit in the corner and think about what he did. Let’s say he was 100 percent injured. What about the series in Oakland against the Athletics when he again did his slow trot after passed balls without the injury excuse? What does it take to get it through his head that he needs to put in the effort to do the basics of his job as a defender and sheer talent won’t get him by.

Except the Yankees keep granting him that pass. The question is how long they will continue to do so.

An idea was floated earlier in the summer that the Yankees could put a package together to trade Sanchez to the Miami Marlins as part of a deal for their star catcher J.T. Realmuto and solve the litany of problems they’re having at the position. Before getting into the rehash of the allegations of Yankee-centric attachment and criticism Marlins CEO Derek Jeter faced after essentially giving the Yankees Giancarlo Stanton (an unfair accusation as Stanton forced his way to the Yankees, leaving Jeter with no choice), it would look far worse for a commodity like Realmuto to be traded to the Yankees in exchange for Sanchez when Sanchez’s value has never been lower and could still get worse. Add in the reality that Sanchez plays for the Yankees and doesn’t hustle. Imagine him playing in Miami and losing 95 games a year. They’d be lucky if he even showed up at the park for the start of games.

If he was plain bad defensively, it wasn’t for lack of effort and he was producing offensively, the team would be within reason to shrug it off and hope that with hard work, he’d improve sufficiently to be passable enough that he was not a blatant defensive liability.

It’s not only that he’s bad. He’s bad and lazy. He plays a position where the tolerance for missteps is far higher than it is for just about any other position. Their farm system is largely devoid of another top-level catching prospect to replace him and getting rid of him right after the season would be addition by subtraction in the short-term, but counterproductive in the long-term.

For now, the only answer is that he must sit and occasionally function as the DH with Austin Romine catching every day. Then the real decision on how to handle him can be made, whatever decision that is – if there is one at all.

For the Cardinals, was it firing Matheny, changing the roster, or both?

MLB, Uncategorized

Shildt

At first glance, the St. Louis Cardinals’ season turned around on July 14 when they fired manager Mike Matheny and replaced him with bench coach Mike Shildt. It’s an easy story to tell. Given the focus on the manager, especially a polarizing one like Matheny, the simple act of making a change can be labeled as the flashpoint. Firing the manager won’t make a bad team good, but it can make an underachieving team achieve. There’s certainly no defending Matheny, whose fate was sealed not just by the team’s lackluster play, but by the bursting into the open of clubhouse fissures and a veteran-rookie caste system that he not only failed to corral, but tacitly encouraged.

It never looks good for the former manager when, after his dismissal, the team behaves as if it was released from a Soviet gulag. This will undoubtedly affect Matheny if he tries to get another managing job. With his current perception throughout baseball, his best route is to be a bench coach or front office assistant and just be present if the club’s current manager is fired and he’s the guy standing there to take over on an interim basis.

That aside, the Cardinals’ jump to the second-best record in the National League goes beyond a managerial change. Often, such a change is cosmetic and/or a capitulation – and with the Cardinals, assessing their subsequent moves after pulling the trapdoor on Matheny, it might have been a bit of both.

As watered down as it is, there must have been a certain amount of “maybe this’ll light a spark” thought process in the Cardinals front office. Clearing some unproductive and problematic players truly ignited it. This is not to downplay the searing hot streak that has pushed Matt Carpenter to the top of Most Valuable Player contention, but that alone would not have carried the club to where it is now.

After firing Matheny and installing the steady Shildt, the following also happened to benefit them:

Fowler and the organization have been at odds all season. The hatred between player and manager was palpable. As much as teams say salary and contract have no bearing on lineup decisions, a .576 OPS and an embarrassing 58 OPS+ are sufficient to bench any player. When adding the implications of Fowler’s lackadaisical play, he should not have been playing. What reason other than salary can be used to justify Fowler’s continued presence in the lineup before he got hurt?

An unproductive player whose presence in the lineup is based on nothing more than salary and status sends a ripple through the clubhouse that a merit-based strategy comes in second to other factors. A steadier lineup configuration with Carpenter moving to first base, Jed Gyorko installed at third, and Jose Martinez moving shifted to right field not only removed the stigma of ancillary factors holding sway, it made the team better simply by Fowler’s absence.

Pham was largely justified in his anger at the organization. The chip on his shoulder was legitimate. The club keeping him in the minors far longer than it should have and failing to give him a chance until it had no other choice has cost him several years of his prime and a significant amount of money. That lingering rage, though, is something that can permeate a clubhouse and stoke tensions even if it is kept at a low simmer. It’s a sigh of relief when the multiple tensions of managerial missteps and failure to lead; a player who was getting by on minimal effort and shielded by a contract; and a player who was perpetually pissed off are all out of the picture.

With Pham gone, Harrison Bader was installed in center field. He’s a better defender than Pham and it also let them make the previously listed lineup maneuvers sans Fowler.

  • The pitching was reconfigured.

Greg Holland was a disastrous late-spring training signing. He walked as many batters as he struck out and never seemed to overcome the missed time in the spring. That he has pitched well since joining the Washington Nationals makes it appear that his problems were, partially, atmospheric.

They acquired Chasen Shreve from the New York Yankees for Luke Voit and Shreve has been excellent since arriving in St. Louis.

John Gant and Austin Gomber have filled in nicely in the starting rotation.

***

Dumping the manager is an easy sacrifice, especially when the team is underachieving and the manager is generally perceived to have the job because of looking the part rather than tactical acumen. What appears more likely is that the attitude change and using different players was as, if not more, important than the act of firing Matheny even if firing Matheny is the easy story to write about the Cardinals’ turnaround.

On David Wright, Peter Alonso and the Mets

MiLB, MLB, Uncategorized

Wright pic

It’s clear by now that the Mets are treating David Wright’s rehab with the passing glance of practical indifference. The comments of one-third acting GM John Ricco hammered home this point.

 

In other words, the Mets are saying “if he wants to try, go nuts” while not granting him any accommodation because he’s a franchise icon and the captain of the team. By assessing him as they would any other player, the Mets can make the decision of whether to activate him based on baseball-only considerations.

“Baseball-only” also encompasses the insurance they are collecting while he’s injured. It’s 75 percent of his contract. It’s not a few bucks. It’s a lot. To imply that the organization should not calculate the value of Wright playing a game or two as a sentimental sideshow in a lost season is nothing more than searching for ways to rip the organization when they are not only within their rights to think about money, but would be stupid not to think about money in this context.

Were they contending and Wright had the capacity to provide an emotional boost and serve as a useful bat off the bench down the stretch, then there’s a minimal argument for activating him. With the team playing out the string and Wright’s litany of injuries capable of putting him back on the shelf – perhaps permanently – at any moment, what’s the point?

This is a prime example of the Mets being criticized regardless of what they do. If they activated him, it would be to sell tickets. Since they’re not activating him, it’s because they’re cheap and don’t want to forfeit the insurance they’re collecting on his contract.

If this is how they’re treated, they might as well do what’s in the organization’s best interests and that means refusing to kowtow any longer to this fantasy of a Wright return not just in some semblance of his old form, but for him to return to the major leagues at all.

Peter Alonso

On a busy Tuesday for an also-ran, the Mets also said they were not recalling prospect Peter Alonso for a September looksee. Their stated reasons – no spot in the lineup, poor defense – is clashing with the rea$on others are citing in that they do not want to put him on the 40-man roster and perhaps save money in the long run by keeping him in the minors and off the 40-man, thereby delaying his chance at arbitration.

When other teams do this, they’re being smart by manipulating the rules to their advantage. When the Mets do it, they’re being petty and cheap.

Again, as with Wright, there’s no way for the club to win when the argument takes this turn. And again, with that in mind, they should and are looking out for their own interests.

Alonso expressed his disappointment and his agents made some comments into the wind about which the Mets do not and should not care. He has no bargaining power and his agents are in the “Should we say something? We have to say something” phase to which the Mets should roll their eyes at its meaninglessness.

The Yankees peddle class but embrace pettiness

MLB, Uncategorized

Girardi pic

“He was invited and declined” is the excuse the Yankees give for the glaring omission of the mere name “Joe Girardi” from their celebration of the 1998 World Series champions, portrayed as one of the greatest if not the greatest teams in history.

Regardless of where you sit on the spectrum of Girardi’s contribution to that team and whether the Yankees were obligated to make a note of him even though he was absent from the festivities, the contradiction between how the Yankees sell themselves and how they really are is exemplified by their behavior in these very situations. There is a basic “if this, then that” attitude that comes from the top and more noticeable than it otherwise would be if they simply exhibited the class they relentlessly sell and avoided the infantilism that is a blatant hallmark of how they truly are by just noting that he was a part of the team.

Lest anyone believe it was a circumstantial choice not to mention those who were absent and it was not an intentional act, the Yankees made certain to avoid any player who was not there. That list included Orlando Hernandez, Mike Stanton, Ricky Ledee, Chad Curtis and Hideki Irabu.

The only ones of the group for whom a blotting out of existence is explainable are Curtis, who is in jail for some pretty terrible crimes, and Irabu, who committed suicide, so it’s understandable that they would avoid mentioning them. But should Girardi be in this category?

Those unaware of the Yankees’ deviousness in using plausible deniability to advance their agenda in these relatively meaningless situations could say that it was a decision not to talk about players who weren’t there and that’s that. When looking at the Yankees’ past with how they treat players and people who have become persona non grata for reasons reasonable and ridiculous, it is to be expected that they would treat Girardi as the invisible man and white him out of existence.

What is more galling is that he did not choose to leave them. The psychological issue of treating rejection as if it was a decision on the part of whomever was rejected is obvious, but this is the exact opposite. It’s a false equivalency to say that a former manager who was fired is the same as the former manager and player refusing to join a celebration that he had every right to attend and was, in fact, invited to attend.

Technically, his contract as manager was not renewed, therefore he wasn’t “fired” in the truest sense of the word. But make no mistake about it, for all intents and purposes, he was fired. The argument that the wound is only just starting to scab so it can heal is missing a critical ingredient: Girardi has been nothing but complimentary to the organization and stayed silent over how he was treated. There have been no whisper campaigns; no columns in which Yankees insiders immediately recognize Girardi as the source; no passive aggressive comments one often sees during a bitter divorce.

Girardi’s predecessor as Yankees manager, Joe Torre, was briefly excommunicated from the Yankees universe – complete with being figuratively shit on by Randy Levine’s flunky, the buffonish mouthpiece of the Ministry of Propaganda at YES, Michael Kay – because of his book The Yankee Years and that he did not recede quietly into the night once his tenure as manager ended. With Girardi, there is no book detailing his decade with the Yankees as he attempts to turn himself into St. Joe II.

For someone who was the manager of the team for its last World Series title in 2009, oversaw a pseudo-rebuild and kept the team from falling to the depths that most teams do as they reconstruct their roster and move from one era to the next, Girardi has the right to be bitter as he sits on the sideline watching Aaron Boone drive his Ferrari. But he’s stayed silent.

Mentioning his name hurts no one. It could have been done at the end of the ceremony in which the players who were present or, as Derek Jeter strangely did amid the flimsy excuse that it was his daughter’s birthday, give a statement via video, as those who were not there were referenced innocuously: “Key parts of that team who are unable to join us today…”

It’s as simple, professional and classy as the Yankees seek to present themselves. Of course, they chose to be petty and vindictive for reasons known only to them, if there even is a reason.

No, this is not a major conspiracy for which the organization should be held accountable; no, Girardi was not a giant and irreplaceable part of that championship team and they likely would have been just as good had they used another backup catcher; but they could have said his name rather than saying, “we invited him and he said no” as if that’s some form of justification to edit to the narrative so he no longer exists.

Urena-Acuna shows the right way and wrong way to send a message

MLB, Uncategorized

AcunaUrena

The Marlins’ Jose Urena drilling the Braves’ Ronald Acuna on the elbow with the first pitch of Wednesday night’s game was clearly intentional and it was done because Acuna had hit home runs in five consecutive games and leadoff home runs in three straight. Four came against the Marlins.

That was the catalyst of the benches clearing and the ejections of Urena and Braves manager Brian Snitker. Immediately, the outrage began on social media eagerly followed by columnists and analysts staking out their positions of the propriety or lack thereof of Urena’s act complete with proposed penalties for Urena and Marlins manager Don Mattingly.

Despite attempts to frame it as a matter of right and wrong, it is anything but that. It was a misapplication of how to handle these specific situations in a competitive atmosphere. The circumstances dictate how to do it properly.

The simple way to categorize what Urena did and why it was wrong is to point out the difference between retaliation and a message. Urena retaliated when he really should have sent message.

There’s a difference.

With retaliation, had there been an exchange of beanballs and pitchers throwing at hitters – for any reason – then, to put a stop to it or bring matters to a head by lighting the fire for a bench clearing brawl to get the bad blood out in the open, the pitcher should drill a hitter. Doing so is part of inside baseball competition that most non-playing analysts, observers and fans have about as much of a concept of as they would what it’s like to walk on the moon. There is a primordial, instinctive, animalistic nature to sports that cannot be transferred to a series of numbers or boardroom machination. The heat of competition will sometimes start a blaze. Anger, irrationality and that ingrained sensibility will take hold. Were the Marlins truly angry at a transgression no matter how legitimate or trivial – a bat flip; a slow trot around the bases; a hard slide; untoward comments directed at a player or the organization; a beanball war – then Urena’s method was appropriate, like it or not.

But that wasn’t the case. What Urena did was punish Acuna for doing well by hitting him on purpose. And that is blaming the opposing player for the Marlins’ faults in not being able to get him out.

To do what Urena should have done – send a message – there should have been a first pitch slider that was so far out of the strike zone that not even Vladimir Guerrero would have swung at it, much less hit it. The next pitch should have been a fastball that was so far inside that it was either going to get Acuna to move his feet or hit the dirt, but was not high and inside to the degree that there was the risk of him getting hit in the area above the neck.

That is not a “we suck and you’re killing us, therefore I’m gonna injure you” pitch. It is a strategic maneuver akin to a hard slide. It is part of the game. Sometimes, when a pitcher does this, the ball will get away from him and the batter will get hit. Provided it isn’t in the head, most professionals will understand that. Of course, some will get angry and react. So be it.

It must also be remembered that Urena is one of the rare pitchers in baseball today who is unafraid of pitching inside. He led the majors in hit batsmen in 2017 and is leading the National League in 2018. It’s part of his game.

The question of whether throwing at Acuna was part of a coordinated strategy from inside the Marlins clubhouse is where we get into the fog of allusion and plausible deniability. Internal discussions from postgame Tuesday to pregame meetings Wednesday were likely lamenting how comfortable Acuna was and that he needed to be made less so. That’s something that is spoken of among the players, sometimes with and sometimes without a winking nod from the coaches and manager. Pregame team meetings would not have openly said, “We need to pop this guy” as they might in a series with lingering tensions and the need to retaliate. As a preplanned decision to get him off the plate and break the lock of his current hot streak, there’s no doubt the Marlins decided to throw inside with a “we need to buzz this guy.”

Buzzing and drilling are on totally different sides of the spectrum. The Marlins just chose the wrong pitcher and the wrong way to do it.

It’s not old-school, grunting meatheadedness as some will reactively suggest. It’s a tactic. With tactics, whomever puts it into action is key. Like Urena, they might not be very adept at it and there is occasionally collateral damage. That, more than the act itself, is the problem.

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.