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.

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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.

Joe Maddon’s days as Cubs manager could be numbered

MLB

Maddon pic

Yes, it’s early.

No, it’s not too early to begin speculating on Cubs manager Joe Maddon’s job status.

This is largely the byproduct of the action – or inaction – of ownership and team president Theo Epstein. After six games and five losses, the club looks just as disjointed, ill-fitting and uninterested as it did in the second half of 2018.

Of course, it could be a slow start. They certainly have enough talent to turn it around. However, certain factors indicate otherwise. This is essentially the same team as 2018. Apart from new hitting and pitching coaches, the Cubs added nothing of note over the winter. Sans a contract extension, they blatantly left Maddon in the wind to twist with the unsaid mandate of, “The vault’s closed. Win with this group or else.”

Whether it was done as a protective device or Maddon was publicly seeking new ways to connect with his team, he claimed that he was reading Managing Millennials for Dummies. Such a move had the potential to annoy his detractors, implying that it wasn’t him who was the problem, but those goddamn kids who pushed too far against the cool older guy in the neighborhood who let them skateboard in his empty pool.

Viable defenses aside, the players are acting as if they’ve had their fill of him. There’s little doubt the front office would like to move on. The “one last go-round” is more of a last gasp than an actual strategy. It rarely works. Epstein has openly said he’s going to clean house if this team underperforms. That will start with the manager and it may be sooner than people think.

Mike Francesa is becoming a white dwarf

Broadcasting, MLB

francesa

Mike Francesa’s belief that he is superior led to a series of career mistakes that has culminated in the ongoing and embarrassing display in which he tries to salvage the remaining vestiges of relevance.

Throughout his media career, Francesa’s ego has always been his largest organ/appetite. Well beyond his ample stomach proportions and insatiable addiction to Diet Coke, it’s always been there. From his tenure functioning as “Brent’s Brain” working for Brent Musburger at CBS and feeding the veteran broadcaster the obscure nuggets of information that seemingly no one else had and ghostwriting articles for Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder, his sights were set higher.

Despite an accent that came right out of New Yawk and his tacit refusal to use the deep…broadcaster’s…voice exemplified by Ernie Johnson, Francesa had a gimmick few others had when it really wasn’t a gimmick. It was just him.

Put on the air at WFAN while the first all-sports radio station was in its infancy, his takes were unique and generally well thought out. Regardless of the arrogance and self-promotion behind them, he delivered them in such a cocksure manner that it was impossible to ignore and easy to grant credibility even if they were preposterous. Put on the air with a similarly unique voice – who was unhinged and obnoxious – Chris “Mad Dog” Russo, the show took off with the partnership lasting two decades until the desire to be on their own and make more money split them.

A substantial part of his shtick was the tacit refusal to ever admit he was wrong about anything. If that’s an exaggeration, it’s only slight.

The spiral began years ago and began hurtling down the mountain at speeds only a wall would stop. The move from the televised simulcast of his radio show on the YES Network to Fox Sports 1 was half-understandable in that YES – like the Yankees propaganda wing it is – preferred someone who would not criticize the organization in any way except in the meekest, most apologetic tone. While a Yankees fan, Francesa never went that far. Certainly, Michael Kay was an ideal replacement for what the network sought in terms of shilling content. FS1 not only had a fraction of the reach of YES, but it was constantly preempted. Francesa, whose arrogance by then had extended to thinking he could negotiate his own contracts sans an agent, had a deal where his simulcast was rarely simulcast. Eventually, the sides mutually agreed to part and he was never on television again.

Then there was his “farewell tour,” something that was generally limited to legitimate on-field sports stars like Derek Jeter. He bogarted it and wallowed in the accolades and feting for a year.

It was only after the “retirement” that reality hit and the expected litany of high profile, well compensated jobs were not there.

So, as the WFAN replacement The Afternoon Drive with Chris Carlin, Maggie Gray and Bart Scott struggled in every conceivable way; as the time slot lost advertisers; with WFAN listeners doing the unthinkable and abandoning ship for Michael Kay, avid Francesa fans lamented his departure and wished for his return, he did everyone a favor. Except it was critical that there be a caveat that he didn’t come crawling back because he had nowhere else to go, but that it was a preplanned decision to promote his app.

Yet it hasn’t gone as he expected.

A vast portion of his fans have had enough. Joining Twitter – something he said he’d never, ever do – was perhaps the biggest mistake, even bigger than the app, its clumsy rollout, Francesa making it sound like a revolutionary creation, and its exorbitant cost for what subscribers are getting. Now, he can no longer deny his most rancid takes never happened. Suggesting the Phillies signed Bryce Harper to trade him for Mike Trout was the worst one in recent memory. He’s giving opinions that would be mocked and ridiculed by Francesa himself had a caller or another media person given them and now there’s a video clip from the app to see it and a tweet to quote it verbatim.

The explanations of how long he plans to stay on the air and what the future holds are generating yawns and shrugs. Fans might have clamored for him to come back, but quickly realized that his indifference grew worse in the interim from his “retirement” to his return. Doing the show from home, being lazier than ever, exhibiting a toxic narcissism that not even his biggest fans can stand – it’s all contributed to the growing indifference of what he says.

He’s been reduced to Twitter screeds that elicit the same “Who cares?” that Francesa uttered when a caller asked him about the death of the Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee.

The condescension, contradictions, self-destructiveness to feed his megalomania – all have contributed to his rapid slide. It’s difficult to say that he should have altered the strategy to that got him to his formerly lofty position in the first place, but there’s been no adaptation. It’s the same. It might even have gotten worse. This is rapidly descending to his worst nightmare of irrelevance.

The ever-present ego expanded like a star’s expansion into a red giant. The metaphor is apt because, eventually, it retracts into a white dwarf and eventually burns out.

Despite risks, a contract extension benefits both Mets and deGrom

MLB

deGrom pic

 

In the past week, Mike Trout, Blake Snell and Alex Bregman all signed contract extensions either to gain financial security or to preclude rapidly approaching free agency. The Mets and Jacob deGrom are functioning under a deadline set by deGrom and his representatives to complete an extension prior to the start of the regular season. The link between deGrom’s situation to that of the above-listed players is weak. However, there is motivation for both parties to get an agreement done and the sides will be better off if they do just that. Here’s why.

The Mets will pay less; deGrom will be guaranteed a certain amount no matter what

Judging by other players’ contract extensions and the current financial climate, figure a contract extension would add six years and $168 million to his current salary of $17 million for 2019. That would be seven years, $185 million taking him to his 37th birthday. It’s a tenable amount for the club.

From deGrom’s perspective, maybe he could get more on the open market. Just as the Mets are taking a risk if they pay him and he gets injured after the deal is done, deGrom is taking the risk of a career-damaging or ending injury costing him $200 million in earnings for his career.

His age is secondary to his workload and his workload is comparatively light

Predominately an infielder at Stetson University, he threw only 83 innings from the mound.

Having had Tommy John surgery in his first season as a professional, his innings were limited further. Before reaching the Majors, he threw 323.1 minor-league innings. He’s thrown 897.2 regular season innings in the Majors plus 25 in the postseason.

Contrast that with a contemporary like Clayton Kershaw. Kershaw is two months to the day older than deGrom. In the minors, he threw 238.1 innings. In the Majors, he’s thrown 2,096.1 innings plus 152 in the postseason.

Kershaw is declining practically and physically due, in part, to that heavy workload. DeGrom may be on the upswing in his career because he has about six years more tread on his tires.

It takes the heat off ownership and the new general manager

The Wilpons will be criticized regardless, but at least they’ll keep their star in the fold.

It’s more complicated for general manager Brodie Van Wagenen. The hiring of a former agent to be the new GM is polarizing enough, but when that new GM and former agent represented the player the team is trying to sign, it gets worse. Van Wagenen’s aggressiveness, outside-the-box thinking and charm offensive aside, it can all be undone before his first season even starts if the talks with deGrom break off without the resolution that the player, the club and the fans are hoping for.

When assessing the situation, it is preferable for everyone to get a deal done so it no longer needs to be a topic of conversation, no matter the long-term results.

Madison Bumgarner has the cachet to say no to “the opener”

MLB

Bumgarner pic

According to San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy, Madison Bumgarner sent him a text message informing him that if the Giants – as rumored – plan to integrate “the opener” into their game strategy and he is in any way affected by this, he will simply walk out of the ballpark.

As another example of the statistical revolution and willful change to baseball orthodoxy, the specialization and strategies that accompany those changes has led to teams having less reliance on one starting pitcher.

Most pitchers are agreeable to it because they have little choice in the matter. It’s a choice of either going along or being eliminated. If there is any byproduct to teams implementing these strategies and finding players who fit into their blueprint rather than vice versa, it’s the fungible nature of a vast proportion of the players. Teams do not want to overpay for Bryce Harper or Manny Machado when they can cobble together similar production by signing, trading for, or developing several players who are more readily available and cost efficient.

Why pay a starting pitcher $25 million a year and adhere to his desires to be left alone to start his game, get in and out of trouble and have a say in how he’s utilized when six replaceable relievers can be used and cost a total of $10 million, if that much?

It’s a matter of time before a self-proclaimed expert who has never played a competitive sport and wants to turn baseball into the equivalent of a cubicle-laden office exclaims in shock and outrage: “But Bumgarner is a subordinate and he’s making inappropriate demands of a superior!”

Bumgarner is an old-school tough guy. It was Bumgarner who had zero interest in receiving a bath of sticky sports drink glop when, after he had a game-winning hit, teammate Alen Hanson attempted to douse him in the contents of the cooler and Bumgarner effortlessly shoved the jug and Hanson away with one arm.

This is how he is.

Bumgarner has the history and reputation to tell the organization that he’s not playing this game. This goes beyond Bumgarner himself. Obviously, Clayton Kershaw, Jacob deGrom, Justin Verlander and other top-line starters will be given that freedom. “Some Guy” will not and organizations are increasingly relying on Some Guy not just for the freedom to use the strategies they prefer, but so they don’t need to pay them, nor do they need to adhere to the Bumgarner dictate that he’s not tolerating having his games interfered with in such a way.

This goes beyond strategy and is part of the ongoing ideological fight. Bumgarner wins the battle because he’s Bumgarner and has the hardware, salary and negotiating leverage to do it. But the Bumgarner faction will need to indulge in harder tactics to win the war. Others do not have his cachet. Taking that away is intentional on the part of organizations for reasons beyond strategy.

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.

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.