David Wright’s Keith Hernandez Moment

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No one will ever confuse the aw shucks, golly gee image of David Wright with the overt leadership of the cigarette smoking bad boy and manipulative architect of clubhouse politics, Keith Hernandez; but the similarities between Wright bypassing his 2013-2014 opportunity at free agency and sign with the Mets for what amounts to 8-years and $138 million—NY Times story—and Hernandez staying with the Mets in 1983-84 are underlying and significant.

When Hernandez was traded from the Cardinals to the Mets, Whitey Herzog was in part seeking a relief pitcher he’d always coveted in Neil Allen and in part had had enough of Hernandez, his lazy work habits, sense of entitlement, and poor attitude. As a result of the confluence of events, Herzog shipped Hernandez out of St. Louis. At the time, Hernandez was bitter and angry about the trade and certainly didn’t want to go to the perennial last place Mets, a team that he and the Cardinals had openly laughed at when they saw the slogan “The Magic is Back” in the early 1980s. In later years, after the butting of the heads of two strong-willed men subsided and the competition between the Mets and Cardinals was nothing but a memory, Hernandez and Herzog reconciled with Hernandez admitting that his attitude was terrible and Herzog was right to trade him; he also said that next to his father, no one taught him more about the game of baseball than Herzog. The two are close to this day and Hernandez has referred to Herzog as a “dear friend.”

In 1983, however, no one wanted to go to the Mets. As much of a loonybin as the Yankees were, their crosstown co-residents (because they weren’t rivals) were, as Hernandez said in his highly underrated 1986 book If At First, the “Siberia of baseball.”

In that same book, on pages 10-11, Hernandez discussed the difficult decision to remain with the Mets after the 1983 season:

Frank Cashen, the Mets’ general manager, realized that I wasn’t thrilled with my new circumstances. He also knew the Mets would have nothing to show for the trade if I became a free agent.

“Tell us after the year, Keith, how you feel,” he said. “Give me two weeks before the winter meetings. If you want, we’ll trade you. We don’t want to lose you for nothing.”

That was fair. I owed it to them.

***

The state of the ballclub was my chief consideration. I wouldn’t have signed with a sure loser for any sum.

***

My father, a former minor-leaguer with baseball connections all over, checked with scouts around the league and reported back about some great young arms in the minors, just about ready.

I decided the Mets had a chance to be a better ballclub in 1984, maybe fourth place, but I also feared I would be signing up for six years of sixth place—dead last. It was a scary thought.

***

In the end, I gambled. After making any number of wrong decisions over the years, I decided to go against my natural instinct. I wanted to leave, so I stayed instead.

I had never met Dwight Gooden or Ron Darling.

Wright isn’t the man the reporters go to for off-the-record quotes ripping teammates, coaches, managers, and front office folk as they sometimes did with Hernandez. The first baseman, cigarette in hand, would give the on-the-record, canned reply and then utter the truth that he wanted out there as an unnamed source. It wasn’t a chicken method either; Hernandez would also directly inform the objects of his ire what he thought. Using the media was a last resort and done so because the man-to-man approach wasn’t yielding the desired effect. That was the key with Keith: he used the media; the media used him and everyone knew the parameters of the relationship and the deal.

Hernandez had star power on and off the field and, at the time, was the coolest guy in New York. Wright is cool in a geeky, good boy way. Wright isn’t the cagey operator that Hernandez was. He’s the unambiguous leader of the current Mets on and off the field, lets his teammates know when they’re not pulling their share of the load or are behaving in a manner he sees as unprofessional, and is popular throughout baseball with everyone from opposing players, to coaches, to managers, to GMs, to owners, and umpires.

Wright was faced with the same dilemma Hernandez was: a team that has long been the butt of jokes; few free agents willing to come unless they were drastically overpaid and had no other option; and limited resources in comparison to other clubs, specifically the one across town. But there were reasons and advantages to staying as well. They got their money pre-free agency without having to sing for their supper and endure the yearlong questions as to their intentions; the alternatives might not be all that enticing considering what happened with big spending hot stove champions the Red Sox, Angels, Phillies and Marlins who signed players like Albert Pujols and Wright’s friend and former teammate Jose Reyes to big deals only to degenerate into absurdity that had heretofore been the Mets’ primary domain.

Would that money be there a year from now? Would the Mets be forced to trade Wright if he didn’t sign? And what about the young pitchers Jonathon Niese, Matt Harvey and the onrushing Zack Wheeler?

Wright and Hernandez are light years away from one another as people, but they had a similar choice to make in moving forward with a “might be” rather than move on to what “is.” And both made the right call in staying with the Mets.

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Which B.J. Upton Are The Braves Getting?

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Looking at his numbers without knowing how physically gifted he is, the Braves signing B.J. Upton to a 5-year, $75.25 million contract would be viewed somewhere between an overreach and lunacy. Upton’s offensive production has steadily declined from his best overall season—his first full year in the big leagues—in 2007 to what has now become a 28-year-old question mark.

Upton’s entire career has been based on talent and not results. He was the second player selected in the 2002 amateur draft; in 2004, he was in the big leagues at 19 before going back to the minors for most of 2005 and 2006; he looked to be a burgeoning star in 2007 with 24 homers, 22 stolen bases, and an .894 OPS; and throughout has been an aggravating player and person with bursts of brilliance and extended periods of inconsistency and laziness. At times, Upton doesn’t behave as if he even wants to play, let alone play hard.

In 2012, his free agent season, he hit a career high 28 homers and was clearly trying to hit more homers—not that that’s always a good thing. His OPS has been stagnant in the mid .700s since 2010, he strikes out 160 times a year, and his walks have severely diminished since posting 97 in 2008. When sufficiently motivated, he’s a great defensive center fielder, but one of his signature moments of being B.J. Upton occurred in June of 2010 when he lackadaisically pursued a line drive in the gap and Evan Longoria confronted him in the dugout nearly initiating a fistfight.

In addition to that incident, he was benched or pulled several times by manager Joe Maddon for such transgressions and chose not to run hard on a double play ball in the 2008 World Series. If he’s not going to run out grounders in the World Series, when is he going to run them out?

The petulance and sour faces are unlikely to be assuaged by his paycheck and the mere act of putting on a Braves uniform, but that’s undoubtedly what they’re expecting. When thinking about Upton and predicting the future, I’m reminded of the Braves acquisition of Kenny Lofton from the Indians after the 1996 season. The Indians dealt Lofton away because he was a pending free agent after 1997, wanted a lot of money the Indians wouldn’t be able to pay, and the club didn’t want to let him leave for nothing as they did with Albert Belle.

Lofton did not fit in with the corporate, professional, and somewhat stuck-up Braves of the 1990s and was allowed to leave after the season where he, ironically, returned to the Indians for a reasonable contract. Lofton was a far better player than Upton is and wasn’t known for a lack of hustle. He was just outspoken and got on the nerves of managers and teammates who didn’t know him well.

Will Upton be motivated to live up to the contract or will he be content now that he’s getting paid? Will being a member of the Braves inspire him to act more professionally? The Braves certainly aren’t the frat house that the Rays were. Will there be a culture shock or will Upton try to fit in? Chipper Jones is no longer there to keep people in line and Dan Uggla doesn’t put up with the nonsense of teammates jogging around—with the Marlins he confronted Hanley Ramirez repeatedly; Tim Hudson won’t shrug off Upton jogging after a shot in the gap; and Fredi Gonzalez is more outwardly temperamental than Maddon.

Perhaps what Upton needs is the starchy, conservative, “this is how we do things” Braves instead of the freewheeling, young, and new age Rays. Maybe he’ll take the new contract as a challenge and want to live up to the money he’s being paid, money that based on bottom line statistics alone, he never would have received.

Upton is one of the most talented players in baseball with a lithe body, speed, power, and great defensive skills. At 28, he’s in his prime. The Braves just need to hope that he feels like playing and fitting in, because if he doesn’t the same issues that were prevalent in Tampa will be evident in Atlanta, except they’ll be paying big money to cajole, entreat, challenge, discipline and bench him while the Rays weren’t.

Upton is a “can” player. He can hit 20+ homers. He can steal 40 bases. He can make plays of unique defensive wizardry. He can get on base and take pitches. The Braves are paying for what he can do. What he will do is the question that not even the Braves are able to answer. They’re certainly paying for it though. It could be a retrospective bargain or disaster. And no one knows within a reasonable degree of certainty as to which it’s going to be.

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Marvin Miller—A Man Of Vision And Guts

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Marvin Miller’s death at 95 has spurred public expressions of appreciation and recognition of all he did for baseball, baseball players, and sports in general. But it’s also highlighting the remaining misplaced animosity towards him from the owners because he’s still not in baseball’s Hall of Fame. I’m reminded of the scene in Godfather 2 where, during his rant about Moe Greene, Hyman Roth tells Michael Corleone that in spite of everything Greene did and created with his idea for Las Vegas, there’s “isn’t even a plaque, or a signpost, or a statue of him,” to commemorate what he accomplished.

The scene is below.

You can say the same things about Miller. His obituary in the NY Times explains who he was and goes into detail of his rise to prominence, status as a hero to the players, and the vindictive loathing he still endures from the owners, but there was something more. Miller took over as the executive director of the MLB Players Association in 1966 during a time when the owners’ collective self-importance and belief that their political connections would supersede any true attempt by the players to effectively unionize and garner greater compensation for themselves.

Miller used that arrogance and greed against them and impressed upon the players what was possible if they stuck together and were willing to take the necessary steps to strike in the face of public scorn and threat to their livelihoods. Back then, but for a select few stars, baseball couldn’t justifiably be considered a “livelihood” since most players had off-season jobs to make ends meet and their baseball careers could end on a whim from the front office. The reserve clause had tethered players to their teams for the duration of their careers and the anti-trust exemption was brandished as a weapon to flog their indentured servants and hold them in check.

Miller wasn’t what the owners portrayed him as: a rabble-rouser who put it in the players’ heads that they deserved more of the financial pie and ruined their monopoly, thereby destroying the game. What he did benefited everyone. In fact, without Miller the owners who bought or owned clubs as a family hand-me-down would not be part of the still-established monopoly known as Major League Baseball with a built-in fanbase, guaranteed appreciation on their investment, massive television and advertising deals, as well as the clout from being an MLB owner. The most financially hindered franchises such as the Tampa Bay Rays have doubled in value over the past five years. Would that have been possible for the lower echelon teams of the 1960s before Miller came to prominence?

Miller took a chunk of the power from the owners and placed it in the hands of the players. No longer was the rich guy in the suit able to hammer the desperate worker with the lingering prospect of unemployment and no recourse; with the warning that not only would they be out of a job as a player, but they wouldn’t be able to get another job as a player for another team and definitely wouldn’t find work as a coach, scout, manager, ticket-taker or beer vendor. The idea of the “real world” was so horrifying that players wound up signing the contracts, enjoying the ride, cursing the situation, and hoping it wouldn’t end prematurely due to injury or by angering the wrong person.

The mindset of the player had to be altered to enlighten them that the owners weren’t doing them any favors; they weren’t friends; and if the players joined together en masse and demanded that they be treated more fairly, they would achieve concessions they never thought possible. When engaging in a negotiation, each side must have a stake in the outcome. There’s no need for animosity nor a suspicion of the other’s motives provided each side understands how the failure to reach an agreement will negatively affect both sides. The players and owners have made one another a lot of money because of Miller.

But former commissioner Bowie Kuhn is in the Hall of Fame and Miller isn’t.

Many players today wouldn’t know who Miller is or what he did for them. They would have no clue and presumably little interest that pre-Miller, the money wasn’t always what it is now; the players didn’t have the right to sell their unique set of skills to the highest bidder; and the generous perks including medical care and pensions would not be available had it not been for him.

But he’s still not in the Hall of Fame.

Had the players taken a stand demanding that Miller be inducted, there wouldn’t be this debate. Because they had an investment in their own futures, they stood with Miller when the owners held the players in their fists and utilized any and all tactics to keep them in line. Why haven’t they stood up for him and his Hall of Fame candidacy not with a sense of urgency, but a sense of justice?

The more eloquent and influential players like Tom Seaver can make a case; the Nolan Ryan and Frank Robinson type can intimidate and use their status as front office insiders to make something happen; Joe Torre can make voters offers they can’t refuse. Have they done everything they can? Since Miller is still on the outside looking in, the answer is clearly no.

He deserves that plaque; that signpost; that statue. In fact, he deserved it while he was alive to enjoy the moment. Hopefully, though, it will be realized—by the owners too—that Miller has earned his place in baseball history and they’ll give it to him even if it’s far too late.

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Breakin’ the Norm Radio Appearance

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Make sure and listen to my radio appearance with former Kansas City Royals’ outfielder and emerging broadcasting titan Les Norman on 1340 WJOL at 6 PM Central; and on 810 WHB at 9 PM Central. You can find the links on Les’s website here—LesNorman.com.

We discuss the Red Sox, Blue Jays, John Farrell, Terry Francona, the Cubs, Theo Epstein, the Angels, Rangers, Dodgers, Mike NapoliZack Greinke, Josh Hamilton, free agents, trades, rumors and much more.

Check it out.

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Longoria, the Rays, and…Wright

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On the heels of Evan Longoria agreeing to a contract extension with the Rays that will guarantee him $100 million through 2022, the news is out that the Mets offered David Wright a 6-year, $100 million extension. Naturally, as is the case with anything the Mets do, this is cast as a lowball, “show me,” “look we tried,” proposition when the offer is legitimate and reasonable considering what comparable players have received.

The main differences between Wright and Longoria are leverage, age and perception. Wright is a free agent after 2013; prior to the new contract, Longoria was locked up by the Rays until 2016. Wright is about to turn 30; Longoria just turned 27. Longoria is considered a big game player because many of his hits have been considered “clutch” (with good reason) and Wright is more of a steady performer whose numbers accumulate and he’s unfairly been seen as a central figure in the disappointment of a Mets team that stumbled at crunch time.

In reality, they’re pretty much the same player. In fact, Wright has the advantage of durability that Longoria doesn’t have. Longoria has had quadriceps strains, hamstring tears, and wrist problems. Wright got hit in the head and suffered a stress fracture in his back, both of which he’s recovered from.

In his career, Longoria has traded his arbitration years and window to freedom for security. He signed a contract as a rookie (shortly after he arrived in the big leagues) that guaranteed him $17.5 million and could have made him as much as $44.5 million. Now, as an established star player, he’s got his $44.5 million and an additional $100 million on top of that. There’s not a no-trade clause in the deal with Longoria’s only recourse if the Rays decide to trade him is waiting until after 2017 when he’ll be a 10 and 5 player (10 years in MLB, 5 years with the same team) and subsequently can reject any deal. But before then, if the Rays choose to move him due to financial constraints or because they receive an offer they can’t refuse, there’s nothing he can do about it. It’s a trade-off that both sides made. Longoria gets his guaranteed money, the Rays have flexibility. Because Longoria is locked up until 2022, it doesn’t mean he’ll be a Ray for that entire time. That’s the way the contract was designed and the manner in which the Rays operate. The Rays said, “We’ll give you more security in exchange for flexibility.” Longoria accepted that.

The Mets are not in the position of the Rays where they have a terrible ballpark and limited fanbase. The Mets’ financial problems are not related to baseball’s structure, but are a byproduct of circumstance and will presumably end at some point. For the Mets and  Wright, the offer that has been made public isn’t for public relations purposes, but is a reasonable, market-driven deal. That doesn’t mean Wright’s going to take it. For all the talk that the Mets are dragging their feet, the Wright camp is probably also taking a wait-and-see approach to know where the dollar figures are for players in this year’s free agent class. If there’s a team that tosses a record amount of money at Zack Greinke and rolls the dice on Josh Hamilton; if a club gets crazy for Wright’s childhood friend in Virginia B.J. Upton, then Wright can say he’s going for the big money next winter and unless the Mets pay him and pay him big now, he’s not signing anything. But if the deals these players get aren’t what’s expected; if the number of teams that are still willing to go overboard as the Angels did with Albert Pujols is limited to one or two; if no club other than the Dodgers is spending wildly, then Wright isn’t going to do much better than the 6-years, $100 million and will be more willing to take it.

The Jose Reyes comparisons are simplistic and stupid. Those negotiations weren’t “negotiations” in the truest sense. The Mets wanted Reyes back, but they didn’t want to give him $100 million (money that they didn’t have and certainly didn’t want to spend on him) and they knew they had a reasonable—if significantly less flashy—replacement for him with Ruben Tejada. It’s a different matter with Wright. The Mets want him back and know how hard he’ll be to replace on and off the field.

The common sense approach from the Mets to Wright is to be conciliatory and ingratiating. They should not imply that because Longoria and Ryan Zimmerman took $100 million over six that Wright should know what’s good for him and do the same thing. The Mets should approach Wright with the facts. Those facts are that he’s not going to do much better on the market than 6-years at $100 million with a reachable option to make it 7-years at $125 million and perhaps an eighth year option as well; that the Mets are in position to get markedly better and contend by possibly 2013 and definitely 2014 with all that young pitching and money coming off the books; and that, like the Rays and Longoria, it behooves both sides to come to an agreement. A no-trade clause isn’t even necessary for the new deal because Wright will be a 10-and-5 player after 2013.

The Wright-Mets extension talks aren’t in a holding pattern because the participants staked their positions with no room for compromise and a pure impasse. 6-years at $100 million was a start. If a deal gets done, it won’t be until the other pieces currently making the free agent rounds come off the board and there’s a clue as to what the numbers have to be and could be to make it worthwhile for the Mets and Wright. In that context, the Wright and Longoria comparisons are equal and like Longoria, I’d expect Wright to eventually sign an extension with the Mets, but it won’t be until the new year.

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Red Sox Return to a Strategy From 10 Years Ago

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After a last place finish and disastrous 2012 season, it’s a convenient storyline for the Red Sox to get back to their “roots” that built the annual title contender under Theo Epstein from 2003-2011. That the reality of this narrative isn’t precisely accurate is beside the point. They won. Because they won, the SparkNotes version of how it happened has degenerated into a brief and simplistic summary that using stats and undervalued attributes while also spending money was the “formula”.

Facts get in the way, so the facts are being eliminated in most Red Sox-centric circles.

I’m indifferent to allegiance and twisting truth to fit into what a constituency wants to hear, so here are those facts:

  • A large chunk of the Red Sox 2004 championship team was built by Dan Duquette
  • What Billy Beane had planned to do (according to Michael Lewis, so take it with a bucket of salt) had he followed through on his agreement to take over as the team’s GM after the 2002 season would’ve resulted in a horror movie
  • The Red Sox were somewhat dysfunctional during that whole time with the mad scientist closer-by committee experiment; Epstein eventually resigning and returning to win a power struggle with Larry Lucchino; and other examples of infighting
  • They were lucky with players like Mike Lowell, whom they were forced to take even though they didn’t want him
  • The 2007 club that won their second World Series in four years was the product of tossing money at their problems as a reaction to fan anger following their 2006 stumble
  • There were numerous other unquantifiable occurrences that were equally as important in the building of the brand as their adherence to new age statistics.

Rises of this nature tend to take on lives of their own and the Red Sox, who had turned to the new age techniques in part because their new ownership was intent on running the club as a business and in part because what they’d tried for so many years—keeping up with the Yankees and other clubs by doing the exact same things—had failed repeatedly. They made the switch to cold-blooded calculation out of necessity as much as design. What they were doing wasn’t working; what Beane was doing in Oakland was working, so they consciously mimicked the template and souped it up by hiring Bill James and backing up their newfound convictions with money.

Eventually though, after two championships, it wasn’t enough. There could no longer be the intelligent free agent signings stemming from their own analysis and volition, reactions and outsider perspective be damned; they had to compete with the Yankees and get the biggest names; a season in which the club finished with 95 wins and lost in the ALCS was not good enough anymore. In the World Series win or bust world, the Yankees had been joined by the Red Sox. It’s an almost impossible vacuum in which to function over the long-term. When operating under such self-administered constraints, teams tend to do things they might not otherwise do. The Red Sox were bounced in the 2008 playoffs by the low-budget Rays; the Angels took them out in 3 straight games in the 2009 ALDS; they were riddled by injuries in 2010, but still somehow won 89 games and missed the playoffs; and they spent wildly and absurdly in the winter of 2010-2011 to import more names whose suitability to Boston should have been known beforehand as players to avoid. Unlike acquisitions from the early days for the transformation when Johnny Damon and Curt Schilling could handle the madness surrounding the Red Sox, Carl Crawford, John Lackey and Adrian Gonzalez couldn’t.

Culminating in the overriding expectations and disaffected personalities that behaved as entitled and disinterested brats, the 2011 Red Sox undermined their manager Terry Francona, acted as if they were entitled to a playoff ticket simply due to their payroll and reputation, and collapsed. Trying to patch it together with one more run, the club took the shattered strategy to its logical conclusion by hiring a “name” manager to replace the discarded and exhausted Francona, Bobby Valentine. Epstein climbed the exit hatch to take over as President of the Chicago Cubs and the new GM, Ben Cherington, didn’t want Valentine. Lucchino overruled him, the coaching staff and factions in the front office passive aggressively set Valentine up to fail. Predictably Valentine’s reputation and personality resulted in a mid-season mutiny and exponential selfishness that dwarfed that which doomed Francona.

A 69-93 season, endless ridicule, and a livid fanbase spurred the Red Sox to get back to the drawing board and they’re in the process making a show of returning to what it was that sowed the seeds for their decade long dominance.

Amid all the ESPN headlines of expectancy for the 2013 comeback; with the money freed from the salary dumps of Crawford, Gonzalez, and Josh Beckett; the promises of a return to the past by hiring a link to that past as the new manager John Farrell, the signing of “character” players such as Jonny Gomes, David Ross, and the pursuit of Mike Napoli, it’s taking the tone of an on-paper back to basics of a strategy that is now behind the times.

When Epstein sought to remake the club in the statistical image, it was new and few clubs understood it, were willing to implement it, or knew what they were doing if they tried. Already in place was a megastar starting pitcher in Pedro Martinez and some young players in the organization such as Kevin Youkilis who would cheaply contribute to what they were putting together.

These factors are no longer the case. Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz are a good place to start a rotation, but are not on a level with Martinez and there’s little backing them up; the bullpen is weak; the lineup is pockmarked with gaping holes. In 2012, when clubs scour the market for players, everyone has the same numbers and uses them. It’s not 2002. Clubs are taking the initiative by signing their young stars long term; the Red Sox farm system has been gutted by ill-thought out trades for “name” players. Players that had undervalued attributes like on-base percentage are not floating around for a pittance. When the Red Sox made the decision to dump Shea Hillenbrand in favor of a player who had been a journeyman, Bill Mueller, it was reasonable to wonder what they were doing. It was a stroke of genius as Mueller won the batting title, the Silver Slugger, and was a key component to the 2004 championship.

Is Gomes a Mueller? Is he going to develop into something other than what he’s been his whole career? How about other players they’re avidly pursuing like Napoli or Nick Swisher?

Yes, they’re good players and likable personalities who will help the Red Sox be better than what they were in 2011-2012 on and off the field. Unfortunately, that doesn’t eliminate the inherent problems of clinging to a bygone template to sell to the fans and media to put forth the pretense of getting back to fundamentals. The days of a player being different from his perception are over. Substance is required, but the substance is lacking as the Red Sox revert to the past.

Farrell is straight out of central casting as a manager. He’s well-spoken, handsome, big, intimidating, and the remaining players from his time as Francona’s pitching coach like him and lobbied for him. Everyone from the front office is onboard with his hiring and they’re giving him a freedom to hire coaches he wants and a voice in the construction of the roster that was not given to Valentine. That doesn’t alter the fact that no one from the Blue Jays has expressed regret that he’s gone; that the Blue Jays were one of the worst run clubs in baseball during his time and were atrocious in the most rudimentary aspects of the game to the point that had the Red Sox not wanted Farrell back so desperately the Blue Jays were probably going to fire him. Francona, for his faults, was a sound strategic manager who had managerial experience with the Phillies. But like the Francona Phillies, the new team Francona has been hired to manage, the Indians, doesn’t have very much talent and his mere presence isn’t going to change that or the end results on the field. The same thing applies to Farrell on a different scope tied to higher expectations. Farrell’s limited managerial experience and terrible results won’t be glossed over in Boston as they will for Francona is Cleveland because Francona knows what he’s doing and Farrell doesn’t.

The Red Sox of 2004-2010 would have won with Farrell as the manager because they were so talented that there was little for the manager to do other than write the lineup, make the pitching changes, deal with the media, and steer the ship—perfect for a figurehead. It also helped that the competition in the division was mostly limited to the Yankees and, for a couple of years, the Rays. Now, with the Red Sox lack of talent and stiff competition in the division, they can’t toss out their return to glory concept and expect to win because they’re all on the same page with the manager and they have a couple of gritty players added to the clubhouse. They need pitching; they need bats; they need guidance; and they need to be managed.

Napoli, Swisher, Gomes, Ross, and Farrell aren’t going to undo the dilapidation that was an end result of years of patchwork repairs reaching its nadir in 2012. The obvious thing is to blame Valentine and make the claim that the mistakes are now understood and won’t be repeated. It’s easy. It’s also inaccurate. Farrell’s back; James is more involved; everyone’s working toward the same goal. The Red Sox are upfront about operating from the 2002-2003 playbook in 2012-2013. Is that going to vault them from 69-93 to 90-72 or a similar win total that will put them in playoff contention in a bearish American League?

Do you see the problem there? Considering what they’re doing and how they’re marketing it, the Red Sox clearly don’t.

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Kyle Lohse—Free Agency Profile

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Name: Kyle Lohse

Position: Right-handed starting pitcher

Vital Statistics: Age—34; Height—6’2”; Weight—210 lbs; Bats—Right; Throws—Right

Transactions: June 1996—Selected by the Chicago Cubs in the 29th round of the MLB Draft

May 21, 1999—Traded by the Chicago Cubs with RHP Jason Ryan to the Minnesota Twins for RHP Rick Aguilera and LHP Scott Downs

July 31, 2006—Traded by the Twins to the Cincinnati Reds for RHP Zach Ward

July 30, 2007—Traded by the Reds to the Philadelphia Phillies for LHP Matt Maloney

March 13, 2008—Signed as a free agent with the St. Louis Cardinals

Agent: Scott Boras

Might he return to the Cardinals? Yes

Teams that could use and pay him: New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles, Boston Red Sox, Toronto Blue Jays, Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals, Minnesota Twins, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Texas Rangers, Philadelphia Phillies, Washington Nationals, Miami Marlins, St. Louis Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers, Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Dodgers

Positives: With the Cardinals, when he’s been healthy, he’s been a very good starter. He’s learned to pound the strike zone, keep the ball down and in the ballpark, and use his defense. Lohse had what amount to a career year in 2012, in part, because of a friendly BAbip of .267. That number was in line with another solid year he had in 2011 of .272. His advanced statistics of hits-per 9 innings; strikeouts-per 9 innings; walks and home runs-per 9 innings were the best of his career in 2012, but he’s been solid with those numbers his entire career. He’s consistent at home and on the road and against righties and lefties.

Negatives: He’s represented by Boras and in 2011-2012 he’s gone 30-11. Boras is going to ask for a lot of money, years, and benefits. Lohse turned his career around with the Cardinals under the tutelage of Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan; he maintained and got even better under Mike Matheny and Derek Lilliquist, but the lingering questions remain as to whether he can transition to another locale and stay this productive. He’s had injuries sabotaging his seasons and is 34-years-old.

What he’ll want: 4-years, $50 million with a partial no-trade clause

What he’ll get: 3-years, $35 million with a vesting option for 2016 at $15 million and a $2.5 million buyout

Teams that might give it to him: Orioles, Red Sox, Blue Jays, Tigers, Royals, Angels, Nationals, Marlins, Cardinals, Brewers, Dodgers

The Orioles need a starting pitcher to give them 32 starts and 200 innings with the stuff to keep the ball in the ballpark. They have money to spend, and are an agreeable location to play and win after their 93-win 2012.

The Red Sox are desperate for starting pitching and have money to burn. The Blue Jays also have money, are trying to win, and are seeking another starter. The Tigers won’t want to overpay to keep Anibal Sanchez and Lohse is cheaper and shorter-term. I wrote yesterday that rather than trade one of their young bats for a starting pitcher, the Royals should delve into the free agent market and Lohse is a reasonable target. The Angels might be desperate if they can’t keep Zack Greinke and Lohse falls into a “next level” category in terms of knowing what to expect, price, and availability. The Nationals might be in on Greinke; have the prospects to trade for James Shields; or could jump in on Lohse as a fallback. They have a sound relationship with Boras and tons of cash.

I mention the Marlins because with everyone in baseball angry at what they did in their gutting trade with the Blue Jays, it’s possible that Jeffrey Loria might want to placate the critics by doing something like signing Lohse. I doubt it will happen, but no one saw that trade coming either.

The Cardinals will make an offer to Lohse and it probably won’t be high enough in dollars or years, but if his market crashes, he could end up going back to St. Louis. The Brewers have money, talent and want to win; the Dodgers can’t be discounted for any free agent and need an arm.

Would I sign Lohse? Not for what Boras is going to want. If he’s on the outside looking in and I could get him for two years with a reasonable option based on performance, I’d sign him.

Will it be a retrospective mistake for the team that signs him? If they acquiesce to Boras’s demands that will reach $45-55 million, they will. I’d keep him out of the American League.

Analysis: If there’s a bigger “we don’t know” in baseball’s free agency this side of Josh Hamilton, it’s Lohse. Which Lohse would a team other than the Cardinals be getting? Would it be the homer-prone mediocrity he was with the Phillies and Reds? The pretty good mid-rotation starter he was at times with the Twins or the highly hittable arm he was at the end of his Twins tenure? The All-Star, innings-eating winner he was for long spurts with the Cardinals or the shaky and injured pitcher?

In my mind, I keep seeing flashes of Cardinals pitchers of the past who’ve fallen apart after they left the winning organization, friendly confines of Busch Stadium, the supportive fans, and baseball-loving atmosphere from a bygone era. The vision tells me to shy away from Lohse.

One example in particular is Lohse’s former teammate Joel Pineiro. Like Lohse, Pineiro’s career was floundering before he got to St. Louis and was willing to listen to Duncan and alter his mechanics, mental and physical approach and become something different from what he was in order to save his career. He rejuvenated and reinvented himself to garner a 2-year, $16 million contract from the Angels when he should’ve stayed with the Cardinals. He started off well in Anaheim, they altered his mechanics from what had been undone and rebuilt by Duncan, and he suffered injuries to his oblique and shoulder. Pineiro pitched in 5 minor league games for the Orioles in 2012 and, barring another comeback, appears to be finished at 34.

It’s a cautionary tale for a club thinking of believing the Cardinals Lohse is the Lohse they’ll get.

Prediction: Lohse will sign a 3-year deal with the Nationals.

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Trading Wil Myers Would Be “Moore” of the Same For the Royals

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Of course I’m referring to Royals GM Dayton Moore who, in his time as their GM and as an assistant with the Braves, has proven himself to be a shrewd drafter and accumulator of young, minor league talent. He has, however, faltered in signing and trading for established big leaguers. Someone with strengths and weaknesses so clearly defined might not be the best choice to run the entire organization. He’s under contract through 2014 and is going to get the opportunity to see things through for better or worse, so the Royals and their fans need to hope that he doesn’t keep doing the same things over and over and expect a different result.

During his tenure, there’s been little bottom line improvement with the Royals’ definable results—i.e. their record—but they have a farm system that is bursting with talent, particularly on offense. Rather than trade away some of that talent, they need to hang onto it and scour the market for pitchers that would be willing to sign with the Royals in a mutually beneficial deal between themselves and the club.

Considering the stagnation of Luke Hochevar (a non-tender candidate); that last season Bruce Chen was their opening day starter; that Danny Duffy needed Tommy John surgery; and that veteran imports Jonathan Sanchez have failed miserably, it’s understandable that they would use their surplus of bats to try and get a legitimate, cost-controlled young starter who could front their rotation. They’ve improved the rotation relatively cheaply and on a short-term basis with Ervin Santana and by keeping Jeremy Guthrie (who people don’t realize how good he’s been). They do need pitching and while it would help them to acquire a frontline starter like James Shields or a young, inexpensive arm such as Jeremy Hellickson, Trevor Bauer, or Jonathon Niese, the Royals would be better served to wait out the falling dominos without doing something drastic like trading Wil Myers, Eric Hosmer, or Billy Butler. Instead of a blockbuster deal of youngsters, perhaps signing a veteran such as Dan Haren who’s looking to revitalize his value and get one last big contract, would be preferable.

The Royals have the makings of a big time offense that’s cheap and productive. Weakening it to repeat the risky maneuvers of the past and hoping that they don’t turn into Sanchez is not the way to go. It would yield a headline and more hot stove stories of the Royals preparing to take the next step, but they’ve been there before multiple times in recent years and have wound up in the same place—70 wins or so. It’s a circular history and they’ve failed to make innocent climb into noticeable improvement, respectability, and finally contention. If any club knows first hand the risks of pitchers, it’s the Royals. The last thing they need to do is double-down on the risk and cost themselves a young bat like Myers or Hosmer before they’ve given them a chance to develop in a Royals uniform. There are pitchers like Haren who wouldn’t cost anything other than money. They think they have a comparable young replacement for Myers/Butler in Bubba Starling and you can find a first baseman, but would being patient hinder them?

If it’s an affordable price, the free agency has better options than trading young bats to get a young arm that might or might not make it and is more likely to repeat the process that has put the Royals in this position where they need pitching because the young pitchers they’ve had haven’t lived up to the hype or gotten hurt. Why do it again?

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Zack Greinke—Free Agency Profile

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Name: Zack Greinke

Position: Right-handed starting pitcher

Vital Statistics: Age—29; Height—6’2”; Weight—200 lbs; Bats—Right; Throws—Right

Transactions: June 2002—Drafted by the Kansas City Royals in the 1st round (6th pick) MLB Draft from Apopka HS in Florida; traded by the Kansas City Royals

December 19, 2010—Traded by the Royals to the Milwaukee Brewers with INF Yuniesky Betancourt and cash for OF Lorenzo Cain, SS Alcides Escobar, RHP Jeremy Jeffress, and RHP Jake Odorizzi

July 27, 2012—Traded by the Brewers to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim for SS Jean Segura, RHP Ariel Pena, and RHP Johnny Hellweg

Awards: 2009 AL Cy Young Award winner

Agent: Casey Close

Might he return to the Angels? Yes

Teams that could use and pay him: Los Angels Angels, Baltimore Orioles, Boston Red Sox, Toronto Blue Jays, Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals, Minnesota Twins, Texas Rangers, Washington Nationals, Philadelphia Phillies, St. Louis Cardinals, Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Dodgers

Positives: Greinke has a low-90s fastball that he can accelerate it up to around 97 when he needs it; this is what was referred to 100 years ago by the likes of Christy Mathewson as “pitching in a pinch.” His control is masterful; he has three variations on his fastball—a cutter, a four-seamer, and a two-seamer—a curve, slider, and changeup. The combination makes him one of the most gifted pitchers in baseball.

He formulates a gameplan and executes it. Greinke’s motion is clean and effortless and he’s been physically healthy (apart from a his fractured rib incurred playing basketball) for his whole career. He can hit, is a fine all-around athlete, and a leader off the field ready and willing to provide tips to teammates and even the front office.

Negatives: His much-publicized psychological issues and battle with depression have led to the perception that he wouldn’t be able to handle the high-pressure East Coast venues of the Yankees, Red Sox, and Phillies. He has a deer-in-the-headlights look that put forth the image of fear and inability to deal with big games. His one opportunity in the post-season came in 2011 with the Brewers and he got rocked in three starts.

What he’ll want: 7-years, $167 million with a full no-trade clause

What he’ll get: 6-years, $148 million with a 7th year option raising it to a potential $170 million and a full no-trade clause

Teams that might give it to him: Dodgers, Angels, Nationals, Red Sox, Cardinals

The Rangers want Greinke and have the money to pay him, but they’re not going as high as the bidding will get. The Angels have the cash, but they re-signed Jered Weaver and signed C.J. Wilson to essentially duplicate contracts that each total about half of what Greinke wants. Are they going to make an increasingly toxic clubhouse atmosphere worse by overpaying for an outsider after Weaver went against the wishes of his agent Scott Boras by taking a down-the-line salary to forego free agency and stay? With the Albert Pujols contract on the books, I don’t see Arte Moreno okaying such an outlay for Greinke.

The Nationals are loaded with money but, truthfully, they don’t need Greinke. They’ll spend their money on a center fielder and if they want another starting pitcher will go the cheaper/easier route with a lower level name with Dan Haren or by trading for James Shields.

The Red Sox are trying to get back to their roots of the Theo Epstein era, but have also made some noise for players like Josh Hamilton and Greinke who might not be best-suited for Boston. Like with Hamilton, the Red Sox could panic as a response to the anger of their fan base and the drastic improvement of the Blue Jays.

The Cardinals have money to spend with Chris Carpenter and Carlos Beltran both coming off the books after 2013; they’re going to need to sign Adam Wainwright, but the departure of Pujols truly freed the Cardinals to do other things. Greinke would be great in St. Louis.

In the end, it comes down to what the Dodgers are willing to do. Cash is no object; they have money with their new ownership and they’re spending it.

Would I sign Greinke? If I had the money to spend and the agreeable, relaxed venue, I would. Greinke in New York, Boston, or Philadelphia is not a good idea.

Will it be a retrospective mistake for the team that signs him? It’s a lot of money and that amount of money for a pitcher is a risk. That said, Greinke is 29 and keeps himself in shape. As far as pitchers go, he’s more likely than most to be able to stay healthy and productive for the length of a 6-7 year deal.

Prediction: Greinke will sign with the Dodgers.

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The Lessons of Bryan LaHair

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If ever there was a player today that exemplified the remaining need for legitimate scouts who can watch a player and notice subtle, imperceptible weaknesses and holes to exploit, it’s Bryan LaHair. LaHair was a revelation in the first half of the 2012 season after spending nine years in the minors and made the All-Star team, but now the Cubs have designated him for assignment and removed him from their 40-man roster so he can sign with the SoftBank Hawks in Japan.

LaHair put up power and good on base numbers as a minor leaguer culminating with 38 homers and a 1.070 OPS in 2011 with the Cubs Triple A affiliate in Iowa. Before 2012, he only received a limited stay with the Mariners in 2008 when he had a .250/.315/.346 split with 3 homers in 150 plate appearances. LaHair was one of those “if only he got a chance” players about whom outsiders speculated what he would be, what he could be if he were given that opportunity.

Like most players with the limited positives of homers and walks, who can’t really play defense, who are trapped in the minor leagues, there’s a reason for it. It might be something off the field such as an attitude problem; he might be blocked by a better, more lucratively paid established major leaguer; or it might be that the club knows a little more than someone studying the numbers does and realizes that the longer that particular player plays in the big leagues, the more likely his flaws are to be exposed. There’s never been any evidence of LaHair being an off-field problem; he played for the Mariners and Cubs organizations for his whole career, so he wasn’t exactly blocked by Albert Pujols. So where does that leave us? It leaves us with the truth. And the truth about a player like this is that he has some use, but if he’s expected to be an everyday player and produce, the pitchers will figure him out.

The Cubs gave LaHair the job as their first baseman to start the season in part because the front office presumably knew how bad the team was going to be and that Anthony Rizzo: A) needed more minor league seasoning; and B) they wanted to delay the start of Rizzo’s free agency/arbitration clock stagnant.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but the Cubs may have made the mistake of buying into his strong first half that culminated in an All-Star Game appearance when they should’ve traded him for something they would be able to use in the future. LaHair’s hot start (5 homers and a 1.251 OPS in the first month) began to decline in May, plummeted in June, and came completely undone in July and onward to the end of the season. He did make the All-Star team, but one has to wonder whether that was a byproduct of being a “cool” story of a forever minor leaguer making the All-Star team.

Rizzo was recalled on June 26th and LaHair was moved to the outfield, so the Cubs knew to a degree what was what with LaHair. Here’s the reality: LaHair is a player who can’t hit lefties; is a bad defensive first baseman and a worse defensive outfielder; is now 30; strikes out a lot; and has nowhere to play.

This isn’t a random occurrence of a player who “deserved” an extended look in the majors after impressive work in the minor leagues. For every Casey Blake who played well in the minors and didn’t get his shot until he was 29 and once he did, played as well in the majors as he did in the minors. Nor is it an R.A. Dickey story of a player who changed who he was and demolished preconceived notions hindering him. The preconceived notions about Dickey pre-knuckleball weren’t notions, they were accurate. He was awful.

LaHair is what he was. Stories like his are all over the place. Russ Morman; Mike Hessman; Roberto Petagine—players who kept getting signed because they were experienced professionals who could fill in as an interchangeable part for a brief period—the key word being brief—and do a couple of useful things for that short timeframe and then go back down to the minors or, do as LaHair is doing and go to Japan to make some serious money before getting too old.

The story has ended predictably with LaHair being designated for assignment by the Cubs and essentially outsourced to Japan. What’s surprising is that people are surprised; that the Cubs—with a smart but not infallible front office led by Theo Epstein—didn’t deal him and now are getting nothing for him aside from perhaps a life-lesson to trust their eyes rather than the numbers as a bottom-line indicator of what a player is because many times, he isn’t.

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