The Yankees’ Other Key Pending Free Agent

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Last night’s absurd 9-1 loss to the expansion-level Astros aside, the Yankees have surpassed the low-level expectations they were saddled with given their injuries to key players, lack of big name free agent signings and insistence that they’re going to get their payroll down to $189 million by 2014. At 15-10, the doom and gloom surrounding the club after the 1-4 start has subsided for the moment. That said, the age and number of injuries they’ve had will eventually catch up to them as the season moves along. If they’re still in position to be a factor by July, then it will be appropriate to laud the team’s resiliency and a playoff run.

What’s ignored in their good start is the steady hand that’s guided them through it, manager Joe Girardi. While the most prominent pending free agent the Yankees have is Robinson Cano, Girardi’s contract is also expiring at the end of the season and the team has been content to let him work in the final year with no rumors floated about a possible extension. Whether they’re willing to let the season play out and consider their options is known only to them, but unless they’re undertaking a full-blown rebuild—one that Girardi, with his resume, would not be interested in overseeing at this point in his career—then it makes no sense to run the risk of Girardi leaving.

For all the criticism he attracts for overusing his bullpen and overmanaging; for showing how clever he is with unnecessary in-game offensive decisions related to the near and dear to his heart “small ball” and doing “stuff” to make it look like he’s “managing” when just sitting there and letting the players play would be a better move, Girardi is now ensconced as the Yankees manager and those that are calling for his dismissal are complaining for its own sake.

He’s a good manager based on the following prime criteria, contingent on the situation, that a good manager needs to have:

  • The team achieves what it’s supposed to achieve

I don’t mean that the Yankees expectations are to win the World Series every year and if they don’t, the season is judged as a failure. That’s what wound up dooming Joe Torre. I mean that if a team like the Nationals, for example, doesn’t have any significant injuries and finishes at 85-77 and out of the playoffs, then that falls on manager Davey Johnson. Barring a clear screw-up, a manager shouldn’t be dumped based on playoff results.

  • The team overachieves

Girardi’s one season as Marlins manager resulted in the definition of a club that overachieved. In 2006, following a sell off the prior winter in which they dumped A.J. Burnett, Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell, Carlos Delgado, Paul Lo Duca, Luis Castillo and Juan Pierre, they were widely expected to lose over 100 games. Girardi won the Manager of the Year by keeping them in Wild Card contention and had them at .500 as late as September 16th before a 78-84 finish. He was fired by owner Jeffrey Loria in a fit of petulance. Not much has changed from then to now with Loria who’s on his fifth manager since Girardi.

  • There’s accountability from the top down

The worst thing a manager can do is to accept that there’s a “rebuilding” going and act as if it doesn’t matter what the game results are as long as the players “develop.” That doesn’t mean trying to win every single game like it’s the seventh game of the World Series at the expense of health and sanity, but it means that there won’t shrugging and disinterest if the losses begin to pile up.

Girardi has managed the Yankees for five-plus years and they’ve made the playoffs and won 95+ games in four of them. If they want to bring in someone else, whom are they going to hire to replace him? Is it that easy to find someone who can deal with the circus, handle the media, have respect in the clubhouse and win with a diminished and aging roster all at the same time? If they were still going to have a $200+ million payroll and toss money at all their issues, then they could find the prototypical “someone” to manage the team and be okay. That’s no longer the case. There’s rarely an answer as to who the fans/media might want as a the new manager. It’s just change for change’s sake. There are times when it’s necessary to make a change just because. This is not one of those times.

It must be remembered that had he not gotten the Royals job prior to Torre being let go, GM Brian Cashman was seriously interested in Trey Hillman. Hillman had an airtight resume, was impressive in both presence and tone and was a disaster in Kansas City. He was strategically inept and couldn’t deal with the scrutiny and media in Kansas City. One can only venture a guess as to how bad he would’ve been in New York. It’s not that simple to find a good manager, especially in New York.

If Torre was the dad/Godfather to all the players, then Girardi is the no-nonsense brother who took over the family business and is running it his way. Girardi has never gotten the credit he’s deserved for the seamless transition from Torre. He never tried to be Torre and in the first season at the helm, it caused some friction with the veterans who weren’t accustomed to the energy, detachment and lack of personal attention with a pat on the back here and a paternal embrace there that was a daily part of the Torre regime. He also missed the playoffs in his first year after Torre had made it in every one of his seasons running the show. He survived it.

The easy thing for him to do would’ve been to copy his former manager and mentor. Instead, Girardi took little bits and pieces from his former managers Don Zimmer, Tony LaRussa, Torre, and Don Baylor. Girardi is more of a “what you see is what you get” than Torre ever was. Torre was calculating and Machiavellian. In circumstances in which he’d had enough of certain players—such as when he batted Alex Rodriguez eighth in the 2006 ALDS loss to the Tigers—the old-school and occasionally vicious Torre came out. His close relationships with Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada among others were due in part to him nurturing them through their formative years and in part because he was a self-interested actor who knew he needed those players on his side if he was going to succeed and continue in his job with an owner always looking to fire the manager if his demands weren’t met. When Girardi took the job, there were the familiar sibling tensions, especially with Posada, that he had to navigate. Sometimes he did a better job than others. Now there’s a détente between Girardi, Jeter and the other remaining veterans, but there will never be the affection there was with Torre.

He’s earned the right to have his status defined. By all reason and logic, the Yankees are playing far better than should’ve been expected given the issues they face. Girardi is looking into the contractual unknown. Perhaps they’ve told him they’ll take care of him at the end of the year. Maybe they haven’t. They could be waiting to see what happens. In any case, it’s a mistake. A number of appetizing jobs might be open after this season including the Angels (that one might be open in a matter of days), Dodgers, Tigers, Rangers, Mets, Blue Jays, Nationals and Mariners. All of those teams would be interested in Girardi.

It’s doubtful that he leaves the Yankees, but while they’re concerned about Cano’s contract, they need to pay attention to Girardi’s as well because he’s done a good job and they need him to stay.

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The Astros and the Antiquated “Process”

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In this Tyler Kepner piece in today’s New York Times, the Astros and their plan for the future is again detailed. You can insert your own joke about their early spring training activity of practicing a post-victory celebration. By the time we get to August and they’ve likely traded off the rest of the veteran players they have on the roster including Carlos Pena, Bud Norris, Jose Veras, Rick Ankiel and Wesley Wright and released Philip Humber and Erik Bedard, they’ll be so dreadful that a post-victory celebration will be so rare that the celebration should resemble clinching a post-season berth.

What’s most interesting about the piece is the clinging to the notion that the key to success is still the decade ago Moneyball strategy (first put into practice by the late 1990s Yankees) to run the starting pitchers’ pitch counts up to get them out of the game and get into the “soft underbelly” of the middle relief corps and take advantage of bad pitching in the middle innings.

Is it still an effective tactic if everyone is doing it and the opposition is better-prepared for it? There’s a case for saying no.

Back then, most teams were still functioning with a middle relief staff of journeymen, youngsters and breathing bodies. In 1998, for example, the Red Sox won 92 games in comparison to the Yankees 114, made the playoffs, and had as middle relievers Rich Garces, John Wasdin, Carlos Reyes and Jim Corsi. The Indians of 1998 were the one team that put a scare into the Yankees that season and had Paul Shuey, Eric Plunk, Jose Mesa (after he’d lost his closer’s job to Michael Jackson and before he was traded to the Giants at mid-season), and other forgettable names like Steve Karsay, Chad Ogea and Ron Villone.

These were the good teams in the American League. The bad teams starting rotations were bad enough before getting into their bullpens that it didn’t matter who a team like the Yankees were facing, they were going to hammer them.

Today, the game is different. The pitch counts are more closely monitored, but certain teams—the Rangers, Giants and Cardinals—don’t adhere to them so fanatically that it can be counted on for a pitcher to be yanked at the 100-pitch mark. Also, teams have better and more diverse middle relief today than they did back then because clubs such as the Rays are taking the job more seriously.

Waiting out a great pitcher like Felix Hernandez is putting a hitter in the position where he’s going to be behind in the count and facing a pitcher’s pitch. In that case, it makes more sense to look for something hittable earlier in the count and swing at it.

With a mediocre pitcher like Jason Vargas of the Angels, he’s more likely to make a mistake with his array of soft stuff, trying to get ahead in the count to be able to throw his changeup, so looking for something early in the count makes sense there as well. In addition, with a pitcher like Vargas (and pretty much the whole Angels’ starting rotation), you’re better off with him in the game than you are with getting into the bullpen, so the strategy of getting into the “weaker” part of the staff doesn’t fit as the middle relievers aren’t that far off in effectiveness from Vargas.

Teams use their bullpens differently today. You see clubs loading up on more specialists and carrying 13 pitchers with a righty sidearmer, a lefty sidearmer, a conventional lefty specialist, and enough decent arms to get to the late relievers. The Cardinals are an example of this with Marc Rzepczynski as their lefty specialist; Randy Choate as their sidearmer; and Trevor Rosenthal and Joe Kelly, both of whom have been starters, can provide multiple innings and throw nearly 100-mph.

I’m not suggesting hitters go to the plate behaving like Jeff Francoeur, willing to swing at the resin bag if the pitcher throws it, but swinging at a hittable fastball if it comes his way and not worrying that he’ll get yelled at for being a little more aggressive and deviating from the faulty “process.”

The Astros can use this idea of “process” all they want, but the reality is that they may hit a few homers and be drilling it into their hitters from the bottom of their minor league system up that they want patience and don’t care about batting average, but by the time they’re in the middle of their rebuild it might get through that this strategy isn’t what it once was. Waiting, waiting, waiting sometimes means the bus is going to leave without you. Other teams have adjusted enough so it won’t matter if the hitter is trying to intentionally raise the pitch count because it won’t have the same result as it did when the idea first came into vogue with Moneyball. And it’ll go out the window just as the theories in the book have too.

Essays, predictions, player analysis, under the radar fantasy picks, breakout candidates, contract status of all relevant personnel—GMs, managers, players—and anything else you could possibly want to know is in my new book Paul Lebowitz’s 2013 Baseball Guide now available on Amazon.comSmashwordsBN and Lulu. It’s useful all season long. Check it out and read a sample.

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Loria’s Marlins Mistake

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Instead of the accusation that Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria made the change, let’s say that the Marlins President of Baseball Operations Larry Beinfest or, preferably, GM Michael Hill called down to manager Mike Redmond and told him to switch the pitchers in the day/night doubleheader against the Twins and had Jose Fernandez pitch the opener rather than Ricky Nolasco. Would there be this huge uproar over Loria’s “interference?”

Loria denies that he did this, but given the allegations from Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle that Loria lied to their faces and his history of using the gray areas of business to justify his flexibility with the truth, believing him is impossible.

The angry reactions for this, however, are over-the-top. In the above-linked piece, Jeff Passan writes that Loria is guilty of “overstepping boundaries no other owner in baseball would dare.” How he would Passan know this? Is it out of the realm of possibility that owners across baseball are letting their opinions be known and that the employees are well-advised to, as Passan also put it in reference to Loria and manager Mike Redmond, “listen to the man who signs his paycheck?”

What happened to the front office running the team and having a pliable manager who does what he’s told as an implementer of the organizational plan? Whether or not the organizational plan meets the approval of the media and fans is irrelevant. Loria is the owner as he’s more than willing to say and act upon. He did it again in this case.

As for the potential undermining of Redmond, the threat of losing his job, and the unhappiness of the players, what was expected? Just as history has shown that Loria is willing to do anything at any time with gutting trades, lies, bloviating that would’ve embarrassed George Steinbrenner, financial shenanigans that Frank McCourt would feel are excessive, and arrogance that would lead Jim Crane to cringe, he’s also willing to fire managers and has no issue ignoring the feelings of players.

Redmond is in his first major league managing job and any job involving managing/coaching for the Marlins is rapidly turning into being hired by the late Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis to coach the team: a no-lose/no-blame situation. If good things happen, they were unexpected and a byproduct of the good work done by the manager; if bad things happen, they were a result of the endless dysfunction and impossibility of the circumstances. Redmond has a three-year contract and his salary is unknown, but given that it’s the Marlins, that he’s a rookie and they’re still paying former manager Ozzie Guillen the final three years of his four-year, $10 million contract, Redmond’s salary can’t be more than $1.5 million for the duration of the deal. For Loria, if he decides to make a change at some point for any reason, that’s a business expense he’s ready to absorb.

Respect of the players? How much respect was Redmond going to have from the start? The Marlins veterans know what’s happening and will go along to get along, waiting to be traded or allowed to leave as free agents; the young players have no power whatsoever to disrespect the manager, so it’s similar to Redmond still managing in the minor leagues: do what you’re told, keep your mouth shut or you won’t play.

Regarding the supposed “standard protocol” that Passan references when it comes to Nolasco having the option of which game he’ll pitch, it’s not in the basic agreement nor is it a gentleman’s agreement that Loria is beholden to adhere to. It’s a courtesy and Loria ignored it. Nolasco is in the last year of his contract and is going to be traded sooner rather than later. Why should the Marlins care what he thinks about anything?

In retrospect, what Loria should have done was to have Beinfest or Hill tell Redmond of the change. Speaking of protocol, the smart protocol for Loria would have been to use intermediaries to get what he wanted done. This would have insulated him and provided plausible deniability for his orders. It would’ve been known, but not known and the deluge of criticism mitigated.

Either way, what’s the difference? He’s the owner. He can do what he wants. And he’s proven that to be exactly what he’s going to do.

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Beane and Zduriencik: Mirror Images

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Who would play Jack Zduriencik in the movie version of the Mariners rise if it were to occur and one were to be made? I’m thinking Paul Giamatti with glasses and a shaved head. Right now, though, it won’t matter unless they choose to make Moneyball 2 and have Zduriencik as a character in a supporting role. If they really decided to make an accurate version of Moneyball 2, it would center on the amount of luck that Billy Beane had in becoming the worldwide phenomenon he did and why the opposite end of the spectrum is exemplified by Zduriencik and what’s happened with the Mariners.

Zduriencik is running out of time. In his fifth year on the job, the Mariners may have a better farm system than the one he inherited; they might be cheaper; but they’re still losing and he’s in the last year of his contract. An 8-15 record is bad enough, but when the record is accompanied by losing 2 of 3 to the historically horrific Astros; by the offensive players they acquired to improve their run totals failing to produce; and by their home attendance hovering between 10,000 and 15,000 per game, it’s not hard to see what’s coming next: a new regime to enliven the fan base. If a change is made, I could easily see a Pat Gillick return as a short-term solution for two years with Mike Arbuckle as his heir apparent.

When this is going to happen depends on how antsy Chuck Armstrong gets and whether ownership tells him something needs to be done to make it look like they’re doing something. The Mariners are better than this, but unless it shows on the field, that won’t matter. The downfall for Zduriencik that has him heading toward being fired stems not from the Mariners’ poor record and dwindling attendance, but that the expectations were driven upward due to his status as a scout who was also willing to use the new metrics. This led to the hapless columnists like Joel Sherman to refer to him as a “truly Amazin’ exec” in an attempt to bash the Mets while simultaneously bolstering his skewed and ignorant view of how a team “should” be run. Zduriencik’s potential for success was made worse by the Mariners’ leap from 101 losses in 2008 to 85 wins in 2009. That it was a byproduct of luck didn’t matter when penning the narrative. He won, therefore he is a “genius.” It was puffery to further a stat-based “revolution” that created the legend of Jack Z and it’s the reality that it’s not so simple to find players based on sabermetrics that will bring him down. Sometimes the numbers don’t result in players performing.

This relates to Beane in the following way: Beane’s “genius” was crafted by a clever and crafted storyline, Moneyball, that eventually wound up being a movie of the same name starring one of the most bankable stars in the world, Brad Pitt. That the book was twisted and the movie was ludicrous doesn’t make a difference to the lay-fan who believed every word and screen movement as if it were coming from the mouth of God himself and if Michael Lewis is that God, I’ll pull a maneuver straight out of Paradise Lost.

Ironically, when the movie was released, the A’s were tumbling and spiraling like a wounded bird. At that time the only people still clinging to the “Beane as genius” narrative were those who had something invested in it still being seen as accurate. Beane has taken the portrayal and adapted it to the front he puts up. He’s an actor in a show. When his stock was down, he became the passive, “aw shucks,” everyman who did little more than take advantage of market inefficiencies and happened to be the subject of a best-selling book that he didn’t have anything to do with other than allowing Lewis access. It was rife with significant dramatic license, but Beane still took full advantage of his newfound fame. While the team lost, no one wanted to hear it from him other than the aforementioned Beane-zealots. Then when the team started winning again, out came the blustery, Type-A personality to shove it in the faces of those who doubted him and his fickle “fans” reappeared. He’s out there again and is the go-to guy for quotes and validation on subjects aplenty, and they don’t just have to do with baseball.

Beane’s reputation was gone by mid-season 2013. He wanted to go to the Cubs after the 2011 season, but the Cubs preferred Theo Epstein over him. He was with the A’s and stuck with the A’s. Beane and the franchise were like a longtime married couple maintaining the pretense for mutual benefit, to save face, and because there was nowhere else to go. They’d settled into a comfortable, mundane day-to-day existence hoping to win the lottery with their young players and cheap free agent signings. Then, like a family in debt and on the verge of bankruptcy and divorce, they inexplicably did hit the lottery.

How else do you explain Brandon Moss? Beane saw it coming with the failed-with-four-franchises journeyman Moss? Then why was he in the minors for the first half of the season while the A’s messed around with Daric Barton and Kila Ka’aihue? Was he saving Moss as a secret weapon?

Of course not.

It was luck.

The young players they acquired in gutting trades from the previos winter—Ryan Cook, Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone, Josh Reddick—all developed and contribued at once.

Luck.

They came back from 9 games under .500 on June 10th and 13 games out of first place on June 30th to win the division.

Luck.

They were talented, but they took advantage of a Rangers team that had grown complacent and whose main star, Josh Hamilton, was in the midst of a dreadful slump in which he looked like he didn’t want to play.

And they were lucky.

The public doesn’t want to hear the details of how a baby’s made or about genetic good fortune to make said baby into a handsome 6’4” star athlete and number one draft pick like Beane or the same genetics that made Zduriencik a 5’11” infielder who never got above A ball, hit .140 in a brief minor league career, and grew pudgy as he aged. The public just wants to see the baby. With Beane, he’s had an endless stream of good fortune to maintain this veneer; with Zduriencik, he hasn’t been so fortunate. That’s what it comes down to.

The flickering memories of the days of Zduriencik as the next “great” GM are dimming as rapidly as the desperate leaping from the caravan those who created the myth. Now the same people who called Zduriencik the new breed of GM, spending his formative years in scouting and eventually educated in stats, are calling for his dismissal.

If the Mariners start hitting and the back of their rotation pitches better, they’ll play better. If they don’t, they won’t and Zdruiencik is likely to be out of a job at the end of the season or sooner.

It’s better to be lucky when one is closer to the end than at the beginning because if it’s at the beginning, it will be expected; if it’s at the end, it was just luck. And you might save your job.

The A’s sudden rise in 2012 might buy Zduriencik some time as an example of what can happen if a little patience is exhibited, but given the way his tenure has mirrored Beane’s, the luck won’t be present in Seattle and unless they make a drastic turnaround, nor will Zduriencik for much longer.

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Kansas City Royals: Early Season Notes

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Because it’s unquantifiable on their spreadsheets many stat people ridicule the concept of “veteran presence.” The most prominent player whose intangibles are scoffed at is Michael Young. Young has been a very good hitter for his career and a leader in the clubhouse. Why that’s something to try to use as weapon to hammer him with is hard to understand. Much of it, I believe, is due to the likes of Keith Law and his combination of arrogance and obnoxiousness regarding the concept followed by the gang mentality of others who, in trying to garner favor from Law (for inexplicable reasons), provide the sycophantic, “HAHA!!! Veteran presence?!? Absurd!!” as if they have any clue about what it entails in the first place. I’d venture to guess that the majority of these people never participated in team sports and haven’t the faintest idea of how important it is to have leaders in the clubhouse and people who know the terrain of crafting a winner. It’s not simply about having good players. It’s about having people who’ve been there before and can be trusted not to panic regardless of the circumstances.

It was the same Law-style, self-proclaimed “experts” who, last December, abused Royals GM Dayton Moore for trading a large package of youngsters including top outfield prospect Wil Myers to the Rays for James Shields and Wade Davis. The trade was seen as a panic move on the part of Moore in an attempt to have short-term, on-field gain in order to save his job. The opposite argument asks how many years they were supposed to try and rebuild before taking a gamble to move up. They needed pitching and, yes, veteran presence to facilitate taking the next step. Shields was a key part of a Rays team that made a similar rise with homegrown prospects. That franchise was the object of an endless stream of jokes because of their consistent ineptitude. It’s not simply that Shields is standing in the middle of the clubhouse saying, “I’m the leader,” but that he shows it on the field with innings, complete games, and gutting his way through when he doesn’t have his best stuff.

Most young players need a “this is how you do it” guy to teach them. The vast majority of the Royals’ roster is a group of youngsters who’ve never been part of a big league winner. The 2008 Rays’ leap into contention was, in part, brought about by the young players they’d drafted during their years of being atrocious and some savvy trades, but another significant part was due to their acquisitions of veterans Cliff Floyd, Troy Percival, Dan Wheeler, and Jason Bartlett who’d won before and knew how winning clubhouses functioned.

The Royals are currently 10-7 and are teetering like a child learning to walk. They’ve accomplished that record with good starting pitching; a bullpen that has the potential to be devastating; and are leading the American League in runs scored in spite of Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer being off to slow starts.

The Royals were roundly savaged when they traded Myers; they were waved away when they posted a 25-7 record in spring training; and since most of their analysis isn’t based on being accurate, but accruing the perception of having been accurate no matter the amount of twisting required to do it, the “experts” are quietly hoping that the acquisitions of Shields and Davis along with the re-signing of Jeremy Guthrie fail so they’ll have been “right.” If they have the tiniest flicker of baseball intelligence, they’re seeing the reality of the 2013 Royals: they’re very dangerous and have shown the resilient signs and growing confidence of something special happening in Kansas City for the first time in almost 30 years.

Essays, predictions, player analysis, under the radar fantasy picks, breakout candidates, contract status of all relevant personnel—GMs, managers, players—and anything else you could possibly want to know is in my new book Paul Lebowitz’s 2013 Baseball Guide now available on Amazon.comSmashwordsBN and Lulu. It’s useful all season long. Check it out and read a sample.

2013 Book Cover 3

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The Jurickson Profar for Oscar Taveras Trade Talk

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The concept of the Rangers trading top infield prospect Jurickson Profar to the Cardinals for top outfield prospect Oscar Taveras has been heavily discussed recently. The problems are that neither the Rangers nor the Cardinals have talked about it with one another; the GMs, John Mozeliak for the Cardinals and Jon Daniels for the Rangers, have listened politely to the suggestion, given clichéd answers with both basically said they’re not doing it; and it’s a trade that kindasorta makes sense in a “need” and “hole” way, but isn’t going to happen.

So does it count as a trade rumor if it’s a rumor in name only and has no basis in fact? This proposed trade has been prominently pushed by ESPN analyst, SiriusXM radio host and former big league GM Jim Bowden and has taken a wag the dog tone with Bowden constantly ramming it down people’s—including the GMs of the teams—throats as if he’s trying to make it happen by sheer force of creationist will.

Derrick Goold wrote about this “rumor” yesterday and again hammered home the point that neither side is even considering it as anything other than a reply to a “wouldja” question and neither has made the effort to engage the opposite party to discuss such a swap.

The elementary nature in which the dynamics of this trade are presented make it seem so simple. The Rangers need a center fielder and have a young shortstop whose way is blocked; the Cardinals need a shortstop and have a center fielder whose way is blocked. So let’s make a deal. Except it’s not as easy as finding two puzzle pieces that might fit, sticking them together and moving on.

The idea that the Cardinals need to get a shortstop who is a top 5 prospect in the game for the future and should trade another top 5 prospect in the game to get him is absurd. One thing has nothing to do with the other. If the Cardinals were locked in in center field with a Mike Trout-type player, then it would be a reasonable decision to trade from strength to address a weakness. They’re not. Jon Jay is a nice player. He has speed; 10-15 home run pop; is a sound defensive center fielder; and gets on base. He’s not a player for whom any team would say they’re set up at the position for the next decade. He’s 28 and a player you can find on the market. Taveras, by all accounts, is that kind of player and you don’t trade that kind of player for another prospect.

Profar is a shortstop and the Rangers have a shortstop, Elvis Andrus, to whom they just gave a contract extension through 2022 with a 2023 club option. Bowden’s reasoning for the Rangers’ willingness to deal Profar stems from Profar playing shortstop in Triple A when he has no chance of playing that position for the Rangers. Conventional wisdom suggests that if he were going to be a Rangers’ player, he’d be playing second base, center field or wherever they were planning on moving him to get his bat into the lineup. It, like the trade proposition, makes sense before getting into the fact (one Bowden surely knows) that if a guy has the range to play shortstop, you can pretty much put him anywhere on the field and he’ll figure it out. It wouldn’t take an extraordinary amount of time for Profar to grow accustomed to the outfield or more likely second base. The easiest thing to do is to let Profar play short and then decide what to do with him later when they need to come to a final decision as to where he’s going to play or if they want to trade him for a star in his prime.

The “star in his prime” brings up another factor for both teams. A trade of this kind only works if they’re getting a controllable Giancarlo Stanton-type in return or getting a “final piece” in his prime that they figure they’ll have a good chance at signing like David Price. The number of players who fit that profile and are on teams out of contention and willing make that kind of move is limited to the Marlins and Rays. Most players of that magnitude—Andrew McCutchen, Felix Hernandez—are increasingly signing long-term contracts to stay with their current clubs and are not available. Both the Cardinals and the Rangers could use Stanton and Price, so for what possible reason would they trade Profar and Taveras for each other?

They wouldn’t. And they’ve said it. But the story has legs because it’s written about every few days. This is Bowden saying what he’d try to do if he were in charge and given some of the deals he made while he was a GM, I believe him. Unlike a clueless Joel Sherman-type columnist; armchair experts like Keith Law; or some guy or girl with a blog ranting and raving about what he or she would do if they were a GM while simultaneously criticizing people who are actually doing the job and know how hard it is to make this kind of trade, Bowden has an implied credibility for what he says because he’s a two-time Major League GM. That, however, doesn’t mean others think the same way he does, nor does it mean teams will consider what he tosses out there.

Perhaps there’s market research that’s examining the number of webhits that the Profar/Taveras talk is generating. Or maybe Bowden’s found a way to keep himself in the conversation and garner ratings for his show by harping on this with a borderline shrill, “Why aren’t you doing this?!?” More likely, Bowden really believes in the foundation for this trade. But it being logical in a conceptual manner is meaningless if the parties aren’t interested in making the move. The deal is not on the table; it’s not being considered by the people who actually matter in the consummation of trades—the GMs and organizations; and it’s a story that’s only out there because people keep putting it out there. In fantasy baseball, it could happen. In reality it won’t, and it’s reality that counts.

Essays, predictions, player analysis, under the radar fantasy picks, breakout candidates, contract status of all relevant personnel—GMs, managers, players—and anything else you could possibly want to know is in my new book Paul Lebowitz’s 2013 Baseball Guide now available on Amazon.comSmashwordsBN and Lulu. It’s useful all season long. Check it out and read a sample.

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Detroit Tigers: Early Season Notes

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Without looking at inconvenient facts, the easy answer for the Tigers’ 9-9 start would be the absence of a legitimate closer. They’re mixing and matching and after Phil Coke blew a game against the Twins in the second game of the season, they re-signed former closer Jose Valverde to a minor league contract and sent him to Florida to get in shape. (In shape to pitch I mean. Valverde’s protruding belly isn’t going anywhere and doesn’t hinder him one way or the other. He won’t be running a marathon anytime soon.) Valverde has an out in his contract that if he’s not in the big leagues by May 8th, he can become a free agent. That’s not going to happen unless he implodes in the minors. Valverde will be back with the Tigers and if he’s pitching well, will be closing before long. In fact, he’s probably a good fantasy gamble given how he’s alternated being brilliant and horrible. He’ll be cheap.

Amid all of that, the absence of an established closer hasn’t hurt the Tigers all that much. The pitching has been fine; the bullpen has been solid given the circumstances and lack of definition as to the roles; their defensive range is limited, but they’ve only made 4 errors all season so it’s not the defense; and they’re fifth in the American League in runs scored. What’s caused the 9-9 start is inconsistency at the plate. There have been games in which they haven’t hit in the clutch or been shut down entirely. That won’t last with a team that has the offensive firepower of the Tigers.

If you look at their games individually, you’ll see that they’ve gone through phases where they haven’t hit. Seven of their nine wins have been by 4 runs or more. Their starting pitching has been good and when they hit, they win. The easiest thing to do is to blame Rick Porcello and that there’s no closer, but that would be based on not examining what’s really going on, and what’s really going on is that they’ve gotten gaudy offensive numbers from Prince Fielder, Miguel Cabrera, Torii Hunter and Austin Jackson and dreadful offensive numbers from Alex Avila, Omar Infante, Andy Dirks and Victor Martinez rife with streakiness. There’s really not much to worry about. Unlike other teams that have glaring holes, dysfunction and rampant questions, the Tigers don’t. Manager Jim Leyland being cranky about the closer situation doesn’t count as dysfunction. Their 9-9 record isn’t a prototypical sign of underachievement. They’ve played well and it hasn’t shown up in their record. But it will soon enough.

Paul Lebowitz’s 2013 Baseball Guide is now available on Amazon.com, Smashwords, BN and Lulu. Check it out and read a sample.

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Schilling’s Financial Mess Has Plenty Of Blame To Go Around

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In today’s Sunday Business section of the New York Times, Matt Bai writes a great article about Curt Schilling and his failed video game company. What is made clear in the piece is how blinded those who were involved in this failed entrepreneurship/business partnership were to the obvious realities behind it.

The issues that surrounded Schilling throughout his career have extended to his post-career endeavors. The main difference is, back then, it didn’t really affect anyone other than himself and it didn’t harm his teams all that much. He was a great pitcher and if he pitched, the other stuff was shrugged away.

Schilling played for five teams in his career and took a long time to establish himself. In every stop, there was eye-rolling at head-shaking at Schilling the person and his overt theatrics even as he accumulated respect for his abilities, post-season success and willingness to pitch through pain. When he played with the Diamondbacks, there was an uncomfortableness bordering on hate between Schilling and his fellow ace and Cy Young Award contender Randy Johnson. With most teams, it would be construed as jealousy, but with Schilling it wasn’t a unique phenomenon. It was obvious why Schilling would clash with Johnson when Johnson never hid who he really was: a curmudgeonly star who would be happiest if the media never came near him. Schilling, on the other hand, was almost chameleon-like in his personality.

This was a hallmark for his career.

The teammates who considered themselves “real people” like Mitch Williams, thought Schilling was a phony and relentless self-promoter doing things to garner attention. There was a “Will this be cool?” aspect to Schilling that’s indicative of a lack of definition in who he was and what he believed. Like a teenager whose brain hasn’t fully grown and is fighting through puberty, Schilling’s personality was flexible and he never appeared to have evolved into a complete person on its own merit. There’s a constant concern about perception and eventually the line becomes blurred with the cause of something a person is doing and the effect.

“Oh, not many people are willing to be open, hard-core conservatives? I’ll stump for Republican candidates and make clear my political affiliation.”

“What? Nobody pitches complete games anymore? Watch me pitch complete games.”

“Ballplayers are unable to make the transition from athlete to business without losing all their money? I’ll become Bill Gates-rich.”

Most of the quotes are designed to encapsulate my view of Schilling’s thinking except for the words, “Bill Gates-rich.” He actually said that.

It’s a window into his mind that he really believed that his video game company could achieve that level of inexplicable wealth when, for 99.9% of the world’s population, the money Schilling had accumulated as a player as well as the extras ballplayers get for endorsements, broadcasting, autograph shows and whatever would have been more than enough to support them and several generations after them. It’s an egotistical need that was being fed and, in turn, wound up devouring him, his money, and his reputation.

Was there an intentional decision on Schilling’s part to take the loans from Rhode Island and blow it all with nothing to show for it but lawsuits, contretemps and humiliation? Doubtful. But it’s disturbing and telling that he felt the state should have given him more money to prop up the business.

In a similar vein, I don’t think there was any intention on the part of former governor of Rhode Island Donald Carcieri to waste that money by giving it to Schilling. Schilling has accused the current governor, Lincoln Chafee, of intentionally sabotaging his video game business. I don’t think it was any of that. I think that each party was using what benefited himself and his vision for what would further his own interests. Schilling had absurdly ambitious plans and the belief that he’d bull his way through to achieve them without the experience and ability to do so; Carcieri wanted to create jobs to help the flagging economy in his state; Chafee jammed the spigot into the money flow before the investment grew more red than it already was.

What led to this were the mistakes made due to political calculations, desperate agendas, and a starstruck reaction to Schilling’s enthusiasm and name-recognition.

Schilling’s intentions were legitimate, but who would think it’s a good idea to hand him $75 million based on a vague business plan and grandiose statements backed up by his status as a borderline Hall of Fame baseball player? If Jimmy O’Brien from Boston showed up and tried to extract that money from the governor of Rhode Island, he wouldn’t even receive a reply. That’s how ridiculous it was. Since it was Schilling, he got the money.

Had Schilling chosen to lure a series of professionals—CEOs, CFOs, gaming executives—to assist him in allocating that money and creating a viable company, it could have worked with Schilling lending that same star power he used to get the money to selling it rather than running it. But Schilling decided to play big businessman and lost everything he had as well as a massive chunk of Rhode Island’s dwindling cash.

Because his intentions weren’t nefarious doesn’t make it much better than if he just walked in, scammed them, took the money and left because it’s the exact same result.

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Derek Jeter’s Surprise

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The “surprise” isn’t that Derek Jeter is going to be out of action until (at least) after the All-Star break, but that anyone thought he’d be back and healthy so quickly after a serious ankle injury and surgery and be ready for opening day. The obvious joke is that Yankees extended spring training is turning into their version of the Roach Motel: they check in and don’t check out. It happened last year with Michael Pineda who, ironically, was on the last pitch of his rehab outing when he tore the labrum in his shoulder and hasn’t been seen since and now it’s Jeter.

The truth is that the constant harping on Yankees’ superiority has no basis in reality, especially when it comes to medical issues. If that wasn’t understood before, it has to be getting through now as the Yankees are continually having problems with the health of key players Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Pineda, Mark Teixeira and Brett Gardner. Many of the problems were mistreated and misdiagnosed with the programs either failing or hindering the players’ return to health.

This isn’t an indictment against the Yankees; it happens with every team and not much can be done to change it. Players will get hurt and they’ll suffer setbacks.

Regarding Jeter, the question has to be asked if Jeter pushing so hard negatively affected his recovery. In retrospect, the club might’ve been better off telling him—not asking, telling him—that if he wanted to play in spring training, it would be with a local Junior College team because he wasn’t going to be in the lineup for the Yankees until he was deemed by the doctors to be healthy and able to perform, not 60%, 70% or whatever percent—healthy and able to perform.

This injury was called a “new fracture” by GM Brian Cashman. This suggests to me that perhaps Jeter was compensating for the original ankle fracture and injured himself again. That stems from the “I need to get back and prove I’m better” compact with himself that has made Jeter who he is.

If you asked Jeter if he regrets pushing so hard to be ready for opening day, he’d probably say no and he won’t be convinced otherwise. If Jeter were still in his 20s, then maybe he could’ve pulled it off, but the ravages of age—whether we like them or not—must be acknowledged and accepted. While it hasn’t been said, Jeter’s determination to get back on the field in time for opening day probably spurred him to push the envelope in his rehab to expedite matters and all he may have succeeded in doing was delay his return more. Part of the reason Jeter has accomplished everything he has is that determination to prove doubters and those who diminish him as wrong and to achieve his goals on his schedule by his rules. But he’s about to turn 39. The metabolism slows. The body takes a longer time to heal. The outlawed and questionable drugs that might’ve help to speed his recovery are overwhelmingly unlikely to be an option for the image-conscious Jeter. As a result, like a former powerful politician who isn’t used to waiting in line at the movies, in a restaurant, or anywhere else, Jeter has to wait to get back on the field just like everybody else.

This was an important season for Jeter’s future. His contract is up at the end of the season and he has an $8 million player option for 2014. If he had a big year, he could’ve leveraged that into a contract extension through at least 2015 with an option for 2016 and a significant raise. Now he’s obviously going to exercise the option whether he plays this season or not and the Yankees are not going to be beholden to the past and pay him because he’s Derek Jeter. If he can’t play up to the levels he and the club are accustomed to or at least be competent, the Yankees will have no choice but to cut the ties after 2014. He’ll be 40 at that point and expecting his defensive range to be even adequate after the ankle woes is delusional. He won’t move to another position either, which is a Jeter frailty along the lines of pushing his rehab. Sometimes there have to be concessions.

I keep getting the image of the film Born on the Fourth of July starring Tom Cruise where he plays Vietnam vet Ron Kovic who was shot and rendered paraplegic. In the film, the character was in the hospital and in the midst of his denial was using a walker to drag his legs behind him as if he was “walking.” But he wasn’t going to walk again and only succeeded in falling and breaking his leg so the bone stuck out of the skin. Jeter’s plight isn’t that permanent, but it’s in the same ballpark with the same mentality of ignoring the reality and pushing forward even if it only makes things worse.

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Paul Lebowitz’s 2013 Baseball Guide is now available on Amazon.com, Smashwords, BN and Lulu. Check it out and read a sample.

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Accepting the Marlins Inevitable Reality (It Was Clear from the Get-go)

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In today’s New York Times, Tyler Kepner writes about the empty seats in Marlins Park; about the gutting of the franchise; and the possibly bright future the Marlins have because of all the prospects they accumulated in trades of veterans.

We can go into the lack of attendance and perceived wrongdoing of owner Jeffrey Loria, but what he does is in the same ballpark (pardon the dual entendre) of what the Astros are currently doing, but the Astros are receiving widespread praise for putting together a big league club that is a big league club in name only. Weeks ago, I gave Astros owner Jim Crane a written lashing for his arrogant statements that if fans want the team to spend money, they should write him a check among other, “I’m a big shot, you’re not” alpha male nonsense, but no one else did. Astros GM Jeff Luhnow is a stat guy centerfold and little criticism is heading the way of their front office in spite of their on-field atrocity.

The political machinations that got Marlins Park built, predominately at the expense of Floridians, is still being sorted out with allegations, accusations and SEC investigations. Does anyone really believe that the investigation will amount to much, if any penalties for the likes of Loria or the powerbrokers who facilitated him getting his new park and not paying for it? Loria fits every small bit of chicanery into the flexible rules under which he operates. Similar to the Astros within-the-rules stripping of their payroll to the bare minimum and putting a team on the field that on most days is non-competitive against legitimate Major League teams, there’s no rule saying Loria can’t sign free agents and trade them a year later; that he can’t fire his manager Ozzie Guillen one year into a four year contract; that he can’t take the benefits from the new park, pocket the profits and flip a chubby middle finger at anyone who dares question him.

The Marlins were a disappointment in 2012. Loria was right to fire Guillen for the poor job he did on the field and the ridiculous statement he made early in the season praising Fidel Castro. He had options rather than gutting the club (again) by retooling with a different manager and a tweak here and there to give it another shot in 2013. But it wouldn’t have made a difference with the fans if the Marlins were contending in 2013 with a manager who didn’t alienate a vast portion of the fans they hoped to attract. It wasn’t and isn’t going to work in Miami because the fans aren’t interested.

The Marlins attendance improved dramatically last season in comparison to 2011. During that year, their usual numbers were between 10,000 and 20,000. It was an annual problem. When there were higher attendance figures, it stemmed from ancillary attractions like the Mets and Dodgers fans who’ve relocated to Florida and wanted to watch their teams. One the one hand, it’s not fair to question the reasons the fans are coming—their money is just as green regardless which club they’re rooting for—but on the other, the Marlins can look at the increase in attendance and realize that it’s fleeting and say, “Yeah, but they didn’t come to see us,” and act accordingly.

In 2012, the attendance was better than it was when they played in Sun Life Stadium, a football facility. With the new park, they regularly drew crowds of nearly 30,000 and finished twelfth in the National League in attendance. That’s counting the second half after they’d conceded the season and traded Hanley Ramirez, Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante. Before 2012, they were annually at the bottom in attendance going back 15 years. In 1997, when they spent a ton of money and won the World Series, they were fifth in the National League in attendance, but it’s petered out and whether the team was good or not, the fans don’t have the passion. Since then, it’s gone rapidly downhill and even after they won another World Series in 2003, there wasn’t the usual accompanying attendance spike. The Marlins have stayed anchored to the bottom of the ocean of attendance.

And that’s the point. The Miami fans are not fickle, hammering home the point that the new park shouldn’t have been built in the first place. If someone stood up and told Loria to take his threats and his team and move if that’s what he had to do, none of the other stuff—the park, the investigation, the free agents, the trades, the faux anguish—would’ve happened. If he received a new park in San Antonio, Oregon, North Carolina or anywhere, the overwhelming probability is that he would’ve moved and done the exact same thing that he does in Miami—bought people’s favor, made promises and then utilized flexible statements and semantics to justify the gutting of the team and defend against accusations of ruthless profiteering. He’s a combination of a politician and a classically brutal businessman. He may want to have a team that wins, but when he sees that it’s not going to happen, all bets are off. It’s admirable in its way if you know what you’re dealing with going in.

Amid all the head shaking and abuse raining down on Loria, it all goes back to the initial mistake: giving in to his threats to move the club and Florida allowing him to get his park without paying for it. No one should be surprised, chagrined, or angry at the Marlins method of doing business. The system was rife for abuse and Loria abused it. There was no other way this could’ve ended and if the traded players Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes, et al, didn’t see it coming; if the people who could’ve stopped the park from being built didn’t make a greater effort to do so; if MLB is allowing clubs like the Marlins and Astros to do whatever they want in their own best interests, then it’s on them for allowing it to happen. Lamenting it after the fact as if the money spent on the park would’ve been better-used for charitable causes is ludicrous. The Monday morning quarterbacking is done so in the same vein as the original decision to let the Marlins build the park. It was done for expediency and self-interest. The park wasn’t for the fans nor was it to “save” baseball in Miami because baseball in Miami can’t be saved. They don’t care whether it’s there or not.

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