The Yankees promote Gregorius with none-too-subtle shots at Jeter

MLB

The commercialization of new New York Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius is in full swing. We get it. Derek Jeter was a subpar defender. We’re not just talking about the latter years of his career when he was slowed by injury and age. For the bulk of his time as the Yankees’ centerpiece at shortstop, he was lacking in range and made up for that with flashiness and a passive aggressiveness with anyone who dared suggest he move to another position or decided it was a good idea to point out the statistical facts regarding his deficiencies. For every jump-throw, sublime style at running into short left field for popups, and dives into the stands, Jeter’s supposed “all-around” game, Gold Gloves and promotion for having defensive prowess was known to be inaccurate by those who weren’t hypnotized by his star status.

Whether it was a byproduct from fan anger at the mere suggestion he wasn’t what he was portrayed to be; the media trying to stay on Jeter’s good side; teammates, coaches and front office people pointing out unseen factors and intangibles, the truth hovers in the mist. Jeter might not have been what his myth makers say he was as an all-around player, but he did make up for it with trustworthiness in big spots and coolness knowing that nervousness wouldn’t spur him to boot a grounder in a tie game in the eighth inning of game six of the the World Series with runners on first and third. His intelligence and awareness were valuable even if his range wasn’t.

Now that he’s retired and there isn’t the need to avoid his famous freeze-out tactic for those who dared cross him, there’s not only a baseball-wide honesty about his shortcomings, but even the Yankees seem somewhat relieved that they’re no longer forced to walk gingerly around their captain, placating and humoring him for the sake of the greater good. Given the tumultuous relationship between he and Jeter as frenemies, it’s no surprise that Alex Rodriguez is touting Gregorius’s range with undisguised awe. It was A-Rod who moved to third base when he was traded to the Yankees in 2004 to accommodate Jeter’s status and ego even though it was known by one and all that A-Rod wasn’t just a little bit better as a defensive shortstop, but a lot better. It was A-Rod who was characterized as the opposite of Jeter in terms of everything from on-field professionalism to off-field embarrassments. The image of Jeter as everything a player and person should aspire to be with A-Rod as the definition of someone who screwed it all up still chafes A-Rod to the point that he’s taking these small, opaque potshots. There’s a double entendre there with A-Rod still playing and Jeter’s looming presence nothing more than a shadow. This is no shock. What’s odd is how it’s extended to other players who are noting Gregorius’s range.

Mark Teixeira and Chase Headley have mentioned it along with A-Rod and the media is running with it. In part, it’s boosting the perception of the player who has the thankless job of replacing Jeter and doesn’t have the resume to guarantee a level of production that he’ll be able to do it. In dual part, it’s seemingly to take subtle shots at Jeter.

It’s natural for there to be a certain amount of jealousy to the sway that Jeter had with the Yankees, the media and the public. This was compounded when his play didn’t warrant the myth. As the season wound down, it’s unavoidable that the veterans who had to endure the endless, nauseating subservience in every…single…park they went to last season would tire of it in rhetoric and reality. Jeter absolutely deserved to be feted, but the peer pressure that was exerted turned it into a case of diminishing returns. Teammates standing on the top step of the dugout, having to answer questions about what Jeter meant to them, trying to find ways to make platitudes sound fresh in describing his importance even if he was a minuscule percentage of what he once was became an integral part of their day even if they didn’t want to be doing it. It has a draining effect on those who have their own issues to worry about.

Obviously a faction in the Yankees clubhouse – extending beyond the obvious one, A-Rod – are glad that Jeter’s gone even if they can’t say it if they value their future in pinstripes. It’s a fact that the baseball people in the front office are happy he’s gone whether Gregorius is the long-term answer or not. The exhaustion from the maudlin sentimentality notwithstanding, it’s morphed from them sticking to the script as to Jeter’s greatness to pointing out what Jeter wasn’t at the end while simultaneously saying how Gregorius’s range is so far superior to his predecessor.

Jeter is at fault for a large portion of this. For all the class he exhibited in personifying what the Yankees claim they should be, he was a party to the shameless sale of all things Jeter in a gauche display of greed. He acted as if the mere suggestion that he move to another position was an insult to his manhood when it might have been better for the team had he willingly done so. The Yankees created the spectacle and amplified it to sell tickets, gear, souvenirs and mementos in a down year that was also a likely portent to a down cycle for the club.

Although Gregorius’s range is much better than Jeter’s, that’s not the biggest compliment in the world. At the end of his career Jeter was essentially a statue whose range was limited to how far he could fall to the left or right. At the height of his career, it wasn’t all that good either. Placing Jeter in the pantheon of Yankees greats like Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle was always preposterous. Making attempts to trivialize and diminish what he accomplished because he wasn’t on their level is equally preposterous.

Now that he’s gone, there’s an increased freedom to point out his negatives. No matter where you land on the subject of whether or not Jeter was overblown, overrated and that his narrative was largely scripted with an end in mind, he doesn’t deserve to be criticized in comparison to the 25-year-old kid who’s been imported to replace him.

Gregorius has never even played a full season as a regular in the majors. In fact, there’s a legitimate chance that he’ll end up back in the minors at some point this season. Jeter was a great player in his own right and he won. For all his issues, Jeter wouldn’t panic in a big moment and he could actually hit. Will Gregorius panic? Can he hit? Physical tools are fine, but it’s implementing those tools that defines a career. Jeter maximized and surpassed his ability. He stayed out of compromising situations and never embarrassed himself, his club or baseball in general. He’s a rarity. Replacing him isn’t so simple and in spite of the eye-rolling and exasperated sighs the supplication of him elicited, he deserves better than to be negatively compared to Gregorius or any other player they find to take his place.

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The Cubs and Kris Bryant: following the rules, manipulating them or both?

MLB

After all the debates, arguments, anger, rhetoric, defensiveness, explanations, excuses and rants, it comes down to the one simple question regarding the Chicago Cubs and third base prospect Kris Bryant: Are they following the rules, manipulating them or both?

It’s not a hedge or a dodge or an attempt to avoid taking a side to say it’s both.

If the Cubs keep Bryant in the minors for a minimum of 12 days at the beginning of the season, they’ll be able to recall him, play him for almost the entire season while simultaneously having an extra year of team control before he’s eligible for free agency. There’s nothing illegal about this. It doesn’t even violate the collective bargaining agreement as it currently stands. As for whether or not it’s ethical or moral, that’s up in the air. From the perspective of Bryant and his agent Scott Boras, it’s a manipulation in violation of the spirit of the rule. From the perspective of the Cubs and team president Theo Epstein, it’s manipulation camouflaged by the rules and buttressed by the excuse that Bryant needs to improve his defense at third base.

Is it true that he needs to improve his defense? Yes. Is that improvement going to magically happen over the course of two weeks after he’s been working on his defense for years? You tell me.

It’s ironic how Epstein’s methods are glorified when the vast proportion of the media agrees with them and/or they work, but when he does something that looks shady, it turns into a relentless holy war as to how far his ruthlessness should go. Epstein is a new age baseball executive whose entire being is supposedly based on objective analysis. It was how he helped build the Boston Red Sox to win the club’s first World Series in 84 years; it’s how he grew into the epitome of what many analysts and observers believe a sports executive should be; and it’s how he’s gotten a pass on certain behaviors that are petty, babyish, self-indulgent and morally and ethically questionable.

This is no different from the tactics that made Billy Beane famous and helped Epstein win that elusive championship for the Red Sox. It’s how he’s trying to win another elusive championship with the Cubs. Finding loopholes and stretching the boundaries to its fullest advantage isn’t limited to finding a Scott Hatteberg or David Ortiz. It includes blaming managers like Dale Sveum when the “plan” isn’t following the preordained script. It includes dumping Sveum’s replacement, Rick Renteria like he’s the first wife to a suddenly famous Hollywood actor when the “hotter” wife who was previously unattainable, Joe Maddon, comes along.

You can’t have it both ways. It’s one or the other. Either you’re all in with Epstein’s methods or you’re not. For now, he’s bulletproof because he has the resume to be bulletproof. Even the shallow critiques of his treatment of Bryant and arrogant dismissal of assertions that he’s simply using sleight of hand to justify it won’t change the outcome: they’re sending him to the minors to start the season. Those who suddenly find his actions distasteful are not in a position to be judging him since it’s they who built him up in the first place.

With Bryant and how he’s likely to lose that year of service time, this is a loophole that is the responsibility of the union to close. Some players have willingly gone along with being kept them in the minors for this reason alone. Evan Longoria is the most famous case as the Tampa Bay Rays started him in Triple A in 2008, recalled him and immediately signed him to a long-term contract that has since been called the most value-laden deal in baseball history. At the time, the idea of signing a player who hadn’t yet played in the big leagues to a guaranteed contract was revolutionary or insane. It turned out to be a stroke of brilliance on the part of the Rays that was rapidly copied. Players like the Astros’ George Springer who don’t give in to the pressure with the big league carrot dangling in front of them are kept in the minors. Players like Bryant will simply have to deal with the reality that his free agency will likely come after 2021 instead of after 2020.

To compound Longoria’s acquiescence to and tacit agreement with this circumventing of the spirit of the CBA, he also eschewed his opportunity to gauge his value on the open market Robinson Cano-style and get the $200+ million deal he’d undoubtedly receive by signing another contract extension with the Rays for $100 million in guaranteed money.

Every time a player does what Longoria, Mike Trout and many others have done and take the upfront, guaranteed money in lieu of free market capitalism, it damages what Boras is trying to do, much to the chagrin and anger of the agent. Even one of Boras’s own clients, Jered Weaver, took less money to stay with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, citing his happiness with the club and that he didn’t need to get every single available dollar to prove his worth. Weaver is an anomaly among Boras clients.

Since Bryant’s agent is Boras, the likelihood of the player signing a long-term extension with the Cubs to buy out his arbitration eligibility and first few years of free agency are minuscule if not outright not-existent. This is the way in which the Cubs are combating the understanding that they’ll have Bryant for a limited period and either have to pay him or move on. Longoria and Weaver were content enough in their station and egos that they didn’t have to scrounge for every penny. Not everyone is like that.

Strangely, the Cubs have stated that they’re going to play Bryant in the outfield over the next few spring training games essentially undermining the entire concept of him getting his defense at third base to be serviceable enough that he’s deemed “ready” for major league duty. Then again, it’s a wink-and-nod act of dishonesty to say that his defense isn’t good enough and that it will improve in those two weeks in the minors that, coincidentally, will also let the Cubs keep him at a reasonable price for an extra year.

The fact is that everyone knows what the Cubs are doing. Not everyone agrees with it, but it’s perfectly legal based on the CBA. If the union and Boras have a problem with it, it’s up to them to close the loophole to stop it from happening again.

While the number of home runs that Bryant has hit in spring training (nine in 32 plate appearances as of this writing) is largely irrelevant and doesn’t mean he’s automatically “ready” for the majors, he’s clearly got the goods to be a big league star. A former second overall pick with consistently massive production at every minor league level, he’s going to hit and hit with power in the majors. But it won’t be until after 12 days have passed in the 2015 season.

Aiken’s injury doesn’t validate the Astros

MLB

While there are factions using the news of the apparent injury to unsigned former Houston Astros first round, first overall draft pick Brady Aiken to validate general manager Jeff Luhnow’s plan, the truth is that this neither reflects on Aiken, nor does it justify the Astros’ brutal attempt to reduce the bonus Aiken was offered after an issue was seen on Aiken’s elbow in his post-draft medical examination.

This story is being used to its maximum benefit by those who are invested in the success of the Astros’ blueprint of ruthless adherence to running the club as a business, setting lines on how much they spend, and defying conventional wisdom to the degree of risking a top prospect being lost with their attempts to allocate money wisely.

Of course, each side will have its own version of events and try to spin it to its best advantage. The problem the Astros face in running the club as a business is that a conventional business isn’t under the public scrutiny that a sports organization is with real time criticism and a lack of accountability for those making their critiques. No one’s going to apologize either way. They’ll gloat or stay silent, but the arrogance and egomania that comes with being a self-proclaimed “expert” hinders any real analysis as to the turn of events.

In a broader context, when it comes to immediate reaction, long-term assessment, hindsight and a grudging acknowledgement of having been right, this situation is similar to what happened with the Boston Red Sox, Roger Clemens and Dan Duquette after the 1996 season.

Duquette stayed silent after setting an amount he was willing to pay to keep Clemens with the Red Sox as he entered free agency season and let the pitcher depart to the Toronto Blue Jays. Clemens won two Cy Young Awards in Toronto, was traded to the New York Yankees and signed as a free agent with the Astros, winning two more. He was a prime example of the value of hard work and determination.

All the while Duquette kept quiet, endured the glares from Clemens and the overt hatred of his club’s media contingent and fan base not just for allowing Clemens to leave and denigrating him by saying he was in the “twilight” of his career, but watching as Clemens went to the hated Yankees, won the World Series that – to that point – had still eluded the Red Sox, and maintaining the dull, passionless monotone that indicated he didn’t care about baseball in the visceral way that was a hallmark of being involved with the Red Sox.

Through what was promoted as a dedication to an intense workout regimen, a laser-like focus to one’s craft and a determination to prove Duquette wrong, Clemens set the standard for a late-career renaissance, defying age and predictions of a decline with a high-level performance into his 40s.

Of course, in retrospect, it was all a lie. Clemens is widely believed to have achieved his late-career heights through a combination of pitching knowledge, hard workouts and a significant amount of performance enhancing drugs. Duquette’s failures with the Red Sox are now viewed in a different light. He was moderately successful given the circumstances. For laying a large part of the foundation he gets lukewarm credit from those who portray John Henry as the club’s savior and Theo Epstein as the youthful genius and architect of the Red Sox three championship teams from 2004 to 2013 since it was Duquette who traded for Pedro Martinez, Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe, signed Manny Ramirez, and drafted Kevin Youkilis.

Ironically as Clemens plummeted in the eyes of the public and became a baseball pariah – he settled his defamation lawsuit with former trainer, whistleblower and PED provider Brian McNamee just this week – Duquette has gone from a running joke who couldn’t get a job in Major League Baseball to winning Executive of the Year as Baltimore Orioles general manager, rebuilding the team back to relevance after years of embarrassment as a wasteland for over-the-hill veterans desperate for a job and final payday, and was the main target to take over as president of the aforementioned Blue Jays.

1996 seems like a long time ago because it is a long time ago. But it’s a long time ago both literally and figuratively. While Clemens was at the height of his powers and a testament to his love of baseball, competing and greatness, Duquette was viewed as someone who would never again helm a big league team.

Duquette never gloated publicly, but he didn’t have to. In the end, all the vitriol, hatred and criticism is meaningless because in hindsight, he won.

The point of all this isn’t just to point out how Clemens rose and Duquette fell after that fateful decision to let Clemens leave the Red Sox and Duquette’s honest statement that he didn’t believe the then-34-year-old was ever going to regain his dominance. It’s that the perspective of being “right” or “vindicated” can’t be known until the story is told – truthfully and in its entirety – as to what really happened.

The reality of the Aiken situation isn’t linked to prescience on the part of the Astros. If that were the case, why did they only reduce the offer upon which they had a principal agreement with Aiken from $6.5 million to $5 million? Was that an amount of money they felt comfortable blowing on an injured pitcher just to save face for drafting him first overall? And if face-saving is the objective, what does that say about their attachment to numbers and business principles?

The Astros, by then, must have been keenly aware that they’d blown $3.25 million on Jesse Crain, not receiving one single pitch from him in the minors or majors.

The money wasn’t the issue.

The fact is they saw an opportunity for themselves to save that $1.5 million, sign two other players they wanted – Mac Marshall and Jacob Nix – and get Aiken at a discount. If Aiken signed and needed Tommy John surgery, so what? The vast proportion of pitchers who have the ligament replacement procedure are not only able to come back, but they come back even better than they were before. For a pitcher like Aiken who was compared to Clayton Kershaw and who Astros scouts said had a chance to be one of the best pitchers in the history of the game, $6.5 million is a minuscule amount to pay when calculating all the factors into the equation. If they were really worried, why didn’t they do what the Texas Rangers did with R.A. Dickey after he was a first round draft pick who, it was discovered, didn’t have the ulnar collateral ligament in his arm at all and lower his bonus at the same percentage the Rangers did when they reduced Dickey’s offer from more than $800,000 to $75,000?

They wanted Aiken. They wanted Nix. They wanted Marshall. The elbow might have been a slight worry, but it wasn’t so terrible that they walked away from the player. In the end, they might have been right to be concerned, but they weren’t right because of the concerns. They were simply trying to be clever and may have been justified by Aiken getting hurt.

Those among the Astros and in their media and fan base who are doing a full 180 and chortling over Aiken’s misfortune and the Astros’ foresight probably shouldn’t be too impressed with themselves. After their first several years of being shielded by the stat-centric media like some (sober) Secret Service and a fanatical fan base buying into the talking points as if they’re gospel presented from the baseball Gods like a hypnotized constituency hoping and praying that they’ll benefit in the end, the clock is finally ticking on Luhnow and his staff. They have to show on-field improvement this year or there will be a call for changes in the front office and how they conduct business. The Aiken injury might give them some breathing space, but not much and not for the right reasons.

In the next decade, we’ll see who was smarter and whether or not Aiken fulfills the promise or winds up flaming out as a broken down bust. The Astros and their remaining avid supporters would be better-served to keep their mouths shut in public and in private rather than celebrating over an injury to an 18-year-old as a means to prove that they were “right” and hammer home the rightness of a plan that is still yet to yield any tangible, on-field benefits.

Theories on Tony LaRussa’s sabermetrics rattling

MLB

It’s been impossible to find an actual transcript about what Tony LaRussa said as a guest at the 2015 SABR Analytics Conference. Given what was tweeted and mentioned on other social media forums, it’s clear that LaRussa in his position as Chief Baseball Officer for the Arizona Diamondbacks, hasn’t altered his stance on certain aspects of sabermetrics. Let’s look at how LaRussa’s anger might be explained and if there’s any chance to understand rather than ridicule.

The grumpy old man defense

If you’ve dealt with a person who’s growing older, it’s inevitable that they’ll forget the way they behaved and the things they did when they were younger. Their worldview will harden and as the lines of propriety shift, even what was once the most liberal mind will begin to sound like a neoconservative.

LaRussa believes what he believes. He sees what he sees. He knows what he knows. If someone who he’s worked with or competed against and respects provides him with a new formula to gain an advantage on how to win a baseball game, he’ll listen. If Jim Leyland, Lou Piniella, Joe Torre and even someone with whom he doesn’t have the warmest and fuzziest of relationships like Dusty Baker, comes to him and advocates a new theory, he’ll be all ears because it’s guys talking baseball. If some baseball outsider walks up to him waving a computer printout or shoving an iPad in his face simultaneously telling him what he does is wrong and why he’s a moron for doing it that way, he’s going to react and ignore what they have to say. He’s going to rail against them to retaliate.

As someone who’s older and has seen pretty much everything there is to see in baseball on a practical basis, he might not believe that he needs to have a mathematical calculation to tell him what’s what. In part, it might be that he doesn’t want to have to work to change his opinion based on the numbers, but will make the change without admitting to why he’s making it. It’s a tacit admission and about as close someone like him will come to saying, “Hey, you were right and I was wrong.” That might be viewed as laziness, but at 70-years-old, don’t expect exhaustive study into WAR or wOBA.

The new age people better have a resume…in baseball

LaRussa is still friends with Sandy Alderson. It was Alderson who brought a large segment of sabermetrics into baseball. He’ll listen to what Alderson has to say. On the other side of the spectrum, having managed Billy Beane as a player and knowing Beane’s real life story and not some fictionalized version designed to make him into a superhero, LaRussa’s portrayal as the stripped emperor in Moneyball will automatically result in him balling his fists and lashing out at anyone involved in the book. His character was impugned as that of an antiquated, over-powerful dinosaur living off of an unfounded reputation as the original genius when the “real” genius (according to the book) was, in fact, Bill James and his pseudo offspring, specifically Beane for implementing the numbers to the degree he did.

Like a biblical tome and its followers, who cares whether it’s true? LaRussa does.

With some justification, LaRussa doesn’t want to hear from some 25-year-old kid who went to M.I.T. suddenly referencing an algorithm as to why LaRussa shouldn’t have bunted with his team down a run in the bottom of the ninth inning after the batter leading off the inning doubled. Experience counts and LaRussa has been doing this for more than 50 years.

While LaRussa still rails against Keith Law for the apparent – and factually inaccurate – belief that Law cost Adam Wainwright the National League Cy Young Award, the anger at Law is not just about that incident. As irrational as his dislike for Law is, he’s not the only baseball insider, young and old, veteran and newbie, who views Law with disdain. He’s just the only one who says it openly. Law’s resume is bolstered by having worked in a Major League front office with the Toronto Blue Jays, but when he was there, he was a numbers guy. It’s a false and circular “if-then” addition to his credentials. He left the front office, went to work for ESPN and suddenly became a “scouting guru.” It’s up to the reader and listener to determine whether or not his assessments are coming from a place of knowledge or if he’s simply soaked up information from actual scouts and is regurgitating them. I’m in the latter camp. Presumably, so is LaRussa.

The stat guys saying, “You don’t understand the math” is the same thing as LaRussa saying, “You never played the game.” Both have a basis in truth. To say that it’s just LaRussa and baseball that has chafed at the supposed outsider’s numbers-based intrusion, one need only look at Nate Silver’s ouster/departure from the New York Times as evidence that this is not a narrow experience limited to sports in which people who are in the trenches throw haymakers when the value of their work is called into question. There are ways to get others to listen to a differing viewpoint without alienating them and there’s a lack of people skills and deftness on both sides causing a din and drowning out what could be a profitable back-and-forth.

For someone like Law to imply that he could manage a game better than LaRussa or an experienced political reporter having his or her work denigrated by Silver is a petri dish for contentiousness and sniping. It’s no surprise that these figures are so polarizing when intruding into someone else’s life’s work.

The mirror image

The problem with many stat people is identical to why LaRussa doesn’t want to hear from them and why LaRussa’s early reputation was one of pompous arrogance: they come across as condescending and smug if you dare disagree with them. The group mentality and anonymity of the internet protects them from being called out on what they say and, when challenged, they’ll retreat to snark saying things they’d never say to the person were he or she standing in front of them.

When LaRussa was coming up as a manager, no one was doing what he was doing. The shifts; the frequent pitching changes; the lineup juggling; the spitting in the face of “this is the way we’ve always done it” made him a lot of enemies. Once he was successful, it was quickly and surreptitiously copied without an admission that he might have been right. The same thing has been happening with sabermetrics.

The two-faces

While he might be set in his ways, LaRussa’s not stupid. He knows that many of the people in the crowd at the saber conferences will politely ask questions, request pictures and autographs, tell him how much they admire him and then retreat to their laptops at a local Starbucks to write a 1,000 word blog post as to why he’s a fool.

For someone who has been in the masculine, testosterone-fueled world of baseball for almost his entire life to have to deal with these collateral sneak attacks is a personal affront as a professional and as a man. It’s LaRussa who advocates the use of beanballs as retaliation; it’s LaRussa who is so feisty a competitor that he almost had fistfights with opposing managers Baker and Buck Showalter; and it’s LaRussa who hears about or reads everything said and written about him to see if there’s the need to start a new vendetta.

Why he came back

At this point in his life, LaRussa could enjoy life in retirement, work in his various charities, make money as an adviser to teams, do some analysis and broadcasting work, and just take it easy. Perhaps he took the Diamondbacks job out of sheer competitiveness. Maybe he wanted the money. Or it’s possible that he wanted to prove to the world that an old-schooler like him could still show these interlopers a thing or two.

It’s no secret that he and Houston Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow butted heads when Luhnow was hired to overhaul the draft for the St. Louis Cardinals as scouting director. A sheer outsider who’d never played baseball at a level higher than high school telling LaRussa about baseball? No. People undermining the pitching philosophies of guru Dave Duncan? Double no. Having Walt Jocketty forced out because he also resisted the insinuations of the Luhnow brigade? Triple no.

LaRussa, with his experience at sharp-elbowed infighting and inter-organizational politics, won the power struggle and Luhnow’s influence was eventually mitigated in favor of the LaRussa faction. Ironically, both departed the organization after that World Series. Both deserved a share of the credit for the last team they were involved in building, the 2011 World Series champion Cardinals. Luhnow left to run his own team and LaRussa left because he was going out on top and could leave validated that his way won. But that wasn’t enough. Now he’s trying to prove he can beat them at the front office game they’ve largely taken over and he’ll do it his way. He’s either going to win big his way or his archenemies will be proven “right.”

In truth, it’s a combination of both experience and new age numbers that are necessary to build a successful team. Neither will admit it and LaRussa is so egomaniacal and is immersed in the above issues that he’ll stick to his familiar rants to maintain the veneer of the original genius.

Yankees are doing the right thing with Tanaka

MLB

Amid all the media recommendations, outsider assessments, social media MDs (without the training or education) and predictions of doom and gloom, the New York Yankees are handling the Masahiro Tanaka injury situation perfectly by keeping it simple: he’ll pitch as long as he can pitch and then when he can’t pitch, he’ll have surgery.

In the real world – one in which everyone isn’t an expert on everything and has a forum to express that expertise – they really have no other choice. The spate of Tommy John surgeries and its supposed success rate makes it seem as if it’s little more than a minor procedure from which every pitcher will recover fully and be back as good as new. Of course, that’s not the case.

The surgery itself isn’t a guarantee as this piece in today’s New York Times discusses. At the top end of the spectrum and often mentioned as a comparison and prayer for Tanaka’s future is St. Louis Cardinals’ ace Adam Wainwright, who pitched for five years with a ligament tear before needing to have the surgery done. Many pitchers have returned from the surgery better than ever. Some, like Ryan Madson, haven’t. The newest trend is pitchers like Kris Medlen and Jonny Venters needing to have the surgery twice. Old-schoolers point out the paranoia that is prevalent in today’s game with such terminology as “prehab,” innings limits, protective devices and the tactics that are used to keep pitchers on the field and is failing to do so while playing up the idea that the likes of Nolan Ryan, Fergie Jenkins, Gaylord Perry, Tom Seaver and Jim Palmer would rack up 280 to 350 innings without getting injured. That ignores the number of pitchers who flamed out, went undiagnosed and kept pitching through pain to keep their jobs. “He blew out his arm” is not a medical diagnosis, but that’s what was said before there was the capacity to repair these injuries.

Given the frequency of Tommy John surgeries that are necessary with Tim Collins having had it and Yu Darvish needing it, there’s a rampant debate as to why this is happening. There’s no answer due to a lack of information, an absence of consensus and dueling agendas.

Well, there might be an answer, but like the possible presence of a deity or life among the stars, we don’t know it. It might depend on the individual or there could be a smoking gun that’s yet to be found. Theories can be presented and other theories can debunk them. Is it mechanics? Is it weight training? Is it that pitchers are throwing as hard as they can for as long as they can when, in the past, most didn’t do that? Is it the new medical technology that’s more apt to discover the injury rather than giving an all-encompassing and inexact Rx of “rest” from the diagnosis of “sore arm?”

Who really knows?

With his dour attitude, sleep-inducing monotone and self-indulgent corporate terminology, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman might sound like a droning dullard. But when slashing through his verbose statements and world weary tone when discussing Tanaka, he’s absolutely right in the basic statement of not being worried about Tanaka; that he can’t control what happens, so it is what it is. There’s nothing that can be done about it. This is not a case of the Yankees picking and choosing various unproven techniques of development that failed with their young pitchers Joba Chamberlain, Ian Kennedy and Phil Hughes and citing studies, biomechanical experts, historical abstracts and reams of data to prove its efficacy and why it should have worked. It’s a medical diagnosis that Tanaka does not need the surgery right now. Several opinions from respected medical professionals have been garnered. So what’s the dispute?

The demand of “just get the surgery” from some morally destitute website, a rag’s “expert baseball” columnist, or dimwit on Twitter doesn’t supersede an experienced doctor saying he doesn’t need it now. It’s not Münchausen Syndrome by Proxy in which the surgery and attention is the rush for the caregivers with no want or need for it to be performed. It’s not a surgically disfigured rich and famous person who’s addicted to plastic surgery, is told he or she looks “great” by sycophants and has a doctor doing the procedures for: A) the money; and B) because they know the patient will just go to another doctor to get the surgery done anyway with the “at least I can watch my patient” as the ingrained excuse for enabling them. It’s real life, the Yankees’ investment and Tanaka’s career.

Part of the Yankees’ attitude, at least from those who have an idea about baseball, is a cold-blooded realization that if they lose Tanaka, they’re going to finish under .500. Unless he’s something close to the dominating pitcher he was last year and the redundant parity in the American League East keeps the win total to capture the division in the mid-80s, the Yankees are nothing more than an also-ran even with him. While the delusional nature of the spoiled Yankees fan might believe that there’s a magical aspect to the organization, there’s no magic. There’s no miracle.

So it comes back to Tanaka. The Yankees tack with Tanaka is decidedly and unintentionally old-school. Before Tommy John surgery was possible, a pitcher whose elbow ligament was torn would do what Tanaka did, take time off, try to recover and come back to pitch. When he couldn’t pitch anymore, he was done. That was it. That’s what the Yankees have accepted now. They’ll monitor him and protect him when and where they can. It’s doubtful you’ll see Tanaka pitch even one complete game this year, but with the Yankees’ one major strength being the bullpen, there won’t be any reason for him to pitch any complete games. Let him pitch until he can’t pitch. Then he’ll have the surgery. It’s simple. It’s clear. It’s decisive. And it’s right.

The right question to ask about Chip Kelly and the Philadelphia Eagles

College Football, NFL

As the Philadelphia Eagles make one headline after another during the NFL’s free agent frenzy, the question most often being asked about Eagles coach and de facto organizational boss Chip Kelly is, “Does he know what he’s doing?”

It’s a bad question, but it’s all part of an agenda designed to ridicule, express sarcasm and make preemptive “predictions” as to how the additions and subtractions will fare. It unavoidably degenerated into the ludicrous as football know-nothing Stephen A. Smith of ESPN trolled for ratings and web hits by implying that Kelly is a racist.

The idea in and of itself is nonsensical but, ironically, it coincides with why Kelly’s wheeling and dealing shouldn’t be viewed as a blind loyalty to the University of Oregon at the expense of keeping his job. No football coach can be labeled a racist today because no football coach who wants to keep his job can afford to be a racist; no football coach can be labeled as married to a former college program and reunite it in the pros because no football coach in his right mind believes that even the best college teams can succeed in the pros.

The right question to ask regarding Kelly has nothing to do with racism, his college loyalties or his system. It has to do with whether or not what he’s doing will work. It’s that simple. And the answer to that won’t be known until the team is on the field.

Looking at NFL history, every coach who tried to do something different saw the new schemes universally treated as if there was a personal affront being committed against the history of the league; that it couldn’t possibly work…because…it just couldn’t. There was rarely a logical explanation with a point-by-point refutation of the new strategy. It was the simplistic and stupid, “That’s not the way we do things here.” If that were the case, there would never have been the forward pass, the spread formation, the run-and-shoot (which most teams use a variation of now), the slot receiver, the pass-catching tight end, or the decision to go back to the old-school smashmouth and a vicious, punishing defense. Anything will be viewed negatively for no other reason than it’s deviating from the current norm. When it’s an unwanted interloper like Kelly who purports to be reinventing the game, then the media and NFL lifers will grow even more incoherent, angry and restless.

The names of Eagles that have come, gone and remained – LeSean McCoy, Nick Foles, Sam Bradford, Kiko Alonso, Ryan Mathews, Jeremy Maclin, Mark Sanchez – are largely irrelevant. What’s important is whether or not Kelly is doing things his way and is going all-in as he does it.

Much was made of Kelly triangulating himself into being the main voice in running the Eagles after winning the power struggle with former general manager Howie Roseman. Roseman had his role changed to executive vice president of football operations, but his job will be limited to negotiating contracts. Kelly managed this by responding to the firing of his front office ally Tom Gamble by threatening to get out of his Eagles contract to go back to college.

College.

The looming threat is always there for coaches who made their names in the NCAA and are more than willing to go back if the “NFL thing” doesn’t work out. Some coaches like Jimmy Johnson were essentially professional coaches when they were in college. Some, like Steve Spurrier and Bobby Petrino, were college coaches who were giving the NFL a shot knowing they’d eventually head back to college sooner rather than later. And some are perfectly content with either/or. Jim Harbaugh and Kelly fall into that category.

The concept that Kelly is gutting the Eagles and replacing the erstwhile roster with something akin to what would have been found at a University of Oregon booster meet-and-greet with NCAA football championship contending players of yesteryear is a convenient storyline to make him look as if he’s pining for his college days and transferring what was in the Pacific Northwest to the Northeast and trying to succeed with it to prove his genius. In truth, any boss is going to want to import people with whom he has a rapport; who know how he wants things done; who are so accustomed to his tics and quirks and style that there’s a spoken shorthand streamlining communications. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Johnson was torched when he got to the NFL, took over the Dallas Cowboys and followed Tom Landry’s distinguished reign with a 1-15 embarrassment. But it was that 1-15 embarrassment that planted the seeds for the Cowboys’ three Super Bowls in four years. It was the decision to trade Herschel Walker at mid-season and getting what amounted to the S&P 500 worth of draft picks that let him get the players he wanted.

But Johnson was in the NFL and had zero intention of going back to college. Spurrier on the other hand, took the job as head coach of the Washington Redskins to feed his own ego, make a ton of money and try to prove that he was not only the best college football coach in the land, but the best football coach period. He’d do it his way with University of Florida players – whether they were suited to the NFL or not – and he’d do it while making plenty of time for golf. His offense didn’t work and his attitude was a disaster. He ran back to college as an almost foregone conclusion once he realized he couldn’t dominate the games with his offensive genius, intimidate the players by holding their scholarships over his head, and control the media simply through their lovelorn, glazed-over lust for him. People dared to have the audacity to question the ol’ ball coach Spurrier. He couldn’t have that.

When Vince Lombardi entered the NFL as an assistant coach for the New York Giants, the players rolled their eyes at him and thought he was some short, loud jerk from college. Eventually, he gained their respect and got the job as the czar of the Green Bay Packers. It was there that he set about resurrecting a moribund franchise by making such unpopular moves as immediately trading away the team’s best player and most prominent personality Billy Howton because Howton was insolent, had a big mouth, was divisive and was exactly the type of player who would sow dissent in the locker room because he wasn’t getting the ball enough. In part it was due to the new coach wanting to send a message; in part it was due to Lombardi realizing he was going to install a power-based running offense that didn’t need a mouthy end demanding the ball.

If Lombardi were around today, set about rebuilding the Packers in the way he did in 1959 with the same players and there was 24/7 sports talk and cable channels, Paul Hornung would be called a Heisman Trophy bust, Bart Starr would be called a non-prospect joke, and Lombardi would be referred to as a would-be drill sergeant who never served in the military and had a Napoleon complex with no clue how the NFL really functioned.

Lombardi is considered the greatest football coach in history.

Even Bill Belichick wasn’t immune to the criticism for making necessary cuts to further his plan for the New England Patriots. It’s easy to forget now, but Belichick was said to have “lost” the locker room after he cut Lawyer Milloy at the end of training camp in 2003. It was a salary cap move made because Milloy refused to take a pay cut. Leaders like Ty Law and Tedy Bruschi were livid. After Milloy (and former Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe) and the Buffalo Bills obliterated the Patriots in the opening game of that year 31-0, there were questions as to whether Belichick’s job was on the line. He stayed stoic, explained his position, made clear he was the boss and in command, and that the decision to cut Milloy was best for the organization in the present and future.

Then the Patriots won 17 out of 18 games through the Super Bowl and Milloy wasn’t mentioned as anything but a meaningless, “Oh, yeah. That.” They won the Super Bowl the next year as well and Belichick’s job status has never been in question since.

Someone has to be in charge.

Coaching in the NFL can be a dirty business and if a coach isn’t willing to play dirty and use somewhat underhanded tactics in organizational politics, he’s not going to last very long. If being static were the idea with no room for innovation and change, we’d be trapped in a purgatory of players in leather helmets running into each other with no excitement, no innovation, no intelligence – just brute force and dullness. In a similar sense, in years gone by, coaches had bizarre – often dangerous – training tactics like refusing to allow players water while they were practicing and forcing the players to partake in pads-on scrimmages that were even more brutal than the games themselves. Without positive advancement, the players wouldn’t even be allowed to seek big money in free agency. It wasn’t that long ago that NFL free agency was a wink-and-nod joke with every team knowing they had what amounted to indentured servants at their disposal. Innovation and change is a good thing.

Kelly has a top-to-bottom idea of how he wants the team to function from the dietary habits of the players to the training techniques to the fast break offense he wants to implement. If he’s doing it and doing it his way, then he’d better make sure to throw all his chips into the center of the table and either win big or lose it all. That’s what he’s doing. It’s not racism. It’s not stupidity. It’s not ignorance. There’s only a hint of megalomaniacal arrogance that you find in all NFL head coaches and there’s a method behind the perceived madness. He’s right to do it his way in theory even if it fails in practice. At least then there won’t be the regret of woulda, shoulda, coulda. Like any other change, it’s either going to work or it’s not. Then will be the time to judge. Not now.

Ryan Vogelsong’s experience with the Astros has a familiar ring

MLB

Even though Brady Aiken and Ryan Vogelsong are at radically different stages of their careers, there’s a damning similarity to their dealings with the Houston Astros. They didn’t sign for basically the same reason – team concerns about their physicals and an attempt on the part of the organization to get a financial discount because of them – and their situations are comparable in the amount of damage that can be done to the organization over the long and short term because of the fallout.

At first glance, the Astros’ failure to sign 2014 first overall draft pick Aiken will be viewed as the bigger gaffe and could be exponentially more ruinous to the organization than their failure to sign the veteran free agent righty Vogelsong. This is especially true if Aiken develops into anything close to the pitcher Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow compared him to, Clayton Kershaw, when he’s drafted again this June. However, it would be unwise to dismiss the failure to sign Vogelsong as meaningless especially with the revelation as to why a deal suddenly came apart with Vogelsong going back to his former team, the San Francisco Giants, and implying that the negotiations broke down in a manner that the veteran Vogelsong had never seen and couldn’t believe.

The careers trajectories of Aiken and Vogelsong couldn’t be more diametrically opposed. As a pending first round draft pick, Aiken will be given every opportunity to make it to and stick in the Major Leagues until his arm turns to shreds. Vogelsong bounced from team to team and country to country trying to find a place where he could make the most of an opportunity and he did so with the Giants.

The real story that Vogelsong cryptically alluded to at the time of the breakdown of negotiations is that the Astros repeated the process with him that they did with Aiken: after coming to an unofficial agreement on a contract, they spotted issues in his physical that led to an attempt to reduce the value of the deal. Like Aiken, Vogelsong chose not to sign. The loss of Aiken culminated in the failure to sign other draft picks – Mac Marshall and Jacob Nix – who were set to be signed but whose deals were contingent on the singing of Aiken. Like unintentional and unexpected collateral destruction, once Aiken’s deal collapsed, so too did the deals with the other two draftees. The Astros looked petty and foolish adding to the implication that they don’t know how to treat people or do know how to treat people, but just don’t care to do so. The constant upheaval, repeated firings, exodus of marginalized employees and total lack of humanity has left Luhnow and his staff needing to show dramatic improvement in 2015 to validate their method of running the franchise. The sense of urgency to succeed is increasing as their image tumbles.

The Astros are a very data-centric organization with a wealth of highly intelligent people in charge. The fact that their resumes are impressive when it comes to numbers, formulas, education and degrees and that they’ve become media darlings in certain circles for their unabashed immersion into sabermetrics and constant search for new innovations to achieve their goals doesn’t make them people savvy and it doesn’t make them street smart.

Given his rise from a career in the business world as the president of marketing for Petstore.com among other positions, it’s a legitimate question as to whether Luhnow truly understands that an athlete who has reached the pinnacle of his profession isn’t the equivalent of a damaged box of kitty litter, a display shoe, a piece of meat that is close to its expiration date, or a used car. You can’t get a discount because of a slight amount of wear and tear on a human being, especially one who can go somewhere else and get the money he wants.

The last two analogies are perfectly fitting for the way the Astros are acting. Trying to get a discount on Vogelsong is the equivalent of a ruthless assessment of any veteran athlete as a piece of meat close to being past its sell-by date. Calling Luhnow a used car salesman is also apropos given the questionable manner in which he runs his operation, uses slick and ambiguous terminology, and treats people as if they’re fungible pieces to be discarded at his convenience.

While there’s a logical explanation for them to have tried to reduce the amount they were set to pay Vogelsong and Aiken, it won’t be seen in the same logical context by players and agents. Perhaps the club is so scarred by the $3.25 million they donated to Jesse Crain in 2014, receiving a nice round number of innings (zero), that the front office decided they’d never repeat that mistake again no matter who the player was. Maybe owner Jim Crane made it a point to tell Luhnow that he’s not in the habit of tossing that amount of money into the toilet and it had better not happen again. Or maybe their attempt to remake baseball into an entity that is on a similar plane with your regular run-of-the-mill corporation and will treat their employees as if their skills are eminently replaceable is clouding their judgment and hindering the reality that the number of people who can play Major League Baseball is minuscule compared to finding a mid-level employee to replace another mid-level employee to work at Petstore.com.

The Astros are trying to run their club in a manner identical to how a conventional business does. But baseball is not a conventional business. While some aspects of what Luhnow did at his jobs outside the realm of baseball are applicable and can be transferred, others can’t. They’re trying to save money, but what they’re actually doing is costing themselves more money in the long run when they try to sign veteran players who have options. The situation in which they’ve placed themselves will limit them to a certain type of player who: has nowhere else to go; will sign with the Astros for a short-term deal knowing that he’ll get a chance to play to replenish or establish value; they have to overpay to get. This past off-season, they had the high offer on the table for Andrew Miller and he decided to go to the New York Yankees for substantially less money. Was that because of the Yankees’ history? Probably yes…in part. But did the Astros’ image throughout baseball also influence Miller? Obviously.

Vogelsong can express himself intelligently, is well-liked by other players, isn’t known as a complainer and has been everywhere from coast to coast and even in Japan trying to establish himself. For him to say that the Astros’ behavior was unbelievable that it would shock others when he told the story will carry some weight. Add in that it wasn’t just Vogelsong they’ve done this too and it becomes a pattern of behavior that could be a problem for them going forward.

Veterans will avoid them for their treatment of Vogelsong. Amateurs will take note of what they did to Aiken and rue the day they’re forced to deal with the organization. This isn’t nitpicking over a way an organization does business, it’s an issue that they’ve cultivated with their borderline anti-social, inhuman view of players. That reputation is nearly impossible to shake. Winning a few games in 2015 will help, but the difficulty of the American League West and that they’re relying on so many young players doesn’t guarantee they’ll improve much, if at all, from the 70 wins in 2014.

While they have all the explanations for their tactics at the ready, they’re missing out on the fact that there’s no complicated MIT-level algorithm to calculate the devaluation their organization might suffer from due to negative reputations and whispers that are clearly going on with players, agents, and baseball people worldwide. Players talk. Agents talk. No player wants to be viewed as a necessary evil to achieve the front office’s ends, but that’s exactly how the Astros treat their players. The Vogelsong incident is more evidence.

Daniel Murphy and the cloak of Christianity

MLB

It’s ironic that the general manager of the New York Mets, the former Marine officer and – presumably – conservative republican Sandy Alderson welcomed the openly homosexual former Major League player Bill Bean to Mets camp as Bean tours baseball in his role as Ambassador for Inclusion while one of the Mets players, Daniel Murphy, made it a point to openly state that he disagrees with Bean’s lifestyle. Murphy used his standing as a Christian to bolster the point and shield himself from any and all negative connotations surrounding his position. If he’d come out and said, “I ain’t interested in havin’ no faggots ‘round here,” it would’ve been equally as offensive, but it wouldn’t have been as cloudy with so many openly defending him for his supposed beliefs.

Only Murphy knows if it’s homophobia of not wanting a guy looking at him in what he thinks might be a sexual manner in the locker room or if he’s truly adhering to the tenets of the sections of the bible he purports to read and follow. But here’s a question: If Murphy’s beard wasn’t out of a stylistic choice but was, in fact, a religious necessity; if he had a skullcap and prayed five times a day as a devout Muslim and said that Bean’s homosexuality was an affront to Islam, an insult to Allah and that he would face judgment one day in a deserved fashion for his disgusting proclivities, would there be anyone defending him? What would the Christians who are nodding approval or shrugging off his comments say? Would he even be in the big leagues? What if he referenced Shariah law and advocated the harshest punishment possible for those who offend the tenets of his beliefs – that which he sees as completely tangible and real? Would the Christians who have so avidly come to his defense be saying the same thing they’re saying now?

What if he were a Jew? A Buddhist? A Scientologist? How would his comments be framed then? There’s a safety in numbers argument to the “I’m not a bigot, but…” tone of Murphy’s comments. Because so many follow the same religious he supposedly does, he can say whatever he wants and have it disappear into the scrum of ambiguity as to how these biblical passages are interpreted.

These arguments are similar to those that kept baseball segregated until Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947. “Yeah, ‘they’ can play, but it’s probably not right for Major League Baseball to integrate at this time.” “It’s got nothing to do with racism, but I don’t see America as being ready for black players in Major League Baseball.” “Maybe someday, but not now.” “It’s not about race – I’ve got lots of black friends – but there’s something not right about mixing races.”

That some didn’t use the word “nigger” didn’t serve to lessen the racism.

For a long time, Japanese players weren’t able to come to North America for a multitude of reasons, including that their league was viewed as the equivalent to a Triple A affiliate at best and the idea that many of their cultural preferences, skills and techniques wouldn’t translate.

On and on. Keeping the black players and the Japanese players out, albeit in vastly different ways, doesn’t look all that bright now. Actually, it looks retrospectively stupid. Those who truly want to justify their belief systems can find a way to do so. Some of these will be treated as the absurdities that they are; others will spur widespread agreement because it’s based on a bastardized interpretation of the teachings of a man of flesh and blood – Jesus – whose feats have somehow morphed into him being Superman.

I don’t want to hear about Jesus. I’m sure there are a large number of players, media members and fans who agree with me but are afraid to say it in order to keep the peace. When a player references God or Jesus, they roll their eyes, nod their heads sarcastically, take a small deep breath of derision, act as if they’re taking it seriously keeping their mouths shut. That some of these same players go boozing, drugging and whoring a few hours after bible study and condescending self-righteousness only renders the hypocrisy more pronounced and jades the secular observers further.

It’s masked bigotry disguised as belief.

A ludicrous assertion regarding Murphy’s statement was that he didn’t volunteer it, but was asked the question and simply answered. So because he didn’t place a couple of boxes in the center of the clubhouse, hold up the New Testament (or the Koran or the Old Testament or Dianetics) and start bellowing about how Bean is heading for eternal damnation for his lifestyle “choice,” it’s fine that Murphy’s presenting opinions on matters that have nothing whatsoever to do with him?

Bean is treading lightly as he finds the right tone in dealing with players who might not understand or want to hear what he has to say; who will ridicule him and call him names after he leaves. He undoubtedly knows this. If he wasn’t trying to educate and enlighten without offense, he’d point out the reality that the players who are petrified of homosexuals have definitely played with and dealt with homosexuals for their entire lives without even knowing it. Some might be gay themselves. If he were more aggressive, he would be entirely justified in replying to Murphy’s comments by saying, “I don’t give a damn what you approve or disapprove of. It’s none of your business.”

Because it’s none of Murphy’s business. It’s not my business. And it’s not your business. The idea that an openly gay player might alter the team chemistry is not something to ignore, but when it’s folded into some bizarre religious recipe to hide the taste of Murphy’s brain dead comments, then it is an issue because it’s a feeling that many share and will try to expand upon because the end result will justify the means by which it was achieved.

The fact that he was asked and didn’t volunteer the statement makes it even worse because the sentiment remains and no one will call him out on it because he’s using Christianity as a foundation to protect himself from biases that are present and validated because it’s a religion that a vast majority share, making it somehow okay.