Are the Mets really blackballing Wally Backman?

MiLB, MLB, Uncategorized

backman-picWally Backman is asserting that the New York Mets in general and general manager Sandy Alderson in particular have blackballed him in an effort to prevent him from getting another job with a major league organization, something he has yet to do in any capacity since he left the Mets in September. With that the case, Backman accepted a position to manage Monclova in the Mexican League this season.

Backman alleges that he has inside information from a friend in the Major League Baseball commissioner’s office who informed him of what Alderson is doing. In addition, he disputes the “resigned” narrative that was presented at the time of his departure even though it was he who stated that he walked away.

Backman also claims that Jeff Wilpon “betrayed” him. This ignores the reality that it was Wilpon who essentially forced Alderson to accept Backman as a minor league manager for his entire tenure as GM. Had Alderson been granted his wishes from the start, Backman would not have played an upfront role in the organization, particularly not as the steward to the team’s best young players.

While Alderson is an easy scapegoat, what seems to have happened is that Backman, understandably, had grown weary of languishing in Triple A and wanted to be moved up to Terry Collins’s coaching staff and the Mets refused. Had the Mets been willing to do that, it would have happened after the 2015 season when bench coach Bob Geren departed for the same job with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Instead, Alderson chose Dick Scott. Again, after 2016 with Tim Teufel being removed from the coaching staff, the Mets selected Glenn Sherlock to serve as third base coach and catching coach.

There was no opening for Backman and one was not forthcoming. Yet his decision to leave was done in a typical Backman fit of pique without understanding that it was not the Mets holding him back, but holding him up by giving him a job when no one else would have. There’s no doubt that Backman is an intense competitor, a good and wizened baseball mind, and fearless enough that he might be exactly what a team in the need of a kick start could use. But there’s a reason no one will hire him whether it’s his past, his reputation as a loose cannon, or something else. This has nothing to do with the team that did give him a job, the Mets.

Is it possible that Alderson is bad-mouthing Backman to prevent him from getting a job with the implication that a successful run from Backman with another organization and a chance at managing in the big leagues could end up embarrassing the Mets?

Anything is possible. However, a better question to ask is whether it’s likely. The answer is no.

In what is expected to be his final season as the everyday GM before retiring, moving to a senior role, or doing something else entirely, Alderson certainly has better things to do at age 69 than to orchestrate a whisper campaign against Backman, whom he clearly considers a non-entity. The likelier scenario is that the other MLB teams know Backman’s history and there are behind-the-scenes reasons for which he’s not getting hired. If asked for a recommendation, Alderson’s not going to give him one. As a professional, Alderson would presumably give the positives and negatives of Backman and leave it there without going to the energy-sapping lengths to overtly interfere with a job offer from another team.

What this appears to be is Backman leaving the Mets and thinking his work with the organization for six years and his on-field success was sufficient to cover up the warts before gauging the job market and if he was a candidate for any open position in MLB or the affiliated minors. Since his on-field baseball credentials are good enough to get a job, his inability to do so creates the image that there’s something up, true or not.

With his statements against Alderson and the Mets, he didn’t do himself any favors. Like most of the problems Backman has had in his attempts to manage in the big leagues, they’re predominately of his own making and the blackball explanation is another diversionary tactic that few will, and should, believe.

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The Positives and Negatives of Stephen Drew for the Mets

Ballparks, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, History, Hot Stove, Management, MiLB, Players, Playoffs, Prospects, Stats, Trade Rumors

The Mets have spent the last three seasons fielding a lien-up rather than a lineup. Since the Bernie Madoff scandal and the conscious decision to rebuild from the bottom up in part due to finances and in part because it was what they needed to do, the Mets haven’t spent significant money on any players. In retrospect, it will be seen as a positive that the team didn’t overpay and give up a draft pick for Michael Bourn or any of the other players Mets fans were demanding they sign for pretense and little benefit on the field.

Now that they’re free of the onerous contracts of Jason Bay and Johan Santana, the Mets have invested some of their available cash to improve the lineup with Chris Young and Curtis Granderson. They bolstered the starting rotation with Bartolo Colon. There’s a public debate as to whether they should sign the still-floating free agent shortstop Stephen Drew. Let’s look at how Drew fits for the Mets.

Cost

Drew’s market is hindered by the relatively few number of teams that need a shortstop and are willing to pay what agent Scott Boras wants. A year ago, Drew signed with the Red Sox for one year and $9.5 million with the intention of replenishing his value for a big-money contract. He replenished his value all right, but the big-money contracts have yet to present themselves. Drew was everything the Red Sox could have asked for. He was solid defensively, hit for pop with 50 extra base hits, and had an OPS of .777 which was close to his career average.

The problem for Drew remaining in Boston as appears to be his preference is that the Red Sox have a ready-made replacement for him at shortstop in young Xander Bogearts. They also have a competent third baseman in Will Middlebrooks. Neither are expensive and both can make up for Drew’s departure if the price isn’t similar – or slightly higher – than what the Red sox paid for him last season. If his price drops, then the Red Sox will gladly take him back, but it won’t be for a multi-year deal and they don’t need him.

The Yankees have already said they’re out on Drew and it’s not because they don’t need him. They do. But they’re tied to keeping Derek Jeter at shortstop and the idea of signing Drew to move him to third base is insulting to the intelligence of anyone who can see the reality that Jeter will not be able to play a competent defensive shortstop at age 40 as he returns from a serious ankle injury.

Drew has few alternatives other than the Mets and Red Sox. The Mets are being coy and the Red Sox are waiting him out. The Mets can get him if they decide they want him. A decision that they want him would mean they have to pay him. A three-year, $30-33 million deal would probably get it done. Are they willing to do that? Can they afford it?

How he fits

Drew is a clear upgrade over Ruben Tejada offensively and defensively. Tejada can play, but he’s never going to hit for the power that Drew does; he’s similar defensively; and he’s got a reputation of being lazy. The main attribute of Tejada for the Mets is that he’s cheap. But with the signings of Granderson and Young and that they’re intending to start the season with the still questionable Juan Lagares and Travis d’Arnaud in center field and catcher respectively, they’re running the risk of having three dead spots in the lineup before the season even begins. With Drew, they’d know what they’re getting and he would at least counteract Lagares and d’Arnaud. Drew is an up-the-middle hitter and his power comes when he pulls the ball. He wouldn’t be hindered by Citi Field and he’d hit his 10 homers and double-digit triples.

No matter how superlative he is defensively, the Mets won’t go through the whole season with Lagares in center field if he doesn’t hit. They’ll simply shift Young to center for more offense. They’re committed to d’Arnaud and he’ll play every day no matter what. If they want to have a chance for respectability and perhaps more, they can’t worry about whether they’re getting the Tejada from 2013 or the Tejada from 2011-2012. And the Tejada from 2011-2012 was serviceable and useful, but not close to what Drew can do.

With Drew, the Mets would be better in 2014 when they’re striving for respectability and in 2015 when Matt Harvey returns and they clearly have designs on contending.

The Mets pitching staff is not one that racks up a lot of strikeouts. The left side of the infield with Drew and David Wright will be excellent. Daniel Murphy is mediocre at best at second base. Lucas Duda is a solid defensive first baseman. With Lagares in center field, they have a Gold Glove candidate. Young can play the position well. They’re better in all facets of the game with Drew, plus they’re getting offense they will not get with Tejada. The difference between 77-85 and also-ran status and 85-77 and bordering on the fringes of contention might be Drew. That makes the signing worthwhile for on-field purposes.

His Drew-ness

The Drew family has long been known for its prodigious baseball talent. They’re the physical prototypes for baseball players. Along with that, they’ve been the prototypes for Boras clients.

J.D. Drew sat out a year rather than sign with the Phillies when he was drafted second overall in 1997. They didn’t meet his contract demands. The Cardinals drafted him fifth overall the next season and he signed. He was an excellent player for the Cardinals, but flummoxed manager Tony LaRussa with his lack of passion and aloofness. He was traded to the Braves for Adam Wainwright as the Braves expected him to be happier closer to his home. He had his career year and left to sign with the Dodgers. He spent two years in Los Angeles, then exercised an opt-out in his contract to go to the Red Sox.

In short, he was never happy with where he was and was constantly looking for the next opportunity. It could have had to do with money or it might have had to do with a wanderlust. Or he could simply have been treating the game as a business and listening to every single word uttered by the Svengali, Boras.

Stephen Drew has many of the same traits as his brother. Both are injury-prone, though Stephen is not hurt to the extent that his brother was; both are supremely talented and never appear happy where they are; both wanted to get paid and might be making decisions detrimental to their careers in listening to every whisper from their agent.

In retrospect, should Stephen have accepted the Red Sox qualifying offer and tried for free agency in another year when it’s pretty much a certainty that the Yankees are going to be looking for a replacement for Jeter and will be free of any financial constraints? Probably. Does he regret not taking it? We’ll never know because the Drews don’t rattle the Boras cage.

If the Mets go hard after Drew, there’s the possibility that they’re being used to get the Red Sox or the famed Boras “mystery team” to ante up and top the offer. For the Mets, while it wouldn’t be catastrophic not to get Drew, it would extinguish much of the good will they did accumulate by signing Granderson and Colon if they pursued him and failed to reel him in.

The conclusion

The Mets should go after Drew and see whether they can get him at a reasonable price. If Boras will take something in the neighborhood of three-years at $30-33 million, the Mets would have a bridge shortstop until former first round draft pick Gavin Cecchini is ready. They’d be better in the short term and definitely have someone who could help them do what the true intention is: contend in 2015. If Boras is being unreasonable or the feeling is that they’re just waiting for the Red Sox to up the offer, the Mets should move on and figure something else out. If that means they’re hoping that Tejada decides he wants to play and shows up early and in shape, so be it.




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Masahiro Tanaka: Full Analysis, Video and Predictions

Award Winners, Cy Young Award, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, Hall Of Fame, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, Players, Playoffs, Prospects, Stats, Trade Rumors, World Series

Masahiro Tanaka has been posted and teams are scrambling to get their hands on the 25-year-old Japanese star. Like most hot items, though, is it availability that’s spurring the interest? Is it hype? Is it his gaudy 24-0 record pitching for Rakuten in 2013? Is it his ability? Or is it a combination of a multitude of factors that Tanaka and his new U.S. agent Casey Close are going to exploit to extract every last penny out of MLB clubs?

The loudest shrieks in favor of Tanaka aren’t based on any analysis. “I want Tanaka!” is not analysis and it’s based on nothing. So let’s take a look at the numerous positives and negatives of the Japanese sensation that could wind up being the next Yu Darvish or the next Kei Igawa.

Mechanics

You notice the different teaching techniques with every Japanese pitcher that makes the trek to North America. They step straight back as pitchers are supposed to to maximize leverage toward the plate. Many Americanized pitchers don’t step straight back. They move to the side or at a diagonal angle. The Japanese pitchers will bring their arms above their head and hesitate as if they’re making sure all their weight is on the lead leg before they move forward. Then they’ll very quickly and all in one motion pivot on the rubber, lift their legs and they bring their arms down, separate ball from glove and fire. Many have what appears to be a leg-based motion similar to that which was used by Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver and Greg Maddux.

But are they using their legs?

Looking at Tanaka, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yu Darvish among many others, they’re garnering leverage from their lower bodies, but essentially stopping halfway through and using their arms to generate power. With Seaver, he would explode hard off the rubber, using it as a foundation to launch himself toward the hitter. The energy would flow from his lower body all the way up through to his arm. Upon release of the ball, that energy would suddenly be compacted as he bounced and stood straight up. The arm was simply a conduit of that power that was generated by the legs, butt and hips. While Tanaka and the others are contorting their bodies and generating power through their legs, the brunt of the release of the ball falls on their arms because the legs stop working. You can see it when he finishes his release and the leg drags along behind him rather than whipping around after impact. His arm bullwhips as it’s not decelerating with the cushion of the lower legs. He has the flexible front leg Seaver, Ryan and Maddux used, but it’s a middling technique that’s done without completion of the intent of taking stress off the arm.

You’ll hear people who regurgitate scouting terminology and facts as if they have an in-depth knowledge of them. The inverted W and Tanaka’s wrist hook should become such terms you’ll need to understand when looking at Tanaka and whether these issues will affect his long-term health and durability. There’s a profound negativity surrounding the inverted W when the pitcher moves both arms simultaneously into what looks like and upside down W (which leads to the question of why it’s not called an “M”) and guarantees his arm will be in the optimal position when he turns and throws. For pitchers who have trouble maintaining their arm slot and release point when making a big circle with their arms or might have the arm drag behind their bodies when they throw, the inverted W is a checkpoint method to ensure the arm is in the proper position. The only time it’s a problem is if the arm is brought back further than is necessary and it strains the shoulder. If the pitcher raises the elbow above the shoulder, this too can be an issue. Tanaka does neither. Watching a quarterback with proper throwing mechanics is the correct way to use the inverted W. Getting the elbow to shoulder level is the point. There’s no issue with Tanaka there.

As for the wrist hook, it’s not something that can be stopped or fixed. Barry Zito does it and has had a successful career without injury issues to his arm. Rick Sutcliffe and Don Drysdale hooked their wrists as well. With Sutcliffe, it was part of a long and herky-jerky motion that was actually quite smooth. He had arm trouble in his career, but he was a top big league pitcher and quite durable for his 18 year career. Drysdale blew out his shoulder, but he lasted until he was 32 and averaged 237 innings a season with four straight of 300-plus innings. Was it the workload or his mechanics? I’d say it was the workload.

When there is a mechanical problem, it has to be repaired when the pitcher is in his formative years. The longer they throw a certain way, the greater the challenge in “fixing” an issue. It also has to be remembered that a part of the reason pitchers like Sutcliffe were successful was because of his unique throwing motion. Much like it can’t – and shouldn’t – be taught for a pitcher to hook his wrist up toward his elbow, it can’t be changed either once he’s established. Hooking is not going to be a health issue unless it’s a pronounced yank. I don’t see Tanaka yanking the ball.

Analysis: He throws mostly with his arm and I would be concerned about him staying healthy.

Stuff

Tanaka has a mid-90s fastball with good life, a shooting split-finger fastball and a sharp slider. At the very least, no one is manufacturing a story that he throws pitches that either do or don’t exist as was done with Matsuzaka and the gyroball. The gyroball, for the record, is thrown with the wrist turned for a righty pitcher as if he’s waving to the third base dugout. From a righty pitcher, it would appear as a lefty quarterback’s spiral. The problem was Matsuzaka didn’t throw it. Hisashi Iwakuma does throw the gyroball and it’s nasty.

As for Tanaka’s fastball, it’s explosive when he throws it high and hitters will chase it given the downward action of his splitter and slider. His fastball is straight meaning if he doesn’t locate it and isn’t getting his breaking pitches over, he’ll get blasted. His breaking pitches are the key to his success. If hitters are laying off the splitter and his slider’s not in the strike zone, he’ll be forced to come in with his fastball where big league hitters will be waiting.

Analysis: With the velocity and breaking stuff, he certainly has the ability to be a successful, All-Star level pitcher in MLB.

The switching of leagues

In Japan, they tend to adhere more closely to the by-the-book strike zone. With that, Tanaka got high strike calls above the belt that he’s not going to get in MLB. If hitters learn to lay off that high pitch, he’s going to have a problem.

The ball in Japan is smaller than it is in North America. That hasn’t appeared to be a problem with most hurlers who’ve joined MLB and been successful. It’s not something to discount, but not something to worry about either.

Looking at Tanaka’s statistics are silly. A pitcher going 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA (an ERA he achieved in both 2011 and 2013) is indicative of a weak-hitting league. When studying a pitcher making the switch from Japan to MLB, the statistics might be a gaudy show to sell a few tickets, but few actual baseball people who know what they’re doing will take it seriously. Igawa was considered a top-flight pitcher in Japan and his stuff was barely capable of being deemed that of a journeyman Triple-A roster filler.

Analysis: Accept the statistical dominance at your own risk.

Workload

Much has been made of how Japanese pitchers are pushed as amateurs and expected to pitch whenever they’re asked to for as long as they’re needed. Two months ago, Tanaka threw 160 pitches in losing game 6 of the Japan Series then closed out game 7 to win the series for Rakuten.

Is this a red flag?

In North America, where pitchers are babied and placed on pitch counts and innings limits seemingly from little league onward, then are tormented by big time college coaches who couldn’t care less about their futures similarly to the workload Tanaka endured, then are placed back on their limits, it would be a problem. In Japan, it’s not unusual for pitchers to be used in ways that would be considered abusive. But that’s the way they’re trained. They’re expected to pitch and there’s no evidence that injuries and pitch counts/innings are correlated because the pitchers who’ve gotten hurt (Stephen Strasburg, Matt Harvey) were watched while others who weren’t (Maddux, Clayton Kershaw) have stayed healthy. With all the reams of numbers and organizational mandates steeped in randomness as to what keeps pitchers healthy, perhaps it’s all about the individual and his capacity to pitch. Japanese pitchers are conditioned this way and the workload wasn’t a jump from being allowed to throw 100 pitches to suddenly throwing 175 in two days.

Analysis: I wouldn’t worry about it.

Cost

With the changes to the Japanese posting system, Rakuten is guaranteed $20 million. That’s well short of the $51.7 million Nippon got from the Rangers for the rights to Darvish and a severe disappointment to Rakuten. They could have kept Tanaka, but instead chose to acquiesce to the pitcher’s wishes and let him go to MLB.

The new posting rules make more money for the players rather than the teams that are selling him. Darvish received a $56 million contract two years ago. Tanaka is expected to get over $100 million, but I’m expecting the bidding war to reach $130 to $140 million.

Is he worth it?

To hand this pitcher $130 million after the number of Japanese pitchers who’ve come over and failed is crazy. There’s an overemphasis on the fact that he’s a free agent that won’t cost a compensatory draft pick. But he’ll cost an extra $20 million to get his rights. Matt Garza won’t cost a draft pick either because he was traded at mid-season and he’s an established big league pitcher. Is it wise to spend $130 million to get Tanaka even if he’s 75 percent of what he was in Japan? Given the failures of Matsuzaka, Igawa and Hideki Irabu and the success of the less heralded pitchers who’ve come over like Hiroki Kuroda, Hideo Nomo and Iwakuma, the fact is no one knows with any certainty as to what they’re getting. And that’s important.

Is it preferable to pay for potential or to pay for what is known?

Let’s say the Yankees give Tanaka $130 million and he turns out to be an okay third starter. Was it worth it when they could’ve signed Garza and Bronson Arroyo, filled out their rotation with pitchers who are known commodities, kept their draft picks and had an inkling of what they were getting with arms who’ve succeeded in the AL East? Or is it better to go for the potential greatness of Tanaka and face the consequences if he’s Irabu/Igawa-revisited?

Other teams face the same dilemma. The Dodgers have their own 2015 free agent Kershaw to worry about and would like to sign Hanley Ramirez to a contract extension. How would signing Tanaka influence those issues? It’s more important to keep Kershaw than it is to sign Tanaka.

Analysis: I would not give Tanaka $100-130 million.

The pursuit

Tanaka is the first full-blown Japanese free agent with the new posting fee rules and it opens up a larger pool of teams that think they have a shot at getting him. The Yankees and Cubs are known to be hot for him.

The Mariners need another arm and it makes no sense to stop at Robinson Cano and think they’ll contend. Singing him would keep them from needing to gut the system to get David Price and a top three of Felix Hernandez, Iwakuma and Tanaka with Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen and James Paxton would be tough.

The Angels need pitching; the Diamondbacks and Dodgers are interested; the Astros could be sleepers with an owner holding deep pockets and trying to show he’s not a double-talking, money-hungry, arrogant cheapskate; the Rangers are all in for 2014; the Red Sox are always lurking; the Phillies need pitching; and the Orioles need to make a splash.

Analysis: It’s going to come down to the Yankees, Cubs and Mariners.




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Granderson Not An Ideal Signing, But A Good One For The Mets

Ballparks, Draft, Free Agents, Games, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, PEDs, Players, Prospects, Stats

In a utopia, the Mets would have the goods to pry Troy Tulowitzki away from the Rockies without gutting their farm system. Or they would have the money available to sign one of the big free agent outfield names like Shin-Soo Choo. Tulowitzki isn’t available and the Mets can’t afford to give up the prospects if he was. They don’t have the money nor the willingness to meet Scott Boras’s asking price for Choo. The same held true for the recently signed Jacoby Ellsbury and a reunion with Carlos Beltran wasn’t a fit.

Instead of complaining about the players they couldn’t sign or acquire via trade, the Mets did the next best thing given the market and their circumstances and signed Curtis Granderson away from the Yankees. Granderson received a four-year, $60 million contract. There was debate within the organization as to whether they could get him for three years – general manager Sandy Alderson’s preference – but the team stepped up and guaranteed the fourth year. This saved them from the embarrassment of Granderson walking away and leaving the Mets even more desperate and needing to do something worse to placate an enraged and disgusted fan base. Even if it wasn’t necessary, it was needed.

The toxic situation surrounding the Mets and perception that there was a lack of commitment to winning led to players either using them as a lever to get better money elsewhere or not considering them at all. Granderson wasn’t a player who was left without options. Had he held out and waited until the other dominoes fell, he might have been able to surpass the contract he got from the Mets with another club. The Mets couldn’t risk that. Truthfully, nor could Granderson. It’s a marriage of convenience to be sure, but considering how free agents (and marriages) tend to be disastrous even if they seem so perfect at the time, it could be a boon to both sides.

Granderson is not without his flaws. He strikes out a ton and it’s unlikely that he’ll hit 40 home runs playing half his games in Citi Field as he did aiming for the short right field porch in Yankee Stadium. But he is a legitimate threat in the middle of the lineup who will hit a mistake out of the ballpark and provide protection for David Wright in the lineup. He’s a good defensive outfielder, has extra-base power, will walk around 70 times, and is a tremendous person – exactly the type the Mets would like to pair with Wright to represent them publicly.

He’s an actual, established big leaguer with credentials and not someone like Marlon Byrd who they picked up off the scrapheap after a PED suspension or Chris Young who was a former All-Star only available to them because he was injured and terrible in the past two seasons and Alderson promised him regular playing time.

Often it takes an overpay to send a message to the rest of baseball that a club is serious. As criticized as former GM Omar Minaya was for paying Pedro Martinez $50 million for one-and-one-half productive seasons, the signing of Martinez was a signal that it wasn’t the same old Mets with legacy contracts doled out to the likes of Al Leiter and John Franco because of what they once were and that the ownership liked them. Shortly after securing Martinez, the Mets signed Beltran. The next year, they acquired Carlos Delgado and signed Billy Wagner. They paid the highest amounts for the players they signed, but given the way the Mets were perceived back then – and now – players might have shunned them for better circumstances no matter how much money they offered.

In addition to their minor league system stacked with pitching, the Granderson signing is a foundational move for credibility and a signal to other players that it’s okay to join him and Wright on the Mets helping them back to respectability. He’s not great, but he’s an affordable cog. He fills what the Mets currently need.




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Ricky Nolasco Proves the Market Rewards Mediocrity

CBA, Cy Young Award, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, Players, Prospects, Stats, Trade Rumors

The Ricky Nolasco contract with the Twins was announced last night. I haven’t looked at the reactions yet, but presumably they range between indignation, head shakes and grudging acknowledgements that “that’s the market.” Whether or not he’s worth that money is beside the point. Nolasco is a better pitcher than he’s been given credit for and he’s durable. He’s not the pitcher you’d prefer to have starting opening day or the first game of a playoff series, but he’s a professional arm who will provide innings and competence. In today’s market, that’s going to get him $50 million. I’m not judging it one way or the other. It just “is.” Personally, I’d prefer Bronson Arroyo to Nolasco. But Nolasco is certainly a better risk than Masahiro Tanaka. It’s all about context.

It’s not a free money policy in an industry that is flush with cash that is causing teams to make seeming overpays for slightly above-average pitchers. It’s the overall culture of wastefulness that has permeated baseball through ridiculous developmental rules for pitchers that make necessary the purchasing of whatever is on the market for the going rate due to supply and demand.

Teams and analysts talk out of both sides of their mouths – as well as other orifices – when they put forth the pretense of running the organization as a business and then toss uncountable amounts of money at mediocrity, wondering why they get mediocrity when that’s what they bought.

A.J. Burnett was the epitome of a pitcher who was overpaid based on need and availability. Having missed the playoffs in 2008 and desperate for starting pitching, the Yankees threw money at their problems and it worked. One pitcher they signed was A.J. Burnett. Burnett was always the epitome of the “million dollar arm, five cent head” pitcher, one who could throw a no-hitter striking out 18 one game and give up a three-run homer to the opposing pitcher in the next game. For that, the Yankees doled a contract worth $82.5 million for five years. They kept him for three, paid the Pirates $20 million to take him off their hands and didn’t even get useful prospects in the trade.

The galling aspect of Burnett’s three year tenure in pinstripes was that there was a belief that he’d arrive and suddenly fulfill his potential just because he was a Yankee. In truth, he pitched in the same frustrating, aggravating way he always pitched. It was the height of Yankee arrogance to think they were going to get anything different. During his whole time as a Yankee, when the media and fans screamed about his inconsistency, I responded with an identical and more logical scream that I gave when they signed him: This is what you bought!!! This is A.J. Burnett!!!

The reason the Yankees needed pitching that year was because their attempts to “grow their own” in an effort to save money over the long-term by not having to buy other teams’ arms failed miserably with Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy either getting hurt, pitching poorly or fluctuating in their roles in 2008. With 20/20 hindsight, the Yankees and other clubs who use the pitch counts/innings limits/overprotectiveness for their young pitchers can examine these failures, the need to spend their way out of trouble to purchase breathing bodies who can eat innings and ask whether or not it was worth it.

I don’t want to hear about injuries, changing roles, unsuitability for New York and the other excuses that are proffered to explain away the failures of these three pitchers – that’s all part of why they failed. The fact is that for 16 combined seasons from Chamberlain, Hughes and Kennedy, the Yankees got an 80-68 won/lost record, a 4.37 ERA and wasted years when they were in their early-to-mid 20s and should have been at their strongest and most useful. Don’t start looking for advanced stats either because that’s only going to make the case for the way the Yankees used them worse. They could have been good and weren’t. It’s not hard to figure out why.

If you combine the draft pick compensation that many teams are unwilling to surrender to sign pitchers, the number of pitchers on the market declines even further. That absence and the number of top-tier talent who sign long-term deals to stay with their current teams leads to pitchers like Nolasco getting $50 million deals. Nolasco was traded at mid-season meaning he wasn’t subject to being offered arbitration, therefore there’s no draft pick compensation. Arroyo wasn’t offered arbitration by the Reds. Tanaka won’t cost anything other than money. That’s why they’re attractive.

The Giants were roasted for signing Tim Lincecum to a two-year, $35 million contract rather than let him go as a free agent, but now the decision looks astute. You’d be hard-pressed to find any stat person willing to give Giants general manager Brian Sabean credit for anything, but he kept Lincecum. It was wiser to do so considering the options of trading young players to get an arm or offering Lincecum arbitration hoping he’d take it and no one would offer him a Nolasco-style deal. In retrospect, it was simply easier and better long-term thinking to keep him. The Giants also signed Tim Hudson to a two-year contract. Without compensation attached to him and with the deal Nolasco just signed, Hudson might have lowballed himself by signing so early even at age 38.

Are teams really so in love with Tanaka that they’re willing to give upwards of $150 million to secure his rights and sign him? Or is it that there’s no other payments necessary apart from the posting fee and signing him to a contract? To sit and claim that Tanaka is a sure thing is ridiculous considering the attrition rate of pitchers who arrive with similar hype and expectations. Again, it’s the market and the desperation to hold true to draft picks, luxury tax and other aspects that are influencing which pitchers are getting big money and which aren’t.

The Rays have the right idea with their own pitchers: they use them without overt abuse or overprotectiveness; they don’t sign them to long-term contracts; and they trade them at their highest value for a package of prospects. It’s easy to say, “just copy the Rays” but how many teams have the freedoms the Rays do? How many teams are able to say, “We can’t pay him and it makes no sense to keep him for that extra year when these offers are on the table in a destitute market?” For all the credit the Rays get for their success and intelligence, a substantial portion of it is directly because they have no money; because they’ve been able to win under their tight financial circumstances; because they don’t have a brand-new ballpark with three million fans in attendance; because the media doesn’t go crazy when they trade Matt Garza, James Shields and listen to offers on David Price.

When a team needs 200 innings and isn’t going to get it from their top pitching prospects due to an arbitrary number of innings they’re allowed to pitch to keep them healthy, they have to buy it somewhere else. Stephen Strasburg is entering his fifth season in the big leagues, will be a free agent after 2016, will demand $150 million and as of now still hasn’t broken the 200-inning barrier. Unless the Nats pay it, another team will benefit from the protective cocoon he’s been in. Oh, and he got hurt anyway. Scott Boras will be more than happy to use the hammer of the Nats having signed, paid and developed Strasburg and won’t want to let him leave to force them to pay more money than his performance indicates he’s been worth.

For every Clayton Kershaw or Chris Sale who are allowed to pitch, there are five Strasburgs and Chamberlains who aren’t. And who benefits from the absence of arms? The Nolascos and Tanakas. Production be damned. They have what teams are looking for because most teams – through their own short-sightedness and stupidity – can’t make it on their own.

How is that a wise business model?




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Ruben Tejada’s Possible Grievance Against the Mets

CBA, Games, History, Management, MiLB, Players, Spring Training, Stats

Ruben Tejada is considering filing a grievance against the Mets because they kept him in the minors to save an extra year of service time. The jokes regarding Tejada’s poor play are obvious. Did the Mets intentionally keep him in the minors to prevent him from accumulating the service time? Of course. They were brazen about it and there was no attempt at subterfuge. When he was recalled in September, Tejada fell one day short of reaching the number of days necessary to achieve three years in the Majors and the Mets made the move one day later than they did with their other Triple A players.

The implication that the Mets were sticking it to Tejada just because they could might have some merit. Tejada has done a masterful job of currying disfavor in the organization in spite of playing well in 2012 replacing Jose Reyes. General manager Sandy Alderson has never been shy in saying that he never felt the shortstop position was settled with Tejada and openly prefers to have players who can hit the ball out of the park at least once in a while. Tejada’s shortcomings at the plate could have been mitigated if he’d shown the slightest interest in doing as he was told. The Mets wanted him to come to camp early in 2012 to grow accustomed to working with a new second baseman Daniel Murphy. He didn’t. The club’s annoyance was somewhat assuaged when he batted .289 and played sound defense. After the season, they were still more than willing to include him as part of the package to try and get Justin Upton.

In 2013, he drew the club’s ire once again by showing up to camp slightly out of shape. Only this time, he didn’t make up for it by playing well. When he strained his right quadriceps on May 29 against the Yankees, he was batting .209 and had somehow managed to have a slugging percentage lower than his on-base percentage. He was also playing slipshod defense. The Mets were about to send him to the minors that week. The injury put Tejada on the disabled list until July 7 when they activated him and immediately sent him to Triple A.

While they blatantly kept him in the minors an extra day in September, the Mets argument could be that they were going to send him down before June 1 and probably weren’t going to recall him before September based on his play and, truthfully, that they wanted to send him a message that his spot in the lineup and big leagues is not assured.

This is not a Jordany Valdespin issue where he was angering the organization and teammates because of his behavior. Tejada angered the organization because he wasn’t doing what he was asked to do and was playing poorly. They were well within their rights to send him down and keep him down. In fact, they could make the argument that they were under no obligation to bring him back to the big leagues at all.




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Teams Shouldn’t Follow the Red Sox Template

Books, Games, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, Players, Playoffs, Prospects, Stats, Trade Rumors, World Series

Much to the chagrin of Scott Boras teams are increasingly shying away from overpaying for players they believe are the “last” piece of the puzzle and doling out $200 million contracts. This realization spurred Boras’s reaction to the Mets, Astros and Cubs steering clear of big money players, many of whom are his clients.

Ten years ago, the Moneyball “way” was seen as how every team should go about running their organization; then the big money strategy reared its head when the Yankees spent their way back to a World Series title in 2009; and the Red Sox are now seen as the new method to revitalizing a floundering franchise. The fact is there is no specific template that must be followed to guarantee success. There have been teams that spent and won; there have been teams that have spent and lost. There have been teams that were lucky, smart or lucky and smart. Nothing guarantees anything unless the pieces are already in place.

The 2013 Red Sox had everything click all at once. They already had a solid foundation with Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Jon Lester and Jacoby Ellsbury. They were presented with the gift of financial freedom when the Dodgers took the contracts of Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett and Adrian Gonzalez off their hands. Bobby Valentine’s disastrous season allowed general manager Ben Cherington to run the team essentially the way he wanted without interference from Larry Lucchino. John Farrell was the right manager for them.

To think that there wasn’t a significant amount of luck in what the Red Sox accomplished in 2013 is a fantasy. Where would they have been had they not lost both Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey and stumbled into Koji Uehara becoming a dominant closer? Could it have been foreseen that the Blue Jays would be such a disaster? That the Yankees would have the number of key injuries they had and not spend their way out of trouble?

The players on whom the Red Sox spent their money and who had success were circumstantial.

Mike Napoli agreed to a 3-year, $39 million contract before his degenerative hip became an issue and they got him for one season. He stayed healthy all year.

Shane Victorino was viewed as on the downside of his career and they made made a drastic move in what was interpreted as an overpay of three years and $39 million. He was able to produce while spending the vast portion of the second half unable to switch hit and batting right-handed exclusively.

Uehara was signed to be a set-up man and the Red Sox were reluctant to name him their closer even when they had no one left to do the job.

Jose Iglesias – who can’t hit – did hit well enough to put forth the impression that he could hit and they were able to turn him into Jake Peavy.

The injury-prone Stephen Drew stayed relatively healthy, played sound defense and hit with a little pop. The only reason the Red Sox got him on a one-year contract was because he wanted to replenish his value for free agency and he did.

Is there a team out there now who have that same confluence of events working for them to make copying the Red Sox a viable strategy? You’ll hear media members and talk show callers asking why their hometown team can’t do it like the Red Sox did. Are there the players out on the market who will take short-term contracts and have the issues – injuries, off-years, misplaced roles – that put them in the same category as the players the Red Sox signed?

Teams can try to copy the Red Sox and it won’t work. Just as the Red Sox succeeded because everything fell into place, the team that copies them might fail because things falling into place just right doesn’t happen very often. Following another club’s strategy makes sense if it’s able to be copied. What the Red Sox did isn’t, making it a mistake to try.




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Mattitude?

Games, History, Management, Media, MiLB, Players, Stats

The Nationals are reportedly going to name Matt Williams as their next manager. This comes as no surprise since Williams has long been rumored for the job due to his relationship with Nats GM Mike Rizzo from their days together with the Diamondbacks when Williams was a player and Rizzo was their Director of Scouting. Let’s look at what the Nats can expect from Williams.

Running the games

In 2007, Williams managed very briefly for the Diamondbacks organization in Double A. He managed in the Arizona Fall League last year. He’s been a coach in the Major Leagues with the club for four years. As much as experience is routinely ignored in the hiring of managers today, it matters.

Williams doesn’t have much managerial experience. For a team like the Nats, a concern for an inexperienced manager will be handling the pitching staff and making pitching changes – something Williams has never done and initially might not be adept at. He’ll need an experienced bench coach and pitching coach who he’ll trust and listen to and not men who are selected for the oft-mentioned “loyalty to the organization.” Those guys are generally there and will be there whether the manager succeeds or not creating the potential for mistrust.

It hasn’t been decided whether pitching coach Steve McCatty will return and Randy Knorr, who was passed over for the managing job, was the bench coach for Davey Johnson over the last two seasons. One would assume that both will stay.

The relationship with Rizzo

Rizzo has had high-profile dustups with the two managers he hired as Nats GM, Jim Riggleman and Johnson. Riggleman quit after 55 games in 2011 when he wanted his contract option exercised and Rizzo refused. Johnson disagreed with the Stephen Strasburg shutdown, openly chafed at the overseeing he had to endure in today’s game and threatened to quit/dared Rizzo to fire him. Had Johnson not been retiring at season’s end, it’s likely that Rizzo would have done just that at mid-season and replaced him with Knorr.

If Williams is thinking that the prior relationship between the two will put him in a better position than Johnson, he’s mistaken. Rizzo is in charge and he lets the manager know it. Considering Williams’s quiet intensity as a player, a disagreement between the two could become a problem. He’s not going to simply nod his head and do what he’s told.

The team

Williams is walking into a great situation that probably won’t need much hands-on managing. With the Bob Brenly-managed teams that Williams played for with the Diamondbacks, there wasn’t much for Brenly to do other than write the lineup and let the players play. The veterans policed the clubhouse and Brenly was sort of along for the ride. The same holds true for the Nats. Apart from tweak here and there, the lineup is essentially set. The starting rotation and bullpen are also going to be relatively unchanged.

The one mistake Williams can’t make is to walk in and decide that he has to put his stamp on the team by doing “something” like deciding they’re going to rely more on speed and inside baseball. Writing the lineup will be more than enough. The decision to consciously keep his hands off what doesn’t need to be changed is a window into a manager’s confidence. While Brenly wasn’t a good manager, his style was similar to that of Barry Switzer when he took over the powerhouse Dallas Cowboys in the mid-1990s – he knew enough not to mess with it. It worked and the team won. Of course, no other team was going to hire either man to manage/coach for them, but that didn’t have a bearing on the job they were hired to do and they did it.

Williams is going to benefit greatly from the improved health of Bryce Harper and Wilson Ramos; he’ll be free of any constraints with Strasburg; the team is loaded. All he needs to do is be the serious, stern competitor he was in his playing days and he’ll be fine. Saying it and doing it are two different things and with a brand new manager who’s never done it before, there are still a lot of traps he could fall into and won’t know how to get out of. That’s what he has to look out for. Apart from that, it’s a great opportunity…as long as he doesn’t screw it up.




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Theo Epstein’s Masquerade

Draft, Free Agents, Games, History, Management, Media, MiLB, Paul Lebowitz's 2013 Baseball Guide, Players, Playoffs, Prospects, Stats, Trade Rumors

The increased use of analytics has also given rise to the loquaciousness of the decision-makers. You can pick any of the new age general managers in baseball and find one of their statements when a somewhat controversial decision is made and interchange them. When they fire a manager, it’s generally even longer. The explanation is convoluted and rife with semantics designed to protect their own interests.

This was evident again today when Theo Epstein – someone who clearly loves to hear his own voice whatever the circumstances – gave this long-winded statement as to why the Cubs’ hand-picked manager to oversee their extended rebuild, Dale Sveum, was fired following a 66-96 campaign. The accolades and qualifications Epstein gave to justify Sveum’s firing are little more than a dressing up of the dismissal of an employee.

Was it justified? Did Sveum deserve to take the fall for what was an organizational failure? Should the Cubs have been better than they were?

Considering the expectations (I had the Cubs’ record exactly right in my preseason predictions) they weren’t supposed to be contenders. They traded away veterans Alfonso Soriano and Scott Feldman during the season. They were functioning with journeyman Kevin Gregg as the closer. A team like the Cubs isn’t meant to be judged based on their record alone which lends more credence to the idea that Sveum is being thrown overboard to quiet the rising number of critics wondering when they’ll get Red Sox-like results from Epstein.

With the number of prospects they have on the way up, if the young players like Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo, Darwin Barney and Jeff Samardzija take steps back, then the manager is going to take the fall for it. That doesn’t mean he gets the blame.

Much like the Red Sox failure in 2003 was passed off on Grady Little’s call not to pull a clearly tired Pedro Martinez in game seven of the ALCS against the Yankees, the Cubs are holding the manager in front of the GM, president and owner like a human shield. Little’s choice in not yanking Martinez was due in part to an old school decision that if he was going to lose, he’d lose with his best. It was also done in part because the Epstein regime had made the conscious choice to go with a favorite concept of the stat guy in the closer by committee and didn’t give Little a competent short reliever he could trust in a game of that magnitude. It all turned out fine as the Red Sox won the World Series the next year only after signing Keith Foulke, a legitimate closer. Crisis averted.

With the Cubs, Epstein has been lauded for his and GM Jed Hoyer’s trades and restructuring of the minor league system. Whether or not that credit will bear fruit in the coming years for the new manager remains to be seen. Until they perform, prospects are only prospects.

Epstein’s big name free agent signings have long been inconsistent. With the Red Sox, he was able to cover it up with John Henry’s money. Whether that will be the case for the Cubs is as unknown as their young players’ development. For the Cubs this season, he signed Edwin Jackson to a four year, $52 million deal. Jackson went 8-18 with an ERA of nearly five. He signed Kyuji Fujikawa to a two year, $9.5 million deal and Fujikawa wilted under the pressure as set-up man and closer before requiring Tommy John surgery. It cannot be said that these were worthwhile and cost-efficient signings.

When Epstein says, “Jed and I take full responsibility for that,” as he discusses the state of the big league product, it’s little more than a hollow accepting of responsibility. He’s been on the job with the Cubs for two years and is ensconced in his job. There might be a small amount of pressure on him because of his reputation and the expectations that surround his high-profile hiring, lucrative contract of five years at $18.5 million and final say powers, but he’s going to get at least two more years before he’s on the firing line. Hoyer is Epstein’s front man and is safe as well.

If the duo is taking “responsibility,” what’s the punishment? They’ll get roasted on talk shows and in print for a while. Attention will be paid to who they hire as manager because GMs and team presidents, no matter how respected, generally get two managerial hirings before the focus of blame falls to them. For now, though, he’s safe.

He says that Sveum isn’t a “scapegoat,” but then two paragraphs later says that the team needs a “dynamic, new voice…” It certainly sounds like scapegoating to me.

I’m not defending Sveum and many times when a firing of this kind is made, there are behind the scenes issues that the public isn’t privy to. Epstein and Hoyer can fire Sveum if they want to. It’s completely up to them. There’s never been anything wrong with firing the manager for any reason that the front office wants to give. In fact, they don’t even need to give a reason. “I felt like making a change,” is a perfectly acceptable response.

However, to take the firing as an opportunity to provide a new line of defense of the front office and disguise it as a “we’re all at fault” line of faux solidarity is an insult to the intelligence of any person who’s been an observer of Epstein’s behavior since he first came to prominence a decade ago as a 28 year old “genius” who was going to lead the game into a new age with his youth and creativity. Getting past the mask, he’s little more than a younger and supposedly more handsome version of the 1960s era of GMs who threatened and bullied employees just because they could and had a job for life. It sounds like the common “blame the manager” rhetoric. The only difference is that it’s camouflaged by a Yale graduate’s skill with the language and ability to make circular sludge sound like the dulcet tones of a gifted tenor.

The firing of Sveum might be retrospectively seen as a the catalyst to the Cubs jumping into contention and breaking their World Series drought. Even if that happens, it can’t be masqueraded as anything more than what it is: they’re blaming the manager. No amount of verbal deftness will alter that fact whether it’s coming from Epstein or anyone else.




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The Mets Winning and Draft Pick Issues

Award Winners, CBA, Draft, Free Agents, Games, Hall Of Fame, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, MVP, Players, Prospects, Stats

The Mets can’t win even when they win. A 5-1 road trip including a sweep of the hated Phillies and putting a severe hit on the Reds’ hopes to win the NL Central or host the Wild Card game isn’t enough to make Mets fans happy. Now that they’ve moved into third place in the NL East, there are worries that they’re going to make the “mistake” of winning too many games and fall out of the top ten worst records in baseball and have to give up draft pick compensation to sign free agents.

The draft pick issue is not unimportant. The most negative of fans and self-anointed analysts believe that the Mets will use the draft pick compensation issue to have an excuse not to sign any big name free agents. This is equating the winter of 2012 with the winter of 2013 and the club’s retrospectively wise decision not to surrender the eleventh overall pick in the draft to sign Michael Bourn.

Bourn has been a significant contributor to the Indians’ likely run to the playoffs and would most certainly have helped the Mets. But if Bourn were with the Mets, would Juan Lagares have gotten his chance to play? Lagares has very rapidly become perhaps the best defensive center fielder in baseball and already baserunners are leaving skid marks in the dirt when they round third base and think about scoring on Lagares’s dead-eye arm. Signing Bourn would have gotten the team some positive press for a brief time, but ended as a long-term negative. With or without Bourn, the 2013 Mets were also-rans.

For 2014, the Mets no longer have any excuses not to spend some money to sign Shin-Soo Choo, Bronson Arroyo, Carlos Beltran or Tim Lincecum and to explore trades for Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez, Matthew Joyce, Ian Kinsler or any other player who will cost substantial dollars. Jason Bay and Johan Santana are off the books and the only players signed for the long term are David Wright and Jonathon Niese. For no reason other than appearances, the Mets have to do something even if that means overpaying for Hunter Pence (whom I wouldn’t want under normal circumstances if I were them) if they’re shut out on every other avenue.

I’m not sure what they’re supposed to do for the last week of 2013. Are they supposed to try and lose? How do they do that? This isn’t hockey where a team with their eye on Mario Lemieux has everyone in the locker room aware that a once-in-a-generation player is sitting there waiting to be picked and does just enough to lose. It’s not football where an overmatched team is going to lose no matter how poorly their opponent plays. It’s baseball.

The same randomness that holds true in a one-game playoff is applicable in a game-to-game situation when one hit, one home run, one stunning pitching performance against a power-laden lineup (as we saw with Daisuke Matsuzaka for the Mets today) can render any plan meaningless. It’s not as if the Mets are the Astros and guaranteed themselves the worst record in baseball months ago. There’s not a blatant once-a-generation talent sitting there waiting to be picked number one overall as the Nationals had two straight years with the backwards luck that they were so horrific and were able to nab Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. And it’s not the first overall pick, it’s the eleventh to the thirteenth. A team will get a great talent, but not a can’t miss prospect at that spot.

As for the mechanics of the draft pick, the Mets are hovering between the tenth worst record and the twelfth worst record. You can read the rules surrounding the pick here. If they’re tied with a team that had a better record in 2012, the Mets will get the higher pick. That means if they’re tied with any of the teams they’re competing with for that spot – the Giants, Blue Jays and Phillies – the Mets will get the higher pick and be shielded from having to dole out compensation for signing a free agent.

Naturally, it hurts to lose the first round draft pick if it’s the twelfth overall. It has to be remembered that there are still good players in the draft after the first and second rounds. They may not have the cachet of the first rounders – especially first rounders taken in the first twelve picks – but they can still play.

Most importantly, there comes a point where the decision to build up the farm system has to end and the big league club must be given priority. For the most part, Mets fans have been patient while the onerous contracts were excised, the Bernie Madoff mess was being navigated and Sandy Alderson and Co. rebuilt the farm system. There has to be some improvement and a reason to buy tickets and watch the team in 2014. A high draft pick who the team will say, “wait until he arrives in 2018-2019(?)” isn’t going to cut it. They have to get some name players and if it costs them the twelfth overall pick, so be it.




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