SI’s Tom Verducci Grades Free Agents A Month Into The Semester

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Of course one month is more than enough time to determine whether or not a free agent is a bust or a boom. So it goes with Tom Verducci (he of the “Verducci Effect” of twisted pitching studies designed to prove the out of context and unprovable) having the audacity in Sports Illustrated to grade players who signed this past winter based on their production over the first month with their new teams.

Not only is it ridiculous, but it’s also out of context.

He talks about expectations with players like Zack Greinke, Josh Hamilton, and B.J. Upton and that Edwin Jackson has been “horrible” for the Cubs. Then there are references to big signings of the past by teams like the Yankees getting CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Mark Teixeira after the 2008 season.

Yes, Greinke’s hurt. But his injury wasn’t one in which the Dodgers made a mistake by signing a pitcher who quickly tore an elbow ligament—he got run into by a 6’2” 240 pound truck named Carlos Quentin and broke his collarbone. He gets a grade of “C” because he got hurt?

Then we get to the “expectations.” Because teams either misjudged what they were getting by failing to look at the production of the players such as Upton or airdropped a mentally and physically fragile person like Hamilton into the dysfunction trumping all current MLB dysfunctions with the Angels doesn’t call into question the entire process of free agency. Sabathia is “declining?” Where? Teixeira is hurt and has still hit the ball out of the park and played Gold Glove defense when he’s played. The Yankees signed Burnett and got Burnett. They bought a flawed pitcher, they got a flawed pitcher. This is the most prevalent aspect of free agency: teams don’t accept what they’re getting and think they’ll unlock a player’s talent simply by having him put on their uniform. It’s not the money. It’s the misplaced beliefs.

In general, there’s a reason a player doesn’t live up to expectations when signing a big free agent deal. The Braves purchased a player in Upton who had a slash line of .246/.298/.454 in 2012. In 2011 it was .243/.331/.429. In 2010 it was .237/.322/.424. This is also a player who was repeatedly benched and called out by teammates on the Rays for lack of hustle. What’s wrong with B.J. Upton? Nothing apart from that fact that he’s B.J. Upton.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say Upton will start hitting to achieve the numbers he did in the last three years, hit his 18-20 homers, steal a few bases and play good defense in center field. This is what they bought. Now they’re disappointed because he didn’t turn into Rickey Henderson?

Verducci references players as “lemons” like they’re a bunch of used cars because clubs are taking the principle of supply and demand to its logical extreme by paying for a 1998 Honda as if it’s a 2013 Lamborghini. If a club does that, who’s at fault? Is that a “lemon” or a dumb decision on the part of the team that purchased it? The sign says “as is.”

Reading the article, you start to see through the SI scheme of garnering webhits by the linking in the middle of Verducci’s article to a piece “studying” teams over the past decade that “won” the previous winter and how they fared the next season; in the middle of that piece, another linking goes to that bastion of incredibility Joe Sheehan (he of the belief from 2004 that the Twins should have taken Mark Prior in the 2001 draft over Joe Mauer and projected Mauer’s future production to Mike Sweeney’s) looking at the “myth of winning the winter.” It’s only a myth because the media constantly harps on crowning a winner in the winter since they don’t have the imagination to write about anything else in the off-season. As for the judgment of players a month into the season, there are other things to write about. What’s the excuse this time?

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The “Worst” Contracts In New York Sports History?

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This New York Times article by Benjamin Hoffman has all the earmarks of the editorial edict telling him to write something and hand it in for publication without caring what it was that he actually wrote in content or accuracy. Never mind that judging the “worst” contracts in New York sports history can only be done in retrospect, it’s a completely random analysis that hinges on so many factors that it’s impossible to predict whether a contract will be deemed “good” or “bad” until years after the fact. This was designed to stoke fan anger by bringing up players who drew their ire.

The baseball names listed are Alex Rodriguez, Carl Pavano, Johan Santana, Jason Giambi, Mark Teixeira, A.J. Burnett, Kei Igawa, Bobby Bonilla, Jason Bay and Oliver Perez.

Going one by one, let’s look at the reality of these signings when they were made and the “badness” of the contracts.

A-Rod

A fall for A-Rod was predictable to a degree. That said, he’d hit 54 homers and won his second MVP with the Yankees in 2007. No one could’ve foreseen the number of embarrassing off-field episodes and injuries that have befallen A-Rod along with the continued PED admissions/allegations. Reasonably, the Yankees could’ve expected five more “big” A-Rod years with MVP contention, then three years of good production followed by a decline in the final years of the deal. The “final years” decline came early and now he’s an albatross.

Pavano

Had the Yankees not signed him to that contract, the Red Sox, Tigers or Mariners would have. They signed a pitcher who: was entering his prime at 29; had logged 200+ innings in back-to-back years; won 18 games in 2004, was an All-Star and finished sixth in the NL Cy Young Award voting; pitched brilliantly in the Marlins’ 2003 post-season run to the World Series title—especially against the Yankees; was from the metropolitan area and grew up a Yankees fan. Why wouldn’t they have signed him? Who could’ve predicted that they’d get someone who hated being a Yankee, acted like it and found reasons not to pitch?

Santana

The Mets had collapsed the year before and blown a playoff spot. They needed an ace at the top of the rotation and Santana was a two-time American League Cy Young Award winner. They gave up essentially nothing in terms of players at the time and in retrospect and were looking for the last piece in a championship puzzle. He was brilliant in 2008, good in 2009, and then the injuries started. There’s not much that can be done about that. Had they not paid him, someone else would have as a free agent after the 2008 season.

Giambi

In seven years in pinstripes, Giambi had 209 homers and a .925 OPS. This was almost identical to the numbers he’d posted in eight years with the Athletics before the Yankees signed him. Did they not get what they were expecting?

Teixeira

He’s hit 135 home runs in four seasons, won three Gold Gloves and has been an old-school professional. How his contract can be labeled as one of the “worst” with four years to go is a mystery.

Burnett

The problem with Burnett is that the Yankees overpaid for him based on desperation and his potential while ignoring that he was 31 when they signed him and he was what he was: gifted and aggravating. Blaming him for being himself is silly. This was a bad and stupid contract.

Igawa

A George Steinbrenner signing done as a “response” for the Red Sox signing of Daisuke Matsuzaka, it’s similar to any form of retaliation: it’s usually shortsighted and does more damage to the one making the move than to the one they’re retaliating against. No qualified baseball person could have looked at Igawa and thought he’d be a success against Major League hitters.

Bonilla

Find an economist to explain the Mets’ reasoning for the deferment and whether they’re actually going to wind up making money on the deal instead of giving a broad-based overview as to why it was “bad.” I would guess that the Mets probably used that money to make even more money than they’re spending for its duration.

Bay

Even if Bay had a decline in production because of the switch to Citi Field and advancing age, no one could’ve predicted that he’d be as bad as he was.

Perez

This was a desperation contract like Burnett’s. Ironically, Perez is a similar pitcher to Burnett in that he was gifted, aggravating and the club signing him mistakenly expected something other than what he was.

Go through any contract and you can find a reason to rip it. The number of Evan Longoria-type contracts where the club gets more than they bargained for at the right price or lower are so few and far between that it would be easier to list those than to list the bad contracts and it would make for a much shorter piece without the finger-wagging “I told you so.”

It’s random and to make it worse it appears to have been done because the author was instructed to do it and find case studies to “prove” a point that can’t be proven in the first place.

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The Astros Reality Is Beginning To Sink In

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We’ve come a long way in a month. On opening night in Texas, the Astros beat up on the Rangers 8-2. Following the preseason prognostications as to how bad the Astros would be (I had them at 45-117), that one game inspired an absurd belief that they wouldn’t be all that bad. There were orgasmic reactions to GM Jeff Lunow’s in-game interview on ESPN with the response being, “He has a plan!!! He…has…a…plaaaannnnnnn, ohhhhhhh!!!!”

Owner Jim Crane made some arrogant and obnoxious statements in a Wall Street Journal article that went largely unreported and uncriticized (except for me); he was lauded for providing every player with an I-Pad like his players were a group of Unfrozen Caveman Lawyers given a “frightening new information machine.” Luhnow made an absurd projection that manager Bo Porter might be managing the club for decades. On and on.

From the time Luhnow was hired, the media has squealed in pre-teen girl delight as if they were at a Justin Bieber concert at the new metrics permeating the organization from top to bottom. They’re a pure stat guy club complete with the bizarre titles (Sig Mejdal—Director of Decision Sciences); multitudes being hired from various stat guy sources (Baseball Prospectus); a mutually beneficial “interview” of Keith Law for a position in the front office in which the ESPN “expert” made a great show of “choosing” to stay at ESPN when a job may not have even been offered; and the new, unapologetic manner in which the Astros are shunning any and all old-school techniques preferred by veteran baseball people.

There won’t be any inter-organizational squabbles and questioning of Luhnow’s credentials as there were while he was with the Cardinals and Tony LaRussa played sharp-elbowed politics to mitigate Luhnow’s influence and win the turf war. He’s in charge. It’s his baby and, admirably, he’s doing it his way and hiring people who will implement his vision.

In the end, it’ll work or it won’t. If it does, it will have more to do with the team accumulating years and years of high draft picks because they were so historically awful than because of any undervalued finds on the part of the front office. That’s just reality. It was so with the Rays, will be so with the Astros and is a fact that those looking to anoint the next “genius” will conveniently brush to the side when embarking on an archaeological dig for reasons to twist the narrative in their preferred direction—exactly like Moneyball.

Now the mainstream media—especially those who are unabashed stat guys who defend Bill James’s most ludicrous statements regarding Joe Paterno and think Billy Beane’s bowel movements are objects of worship—are not only catching on as to how bad the 2013 Astros will be, but are speculating as to whether they can rival the 2003 Tigers and 1962 Mets in terms of historic awfulness. The Astros are this bad with a few useful veterans on their roster. Imagine what they’ll look like in August once they’ve dealt away Bud Norris, Lucas Harrell, Wesley Wright, Jose Veras and maybe even Jose Altuve. They’ll have a legitimate chance to reach the depths of the Cleveland Spiders of 1899. And I’m not kidding.

The media can present the contextualized explanations as to what the Astros are doing (“What’s the difference between winning 40 games and 60 games?”) and they’ll kindasorta be right. It doesn’t make much difference. But to the fans of the club who’ll have to endure this and listen to the mantra of “trust us, we’re smart” from Crane, et al., it’s going to get tiresome quickly as they’re being abused. Crane is going to need a thick skin to get through the amount of cow refuse he’ll have flung at him as the season moves along. As a loud and brash Texan, he talks like he’s ready to withstand the criticism, but when it starts coming from those who were supportive as part of their own personal agenda and they leap from the plummeting rocketship in self preservation, we’ll see if he lashes out or stays the course. I have a hunch that it will be both. Then there will really be some good stuff to write about as Crane is saying derogatory things to critics/fans because his team is so dreadfully, embarrassingly bad. He’s used to people kissing his ass and they’ll be kicking it instead. That adds up to an explosive response that will come sooner rather than later.

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Halladay’s Shoulder Injury

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Yesterday Roy Halladay looked like Orel Hershiser at the very end of his career in 2000 with the Dodgers: a one-time unstoppable force who had no idea where the ball was going once it left his hand. In Hershiser’s case, he’d run out of bullets. With Halladay, he was hurt and finally admitted as much to the Phillies after the game when he said that his shoulder was bothering him since his start against the Pirates on April 24—ESPN story

He was hammered in his next two starts by the Indians and Marlins and it was in a manner that couldn’t have been much worse if I’d gone out there and pitched. It was either admit something was the matter or continue to look helpless on the mound. Not even the greats like Halladay can bluff their way through when their stuff is diminished to this degree where he has no pop, no movement, and no control.

As much as Halladay is celebrated for being an old-school, “gimme the ball and let me finish the game” throwback, this is a reminder of what also happened to pitchers of 30-40 years ago due to the damage accumulated from gobbled innings. While the Marlins and Indians hitters brutalized the once great Halladay, there had to be some semblance of sadness and wonderment in their dugouts while it was going on. Big league hitters want to win, but they also want the challenge of facing and succeeding against the greats. Beating on Halladay like Larry Holmes assaulted Muhammad Ali in 1980, with Holmes screaming at the referee to stop the fight before he severely injured Ali, could provide no sense of fulfillment as it would have had Halladay been at full strength.

Why was Halladay pitching hurt? Maybe it was due to his reputation as a cold, steely-eyed gunslinger that comes along with the nickname Doc Halladay. Maybe it was because the true greats (in any endeavor) are generally the most insecure, spurring them to work harder and constantly prove themselves in fear of losing their jobs or not being the best. Or maybe he felt that the Phillies were paying him a lot of money to pitch, needed him, and that anyone else they put out there wasn’t going to do much better at 100% than he would at 75% or less.

We may hear the best case scenario that it’s tendinitis or a strain and he’ll be back sometime this season.

We may hear that it’s a torn labrum or a rotator cuff.

We may hear that by altering his delivery to accommodate the pain in the back of his shoulder that sidelined him last season, he managed to create a deficit and injured the front of his shoulder or the whole shoulder. If a great pitcher who’s as regimented as Halladay alters one thing, everything else might come undone all at once and that’s what appears to have happened. It takes years to learn to pitch differently and Halladay was trying to use the same strategies with different weapons in a very short timeframe. For a few games, he managed it, but then the shoulder would no longer cooperate. Now we’ll wait to see the amount of damage and whether he’ll pitch at some point in 2013 or beyond and what he’s going to be when he does get back.

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Don’t Expect a Phillies Selloff

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Because they fall into the category of early-season disappointment, there’s already speculation as to a Phillies selloff at mid-season if they continue to play like a team that can finish with, at best, a .500 record. History has proven, however, that under GM Ruben Amaro Jr. any move that is made will be either to double-down and go for it in spite of widespread negativity and perception that they’re “done,” or he’ll make trades of players who aren’t keys to the team and those who won’t be part of the long-term future.

For all the criticism Amaro has received for mortgaging the future by gutting a fertile farm system for veterans, overpaying on contract extensions for players already on his roster, and essentially ignoring the draft, he had a different idea when he took over as GM after the 2008 season. What he wanted to do was maintain some semblance of a solid core of young players. This was the intention of trading away Cliff Lee for prospects as he was entering his free agent year and trading other prospects to acquire Roy Halladay who was willing to sign a long-term contract just to get out of Toronto and join a contender.

Amaro was savaged—by me included—for that decision and did a total about-face at mid-season 2010 first by trying to get Lee back from the plummeting Mariners, then filling the hole in the rotation that his plan created by acquiring Roy Oswalt. The Phillies had been rumored to be listening to offers for Jayson Werth at that point, were barely over .500 and fading. They got hot, won the NL East, advanced to the NLCS before losing to the eventual World Series champion Giants.

By then, there wasn’t a pretense of building for the present and the future. It was all-in for the now as evidenced by the advancing age of their roster and the subsequent acquisitions of Lee (as a free agent), Hunter Pence, and Jonathan Papelbon. Farm director Chuck LaMar resigned in a public dustup with Amaro because of the rapidly deteriorating farm system and lack of money available to repair it.

But what Amaro was doing was similar to what Theo Epstein wanted to do sans the ridiculous appellations of “genius” after the Red Sox 2004 World Series win. The expectations from the fans and media, as well as ownership demands, sabotaged what Epstein wanted to do and the Red Sox degenerated into a battle of one-upmanship with the Yankees as to who could spend the most money on the biggest free agents. It resulted in a dysfunctional group of mercenaries and organizational collapse culminating with the 69-93 showing in 2012 with rampant inter-organizational contretemps and hatred combined with a self-protective blame game from everyone involved.

The Phillies haven’t fallen to those depths yet. But with an aging and declining roster and few prospects on the way up, it will happen eventually.

The question is, what do they do about it?

The simple answer is: nothing.

Could the Phillies clean out the house at mid-season and save money for an on-the-fly rebuild by signing free agents and trading for players that other teams can no longer afford? Yes. Will they do that? Probably not.

When clubs are trading players in salary dumps, the get-back is usually not all that impressive. Many will point to the Red Sox salary dump of Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett to the Dodgers for a package of prospects including two who are impressive—Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa—but the key point being missed is that Gonzalez is still a star-level, MVP-caliber talent whom the Red Sox had surrendered three top prospects to acquire just a year-and-a-half earlier. Were they supposed to give him away just to get out from under the contract? And were the Dodgers just doing the Red Sox a favor along the lines of the nouveau riche just buying things they recognized?

The Dodgers also claimed Lee when the Phillies placed him on waivers last year. If there was an intention on the part of Amaro to extricate himself from Lee’s contract, he could’ve just handed him to the Dodgers and moved on. He didn’t do that and won’t do it this year with Lee unless he’s getting something back. If a team is accepting the $62.5 million Lee is guaranteed through 2015, they’re not surrendering a top-tier prospect for a soon-to-be 35-year-old with that much cash coming to him. Nor will they get significant packages of younsters for Halladay or Rollins. They might get something decent for Chase Utley, but it won’t be a franchise remaking deal that will be pointed to in 2017 as the building block for the next Phillies run.

There are other concerns in play here. It’s a ridiculous premise to believe that the GM has the final say in all personnel moves. Evidence of Amaro answering to his bosses was clear in the negotiations to retain Ryan Madson as the team’s closer after the 2011 season when the strongly cited rumors were that the Phillies had made a $44 million offer to Madson that the player and his agent Scott Boras accepted. Then when Amaro went to get approval from CEO David Montgomery, a hold was put on the agreement and a few days later, Papelbon was signed. In retrospect, with Madson not having thrown a Major League pitch for the two organizations he’s signed with since, Amaro and the Phillies were lucky it fell apart, regardless of who pulled the first thread as the catalyst of the fabric disintegrating.

Prior to the contract extension given to Cole Hamels, there was endless speculation that the staggering Phillies would trade him. Instead, they gave him what was, at the time, the richest contract ever given to a pitcher.

Apparently Amaro doesn’t read the rumors and do what they’re saying he’s about to do or supposed to do.

Another issue is the attendance factor. Amid all the talk that of the loyalty of Phillies’ fans and the daily sellouts during the club’s run of excellence, like most fanbases if the team isn’t contending and isn’t good, the fans aren’t going to go. This is part of the reason the Cubs have been so historically bad—there’s no motivation to consistently try and win because the fans show up either way. It would take annual contention over the long-term (a decade) and at least one World Series win for the Cubs to: A) lose the lovable loser mantle they so proudly wallow in; and B) accumulate the apathy that comes from fans being disgusted with losing when they expected to win to the point that they’ll find something to do other than going to the park.

That’s not so with the Phillies. If the fans see a team without Lee, without Jimmy Rollins, without Halladay, without Papelbon, without Utley, they’re not going to the park to see a backend starter packaged as a top prospect in Jonathan Pettibone, Ben Revere, Domonic Brown, and Hamels for a team that’s going to win 75 games and is rebuilding.

This is the team they’ve put together. Amaro accepted that when he tacitly acknowledged that it’s all but impossible to win and build simultaneously with the Oswalt acquisition and unsaid admission that he was wrong to trade Lee. He reacted accordingly and this is where they are. With the extra Wild Card, the parity in the National League, their pitching and impossibility of trading their veterans for the quality youth necessary to justify it, they’re not blowing it up now.

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Kansas City Royals: Early Season Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

2013 Book Cover 3

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Derek Jeter’s Surprise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Los Angeles Angels: 2013 Book Excerpt

2013 MLB Predicted Standings, All Star Game, Award Winners, Ballparks, Books, CBA, Cy Young Award, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, Hall Of Fame, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Waiver Trades, Movies, MVP, Paul Lebowitz's 2013 Baseball Guide, PEDs, Players, Playoffs, Politics, Prospects, Spring Training, Stats, Trade Rumors, Umpires, World Series

The Los Angels Angels have gotten off to a horrific start. Their season, so far, has only been salvaged from an ever worse status by winning two of three against the woeful Astros. They were lucky to win those. What follows is an excerpt of my recently published book Paul Lebowitz’s 2013 Baseball Guide regarding one of the biggest problems the Angels have: a lack of continuity between manager Mike Scioscia and GM Jerry Dipoto.

I’m not going to say that everything in the book is as eerily accurate as this, but at the very least, it’s not a computer generated spitting out of numbers masking its creator with a façade of false expertise; nor is it randomness based on regurgitated stuff I heard elsewhere and pushed on the reader with an underlying and poorly hidden agenda. To be brutally honest, most of the stuff you see from bloggers, self-proclaimed “experts,” and the mainstream media is trash because they don’t know anything and are desperately trying to hide that fact through degrees, supposed credentials, obnoxious pomposity, and formulas that perhaps five people in the world truly understand.

My book has predictions, projections, fantasy picks and breakout candidates based on logic, reason and assessment. There are also players vital statistics and contract status for every key member of the organization. The full season predicted standings can be found here.

What follows is the assessments section on the Angels GM and manager and the pre-season prediction that was written well before the start of the season.

Jerry Dipoto—General Manager

Contract status: Signed through 2014 with club options for 2015 and 2016

When Dipoto took the job, it’s doubtful that he had it in mind that he would: A) be a checkbook GM; and B) would be usurping the longtime manager and most powerful voice in the organization as to the construction of the roster, Mike Scioscia.

Dipoto paid his dues as a baseball executive working in the front offices for the Red Sox, Rockies and Diamondbacks before serving as the interim GM in 2010 when Diamondbacks GM Josh Byrnes was fired and then moved back into an assistant role when Kevin Towers was hired as the permanent replacement. It was Dipoto’s trades of Dan Haren and Edwin Jackson at mid-season that played a large role in the Diamondbacks’ 2011 division title. Towers got the credit for the meal, but Dipoto brought in some of the ingredients and set the table.

The Angels were a disappointment in 2012 and it’s hard to know how much blame has to go to the GM. Did he want to sign Albert Pujols to that contract? Did he want to put a team that was so diametrically opposed to what the Angels have been and was ill-suited to the strategies and desires of the manager? Did he want the manager to begin with?

With everything the Angels have done since firing Tony Reagins as GM, there’s been a sense of collecting names that can’t be criticized from the outside, but don’t work as a cohesive unit when put into practice. The Angels never pursued the Pujols-type of player. In years past, they targeted what they wanted and made a quick strike to get them. There was a positive atmosphere and it was widely known that Scioscia was in command, the players were treated well, everything was kept in-house, and they won.

That’s gone. Pujols’s acquisition changed the template and it fits neither Dipoto or Scioscia. They’re still working together not as two men on the same page but as if Moreno told them that they’re two smart baseball men and they need to work it out.

Those things rarely get worked out.

This past winter it continued. Did Dipoto want to sign Josh Hamilton to a 5-year, $125 million contract, take him out of his comfort zone in Texas and put him in California with the requisite pressure and underlying dysfunction that hasn’t been repaired?

There’s a legitimate question as to who’s in charge with the Angels. In the days of Bill Stoneman as GM and Scioscia as manager, they worked hand-in-hand and all were on the same page. Now it appears as if the stat savvy Dipoto, who was brought up as an executive in situations where money was either secondary or tight, has become the type of GM who is a figurehead and spending money because the owner is telling him to spend money. His other acquisitions—Joe Blanton, Jason Vargas, Ryan Madson—are not slam dunks; nor are they the types of pitchers the Angels have historically pursued.

Is Dipoto in charge? Is this the kind of team he envisioned putting together when he got his opportunity to be a GM? It doesn’t look like it.

Mike Scioscia—Manager

Contract status: Signed through 2018

Scioscia, in the waning days of the 2012 season, had a look on his face like he wanted to be fired. It’s not easy for a man who was in such unwavering command to have his authority stripped from him and parceled to a GM he doesn’t know and thinks differently as to the most effective way to manage a game. That power also shifted to the owner who once treated Scioscia with pure trust and is now having a significant say in the construction of the club not based on what the manager wants and thinks he can win with, but what has sparked a showbiz atmosphere and a TV contract trumping winning.

These are not things that interested the pitching/bullpen/speed/defense/inside game-preferring manager.

Scioscia was unhappy when his longtime hitting coach Mickey Hatcher was fired. The blame for that fell to Pujols. As respected a teammate Pujols is said to be and as much as former Cardinals’ manager Tony LaRussa worships him, I have to wonder how much of LaRussa’s crediting Pujols for his leadership abilities was a placating of the player and the golden rule (whoever has the gold makes the rules). It behooves  the manager of a megastar player to get that player on his side, but that was never a part of Scioscia’s job description. His old-school sensibilities went back to the days before guaranteed long-term contracts and players having the ability to dictate who the coaches are. In Scioscia’s world it’s, “I’m the manager. That’s why.” And Pujols is a player who can resist that style of dictatorship.

The 2012 team was not a Scioscia-style team. They still played good defense, stole bases and bunted, but the tenor was different. The all-for-one dynamic was gone and this is the risk taken when buying mercenaries who don’t fit in to what the manager wants to do.

Scioscia is signed through 2018, but his time with the Angels is coming to a close. It would be better for all parties to split and move on. Dipoto would be free to bring in a manager he prefers (if he’s allowed to), and Scioscia can get another job elsewhere in a situation that more fits his style.

PREDICTION

This season has disaster written all over it. The Angels have abandoned the dignified template they adhered to for so long and chose to take the tack of purchasing mercenaries thinking that the ends—a huge TV contract; the extra Wild Card; buzz—would justify the means. They’ve lost the plot and shunned the reason why the Angels were a consideration for every free agent not because they paid the most or because they won. That was, in part, important, but the Angels organization was respected because the problems were kept in-house and there was uncommon stability in the front office and field staff.

That’s gone.

The second they signed Pujols, that ended. Pujols is not a prototypical troublemaking diva, but if he’s unhappy, he has a way of letting everyone know it. The first salvo against Scioscia to indicate who was really running things now was the hiring of Dipoto. Pujols’s displeasure with Hatcher and the hitting coach’s firing was the second. As the 2012 season moved along, there was speculation that Scioscia would be out as manager because he wanted out and Dipoto wanted him out. It didn’t happen and it was another mistake in a litany of them. The two don’t believe the same things when it comes to strategy and the manager who liked to push the envelope offensively with speed and inside baseball now has no choice but to sit back and wait for the home run. The manager who wanted pitchers who gutted their way through games and gave innings and high pitch counts regardless of what a few bad innings did to their ERAs has been compromised with the injury-prone and pending free agents. The bullpen is not good.

This is not a Scioscia team, but he’s still managing it because they wouldn’t fire him and he didn’t resign.

That problem will be rectified—for him anyway—when he’s fired by May. He’ll take some time off, relax and wait for another job opening. Perhaps he’ll write a book about what went wrong. Pujols will lobby for Tony LaRussa and perhaps his former manager, bored in retirement, will be willing to come back on a short-term deal to save the day. But this team is not good enough for LaRussa to save the day even if he does choose to jump in, take Moreno’s money over the objections of the GM and try to steer the ship in the right direction. LaRussa is the same kind of manager as Sciosica only he’ll have the benefit of the tag, “Pujols Approved” on the inside of his jersey.

Hamilton was a mistake. The pitching is shaky from top-to-bottom. They’re overpaid and don’t appear to like each other very much.

These are not the Angels of a decade ago and this will go down as the latest example of collecting stars and expecting them to join together in harmony just because they’re stars.

It won’t work.

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

2013 Book Cover 3

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Good News and Bad News: Halladay’s Not Hurt

2013 MLB Predicted Standings, Award Winners, Books, Cy Young Award, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, Hall Of Fame, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, Paul Lebowitz's 2013 Baseball Guide, PEDs, Players, Prospects, Spring Training, Stats

The Phillies would be better off if Roy Halladay was hurt. At least that would be a viable explanation for this sudden and cliff-diving decline from what he was to what he is. What makes the lost velocity and increased confidence of the hitters even more frightening is that there’s no physical malady or mechanical hiccup to fix and get the soon-to-be 36-year-old back to the greatness he’s exhibited for the past decade. His mechanics are fine and if he was ailing, the Phillies wouldn’t continue to put him on the mound. That was true in spring training as the “experts” speculated on what was wrong with Halladay and implied that there was an injury that the Phillies were hiding. What possible reason would they have to do that in spring training?

No. He’s not hurt. His arm slot is around where it was when he was at the top of his game with a slight deviation that has nothing to do with pain or compensation and isn’t going to revert him back to what he was if it’s “fixed.” He’s not finished and not in the last days of a great career. He can continue to pitch this way once he learns how to get hitters out more effectively with diminished stuff, but he’s not going to be the unstoppable, grinding, durable force he was. This is evidence of the ravages of time and work. In the past two decades, we’ve grown accustomed to pitchers continuing to perform in their 40s as they did in their 20s and for the most part in cases like Roger Clemens it was due to the evident use of PEDs, but with the new testing the one thing that can’t be quantified is when the body says enough’s enough. Halladay’s seems to be informing him that he has to figure something else out to be effective.

The sheer number of pitchers and players who weren’t simply maintaining their level of work in their supposed primes, but were surpassing it due to the use of certain substances made it seem normal when they should’ve been seen as a rarity. Nolan Ryan and Steve Carlton were anomalies not just because they lasted into their 40s, but for the most part they maintained their effectiveness late into their careers pitching the same way they always did. There was no transition from what they were into something else.

Halladay’s velocity is down from a high of 96 and a consistent 94 at the tiptop of his game two years ago to barely hitting 90 last night. This has been a recurring issue all spring and spurred the worries that are rising with every subpar start. For the hitter, there’s a significant difference between preparing for 96, being used to 94 and seeing 89-90. That’s an eon of pitch recognition time. Add in that he doesn’t have the same pop you get the results Halladay’s produced in his first two starts.

Counting him out is silly. Pitchers like Carlton, Bert Blyleven and Jack Morris have been labeled as “finished” and come back to be productive, even Cy Young Award contending arms at Halladay’s age and beyond. He still has his intelligence and his stuff is good enough to get hitters out, but he’s got to learn how to do it and it doesn’t happen overnight.

On another note with the Phillies, the Charlie Manuel contract situation is going to get messy. Were it not for a blown save by Greg Holland of the Royals in which he couldn’t find the strike zone, the Phillies would be sitting at 1-6 with a lame duck manager, an angry fanbase and ominous speculation concerning the age of their roster. Manuel has no intention of walking quietly into the night at the end of the season as the Phillies clearly want him to do and he’s working with his clear heir apparent, Ryne Sandberg, on the coaching staff.

This has happened with Manuel before. With the Indians in 2002, his contract was up at the end of the season, he wanted to know where he stood and basically told them to give him an answer or fire him. The Indians were in a similar position then as the Phillies are now with an aging core and an unavoidable rebuild beckoning, so with the club 39-47 and far from playoff position, they fired him. Manuel deserves better from the Phillies after all he’s accomplished—an extra year on his contract as severance even if they have no intention of him fulfilling it and not having to look at the guy who’s going to replace him every single day—but he’s not going to get it and if this thing spirals out of control, Sandberg will be managing the Phillies by June 1st.

Or sooner.

Extended discussions of this along with predictions, player analysis, under the radar fantasy picks, breakout candidates, contract status of all relevant personnel—GMs, managers, players—and anything else you could possibly want to know is in my new book Paul Lebowitz’s 2013 Baseball Guide now available on Amazon.com, Smashwords, BN and Lulu. Check it out and read a sample.

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Lusting For Luhnow, Part I

Award Winners, Ballparks, CBA, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, Hall Of Fame, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, MLB Trade Deadline, Paul Lebowitz's 2013 Baseball Guide, PEDs, Players, Playoffs, Politics, Prospects, Spring Training, Stats, Trade Rumors, World Series

We’re about a week away from a Jeff Luhnow bowel movement being encased in a climate controlled, clear reinforced plastic viewing chamber to be marveled at and admired 50, 100, 200 years from now in Cooperstown as if it was the work of a genius and not a bran muffin and coffee he had for breakfast on a particular morning in April of 2013.

For now, the adoration lavished on the Astros GM is limited to orgasmic sighs, lusty Twitter comments, and Hardball Talk postings about the I-Pads all the Astros’ players were given, beatific grins at the catchphrase in the clubhouse (“Process”), Baseball America columns discussing the number of Luhnow draft picks that opened the season on a big league roster, and the method in which Luhnow is rebuilding the Astros as if they’re an expansion team.

Of course it’s nonsense. With the free hand Luhnow’s been given by Astros owner Jim Crane, he’s in an enviable position on multiple fronts. First, the owner isn’t expecting results immediately and is letting the GM do whatever he wants in every aspect of the organization. Second, the media is rolling around and contorting itself into a pretzel to allow Luhnow a wide swath of absolution in spite of formulating a 2013 club that is going to be among the worst in the history of the sport. Third, his resume is being taken so drastically out of context that it won’t be long before he’s given credit for the Cardinals busting through from the team that constantly lost in the playoffs under Walt Jocketty/Tony LaRussa pre-2006 to the one that won two World Series in 2006 and 2011 with Luhnow as the scouting director. Fourth, he has the support of one of the largest growing constituencies in all of sports: the bloggers and social media “experts” who think they can run a club, scout, and analyze because they play fantasy baseball and can read a spreadsheet, yet never picked up a baseball in their lives and wouldn’t know what to do with one if they did.

Luhnow’s gutting of the Astros is fulfilling a mandate and reacting to the situation he entered. The Astros had bloated contacts, were notoriously thin in talent, and had neglected the farm system to the degree that there were very few marketable prospects for trade or development. He’s essentially running an expansion team in large part because he himself cleared out the house of any and all players that were there when he arrived. It may be a bit much to say they’re trying to lose, but it’s not too much to say they don’t care if they win. It’s a subtle difference and a large factor as to why they’re being allowed to put a team on the field that has a $26 million payroll and will have a dramatic impact on all of baseball with their historic and intentional awfulness.

Is it necessary to strip the whole apparatus down to its brass fittings in order to build it back up? No. It’s not. There are many ways to get where a club wants to go and the days of an expansion team having to take annual beatings for 5-7 years while their draft picks develop ended with free agency. The 1969 Mets and early 1980s Blue Jays were case studies of clubs that built from the bottom up and turned their fortunes around in year eight for the Mets (100 wins and a World Series), and year seven for the Blue Jays (89 wins in 1983 starting off a long run culminating in back-to-back World Series wins in 1992-1993).

However, those were the days before teams spent lavishly on free agents and had the ability to just buy their way into contention. Nowadays, it’s not necessary to wait. The Diamondbacks are the new age case study having won 100 games in their second season and a World Series in their fourth. Strangely, their success has been quantified as “lucky,” “mortgaging,” and “checkbook building” by then-owner Jerry Colangelo; then-GM Joe Garagiola Jr.; and then-manager Buck Showalter. They followed the strategies of Showalter—hired by the Diamondbacks shortly after the Yankees had fired him in 1995—and he took command of the implementation of Showalter-preferred teaching methods from that day forward. They were largely a creation of free agency by signing Randy JohnsonJay Bell and trading for Luis Gonzalez and Matt Williams. This is often referred to with a scoffing eye-roll as if there’s something untoward about signing free agents and achieving rapid success with players drafted, signed and developed by other clubs. Like those who advocate eating organic foods and nothing else, there’s a sense of superiority for a team that developed their own players rather than purchased them. In reality, there’s no difference other than in the mind. The Yankees didn’t develop Babe Ruth. They bought him. So what? Does that diminish what he was? Not in any way.

The “development” attitude is supposed to be sustainable as if the atmosphere is being saved and global warming is being stopped by a player working his way through the organization and making it to the big leagues as a homegrown talent.

In the end, a win is a win is a win and it doesn’t make much difference whether it’s done by a bunch of mercenaries and a $150-200 million payroll or one with a $70 million payroll and the appellation of “genius” attached to the “architect” of the club.

The concept that what Luhnow is doing with the Astros is “right” is based on nothing more than the preferred public perception by the self-styled revolutionaries who feel as if statistics have taken over the game of baseball in an inextricable metamorphosis from what was to what is and what will be.

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