Role Reversals and Trade Deadlines Make Strange Bedfellows

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The “Mets-Phillies rivalry” isn’t so much a rivalry. It’s more two fanbases that dislike one another due to their close proximity. The teams were never in contention at the same time until 2007 and by then the Mets had the reputation as condescending and arrogant because of their 2006 and early-2007 dominance and the Phillies’ reputation as underachievers and authors of the greatest collapse in baseball history in 1964. Jimmy Rollins stoked the fire with his bluster early in 2007 and looked foolish as the Mets were strolling to a second straight division title; but Rollins backed it up with a blazing final month and by winning the MVP in the Phillies’ remarkable comeback that seized the momentum and sent the Mets into a spiral that culminated in the front office regime change and roster turnover.

The Phillies won the World Series in 2008 and became the dominant team in the NL with another pennant in 2009 followed by two more division titles in 2010-2011.

The tide has turned again.

This time it’s the Phillies who are reviled throughout baseball because of their smugness, penchant for trading and signing every big name on the market and “we’re better than you” mouthiness, much of it emanating from their fans. The Mets are the young upstarts expected to lose 90+ games (and in the ludicrous world of Michael Kay, 110 games) but find themselves in the thick of the pennant race and looking to buy players rather than sell.

So where does that leave them?

With each mounting loss and rising deficit in the playoff race, the Phillies’ decision to sell grows more and more likely. But would they trade anyone to the Mets?

The Mets are in need of a right-handed hitting bat who can play first base. They’re continually placing Justin Turner at the position against lefty pitchers instead of Ike Davis. Turner is not an experienced first baseman and is not meant to be in the lineup regularly; he’s a useful bat off the bench and can play second, third and a little shortstop. It’s not as easy to play first base as the Mike Francesas of the world will lead you to believe. That notion is a disproved theory from the 1950s that a player can be “hidden” at first base. The Mets cannot let an inexperienced defender cost them runs; that’s where they are if they insist on using Turner there.

With Ryan Howard activated, Ty Wigginton no longer has a regular place in the Phillies’ lineup. Wigginton hits well against lefties and enjoys hitting in Citi Field (1.278 OPS with 3 homers in 34 plate appearances). The Mets can use him. As the velocity of the Phillies plummet rises in new and enterprising ways like last night’s debacle against the Braves in which Antonio Bastardo entered a 0-0 tie in the 8th inning, proceeded to load the bases, walk in a run and serve up a grand slam to Brian McCann, it’s clear that there’s not going to be a turnaround for the Phillies when Roy Halladay returns or at any other time. They’re closer in the standings to the dregs—the Padres, Rockies, Cubs and Astros—than they are to a playoff spot.

This is pretty much it.

Sometimes teams that revile one another will acknowledge that concessions need to be made to do business. The Red Sox were going to trade Mike Lowell to the Rangers who, with the Red Sox knowledge, planned to send Lowell to the Yankees. It never came to pass but that style of plausible deniability is necessary in a true rivalry as fierce as that of Yankees-Red Sox.

Such is not the case with the Mets and Phillies.

The Mets can use Wigginton and the Phillies are coming apart at the seams. That’s a starting point for negotiation without partisan rancor and fan perception standing in the way.

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It Takes At Least Two To Complete A Collapse

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Not only does the collapsing team have to come completely apart and allow their pursuer(s) to catch and pass them, but the pursuer(s) have to do their part by winning a few games.

And the Rays, Angels and Cardinals have made the lives of the Red Sox and Braves easier by losing repeatedly.

The Rays lost 3 of 4 games to the Yankees (and only won that one game because the Yankees were still in a division-clinching celebratory stupor and didn’t show up until they were down 13-0); the Rays also lost to the Blue Jays last night.

The Angels lost 2 of 3 to the Orioles before winning 2 of 3 from the Blue Jays; they lost to the woeful Athletics last night. (Maybe the Angels had gone—as a group—to see Moneyball and thought they were playing a team that was, y’know, good and the product of a, y’know, genius.)

The Cardinals suffered a defeat to the Mets on Thursday that, despite the “brave” (see what I did there?) face being put up by manager Tony LaRussa, can only be called devastating. If you blow a 6-2 ninth inning lead to a team like the Mets, you don’t deserve to be in the playoffs. The Cardinals lost 5-1 to the Cubs last night.

If a team is making a late and desperate run to the playoffs, they can’t be losing games with their aces on the mound and that’s exactly what happened to all three teams with David Price, Jered Weaver and Chris Carpenter all starting; Price and Weaver lost; Carpenter went 7 innings, allowed one run and got a no-decision.

The 1964 Cardinals were 6 1/2 games behind the Phillies with 13 games to play and went 10-3 as the Phillies, with 12 left to play, went 2-10. The Cardinals won just as much as the Phillies lost.

The 2007 Phillies were 7 games behind the Mets on September 12th with 17 left to play and went 13-4 to win the division by one game.

The Mets blew it, but the Phillies also did their part by winning their games.

The Red Sox were rained out against the Yankees last night and, unless they lose all the rest of their games, are going to the playoffs.

The Braves beat the Nationals and are now leading in the Wild Card by 3 with 5 to play; I don’t think even Fredi Gonzalez can manage his way out of that.

So both the Red Sox and Braves are going to the playoffs through little recent work of their own.

It’s not their fault.

It just is.

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Blunt Group Therapy For Red Sox And Brewers Fans

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It won’t help, but I know what Red Sox and Brewers fans are going through.

You’re counting the days and games; scouring the schedules of your team and your competitors; calculating the likelihood and magic numbers for a playoff spot you once felt was guaranteed; examining the pitching matchups and acting as if nothing’s wrong when you’re worried, worried, worried.

Each loss; each injury; each day that passes and another piece of the lead is whittled away, you say, “just let us make the playoffs; I don’t care if we lose in the first round; I don’t want to deal with the embarrassment of being called a ‘choker’ and hearing the obnoxious Yankees/Cardinals fans and their smug self-satisfaction at the misery of others”.

I know.

I experienced it with the Mets in 2007 and 2008.

Of course, 2007 was far worse.

And the parallels are unmistakable.

Like the Red Sox of 2011, the 2007 Mets had high expectations after a disappointing prior season. The Mets were short-handed in the starting rotation relying on aging and declining veterans Tom Glavine and Pedro Martinez and inexperienced and tired from a long-season Oliver Perez and John Maine; the Red Sox have lost Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz to injuries and John Lackey has been, um…not good.

The hype surrounding this Red Sox team was exemplified by the idiotic (before the season, during and maybe after) lusty fan piece on NESN by Eric Ortiz proclaiming the Red Sox as a direct challenger to the 1927 Yankees.

After reading that, a large segment of people wanted the Red Sox to lose.

The 2011 Rays, like the 2007 Phillies, have nothing to lose and are playing with the freewheeling “no one expects us to win anyway” attitude that allows them to relax. The Rays are younger and healthier.

Is it likely that the Rays catch the Red Sox? No. But examining their schedules with the Rays having 3 games in Boston next week and 7 games remaining with the Yankees, there’s cause for concern. If the Yankees have the division locked up, is it so farfetched to see the Yankees shun going all out to win in those 3 games in Tampa against the Rays to screw the Red Sox?

The perfect storm is in place because the Red Sox are playing the Yankees in 3 games at Yankee Stadium directly before they travel to play the Rays.

It’s possible that, to make the playoffs, the Red Sox will be rooting for the Yankees.

That’s not where they want to be.

With the Brewers, their arrogance is engendering loathing throughout baseball.

Yesterday I defended Nyjer Morgan for his Tony Plush persona because it’s nothing to get into a twist about—who cares what Morgan says and does? But the one thing a team does not want to do is inspire other teams to want to beat them more and ruin their playoff chances—the 2007 Mets did that with the Marlins and it cost them. And teams like the Brewers—who’ve won nothing—certainly don’t want to make a veteran team with a megastar like Albert Pujols angry.

The Phillies have a right to be arrogant; the Brewers don’t.

The Cardinals are now 6 games behind the Brewers.

Many lower-level teams are playing out the string and trying to get the season over with; for the most part, they want to win, but don’t care all that much which other teams make the playoffs; if they’re made to care because of taunting and narcissism, it’s a motivation that was unnecessary and self-destructive.

Ron Darling said something interesting during the Mets game yesterday. In essence, players who hit 4-5 more homers in September are doing so because they’re looking to pad their stats by the end of the season. This isn’t strategic nor is it done with the interests of team goals in mind. They’re guessing at pitches and hacking. If a player does this against the Cardinals and not the Brewers, that’s not good for the Brewers.

After today, the Brewers remaining schedule is relatively weak; the Cardinals have a few tough games with the Phillies; the Mets are looking to finish above .500; and the Cubs would dearly love to knock out the Cardinals.

Of the two teams that are in danger of a September swoon, the Red Sox are far more vulnerable than the Brewers; if either happens to join the 2007 Mets and 1964 Phillies as members of the exclusive club of inexplicable chokes, they have no one to blame but themselves.

And it could happen.

I know.

Because I saw it happen with the Mets.

Twice.

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