Your Alternate Red Sox Universe

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You’ve all heard and read about the Red Sox players running to ownership to complain about Bobby Valentine. Analysis of this is rampant, but I’m going to do something different. Let’s say that Terry Francona wasn’t forced out and as a corollary to that decision, Theo Epstein stayed on as GM to fulfill the final year of his contract. What would the Red Sox look like right now without Valentine as manager; without Ben Cherington in this no-win situation and having his power usurped by Larry Lucchino; without the moves they made to patch over holes while keeping the foundation of the team intact?

Epstein said that his future with the Red Sox was tied to Francona. Epstein was entering the final year of his contract and, in a benevolently arrogant Theo way, would’ve done the Red Sox a favor and stayed under those terms contingent on Francona being retained as manager.

I think Francona wanted freedom from the out-of-control nuthouse and expectations the Red Sox had become. I think his desire to leave was due to his physical and mental health. What had once been appreciated was no longer so; in a state of World Series win or bust, there’s no enjoyment, only relief in winning or devastation in losing. Francona had had it.

I also think Epstein wanted out. Whether it was to escape the pressure of his hometown and the victories that had turned into a burden or that he wanted a new challenge, he needed to move on. Both achieved their ends. Francona is able to sit in an ESPN booth and luxuriate in the accolades of what he presided over and be absolved of the blame for the lack of discipline, overt disrespect, poor play, and questionable decisions that led to the 2011 collapse and set the stage for the exodus.

Is it something new for voices in the Red Sox organization to unload on employees who’ve departed by choice or by force? They did it with Pedro Martinez, Nomar Garciaparra, Johnny Damon, and now Francona. This offended the players? It’s par for the course. They ripped David Ortiz and Jason Varitek before both decided to stay. In 2005 Epstein left in a power grabbing snit and came back. It’s the way things go in Boston. The “grand returns as beloved conquering heroes” for these star players as if there was no bad blood is inherent and hypocritical. It’s not going to change.

Would the 2012 team be different with Epstein and Francona? Would Josh Beckett be pitching better? Would Jon Lester? Would they have moved forward with Kevin Youkilis?

Considering how he views the closer role as easily replaceable, I can tell you now that Epstein would not have traded Josh Reddick for Andrew Bailey. Epstein would also have blunted Lucchino’s incursion into the baseball operations. But it was Epstein who put together the 2011 team. It was Epstein who paid over $100 million for Daisuke Matsuzaka; signed Carl Crawford, John Lackey and Bobby Jenks. Most of the roster and the players who are underperforming and throwing tantrums were brought in by Epstein. It was Francona who let the players run roughshod over all propriety and behave as if they were entitled to do whatever they wanted just because. To think that the club would be better now if Francona and Epstein had stayed is ignoring the fundamental issues that caused the 2011 collapse in the first place.

Both Epstein and Francona can feel badly for players they have affinity for and who played hard for them like Dustin Pedroia, but privately don’t you think they’re wallowing in what the Red Sox are going through now? Loving it? Sitting there with smug half-smiles as they’ve moved along and their former organization is teetering on the brink of revolution?

The Red Sox are 57-60 and are not making the playoffs. It would be the same circumstances with different actors in the drama if Epstein and Francona had stayed. If that had happened, Epstein’s expiring contract would be the hot topic of discussion and those who are looking back on Francona’s tenure with the remembrances of a long-lost love would’ve called for his head in May and the Red Sox would’ve had no choice but to fire him. Do you think the players would’ve defended him? Or, just as they leaked the meeting with ownership regarding Valentine, would they be privately saying that the clubhouse had tuned Francona out and a change needed to be made?

This is not a good team. Valentine has brought on many of the problems himself because of who and how he is, but the players were ready to mutiny the second he was hired before even talking to him and it was all based on reputation. He was a bad choice to patch over the holes that led to the massive changes, but it was either make structural changes to the personnel or put a Band-Aid on them and try to find someone who they felt would handle the stat-studded roster they were stuck with. It hasn’t worked, but they wouldn’t be in a better position with Francona; with Gene Lamont; with Dale Sveum; with John Farrell; with anyone.

The issue of the players failing to look in the mirror and accepting that they’re part of the problem still remains sans Francona and Epstein and with Valentine targeted for elimination. Beckett refused to take responsibility for being out of shape, arrogant and selfish last season and the same issues are in play now. Adrian Gonzalez’s looking toward the heavens and referencing God’s plan at the conclusion of 2011 along with him having been the star player for three teams that have collapsed and his whining about Valentine are validating the perception that he’s not a leader and has a preference to being a background player rather than the out-front star.

Is Valentine to blame for Beckett? For Lester? For Daniel Bard? For Crawford?

No. But he’s the scapegoat.

Red Sox ownership is going to have to confront these hard truths. Yes, they can fire Valentine and install whomever as the new manager, but is that going to fix things? Will the players suddenly rediscover a work ethic that’s sorely lacking? And if Pedroia is so hell-bent on winning and doing things the “right” way, why didn’t he confront the players who were clearly acting in a manner that was diametrically opposed to winning and was affecting the team negatively last September?

The team doesn’t need a new manager. It needs a mirror. A big one.

//

Larry Lucchino’s Letter to Red Sox Season Ticket Holders

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If Red Sox fans weren’t overly concerned about their club’s mediocre first half, clear lack of a coherent plan and inability of organizational factions to get on the same page, then the latest news should wake them up with the cold fear of a premonition of an oncoming natural disaster that they can neither avoid nor stop.

Team President/CEO Larry Lucchino sent the following letter to season ticket holders.

Dear Season Ticket Holder:

As we cross the midpoint of our 2012 season, we thank you for your loyal support thus far. We met many of you at our new spring home, JetBlue Park at Fenway South, and renewed more acquaintances as we opened the 100th Anniversary season at Fenway Park.  We sensed that the nostalgia touched you, and we hope to continue to celebrate this special anniversary from time to time throughout the year.

Our play on the field has at times tested the mettle of the faithful.  It could be maddening one day, enthralling the next day.  Along the way, we have seen our bullpen gel, young players emerge, and veterans lead.  We have watched the team coalesce into a close group.  Personalities are enhancing the chemistry, such as the cheerful Cody Ross, the friendly Mike Aviles, and the inspiring story of Daniel Nava.  Jarrod Saltalamacchia has shown power, in the clutch, worthy of an All-Star.  And as the talented Will Middlebrooks forced his way into the lineup, we bade farewell, with gratitude, to Kevin Youkilis, who helped us win two World Championships.

The one constant on the field has been our beloved Big Papi, David Ortiz.  How thrilled we were that our gregarious leader reached the 400-home run plateau in a career that we hope will forever be with the Red Sox.

The one constant off the field is that we have had a veritable All-Star Team on the disabled list.  As we begin the second half, we look forward to the return of the “varsity,” including Jacoby Ellsbury, Carl Crawford, Andrew Bailey, and the ever-dirty Dustin Pedroia.

While this infusion of such talent in late July may make other General Managers green with envy, you can be sure that Ben Cherington and his Baseball Operations Staff will approach the July 31 trading deadline with their tireless work ethic.  If someone can further help this club, and if the deal makes sense, we will be aggressive.  We want to play October Baseball this year.

Meanwhile, as you come to Fenway Park throughout this season, we hope you will come early—the secret to fully enjoying a sports venue.  Now “A Living Museum,” Fenway Park probably leads the league in bronze plaques and commemorative displays along the concourses.  Enjoy them at your leisure early, well before the escalation of excitement as game time approaches.  And as always, if you have reactions, suggestions, or ideas that will make the ballpark experience even better, we invite you to send them to fanfeedback@redsox.com.

By the way, if we’re in your neighborhood for a visit during “Acts of Kindness Month” this month, please come over and say hello.  We enjoy listening to you, and we enjoy talking baseball with you.  We’re your biggest fans.  So, on behalf of John Henry, Tom Werner, our partners, and our entire organization, we thank you again, and we look forward to seeing you at Fenway Park.

Keep the Faith,

Larry Lucchino

I’ll ignore the obvious laughlines like “cheerful Cody Ross,” “friendly Mike Aviles,” and “the return of the ‘varsity’”. What would concern me if I were a Red Sox fan is that Lucchino is sending a letter like this out in the first place and is implying that the Red Sox are going to be “aggressive” at the trading deadline in order to play October baseball this year.

There are times to be aggressive and there are times to hold one’s fire, wait and let things play out without chasing the past—a past that had the Red Sox in legitimate title contention for almost the entire decade of 2000 to 2011. I don’t see this letter as an organizational boss assuaging the concerns of an angry (and somewhat spoiled) fanbase. I see it as the man behind the scenes putting his voice out there in the public and pulling levers to make sure he’s having a significant influence in team construction.

This is a problem that’s been ongoing since the departure of Theo Epstein and will continue until owner John Henry steps in and lets someone—anyone—take charge as he did with Epstein. The letter is not baseball related and coincides with the series of decisions that were made last winter to try and patch over the issues that caused the self-destruction on and off the field of a club that, before the fact, was compared to the 1927 Yankees.

There’s no one in charge and willing to say, “I’m in charge.” Cherington’s certainly not running things because if he was, Bobby Valentine would not be the manager. And that’s not a defense of Cherington’s preferred choices because neither John Farrell nor Dale Sveum are lighting up the world with their baseball brilliance as the respective managers of the Blue Jays and Cubs.

Lucchino wanted Valentine, again, to have a “name” to replace Terry Francona and lay down the law that the lack of discipline that was blamed for the club’s demise last season wouldn’t happen again. Naturally Valentine has butted heads with the veterans and his almost immediate battle with Youkilis greased the skids for Youkilis’s departure from the team. Not that that’s a bad thing. Even though they gave him away, they probably should’ve traded Youkilis over the winter to shake things up before the inevitable happened with Valentine.

Lucchino sending out this letter to keep the season ticket holders happy is indicative of a fanbase that’s gotten so greedy that they’re blind to the reality that they’ve become mirror images of that which they despise more than anything: the Yankees. Do they need to be given assurances that the Red Sox are going to try and win? Wasn’t the breaking of The Curse in 2004 and another championship 3 years later enough to keep them happy for awhile? To maintain loyalty and, even if the team isn’t performing up to expectations and lofty payroll, ensure that the season ticket holders will keep their plans intact due to reciprocal appreciation?

Like him or not, Lucchino helmed the rise of the Red Sox and was a major part of turning Fenway Park into a rebuilt place to be where the tickets were hot rather than an aging and dilapidated relic with players, coaches, managers and front office people who only cared about themselves. If a lean year or two is necessary for the greater good and to prevent the whole thing from crashing to the ground, isn’t it worth it to accept that and say, “We’ll take an 81-81 season if it means we’ll be contending for a title in 2014 or 2015”?

Epstein was a check on Lucchino. Cherington can’t be that same check. Now there’s no one in command and no single voice to put a stop to a lunatic maneuver designed to steal the headlines for a week, perhaps help the club win 2 more games than they would have otherwise and wind up in the exact same position they would’ve been in had they been prudent and held onto whatever assets they surrendered to make that incremental and meaningless “improvement”.

As the head of the organization, Lucchino is addressing fan concerns and trying to please his customers, but the customer isn’t always right and because the fans want the Red Sox to do something drastic doesn’t mean it’s wise. There’s a difference between compromising within reason for the constituency and compromising for expediency and self-immolating in the process. If he’s going to try and make sure his word is proven true and Cherington and the baseball people are forced to do something they don’t want to do, it’s only going to make the current predicament worse. Except now it won’t be short-term, it will be long term, deep and that much harder to dig their way out of.

//

Off Season Losers In Retrospect

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Several days ago I listed the off season winners in retrospect discussing teams and the moves they made this past winter. Now it’s time for the losers.

New York Yankees

Acquired: Michael Pineda, Raul Ibanez, Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, Jose Campos

Subtracted: Jorge Posada, A.J. Burnett, Jesus Montero, Hector Noesi

The YES Network website still hasn’t mentioned Jose Campos since he got hurt. For that matter, nor have they mentioned Manny Banuelos’s recent injury. Maybe they haven’t been informed yet. Yeah. That’s it.

The trade of Montero and Noesi for Pineda and Campos is an absolute and utter disaster—a fireable offense for GM Brian Cashman.

Kuroda’s been good and unlucky.

Pettitte’s unexpected return has been a bolt from the blue and Ibanez has contributed the power I expected.

It’s fine to talk about them “having” to get rid of Burnett, but they’re paying him; they got low minor leaguers for him; he’s pitching well for the Pirates; and the players the Yankees got haven’t played yet in 2012. Had Pettitte not returned I guarantee there would be people now lamenting the loss of Burnett.

Guarantee.

Boston Red Sox

Acquired: GM Ben Cherington, Manager Bobby Valentine, Andrew Bailey, Ryan Sweeney, Cody Ross, Kelly Shoppach, Mark Melancon, Nick Punto

Subtracted: GM Theo Epstein, Manager Terry Francona, Jonathan Papelbon, Marco Scutaro, Josh Reddick, Tim Wakefield, Jason Varitek

It’s only when you look at the list above all at once do you realize how rancid an off-season the Red Sox had. Never mind the exchange of GMs/managers. Had he stayed, Epstein probably would’ve had better success fending off the advancing power grab of Larry Lucchino but it would’ve taken a Herculean effort for Epstein to prevent the mediocrity that the Red Sox have become.

I’m sick of seeing Francona complaining about how he was treated in Boston. If it weren’t for the Red Sox, the hot chicks to whom he’s sending candid photos of himself wouldn’t know who he is; not to mention would he not have two World Series rings and respect as a “great” manager—which he’s not.

Bailey got hurt as Reddick is on his way to making the All Star team and has been the Athletics’ best player. Melancon is back in the minor leagues; Shoppach is on the trade block; Ross was playing well before he got hurt; Punto is Punto.

No one’s saying they should’ve overpaid to keep Papelbon, but giving Scutaro away for a journeyman righty Clayton Mortensen made no sense.

Detroit Tigers

Acquired: Prince Fielder, Octavio Dotel, Gerald Laird, Collin Balester

Subtracted: Wilson Betemit, Brad Penny, Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Guillen, Joel Zumaya

Fielder and Cabrera are doing their jobs at the plate and more. The porous defense created by the signing of Fielder and shifting of Cabrera to third base hasn’t been as catastrophic as expected. That’s unless the pitching staff has it in their heads that they have to strike out more hitters or pitch differently to prevent balls from being hit to the right or left sides of the infield—highly unlikely.

The Tigers are 5 games under .500 because their pitching has been bad. The off-season isn’t a failure because of the signing of Fielder, but 5 games under .500 wasn’t what Mike Ilitch had in mind when he paid all that money to sign a huge bat like Fielder to replace Victor Martinez and team him with Cabrera.

Minnesota Twins

Acquired: GM Terry Ryan, Josh Willingham, Jamey Carroll, Jason Marquis, Ryan Doumit, Joel Zumaya

Subtracted: GM Bill Smith, Joe Nathan, Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel, Kevin Slowey

Terry Ryan was supposed to come back into the GM’s chair and start doing things the “Twins’ Way”. Well, that “way” is no longer working. The reason that vaunted “way” worked in the past was because they had talent on the roster and a club that was built for how Ron Gardenhire managed.

That’s no longer the case.

Marquis was released. Carroll hasn’t hit. Willingham’s been fantastic. The Zumaya signing was worth a shot I suppose, but he got hurt again. What he needs now is a friend—a real friend—to tell him that it’s over and he should retire before he damages himself permanently.

Maybe that’s what the Twins need too.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Acquired: GM Jerry Dipoto, Albert Pujols, C.J. Wilson, Chris Iannetta, Jason Isringhausen, LaTroy Hawkins

Subtracted: GM Tony Reagins, Fernando Rodney, Jeff Mathis, Tyler Chatwood

Pujols has started hitting and the Angels will rise and fall on what he does, but the uncharacteristic decision on the part of the Angels to depart from the template they’ve adhered to for a decade has led to this disconnect between GM Dipoto, manager Mike Scioscia and the club.

Scioscia’s hitting coach, Mickey Hatcher, was fired against Scioscia’s wishes. They never took serious steps to bolster the bullpen and had too many players for too few lineup spots.

Owner Arte Moreno made maneuvers that were not team-related, but related to the TV deal he wanted to secure. And he did.

They did business like the 1980s Yankees and they’ve been playing and behaving like the 1980s Yankees. The one thing that will save them is the thing that was lacking in the 1980s: the Wild Cards.

Cincinnati Reds

Acquired: Mat Latos, Ryan Madson, Ryan Ludwick

Subtracted: Ramon Hernandez, Yonder Alonso, Yasmani Grandal, Edinson Volquez, Edgar Renteria, Francisco Cordero

The Reds are in first place and playing well no thanks to Latos (he’s been horrific); Madson (out for the year with Tommy John surgery); and Ludwick (.205/.290/.402 slash line with 6 homers in a homer-friendly home park).

It’s not as if they needed Alonso with Joey Votto ensconced at first base. They have a young catcher in Devin Mesoraco so they didn’t really need Grandal. And Volquez has been consistently inconsistent and injured since his great rookie year with the Reds.

But the winter moves are what’s relevant here and if they’d held onto the players they traded for Latos (and I’m not retrospectively ripping the deal since I thought it was good for both sides), they could’ve gotten mid-season help rather than an in-season nightmare.

Milwaukee Brewers

Acquired: Aramis Ramirez, Alex Gonzalez, Norichika Aoki, Jose Veras, Brooks Conrad

Subtracted: Prince Fielder, Yuniesky Betancourt, Casey McGehee

Ramirez is starting to hit and will hit put up numbers by the end of the season. We’ll never know whether the improved defense and pop from Alex Gonzalez and a full season from Mat Gamel would’ve made up for the loss of Fielder because both blew out their knees within days of each other.

It’s not really anyone’s fault. They did the best they could under their financial and practical circumstances.

St. Louis Cardinals

Acquired: Manager Mike Matheny, Carlos Beltran, pitching coach Derek Lilliquist

Subtracted: Manager Tony LaRussa, pitching coach Dave Duncan, Albert Pujols, Edwin Jackson, Octavio Dotel, Gerald Laird, Nick Punto.

So wait…now that the Cardinals are at .500 and freefalling it’s been miraculously discovered that the transition from a Hall of Fame manager/pitching coach combination to a manager who’s never managed before anywhere wasn’t going to go as smoothly as it did when they got off to a hot start?

That replacing Pujols wasn’t as simple as signing Beltran and moving the now-injured 36-year-old Lance Berkman to first base?

Shocking.

Colorado Rockies

Acquired: Michael Cuddyer, Marco Scutaro, Ramon Hernandez, Jeremy Guthrie, Tyler Chatwood, Tyler Colvin, Jamie Moyer

Subtracted: Chris Iannetta, Jason Hammel, Matt Lindstrom, Ian Stewart, Seth Smith

The starting pitching has killed them.

They loaded up on starters, but it hasn’t been enough as Drew Pomeranz got hurt and they gave Moyer 10 starts. It hasn’t helped that Hammel has been very good for the Orioles while Guthrie has been terrible for the Rockies.

Cuddyer has been everything advertised. Scutaro and Hernandez haven’t.

//

Off Season Winners In Retrospect

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Let’s look at the teams whose off-season moves are paying off so far in 2012.

Tampa Bay Rays:

Acquired:  Jose Molina, Hideki Matsui, Luke Scott, Carlos Pena, Fernando Rodney

Subtracted: Johnny Damon, Kelly Shoppach, Casey Kotchman, Juan Cruz, John Jaso

The Rays did what the Rays always do. They cut out the players that were getting too expensive or had been signed as a short-term veteran stopgaps and replaced them with youngsters or other veteran stopgaps.

Molina hasn’t hit; Pena is doing what Pena does with a low batting average, good on base percentage and power; Rodney has been brilliant. None of the players they dispatched—Damon, Shoppach, Kotchman, Cruz, Jaso—have been missed or are doing much with their new teams.

Baltimore Orioles

Acquired: GM Dan Duquette, Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, Matt Lindstrom, Wilson Betemit

Subtracted: GM Andy MacPhail, Jeremy Guthrie, Luke Scott, Vladimir Guerrero

The Orioles have played over their heads but Dan Duquette got rid of Guthrie and acquired Hammel and Lindstrom who are under team control and have pitched well. Chen has been very good.

Chicago White Sox

Acquired: Manager Robin Ventura, Kosuke Fukudome

Subtracted: Manager Ozzie Guillen, Mark Buehrle, Sergio Santos, Carlos Quentin, Juan Pierre

Getting rid of the volcanic and tiresome personality of Guillen and replacing it with the laid back Ventura has been exactly what the White Sox needed. They cleared salary by getting rid of veterans Buehrle, Quentin and Pierre. They’re not as good as they look right now, but the AL Central is wide open and they have enough starting pitching to stay in the hunt. They underachieved horribly in recent years under Guillen and are overachieving now under Ventura.

Texas Rangers

Acquired Yu Darvish, Joe Nathan

Subtracted: C.J. Wilson, Darren Oliver, Endy Chavez, Matt Treanor

Darvish has been as brilliant as I expected. Nathan is having a good season. They haven’t missed Wilson on or off the field.

Seattle Mariners

Acquired: Jesus Montero, Hector Noesi, John Jaso

Subtracted: Michael Pineda, Josh Lueke, David Aardsma, Jose Campos

For Michael Pineda (disabled list), Jose Campos (hot prospect and on the disabled list), the Mariners got a top hitting prospect in Jesus Montero who’s still finding his way and showing flashes of immense power and a young starting pitcher who’s also learning his craft in the big leagues in Noesi. They got rid of the troublesome Lueke for Jaso who’s been contributing big hits of late.

Oakland Athletics

Acquired: Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Reddick, Collin Cowgill, Bartolo Colon, Jonny Gomes, Ryan Cook, Jarrod Parker, Tom Milone, Seth Smith, Kila Ka’aihue, Manny Ramirez

Subtracted: Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, Andrew Bailey, David DeJesus, Josh Willingham, Ryan Sweeney

Reddick has 14 home runs and is heading for the All Star Game. Cespedes was a silly signing for a team like the A’s, but there’s no denying his talent. We’ll see what Manny does and the young pitchers Millone and Parker are high-end arms.

Washington Nationals

Acquired: Gio Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson, Ryan Perry, Mark DeRosa, Brad Lidge

Subtracted: Ivan Rodriguez, Todd Coffey, Jonny Gomes

Gonzalez has been terrific across the board and might deserve to start the All Star Game. Jackson has been consistent despite not accumulating wins.

Miami Marlins

Acquired: Manager Ozzie Guillen, Carlos Zambrano, Jose Reyes, Heath Bell, Mark Buehrle

Subtracted: Javier Vazquez, Chris Volstad, Clay Hensley, Burke Badenhop

Zambrano showed up in shape, has kept his temper in check and is showing why the Cubs gave him that contract in the first place (the majority of which they’re paying for him to pitch for the Marlins). Reyes is getting hot and Buehrle is a leader off the field and innings-eater on it. Bell’s been a disaster, but it pitching better lately.

Guillen was hired to draw attention and he did so negatively when he started trouble almost immediately with his idiotic comments praising Fidel Castro. Jeffrey Loria is under investigation for the stadium deal and looked silly using Muhammad Ali as a human shield to protect himself from getting booed at the regular season opener of the new stadium, but apart from Bell they’re getting what they paid for for the most part.

San Francisco Giants

Acquired: Melky Cabrera, Angel Pagan, Clay Hensley, Gregor Blanco

Subtracted: Carlos Beltran, Jonathan Sanchez, Andres Torres, Ramon Ramirez, Pat Burrell, Cody Ross

Cabrera’s not going to maintain this pace, but he’s still a good player and they got him for Sanchez who’s been hurt and had worn out his welcome with the Giants. Pagan is batting .314 with 10 stolen bases and has contributed several big hits to go along with his usual array of space cadet maneuvers. Blanco and Hensley have been solid, cheap pickups off the scrapheap.

Arizona Diamondbacks

Acquired: Trevor Cahill, Jason Kubel, Craig Breslow

Subtracted: Micah Owings, Ryan Cook, Collin Cowgill, Jarrod Parker

The Diamondbacks are struggling because they’re not getting the same above-and-beyond performances from the players that carried them to a stunning division title in 2011. That doesn’t diminish the work that Cahill, Kubel and Breslow have done. If the Diamondbacks don’t right the ship, it won’t be because of the players they acquired over the winter.

Los Angeles Dodgers

Acquired: Chris Capuano, Jerry Hairston Jr., Mark Ellis, Aaron Harang, Matt Treanor

Subtracted: Jon Garland, Jonathan Broxton, Jamey Carroll, Hiroki Kuroda, Casey Blake, Rod Barajas, Vicente Padilla

Capuano is pitching about 20 miles over his head; Hairston is hitting about 20 miles over his head; Ellis and Harang are respected, under-the-radar veterans.

The Dodgers didn’t spend a lot of money this past winter, but are getting far more than they paid for.

Off season losers and incompletes will be in forthcoming postings.

//

Believe It Or Don’t—The Good

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Let’s take a look at some teams that—based on preseason expectations—are overachieving, how they’re doing it and whether or not it will last.

  • Baltimore Orioles

What they’re doing.

The Orioles are 27-14 and in first place in the tough American League East.

How they’re doing it.

Led by Adam Jones’s 14, the Orioles have the most home runs in the American League. The starting pitching was expected to be led by youngsters Jake Arrieta and Tommy Hunter—they’ve been okay. Two ridiculed acquisitions Jason Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen have been excellent. The bullpen and manager Buck Showalter’s manipulation of it has been the key.

Believe it or don’t?

The Orioles have gotten off to good starts before and wilted in the summer heat. They can hit and hit for power; their defense is bad. But if Arrieta, Hunter and Brian Matusz pick up for Hammel and Chen when they come down to earth and the bullpen is serviceable, they can surprise and finish in the vicinity of .500.

They’re on the right track, but 13 games over .500 is a stretch.

Don’t believe it.

  • Oakland Athletics

What they’re doing.

The A’s are 20-21 after being widely expected to lose 90-100 games following a strange off-season in which they cleaned house of young arms Trevor Cahill and Andrew Bailey, but signed Yoenis Cespedes and Bartolo Colon.

How they’re doing it.

Slumps and scheduling have greatly assisted the A’s. They caught the Royals, Angels, Orioles, Tigers and Red Sox during lulls.

The starting pitching with youngsters (Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone) and foundlings (Colon, Brandon McCarthy) have been serviceable-to-good. Manager Bob Melvin knows how to run his bullpen.

I was stunned when I looked at the numbers and saw that Josh Reddick has 10 homers.

The Moneyball “stolen bases are a waste” Athletics are leading the American League in stolen bases.

Believe it or don’t?

They’ve lost two straight to the Giants and are heading to Anaheim to play the Angels and New York to play the Yankees. The Manny Ramirez sideshow is coming and no one knows if he can still hit enough to justify his presence. Cespedes’s hand injury saved him from being sent to the minors.

Don’t believe it.

  • Washington Nationals

What they’re doing.

The Nationals are 23-17 and in second place in the National League East.

How they’re doing it.

The Nationals’ starting pitching has been ridiculously good. Gio Gonzalez has been masterful; Stephen Strasburg is unhittable when he’s on (and hard to hit when he’s slightly off); Edwin Jackson, Jordan Zimmerman and Ross Detwiler have been good as well.

The bullpen has been without closer Drew Storen all season, but Henry Rodriguez is filling in capably. Manager Davey Johnson is adept at handling his bullpen.

Injuries have hindered what should’ve been a strong lineup. Mike Morse, Wilson Ramos and Jayson Werth are out. Ramos is gone for the season with knee surgery; Werth broke his wrist and won’t be back until the late summer. 19-year-old Bryce Harper is adapting to the majors and showing exquisite talent and baseball intelligence amid growing pains.

Believe it or don’t?

This is a talented team whose run-scoring ability has been hampered by injuries. They’re 5th in the National League in home runs, but 14th in runs—that will get better once Morse gets back and Harper’s hitting consistently. The loss of Ramos is a big blow. The starting pitching won’t keep up this pace.

Believe it.

  • New York Mets

What they’re doing.

The Mets are 21-19 in an NL East that might be the most talented division in baseball.

How they’re doing it.

The Mets are 4th in the NL in on base percentage. David Wright has been an MVP candidate for the entire first two months; Johan Santana’s been excellent. That they’re managing to stay above .500 with Ike Davis batting .160 is a minor miracle. Everyone—especially the youngsters Kirk Nieuwenhuis and Lucas Duda—is contributing.

The starting pitching is short-handed and the bullpen has been, at best, inconsistent.

Believe it or don’t?

Unless Davis starts hitting when Wright cools down; unless the rest of the starting rotation and bullpen pick up for Santana when he slows down, they can’t maintain this pace especially when the Phillies get their bats back.

Don’t believe it.

  • Los Angeles Dodgers

What they’re doing.

The Dodgers are 27-13 and in first place by six games in the NL West.

How they’re doing it.

Matt Kemp was laying the foundation for a run at the triple crown and the MVP before he strained a hamstring. Andre Ethier is having an All-Star comeback season. Their starting pitching has been a wonder; the defense has been good. The entire organization breathed a sigh of relief when the reign of owner Frank McCourt came to an end. They’ve been reinvigorated by the enthusiastic presence of Magic Johnson as the ownership front man and the competent organizational skills of Stan Kasten.

Believe it or don’t.

Believe it within reason. They’ll be aggressive at the trading deadline to improve and are in for the long haul, but Chris Capuano and A.J. Ellis aren’t going to be as good as they’ve been so far. They’re going to need a bat and probably a starting pitcher. Ned Colletti will get what he feels the team needs to win.

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Cespedes Has One Month

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As talented as Yoenis Cespedes clearly is, that talent is raw. He’s increasingly become a feast or famine hitter with trouble hitting breaking balls. His defensive liabilities in centerfield only exacerbate the limited level of his current game.

That’s not to say that the 26(?)-year-old doesn’t have his attributes. He’s shown a propensity to hit in the clutch and has displayed unbelievable shows of power. The Mariners’ Jason Vargas threw a mediocre fastball right down the chute and Cespedes—in his most impressive show of strength—hit a towering homer that he stood and admired for a length of time that drew the ire of Vargas and the Mariners.

If pitchers make the mistake of firing a fastball in a location where the free-swinging Cespedes can reach it, he does damage; but without noticeable plate discipline, teams are learning that Cespedes is the equivalent of Major League’s Pedro Cerrano: don’t throw him a fastball in a hittable location if you can help it.

His slash line is down to .238/.316/.436. After hitting 3 homers in his first 4 games of the season, he’s hit 2 in the 23 games since.

He’s not completely ready for the big leagues.

The laudatory comments for Billy Beane’s decision to sign him (“smarter than the average bear”, etc) have died down in correlation with Cespedes’s dwindling production. The signing was always a strange one for the rebuilding A’s. Following the winter decisions to clean house of Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez and Andrew Bailey, Beane was setting the foundation for a future that was contingent on the A’s’ proposed new ballpark in San Jose. With the project still in limbo, Beane followed the trades of the above-mentioned pitchers by signing Cespedes and Manny Ramirez; he re-signed Coco Crisp to play centerfield; and traded for Seth Smith.

To his displeasure, Crisp’s position was usurped by Cespedes and he’s now on the disabled list with an inner ear infection.

Ramirez’s suspension for failing a PED test is up on May 30th; the A’s have said that the plan is for him to go on a 10 game conditioning assignment before then and be recalled. They’re going to need a spot in the lineup for him and the obvious baseball move is to send Cespedes down, move Crisp back to centerfield, play Smith in leftfield and DH Ramirez.

Crisp’s bat has been non-existent, but he might regain his comfort zone if he’s playing his preferred position. They signed Ramirez and it would be silly for him not to play. Cespedes needs more seasoning.

It’s an obvious move…unless the A’s and Beane continue to be more concerned with perception and the desperate attempts to maintain the veneer of genius for Beane than with doing what’s right for the player and the team. Beane’s portrayal has become increasingly ridiculous with each subsequent maneuver he makes not to improve his team, but as a means to an end for peripheral benefits that can’t be gained by looking at facts. They’re clinging to a “future” that may never come and the absurd narrative of Moneyball.

Unless he starts hitting, Cespedes needs to go down the minors. Whether or not that actually happens is another matter entirely.

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It Works Both Ways With The Decried Save Stat

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While I disagree with much of what the hard core stat guys say about relief pitching and in the “we’ll tell them what to do and they’ll do it” concept of dealing with players, the struggles of highly paid closers Heath Bell of the Marlins and Frank Francisco of the Mets; the injuries and money/prospects tossed down the tubes for the Reds’ Ryan Madson and Andrew Bailey of the Red Sox; the Angels’ demotion of Jordan Walden; and the Giants’ scrambling to find a replacement for Brian Wilson have again opened a legitimate argument of how and when to deploy the best relievers.

It absolutely makes sense to use the best relief pitcher in the most important circumstances and not as a rote decision in the ninth inning.

But it works both ways.

If teams are interested in having their best relievers willingly agree to shun the watered down save stat they’re going to have to do something other than order them to do as they’re told or convince them to be team players.

They’re going to have to pay them.

The mistake teams have made with the closer-by-committee and using a well-intentioned and, on paper, logical strategy is that they choose a lot of cheap, found and unproven pitchers in the role without one who can be trusted as a “fireman”.

It’s in the same category as the creation of the save stat to begin with. The pitchers of yesteryear who were called the “closers” were pithing around 140 innings a year and multiple innings per appearance.

Good intentions and strategy being what they are, it eventually become twisted.

Is Tony LaRussa truly to blame for the “one-inning save” as is generally believed? No. He was just using his then-closer Dennis Eckersley in a highly analytical way because Eckersley was older, had less bounceback ability in his arm and was more effective pitching one inning at a time than if he was used for 2-3 innings as closers generally were when the defined bullpen roles came into vogue.

LaRussa used his closers in a conventional manner before he stumbled onto Eckersley and he also had a very deep and diverse set of relievers—Rick Honeycutt, Todd Burns, Gene Nelson—to get him to Eckersley.

It was the copiers of LaRussa like Jeff Torborg who took the lunacy to its extreme, logical conclusion and pitched his closer in a save situation and, almost exclusively, for one inning. Period.

Now it would take an innovator to change the template and a front office to say to the pitchers, “We don’t believe in the save stat here. We’re going to pay you as if you’re accumulating saves, but you won’t be accumulating saves.”

Like everything else in baseball—the downfall of complete games; the widespread use of relief pitching; relief pitching specialization—it would take one team to try it and succeed and then other teams would follow suit.

Until that happens, we’re going to continue to see this as a method when it should be changed.

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American League Ticking Tempers Of Ownership

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Let’s take a look at some American League teams that have unexpectedly struggled or made ghastly blunders that would normally elicit a reaction from ownerships.

New York Yankees

Does ownership have a right to be upset?

Yes.

In yesterday’s NY Daily News, Bill Madden wrote what I’d been thinking about a George Steinbrenner missive being issued following Michael Pineda’s injury.

I’m not going to give Cashman as hard a time as others did for letting Bartolo Colon go and keeping Freddy Garcia—neither could’ve been expected to replicate anything close to what they did last season—but his other pitching mishaps have been horrific. As much of a joke as Steinbrenner was for his instantaneous and combustible temper tantrums, many times he had a right to be angry.

Beyond Cashman, if the Boss was still around, Larry Rothschild would be in the crosshairs for what’s gone wrong with Phil Hughes.

I’m wondering that myself.

What should be done?

There’s really not much they can do. Having already bounced Garcia from the rotation in favor of David Phelps, Hughes has to improve or he’ll be in the bullpen or minor leagues when Andy Pettitte is set to return to the majors.

What will be done?

Hal Steinbrenner will be secretive and deliberate; Hank will be kept away from the telephone. Cashman will continue to spin doctor and “take responsibility” by saying how “devastated” he is about Pineda.

Devastated? Really?

Garcia will be kept around just in case and Hughes is going to wind up being sent to the minors.

The Boss would’ve made Cashman take responsibility in a way consistent with what Madden suggested and he wouldn’t have been out of line in doing so.

Boston Red Sox

Does ownership have a right to be upset?

Yes, as long as they have a mirror nearby.

The best things that could’ve happened to the Red Sox were the Sunday night rainout of the game against the Yankees and going on the road to play the bad Twins and mediocre White Sox. The ship has been righted to a certain degree.

For all the love doled out to departed GM Theo Epstein and manager Terry Francona, ownership—John Henry and team president Larry Lucchino—have been left to clean up the mess. Regardless of what you think of Lucchino’s insinuating himself into the baseball operations as he has, you can’t absolve Epstein and Francona. Epstein saddled the club with the contracts of John Lackey and Carl Crawford; Francona’s lax discipline as manager and passive aggressiveness from the broadcast booth as the team spiraled out of the gate gave a sense of the former manager exacting revenge on the franchise that gave him a job with a team ready-built for success when no one else would’ve.

What should be done?

A desperate trade would only make matters worse. There’s no one to fire. They have to wait and hope. Making a final decision with Daniel Bard and sticking to it would end speculation on the pitcher’s role.

What will be done?

They’ll wait it out. Had they continued losing following the series against the Yankees, they might’ve done something drastic like firing Bobby Valentine even though it’s not all his fault. Their winning streak has given them breathing room.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Does ownership have a right to be upset?

Very.

Arte Moreno has been a great owner. He’s let his baseball people run the club and hasn’t interfered. They have everything they ask for and more.

This past winter, he spent an uncharacteristic amount of money to address the offensive woes from 2011 with Albert Pujols and traded for Chris Iannetta.

The bullpen’s missteps have been magnified because set-up man Hisanori Takahashi and closer Jordan Walden have been horrible.

That’s not to say they’d be that much better with a more proven closer than the deposed Walden. In retrospect, they were lucky they didn’t sign Ryan Madson or trade for Andrew Bailey.

Their biggest problem has been at the plate.

When an owner throws that amount of guaranteed money at his roster, he has a right to expect more than 7-15 and 9 games out of first place before April is over.

What should be done?

The Angels released Bobby Abreu on Friday and recalled Mike Trout. They demoted Walden from the closer’s role in favor of Scott Downs.

Apart from waiting for Pujols to start hitting and perhaps dumping Vernon Wells, there’s little else of note they can try.

What will be done?

If Moreno were a capricious, “blame someone for the sake of blaming them” type, hitting coach Mickey Hatcher and bullpen coach Steve Soliz would have been fired a week ago and perhaps first base coach Alfredo Griffin for good measure.

He’s not a quick trigger owner, but if they’re not hitting by mid-May, Hatcher’s gone. This could expose a rift between manager Mike Scioscia and the front office. Scioscia’s influence has been compromised with the hiring of Jerry Dipoto and if one of his handpicked coaches and friends is fired, a true chasm will be evident. Firings will be shots across the bow of Scioscia and, armed with a contract through 2018 (that he can opt-out of after 2015), if he’s unhappy with the changes he’ll let his feelings be known.

It could get ugly.

As of right now, they’ll see if the jettisoning of Abreu, the insertion of Trout and the new closer will help. With Moreno, they have more time than most clubs would, but that doesn’t mean they have forever.

***

The National League will be posted later and yes, that does mean I’ll be talking about the Marlins.

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Bard’s Start Complicates Matters

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Daniel Bard made his first major league start against the Blue Jays last night and the line was ugly: 5 innings; 8 hits; 5 earned runs; 1 walk; and 6 strikeouts. He threw 96 pitches and 65 strikes and didn’t allow a homer.

But the bottom line of the boxscore is misleading. In fact, most of the runs were scored on placement rather than power. Bard’s biggest problem was the inability to throw his changeup for strikes.

Neftali Feliz made his first major league start as well and his line was far more impressive: 7 innings; 4 hits; 0 runs; 2 walks; and 4 strikeouts. He threw 108 pitches and 68 strikes.

Bard took the loss. Feliz got the win. In truth, they didn’t pitch all that differently. Feliz had better control of his changeup and worse control with his fastball and slider.

None of that is going to matter to those who’ve already made their minds up on how Bard needs to be utilized. Because he gave up 5 runs and the Red Sox bullpen is still in flux, the calls will continue to shift Bard into the closer’s role. After all, the argument will go, he lost and didn’t pitch “well”.

The results weren’t good, but Bard was good enough to win if he’d had some better luck.

There will be no such calls for Feliz to be moved back to the bullpen.

Why?

Because the Rangers signed a veteran closer, Joe Nathan, to take over for Feliz, there’s no debate as to Feliz’s role. He’s a starter, period.

The Red Sox traded for Andrew Bailey, who got hurt; and Mark Melancon, who they don’t trust; and they’re trying Alfredo Aceves as the closer now in a desperation maneuver that’s probably not going to work.

With the Rangers depth in the starting rotation and inexpensive signing of Nathan, they don’t have to concern themselves with perception. The Red Sox don’t have that luxury in either area, so they’re going to endure constant demands to put Bard where he “belongs”.

There’s a dichotomy of purpose in Boston. On one hand, the players, coaching staff and manager want Bard to do well in whatever role he’s in; on the other, they might want to see him do badly enough as a starter that the front office has no choice but to sign off on the move that the on-field staff wants to make and switch him to the bullpen to insert veteran Aaron Cook into the starting rotation.

And don’t think Cook isn’t watching and waiting for his opportunity; if that means he’s silently hoping that Bard pitches poorly as a starter, so be it.

Cook pitched well in his first start for Pawtucket.

Bard’s work last night complicates matters and every game the Red Sox play—and every start Cook makes in Triple A—will be relevant to how the team moves forward.

All will try to twist the results in the direction they prefer and their agendas will lead them; but if Bard keeps pitching as he did last night, there’s not going to be an obvious answer. A decision will have to be made and they’re going to have to stick to it.

It’s not going to be simple one way or the other.

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With Bailey Out, Bard May Wind Up Closing

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Red Sox intended closer Andrew Bailey’s thumb surgery is set to cost him a large chunk of the season.

The Red Sox didn’t give up a ton to get Bailey and the decision to let Jonathan Papelbon go and replace him with someone younger and cheaper was one of the few things the club did this past winter that was in line with their original organizational theory hatched during the early years of Theo Epstein’s tenure: don’t overpay for saves.

That led to the hackneyed “bullpen by committee” in 2003 which likely cost them the World Series; and they were set to do it again in 2007 before Papelbon went to management and asked to be placed back in the bullpen.

But they altered the plot when they signed Keith Foulke for 2004 and left Papelbon where he belonged in 2007—in the bullpen.

The Red Sox won the World Series in both cases.

There’s a similar dynamic now with Daniel Bard.

They’re not identical, but similar.

Papelbon was being given an audition as a starter in the spring of 2007 and the Red Sox didn’t bother to go out and get a legitimate closer in the previous off-season so the hovering question was: if not Papelbon, then who?

Papelbon had saved 35 games as a rookie in 2006, so the Red Sox knew he could do it; Bard has struggled in his few auditions as a replacement closer and is now being tried as a starter in the face of organizational debate as to what his role should be.

In 2007, the Red Sox had the starting pitching depth to shift Papelbon back to the bullpen; now they can’t say the same with Bard.

They need him as a starter and they kindasorta have someone who’s closed before with Mark Melancon.

But a team with championship aspirations and two highly inexperienced starting pitchers in Bard and Felix Doubront backing their rotation shouldn’t feel comfortable with their circumstances.

It’s either keep Bard in the rotation and try Melancon as the closer for awhile to see what happens or move Bard to the bullpen, use Alfredo AcevesAaron Cook, Vicente Padilla and/or wait until Daisuke Matsuzaka comes back.

There have been renewed entreaties for the Red Sox to sign Roy Oswalt, but Oswalt’s not going to be ready to go until May and by then the team should have a gauge on where they are in the standings, on the field, with who they have and what they need.

Bard didn’t pitch particularly well as a starter in the spring and with the aforementioned wonderment as to his optimal role, there’s a chance that he could make a start or two in the regular season and be sent back to the bullpen to close.

The options are not dazzling, but the Red Sox may not have much of a choice.

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