Theo Epstein’s Masquerade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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The Lessons of Bryan LaHair

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If ever there was a player today that exemplified the remaining need for legitimate scouts who can watch a player and notice subtle, imperceptible weaknesses and holes to exploit, it’s Bryan LaHair. LaHair was a revelation in the first half of the 2012 season after spending nine years in the minors and made the All-Star team, but now the Cubs have designated him for assignment and removed him from their 40-man roster so he can sign with the SoftBank Hawks in Japan.

LaHair put up power and good on base numbers as a minor leaguer culminating with 38 homers and a 1.070 OPS in 2011 with the Cubs Triple A affiliate in Iowa. Before 2012, he only received a limited stay with the Mariners in 2008 when he had a .250/.315/.346 split with 3 homers in 150 plate appearances. LaHair was one of those “if only he got a chance” players about whom outsiders speculated what he would be, what he could be if he were given that opportunity.

Like most players with the limited positives of homers and walks, who can’t really play defense, who are trapped in the minor leagues, there’s a reason for it. It might be something off the field such as an attitude problem; he might be blocked by a better, more lucratively paid established major leaguer; or it might be that the club knows a little more than someone studying the numbers does and realizes that the longer that particular player plays in the big leagues, the more likely his flaws are to be exposed. There’s never been any evidence of LaHair being an off-field problem; he played for the Mariners and Cubs organizations for his whole career, so he wasn’t exactly blocked by Albert Pujols. So where does that leave us? It leaves us with the truth. And the truth about a player like this is that he has some use, but if he’s expected to be an everyday player and produce, the pitchers will figure him out.

The Cubs gave LaHair the job as their first baseman to start the season in part because the front office presumably knew how bad the team was going to be and that Anthony Rizzo: A) needed more minor league seasoning; and B) they wanted to delay the start of Rizzo’s free agency/arbitration clock stagnant.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but the Cubs may have made the mistake of buying into his strong first half that culminated in an All-Star Game appearance when they should’ve traded him for something they would be able to use in the future. LaHair’s hot start (5 homers and a 1.251 OPS in the first month) began to decline in May, plummeted in June, and came completely undone in July and onward to the end of the season. He did make the All-Star team, but one has to wonder whether that was a byproduct of being a “cool” story of a forever minor leaguer making the All-Star team.

Rizzo was recalled on June 26th and LaHair was moved to the outfield, so the Cubs knew to a degree what was what with LaHair. Here’s the reality: LaHair is a player who can’t hit lefties; is a bad defensive first baseman and a worse defensive outfielder; is now 30; strikes out a lot; and has nowhere to play.

This isn’t a random occurrence of a player who “deserved” an extended look in the majors after impressive work in the minor leagues. For every Casey Blake who played well in the minors and didn’t get his shot until he was 29 and once he did, played as well in the majors as he did in the minors. Nor is it an R.A. Dickey story of a player who changed who he was and demolished preconceived notions hindering him. The preconceived notions about Dickey pre-knuckleball weren’t notions, they were accurate. He was awful.

LaHair is what he was. Stories like his are all over the place. Russ Morman; Mike Hessman; Roberto Petagine—players who kept getting signed because they were experienced professionals who could fill in as an interchangeable part for a brief period—the key word being brief—and do a couple of useful things for that short timeframe and then go back down to the minors or, do as LaHair is doing and go to Japan to make some serious money before getting too old.

The story has ended predictably with LaHair being designated for assignment by the Cubs and essentially outsourced to Japan. What’s surprising is that people are surprised; that the Cubs—with a smart but not infallible front office led by Theo Epstein—didn’t deal him and now are getting nothing for him aside from perhaps a life-lesson to trust their eyes rather than the numbers as a bottom-line indicator of what a player is because many times, he isn’t.

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2012 National League West Predicted Standings

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Wins Losses GB
1. Colorado Rockies 92 70
2. San Francisco Giants 85 77 7
3. Arizona Diamondbacks 84 78 8
4. San Diego Padres 80 82 12
5. Los Angeles Dodgers 69 93 23

Colorado Rockies

I don’t understand the criticism of the maneuvers the Rockies made this past winter or of the decision to trade Ubaldo Jimenez last summer.

They filled their needs by clearing Jimenez when they were going to have to pay a lot of money to re-sign him after 2013 and got two young starting pitchers, one of whom looks like he’s going to be a big winner in Drew Pomeranz; they signed high quality people and grinder type players who are versatile and play the game the right way with Michael Cuddyer and Casey Blake; they signed a good part-time catcher, Ramon Hernandez, to play semi-regularly and tutor young Wilin Rosario; they dispatched a mediocre closer, Huston Street in favor of someone cheaper and probably better with Rafael Betancourt; and they traded a journeyman righty for an underrated all around player Marco Scutaro.

Here’s the simple truth with the Rockies: they can pitch; they can hit; they can catch the ball; they can run; they have one of baseball’s best managers in Jim Tracy and one of its best players in Troy Tulowitzki.

It’s not that hard to do the math if you can add and subtract.

San Francisco Giants

Much is made of their vaunted starting rotation, but after Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner, do you trust Ryan Vogelsong to repeat his amazing work from 2011? Work that was achieved at age 34 after being the epitome of a journeyman?

The bullpen is solid and deep. Their lineup is still shaky and counting on youth (Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford); rockheads (Angel Pagan); and those with questionable work ethic when they think they have a job sewn up (Melky Cabrera). Buster Posey is returning from a ghastly ankle injury.

They made changes, but I don’t see this club as having improved from the 86-76 team they were last season.

Arizona Diamondbacks

Many are in love with the Diamondbacks because of the season they had in 2011 and that they “improved” over the winter.

But did they improve?

I don’t understand the Jason Kubel signing to replace Gerardo Parra once Parra finally began fulfilling his potential offensively and won a Gold Glove defensively.

They acquired a top arm in Trevor Cahill and are hoping for a repeat of the stellar work their bullpen gave them last season.

How much of what happened in 2011 is realistically repeatable? They were good, but they were also lucky.

It’s a stretch to think it’s going to happen again.

San Diego Padres

One thing you can say about new GM Josh Byrnes: he’s fearless.

It took major courage to trade away a young, contractually controlled arm with Mat Latos going to the Reds and Byrnes got a load of young talent for him.

They dealt away another young bat Anthony Rizzo to get a flamethrower with closer potential, Andrew Cashner; they took Carlos Quentin off the hands of the White Sox for two negligible prospects hoping that Quentin would stay healthy in his free agent year and provide them with the pop they need.

Quentin just had knee surgery and will miss the beginning of the season.

The Padres have a load of starting pitching and their offense will be better than it was. They could sneak up on people and jump into the playoff race.

Los Angeles Dodgers

Are the Dodgers prototypically “bad”?

No.

But they’re in the process of being sold and with Matt Kemp having a 2011 season that should’ve won him the MVP and Clayton Kershaw winning the Cy Young Award, it took a major hot streak late in the season for them to finish above .500.

Their starting pitching is okay; their bullpen is okay; but their lineup is not and they’re in a tough division and league. Many structural changes are possible not only in the ownership suite, but in baseball operations as well.

Far more in depth analysis is in my book, Paul Lebowitz’s 2012 Baseball Guide, now available.

Click here for a full sample of team predictions/projections. (This sample is of the Rangers.) My book can be purchased on KindleSmashwordsBN and Lulu with other outlets on the way.

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Carlos Quentin is a Good Risk For the Padres

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Say this about Padres GM Josh Byrnes: he follows through on what he believes strategically; trusts the people he trusts; and doesn’t care about perception when he makes his moves.

The Mat Latos trade came out of nowhere and Byrnes got a metric ton of young talent for a similarly young, talented pitcher still under team control for four years; he’s listening to offers for top prospect Anthony Rizzo; and he acquired an MVP-quality and injury-prone bat in Carlos Quentin for two minor leaguers.

As GM of the Diamondbacks, Byrnes proved he was willing to do anything and everything based on what he believed; sometimes it worked out as in the trade for Dan Haren; others it didn’t when he fired manager Bob Melvin and replaced him with the inexperienced A.J. Hinch and saddled him with the implication that he was a puppet of the front office by referencing the bizarrely phrased and cryptic term “organizational advocacy”.

In short, Byrnes’s philosophy isn’t about ego or positive press; it’s “this is what I’m doing, like it or not.”

Let’s look at the trade.

For the Padres:

It’s obvious now that Rizzo’s going to get traded and if they deal him for Matt Garza, the Padres will have had an understated and successful off-season.

Quentin’s big issue is staying healthy. When he’s healthy, he’s a middle-of-the-order, impact bat. The notion that he’s the product of friendly home parks is nonsense—he’s hit well on the road and when he’s struggled, his BAbip has been atrocious; he’s hit in bad luck. Quentin is an up-the-middle hitter; that tells me that he—in an Albert Pujols like fashion—sees the ball very well and hits it squarely on a regular basis. He’s a huge man (6’2”, 235) and has the power to get the ball out of Petco Park.

He’s had injuries to his knee, wrist, heel and shoulder; he might miss substantial time with maladies—he’s never played more than 131 games and his fractured wrist in 2008 likely cost him the American League MVP.

Quentin went to Stanford and knows what’s at stake in 2012: he’s playing for his contract and if he stays on the field and puts up big numbers playing in a pitchers’ park, he’s going to be an inviting free agent target for all the big money clubs in baseball.

It’s no risk and massive reward for the Padres since the young players they surrendered—LHP Pedro Hernandez and RHP Simon Castro—pitched poorly in Triple A and the Padres have pitching to spare. They needed a bat.

If they’re contending, they’ll have a power bat who will be the reason they’re contending; if they’re not and Quentin’s hitting well, they can trade him for a greater return than they gave up; if he gets hurt, he gets hurt.

For the White Sox:

Quentin was out of the lineup as much as he was in it, they weren’t going to keep him after next season and needed to slash payroll somewhere.

As negatively rated as the two young pitchers are, you never know with pitchers and White Sox GM Ken Williams is the same man who was in love with Gavin Floyd when no one else was and, in spite of atrocious numbers, traded for him and watched him become a top-tier starter.

The White Sox aren’t doing a full-scale teardown as Williams implied after Ozzie Guillen and Mark Buehrle left and he announced they were open for business for anyone on the roster; they signed John Danks to an extension and have yet to make any significant trades of players who would bring back name prospects. They cleared the Quentin salary, got two pitchers and will have a look at Dayan Viciedo as an everyday player.

Because the AL Central is so up-for-grabs, the White Sox can still compete; it makes no sense to do anything too drastic right now.

The trade makes sense for both sides and was crafted by two GMs who don’t let public reaction influence what they do one way or the other.

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Analyzing the Reds-Padres Trade

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The Padres traded pitcher Mat Latos to the Reds for a package of four players—top prospect first baseman/outfielder Yonder Alonso; righty starter Edinson Volquez; minor league catcher Yasmani Grandal; and minor league pitcher Brad Boxberger.

Let’s take a look at the deal for all sides.

For the Reds:

The 24-year-old righty Latos has superstar potential. His 2011 numbers appeared to take a tumble from his 2010 work in which he went 14-10 with a 2.92 ERA. In 2010, he had an excellent walk/strikeout/innings pitched ratio of 50/189/184 and allowed only 150 hits and 16 homers in 31 starts. He finished 8th in the National League Cy Young Award voting.

In 2011, Latos went 9-14 for the 91-game losing Padres; his ERA jumped to 3.47; his walk/strikeout/innings pitched ratio rose to 62/185/194. But his hits allowed and homers stayed consistent with 168 hits and 16 homers in those 194 innings.

The increase in hits allowed can be accounted for by the rise in BAbip from .275 to .288; the Padres defense in 2010 was appreciably better than it was in 2011 and the downgrade with the departures of Adrian Gonzalez, David Eckstein and surprisingly Miguel Tejada truly affected Latos.

The Padres intent in acquiring Jason Bartlett and Orlando Hudson was to shore up the middle-infield defense, but both players were far worse than the veteran stopgaps they had in 2010.

Brad Hawpe isn’t a first baseman and no one could’ve expected him to replace Gonzalez’s Gold Glove, but that was no consolation to Latos.

He’s been consistent at home (pitching in a cavernous ballpark) and on the road. He’ll allow a few more homers pitching in the hitter-friendly Reds home field, Great American Ballpark, but he’ll also have a better defense behind him and the Reds—second in runs scored in the NL in 2011; 1st in 2010—will be able to provide more runs than the Padres popgun offense did.

Reds manager Dusty Baker is a laid back and easy man to play for and that should suit the free-spirited Latos better than San Diego.

The Reds surrendered a large chunk of their farm system in this trade, but they’re trying to win now; the NL Central is suddenly in play again with the Brewers pending loss of Prince Fielder and likely suspension of Ryan Braun; the Cardinals loss of Albert Pujols and uncertainty with a new, neophyte manager in Mike Matheny.

Reds GM Walt Jocketty is aggressive. The Reds stumbled to 79-83 after winning the division in 2010; they needed a top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher and got one in Latos.

Alonso played the outfield in the minors, but they saw him as a first baseman—and they proved with a flourish that they aren’t trading Joey Votto; they had no place for Alonso to play. Ryan Hanigan and Devin Mesoraco were blocking Grandal; Volquez hasn’t been the same since his 17-game-winning rookie year in 2008, followed by Tommy John surgery and a PED suspension; Boxberger is a minor league righty with impressive strikeout numbers.

The Reds gave up a lot, but they got a lot in return.

Given the cost the Reds just paid in terms of players to get him, if I were Latos I would want to discuss a long term contract to buy out my arbitration years and first couple of free agent seasons as well.

They traded for him and have to keep him.

For the Padres:

One thing you can say about Padres new GM Josh Byrnes is that he’s not afraid to make drastic and risky decisions.

The Padres have enough starting pitching to get by without Latos; their offense in 2011 was predictably rancid; their defense wasn’t what they expected; they’ve already lost closer Heath Bell and replaced him with Huston Street, who’s not as good.

They had to do something to upgrade their offense and they did with Alonso.

Grandal probably won’t be ready to start 2012 in the majors. Volquez is a question mark; Boxberger was relieving in the minors, but might be better-utilized as a starter.

This calls into question what the Padres are going to do with Anthony Rizzo. Rizzo was acquired from the Red Sox in the Gonzalez trade and has tremendous power and on-base skills; interestingly, he reminds me of Votto. He batted .141 in 153 plate appearances in the big leagues in 2011, but he’s only 22.

The Padres are desperate for offense and if that means they need to use Alonso in the outfield when Rizzo is ready to play in the big leagues, that’s what they’ll do.

The Padres aren’t in a rebuild-mode, but the NL West is a tough sell for them to contend until they find hitters and improve the defense.

They’re not done because they have a lot more to do to be respectable again.

It’s not a cop-out when analyzing a trade to say it helps both teams if it indeed does help both teams.

The Reds had plenty of offense and needed a 200-inning starter; that he’s 24 and under team control for the foreseeable future makes Latos a good buy for them.

The Padres needed to replenish their farm system and acquire guys who can hit. They have enough pitching and could afford to part with Latos.

In short, the Reds are contenders; the Padres weren’t contending under their prior construction.

Each got what they wanted; whether the trade pans out or not, it’s a logical maneuver and an immediate win for each side.

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