MLB 2015: Opening Day Questions, American League East

MLB

Baltimore Orioles

Did the Orioles do enough to fill the holes left by the departures of Nick Markakis and Nelson Cruz?

Markakis is not the great loss that he’s implied to be, but replacing Cruz’s 40 homers is nearly impossible to do with a single player. However, if the Orioles get 15-20 homers from Matt Wieters; if Chris Davis can add 8-10 homers from his somewhat disappointing 26 in 2014; if Manny Machado chips in 20-25; if Steve Pearce can contribute 75 percent of what he provided last season, then the Orioles can make up for Cruz’s departure.

Can they repeat?

Yes. Manager Buck Showalter’s strategic skills are worth a significant amount over the course of a season. It’s difficult to quantify what it is a manager adds or subtracts, but Showalter’s attention to detail and tweaking, as well as his lack of tolerance for that which other managers accept as an unavoidable consequence of managing in today’s game will make any team at least five games better than their on-paper talents indicate. The AL East is as weak as it’s been in 25 years and the Orioles, with Showlater, can take advantage of that and win the division again.

Boston Red Sox

Are the Red Sox as “smart” as their reputation and a lucky World Series win implies?

For all the supposed “brilliance” that comes from the front office led by general manager Ben Cherington, his tenure has not been a good one but for that one miracle year of 2013 when everything went right and they won the World Series. That title occurred in spite of a patched together roster loaded with best case scenario free agents and a manager, John Farrell, who’s had one winning season in his career – the year he won the World Series – and is widely acknowledged as not being very good at in-game strategy.

Much of the “success” the Red Sox have had hinges on that one year. Had they finished where many expected them to that year in the middle of the pack with 82 to 85 wins, that would be half-a-decade of massive payrolls and more massive disappointments.

But that’s revisionist history. They did win that World Series in 2013, buying them time and the belief that they’re a template organization others should copy. The reality depends on your point-of-view. The objective truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

As for 2015, this is a weirdly constructed team. They’ve stuck Hanley Ramirez in left field; are trusting Dustin Pedroia to stay healthy; acquired the fat and in-season lackadaisical Pablo Sandoval to play third; have lost their prospective starting catcher Christian Vazquez to Tommy John surgery; are hoping for a major bounce back year from Xander Bogaerts; their starting rotation is stacked with a sum-of-the-parts crew adding up to an average sum and no intimidating ace; and the bullpen is something of a mess.

Can they overcome these issues?

Although the concept hasn’t even been broached for fear of the expectation and demand that they actually do it, the Red Sox can always demote Bogaerts if he doesn’t hit, stick Ramirez at short and live with his shady defense, and put one of the endless array of outfielders in left field.

Ryan Hanigan can handle the catching duties suitably until Blake Swihart is recalled to share the job. They have a deep farm system and can dip into it to make a move on Cole Hamels, Johnny Cueto, or any other “name” arm that comes available. Bullpens are fluctuating, so who knows whether Edward Mujica, Junichi Tazawa, Koji Uehara or anyone else will emerge and dominate in the late innings?

The weakness of the division and their resources will let them stay in the race.

New York Yankees

Can they count on the key to their season – Masahiro Tanaka – and what if he falters?

I’d written months ago that the Yankees were handling Tanaka’s torn elbow ligament correctly by letting him pitch until he can no longer pitch and then he should go for surgery when he can’t. Now, however, there are troubling signs regarding his health. Tanaka has stated that he’s altered his motion to accommodate his injury. His velocity is noticeably reduced. He’s also adjusted his repertoire to accommodate the injury. All of these factors will lead to the idea that he’s pitching hurt, changing his tactics to mitigate the pain, and is moving forward through an injury instead of functioning normally in spite of it.

Obviously, they can’t count on him for the entire season. In fact, it seems as if they’ll go start-to-start and hope for the best. This leads to the question as to whether the doctors gave him the option of pitching without the surgery if and only if he can stand it. He’s saying that he can stand it when the statements and acts say he can’t.

Tanaka’s situation is often equated with that of Adam Wainwright who pitched with the same injury for five years before the ligament finally blew, but Wainwright never publicly admitted he had changed his motion or strategy due to the injury as Tanaka is doing now. If this is the situation, them maybe he should just have the surgery and get it over with.

Will Hal Steinbrenner and Randy Levine let GM Brian Cashman clean house if the team is spiraling?

It’s hard to fathom the Yankees ever punting a season in large part because they’re so immersed in both the reputation as consummate “winners” and selling tickets for their star-studded show. What they need to realize is that a large percentage of “Yankees die-hards” who spend money on the product became “Yankees die-hards” in 1998. They won’t go see a substandard product and they certainly won’t pay the prices to go to Yankee Stadium to sit through it.

The other problem they have is the profound lack of marketable players. No one is taking CC Sabathia. Might they be able to move Brian McCann? Would another team take Alex Rodriguez off their hands if the Yankees pay the bulk of his salary just to get him away from them once and for all? I can absolutely see the Miami Marlins doing that. If Mark Teixeira is hitting, can they move him? What about Jacoby Ellsbury? Brett Gardner? Carlos Beltran?

The odds are no one’s taking any of these players, but Cashman would dearly love to get rid of all of them to bolster the farm system, clear salary, and open spots for the supposedly hot hitting prospects they have coming through the pipeline.

But Hal and Levine won’t let him because of the message it sends even though it was similarly short-sighted decisions that got the organization in this position in the first place. Yankees fans had better savor the words “first place” in any context since it’s about the closest they’ll get to it this year.

Tampa Bay Rays

Will the team collapse without Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon?

On the contrary, the departures of Friedman and Maddon reinvigorate the franchise and they made a series of moves to bolster a weak farm system. While Friedman and Maddon were obviously integral to the team’s success, there’s such a thing as stagnation and a spark stemming from change. The idea that Friedman was the sole voice in making all the decisions and that his absence will spur the entire franchise to come undone is silly. There’s no single voice in any organization and the freedom from the expectations that Friedman’s success created has allowed the Rays to move forward and make moves – dumping Wil Myers, Jeremy Hellickson and Joel Peralta – they might not have made had they stood pat in the front office.

Maddon leaping out of the contractual escape hatch actually did the Rays a favor. They were able to get rid of players Maddon wanted on the roster like Jose Molina and Sean Rodriguez. They no longer have to endure his canned quirkiness and the arrogance fomented by the sudden public recognition he received as the “best” manager in baseball.

While the players will say all the right things about their former manager, what he did was inordinately selfish and despicable as he took another person’s job by usurping Rick Renteria with the Chicago Cubs. His act had grown tiresome and the young and energetic Kevin Cash is a new voice with a different message that won’t be as me-centric as it had become with Maddon.

Toronto Blue Jays

Is this the last call for this Blue Jays group?

Put it this way, they’re going to need a new team president when Paul Beeston retires after the season and the new boss – whoever it is (and it still might be Dan Duquette) – will want to bring in his own people and likely gut the place of these faltering veterans. That means GM Alex Anthopoulos and manager John Gibbons know where they stand: win or else.

It’s not an absurd demand considering the financial freedom that Anthopoulos was given and the underachievement of this club. For years, there was the complaint that the Blue Jays would have been good enough to make the playoffs had they not been stuck in a division with the Yankees and Red Sox. Now that the entire division is down and there’s a gaping hole for the Blue Jays to charge through, they haven’t done it. On paper, they’ve improved significantly with Russell Martin and Josh Donaldson. They still have Jose Bautista, Jose Reyes and Edwin Encarnacion. But their pitching is questionable, they’ve gutted the farm system, lost Marcus Stroman for the year, and are functioning with Brett Cecil as their closer.

Can they finally win?

Can they? Yes. Will they? No.

After annually expecting them to finally fulfill their potential and have a little luck, eventually the reality will hit home that this is what they are and they need to make structural changes from the ground up to alter the culture. It’s just not going to work with this nucleus and it has to be changed starting with the front office.

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American League Remaining Schedule and Playoff Chance Analysis

2013 MLB Predicted Standings, Ballparks, Football, Games, History, Management, Media, Players, Playoffs, Stats, World Series

Let’s take a look at the remaining schedules for all the teams still in the hunt for an American League playoff berth.

Boston Red Sox

Record: 89-58; 15 games remaining

Current Position: First Place by 9.5 games, American League East

Remaining Schedule: 1 game at Rays; 3 games vs. Yankees; 3 games vs. Orioles; 3 games vs. Blue Jays; 2 games at Rockies; 3 games at Orioles

The Red Sox have the best record in the American League by five games. They’re going to have a significant say in which team gets the second Wild Card given their six games against the Orioles and four against the Yankees. They’re not going to lay down as evidenced by manager John Farrell’s somewhat odd – but successful – decision last night to use Koji Uehara is a tie game that meant nothing to them. I’m wondering if Farrell has received advice from Patriots coach Bill Belichick on going for the throat at all costs because it was a Belichick move.

They don’t seem to have a preference as to whether they knock out the Yankees, Rays or Orioles. They’re playing all out, all the way.

Oakland Athletics

Record: 84-61; 17 games remaining

Current Position: First Place by 3 games, American League West

Remaining Schedule: 1 game at Twins; 3 games at Rangers; 3 games vs. Angels; 4 games vs. Twins; 3 games at Angels; 3 games at Mariners

The A’s lead the Rangers by three games and have three games with them this weekend. Strength of schedule can be a dual-edged sword. This isn’t the NFL, but teams whose seasons are coming to a disappointing close are just as likely to get some motivation by playing teams that have something to play for as they are to bag it and give up. The Angels have played better lately and the Mariners can pitch.

Detroit Tigers

Record: 84-62; 16 games remaining

Current Position: First Place by 6.5 games, American League Central

Remaining Schedule: 3 games vs. Royals; 4 games vs. Mariners; 3 games vs. White Sox; 3 games vs. Twins; 3 games vs. Marlins

The Tigers’ upcoming schedule is pretty weak and they have a good cushion for the division. They can’t coast, but they can relax a bit.

Texas Rangers

Record: 81-64; 17 games remaining

Current Position: Second Place by 3 games, American League West; lead first Wild Card by 3.5 games

Remaining Schedule: 3 games vs. Athletics; 4 games at Rays; 3 games at Royals; 3 games vs. Astros; 4 games vs. Angels

The Rangers are in jeopardy of falling out of the playoffs entirely if they slip up over the next ten games. All of those teams have something to play for and the Rangers have been slumping.

Tampa Bay Rays

Record: 78-66; 18 games remaining

Current Position: Second Place by 9.5 games, American League East; lead second Wild Card by 1 game

Remaining Schedule: 1 game vs. Red Sox; 3 games at Twins; 4 games at Rangers; 4 games at Orioles; 3 games at Yankees; 3 games at Blue Jays

With the way they’re currently playing (think the 2007 Mets) they’re not going to right their ship in time to make the playoffs. They’d better wake up. Fast.

New York Yankees

Record: 78-68; 16 games remaining

Current Position: Third Place by 10.5 games; 1 game behind for the second Wild Card

Remaining Schedule: 1 game at Orioles; 3 games at Red Sox; 3 games at Blue Jays; 3 games vs. Giants; 3 games vs. Rays; 3 games at Astros

There’s a reluctance to say it, but the Yankees are better off without this current version of Derek Jeter. He was hurting the team offensively and defensively. Their problem has nothing to do with schedules or how they’re playing, but with age and overuse. They’re hammering away with their ancient veterans for one last group run. Mariano Rivera is being repeatedly used for multiple innings out of necessity; Alex Rodriguez is hobbled; David Robertson is pitching hurt; Shawn Kelley isn’t 100 percent; Andy Pettitte is gutting his way through. If they’re in it in the last week, will there be any gas left in their collective tanks?

Cleveland Indians

Record: 77-68; 17 games remaining

Current Position: Second Place by 6.5 games, American League Central; 1.5 games behind for the second Wild Card

Remaining Schedule: 4 games at White Sox; 3 games at Royals; 4 games vs. Astros; 2 games vs. White Sox; 4 games at Twins

The White Sox are playing about as badly as the Astros without the excuse of lack of talent/innocent youth. They just don’t seem to care. The Indians’ schedule pretty much guarantees they’ll at least be alive in the last week of the season.

Baltimore Orioles

Record: 77-68; 17 games remaining

Current Position: Fourth Place by 11 games, American League East; 1.5 games behind for the second Wild Card

Remaining Schedule: 1 game vs. Yankees; 3 games at Blue Jays; 3 games at Red Sox; 4 games at Rays; 3 games vs. Blue Jays; 3 games vs. Red Sox

The Red Sox are taking great, sadistic pleasure in hampering the playoff hopes of anyone and everyone and have shown no preference in who they’re beating on. This will hurt and/or help the Orioles. The big games to watch are those four with the Rays.

Kansas City Royals

Record: 77-69; 16 games remaining

Current Position: Third Place by 7 games, American League Central; 2 games behind for the second Wild Card

Remaining Schedule: 3 games at Tigers; 3 games vs. Indians; 3 games vs. Rangers; 3 games at Mariners; 4 games at White Sox

I’d like to see the Royals make the playoffs because: A) they’re a likable young team; B) we need some new blood in the post-season; and B) the likes of Rany Jazayerli, Rob Neyer, Joe Sheehan and the rest of the stat-obsessed “experts” who live to bash the Royals will either have to admit they’re wrong (unlikely) or will join together to play a disturbing game of middle-aged men Twister (hopefully clothed) to justify why they were “right” even though Dayton Moore’s moves worked and the Royals leapt into contention and more.

It will be nice having an experienced arm like James Shields for a one-game Wild Card playoff or for the first game of the ALDS. I have a feeling about the Royals making the playoffs. And it’s gonna be funny.




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The Reality of the Yankees’ Playoff Chances

Games, History, Management, Media, Players, Playoffs, Stats, World Series

Regardless of what happens in today’s game against the Red Sox, the Yankees are still going to be in position for a run at the last realistic Wild Card spot. Ignoring that they’re injury-ravaged, have no pitching left and are staggering toward the finish line, that is not going to change in the next several days at least.

No matter how many times we hear the mathematical probabilities from the New York Times, the truth about their current and future state from the New York Daily News and Mike Francesa’s death bed postmortem, the fact remains that the Yankees are still only 2.5 games behind the plummeting Rays and 1.5 games behind the Orioles and Indians. They have a four-game series in Baltimore this week and, obviously, if they pitch as they have against the Red Sox the real funeral for the Yankees of 2013 will be underway. But now? No. They’re a three game winning streak and a little luck away from suddenly being in the lead for the second Wild Card.

Of course, one thing that many seem to ignore is that making the playoffs with the Wild Card isn’t a guarantee of anything beyond one extra game. Given how battered the Yankees are and that the team they’re going to play in the game is the Athletics or the Rangers, their chances of advancing even if they make it that far are weak. They’re old and in significant transition. The overwhelming likelihood is that they’re as done as the above-linked articles say. The idea that they were “the team no one wanted to face,” or other clubs were feeling the Yankees’ breathing down their necks, or that the old warhorses Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Andy Pettitte still had something to say in the playoff race were no more than reminiscing for remember when. Pettitte has been good and A-Rod has had his moments.

Then we come to Jeter.

The decision by manager Joe Girardi to pull Jeter from yesterday’s game was made because he didn’t like the way Jeter was running. It’s clear that he’s nowhere near 100 percent. In fact, he’s probably at around 70 percent. His range, never that great to begin with, is even worse; he’s not hitting; he’s not helping the team on the field. All the talk of the lineup not looking the same without him in it and how his mere presence in the lineup is a lift for the team is a politically correct thing to say to play up Jeter’s value. Except his current value isn’t all that much. He can lead from the clubhouse and they can put someone into the game who’s going to provide more on the field and considering that someone is Eduardo Nunez, that says about as much about what Jeter can currently do as anything else.

This could change within the next 2-3 days, but the fact is that the Yankees are still in contention no matter what the numbers and opinions say.




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Mike Morse, the Mariners and Jack Z

Ballparks, CBA, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Waiver Trades, Players, Playoffs, Prospects, Stats, Trade Rumors

Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik was roundly roasted when he made the three-way trade with the Athletics and Nationals to acquire Mike Morse. The trade to get Morse was considered about as bad as the trade Zduriencik made at mid-season in his first year at the helm that sent Morse to the Nationals for Ryan Langerhans. In truth, the reacquisition was an understandable deal.

The Mariners sent John Jaso to the Athletics and the Athletics sent young pitchers A.J. Cole, Blake Treinen and Ian Krol to the Nats. This was a trade that made sense to all sides. Despite the stat guy lust for Jaso that would make one think the A’s were getting Johnny Bench, he’s a mediocre defensive catcher who has some pop and gets on base. The Mariners were intent on taking a long look at Jesus Montero, had Mike Zunino on the way and signed veteran Kelly Shoppach. They needed a power bat more than they needed Jaso and thought they were getting one in Morse. Morse had hit 31 homers two years ago and appeared to have figured out how to use his massive size effectively. He hit eight homers in April, three in May and then spent a month on the disabled list from early-June to late July with a strained quadriceps.

If the Mariners were expecting a mid-lineup basher when they acquired Morse, they made a significant mistake in judgment. Morse has tremendous power, but he’s vulnerable to power pitchers and has trouble laying off the high fastball and low breaking stuff. He’ll hit mediocre-to-bad pitching and average fastballers.

With the Orioles, he’ll probably have better success playing in a smaller ballpark. For the Mariners, it was a calculated risk considering what they were giving up and the chance that Morse would be motivated to repeat his 2011 season in his free agent year in 2013. The end result of trading Jaso is that the Mariners wound up with a speedy fifth outfielder in Xavier Avery. The Rays are widely regarded as the smartest organization in baseball and when they traded Jaso to the Mariners, all they received was Josh Lueke with his character issues and 7.50 ERA as a Ray. The difference is they made a worse trade than the Mariners did and were shielded from criticism due to their perception.

If anyone got the best of this deal, it’s the Nationals. Morse was worth a gamble for the Mariners and it didn’t work out.




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Sandy Alderson Is Smarter Than You

Ballparks, CBA, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Waiver Trades, Players, Prospects, Stats, Trade Rumors

Has the screaming and yelling from July 31 at the Mets not trading Marlon Byrd died down yet?

Yesterday the Mets sent Byrd and John Buck to the Pirates for highly touted single A second base prospect Dilson Herrera and a player to be named later. So is it okay that Alderson didn’t pull the trigger on Byrd a month ago just because it would’ve been better-received publicly by a wing of fans that won’t be happy no matter what he does?

What people fail to understand is that no matter how smart a baseball fan a person thinks he or she is; how many stats are quoted; how arrogant they are in thinking they know more than experienced baseball people, the fact is they’re not smarter, don’t know how to apply the stats and don’t know more. Alderson made it plain and simple when he explained why he didn’t trade Byrd at the deadline: the offers weren’t good enough to make it worthwhile and he was prepared to keep Byrd if he didn’t get an acceptable one now. This is what’s known as being a GM.

Maybe you’d like Omar Minaya back. Minaya’s tenure as Mets’ GM has become fodder for ridicule but, in reality, he did some very good things in his time. As always, Minaya’s main faults as GM are his problems with handling a crisis and that he’s too nice. Part of that niceness exhibited itself when he made the colossal blunder of trading Billy Wagner to the Red Sox for mediocre non-prospects Chris Carter and Eddie Lora.

Wagner didn’t want the Mets to offer him arbitration when he hit free agency after that season but unlike Carlos Beltran, he didn’t have it in his contract that the team couldn’t offer him arbitration. Rather than tell Wagner that business is business, hold onto him for the remainder of the season and offer arbitration or wait for a better offer than what the Red Sox presented, Minaya did the nice thing rather than the smart thing. He sent Wagner to a club that was going to the playoffs, got two players who did very little for the Mets and ruined what could have been two draft picks as compensation. The picks the Red Sox got were the 20th and the 39th. The players they took, Kolbrin Vitek and Anthony Ranaudo, are still in the minors. Available at those draft spots were: Noah Syndergaard, Taijuan Walker, Mike Olt and Nick Castellanos. Would any of these players been better than Carter, Lora and Minaya retaining his justified perception as a nice man?

Alderson isn’t interested in what the public thinks and he has no concern about being nice. That’s what it takes to be an effective GM.

There’s nothing wrong with a little healthy disagreement and complaining about what one’s team does. There are significant factions, however, who disagree for its own sake. No matter what, there will be a few people who rant and rave about it and stir other weak-minded/like-minded people to join in. It wouldn’t be as much of an issue if there weren’t owners who listened to everything the fans and media say and force their GMs to make moves they don’t want to make. Most GMs will speak in corporate circles to make these segments believe that their opinions have value and that consideration was given to what they want. When he traded Jeremy Guthrie to the Rockies for Jason Hammel and Matt Lindstrom, there were calls for the head of Orioles GM Dan Duquette amid wondering why he didn’t get “more.” Similar to Alderson, the wonkish Duquette said straight out that it was the best deal he was offered.

In the end, it turns into disagreement just because or with a clear agenda in mind. There’s no avoiding it. The Mets have a GM who’s smarter than that. He was hired to be the adult in the room and that’s what he is.




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Francesa’s Angel Is The Centerfold

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MattHarveypics

The ESPN Body Issue is a clever and creative response to the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. Rather than try and create a copy as other magazines have done, ESPN went one step further using athletes naked as an “ode to exceptional athletic form.” That it’s done to spur sales and create buzz goes without mention.

Mike Francesa sounded like he was about to burst into a teary rendition of Centerfold by the J. Geils Band when discussing Matt Harvey’s participation. It’s no secret that Francesa has developed a borderline disturbing man-crush on Harvey. One can only wonder whether Andy Pettitte feels like a member of the first wives’ club as Francesa is throwing him over for the younger, stronger Harvey.

Francesa couldn’t hide his disappointment in Harvey taking part in the ESPN Magazine Body Issue going so far as to say that Harvey’s demeanor had been Derek Jeter-like in not making any stupid and embarrassing mistakes in his young career. Harvey’s rise has been meteoric, but is this as much of a misstep as Francesa implies?

Much like it’s preferable for a young pitcher like Zack Wheeler to come to the big leagues and scuffle rather than dominate making the game look easy only to be jolted later on, it’s also preferable for Harvey to be the person he is rather than transform himself into the mythic idol that Jeter has become. For Jeter, his position as the ideal for so many has resulted in a level of expectation that no one could match. He’s almost been deified to the degree that when something, anything happens that could possibly tarnish that image, it evolves into a giant story where, if it were another player, it would either be shrugged off or ignored.

In short, the Jeter image has shunned any pretense of reality. When he first started in the majors, Jeter had the guidance from his parents as well as baseball people Don Zimmer, Joe Torre and Buck Showalter. It also helped Jeter that, as a rookie, he was surrounded by players like Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden from whom he could learn and ask questions of what precisely not to do. His supposed playboy lifestyle with one starlet after another is winked and nodded at because he’s Derek Jeter. That it’s more of a show than anything else is beside the point.

With Jeter there has never been a public paternity question; never been a DUI; never been a bar fight or incident captured on cellphone camera of Jeter acting the fool. He’s guarded and careful with that image. In some instances it has turned into ridiculous expectations such as when he feigned being hit by a pitch against the Rays and took first base even though he hadn’t been hit. Parents were wondering how they could explain to their children how Derek Jeter could be so cavalier about fair play. This isn’t a carefully camouflaged, Christianity-tinged commercial from The Foundation for a Better Life in which the high school basketball player admits he touched the ball before it went out of bounds as a show of sportsmanship and Jeter was under no obligation to say he wasn’t hit when the ump told him to go to first base. The idea that he was “supposed” to do that because it was the “right” thing is ludicrous.

The one play that helped launch Jeter occurred in the 1996 ALCS against the Orioles when his deep fly ball was ably assisted out of the park by young fan Jeffrey Maier. It would not have gone out of the park if not for Maier and the Yankees might not have won that ALCS. Who knows how history would have been altered had they not won that first championship in 1996? Would Jeter turn the homer down in the interest of “fair play”? Of course not.

Jeter’s legend has grown to the level where it’s gone from he won’t take a misstep to he can’t take a misstep. That’s not an easy way to live. Harvey has the supermodel girlfriend and appears to be enjoying his success. He did the ESPN shoot and doesn’t need to explain nor apologize for it. Perhaps it would’ve helped Jeter if he’d pulled a Charles Barkley at some point and gone into an “I am not a role model” rant. Harvey probably wasn’t thinking that the appearance in the ESPN photo shoot would take a hammer to this image that the likes of Francesa were thrusting upon him, but it will have that affect. In the long run it’s a good thing.

There’s no question that Jeter is a player to emulate. For young stars including Harvey, he’s someone whose lead to follow, but that doesn’t mean the self should be superseded toward that end especially to live up to the dreamy expectations of someone like Mike Francesa.

//

MLB Inches Closer Toward The Trading Of Draft Picks

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The trades that were completed yesterday were a distraction for a slow day. Righty pitcher Scott Feldman was traded from the Cubs along with catcher Steve Clevenger to the Orioles for righty pitchers Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop and cash. The cash in a trade is usually to offset contracts or provide a sweetener to complete a deal, but in this case the cash is international bonus money that the Cubs will use to accrue extra wiggleroom to sign free agents. They also acquired more bonus pool money from the Astros in exchange for minor leaguer Ronald Torreyes. They traded away some of that money in sending Carlos Marmol and cash to the Dodgers for veteran reliever Matt Guerrier.

The trades are secondary to the money exchanges. You can read about the ins-and-outs of why the Cubs, Dodgers and Astros did this here and the details of trading bonus slot money here. What the shifting around of money says to me is that MLB is experimenting with the concept of trading draft picks, something I’ve long advocated. That they’re trying to implement an international draft to shackle clubs’ hands even further from spending makes the trading of draft picks more likely.

With the increased interest in the MLB draft, one of the only ways to turn it into a spectacle that will function as a moon to the NFL draft’s sun and NBA’s Earth is to allow teams to trade their picks. Because amateur baseball pales in comparison to the attention college football and college basketball receive; because the game of baseball is so fundamentally different when making the transition from the amateurs to the pros, there is a finite number of people who watch it with any vested interest and a minimum percentage of those actually know what they’re looking at with enough erudition to accurately analyze it. It’s never going to be on a level with a Mel Kiper Jr. sitting in the ESPN draft headquarters knowing every player in the college ranks and being able to rattle off positives, negatives and why the player should or shouldn’t have been drafted where he was with it having a chance to be accurate. MLB tries to do that, but it’s transparent when John Hart, Harold Reynolds and whoever else are sitting around a table in an empty studio miraculously proclaiming X player of reminds them of Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, Matt Harvey, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez or Dustin Pedroia when they’ve seen (or haven’t seen) a five second clip of him; when Bud Selig takes his mummified steps to the podium to announce the names of players he couldn’t recognize if they were playing in the big leagues now. And don’t get me started on the overall ludicrousness of Keith Law.

There’s no comparison between baseball and the other sports because in baseball, there’s a climb that has to be made after becoming a professional. In football and basketball, a drafted player automatically walks into the highest possible level of competition. With a top-tier pick, the football and basketball player isn’t just a member of the club, but he’s expected to be a significant contributor to that club.

With baseball, there’s no waste in a late-round draft pick because there’s nothing to waste. Some players are drafted to be organizational filler designed to complete the minor league rosters. If one happens to make it? Hey, look who the genius is for finding a diamond in the rough! Except it’s not true. A player from the 20th round onward (and that’s being generous) making it to the majors at all, let alone becoming a star, is a fluke. But with MLB putting such a focus on the draft, that’s the little secret they don’t want revealed to these newly minted baseball “experts” who started watching the game soon after they read Moneyball and thinks a fat kid who walks a lot for a division III college is going to be the next “star.” Trust me, the scouts saw that kid and didn’t think he could play. That’s why he was drafted late if he was drafted at all. There’s no reinventing of the wheel here in spite of Michael Lewis’s hackneyed and self-serving attempts to do so.  Yet MLB draft projecting has blossomed into a webhit accumulator and talking point. There’s a demand for it, so they’ll sell it regardless of how random and meaningless it truly is.

So what does all this have to do with the trading of the bonus slot money? MLB allowing the exchange of this money will give a gauge on the public reaction and interest level to such exchanges being made to provide market research as to the expanded reach the trading of draft picks would yield. If there’s a vast number of websearches that lead MLB to believe that it’s something that can spark fan fascination, then it’s something they can sell advertising for and make money. It’s a test case and once the results are in, you’ll see movement on the trading of draft picks. It’s a good idea no matter how it happens. Now if we can only do something to educate the masses on how little Keith Law knows, we’ll really be getting somewhere.

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Chris Davis and PEDs

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The two sides regarding Orioles’ slugger Chris Davis are firmly entrenched. There are those who see his wondrous career jump and comparable players who’ve risen similarly and unexpectedly in recent years as clear-cut evidence that he’s using banned substances to facilitate his newfound stardom. The others present a combination of legalese and chastisement to the skeptics along the lines of, “not everyone is a cheater.”

I’m not accusing Davis of anything nor am I putting forth a defense, but to imply that there shouldn’t be suspicion about any player who experiences this kind of half-season after never having posted anything close to these number in his major league career is ludicrous. On the same token, just because he’s hitting home runs with this frequency doesn’t mean he’s cheating. When a player explodes like this, there will be questions asked as to how he did it and, given the era in which we live where everyone’s suspect, it’s fair for them to be asked. It happened with Jose Bautista and Raul Ibanez in recent years and neither had their names come up in a Biogenesis-type record, neither was caught with anyone who was involved in PED use, and neither failed a test. The talk died down. But realistically, is there any player—one—who would elicit shock and dismay if he was caught having used PEDs? And that includes Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter, David Wright and Joe Mauer among the “oh, he’d never do that” brigade of players seen as aboveboard and honest.

Some might be more disappointing than others, might create a splashier headline and bigger scandal, but shock? It’s like the story that Mickey Mantle might have used a corked bat in his career: it ruins the narrative and childhood idol worship of a vast segment of the baseball-watching population and turns into anger and denials based on nothing. I don’t know whether Mantle used a corked bat and nor do you. This is identical to the response to any player being accused of having used PEDs and the public and factions in the media saying, “No way.” You don’t know.

There are reasonable, baseball-related explanations for Davis’s sudden burst into stardom. He’s locked in at the plate; John Kruk discussed his balance and timing in getting behind the ball with all his strength; he posted minor league numbers nearly identical to the ones he’s posting now; and if he was going to use PEDs, he only decided to do it for 2013? What about from between 2008 to 2011 when he showed flashes of talent but struck out so much that he looked like he was on his way to becoming Adam Dunn, wound up back in the minor leagues for long stretches, and the Rangers traded him to the Orioles?

The number of players who’ve stood in front of cameras, congress, baseball executives and law enforcement officials and lied to everyone’s faces is so vast that it is naïve to exonerate any out of hand. There’s no evidence—circumstantial or otherwise—against Davis. Accusing him with an insulting, “he must be juicing,” is wrong, but exonerating him is only slightly less wrong because neither I nor you nor anyone else other than Chris Davis knows whether his first half is due to fulfilling his talent or getting his hands on some high quality, undetectable PEDs.

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Dealing With The Closer Issue

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Complaining about closers is like complaining about the weather: everyone talks about it, but no one does anything about it. The difference between the weather and closers is that something can be done about closers.

Amid all the talk about “what to do” with struggling relievers Jim Johnson and Fernando Rodney and the references of clubs who have found unheralded veterans to take over as their closer like the Cardinals with Edward Mujica and the Pirates with Jason Grilli, no one is addressing the fundamental problems with needing to have an “established” closer. Here they are and what to do about them.

Veteran relievers like to know their roles.

Managers like Whitey Herzog, Sparky Anderson, Billy Martin and Earl Weaver had the ability to tell their players that their “role” is to pitch when they tell them to pitch. Nowadays even managers who are relatively entrenched in their jobs like Joe Maddon have to have the players on their side to succeed. The Rays are a different story because they’re not paying any of their relievers big money and can interchange them if need be, but they don’t because Maddon doesn’t operate that way until it’s absolutely necessary.

Other clubs don’t have that luxury. They don’t want to upset the applecart and cause a domino effect of people not knowing when they’re going to pitch; not knowing if a pitcher can mentally handle the role of pitching the ninth inning; and don’t want to hear the whining and deal with the aftermath if there’s not someone established to replace the closer who’s having an issue. Rodney was only the Rays’ closer last season because Kyle Farnsworth (a foundling who in 2011 had a career year similar to Rodney in 2012) got hurt.

Until managers have the backing of the front office and have a group of relievers who are just happy to have the job in the big leagues, there’s no escaping the reality of having to placate the players to keep clubhouse harmony.

Stop paying for mediocrity in a replaceable role.

The Phillies and Yankees are paying big money for their closers Jonathan Papelbon and Mariano Rivera, but these are the elite at the position. Other clubs who have overpaid for closers include the Dodgers with Brandon League, the Red Sox with money and traded players to get Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan, the Nationals with Rafael Soriano, and the Marlins who paid a chunk of Heath Bell’s salary to get him out of the clubhouse.

Bell has taken over for the injured J.J. Putz with the Diamondbacks and pitched well. The Cubs, in desperation, replaced both Carlos Marmol ($9.8 million in 2013) and Kyuji Fujikawa (guaranteed $9.5 million through 2014) with Kevin Gregg. The same Kevin Gregg who was in spring training with the Dodgers and released, signed by the Cubs—for whom he struggled as their closer when they were trying to contend in 2009—as a veteran insurance policy just in case. “Just in case” happened and Gregg has gone unscored upon and saved 6 games in 14 appearances.

As long as teams are paying closers big money, closers will have to stay in the role far longer than performance would dictate in an effort to justify the contract. It’s a vicious circle that teams fall into when they overpay for “established” closers. When the paying stops, so too will the necessity to keep pitching them.

Find a manager who can be flexible.

A manager stops thinking when it gets to the ninth inning by shutting off the logical remnants of his brain to put his closer into the game. If it’s Rivera or Papelbon, this is fine. If it’s anyone else, perhaps it would be wiser to use a lefty specialist if the situation calls for it. If Chase Utley and Ryan Howard are hitting back-to-back and a club has Randy Choate in its bullpen, would it make sense to use a righty whether it’s the ninth inning and “his” inning or not?

Maddon is flexible in his thinking and has the support of the front office to remove Rodney from the role if need be. One option that hasn’t been discussed for the Rays is minor league starter Chris Archer to take over as closer in the second half of the season. With the Rays, anything is possible. With other teams, they not only don’t want to exacerbate the problem by shuffling the entire deck, but the manager is going to panic if he doesn’t have his “ninth inning guy” to close. Even a veteran manager like Jim Leyland isn’t immune to it and a pitcher the front office didn’t want back—Jose Valverde—is now closing again because their handpicked choice Bruce Rondon couldn’t seize his spring training opportunity and the “closer by committee” was on the way to giving Leyland a heart attack, a nervous breakdown or both.

The solution.

There is no solution right now. Until teams make the conscious decision to stop paying relievers upwards of $10 million, there will constantly be the “established” closer. It’s a fundamental fact of business that if there isn’t any money in a job, fewer people who expect to make a lot of money and have the capability to make a lot of money in another position are going to want to take it. Finding replaceable arms who can be used wherever and whenever they’re told to pitch, ignore the save stat, and placed in a situation to be successful instead of how it’s done now will eliminate the need to pay for the ninth inning arm and take all the negative side effects that go along with it. Games will still get blown in the late innings, but at least it won’t be as expensive and will probably happen with an equal frequency. It’s evolution. And evolution doesn’t happen overnight, if it happens at all.

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Rays and Orioles: Early Season Notes

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Tampa Bay Rays

The Rays were one of the few teams with a “surplus” of starting pitching. So they dealt James Shields and Wade Davis to the Royals and signed Roberto Hernandez (AKA Fausto Carmona) as insurance and to vie for a role in the rotation. Jeff Niemann’s season-ending shoulder surgery put a damper on the depth and they’ve gotten off to a rocky start as Hernandez has pitched poorly and Jeremy Hellickson—who I’m not a fan of anyway—has been inconsistent.

Key parts of the lineup haven’t hit. Some, like Yunel Escobar and Matthew Joyce, will. Others like James Loney and Ryan Roberts might or might not. In the end, they’ll score enough runs to win…if the pitching is good enough or David Price and Matt Moore carry the load for the shakiness of the back of the rotation.

This should’ve been expected of a team like the Rays who run their club making trades and signings with an eye on saving money, spending where they can, and hoping to hit at the roulette wheel with the likes of Hernandez and Loney. Amid all the hits such as Fernando Rodney and Casey Kotchman, there are also misses like Pat Burrell and Matt Bush. Some have been costlier than others.

There are calls to bring up Wil Myers to boost the offense and, in some manner, justify having traded Shields and Davis to get him. Inside the Rays clubhouse there are expressions of pained understanding as to why the Rays traded Shields and Davis, with the unsaid wishing that they were still there to help in the now.

The Rays front office isn’t concerned about what the players think. No winning organization is. They may listen to a point in order to placate the stars, but in the end, it’s the organization’s decision. Few sports figures exert as much influence over their club as Tom Brady does with the New England Patriots and even he had his knuckles rapped by club owner Bob Kraft over Brady’s overt displeasure at Wes Welker being allowed to leave. “I don’t answer to Tom Brady,” Kraft said.

Nor should he.

Bending to pressure, inside and out, would betray the entire reason the Rays made the trade in the first place; in fact it would contradict the entire foundation of the rebuilding of the Rays into a team that wins in spite of payroll constraints. Myers was acquired because he’s a top-tier prospect, cheap and will have value for them when they can no longer afford some of the players in their lineup who are expected to be significant offensive contributors now, like Joyce. If and when Myers is recalled, it won’t be until it’s financially and practically beneficial to the Rays, not before.

In general, veteran players will provide what’s expected of them and what they’ve historically done barring injuries or an age-related decline in skills. This is why there’s no need to be concerned about Escobar and Joyce and there is need to be concerned about Hernandez and Loney.

This is the situation the Rays face on an annual basis. Maybe it’ll work out and maybe it won’t.

Baltimore Orioles

To GM Dan Duquette’s credit, he didn’t make the mistake the Mariners did under Bill Bavasi and equate an overachieving 2007 season of 88-74 into an idea of “all we need is one more pitcher” and trade a large chunk of his system to the Orioles—including Adam Jones and Chris Tillman—for Erik Bedard.

(Interestingly, Mariners current GM Jack Zduriencik did pretty much the same thing in trading for Cliff Lee after a similarly overachieving season that was based more on luck than reality in 2009. Yet he was referred to as a “genius” for doing what Bavasi did. He’s not being called a genius anymore, but that’s another story.)

The Orioles of 2012, unlike the Mariners of 2007, made the playoffs. They bounced the Rangers and shook the Yankees before losing in the ALDS in 5 games. The Orioles, having won, are no longer viewed as a last resort location for old and declining players to get a last paycheck. The temptation to use the new street cred among marketable players willing to join the Orioles must have been great, as must have been the offers for the likes of Manny Machado and Dylan Bundy. Duquette did a tweak here and a tweak there, but mostly stood pat in spite of the Orioles having reason to say they were going for it in 2013, even though that would’ve been a mistake.

They’re around .500 now and the “experts” in the media had them taking a dramatic fallback to, at best, .500 for the season.

That doesn’t mean they’re going to stay there. Currently relying on the same template as last season with a deep bullpen, a power-hitting lineup and pedestrian starting pitching, the situation looks the same as in 2012, but is actually subtly different.

If his elbow stiffness subsides and he’s pitching in the minors soon, the Orioles can expect Bundy to help them in the second half of the season; Machado will be with the team all year. If they’re hovering around .500 and still in contention in a parity-laden AL East at mid-season, they’ll be very dangerous down the stretch.

I don’t see people referring to Duquette with starstruck, agenda-driven awe as they did with Zduriencik, but Duquette’s the one with the past success, courage of his convictions, and is a better executive.

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

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