The Best Manager In Baseball(?)

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Put Joe Maddon in the manager’s office of the Padres, the Athletics, the Cubs or even the Red Sox and their record isn’t going to be any different with Maddon than it is with their current managers.

So how can Maddon be repeatedly referred to as the “best” manager in baseball when his style is tailored to fit his Rays’ clubhouse? When his team bonding exercises and lack of off-field discipline wouldn’t work anywhere else?

Saying Maddon is the “best manager in baseball” is based on fleeting criteria that can’t be transferred. It’s the Mike Francesa logic from preseason 2011 as he picked the Twins in the AL Central for no reason other than, “I awlways pick da Twins.”

Is that a viable foundation for picking them or is it laziness based on history that has no connection to the present?

If the individuals comprising that history are no longer the same, then of what value is the history? It’s the same thing as having picked the Rays to lose 100 games in 2008 because they’d lost or almost lost 100 in every year of their existence. History hinges on the participants and what caused the history. If the players were different and better; if the front office was smarter; if the competition was weaker, then why would the predictions automatically be the same?

Reality is based on perception and the perception now—because of the Rays’ success—is that Maddon is the “best” manager in baseball.

Well, he’s not. The mere appellation itself has no quantifiable basis and is formulated from nothing other than a similar belief system between the manager and the person who’s doing the ranking.

The Rays are a unique, almost unprecedented club in that they don’t have money to even put forth the pretense of keeping their players long-term for big money. If those players aren’t willing to do as Evan Longoria, Matt Moore and Ben Zobrist did and take longer term deals well before their arbitration years and have those deals contain options that will take them past free agency, they’ll be traded for younger players to continually replenish the farm system. That a Rays team that has made the playoffs in 3 of the past 4 years still doesn’t draw fans gives them a freedom from having money to spend and needing to spend that money to keep a rabid fan base and media horde happy. They’re 12th in the American League in attendance this season; were 13th last season and haven’t finished higher than 9th since they became good in 2008.

It works for Maddon because of the situation he’s in. It has nothing to do with being the “best”. It has to do with what’s working in the circumstances. If the team was exhibiting poor behavior off the field and wasn’t hustling then it wouldn’t look as cute as it does while the Rays are winning.

Their defensive metrics, bullpen construction, sabermetrically-inclined front office and funky manager are part of the equation, but the Rays have been as much of a beneficiary from high draft choices and luck as from their clever defensive alignments and ability to find relievers or failed starters who succeed with the Rays in ways they haven’t in prior stops.

In 2012, their bullpen has been statistically middle-of-the-pack and saved by the excellent work done by Fernando Rodney. Their vaunted defense is near the worst in baseball in fielding percentage; is third in errors; is -19 in fielding runs above average (if you’re into advanced fielding metrics that make the Rays do the profound amount of shifting that they do).

If you think they’re making up for their defensive issues with pitchers racking up strikeouts, you’re wrong. Their staff is sixth in the majors in strikeouts. Their pitchers do keep the ball in the park and they, as a team, have taken advantage of slumping opponents to hover around first place.

But it’s not the same as it was when the Rays shocked the world in 2008 and made the playoffs in 2010 and 2011.

They’re not the dominant group of youngsters who catch the ball, throw strikes and hit clutch homers. It’s a different dynamic.

Maddon is a good manager, but his quirky little bits of shtick are only taken positively because the team has won. If he were in another town with a team out of control and 15 games under .500, his new age style would be blamed for it.

In fact, if the Rays fade this season, there’s an argument to say that it’s in part because of Maddon’s defensive alignments and bizarre decisions based on nothing like playing Hideki Matsui because it was his birthday. Of course playing Matsui on his birthday is no more ridiculous than some of the out-of-context numbers that are used to justify things that don’t make sense, but it sounds weird. Sounding weird is enough to make certain factions go critical.

If the Rays stumble, will there still be a “best manager in baseball” chorus trailing everything Maddon does? Or will he be criticized?

Maddon’s gimmicks work because the Rays have won. If they were still the 100-loss calamity they were in his first two seasons as a manager, then we’re not discussing this because he would’ve been fired long ago. The “best manager” stuff is moot because it’s dependent on the players and the front office. A true barometer of the best would require so many categories and caveats that it’s not worth discussing in such a narrow frame. The manager is important, but not to the degree of blind worship without facts as it’s become with Joe Maddon.

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The Bubble Contenders

Free Agents, Players, Spring Training

The importance of spring training won/lost records and performances aside—yes, I’m being sarcastic—certain teams have numerous questions entering the 2011 season. Some will have to make the decision relatively early as to whether to clear out marketable players for the future or move forward and add in a desperate attempt to save the season.

Here are some of the teams whose seasons could go either way from contention to a rapid plummet and the players about whom needy clubs should inquire.

(This is independent of teams like the Pirates and Mariners—we know where their seasons are heading.)

Tampa Bay Rays

They have the ingredients to hang around contention but they have a load of young pitching and veterans like James Shields trying to regain his form; the bullpen has been completely redone; they’ll score, but they could be overmatched in the AL East if they get off to a bad start.

The obvious names to call about at mid-season will be Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon; but I’d call about Ben Zobrist. Zobrist is signed, he’s versatile and coming off a bad year after his star turn in 2009.

Someone would take B.J. Upton—I wouldn’t touch him—but he’s a center fielder and they’re in demand. I’d field offers on him now.

Minnesota Twins

The bullpen—their most underappreciated attribute to winning all these years—was gutted with the departures of Matt Guerrier and Jesse Crain; the starting rotation is workmanlike, mediocre and needed that bullpen to survive.

Francisco Liriano will be up for auction if the Twins falter and the Twins will try to hold someone up. If I’m the Yankees, there’s no way I surrender Ivan Nova for Liriano—Nova’s about as useful without the flashy name of Liriano.

Jim Thome would help someone down the stretch and Michael Cuddyer is a pending free agent after the season.

Los Angeles Angels

Scott Kazmir, Joel Pineiro, Bobby Abreu and Fernando Rodney are the pending free agent vets and would be on the trade block if the Angels fall.

But there’s another name who’s worth a shot: Jered Weaver.

The Angels relationship with Weaver’s agent Scott Boras is shaky at best after the Mark Teixeira mess; Weaver and the club are going year-to-year with arbitration threats and settlements. He’s not signing a long-term deal and is a free agent after 2012. He’d be worth a fortune in prospects to clubs like the Yankees, Cardinals and Rangers.

If I were the Yankees, I’d steer clear of Liriano and go after Weaver.

Oakland Athletics

The lovelorn worship of Billy Beane is starting up all over again and I’ve taken a new tack in my attempts to contextualize his so-called “genius”; I call it the “Chris Russo Argument With Ludicrous Leaps Of Logic”. Here it makes sense. Briefly, I call it “win something”.

Enough with being the prom king.

Win something.

No more “genius” and applause based on washing himself with a rag on a stick obese Bart Simpson-style.

Win something.

As for the players, the A’s are a trendy pick for the playoffs, but young pitching fluctuates and there’s no guarantee they’re going to be as good as people think.

Hideki Matsui, Josh Willingham, David DeJesus, Mark Ellis, Coco Crisp and Kevin Kouzmanoff would all be on the market if things go badly.

I love the way Willingham hits and the Braves could really use him.

Florida Marlins

They’re heading into a new ballpark in 2012; the division is a nightmare; expectations are unreasonably high.

Javier Vazquez will be in demand if he pitches competently and is healthy. If I were the Marlins, I’d trade Anibal Sanchez before he gets hurt again. Wes Helms could be an asset for a contender with his penchant for clutch homers.

San Diego Padres

The one name on everyone’s lips will be Heath Bell.

A free agent at the end of the year and ready to cash in for the first time in his career, he might make the difference in a championship as a set-up man or closer.

I’m convinced the Padres front office was surprised by their rapid leap into contention last season and, in the long run, it might have been a detriment to the long term plan especially since they faded and missed the playoffs. They did the right thing in trading Adrian Gonzalez last winter and unless Bell agrees to a hometown discount, they have to keep an open mind.

Ryan Ludwick, Jorge Cantu and Brad Hawpe might yield a couple of prospects for a team needing a veteran bat.

Colorado Rockies

I would call Rockies GM Dan O’Dowd and tell him that if their season goes poorly, don’t rule out considering a trade of Ubaldo Jimenez. He’s willing to think outside-the-box and presumably would at least listen to offers; that’s the first step in getting a deal done. It’s unlikely since Jimenez is signed through 2014 for a pittance commensurate with his abilities, but why not ask?

Aaron Cook, Huston Street and possibly Todd Helton would be movable parts who could be of ancillary assistance to a contender.

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