A clarification, not a review, of “Astroball”

Books, MLB, Uncategorized

Luhnow

Some – not all, but some – of Astroball by Ben Reiter came about because of the author’s half-joking prediction in 2014 that the then-worst team in baseball if not one of the worst teams in baseball history, the Houston Astros, would ride their rocket scientists, mathematicians, corporate veterans and Ivy League college graduates who permeate their front office to baseball dominance and a World Series win in 2017.

The story would be interesting but not so easily salable had that freak guess not happened to come true.

But it did.

To his credit, Reiter acknowledges the lightning bolt nature of that prediction/guess/divine intervention– whatever you want to call it – coming to fruition. However, the remainder of the book serves as a love letter to the architect of the Astros’ rise, general manager Jeff Luhnow, to the degree that even his wrongs turned out to be not so wrong; even his mistakes contained a method behind the perceived madness; and any glaring gaffe stemming from arrogance, ignorance or coldblooded inhumanity could be mitigated and explained away.

As the Astros and Reiter bask in the afterglow of the achievement of their ultimate vision, it’s ironic that the relentless criticisms of the organization that had receded into the background rose again with the near simultaneous release of the book and, within 20 days, the club’s acquisition of closer Roberto Osuna who was only available from the Toronto Blue Jays because he was under suspension by Major League Baseball for an alleged domestic violence incident for which he was arrested with the case still pending in Toronto.

In one shot, the Astros regained their reputation for putting performance above people; for indicating that profit takes precedence over right and wrong.

In the immediate aftermath of the trade for Osuna, the handwringing on Twitter and outright criticism by columnists and radio hosts made it seem as if the Astros had never exhibited this type of borderline sociopathic tendencies in the past when it is precisely how they behaved to get so far, so fast. The World Series title and the narrative of how it was achieved gave them an “it worked” safety net.

Suddenly, the intriguing stories of Carlos Correa, Justin Verlander, Carlos Beltran and Sig Mejdal – for the most part, positive portrayals of generally likable people – were jolted back to the ambiguity of some of the Astros’ clever, manipulative and underhanded tactics used to achieve their ends.

What cannot be denied and was shown again with the Osuna trade is the Astros did and do treat human beings as cattle whose survival is based on nothing more than their current usefulness; that any pretense of acceptable and unacceptable behavior hinges on cost and usefulness. The book’s attempt to humanize Luhnow and his staff in contrast with the manner they run the team was immediately sabotaged by acquiring Osuna.

The big questions about “Astroball” should not center around what’s in the book, but what’s not in the book.

Those who are either not invested in the concept of the Astros’ new way of doing things being the wave of the future or did not walk into the movie when it was half over and remember exactly what happened during the reconstruction will wonder about the following:

  • How is the name Andrew Friedman mentioned once for his role as president of baseball operations for the Los Angeles Dodgers and not as Astros owner Jim Crane’s first choice to be the Astros GM – with Luhnow the second choice?
  • How is it possible that the name Jon Singleton, who received $10 million for nothing, is nowhere in the text?
  • Why were the circumstances under which manager Bo Porter was fired completely ignored and treated as part of a planned process?
  • Why was the rushed trade for Carlos Gomez a shrugged off mistake with one sentence dedicated to it?

One man’s reasonable explanation is another’s farcical alibi. Depending on one’s perspective and agenda, both can appear true.

The drafting of Brady Aiken and subsequent attempt to lowball him following an agreed-upon contract was adapted to show how brilliantly conniving Luhnow was for offering the precise bonus amount to benefit the club in the subsequent draft should Aiken reject the offer as they knew he would – in fact, there’s an attempt to make Luhnow look benevolent for how Aiken was treated.

The release of J.D. Martinez is an admitted mistake…but then-manager Porter was blamed because he only gave Martinez 18 spring training at-bats the year Martinez arrived touting a new swing as if Porter was not being told what to do and had any choice in the matter as to who played.

“He (Porter) also couldn’t fail to provide someone like J.D. Martinez enough at-bats for the organization to make an informed decision about him.” (Astroball, page 143)

Are they seriously saying that Porter did not have it hammered into his head what the front office wanted and which players were to be given a closer look; that he was not an implementer of front office mandate with little-to-no actual say-so?

The above quote is one of many in the book that provide a between-the-lines elucidation of what the entire goal of the book is: to tie all the loose ends from that 2014 prediction to the prediction coming to pass, objective truth be damned.

Porter’s firing, rather than being due to the clear insubordination and an attempt to go over Luhnow’s head to Crane regarding how the team was being run, was mystically transformed into a preplanned decision.

Porter and numerous veteran players had an issue with former first overall draft pick Mark Appel being brought to Minute Maid Park for a bullpen session with pitching coach Brent Strom to see if they could fix what ailed him. (They couldn’t.) It was then that Porter and Luhnow were at an impasse and Luhnow was right to fire him. But part of the “process”? After Porter’s hiring when Luhnow made the preposterous statement that he might manage the team for two decades? How does that work? How is this explained away other than it being ignored?

It’s these and many other subtle and not-so subtle twisting of reality that call the entire book and its contents into question on a scale of ludicrousness and goal-setting to cast the Astros in the best possible light, all stemming from that silly prediction from 2014 when it was an act comparable to casually throwing a basketball over one’s shoulder with eyes closed and somehow hitting nothing but net.

One cannot discuss “Astroball” (the figurative New Testament for the reliance on statistics in baseball) without mentioning the Old Testament, “Moneyball”.

“Moneyball” gets a passing mention as the text that kicked open the door for baseball outsiders with ideas that were once considered radical and antagonistic to baseball’s ingrained conventional orthodoxy, but the two stories are intertwined like conjoined twins for whom separation would mean unavoidable death.

Reiter takes clear steps to avoid the same mistakes Michael Lewis made in “Moneyball”. Instead of it being an overt baseball civil war where the storyline was old vs. new and Billy Beane sought to eliminate the antiquated, Luhnow is portrayed as integrating the old guard and formulating strategies to quantify their assessments.

Whereas “Moneyball” took the MLB draft and turned Beane into a “card counter”, Astroball acknowledges nuance and luck in the draft.

While ““Moneyball”” treats the postseason as an uncontrollable crapshoot, “Astroball” implies the same thing without trying to eliminate any responsibility for continually losing as the Athletics have done repeatedly.

Astroball does its best to inclusive, albeit in a borderline condescending way, while “Moneyball” sought to toss anyone not on the train under it and then, for good measure, backed over them to make sure they were dead.

To that end, Astroball is somehow more disingenuous than “Moneyball”. “Moneyball” is how the old-schoolers are truly viewed in the new-age, sabermetric circles while their extinction is pursued opaquely in Astroball, making it easier for them to carry it out.

Those invested in the story being considered true will not give an honest review, nor will they ask the questions as to why certain facts were omitted even if they know the answers.

With that, the narrative of the Astros and their rise under Luhnow and Crane presented in Astroball is complete and a vast portion of readers and observers will believe every single word of it just as they did with “Moneyball”. They get their validation. And it’s irrelevant whether that validation was the entire point, as it clearly was.

Discarding facts from the past aside, the Osuna acquisition drops an inconvenient bomb right in the middle of their glorification. It’s that wart that shows who the Astros really are. If they just admitted it, they would deserve grudging respect. They claim to care about a player’s conduct and give hedging statements as to “zero tolerance” with that “zero” only existing when he’s an Astros employee. In short, they don’t care about Osuna’s alleged domestic assault just as they didn’t care about Aiken; they didn’t care about Porter; they didn’t care about Martinez; they didn’t care about any of the people who were callously discarded because they did not fit into the tightening circle of those who believe what they believe or will agree to subvert their own preferences as a matter of survival in a world they neither know nor understand.

For those who have a general idea of what is truly happening in baseball front offices and do not take these tall tales at face value, the book is entertaining enough in a televised biopic sort of way as long the creative nonfictional aspect is placed into its proper context. That context goes right back to the 2014 “prediction” that would have been largely ignored had it not happened to come true.

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A small opening could net the Mets a global star

MLB, Uncategorized

Beane

With the New York Mets 11-1 start a distant memory and the likelihood of an extended hot streak to get back into contention growing increasingly remote by the day, speculation as to the club’s next move is rampant. Most are either unrealistic or of the Band-Aid variety.

Little has been said about the status of the front office and general manager Sandy Alderson other than that the Wilpons have confidence in him and that he is working under a two-year contract signed in the offseason.

There is no denying that the acquisitions and retentions the Mets made over the winter have not panned out. Jay Bruce, Todd Frazier, Jason Vargas, Adrian Gonzalez, Anthony Swarzak, A.J. Ramos and Jose Reyes have ranged from bad to disastrous. That’s not counting the in-season signing of Jose Bautista and the discarding of Matt Harvey.

Part of it is financial. It is a valid argument to say that a New York-based team should not be playing at the low minimum tables hoping to get supernaturally lucky. It remains unknown whether that is Alderson’s choice, due to financial limitations imposed by ownership, or a combination of the two. To absolve Alderson of all guilt here is absurd. How they react is the question.

The Mets are not the organization that fires people haphazardly. Whatever is said about the Wilpons, they are loyal to those in club baseball operations, often to a fault. Also, it is rare that they hire outsiders with Alderson being an exception that was clearly done with encouragement from Major League Baseball.

As the club comes apart and regardless of the negatives said about ownership, they’re not in a cocoon where they hear, see and know nothing. They’re completely aware of what’s going on and how the organization is perceived. They are attentive to fan anger and, while it might be delayed, will eventually act.

But act how?

A series of player moves and adjustments to the current management scheme is cosmetic. What the team needs is to change the story from the top down and, as Susan Slusser writes in the San Francisco Chronicle, there might very well be the rare combination of juice and competence available to ignite the fan base and keep the raging masses quiet in the name of a legendary executive, Billy Beane.

The flux in the Oakland Athletics upper tier is only part of the reason that Beane could choose to move on. While Slusser’s piece is speculative and mentions the Bay Area neighbors, the San Francisco Giants, as a possible landing spot if Beane wants to remain in the area, it should be remembered that the baseball boss of those Giants, Brian Sabean, has three of something that Beane – despite all the accolades, fame and fortune – does not: World Series trophies. Replacing Sabean with Beane might seem on-paper logical if Sabean chooses to leave, but how does going across the Bay and winning a championship do anything to help Beane’s legacy? It does not give him the one level of recognition that has eluded him as something more than a father figure of the sabermetric movement and increasingly mythical idol whose exploits are more fantasy than fact.

Therein lies the question if Beane does choose to leave the A’s: What does he want to do and where is the best opportunity to do it?

Beane is now a global star and his interests are diverse. Sure, he could go on the lecture circuit like a former U.S. president, make a fortune and relax, but would someone of Beane’s furious energy and enormous ego be satisfied by that?

The main attraction to Beane would be achieving the only remaining goal by having those who see through Michael Lewis’s “Moneyball” for the twisted nonsense it is to accord Beane the legitimacy that he currently lacks. While the story made him famous, it wasn’t long before it became an albatross, glossing over Beane’s true status as an excellent executive, if not the infallible genius and borderline biblical baseball figure who transcended his sport.

Much of that was Beane’s fault for taking part in it, taking advantage of it, and for believing that he was more than he was. In fairness, it’s impossible for even the most grounded people not to get caught up in that level of adulation. Beane’s own failures as a player and rise as an executive quenched much of that thirst to be somebody, but there remains that missing piece. He’s wealthy, he’s still idolized, and he’s built and rebuilt the A’s with a different cast of characters and in multiple baseball landscapes three different times. Despite that, a championship and even a pennant has eluded him like a cosmic joke.

The idea of him taking over a European football (soccer) team is as presumptuous as it is Sisyphean. What’s the risk-reward? It’s a reversion back to his afterglow egomania of Moneyball. As Beane gallivanted as a “star”, the A’s appeared to be a diversion which received a fraction of the necessary attention – that same attention that Beane lavished on the organization to succeed under difficult financial circumstances, change the game (for better and worse), and become a worldwide phenomenon. Once he took hands-on control of the organization again, he rebuilt and cemented his status as more than the totem of a skillfully conniving writer like Lewis.

For him, the A’s have become a case of diminishing returns. With the changes mentioned in Slusser’s article, apart from nostalgia, does he even want to stay?

Should Beane leave the A’s (speculative), remain in baseball (more speculative), and look for a challenge commensurate with his public image (difficult), where could he go?

Based on baseball’s current state in which front office executives are stars in their own constellation, there are very few jobs that will be open, even for Beane. Most clubs have their own “star” GMs or presidents of baseball operations and they are are ensconced. Others have younger GMs who are in the middle of rebuilds and have the trust of ownership.

Forgetting the idea of him going to the Giants, there are three teams that make varying levels of sense: the Baltimore Orioles, the Miami Marlins and the Mets.

Would Peter and John Angelos hire Beane and take the hands-off approach he would need? Would they pay him? Would Beane want to go into the same division with the banes of his existence, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, and do so with a far higher payroll than he current works with in Oakland, but still a limit on how much he can spend?

It’s hard to see.

Would Derek Jeter cede the spotlight? Would he pay him? And even with the new ballpark in Miami that has been denied Beane for so long in Oakland, even if he turns the Marlins into a winner and gets that championship, the city really doesn’t care.

Then there’s the Mets.

There’s a salable storyline with the Mets being the team that drafted Beane in the first round in 1980 as the expected outfield bookend the number one overall pick that year, Darryl Strawberry, and his failure as a prospect with the Mets. It was Alderson who brought Beane into the A’s front office and mentored him. It works from the organization’s perspective and Beane’s perspective were Alderson to recede into a consultant’s role and Beane to take over as president of baseball operations.

Beane gives them that immediate credibility and someone young enough to believe he’ll be there for an extended period to any plan through to its conclusion. There’s the allure of the big city, one that is massive enough and will offer the attention and worship he so craves should he succeed. Unlike most GM candidates or Alderson’s likely heir apparent John Ricco, Beane’s reputation and style would sufficiently intimidate the media to let him work without their inane suggestions and blatant trolling. Beane has the star power to quiet the critics and give the fans something to cling to that goes beyond random trades, free agent signings, or tactical changes with the fundamental issues remaining the same.

To Beane’s benefit, he can take solace in similar factors which, simultaneously, could spur his desire to jump back into the ring fulltime as he would need to do to fix the Mets. As disgusted as much of baseball was with how he began to inhabit the character “Billy Beane” rather than being Billy Beane, the irony is that like some Dickensian tale, there are far more loathsome characters in baseball whose behavior dwarfs anything Beane did during his heyday. Theo Epstein, Jeff Luhnow, A.J. Preller and many others might have taken the Beane mantle and been far more despicable in their cold-bloodedness, the flouting of rules and propriety, and doing whatever is necessary to win even if it’s bordering on the vile in treatment of people like vessels for their own fulfillment.

There are natural sticking points to this happening. First, Beane must opt out of the Faustian bargain he made to become so famous in the first place; second, the Wilpons must decide what to do with Alderson and Ricco; and the Mets must give Beane the money and necessary freedom to make it worth his while.

There’s an opening, if only a minuscule crack, for the Mets to do something that will garner them attention not as a punchline and can fundamentally change how the organization is perceived. That something is to make a bold move on Billy Beane.

Sandy Alderson and the Mets’ new reality

MLB

This is not a premature crowning of Mets general manager Sandy Alderson as the strangely timed and even more strangely titled Baseball Maverick: How Sandy Alderson Revolutionized Baseball and Revived the Mets tries to do. Nor is it a random act of rage for Alderson’s seeming inability to make the aggressive move a large segment of the Mets’ impatient fan base – most notably Mets Twitter and their beat writers – has been demanding along the lines of Troy Tulowitzki.

This is about the current reality of the team in an objective assessment of what Alderson’s done and what he clearly plans to do. As notoriously inscrutable as Alderson is, it’s no secret what his underlying sentiments are beneath the corporate terminology, skillful verbiage and lawyerly subterfuge.

The book written about Alderson is, at best, premature. At worst, it’s a bizarre alteration of current truths that might eventually be true, but currently are not. The title of the book takes the tone of hope that Alderson’s supporters will read it and believe every word in spite of the fact that his Mets teams have finished under .500 in every one of the four years he’s been the GM of the team.

On the other side are those who don’t even have the basest understanding of what it was Alderson was facing when he took the team over. The farm system was in better shape under the previous regime led by Omar Minaya than popular perception suggests, but there were horrendous contracts on the books and many of the prospects were still years away. No one even knew who Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Juan Lagares and Lucas Duda were. Ike Davis was expected to be a centerpiece and there was a desperation that Jose Reyes would sign a long-term contract. He had to slash payroll, wait out those contracts, try to maximize the value he did have on the big league roster, and wait.

In short, with the Bernie Madoff financial disaster still in full swing and the Wilpons facing the bleak prospect of possibly losing the team, Alderson was the front man who had to take the hits for the sins of ownership. His even tone and outward calm turned out to be exactly what they needed as a spokesman. His ruthlessness and fearlessness was also what the club needed as he set about implementing a rebuild that was a long time in coming.

For so long, the Mets patched over their holes with veterans and largely ignored the farm system with an adherence to fan and media demands because Minaya and Jeff Wilpon heard the reverberating echoes for instant gratification even if it was doomed to be the baseball equivalent of the subprime mortgage crisis.

While Alderson’s accomplishment might have had more to do with the financial realities that the Wilpons were dealing with, he was still able to convince them to take the heat for failing to make a sound offer for Reyes; for trading National League Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey; for dealing away Carlos Beltran; for retaining manager Terry Collins when the fans and segments of the media made abundantly clear their desire for him to be replaced. It was a combination of warding off the interference of ownership to try and tamp down on the criticism, ignoring the media and fans, and rebuilding the team properly under financial constraints that are difficult to fathom for a big market team.

This spring, Alderson’s actions and his tone have changed from conciliatory and parrying to aggressive and challenging. Clearly it’s because he thinks he’s in a better position to be combative since the team has a legitimate chance at contention.

His acquisitions of two veteran lefty relievers Alex Torres and Jerry Blevins within hours of each other was another example of him staying silent and waiting for a deal to present itself rather than panicking to quiet the critics. This wasn’t the first time that Alderson acted without the media having the faintest idea as to what he was planning because his front office doesn’t leak information to drop pebbles into the water to see what the reaction is going to be. When he traded Beltran to the San Francisco Giants, the reports from supposed insiders as to what the return was going to be focused on then-Giants’ top prospect, center fielder Gary Brown. That was almost four years ago and, ironically, the Giants just lost Brown to the St. Louis Cardinals on a waiver claim after he contributed nothing to the big league club. Instead, he acquired Zack Wheeler who, in spite of needing Tommy John surgery, has far better career prospects than the plummeting Brown.

He traded Dickey for a catcher, Travis d’Arnaud who will at worst be a 15-18 homer bat, and what many believe is the best pitching prospect in baseball, Noah Syndergaard.

Simultaneous articles in the tabloids were written about the Mets lack of action to bolster their starting rotation after the loss of Harvey to, again, Tommy John surgery in 2013. That very day, he struck without warning and signed Bartolo Colon to a two-year contract leading the likes of Joel Sherman to do what he usually does after being embarrassed by his own lack of insight and information: try to explain away why he’s almost always completely wrong.

That’s not to say there are no negatives to be lobbed at Alderson. While the Kettmann book wasn’t written with Alderson as a manifesto for his ego and legacy, he did take part in it in a vast number of brutally honest interviews. Much of it seemed to be an attempt to place himself at the forefront of how baseball is run today as a father figure to be placed on the sabermetrics Mount Rushmore.

For all the talk that it was Alderson who ushered in the Moneyball revolution and that it was he who trained Billy Beane leaving the foundation for what became Beane’s faux aura of “genius,” Alderson’s teams with the A’s had basically surrendered to the fact that they didn’t have the money they did in the late 1980s and early 1990s when they were the best team in the American League. They had accepted their lot in life as a team for whom everything had to go right for them to show some semblance of competitiveness.

When he became the CEO of the San Diego Padres his teams were consistently solid, but the front office was in disarray with warring factions whose dueling battle lines were fostered by Alderson himself in a clear tactic to keep all loyalties to him. It also can’t be ignored that the success he experienced in Oakland and San Diego were accomplished with one manager, Tony LaRussa, who’s in the Hall of Fame, and another manager, Bruce Bochy, who’s going to make the Hall of Fame. His other managers have been questionable hires whose job status was based more on their willingness to listen to front office edicts regarding how to run the team on the field than their actual competence.

The narrative that it was Alderson who brought the stat-based theories into baseball is undermined by him having had limited success as the man in charge of those organizations. Perhaps that’s part of the reason he took the Mets job – he does have an ego and desire to receive credit for his work. It might also be part of the reason he signed the contract extension to stay on as Mets GM through the 2017 season. Maybe that’s why he decided to go through with participating in Kettmann’s book. Although Kettmann’s book jumps the gun on crediting him, he wants to be there to get the accolades from the wider audience instead of having his legacy debated and contextualized as to how much of it he’s responsible for and how much of it was due to circumstances.

The Dodgers and Keeping Mattingly

Basketball, Books, Games, History, Hockey, Management, Media, Players, Playoffs, World Series

The Dodgers have yet to make it official, but reports state that the club is planning to bring Don Mattingly back as manager in 2014. In what would normally be an automatic move for a manager whose team won the division and a playoff series, it was in doubt as to whether Mattingly was going to return due to strategies that even have some players complaining about them. If the team goes on to win the World Series, obviously they won’t make a change. If they make it to the World Series, it’s exceedingly difficult to fire the manager no matter how poor an on-field job he’s perceived to have done. But if they lose this NLCS (they’re currently trailing 3 games to 2), are they right to look at their payroll, roster and expectations and say another manager would be a better option?

In sports, it’s not unprecedented for a manager to be fired even after he had what could only be described as a “successful” season or run. Winning a championship doesn’t necessarily imply managerial excellence. Bob Brenly won a World Series with the Diamondbacks, won 98 games and a division title the next season and hasn’t gotten close to getting another managerial job since because he’s not viewed as a good manager. Cito Gaston won two World Series with the Blue Jays, was fired four years later and didn’t get another managing job until the Blue Jays rehired him.

Dodgers part owner Magic Johnson is no stranger to coaching controversies and getting the boss fired if he didn’t agree with his philosophy. In the 1979-1980 NBA season, Paul Westhead won an NBA championship for the Lakers with the rookie Johnson leading the way. They won 54 games in 1980-81 and lost in the first round of the playoffs. In 1981-82, the team was 7-4 when Johnson – unhappy with the strategies employed by Westhead – helped usher him out the door to be replaced by Pat Riley. The Lakers won another title that year. If the players are complaining, the one person in the Dodgers organization who’ll be receptive is Johnson.

As for GM Ned Colletti and CEO Stan Kasten, they’re experienced baseball men who are well aware of Mattingly’s pluses and minuses. If they equate his ability to keep the players playing hard for him and that the ship didn’t sink while the team was struggling early in the summer as more important than negligible strategic choices, then they should keep Mattingly. If they want someone with a better strategic resume, a more iron-fisted disciplinarian style to rein in Yasiel Puig and who will command respect in the clubhouse, perhaps they should consider bringing back the manager who should never have been fired from the Dodgers in the first place, Jim Tracy. Or they could hire Tony LaRussa, Lou Piniella, Dusty Baker or anyone who has more experience than Mattingly does and they’ll know what they’re getting with the star power the Dodgers want.

While hockey is run far differently than any other sport with coaches often fired almost immediately after the season starts as happened with the Flyers and Peter Laviolette last week, there might be a lesson the Dodgers can take from Devils boss Lou Lamoriello.

Lamoriello is entrenched in his job and built the Devils up from nothing to become one of the dominant teams in hockey for a vast portion of his tenure. While accumulating three Stanley Cups and two other finals appearances, he’s hired, fired and rehired coaches 19 times, twice taking the job himself. He has fired coaches right before the playoffs have started and fired coaches who won Stanley Cups for him. If he believes a change is needed, he makes that change. He doesn’t give a reason because he doesn’t feel as if he needs to give a reason and it’s not due to a bloated ego and public persona as has been seen in baseball with the managerial changes made by Athletics GM Billy Beane.

Beane’s managerial changes were based on him and the image that was cultivated through the creative non-fiction of Moneyball that: A) the manager doesn’t matter; and B) he’s an all-knowing, unassailable genius for whom every move is a testament to ingenuity.

He pushed Art Howe out the door in favor of Ken Macha. Macha got the Athletics further than any of Beane’s other managers with an ALCS appearance in 2006 and Beane fired him too. He hired his “best friend” Bob Geren and kept him on through years and years of win totals in the mid-70s, then only fired him because of the attention that his job status was receiving – not because he’d done a poor job. He hired a highly qualified manager who knows how to run his club on and off the field in Bob Melvin and, lo and behold, Beane’s genius returned with back-to-back division titles. Melvin has lost in the first round in those two division-winning seasons and hasn’t been fired. Yet.

There’s a difference. Lamoriello hires and fires for a team reason. Beane did it to shield himself. Lamoriello gets away with it because of the hardware. Beane gets away with it because of a book.

So what’s it to be with the Dodgers? Will Colletti’s loyalty, Kasten’s slow trigger or Magic’s understanding of player concerns win out? They could exercise Mattingly’s contract for 2014 with the intention of making a change if they team gets off to another slow start. Or they could just fire him and bring in a new manager.

Worrying about how it’s going to “look” is a mistake. If they don’t trust Mattingly as manager, then he shouldn’t be the manager. If they’re willing to accept his strategic fumblings because the players overcame adversity, then they should keep him. The best interests of the club are more important and need to take precedence. Make the commitment to Mattingly with all his baggage or make him disappear. It’s one or the other.




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ALDS Preview and Predictions – Oakland Athletics vs. Detroit Tigers

Games, History, Management, Players, Playoffs

Oakland Athletics (96-66) vs. Detroit Tigers (93-69)

Keys for the Athletics: Do their “thing”; keep the Tigers in the ballpark; get into the Tigers’ bullpen.

When I say “do their thing,” I mean the A’s game is based on hitting home runs and their pitchers throwing strikes. As long as they’re hitting home runs and their pitchers are throwing strikes, they win. If they don’t hit home runs, they don’t do much of anything else worthwhile.

Brandon Moss, Coco Crisp, Josh Donaldson and Yoenis Cespedes all had big power years. Other players in their lineup – Jed Lowrie and Josh Reddick – hit the ball out of the park as well. But if they don’t hit homers, they won’t score.

The Tigers are a power-laden team that hits a lot of home runs in their own right. With Miguel Cabrera dealing with a spate of injuries, the A’s can’t fall asleep on him because he can still manipulate the pitcher like an aging George Foreman used to with his, “I’m an old man, I’m not gonna hurt you, I’m not gonna hurt you, I’m not gon…” BANG!!! Then they’re watching the lights in the sky from their backs. It’s a similar situation as watching a Cabrera homer.

The Tigers’ bullpen is shaky and if the A’s force their way into it, Jose Veras and Joaquin Benoit aren’t accustomed to the roles they’ll face as post-season set-up man and closer.

A’s’ boss Billy Beane makes an impassioned self-defense of his methods not working in the playoffs because the playoffs are a “crapshoot.” It’s the exact type of excuse to which Beane would reply arrogantly and obnoxiously if someone else were to give it. If he’s supposed to be finding methods to bend baseball to his will, isn’t it time he finds a way to win in the playoffs?

Keys for the Tigers: Get something from their warhorses; get depth from their starters; hit the ball out of the park; keep the A’s in the park.

Cabrera is injured and Justin Verlander has been shaky. The playoffs tend to send a jolt into veteran players who’ve grown accustomed – and perhaps slightly bored – by the regular season. Adrenaline could help Verlander regain his lost velocity. Max Scherzer has been great this season, but the Tigers’ chances may come down to Verlander.

Leyland doesn’t like having an untrustworthy bullpen and while Benoit has adapted well to being a closer, there’s no way of knowing whether he’ll be able to do the job in the playoffs until he gets an opportunity and does it. It’s best to have the starters go deep into the games and score plenty of runs to not have to worry about it.

The Tigers’ pitchers keep the ball in the park. That has to continue.

What will happen:

Every year, the A’s are the “feel good” story and every year they get bounced in the playoffs. There’s a desperation to have Beane win that ring to somehow shut out any remaining simplistic Chris Russo-style, logically ludicrous argument of, “I don’t wanna hear what a genius he is. Win a championship.” If he wins, where can they go?

The problem is that Beane has never figured out how to use his “card counting” skills in the draft (also a fallacy) to handle the dice in the “crapshoot” that is the playoffs. One would think he’d have done it by now. Maybe he should show up for the playoffs in a mask and declare himself “Billy Bane” while telling the A’s to take control of his genius.

The Tigers are deeper and their defense has been shored up by the acquisition of Jose Iglesias. The shift of Jhonny Peralta to the outfield gives them an even deeper lineup.

Not hitting home runs is the death knell for the A’s and the Tigers aren’t going to give up the homers the A’s are used to hitting. On the mound, the Tigers and A’s are evenly matched top-to-bottom, but the Tigers all-around offense gives them the advantage.

The A’s are trying to validate their backstory, but all they continually do is validate the criticism of it.

PREDICTION: TIGERS IN FOUR




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Mike Morse, the Mariners and Jack Z

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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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Why Is Ned Colletti’s Work With The Dodgers Forgotten?

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It’s to be expected that because Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti doesn’t fit today’s profile of what a GM is “supposed” to be, he won’t get any credit for the Dodgers’ blazing hot streak that has them suddenly declared World Series favorites. This is the same team that was on the verge of firing manager Don Mattingly in June and were hurtling toward a financial and on-field disaster. The easiest thing to do is to point to the club’s $220+ million payroll as a reason why they’re now in first place. Although the club’s turnaround has been due in part to their high-priced players Hanley Ramirez, Zack Greinke, Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, they’ve really been helped along by homegrown or found talent Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen, Hyun-jin Ryu and Yasiel Puig.

Puig is the big one because it was his recall that was seen as the catalyst and it was the decried decisions to pay big money for Ryu and Puig that are now paying significant dividends. Yet Colletti is an afterthought. If it was Billy Beane making these decisions, he would’ve been touted as a forward-thinking “genius” even while the team was struggling. Where are Colletti’s accolades?

The Puig signing was considered “puzzling.” The Ryu signing “foolish.” The Dodgers were torched for absorbing all those salaries from the Red Sox; for trading for Ramirez and moving him back to shortstop; for keeping Mattingly. Yet no one looks at the facts surrounding Colletti’s regime and that he’s dealt with circumstances that were nearly impossible to manage without the flexibility that comes from having spent a life in baseball in a variety of jobs and working his way up from public relations to the GM’s chair.

Having dealt with Frank McCourt’s circus and making the playoffs three times was enough to think that maybe he has an idea of how to run an organization. Now, amid all the talk of money, the fact is that the Dodgers turnaround was based on not blaming the manager for things he couldn’t control and a group of  players that Colletti’s staff selected.

With all the trades the Dodgers have made for veterans over the Colletti years, how many young players have they given up that are eliciting regret? Carlos Santana? He’s a good hitter, weak defensive catcher and not someone who’s missed. Rubby De La Rosa? He has a great arm and is wild. It’s going to take time to harness his control and then time to work on his command. Allen Webster? He’s a back-of-the-rotation starter, maybe. Where are these players the Dodgers should still have? The ones Colletti’s overaggressiveness cost them?

The convenient storyline is that Colletti doesn’t use the numbers as a be-all, end-all and therefore is a dinosaur that has to be euthanized through critical analysis from armchair experts. It’s when the team starts playing well that qualifications and silence are the responses. Coincidentally, Colletti was hired by the Dodgers after serving as an assistant to Giants GM Brian Sabean. Sabean saw his stellar work as the Giants’ GM diminished by the discovery of the “brains” behind the operation, Yeshayah Goldfarb. Also conveniently, few even knew who Goldfarb was before it became abundantly clear that the Giants two championships contradicted the narrative of stats, stats and more stats, so a “reason” was found for an old-schooler like Sabean to succeed. Except it doesn’t fit. It’s a plot device that fails. I’m expecting a similar type of clumsy, collateral attack against Colletti because the frontal attack is no longer working. Unfortunately, some people will buy it as the “truth.”

The Dodgers are lighting up the world and the person who should be given credit for it is the GM, but that’s not going to happen as long as there are these shrieking voices sitting in darkened rooms declaring how things “should” be and running away rather than admit they’re wrong and blow their cover.

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Manny Ramirez’s Last(?) Fight

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Manny Ramirez will either wind up like Muhammad Ali or George Foreman. With Ali, his final comeback attempt (not counting a last-last, this is definitely the last fight in 1981 in which he lost to journeyman Trevor Berbick) came when he took a ferocious beating from a reluctant, in-his-prime heavyweight champ Larry Holmes. Ali went to great lengths to show what great shape he was in prior to the fight by getting back to the weight he fought at when he defeated Foreman in Zaire. But the fact that he was in shape didn’t matter. Holmes battered him in a perfunctory manner and, by the end, was screaming at the referee to stop the fight before he seriously injured Ali. Ali certainly didn’t need the money nor the increased number of blows to his already damaged brain, but he couldn’t stop himself from seeking the limelight and that one last shot at glory doing the one thing he truly knew how to do better than anyone else.

With Foreman, he was ridiculed when he came out of retirement and is still looked at with a jaundiced gaze by saying God told him to do it. He was overweight and old, but the laughter ended when he showed he still had the punching power and savvy to win fights. He put up a great show when losing to Evander Holyfield and eventually knocked out Michael Moorer to regain the title he’d lost twenty years earlier to Ali in 1974.

With Ramirez, he is returning after a stint hitting against, in boxing parlance, tomato cans in Taiwan. In Taiwan, they’re professionals and they’re talented, but they’re not on a level with a good Double A team in North America. While there, he was hitting subpar pitching in accumulating a .352 average, .422 OBP, and eight homers in 49 games. Abruptly leaving his Taiwanese team—the EDA Rhinos—Ramirez was rumored to be heading to Japan before deciding he’d like another shot with an MLB team. No one seemed interested until the Rangers decided to take a chance on him. The question is, can he help them?

Ramirez hasn’t played with a major league team since he went 1 for 17 for the Rays in 2011 before walking away and subsequently being caught failing another PED test. Amid much fanfare in an otherwise dreary off-season for the Athletics in the winter of 2011-2012, he was signed to a minor league contract. At that point, the A’s were embarking on another rebuilding project and for half the season, played as poorly as predicted before a sudden hot streak vaulted them into the playoffs. No one knew they could achieve those heights when they signed Ramirez and they needed him to sell a few seats with the mere hint of him being in the big leagues as a sideshow. In a best case scenario, he’d attract a few fans and hit well enough for the A’s to trade him to a contender (because not even Billy Beane thought they’d contend in 2012); worst case, they’d release him. He batted .302 in 63 at bats for Triple A Sacramento with no homers. The A’s released him last June and he went to Taiwan.

Now he’s back.

Can the Rangers expect anything from him? Like the decision on the part of the A’s to sign him, this is a test case for team benefit. The Rangers are contenders and need a righty bat. The trade deadline is July 31st and the Rangers are aggressive and active in improving their team. With a month to go before the time comes when they’ll have to make an acquisition along the lines of Mike Morse to boost their righty power, it’s cheaper and zero risk to look at Ramirez and get an answer as to whether he can still hit. Like Ali’s last fight, it could be a “would you stop it already?” moment. Or it could be an out-of-shape former star who shows he can still perform as Foreman did. The odds are it’s the former and even if the evidence is clear that Ramirez needs to hang it up, he probably won’t. Either way, there’s no risk for the Rangers to have a look.

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The Solution For Brian Cashman’s Tantrums

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Multiple reasons have been floated for Yankees general manager Brian Cashman’s explosive overreaction to the Alex Rodriguez tweet that he’d been given the go-ahead to play in rehab games by the doctor who performed his hip surgery. Are Cashman and the organization sick of A-Rod and everything surrounding A-Rod? Do they not want him back? Is Cashman tired of answering questions about the latest A-Rod misadventure? Is it all of the above?

Cashman’s response was silly and he apologized for it, but that doesn’t cloud the number of times that the once taciturn Cashman has incrementally come out of the shell of nebbishness in which he once cloaked himself and done so in a clumsy and overtly embarrassing manner to himself and the Yankees. It’s not just the A-Rod incidents, but it’s the way he publicly dared Derek Jeter to leave in a game of chicken that he knew the Yankees would win; it’s the way his personal life became tabloid fodder; and it’s the hardheaded arrogance with which he insisted that his young pitchers be developed to results that have been mediocre (Phil Hughes) to disappointing (Joba Chamberlain) to disastrous (Manny Banuelos, Dellin Betances).

Cashman’s attitude in press conferences and interviews even comes through when reading his words instead of hearing them: he doesn’t want to be there; he doesn’t want to be doing the interviews; and every time he speaks to the press, he sounds as if he’s either heading for, enduring or just left an exploratory anal examination. (Again, maybe it’s all of the above.)

But the GM of a baseball team has to speak to the press, doesn’t he? So what’s the solution?

Here’s the solution: Promote him.

I’m not talking about giving him points in the team as the A’s ludicrously did with Billy Beane. I’m not talking about him being moved up as a way to get him out of the baseball operations. I’m talking about benefiting him and the club by giving him a break and a change from the job he’s done for so long.

There are two types of promotions. One is when the individual is given an entirely new job and new sets of responsibilities; the other is when the individual has certain responsibilities that he or she doesn’t want to do anymore and no longer has to worry about them, but the other duties performed will essentially be the same. With Cashman, he wouldn’t be titled team president, but he could be named similarly to the titles that Theo Epstein has with the Cubs, Ken Williams has with the White Sox and Jon Daniels has with the Rangers. The change to president of baseball operations would not be made so he’d accumulate more power, but so he wouldn’t have to talk to the media every single day as the upfront voice of the organization. No longer would he run the risk of his frustration boiling over and manifesting itself with inappropriateness as it is on a continual basis now.

No matter what you think of him, Cashman has accomplished far more in his post than either Williams or Daniels have. In fact, he’s accomplished more in the bottom line than Epstein and Beane in spite of their fictional media portrayals as unassailable geniuses. But he’s still basically doing the same job he did when he was hired as GM in 1998. Yes, George Steinbrenner is gone and replaced with the rational Hal Steinbrenner; yes, he’s got more sway than he did then; and yes, he brought the entire baseball operation under his control without the Tampa shadow government, but he’s still the VP and general manager. He still has to do these press conferences and batting practice “chats” where he’s likely to have a fuse worn down to a nub and explode whenever the name A-Rod is mentioned, when he’s asked about what he’s planning to do to make the club better, when he’s asked about the Robinson Cano contract or anything else.

Of course there are other problems associated with the idea. First, current team president Randy Levine might see a Cashman promotion as an usurping of his position and react in a Randy Levine way by saying, “He can’t be the president, I’m the president.” Then slowly rising to a gradual climax with a raised voice, “I’m the president!!!!!” And finally, pounding on his desk with his face turning the color or a ripe eggplant as he strangles himself with his own tie, bellowing at the top of his lungs, “I……AM…..THE….PRES….I….DEEEEEEENNNNNNNTTTTTTTT!!!!!!!!!”

Jason Zillo would be dutifully standing nearby in sycophantic agreement presented in such a way that he almost appears to believe it, “Yep, he sure is. Randy’s the president.” Adding, “And I’m the gatekeeper,” with a certain smug pride and said in the tone of the child saying, “And I helped,” when his mother made the Stove Top Stuffing.

Would it really affect anyone if Cashman is kicked upstairs so he doesn’t have to endure the drudgery that he’s clearly tired of? If Damon Oppenheimer or Billy Eppler can handle the day-to-day minutiae that comes with being a GM—minutiae that is clearly taking its toll on Cashman—why not make the change? It wouldn’t alter the structure of the baseball operations in any significant way other than giving Cashman a bump that he’s earned after time served and a break from having to look at Joel Sherman and answer his ridiculous questions day after day.

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Cashman vs. A-Rod: The War To End All Wars

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The funniest part about Brian Cashman’s statement to the media that injured third baseman Alex Rodriguez needs to “Shut the <bleep> up” is that at the conclusion, it sounded as if he stormed off saying, “I’m gonna call Alex right now,” in a frenzied desire to directly tell his player the same thing he muscularly told the media, then couldn’t get A-Rod on the phone and told him….by email!!!

How’d that go?

Dear Alex,
Shut the <bleep> up.
Love, Brian

Did he then return to the media and declare that he couldn’t get A-Rod on the phone, say that he sent him an email instead and add, “Yeah, well. Maybe I didn’t speak to him directly, but he got the message!!!” jabbing his finger for emphasis?

Since being a GM has become such a prominent role and transformed from a bunch of nameless, faceless men who got the job because they were former players or sycophants to the owners into the corporate, power-suit wearing, catchphrase uttering, recognizable and approachable entities they are now, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a GM tell a player—especially one of A-Rod’s stature—to “shut the <bleep> up.” Not even the most outspoken loose cannons since the GM job has changed like J.P. Ricciardi went that far, and Ricciardi was about as hair trigger as it gets. When Dallas Braden got into his public back-and-forth with, not-so-shockingly, A-Rod, it went on for awhile before A’s boss Billy Beane said he’d speak to the player. He did and it stopped. There was no public, bullying pronouncement from Beane that he called the player onto the carpet and reamed him out.

From the old-school GMs who have been in the game forever to the new age stat thinkers, can you name one—one!!!—who would say such a thing about a player to a media as hungry for a headline as that in New York?

Dave Dombrowski? Brian Sabean? Dan Duquette? Beane? Sandy Alderson?

I’m not even sure Jeff Luhnow uses foul language period, let alone saying something like that about a player before speaking to him and storming off in a huff with a “I’m gonna go call him now!!” and trudging away with the corners of his mouth twisted downward and a fiery look in his eyes like a child sent to time out. (That’s how I envision Cashman anyway.)

Plus, was A-Rod’s tweet this big of a deal? Or is it a big deal because it’s A-Rod?

Cashman’s goal since leveraging full control of the Yankees’ baseball operations has been to be seen on a level with Beane and Theo Epstein as “geniuses” whose vision led their particular organizations to success rather than a checkbook GM who covers up for mistakes by using endless amounts of Yankees cash (it’s like real money, only more cold, corporate and drenched in a self-anointed superiority). Yet the professionalism and CEO-style is lacking. He’s a caricature and a bad one at that. It’s satirical more than evolved.

Cashman’s behavior in the Louise Meanwell scandal was embarrassing to an organization for whom being embarrassed is the last thing they want and he’s still acting like a brat in a mid-life crisis, desperate for credit and the off-field perks that come with a powerful position, but unable to behave in an appropriate fashion when they arrive.

Maybe that’s why A-Rod is such a continuing source of irritation: he embarrasses them. But the solution to A-Rod’s continuous penchant for making headlines isn’t for the GM to make it worse by trumping A-Rod’s headlines with his own. And in this case, what exactly did A-Rod do that was so terrible? The doctor said he was ready to start a rehab assignment and the Yankees haven’t signed off on it. So? All Cashman had to say was, “The doctor who made that call is an outside doctor and the organization’s medical staff will decide when A-Rod’s rehab will begin. It could be next week or it could be next month.” Instead he decided to vent his anger at the easiest target he has in A-Rod and make a new mess simultaneously making the usual villain, A-Rod, look sympathetic.

We can speculate what would have been said if Derek Jeter has made a similar statement and then go into the litany of differences in tone and public perceptions between Jeter and A-Rod, but when digging underneath all of refuse that has piled on during A-Rod’s tenure in pinstripes, it’s not all that different and Cashman most certainly wouldn’t have told Jeter to “shut the <bleep> up.” If anyone needs to follow that advice, it’s the GM whose own tenure is growing more pockmarked by his attitude, statements and behaviors by the day. And he hasn’t done a particularly great job running the team sans the aforementioned “Yankee money” either.

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