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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Donnie Baseball Is Not The Problem With The Dodgers

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Not being the problem doesn’t necessarily mean that Dodgers manager Don Mattingly won’t take the fall for the club’s 19-26 start with a $217 million payroll and flurry of expensive moves they’ve made since the group fronted by Magic Johnson took control of the club from Frank McCourt. The media is not-too-subtly pushing the Dodgers to fire Mattingly so there will be a juicy story to write about for a few days. I can guarantee you there are writers and bloggers who have already written their epitaph on Mattingly’s managerial tenure with platitudes as to why Mattingly failed: “Great players don’t make great managers.” “He didn’t have any managerial experience.” “The players weren’t afraid of him.” “The team isn’t that good.”

There’s an argument to be made for all of these assertions I suppose, but it comes down to the players. For the same reason rotisserie fanatics and computerized predictions don’t work out in practice, putting a team together by just buying a load of stuff simply because of name recognition, price and the ability to do so doesn’t work either. Like the nouveau riche who have no taste, concept for cohesiveness, nor sense of what will fit together, since the Johnson group took command, the Dodgers have bought or traded for Zack Greinke, Josh Beckett, Hanley Ramirez, Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, Brandon League and Hyun-jin Ryu. They purchased Mark McGwire’s services as hitting coach and made clear that they’re all in for the now and are also stocking up for the future by tossing loads of money around on international signings.

Mattingly was presented with a group of players that he was entrusted to jam together whether the puzzle pieces were from the same box and fit or not. The front office said, “Here. Win with this,” and expected him to do it immediately. And he hasn’t. Therefore he’s the one on the firing line.

Mattingly’s statement yesterday was taken by many as a “Go ahead and fire me,” announcement to the front office. I don’t think it was that. I think it was Mattingly trying something different from enabling and being Mr. Gentility. Blaming Andre Ethier and treating him as if he’s the root of all the Dodgers’ ills was grabbed and run with because he was the one who was benched yesterday and there has been the implication that he’s going to be platooned and the Dodgers would love to be rid of him and his contract. It’s ignored that during the Dodgers slow start Matt Kemp has been far worse than Ethier; that Gonzalez has admitted his power swing has been altered because of shoulder issues; that the entire pitching staff apart from Clayton Kershaw and Ryu has been hurt at one time or another; and that the only name player doing what it was they brought him in to do is Crawford.

If the Dodgers had a name manager in the wings to replace Mattingly—if Tony LaRussa or Lou Piniella wanted to manage—then they’d have fired him already. Who are they replacing him with? Bench coach Trey Hillman? He couldn’t handle the media in Kansas City, what’s he going to do with the worldwide scrutiny of managing the Dodgers? Larry Bowa? They’d tune him out immediately the first time he flipped the food table and rolled his eyes at Beckett for giving him 4 1/3 innings of 8 hit/5 run ball.

Who then?

Nobody. That’s who. They’re only six games out of first place with all of this dysfunction, so a few wins in a row will make the world look much rosier than it currently does.

If the Dodgers turn their season around and Mattingly’s managing the team when they do it, the outburst yesterday will be seen as the turning point. If they don’t and he’s fired, it will be seen as his parting shot at a group of underachievers to whom he gave a long piece of rope and they choked him with it. If they bring in a new manager and win, Mattingly will get the blame for not “reaching” the players; if they don’t, he’ll be exonerated and the players will be seen as a group of fat cats who have their money and no longer care.

In reality, it’s the players who haven’t performed and the front office who brought them in. Blaming Mattingly is easy and he does deserve a portion of it, but don’t think getting someone else will fix the Dodgers current mess because it won’t.

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The Dodgers Were Flawed To Begin With

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Injuries have been a significant factor for the Dodgers. Their starting rotation “depth” with which they entered spring training holding eight starters has seen one after another eliminated. Aaron Harang was traded to the Rockies who subsequently sent him to the Mariners where he’s pitched poorly. Chris Capuano is on the disabled list with a strained calf. Chad Billingsley is out for the year with Tommy John surgery. Ted Lilly is out with a ribcage strain. Zack Greinke has a broken collarbone. All of a sudden they’re down to three bona fide starting pitchers: Clayton Kershaw, Josh Beckett and Hyun-jin Ryu.

As for the lineup, Hanley Ramirez was on the disabled list with a thumb injury, came back sooner than expected and strained a hamstring. Mark Ellis has a strained quadriceps, Adrian Gonzalez has a strained neck. On the bright side, Carl Crawford is enjoying a renaissance now that he’s healthy and out of Boston, not necessarily in that order.

Don Mattingly’s job status as manager is being called into question because he’s in the final guaranteed year of his contract.

There are plenty of excuses but none approach an explanation for the crux of the problem: they were overrated by those with stars in their eyes. The injuries have affected them to be sure, but at the start of the season they didn’t have a legitimate starting third baseman and have been playing Luis Cruz who has a pitcher-like 6 hits in 71 plate appearances; they overspent to keep Brandon League as their closer and he hasn’t been good because—here’s a flash—he isn’t good. They did a lot of “stuff” over the past year since the new ownership took over almost as a set of diametrically opposed maneuverings to what Frank McCourt did in his decried time as the owner. The key difference is that the new ownership received accolades for “restoring” the Dodgers’ star power and McCourt was reviled for his apparent graft and selfishness, but McCourt’s teams were competitive and made the playoffs four times in his nine years of ownership. A break here and a break there and they win a World Series or two.

This Dodgers team was thought to be better than it was because of star/spending power. Magic Johnson, Stan Kasten, moneymoneymoney. The 13-20 record is a result of injuries. They’re not this bad. But if they were completely healthy, they’re still not a championship team which, given the amount of cash they’ve laid out, is what should’ve been and apparently was expected judging by the reaction their slow start is receiving. The season is still salvageable. It’s only May, but their ceiling wasn’t that high to start and now with the stars they acquired to fill the seats instead filling the disabled list, there’s not much they can do other than wait and hope for health and the backs of the bubblegum cards to hold true. They have no other choice.

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Alex Anthopoulos’s Kitchen Sink

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Unwed to a particular strategy as his predecessor was, when Alex Anthopoulos took over as Blue Jays’ GM replacing J.P. Ricciardi, he exhibited a freshness that invigorated the franchise. Ricciardi did a better job than he’s given credit for, but a series of poor drafts and feuds with players from his team and others as well as the consistently mediocre, “almost there” results, led to his ouster. Anthopoulos took the controls, executed a series of well-regarded trades getting quality prospects Kyle Drabek and Travis D’Arnaud for Roy Halladay; as well as acquiring Brandon Morrow for Brandon League and was rightfully judged as a solid choice and up and coming executive who could be trusted.

The Blue Jays looked to be a team on the rise with plenty of young talent and a forward thinking GM who knew the numbers, but also trusted his old-school baseball people with flexibility of trying speed in lieu of power and on base percentage. But the on-field results are still mediocre-to-bad and now there’s a rising scrutiny on Anthopoulos. His great moves such as getting Morrow and finding a taker for Vernon Wells‘s atrocious contract have been mitigated by his poor moves such as trading Mike Napoli for Frank Francisco. Colby Rasmus and Yunel Escobar were two players who had worn out their welcomes in their prior stops, but were talented enough to make it worthwhile to get them. Escobar is still a player the front office wants to strangle because of his brain dead behavior and Rasmus has been the same disappointment with the Blue Jays he was with the Cardinals; in fact, he’s been worse.

Now the strange decision to sign career utility player Maicer Izturis to a 3-year, $10 million contract while trading a better player Mike Aviles to the Indians for a scatterarmed reliever (the Blue Jays have plenty of those) Esmil Rogers calls into greater question what the plan is. In 2012, the entire pitching staff was decimated by injuries and the strategy Anthopoulos has used to construct his bullpen with journeymen such as Kevin Gregg, Francisco, Jon Rauch, Octavio Dotel, and Sergio Santos has been a failure. His hand-picked manager, John Farrell, was roundly criticized for game-handling skills that were bordering on the inept and a profound lack of fundamentals that cost the club numerous games.

This kitchen sink strategy is reminiscent of a sous chef getting the head chef job, having many plans and innovative ideas, then overdoing it making things worse than they were before. Anthopoulos is trying a lot of different tactics, but it doesn’t hide the bottom line that his choice as manager was traded away only because the Red Sox desperately wanted him and was in serious jeopardy of being fired if they hadn’t; that the Blue Jays have consistently been labeled a team to watch, but sat by haplessly as the team that finally overtook the Red Sox and Rays in the AL East was a different kind of bird, the Orioles, with a roster that was widely expected to lose 95 games in 2012.

The Blue Jays have yet to hire a manager to replace Farrell. The trade was completed on October 21st. How long does it take to find a new manager? The pedestrian names who struggled elsewhere such as Don Wakamatsu and Manny Acta have been bandied about. How many managers does Anthopoulos get to hire and fire? How many tries at getting the recipe right will he get before the scrutiny falls squarely on him?

Getting Brett Lawrie and Morrow; dumping Wells’s onerous contract; and the perception of knowing what he’s doing have carried him this far. Much of what’s gone wrong with the Blue Jays hasn’t been the fault of Anthopoulos, but there comes a time when there has to be a legitimate improvement on the field before the question, “What’s the problem here?” is asked. That time is coming and if the Blue Jays don’t get better quick, it will be asked of Anthopoulos and right now, given the ponderous managerial search, it doesn’t appear as though he has an answer that will placate the angry masses.

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What To Watch For Over The Final Month—National League

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I discussed the American League and what to watch for over the final month on Thursday along with a warning for those seeing the Wild Card as an oasis in the desert. It’s not.

Now let’s take a look at the National League.

The Nationals shutdown of Stephen Strasburg

I’m planning a more in-depth discussion of this in an upcoming post, but Strasburg’s imminent shutdown has become the dominant story for a team that should be talking about the positive aspects of their rise to a legitimate championship contender instead of this Strasburg silliness.

I’m beginning to believe that they’re not going to shut him down and as an organization, they’re coming up with alternatives to: A) keep his innings limit within reason and use him in the playoffs; and B) create a story to sell to the media as to why they fudged on their prescribed innings limit.

A really isn’t all that difficult. Their lead in the division is secure enough that they can give him extra rest in September. B shouldn’t even be a factor, but since GM Mike Rizzo has been so stupidly forthright regarding his plans, it is a factor.

Don’t be shocked when Strasburg is standing on the mound and starting in game 2 of the NLDS.

Chipper Jones’s farewell tribute from the Mets

I gotta see this thing.

Jimmy Rollins’s behavior

He’s being selfish and setting a terrible example for the rest of the team with his lack of hustle, embarrassing for the supposed “heart and soul” and clubhouse leader. Manager Charlie Manuel’s benching of Rollins and Rollins’s subsequent apology isn’t worth much since he’s definitely going to do it again over the final month, probably multiple times.

Rollins is guaranteed $22 million for 2013-2014 and he has a vesting option for 2015 that he won’t reach based on the contract kickers of plate appearances (the Phillies won’t let him), but if the contract doesn’t vest, the club has an $8 million option that they won’t exercise and Rollins has a $5 million option that, at age 36 and with his performance declining and his reputation soiled, he very well might exercise to get one last paycheck. So the contract actually calls for him to make $27 million through 2015.

The “everything is hunky dory” tone of the Rollins apology story glosses over the facts that he’s declining as a player, is signed for several more years, and the Phillies on the whole are old, expensive and not good.

The Marlins attendance

They’re currently 12th in attendance which is a step up from finishing last every season, but in context with a beautiful, brand new park and a team that had spent money to try and win, one would think they’d have been better than 12th—a position they’ve held steady from the beginning of the season until now.

They’re in last place and traded away most of their stars. They’re not likable, nor are they fun to watch. Football season is starting next week. No one’s going to pay attention to the Marlins and no one’s going to go to the games.

I’m not sure where they, as an organization, go from here. The fans just don’t care.

Dusty Baker’s contract

It’s not right that Baker has the Reds steamrolling towards the playoffs, has done a fine job in handling the club from top-to-bottom, and is functioning without a new contract. One would assume that he’s safe, but he also led the Giants to the World Series in 2002 and was out of a job that winter in a contract-based dispute that turned ugly. I would say he’ll definitely be back, but in 2002 I would’ve said the same thing.

The Dodgers playoff push

With all the headline-blaring moves they made, their playoff spot is far from guaranteed. Now they may have lost closer Kenley Jansen for the season with a heart ailment. He’ll find out on Tuesday if he can pitch again this season. If they lose Jansen, they have two options: 1) use someone they already have on the roster like Brandon League; 2) trade for someone for the month of September to make the playoffs and use Jansen when he’s able to pitch again.

Considering the moves they’ve made this season, I’d say they’re going to lay the foundation to trade for someone who can do the job if League falters and Jansen’s out. GM Ned Colletti is probably making calls now to that end.

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New Dodgers Ownership Is Giving Similar Free Rein As The Old One

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The only difference between the new Dodgers’ ownership, fronted by Magic Johnson and backed by a lot of rich people, is that they’re more well-liked and aren’t plundering the organization to keep up a lavish lifestyle as the McCourts did. In the personnel department, the GMs have been allowed to do what they wanted in terms of player moves and that extends past current GM Ned Colletti and to former GM Paul DePodesta—Frank McCourt’s first hire.

The Dodgers have made a series of bold deals this season in turning over the roster and adding major money and veteran players Hanley Ramirez, Joe Blanton, Shane Victorino, Brandon League and Randy Choate. They were also willing to take on Cliff Lee’s $87 million contract; signed Matt Kemp (while McCourt was selling the team) and Andre Ethier to contract extensions; and invested $42 million in Cuban defector Yasiel Puig.

But is there a difference between what Colletti/DePodesta did then as to what’s happening now?

In 2004, in his first full season as the Dodgers’ GM and functioning with former GM Dan Evans’s players and manager Jim Tracy, DePodesta had a free hand to do what he wanted and took a sledgehammer to a team that was 60-42 and in first place in the NL West by making a series of disastrous trades, decimating what had been one of the game’s best bullpens by trading righty reliever Guillermo Mota along with catcher Paul LoDuca and outfielder Juan Encarnacion to the Marlins for first baseman Hee-Seop Choi, righty starter Brad Penny and lefty reliever Bill Murphy. The entire intent of these deals was to flip Penny to the Diamondbacks for Randy Johnson—adding more money—but Johnson refused to sign off on the trade. Penny made one start for the Dodgers and got hurt. DePodesta also traded for catcher Brent Mayne and outfielder Steve Finley. The Dodgers staggered to the finish line, made the playoffs and were dispatched in the first round by the Cardinals.

DePodesta was fired after the 2005 season when the club, after a 12-2 start, fell to 71-91 amid infighting among other players he brought in with a tone deafness as to clubhouse chemistry. Milton Bradley and Jeff Kent along with the always charming Penny turned the clubhouse toxic and it showed on the field. After the season, McCourt replaced DePodesta with Colletti.

Colletti has never let the media perception and public demands that he bag a season by selling dissuade him from being aggressive and trying to win when his team is within striking distance of a playoff spot. With the Dodgers in last place and under .500 (though close enough to first place to provide ample justification), he went for it at the deadline in 2006 by acquiring Greg Maddux, Julio Lugo and Wilson Betemit. Benefited by the weak NL, the Dodgers went on a hot streak and won the Wild Card before losing to the Mets in the NLDS.

After a disappointing 2007, the Dodgers spent big to hire legendary former Yankees’ manager Joe Torre. In 2008, they traded for Manny Ramirez and all his baggage and Manny went on a tear, leading the Dodgers to the NLCS. They signed him for two more years after that. At the deadline in 2008, they also acquired Casey Blake from the Indians for top prospect Carlos Santana and reacquired Maddux.

In 2009, as they were on the way to winning 95 games and the NL West, they acquired Jim Thome, George Sherrill, Ronnie Belliard and Jon Garland. In 2010, struggling but again in striking distance of the top of the division, they traded for Ted Lilly, Ryan Theriot, Octavio Dotel and Scott Podsednik. It didn’t work and Torre’s managerial career ended with an 80-82 season and the first missed playoff season since before he managed the Yankees.

McCourt owned the team that entire time.

Now, with the new ownership and team president Stan Kasten, the Dodgers are being lauded for “going for it” with money as no object. But it’s the same as it’s been for the past eight years. To say that Colletti is a veteran-centric GM who doesn’t care about prospects is ignoring that he refused to surrender top pitching prospect Zach Lee and that the Dodgers have spent big on draft picks and international free agents; that he drafted Clayton Kershaw and developed him into a superstar; that the club has been willing go after veterans from other clubs and act quickly to rectify mistakes by benching struggling, highly-paid vets like Juan Uribe.

It’s easy to credit Dodgers’ new ownership, but the truth is that it’s the GM—decidedly not a stat guy—who is the one who should be recognized for the way he’s running the team and his ability to ignore outsiders telling him what he should do and instead following his own path. It’s no surprise. The evidence is right there in black and white. This is how Colletti runs his team and that’s the way it was then and the way it is now.

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Mid-Season Player Trade Predictions—American League

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If you read the mainstream sites and clearing houses of “rumors”, you’ll see that at any given time approaching the July 31st deadline there are around 30 different trades with 50+ players that are supposedly being discussed. The problem is the majority of the purveyors of this sludge claim to have “inside information”. But it’s always the same players going to 10 different places, staying put, signing contracts or whatever other fiction they can come up with and it’s done to accumulate webhits and play you for a fool. Most of it is garbage. It’s probably wise to just ignore the “rumors” that pop up since most of them are formulated based on search engine analysis and have little-to-no basis in fact.

Let’s have a logical look at players that are or might be available along with predictions of where they’ll end up or if they won’t be traded at all. The teams listed are sellers, possible sellers or those who are willing or have the need to do something drastic. The National League will be posted at another time.

Tampa Bay Rays

James Shields, RHP—He won’t be traded mid-season unless a team gets desperate and offers 2-3 legit prospects to get him. He’s signed through 2014 and the Rays are still in contention. I do believe he’ll eventually be traded, but it won’t be until the winter.

Wade Davis, RHP—They won’t trade him.

Boston Red Sox

Kelly Shoppach, C—He’ll get traded in an “if this, then that” deal meaning if the Red Sox have to trade someone from the current roster to improve the starting rotation, they’ll trade Shoppach simultaneously to fill the created hole.

He’ll end up with the Mets.

Carl Crawford, LF—No one’s taking that contract now. They’ll try to deal him after the season to free money to sign Jacoby Ellsbury long-term and might find a taker if Crawford’s healthy and plays well over the final 2 months. Both Crawford and the Red Sox seem to realize that it would be best if the sides parted. The Red Sox signing him was a mistake; Crawford signing in Boston was a mistake.

Josh Beckett, RHP—Since the media created a ridiculous rumor out thin air that would’ve sent Crawford to the Marlins for Heath Bell and Hanley Ramirez, I’ve got one of my own (only not ridiculous). If they’re going to get rid of Beckett, they’ll have to take a similar contract in return. Beckett is owed $31.5 million through 2014. If the Marlins are desperate to get rid of Bell, how about Bell, Anibal Sanchez and Randy Choate for Beckett?

I’m sure Bell and Bobby Valentine would get along about as well as Valentine and Kevin Youkilis. Or Valentine and anyone else. Which is to say not well. At all.

Toronto Blue Jays

Yunel Escobar, SS—Escobar may have irritated his way out of another venue and the Dodgers need a shortstop. For some reason, the Blue Jays fancy themselves as contenders and need pitching.

Kansas City Royals

Jeff Francoeur, OF—He was with the Rangers when they went to the World Series in 2010 and if he was a defensive replacement for the Nelson Cruz in the 2011 series, they would’ve won. Jon Daniels and Nolan Ryan won’t forget that.

Bruce Chen, LHP—They’re not going to trade him.

Jonathan Broxton, RHP—His strikeout numbers are down, but he’s had a solid comeback season as a closer. The cross-state Cardinals need bullpen help.

Jose Mijares, LHP—Everyone needs an extra lefty. The Dodgers are ready to buy.

Minnesota Twins

Justin Morneau, 1B—They haven’t made clear that they’re going to trade him, but if he goes I say—and have said for months—that he goes to the Dodgers.

Josh Willingham, OF—They’re not trading him.

Denard Span, CF—They’re not trading him.

Francisco Liriano, LHP—He’s in heavy demand and can start or relieve. The Yankees have long coveted him and could use him in either role.

Carl Pavano, RHP—He’s back in his office (the disabled list). He won’t be back in time to be dealt at the deadline, but he’ll get through waivers in August and wind up somewhere. The Red Sox will take him for nothing.

Oakland Athletics

Grant Balfour, RHP; Kurt Suzuki, C—The A’s can’t justify dumping salary while they’re hovering around contention. They’re not making the playoffs and are playing over their heads, but they’re playing well and moving anyone for reasons other than to improve the team is not feasible.

Seattle Mariners

Jason Vargas, LHP—Once the bigger names come off the board, Vargas is a viable back-of-the-rotation starter who’s relatively cheap and under team control through 2013. The Braves do lots of yapping about being in on “big” names like Zack Greinke, then wind up trading for a Vargas-type.

Felix Hernandez, RHP—They’re not trading him.

Brandon League, RHP—League is a mediocre reliever, but throws hard and has been unlucky this season. The Giants are always interested in improving their bullpen.

Chone Figgins, INF/OF—What happened to this guy? The only thing I can see as possible is if the Angels are so desperate to get rid of Vernon Wells that they pick up the difference in the two contracts and send Wells to Seattle to get Figgins back. He was a very good player for the Angels.

Kevin Millwood, RHP—I’d probably prefer the veteran Millwood to Vargas. He’s been serviceable this season and has post-season experience. The Cardinals need some starting pitching.

Ichiro Suzuki, RF—According to GM Jack Zduriencik, Ichiro (.264/.290/.358) is still a “franchise” player. Jack Z can start cleaning out his office. Someone would take Ichiro, but evidently he’s not available. This is how teams that lose 90+ games for four straight years are built and maintained!

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National League West—Buy, Sell or Stand Pat?

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San Francisco Giants

The Giants have taken pitching and defense to the extreme with an outfield that can catch the ball with anyone, can run and has almost no power production. Predictably Melky Cabrera has slowed down from his early-season pace and the Giants’ middle infield can neither hit nor field all that well. They need a bat in the middle of the infield at either second or short. I don’t believe in rumors that pop up out of nowhere, but if the Phillies are willing to concede the season, want to free up money to keep Cole Hamels and will take Brandon Crawford in exchange for him, Jimmy Rollins is from the Bay Area.

Would the Diamondbacks trade Justin Upton or Stephen Drew to a divisional rival? It depends on whether they truly think they’re still contenders. From the way they’re acting, it doesn’t appear as if they do.

Jed Lowrie would’ve been a nice addition, but he’s hurt.

The Giants don’t need much bullpen help, but GM Brian Sabean might get some anyway with a Brandon League-type arm.

Los Angeles Dodgers

Does this make any sense? The Dodgers are said to be heavy buyers and the Brewers are considering selling but the Brewers are 3 games behind the Dodgers in the loss column. The Dodgers were 42-25 on June 17th and 5 games up in their division. Since then, they’ve gone 7-19 since and are 3 games back.

But Ned Colletti is a buyer and he’s been validated in his strategy in the past. He’s willing to give up young players to get a veteran to help him win now. It sounds as if new ownership has given him the nod to go for it.

They need a starting pitcher and have been pursuing Ryan Dempster and checking in on every other available name like Zack Greinke, Hamels and whoever else. They need arms for the bullpen too, specifically a lefty like Joe Thatcher or Jose Mijares. Offensively, a first baseman who can hit the ball out of the park would significantly upgrade the offense and if the Twins are willing to eat some of his remaining contract, I’d pursue Justin Morneau. If he gets traded, I think it will be to the Dodgers.

Arizona Diamondbacks

Are they selling? Are they buying? Are they changing on the fly? Most importantly, is Kevin Towers still a “genius” as he was ridiculously called last season when the Diamondbacks won a surprising NL West title with a lot of luck?

The Diamondbacks starting pitching is a problem. Ian Kennedy won 21 games last season and is now 7-8. The big difference? Luck. His BAbip was .274 in 2011 and this season it’s .330. Daniel Hudson is out for the year with Tommy John surgery; Joe Saunders just came off the disabled list; Trevor Bauer was sent to the minors. If they’re trading Upton and intend on contending this season, they have to get a legitimate starting pitcher in the deal, one who can help them now.

Upton is so out there in trade talks that I’d like to know why the D-Backs are so desperate to trade him. He’s signed and an MVP-talent. What’s the problem?

Stephen Drew is also available. Unless they get a shortstop in return, I hope D-Backs’ fans enjoy watching Willie Bloomquist do whatever it is Willie Bloomquist does.

I don’t know what’s going on over there. I don’t know what they’re doing or what their intentions are and wouldn’t be surprised to find out that they don’t know either.

San Diego Padres

Sell, sell, sell.

The new talk is that they might keep Carlos Quentin and try to sign him, which is ridiculous. Quentin’s getting traded and they’d better do it sooner rather than later before he gets hurt again.

Chase Headley’s name is bouncing around but he’s under team control and plays a position that is hard to fill at third base. If they trade him, they’ll want 2-3 legitimate prospects.

Their bullpen is where teams are sniffing around. Thatcher is a lefty specialist that few are aware of, but is nasty. Huston Street is a hot name, but I prefer Luke Gregerson—he’s cheaper and better.

Nothing is off the table in San Diego and they’re going to be very busy as a potential kingmaker at the deadline.

Colorado Rockies

I’m ashamed to admit it, but I actually picked this team to win the NL West.

It’s a disaster and they not only have to decide what they’re doing with their players, but whether GM Dan O’Dowd is going to keep his job. If they’re making a change in the front office, does it make any sense to let the outgoing GM make important deals of veteran players and leave a potential mess for the next guy?

They’re said to want a lot of relievers Rafael Betancourt and Matt Belisle, both are valuable and useful for contenders. Jason Giambi would help either an NL team as a pinch hitter or an AL team as an occasional DH. Marco Scutaro is versatile all over the infield and can still hit and get on base. O’Dowd has said he’d listen on Dexter Fowler, but ownership should nix that idea. They’re going to trade Jeremy Guthrie somewhere and probably not get anywhere close to what they surrendered to get him—Jason Hammel and Matt Lindstrom. That’s if they get anything at all.

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National League Central—Buy, Sell or Stand Pat?

All Star Game, Ballparks, CBA, Cy Young Award, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, Hall Of Fame, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Waiver Trades, MVP, Paul Lebowitz's 2012 Baseball Guide, PEDs, Players, Playoffs, Prospects, Spring Training, Stats, Trade Rumors, World Series

Cincinnati Reds

Reds’ GM Walt Jocketty is a buyer and wants to win now. The Reds have what it takes to go far in the playoffs with a deep starting rotation and bullpen and mashers in the middle of their lineup. They’re still in need of a bat at shortstop, third base or in the outfield. The only position where they should consider a long-term solution is third base and that’s where they should make a move on Chase Headley. Jocketty and Padres’ GM Josh Byrnes came together on a mutually advantageous blockbuster last winter when the Reds acquired Mat Latos so they’re able to come to consensus on deals.

Apart from Headley, short-term upgrades in centerfield or at shortstop would be better than more expensive, longer-term options. If the Phillies put Shane Victorino on the block, he’d be a positive addition. At shortstop, Stephen Drew of the Diamondbacks is absolutely available. An extra lefty for the bullpen would be of use with Joe Thatcher and Jose Mijares attractive targets.

Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pirates have to decide whether they’re going for it with a bomb or going for it with short precision passes.

What I mean by that is if they’re going for it with a bomb, then their top prospects Starling Marte and Gerrit Cole would have to be on the table. The “bomb” type players they could acquire would include Justin Upton, Starlin Castro, Giancarlo Stanton or a similar young bat.

A shorter pass would include Drew or Carlos Quentin.

The Pirates are legitimate contenders and do need a bat, but I would not gut the system to get it. Another concern of mine would be messing with team chemistry by trading for a star player who’s going to be with the club longer than for the rest of this season. They’ve charted a course and need to stick to it because it’s working.

St. Louis Cardinals

GM John Mozeliak has proven himself to be aggressive in the fact of overwhelming odds to the point that he was perceived as desperate and delusional at the trading deadline last season when he made his one marketable young player, Colby Rasmus, the centerpiece of the deal that got them Edwin Jackson, Marc Rzepczynski and Octavio Dotel.

Will the Cardinals make a similar decision this season? Tony LaRussa is gone and it’s doubtful that Mike Matheny’s voice will elicit the same wearing down effect that LaRussa’s whining and organizational politicking did.

The Cardinals are leading the league in runs scored but should bolster their bench with a Ty Wigginton or Jason Giambi. They need a starting pitcher and have the prospects to get Zack Greinke or Cole Hamels. I can’t imagine the Cubs trading Ryan Dempster or anyone else to the Cardinals. For the bullpen, they could look to the Mariners for Brandon League; the Athletics for Grant Balfour; the Padres for Thatcher, Huston Street or former Cardinals’ prospect Luke Gregerson; or the Rockies for Matt Belisle or Rafael Betancourt.

I don’t think the Cardinals are legitimate contenders as currently constructed and will fade without improving the pitching.

Milwaukee Brewers

Mixed signals are coming from Milwaukee. Like the Phillies, they’re waiting and listening. Francisco Rodriguez just replaced the struggling John Axford as closer, but K-Rod is a free agent at the end of the year and would bring back a couple of prospects from a team like the Angels or Rangers. There’s speculation that Greinke is hurt after he was pushed back from his start to “recharge his batteries”—whatever that means. They’re supposedly accepting offers for a free agent they signed last winter, Aramis Ramirez.

I don’t think they know what they are at present.

The problem the Brewers have is that their farm system is essentially gutted and they put everything into winning last season and didn’t. The next two weeks will determine the remainder of 2012, but they have to be open to trading Shaun Marcum, Randy Wolf, K-Rod, Ramirez and calculate the draft pick compensation they’d get for Greinke in comparison to what teams are offering.

They’re not out of contention…yet. Considering where they’re heading with a rebuild/retool on the way after this season, they might be better off adding a Drew, Victorino or Bryan LaHair rather than clean house.

Chicago Cubs

Everything must go.

They’ve denied it, but I think they will absolutely be willing to trade Castro. When the manager of the team, Dale Sveum, has to bench a player and have that player sit next to him to explain why things are happening on the field and quiz him about where he should be in certain situations and what he should be doing, he’s not a Theo Epstein-type of self-starter who plays the game correctly. Castro’s extremely talented, accumulates hits and makes a sparkling play here and there, but he’s not good.

Matt Garza doesn’t have to be traded and that makes him more valuable since he’s under team control through 2013. Dempster’s getting traded; LaHair might get traded; if he was hitting, Geovany Soto would be in heavier demand than he is and might get traded anyway. They should do whatever they can to get rid of Alfonso Soriano and if that means accepting the sunk cost of his contract and paying him off, so be it. Someone might be willing to take a chance that a change of scenery would help the strikeout/walk-machine, on-again/off-again closer Carlos Marmol.

Houston Astros

GM Jeff Luhnow got a couple of useful pieces for Carlos Lee. They were willing to listen on Jed Lowrie, but Lowrie’s hurt. Brett Myers is marketable as is Brandon Lyon. Wesley Wright will be in play as a lefty reliever. The opinions on Wandy Rodriguez are varied and vast. I’ve always liked him and think he’d be a good addition to a team with a solid defense and playing in a park where it’s not easy to hit home runs like the Mets, Angels, Dodgers and Marlins.

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American League West—Buy, Sell or Stand Pat?

All Star Game, Ballparks, CBA, Cy Young Award, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, Hall Of Fame, History, Management, Media, MiLB, MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Waiver Trades, MVP, Paul Lebowitz's 2012 Baseball Guide, Players, Playoffs, Politics, Prospects, Stats, Trade Rumors, World Series

We can tick Edwin Encarnacion off the board of potentially available players as the Blue Jays signed him to a 3-year, $29 million extension. I’ll discuss that in an upcoming post. Now let’s have a look at the AL West and which teams should buy, sell or stand pat and what they should be looking for.

Texas Rangers

They’re heavy buyers.

I’m not discussing any Cole Hamels rumors from now on. He’s going to be the hot topic and used as an easy “news” story designed to garner webhits. But the Rangers are absolutely going to pursue him and will make the decisive move to get a starting pitcher from somewhere. Roy Oswalt’s had two bad starts and two good starts; Neftali Feliz is on the 60-day disabled list. It’s no wonder they’re pursuing Hamels, Zack Greinke and will undoubtedly be in on Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza and anyone else who’s available or not available like Felix Hernandez.

The Rangers will get a starting pitcher.

They’ll also try to bolster their bullpen with an extra arm or two like Grant Balfour, Jose Mijares or Joe Thatcher.

Los Angeles Angels

Talk of another starting pitcher, on the surface, sounds like overkill. But it was put logically recently (I’m not sure where I read it) that since Dan Haren and Ervin Santana have club options at the end of the season and neither have pitched very well, they’ll have the money free to go after Hamels or Greinke. The Angels like pitching.

If I had to guess now what they’re going to do at the end of the season, they’ll decline Santana’s option and exercise Haren’s if he’s healthy.

Since they’re 8th in the American League in runs scored, the on-the-surface suggestion would be that they’ll need a bat. But the early season horrible hitting cost coach Mickey Hatcher his job and they began to score once Mike Trout was recalled and Vernon Wells got hurt. The Wells situation will have to be resolved when he returns from the disabled list. I would think the last and possibly only resort is to eat the $42+ million remaining on his contract and dump him.

They could use a lefty specialist like Mijares or Thatcher and if the Brewers make Francisco Rodriguez available, a reunion with his former team would be a positive for both sides.

Oakland Athletics

Who would’ve thought the A’s could legitimately consider being buyers at mid-season? Certainly not me. Credit goes to Billy Beane for getting solid youngsters from the Diamondbacks and Nationals in off-season trades. Yoenis Cespedes is another matter since he’s supremely talented and injury-prone.

They’re not going to buy and they’re not going to clear the decks of everything from the roster to the light fixtures to the sinks.

Balfour will be in demand; perhaps they can get a couple of minor leaguers for a team that needs a back-end starter in Bartolo Colon (how about the Mets?). I’d probably find a taker for Daric Barton. It’s not going to happen for him with the A’s and he does have some attributes.

Seattle Mariners

According to Geoff Baker in The Seattle Times, “…the Mariners do not appear to be gearing any efforts towards contention before 2015.”

Jeez.

Baker’s column was in reference to the suggestion that they pursue Justin Upton, but if they have no intention of contending until 2015 they not only shouldn’t buy, but they should look to trade Hernandez. What good is going to do them if they’re not going to contend for another two years?

Whether it’s ownership interfering with GM Jack Zduriencik or not, it can’t be ignored that the Mariners’ offense is historically awful with four regular players batting .203 or below and all four—Brendan Ryan, Miguel Olivo, Justin Smoak and Chone Figgins—were brought in by Zduriencik.

2015? The Mariners have a loyal fanbase, money to spend, a horse at the top of the rotation and young pitching on the way.

If this is true, then they should sell any player making significant money and that includes King Felix. As it is, they’ll look to move Brandon League and listen on Jason Vargas. Anyone want Figgins? I thought not.

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