Don’t expect the Cubs to fire Joe Maddon or for him to walk away

MLB, Uncategorized

Maddon pic

As rough a time as Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon is having with his clumsy response to questions about the domestic violence allegations against Addison Russell, team president Theo Epstein cryptically blaming him for closer Brandon Morrow being lost for the season, and the general perception that after four years and undeniable success his message has grown stale, barring an implosion, Maddon will be managing the Cubs in 2019.

Certainly, the golden reputation Maddon brought with him when he took the job after the 2014 season has lost its shine. The constant stream of canned quirkiness and ever-expanding ego wore thin in Tampa Bay to the point that once the anger of his sudden and unforeseen departure dissipated, there was a sense of relief that he was gone.

The media ate up Maddon’s hiring as part of the Cubs’ crafted narrative of going all in to break their championship curse, but once they had won their World Series, it became easier to dissect the manager with an objectivity that yielded answers to questions that had been glossed over to the degree that they weren’t even asked.

This is beyond the product Maddon sells – Joe Maddon – and into the realm of diminishing returns. As the layers are stripped away, the skeletonized remains show a good, but not great manager who is not well liked within baseball circles due to his penchant for self-promotion and “I’m better than you” condescension. As time passes, that will unavoidably permeate the team he works for.

With these factors, it would come as no surprise if Epstein is getting an itchy trigger finger with his manager. Every manager or coach, no matter the level of success, eventually wears out his welcome. Maddon’s personality only serves to expedite that process. Except it won’t be after this season.

Blameworthy or not, Epstein has never been shy about making proactive changes to his operation. Hitting coaches, pitching coaches – their names have been interchangeable under the Epstein regime. Even the managers that preceded Maddon were disposable and tossed overboard for reasons valid and not.

Maddon is not wholly at fault for much of what has ailed the Cubs in 2018. He didn’t sign Tyler Chatwood and Yu Darvish. He didn’t decide the oft-injured Morrow should be the team’s closer. That the Cubs have overcome those players’ issues as well as injuries that have hindered star third baseman Kris Bryant and made the playoffs for the fourth straight season is due, in part, to the manager.

Leveraging the cohesiveness with the Rays into the reputation as the “best” manager in baseball and exercising an opt-out with a rumored backdoor deal with the Cubs in place gave Maddon the salary, the recognition and the big market he had long sought. That it became a Faustian bargain is somewhat ironic when the Cubs very nearly lost that long elusive World Series because of his strategic gaffes. In the intervening years, his reputation and image have declined precipitously.

Still, his job is secure for two reasons: one, his salary; two, 2019 is increasingly looking to be the last go-round for Cubs’ current construction.

At a reported salary of $6 million for 2019, the Cubs will not simply swallow that money just because factions inside and outside the organization have grown tired of his shtick. That’s a lot of money for Maddon to go sit in a broadcast booth and spout his pretentious nonsense. Even a mutual agreement to part ways and a buyout with all the money being paid over several years can lessen the impact to a degree, but it’s still $6 million. Then there’s the matter of paying Joe Girardi or Mike Scioscia similar money or rolling the dice on a cheap unknown.

To win the 2016 World Series, Epstein overpaid for Aroldis Chapman by sending rising star Gleyber Torres to the New York Yankees. In subsequent seasons, to try and maintain a championship caliber club, other top prospects like Eloy Jimenez were also traded away. As a result, the farm system is depleted, their star position players are growing more expensive, and their pitching staff is aging. That impressive core of position players is still in its 20s and a retooling is more probable than a rebuild. But will they still want to pay Maddon after 2019 when his message is tiresome and his great personality for what they were trying to build has become a grating personality for what they’re going to need to rebuild? He’s not taking a pay cut and he’ll be 65. The sense of this cycle running its course is palpable.

What more is there to accomplish? He’s got his recognition; he’s got his money; and it’s preferable to jump before being pushed. This combination of factors will save Maddon when, if the circumstances were different, he could and should be shown the door, thanked for his service with an audible sigh of relief by the rest of the organization when he’s gone.

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What To Do With Ike Davis

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Mets first baseman Ike Davis is a guy who can hit 30 home runs; is a good defensive first baseman; is streaky; doesn’t hit lefties; tweaks his stance way too much; is a bit lackadaisical and comfortable in his position in the big leagues and takes his now annual slow starts with an attitude of “Oh, well. That’s just the way it is.”; is shielded by popularity in the clubhouse and media; and whines endlessly with the umpires to the point where he’s gotten a reputation as a relentless complainer.

Davis is getting more time in the Mets lineup because the other players and manager Terry Collins have lobbied to keep him there. If it were up to the front office last season, he would’ve been sent down a year ago almost to the day to get himself straightened out. Davis got more time, started hitting and hit 27 homers from June onward. The Mets seem to be losing patience with him again and again the talk centers around whether a trip to Triple A would do him some good.

There are benefits and negatives to all options the Mets have with Davis, and here they are:

Demote him

The Mets could easily shift Lucas Duda to first base—which is his natural position—and see if playing a more comfortable position for him defensively boosts his flagging batting average and give Davis a wakeup call by saying his position as a regular player since 2010 doesn’t give him the right to slump as David Wright would get. The last thing Davis needs is another voice in his head giving him hitting advice, but maybe the anger and embarrassment of a demotion will light a fire under him. The one thing the Mets can’t do is send him down for a week. If they do it, it has to be for at least 15-20 games and only bring him back based on merit and not clubhouse/fan/media demands.

Trade him

The Mets were rumored to be willing to listen on Davis after the 2011 season. Perhaps Sandy Alderson and his staff saw the holes in Davis’s game, realized what he was and wanted to get something substantial for him while his reputation as a top power prospect was still intact. For whatever reason—ownership involvement; factions in the front office debating whether they should pull the trigger; player support to keep him; fear; lack of a suitable offer for him—they kept him. Davis is only 26 and has time to fulfill his potential, but his ceiling as a Gold Glove winning future home run champion may not be as expectable as it once was. Once the ceiling is lowered and the performance is as odious as it’s been, his value is down as well.

What could the Mets get for him? I’m sure there are teams that think a friendlier home park and getting away from the word “Mets” not as a noun but as an adjective would greatly assist Davis, but they’re not surrendering a bounty of prospects to get him and simultaneously rehabilitate him. If the Mets do choose to trade Davis, they’ll either have to wait until he starts hitting and restart the circle that began in 2011 when they shied away from the instinct to move him or they’ll have to take another player who’s struggling. Would the Blue Jays consider Colby RasmusBrett Lawrie or Brandon Morrow in exchange for Davis? All are slumping just as badly as Davis is and are supremely talented. For teams like the Blue Jays and Mets, making a bold move becomes more palatable as the season enters its midpoint.

As of now, they’re not getting a sure thing for Davis, but they could get a change-of-scenery player that would help them.

Let him play and wait

Davis started hitting last June so there’s a precedent to say that he’ll start hitting again this June. A significant part of his struggles are in his head so perhaps the boost of confidence from what happened last year will wake him up. Davis may be tired of hearing that he might get demoted simply because he’s off to a slow start and has minor league options; he might think that he won’t figure anything out under Wally Backman in Las Vegas that he wouldn’t figure out under Collins in New York—and maybe he’s right—but that doesn’t mean the Mets have to just let him be a hole in the lineup and a distraction as to what they’re going to do with him on an annual basis. No matter what they do, they have to make it clear to Davis that this isn’t going to be accepted as if he’s an established star for whom the numbers will be there at the end of the season. There’s no guarantee that Davis will repeat last year’s hot second half any more than there’s a guarantee that he’s going to be a Met for the rest of his career, or the rest of the week for that matter.

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Bashing and Smashing the Real Underachievers—American League

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Yesterday I asked why the Mets were being hammered for playing pretty much the way anyone and everyone should’ve expected them to play. Today let’s have a look at some teams that were—according to the “experts,” payrolls and talent levels—were supposed to be performing better and why they aren’t.

Toronto Blue Jays

It’s becoming apparent that the Blue Jays are not a team off to a bad start. They might just be plain bad. In addition to that, one of the main culprits in their mediocrity/badness over the past two seasons—former manager John Farrell—has the Red Sox in first place with the best record in baseball. I don’t think he’s a good game manager, but the reality doesn’t lie. The Red Sox will fall to earth at some point, but will the Blue Jays rise?

They may not be making the same baserunning gaffes they did under Farrell, but they’re third in the American League in homers and twelfth in runs scored. They’re last in batting average, next-to-last in on-base percentage, and thirteenth in ERA. The bullpen has been solid, but if a team doesn’t hit and doesn’t get any starting pitching their roster is irrelevant whether it has Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, Brandon Morrow and Jose Bautista or whatever refuse the Mets are shuttling in and out of their outfield.

There’s too much talent with too long a history for this type of underperformance to continue for the whole season, but if it does it may be time to stop looking at the players, coaches and manager and turn the blame to the front office.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

What I find funny is that one of the main arguments for Mike Trout’s 2012 MVP candidacy apart from his higher WAR over Miguel Cabrera was that the Angels took off after he was recalled. Without him to start the season they were 6-14; with him in the lineup after his recall they were 81-58. Trout’s been there from the beginning of the 2013 season and the Angels are 10-17, looking haphazard, disconnected and awful. The only “war” being mentioned is the undeclared, but known, “war” between the front office and the manager.

They’re not a cohesive unit and when you have a bunch of mercenaries, some of those mercenaries had better be able to pitch.

Yesterday’s win over the Athletics was indicative of one of the Angels’ biggest problems: veteran apathy. In the eighth inning, an important insurance run would’ve scored had Mark Trumbo touched the plate before Josh Hamilton was thrown out at third base to end the inning. Mike Scioscia’s teams were known for the inside game, pitching, defense, speed and going all out. Those small fundamental mistakes didn’t cost them games because they didn’t happen. Now they do. And they’re 10-17 and going nowhere in large part because of that. They got away with it yesterday, but just barely. It certainly doesn’t help that their pitching is woeful, but their issues stem from more than just bad pitching.

Why don’t the Angels just put the man out of his misery? He’s been there for 14 years, it’s no longer his team, his sway in the organization is all but gone and the players aren’t responding to him. It’s like delaying the decision to put down a beloved pet. Another week isn’t going to make a difference other than to make things worse. Sometimes making a change for its own sake is good.

Tony LaRussa’s says he’s not interested in managing. He might be interested but for one thing: his relationship with Jim Leyland is such that he won’t want to compete with his friend in the same league and possibly ruin Leyland’s last shot at a title so LaRussa could stroke his own ego, make another big payday, derive some joy over abusing Jeff Luhnow and the Astros and being the center of attention again. It’s Ivory Soap Pure (99 44/100%) that you can forget LaRussa.

Phil Garner took over an Astros team that was floundering in 2004 and brought them to the playoffs; the next season, they were 15 games under .500 in late May of 2005 and rebounded to make the World Series. Even Bob Brenly, who was a figurehead as Diamondbacks manager and whose main attribute was that he wasn’t Buck Showalter and didn’t tell the players how to wear their socks, would restore a calming, “it’s different” atmosphere.

Someone, somewhere would yield a better result that Scioscia is now. It’s known and not accepted yet. Maybe after a few more losses, it will be accepted that it’s enough so they can move on.

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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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Tim Lincecum’s Future as Starter or Reliever

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Because Tim Lincecum had such a poor season and has been effective as a reliever in the post-season, there’s been speculation that his future might be in the bullpen. Let’s look into my crystal baseball with facts and realistic analysis on the side.

The age-old debates regarding Lincecum

He cannot escape his diminutive stature, nor his stage-father. Lincecum was taken 10th overall by the Giants in the 2006 draft and the Mariners have forever been roasted by their fans for taking Brandon Morrow instead of Lincecum, who was a local kid and starred at the University of Washington. But Morrow is a prototype who’s 6’3” while Lincecum is listed at 5’11”. For the record, I would have taken Morrow as well.

What made Lincecum’s perceived risks riskier was his father Chris Lincecum’s status as Tim’s one-and-only coach and that his son’s motion and training regimens were not to be interfered with in any way. All things being equal, most teams would shy away from the smaller pitcher, but would take him anyway if they liked him better. If you add in the presence of these rules from Lincecum’s father and it’s understandable that the Mariners chose to go with Morrow and other teams chose different players.

The Giants looked brilliant with the hands-off strategy when Lincecum arrived in the big leagues in 2007 with a near 100-mph fastball and won back-to-back Cy Young Awards in 2008 and 2009. He has been a top pitcher in baseball until this season. Then he started struggling and the size excuse; the inability of the Giants’ staff to make adjustments to his issues; and questions of longevity, overuse at a young age, and durability cropped up again.

Truthfully, we have no idea what’s going on with Lincecum’s mechanics, health, fitness, and alterations. It could be that the Giants are more proactive with him than we know; it could be that Tim is no longer going to Chris for advice. (This is not unusual with players who were taught and nurtured by their fathers—Keith Hernandez had long spells of impasse with his father.) Great pitchers have had poor seasons mid-career. Jim Palmer went 7-12 at age 28 in 1974 and rebounded at 29 to win the Cy Young Award in 1975 (and another one in 1976 with 2nd and 3rd place finishes in 1977 and 1978). Bret Saberhagen went 7-12 with an all-around awful year in 1986 the year after winning the Cy Young Award and World Series MVP, but returned to form. Saberhagen was about as small as Lincecum.

Lincecum is not used to poor results. Logically, because he was able to overcome the obstacles to make it this far with his uniqueness, it’s silly to again pigeonhole him for what he’s not as the teams that avoided him in the draft did.

His optimal use

There might come a day that Lincecum will need to move to the bullpen, but that time is not now. He’s 28, not 38. In 2012, he still threw 186 innings and wasn’t on the disabled list. That’s not the 200+ innings with dominance he regularly provided before 2012, but one bad season doesn’t mean you toss the history out as if it never happened. His strikeout rate is what it’s always been. He’s been wild and has allowed more homers than he ever has. That tells me his location is off and that he’s been wild high. His fastball is no longer what it was, but 92 is fast enough to be effective. He has to adjust.

As much of a weapon that Lincecum has been as a reliever this post-season and as poorly as he pitched as a starter, that would not work over a full season. Those 200 innings he provides and reasonable expectation of improvement to something close to what he was from 2007-2011 makes a 2013 move to the bullpen untenable.

Money

Lincecum, with free agency beckoning after 2013, would resist moving to the bullpen based on finances, and he’d be right to do it. The greatest relievers in baseball—Mariano Rivera and Jonathan Papelbon, among others—don’t get more than $13-15 million per season. Lincecum, in 2013, is due to make $22 million. As a free agent reliever, he does not make anything close to that. As a starter who is 29, will give 200 innings, and might win a CYA? That’s worth $150 million+.

What the Giants need

How are they replacing those 200 innings if they decide to make Lincecum a reliever?

That the Giants are up 3 games to 0 in the World Series and are on the verge of winning a championship is a signal to the rest of baseball as to the lack of importance of a star-level closer. They lost Brian Wilson to elbow surgery early in the season, tried several permutations in the ninth inning before settling on Sergio Romo, who was a 28th round draft choice. Using Lincecum in the post-season as a reliever when he’s slumping as a starter makes sense; using him as a reliever over a full season when he’s at least functional as a starter is absurd.

And Lincecum

It’s been said that Lincecum was not in shape when the season started. It’s not a matter of him arriving fat. I doubt that Lincecum could get fat, but there’s a difference between being fit and being fat. Before, Lincecum could do what he wanted in terms of exercise, diet, and extracurricular substance ingestion (namely pot), and pitch well. Now, as he’s approaching athletic middle-age, he has to take better care of himself. With all that money on the line and the returning motivation to again shove it to his critics, Lincecum is going to dedicate himself to the game and being ready in 2013. He’s a competitor and wants to get paid, so he’s not going to the bullpen. Being a starter is best for everyone involved and that’s where he’ll remain.

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Red Sox Need To Examine John Farrell Objectively

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Before the Red Sox go crazy in trading players and doling a lucrative long-term contract on their main target to replace Bobby Valentine, John Farrell, they had better make sure that they know exactly what they’re getting. It’s not a matter of, “We’ll hire Farrell and everything will be okay.” That straw man is was erected under the supervision of those who went to the Josh Beckett school of “don’t blame me.” Valentine was part of the problem for the Red Sox this season, but only a small part. Hiring Farrell doesn’t repair the rotation; the bullpen; the pockmarked lineup; and the jockeying for power in the front office.

Because Farrell was popular amongst the players and media and an audible sigh of relief would be exhaled en masse if they hire him is another reason to hesitate. Giving the players, fans, and media what they want is one of the things the Red Sox intentionally got away from when they began rebuilding the organization as far back as Dan Duquette’s era. Considering their brattish behavior when it came to Valentine, the players lost all rights to dictate anything to the front office, let alone whom they wanted in the manager’s office. Many of the players who betrayed the “beloved” Terry Francona are gone; some remain and some undermined Valentine from the start. Now they want Farrell? And the front office is prepared to give them what they want and possibly trade players to do it?

The Red Sox had better look at Farrell objectively, not as a man but as a manager. He’d handle the media better than Valentine and the players wouldn’t overstep their bounds as they did with Valentine, but these are no longer the days in which the Red Sox had such an overwhelming array of talent that they were able to overcome controversies and dysfunction to win regardless of their issues. The team is not very good and Farrell’s managing isn’t much better. Strategic mishaps happen with every manager and they sometimes cost games; but sometimes the mistakes managers make wind up succeeding. I would say that the number of mistakes a manager makes over the course of a game are mitigated by an unknown pitcher having a great game; a hitter doing something he doesn’t normally do; or the opposing manager committing a worse gaffe. There’s a difference between a strategic and a fundamental error and I’m not talking about a shortstop booting a ground ball or the left fielder missing the cutoff man. I’m talking about a manager insisting, “This is the way we play,” when it diametrically opposes what they should be doing and what works.

The Blue Jays were mediocre in 2011 under Farrell, but they had an excuse because they were retooling the organization under GM Alex Anthopoulos. In 2012, they had expectations of playoff contention. Injuries have been proffered as an excuse as to why they’re currently 19 games under .500, but they were a .500 team before Jose Bautista, Brandon Morrow, Kyle Drabek, and Drew Hutchison got hurt. They’ve gotten a career year from Edwin Encarnacion and are frequently cited as a team with plenty of prospects and money to spend in the upcoming off-season.

When the actual on-field improvement will come is anyone’s guess and a large chunk of their failures have stemmed from the managerial mishaps of Farrell. He allows his players to run wild on the basepaths, stealing bases—and getting thrown out—seemingly at will; they swing for home runs and are over-aggressive at the plate. In short, they don’t play the game correctly.

Last night, for example, the final result of the game looks to be an 11-4 Yankees blowout, but in the bottom of the eighth inning, the score was 9-4 when, with one out, Rajai Davis singled off of David Robertson. Anthony Gose came up, the count went to 2-0, and Gose swung at the next pitch grounding out to the first baseman.

The Blue Jays were down 5 runs with a pitcher who has the propensity to walk people and has been shaky of late, and Gose—a speed player who has shown occasional pop in the minors—swings at a 2-0 pitch. Why? Even if he’d achieved the best possible on-paper result and hit a home run, then what? The score would’ve been 9-6. And the likelihood of that happening, with Gose having hit 1 homer in 151 plate appearances in the big leagues this season, was nearly nonexistent. Had he gotten on base with Brett Lawrie and Colby Rasmus behind him, there was a chance that one of them would run into a pitch and hit it out of the park to get the Blue Jays back in the game. The proper baseball move was to tell Gose to take a strike. Is it possible that Farrell did that and Gose swung anyway? I suppose. But given the way the Blue Jays play with trying to hit home runs and overaggressiveness on the basepaths, and their overall underachievement, does Farrell deserve that benefit of the doubt?

No.

It’s similar to him not deserving to be anointed the Red Sox manager just because he was a coach on the team when they were contending for World Series wins and that people like him. The Red Sox need to think long and hard before making a desperation move on Farrell because there’s a chance that he might actually make things worse.

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American League East—2012 Present and 2013 Future

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Let’s look at the current construction of each club and make an honest appraisal of their 2012 status and 2013 future. We’ll start with the AL East.

Baltimore Orioles

As an excuse to justify how brilliant they are and that their numbers are never wrong, it’s en vogue for the stats-obsessed to repeatedly reference how “lucky” the Orioles are because of their negative run differential and that their record under the shaky metric of the Pythagorean Win Theorem has them 12 games worse than their actual record.

The Orioles have three major attributes: they hit the ball out of the park; they have a deep bullpen; and they have a manager in Buck Showalter who knows how to push the right buttons. Bullpens fluctuate so there’s no guarantee that will continue into 2013; they’ll still have players who hit the ball out of the park; and Showalter is discussing a contract extension.

Their starting rotation are all in their mid-20s and they have young players Dylan Bundy and Manny Machado set to make contributions. The Orioles may take a step back next year, but they’ve turned the corner from a laughingstock where no player would choose to go unless they’re overpaid or without options to a viable destination with a plan and a chance to win. And they have a great shot at the playoffs this season.

New York Yankees

Anyone speculating about Joe Girardi’s job security is looking for a scapegoat and trying to distract from the real culprits in the team’s inconsistency and age: Brian Cashman and, to a lesser extent, the Steinbrenners.

If this team doesn’t make the playoffs, they’re going to have to make structural changes to the roster. The constant discussion of their 10 games lead in July is glossing over the fact that they’ve had one good month—June when they went 20-7. Aside from that, they’re around a .500 team and making the playoffs in 2012 is in jeopardy. They’re old, expensive, and worn down. It remains to be seen what this veteran crew is going to have left in the tank even if they do make the playoffs

All of a sudden criticism has been extended to hitting coach Kevin Long for the slide of Curtis Granderson, Nick Swisher, Russell Martin, among others. Long might be gone, playoffs or not. The Yankees minor league system is dwindling in stature and legitimate prospects, thereby limiting what they’ll be able to acquire on the market; their open decision to try and reduce payroll to prevent luxury tax implications will also reduce their options to improve the team on the fly.

If they fall from the playoffs or are a one-and-done scenario, I’d fire Cashman not just for his incompetent trade for Michael Pineda and failure to address needs at the trading deadline, but also because I still have an issue with him having written a reference on team letterhead for either his girlfriend or a woman that was blackmailing him. His judgment on and off the field is highly questionable.

Maybe it’s time for Billy Eppler to get a chance or to even bring back Gene Michael for a 2-3 year run as GM.

Tampa Bay Rays

The Rays are loaded with young pitching, aggressive in making trades, and build a different bullpen every year with the refuse of other clubs. Because they are operating under severe financial constraints and the scrutiny around them is limited, they can do what they want and live with a season of 83-79 or worse to get back to 95 wins the next season. This is what they are and how they’ll remain under the current management.

Toronto Blue Jays

Edwin Encarnacion hit his 40th home run last night. He joins Jose Bautista as a journeyman player who suddenly starting hitting the ball out of the park with a ridiculous frequency for the Blue Jays. But they’re still the same team that discovers a player for whom it clicked in his late-20s, and winds up with a win total between 75-83 and is in third or fourth place in the division.

Their manager John Farrell is in demand to take over the Red Sox and the Blue Jays don’t sound all that bothered about it. Their entire starting rotation has spent time on the disabled list for one malady or another. Their offense is flashy, but as inconsistent as their would-be star pitcher Brandon Morrow.

It’s just off in Toronto. They do noticeable things like make aggressive trades, hit homers and steal bases, but they don’t win. I don’t hear people referring to GM Alex Anthopoulos as a genius much anymore. What are they thinking North of the border when they spent so many years jumping at the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays like a child trying to recover a confiscated toy, then see the Red Sox come apart, the Yankees vulnerable, and the Rays beatable and that it’s the Orioles and not the Blue Jays who are taking advantage?

I thought the Blue Jays would take the next step this season, but that belief has been prevalent for a decade and they’re frozen in place. I’m not picking them again unless they make significant changes on and off the field.

Boston Red Sox

On some level, I understand what they did when they hired Bobby Valentine to replace Terry Francona. I’m not one who’s seeing their atrocious season as validating Francona is some bizarre way. He and Theo Epstein take as much responsibility if not more as Larry Lucchino and Valentine in 2012. They were trying to move forward with the roster as it was, make a few tweaks here and there, and see if it got better. It didn’t and it’s not Valentine’s fault.

They got rid of Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez, and Carl Crawford, saved money and bolstered the farm system. But if you think they’re going to hire Farrell or whoever; sign a few free agents with the available money or make a big trade and they’ll be back to where they were as World Series favorites, you’ve got another thing coming. There’s a lot of work to do in Boston and it’s not going to be a short-term process. If they go half-in/half-out and try to straddle the line as they did last winter, expect more of the same in 2013.

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American League Contenders Remaining Schedules—Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles

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The Rays were expected to be here and the Orioles weren’t. Yesterday I looked at the Yankees schedule, now here are their two competitors in the AL East.

Tampa Bay Rays

Rays vs Orioles, Sept. 11-13 at Tampa; Oct. 1-3 at Baltimore

This is being seen as a benefit for the Yankees because the two teams in hot pursuit are playing one another six times while the Yankees supposedly have the “weakest” schedule of all the contenders. On paper, that may be so, but this Yankees team isn’t very good. They’re playing Steve Pearce at first base for the next two weeks (and I suspect that the “good” news on Mark Teixeira was a best case scenario; I doubt we’ll see Teixeira again as anything other than a pinch hitter this season). They’ve made a big show of recalling prospect Melky Mesa. Mesa is 25 and batted .230 in 33 games in Triple A. This is your savior. They’re anticipating the return of Andy Pettitte with the memories of 15 years ago swimming in their panicky heads. If the Yankees were at full strength, the weakness of schedule would be relevant, but they’re not, so it’s mitigated to a large degree.

As for the Rays and Orioles, one of the teams is going to win at least 2 of the 3 games this week. If it’s the Rays, they’ll come into Yankee Stadium this weekend looking to overtake the Yankees; if it’s the Orioles, they’ll still be right on the Yankees’ heels or will have caught them.

The Rays and Orioles have split their 12 games against one another so far. The Rays have a decided pitching advantage and the Orioles are trying to piece their offense together after losing Nick Markakis to a broken thumb. Their starting pitching is short. The Rays are going to pass the Orioles by the time the season is over.

Rays vs Yankees, Sept. 14-16 at Yankee Stadium

The Rays have their pitching set up for this weekend. David Price will pitch against CC Sabathia (whose diminished fastball was the impetus for the dustup between Yankees manager Joe Girardi and Joel Sherman of the NY Post). I would expect Pettitte to pitch Saturday against James Shields, and Alex Cobb will go against Hiroki Kuroda on Sunday.

By Sunday night, the Rays could be in first place in the AL East with the Yankees tied with the Orioles and Angels for the second Wild Card spot and behind the Athletics.

Rays vs Red Sox, Sept. 17-20 in Tampa; Sept. 25-26 at Boston

I’m not accusing the Red Sox of laying down for the Rays and Orioles and playing hard against the Yankees, but the players who remain from the Yankees-Red Sox wars from so long ago know that if they’re able to significantly damage the Yankees’ playoff hopes—and everyone had better understand that if the Yankees don’t win the division, they’re not making the playoffs—they’re going to do everything possible to make it happen. The compromised Red Sox are an awful team, but they haven’t forgotten that the Yankees didn’t play their regulars in their final series with the Rays in 2011 and that contributed to the Red Sox being bounced from the post-season and sent them into this downward spiral.

Put it this way: the Red Sox would prefer to see anyone other than the Yankees in the playoffs this season and their play will reflect it. The front office would prefer it as well.

Rays vs Blue Jays, Sept. 21-23 in Tampa

The Blue Jays are playing hard down the stretch and the two clubs split a four-game series in Toronto a week-and-a-half ago.

The Blue Jays record is bad, but they can hit the ball out of the park and have two talented starters in Brandon Morrow and Ricky Romero, plus Carlos Villanueva who should’ve been in the starting rotation from the beginning of the season. This isn’t a gimme series.

Rays vs White Sox, Sept. 27-30 at Chicago

Either the White Sox or the Tigers are going to win the AL Central and neither team—barring a catastrophe on the East or West Coasts—is making it to the Wild Card play-in game. The Tigers have shown zero consistency in 2012, but they have a weak schedule through the end of the season. It may not matter though. If they don’t run off a winning streak, the AL Central race could be over by the time the Rays come to Chicago to play the White Sox. Then the Yankees are going to be really desperate. No one in baseball wants to help them and they’re increasingly incapable of helping themselves.

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Baltimore Orioles

The two series against the Rays are discussed above.

Orioles vs Athletics, Sept. 14-16 at Oakland

The A’s are continuing their run toward the playoffs. It’s at least as surprising as that of the Orioles, if not more. They have a deeper starting rotation, a good bullpen, and can score with the Orioles. The A’s are now ahead of the Yankees, Orioles, and Rays. They’re currently playing the Angels, who’ve launched themselves back into contention as well.

There’s an opportunity for the Orioles to make up ground on the Yankees and/or Rays and the Athletics this weekend.

Orioles vs Mariners, Sept. 17-19 at Seattle

The Mariners can’t hit, but they have a lot of starting pitching and would like to finish the season at .500. That said, I would expect the Orioles to go into Seattle and take at least two games.

Orioles vs Red Sox, Sept. 21-23 at Boston; Sept. 28-30 in Baltimore

The Red Sox don’t like the Orioles, but they hate the Yankees. We might see a lot of young players getting a “look” vs the Orioles that won’t get a “look” vs the Yankees.

All’s fair.

Orioles vs Blue Jays, Sept. 24 (doubleheader)-26 in Baltimore

That’s four games. The Orioles are 9-5 against the Blue Jays this season and the Blue Jays also wouldn’t mind whacking the Yankees out of the playoffs. They might choose to “look” at some youngsters just like the Red Sox.

The team in the driver’s seat here is the Rays. If they have a record of say, 16-6, they’re going to win the AL East. For the Orioles, they’ll have to win 13 games and I don’t know if they’re going to. 11-11 is more likely and if that’s the case, that would mean that they didn’t help the Yankees against the Rays or the A’s.

Either way, the schedule that’s being portrayed as the Yankees’ lifeline, is anything but.

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American League Playoff Contenders Remaining Schedules—New York Yankees

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Baseball is unlike any other sport in that the sheer number of games and individualism within a collective is more important than anything else. By that I mean there’s not an offensive line dominating a defensive line; a hot shooter taking over the game; or a legitimate home field/court advantage. It’s baseball. Any team can beat the hell out of any other team; any closer can give up a game-tying homer; any pitcher can make a mistake to the worst hitter in the opposing lineup and cost his club the game; any manager can bring in the wrong player in the wrong place at the wrong time and lose.

This is why when desperate and panicky fans examine their teams schedule and start checking off wins, it’s a blind, baseless example of faith with no foundation.

With that in mind, let’s look at the schedules of contenders and analyze based on fact and not fantasy and laziness.

Let’s start with the New York Yankees

Yankees vs Red Sox, Sept. 11-13 at Boston; Oct. 1-3 at New York

The Red Sox are gutted, overmatched, and doing just enough to maintain appearances of “trying” while not being fully invested in the outcome. They care about their performance and perception, but knowing that the season is almost over and drastic changes are coming to the club’s construction, they’d just like to get 2012 over with.

The Red Sox are fielding a terrible lineup, but the Yankees haven’t been scoring much either. Jon Lester is starting the opening game of the series, followed by Aaron Cook and Felix Doubront. Hiroki Kuroda, David Phelps, and Phil Hughes are scheduled for the Yankees. There’s not a distinct advantage and the Red Sox might get a boost from putting a dent in the Yankees playoff hopes.

The final three games of the season may mean the difference between the Yankees winning the division, getting one of the Wild Cards, or missing the playoffs entirely. If the Red Sox can win two of the six games, that might be enough to severely harm the Yankees’ chances.

Yankees vs Rays, Sept. 14-16 in New York

The Rays are younger, healthier, and deeper. They’ve been in this position before and come through. With the Yankees concerned about CC Sabathia and waiting for Andy Pettitte (I’d expect him this weekend), it’s not a guarantee that they’re going to get vintage performances from their warhorses. What the Yankees will have to watch is whether the Rays and Orioles battle to a standstill in the six games they have remaining beginning tomorrow night and finishing on the last three games of the season. If one is eliminated by October 1st, it could be a big problem for the Yankees in those last three days.

Yankees vs Blue Jays, Sept. 18-20 in New York; Sept. 27-30 in Toronto

It’s laughable that Mike Francesa and his Yankee-centric guests are looking at the schedule and ticking off wins that they haven’t gotten yet; it’s more laughable that they’re suggesting that the Blue Jays—the team that won 2 of 3 in New York two weeks ago—is going to lay down at the Yankees former might. The Blue Jays have several attributes that should be of concern: they can run; they can hit the ball out of the park; and they have a couple of talented (though inconsistent/slumping) starting pitchers in Brandon Morrow and Ricky Romero.

These are not games against the Houston Astros that they can count as wins. Four of those seven games could be pitched by Romero/Morrow. The Yankees are not winning them all.

Yankees vs Athletics, Sept. 21-24 in New York

It was the four-game sweep at the hands of the Athletics in Oakland that began this swoon that’s culminated in September panic, group therapy sessions, tantrums, and confrontations. Now the A’s are fighting for one of the Wild Card spots and are close enough to the top of the AL West to keep it interesting. They have young pitching from top to bottom, power and speed. And they know they can beat the Yankees because they waxed them in four straight in July.

The A’s are going to be watching the Rays and Orioles as closely as the Yankees and they’re playing the Yankees. If things go a certain way, the Yankees might be behind the Rays; behind the Orioles; behind the A’s; and behind the Angels by the time that A’s series is over.

Yankees vs Twins, Sept. 24-26 at Minnesota

The Twins are awful. It’s looking like the Yankees are going to have to sweep that series. Sweeps on the road are not as easy as they’re made out to be and the teams have split the four games they’ve played this season.

To essentially guarantee a division title, the Yankees have to go 16-6. That’s highly unlikely.

To guarantee one of the Wild Card spots (and remember it’s a 1-game playoff and not a ticket in), they have to go around 14-8.

My most likely scenario it a 13-9 run making their playoff spot dicey and probably coming down to the last 3 games against the Red Sox.

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The Blue Jays: New Management, Talented Players, Same Mediocre Results

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The Blue Jays have to start winning some games.

Going back to the J.P. Ricciardi years, they’ve been on the verge of something special only to have circumstances on and off the field sabotage them. During that time they were unfortunate enough to be trapped in a division with the Yankees and Red Sox when those clubs were at the height of their rivalry and powers. Then from 2008 onward, they not only had the Yankees and Red Sox to deal with, but the young and hungry Rays rose to prominence as well.

The Ricciardi Blue Jays teams are seen as a retrospective failure in the context of Moneyball because Ricciardi was widely quoted in the book and was the one GM who closely approximated the strategies therein. They also spent money to try and win and didn’t.

Objectively those Blue Jays teams—especially the 2003, 2006 and 2008 squads—would’ve made the playoffs had they been housed in a less imposing division. Sometimes it breaks that way.

Ricciardi was perceived negatively because of Moneyball blowback; due to his un-GM-like proclivity for speaking his mind rather than in the circles favored by the new age GMs; and that he had public dustups (most of his own doing) with media members, players and coaches on his team and others. He made mistakes; he wasn’t a bad GM.

When Ricciardi was fired after the 2009 season, his replacement Alex Anthopoulos immediately made his presence felt with aggressiveness; a less polarizing personality; and fearlessness. He knew the numbers and was also willing to take chances on talented players who might not light up a rotisserie league team, but could contribute to his club in other ways.

The first year of a new regime is generally a freebie but in 2010 as they moved past the days of Ricciardi and the traded Roy Halladay, they rode Jose Bautista’s shocking rise to 54 homers, a power-laden and homer-hungry lineup and a pretty good starting rotation to an 85-77 finish.

Anthopoulos began to put his stamp on the club following 2010 as he hired his own manager, John Farrell, to replace Cito Gaston. He traded for Brett Lawrie; amazingly found a taker for Vernon Wells’s contract while only paying $5 million to cover a portion of it; and signed Bautista to a contract extension.

The 2011 Blue Jays ended at .500. They were a team to watch for 2012.

The original idea was to watch them as they rose in the standings. Instead we’re watching them and wondering why they’re still at .500.

It’s June 14th and they’re sitting at 31-32, tied for last place in the AL East with the Red Sox.

Injuries have robbed them of closer Sergio Santos and starter Brandon Morrow. Kyle Drabek left his start on Wednesday with a popping sensation in his elbow. Adam Lind didn’t hit and was dispatched to the minors, unlikely to return. Colby Rasmus is playing identically to the player who was the rope in a tug-of-war between his former manager with the Cardinals Tony LaRussa and his dad Tony Rasmus. Manager Farrell allows his players to run the bases with abandon and steal bases at odd times.

Are these excuses or are they reasons?

The American League East has five teams that are either over .500 or within one game of .500. But earlier this season, the division was wide open with the Yankees pitching failing them and Mariano Rivera out for the season. The Red Sox were playing terribly and infighting. The Rays lost Evan Longoria for an extended period.

And the Blue Jays didn’t take advantage.

Again.

What should be most galling to the Blue Jays and their fans is that it was the Orioles—that perpetual doormat—that jumped to the top of the division with a stunning run of solid fundamental play and led by a far superior strategic manager to Farrell, the experienced Buck Showalter.

At what point does the Blue Jays’ building and rebuilding end and do expectations and demands replace the mantra of “patience”?

There was enough talent on the Blue Jays during the Ricciardi years that they could’ve made the playoffs 2-3 times with a little better luck and a less difficult division. Now they have as much if not more talent in a weaker division and they remain trapped in the vacancy of mediocrity.

When does it stop?

Eventually the Blue Jays have to get past the “we’re building” excuse and start winning some games; to become a legitimate contender when there’s an extra playoff spot to be won and they have the talent and the opening to win it.

Yet here they are at .500 and looking for that missing piece to put them over the top.

Over the top of what is unknown. Is it over the top of the “mountain” of .500? Or is it over the top of their divisional rivals to make some noise in the regular season as something other than a cool pick for the prognosticators who’ll repeat the process from November to February and fall back to what they are?

I don’t know.

And nor do they.

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