The Brewers Poked The Wrong Bear

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Let’s clear up a few misconceptions about the Cardinals.

Much is being made of the series of trades the Cardinals made at mid-season to drastically alter the configuration of their roster that “led” them to the World Series.

In a sense, the trades in which they acquired Edwin Jackson, Marc Rzepczynski, Octavio Dotel and Rafael Furcal were upgrades on and off the field; by now it’s clear that Colby Rasmus and his dad, while not being responsible for the Cardinals inconsistency, didn’t fit into the clubhouse profile and it’s better that both sides moved on.

Absent of the deranged, maniacal, head-rolling fallout in Boston, the Braves collapse was just about as bad as that of the Red Sox; without it, the Cardinals wouldn’t have made the playoffs at all.

The Braves lost 20 of their final 30 games to present the Cardinals with the opportunity to make the run back into the picture; the Cardinals also benefited from the Phillies retrospectively ill-fated decision to play all-out in the last three games of the season in Atlanta and kick the door open by sweeping of the Braves.

They couldn’t have known it at the time and the playoffs can turn on one game (as we saw), but the Phillies would’ve been better off playing any of the other teams among the Diamondbacks, Brewers and Braves had they been their opponents instead of the Cardinals.

When Nyjer Morgan (or his sociopathic alter-ego The Real T. Plush) and the Brewers goaded the fading Cardinals with taunts and other foolish temptations of fate, they behaved as a club that thought they were better than they were and had seen the last of the Cardinals.

This had little to do with the Cardinals searing, breakneck month of desperation, but it didn’t help the Brewers cause. They chose to poke the bear and the bear got up, grabbed them by their throats and ripped their heads off.

Along the way, the Cardinals were assisted by practical matters. It’s a nice, neat story to say the Cardinals were spurred on by an act of disrespect from the Brewers—and to some extent they probably were—but circumstances had to fall in a certain way for the classic denouement of a group of warriors led by their stoic hero Albert Pujols and legendary tactician Tony LaRussa putting the arrogant, loud and obnoxious group of upstarts in their collective places.

And it happened perfectly, just like in the movies.

Now we’ll hear other made-for-dramatic-effect nonsense of how this could possibly be Pujols’s final series as a member of the Cardinals; that the fate of manager LaRussa is in question with his contract on a mutual option for 2012.

Here’s are two flashes of Force Lightning to detonate such stupidity: Pujols isn’t leaving; he knows it, the Cardinals know it and baseball knows it. The Cardinals will make a reasonable offer that they can afford and still be competitive; Pujols won’t be embarrassed by receiving a contract far below those of Ryan Howard and Prince Fielder; everyone will remain together and stay as they are.

LaRussa has no desire (nor a landing spot) to go elsewhere at this point in his life and career; the 2012 Cardinals team is pretty much set with manager and star returning in spite of crafted implications of other eventualities.

These are the Cardinals.

They’re in the World Series.

They’re staying together.

As for the Brewers,  they’re going home; if they don’t realize why, they’re either remarkably stupid; inexplicably blockheaded; or oblivious to reality.

I’ll hedge and say it’s all three.

And I’ll be right.

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The Aftermath Of Chaos—The Red Sox/Braves Collapses

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Let’s sift through the carnage.

Job security.

It’s fair to examine the whys concerning two teams that seemingly had playoff spots locked up and both fell apart. It’s reasonable to assess everyone’s job performance and come to an unemotional conclusion as to whether minor or major changes should be made.

With the Red Sox, I would expect something blockbuster in player personnel to be done. I’m talking about a massive trade of a name player or players.

With the Braves, don’t be surprised to see them go for an offensive force like Jose Reyes.

As for the managers, the idea that Terry Francona and Fredi Gonzalez should automatically be fired is idiotic; but so is the ironclad assertion that both should return without question.

It has to be analyzed.

Having watched Gonzalez with the Marlins and Braves, I was wrong about him in thinking he’d be fine as Braves manager. He makes too many strategic mistakes that a team fighting for a playoff spot can’t afford to have happen and I’d fire him.

I doubt the Braves will do that. If anything, they’ll make changes on the coaching staff, namely hitting coach Larry Parrish.

With the Red Sox, there’s a possibility that they will fire Francona.

I wouldn’t do that, but it’s their right if they feel it’s necessary to get a new voice in the clubhouse.

The Red Sox have to ask themselves whether they think another manager would’ve done a better job with the starting pitching in disarray; with unlocking Carl Crawford‘s talent; with patching together an injury-riddled bullpen along with handling the stifling, worldwide media attention the Red Sox attract and cultivate.

I don’t see who could’ve or would’ve done any better than Francona, but it’s their call.

If they do decide to make a change, one thing they absolutely cannot do is say something to the tune of, “we decided not to exercise Terry’s contract options; it’s not a firing; it’s moving in a new direction”.

That’s what they did to Grady Little and were hammered for it after the fact.

Fire him if you’re going to fire him. Be done with it and move on.

Michael Kay’s creepy world of “analysis” in the form of sycophancy and self-involved attacks.

In the midst of his rant about the Mets and Reyes’s individual decision to pull himself out of what was possibly his last game as a Met and try (successfully) to win the batting title, Michael Kay also defended the Yankees for their decision to play their regulars sparingly and use 4th tier pitchers in the series against the Rays.

The Yankees owed nothing to the Red Sox nor to the Rays. They didn’t “dump” the games like some latter day group of 1919 Black Sox, but they didn’t go all-out to win.

There’s a difference.

Saying the Yankees were trying as hard as they could needs to be placed in its proper context. By the metric of playing their starters and using their top players as the Phillies did against the Braves, the Yankees didn’t do that. Saying the players they used—Scott Proctor, Ramiro Pena, Greg Golson—tried as hard as they could is akin to saying that the Washington Generals try as hard as they can against the Harlem Globetrotters. Trying is great; winning is unlikely.

In a similar sense, the idea that the Red Sox spiral started with a series loss to the Yankees is a nice, neat, “we started this” story to get in on the action. The problem is there’s no factual evidence to support it. The Red Sox came undone because they were giving up 6+ runs every night after that Yankees series; not because of anything the Yankees mythic “aura” created.

Credit to the pursuers.

Much like the Phillies in 2007 against the Mets, the Rays played the Red Sox and beat the Red Sox. By doing that, they made their lives much easier in the chase.

The Braves haven’t hit well all year. Fingers will be pointed at Gonzalez and Parrish for that, but they were playing most of the season without a legitimate center fielder who could hit; with Jason Heyward needing to have the lowest grade dropped after his putrid (and injury-racked) sophomore season; Chipper Jones is more of a “threat emeritus” than someone for a team other than the Mets to be terrified of; and they had black holes in the lineup all year long.

Once they lost Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens, the offense couldn’t pick up the slack and the bullpen was tired from Gonzalez’s overuse.

The Cardinals and Rays played well over the final month to stage their comebacks, but neither had a ridiculous 2007 Rockies-style run of never losing a game.

What will happen.

I believe there is a very good chance that Francona will not be back as Red Sox manager.

Jonathan Papelbon will be allowed to leave. J.D. Drew, Marco Scutaro, Tim Wakefield and Jason Varitek will be gone. They will listen to some drastic suggestions like trading Kevin Youkilis. And they’ll desperately look for a taker on John Lackey.

Fredi Gonzalez will not be fired; Larry Parrish will be. The Braves will make a move for a bat—they certainly have the organizational depth to trade for someone big like Andre Ethier, Carlos Quentin or see if the Marlins will move Hanley Ramirez (doubtful). Or they could go after Reyes. A trade is far more probable.

I won’t speculate on what either will say to explain themselves and mute the pain and embarrassment.

That, like suggesting the 2011 Red Sox will compete with the 1927 Yankees, is something that will only be judged in hindsight.

Both have long, long, loooooong off-seasons ahead of them and they’re undoubtedly looking for reasonable, believable answers at this very moment.

I wouldn’t expect much in terms of reason and believability. But I’m a cynic. And thankfully don’t live in the fantasy world of Michael Kay.

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Heads Will Roll(?)

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The difference in perception is stark.

Tony LaRussa is entirely safe in his job with the Cardinals despite underachieving for much of the year and looking finished in the playoff race three weeks ago. Had the trend continued; had the Braves played even mediocre baseball, no one would’ve said a word about LaRussa or Braves’ manager Fredi Gonzalez and their respective job securities.

LaRussa’s job is safe no matter what and the Cardinals—despite their best efforts to open the door for the Braves to clinch with inexplicable losses to the Mets, Cubs and Astros—are tied for the Wild Card lead.

The Braves are reeling, shocked and desperate.

This could all be moot in 16 hours if the Braves win and Cardinals lose.

Tim Hudson is pitching for the Braves against the Phillies. The Phillies have clinched everything they can clinch and are starting Joe Blanton.

If the Braves lose tonight, they have no one to blame but themselves…and their manager.

Stability was one of the reasons that Bobby Cox lasted as long as he did with the Braves.

That and he won.

What’s going to happen if the Braves gack up this playoff spot that should’ve been wrapped up two weeks ago?

Gonzalez’s strategic mistakes and injuries to the team’s starting rotation are independent of one another. Their offense is not good.

But Braves fans are notorious frontrunners and nostalgic toward history.

What if a firing is necessary in the interests of placating the angry?

Are Cox’s batteries recharged after a year out of the dugout?

And would GM Frank Wren—with whom Cox had a somewhat stormy relationship—be on board if upper management says that Gonzalez has to go and Cox is willing to come back?

Jack McKeon provided a new ceiling for managers when he won a World Series at the age of 72 with the 2003 Marlins; then again this season when he took over at mid-season at the age of 80 and acquitted himself well without it showing up in the standings.

Cox is 70 and will be 71 next May.

He might be willing to go back on the field, but would he be okay with replacing his friend and hand-picked successor Gonzalez?

If the Braves frame it correctly by saying “listen Bobby, Fredi’s gone whether you take the job or not,” it wouldn’t be seen as Cox pushing Gonzalez out of the way, but taking an open position.

Cox might’ve lost in the playoffs and World Series every year but one, but his teams never came apart like this and those losses weren’t because of managerial missteps.

Making the playoffs will render this speculation meaningless, but if the Braves complete this collapse will they be willing to stay the course and run the risk of this happening again a year from now? Of having the endless criticism from inside and outside the industry as to what they’re thinking in entrusting a strong young team with a manager that’s costing them games?

Collapses take years to get over and not before significant alterations are made in personnel or management.

All of that young talent is not accompanied by a guarantee of contention on an annual basis, especially in the NL East.

Suffice it to say that the Braves had better make the playoffs—getting swept in the first round would be better than this embarrassing crumble. And if they make it, who knows? Maybe they’ll straighten themselves out, play relaxed and run the table.

But they have to make it.

Jobs may be riding on it.

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Frediot—Fredi Gonzalez Has Converted Me

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No. That’s not a good thing.

When he was hired as Braves manager to replace Bobby Cox, I tried to assuage the fears of Braves fans who’d only seen snippets of his managing style with the Marlins; who were concerned that there was no actual interview process and that Fredi Gonzalez taking over was more of an old boys’ club anointing; that his history with the Marlins didn’t bode well for a team like the Braves who were expected to win.

I was wrong.

The Braves are teetering precariously close to gacking up a playoff spot that should’ve been wrapped up a week ago and a large part of that is due to their manager.

I’m not quibbling with his benching/platooning of Jason Heyward—Heyward’s obviously not 100% and he’s been atrocious against lefties. Nor am I going to get too crazy about the lack of patience among the lineup. While the aggressive approach is espoused by hitting coach Larry Parrish and obviously supported by Gonzalez, the Braves don’t exactly have an intimidating lineup; nor have the hitters—apart from Chipper Jones—ever been historically patient. Dan Uggla‘s walks are down, but he accumulated the high walk totals earlier in his career playing for…Fredi Gonzalez.

He might have been use his relievers more judiciously—but he hasn’t had a great deal of choice given the way his starting rotation has been decimated by injuries; he could conceivably have taken his foot off the gas and used Jonny Venters, Craig Kimbrel and Eric O’Flaherty less frequently, but their velocity and stuff has been consistent all year.

As for some of his maneuvers, there’s no defense. The one I remember most vividly was his brain-dead, “I’m gonna manage using stragety” in April against the reeling Mets when he called for a suicide squeeze with one out and the bases loaded; two strikes on pitcher Tommy Hanson with Eric Hinske was on third.

I understood the thought process—Hanson was the pitcher; Gonzalez could have Martin Prado leading off the next inning if it didn’t work—but the correct call was to tell Hanson to keep the bat on his shoulder, hope for a walk and leave it up to the speedy Prado to try to hit one into the gap or wreak some havoc with his legs.

Hanson missed the bunt and struck out, Hinske got caught in a rundown.

Just like that the Mets were out of the inning.

It was inexplicably horrible decision-making.

Last night he committed another egregious gaffe.

The Marlins were leading 3-0 in top of the seventh inning when, with 2 outs, Heyward doubled sending Brian McCann to third base against Marlins starter Javier Vazquez.

Jack Wilson came to the plate.

Jack Wilson can’t hit.

Worse, he’s gone from Jack Wilson to “Hack” Wilson with 9 walks in over 200 at bats this season.

Hinske was on the bench.

Neither Wilson nor Hinske have hit Vazquez well, but at least Hisnke is a threat to do something.

Wilson popped out to right field.

The next inning, Hinske was sent in to pinch hit for Jose Constanza.

Presumably it was because….

I have no idea what it was “because” of.

What good did it have to use Hinske to lead off the 8th inning when the proper time to use him was in the 7th when there were two runners in scoring position and the Braves were trailing by three?

These are just two examples and I’m quite certain that Braves fans will be able to point out at least a dozen more in which Gonzalez has either cost his team a game; could have cost his team a game; or misused his pitchers to accrue a possible cumulative fatigue that is affecting them as the season winds down.

I was wrong about Gonzalez.

I said he’d be fine. I said he’d make a few blunders, but for the most part would run the bullpen well and keep the team in line off the field while dealing with the media.

He has handled the clubhouse well and the media adequately while saying stupid things to explain away his ridiculous decisions; but he’s doing the one thing a manager cannot afford to do—costing his team games because of strategic mishaps.

The Braves won’t do it, but one of my criteria to make a managerial change is if the manager directly and negatively influences his club’s finish.

If the Braves miss the playoffs, it will be due to their manager Fredi Gonzalez.

And on that basis, I’d fire him.

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