Keys to 2013: Cleveland Indians

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Starting Pitching Key: Ubaldo Jimenez

Usually when there’s a big trade of youth for an established veteran the trade can be judged within a year-and-a-half. Sometimes that judgment is floating and interchangeable. The problem with most deals is that there’s an immediate reaction of a “winner” and a “loser” before any of the players even get their uniforms on.

For the Rockies and Indians, who completed a big trade in the summer of 2011 with Jimenez going to the Indians for a package of youngsters including Drew Pomeranz, Alex White, Matt McBride and Joe Gardner, there has yet to be a payoff for either side.

For the Rockies, if Pomeranz doesn’t develop, the trade will be a disaster. I think he will, but he hasn’t yet. White was traded to the Astros; McBride is about to turn 28 and has the looks of a 4-A player. Gardner’s mechanics make him an arm injury waiting to happen; if he doesn’t get hurt, he’s a reliever.

It can be seen as the Indians didn’t give up much of anything for a former All-Star and third place finisher in the Cy Young Award voting, but now that they’re looking to contend, they need the Jimenez from 2010 or, at worst, 2009. He’s been awful from 2011 onward with an attitude to match and his ERA has risen by over 3 ½  runs since the end of June 2010 while his velocity has declined by 4-5 mph. Nobody’s expecting him to keep up an ERA under two, but over five? 92-94 is plenty enough fastball to be effective. He has a club option for 2014 at $8 million that he can void himself since he was traded mid-contract. If he’s as bad as he was over the past two seasons, the Indians will trade him at mid-season or sever ties after the season.

Relief Pitching Key: Chris Perez

Perez’s complaints about the Indians fans not caring and the front office not spending any money were assuaged this past winter, but he has to hold his end of the bargain up by getting the job done in the ninth inning. The Indians are better than they were, but they’re not good enough to afford blowing games in the late innings. To make matters more precarious, Perez’s status for opening day is in question because of a shoulder strain. He could also be traded if the Indians are underperforming and Vinnie Pestano indicates he can handle the job.

Offensive Key: Carlos Santana

For all the talk of Santana being an offensive force and the Dodgers making a huge mistake by trading him to get Casey Blake, he’s been something of a disappointment. Santana’s productive, but not the unstoppable masher he was supposed to be. If he’s able to be a competent defensive catcher then his current offensive numbers are fine; if he has to be shifted to first base, he’s a guy you can find on the market.

Defensive Key: Santana

Whether or not the Indians have the depth to contend is not known yet. I don’t think they do. Regardless with the new manager and the money they’ve spent, they have to be competent and that hinges on the pitching. The starting rotation behind Justin Masterson and Brett Myers are temperamental (Jimenez); young, difficult and have already yapped their way out of one venue (Trevor Bauer); and are scrapheap reclamation projects (Daisuke Matsuzaka and Scott Kazmir). Manager Terry Francona might look at Santana’s defense and realize he can’t win with him behind the plate. Santana at first base would make everyone else move to a different position and force a far weaker offensive catcher into the lineup in Santana’s place.

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Javier Vazquez’s Comeback and Potential Suitors

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Javier Vazquez surprisingly retired after a solid season for the Marlins in 2011 in which he posted a 13-11 record; a 3.69 ERA; a hits/innings pitched ratio of 178/192 with 50 walks and 178 strikeouts. It must be added that he also had a dreadful start, pitching terribly until mid-June. For the entire second half, he was a different pitcher, one who was in demand as a free agent and chose to “retire” at age 35.

He can still pitch, just not as a Yankee, having failed there twice. I certainly wouldn’t bring him back to the Yankees, nor to Boston or Baltimore, but every other contending or would-be contending club is an option and Vazquez, while not saying he’s definitely returning, will pitch in the World Baseball Classic for Puerto Rico and has said he’s considering a comeback to MLB. For a $10 million payday, why not?

So which teams could use Vazquez and meet the criteria as contender?

Let’s take a look.

Toronto Blue Jays

The Blue Jays don’t really need another starter, but I suppose they could trade Ricky Romero and attach Adam Lind to him to get Lind’s contract off the roster in exchange for a 1B/DH bat and install Vazquez into the spot, but I’d keep Vazquez away from the AL East.

Tampa Bay Rays

Vazquez isn’t coming back for an incentive-laden deal with a low base salary, which is essentially the only method in which the Rays invest in free agents as they did with Roberto Hernandez (née Fausto Carmona). Tampa would be a good spot in every aspect, but they can’t pay him.

Cleveland Indians

The Indians agreed to terms with Brett Myers yesterday and are using him as a starter. They’re clearly intent on trying to win within their means under new manager Terry Francona and Vazquez would fall into the veteran starting pitcher template. Francona’s gentle handling of his players would suit Vazquez.

Los Angeles Angels

Vazquez is better than Joe Blanton, Tommy Hanson and Jason Vargas, but again, teams didn’t know Vazquez was available. The Angels don’t have any room for him now.

Texas Rangers

His penchant for allowing home runs is a concern in Texas, but their infield defense would also help him greatly. They’re a contender, would prefer a pitcher on a short-term contract and have had success with pitchers like Colby Lewis who’ve left for Japan and came back to MLB making Vazquez’s departure and return a non-issue.

The Rangers are a definite possibility.

Washington Nationals

The Nationals are waiting out Adam LaRoche and his free agency tour. In a free agency family tree sort of situation, LaRoche might go to the Red Sox if their contract snag with Mike Napoli isn’t ironed out and the deal comes undone. If that’s the case, the Nats won’t be able to trade Mike Morse. If they can trade Morse, they can move him for a starting pitcher. Or they can sign Vazquez and worry about the other stuff later.

Vazquez spent the first six years of his career with the Nats organization when they were in Montreal. He’s a perfect fit back in the NL East where he had his best years and pitching for a legitimate World Series contender in Washington.

Atlanta Braves

The Braves have enough starting pitching, so much so that they traded Hanson to the Angels for Jordan Walden. But Brandon Beachy is returning from Tommy John surgery and Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado are kids, so there’s a spot for a veteran like Vazquez if they want him. Vazquez had the year of his life with the Braves in 2009, won 15 games (he should have won 22) and finished 4th in the NL Cy Young voting. It’s doubtful they’d do it, but it’s logical.

Philadelphia Phillies

Vazquez is better than John Lannan and Kyle Kendrick—the two pitchers at the back of the Phillies rotation and gigantic steps down from the top three of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels—but the home run ball would be an issue for Vazquez and the Phillies offense and defense aren’t what they once were to account for Vazquez’s faults. He’d surrender a ton of homers in Philadelphia. He’s probably ill-suited mentally to the fans of Philadelphia booing him if he pitches 6 no-hit innings and then gives up a run in the seventh with the team leading 10-1.

Milwaukee Brewers

They desperately need starting pitching and have money to spend, but I’m not sure they’re contenders even though they can hit.

Pittsburgh Pirates

They just spent a large portion of available funds on Francisco Liriano. But they might be able to swing Vazquez. They’re intriguing for Vazquez and vice versa. The Pirates are a NL Central club with a big ballpark and enough young talent to be taken seriously as a contender, so perhaps they can work something out with Vazquez if they clear some money elsewhere.

San Diego Padres

The Padres don’t have a ton of money to toss around nor status as a winter contender, but they could surprise in 2013 with their onrushing young talent. They also brought the fences in and lowered the walls at Petco Park, which would affect a homer-prone pitcher like Vazquez.

They could jump in on him in a surprise move.

Vazquez didn’t plan this very well if he wanted to start a bidding war. He realistically could’ve guaranteed himself $12 million if he’d made his services available at the conclusion of the 2012 season and seen the bidding go up with a 1-year deal plus an option with the requisite buyout. He could’ve made $15 million if he’d played it right.

All things considered, Vazquez and the Nationals are destined to wind up together. That’s if he decides to pitch; and if the Nats don’t trade Morse; and Yankees GM Brian Cashman doesn’t try to prove himself “right” by going after Vazquez again for the Yankees.

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The Pirates Are Where The Astros Hope To Be 3-5 Years From Now

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Reviving a dead franchise doesn’t happen overnight and creating a Frankenstein monster of discarded body parts (AKA players who no one else wants and have to be overpaid to join a perennial loser) while hoping for lightning to strike at just the right moment is random, desperate and doomed to fail. The Pirates of the past two decades were in the same position as the current Astros club multiple times with rebuilds, plans, schemes and different architects. Now the Pirates are winning with their own young players and a low payroll. The Astros are starting over after years of trying to win immediately and neglecting the farm system. Both sides are acting intelligently.

The Pirates have the prospects to get any player they want via trade, but chose to take the conservative route in getting Wandy Rodriguez from the Astros.

The Astros are clearing the decks in preparation for their move to the American League.

Both sides gain from the deal that sent Rodriguez from the Astros to the Pirates for three minor leaguers, lefty pitcher Rudy Owens; lefty pitcher Colton Cain; and outfielder Robbie Grossman. Rodriguez’s contract stipulations and the amount the Astros are paying is below, clipped from this article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

Rodriguez’s contract pays him $10 million this season and $13 million next year as part of a three-year, $34 million contract he signed before the 2011 season. He has a $13 million club option for 2014 that becomes a player option because he was traded.

According to an industry source, the Pirates are responsible for $1.7 million of Rodriguez’s remaining salary in 2012, $8.5 million in 2013 and $7.5 million in 2014. The Pirates only receive cash from the Astros in 2014 if Rodriguez exercises his option.

Rodriguez has long been underrated, is durable, and throws strikes.

In addition to the Rodriguez move, the Pirates are recalling top outfield prospect Starling Marte. It’s doubtful that they’re doing it to showcase him for a trade as other clubs would; the Pirates let their prospects play and it appears as if they’re saying that they’re going to win with their youngsters and a financially sensible plan rather than deal them for veterans, increase the payroll and commit to older players. It’s simplistic to say, “Get ‘X’ veteran star and a young team on the way up will automatically be a contender,” but it doesn’t work that way. The Pirates have turned the corner, in part, because this group was allowed to develop together and there are no star divas in the clubhouse to interfere with manager Clint Hurdle’s discipline. I’d be hesitant to mess with the chemistry by importing a star. Rodriguez is not a star, but he’s pretty good and he’ll benefit from the Pirates vast home park and good defense.

For the Astros, the criticism of Jeff Luhnow sounds similar to the grumpy and idiotic ranting of the crotchety old men who wouldn’t understand OPS if it was mixed in their Metamucil as they scoffed and ridiculed the Astros’ hiring of “non” baseball people Sig Mejdal and Stephanie Wilka to be integral parts of his front office. Luhnow partially invites the eye-rolling with the new age titles such as “Director of Decision Sciences” for his hires and his over-technical manner of speaking as if to say, “These are complicated matters,” when they’re really not all that complicated. But none of that matters once the decisions start being made and the Astros are making the right decisions. Are they supposed to spend money on mediocre veteran players to win 70 games when, by the end of this season and next, it’s going to do more damage to the organization?

They’re moving to the American League West in 2013 to a division with the Rangers, Angels, resurgent Athletics and a Mariners organization flush with young pitching. It makes zero sense to keep or acquire veterans now. As for the suggestion that the Astros are getting middling prospects for their veterans, what were they supposed to get? Their system was barren when Luhnow arrived and he’s stocking it with volume and players he might be able to use. He’s slashing players with high salaries like Rodriguez, Carlos Lee and Brett Myers who aren’t going to be with the team if and when they turn the corner into contention. He’s doing the smart thing.

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Mid-Season Player Trade Predictions—National League

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Yesterday I predicted where various available American League players would wind up (or if they won’t be traded at all). Now let’s have a look at the National League. Bear one thing in mind: the irony shouldn’t be lost on you that Brett Myers was traded from the Astros to the White Sox and the “insiders” and rumormongering schlock sites had no inkling that Myers was even on the White Sox’ radar. They don’t have any more viable information than you or I do and are either making things up or working hand-in-hand with organizations and one another to wag the dog and accumulate webhits, attention and increase advertising rates.

Know what you’re reading and determine credibility based on logic and intelligence, not a circular reputation based on a shoddy foundation.

New York Mets

Ike Davis, 1B—He hasn’t been rumored anywhere that I’ve seen, but if they can move Davis as part of a deal for Justin Upton, it has to be explored. Davis has power, is a good fielder and his teammates love him, but he strikes out way too much; is streaky; and has a growing negative reputation with the umpires as a whiner. If he thinks the whining is going to get him close calls, he’s sorely mistaken. He won’t be traded in-season; in the off-season, the Mets will listen.

Daniel Murphy, 2B/1B/3B—He can hit and does have the ability to hit the ball out of the park 10-15 times a year in spite of his low power numbers in 2012; his defense at second base has been serviceable and no one works harder, but is he going to be the Mets’ second baseman when they take the next step into contention? If not, they should explore dealing him for pitching help. He’ll go as part of a deal for Huston Street so the Mets can get Jordany Valdespin into the lineup.

Scott Hairston, OF—The talk of trading the likes of R.A. Dickey at his “high value” is ridiculous, but they could get bullpen help for Hairston. I doubt they trade him.

Jason Bay, OF—They could get a similarly bad contract like Chone Figgins and probably money to pay off a worse contract like Vernon Wells. It would be best for everyone, but Bay’s not going anywhere now. They’ll release him after the season.

Miami Marlins

Carlos Zambrano, RHP—Nobody wants him and after yesterday’s display of 6 walks in 3.1 innings and his awful pitching of late, when the Marlins start making the inevitable changes, they’ll just release him and make a big show of it as evidence of them “doing something”.

Hanley Ramirez, 3B/SS—They won’t trade Hanley in-season. If they make a move, it’ll be over the winter. Even then, I doubt they’ll pull the trigger. In fact, amid all the talk of a “Marlins sell-off”, they can’t clean out the house halfway into the first season in a new park just because the flawed team they put together hasn’t performed. Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson and Giancarlo Stanton aren’t going anywhere…for now.

Logan Morrison, LF/1B—LoMo is another matter. He’s too one-dimensional to be this much of an organizational pest. He irritated the club with his tweeting and subversive behaviors and if they’d like to set an example, this is the way to do it.

The Orioles need a bat who can hit the ball out of the park.

Ricky Nolasco, RHP—Nolasco needs a change of scenery and if teams realize the Marlins are moving some pieces after the names that are floating around now are off the board, Nolasco’s a pretty good consolation prize. The Cardinals could use him.

Anibal Sanchez, RHP—Another former Red Sox’ farmhand like Ramirez, he’s available and very good when he’s healthy. Back to the Red Sox he goes.

Heath Bell, RHP—Who wants the contract? Who wants him? Nobody and nobody.

Omar Infante, 2B—They won’t trade him.

John Buck, C—Who wants him?

Greg Dobbs, 3B/OF/PH—The Giants need a bat off the bench.

Philadelphia Phillies

Cole Hamels, LHP—They’re going to sign him.

Cliff Lee, LHP—Here’s a flash for the Joel Shermans of the world of which there are far too many: THEY’RE NOT TRADING LEE!!!!

Shane Victorino, OF—The Yankees are being pushed to acquire an outfielder they don’t need and are said to have asked about Victorino. He’ll be traded and I say to the Indians.

Ty Wigginton, INF—He’s a Kirk Gibson-type player who’d help the Diamondbacks as a corner infielder and bat off the bench.

Hunter Pence, OF—They’re not trading Pence.

Jimmy Rollins, SS—If they’d like to free up some money for Hamels, they could explore getting rid of Rollins. The Giants like veterans, but Brandon Crawford hit a grand slam yesterday; they demoted Brandon Belt; if the Giants look for a bat, it will be at first base. Nobody’s taking Rollins.

Juan Pierre, OF—The Cardinals could use bench help and speed.

Placido Polanco, INF—Back to the Tigers.

Joe Blanton, RHP—The Orioles need a starter to gobble innings.

Milwaukee Brewers

Zack Greinke, RHP—Greinke won’t sign long-term with the Brewers, but they’re close enough to contention to hang onto him and take the draft pick when he leaves.

Randy Wolf, LHP—Another pitcher who will be on the second tier after the names come off the board. He’ll go to the Dodgers.

Shaun Marcum, RHP—He won’t be traded.

Aramis Ramirez, 3B—Nobody’s taking that contract.

Francisco Rodriguez, RHP—Back to the Angels.

Chicago Cubs

Matt Garza, RHP—The blogosphere went bonkers when Garza was yanked from last night’s game after 3 innings. “Was he traded?” “Where was he traded?”

He wasn’t traded. He had cramping in his triceps.

Unless the Cubs are knocked over, why trade him now? He’s under contract for 2013 and whatever they’d get now, they can get after the season. He’ll stay.

Ryan Dempster, RHP—Don’t buy into the teams that are supposedly “out” on Dempster. He’s a Jim Leyland-type of pitcher and the Tigers need starting pitching.

Starlin Castro, SS—They’ll listen but won’t move him in-season.

Geovany Soto, C—If he’s moved, it will be in the winter.

Bryan LaHair, 1B—With the Giants sending Belt to the minors, they need a bat at first base.

Carlos Marmol, RHP—I don’t know who’d want him. He strikes out a lot of hitters, but walks a lot as well.

Alfonso Soriano, LF/DH—The Cubs would have to pay off his remaining contract ($36 million for 2013-2014), but what’s the difference at this point? I doubt anyone’s taking him even for free.

Houston Astros

Wandy Rodriguez, LHP—He’s owed up to $26 million for next season with his 2014 option becoming guaranteed with a trade. The Blue Jays need pitching and have money and prospects to deal.

Wesley Wright, LHP—The Rangers need another lefty reliever for the playoffs.

Arizona Diamondbacks

Justin Upton, RF—They’ve made such an overt display of putting him on the market, they pretty much have to trade him now. The Rays will jump in with a package and hope that the unification of the Justin with his brother B.J. Upton will inspire B.J. to play hard over the second half and perhaps steal another playoff spot.

Stephen Drew, SS—The Braves need a shortstop and Paul Janish ain’t it.

Ryan Roberts, INF/OF—Roberts is a utility player who had a career year in 2011 and the Diamondbacks began to think he’s an everyday player. They’ll keep him and put him back where he belongs as an extra bench man.

San Diego Padres

Chase Headley, 3B—Their demands are high for a controllable player and won’t trade him.

Carlos Quentin, LF—He and the Padres are supposedly nearing a contract extension.

Huston Street, RHP—He’ll go to the Mets.

Luke Gregerson, RHP—They won’t trade him.

Clayton Richard, LHP—They won’t trade him.

Joe Thatcher, LHP—The Indians need another lefty out of the bullpen.

Edinson Volquez, RHP—They won’t trade him.

Colorado Rockies

Dexter Fowler, CF—They’d listen but won’t move him. If GM Dan O’Dowd goes to ownership with a deal that’s as big as it would be to trade Fowler and ownership says to hold off, O’Dowd should start getting boxes for his stuff and prepare to clean out his office.

Rafael Betancourt, RHP—Back to the Indians.

Ramon Hernandez, C—The Rays have interest and that’s where he’ll go.

Jason Giambi, 1B/PH—The Reds need a lefty bat off the bench who can play sparingly at first base until Joey Votto is 100%.

Carlos Gonzalez, OF—More nonsense from Joel Sherman who said recently that the Yankees (shocking coming from Sherman) should go after Gonzalez. He’s not available even to the Yankees who, supposedly, are preordained to be handed whatever they want whether it be Lee, Gonzalez or whoever.

Gonzalez’s not getting dealt.

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Luhnow Is Providing A Blueprint To Rebuild A Dead Franchise

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When he was hired as the Astros GM, there was a chance that Jeff Luhnow was going to repeat the mistakes made by former assistants whose resume was based more on statistical analysis, pure numbers and being among number of people who found their way into baseball as a byproduct of Moneyball fallout. Could he run a club? Or would he fall into the same traps that befell Paul DePodesta and have put Jack Zduriencik on shaky ground?

It didn’t take long for for Luhnow to disappoint the hard core stat people who thought one of their “own” had gotten a GM job when he made Brett Myers a closer even though Myers is capable of starting. The lament was something to the tune of, “I don’t understand it,” as if Luhnow was betraying them. But in reality, it’s easily understood. He’s a man running a baseball team and is unwilling to make a decision based on perception and adhering to a formula at the expense of what’s right in practice. If that means making Myers into a closer, then that’s what he’s going to do.

His draft decisions were in a similar vein. Had he stuck to the original Moneyball script, he’d have taken Mark Appel or some other college player; instead he selected Carlos Correa, a shortstop out of high school. Whatever Correa becomes, the concept behind taking a high school players—abhorrent to the Moneyball school of thought from 10 years ago—is that the Astros went for the high-end talent rather than the safe and explainable pick of a developed college player.

In the trade made today between the Astros and Blue Jays, the Astros sent LHP J.A. Happ, RHP Brandon Lyon, and RHP David Carpenter to the Blue Jays for RHP Francisco Cordero, OF Ben Francisco, and minor leaguers RHP Joseph Musgrove, RHP Asher Wojciechowski, LHP David Rollins and OF Carlos Perez.

Cordero is going to get spun off to a reliever-hungry team. Francisco did nothing for the Blue Jays, but is cheap and might have some use for the Astros as an extra outfielder in the future.

There’s a perception that Happ is still a young kid because he hasn’t been around that long, but he’s going to be 30 in October. His stuff is impressive, but hasn’t pitched particularly well for the Astros and by the time they’re ready to take the next step into contention, Happ will either be heading toward his mid-30s or will have left as a free agent. Lyon is a veteran reliever who is good at times and gives up a lot of home runs. Carpenter is 27-years-old and has a live arm. But the bottom line with all of these players is that they were essentially useless to the Astros as anything other than trade chips and Luhnow cashed them. The young players that the Astros received will help stock a mostly barren farm system and are “might bes” as opposed to the mediocrity they had and knew they had.

Luhnow’s doing a terrific job for the Astros so far.

The Blue Jays are a different matter than the Astros. GM Alex Anthopoulos, referred to as a “genius” not too long ago, is making desperation deals to salvage the unsalvageable. They’re two games under .500 and no one—least of all them—seems to know what they are. Are they contenders? Are they building for the future? Are they trying to win now while building for the future?

They have a lot of good individual players on the roster but, as usual, there’s something wrong. It’s elusive and difficult to pinpoint, but it’s there.

Manager John Farrell still makes bizarre strategic decisions and as much as the respect he’s accumulated throughout baseball, a manager still has to manage the game correctly and his lack of experience in the dugout, as well as the fact that he’s a former pitcher, are causing issues that have to be addressed. They’ve had devastating injuries to a young pitching staff, but the acquisitions of Sergio Santos and Cordero to take over the back-end of the bullpen plainly and simply didn’t work. Happ fills a hole in the rotation, but he’s had arm problems in his history. Lyon and Carpenter are capable out of the bullpen with Lyon a free agent at the end of the season. The Blue Jays are building for a now that doesn’t actually exist anywhere but in their misplaced hopes of being contenders. Being a contender implies winning and that’s something they do not do on a consistent enough basis to justify getting players for the immediate future trying to realize a dream that’s clearly not going to come to fruition in 2012.

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National League Central—Buy, Sell or Stand Pat?

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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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General Manager is Not a Baseball Job, it’s a Political Office

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Fans of the Mariners should be very afraid if this story from Jon Paul Morosi is true.

Truth is, of course, relative. Mariners’ GM Jack Zduriencik might be following orders from ownership that Ichiro Suzuki is staying with the club no matter what; it might be that he’s saying things he knows aren’t true to keep the media sharks from following him and Ichiro around to ask what’s going to happen; or he could actually plan to keep a declining and old player as a centerpiece of his club on the field and in the lineup. In any case, it’s frightening and piggybacks on the Geoff Baker story from last week that said the Mariners have no intention of contending before 2015.

It’s stunning how the stat people who held Zduriencik as a totem for their beliefs abandoned him. No longer is he referred to as a “truly Amazin’ exec” who worked his way up through baseball in scouting and has embraced advanced stats to build his team. There’s no hope if they intend to move forward with Ichiro. Period.

All of this highlights the difficulty in being a GM in today’s game. Gone are the days when the name of the GM was only known because George Steinbrenner had just fired him. Do you know, without looking, who the GM of the Earl Weaver Orioles was? Or the “We Are Family” Pirates? Or the Red Sox in the 1970s?

No, you don’t. But if you don’t know the names of the GMs in today’s game then you’re not a real fan. It’s not a job anymore, it’s a political office. Not everyone is cut out to be a politician and by now Zduriencik is like a hamster running on a treadmill in some rich guy’s office. If it’s true that he believes Ichiro is still a “franchise player” then he should be fired.

If it’s true that upper management is telling him that Ichiro stays no matter what, he needs to say enough already with the interference and that he must be allowed to run the team correctly if he’s going to stay in the job.

Let’s say that he’s trying to take pressure off of Ichiro and the organization. If that’s the case, then he needs to learn to say the words, “We’ll address that at the end of the season but we have great respect for what Ichiro has accomplished here.”

Now if they do anything with Ichiro other than bring him back, Zduriencik’s inability to effectively play the game of lying without lying is even more reason why he shouldn’t be a GM.

There are the typical GMs and ex-GMs who are treated as idiots by outsiders who haven’t the faintest idea of how difficult a job it truly is. Dayton Moore is great at building farm systems but has proven wanting in making trades and signing free agents. Jon Daniels isn’t that far away from being considered an idiot after trading Adrian Gonzalez for Adam Eaton and Akinori Otsuka. Ken Williams—who’s won a World Series—had to endure all sorts of absurd criticisms for his management style last winter and now has a team in first place. And like a professional wrestler whose ring persona alternates from “heel” to “face” depending on what the company needs and which feud would bring in the most pay-per-view purchases, Billy Beane has the Moneyball “genius” rhetoric attached to him again because some of the young players he acquired last winter are playing well and manager Bob Melvin has the Athletics performing five miles over their heads.

Again, in spite of the Moneyball strategy no longer existing in the form in which it was presented, Beane is serving as validation for numbers above all else, reality be damned.

Which is it? Are they geniuses? Are they idiots? Are they politicians? Are they people trying to do a job that’s become impossible to do without angering someone?

Do you know?

What makes it worse is the “someones” they’re angering are either using them for personal interests or don’t have the first clue as to what they’re talking about.

If Jeff Luhnow thought he’d be safe from their wrath—unleashed behind the safety and anonymity of computer screens—he learned pretty quickly that he wasn’t. The idea of, “they believe what I believe” didn’t protect him from the poisonous barbs and accusations of betrayal from the everyday readers of Fangraphs when he chose to make Brett Myers his closer. Even the paper thin-skinned armchairiest of armchair experts, Keith Law, to whom Luhnow supposedly offered a job (although I don’t really believe he did) went after his would-be boss questioning the decision.

It’s easy to criticize when not responsible for the organization; when there’s no accountability and one has the option of never admitting they’re wrong about anything as a means to bolster credibility. This, in reality, does nothing other than display one’s weaknesses and lack of confidence. It’s no badge of honor to never make a mistake.

It’s the easiest thing in the world to be the “I’d do” guy. I’d do this. I’d do that. But would they “do” what they say they’d do? Or would they want to quit after one day? After one negative column from a former friend? After understanding that being a GM isn’t about making trades, signing players and being a hero, but about drudgery and having to use ambiguous phrasing to keep from saying anything at all?

Do you think a GM or an inside baseball person wants to hear criticisms from the likes of Joe Sheehan? From Law? From Joel Sherman? Could these media experts handle the job and the savagery to which a GM in today’s game is subjected every…single…day? They’d curl into the fetal position and cry.

I’d never, ever last more than a week as a GM because: A) I don’t have the patience to answer ridiculous and repetitive questions from reporters; B) I can’t play the game of giving nuggets that I know are lies or exaggerations to media outlets and bloggers in order to maintain a solid relationship with them and exchange splashy headlines for the stuff I want out there for my own benefit; and C) I’m incapable of placating an owner or boss to the degree where I lose credibility.

Whichever one Zduriencik is doing is grounds for a change.

There comes a time when enough’s enough and this Ichiro nonsense, to me, is it.

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Surprise Buyers—American League

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Let’s look at some teams that are unexpectedly hovering around contention, what they need and who they should pursue.

Baltimore Orioles

The Orioles could use a starting pitcher and a bat (or two). One of the bats has to be able to play the outfield competently.

Dan Duquette is looking pretty smart for his under-the-radar off-season maneuvers getting Jason Hammel, Matt Lindstrom and Wei-Yin Chen. He’s not going to gut the system for a big name should one come available, nor should he.

Ryan Dempster is the type of middling pitcher they should pursue. Matt Garza can be had. Cole Hamels isn’t worth the cost for a rental unless they know they’re going to sign him.

Jim Thome has been mentioned as a DH option and he’d provide an offensive boost on the field and would be a stabilizing, quietly strong veteran leader off the field.

Carlos Lee is available from the Astros; if the Cubs are willing to give them Alfonso Soriano for a moderate prospect and pay his salary, the change to a club in the pennant race could really wake up his bat—and he’s been hitting homers lately anyway.

Carlos Quentin is on the block from the Padres.

Chicago White Sox

It was supposed to be a bridge year for the White Sox with a new manager, Robin Ventura and an altered configuration and strategy. But they’ve taken advantage of a mediocre AL Central and are in first place.

They could use a starting pitcher and if they’re still hovering around the top of the division and Wild Card at the deadline, GM Ken Williams is going to go for a big name—that means Hamels or Garza.

For the bullpen they could pursue Huston Street (who I’m not a fan of), Brett Myers, Brandon League or Grant Balfour.

Cleveland Indians

It’s time to forget about Grady Sizemore and to not expect any long term health from Travis Hafner when he returns.

They need a bat that can play centerfield.

Shane Victorino is a pending free agent and the Phillies are soon going to be teetering on holding out for the return of their stars or accepting that this isn’t their season and moving forward for 2013.

Chase Headley would be an upgrade over journeyman Jack Hannahan at third base; he can also play the outfield and first base.

Casey Kotchman has been a disaster at first base. I wouldn’t give up much to get Carlos Lee, but I’d take him.

The Indians’ starting pitching isn’t impressive statistically, but there’s enough there to wait without overspending on an outsider.

They could use a bullpen arm or two and should check with the Padres on Street and the Rockies on bringing Rafael Betancourt back to Cleveland.

Kansas City Royals

What’s with all this talk of the Royals selling? They’re 5 ½ games out of first place.

Ravaged by injuries to their starting rotation, they need arms. They have the prospects to do something major like bringing Zack Greinke back. They have the money to sign him long term.

On the surface, they could use a power bat but they just got Salvador Perez back and there’s reason to believe that they have enough pop if Alex Gordon and Eric Hosmer start hitting the ball out of the park.

I wouldn’t go too crazy trying to win now, but I’d explore what’s out there to improve in the short and long terms.

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A Bullpen Name To Consider: Billy Wagner

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The lusty pursuit of Roy Oswalt was tiresome, over-the-top and received far too much attention for a pitcher who might help and might wind up on the disabled list with his recurrent back problems after one start or fewer. The Rangers signed Oswalt and he’s low risk/good reward. Oswalt’s demands for location and money were such that there were few teams to satisfy him. He appeared to use the Red Sox to drive up the price for the Rangers and would not have had any interest in pitching for either of the New York teams or on the West Coast. Nor did he want to pitch for a team with no shot at the playoffs. In the end, it came down to the Rangers and possibly back to the Phillies.

While all that was going on, teams were shifting the pieces of their bullpens all over the place. Closers were demoted, threatened with demotion or injured. The number of teams that are seeking bullpen help is about as large as those seeking starting pitching and there are likely to be more useful starters available. Matt Garza, Ryan Dempster, Wandy Rodriguez, Bartolo Colon and Francisco Liriano are all out there for the taking.

As for relievers, what’s out there? Brett Myers, Matt Capps, Brandon League and a few stragglers. They can help, but they’d require prospects.

There is a free agent name who retired when he still had bullets in his gun. Those bullets traveled at near-triple digit speeds.

I’m talking about Billy Wagner.

Has any team called Wagner to gauge how he’s feeling in retirement with his family and overseeing his alpaca farm in Virginia? Wondered whether he’d like a chance at a $5 million payday for three (and hopefully four) months work and walk away with a post-season check and maybe a championship ring?

If not, they should.

Wagner is going to be 41 on July 25th, but the time off let him rest his arm and it’s a good bet that he still has competitive juices similar to those that coaxed Andy Pettitte out of retirement for the Yankees. If Wagner was around the game again, would he want to pitch?

A team that thinks outside the box should try.

The list of teams that could use Wagner is longer than the list that couldn’t. He’s pitched in Boston and New York so he’s not afraid of the big stage. He spent two years in Philadelphia so a rough fanbase won’t intimidate him. He’s got post-season experience and would boost the bullpens of either of the New York teams as well as the Marlins, Dodgers, Giants, Phillies, Red Sox, Angels, White Sox, Orioles, Nationals, Rangers, Cardinals, Reds, Diamondbacks and Rays. The Nats and Orioles especially would work because of their proximity to Virginia.

He’s not going to cost much and while he’d probably say no, he might say yes.

Either way, it’s worth a phone call. Just to see.

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The Giants Must Address Their Closer Situation

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The Giants’ loss of Brian Wilson unravels much of their winning strategy.

Santiago Casilla was designated as the replacement closer when it was revealed that Wilson would miss the rest of the season with Tommy John surgery.

That decision was either short-lived or not final-final because when Casilla started the ninth inning of Friday night’s game against the Mets with a 3-2 lead, he had a short leash of one batter. Jason Bay led off with an infield hit and manager Bruce Bochy yanked Casilla in favor of Javier Lopez to pitch to the Mets lefties Lucas Duda, Kirk Nieuwenhuis and Josh Thole.

Strategically, it was the correct move even though it didn’t work. But if Wilson were available, Wilson would’ve been pitching regardless of lefty or righty bats coming to the plate.

The Mets tied the game and the Giants won the game in the tenth inning, but to do it they had to use Lopez, Sergio Romo and Clay Hensley to finish the game when, under normal circumstances, they would’ve used one pitcher, Wilson.

And that’s the problem.

The Giants have a very strong bullpen as long as they have a legitimate closer to be the linchpin. When there’s such disarray as to the roles and the pitchers don’t know when they’re going to be called on, it turns into anarchy that makes it very hard to win. Bochy has never functioned with a closer by committee; there are managers who can do that. Davey Johnson likes to have more than one short reliever racking up the saves; Buck Showalter and Joe Maddon are capable of doing it. It’s not a strength of Bochy. For his entire managerial career he’s either had Trevor Hoffman and Wilson. The haphazard way in which they’re coping with Wilson’s loss is indicative of Bochy’s need to have that ace in the bullpen.

As much as the Giants’ starting pitching is considered their strength, the problem they now have is that without Wilson, they’re likely to reconsider pulling their starters when they normally would because they might need them to go deeper into the games. As the season winds down, that extra stress and workload due to the absence of Wilson will take its toll on the team—a team that isn’t going to run away with any division. They’re going to make their playoff run in September and have to be healthy and fresh.

Tim Lincecum should be fine; Matt Cain is a workhorse; Madison Bumgarner is a rising star; Ryan Vogelsong and Barry Zito are still question marks. Zito especially, with his 84 mph fastball, has zero margin for error and, in a larger scope, nor do the Giants.

It’s very hard to compete when relying so desperately on the starting pitching and having an All-Star closer if that closer is no longer there. Their defense has been horrible and they don’t hit. When you combine the sequence of events, it’s going to be a bad ending in San Francisco unless they do something definitive to address one or more of these issues.

They’re going to need someone who can close.

Brett Myers is likely to be available; I’d prefer Carlos Marmol whom the Cubs will absolutely want to unload.

When Wilson went down, so did the Giants blueprint. It has to be dealt with. Soon.

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