Odds On Tanaka And Why He’ll End Up With The Yankees

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Masahiro Tanaka’s deadline to pick a team is Friday. In the past, the waiting game on Japanese players was based on whether the team that won the bidding would make a sufficient offer to sign the player. Limited as it was to a single team, the Japanese import had the options of either using the dull axe—which the team knew would never leave his belt—of going back to Japan, or making the best deal he could.

There was pressure on the team that won the bidding as well. After a month of promotion, ticket sales and hype, winning the bidding meant the player had to be signed.

With the new rules, Tanaka’s a pure free agent with the forgettable and meaningless deadline. The threat of him going back to Japan to play is less than zero. Because of that, instead of the manufactured drama of “will he or won’t he?!?” sign a contract in time, the speculation is where he’ll wind up.

You can log onto the schlock sites, sports news sites and clearinghouses and fall into their trap. Preying on the fans’ desperation for information about Tanaka, they’re trolling you with information that, at best, stretches even the most elastic boundaries of common sense. The sheeple are clamoring and clawing for a minuscule smidgen of news about Tanaka. For the rank-and-file fan rooting for teams out of the bidding, it’s a distraction in the cold winter. For fans of the teams that are in the running for the pitcher, they’re looking for validation as to why their team will get him and “win” the sweepstakes.

Ignoring all the ancillary nonsense, let’s look at the realistic odds based on what we actually know and not what’s planted to garner webhits with speculation, whispers and rumors from invisible sources that might not exist.

New York Yankees

Odds: 1-2

Initially, I thought the Yankees were one of the leading contenders, but not alone at the top of the list. In my estimation, they were even with the Mariners and Cubs. Now, however, the Yankees are the best bet to get Tanaka. In a similar fashion as the Yankees being seen as a darkhorse for Mark Teixeira while the Red Sox were the team with whom he was widely expected to sign, the Yankees dove in and got their man. With Tanaka, they don’t have much of a choice anymore. Their starting pitching is woefully short and in spite of the offense they’re going to get from the outfield additions Carlos Beltran and Jacoby Ellsbury and catcher Brian McCann, their infield is currently a series of aged question marks, journeymen and massive holes. The bullpen is a mess; the starting rotation is a roll of the dice. Tanaka won’t solve those problems if he solves any at all—no one knows how a Japanese player will transition—but they need him not just on the field but at the box office.

It’s unconscionable that the Yankees have had everything go their way in terms of the Alex Rodriguez suspension, that they received inconceivable salary relief in their goal to get below $189 million and they’re still probably not going to be able to do it. Since they’re near the limit and have those holes to fill, it no longer makes sense for them to put forth the pretense of getting below the limit at the cost of losing out on Tanaka and having a roster that’s equal to or worse than the one that won 85 games last season.

They don’t have any other options apart from pitchers they don’t want in Ubaldo Jimenez, Matt Garza, Ervin Santana and Bronson Arroyo. They could trade Brett Gardner for a middling starter, but that’s not going to sell tickets for a fanbase looking at this team and wondering where they’re headed.

The Yankees have every reason to tell Tanaka’s representative Casey Close that if there’s an offer that surpasses theirs, to come back to them for a final offer to get their man.

Los Angeles Dodgers

Odds: 2-1

When Mike Tyson was at the height of his powers as the heavyweight champion of the world and didn’t have the tax collectors garnishing his salary to pay his debts, he purchased on whims based on his limitless bank account. One story detailed Tyson driving past a luxury car dealership and driving in with one luxury car to purchase another one. He did it because he felt like it, because he could.

That’s the sense I get with the Dodgers.

Whether or not you believe the stories of Tanaka’s wife preferring the West Coast, if Tanaka signs with the Dodgers—or anyone—it will be because that’s the team that offered him the best deal. The Dodgers have locked up Clayton Kershaw and have Zack Greinke. If Tanaka’s anywhere close to as good as advertised, that top three is 1990s Braves-like, if not better. They have the money to spend and both Chad Billingsley and Josh Beckett are coming off the books after 2014. He’s not a need for them. If they sign him it’s because they wanted to. It’s as good a reason as any when dealing with a payroll whose limit appears to be nonexistent.

Seattle Mariners

Odds: 6-1

The Mariners haven’t been mentioned prominently in recent days, but there are numerous reasons not to count them out. They signed Robinson Cano, but the other “big” additions they made were Corey Hart and Logan Morrison. These were downgrading moves from Raul Ibanez and Kendrys Morales.

Other than Cano, what have they done to get significantly better from what they were in 2013? Tanaka will slot in right behind Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma and be in front of Taijuan Walker and James Paxton. The injury to Danny Hultzen limits some of the Mariners’ vaunted pitching depth and they need another arm and another name to draw fans. Cano will spur some ticket sales and if they lose out on Tanaka, the fans might draw some slight enthusiasm from Garza, Santana or Jimenez, but not as much as they’d get from Tanaka. They could trade for David Price, but that would cost them Walker plus others.

No matter who they sign, the Mariners won’t have fans coming to the ballpark if they’re 20-30 after 50 games, Cano or no Cano. Tanaka would bring fans into the park and it’s a good situation for him.

There’s talk that the Mariners are close to the limit on their payroll and they need approval from ownership before spending more on the likes of Tanaka. If they don’t continue to add, the signing of Cano was done for show and little else.

Chicago Cubs

Odds: 8-1

Of course there’s no connection between the two, but it would be interesting if Cubs team president Theo Epstein goes all-in with Tanaka after his negative experience with Daisuke Matsuzaka with the Red Sox. The Cubs are in the middle of their rebuild and Epstein is loading up on draft picks and international signings. Giving Tanaka the time to grow accustomed to North America with a team that’s not expected to contend could be good for him. If Epstein’s plans work, by the time Tanaka’s acclimated, the Cubs will be prepared to take a step forward with him at the front of their rotation.

The Cubs have done absolutely nothing at the big league level this off-season apart from that…unique…new mascot. Ownership, if not overtly meddling, is getting antsy. The Cubs’ attendance is declining and judging by the roster they’re putting out there as of now, that’s not going to change without a splash. Tanaka is that splash.

I doubt Epstein is going to go above and beyond what the other suitors offer while the Yankees will and the Dodgers might, making Tanaka landing with the Cubs unlikely.

Arizona Diamondbacks

Odds: 50-1

He’s not going to Arizona. They don’t have the money to match the other teams. Why they’re even putting on a front of going hard after Tanaka is bizarre. Never mind that he’s still an unknown, he’d immediately walk into the Diamondbacks’ clubhouse and be the highest paid player on their roster by almost $10 million per season. The expectations there would be far more intense than they’ll be in the other venues. It’s a silly idea.

By Friday, we’ll know where Tanaka’s going. But all logic and reality dictates that he’ll end up with the Yankees for $130 million-plus, for better or worse.




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NLDS Playoffs Preview and Predictions – Atlanta Braves vs. Los Angeles Dodgers

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Atlanta Braves (96-66) vs. Los Angeles Dodgers (92-70)

Keys for the Braves: Their young starting pitchers must handle the pressure; get the ball to Craig Kimbrel; hope that B.J. Upton continues his past playoff performances; don’t let etiquette get in the way.

Tim Hudson was lost for the year when his ankle was stepped on by Eric Young Jr. of the Mets. Paul Maholm was left off the division series roster entirely. That leaves the Braves with a preliminary starting rotation for the NLDS of Kris Medlen, Mike Minor, Julio Teheran and…Freddy Garcia(?). Yes. The Braves left Maholm off the roster in favor of Garcia. In truth, Garcia might actually be a better bet than Maholm. He’s got the experience and won’t be rattled, plus he pitched well in his time with the Braves. We’ll see if the Braves follow through with the decision if they’re down two games to one in Los Angeles.

For the record, I’d have started Teheran in the opening game.

The young pitchers have to pitch well. It sounds simplistic, but it’s true. The Braves offense is shaky and they’ve taken one of the primary home run hitters, Dan Uggla, off the roster in favor of Elliot Johnson. If they don’t get serviceable starting pitching, they’re not going to win.

Kimbrel is a machine in the closer’s role and the rest of the bullpen has been solid. One thing manager Fredi Gonzalez has truly improved upon is how he handles his relievers.

B.J. Upton found himself on the cover of Sports Illustrated along with his brother Justin Upton and Kate Upton. The only reason I can see for this is to sell a few more magazines because Kate Upton is on the cover. If that was the idea, then perhaps they should have put her in a bikini and had her lounging around the batting cage in various states of undress. Otherwise, you can download much racier images of her from the internet and not spend the money to get SI.

On the field, B.J. Upton had a history of doing well in the playoffs with the Rays when he had seven career homers in 25 post-season games. It was also B.J. who didn’t hustle on a double play ball in the World Series against the Phillies five years ago, so either or both of his on-field M.O. – the lazy player or the playoff masher – could show up.

I didn’t discuss this when it happened, but now is as good a time as any: precisely who do the Braves think they are? For the second time in September, the Braves got into a confrontation with the opposing team because of a breach of etiquette. First it was with the Marlins after pitcher Jose Fernandez homered and stood admiring it. The second was with Brewers’ outfielder Carlos Gomez for doing the same thing and yelled at Maholm as he was running around the bases. There was history between the two following a hit by pitcher earlier in the season. Freddie Freeman had a fit, Brian McCann intercepted Gomez before he got to the plate and gave him a loud, red-faced lecture and Reed Johnson took a swing at Gomez.

In both cases, for some inexplicable reason, the opposing teams and players apologized to the Braves.

Why?

This attitude is bringing back memories of the days before Chipper Jones became a respected and popular player throughout baseball and his mouth and overt love for himself made him one of the most reviled players in the game. The Braves of the 1990s were arrogant, condescending and obnoxious. It wasn’t done in a blustery, cocky way either. It was a smug, “we’re better bred than you” type of attitude you might see at Georgia Republican fundraiser where Newt Gingrich was the guest of honor.

Who elected them as keepers of etiquette? And why don’t they pull that stuff with a team like the Phillies who would tell them to go screw themselves if they did?

I’d like to see what the Braves are going to do if Yasiel Puig does a little showboating in the playoffs. Are they going to pull the same nonsense? If they do, someone’s going to get drilled because Zack Greinke doesn’t put up with that stuff and the Dodgers have a few tough guys of their own. Suffice it to say there won’t be an apology.

Keys for the Dodgers: Get good starting pitching; hand the game straight to Kenley Jansen; don’t change their game plan.

With Clayton Kershaw, Greinke an Hyun-Jin Ryu in the first three games of the series, the Dodgers have a distinct advantage over their younger counterparts. Kershaw has been all-but unhittable; Greinke not far behind; and Ryu is the type of pitcher who shines in the post-season with his crafty lefty stuff. All three are mean and all three will only have to worry about certain segments of the Braves lineup.

The Dodgers set-up men have been inconsistent, but their closer is dominating. It’s important to get depth from the starters and try to hand it right over to Jansen.

There has been concern about the potency of the Dodgers’ offense because Matt Kemp is out and Andre Ethier is hurting. It’s not something to worry about. They have enough power with Puig, Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez and Juan Uribe, a player who has hit some big homers in the post-season. They shouldn’t worry about making up for the power that’s missing. They have enough to get by.

What will happen:

The Braves clearly looked at the pluses and minuses of playing Uggla at second base. He’s become like Carlos Pena without the defense. He either hits a home run, walks or strikes out and is a defensive liability. With both Uggla and B.J. Upton batting under .200 this season, much has been made of the combined amounts of money they’re making – over $25 million in 2013 – for that dreadful production. Suffice it to say that if the Braves didn’t win and hadn’t been so adept at developing prospects, GM Frank Wren would have a lot to answer for.

Johnson isn’t a particularly strong defensive second baseman either and he doesn’t hit much. This says more about Uggla at this juncture than it does about Johnson. It’s a risky move to pull and if the other bats don’t hit, they’re going to regret it.

What it comes down to for the Braves is if the Upton brothers hit and Jason Heyward is completely recovered from his beaning. The Braves are notoriously vulnerable to lefties and the Dodgers have two lefty starters and two lefties in the bullpen.

Ramirez has been on a mission this season; Gonzalez is back to the player he was before he joined the Red Sox; Puig is the kind of player who might use the post-season as his grand stage and hit five homers in the series; and the Dodgers starting pitching is simply better.

The Braves have too many holes in the lineup, too many vulnerabilities, too many questions surrounding their young starters and too much animosity has been built up against them throughout baseball for a veteran team like the Dodgers to back down.

The Dodgers will send the Braves back to charm school.

PREDICTION: DODGERS IN FOUR




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Francesa Dreams Of Justin

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With Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira reinjuring his right wrist and the possibility of him being lost for the season very real, expect Mike Francesa on WFAN tomorrow to begin anew his delusional, deranged and silly demand that the Yankees get—not pursue, but get—Twins first baseman Justin Morneau.

The reasons this won’t happen are nearly endless. The Twins, in spite of being five games under .500, are only 6 1/2 games out of first place, which puts them 2 1/2 games further out of first place than the Yankees. The Twins aren’t giving Morneau away regardless of his expiring contract at the end of the season and there still remains the possibility that they’ll do a typical “Twins thing” and re-sign Morneau. Morneau has played in 61 games this season and hit 2 home runs vs. Teixeira’s 3 in 15 games with a wrist that is now revealed to not have been at 100%.

It makes no sense in any context, but that won’t stop Francesa from repeating the name Morneau (Moah-no) as if that is the answer to the Yankees’ woes when it’s:  A) not; and B) not going to happen.

Amid all the talk of the likes of Cliff Lee, Aramis Ramirez, Brian McCann and other available or potentially available name, they too are unlikely unless the Yankees are willing to surrender the prospects and eat the money that will be necessary to do it. Strangely, with Kevin Youkilis also returning to the disabled list with a back injury and the big news that Derek Jeter is back to baseball activities and may be able to return after the All-Star break, the one player that everyone reviled and wanted gone might be the player who can help more than any of the others who’ve been mentioned and won’t cost them anything to acquire: Alex Rodriguez.

A-Rod, for all the vitriol and embarrassment he engenders, still hit 18 homers and posted a .783 OPS in 122 games last season. His late-season stumble and post-season nightmare were due to him being hurt. If he comes back and shows some semblance of the pop he has in the past, pitchers will still have to plan for him even if he isn’t the 50-homer masher he once was.

After all the loathing A-Rod has inspired, it would be somewhat ironic if the Yankees look forward to his return because they need him and don’t treat him as if he’s an incurable disease whose mere mention inspires retching. And if the fans start clamoring for A-Rod and have the audacity to give him a standing ovation similar to the one that Jeter’s going to get when he comes back, A-Rod should respond appropriately. Given how he can’t sink any lower in the eyes of the public, a perfect response would be to drop he pants and moon the cheering crowd as he flips his middle finger at them. It would sum up the relationship and would probably be the first time in A-Rod’s tenure as a Yankee that he was honest about anything. The fans might actually appreciate it…as long as he hits.

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National League Breakout/Rebound Candidates (Or Cheap Gets For Your Fantasy Team)

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Last week, I looked at breakout/rebound candidates for the American League, some of whom will be very, very cheap pickups for your fantasy clubs. Now I’ll look at the National League.

Wilson Ramos, C—Washington Nationals

Ramos is coming back from a torn ACL in his knee and because the Nationals traded for Kurt Suzuki from the Athletics last season, there’s no need to rush Ramos back before he’s 100%. But he will eventually take over as the starting catcher and it’s not just because he’s a future All-Star and potential Gold Glove winner.

Suzuki is a competent everyday catcher who’s shown 15 homer power in the past. Even if he’s not hitting, the Nationals lineup is strong enough to carry one mediocre bat and Suzuki’s good with the pitchers.

There’s a financial component though. Suzuki has a club option in his contract for 2014 at $8.5 million. The option becomes guaranteed if Suzuki starts 113 games in 2013. Barring another injury to Ramos, that is not going to happen. Ramos will be catching 5 of every 7 games by the summer.

Freddie Freeman, 1B—Atlanta Braves

It’s easy to forget about Freeman due to the number of power-hitting first basemen around baseball, but he’s gotten steadily better every year as a professional and with the infusion of Justin Upton and B.J. Upton into the lineup, plus Brian McCann, Jason Heyward and Dan Uggla, teams won’t be worried about Freeman’s power leading to him getting more pitches to hit.

Lucas Duda, LF—New York Mets

Given the Mets on-paper outfield (Collin Cowgill, Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Mike Baxter, Marlon Byrd, Marv Throneberry, George Theodore, Jan Brady, Cindy Brady, Gilligan, Barnaby Jones, Cannon), there’s plenty of fodder for ridicule. Duda is the butt of jokes because of his last name; that he’s a bad outfielder; because he seems so quiet and reticent. The criticism is missing an important factor: he can hit, hit for power and walk. If the Mets tell him he’s their starting left fielder, period, they’ll be rewarded with 25-30 homers and a .360+ on base percentage. So will fantasy owners.

Bobby Parnell, RHP—New York Mets

With Frank Francisco sidelined with elbow woes, Parnell has been named the Mets’ closer…for now. They have Brandon Lyon on the team and are still said to be weighing Jose Valverde. None of that matters. Parnell was going to get the shot at some point this season and with a little luck in Washington last season when defensive miscues cost him an impressive and legitimate old-school, fireman-style save, he would’ve taken the role permanently back then.

Jacob Turner, RHP—Miami Marlins

The Tigers were concerned about Turner’s velocity at the end of spring training 2012 and he wound up being traded to the Marlins in the deal for Omar Infante and Anibal Sanchez. He acquitted himself well in seven starts for the Marlins and will be in the 2013 rotation from start to finish. He has all the pitches, a great curve, command and presence.

Justin Ruggiano, CF—Miami Marlins

It’s natural to wonder if a player who has his breakout year at age 30 is a product of unlocked talent and opportunity or a brief, freak thing that will end as rapidly as it came about.

Ruggiano has been a very good minor league player who never got a shot to play in the big leagues. He took advantage of it in 2012 and will open the season as the Marlins starting center fielder.

Billy Hamilton, CF—Cincinnati Reds

The Reds have major expectations in 2013 and much of their fortunes hinge on their pitching staff; they’re functioning with Shin-Soo Choo playing an unfamiliar position in center field; at mid-season (or earlier) it may become clear that Choo can’t play the position well enough for the pitchers nor to bluff their way through to the playoffs. Hamilton is in Triple A learning center field after a shift from the infield and can make up for any educational curve with sheer, blinding speed that has yielded 320 stolen bases in 379 minor league games. He also provides something they lack: a legitimate leadoff hitter and an exciting spark that other teams have to plan for.

Vince Coleman spurred the 1985 Cardinals to the pennant by distracting the opposing pitchers into derangement and opening up the offense for Willie McGee to win the batting title and Tommy Herr and Jack Clark to rack up the RBI. The same thing could happen with Hamilton, Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Choo.

Jason Grilli, RHP—Pittsburgh Pirates

Grilli is a first time closer at age 36, but he’s a late-bloomer with a fastball in the mid-90s and a ripping strikeout slider. The Pirates starting pitching and offense are good enough to provide Grilli with enough save chances to make him worthwhile as a pickup.

Kyuji Fujikawa, RHP—Chicago Cubs

Fujikawa was a strikeout machine as a closer in Japan and history has proven that Japanese closers tend to transition to North America much better than starters without the fanfare. Takashi Saito and Kazuhiro Sasaki are examples.

The Cubs are in full-blown rebuild and will trade incumbent closer Carlos Marmol during the season. They’ll let him close at the outset to boost his value, then dump him, handing the job to Fujukawa.

Dale Thayer, RHP—San Diego Padres

Closer Huston Street is injury prone and the Padres, for whatever reason, don’t think much of Luke Gregerson (they tried to trade him to the Mets for Daniel Murphy and when Street was out last season, they let Thayer take over as closer.)

Thayer has a strikeout slider that leads stat-savvy teams like the Rays, Mets, and Padres continually picking him up. If Street gets hurt, Thayer will get closing chances.

Yasmani Grandal, C—San Diego Padres

His PED suspension has tarnished his luster, but he’s still a top catching prospect and once he’s reinstated, there’s no reason for the Padres not to play him with Nick Hundley and John Baker ahead of Grandal. Neither of the veteran catchers will be starting for the Padres when they’re ready to contend; Grandal will. He hits and he gets on base.

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National League Wild Card Play-In Game Preview—St. Louis Cardinals at Atlanta Braves

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The starting pitchers are relatively meaningless in a one-game playoff. What’s most important is how the managers handle said pitchers. Will either wait too long before pulling him? Will one or the other panic and pull him too soon? It’s a fine line between letting the pitcher get a feel for the game and gain his bearings or leaving him in to blow the game up before the fans are in their seats.

This is not going to be totally about Cardinals’ starter Kyle Lohse or Braves’ starter Kris Medlen. It’s going to be about which manager hits the panic button and does something he shouldn’t do. Cardinals’ manager Mike Matheny has no post-season managerial experience and Braves’ manager Fredi Gonzalez is prone to gaffes and knee-jerk decisions to make it look like he’s doing something when he should sit back and wait.

The 34-year-old Lohse went 16-3 during the regular season with excellent on-the-surface numbers across the board, but he benefited from a large amount of luck with a .267 BAbip. He allows a fairly high number of homers (19 this season), and the Braves beat him around in their one game against him on May 30th as Freddie Freeman and Brian McCann took him deep. Lohse has a 5.54 ERA in nine post-season appearances. Matheny is adhering to his starting rotation by keeping Lohse in his turn, but Adam Wainwright is rested and in a one-game playoff, 100 out of 100 times, I’d start Wainwright over Lohse. If Lohse gets into trouble, one would assume that Wainwright would be the first one out of the bullpen, but by then it could be too late. Lohse has had a fine year, but Wainwright has the post-season bona fides that Lohse does not have and Wainwright should be the starter.

Medlen has been masterful since joining the starting rotation at the end of July, displaying a control and intelligence that has been compared to that of Greg Maddux, but with better strikeout stuff. He doesn’t allow many homers and has been masterful beyond the Braves’ wildest imagination. My worry with Medlen would be that he’s too amped up for the start and loses his feel for the strike zone, using the adrenaline to try and blow fastballs past fastball hitters in the Cardinals lineup such as Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday, and David Freese. The Cardinals also have players who relish the post-season spotlight in Yadier Molina, Freese, and Allen Craig.

The divergent personalities and strategies in the dugout are likely to come into play if either starting pitcher gets into trouble early. Matheny is more likely to stick with Lohse; Gonzalez will have a quicker hook with Medlen and it could be a mistake on both ends.

In a battle of the bullpens, I trust the Braves contingent led by the searing fastball of Craig Kimbrel along with their set-up men than I do that of the Cardinals, whose bullpen has been a recurrent problem. Watch for Edward Mujica’s entrance into the game—he surrendered one homer since joining the Cardinals, but is notoriously homer-prone. In a late, close game, someone’s going to take him deep.

I have little faith in Lohse in spite of his fine season. As long as Gonzalez doesn’t do anything loony such as call for a squeeze play with the bases loaded or something similarly deranged and self-sabotaging, the Braves have too many weapons and the better pitching from start to end.

PREDICTION: BRAVES 7—CARDINALS 2

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National League East—2012 Present and 2013 Future

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Click to read about the AL East, Central, and West.

Here’s the NL East.

Washington Nationals

For some it’s a validation and for others it’s an unsatisfactory and paranoid result, but now that the Stephen Strasburg debate has been concluded once and for all, the Nationals are moving on without their best pitcher. They’ve taken a tremendous and rapid leap forward to the playoffs and an all-but-certain division title. They look identical to the Braves of 1991 with a young pitching staff; power bats; and an ownership willing to spend to keep the team together and aggressive enough to improve. They also have something those Braves never had: a bullpen. It’s that bullpen that will counteract the loss of Strasburg for the playoffs. In fact, it’s probably more important to have a deep, versatile bullpen in the playoffs than it is to have a great starting rotation. That’s something else the dominant Braves of 1991-2005 proved year-after-year.

The Nats are here to stay and we’d better get used to them being in the playoffs on an annual basis.

Atlanta Braves

The Braves overcame their collapse better than any other team in recent memory that experienced a similar meltdown. Part of that is due to manager Fredi Gonzalez’s acquiescence in not overusing the bullpen early in the season; Jason Heyward’s comeback season; Michael Bourn’s full-season in his walk year; Kris Medlen’s second-half brilliance with the club overcoming underachievement from Tommy Hanson, ineffectiveness from Jair Jurrjens, the injury to Brandon Beachy, and the stagnation of Randall Delgado.

Their ownership doesn’t spend a lot of money, so it’s hard to see them keeping Bourn. Brian McCann is a free agent after 2013, but with Chipper Jones’s money coming off the books and McCann’s status as a Georgia native, that will get worked out.

With or without spending, the Braves have enough young talent to be contenders for the future.

On a note about the Braves’ bullpen, Craig Kimbrel has been all-but unhittable. I get the sense that the NL Cy Young Award voting will split between R.A. Dickey and Gio Gonzalez and Kimbrel’s going to win it.

Philadelphia Phillies

Now that the dreams of a miraculous comeback suffered a deathblow in Houston by losing 3 of 4 against the rancid Astros, then resuscitated briefly by humiliating the Mets, the Braves all but ended the Phillies’ hopes over the weekend as Roy Halladay got blasted on Saturday in the game the Phillies absolutely had to win.

Now what?

They underachieved in 2012 with a payroll of $170 million-plus and are very old. They re-signed Cole Hamels and with he, Halladay, and Cliff Lee, along with Jonathan Papelbon in the bullpen, they’ll be playoff contenders in 2013. The vault is not going to be as wide open as it was, so any thoughts of Zack Greinke should end now. They’ll need starting pitching so it’s more likely that they pursue a Dan Haren type—a good starter coming off a bad year and on a short-term deal. They need a center fielder and there’s been talk of a reunion with Michael Bourn. I would not overpay for Bourn, but GM Ruben Amaro Jr. tends to go after what he wants regardless of cost. I’d also expect Ryan Madson to return to the Phillies as a set-up man following his Tommy John surgery and lost year with the Reds, and he’ll be good.

It appears as if all systems are go for Chase Utley to move to third base, but his knees are a chronic problem. If he’s unable to start the season again, then the Phillies will be right back where they started from trusting Freddy Galvis at second and having a black hole at third. They desperately need an outfield bat of the Cody Ross variety—affordable and pretty good. If I were Amaro, I’d call the Indians about Asdrubal Cabrera.

New York Mets

Because of their second half nosedive, they’re still viewed as something of a laughingstock, but when examining even worse situations such as the Marlins, Astros, Red Sox, Cubs; and teams that spent big and haven’t gotten bang for their bucks with the Tigers, Phillies, Angels, and Dodgers, the Mets are in a pretty good position.

The young pitching prospects Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler will join Jonathon Niese and R.A. Dickey in the rotation at some point in 2013, and they also have young arms Jeurys Familia and Jenrry Mejia. Jason Bay and Johan Santana are coming off the books after 2013 (unless they can trade one or both for commensurately expiring deals), so they’ll have money to spend after 2013.

This doom and gloom is based on looking for reasons to tear into the organization. The low minor leagues is increasingly well-stocked.

They need a catcher who can hit and desperately have to get a bat for the middle and top of the lineup. Names to pursue are Justin Upton, Shin-Soo Choo, Dexter Fowler, Ian Kinsler, B.J. Upton, and Shane Victorino.

I’d stay away from Bourn.

Miami Marlins

I wrote about them yesterday, but just when it seemed as if it couldn’t get worse, it got worse.

Heath Bell went on a radio show and basically called manager Ozzie Guillen a liar. The host of the show, Dan Sileo, prodded Bell while doling responsibility on everyone but Bell. It’s an awful interview by an awful interviewer topped off by ridiculous baseball analysis. You can find it here.

Whether or not Bell is accurate in his criticism is irrelevant. That Bell still can’t keep quiet is indicative of one of the main problems the Marlins have had: no veteran leader to stand in the middle of the clubhouse and speak up. It was Bell’s dreadful performance that, more than anything else, set the stage for the Marlins’ terrible season. But he…won’t…shut…UP!!!!

Braves’ manager Gonzalez, who was fired by the Marlins, said of Marlins’ owner Jeffrey Loria:

“There’s not a manager dead or alive that Jeffrey thinks is good enough. Not Connie Mack, not anyone.”

Loria called the comments “classless.” Does it help that the comments are 100% true?

It’s going to get worse from here for the Marlins as they plan to cut payroll from $95 million to $70-80 million. (Bet on the under.) It remains to be seen who’s going to get fired and who isn’t, but they’ll desperately try to unload Bell and if that means attaching him to any deal in which a club wants to acquire Josh Johnson, then that’s what they’ll do.

I believe Johnson will be traded this winter; Jose Reyes will be traded during the season in 2013, as will Ricky Nolasco.

All of that said, the Marlins do have some young talent with the acquisitions they made of Nathan Eovaldi, Jacob Turner, and Rob Brantly to go along with the monster Giancarlo Stanton, so they’re not going to be an atrocity and they certainly won’t be as bad as they were in 2012.

Those advocating or actively pursuing a new stadium for the Rays need to take note what’s happened with the Marlins. Florida fans are simply not invested enough in baseball to make it a worthwhile expenditure for either private investors of public referendum. The ballpark should not have been built. Either the club should’ve been contracted, allowed to move to a baseball-friendly venue in the United States, or they should’ve sat tight and waited out the end of the Castro regime in Cuba, hoped for a new, free country 90 miles away from Miami, and moved the team there.

An MLB team in Cuba would be huge. Instead there’s a beautiful new park in Miami with few fans and a top-to-bottom case study in dysfunction and absence of responsibility. It’s a train wreck.

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Role Reversals and Trade Deadlines Make Strange Bedfellows

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The “Mets-Phillies rivalry” isn’t so much a rivalry. It’s more two fanbases that dislike one another due to their close proximity. The teams were never in contention at the same time until 2007 and by then the Mets had the reputation as condescending and arrogant because of their 2006 and early-2007 dominance and the Phillies’ reputation as underachievers and authors of the greatest collapse in baseball history in 1964. Jimmy Rollins stoked the fire with his bluster early in 2007 and looked foolish as the Mets were strolling to a second straight division title; but Rollins backed it up with a blazing final month and by winning the MVP in the Phillies’ remarkable comeback that seized the momentum and sent the Mets into a spiral that culminated in the front office regime change and roster turnover.

The Phillies won the World Series in 2008 and became the dominant team in the NL with another pennant in 2009 followed by two more division titles in 2010-2011.

The tide has turned again.

This time it’s the Phillies who are reviled throughout baseball because of their smugness, penchant for trading and signing every big name on the market and “we’re better than you” mouthiness, much of it emanating from their fans. The Mets are the young upstarts expected to lose 90+ games (and in the ludicrous world of Michael Kay, 110 games) but find themselves in the thick of the pennant race and looking to buy players rather than sell.

So where does that leave them?

With each mounting loss and rising deficit in the playoff race, the Phillies’ decision to sell grows more and more likely. But would they trade anyone to the Mets?

The Mets are in need of a right-handed hitting bat who can play first base. They’re continually placing Justin Turner at the position against lefty pitchers instead of Ike Davis. Turner is not an experienced first baseman and is not meant to be in the lineup regularly; he’s a useful bat off the bench and can play second, third and a little shortstop. It’s not as easy to play first base as the Mike Francesas of the world will lead you to believe. That notion is a disproved theory from the 1950s that a player can be “hidden” at first base. The Mets cannot let an inexperienced defender cost them runs; that’s where they are if they insist on using Turner there.

With Ryan Howard activated, Ty Wigginton no longer has a regular place in the Phillies’ lineup. Wigginton hits well against lefties and enjoys hitting in Citi Field (1.278 OPS with 3 homers in 34 plate appearances). The Mets can use him. As the velocity of the Phillies plummet rises in new and enterprising ways like last night’s debacle against the Braves in which Antonio Bastardo entered a 0-0 tie in the 8th inning, proceeded to load the bases, walk in a run and serve up a grand slam to Brian McCann, it’s clear that there’s not going to be a turnaround for the Phillies when Roy Halladay returns or at any other time. They’re closer in the standings to the dregs—the Padres, Rockies, Cubs and Astros—than they are to a playoff spot.

This is pretty much it.

Sometimes teams that revile one another will acknowledge that concessions need to be made to do business. The Red Sox were going to trade Mike Lowell to the Rangers who, with the Red Sox knowledge, planned to send Lowell to the Yankees. It never came to pass but that style of plausible deniability is necessary in a true rivalry as fierce as that of Yankees-Red Sox.

Such is not the case with the Mets and Phillies.

The Mets can use Wigginton and the Phillies are coming apart at the seams. That’s a starting point for negotiation without partisan rancor and fan perception standing in the way.

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Don’t Blame Fredi This Time

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What’s wrong with the Braves?

Is it the pitching?

Is it manager Fredi Gonzalez and his coaches?

Is if the offense?

What?

Mike Minor has been mostly dreadful; Randall Delgado inconsistent; Jair Jurrjens was on the trade block and was sent to the minors; and Brandon Beachy was brilliant before he got hurt. They were one of the few teams in baseball that didn’t have a starting pitching issue before the season but are now on the lookout for starting pitching with a pursuit of Zack Greinke in the offing.

Gonzalez has made a conscious effort—in conjunction with the front office—to limit the use of his more trusted relievers Jonny Venters, Craig Kimbrel and Eric O’Flaherty. He’s still done the inexplicable “Fredis” such as when he left Venters in to pitch to Alex Rodriguez with the bases loaded as the tying run at the plate. Naturally A-Rod homered to tie the game and the Braves lost.

With Gonzalez as manager, these gaffes are tacitly accepted and understood.

The Braves’ offense is, statistically, much better and that credit could grudgingly go to new hitting coach Greg Walker. Former coach Larry Parrish advocated an aggressive approach that resulted last season’s .308 OBP and finishing 10th in the NL in runs scored. This season their OBP has risen to .323 and they’re 4th in runs scored.

How much of that is due to Walker and the dismissal of Parrish are realistic questions. Their clubwide pitches per plate appearance ratio is up from 3.79 to 3.87. Dan Uggla and Jason Heyward have improved noticeably in that regard. Is it that the Braves are waiting for their pitches to hit or that they have Michael Bourn for a full season, a healthy Heyward and an Uggla off to a better start? Brian McCann and Freddie Freeman are both far behind where they were last season. Does Parrish get the credit for the good things or just the blame for the bad things? Is that the criteria for Walker and Gonzalez. What’s more important: results, process or perception?

The Braves’ main issues have been on the mound. So does pitching coach Roger McDowell come under fire? Or is it explainable by Jurrjens’ decreased luck and the aforementioned pitchers who are struggling and hurt?

There’s no reason for a team with this level of talent to be barely over .500 and 6 games out of first place. But that’s where the Braves are. Those with an ulterior motive to get rid of Gonzalez for the greater good would love to latch onto this mediocrity as validation to make a change, but in reality if they had Bobby Cox back in the dugout running things, I’m not so sure they’d be much better than where they are right now. Gonzalez’s job could be in jeopardy in the near or distant future, but if they were going to fire him they should’ve done it after the collapse of 2011 and not now.

It would be strangely ironic if Gonzalez survived when he probably should’ve been replaced and is fired for the first half of 2012 when there’s no much he could’ve done differently.

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2012 National League East Predicted Standings

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Wins Losses GB
1. Atlanta Braves 93 69
2. Philadelphia Phillies* 89 73 4
3. Washington Nationals* 88 74 5
4. Miami Marlins 83 79 10
5. New York Mets 69 93 24

*Denotes predicted Wild Card winner.

Atlanta Braves

There’s a misplaced belief that the team that made the most drastic and biggest moves in the off-season is automatically the “best” team.

Because the Braves did nothing to add to the roster that collapsed out of a playoff spot, they’re virtually ignored as a legit contender.

There was addition by subtraction by getting rid of Derek Lowe; they made significant improvements in-season by acquiring Michael Bourn. They’re going to be helped by the gained experience of young players Freddie Freeman, Jonny Venters, Craig Kimbrel and Mike Minor; the return to form from Martin Prado; a healthy “I wanna get paid” year from Brian McCann; a better start and more consistency from Dan Uggla; and, most importantly, a healthy and “he has to be better because he can’t be worse” year from Jason Heyward.

Philadelphia Phillies

Chase Utley is hoping to play in spring training games within this week. Obviously his knee tendinitis will forever be an issue, but a great player like Utley doesn’t need the 6 weeks of spring training to be ready. Inside baseball people would never admit this for financial reasons, but spring training is far too long as it is. Pitchers need maybe 3 ½ weeks to be ready to start the season; hitters far less.

The Phillies are old; there are injury questions hovering around Roy Halladay (as much as people think he’s a machine, he’s not a machine.); their lineup is pockmarked and questionable; but with their starting rotation and bullpen addition of Jonathan Papelbon, they’ve got enough left for at least one more run.

Washington Nationals

They’re the next hot thing for many reasons.

They have a load of top-tier draft picks ready to make the move into big league notoriety; they’ve accumulated starting pitching; they have a devastating back-end of the bullpen; a lineup that can mash; and a veteran manager who has a history of winning.

They’re going to look back on Chien-Ming Wang’s injury and that they couldn’t follow through on a rumored trade of the severely underrated John Lannan and breathe a sigh of relief; the concept of bringing Bryce Harper to the big leagues at 19 needs to be considered carefully and he should not play center field; Gio Gonzalez is not the guarantee the bounty of prospects and expensive, unnecessary contract he received would indicate; and Stephen Strasburg can’t be considered an “ace” as long as he’s on a pitch/innings limit that Davey Johnson would undoubtedly love to toss into a nearby garbage can.

But they’re very talented and a viable contender.

Miami Marlins

Never mind the ownership, the new ballpark and the investigations swirling around the way said ballpark was approved and paid for. Forget about the monstrosity that will be on display whenever a Marlins’ player hits a home run and is sure to cause seizures among a large segment of unsuspecting fans. (See below.)

Cold, clinical analysis will tell you that this team is either going to be a major success or a testament to rubbernecking to see how quickly the clubhouse, manager’s office and front office degenerates into organizational cannibalism, whisper campaigns and a media feeding frenzy.

This is a powder keg. I don’t like powder kegs.

Ozzie Guillen’s teams with the White Sox consistently underachieved; Jose Reyes’s health is a question; Hanley Ramirez did not want to move to third base and is going to eventually pout about his contract; their defense is awful.

With a good pitching staff and all these questions, they could be good. With all the other issues, they could explode. Fast.

New York Mets

Yes. I’m a Mets fan.

Question my analysis, but don’t question my integrity.

Here are the facts: they’re in an impossible division; they’re short on starting pitching; they didn’t improve the club in the winter; the franchise is engulfed by the lawsuit against the Wilpons stemming from the Bernie Madoff mess; and they’re rebuilding.

They’re not good and they’re starting over with young players.

We won’t know much about the future of the Sandy Alderson-led baseball operations or what they’re going to do with players like David Wright until the trial is completed. They might be sold; the Wilpons might maintain ownership; the team might be slightly better than most projections depending on multiple factors.

It is what it is.

Accept it.

Click here for a full sample of Paul Lebowitz’s 2012 Baseball Guide (this link is of the Blue Jays) of team predictions/projections. My book can be purchased on KindleSmashwordsBN and Lulu with other outlets on the way.

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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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