Ricky Nolasco Proves the Market Rewards Mediocrity

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The Ricky Nolasco contract with the Twins was announced last night. I haven’t looked at the reactions yet, but presumably they range between indignation, head shakes and grudging acknowledgements that “that’s the market.” Whether or not he’s worth that money is beside the point. Nolasco is a better pitcher than he’s been given credit for and he’s durable. He’s not the pitcher you’d prefer to have starting opening day or the first game of a playoff series, but he’s a professional arm who will provide innings and competence. In today’s market, that’s going to get him $50 million. I’m not judging it one way or the other. It just “is.” Personally, I’d prefer Bronson Arroyo to Nolasco. But Nolasco is certainly a better risk than Masahiro Tanaka. It’s all about context.

It’s not a free money policy in an industry that is flush with cash that is causing teams to make seeming overpays for slightly above-average pitchers. It’s the overall culture of wastefulness that has permeated baseball through ridiculous developmental rules for pitchers that make necessary the purchasing of whatever is on the market for the going rate due to supply and demand.

Teams and analysts talk out of both sides of their mouths – as well as other orifices – when they put forth the pretense of running the organization as a business and then toss uncountable amounts of money at mediocrity, wondering why they get mediocrity when that’s what they bought.

A.J. Burnett was the epitome of a pitcher who was overpaid based on need and availability. Having missed the playoffs in 2008 and desperate for starting pitching, the Yankees threw money at their problems and it worked. One pitcher they signed was A.J. Burnett. Burnett was always the epitome of the “million dollar arm, five cent head” pitcher, one who could throw a no-hitter striking out 18 one game and give up a three-run homer to the opposing pitcher in the next game. For that, the Yankees doled a contract worth $82.5 million for five years. They kept him for three, paid the Pirates $20 million to take him off their hands and didn’t even get useful prospects in the trade.

The galling aspect of Burnett’s three year tenure in pinstripes was that there was a belief that he’d arrive and suddenly fulfill his potential just because he was a Yankee. In truth, he pitched in the same frustrating, aggravating way he always pitched. It was the height of Yankee arrogance to think they were going to get anything different. During his whole time as a Yankee, when the media and fans screamed about his inconsistency, I responded with an identical and more logical scream that I gave when they signed him: This is what you bought!!! This is A.J. Burnett!!!

The reason the Yankees needed pitching that year was because their attempts to “grow their own” in an effort to save money over the long-term by not having to buy other teams’ arms failed miserably with Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy either getting hurt, pitching poorly or fluctuating in their roles in 2008. With 20/20 hindsight, the Yankees and other clubs who use the pitch counts/innings limits/overprotectiveness for their young pitchers can examine these failures, the need to spend their way out of trouble to purchase breathing bodies who can eat innings and ask whether or not it was worth it.

I don’t want to hear about injuries, changing roles, unsuitability for New York and the other excuses that are proffered to explain away the failures of these three pitchers – that’s all part of why they failed. The fact is that for 16 combined seasons from Chamberlain, Hughes and Kennedy, the Yankees got an 80-68 won/lost record, a 4.37 ERA and wasted years when they were in their early-to-mid 20s and should have been at their strongest and most useful. Don’t start looking for advanced stats either because that’s only going to make the case for the way the Yankees used them worse. They could have been good and weren’t. It’s not hard to figure out why.

If you combine the draft pick compensation that many teams are unwilling to surrender to sign pitchers, the number of pitchers on the market declines even further. That absence and the number of top-tier talent who sign long-term deals to stay with their current teams leads to pitchers like Nolasco getting $50 million deals. Nolasco was traded at mid-season meaning he wasn’t subject to being offered arbitration, therefore there’s no draft pick compensation. Arroyo wasn’t offered arbitration by the Reds. Tanaka won’t cost anything other than money. That’s why they’re attractive.

The Giants were roasted for signing Tim Lincecum to a two-year, $35 million contract rather than let him go as a free agent, but now the decision looks astute. You’d be hard-pressed to find any stat person willing to give Giants general manager Brian Sabean credit for anything, but he kept Lincecum. It was wiser to do so considering the options of trading young players to get an arm or offering Lincecum arbitration hoping he’d take it and no one would offer him a Nolasco-style deal. In retrospect, it was simply easier and better long-term thinking to keep him. The Giants also signed Tim Hudson to a two-year contract. Without compensation attached to him and with the deal Nolasco just signed, Hudson might have lowballed himself by signing so early even at age 38.

Are teams really so in love with Tanaka that they’re willing to give upwards of $150 million to secure his rights and sign him? Or is it that there’s no other payments necessary apart from the posting fee and signing him to a contract? To sit and claim that Tanaka is a sure thing is ridiculous considering the attrition rate of pitchers who arrive with similar hype and expectations. Again, it’s the market and the desperation to hold true to draft picks, luxury tax and other aspects that are influencing which pitchers are getting big money and which aren’t.

The Rays have the right idea with their own pitchers: they use them without overt abuse or overprotectiveness; they don’t sign them to long-term contracts; and they trade them at their highest value for a package of prospects. It’s easy to say, “just copy the Rays” but how many teams have the freedoms the Rays do? How many teams are able to say, “We can’t pay him and it makes no sense to keep him for that extra year when these offers are on the table in a destitute market?” For all the credit the Rays get for their success and intelligence, a substantial portion of it is directly because they have no money; because they’ve been able to win under their tight financial circumstances; because they don’t have a brand-new ballpark with three million fans in attendance; because the media doesn’t go crazy when they trade Matt Garza, James Shields and listen to offers on David Price.

When a team needs 200 innings and isn’t going to get it from their top pitching prospects due to an arbitrary number of innings they’re allowed to pitch to keep them healthy, they have to buy it somewhere else. Stephen Strasburg is entering his fifth season in the big leagues, will be a free agent after 2016, will demand $150 million and as of now still hasn’t broken the 200-inning barrier. Unless the Nats pay it, another team will benefit from the protective cocoon he’s been in. Oh, and he got hurt anyway. Scott Boras will be more than happy to use the hammer of the Nats having signed, paid and developed Strasburg and won’t want to let him leave to force them to pay more money than his performance indicates he’s been worth.

For every Clayton Kershaw or Chris Sale who are allowed to pitch, there are five Strasburgs and Chamberlains who aren’t. And who benefits from the absence of arms? The Nolascos and Tanakas. Production be damned. They have what teams are looking for because most teams – through their own short-sightedness and stupidity – can’t make it on their own.

How is that a wise business model?




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Why Is Ned Colletti’s Work With The Dodgers Forgotten?

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It’s to be expected that because Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti doesn’t fit today’s profile of what a GM is “supposed” to be, he won’t get any credit for the Dodgers’ blazing hot streak that has them suddenly declared World Series favorites. This is the same team that was on the verge of firing manager Don Mattingly in June and were hurtling toward a financial and on-field disaster. The easiest thing to do is to point to the club’s $220+ million payroll as a reason why they’re now in first place. Although the club’s turnaround has been due in part to their high-priced players Hanley Ramirez, Zack Greinke, Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, they’ve really been helped along by homegrown or found talent Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen, Hyun-jin Ryu and Yasiel Puig.

Puig is the big one because it was his recall that was seen as the catalyst and it was the decried decisions to pay big money for Ryu and Puig that are now paying significant dividends. Yet Colletti is an afterthought. If it was Billy Beane making these decisions, he would’ve been touted as a forward-thinking “genius” even while the team was struggling. Where are Colletti’s accolades?

The Puig signing was considered “puzzling.” The Ryu signing “foolish.” The Dodgers were torched for absorbing all those salaries from the Red Sox; for trading for Ramirez and moving him back to shortstop; for keeping Mattingly. Yet no one looks at the facts surrounding Colletti’s regime and that he’s dealt with circumstances that were nearly impossible to manage without the flexibility that comes from having spent a life in baseball in a variety of jobs and working his way up from public relations to the GM’s chair.

Having dealt with Frank McCourt’s circus and making the playoffs three times was enough to think that maybe he has an idea of how to run an organization. Now, amid all the talk of money, the fact is that the Dodgers turnaround was based on not blaming the manager for things he couldn’t control and a group of  players that Colletti’s staff selected.

With all the trades the Dodgers have made for veterans over the Colletti years, how many young players have they given up that are eliciting regret? Carlos Santana? He’s a good hitter, weak defensive catcher and not someone who’s missed. Rubby De La Rosa? He has a great arm and is wild. It’s going to take time to harness his control and then time to work on his command. Allen Webster? He’s a back-of-the-rotation starter, maybe. Where are these players the Dodgers should still have? The ones Colletti’s overaggressiveness cost them?

The convenient storyline is that Colletti doesn’t use the numbers as a be-all, end-all and therefore is a dinosaur that has to be euthanized through critical analysis from armchair experts. It’s when the team starts playing well that qualifications and silence are the responses. Coincidentally, Colletti was hired by the Dodgers after serving as an assistant to Giants GM Brian Sabean. Sabean saw his stellar work as the Giants’ GM diminished by the discovery of the “brains” behind the operation, Yeshayah Goldfarb. Also conveniently, few even knew who Goldfarb was before it became abundantly clear that the Giants two championships contradicted the narrative of stats, stats and more stats, so a “reason” was found for an old-schooler like Sabean to succeed. Except it doesn’t fit. It’s a plot device that fails. I’m expecting a similar type of clumsy, collateral attack against Colletti because the frontal attack is no longer working. Unfortunately, some people will buy it as the “truth.”

The Dodgers are lighting up the world and the person who should be given credit for it is the GM, but that’s not going to happen as long as there are these shrieking voices sitting in darkened rooms declaring how things “should” be and running away rather than admit they’re wrong and blow their cover.

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Don’t Expect The Giants To Trade Lincecum

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Now that the Dodgers have crawled back over .500 the talk of firing manager Don Mattingly and a series of drastic sell-off trades has subsided. If they do anything, it will be to add and Ricky Nolasco was the first domino to fall. Say what you want about Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti, but he doesn’t have a hidden agenda. The only time he’ll sell is when his team is clearly out of contention late in the season. Apart from that, he’s buying to try and win today.

In fact, it’s doubtful that Colletti ever had it in his mind to sell while the Dodgers were floundering at twelve games under .500 on June 21. The addition of Yasiel Puig and overall parity in the National League West allowed the Dodgers to get back into contention. In retrospect it was somewhat silly to consider a fire sale so early with the amount of money the team has invested in their on-field product. There are times to conduct a housecleaning and there are teams that can do it early in the season, but those with hefty payrolls and mandates to win immediately like the Dodgers, Red Sox and Yankees are not in a position to make such maneuvers. The only big money team in recent memory to pull off such a drastic trade to clear salary is the Red Sox and they sent Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett to the Dodgers. Unless Colletti has some diabolical scheme in mind, I doubt he could pull a Dr. Evil and clear salary with himself.

Knowing that Colletti spent a significant amount of his time in baseball working for the Giants and Brian Sabean, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the two think the same way. With that in mind, don’t expect a fire sale from the Giants or for them to trade Tim Lincecum.

This has nothing to do with Lincecum having just pitched a no-hitter. It has to do with the limited return they’d likely get for the pending free agent and that in spite of their atrocious 15-29 record since May 26 they’re still only 6 1/2 games out of first place. The Padres have come undone and the Rockies are not contenders. In the NL West that leaves the Diamondbacks, Dodgers and Giants to battle it out for the division. All have their claims to be the club that emerges and all are looking to get better now. The Giants could use a bat and another starting pitcher. They were in on Nolasco and if they acquire a first baseman like Justin Morneau, they could move Brandon Belt to the outfield for the rest of the season. The change to a contender in a new city with his own pending free agency might wake up Morneau’s power bat.

Before labeling a team as a seller or buyer based on record alone, it’s wise to examine their circumstances. The Dodgers couldn’t sell because it was so early in the season and they had the talent to get back into the race. The Giants can’t sell because of the limited options on what they’ll receive in a trade of Lincecum; because they need him to contend; and with their history of late-season runs and two championships in three years, they owe it to their fans and players to try and win again.

A winning streak of eight games or winning 14 of 20 will put the Giants right near the top of the division. If they get into the playoffs with their experience and Lincecum, Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner as starters in a short series, they have as good a chance of emerging from the National League as anyone else. Trading away players that can help them achieve that possible end makes no sense. Don’t expect them to do it.

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Cashman vs. A-Rod: The War To End All Wars

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The funniest part about Brian Cashman’s statement to the media that injured third baseman Alex Rodriguez needs to “Shut the <bleep> up” is that at the conclusion, it sounded as if he stormed off saying, “I’m gonna call Alex right now,” in a frenzied desire to directly tell his player the same thing he muscularly told the media, then couldn’t get A-Rod on the phone and told him….by email!!!

How’d that go?

Dear Alex,
Shut the <bleep> up.
Love, Brian

Did he then return to the media and declare that he couldn’t get A-Rod on the phone, say that he sent him an email instead and add, “Yeah, well. Maybe I didn’t speak to him directly, but he got the message!!!” jabbing his finger for emphasis?

Since being a GM has become such a prominent role and transformed from a bunch of nameless, faceless men who got the job because they were former players or sycophants to the owners into the corporate, power-suit wearing, catchphrase uttering, recognizable and approachable entities they are now, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a GM tell a player—especially one of A-Rod’s stature—to “shut the <bleep> up.” Not even the most outspoken loose cannons since the GM job has changed like J.P. Ricciardi went that far, and Ricciardi was about as hair trigger as it gets. When Dallas Braden got into his public back-and-forth with, not-so-shockingly, A-Rod, it went on for awhile before A’s boss Billy Beane said he’d speak to the player. He did and it stopped. There was no public, bullying pronouncement from Beane that he called the player onto the carpet and reamed him out.

From the old-school GMs who have been in the game forever to the new age stat thinkers, can you name one—one!!!—who would say such a thing about a player to a media as hungry for a headline as that in New York?

Dave Dombrowski? Brian Sabean? Dan Duquette? Beane? Sandy Alderson?

I’m not even sure Jeff Luhnow uses foul language period, let alone saying something like that about a player before speaking to him and storming off in a huff with a “I’m gonna go call him now!!” and trudging away with the corners of his mouth twisted downward and a fiery look in his eyes like a child sent to time out. (That’s how I envision Cashman anyway.)

Plus, was A-Rod’s tweet this big of a deal? Or is it a big deal because it’s A-Rod?

Cashman’s goal since leveraging full control of the Yankees’ baseball operations has been to be seen on a level with Beane and Theo Epstein as “geniuses” whose vision led their particular organizations to success rather than a checkbook GM who covers up for mistakes by using endless amounts of Yankees cash (it’s like real money, only more cold, corporate and drenched in a self-anointed superiority). Yet the professionalism and CEO-style is lacking. He’s a caricature and a bad one at that. It’s satirical more than evolved.

Cashman’s behavior in the Louise Meanwell scandal was embarrassing to an organization for whom being embarrassed is the last thing they want and he’s still acting like a brat in a mid-life crisis, desperate for credit and the off-field perks that come with a powerful position, but unable to behave in an appropriate fashion when they arrive.

Maybe that’s why A-Rod is such a continuing source of irritation: he embarrasses them. But the solution to A-Rod’s continuous penchant for making headlines isn’t for the GM to make it worse by trumping A-Rod’s headlines with his own. And in this case, what exactly did A-Rod do that was so terrible? The doctor said he was ready to start a rehab assignment and the Yankees haven’t signed off on it. So? All Cashman had to say was, “The doctor who made that call is an outside doctor and the organization’s medical staff will decide when A-Rod’s rehab will begin. It could be next week or it could be next month.” Instead he decided to vent his anger at the easiest target he has in A-Rod and make a new mess simultaneously making the usual villain, A-Rod, look sympathetic.

We can speculate what would have been said if Derek Jeter has made a similar statement and then go into the litany of differences in tone and public perceptions between Jeter and A-Rod, but when digging underneath all of refuse that has piled on during A-Rod’s tenure in pinstripes, it’s not all that different and Cashman most certainly wouldn’t have told Jeter to “shut the <bleep> up.” If anyone needs to follow that advice, it’s the GM whose own tenure is growing more pockmarked by his attitude, statements and behaviors by the day. And he hasn’t done a particularly great job running the team sans the aforementioned “Yankee money” either.

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Lusting For Luhnow, Part II

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The narrative of Jeff Luhnow having been the scouting director who drafted the most players who opened the 2013 season on a Major League roster is taken far out of context in the effort to create a pithy and simple-minded conclusion that he was the mastermind behind the Cardinals and is a guarantee to rebuild the Astros in a similar manner.

Is it technically true that Luhnow has the most draftees on big league rosters in 2013?

Yes.

Is it accurate in its basest sense?

No.

The drafting of players is such a random thing and their making it or not making it is based on so many factors that have nothing to do with talent that it’s a meaningless assertion to make to credit any one person for it. How many high draft picks have flamed out and not made it to the degree they were supposed to? How many late-rounders became stars? Albert Pujols was with the Cardinals club that Luhnow supposedly built and was a 13th round draft pick. Chris Carpenter was a first round draft pick of the Blue Jays who was a combination of bad and injury-prone before he came under the tutelage of Dave Duncan and Tony LaRussa and was completely rebuilt into one of the best pitchers in baseball over the past decade.

No one in their right mind is going to try and take credit for Pujols as a 13th round pick and say they “knew” what he was. His selection was a combination of a late-bloomer, luck and who knows what else? The scouting director is the one who receives the credit, but in reality it’s the cross-checkers and in-the-trenches scouts who find the players to begin with and recommend them to the front office who decide which player they want. Much of it is innate talent, happenstance, teaching, and opportunity. To think that any club believes a player drafted from the 8th round and beyond will do anything significant in the majors is absurd. The ones who do are an anomaly, the product of a trick pitch, late growth spurts or PEDs.

Yet here we are. No matter what Luhnow does, it’s treated as if he’s reinventing the game and receiving undue credit for his new thinking. But we can’t avoid the reality that his current club is going to lose somewhere between 105 and 115 games in 2013. Does that not matter?

The fervent and evangelical support he’s receiving is akin to George W. Bush abandoning the pretense of Constitutional separation between church and state and holding up a Bible saying he answers to a higher authority while mega-churches prayed for his election and turned out en masse to make it happen. Instead of the New Testament, Luhnow is metaphorically holding up a copy of Baseball Prospectus and answering to that “higher authority” and plucking people from its staff to function as his assistants.

It’s sort of like Mitt Romney’s binder of women only it’s Luhnow’s paperback of stat geeks.

They have their impressive degrees, theories and worship from the masses who see them as examples of what they believe as if that’s the final word on what’s right. This is a conceit that is growing prevalent as its supporters are emboldened by increased validation, accurate or not. The congregation—the like-minded media, bloggers, and social media “experts”—spread the gospel and make ham-handed and pompous fumblings with “conversion.” It maintains the undertone of an insecure, “we don’t really believe it” desperation and whininess asking why others don’t see the “truth.”

Because Luhnow is adhering to his beliefs and has the support of the likes of Keith Law, he’s receiving a pass for this monstrosity into which he’s crafted the Astros as they play, not to compete, but to accumulate draft picks. The teams that have had success in recent years but have done it in a decidedly old-school manner and told the outside “experts” to take a hike, namely the Giants and their GM Brian Sabean, are not credited for what they’ve created with the GM failing to get the accolades he deserves. Instead, before the champagne in the carpet of the Giants’ clubhouse had even dried, the media made it a point to search for someone, anyone in the Giants organization who would bolster them and render meaningless the argument that Sabean’s old-school methods worked. What they found was Yeshayah Goldfarb who is the Giants “Moneyball” guy in a Moneyballless organization. Goldfarb, who few even knew existed before he was dragged into the spotlight, was the behind the scenes wizard who pulled Sabean’s strings and “really” crafted the Giants into a World Series winner in two of the past three years.

At least that’s how the story was framed.

So how’s it work? If the GM fits the aesthetic as Luhnow does, he’s a hero and if he doesn’t (like Sabean), he got help from a guy in a darkened room recommending the team sign Juan Uribe? If the storyline doesn’t translate neatly into some singular person being a “genius,” by believing what the baseball revolutionaries believe, a Goldfarb has to be found somewhere?

The Luhnow rhetoric stems from what “we’d” do with the “we” being the aforementioned bloggers, media and people on Twitter. But because the “we” agrees with what someone is doing doesn’t make it right; it doesn’t make it unassailable; and it doesn’t make someone a “genius” before they’ve accomplished anything at all other than accumulate a load of worshipful hype, driven payroll down as low as it can possibly go and put together one of the worst clubs in history.

Let’s wait on the smiling bust of Luhnow to be placed in the room of every would-be GM who’s memorized the latest edition of Baseball Prospectus and thinks that somehow qualifies him or her to be a GM and tell experienced baseball players, coaches, managers, and executives how to do their jobs. He’s done nothing up to now other than demolish what was admittedly a crumbled infrastructure. But anyone with a wrecking ball and sufficient motivation could’ve done that. So far he’s a media creation and nothing more.

Paul Lebowitz’s 2013 Baseball Guide is now available on Amazon.com, Smashwords, BN and Lulu. Check it out and read a sample.

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The Yankees Saved Hughes For His Next Team

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If the innings limits and protective strategies had worked at least once, I’d say there’s a basis for having them, but this applies to Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy, Joba Chamberlain, Stephen Strasburg and any other pitcher who’s been held back in the interests of clubs “protecting” their investment: THEY DON’T WORK!!!!

The Yankees placed these rules on all their young pitchers they drafted highly and valued to keep them healthy. Neither Hughes nor Chamberlain stayed healthy and they haven’t been particularly effective either. So what was the point? The false, weak argument will say, “Well, we had no idea about that then; we were following doctors’ advice; we studied the numbers and history; we’d do it again.”

Isn’t the point of drafting and developing pitchers to have them pitch and pitch well for the team that drafted them? Hughes is going to be 27 in June and has a solid won/lost record for his career of 52-36. The record is a byproduct of having pitched for the Yankees for his entire career in an era when they won over 90 games on an annual basis and were loaded with offense and a deep bullpen that doesn’t blow leads. His peripheral numbers are mediocre and the same logic that qualified Ivan Nova’s 16-4 record in 2011 as not entirely accurate also applies to Hughes with the main difference being that the Yankees didn’t use the same strategies on Nova and didn’t think much of Nova, yet he’s been just as good as a pitcher they did tie up, Hughes.

That’s bad for the perception, so it’s ignored.

Yesterday Hughes was diagnosed with another injury, a bulging disk in his neck, said to have occurred during infield practice. It’s not the Yankees’ fault, but it’s an example of the fragility of athletes in general and pitchers in particular when they’re performing the occasionally dangerous and stressful activity of baseball.

What have they gotten with all the developmental rules? With the numbers that they, hopefully, didn’t extrapolate from Tom Verducci? With the constant shifting of roles, shutdowns, break periods, and pitch counts?

Nothing.

This is not to pick on the Yankees. Many teams are doing the same things with similar results, but Hughes’s latest injury makes him a worthy example. Hughes has been a mediocre pitcher who could have been a star had they just left him alone. Like Kennedy, Hughes will have to develop elsewhere and be allowed to pitch the 200 innings that, after six years in the big leagues, he’s yet to do. He’s a free agent at the end of the season and there will be a team that looks at Hughes and says, “We’ll sign him and let him pitch,” and will be rewarded with, at least, more than the Yankees have gotten from him.

Teams are paranoid and afraid to do something different from the current orthodoxy and self-proclaimed experts sitting behind computers, crunching numbers and waiting for an opportunity to critique. The Giants, with an old-school GM Brian Sabean, have built one of the best pitching staffs in baseball—one that’s brought them two World Series titles in three years—and they did it by drafting two high school pitchers (Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain) and one pitcher who was too small and had such a unique motion and training regimen that teams didn’t want to touch him (Tim Lincecum). What do the Yankees have? Two failed would-be stars and another top prospect who almost won the Cy Young Award for the Diamondbacks two years ago.

The Moneyball concept of not drafting high school pitchers because of the “risk” has thankfully been tossed overboard. The Verducci Effect is in the process of being phased out. (For the record, if my GM said he was using the arbitrary research of a sportswriter to develop and dictate how he used his pitchers, I’d fire him.) Teams are looking at the reality and realizing that maybe young pitchers might be better-served to be allowed to throw innings and incorporate other factors rather than the numbers handed to them by Ivy League graduates armed with an algorithm. Isn’t this is why there are pitching coaches, managers and scouts: to determine a pitcher’s tics, movements and mechanics to decide when he’s tired; when he’s at risk for injury; how he should be deployed?

Pitchers are fragile, but instead of using that fragility as a basis to freeze them for a later date, perhaps the opposite would be a better strategy: let them pitch while they can pitch and move on when they can’t. A team deciding to do that will certainly get better results than the Yankees have with Hughes, who is probably counting the days until he can get out of the Yankees constraints and go to a club that will let him enjoy his prime years as something other than a what might have been. Currently, he’s a failed experiment in building a young pitcher and a case study of those poor decisions creating a pitcher who can be found on the market cheaply to be used and discarded.

Hughes keeps getting hurt; he’s the Yankees’ fourth starter; he’s leaving at the end of the season because the Yankees won’t want him back at the money he’ll ask for and the pitcher would probably like to get a fresh start. With all of these facts, tell me, what was the point of the rules they used as a garrote to strangle his future?

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Yankees Belt-Tightening, Part II—the Aftereffects of Austerity

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In normal circumstances, the words “austerity measures” would never be linked with “$200 million payroll,” but that’s where the Yankees currently are.

With that $200 million payroll and the upcoming strict penalties on franchises with higher payrolls, the mandate has come down from ownership for the Yankees to get the total down to $189 million by 2014. This will supposedly save as much as $50 million in taxes and they’ll be able to spend again after 2014.

I wrote about this in detail here.

But what will the team look like by 2014 and will players want to join the Yankees when they’re no longer the “Yankees,” but just another team that’s struggled for two straight years and whose future isn’t attached to the stars Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte who will either be gone by then or severely limited in what they can still accomplish?

To illustrate how far the Yankees have fallen under this new budget, the catcher at the top of their depth chart is Francisco Cervelli who couldn’t even stick with the big league club as a backup last season. They lost Nick Swisher, Russell Martin, Eric Chavez, and Raul Ibanez. The latter three, they wanted back. They couldn’t pay for Martin, Chavez and Ibanez? What’s worse, they appeared to expect all three to wait out the Yankees and eschew other job offers in the hopes that they’d be welcomed back in the Bronx.

What’s worse: the ineptitude or the arrogance?

If George Steinbrenner were still around, he’d have said, “To hell with the luxury tax,” and qualified such an attitude by referencing the amount of money the team wasted over the years on such duds as Carl Pavano, Javier Vazquez, Kevin Brown, Steve Karsay, Kyle Farnsworth, Pedro Feliciano and countless others, many of whom were total unknowns to George, therefore he wouldn’t have received the convenient blame for their signings with a baseball exec’s eyeroll, head shake and surreptitious gesture toward the owner’s box, “blame him, not me,” thereby acquitting themselves when they were, in fact, guilty. But now, the bulk of the responsibility falls straight to the baseball people. He’d also be under the belief that the Yankees brand of excellence couldn’t withstand what they’re increasingly likely to experience in 2013-2014 and that the money would wind up back in their pockets eventually due to their success.

Are there financial problems that haven’t been disclosed? A large chunk of the YES Network was recently sold to Rupert Murdoch and News Corp. In years past, that money would’ve functioned as a cash infusion and gone right back into the construction of the club, but it hasn’t. They’re still not spending on players over the long term with that looming shadow of 2014 engulfing everything they plan to do. Every improvement/retention is on a one or two year contract: Kevin Youkilis—1-year; Hiroki Kuroda—1-year; Ichiro Suzuki—2-years. It’s hard to find younger, impact players when constrained so tightly and the players they’ve signed are older and/or declining which is why they were available to the Yankees on short-term contracts in the first place.

The Yankees don’t have any young players on the way up to bolster the veteran troops.

It takes inexplicable audacity for GM Brian Cashman to trumpet the pitching prospects the club was developing under stringent rules to “protect” them, then to dismiss their failures leading to a release (Andrew Brackman); a demotion to the lower minors to re-learn to throw strikes (Dellin Betances); and injury (Manny Banuelos). The reactions to the injuries to Banuelos, Jose Campos and Michael Pineda are especially galling. Banuelos’s injury—Tommy John surgery—was casually tossed aside by Cashman, pointing out the high success rate of the procedure as if it was no big deal that the pitcher got hurt. But he got hurt while under the restrictions the Yankees has placed on him—restrictions that were designed to simultaneously keep him healthy and develop him, yet wound up doing neither.

Campos was referenced as the “key” to the trade that brought Pineda; Campos was injured in late April with an undisclosed elbow problem and is now throwing off a mound and expected to be ready for spring training. That he missed almost the entire 2012 season with an injury the Yankees never described in full would give me pause for his durability going forward. The 2013 projections for Pineda to be an important contributor are more prayerful than expectant, adding to the uncertainty.

There’s a streamlining that may make sense in the long run such as the decision to drop StubHub as an official ticket reseller and instead move to Ticketmaster. They sold that chunk of YES and are in the process of slashing the payroll.

Any other team would be subject to a media firestorm trying to uncover the real reason for the sudden belt-tightening with the luxury tax excuse not be accepted at face value. Is there an underlying “why?” for this attachment to $189 million, the opt-out of the StubHub deal, and the sale of 49% of YES? The potential lost windfall of missing the post-season and the lack of fans going to the park, buying beer and souvenirs, paying the exorbitant fees to park their cars and bottom line spending money on memorabilia is going to diminish the revenue further.

Perhaps this is a natural byproduct of the failures to win a championship in any season other than 2009 in spite of having the highest payroll—by a substantial margin—in every year since their prior title in 2000. Could it be that the Steinbrenner sons looked at Cashman and wondered why Billy Beane, Brian Sabean, Andrew Friedman, and John Mozeliak were able to win with a fraction of the limitless cash the Yankees bestowed on Cashman and want him to make them more money by being a GM instead of a guy holding a blank checkbook? In recent years, I don’t see what it is Cashman has done that Hal Steinbrenner couldn’t have done if he decided to be the final word in baseball decisions and let the scouts do the drafting and he went onto the market to buy recognizable names.

Anyone can buy stuff.

Cashman’s aforementioned failures at development show his limits as a GM. It’s not easy to transform from the guy with a load of money available to toss at mistakes and use that cash as a pothole filler and be the guy who has no choice but to be frugal and figure something else out. Much like Hank Steinbrenner saying early in 2008 that the struggling righty pitcher Mike Mussina had to learn to throw like the soft-tossing lefty Jamie Moyer, it sounds easier when said from a distance and a “Why’s he doing it and you’re not?” than it is to implement.

No matter how it’s quantified, this Yankees team is reliant on the past production of these veteran players without the money that was there in the past to cover for them if they don’t deliver.

The fans aren’t going to want to hear about the “future.” They’re going to want Cashman and the Steinbrenners to do something. But given their inaction thus far in the winter of 2012-2013, it doesn’t look as if they’re going to with anyone significant.

This time, they don’t have a prior year’s championship to use as a shield. The Yankees were subject to a broom at the hands of the Tigers. That’s not a particularly coveted memory. In fact, it might have been a portent of what’s to come, except worse.

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The Giants Do It Old School

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With the tiered playoff system, single game play-ins, and short series, two World Series titles in three years counts as a dynasty in today’s game. By that metric, the San Francisco Giants are a new-age dynasty. That they accomplished this with decidedly old-school principles in the era of stat-based dominance and condescension, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Michael Lewis—the chronicler of the paragon of stat-based theories of Billy Beane in Moneyball—step over Beane and saunter over to Giants’ GM Brian Sabean and declare that he always knew there were alternate methods to success in baseball, but simply forgot to say it; that Moneyball was about more than just numbers and Ivy League educated “geniuses” permeating (or infecting) baseball morphing front offices from cigar-chomping old men using randomness into put their teams together to something resembling a Star Trek convention. It was actually about value and was not a denigration of alternate methods to finding players.

Of course that would be a lie, but truth has never stood in the way of Lewis when he has an ending in mind and is willing to do whatever necessary to get to that ending—accuracy be damned.

The boxing promoter Don King was famous for his sheer and unending audacity in this vein of going with the winner, exemplified early in his career as a boxing promoter (and not long after his release from prison) when he walked to the ring with then-heavyweight champion Joe Frazier and rapidly switched allegiances to George Foreman when Foreman knocked Frazier out. King magically emerged as part of the celebration in Foreman’s corner.

But King is a genius and Lewis isn’t. In fact, King wallowed in his amorality; Lewis doesn’t realize what he’s doing is amoral to begin with. Masked by legitimacy and critical acclaim, Lewis is far worse than King could ever be.

Because the Athletics had a shocking season in which they won 94 games and made the playoffs, losing to the AL Champion Tigers in 5 games, Lewis and Moneyball again entered the spotlight as if the 2012 A’s validated a long-ago disproved narrative. As this Slate article by Tim Marchman shows, such is not the case.

Had the Athletics been as awful as many—me included—predicted, would Lewis have abandoned his vessel out of convenience? Or would have have stuck with Beane still trying to find a reptilian method of explaining away the fall of Moneyball?

I’ll guess on the latter, but don’t discount the possibility of a new book extolling the virtues of Sabean; his veteran manager with the 1880s-style mustache and grumbly voice, Bruce Bochy; and the way the Giants championship club was built.

Before that can happen, let’s get in front of whatever the latecomers and opportunists try to pull and examine how this team was put together.

Players acquired through the draft

Brandon Crawford, SS

Crawford was taken in the 4th round of the 2008 draft out of UCLA. He received a $375,000 signing bonus.

Brandon Belt, 1B

Belt was selected in the 5th round of the 2009 draft out of the University of Texas at Austin. He received a $200,000 signing bonus.

Buster Posey, C

Posey was drafted from Florida State University in the 1st round with the 5th pick by the Giants in the 2008 draft. He received a record (at the time) signing bonus of $6.2 million.

Sergio Romo, RHP

Romo was drafted in the 28th round of the 2005 draft out of Mesa State College in Colorado. Romo took over for injured star closer Brian Wilson and was brilliant.

Madison Bumgarner, LHP

Bumgarner was drafted in the 1st round of the 2007 draft with the 10th pick out South Caldwell High School in Hudson, North Carolina. He received a $2 million bonus.

Tim Lincecum, RHP

Lincecum was drafted from the University of Washington in the 1st round of the 2006 draft with the 10th pick. He received a $2.025 million signing bonus.

Matt Cain, RHP

Cain was taken in the 1st round (25th pick) of the 2002 draft—the “Moneyball” draft that was documented by Lewis as exhibit A of stat guy “genius” from Paul DePodesta’s laptop. He was taken out of high school in Tennessee—exhibit B of “mistakes” that clubs make when drafting players because selecting high school pitchers was presented as the epitome of risk and stupidity.

Cain received a $1.375 million signing bonus. The A’s took Joe Blanton out of college the pick before Cain. Blanton received a $1.4 million signing bonus.

Acquired via free agency

Pablo Sandoval, 3B

Sandoval was signed by the Giants out of Venezuela as an amateur free agent at age 17 in 2003.

Gregor Blanco, OF

The veteran journeyman Blanco signed a minor league contract with the Giants after spending the entire 2011 season in Triple A with the Nationals and Royals. He was an integral part of the Giants’ championship team with speed, defense, and a key homer in the NLDS comeback against the Reds.

Ryan Vogelsong, RHP

Vogelsong’s signing was mostly luck helped along by opportunity and the alteration of his game under pitching coach Dave Righetti. Vogelsong was a journeyman who has become a post-season star and rotation stalwart at age 35.

Jeremy Affeldt, LHP

Affeldt was signed as a free agent from the Reds in 2008.

Ryan Theriot, INF

Theriot signed a 1-year, $1.25 million contract before the 2012 season.

Aubrey Huff, 1B/OF/PH

Huff was a low-cost free agent signing in 2010 and was a large part of the World Series title that year. He re-signed for 2-years and $22 million and didn’t contribute on the field to the 2012 title.

Barry Zito, LHP

The Giants were in need of a star to replace Barry Bonds as they rebuilt from the “Build around Bonds” days and Zito was the biggest name available in the winter of 2006-2007. They signed him to a 7-year, $126 million contract that has $27 million guaranteed remaining for 2013. A pitcher being paid that amount of money is expected to be an ace, but Zito has been a back-of-the-rotation starter at best and was left off the 2010 post-season roster entirely. In 2012, he won 14 games and picked up the slack for the slumping Lincecum and Bumgarner to help the Giants win their 2012 championship.

Santiago Casilla, RHP

Casilla was signed as a free agent in 2009 after the Athletics non-tendered him.

Joaquin Arias, INF

Arias signed a minor league contract before the 2012 season. People forget about this, but in the Alex Rodriguez trade from the Rangers to the Yankees, the Yankees offered the Rangers a choice between Arias and Robinson Cano.

Neither the Yankees nor the Rangers knew what Cano was.

It was Arias’s defense at third base on the last out that helped save Cain’s perfect game in June.

Guillermo Mota, RHP

Mota has been with the Giants for three seasons and signed a 1-year, $1 million contract for 2012.

Hector Sanchez, C

Sanchez was signed as an amateur free agent out of Venezuela in 2009.

Players acquired via trade

Melky Cabrera, OF

The contribution of Cabrera will be debated forever considering he failed a PED test and was suspended for the second half of the season. He was eligible to be reinstated for the playoffs, but the Giants chose not to do that. It was Cabrera’s All-Star Game MVP performance that wound up giving the Giants home field advantage for the World Series

Cabrera was an important factor in the first half of the season, but the Giants were 62-51 with Cabrera on the active roster and 32-17 without him. The Giants’ success was based on their pitching more than anything else and they won the World Series without Cabrera.

Cabrera was acquired from the Royals for Jonathan Sanchez, who was talented and inconsistent with the Giants and outright awful for the Royals.

Javier Lopez, LHP

Lopez was acquired from the Pirates in July of 2010 and was a key lefty specialist on the two title-winning teams.

Angel Pagan, CF

Pagan was acquired from the Mets for center fielder Andres Torres and righty reliever Ramon Ramirez. Pagan had a fine year at the plate and in the field, leading the majors in triples with 15 and stealing 29 bases including the one in the World Series that got everyone a free taco from Taco Bell.

George Kontos, RHP

The Yankees traded Kontos to the Giants for backup catcher Chris Stewart. Kontos is a solid reliever who’s more useful than a no-hit catcher.

Hunter Pence, RF

Pence was acquired from the Phillies for minor league pitcher Seth Rosin, catcher Tommy Joseph, and veteran big league outfielder Nate Schierholtz. The Giants are set at catcher, so Joseph was expendable. Pence had a .671 OPS in 59 games with the Giants, but it was his stirring, wild-eyed speech before game 3 of the NLDS against the Reds that was widely credited by teammates as waking them up to make their comeback. His teammates were either inspired or frightened by Pence’s intensity, but whatever it was, it worked.

Marco Scutaro, 2B

Scutaro was almost steamrolled by Matt Holliday of the Cardinals in the NLCS, but he came back from that and batted .500 in that series, winning the MVP. Then he had the game-winning hit in game 4 of the World Series.

Scutaro was acquired from the Rockies in late July for infielder Charlie Culberson.

Manager Bochy was run out of his longtime home as a manager, coach and player with the Padres when the front office wanted someone cheaper and more agreeable to the new age statistics and doing what he was told. Then-Padres team president Sandy Alderson allowed Bochy to interview for the Giants’ job—a division rival no less—and made utterly absurd statements of his policy being to allow his employees to seek other opportunities blah, blah, blah.

The Padres didn’t want Bochy back because Bochy didn’t do what he was told by the stat guys in the front office. In exchange, they got a far inferior manager Bud Black, and the Giants now have two championships and the hardware (and parades) to say there are different methods to use to win. Sometimes those methods work better without the fictionalized accounts in print and on film.

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National League West—Buy, Sell or Stand Pat?

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San Francisco Giants

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

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

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

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

Los Angeles Dodgers

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

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

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

Arizona Diamondbacks

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

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

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

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

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

San Diego Padres

Sell, sell, sell.

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

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

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

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

Colorado Rockies

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

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

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

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Coco Crisp Takes His Talents Back To Oakland

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When MLB Trade Rumors published the posting that Coco Crisp had made his decision as to which club he wanted to sign with, many things ran through my head to solve the cryptic mystery of the unnamed team’s identity.

Was the team that he’d chosen aware that Crisp wanted to sign with them?

Did they want him?

Was he in the midst of negotiations—albeit on a smaller scale—with ESPN to broadcast The Decision in a similar way to LeBron James’s taking his talents to Miami?

Or was Crisp purchasing time on cable access channels nationwide befitting his somewhat lower level of fame in comparison to James?

Where was Crisp taking his talents?

Where?

Where?!?

WHERE?!?!?!?

As it turned out, Crisp re-signed with the Athletics for 2-years and a guaranteed $14 million.

There was no fizzle; no wild celebration; just a blank stare.

The most interesting aspects to this bit of news were the reactions of the Billy Beane defenders. Rather than accurately gauge the signing for what it is—pointless—they found ways to continue defending the indefensible “genius” for doing things that make absolutely no sense.

Dave Cameron summed up the Beane-defenders’ reaction with the following on Twitter:

Whether A’s should be team paying for 32-year-old CF is another story. But Crisp is a solid average player, easily worth $7M per year.

Would those who aren’t sacred cows in the stat revolution have gotten this pass? What if it was Royals GM Dayton Moore, Giants GM Brian Sabean or Phillies GM Ruben Amaro who had made this decision?

If they’d made suspicious trades of young pitchers who should be the foundation of a rebuild, there would certainly be multiple articles, blogs and comments tearing into the haphazard maneuvers being made. But because it’s Beane, there’s a desperate search for justification and a reluctance to criticize him in anything other than the most wishy-washy and general terms.

The money is irrelevant and the justifications flawed.

My theory has always been that teams should overpay for what they need and set a line—based on a myriad of factors—for what they want.

The Athletics don’t need Crisp.

Can they use Crisp?

Why not? He’s a good outfielder; has some pop and speed; and appears to be well liked by the media, teammates and fans.

But did they need him?

You tell me.

The A’s are in a nightmarish division with two powerhouses, the Rangers and Angels; they just traded their top two starting pitchers for packages of youngsters and are starting over in anticipation of a new stadium in San Jose that may never come.

What do they need a veteran center fielder like Crisp for? They’re going to lose 90 games with him; they’ll lose 90 games without him.

If Beane were the “genius” and ruthless, fearless corporate titan his fictional biography portrayed him as being, he’d have found a center fielder on someone’s bench or Triple A roster, traded for him and installed him as the new center fielder giving him a chance to play every day—sort of like he did with Scott Hatteberg at first base in 2002.

Teams are no longer fearful of doing business with Beane because the perception that he’s picking their pockets has been destroyed by reality, randomness and consistent mediocrity.

Would the Giants be willing to deal Darren Ford? The Astros J.B. Shuck? The Blue Jays Darin Mastroianni?

The “who” isn’t the point, but the “why” is.

Why do they need Crisp?

They don’t.

Technically, based on ability and markets, they didn’t overpay for him; but overpaying isn’t only about giving a player too much money, it’s also about signing him at all.

Either Beane’s running the team with a plan or he’s not; what the Crisp signing signifies is that there is no plan. He’s just “doing stuff” like so many other executives do, except they’re not relentlessly defended for it, nor are they doing it with the appellation of “genius” hovering over them and placing everything they do under the microscope of a fictional tale.

And the microscope is telling all.

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