For the Nationals, it’s early…but

MLB, Uncategorized

Harper pic

Like any rivalry, the barking between fans of the New York Mets and Washington Nationals descends into the absurd, truthful though it may be. Repeatedly referencing the Nationals four shots at the playoffs and four first round playoff losses in the Bryce HarperStephen Strasburg years is undoubtedly accurate, but it’s not as if the Mets have won a championship during that time to accord them an unassailable argument to validate the mocking.

Still, the Mets won the pennant in 2015. The Nationals are saddled with not just the inability to get beyond the first round, but also the 2015 implosion that allowed the Mets to pass, lap and embarrass them, and a dwindling amount of time to make good on a cycle of seven years in which they had the most talent in baseball, all the pieces in place for a dynasty and are on the verge of letting it slip away. If it comes completely undone in the first month of what could be Harper’s last season as a National is more apropos than tragic.

The same Nationals fans who roll their eyes at Mets fans’ ridicule and seek to dismiss the Mets’ searing start as if order will be restored in due time are eliciting a sense of “the lady doth protest too much, methinks.” Already being six games out of first place after two weeks is not something to cavalierly dismiss. It’s not just that the Nationals have fallen so far behind so fast, but the way they’ve done it should be especially worrisome with a rapid spiral an increasingly possible outcome.

Even with a hedging halfway projection in the five games between Saturday and Wednesday, the Nationals could find themselves nine games out of first place with two weeks remaining in the first month of the season.

The Nationals have reason to reference injuries as a cause of their early-season struggles – a cause, but not the cause. The Mets had the same justification, well, forever and the Nationals showed no sympathy in beating them brutally. Why should the Mets not reciprocate when their rival is bruised and bleeding?

Daniel Murphy is still recovering from knee surgery and Adam Eaton has a bone bruise. Those are two key components from their lineup who are missing. Their starting pitching has been predictably excellent. The bullpen has been mediocre. What accounts for their 6-8 record at this writing is their offense. Ryan Zimmerman’s lack of game action in spring training was shrugged off as a tactical decision, but a .424 OPS and a 16 OPS+ after 47 plate appearances indicates that, yeah, maybe at-bats in minor-league games to keep him healthy for the regular season was not the best idea in the world.

Trea Turner has a slash of .208/.333/.283; Michael Taylor is at .160/.192/.180. Without Murphy and Eaton, not even a megastar like Harper and the embarrassingly underrated star Anthony Rendon can make up for that.

There is no answer to the question as to whether this would be happening to the Nationals had they not retreated to their familiar template of blame and cheapness with a key factor in success and failure — the manager — and given Dusty Baker the contract extension he earned not only with back-to-back division titles, but by cleaning up the mess left behind by the manager he replaced, Matt Williams.

Williams’s resume is eerily comparable to that of the manager they hired to replace Baker, Dave Martinez. Sabermetric advocates loathe Baker and love Martinez due largely to his longstanding affiliation with Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon and his familiarity with the numbers-based, new age style utilized by the Cubs and before that the Tampa Bay Rays. Baker’s strength was never strategic. His strength is running the clubhouse and gaining favor with the players because they knew he had their backs and would let them do their jobs without constantly being in their faces. Results are what they are. Baker got them. Martinez is not.

An overriding concern should not be falling so far behind this quickly, but players like Harper, Murphy and Gio Gonzalez seeing where the season is headed and thinking of their pending free agency rather than salvaging what could be a lost cause by May. Harper in particular could have as much as half-a-billion dollars riding on this season. Does a desperate run and the work necessary to salvage a Wild Card justify risking that by diving, running into walls and busting on every play?

Yes, it’s early. No, the Mets and their fans should not be gloating. But that does not dispel the concerns that should be reverberating for the Nationals, because they are very real even in mid-April with 90 percent of the season remaining.

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Mattitude?

Games, History, Management, Media, MiLB, Players, Stats

The Nationals are reportedly going to name Matt Williams as their next manager. This comes as no surprise since Williams has long been rumored for the job due to his relationship with Nats GM Mike Rizzo from their days together with the Diamondbacks when Williams was a player and Rizzo was their Director of Scouting. Let’s look at what the Nats can expect from Williams.

Running the games

In 2007, Williams managed very briefly for the Diamondbacks organization in Double A. He managed in the Arizona Fall League last year. He’s been a coach in the Major Leagues with the club for four years. As much as experience is routinely ignored in the hiring of managers today, it matters.

Williams doesn’t have much managerial experience. For a team like the Nats, a concern for an inexperienced manager will be handling the pitching staff and making pitching changes – something Williams has never done and initially might not be adept at. He’ll need an experienced bench coach and pitching coach who he’ll trust and listen to and not men who are selected for the oft-mentioned “loyalty to the organization.” Those guys are generally there and will be there whether the manager succeeds or not creating the potential for mistrust.

It hasn’t been decided whether pitching coach Steve McCatty will return and Randy Knorr, who was passed over for the managing job, was the bench coach for Davey Johnson over the last two seasons. One would assume that both will stay.

The relationship with Rizzo

Rizzo has had high-profile dustups with the two managers he hired as Nats GM, Jim Riggleman and Johnson. Riggleman quit after 55 games in 2011 when he wanted his contract option exercised and Rizzo refused. Johnson disagreed with the Stephen Strasburg shutdown, openly chafed at the overseeing he had to endure in today’s game and threatened to quit/dared Rizzo to fire him. Had Johnson not been retiring at season’s end, it’s likely that Rizzo would have done just that at mid-season and replaced him with Knorr.

If Williams is thinking that the prior relationship between the two will put him in a better position than Johnson, he’s mistaken. Rizzo is in charge and he lets the manager know it. Considering Williams’s quiet intensity as a player, a disagreement between the two could become a problem. He’s not going to simply nod his head and do what he’s told.

The team

Williams is walking into a great situation that probably won’t need much hands-on managing. With the Bob Brenly-managed teams that Williams played for with the Diamondbacks, there wasn’t much for Brenly to do other than write the lineup and let the players play. The veterans policed the clubhouse and Brenly was sort of along for the ride. The same holds true for the Nats. Apart from tweak here and there, the lineup is essentially set. The starting rotation and bullpen are also going to be relatively unchanged.

The one mistake Williams can’t make is to walk in and decide that he has to put his stamp on the team by doing “something” like deciding they’re going to rely more on speed and inside baseball. Writing the lineup will be more than enough. The decision to consciously keep his hands off what doesn’t need to be changed is a window into a manager’s confidence. While Brenly wasn’t a good manager, his style was similar to that of Barry Switzer when he took over the powerhouse Dallas Cowboys in the mid-1990s – he knew enough not to mess with it. It worked and the team won. Of course, no other team was going to hire either man to manage/coach for them, but that didn’t have a bearing on the job they were hired to do and they did it.

Williams is going to benefit greatly from the improved health of Bryce Harper and Wilson Ramos; he’ll be free of any constraints with Strasburg; the team is loaded. All he needs to do is be the serious, stern competitor he was in his playing days and he’ll be fine. Saying it and doing it are two different things and with a brand new manager who’s never done it before, there are still a lot of traps he could fall into and won’t know how to get out of. That’s what he has to look out for. Apart from that, it’s a great opportunity…as long as he doesn’t screw it up.




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The Mets Winning and Draft Pick Issues

Award Winners, CBA, Draft, Free Agents, Games, Hall Of Fame, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, MVP, Players, Prospects, Stats

The Mets can’t win even when they win. A 5-1 road trip including a sweep of the hated Phillies and putting a severe hit on the Reds’ hopes to win the NL Central or host the Wild Card game isn’t enough to make Mets fans happy. Now that they’ve moved into third place in the NL East, there are worries that they’re going to make the “mistake” of winning too many games and fall out of the top ten worst records in baseball and have to give up draft pick compensation to sign free agents.

The draft pick issue is not unimportant. The most negative of fans and self-anointed analysts believe that the Mets will use the draft pick compensation issue to have an excuse not to sign any big name free agents. This is equating the winter of 2012 with the winter of 2013 and the club’s retrospectively wise decision not to surrender the eleventh overall pick in the draft to sign Michael Bourn.

Bourn has been a significant contributor to the Indians’ likely run to the playoffs and would most certainly have helped the Mets. But if Bourn were with the Mets, would Juan Lagares have gotten his chance to play? Lagares has very rapidly become perhaps the best defensive center fielder in baseball and already baserunners are leaving skid marks in the dirt when they round third base and think about scoring on Lagares’s dead-eye arm. Signing Bourn would have gotten the team some positive press for a brief time, but ended as a long-term negative. With or without Bourn, the 2013 Mets were also-rans.

For 2014, the Mets no longer have any excuses not to spend some money to sign Shin-Soo Choo, Bronson Arroyo, Carlos Beltran or Tim Lincecum and to explore trades for Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez, Matthew Joyce, Ian Kinsler or any other player who will cost substantial dollars. Jason Bay and Johan Santana are off the books and the only players signed for the long term are David Wright and Jonathon Niese. For no reason other than appearances, the Mets have to do something even if that means overpaying for Hunter Pence (whom I wouldn’t want under normal circumstances if I were them) if they’re shut out on every other avenue.

I’m not sure what they’re supposed to do for the last week of 2013. Are they supposed to try and lose? How do they do that? This isn’t hockey where a team with their eye on Mario Lemieux has everyone in the locker room aware that a once-in-a-generation player is sitting there waiting to be picked and does just enough to lose. It’s not football where an overmatched team is going to lose no matter how poorly their opponent plays. It’s baseball.

The same randomness that holds true in a one-game playoff is applicable in a game-to-game situation when one hit, one home run, one stunning pitching performance against a power-laden lineup (as we saw with Daisuke Matsuzaka for the Mets today) can render any plan meaningless. It’s not as if the Mets are the Astros and guaranteed themselves the worst record in baseball months ago. There’s not a blatant once-a-generation talent sitting there waiting to be picked number one overall as the Nationals had two straight years with the backwards luck that they were so horrific and were able to nab Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. And it’s not the first overall pick, it’s the eleventh to the thirteenth. A team will get a great talent, but not a can’t miss prospect at that spot.

As for the mechanics of the draft pick, the Mets are hovering between the tenth worst record and the twelfth worst record. You can read the rules surrounding the pick here. If they’re tied with a team that had a better record in 2012, the Mets will get the higher pick. That means if they’re tied with any of the teams they’re competing with for that spot – the Giants, Blue Jays and Phillies – the Mets will get the higher pick and be shielded from having to dole out compensation for signing a free agent.

Naturally, it hurts to lose the first round draft pick if it’s the twelfth overall. It has to be remembered that there are still good players in the draft after the first and second rounds. They may not have the cachet of the first rounders – especially first rounders taken in the first twelve picks – but they can still play.

Most importantly, there comes a point where the decision to build up the farm system has to end and the big league club must be given priority. For the most part, Mets fans have been patient while the onerous contracts were excised, the Bernie Madoff mess was being navigated and Sandy Alderson and Co. rebuilt the farm system. There has to be some improvement and a reason to buy tickets and watch the team in 2014. A high draft pick who the team will say, “wait until he arrives in 2018-2019(?)” isn’t going to cut it. They have to get some name players and if it costs them the twelfth overall pick, so be it.




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Matt Harvey’s Elbow Injury Fallout

All Star Game, Award Winners, Ballparks, CBA, Cy Young Award, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Games, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, MLB Trade Deadline, Players, Playoffs, Prospects, Spring Training, Stats, Trade Rumors, World Series

No matter what happens with his elbow, Matt Harvey of the Mets is still going home to this:

Anne_V

I’m not using that image of Anne V. in an attempt to accumulate gratuitous web hits, but as an example of Harvey being perfectly fine whether he has to have Tommy John surgery or not. The reactions ranged from the ludicrous to the suicidal and I’m not quite sure why. There’s being a fan and treating an athlete as if he or she is part of your family and cares about you as much as you care about them.

Let’s have a look at the truth.

For Matt Harvey

The severity of the tear of his ulnar collateral ligament is still unknown because the area was swollen and the doctors couldn’t get the clearest possible image. Whether or not he can return without surgery will be determined in the coming months. It’s possible. If you run a check on every single pitcher in professional baseball, you can probably find a legitimate reason to tell him to shut it down. Some are more severe than others. Harvey’s probably been pitching with an increasing level of damage for years. The pain was  manageable and didn’t influence his stuff, so he and his teams didn’t worry about it. This surgery is relatively common now and the vast number of pitchers return from it better than ever. The timetable given is generally a full year, but pitchers are now coming back far sooner.

“That’s so Mets”

This injury is being treated as if it’s something that could only happen to the Mets. The implication is that their “bad luck” is infesting everything they touch. But look around baseball. How about “that’s so Nats?” Both Jordan Zimmerman and Stephen Strasburg required Tommy John surgery in spite of the Nationals’ protective measures and overt paranoia.

How about “that’s so Red Sox?” Clay Buchholz has spent much of two of the past three seasons on and off the disabled list with several injuries—many of which were completely misdiagnosed.

How about “that’s so Yankees?” Joba Chamberlain and Manny Banuelos had Tommy John surgery; Michael Pineda has had numerous arm injuries since his acquisition.

How about “that’s so Braves?” Tim Hudson, Kris Medlen, Eric O’Flaherty, Jonny Venters (twice), Brandon Beachy and Alex Wood have all had Tommy John surgery. The Braves are considered one of the best organizational developers of talent in baseball.

Dave Duncan warrants Hall of Fame induction for his work as a pitching coach and had Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter undergo Tommy John surgery. You can go to every single organization in baseball and find examples like this.

The Mets kept an eye on Harvey, protected him and he still got hurt. That’s what throwing a baseball at 100 mph and sliders and other breaking pitches at 90+ mph will do. It’s not a natural motion and it damages one’s body.

The Twitter experts

Some said the Mets should not only have shut Harvey down earlier, but they also should have shut down Jonathon Niese, Jenrry Mejia, Zack Wheeler and Jeremy Hefner. Who was going to pitch? PR man Jay Horowitz? Others stated that they were planning to undertake research into the pitching mechanics technique of “inverted W” (which Harvey didn’t use). I’m sure the Mets are waiting for a layman’s evaluations and will study them thoroughly.

Of course, many blamed the Mets’ manager Terry Collins and pitching coach Dan Warthen. That was based on an agenda, pure and simple. Some have been pushing for the Mets to bring back former pitching coach Rick Peterson. They’re ignoring the fact that Peterson is now the pitching coordinator for the Orioles and their top pitching prospect, Dylan Bundy, had Tommy John surgery himself. Is that Dan Warthen’s fault too?

To have the arrogance to believe that some guy on Twitter with a theory is going to have greater, more in-depth knowledge than professional trainers, baseball people and medical doctors goes beyond the scope of lunacy into delusion of self-proclaimed deity-like proportions.

Bob Ojeda

With their station SNY, the Mets have gone too far in the opposite direction from their New York Yankees counterpart the YES Network in trying to be evenhanded and aboveboard. Former Mets pitcher Bob Ojeda should not have free rein to rip the organization up and down  as to what they’re doing wrong. This is especially true since Ojeda has harbored a grudge after former GM Omar Minaya passed Ojeda over for the pitching coach job and openly said he didn’t feel that Ojeda was qualified for the position.

Now Ojeda is using the Harvey injury as a forum to bash the Mets’ manager and pitching coach and claim that he had prescient visions of Harvey getting hurt because he was throwing too many sliders. I don’t watch the pre and post-game shows, so it’s quite possible that Ojeda said that he felt Harvey was throwing too many sliders, but if he didn’t and kept this information to himself, he’s showing an insane amount of audacity to claim that he “predicted” it.

He needs to tone it down or be removed from the broadcast.

Player injuries can happen anywhere

The winter after his dramatic, pennant-clinching home run for the Yankees, Aaron Boone tore his knee playing basketball. This led to the Yankees trading for Alex Rodriguez and Boone not getting paid via the terms of his contract because he got hurt partaking in an activity he was technically not supposed to be partaking in. Boone could’ve lied about it and said he hit a pothole while jogging. The Yankees wouldn’t have known about it and he would’ve gotten paid. He didn’t. He’s a rarity.

On their off-hours, players do things they’re technically not supposed to be doing.

Jeff Kent broke his hand riding his motorcycle, then lied about it saying he slipped washing his truck. Ron Gant crashed his dirtbike into a tree. Other players have claimed that they injured themselves in “freak accidents” that were more likely results of doing things in which they wouldn’t get paid if they got hurt. Bryce Harper, shortly after his recall to the big leagues, was videotaped playing softball in a Washington D.C. park. Anything could have happened to injure him and he wouldn’t have been able to lie about it. Boone told the truth, but no one knows exactly when these injuries occur and what the players were doing to cause them.

With Harvey, we don’t know how many pitches he threw in college; how many softball games he played in; how many times as a youth he showed off his arm to the point of potential damage. This could have been coming from the time he was twelve years old. In fact, it probably was and there’s nothing anyone could have done to prevent it.

The vagaries of the future

The Mets were counting on Harvey for 2014. They have enough pitching in their system that it was likely they were going to trade some of it for a bat. If they wanted Giancarlo Stanton, Carlos Gonzalez or any other young, power bat they were going to have to give up Wheeler and/or Noah Syndergaard to start with. Without Harvey, they’re probably going to have to keep their young pitchers. That could turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Or it could be a curse if either of those pitchers suffer the same fate as Harvey or don’t pan out as expected.

If Harvey can’t pitch, it’s a big loss. That’s 33 starts, 210 innings and, if he’s anywhere close to what he was this season, a Cy Young Award candidate and potential $200 million pitcher. But they can take steps to replace him. They can counteract his innings with other pitchers and try to make up for a lack of pitching by boosting the offense. In short, they can follow the Marine training that GM Sandy Alderson received by adapting and overcoming.

Harvey is a big part of the Mets future, but to treat this as anything more than an athlete getting injured is silly. It happened. There’s no one to blame and when he’s ready to pitch, he’s ready to pitch. Life will go on.




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We Know What’s Wrong With The Nats, But How Can It Be Fixed?

2013 MLB Predicted Standings, Award Winners, Ballparks, Draft, Free Agents, Games, Hall Of Fame, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, Players, Playoffs, Prospects, Stats, Trade Rumors, World Series

The Nationals were expected to dominate. Instead, the team that won 98 games in 2012 and seemingly improved over the winter is under .500, out of contention and facing a large number of changes this off-season. It’s not hard to diagnose what went wrong and here’s a brief synopsis:

  • Injuries

The Nationals lost Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth, Wilson Ramos and Ross Detwiler for extended periods.

  • Underperformance

Dan Haren was signed to shore up the back of the rotation and has been awful. Drew Storen is out of his element as a set-up man and wound up back in the minors. Denard Span has been a disappointment. And Danny Espinosa’s numbers (.158/.193/.272 split with a .465 OPS and 3 homers) are worse than those of Cubs’ pitcher Travis Wood (.267/.298/.489 split with a .787 OPS and 3 homers).

  • Bad approach/bad luck

The Nats are seventh in the National League in home runs and next-to-last in the league in runs scored. They’re twelfth in the league in walks and fourteenth in on-base percentage. In 2013, they’re thirteenth in the league with a BAbip of .282; in 2012, they were fourth at .308.

  • Poor defense

The Nats’ catchers have caught 13 percent of the runners trying to steal on them. Anthony Rendon is a third baseman playing second. Ryan Zimmerman is in a defensive funk that’s gone of for the better part of two years.

  • Dysfunction

Manager Davey Johnson has openly clashed with general manager Mike Rizzo. Tyler Clippard ripped the organization for their demotion of his friend Storen. The players appear to have thought they’d have a cakewalk to the playoffs given the hype and star power.

In short, the Nats have gone from an embarrassment of riches to a plain embarrassment. With 2013 essentially over and 2012 long gone in the rearview mirror, what do the Nats have to do to get back to where they were supposed to be? What should they do?

With Rizzo having received a promotion and contract extension, it’s his baby. The luck/design argument is irrelevant. The Nationals happened to be the worst team in baseball two years in a row when once-a-generation talents were sitting there waiting to be picked first overall in Harper and Stephen Strasburg. That’s no one’s fault and to no one’s credit. It just is. Rizzo put a solid team together, but there’s been a semblance of overkill with the signings of Haren and Rafael Soriano. Haren’s performance in 2013 is indicative that his decline that began last season with the Angels was not an aberration. Soriano has pitched well, but he was not really a necessity for the Nats. He was available, they didn’t trust Storen and preferred Clippard as the set-up man. In retrospect, both were mistakes.

The question of who the manager will be going forward is vital. Johnson bears a large portion of the responsibility for this team’s underachievement. As great as his record is and as much as the media loves him for his personality and candor, Johnson’s style was a significant reason the 1980s Mets failed to live up to their talent level. He doesn’t care about defense, he trusts his players far too much in preaching aggressiveness, and the festering anger over the 2012 Strasburg shutdown—that I’m sure Johnson thinks cost his team a World Series—has manifested itself in open warfare between the manager and GM. If Johnson weren’t retiring at season’s end, Rizzo likely would’ve fired him a month ago along with hitting coach Rick Eckstein, or Johnson would simply have quit.

Johnson’s positives (he wins a lot of regular season games) don’t eliminate his negatives (he’s insubordinate and his teams are fundamentally weak). Thirty years ago, Johnson was seen as a computer geek manager. Nowadays, he’s considered a dinosaur. In reality, Johnson is and always has been a gambler and an arrogant one at that. His attitude is that the team he’s managing needs him more than he needs it. He doesn’t want people telling him what to do and he’s never taken well to front office meddling. The Strasburg shutdown and firing of his hitting coach are two instances in which Johnson would like to tell the front office to take a hike and let him run the team his way. Rizzo had problems with Johnson and his predecessor Jim Riggleman. With the next hire, he’d better get someone younger and on the same page. That doesn’t mean he should hire a yes man, but someone who he can work with sans this lingering tension and open disagreements.

With the personnel, a lesson can be learned from the Big Red Machine Reds from 1971. In 1970, GM Bob Howsam and manager Sparky Anderson had built a monster. The Reds won 102 games and lost the World Series to the Orioles. Widely expected to repeat as NL champs, they fell to 79-83 in 1971. With cold-blooded analysis, Howsam realized that the Reds were missing the elements of leadership, speed, intensity and defense, Howsam traded 39-homer man Lee May and starting second baseman Tommy Helms with Jimmy Stewart to the Astros for Joe Morgan, Cesar Geronimo, Jack Billingham, Ed Armbrister and Denis Menke. The clubhouse was transformed and they were suddenly a faster team with Gold Glovers at second base and in center field. In fact, it was that decried move that spurred their run to greatness.

Rizzo needs to look at the team’s deficiencies in the same way that Howsam did and act decisively. If that means getting a defensively oriented catcher, trading Ian Desmond, Clippard and some other names that are supposedly part of the team’s “core,” then they have to explore it. If a team underachieves from what they were supposed to be, there’s nothing wrong with dropping a bomb in the clubhouse. In fact, it’s necessary in order to get back on track. With their youth and talent, the Nats can get back to where they were with the right managerial choice and a gutty trade or two.

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Yaisel Puig and the All-Star Game

All Star Game, Games, Management, Media, Players, World Series

Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game has forever suffered from a lack of definition. With mixed signals coming from teams, players, fans and baseball’s front office, the failure to come to a clear-cut determination as to the game’s import or lack thereof has fostered a sense of stuffing everything into one package.

Is it a competitive game? If so, then why have rules that every team is represented?

Do players want to play in it? Some do, some don’t. Many would like the honor of being named without having to actually go. Even players with All-Star bonuses in their contracts aren’t bothered one way or the other. $50,000 might seem like a lot to you and me, but if a player such as Josh Hamilton doesn’t make it the loss of a $50,000 bonus isn’t much when he’s making $15 million this season.

There have been All-Star moments of competitiveness that made it seem like a real game. Pete Rose running over Ray Fosse in the 1970 All-Star game has been brandished as evidence for Rose’s never-ending competitiveness. It has also been a question as to whether Rose did it not just to try and score the run but, in the same vein as his occasionally unnecessary headfirst slides, to get his name and face in the newspapers to make more money for himself. Fosse’s career was severely damaged by the separated shoulder he sustained on the play.

There have also been instances that were entertaining and light-hearted. Barry Bonds lifting Torii Hunter on his shoulder after Hunter robbed Bonds of a homer; John Kruk feigning heart palpitations when Randy Johnson threw a ball over his head; lefty-swinging Larry Walker batting right-handed mid at-bat against the same Johnson; Cal Ripken being pushed to shortstop from third base by Alex Rodriguez at the behest of American League manager Joe Torre in Ripken’s last All-Star Game—we see clips of these moments all the time along with a clip of Rose running into Fosse. The ambiguity lays the foundation for it not being a game-game, but a game that is sort of a game simultaneous to being an exhibition.

If MLB decided to make the contest a true barometer over which league is supposedly “better,” they’d have more than one game, build teams that are constructed to compete with the other league, and play the starters for nine innings. The pitchers would be used for more than a limited number of innings and pitches. Strategy would be seriously employed rather than ensuring that as many players get into the game as possible.

With inter-league play, the frequency of movement of players from team-to-team, and the fans’ ability to watch games from other cities that they didn’t have access to in years past, there’s no novelty in seeing Miguel Cabrera, Bryce Harper and Mike Trout. The decision to make the game “count” by awarding home field advantage in the World Series to the winning league was a slapdash, knee-jerk reaction to the criticism of MLB after the tie game in 2002. It was a silly idea, but this decision was no more silly than MLB’s former method of alternating the AL and NL home field advantage on a yearly basis. This isn’t football and home field doesn’t matter all that much. In addition, many players on the All-Star rosters know their clubs have a slim-to-none chance of playing in the World Series anyway, so what do they care?

This is why the debate over Yasiel Puig’s candidacy to be an All-Star is relatively meaningless. There are factional disputes as to its rightness or wrongness, but if the game is of fluctuating rules and viability, then how can there be a series of ironclad mandates as to who’s allowed to participate?

Until MLB decides to make the All-Star Game into either a full-blown exhibition with no pretense of competitiveness or an all-out battle for supremacy there will be these debates that, in the cosmic scheme of things, don’t make a difference one way or the other.

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Bryce Harper’s Textgate With Davey Johnson

Ballparks, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Games, History, Management, Media, MiLB, Politics, Prospects, Stats, Trade Rumors

Bryce Harper sent a text message to Nationals manager Davey Johnson with the ultimatum, “Play me or trade me.” The implication of this is that the 20-year-old was telling his veteran manager that he didn’t want to sit on the bench under any circumstances and that if Johnson knew what was good for him and the Nats, he’d write Harper’s name in the lineup. Or else. The reality of the situation is that Harper was being held out due to the lingering concerns over a knee injury that placed him on the disabled list and an ongoing slump. Johnson wanted to give him a few days off, but Harper wanted to play and said so. Johnson put him back in the lineup.

The media sought to make it into a big deal with a flashy headline, speculation and faux investigation into whether there’s any tension brewing between Harper, Johnson and the Nats where none appears to be in evidence. Johnson has never shied away from confrontation. As a player for the Braves, he got into a fistfight with manager Eddie Mathews. Mathews happened to be one of the toughest customers in baseball who simply liked to fight. Johnson blackened Mathews’s eye and the two made peace over drinks after airing their grievances with their fists. As a manager, Johnson had multiple altercations with Darryl Strawberry, fought with Kevin Mitchell, and nearly fought with Bobby Bonilla. It’s not as if he picked the lightweights. Those who have followed Johnson’s career know that even at age 70, he wouldn’t hesitate to take on the 6’2”, 230 pound 20-year-old Harper if it were necessary, but that’s not what this was. Not even close.

Harper has gotten a bad rap due to the perception that he was anointed at such a young age. He and support staff—family, representatives—are partly at fault for it by putting out preposterous stories of his exploits (he passed the GED without studying), his favorite players (Mickey Mantle and Pete Rose whose careers ended years and decades before his birth), and his own silly minor league behaviors (war paint and tantrums with umpires). There’s a pretentiousness in Harper’s biography that has not been consistent with his actions on the field.

He’s done some stupid things like smashing his bat against the runway wall in Cincinnati and nearly pulling a Ralphie from A Christmas Story (You’ll whack your eye out!), and plays the game with zero concern for his physical well-being. He goes all-out, doesn’t act like a spoiled brat on the field as shown with his mature and classic response to Cole Hamels intentionally hitting him as he humiliated Hamels by stealing home, and wants to play every day. His text message to Johnson may have sounded like a pampered would-be megastar making untoward demands upon his manager with implied threats knowing the club had little choice but to cave, but that’s just the way it’s being framed by the media and fans looking to find more reasons to knock Harper down a few pegs. In an age in which many players want to coast, Harper wants to play and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s refreshing.

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MLB Inches Closer Toward The Trading Of Draft Picks

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The trades that were completed yesterday were a distraction for a slow day. Righty pitcher Scott Feldman was traded from the Cubs along with catcher Steve Clevenger to the Orioles for righty pitchers Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop and cash. The cash in a trade is usually to offset contracts or provide a sweetener to complete a deal, but in this case the cash is international bonus money that the Cubs will use to accrue extra wiggleroom to sign free agents. They also acquired more bonus pool money from the Astros in exchange for minor leaguer Ronald Torreyes. They traded away some of that money in sending Carlos Marmol and cash to the Dodgers for veteran reliever Matt Guerrier.

The trades are secondary to the money exchanges. You can read about the ins-and-outs of why the Cubs, Dodgers and Astros did this here and the details of trading bonus slot money here. What the shifting around of money says to me is that MLB is experimenting with the concept of trading draft picks, something I’ve long advocated. That they’re trying to implement an international draft to shackle clubs’ hands even further from spending makes the trading of draft picks more likely.

With the increased interest in the MLB draft, one of the only ways to turn it into a spectacle that will function as a moon to the NFL draft’s sun and NBA’s Earth is to allow teams to trade their picks. Because amateur baseball pales in comparison to the attention college football and college basketball receive; because the game of baseball is so fundamentally different when making the transition from the amateurs to the pros, there is a finite number of people who watch it with any vested interest and a minimum percentage of those actually know what they’re looking at with enough erudition to accurately analyze it. It’s never going to be on a level with a Mel Kiper Jr. sitting in the ESPN draft headquarters knowing every player in the college ranks and being able to rattle off positives, negatives and why the player should or shouldn’t have been drafted where he was with it having a chance to be accurate. MLB tries to do that, but it’s transparent when John Hart, Harold Reynolds and whoever else are sitting around a table in an empty studio miraculously proclaiming X player of reminds them of Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, Matt Harvey, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez or Dustin Pedroia when they’ve seen (or haven’t seen) a five second clip of him; when Bud Selig takes his mummified steps to the podium to announce the names of players he couldn’t recognize if they were playing in the big leagues now. And don’t get me started on the overall ludicrousness of Keith Law.

There’s no comparison between baseball and the other sports because in baseball, there’s a climb that has to be made after becoming a professional. In football and basketball, a drafted player automatically walks into the highest possible level of competition. With a top-tier pick, the football and basketball player isn’t just a member of the club, but he’s expected to be a significant contributor to that club.

With baseball, there’s no waste in a late-round draft pick because there’s nothing to waste. Some players are drafted to be organizational filler designed to complete the minor league rosters. If one happens to make it? Hey, look who the genius is for finding a diamond in the rough! Except it’s not true. A player from the 20th round onward (and that’s being generous) making it to the majors at all, let alone becoming a star, is a fluke. But with MLB putting such a focus on the draft, that’s the little secret they don’t want revealed to these newly minted baseball “experts” who started watching the game soon after they read Moneyball and thinks a fat kid who walks a lot for a division III college is going to be the next “star.” Trust me, the scouts saw that kid and didn’t think he could play. That’s why he was drafted late if he was drafted at all. There’s no reinventing of the wheel here in spite of Michael Lewis’s hackneyed and self-serving attempts to do so.  Yet MLB draft projecting has blossomed into a webhit accumulator and talking point. There’s a demand for it, so they’ll sell it regardless of how random and meaningless it truly is.

So what does all this have to do with the trading of the bonus slot money? MLB allowing the exchange of this money will give a gauge on the public reaction and interest level to such exchanges being made to provide market research as to the expanded reach the trading of draft picks would yield. If there’s a vast number of websearches that lead MLB to believe that it’s something that can spark fan fascination, then it’s something they can sell advertising for and make money. It’s a test case and once the results are in, you’ll see movement on the trading of draft picks. It’s a good idea no matter how it happens. Now if we can only do something to educate the masses on how little Keith Law knows, we’ll really be getting somewhere.

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A Long-Term Concern With The Nationals’ Slow Start

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The time to worry about an underachieving team or to celebrate an overachieving team is August and September, not April and May. For teams like the Nationals that had great expectations coming into the season and have, up to now, been a disappointment with a 25-23 record due mostly to an offense that hasn’t produced, it’s not time to panic. Eventually they’re going to hit and be in playoff contention. But being in playoff contention isn’t the same as being in the playoffs or being guaranteed of being in the playoffs which is a luxury the Nationals had last season by mid-to-late August.

While the decision to shut Stephen Strasburg down in September and sit him out for the playoffs didn’t overtly cost the Nationals the NLDS against the Cardinals, its residue may stain the organization for years to come if they don’t come through and build on their progress and rapid ascent of 2012 by making an extended playoff run in the next few years. We’ll never know if the NLDS would have gone differently if Strasburg was pitching in the series, but the concept that the Nationals would “definitely” be back in that position on an annual basis with Strasburg and Bryce Harper leading the way ignores how circumstance and reality can sabotage even the most foolproof plans.

The Nationals’ struggles in 2013 should be an indicator that the run to the World Series with their young core isn’t fait accompli and the decision to shut Strasburg down could come back to haunt them within the next three years if they don’t make that playoff run and Strasburg leaves as a free agent after 2016. What they will have done is to save Strasburg’s bullets for the next team to use him rather than cower and give in to paranoia as a reason to “protect” him and not let him do what they paid him to do: pitch and help them win.

This is not about whether or not a few more innings would have resulted in cumulative damage that would injure Strasburg, nor is it about the medical studies and theories that predicated the shutdown. It’s about succeeding in achieving the ultimate object of playing in the first place: winning. Considering who Strasburg’s agent is and that the puppet strings in his usage dictates have been pulled by Scott Boras from the start with Strasburg a willing accomplice and the Nationals a witting (or unwitting) collaborator, do the Nationals think they’re going to get a discount when Strasburg’s free agency approaches?

Along with having two once-in-a-generation talents available as the number one pick in the draft and having the backwards good fortune of being so terrible that they were the first team picking for two straight years also comes with the caveat that, by today’s standards, they’re going to have to pay those players contracts of $200+ million for Harper and $180+ million for Strasburg. Boras represents Harper as well and the Nationals may not be able to keep both. Considering that it’s Boras, they’re less likely to take a long-term, team-friendly deal to sign. Boras doesn’t do that unless the player tells him to as Jered Weaver did and it was presumably over the heavy objections of the agent.

Let’s look at a worst case scenario independent of Strasburg getting hurt. What if the Nationals never return to the position they were in last season with this group and it gets to 2016 with Strasburg fully evolved and the best pitcher in baseball with Cy Young Awards, dominance and pending free agency? Then he leaves. Will the decision to shut him down in 2012 have been worth it? For Strasburg, Boras and the team that signs him (Yankees? Red Sox? Dodgers? Angels?) it will have been. For the Nationals, not at all.

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2013 MLB Post-Season Predictions

2013 MLB Predicted Standings, All Star Game, Award Winners, Ballparks, Books, CBA, Cy Young Award, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, Hall Of Fame, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Waiver Trades, MVP, Paul Lebowitz's 2011 Baseball Guide, Paul Lebowitz's 2012 Baseball Guide, Paul Lebowitz's 2013 Baseball Guide, PEDs, Players, Playoffs, Politics, Prospects, Spring Training, Stats, Trade Rumors, Umpires, World Series

You can see my 2013 MLB predicted standings in full here. Below are the division winners and wild card entrants.

AMERICAN LEAGUE

AL EAST: Rays

AL CENTRAL: Tigers

AL WEST: Rangers

AL WILD CARD: Blue Jays

AL WILD CARD: Mariners

AL WILD CARD GAME: Mariners over Blue Jays

ALDS 1: Tigers over Mariners

ALDS 2: Rays over Rangers

ALCS: Rays over Tigers

NATIONAL LEAGUE

NL EAST: Nationals

NL CENTRAL: Reds

NL WEST: Diamondbacks

NL WILD CARD: Braves

NL WILD CARD: Giants

NL WILD CARD GAME: Giants over Braves

NLDS 1: Giants over Nationals

NLDS 2: Reds over Diamondbacks

NLCS: Reds over Giants

WORLD SERIES: REDS OVER RAYS

In depth information packed in over 400 pages on all 30 teams with players’ height, weight, where they were drafted, age, contract status and how they were acquired is immediately available in my new book. In addition there is analysis of front offices, managers, starting rotations, bullpens, lineups, benches, fantasy picks, breakout candidates, trade candidates, predictions and essays on such diverse subjects as the Astros’ teardown and why it’s bad for baseball; Jeffrey Loria; the Yankees’ $189 million payroll; the pending free agency of Robinson Cano; Torii Hunter’s comments about the possibility of a gay teammate; Tim Lincecum, Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg and anything else you can think of is available in my new book, Paul Lebowitz’s 2013 Baseball Guide now available on Amazon, BN, Lulu, Smashwords and more outlets coming soon.

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