Once the Mike Matheny veneer was gone, so was Matheny

MLB, Uncategorized

Matheny

As much as the St. Louis Cardinals will deny it and say there was not any one single incident that sparked their sudden urgency to make a change at manager, the tipping point to finally pull the trigger and fire manager Mike Matheny was the revelation that relief pitcher Bud Norris was using various tactics to “teach” rookie reliever Jordan Hicks how to behave like a major leaguer and did so with the tacit and chuckling approval of the manager. The issue was discussed here.

That, combined with the club hovering around .500 and rapidly hurtling toward irrelevance, made it the obvious decision.

Inevitably, the question regarding Matheny’s dismissal will be, “Why?” This answer is more nuanced than saying the team was not living up to expectations or that he lost control of the clubhouse. The reality of Matheny’s dismissal is not the “why” in the conventional sense. If on-field struggles and strategic gaffes were the barometer of Matheny keeping or losing his job, then he would have been fired after 2016 or 2017. Instead, he was given a three-year contract extension after the 2016 season on top of the contract he was already working under, so he’s signed through 2020 making it even more surprising that an owner such as Bill DeWitt agreed to the change. DeWitt is not “cheap” in the literal sense, but he is frugal. If they make the obvious move and hire Joe Girardi as the replacement, Girardi will want a contract commensurate with his resume and that means he’s not taking an entry-level deal. Presumably, DeWitt is aware of this and accepts it for the greater good.

Regarding Matheny, much like players are increasingly assessed by their combination of skills, so too does that apply to managers and front office personnel. It’s no surprise that given the star-like nature of today’s front offices with the entire organizational solar system revolving around it, few managers are blamed for what happens on the field and fired, especially during the season. Matheny is the second manager who has been dismissed during the 2018 season. The Cardinals will be lucky to get the same results the Cincinnati Reds have gotten by replacing Bryan Price with Jim Riggleman.

The root cause of team’s inconsistency and mediocrity is difficult to pinpoint and discern. Looking at their roster and they should not be playing .500 ball. But that was also the case in 2017. On the other side of the coin, should Matheny not be credited for the positive work he did in the first four seasons of his managerial career when he made the playoffs in each and won a pennant in 2013?

The implication that Matheny was completely inept is misplaced. He was hired to fill a role and he did it. He had substantial success during his tenure. Replacing a legend in Tony La Russa and stewarding a team that was transitioning from one rife with veterans and big money players to one that is built more on younger players, sabermetric principles and opportunism along with the ever-present “Cardinals way” was not as seamless as it appeared. History is littered with managers and coaches who took over for a legend, ran a team that was expected to win and failed. So, he was not a failure, nor was he a mistaken hire. Based on results, it’s difficult to envision anyone having done better than Matheny did.

However, as the on-field results declined and the smoldering controversy with how he oversaw and even encouraged Norris’s behavior grew into a blaze, the team continued to play poorly. If the team was not playing well and his status as having superior skills at corralling the diverse personalities in a clubhouse and navigating the difficult terrain of the media were decaying, what was the benefit of retaining him?

Once that veneer was gone, so was Matheny.

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On Bud Norris, Mike Matheny and the line in policing the clubhouse

MLB, Uncategorized

Jeff Nelson, Mike MathenyA story reported initially by The Athletic and discussed here by Yahoo brings up an issue that will never change in sports and probably shouldn’t change in sports – how a clubhouse/locker room is handled by the veteran players and the steps said veteran players should take to teach younger players how to behave in the top professional leagues.

In this instance, St. Louis Cardinals reliever Bud Norris is reportedly “riding” flamethrower Jordan Hicks and has been doing so since spring training. Complicating matters is manager Mike Matheny’s role in the situation as he has shed any notion of ambiguity and chuckled about it with tacit approval.

While greater attention has been paid to so-called “hazing”, for many veteran players, there is a belief that they are extending a hand to the young players and helping them by showing them the proper way to act.

Of course, there are the players who are simply jerks and, were it not for their status in the .0001 percentile of having the athletic ability to reach the top level of their sport, they’d bounce from job to job and blame everyone else for their self-inflicted problems. Mel Hall is one. Jon Rauch is another. Both needed to be threatened to stop their act: Hall by Gerald Williams when he wouldn’t leave Bernie Williams alone with the early 1990s Yankees; Rauch by Matt Harvey with the Mets when Harvey was the target of the treatment.

If the player is relatively useless and is lucky to have a job, the organization can take advantage of these issues to have the player serve as an example and get rid of him for his behavior.

Into which category does Norris fall?

He’s not totally disposable as he does have some use. But he’s not someone from whom any organization should tolerate off-field distraction. Fortunately for him, he’s having a very good year as the Cardinals closer.

Still, veterans get their leeway in overseeing the clubhouse sans interference from the manager. Matheny’s mistake is not in signing off on the behavior, but in commenting on it at all. One of the fastest ways for a manager to lose support in the clubhouse is to interfere with the clubhouse hierarchy and how the veterans police it. The clubhouse is supposed to be sacrosanct and the domain of the players. Managers stepping in over such trivial issues tends to explode in their faces.

Part of the manager’s job is assessing the situation and determining if the target of the treatment is being negatively impacted by the behavior; if it is affecting his performance and, by extension hurting the team, or if he’s just being too sensitive to mostly harmless hijinks. If it’s the former, then he must step in for the good of the club and its sole purpose: winning.

With social media and the disappearance of the line as to what the public should and should not know, outside voices who have never been athletes and part of the competitive world of intense scrutiny and pressure they inhabit will transpose a sports organization into a conventional workplace when it is not that and should not be perceived as such.

Some young players arrive in the majors and immediately misbehave. If that misbehavior is damaging the player and the team, the veteran players are correct in addressing it. If that is viewed as hazing, so be it.

As for Norris going to Matheny with infractions that deviate from the oft-mentioned and unabashedly self-important “Cardinals culture”, that’s not going to win him any friends not just with the Cardinals, but throughout baseball. It does cross a line, this time in the opposite direction, breaching the same protocol managers adhere to with their hands-off approach.

Nobody likes a rat. If said rat is costing the players money in fines and perhaps disfavor with the manager and possibly the entire organization, it can easily escalate from a veteran educating a young player to irreparable fissures. While Matheny essentially named Norris as the bullpen capo who keeps the others in line, there remains a difference between Norris following the standard he set in policing the clubhouse and running to the manager as a tattletale.

It’s Matheny’s clubhouse and he can run it as he sees fit. He’s a tough guy and old-school player. He’s extended that to his role as manager. If he’s adhering to that, he should know that the bad far outweighs the good in having a player running to the manager with stories about code violations and that he makes it worse by telling the media about it.

It’s not up to the media or fans to judge any of this, but there should at least be some boundaries on both sides and from all the insider perspectives.

The Astros Reality Is Beginning To Sink In

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We’ve come a long way in a month. On opening night in Texas, the Astros beat up on the Rangers 8-2. Following the preseason prognostications as to how bad the Astros would be (I had them at 45-117), that one game inspired an absurd belief that they wouldn’t be all that bad. There were orgasmic reactions to GM Jeff Lunow’s in-game interview on ESPN with the response being, “He has a plan!!! He…has…a…plaaaannnnnnn, ohhhhhhh!!!!”

Owner Jim Crane made some arrogant and obnoxious statements in a Wall Street Journal article that went largely unreported and uncriticized (except for me); he was lauded for providing every player with an I-Pad like his players were a group of Unfrozen Caveman Lawyers given a “frightening new information machine.” Luhnow made an absurd projection that manager Bo Porter might be managing the club for decades. On and on.

From the time Luhnow was hired, the media has squealed in pre-teen girl delight as if they were at a Justin Bieber concert at the new metrics permeating the organization from top to bottom. They’re a pure stat guy club complete with the bizarre titles (Sig Mejdal—Director of Decision Sciences); multitudes being hired from various stat guy sources (Baseball Prospectus); a mutually beneficial “interview” of Keith Law for a position in the front office in which the ESPN “expert” made a great show of “choosing” to stay at ESPN when a job may not have even been offered; and the new, unapologetic manner in which the Astros are shunning any and all old-school techniques preferred by veteran baseball people.

There won’t be any inter-organizational squabbles and questioning of Luhnow’s credentials as there were while he was with the Cardinals and Tony LaRussa played sharp-elbowed politics to mitigate Luhnow’s influence and win the turf war. He’s in charge. It’s his baby and, admirably, he’s doing it his way and hiring people who will implement his vision.

In the end, it’ll work or it won’t. If it does, it will have more to do with the team accumulating years and years of high draft picks because they were so historically awful than because of any undervalued finds on the part of the front office. That’s just reality. It was so with the Rays, will be so with the Astros and is a fact that those looking to anoint the next “genius” will conveniently brush to the side when embarking on an archaeological dig for reasons to twist the narrative in their preferred direction—exactly like Moneyball.

Now the mainstream media—especially those who are unabashed stat guys who defend Bill James’s most ludicrous statements regarding Joe Paterno and think Billy Beane’s bowel movements are objects of worship—are not only catching on as to how bad the 2013 Astros will be, but are speculating as to whether they can rival the 2003 Tigers and 1962 Mets in terms of historic awfulness. The Astros are this bad with a few useful veterans on their roster. Imagine what they’ll look like in August once they’ve dealt away Bud Norris, Lucas Harrell, Wesley Wright, Jose Veras and maybe even Jose Altuve. They’ll have a legitimate chance to reach the depths of the Cleveland Spiders of 1899. And I’m not kidding.

The media can present the contextualized explanations as to what the Astros are doing (“What’s the difference between winning 40 games and 60 games?”) and they’ll kindasorta be right. It doesn’t make much difference. But to the fans of the club who’ll have to endure this and listen to the mantra of “trust us, we’re smart” from Crane, et al., it’s going to get tiresome quickly as they’re being abused. Crane is going to need a thick skin to get through the amount of cow refuse he’ll have flung at him as the season moves along. As a loud and brash Texan, he talks like he’s ready to withstand the criticism, but when it starts coming from those who were supportive as part of their own personal agenda and they leap from the plummeting rocketship in self preservation, we’ll see if he lashes out or stays the course. I have a hunch that it will be both. Then there will really be some good stuff to write about as Crane is saying derogatory things to critics/fans because his team is so dreadfully, embarrassingly bad. He’s used to people kissing his ass and they’ll be kicking it instead. That adds up to an explosive response that will come sooner rather than later.

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The Astros and the Antiquated “Process”

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In this Tyler Kepner piece in today’s New York Times, the Astros and their plan for the future is again detailed. You can insert your own joke about their early spring training activity of practicing a post-victory celebration. By the time we get to August and they’ve likely traded off the rest of the veteran players they have on the roster including Carlos Pena, Bud Norris, Jose Veras, Rick Ankiel and Wesley Wright and released Philip Humber and Erik Bedard, they’ll be so dreadful that a post-victory celebration will be so rare that the celebration should resemble clinching a post-season berth.

What’s most interesting about the piece is the clinging to the notion that the key to success is still the decade ago Moneyball strategy (first put into practice by the late 1990s Yankees) to run the starting pitchers’ pitch counts up to get them out of the game and get into the “soft underbelly” of the middle relief corps and take advantage of bad pitching in the middle innings.

Is it still an effective tactic if everyone is doing it and the opposition is better-prepared for it? There’s a case for saying no.

Back then, most teams were still functioning with a middle relief staff of journeymen, youngsters and breathing bodies. In 1998, for example, the Red Sox won 92 games in comparison to the Yankees 114, made the playoffs, and had as middle relievers Rich Garces, John Wasdin, Carlos Reyes and Jim Corsi. The Indians of 1998 were the one team that put a scare into the Yankees that season and had Paul Shuey, Eric Plunk, Jose Mesa (after he’d lost his closer’s job to Michael Jackson and before he was traded to the Giants at mid-season), and other forgettable names like Steve Karsay, Chad Ogea and Ron Villone.

These were the good teams in the American League. The bad teams starting rotations were bad enough before getting into their bullpens that it didn’t matter who a team like the Yankees were facing, they were going to hammer them.

Today, the game is different. The pitch counts are more closely monitored, but certain teams—the Rangers, Giants and Cardinals—don’t adhere to them so fanatically that it can be counted on for a pitcher to be yanked at the 100-pitch mark. Also, teams have better and more diverse middle relief today than they did back then because clubs such as the Rays are taking the job more seriously.

Waiting out a great pitcher like Felix Hernandez is putting a hitter in the position where he’s going to be behind in the count and facing a pitcher’s pitch. In that case, it makes more sense to look for something hittable earlier in the count and swing at it.

With a mediocre pitcher like Jason Vargas of the Angels, he’s more likely to make a mistake with his array of soft stuff, trying to get ahead in the count to be able to throw his changeup, so looking for something early in the count makes sense there as well. In addition, with a pitcher like Vargas (and pretty much the whole Angels’ starting rotation), you’re better off with him in the game than you are with getting into the bullpen, so the strategy of getting into the “weaker” part of the staff doesn’t fit as the middle relievers aren’t that far off in effectiveness from Vargas.

Teams use their bullpens differently today. You see clubs loading up on more specialists and carrying 13 pitchers with a righty sidearmer, a lefty sidearmer, a conventional lefty specialist, and enough decent arms to get to the late relievers. The Cardinals are an example of this with Marc Rzepczynski as their lefty specialist; Randy Choate as their sidearmer; and Trevor Rosenthal and Joe Kelly, both of whom have been starters, can provide multiple innings and throw nearly 100-mph.

I’m not suggesting hitters go to the plate behaving like Jeff Francoeur, willing to swing at the resin bag if the pitcher throws it, but swinging at a hittable fastball if it comes his way and not worrying that he’ll get yelled at for being a little more aggressive and deviating from the faulty “process.”

The Astros can use this idea of “process” all they want, but the reality is that they may hit a few homers and be drilling it into their hitters from the bottom of their minor league system up that they want patience and don’t care about batting average, but by the time they’re in the middle of their rebuild it might get through that this strategy isn’t what it once was. Waiting, waiting, waiting sometimes means the bus is going to leave without you. Other teams have adjusted enough so it won’t matter if the hitter is trying to intentionally raise the pitch count because it won’t have the same result as it did when the idea first came into vogue with Moneyball. And it’ll go out the window just as the theories in the book have too.

Essays, predictions, player analysis, under the radar fantasy picks, breakout candidates, contract status of all relevant personnel—GMs, managers, players—and anything else you could possibly want to know is in my new book Paul Lebowitz’s 2013 Baseball Guide now available on Amazon.comSmashwordsBN and Lulu. It’s useful all season long. Check it out and read a sample.

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Are The Cardinals Waiting For Lohse’s Price To Drop?

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The Cardinals are said to be looking at starting pitchers that may be available including Astros’ starters Lucas Harrell and Bud Norris. Both would help. Norris is better than Harrell. Harrell would probably come cheaper in a trade. Before 2013 is over, the Astros are going to trade both.

The Cardinals have the prospects to move and the moderate need in their starting rotation, but the easiest solution for them remains former Cardinal Kyle Lohse.

Lohse, coming off his career-best season for the Cardinals, has been sitting and waiting for a contract that meets his and agent Scott Boras’s desires in terms of length and money. If any player in recent memory has been cornered by the draft pick compensation attached to free agents who were offered arbitration by their previous clubs, it’s Lohse. If the circumstances were different—if the cost was only money—Lohse would’ve gotten at least a three-year contract from someone and maybe a four-year deal. Whether or not he’s worth it or if he’s a creation of the Cardinals former pitching coach Dave Duncan’s Dr. Frankenstein-like skills of taking a pitching corpse and reengineering it into a top-tier pitcher is irrelevant. To moderately assuage that fear, Lohse had his career-best season in 2012 without Duncan, so he’s not attached to him like the hypnotized patient who wouldn’t be able to function without the “doctor” in view.

Conversely, considering the pitchers who blossomed under Duncan—Mike Moore, Kent Bottenfield, Joel Pineiro, Jeff Suppan—and were mediocre to disastrous after leaving his tutelage, it’s understandable that clubs would be reluctant to sign Lohse for a ton of money. Even a one-year contract is a disagreeable pill to swallow for Lohse (he feels he deserves more than a desperation contract to “prove” himself again) and for the club signing him (he’s still not worth a number one draft pick). But the Cardinals fill the bill with knowing what he can do and they don’t have to give up a draft pick to re-sign him. If they trade for Norris, Harrell or anyone else, they’ll have to surrender some players. With Lohse, it’s just money.

And that’s what it comes down to. They might be waiting for his price to drop, letting it be known publicly that they’re looking for pitchers and hoping Lohse gets itchy and tells Boras to make a deal with them. Amid all of that, what is being conveniently forgotten about Lohse is that he has been very good in the past two seasons for the Cardinals. This is not a situation where Boras has had to dig for numbers to validate the blue book of accomplishments he creates for his free agents. Lohse has legitimate credentials to get a multi-year contract for better-than-average starting pitcher money, but the draft pick compensation has him caged.

If Lohse is thinking he’ll sit out to start the season and wait until someone gets hurt, until a club needs a starter, or until after the draft, he’s still not going to get a three-year contract then either. If the Cardinals step up and offer two years with a vesting option based on innings pitched and performance, he should take it. I believe he would.

He and the Cardinals know each other. He can pitch and pitch effectively for the Cardinals because he’s done it in three of the five years he spent with the club. The two in which he was bad, he was hurt. If the sides stop and think about it for a moment and decide to be reasonable, it makes the most sense for them to accept reality and reunite. It’s the best choice for all.

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2013 Astros Will Be A Pennant Race Factor

Ballparks, CBA, Draft, Free Agents, Games, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Waiver Trades, Players, Playoffs, Prospects, Spring Training, Stats, Trade Rumors, World Series

The aftermath of the Astros gutting and pending 2013 disaster won’t simply affect their organization. In a positive sense, they’re getting rid of their moderate-to-highly paid players and bringing volume into their farm system, plus they’re at the top of the MLB draft and will be so for the foreseeable future. In a negative sense, they’ve all but conceded any and all pretense of fielding a legitimate big league team.

Unlike Michael Kay’s ridiculous, uninformed, petty and vindictive “prediction” that the 2012 Mets were going to lose well over 100 games, I can say without rancor or bias that the 2013 Astros are, at best, a 55 win team. It’s probably going to be fewer than that. Let’s look at why this is the case and why a horrendous club will play so great a role is the 2013 playoff chase.

Their division and status as a target

Two teams from the AL West, the Athletics and the Rangers, made the playoffs last season. A third, the Angels, significantly underachieved but still won 89 games. The fourth team, the Mariners, has improved. Because they’re going to play 19 games each against all of these clubs, the Astros and their opponents will enter each series knowing the Astros will be lucky to win a game.

Other clubs are going to go all out to beat the Astros. The games won’t take on the tenacity of Yankees-Red Sox, Reds-Cardinals or Dodgers-Giants, but they’ll entail opposing managers treating them as such because they’re games they have to win. Losing to the Astros this season will be tantamount to a fundamental gaffe such as failing to touch a base, getting caught leaving too soon on a sacrifice fly, not having the proper reliever warming up or hitters batting out of order. It’s inexcusable.

The rest of the American League

For the Yankees, Blue Jays, Rays, White Sox and Royals, the Astros are a problem. With the strength of the AL West teams, three from the division might make the playoffs based strictly on the extra few victories they’ll accumulate by beating up on the Astros.

Let’s say the Red Sox are out of contention by August and the Yankees are hovering around a playoff spot. On the weekend of August 16th the Yankees are playing the Red Sox while the Angels playing the Astros. The Red Sox won’t have a personal stake in the outcome, but nothing would please them more than hurting the Yankees. The Angels will have what amounts to a sparring session while the Yankees and Red Sox are staging a typical four hour wrestling match regardless of their positions in the standings.

Having a team on the schedule for 19 games and realistically penciling in 13-15 wins goes a long way in bolstering one’s win total and assisting a playoff run.

Job savers and game changers

The Mariners 2013 offense is more potent with the additions of Kendrys Morales and Mike Morse. Their pitching will be affected by the decision to move in the fences at Safeco Field. They were 75-87 last season and GM Jack Zduriencik and manager Eric Wedge are both in the final year of their contracts. Zduriencik’s job is on the line. Would a perceived “improvement” of rising to, say, 84-78 be enough to convince ownership that the Mariners are on the right track and that Zduriencik and Wedge deserve at least one more season? If the Astros weren’t in the AL West, the Mariners would probably be around a 75 win team again. With the Astros there, the Mariners should be over .500. This could potentially save the jobs of their GM and manager.

The Angels’ manager Mike Scioscia’s job is also in jeopardy if the high-priced group plays in a similar lackluster fashion as they did last season. In spite of insistence to the contrary, GM Jerry Dipoto and Scioscia are not on the same page. Owner Arte Moreno wasn’t happy with anyone in his organization after splurging for Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson and missing the playoffs. This past winter he spent even more money on Josh Hamilton and kept his management team in place. None of that changes the fact that this current configuration is not a Scioscia team that, in the past, relied on deep starting pitching and bullpen. The starters gobbled innings; they had a proven closer and set-up men; they embodied solid fundamentals, inside baseball strategies, speed and defense. Apart from Mike Trout and Erick Aybar, this team is plodding. They rely on power, power, power with a shaky starting rotation. Could the Astros’ presence give the Angels with the extra 4-5 wins they wouldn’t get otherwise? A number of wins that last season would’ve vaulted them into the playoffs despite the dysfunction?

On the other coast, the Yankees have gotten worse this winter, not better. They’re relying on ancient veterans and reclamation projects, pinching pennies and have a manager, Joe Girardi, on the final year of his contract. If they don’t make the playoffs, someone is on the chopping block. History has proven that Brian Cashman is now the Teflon GM. It won’t be Girardi’s fault, but hypothetically if the Yankees miss the playoffs, he could be gone and it would be in large part due to the Astros getting beaten so consistently by other playoff contenders who have the advantage of 13 more games against them than the Yankees do.

The Astros will get worse as the season moves along

You wouldn’t think it possible for them to get worse with a projected payroll of $25 million and open admission from GM Jeff Luhnow that they’re going to be awful. In response to the criticism for his latest deal in sending Jed Lowrie to the A’s, Luhnow said:

“We’re not going to do something to improve a few games in 2013 that comes at the expense of our ability to compete over the long haul.”

In other words, “We’re going to be as bad or worse than we’ve been in the past two years when we lost 107 and 106 games.”

In a sense, he’s right on all counts. What’s the difference to the Astros if they win 65 or 50 games? But there’s something untoward about a team not even putting forth the affectation of caring whether they win or lose—in fact, trying to lose to get a higher draft position.

The remaining big league-caliber players they have will be traded as well. They’re already willing to listen to offers on their best pitcher and highest paid player, Bud Norris. He’s going to be dealt at some point. The other mediocre veterans they have will be available at mid-season. Carlos Pena still has power and a good glove at first base. Strikeouts and under .200 batting average aside, a contender will take him for their stretch run. Jose Veras is the Astros’ closer and if he’s pitching well is a veteran bullpen asset for the second half. Wesley Wright is a lefty specialist and every team needs more than one lefty specialist in the playoffs.

Luhnow has shown total indifference to trading his players. He’ll send them to division rivals or anywhere that he can get the most in exchange. Pena, Veras, Wright can help the Angels, Rangers, Yankees, White Sox—anyone to win that extra game or two to take a playoff spot.

The Astros are a Triple A team now and will be a Double A team by July. They can talk about the future all they want, but the present has consequences for the rest of baseball.

Expect complaints from teams like the Yankees that it’s not fair. Opposing franchises will say that the Astros should have to field a reasonably competitive big league team. Eventually, something might be done about this strategy with MLB forcing teams to provide a competent product. There’s not much MLB can do right now, but they could try to install a payroll floor in the future, something the Players Association and most other owners would agree to.

In 2013, though, it won’t change the reality or the outcome. As a direct result of the Astros switching leagues, people will save or lose their jobs because of it.

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National League Fantasy Sleepers

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Let’s look at some fantasy sleepers in the National League.

Mike Minor, LHP—Atlanta Braves

He got a lot of grief for what was perceived to be a “play me or trade me” demand that he start the season in the big leagues in the Braves’ starting rotation.

It wasn’t that kind of demand at all, but that’s how it was taken.

Putting that aside, with Tim Hudson recovering from back surgery Minor is going to have to start the season in the big leagues. He’ll want to get off to a good start to stake his claim in the rotation and validate his assertion that he belongs.

He racks up the strikeouts, hits hits/innings pitched ratio is great and he doesn’t allow a lot of home runs or walks.

John Mayberry Jr., OF/1B—Philadelphia Phillies

Mayberry has never gotten the chance to play regularly from the start of the season onward, but will in 2012.

With Ryan Howard’s return date increasingly uncertain after the procedure to clean up the infection in his surgical wound, there’s even more reason to pick up Mayberry. The Phillies’ situation in left field is in flux and he’ll also play some first base.

He has 25-30 homer potential.

Chase Utley, 2B—Philadelphia Phillies

Looking at his basic stats, it appears as if he’s on the decline due to age and injury.

It’s nonsense.

Utley has hit in notoriously bad luck in the past two seasons. His BAbip was .288 in 2010, .269 in 2011. He stole 14 bases without getting caught after returning from his knee injury. His power numbers were right in line with what he normally produces.

Utley’s going to have a big comeback year.

Chris Coghlan, INF/OF—Miami Marlins

He may have worn out his welcome with the newly star-studded Marlins, as injuries and bickering with the front office have diminished the former NL Rookie of the Year to a forgotten man.

The Marlins don’t have a prototypical centerfielder on the roster (they’re intent on going with Emilio Bonifacio), Coghlan can play the position defensively and his bat can rebound. He’ll get one last shot with the Marlins; otherwise he’s trade bait and is worth the risk in the hopes of a return to what he once was.

Frank Francisco, RHP—New York Mets

He’s not a great closer, but he strikes out over a batter an inning. If you need someone to get you some saves and don’t want to pay for them, he’s going to be cheap.

These are the Mets and fantasy mirrors reality.

Or reality mirrors fantasy.

Or both reflect a nightmare. Or circumstances.

Or all of the above.

Jonathan Lucroy, C—Milwaukee Brewers

Lucroy has a career minor league OPS of .838 and an OBP of .379. He’s hit 20 homers in a season in the minors and hit 12 in the big leagues last season.

He’ll be cheap and there’s major room for improvement.

Alex Presley, OF—Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pirates’ outfield situation flanking Andrew McCutchen isn’t set. Presley can run and had an .804 OPS in 231 plate appearances in the big leagues last season.

Jeff Samardzija, RHP—Chicago Cubs

The Cubs are going to trade Carlos Marmol at some point and someone—either Samardzija or Kerry Wood—will have to take over as closer. It makes no sense to use Wood at this stage of his career.

Samardzija overcame his control issues for the most part and struck out 87 in 88 innings last season.

Bud Norris, RHP—Houston Astros

Norris isn’t going to win many games for the Astros, but he strikes out close to a batter per inning and has had excellent hits/innings pitched ratios at every level.

David Hernandez, RHP—Arizona Diamondbacks

I don’t trust J.J. Putz to stay healthy and Hernandez saved 11 games in Putz’s absence last season.

Hernandez struck out 77 in 69 innings and allowed 49 hits.

Cory Luebke, LHP—San Diego Padres

Luebke struck out 154 in 139 innings last season and allowed 105 hits.

He began 2011 in the bullpen, but moved to the starting rotation in the second half. He’ll be a full-time starter in 2012.

Jerry Sands, OF—Los Angeles Dodgers

The Dodgers circumstances in left and right field aren’t settled. Juan Rivera is slated to start in left and Andre Ethier is a free agent at the end of the season and is a good bet to be traded.

Sands has posted huge power numbers in the minors—stats—and has the speed to steal 15-20 bases.

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The Johnny Sain Travel Guide

Books, Free Agents, Games, Hall Of Fame, Management, Media, Players, Uncategorized

Here’s a quote from Ball Four by Jim Bouton:

Every once in a while there’s a guy that doesn’t fit into the coaching mold, a man with an original idea or two who’s not afraid to express them, a guy who would like to have some influence on the club. I mean a guy like Johnny Sain. And what happens to him? He moves around a lot. He has to, because as soon as he asserts himself the manager wants to get rid of him, no matter how good a job he’s doing. (Ball Four by Jim Bouton, page 287.)

I thought of this as soon as I read that Brad Arnsberg had been fired by the Houston Astros.

It’s hard to get a gauge on Arsnberg because there are publicly differing opinions about him.

After he was fired by the Marlins in their 2003 purge, he was savaged by the club for his reaction to the firing. It wasn’t temperamental owner Jeffrey Loria who made negative statements about Arnsberg, but respected GM Larry Beinfest who accused the former pitching coach of being unprofessional and bordering on violent to the point where he wasn’t allowed into the stadium to pick up his belongings—Sun Journal Story, 5.12.2003.

It certainly didn’t help Arnsberg’s cause that the Marlins went on to win the World Series that year with new manager Jack McKeon replacing Jeff Torborg and pitching coach Wayne Rosenthal replacing Arnsberg.

Moving on with the Blue Jays, Arsnberg was widely credited with the work of veterans Ted Lilly and A.J. Burnett, along with youngsters Shaun Marcum, Dustin McGowan and Jesse Litsch; it’s not hard to look smart when working with Roy Halladay.

Arnsberg was basically pilfered by the Astros after the 2009 season. Star pitching coaches are generally in demand due to reputation and a prior record of success. Sometimes it works—as has been the case with Larry Rothschild and Rick Peterson; other times it hasn’t as was the case with Leo Mazzone.

It’s fleeting and based on results.

Or other factors.

The Astros pitched well last season. Brett Myers rejuvenated his career; J.A. Happ was solid after being acquired from the Phillies; Bud Norris has been good; Mark Melancon has blossomed.

Who knows what was going on inside the Astros organization and clubhouse? Did manager Brad Mills feel threatened by Arnsberg? Was there a falling out? Did they feel like doing something to try and wake up a struggling (and pretty poor) club.

“Philosophical differences” is a convenient excuse for a change and it’s of a similar vein to the “lack of communication” absurdity that’s often used when there’s no explicable reason.

I have no problem with a GM saying, “I wanted to make a change”. He doesn’t have to give a reason. He’s the boss.

But clubs don’t see it that way. They think they have to give something tangible to the media and “feeling like it” doesn’t cut it.

Years ago, when the Marlins had several pitchers on the disabled list with injuries to different parts of their bodies, I suggested that perhaps Arnsberg was the common denominator.

I’ve evolved from this view.

Very rare is it that a pitching coach will have training techniques that deviate from the norm so egregiously that pitchers will take part in them to begin with; and if they’re so unusual, it’s hard to see any manager allowing them to be utilized or the pitching coach to make it up to the big leagues.

It goes back to the Johnny Sain travel guide and the main tenet: don’t usurp the manager’s authority by disagreeing with him.

There are pitching coaches like this still floating around. Dick Pole has bounced from team-to-team, usually working for Dusty Baker. None other than Greg Maddux has said that it was Pole who taught him a great deal about the mechanics and mental aspects of pitching that Maddux used to forge a Hall of Fame career.

But Pole is as much-traveled as Sain was.

And Arnsberg is on the way to catching up to these men with their honorable, but short-lived reputations for accumulating frequent flyer miles and different mailing addresses.

Go along to get along or get fired for “philosophical differences” and “lack of communication”.

Some men are willing. Others aren’t. Those that aren’t tend to move around a lot and have extreme reputations. From the outside, this appears to be the case with Brad Arnsberg.

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