Attendance Figures, Part II—Some Teams Just Don’t Try

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It’s not a remote experience for clubs to be content with losing 90 games, occasionally getting lucky and hovering around .500 and collect revenue sharing, put forth the pretense of spending money on players and pocketing profits while formulating a new plan every few years to return their teams to prominence while not caring whether their teams win or not.

The Twins and Pirates were rotten for years and refused to spend money. The Cubs have loyal fans and have had ownerships that have tried to win, but there’s a masochistic enjoyment of being known as the “lovable losers” to the point where it doesn’t matter if they win or not because they’re going to be in the top 5 in attendance no matter what. That attitude of, “oh, whatever” is one major thing that Theo Epstein has to combat. The Red Sox had a similar attitude of liking the pain of The Curse and constantly being abused by the Yankees and the Baseball Gods. Epstein ended that attitude in Boston; it might be harder to do with the Cubs.

For teams like the Twins and Pirates, it just so happened that the continuous presence at the ocean floor in the standings led to high draft picks and eventually those draft picks begat circumstantial improvement to the big league product. The Pirates are still 15th in the National League in attendance despite being in playoff contention and having a one of the few players in baseball that it’s worth the price of admission to see, Andrew McCutchen. Even the last Pirates teams that were legitimately good and had star power from Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla didn’t draw better than middle of the pack in the NL. It’s a football town and the ballpark has had little to do with anything in terms of fans coming out.

The Twins are an example of the simplest of cause and effects when it comes to a sports franchise. It’s been evident with the Mets of recent years and now the Phillies and Orioles in different directions. If the teams are good, the fans will pay to go and see it; if the teams are bad, they won’t. This is a different circumstance than what confronts the Pirates, the Florida franchises and the Athletics. The Twins were bad for years and played in an unfriendly atmosphere in the Metrodome. They built from within and became the dominant team in the AL Central for almost a decade, then moved into a brand new park, Target Field and spent money to try and win once they were on the verge to do so. They never made it to the finish line with the Johan Santana, Joe Mauer, Torii Hunter core and now the team is facing a long rebuilding process. The fans are still coming to the park in reasonable numbers, but if the rebuild takes a long time that won’t last, new park or not.

The Mets attendance has plummeted from 3-5 years ago with the club a title contender and the opening of Citi Field and it’s happened because the team has been unlikable, rudderless and just plain bad. Aggravation with the franchise has caused apathy within the fanbase. The prices of the tickets aren’t helping matters either. What family can go to a game in this economy when paying $30 (at the minimum) each for a ticket and having to pay $20 to park, plus food and souvenirs? If you’re talking about a family of four paying in excess of $200 to sit in the upper deck and watch a team that’s floundering after a surprisingly good first half, what’s the point? These fans are not casual and they are loyal, but they don’t want to hear about the bright future (and the Mets do have a bright future) when the now is so mediocre and pricey.

The Orioles regularly led the American League in attendance in the 1990s when they had just built Camden Yards—the first of the new age/old school parks that are now the norm—and maintained that trend until the fans could no longer take the perennial losing and stopped going. Now they’re coming back because there’s been a significant improvement in the team. But Baltimore is a baseball town with a long history of success and were waiting for the team to be good again. The Marlins and Rays have no chance of success in Florida because the Florida population in general doesn’t care about baseball one way or the other.

Read Part I here.

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Somebody Wants You…Somewhere

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Let’s have a look at some players who have worn out their welcomes with their current organizations but could have some use for another club in the second half and possibly beyond.

Adam Lind, 1B—Toronto Blue Jays

Lind was recently recalled from the minors and is 8 for 23 since with 3 homers. 2 of the homers came in one game. He’s guaranteed $7 million so if the Blue Jays are going to get anything for him they’ll either have to eat most of the contract or take back another club’s problem player. He murdered the ball in Triple A after his demotion (.392/.448/.664 in 143 plate appearances with 8 homers); he’ll be 29 on July 17th; maybe he’s a change-of-scenery guy who’ll hit in another uniform.

Brian Matusz, LHP—Baltimore Orioles

His first-glance numbers are dreadful, but he’s a flyball pitcher who does the bulk of his pitching the AL East with the bandboxes of Camden Yards, Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park. Then he has the Blue Jays who swing for the fences in every at bat. Consequentially he gives up a lot of home runs. He walks too many, strikes out too few and has luck reminiscent of someone who’s gotten struck by lightning multiple times. His BAbip last season was .384; this year it’s .335. If he lobbed the ball over the plate he wouldn’t do much worse.

A team with a big park—the Twins, Padres, Dodgers—might want to take a look at Matusz and see if does any better with them.

Kurt Suzuki, C—Oakland Athletics

Time to give some credit to Billy Beane and Bob Melvin for keeping this team competitive and more. Beane ended up swindling the Red Sox by getting Josh Reddick and received a chunk of the farm systems of both the Diamondbacks and Nationals for Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez.

One of the prospects he got from the Nats, catcher Derek Norris, has already helped the A’s win a few games with his bat and glove. That makes the erstwhile everyday catcher Suzuki expendable. He’s due $6.45 million next season and while he hasn’t hit a home run this season, he’s got 15 homer power. He’s have a good year defensively throwing out 37% of the baserunners who’ve tried to steal.

Suzuki’s the type of player who’ll go to a new venue, start hitting and the media and fans will wonder why the A’s got rid of him.

John Lannan, LHP—Washington Nationals

Here’s a case study in burying a useful arm.

The Nats don’t need Lannan, but are paying him $5 million to pitch in Triple A and he’s pitching well. They don’t want to give him away, but they have no place for him on their big league roster. One would think that eventually a team desperate for pitching like the Blue Jays or Royals would give up something the Nats would want for Lannan.

The Blue Jays had Jamie Moyer pitching at Triple A! That’s how desperate they are after all their injuries. (They just released him.)

Gaby Sanchez, 1B—Miami Marlins

Sanchez had almost identical numbers in 2010-2011 with 19 homers and similar slash lines. He was so dreadful this season that he was sent down to Triple A in May, was recalled and still hasn’t hit. When the Marlins acquired Carlos Lee, Sanchez was sent back to the minors where he’ll stay unless he’s traded.

Sanchez is the type of player the Twins should take a chance on.

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Showalter For Manager/GM?

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It has been whispered that the Orioles should do something decidedly old-school and name manager Buck Showalter GM as well.

There hasn’t been a manager/GM since Bobby Cox went back on the field to replace Russ Nixon as Braves manager in 1990 and that didn’t last long as John Schuerholz was hired as GM after that season and Cox stayed on the field for…well, forever.

Jack McKeon was the GM/manager for the Padres in the late-1980s; Whitey Herzog did it for the Cardinals in the early 1980s.

It’s all but impossible to do both jobs correctly in today’s game of GM-rock stardom. There’s really no way Showalter could do it and maintain his sanity and/or health.

That said, there’s a way to go about it if the Orioles want to give Showalter final say in the direction of the franchise.

Herzog joined the Cardinals as manager in 1980; late in the season they fired GM John Clairborne and named Herzog GM as well. Completely out of contention, Herzog handed the managerial reins to Red Schoendienst for the rest of 1980. Herzog didn’t do both jobs simultaneously. That’s a good thing given Herzog’s penchant for saying whatever popped into his head without concern as to how it was framed or perceived (think J.P. Ricciardi to the tenth power); it would be a PR disaster in today’s game.

But he was able to find players and he’d do the same thing today.

Showalter can do it in a similar fashion if he steps off the field because he’s more tight-lipped and manipulative of the media than Herzog was. Herzog was a gruff, intimidating type; Showalter is more nuanced and calculating.

Herzog built the Cardinals for the spacious dimensions of Busch Stadium with improved speed by getting Lonnie Smith, and installing Tommy Herr at 2nd base; he shored up the defense and attitude by trading Garry Templeton for Ozzie Smith; traded for a defensive minded catcher, Darrell Porter; brought in pitchers who threw strikes like Joaquin Andujar; and got the game’s best closer in Bruce Sutter.

By 1982, the Cardinals were World Series champions and won two more pennants under Herzog in the next five years.

Could Showalter do that as GM?

The Orioles can hit, but their top-to-bottom pitching is so awful that they’re going to have to consider trading some of their young bats Nick Markakis or Adam Jones to find some arms. Those arms would have to strike people out or coax ground balls to mitigate the bandbox of Camden Yards; he needs to improve the bullpen and the infield defense.

Trading talented bats like Jones, Markakis and Matt Wieters are not easy decisions to make.

If someone is going to make that call, it has to be the man who’s entrusted with the future of the organization and is completely responsible for what happens, good or bad.

Showalter would have to stop managing for a time to do the GM job properly; he’d have to be given an autonomy that owner Peter Angelos might balk at providing, but if the Orioles are going to have Showalter give his approval to whom is hired as the new GM, it’s probably easier to let Showalter do it while the Orioles are rebuilding and then have him go back on the field when he has the players he wants.

That’s the only way it could work.

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