No replacing Yoenis Cespedes, so here’s another idea for the Mets

MLB, MLB Trade Deadline, Uncategorized

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Yoenis Cespedes, set to have surgery on both heels and expected to miss up to 10 months and perhaps more leaves the New York Mets in a predicament of how to replace his production. He has been riddled with injuries since signing his four-year, $110 million contract to remain with the Mets and the team’s fortunes have spiraled in direct proportion with his absences. When he’s played, they’ve been good; when he hasn’t played, they’ve been bad.

The positive aspect to the announcement is the end to the ambiguity. The Mets had functioned with a daily dread that even when he was deemed healthy, he was one step away from another injury that would keep him out for three months.

So, now they know.

Replacing him is a separate matter, especially considering the uncertainty in the front office with the departure of Sandy Alderson, the current tri-head GM of John Ricco, Omar Minaya and J.P. Ricciardi, and the club’s unknown strategy and payroll going forward.

There are calls for the Mets to tear down the entire structure and rebuild, but such a position is absurd. Trading the likes of pending free agents Asdrubal Cabrera, Jose Bautista, Devin Mesoraco and Jerry Blevins is obvious. Players under team control through 2019 – Zack Wheeler and Wilmer Flores – should be moved if there is a sufficient return, albeit steeper than what they will get for those approaching free agency.

Regarding the idea of trading Jacob deGrom or Noah Syndergaard, what sense does that make when there are three different people who are vying to get the top job and no set plan in place?

If the Mets are truly thinking about trading deGrom or Syndergaard, that is a decision that must be made by the new permanent head of baseball operations, whoever that is.

That brings us to how best to move forward if the Mets truly intend on competing in 2019.

Given the structure of the club being built around pitching and the opportunity to get younger, a spin from Alderson-led strategy of slow-footed, feast or famine players who played station to station and did little other than hit occasional home runs, the Mets have an opening to do something that has not been done full tilt since the Whitey Herzog St. Louis Cardinals of the 1980s: build a team based on speed and defense with the pitchers to back up that strategy.

The Mets have been notoriously slow in recent years. They have been lacking athleticism, devoid of versatility, and shoddy defensively.

The words “small ball” have been largely extinguished if not outright excommunicated from the game like they’re a toxic disease that only anti-vaccination fanatics fail to see the damage they can do, but with deGrom getting losses or no-decisions in 12 starts in which he pitched at least six innings and surrendered 3 or fewer earned runs, would the Mets not have been better-served to get runners on base in the early innings, push the envelope by stealing bases, bunt them along when appropriate, get a lead and force the other manager’s hand to make desperate moves because they cannot fall behind by one run?

This is contingent on starting pitching – something the Mets have in comparative abundance.

Some have indulged in delusional speculation that with the money the Mets will save via insurance payments for David Wright and now Cespedes, they should go big in this winter’s free agent market by pursuing Manny Machado and/or Bryce Harper. Hypothetically, if the Mets were willing to make that level of expenditure, why would players in demand like Machado or Harper want to join the Mets with the club’s reputation for disarray, dysfunction and injury?

More to the point, the type of players who would fit into the aggressive style of play are available should the club be willing to eschew the glossy signing and go for an actual planned construction with players who can do more than one thing.

Ian Kinsler may be 36 and struggling at the plate in 2018, but he remains a superlative defensive second baseman with speed to steal 15 to 20 bases and hit 20 home runs. He’s a free agent, won’t cost a draft pick, nor ask for a long-term contract.

Billy Hamilton is available and despite his poor OPS, he’s a defensive stalwart in center field who, if turned loose, could easily steal 80 to 100 bases.

With Amed Rosario playing better and more aggressively, Brandon Nimmo’s skill at getting on base, the remaining potential in Michael Conforto, hackers like T.J. Rivera and Jeff McNeil who might not bring the precious walks that sabermetrics advocates pine for, but collect hits, would this type of team have a better chance at competing than the ones the Mets have put on the field in 2017-18?

When the club is slumping offensively and is not hitting home runs, what do they do to score? There’s no stopping speed; there’s no viable defense for the panic that ensues when there’s a runner on base who might steal at any moment and the team is aggressively forcing the action with hitting and running, exhibiting derring-do on the bases and showing fearlessness. In games where they’re not hitting or getting on base, their defense will be a contribution.

Since the Mets have failed in every other attempt to fill in and replace costly players who are hurt; with their annual strategies imploding as if that was their intent, how much worse could they be if they did something that hasn’t been done since the mid-1980s – and worked – with their most hated rival at the time that twice sabotaged the dominant Mets teams of Keith Hernandez, Gary Carter, Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry?

Those Cardinals ran wild on the bases, caught the ball, and won three pennants in six years. This is a preferable strategy to the Mets trading their cost-controlled faces deGrom or Syndergaard for “Random Prospects X, Y and Z” and the team couldn’t be any worse than it is now. They’d certainly be more interesting.

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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.

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.

Knicks, Oakley and organizational estrangement

Basketball, MLB, NFL, Uncategorized

madison-square-gardenThe incident at Madison Square Garden in which former New York Knicks player and longtime fan favorite Charles Oakley was arrested for a confrontation with arena security has yielded a visceral reaction from fans and media members who see Oakley as the epitome of what the current Knicks are missing. As a player, he did the dirty work, protected his teammates and was the “lunch pail” guy – the ones no team or business in general can function successfully without and whose work is largely appreciated in every context but the stat sheet. Long since retired, Oakley does not have an official role with the organization.

Given their current plight with team president Phil Jackson viewed as a disinterested observer of a team he was tasked – and received a contract for close to $12 million annually – to rebuild and owner Jim Dolan’s perceived ineptitude, it’s no wonder that the anger is reaching explosive proportions.

Regardless of the negative views of Jackson and his commitment and Dolan and his competence, is Oakley to be granted the benefit of the doubt for his behavior when no one seems to know what the dispute was even about? There must be a separation between what a player might have represented to the organization in the past and what is good for business in the future.

Every sport has these uncomfortable situations of trying to respect the past, granting deference to those who played an integral role in it and doing what’s right for the organization in the present and future. Not all reach the level of embarrassment as Oakley and the Knicks, but they’re everywhere. Legacy jobs are often harmless as long as there’s no actual decision making involved with them, but when a person is given a role without the ability to function in it effectively, it’s like a virus.

Sandy Alderson’s New York Mets regime has faced passive aggressive criticism from former Mets stars Howard Johnson and Mookie Wilson among others for their abandonment of the team’s past, but the biggest name that has elicited an over the top reaction is Wally Backman. This in spite of the Mets giving Backman a job as a minor league manager when no one else would; in spite of him repeatedly angering Alderson and his lieutenants for going off the reservation, for self-promoting, and for being the last thing anyone wants in a minor league manager: visible. In September of 2016, Backman either left the organization of his own accord or was fired – it’s still fuzzy – smothering his supporters’ lingering hopes that he would be given a chance as, at a minimum, a coach on Terry Collins’s staff.

By now, it’s clear to anyone who can read between even the flimsiest of lines that Backman only lasted as long as he did with the Mets because of his popularity with the fans and that the Wilpons were protecting him from Alderson’s axe. There are still conspiracy theories speculating about the real genesis of Alderson’s issues with Backman and whether Backman has been blackballed or not.

The only thing we have to go on is what’s happened. With that, if Backman truly is the managerial genius his fans purport him to be, it only worsens the practical reality that no affiliated club will hire him in any capacity. That Backman, for lack of big league opportunities, needed to take a job in the Mexican League is conveniently ignored in the narrative of negativity that still surrounds the Mets even as they’ve won a pennant, made the playoffs as a wild card and are a favorite to contend for a World Series in 2017, all under Alderson and Collins.

Ozzie Smith was angry with the way Tony La Russa reduced his role in 1996 and basically forced him out when Smith wanted to keep playing after that season.

Smith is royalty with the Cardinals and was treated as such by Whitey Herzog and his successor Joe Torre. By the time La Russa arrived, he was unattached to the Cardinals’ past. The club had been declining for several years, sparking the hiring of La Russa to begin with. Was La Russa supposed to enter the 1996 season relying on a 41-year-old Smith who had batted .199 the previous year? Or should he have pinned his hopes on what Smith had been five years before to keep from angering fans who want to have a winning team but also want to continue treating their stars with blind loyalty?

In his lone year playing for La Russa, Smith had a solid comeback season showing a portion of his fielding genius and batting .282 in 82 games, sharing the job with Royce Clayton. Could he have maintained that over the course of the season at that age? Could La Russa bank on that? Deferring to the past has its place, but when there are substantive changes made, collateral damage is unavoidable. La Russa didn’t go to St. Louis to mess around with what was already there and had finished 19 games below .500 in 1995. Caught in the crossfire was Smith. He’s still bitter about it, but who can argue with the success the Cardinals had under La Russa? Now had the club been worse under La Russa than it was under the prior, old-school Cardinals front office or Clayton fallen flat on his face, then there would have been a larger contingent of angry fans and media members standing behind Smith just as Knicks fans are doing with Oakley.

Tom Landry was unceremoniously fired by Jerry Jones in 1989 when Jones bought the Dallas Cowboys. When Jones made the clumsy and necessary decision and subsequently walked face first into a public relations buzz saw, no one on this or any other planet could have envisioned that less than three decades later, Jones would be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame to take his place among the sport’s luminaries along with Landry.

In retrospect, the same fans and media members who were outraged at the crude dispatching of Landry had been privately saying that the coach needed to go and a full overhaul was needed. Jones, in telling his predecessor Bum Bright that he was not buying the team unless he was able to replace Landry with Jimmy Johnson, was setting the conditions that many advocated but few had the guts to follow through upon. By the time the Cowboys’ rebuild was completed four years later and culminated with a Super Bowl (and two more in the next three years), no one cared whether Landry would acknowledge Jones or still felt embittered about his dismissal.

The insular nature of sports front offices is exactly what owners sought to get away from when they hired outsiders from other industries to take charge. Before that, a large percentage of former players who rose to upper level positions in a front office did so not because of competence or skill at the job they were hired to do, but as a form of patronage. That is no longer the case and invites a backlash. When Jeff Luhnow was hired to run the Houston Astros and gutted the place down to its exoskeleton, the on-field product was so hideous and former Astros stars so callously discarded that the response was inevitable: he had abandoned luminaries and made the product worse. The Astros are contenders now and the groundswell is largely muted even if the anger is still there.

Giving former star performers a ceremonial title is not done to grant them sway with the club. It’s a placating measure to engender goodwill with the fans and media. When that comes undone, incidents like the Knicks and Oakley exacerbate current problems and provide evidence of ongoing and unstoppable turmoil.

The issue for the Knicks is that they’re in such disarray that this type of incident involving a player who was a key component of their glory years will be magnified.

The Oakley incident can be viewed as the nadir of the Knicks under Jackson and Dolan based on nothing more than Oakley having been a favorite of the fans and the media during his playing career and representing a past that is so far in the rearview mirror that a large bulk of younger fans are unlikely to believe it even existed in the first place. It occurred directly on the heels of a typically cryptic Jackson tweet that seemed to disparage Carmelo Anthony and sent the team president and “Zen master” into familiar spin control only contributes to their perceived dysfunction. If the Knicks were riding high and this happened, the reaction would have been that Oakley needs to know his place. Since they’re not, it’s symbolic of that which ails the club.

Adhering to the past might be palatable, particularly when Oakley-type incidents take place, but there needs to be a separation between what’s happening within the organization and its outskirts even if they appear to be inextricably connected.

NLCS Prediction and Preview: Los Angeles Dodgers vs. St. Louis Cardinals

Games, History, Management, Players, Playoffs, Stats, World Series

Los Angeles Dodgers (92-70) vs. St. Louis Cardinals (97-65)

Keys for the Dodgers: Get into the Cardinals’ bullpen; stop Carlos Beltran; mitigate the Cardinals’ big post-season performers; coax manager Mike Matheny into mistakes.

The Cardinals’ strength lies in its hot playoff performers and the starting pitching of Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha and the potential of Joe Kelly. The Dodgers must get the starting pitchers’ pitch counts up to dig into the Cardinals’ weak point: the bullpen. The Dodgers have the depth in their offense to get to the Cardinals. They might, however, not have the patience to get their pitch counts up. They like to swing the bat and that might not be the best possible strategy against these Cardinals pitchers.

Beltran is a very good to great player during the regular season. In the post-season, he becomes a historic player. For his career against current Dodgers’ pitchers, Beltran has hammered Ronald Belisario and Ricky Nolasco. In the playoffs, it doesn’t matter who’s on the mound, Beltran is a constant threat. To the dismay and disgust of Mets fans, that excludes Wainwright, who he won’t hit against because they’re teammates. If the Dodgers stop Beltran, they have a great chance of stopping the Cardinals.

The other Cardinals’ post-season performers have history of their own against the Dodgers’ pitchers. Matt Holliday has the following numbers against some of the Dodgers’ top arms:

Clayton Kershaw: .303 batting average; .465 OBP; .424 slugging; two homers.

Zack Greinke: .346 batting average; .393 OBP; .577 slugging; two homers.

Nolasco: .462 batting average; .481 OBP; .885 slugging; two homers.

David Freese is hitting .333 vs. Greinke; and 500 vs. Nolasco.

Manager Matheny has done some strange things in his time as manager, especially with the bullpen and he doesn’t have a closer. He could be coaxed into panicky mistakes.

Keys for the Cardinals: Hope the Dodgers pitch Nolasco; lean on their playoff performers; get depth from the starters; hope the games don’t come down to the bullpen.

Nolasco is listed as the game four starter. We’ll see if that actually happens. If the Dodgers are down two games to one in the series when game four rolls around, I can’t imagine them pitching Nolasco with the numbers the Cardinals’ hitters have against him. In addition to Holliday, Beltran, Daniel Descalso, Jon Jay and Freese have all battered him as well. If he pitches, the Cardinals’ history says they’re going to bash him.

With the Cardinals, there can’t be any discussion without referencing Wainwright, Beltran, Molina, Holiday and Freese with their post-season performances. Very few teams can boast these prime time players.

Apparently, Trevor Rosenthal is going to close for the Cardinals. Matheny – with good reason – doesn’t trust seasonlong closer Edward Mujica. Rosenthal throws very hard, but was shaky in his save chance against the Pirates in the NLDS. Matheny will push his starters as deep as he can.

What will happen:

The Cardinals barely got past the Pirates and much of that was due to the Pirates’ lack of experience in games of this magnitude. The Dodgers won’t have the lack of experience going against them. With their lineup, the Dodgers will feast on the Cardinals’ bullpen. Kershaw and Greinke can match Wainwright and Wacha. Kelly is a complete unknown and the Dodgers have the veteran hitters – Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, Juan Uribe, Hanley Ramirez – to get at the Cardinals pitchers, especially their relievers.

If this series comes down to a battle of the bullpens, the Dodgers have a distinct advantage with Brian Wilson and Kenley Jansen at the back end. The Dodgers’ bats have some post-season experience, but nothing in comparison to that of the Cardinals. The Dodgers’ bats aren’t youngsters, so it’s unlikely they’ll be intimidated. And Yasiel Puig isn’t intimidated by anything. In fact, he’s the type of player who’ll relish the spotlight and want to show off in front of Beltran.

The Dodgers have too much starting pitching, too deep a bullpen and too good a lineup. The Cardinals are a “sum of their parts” team. The Dodgers have the star power and depth where it counts.

PREDICTION: DODGERS IN FIVE

NLCS MVP: YASIEL PUIG




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NLDS Playoffs Preview and Predictions – St. Louis Cardinals vs. Pittsburgh Pirates

Games, Players, Playoffs

St. Louis Cardinals (97-65) vs. Pittsburgh Pirates (94-68)

Keys for the Cardinals: Get runners on base; continue trend of hot hitting with runners in scoring position; try not to leave the game in the hands of the bullpen; get the goods from their proven post-season performers.

The Cardinals led the National League in runs scored using a similar formula as the Yankees of the 1990s used by having a very high teamwide on-base percentage and no big home run hitters. Instead of having that one basher in the middle of the lineup hitting 35-45 homers as they did with Albert Pujols, they spread the wealth in the home run department with six hitters in double figures. Not one, however, had more than 24. In addition, the Cardinals had a .330 batting average with runners in scoring position.

The Cardinals bullpen is deep and diverse. Edward Mujica pitched well for much of the season as the team’s accidental closer after Jason Motte was lost for the season with Tommy John surgery. Mujica saved 37 games and walked only five batters in 64.2 innings. Home runs have always been his bugaboo and he surrendered nine. With Mujica’s struggles, the Cardinals have to decide whether to stick to the regular season script and leave him in the role, go with Trevor Rosenthal or a closer-by-committee.

The Cardinals have a roster full of players who’ve put up big numbers in the post-season with Adam Wainwright, Carlos Beltran, Allen Craig, David Freese and Yadier Molina. Players who’ve performed in the post-season have a tendency to do it again.

Keys for the Pirates: Don’t wait too long with their starting pitchers; don’t change their game; keep the Cardinals off the bases; get into the Cardinals’ bullpen.

The Cardinals were vulnerable to lefty pitchers but with Francisco Liriano having started the Wild Card Game against the Reds, he won’t pitch until game three in Pittsburgh. The Pirates are starting A.J. Burnett in game one and Gerrit Cole in game two. Even though he struggled in September, I might’ve rolled the dice and started Jeff Locke in game one if I were manager Clint Hurdle. The Pirates have a deep bullpen and shouldn’t wait too long with their starting pitchers before making a change. Locke as a middle reliever might end up being more effective than having him start.

As stated earlier, the Cardinals get a lot of runners on base. The Pirates have a solid defense and have to shun the walk – this is especially true for Burnett with his scattershot control.

If the Pirates don’t get the Cardinals starting pitchers’ pitch counts up and force manager Mike Matheny to go to the bullpen, they might not get a shot at Mujica.

The Pirates won their games this season with good starting pitching, speed, power from Pedro Alvarez, a great back of the bullpen and defense. They have to maintain all facets of their game.

What will happen:

The Cardinals are built more for the long season than for a short series. While they have those aforementioned big time post-season players, the Pirates have the pitching and bullpen depth to neutralize them. If the Cardinals don’t get runners on the bases, they’re not going to score because they don’t hit enough home runs and the Pirates don’t surrender many home runs. Mujica is not trustworthy as a post-season closer and if it comes down to a one-run lead in the ninth inning, everyone in St. Louis will be holding their collective breaths waiting for the inevitable longball.

The Pirates are riding a wave with their veteran acquisitions Russell Martin and Marlon Byrd leading the way joining Alvarez, Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker in the lineup. A lack of post-season experience could be a problem. The Cardinals have loads of it and the Pirates have nearly none. It could also go the other way. With the first playoff appearance and playoff win in two decades under their belts, the Pirates won’t feel the pressure. That’s one instance when the Wild Card Game will benefit a young and inexperienced team.

I don’t like the way Matheny handles the bullpen as if he’s panicky and desperate not to do the wrong thing rather than do the right thing.

The Pirates’ method of winning has a better chance to carry over into the post-season. They rely on fundamentals, speed and pop; the Cardinals relied on getting on base and clutch hitting. The Pirates are younger, stronger, faster and hungrier than the Cardinals. They’re better too.

PREDICTION: PIRATES IN THREE




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Hal Steinbrenner Summons His Yankees Staff

Award Winners, Ballparks, CBA, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, History, Management, Media, MiLB, MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Waiver Trades, Players, Playoffs, Prospects, Stats, Trade Rumors, World Series

Hal Steinbrenner is thoughtful, calm and polite. He’s running the Yankees like a business and doing so without the rampant firings, missives and bluster that his father George Steinbrenner used to intimidate, bully and get what he thought were results. It’s the son’s demeanor that is probably even more intimidating to the gathered staff than anything his father ever did. The George Steinbrenner meetings were a regular occurrence with a red-faced Boss shouting, threatening and firing people only to calm down, feel badly about what he’d done and immediately rehire whomever he’d briefly fired. Hal’s different. If he makes changes, they’re made and that’s that.

The news that Hal convened a high-level meeting with his staff is a serious matter to the future of the Yankees’ baseball operations. It’s obviously not lost on him or any of the other Steinbrenners and Randy Levine that the baseball people led by general manager Brian Cashman have been trumpeting home-grown talent in recent years while producing very little of it. For all the talk that the Yankees were going to grow their own pitchers similarly to the Red Sox, Giants and Rays, the last starting pitcher drafted and developed by the Yankees who had sustained success as a Yankee is still Andy Pettitte. That’s twenty years ago.

A new storyline referenced repeatedly is that the Yankees intended to draft Mike Trout in 2009, but the Angels beat them to him. Are they looking for credit for players they wanted to draft four years ago after he’s become one of the best players in baseball?

The defense implying that the Yankees’ success caused them to only have late-round first round draft picks thereby reducing their ability to find top-tier players is weak as well. You can find players late in the first round and in the second and third rounds. The Yankees talk out of both sides of their mouths when they claim that Pettitte (22nd round), Jorge Posada (24th round), and Bernie Williams and Mariano Rivera (undrafted free agents) were due to the Yankees’ methods and then complain about their low draft status and inability to find players. It’s one or the other. Either there’s a Yankees “specialness” or they’re a victim of their own success.

They haven’t signed any impact free agents from Cuba, Japan, Taiwan, Venezuela or the Dominican Republic and their drafts have been failures in the early, middle and late rounds. Dustin Pedroia, Jordan Zimmerman, Giancarlo Stanton, Freddie Freeman, Chris Tillman, Trevor Cahill and Justin Masterson were all second round picks. You can find players if you’re savvy and give them an opportunity. The Yankees’ lack of patience with young players combined with the overhyping to suit a constituency and narrative has certainly played a part in the failures, but they’ve also made some horrific gaffes in evaluation and planning. They have yet to publicly acknowledge that Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, Ian Kennedy, Michael Pineda and Ivan Nova were all mishandled, nor have they indicated a willingness to alter their strategy in building pitchers.

With the military school training that he has, it’s no surprise that Hal—as Commander in Chief of the Yankees—is seeking answers as to why the club’s farm system is so destitute and few players have been produced to help the Yankees at the big league level as they downsize the payroll. If they’re not going to spend as much money on free agents, young players are a necessity to maintain some level of competitiveness. But they don’t have them to use for themselves to to trade for someone else’s more established star. The logical next step after this meeting is to start replacing some of his staff.

This recent hot streak aside, the overwhelming likelihood is that the Yankees will miss the playoffs in 2013. There will be the complaints that injuries were the main reason, but teams with $200 million payrolls really don’t have much of a leg to stand on when coming up with excuses. After the season is over, there will be a lament that “if the season had gone on a week longer” then the rest of baseball would’ve been in trouble; or that the way Rivera goes out with a declining, also-ran team is not befitting his greatness; and that the post-season “loses its luster” without the Yankees.

These are diversions and attempts to make the Yankees more important than they actually are.

No one, least of all Hal Steinbrenner, wants to hear it. He’s the boss now and he’s been patient. He’s justified in looking at the Yankees’ annual payrolls and wondering why, with a roster full of the highest salaried players in baseball for as long as anyone can remember, they’ve been rewarded with one championship since 2000. Why, with the money at their disposal and an ownership willing to green light just about anything to make the organization better, they haven’t been able to find young talent and nurture it to success. Why the Rays, Athletics and Cardinals among others have been able to win and develop simultaneously while spending a minuscule fraction of what the Yankees have spent. And why his GM so openly criticized the acquisition of Alfonso Soriano when Soriano has turned into a bolt from the sky in his return to pinstripes.

What this will do is embolden Hal, Levine and the rest of the Steinbrenners to believe that perhaps the implication of “baseball people” knowing more than anyone else might be a little overplayed.

This meeting is a precursor to a change in the structure of the baseball operations and with Cashman’s repeated public embarrassments, inability to hold his tongue and abject errors, he’s on the firing line. The Steinbrenners have been agreeable, loyal and tolerant to Cashman’s demands and decisions. With the details of this meeting strategically leaked, it looks like they’re greasing the skids to make a change. George Steinbrenner was more emotional than calculating and his meeting would have been eye-rolled and head shaken away as the ranting of a lunatic, quickly dismissed. Hal Steinbrenner isn’t like his father, but the result might be the same when the season ends and he’s not going to change his mind five minutes later.




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An All-Around Bad Year for Rizzo and the Nats

Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, History, Management, Media, MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Waiver Trades, Players, Playoffs, Prospects, Stats, World Series

Mike Rizzo said that the Nationals have a “run left in us.” There’s a precedent for teams coming out of nowhere in the final month of the season and making the playoffs. The Rays and Cardinals both did it in 2011 with the Cardinals winning the World Series after having trailed the Wild Card-leading Braves by 10 1/2 games on August 25 of that year. The Cardinals and Reds are currently the National League Wild Card leaders. The Cardinals have been ravaged by injuries; the Reds haven’t played consistently; and the NL Central leading Pirates are still young and collapsed in both 2011 and 2012. There’s some justification for Rizzo not to quit. Prior to yesterday’s game, the Nats claimed David DeJesus from the Cubs. It was seen as a signal that they’re still trying to add to win now and perhaps have a player in DeJesus they can use in 2014.

The assertion that the Nats are still “in it” would likely have been better-received had the team not gone and immediately responded to the GM’s confidence and gotten hammered by the Cubs 11-1. The DeJesus acquisition wouldn’t have looked like Rizzo and his staff are a bunch of screw-ups if there was a hint that they truly wanted DeJesus and it wasn’t a waiver claim mistake that they tacitly admitted by placing DeJesus back on waivers immediately after getting him. And the team might have had a better shot in 2013 if they had played like a cohesive unit with a definition of purpose from the first day of the season rather than an arrogant, self-important group that believed winning a division title in 2012 automatically meant they were going to be a playoff team every single year based on talent alone.

Rizzo isn’t going anywhere, but manager Davey Johnson won’t be back in 2014. This was meant to be his final year in the dugout with the hope that it would be a logical step in the innocent climb from first round playoff loser to World Series winner with Johnson’s experience being a key. Instead, Johnson’s warts—his riverboat gambler’s mentality; the trust in his players; open insubordination—reared their heads. Barring a late-August hot streak, Rizzo might relive him of his duties for the final month in a similar fashion as the Phillies did with Charlie Manuel. The Phillies wanted to have a look at Ryne Sandberg. The Nats might want to do the same with Randy Knorr.

The Nats are dysfunctional mess. The Stephen Strasburg shutdown from September of 2012 is being used to symbolize the organizational hubris and it’s a perfect example of why nothing can be taken for granted.  In 2013, they don’t have to worry about any innings limits or shutting anyone down because the rest of baseball is doing the job for them by sending the Nats home, far from where they thought they’d be and currently having more questions than answers as to where they go from here.




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A-Rod the Trophy Wife and Robinson Cano

Award Winners, Ballparks, CBA, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, Hall Of Fame, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, MVP, PEDs, Players, Playoffs, Stats, Trade Rumors, World Series

Like most trophy marriages, Alex Rodriguez and the Yankees is comparable to a Hollywood union that wound up in marriage counseling with one side wanting a divorce and the other wanting a substantial payoff to leave. To make matters worse, there’s tantamount to a conviction hanging over the head of one of the participants and financial issues hovering around the other. It’s getting worse and worse with each passing day with no end in sight. There’s no point in analyzing the contretemps and accusations because by the time you read this, there will have been five more statements from each side to outdate the latest war of words.

The Yankees can’t say that after they traded for A-Rod, they didn’t get on-field production. If it was ten years ago and A-Rod was an MVP-contender, the team would be far more willing to stand behind him regardless of what he’s been accused of doing. They owe him $86 million from 2014 through 2017 and don’t want to pay him because he’s an average player at best.

It’s typical that the sides in such a marriage enjoyed a honeymoon of several years when all was good and wonderful. A-Rod began to show his age and underlying problems that the Yankees either glossed over or ignored as long as he was hitting 35+ homers a year. When he opted out of his contract after the 2007 season, it was right after his second MVP season in three years in pinstripes. He’d kept his hotness that attracted the Yankees to him. Factions in the Yankees organization, notably general manager Brian Cashman, wanted to let him leave. Hank Steinbrenner stepped in and lavished a new $275 million contract to keep the marriage together with money. In spite of the idea that the contract was a disaster from the start, A-Rod hit 30+ homers in the first three years of the deal. Then the injuries and controversies began in earnest and he stopped being productive.

This is how these types of marriages end. To avoid a repeat, the Yankees have to examine what made them get into bed with A-Rod in the first place. They and other clubs need to think critically about such a bow to expediency for his star power and ability to put fans in the seats. With A-Rod, they became the Yankees as an entity rather than a cohesive team.

The Yankees teams from 1996 through 2003 were a group that knew and trusted one another. There was a definition of purpose with the club. And that’s with having begun the process of bringing in mercenaries and nuisances like Roger Clemens and David Wells. With A-Rod, they made the conscious decision to bring his sideshow and contract with him. They collected stars instead of getting players that fit on and off the field. That can work as long as there isn’t an albatross of a contract hanging over the team’s head in the latter years of the deal. Had A-Rod not had this PED nightmare of his own doing, the Yankees would have bitten the bullet, dealt with his age-related decline and injury and lived with what he could provide, waiting out its (and his) expiration. Now they just want him gone and they don’t want to pay him. In essence, they’re trying to break the agreement that came with the marriage. While they couldn’t have predicted it would degenerate into this, they had to know that eventually they’d be paying him for what he was a decade earlier.

This directly ties into their current construction of the club and what they’re going to do about Robinson Cano.

Cano’s lack of hustle is getting to the point where he’s not going to bother running on a ground ball at all; he’s simply going to walk back to the dugout as if he’d just struck out. In reality, there’s no difference between the two because with his current effort, if the infielder bobbles or outright muffs a grounder, Cano will still be out by five steps. The combination of the A-Rod mess, the $200+ million contracts that are already disastrous (Albert Pujols), Cano’s age and burgeoning laziness could spur the Yankees to decide that they’re not going to hamstring the franchise in the same way again just to placate the fans and media to keep an admittedly great player who wants an amount of money he cannot possibly live up to.

The Yankees set a line in the sand with Derek Jeter during his last free agent negotiations. They made their offer, Jeter was unhappy with it and they told him to see if he could do better elsewhere. With Jeter, they were safe in knowing he wasn’t going to leave and the rest of baseball wasn’t going to bother pursuing him because they also knew he wouldn’t leave. Cano isn’t Jeter and another team would pursue him if there was an opening. But the situation is similar in that few other teams have the capability and willingness to give Cano $200+ million. The Dodgers are the only ones that come to mind who could and they might shy away from the pursuit.

The Cardinals wound up looking completely innocent and retrospectively brilliant by letting Pujols leave when no one thought he would. That they had just won the World Series gave them some wiggle room, but in the end Pujols chased the money and the Cardinals hid behind their own financial circumstances to justify him departing. The combination of circumstances with the Yankees is different, but their own issues could result in Cano leaving as well. It’s either that or take the amount of money the Yankees offer to stay even if it’s far below what he clearly wants. It will be an amount of money that no one could ever spend. Whether Cano’s ego can deal with not surpassing that magic number of $200 million is the question. But he might not have much of a choice and A-Rod could be held, in part, responsible for that too.




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MLB’s Expanded Replay—Did They Miss Another Call?

CBA, Games, Hall Of Fame, History, Management, Media, MiLB, PEDs, Players, Playoffs, Politics, Stats

Baseball’s incurable habit for getting things wrong has grown so common that even when they get something right, they can’t win. In cases like the performance enhancing drug investigation, their crackdown is almost a doubling-down on the wrong to trample on players’ rights and the collective bargaining agreement. The players brought much of it on themselves, but from the time the 2003 PED test results were leaked, there’s been a concerted effort on the part of baseball to “get” the players who are using PEDs even if that means trusting someone so furtive and lacking in credibility as Anthony Boesch. That’s not a defense of Ryan Braun, Alex Rodriguez or any other player who went to Biogenesis, just an analysis that MLB’s methods weren’t exactly clean themselves. They got down in the dirt to get the dirty, exhibiting audacious hypocricy for cracking down on a culture that they cultivated themselves. Now they’re dirty—well, dirtier—too. They’ve gotten their results, but it comes at an obvious cost that’s yet to be determined.

As the fallout from the Biogenesis suspensions continues to be felt with A-Rod’s continuing soap opera, MLB finally got something right on the money with their expansion of instant replay. The details of what they’re doing can be found here, but the gist is:

  • Managers will be given one challenge for the first six innings of the game and two from the seventh inning on.
  • There will be no challenges on judgment calls such as balls and strikes, check swings and hit by pitches.
  • The plan was created with significant guidance from Joe Torre, Tony LaRussa and John Schuerholz.
  • The players, owners and umpires still have to approve it.

I think this is as close as MLB or any sports organizing body can come to getting it right. The arguments that have been presented against it are selfish and weak. Mike Francesa had callers complaining about it yesterday.

One said that he didn’t want to have to wait for a challenge to be upheld or rejected before celebrating if Derek Jeter hits a game-winning single to win game seven of the World Series. I don’t think he’s got anything to worry about regarding the scenario he presented considering that the Yankees aren’t making the playoffs and Jeter is building a lavish home on the disabled list. As far as the spontaneity, it’s far better than the umpire getting the call wrong and having a respectable career sullied for it as Don Denkinger did for his gaffe in the 1985 World Series between the Cardinals and Royals with the Cardinals losing their chance to win a title.

Another caller complained that the manager-umpire arguments wouldn’t be as prevalent or intense. I don’t think there will be that great a decrease in the number of ejections and probably slightly fewer arguments. If you watched Bobby Cox for his entire managerial career, you’ll know that the vast majority of his record number of ejections came as a result of arguing ball and strike calls. That’s not reviewable and will still be fodder for great debate until MLB takes the next logical step and implements a universal strike zone and forces the umpires to adhere to it. The human element will still be in baseball, but it won’t result in calls so badly blown that teams wind up losing because of them. The number of managers who put on a great show as Lou Piniella, Earl Weaver and Billy Martin used to are gone. And trust me, there will still be enough mistakes made that arguments will happen.

This system won’t take a lot of time, it won’t interfere with the game, and it will make the calls more accurate. It’s not 1960, 1980 or even 2000. Baseball was so resistant to the implementation of a logical replay system that they did nothing to contradict the reputation of the game as stuck in a different century—the 19th. The bottom line is that no matter what they did, there would be a percentage of people who would complain about it for its own sake. They’ve made the game better with this decision. That’s all that counts.

Now, to do something about getting the DH put into the National League. Then we’ll be in business.

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