NLDS Playoffs Preview and Predictions – Atlanta Braves vs. Los Angeles Dodgers

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Atlanta Braves (96-66) vs. Los Angeles Dodgers (92-70)

Keys for the Braves: Their young starting pitchers must handle the pressure; get the ball to Craig Kimbrel; hope that B.J. Upton continues his past playoff performances; don’t let etiquette get in the way.

Tim Hudson was lost for the year when his ankle was stepped on by Eric Young Jr. of the Mets. Paul Maholm was left off the division series roster entirely. That leaves the Braves with a preliminary starting rotation for the NLDS of Kris Medlen, Mike Minor, Julio Teheran and…Freddy Garcia(?). Yes. The Braves left Maholm off the roster in favor of Garcia. In truth, Garcia might actually be a better bet than Maholm. He’s got the experience and won’t be rattled, plus he pitched well in his time with the Braves. We’ll see if the Braves follow through with the decision if they’re down two games to one in Los Angeles.

For the record, I’d have started Teheran in the opening game.

The young pitchers have to pitch well. It sounds simplistic, but it’s true. The Braves offense is shaky and they’ve taken one of the primary home run hitters, Dan Uggla, off the roster in favor of Elliot Johnson. If they don’t get serviceable starting pitching, they’re not going to win.

Kimbrel is a machine in the closer’s role and the rest of the bullpen has been solid. One thing manager Fredi Gonzalez has truly improved upon is how he handles his relievers.

B.J. Upton found himself on the cover of Sports Illustrated along with his brother Justin Upton and Kate Upton. The only reason I can see for this is to sell a few more magazines because Kate Upton is on the cover. If that was the idea, then perhaps they should have put her in a bikini and had her lounging around the batting cage in various states of undress. Otherwise, you can download much racier images of her from the internet and not spend the money to get SI.

On the field, B.J. Upton had a history of doing well in the playoffs with the Rays when he had seven career homers in 25 post-season games. It was also B.J. who didn’t hustle on a double play ball in the World Series against the Phillies five years ago, so either or both of his on-field M.O. – the lazy player or the playoff masher – could show up.

I didn’t discuss this when it happened, but now is as good a time as any: precisely who do the Braves think they are? For the second time in September, the Braves got into a confrontation with the opposing team because of a breach of etiquette. First it was with the Marlins after pitcher Jose Fernandez homered and stood admiring it. The second was with Brewers’ outfielder Carlos Gomez for doing the same thing and yelled at Maholm as he was running around the bases. There was history between the two following a hit by pitcher earlier in the season. Freddie Freeman had a fit, Brian McCann intercepted Gomez before he got to the plate and gave him a loud, red-faced lecture and Reed Johnson took a swing at Gomez.

In both cases, for some inexplicable reason, the opposing teams and players apologized to the Braves.

Why?

This attitude is bringing back memories of the days before Chipper Jones became a respected and popular player throughout baseball and his mouth and overt love for himself made him one of the most reviled players in the game. The Braves of the 1990s were arrogant, condescending and obnoxious. It wasn’t done in a blustery, cocky way either. It was a smug, “we’re better bred than you” type of attitude you might see at Georgia Republican fundraiser where Newt Gingrich was the guest of honor.

Who elected them as keepers of etiquette? And why don’t they pull that stuff with a team like the Phillies who would tell them to go screw themselves if they did?

I’d like to see what the Braves are going to do if Yasiel Puig does a little showboating in the playoffs. Are they going to pull the same nonsense? If they do, someone’s going to get drilled because Zack Greinke doesn’t put up with that stuff and the Dodgers have a few tough guys of their own. Suffice it to say there won’t be an apology.

Keys for the Dodgers: Get good starting pitching; hand the game straight to Kenley Jansen; don’t change their game plan.

With Clayton Kershaw, Greinke an Hyun-Jin Ryu in the first three games of the series, the Dodgers have a distinct advantage over their younger counterparts. Kershaw has been all-but unhittable; Greinke not far behind; and Ryu is the type of pitcher who shines in the post-season with his crafty lefty stuff. All three are mean and all three will only have to worry about certain segments of the Braves lineup.

The Dodgers set-up men have been inconsistent, but their closer is dominating. It’s important to get depth from the starters and try to hand it right over to Jansen.

There has been concern about the potency of the Dodgers’ offense because Matt Kemp is out and Andre Ethier is hurting. It’s not something to worry about. They have enough power with Puig, Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez and Juan Uribe, a player who has hit some big homers in the post-season. They shouldn’t worry about making up for the power that’s missing. They have enough to get by.

What will happen:

The Braves clearly looked at the pluses and minuses of playing Uggla at second base. He’s become like Carlos Pena without the defense. He either hits a home run, walks or strikes out and is a defensive liability. With both Uggla and B.J. Upton batting under .200 this season, much has been made of the combined amounts of money they’re making – over $25 million in 2013 – for that dreadful production. Suffice it to say that if the Braves didn’t win and hadn’t been so adept at developing prospects, GM Frank Wren would have a lot to answer for.

Johnson isn’t a particularly strong defensive second baseman either and he doesn’t hit much. This says more about Uggla at this juncture than it does about Johnson. It’s a risky move to pull and if the other bats don’t hit, they’re going to regret it.

What it comes down to for the Braves is if the Upton brothers hit and Jason Heyward is completely recovered from his beaning. The Braves are notoriously vulnerable to lefties and the Dodgers have two lefty starters and two lefties in the bullpen.

Ramirez has been on a mission this season; Gonzalez is back to the player he was before he joined the Red Sox; Puig is the kind of player who might use the post-season as his grand stage and hit five homers in the series; and the Dodgers starting pitching is simply better.

The Braves have too many holes in the lineup, too many vulnerabilities, too many questions surrounding their young starters and too much animosity has been built up against them throughout baseball for a veteran team like the Dodgers to back down.

The Dodgers will send the Braves back to charm school.

PREDICTION: DODGERS IN FOUR




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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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We Get It: Mike Francesa Demands Justin Morneau

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Ignoring multiple realities save for the ones that exist only in his mind, Mike Francesa is clinging to the farfetched notions that:

a)    The Twins will just give Justin Morneau up in a salary dump

b)   They’ll give him to the Yankees before offering him around the league

c)    The Yankees have the prospects to get Morneau now

d)   The Yankees will surrender the prospects to get Morneau

Yet he clings to the prayer from a desert island that the ship off in the distance will see his persistent waving; that the plane hovering in the sky will spot and explore his abandoned outpost; that the “Yankee magic” steeped from the historical foundation of, “Da Yankees want, dere-fore da Yankees get,” will hold true in spite of the reality of other factors: money; that other clubs have no choice in trading players to a club willing to absorb the salaries; that players wanted to go to the Yankees because the Yankees were prohibitive preseason favorites.

It’s not magic. It’s not history. It was because of factors no longer in existence or not relevant in this particular instance.

You can hear one of Francesa’s delusional Morneau rants here on Bobs Blitz. It was right after Mark Teixeira’s injury and could have been chalked up to the panic of the moment, trying to find an escape route from the prison or appeal on the conviction before acceptance of the circumstance set in.

But he’s still at it.

I’d understand if there was a basis for this Morneau obsession, i.e. the Twins making clear that they’re looking to trade him just to get out from under the $14 million salary for 2013, but I have not seen a rumor, a story or anything else from even the schlockiest of schlock sites, the trollingest of trolls saying that this is the case. I’d also understand if Morneau was presented as a faceless example of the type of player the Yankees should pursue, but Francesa’s not coming up with other names, nor is he providing well-thought-out analysis as to whom the Yankees could give the Twins to make it worth their while to trade Morneau before the season starts when the Twins are also trying to put forth the pretense of competitiveness, at least at the outset of the season.

On Twitter, a close follower and analyst of the Twins Brandon Warne said to me that he wouldn’t be surprised if the Twins not only kept Morneau for the season, but signed him to a contract to stay. Brandon’s dialed in on how the Twins think and is right. Regardless of the clear reasoning to deal Morneau and open a spot at first base for Joe Mauer, the Twins sometimes do things like that even if they don’t appear to make any sense. When they were winning, it was the “Twins Way.” Now that they’re losing it’s “stupid.” Neither assessment is any more accurate than the other, it just is.

If the Yankees were looking for the type of player that Francesa is insisting Morneau is now—a veteran with a terrible team looking to dump salary just to get money off the books—they’d go to the Astros and try to get Carlos Pena; they’d approach the Rockies about Chris Nelson and move Kevin Youkilis to first base; they’d come up with something reasonable and doable. “Reasonable” and “doable” are not categories in which Morneau fits.

Other unavailable names that have been bandied about by desperate Yankees fans and apologists are Garrett Jones and Billy Butler. Jones is gettable from the Pirates, but the days of the Pirates handing their lunch money over to the bullying Yankees are over; Butler is a star hitter who most fans are entirely unaware of how good he is and the Royals aren’t moving him.

Here’s a flash that maybe you’ll get if I capitalize it: THESE PLAYERS ARE NOT AVAILABLE FOR THE SCRAPS THE YANKEES ARE WILLING TO GIVE UP!!!!

If the Yankees were to surrender Gary Sanchez, Slade Heathcott, Jose Campos, even David Robertson or the rehabbing Manny Banuelos, yes, they can get someone to fill in at first base. But they’re not doing that. Accept it.

Also accept this: the Yankees are currently a mess. They want to lower payroll and won’t give up any prospects to improve in the moment. Brian Cashman clung to Eduardo Nunez in trade talks for veteran help like Cliff Lee in 2010, proclaiming him “untouchable,” but is now refusing to make the simplest and most obvious decision and let Nunez play third base and move Youkilis to first, basically saying that Nunez isn’t that good.

He was so good that he was untouchable a year ago but, now they’re implying he can’t play regularly simultaneous to insulting the intelligence of any sane person who’s ever seen Nunez play shortstop by saying, “We see him as a shortstop.” Where? On Mars? He’s so great a prospect that he can’t be traded, but not good enough to actually play at third? Left field? First base? Somewhere?

The reality is setting in everywhere but at 1:00 PM EST on WFAN in New York, where the Yankees are still able to demand that other clubs hand over what the Yankees want. Just because they’re the Yankees.

It doesn’t work that way anymore and truth be told, it never really did.

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2013 Astros Will Be A Pennant Race Factor

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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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The 2012 Athletics Are A Great Story That Has Nothing To Do With Moneyball

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Going to Michael Lewis for a quote about the 2012 Oakland Athletics because he wrote Moneyball as the author does in this NY Times article is like going to Stephen King for a quote on time travel and the Kennedy assassination because he wrote a novel about time travel and the Kennedy assassination. Lewis’s book was technically non-fiction and King’s is decidedly fiction, but the “facts” in Lewis’s book were designed to take everything Billy Beane was doing to take advantage of market inefficiencies and magnify them into an infallibility and new template that only a fool wouldn’t follow.

Lewis had an end in mind and crafted his story about the 2002 Athletics and baseball sabermetrics to meet that end. It’s not journalism, it’s creative non-fiction. Beane went along with it, became famous, and very rich. None of that validates the genesis of the puffery.

The intervening years from Moneyball’s publication to today were not kind to Beane or to the story…until 2012. The movie’s success notwithstanding, it was rife with inaccuracies, omissions, and outright fabrications such as:

  • Art Howe’s casual dismissal of Beane’s demands as if it was Howe who was in charge and not Beane
  • The portrayal of Jeremy Brown not as a chunky catcher, but an individual so close to morbidly obese that he needed to visit Richard Simmons, pronto
  • The failure to mention the three pitchers Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito
  • That Scott Hatteberg’s playing time was a point of contention and Beane traded Carlos Pena to force Howe’s hand to play Hatteberg—Hatteberg was still learning first base and wasn’t playing defense, but he was in the lineup almost every day as the DH from day one

There are other examples and it wasn’t a mistake. The book was absurd, the movie was exponentially absurd, and there are still people who refuse to look at the facts before replacing the genius hat on Beane’s head as “proof” of the veracity of Lewis’s tale.

This 2012 version of the Athletics is Beane’s rebuild/retool number five (by my count) since 2003. The Moneyball club was blown apart and quickly returned to contention by 2006 when they lost in the ALCS. That team too was ripped to shreds and the A’s traded for youngsters, signed veterans, traded veterans, signed veterans, traded for youngsters and finished far out of the money in the American League from 2007-2011.

Then they cleared out the house again and are now in the playoffs. It has no connection with Moneyball nor the concept of Beane finding undervalued talent. It has to do with the young players succeeding, as the article linked above says, and winning “in a hurry”.

Let’s look at the facts and assertions from the book/movie followed by the truth:

The A’s, under Beane, were “card-counters” in the draft

The only players on this Athletics’ team that were acquired via the draft and have helped the club are Jemile Weeks, Cliff Pennington, Sean Doolittle (drafted as a first baseman and converted to the mound), Dan Straily, and A.J. Griffin. The A’s drafts since Moneyball have been mediocre at best and terrible at worst, so bad that Grady Fuson—along with Howe, one of the old-school “villains” in Moneyball—was brought back to the organization as special assistant to the GM.

The hidden truth about the draft is that the boss of the organization probably pays attention to the first 8-10 rounds at most. After that, it’s the scouts and cross-checkers who make the decisions and any player taken past the 10th round who becomes a success is a matter of being lucky with late development, a position switch, a quirky pitch, or some other unquantifiable factor. Beane’s “new age” picks like Brown, Steve Stanley, and Ben Fritz, didn’t make it. The conventional selections Nick Swisher and Joe Blanton did make it, were paid normal bonuses of over $1 million, in line with what other players drafted in their slot area received. Brown received $350,000 as the 35th pick in the first round and his signing was contingent on accepting it.

Beane “fleeced” other clubs in trades

In retrospect, he took advantage of the Red Sox desperation to have a “proven” closer, Andrew Bailey, to replace the departed Jonathan Papelbon. Bailey got hurt and, last night, showed why it wasn’t his injury that ruined the Red Sox season. He’s not particularly good. Josh Reddick has 32 homers—power and inexpensive youthful exuberance the Red Sox could have used in 2012.

The other deals he made last winter? They were of mutual benefit. The A’s were looking to restart their rebuild and slash salary waiting out the decision on whether they’re going to get permission to build a new park in San Jose. They sent their erstwhile ace Trevor Cahill to the Diamondbacks for a large package of young talent with Collin Cowgill, Ryan Cook, and Jarrod Parker. They also traded Gio Gonzalez to the Nationals for even more young talent including Tommy Milone and Derek Norris. The Diamondbacks got 200 innings and good work (that hasn’t shown up in his 13-12 record) from Cahill and are also-rans; the Nationals got brilliance from Gonzalez and won their division. The A’s slashed payroll and their young players, as the article says, developed rapidly.

Sometimes it works as it did with this series of trades, sometimes it doesn’t as with the failed return on the Hudson trade to the Braves in 2004.

They found undervalued talent

Yes. We know that Moneyball wasn’t strictly about on-base percentage. It was about “undervalued talent” and opportunity due to holes in the market. That argument has come and gone. Was Yoenis Cespedes “undervalued”? He was paid like a free agent and joined the A’s because they offered the most money and the longest contract. He was a supremely gifted risk whose raw skills have helped the A’s greatly and bode well for a bright future. The other signings/trades—Jonny Gomes, Bartolo Colon, Seth Smith, Brandon Inge, Brandon Moss—were prayerful maneuvers based on what was available for money the A’s could afford. They contributed to this club on and off the field.

Grant Balfour was signed before 2011 because the A’s again thought they were ready to contend and all they needed was to bolster the bullpen. They’d also signed Brian Fuentes to close. Fuentes was an expensive disaster whom they released earlier this year; Balfour was inconsistent, lost his closer’s job, wanted to be traded, regained the job, and is pitching well.

The manager is an irrelevant figurehead

Howe was slandered in Moneyball the book as an incompetent buffoon along for the ride and slaughtered in the movie as an arrogant, insubordinate jerk. What’s ironic is that the manager hired at mid-season 2011, Bob Melvin, is essentially the same personality as Howe!!! An experienced manager who’d had success in his past, Melvin replaced the overmatched Bob Geren, who just so happened to be one of Beane’s closest friends and was fired, according to Beane, not because of poor results, managing and communication skills, but because speculation about his job security had become a distraction.

Melvin and Howe share the common trait of a laid back, easygoing personality that won’t scare young players into making mistakes. Melvin’s calm demeanor and solid skills of handling players and game situations was exactly what the A’s needed and precisely what Moneyball said was meaningless.

The 2012 Athletics are a great story; Moneyball was an interesting story, but they only intersect when Beane’s “genius” from the book and movie melds with this season’s confluence of events and produces another convenient storyline that, in fact, has nothing at all to do with reality.

The A’s are going to the playoffs and might win the division over the Rangers and Angels, two teams that spent a combined $170 million more in player salaries than the A’s did. It’s a terrific life-lesson that it’s not always about money, but it has zero to do with Moneyball and Michael Lewis is an unwanted interloper as the Beane chronicler since he knows nothing about baseball and is a callous opportunist who took advantage of a situation for his own benefit.

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Off Season Winners In Retrospect

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Let’s look at the teams whose off-season moves are paying off so far in 2012.

Tampa Bay Rays:

Acquired:  Jose Molina, Hideki Matsui, Luke Scott, Carlos Pena, Fernando Rodney

Subtracted: Johnny Damon, Kelly Shoppach, Casey Kotchman, Juan Cruz, John Jaso

The Rays did what the Rays always do. They cut out the players that were getting too expensive or had been signed as a short-term veteran stopgaps and replaced them with youngsters or other veteran stopgaps.

Molina hasn’t hit; Pena is doing what Pena does with a low batting average, good on base percentage and power; Rodney has been brilliant. None of the players they dispatched—Damon, Shoppach, Kotchman, Cruz, Jaso—have been missed or are doing much with their new teams.

Baltimore Orioles

Acquired: GM Dan Duquette, Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, Matt Lindstrom, Wilson Betemit

Subtracted: GM Andy MacPhail, Jeremy Guthrie, Luke Scott, Vladimir Guerrero

The Orioles have played over their heads but Dan Duquette got rid of Guthrie and acquired Hammel and Lindstrom who are under team control and have pitched well. Chen has been very good.

Chicago White Sox

Acquired: Manager Robin Ventura, Kosuke Fukudome

Subtracted: Manager Ozzie Guillen, Mark Buehrle, Sergio Santos, Carlos Quentin, Juan Pierre

Getting rid of the volcanic and tiresome personality of Guillen and replacing it with the laid back Ventura has been exactly what the White Sox needed. They cleared salary by getting rid of veterans Buehrle, Quentin and Pierre. They’re not as good as they look right now, but the AL Central is wide open and they have enough starting pitching to stay in the hunt. They underachieved horribly in recent years under Guillen and are overachieving now under Ventura.

Texas Rangers

Acquired Yu Darvish, Joe Nathan

Subtracted: C.J. Wilson, Darren Oliver, Endy Chavez, Matt Treanor

Darvish has been as brilliant as I expected. Nathan is having a good season. They haven’t missed Wilson on or off the field.

Seattle Mariners

Acquired: Jesus Montero, Hector Noesi, John Jaso

Subtracted: Michael Pineda, Josh Lueke, David Aardsma, Jose Campos

For Michael Pineda (disabled list), Jose Campos (hot prospect and on the disabled list), the Mariners got a top hitting prospect in Jesus Montero who’s still finding his way and showing flashes of immense power and a young starting pitcher who’s also learning his craft in the big leagues in Noesi. They got rid of the troublesome Lueke for Jaso who’s been contributing big hits of late.

Oakland Athletics

Acquired: Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Reddick, Collin Cowgill, Bartolo Colon, Jonny Gomes, Ryan Cook, Jarrod Parker, Tom Milone, Seth Smith, Kila Ka’aihue, Manny Ramirez

Subtracted: Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, Andrew Bailey, David DeJesus, Josh Willingham, Ryan Sweeney

Reddick has 14 home runs and is heading for the All Star Game. Cespedes was a silly signing for a team like the A’s, but there’s no denying his talent. We’ll see what Manny does and the young pitchers Millone and Parker are high-end arms.

Washington Nationals

Acquired: Gio Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson, Ryan Perry, Mark DeRosa, Brad Lidge

Subtracted: Ivan Rodriguez, Todd Coffey, Jonny Gomes

Gonzalez has been terrific across the board and might deserve to start the All Star Game. Jackson has been consistent despite not accumulating wins.

Miami Marlins

Acquired: Manager Ozzie Guillen, Carlos Zambrano, Jose Reyes, Heath Bell, Mark Buehrle

Subtracted: Javier Vazquez, Chris Volstad, Clay Hensley, Burke Badenhop

Zambrano showed up in shape, has kept his temper in check and is showing why the Cubs gave him that contract in the first place (the majority of which they’re paying for him to pitch for the Marlins). Reyes is getting hot and Buehrle is a leader off the field and innings-eater on it. Bell’s been a disaster, but it pitching better lately.

Guillen was hired to draw attention and he did so negatively when he started trouble almost immediately with his idiotic comments praising Fidel Castro. Jeffrey Loria is under investigation for the stadium deal and looked silly using Muhammad Ali as a human shield to protect himself from getting booed at the regular season opener of the new stadium, but apart from Bell they’re getting what they paid for for the most part.

San Francisco Giants

Acquired: Melky Cabrera, Angel Pagan, Clay Hensley, Gregor Blanco

Subtracted: Carlos Beltran, Jonathan Sanchez, Andres Torres, Ramon Ramirez, Pat Burrell, Cody Ross

Cabrera’s not going to maintain this pace, but he’s still a good player and they got him for Sanchez who’s been hurt and had worn out his welcome with the Giants. Pagan is batting .314 with 10 stolen bases and has contributed several big hits to go along with his usual array of space cadet maneuvers. Blanco and Hensley have been solid, cheap pickups off the scrapheap.

Arizona Diamondbacks

Acquired: Trevor Cahill, Jason Kubel, Craig Breslow

Subtracted: Micah Owings, Ryan Cook, Collin Cowgill, Jarrod Parker

The Diamondbacks are struggling because they’re not getting the same above-and-beyond performances from the players that carried them to a stunning division title in 2011. That doesn’t diminish the work that Cahill, Kubel and Breslow have done. If the Diamondbacks don’t right the ship, it won’t be because of the players they acquired over the winter.

Los Angeles Dodgers

Acquired: Chris Capuano, Jerry Hairston Jr., Mark Ellis, Aaron Harang, Matt Treanor

Subtracted: Jon Garland, Jonathan Broxton, Jamey Carroll, Hiroki Kuroda, Casey Blake, Rod Barajas, Vicente Padilla

Capuano is pitching about 20 miles over his head; Hairston is hitting about 20 miles over his head; Ellis and Harang are respected, under-the-radar veterans.

The Dodgers didn’t spend a lot of money this past winter, but are getting far more than they paid for.

Off season losers and incompletes will be in forthcoming postings.

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American League East Predicted Standings

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American League East Predicted Standings:

1. New York Yankees                        94       68         —

2. Toronto Blue Jays                         87       75           7

3. Tampa Bay Rays                            85       77           9

4. Boston Red Sox                             81       81          13

5. Baltimore Orioles                           65       97          29

New York Yankees

The Yankees benefited greatly from the lack of decisively bold movements and drastic improvements of their rivals. While they’re repeating prior mistakes with paranoia and pitcher-babying, they have the offense, abundance of starting pitching and deep bullpen to again rise to the top of the division.

The bench is something that will have to be addressed as the season moves along because Eric Chavez and Andruw Jones aren’t suitable backups regardless of the Yankees’ propaganda machine unequivocally stating that they are.

Expect Alex Rodriguez to have a comeback season and hope that the overwhelming pressure they’re putting on Michael Pineda doesn’t haunt them.

Toronto Blue Jays

The Blue Jays needed a name arm or a name bat to be a preseason favorite and didn’t get either.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that they can’t contend; it means that they’re going to have to get big seasons from young players Brett Lawrie, Yunel Escobar and Henderson Alvarez. Sergio Santos must prove he can close for a full season and throw strikes; Brandon Morrow has to develop into a trustworthy top-tier starter without restrictions.

I picked Jose Bautista as the AL MVP.

Tampa Bay Rays

Again forced to scrounge around the bargain bins, they reunited with Carlos Pena to increase their power at first base. The Rays have been good and lucky in finding bullpen arms who fit into their system and rejuvenate stalled careers—running a club that way is rife with risks that eventually it’s not going to work.

B.J. Upton will play like a maniac all season as he heads for free agency.

With their young starting pitching, they could make it to the World Series or falter and be out of contention to put such stars as Upton, James Shields and David Price in play for a trade at mid-season.

I’ve got them somewhere in the middle.

Boston Red Sox

It’s chaos.

Who’s running things?

Is there any cohesion between John Henry, Larry Lucchino, Ben Cherington and Bobby Valentine?

At least when Theo Epstein was there—like it or not—you knew there was one person mostly in charge; now with Theo gone and Lucchino grasping for power; Henry providing self-protectionist alibis; Cherington marginalized; and Bobby V being…Bobby V, there are going to be voices, whispers, Machiavellian power plays and rampant dysfunction the likes which have not been seen in Boston since 2001.

Are they making the types of moves that laid the foundation of their annual championship contending teams from 2003-2010 or are they desperately trying to patch holes and find “name” people to replace the “name” people who are gone?

I like Valentine, but his polarizing personality can go both ways. The Red Sox starting rotation is short and they have black spots in their lineup at shortstop, right field and possibly catcher.

It’s a time bomb with Valentine and Josh Beckett.

Baltimore Orioles

I don’t hear much about Buck Showalter’s status as a miracle worker after the team came apart last season.

Following a hot start, they reverted to being the Orioles of the past 15 years.

Dan Duquette has received unfair criticism and there’s a lack of context in the good work he did as the Expos’ and Red Sox’ GM, but a lack of talent is a lack of talent; an impossible division is an impossible division; and until they develop their young arms and stick to a strategy for the long term, there’s not much that will change in Baltimore.

Duquette must be allowed to take the marketable players—notably Nick Markakis and Adam Jones—and see what types of offers he can get for them to replenish the system with multiple players. They’re not going to do the Orioles any good as Orioles.

Far more in depth analysis is in my book, Paul Lebowitz’s 2012 Baseball Guide, now available.

Click here for a full sample of team predictions/projections. My book can be purchased on KindleSmashwordsBN and Lulu with other outlets on the way.

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Oscars Invitations—Lost In the Mail

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With Billy Beane attending the Oscars to support Brad Pitt and Moneyball and their nominations—link—I thought it would be appropriate to suggest some other characters from the book and film who should be asked to attend. Without them, there would be no story.

Art Howe

The epitome of insubordinate and self-interested evil who refused to adapt to the changing times by adhering to numbers and outright ignored his boss’s entreaties to play Scott Hatteberg.

Except Howe did play Hatteberg—just not at first base.

If you look at the facts (a novel concept they are, FACTS!!!), Hatteberg was in the lineup almost every day as the DH because he was new to first base and Carlos Pena was a Gold Glove caliber fielder.

Check this link if you’re actually invested in the Hatteberg/Howe truth.

The climactic scene in which Hatterberg homered to help the A’s win their 20th straight game was a scheduled day off; the circumstances are detailed in the book!

Mark Mulder/Barry Zito/Tim Hudson

Private detectives might have to be dispatched to find them since they were mysteriously absent from the film version of Moneyball and only mentioned in passing in the book.

Having three All-Star/Cy Young Award caliber starting pitchers is kinda important to analyzing the construction of a winning team.

Jeremy Brown

An armrest would have to be ripped from the seats in the theater to fit the morbidly obese film version of Brown into them.

The real Brown was bulky and not fat.

In a clever bit of double entendre, Brown could make a great show of walking to his seat.

Walking.

Walks.

Get it?

Sandy Alderson

Alderson’s Twitter account is rife with deadpan comedic musings.

Even if the audience needs the jokes explained to them, he’ll still be funnier than Billy Crystal.

Paul DePodesta

With his reputation tattered by the implication of the computer loving stat geek and saddled with the moniker “Google Boy”; having gone to the Dodgers and, in a career-kamikaze fashion (don’t blame Frank McCourt), trashed the team by adhering to the principles of stat based team building resulting in inevitable destruction, he replenished his image as a respected assistant with the Padres and Mets and smartly removed his name from the film before it did any more damage.

Jonah Hill

He should be lambasted for inflicting the unwatchable cartoon Allen Gregory on an unsuspecting public.

And I want the fat Jonah Hill, not this new skinny one.

Keith Law and Michael Lewis

In the pretentious, hackneyed and self-indulgent world of Hollywood, even the Oscar attendees might walk out at the rampant egomania of the toxic combination of Lewis and Law.

Stick them in a steel cage and let them fight it out. It won’t be a feud on a pro wrestling level with Superfly Snuka vs Bob Backlund or Ric Flair vs Dusty Rhodes, but I know I’d watch.

I’d probably hold my nose and root for Lewis.

Probably.

Me

The stat guys, celebrating their victorious revolution and—in spite of Moneyball being shut out at the Oscars (it’s not going to win anything)—enjoy their moments in the spotlight and bask in the adulation and validation.

Then I arrive and make my presence…felt.

Beane’s attendance at the Oscars is a start.

But my version will make it pure perfection.

Genius in fact.

GENIUS!!!!!!!

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Beware the Rejuvenated Rays’ Castoffs

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The Orioles are said to be considering signing Casey Kotchman.

What they’re going to do with him is a mystery since they just signed Wilson Betemit, have Mark Reynolds and Chris Davis for first and third base. None are defensively adept at any of the positions although Reynolds occasionally makes a spectacular play to make it appear as if he’s better than he is. It’s similar to a weekend in which he’ll hit 6 home runs—many of the “ooh” and “ahh” variety in distance and hangtime to make it appear as if he’s better than he is. Then he reverts to hitting .200 and striking out every 2.6 at bats.

Kotchman is a very good defensive first baseman and had his career year at the plate for the Rays in 2011 with a slash line of .306/.378/.422 and .800 OPS.

That’s what should concern any team making a serious investment in Kotchman.

Considering the lateness of the date and that spring training is approaching along with the availability of better hitters on the market like Derrek Lee, it’s doubtful the Orioles or anyone else is going to overpay for Kotchman, but a team considering a former player for the Rays who had his best season with the Rays needs to examine history and look at the decline of Jason BartlettScott KazmirRafael SorianoAkinori Iwamura and just about every scrounged screapheap salvaged detritus from their patched together bullpen who’s been used for a brief time and dispatched only to revert to the performance that led them to winding up on the scrapheap to begin with. Sometimes, as with Lance Cormier and Carlos Pena, they wind up back with the Rays.

Is Kotchman as good as he was in 2011?

History proves he’s not. Even when he was at his best with the Angels and Braves in 2007-2008, he wasn’t a force at the plate. He was useful if surrounded by a few power bats and has always been a good fielder, but teams tend to want better power production from first base than what Kotchman provided. If they can make up for it in other areas, then fine; but setting a limit on the amount of money they’re willing to pay Kotchman is a wise move.

Was the issue with his eyes that Kotchman referenced in this NY Times piece and its repair the genesis of his struggles in 2009-2010?

Clearly.

But that doesn’t make a Rays’ castoff any more of a guarantee to continue the work he did with the Rays as he reestablished his value. They seem to know which way the wind is about to blow and how to judge a player and determine whether he’s “figured it out” or is enjoying his career years in Tampa. That’s a reason for interested teams to look at these players with a jaundiced eye and wonder if they’re getting the pre-Rays or post-Rays player and if they’ll be overpaying to do it.

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Manager Of The Year Cannibalism

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The Manager of the Year voting is the most imprecise of all the MLB awards. There are no stats for managers so it’s a complete judgment call. The majority of the time, it goes to the manager whose team overachieves and not the manager who does the best job.

Naturally it’s subjective, but the end result winds up being cannibalistic. This is a convenient comparison to make since most of the mainstream writers appear to be the evil and unwanted offspring of the C.H.U.D. (Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers).

Joe Maddon deserved to win the Manager of the Year award in the American League, but had his Rays not had that searing hot streak over the last month of the season to overtake the Red Sox for the Wild Card, my pick would’ve been Joe Girardi of the Yankees.

You can see my award winners here.

Girardi did an underappreciated and fantastic job with the Yankees this season, but came in fifth.

His pitching staff was short in the starting rotation and he and pitching coach Larry Rothschild got cheap, above-and-beyond production out of veterans Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia; they nursed along a rookie, Ivan Nova; and endured A.J. Burnett without strangling him. In the bullpen, Rafael Soriano was an injured and terribly performing nuisance; and Pedro Feliciano never threw a pitch for the team.

Giradi also navigated the difficulties of a declining megastar—Alex Rodriguez; a pair of aging and record-setting stars—Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter; and a near implosive collision with an irascible borderline Hall of Fame catcher with whom Girardi always had and presumably always will have a contentious relationship, Jorge Posada.

He handled it all and brought the Yankees home at 97 wins and an unexpected division title.

Because the Yankees have a $200 million payroll, there’s little attention given to the job the manager does; he gets the blame when things go wrong and nearly no credit when things go right.

This is where the cannibalism comes in.

Because the Rays lost their entire bullpen from a year ago; Matt Garza was traded; Carlos Pena departed as a free agent; and Manny Ramirez retired early in the season, Maddon had a lot on his desk to sift through and maintain respectability. He did.

The media at large tends to judge a manager on how the team was expected to perform…in the view of the media.

So if a voting writer picks the Yankees to win the division and they do, then Girardi isn’t going to get the credit for how it was achieved.

It’s a self-appraisal that has nothing to do with the manager’s work.

And it’s not the way to vote.

But what can you expect from a C.H.U.D.?

I suggest you be happy that they don’t drool on you and hope for the best.

Below is the C.H.U.D. trailer. The movie looks pretty bad, but then, so are most mainstream writers.

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