Keys to 2013: Cleveland Indians

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Starting Pitching Key: Ubaldo Jimenez

Usually when there’s a big trade of youth for an established veteran the trade can be judged within a year-and-a-half. Sometimes that judgment is floating and interchangeable. The problem with most deals is that there’s an immediate reaction of a “winner” and a “loser” before any of the players even get their uniforms on.

For the Rockies and Indians, who completed a big trade in the summer of 2011 with Jimenez going to the Indians for a package of youngsters including Drew Pomeranz, Alex White, Matt McBride and Joe Gardner, there has yet to be a payoff for either side.

For the Rockies, if Pomeranz doesn’t develop, the trade will be a disaster. I think he will, but he hasn’t yet. White was traded to the Astros; McBride is about to turn 28 and has the looks of a 4-A player. Gardner’s mechanics make him an arm injury waiting to happen; if he doesn’t get hurt, he’s a reliever.

It can be seen as the Indians didn’t give up much of anything for a former All-Star and third place finisher in the Cy Young Award voting, but now that they’re looking to contend, they need the Jimenez from 2010 or, at worst, 2009. He’s been awful from 2011 onward with an attitude to match and his ERA has risen by over 3 ½  runs since the end of June 2010 while his velocity has declined by 4-5 mph. Nobody’s expecting him to keep up an ERA under two, but over five? 92-94 is plenty enough fastball to be effective. He has a club option for 2014 at $8 million that he can void himself since he was traded mid-contract. If he’s as bad as he was over the past two seasons, the Indians will trade him at mid-season or sever ties after the season.

Relief Pitching Key: Chris Perez

Perez’s complaints about the Indians fans not caring and the front office not spending any money were assuaged this past winter, but he has to hold his end of the bargain up by getting the job done in the ninth inning. The Indians are better than they were, but they’re not good enough to afford blowing games in the late innings. To make matters more precarious, Perez’s status for opening day is in question because of a shoulder strain. He could also be traded if the Indians are underperforming and Vinnie Pestano indicates he can handle the job.

Offensive Key: Carlos Santana

For all the talk of Santana being an offensive force and the Dodgers making a huge mistake by trading him to get Casey Blake, he’s been something of a disappointment. Santana’s productive, but not the unstoppable masher he was supposed to be. If he’s able to be a competent defensive catcher then his current offensive numbers are fine; if he has to be shifted to first base, he’s a guy you can find on the market.

Defensive Key: Santana

Whether or not the Indians have the depth to contend is not known yet. I don’t think they do. Regardless with the new manager and the money they’ve spent, they have to be competent and that hinges on the pitching. The starting rotation behind Justin Masterson and Brett Myers are temperamental (Jimenez); young, difficult and have already yapped their way out of one venue (Trevor Bauer); and are scrapheap reclamation projects (Daisuke Matsuzaka and Scott Kazmir). Manager Terry Francona might look at Santana’s defense and realize he can’t win with him behind the plate. Santana at first base would make everyone else move to a different position and force a far weaker offensive catcher into the lineup in Santana’s place.

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The Lessons of Bryan LaHair

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If ever there was a player today that exemplified the remaining need for legitimate scouts who can watch a player and notice subtle, imperceptible weaknesses and holes to exploit, it’s Bryan LaHair. LaHair was a revelation in the first half of the 2012 season after spending nine years in the minors and made the All-Star team, but now the Cubs have designated him for assignment and removed him from their 40-man roster so he can sign with the SoftBank Hawks in Japan.

LaHair put up power and good on base numbers as a minor leaguer culminating with 38 homers and a 1.070 OPS in 2011 with the Cubs Triple A affiliate in Iowa. Before 2012, he only received a limited stay with the Mariners in 2008 when he had a .250/.315/.346 split with 3 homers in 150 plate appearances. LaHair was one of those “if only he got a chance” players about whom outsiders speculated what he would be, what he could be if he were given that opportunity.

Like most players with the limited positives of homers and walks, who can’t really play defense, who are trapped in the minor leagues, there’s a reason for it. It might be something off the field such as an attitude problem; he might be blocked by a better, more lucratively paid established major leaguer; or it might be that the club knows a little more than someone studying the numbers does and realizes that the longer that particular player plays in the big leagues, the more likely his flaws are to be exposed. There’s never been any evidence of LaHair being an off-field problem; he played for the Mariners and Cubs organizations for his whole career, so he wasn’t exactly blocked by Albert Pujols. So where does that leave us? It leaves us with the truth. And the truth about a player like this is that he has some use, but if he’s expected to be an everyday player and produce, the pitchers will figure him out.

The Cubs gave LaHair the job as their first baseman to start the season in part because the front office presumably knew how bad the team was going to be and that Anthony Rizzo: A) needed more minor league seasoning; and B) they wanted to delay the start of Rizzo’s free agency/arbitration clock stagnant.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but the Cubs may have made the mistake of buying into his strong first half that culminated in an All-Star Game appearance when they should’ve traded him for something they would be able to use in the future. LaHair’s hot start (5 homers and a 1.251 OPS in the first month) began to decline in May, plummeted in June, and came completely undone in July and onward to the end of the season. He did make the All-Star team, but one has to wonder whether that was a byproduct of being a “cool” story of a forever minor leaguer making the All-Star team.

Rizzo was recalled on June 26th and LaHair was moved to the outfield, so the Cubs knew to a degree what was what with LaHair. Here’s the reality: LaHair is a player who can’t hit lefties; is a bad defensive first baseman and a worse defensive outfielder; is now 30; strikes out a lot; and has nowhere to play.

This isn’t a random occurrence of a player who “deserved” an extended look in the majors after impressive work in the minor leagues. For every Casey Blake who played well in the minors and didn’t get his shot until he was 29 and once he did, played as well in the majors as he did in the minors. Nor is it an R.A. Dickey story of a player who changed who he was and demolished preconceived notions hindering him. The preconceived notions about Dickey pre-knuckleball weren’t notions, they were accurate. He was awful.

LaHair is what he was. Stories like his are all over the place. Russ Morman; Mike Hessman; Roberto Petagine—players who kept getting signed because they were experienced professionals who could fill in as an interchangeable part for a brief period—the key word being brief—and do a couple of useful things for that short timeframe and then go back down to the minors or, do as LaHair is doing and go to Japan to make some serious money before getting too old.

The story has ended predictably with LaHair being designated for assignment by the Cubs and essentially outsourced to Japan. What’s surprising is that people are surprised; that the Cubs—with a smart but not infallible front office led by Theo Epstein—didn’t deal him and now are getting nothing for him aside from perhaps a life-lesson to trust their eyes rather than the numbers as a bottom-line indicator of what a player is because many times, he isn’t.

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The Red Sox-Dodgers Trade, Part III—Ned Colletti’s Style On A Larger Scale

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Because Frank McCourt is gone and the Dodgers have a new ownership that’s going all, all, all out to win by taking on massive contracts, players whose reputations had diminished to nothing, and the injured, it’s seen as a change in strategy from the past. Those who believe this nonsense are parachuting in with a perception based on nothing since they don’t know the history and didn’t bother to engage in the simple act of fact-checking of Ned Colletti’s tenure as Dodgers’ GM.

Even when he was functioning under the disarray of McCourt, he was free with money and prospects operating under the mandated parameters from ownership. If the Dodgers were straddling the line of contender and also-ran, he erred on the side of aggression and brought in veteran players to try and win. You can read about Colletti’s trades here. The difference between then and now is that he has more flexibility to take on money. He exercised that flexibility by agreeing to this gigantic trade with the Red Sox in which the Dodgers acquired Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford and Nick Punto for James Loney, Allen Webster, Ivan De Jesus Jr., Jerry Sands and Rubby De La Rosa.

It’s indicative of Colletti’s style and is not a simplistic “take veterans and take money for young players and ignore the future.” If you examine Colletti’s past, he’s never given up any prospects that are regrettable and would be redone if he had the opportunity.

To get Casey Blake, he gave up Carlos Santana, but apart from that he’s never given up anything of note. He was ripped for giving up Santana in that deal’s immediate aftermath, but Santana is a poor defensive catcher whose future is likely to be first base—at first base, he’s a replaceable part. Blake played well for the Dodgers for 2 ½ of the 3 ½ years he spent with them.

In the trades he made and offered to improve the club this year, Dodgers’ top prospect Zach Lee was off the table. It’s a hallmark of Colletti’s limits in trading. He won’t give up the entire house, but will give up what he feels he can replace.

If Colletti claimed Beckett to put an exclamation point on his seriousness in wanting to get Gonzalez, then it was a prescient tactical decision to get them. Beckett was getting through waivers and so was Gonzalez, but Colletti identified what he wanted and took steps to get them. He got the go-ahead from ownership to add this kind of payroll ($261 million to his team) and pulled the trigger. The Red Sox might’ve turned down an offer for Gonzalez alone, but if the Dodgers would take both Beckett and Crawford? They didn’t have a choice but to do it.

It’s safe to expect Gonzalez to be happier and more productive as a background personality and mid-lineup star; for Beckett to keep his mouth shut and behave more professionally (I think); and for Crawford to be relieved to be out of Boston and, once healthy, to return to something reasonably close to his Rays days in 2013 and beyond.

If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, but Matt Kemp, Clayton Kershaw, and Andre Ethier are with the club as the foundation for the future and they have a supporting cast locked in as well.

Colletti’s more baseball-savvy than he’s given credit for and in spite of these risky financial and personnel moves, it was more than him agreeing to take the money in a desperate deep strike and spending spree as if he just won the lottery which, with the new ownership, he kinda did.

You can read Part I here and Part II here.

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New Dodgers Ownership Is Giving Similar Free Rein As The Old One

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The only difference between the new Dodgers’ ownership, fronted by Magic Johnson and backed by a lot of rich people, is that they’re more well-liked and aren’t plundering the organization to keep up a lavish lifestyle as the McCourts did. In the personnel department, the GMs have been allowed to do what they wanted in terms of player moves and that extends past current GM Ned Colletti and to former GM Paul DePodesta—Frank McCourt’s first hire.

The Dodgers have made a series of bold deals this season in turning over the roster and adding major money and veteran players Hanley Ramirez, Joe Blanton, Shane Victorino, Brandon League and Randy Choate. They were also willing to take on Cliff Lee’s $87 million contract; signed Matt Kemp (while McCourt was selling the team) and Andre Ethier to contract extensions; and invested $42 million in Cuban defector Yasiel Puig.

But is there a difference between what Colletti/DePodesta did then as to what’s happening now?

In 2004, in his first full season as the Dodgers’ GM and functioning with former GM Dan Evans’s players and manager Jim Tracy, DePodesta had a free hand to do what he wanted and took a sledgehammer to a team that was 60-42 and in first place in the NL West by making a series of disastrous trades, decimating what had been one of the game’s best bullpens by trading righty reliever Guillermo Mota along with catcher Paul LoDuca and outfielder Juan Encarnacion to the Marlins for first baseman Hee-Seop Choi, righty starter Brad Penny and lefty reliever Bill Murphy. The entire intent of these deals was to flip Penny to the Diamondbacks for Randy Johnson—adding more money—but Johnson refused to sign off on the trade. Penny made one start for the Dodgers and got hurt. DePodesta also traded for catcher Brent Mayne and outfielder Steve Finley. The Dodgers staggered to the finish line, made the playoffs and were dispatched in the first round by the Cardinals.

DePodesta was fired after the 2005 season when the club, after a 12-2 start, fell to 71-91 amid infighting among other players he brought in with a tone deafness as to clubhouse chemistry. Milton Bradley and Jeff Kent along with the always charming Penny turned the clubhouse toxic and it showed on the field. After the season, McCourt replaced DePodesta with Colletti.

Colletti has never let the media perception and public demands that he bag a season by selling dissuade him from being aggressive and trying to win when his team is within striking distance of a playoff spot. With the Dodgers in last place and under .500 (though close enough to first place to provide ample justification), he went for it at the deadline in 2006 by acquiring Greg Maddux, Julio Lugo and Wilson Betemit. Benefited by the weak NL, the Dodgers went on a hot streak and won the Wild Card before losing to the Mets in the NLDS.

After a disappointing 2007, the Dodgers spent big to hire legendary former Yankees’ manager Joe Torre. In 2008, they traded for Manny Ramirez and all his baggage and Manny went on a tear, leading the Dodgers to the NLCS. They signed him for two more years after that. At the deadline in 2008, they also acquired Casey Blake from the Indians for top prospect Carlos Santana and reacquired Maddux.

In 2009, as they were on the way to winning 95 games and the NL West, they acquired Jim Thome, George Sherrill, Ronnie Belliard and Jon Garland. In 2010, struggling but again in striking distance of the top of the division, they traded for Ted Lilly, Ryan Theriot, Octavio Dotel and Scott Podsednik. It didn’t work and Torre’s managerial career ended with an 80-82 season and the first missed playoff season since before he managed the Yankees.

McCourt owned the team that entire time.

Now, with the new ownership and team president Stan Kasten, the Dodgers are being lauded for “going for it” with money as no object. But it’s the same as it’s been for the past eight years. To say that Colletti is a veteran-centric GM who doesn’t care about prospects is ignoring that he refused to surrender top pitching prospect Zach Lee and that the Dodgers have spent big on draft picks and international free agents; that he drafted Clayton Kershaw and developed him into a superstar; that the club has been willing go after veterans from other clubs and act quickly to rectify mistakes by benching struggling, highly-paid vets like Juan Uribe.

It’s easy to credit Dodgers’ new ownership, but the truth is that it’s the GM—decidedly not a stat guy—who is the one who should be recognized for the way he’s running the team and his ability to ignore outsiders telling him what he should do and instead following his own path. It’s no surprise. The evidence is right there in black and white. This is how Colletti runs his team and that’s the way it was then and the way it is now.

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Mid-Season Trade Candidates–Justin Morneau

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Name: Justin Morneau

Tale of the tape: 31-years-old; bats left; throws right; 6’4”; 220 lbs.

Contract status: $14 million annual salary for 2012 and 2013; free agent after 2013.

Would the Twins trade him?

Yes.

This was reported with an undertone of shock as if it was unheard of before the likes of Ken Rosenthal implied it as a possibility. The Twins took an attitude of “let’s get back to doing things the Twins way” when Terry Ryan stepped back into the General Manager’s seat. Part of that was hoping Morneau recovered enough from his post-concussion issues and other injuries to become the MVP-level player he was until mid-season 2010 when his world—literally and figuratively—was shaken from its axis from a blow to the head trying to break up a double play. Since then it’s been one thing or another for Morneau and the Twins. The team has become a punching bag.

They’re not dumping salary just for the sake of it so Joe Mauer won’t be available, but Morneau is a free agent after 2013, he won’t be around when they start to get better and clearing that salary will free them to spend it on what they need this winter (pitching) and get rid of Morneau while he’s healthy and showing signs of a resurgence.

There’s a thought that the trading of Morneau would allow the Twins to move Mauer to first base, but I don’t think that’s as automatic as is being suggested. Mauer is smart enough to understand that his bat is far more valuable than his ability to catch, but he likes and wants to catch. Had the Twins held onto Wilson Ramos, they would’ve had a capable and young replacement behind the plate. Now they don’t. If Mauer plays first base, it will be on a part-time basis. I’d expect the Twins to find an everyday first baseman on the cheap for a short-term deal until Mauer is past his 30th birthday and is ready to make the permanent shift from behind the plate.

The Twins’ mistake in trading Ramos is now being magnified for the gaffe it was. They got a pretty good reliever in Matt Capps, but he’s most certainly not worth a team’s number 1 prospect whether his path is blocked by a Hall of Fame-level player in Mauer or not. If a team is trading that type of talent there are two things that can save them: 1) have it work as it did for the Marlins when they traded Adrian Gonzalez as part of the deal to get Ugueth Urbina and won the World Series; and 2) have the team that traded for the player either trade him as well or see him fail. Because the Rangers also traded Gonzalez (who wasn’t considered a great prospect by either team), it’s not referenced as a horrible trade.

It’s a dual-pronged defense for the Marlins.

Morneau—if he’s healthy and hitting for power—could be the difference between not making the playoffs and winning the World Series.

What would they want for him?

The Twins need everything from starting pitching to bullpen help to a corner infield bat who can hit.

It’s not outrageous to think they could get legitimate prospects in two of those spots and a moderate prospect in the third. If they’re willing to eat some of Morneau’s salary, they’ll get better prospects. The idea that the Twins are a mid-market team is accurate in name only. The Pohlad family is one of the richest ownerships in sports. The business model exercised by the late Carl Pohlad made it appear as if they held the team payroll in check out of necessity, but that’s not the case. It was a conscious choice. Pohlad was criticized for it, but he was a businessman. Like most offshoots of a wide-ranging structure, the Twins had a budget and Pohlad made his baseball people stick to it without doling endless streams of extra money from the emergency jar.

There’s nothing wrong with that and for the Twins, it worked.

Which teams would pursue and have the prospects to get him?

The Yankees, Blue Jays, Indians, Marlins, Cardinals and Dodgers have the financial wherewithal and prospects to get it done. Other clubs that might be involved if they’re willing to give up what the Twins want in exchange for Morneau and money to pay him are the Indians and Pirates.

What will happen.

Morneau is going to get traded and I’d bet on him winding up with the Dodgers.

Dodgers’ GM Ned Colletti is aggressive and doesn’t mess around. Much was made of his decision to trade Carlos Santana as part of the trade that got the Dodgers Casey Blake in 2008. In the long-term, it was a mistake; in the short-term with a little luck the Dodgers could’ve won a World Series or two with Blake. Had that happened, it would’ve been the same situation as the Marlins had with trading Gonzalez for Urbina. With the new ownership taking over, Colletti will be free to do as he sees fit. Upgrading the offense is paramount for the Dodgers and Morneau fills that bill.

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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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2012 National League West Predicted Standings

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Wins Losses GB
1. Colorado Rockies 92 70
2. San Francisco Giants 85 77 7
3. Arizona Diamondbacks 84 78 8
4. San Diego Padres 80 82 12
5. Los Angeles Dodgers 69 93 23

Colorado Rockies

I don’t understand the criticism of the maneuvers the Rockies made this past winter or of the decision to trade Ubaldo Jimenez last summer.

They filled their needs by clearing Jimenez when they were going to have to pay a lot of money to re-sign him after 2013 and got two young starting pitchers, one of whom looks like he’s going to be a big winner in Drew Pomeranz; they signed high quality people and grinder type players who are versatile and play the game the right way with Michael Cuddyer and Casey Blake; they signed a good part-time catcher, Ramon Hernandez, to play semi-regularly and tutor young Wilin Rosario; they dispatched a mediocre closer, Huston Street in favor of someone cheaper and probably better with Rafael Betancourt; and they traded a journeyman righty for an underrated all around player Marco Scutaro.

Here’s the simple truth with the Rockies: they can pitch; they can hit; they can catch the ball; they can run; they have one of baseball’s best managers in Jim Tracy and one of its best players in Troy Tulowitzki.

It’s not that hard to do the math if you can add and subtract.

San Francisco Giants

Much is made of their vaunted starting rotation, but after Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner, do you trust Ryan Vogelsong to repeat his amazing work from 2011? Work that was achieved at age 34 after being the epitome of a journeyman?

The bullpen is solid and deep. Their lineup is still shaky and counting on youth (Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford); rockheads (Angel Pagan); and those with questionable work ethic when they think they have a job sewn up (Melky Cabrera). Buster Posey is returning from a ghastly ankle injury.

They made changes, but I don’t see this club as having improved from the 86-76 team they were last season.

Arizona Diamondbacks

Many are in love with the Diamondbacks because of the season they had in 2011 and that they “improved” over the winter.

But did they improve?

I don’t understand the Jason Kubel signing to replace Gerardo Parra once Parra finally began fulfilling his potential offensively and won a Gold Glove defensively.

They acquired a top arm in Trevor Cahill and are hoping for a repeat of the stellar work their bullpen gave them last season.

How much of what happened in 2011 is realistically repeatable? They were good, but they were also lucky.

It’s a stretch to think it’s going to happen again.

San Diego Padres

One thing you can say about new GM Josh Byrnes: he’s fearless.

It took major courage to trade away a young, contractually controlled arm with Mat Latos going to the Reds and Byrnes got a load of young talent for him.

They dealt away another young bat Anthony Rizzo to get a flamethrower with closer potential, Andrew Cashner; they took Carlos Quentin off the hands of the White Sox for two negligible prospects hoping that Quentin would stay healthy in his free agent year and provide them with the pop they need.

Quentin just had knee surgery and will miss the beginning of the season.

The Padres have a load of starting pitching and their offense will be better than it was. They could sneak up on people and jump into the playoff race.

Los Angeles Dodgers

Are the Dodgers prototypically “bad”?

No.

But they’re in the process of being sold and with Matt Kemp having a 2011 season that should’ve won him the MVP and Clayton Kershaw winning the Cy Young Award, it took a major hot streak late in the season for them to finish above .500.

Their starting pitching is okay; their bullpen is okay; but their lineup is not and they’re in a tough division and league. Many structural changes are possible not only in the ownership suite, but in baseball operations as well.

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. (This sample is of the Rangers.) My book can be purchased on KindleSmashwordsBN and Lulu with other outlets on the way.

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Hot Stove Winners, 2011-2012

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Most of the big names are off the board and the ones remaining on the market—Roy Oswalt, Edwin Jackson—aren’t going to change the landscape much, if at all.

Let’s look at the hot stove winners for this winter.

New York Yankees

This isn’t a matter of the Yankees opening their checkbook and buying stuff as it usually is when they’re considered the “big winners” of the off-season. This winter was dedicated to keeping CC Sabathia and bolstering their starting rotation—which they did.

The Yankees essentially held serve and got more assured production with the additions of Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda than the scrambling they did and luck they enjoyed last year when Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon surpassed any logical expectations.

They’ve also been helped by the Red Sox evident disarray; the Blue Jays failing to acquire any veteran lineup or starting pitching help; the financial constraints that continually bound the Rays; and the Orioles being the Orioles.

Texas Rangers

The Rangers helped their starting rotation in two ways. One, they signed Joe Nathan to take over as closer and are shifting Neftali Feliz into being a starter. Two, they won the bidding for Yu Darvish.

Some will point to the loss of C.J. Wilson and the above moves as canceling each other out. The case can even be made that because the Angels signed Wilson, the Rangers wind up as net losers because of Wilson’s departure for a division rival.

The money they spent on Darvish in comparison to what it would’ve cost to keep Wilson or sign Jackson or Kuroda is a viable argument of having overpayed, but Wilson is 31 and Darvish 25. With Darvish, they get a more talented pitcher and the ancillary benefit of worldwide marketing possibilities because of his Iranian/Japanese heritage, looks and personality.

I think Darvish is going to be a superstar.

Los Angeles Angels

Long term consequences aside for having to pay Albert Pujols $59 million past his 40th birthday, they signed the best hitter of this generation and immediately launched themselves to the top of the talent scale. Simultaneously, they supplemented their strength in the starting rotation by signing Wilson.

They also acquired a catcher with pop in Chris Iannetta and hired a more competent GM when they replaced Tony Reagins with Jerry DiPoto.

Miami Marlins

They wanted a proven, name manager to draw buzz heading into their new ballpark and traded for Ozzie Guillen.

They needed starting pitching and signed Mark Buehrle and acquired Carlos Zambrano.

They needed a closer and signed Heath Bell.

And they wanted to bring in an offensive force to strengthen both shortstop and third base offensively and defensively and signed Jose Reyes, shifting Hanley Ramirez to third base.

The big questions are whether or not petulant owner Jeffrey Loria, meddling team president David Samson, Guillen, Zambrano and an unhappy Ramirez light the fuse of this powder keg and if the fans decide to show up to watch after the initial novelties.

On paper in February, they look good.

Cincinnati Reds

Giving up a chunk of their minor league system to get Mat Latos is risky, but he fills the need at the top of their starting rotation.

Ryan Madson’s market crashed and the Reds got him for one year; they traded for a solid lefty reliever in Sean Marshall and signed Ryan Ludwick, who will benefit from being a background player and hitting in a friendlier home park.

Colorado Rockies

Michael Cuddyer will have a big offensive year in right field and can play first base if/when Todd Helton gets hurt.

Replacing the shaky Huston Street with the cheaper and better Rafael Betancourt is a step up. Getting Tyler Chatwood for Iannetta and signing Ramon Hernandez to replace Iannetta is a dual gain. They signed the underrated Casey Blake to play third and traded a journeyman righty Clayton Mortensen to get Marco Scutaro, immediately solving their problem at second base.

San Diego Padres

Yonder Alonso is a power bat and Rookie of the Year candidate at first base. Yasmani Grandal is a top catching prospect and Edinson Volquez is good if he’s healthy and will benefit from pitching in the cavernous Petco Park and having a deep bullpen supporting him.

They gave up Latos to get the above package, but it’s an even trade for both sides for short and long term needs.

Street is just as good as the departed free agent Bell and maintains the bullpen hierarchy with Luke Gregerson as the set-up man and Street closing.

Carlos Quentin will be looking to have a big year as he heads for free agency and the Padres acquired him for two minor league pitchers who’d fallen out of favor with the organization.

Josh Byrnes is a category above Jed Hoyer as GM.

The hot stove losers and clubs that made lateral maneuvers will be discussed in upcoming posts.

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Quality Moves, Under the Radar

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While the Marlins and Angels have garnered the headlines with their spending sprees; the Nationals by their overreaching trade for Gio Gonzalez; the Red Sox with their front office and off-field controversies; and Billy Beane for being Billy Beane and therefore worthy of attention just because, two teams have made drastic improvements amid questions, criticisms, ridicule and camouflage.

The Rockies and Indians are poised to leap into serious contention in 2012 because of said acquisitions and they’ve done it relatively cheaply and without fanfare.

Still needing help with their starting pitching, the Rockies are one of the suitors for the underrated and mean Hiroki Kuroda; if they get him, I’ll like their off-season all the more.

Here are the Rockies moves so far:

Signed OF/1B Michael Cuddyer to a 3-year, $31.5 million contract.

I went into detail about the match between Cuddyer and the Rockies in an earlier posting. In short, his defense in right field won’t be an issue because of the Rockies pitching staff’s penchant for getting ground balls; his hitting will improve markedly playing in Coors Field; and he might see substantial time at first base with the recent injury history of Todd Helton. He’s a better player than Seth Smith and will hit and hit for power.

Traded RHP Huston Street to the Padres for minor league lefty Nick Schmidt.

The Rockies sent $500,000 to the Padres (for Street’s 2013 buyout) and cleared the rest of his $7.5 million salary.

Street was not reliable as a closer, gave up too many hits and homers and was expensive; the Rockies dumped him and his paycheck and have Rafael Betancourt to close and Matt Lindstrom to back him up.

Schmidt is 25 and still in A ball. This was a money spin for an organizational warm body and it was a smart thing to do.

Traded C Chris Iannetta to the Angels for RHP Tyler Chatwood; signed C Ramon Hernandez to a 2-year, $6.4 million contract.

Iannetta has pop and gets on base, but he was never able to put a stranglehold on the everyday catching job; Chatwood was one of the Angels top pitching prospects who had an up-and-down season in Anaheim. He’s a ground ball pitcher who should do well in Colorado.

Hernandez is fine with being a part-timer, has power and throws well. He’ll be a perfect tutor to young prospect Wilin Rosario.

Traded INF Ty Wigginton to the Phillies for a player to be named later or cash; signed 3B/1B/OF Casey Blake to a 1-year, $2 million contract.

Wigginton was a fiery player and hit a few homers, but he’s terrible defensively and limited offensively. They’re paying $2 million of his $4 million salary and signed Blake to a 1-year contract for $2 million—basically they traded Wigginton for Blake and it’s a great trade…if Blake is healthy.

Blake missed most of the 2011 season with multiple injuries and required neck surgery.

His health is the key. He’s versatile and is a good fielder; he has power; and Blake is plainly and simply a professional baseball player who goes unnoticed but is a key component to a winning team—the other players, coaches and managers will tell you how good a player a healthy Blake is.

If they add a Kuroda or Roy Oswalt to go along with the package they got last summer for Ubaldo Jimenez, it equates to a strong top-to-bottom club that has repaired the holes that caused their underwhelming 2011 record of 73-89.

The Indians have done the following:

Acquired RHP Derek Lowe from the Braves for minor league LHP Chris Jones and $10 million.

There’s no defending Lowe’s performance for the Braves, but the Indians got an innings-eater and will only pay $5 million of his $15 million salary. When a durable sinkerballer like Lowe is pitching so poorly, the issue is generally mechanical; if the Indians can fix whatever was preventing him from getting the proper movement on his pitches, he can again be effective; perhaps he just needed a change-of-scenery.

Either way, you can’t go wrong for $5 million. With Jimenez, Justin Masterson, Fausto Carmona and Josh Tomlin, the Indians have a formidable rotation backed up by a strong bullpen.

Re-signed CF Grady Sizemore to a 1-year, $5 million contract after declining his option.

Sizemore was a budding star before microfracture surgery derailed him; he’s worked very hard to come back and it took Carlos Beltran (whom the Indians pursued but lost to the Cardinals) a full season to return to relative normalcy after a bone bruise. Although Beltran didn’t need microfracture surgery, the injuries and recovery times are similar. If Sizemore can be 75-80% of what he was, he’s a bargain.

The Indians finished ninth in the American League in runs scored and are looking for another bat, but with full seasons from Jason Kipnis and Shin-Soo Choo along with some semblance of production from first base (they need to sign someone, perhaps Derrek Lee) and Travis Hafner, they’ll score enough to contend in the winnable AL Central.

The Rockies and Indians need to be watched closely in 2012 because they’re legitimate playoff threats without having spent $300 million as the Angels did or hoodwinking their local government to get a new ballpark as the Marlins did.

They did it with under-the-radar acquisitions, bold and clever.

And they’re going to pay off.

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I’ll be a guest tomorrow with former MLB player Les Norman on his baseball show Breakin’ the Norm on the ESPN affiliate 810 WHB in Kansas City. I’ll link the appearance and post it here.

Spread the word!

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Donnie Baseball’s Crisis Control

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We’ll never know what would’ve happened had Don Mattingly gotten the job to manage the Yankees after the 2007 season. Undoubtedly, things would’ve been different—perhaps for the better; perhaps for the worse. He most certainly wouldn’t be on the Yankees firing line as Joe Girardi is for anything he does that is deemed wrong. Whether it’s the handling of the Jorge Posada situation; massaging the massive egos of Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter; or negligible strategic maneuvers, Girardi has run the Yankees about as well as anyone could’ve.

The vitriol that surrounds Girardi is similar to that which accompanied him when he was a light-hitting catcher acquired to replace the power hitting and popular Mike Stanley. Fans expected the worst and were spitting fire before he’d even had a chance to put the uniform on. It turned out that Girardi was exactly what the pitching staff and manager Joe Torre needed—skillful at calling a game and a defensive standout who was a better hitter than he was ever given credit for.

Mattingly was beloved for whatever he did and that would’ve extended to a honeymoon period if he was managing the Yankees. There would’ve been criticisms of his strategy, but not to the extent of Girardi criticism.

Because he had never managed before and was essentially unfireable, Mattingly didn’t get the job.

Girardi has followed organizational edicts and been a cog in the machine rather than the focal point.

These aspects—more than anything—were what drew GM Brian Cashman to Girardi.

Mattingly was more of a gamble.

Beneath that charming, aw shucks persona is an intense competitor who could easily have used his cozy relationship with the media and idol status with the fans to try and marginalize the GM. Who could ever think that Mattingly would be underhanded and sneaky even if he was being underhanded and sneaky?

Cashman made his choice based on maintaining control. You can’t say he was wrong.

Mattingly took over as the Dodgers manager this season and amid all the distractions of the Frank McCourt circus; injuries to key players Andre Ethier, Casey Blake, Jonathan Broxton, Hong-Chih Kuo and Jon Garland; and glaring holes in the roster, he somehow has the team over the .500 mark.

What prepared him for this and allowed him to overcome the clear obstacles?

Was his apprenticeship under Torre part of the reason he was able to stay calm while the Dodgers universe was crumbling around him? Could it have been all those years spent in the Bronx Zoo as the team star and frequent target of owner George Steinbrenner’s capricious lunacy? Has he used his status as a player who was better than anyone currently on the Dodgers roster to subtly let them know that they’re not going to push him around despite his gentle demeanor?

Is it all of the above?

For all the viable reasons Cashman had for selecting Girardi over Mattingly, the way the Dodgers have played and shunned the temptation to go through the motions and get the season over with makes me wonder what would’ve happened had Mattingly gotten the job to manage the Yankees. They could’ve been worse that they’ve been under Girardi. But they also could’ve been better.

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