An All-Around Bad Year for Rizzo and the Nats

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

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

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

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




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(Over) Reactions To The Phillies’ Firing Of Charlie Manuel

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Considering what I wrote in my preseason book, the Phillies’ decision to fire Charlie Manuel and replace him with Ryne Sandberg should come as no surprise:

Manuel will either resign or be fired (my money’s on a firing because he won’t resign) during the season to pave the way for Sandberg.

It happened yesterday and the responses from fans, media members and players ranged from “Manuel deserved better,” to an attack on general manager Ruben Amaro, Jr., to shock and outrage, to the assertion that Manuel should have been allowed to finish out the season.

In a fictional utopia, I suppose there are arguments to be made for all of the above. In reality, even with its perceived brutality, the decision makes sense. Let’s look at the participants:

Charlie Manuel

Let’s not turn Manuel into a blameless 69-year-old man who is being forced out of a job he wants to continue doing. The same logic that says Manuel isn’t to blame for the Phillies’ 53-68 record also nullifies the credit he receives for the five division championships and 2008 World Series.

Which is it? One, the other or both?

Manuel did a good job with the Phillies and his main attributes were corralling a roomful of egos and not taking crap. The players knew he was in charge and, for the most part aside from Jimmy Rollins, played hard for him day-in, day-out. That said, independent of Manuel’s substantial accomplishments as their manager and as a baseball man in general, he’s 69-years-old and the Phillies are set to undergo a retooling.

Did it make sense to move forward for another day with Manuel when it’s been known for a year that, barring a World Series win, he wasn’t going to be back in 2014? When Sandberg had the heir apparent moniker attached to him from the time he joined the Phillies as their Triple A manager? When the Phillies were 21 1/2 games out of first place in the NL East and 15 1/2 games out of the second Wild Card spot?

Sentimentality is fine and it wouldn’t have hurt the Phillies to let Manuel finish the season, but it wouldn’t have helped either. If they’re going to commit to Sandberg to manage the team, they need to have a look at him and he needs to have a look at the roster as the man in charge. They have to see how he handles the media and the egos. In short, they have to see without speculation and guessing. Giving him the chance now gives them that opportunity.

Ruben Amaro, Jr.

Another line from my book sums up Amaro’s future as GM:

Amaro’s status after the year is also uncertain. Then the long rebuild will begin in earnest as the Phillies come apart.

The Phillies are financially bloated, destitute of impact youngsters and trapped in a division with four other teams that are younger and with brighter futures. While not overtly defending many of the things Amaro has done in his tenure as GM, I understand why he did them. That won’t save him at the end of the season if ownership decides that they need a whole new regime.

Amaro had been completely upfront about Manuel’s future. There was no contract extension offered and given the team’s struggles last season, their age and huge holes, even Amaro knew that everything would have to break right for them to contend. It’s broken wrong and it was time to move on.

Giving Manuel the last month-and-a-half of the season might’ve been the nice thing to do, but why? There’s the “what’s the difference?” argument and there’s the “we have to see what we have” argument. Amaro chose the latter and it wasn’t wrong in a moral or practical fashion. He didn’t callously shove an old man in a wheelchair out a window. He dismissed his manager who wasn’t going to be managing past this season anyway.

Ryne Sandberg

Sandberg is far from a guy who decreed, “I’m a Hall of Fame player and now I wanna be a big league manager. Give me the job.” He began his managerial career in the minors with the Cubs, worked his way up from A ball to Triple A and left the Cubs organization after he was passed over for the big league managerial job in favor of Dale Sveum. He joined the Phillies, managed for two years in Triple A Lehigh Valley before joining Manuel’s coaching staff this season.

Only Manuel knows whether he felt threatened by Sandberg’s presence; whether there was an undermining aspect to Sandberg as to what he would’ve done in certain situations had he been managing. With the decision essentially fait accompli as soon as Sandberg joined the organization and hammered home when he joined the coaching staff, all the ambiguity was gone. Manuel was going to manage in 2013 and, unless there was the aforementioned and unlikely World Series run, he wasn’t going to be back. There was no reason for Sandberg to undermine or run interference because he was going to get the job regardless.

The Phillies organization

The Phillies are entering a new phase. Their signing of Chase Utley to a contract extension and refusal to clean out the house of marketable veterans Cliff Lee, Carlos Ruiz, Jonathan Papelbon and Michael Young is an indicator that they have no intention of starting over again from scratch, but they’re incorporating young players like Cody Asche and must get younger and cheaper over the next several years. Part of that process includes the manager. Sandberg is younger and cheaper than Manuel. They knew what they had in Manuel and don’t know with Sandberg. It might sound cruel, but the Phillies had to break with the past and the only difference between doing it now and doing it after the season is that waiting would’ve postponed the inevitable. It elicited a fiery public response, but it was coming one way or the other. Doing it now was the logical decision.




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Phun With The Phillies

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Todd Zolecki’s piece on MLB.com about the Phillies’ drama sums the situation up perfectly at the end when he writes:

But simply, this is a meeting that never would have happened if the team was playing well. But with the season on the brink, things like this get magnified.

It is nothing a winning streak can’t fix.

Team meetings and entreaties from manager Charlie Manuel and general manager Ruben Amaro, Jr. for the club to act professionally won’t go very far. The Phillies’ fortunes will be decided on the field. With a veteran team that has had success for the majority of the past seven years and with players who are earning significant guaranteed paychecks, what precisely can the manager and GM do to get them to “behave” anyway?

Cliff Lee’s reaction to the meeting and scolding was indicative of the attitude that has gotten Lee traded so frequently and placed his name out there as a negotiable commodity again. He can be a moody, petulant brat who is tolerated when the team is going well and he’s performing as one of the best pitchers in baseball, but his act wears thin when the club fortunes are not heading in a positive direction and his attitude grows darker and more sullen. Teams will continue to want him as a true ace at the top of a rotation, but they’ll also be willing to deal him when it gets to be too much. Lee’s pitching great and the team is staggering, placing the depth charges for an explosion like we saw the beginning of over the weekend. When a player moves around as much as Lee does, there’s a reason for it and there seem to be a vast subsection of baseball people who tire of his act. If the Phillies fade out and do trade Lee, it will be to get his salary off the books, to bring back some prospects and to get him out of the clubhouse, not necessarily in that order.

The days of players having to listen to management have been over for almost two decades. The players know they’re going to outlast the manager and GM and if they don’t, they’re going to get paid anyway. Rookies who are hungering to stay in the big leagues and get big contracts of their own are more likely to listen to what they’re told. In certain instances there are the rookies who don’t adhere to the hierarchy and clubs exercise the option to demote them or get rid of them as the Diamondbacks did with Trevor Bauer last winter. That was a form of cutting losses, something the Phillies must consider now.

With the Phillies, what can Manuel or Amaro say to Lee or anyone else who they feel needs to set an example and take things a bit more seriously especially when the team is getting blown out and the players are acting as if they don’t care? “Please stop”? Of course it looked bad to have the Phillies goofing around in the middle of the game, but they don’t want to hear that and won’t listen to it. A manager today can’t be a taskmaster and disciplinarian unless he has a young team that doesn’t have any choice but to listen. A club like the Phillies that has veterans with long-term contracts and has been with the same manager for nearly a decade is going to tune him out when he tries to pull in the reins. It’s just the way the game is today.

What is seen as a laxity of discipline for a team that’s losing is seen as looseness for a team that’s winning. If the Phillies were 20 games over .500 and heading toward the playoffs, joking around even during a blowout would be seen as shrugging off a bad day. As they’re under .500 and debating whether or not to start dealing veterans like Chase Utley, Jonathan Papelbon and Lee, it’s seen as complacency or out-and-out not caring.

The Phillies’ problem isn’t their behavior or their perception. It’s that they don’t have the players to compete with the younger, stronger and better teams in the National League, their farm system is dilapidated at best, and with their contracts a full-blown rebuild is out of the question. They’re in a vacancy. Whether the players sit in the dugout with their hands folded in their laps, cheer on their teammates like it’s high school, or behave in such a way that it spurs the manager and GM to take action to quell it doesn’t make a difference unless they play better and that’s something they do not appear to have the capability to do.

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Good News and Bad News: Halladay’s Not Hurt

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The Phillies would be better off if Roy Halladay was hurt. At least that would be a viable explanation for this sudden and cliff-diving decline from what he was to what he is. What makes the lost velocity and increased confidence of the hitters even more frightening is that there’s no physical malady or mechanical hiccup to fix and get the soon-to-be 36-year-old back to the greatness he’s exhibited for the past decade. His mechanics are fine and if he was ailing, the Phillies wouldn’t continue to put him on the mound. That was true in spring training as the “experts” speculated on what was wrong with Halladay and implied that there was an injury that the Phillies were hiding. What possible reason would they have to do that in spring training?

No. He’s not hurt. His arm slot is around where it was when he was at the top of his game with a slight deviation that has nothing to do with pain or compensation and isn’t going to revert him back to what he was if it’s “fixed.” He’s not finished and not in the last days of a great career. He can continue to pitch this way once he learns how to get hitters out more effectively with diminished stuff, but he’s not going to be the unstoppable, grinding, durable force he was. This is evidence of the ravages of time and work. In the past two decades, we’ve grown accustomed to pitchers continuing to perform in their 40s as they did in their 20s and for the most part in cases like Roger Clemens it was due to the evident use of PEDs, but with the new testing the one thing that can’t be quantified is when the body says enough’s enough. Halladay’s seems to be informing him that he has to figure something else out to be effective.

The sheer number of pitchers and players who weren’t simply maintaining their level of work in their supposed primes, but were surpassing it due to the use of certain substances made it seem normal when they should’ve been seen as a rarity. Nolan Ryan and Steve Carlton were anomalies not just because they lasted into their 40s, but for the most part they maintained their effectiveness late into their careers pitching the same way they always did. There was no transition from what they were into something else.

Halladay’s velocity is down from a high of 96 and a consistent 94 at the tiptop of his game two years ago to barely hitting 90 last night. This has been a recurring issue all spring and spurred the worries that are rising with every subpar start. For the hitter, there’s a significant difference between preparing for 96, being used to 94 and seeing 89-90. That’s an eon of pitch recognition time. Add in that he doesn’t have the same pop you get the results Halladay’s produced in his first two starts.

Counting him out is silly. Pitchers like Carlton, Bert Blyleven and Jack Morris have been labeled as “finished” and come back to be productive, even Cy Young Award contending arms at Halladay’s age and beyond. He still has his intelligence and his stuff is good enough to get hitters out, but he’s got to learn how to do it and it doesn’t happen overnight.

On another note with the Phillies, the Charlie Manuel contract situation is going to get messy. Were it not for a blown save by Greg Holland of the Royals in which he couldn’t find the strike zone, the Phillies would be sitting at 1-6 with a lame duck manager, an angry fanbase and ominous speculation concerning the age of their roster. Manuel has no intention of walking quietly into the night at the end of the season as the Phillies clearly want him to do and he’s working with his clear heir apparent, Ryne Sandberg, on the coaching staff.

This has happened with Manuel before. With the Indians in 2002, his contract was up at the end of the season, he wanted to know where he stood and basically told them to give him an answer or fire him. The Indians were in a similar position then as the Phillies are now with an aging core and an unavoidable rebuild beckoning, so with the club 39-47 and far from playoff position, they fired him. Manuel deserves better from the Phillies after all he’s accomplished—an extra year on his contract as severance even if they have no intention of him fulfilling it and not having to look at the guy who’s going to replace him every single day—but he’s not going to get it and if this thing spirals out of control, Sandberg will be managing the Phillies by June 1st.

Or sooner.

Extended discussions of this along with 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.com, Smashwords, BN and Lulu. Check it out and read a sample.

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Phillies Should Just Extend Manuel

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For a team whose fortunes hinge on ancient veterans whose best days are behind them and have been reduced to signing the likes of Delmon Young, hoping his deficiencies don’t damage them more than his positives help them, the Phillies are dealing with an unnecessary distraction with manager Charlie Manuel’s contract status. He wants to manage after 2013 and the Phillies are content to let him sit with a one-year contract. To make matters worse, they’ve promoted “top managerial prospect” Ryne Sandberg from Triple A manager to big league third base coach. Rather than have the name SANDBERG on the back of his jersey, they could put the words “HEIR APPARENT” there instead and it would equally as accurate.

The Phillies are in the last throes of their run of contention with this current group. They’re very old and very expensive and if the season goes badly, they’re going to begin a serious changing of the guard if not a full-scale rebuild. Considering their circumstances and money they’ve spent, the last thing they need is a manager on the last year of his contract and feeling threatened by his unacknowledged replacement on the staff.

The Phillies’ managers prior to Manuel were qualified men Larry Bowa and Terry Francona—both of whom failed in Philadelphia. The last manager that could be considered a success was Jim Fregosi and his tenure had one winning season, albeit with a pennant. Manuel has done a tremendous job as the Phillies’ manager with five division titles and a World Series. He’s earned respect and the extra year on his deal whether the Phillies intend to have him fulfill it or not.

Manuel’s age (69) has been brought up as a factor, but it shouldn’t. If he was forgetting things or acting like an old man who’d lost touch, that would be one thing, but as far as we know, that hasn’t happened. As long as he feels good, wants to do the job and is capable of doing the job, there’s no point in whispering about it as if it’s a disqualifier from managing.

That Sandberg is considered so great a managerial prospect shouldn’t be a factor either. If it were Mike Schmidt and he’d paid his minor league dues and proved himself as an actual manager and not a former Phillies’ star installed in the position due to nostalgia, political skill and threats, it would be one thing; Sandberg was drafted by the Phillies and traded to the Cubs before he made it to the majors to stay. He’s not a “Phillie.” After all this time, Manuel is a Phillie and he deserves better than to be treated as the old man keeping the seat warm for the next guy.

With the amount of money the Phillies have committed to the players, would it hurt them to give Manuel a contract extension through 2014 just to quiet the talk that they’re greasing the skids for his exit? If they decide to make a change, they’ll have to pay him, but Sandberg’s not getting a huge contract to take over as manager and the peace of mind they, as an organization, will have from not answering questions about it will be worth it. Manuel’s earned the contract even if it’s for severance and pretense.

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Phillies 2013 Success Hinges on Halladay, Hamels and Lee

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Here are the facts about the 2013 Phillies:

  • They’re old
  • They’re expensive
  • Their window is closing
  • Their system is gutted of prospects
  • Their success is contingent on their top three starting pitchers

With all the ridicule raining down on Phillies’ GM Ruben Amaro Jr. for his acquisitions of players who are frequent targets of attacks from the SABR-obsessed in Delmon Young and Michael Young (no relation that we know of), the reality of the situation dictates that the Phillies go all in with players who are the equivalent of duct tape.

It’s the epitome of arrogance to think that the Phillies aren’t aware of the limitations of both Youngs; that they don’t know Michael Young’s defense at third base is poor and, at age 36, he’s coming off the worst season of his career; that they aren’t cognizant of the baggage the Delmon Young carries on and off the field when they signed him for 1-year and $750,000. But what were they supposed to do?

They needed a third baseman and their options were Michael Young and Kevin Youkilis. Youkilis hasn’t distinguished himself on and off the field over the past several seasons and Michael Young was cheaper (the Rangers are paying $10 million of his $16 million salary for 2013).

They needed another outfielder and they were left with the dregs of the free agent market like the limited Scott Hairston, who’s not any better than what they’ve already got; signing Michael Bourn, giving up a draft pick, paying Scott Boras’s extortion-like fees, and having two speed outfielders with Bourn and Ben Revere; trading for Vernon Wells; or signing Delmon Young. Delmon Young hits home runs in the post-season and that’s where the Phillies are planning (praying) to be in October.

This isn’t about a narrative of the Phillies being clueless and signing/trading for bad or limited players. It’s about working with what they have. Amaro isn’t stupid and he tried the strategy of building for the now and building for the future in December of 2009 when he dealt Cliff Lee for prospects and replaced him with Roy Halladay for other prospects.

Amaro, savaged for that decision, reversed course at mid-season 2010 when he traded for Roy Oswalt and then did a total backflip when he re-signed Lee as a free agent. The team has completely neglected the draft for what appear to be financial reasons, leading to the high-profile and angry departure of former scouting director Chuck LaMar.

The decision was tacitly made in the summer of 2010 that the Phillies were going to try and win with the group they had for as long as they could and accept the likelihood of a long rebuilding process once the stars Halladay, Lee, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley were past their sell-by date. The signings made this winter are not designed to be lauded or viewed as savvy. They’re patchwork in the hopes that they’ll get something useful from the Youngs; that Utley will come back healthy in his contract year; that Howard is better after a lost season due to his Achilles tendon woes.

As for the open secret that the Phillies no longer think much of Domonic Brown to the level that they’re unwilling to give him a fulltime job and are handing right field to Delmon Young, this too is tied in with the Phillies gutted farm system. Perhaps it was an overvaluation of the young players the Phillies had or it was a frailty in development, but none of the players they’ve traded in recent years to acquire veterans—Jonathan Singleton, Kyle Drabek, Travis d’Arnaud, Lou Marson, Jason Donald, Carlos Carrasco—have done anything in the big leagues yet. They wouldn’t have helped the Phillies of 2009-2012 much, if at all. Outsiders can look at Brown’s tools and his minor league numbers and wonder why the Phillies are so reluctant to give him a chance, but in his big league chances, he’s appeared limited and overmatched. There’s a similarity to Cameron Maybin in Brown that his assessments are off-the-charts until he’s actually with the team and they see him every day, then they realize that he’s plainly and simply not that good. The Phillies know him better than anyone and if they don’t think he can play every day, then perhaps he can’t play every day.

The 2012 Phillies finished at 81-81. Even with their offensive ineptitude for most of the season, with a healthy Halladay would they have been a .500 team or would they have been at around 90 wins and in contention for a Wild Card?

This is the last gasp for this group. Manager Charlie Manuel just turned 69 and is in the final year of his contract. Within the next three years, they’re going to be rebuilding with a new manager and young players. In the near term, it’s down to the big three pitchers.

The ages and wear on the tires for Halladay and Lee are legitimate concerns for 2013 as is the shoulder issue that Hamels had last season, but regardless of how the offense performs, the Phillies season hinges on how those aces pitch. If they don’t pitch well, the team won’t win. If they do pitch well, the team will be good for three out of every five days with Mike Adams and Jonathan Papelbon in the bullpen.

The Youngs, Revere, Howard, Utley, Rollins—none of it matters if they hit at all. It’s the starting pitchers that will determine the Phillies’ fate. Everything else is just conversation.

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Earl Weaver (1930-2013)

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Glenn Gulliver exemplifies what it was that made Earl Weaver different as a manager from his contemporaries. It wasn’t Jim Palmer, Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Eddie Murray, Cal Ripken Jr.—all Hall of Famers. Nor was it Ken Singleton, Boog Powell, Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar—consistently top performers. It wasn’t Steve Stone or Wayne Garland—pitchers who had their best seasons under Weaver; it wasn’t Gary Roenicke and John Lowenstein (an MVP-quality platoon) or role players Benny Ayala and Terry Crowley; it wasn’t even the one year Weaver had Reggie Jackson on his team and punctuated Jackson’s arrival by screaming in his face because Reggie wasn’t wearing a tie on the team plane. (Brooks Robinson found him one and explained how things worked in Baltimore—Earl’s way or…well, it was just Earl’s way. Reggie behaved that year.) It wasn’t the frequent ejections, the foul mouth, the chain-smoking, the public ripping of players, his longevity and consistency.

It was none of that.

It was a nondescript third baseman whom the Orioles purchased from the Indians prior to the 1982 season and who played in 73 big league games, 50 under Weaver. Gulliver, more than any other player, shows why Weaver was ahead of his time. If he were playing today, the two things Gulliver did well would’ve gotten him a multi-year contract as an in demand asset because he: A) walked a lot; and B) could catch the ball at third base.

Gulliver batted .200 in his 50 games under Weaver and walked so much that he had a .363 on base percentage. Weaver saw this, knew this, and could only wonder about the stupidity of those who questioned why Gulliver was playing at all with his low batting average.

Twenty years before Moneyball and everyone thinking they were a genius because they watched baseball for five minutes and knew how to read a stat sheet, Weaver was an actual genius and innovator by using a discarded player who other clubs had no clue was so valuable.

For all the talk of Weaver’s use of statistics, riding his starting pitchers, putting a premium on defense and battles with Palmer and Davey Johnson, the concept that Weaver was a dictator who didn’t know how to be flexible is only half-true. He was a ruthless dictator off the field, but on the field, he was willing to go to whatever lengths he needed in order to win.

Weaver’s teams were always near the top of the league in certain categories. They weren’t always the same. Many times, at the plate, it was on base percentage. On the mound, it was complete games and shutouts. Weaver was known not to be a fan of the riskiness of the stolen base, but as he looked at his transitioning club from 1973-1975 and realized he wouldn’t have the power to win, he let his players loose on the basepaths because he had no other alternative and during those years they were at or near the top of the American League in stolen bases.

If Weaver were managing today, that would be seen as “evolution,” or “adapting.” It wasn’t any of that. Often, the question has been asked how Weaver would function today if he were managing; if the old-school techniques of, “I’m the boss, shut up,” would fly with the multi-millionaire players who can get the manager fired if they choose to do so.

Like wondering why he was using Gulliver, it’s a stupid question. Because Weaver was so ahead of his time as a manager using statistics and that he adjusted and won regardless of his personnel, he would have won whenever he managed.

If a player had any talent to do anything at all, Weaver found it and exploited it for as long as he could, then he discarded them. He did so without apology.

Old-school managers who tear into the absence of the human element, increase of instant replay, and use of numbers are doing so because these techniques are marginalizing them and potentially taking their jobs away. Do you really believe that Weaver wouldn’t have wanted expanded instant replay? To have a better method to find tiny advantages over his opponents through numbers? The older managers who’ve subtly changed have hung around. The ones who couldn’t, haven’t.

On the other hand, Weaver wouldn’t have responded well to agents calling him and complaining over a pitcher’s workload; or to have a kid out of Harvard walking up to him and telling him he should bat X player in Y spot because of a reason that Weaver was probably already aware of and dismissed; or bloggers and the media constantly haranguing, second-guessing and criticizing managers and GMs endure today. But he always altered his strategy to the circumstances and he would’ve continued to do so if he managed in any era.

Interestingly, Weaver retired very young at age 52, then came back to manage a terrible team for a couple of more years before finally retiring for good at 56. In a day when Charlie Manuel, Jim Leyland and Joe Torre managed in their late-60s and early 70s, and Jack McKeon won a World Series at 74 and came back to manage again at 81, could Weaver had continued on? Could he have taken a couple of years off in his 50s and returned? Absolutely. He would’ve been well-compensated and just as successful as he was when he was in his 30s and 40s for one simple reason: he knew what he was doing. And that’s about as great a compliment that a manager can get.

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What To Watch For Over The Final Month—National League

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I discussed the American League and what to watch for over the final month on Thursday along with a warning for those seeing the Wild Card as an oasis in the desert. It’s not.

Now let’s take a look at the National League.

The Nationals shutdown of Stephen Strasburg

I’m planning a more in-depth discussion of this in an upcoming post, but Strasburg’s imminent shutdown has become the dominant story for a team that should be talking about the positive aspects of their rise to a legitimate championship contender instead of this Strasburg silliness.

I’m beginning to believe that they’re not going to shut him down and as an organization, they’re coming up with alternatives to: A) keep his innings limit within reason and use him in the playoffs; and B) create a story to sell to the media as to why they fudged on their prescribed innings limit.

A really isn’t all that difficult. Their lead in the division is secure enough that they can give him extra rest in September. B shouldn’t even be a factor, but since GM Mike Rizzo has been so stupidly forthright regarding his plans, it is a factor.

Don’t be shocked when Strasburg is standing on the mound and starting in game 2 of the NLDS.

Chipper Jones’s farewell tribute from the Mets

I gotta see this thing.

Jimmy Rollins’s behavior

He’s being selfish and setting a terrible example for the rest of the team with his lack of hustle, embarrassing for the supposed “heart and soul” and clubhouse leader. Manager Charlie Manuel’s benching of Rollins and Rollins’s subsequent apology isn’t worth much since he’s definitely going to do it again over the final month, probably multiple times.

Rollins is guaranteed $22 million for 2013-2014 and he has a vesting option for 2015 that he won’t reach based on the contract kickers of plate appearances (the Phillies won’t let him), but if the contract doesn’t vest, the club has an $8 million option that they won’t exercise and Rollins has a $5 million option that, at age 36 and with his performance declining and his reputation soiled, he very well might exercise to get one last paycheck. So the contract actually calls for him to make $27 million through 2015.

The “everything is hunky dory” tone of the Rollins apology story glosses over the facts that he’s declining as a player, is signed for several more years, and the Phillies on the whole are old, expensive and not good.

The Marlins attendance

They’re currently 12th in attendance which is a step up from finishing last every season, but in context with a beautiful, brand new park and a team that had spent money to try and win, one would think they’d have been better than 12th—a position they’ve held steady from the beginning of the season until now.

They’re in last place and traded away most of their stars. They’re not likable, nor are they fun to watch. Football season is starting next week. No one’s going to pay attention to the Marlins and no one’s going to go to the games.

I’m not sure where they, as an organization, go from here. The fans just don’t care.

Dusty Baker’s contract

It’s not right that Baker has the Reds steamrolling towards the playoffs, has done a fine job in handling the club from top-to-bottom, and is functioning without a new contract. One would assume that he’s safe, but he also led the Giants to the World Series in 2002 and was out of a job that winter in a contract-based dispute that turned ugly. I would say he’ll definitely be back, but in 2002 I would’ve said the same thing.

The Dodgers playoff push

With all the headline-blaring moves they made, their playoff spot is far from guaranteed. Now they may have lost closer Kenley Jansen for the season with a heart ailment. He’ll find out on Tuesday if he can pitch again this season. If they lose Jansen, they have two options: 1) use someone they already have on the roster like Brandon League; 2) trade for someone for the month of September to make the playoffs and use Jansen when he’s able to pitch again.

Considering the moves they’ve made this season, I’d say they’re going to lay the foundation to trade for someone who can do the job if League falters and Jansen’s out. GM Ned Colletti is probably making calls now to that end.

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Thome The First Phillies’ Domino To Fall

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Now that Jim Thome has been traded from the Phillies to the Orioles for two low level minor leaguers, no one’s come up with a realistic answer as to why he signed with the Phillies in the first place.

It only made moderate sense for the Phillies hoping that he’d be happy as a pinch-hitter and DH in inter-league play. It would be the height of arrogance (possible) that the Phillies were looking forward to a World Series for Thome to be the DH in the AL parks.

But did both parties really think Thome was going to be able to play first base?

In what world is Thome—even as he’s turning 42 in August—mentioned in the same breath with other former Phillies’ pinch hitters Greg Dobbs, Ross Gload and Matt Stairs?

Thome can still hit and be productive as a semi-regular DH in the American League. That’s why re-signing with the Phillies made little-to-no sense for him and was done far too early in the free agent process to give the pretense of preplanning on either side. It was a rushed reunion like divorced spouses rekindling a relationship and hoping it would work out a second time.

But those types of reunions rarely work out.

The return to Philadelphia was a decision based on sentimentality and the friendship between Thome and Phillies’ manager Charlie Manuel.

As curious as the signing was in November, this trade is more curious.

Considering Thome had played 4 games at first base this season, Ryan Howard’s pending return had nothing to do with this trade. Thome was a pinch-hitter and Howard is their everyday first baseman. There’s no connection between the two.

The only obvious answer as to why this trade was made is that this is beginning of a Phillies’ sell off.

There’s no other explanation. Perhaps they’re going to give it another 3 weeks to see where they are before going full bore into sell mode and trading their two big name pending free agents Cole Hamels and Shane Victorino, but they’re preparing for that eventuality.

Even with the return of Chase Utley, they’ve lost 4 straight games. They’re 36-44, 10 ½ games out of first place in the NL East and 7 ½ games out of first in the Wild Card. The deficit can be overcome, but they have to win a few games of their own to do it.

They’re not auctioning Hamels and Victorino on July 1st, but you can bet if teams are calling GM Ruben Amaro Jr. to inquire about those two players, Amaro’s telling those teams that they’re not available…yet. He’s telling them to keep in touch and is thinking about what he wants in exchange for Hamels and Victorino.

You can also bet that the Phillies’ scouts are fanning out to look at the minor league systems of the teams that are calling about Hamels and Victorino so they have an idea of what to ask for if they do put them on the market.

Thome was the first domino.

If the Phillies don’t start winning soon, the other ones are going to fall by the end of the month.

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National League Patience Or Panic?

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Earlier I wrote of the American League teams that either need to have patience or panic. Let’s look at the National League teams in the same predicament.

Miami Marlins

It’s safe to assume that Marlins’ owner Jeffrey Loria’s office is outfitted with escape hatches, listening devices, nefarious contraptions and trapdoors at various spots on the floor—one of which sends the hapless victim to the airtight, windowless room (complete with Lazarus Pit) in which Jack McKeon is kept.

There’s one small vent as a concession for McKeon’s cigar smoke.

Along with these amenities is, presumably, a dutiful assistant carrying a black box. Inside that black box is the panic button.

When said panic button is pressed, something happens: a manager is fired; a player is demoted; a son-in-law is sent to speak to the media; a pretentiously gauche extravaganza masquerading as art is activated; a fealty-induced political marker is cashed.

Something.

Is it time for the Marlins to panic?

Just about.

Already under investigation by the SEC for the way the new Marlins’ Stadium was financed, with manager Ozzie Guillen under siege for his pro-Fidel Castro comments and the team playing poorly, it’s not long before a Steinbrennerean missive is issued on stationary emblazoned across the top with the words:

From the Mildly Artistic Mind of Jeffrey L.

He learned his lessons from George Steinbrenner in terms of morally-challenged behavior under the guise of business and personal interests and now his team is eerily similar to the Yankees of the 1980s: expensive, underachieving, fractured, dysfunctional and disinterested.

Heath Bell and Jose Reyes have both been atrocious; Hanley Ramirez isn’t hitting; and, on the whole, they look like a group that not only doesn’t know how to play together, but don’t like each other very much.

Loria thought he was buying a contender and that the attendance to see that contender would be commensurate with the amenities of a new park and a good team.

The winning team would attract the real baseball fans; the nightclub, pool, dancing girls, acrobats, restaurants and art would attract the eclectic denizens of Miami who go where it’s cool regardless of the venue.

They’re seventh in the National League in attendance.

The team is flawed and, right now, just plain bad.

Loria’s finger is itching to hit that panic button and it should be because veteran teams in disarray tend to spiral out of control early once they sense the season is lost.

Philadelphia Phillies

No team could function with the spate of injuries that have befallen the Phillies. All they’re trying to do is keep their heads above water until Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Cliff Lee are healthy.

Manager Charlie Manuel has been trying to find a lineup combination that works. He’s playing small ball to account for the lost power and it’s failing. Jimmy Rollins and Placido Polanco aren’t hitting and as good as Freddy Galvis is defensively, the Phillies currently can’t afford to carry his popgun bat.

If they get healthy, they’ll be fine. The question is what level of Howard and Utley are they going to get when they return and how long is Lee going to be out with a strained oblique? They don’t want to fall too far behind, but the second Wild Card added this year makes it much easier to be patient even in a demanding city like Philadelphia.

Cincinnati Reds

Amid all the preseason talk that the Reds’ decision to trade chunks of their farm system to get Mat Latos and Sean Marshall and the pending free agencies (in 2014) of Joey Votto and (in 2013) of Brandon Phillips made them a “win now or else” team, they’re well-situated for the future with all their pieces in place.

Latos, Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey, Mike Leake, Jay Bruce and Drew Stubbs are all under team control for the foreseeable future; and they signed Votto, Phillips and Marshall to contract extensions.

The loss of Ryan Madson was a blow, but they’ve replaced him with Marshall and Aroldis Chapman can close if necessary.

The pitching has been solid; they just haven’t hit. This core of this Reds team was second in runs scored in 2011 and first in 2010. They’re going to hit.

San Francisco Giants

The Giants’ strength was in their starting rotation and that they had a deep, diverse and organized bullpen with a horse of a closer.

The rotation should be fine but the bullpen is in flux with the loss of Brian Wilson. Bruce Bochy is not the closer-by-committee type of manager, but that’s where he is as of now. He named Santiago Casilla as the closer and proceeded to treat him as if he’s just another arm in the bullpen as soon as he got in trouble in one of his first save chances after being dubbed the closer.

The lineup has been better than expected, but is still carrying potential black spots at shortstop, second base, first base and right field.

And Angel Pagan, being Angel Pagan, will inspire the entire team—individually—to strangle him at least once by forgetting how many outs there are; running the team out of an inning; throwing to the wrong base (or wrong team); or something.

The Giants don’t need to panic, but they do need to be vigilant that unless they settle on a reasonable plan with their bullpen, they’re going to fade by August.

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