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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Indiana Cashman And The Search For Fossils

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When asked about the Yankees putting out a feeler for Chipper Jones, Derek Jeter wondered, in his typical dark deadpan sense of humor, if they’d also contacted Mike Schmidt.

That got me to thinking of other options for the Yankees in their archaeological dig for dinosaur fossils hoping to unearth a corner infielder. Here are some of the names I came up with and they’re almost as ludicrous as Jones.

Mike Francesa

For a week he’s been pushing for the Yankees to get Justin Morneau from the Twins. Not “pursue,” but “get,” period. Naturally ignorant of the fact that the Twins are in a similar position to the Yankees in that they have to at least put forth the pretense of placing a competent product on the field at the start of the season to sell a few tickets that they’re not going to sell when they’re heading towards another 90+ loss season and that Morneau, if healthy, will have significant value at mid-season, Francesa expects the Twins to just give him up for whatever scraps the Yankees deign to provide simply because they want him.

It’s not going to happen, but during his vetting, perhaps Francesa should pull a Dick Cheney who, while running George W. Bush’s vice presidential search looked into the mirror, saw the epitome of what Bush needed in his vice president and selected himself. Sure, they’d have to get a muumuu for him to wear and he’d have to stand on first base to prevent every runner from beating him to the bag on a groundball, but with the court striking down New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s ban on extra-large sodas, Francesa’s Diet Coke predilection will move forward unabated. When returning to the dugout after a long half-inning, he can scream at the clubhouse kids like a real-life Les Grossman, “DIET COKE!!!!!”

Mo Vaughn

In the tradition of players who didn’t work out for the Mets, Vaughn would fit perfectly into what the Yankees are trying to create. It adds to the intrigue that he’s also a former Red Sock and he hates Bobby Valentine. That he’s probably far past 320 pounds and could barely move when he was still playing is irrelevant. Pinstripes are slimming and maybe no one would notice his girth, plus all the balls hitting him in the stomach because it’s extended so far beyond the plate would send his on-base percentage into the stratosphere.

Keith Law

No, he’s never picked up a baseball and he’s far too thin-skinned to last one day in Yankeeland without crawling into a fetal position and sobbing uncontrollably, but he scammed his way into a front office position with the Blue Jays on the heels of the Moneyball revolution; he parlayed that into a job at ESPN as an “insider expert” by regurgitating terms he’s heard from scouts; and he has an inexplicable following based on his stat savviness and that people think his resume denotes credibility in some sort of circular and wrong “if this, then that” manner.

Maybe he can imitate an athlete just as effectively as he’s aped actual scouts.

Bear in mind that his throwing style will replicate what we see below.

Michael Lewis

I have deep psychological concerns about someone who places a ginormous picture of his own face on the back cover of every one of his books, but that can also be a positive. A level of arrogance that geometric leads a person to believe he’s capable of things he’s universally acknowledged as being incapable of. Look at it this way: people think that because he wrote Moneyball, he knows something about baseball when he doesn’t.

Worst case scenario, he can write a book about his adventures, present it in a twisted (and skillful) fashion so the masses believe it and they’ll make a movie about it. He can be played by Aaron Eckhardt—a man with some athletic skills—and it’ll sell, man!! It’ll sell!!!

If it doesn’t work, the epitome of evil lurks in the shadows of the world as a fugitive and is ready to be blamed for the experiment (disguised as evolution) failing: Art Howe.

Lou Gehrig

Dead for 72 years? Try resting and waiting for his opportunity!!!

Truth be told, how much more absurd is it than thinking Jones will come out of retirement for the “privilege” of playing for the Yankees?

Billy Beane/Brad Pitt

True, Beane was an awful player and Pitt is an actor who played an awful player on film, but if people bought into the “genius” aspect when Beane was simply exploiting analytics that no one else was at the time and has been alternatingly lucky and unlucky in his maneuverings since, maybe putting him in uniform would hypnotize the fans long enough not to realize the Yankees are in deep, deep trouble.

Here’s the reality: Jones is not coming out of retirement and if he was, it would be for the Braves and not the Yankees. He’s injury-prone and he’s old. He’s also fat. Considering the Yankees decisions over the past few months, he actually fits. But why, in a normal and logical world, would anyone believe that Jones would tarnish his legacy with the Braves to play for the Yankees? Not only did he win his championship in 1995, rendering meaningless the long-used desire on the part of certain players like Roger Clemens to gain that elusive title, but he was with the Braves his entire professional life and the 2013 Braves are far better than the 2013 Yankees. This concept that everyone “wants” to be a Yankee is one of the biggest farcical examples of “world revolves around us” egomania in sports today and was disproven by Cliff Lee and even such journeymen as Nate Schierholtz who decided to go elsewhere.

The Yankees looked into Derrek Lee, who’s a good guy and a good idea if he’s healthy and wants to play, but if he does, he has to get into camp immediately. They signed Ben Francisco, which is a case study of the bargain-basement strategies of the 2013-2014 Yankees with self-evident on field results. They’re desperate and they’re short-handed. As a result, you get nonsense and panic. This is just getting started. It’s only March and there’s a long, long, looooong way to go. It’s getting longer by the day.

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Analysis of the Braves-Diamondbacks Trade, Part I: For the Braves

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In exchange for outfielder Justin Upton and third baseman Chris Johnson, the Braves gave up infielder/outfielder Martin Prado, righty pitcher Randall Delgado, minor league infielders Nick Ahmed, and Brandon Drury, along with righty pitcher Zeke Spruill. They held onto defensive wizard and All-Star talent Andrelton Simmons who, in earlier trade discussions, was the player the Diamondbacks wanted to front the trade.

The Braves made this deal based on winning immediately, filling holes and achieving cost certainty. They were moderate title contenders as constructed, but with the retirement of Chipper Jones, they needed another power bat in the lineup; if they were trading Prado they needed someone that could play third base. Justin Upton is the bat and Johnson is the third baseman to achieve those ends.

With the free agent signing of B.J. Upton, they acquired a defensive ace in center field and a potential do-it-all player. The question with B.J. Upton has always been motivation. In short, he’s lazy. Of course the money that the Braves agreed to pay him (5-years, $75.25 million) should be enough to receive an all-out performance on a daily basis, but this is the same player who didn’t run hard on a double play grounder in the Rays’ 2008 World Series loss. Evan Longoria confronted him in the dugout after a particularly egregious bit of lollygagging in 2010. Given that it was a public scolding and that manager Joe Maddon had repeatedly disciplined him, it’s a sound bet that it wasn’t the first time a teammate got in the face of the gifted and flighty B.J. Upton.

Combined with the money, what better way to get B.J. Upton on the same page with the club and make sure he plays hard than to acquire his brother Justin? It’s not as if this is a Ken BrettGeorge Brett case where Ken was signed by the Royals in 1980 to inspire his brother in his quest to bat .400. Nor is it a lifelong minor leaguer Mike Glavine playing first base for the Mets late in the 2003 season as a favor to Tom Glavine. Justin Upton is an MVP-caliber player (like his brother) who’s actually put up MVP-quality numbers.

Overall B.J. Upton is more talented, but Justin Upton has done it on the field. Justin was traded by the Diamondbacks because of the flimsy excuse that he’s not intense enough, but the criticism wasn’t due to jogging around the field as if he didn’t care. Justin Upton is younger than people realize at 25. He was in the big leagues at 19 and if the Diamondbacks wanted him to step forward and be a leader, it might have been a case where he’s not comfortable doing that.

Not everyone can be the center of attention and fire up the troops—not everyone wants that responsibility. With the Braves, there are enough players willing to take that initiative with Dan Uggla, Brian McCann, and Tim Hudson that Justin Upton can do his job and not worry about running into walls to keep up insincere appearances for what the Diamondbacks wanted from him. The two Uptons in the outfield with Jason Heyward will be the Braves written-in-ink outfield at least through 2015. All three are in their 20s with MVP ability. Both Uptons need to perform. Braves fans turn on players rapidly if their expectations aren’t met and sustained, so the honeymoon will be short-lived if neither brother hits.

Prado is popular, versatile and defensively solid wherever he plays. He can run and has pop. But he’s a free agent at the end of the season and unless they find a taker for Uggla (good luck), the cost-conscious Braves would have no chance of keeping Prado and their other pending free agents McCann and Hudson. Prado was the logical trade candidate if they wanted to keep Simmons.

Johnson is a limited player. He’s mediocre defensively and strikes out a lot. He’s relatively cheap ($2.88 million in 2013) and has 10-15 home run power. They needed a stopgap third baseman and took Johnson as a concession to losing Prado. Given the third base market, they could do worse. Better still, Johnson isn’t the type to be intimidated by replacing the future Hall of Famer Jones.

The initial reaction to a trade like this is generally, “Wow, look at what the Braves could be.” But what they will be is contingent on B.J. Upton hustling full-time and not just when he feels like it. If Justin Upton being there assists in that, his value will be exponentially increased from what he provides on the field.

The Braves are a win-now team and the young players they traded weren’t going to help them win on the field in the immediate future, but by trading them for Justin Upton, they did help them for 2013 and beyond.

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Which B.J. Upton Are The Braves Getting?

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Looking at his numbers without knowing how physically gifted he is, the Braves signing B.J. Upton to a 5-year, $75.25 million contract would be viewed somewhere between an overreach and lunacy. Upton’s offensive production has steadily declined from his best overall season—his first full year in the big leagues—in 2007 to what has now become a 28-year-old question mark.

Upton’s entire career has been based on talent and not results. He was the second player selected in the 2002 amateur draft; in 2004, he was in the big leagues at 19 before going back to the minors for most of 2005 and 2006; he looked to be a burgeoning star in 2007 with 24 homers, 22 stolen bases, and an .894 OPS; and throughout has been an aggravating player and person with bursts of brilliance and extended periods of inconsistency and laziness. At times, Upton doesn’t behave as if he even wants to play, let alone play hard.

In 2012, his free agent season, he hit a career high 28 homers and was clearly trying to hit more homers—not that that’s always a good thing. His OPS has been stagnant in the mid .700s since 2010, he strikes out 160 times a year, and his walks have severely diminished since posting 97 in 2008. When sufficiently motivated, he’s a great defensive center fielder, but one of his signature moments of being B.J. Upton occurred in June of 2010 when he lackadaisically pursued a line drive in the gap and Evan Longoria confronted him in the dugout nearly initiating a fistfight.

In addition to that incident, he was benched or pulled several times by manager Joe Maddon for such transgressions and chose not to run hard on a double play ball in the 2008 World Series. If he’s not going to run out grounders in the World Series, when is he going to run them out?

The petulance and sour faces are unlikely to be assuaged by his paycheck and the mere act of putting on a Braves uniform, but that’s undoubtedly what they’re expecting. When thinking about Upton and predicting the future, I’m reminded of the Braves acquisition of Kenny Lofton from the Indians after the 1996 season. The Indians dealt Lofton away because he was a pending free agent after 1997, wanted a lot of money the Indians wouldn’t be able to pay, and the club didn’t want to let him leave for nothing as they did with Albert Belle.

Lofton did not fit in with the corporate, professional, and somewhat stuck-up Braves of the 1990s and was allowed to leave after the season where he, ironically, returned to the Indians for a reasonable contract. Lofton was a far better player than Upton is and wasn’t known for a lack of hustle. He was just outspoken and got on the nerves of managers and teammates who didn’t know him well.

Will Upton be motivated to live up to the contract or will he be content now that he’s getting paid? Will being a member of the Braves inspire him to act more professionally? The Braves certainly aren’t the frat house that the Rays were. Will there be a culture shock or will Upton try to fit in? Chipper Jones is no longer there to keep people in line and Dan Uggla doesn’t put up with the nonsense of teammates jogging around—with the Marlins he confronted Hanley Ramirez repeatedly; Tim Hudson won’t shrug off Upton jogging after a shot in the gap; and Fredi Gonzalez is more outwardly temperamental than Maddon.

Perhaps what Upton needs is the starchy, conservative, “this is how we do things” Braves instead of the freewheeling, young, and new age Rays. Maybe he’ll take the new contract as a challenge and want to live up to the money he’s being paid, money that based on bottom line statistics alone, he never would have received.

Upton is one of the most talented players in baseball with a lithe body, speed, power, and great defensive skills. At 28, he’s in his prime. The Braves just need to hope that he feels like playing and fitting in, because if he doesn’t the same issues that were prevalent in Tampa will be evident in Atlanta, except they’ll be paying big money to cajole, entreat, challenge, discipline and bench him while the Rays weren’t.

Upton is a “can” player. He can hit 20+ homers. He can steal 40 bases. He can make plays of unique defensive wizardry. He can get on base and take pitches. The Braves are paying for what he can do. What he will do is the question that not even the Braves are able to answer. They’re certainly paying for it though. It could be a retrospective bargain or disaster. And no one knows within a reasonable degree of certainty as to which it’s going to be.

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2012 MLB Award Winners—National League Manager of the Year

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Awards time is coming up fast in MLB. Yesterday I wrote why Bob Melvin should win the Manager of the Year award on the American League. Last month, I listed my Cy Young Award picks. Now, let’s look at the National League Manager of the Year along with who I picked before the season and who I think is going to win as opposed to who should win.

1. Davey Johnson, Washington Nationals

Johnson retuned to the dugout at mid-season 2011 at age 68 replacing Jim Riggleman and taking over a team that had been rebuilt from top-to-bottom and was on the cusp of taking the leap into contention. 2012 was supposed to be a step forward with a chance at making the playoffs if everything broke right. It turned out that everything broke right and then some.

Johnson straddled the line of development and winning; of protecting and letting fly and the Nationals won 98 games and the NL East title.

In his long managerial career, Johnson’s confidence has never been lacking. He’ll tell you his team’s going to win and tell you that it will be, in part, because they have Davey Johnson as their manager. He dealt with the rules and was onboard—reluctantly I think—with the limits placed on Stephen Strasburg. He didn’t hinder Bryce Harper learning how to play and behave in the big leagues and, for the most part, the 19-year-old exceeded expectations especially considering the reputation he carted with him from the minors as a loudmouthed brat.

The veterans have loved Johnson in all of his managerial stops because he lets them be themselves and doesn’t saddle them with a lot of rules and regulations. He doesn’t care about the length of their hair or that their uniforms are all identical as if they’re in the military. He treats them like men and they responded by getting him back to the playoffs.

2. Dusty Baker, Cincinnati Reds

The criticism Baker receives from the stat-obsessed is bordering on fanatical and doled out just for its own sake. He does and says some strange things sometimes, but so does every manager in baseball. He lost his closer Ryan Madson in spring training and replaced him with the unproven Aroldis Chapman and manipulated the bullpen well. The starting pitching was solid from top-to-bottom and remarkably healthy. The lineup lost star Joey Votto for a chunk of the season, but got through it and won the NL Central in a walk. The bottom line for Baker is this: he wins when he has good players and the players play hard for him. That’s all that matters.

3. Bruce Bochy, San Francisco Giants

Bochy is old-school and would fit in perfectly in the late 1800s with his gravely voice, gruff and grumbly—though likable—manner of speaking, and professional handling of his players. Like Baker, Bochy lost his closer Brian Wilson; dealt with Tim Lincecum’s poor season; and manipulated the lineup getting useful production from journeymen like Gregor Blanco after the suspension of Melky Cabrera.

4. Mike Matheny, St. Louis Cardinals

Matheny made some strategic mistakes as he was learning on the job after never having managed before, but the Cardinals made the playoffs and got past the expected pains of evolution following the departures of Tony LaRussa, Dave Duncan, and Albert Pujols. Matheny coaxed a career year out of Kyle Lohse, transitioned Lance Lynn into the starting rotation and an All-Star berth, and overcame the injuries to Lance Berkman and Yadier Molina.

5. Fredi Gonzalez, Atlanta Braves

Gonzalez learned from his mistakes by not burning out his bullpen and overcame injuries and questions in the starting rotation and lineup to win 94 games. Gonzalez and pitching coach Roger McDowell developed Kris Medlen; didn’t abuse Craig Kimbrel; overcame the struggles of Randall Delgado and Tommy Hanson; and the injuries to Brandon Beachy and Jonny Venters. Dan Uggla dealt with prolonged slumps; Chipper Jones was in and out of the lineup; and the Braves went through multiple shortstops, but still emerged in a tough division to make the playoffs.

My preseason pick was Johnson and that’s who’s going to win.

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Mariano Rivera and Retirement

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Mariano Rivera hadn’t specifically said he was going to retire at the conclusion of the 2012 season, but the cryptic implication took the tone of retirement with some wiggleroom in case he changed his mind. If he’d made it official before the season, Rivera would’ve earned the Chipper Jones treatment with honorifics from everyone—including the Red Sox and Mets—as he made his way around baseball a final time, but for someone as humble as Rivera, the ambiguity was preferable. In addition, Rivera’s humility is matched by his competitiveness, so if he wanted to play in 2013, he didn’t want to have to backtrack and say, “Never mind,” after getting gifts from other clubs.

Then he got hurt.

Out for the year after tearing his knee on May 3rd, Rivera stated that he wasn’t going out like this and he’d be back. In many situations, this recent vacillation after an ironclad statement would be a negotiating tactic and the player would be seeking more money and a longer-term contract. That would be true regardless of the player’s age. Rivera is turning 43 next month, but considering his durability and performance, a 2-year deal wouldn’t be an overwhelming risk for the Yankees.

Rivera isn’t looking for multiple years, doesn’t have an ulterior motive, and he certainly doesn’t want to hamstring the Yankees’ planning for 2013, especially with Rivera’s 2012 replacement Rafael Soriano having an opt-out in his contract and Soriano’s agent Scott Boras giving every indication that he’ll exercise it.

Extenuating circumstances having to do with life are more prominent in this decision by Rivera than financial or team-related issues. When he was injured, his surgery was delayed by a blood clot in his calf. Then the procedure was done, labeled a success, and there was as collective sigh of relief from the Yankees, the media, and their fans that Rivera would be back in 2013.

Now it’s not so clear-cut.

Yankees’ GM Brian Cashman sounds as if he’s preparing the fans for the legitimate possibility that Rivera will hang it up. Money is not a factor. If it’s a 1-year contract, the Yankees will be glad to give Rivera the $15 million he’s likely to want. That’s not the obstacle. The obstacle comes when longtime players, coaches, and managers or anyone who’s done one thing for a long time ask themselves, “Can I live without it?” and answer in the affirmative.

How much did Rivera enjoy the time away from the everyday grind and travel to spend the summer with his family? Did he realize that he can live without it? If that’s the case, then the acceptance of not needing the game—ably combined with his faith and love of family—could spur him to finally retire.

The injury afforded Rivera the opportunity to know the heretofore unknowable of whether he’d be bored without baseball. He experienced some semblance of retirement without being retired. If he saw that he could live without it for an extended period in the summer while the season was in progress, that might’ve been his answer.

If he retires, it’s not because he doesn’t want to play anymore and not because he can’t, but because he doesn’t want to put forth the effort to maintain his level of greatness; because he doesn’t want to leave his family again; because the blood clot and knee injury might have made him realize that life and health are fragile; because he realized he doesn’t have that need. If it took being away from the game to make that discovery, then the knee injury might not have simply ended his season, but it might have ended his career in a different context than was initially feared.

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National League East—2012 Present and 2013 Future

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Click to read about the AL East, Central, and West.

Here’s the NL East.

Washington Nationals

For some it’s a validation and for others it’s an unsatisfactory and paranoid result, but now that the Stephen Strasburg debate has been concluded once and for all, the Nationals are moving on without their best pitcher. They’ve taken a tremendous and rapid leap forward to the playoffs and an all-but-certain division title. They look identical to the Braves of 1991 with a young pitching staff; power bats; and an ownership willing to spend to keep the team together and aggressive enough to improve. They also have something those Braves never had: a bullpen. It’s that bullpen that will counteract the loss of Strasburg for the playoffs. In fact, it’s probably more important to have a deep, versatile bullpen in the playoffs than it is to have a great starting rotation. That’s something else the dominant Braves of 1991-2005 proved year-after-year.

The Nats are here to stay and we’d better get used to them being in the playoffs on an annual basis.

Atlanta Braves

The Braves overcame their collapse better than any other team in recent memory that experienced a similar meltdown. Part of that is due to manager Fredi Gonzalez’s acquiescence in not overusing the bullpen early in the season; Jason Heyward’s comeback season; Michael Bourn’s full-season in his walk year; Kris Medlen’s second-half brilliance with the club overcoming underachievement from Tommy Hanson, ineffectiveness from Jair Jurrjens, the injury to Brandon Beachy, and the stagnation of Randall Delgado.

Their ownership doesn’t spend a lot of money, so it’s hard to see them keeping Bourn. Brian McCann is a free agent after 2013, but with Chipper Jones’s money coming off the books and McCann’s status as a Georgia native, that will get worked out.

With or without spending, the Braves have enough young talent to be contenders for the future.

On a note about the Braves’ bullpen, Craig Kimbrel has been all-but unhittable. I get the sense that the NL Cy Young Award voting will split between R.A. Dickey and Gio Gonzalez and Kimbrel’s going to win it.

Philadelphia Phillies

Now that the dreams of a miraculous comeback suffered a deathblow in Houston by losing 3 of 4 against the rancid Astros, then resuscitated briefly by humiliating the Mets, the Braves all but ended the Phillies’ hopes over the weekend as Roy Halladay got blasted on Saturday in the game the Phillies absolutely had to win.

Now what?

They underachieved in 2012 with a payroll of $170 million-plus and are very old. They re-signed Cole Hamels and with he, Halladay, and Cliff Lee, along with Jonathan Papelbon in the bullpen, they’ll be playoff contenders in 2013. The vault is not going to be as wide open as it was, so any thoughts of Zack Greinke should end now. They’ll need starting pitching so it’s more likely that they pursue a Dan Haren type—a good starter coming off a bad year and on a short-term deal. They need a center fielder and there’s been talk of a reunion with Michael Bourn. I would not overpay for Bourn, but GM Ruben Amaro Jr. tends to go after what he wants regardless of cost. I’d also expect Ryan Madson to return to the Phillies as a set-up man following his Tommy John surgery and lost year with the Reds, and he’ll be good.

It appears as if all systems are go for Chase Utley to move to third base, but his knees are a chronic problem. If he’s unable to start the season again, then the Phillies will be right back where they started from trusting Freddy Galvis at second and having a black hole at third. They desperately need an outfield bat of the Cody Ross variety—affordable and pretty good. If I were Amaro, I’d call the Indians about Asdrubal Cabrera.

New York Mets

Because of their second half nosedive, they’re still viewed as something of a laughingstock, but when examining even worse situations such as the Marlins, Astros, Red Sox, Cubs; and teams that spent big and haven’t gotten bang for their bucks with the Tigers, Phillies, Angels, and Dodgers, the Mets are in a pretty good position.

The young pitching prospects Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler will join Jonathon Niese and R.A. Dickey in the rotation at some point in 2013, and they also have young arms Jeurys Familia and Jenrry Mejia. Jason Bay and Johan Santana are coming off the books after 2013 (unless they can trade one or both for commensurately expiring deals), so they’ll have money to spend after 2013.

This doom and gloom is based on looking for reasons to tear into the organization. The low minor leagues is increasingly well-stocked.

They need a catcher who can hit and desperately have to get a bat for the middle and top of the lineup. Names to pursue are Justin Upton, Shin-Soo Choo, Dexter Fowler, Ian Kinsler, B.J. Upton, and Shane Victorino.

I’d stay away from Bourn.

Miami Marlins

I wrote about them yesterday, but just when it seemed as if it couldn’t get worse, it got worse.

Heath Bell went on a radio show and basically called manager Ozzie Guillen a liar. The host of the show, Dan Sileo, prodded Bell while doling responsibility on everyone but Bell. It’s an awful interview by an awful interviewer topped off by ridiculous baseball analysis. You can find it here.

Whether or not Bell is accurate in his criticism is irrelevant. That Bell still can’t keep quiet is indicative of one of the main problems the Marlins have had: no veteran leader to stand in the middle of the clubhouse and speak up. It was Bell’s dreadful performance that, more than anything else, set the stage for the Marlins’ terrible season. But he…won’t…shut…UP!!!!

Braves’ manager Gonzalez, who was fired by the Marlins, said of Marlins’ owner Jeffrey Loria:

“There’s not a manager dead or alive that Jeffrey thinks is good enough. Not Connie Mack, not anyone.”

Loria called the comments “classless.” Does it help that the comments are 100% true?

It’s going to get worse from here for the Marlins as they plan to cut payroll from $95 million to $70-80 million. (Bet on the under.) It remains to be seen who’s going to get fired and who isn’t, but they’ll desperately try to unload Bell and if that means attaching him to any deal in which a club wants to acquire Josh Johnson, then that’s what they’ll do.

I believe Johnson will be traded this winter; Jose Reyes will be traded during the season in 2013, as will Ricky Nolasco.

All of that said, the Marlins do have some young talent with the acquisitions they made of Nathan Eovaldi, Jacob Turner, and Rob Brantly to go along with the monster Giancarlo Stanton, so they’re not going to be an atrocity and they certainly won’t be as bad as they were in 2012.

Those advocating or actively pursuing a new stadium for the Rays need to take note what’s happened with the Marlins. Florida fans are simply not invested enough in baseball to make it a worthwhile expenditure for either private investors of public referendum. The ballpark should not have been built. Either the club should’ve been contracted, allowed to move to a baseball-friendly venue in the United States, or they should’ve sat tight and waited out the end of the Castro regime in Cuba, hoped for a new, free country 90 miles away from Miami, and moved the team there.

An MLB team in Cuba would be huge. Instead there’s a beautiful new park in Miami with few fans and a top-to-bottom case study in dysfunction and absence of responsibility. It’s a train wreck.

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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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Heath Bell’s Blameworthy Disaster

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Before he became a “genius” and a “future Hall of Fame executive”, John Schuerholz was the well-liked and competent GM of the Kansas City Royals. He’d won a World Series in 1985 and was not, under any circumstances, expected to one day be feted as the “architect” of a Braves team that would win 14 straight division titles.

In truth he wasn’t an architect of anything. The pieces to that team were in place when he arrived. Already present were Chipper Jones, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Steve Avery, Sid Bream, David Justice and Ron Gant. He made some great, prescient acquisitions such as Greg Maddux, Terry Pendleton and Fred McGriff; had mediocre overall drafts; and was aggressive in making trades on the fly to improve the team.

But he wasn’t a genius.

After a 92-70 season by the Royals in 1989 Schuerholz went on a spending spree that included signing the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner, closer Mark Davis, away from the San Diego Padres to a 4-year, $13 million contract. (It was akin to the Jonathan Papelbon deal of today.)

The Royals had a young closer with Jeff Montgomery and didn’t need Davis.

Amid injuries and underperformance, the team finished at 75-86, 27 1/2 games behind the division winning A’s.

Following the season, Schuerholz left the Royals to take over for Bobby Cox as the Braves’ GM with Cox staying on as manager.

I mention the Davis signing because his nightmare from 1990 echoes what’s happening to Marlins’ closer Heath Bell now.

Bell just isn’t as likable as Davis was.

Yesterday was another atrocious outing for Bell and the unusual step (which is becoming more and more usual for him) of yanking him from a save situation occurred for the second day in a row. Manager Ozzie Guillen’s demeanor in the dugout when Bell is on the mound is becoming increasingly overt with frustration and anger. It’s the exacerbated human nature of the athlete that Bell’s teammates are publicly supporting him and privately saying that it’s enough and he needs to get the job done or it’s time for a change.

Bell’s numbers are bad enough. An 8.47 ERA; 24 hits, 14 walks and only 10 strikeouts in 17 innings and the 4 blown saves don’t tell the whole story. He’s not in a slump. He’s been plain awful.

I called this when I wrote my free agency profile of Bell in November but he’s been far worse than anyone could’ve imagined.

In his first few big league seasons as a transient between Triple A and the Mets, Bell didn’t see eye-to-eye with Mets’ pitching coach Rick Peterson and GM Omar Minaya made a rotten trade in sending Bell away to the Padres. The fact that the trade was bad doesn’t make it wrong that they traded him. The Padres were a situation where he was able to resurrect his career first as a the set-up man for Trevor Hoffman and then as the closer.

The Mets did him a favor.

Bell has a massive chip on his shoulder that indicates a need to prove himself. Perhaps the money and expectations are hindering him. That’s not an excuse. He’s a day or two away from being demoted from the closer’s role by the Marlins not for a few days to clear his head, but for the foreseeable future.

Bell’s locked in with the Marlins for the next 2 ½ years as part of a 3-year, $27 million deal unless they dump him. As of right now, he’s a very expensive mop-up man and the Marlins have every right—even a duty—to use someone else because Bell’s not doing the job. Period.

I seriously doubt they’re going to want to hear his mouth if and when he’s demoted from the closer’s role.

But they will.

Bet on it.

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Mike Francesa As The Psycho Ex-Boyfriend

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The Mets have planned a small video tribute for Jose Reyes on his first trip to New York as a visiting player when the Marlins come to town on April 24th—NY Daily News Story.

It’s no big deal either way. Like the supposed small gesture they may or may not have planned (we don’t know yet) for Chipper Jones when the Braves visit Citi Field for the final time in September, there’s nothing wrong with doing something nice and altering the perception of the club that had turned the Mets into a the type of place where players didn’t want to go unless they have no other choice.

Isn’t a solid reputation for treating players—theirs and others—kindly and professionally better than rampant dysfunction and disarray?

Like Jones, they’re not giving Reyes a car; they’re not retiring his number. If they’re doing it to draw a few more fans, so what?

Some have a problem with it though. One such person is Mike Francesa.

The WFAN host went into a blustery rant as to why the Mets have it backwards; how they never get it right; how they’re playing well and this adds another distraction from the team that they don’t need.

He can make his case and we can agree or disagree—it’s arguable—but his suggestion in lieu of a tribute was that of a psychopathic, spurned ex-boyfriend when he said that rather than give Reyes a tribute, they should throw a ball near Reyes’s head.

It would’ve been taken as his mouth getting away from him as he was opening his show and stirring the pot but for two things: he’s said stuff like this before; and he said it again a moment later with the idiotic assertion that Reyes should “get one in the chin when he comes up.”

This is not a new line of thought from Francesa. In the Little League World Series a few years ago, a player pointed toward the fence as if he was going to hit the ball out of the park and Francesa said that he, as a child, would’ve thrown the ball at the kid’s head.

He also suggested (off-air and according to another WFAN employee who was with him) that the Yankees throw at Reyes’s head after Reyes had homered twice at Yankee Stadium in June of 2010.

This headhunting obsession is disturbing and I wonder if Francesa feels the same way about all players or it’s Reyes who’s earned this bullseye on his helmet. Would it be okay if it was Derek Jeter? Alex Rodriguez? One of his favorites Bernie Williams?

Throwing at Reyes’s head is not only okay, but encouraged?

And what if the ball gets away from the pitcher and it sails into Reyes’s face? Or if the ball is close and Reyes leans forward instead of back and hits him in the helmet or the neck? What if it hits him in the eye?

What if it ends his career?

Is that retribution?

For what?

Because he chose to sign with the Marlins after the Mets didn’t make him an offer?

The Mets didn’t want him back, so what’s the logic behind this edict to try and hurt him?

The list of players whose careers have been damaged or destroyed by errant pitches that hit them in the head or face is vast. Off the top of my head, Al Cowens, Tony Conigliaro, Dickie Thon, Don Slaught and Adam Greenberg pop immediately to mind.

There are many others.

What would be accomplished by hitting Reyes? Would it prove something? I’m not seeing the logic.

It’s these bully-types like Francesa who consider themselves old-school and want to return to the 1950s and 1960s when pitchers owned the inside of the plate and there was no body-armor nor bench clearing brawls every time a pitch came close to them.

But the truth is that in spite of the reputations and being at or near the top of the league in hit-by-pitches for Don Drysdale, Sal Maglie, Bob Gibson and other more intimidating pitchers of the era, it was the threat of the inside pitch that was the weapon rather than the legitimate fear that they were trying to hit someone in the head.

It’s also those bully-types who would never follow through on these demands to “hit ‘im” if they themselves were asked to carry them out.

I’m old-school when it comes to retaliation. Sometimes it’s necessary in the big leagues and pitchers must pitch inside. But if you’re going to do it, don’t throw at the head. Most hitters, while disliking being drilled, will understand when it happens and they’re hit in the back or lower body. If it’s because their own pitcher was doing it to the opposition, that will be policed in-house.

But Francesa is old-school in name and ignorance only; he’s longing for a time when imbecilic would-be tough guys stalked the playground and exerted their will until they ran into someone tougher (as they invariably do); someone who didn’t talk, but acted.

For saying something like this, Francesa’s despicable and there’s no excuse.

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