What’s next for the Reds after firing Bryan Price?

MLB

Cincinnati Reds pitching coach Bryan Price (38)

The Reds firing manager Bryan Price should come as no surprise. Their won/lost record of 3-15 is terrible in any context, but it’s incidental when determining Price’s fate. As discussed in my post for FanRag Sports here, Price had little chance of retaining the job beyond this season and if things went badly, it made sense to pull the trigger sooner rather than later.

Price was in a bad spot from the get-go when he got the job in 2014. Replacing Dusty Baker and taking over a team that made three postseason appearances under Baker and never gotten beyond the first round, hiring Price was change for its own sake. He just happened to be the guy sitting next to Baker who was not a Baker acolyte and got the opportunity for a limited level of continuity to see if the same core of players would have different luck with a new manager. They didn’t. In Price’s first year, they finished at 76-86. Then the housecleaning started in earnest. From there, he was a “bridge” manager who would oversee a rebuild and whose expertise – pitching – was the area in which their new foundation was to be built. Acquiring talented young arms Brandon Finnegan, Anthony DeSclafani and Luis Castillo among others was the basis of the rebuild. They had some decent power bats and could build around veteran star Joey Votto as the linchpin of the offense.

No one, least of all the Reds, were expecting the club to vault into contention in 2018. In a National League Central with the Cubs, Cardinals and Brewers, there was essentially no chance of that. But when the season began and the Reds found themselves buried after three weeks even with those three competitors struggling, what was the purpose of delaying the inevitable and letting Price twist in the wind?

Jim Riggleman has been named as the interim manager. The club made certain to emphasize the word “interim.” This is familiar terrain for the veteran baseball man Riggleman having been the guy sitting next to the guy who got fired and taking over in similar circumstances as manager of the Padres, Mariners and Nationals.

For those scoffing at Riggleman and pejoratively labeling him as an old-school retread, he’s a good baseball man who will, at minimum, stabilize the situation as they decide on their direction.

And what direction is that?

Immediately, speculation centered around three names: Barry Larkin, John Farrell and Joe Girardi.

Larkin is a Reds icon and baseball Hall of Famer. He was a great player and is a good, well-spoken person. He’s expressed an interest in managing. Owner Bob Castellini likes “name” managers – that’s how Baker got the job in the first place – and Larkin fits that criteria.

However, there are dangers with this kind of hire. First, what exactly are Larkin’s managerial credentials? Being a great player does not imply that he or anyone will be a great manager. In fact, it’s generally the opposite. The better players are often terrible managers because they grow frustrated with players being unable to perform as easily or as intelligently as they did. “I did it, why can’t you do it?”

The problem with hiring Larkin goes beyond his inexperience. Placing a young president of baseball operations and general manager, Dick Williams, in a position where he has foisted upon him a manager who is clearly not of his choosing figuratively castrates him. If Larkin doesn’t work out as manager, the club will be confronted with the choice of firing and creating a rift with a popular player and personality who happens to be from Cincinnati; or retaining him not because of his work, but because they don’t want to create a rift with a popular player and personality. Hiring someone who is bulletproof from being fired is not a good thing and there’s no guarantee he can do the job. Fans don’t go to games to see a manager manage if the team is terrible, so why risk it?

Farrell was mentioned in the FanRag post as the obvious successor. The Reds hired him as a scout. Perhaps the implied hesitation of the Riggleman interim hire is so Farrell can gauge the organization before taking over on the field. He’s not great, but he does come with a certain cachet after winning the World Series with the Red Sox and is a good pitching coach. While Price is also a good pitching coach, the pitchers have stagnated, regressed or gotten injured under his stewardship, so maybe a different voice is all that is needed.

The idea of Girardi might be alluring to Castellini, but this is not a good fit for Girardi. He won’t want to go to a team that is still in need of retooling. As the Yankees struggle without him, it would be understandable if he sits on the sideline, does some broadcasting, and has his Yankees tenure look better and better as the team tries to find its footing with new manager Aaron Boone. Two jobs that immediately that immediately come to mind as better fits for Girardi are the Cardinals and the White Sox. For him to jump back in with the Reds smacks of desperation to take a job, any job, and that’s something Girardi neither needs to do nor should do.

Price was not the problem, but he was not the solution either. Therefore, firing him was justified.

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We Know What’s Wrong With The Nats, But How Can It Be Fixed?

2013 MLB Predicted Standings, Award Winners, Ballparks, Draft, Free Agents, Games, Hall Of Fame, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, Players, Playoffs, Prospects, Stats, Trade Rumors, World Series

The Nationals were expected to dominate. Instead, the team that won 98 games in 2012 and seemingly improved over the winter is under .500, out of contention and facing a large number of changes this off-season. It’s not hard to diagnose what went wrong and here’s a brief synopsis:

  • Injuries

The Nationals lost Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth, Wilson Ramos and Ross Detwiler for extended periods.

  • Underperformance

Dan Haren was signed to shore up the back of the rotation and has been awful. Drew Storen is out of his element as a set-up man and wound up back in the minors. Denard Span has been a disappointment. And Danny Espinosa’s numbers (.158/.193/.272 split with a .465 OPS and 3 homers) are worse than those of Cubs’ pitcher Travis Wood (.267/.298/.489 split with a .787 OPS and 3 homers).

  • Bad approach/bad luck

The Nats are seventh in the National League in home runs and next-to-last in the league in runs scored. They’re twelfth in the league in walks and fourteenth in on-base percentage. In 2013, they’re thirteenth in the league with a BAbip of .282; in 2012, they were fourth at .308.

  • Poor defense

The Nats’ catchers have caught 13 percent of the runners trying to steal on them. Anthony Rendon is a third baseman playing second. Ryan Zimmerman is in a defensive funk that’s gone of for the better part of two years.

  • Dysfunction

Manager Davey Johnson has openly clashed with general manager Mike Rizzo. Tyler Clippard ripped the organization for their demotion of his friend Storen. The players appear to have thought they’d have a cakewalk to the playoffs given the hype and star power.

In short, the Nats have gone from an embarrassment of riches to a plain embarrassment. With 2013 essentially over and 2012 long gone in the rearview mirror, what do the Nats have to do to get back to where they were supposed to be? What should they do?

With Rizzo having received a promotion and contract extension, it’s his baby. The luck/design argument is irrelevant. The Nationals happened to be the worst team in baseball two years in a row when once-a-generation talents were sitting there waiting to be picked first overall in Harper and Stephen Strasburg. That’s no one’s fault and to no one’s credit. It just is. Rizzo put a solid team together, but there’s been a semblance of overkill with the signings of Haren and Rafael Soriano. Haren’s performance in 2013 is indicative that his decline that began last season with the Angels was not an aberration. Soriano has pitched well, but he was not really a necessity for the Nats. He was available, they didn’t trust Storen and preferred Clippard as the set-up man. In retrospect, both were mistakes.

The question of who the manager will be going forward is vital. Johnson bears a large portion of the responsibility for this team’s underachievement. As great as his record is and as much as the media loves him for his personality and candor, Johnson’s style was a significant reason the 1980s Mets failed to live up to their talent level. He doesn’t care about defense, he trusts his players far too much in preaching aggressiveness, and the festering anger over the 2012 Strasburg shutdown—that I’m sure Johnson thinks cost his team a World Series—has manifested itself in open warfare between the manager and GM. If Johnson weren’t retiring at season’s end, Rizzo likely would’ve fired him a month ago along with hitting coach Rick Eckstein, or Johnson would simply have quit.

Johnson’s positives (he wins a lot of regular season games) don’t eliminate his negatives (he’s insubordinate and his teams are fundamentally weak). Thirty years ago, Johnson was seen as a computer geek manager. Nowadays, he’s considered a dinosaur. In reality, Johnson is and always has been a gambler and an arrogant one at that. His attitude is that the team he’s managing needs him more than he needs it. He doesn’t want people telling him what to do and he’s never taken well to front office meddling. The Strasburg shutdown and firing of his hitting coach are two instances in which Johnson would like to tell the front office to take a hike and let him run the team his way. Rizzo had problems with Johnson and his predecessor Jim Riggleman. With the next hire, he’d better get someone younger and on the same page. That doesn’t mean he should hire a yes man, but someone who he can work with sans this lingering tension and open disagreements.

With the personnel, a lesson can be learned from the Big Red Machine Reds from 1971. In 1970, GM Bob Howsam and manager Sparky Anderson had built a monster. The Reds won 102 games and lost the World Series to the Orioles. Widely expected to repeat as NL champs, they fell to 79-83 in 1971. With cold-blooded analysis, Howsam realized that the Reds were missing the elements of leadership, speed, intensity and defense, Howsam traded 39-homer man Lee May and starting second baseman Tommy Helms with Jimmy Stewart to the Astros for Joe Morgan, Cesar Geronimo, Jack Billingham, Ed Armbrister and Denis Menke. The clubhouse was transformed and they were suddenly a faster team with Gold Glovers at second base and in center field. In fact, it was that decried move that spurred their run to greatness.

Rizzo needs to look at the team’s deficiencies in the same way that Howsam did and act decisively. If that means getting a defensively oriented catcher, trading Ian Desmond, Clippard and some other names that are supposedly part of the team’s “core,” then they have to explore it. If a team underachieves from what they were supposed to be, there’s nothing wrong with dropping a bomb in the clubhouse. In fact, it’s necessary in order to get back on track. With their youth and talent, the Nats can get back to where they were with the right managerial choice and a gutty trade or two.

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MLB Trade Deadline: Relievers and the Eric Gagne-Jesse Crain Parallel

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It’s safe to say the two veteran relief pitchers the Red Sox just signed to minor league contracts, Brandon Lyon and Jose Contreras, won’t be the missing pieces to their hoped-for 2013 championship puzzle. Suffice it to also say that neither will pitch as terribly as Eric Gagne did when the Red Sox surrendered three players to get the veteran closer from the Rangers in 2007. If they do, it’s no harm/no foul.

The trade for Gagne was meant to create shutdown eighth and ninth innings with Gagne and Jonathan Papelbon and lead them to a World Series title. They won the title with no help from Gagne, who posted a 6.75 ERA with 26 hits allowed in 18 2/3 innings after the trade and pitched as badly in the post-season as he did in the regular season. In retrospect the trade wasn’t one in which the Red Sox are lamenting letting young players they needed get away.

For Gagne, they traded former first round draft pick outfielder David Murphy, lefty pitcher Kason Gabbard and young outfielder Engel Beltre. Murphy has been a good player for the Rangers, but the Red Sox haven’t missed him. Gabbard was a soft-tossing lefty whose career was derailed by injuries and actually wound up back with the Red Sox in 2010 for 11 Triple A appearances and hasn’t pitched since. If the Red Sox wind up regretting the trade it will because of Beltre who is still only 23, has speed, occasional pop and can play centerfield. Regardless of what happens with him, few will hold it against them for trading a 17-year-old in the quest of a championship that they wound up winning independent of Gagne’s terribleness.

The trade could have been far more disastrous than it was and it was due to the club overvaluing both the player they were getting and the importance of a relief pitcher who was not a closer. Interestingly, as written by Terry Francona and Dan Shaughnessy in The Red Sox Years, the Red Sox original intention was to use Papelbon as a set-up man and install Gagne as the closer. They went so far as to go to Papelbon’s home prior to pulling the trigger to discuss the possibility of letting Gagne close. Papelbon objected and the club made the trade anyway to use Gagne as the set-up man. As the numbers show, it didn’t work and it might have been hellish had they made Gagne the closer by alienating Papelbon, angering a clubhouse and fanbase still harboring dreaded memories from the failed 2003 attempt at a closer-by-committee, and repeating a mistake that the Red Sox have—even today—continued to make in undervaluing a good and reliable closer.

No one is expecting Lyon or Contreras to be key contributors to a title run, but they’re “why not?” moves to see if they can get cheap production from a couple of veterans. It’s doubtful the Red Sox are going to give up a top prospect for a non-closer again. Already the club inquired with the Mets about Bobby Parnell and the Mets reportedly asked for Jackie Bradley Jr., to which the Red Sox wisely said no. The Mets are willing to move Parnell if they get that kind of offer but it’s hard to see that happening, so it’s unlikely that they trade him. However, one relief pitcher who is on the market and will be traded is Jesse Crain of the White Sox. What happened with Gagne should not be lost on a team hoping to bolster their relief corps by acquiring Crain.

Gagne, before the trade, was closing for the Rangers. He’d saved 16 games, posted a 2.16 ERA, struck out 29 in 33 1/3 innings and allowed 23 hits. For the White Sox this season Crain made the All-Star team and is in the midst of the year of his life with a 0.74 ERA, 31 hits allowed in 36 2/3 innings (with a .337 BAbip), 46 strikeouts, 11 walks and no homers. Crain has always been a solid set-up man, strikes out more than a batter-per-inning and is a free agent at the end of the season. He’s a good pitcher, but he’s not worth what the White Sox are going to want for him and might possibly get from a desperate team looking to help their bullpen. In reality, the team that acquires Crain won’t win the championship because of him if he pitches as well as he is now, nor will they lose it if he falls to earth.

There are times in which it’s worth it to give up the top prospect to get that last missing piece if the championship is the goal. The Marlins traded former first pick in the draft Adrian Gonzalez to get Ugueth Urbina in 2003. That trade is nowhere near as bad as it would’ve been if Gonzalez had blossomed for the Rangers and the Marlins hadn’t won the World Series, but the Rangers also traded Gonzalez (no one knew how good he really was), and the Marlins did win the World Series that year. They might’ve won it with or without Urbina, but the bottom-line perception is what counts and the title justifies anything they did to get it. It’s the same thing with Gagne. The Red Sox won the title, so nothing else really matters.

Will Crain yield that for the team that acquires him? Is it likely? Probably not on both counts. The only time to give up a significant piece for a known set-up man is if you’re getting Mariano Rivera from 1996 Yankees or the Rob Dibble/Norm Charlton combination from the 1990 Reds’ Nasty Boys. Other than that, a team is better off doing what the Red Sox did with Lyon and Contreras and tossing a dart at a dartboard or finding a reliever who isn’t in the midst of his career year as Crain is and hoping that a move to a contending team and more than a little luck turns into a “genius” move when it was exceedingly lucky.

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MLB Trade Deadline: A Phillies Selloff Makes No Sense

2013 MLB Predicted Standings, Award Winners, Ballparks, Books, CBA, Cy Young Award, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, History, Management, Media, MLB Trade Deadline, Players, Playoffs, Prospects, Stats, Trade Rumors, World Series

The discussion of a possible Phillies selloff is promoted by the media for the idea that some of the sexiest potential trade targets are on their roster, namely Cliff Lee and Jonathan Papelbon. Unless Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. is blown away by an offer, Lee’s not going anywhere. Papelbon is the name to watch, but he’ll get them financial relief and won’t yield a bounty of prospects in return. Apart from that, the Phillies’ situation—both financially and practically—has to be examined before stating with unequivocal certitude of what they “should” do while not being in Amaro’s position.

The Phillies are not a good team and it’s not due to injuries or age. It’s because they’re not very good. They would’ve been a good team if they had Roy Halladay pitching in the form he did in his first two years in Philadelphia, but he’s not that anymore even if he’s healthy. If Halladay was healthy, they’d be mediocre and nominal playoff contenders. With the Braves and Nationals in their own division and the Pirates (who are for real), the Cardinals and Reds in the Central division, snagging one of the two Wild Cards is a delusion for the Phillies in their current state. Ordinarily, that might predicate a housecleaning of pending free agents and marketable veterans. But it again returns to the Phillies’ situation and it leaves them with few options.

Because the Phillies went all-in in 2010 when they were, on paper, playing the same way they are now and traded for Roy Oswalt to spur a blazing hot streak over the final two months of the season, there’s a dreamy hope that they’ll repeat the process in 2013. The difference is that they don’t have any prospects left to trade for a pitcher of Oswalt’s stature and the rest of their club isn’t underperforming, but is performing what they’re currently capable of because they’re beaten up and old.

They can move Michael Young and I think they will, but they’re not going to get much for him. They can offer Chase Utley around, but he’s a pending free agent and despite the fact that a new setting and a legitimate pennant race will wake him up and possibly revert him to the MVP-status he enjoyed during the Phillies years of NL East dominance, teams won’t go crazy for a rental and give up the prospects to justify the Phillies not keeping Utley, trying to sign him to a reasonable deal to stay or letting him leave and taking the draft pick compensation. Delmon Young might be a reasonable acquisition for an AL club that is going to be in the playoffs so he can DH and do one thing he does well: hit in the playoffs. Carlos Ruiz is a free agent at the end of the year and he too would help a legitimate contender, but again, they won’t get bring back stud prospects.

That leaves Lee and Papelbon.

I don’t believe the Phillies are going to trade Lee. It doesn’t make sense considering the rest of the roster being entrenched in trying to win over the next couple of years while the club begins rebuilding their gutted farm system that was neglected as the available money for development was allocated for the big league product. Teams that do what the Phillies did in trading all their top prospects to try and win now and simultaneously ignore the draft know they’re mortgaging the future with a balloon payment. That balloon payment is due soon and they’re going to have to pay it.

Amaro is not going to do a full-blown rebuild because he can’t afford to have an empty park waiting five, seven, ten or however many years it takes for the team to be good again. It’s easier to hope that they’ll get a resurgence with the veterans under contract and slowly start resuscitating their minor league system. Realistically, what would they get for Lee? He has a limited no-trade clause so there are only eight teams to which he can be traded and he’s owed $62.5 million through 2015 not counting his salary for the rest of 2013. To get viable prospects to make the deal worth the Phillies’ while, they’d have to pick up a chunk of his money. To get out from under his full salary, they’d have to take nothing back in return. Then what? They’d need pitching for next year to try and win with the players they still have with none as good as Lee on the market. So it makes no sense to even speculate about in any manner other than to garner attention for something that’s highly unlikely to happen during the season.

As for Papelbon, he’s one name who could help a club like the Tigers who need a closer. He could put them over the top and for the Phillies, he’s replaceable if they’re not in the playoff hunt. He doesn’t appear happy in Philadelphia, they don’t seem to like him very much and getting rid of his salary for a couple of mid-level minor leaguers would appeal to everyone. If they’re out of the race in the second half, they could give Phillippe Aumont a look as the closer and after the season go the cheap (and ironic) route and bring back Ryan Madson who, by then, might not have thrown one pitch for another team after leaving the Phillies only to return two years later to have a shot to be the closer again.

The idea behind trade deadline speculation is to formulate a clear-cut scenario of either/or. Either we’re in it and we buy or we’re out of it and we sell. That comes from the Moneyball school of thought with no obstacles other than financial, but that’s fiction just like Moneyball. The Rays can get away with that kind of attitude. The teams with fans who pay to see the team and live and breathe with the idea that they could possibly challenge for a World Series in spite of the odds—the Phillies, Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers—can’t do it that easily. The Phillies won’t sell. They’ll tweak. That means Papelbon will be the one of the whales to go and Lee will stay.

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2013 MLB Awards Predictions

2013 MLB Predicted Standings, Award Winners, Books, Cy Young Award, Games, History, Management, Media, MVP, Players, Stats

American League

MVP: Jose Bautista, Blue Jays

If the Blue Jays are contending as they’re supposed to, they’ll be doing it with Bautista having the type of year he had in 2010-2011 when he led the majors in home runs both years and had an OPS of .995 and 1.056.

Cy Young Award: Felix Hernandez, Mariners

He finally has an offense to score a few runs and won’t have to have people make a case and “search for points” to vote for him to win an award he should win outright.

Rookie of the Year: Aaron Hicks, Twins

He’s hit, hit with pop, gotten on base, and stolen bases at every minor league level and forced his way into the Twins’ starting lineup. Because the Twins are not expected to contend, they can let Hicks play until he grows comfortable without immediate pressure to send him down if he slumps.

Manager of the Year: Eric Wedge, Mariners

I’m expecting the Mariners to be contenders in a tough division and if they are, the manager will get the credit.

National League

MVP: Joey Votto, Reds

A healthy Votto, surrounded by power hitters and guys who will get on base in front of him will yield massive classic power numbers with a huge slugging and on base percentage. Plus he’s a Gold Glove candidate and the leader of the team.

Cy Young Award: Zack Greinke, Dodgers

Pitching in Dodger Stadium will keep his ERA supernaturally low.

Rookie of the Year: Hyun-jin Ryu, Dodgers

Ryu has an exploding fastball, a changeup, slider, curve and control. He won’t have to be the center of attention behind Clayton Kershaw and Greinke and there won’t be a large amount of attention paid to him as there would be for an import from the Far East who had expectations a la Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Manager of the Year: Davey Johnson, Nationals

Johnson’s team will be frontrunning from the beginning of the season to the end. Barring an unexpected team contending and having their manager given the credit to take the award away from Johnson, he’ll win the Manager of the Year for the Nats’ regular season success.

Paul Lebowitz’s 2013 Baseball Guide is now available on Amazon.com, Smashwords, BN and Lulu. Check it out and read a sample.

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Aroldis Chapman—Starter or Closer?

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The Reds have experimented with Aroldis Chapman as a starter this spring after he spent the first three seasons in the majors as a reliever. He was their closer in 2012 and saved 38 games with dominant 122 strikeouts in 71.1 innings. Overall, in his three years, he’s thrown 135 innings and struck out 212. It’s obvious why the Reds would like to see how he’d do as a starter with those kinds of strikeout numbers and a Randy Johnson/Sandy Koufax potential for left-handed dominance if he has the durability to start.

Let’s look at the various factors in Chapman as a starter or reliever from the point of view of the participants.

Aroldis Chapman

He’s said he wants to go back to the bullpen. How much of an influence the player has on his role depends on the player, his contract, how much of a pest he can make of himself if he doesn’t get his way. Chapman’s statement that he wants to close was said in a sort of passive aggressive manner of, “I want to close, but it’s not my decision.”

Some players would exercise a self-fulfilling prophecy and say they won’t be able to start and stay healthy and effective over a full season if they want to be in the bullpen, and then come up with a malady that may or may not be psychosomatic. In the age of heavy stat use, the mental aspect is regularly ignored but no less important. Years ago, the Dodgers’ on-again/off-again third baseman Pedro Guerrero was so miserable at third base that it affected his hitting. When the Dodgers finally said enough and moved him back to the outfield, he went on a tear. It took Jonathan Papelbon to go to the Red Sox in 2007 and basically “save” their season by saying he wanted to close. It’s not to be ignored what the player wants.

What the Reds need

The 2007 Red Sox didn’t have a closer and were on the verge of making the same mistake they made in 2003 by going into the season without someone who could get the outs in the ninth inning and having it cost them games and teamwide confidence. The Reds are not in that position. They re-signed Jonathan Broxton to close if the Chapman-as-starter experiment worked. What they promised Broxton is unknown. Given the closer market and how it crashed, Broxton wasn’t in a position to be making demands that he be the closer or he wouldn’t re-sign. He’s making $21 million over three-years to soften his bruised feelings and gaudy save stats if he’s not closing.

The Reds don’t need Chapman as a starter. He’s competing with Mike Leake for the fifth spot and they’d be perfectly fine with the rotation they’d have with Chapman in the bullpen.

Management

GM Walt Jocketty is not an ideologue as Theo Epstein was when he continually insisted that he wanted Papelbon to start. Brian Cashman did the same thing with Joba Chamberlain and the Yankees succeeded in nothing more than destroying Chamberlain. Because of that, it’s clear that Jocketty believes that Chapman could be a very good starter and he’s not trying it based on theory or what’s popular.

With that 100+ mph fastball, a slider and a changeup that he rarely uses as a reliever, he certainly has the stuff to be as good as Johnson and Koufax were. At age 25, it’s a tough thing to relegate him to the bullpen for his whole career when there’s that chance that he could be a Hall of Fame, Cy Young Award winning starting pitcher if only given the opportunity. An old-school baseball man like Jocketty also doesn’t want to be seen as having his decisions dictated by the players or by new orthodoxy.

Manager Dusty Baker wants Chapman to close.

For all the outsider talk that closing will be “easier” on a pitcher’s arm, a future Hall of Famer in his own right, John Smoltz, did both and said that closing was tougher on him than starting was and he preferred being a starter. He was great at both. It depends on the pitcher.

If Johnson, Koufax or Nolan Ryan came on the scene today, it’s very possible that the powers-that-be would have said, “No way they can maintain this velocity over 220 innings. Make him a closer.” The White Sox made Rich Gossage a starter in 1976. His record was a dreadful 9-17, but the team was awful and he was mostly effective in the role. His strikeout numbers plummeted and he hated it. He was moved back to the bullpen and went to the Hall of Fame.

The best decision

Considering the Reds depth in the starting rotation, there’s no reason to move X here and Y there to accommodate the Z theory for the sake of it. They have five starters and their bullpen would be devastating with Sean Marshall, Broxton and Chapman in the late innings. If they weren’t legitimate World Series contenders, it would make sense to let Chapman start and see what happens. But they’re in it to win now and that’s not the time to experiment. For 2013, they should move Chapman back into the closer’s role and keep it in mind that he might be capable of starting at some other time in his career, just not now.

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Mike Trout’s Contract and the Needless Uproar

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There’s been an absurd uproar and reaction of shock that the Angels chose to renew Mike Trout‘s contract for $510,000. This is strange considering that the constant storyline surrounding athletes is how overpaid they are. For the most part, it has little to do with their performance. Players who are at the top of the baseball pay scale like Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, Joey Votto and Felix Hernandez are the examples given of players who are either not going to fulfill their paychecks with extended production into their late 30s or are considered anomalies and accused of PED use if they do perform.

In the realm of public perception, they can’t win. Of course they win in their bank account, but through no fault of their own, no matter what they do, it’s not going to be good enough.

Pujols’s contract is called a backend nightmare because he’s going to be paid $59 million two seasons after his 40th birthday.

A-Rod is breaking down physically, has $114 million due him with the very real possibility that the Yankees will eventually cut their losses of him and his constant sideshow of embarrassing drama, paying him to leave. They won’t even have the benefit of the extra income they thought they, as an organization, would accrue as A-Rod broke home run records. He probably won’t break the records at all and if he does, they’re sullied beyond all recognition due to his admitted PED use and recent allegations that their use has been ongoing.

Votto will be 30 in September and his 10-year, $225 million deal doesn’t kick in until 2014. He’ll be paid $25 million annually from age 35-39 and $20 million at 40. Plus Votto’s playing for a mid-market club, the Cincinnati Reds, for whom that contract might preclude them from putting commensurate talent around him.

Hernandez is a pitcher whose prematurely announced contract was put in jeopardy by red flags found in his elbow during his physical. By the time the contract news had been strategically leaked, neither he nor the Mariners could back out and protective language was inserted to shield the Mariners if he gets hurt.

Those who take down-the-line contracts to remain in their current venue are so rare that it’s a worldwide stunner when they make the decision that they don’t need to be the highest paid player in the world and that $85 million can buy just as much stuff as $200 million. Jered Weaver and Evan Longoria are players who have made that choice. They’re a rarity.

No matter where you stand on the issue of athletes’ pay, the way baseball functions can be manipulated to advantage the player, the club, or they can come to an agreement to share the risk with a preemptive, long-term deal. Once a player has exhausted his amateur eligibility, he’s at the mercy of the organization that drafts him. For the first three years of their major league careers, they’re paid at the whim of the team. The next three years they’re eligible for arbitration. Then they can become free agents. If they choose to do as Longoria did and sign a contract to give up their opportunity at arbitration and have their first couple of years at free agency bought out with guaranteed years and options, they can have a nice nest egg of $10-20 million regardless of whether if they flame out as players or become stars. It’s a gamble they take. It’s a gamble the team makes. It applies to everyone from Trout to the last player taken in the draft who manages to make it to the big leagues for a cup of coffee or is a late-bloomer and has a 20-year career.

You wouldn’t know that, though, from the indignant reaction to the Angels deciding to renew Trout’s contract for $510,000. Does Trout’s near-MVP season in 2012 have any bearing on the Angels’ decision to raise his salary by $28,000 from what he made as a rookie? Should it?

The Players Association makes the rules for all the players and it’s the players who instituted these rules. It allowed MLB to implement draconian constraints on newly drafted players because of the proffered reason to cut down on the huge signing bonuses amateurs receive. But the real, primordial reason is a “screw those guys” attitude that permeates established players and would, in a financial form of plausible deniable hazing, let the drafted players work their way up to making big money. It’s long been a point of contention for veteran major leaguers to see some kid taken at number 5 in the draft being handed an automatic $8 million bonus for nothing other than being a good amateur or having great tools. They dealt with it the best way they knew how. Of course it blew up in some of their faces as solid pitcher Kyle Lohse is sitting out because no one wants to give up the draft pick to sign him.

Eventually it affects everyone. These are the rules. The Angels aren’t beholden to an abstract code of right and wrong. They don’t have to give Trout a long-term contract extension if they don’t want to and they renewed his contract for an amount determined on their own volition. They don’t have to apologize or explain.

If Trout plays even 75% as well as he did in 2012, he’s going to get a $200 million contract from the Angels or someone else. He’ll have his freedom in five years. For now, he’s tied to the club that drafted him and that club can pay him whatever they choose to pay him under the parameters of the basic agreement. They decided on $510,000 and that’s what he’ll be paid. Or maybe they’re already planning a long-term contract to pay him for the next 6-8 years and buy out his arbitration years and free agency. Until that happens, his salary is what it is.

Is it fair?

Is it unfair?

It’s neither. These are the rules. It’s not slave wages and there’s no reason for the explosion of public ridicule for the Angels operating within the pay structure in Major League Baseball.

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National League Breakout/Rebound Candidates (Or Cheap Gets For Your Fantasy Team)

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Last week, I looked at breakout/rebound candidates for the American League, some of whom will be very, very cheap pickups for your fantasy clubs. Now I’ll look at the National League.

Wilson Ramos, C—Washington Nationals

Ramos is coming back from a torn ACL in his knee and because the Nationals traded for Kurt Suzuki from the Athletics last season, there’s no need to rush Ramos back before he’s 100%. But he will eventually take over as the starting catcher and it’s not just because he’s a future All-Star and potential Gold Glove winner.

Suzuki is a competent everyday catcher who’s shown 15 homer power in the past. Even if he’s not hitting, the Nationals lineup is strong enough to carry one mediocre bat and Suzuki’s good with the pitchers.

There’s a financial component though. Suzuki has a club option in his contract for 2014 at $8.5 million. The option becomes guaranteed if Suzuki starts 113 games in 2013. Barring another injury to Ramos, that is not going to happen. Ramos will be catching 5 of every 7 games by the summer.

Freddie Freeman, 1B—Atlanta Braves

It’s easy to forget about Freeman due to the number of power-hitting first basemen around baseball, but he’s gotten steadily better every year as a professional and with the infusion of Justin Upton and B.J. Upton into the lineup, plus Brian McCann, Jason Heyward and Dan Uggla, teams won’t be worried about Freeman’s power leading to him getting more pitches to hit.

Lucas Duda, LF—New York Mets

Given the Mets on-paper outfield (Collin Cowgill, Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Mike Baxter, Marlon Byrd, Marv Throneberry, George Theodore, Jan Brady, Cindy Brady, Gilligan, Barnaby Jones, Cannon), there’s plenty of fodder for ridicule. Duda is the butt of jokes because of his last name; that he’s a bad outfielder; because he seems so quiet and reticent. The criticism is missing an important factor: he can hit, hit for power and walk. If the Mets tell him he’s their starting left fielder, period, they’ll be rewarded with 25-30 homers and a .360+ on base percentage. So will fantasy owners.

Bobby Parnell, RHP—New York Mets

With Frank Francisco sidelined with elbow woes, Parnell has been named the Mets’ closer…for now. They have Brandon Lyon on the team and are still said to be weighing Jose Valverde. None of that matters. Parnell was going to get the shot at some point this season and with a little luck in Washington last season when defensive miscues cost him an impressive and legitimate old-school, fireman-style save, he would’ve taken the role permanently back then.

Jacob Turner, RHP—Miami Marlins

The Tigers were concerned about Turner’s velocity at the end of spring training 2012 and he wound up being traded to the Marlins in the deal for Omar Infante and Anibal Sanchez. He acquitted himself well in seven starts for the Marlins and will be in the 2013 rotation from start to finish. He has all the pitches, a great curve, command and presence.

Justin Ruggiano, CF—Miami Marlins

It’s natural to wonder if a player who has his breakout year at age 30 is a product of unlocked talent and opportunity or a brief, freak thing that will end as rapidly as it came about.

Ruggiano has been a very good minor league player who never got a shot to play in the big leagues. He took advantage of it in 2012 and will open the season as the Marlins starting center fielder.

Billy Hamilton, CF—Cincinnati Reds

The Reds have major expectations in 2013 and much of their fortunes hinge on their pitching staff; they’re functioning with Shin-Soo Choo playing an unfamiliar position in center field; at mid-season (or earlier) it may become clear that Choo can’t play the position well enough for the pitchers nor to bluff their way through to the playoffs. Hamilton is in Triple A learning center field after a shift from the infield and can make up for any educational curve with sheer, blinding speed that has yielded 320 stolen bases in 379 minor league games. He also provides something they lack: a legitimate leadoff hitter and an exciting spark that other teams have to plan for.

Vince Coleman spurred the 1985 Cardinals to the pennant by distracting the opposing pitchers into derangement and opening up the offense for Willie McGee to win the batting title and Tommy Herr and Jack Clark to rack up the RBI. The same thing could happen with Hamilton, Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Choo.

Jason Grilli, RHP—Pittsburgh Pirates

Grilli is a first time closer at age 36, but he’s a late-bloomer with a fastball in the mid-90s and a ripping strikeout slider. The Pirates starting pitching and offense are good enough to provide Grilli with enough save chances to make him worthwhile as a pickup.

Kyuji Fujikawa, RHP—Chicago Cubs

Fujikawa was a strikeout machine as a closer in Japan and history has proven that Japanese closers tend to transition to North America much better than starters without the fanfare. Takashi Saito and Kazuhiro Sasaki are examples.

The Cubs are in full-blown rebuild and will trade incumbent closer Carlos Marmol during the season. They’ll let him close at the outset to boost his value, then dump him, handing the job to Fujukawa.

Dale Thayer, RHP—San Diego Padres

Closer Huston Street is injury prone and the Padres, for whatever reason, don’t think much of Luke Gregerson (they tried to trade him to the Mets for Daniel Murphy and when Street was out last season, they let Thayer take over as closer.)

Thayer has a strikeout slider that leads stat-savvy teams like the Rays, Mets, and Padres continually picking him up. If Street gets hurt, Thayer will get closing chances.

Yasmani Grandal, C—San Diego Padres

His PED suspension has tarnished his luster, but he’s still a top catching prospect and once he’s reinstated, there’s no reason for the Padres not to play him with Nick Hundley and John Baker ahead of Grandal. Neither of the veteran catchers will be starting for the Padres when they’re ready to contend; Grandal will. He hits and he gets on base.

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Reds, Indians and Diamondbacks 3-Way Trade Hinges on Bauer and Gregorius

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The Reds, Indians and Diamondbacks completed a three team trade that broke down in the following way:

Let’s look at this from the perspectives of all three.

For the Reds:

The 29-year-old Choo was back to his normal self in 2012 after a terrible 2011 season that included an injury to his oblique and a DUI arrest. He hits for power, steals bases with a high rate of success, walks, and hits for average. He does strike out a lot, his defense is statistically on the decline, and he’s a free agent at the end of the 2012 season. The Reds have said they’re going to play him in center field but it’s a ridiculous idea. Reds’ right fielder Jay Bruce has experience in center and Choo has played 10 career games at the position in the majors.

Choo is going to want a lot of money on the market next winter, will be in demand and is represented by Scott Boras. The Reds aren’t expecting him to sign a long-term extension, so he’s a one-year rental and a good one. He makes the team better offensively than they were with the free-swinging strikeout machine Stubbs, and as long as Bruce can play an adequate center, the defensive downgrade is negligible—Stubbs wasn’t exactly Paul Blair out there.

Donald is a versatile backup infielder replacing former utilityman Todd Frazier who will take over as the everyday third baseman.

Gregorius was blocked by Zack Cozart at shortstop and the Reds did very well considering they only gave up Stubbs and a minor league shortstop they really didn’t need.

For the Indians:

For better or worse, new Indians manager Terry Francona is having his voice heard by the front office and they’re looking toward the long-term by acquiring a potential frontline starter in Bauer. Albers is known to Francona from their days with the Red Sox. Also known by Francona is Anderson, for whom he had no use with the Red Sox and couldn’t wait to be rid of from the Indians.

Stubbs is a decent journeyman outfielder with pop. He’s going to strike out over 200 times a year and combining him with Mark Reynolds in the Indians lineup will create enough wind power to benefit both the Indians and the Reds by reducing energy costs for the entire state if they choose to use their baseball detriments for a statewide positive.

For the Diamondbacks:

Apparently Bauer’s “attitude” issues were a problem in spite of the Diamondbacks repeatedly saying they weren’t. If a rookie is arriving in the big leagues with a unique motion, a big mouth and he won’t listen to anyone, there’s going to be tension especially when the manager is an old-school type in Kirk Gibson and the pitching coach is a former big league All-Star in Charles Nagy. Teams love a youngster with attitude and feistiness until they need to bridle him and that attitude and feistiness circles back on them and he’s ignoring them. That appears to be what happened with Bauer. In general, very few players—especially high draft choices in whom clubs have invested a lot of money—aren’t going to change until they decide to do so or if they repeatedly fail at the big league level and find themselves trapped in the minors. With Bauer, the “this or that” was about three years away, if it happened at all, so they cut their losses.

There are a couple of ways to look at this: first you can credit the Diamondbacks for accepting that the player they selected 3rd overall in 2011 isn’t a fit for their organization and they moved him before concerns turned into a full-blown disaster. Or they can be criticized because they drafted him and should’ve known all of these things beforehand, calculating the negatives with the positives and perhaps shying away from him for another player.

That they got Gregorius as the centerpiece with the useful lefty reliever Sipp (he can get out both lefties and righties), and Anderson is a very limited return on a former top three pick who, to our knowledge, isn’t hurt.

No one should be surprised considering the warning flags on Bauer. I wrote about it before he was drafted here when he was absurdly compared to Tim Lincecum, and it was discussed in this Yahoo piece. Those same warning flags were basically screaming to stay away from him. I wouldn’t have touched Bauer, but the Diamondbacks drafted him based on talent and it took a year-and-a-half for them to see that that iconoclasm was either not going to change or the package they unwrapped wasn’t worth the time and aggravation it was going to cost to get him to change.

The Indians are banking on that talent, got him for relatively little, and didn’t have to pay the $3.4 million signing bonus Bauer received from the Diamondbacks. Perhaps Francona can get through to him or they’ll just let him be in a way the Diamondbacks wouldn’t. Francona’s far more laid back than the hair-trigger Gibson.

He’s an iffy prospect at this point and it’s clear GM Kevin Towers‘s decision to trade him is an admission that they shouldn’t have drafted him in the first place; they realized that and dumped him before it truly spiraled. What makes the decision to select Bauer even worse is that Towers is often lauded for his player-like sensibilities. He’s not a highly educated outsider who decided to enter a baseball front office. He played in the minors and knows players and the clubhouse dynamic, yet still chose to draft Bauer and look past the obvious.

Towers is a mediocre GM. The Bauer drafting and subsequent trade is a blot on his resume right up there with his ridiculous waiver claim on Randy Myers in 1998 while GM of the Padres—a decision that almost got him fired. With the Diamondbacks, he benefited greatly from a lot of luck and pieces that were in place prior to his hiring and the club won the NL West in 2011 before falling back closer in line to their talent level with a .500 finish in 2012.

Towers compared Gregorius to a “young Derek Jeter.” Having watched video clips of him, Gregorius looks more like a lefty swinging Hanley Ramirez. At first glance (there’s a video clip below), he’s impressive and fills a need at shortstop for the club. If he evolves into that (sans the Ramirez-style attitude that got Bauer shipped out), then it will be a great deal for the Diamondbacks. If not, it was costly on a multitude of levels for Towers, whose rose, as expected, is losing its bloom in the Arizona desert.

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Kyle Lohse—Free Agency Profile

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Name: Kyle Lohse

Position: Right-handed starting pitcher

Vital Statistics: Age—34; Height—6’2”; Weight—210 lbs; Bats—Right; Throws—Right

Transactions: June 1996—Selected by the Chicago Cubs in the 29th round of the MLB Draft

May 21, 1999—Traded by the Chicago Cubs with RHP Jason Ryan to the Minnesota Twins for RHP Rick Aguilera and LHP Scott Downs

July 31, 2006—Traded by the Twins to the Cincinnati Reds for RHP Zach Ward

July 30, 2007—Traded by the Reds to the Philadelphia Phillies for LHP Matt Maloney

March 13, 2008—Signed as a free agent with the St. Louis Cardinals

Agent: Scott Boras

Might he return to the Cardinals? Yes

Teams that could use and pay him: New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles, Boston Red Sox, Toronto Blue Jays, Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals, Minnesota Twins, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Texas Rangers, Philadelphia Phillies, Washington Nationals, Miami Marlins, St. Louis Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers, Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Dodgers

Positives: With the Cardinals, when he’s been healthy, he’s been a very good starter. He’s learned to pound the strike zone, keep the ball down and in the ballpark, and use his defense. Lohse had what amount to a career year in 2012, in part, because of a friendly BAbip of .267. That number was in line with another solid year he had in 2011 of .272. His advanced statistics of hits-per 9 innings; strikeouts-per 9 innings; walks and home runs-per 9 innings were the best of his career in 2012, but he’s been solid with those numbers his entire career. He’s consistent at home and on the road and against righties and lefties.

Negatives: He’s represented by Boras and in 2011-2012 he’s gone 30-11. Boras is going to ask for a lot of money, years, and benefits. Lohse turned his career around with the Cardinals under the tutelage of Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan; he maintained and got even better under Mike Matheny and Derek Lilliquist, but the lingering questions remain as to whether he can transition to another locale and stay this productive. He’s had injuries sabotaging his seasons and is 34-years-old.

What he’ll want: 4-years, $50 million with a partial no-trade clause

What he’ll get: 3-years, $35 million with a vesting option for 2016 at $15 million and a $2.5 million buyout

Teams that might give it to him: Orioles, Red Sox, Blue Jays, Tigers, Royals, Angels, Nationals, Marlins, Cardinals, Brewers, Dodgers

The Orioles need a starting pitcher to give them 32 starts and 200 innings with the stuff to keep the ball in the ballpark. They have money to spend, and are an agreeable location to play and win after their 93-win 2012.

The Red Sox are desperate for starting pitching and have money to burn. The Blue Jays also have money, are trying to win, and are seeking another starter. The Tigers won’t want to overpay to keep Anibal Sanchez and Lohse is cheaper and shorter-term. I wrote yesterday that rather than trade one of their young bats for a starting pitcher, the Royals should delve into the free agent market and Lohse is a reasonable target. The Angels might be desperate if they can’t keep Zack Greinke and Lohse falls into a “next level” category in terms of knowing what to expect, price, and availability. The Nationals might be in on Greinke; have the prospects to trade for James Shields; or could jump in on Lohse as a fallback. They have a sound relationship with Boras and tons of cash.

I mention the Marlins because with everyone in baseball angry at what they did in their gutting trade with the Blue Jays, it’s possible that Jeffrey Loria might want to placate the critics by doing something like signing Lohse. I doubt it will happen, but no one saw that trade coming either.

The Cardinals will make an offer to Lohse and it probably won’t be high enough in dollars or years, but if his market crashes, he could end up going back to St. Louis. The Brewers have money, talent and want to win; the Dodgers can’t be discounted for any free agent and need an arm.

Would I sign Lohse? Not for what Boras is going to want. If he’s on the outside looking in and I could get him for two years with a reasonable option based on performance, I’d sign him.

Will it be a retrospective mistake for the team that signs him? If they acquiesce to Boras’s demands that will reach $45-55 million, they will. I’d keep him out of the American League.

Analysis: If there’s a bigger “we don’t know” in baseball’s free agency this side of Josh Hamilton, it’s Lohse. Which Lohse would a team other than the Cardinals be getting? Would it be the homer-prone mediocrity he was with the Phillies and Reds? The pretty good mid-rotation starter he was at times with the Twins or the highly hittable arm he was at the end of his Twins tenure? The All-Star, innings-eating winner he was for long spurts with the Cardinals or the shaky and injured pitcher?

In my mind, I keep seeing flashes of Cardinals pitchers of the past who’ve fallen apart after they left the winning organization, friendly confines of Busch Stadium, the supportive fans, and baseball-loving atmosphere from a bygone era. The vision tells me to shy away from Lohse.

One example in particular is Lohse’s former teammate Joel Pineiro. Like Lohse, Pineiro’s career was floundering before he got to St. Louis and was willing to listen to Duncan and alter his mechanics, mental and physical approach and become something different from what he was in order to save his career. He rejuvenated and reinvented himself to garner a 2-year, $16 million contract from the Angels when he should’ve stayed with the Cardinals. He started off well in Anaheim, they altered his mechanics from what had been undone and rebuilt by Duncan, and he suffered injuries to his oblique and shoulder. Pineiro pitched in 5 minor league games for the Orioles in 2012 and, barring another comeback, appears to be finished at 34.

It’s a cautionary tale for a club thinking of believing the Cardinals Lohse is the Lohse they’ll get.

Prediction: Lohse will sign a 3-year deal with the Nationals.

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