The Yankees’ conundrum

MLB

The New York Yankees have so far defied most “expert” predictions (including my own) as to their fate this season. A 21-13 record is far better than even the most optimistic fans and media shills could have hoped for. The question is whether or not they can maintain it as currently constructed and, if not, what they have to do to bolster their current roster.

Objectively, it’s difficult to see the Yankee sustaining this current method of running games and winning. If they continue down this road, the bullpen is going to be shot by July. What they can do is bring in reinforcements to bolster the bullpen and starting rotation. But how? In the past, the Yankees would have worried about today today and figured they could buy whatever they needed on the market in the winter. That’s no longer the case.

There are internal options if they hold their fire and resist the temptation to misread the situation, panic and again abandon any plans they formulated. They can wait out Masahiro Tanaka’s return and hope that the injury issues – that have now extended into something totally different from his partially torn UCL – will recede into the background and he can be effective. They can wait for Ivan Nova. They can hope that the warmer weather rejuvenates CC Sabathia who, in spite of his record, has actually been relatively effective, albeit unlucky.

The Yankees have the prospects to get Cole Hamels from the Philadelphia Phillies, but that might not be the wisest decision. It would be a repeat of what the Yankees did in the past and put them on the treadmill they’ve been on over the past several years with aging players, bloated contracts, and limited prospects in the minors.

Even if they resist the temptation to get Hamels, they’re going to need help. They’re not getting enough length from their starting pitching and as long as they’re treating Nathan Eovaldi as if he’s a combination of a work-in-progress who they’re trying to develop and a reincarnation of the untrustworthy Javier Vazquez in Vazquez’s ill-advised and poorly considered second tenure in the Bronx, he can’t be trusted. They have to closely monitor Tanaka if/when he returns. They’re dealing with the aging star Sabathia. Nova is returning from Tommy John surgery and can’t be expected to provide significant depth. Adam Warren is showing that he is probably better suited to the bullpen. Chris Capuano is on the way back, but he’s mediocre at best.

They can improve the bullpen from within by using Warren. Jacob Lindgren is expected to be in the Bronx sooner rather than later. They could use one of their younger pitchers whose future is as a starter. But will they want to run the risk of repeating what they did with Joba Chamberlain with Luis Severino and let him be a weapon out of the bullpen with the understanding that no matter how dominant he might be that he’s going to go back to the starting rotation next year? Much of what happened with Chamberlain was the Yankees’ own fault. While they might proclaim that Severino’s future and Chamberlain’s past will have no bearing on their plans, it will be a looming if unacknowledged concern that the same thing could happen with a debate bordering on pending violence as to whether he should start or relieve.

That bullpen has been battered by manager Joe Girardi early in the season. Faced with the dueling necessities of trying to win and develop/protect their starting pitchers, he’s used his relievers to a degree that is indicative of his training as Joe Torre’s catcher and former bench coach. Already Chris Martin is injured. David Carpenter has been predictably bad. Every key short reliever in the Yankees’ bullpen has appeared in at least 13 games. The most important components – Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller – have been pushed remarkably hard for so early a point in the season. That cannot continue if they want any of those relievers to be effective in August and September.

Then there are the bats.

Alex Rodriguez, as good as he’s been, is still about to turn 40 and has a lengthy injury history if you completely ignore his PED use. Given his past, it cannot be ignored that he’s been busted for PED use so many times and lied about it even more. There are those who will believe anything A-Rod says; others who won’t believe anything he says; and those who will believe that he can’t possibly be stupid enough to get caught again.

Anything’s possible. With his age, it’s silly to believe that he’ll remain healthy and fresh all season even with the Yankees giving him periodic and strategic days off. He’s always be a threat due to his baseball intelligence, but he can’t keep this up.

Carlos Beltran has shown signs of life over the past few days, but he’s a testament to how baseball players aged pre-PED use – they inevitably become declining shells of their former selves when they reach their late-30s. There will be brief bursts of prior glory, but expecting that to continue is delusional.

Mark Teixeira is enjoying a renaissance, but he’s 35.

Chase Headley will undoubtedly hit better. Didi Gregorius remains a complete unknown with the reasonable expectation that he’s going to hit like Mark Belanger for the entire season. They need a second baseman as Stephen Drew is a weak stopgap.

Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury have gone above-and-beyond the call of duty, but both have been injury-prone and cannot continue this production.

Once everyone falls back to what they really are, the Yankees will have to make some additions from somewhere.

This is where the Yankees’ conundrum arises. Do they trade some of their prospects for veteran help to try and win a weak and wounded division? Do they hold onto the players they want to keep instead of acquiring a veteran arm or bat? Much like the dilemma they faced as they phased out Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, this is a different “damned if we do/damned if we don’t” circumstance. They had to play Jeter to placate the fans even though his bat and glove warranted him being benched. They were lucky with Rivera in that he was effective through to the end, but even if he wasn’t, they still would have had to keep him in the closer’s role whether he deserved it or not. In this situation, they’ve closed the vault and adhered to a certain plan rather than spend money to fill holes with other players who were eventually going to create the same holes they have now. To make matters worse, if this team gets into the playoffs, that bullpen combination of Betances and Miller gives them a chance to do damage once they’re there, but if they burn out Betances and Miller to get there how much will they have left in October (or August)? And what about the subsequent years that could be physically mortgaged in a similar way to the Yankees’ financial mortgaging for players like Beltran, Brian McCann, Sabathia, and even, to a degree, Tanaka?

The American League East itself is putting the Yankees in a position that, barring a monumental collapse or spate of injuries, they’ll have a chance to win the division. Right now, it could be a division that takes 84 wins. That falls right into what the Yankees have been over the past several years and what their reality is now. Considering the preseason flaws, this undoubtedly comes as a pleasant surprise to the front office. As much as they said they liked this team, there was a tactical diminishing of the previously lofty expectations of World Series or bust with ambiguous phrasing that essentially said, “If everything goes right…” It’s May and everything has gone right resulting in a 21-13 record and first place.

That can be as negative as positive because it might lead Hal Steinbrenner and Randy Levine to order GM Brian Cashman to do something stupid through misinterpreting what they currently are. Cashman won’t want to do it and could convince the front office that it’s preferable to get a Scott Kazmir, Aaron Harang, Mike Leake, Kyle Lohse, John Axford, or Tyler Clippard for far less in terms of players and financial commitment than it will cost to get Hamels.

However, if it’s late July, the bullpen is fading and the starting rotation is faltering, he might not have a choice. He might be ordered to take Hamels and Jonathan Papelbon or some other combination of pricey players Cashman doesn’t want and the Yankees don’t need in the short or long-term. That would undo all the good things they did this past winter in a similar fashion to them abandoning the $189 million goal for the retrospectively poor spending spree they embarked upon in the winter of 2013-2014 that made them older, more expensive and, overall, worse than they would have been if they’d held to their financial line and shown some patience.

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Cole Hamels thinks the Phillies will lose. He’s right, but…

MLB

When the media refers to an athlete’s “refreshing honesty,” it generally means that the athlete said something he or she shouldn’t have said. Such is the case with Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels as he told Bob Nightengale of USA Today the following: he would like to be traded (without demanding that it come to pass); he wants to win; and he knows it’s not going to happen with the Phillies.

The first two statements are acceptable in an honest competitor sort of way, but the last one? No.

The media might have been refreshed. The fans might have been amused. I doubt the Phillies felt either refreshment or amusement.

On one level, Hamels is absolutely, 100 percent correct. This Phillies team isn’t bad. It’s terrible. In a best case scenario, if they keep Hamels and Cliff Lee and both have ace-like, 200+ inning seasons with 15-18 wins apiece; if Chase Utley is fully healthy; if they get an identical year from Aaron Harang in 2015 that the Atlanta Braves received in 2014; if Chad Billingsley comes back strong; if their relatively strong bullpen – keeping Jonathan Papelbon – performs, their pitching is solid enough to compete. That’s a lot of “ifs.”

It must also be remembered that they: are planning on an everyday role for oft-injured Grady Sizemore; are basically sentenced to giving Ryan Howard significant at-bats to try and establish some value so another team will take him and his contract; are starting Freddy Galvis at shortstop. In that context, you see the accuracy of Hamels’s statement, proper or not. They’re might lose 100 games.

The Phillies have experienced baseball men permeating their organization. They know the situation. Manager Ryne Sandberg spent almost his entire big league with the Chicago Cubs. Do you really believe there weren’t seasons in which he walked into spring training knowing the team was going to lose 90 games? But as a respected veteran leader, he put up the front of, “You never know”; “We still have to play the games”; “Let’s see what happens,” etc.

Team president Pat Gillick was the GM of the one-year-old Toronto Blue Jays beginning in 1978. Of course he knew that the team was going to be atrocious until they acquired some legitimate talent. Did he openly say it prior to spring training? Or did he hope for the best knowing it would likely be the worst.

We know they’re a terrible team. They know they’re a terrible team. That’s why Hamels is even on the market to begin with. But it’s not a wise thing for the players to be saying it especially if it’s a post-season hero and someone who’s supposed to be a leader and linchpin on and off the field.

Several years ago, Hamels’s former Phillies teammate Roy Halladay found himself in a situation with the Toronto Blue Jays similar to what Hamels currently faces. He knew the team wasn’t going to win and also realized that both he and the club would be better off if they maximized his value and traded him for a large package of prospects. He, however, handled it far differently and in a classy, professional way by quietly saying he wanted out. They accommodated him after the season.

The Phillies are under no obligation to trade Hamels and this doesn’t hurt his marketability all that much. Even if he outright demands a trade, they don’t have to trade him. No team does. When a player asks to be dealt, most teams will try to accommodate him as a matter of courtesy. Often there’s mutual benefit to it. But it’s not a contractual requirement and most players won’t pull the Manny Ramirez trick of acting hurt or jogging around on the field making it an absolute necessity to get rid of him. Hamels hasn’t gone that far, but his words still look terrible.

The behavior illustrates how different they are and how little Hamels learned from Halladay. Halladay is defined by his nickname: Doc. Hamels’s nickname – Hollywood – also fits as he’s behaving like a spoiled, entitled brat who acts as if he cares about the team and winning and is only interested in himself.

MLB Trade Deadline: Why Didn’t The Phillies Sell?

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The easy answer you’ll find on Twitter and in sabermetric circles is that Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. is, at best, delusional. At worst, they’ll say he’s an idiot. Neither is true.

The Phillies have lost 11 of 12 and are imploding. They’re old, expensive and have few prospects on the horizon. Amaro doesn’t think they’re contenders—he can’t—and he’s not stupid. He’s made some contractual mistakes, but like anything else unless there’s inside information as to whether these decisions were made by Amaro or through nudging on the part of his bosses, it’s unfair to place the entire onus of the burgeoning disaster on him. It’s just easier for the sabermetric crowd and Twitter experts to blame the GM and pronounce with all the courage in the world what “they’d” do. But there’s an underlying reality with the Phillies that has to be examined before calling the failure to sell a mistake.

  • The demands for Phillies’ players were steep

Teams that called about Cliff Lee were reportedly told that the trading club would have to absorb Lee’s $62.5 million contract (plus whatever’s left for this year) and give up several, significant, close-to-ready big league prospects. The number of teams that had the money, the prospects and the willingness to do this was nonexistent and Amaro knew it. In other words he was saying, “I’ll trade him if I get a metric ton for him.” It’s like being a happily married man and saying, “I’ll cheat if Megan Fox hits on me.” Lotsa luck.

  • No trade clauses and other issues

Apart from Lee, the other players who the Phillies could conceivably have had on the block were either hurt (Ryan Howard), have a no-trade clause they said they wouldn’t waive (Jimmy Rollins, Michael Young), have been awful and obnoxious (Jonathan Papelbon) or they want to keep (Chase Utley and Carlos Ruiz).

  • The farm system is barren

Amaro assistant Chuck LaMar resigned in a huff last year because of the lack of attention paid to the farm system and Mike Arbuckle left for the Royals when he didn’t get the GM job to replace Pat Gillick. The Phillies development apparatus is in flux in large part because they either neglected it to pay for the big league product or traded it away to add the likes of Roy Oswalt, Lee, Roy Halladay, Hunter Pence, Ben Revere and Young. Even when they dumped a player like Pence, they didn’t recoup what they traded to get him.

They’ve got a few pieces like the recently recalled Cody Asche and Phillippe Aumont, but there’s not a Mike Trout in their farm system—a player to build around. The decision to focus on the majors and allocate the vast amount of resources there was a conscious one. When Amaro basically exchanged Lee for Halladay after the 2009 season, his intention was to achieve cost-certainty and maintain some semblance of a farm system. By mid-season 2010, when the Phillies needed a pitcher, Amaro made a decision that not many GMs would have when he acknowledged his mistake and traded for Oswalt. He went all-in after 2010 be reacquiring Lee as a free agent and with subsequent decisions including paying a lot of money for Papelbon and Mike Adams.

Do the math: the farm directors who helped put the club together are gone; they gave up draft picks to sign free agents; and they traded away their top youngsters for veterans. Having homegrown talent ready to replace their stars immediately is impossible.

  • A housecleaning would gut the major league roster and attendance

As of now Phillies fans are angry and as always aren’t shy about showing it. Some targets, like Papelbon, have asked for it in both his performance and his comments. If the Phillies traded away every possible veteran asset, the fans would stop caring entirely especially with the football season coming quickly. Citizens Bank Park would be a ghost town in September and few players are going to want to join them this winter knowing that a rebuild is in progress.

For a club that is only now starting to again pay attention to the draft and has few prospects ready to make a dent in an increasingly difficult division, it’s better to tread water, keep the veterans and hope for a renaissance with what’s there while simultaneously trying to restock the minor league system.

  • 2014’s roster will be similar to 2013’s with a new manager

As much as the fans and critics will hate it, the Phillies aren’t going to have room to do much this winter. No one will take Papelbon unless the Phillies are taking a similarly bad contract in return and then they’ll need to find themselves a replacement closer. Rollins won’t allow himself to be traded. Lee is still one of the best pitchers in baseball. Cole Hamels is under contract. Howard can’t possibly be as bad as he’s been in recent years. Halladay has a contract option that is likely to be declined, but don’t be surprised to see him sign a contract to stay and re-prove himself.

Of course these are all qualifications and prayers. The odds of it coming to pass are slim, but this is still a more salable marketing strategy than blowing it up. The one thing that’s essentially fait accompli is that manager Charlie Manuel will be out. The decision as to whether to replace him with Ryne Sandberg or a veteran manager will be made, but it’s safe to say that Manuel’s time as Phillies’ manager is over. As far as changes, you’ll see a tweak here and there, but the general core is going to be the same.

In short, they have no real options other than to hope they players they have will rebound and make a run at one of the extra playoff spots in 2014 because many of their contracts are immovable and they can’t convince their grouchy fans to accept a new five-year plan to rebuild while still coming to the park.  The Phillies didn’t make a dramatic series of trades at the deadline because of these factors. It may not be popular, but it’s the way it is and the cost of putting together the type of team that won five straight division titles and was a preseason World Series favorite for a half-decade. It’s the circle of baseball and the Phillies’ circle is closing with a crash that they can’t avoid or prevent. The only thing they can do is limit the damage in its aftermath.

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Bryce Harper’s Textgate With Davey Johnson

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Bryce Harper sent a text message to Nationals manager Davey Johnson with the ultimatum, “Play me or trade me.” The implication of this is that the 20-year-old was telling his veteran manager that he didn’t want to sit on the bench under any circumstances and that if Johnson knew what was good for him and the Nats, he’d write Harper’s name in the lineup. Or else. The reality of the situation is that Harper was being held out due to the lingering concerns over a knee injury that placed him on the disabled list and an ongoing slump. Johnson wanted to give him a few days off, but Harper wanted to play and said so. Johnson put him back in the lineup.

The media sought to make it into a big deal with a flashy headline, speculation and faux investigation into whether there’s any tension brewing between Harper, Johnson and the Nats where none appears to be in evidence. Johnson has never shied away from confrontation. As a player for the Braves, he got into a fistfight with manager Eddie Mathews. Mathews happened to be one of the toughest customers in baseball who simply liked to fight. Johnson blackened Mathews’s eye and the two made peace over drinks after airing their grievances with their fists. As a manager, Johnson had multiple altercations with Darryl Strawberry, fought with Kevin Mitchell, and nearly fought with Bobby Bonilla. It’s not as if he picked the lightweights. Those who have followed Johnson’s career know that even at age 70, he wouldn’t hesitate to take on the 6’2”, 230 pound 20-year-old Harper if it were necessary, but that’s not what this was. Not even close.

Harper has gotten a bad rap due to the perception that he was anointed at such a young age. He and support staff—family, representatives—are partly at fault for it by putting out preposterous stories of his exploits (he passed the GED without studying), his favorite players (Mickey Mantle and Pete Rose whose careers ended years and decades before his birth), and his own silly minor league behaviors (war paint and tantrums with umpires). There’s a pretentiousness in Harper’s biography that has not been consistent with his actions on the field.

He’s done some stupid things like smashing his bat against the runway wall in Cincinnati and nearly pulling a Ralphie from A Christmas Story (You’ll whack your eye out!), and plays the game with zero concern for his physical well-being. He goes all-out, doesn’t act like a spoiled brat on the field as shown with his mature and classic response to Cole Hamels intentionally hitting him as he humiliated Hamels by stealing home, and wants to play every day. His text message to Johnson may have sounded like a pampered would-be megastar making untoward demands upon his manager with implied threats knowing the club had little choice but to cave, but that’s just the way it’s being framed by the media and fans looking to find more reasons to knock Harper down a few pegs. In an age in which many players want to coast, Harper wants to play and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s refreshing.

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Tamp Down Immediate Zack Wheeler Expectations

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Based on the manner in which prospects are hyped and the number of those prospects that fail to immediately achieve expectations—or even competence—it’s wise to sit back and let Zack Wheeler get his feet on the ground before anointing him as part of the next great rotation with Matt Harvey and Jonathon Niese as a modern day “big three” to be compared with Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels or Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine. It must be remembered that all of those pitchers struggled when they got to the big leagues.

Other hot prospects who were expected to dominate baseball like the Mets from the mid-1990s of Generation K with Jason Isringhausen, Paul Wilson and Bill Pulsipher flamed out as the only pitcher to achieve anything noteworthy was Isringhausen and he had to do it as a closer. The Yankees’ intention to have Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy function as homegrown starters has degenerated into nothingness with Kennedy fulfilling his potential with the Diamondbacks and both Hughes and Chamberlain approaching their final days in pinstripes. The list of instnaces such as these is far more extensive than the would-be “stars” who either didn’t make it at all or had their careers derailed and delayed.

Given the Mets’ historic clumsiness in recent years, it was a surprise as to how good Harvey really was. The Mets didn’t treat him as a prodigy, nor did they overpromote his rise to the majors as anything more than a young pitcher who’d earned his chance. His maturity, style, intensity and preparedness has yielded one of the best pitchers in baseball whose leap inspires memories of Roger Clemens in 1986. They kept Wheeler in the minor leagues as well in part to make sure he was ready and in part to keep his arbitration clock from ticking so they’d have him for an extra year of team control. These were wise decisions.

As good as Wheeler is and as much as those who see him predict great things, he’s also a power pitcher who has had some issues with control and command. His motion is somewhat quirky with a high leg kick and a pronounced hip turn with his back toward the hitter. If he’s slightly off with his motion, he’ll open up too soon, his arm will drag behind his body and his pitches will be high and flat. In the minors a pitcher can get away with such issues because minor league hitters will miss hittable fastballs with far greater frequency than big league hitters. The biggest difference between minor league hitters and Major League hitters is patience and that big leaguers don’t miss pitches they should hammer.

Wheeler’s 23 and is as ready as he can be for a rookie. As for ready to be a marquee pitcher immediately, that might take some time just as it did with Lee, Halladay, Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz. Saddling Wheeler with the demands of a star before he’s even thrown a pitch in the Major Leagues is a toxic recipe.

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Don’t Expect a Phillies Selloff

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Because they fall into the category of early-season disappointment, there’s already speculation as to a Phillies selloff at mid-season if they continue to play like a team that can finish with, at best, a .500 record. History has proven, however, that under GM Ruben Amaro Jr. any move that is made will be either to double-down and go for it in spite of widespread negativity and perception that they’re “done,” or he’ll make trades of players who aren’t keys to the team and those who won’t be part of the long-term future.

For all the criticism Amaro has received for mortgaging the future by gutting a fertile farm system for veterans, overpaying on contract extensions for players already on his roster, and essentially ignoring the draft, he had a different idea when he took over as GM after the 2008 season. What he wanted to do was maintain some semblance of a solid core of young players. This was the intention of trading away Cliff Lee for prospects as he was entering his free agent year and trading other prospects to acquire Roy Halladay who was willing to sign a long-term contract just to get out of Toronto and join a contender.

Amaro was savaged—by me included—for that decision and did a total about-face at mid-season 2010 first by trying to get Lee back from the plummeting Mariners, then filling the hole in the rotation that his plan created by acquiring Roy Oswalt. The Phillies had been rumored to be listening to offers for Jayson Werth at that point, were barely over .500 and fading. They got hot, won the NL East, advanced to the NLCS before losing to the eventual World Series champion Giants.

By then, there wasn’t a pretense of building for the present and the future. It was all-in for the now as evidenced by the advancing age of their roster and the subsequent acquisitions of Lee (as a free agent), Hunter Pence, and Jonathan Papelbon. Farm director Chuck LaMar resigned in a public dustup with Amaro because of the rapidly deteriorating farm system and lack of money available to repair it.

But what Amaro was doing was similar to what Theo Epstein wanted to do sans the ridiculous appellations of “genius” after the Red Sox 2004 World Series win. The expectations from the fans and media, as well as ownership demands, sabotaged what Epstein wanted to do and the Red Sox degenerated into a battle of one-upmanship with the Yankees as to who could spend the most money on the biggest free agents. It resulted in a dysfunctional group of mercenaries and organizational collapse culminating with the 69-93 showing in 2012 with rampant inter-organizational contretemps and hatred combined with a self-protective blame game from everyone involved.

The Phillies haven’t fallen to those depths yet. But with an aging and declining roster and few prospects on the way up, it will happen eventually.

The question is, what do they do about it?

The simple answer is: nothing.

Could the Phillies clean out the house at mid-season and save money for an on-the-fly rebuild by signing free agents and trading for players that other teams can no longer afford? Yes. Will they do that? Probably not.

When clubs are trading players in salary dumps, the get-back is usually not all that impressive. Many will point to the Red Sox salary dump of Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett to the Dodgers for a package of prospects including two who are impressive—Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa—but the key point being missed is that Gonzalez is still a star-level, MVP-caliber talent whom the Red Sox had surrendered three top prospects to acquire just a year-and-a-half earlier. Were they supposed to give him away just to get out from under the contract? And were the Dodgers just doing the Red Sox a favor along the lines of the nouveau riche just buying things they recognized?

The Dodgers also claimed Lee when the Phillies placed him on waivers last year. If there was an intention on the part of Amaro to extricate himself from Lee’s contract, he could’ve just handed him to the Dodgers and moved on. He didn’t do that and won’t do it this year with Lee unless he’s getting something back. If a team is accepting the $62.5 million Lee is guaranteed through 2015, they’re not surrendering a top-tier prospect for a soon-to-be 35-year-old with that much cash coming to him. Nor will they get significant packages of younsters for Halladay or Rollins. They might get something decent for Chase Utley, but it won’t be a franchise remaking deal that will be pointed to in 2017 as the building block for the next Phillies run.

There are other concerns in play here. It’s a ridiculous premise to believe that the GM has the final say in all personnel moves. Evidence of Amaro answering to his bosses was clear in the negotiations to retain Ryan Madson as the team’s closer after the 2011 season when the strongly cited rumors were that the Phillies had made a $44 million offer to Madson that the player and his agent Scott Boras accepted. Then when Amaro went to get approval from CEO David Montgomery, a hold was put on the agreement and a few days later, Papelbon was signed. In retrospect, with Madson not having thrown a Major League pitch for the two organizations he’s signed with since, Amaro and the Phillies were lucky it fell apart, regardless of who pulled the first thread as the catalyst of the fabric disintegrating.

Prior to the contract extension given to Cole Hamels, there was endless speculation that the staggering Phillies would trade him. Instead, they gave him what was, at the time, the richest contract ever given to a pitcher.

Apparently Amaro doesn’t read the rumors and do what they’re saying he’s about to do or supposed to do.

Another issue is the attendance factor. Amid all the talk that of the loyalty of Phillies’ fans and the daily sellouts during the club’s run of excellence, like most fanbases if the team isn’t contending and isn’t good, the fans aren’t going to go. This is part of the reason the Cubs have been so historically bad—there’s no motivation to consistently try and win because the fans show up either way. It would take annual contention over the long-term (a decade) and at least one World Series win for the Cubs to: A) lose the lovable loser mantle they so proudly wallow in; and B) accumulate the apathy that comes from fans being disgusted with losing when they expected to win to the point that they’ll find something to do other than going to the park.

That’s not so with the Phillies. If the fans see a team without Lee, without Jimmy Rollins, without Halladay, without Papelbon, without Utley, they’re not going to the park to see a backend starter packaged as a top prospect in Jonathan Pettibone, Ben Revere, Domonic Brown, and Hamels for a team that’s going to win 75 games and is rebuilding.

This is the team they’ve put together. Amaro accepted that when he tacitly acknowledged that it’s all but impossible to win and build simultaneously with the Oswalt acquisition and unsaid admission that he was wrong to trade Lee. He reacted accordingly and this is where they are. With the extra Wild Card, the parity in the National League, their pitching and impossibility of trading their veterans for the quality youth necessary to justify it, they’re not blowing it up now.

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Analysis of the Kyle Lohse Signing

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The Brewers have signed Kyle Lohse to a three-year, $33 million contract making Scott Boras look like a genius again. In this market, at this late date and with the draft pick compensation attached to Lohse, to somehow convince the Brewers (and probably the Brewers owner Mark Attanasio) that they needed Lohse when they didn’t need Lohse is worthy of a bow.

Let’s look at the signing.

For Lohse

We’ll know soon enough whether Lohse was a creation of the Dr. Frankenstein-like corpse rejuvenation of former Cardinals’ pitching coach Dave Duncan or if he has become a different pitcher whose new mentality, mechanics, approach and stuff that can translate the knowledge everywhere. But here are the facts:

  • Lohse gives up more fly balls than ground balls and is going from a home ballpark that allowed 140 homers to a ballpark that allowed 230 homers
  • The Cardinals’ infield defense was average; the Brewers’ was bad
  • He’ll be working with a catcher that’s not Yadier Molina

Because Lohse learned to pound the strike zone, trust his catcher and defense, and not worry about the outcome as long as he made his pitches—Duncan trademarks—he reached a level of success with the Cardinals that he never did in any of his prior stops. That he’s leaving the Cardinals isn’t as much of a factor as where he’s going and going to Milwaukee to join a pockmarked team with multiple holes and is floating halfway between a rebuild and clinging to the tendrils of contention, his margin for error is gone and what worked with the Cardinals is unlikely to work with the Brewers.

In short, he can do the exact same things with the Brewers he did with the Cardinals and have drastically different—and worse—results.

For the Brewers

Anything they did was bound to make a gutted starting rotation better. They were beginning the season with Yovani Gallardo at the top of the rotation and a series of question marks behind him. There’s some ability with Wily Peralta and perhaps useful mid-rotation arms with Marco Estrada and Mike Fiers. Their bullpen isn’t particularly good and manager Ron Roenicke hasn’t distinguished himself as a field boss who can inspire overachievement in his players. It’s a bad sign when a pitcher signs with a club a week before the season starts and he’s automatically their number 2. Of course it has to be footnoted why Lohse was sitting out for so long as teams didn’t want to surrender the draft pick compensation, but they were also concerned about what I alluded to earlier: that he’s not going to be as good away from the Cardinals and not worth the money he wanted and, by all rights considering his performance, deserved.

For the National League

Are teams looking at the Brewers and seeing how they can hit thinking, “Whoa!! They got Lohse!!! Watch them!!”?

No.

Lohse is a pitcher who’s a “Yeah, we can use him I guess” arm, but he’s not a difference-maker for a mediocre team. The Brewers have him for three years when they’re locked in the vacancy of a simultaneous rebuild/contend. History has proven that’s not only very hard to do, but can be destructive when a team surrenders a draft pick (the 17th overall) to get the player who: A) won’t help that much; and B) will cost them the draft slot where there can be a very good player available (Brad Lidge and Cole Hamels were taken at 17).

I wouldn’t have done this and I doubt the Brewers’ baseball people would’ve done it either if they weren’t forced to do so by the owner who’s the latest in a long line of smart men who were sold on a player they didn’t need by the mastermind named Scott Boras.

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Keys to 2013: Minnesota Twins

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Starting Pitching Key: Vance Worley

The Twins acquired Worley from the Phillies along with Trevor May for Ben Revere. In 2011, Worley was dominant to the point of making it look easy and acting as if it was easy as the fifth in the Phillies foursome of star starters, caddying for Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt. Worley’s attitude appeared to be one of, “Here, hit my supercharged fastball. This big league stuff is a breeze.”

Then in 2012, it wasn’t a breeze and hitters took him up on his offer of hitting his fastball. Relied on as more than a rookie at the back-end of the rotation, he struggled with his command, gave up a lot of hits and had recurring elbow problems. Once the Twins are back to their normal method of doing business with a fundamentally sound defense combined with a big ballpark, Worley could be a big winner. He has to learn to pitch rather than bully his way through. That prehistoric “me young and tough” act can work the first time through the league, but the second time the hitters humble even the cockiest rookies as they did with Worley in 2012.

Relief Pitching Key: Glen Perkins

If I’m going to have a lefty closer, I’d prefer him to be a flamethrower who can blow people away with a moving fastball a la Billy Wagner. Perkins’s fastball reaches the mid-90s and his strikeout numbers have improved since the move to the bullpen, but I wouldn’t classify him as a strikeout pitcher. He’s also vulnerable to the home run ball. To be an effective lefty closer over the full season, he’ll have to have the threat of an inside pitch to righties. That must be established early in the season so it’s known. Once the word’s out that he’s working righties on the inner half, he won’t have to do it as often and risk leaving a hittable fastball out over the plate.

Offensive Key: Justin Morneau

If the Twins had their sights on legitimate contention, the key might be Aaron Hicks, the rookie center fielder. A team’s true key, however, is contingent on their goals. For the 2013 Twins, they’re incorporating youngsters and looking to move past the era in which Morneau was a mid-lineup linchpin and MVP candidate.

A free agent at the end of the season, if Morneau is hitting, his trade value will skyrocket. A significant return on a trade will speed the Twins’ rebuild.

Defensive Key: Pedro Florimon

Florimon will get the first crack at shortstop. The Twins, with their preferred strategy of pitchers who pound the strike zone and trust their defense, need a shortstop to catch the ball and show good range. Trevor Plouffe is the Twins’ third baseman and his range is limited to a step to the left and a step to the right leaving Florimon with more ground to cover and making defensive positioning and strategy important. He’s not much of a bat and if he doesn’t give the Twins what they need defensively, they’d be wise to throw Eduardo Escobar out there and give him a chance since he’s probably their best long-term solution at short anyway which says more about the current state of the Twins than anything else.

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Javier Vazquez’s Comeback and Potential Suitors

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Javier Vazquez surprisingly retired after a solid season for the Marlins in 2011 in which he posted a 13-11 record; a 3.69 ERA; a hits/innings pitched ratio of 178/192 with 50 walks and 178 strikeouts. It must be added that he also had a dreadful start, pitching terribly until mid-June. For the entire second half, he was a different pitcher, one who was in demand as a free agent and chose to “retire” at age 35.

He can still pitch, just not as a Yankee, having failed there twice. I certainly wouldn’t bring him back to the Yankees, nor to Boston or Baltimore, but every other contending or would-be contending club is an option and Vazquez, while not saying he’s definitely returning, will pitch in the World Baseball Classic for Puerto Rico and has said he’s considering a comeback to MLB. For a $10 million payday, why not?

So which teams could use Vazquez and meet the criteria as contender?

Let’s take a look.

Toronto Blue Jays

The Blue Jays don’t really need another starter, but I suppose they could trade Ricky Romero and attach Adam Lind to him to get Lind’s contract off the roster in exchange for a 1B/DH bat and install Vazquez into the spot, but I’d keep Vazquez away from the AL East.

Tampa Bay Rays

Vazquez isn’t coming back for an incentive-laden deal with a low base salary, which is essentially the only method in which the Rays invest in free agents as they did with Roberto Hernandez (née Fausto Carmona). Tampa would be a good spot in every aspect, but they can’t pay him.

Cleveland Indians

The Indians agreed to terms with Brett Myers yesterday and are using him as a starter. They’re clearly intent on trying to win within their means under new manager Terry Francona and Vazquez would fall into the veteran starting pitcher template. Francona’s gentle handling of his players would suit Vazquez.

Los Angeles Angels

Vazquez is better than Joe Blanton, Tommy Hanson and Jason Vargas, but again, teams didn’t know Vazquez was available. The Angels don’t have any room for him now.

Texas Rangers

His penchant for allowing home runs is a concern in Texas, but their infield defense would also help him greatly. They’re a contender, would prefer a pitcher on a short-term contract and have had success with pitchers like Colby Lewis who’ve left for Japan and came back to MLB making Vazquez’s departure and return a non-issue.

The Rangers are a definite possibility.

Washington Nationals

The Nationals are waiting out Adam LaRoche and his free agency tour. In a free agency family tree sort of situation, LaRoche might go to the Red Sox if their contract snag with Mike Napoli isn’t ironed out and the deal comes undone. If that’s the case, the Nats won’t be able to trade Mike Morse. If they can trade Morse, they can move him for a starting pitcher. Or they can sign Vazquez and worry about the other stuff later.

Vazquez spent the first six years of his career with the Nats organization when they were in Montreal. He’s a perfect fit back in the NL East where he had his best years and pitching for a legitimate World Series contender in Washington.

Atlanta Braves

The Braves have enough starting pitching, so much so that they traded Hanson to the Angels for Jordan Walden. But Brandon Beachy is returning from Tommy John surgery and Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado are kids, so there’s a spot for a veteran like Vazquez if they want him. Vazquez had the year of his life with the Braves in 2009, won 15 games (he should have won 22) and finished 4th in the NL Cy Young voting. It’s doubtful they’d do it, but it’s logical.

Philadelphia Phillies

Vazquez is better than John Lannan and Kyle Kendrick—the two pitchers at the back of the Phillies rotation and gigantic steps down from the top three of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels—but the home run ball would be an issue for Vazquez and the Phillies offense and defense aren’t what they once were to account for Vazquez’s faults. He’d surrender a ton of homers in Philadelphia. He’s probably ill-suited mentally to the fans of Philadelphia booing him if he pitches 6 no-hit innings and then gives up a run in the seventh with the team leading 10-1.

Milwaukee Brewers

They desperately need starting pitching and have money to spend, but I’m not sure they’re contenders even though they can hit.

Pittsburgh Pirates

They just spent a large portion of available funds on Francisco Liriano. But they might be able to swing Vazquez. They’re intriguing for Vazquez and vice versa. The Pirates are a NL Central club with a big ballpark and enough young talent to be taken seriously as a contender, so perhaps they can work something out with Vazquez if they clear some money elsewhere.

San Diego Padres

The Padres don’t have a ton of money to toss around nor status as a winter contender, but they could surprise in 2013 with their onrushing young talent. They also brought the fences in and lowered the walls at Petco Park, which would affect a homer-prone pitcher like Vazquez.

They could jump in on him in a surprise move.

Vazquez didn’t plan this very well if he wanted to start a bidding war. He realistically could’ve guaranteed himself $12 million if he’d made his services available at the conclusion of the 2012 season and seen the bidding go up with a 1-year deal plus an option with the requisite buyout. He could’ve made $15 million if he’d played it right.

All things considered, Vazquez and the Nationals are destined to wind up together. That’s if he decides to pitch; and if the Nats don’t trade Morse; and Yankees GM Brian Cashman doesn’t try to prove himself “right” by going after Vazquez again for the Yankees.

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The Rays-Royals Trade Part I—The Truth

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The Rays traded RHP James Shields, RHP Wade Davis and a player to be named later to the Royals for OF Wil Myers, RHP Jake Odorizzi, LHP Mike Montgomery and 3B Patrick Leonard.

Let’s look at the trade from the standpoint of the Rays, the Royals and the players involved.

For the Rays

Trading away name players—specifically pitchers—for packages of minor leaguers has become the template for the Rays under their current regime. They did it with Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza, and Edwin Jackson. As much as their GM Andrew Friedman is worshipped for his guts and willingness to make a deal a day too early rather than a day too late, the get-back on those trades has been retrospectively mediocre. In those trades, they got a lot of stuff, the most notable up to now is Matthew Joyce, whom they received for Jackson. Apart from that, they’ve yet to show a big bang from any of those deals and mostly got salary relief.

Friedman stockpiles. There’s nothing wrong with that, but let’s not turn him into Branch Rickey and prepare his bust for the Hall of Fame just yet.

In this trade, the Rays cleared Shields’s $9 million for 2013. He has a club option for $12 million in 2014 with a $1 million buyout. They also got rid of Davis and his $7.6 million guarantee through 2014. (He has club options through 2017.) They received Myers, one of baseball’s top hitting prospects who, ironically, looks like a clone of Evan Longoria at the plate; they received Ororizzi, Montgomery and Leonard. Of those last three, Odorizzi is the only one close to big league ready.

Friedman maximized what he was going to get for Shields and the youngsters will certainly get a chance to play in the big leagues without the pressure and expectations to perform they would’ve been subjected to elsewhere, but that doesn’t mean they’ll become stars.

Considering the Rays’ financial constraints and strategies of bolstering the farm system by trading their veterans, this is a great move for them.

For the Royals

In 2012, the Royals were expected to take the next step (sort of like the Rays did in 2008) and have all their accumulated top draft picks vault them into contention or, at least, respectability. It didn’t work.

At some point a team has to try and win.

The Royals saw what happened when they acquired a scatterarmed and talented lefty, Jonathan Sanchez, before the 2012 season and he was about as bad as a big league pitcher can possibly be before getting hurt. Montgomery’s mechanics are heinous with a stiff front leg and across-his-body delivery; he has a power fastball with zero command and a curveball he’s yet to bridle. The young starting pitchers the Royals had developed have either faltered with inconsistency (Luke Hochevar) or gotten hurt (Danny Duffy).

They also saw a top young prospect Eric Hosmer experience a sophomore slump and exhibit why it’s not as easy as making the gradual progression with massive minor league production translating into big league stardom. The struggles of Hosmer clearly had an affect on how they viewed Myers and when he was going to help them.

With Shields, they get a proven 200+ inning arm that they have for the next two years. With Davis, they’re getting a potential starter who can also give them 200+ innings and he’s signed through 2017. We know what Shields is; Davis was very good as a reliever in 2012 and his overall numbers in two years as a starter have been mediocre. The Royals had a pitcher who’d struggled as a starter, was moved to the bullpen, pitched very well and was shifted back to the rotation. His name was Zack Greinke. Davis doesn’t have Greinke’s stuff, but his bloated ERAs from 2010 and 2011 stemmed more from individual games in which he got blasted. He’s a control pitcher who, if he doesn’t have his location, gets shelled. A pitcher like that can be a useful starter.

These are not rentals and they’re not desperation acquisitions for a GM, Dayton Moore, under fire. We’re already hearing from the armchair experts on social media making references to “cost certainty,” “team control,” and “upside.” They’re words that sound good as a reason to criticize. Most couldn’t tell you whether Myers bats righty or lefty. He’s a name to them. A hot name because he’s put up big numbers, but just a name.

It’s silly to think that the Royals don’t know what they have in their prospects, especially when the same critics make a great show of crediting Moore’s assistant Mike Arbuckle for his shrewd drafting that netted the Phillies Ryan Howard, Cole Hamels, Chase Utley, and others. But in the interests of furthering the agenda to discredit the trade from the Royals’ standpoint, it suits the argument to suggest Arbuckle doesn’t know how to assess Myers, Odorizzi, Montgomery and Leonard.

Did the Royals make a trade to get better immediately and take the heat off of the GM? Possibly. Or it could be that they’ve seen firsthand the ups and downs of developing and playing their own youngsters, know that there are no guarantees, looked at a winnable AL Central, a weakened AL East and West and extra playoff spots available and decided to go for it.

2013 is Moore’s seventh year on the job. It does him no good to leave all these youngsters for his successor to look “brilliant” similar to the way in which Friedman was assisted by the posse of draft picks the Rays accumulated under Chuck LaMar because they were so terrible for so long. The list of players—B.J. Upton, Jeff Niemann, Davis, Shields, Jake McGee, Carl Crawford and Jeremy Hellickson—were there when Friedman took over as GM. That’s not diminishing the great work Friedman’s done. It’s fact.

Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Salvador Perez, Alex Gordon, and Billy Butler make a solid, young, and controllable foundation to score enough runs to win if they pitch.

And this has nothing to do with Jeff Francoeur. He’s a convenient buzzword designed to invite vitriol and indicate ineptitude.

Now with Shields, Davis, Ervin Santana and Jeremy Guthrie, they can pitch.

When Friedman or Billy Beane makes a big trade, it’s “bold,” when Moore does, it’s “desperation.”

I don’t see it that way. The Rays did what they do with a freedom that other clubs don’t have to do it; the Royals made themselves better. It’s not the “heist” that it’s being framed as to credit Friedman while torching Moore. Both clubs get what they needed in the immediate future by making this trade.

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