Don’t expect the Cubs to fire Joe Maddon or for him to walk away

MLB, Uncategorized

Maddon pic

As rough a time as Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon is having with his clumsy response to questions about the domestic violence allegations against Addison Russell, team president Theo Epstein cryptically blaming him for closer Brandon Morrow being lost for the season, and the general perception that after four years and undeniable success his message has grown stale, barring an implosion, Maddon will be managing the Cubs in 2019.

Certainly, the golden reputation Maddon brought with him when he took the job after the 2014 season has lost its shine. The constant stream of canned quirkiness and ever-expanding ego wore thin in Tampa Bay to the point that once the anger of his sudden and unforeseen departure dissipated, there was a sense of relief that he was gone.

The media ate up Maddon’s hiring as part of the Cubs’ crafted narrative of going all in to break their championship curse, but once they had won their World Series, it became easier to dissect the manager with an objectivity that yielded answers to questions that had been glossed over to the degree that they weren’t even asked.

This is beyond the product Maddon sells – Joe Maddon – and into the realm of diminishing returns. As the layers are stripped away, the skeletonized remains show a good, but not great manager who is not well liked within baseball circles due to his penchant for self-promotion and “I’m better than you” condescension. As time passes, that will unavoidably permeate the team he works for.

With these factors, it would come as no surprise if Epstein is getting an itchy trigger finger with his manager. Every manager or coach, no matter the level of success, eventually wears out his welcome. Maddon’s personality only serves to expedite that process. Except it won’t be after this season.

Blameworthy or not, Epstein has never been shy about making proactive changes to his operation. Hitting coaches, pitching coaches – their names have been interchangeable under the Epstein regime. Even the managers that preceded Maddon were disposable and tossed overboard for reasons valid and not.

Maddon is not wholly at fault for much of what has ailed the Cubs in 2018. He didn’t sign Tyler Chatwood and Yu Darvish. He didn’t decide the oft-injured Morrow should be the team’s closer. That the Cubs have overcome those players’ issues as well as injuries that have hindered star third baseman Kris Bryant and made the playoffs for the fourth straight season is due, in part, to the manager.

Leveraging the cohesiveness with the Rays into the reputation as the “best” manager in baseball and exercising an opt-out with a rumored backdoor deal with the Cubs in place gave Maddon the salary, the recognition and the big market he had long sought. That it became a Faustian bargain is somewhat ironic when the Cubs very nearly lost that long elusive World Series because of his strategic gaffes. In the intervening years, his reputation and image have declined precipitously.

Still, his job is secure for two reasons: one, his salary; two, 2019 is increasingly looking to be the last go-round for Cubs’ current construction.

At a reported salary of $6 million for 2019, the Cubs will not simply swallow that money just because factions inside and outside the organization have grown tired of his shtick. That’s a lot of money for Maddon to go sit in a broadcast booth and spout his pretentious nonsense. Even a mutual agreement to part ways and a buyout with all the money being paid over several years can lessen the impact to a degree, but it’s still $6 million. Then there’s the matter of paying Joe Girardi or Mike Scioscia similar money or rolling the dice on a cheap unknown.

To win the 2016 World Series, Epstein overpaid for Aroldis Chapman by sending rising star Gleyber Torres to the New York Yankees. In subsequent seasons, to try and maintain a championship caliber club, other top prospects like Eloy Jimenez were also traded away. As a result, the farm system is depleted, their star position players are growing more expensive, and their pitching staff is aging. That impressive core of position players is still in its 20s and a retooling is more probable than a rebuild. But will they still want to pay Maddon after 2019 when his message is tiresome and his great personality for what they were trying to build has become a grating personality for what they’re going to need to rebuild? He’s not taking a pay cut and he’ll be 65. The sense of this cycle running its course is palpable.

What more is there to accomplish? He’s got his recognition; he’s got his money; and it’s preferable to jump before being pushed. This combination of factors will save Maddon when, if the circumstances were different, he could and should be shown the door, thanked for his service with an audible sigh of relief by the rest of the organization when he’s gone.

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On Jason Heyward, the Cubs and Theo Epstein’s philosophy

MLB, Uncategorized

Heyward

Baseball general managers have their philosophies that frequently blur the line between belief systems and biases. The struggles of Jason Heyward are indicative of how Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein relies on that foundation to repeat similar mistakes made in the past — mistakes he should have learned from. Now the club is essentially trapped in the current situation with few alternatives but to accept and adapt.

The defenses and excuses for Heyward have run out. In 2016, his dreadful first season in Chicago was camouflaged by the Cubs run to the World Series and “saved”€ by the folk tale of his inspiring rain delay speech that roused the reeling Cubs from their punch-drunk stagger after the Indians had tied World Series Game 7 with an eighth inning rally. In 2017, the afterglow of that championship and Heyward’s supposed role in winning it saved him from the deserved vitriol that otherwise would be directed at such a monumental bust.

Although it’s still early in the 2018 season, the number of fixes, repairs, glitches, hitches and flaws that have befallen Heyward and their attempts to return him to some semblance of the player the Cubs thought they were getting have grown moldy, repetitive and tiresome like that preposterous story from the World Series. Two-plus seasons of popgun offense and admittedly still superlative defense have settled into the acceptance stage of the grieving process. This is what he is. Maybe he’ll give them 10 home runs and a .710 OPS –€“ if they’€™re lucky. Apart from that, there is a reasonable argument to say that he should not even be an everyday part of the lineup.

For all the statements about objective analysis as the driving force in decisions made in today’s game, Heyward’s 8-year, $184 million contract is the only thing saving him from being a defensive replacement in the late innings as the Cubs hope to get something of use from him apart from his glove and his “leadership” — something that, in most cases, the sabermetric community scoffs at.

When the contract was signed, the non-SABR community was bewildered at why a good but not great player with a history of injuries who didn’€™t appear to like baseball very much was so in demand. This is not to blame the Cubs. The Cardinals, Nationals and Yankees had interest in Heyward. Had the Cubs not paid him, someone else would have. That a player who was never mentioned as elite got to that point speaks to the overemphasis on statistics, projections and the intangibles — the latter of which SABR advocates downplay when it is inconvenient to their argument.

Heyward was a cumulative player whose age and widespread talents accrued enough production that his wins above replacement (WAR) was high enough to assuage any legitimate concerns about him.

He didn’€™t hit a lot of home runs, but he was a Gold Glove-caliber right fielder who could also play center field. He didn’€™t hit for a high average, but he walked a fair amount. He stole double-digits in bases and had a solid success rate when he did run. He was 26. It’€™s doubtful the Cubs or any team is planning on the worst-case scenario when paying a player so lucratively, but in Heyward’€™s worst-case scenario, they’d get great defense, some speed, some pop and an overall good player who would contribute to what they were building.

But now it is the worst-case scenario in that €™they’re stuck with a minimally productive player who’s in the lineup almost solely because of his salary.

This is wedded in Epstein’€™s theoretical-based way of constructing his teams. He attaches himself to certain players and won’€™t let go. In Boston, it was Hanley Ramirez who was traded while Epstein was in time-out after a tiff with Larry Lucchino and who he repeatedly tried to reacquire once he returned to run the Red Sox. Ben Cherington –€“ an Epstein acolyte — eventually made it happen once Epstein was gone and the results have been up and down. In Chicago, he’€™s had John Lackey, Jon Lester and Anthony Rizzo –€“ all of whom were or are successes in Chicago. However, that attachment has also led to players like Heyward being hopelessly overpaid for what they provide amid embarrassingly transparent excuses continually proffered as to what the unseen contributions are with cherrypicked numbers used as justifications for his undeserved playing time.

Epstein’€™s resume will get him elected to the Hall of Fame. He’ll have earned enshrinement. Breaking two longstanding curses€ and winning long-awaited World Series in both Boston and Chicago accord him an impenetrable shield. That does not mean he can do no wrong and that he doesn’€™t make mistakes. Heyward is one of them and the Cubs will be paying for it through 2023.

Odds On Tanaka And Why He’ll End Up With The Yankees

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Masahiro Tanaka’s deadline to pick a team is Friday. In the past, the waiting game on Japanese players was based on whether the team that won the bidding would make a sufficient offer to sign the player. Limited as it was to a single team, the Japanese import had the options of either using the dull axe—which the team knew would never leave his belt—of going back to Japan, or making the best deal he could.

There was pressure on the team that won the bidding as well. After a month of promotion, ticket sales and hype, winning the bidding meant the player had to be signed.

With the new rules, Tanaka’s a pure free agent with the forgettable and meaningless deadline. The threat of him going back to Japan to play is less than zero. Because of that, instead of the manufactured drama of “will he or won’t he?!?” sign a contract in time, the speculation is where he’ll wind up.

You can log onto the schlock sites, sports news sites and clearinghouses and fall into their trap. Preying on the fans’ desperation for information about Tanaka, they’re trolling you with information that, at best, stretches even the most elastic boundaries of common sense. The sheeple are clamoring and clawing for a minuscule smidgen of news about Tanaka. For the rank-and-file fan rooting for teams out of the bidding, it’s a distraction in the cold winter. For fans of the teams that are in the running for the pitcher, they’re looking for validation as to why their team will get him and “win” the sweepstakes.

Ignoring all the ancillary nonsense, let’s look at the realistic odds based on what we actually know and not what’s planted to garner webhits with speculation, whispers and rumors from invisible sources that might not exist.

New York Yankees

Odds: 1-2

Initially, I thought the Yankees were one of the leading contenders, but not alone at the top of the list. In my estimation, they were even with the Mariners and Cubs. Now, however, the Yankees are the best bet to get Tanaka. In a similar fashion as the Yankees being seen as a darkhorse for Mark Teixeira while the Red Sox were the team with whom he was widely expected to sign, the Yankees dove in and got their man. With Tanaka, they don’t have much of a choice anymore. Their starting pitching is woefully short and in spite of the offense they’re going to get from the outfield additions Carlos Beltran and Jacoby Ellsbury and catcher Brian McCann, their infield is currently a series of aged question marks, journeymen and massive holes. The bullpen is a mess; the starting rotation is a roll of the dice. Tanaka won’t solve those problems if he solves any at all—no one knows how a Japanese player will transition—but they need him not just on the field but at the box office.

It’s unconscionable that the Yankees have had everything go their way in terms of the Alex Rodriguez suspension, that they received inconceivable salary relief in their goal to get below $189 million and they’re still probably not going to be able to do it. Since they’re near the limit and have those holes to fill, it no longer makes sense for them to put forth the pretense of getting below the limit at the cost of losing out on Tanaka and having a roster that’s equal to or worse than the one that won 85 games last season.

They don’t have any other options apart from pitchers they don’t want in Ubaldo Jimenez, Matt Garza, Ervin Santana and Bronson Arroyo. They could trade Brett Gardner for a middling starter, but that’s not going to sell tickets for a fanbase looking at this team and wondering where they’re headed.

The Yankees have every reason to tell Tanaka’s representative Casey Close that if there’s an offer that surpasses theirs, to come back to them for a final offer to get their man.

Los Angeles Dodgers

Odds: 2-1

When Mike Tyson was at the height of his powers as the heavyweight champion of the world and didn’t have the tax collectors garnishing his salary to pay his debts, he purchased on whims based on his limitless bank account. One story detailed Tyson driving past a luxury car dealership and driving in with one luxury car to purchase another one. He did it because he felt like it, because he could.

That’s the sense I get with the Dodgers.

Whether or not you believe the stories of Tanaka’s wife preferring the West Coast, if Tanaka signs with the Dodgers—or anyone—it will be because that’s the team that offered him the best deal. The Dodgers have locked up Clayton Kershaw and have Zack Greinke. If Tanaka’s anywhere close to as good as advertised, that top three is 1990s Braves-like, if not better. They have the money to spend and both Chad Billingsley and Josh Beckett are coming off the books after 2014. He’s not a need for them. If they sign him it’s because they wanted to. It’s as good a reason as any when dealing with a payroll whose limit appears to be nonexistent.

Seattle Mariners

Odds: 6-1

The Mariners haven’t been mentioned prominently in recent days, but there are numerous reasons not to count them out. They signed Robinson Cano, but the other “big” additions they made were Corey Hart and Logan Morrison. These were downgrading moves from Raul Ibanez and Kendrys Morales.

Other than Cano, what have they done to get significantly better from what they were in 2013? Tanaka will slot in right behind Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma and be in front of Taijuan Walker and James Paxton. The injury to Danny Hultzen limits some of the Mariners’ vaunted pitching depth and they need another arm and another name to draw fans. Cano will spur some ticket sales and if they lose out on Tanaka, the fans might draw some slight enthusiasm from Garza, Santana or Jimenez, but not as much as they’d get from Tanaka. They could trade for David Price, but that would cost them Walker plus others.

No matter who they sign, the Mariners won’t have fans coming to the ballpark if they’re 20-30 after 50 games, Cano or no Cano. Tanaka would bring fans into the park and it’s a good situation for him.

There’s talk that the Mariners are close to the limit on their payroll and they need approval from ownership before spending more on the likes of Tanaka. If they don’t continue to add, the signing of Cano was done for show and little else.

Chicago Cubs

Odds: 8-1

Of course there’s no connection between the two, but it would be interesting if Cubs team president Theo Epstein goes all-in with Tanaka after his negative experience with Daisuke Matsuzaka with the Red Sox. The Cubs are in the middle of their rebuild and Epstein is loading up on draft picks and international signings. Giving Tanaka the time to grow accustomed to North America with a team that’s not expected to contend could be good for him. If Epstein’s plans work, by the time Tanaka’s acclimated, the Cubs will be prepared to take a step forward with him at the front of their rotation.

The Cubs have done absolutely nothing at the big league level this off-season apart from that…unique…new mascot. Ownership, if not overtly meddling, is getting antsy. The Cubs’ attendance is declining and judging by the roster they’re putting out there as of now, that’s not going to change without a splash. Tanaka is that splash.

I doubt Epstein is going to go above and beyond what the other suitors offer while the Yankees will and the Dodgers might, making Tanaka landing with the Cubs unlikely.

Arizona Diamondbacks

Odds: 50-1

He’s not going to Arizona. They don’t have the money to match the other teams. Why they’re even putting on a front of going hard after Tanaka is bizarre. Never mind that he’s still an unknown, he’d immediately walk into the Diamondbacks’ clubhouse and be the highest paid player on their roster by almost $10 million per season. The expectations there would be far more intense than they’ll be in the other venues. It’s a silly idea.

By Friday, we’ll know where Tanaka’s going. But all logic and reality dictates that he’ll end up with the Yankees for $130 million-plus, for better or worse.




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Teams Shouldn’t Follow the Red Sox Template

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Much to the chagrin of Scott Boras teams are increasingly shying away from overpaying for players they believe are the “last” piece of the puzzle and doling out $200 million contracts. This realization spurred Boras’s reaction to the Mets, Astros and Cubs steering clear of big money players, many of whom are his clients.

Ten years ago, the Moneyball “way” was seen as how every team should go about running their organization; then the big money strategy reared its head when the Yankees spent their way back to a World Series title in 2009; and the Red Sox are now seen as the new method to revitalizing a floundering franchise. The fact is there is no specific template that must be followed to guarantee success. There have been teams that spent and won; there have been teams that have spent and lost. There have been teams that were lucky, smart or lucky and smart. Nothing guarantees anything unless the pieces are already in place.

The 2013 Red Sox had everything click all at once. They already had a solid foundation with Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Jon Lester and Jacoby Ellsbury. They were presented with the gift of financial freedom when the Dodgers took the contracts of Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett and Adrian Gonzalez off their hands. Bobby Valentine’s disastrous season allowed general manager Ben Cherington to run the team essentially the way he wanted without interference from Larry Lucchino. John Farrell was the right manager for them.

To think that there wasn’t a significant amount of luck in what the Red Sox accomplished in 2013 is a fantasy. Where would they have been had they not lost both Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey and stumbled into Koji Uehara becoming a dominant closer? Could it have been foreseen that the Blue Jays would be such a disaster? That the Yankees would have the number of key injuries they had and not spend their way out of trouble?

The players on whom the Red Sox spent their money and who had success were circumstantial.

Mike Napoli agreed to a 3-year, $39 million contract before his degenerative hip became an issue and they got him for one season. He stayed healthy all year.

Shane Victorino was viewed as on the downside of his career and they made made a drastic move in what was interpreted as an overpay of three years and $39 million. He was able to produce while spending the vast portion of the second half unable to switch hit and batting right-handed exclusively.

Uehara was signed to be a set-up man and the Red Sox were reluctant to name him their closer even when they had no one left to do the job.

Jose Iglesias – who can’t hit – did hit well enough to put forth the impression that he could hit and they were able to turn him into Jake Peavy.

The injury-prone Stephen Drew stayed relatively healthy, played sound defense and hit with a little pop. The only reason the Red Sox got him on a one-year contract was because he wanted to replenish his value for free agency and he did.

Is there a team out there now who have that same confluence of events working for them to make copying the Red Sox a viable strategy? You’ll hear media members and talk show callers asking why their hometown team can’t do it like the Red Sox did. Are there the players out on the market who will take short-term contracts and have the issues – injuries, off-years, misplaced roles – that put them in the same category as the players the Red Sox signed?

Teams can try to copy the Red Sox and it won’t work. Just as the Red Sox succeeded because everything fell into place, the team that copies them might fail because things falling into place just right doesn’t happen very often. Following another club’s strategy makes sense if it’s able to be copied. What the Red Sox did isn’t, making it a mistake to try.




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Theo Epstein’s Masquerade

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The increased use of analytics has also given rise to the loquaciousness of the decision-makers. You can pick any of the new age general managers in baseball and find one of their statements when a somewhat controversial decision is made and interchange them. When they fire a manager, it’s generally even longer. The explanation is convoluted and rife with semantics designed to protect their own interests.

This was evident again today when Theo Epstein – someone who clearly loves to hear his own voice whatever the circumstances – gave this long-winded statement as to why the Cubs’ hand-picked manager to oversee their extended rebuild, Dale Sveum, was fired following a 66-96 campaign. The accolades and qualifications Epstein gave to justify Sveum’s firing are little more than a dressing up of the dismissal of an employee.

Was it justified? Did Sveum deserve to take the fall for what was an organizational failure? Should the Cubs have been better than they were?

Considering the expectations (I had the Cubs’ record exactly right in my preseason predictions) they weren’t supposed to be contenders. They traded away veterans Alfonso Soriano and Scott Feldman during the season. They were functioning with journeyman Kevin Gregg as the closer. A team like the Cubs isn’t meant to be judged based on their record alone which lends more credence to the idea that Sveum is being thrown overboard to quiet the rising number of critics wondering when they’ll get Red Sox-like results from Epstein.

With the number of prospects they have on the way up, if the young players like Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo, Darwin Barney and Jeff Samardzija take steps back, then the manager is going to take the fall for it. That doesn’t mean he gets the blame.

Much like the Red Sox failure in 2003 was passed off on Grady Little’s call not to pull a clearly tired Pedro Martinez in game seven of the ALCS against the Yankees, the Cubs are holding the manager in front of the GM, president and owner like a human shield. Little’s choice in not yanking Martinez was due in part to an old school decision that if he was going to lose, he’d lose with his best. It was also done in part because the Epstein regime had made the conscious choice to go with a favorite concept of the stat guy in the closer by committee and didn’t give Little a competent short reliever he could trust in a game of that magnitude. It all turned out fine as the Red Sox won the World Series the next year only after signing Keith Foulke, a legitimate closer. Crisis averted.

With the Cubs, Epstein has been lauded for his and GM Jed Hoyer’s trades and restructuring of the minor league system. Whether or not that credit will bear fruit in the coming years for the new manager remains to be seen. Until they perform, prospects are only prospects.

Epstein’s big name free agent signings have long been inconsistent. With the Red Sox, he was able to cover it up with John Henry’s money. Whether that will be the case for the Cubs is as unknown as their young players’ development. For the Cubs this season, he signed Edwin Jackson to a four year, $52 million deal. Jackson went 8-18 with an ERA of nearly five. He signed Kyuji Fujikawa to a two year, $9.5 million deal and Fujikawa wilted under the pressure as set-up man and closer before requiring Tommy John surgery. It cannot be said that these were worthwhile and cost-efficient signings.

When Epstein says, “Jed and I take full responsibility for that,” as he discusses the state of the big league product, it’s little more than a hollow accepting of responsibility. He’s been on the job with the Cubs for two years and is ensconced in his job. There might be a small amount of pressure on him because of his reputation and the expectations that surround his high-profile hiring, lucrative contract of five years at $18.5 million and final say powers, but he’s going to get at least two more years before he’s on the firing line. Hoyer is Epstein’s front man and is safe as well.

If the duo is taking “responsibility,” what’s the punishment? They’ll get roasted on talk shows and in print for a while. Attention will be paid to who they hire as manager because GMs and team presidents, no matter how respected, generally get two managerial hirings before the focus of blame falls to them. For now, though, he’s safe.

He says that Sveum isn’t a “scapegoat,” but then two paragraphs later says that the team needs a “dynamic, new voice…” It certainly sounds like scapegoating to me.

I’m not defending Sveum and many times when a firing of this kind is made, there are behind the scenes issues that the public isn’t privy to. Epstein and Hoyer can fire Sveum if they want to. It’s completely up to them. There’s never been anything wrong with firing the manager for any reason that the front office wants to give. In fact, they don’t even need to give a reason. “I felt like making a change,” is a perfectly acceptable response.

However, to take the firing as an opportunity to provide a new line of defense of the front office and disguise it as a “we’re all at fault” line of faux solidarity is an insult to the intelligence of any person who’s been an observer of Epstein’s behavior since he first came to prominence a decade ago as a 28 year old “genius” who was going to lead the game into a new age with his youth and creativity. Getting past the mask, he’s little more than a younger and supposedly more handsome version of the 1960s era of GMs who threatened and bullied employees just because they could and had a job for life. It sounds like the common “blame the manager” rhetoric. The only difference is that it’s camouflaged by a Yale graduate’s skill with the language and ability to make circular sludge sound like the dulcet tones of a gifted tenor.

The firing of Sveum might be retrospectively seen as a the catalyst to the Cubs jumping into contention and breaking their World Series drought. Even if that happens, it can’t be masqueraded as anything more than what it is: they’re blaming the manager. No amount of verbal deftness will alter that fact whether it’s coming from Epstein or anyone else.




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

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

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

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

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

Charlie Manuel

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

Which is it? One, the other or both?

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

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

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

Ruben Amaro, Jr.

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

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

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

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

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

Ryne Sandberg

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

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

The Phillies organization

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




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

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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 Inches Closer Toward The Trading Of Draft Picks

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The trades that were completed yesterday were a distraction for a slow day. Righty pitcher Scott Feldman was traded from the Cubs along with catcher Steve Clevenger to the Orioles for righty pitchers Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop and cash. The cash in a trade is usually to offset contracts or provide a sweetener to complete a deal, but in this case the cash is international bonus money that the Cubs will use to accrue extra wiggleroom to sign free agents. They also acquired more bonus pool money from the Astros in exchange for minor leaguer Ronald Torreyes. They traded away some of that money in sending Carlos Marmol and cash to the Dodgers for veteran reliever Matt Guerrier.

The trades are secondary to the money exchanges. You can read about the ins-and-outs of why the Cubs, Dodgers and Astros did this here and the details of trading bonus slot money here. What the shifting around of money says to me is that MLB is experimenting with the concept of trading draft picks, something I’ve long advocated. That they’re trying to implement an international draft to shackle clubs’ hands even further from spending makes the trading of draft picks more likely.

With the increased interest in the MLB draft, one of the only ways to turn it into a spectacle that will function as a moon to the NFL draft’s sun and NBA’s Earth is to allow teams to trade their picks. Because amateur baseball pales in comparison to the attention college football and college basketball receive; because the game of baseball is so fundamentally different when making the transition from the amateurs to the pros, there is a finite number of people who watch it with any vested interest and a minimum percentage of those actually know what they’re looking at with enough erudition to accurately analyze it. It’s never going to be on a level with a Mel Kiper Jr. sitting in the ESPN draft headquarters knowing every player in the college ranks and being able to rattle off positives, negatives and why the player should or shouldn’t have been drafted where he was with it having a chance to be accurate. MLB tries to do that, but it’s transparent when John Hart, Harold Reynolds and whoever else are sitting around a table in an empty studio miraculously proclaiming X player of reminds them of Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, Matt Harvey, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez or Dustin Pedroia when they’ve seen (or haven’t seen) a five second clip of him; when Bud Selig takes his mummified steps to the podium to announce the names of players he couldn’t recognize if they were playing in the big leagues now. And don’t get me started on the overall ludicrousness of Keith Law.

There’s no comparison between baseball and the other sports because in baseball, there’s a climb that has to be made after becoming a professional. In football and basketball, a drafted player automatically walks into the highest possible level of competition. With a top-tier pick, the football and basketball player isn’t just a member of the club, but he’s expected to be a significant contributor to that club.

With baseball, there’s no waste in a late-round draft pick because there’s nothing to waste. Some players are drafted to be organizational filler designed to complete the minor league rosters. If one happens to make it? Hey, look who the genius is for finding a diamond in the rough! Except it’s not true. A player from the 20th round onward (and that’s being generous) making it to the majors at all, let alone becoming a star, is a fluke. But with MLB putting such a focus on the draft, that’s the little secret they don’t want revealed to these newly minted baseball “experts” who started watching the game soon after they read Moneyball and thinks a fat kid who walks a lot for a division III college is going to be the next “star.” Trust me, the scouts saw that kid and didn’t think he could play. That’s why he was drafted late if he was drafted at all. There’s no reinventing of the wheel here in spite of Michael Lewis’s hackneyed and self-serving attempts to do so.  Yet MLB draft projecting has blossomed into a webhit accumulator and talking point. There’s a demand for it, so they’ll sell it regardless of how random and meaningless it truly is.

So what does all this have to do with the trading of the bonus slot money? MLB allowing the exchange of this money will give a gauge on the public reaction and interest level to such exchanges being made to provide market research as to the expanded reach the trading of draft picks would yield. If there’s a vast number of websearches that lead MLB to believe that it’s something that can spark fan fascination, then it’s something they can sell advertising for and make money. It’s a test case and once the results are in, you’ll see movement on the trading of draft picks. It’s a good idea no matter how it happens. Now if we can only do something to educate the masses on how little Keith Law knows, we’ll really be getting somewhere.

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The Costas Factor

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I’ll preface this by saying I agree with Bob Costas’s premise that the overt celebrations in baseball when there’s a walkoff of any kind, especially a walkoff homer, have gone so far over-the-top that it appears as if a relatively meaningless game in June is the seventh game of the World Series. We’re not that far away from players gathering at home plate on a first inning home run like they do in college and high school. It’s bush league, amateurish and ruins the specialness of games in which there should be a legitimate celebration: no-hitters, perfect games, milestone achievements, post-season clinchings and series victories.

When presenting the afternoon’s baseball highlights, however, Costas gave a mini-editorial with smiling disdain while calling the Mets’ celebration after winning in walkoff fashion on Kirk Nieuwenhuis’s home run “another indication of the ongoing decline of Western civilization.” The clip is below.

The truth of the matter regarding these celebrations is that everyone does it. Costas’s snide comment regarding the second division Mets and Cubs is accurate in the overriding silliness of the act, but the “classy” Cardinals and Yankees do it as well. Prince Fielder celebrated a walkoff homer with teammates by acting as if he was a bowling ball and knocking over the pins (his teammates) and got drilled for it the next year. Kendrys Morales, then of the Angels—a club that took their cue on stoicism and professionalism from manager Mike Scioscia—severely damaged his ankle leaping onto home plate and lost a year-and-a-half of his career because of it. They’re not going to stop doing it no matter how badly Costas wants to go back to 1960 with players celebrated by shaking hands like they’d just had a successful meeting at IBM.

Frankly, I couldn’t care less what Costas says. As he’s aged and his status has grown as a crossover broadcaster whose opinions on a wide range of subjects are given weight, he’s turned increasingly crotchety, preachy, smug and obnoxious. He’s almost a likable Bill O’Reilly with a smile—sort of how Bill O’Reilly was when he was hosting Inside Edition and when The O’Reilly Factor first started before market dictates and egomania forced him to lurch far to the right and put forth the persona of screaming in people’s faces as an omnipotent pedant. Costas has the forum and gets away with it because he’s Bob Costas, therefore he does it and this will happen again unless his bosses tell him to can it.

This is only a small blip in comparison to his halftime op-ed regarding gun control the day after Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher’s murder/suicide last December. That clip is below.

Speaking of the decline of Western civilization, the conceit that is evident everywhere stemming from the me-me-me attitude that has been exacerbated with social media, easy fame and its trappings has led to a rise in pushing the envelope to make one’s voice heard over the din whether it’s the proper forum to do so or not. Would a Costas commentary on gun control be given airtime anywhere if he didn’t blindside his employers by interjecting it during an NFL halftime show? Would anyone listen to it if there wasn’t a captive audience of people gathering to watch the game who were suddenly inundated with Costas’s political rant?

The NFL halftime show is meant to be talking about Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Robert Griffin III, not going into a long-winded diatribe directly challenging the beliefs of a massive constituency of the NFL—conservatives who believe in the right to bear arms. If Costas has these little vignettes planned on the state of sports and the world in general, perhaps he should save it for a time in which people who are tuning in would expect it and make the conscious choice to hear what he has to say on the variety of off-field subjects and negligible behaviors that he’s made it a habit of sharing his feelings on. But then, maybe no one would tune in because they want to hear Costas talk about sports and would prefer if he saved his personal feelings for a time when it’s appropriate, not when viewers looking for sports and highlights have to endure his arrogant and high-handed opinions.

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Rethinking the GM, Part I—American League East

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Maybe it’s time to rethink how GMs are hired instead of lauding owners for adhering to stats; for placating media demands; for listening to fans; for doing what they think will be well-received and garner them some good coverage while hoping that it’s going to work in lieu of hiring the best person for the job and all it entails. Some people may have sterling resumes, extensive experience, a great presentation and charisma and then fail miserably at one or another aspect of the job. Just because a GM was great at running another club’s draft, running the farm system or was a valuable jack-of-all-trades assistant doesn’t make them suited to do the big job.

With the struggles of GMs from both sides of the spectrum like the Mariners’ Jack Zduriencik, who built his club based on stats; and the Royals’ Dayton Moore, who rebuilt the entire Royals farm system into one of baseball’s best, after-the-fact and self-indulgent criticisms from the aforementioned factions of stat people, media and fans are essentially worthless. Zduriencik’s bandwagon has emptied since his first overachieving season as Mariners GM in 2009 when the team, which he had little to do with putting together, rose from 61-101 to 85-77 due to luck and performance correction rather than any brilliance on his part. Moore is a veritable punching bag for the Royals collapse from 17-10 after 27 games to 21-29 and sinking.

Instead of ripping the GMs for what they’ve done, perhaps it would be better to look at each GM and examine how he got the job without a retrospective on the moves they made and the teams they’ve built. This isn’t as flashy as dissecting his decisions as GM, but it’s probably more useful to those doing the hiring in the future. In short, was the hiring a good one in the first place and was the decision made based on factors other than putting a winning team together?

If you think it’s so easy to put your individual stamp on the job of being a Major League Baseball GM, then walk into your boss’s office today (if you have a job that is) and tell him or her some of the things you say on blogs and message boards and tweets to Keith Law: “This is how it’s gonna be, and I’m gonna do this my way and you better just give me full control…” On and on. Then, after you’re done, go get your resume ready to look for a new job. It doesn’t work in the way people seem to think it does and the audacity of someone who’s working the stockroom at Best Buy telling experienced baseball people how they should do their jobs needs to be tamped down a little. Actually, it needs to be tamped down a lot.

Let’s go division by division. First the American League East with subsequent postings to be published discussing all of the other divisions in baseball.

Boston Red Sox

Ben Cherington was the next-in-line successor to Theo Epstein when Epstein abandoned ship to take over as president of the Cubs. He’d worked in the Red Sox front office going back to the Dan Duquette days and was a highly regarded hire. His first season was pockmarked by the aftermath of the disastrous 2011 collapse, the interference of Larry Lucchino and John Henry and that he was overruled in his managerial preferences for someone understated like Gene Lamont in favor of Bobby Valentine. Now the team has been put together by Cherington and they’re trying to get back to what it was that built Epstein’s legacy in the first place.

New York Yankees

Brian Cashman walked into a ready-made situation when he took over for Bob Watson after the 1997 season. He’d been with the Yankees since 1986 working his way up from intern to assistant GM and barely anyone knew who he was when he got the job. His hiring inspired shrugs. He was known to George Steinbrenner and Cashman knew what his life would be like functioning as Steinbrenner’s GM. He was taking over a team that was a powerhouse. Little was needed to be done in 1998 and his main job during those years was to implement the edicts of the Boss or steer him away from stupid things he wanted to do like trading Andy Pettitte. If the Yankees had hired an outsider, it wouldn’t have worked because no one would’ve been as aware of the terrain of running the Yankees at that time as Cashman was. He’s a survivor.

Baltimore Orioles

Whether the Orioles would’ve experienced their rise in 2012 had Tony LaCava or Jerry Dipoto taken the job and been willing to work under the thumbs of both Peter Angelos and his manager Buck Showalter will never be known. Dan Duquette was hired as a last-ditch, name recognition choice whose preparedness in the interview was referenced as why he got the nod. Duquette has never received the credit for the intelligent, gutsy and occasionally brutal (see his dumping of Roger Clemens from the Red Sox) work he did in laying the foundation for the Red Sox championship teams or for the Expos club he built that was heading for a World Series in 1994 had the strike not hit. He’s a policy wonk and devoid of the charming personality that many owners look for in today’s 24/7 newscycle world in which a GM has to have pizzazz, but he’s a qualified baseball man who knows how to run an organization. Suffice it to say that if it was LaCava or Dipoto who was the GM in 2012, more credit would’ve gone to the GMs by the stat-loving bloggers than what Duquette has received. All he’s gotten from them is silence after they torched him and the Orioles when he was hired.

Tampa Bay Rays

For all the talk that Andrew Friedman is the “best” GM in baseball, it’s conveniently forgotten that he is in a uniquely advantageous situation that would not be present anywhere else. He has an owner Stuart Sternberg who is fully onboard with what Friedman wants to do; the team doesn’t have the money to spend on pricey free agents nor, in most cases to keep their own free agents unless they do what Evan Longoria has done and take far down-the-line salaries to help the club; and he’s not functioning in a media/fan hotbed where every move he makes is scrutinized for weeks on end.

If he were running the Yankees, would Friedman be able to tell Derek Jeter to take a hike at the end of this season if it benefited the club? No. But if it got to the point where any Rays player from Longoria to David Price to manager Joe Maddon wore out his welcome or grew too costly for what he provides, Friedman has the freedom to get rid of one or all. That wouldn’t happen anywhere else, therefore his success isn’t guaranteed as transferrable as a matter of course.

Toronto Blue Jays

After the rollercoaster ride on and off the field that was having J.P. Ricciardi as their GM, they tabbed his assistant Alex Anthopoulos as the new GM. There were no interviews and no interim label on Anthopoulos’s title. He was the GM. Period. Anthopoulos was a solid choice who had extensive experience in front offices with the Expos and Blue Jays. He’s also Canadian, which doesn’t hurt when running a Canadian team.

Should the Blue Jays have done other interviews? If the former GM is fired because his way wasn’t working, then that’s not just an indictment on the GM, but on his staff as well. No one in a big league front office is an island and if the prior regime didn’t succeed, then interviews of outside candidates—just to see what else is out there—would’ve been wise. It’s like getting divorced and then turning around marrying one of the bridesmaids. Anthopoulos still might’ve gotten the job, but it would not have been done with such tunnel vision.

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