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

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

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

  • Injuries

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

  • Underperformance

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

  • Bad approach/bad luck

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

  • Poor defense

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

  • Dysfunction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rethinking the GM, Part III—American League West

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Click on these links to read part I and part II.

Texas Rangers

Jon Daniels is a popular and well-respected GM today but that wasn’t the case when he took over for John Hart in October of 2005 and one of the first big trades he made sent Adrian Gonzalez and pitcher Chris Young to the Padres for Adam Eaton and Akinori Otsuka. That will go down as one of the worst trades in the history of the sport.

If he was able to rebound from that and craft the Rangers into an annual contender with a reasonable payroll and deep farm system while dealing with the alpha-male presence of Nolan Ryan and navigating his way through the financial woes of former owner Tom Hicks, then he’s got something on the ball.

Daniels got the GM job very young at 28 and clearly wasn’t ready for it, but grew into the job and is not a stat guy or scouting guy, but uses every outlet at his disposal and is also able to do the dirty work mentioned earlier to consolidate his power.

Oakland Athletics

Just ignore Moneyball for a moment when thinking about Billy Beane. Look at his body of work without the accolades, best-selling book and ridiculous move to accompany the star status Beane’s cultivated and persona Beane has created and look at his work objectively. Is he a good GM who worked his way up through the ranks from scouting to assistant GM to GM to part owner? Yes. Would he be as lusted after without that ridiculous bit of creative non-fiction known as Moneyball? No.

It can be argued that Moneyball has done an exponential amount of damage in comparison to the good it did in introducing the world at large to statistics that they would not otherwise have realized existed. Due to Moneyball, everyone thinks they can study a spreadsheet, calculate some numbers and suddenly run a big league baseball team. One of the under-reported aspects of Moneyball is that Beane played in the Major Leagues with a nondescript career as a journeyman when he was talented enough to be a superstar. It’s part of the narrative that made the Beane story so fascinating, but now that he’s become this totem many of his worshippers probably aren’t even aware that he played at all.

Beane had a perfect storm when he took over as GM. There had been a brief Sports Illustrated profile of him and his transition for player to scout and he was known in MLB circles as an up-and-comer, but the Athletics were so bad and so consistently bad for several years due to financial constraints that Beane was able to implement the strategies of statistics into his player procurement. It worked because no one else was doing it or paying big money for players who didn’t just get on base, but had undervalued attributes.

Beane’s “genius” has been a media creation. He’s been smart, he’s been lucky and he’s also been unlucky. He’s crafted the image of the brilliantly cold corporate titan when it’s not true. He’s a former player who entered the front office, took advantage of the opportunities presented to him and has been successful. A large part of that is due to the circular nature of Moneyball giving him the freedom and leeway to make bad trades and have half-a-decade of futility in which he blamed everyone but the man in the mirror and still kept his job.

Los Angeles Angels

Jerry Dipoto has two issues that are tarnishing his reputation as a GM. One, people don’t remember that it was Dipoto, functioning as the interim GM of the Diamondbacks after Josh Byrnes was fired in 2010, who made two trades that have paid significant dividends to the current Diamondbacks by acquiring Patrick Corbin and Tyler Skaggs for Dan Haren and getting Daniel Hudson for Edwin Jackson. Two, he’s overseeing an Angels team that has played better recently but is still in rampant disarray with overpaid, underperforming players; a manager who has had his own power within the organization mitigated by the hiring of Dipoto; and is trying to rebuild the farm system in his own way with scouts he knows and a new school sensibility while the owner wants a championship now and the manager has a contract to 2018. It’s highly doubtful that Dipoto wanted to commit so much money and so many years to the likes of Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton.

Dipoto was a journeyman relief pitcher who scouted and worked in many front offices with varying philosophies before getting the Angels job and is a qualified baseball man. It’s difficult to know what he’s wanted to do with the Angels and what’s been forced upon him. If the situation really comes apart, he might be cleared out with the rest of the Angels hierarchy and have to wait to get another opportunity due to the damage done to his reputation with what’s happening with the Angels.

Seattle Mariners

The ice is cracking under the feet of Jack Zduriencik and if he is eventually dismissed he will be a cautionary tale that no one will listen to when anointing the next “genius” by giving credit for that which he had nothing to do with. After the fact, if you ask Zduriencik what his biggest regret is, it’s likely to be that the Mariners had such a luck-filled rise from 101 losses the year before he arrived to 85 wins in his first year on the job. It accelerated the process spurring the trade for Cliff Lee and drastically raised the expectations.

Unsurprisingly the expectations were not met; much of Zduriencik’s subsequent moves have gone wrong and if he is indeed fired, the next GM will likely benefit from the farm system seeds Zduriencik planted. That brings me to the next point: there are GMs who are better-served as assistants, farm directors, scouts, and other lower-level positions in an organization. It may not be as flashy, but is no less important and for all the talk of “GM prospects,” it must be examined whether or not the person will be able to do all aspects of the job as an overseer rather than as an underling.

Houston Astros

Jeff Luhnow is not only getting a pass for the horrific Astros club he’s put together—that is on a level with an expansion team—but for the Cardinals fertile farm system that is continually producing players. The draft is a communal effort and not one person deserves or should receive all of the credit in the same manner that a GM shouldn’t get the blame if drafts go poorly. Luhnow didn’t work his way up in baseball and was a private businessman when Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt hired him. This infuriated the old-school people in the Cardinals organization namely Walt Jocketty, Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan and created factions between the stat people and the scouting people that eventually resulted in Jocketty’s firing. Luhnow also lost the power struggle to LaRussa in the months prior to leaving the Cardinals to take over the Astros. If nothing else, it was the experience in trying to transition into a baseball front office that has shaped Luhnow’s building of his Astros staff and construction of the roster from the top down as he’s got people who are going to do things in the stat-based way and are told before they’re hired how it’s going to be or they’re not going to get the job.

Of course the portrayal of Luhnow as the newest/latest “genius” and musings as to when (not if) he’ll be the subject of the new Moneyball are absurd. In four years he could be in the same position as Zduriencik or he could be Andrew Friedman. Know this: Astros owner Jim Crane is not going to accept failure and if the Luhnow project doesn’t work all the trust and belief that Crane has put into the Luhnow experiment will be quickly forgotten if the team doesn’t show concrete results on the field.

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Los Angeles Angels: 2013 Book Excerpt

2013 MLB Predicted Standings, All Star Game, Award Winners, Ballparks, Books, CBA, Cy Young Award, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, Hall Of Fame, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Waiver Trades, Movies, MVP, Paul Lebowitz's 2013 Baseball Guide, PEDs, Players, Playoffs, Politics, Prospects, Spring Training, Stats, Trade Rumors, Umpires, World Series

The Los Angels Angels have gotten off to a horrific start. Their season, so far, has only been salvaged from an ever worse status by winning two of three against the woeful Astros. They were lucky to win those. What follows is an excerpt of my recently published book Paul Lebowitz’s 2013 Baseball Guide regarding one of the biggest problems the Angels have: a lack of continuity between manager Mike Scioscia and GM Jerry Dipoto.

I’m not going to say that everything in the book is as eerily accurate as this, but at the very least, it’s not a computer generated spitting out of numbers masking its creator with a façade of false expertise; nor is it randomness based on regurgitated stuff I heard elsewhere and pushed on the reader with an underlying and poorly hidden agenda. To be brutally honest, most of the stuff you see from bloggers, self-proclaimed “experts,” and the mainstream media is trash because they don’t know anything and are desperately trying to hide that fact through degrees, supposed credentials, obnoxious pomposity, and formulas that perhaps five people in the world truly understand.

My book has predictions, projections, fantasy picks and breakout candidates based on logic, reason and assessment. There are also players vital statistics and contract status for every key member of the organization. The full season predicted standings can be found here.

What follows is the assessments section on the Angels GM and manager and the pre-season prediction that was written well before the start of the season.

Jerry Dipoto—General Manager

Contract status: Signed through 2014 with club options for 2015 and 2016

When Dipoto took the job, it’s doubtful that he had it in mind that he would: A) be a checkbook GM; and B) would be usurping the longtime manager and most powerful voice in the organization as to the construction of the roster, Mike Scioscia.

Dipoto paid his dues as a baseball executive working in the front offices for the Red Sox, Rockies and Diamondbacks before serving as the interim GM in 2010 when Diamondbacks GM Josh Byrnes was fired and then moved back into an assistant role when Kevin Towers was hired as the permanent replacement. It was Dipoto’s trades of Dan Haren and Edwin Jackson at mid-season that played a large role in the Diamondbacks’ 2011 division title. Towers got the credit for the meal, but Dipoto brought in some of the ingredients and set the table.

The Angels were a disappointment in 2012 and it’s hard to know how much blame has to go to the GM. Did he want to sign Albert Pujols to that contract? Did he want to put a team that was so diametrically opposed to what the Angels have been and was ill-suited to the strategies and desires of the manager? Did he want the manager to begin with?

With everything the Angels have done since firing Tony Reagins as GM, there’s been a sense of collecting names that can’t be criticized from the outside, but don’t work as a cohesive unit when put into practice. The Angels never pursued the Pujols-type of player. In years past, they targeted what they wanted and made a quick strike to get them. There was a positive atmosphere and it was widely known that Scioscia was in command, the players were treated well, everything was kept in-house, and they won.

That’s gone. Pujols’s acquisition changed the template and it fits neither Dipoto or Scioscia. They’re still working together not as two men on the same page but as if Moreno told them that they’re two smart baseball men and they need to work it out.

Those things rarely get worked out.

This past winter it continued. Did Dipoto want to sign Josh Hamilton to a 5-year, $125 million contract, take him out of his comfort zone in Texas and put him in California with the requisite pressure and underlying dysfunction that hasn’t been repaired?

There’s a legitimate question as to who’s in charge with the Angels. In the days of Bill Stoneman as GM and Scioscia as manager, they worked hand-in-hand and all were on the same page. Now it appears as if the stat savvy Dipoto, who was brought up as an executive in situations where money was either secondary or tight, has become the type of GM who is a figurehead and spending money because the owner is telling him to spend money. His other acquisitions—Joe Blanton, Jason Vargas, Ryan Madson—are not slam dunks; nor are they the types of pitchers the Angels have historically pursued.

Is Dipoto in charge? Is this the kind of team he envisioned putting together when he got his opportunity to be a GM? It doesn’t look like it.

Mike Scioscia—Manager

Contract status: Signed through 2018

Scioscia, in the waning days of the 2012 season, had a look on his face like he wanted to be fired. It’s not easy for a man who was in such unwavering command to have his authority stripped from him and parceled to a GM he doesn’t know and thinks differently as to the most effective way to manage a game. That power also shifted to the owner who once treated Scioscia with pure trust and is now having a significant say in the construction of the club not based on what the manager wants and thinks he can win with, but what has sparked a showbiz atmosphere and a TV contract trumping winning.

These are not things that interested the pitching/bullpen/speed/defense/inside game-preferring manager.

Scioscia was unhappy when his longtime hitting coach Mickey Hatcher was fired. The blame for that fell to Pujols. As respected a teammate Pujols is said to be and as much as former Cardinals’ manager Tony LaRussa worships him, I have to wonder how much of LaRussa’s crediting Pujols for his leadership abilities was a placating of the player and the golden rule (whoever has the gold makes the rules). It behooves  the manager of a megastar player to get that player on his side, but that was never a part of Scioscia’s job description. His old-school sensibilities went back to the days before guaranteed long-term contracts and players having the ability to dictate who the coaches are. In Scioscia’s world it’s, “I’m the manager. That’s why.” And Pujols is a player who can resist that style of dictatorship.

The 2012 team was not a Scioscia-style team. They still played good defense, stole bases and bunted, but the tenor was different. The all-for-one dynamic was gone and this is the risk taken when buying mercenaries who don’t fit in to what the manager wants to do.

Scioscia is signed through 2018, but his time with the Angels is coming to a close. It would be better for all parties to split and move on. Dipoto would be free to bring in a manager he prefers (if he’s allowed to), and Scioscia can get another job elsewhere in a situation that more fits his style.

PREDICTION

This season has disaster written all over it. The Angels have abandoned the dignified template they adhered to for so long and chose to take the tack of purchasing mercenaries thinking that the ends—a huge TV contract; the extra Wild Card; buzz—would justify the means. They’ve lost the plot and shunned the reason why the Angels were a consideration for every free agent not because they paid the most or because they won. That was, in part, important, but the Angels organization was respected because the problems were kept in-house and there was uncommon stability in the front office and field staff.

That’s gone.

The second they signed Pujols, that ended. Pujols is not a prototypical troublemaking diva, but if he’s unhappy, he has a way of letting everyone know it. The first salvo against Scioscia to indicate who was really running things now was the hiring of Dipoto. Pujols’s displeasure with Hatcher and the hitting coach’s firing was the second. As the 2012 season moved along, there was speculation that Scioscia would be out as manager because he wanted out and Dipoto wanted him out. It didn’t happen and it was another mistake in a litany of them. The two don’t believe the same things when it comes to strategy and the manager who liked to push the envelope offensively with speed and inside baseball now has no choice but to sit back and wait for the home run. The manager who wanted pitchers who gutted their way through games and gave innings and high pitch counts regardless of what a few bad innings did to their ERAs has been compromised with the injury-prone and pending free agents. The bullpen is not good.

This is not a Scioscia team, but he’s still managing it because they wouldn’t fire him and he didn’t resign.

That problem will be rectified—for him anyway—when he’s fired by May. He’ll take some time off, relax and wait for another job opening. Perhaps he’ll write a book about what went wrong. Pujols will lobby for Tony LaRussa and perhaps his former manager, bored in retirement, will be willing to come back on a short-term deal to save the day. But this team is not good enough for LaRussa to save the day even if he does choose to jump in, take Moreno’s money over the objections of the GM and try to steer the ship in the right direction. LaRussa is the same kind of manager as Sciosica only he’ll have the benefit of the tag, “Pujols Approved” on the inside of his jersey.

Hamilton was a mistake. The pitching is shaky from top-to-bottom. They’re overpaid and don’t appear to like each other very much.

These are not the Angels of a decade ago and this will go down as the latest example of collecting stars and expecting them to join together in harmony just because they’re stars.

It won’t work.

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

2013 Book Cover 3

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

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The avalanche of circumstances that necessitated the trade of Justin Upton began when Kevin Towers was hired as Diamondbacks GM. After a 65-97 season in 2010 during which longtime GM Josh Byrnes and manager A.J. Hinch were fired; interim GM Jerry Dipoto made several housecleaning trades by dispatching Dan Haren, Edwin Jackson, Conor Jackson, Chris Snyder, and Chad Qualls for prospects or salary relief; and years of mediocre drafts and failed trades had left the organization in retooling mode, it’s understandable that Towers arrived and made it clear that he’d be willing to discuss his best asset—Upton—to speed the refurbishment.

The Diamondbacks weren’t in the position of the Astros or Cubs in that the whole thing had to be gutted, but they certainly weren’t a trendy pick to rebound from 65 wins to 94 and the 2011 NL West title. Any realistic assessment of their roster in 2011 would have said, “We’re not as bad as we were last year. If everything breaks right with Ian Kennedy, Daniel Hudson and Joe Saunders pitching well; the new bullpen performing; a huge year from Upton; unexpected contributions from Gerardo Parra and Ryan Roberts; and youngsters like Paul Goldschmidt stepping up, we can hang around the periphery of contention and maybe—maybe—be in the Wild Card hunt.”

Stunningly, the club took to the fiery style of manager Kirk Gibson and overcame their limitations with teamwork, intensity and more than a little luck. Gibson himself was only there because Towers bought into the passionate presentation he gave when the interim manager was interviewed for the fulltime job.

Sometimes the planets align perfectly and that’s what happened with the 2011 Diamondbacks. After that season, there was no need to slowly build. Instead of seeing a team that needed time to develop and required significant changes, they were suddenly legitimate contenders and looking to bolster what was already there by trading for Trevor Cahill and surrendering a large chunk of the few prospects—Ryan Cook, Jarrod Parker, Collin Cowgill—they’d accumulated in the draft. Parker and Cook were significant factors to the Athletics’ stunning run to the AL West title in 2012. Cahill was, at best, inconsistent for the Diamondbacks.

What went right for the Diamondbacks in 2011 went wrong in 2012. It would probably have been wise to realize that Roberts would fall back from his career year; that Kennedy wouldn’t be as lucky on balls in play; that the number of times they said, “I don’t believe this is happening,” was a warning sign not to believe that it was going to happen again the next year.

There’s nothing wrong with being lucky, but when that luck is translated into design and the original blueprint is ripped to shreds midstream and replaced with a new one, it’s easy to miss things and set traps for oneself. That’s what happened with Towers and Upton. When the team made that wondrous leap from last place to first place, Towers made the same mistake that Mariners’ GM Jack Zduriencik did in 2009-2010 when the Mariners overachieved to rise from 101 losses to 85 wins: he believed the hype that the team was better than it was and made decisions accordingly. These were decisions he might not have otherwise made if he’d adhered to the original plan.

What Towers was stuck with, through his own doing, was an excess of outfielders, a hole at shortstop, a sensitive player in Upton who was letting the trade talk affect his play, and the public shouting from loquacious managing general partner Ken Kendrick that Upton wasn’t living up to his contract.

Right after he was hired, Towers took offers for Upton. There was never a need to get Upton out of town because he was a malcontent, overrated or lazy. They were performing due diligence by seeing what they could get for him and if some club offered a Herschel Walker package, they’d trade him. It snowballed to the degree that they not only had to move Upton, but they had to formulate an excuse to justify it while simultaneously explaining their overpay for Cody Ross by saying that Upton wasn’t the grinding type of player they wanted their version of the Diamondbacks to exemplify. Gibson quickly ran away from the idea that he didn’t want Upton, leaving Towers and Kendrick as the likely culprits in the move and, as I said before, Towers didn’t want to trade Upton as a matter of course, he was simply seeing what was out there.

So now what?

The return for Upton is haphazard and odd. When they initially tossed his name out as negotiable, they wanted a huge package for their future. The trade they made with the Braves is a now-and-later deal. They received Martin Prado, who will fill a hole at third base, but is a free agent at the end of the season and wants a lot of money. The Diamondbacks have said they want to sign Prado and hope to get an extension done quickly, putting themselves in another precarious position similar to the one they dove headfirst into with Upton. Prado is a fine, versatile player with speed, power and defense and will help them in 2013.

They also received shortstop Nick Ahmed, third baseman Brandon Drury, righty pitcher Zeke Spruill, and righty pitcher Randall Delgado. It’s a solid return. Delgado, with his deceptive shotgun windup, has the stuff to be a big winner. You can read about the young players here on Baseball America.

There is a “but” and it’s a big one.

It’s a good trade, BUT what was the point? The problem for the Diamondbacks is that this increases the perception of ambiguity. Are they building for the future with the young players? Are they trying to win now? If Prado doesn’t sign, are they going to see where they are at mid-season and spin him off in a trade if they’re not contending or if they are, will they use this excess of young shortstops with Ahmed and Didi Gregorius to get veteran help?

A lack of definition is the hallmark of an absence of planning. The Diamondbacks may have had a plan when Towers was hired. One would assume he presented said plan to get the job. There’s no evident plan anymore. It’s an unsustainable tapdance to adapt to the on-the-fly alterations. The intention was to build slowly while being competitive. The new construct was rushed and adjusted due to situational concerns. The structure has become a box without a sufficient escape route. They’d better learn to live in it, because they have nowhere else to go. It might be good. Then again, it might not.

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Michael Bourn vs. the #11 Pick: Which is Right for the Mets?

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Operating under the premises that if the Mets sign Michael Bourn they will: A) not receive a waiver from MLB to switch the number 11 pick in the first round of the 2013 draft for a second round pick, and B) pay something close to what B.J. Upton got from the Braves and probably more to get him, we can look at what the risk/reward of signing Bourn will be now and later.

The draft pick

The past is not indicative of the future in the draft. A myriad of factors dictate what a club will get from whatever player they draft at whichever spot, but the eleventh pick in the first round is a high pick. From 2003 to 2010, players taken at eleven have been:

2003: Michael Aubrey

2004: Neil Walker

2005: Andrew McCutchen

2006: Max Scherzer

2007: Phillippe Aumont*

2008: Justin Smoak*

2009: Tyler Matzek**

2010: Deck McGuire**

*Aumont and Smoak were both traded for Cliff Lee.

**Matzek and McGuire are mentioned because players selected after them were traded for name players.

After the eleventh pick, the following players were taken in 2003 to 2010 in the first round:

2003: Chad Billingsley, Carlos Quentin

2004: Jered Weaver, Billy Butler, Stephen Drew, Phil Hughes

2005: Jay Bruce, Jacoby Ellsbury, Clay Buchholz

2006: Ian Kennedy, Joba Chamberlain

2007: Jason Heyward, Rick Porcello

2008: Brett Lawrie, Ike Davis, Lance Lynn, Jake Odorizzi, Wade Miley

2009: Mike Trout, Tyler Skaggs, Brad Boxberger

2010: Yasmani Grandal, Chris Sale, Chance Ruffin, Mike Olt

Odorizzi was included in trades for Zack Greinke, James Shields and Wade Davis. Skaggs was part of the Angels trade for Dan Haren. Boxberger and Grandal were traded by the Reds for Mat Latos. Ruffin was traded by the Tigers for Doug Fister.

This isn’t a final determination on any player’s worth, but a clue as to what these draft picks mean. It underscores another underrated aspect of the draft in finding players that a club may not have much of a plan to use themselves, but will develop to trade for established help.

What this shows isn’t specifically connected to the number 11 pick as if it’s a spot that cannot be surrendered. The pick itself is irrelevant in comparison to the talent level in the 2013 draft. Judging the rest of the first round should tell the Mets which is better; which is going to help them more.

The 2005 draft was strong enough that the Red Sox were able to get Ellsbury and Buchholz late in the first round, the 2006 draft was weak. If there isn’t enough talent in the pool to make an impact, then Bourn would make more sense.

The money

It’s not financial, it’s projective. The Mets can sign Bourn even if they have no immediate money to pay him upfront. With Jason Bay and Johan Santana both coming off the books after this season, they can backload any deal for Bourn and get him.

Scott Boras represents Bourn and is willing to keep his clients on the market into spring training without concern as to the public perception, industry ridicule or media panic. Boras has acquiesced with short-term deals for clients that didn’t have much of a resume such as Kyle Lohse in 2008 with the Cardinals. That worked out well for Lohse because he pitched wonderfully in that first year with the Cardinals and was rewarded in-season with the money he didn’t get the previous winter. With established players like Prince Fielder, Boras has waited and gotten his client paid. It’s more likely than not that he’ll eventually be rewarded with Bourn without significantly lowering his demands.

Practicality

The current Mets outfield is ludicrous. I believe Lucas Duda will be a productive bat, but defensively he’s a nightmare. Center field and right field are empty. Bourn gives credibility and quality defensively and offensively. He will certainly help them at least for the next three seasons when he’ll be age 30-33.

Richard Justice reports on the Mets apparent decision to steer clear of Bourn if it will cost them the first round pick. Craig Calcaterra makes a ridiculous assumption on HardballTalk that Bourn won’t help them when they’re “legitimately competitive.” When does he think they’ll be “legitimately competitive”? 2017? 2020? Is it that bad for the Mets? Are they the Astros?

The Mets are flush with young pitching, will be competitive and could contend by 2014; the 2012 A’s and Orioles are evidence that if the planets align, an afterthought team that’s the butt of jokes like the Mets can contend in 2013. For someone who bases his analysis in “reality,” it’s an uninformed, offhanded and unnecessary shot at the Mets for its own sake.

Let’s say he’s kind of right and the Mets aren’t contending until around 2015. Bourn will be 32. Is Bourn going to fall off the planet at 32? In many respects, a player comparable to Bourn is Kenny Lofton. Lofton was still a very good hitter and above-average center fielder until he was in his mid-30s. There have never been PED allegations with either player so there wasn’t a shocking improvement at an age they should be declining with Lofton and it’s reasonable that this would hold true for Bourn.

We can equate the two players and expect Bourn to still be able to catch the ball with good range in the outfield and steal at least 35-40 bases into his mid-30s. Bourn’s not a speed creation at the plate who will come undone when he can no longer run like Willie Wilson; he can hit, has a bit of pop and takes his walks. He’ll be good for at least the next four seasons.

The bottom line

It’s not as simple as trading the draft pick to sign Bourn and paying him. The Mets have to decide on the value of that draft pick now and in the future as well as what would be accomplished by signing Bourn, selling a few more tickets in the now and erasing the idea that the Mets are simply paying lip service for good PR by floating the possibility of Bourn with no intention of seriously pursuing him. As long as they’re not spending lavishly, that will be the prevailing view. They re-signed David Wright to the biggest contract in club history, but that still wasn’t enough to quell the talk of the Wilpons’ finances being in disastrous shape.

What’s it worth to the Mets to sign Bourn? To not sign Bourn? To keep the draft pick? To lose the draft pick? To sell a few more tickets? To shut up the critics?

This is not an either-or decision of Bourn or the pick as it’s being made out to be. The far-reaching consequences are more nuanced than the analysts are saying and there’s no clear cut right or wrong answer in signing him or not signing him. That’s what the Mets have to calculate when making the choice.

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Mike Morse a Useful Bat and Not a Huge Difference-Maker

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The Nationals are listening to offers on outfielder/first baseman Mike Morse after re-signing first baseman Adam LaRoche to a 2-year, $24 million contract. With the presence of Denard Span, Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper in the outfield and the retention of LaRoche, there’s nowhere for Morse to play. He’s stated that he’d be uncomfortable as a designated hitter, but given that he is under contract for one more year at $6.75 million and is a free agent after 2013, he doesn’t have any say in the matter. He’s a below-average defensive player, but he’s not an outright liability in the outfield or at first base.

The Nationals are counting on several variables to repeat their 2012 division-winning performance and 98 wins. Dan Haren is replacing Edwin Jackson in the starting rotation and while Jackson was a guaranteed 190-200 innings, Haren’s back injury limited him to 176 in 2012 and he’s not a certainty to return to durability and form in 2013. On a one year contract, he’s worth the risk at $13 million in comparison to the 4-year, $52 million deal Jackson got from the Cubs. Stephen Strasburg’s limits are gone, so they can count on him for 30 more innings than the 159 he was allowed to throw in 2012. With Haren and Strasburg’s newfound freedom, that should counteract the loss of Jackson.

They’ve lost their two lefties out of the bullpen Tom Gorzelanny and Sean Burnett. Unless they replace them from the outside or get another starting pitcher in order to place Ross Detwiler in the bullpen where he belongs, these departures are going to hurt the Nationals.

They’re said to be seeking lefty bullpen help in exchange for Morse or young starting pitching. Teams in need of Morse’s bat include the Braves, Mets, Rays, Phillies, Orioles, Yankees, Mariners, and Indians. If the Nats think they’re getting at top-tier starting pitching prospect for Morse, they’re deluding themselves.

Morse has tremendous power, but his walks dropped significantly in 2012 in spite of his pitches-per-at-bat percentage remaining static for what it’s been for his career. That could be explained by several things. The Nationals’ batting order, with LaRoche having a very good power year and batting behind Morse, might have led to pitchers challenging Morse a bit more. He could have altered his approach and gotten too aggressive with pitches that he shouldn’t have—that was the case on 2-0 counts and it was a detriment to his production. Or the league might have, to a certain extent, figured out that he’s not an elite slugger and a power fastball up in the zone can get by him with breaking stuff in the dirt leading to strikeouts.

He has legitimate 25-30 homer pop, but not overwhelming value.

What I would try to do if I were the Nationals is to seek something a bit more out of the box than what’s been mentioned as a return in a Morse trade. The likeliest combination of return for Morse would be, for example, from the Mariners Charlie Furbush and Hector Noesi. That’s not a bad deal for either side.

From the Yankees, I wouldn’t ask for young pitching they don’t have, but I would ask for another pending free agent after 2013, one who’s fallen out of favor with the club from his days as a big time prospect: Joba Chamberlain. I’d also ask for Clay Rapada. This would bolster the Nationals bullpen with a situational lefty and possibly give them a shutdown seventh, eighth and ninth innings with Chamberlain, Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen with three pitchers who can interchangeably close.

They won’t get a ton for Morse, but they’ll get useful pieces. The team that gets Morse will get a power bat who hits righties and lefties equally as well and won’t be affected by ballpark factors because he’s big enough and strong enough to hit the ball out of any park. He’s not a major difference-maker, but he’s a chip they can trade to fill immediate needs.

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Trading Wil Myers Would Be “Moore” of the Same For the Royals

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Of course I’m referring to Royals GM Dayton Moore who, in his time as their GM and as an assistant with the Braves, has proven himself to be a shrewd drafter and accumulator of young, minor league talent. He has, however, faltered in signing and trading for established big leaguers. Someone with strengths and weaknesses so clearly defined might not be the best choice to run the entire organization. He’s under contract through 2014 and is going to get the opportunity to see things through for better or worse, so the Royals and their fans need to hope that he doesn’t keep doing the same things over and over and expect a different result.

During his tenure, there’s been little bottom line improvement with the Royals’ definable results—i.e. their record—but they have a farm system that is bursting with talent, particularly on offense. Rather than trade away some of that talent, they need to hang onto it and scour the market for pitchers that would be willing to sign with the Royals in a mutually beneficial deal between themselves and the club.

Considering the stagnation of Luke Hochevar (a non-tender candidate); that last season Bruce Chen was their opening day starter; that Danny Duffy needed Tommy John surgery; and that veteran imports Jonathan Sanchez have failed miserably, it’s understandable that they would use their surplus of bats to try and get a legitimate, cost-controlled young starter who could front their rotation. They’ve improved the rotation relatively cheaply and on a short-term basis with Ervin Santana and by keeping Jeremy Guthrie (who people don’t realize how good he’s been). They do need pitching and while it would help them to acquire a frontline starter like James Shields or a young, inexpensive arm such as Jeremy Hellickson, Trevor Bauer, or Jonathon Niese, the Royals would be better served to wait out the falling dominos without doing something drastic like trading Wil Myers, Eric Hosmer, or Billy Butler. Instead of a blockbuster deal of youngsters, perhaps signing a veteran such as Dan Haren who’s looking to revitalize his value and get one last big contract, would be preferable.

The Royals have the makings of a big time offense that’s cheap and productive. Weakening it to repeat the risky maneuvers of the past and hoping that they don’t turn into Sanchez is not the way to go. It would yield a headline and more hot stove stories of the Royals preparing to take the next step, but they’ve been there before multiple times in recent years and have wound up in the same place—70 wins or so. It’s a circular history and they’ve failed to make innocent climb into noticeable improvement, respectability, and finally contention. If any club knows first hand the risks of pitchers, it’s the Royals. The last thing they need to do is double-down on the risk and cost themselves a young bat like Myers or Hosmer before they’ve given them a chance to develop in a Royals uniform. There are pitchers like Haren who wouldn’t cost anything other than money. They think they have a comparable young replacement for Myers/Butler in Bubba Starling and you can find a first baseman, but would being patient hinder them?

If it’s an affordable price, the free agency has better options than trading young bats to get a young arm that might or might not make it and is more likely to repeat the process that has put the Royals in this position where they need pitching because the young pitchers they’ve had haven’t lived up to the hype or gotten hurt. Why do it again?

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Zack Greinke—Free Agency Profile

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Name: Zack Greinke

Position: Right-handed starting pitcher

Vital Statistics: Age—29; Height—6’2”; Weight—200 lbs; Bats—Right; Throws—Right

Transactions: June 2002—Drafted by the Kansas City Royals in the 1st round (6th pick) MLB Draft from Apopka HS in Florida; traded by the Kansas City Royals

December 19, 2010—Traded by the Royals to the Milwaukee Brewers with INF Yuniesky Betancourt and cash for OF Lorenzo Cain, SS Alcides Escobar, RHP Jeremy Jeffress, and RHP Jake Odorizzi

July 27, 2012—Traded by the Brewers to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim for SS Jean Segura, RHP Ariel Pena, and RHP Johnny Hellweg

Awards: 2009 AL Cy Young Award winner

Agent: Casey Close

Might he return to the Angels? Yes

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

Positives: Greinke has a low-90s fastball that he can accelerate it up to around 97 when he needs it; this is what was referred to 100 years ago by the likes of Christy Mathewson as “pitching in a pinch.” His control is masterful; he has three variations on his fastball—a cutter, a four-seamer, and a two-seamer—a curve, slider, and changeup. The combination makes him one of the most gifted pitchers in baseball.

He formulates a gameplan and executes it. Greinke’s motion is clean and effortless and he’s been physically healthy (apart from a his fractured rib incurred playing basketball) for his whole career. He can hit, is a fine all-around athlete, and a leader off the field ready and willing to provide tips to teammates and even the front office.

Negatives: His much-publicized psychological issues and battle with depression have led to the perception that he wouldn’t be able to handle the high-pressure East Coast venues of the Yankees, Red Sox, and Phillies. He has a deer-in-the-headlights look that put forth the image of fear and inability to deal with big games. His one opportunity in the post-season came in 2011 with the Brewers and he got rocked in three starts.

What he’ll want: 7-years, $167 million with a full no-trade clause

What he’ll get: 6-years, $148 million with a 7th year option raising it to a potential $170 million and a full no-trade clause

Teams that might give it to him: Dodgers, Angels, Nationals, Red Sox, Cardinals

The Rangers want Greinke and have the money to pay him, but they’re not going as high as the bidding will get. The Angels have the cash, but they re-signed Jered Weaver and signed C.J. Wilson to essentially duplicate contracts that each total about half of what Greinke wants. Are they going to make an increasingly toxic clubhouse atmosphere worse by overpaying for an outsider after Weaver went against the wishes of his agent Scott Boras by taking a down-the-line salary to forego free agency and stay? With the Albert Pujols contract on the books, I don’t see Arte Moreno okaying such an outlay for Greinke.

The Nationals are loaded with money but, truthfully, they don’t need Greinke. They’ll spend their money on a center fielder and if they want another starting pitcher will go the cheaper/easier route with a lower level name with Dan Haren or by trading for James Shields.

The Red Sox are trying to get back to their roots of the Theo Epstein era, but have also made some noise for players like Josh Hamilton and Greinke who might not be best-suited for Boston. Like with Hamilton, the Red Sox could panic as a response to the anger of their fan base and the drastic improvement of the Blue Jays.

The Cardinals have money to spend with Chris Carpenter and Carlos Beltran both coming off the books after 2013; they’re going to need to sign Adam Wainwright, but the departure of Pujols truly freed the Cardinals to do other things. Greinke would be great in St. Louis.

In the end, it comes down to what the Dodgers are willing to do. Cash is no object; they have money with their new ownership and they’re spending it.

Would I sign Greinke? If I had the money to spend and the agreeable, relaxed venue, I would. Greinke in New York, Boston, or Philadelphia is not a good idea.

Will it be a retrospective mistake for the team that signs him? It’s a lot of money and that amount of money for a pitcher is a risk. That said, Greinke is 29 and keeps himself in shape. As far as pitchers go, he’s more likely than most to be able to stay healthy and productive for the length of a 6-7 year deal.

Prediction: Greinke will sign with the Dodgers.

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Did the Angels Botch the Dan Haren Deal?

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Is $12 million for one season a lot of money for a pitcher with the history of Dan Haren?

Unless there are extenuating circumstances that we don’t know about, it’s not a bad deal at all. Judging from the Angels desperation to trade Haren prior to the deadline to exercise or reject his 2013 option, their willingness to take the Cubs’ Carlos Marmol and his $9.8 million contract for 2013, and then final decision to decline the option, it makes me believe that there’s something we don’t know about Haren—something that spurred the Angels’ decision and led to them messing it up.

Pitching for the Athletics, Diamondbacks and Angels from 2005 to 2011, Haren was one of the most durable and quality pitchers in baseball. Never once did he fall below 216 innings pitched in a season; his strikeouts per 9 innings were consistently between 7 and 9; he has tremendous control; and he takes the ball every fifth day.

In 2012, Haren was pitching with a bad back that was a continual problem and sidelined him from early July to early August and was clearly an issue all season. His velocity was judged to be mediocre at around 88 all season, but Haren was never a flamethrower anyway, hovering around the 92-93 range. The Angels’ contract option contained a $3.5 million buyout or they would’ve owed him $15.5 million for 2013. That’s a lot of money, but if Haren returns to form and gives them 200 innings, is the difference—$12 million—disagreeable for a team like the Angels that has money to spend?

Obviously they want to keep Zack Greinke, but having traded Ervin Santana (178 innings in 2012) and with Greinke a free agent, the Angels currently have a guaranteed rotation of Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, and Garrett Richards. That’s a decent top three and there are mid-level arms available such as Hiroki Kuroda, Edwin Jackson, or by bringing Joe Saunders back. Available via trade will possibly be some starters from the Rays’ surplus, so the situation isn’t dire, they can replace Haren’s innings, and they might save some money in comparison to Haren, but they had Haren under team control. They made the decision to try and trade him so openly that everyone knew they were trying to trade him and they stepped up their efforts after they’d dealt Santana. They couldn’t come to an agreement with the interested teams (rumored to be the Cubs and Red Sox) who clearly tried to take advantage of the Angels’ frenzy to move him. Then they declined the option; then put out a halfhearted, “We’re willing to continue talking to Haren,” in a tone that drips with, “Thanks, take a hike.” All of this makes me wonder if the Angels have information the media and other clubs don’t regarding Haren’s health and botched the attempt to get a small piece for him before paying him off to leave. It doesn’t sound as if they’re all that confident in the 32-year-old returning to form and that’s fine, but it could’ve been handled a little better.

Either way, the whole process went in an odd fashion, keeping in line with the increasing perception of dysfunction in an Angels organization that was once decisive and whose hallmark was one of continuity and purpose.

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The Angels’ Toxic Stew

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The Angels are in flux and trying to change on the fly with remnants of the old and facets of the new creating a strange brew that didn’t work in 2012 and is unlikely to work in 2013 and beyond. They have decided to move forward with manager Mike Scioscia after a disappointing and expensive season, but he has still been marginalized in influence. Hiring the best qualified and most impressive people isn’t always the best policy when maintaining what was already in place. GM Jerry Dipoto thinks differently from the manager, field staff and minor league personnel he inherited, but is stuck with them due to contractual obligations and apparent attachments.

On and off field changes are taking place in the aftermath of the $151 million club missing the playoffs while the Athletics—built similarly to the way Dipoto would build his clubs—made the playoffs with a $53 million payroll. Ervin Santana was traded to the Royals; Dan Haren will learn his fate—trade, contract option rejected or exercised—today; Zack Greinke and Torii Hunter are free agents; and in an under-the-radar, behind the scenes decision that might have consequences, longtime minor league manager and scout Tom Kotchman left the organization.

They’re walking the line between the past and the future, but that future is saddled with players like Albert Pujols who will turn 33 in January and is under contract until 2021; there’s a lack of definition in what they are and what their strategy will be.

Scioscia preferred his teams to be old-school and resistant to slumps with deep starting pitching that gobbled innings; a versatile bullpen with a hard-throwing closer; a lineup that hits home runs, but also speed to play small ball; and a very good defense. How much of that is present now with the departure of Santana and possibly Haren and Greinke? The lineup is not adhering to the same template Scioscia wanted. They’re not the same team, but have the same man running it on the field. The remaining bitterness between the manager, the GM and an irritated owner creates an antagonistic atmosphere. This type of dysfunction can work, but it certainly makes life easier for everyone if there isn’t such an obvious split in how things are run.

It extends to everyone. Arte Moreno is a well-liked and committed owner who tries to do the right thing. He encouraged stability with his manager, gave his baseball people free rein, and spent money. But when hiring someone with the mindset of Dipoto, inserting massive stars the level of Pujols into the mix, and essentially castrating Scioscia, the situation spiraled quickly when they didn’t win. They righted the ship to a degree and got back into playoff contention, but it was too late. For a club that was widely expected to win a championship, an 89-73 season doesn’t warrant excuses especially when a team like the Athletics blew past them like they were standing still and infighting, hoping no one would notice and sheer star power would carry them through. They made the mistake that other teams have made thinking that having good people means they’ll be able to work together and ride talent to waltz into the post-season. They didn’t. Now they’re moving forward with the same people that couldn’t get on the same page last season.

If Moreno wanted to go with a different GM, then he would be better served to let that GM hire a manager he wants. That is clearly not Scioscia. This is not an indictment of Scioscia, nor is it a defense of the longtime manager. It’s fact. His overmanaging and strange strategic maneuverings have hindered the club in the past, but at least everyone was in agreement as to the Angels’ way of doing things and they succeeded or failed as one. Now that’s not the case. Now there’s known fracture that’s not being repaired. With the structure in disarray and an ongoing struggle; a very rough AL West; and aging stars, it’s a hard formula to make work.

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