The Tigers’ Options At Closer (AKA Coffee, Cigarettes And Baseball)

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Tigers’ manager Jim Leyland is openly and passive aggressively letting it be known that he’s unhappy with the concept of Bruce Rondon as his closer. So far in spring training, Rondon has been wild with 5 walks in 3.2 innings pitched, and has surrendered 5 hits and 3 earned runs. That’s in four appearances.

The Tigers spent the entire winter shunning any pretense of bringing back erstwhile closer Jose Valverde (who Leyland wanted back as recently as a few days ago), stayed away from any and all available veterans like Rafael Soriano, Heath Bell or Joel Hanrahan, and essentially handed the job to Rondon. With the regular season three-and-a-half weeks away, Leyland is looking at his loaded club with a powerful lineup, a deep starting rotation and a solid pre-closer bullpen and panicking at the thought of the entire thing crashing down because he doesn’t have someone he can moderately trust pitching the ninth inning. Valverde had some major meltdowns at inopportune times, but in 2012 he did save 35 games and had a solid hits/innings pitched ratio of 59/69. His strikeouts and velocity were way down making me think there was something physically wrong with him that the Tigers kept quiet, attributing his slump to the ambiguity of closing and mechanical woes. To a veteran manager like Leyland, the known and shaky veteran who’s gotten the outs for him before is better than the unknown rookie who can’t throw strikes.

So what to do about it?

Are there still-available closers—apart from Valverde—that are any good and gettable? Carlos Marmol can be had and if he’s in a better situation than with the Cubs, he might work. The Nationals aren’t trading Drew Storen or Tyler Clippard. The Tigers could sign Brian Wilson and hope the remaining bullpen members—Phil Coke, Octavio Dotel, Joaquin Benoit—hold down the fort (or seize the job) until Wilson is ready to pitch. If the Brewers fall out of contention, John Axford might be on the market. Francisco Rodriguez is sitting out. There are outside-the-box arms like Derek Lowe—40 in June—who was an All-Star closer with the Red Sox before becoming a starter and still wants to pitch. He’s said that he doesn’t want to be a reliever, but that was as a long-reliever. Would he want to take a last shot at closing for a championship-level team? Could he do it? Physically, who knows? Mentally, there’s no doubt. His ground ball rate is still superior and he’d be ridiculously cheap.

At his age, Leyland doesn’t need the aggravation of a rookie closer who can’t throw the ball over the plate. If he’s publicly carping about it, you can imagine what he’s saying to his coaches and is only being slightly more diplomatic with his ostensible boss, GM Dave Dombrowski. Leyland has a bratty side and, like any overgrown child even as he protests that he’ll deal with the situation as best he can, his sour face and underlying tone of displeasure combined with his already tense and jittery presence from a lifetime of coffee, cigarettes and baseball is surely felt throughout the clubhouse in spite of his protestations to the contrary. The players know Leyland, know the American League and probably don’t feel any more comfortable with Rondon sabotaging a potential championship season than the manager does. Rondon doesn’t have much time to get his act together. If he doesn’t, the Tigers are going to have to do something about it before it destroys everything they’re trying to accomplish.

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Terry Francona Chooses the Indians—Why?

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Terry Francona could conceivably have had his choice of jobs as the baseball managerial wheel spins. But, shockingly (to me at least), he decided to take over as the manager of the Cleveland Indians on a 4-year contract. The move is being lauded widely, but is it the right one for both sides?

Let’s see what this means for the Indians and Francona and why it might’ve happened.

Francona wants to prove himself

After his tenure in Philadelphia and in the throes of the Moneyball craze in which a manager was seen as little more than a faceless automaton whose prime directive is to follow orders from the front office, Francona took over as the Red Sox manager. He was hired because he was willing to do what he was told; would take short money; was agreeable to the players and especially Curt Schilling, whom the Red Sox were trying to acquire from the Diamondbacks; and he wasn’t Grady Little.

Even as the Red Sox won their long-elusive championship and another one three years later, there was forever an underlying feeling that Francona—in spite of his likability and deft handling of the media and egos in the Red Sox clubhouse—was along for the ride. Perhaps he’d like to show off his managerial skills in a less financially free situation such as that of the Indians. The Indians have some talent on the big league roster. Asdrubal Cabrera, Carlos Santana, Lonnie Chisenhall, Shin-Soo Choo, Justin Masterson, and Ubaldo Jimenez are the foundation for a decent club. They should also have some money to spend on mid-level improvements with both Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore coming off the books.

In order for a manager to eliminate the perception of what he was in his prior stop, he has to go to a totally different situation. Francona certainly has that with the Indians.

He enjoyed his time with the Indians, has ties to Cleveland, and misses the competition

Francona was a former front office assistant with the Indians and his father Tito Francona was an All-Star player for the Indians in the early-1960s. He knows the front office and there will be a cohesiveness that wasn’t present with the Red Sox. As successful as Francona was in Boston, there was a limit to his sway. With the Indians, his opinions will be heard and he must feel they’ll be adhered to.

That’s not necessarily a good thing. If a club is rebuilding and the manager is trying to justify his reputation, he’s going to want to win. There’s a tug-of-war at play when a manager wants to win and the organization is trying to develop. Francona might not be the same person he was when working for the Indians in his pre-Red Sox days and if the Indians aren’t willing to mortgage the future in a win-now maneuver, there could be unexpected friction.

Being around baseball as a broadcaster isn’t the same as being in the middle of the fight. Francona recharged his batteries, or may think he recharged his batteries after a year away, and wants to jump back into the fray.

He didn’t want to wait and see about other, higher-pressure jobs

The implication of Francona as the prototypical “nice guy” isn’t exactly accurate. He, like Joe Torre, has been a far more calculating presence than his portrayal and persona suggests. He played the martyr following the Red Sox collapse and became a victim to the players’ decision to disrespect him and the front office need to kick someone overboard as a show of “doing something.”

Was he innocent? It’s part of the manager’s job to be hypocritical, but if he was going to get the credit for being laid back when the team was winning and it was okay that the starting pitchers who weren’t working that day were off doing whatever, then he also gets the blame when clubhouse leaks and team fractures result in a disappointing fall. The idea that Francona wasn’t to be held accountable in any way for the Red Sox slide in 2011 (and in 2012 for that matter) is ludicrous. If his calm leadership was credited for them winning in 2004 and 2007, then his porous discipline is part of why they came undone.

Will there be expectations in Cleveland? Based on Francona’s reputation, there will be factions thinking the “proven manager” theory will work. But in the end, it’s about the players. Francona could have sat in the ESPN booth and waited for other jobs with more attractive on-field personnel—the Angels and Tigers specifically—to open. He wants to win, but with the Indians, he won’t get the blame if they don’t.

The Indians presented a plan to spend a bit more freely

As mentioned earlier, the Indians will be free of Hafner’s, Sizemore’s, and Derek Lowe’s paychecks and they may look to trade Choo. That should give them increased flexibility. If I’m Manny Acta, I would be offended if the Indians spend this winter, signing and trading for players who were off-limits due to finances simply because they hired Francona. Acta has been unlucky in his managerial stops. With the Nationals, he oversaw the breaking of the ground in their rebuild and was fired. He got the Indians job and did as much as he could with limited talent and again was fired. It’s a similar situation that we’ve seen with Art Howe and Torre. Howe left the Athletics for the Mets for many reasons. The Mets were going to pay him more than the A’s would have; Mets’ GM Steve Phillips wanted someone he could control better than the fired Bobby Valentine and another candidate Lou Piniella; and he also wanted to prove that his success wasn’t the fluke it was presented as in Moneyball.

Torre was fired by the Cardinals in 1995 and this was well before he became “The Godfather” of baseball and St. Joe—both images promulgated by Torre himself. He was considered a retread who knew how to handle the clubhouse, but wouldn’t do much to help the team one way or the other. If you examine the 1995 Cardinals team that Torre was fired from 47 games into the season, they weren’t very good and didn’t spend any money (20th in payroll that season). They’d allowed Gregg Jefferies, one player who had blossomed under Torre’s gentle hand where he’d failed everywhere else, to depart to the Phillies without replacing him. Back then, Tony LaRussa was viewed as the Mr. Fix-It who could win anywhere by sheer force of will and strategic brilliance. LaRussa was hired as Cardinals’ manager that winter after he left the Athletics as a managerial free agent and, lo and behold, they imported players LaRussa wanted because he had a power that Torre didn’t have and for him to take the job, that guarantee had to be made. A bad team was transformed into a club that lost in game 7 of the NLCS.

Torre, to put it mildly, landed on his feet with the Yankees.

Howe, on the other hand, took over a Mets team in disarray with a power struggle at the top and awkwardly moving on from the late 1990s-2000 years of contention. The 2003-2004 Mets under Howe had a misleadingly high payroll because of prior financial commitments they’d made to declining players. When Omar Minaya took over as GM late in the 2004 season, it was announced that Howe would finish the season and not be retained. The Mets hired an inexperienced Willie Randolph and opened the checkbook in the winter of 2004-2005 spending big money on Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran. They finished at 83-79 in 2005 and would’ve finished with pretty much that same record under Howe. An in-demand manager can say what he wants and have it done. A retread can’t. Torre was a retread; Howe was a bystander; with the Phillies, Francona was a shrug. LaRussa was LaRussa and got what he wanted.

Will it work?

In the end, it’s the players. If Francona’s going to succeed in Cleveland, it won’t be through some “magic” that doesn’t exist. His reputation might be conducive to players wanting to go to Cleveland; his laid-back demeanor will be easier for young players to develop without someone screaming or glaring at them; but it won’t be due to the simplistic, “He won with the Red Sox so he’ll win here.” He didn’t win in Philadelphia because the team was bad. Does that factor in? If not, it should.

If the Indians toss the same roster in 2013 as they did in 2012, they’re not going to be all that much better under Francona than they were under Acta and Sandy Alomar Jr.

If that’s the case, then Francona wouldn’t have taken the job. The “name” manager gets his way, justified or not. If it fails or succeeds, we’ll know why.

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Collapses and Comebacks

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Would the Phillies and Brewers have staged these remarkable leaps back into contention had they not made the mid-season housecleaning trades in what was a tacit concession that it wasn’t going to happen for them this season? And where would the Phillies be had they not signed Cole Hamels and been forced to trade him?

The players both clubs acquired in dealing away Shane Victorino, Hunter Pence, Joe Blanton, and Zack Greinke haven’t done anything to help their new teams in the short term, so there are other reasons that they’ve gotten to within striking distance of the second Wild Card in the National League.

The Phillies have taken great advantage of finally being fully healthy in their starting rotation and are beating on dead teams like the Marlins and Rockies. More fuel will be added to the idea of a “miracle” if they take care of business against the Astros this weekend. Because they have that pitching, they’ll be competitive the rest of season, but it’s more likely that reality will strike when they play the Braves and Nationals in 9 of the final 19 games.

In addition to the Phillies and Brewers, the Dodgers, Pirates and even the Padres have a legitimate claim on saying, “Hey, we’re in this thing!” Perception is the key here. The Phillies, Brewers and Padres have nothing to lose and were left for dead, so it’s not going to be seen as a “collapse” if they fall short. The Pirates will be judged as having collapsed; the Dodgers flurry of trades will be viewed as a “failure”. The Cardinals, on the other hand, will be judged in the prism of disintegration. The Cardinals aren’t that good to begin with and certainly not markedly better than the teams chasing them.

In the American League, the Yankees are crawling to the finish line and, before running into the A’s, the Angels were making a run similar to that of the Phillies.

What does all this mean?

In the future, we’re going to see teams reluctant to make drastic mid-season trades to dump salary if they’re within 10 games of one of the Wild Card spots. Unless an offering team bowls them over by overpaying, it makes no sense to simply trade away pieces that could be used to make a run no matter how much of a fantasy, how many things have to go right for that run to happen. On an annual basis, these “miraculous” comebacks are becoming so frequent that they’re not miraculous anymore. There’s a reason they’re happening. Teams can’t coast into the playoffs and the pursuing teams can’t give up. That means players are playing all-out until the end whereas in the past, they might’ve put up a pretense of trying hard and shrugged when it became too much work.

Naturally, there are extenuating circumstances. The Red Sox and Dodgers are two such cases. The Red Sox blew it up knowing that even if they make another managerial change at the conclusion of this season, leaving Josh Beckett in that clubhouse, in that town was not going to work. They cleared money with Carl Crawford, and moved a player who was ill-suited to Boston, the Red Sox, and the East Coast in Adrian Gonzalez. The Dodgers are flush with cash, banking on a new TV deal, and weren’t good enough as constructed at the time of the trades.

The Yankees, seemingly content with their lead in the AL East and knowing they had the two Wild Cards as a fallback if the unthinkable happened, didn’t do much at the trading deadline. Still clinging to concept of getting under the luxury tax threshold by 2014, they didn’t make a move on the big names available such as Cliff Lee. (That the Phillies were entertaining thoughts of trading Lee should tell you how surprised Ruben Amaro Jr. is that they’ve jumped back in the race.) Instead, the disappearing GM Brian Cashman (where is he?) chose to make small and insignificant moves such as Casey McGehee, Steve Pearce, and Derek Lowe. Now they’re staring in the face of being bounced from the playoffs entirely as a casualty in the stunning rise and comebacks of the Orioles, Rays, Athletics, and Angels.

As July 31st approaches, the line between contender and also-ran is increasingly blurry. Teams that win two straight games and “climb” to within 5 games of a playoff spot or lose three straight and fall to 8 back are alternatingly seen as buyers and sellers. It’s permeated front offices and the amount of coverage that the deadline and contracts and “plans” receive are infiltrating logical thinking.

Apart from the lower echelon teams like the Astros, Cubs, and Twins who are so far behind at the deadline that not even a streak of 20 wins in 25 games is going to do much good, we’re not going to have big time players available for the contenders. Teams without a preseason acceptance that they’re not contending are going to stick with their roster from the preseason and see who collapses in front of them. It’s happening to the Yankees, so it can happen to anyone.

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The Yankees Have Become George

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The Yankees have become George.

Not George Steinbrenner. Their George. Their lovable little buddy loser who always seems close to breaking free of his lot in life as the little brother who can’t quite get it right. The Mets. To make matters worse for the Yankees as they continue this death spiral is that the inherent egomania among the organization, the media that covers them, and their fanbase (the last two are interchangeable) will spur the retaliatory ridicule from fans of other clubs—specifically the Mets and Red Sox—who have had to endure the condescending taunts and “we’re better than you” undertones of their run over the past two decades following a long lull of mediocrity and embarrassment.

They’re still wearing the pinstripes, but they’re not fulfilling their end of the ridiculous notion of “class,” “dignity,” and “professionalism” that had been instilled by the manager in the opposite dugout last night, Buck Showalter, his successor Joe Torre, and the players who were the foundation for the dynasty Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, and Bernie Williams. It was always a bit silly that a team that carried such players as David Wells was considered “classy”, but they won. Whatever device that was necessary to push the story forward was used in the telling of the tale, real or not.

When current manager Joe Girardi picked up the phone in the first inning to call for Derek Lowe to warm up in back of an overmatched David Phelps, I halfway expected his face to turn paler and thinner than it already is as the strain of the team’s stumble takes its toll on him because on the other end of the phone, from beyond the grave, was George Steinbrenner, shouting like a raving lunatic and threatening to fire him and replace him with Billy Martin, looming next to the Boss from the netherworld. (Are they in heaven or hell? Discuss.)

Jeter said earlier this week that he’s not panicking. And he’s not. But how about the rest of the team? Was it the vaunted “Yankees way”—supposedly better than yours or mine—when Phelps gestured toward left field on Matt Wieters’s home run as if he felt that left fielder Raul Ibanez should’ve caught it? Phelps can claim that he thought a fan interfered, but we all know the truth. Was it the “Yankees way” when they authored a stirring comeback and handed the lead right back with an Orioles display of thunder that the Yankees can no longer muster using the compromised, mediocre, and slumping lineup they’re trotting out on a nightly basis?

I had the sound turned down on the game, but as embedded in my brain as he unfortunately is, I could still hear Michael Kay shrieking like a maniac thinking gumdrop thoughts of “Yankees magic” when they tied the score just as well as I could hear his crestfallen devastation when the Orioles snatched the game right back.

Fans are looking for someone to blame. So accustomed to an easy ride that they don’t know how to deal with adversity such as this; to handle teams like the Orioles, a longtime punching bag, suddenly hitting them back and having not just the audacity to do it, but to hurt them as well(!!) that they’re reverting to the Steinbrenner years of wanting to fire people (Kevin Long is a popular target) or to alter the strategy of hitting the ball out of the park in favor of bunting and small-ball.

Reliance on hitting home runs wasn’t a “problem” as it was implied at mid-season; the idea that they have to find a method of manufacturing runs was absurd as long as they had deep starting pitching, a well-organized bullpen, and mashers who hit a lot of home runs. Now they have none of that and they’re losing because of it.

It’s a matter of perception. Had the Yankees been hovering around first place or behind all season and found themselves tied for first place on September 7th, it would be seen as a positive. But they’re losing, losing, and losing more and the disappearing division lead, competition, and pressure is overwhelming them. Yes, they’re injured; yes, they’re slumping, but much of the Yankees’ dominance over the years has been their ruthlessness against teams that didn’t have the manpower to compete with them and bashing them brutally. Expecting sympathy on and off the field is indicative of an arrogance that has sparked this downfall in the first place. “We’re the Yankees!!! How dare you?!?!”

But teams are daring and exploiting the weakness and disarray.

The Yankees still have time to right their ship, but they’re in very serious danger of falling out of the playoffs entirely—something unacceptable given their expectations, payroll, and that they’d accumulated enough of a cushion that this shouldn’t be happening.

They have to win a few games and not worry about what their competition is doing, but humanity inevitably intervenes. Watching the scoreboard, tightening up with every run scored and win accumulated by the younger and fresher Rays; the star-studded and finally playing up to their capabilities Angels; the loaded Rangers; the upstart Athletics; and the determined Orioles—it all factors in to what’s happening to the Yankees.

I’ve seen this movie before and know how it ends. It’s formulaic, but not in the manner Yankees’ fans have come to expect. The underdogs are ganging up on them, smell blood, and have an opportunity at comeuppance.

They’ve become George. And once you become George, there’s really nowhere to go from there but down.

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Translating GM-Speak, Votes of Confidence and Threats

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Most of the “rumors” or information from “insiders” is either fictional or planted and has no basis in fact. But there are other instances where baseball people say something without saying something; when they make a statement for selfish reasons, whether it’s to get the fans/media off their backs or to send a message to individuals. In recent days, there have been several such stories. As we saw with Mariners’ GM Jack Zduriencik saying that Ichiro Suzuki was a franchise player, then turning around and trading him, many times there’s an ulterior motive behind the rhetoric.

Let’s take a look at some statements and translate them into what is actually meant.

The Bobby Valentine vote of confidence

It’s called the “dreaded” vote of confidence because the perception is that it inevitably precedes a firing. Valentine just received one from the Red Sox’ front office. It’d be nice if some enterprising stat person with a lot of time on his or her hands did some research, looked into historic votes of confidence and crunched the numbers of a firing or not following the public declaration of job security.

The thing with Valentine is that he needs absolute support from the ownership to counteract the media/fan/player hate he engenders. If he doesn’t have that, there’s no point in keeping him around. If the Red Sox are truly invested in Valentine, they’re going to have to: A) make structural changes to the roster including getting rid of the subversive elements like Josh Beckett (which they’re probably going to try to do regardless of who the manager is); and B) give him at least an extra year on his contract for 2014.

They have to decide whether changing the manager is easier than changing the players and that can only be determined as they gauge interest in the likes of Beckett and even Jon Lester this September.

Translation: They don’t know whether Valentine’s coming back and it depends on a myriad of factors, not just putting up a good showing late in the season or making the playoffs.

David Samson on the Marlins

The Marlins’ hatchet-man, Samson, offered his opinions on this season. Here are the main quotes regarding owner Jeffrey Loria, baseball ops boss Larry Beinfest and GM Michael Hill:

“As we go into the offseason, the fact is, forgetting the injuries, the players we have right now should be winning games,” Samson said. “It’s clear the evaluation was wrong on certain players. It’s a constant process of seeing what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong, and changing. One thing we don’t want to be as a baseball organization is stubborn. We don’t want to not admit mistakes. Who is that serving?”

“Everything may change,” Samson said. “I think it’s going to be an interesting October, a little different than the October we envisioned …. [Loria] is angry and he should be. Me, Larry and Mike are only two, three and four in the disappointed department. He’s number one.”

The Marlins are a disaster, that’s something everyone can agree on. Given the constant changes in field staff and player personnel and that Samson mentioned the words “evaluation” and “wrong” without pointing the finger at himself or Loria, along with the history of Samson and Loria of firing people, there might be front office changes rather than field staff and player changes. The one static department has been the front office. Beinfest and Dan Jennings have been prevented from interviewing with other clubs for positions and they—Beinfest, Jennings, Hill—have super-long term contracts to stay.

Translation: Manager Ozzie Guillen is safe, but members of the baseball operations team are definitely not.

Manny Acta’s job security

Indians’ GM Chris Antonetti didn’t specifically say Acta would be back, but said he has, “no reason to think otherwise.” That’s not a ringing endorsement and the Indians have come undone—through no specific fault on the part of Acta—and faded from negligible contention. There’s talent on the team, but the issues they have stem from front office mistakes than anything Acta has or hasn’t done. Grady Sizemore was brought back and hasn’t played; Johnny Damon and Derek Lowe didn’t work out and were jettisoned; Casey Kotchman reverted back into being Casey Kotchman; Ubaldo Jimenez has been awful since being acquired from the Rockies.

I think they need a change and with Sandy Alomar Jr. still very popular in Cleveland and on several managerial short-lists, they won’t want to let him leave when he’d benefit the front office and shield them from rightful criticism for what they put together.

Translation: Acta won’t be back and will be replaced by Alomar.

Sandy Alderson says the Mets won’t eat Jason Bay’s contract

The Mets are saying they won’t pay Bay to leave. After this season, the Mets owe him $19 million. Those who are saying the Mets should just swallow the money are living in a dreamworld where $19 million is considered absolutely nothing. Yes, the money’s gone whether Bay’s here or not and while the Mets’ financial circumstances may have stabilized with the settlement of the Bernie Madoff lawsuit against the Wilpons, that doesn’t mean they’re going to hand Bay that golden parachute.

It’s not going to work in New York for Bay, but the Mets will exchange him for another bad contract before releasing him. A release would come next year despite the vitriol they’ll receive if he’s brought back.

Translation: The Mets aren’t releasing him now and won’t eat the money, but they’ll eat some of the money and trade him for another contract that’s equally bad. He’s not going to be a Met in 2013.

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The Youkilis Situation Could’ve Been Handled Better

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The Red Sox are not known for their amicable partings of the ways with players, managers and executives.

Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe, Johnny Damon, Nomar Garciaparra, Terry Francona and Theo Epstein all left under acrimonious circumstances so it’s not surprising that Kevin Youkilis is on the trading block and has been treated as if he was a spare part rather than a key to their success over the past six years.

Youkilis isn’t innocent here. His intensity, hatred of losing and temper were once seen as attributes, but once he was injured and his production diminished, those personality traits were suddenly viewed as negative. The temper turned into whining; his hatred of losing became self-indulgent tantrums; the intensity deteriorated into clubhouse lawyering.

What was once galvanizing morphed into the subversive.

It doesn’t matter which is accurate. It’s all about perception. When the team was winning, Youkilis’s personality was part of the fabric that made the club successful; when they began losing, it was a problem that had to be excised.

Bobby Valentine didn’t do the Red Sox, himself or Youkilis any favors by calling the player out for his seeming lack of passion. Boston tends to magnify everything and a manager like Valentine—accustomed to New York and a press corps with a million other stories to cover—certainly didn’t expect what was an innocuous comment to explode the way it did. In New York it would’ve been a story for a day or two and then faded away. In Boston it was a topic of conversation for weeks and validated the players’ fears about Valentine.

The biggest factors for the Red Sox in this haven’t been Valentine, Youkilis, the emergence of Will Middlebrooks or the team’s struggles that have necessitated dramatic changes for the greater good. The upheaval from last fall and departures of Francona and Epstein got the ball rolling. Had Francona been brought back, Epstein would’ve stayed; had Epstein stayed, Larry Lucchino wouldn’t have asserted himself in the baseball operations department; there would be no Valentine. If Epstein had stayed, he likely would’ve insisted on making serious changes to the roster. That would’ve had Youkilis traded last winter rather than heading into the season with him already unhappy at being symbolized for the 2011 collapse.

Blaming Valentine or Youkilis is simplistic. The Red Sox disarray that precipitated the departures of Francona and Epstein set the foundation. They could’ve gotten something for Youkilis last winter. Now they’re probably going to get nothing apart from another name added to the list of players who gave their hearts and souls to the Red Sox and Boston and were unceremoniously—even cruelly—kicked out the door when they’d outlived their usefulness.

It didn’t have to be this way.

It shouldn’t have been this way.

But this is how it is.

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2012 National League East Predicted Standings

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Wins Losses GB
1. Atlanta Braves 93 69
2. Philadelphia Phillies* 89 73 4
3. Washington Nationals* 88 74 5
4. Miami Marlins 83 79 10
5. New York Mets 69 93 24

*Denotes predicted Wild Card winner.

Atlanta Braves

There’s a misplaced belief that the team that made the most drastic and biggest moves in the off-season is automatically the “best” team.

Because the Braves did nothing to add to the roster that collapsed out of a playoff spot, they’re virtually ignored as a legit contender.

There was addition by subtraction by getting rid of Derek Lowe; they made significant improvements in-season by acquiring Michael Bourn. They’re going to be helped by the gained experience of young players Freddie Freeman, Jonny Venters, Craig Kimbrel and Mike Minor; the return to form from Martin Prado; a healthy “I wanna get paid” year from Brian McCann; a better start and more consistency from Dan Uggla; and, most importantly, a healthy and “he has to be better because he can’t be worse” year from Jason Heyward.

Philadelphia Phillies

Chase Utley is hoping to play in spring training games within this week. Obviously his knee tendinitis will forever be an issue, but a great player like Utley doesn’t need the 6 weeks of spring training to be ready. Inside baseball people would never admit this for financial reasons, but spring training is far too long as it is. Pitchers need maybe 3 ½ weeks to be ready to start the season; hitters far less.

The Phillies are old; there are injury questions hovering around Roy Halladay (as much as people think he’s a machine, he’s not a machine.); their lineup is pockmarked and questionable; but with their starting rotation and bullpen addition of Jonathan Papelbon, they’ve got enough left for at least one more run.

Washington Nationals

They’re the next hot thing for many reasons.

They have a load of top-tier draft picks ready to make the move into big league notoriety; they’ve accumulated starting pitching; they have a devastating back-end of the bullpen; a lineup that can mash; and a veteran manager who has a history of winning.

They’re going to look back on Chien-Ming Wang’s injury and that they couldn’t follow through on a rumored trade of the severely underrated John Lannan and breathe a sigh of relief; the concept of bringing Bryce Harper to the big leagues at 19 needs to be considered carefully and he should not play center field; Gio Gonzalez is not the guarantee the bounty of prospects and expensive, unnecessary contract he received would indicate; and Stephen Strasburg can’t be considered an “ace” as long as he’s on a pitch/innings limit that Davey Johnson would undoubtedly love to toss into a nearby garbage can.

But they’re very talented and a viable contender.

Miami Marlins

Never mind the ownership, the new ballpark and the investigations swirling around the way said ballpark was approved and paid for. Forget about the monstrosity that will be on display whenever a Marlins’ player hits a home run and is sure to cause seizures among a large segment of unsuspecting fans. (See below.)

Cold, clinical analysis will tell you that this team is either going to be a major success or a testament to rubbernecking to see how quickly the clubhouse, manager’s office and front office degenerates into organizational cannibalism, whisper campaigns and a media feeding frenzy.

This is a powder keg. I don’t like powder kegs.

Ozzie Guillen’s teams with the White Sox consistently underachieved; Jose Reyes’s health is a question; Hanley Ramirez did not want to move to third base and is going to eventually pout about his contract; their defense is awful.

With a good pitching staff and all these questions, they could be good. With all the other issues, they could explode. Fast.

New York Mets

Yes. I’m a Mets fan.

Question my analysis, but don’t question my integrity.

Here are the facts: they’re in an impossible division; they’re short on starting pitching; they didn’t improve the club in the winter; the franchise is engulfed by the lawsuit against the Wilpons stemming from the Bernie Madoff mess; and they’re rebuilding.

They’re not good and they’re starting over with young players.

We won’t know much about the future of the Sandy Alderson-led baseball operations or what they’re going to do with players like David Wright until the trial is completed. They might be sold; the Wilpons might maintain ownership; the team might be slightly better than most projections depending on multiple factors.

It is what it is.

Accept it.

Click here for a full sample of Paul Lebowitz’s 2012 Baseball Guide (this link is of the Blue Jays) of team predictions/projections. My book can be purchased on KindleSmashwordsBN and Lulu with other outlets on the way.

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Bard or Feliz?

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ESPN has a video piece wonder which converted reliever will be a better starting pitcher, Daniel Bard of the Red Sox or Neftali Feliz of the Rangers.

(I didn’t watch the clip. It’s here if you’d like to see it.)

There are multiple factors to determine which pitcher is the better option for fantasy players and is likely to be better for his respective team on the field.

Let’s take a look.

Minor league success/failure.

Bard was a terrible starter in the minors—stats.

Feliz was a good starter in the minors—stats.

Obviously that doesn’t mean that either pitcher is going to be good or bad as a starter in the big leagues, but the best determinative factor in how a player will do in the future is how he did in the past.

Feliz, as a starter in the Braves and Rangers organizations put up excellent stats across the board with a low ERA regularly under 3, massive strikeout/innings pitched numbers and good control.

Bard was not good as a starting pitcher.

He had no idea where the ball was going; he walked far more batters that innings pitched; he didn’t strike anyone out.

As relievers, both were good. Feliz was able to handle closing whereas Bard wasn’t. Once he moved to the bullpen in Double-A, Bard was lights out. He racked up the strikeouts, threw strikes and had excellent hits/innings pitched ratios.

The main difference is this: Bard was bad as a starter and good as a reliever but unable to close; Feliz was good as a starter and a closer in the big leagues for a team that won back-to-back pennants.

Stuff.

Bard and Feliz both have the aresnal to be good starting pitchers.

Bard has a high-90s fastball, a slider and a changeup. As a reliever, the changeup was rarely used but he’ll have to use it as a starter. It’s a touch-and-feel pitch that requires timing, concentration, the same fastball arm action and command.

Feliz has a high-90s four seam fastball, a sinker, a cutter, a changeup and a slider. It’s a starter’s repertoire.

Injury history.

Health wise, Bard hasn’t had any issues in his three years in the big leagues; Feliz on the other hand missed two weeks in late April-early May of the 2011 season with shoulder inflammation possibly caused by the haphazard non-decision of “will he start or relieve?” the Rangers pulled in spring training of 2011.

The Rangers are generally savvy and gutsy with their pitchers, but the wishy-washy “we’ll let him start in the spring, then decide” was absurd. Now, with Joe Nathan onboard, the decision was smartly made in the winter for Feliz to start, period.

Limits.

The Rangers and Red Sox aren’t going to push either pitcher too hard, but the Rangers are more flexible with their innings limits and pitch counts than the Red Sox are.

It’s been an ongoing debate as to which club’s development apparatus is better. The Red Sox build their pitchers up gradually; the Rangers push their young starters deeper into games with higher pitch counts.

It’s hard to argue with either given their success rates. The Red Sox developed both Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz using their techniques and gradual buildups; the Rangers have developed Matt Harrison and Derek Holland and they’ve converted Alexi Ogando and C.J. Wilson from the bullpen to the rotation successfully.

The Red Sox moved Derek Lowe from the bullpen to the rotation, but that was ten years ago and it was before the new, stat/study-heavy regime took command.

If you’re looking for greater depth, Feliz is more likely to pitch 180 innings than Bard is. Bard will be handled very carefully. Feliz will be free form.

Team needs.

The Rangers are deep enough in their rotation—even with the departure of Wilson—to keep an eye on Feliz and not feel the need to bend the rules in order to win.

The Red Sox aren’t in that position. Their rotation is notoriously short after Josh Beckett and Lester. Buchholz is returning from a fracture in his back and they’re having an audition for the fifth starter between foundlings, journeyman and eventually Daisuke Matsuzaka.

With the way both teams are constructed, that the Rangers are more cohesive and organized and the Red Sox still in the middle of what can only be described as chaos, it’s clear that the better choice and higher immediate upside is Feliz.

Paul Lebowitz’s 2012 Baseball Guide is now available.

Click here for a full sample of team predictions/projections. My book is now available on Kindle, Smashwords and Lulu with other outlets on the way.

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Crippled Central

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In the past week two of the contending teams in the American League Central suffered losses of different kinds. The Tigers will be without DH Victor Martinez for the entire season after he tore a ligament in his knee, supposedly while training; the Indians have no idea when or if they’ll have Fausto Carmona AKA Roberto Hernandez Heredia for 2012 after he was arrested in the Dominican Republic for using a false name.

Where does this leave the division now that two teams are already compromised a month before spring training?

There’s an opening for every team to try and sneak their way to the top. They all have an argument as to why they shouldn’t be discounted as contenders and drastic flaws that would render them obsolete if they were in the AL and NL East as well as the AL West.

But they’re in the AL Central, an expanse of possibility.

The Twins are trying to recover from a 99-loss 2011 and while Terry Ryan has taken steps to get back to doing things the “Twins Way”, their starting pitching is, at best, mediocre and they haven’t repaired the bullpen to counteract that starting pitching and get back to their strategic template during their good years of competent starters and a deep, diverse corps of relievers.

The Tigers and Indians can hit and they’ve made incremental improvements with Octavio Dotel bolstering the Tigers bullpen and Derek Lowe joining the Indians as a cheap, innings-eater who was supposed to slide into the rotation behind Ubaldo JimenezJustin Masterson and Carmona.

But the loss of Martinez hurts the Tigers badly and Carmona is no longer Carmona.

Those that think the White Sox are going to be horrendous are wrong. Ken Williams is seemingly vacillating on how to move forward with a retooling and is straddling the line in an indecisive manner. A neophyte manager Robin Ventura, no closer and questionable offense are secondary to a division that might only take 85 wins to make the playoffs. Jake Peavy is in his contract year and if their starting pitching holds up, they’ll be hovering around contention.

Given this turn of events, the one team that should take a step back and reconsider their strategy of patience is the Royals. No, they’re not particularly good and the comparisons to the Rays of 2008 ignores that the Rays had more talent and a competent front office when it came to making big league acquisitions. As much as the Dayton Moore-led Royals have accumulated talent throughout the system, their decisions on which established big leaguers to pursue and retain have been bewildering.

That excess minor league talent could get them what they need: a name starting pitcher who’ll give them 200 innings. They also have some money to spend.

Matt Garza is available via trade. Roy Oswalt and Edwin Jackson are floating around in free agency looking for work.

If the Royals can get one or even two of them, they could vault right to the top of a weak division.

The key for a club making the innocent climb and building through homegrown talent and selective free agents is to know when to go for the deep strike.

Considering this week’s turn of events, the Royals should think very hard about seizing the opportunity and going for it now.

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Quality Moves, Under the Radar

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While the Marlins and Angels have garnered the headlines with their spending sprees; the Nationals by their overreaching trade for Gio Gonzalez; the Red Sox with their front office and off-field controversies; and Billy Beane for being Billy Beane and therefore worthy of attention just because, two teams have made drastic improvements amid questions, criticisms, ridicule and camouflage.

The Rockies and Indians are poised to leap into serious contention in 2012 because of said acquisitions and they’ve done it relatively cheaply and without fanfare.

Still needing help with their starting pitching, the Rockies are one of the suitors for the underrated and mean Hiroki Kuroda; if they get him, I’ll like their off-season all the more.

Here are the Rockies moves so far:

Signed OF/1B Michael Cuddyer to a 3-year, $31.5 million contract.

I went into detail about the match between Cuddyer and the Rockies in an earlier posting. In short, his defense in right field won’t be an issue because of the Rockies pitching staff’s penchant for getting ground balls; his hitting will improve markedly playing in Coors Field; and he might see substantial time at first base with the recent injury history of Todd Helton. He’s a better player than Seth Smith and will hit and hit for power.

Traded RHP Huston Street to the Padres for minor league lefty Nick Schmidt.

The Rockies sent $500,000 to the Padres (for Street’s 2013 buyout) and cleared the rest of his $7.5 million salary.

Street was not reliable as a closer, gave up too many hits and homers and was expensive; the Rockies dumped him and his paycheck and have Rafael Betancourt to close and Matt Lindstrom to back him up.

Schmidt is 25 and still in A ball. This was a money spin for an organizational warm body and it was a smart thing to do.

Traded C Chris Iannetta to the Angels for RHP Tyler Chatwood; signed C Ramon Hernandez to a 2-year, $6.4 million contract.

Iannetta has pop and gets on base, but he was never able to put a stranglehold on the everyday catching job; Chatwood was one of the Angels top pitching prospects who had an up-and-down season in Anaheim. He’s a ground ball pitcher who should do well in Colorado.

Hernandez is fine with being a part-timer, has power and throws well. He’ll be a perfect tutor to young prospect Wilin Rosario.

Traded INF Ty Wigginton to the Phillies for a player to be named later or cash; signed 3B/1B/OF Casey Blake to a 1-year, $2 million contract.

Wigginton was a fiery player and hit a few homers, but he’s terrible defensively and limited offensively. They’re paying $2 million of his $4 million salary and signed Blake to a 1-year contract for $2 million—basically they traded Wigginton for Blake and it’s a great trade…if Blake is healthy.

Blake missed most of the 2011 season with multiple injuries and required neck surgery.

His health is the key. He’s versatile and is a good fielder; he has power; and Blake is plainly and simply a professional baseball player who goes unnoticed but is a key component to a winning team—the other players, coaches and managers will tell you how good a player a healthy Blake is.

If they add a Kuroda or Roy Oswalt to go along with the package they got last summer for Ubaldo Jimenez, it equates to a strong top-to-bottom club that has repaired the holes that caused their underwhelming 2011 record of 73-89.

The Indians have done the following:

Acquired RHP Derek Lowe from the Braves for minor league LHP Chris Jones and $10 million.

There’s no defending Lowe’s performance for the Braves, but the Indians got an innings-eater and will only pay $5 million of his $15 million salary. When a durable sinkerballer like Lowe is pitching so poorly, the issue is generally mechanical; if the Indians can fix whatever was preventing him from getting the proper movement on his pitches, he can again be effective; perhaps he just needed a change-of-scenery.

Either way, you can’t go wrong for $5 million. With Jimenez, Justin Masterson, Fausto Carmona and Josh Tomlin, the Indians have a formidable rotation backed up by a strong bullpen.

Re-signed CF Grady Sizemore to a 1-year, $5 million contract after declining his option.

Sizemore was a budding star before microfracture surgery derailed him; he’s worked very hard to come back and it took Carlos Beltran (whom the Indians pursued but lost to the Cardinals) a full season to return to relative normalcy after a bone bruise. Although Beltran didn’t need microfracture surgery, the injuries and recovery times are similar. If Sizemore can be 75-80% of what he was, he’s a bargain.

The Indians finished ninth in the American League in runs scored and are looking for another bat, but with full seasons from Jason Kipnis and Shin-Soo Choo along with some semblance of production from first base (they need to sign someone, perhaps Derrek Lee) and Travis Hafner, they’ll score enough to contend in the winnable AL Central.

The Rockies and Indians need to be watched closely in 2012 because they’re legitimate playoff threats without having spent $300 million as the Angels did or hoodwinking their local government to get a new ballpark as the Marlins did.

They did it with under-the-radar acquisitions, bold and clever.

And they’re going to pay off.

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I’ll be a guest tomorrow with former MLB player Les Norman on his baseball show Breakin’ the Norm on the ESPN affiliate 810 WHB in Kansas City. I’ll link the appearance and post it here.

Spread the word!

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