What To Watch For Over The Final Month—National League

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I discussed the American League and what to watch for over the final month on Thursday along with a warning for those seeing the Wild Card as an oasis in the desert. It’s not.

Now let’s take a look at the National League.

The Nationals shutdown of Stephen Strasburg

I’m planning a more in-depth discussion of this in an upcoming post, but Strasburg’s imminent shutdown has become the dominant story for a team that should be talking about the positive aspects of their rise to a legitimate championship contender instead of this Strasburg silliness.

I’m beginning to believe that they’re not going to shut him down and as an organization, they’re coming up with alternatives to: A) keep his innings limit within reason and use him in the playoffs; and B) create a story to sell to the media as to why they fudged on their prescribed innings limit.

A really isn’t all that difficult. Their lead in the division is secure enough that they can give him extra rest in September. B shouldn’t even be a factor, but since GM Mike Rizzo has been so stupidly forthright regarding his plans, it is a factor.

Don’t be shocked when Strasburg is standing on the mound and starting in game 2 of the NLDS.

Chipper Jones’s farewell tribute from the Mets

I gotta see this thing.

Jimmy Rollins’s behavior

He’s being selfish and setting a terrible example for the rest of the team with his lack of hustle, embarrassing for the supposed “heart and soul” and clubhouse leader. Manager Charlie Manuel’s benching of Rollins and Rollins’s subsequent apology isn’t worth much since he’s definitely going to do it again over the final month, probably multiple times.

Rollins is guaranteed $22 million for 2013-2014 and he has a vesting option for 2015 that he won’t reach based on the contract kickers of plate appearances (the Phillies won’t let him), but if the contract doesn’t vest, the club has an $8 million option that they won’t exercise and Rollins has a $5 million option that, at age 36 and with his performance declining and his reputation soiled, he very well might exercise to get one last paycheck. So the contract actually calls for him to make $27 million through 2015.

The “everything is hunky dory” tone of the Rollins apology story glosses over the facts that he’s declining as a player, is signed for several more years, and the Phillies on the whole are old, expensive and not good.

The Marlins attendance

They’re currently 12th in attendance which is a step up from finishing last every season, but in context with a beautiful, brand new park and a team that had spent money to try and win, one would think they’d have been better than 12th—a position they’ve held steady from the beginning of the season until now.

They’re in last place and traded away most of their stars. They’re not likable, nor are they fun to watch. Football season is starting next week. No one’s going to pay attention to the Marlins and no one’s going to go to the games.

I’m not sure where they, as an organization, go from here. The fans just don’t care.

Dusty Baker’s contract

It’s not right that Baker has the Reds steamrolling towards the playoffs, has done a fine job in handling the club from top-to-bottom, and is functioning without a new contract. One would assume that he’s safe, but he also led the Giants to the World Series in 2002 and was out of a job that winter in a contract-based dispute that turned ugly. I would say he’ll definitely be back, but in 2002 I would’ve said the same thing.

The Dodgers playoff push

With all the headline-blaring moves they made, their playoff spot is far from guaranteed. Now they may have lost closer Kenley Jansen for the season with a heart ailment. He’ll find out on Tuesday if he can pitch again this season. If they lose Jansen, they have two options: 1) use someone they already have on the roster like Brandon League; 2) trade for someone for the month of September to make the playoffs and use Jansen when he’s able to pitch again.

Considering the moves they’ve made this season, I’d say they’re going to lay the foundation to trade for someone who can do the job if League falters and Jansen’s out. GM Ned Colletti is probably making calls now to that end.

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Dog Days Manager/GM Hotseat Grows Hotter

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Let’s look at the managers and GMs whose hot seats have gotten hotter as the season’s shaken out.

Bobby Valentine, Boston Red Sox

If I were to place a percentage on how much of what’s gone wrong with the Red Sox is the fault of Valentine, I’d say about 30%. The team was overrated and patched together; the front office has interfered with many of the things he wanted to do such as using Daniel Bard as a reliever; and they saddled him with a pitching coach in Bob McClure with whom he’s not on the same page.

Valentine has damaged himself with the ill-advised—and mostly innocuous—challenge he issued to Kevin Youkilis and it’s becoming abundantly clear that the cauldron of Boston probably wasn’t the best spot for him to return after a 10-year hiatus from managing in the big leagues. Valentine’s reputation put him on shaky footing as soon as he was hired. If he said “hello” the wrong way, the players and media would’ve pounced on it. He only received a 2-year contract and with the way this season is going to end, his reputation and that players are going to avoid signing with the Red Sox specifically because of him, they won’t have a choice but to make a change.

Barring any spending spree and a major infusion of better luck, the Red Sox will learn in 2013 that it wasn’t the manager’s fault. The team isn’t very good and is entering a new phase that will take time to recover from. Chasing the past with desperation moves that were diametrically opposed to what built the Red Sox powerhouse has done little more than stagnate that inevitable process.

They’re a mess and Valentine or not, that won’t change anytime soon.

Manny Acta, Cleveland Indians

I’m getting the Rene Lachemann feeling from Acta.

Lachemann was a well-respected baseball man who paid his dues. The players liked him and liked playing for him and, for the most part, he made the correct strategic decisions. But year-after-year, he was stuck with teams that had very little talent with records that reflected it. He managed the woebegone Mariners of the early-1980s; the Brewers for one season; and was the first manager of the Marlins. His managerial career ended with a .433 winning percentage.

Acta is much the same. He has a contract for 2013, but that won’t matter. The Indians had some expectations this season and, after hovering around contention, have come undone. It’s not his fault, but the Indians might bring in someone else. Sandy Alomar Jr. is on the coaching staff and has been on several managerial short-lists, plus is still revered in Cleveland. He’d take the pressure off the front office’s reluctance to spend money…for a time, anyway.

Acta’s young and competent enough to get another chance to manage somewhere.

Ron Gardenhire/Terry Ryan, Minnesota Twins

Ryan still hasn’t had the “interim” label removed from his job title and with the Twins’ struggles over the past two seasons, it’s not hard to think they’re going to bring in a younger, more stat-savvy GM and start a full-bore rebuild. If Ryan is out and the structure of the team is dramatically altered, the respected Gardenhire might choose to move on as well. He’d get another managerial job.

Ned Yost/Dayton Moore, Kansas City Royals

This team was expected to, at the very least, be around .500 or show progress with their young players. Injuries have decimated them and the trade of Melky Cabrera for Jonathan Sanchez—completely sensible and understandable—was a disaster. Jeff Francoeur has reverted to being Jeff Francoeur after a very good 2011 season resulted in a contract extension. Moore has a contract through 2014 and ownership won’t fire him now. Yost’s contract option for 2013 was exercised and he’ll get the start of 2013 to see how things go.

Jack Zduriencik, Seattle Mariners

I discussed Zduriencik when talking about the Ichiro Suzuki trade.

I think he’s safe for now.

Ozzie Guillen, Miami Marlins

With any other team employing a “name” manager with a 4-year contract, a change would be absurd. But this is the Marlins and the Marlins are not a bastion of logic and sanity. Guillen invited the ire of the Cuban community in Miami with his statement in support of Fidel Castro and was suspended; the team is a nightmare on and off the field and is ready and willing to do anything.

He’ll survive 2012, but if this continues into mid-season 2013, he’s going to get fired.

Dusty Baker, Cincinnati Reds

He’s not on the hotseat, but why has Baker’s contract status not been addressed? Unless there have been quiet assurances made to him that the public doesn’t know about, his deal expires at the end of this season. Say what you want about him, but if he’s got the talent on his roster, he wins. The Reds are in first place and rolling. He deserves a bit more security than he has.

Brad Mills, Houston Asros

Mills has done as good a job as he possibly could with a team that doesn’t have much talent, is in a major rebuild and is moving to the American League next season. GM Jeff Luhnow inherited Mills and it made little sense to fire the manager and pay someone else to run a team that would lose 95-100 games if John McGraw was managing it. Luhnow is going to hire his own man to manage the team and Mills will get another shot somewhere else eventually.

Bud Black, San Diego Padres

Black has never been a particularly strong strategic manager and his contract is only guaranteed through 2013 with club options for 2014-2015. There’s a new regime in place with GM Josh Byrnes and a new ownership coming in and they might want to make a change. I doubt it, but it’s possible.

Jim Tracy, Colorado Rockies

Dan O’Dowd was recently demoted from running to the team to overseeing the minor league system. Assistant GM Bill Geivett will run the big league club.

This is an odd set-up for an oddly run organization. O’Dowd’s contract status is unknown, but manager Jim Tracy has a “handshake agreement” to manage the team for an “indefinite” amount of time, whatever that means. One would assume that O’Dowd has a similarly bizarre deal.

I get the impression that O’Dowd is relieved to not have to run the team anymore. Perhaps he himself suggested this new arrangement. It’s hard to see Tracy surviving this season even though he’s a good manager and man and this isn’t his fault. Things went downhill for the Rockies when Troy Tulowitzki got hurt, but that won’t stop them from making a managerial change.

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Managers/GMs on the 2012 Hotseat

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It’s never too early to talk about who might be in trouble in the front office and dugout.

Let’s take a look.

Jack Zduriencik, GM—Seattle Mariners

Zduriencik was hired in late October of 2008. In retrospect, the worst thing that could’ve happened for the Mariners was the turnaround from 2008-2009 when they went from 61-101 to 85-77.

The 2008 team wasn’t 100-loss bad. They sustained crippling injuries to closer J.J. Putz and would-be ace #2 Erik Bedard and the entire season came apart. By the end of May, they were 15 games under .500 and double-digits out of first place.

When the news came out that Mike Morse had signed a contract extension with the Nationals, the trade Zduriencik made sending Morse to Washington for Ryan Langerhans was referenced on Twitter along with the now-laughable ranking of the Mariners of the sixth best organization in baseball a couple of years ago.

The trending topic is #6org as if it’s the most absurd thing in the world.

But, like the rise from 100-losses to moderate contention in the span of a year, it’s all in the details.

Zduriencik has done many good things as he’s reduced the Mariners’ payroll from $117 million when he took over to around $94 million in 2012. His drafts have yielded Dustin Ackley, Daniel Hultzen and Kyle Seager.

He’s also done some stupid things like signing Chone Figgins and engaged in activities that, at best, are described as amoral such as trading for Josh Lueke, signing Milton Bradley and double-dealing on the Yankees in the Cliff Lee trade negotiations.

It’s not all his fault. Some of what’s happened has been forced on him by the front office (re-signing Ken Griffey Jr. and keeping Ichiro Suzuki). But he got the credit for the 2009 rise, he gets the blame for everything else. That’s how it works.

The Mariners are in a nightmarish division and just pulled off a risky trade sending Michael Pineda and prospect Jose Campos to the Yankees for Jesus Montero and Hector Noesi. We won’t know the true end result of this trade for years, but if Pineda pitches well in pinstripes and Montero and Noesi don’t live up to expectations, that could be it for Zduriencik. The “right track” stuff won’t play if the Mariners again lose 90 games and with his contract running through 2013, Zduriencik may be running out of time.

Fredi Gonzalez, Manager—Atlanta Braves

Much to the chagrin of the more dialed-in Braves fans, unless they start the season 10-25, he’s not going anywhere.

He did a poor job last season even before the collapse that drove the Braves from a playoff spot that should’ve been assured. His strategic decisions were occasionally nonsensical and he appeared defensive and borderline arrogant in justifying the way he ran his team.

Do the Braves have an on-staff replacement and if they make a change? Would they be willing to hire an unproven Terry Pendleton? Probably not.

One intriguing option was Terry Francona, but Francona joined ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball and I doubt he’s going to step out of the booth and back on the field in 2012. I’m getting the feeling that he took his interviews with the Cubs and Cardinals right after leaving the Red Sox looking to keep managing and when he didn’t get those jobs, he came to terms with broadcasting as a new career option and will enjoy being around the game without the stifling pressure from managing in Boston for 8 years—pressure that negatively affected his health.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Francona doesn’t return to managing at all for the foreseeable future.

The one name that’s possible with Gonzalez—not likely, but possible if the season is spiraling out of control and needs to be saved—is Bobby Cox.

The veterans would welcome him back and while he’d be reluctant to replace his hand-picked successor, if John Schuerholz and Frank Wren tell Cox that Gonzalez is gone whether he takes the job or not, he’ll take the job. Chipper Jones could go to upper management and says enough’s enough with Gonzalez and try to convince Cox to take over for the rest of the season.

Remember that Cox didn’t want to move from GM to manager in 1990 when Russ Nixon was fired and Cox subsequently stayed until 2010 and wrote his ticket to the Hall of Fame.

Dusty Baker, Manager—Cincinnati Reds

Baker and GM Walt Jocketty have never been on the same page. Baker’s contract is up at the end of the season and the only thing that saved him from being fired at the conclusion of his last contract in 2010 was that he won the NL Central.

As evidenced by trading a large chunk of their minor league system for Mat Latos and the signings of Ryan Madson and Ryan Ludwick, the Reds are going for it now and have to win.

There’s no veteran successor on staff and Francona would be an option in Cincinnati if he were looking to get back in the dugout, but he’s not.

One interesting scenario is if Tony LaRussa is bored in retirement and his old cohort from Oakland and St. Louis, Jocketty, comes calling. LaRussa and Baker despise each other and it probably wouldn’t sit well with several of the Reds players, but if they’re not fulfilling their mandate, they’d have no one to blame but themselves and, like the Red Sox with Bobby Valentine, would have to deal with the consequences.

It won’t matter because the Reds are going to play well this year and Baker’s a survivor, but the expiring contract is hovering over the manager and team.

They’d better get off to a good start.

Brad Mills, Manager—Houston Astros

The new front office led by Jeff Luhnow kept Mills, but that may be because it makes no sense to pay a different manager to run a team that’s going to lose 100 games in 2012 regardless of who’s in the manager’s office.

Mills’s contract is up at the end of the season. The Astros mess is not his fault and he seems to be a competent manager, but Luhnow and new owner Jim Crane inherited him and it’s only fair that they hire their own man if that’s what they’d like to do.

One can only hope they don’t hire a new manager and, like Sig Mejdal’s new age title of “Director of Decision Sciences”, they choose to refer to the manager as “Director of On-Field Strategic Interpretations and Implementations”.

Maybe they’ll hire Keith Law to manage the team. I know I’d love to see that as he deals with Brett Myers.

That would be a narrative!

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Cardinals Hiring Of Matheny And The Plans Of Francona

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Mike Matheny, with no managerial experience but widely respected as a cerebral, defensively-oriented catcher on the field and a leader off the field, was hired to replace Tony LaRussa as the new manager of the world champion Cardinals.

It’s a gutsy hire, but he’s known in the clubhouse, will handle the media and, as a former catcher, will know what to do with the pitchers; the only question I’d have concerns with are his offensive strategies. Will he be a proponent of inside baseball and prefer the bunt and stolen base? Or will he rely on the power bats Matt Holliday, Lance Berkman and (presumably) Albert Pujols?

There will be instances of Matheny pulling a Joe Girardi and “managing” to make it look like he’s doing something when he should just let the players play.

Letting the players play is managing too. There’s no need to do “stuff” for the sake of it.

An overlooked positive with the Matheny hiring is his and pitching coach Dave Duncan‘s familiarity with one another from having worked together for so many years and each knowing how the other thinks—with Matheny, there’s a great chance Duncan stays on; given Duncan’s miracle-worker status, that’s far more important than the man who’s managing the team.

Terry Francona was passed over in favor of Matheny; it sounds unlikely that he’s going to join Theo Epstein with the Cubs.

So what should he do with no jobs left available?

He should wait.

Francona acquitted himself well as a broadcaster filling in for Tim McCarver in the ALCS and broadcasting would provide a way to stay around the game while allowing him to recharge his batteries; it would spare him of the substantial mental and physical exertion from the rigors of managing and will only do him good for his next opportunity.

Jobs could open during 2012—good jobs.

The Braves collapse was obscured by the one that cost Francona his job with the Red Sox. If they get off to a poor start, would they lose patience with Fredi Gonzalez in an “it wasn’t working” kind of way?

Francona would be great for Atlanta.

Reds manager Dusty Baker‘s contract is up after 2012; he and GM Walt Jocketty don’t see eye-to-eye.

Ned Yost grates on his players with his temper and he’s not a strategic wizard. Francona and the innocently climbing Royals—packed with young players and supposedly ready to spend to improve quickly—are a match.

The easiest thing to do when having done something for so long is to continue doing it, but that’s not always the best course of action. Burnout could extend to the interview process and if Francona’s continually going in for jobs that appear his to lose and he doesn’t get them, it adds more fuel to the fire that he was a product of the Red Sox substantial talent more than a two-time World Series winning manager on his own merits.

It could be a blessing in disguise and put Francona is a much better circumstance if he sits back and waits for another shot.

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