The Dodgers and Keeping Mattingly

Basketball, Books, Games, History, Hockey, Management, Media, Players, Playoffs, World Series

The Dodgers have yet to make it official, but reports state that the club is planning to bring Don Mattingly back as manager in 2014. In what would normally be an automatic move for a manager whose team won the division and a playoff series, it was in doubt as to whether Mattingly was going to return due to strategies that even have some players complaining about them. If the team goes on to win the World Series, obviously they won’t make a change. If they make it to the World Series, it’s exceedingly difficult to fire the manager no matter how poor an on-field job he’s perceived to have done. But if they lose this NLCS (they’re currently trailing 3 games to 2), are they right to look at their payroll, roster and expectations and say another manager would be a better option?

In sports, it’s not unprecedented for a manager to be fired even after he had what could only be described as a “successful” season or run. Winning a championship doesn’t necessarily imply managerial excellence. Bob Brenly won a World Series with the Diamondbacks, won 98 games and a division title the next season and hasn’t gotten close to getting another managerial job since because he’s not viewed as a good manager. Cito Gaston won two World Series with the Blue Jays, was fired four years later and didn’t get another managing job until the Blue Jays rehired him.

Dodgers part owner Magic Johnson is no stranger to coaching controversies and getting the boss fired if he didn’t agree with his philosophy. In the 1979-1980 NBA season, Paul Westhead won an NBA championship for the Lakers with the rookie Johnson leading the way. They won 54 games in 1980-81 and lost in the first round of the playoffs. In 1981-82, the team was 7-4 when Johnson – unhappy with the strategies employed by Westhead – helped usher him out the door to be replaced by Pat Riley. The Lakers won another title that year. If the players are complaining, the one person in the Dodgers organization who’ll be receptive is Johnson.

As for GM Ned Colletti and CEO Stan Kasten, they’re experienced baseball men who are well aware of Mattingly’s pluses and minuses. If they equate his ability to keep the players playing hard for him and that the ship didn’t sink while the team was struggling early in the summer as more important than negligible strategic choices, then they should keep Mattingly. If they want someone with a better strategic resume, a more iron-fisted disciplinarian style to rein in Yasiel Puig and who will command respect in the clubhouse, perhaps they should consider bringing back the manager who should never have been fired from the Dodgers in the first place, Jim Tracy. Or they could hire Tony LaRussa, Lou Piniella, Dusty Baker or anyone who has more experience than Mattingly does and they’ll know what they’re getting with the star power the Dodgers want.

While hockey is run far differently than any other sport with coaches often fired almost immediately after the season starts as happened with the Flyers and Peter Laviolette last week, there might be a lesson the Dodgers can take from Devils boss Lou Lamoriello.

Lamoriello is entrenched in his job and built the Devils up from nothing to become one of the dominant teams in hockey for a vast portion of his tenure. While accumulating three Stanley Cups and two other finals appearances, he’s hired, fired and rehired coaches 19 times, twice taking the job himself. He has fired coaches right before the playoffs have started and fired coaches who won Stanley Cups for him. If he believes a change is needed, he makes that change. He doesn’t give a reason because he doesn’t feel as if he needs to give a reason and it’s not due to a bloated ego and public persona as has been seen in baseball with the managerial changes made by Athletics GM Billy Beane.

Beane’s managerial changes were based on him and the image that was cultivated through the creative non-fiction of Moneyball that: A) the manager doesn’t matter; and B) he’s an all-knowing, unassailable genius for whom every move is a testament to ingenuity.

He pushed Art Howe out the door in favor of Ken Macha. Macha got the Athletics further than any of Beane’s other managers with an ALCS appearance in 2006 and Beane fired him too. He hired his “best friend” Bob Geren and kept him on through years and years of win totals in the mid-70s, then only fired him because of the attention that his job status was receiving – not because he’d done a poor job. He hired a highly qualified manager who knows how to run his club on and off the field in Bob Melvin and, lo and behold, Beane’s genius returned with back-to-back division titles. Melvin has lost in the first round in those two division-winning seasons and hasn’t been fired. Yet.

There’s a difference. Lamoriello hires and fires for a team reason. Beane did it to shield himself. Lamoriello gets away with it because of the hardware. Beane gets away with it because of a book.

So what’s it to be with the Dodgers? Will Colletti’s loyalty, Kasten’s slow trigger or Magic’s understanding of player concerns win out? They could exercise Mattingly’s contract for 2014 with the intention of making a change if they team gets off to another slow start. Or they could just fire him and bring in a new manager.

Worrying about how it’s going to “look” is a mistake. If they don’t trust Mattingly as manager, then he shouldn’t be the manager. If they’re willing to accept his strategic fumblings because the players overcame adversity, then they should keep him. The best interests of the club are more important and need to take precedence. Make the commitment to Mattingly with all his baggage or make him disappear. It’s one or the other.




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Dusty Baker Has No Leverage With The Stat People

Games, History, Management, Media, Players, Stats

The problem with bloggers, armchair experts and even beat reporters is that they think they know everything based on the numbers, the statements of the participants and history even when they don’t know and much of their critique is based on personal feelings and not facts and reality.

Yesterday the Reds lost to the Pirates in the eleventh inning after manager Dusty Baker didn’t use closer Aroldis Chapman in what is referred to here on HardballTalk as “high leverage situations.” The same piece also asserts that Baker “utilizes his bullpen according to the save rule.”

I have no problem with criticism if it’s accurate, but “managing according to the save rule” is an all-encompassing accusation that is used to hammer home the indictment against Baker even if the numbers defy it. Baker has used Chapman in 27 games this season. 16 were in save situations and 11 weren’t. The statingest of stat-loving clubs have similar numbers with their closers:

Fernando Rodney, Rays: save situations – 16; non-save situations – 9

Grant Balfour, Athletics: save situations – 13; non-save situations – 11

Jose Veras, Astros: save situations – 13; non-save situations – 12

Taking into account that the Reds are 35-22 and have had more opportunities to use Chapman in save situations than the other clubs and that the Reds have had 12 games that are classified as “blowouts” in comparison to the A’s having had 16, the Rays 18, and the Astros 19 (mostly on the losing end), is there a significant difference between people who the stat guys think are managing correctly and what Baker’s done? Add in that for most of the season Baker has had two former closers Jonathan Broxton and Sean Marshall to pitch the eighth inning and the argument for using Chapman in the eighth inning becomes weaker.

In order for Baker or any other manager to not manage according to the save rule would require a shifting of the entire bullpen to a perfect world scenario of varied arms and no particular role for any—the bullpen-by-committee. The bullpen-by-committee could work if there are young pitchers who can’t complain about their roles, veteran journeymen just happy to have a job, and a manager who’s comfortable in working in such a manner. This confluence of circumstances is hard to come by. In fact, in baseball today, it doesn’t exist.

And I thought the general rule of thumb was to use the closer at home if the game is tied or there’s a close deficit in the top of the ninth inning. If Baker was indeed holding Chapman out for the save opportunity, was it that terrible a decision if just about everyone—barring an emergency—does it? The “everyone” I’m referring to includes teams run by Billy Beane, Andrew Friedman, Theo Epstein and Jeff Luhnow who are idols in stat circles.

It got worse when Baker replied to a question as to why he didn’t use Chapman by saying, “That’s a manager’s decision,” he said. “You can’t put in Chapman all the time. I was saving Chapman for the (save). It’s easy now to say. I don’t know, man, maybe you should come down and manage.”

Chapman hasn’t pitched since Monday and has only pitched twice this week as Keith Law snarkily tweeted:

#allthetime RT @JYerina5: Dusty on why Chapman didn’t face Jones: “You can’t put in Chapman all the time” He has pitched twice this week

Let’s put Law in to manage a club somewhere and see how long he lasts with the amount of abuse the players would heap upon him as a non-player who’s really short, pompous and obnoxious before he ran away crying; how long he was able to take the scrutiny and sudden enemy status of those he thought were “allies” when he has a deer-in-the-headlights look at dealing with everything a manager has to deal with.

The critics wanted Baker to use Chapman in the eighth inning to pitch to Garrett Jones instead of having had Broxton do it. Broxton gave up a game-tying homer to Jones so this is the classic second guess. Is the strategic preference advocated by the “leverage” theory accurate? Yes, I suppose it is if the Reds had a dual-headed closer and used Chapman/Broxton interchangeably to get the admittedly meaningless stat save it would be, but they don’t. No team uses more than one closer, not even the Rays, A’s or Astros. Chapman has not pitched more than one inning since last August and needed to be shelved for a brief time in September because of shulder fatigue. Maybe he can’t pitch more than one inning.

The real culprits to Baker not using a lefty to pitch to Jones is the fact that he doesn’t have Marshall, who’s on the disabled list with a sore shoulder and that the Reds don’t use both Broxton and Chapman to close. If he had Marshall, we’re not talking about this because he would’ve had a lefty to pitch to Jones. If he used either Broxton or Chapman, Chapman might’ve started the eighth inning.

The question then becomes this: Would Baker have gotten ripped for using the myriad of alternatives because he didn’t have an explanation that suited the aesthetic of the critics who tear him to shreds no matter what he does or doesn’t do?

Don’t you think that Baker would’ve found a game to get Chapman into this week if he had the opportunity to get him some work? Chapman pitched on Monday May 27th and on Saturday night recording saves in both games. The game on Sunday was an afternoon game. Could it be that Chapman has something bothering him with his shoulder or elbow and is a bit tender if he’s used too much? He had shoulder problems last season, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility that there’s something tweaked and he was only available for one inning.

Could it be that Baker, in an admittedly clumsy fashion as evidenced by the response that was in the linked piece on HardballTalk, was trying to deflect that Chapman might be having some sort of an issue that the Reds don’t want anyone to know about? One that isn’t a long-term problem but could affect the way opposing teams stack their lineup and prepare their bench for the eventuality that Chapman might be used? The easy thing to do for the bloggers and “experts” is to take the decision and manager’s statement as to why he made the decision at face value and go to town in one of their favorite pastimes: unleashing on a manager they despise. It fits into the biases and beliefs of their constituencies that others could do a better job than the actual manager of the team whether they have the whole story or not.

Or maybe it was just a “manager’s decision” as Baker said, one he made based on the players he had available, the ones he didn’t, and the roles that have been assigned to relievers not just by him, but by every team in baseball. It just so happens that stat people hate Baker and use him as their case study of what’s “wrong” with managing. Except it’s everywhere and everyone else does pretty much the same thing.

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Aroldis Chapman—Starter or Closer?

Award Winners, Cy Young Award, Fantasy/Roto, Games, Hall Of Fame, History, Management, Media, Players, Playoffs, Spring Training, Stats

The Reds have experimented with Aroldis Chapman as a starter this spring after he spent the first three seasons in the majors as a reliever. He was their closer in 2012 and saved 38 games with dominant 122 strikeouts in 71.1 innings. Overall, in his three years, he’s thrown 135 innings and struck out 212. It’s obvious why the Reds would like to see how he’d do as a starter with those kinds of strikeout numbers and a Randy Johnson/Sandy Koufax potential for left-handed dominance if he has the durability to start.

Let’s look at the various factors in Chapman as a starter or reliever from the point of view of the participants.

Aroldis Chapman

He’s said he wants to go back to the bullpen. How much of an influence the player has on his role depends on the player, his contract, how much of a pest he can make of himself if he doesn’t get his way. Chapman’s statement that he wants to close was said in a sort of passive aggressive manner of, “I want to close, but it’s not my decision.”

Some players would exercise a self-fulfilling prophecy and say they won’t be able to start and stay healthy and effective over a full season if they want to be in the bullpen, and then come up with a malady that may or may not be psychosomatic. In the age of heavy stat use, the mental aspect is regularly ignored but no less important. Years ago, the Dodgers’ on-again/off-again third baseman Pedro Guerrero was so miserable at third base that it affected his hitting. When the Dodgers finally said enough and moved him back to the outfield, he went on a tear. It took Jonathan Papelbon to go to the Red Sox in 2007 and basically “save” their season by saying he wanted to close. It’s not to be ignored what the player wants.

What the Reds need

The 2007 Red Sox didn’t have a closer and were on the verge of making the same mistake they made in 2003 by going into the season without someone who could get the outs in the ninth inning and having it cost them games and teamwide confidence. The Reds are not in that position. They re-signed Jonathan Broxton to close if the Chapman-as-starter experiment worked. What they promised Broxton is unknown. Given the closer market and how it crashed, Broxton wasn’t in a position to be making demands that he be the closer or he wouldn’t re-sign. He’s making $21 million over three-years to soften his bruised feelings and gaudy save stats if he’s not closing.

The Reds don’t need Chapman as a starter. He’s competing with Mike Leake for the fifth spot and they’d be perfectly fine with the rotation they’d have with Chapman in the bullpen.

Management

GM Walt Jocketty is not an ideologue as Theo Epstein was when he continually insisted that he wanted Papelbon to start. Brian Cashman did the same thing with Joba Chamberlain and the Yankees succeeded in nothing more than destroying Chamberlain. Because of that, it’s clear that Jocketty believes that Chapman could be a very good starter and he’s not trying it based on theory or what’s popular.

With that 100+ mph fastball, a slider and a changeup that he rarely uses as a reliever, he certainly has the stuff to be as good as Johnson and Koufax were. At age 25, it’s a tough thing to relegate him to the bullpen for his whole career when there’s that chance that he could be a Hall of Fame, Cy Young Award winning starting pitcher if only given the opportunity. An old-school baseball man like Jocketty also doesn’t want to be seen as having his decisions dictated by the players or by new orthodoxy.

Manager Dusty Baker wants Chapman to close.

For all the outsider talk that closing will be “easier” on a pitcher’s arm, a future Hall of Famer in his own right, John Smoltz, did both and said that closing was tougher on him than starting was and he preferred being a starter. He was great at both. It depends on the pitcher.

If Johnson, Koufax or Nolan Ryan came on the scene today, it’s very possible that the powers-that-be would have said, “No way they can maintain this velocity over 220 innings. Make him a closer.” The White Sox made Rich Gossage a starter in 1976. His record was a dreadful 9-17, but the team was awful and he was mostly effective in the role. His strikeout numbers plummeted and he hated it. He was moved back to the bullpen and went to the Hall of Fame.

The best decision

Considering the Reds depth in the starting rotation, there’s no reason to move X here and Y there to accommodate the Z theory for the sake of it. They have five starters and their bullpen would be devastating with Sean Marshall, Broxton and Chapman in the late innings. If they weren’t legitimate World Series contenders, it would make sense to let Chapman start and see what happens. But they’re in it to win now and that’s not the time to experiment. For 2013, they should move Chapman back into the closer’s role and keep it in mind that he might be capable of starting at some other time in his career, just not now.

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Reds, Indians and Diamondbacks 3-Way Trade Hinges on Bauer and Gregorius

All Star Game, Award Winners, Ballparks, 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, MVP, Paul Lebowitz's 2012 Baseball Guide, PEDs, Players, Playoffs, Politics, Prospects, Spring Training, Stats, Trade Rumors, Umpires, World Series

The Reds, Indians and Diamondbacks completed a three team trade that broke down in the following way:

Let’s look at this from the perspectives of all three.

For the Reds:

The 29-year-old Choo was back to his normal self in 2012 after a terrible 2011 season that included an injury to his oblique and a DUI arrest. He hits for power, steals bases with a high rate of success, walks, and hits for average. He does strike out a lot, his defense is statistically on the decline, and he’s a free agent at the end of the 2012 season. The Reds have said they’re going to play him in center field but it’s a ridiculous idea. Reds’ right fielder Jay Bruce has experience in center and Choo has played 10 career games at the position in the majors.

Choo is going to want a lot of money on the market next winter, will be in demand and is represented by Scott Boras. The Reds aren’t expecting him to sign a long-term extension, so he’s a one-year rental and a good one. He makes the team better offensively than they were with the free-swinging strikeout machine Stubbs, and as long as Bruce can play an adequate center, the defensive downgrade is negligible—Stubbs wasn’t exactly Paul Blair out there.

Donald is a versatile backup infielder replacing former utilityman Todd Frazier who will take over as the everyday third baseman.

Gregorius was blocked by Zack Cozart at shortstop and the Reds did very well considering they only gave up Stubbs and a minor league shortstop they really didn’t need.

For the Indians:

For better or worse, new Indians manager Terry Francona is having his voice heard by the front office and they’re looking toward the long-term by acquiring a potential frontline starter in Bauer. Albers is known to Francona from their days with the Red Sox. Also known by Francona is Anderson, for whom he had no use with the Red Sox and couldn’t wait to be rid of from the Indians.

Stubbs is a decent journeyman outfielder with pop. He’s going to strike out over 200 times a year and combining him with Mark Reynolds in the Indians lineup will create enough wind power to benefit both the Indians and the Reds by reducing energy costs for the entire state if they choose to use their baseball detriments for a statewide positive.

For the Diamondbacks:

Apparently Bauer’s “attitude” issues were a problem in spite of the Diamondbacks repeatedly saying they weren’t. If a rookie is arriving in the big leagues with a unique motion, a big mouth and he won’t listen to anyone, there’s going to be tension especially when the manager is an old-school type in Kirk Gibson and the pitching coach is a former big league All-Star in Charles Nagy. Teams love a youngster with attitude and feistiness until they need to bridle him and that attitude and feistiness circles back on them and he’s ignoring them. That appears to be what happened with Bauer. In general, very few players—especially high draft choices in whom clubs have invested a lot of money—aren’t going to change until they decide to do so or if they repeatedly fail at the big league level and find themselves trapped in the minors. With Bauer, the “this or that” was about three years away, if it happened at all, so they cut their losses.

There are a couple of ways to look at this: first you can credit the Diamondbacks for accepting that the player they selected 3rd overall in 2011 isn’t a fit for their organization and they moved him before concerns turned into a full-blown disaster. Or they can be criticized because they drafted him and should’ve known all of these things beforehand, calculating the negatives with the positives and perhaps shying away from him for another player.

That they got Gregorius as the centerpiece with the useful lefty reliever Sipp (he can get out both lefties and righties), and Anderson is a very limited return on a former top three pick who, to our knowledge, isn’t hurt.

No one should be surprised considering the warning flags on Bauer. I wrote about it before he was drafted here when he was absurdly compared to Tim Lincecum, and it was discussed in this Yahoo piece. Those same warning flags were basically screaming to stay away from him. I wouldn’t have touched Bauer, but the Diamondbacks drafted him based on talent and it took a year-and-a-half for them to see that that iconoclasm was either not going to change or the package they unwrapped wasn’t worth the time and aggravation it was going to cost to get him to change.

The Indians are banking on that talent, got him for relatively little, and didn’t have to pay the $3.4 million signing bonus Bauer received from the Diamondbacks. Perhaps Francona can get through to him or they’ll just let him be in a way the Diamondbacks wouldn’t. Francona’s far more laid back than the hair-trigger Gibson.

He’s an iffy prospect at this point and it’s clear GM Kevin Towers‘s decision to trade him is an admission that they shouldn’t have drafted him in the first place; they realized that and dumped him before it truly spiraled. What makes the decision to select Bauer even worse is that Towers is often lauded for his player-like sensibilities. He’s not a highly educated outsider who decided to enter a baseball front office. He played in the minors and knows players and the clubhouse dynamic, yet still chose to draft Bauer and look past the obvious.

Towers is a mediocre GM. The Bauer drafting and subsequent trade is a blot on his resume right up there with his ridiculous waiver claim on Randy Myers in 1998 while GM of the Padres—a decision that almost got him fired. With the Diamondbacks, he benefited greatly from a lot of luck and pieces that were in place prior to his hiring and the club won the NL West in 2011 before falling back closer in line to their talent level with a .500 finish in 2012.

Towers compared Gregorius to a “young Derek Jeter.” Having watched video clips of him, Gregorius looks more like a lefty swinging Hanley Ramirez. At first glance (there’s a video clip below), he’s impressive and fills a need at shortstop for the club. If he evolves into that (sans the Ramirez-style attitude that got Bauer shipped out), then it will be a great deal for the Diamondbacks. If not, it was costly on a multitude of levels for Towers, whose rose, as expected, is losing its bloom in the Arizona desert.

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2012 MLB Award Winners—National League Manager of the Year

All Star Game, Award Winners, Books, Cy Young Award, Games, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, Players, Playoffs, Prospects, Stats

Awards time is coming up fast in MLB. Yesterday I wrote why Bob Melvin should win the Manager of the Year award on the American League. Last month, I listed my Cy Young Award picks. Now, let’s look at the National League Manager of the Year along with who I picked before the season and who I think is going to win as opposed to who should win.

1. Davey Johnson, Washington Nationals

Johnson retuned to the dugout at mid-season 2011 at age 68 replacing Jim Riggleman and taking over a team that had been rebuilt from top-to-bottom and was on the cusp of taking the leap into contention. 2012 was supposed to be a step forward with a chance at making the playoffs if everything broke right. It turned out that everything broke right and then some.

Johnson straddled the line of development and winning; of protecting and letting fly and the Nationals won 98 games and the NL East title.

In his long managerial career, Johnson’s confidence has never been lacking. He’ll tell you his team’s going to win and tell you that it will be, in part, because they have Davey Johnson as their manager. He dealt with the rules and was onboard—reluctantly I think—with the limits placed on Stephen Strasburg. He didn’t hinder Bryce Harper learning how to play and behave in the big leagues and, for the most part, the 19-year-old exceeded expectations especially considering the reputation he carted with him from the minors as a loudmouthed brat.

The veterans have loved Johnson in all of his managerial stops because he lets them be themselves and doesn’t saddle them with a lot of rules and regulations. He doesn’t care about the length of their hair or that their uniforms are all identical as if they’re in the military. He treats them like men and they responded by getting him back to the playoffs.

2. Dusty Baker, Cincinnati Reds

The criticism Baker receives from the stat-obsessed is bordering on fanatical and doled out just for its own sake. He does and says some strange things sometimes, but so does every manager in baseball. He lost his closer Ryan Madson in spring training and replaced him with the unproven Aroldis Chapman and manipulated the bullpen well. The starting pitching was solid from top-to-bottom and remarkably healthy. The lineup lost star Joey Votto for a chunk of the season, but got through it and won the NL Central in a walk. The bottom line for Baker is this: he wins when he has good players and the players play hard for him. That’s all that matters.

3. Bruce Bochy, San Francisco Giants

Bochy is old-school and would fit in perfectly in the late 1800s with his gravely voice, gruff and grumbly—though likable—manner of speaking, and professional handling of his players. Like Baker, Bochy lost his closer Brian Wilson; dealt with Tim Lincecum’s poor season; and manipulated the lineup getting useful production from journeymen like Gregor Blanco after the suspension of Melky Cabrera.

4. Mike Matheny, St. Louis Cardinals

Matheny made some strategic mistakes as he was learning on the job after never having managed before, but the Cardinals made the playoffs and got past the expected pains of evolution following the departures of Tony LaRussa, Dave Duncan, and Albert Pujols. Matheny coaxed a career year out of Kyle Lohse, transitioned Lance Lynn into the starting rotation and an All-Star berth, and overcame the injuries to Lance Berkman and Yadier Molina.

5. Fredi Gonzalez, Atlanta Braves

Gonzalez learned from his mistakes by not burning out his bullpen and overcame injuries and questions in the starting rotation and lineup to win 94 games. Gonzalez and pitching coach Roger McDowell developed Kris Medlen; didn’t abuse Craig Kimbrel; overcame the struggles of Randall Delgado and Tommy Hanson; and the injuries to Brandon Beachy and Jonny Venters. Dan Uggla dealt with prolonged slumps; Chipper Jones was in and out of the lineup; and the Braves went through multiple shortstops, but still emerged in a tough division to make the playoffs.

My preseason pick was Johnson and that’s who’s going to win.

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San Francisco Giants vs Cincinnati Reds—NLDS Preview and Predictions

All Star Game, Ballparks, 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, MVP, Paul Lebowitz's 2012 Baseball Guide, PEDs, Players, Politics, Prospects, Spring Training, Stats, Trade Rumors, Umpires, World Series

San Francisco Giants (94-68; 1st place, NL West) vs Cincinnati Reds (97-65; 1st place, NL Central)

Keys for the Giants: Get depth from the starting pitching; keep the Reds hitters in the park; don’t fall behind and need to score against the Reds bullpen.

The Giants won the World Series two years ago behind a deep starting rotation and a dominating closer in spite of a limited lineup. They still have a deep starting rotation and it’s probably deeper than it was in 2010, but they’re without closer Brian Wilson. This series—and the Yankees series against the Orioles for that matter—will be a good case study of how important it is to have a “name” closer in the playoffs. The Giants have survived with a closer-by-committee with Santiago Casilla, Sergio Romo, Jeremy Affeldt, Javier Lopez, and Clay Hensley. They’d probably prefer to have their starters throw a complete game or three to prevent the question from even being asked of how much they miss Wilson.

The Reds have a lineup full of power hitters and will also have bench players (depending on who among Todd Frazier and Scott Rolen are in the starting lineup) who can go deep.

The Reds bullpen has a diverse set of arms led by Aroldis Chapman and his searing 100+ mph fastball and 122 strikeouts in 71.2 innings.

Keys for the Reds: Get ahead, stay ahead; hit the ball out of the park; try and be patient to get the Giants’ starters’ pitch counts up.

The Reds pitching from top-to-bottom is too good to fall behind them. Johnny Cueto had a breakout, 19-win year; Mat Latos overcame a slow start to slot in neatly behind Cueto; Bronson Arroyo is a solid veteran who won’t be intimidated by the post-season. With that bullpen, no team wants to fall behind late in games, but the Reds have so many power bats—Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Ryan Ludwick, and Brandon Phillips—that keeping them in the park is a difficult order. On the bright side for the Giants, the Reds don’t manufacture runs with walks and stolen bases, so if the Giants keep them in the park, they have a great chance of low scores.

The Giants starting pitching has the ability to turn out the lights on any lineup no matter how good that lineup is, so the Reds need to try and get early leads and hand the games over to their pitchers.

What will happen:

If the Reds play poorly early in the series, it’s only a matter of time before the “witty” Dusty Baker critics make coarse jokes about his recent illnesses and suggest that the Reds would’ve been better off if he’d stayed sick. I guarantee it.

With Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, and a resurgent Tim Lincecum, the Giants pitching is among the best in baseball. The Reds have talent in their starting rotation, but it’s not on a level with that of the Giants. I don’t trust Cueto in a playoff game. Arroyo, as gutty as he is, is hittable.

The Giants offense doesn’t have the lightning strike power that the Reds do, but the Giants wound up 6th in the National League in runs scored, while the Reds were 9th. Buster Posey is a bona fide star who might win the MVP in the National League. After his dreadful first half, Lincecum quietly finished the season respectably, if not in his Cy Young Award form.

The Giants’ pitching will keep the Reds in the park during the first two games in San Francisco. Because the Reds are aggressive at the plate and limited on the bases, they have to hit the ball out of the park to score. If that doesn’t happen, they have a hard time winning. The Giants have speed, some power, and more ways to score without the homer than the Reds do.

This series will come down to starting pitching and the Giants starting pitching is battle-tested and simply better.

PREDICTION: GIANTS IN FOUR

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What To Watch For Over The Final Month—National League

All Star Game, Ballparks, 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, MVP, NFL, Paul Lebowitz's 2012 Baseball Guide, PEDs, Players, Playoffs, Prospects, Spring Training, Stats, Trade Rumors, Umpires, World Series

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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If The All-Star Game “Matters”, Why Is LaRussa Managing It?

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Tony LaRussa is too much of a competitor and respects the game too much to let the fact that he doesn’t have a major stake in the outcome influence him too negatively, but the act of letting an outsider—and LaRussa is an outsider—have such power over the “meaningful” All-Star Game sabotages that meaning.

If the All-Star Game supposedly “counts”, then why is a manager who’s no longer a manager managing it?

LaRussa worked with the Tigers and his friend Jim Leyland this past spring training. How’s that work? He helped the Tigers in the spring and is managing the NL in the mid-summer classic? He also has a book coming out this fall in which he supposedly pulls no punches in telling his side of the story in his long career. Knowing LaRussa there will be the familiar vendettas and complaints.

LaRussa is receiving criticism from Reds’ manager Dusty Baker for bypassing Johnny Cueto and Brandon Phillips; and from the Brewers for not selecting Zack GreinkeESPN Story.

Baker and LaRussa have a long history of dislike for one another and LaRussa can be vindictive.

I’m not getting into “X should’ve been there over Y” at the All-Star game. It’s a waste of time and energy that can go on forever. But Baker’s complaints are reasonable and he has a basis for thinking that LaRussa is shunning his players out of spite. The Cardinals and Reds had a huge brawl in 2010 as the Reds were on their way to a division title. Phillips’s ill-advised comments that the rest of the league dislikes the Cardinals started the fight. Cueto kicked Cardinals backup catcher Jason LaRue in the head multiple times, giving him a concussion that eventually led to LaRue’s retirement.

LaRussa has a long memory and unless Phillips and Cueto were no-brainer choices (they weren’t), he wasn’t going to pick them.

This is all part of the farce inherent with an exhibition game being treated as if it’s not an exhibition game; with two teams and managers who are thinking about winning, but also thinking about getting as many players into the game as possible. The players are competitive, but they’re not going to go over the edge to win home field advantage in a World Series that a majority of them are not going to play in anyway. In the end the “advantage” comes down to one game and it’s not all that much of an advantage.

That’s the problem. There’s no definitive answer on the game’s meaning. Either it matters or it doesn’t. If it matters, then the AL and NL should field the best players and let them play a legit game. If it matters, then LaRussa shouldn’t be walking out of retirement and managing one of the teams.

And that’s the point.

The game doesn’t matter. It’s a show. Nothing more.

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2012 National League Central Predicted Standings

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Wins Losses GB
1. Cincinnati Reds 91 71
2. Milwaukee Brewers 87 75 4
3. St. Louis Cardinals 77 85 14
4. Pittsburgh Pirates 77 85 14
5. Chicago Cubs 73 89 18
6. Houston Astros 60 102 31

Cincinnati Reds

Dusty Baker’s teams have a tendency to win when his job is on the line or his contract is coming to a conclusion—and this is the final year of his contract.

GM Walt Jocketty made a bold move in trading a large portion of the Reds’ farm system to get an ace-quality starter in Mat Latos and bolstered his bullpen by signing Ryan Madson and trading for Sean Marshall.

Offensively, the Reds have some question marks but were second in the National League in runs scored last season and first in 2010. Scott Rolen’s injuries are an issue and shortstop is likely to be manned by a talented rookie Zack Cozart.

But with a deep starting rotation; a very good bullpen; Joey Votto in the middle of the lineup; the emerging Jay Bruce and Drew Stubbs; and the additions from the winter, the Reds are a championship threat.

Milwaukee Brewers

If Mat Gamel hits and Aramis Ramirez posts his normal numbers, they’ll have enough offense without Prince Fielder. Alex Gonzalez is a good pickup offensively and defensively to replace the limited Yuniesky Betancourt; Zack Greinke is sure to have a big year heading towards free agency; and the bullpen is superlative with Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford.

The questions surrounding the Ryan Braun failed drug test and technical knockout of his 50-game suspension are not going to go away.

Braun has to hit from the beginning of the season to the end and he’s still going to be hounded with a press contingent waiting for a reasonable answer as to how he failed the test in the first place. A slow start will be the death knell to his season and probably the Brewers’ playoff hopes.

And don’t forget how much vitriol their arrogance engendered throughout baseball last season. When the world-at-large was pulling for a Tony LaRussa –led team, you know their oppenents were despised.

There’s a 2006 Mets feeling about the Brewers that they missed their chance and we know what happened to the Mets in the aftermath of their upset loss to the Cardinals.

St. Louis Cardinals

It’s idiotic to base one’s hopes for a repeat championship on the idea that losing the generation’s best manager (Tony LaRussa); hitter (Albert Pujols); and a magician of a pitching coach (Dave Duncan) are going to be easily covered with Mike Matheny (never managed before—ever); signing Carlos Beltran and shifting Lance Berkman to first base (they’re older players); and Derek Lilliquist (um…).

You cannot dismiss the contributions of those three men—all of whom are Hall of Famers.

As respected and well-liked as Matheny is, there’s a learning curve to manage.

The Cardinals have starting pitching, but their bullpen is still a question mark and Matheny’s handling of said bullpen is going to be an issue.

Beltran and Berkman will make up for Pujols’s production to a degree, but if you’re banking your hopes on David Freese being the same star he was in the playoffs and Rafael Furcal, Jon Jay and Skip Schumaker, you’re dreaming.

This team is rife for a big fall and major turmoil.

Pittsburgh Pirates

We’ll never know what the Pirates’ 2011 season would’ve become had they not been so horribly robbed in that play at the plate and egregious call by Jerry Meals in the 19-inning game against the Braves in late July. Those who think that an entire season can’t hinge on one game are wrong.

The Pirates did many good things mostly as a result of manager Clint Hurdle’s simple mandate of discipline and not taking crap.

They’ve locked up key players Andrew McCutchen and Jose Tabata and acquired cheap, high-ceiling veteran starters A.J. Burnett and Erik Bedard.

They’re not ready to contend, but they’re getting better and if things go well, they have a shot at third place.

Chicago Cubs

Those expecting a Theo Epstein arrival/revival and immediate rise to championship-level status as happened when he took over the Red Sox need to take a step back.

The Red Sox had a lot of talent and money to spend when Epstein took over in 2003; the Cubs are trying to clear onerous contracts of declining veterans like Alfonso Soriano and already got rid of Carlos Zambrano (and are paying him to pitch for the Marlins).

A large part of my analysis isn’t simply based on what a team has when the season starts, but what’s going to happen as the season moves along. The Cubs are going to be ready to deal with Carlos Marmol, Ryan Dempster and Marlon Byrd possibly on the move.

It’s not going to be a quick fix to repair this organization.

Houston Astros

There’s a perception that simply because they hired a stat-savvy GM in Jeff Luhnow and he’s at work rebuilding the system that the Astros are “guaranteed” to have success in the near future.

Are you aware of what happened to similar thinking baseball people like Paul DePodesta and Jack Zduriencik?

The Astros neglected their minor league system for so long that they’re tantamount to an expansion team. Luhnow brought in high-end talent like Fernando Martinez cheaply; he’s scouring the scrapheap with Livan Hernandez for big league competence while he cleans up the mess; and he’s hired like-minded people to help him.

But it’s not a guarantee and his “success” with the Cardinals minor league system is based on perception depending on your own beliefs and/or biases on how to run a club rather than bottom-line reality.

Here’s what we can agree on: in 2012, they’re going to be terrible.

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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