The Astros and the Antiquated “Process”

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In this Tyler Kepner piece in today’s New York Times, the Astros and their plan for the future is again detailed. You can insert your own joke about their early spring training activity of practicing a post-victory celebration. By the time we get to August and they’ve likely traded off the rest of the veteran players they have on the roster including Carlos Pena, Bud Norris, Jose Veras, Rick Ankiel and Wesley Wright and released Philip Humber and Erik Bedard, they’ll be so dreadful that a post-victory celebration will be so rare that the celebration should resemble clinching a post-season berth.

What’s most interesting about the piece is the clinging to the notion that the key to success is still the decade ago Moneyball strategy (first put into practice by the late 1990s Yankees) to run the starting pitchers’ pitch counts up to get them out of the game and get into the “soft underbelly” of the middle relief corps and take advantage of bad pitching in the middle innings.

Is it still an effective tactic if everyone is doing it and the opposition is better-prepared for it? There’s a case for saying no.

Back then, most teams were still functioning with a middle relief staff of journeymen, youngsters and breathing bodies. In 1998, for example, the Red Sox won 92 games in comparison to the Yankees 114, made the playoffs, and had as middle relievers Rich Garces, John Wasdin, Carlos Reyes and Jim Corsi. The Indians of 1998 were the one team that put a scare into the Yankees that season and had Paul Shuey, Eric Plunk, Jose Mesa (after he’d lost his closer’s job to Michael Jackson and before he was traded to the Giants at mid-season), and other forgettable names like Steve Karsay, Chad Ogea and Ron Villone.

These were the good teams in the American League. The bad teams starting rotations were bad enough before getting into their bullpens that it didn’t matter who a team like the Yankees were facing, they were going to hammer them.

Today, the game is different. The pitch counts are more closely monitored, but certain teams—the Rangers, Giants and Cardinals—don’t adhere to them so fanatically that it can be counted on for a pitcher to be yanked at the 100-pitch mark. Also, teams have better and more diverse middle relief today than they did back then because clubs such as the Rays are taking the job more seriously.

Waiting out a great pitcher like Felix Hernandez is putting a hitter in the position where he’s going to be behind in the count and facing a pitcher’s pitch. In that case, it makes more sense to look for something hittable earlier in the count and swing at it.

With a mediocre pitcher like Jason Vargas of the Angels, he’s more likely to make a mistake with his array of soft stuff, trying to get ahead in the count to be able to throw his changeup, so looking for something early in the count makes sense there as well. In addition, with a pitcher like Vargas (and pretty much the whole Angels’ starting rotation), you’re better off with him in the game than you are with getting into the bullpen, so the strategy of getting into the “weaker” part of the staff doesn’t fit as the middle relievers aren’t that far off in effectiveness from Vargas.

Teams use their bullpens differently today. You see clubs loading up on more specialists and carrying 13 pitchers with a righty sidearmer, a lefty sidearmer, a conventional lefty specialist, and enough decent arms to get to the late relievers. The Cardinals are an example of this with Marc Rzepczynski as their lefty specialist; Randy Choate as their sidearmer; and Trevor Rosenthal and Joe Kelly, both of whom have been starters, can provide multiple innings and throw nearly 100-mph.

I’m not suggesting hitters go to the plate behaving like Jeff Francoeur, willing to swing at the resin bag if the pitcher throws it, but swinging at a hittable fastball if it comes his way and not worrying that he’ll get yelled at for being a little more aggressive and deviating from the faulty “process.”

The Astros can use this idea of “process” all they want, but the reality is that they may hit a few homers and be drilling it into their hitters from the bottom of their minor league system up that they want patience and don’t care about batting average, but by the time they’re in the middle of their rebuild it might get through that this strategy isn’t what it once was. Waiting, waiting, waiting sometimes means the bus is going to leave without you. Other teams have adjusted enough so it won’t matter if the hitter is trying to intentionally raise the pitch count because it won’t have the same result as it did when the idea first came into vogue with Moneyball. And it’ll go out the window just as the theories in the book have too.

Essays, predictions, player analysis, under the radar fantasy picks, breakout candidates, contract status of all relevant personnel—GMs, managers, players—and anything else you could possibly want to know is in my new book Paul Lebowitz’s 2013 Baseball Guide now available on Amazon.comSmashwordsBN and Lulu. It’s useful all season long. Check it out and read a sample.

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Rays and Orioles: Early Season Notes

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Tampa Bay Rays

The Rays were one of the few teams with a “surplus” of starting pitching. So they dealt James Shields and Wade Davis to the Royals and signed Roberto Hernandez (AKA Fausto Carmona) as insurance and to vie for a role in the rotation. Jeff Niemann’s season-ending shoulder surgery put a damper on the depth and they’ve gotten off to a rocky start as Hernandez has pitched poorly and Jeremy Hellickson—who I’m not a fan of anyway—has been inconsistent.

Key parts of the lineup haven’t hit. Some, like Yunel Escobar and Matthew Joyce, will. Others like James Loney and Ryan Roberts might or might not. In the end, they’ll score enough runs to win…if the pitching is good enough or David Price and Matt Moore carry the load for the shakiness of the back of the rotation.

This should’ve been expected of a team like the Rays who run their club making trades and signings with an eye on saving money, spending where they can, and hoping to hit at the roulette wheel with the likes of Hernandez and Loney. Amid all the hits such as Fernando Rodney and Casey Kotchman, there are also misses like Pat Burrell and Matt Bush. Some have been costlier than others.

There are calls to bring up Wil Myers to boost the offense and, in some manner, justify having traded Shields and Davis to get him. Inside the Rays clubhouse there are expressions of pained understanding as to why the Rays traded Shields and Davis, with the unsaid wishing that they were still there to help in the now.

The Rays front office isn’t concerned about what the players think. No winning organization is. They may listen to a point in order to placate the stars, but in the end, it’s the organization’s decision. Few sports figures exert as much influence over their club as Tom Brady does with the New England Patriots and even he had his knuckles rapped by club owner Bob Kraft over Brady’s overt displeasure at Wes Welker being allowed to leave. “I don’t answer to Tom Brady,” Kraft said.

Nor should he.

Bending to pressure, inside and out, would betray the entire reason the Rays made the trade in the first place; in fact it would contradict the entire foundation of the rebuilding of the Rays into a team that wins in spite of payroll constraints. Myers was acquired because he’s a top-tier prospect, cheap and will have value for them when they can no longer afford some of the players in their lineup who are expected to be significant offensive contributors now, like Joyce. If and when Myers is recalled, it won’t be until it’s financially and practically beneficial to the Rays, not before.

In general, veteran players will provide what’s expected of them and what they’ve historically done barring injuries or an age-related decline in skills. This is why there’s no need to be concerned about Escobar and Joyce and there is need to be concerned about Hernandez and Loney.

This is the situation the Rays face on an annual basis. Maybe it’ll work out and maybe it won’t.

Baltimore Orioles

To GM Dan Duquette’s credit, he didn’t make the mistake the Mariners did under Bill Bavasi and equate an overachieving 2007 season of 88-74 into an idea of “all we need is one more pitcher” and trade a large chunk of his system to the Orioles—including Adam Jones and Chris Tillman—for Erik Bedard.

(Interestingly, Mariners current GM Jack Zduriencik did pretty much the same thing in trading for Cliff Lee after a similarly overachieving season that was based more on luck than reality in 2009. Yet he was referred to as a “genius” for doing what Bavasi did. He’s not being called a genius anymore, but that’s another story.)

The Orioles of 2012, unlike the Mariners of 2007, made the playoffs. They bounced the Rangers and shook the Yankees before losing in the ALDS in 5 games. The Orioles, having won, are no longer viewed as a last resort location for old and declining players to get a last paycheck. The temptation to use the new street cred among marketable players willing to join the Orioles must have been great, as must have been the offers for the likes of Manny Machado and Dylan Bundy. Duquette did a tweak here and a tweak there, but mostly stood pat in spite of the Orioles having reason to say they were going for it in 2013, even though that would’ve been a mistake.

They’re around .500 now and the “experts” in the media had them taking a dramatic fallback to, at best, .500 for the season.

That doesn’t mean they’re going to stay there. Currently relying on the same template as last season with a deep bullpen, a power-hitting lineup and pedestrian starting pitching, the situation looks the same as in 2012, but is actually subtly different.

If his elbow stiffness subsides and he’s pitching in the minors soon, the Orioles can expect Bundy to help them in the second half of the season; Machado will be with the team all year. If they’re hovering around .500 and still in contention in a parity-laden AL East at mid-season, they’ll be very dangerous down the stretch.

I don’t see people referring to Duquette with starstruck, agenda-driven awe as they did with Zduriencik, but Duquette’s the one with the past success, courage of his convictions, and is a better executive.

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

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Keys to 2013: Baltimore Orioles

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Starting Pitching Key: Chris Tillman

A lack of command kept Tillman bouncing back and forth between the majors and minors. Acquired in the trade that just keeps on giving that sent Erik Bedard to the Mariners, Tillman will turn 25 in April and after his performance following his July recall, may have taken the next step from prospect to legitimate big league starter. He’s not a strikeout pitcher, but with a fastball that reaches the mid-90s, a changeup, a slow curve, a slider and a cutter, Tillman has the variety of pitches to win 15 games and be a top-of-the-rotation arm.

He suffered from elbow inflammation that cost him two weeks in September. The Orioles weak spot in 2012 was their starting rotation and they’re not sneaking up on anyone this year. With Tillman and Dylan Bundy on the way, they could mitigate that issue while not having made any big acquisitions in the off-season.

Relief Pitching Key: Brian Matusz

The Orioles are giving Matusz a chance to regain his spot in the starting rotation, but I question whether their hearts are really in it. He’s shown flashes of being a useful starter, but after he was moved to the bullpen last season, he was a different pitcher. Perhaps it has to sink in that he’s better-served going through a lineup once and can cobble together a more successful career out of the bullpen. Starters—even bad ones—make much more money than good relievers, so for a 26-year-old, that’s not an easy thing to reconcile, but that’s not the Orioles’ problem and if they need Matusz more in the bullpen and he can help them be a better team, that’s where he needs to be.

Offensive Key: Manny Machado

Machado won’t turn 21 until July, but the potential and comparisons to Alex Rodriguez make him an offensive linchpin for the 2013 Orioles. He only walked 9 times in 202 plate appearances last season, but he doesn’t strike out. Once Machado matures and fills out, he’ll be a solid 210 pounds and hit the ball out of the park more frequently. The Orioles can pencil in what they’ll get from their power bats Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, Chris Davis, Matt Wieters and J.J. Hardy—but Machado’s rapid development will significantly improve their runs scored.

Defensive Key: J.J. Hardy

Hardy won a long overdue Gold Glove for his work at shortstop last season and while he provides pop at the plate, his main contribution is with his glove. Because Hardy’s there, Machado will play third base and the Orioles will have what will possibly be the rangiest left side of the infield in baseball. It’s a comfort for the pitchers to know that they have someone covering the most ground on the infield at shortstop, allowing them to pitch to contact without worrying about routine grounders getting through.

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Erik Bedard and the Astros—A Marriage of Convenience

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There’s nothing to lose for the Astros to sign Erik Bedard and have a look at him, but there’s probably not much to gain either. Bedard, age 34 in March, has seen his time come and go. When he was traded from the Orioles to the Mariners, the Mariners were expecting an ace whose frequent injuries and attitude problems would be tolerated if he pitched as he did for the Orioles in 2006-2007.

Considering his disdain for reporters and brusqueness with teammates, the Mariners weren’t getting him for his congeniality; they got him because they thought he could pitch…if he stayed healthy. He didn’t. The injury problems began almost immediately upon his arrival in Seattle and didn’t stop until he left.

First it was his hip; then it was his back; then it was his shoulder. Because Mariners’ GM Bill Bavasi traded a package of players including Adam Jones, George Sherrill and Chris Tillman to get him, the trade is a retrospective nightmare for the Mariners. Like the Royals’ trade this winter to get James Shields and Wade Davis from the Rays for a package including top prospect Wil Myers, the Mariners were in “win now” mode, hoping that their 88-74 season in 2007 was a portent of contention and with Bedard fronting the rotation with Felix Hernandez, the club would make a playoff run. It didn’t work for the Mariners. It might for the Royals.

In 2008, Bedard got hurt and so did closer J.J. Putz; the Mariners wound up losing 101 games leading to the firing of Bavasi and the hiring of Jack Zduriencik. Zduriencik’s reign has resulted in a different set of mistakes and disastrous decisions which have left the Mariners pretty much where they were before Bavasi made the trade for Bedard.

In Bedard’s 3 ½ seasons being paid by the Mariners, when he pitched he was effective. In 46 games, he threw 255 innings; struck out 249; had a 15-14 record for a terrible team; and posted a 3.31 ERA. These numbers would be acceptable for a season-and-a-half, not for an entire tenure.

Traded to the Red Sox at mid-season 2011, Bedard pitched in only 8 games because of a knee problem, but was a witness to the historic Red Sox collapse. In 2012, he signed with the Pirates for 1-year and $4.5 million. He was worth a shot on a 1-year deal, but the expectations should’ve been muted. In his heyday with the Orioles, his velocity was around 91-93. Combined with a nasty curve and deceptive across-his-body motion, he racked up the strikeouts. With the Pirates, his velocity was around 88 and his curveball lacked the same bite. The diminished break of the curve coincided with the increased breakdown of Bedard’s body. These things happen with age.

He showed enough effectiveness with the Pirates to warrant him getting a look from someone for 2013, but it’s telling that the Astros are the club that signed him. If teams thought he had something left, a better one than the Astros would’ve brought him in. Perhaps Bedard thinks the expansion-level Astros provide him with the best chance to garner a spot in the starting rotation and rejuvenate his career. In that sense, he’s right. The 2013 Astros are quite possibly the worst team I’ve ever seen. Ever. While I understand that they’re rebuilding the whole organization, there’s something to be said for putting a competent big league product on the field. Spending money on name free agents for cosmetic purposes is self-destructive, but this roster is embarrassingly bad; moving to the rough AL West makes a team that lost 106 games in 2011 and 107 games in 2012 on track to lost 115 (or more) in 2013. With an expected payroll under $30 million, MLB has to take a look at what’s happening in Houston and ask some serious questions as to the intentions of the new ownership and front office.

This is a marriage of convenience for Bedard and the Astros that could benefit both. Reality says it probably won’t. That they wound up together in the first place is indicative of the state of Bedard’s career and the Astros’ 2013 expectations. Neither are good.

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Leo Mazzone’s Criticism of the Nationals’ Handling of Stephen Strasburg Invites a Strong and Selective Reaction

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Leo Mazzone’s reputation as a pitching coach guru was bolstered by having three Hall of Famers and a pretty good background cast of characters with the Braves and was subsequently ruined by going to the Orioles and functioning without much talent. Like most coaches (and managers for that matter), it’s more about the talent than it is about any set of principles implemented by the coach or organization.

When Mazzone had Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz, he looked smart. He had Rodrigo Lopez and Kris Benson with the Orioles and therefore, didn’t look as smart.

That said, it can’t be ignored that Erik Bedard had his two best and healthiest seasons working under Mazzone; that relatively pedestrian pitchers Denny Neagle, Kerry Ligtenberg, Greg McMichael, Mike Remlinger, and John Thomson blossomed with him as their pitching coach and did nothing notable anywhere else; that Kevin Millwood and Steve Avery developed under Mazzone; that Russ Ortiz, John Burkett, Jaret Wright and Mike Hampton all experienced a renaissance under him; or that the Braves came undone after Mazzone left.

Was it talent? Was it Hall of Famers? Was it technique? Was it Bobby Cox? Was it that the Braves in those years were super good and could’ve shuttled anyone out there and had them look better than they were?

Or was it a combination of everything?

Or is it something that can’t be defined as “this is why”?

Mazzone hasn’t gotten a pitching coach job since he was fired by the Orioles which leads me to believe that his reputation as someone who doesn’t adhere to organizational edicts—a version of going along to get along that’s been in place forever—is preventing him from being hired. Or perhaps it’s something else.

I don’t know and nor do you. This is why it’s silly to take Mazzone’s quotes about the Nationals’ parameters and much-discussed decision to limit Stephen Strasburg as the ranting of a has-been baseball dinosaur by referencing Steve Avery as “proof” (as Craig Calcaterra does here on Hardball Talk) that Mazzone’s way is one of the past and his opinions carry zero weight.

With the proliferation of self-proclaimed experts, stat sites, and insertion of viewpoints available at the click of a button, it’s hard to know which end is up. Everyone’s knows better than the previous person whether that person is an experienced baseball man or not. Dave Righetti and the Giants’ methods involving their young pitchers functioning similarly to the Braves of the 1990s drew old-school respect as Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum flourished. But Lincecum wasn’t working under the Giants’ program and was essentially left on his own. So where does the credit lie? Is it Lincecum’s dad? Is it the Giants for their willingness to let Lincecum pitch without limits? And who gets the blame for his poor season and decreased velocity? Does Righetti get the accolades for Cain and Madison Bumgarner? How does it work?

The Yankees can provide reams of printouts and cutting-edge medical recommendations for their treatment of their young pitchers, but all are either hurt (Jose Campos, Manny Banuelos); inconsistent or worse (Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain); stagnant (Dellin Betances); or have the fault shifted elsewhere for the Yankees’ shoddy assessments (Michael Pineda).

Did Avery get hurt because of the Braves’ overusing him or would he have gotten hurt anyway? Avery was another pitcher who learned his mechanics from his dad and was left to his own devices. It was only after he got hurt that those mechanics were deemed as the culprit. And now, years after the fact, Mazzone’s getting the blame.

Would he have gotten hurt anyway? Judging from the way pitchers are constantly injured—clean mechanics or not—it’s a pretty safe bet that he would’ve.

Will Strasburg get hurt? He was babied from college onward and still needed Tommy John surgery.

Some pitchers are overused at a young age and get injured; others stay healthy. Why doesn’t Calcaterra reference Maddux, who as a 22-year-old was handled by another old-school manager Don Zimmer and pitching coach, Dick Pole, and allowed to throw as many as 167 pitches in a game in 1988? Maddux credited Pole for teaching him proper mechanics and Pole has bounced from team-to-team because he—guess what?—asserts himself and doesn’t go with the organizational flow.

Jim Bouton wrote about this phenomenon in Ball Four when discussing why Johnny Sain hopped from club-to-club and never lasted very long in any one place. Ego and control are far more important to an organization than getting it right and iconoclasts don’t last unless they have massive success.

Mazzone’s not wrong here. In truth, nor are the Nats. There is no “right” or “wrong”. I disagree with the way they’ve implemented their plan because there were methods to keeping Strasburg’s innings down without going to the controversial extreme of shutting him down when they’re going to need him most in the playoffs (the 6-man rotation for example), but the smug condescension and retrospective denigration of Mazzone’s work is pure second guessing and random outsider expertise to prove an unprovable theory with the selective references to match.

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The Pirates Are On The Right Track—Believe It

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For the second straight game the Pirates won and did it with a journeyman righty reliever, Juan Cruz, saving both games because All-Star closer Joel Hanrahan is day-to-day with a tight hamstring.

The Pirates are 5-7 after 12 games almost exclusively because, apart from megastar-in-waiting Andrew McCutchen, they haven’t hit. But if they do hit and continue pitching the way they have; if they get the above-and-beyond performances from pitchers like Cruz and the rest of the bullpen of misfits and youngsters; if they pick one another up like a team, they’re going to sneak up on some people.

After so many years of one step forward and three steps back mostly because of self-inflicted damage, tone deafness, missteps in talent recognition and mistaken acquisitions and subtractions, the Pirates are finally (really) on the right track.

Manager Clint Hurdle has instilled discipline and a no excuses attitude; the front office is taking steps to keep the young players they’ve cultivated with the signings of McCutchen and Jose Tabata and they’re interested in an extension with Neil Walker. The rotation is filled with talented journeymen like Erik Bedard and, when he gets back, A.J. Burnett. I’ve long been a fan of Kevin Correia and James McDonald; and Charlie Morton is still growing accustomed to the Roy Halladay imitation he’s trying to pull off with his motion.

They’re talented and are learning to play the game correctly as a unit.

This isn’t to suggest they’re on the verge of a 2008 Rays-type run into the playoffs, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility that they’ll finish at or near .500; and if they’re loitering around the outskirts of contention in July/August, they might be too hard-headed (stemming from their manager) to know that they’re not supposed to be doing what they’re doing.

They do have to start hitting.

Their free agent signings to improve the offense—Clint Barmes and Rod Barajas—are batting under .100 as is former 2nd overall pick in the draft Pedro Alvarez. (Alvarez homered today.)

No matter how good their pitching is, they have to hit or find a way to manufacture runs.

But they’re no longer a punching bag nor are they the weak kid in the schoolyard for the bullies like the Yankees and Red Sox to plunder for players at the trading deadline while doling a few prospects on them as a courtesy.

The Pirates have starting and relief pitching; they catch the ball defensively; they have some pop and speed in their lineup; and their manager doesn’t tolerate the old attitude of, “We’re the Pirates and we’re not supposed to win.”

They’re on the way up.

Believe it.

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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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The Pirates Take Advantage of the Yankees

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The way a team like the Pirates has to function is by taking advantage of the big market clubs in the opposite fashion to the way those big market clubs take advantage of them. That’s what they did in getting A.J. Burnett—a talented and enigmatic arm—for just about nothing.

By design, by luck or both the Pirates aren’t the desolate wasteland they’ve been for most of the past 20 years.

That’s not to suggest they’re contenders, but they’ve taken some steps to create a viable big league club rather than a punching bag and target for looting by the bullies at the trading deadline.

We’ll never know what would’ve happened had the Pirates won the 19-inning game against the Braves on July 26th in which home plate ump Jerry Meals made one of the worst calls I’ve ever seen in my life by declaring Julio Lugo safe on a play at the plate where he was clearly out by a mile.

At the time, the Pirates were one of the pleasant surprises in all of baseball with a record of 53-47 and tied for first place in the NL Central.

They lost the next game in 10 innings, won the finale of the Braves series then proceeded to lose 10 in a row and 14 out of 16.

Can one game affect an entire season if it’s sufficiently draining, emotional and so egregious an error on the part of an outside force?

I say it can.

Naturally as the Pirates came undone, the “experts” made their snide comments to the tune of, “Remember when the Pirates were ‘contenders’?” as if they knew what was going to happen.

Well, they didn’t know. They were validating their preseason analysis of the Pirates where they’d lose close to 100 games. It was ego, not contextualized understanding. It’s similar to taking credit for the Cardinals winning the World Series when almost the whole roster was turned over at mid-season. The team that was analyzed in the preseason wasn’t the team that won the World Series, so how do you take credit for it?

The Cardinals were essentially finished by August 31st, 8 1/2 games behind in the NL Central and the Wild Card. Helped along by the Braves collapse and their own hot streak, they made the playoffs and wound up winning the World Series.

It’s post-event gloating to say one was “right” about something when there was nothing to be right about.

No, the Pirates didn’t have the personnel to hang with the upper echelon teams in the National League, but maybe with that win against the Braves, they could’ve finished at 82-80 rather than 72-90. How would that have looked on the resume of manager Clint Hurdle and in the scope of their rebuilding process? It certainly would’ve helped their young players to be part of a winning team and for available free agents to stop seeing the Pirates as a last ditch destination and instead a place where they could go to possibly be part of a renaissance for what was once a great baseball town.

The Pirates wound up at 72-90, but Hurdle’s clubhouse discipline (his biggest attribute is that he doesn’t take crap) did help the team look and play better. That doesn’t show up in any numerical formula and until someone comes up with a Not Taking Crap metric, we won’t be able to judge it.

Now the Pirates have traded for Burnett, gotten the Yankees to take two very low-level prospects and pay a massive chunk ($20 million) of Burnett’s salary.

Out of necessity, they’re signing oft-injured and talented arms like Erik Bedard and trading for Burnett. But in the best-case scenario, they’ll get good work from the veteran pitchers and show improvement in the standings. Middle-case, they’ve got players to trade at the deadline for a better return that what they gave up to get them.

They’re probably not going to get the great bullpen work they did last season; they haven’t upgraded the offense and are relying on improvement from Pedro Alvarez and Jose Tabata, plus the continued rise of Andrew McCutchen; but their rotation with Burnett, Bedard, James McDonald, Kevin Correia and Charlie Morton is okay and Joel Hanrahan is a top closer.

The NL Central is vulnerable. The Cardinals are in serious flux; the Brewers are waiting out the news whether they’ll be without Ryan Braun for 50 games; the Reds are good, but short in depth.

If everything goes well, the Pirates could finish in third place and over .500.

Considering their circumstances, that’s very, very good and it’s refreshing that they used the Yankees’ desperation to get rid of Burnett to their own benefit.

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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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Stat Guy Strong Arm

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Dave Cameron of USS Mariner and Fangraphs provides this prescription to begin fixing the Mariners woes for 2012.

Here’s the clip from the above link:

Transactions

Trade RHP Michael Pineda, RHP Brandon League, OF Greg Halman, 3B Chone Figgins (with Seattle absorbing $16 of remaining $17 million on Figgins’ contract), and SS Carlos Triunfel to Cincinnati for 1B Joey Votto and C Yasmani Grandal.

Trade 1B Mike Carp to Milwaukee for 3B Casey McGehee and RHP Marco Estrada.

Trade OF Michael Saunders and RHP Dan Cortes to Florida for RHP Chris Volstad.

Trade LHP Cesar Jimenez to New York for OF Angel Pagan.

Sign Chris Snyder to a 1 year, $3 million contract.

Sign Erik Bedard to a 1 year, $4 million contract.

Sign Jamie Moyer to a 1 year, $500,000 contract.

That’s only part one; I can’t wait for part two. Maybe there he’ll send Miguel Olivo and Brendan Ryan to the Yankees for Jesus Montero.

This thinking epitomizes what one William Lamar Beane—aka Billy Beane—said to Tom Verducci in one of the “it’s not Billy’s fault” pieces that came out to defend Beane (in advance of the homage known as Moneyball, THE MOVIE) for putting together a bad Athletics team; a team that Verducci himself picked to win the AL West before the season.

Beane’s argument was that the new breed of GMs have burst into baseball and are doing essentially what Cameron is doing; they’re saying “here’s what we’ll give you and if you’re smart, you’ll take it” in a Luca Brasi (or Frank Wren) sort of way.

Short of kidnapping his family or putting a gun to his head, I don’t know what Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik could do to Reds GM Walt Jocketty to get him to accept the above package for Votto.

Though I see Tommy John in his future, Pineda’s very good; League is a guy you can find very cheaply on the market; Halman strikes out too much, doesn’t walk and from his numbers is a bad outfielder; Triunfel hasn’t shown he can hit in the minors; and you can have Chone Figgins and we’ll pay him. For that, you can give us a top catching prospect and one of the best hitters in baseball. We all done? Okay. Good.

The other deals are just as delusional.

What is this obsession with Erik Bedard and the Mariners? Haven’t they had enough?

Moyer? Again? He’s had a wonderful career, but he’s almost 50. Move on.

You want Pagan? He’s yours.

Why the Marlins would take Cortes and Saunders at all, least of all for Volstad, is unclear and unexplained.

Without getting into a long-winded “my way’s better” critique of Cameron’s plan, how about—before anything else—Zduriencik walking into ownership on hands and knees and begging to let him get rid of Ichiro Suzuki? Signing Josh Willingham? Pursuing Jose Reyes or Prince Fielder? Making a major bid for Yu Darvish? Jim Thome? David Ortiz?

Wouldn’t these be preferable options than making a lunatic proposal for Votto that would be rejected?

These deals are typical of the concept that outsiders with a forum and a stat sheet envision as the simplicity as to how deals are made. We call you, you accept and we’re done.

Much like the same people have the audacity to say—in a grudging tribute to Tony LaRussa on the day of his retirement and immediately after he wins a World Series—“I didn’t always agree with his strategies, but…” they have this vision of innate knowledge that doesn’t exist; of what they’d do.

They cling.

They cling to Moneyball being “real”; cling to the likes of Charlie Haeger, R.J. Swindle and Dale Thayer; and cling to a so-called revolution that was self-serving from the start.

It’s fine to print an off-season prescription of a scenario that could only exist in Tolkien, but this is reality; you’re not getting Votto for that package even if you do put a gun to Jocketty’s head and/or kidnap his family.

Jocketty would say, “kill me first”.

And I would say that too.

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