The Astros Strip The Spaceship For Parts

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Stat-centric people are looking at the Astros and nodding their heads approvingly at the series of maneuvers that may have improved their farm system and future. GM Jeff Luhnow is implementing the sabermetric template in what’s developing into a case study of how a purely stat-based organization would be run. They’re creating new job titles in baseball circles (Director of Decision Sciences), hiring people from Baseball Prospectus, and gutting the big league club of any and all competent major league players while signing the refuse that’s available cheaply and who have nowhere else to go. If you wanted to see a team that was run by the people at Fangraphs, here are your 2013 Houston Astros sans Jed Lowrie who was traded to the Athletics yesterday along with reliever Fernando Martinez for Chris Carter, Brad Peacock and Max Stassi. The players they received may be assets for the future, but financially they cost a fraction of what Lowrie was going to make in 2013 ($2.4 million).

Whether the Astros’ strategy works or not will take at least three and probably five years to determine. As of now, though, MLB has to take a hard look at what the Astros are doing, and decide if it’s fair to the spirit of competition to have a team with what projects to be a $25 million payroll and won’t just be the worst team in baseball for 2013 (that’s a given), but will possibly be one of the worst teams in the history of the sport. To think that the Astros, who lost 106 games in 2011 and 107 games in 2012 could somehow find a way to sink lower than that ineptitude is mind-boggling, but they’ve done it.

When Jim Crane bought the team and hired Luhnow, the organization was a barren, expansion-like wasteland. That’s not an excuse for what they’re doing. The days of teams having to endure half a decade of 100-plus losses ended when the Diamondbacks showed that an expansion team can win if they’re truly committed and intelligent about it. With free agency and teams’ willingness to trade, there is no longer 1960s Mets-style acceptance of being a league punching bag until the young players develop. There’s no reason that a team has to turn itself into an embarrassment while they’re rebuilding.

The Cubs are embarking on a similar restructuring and overhaul with people who come from the same mindset (though not as extreme) as Luhnow. Theo Epstein was one of the first to turn his club into a sabermetrically-inclined organization with the Red Sox in 2003, but he also used scouting techniques and a lot of money to create a juggernaut that won on the field and “won” off the field in terms of popularity and profit. The Cubs lost six fewer games than the Astros did in 2012, but while Epstein, GM Jed Hoyer and the rest of the staff alter the way the club is run from top-to-bottom, build through the draft and search for international players to sign, they’re also bringing in veterans like Edwin Jackson and Scott Hairston to join Starlin Castro (whom they signed to a long-term deal), Matt Garza and a few other recognizable players.

In fairness, the Cubs were in a slightly better situation than the Astros when the new front office took charge and the Astros weren’t going to win many more games with Lowrie than they will without him, but the Cubs tried to bring in big league caliber players all winter and the Astros didn’t. The Cubs have more money to spend and a fanbase that’s going to show up no matter what, but the Astros are essentially spitting in their fans’ faces with a team that no one is going to want to go see as a “root, root, root for the home team” group. Houston fans will go to the games to see opponents Mike Trout, Derek Jeter, Yu Darvish and Felix Hernandez, but they’re not going to see their own Lucas Harrell. By July, the Astros won’t be able to give tickets away.

MLB saw fit to intervene when the Marlins used financial sleight of hand to pocket revenue sharing money. They mandated that the money be used to improve the on-field product. Does realistic competence dictate that the commissioner’s office step in and tell the Astros that this simply isn’t acceptable?

The Astros are trying to run their club like a business, but in MLB or any other sporting conglomerate, there’s a responsibility to ensure a baseline of competitiveness not just for the people of Houston, but for the rest of baseball.

Is it right that the four other teams in the American League West will have 19 games each against the Astros while the AL East is so parity-laden? Clubs like the White Sox and Royals in the AL Central—who have an argument to make a playoff run—can deem it wrong that a playoff spot in the West will have an easier path because the Astros are openly presenting a product that has no intention nor chance to win a vast majority of the games they play through sheer lack of talent.

I’ve long been against a minimum payroll in baseball. If a team is smart enough to succeed by spending less, they should be allowed to do so without interference. That, however, is contingent on the teams trying to compete, something the Astros are currently not doing.

It’s fine to adapt outside world business principles to sports, but unlike the outside business world, a sports franchise is not operating in a vacuum as an individual company. Like the battle between pitcher and catcher, it’s one-on-one in a group dynamic. They’re individuals, but are functioning within a group.

Since there’s no such thing as European football-style relegation in MLB where actual punishment is possible, the overseers need to seriously consider creating a payroll floor to stop what the Astros are blatantly doing because it’s hindering the competitive balance that has long been the goal. The Astros are scoffing at that notion and it’s unfair to the rest of baseball that they’re being allowed to do it with impunity.

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The Carlos Lee Trade—Full Analysis

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Marlins acquire 1B/OF Carlos Lee from the Astros for minor league 3B Matt Dominguez and LHP Rob Rasmussen.

For Carlos Lee.

For those wondering why Lee agreed to go to the Marlins and not the Dodgers, the Marlins weren’t on Lee’s no-trade list. He had no choice.

Even if the Marlins were on his no-trade list, he probably would’ve okayed the deal. If it’s true that Lee was concerned about the change in state income tax from Texas to Los Angeles, the state laws are the same in Florida as in Texas so he won’t be losing any money.

Lee has been too accommodating and nice during this whole process. He had every right to reject the deal to the Dodgers and didn’t have to give a reason. Sometimes players should channel their inner Barry Bonds and, rather than being politically correct, say what they’re really feeling to the tune of, “Screw off. It’s a clause in my contract and I exercised it. I don’t have to explain myself to you.”

The change to a better situation (at least in the standings) with the Marlins will benefit him. Lee and Marlins’ manager Ozzie Guillen had problems in the past from the one season Guillen managed him with the White Sox. White Sox catcher Jamie Burke had been bowled over in a home plate collision with Twins’ outfielder Torii Hunter; when Lee had the chance to retaliate with a takeout slide on an attempted double play, he didn’t do it.

As evidenced by that incident and his reluctance to respond forcefully when his desire to win was questioned as he vetoed the trade to the Dodgers, he can be laid back and passive.

I doubt it should be an issue between Lee and Guillen. It was 8 years ago; Guillen needs Lee to perform well for his team to win and get his club back into contention; Lee wants to do well to get another contract from someone after the season. I’m sure they’ve run into one another from time-to-time in the intervening years; there’s no need to harbor a grudge over it especially when they have mutual interests in putting it behind them.

For the Marlins.

They’re reportedly not paying Lee—the Astros are; first base has been a wasteland (Gaby Sanchez—.202/.250/.306 with 3 homers—was demoted to Triple A after the game); they’re near the bottom of the National League in runs scored; and they gave up two minor leaguers who weren’t in their long-term plans.

Lee’s a professional hitter, doesn’t strike out and the change could wake up his bat. He’s also an underrated defender at first base and a good baserunner despite his somewhat ample proportions.

For the Astros.

The Astros and Jeff Luhnow did a good job getting something for Lee. Dominguez was a 1st round draft pick for the Marlins in 2007, won’t be 23 until next month and has stalled at Triple A. He has 15 homer pop and as recently as two years ago had 31 extra base hits in 95 minor league games. Defense is his forte. Like the Astros’ decision to claim an even larger bust, Fernando Martinez of the Mets, there’s nothing to lose with Dominguez. The Astros minor league system is mostly barren and Luhnow is bringing in pieces to stock the organization; in this case it was for Lee whom they were desperate to get rid of. The talk that Dominguez is a defensive replacement is premature. If he can save 10 or so runs a year and hits 12 homers and drives in 75 runs, is that not productive?

Players like Dominguez have use. If he is a defensive replacement, so what? That’s a function.

Below is college video of Rasmussen, the minor league lefty the Astros received.

He’s listed at 5’9”; his size and motion are reminiscent of John Franco. Worst case scenario, he’s a lefty and lefties with a pulse are in demand.

This is a good deal for everyone.

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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 Astros’ New Name

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The Houston Sabers.

It immediately came to me like a bolt of Force Lightning from my Sith fingertips when I read the following tidbit from the NY Times:

ASTROS CONSIDER NAME CHANGE The new Houston Astros owner, Jim Crane, is considering changing the name of the franchise as well as its uniforms.

Crane said Monday that the team would conduct a study to decide whether to switch the name.

The team was established in 1962 as the Colt .45s and has been called the Astros since 1965, when it was changed to coincide with the move to the Astrodome.

Any changes would not happen until 2013, when Houston moves to the American League.

“We had the Colt .45s, and everybody liked that one,” Crane said. “So you can imagine how upset they were when we switched that. What you get when you look at the fan base is the older we get and I’m old, you don’t like to change. But the younger fans are very receptive to change and the older ones aren’t, so that’s what we saw with the American League.”

If the Astros do change their name, I suggest the new name reflect their organizational philosophy and attach itself to something that’s going to attract the Sabermetrics crowd that’s already lining up to worship at the altar of new GM Jeff Luhnow and his lieutenants, the Director of Decision Sciences (whatever that is) Sig Mejdal and Coordinator of Amateur Scouting Stephanie Wilka.

They even interviewed Keith Law! And, depending on who you believe, supposedly offered him a job. Of course that would mean you believe…Law, since Law was the only one who provided any information on this implied (not said, implied) job offer which he graciously turned down (or was never offered) to remain at ESPN.

Apart from a morbid curiosity of how bad they’re going to be; when manager Brad Mills will be fired; which injury lands Fernando Martinez on the disabled list; or if they somehow find a taker for Carlos Lee, there’s really no reason to watch the Astros.

They have to find a way to get people to pay attention to them.

Presumably, Crane will be smart and use this consideration as an opportunity to garner that attention for his club—a club that’s going to be atrocious for the next two seasons before the switch to the American League—and have fans weigh in on what the new name should be.

Whether the new strategies are going to work is the question and I’m curious to see the answer myself.

But if they’re thinking of a new name, there’s only one that fits into the evolving blueprint: the Houston Sabers.

There’s no other choice.

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The Anonymous Met and the Fallen Prospect

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An “anonymous Mets player” published this piece in New York Magazine that slams the franchise for pretty much everything. From being willingly oblivious to the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme to the firing of Mookie Wilson, there’s a “woe is me” retaliatory tone sprinkled in with the righteous indignation that tells me it’s probably not a current player who said these things. You can speculate on your own and leave your suspicions as to who it is in the comments section.

I don’t see what firing Mookie has to do with anything. Everyone likes Mookie, but one of the things that has consistently gotten the Mets into trouble has been being too nice and doling out severance jobs and contracts to people who might not deserve them. Perhaps Terry Collins and the front office wants a better first base/baserunning coach than Mookie. They don’t have to give a reason when they fire someone and a player from the 1980s shouldn’t have a job just because he’s a player from the 1980s.

It’s a combination of maudlin reminiscing for years gone by with pleas of loyalty and comparisons to the positive aspects of the Yankees without the negatives.

What’s most galling isn’t what’s said—he’s entitled to his opinion—but that it’s hidden behind the veil of anonymity and not, I suspect, because it’s a current Mets player or employee, but because the person wants to maintain the possibility of having a job with the organization in the future.

And that’s weak.

On another note, the Mets waived former top outfield prospect Fernando Martinez to make room on the 40-man roster. Because Martinez is only 23 and has a minor league option remaining, someone will claim him.

Given the Mets current circumstances in being unlikely contenders and that they’re looking for cheap talent, they wouldn’t have dumped F-Mart if they expected anything out of him.

This isn’t an indictment of the Mets insomuch as it’s indicative of the fleeting nature of “top” prospects. Some make it, some don’t and every team has situations like this where a youngster is overhyped and falters.

Looking at F-Mart’s minor league numbers, injuries and Angel Pagan-style displays of rockheadedness, the performance and substance weren’t there to warrant taking up a roster spot; those who are criticizing this move as a Mets-style bit of short-sightedness are basing that on nothing. Common sense says the Mets tried to trade him before waiving him and if no other team wanted him, it’s more telling on the player than anything the Mets have done. This front office watched him and determined that he was no longer worth it; that they wouldn’t be able to pump his value to get something for him, so they cut the ties.

If he somehow gets through waivers unclaimed, he’ll go back to the minors and keep trying. Just don’t expect him to suddenly stay healthy and fulfill that potential that may have been limited in the first place.

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The Mets Have To Get Better Players

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It’s unfair to compare the rebuilding Mets under a first year front office that’s diametrically opposed to the previous one and the Phillies who are in the midst of a run of excellence they haven’t enjoyed since the late 1970s-early 1980s, but it’s instructive to look at the two teams to understand why the Phillies are where they are and what the Mets need to do to get there.

Let’s take a look.

Draft, scout and develop.

The Phillies have benefited from a strong farm system in a multitude of ways. Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels, Ryan Madson, Vance Worley and Carlos Ruiz all came up through the Phillies organization; Shane Victorino was found in the Rule 5 Draft; Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Hunter Pence were acquired in trades because the Phillies had prospects other clubs coveted; Raul Ibanez, Cliff Lee and Placido Polanco were signed as free agents; and even Wilson Valdez, a journeyman castoff from the Mets, has been a valuable utilityman standing in at various times for the injured Utley, Polanco and Rollins.

The Mets have some players from their system with promise. Jonathon Niese, Lucas Duda, Ruben Tejada and Bobby Parnell all have potential. They also developed Jose Reyes and David Wright. but others have failed for one reason or another. Fernando Martinez can’t stay healthy; Josh Thole isn’t going to hit enough; Ike Davis is hurt. The Mets didn’t have the prospects to trade for veterans as the Phillies did and their rampant dysfunction in recent years made them an unappealing destination for players with choices. Players will want to go where a team appears to have its house in order or will pay them more money than anyone else. That’s essentially how the Mets got Jason Bay, Francisco Rodriguez and Johan Santana. While the Phillies have gotten production from their free agents, the Mets haven’t.

Role players should be role players.

When talking about Phillies utilityman Valdez, it’s instructive to look at the Valdez-type players the Mets have and see that they’re playing more frequently than would be optimal for a good team.

Justin Turner, Scott Hairston, Dillon Gee, Jason Isringhausen, Pedro Beato—all have use on a limited basis—but the Mets are utilizing them as regular, key players. When limited players are playing almost every day, they’re going to be exposed for what they are; and when 4-5 of them are playing every single day, it’s going to catch up; that’s what’s happening to the Mets.

They’re not a good enough team and they don’t have enough good players. The only reason they’ve stayed as close to .500 as they have is because the rest of baseball is so laden with parity that no one can tell which teams should be bad and which should be atrocious.

Play the game correctly.

It was laughable when, in the waning days of the 2010 season, Utley took Tejada out on a play at second base and the Mets reacted like a bunch of Southern women at a church social, indignant that such a thing would occur. There was talk of retaliation and the team taking a different approach to plays on the bases and at the plate.

Different approach? How about playing the game correctly without it being a response?

It was about time the Mets decided to stop being so nice to their opponents and let them have it when the opportunity arose. Following Utley’s take-out of Tejada, Carlos Beltran slid hard toward Utley and, in typical Mets fashion, missed him completely.

Had Utley been knocked into left field, he wouldn’t have said a word about it because he’s old-school, keeps his mouth shut and plays the game the right way.

You want to send a message? When Utley blocks second base with his knee as an opponent is stealing second, drive your spikes so hard into his leg so to break the skin. You don’t like him standing so close to the plate, dawdling and messing with the pitchers’ heads? Hit him in the back.

It’s called doing something about it other than yapping.

This is playing the game the way it should be played and is one of the reasons the Phillies are where they are and the Mets are where they are.

Be aggressive, smart and lucky.

This isn’t to imply that the Phillies do everything correctly because GM Ruben Amaro Jr, has made some horrible gaffes and silly free agent signings in his time as GM; it’s been glossed over by the way the team has played and that he rectified the bigger mistakes by trading for Oswalt a year ago and getting Lee back via free agency last winter; but those two deals stemmed from the fact that both Oswalt and Lee were willing to join the Phillies because the Phillies were contenders and in an atmosphere the players wanted to be a part of. Neither Oswalt nor Lee wanted to join the Mets because the team was in such disarray and the club’s reputation has taken a brutal beating due to the off-field mishaps and lawsuits surrounding team ownership.

But the Phillies weren’t exactly the bastion of cohesion until they started winning. In fact, they were a joke for 14 years from 1994 through most of 2007 before the Mets collapse and Phillies rise.

These things change quickly. The Mets have a new drafting style, a top-down chain of command that won’t be usurped as it was with Tony Bernazard running roughshod over the organization, a plan of attack and a GM able to express himself coherently—all of this gives them every chance to turn things around within the next three years.

All they have to do is adhere to the principles elucidated above.

They have to be a more than a little lucky.

They have to get better players and not use roster-filler on a daily basis in key roles.

It’s that simple. And that difficult.

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Mets Have To Check In On Colby Rasmus

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So deep into Tony LaRussa‘s spacious, entrance only doghouse; so far out of favor with the Cardinals has fallen Colby Rasmus that it’s being said that they’re shopping him.

There are different levels to “shopping him”. In extreme cases, the phrase means “we gotta get this guy outta here”; in some, it’s “let’s move him now before he declines any further; in others, it’s “we need ‘X’ to compete for a championship now and the easiest way to get that is by dealing ‘Y’ and worrying about the consequences later”.

Whatever the reason, Rasmus is available and the Mets have to check in on him.

What would it take? With the statement from none other than Joel Sherman in the above-linked piece (grains of salt at the ready) that the Cardinals are asking for a “ton”, Rasmus won’t be easily attainable; but what are the Cardinals asking for?

Could the Mets convince the Cardinals that Carlos Beltran, Bobby Parnell and Fernando Martinez for say Rasmus, Bryan Anderson and Maikel Cleto would be a sufficient return?

Beltran could mean the difference between a playoff spot in 2011 or 4th place for the Cardinals.

It’s no guarantee that Beltran would want to leave St. Louis once he’s there nor ask for an absurd contract to stay—many players have been traded to the Cardinals and taken short money to preclude free agency because they enjoyed it so much; plus he’s a LaRussa-type of player. Beltran would also be a viable fallback/threat to Albert Pujols‘s prospective free agency. They could keep Lance Berkman and shift him to first base and install Beltran in right field with Jon Jay in center in the unlikely event of Pujols leaving.

After his breakout season in 2010, Angel Pagan has reverted into being, well, Angel Pagan. A flash of brilliance here; an injury to keep him out for weeks there; and a rockhead play like the one he pulled against the same Cardinals in which he tried to double a runner off first….by throwing the ball to Cardinals first base coach Dave McKay.

He’s not the long-term solution in center for the Mets.

Maybe Rasmus is.

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