Luhnow Is Providing A Blueprint To Rebuild A Dead Franchise

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When he was hired as the Astros GM, there was a chance that Jeff Luhnow was going to repeat the mistakes made by former assistants whose resume was based more on statistical analysis, pure numbers and being among number of people who found their way into baseball as a byproduct of Moneyball fallout. Could he run a club? Or would he fall into the same traps that befell Paul DePodesta and have put Jack Zduriencik on shaky ground?

It didn’t take long for for Luhnow to disappoint the hard core stat people who thought one of their “own” had gotten a GM job when he made Brett Myers a closer even though Myers is capable of starting. The lament was something to the tune of, “I don’t understand it,” as if Luhnow was betraying them. But in reality, it’s easily understood. He’s a man running a baseball team and is unwilling to make a decision based on perception and adhering to a formula at the expense of what’s right in practice. If that means making Myers into a closer, then that’s what he’s going to do.

His draft decisions were in a similar vein. Had he stuck to the original Moneyball script, he’d have taken Mark Appel or some other college player; instead he selected Carlos Correa, a shortstop out of high school. Whatever Correa becomes, the concept behind taking a high school players—abhorrent to the Moneyball school of thought from 10 years ago—is that the Astros went for the high-end talent rather than the safe and explainable pick of a developed college player.

In the trade made today between the Astros and Blue Jays, the Astros sent LHP J.A. Happ, RHP Brandon Lyon, and RHP David Carpenter to the Blue Jays for RHP Francisco Cordero, OF Ben Francisco, and minor leaguers RHP Joseph Musgrove, RHP Asher Wojciechowski, LHP David Rollins and OF Carlos Perez.

Cordero is going to get spun off to a reliever-hungry team. Francisco did nothing for the Blue Jays, but is cheap and might have some use for the Astros as an extra outfielder in the future.

There’s a perception that Happ is still a young kid because he hasn’t been around that long, but he’s going to be 30 in October. His stuff is impressive, but hasn’t pitched particularly well for the Astros and by the time they’re ready to take the next step into contention, Happ will either be heading toward his mid-30s or will have left as a free agent. Lyon is a veteran reliever who is good at times and gives up a lot of home runs. Carpenter is 27-years-old and has a live arm. But the bottom line with all of these players is that they were essentially useless to the Astros as anything other than trade chips and Luhnow cashed them. The young players that the Astros received will help stock a mostly barren farm system and are “might bes” as opposed to the mediocrity they had and knew they had.

Luhnow’s doing a terrific job for the Astros so far.

The Blue Jays are a different matter than the Astros. GM Alex Anthopoulos, referred to as a “genius” not too long ago, is making desperation deals to salvage the unsalvageable. They’re two games under .500 and no one—least of all them—seems to know what they are. Are they contenders? Are they building for the future? Are they trying to win now while building for the future?

They have a lot of good individual players on the roster but, as usual, there’s something wrong. It’s elusive and difficult to pinpoint, but it’s there.

Manager John Farrell still makes bizarre strategic decisions and as much as the respect he’s accumulated throughout baseball, a manager still has to manage the game correctly and his lack of experience in the dugout, as well as the fact that he’s a former pitcher, are causing issues that have to be addressed. They’ve had devastating injuries to a young pitching staff, but the acquisitions of Sergio Santos and Cordero to take over the back-end of the bullpen plainly and simply didn’t work. Happ fills a hole in the rotation, but he’s had arm problems in his history. Lyon and Carpenter are capable out of the bullpen with Lyon a free agent at the end of the season. The Blue Jays are building for a now that doesn’t actually exist anywhere but in their misplaced hopes of being contenders. Being a contender implies winning and that’s something they do not do on a consistent enough basis to justify getting players for the immediate future trying to realize a dream that’s clearly not going to come to fruition in 2012.

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Off Season Losers In Retrospect

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Several days ago I listed the off season winners in retrospect discussing teams and the moves they made this past winter. Now it’s time for the losers.

New York Yankees

Acquired: Michael Pineda, Raul Ibanez, Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, Jose Campos

Subtracted: Jorge Posada, A.J. Burnett, Jesus Montero, Hector Noesi

The YES Network website still hasn’t mentioned Jose Campos since he got hurt. For that matter, nor have they mentioned Manny Banuelos’s recent injury. Maybe they haven’t been informed yet. Yeah. That’s it.

The trade of Montero and Noesi for Pineda and Campos is an absolute and utter disaster—a fireable offense for GM Brian Cashman.

Kuroda’s been good and unlucky.

Pettitte’s unexpected return has been a bolt from the blue and Ibanez has contributed the power I expected.

It’s fine to talk about them “having” to get rid of Burnett, but they’re paying him; they got low minor leaguers for him; he’s pitching well for the Pirates; and the players the Yankees got haven’t played yet in 2012. Had Pettitte not returned I guarantee there would be people now lamenting the loss of Burnett.

Guarantee.

Boston Red Sox

Acquired: GM Ben Cherington, Manager Bobby Valentine, Andrew Bailey, Ryan Sweeney, Cody Ross, Kelly Shoppach, Mark Melancon, Nick Punto

Subtracted: GM Theo Epstein, Manager Terry Francona, Jonathan Papelbon, Marco Scutaro, Josh Reddick, Tim Wakefield, Jason Varitek

It’s only when you look at the list above all at once do you realize how rancid an off-season the Red Sox had. Never mind the exchange of GMs/managers. Had he stayed, Epstein probably would’ve had better success fending off the advancing power grab of Larry Lucchino but it would’ve taken a Herculean effort for Epstein to prevent the mediocrity that the Red Sox have become.

I’m sick of seeing Francona complaining about how he was treated in Boston. If it weren’t for the Red Sox, the hot chicks to whom he’s sending candid photos of himself wouldn’t know who he is; not to mention would he not have two World Series rings and respect as a “great” manager—which he’s not.

Bailey got hurt as Reddick is on his way to making the All Star team and has been the Athletics’ best player. Melancon is back in the minor leagues; Shoppach is on the trade block; Ross was playing well before he got hurt; Punto is Punto.

No one’s saying they should’ve overpaid to keep Papelbon, but giving Scutaro away for a journeyman righty Clayton Mortensen made no sense.

Detroit Tigers

Acquired: Prince Fielder, Octavio Dotel, Gerald Laird, Collin Balester

Subtracted: Wilson Betemit, Brad Penny, Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Guillen, Joel Zumaya

Fielder and Cabrera are doing their jobs at the plate and more. The porous defense created by the signing of Fielder and shifting of Cabrera to third base hasn’t been as catastrophic as expected. That’s unless the pitching staff has it in their heads that they have to strike out more hitters or pitch differently to prevent balls from being hit to the right or left sides of the infield—highly unlikely.

The Tigers are 5 games under .500 because their pitching has been bad. The off-season isn’t a failure because of the signing of Fielder, but 5 games under .500 wasn’t what Mike Ilitch had in mind when he paid all that money to sign a huge bat like Fielder to replace Victor Martinez and team him with Cabrera.

Minnesota Twins

Acquired: GM Terry Ryan, Josh Willingham, Jamey Carroll, Jason Marquis, Ryan Doumit, Joel Zumaya

Subtracted: GM Bill Smith, Joe Nathan, Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel, Kevin Slowey

Terry Ryan was supposed to come back into the GM’s chair and start doing things the “Twins’ Way”. Well, that “way” is no longer working. The reason that vaunted “way” worked in the past was because they had talent on the roster and a club that was built for how Ron Gardenhire managed.

That’s no longer the case.

Marquis was released. Carroll hasn’t hit. Willingham’s been fantastic. The Zumaya signing was worth a shot I suppose, but he got hurt again. What he needs now is a friend—a real friend—to tell him that it’s over and he should retire before he damages himself permanently.

Maybe that’s what the Twins need too.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Acquired: GM Jerry Dipoto, Albert Pujols, C.J. Wilson, Chris Iannetta, Jason Isringhausen, LaTroy Hawkins

Subtracted: GM Tony Reagins, Fernando Rodney, Jeff Mathis, Tyler Chatwood

Pujols has started hitting and the Angels will rise and fall on what he does, but the uncharacteristic decision on the part of the Angels to depart from the template they’ve adhered to for a decade has led to this disconnect between GM Dipoto, manager Mike Scioscia and the club.

Scioscia’s hitting coach, Mickey Hatcher, was fired against Scioscia’s wishes. They never took serious steps to bolster the bullpen and had too many players for too few lineup spots.

Owner Arte Moreno made maneuvers that were not team-related, but related to the TV deal he wanted to secure. And he did.

They did business like the 1980s Yankees and they’ve been playing and behaving like the 1980s Yankees. The one thing that will save them is the thing that was lacking in the 1980s: the Wild Cards.

Cincinnati Reds

Acquired: Mat Latos, Ryan Madson, Ryan Ludwick

Subtracted: Ramon Hernandez, Yonder Alonso, Yasmani Grandal, Edinson Volquez, Edgar Renteria, Francisco Cordero

The Reds are in first place and playing well no thanks to Latos (he’s been horrific); Madson (out for the year with Tommy John surgery); and Ludwick (.205/.290/.402 slash line with 6 homers in a homer-friendly home park).

It’s not as if they needed Alonso with Joey Votto ensconced at first base. They have a young catcher in Devin Mesoraco so they didn’t really need Grandal. And Volquez has been consistently inconsistent and injured since his great rookie year with the Reds.

But the winter moves are what’s relevant here and if they’d held onto the players they traded for Latos (and I’m not retrospectively ripping the deal since I thought it was good for both sides), they could’ve gotten mid-season help rather than an in-season nightmare.

Milwaukee Brewers

Acquired: Aramis Ramirez, Alex Gonzalez, Norichika Aoki, Jose Veras, Brooks Conrad

Subtracted: Prince Fielder, Yuniesky Betancourt, Casey McGehee

Ramirez is starting to hit and will hit put up numbers by the end of the season. We’ll never know whether the improved defense and pop from Alex Gonzalez and a full season from Mat Gamel would’ve made up for the loss of Fielder because both blew out their knees within days of each other.

It’s not really anyone’s fault. They did the best they could under their financial and practical circumstances.

St. Louis Cardinals

Acquired: Manager Mike Matheny, Carlos Beltran, pitching coach Derek Lilliquist

Subtracted: Manager Tony LaRussa, pitching coach Dave Duncan, Albert Pujols, Edwin Jackson, Octavio Dotel, Gerald Laird, Nick Punto.

So wait…now that the Cardinals are at .500 and freefalling it’s been miraculously discovered that the transition from a Hall of Fame manager/pitching coach combination to a manager who’s never managed before anywhere wasn’t going to go as smoothly as it did when they got off to a hot start?

That replacing Pujols wasn’t as simple as signing Beltran and moving the now-injured 36-year-old Lance Berkman to first base?

Shocking.

Colorado Rockies

Acquired: Michael Cuddyer, Marco Scutaro, Ramon Hernandez, Jeremy Guthrie, Tyler Chatwood, Tyler Colvin, Jamie Moyer

Subtracted: Chris Iannetta, Jason Hammel, Matt Lindstrom, Ian Stewart, Seth Smith

The starting pitching has killed them.

They loaded up on starters, but it hasn’t been enough as Drew Pomeranz got hurt and they gave Moyer 10 starts. It hasn’t helped that Hammel has been very good for the Orioles while Guthrie has been terrible for the Rockies.

Cuddyer has been everything advertised. Scutaro and Hernandez haven’t.

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American League Fantasy Sleepers

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These names jumped out at me as I’m working on my book. (See the sidebar. Available soon.)

B.J. Upton, CF—Tampa Bay Rays

Upton is probably one of the most aggravating players in all of baseball to fans, teammates and everyone else. So talented that he can do anything—-anything—on the field, his motivation and hustle are contingent on the day and his mood.

But he’s a free agent at the end of the season and wants to get paid. Expect a big power/stolen base season and a return to the high on base numbers from 2007-2008.

Carlos Villanueva, RHP—Toronto Blue Jays

He won’t cost anything and was under-the-radar impressive when the Blue Jays put him in the starting rotation last season.

They have starting pitching, but with Kyle Drabek a question to make the team and the limits still being placed on Henderson Alvarez and Brandon Morrow, Villanueva is a veteran they could count on as a starter they don’t have to limit.

As a starter, he was able to use all of his pitches including a changeup. Strangely, he gets his secondary pitches over the plate consistently, but not his fastball.

Jim Johnson, RHP—Baltimore Orioles

The Orioles haven’t specifically said what they’re doing with Johnson. They’ve implied that he’s staying in the bullpen, but the acquisition of Matt Lindstrom frees them to make Johnson a starter where he could be very effective.

Either way, he’s not a “name” closer or guaranteed starter who’d be overly in demand.

Jacob Turner, RHP—Detroit Tigers

As the Tigers proved with Rick Porcello, they don’t let a pitcher’s inexperience dissuade them from sticking him in the rotation.

Turner has far better stuff than Porcello—a good fastball and wicked hard curve. He throws multiple variations on his fastball, has great control and is poised and polished.

Adam Dunn, DH—Chicago White Sox

I have trouble buying that a veteran who hit 40 home runs annually and wasn’t a PED case suddenly lost it all at once.

The not-so-witty line, “Dunn is Done” is a cheap shot and inaccurate.

He was terrible last season to be sure, but he was also unlucky (a .240 BAbip vs a career number of .292).

Dunn still walked 75 times and in comparison to his absurd .159 average, a .292 OBP is pretty good.

The combination of the new league; the expectations and pressure from a big contract; and a raving maniac manager in Ozzie Guillen put Dunn out of his comfort zone. A year in with the White Sox and a more relaxed and understanding manager, Robin Ventura, along with the diminished team-wide expectations will let Dunn be himself—a gentle giant who walks a lot and hits home runs.

Hisanori Takahashi, LHP—Los Angeles Angels

The Angels were kicking the tires on Francisco Cordero and Ryan Madson and it wasn’t to be a set-up man.

If Jordan Walden is suffering from shellshock after the way his massive gack against the Athletics late in the season essentially eliminated the Angels from contention, they might have to pull him from the closer’s role sooner rather than later.

Manager Mike Scioscia is loyal to his players and doesn’t make changes like this until he absolutely has to, but the Angels can’t afford to mess around with the money they spent this off-season and the competition they’re facing for a playoff spot.

Takahashi can do anything—start, set-up, close—and is fearless.

Worst case, if your league counts “holds”, he’ll accumulate those for you.

Fautino De Los Santos, RHP—Oakland Athletics

Don’t ask me what the A’s are planning this year because as the trades of their starting rotation and closer and signing Yoenis Cespedes signing prove, they’re flinging stuff at the wall and hoping something sticks.

Although Brian Fuentes and Grant Balfour are on the roster, they might be willing to look at a younger, inexperienced closer at some point. Fuentes is hot and cold and Balfour has never been a full time closer.

De Los Santos has an upper-90s fastball and as the season rolls on, it’s likely that both Fuentes and Balfour will be traded. They’ll need someone to rack up the saves and De Los Santos is as good a choice as any.

Kila Ka’aihue, 1B—Oakland Athletics

His minor league on base/power numbers are absurd and the A’s first base situation is muddled at best.

The Royals kindasorta gave Ka’aihue a chance for the first month of 2011, but abandoned him when he got off to a bad start. The A’s have nothing to lose by playing him for at least the first half of the season and, if nothing else, he’ll walk and get on base.

Hector Noesi, RHP—Seattle Mariners

Noesi doesn’t give up a lot of home runs and has good control. These attributes will be magnified pitching in the big ballpark in Seattle and with the Mariners good defense. He also strikes out around a hitter per inning, so that all adds up to a good statistical season if you’re not counting wins.

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Analyzing the Red Sox-A’s Trade

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Athletics trade RHP Andrew Bailey and OF Ryan Sweeney to the Red Sox for OF Josh Reddick, minor league 1B Miles Head and minor league RHP Raul Alcantara.

For the Red Sox:

After trading for Mark Melancon and claiming to be comfortable with him as their closer, the Red Sox were still loitering around Ryan Madson and Francisco Cordero and trying to trade for Bailey and Gio Gonzalez.

They needed a legitimate closer and starting help. With the trades for Melancon and Bailey, they accomplished both.

In a more understated fashion than the Rangers maneuver of signing Joe Nathan and shifting closer Neftali Feliz into the starting rotation, the Red Sox are going to attempt something similar with Daniel Bard. Bard was a starter in the minors, struggled when given the chance to close and had a brief slump at the end of the 2011 season as the set-up man that cost the club dearly during their September collapse. He’s 26 and in the same vein of limiting his innings as a starter, the Red Sox were able to build up his tolerance without indulging in the damaging charade the Yankees did with Joba Chamberlain; as he enters his prime years, Bard will be able to give them 180 innings and slowly build until he’s a legitimate, 200+ inning starter.

Of course, that’s contingent on him being good at it. Bard has a power fastball in the mid-to-upper 90s; a slider and a changeup—there’s no reason to think he won’t transition well to the rotation.

I wouldn’t trust Melancon as my closer. Bailey is a two-time All-Star and former Rookie of the Year who throws strikes, doesn’t allow many homers and strikes out around a batter-per-inning; the only concern with him is his troublesome elbow, but for two low-level minor leaguers and an extra outfielder, he’s worth it as a far cheaper alternative to the free agents that are still on the market.

Sweeney is two years older than Reddick (almost to the day) and is an up-the-middle/opposite field hitter who might benefit from the Green Monster. Reddick is better defensively and Sweeney is a more proven big league player.

As a win-now team with a new, veteran manager and clubhouse loaded with veterans, the two minor leaguers the Red Sox surrendered weren’t going to help this current group, so it made sense to deal them.

For the Athletics:

I went into detail about Billy Beane’s latest rebuild in my last posting.

Strategy aside, the return for Bailey seems a bit short. Two low-level minor leaguers for an in-demand, All Star closer? Elbow problems or not, the A’s could’ve held out and waited to see if something better came along.

Head will be 21 in May and is reminiscent of the return to the Moneyball storyline of slightly out-of-shape players who hit for power and get on base. He was a 26th round draft pick in 2009.

Alcantara has good numbers in the low minors, but he just turned 19.

Who knows?

Neither is close to the big leagues.

Reddick is an extra player who might blossom if given the opportunity to play regularly. He’s shown good pop in the minors and some speed. Truthfully, what difference does it make to the A’s whether they play Reddick every day and he turns out to be better suited as a fourth outfielder? Other than to raid them for veteran, mid-season help, no one’s paying much attention to them anyway.

This trade suits the purposes of both sides although at first glance the advantage goes to the Red Sox. The Red Sox get their closer; the A’s clear out another veteran for the future (somewhere off in the distance, presumably in San Jose).

On the “ridiculous analysis” front, in this posting on CBS Sports, Jon Heyman said the following:

All in all, this was new Red Sox GM Ben Cherington’s finest moment as GM(…)

Um. Yeah. I tend to agree. After being on the job a little over two months, it’s his finest moment just ahead of getting a new chair for his office and not drooling on himself during dinner at the winter meetings.

Bravo.

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The Ryan Madson Free Agency Profile

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Name: Ryan Madson.

Position: Right handed relief pitcher.

Vital Statistics:

Age-31.

Height-6’6″

Weight-200.

Bats: Left.

Throws: Right.

Transactions: Drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in the 9th round of the 1998 MLB Draft.

Agent: Scott Boras.

Might he return to the Phillies? No.

Teams that could use and pay him: Boston Red Sox; Baltimore Orioles; Chicago White Sox; Kansas City Royals; Minnesota Twins; Texas Rangers; Seattle Mariners; New York Mets; Florida Marlins; Cincinnati Reds; Los Angeles Dodgers.

Positives:

He has a good fastball and excellent changeup; Madson’s herky-jerky motion is all arms and legs and makes it difficult to pick the ball up out of his hand; he’s been mostly durable apart from some silly injuries from kicking things; he throws strikes and has experience in the post-season and with a difficult fanbase in a passionate sports town. Madson is good against both lefties and righties.

Negatives:

That herky-jerky motion isn’t gentle on one’s body and is especially stressful on his arm; he’s been heavily used since 2004. Madson wants star closer money with a limited closer pedigree; he’s struggled at times and can be prone to allowing the long ball; his strikeout numbers are fewer than one-per-inning.

What he’ll want: 4-years, $44 million.

What he’ll get: 3-years, $34 million with a vesting option for a fourth year at $12 million.

Teams that might give it to him: Red Sox; Orioles; Royals; Twins; Rangers; Marlins; Reds; Dodgers.

The Red Sox are not going after Madson unless his market crashes and he’s willing to take 2-years with an option.

The Royals are on the list because there’s a chance they trade Joakim Soria and if that’s the case, they’ll need a closer.

Dan Duquette likes having a legitimate, proven reliever at the back of his bullpen; Buck Showalter has had both a foundling-type short reliever and has used multiple people in the role; he’s also had that “one guy” and Madson can get out hitters from both sides of the plate.

The Rangers will sign a closer and move Neftali Feliz into the starting rotation.

Jeffrey Loria is putting it out there that the Marlins are going to spend big with offers to Jose Reyes and Albert Pujols; they have to sign someone and with the questions surrounding Juan Oviedo/Leo Nunez, Madson fits.

Francisco Cordero might not return to the Reds as a free agent and Madson is about as good as he is.

The Dodgers somehow find money to spend despite their ownership mess; Javy Guerra did well as the Dodgers closer but Ned Colletti likes veterans and Madson is a veteran despite being relatively inexperienced in the job.

Would I sign Madson? The back-and-forth regarding Madson’s “agreement” with the Phillies and their denial that there ever was such an agreement is comical.

I detailed my suspicions when it happened, but here’s what I suspect, briefly: Madson and Phillies GM Ruben Amaro agreed to a contract; Amaro needed approval from team president David Montgomery; Montgomery wanted to know why the Phillies were paying so much for Madson when a bit more could get them Jonathan Papelbon; the deal was nixed; they went after Papelbon and got him.

Now Madson’s looking for work.

And the Phillies are better with Papelbon.

At a reasonable price I would sign Madson, but given that he’s represented by Boras and wanted 4-years and $44 million and that the Phillies preferred the more expensive Papelbon, I’d be extremely cautious before committing to Madson long-term. I don’t trust him and for that kind of money, a team needs to be sure they know what they’re getting.

Will it be a retrospective mistake for the team that signs him? If they guarantee $40 million, yes. If they get him for, say, 3-years at $27 million with incentives, no.

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