Ricky Nolasco Proves the Market Rewards Mediocrity

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The Ricky Nolasco contract with the Twins was announced last night. I haven’t looked at the reactions yet, but presumably they range between indignation, head shakes and grudging acknowledgements that “that’s the market.” Whether or not he’s worth that money is beside the point. Nolasco is a better pitcher than he’s been given credit for and he’s durable. He’s not the pitcher you’d prefer to have starting opening day or the first game of a playoff series, but he’s a professional arm who will provide innings and competence. In today’s market, that’s going to get him $50 million. I’m not judging it one way or the other. It just “is.” Personally, I’d prefer Bronson Arroyo to Nolasco. But Nolasco is certainly a better risk than Masahiro Tanaka. It’s all about context.

It’s not a free money policy in an industry that is flush with cash that is causing teams to make seeming overpays for slightly above-average pitchers. It’s the overall culture of wastefulness that has permeated baseball through ridiculous developmental rules for pitchers that make necessary the purchasing of whatever is on the market for the going rate due to supply and demand.

Teams and analysts talk out of both sides of their mouths – as well as other orifices – when they put forth the pretense of running the organization as a business and then toss uncountable amounts of money at mediocrity, wondering why they get mediocrity when that’s what they bought.

A.J. Burnett was the epitome of a pitcher who was overpaid based on need and availability. Having missed the playoffs in 2008 and desperate for starting pitching, the Yankees threw money at their problems and it worked. One pitcher they signed was A.J. Burnett. Burnett was always the epitome of the “million dollar arm, five cent head” pitcher, one who could throw a no-hitter striking out 18 one game and give up a three-run homer to the opposing pitcher in the next game. For that, the Yankees doled a contract worth $82.5 million for five years. They kept him for three, paid the Pirates $20 million to take him off their hands and didn’t even get useful prospects in the trade.

The galling aspect of Burnett’s three year tenure in pinstripes was that there was a belief that he’d arrive and suddenly fulfill his potential just because he was a Yankee. In truth, he pitched in the same frustrating, aggravating way he always pitched. It was the height of Yankee arrogance to think they were going to get anything different. During his whole time as a Yankee, when the media and fans screamed about his inconsistency, I responded with an identical and more logical scream that I gave when they signed him: This is what you bought!!! This is A.J. Burnett!!!

The reason the Yankees needed pitching that year was because their attempts to “grow their own” in an effort to save money over the long-term by not having to buy other teams’ arms failed miserably with Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy either getting hurt, pitching poorly or fluctuating in their roles in 2008. With 20/20 hindsight, the Yankees and other clubs who use the pitch counts/innings limits/overprotectiveness for their young pitchers can examine these failures, the need to spend their way out of trouble to purchase breathing bodies who can eat innings and ask whether or not it was worth it.

I don’t want to hear about injuries, changing roles, unsuitability for New York and the other excuses that are proffered to explain away the failures of these three pitchers – that’s all part of why they failed. The fact is that for 16 combined seasons from Chamberlain, Hughes and Kennedy, the Yankees got an 80-68 won/lost record, a 4.37 ERA and wasted years when they were in their early-to-mid 20s and should have been at their strongest and most useful. Don’t start looking for advanced stats either because that’s only going to make the case for the way the Yankees used them worse. They could have been good and weren’t. It’s not hard to figure out why.

If you combine the draft pick compensation that many teams are unwilling to surrender to sign pitchers, the number of pitchers on the market declines even further. That absence and the number of top-tier talent who sign long-term deals to stay with their current teams leads to pitchers like Nolasco getting $50 million deals. Nolasco was traded at mid-season meaning he wasn’t subject to being offered arbitration, therefore there’s no draft pick compensation. Arroyo wasn’t offered arbitration by the Reds. Tanaka won’t cost anything other than money. That’s why they’re attractive.

The Giants were roasted for signing Tim Lincecum to a two-year, $35 million contract rather than let him go as a free agent, but now the decision looks astute. You’d be hard-pressed to find any stat person willing to give Giants general manager Brian Sabean credit for anything, but he kept Lincecum. It was wiser to do so considering the options of trading young players to get an arm or offering Lincecum arbitration hoping he’d take it and no one would offer him a Nolasco-style deal. In retrospect, it was simply easier and better long-term thinking to keep him. The Giants also signed Tim Hudson to a two-year contract. Without compensation attached to him and with the deal Nolasco just signed, Hudson might have lowballed himself by signing so early even at age 38.

Are teams really so in love with Tanaka that they’re willing to give upwards of $150 million to secure his rights and sign him? Or is it that there’s no other payments necessary apart from the posting fee and signing him to a contract? To sit and claim that Tanaka is a sure thing is ridiculous considering the attrition rate of pitchers who arrive with similar hype and expectations. Again, it’s the market and the desperation to hold true to draft picks, luxury tax and other aspects that are influencing which pitchers are getting big money and which aren’t.

The Rays have the right idea with their own pitchers: they use them without overt abuse or overprotectiveness; they don’t sign them to long-term contracts; and they trade them at their highest value for a package of prospects. It’s easy to say, “just copy the Rays” but how many teams have the freedoms the Rays do? How many teams are able to say, “We can’t pay him and it makes no sense to keep him for that extra year when these offers are on the table in a destitute market?” For all the credit the Rays get for their success and intelligence, a substantial portion of it is directly because they have no money; because they’ve been able to win under their tight financial circumstances; because they don’t have a brand-new ballpark with three million fans in attendance; because the media doesn’t go crazy when they trade Matt Garza, James Shields and listen to offers on David Price.

When a team needs 200 innings and isn’t going to get it from their top pitching prospects due to an arbitrary number of innings they’re allowed to pitch to keep them healthy, they have to buy it somewhere else. Stephen Strasburg is entering his fifth season in the big leagues, will be a free agent after 2016, will demand $150 million and as of now still hasn’t broken the 200-inning barrier. Unless the Nats pay it, another team will benefit from the protective cocoon he’s been in. Oh, and he got hurt anyway. Scott Boras will be more than happy to use the hammer of the Nats having signed, paid and developed Strasburg and won’t want to let him leave to force them to pay more money than his performance indicates he’s been worth.

For every Clayton Kershaw or Chris Sale who are allowed to pitch, there are five Strasburgs and Chamberlains who aren’t. And who benefits from the absence of arms? The Nolascos and Tanakas. Production be damned. They have what teams are looking for because most teams – through their own short-sightedness and stupidity – can’t make it on their own.

How is that a wise business model?




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Hal Steinbrenner Summons His Yankees Staff

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Hal Steinbrenner is thoughtful, calm and polite. He’s running the Yankees like a business and doing so without the rampant firings, missives and bluster that his father George Steinbrenner used to intimidate, bully and get what he thought were results. It’s the son’s demeanor that is probably even more intimidating to the gathered staff than anything his father ever did. The George Steinbrenner meetings were a regular occurrence with a red-faced Boss shouting, threatening and firing people only to calm down, feel badly about what he’d done and immediately rehire whomever he’d briefly fired. Hal’s different. If he makes changes, they’re made and that’s that.

The news that Hal convened a high-level meeting with his staff is a serious matter to the future of the Yankees’ baseball operations. It’s obviously not lost on him or any of the other Steinbrenners and Randy Levine that the baseball people led by general manager Brian Cashman have been trumpeting home-grown talent in recent years while producing very little of it. For all the talk that the Yankees were going to grow their own pitchers similarly to the Red Sox, Giants and Rays, the last starting pitcher drafted and developed by the Yankees who had sustained success as a Yankee is still Andy Pettitte. That’s twenty years ago.

A new storyline referenced repeatedly is that the Yankees intended to draft Mike Trout in 2009, but the Angels beat them to him. Are they looking for credit for players they wanted to draft four years ago after he’s become one of the best players in baseball?

The defense implying that the Yankees’ success caused them to only have late-round first round draft picks thereby reducing their ability to find top-tier players is weak as well. You can find players late in the first round and in the second and third rounds. The Yankees talk out of both sides of their mouths when they claim that Pettitte (22nd round), Jorge Posada (24th round), and Bernie Williams and Mariano Rivera (undrafted free agents) were due to the Yankees’ methods and then complain about their low draft status and inability to find players. It’s one or the other. Either there’s a Yankees “specialness” or they’re a victim of their own success.

They haven’t signed any impact free agents from Cuba, Japan, Taiwan, Venezuela or the Dominican Republic and their drafts have been failures in the early, middle and late rounds. Dustin Pedroia, Jordan Zimmerman, Giancarlo Stanton, Freddie Freeman, Chris Tillman, Trevor Cahill and Justin Masterson were all second round picks. You can find players if you’re savvy and give them an opportunity. The Yankees’ lack of patience with young players combined with the overhyping to suit a constituency and narrative has certainly played a part in the failures, but they’ve also made some horrific gaffes in evaluation and planning. They have yet to publicly acknowledge that Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, Ian Kennedy, Michael Pineda and Ivan Nova were all mishandled, nor have they indicated a willingness to alter their strategy in building pitchers.

With the military school training that he has, it’s no surprise that Hal—as Commander in Chief of the Yankees—is seeking answers as to why the club’s farm system is so destitute and few players have been produced to help the Yankees at the big league level as they downsize the payroll. If they’re not going to spend as much money on free agents, young players are a necessity to maintain some level of competitiveness. But they don’t have them to use for themselves to to trade for someone else’s more established star. The logical next step after this meeting is to start replacing some of his staff.

This recent hot streak aside, the overwhelming likelihood is that the Yankees will miss the playoffs in 2013. There will be the complaints that injuries were the main reason, but teams with $200 million payrolls really don’t have much of a leg to stand on when coming up with excuses. After the season is over, there will be a lament that “if the season had gone on a week longer” then the rest of baseball would’ve been in trouble; or that the way Rivera goes out with a declining, also-ran team is not befitting his greatness; and that the post-season “loses its luster” without the Yankees.

These are diversions and attempts to make the Yankees more important than they actually are.

No one, least of all Hal Steinbrenner, wants to hear it. He’s the boss now and he’s been patient. He’s justified in looking at the Yankees’ annual payrolls and wondering why, with a roster full of the highest salaried players in baseball for as long as anyone can remember, they’ve been rewarded with one championship since 2000. Why, with the money at their disposal and an ownership willing to green light just about anything to make the organization better, they haven’t been able to find young talent and nurture it to success. Why the Rays, Athletics and Cardinals among others have been able to win and develop simultaneously while spending a minuscule fraction of what the Yankees have spent. And why his GM so openly criticized the acquisition of Alfonso Soriano when Soriano has turned into a bolt from the sky in his return to pinstripes.

What this will do is embolden Hal, Levine and the rest of the Steinbrenners to believe that perhaps the implication of “baseball people” knowing more than anyone else might be a little overplayed.

This meeting is a precursor to a change in the structure of the baseball operations and with Cashman’s repeated public embarrassments, inability to hold his tongue and abject errors, he’s on the firing line. The Steinbrenners have been agreeable, loyal and tolerant to Cashman’s demands and decisions. With the details of this meeting strategically leaked, it looks like they’re greasing the skids to make a change. George Steinbrenner was more emotional than calculating and his meeting would have been eye-rolled and head shaken away as the ranting of a lunatic, quickly dismissed. Hal Steinbrenner isn’t like his father, but the result might be the same when the season ends and he’s not going to change his mind five minutes later.




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MLB Trade Deadline Analysis: Diamondbacks-Padres Trade

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The fact about Ian Kennedy is that his baseline stats don’t tell the whole story. He’s not as good as he was in 2011 when he was 21-4 with an ERA of 2.88 and finished fourth in the Cy Young Award voting, nor is he as bad as he’s been this year with a record of 3-8 and a 5.23 ERA. Kennedy requires several things to be successful as a big league pitcher. He needs:

  • A sound infield and outfield defense
  • Luck on balls in play
  • To keep runners off the bases for when he surrenders home runs

The Yankees’ initial estimation of him was that of the three young arms they were promoting as their future, he was more polished and poised that Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain and would be the best of the three. Once he got his shot, it became abundantly clear that Kennedy was never going to make it with the Yankees. Hughes’s home run problems would’ve looked minuscule in comparison to those that Kennedy would’ve had if he’d stayed in New York. They saw this in his brief time with them and in combination with his big mouth that grated on the nerves of the veterans, chose to move him before his value disappeared completely.

With the Diamondbacks, he kindasorta fulfilled the potential the Yankees touted, but it too was based on other factors. He had great luck on balls in play in 2010 and 2011 and poor luck on balls in play in the past two seasons. The Diamondbacks’ defense in 2013 isn’t as good as it was in 2011 and Kennedy’s results reflect that change. Kennedy is going to make a lot of money in arbitration; the Diamondbacks have a surplus of starting pitching; the veteran lefty specialist Joe Thatcher fills a strategic need for the Diamondbacks’ stretch run; and the Padres have a huge ballpark and excellent defense. Add it up and it makes sense for the sides to pull the trigger now.

The minor leaguer the Diamondbacks received in the trade, righty Matt Stites, has eye-catching numbers. He’s a relief pitcher, is 5’11” and throws very hard. This is inspiring comparisons to Craig Kimbrel. Of course a comparison to Kimbrel based on velocity and stature is ridiculous at this point. He’s an arm who could help the Diamondbacks as early as this season.

This was a deal based on need, philosophy and bottom-line numbers. The Diamondbacks are contenders, needed relief help and their GM, Kevin Towers, likes to accumulate power arms and depth in the bullpen. The Padres are not contenders and their GM, Josh Byrnes, likes to collect starting pitchers. It’s a fit for both sides and gives each what they need under their current circumstances.

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Tamp Down Immediate Zack Wheeler Expectations

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Based on the manner in which prospects are hyped and the number of those prospects that fail to immediately achieve expectations—or even competence—it’s wise to sit back and let Zack Wheeler get his feet on the ground before anointing him as part of the next great rotation with Matt Harvey and Jonathon Niese as a modern day “big three” to be compared with Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels or Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine. It must be remembered that all of those pitchers struggled when they got to the big leagues.

Other hot prospects who were expected to dominate baseball like the Mets from the mid-1990s of Generation K with Jason Isringhausen, Paul Wilson and Bill Pulsipher flamed out as the only pitcher to achieve anything noteworthy was Isringhausen and he had to do it as a closer. The Yankees’ intention to have Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy function as homegrown starters has degenerated into nothingness with Kennedy fulfilling his potential with the Diamondbacks and both Hughes and Chamberlain approaching their final days in pinstripes. The list of instnaces such as these is far more extensive than the would-be “stars” who either didn’t make it at all or had their careers derailed and delayed.

Given the Mets’ historic clumsiness in recent years, it was a surprise as to how good Harvey really was. The Mets didn’t treat him as a prodigy, nor did they overpromote his rise to the majors as anything more than a young pitcher who’d earned his chance. His maturity, style, intensity and preparedness has yielded one of the best pitchers in baseball whose leap inspires memories of Roger Clemens in 1986. They kept Wheeler in the minor leagues as well in part to make sure he was ready and in part to keep his arbitration clock from ticking so they’d have him for an extra year of team control. These were wise decisions.

As good as Wheeler is and as much as those who see him predict great things, he’s also a power pitcher who has had some issues with control and command. His motion is somewhat quirky with a high leg kick and a pronounced hip turn with his back toward the hitter. If he’s slightly off with his motion, he’ll open up too soon, his arm will drag behind his body and his pitches will be high and flat. In the minors a pitcher can get away with such issues because minor league hitters will miss hittable fastballs with far greater frequency than big league hitters. The biggest difference between minor league hitters and Major League hitters is patience and that big leaguers don’t miss pitches they should hammer.

Wheeler’s 23 and is as ready as he can be for a rookie. As for ready to be a marquee pitcher immediately, that might take some time just as it did with Lee, Halladay, Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz. Saddling Wheeler with the demands of a star before he’s even thrown a pitch in the Major Leagues is a toxic recipe.

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Dodgers vs. Diamondbacks Fight—Video

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The thing about these legitimate fights like the Diamondbacks-Dodgers altercation last night isn’t the guys throwing punches but the ones who stand around and don’t know what to do. They have to go out on the field for team solidarity, but want nothing to do with punching or being punched, so they sort of mill around, run to where the action is, yell, “Hey, hey, hey!!!” a lot and try not to get injured.

Here’s the clips from the brawl anyway.

There’s really no reason to debate intent here. Ian Kennedy was trying to brush Yasiel Puig back off the plate. This is completely understandable considering how the Cuban rookie is treating opposing pitchers like they were the nameless, faceless red-shirted security personnel in Star Trek who never return from expeditions with Kirk, Spock and McCoy; there’s nothing wrong with pushing him off the plate. Kennedy wasn’t trying to hit him—though he wouldn’t have been all that bothered if he did—but he didn’t want to hit him up around the face.

Zack Greinke retaliated by hitting Miguel Montero and Kennedy intentionally threw at Greinke. There’s no way to deny nor is there any question about it. If anyone’s responsible for the fight, it’s Kennedy and the Dodgers were right to be angry about it.

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The Mets “Teach” Valdespin, But Who Teaches The Mets?

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Because the current Mets are so unrelentingly dull on the nights Matt Harvey isn’t pitching we’re getting stories created out of thin air like a Hollywood public relations expert deciding that it would be good idea to tamp down Calista Flockhart anorexia rumors by having her “caught” on camera at a ballgame munching on a hot dog. A few weeks ago it was Zack Wheeler complaining about the light air in Las Vegas affecting his pitching; now it’s Jordany Valdespin and the hit by pitch “controversy” from over the weekend against the Pirates. For a nothing story, this certainly has legs and it’s due in large part to there being only so much to write about Rick Ankiel and the days between Harvey’s starts.

Is this worth all the attention? Is Valdespin worth all this attention? And do these Mets from manager Terry Collins on down have the moral high ground to be dictating to anyone what it takes not just to act like a big leaguer, but to win in the big leagues?

No.

No.

And definitely no.

For all the irritating, high-handed condescension based on public relations and a crafted image than any actual reality, the Yankees are in a position to dictate to players, “This is how it’s done.” “This is how you behave when you win.” For Derek Jeter to scold a teammate (or to order his enforcer Jorge Posada to do it years ago), there’s a basis for him to tell them they’re not acting appropriately. When the Yankees got rid of Ian Kennedy in large part because of Kennedy’s mouth, they can accept the fact that he blossomed for the Diamondbacks into becoming what they promoted him to be as the most “polished” of the three “future stars” with Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain.

Only die-hard Yankee-lovers want to hear and believe Michael Kay’s tiresome, wide-eyed storytelling about impressive rookie reliever Preston Claiborne’s dad telling his son while they attended a Yankees-Rangers game in Texas that, “This is how to conduct yourself like a classy professional,” or some other paraphrased nonsense, but there’s a foundation of fact in a team that’s had extended success like the Yankees, Cardinals, Rangers and Phillies to publicly scold a misbehaving youngster. The Twins have had two consecutive atrocious years, but the structure of the organization with Terry Ryan, Tom Kelly and Ron Gardenhire implementing the code of conduct and “Twins Way” has given them the freedom to tell young players to act with a certain comportment or they’re not going to be with the Twins for much longer whether they’re winning or not.

For the Mets? As likable a player as John Buck is, he’s been on one winning team in his entire Major League career in 2010 with the Blue Jays and that team was an 85-win also-ran. Can he give a treatise on winning?

Ike Davis is the bastion of absence of accountability with his annual horrific start and usage of popularity in the clubhouse as a shield from the consequences that befell Lucas Duda when he was demoted last summer and Valdespin now. It’s almost as if Davis has accepted the lost months in the spring as a “just the way it is” addendum making it okay. It’s not okay.

Collins? Fired twice due to in-house mutinies and presiding over teams that appeared to quit late in the season in his two Mets seasons, does he really want to get into this type of teaching method from the old-school?

Valdespin is a talented and immature player and person who clearly needs to learn the proper way to act. The things that are seeping out about him now are, in my experience, a small fraction of what’s gone on with him. With any player if there are ten stories reported, there are 50 others that haven’t gotten out yet. But that doesn’t matter. The way the Mets are trying to “teach” him with the open lambasting, stony silence in answering questions without answering them, and making the situation worse by tossing him into a spotlight he can’t handle will serve to damage him further. The majority of these Mets—including the manager—are not in a position to take a young player with ability and say, “Get him outta here; he can’t help us win,” because most don’t have the faintest idea of what winning looks like to begin with.

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The Yankees Saved Hughes For His Next Team

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If the innings limits and protective strategies had worked at least once, I’d say there’s a basis for having them, but this applies to Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy, Joba Chamberlain, Stephen Strasburg and any other pitcher who’s been held back in the interests of clubs “protecting” their investment: THEY DON’T WORK!!!!

The Yankees placed these rules on all their young pitchers they drafted highly and valued to keep them healthy. Neither Hughes nor Chamberlain stayed healthy and they haven’t been particularly effective either. So what was the point? The false, weak argument will say, “Well, we had no idea about that then; we were following doctors’ advice; we studied the numbers and history; we’d do it again.”

Isn’t the point of drafting and developing pitchers to have them pitch and pitch well for the team that drafted them? Hughes is going to be 27 in June and has a solid won/lost record for his career of 52-36. The record is a byproduct of having pitched for the Yankees for his entire career in an era when they won over 90 games on an annual basis and were loaded with offense and a deep bullpen that doesn’t blow leads. His peripheral numbers are mediocre and the same logic that qualified Ivan Nova’s 16-4 record in 2011 as not entirely accurate also applies to Hughes with the main difference being that the Yankees didn’t use the same strategies on Nova and didn’t think much of Nova, yet he’s been just as good as a pitcher they did tie up, Hughes.

That’s bad for the perception, so it’s ignored.

Yesterday Hughes was diagnosed with another injury, a bulging disk in his neck, said to have occurred during infield practice. It’s not the Yankees’ fault, but it’s an example of the fragility of athletes in general and pitchers in particular when they’re performing the occasionally dangerous and stressful activity of baseball.

What have they gotten with all the developmental rules? With the numbers that they, hopefully, didn’t extrapolate from Tom Verducci? With the constant shifting of roles, shutdowns, break periods, and pitch counts?

Nothing.

This is not to pick on the Yankees. Many teams are doing the same things with similar results, but Hughes’s latest injury makes him a worthy example. Hughes has been a mediocre pitcher who could have been a star had they just left him alone. Like Kennedy, Hughes will have to develop elsewhere and be allowed to pitch the 200 innings that, after six years in the big leagues, he’s yet to do. He’s a free agent at the end of the season and there will be a team that looks at Hughes and says, “We’ll sign him and let him pitch,” and will be rewarded with, at least, more than the Yankees have gotten from him.

Teams are paranoid and afraid to do something different from the current orthodoxy and self-proclaimed experts sitting behind computers, crunching numbers and waiting for an opportunity to critique. The Giants, with an old-school GM Brian Sabean, have built one of the best pitching staffs in baseball—one that’s brought them two World Series titles in three years—and they did it by drafting two high school pitchers (Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain) and one pitcher who was too small and had such a unique motion and training regimen that teams didn’t want to touch him (Tim Lincecum). What do the Yankees have? Two failed would-be stars and another top prospect who almost won the Cy Young Award for the Diamondbacks two years ago.

The Moneyball concept of not drafting high school pitchers because of the “risk” has thankfully been tossed overboard. The Verducci Effect is in the process of being phased out. (For the record, if my GM said he was using the arbitrary research of a sportswriter to develop and dictate how he used his pitchers, I’d fire him.) Teams are looking at the reality and realizing that maybe young pitchers might be better-served to be allowed to throw innings and incorporate other factors rather than the numbers handed to them by Ivy League graduates armed with an algorithm. Isn’t this is why there are pitching coaches, managers and scouts: to determine a pitcher’s tics, movements and mechanics to decide when he’s tired; when he’s at risk for injury; how he should be deployed?

Pitchers are fragile, but instead of using that fragility as a basis to freeze them for a later date, perhaps the opposite would be a better strategy: let them pitch while they can pitch and move on when they can’t. A team deciding to do that will certainly get better results than the Yankees have with Hughes, who is probably counting the days until he can get out of the Yankees constraints and go to a club that will let him enjoy his prime years as something other than a what might have been. Currently, he’s a failed experiment in building a young pitcher and a case study of those poor decisions creating a pitcher who can be found on the market cheaply to be used and discarded.

Hughes keeps getting hurt; he’s the Yankees’ fourth starter; he’s leaving at the end of the season because the Yankees won’t want him back at the money he’ll ask for and the pitcher would probably like to get a fresh start. With all of these facts, tell me, what was the point of the rules they used as a garrote to strangle his future?

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Not Your Daddy’s Steinbrenner

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If Hal Steinbrenner is being sincere when he says he doesn’t understand why fans are concerned and upset that the Yankees haven’t made significant improvements over the winter, he’s gone beyond holding true to the company line he himself implemented and venturing into unexplored territory of delusion.

Back when George Steinbrenner was running things he was hard on his employees, but he was able to hit back at criticism (albeit in a loony, bullying way) without the screechy bewilderment that underscores Hal’s continued parental entreaties to a bratty progeny (the fans and media) that they should appreciate what they’re given.

Unwittingly or not, he’s lavishing expectations on a compromised and aged squad that are no longer as realistic as they once were. The Yankees do have the personnel to contend in 2013, but their margin of error is tied to the financial margins they’ve unilaterally enacted and with which they’ve constrained GM Brian Cashman. The easy answer will be to blame Cashman or manager Joe Girardi (in the last year of his contract), but is it fair to say it’s Cashman’s and Girardi’s fault for having run a club based on veteran mercenaries and a core of Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte who can still play but whose primes were a decade ago? All GMs and manager have their strengths and weaknesses and Cashman’s strength is buying free agents. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s a difficult juggling act to put him in this position with no money to spend, a mandate to reduce the payroll to a finite number foreign to him during his tenure while simultaneously demanding that he figure it out and win.

George would’ve openly ranted and raved about his $200 million club annually flaming out in the playoffs, but with the ranting and raving there would be money available to get better. With this team under Hal, it’s not.

Hal is constantly referencing the money spent to retain Hiroki Kuroda, Pettitte, Ichiro Suzuki and the signing of Kevin Youkilis, but he’s misunderstanding the litany of reasons that fans are justifiably concerned.

Their bench is atrocious. They’re old. In their division, the Blue Jays are substantially improved to go along with the still-strong Rays and the AL Wild Card winning Orioles. There’s talk from the likes of Mike Francesa that the Red Sox are “terrible.” Terrible is a bit much. If the Red Sox have 10 question marks heading into the 2013 season, the Yankees have 8.

When listening to Francesa and other Yankee-centric “analysts,” the shifting of tone is stark and noticeable. It’s not an automatic 95 wins and ticket punched to the playoffs in March. It’s “they’ll be in the mix.” In the mix of what is unexplained. Perhaps this is a coping mechanism to reconcile the “new” Yankees in their minds.

The talk that they’re going to “do something” to improve before the season has ceased as well for the simple fact that the reality has hit that there’s not much of anything they can do at this late date. Travis Hafner is about as good as it’s going to get as far as “improving.”

Another hard truth came this week with Felix Hernandez’s contract extension with the Mariners. The players available on the market aren’t young and star-level. Justin Verlander, Stephen Strasburg, Clayton Kershaw—they’re not going to see free agency. With Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy, the Yankees sought to mimic the Red Sox development of Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester to save money in the long run, but in 2008 the Yankees did that by choice and when it failed, they signed CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett to fill the unfilled holes. Now, they have to develop out of necessity, making it all the more challenging. They don’t have the money to buy nor the prospects to trade or use themselves.

Hal sounds like he’s whining at the box he’s put his team in. For all of George’s faults, one thing he never did was whine. Perhaps Hal’s reaction comes from the safety and security of not having built anything of his own, but inheriting it. It was long thought that Hank Steinbrenner was reminiscent of their father as the out-of-control lunatic with a bloviating temper and outlandish statements that were quickly qualified with an eyeroll and head shake. Hank was figuratively (or literally, we don’t know) locked away. Hal was the sane and logical one. He was the rational, understanding, business-minded steward of the Yankee brand who let his baseball people run the club and understood why, if the team lost 7 out of 10, that it wasn’t a lack of motivation or work ethic on the part of the manager or coaches that required a pep talk of several firings, but because they hit a rough patch from which they’d emerge because of superior talent.

Hal’s statements could be seen as maintaining a unified front and waiting to see what happens, but I doubt he’s that calculating. He’s stung by the criticism and is not acknowledging the faults that his club has because he doesn’t understand them himself. He doesn’t have the intimidating persona that his father did implying that if the team doesn’t perform, heads will roll, headlines will explode, missives will be issued, and no one is safe. Randy Levine tries to play that part, but he’s sort of laughed at and ignored.

The sense of entitlement is prominent and a bigger reason than anything else to be worried if you’re a Yankees fan. If the ownership doesn’t comprehend the problems, how is it possible to fix them? This is especially so when the resources to do the repairs are as limited as they apparently are.

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Analysis of the Braves-Diamondbacks Trade, Part II: For the Diamondbacks

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The avalanche of circumstances that necessitated the trade of Justin Upton began when Kevin Towers was hired as Diamondbacks GM. After a 65-97 season in 2010 during which longtime GM Josh Byrnes and manager A.J. Hinch were fired; interim GM Jerry Dipoto made several housecleaning trades by dispatching Dan Haren, Edwin Jackson, Conor Jackson, Chris Snyder, and Chad Qualls for prospects or salary relief; and years of mediocre drafts and failed trades had left the organization in retooling mode, it’s understandable that Towers arrived and made it clear that he’d be willing to discuss his best asset—Upton—to speed the refurbishment.

The Diamondbacks weren’t in the position of the Astros or Cubs in that the whole thing had to be gutted, but they certainly weren’t a trendy pick to rebound from 65 wins to 94 and the 2011 NL West title. Any realistic assessment of their roster in 2011 would have said, “We’re not as bad as we were last year. If everything breaks right with Ian Kennedy, Daniel Hudson and Joe Saunders pitching well; the new bullpen performing; a huge year from Upton; unexpected contributions from Gerardo Parra and Ryan Roberts; and youngsters like Paul Goldschmidt stepping up, we can hang around the periphery of contention and maybe—maybe—be in the Wild Card hunt.”

Stunningly, the club took to the fiery style of manager Kirk Gibson and overcame their limitations with teamwork, intensity and more than a little luck. Gibson himself was only there because Towers bought into the passionate presentation he gave when the interim manager was interviewed for the fulltime job.

Sometimes the planets align perfectly and that’s what happened with the 2011 Diamondbacks. After that season, there was no need to slowly build. Instead of seeing a team that needed time to develop and required significant changes, they were suddenly legitimate contenders and looking to bolster what was already there by trading for Trevor Cahill and surrendering a large chunk of the few prospects—Ryan Cook, Jarrod Parker, Collin Cowgill—they’d accumulated in the draft. Parker and Cook were significant factors to the Athletics’ stunning run to the AL West title in 2012. Cahill was, at best, inconsistent for the Diamondbacks.

What went right for the Diamondbacks in 2011 went wrong in 2012. It would probably have been wise to realize that Roberts would fall back from his career year; that Kennedy wouldn’t be as lucky on balls in play; that the number of times they said, “I don’t believe this is happening,” was a warning sign not to believe that it was going to happen again the next year.

There’s nothing wrong with being lucky, but when that luck is translated into design and the original blueprint is ripped to shreds midstream and replaced with a new one, it’s easy to miss things and set traps for oneself. That’s what happened with Towers and Upton. When the team made that wondrous leap from last place to first place, Towers made the same mistake that Mariners’ GM Jack Zduriencik did in 2009-2010 when the Mariners overachieved to rise from 101 losses to 85 wins: he believed the hype that the team was better than it was and made decisions accordingly. These were decisions he might not have otherwise made if he’d adhered to the original plan.

What Towers was stuck with, through his own doing, was an excess of outfielders, a hole at shortstop, a sensitive player in Upton who was letting the trade talk affect his play, and the public shouting from loquacious managing general partner Ken Kendrick that Upton wasn’t living up to his contract.

Right after he was hired, Towers took offers for Upton. There was never a need to get Upton out of town because he was a malcontent, overrated or lazy. They were performing due diligence by seeing what they could get for him and if some club offered a Herschel Walker package, they’d trade him. It snowballed to the degree that they not only had to move Upton, but they had to formulate an excuse to justify it while simultaneously explaining their overpay for Cody Ross by saying that Upton wasn’t the grinding type of player they wanted their version of the Diamondbacks to exemplify. Gibson quickly ran away from the idea that he didn’t want Upton, leaving Towers and Kendrick as the likely culprits in the move and, as I said before, Towers didn’t want to trade Upton as a matter of course, he was simply seeing what was out there.

So now what?

The return for Upton is haphazard and odd. When they initially tossed his name out as negotiable, they wanted a huge package for their future. The trade they made with the Braves is a now-and-later deal. They received Martin Prado, who will fill a hole at third base, but is a free agent at the end of the season and wants a lot of money. The Diamondbacks have said they want to sign Prado and hope to get an extension done quickly, putting themselves in another precarious position similar to the one they dove headfirst into with Upton. Prado is a fine, versatile player with speed, power and defense and will help them in 2013.

They also received shortstop Nick Ahmed, third baseman Brandon Drury, righty pitcher Zeke Spruill, and righty pitcher Randall Delgado. It’s a solid return. Delgado, with his deceptive shotgun windup, has the stuff to be a big winner. You can read about the young players here on Baseball America.

There is a “but” and it’s a big one.

It’s a good trade, BUT what was the point? The problem for the Diamondbacks is that this increases the perception of ambiguity. Are they building for the future with the young players? Are they trying to win now? If Prado doesn’t sign, are they going to see where they are at mid-season and spin him off in a trade if they’re not contending or if they are, will they use this excess of young shortstops with Ahmed and Didi Gregorius to get veteran help?

A lack of definition is the hallmark of an absence of planning. The Diamondbacks may have had a plan when Towers was hired. One would assume he presented said plan to get the job. There’s no evident plan anymore. It’s an unsustainable tapdance to adapt to the on-the-fly alterations. The intention was to build slowly while being competitive. The new construct was rushed and adjusted due to situational concerns. The structure has become a box without a sufficient escape route. They’d better learn to live in it, because they have nowhere else to go. It might be good. Then again, it might not.

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Michael Bourn vs. the #11 Pick: Which is Right for the Mets?

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Operating under the premises that if the Mets sign Michael Bourn they will: A) not receive a waiver from MLB to switch the number 11 pick in the first round of the 2013 draft for a second round pick, and B) pay something close to what B.J. Upton got from the Braves and probably more to get him, we can look at what the risk/reward of signing Bourn will be now and later.

The draft pick

The past is not indicative of the future in the draft. A myriad of factors dictate what a club will get from whatever player they draft at whichever spot, but the eleventh pick in the first round is a high pick. From 2003 to 2010, players taken at eleven have been:

2003: Michael Aubrey

2004: Neil Walker

2005: Andrew McCutchen

2006: Max Scherzer

2007: Phillippe Aumont*

2008: Justin Smoak*

2009: Tyler Matzek**

2010: Deck McGuire**

*Aumont and Smoak were both traded for Cliff Lee.

**Matzek and McGuire are mentioned because players selected after them were traded for name players.

After the eleventh pick, the following players were taken in 2003 to 2010 in the first round:

2003: Chad Billingsley, Carlos Quentin

2004: Jered Weaver, Billy Butler, Stephen Drew, Phil Hughes

2005: Jay Bruce, Jacoby Ellsbury, Clay Buchholz

2006: Ian Kennedy, Joba Chamberlain

2007: Jason Heyward, Rick Porcello

2008: Brett Lawrie, Ike Davis, Lance Lynn, Jake Odorizzi, Wade Miley

2009: Mike Trout, Tyler Skaggs, Brad Boxberger

2010: Yasmani Grandal, Chris Sale, Chance Ruffin, Mike Olt

Odorizzi was included in trades for Zack Greinke, James Shields and Wade Davis. Skaggs was part of the Angels trade for Dan Haren. Boxberger and Grandal were traded by the Reds for Mat Latos. Ruffin was traded by the Tigers for Doug Fister.

This isn’t a final determination on any player’s worth, but a clue as to what these draft picks mean. It underscores another underrated aspect of the draft in finding players that a club may not have much of a plan to use themselves, but will develop to trade for established help.

What this shows isn’t specifically connected to the number 11 pick as if it’s a spot that cannot be surrendered. The pick itself is irrelevant in comparison to the talent level in the 2013 draft. Judging the rest of the first round should tell the Mets which is better; which is going to help them more.

The 2005 draft was strong enough that the Red Sox were able to get Ellsbury and Buchholz late in the first round, the 2006 draft was weak. If there isn’t enough talent in the pool to make an impact, then Bourn would make more sense.

The money

It’s not financial, it’s projective. The Mets can sign Bourn even if they have no immediate money to pay him upfront. With Jason Bay and Johan Santana both coming off the books after this season, they can backload any deal for Bourn and get him.

Scott Boras represents Bourn and is willing to keep his clients on the market into spring training without concern as to the public perception, industry ridicule or media panic. Boras has acquiesced with short-term deals for clients that didn’t have much of a resume such as Kyle Lohse in 2008 with the Cardinals. That worked out well for Lohse because he pitched wonderfully in that first year with the Cardinals and was rewarded in-season with the money he didn’t get the previous winter. With established players like Prince Fielder, Boras has waited and gotten his client paid. It’s more likely than not that he’ll eventually be rewarded with Bourn without significantly lowering his demands.

Practicality

The current Mets outfield is ludicrous. I believe Lucas Duda will be a productive bat, but defensively he’s a nightmare. Center field and right field are empty. Bourn gives credibility and quality defensively and offensively. He will certainly help them at least for the next three seasons when he’ll be age 30-33.

Richard Justice reports on the Mets apparent decision to steer clear of Bourn if it will cost them the first round pick. Craig Calcaterra makes a ridiculous assumption on HardballTalk that Bourn won’t help them when they’re “legitimately competitive.” When does he think they’ll be “legitimately competitive”? 2017? 2020? Is it that bad for the Mets? Are they the Astros?

The Mets are flush with young pitching, will be competitive and could contend by 2014; the 2012 A’s and Orioles are evidence that if the planets align, an afterthought team that’s the butt of jokes like the Mets can contend in 2013. For someone who bases his analysis in “reality,” it’s an uninformed, offhanded and unnecessary shot at the Mets for its own sake.

Let’s say he’s kind of right and the Mets aren’t contending until around 2015. Bourn will be 32. Is Bourn going to fall off the planet at 32? In many respects, a player comparable to Bourn is Kenny Lofton. Lofton was still a very good hitter and above-average center fielder until he was in his mid-30s. There have never been PED allegations with either player so there wasn’t a shocking improvement at an age they should be declining with Lofton and it’s reasonable that this would hold true for Bourn.

We can equate the two players and expect Bourn to still be able to catch the ball with good range in the outfield and steal at least 35-40 bases into his mid-30s. Bourn’s not a speed creation at the plate who will come undone when he can no longer run like Willie Wilson; he can hit, has a bit of pop and takes his walks. He’ll be good for at least the next four seasons.

The bottom line

It’s not as simple as trading the draft pick to sign Bourn and paying him. The Mets have to decide on the value of that draft pick now and in the future as well as what would be accomplished by signing Bourn, selling a few more tickets in the now and erasing the idea that the Mets are simply paying lip service for good PR by floating the possibility of Bourn with no intention of seriously pursuing him. As long as they’re not spending lavishly, that will be the prevailing view. They re-signed David Wright to the biggest contract in club history, but that still wasn’t enough to quell the talk of the Wilpons’ finances being in disastrous shape.

What’s it worth to the Mets to sign Bourn? To not sign Bourn? To keep the draft pick? To lose the draft pick? To sell a few more tickets? To shut up the critics?

This is not an either-or decision of Bourn or the pick as it’s being made out to be. The far-reaching consequences are more nuanced than the analysts are saying and there’s no clear cut right or wrong answer in signing him or not signing him. That’s what the Mets have to calculate when making the choice.

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