The Mets tri-headed interim GM and how it might go

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Sandy Alderson’s decision to step away from his role as New York Mets general manager has left the organization with a tri-headed replacement in the form of his assistants John Ricco, J.P. Ricciardi and Omar Minaya. With the organization in its familiar position of disarray tinged with predictable disappointment, the remainder of the 2018 season will be dedicated not just to assessing the product on the field, but in the front office as well.

Presumably, the Mets will have a more extensive search once the season is over.

There are a few things to remember here. First, the Wilpons are insular and do not like hiring outsiders. Alderson was an exception and they seemingly had not choice. He quickly became part of the Mets “family”.

Second, the organization is attentive if not outright vulnerable to fan anger, media entreaties and, most importantly, ticket sales.

Third, any executive who walks in thinking he or she will be the final say authority and operate without oversight from ownership will be hit in the gut with a figurative sledgehammer the first time an acceptable trade offer is made for a player the Wilpons don’t want to move and who they believe sells those tickets.

While the Wilpons are being criticized for the above issues as well as Jeff Wilpon’s statement interpreted as him asserting his power as having final say authority, it’s important to realize that he’s the owner and every operations head must answer to ownership. Bill Belichick, Theo Epstein, Billy Beane, Brian Cashman, Andrew Friedman, Jeff Luhnow, Gregg Popovich – all of them – must get approval before pulling the trigger. Some are accorded more leeway and freedom than others, but there’s no absolute power granted to what is, for all intents and purposes, a high-level employee who is still an employee.

This must all be factored in.

As for the three voices who will be running the Mets, there is an endless series of questions that need to be asked such as who do opposing teams call with a proposal? Who makes the assessments and how? Will there be a window for other executives to call GM 2 and GM 3 if GM 1 doesn’t give the answer they want? The foundation for paralysis is vast, but this is the Mets, so things might not be all that much different than they were before apart from Alderson not being there to willingly bear the brunt of that dysfunction.

John Ricco began his baseball career with the commissioner’s office and joined the Mets in 2004. His career trajectory somewhat mimics Alderson’s in that he was an outsider who came into baseball and to the Mets almost by accident. He has familiarity with the numbers and the intelligence to understand and deploy them without reverting to them as a crutch. There’s no ego where he’ll ensure that everyone is aware that he’s in charge and garner credit even for that which was lucky or was someone else’s idea.

In the negative sense, when teams make a change from one boss to another, the succession of number two to number one often fails. Perhaps Ricco is too similar to Alderson in temperament and personality to be the change the club needs.

If the Mets do not hire an outsider, Ricco is the heir apparent but will be more of a front man and calming voice to assess the situation and make a rational decision. He’s well-spoken and has the lawyerly skills to say something without saying anything and that, more than most other attributes, is how the GM job is done today.

J.P. Ricciardi was a minor-league player for the Mets and his relationship with Beane extended to working in the Oakland A’s front office before he was plucked from his role as a middling executive to become the GM of the Toronto Blue Jays. His time with the Blue Jays was tumultuous not for deals he made or didn’t make, but for his complete lack of a filter when speaking to the media, fans and even the players. He had public disagreements with Roy Halladay, A.J. Burnett, Adam Dunn and Shea Hillenbrand to name a few. To his credit, when he’s asked a question, he’s giving an answer and it’s certainly not in the GM double-speak that is designed to say absolutely nothing. For someone listed at 5’8”, he’s fearless. It’s easy to envision him getting into a traffic dispute with someone the size of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, shoving him and saying, “Hey man, you wanna go? Let’s go!!!” Of course, he’d get killed. And that’s the problem.

His “say whatever comes to mind” style and pugnacious nature as baseball boss didn’t work in Toronto and it’s not going to work in New York.

Omar Minaya does not seem to want to be a GM again. When he was rehired to be an assistant to Alderson in spring training – supposedly by Fred Wilpon himself – there was an over-the-top reaction as if the Mets were usurping and undermining the baseball operations staff with an unwanted interloper. That might have been true if Minaya was that type of person who is interested in himself and triangulating his position to gain power any way he can get it.

He’s not that guy.

Minaya is a very nice man with a keen scouting eye. He loves the Mets organization and has been loyal to the Wilpons for years. His time as GM from late 2004 through 2010 was notable for the rapid rebuild from laughingstock to a club on the verge of a World Series win two years later. Then, his short-term strategies of buying stars degenerated into desperation to patch together a deteriorating foundation. Some of the trades he made – for Carlos Delgado, Duaner Sanchez and John Maine – were outright heists. Like a European football (soccer) manager, he buys stars.

Ironically, Minaya’s best Mets teams were ahead of their time in having a lineup filled with guys who hit the ball out of the park; a strong defense; a mediocre starting rotation; and a deep and diverse bullpen. This is how most top-level clubs are built today. Because he falls into the category of old-school and doesn’t have reams of stats detailing why he’s making the moves he does and is not a relentless self-promoter, he does not get the credit for building a team that the stat guys would admire and laud had it been built by one of “them” because he’s decidedly not one of them. Therefore, it lacks the purity they seek in a sabermetrically-constructed club.

Regardless of where the Mets go after the season, there are major issues to addressed in the short term. While Alderson would most certainly have had the nerve to trade Jacob deGrom and/or Noah Syndergaard if it got to that point, the Wilpons okayed it and a deal too good to refuse was on the table, the current structure makes it implausible that such deals will take place. The same holds true for potentially valuable disappointments Steven Matz, Zack Wheeler, Amed Rosario and Dominic Smith. No giant housecleaning deals will be made in-season and they’re not gutting the club down to its exoskeleton after the season. Expect pending free agents Jeurys Familia, Asdrubal Cabrera and Jerry Blevins to be on the move. Apart from that, this season will be dedicated to looking at their young players, making judgments, deciding who stays and who goes and leaving it to the next GM whether that’s someone who’s with the organization now or not.

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MLB Hot Seat – Alex Anthopoulos, Blue Jays

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The Blue Jays have to make a series of decisions at the conclusion of this season and the first one will be what to do with general manager Alex Anthopoulos. For the first three years of his reign, he received a pass mostly because he wasn’t former GM J.P. Ricciardi. In what was considered a fresh start, the Blue Jays didn’t play much better under Anthopoulos than they did when Ricciardi was the GM. They were mostly mediocre and were never contenders. The focus seemed to be on stockpiling youngsters, staying relatively competitive at the big league level and waiting for the chance to bolster Jose Bautista and the other power bats.

After the 2012 season, a 73-89 disappointment, manager John Farrell was traded to the Red Sox to be their manager and the Blue Jays began a massive reconstruction by acquiring Josh Johnson, Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Emilio Bonifacio from the Marlins for a large chunk of their farm system. They then acquired reigning National League Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey from the Mets for even more prospects and signed Melky Cabrera. Finally, Anthopoulos rehired the same manager who had run the team in the midst of Ricciardi’s tenure, John Gibbons. Needless to say, it hasn’t worked.

Anthopoulos runs the club without the outspokenness, bluster and controversy that seemed to follow Ricciardi around like the stink of a weekend bender, but he hasn’t had any more success than his former boss. In fact, the argument could be made that he’s done worse. Anthopoulos is a frenetic tinkerer who doesn’t seem to have a plan. They dealt with the Ricciardi hangover, built up the minor league system, hired and fired a couple of managers and decided to spend a lot of money to go all in for 2013. They’re in last place.

What now? They can make more trades, free agent signings and bring in another manager and different coaches, or they can fire Anthopoulos and let the new GM plot a course.

If the Blue Jays make a GM change, the call will be for Tony LaCava to get the job. Would it make sense to bring in another GM who worked under Ricciardi and Anthopoulos? The Blue Jays didn’t interview anyone when they elevated Anthopoulos to replace Ricciardi. Safe in the “anyone but Ricciardi” theory, they went with the next guy. They can’t do that again no matter how impressive LaCava is.

Some 35-year-old with a spreadsheet and a degree from MIT making grandiose proclamations isn’t going to fly again. It has to be a totally different approach from the past decade.

Once the question shifts from, “how do we take the next step?” to “what now?”, it’s over. Anthopoulos is on the hot seat because he’s the only one left to blame and there’s no other move the Blue Jays can make that combines the sense and simplicity as firing the general manager.




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Cashman vs. A-Rod: The War To End All Wars

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The funniest part about Brian Cashman’s statement to the media that injured third baseman Alex Rodriguez needs to “Shut the <bleep> up” is that at the conclusion, it sounded as if he stormed off saying, “I’m gonna call Alex right now,” in a frenzied desire to directly tell his player the same thing he muscularly told the media, then couldn’t get A-Rod on the phone and told him….by email!!!

How’d that go?

Dear Alex,
Shut the <bleep> up.
Love, Brian

Did he then return to the media and declare that he couldn’t get A-Rod on the phone, say that he sent him an email instead and add, “Yeah, well. Maybe I didn’t speak to him directly, but he got the message!!!” jabbing his finger for emphasis?

Since being a GM has become such a prominent role and transformed from a bunch of nameless, faceless men who got the job because they were former players or sycophants to the owners into the corporate, power-suit wearing, catchphrase uttering, recognizable and approachable entities they are now, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a GM tell a player—especially one of A-Rod’s stature—to “shut the <bleep> up.” Not even the most outspoken loose cannons since the GM job has changed like J.P. Ricciardi went that far, and Ricciardi was about as hair trigger as it gets. When Dallas Braden got into his public back-and-forth with, not-so-shockingly, A-Rod, it went on for awhile before A’s boss Billy Beane said he’d speak to the player. He did and it stopped. There was no public, bullying pronouncement from Beane that he called the player onto the carpet and reamed him out.

From the old-school GMs who have been in the game forever to the new age stat thinkers, can you name one—one!!!—who would say such a thing about a player to a media as hungry for a headline as that in New York?

Dave Dombrowski? Brian Sabean? Dan Duquette? Beane? Sandy Alderson?

I’m not even sure Jeff Luhnow uses foul language period, let alone saying something like that about a player before speaking to him and storming off in a huff with a “I’m gonna go call him now!!” and trudging away with the corners of his mouth twisted downward and a fiery look in his eyes like a child sent to time out. (That’s how I envision Cashman anyway.)

Plus, was A-Rod’s tweet this big of a deal? Or is it a big deal because it’s A-Rod?

Cashman’s goal since leveraging full control of the Yankees’ baseball operations has been to be seen on a level with Beane and Theo Epstein as “geniuses” whose vision led their particular organizations to success rather than a checkbook GM who covers up for mistakes by using endless amounts of Yankees cash (it’s like real money, only more cold, corporate and drenched in a self-anointed superiority). Yet the professionalism and CEO-style is lacking. He’s a caricature and a bad one at that. It’s satirical more than evolved.

Cashman’s behavior in the Louise Meanwell scandal was embarrassing to an organization for whom being embarrassed is the last thing they want and he’s still acting like a brat in a mid-life crisis, desperate for credit and the off-field perks that come with a powerful position, but unable to behave in an appropriate fashion when they arrive.

Maybe that’s why A-Rod is such a continuing source of irritation: he embarrasses them. But the solution to A-Rod’s continuous penchant for making headlines isn’t for the GM to make it worse by trumping A-Rod’s headlines with his own. And in this case, what exactly did A-Rod do that was so terrible? The doctor said he was ready to start a rehab assignment and the Yankees haven’t signed off on it. So? All Cashman had to say was, “The doctor who made that call is an outside doctor and the organization’s medical staff will decide when A-Rod’s rehab will begin. It could be next week or it could be next month.” Instead he decided to vent his anger at the easiest target he has in A-Rod and make a new mess simultaneously making the usual villain, A-Rod, look sympathetic.

We can speculate what would have been said if Derek Jeter has made a similar statement and then go into the litany of differences in tone and public perceptions between Jeter and A-Rod, but when digging underneath all of refuse that has piled on during A-Rod’s tenure in pinstripes, it’s not all that different and Cashman most certainly wouldn’t have told Jeter to “shut the <bleep> up.” If anyone needs to follow that advice, it’s the GM whose own tenure is growing more pockmarked by his attitude, statements and behaviors by the day. And he hasn’t done a particularly great job running the team sans the aforementioned “Yankee money” either.

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Rethinking the GM, Part I—American League East

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Maybe it’s time to rethink how GMs are hired instead of lauding owners for adhering to stats; for placating media demands; for listening to fans; for doing what they think will be well-received and garner them some good coverage while hoping that it’s going to work in lieu of hiring the best person for the job and all it entails. Some people may have sterling resumes, extensive experience, a great presentation and charisma and then fail miserably at one or another aspect of the job. Just because a GM was great at running another club’s draft, running the farm system or was a valuable jack-of-all-trades assistant doesn’t make them suited to do the big job.

With the struggles of GMs from both sides of the spectrum like the Mariners’ Jack Zduriencik, who built his club based on stats; and the Royals’ Dayton Moore, who rebuilt the entire Royals farm system into one of baseball’s best, after-the-fact and self-indulgent criticisms from the aforementioned factions of stat people, media and fans are essentially worthless. Zduriencik’s bandwagon has emptied since his first overachieving season as Mariners GM in 2009 when the team, which he had little to do with putting together, rose from 61-101 to 85-77 due to luck and performance correction rather than any brilliance on his part. Moore is a veritable punching bag for the Royals collapse from 17-10 after 27 games to 21-29 and sinking.

Instead of ripping the GMs for what they’ve done, perhaps it would be better to look at each GM and examine how he got the job without a retrospective on the moves they made and the teams they’ve built. This isn’t as flashy as dissecting his decisions as GM, but it’s probably more useful to those doing the hiring in the future. In short, was the hiring a good one in the first place and was the decision made based on factors other than putting a winning team together?

If you think it’s so easy to put your individual stamp on the job of being a Major League Baseball GM, then walk into your boss’s office today (if you have a job that is) and tell him or her some of the things you say on blogs and message boards and tweets to Keith Law: “This is how it’s gonna be, and I’m gonna do this my way and you better just give me full control…” On and on. Then, after you’re done, go get your resume ready to look for a new job. It doesn’t work in the way people seem to think it does and the audacity of someone who’s working the stockroom at Best Buy telling experienced baseball people how they should do their jobs needs to be tamped down a little. Actually, it needs to be tamped down a lot.

Let’s go division by division. First the American League East with subsequent postings to be published discussing all of the other divisions in baseball.

Boston Red Sox

Ben Cherington was the next-in-line successor to Theo Epstein when Epstein abandoned ship to take over as president of the Cubs. He’d worked in the Red Sox front office going back to the Dan Duquette days and was a highly regarded hire. His first season was pockmarked by the aftermath of the disastrous 2011 collapse, the interference of Larry Lucchino and John Henry and that he was overruled in his managerial preferences for someone understated like Gene Lamont in favor of Bobby Valentine. Now the team has been put together by Cherington and they’re trying to get back to what it was that built Epstein’s legacy in the first place.

New York Yankees

Brian Cashman walked into a ready-made situation when he took over for Bob Watson after the 1997 season. He’d been with the Yankees since 1986 working his way up from intern to assistant GM and barely anyone knew who he was when he got the job. His hiring inspired shrugs. He was known to George Steinbrenner and Cashman knew what his life would be like functioning as Steinbrenner’s GM. He was taking over a team that was a powerhouse. Little was needed to be done in 1998 and his main job during those years was to implement the edicts of the Boss or steer him away from stupid things he wanted to do like trading Andy Pettitte. If the Yankees had hired an outsider, it wouldn’t have worked because no one would’ve been as aware of the terrain of running the Yankees at that time as Cashman was. He’s a survivor.

Baltimore Orioles

Whether the Orioles would’ve experienced their rise in 2012 had Tony LaCava or Jerry Dipoto taken the job and been willing to work under the thumbs of both Peter Angelos and his manager Buck Showalter will never be known. Dan Duquette was hired as a last-ditch, name recognition choice whose preparedness in the interview was referenced as why he got the nod. Duquette has never received the credit for the intelligent, gutsy and occasionally brutal (see his dumping of Roger Clemens from the Red Sox) work he did in laying the foundation for the Red Sox championship teams or for the Expos club he built that was heading for a World Series in 1994 had the strike not hit. He’s a policy wonk and devoid of the charming personality that many owners look for in today’s 24/7 newscycle world in which a GM has to have pizzazz, but he’s a qualified baseball man who knows how to run an organization. Suffice it to say that if it was LaCava or Dipoto who was the GM in 2012, more credit would’ve gone to the GMs by the stat-loving bloggers than what Duquette has received. All he’s gotten from them is silence after they torched him and the Orioles when he was hired.

Tampa Bay Rays

For all the talk that Andrew Friedman is the “best” GM in baseball, it’s conveniently forgotten that he is in a uniquely advantageous situation that would not be present anywhere else. He has an owner Stuart Sternberg who is fully onboard with what Friedman wants to do; the team doesn’t have the money to spend on pricey free agents nor, in most cases to keep their own free agents unless they do what Evan Longoria has done and take far down-the-line salaries to help the club; and he’s not functioning in a media/fan hotbed where every move he makes is scrutinized for weeks on end.

If he were running the Yankees, would Friedman be able to tell Derek Jeter to take a hike at the end of this season if it benefited the club? No. But if it got to the point where any Rays player from Longoria to David Price to manager Joe Maddon wore out his welcome or grew too costly for what he provides, Friedman has the freedom to get rid of one or all. That wouldn’t happen anywhere else, therefore his success isn’t guaranteed as transferrable as a matter of course.

Toronto Blue Jays

After the rollercoaster ride on and off the field that was having J.P. Ricciardi as their GM, they tabbed his assistant Alex Anthopoulos as the new GM. There were no interviews and no interim label on Anthopoulos’s title. He was the GM. Period. Anthopoulos was a solid choice who had extensive experience in front offices with the Expos and Blue Jays. He’s also Canadian, which doesn’t hurt when running a Canadian team.

Should the Blue Jays have done other interviews? If the former GM is fired because his way wasn’t working, then that’s not just an indictment on the GM, but on his staff as well. No one in a big league front office is an island and if the prior regime didn’t succeed, then interviews of outside candidates—just to see what else is out there—would’ve been wise. It’s like getting divorced and then turning around marrying one of the bridesmaids. Anthopoulos still might’ve gotten the job, but it would not have been done with such tunnel vision.

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Brandon McCarthy vs. Keith Law—Live On Twitter

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An entertaining and extended Twitter fight went into the early morning hours (EST) between Diamondbacks pitcher Brandon McCarthy and ESPN writer Keith Law after Law sent out a tweet decrying the concept of Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera being “locked in” during his three homer night against the Rangers. Cabrera also singled and walked. The Rangers won the game 11-8.

This isn’t about the debate of whether, as Law said, being locked in is a “myth.” Law’s argument centers around there not being any evidence to prove that being “locked in” exists. I don’t agree with the premise. Simply because there’s no study to prove or disprove “its” existence doesn’t mean the “it” doesn’t exist. It’s weak and pompous to suggest that there’s a conclusion one way or the other because there’s no study to footnote. Has anyone even tried to examine the brain-body link when a player is in a “zone” or “locked in” to see if there’s a difference between a hot streak and a slump? Pitchers’ mechanics and hitters’ swings are dissected through attachments of body to computer to spot flaws and correct them, so what about the brain-body link and the possibility of being “locked in”? If it hasn’t been studied, how do you prove it doesn’t exist? And how do you declare it’s a myth?

I feel some semblance of sympathy for Law here. As obnoxious, phony and as much of a created entity as he is, he tweeted one thing and found himself under siege not just by people who dislike him, but by many who actually are fans of his and a big league player who is sabermetrically inclined and cerebral basically telling him he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. It was one tweet that ended with a marathon that I’m sure Law wanted no part of after the first fifteen minutes, but couldn’t find a way to extricate himself from the situation while maintaining his unfounded reputation as an “expert.” It went on for hours and will undoubtedly continue throughout the day. Or the week. Or the month. Or the year. That’s how Twitter is.

I believe in the “locked in” idea and it’s not based on some throwaway line. Anyone who’s ever played a sport—or done anything at all on a regular basis—knows that there are times that it just feels “right” and there are instances when it’s not necessary to think about the things that a pitcher or hitter has to think about, sometimes to his detriment. When a hitter or pitcher has his mind on mechanics—where the hands are, where the feet are, where the landing spot is—and then has to deal with the pitches coming at him or the hitters standing at the plate, it makes it exponentially harder to focus on the one moment they need to be focusing on for sustained success. There are times when it all comes together and there’s no need to think about those mechanical necessities because all is in symmetry and it’s automatic.

The “you never played” argument is treated as if it’s irrelevant by those who never played because they can’t combat the assertion. It’s not easy to make it to the Major Leagues whether it’s someone who understands stats like McCarthy or someone for whom stats are an inconvenience like Jeff Francoeur. It is, however, remarkably easy in today’s game to make it to a Major League front office or into the media as an “expert.”

Law’s entire career has been based on an if this/then that premise. He was a writer on statistics and when the Blue Jays hired J.P. Ricciardi out of the Athletics front office as the Moneyball theory was first starting to be known and implemented, he hired Law. Law worked for the Blue Jays, left to take a job at ESPN and suddenly morphed through some inexplicable osmosis from the arrogant and condescending stat guy who Michael Lewis described in Moneyball (and after the Moneyball movie came out and Law panned it, in an entertaining slap fight between the two) into an arrogant and condescending stat and all-knowing scouting guy. In reality, there’s no scouting guy in there. He’s regurgitating stuff he heard. Nothing more, nothing less. There’s no foundation for his status as the ultimate insider and someone who knows both scouting and stats.

Law didn’t pay his dues as a writer meeting deadlines, covering games and trying to get a usable quote from Barry Bonds; he didn’t play; he didn’t work his way up in the front office from getting coffee for people as an intern to a low-level staffer and eventually a baseball executive. I don’t agree with much of what Law’s fellow ESPN “Insider” Jim Bowden says, but at least Bowden was a scout and a GM who made the primordial climb working for George Steinbrenner and Marge Schott. Law just sort of showed up and was anointed as the all-seeing, all-knowing totem of the stat people.

And there’s the fundamental issue with him.

He’s a creation. The ridiculous mock MLB Drafts, smug style and wallowing in objective data as well as his only recently discovered interest in in-the-trenches scouting is similar to the marketing of a boy band. There had to be something there to start with, of course. Law’s obviously intelligent as he constantly tries to show with his “look how smart I am” tweets in Latin, but that doesn’t translate into industry-wide respect that they’re trying to desperately to cultivate. With a boy band, it’s a look and willingness to do what they’re taught, sing the songs they’re given and be happy that they’re making money and have girls screaming their names on a nightly basis. With Law, it’s his circular status as a guy who’s worked in an MLB front office as if that denotes credibility on all things baseball. Those who hate GMs and former GMs who shun many of the new and beloved stats wouldn’t listen to Omar Minaya, Bill Bavasi or Ruben Amaro Jr. if they were given the forum that Law has, so why does Law automatically receive undeserved respect?

Just like veteran baseball front office people and players have to deal with unwanted suggestions and the presence of people they don’t think know anything about how the actual game of baseball is played, so too do the sportswriters—many of whom worked their way up as beat reporters for box lacrosse until they’re in a coveted baseball columnist position—have to look at people like Law and wonder: “Why’s he here?” “Why does anyone listen to him?”

What must make it worse for the real reporters at ESPN like Buster Olney and Jayson Stark is that for the good of ESPN webhits and advertising rates, they have to promote Law’s writing due to organizational needs and orders from above. According to speculation, Law and Olney aren’t exactly buddies. It must burn Olney to have to lead his followers to Law’s mock drafts that Olney is experienced enough as a baseball writer to know are ridiculous.

Because it was McCarthy, a player who understands and utilizes the same stats that Law propounds in practice as a Major League baseball player and not a “me throw ball, me swing bat” player who isn’t aware of the war going on in Syria let alone WAR as a stat, Law couldn’t use the argument of an eyeroll and hand wave with backup from his minions. That, more than the relatively meaningless debate, is probably what stings most of all.

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Carpenter the Terminator

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In a world of pitch counts and overprotectiveness, Chris Carpenter is an example of a pitcher who was abused early in his career and could be a case study of why extremists on the “let them pitch” brigade and the “we must be careful with young arms” crew each have a justifiable argument for their positions.

The 15th overall pick by the Blue Jays in the 1993 draft, Carpenter arrived prior to the in-depth analytics and rampant overuse of cookie-cutter developmental techniques that are now in vogue and in debate. In the minors, Carpenter threw 163 innings at 20; 171 at 21; 120 in the minors and 81 in the majors in 1997 at age 22. Back when Carpenter made his big league entrance, baseball managers were by-and-large old-schoolers for whom there wasn’t an injury unless the bone was sticking out through the skin. Carpenter was also on a staff with Roger Clemens who didn’t want to hear teammates complaining about arm pain. It was natural for a young pitcher—even a first round draft pick—to overextend himself to keep his job and to not be perceived as a “wimp.” His managers were similarly faux tough guys with the only one who had a legitimate claim to the moniker being Buck Martinez. Martinez once recorded a double play after sustaining a broken leg on successive home plate collisions. Other than that, he pitched for Tim Johnson (crafted fictional stories about having been in combat in Vietnam) and Carlos Tosca (wanted to use a four-man rotation).

At 6’6”, 230 pounds, it’s doubtful anyone was going to call him weak to his face, but the implication was still present in those days that you should pitch through aches and pains. There was a physicality to Carpenter that indicated he could deal with a heavier workload than a smaller-framed pitcher would, but there didn’t appear to be any serious concentration on limiting him or protecting him in any way.

Carpenter’s pitch counts with the Blue Jays were bordering on ridiculous especially since the club was not a contender and in many of the games, he was getting knocked around early enough to make it clear that he should probably have been yanked. There had been flashes of brilliance amid long bouts of inconsistency through 2002 when a shoulder injury sidelined him. Somewhat understandably, the Blue Jays under GM J.P. Ricciardi non-tendered Carpenter and wanted to bring him back on a minor league contract. Carpenter instead signed with the Cardinals knowing that a torn labrum would keep him out for the entire 2003 season. He chose to go to St. Louis to work with pitching coach Dave Duncan and manager Tony LaRussa, both of whom were known to work wonders with pitchers whose results had previously been a fraction of their talent level. It was an investment on both ends. The Cardinals wanted to hone Carpenter’s latent abilities and Carpenter wanted to learn from baseball’s resident miracle workers.

Duncan rebuilt Carpenter’s mechanics and altered his mentality. His absurdly good control and movement on as many as six different pitches—four seam fastball, slider, curve, cutter, sinker and changeup—coupled with the new focus and confidence crafted one of the best pitchers in baseball between 2004 and 2011. He won the NL Cy Young Award in 2005; finished 3rd in the voting in 2006; and 2nd in 2009.

Of course mixed in with all of that, he still missed significant time with a variety of injuries including Tommy John surgery, an oblique strain, shoulder/biceps issues, and thoracic outlet syndrome that has probably ended his career. His injuries weren’t to the same area of his body. His entire upper body broke down at one point or another.

The most amazing thing about Carpenter isn’t that he recovered from the injuries, rejuvenated his career to the degree that he became a Cy Young Award winner and post-season ace, but that he kept coming back like an unstoppable killing machine from a series of Hollywood horror movies. He was certainly the stuff of nightmares for the Phillies and Rangers in the Cardinals’ 2011 run to the World Series. His complete game shutout outdueling former Blue Jays teammate Roy Halladay in game 5 of the 2011 NLDS may wind up being seen as the catalyst for the Phillies’ decline, currently underway.

For Carpenter to contemplate retirement because of pain speaks to the level of agony he must be in when he tries to pitch. Considering the number of injuries he recovered from and repeatedly rose to the top of his game again and again, he combined durability, determination, great stuff, and a massive pain threshold to fulfill the potential that made him a first round draft choice when his career should have ended years ago as another case of prospect burnout.

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Blue Jays Make a Surprising and Solid Choice in Gibbons

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In a surprise move, John Gibbons has been hired as the the new manager of the Toronto Blue Jays. By some, this will be seen as the questionable decision to rehire a retread that had limited success and several public controversies as Blue Jays manager from 2004-2008, but Gibbons is more than qualified for the job and the issues he had in his first go-round were circumstantial.

Here’s why.

He knows what he’s doing strategically

The Blue Jays in those years lived up to their talent level in the standings. Trapped in the AL East with the Yankees and Red Sox at the height of their powers, there was little more that Gibbons could have done. In fact, he brought them home with an 87-75 record in 2006 and in second place in the AL East ahead of the Red Sox.

There’s a stark difference between Gibbons and the former Blue Jays and now Red Sox manager John Farrell—experience running a game and the confidence of knowing what he’s doing. Gibbons has it, Farrell doesn’t.

Few are addressing that elemental problem that Farrell had: he’d never managed before. The Red Sox and their fans aren’t going to like to hear it, but the reality of Farrell with the Blue Jays was that he was clueless how to run a lineup and the woeful fundamentals exhibited by his club emanated from him. If the players don’t think their manager does the job correctly, that manager is doomed. Such is not the case with Gibbons.

Gibbons has managed in the big leagues and is a longtime, successful minor league manager. He developed young players and the veterans know what to expect from him. As a player, he was a catcher giving him experience with pitchers. Strategically, he made the right calls and divided up the innings for his pitchers evenly without abusing them.

Two clubs are inextricably entwined in their choice of manager. The Red Sox took the Blue Jays former manager Farrell and traded Mike Aviles to get him even though it looked as if the Blue Jays were going to fire him if the Red Sox hadn’t come calling. Both clubs reached into their pasts with the Red Sox seen as making a great hire in Farrell and the Gibbons hire likely to be viewed quizzically with only his initial tenure as the reason. Overall, the Blue Jays looked at Gibbons’s work as more than his record; the Red Sox looked at Farrell as a link to the glory years when he was pitching coach. It was the Blue Jays that made the smarter maneuver.

Gibbons’s history is blown out of proportion

What people remember—and will repeatedly mention—are Gibbons’s confrontations with Shea Hillenbrand and Ted Lilly.

Hillenbrand was unhappy with the Blue Jays organization and his diminished playing time and wrote on the clubhouse whiteboard, “This is a sinking ship, play for yourself.” In a clubhouse meeting, Gibbons demanded to know who wrote the message. Hillenbrand raised his hand and Gibbons challenged him to a fight. The entire team and organization stood behind Gibbons. Hillenbrand was designated for assignment and traded. It wasn’t a first time offense for Hillenbrand who had problems with other authority figures with other clubs including Red Sox GM Theo Epstein.

The Lilly incident stemmed from Gibbons removing the pitcher from a game and Lilly arguing with Gibbons on the mound. After the pitcher was taken out, Gibbons followed Lilly down the runway to the clubhouse and a brief fight ensued with Gibbons, surprisingly, getting the worst of it. Here’s a dirty little secret: this type of thing happens between managers and players all the time over the course of a season. The mistake Gibbons made was doing it so all could see; so the media could get wind of it; so it was a story. Lilly was totally wrong for arguing with his manager on the mound and, if anything, it was a “don’t screw with me,” message from Gibbons.

What made these occurrences seem worse was that they happened in such a narrow timeframe leading to an appearance of disarray that wasn’t actually there. These are blips. Gibbons doesn’t take crap and has experience in the job—that’s what the Blue Jays needed after the disaster with Farrell.

The hovering specter of Moneyball is gone

In the days following Moneyball when the book was considered the new “Bible” of how to run a club, teams that followed the philosophy were saddled with its rules. One in particular was that the manager had to be a nameless and easily replaceable functionary who would be paid minimally and implement the ideas of the front office.

In subsequent years, even Billy Beane has backed away from that. At the time Gibbons was hired, his close friend and former minor league teammate with the Mets, J.P. Ricciardi, was the Blue Jays GM and was a solid backer of the Moneyball strategy. In fact, somewhat admirably, of all the Moneyball GMs from Beane to Paul DePodesta to Ricciardi and everyone in between, it was Ricciardi who adhered most closely to the template described in the book.

That said, the way the manager was pigeonholed didn’t do Gibbons any favors with his players. Every team has around 15 players who’ll play hard and do what they’re told regardless of who the manager is; there will be 5 players who might give them some grief every once in a while, but mean well; and another 5 who have to be knocked into line with macho, testosterone-fueled strong arm tactics. Gibbons knocked his players into line, but that shadow constantly cast a pall over the good work he did.

When Gibbons was fired in 2008, it wasn’t done because he had to go. Ricciardi was under fire and there was a groundswell to bring Cito Gaston back due to a strong and positive memory the fans had from Gaston managing back-to-back World Series winners. The GM understandably made the change to save himself.

Now with a GM who worked in the prior regime, Alex Anthopoulos, running the show, there’s no longer a “middle-manager” aspect to the job. Teams are hiring managers and letting them manage. In truth, the autonomy is probably about the same as it was for Gibbons the first time, but the perception is different and there won’t be the open invitation to try and walk all over him making it necessary for him to do what he did with Hillenbrand and Lilly the first time around to maintain order. Sometimes that has to happen, but it won’t be from a wide open gate provided by the front office.

The resume

The Blue Jays looked at Farrell’s resume and made the hire thinking his Red Sox days and vast experience in numerous baseball capacities would yield strong results. They didn’t and two years later, it was proven to be a mistake. Gibbons’s resume isn’t as sexy; he has his black spots; he doesn’t have Farrell’s jutting jaw, intimidating size, straight out of central casting “manager” countenance, and well-spoken manner to charm the media and bosses, but Gibbons is a better choice and with this collection of talent, he will win. The same would not be said for Farrell because there was always that looming in-game ineptitude. With Gibbons, strategy isn’t an issue. The team will play the game properly and with fundamental soundness. The Blue Jays now have a better team and a better manager to go with it.

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The Blue Jays: New Management, Talented Players, Same Mediocre Results

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The Blue Jays have to start winning some games.

Going back to the J.P. Ricciardi years, they’ve been on the verge of something special only to have circumstances on and off the field sabotage them. During that time they were unfortunate enough to be trapped in a division with the Yankees and Red Sox when those clubs were at the height of their rivalry and powers. Then from 2008 onward, they not only had the Yankees and Red Sox to deal with, but the young and hungry Rays rose to prominence as well.

The Ricciardi Blue Jays teams are seen as a retrospective failure in the context of Moneyball because Ricciardi was widely quoted in the book and was the one GM who closely approximated the strategies therein. They also spent money to try and win and didn’t.

Objectively those Blue Jays teams—especially the 2003, 2006 and 2008 squads—would’ve made the playoffs had they been housed in a less imposing division. Sometimes it breaks that way.

Ricciardi was perceived negatively because of Moneyball blowback; due to his un-GM-like proclivity for speaking his mind rather than in the circles favored by the new age GMs; and that he had public dustups (most of his own doing) with media members, players and coaches on his team and others. He made mistakes; he wasn’t a bad GM.

When Ricciardi was fired after the 2009 season, his replacement Alex Anthopoulos immediately made his presence felt with aggressiveness; a less polarizing personality; and fearlessness. He knew the numbers and was also willing to take chances on talented players who might not light up a rotisserie league team, but could contribute to his club in other ways.

The first year of a new regime is generally a freebie but in 2010 as they moved past the days of Ricciardi and the traded Roy Halladay, they rode Jose Bautista’s shocking rise to 54 homers, a power-laden and homer-hungry lineup and a pretty good starting rotation to an 85-77 finish.

Anthopoulos began to put his stamp on the club following 2010 as he hired his own manager, John Farrell, to replace Cito Gaston. He traded for Brett Lawrie; amazingly found a taker for Vernon Wells’s contract while only paying $5 million to cover a portion of it; and signed Bautista to a contract extension.

The 2011 Blue Jays ended at .500. They were a team to watch for 2012.

The original idea was to watch them as they rose in the standings. Instead we’re watching them and wondering why they’re still at .500.

It’s June 14th and they’re sitting at 31-32, tied for last place in the AL East with the Red Sox.

Injuries have robbed them of closer Sergio Santos and starter Brandon Morrow. Kyle Drabek left his start on Wednesday with a popping sensation in his elbow. Adam Lind didn’t hit and was dispatched to the minors, unlikely to return. Colby Rasmus is playing identically to the player who was the rope in a tug-of-war between his former manager with the Cardinals Tony LaRussa and his dad Tony Rasmus. Manager Farrell allows his players to run the bases with abandon and steal bases at odd times.

Are these excuses or are they reasons?

The American League East has five teams that are either over .500 or within one game of .500. But earlier this season, the division was wide open with the Yankees pitching failing them and Mariano Rivera out for the season. The Red Sox were playing terribly and infighting. The Rays lost Evan Longoria for an extended period.

And the Blue Jays didn’t take advantage.

Again.

What should be most galling to the Blue Jays and their fans is that it was the Orioles—that perpetual doormat—that jumped to the top of the division with a stunning run of solid fundamental play and led by a far superior strategic manager to Farrell, the experienced Buck Showalter.

At what point does the Blue Jays’ building and rebuilding end and do expectations and demands replace the mantra of “patience”?

There was enough talent on the Blue Jays during the Ricciardi years that they could’ve made the playoffs 2-3 times with a little better luck and a less difficult division. Now they have as much if not more talent in a weaker division and they remain trapped in the vacancy of mediocrity.

When does it stop?

Eventually the Blue Jays have to get past the “we’re building” excuse and start winning some games; to become a legitimate contender when there’s an extra playoff spot to be won and they have the talent and the opening to win it.

Yet here they are at .500 and looking for that missing piece to put them over the top.

Over the top of what is unknown. Is it over the top of the “mountain” of .500? Or is it over the top of their divisional rivals to make some noise in the regular season as something other than a cool pick for the prognosticators who’ll repeat the process from November to February and fall back to what they are?

I don’t know.

And nor do they.

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Jeff Luhnow’s Petri Dish and The Sporting News Misogynist

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Apart from getting webhits for saying something stupidly controversial and drawing the ire of, well, everyone, I’m not sure as to the purpose of this Stan McNeal Sporting News piece about new Astros GM Jeff Luhnow filling out his front office with like-minded people who adhere to stats above all else.

Whether Luhnow’s way is going to work or not is a matter of conjecture. It’s a petri dish of statistical thought and implementation that hasn’t truly been tried before.

J.P. Ricciardi took Moneyball to its logical conclusion by mostly following the book’s tenets to the letter and his results were up-and-down; Paul DePodesta used stats and a total disregard for humanity to destroy the Dodgers and was fired after 20 months; the Rays altered the plot and used a load of high draft picks, fearlessness, intelligence in both old and new school techniques to build a team that made the playoffs in three of the past four years without any money and a rotten ballpark, but no one has done what Luhnow is clearly going to do and has had the time to see if it can succeed.

The posting linked is intentionally offensive and I don’t understand why someone who believes differently would attack his opponent like that. But it’s his column and the Sporting News that has to answer for one of their writers posting it; it’ll resolve itself.

As for the Astros hirings, are you now starting to see why Walt Jocketty and Tony LaRussa viewed Luhnow with jaundiced eyes and were threatened by his presence when he joined the Cardinals? He had the ear of the owner and was coming at baseball decisions from a foreign train of thought diametrically opposed to what they were accustomed to; add in that Jocketty and LaRussa were men with credentials being forced to adhere to a new blueprint and it wasn’t because what they were doing wasn’t working—they’d won doing it their way. Both men could’ve left the Cardinals and would’ve had their choices of jobs immediately.

It’s no wonder the situation got so messy that Jocketty was fired and LaRussa had to resort to sharp-elbowed infighting to get his way.

Is this Luhnow’s fault?

No.

The situation was difficult and the Cardinals fought through the dysfunctional factions and still won.

Now Luhnow’s off on his own and is receiving free rein from the Astros new owner Jim Crane.

“Director of Decision Sciences” is a pompous and ridiculous title for a job anywhere—not just in baseball—but Sig Mejdal fits into what Luhnow wants to create. McNeal calling Stephanie Wilka a “cheerleader” as the lead to her impressive resume and education is idiotic, plain and simple.

If the Astros become a success, the overwhelming probability is that it won’t specifically be because of Luhnow’s stat based theories nor the people he’s hired, but because they’re going to have the number 1 pick in the draft in 2012; they’ll probably have the number 1, 2 or 3 pick in 2013; and are a good bet to be picking that high in 2014 as well.

High draft picks are an equalizer to lots of mistakes as long as Luhnow and his people don’t get too clever.

And they might.

We don’t know.

This is actually a circumstance where I’d dearly love to see draft picks available for trade. What would Luhnow do? Would he pull a Jimmy Johnson NFL move and package the top pick for a series of lower round choices and try to re-stock the organization? Is there a consensus number one pick a la Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper in 2012? MLB is missing a golden opportunity to make the draft irresistibly attractive for something other than hype and manufactured stories about players we’ve never heard of and will likely never see in the big leagues.

Luhnow’s ridiculed predecessor as Astros’ GM, Ed Wade, also gave the club a few pieces upon which to build with Brett Wallace, Jonathan Singleton and J.A. Happ. It’s not much for what’s essentially an expansion team, but it’s something.

The problem the Astros and Luhnow have is that everyone is looking for undervalued talent and using the same numbers to find it. How can you find undervalued talent if there’s nothing left to undervalue?

You can’t.

In the coming years, we’re going to see the end result of the stat-based building of a team from scratch by a front office comprised of baseball outsiders crunching numbers. Doing what McNeal did and issuing misogynistic and ignorant proclamations in the guise of “news” and “analysis” is not forwarding the argument for those who, like me, don’t believe that Luhnow’s way is going to work.

McNeal’s not making a case based on anything. He wanted attention and he got it. It’s not a good way to go about getting it and presumably, he’ll pay the price for being a fool. And he’ll deserve it.

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Beane Goes Back to Basics and the Worshippers Rejoice

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In trading Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill for packages of prospects, Billy Beane returns to his roots in accumulating pitchers who rack up strikeouts and hitters who have power and get on base.

History has shown that it works…sometimes.

And it doesn’t work….sometimes.

So the lustful Beane demagoguery starts again as he is somehow shielded from blame for anything that’s gone wrong with the team he put together.

Moneyball is over and it’s been shown to be a farce in theory and practice, yet still survives the eager anticipation (it’s almost Christmas morning—an appropriate time of year) for such indulgences as Beane executes another housecleaning.

The up-and-down results of the prior flurries of deals he made can be glossed over; the reasons as to why he’s doing what he’s currently doing can be formulated and chanted like a mantra—there’s an inability to compete in a loaded division; the A’s have limited attendance due to an antiquated and uninviting stadium; they have to tear it down due the uncertainty of a planned new stadium in San Jose—all make some semblance of sense.

Or they’re convenient excuses for him to be absolved for whatever goes wrong while maintaining the credit for being, as J.P. Ricciardi said in Moneyball, “smarter than the average bear”.

Is he smarter than the average bear?

No.

He’s an average bear.

No more, no less.

The Gonzalez trade might have been made even if the A’s were a good team with realistic aspirations of contention. He has trouble throwing strikes and, as I said in an earlier post, is walking the fine line between being a star and turning into Oliver Perez; he’s about to get a big raise in arbitration; his mechanics are clunky; and his style isn’t conducive to consistency.

The trade of Cahill also yielded an impressive cast of young, cheap players; but what’s the point of even trying anymore when you have a consistent, innings-eating winner who’s signed to a reasonably long-term contract and he’s traded away just “because”?

Beane’s list of floating excuses is vast and overused.

Excuses.

For someone who was portrayed as the master of the bottom-line and cutting through the clutter and nonsense, excuses have become the hallmark of Billy Beane and his tenure as the A’s GM.

While he was on top of the world winning with a minimalist payroll, the annual loss in the playoffs was chalked up to the post-season being a “crapshoot”.

His drafts—said to be the dawn of a new era in which card-counting based on verifiable statistics was going to reinvent the game—were as pedestrian as everyone else’s regardless of the methods they were using to find players.

His treatment of his managers has been capricious and occasionally cruel.

And his reputation among the casual fans or curious onlookers who read the creative non-fiction of the book Moneyball and saw the dramatic license (and utter lies) in the movie has been rejuvenated to again give rise to the concept that he’s a transformative figure in baseball.

All he did was have the nerve to implement the statistical analysis that had been around for years yet hadn’t been utilized to the degree that Beane used them; he did it out of sheer necessity and it worked.

But once the rest of baseball caught up to him, he slithered like a snake into his new role: that of the shrugging and hapless everyman wearing a resigned grin; the poor individual who can’t hope to compete due to the untenable circumstances in every conceivable sense.

It’s a vicious circle.

The same things that are being said now were said when he traded Dan Haren, Nick Swisher, Joe Blanton, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder. Some of those trades worked well for the A’s and some didn’t; but to take this latest array of veteran disposal as a return to the days of yore and glory—when Beane had the Midas touch and his mere gaze caused mountains to crumble at his sheer will—is partaking in a fantasy that his worshippers refuse to let go even if reality casts its ugly shadow again and again.

You can find analysis of the prospects he received from the Nationals and Diamondbacks anywhere, but know the truth before buying into it because it’s been said before.

Repeatedly and inaccurately.

And will be so again.

I guarantee it.

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