Rays and Orioles: Early Season Notes

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Tampa Bay Rays

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

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

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

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

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

Nor should he.

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

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

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

Baltimore Orioles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Red Sox-Dodgers Trade, Part IV—For The Teams, For the Players

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Let’s look at how this affects the teams and the players.

For the Dodgers

The Dodgers are under new ownership and GM Ned Colletti got the nod to go for it now and boy, is he. After trading for Hanley Ramirez, Shane Victorino, and Joe Blanton, he also claimed Cliff Lee on waivers only to see the Phillies pull him back. There’s a difference between “wanting” and being “willing to take”. Colletti wanted Adrian Gonzalez and was willing to take Josh Beckett in order to get it done. Lest anyone believe that the Dodgers weren’t serious about their willingness to take on heavy salary as Colletti claimed both Gonzalez and Beckett. Had a deal not been consummated, there was a real possibility that the Red Sox would simply have given Beckett to the Dodgers. Not so with Gonzalez. Carl Crawford will be in left field for the Dodgers at some point in 2013 replacing the rotating list of names that included Marcus Thames, Juan Rivera, Bobby Abreu and now the pending free agent Victorino, who most assuredly won’t be back with the Dodgers in 2013.

The Dodgers needed a power-hitting first baseman to replace the light-hitting James Loney; they went after Gonzalez several times when he was still with the Padres; and Beckett is an extra arm in the rotation with post-season success in his past. They have the money and the desire, nor did they give up their top prospects to get this done.

For the Red Sox

This is a housecleaning and fumigation.

Naturally, as is the case with this current Red Sox group, there was additional controversy when closer Alfredo Aceves threw a tantrum and stormed out of manager Bobby Valentine’s office after Andrew Bailey was used to close a game instead of Aceves. It was obscured by the magnitude of this trade, but was a symptom of what’s gone wrong in Boston not just since Valentine took over, but going back to last season. On that note, Aceves is not the long-term Red Sox closer. Bailey is. I don’t think anyone should get worked up over the happiness or unhappiness of a useful journeyman with a long history of injuries like Aceves.

Gonzalez was a bad fit in Boston. He’s quiet and religious and was reluctant to step to the forefront as a leader.

Crawford was miserable and injured.

Beckett had behaved like a spoiled rotten brat and a bully.

Whether the Red Sox are going to keep Valentine for the second year of his contract remains to be seen, but this trade was an admission that they couldn’t go forward with Valentine or anyone else and maintain the construction of the roster and the hierarchy of the clubhouse as it was. They cleared out $261 million and left themselves flexibility to alter the on-field product as much as the poisoned off-field perception that has exemplified their team since 2011.

Let’s say the Red Sox were unable to make a trade like this and they gave in to the complaints of the players regarding Valentine. Then what? What if they hired another manager and that manager irritated the veteran players in a different way. What if he was strategically inept; soft on discipline; unable to handle the media; or what if they just didn’t like him? Then what? Were they going to give the babies another pacifier and fire him too?

They could’ve stuck a mannequin in a Red Sox uniform at the corner of the dugout with the words NOT VALENTINE stitched across his shoulder blades and until those players found a mirror and chose to act and play like professionals, it wouldn’t have made one bit of difference this season or next.

They made a bold decision to cut ties with players who no longer wanted to be with the Red Sox or shouldn’t have been with the Red Sox in the first place. Now they can move on and start again.

Adrian Gonzalez

Gonzalez is a West Coast-type who will be much better off as the silent and powerful lineup partner to Matt Kemp. As gifted a player as he is, he does not want to be the vocal leader. But if he was truly behind the text message to Red Sox ownership complaining about Valentine, then he has to make a decision: either he wants to be a representative of the team and lead or he wants to sit in the background and be left alone and do his job. He can have one or the other, but not both.

Gonzalez will be playing for a kindred spirit in manager Don Mattingly. Gonzalez has been a key member of three separate teams that collapsed in September to blow playoff spots that should have been sewn up. Mattingly’s Yankees teams were forever in turmoil and didn’t turn the corner until Mattingly’s career and greatness were dismantled by injuries. Mattingly wasn’t a vocal leader either in spite of being the captain of the Yankees and when he tried to be, it came out as awkward.

Gonzalez will revert to the MVP-candidate he was with the Padres, back on the Coast he never should have left.

Josh Beckett

It wasn’t his behavior that was the biggest problem with the Red Sox. That’s saying a lot considering how out of shape he was; how unwilling he was to acknowledge any more than the tiniest bit of responsibility nor regret for the Red Sox coming apart under Terry Francona and his part in the debacle.

It was Beckett’s frequent injuries and rancid performances indicative of someone who was saying, “Get me outta here,” in multiple ways.

I’m not prepared to say that Beckett, with his declining velocity, doughy midsection, and injuries will be what the Dodgers want: a post-season performer and ace who loves the spotlight. In fact, I’d expect something close to what he was with the Red Sox for the rest of 2012 at least. Perhaps Kemp and Mattingly can convince Beckett to show up in shape in 2013, but it’s no guarantee.

Carl Crawford

He was terrible offensively. He was terrible defensively. He looked unhappy. And he was constantly injured.

Crawford was a true 5-tool player with the Rays who degenerated to nothing almost immediately upon pulling a Red Sox jersey over his shoulders. Another bad fit who was something of a redundancy with Jacoby Ellsbury already in the Red Sox outfield, Crawford couldn’t get used to the scrutiny that he never experienced in Tampa; and he couldn’t get the hang of the Green Monster.

Crawford’s struggles are one of the reasons that those who criticize Jim Rice as a bad defensive player as an absolutist declaration of his poor Hall of Fame credentials are leaving out facts as convenient to their argument. Rice was a left fielder for the Boston Red Sox meaning that he had to learn to play the quirks and angles of that wall. He did it as well as anyone and found himself on the outside looking in at the Hall of Fame because he wasn’t Dave Winfield defensively.

Crawford might eventually have learned to handle Boston and overcome his injuries to again become the player he was, but this opportunity was too good to pass up for the Red Sox.

As for the Dodgers, they’re getting a great player who can still be a great player once he’s healthy and happy in Southern California.

Nick Punto

Yeah. It’s Nick Punto. He can do some useful things here and there I guess.

James Loney

When Mattingly took over as Dodgers manager I was sure that he was going to exert the same pressure on Loney that Lou Piniella did on Mattingly to turn on the inside pitches and hit for more power. Mattingly did and became an MVP and megastar. Loney got worse under Mattingly.

He’s a first baseman who doesn’t hit for any power at all and is a short-term guest for the Red Sox as a free agent at the end of the season. The Red Sox might spin him off somewhere by August 31st.

Allen Webster

Webster is a right-handed starting pitcher who was picked by the Dodgers in the 18th round of the 2008 draft. He’s put up solid numbers in the minors and, after having watched a YouTube clip of him appears to be a control-type righty with a mechanical, slightly across-his-body motion. Judging from that, he’s a back-of-the-rotation starter and not someone about whom anyone should get into a twist about surrendering…or acquiring.

Ivan de Jesus Jr.

The son of former big league shortstop Ivan de Jesus, De Jesus Jr was the 2nd round pick of the Dodgers in 2005. He’s 25 and was stagnating as a 4-A player. Perhaps he can be a useful utility player.

Jerry Sands

Given the proliferation of statistics, there’s an idea that a player like Sands needs little more than a chance to play and he’ll replicate his massive minor league power numbers with a different organization. Sands has been a big-time power hitter in the minors for the Dodgers (functioning in the light air of Albuquerque) and never gotten a legitimate chance to play in the big leagues.

Think about this for a second. The Dodgers have had a gaping hole in left field going back years and refused to give Sands a chance to play. Doesn’t it make sense that the Dodgers would know more about Sands than some guy studying Sands’s stats and determining that “all he needs is a chance”?

He’s big and he’s righty. Maybe he can benefit from the close proximity of the Green Monster.

Rubby De La Rosa

The Dominican righty is recovering from Tommy John surgery and has put up big strikeout numbers in the minors. The 23-year-old is poised and polished and has a clean motion. Of all the prospects sent to the Red Sox, the one with the highest upside is De La Rosa.

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The Red Sox-Dodgers Trade, Part III—Ned Colletti’s Style On A Larger Scale

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Because Frank McCourt is gone and the Dodgers have a new ownership that’s going all, all, all out to win by taking on massive contracts, players whose reputations had diminished to nothing, and the injured, it’s seen as a change in strategy from the past. Those who believe this nonsense are parachuting in with a perception based on nothing since they don’t know the history and didn’t bother to engage in the simple act of fact-checking of Ned Colletti’s tenure as Dodgers’ GM.

Even when he was functioning under the disarray of McCourt, he was free with money and prospects operating under the mandated parameters from ownership. If the Dodgers were straddling the line of contender and also-ran, he erred on the side of aggression and brought in veteran players to try and win. You can read about Colletti’s trades here. The difference between then and now is that he has more flexibility to take on money. He exercised that flexibility by agreeing to this gigantic trade with the Red Sox in which the Dodgers acquired Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford and Nick Punto for James Loney, Allen Webster, Ivan De Jesus Jr., Jerry Sands and Rubby De La Rosa.

It’s indicative of Colletti’s style and is not a simplistic “take veterans and take money for young players and ignore the future.” If you examine Colletti’s past, he’s never given up any prospects that are regrettable and would be redone if he had the opportunity.

To get Casey Blake, he gave up Carlos Santana, but apart from that he’s never given up anything of note. He was ripped for giving up Santana in that deal’s immediate aftermath, but Santana is a poor defensive catcher whose future is likely to be first base—at first base, he’s a replaceable part. Blake played well for the Dodgers for 2 ½ of the 3 ½ years he spent with them.

In the trades he made and offered to improve the club this year, Dodgers’ top prospect Zach Lee was off the table. It’s a hallmark of Colletti’s limits in trading. He won’t give up the entire house, but will give up what he feels he can replace.

If Colletti claimed Beckett to put an exclamation point on his seriousness in wanting to get Gonzalez, then it was a prescient tactical decision to get them. Beckett was getting through waivers and so was Gonzalez, but Colletti identified what he wanted and took steps to get them. He got the go-ahead from ownership to add this kind of payroll ($261 million to his team) and pulled the trigger. The Red Sox might’ve turned down an offer for Gonzalez alone, but if the Dodgers would take both Beckett and Crawford? They didn’t have a choice but to do it.

It’s safe to expect Gonzalez to be happier and more productive as a background personality and mid-lineup star; for Beckett to keep his mouth shut and behave more professionally (I think); and for Crawford to be relieved to be out of Boston and, once healthy, to return to something reasonably close to his Rays days in 2013 and beyond.

If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, but Matt Kemp, Clayton Kershaw, and Andre Ethier are with the club as the foundation for the future and they have a supporting cast locked in as well.

Colletti’s more baseball-savvy than he’s given credit for and in spite of these risky financial and personnel moves, it was more than him agreeing to take the money in a desperate deep strike and spending spree as if he just won the lottery which, with the new ownership, he kinda did.

You can read Part I here and Part II here.

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The Red Sox-Dodgers Trade, Part I—Bobby Valentine’s Future

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I’ll function under the assumption that this deal will go through. The reporters are saying it’s kindasorta done; then not done; then done; then maybe done; then prematurely done; then done. They’re trying not to pull a Joel Sherman, vintage 2010, when he reported that Cliff Lee will be a Yankee (we’re still waiting), so the Dodgers-Red Sox trade could conceivably come apart. But it sounds as if everyone is motivated to make this happen. I’m moving forward as such.

The Dodgers-Red Sox trade reportedly goes as follows:

The Dodgers get: 1B Adrian Gonzalez, RHP Josh Beckett, LF Carl Crawford, and INF Nick Punto

The Red Sox get: 1B James Loney, RHP Allen Webster, INF Ivan De Jesus Jr., OF Jerry Sands, and RHP Rubby De La Rosa

Let’s take a look at its repercussions for teams, players, and people in separate postings and start with Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine.

This is a good sign for Valentine that he’s going to survive in his job and get the beginning of next season to see if the newly reconstructed roster responds to him. After this week’s firing of Bob McClure, he’ll have his own pitching coach (Bob Apodaca); he’ll have players over whom he has some power and, as a direct result, they’ll keep their mouths shut; and he’ll have say-so in the formulation of the on-field personnel.

This trade looks to be a tacit admission on the part of the Red Sox front office that they put Valentine in a terrible position with Terry Francona’s players, a group of arrogant and well-paid would-be or former stars who had the paycheck and history to ignore not only Valentine, but Francona, GM Ben Cherington, and CEO Larry Lucchino as well. It’s a bad sign when the ostensible bosses go up to a player like Josh Beckett and have to ask him to behave like a professional without knowing what kind of response they’re going to get.

You can’t go half-in with Valentine. He was straitjacketed upon getting the job and the roster and media were waiting for Valentine to say or do the wrong thing to jump all over him. If a team is hiring Bobby Valentine, they should expect to get Bobby Valentine and let him be Bobby Valentine. If the intention was for Valentine to come in and right the ship as it was without making significant changes to the personnel, then the Red Sox shouldn’t be surprised at what happened; that Kevin Youkilis had to go; that Beckett had to go; that they needed new players who were more pliable to Valentine’s style and couldn’t run to management and cry because of Valentine, begging for him to be replaced. Those who were complaining should’ve thought of this before they behaved unprofessionally under Francona.

In a sense, I understand what the Red Sox were thinking when they hired Valentine in replacing the laid back Francona. In looking at the contract situations of the players they had, there was no way to get rid of them and simultaneously bring back players who could help them contend and more in 2012. They tried a different voice and hoped the players who undermined Francona would be shamed and embarrassed by what they did.

They weren’t.

They took a different strategy of exerting their will with Valentine than they did with Francona and achieved identical results except they’re the ones who are being cleared out. Instead of blatant disrespect and poor work ethic, hoping that talent would win out in 2011, they tried horrible body language, whisper campaigns and outright whining to daddy in 2012.

It’s difficult to distinguish the five months of 2012 from that fateful month of September in 2011. Combined, they set in motion the chain-of-events that culminated in this trade.

It still may not work with Valentine, but now he can quit the charade of skating around the problems that he presumably knew were there when he took over and he can be unfettered Bobby V. If he goes down, it’ll be his way. If that doesn’t work, so be it.

Valentine would tell you the same thing.

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The Dodgers Are Lucky And There’s Nothing Wrong With That

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Are you wondering how the Dodgers are 32-15 and 7 ½ games in front in the National League West?

Here’s how.

Journeyman utility player Jerry Hairston Jr. went 5 for 5 yesterday.

Two-time recipient of Tommy John surgery Chris Capuano pitched 7 innings of 2-hit ball, raised his record to 7-1 and lowered his ERA to 2.14.

Light-hitting veteran backup catcher Matt Treanor homered and is batting .290.

Treanor was playing in place of 31-year-old A.J. Ellis who, after spending 9 years in the minors and 4 in Triple A alone, is getting a chance to play regularly in the majors and has a slash line of .317/.442/.517 with 5 homers. He’s also thrown out 46% of potential basestealers behind the plate.

The Dodgers were flawed and for sale before the season started. They had a decent starting rotation led by reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley and veteran Ted Lilly. They signed Aaron Harang and Capuano to fill out the fivesome hoping that both would provide competence. Their bullpen was questionable at closer and they had black holes in the lineup behind Matt Kemp. Kemp was carrying the offense on his back before he got hurt and they’ve held serve while he’s been out.

In spite of the hamstring injury to Kemp; non-existent production from shortstop Dee Gordon and third baseman Juan Uribe; the usual lack of power from James Loney; and a switch at closer from Javy Guerra to the strikeout machine Kenley Jansen, the Dodgers have rolled merrily along taking advantage of slumping divisional rivals the Rockies, Padres and Diamondbacks and riding their starting pitching and surprising contributors to the best record in baseball.

Everything that could conceivably have gone right for the Dodgers has gone right.

The ownership problem was solved when a group fronted by Los Angeles Lakers’ icon Magic Johnson bought the club from Frank McCourt and installed respected sports executive Stan Kasten as the new team CEO. They’re received the above-and-beyond the call performances from Capuano, Hairston and Treanor and have the means to improve during the season. Since they’ve gotten out of the gate so well and no longer have to count their pennies because of ownership disarray, they’ll be able to do what needs to be done to improve the offense and contend for the duration. They need a bat and GM Ned Colletti will get it (Justin Morneau is high risk/high reward) because he has the money to do it. If they get into the playoffs, they have the starting pitching and strikeout closer to do damage once there.

The black clouds that have hovered over Dodger Stadium are lifting and a marquee franchise is back at the top of the standings. The Dodgers are for real and whether they achieved that status through luck and circumstance is irrelevant. They’re here to stay and are very dangerous in part because of pitching in part because of luck—in no particular order or preference. There’s nothing wrong with being lucky.

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An Early, Forgotten Casualty In The McCourt Ownership

Games, Management, Media, Players

Now that the Frank McCourt ownership of the Dodgers is (maybe) reaching its conclusion, early mistakes are washed away in the litany of gaffes which have occurred.

One forgotten error was the decision to replace inherited GM Dan Evans.

Evans is the unsung hero in the on-field success the Dodgers had under McCourt’s ownership. It was Evans who built the foundation of the team in 2002 as, in subsequent years, he kept Jim Tracy as manager; made Eric Gagne a closer; acquired Guillermo Mota for nothing; managed to get the Yankees to take Kevin Brown‘s contract off the Dodgers hands; and was at the helm when the team drafted James Loney, Jonathan Broxton, James McDonald, Chad Billingsley and Matt Kemp.

Had Evans and Tracy been left alone, the Dodgers could’ve been an annual contender with homegrown and cheaper talent. The club had been built organically and grown up together, with Tracy at the helm and a cohesion on and off the field.

McCourt, whose 13-year-old son was enamored with Paul DePodesta after reading Moneyball, had an influence on the Dodgers new owner—his dad—as Evans interviewed for the job he already had and didn’t get it.

DePodesta took over and Evans left the organization.

Evans landed on his feet first as a scout for the Mariners and then as, get this, CEO and president of West Coast Sports Management. He’s an agent.

With a little luck and presumably much to the chagrin of MLB, the Dodgers could have won a World Series or two during McCourt’s tumultuous (and ongoing) time with the Dodgers. Had that happened, would Evans have received his share of the credit?

He deserved it. Whether he would’ve gotten it is a different matter entirely.

Evans should never have been forced out as Dodgers GM. But like the McCourt ownership, it’s 20/20 hindsight.

In an odd quirk, Evans wasn’t the Dodgers GM for much longer than DePodesta was with a far greater record of success. But it’s DePodesta who’s constantly defended by people who try to alter his 20-months as Dodgers GM as something for which he’s not responsible and Evans is forgotten.

Acknowledged or not, he still warrants recognition for being a smart baseball man and for the part he played in the successful Dodgers teams of recent years.

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