Kansas City Royals: Early Season Notes

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Because it’s unquantifiable on their spreadsheets many stat people ridicule the concept of “veteran presence.” The most prominent player whose intangibles are scoffed at is Michael Young. Young has been a very good hitter for his career and a leader in the clubhouse. Why that’s something to try to use as weapon to hammer him with is hard to understand. Much of it, I believe, is due to the likes of Keith Law and his combination of arrogance and obnoxiousness regarding the concept followed by the gang mentality of others who, in trying to garner favor from Law (for inexplicable reasons), provide the sycophantic, “HAHA!!! Veteran presence?!? Absurd!!” as if they have any clue about what it entails in the first place. I’d venture to guess that the majority of these people never participated in team sports and haven’t the faintest idea of how important it is to have leaders in the clubhouse and people who know the terrain of crafting a winner. It’s not simply about having good players. It’s about having people who’ve been there before and can be trusted not to panic regardless of the circumstances.

It was the same Law-style, self-proclaimed “experts” who, last December, abused Royals GM Dayton Moore for trading a large package of youngsters including top outfield prospect Wil Myers to the Rays for James Shields and Wade Davis. The trade was seen as a panic move on the part of Moore in an attempt to have short-term, on-field gain in order to save his job. The opposite argument asks how many years they were supposed to try and rebuild before taking a gamble to move up. They needed pitching and, yes, veteran presence to facilitate taking the next step. Shields was a key part of a Rays team that made a similar rise with homegrown prospects. That franchise was the object of an endless stream of jokes because of their consistent ineptitude. It’s not simply that Shields is standing in the middle of the clubhouse saying, “I’m the leader,” but that he shows it on the field with innings, complete games, and gutting his way through when he doesn’t have his best stuff.

Most young players need a “this is how you do it” guy to teach them. The vast majority of the Royals’ roster is a group of youngsters who’ve never been part of a big league winner. The 2008 Rays’ leap into contention was, in part, brought about by the young players they’d drafted during their years of being atrocious and some savvy trades, but another significant part was due to their acquisitions of veterans Cliff Floyd, Troy Percival, Dan Wheeler, and Jason Bartlett who’d won before and knew how winning clubhouses functioned.

The Royals are currently 10-7 and are teetering like a child learning to walk. They’ve accomplished that record with good starting pitching; a bullpen that has the potential to be devastating; and are leading the American League in runs scored in spite of Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer being off to slow starts.

The Royals were roundly savaged when they traded Myers; they were waved away when they posted a 25-7 record in spring training; and since most of their analysis isn’t based on being accurate, but accruing the perception of having been accurate no matter the amount of twisting required to do it, the “experts” are quietly hoping that the acquisitions of Shields and Davis along with the re-signing of Jeremy Guthrie fail so they’ll have been “right.” If they have the tiniest flicker of baseball intelligence, they’re seeing the reality of the 2013 Royals: they’re very dangerous and have shown the resilient signs and growing confidence of something special happening in Kansas City for the first time in almost 30 years.

Essays, predictions, player analysis, under the radar fantasy picks, breakout candidates, contract status of all relevant personnel—GMs, managers, players—and anything else you could possibly want to know is in my new book Paul Lebowitz’s 2013 Baseball Guide now available on Amazon.comSmashwordsBN and Lulu. It’s useful all season long. Check it out and read a sample.

2013 Book Cover 3

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Beware the Rejuvenated Rays’ Castoffs

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The Orioles are said to be considering signing Casey Kotchman.

What they’re going to do with him is a mystery since they just signed Wilson Betemit, have Mark Reynolds and Chris Davis for first and third base. None are defensively adept at any of the positions although Reynolds occasionally makes a spectacular play to make it appear as if he’s better than he is. It’s similar to a weekend in which he’ll hit 6 home runs—many of the “ooh” and “ahh” variety in distance and hangtime to make it appear as if he’s better than he is. Then he reverts to hitting .200 and striking out every 2.6 at bats.

Kotchman is a very good defensive first baseman and had his career year at the plate for the Rays in 2011 with a slash line of .306/.378/.422 and .800 OPS.

That’s what should concern any team making a serious investment in Kotchman.

Considering the lateness of the date and that spring training is approaching along with the availability of better hitters on the market like Derrek Lee, it’s doubtful the Orioles or anyone else is going to overpay for Kotchman, but a team considering a former player for the Rays who had his best season with the Rays needs to examine history and look at the decline of Jason BartlettScott KazmirRafael SorianoAkinori Iwamura and just about every scrounged screapheap salvaged detritus from their patched together bullpen who’s been used for a brief time and dispatched only to revert to the performance that led them to winding up on the scrapheap to begin with. Sometimes, as with Lance Cormier and Carlos Pena, they wind up back with the Rays.

Is Kotchman as good as he was in 2011?

History proves he’s not. Even when he was at his best with the Angels and Braves in 2007-2008, he wasn’t a force at the plate. He was useful if surrounded by a few power bats and has always been a good fielder, but teams tend to want better power production from first base than what Kotchman provided. If they can make up for it in other areas, then fine; but setting a limit on the amount of money they’re willing to pay Kotchman is a wise move.

Was the issue with his eyes that Kotchman referenced in this NY Times piece and its repair the genesis of his struggles in 2009-2010?

Clearly.

But that doesn’t make a Rays’ castoff any more of a guarantee to continue the work he did with the Rays as he reestablished his value. They seem to know which way the wind is about to blow and how to judge a player and determine whether he’s “figured it out” or is enjoying his career years in Tampa. That’s a reason for interested teams to look at these players with a jaundiced eye and wonder if they’re getting the pre-Rays or post-Rays player and if they’ll be overpaying to do it.

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The Price for McCutchen

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Pirates GM Neal Huntington is making it clear with his between-the-lines statements that he’s willing to trade Andrew McCutchenThe Sporting News.

Given the Pirates circumstances as a perennial laughingstock and that McCutchen would have to be just as overwhelmed to stay long-term as the Pirates would be to trade him, it makes sense to listen to what other clubs have to say.

McCutchen is not closing in on free agency (it’s not until after the 2015 season) and he’s going to be arbitration-eligible until next year. He’s 25, is not reliant on his speed to make a living and he can play center field.

He’s an MVP-quality talent.

It’s somewhat unprecedented for a young, established position player to be available regardless of the demand.

Most of the huge deals for packages of young players that aren’t closing in on free agency involve pitchers. We saw this with the Athletics’ latest housecleaning in dealing Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez. The Rays are always ready to do business with any player on their roster and the Rockies made a bold move in trading Ubaldo Jimenez last summer.

McCutchen is a franchise cornerstone and exactly the type of player for whom an interested club should be willing to overpay as Huntington implies.

Let’s take a look at some big trades that were made with a lot of young talent exchanged for a young position player to get a gauge on circumstances and boundaries.

1982: Indians trade OF Von Hayes to the Phillies for INF Julio Franco, RHP Jay Baller, 2B Manny Trillo, OF George Vukovich and C Jerry Willard.

Hayes was 24 and saddled with the nickname “5 for 1” after the trade, but turned out to be a very good player for the Phillies. He had power and speed and if he played today, he’d be comparable to McCutchen.

Franco was an excellent hitter and lasted in the big leagues until he was 48.

Hayes’s career was over at age 33 after the Phillies had traded him to the Angels in a trade that brought them…Ruben Amaro Jr.

1990: Padres trade 2B Roberto Alomar and OF Joe Carter to the Blue Jays for 1B Fred McGriff and SS Tony Fernandez.

Alomar was 23 and I don’t think anyone predicted he’d blossom into a Hall of Fame player with power. Two old-school GMs—the Padres’ Joe McIlvaine and the Blue Jays’ Pat Gillick—pulled off this drastic maneuver that worked out better for the Blue Jays, but was productive for the Padres. In retrospect, they would have preferred to keep Alomar, but no one knew what Alomar was.

Veteran general managers got together and cobbled out a major trade that helped both sides.

1992: Brewers trade INF Gary Sheffield and RHP Geoff Kellogg to the Padres for RHP Ricky Bones, OF Matt Mieske and INF Jose Valentin.

Sheffield was miserable in Milwaukee, couldn’t handle the expectations and pressure stemming from being in the big leagues at 19 and the nephew of Dwight Gooden. In later years, Sheffield claimed to have intentionally thrown balls wildly from third base as some form of retribution for perceived slights.

Sound familiar?

The self-destructive petulance was chalked up to youth.

It turned out not to be youth. Gary was just Gary and that’s simply what he did.

From age 19-40, Sheffield imploded and exploded in his subsequent stops (six after Milwaukee and San Diego) and alienated anyone and everyone along the way. He got away with it because he could hit for power and get on base—no other reason.

The Brewers got rid of Sheffield because he was a ticking time bomb.

2007: Rays trade OF Delmon Young, INF Brendan Harris and OF Jason Pridie to the Twins for RHP Matt Garza, SS Jason Bartlett and RHP Eddie Morlan.

Young was a former first pick in the draft, but the new Rays front office wouldn’t have drafted him first had they been in charge and were in the process of clearing out players who didn’t behave appropriately—Young had acted up in the minors and majors resulting in suspensions and confrontations with manager Joe Maddon. It helped the decision to move him that they didn’t value what it was he did because he hit a few homers, didn’t get on base and played poor defense in the outfield.

Garza was a young pitcher with a temper similar to Young’s, but that temper was tolerable to get his power arm.

This was a mutual-interest/need deal and not one to clear salary.

Barring free agency, financial constraints and ancillary factors, players like McCutchen are rarely available.

Is he “available”? Or are the Pirates tossing it out there to see if anyone bites and gives up the house?

Teams should inquire and be serious about getting him.

The Royals have the prospects and the need. With McCutchen in center field flanked by Alex Gordon and Jeff Francoeur, their outfield defense would be superlative and their rebuilding process would be sped up markedly.

The Nationals need a center fielder, have the young talent to deal and are looking to improve quickly; the Braves’ farm system is loaded; and the Mets should accept reality and give the fans something to bank on while getting a marquee youngster.

If teams have to overpay, so be it.

For a player like McCutchen, everyone should contact the Pirates and see whether or not they’re serious about moving him. If they ask for seven players including four who are perceived as “can’t miss”, then they’re not serious; if they ask for four or five, then it’s something for an interested club to pursue because McCutchen is worth it.

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Analyzing the Reds-Padres Trade

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The Padres traded pitcher Mat Latos to the Reds for a package of four players—top prospect first baseman/outfielder Yonder Alonso; righty starter Edinson Volquez; minor league catcher Yasmani Grandal; and minor league pitcher Brad Boxberger.

Let’s take a look at the deal for all sides.

For the Reds:

The 24-year-old righty Latos has superstar potential. His 2011 numbers appeared to take a tumble from his 2010 work in which he went 14-10 with a 2.92 ERA. In 2010, he had an excellent walk/strikeout/innings pitched ratio of 50/189/184 and allowed only 150 hits and 16 homers in 31 starts. He finished 8th in the National League Cy Young Award voting.

In 2011, Latos went 9-14 for the 91-game losing Padres; his ERA jumped to 3.47; his walk/strikeout/innings pitched ratio rose to 62/185/194. But his hits allowed and homers stayed consistent with 168 hits and 16 homers in those 194 innings.

The increase in hits allowed can be accounted for by the rise in BAbip from .275 to .288; the Padres defense in 2010 was appreciably better than it was in 2011 and the downgrade with the departures of Adrian Gonzalez, David Eckstein and surprisingly Miguel Tejada truly affected Latos.

The Padres intent in acquiring Jason Bartlett and Orlando Hudson was to shore up the middle-infield defense, but both players were far worse than the veteran stopgaps they had in 2010.

Brad Hawpe isn’t a first baseman and no one could’ve expected him to replace Gonzalez’s Gold Glove, but that was no consolation to Latos.

He’s been consistent at home (pitching in a cavernous ballpark) and on the road. He’ll allow a few more homers pitching in the hitter-friendly Reds home field, Great American Ballpark, but he’ll also have a better defense behind him and the Reds—second in runs scored in the NL in 2011; 1st in 2010—will be able to provide more runs than the Padres popgun offense did.

Reds manager Dusty Baker is a laid back and easy man to play for and that should suit the free-spirited Latos better than San Diego.

The Reds surrendered a large chunk of their farm system in this trade, but they’re trying to win now; the NL Central is suddenly in play again with the Brewers pending loss of Prince Fielder and likely suspension of Ryan Braun; the Cardinals loss of Albert Pujols and uncertainty with a new, neophyte manager in Mike Matheny.

Reds GM Walt Jocketty is aggressive. The Reds stumbled to 79-83 after winning the division in 2010; they needed a top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher and got one in Latos.

Alonso played the outfield in the minors, but they saw him as a first baseman—and they proved with a flourish that they aren’t trading Joey Votto; they had no place for Alonso to play. Ryan Hanigan and Devin Mesoraco were blocking Grandal; Volquez hasn’t been the same since his 17-game-winning rookie year in 2008, followed by Tommy John surgery and a PED suspension; Boxberger is a minor league righty with impressive strikeout numbers.

The Reds gave up a lot, but they got a lot in return.

Given the cost the Reds just paid in terms of players to get him, if I were Latos I would want to discuss a long term contract to buy out my arbitration years and first couple of free agent seasons as well.

They traded for him and have to keep him.

For the Padres:

One thing you can say about Padres new GM Josh Byrnes is that he’s not afraid to make drastic and risky decisions.

The Padres have enough starting pitching to get by without Latos; their offense in 2011 was predictably rancid; their defense wasn’t what they expected; they’ve already lost closer Heath Bell and replaced him with Huston Street, who’s not as good.

They had to do something to upgrade their offense and they did with Alonso.

Grandal probably won’t be ready to start 2012 in the majors. Volquez is a question mark; Boxberger was relieving in the minors, but might be better-utilized as a starter.

This calls into question what the Padres are going to do with Anthony Rizzo. Rizzo was acquired from the Red Sox in the Gonzalez trade and has tremendous power and on-base skills; interestingly, he reminds me of Votto. He batted .141 in 153 plate appearances in the big leagues in 2011, but he’s only 22.

The Padres are desperate for offense and if that means they need to use Alonso in the outfield when Rizzo is ready to play in the big leagues, that’s what they’ll do.

The Padres aren’t in a rebuild-mode, but the NL West is a tough sell for them to contend until they find hitters and improve the defense.

They’re not done because they have a lot more to do to be respectable again.

It’s not a cop-out when analyzing a trade to say it helps both teams if it indeed does help both teams.

The Reds had plenty of offense and needed a 200-inning starter; that he’s 24 and under team control for the foreseeable future makes Latos a good buy for them.

The Padres needed to replenish their farm system and acquire guys who can hit. They have enough pitching and could afford to part with Latos.

In short, the Reds are contenders; the Padres weren’t contending under their prior construction.

Each got what they wanted; whether the trade pans out or not, it’s a logical maneuver and an immediate win for each side.

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Josh Lueke and the No-Tolerance Policy

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The Mariners traded right-handed relief pitcher Josh Lueke and a minor leaguer or cash to the Rays for catcher John Jaso.

Jaso isn’t very good defensively, but he gets on base and has shown some minor league pop. Today the Rays signed Jose Molina; they have Jose Lobaton, Robinson Chirinos and have expressed interesting in bringing back Kelly Shoppach.

They’ll be okay behind the plate without Jaso.

But will they be okay with Lueke?

Lueke became known not for of his blazing fastball, but because he was part of the deal that sent Cliff Lee from the Mariners to the Rangers and a dispute ensued as to whom knew what about Lueke’s arrest record in which he was charged with sexual assault and lying to the police, then pleaded no contest.

The whole episode could have cost Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik his job.

The Mariners dumping of Lueke for what amounts to a backup catcher isn’t simply a trade; it appears as if they want to put the whole Lueke experience behind them as an organization, were presented with this deal and took it.

I don’t blame them.

I wouldn’t touch Jose Lueke.

You can make the case that in every organization there are a fair number of people who’ve been a bit too aggressive or behaved inappropriately with the opposite sex.

I’m not only talking about players; I’m talking about employees in every facet and it’s not always just men.

But the Lueke case is on the record. You can also make the contention that since it was his word against the accuser’s and that the episode sort of went away that he deserves another chance as long as he doesn’t get caught up in anything else.

It’s not unreasonable.

With the Rays however, their rise to prominence since 2008 came, of course, as a result of the high draft picks accrued from being so awful for so long; by making intelligent trades and savvy free agent signings; and a fair amount of luck.

An underreported aspect of their leap into contention was that they also ceased taking crap from their employees.

There’s a power in the act of not taking crap.

In relatively rapid succession over the course of a year-and-a-half from 2006-2007, the Rays had dealt with the DUI arrest of pitching coach Jim Hickey; the repeated and increasingly violent transgressions of Elijah Dukes; the bat-throwing suspension of Delmon Young; and the continued sobriety struggles of Josh Hamilton.

Hamilton was left unprotected in the 2006 Rule 5 draft and selected by the Cubs who immediately sold him to the Reds. Hamilton restarted his career in Cincinnati in 2007, was traded to the Rangers and became a star.

Apart from a few minor disputes with manager Joe Maddon, Young played and behaved well enough in 2007 that the Twins—historically a team that doesn’t take any garbage either—traded for him in what wound up being a coup for the Rays in acquiring Jason Bartlett and Matt Garza. Young’s been a mostly solid citizen since then.

Dukes was incorrigible and traded to the Nationals for a nondescript minor league lefty, Glenn Gibson. He continually got into off-and-on-field trouble and the Nationals released him after the 2010 season.

At that time, since the Rays were such a running joke and a team that few paid attention to unless they were in the front of the newspaper as opposed to the back (where they belonged), they were in a position to draw a line with their employees and eject those that crossed it.

That may no longer be the case as they’ve succeeded and increased in stature and positive attention.

You can also say that the Rays have taken a load of stuff from B.J. Upton that a “not taking crap” template would’ve required they get rid of him; but Upton’s problems don’t stem from him being an off-field violent offender—he’s just lazy on the field and doesn’t listen.

There’s a difference between that and being arrested/suspended for violent acts. Those other cases were individuals who were already with the Rays; they’re trading for Lueke.

The Rays could issue the no-tolerance policy to Lueke. Or they could be trying a pump-and-dump of rebuilding his value, then include him in a trade. It’s not as if they gave up all that much to get him and releasing him will cost them nothing if he does give them cause. Lueke has a great arm. In normal circumstances, I’d say “why not?” and see how he behaves and pitches; but with the Rays, having learned the lesson of enough’s enough combined with “if you don’t want to be here and act appropriately, we’ll get rid of you” and seeing it work, I have to wonder why they would bring this person into the organization, due diligence and no-tolerance policy or not.

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The Padres Generosity Of The Absurd

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With the near end to the negotiations freeing Theo Epstein to join the Cubs as team president and the simultaneously anticipated and apparently agreed to deal for Jed Hoyer to the Padres to take over as Cubs GM, the differences in the machinations are stark.

The Red Sox are getting something for the right to poach their contracted employee and the Padres aren’t.

Epstein is under contract for one more season with the Red Sox and the club was being outrageous in its initial demands for compensation as they asked for Matt Garza; Hoyer is under contract to the Padres until 2014, but owner Jeff Moorad isn’t asking for anything in return.

It’s strange bordering on irrational.

And it’s making me wonder exactly what’s going on in San Diego.

Josh Byrnes is reportedly going to step right in and take over for Hoyer; he’s a qualified GM and was hired by Moorad when he ran the Diamondbacks.

Hoyer did a good job with the Padres considering the mandate he was under to trade Adrian Gonzalez and payroll constraints. The team made a shocking leap into contention in 2010, he acquired veterans Ryan Ludwick and Miguel Tejada (without giving up anything for them) to try and win; he got the jewels of the Red Sox farm system for Gonzalez; acquired top prospects for Mike Adams; and acquired Cameron Maybin for replaceable bullpen pieces.

Other deals, like the one for Jason Bartlett, haven’t worked out; and he should’ve traded Heath Bell before Bell’s yapping mouth and declining performance put the Padres in an unwinnable situation.

But he’s done the best he could with the hand he was dealt.

And he’s bailing.

There’s been an odd aura around the Padres for years.

From Sandy Alderson’s management style of cultivating factions; pushing Bruce Bochy out the door because Bochy rebelled against front office interference and he was making too much money for Alderson’s tastes; hoping that former GM Kevin Towers would get the Diamondbacks GM job in 2005 (that went to Byrnes), then putting Towers in a position where he was either going to get on Alderson’s train of dysfunction or get dragged behind it; to having Paul DePodesta operating what amounted to a spy agency independent of Towers; to the way things have developed under Moorad, it’s as if they like to have dysfunction over cohesion.

The tree of bizarreness for this is striking.

Clearly Moorad thinks a lot of the Red Sox because he hired both Byrnes and Hoyer from their positions as assistants to Epstein; what’s also clear is that Moorad prefers Byrnes as his GM. Why else would he simply let Hoyer go to another club in the same league and not ask for anything—anything at all—for him? Something?

What makes it worse is that Moorad made his name in sports as an agent.

One would assume that he knows the sanctity of a contract and why its terms shouldn’t be violated; or at least the team interested in an employee under said contract should provide something of value in exchange.

Perhaps he isn’t all that impressed with Hoyer to begin with and wanted Byrnes all along.

It’s bad business to have another club raiding his front office and for him to say, “okay, go” as if he doesn’t care one way or the other; Moorad being fine with it shouldn’t matter. No one wants to be perceived as the guy who can be stolen from without consequences; it’s a bad precedent to set.

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The Defensive Equation With The Brewers And Rangers

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Neil Paine writes a piece in the NY Times about the Texas Rangers recent hot streak, how their defense has contributed to winning this season and last.

They’ve done it without an array of “name” pitchers like those of the Phillies, Giants and Brewers; instead, they’ve relied on converted relievers Alexi Ogando and C.J. Wilson; young, unspectacular strike-throwers Derek Holland and Matt Harrison; and a scrapheap pickup Colby Lewis.

While the names are unfamiliar, the results are excellent.

Is it due to the strategy to tell these pitchers to pound the strike zone and let the superior defense take care of the rest despite pitching in a notorious hitters’ ballpark in Arlington?

It certainly appears so.

The Brewers have gone in the opposite direction as the Rangers in terms of putting their team together. Whereas the Rangers built their club with this intention clearly in mind based on the deployment of players and execution of plans, the Brewers have a starting rotation of Cy Young Award quality-talent with Zack Greinke and Yovani Gallardo; a solid, gutty craftsman in Shaun Marcum; and a workmanlike veteran Randy Wolf.

The Brewers defense is also slow-footed and lacks range. Despite having pitchers in their starting rotation who are better than those on the Rangers, their ERA+ is in the middle-of-the-pack of the National League.

If a team brings in starting pitching the level of that which the Brewers have, ignoring the defense is a huge mistake.

The Brewers are top-heavy with bashers who are more suited to DHing like Prince Fielder; and other regulars who probably shouldn’t be playing at all in Casey McGehee and Yuniesky Betancourt.

The Rangers are deeply balanced and have built their team based on that conscious decision to focus on the factors of pitching and defense with a fair amount of power thrown in.

How much better would the Brewers be if they shored up the defense at third and short and would it behoove them to do so? And would fixing this issue now with the acquisition of a defensive ace at short the likes of Jack Wilson or Jason Bartlett help? There’s been talk of Rafael Furcal who’s been injured and awful, but a pennant race might wake up his game—if he’s healthy. They’d get him for nothing.

The Rangers success with this template is a better option than what the Brewers did. All that great pitching isn’t doing much good if the infielders don’t—or can’t—catch the ball.

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Brewers Get K-Rod—And They’re Not Done

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At least they’d better not be done.

With their current issues, the bullpen was probably the last place the Brewers needed to upgrade for a legitimate run at a championship. First was defense; then there was a lefty specialist to deal with the Phillies; then there was bullpen help.

Considering the money and personal conduct problems from last season surrounding Francisco Rodriguez, it’s a bit of a surprise the Brewers chose to get him first.

Perhaps they were concerned that someone—specifically the Cardinals—were going to go after K-Rod and wanted to preclude that from happening while simultaneously bolstering what’s been a moderate strength.

There are two ways to go in making deals to improve: enhance a strength or fix a weakness.

The Brewers bullpen has been serviceable with John Axford closing and will be better with K-Rod either setting up for Axford or taking over as the closer. (It isn’t clear as to what they’re doing, but I’ll guess that, for now, Axford will hold onto his job.)

Was this a smart move for the Brewers?

Well, it was aggressive. K-Rod is mostly reliable in the regular season and while he’d like to have the contract kicker worth $17.5 million come into effect by finishing 55 games this year, he’ll get a good contract somewhere if he does enter free agency this winter. The Mets have sent some money along with K-Rod and are receiving two players to be named later.

As a closer, K-Rod was never a lockdown arm in the playoffs. He was notoriously unreliable for the Angels, always seeming to fail at the hands of the Red Sox. He’s not a guarantee to be a help to the Brewers setting up/closing now or in the post-season. He’s wild and is prone to the home run ball. His strikeout numbers are still solid though not as massive as they were earlier in his career. He’s a different pitcher relying on control of his fastball, a great curve and good changeup more than he did when he was young.

He will help the Brewers now.

It’s not hard to figure out what the Brewers have to do next.

Their infield defense is awful. Looking at Axford’s numbers in comparison to a pitcher like Kyle Farnsworth—who’s functioning with a fast and rangy infield with the Rays—and the difference is shocking. Axford’s BAbip (batting average on balls in play) for ground balls is .273; Farnsworth’s is .153.

This is no coincidence nor is it a stat taken out of context to prove a point. It’s a problem.

With the addition of K-Rod and the great starting pitching, they must-must-must improve the defense by finding a slick-fielding shortstop to replace Yuniesky Betancourt. That means J.J. Hardy, Jason Bartlett, Brendan Ryan or Jack Wilson—someone who can catch the ball. They won’t hit much worse than Betancourt has and they’d improve the defense markedly.

Casey McGehee hasn’t hit either and his defense at third base is mediocre. The Brewers could go after a historically solid defender who has some pop like Kevin Kouzmanoff of the Athletics or Casey Blake of the Dodgers.

To accompany the “go for it” mentality that GM Doug Melvin is exhibiting and contingent on getting a shortstop, they could do something drastic like trade for an outfielder and move Ryan Braun back to third base for the rest of the season. Braun wasn’t a good defensive third baseman, but he won’t be much worse than what they have now and they’d augment the offense with a Carlos Beltran or Kosuke Fukudome.

When discussing the Brewers trading deadline needs two days ago, I said they had to try and win this year. Prince Fielder is leaving as a free agent and their window of opportunity is short. Trading for K-Rod is reflective of that—Melvin knows what the Brewers are and he’s going for it in 2011.

But if they want to truly go all-in, they can’t stop at K-Rod.

And they won’t.

I’ll post about how this affects the Mets later today.

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Trade Targets For National League Contenders

All Star Game, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, Management, Media, Players

Let’s have a look at the National League contenders, what they need to improve and whom they should target.

The word “contender” is defined by teams that I think are contenders based on current position and whether they can make a legitimate run towards the playoffs. Being over .500 or overachieving based on pre-season predictions (my own included) are not factored in.

Philadelphia Phillies

What they need: Bullpen help; a versatile defender/bat, preferably right-handed.

There are the popular bullpen names like Heath Bell. Bell’s going to get traded. Kerry Wood, Grant Balfour, Mike Gonzalez, Jon Rauch and Hong-Chih Kuo could be had; the Mets wouldn’t hesitate to trade Francisco Rodriguez anywhere and they’d give him away.

They’ll get bullpen help from somewhere.

For a bat, if Casey Blake is healthy he’s a veteran righty bat who can play multiple positions; he’s got a team option for $6 million with a $1.25 million buyout at the end of the year and might be rejuvenated by a shot at a ring.

Atlanta Braves

What they need: A bat.

Chipper Jones is out for at least a month after knee surgery and center field has been a toxic wasteland.

The A’s are going to clear out the house so that makes Coco Crisp, Josh Willingham and David DeJesus available. The aforementioned Blake could be acquired cheaply; they could go after Carlos Beltran who would undoubtedly love to go to the Braves.

The Padres’ Chase Headley plays third and has played the outfield before. Aramis Ramirez has said he’s not waiving his no-trade clause, but I’m not buying it. Why wouldn’t a veteran player want to go to the Braves?

The question with Beltran is whether he can play center field for a couple of months or if the Braves felt comfortable shifting Jason Heyward over from right for the remainder of the season.

Maybe they should re-acquire Jeff Francoeur. Not because he’d help but: A) he’d fit neatly into hitting coach Larry Parrish‘s aggressive!!! approach; and B) it’d be funny!!

Milwaukee Brewers

What they need: A good fielding shortstop; a lefty for the bullpen; an extra outfielder who can play center field.

There was talk about J.J. Hardy being reacquired, but he wants to stay with the Orioles.

Jason Bartlett would be perfect.

Carlos Gomez isn’t going to hit. That’s clear. Michael Bourn is available. Crisp could be had for very little.

Would they make a move on Beltran? GM Doug Melvin has been super-aggressive in the past and with Prince Fielder halfway out the door as a free agent and their brilliant starting pitching, the Brewers have to win now.

Brian Fuentes as a lefty specialist is an idea even though his splits in 2011 are ghastly against lefties. Sean Burnett and Kuo are options.

St. Louis Cardinals

What they need: Pitching.

They need a starter and could use bullpen help.

The Cardinals are in a bit of a box as to what they can do both practically and financially. They don’t have many prospects to deal for a Ricky Nolasco or Anibal Sanchez of the Marlins; nor do they have the money to fit Ted Lilly or Wandy Rodriguez into their long-term payroll.

If they felt confident that K-Rod wouldn’t reach his 2012 incentive based on appearances, they could get him for almost nothing.

They’d probably be better off leaving the rotation as is rather than do something stupid; I’d go after a Balfour, Fuentes or Bell.

Pittsburgh Pirates

What they need: A power bat.

If I’m the Pirates, I say screw it and go for it. Now.

The division is winnable, they’ve hung around with pitching and defense, but can’t hit.

Would Aramis Ramirez be willing to go back to Pittsburgh? How about Kosuke Fukudome? Beltran? Willingham? Hunter Pence? Luke Scott? Carlos Quentin?

Throw the bomb, Pirates. Why not?

Cincinnati Reds

What they need: Starting pitching a shortstop bat.

They need to watch the Marlins to see if they’re going to sell. Nolasco and Sanchez would help the Reds drastically. The Cubs’ Ryan Dempster has a $14 million player option that will undoubtedly scare off the majority of the league.

Rafael Furcal has a $12 million club option and a limited no-trade to certain teams. Ask about Hanley Ramirez. The Marlins might’ve had it with him and be willing to drop a bomb in the clubhouse for a lot of pieces.

San Francisco Giants

What they need: A bat. Any bat.

They’re linked with Beltran, but this concept of it being fait accompli that he’s going to San Francisco is stupid.

The Giants were supposedly after Jose Reyes, Reyes is on the disabled list and not getting traded.

How about Hanley Ramirez? They have the prospects to get him and he’s signed.

They could use a catcher, but there aren’t any available. One thing I was thinking the other day was if the Rockies fade, why not ask about Chris Iannetta?

Arizona Diamondbacks

What they need: A first base bat; bullpen help.

They could trade for Aramis Ramirez and shift Ryan Roberts to first base.

I don’t think Carlos Pena is as useful as others do with his feast or famine style; they released Russell Branyan who does pretty much the same things that Pena does.

Bell, Wood, Fuentes, Balfour—the usual bullpen suspects should be considered.

Here’s an interesting thought: K-Rod. It’d be a role reversal from the grand plan of the Mets in 2009 with J.J. Putz as the set-up man and K-Rod as the closer and they wouldn’t have to worry about the contract kicker if K-Rod is setting up for Putz.

Colorado Rockies

What they need: A starting pitcher.

Once they’re healthy, the Rockies will hit enough and the bullpen is okay.

Their starting rotation has been hurt badly in losing Jorge de la Rosa. It’s doubtful they have the money for Wandy Rodriguez or Lilly, but if the Marlins sell, Nolasco and Sanchez are targets. Jason Marquis isn’t any better than what the Rockies currently have, but he’s a functioning arm—for what that’s worth.

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Book Review—The Extra 2% By Jonah Keri

Books, Management, Players

There are easy and convenient explanations from both side of the spectrum in baseball analysis as to how the Tampa Bay Rays were able to craft one of the best and most efficient organizations in baseball.

Were they the product of stat-based theories with some outside-the-box application of strategies from other industries?

Were they beneficiaries of the ample number of high draft picks accumulated as a “benefit” of being so awful for so long?

Are there ancillary aspects to the surge from baseball purgatory to a case study of how to run a team properly?

Is it all of the above?

Jonah Keri answers all of these questions and more in The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First.

Stuck in a small market with an atrocious and difficult to access stadium; a history of heinous on-field results and rotten off-field behavior; awful front office decisionmaking; and an owner who micromanaged and alienated civic leaders and local businesses, the heretofore named Devil Rays were a laughingstock like no other.

There was no hope; no future; no reason to pay attention to them…until they were taken over by a young, fearless and energetic group led by Stuart Sternberg.

Foregoing what had failed in the past for the Devil Rays and other clubs, sifting through what worked and didn’t work by cutting to the heart of what makes a successful player, team and organization, the newly named Rays have become the blueprint on how to run a baseball team whether in large or small market.

What was the secret?

Those who are invested deeply in stats see the Rays as a validation of their way of doing things with cold, objective reasoning; old-school thinkers point to the high draft picks, speed, pitching and defense that would’ve made John McGraw proud; others (myself included before reading the book) feel that the Rays turnaround began in earnest once they stopped tolerating players like Elijah Dukes, Josh Hamilton and Delmon Young whose behaviors on and off the field led to the perception that the Rays were like the lawless deserts of Yemen—anything goes with no one willing to put a stop to it. They also stopped bowing to the Yankees and Red Sox as evidenced by the willingness to get into on-field scraps with both.

The truth is that it’s a combination of everything.

Sternberg, team president Matthew Silverman and de facto GM Andrew Friedman took advantage of the foundation that was left by the prior regime; they were lucky with players like Gabe Gross, Grant Balfour, Dan Johnson and Carlos Pena; they jettisoned the likes of Dukes and Hamilton and were unperturbed by Hamilton’s blossoming into a star with the Reds and Rangers; they got rid of Young, but made sure they acquired the pieces—Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett—that were a tremendous boon to their leap into a pennant winner.

The Rays took bits and pieces from everyone and everything.

They utilized former Indians and Rangers GM John Hart’s innovation of locking up players long-term before they reached arbitration years; it was that which allowed them to sign Evan Longoria to what’s being called the most value-laden contract in baseball history.

Dumping contracts before they became prohibitive—like their trading of Scott Kazmir—provided freedom to do other things they would otherwise not have been able to do like trade for an established closer in Rafael Soriano.

They’ve opened baseball academies in countries where baseball isn’t a known entity; I’ve long thought there were ripe areas to explore in the Middle East, Europe, Africa and South America. The Rays are doing that and finding players whose athletic skills would’ve been on a soccer field rather than a diamond; they’re bound to find players in this manner and other clubs will by copying them.

Of course, sports is reliant on people and their performance; you can’t look at the numbers, calculate a formula and automatically expect the desired result—it doesn’t work that way. In any endeavor of dealing with human beings, there are bound to be times for a necessary and conscious decision to deviate from established praxis.

The front office and manager Joe Maddon are aware of this; Maddon is allowed the freedom within structure to defer to his baseball wisdom—accrued through years and years of doing anything and everything within the game—and run his team as a man with a brain and not as some faceless, middle-managing automaton.

Maddon isn’t under threat of job security if one of his off-beat maneuvers doesn’t work. I’m on record as saying that I don’t like the way Maddon game-manages; nor am I a fan of his quirky “theme trips” like players wearing hockey jerseys on the road. I’m the “you’re wearing a coat and tie and shut up” guy; but Maddon’s style is suited to the Rays from the front office through the players.

Sections in the book—such as the discussion of how the Rays missed out on Albert Pujols (it’s specious and mentioned that every team except the Cardinals missed on Pujols); and the battle for viability with no money and a terrible ballpark—drag a bit; but this is no love letter to the Rays way of doing business at the expense of dissenting thought.

All voices are heard without ridicule or dismissal.

The Extra 2% and the Rays turnaround under a strict budget is compared to the Moneyball model, but Moneyball and The Extra 2% are sparsely compatible. You can almost see Keri’s subtle and lightly expressed eye-rolling at the cut-and-dried nature in which Moneyball was presented as a biblical text; that the implication in Moneyball of “if you don’t do it this way, you’re a moron; Billy Beane is Midas, period” is viewed with disdain.

The Extra 2% is not Moneyball and like other strategies, the narrative therein cannot be copied by mirroring what the Rays have done. Each circumstance is different. One question postulated and answered is whether the Rays would be able to run their club the way they do if they were in a more scrutinizing market with a fan base that reacted angrily if something like trading a Kazmir was done while the team was still in a moderate form of contention.

The easy answer is no.

But given the fearlessness with which the front office has squeezed every ounce of use they could from the players they’ve had and dispatched them without remorse, I believe they would run the team in the best way based on the bottom line of winning and doing it within their financial parameters; it’s a testament to the strategy. It’s not about taking Wall Street to baseball; it’s about doing what is necessary to maximize the investment and that, more than anything else, is the overriding theme of the book.

The Rays way is done without smugness, condescension or abuse; it’s systematic and it works. You’ll see that in Keri’s book.

Speaking of books, my book got a nice shoutout on Twitter from WCBS in New York sportscaster Otis Livingston.

olivingstonnyc

You can’t start your baseball season off right before checking out http://amzn.to/hSJEEO and get my buddy @PRINCE_OF_NY book.. I did!

I published a full excerpt on Wednesday here.

The book is available  now. Click here to get it in paperback or E-Book on I-Universe or on Amazon or BN. It’s also available via E-book on Borders.com.


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