On Jason Heyward, the Cubs and Theo Epstein’s philosophy

MLB, Uncategorized

Heyward

Baseball general managers have their philosophies that frequently blur the line between belief systems and biases. The struggles of Jason Heyward are indicative of how Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein relies on that foundation to repeat similar mistakes made in the past — mistakes he should have learned from. Now the club is essentially trapped in the current situation with few alternatives but to accept and adapt.

The defenses and excuses for Heyward have run out. In 2016, his dreadful first season in Chicago was camouflaged by the Cubs run to the World Series and “saved”€ by the folk tale of his inspiring rain delay speech that roused the reeling Cubs from their punch-drunk stagger after the Indians had tied World Series Game 7 with an eighth inning rally. In 2017, the afterglow of that championship and Heyward’s supposed role in winning it saved him from the deserved vitriol that otherwise would be directed at such a monumental bust.

Although it’s still early in the 2018 season, the number of fixes, repairs, glitches, hitches and flaws that have befallen Heyward and their attempts to return him to some semblance of the player the Cubs thought they were getting have grown moldy, repetitive and tiresome like that preposterous story from the World Series. Two-plus seasons of popgun offense and admittedly still superlative defense have settled into the acceptance stage of the grieving process. This is what he is. Maybe he’ll give them 10 home runs and a .710 OPS –€“ if they’€™re lucky. Apart from that, there is a reasonable argument to say that he should not even be an everyday part of the lineup.

For all the statements about objective analysis as the driving force in decisions made in today’s game, Heyward’s 8-year, $184 million contract is the only thing saving him from being a defensive replacement in the late innings as the Cubs hope to get something of use from him apart from his glove and his “leadership” — something that, in most cases, the sabermetric community scoffs at.

When the contract was signed, the non-SABR community was bewildered at why a good but not great player with a history of injuries who didn’€™t appear to like baseball very much was so in demand. This is not to blame the Cubs. The Cardinals, Nationals and Yankees had interest in Heyward. Had the Cubs not paid him, someone else would have. That a player who was never mentioned as elite got to that point speaks to the overemphasis on statistics, projections and the intangibles — the latter of which SABR advocates downplay when it is inconvenient to their argument.

Heyward was a cumulative player whose age and widespread talents accrued enough production that his wins above replacement (WAR) was high enough to assuage any legitimate concerns about him.

He didn’€™t hit a lot of home runs, but he was a Gold Glove-caliber right fielder who could also play center field. He didn’€™t hit for a high average, but he walked a fair amount. He stole double-digits in bases and had a solid success rate when he did run. He was 26. It’€™s doubtful the Cubs or any team is planning on the worst-case scenario when paying a player so lucratively, but in Heyward’€™s worst-case scenario, they’d get great defense, some speed, some pop and an overall good player who would contribute to what they were building.

But now it is the worst-case scenario in that €™they’re stuck with a minimally productive player who’s in the lineup almost solely because of his salary.

This is wedded in Epstein’€™s theoretical-based way of constructing his teams. He attaches himself to certain players and won’€™t let go. In Boston, it was Hanley Ramirez who was traded while Epstein was in time-out after a tiff with Larry Lucchino and who he repeatedly tried to reacquire once he returned to run the Red Sox. Ben Cherington –€“ an Epstein acolyte — eventually made it happen once Epstein was gone and the results have been up and down. In Chicago, he’€™s had John Lackey, Jon Lester and Anthony Rizzo –€“ all of whom were or are successes in Chicago. However, that attachment has also led to players like Heyward being hopelessly overpaid for what they provide amid embarrassingly transparent excuses continually proffered as to what the unseen contributions are with cherrypicked numbers used as justifications for his undeserved playing time.

Epstein’€™s resume will get him elected to the Hall of Fame. He’ll have earned enshrinement. Breaking two longstanding curses€ and winning long-awaited World Series in both Boston and Chicago accord him an impenetrable shield. That does not mean he can do no wrong and that he doesn’€™t make mistakes. Heyward is one of them and the Cubs will be paying for it through 2023.

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NLDS Playoffs Preview and Predictions – Atlanta Braves vs. Los Angeles Dodgers

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Atlanta Braves (96-66) vs. Los Angeles Dodgers (92-70)

Keys for the Braves: Their young starting pitchers must handle the pressure; get the ball to Craig Kimbrel; hope that B.J. Upton continues his past playoff performances; don’t let etiquette get in the way.

Tim Hudson was lost for the year when his ankle was stepped on by Eric Young Jr. of the Mets. Paul Maholm was left off the division series roster entirely. That leaves the Braves with a preliminary starting rotation for the NLDS of Kris Medlen, Mike Minor, Julio Teheran and…Freddy Garcia(?). Yes. The Braves left Maholm off the roster in favor of Garcia. In truth, Garcia might actually be a better bet than Maholm. He’s got the experience and won’t be rattled, plus he pitched well in his time with the Braves. We’ll see if the Braves follow through with the decision if they’re down two games to one in Los Angeles.

For the record, I’d have started Teheran in the opening game.

The young pitchers have to pitch well. It sounds simplistic, but it’s true. The Braves offense is shaky and they’ve taken one of the primary home run hitters, Dan Uggla, off the roster in favor of Elliot Johnson. If they don’t get serviceable starting pitching, they’re not going to win.

Kimbrel is a machine in the closer’s role and the rest of the bullpen has been solid. One thing manager Fredi Gonzalez has truly improved upon is how he handles his relievers.

B.J. Upton found himself on the cover of Sports Illustrated along with his brother Justin Upton and Kate Upton. The only reason I can see for this is to sell a few more magazines because Kate Upton is on the cover. If that was the idea, then perhaps they should have put her in a bikini and had her lounging around the batting cage in various states of undress. Otherwise, you can download much racier images of her from the internet and not spend the money to get SI.

On the field, B.J. Upton had a history of doing well in the playoffs with the Rays when he had seven career homers in 25 post-season games. It was also B.J. who didn’t hustle on a double play ball in the World Series against the Phillies five years ago, so either or both of his on-field M.O. – the lazy player or the playoff masher – could show up.

I didn’t discuss this when it happened, but now is as good a time as any: precisely who do the Braves think they are? For the second time in September, the Braves got into a confrontation with the opposing team because of a breach of etiquette. First it was with the Marlins after pitcher Jose Fernandez homered and stood admiring it. The second was with Brewers’ outfielder Carlos Gomez for doing the same thing and yelled at Maholm as he was running around the bases. There was history between the two following a hit by pitcher earlier in the season. Freddie Freeman had a fit, Brian McCann intercepted Gomez before he got to the plate and gave him a loud, red-faced lecture and Reed Johnson took a swing at Gomez.

In both cases, for some inexplicable reason, the opposing teams and players apologized to the Braves.

Why?

This attitude is bringing back memories of the days before Chipper Jones became a respected and popular player throughout baseball and his mouth and overt love for himself made him one of the most reviled players in the game. The Braves of the 1990s were arrogant, condescending and obnoxious. It wasn’t done in a blustery, cocky way either. It was a smug, “we’re better bred than you” type of attitude you might see at Georgia Republican fundraiser where Newt Gingrich was the guest of honor.

Who elected them as keepers of etiquette? And why don’t they pull that stuff with a team like the Phillies who would tell them to go screw themselves if they did?

I’d like to see what the Braves are going to do if Yasiel Puig does a little showboating in the playoffs. Are they going to pull the same nonsense? If they do, someone’s going to get drilled because Zack Greinke doesn’t put up with that stuff and the Dodgers have a few tough guys of their own. Suffice it to say there won’t be an apology.

Keys for the Dodgers: Get good starting pitching; hand the game straight to Kenley Jansen; don’t change their game plan.

With Clayton Kershaw, Greinke an Hyun-Jin Ryu in the first three games of the series, the Dodgers have a distinct advantage over their younger counterparts. Kershaw has been all-but unhittable; Greinke not far behind; and Ryu is the type of pitcher who shines in the post-season with his crafty lefty stuff. All three are mean and all three will only have to worry about certain segments of the Braves lineup.

The Dodgers set-up men have been inconsistent, but their closer is dominating. It’s important to get depth from the starters and try to hand it right over to Jansen.

There has been concern about the potency of the Dodgers’ offense because Matt Kemp is out and Andre Ethier is hurting. It’s not something to worry about. They have enough power with Puig, Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez and Juan Uribe, a player who has hit some big homers in the post-season. They shouldn’t worry about making up for the power that’s missing. They have enough to get by.

What will happen:

The Braves clearly looked at the pluses and minuses of playing Uggla at second base. He’s become like Carlos Pena without the defense. He either hits a home run, walks or strikes out and is a defensive liability. With both Uggla and B.J. Upton batting under .200 this season, much has been made of the combined amounts of money they’re making – over $25 million in 2013 – for that dreadful production. Suffice it to say that if the Braves didn’t win and hadn’t been so adept at developing prospects, GM Frank Wren would have a lot to answer for.

Johnson isn’t a particularly strong defensive second baseman either and he doesn’t hit much. This says more about Uggla at this juncture than it does about Johnson. It’s a risky move to pull and if the other bats don’t hit, they’re going to regret it.

What it comes down to for the Braves is if the Upton brothers hit and Jason Heyward is completely recovered from his beaning. The Braves are notoriously vulnerable to lefties and the Dodgers have two lefty starters and two lefties in the bullpen.

Ramirez has been on a mission this season; Gonzalez is back to the player he was before he joined the Red Sox; Puig is the kind of player who might use the post-season as his grand stage and hit five homers in the series; and the Dodgers starting pitching is simply better.

The Braves have too many holes in the lineup, too many vulnerabilities, too many questions surrounding their young starters and too much animosity has been built up against them throughout baseball for a veteran team like the Dodgers to back down.

The Dodgers will send the Braves back to charm school.

PREDICTION: DODGERS IN FOUR




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The Cubs Abandon The Pump, Now We Wait For The Dump

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Financial terminology is now popular in baseball and the Cubs were trying to use the strategy of inflating a stock as much as they could before selling it. The stock is closer Carlos Marmol whose time with the Cubs is either limited to the rest of this season after which he’ll become a free agent or anytime before then if a team is willing to take him. When the Cubs signed Japanese free agent Kyuji Fujikawa, it was no secret that he was their closer for the future, but they still have Marmol making $9.8 million this season and would desperately love to: A) save some money on that deal; B) get a prospect or two for him if he’s pitching well; or C) both of these.

The Cubs are in the middle of a rebuild but they’re not being as despicably overt in not caring whether they win or lose as the Astros are. They’re simultaneously trying to straddle the line of competitiveness and showing respect to their loyal fans and the spirit of pennant races and clearing out all the dead money from the Cubs of 2006-2011 and bringing in free agents such as Edwin Jackson. Sometimes wins must be risked in order to try and inflate the stock (Marmol) and hope he’ll come through. Marmol’s appeared in three games this season. In the first, he received a “hold” and allowed 1 run in 1/3 of an inning. In the second, he got a save, but gave up 2 runs and 3 hits. Last night, in his third and presumably last chance, he entered the game in the ninth inning against the Braves with a 5-4 lead, surrendered a game-tying home run to B.J. Upton, retired Jason Heyward on a fly ball to left field, then bookended the elder Upton’s homer by giving up a game-ending homer to his younger sibling Justin Upton.

After the game, Cubs manager Dale Sveum implied that he might switch closers with the cryptic, “We’re definitely going to talk about it now.” Then this morning, the switch was made official with Fujikawa taking over. Obviously he talked about it with his coaches, but he also required approval from GM Jed Hoyer, team president Theo Epstein and the rest of the front office before making the switch because while the players and coaches definitely wanted to make the change, the front office was still hoping that they’d be able to get another team thinking that Marmol can help them if the Cubs straighten him out.

Fujukawa didn’t distinguish himself either allowing 3 runs in the eighth inning and although Sveum mentioned Shawn Camp and James Russell as options, they only had one choice and it was Fujikawa.

The extensive consultation is indicative of the new way in which baseball is run with the manager having to get approval for such a maneuver that, years ago, would have been left at his discretion. The reality is that the Cubs couldn’t keep putting Marmol out there and tell the other players and fans that they’re doing everything they can to try and win. This isn’t an isolated loss of control or a slump that might happen to any closer, it’s a continuous trend of lack of control and propensity to give up the home run ball that make it too risky to put him in the game in the ninth inning, especially when they have his heir apparent on the roster and waiting to be handed the job.

No one would be fooled by Marmol if he saved five straight games. Perhaps a change-of-scenery can help him. He still strikes people out and has a 95-mph fastball and strikeout slider, but he’s almost useless to the Cubs as a pitcher and as trade bait, so they might as well stick Fujikawa in as the closer and accept that Marmol can’t help them as a Cub or as an asset to trade. The stock has reached its low level and they’re not getting anything for it.

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National League Breakout/Rebound Candidates (Or Cheap Gets For Your Fantasy Team)

All Star Game, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Games, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Waiver Trades, MVP, PEDs, Players, Playoffs, Spring Training, Stats, Trade Rumors, World Series

Last week, I looked at breakout/rebound candidates for the American League, some of whom will be very, very cheap pickups for your fantasy clubs. Now I’ll look at the National League.

Wilson Ramos, C—Washington Nationals

Ramos is coming back from a torn ACL in his knee and because the Nationals traded for Kurt Suzuki from the Athletics last season, there’s no need to rush Ramos back before he’s 100%. But he will eventually take over as the starting catcher and it’s not just because he’s a future All-Star and potential Gold Glove winner.

Suzuki is a competent everyday catcher who’s shown 15 homer power in the past. Even if he’s not hitting, the Nationals lineup is strong enough to carry one mediocre bat and Suzuki’s good with the pitchers.

There’s a financial component though. Suzuki has a club option in his contract for 2014 at $8.5 million. The option becomes guaranteed if Suzuki starts 113 games in 2013. Barring another injury to Ramos, that is not going to happen. Ramos will be catching 5 of every 7 games by the summer.

Freddie Freeman, 1B—Atlanta Braves

It’s easy to forget about Freeman due to the number of power-hitting first basemen around baseball, but he’s gotten steadily better every year as a professional and with the infusion of Justin Upton and B.J. Upton into the lineup, plus Brian McCann, Jason Heyward and Dan Uggla, teams won’t be worried about Freeman’s power leading to him getting more pitches to hit.

Lucas Duda, LF—New York Mets

Given the Mets on-paper outfield (Collin Cowgill, Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Mike Baxter, Marlon Byrd, Marv Throneberry, George Theodore, Jan Brady, Cindy Brady, Gilligan, Barnaby Jones, Cannon), there’s plenty of fodder for ridicule. Duda is the butt of jokes because of his last name; that he’s a bad outfielder; because he seems so quiet and reticent. The criticism is missing an important factor: he can hit, hit for power and walk. If the Mets tell him he’s their starting left fielder, period, they’ll be rewarded with 25-30 homers and a .360+ on base percentage. So will fantasy owners.

Bobby Parnell, RHP—New York Mets

With Frank Francisco sidelined with elbow woes, Parnell has been named the Mets’ closer…for now. They have Brandon Lyon on the team and are still said to be weighing Jose Valverde. None of that matters. Parnell was going to get the shot at some point this season and with a little luck in Washington last season when defensive miscues cost him an impressive and legitimate old-school, fireman-style save, he would’ve taken the role permanently back then.

Jacob Turner, RHP—Miami Marlins

The Tigers were concerned about Turner’s velocity at the end of spring training 2012 and he wound up being traded to the Marlins in the deal for Omar Infante and Anibal Sanchez. He acquitted himself well in seven starts for the Marlins and will be in the 2013 rotation from start to finish. He has all the pitches, a great curve, command and presence.

Justin Ruggiano, CF—Miami Marlins

It’s natural to wonder if a player who has his breakout year at age 30 is a product of unlocked talent and opportunity or a brief, freak thing that will end as rapidly as it came about.

Ruggiano has been a very good minor league player who never got a shot to play in the big leagues. He took advantage of it in 2012 and will open the season as the Marlins starting center fielder.

Billy Hamilton, CF—Cincinnati Reds

The Reds have major expectations in 2013 and much of their fortunes hinge on their pitching staff; they’re functioning with Shin-Soo Choo playing an unfamiliar position in center field; at mid-season (or earlier) it may become clear that Choo can’t play the position well enough for the pitchers nor to bluff their way through to the playoffs. Hamilton is in Triple A learning center field after a shift from the infield and can make up for any educational curve with sheer, blinding speed that has yielded 320 stolen bases in 379 minor league games. He also provides something they lack: a legitimate leadoff hitter and an exciting spark that other teams have to plan for.

Vince Coleman spurred the 1985 Cardinals to the pennant by distracting the opposing pitchers into derangement and opening up the offense for Willie McGee to win the batting title and Tommy Herr and Jack Clark to rack up the RBI. The same thing could happen with Hamilton, Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Choo.

Jason Grilli, RHP—Pittsburgh Pirates

Grilli is a first time closer at age 36, but he’s a late-bloomer with a fastball in the mid-90s and a ripping strikeout slider. The Pirates starting pitching and offense are good enough to provide Grilli with enough save chances to make him worthwhile as a pickup.

Kyuji Fujikawa, RHP—Chicago Cubs

Fujikawa was a strikeout machine as a closer in Japan and history has proven that Japanese closers tend to transition to North America much better than starters without the fanfare. Takashi Saito and Kazuhiro Sasaki are examples.

The Cubs are in full-blown rebuild and will trade incumbent closer Carlos Marmol during the season. They’ll let him close at the outset to boost his value, then dump him, handing the job to Fujukawa.

Dale Thayer, RHP—San Diego Padres

Closer Huston Street is injury prone and the Padres, for whatever reason, don’t think much of Luke Gregerson (they tried to trade him to the Mets for Daniel Murphy and when Street was out last season, they let Thayer take over as closer.)

Thayer has a strikeout slider that leads stat-savvy teams like the Rays, Mets, and Padres continually picking him up. If Street gets hurt, Thayer will get closing chances.

Yasmani Grandal, C—San Diego Padres

His PED suspension has tarnished his luster, but he’s still a top catching prospect and once he’s reinstated, there’s no reason for the Padres not to play him with Nick Hundley and John Baker ahead of Grandal. Neither of the veteran catchers will be starting for the Padres when they’re ready to contend; Grandal will. He hits and he gets on base.

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

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

The draft pick

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

2003: Michael Aubrey

2004: Neil Walker

2005: Andrew McCutchen

2006: Max Scherzer

2007: Phillippe Aumont*

2008: Justin Smoak*

2009: Tyler Matzek**

2010: Deck McGuire**

*Aumont and Smoak were both traded for Cliff Lee.

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

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

2003: Chad Billingsley, Carlos Quentin

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

2005: Jay Bruce, Jacoby Ellsbury, Clay Buchholz

2006: Ian Kennedy, Joba Chamberlain

2007: Jason Heyward, Rick Porcello

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

2009: Mike Trout, Tyler Skaggs, Brad Boxberger

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

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

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

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

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

The money

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

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

Practicality

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

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

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

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

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

The bottom line

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

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

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

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National League East—2012 Present and 2013 Future

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Click to read about the AL East, Central, and West.

Here’s the NL East.

Washington Nationals

For some it’s a validation and for others it’s an unsatisfactory and paranoid result, but now that the Stephen Strasburg debate has been concluded once and for all, the Nationals are moving on without their best pitcher. They’ve taken a tremendous and rapid leap forward to the playoffs and an all-but-certain division title. They look identical to the Braves of 1991 with a young pitching staff; power bats; and an ownership willing to spend to keep the team together and aggressive enough to improve. They also have something those Braves never had: a bullpen. It’s that bullpen that will counteract the loss of Strasburg for the playoffs. In fact, it’s probably more important to have a deep, versatile bullpen in the playoffs than it is to have a great starting rotation. That’s something else the dominant Braves of 1991-2005 proved year-after-year.

The Nats are here to stay and we’d better get used to them being in the playoffs on an annual basis.

Atlanta Braves

The Braves overcame their collapse better than any other team in recent memory that experienced a similar meltdown. Part of that is due to manager Fredi Gonzalez’s acquiescence in not overusing the bullpen early in the season; Jason Heyward’s comeback season; Michael Bourn’s full-season in his walk year; Kris Medlen’s second-half brilliance with the club overcoming underachievement from Tommy Hanson, ineffectiveness from Jair Jurrjens, the injury to Brandon Beachy, and the stagnation of Randall Delgado.

Their ownership doesn’t spend a lot of money, so it’s hard to see them keeping Bourn. Brian McCann is a free agent after 2013, but with Chipper Jones’s money coming off the books and McCann’s status as a Georgia native, that will get worked out.

With or without spending, the Braves have enough young talent to be contenders for the future.

On a note about the Braves’ bullpen, Craig Kimbrel has been all-but unhittable. I get the sense that the NL Cy Young Award voting will split between R.A. Dickey and Gio Gonzalez and Kimbrel’s going to win it.

Philadelphia Phillies

Now that the dreams of a miraculous comeback suffered a deathblow in Houston by losing 3 of 4 against the rancid Astros, then resuscitated briefly by humiliating the Mets, the Braves all but ended the Phillies’ hopes over the weekend as Roy Halladay got blasted on Saturday in the game the Phillies absolutely had to win.

Now what?

They underachieved in 2012 with a payroll of $170 million-plus and are very old. They re-signed Cole Hamels and with he, Halladay, and Cliff Lee, along with Jonathan Papelbon in the bullpen, they’ll be playoff contenders in 2013. The vault is not going to be as wide open as it was, so any thoughts of Zack Greinke should end now. They’ll need starting pitching so it’s more likely that they pursue a Dan Haren type—a good starter coming off a bad year and on a short-term deal. They need a center fielder and there’s been talk of a reunion with Michael Bourn. I would not overpay for Bourn, but GM Ruben Amaro Jr. tends to go after what he wants regardless of cost. I’d also expect Ryan Madson to return to the Phillies as a set-up man following his Tommy John surgery and lost year with the Reds, and he’ll be good.

It appears as if all systems are go for Chase Utley to move to third base, but his knees are a chronic problem. If he’s unable to start the season again, then the Phillies will be right back where they started from trusting Freddy Galvis at second and having a black hole at third. They desperately need an outfield bat of the Cody Ross variety—affordable and pretty good. If I were Amaro, I’d call the Indians about Asdrubal Cabrera.

New York Mets

Because of their second half nosedive, they’re still viewed as something of a laughingstock, but when examining even worse situations such as the Marlins, Astros, Red Sox, Cubs; and teams that spent big and haven’t gotten bang for their bucks with the Tigers, Phillies, Angels, and Dodgers, the Mets are in a pretty good position.

The young pitching prospects Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler will join Jonathon Niese and R.A. Dickey in the rotation at some point in 2013, and they also have young arms Jeurys Familia and Jenrry Mejia. Jason Bay and Johan Santana are coming off the books after 2013 (unless they can trade one or both for commensurately expiring deals), so they’ll have money to spend after 2013.

This doom and gloom is based on looking for reasons to tear into the organization. The low minor leagues is increasingly well-stocked.

They need a catcher who can hit and desperately have to get a bat for the middle and top of the lineup. Names to pursue are Justin Upton, Shin-Soo Choo, Dexter Fowler, Ian Kinsler, B.J. Upton, and Shane Victorino.

I’d stay away from Bourn.

Miami Marlins

I wrote about them yesterday, but just when it seemed as if it couldn’t get worse, it got worse.

Heath Bell went on a radio show and basically called manager Ozzie Guillen a liar. The host of the show, Dan Sileo, prodded Bell while doling responsibility on everyone but Bell. It’s an awful interview by an awful interviewer topped off by ridiculous baseball analysis. You can find it here.

Whether or not Bell is accurate in his criticism is irrelevant. That Bell still can’t keep quiet is indicative of one of the main problems the Marlins have had: no veteran leader to stand in the middle of the clubhouse and speak up. It was Bell’s dreadful performance that, more than anything else, set the stage for the Marlins’ terrible season. But he…won’t…shut…UP!!!!

Braves’ manager Gonzalez, who was fired by the Marlins, said of Marlins’ owner Jeffrey Loria:

“There’s not a manager dead or alive that Jeffrey thinks is good enough. Not Connie Mack, not anyone.”

Loria called the comments “classless.” Does it help that the comments are 100% true?

It’s going to get worse from here for the Marlins as they plan to cut payroll from $95 million to $70-80 million. (Bet on the under.) It remains to be seen who’s going to get fired and who isn’t, but they’ll desperately try to unload Bell and if that means attaching him to any deal in which a club wants to acquire Josh Johnson, then that’s what they’ll do.

I believe Johnson will be traded this winter; Jose Reyes will be traded during the season in 2013, as will Ricky Nolasco.

All of that said, the Marlins do have some young talent with the acquisitions they made of Nathan Eovaldi, Jacob Turner, and Rob Brantly to go along with the monster Giancarlo Stanton, so they’re not going to be an atrocity and they certainly won’t be as bad as they were in 2012.

Those advocating or actively pursuing a new stadium for the Rays need to take note what’s happened with the Marlins. Florida fans are simply not invested enough in baseball to make it a worthwhile expenditure for either private investors of public referendum. The ballpark should not have been built. Either the club should’ve been contracted, allowed to move to a baseball-friendly venue in the United States, or they should’ve sat tight and waited out the end of the Castro regime in Cuba, hoped for a new, free country 90 miles away from Miami, and moved the team there.

An MLB team in Cuba would be huge. Instead there’s a beautiful new park in Miami with few fans and a top-to-bottom case study in dysfunction and absence of responsibility. It’s a train wreck.

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Don’t Blame Fredi This Time

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What’s wrong with the Braves?

Is it the pitching?

Is it manager Fredi Gonzalez and his coaches?

Is if the offense?

What?

Mike Minor has been mostly dreadful; Randall Delgado inconsistent; Jair Jurrjens was on the trade block and was sent to the minors; and Brandon Beachy was brilliant before he got hurt. They were one of the few teams in baseball that didn’t have a starting pitching issue before the season but are now on the lookout for starting pitching with a pursuit of Zack Greinke in the offing.

Gonzalez has made a conscious effort—in conjunction with the front office—to limit the use of his more trusted relievers Jonny Venters, Craig Kimbrel and Eric O’Flaherty. He’s still done the inexplicable “Fredis” such as when he left Venters in to pitch to Alex Rodriguez with the bases loaded as the tying run at the plate. Naturally A-Rod homered to tie the game and the Braves lost.

With Gonzalez as manager, these gaffes are tacitly accepted and understood.

The Braves’ offense is, statistically, much better and that credit could grudgingly go to new hitting coach Greg Walker. Former coach Larry Parrish advocated an aggressive approach that resulted last season’s .308 OBP and finishing 10th in the NL in runs scored. This season their OBP has risen to .323 and they’re 4th in runs scored.

How much of that is due to Walker and the dismissal of Parrish are realistic questions. Their clubwide pitches per plate appearance ratio is up from 3.79 to 3.87. Dan Uggla and Jason Heyward have improved noticeably in that regard. Is it that the Braves are waiting for their pitches to hit or that they have Michael Bourn for a full season, a healthy Heyward and an Uggla off to a better start? Brian McCann and Freddie Freeman are both far behind where they were last season. Does Parrish get the credit for the good things or just the blame for the bad things? Is that the criteria for Walker and Gonzalez. What’s more important: results, process or perception?

The Braves’ main issues have been on the mound. So does pitching coach Roger McDowell come under fire? Or is it explainable by Jurrjens’ decreased luck and the aforementioned pitchers who are struggling and hurt?

There’s no reason for a team with this level of talent to be barely over .500 and 6 games out of first place. But that’s where the Braves are. Those with an ulterior motive to get rid of Gonzalez for the greater good would love to latch onto this mediocrity as validation to make a change, but in reality if they had Bobby Cox back in the dugout running things, I’m not so sure they’d be much better than where they are right now. Gonzalez’s job could be in jeopardy in the near or distant future, but if they were going to fire him they should’ve done it after the collapse of 2011 and not now.

It would be strangely ironic if Gonzalez survived when he probably should’ve been replaced and is fired for the first half of 2012 when there’s no much he could’ve done differently.

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The “Other” Collapse

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While the trail of controversy, drastic changes and clubhouse disharmony is surrounding the Red Sox, there was another embarrassing collapse in Atlanta with the Braves.

Shortly after they completed the disaster by losing in extra innings to the Phillies, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said that his entire coaching staff would return intact.

This was about 12 hours later.

It was absurd to suggest that a team like the Red Sox doesn’t have the right to consider a managerial change from Terry Francona following the way they came apart.

So it was similar that it was patently ridiculous for Gonzalez to say the Braves wouldn’t make any changes.

This point was hammered home on Friday when the Braves fired hitting coach Larry Parrish.

Amid all the fingers pointed at the injuries to the Braves starting rotation and the overwork of the bullpen, the big problem was the offense. Parrish advocated an aggressive approach and it cost the Braves dearly in their on-base percentage, runs scored and walks. Even hitters who have historically walked a lot, Dan Uggla and Chipper Jones, didn’t in 2011.

Holding Parrish responsible for that is right and fair and Gonzalez had better be careful if they get off to a slow start next year because GM Frank Wren is not going to sit by quietly and watch his team—loaded with talent and in a nightmarish division—get off to an 18-25 start and not make a move.

Gonzalez was publicly castrated when Parrish was fired and it was a message.

The other stories surrounding the Braves involved Derek Lowe and Jason Heyward not being guaranteed to maintain their current positions in 2012.

Lowe’s 9-17 record and ERA over 5 speak for themselves; but he still only allowed 14 homers in 187 innings; he’s in the last year of his contract at $15 million and if they’re sufficiently motivated to move him for another expensive contract, someone will take him. 200 innings are 200 innings.

With Heyward, the Braves clearly didn’t learn the lessons of overhyping a young player after what happened with Jeff Francoeur. Heyward’s sudden fall is mirroring that of Francouer. Francoeur was called “The Natural”; Heyward was compared to Willie Mays and Willie McCovey and both found themselves to be targets when they didn’t achieve those heights.

Now that Heyward’s been booed, criticized, ripped and benched for not living up to that idiotic comparison, Wren—who had a major rift with Francouer—is threatening Heyward’s job.

There are even stories being circulated that the Braves might be better off trading Heyward.

That’s not going to happen, but if Heyward flames out in Atlanta the way Francouer did, the Braves have no one to blame but themselves and need to seriously reconsider the way they treat their would-be star position players.

Once is a mistake; twice is a trend and they’re well on the way of having the same thing happen again.

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The Aftermath Of Chaos—The Red Sox/Braves Collapses

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Let’s sift through the carnage.

Job security.

It’s fair to examine the whys concerning two teams that seemingly had playoff spots locked up and both fell apart. It’s reasonable to assess everyone’s job performance and come to an unemotional conclusion as to whether minor or major changes should be made.

With the Red Sox, I would expect something blockbuster in player personnel to be done. I’m talking about a massive trade of a name player or players.

With the Braves, don’t be surprised to see them go for an offensive force like Jose Reyes.

As for the managers, the idea that Terry Francona and Fredi Gonzalez should automatically be fired is idiotic; but so is the ironclad assertion that both should return without question.

It has to be analyzed.

Having watched Gonzalez with the Marlins and Braves, I was wrong about him in thinking he’d be fine as Braves manager. He makes too many strategic mistakes that a team fighting for a playoff spot can’t afford to have happen and I’d fire him.

I doubt the Braves will do that. If anything, they’ll make changes on the coaching staff, namely hitting coach Larry Parrish.

With the Red Sox, there’s a possibility that they will fire Francona.

I wouldn’t do that, but it’s their right if they feel it’s necessary to get a new voice in the clubhouse.

The Red Sox have to ask themselves whether they think another manager would’ve done a better job with the starting pitching in disarray; with unlocking Carl Crawford‘s talent; with patching together an injury-riddled bullpen along with handling the stifling, worldwide media attention the Red Sox attract and cultivate.

I don’t see who could’ve or would’ve done any better than Francona, but it’s their call.

If they do decide to make a change, one thing they absolutely cannot do is say something to the tune of, “we decided not to exercise Terry’s contract options; it’s not a firing; it’s moving in a new direction”.

That’s what they did to Grady Little and were hammered for it after the fact.

Fire him if you’re going to fire him. Be done with it and move on.

Michael Kay’s creepy world of “analysis” in the form of sycophancy and self-involved attacks.

In the midst of his rant about the Mets and Reyes’s individual decision to pull himself out of what was possibly his last game as a Met and try (successfully) to win the batting title, Michael Kay also defended the Yankees for their decision to play their regulars sparingly and use 4th tier pitchers in the series against the Rays.

The Yankees owed nothing to the Red Sox nor to the Rays. They didn’t “dump” the games like some latter day group of 1919 Black Sox, but they didn’t go all-out to win.

There’s a difference.

Saying the Yankees were trying as hard as they could needs to be placed in its proper context. By the metric of playing their starters and using their top players as the Phillies did against the Braves, the Yankees didn’t do that. Saying the players they used—Scott Proctor, Ramiro Pena, Greg Golson—tried as hard as they could is akin to saying that the Washington Generals try as hard as they can against the Harlem Globetrotters. Trying is great; winning is unlikely.

In a similar sense, the idea that the Red Sox spiral started with a series loss to the Yankees is a nice, neat, “we started this” story to get in on the action. The problem is there’s no factual evidence to support it. The Red Sox came undone because they were giving up 6+ runs every night after that Yankees series; not because of anything the Yankees mythic “aura” created.

Credit to the pursuers.

Much like the Phillies in 2007 against the Mets, the Rays played the Red Sox and beat the Red Sox. By doing that, they made their lives much easier in the chase.

The Braves haven’t hit well all year. Fingers will be pointed at Gonzalez and Parrish for that, but they were playing most of the season without a legitimate center fielder who could hit; with Jason Heyward needing to have the lowest grade dropped after his putrid (and injury-racked) sophomore season; Chipper Jones is more of a “threat emeritus” than someone for a team other than the Mets to be terrified of; and they had black holes in the lineup all year long.

Once they lost Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens, the offense couldn’t pick up the slack and the bullpen was tired from Gonzalez’s overuse.

The Cardinals and Rays played well over the final month to stage their comebacks, but neither had a ridiculous 2007 Rockies-style run of never losing a game.

What will happen.

I believe there is a very good chance that Francona will not be back as Red Sox manager.

Jonathan Papelbon will be allowed to leave. J.D. Drew, Marco Scutaro, Tim Wakefield and Jason Varitek will be gone. They will listen to some drastic suggestions like trading Kevin Youkilis. And they’ll desperately look for a taker on John Lackey.

Fredi Gonzalez will not be fired; Larry Parrish will be. The Braves will make a move for a bat—they certainly have the organizational depth to trade for someone big like Andre Ethier, Carlos Quentin or see if the Marlins will move Hanley Ramirez (doubtful). Or they could go after Reyes. A trade is far more probable.

I won’t speculate on what either will say to explain themselves and mute the pain and embarrassment.

That, like suggesting the 2011 Red Sox will compete with the 1927 Yankees, is something that will only be judged in hindsight.

Both have long, long, loooooong off-seasons ahead of them and they’re undoubtedly looking for reasonable, believable answers at this very moment.

I wouldn’t expect much in terms of reason and believability. But I’m a cynic. And thankfully don’t live in the fantasy world of Michael Kay.

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Frediot—Fredi Gonzalez Has Converted Me

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No. That’s not a good thing.

When he was hired as Braves manager to replace Bobby Cox, I tried to assuage the fears of Braves fans who’d only seen snippets of his managing style with the Marlins; who were concerned that there was no actual interview process and that Fredi Gonzalez taking over was more of an old boys’ club anointing; that his history with the Marlins didn’t bode well for a team like the Braves who were expected to win.

I was wrong.

The Braves are teetering precariously close to gacking up a playoff spot that should’ve been wrapped up a week ago and a large part of that is due to their manager.

I’m not quibbling with his benching/platooning of Jason Heyward—Heyward’s obviously not 100% and he’s been atrocious against lefties. Nor am I going to get too crazy about the lack of patience among the lineup. While the aggressive approach is espoused by hitting coach Larry Parrish and obviously supported by Gonzalez, the Braves don’t exactly have an intimidating lineup; nor have the hitters—apart from Chipper Jones—ever been historically patient. Dan Uggla‘s walks are down, but he accumulated the high walk totals earlier in his career playing for…Fredi Gonzalez.

He might have been use his relievers more judiciously—but he hasn’t had a great deal of choice given the way his starting rotation has been decimated by injuries; he could conceivably have taken his foot off the gas and used Jonny Venters, Craig Kimbrel and Eric O’Flaherty less frequently, but their velocity and stuff has been consistent all year.

As for some of his maneuvers, there’s no defense. The one I remember most vividly was his brain-dead, “I’m gonna manage using stragety” in April against the reeling Mets when he called for a suicide squeeze with one out and the bases loaded; two strikes on pitcher Tommy Hanson with Eric Hinske was on third.

I understood the thought process—Hanson was the pitcher; Gonzalez could have Martin Prado leading off the next inning if it didn’t work—but the correct call was to tell Hanson to keep the bat on his shoulder, hope for a walk and leave it up to the speedy Prado to try to hit one into the gap or wreak some havoc with his legs.

Hanson missed the bunt and struck out, Hinske got caught in a rundown.

Just like that the Mets were out of the inning.

It was inexplicably horrible decision-making.

Last night he committed another egregious gaffe.

The Marlins were leading 3-0 in top of the seventh inning when, with 2 outs, Heyward doubled sending Brian McCann to third base against Marlins starter Javier Vazquez.

Jack Wilson came to the plate.

Jack Wilson can’t hit.

Worse, he’s gone from Jack Wilson to “Hack” Wilson with 9 walks in over 200 at bats this season.

Hinske was on the bench.

Neither Wilson nor Hinske have hit Vazquez well, but at least Hisnke is a threat to do something.

Wilson popped out to right field.

The next inning, Hinske was sent in to pinch hit for Jose Constanza.

Presumably it was because….

I have no idea what it was “because” of.

What good did it have to use Hinske to lead off the 8th inning when the proper time to use him was in the 7th when there were two runners in scoring position and the Braves were trailing by three?

These are just two examples and I’m quite certain that Braves fans will be able to point out at least a dozen more in which Gonzalez has either cost his team a game; could have cost his team a game; or misused his pitchers to accrue a possible cumulative fatigue that is affecting them as the season winds down.

I was wrong about Gonzalez.

I said he’d be fine. I said he’d make a few blunders, but for the most part would run the bullpen well and keep the team in line off the field while dealing with the media.

He has handled the clubhouse well and the media adequately while saying stupid things to explain away his ridiculous decisions; but he’s doing the one thing a manager cannot afford to do—costing his team games because of strategic mishaps.

The Braves won’t do it, but one of my criteria to make a managerial change is if the manager directly and negatively influences his club’s finish.

If the Braves miss the playoffs, it will be due to their manager Fredi Gonzalez.

And on that basis, I’d fire him.

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