We Know What’s Wrong With The Nats, But How Can It Be Fixed?

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The Nationals were expected to dominate. Instead, the team that won 98 games in 2012 and seemingly improved over the winter is under .500, out of contention and facing a large number of changes this off-season. It’s not hard to diagnose what went wrong and here’s a brief synopsis:

  • Injuries

The Nationals lost Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth, Wilson Ramos and Ross Detwiler for extended periods.

  • Underperformance

Dan Haren was signed to shore up the back of the rotation and has been awful. Drew Storen is out of his element as a set-up man and wound up back in the minors. Denard Span has been a disappointment. And Danny Espinosa’s numbers (.158/.193/.272 split with a .465 OPS and 3 homers) are worse than those of Cubs’ pitcher Travis Wood (.267/.298/.489 split with a .787 OPS and 3 homers).

  • Bad approach/bad luck

The Nats are seventh in the National League in home runs and next-to-last in the league in runs scored. They’re twelfth in the league in walks and fourteenth in on-base percentage. In 2013, they’re thirteenth in the league with a BAbip of .282; in 2012, they were fourth at .308.

  • Poor defense

The Nats’ catchers have caught 13 percent of the runners trying to steal on them. Anthony Rendon is a third baseman playing second. Ryan Zimmerman is in a defensive funk that’s gone of for the better part of two years.

  • Dysfunction

Manager Davey Johnson has openly clashed with general manager Mike Rizzo. Tyler Clippard ripped the organization for their demotion of his friend Storen. The players appear to have thought they’d have a cakewalk to the playoffs given the hype and star power.

In short, the Nats have gone from an embarrassment of riches to a plain embarrassment. With 2013 essentially over and 2012 long gone in the rearview mirror, what do the Nats have to do to get back to where they were supposed to be? What should they do?

With Rizzo having received a promotion and contract extension, it’s his baby. The luck/design argument is irrelevant. The Nationals happened to be the worst team in baseball two years in a row when once-a-generation talents were sitting there waiting to be picked first overall in Harper and Stephen Strasburg. That’s no one’s fault and to no one’s credit. It just is. Rizzo put a solid team together, but there’s been a semblance of overkill with the signings of Haren and Rafael Soriano. Haren’s performance in 2013 is indicative that his decline that began last season with the Angels was not an aberration. Soriano has pitched well, but he was not really a necessity for the Nats. He was available, they didn’t trust Storen and preferred Clippard as the set-up man. In retrospect, both were mistakes.

The question of who the manager will be going forward is vital. Johnson bears a large portion of the responsibility for this team’s underachievement. As great as his record is and as much as the media loves him for his personality and candor, Johnson’s style was a significant reason the 1980s Mets failed to live up to their talent level. He doesn’t care about defense, he trusts his players far too much in preaching aggressiveness, and the festering anger over the 2012 Strasburg shutdown—that I’m sure Johnson thinks cost his team a World Series—has manifested itself in open warfare between the manager and GM. If Johnson weren’t retiring at season’s end, Rizzo likely would’ve fired him a month ago along with hitting coach Rick Eckstein, or Johnson would simply have quit.

Johnson’s positives (he wins a lot of regular season games) don’t eliminate his negatives (he’s insubordinate and his teams are fundamentally weak). Thirty years ago, Johnson was seen as a computer geek manager. Nowadays, he’s considered a dinosaur. In reality, Johnson is and always has been a gambler and an arrogant one at that. His attitude is that the team he’s managing needs him more than he needs it. He doesn’t want people telling him what to do and he’s never taken well to front office meddling. The Strasburg shutdown and firing of his hitting coach are two instances in which Johnson would like to tell the front office to take a hike and let him run the team his way. Rizzo had problems with Johnson and his predecessor Jim Riggleman. With the next hire, he’d better get someone younger and on the same page. That doesn’t mean he should hire a yes man, but someone who he can work with sans this lingering tension and open disagreements.

With the personnel, a lesson can be learned from the Big Red Machine Reds from 1971. In 1970, GM Bob Howsam and manager Sparky Anderson had built a monster. The Reds won 102 games and lost the World Series to the Orioles. Widely expected to repeat as NL champs, they fell to 79-83 in 1971. With cold-blooded analysis, Howsam realized that the Reds were missing the elements of leadership, speed, intensity and defense, Howsam traded 39-homer man Lee May and starting second baseman Tommy Helms with Jimmy Stewart to the Astros for Joe Morgan, Cesar Geronimo, Jack Billingham, Ed Armbrister and Denis Menke. The clubhouse was transformed and they were suddenly a faster team with Gold Glovers at second base and in center field. In fact, it was that decried move that spurred their run to greatness.

Rizzo needs to look at the team’s deficiencies in the same way that Howsam did and act decisively. If that means getting a defensively oriented catcher, trading Ian Desmond, Clippard and some other names that are supposedly part of the team’s “core,” then they have to explore it. If a team underachieves from what they were supposed to be, there’s nothing wrong with dropping a bomb in the clubhouse. In fact, it’s necessary in order to get back on track. With their youth and talent, the Nats can get back to where they were with the right managerial choice and a gutty trade or two.

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Don’t Expect a Phillies Selloff

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Because they fall into the category of early-season disappointment, there’s already speculation as to a Phillies selloff at mid-season if they continue to play like a team that can finish with, at best, a .500 record. History has proven, however, that under GM Ruben Amaro Jr. any move that is made will be either to double-down and go for it in spite of widespread negativity and perception that they’re “done,” or he’ll make trades of players who aren’t keys to the team and those who won’t be part of the long-term future.

For all the criticism Amaro has received for mortgaging the future by gutting a fertile farm system for veterans, overpaying on contract extensions for players already on his roster, and essentially ignoring the draft, he had a different idea when he took over as GM after the 2008 season. What he wanted to do was maintain some semblance of a solid core of young players. This was the intention of trading away Cliff Lee for prospects as he was entering his free agent year and trading other prospects to acquire Roy Halladay who was willing to sign a long-term contract just to get out of Toronto and join a contender.

Amaro was savaged—by me included—for that decision and did a total about-face at mid-season 2010 first by trying to get Lee back from the plummeting Mariners, then filling the hole in the rotation that his plan created by acquiring Roy Oswalt. The Phillies had been rumored to be listening to offers for Jayson Werth at that point, were barely over .500 and fading. They got hot, won the NL East, advanced to the NLCS before losing to the eventual World Series champion Giants.

By then, there wasn’t a pretense of building for the present and the future. It was all-in for the now as evidenced by the advancing age of their roster and the subsequent acquisitions of Lee (as a free agent), Hunter Pence, and Jonathan Papelbon. Farm director Chuck LaMar resigned in a public dustup with Amaro because of the rapidly deteriorating farm system and lack of money available to repair it.

But what Amaro was doing was similar to what Theo Epstein wanted to do sans the ridiculous appellations of “genius” after the Red Sox 2004 World Series win. The expectations from the fans and media, as well as ownership demands, sabotaged what Epstein wanted to do and the Red Sox degenerated into a battle of one-upmanship with the Yankees as to who could spend the most money on the biggest free agents. It resulted in a dysfunctional group of mercenaries and organizational collapse culminating with the 69-93 showing in 2012 with rampant inter-organizational contretemps and hatred combined with a self-protective blame game from everyone involved.

The Phillies haven’t fallen to those depths yet. But with an aging and declining roster and few prospects on the way up, it will happen eventually.

The question is, what do they do about it?

The simple answer is: nothing.

Could the Phillies clean out the house at mid-season and save money for an on-the-fly rebuild by signing free agents and trading for players that other teams can no longer afford? Yes. Will they do that? Probably not.

When clubs are trading players in salary dumps, the get-back is usually not all that impressive. Many will point to the Red Sox salary dump of Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett to the Dodgers for a package of prospects including two who are impressive—Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa—but the key point being missed is that Gonzalez is still a star-level, MVP-caliber talent whom the Red Sox had surrendered three top prospects to acquire just a year-and-a-half earlier. Were they supposed to give him away just to get out from under the contract? And were the Dodgers just doing the Red Sox a favor along the lines of the nouveau riche just buying things they recognized?

The Dodgers also claimed Lee when the Phillies placed him on waivers last year. If there was an intention on the part of Amaro to extricate himself from Lee’s contract, he could’ve just handed him to the Dodgers and moved on. He didn’t do that and won’t do it this year with Lee unless he’s getting something back. If a team is accepting the $62.5 million Lee is guaranteed through 2015, they’re not surrendering a top-tier prospect for a soon-to-be 35-year-old with that much cash coming to him. Nor will they get significant packages of younsters for Halladay or Rollins. They might get something decent for Chase Utley, but it won’t be a franchise remaking deal that will be pointed to in 2017 as the building block for the next Phillies run.

There are other concerns in play here. It’s a ridiculous premise to believe that the GM has the final say in all personnel moves. Evidence of Amaro answering to his bosses was clear in the negotiations to retain Ryan Madson as the team’s closer after the 2011 season when the strongly cited rumors were that the Phillies had made a $44 million offer to Madson that the player and his agent Scott Boras accepted. Then when Amaro went to get approval from CEO David Montgomery, a hold was put on the agreement and a few days later, Papelbon was signed. In retrospect, with Madson not having thrown a Major League pitch for the two organizations he’s signed with since, Amaro and the Phillies were lucky it fell apart, regardless of who pulled the first thread as the catalyst of the fabric disintegrating.

Prior to the contract extension given to Cole Hamels, there was endless speculation that the staggering Phillies would trade him. Instead, they gave him what was, at the time, the richest contract ever given to a pitcher.

Apparently Amaro doesn’t read the rumors and do what they’re saying he’s about to do or supposed to do.

Another issue is the attendance factor. Amid all the talk that of the loyalty of Phillies’ fans and the daily sellouts during the club’s run of excellence, like most fanbases if the team isn’t contending and isn’t good, the fans aren’t going to go. This is part of the reason the Cubs have been so historically bad—there’s no motivation to consistently try and win because the fans show up either way. It would take annual contention over the long-term (a decade) and at least one World Series win for the Cubs to: A) lose the lovable loser mantle they so proudly wallow in; and B) accumulate the apathy that comes from fans being disgusted with losing when they expected to win to the point that they’ll find something to do other than going to the park.

That’s not so with the Phillies. If the fans see a team without Lee, without Jimmy Rollins, without Halladay, without Papelbon, without Utley, they’re not going to the park to see a backend starter packaged as a top prospect in Jonathan Pettibone, Ben Revere, Domonic Brown, and Hamels for a team that’s going to win 75 games and is rebuilding.

This is the team they’ve put together. Amaro accepted that when he tacitly acknowledged that it’s all but impossible to win and build simultaneously with the Oswalt acquisition and unsaid admission that he was wrong to trade Lee. He reacted accordingly and this is where they are. With the extra Wild Card, the parity in the National League, their pitching and impossibility of trading their veterans for the quality youth necessary to justify it, they’re not blowing it up now.

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Early Season Underachievers: Washington Nationals

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Just a note: these “underachievers” are based on what the majority of the prognosticators thought prior to the season and not what I thought. For example, I had the Phillies at 79-83 in my book (which, for the record, is now available on I-Tunes). The majority of the predictions I saw had the Phillies as contenders. I had the Nationals winning 103 games.

For a team as loaded as the Nats to have a .500 record after almost 20% of the season is unexpected. Is it something to be overly concerned about though? The answer is no.

Both Adam LaRoche and Danny Espinosa are proven players who are batting under .200. That won’t continue. The starting pitching and bullpen are deep and diverse and as the season moves along, GM Mike Rizzo will find a lefty specialist somewhere—Wesley Wright, Mike Dunn—because several will eventually become available.

That’s not to say there’s not potential for things to go wrong. They’re leading the Major Leagues in errors and manager Davey Johnson made a typical Davey Johnson managerial move when the Nats were playing the Mets two weeks ago and it neatly summed him up for better or worse. With the Mets leading 2-0 in the top of the eighth inning Mets reliever Scott Rice gave up a single to Steve Lombardozzi, walked Denard Span, and went to 3-0 and Jayson Werth. Werth was given the green light, swung at a low, outside pitch and grounded into a 6-4-3 double play. The Mets won the game.

That’s Johnson. It’s always been Johnson. It always will be Johnson. With the Mets in the 1980s, the lack of discipline, overaggressiveness and arrogance in believing that the fundamentals would be unnecessary as long as they pitched and hit home runs cost them playoff spots multiple times to teams like the Cardinals who were schooled in playing the game properly. Whitey Herzog’s hardline treatment of his players was well-known and if they didn’t do what they were supposed to do when they were supposed to do it, they didn’t play.

Is it a problem for the Nats? Yes and no. One of the reasons he’s been so successful is that the players love him and know he’s going to put the game in their hands. There wouldn’t be a debate if Werth hit the ball out of the park. It’s not the strategy that was the issue, but the execution. Werth was overanxious and swung at a bad pitch and criticizing him or Johnson won’t matter because telling Johnson what he did was wrong is only going to accomplish one thing: he’s going to do it more just to prove how smart he is and how dumb his critics are.

The Nats are too talented and deep to play in so mediocre a fashion for much longer.

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Rafael Soriano to the Nationals—Conspiracy Theories and Truth

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Rafael Soriano has agreed to a 2-year, $28 million contract with the Washington Nationals. There is significant deferred money and a third year option that automatically kicks in based on games finished in 2013-2014. You can read about the details here.

Let’s look at the ramifications, theories and reality of the Soriano signing.

Did Scott Boras hoodwink the Nats again?

Boras represents both Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper—both of whose contracts will eventually be an issue for the Nationals—along with Jayson Werth, Danny Espinosa and Anthony Rendon. Accompanying that, there’s the concept that he’s using the same Svengali-like sway he has on his clients to hypnotize Nationals’ owner Ted Lerner into overpaying for a player he doesn’t need.

Boras’s ability to convince Lerner that this (Werth, Soriano, the Strasburg shutdown) is what the club needs to be successful certainly helped, but Boras is a businessman whose clients are his main motivating factor and if the Dodgers, Yankees or whomever had presented a better deal for Soriano, he would have taken it. Boras didn’t make any promises to package his players and make Harper, Strasburg or anyone else more signable for the Nats because, apart from probably being both illegal and against MLB rules, he’s not going to cost one player to serve another one. Sure, he’ll plan and steer clients to certain destinations that will pay that player the most money and simultaneously open up a spot in the prior location for another client, but that’s different from overtly saying, “Sign Soriano and I’ll make it worth your while with Strasburg and Harper later.”

It didn’t happen.

For Rafael Soriano

Boras’s intent was to get Soriano a 4-year, $60 million deal. If Soriano reaches his incentives for games finished (and barring injury or poor performance, he will), the deal will be $42 million for three years. That’s not $60 million over four, but given the market and the draft pick compensation that was attached to Soriano serving to scare away suitors who were unable or unwilling to swing the dowry, it’s a great deal for the pitcher.

The planets aligned perfectly for Soriano in 2012. He was an afterthought as the seventh inning man for the Yankees but the following happened:

  • Mariano Rivera’s knee injury
  • David Robertson’s brief foray as the Yankees’ closer left him with a look on his face like a victim of the creepy kid from The Ring
  • Soriano took over as Yankees’ closer and pitched brilliantly
  • He had the opt out in his contract

All of these factors secured more money and a guaranteed closer’s role for Soriano and it’s with a team on the short list to win the World Series—something that as of now cannot be said about the Yankees. Had he returned to the Yankees, his role would have been either the eighth or back to the seventh inning. His numbers and financial opportunities would’ve suffered for it in his next chance at free agency and his age would affect his marketability as well.

He had his chance to get paid and, wisely, he took it.

For the Nationals

Is Soriano something of an overkill? Yes, if—and it’s a big if—Drew Storen’s elbow is healthy and, more importantly, his head isn’t still muddled by his disastrous game 5 meltdown in the NLDS loss to the Cardinals in which he blew a 2-run lead with two outs in the ninth inning. He wound up surrendering 4 runs as the Cardinals won the game and the series.

Presumably, his elbow isn’t the problem. His head might be.

Nationals’ manager Davey Johnson saw firsthand what can happen to a pitcher who blows a game like that when he was managing the Mets and they rallied against Red Sox closer Calvin Schiraldi in 1986 in both games 6 and 7 of the World Series and Schiraldi’s career as a significant contributor was essentially done after that. Johnson likes to have a deep bullpen, but he also likes to have a closer he knows isn’t going to panic in a big game. He had that with the Mets and Roger McDowell, Jesse Orosco and Randy Myers; he had it with the Reds with Jeff Brantley; and with the Orioles with Myers again. There might have been that underlying fear with Storen that he wouldn’t recover.

Soriano’s not exactly trustworthy in the playoffs either, but he did replace Rivera and do the job in New York, doubly-massive pressure situations.

The argument could be made that the Nationals, if they no longer trusted Storen, could simply have switched roles between him and Tyler Clippard permanently. Clippard closed in Storen’s absence and even after Storen returned last season, so he can do it. But when Rivera got hurt and the Yankees stuck Robertson in the closer’s role adhering to a misplaced rule of succession, it was a mistake. Robertson, like Clippard, did the heavy lifting in the seventh and eighth innings as the set-up man. It won’t be a glorious role until there’s a catchier and more definable stat than a “hold,” and until these pitchers are paid commensurately for the job they’re doing, but it’s sometimes more important to have a good set-up man than the closer, whose job is to accumulate saves and whose main attribute is to handle the job mentally. Clippard can close, but he’s more valuable setting up.

Historically, Johnson has also liked using more than one closer, so it’s possible Storen might get a few save opportunities. With Soriano’s mentality, though, that too would be a mistake. As the “established closer paid to get the saves,” Soriano doesn’t want to hear statistical reasons as to why he’s not pitching the ninth inning in a save situation. He wants the ball and he wants the saves. If anyone else is used in the ninth inning when Soriano is healthy, feeling good and available, he’ll see that as a threat, making it a potential long-term issue.

Johnson will use Soriano to close. Period. It’s not because he doesn’t want to think for himself or do something against new conventional orthodoxy, but because it’s easier for him and the team to do it that way.

The draft pick and the money

According to Forbes, as of September 2012, Ted Lerner was worth $3.9 billion. He’s 87-years-old. Could the player the Nationals would draft at 31 in the 1st round make a difference to them in Lerner’s lifetime? Possibly. Is it likely that the player will be more useful than Soriano? No.

Maybe they’re going to package Storen with Mike Morse in a trade to get another starting pitcher and a lefty specialist; maybe they’ll use them to bolster the farm system with better prospects than they would have gotten in the 2013 first round. If that’s the case, then they’ve benefited themselves in multiple ways.

The Nationals aren’t building. They’re built. Any player they drafted at number 31 isn’t going to be a significant contributor to this current group unless they draft what they just signed—a short reliever. And the likelihood of a college draftee closer showing up and taking over as the Nationals’ closer and anchoring a championship team in 2013-2014 is almost non-existent. The number of college closers that have been drafted as closers and made it to the big leagues quickly to contribute significantly starts with Gregg Olson and ends with Chad Cordero. It’s more probable that they’d end up with a Jaime Bluma—a great closing arm that never made it.

They have the money and the draft pick was negligible. They’re a better team today with Soriano than they were yesterday without him and the 31st pick in the draft. The Nationals are trying to win right now and, considering what was available, Soriano helps them to do that better than the other options. There were no conspiracies nor was it buying for its own sake. They wanted to improve immediately and that’s what they did.

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Mike Morse a Useful Bat and Not a Huge Difference-Maker

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The Nationals are listening to offers on outfielder/first baseman Mike Morse after re-signing first baseman Adam LaRoche to a 2-year, $24 million contract. With the presence of Denard Span, Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper in the outfield and the retention of LaRoche, there’s nowhere for Morse to play. He’s stated that he’d be uncomfortable as a designated hitter, but given that he is under contract for one more year at $6.75 million and is a free agent after 2013, he doesn’t have any say in the matter. He’s a below-average defensive player, but he’s not an outright liability in the outfield or at first base.

The Nationals are counting on several variables to repeat their 2012 division-winning performance and 98 wins. Dan Haren is replacing Edwin Jackson in the starting rotation and while Jackson was a guaranteed 190-200 innings, Haren’s back injury limited him to 176 in 2012 and he’s not a certainty to return to durability and form in 2013. On a one year contract, he’s worth the risk at $13 million in comparison to the 4-year, $52 million deal Jackson got from the Cubs. Stephen Strasburg’s limits are gone, so they can count on him for 30 more innings than the 159 he was allowed to throw in 2012. With Haren and Strasburg’s newfound freedom, that should counteract the loss of Jackson.

They’ve lost their two lefties out of the bullpen Tom Gorzelanny and Sean Burnett. Unless they replace them from the outside or get another starting pitcher in order to place Ross Detwiler in the bullpen where he belongs, these departures are going to hurt the Nationals.

They’re said to be seeking lefty bullpen help in exchange for Morse or young starting pitching. Teams in need of Morse’s bat include the Braves, Mets, Rays, Phillies, Orioles, Yankees, Mariners, and Indians. If the Nats think they’re getting at top-tier starting pitching prospect for Morse, they’re deluding themselves.

Morse has tremendous power, but his walks dropped significantly in 2012 in spite of his pitches-per-at-bat percentage remaining static for what it’s been for his career. That could be explained by several things. The Nationals’ batting order, with LaRoche having a very good power year and batting behind Morse, might have led to pitchers challenging Morse a bit more. He could have altered his approach and gotten too aggressive with pitches that he shouldn’t have—that was the case on 2-0 counts and it was a detriment to his production. Or the league might have, to a certain extent, figured out that he’s not an elite slugger and a power fastball up in the zone can get by him with breaking stuff in the dirt leading to strikeouts.

He has legitimate 25-30 homer pop, but not overwhelming value.

What I would try to do if I were the Nationals is to seek something a bit more out of the box than what’s been mentioned as a return in a Morse trade. The likeliest combination of return for Morse would be, for example, from the Mariners Charlie Furbush and Hector Noesi. That’s not a bad deal for either side.

From the Yankees, I wouldn’t ask for young pitching they don’t have, but I would ask for another pending free agent after 2013, one who’s fallen out of favor with the club from his days as a big time prospect: Joba Chamberlain. I’d also ask for Clay Rapada. This would bolster the Nationals bullpen with a situational lefty and possibly give them a shutdown seventh, eighth and ninth innings with Chamberlain, Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen with three pitchers who can interchangeably close.

They won’t get a ton for Morse, but they’ll get useful pieces. The team that gets Morse will get a power bat who hits righties and lefties equally as well and won’t be affected by ballpark factors because he’s big enough and strong enough to hit the ball out of any park. He’s not a major difference-maker, but he’s a chip they can trade to fill immediate needs.

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Notable Remaining MLB Free Agents

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The Boras Bunch

Here’s the story of a man named Scott Boras

On one hand, who could’ve imagined that Boras would’ve gotten the 7-year $126 million contract he did for Jayson Werth with the Nationals or the 3-year, $35 million deal he got for Rafael Soriano from the Yankees, both following the 2010 season. On the other, with clubs clinging to their draft picks like they’re hanging by their fingernails in fear of going over MLB’s version of the “fiscal cliff,” can any be expected to dole out a similar contract—in January—to the clients Boras currently has waiting for an offer?

Michael Bourn, Kyle Lohse and Soriano all had excellent seasons in 2012. Soriano understandably opted out of the third year on his contract with the Yankees, but teams rarely pay big money for closers anymore so he’s again waiting, hoping and trusting his agent. In Bourn’s and Lohse’s cases, they fill positions of need as a center fielder and starting pitcher, but while Ryan Dempster has received a guaranteed $26.5 million from the Red Sox, Lohse is still waiting. This happened with Lohse before in 2008 and he signed a 1-year contract with the Cardinals, rejuvenated his career under Dave Duncan and Tony LaRussa, and received a $41 million extension. He had a great year in 2012, but it hasn’t translated into an offer deemed suitable for Boras and Lohse.

Considering the draft pick compensation that will be surrendered for signing these players, I don’t know how they’re going to get a long-term deal with a contender. If a club sees one as a bargain and judges winning in 2013 as more valuable than the draft pick, they’ll sign one cheaper than market value deal. The top 10 picks are protected, but among those teams the only ones spending to get better immediately are the Blue Jays, Red Sox and Indians. None of them are going to go overboard for Lohse, Soriano or Bourn.

Some clubs can use these players and have money, but are they using the compensation issue as an excuse to sell to the fans for not overspending or do they simply not want these players? Depending on the situation, it’s probably both.

I wouldn’t underestimate Boras because he’s shocked the world so many other times, but there have been times where his players have had to settle for a one year deal for low dollars hoping to boost his value, as was the case with Lohse when he signed with the Cardinals.

Short-term, cheap and useful

Lance Berkman

Berkman hasn’t specifically stated he’s going to play and is notably difficult. He speaks his mind and does so without thinking, then finds himself having to backtrack on what he said when the initial statement was probably what he really thought.

The comments linked above were about the Rangers and now there’s a chance that Berkman will sign with the Rangers to be their DH/part-time first baseman.

Comments such as those made by Berkman are conveniently forgotten when there’s a mutual need and with teams like the Rangers, Yankees and Indians, there’s a mutual need for Berkman’s bat. Berkman didn’t work out well in the few months he spent with the Yankees in 2010 and he probably wouldn’t want to go to New York, but with their desperate need for a bat and adherence to short-term contracts, there could be a fit there if nothing else pans out for either.

The Indians need power and are clearly trying to contend. Berkman might like to play for Terry Francona.

The Rangers are the best spot for him and the team. Berkman can still hit and wants to stay near home in Texas. With the Rangers, playing half his games in their hitter friendly home park, 25 homers and a .380+ OBP is a reasonable expectation and he wouldn’t want more than a one year contract.

Buyer Beware

Scott Hairston

The desperation to get a righty bat coupled with Hairston’s career year in 2012 has Hairston in surprising demand.

Contrary to his 2012 production, there’s hasn’t been an overt advantage from Hairston when batting against lefties. He had his career year against lefties in 2012 and all of a sudden, he’s seen as a right-handed “power bat.” He’s a useful bench player and a decent defensive left fielder who can provide some pop off the bench. Is that worth a two-year contract, which is what he seems to want?

The Mets have set a line in the sand on Hairston and will be accused of being cheap and/or broke when he departs for more money and the extra year on his contract, but the future will prove them right when Hairston reverts to what he’s been for his whole career—a limited bench player with occasional power and no major advantages against lefties or righties.

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The Marlins-Blue Jays Trade, Part III—Sidelights

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Let’s look at the the Marlins-Blue Jays trade from the perspective of those affected by it, positively or negatively, and those who insert themselves into it.

Social media experts and critics

The self-proclaimed experts on social media reacted with shock and disdain not only that the Marlins did this, but that they didn’t get Travis d’Arnaud from the Blue Jays in the deal as if they knew who he was. He’s a recognizable name to them and nothing more; if they did see him, the vast majority of them wouldn’t know what they were looking at, nor would they be able to interpret his statistics to determine how truly viable a prospect he is. Perhaps the Marlins asked for him and the Blue Jays said no; perhaps the Blue Jays preferred the lower level players they got in the deal; or maybe the Marlins are happy with the young catcher Rob Brantly whom they acquired from the Tigers in the trade that also netted them Jacob Turner in exchange for Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante.

To a lesser degree, it falls in line with fans watching games and reacting to strategies with descriptive histrionics like, “*FACEPALM*” when Jim Leyland plays Delmon Young regularly; or Joe Girardi and Larry Rothschild choose leave Boone Logan in to pitch to a righty; or during the NFL draft when a guy sitting on his couch wearing his team’s jersey declares that he’d take Robert Griffin III over Andrew Luck and throws a fit when the opposite happens—the people actually doing the jobs know more than you do. For the guy on his couch, it’s a diversion; for the ones running the clubs, if they don’t make the correct (or at least explainable) decision, they’re going to get fired.

The media and the Marlins

The glaring response amid the outcry came from Joel Sherman of the New York Post. Unlike the Red Sox-Dodgers trade when Sherman made a fool of himself by turning that blockbuster salary dump by the Red Sox into another indictment of the Mets, he actually made some legitimate points with the following:

Yet this was a deconstruction the Marlins needed to enact. Their roster, as constructed, was a science project gone wrong. Now they have created a layer of young talent with all of these trades — in this latest deal, executives particularly like center fielder Jake Marisnick (some Jayson Werth comps) and lefty Justin Nicolino, and anyone who saw Henderson Alvarez pitch against the Yankees knows he has a big arm.

How much of this is based on deeply held beliefs and how much is another, more subtle shot at the Mets to be true to his narrative is known only to Sherman, but given his history it’s a contrarian viewpoint with a winking dig at the Mets more than a true belief that the Marlins did the right thing. But the fact remains that, overall, he’s right. They did do the right thing.

No one with a brain is shocked by this Marlins housecleaning

Ignoring the litany of lies and managers hired and fired by Jeffrey Loria, that the Marlins gave heavily backloaded contracts to Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle made them mid-season trade candidates in 2013 since their escalators kicked in by 2014. They chose to trade them now rather than wait and see. John Buck and Josh Johnson are both free agents after the 2013 season. Buck isn’t very good and Johnson was going to cost a fortune to re-sign. The charade of being built for the long haul was obvious with the Marlins from the start. The players knew what they were walking into when they didn’t get the valuable no-trade clauses and received guaranteed money they probably wouldn’t get elsewhere in exchange for the likelihood of being sent to a locale they would not have selected if they’d had a choice. Buehrle and Reyes are going to get paid; Johnson, if healthy, will receive a massive contract for his services.

The perception of chicanery and Loria’s blatant disregard for anyone other than Loria is what’s grating the masses. It would’ve been more palatable for observers—chief among them the politicians in Miami who pushed through the stadium deal and baseball itself—had the Marlins tried to win in 2013, but rather than further the sham, they pulled the trigger now. That it’s going to make/save more money for Loria is part of the equation.

The Marlins baseball people have always gotten the right names in their housecleanings. In some cases, it succeeded when they received Hanley Ramirez and Sanchez for Josh Beckett; in others, it didn’t as they received Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller as the centerpieces for Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis. This is the risk when trading for prospects. Getting talent is controllable; developing that talent is the variable. The Marlins foundation is young, cheap and quite good once we get past the messy way in which it was laid.

The rest of baseball

The balance of power has shifted drastically. The NL East was a monster before the 2012 season started, but the Phillies age caught up to them; the Mets weren’t as bad as expected; the Nationals took their leap faster than most anticipated; and the Marlins were a disaster. Now that they’ve gutted the place, the Marlins are widely expected to be a punching bag in 2013, but truth be told with a group of young players fighting for playing time and jobs, they’ll be at least as competitive as the 69-93 apathy-tinged monstrosity that played out the string for most of the summer.

The American League saw the balance of power shift East to West. While it was supposed to be a two-team race for supremacy between the Angels and Rangers, the Athletics stunned both by winning the division. The Mariners young pitching and money to spend will make them a darkhorse in 2013. The Tigers just signed Torii Hunter for their star-studded lineup. There’s no longer a waltz into the playoffs for 2-3 teams from the AL East.

The Yankees and Red Sox are in moderate to severe disarray with the Yankees having limited money to spend and now three teams in their division that have a rightful claim to being better than they are. The Red Sox purge excised the contracts of Beckett, Carl Crawford, and Adrian Gonzalez. At the time it was an acknowledgement that the construction of the team wasn’t going to work and they intended to start over. It’s eerily similar to the situation the Marlins found themselves in, but the Marlins didn’t give it another try as the Red Sox did following their winter of 2010 spending spree and subsequent 2011 failure, and the Red Sox are going to take the money they saved and put it back into the team while the Marlins aren’t.

The Yankees have done nothing thus far in the winter and are trapped with contracts like that of Alex Rodriguez clogging up their arteries. Brian Cashman is getting what he wanted and learning that being the would-be genius isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. He chafed at the notion that the Yankees teams he helped build were creatures of financial might and longed to be seen in the industry in the category of Billy Beane and Theo Epstein as architects of winning franchises under a budget and with intelligent acquisitions rather than raiders of resources for those that could no longer afford them. Well, he’s getting what he wanted and the results are not good. Under the mandate of getting the payroll down to $189 million by 2014, he can’t take on the contracts that the Blue Jays and Alex Anthopoulos just did. The pitchers he’d hoped to develop to provide low-cost production have either been mediocre or busts entirely. They’re waiting and hoping that Andy Pettitte returns and has another year in him; that Derek Jeter can recover from his ankle injury; that they get something from A-Rod; that Mariano Rivera can rebound from knee surgery at age 43; that Hiroki Kuroda will take a one-year deal to come back (he won’t); that they get something from Michael Pineda.

Do you really expect all of this to happen in a division made even tougher by the Blue Jays’ trades; the Orioles’ improvement; the Rays’ talent; and the Red Sox money to spend and determination to get back to their basics? The Yankees are in a worse position than the Marlins and even the Phillies were because if the season is spiraling in July of 2013, they’ll be trapped by those contracts and the fan anger that they won’t be able to make those conceding trades for the future. This is the team they have and the division they’re in and neither bode well.

Cashman wanted it and he got it. He’s so arrogant that it’s doubtful that he regrets it, but he should. And he will.

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Joe Girardi Needs to Channel Saul Goodman and Other “I Woulds” From the Yankees Disaster

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You can get a postmortem on the 2012 Yankees anywhere and most of them are partisan and ridiculous. The autopsy and dissection of this carcass will be extensive and tantamount to a bunch of animals crawling all over one another to get a piece of the dead, rotting meat with no logic, reason, or intelligence. Primal and mindless, the excuses, prescriptions, suggestions, demands, and shifting of the narrative will have little to do with what actually can and will be done.

Instead of that, let’s look at the individuals in this tragicomedy, what they should do and more importantly, what they will do.

Joe Girardi—Manager

Is it his fault? No. Is he totally devoid of responsibility? He wasn’t until GM Brian Cashman came out and said the decision to bench Alex Rodriguez was made between the manager, coaching staff, and him.

Considering all the garbage Girardi has to deal with on and off the field with an overpaid and veteran club along with the injuries and scrutiny, I don’t think there’s one manager who could have gotten more out of this team than Girardi got.

Ultimately, he’s responsible for the players—specifically Robinson Cano’s—lack of hustle, but unless he’s got support from the front office to bench him or try to get him to run out ground balls, act like he cares and isn’t entitled to do whatever he wants, benching the player would do no good.

In an episode of Breaking Bad, the amoral attorney Saul Goodman becomes the representative of meth manufacturers/dealers Walter White and Jesse Pinkman when they drag him into the desert to threaten him if his client Badger (Jesse’s friend) talks after being arrested.

Jesse: Listen to me very carefully. You are going to give Badger Mayhew the best legal representation ever. But no deals with the DEA! Badger will not identify anyone to anybody. If he does, you’re dead!

Saul: Why don’t you just kill Badger?

This is what Girardi has to do if they try to fire him by saying, “Why blame me? Blame Cashman!” Is it dragging Cashman down with him? Maybe. Does Cashman deserve it if he tries to blame Girardi for this mess? Absolutely.

Here are Girardi’s choices: A) Do what I say he should do; B) Tell the Yankees that if he’s going to run this team, he can’t do it on the last year of his contract in 2013 and ask for a contract extension that they won’t give him and get himself fired; C) wait it out and see what happens in 2013. If they get off to a bad start, he’s getting the axe (if he survives this winter).

What will Girardi do?

Nothing. He’ll wait. I strongly doubt he’s getting fired.

Brian Cashman—General Manager

If Cashman cites anything other than what he himself has done, then I’d fire him immediately. The complaints about Rafael Soriano being shoved down his throat against his will lost all viability when Soriano took over for the injured Mariano Rivera and was brilliant, probably saving the Yankees’ playoff spot along the way because they didn’t have anyone else who could close and had traded the useful prospects that might’ve gotten them a closer for Michael Pineda and Jose Campos.

It was Cashman who put this team together relying on the home run above all else. It was Cashman who traded two useful prospects (if only to trade for someone who actually would’ve contributed) for Pineda and Campos—both on the disabled list.

It was Cashman who left this team without a viable bench to sit the players who needed to be sat down in the playoffs. They had no super-utility player to replace Derek Jeter and A-Rod; no center fielder to sit Curtis Granderson; not enough bench strength to bench Nick Swisher or Cano if they chose to punish him for his disinterest.

This is Cashman’s team. He put it together and he’s responsible for it. And I don’t mean a hollow, “The responsibility ends with me,” as Cashman will say. I mean actual responsibility in that, “You made this mess; you embarrassed the organization with your behavior away from the office; you’ve been here too long; and you’re fired.”

I’d fire Cashman. Damon Oppenheimer or Billy Eppler can’t do much worse. Or maybe see if Gene Michael or Pat Gillick wanted to do the job for a couple of years to groom Oppenheimer or Eppler to take over.

What will happen with Cashman?

I think it’s a 55% chance that he’s back and no more than that.

A-Rod—Aging star and gadfly

The noise has begun. A-Rod wants to stay. They don’t have anyone to replace him. He can still play. Blah and blah and blah.

I would not pay his entire contract to get him off the team, but I would see if I can move him. It’s over and the sideshow that was once mitigated by his on-field performance is now just a sideshow.

I’d do everything within reason to get him out.

What will happen with A-Rod?

They’ll get rid of him, somehow, some way.

Rafael Soriano—Relief pitcher

He’s opting out of his contract and is leaving.

What they’ll do:

Say goodbye.

Kevin Long—Hitting coach

He’s gone. It’s not his fault, but it wasn’t his doing when they were going well. Girardi didn’t sound too thrilled with Long when Long suggested the Yankees should play more small ball. It was a shot (presumably unintentional) at the manager and the manager has the last word in situations like this.

Robinson Cano—Second baseman

They’re not going to let him enter 2013 in his walk year and after getting swept, they’ll want to have a “positive” feeling. This can be accomplished by signing their star second baseman to a long-term contract.

If I were agent Scott Boras, I would redact the 2012 post-season from the Blue Book of Accomplishments he prepares for all of his free agents as if it’s a classified government memo and claim that it never happened.

I would think very long and hard about signing Cano to a long-term deal at age 31 and with his growing laziness.

Curtis Granderson—Center fielder

They’ll exercise his contract option and scan the market to see if they can: A) deal Granderson; B) get a replacement such as Denard Span, Shane Victorino, Dexter Fowler, or someone.

Nick Swisher—Outfielder/first baseman

Bye. Good luck getting the Jayson Werth contract you implied you wanted.

Andy Pettitte—Left-handed starting pitcher

Ask for a definitive answer as to what he’s doing in 2013 with no Roger Clemens-style vacillation. Either he wants to play or he doesn’t and if he doesn’t, it’s time to move on.

What Pettitte will do:

I think he’s going to retire.

Ichiro Suzuki—Outfielder

They might think about brining Ichiro back, but I wouldn’t. They got him for nothing; they got use from him; he’s extremely limited as a player and at his age won’t maintain the good work he did for the Yankees over a full season.

What they’ll do:

They’ll let him leave.

This is a crumbling municipality with a set of power brokers at the controls who are desperately trying to patch it together; the man in charge of baseball operations has made a series of unforgiveable gaffes; the baseball people are powerless.

Changes need to be made, but they’re not going to make the most significant and necessary ones. They’ll move forward with this failed template and the results will be predictable. There’s not an endless domination from year-to-year. They haven’t taken steps to replace the aging and broken down core and are reliant on players who are 38 and above. Jeter and Rivera, at their ages, are coming back from serious injuries that required surgery; Pettitte is going year-to-year and day-to-day and as good as he was on the mound and in the clubhouse, the “will I? or won’t I?” stuff is a hindrance to the off-season plans.

They’re old; they’re expensive; they’re comfortable; they’re limited.

This cannot be repaired on the fly. It’s a hard lesson that’s been proven and no air of superiority and proclamations of “we’re different” can skirt these facts. They’ll try. And they’ll fail. Just like the 2012 (and 2011 and 2010) versions of this team.

It’s unavoidable. The thing is coming down and they’re not going to do what must be done to stop it.

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Yankees By The Mailbox

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Will the Yankees mail it in or will they put up a fight?

They know first-hand and on the wrong end that being down 3 games to 0 isn’t the end of a series, It’s laughable when a game is called a “must win” even when it’s not an elimination game. It’s in the same logical arena of “giving 110%.” It’s not possible. Of course it would’ve helped the Yankees’ cause to have won last night, but it wasn’t a “must” win.

Tonight is a “must” win, but I’m not sure that the Yankees collective hearts are going to be in it to make the commitment necessary to make this a series, let alone bring it back to Yankee Stadium. Deep down, they can’t think they can come back and win it with their pitching staff decimated, the lineup inert, and Justin Verlander looming for game 7 if, against all logic and reality, they get it that far.

The Yankees are not going to just give the series away and make it obvious that they know their fate, have accepted it, and are waiting for the guillotine to come crashing down, but with a veteran team that’s lucratively compensated and playing poorly, can they reasonably expect to win four straight games and then be ready to face one of two good teams in the World Series and win?

Even in the most predictable Hollywood scenarios it’s hard to envision, and in those scenarios like the one that actually happened against the Red Sox in 2004, there was still some momentum and a feeling of the series not being over. That comes from the players on both sides. The Red Sox of 2004 were not going to quit; they’d never won; hadn’t been together long enough to grow complacent; didn’t have these super-high priced items permeating the roster from top-to-bottom; weren’t old and exhausted; and put forth an effort in the face of defeat.

Can this Yankees team say any of that?

CC Sabathia threw 17 2/3 innings and 241 pitches within 5 days to lead the Yankees past the Orioles in the ALDS. His elbow has barked this season and he’s 32; the Yankees are going to need him in 2013. Is manager Joe Girardi going to push him that far again? Is Sabathia going to be willing to be pushed that far again in a cause that the sane factions of the organization know is ostensibly hopeless?

Nick Swisher (if he plays) is looking at free agency. He won’t receive the$126 million, Jayson Werth dollars he was implying he wanted earlier in the season, but someone will pay him a good chunk of change. Will he be willing to lay out or crash into a wall trying to make a catch when it’s not going to make a difference this season for a team that’s on life support, but might cost him his contract?

Alex Rodriguez is likely planning a nice long vacation to escape it all. The argument could be made that he began his vacation when the regular season ended.

Rafael Soriano is going to opt-out of his contract and command at least a 3-year deal from someone (maybe even the opposition Tigers). Will he agree to pitch 2 innings tonight if needed? And if they win, 2 innings tomorrow? 1 1/3 innings in game 6?  All to face Verlander in game 7? With Phil Hughes experiencing back spasms that forced his removal in the fourth inning, who’s pitching game 7? David Phelps? Are they going to deactivate Hughes and pitch Freddy Garcia? Against Verlander and that Tigers’ lineup?

Robinson Cano plays as if he’s entitled when there’s a viable chance of the Yankees winning a World Series, but what about now? Is he going to hustle tonight? Why would he all of a sudden decide to play hard especially if he and the rest of the team know they’re done and just want to go home?

Yesterday, when the Yankees’ lineup was posted, I was amazed and impressed that Girardi was willing to make such gutsy moves. I certainly wouldn’t have put Eduardo Nunez at shortstop (though I would’ve gotten him in the lineup), but it was a case of Girardi saying he’d seen enough of Swisher and A-Rod and wanted to try something else. That’s what it looked like anyway until GM Brian Cashman started talking.

In what was a masterfully Machiavellian job of inserting himself into the narrative, when Cashman said that the decision to bench these players and make these lineup maneuvers was made jointly between him, the manager, and the coaching staff, he effectively emasculated his manager in front of the world. Was Cashman trying to take the heat off the manager? Was he trying to exert his authority as he always wanted to do under Joe Torre and since the publication of Moneyball stated that the GM should dictate to the manager, not the other way around, to accumulate credit for himself? Was it both?

From 1998-2007, had Cashman walked into Torre’s office and said he wanted to discuss the lineup, trying to force the veteran manager who had become an icon into doing what he was told, Torre would’ve reverted from the calm, cool, conciliatory Papa Joe that everyone saw—that Torre wanted everyone to see in public—to the old-school baseball man that told one of his bosses, Randy Levine, to “shut the {bleep} up,” during a conference call in which the upper management was trying to tell Torre what to do with the players on the field. Torre would’ve either told Cashman he’d think about it; said he’d do it and then not done it; or told Cashman to get the hell out his office.

Cashman should feel the heat more than anyone else in this organization and it’s not a “the buck stops with me,” safety net that a boss says but doesn’t really mean because he knows he’s safe, but a job-on-the-line questioning of why the Yankees don’t have a super-utility player who can actually play defense and hit; or have a viable center field option to remove Curtis Granderson from the lineup; or the other ghastly moves—mostly with pitching—he’s made.

It’s already started.

The wheel of blame is spinning and everyone is trying to protect themselves. Once this is over (and it’s a great bet that it ends tonight), they’ll scurry to their positions, dig into their spot, and wait it out to see who’s going to be held accountable for their failure to live up to the mandate of World Series or bust. No one, including Cashman or Girardi, is safe. The fallout will be in the coming weeks, but for now it’s waiting out the inevitable.

The patient is not dead but like a suffering animal (or human), there’s a time to put it out of its misery; a time that it probably won’t fight and if it does, won’t have the strength to put up an extended amount of resistance. What it comes down to is who’s shouldered with the responsibility for this debacle.

There’s plenty to go around.

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Washington Nationals vs St. Louis Cardinals—NLDS Preview and Predictions

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Washington Nationals (98-64; 1st place, NL East) vs St. Louis Cardinals (88-74; 2nd place, NL Central; Won Wild Card Game over Braves)

Keys for the Nats: Don’t be overconfident; get good starting pitching; let the game come to them.

The Nationals have taken the tone of being very impressed with themselves. This stems from their large number of young players who’ve never been in the post-season, nor have they been on clubs that were as dominant as the Nats were in 2012. Manager Davey Johnson has always been somewhat egotistical to say the least. He’s been able to back it up in regular seasons past, but in the playoffs, his clubs have been disappointing considering talent levels.

Gio Gonzalez won 21 games in the regular season and shed the “wild” and “inconsistent” labels he brought with him from the Athletics. He strikes out a lot of hitters, allowed only 9 homers in 199 innings, and had a great innings pitched/hits ratio of 199/149—the entire tone of the series will be set by Gonzalez’s performance. With Stephen Strasburg having been shut down, game 2 falls to Jordan Zimmerman, game 3 to Edwin Jackson, game 4 to Ross Detwiler.

The Nationals will be excited to be in the post-season and with the number of first-timers and young players, there could be an aspect of trying to get it all done at once from the likes of Bryce Harper, Danny Espinosa, and Michael Morse.

Keys for the Cardinals: Take advantage of the Nats’ inexperience; catch the ball; don’t put manager Mike Matheny in a position where his strategic gaffes can cost them.

The Cardinals have plenty of playoff and World Series history behind them from the top of the roster to the bottom. They got by the Braves in the Wild Card play in game with Kyle Lohse starting and now have the battle-tested Adam Wainwright ready for game 1 and Chris Carpenter for game 3. The Cardinals have been here before as heavy underdogs and they’re feisty in their own right so the Nats won’t be able to bully them as Johnson’s teams have been known to do.

The Cardinals defense is not great and they don’t want to give extra outs or miss catchable balls to give the Nats baserunners for the bashers to knock in.

Matheny has no managerial experience and that is a factor when going against one as experienced as Johnson. The more times he’s in a position to make a mistake, the more likely he is to make one.

What will happen:

Gonzalez truly surprised me this season with his Cy Young Award-caliber season, but a game 1 playoff start is a whole new level for him. I still don’t trust his command and if his adrenaline is exploding the Cardinals will take advantage of walks followed by a fat, get-me-over fastball.

Fear and not knowing what to expect will not be a factor for Wainwright or Carpenter. Cardinals’ closer Jason Motte has gotten the big outs in the playoffs and World Series. Nats’ closer Tyler Clippard hasn’t.

The Cardinals are one of the few teams in baseball that have the offense to get into a shootout with the Nationals and win it. Carlos Beltran, David Freese, Matt Holliday, and especially Yadier Molina have—for the most part—relished the playoff spotlight. The Nats’ only key players with post-season experience are the veterans Jayson Werth, Jackson, and Adam LaRoche. It’s not necessarily a key component to winning. It helps more to have good starting pitching and a solid bullpen with an experienced closer. The Nats have the potential in the starting rotation, but I’d like their chances exponentially better if they were pitching Strasburg in the playoffs. They’re not. He’s doing the equivalent of taking violin lessons while his friends are outside playing ball.

Davey Johnson’s teams have a history of regular season dominance, lots of yapping, and a playoff flameout. The Cardinals starting pitching is deeper and more experienced and the offense can score with the Nationals. Those factors will get them through the first round.

PREDICTION: CARDINALS IN FOUR

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