Theo Epstein’s Masquerade

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The increased use of analytics has also given rise to the loquaciousness of the decision-makers. You can pick any of the new age general managers in baseball and find one of their statements when a somewhat controversial decision is made and interchange them. When they fire a manager, it’s generally even longer. The explanation is convoluted and rife with semantics designed to protect their own interests.

This was evident again today when Theo Epstein – someone who clearly loves to hear his own voice whatever the circumstances – gave this long-winded statement as to why the Cubs’ hand-picked manager to oversee their extended rebuild, Dale Sveum, was fired following a 66-96 campaign. The accolades and qualifications Epstein gave to justify Sveum’s firing are little more than a dressing up of the dismissal of an employee.

Was it justified? Did Sveum deserve to take the fall for what was an organizational failure? Should the Cubs have been better than they were?

Considering the expectations (I had the Cubs’ record exactly right in my preseason predictions) they weren’t supposed to be contenders. They traded away veterans Alfonso Soriano and Scott Feldman during the season. They were functioning with journeyman Kevin Gregg as the closer. A team like the Cubs isn’t meant to be judged based on their record alone which lends more credence to the idea that Sveum is being thrown overboard to quiet the rising number of critics wondering when they’ll get Red Sox-like results from Epstein.

With the number of prospects they have on the way up, if the young players like Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo, Darwin Barney and Jeff Samardzija take steps back, then the manager is going to take the fall for it. That doesn’t mean he gets the blame.

Much like the Red Sox failure in 2003 was passed off on Grady Little’s call not to pull a clearly tired Pedro Martinez in game seven of the ALCS against the Yankees, the Cubs are holding the manager in front of the GM, president and owner like a human shield. Little’s choice in not yanking Martinez was due in part to an old school decision that if he was going to lose, he’d lose with his best. It was also done in part because the Epstein regime had made the conscious choice to go with a favorite concept of the stat guy in the closer by committee and didn’t give Little a competent short reliever he could trust in a game of that magnitude. It all turned out fine as the Red Sox won the World Series the next year only after signing Keith Foulke, a legitimate closer. Crisis averted.

With the Cubs, Epstein has been lauded for his and GM Jed Hoyer’s trades and restructuring of the minor league system. Whether or not that credit will bear fruit in the coming years for the new manager remains to be seen. Until they perform, prospects are only prospects.

Epstein’s big name free agent signings have long been inconsistent. With the Red Sox, he was able to cover it up with John Henry’s money. Whether that will be the case for the Cubs is as unknown as their young players’ development. For the Cubs this season, he signed Edwin Jackson to a four year, $52 million deal. Jackson went 8-18 with an ERA of nearly five. He signed Kyuji Fujikawa to a two year, $9.5 million deal and Fujikawa wilted under the pressure as set-up man and closer before requiring Tommy John surgery. It cannot be said that these were worthwhile and cost-efficient signings.

When Epstein says, “Jed and I take full responsibility for that,” as he discusses the state of the big league product, it’s little more than a hollow accepting of responsibility. He’s been on the job with the Cubs for two years and is ensconced in his job. There might be a small amount of pressure on him because of his reputation and the expectations that surround his high-profile hiring, lucrative contract of five years at $18.5 million and final say powers, but he’s going to get at least two more years before he’s on the firing line. Hoyer is Epstein’s front man and is safe as well.

If the duo is taking “responsibility,” what’s the punishment? They’ll get roasted on talk shows and in print for a while. Attention will be paid to who they hire as manager because GMs and team presidents, no matter how respected, generally get two managerial hirings before the focus of blame falls to them. For now, though, he’s safe.

He says that Sveum isn’t a “scapegoat,” but then two paragraphs later says that the team needs a “dynamic, new voice…” It certainly sounds like scapegoating to me.

I’m not defending Sveum and many times when a firing of this kind is made, there are behind the scenes issues that the public isn’t privy to. Epstein and Hoyer can fire Sveum if they want to. It’s completely up to them. There’s never been anything wrong with firing the manager for any reason that the front office wants to give. In fact, they don’t even need to give a reason. “I felt like making a change,” is a perfectly acceptable response.

However, to take the firing as an opportunity to provide a new line of defense of the front office and disguise it as a “we’re all at fault” line of faux solidarity is an insult to the intelligence of any person who’s been an observer of Epstein’s behavior since he first came to prominence a decade ago as a 28 year old “genius” who was going to lead the game into a new age with his youth and creativity. Getting past the mask, he’s little more than a younger and supposedly more handsome version of the 1960s era of GMs who threatened and bullied employees just because they could and had a job for life. It sounds like the common “blame the manager” rhetoric. The only difference is that it’s camouflaged by a Yale graduate’s skill with the language and ability to make circular sludge sound like the dulcet tones of a gifted tenor.

The firing of Sveum might be retrospectively seen as a the catalyst to the Cubs jumping into contention and breaking their World Series drought. Even if that happens, it can’t be masqueraded as anything more than what it is: they’re blaming the manager. No amount of verbal deftness will alter that fact whether it’s coming from Epstein or anyone else.




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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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The Astros Strip The Spaceship For Parts

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Stat-centric people are looking at the Astros and nodding their heads approvingly at the series of maneuvers that may have improved their farm system and future. GM Jeff Luhnow is implementing the sabermetric template in what’s developing into a case study of how a purely stat-based organization would be run. They’re creating new job titles in baseball circles (Director of Decision Sciences), hiring people from Baseball Prospectus, and gutting the big league club of any and all competent major league players while signing the refuse that’s available cheaply and who have nowhere else to go. If you wanted to see a team that was run by the people at Fangraphs, here are your 2013 Houston Astros sans Jed Lowrie who was traded to the Athletics yesterday along with reliever Fernando Martinez for Chris Carter, Brad Peacock and Max Stassi. The players they received may be assets for the future, but financially they cost a fraction of what Lowrie was going to make in 2013 ($2.4 million).

Whether the Astros’ strategy works or not will take at least three and probably five years to determine. As of now, though, MLB has to take a hard look at what the Astros are doing, and decide if it’s fair to the spirit of competition to have a team with what projects to be a $25 million payroll and won’t just be the worst team in baseball for 2013 (that’s a given), but will possibly be one of the worst teams in the history of the sport. To think that the Astros, who lost 106 games in 2011 and 107 games in 2012 could somehow find a way to sink lower than that ineptitude is mind-boggling, but they’ve done it.

When Jim Crane bought the team and hired Luhnow, the organization was a barren, expansion-like wasteland. That’s not an excuse for what they’re doing. The days of teams having to endure half a decade of 100-plus losses ended when the Diamondbacks showed that an expansion team can win if they’re truly committed and intelligent about it. With free agency and teams’ willingness to trade, there is no longer 1960s Mets-style acceptance of being a league punching bag until the young players develop. There’s no reason that a team has to turn itself into an embarrassment while they’re rebuilding.

The Cubs are embarking on a similar restructuring and overhaul with people who come from the same mindset (though not as extreme) as Luhnow. Theo Epstein was one of the first to turn his club into a sabermetrically-inclined organization with the Red Sox in 2003, but he also used scouting techniques and a lot of money to create a juggernaut that won on the field and “won” off the field in terms of popularity and profit. The Cubs lost six fewer games than the Astros did in 2012, but while Epstein, GM Jed Hoyer and the rest of the staff alter the way the club is run from top-to-bottom, build through the draft and search for international players to sign, they’re also bringing in veterans like Edwin Jackson and Scott Hairston to join Starlin Castro (whom they signed to a long-term deal), Matt Garza and a few other recognizable players.

In fairness, the Cubs were in a slightly better situation than the Astros when the new front office took charge and the Astros weren’t going to win many more games with Lowrie than they will without him, but the Cubs tried to bring in big league caliber players all winter and the Astros didn’t. The Cubs have more money to spend and a fanbase that’s going to show up no matter what, but the Astros are essentially spitting in their fans’ faces with a team that no one is going to want to go see as a “root, root, root for the home team” group. Houston fans will go to the games to see opponents Mike Trout, Derek Jeter, Yu Darvish and Felix Hernandez, but they’re not going to see their own Lucas Harrell. By July, the Astros won’t be able to give tickets away.

MLB saw fit to intervene when the Marlins used financial sleight of hand to pocket revenue sharing money. They mandated that the money be used to improve the on-field product. Does realistic competence dictate that the commissioner’s office step in and tell the Astros that this simply isn’t acceptable?

The Astros are trying to run their club like a business, but in MLB or any other sporting conglomerate, there’s a responsibility to ensure a baseline of competitiveness not just for the people of Houston, but for the rest of baseball.

Is it right that the four other teams in the American League West will have 19 games each against the Astros while the AL East is so parity-laden? Clubs like the White Sox and Royals in the AL Central—who have an argument to make a playoff run—can deem it wrong that a playoff spot in the West will have an easier path because the Astros are openly presenting a product that has no intention nor chance to win a vast majority of the games they play through sheer lack of talent.

I’ve long been against a minimum payroll in baseball. If a team is smart enough to succeed by spending less, they should be allowed to do so without interference. That, however, is contingent on the teams trying to compete, something the Astros are currently not doing.

It’s fine to adapt outside world business principles to sports, but unlike the outside business world, a sports franchise is not operating in a vacuum as an individual company. Like the battle between pitcher and catcher, it’s one-on-one in a group dynamic. They’re individuals, but are functioning within a group.

Since there’s no such thing as European football-style relegation in MLB where actual punishment is possible, the overseers need to seriously consider creating a payroll floor to stop what the Astros are blatantly doing because it’s hindering the competitive balance that has long been the goal. The Astros are scoffing at that notion and it’s unfair to the rest of baseball that they’re being allowed to do it with impunity.

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Blame for Bobby Valentine’s Red Sox Failure Extends Worldwide

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Bobby Valentine was fired as manager by the Boston Red Sox yesterday with approximately $2.5 million remaining on his 2-year contract. He’s taking the fall for what wasn’t simply an organizational set of problems, but for issues that extended far beyond Boston and were negatively influenced by people, perceptions, and circumstances. Valentine certainly bears a portion of the responsibility for what went wrong in his dream job that rapidly—immediately–degenerated into a nightmare, but there’s plenty to go around.

Let’s look at the map with percentages as to who’s at fault.

Boston, MA

The Red Sox were in total disarray after their collapse in September of 2011. Manager Terry Francona’s contract options were not exercised (technically he wasn’t fired, but he was fired); GM Theo Epstein left for the Cubs shortly thereafter; and the roster was essentially stagnant with owner John Henry slamming shut the vault that had bought and paid for Carl Crawford, John Lackey, and Daisuke Matsuzaka.

They had a choice: either hire one of the names that GM Ben Cherington preferred like Gene Lamont or Dale Sveum, or do as team CEO Larry Lucchino wanted and hire the polar opposite of Francona and a big name, Valentine. Lucchino was reestablishing his power with the departure of Epstein and, as expected, got his way. This implication that had the Red Sox hired one of Cherington’s choices as manager, everything would’ve been okay, is ridiculous. The team needed structural changes on the field—changes they didn’t make. Such maneuvers would’ve been nearly impossible to construct with other clubs and sell to their fanbase and media, but they could’ve done something to break from the past by dispatching a veteran or three.

I understand why they did what they did with Valentine, but do they? Are they willing to admit it and look into the mirror? Does the Red Sox front office know what they did wrong and why it didn’t work? That it was a huge gaffe to drop Valentine into that toxic stew without altering the ingredients by getting rid of Josh Beckett over the winter? That saddling Valentine with coaches that were a sure bet to undermine him would serve nothing apart from giving the players a sympathetic ear to complain to and the media an “unnamed source” through whom the players could anonymously air their gripes? That these coaches would play clubhouse politics to expand their own influence and possibly become the manager of the team themselves?

The transformation from intelligent and comprehensive decision-making that was implemented under Epstein was gone in favor of spending on free agents and making headline-worthy trades for big names to keep up with the Yankees.

After the 2011 debacle, rather than formulating a cogent plan that may or may not have included Valentine, everyone was looking out for himself. Lucchino with his freedom from Epstein to do what he preferred and have the world know he was in charge again; Cherington going along to get along and letting Lucchino have his way; Valentine for not making sure he wasn’t surrounded by a pack of Judases; and the players for behaving as spoiled, entitled brats.

35% at fault

Arizona

I’m sure Francona, observing the Red Sox train wreck from the ESPN booth and his Arizona home, was amused and satisfied at the 69-93 record and last place in the American League East that the Red Sox “achieved”. Not to imply that Francona wanted the Red Sox to disintegrate as they did, but the implosion somehow validates that the 2011 collapse was not the fault of the former manager when, in part, it was. Francona’s lackadaisical discipline and inability to stop the breakdown of intensity; stem the rise in overwhelming arrogance; and harpoon the sense that because the Red Sox had become such a machine over the years that they were automatically anointed a spot in the post-season, made 2011 inevitable. Francona had been there too long; the team had become complacent under his leadership; and his refusal to appear at the Red Sox 100th anniversary celebration and then decision to show up in a passive-aggressive display of selfishness against Lucchino while he knew the difficulty Valentine was having only exacerbated the situation.

His looming presence as a popular and well-liked person who happened to be in the ESPN broadcasting booth shadowed Valentine and the Red Sox. The idiotic entreaties from the likes of Ken Rosenthal and now others that the Red Sox bring him back are similar to a divorced couple that splits and only remembers the good times and not the reasons they broke up in the first place.

Francona is a good, but not great manager who will do well if he has the players to win. Put him in a rebuilding project such as the Indians and he’ll revert to the, “nice guy, okay enough manager…I guess” individual he was with the Phillies when all he did was lose. He got the Red Sox job because he was willing to take short money for the opportunity, he was agreeable to Curt Schilling whom the Red Sox were trying to acquire, and he would adhere to stat-based principles and do what the front office told him. In short, he was the opposite of Grady Little. The concept that he’s more than that because he was the manager of a loaded Red Sox team is a concocted story that will be proven to be false if he does indeed go to the Indians. (I don’t think he will. He’ll wait out the Tigers/Angels/Dodgers/Diamondbacks jobs.)

12% at fault

Toronto, Canada

The Red Sox are enamored of John Farrell. They wanted him a year ago and didn’t want to surrender what the Blue Jays supposedly asked for (Clay Buchholz) in compensation for their manager. Farrell desperately wants to go back to Boston and he is the next manager of the Red Sox, for better or worse.

That the Blue Jays are willing to let him go to a division rival should be a warning sign to the Red Sox that they may not be getting the problem-solver they’re looking for. Farrell is popular with the players, beloved by the Boston media, and a conduit to the memory of when the Red Sox were a championship team. But, as the Blue Jays and their fans will attest, his in-game managerial skills are lacking and the Blue Jays were an undisciplined and haphazardly run bunch that was expected to be much better than they were in 2012. His longing gaze back at Boston and that Boston was gazing back didn’t help Valentine either.

1% at fault

Chicago, IL

From poor drafts in 2008 and onward, to overpaying for free agents nationally and internationally, the 2012 Red Sox were largely put together by the current president of the Chicago Cubs, Theo Epstein. Those are the same Cubs that lost 101 games under Epstein, GM Jed Hoyer, and the manager that Cherington preferred, Sveum. The Cubs were in need of a total overhaul and that’s what Epstein and his crew are doing, so he can’t be blamed for the monstrosity they were this season, but the 2012 Red Sox are absolutely Epstein’s responsibility. He decided to git while the gittin’ was good, but that doesn’t absolve him of the carnage that his acquisitions, signings, and failure to address lingering issues created.

Also in Chicago was Kevin Youkilis of the White Sox.

One of the seminal moments of Valentine’s downfall in Boston was his innocuous criticism of Youkilis early in the season in which he said he felt that Youkilis’s commitment was lacking. It was amazing how a presence like Youkilis, who had begun to be seen as a problematic clubhouse lawyer and divisive busybody in September of 2011, evolved into a rallying point for the Red Sox veterans to say, “See?!? Valentine’s a jerk!!”

Whatever the catalyst was of Valentine’s criticism and Youkilis’s eventual trade to the White Sox, was Valentine wrong?

The injury-prone Youkilis wasn’t hitting for the Red Sox, they had a replacement at the ready in the younger and cheaper Will Middlebrooks, and after Youkilis joined the White Sox, he was the same inconsistent, limited player he’d become for the Red Sox.

Youkilis was an outlet for strife within the Red Sox roster, but he was one of convenience.

30% at fault

Los Angeles, CA

Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez, and Crawford were traded to the Dodgers in a salary dump that the Red Sox were beyond lucky that they were able to complete. Gonzalez was a bad fit for Boston due to his laid back West Coast personality and desire to be left alone to do his job. As the veteran leaders like David Ortiz got injured and Gonzalez was called to the forefront on and off the field, he was swallowed up, unable to come up with any legitimate, intelligent response as to why the club faltered in 2011 and was coming unglued in 2012 aside from referencing God.

Crawford tried hard, but was hurt. His deployment was a point of contention between Valentine and the front office with the random decision that he would play X number of games and get Y number of games off to account for an elbow that required Tommy John surgery.

Beckett is the epitome of the problem child bully who needed a smack, but no one in Boston willing to give him that smack. The one person that Valentine needed to come to an understanding with was Beckett. Or the Red Sox had to trade Beckett. Neither happened in time to save 2012, and when they finally traded Beckett in August, it was too late to do any good.

Is it fair to blame Beckett for not behaving as a professional and an adult when he’s never done it before in his entire career and it was up to the front office to accept that and get rid of him? Is it fair to blame Gonzalez for not being any more of a leader than he was with the twice-collapsed Padres clubs for whom he was also the centerpiece? Is it fair to blame Crawford because he was hurt?

Not really.

4% at fault

Stamford, CT

After waiting so long to get back into Major League Baseball as a manager, there has to be a sense of embarrassment for Valentine that he got the chance of a lifetime with a team that spends a lot of money and was rife with stars and that he “blew” it.

But did he blow it?

Valentine, being Valentine walked into the job with the knives already out to get him. The perception of him being a loud, arrogant, condescending, abrasive, micromanaging nuisance notwithstanding, it was up to him to get the players to take him at face value based on their dealings with him rather than dredging up old criticisms from those with an axe to grind such as John Franco, his deposed closer with the Mets.

Valentine saw how Francona became lauded and celebrated after breaking the “curse”; that it could have been him who was managing the Red Sox back in 2003 had he been willing to compromise on his principles and tell Lucchino during an informal chat that he disagreed with Little’s decision to leave Pedro Martinez in to pitch in that fateful game 7 of the 2003 ALCS. But he refused to criticize Little, wound up in Japan for several years, missed out on the Marlins and Orioles jobs and was left with one final opportunity.

Early in the season, had Valentine been the strategic wizard he was portrayed to be, then it might’ve been okay. But he was rusty having not managed in the big leagues for 10 years and in the American League for 20. In an apropos analogy considering Valentine’s bicycle spill in Central Park during the last series against the Yankees, managing is not like getting on a bicycle. Valentine tried and fell.

Valentine won’t regret taking the job, but he will regret not making a greater effort to get the veterans on his side; on not allowing coaches that he didn’t want and were likely to be undermining influences to be on his staff; and for not making a greater effort to dispel the aura than he carried around with him. Making the effort could have helped. Telling Beckett and others, “Listen, I’m sure you’ve heard all the stories about me. Some are true, some aren’t. But I was in my 40s then. I’m 62 now. This is my last chance. I know it, you know it. I wanna win. You guys wanna forget about what happened last year. Let’s work together to make it happen.”

Beckett would probably have still acted the way he did (and does), but Valentine could say he tried.

This was Valentine’s last shot. There are two strategies to take when facing a last shot: 1) go for the deep strike and say, “If I’m going down, I’m going down my way,” and make sure you’re comfortable with everything for better or worse; or 2) be conciliatory and agreeable, hoping it works out based on talent level and available money.

Valentine chose the latter with the results we see. He bears a significant portion of the responsibility and was jettisoned, but this was a combined effort from all over the map and top to bottom. No one should be spared from their part in the horror film that is the 2012 Boston Red Sox.

18% at fault

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The Prominent Team President Thing Just Ain’t Gonna Work

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Of all people, Theo Epstein should know the difficulty in having a team president openly interfering with the actual running of a club. Given that he escaped a similar situation with the Red Sox after last season and came to see his former mentor Larry Lucchino as his nemesis, he has to know that the statement he made concerning Ryan Dempster is going to undermine the actual GM of the club, Jed Hoyer. The story implied that before Dempster was traded to the Rangers, he was able to hear exactly what was going on in the negotiations with the Dodgers because he was allowed to listen in on the conversations between the clubs. If true, this would be highly inappropriate. If true, why is Epstein saying it to the media?

That I believe Dempster and Hoyer when they say that it’s not true is irrelevant. Epstein’s damage control is expected and understandable, but it’s not going to alter the fundamental fact that the GM of the club—supposedly in charge of the baseball side—has a team president who’s approached for all the answers and more than willing to talk to the press when he should recede into the background to let Hoyer do the job he was hired to do.

It’s widely believed that Hoyer is Epstein’s puppet and their close personal relationship has the GM following orders and acting as the front man, handling with the media and players while Epstein runs the entire baseball ops. Hoyer was allowed to leave the Padres under curious circumstances, first without any compensation, then with almost a grudging, “let’s give them something to keep up appearances” as Padres’ CEO Jeff Moorad clearly preferred his former GM with the Diamondbacks Josh Byrnes to Hoyer. Hoyer hadn’t done much of anything as the Padres’ GM to build the club that won 90 games in 2010; a roster almost entirely comprised of players acquired by the prior GM, Kevin Towers; then he traded away the remaining Padres’ star Adrian Gonzalez as the club stumbled to 71-91. Hoyer left for the Cubs to rejoin Epstein and now he’s dealing with a story that he shouldn’t have to and only is dealing with because the team president is so heavily involved in the personnel. That Epstein was able win the power struggle with Lucchino only makes what he did to Hoyer worse. I question whether Hoyer has the stomach to challenge his mentor as Epstein did, and forget about winning the power struggle. It’s a form of castration and is a role reversal for Epstein. It’s not a good one considering he knows what it’s like to be thought of as the puppet and to have to claw his strings away to venture out on his own.

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National League Ticking Tempers Of Ownership

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Earlier I looked at the American League’s ownerships that are (or should be) getting antsy.

Now, let’s look at the National League.

Miami Marlins

Does ownership have a right to be upset?

Put it this way: in spite owner Jeffrey Loria’s past decisions that have been seen as running the gamut from unethical to outright illegal, he spent money on players and a manager this past winter.

With his pro-Fidel Castro comments, the manager they hired, Ozzie Guillen, put the organization in an embarrassing position and almost sunk the ship just after it had been christened. The new Marlins Park is located in Little Havana and they’re trying desperately to cultivate the baseball-loving Cuban-American crowd to bolster their attendance. That attendance is flagging. Guillen’s personality has appeared somewhat subdued following his suspension and apology. They didn’t hire Guillen-lite; they hired outrageous Ozzie who can manage players, win and draw attention to himself.

Clearly praising Castro didn’t fall into that mandate.

On the field, they’re 8-13 and 15th in the National League in runs scored. Two of their big-name free agents, Jose Reyes and Heath Bell, have been terrible. Hanley Ramirez, Giancarlo Stanton and Gaby Sanchez aren’t hitting. Ace Josh Johnson has gotten rocked in three of his five starts.

They’re not getting what they paid for.

What should be done?

Maybe that should be phrased: What could be done rather than what should be done.

They could demote Bell from the closer’s role, but won’t.

They could put the word out that they want to get rid of Hanley Ramirez, but won’t.

They could fire a couple of coaches, but won’t. (It would make Guillen look bad if his coaching staff was messed with in his first month on the job.)

There aren’t many “shoulds” that would help them more than the players and manager they signed/traded for doing their jobs and earning their paychecks.

What will be done?

Loria’s George Steinbrenner side has been evident since he bought his way into baseball.

He’s not going to jump out front and center yet. Within the next week, if the Marlins keep playing like this, Loria’s son-in-law/hatchet man/flunky/team president David Samson will utter a few choice comments in the media that will generate attention. There might be vague threats of looming changes or random, stream of consciousness demands that the manager and coaching staff “do something”.

If that doesn’t work, by May 20th or so, Loria will have his own explosion. Something—a demotion of a Sanchez or Stanton; a benching of Ramirez or Reyes; Bell being relegated to the seventh or eighth inning—will happen.

I can’t say he’s wrong either.

Chicago Cubs

Does ownership have a right to be upset?

No.

I’m quite sure that when Theo Epstein was anointed (not interviewed, anointed) to take over as team president, he told owner Tom Ricketts that the entire farm system needed to be rebuilt, he’d have to clear some dead weight from the big league roster and unless they got some above and beyond the call of duty returns to glory from the likes of Alfonso Soriano, they were going to have a lean year or two. Since Ricketts hired Epstein and let him bring in Jed Hoyer as GM and surrendered actual players to the Red Sox and Padres to get both, he accepted this analysis and is willing to deal with the fallout.

It helps that the Cubs’ fans’ loyalties are such that they’ll support the team whether they win 70 games or 90s games. In 2012, it’s going to be the former.

What should and what will be done?

Under Epstein, the Cubs will do what they should do.

They’ll get rid of Soriano at some point. Even with the remaining $54 million from 2012-2014, the money’s gone; he’s untradeable. Cutting him makes sense.

Ryan Dempster, Carlos Marmol, Matt Garza and even Geovany Soto will attract interest on the market and the Cubs can and should explore every opportunity to get multiple pieces and shave payroll to make themselves better for the year they’re planning on making a legitimate run: 2014.

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Prepare For The Cubs To Clean House

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The Cubs’ recent decisions indicate that Theo Epstein isn’t going to sit on his hands and wait until June or July before cleaning out the house of anyone and everyone for whom he can get value and/or salary relief.

With the sudden trade of Marlon Byrd to the Red Sox, Epstein wasn’t doing his former club any favors. He got rid of Byrd for Michael Bowden and a player to be named later with the Cubs paying Byrd’s salary. To make room for Bowden on the 40-man roster, the Cubs have designated veteran swingman Rodrigo Lopez for assignment.

This is just the beginning.

In the off-season, the Cubs made a series of low-cost signings for veteran competence. Their biggest and most expensive imports were Epstein, new GM Jed Hoyer and his assistant Jason McLeod.

The Cubs paid the Marlins to take Carlos Zambrano to get him out of their sight. This and the Byrd trade echoed a similar strategy. Presumably they could’ve gotten more salary relief had they been willing to take marginal prospects in return for Zambrano and Byrd, but they chose to pay them off and get Bowden from the Red Sox and Chris Volstad from the Marlins. That Epstein was able to get anything for Byrd at all—with or without paying him—is a testimony to the Red Sox’ desperation to do something. Byrd had managed 3 singles in 47 plate appearances for the Cubs.

Epstein’s not stupid. He knew when he took the job that the Cubs were going to require an extensive makeover. The biggest advantage he has isn’t the history of success he had with the Red Sox and the status of being the GM when the Red Sox not only broke their curse in 2004, but won another title in 2007. The biggest advantage he has is the Cubs’ fans’ blind loyalty to their team. In the past, the attendance—good team, bad team, whatever team—has been a dual-edged sword. They didn’t have to be good to attract fans. In the past 10 years, the Cubs have never finished lower than fifth in National League attendance and it made no difference whether they won 97 games or 66 games. The fans will be patient and support the uniforms regardless of the players wearing them.

They took a wait-and-see approach this past winter and signed the likes of David DeJesus to a reasonable and cheap contract; they acquired a veteran third baseman Ian Stewart; and made the aforementioned deal to get rid of Zambrano.

They’ve gotten off to a 5-12 start and got rid of Byrd.

Expect Ryan Dempster to be on the market. They’ll dangle Matt Garza at mid-season safe in the knowledge that he’s not a free agent until after 2013 and they have the multiple options of signing him long-term, trading him in July or sometime within the next year-and-a-half. They might swallow Alfonso Soriano’s contract ($18 million annually through 2014) completely and release him if he doesn’t start doing the only thing he still can do—hit a few homers. Carlos Marmol needs a change of scenery and will be available very, very soon.

The Cubs’ new regime gave them a chance to show they were a possible fringe contender.

They’ve lost 12 of their first 17 games and have looked lackluster and boring while doing it.

There’s no reason to continue the charade with players who won’t be Cubs when and if they’re ready to contend for a championship. Epstein’s got players to trade and he’s going to trade them sooner rather than later.

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Hot Stove Winners, 2011-2012

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Most of the big names are off the board and the ones remaining on the market—Roy Oswalt, Edwin Jackson—aren’t going to change the landscape much, if at all.

Let’s look at the hot stove winners for this winter.

New York Yankees

This isn’t a matter of the Yankees opening their checkbook and buying stuff as it usually is when they’re considered the “big winners” of the off-season. This winter was dedicated to keeping CC Sabathia and bolstering their starting rotation—which they did.

The Yankees essentially held serve and got more assured production with the additions of Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda than the scrambling they did and luck they enjoyed last year when Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon surpassed any logical expectations.

They’ve also been helped by the Red Sox evident disarray; the Blue Jays failing to acquire any veteran lineup or starting pitching help; the financial constraints that continually bound the Rays; and the Orioles being the Orioles.

Texas Rangers

The Rangers helped their starting rotation in two ways. One, they signed Joe Nathan to take over as closer and are shifting Neftali Feliz into being a starter. Two, they won the bidding for Yu Darvish.

Some will point to the loss of C.J. Wilson and the above moves as canceling each other out. The case can even be made that because the Angels signed Wilson, the Rangers wind up as net losers because of Wilson’s departure for a division rival.

The money they spent on Darvish in comparison to what it would’ve cost to keep Wilson or sign Jackson or Kuroda is a viable argument of having overpayed, but Wilson is 31 and Darvish 25. With Darvish, they get a more talented pitcher and the ancillary benefit of worldwide marketing possibilities because of his Iranian/Japanese heritage, looks and personality.

I think Darvish is going to be a superstar.

Los Angeles Angels

Long term consequences aside for having to pay Albert Pujols $59 million past his 40th birthday, they signed the best hitter of this generation and immediately launched themselves to the top of the talent scale. Simultaneously, they supplemented their strength in the starting rotation by signing Wilson.

They also acquired a catcher with pop in Chris Iannetta and hired a more competent GM when they replaced Tony Reagins with Jerry DiPoto.

Miami Marlins

They wanted a proven, name manager to draw buzz heading into their new ballpark and traded for Ozzie Guillen.

They needed starting pitching and signed Mark Buehrle and acquired Carlos Zambrano.

They needed a closer and signed Heath Bell.

And they wanted to bring in an offensive force to strengthen both shortstop and third base offensively and defensively and signed Jose Reyes, shifting Hanley Ramirez to third base.

The big questions are whether or not petulant owner Jeffrey Loria, meddling team president David Samson, Guillen, Zambrano and an unhappy Ramirez light the fuse of this powder keg and if the fans decide to show up to watch after the initial novelties.

On paper in February, they look good.

Cincinnati Reds

Giving up a chunk of their minor league system to get Mat Latos is risky, but he fills the need at the top of their starting rotation.

Ryan Madson’s market crashed and the Reds got him for one year; they traded for a solid lefty reliever in Sean Marshall and signed Ryan Ludwick, who will benefit from being a background player and hitting in a friendlier home park.

Colorado Rockies

Michael Cuddyer will have a big offensive year in right field and can play first base if/when Todd Helton gets hurt.

Replacing the shaky Huston Street with the cheaper and better Rafael Betancourt is a step up. Getting Tyler Chatwood for Iannetta and signing Ramon Hernandez to replace Iannetta is a dual gain. They signed the underrated Casey Blake to play third and traded a journeyman righty Clayton Mortensen to get Marco Scutaro, immediately solving their problem at second base.

San Diego Padres

Yonder Alonso is a power bat and Rookie of the Year candidate at first base. Yasmani Grandal is a top catching prospect and Edinson Volquez is good if he’s healthy and will benefit from pitching in the cavernous Petco Park and having a deep bullpen supporting him.

They gave up Latos to get the above package, but it’s an even trade for both sides for short and long term needs.

Street is just as good as the departed free agent Bell and maintains the bullpen hierarchy with Luke Gregerson as the set-up man and Street closing.

Carlos Quentin will be looking to have a big year as he heads for free agency and the Padres acquired him for two minor league pitchers who’d fallen out of favor with the organization.

Josh Byrnes is a category above Jed Hoyer as GM.

The hot stove losers and clubs that made lateral maneuvers will be discussed in upcoming posts.

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Wayside Mandate

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What happened to the rule in baseball that minority candidates had to receive interviews for high profile jobs as managers and general managers?

Is it no longer in effect?

Does it receive a waiver when a club decides to hire a “star” executive or field boss or promotes from within using the “next in line” approach?

Why is it that Theo Epstein was essentially rubber-stamped to go to the Cubs with the Cubs not fulfilling the requirement of interviewing a minority?

Or that Ben Cherington was promoted as Red Sox GM without so much as a peep from MLB that they had to talk to other candidates to satisfy the rule?

Initially I felt that the rule was a half-hearted attempt to appear progressive in name only; I didn’t think it would do much good; if a club has a specific person in mind for a job—and that may have race as a part of the subconscious exclusionary process—there’s not much that can be done to change their minds.

But what if a candidate walks in and wows the prospective employer? And what if that candidate’s reputation is boosted by the fact that teams were forced to interview them when, short of the mandate, they might not have done so?

Executives chat regularly; it’s a relatively closed society. They complain about players’ behaviors; their bosses; the media; and other mundane aspects of doing a job that many think is the pinnacle in baseball.

Doesn’t it make sense that if a Demarlo Hale or Bo Porter go in for an interview as manager and doesn’t get it for whatever reason that doing well will boost them for another opportunity?

But baseball has given a pass to clubs like the Cubs who hired Epstein away from the Red Sox; watched silently as Epstein hired Jed Hoyer from the Padres; and may look the other way when he hires his next manager whether it’s Ryne Sandberg (the “Cubs institution” excuse—which can be altered to make light of the Cubs being something of an institution) or Terry Francona (Epstein and Hoyer know and have worked with him before) to replace the fired Mike Quade.

The Padres promoted Josh Byrnes to take over for Hoyer.

No interviews?

Why?

Of course in some situations there is a “token” aspect to interviewing a candidate because of his or her racial profile, but it’s a means to an end.

Ten short years ago, there was one minority GM—Kenny Williams of the White Sox, who is black.

The minority managers from 2001 were Dusty Baker, Don Baylor, Jerry Manuel, Tony Perez, Davey Lopes, Felipe Alou, Hal McRae and Lloyd McClendon.

Failed retreads Buddy Bell, Bob Boone and Jeff Torborg were also managing that year.

Today, we have Manny Acta, Ron Washington, Ozzie Guillen, Fredi Gonzalez and Baker on the job with three openings with the Cardinals, Red Sox and Cubs.

Journeyman manager Jim Riggleman has been mentioned as a possibility for the Cardinals.

Jim Riggleman? The same Riggleman who quit on the Nationals in a self-immolating snit because they didn’t want to exercise his option for 2012? That guy? Teams want to hire him to manage?

I wouldn’t even consider him after what he pulled with the Nationals.

The Athletics hired Bob Melvin as interim manager after firing Bob Geren and gave him the full-time job. No minority interviews.

The Nationals hired Davey Johnson—their interim manager and a supremely qualified candidate with a terrific resume of managerial success, but someone who appeared tired at times in 2011 and may have lost his managerial fastball—no minority interviews.

What about Willie Randolph? Is he toxic? His strategic skills weren’t great when managing the Mets, but he had control of the clubhouse and deserves another chance.

Today Ruben Amaro Jr. and Michael Hill are working GMs; Tony Reagins was just fired by the Angels; and Kim Ng is an Asian-American woman who’s interviewed to be a GM and is currently an executive with Major League Baseball—the same MLB that is tacitly allowing clubs to selectively bypass the the mandatory minority interview rule to hire “names”.

Progress has been limited, but it’s progress nonetheless.

A rule that has helped make positive improvements in this realm is being dispatched out of convenience due to the recognition of those that are currently getting those jobs.

Epstein was going to be the Cubs boss one way or the other, but that doesn’t render the requirement meaningless.

At least it shouldn’t.

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Cubs Or Cards For Francona?

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The Cubs currently have a manager so it’s unfair for people to speculate on whether or not Terry Francona is going to take over while Mike Quade is still employed—the job’s not open, so until it is he’s not a candidate.

But that doesn’t mean he’s not going to be a candidate once Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are settled in and come to a decision on Quade.

Common sense dictates that if they’re making a change, they’ve informed Francona that he should wait before taking another job.

And presumably that was before Tony LaRussa retired and a potentially more inviting job came open—a job where Francona could walk in and win immediately with the Cardinals.

The teams are bitter, historic rivals and that’s only be exacerbated if their manager of choice has to pick one over the other.

Which job is better?

Which is preferable?

Let’s take a look.

Expectations.

The Cubs demands are going to be muted as Epstein sifts through the current mess, tries to clear the contracts of Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Zambrano, repairs the farm system and alters the culture. Francona could run the club on the field while they retool and no one’s going to be comparing him to his predecessor—if they remember his predecessor at all.

The Cardinals are the world champions are are accustomed to contending almost every single year. With or without Albert Pujols (who’s going to have a say in whom the new Cards manager is), they’re good enough to make the playoffs in 2012. It’s not easy being the replacement for a legend and even though Francona has some hardware in his own right with two championships, there’s forever going to be the onus of the appellation of “middle-manager”; that other managers could’ve won with the Red Sox collection of talent; and the way his tenure in Boston ended was a humiliating disaster.

Being the boss and familiarity.

The Cardinals are ready-made to win, but with LaRussa’s departure, I’d be concerned that they’re going to return to their earlier attempt to go the Moneyball route with the Jeff Luhnow-types in the front office and ignore what the manager thinks. LaRussa was able to use his resume as a hammer to fend off those adjustments and eventually won the power struggle; GM John Mozeliak was the man in the middle, appeasing his bosses and the manager. If Francona comes along, he’s not going to have the sharp elbows that LaRussa did. Francona’s much more affable than LaRussa, but that might not necessarily be a good thing.

Francona can work with Dave Duncan and doesn’t have the ego to retreat from delegating responsibilities to his coaches and players.

With the Cubs, he’d have at least some say with the construction of the roster because of his prior relationship with Epstein and Hoyer.

Talent.

Short of a miracle the Cubs aren’t going to be winning anytime soon and Epstein ain’t Moses.

The Cubs have a semblance of a good nucleus with Geovany Soto and Starlin Castro forming the basis for a solid up-the-middle club; Blake DeWitt deserves a chance to play and under Epstein his on-base skills and good defense will be better appreciated.

But it’s going to take a couple of years for the Cubs to be ready to win.

When Epstein took over the Red Sox, much of the ALCS club from 2003 and championship club from 2004 were already in place due to the prior work done by Dan Duquette. The Cubs have some talent, but are far from contending status. Would Francona be willing to walk in and have his record sullied by a 75-87 season in 2012? His job wouldn’t be on the line, but it’s a weak follow-up to the Red Sox collapse.

A starting rotation with Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia and Jake Westbrook; a bullpen with a 100-mph fastball of Jason Motte; a lineup with Lance Berkman, Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday, David Freese and presumably Pujols automatically has the Cardinals in contention.

The aggravation factor.

Francona’s hands-off approach eventually exploded in his face with the Red Sox, but the Cardinals have leaders who don’t tolerate any nonsense.

The Cubs have Zambrano and Soriano. It’s in their DNA to torment the manager.

There’s not a black cloud hanging over the Cardinals as there is with the Cubs. The negativity isn’t, nor will it ever be, present in St. Louis as it is on the North Side of Chicago.

While they’re almost waiting for something bad to happen to sabotage them—they almost revel in it as if it’s a badge of honor—the Chicago media and fans might be less willing to accept the “Flubs” if they don’t look like they’re on the right track under the new regime.

The Cardinals fans and media will support the club and their manager regardless of what happens as long as Francona doesn’t screw it up. And Francona’s not a “screw it up” guy who’ll make changes just for the sake of them.

There’s something to be said for being the manager of both the Red Sox and Cubs and ending two perceived curses—that’s part of what attracted Epstein to the Cubs in the first place; perhaps that would appeal to Francona. But for the reasons listed above, the Cardinals are a better job.

If offered both, the Cardinals job is a better situation and that’s the one I’d take if I were Terry Francona.

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