Rays and Orioles: Early Season Notes

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Tampa Bay Rays

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

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

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

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

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

Nor should he.

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

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

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

Baltimore Orioles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Rays-Royals Trade Part I—The Truth

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The Rays traded RHP James Shields, RHP Wade Davis and a player to be named later to the Royals for OF Wil Myers, RHP Jake Odorizzi, LHP Mike Montgomery and 3B Patrick Leonard.

Let’s look at the trade from the standpoint of the Rays, the Royals and the players involved.

For the Rays

Trading away name players—specifically pitchers—for packages of minor leaguers has become the template for the Rays under their current regime. They did it with Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza, and Edwin Jackson. As much as their GM Andrew Friedman is worshipped for his guts and willingness to make a deal a day too early rather than a day too late, the get-back on those trades has been retrospectively mediocre. In those trades, they got a lot of stuff, the most notable up to now is Matthew Joyce, whom they received for Jackson. Apart from that, they’ve yet to show a big bang from any of those deals and mostly got salary relief.

Friedman stockpiles. There’s nothing wrong with that, but let’s not turn him into Branch Rickey and prepare his bust for the Hall of Fame just yet.

In this trade, the Rays cleared Shields’s $9 million for 2013. He has a club option for $12 million in 2014 with a $1 million buyout. They also got rid of Davis and his $7.6 million guarantee through 2014. (He has club options through 2017.) They received Myers, one of baseball’s top hitting prospects who, ironically, looks like a clone of Evan Longoria at the plate; they received Ororizzi, Montgomery and Leonard. Of those last three, Odorizzi is the only one close to big league ready.

Friedman maximized what he was going to get for Shields and the youngsters will certainly get a chance to play in the big leagues without the pressure and expectations to perform they would’ve been subjected to elsewhere, but that doesn’t mean they’ll become stars.

Considering the Rays’ financial constraints and strategies of bolstering the farm system by trading their veterans, this is a great move for them.

For the Royals

In 2012, the Royals were expected to take the next step (sort of like the Rays did in 2008) and have all their accumulated top draft picks vault them into contention or, at least, respectability. It didn’t work.

At some point a team has to try and win.

The Royals saw what happened when they acquired a scatterarmed and talented lefty, Jonathan Sanchez, before the 2012 season and he was about as bad as a big league pitcher can possibly be before getting hurt. Montgomery’s mechanics are heinous with a stiff front leg and across-his-body delivery; he has a power fastball with zero command and a curveball he’s yet to bridle. The young starting pitchers the Royals had developed have either faltered with inconsistency (Luke Hochevar) or gotten hurt (Danny Duffy).

They also saw a top young prospect Eric Hosmer experience a sophomore slump and exhibit why it’s not as easy as making the gradual progression with massive minor league production translating into big league stardom. The struggles of Hosmer clearly had an affect on how they viewed Myers and when he was going to help them.

With Shields, they get a proven 200+ inning arm that they have for the next two years. With Davis, they’re getting a potential starter who can also give them 200+ innings and he’s signed through 2017. We know what Shields is; Davis was very good as a reliever in 2012 and his overall numbers in two years as a starter have been mediocre. The Royals had a pitcher who’d struggled as a starter, was moved to the bullpen, pitched very well and was shifted back to the rotation. His name was Zack Greinke. Davis doesn’t have Greinke’s stuff, but his bloated ERAs from 2010 and 2011 stemmed more from individual games in which he got blasted. He’s a control pitcher who, if he doesn’t have his location, gets shelled. A pitcher like that can be a useful starter.

These are not rentals and they’re not desperation acquisitions for a GM, Dayton Moore, under fire. We’re already hearing from the armchair experts on social media making references to “cost certainty,” “team control,” and “upside.” They’re words that sound good as a reason to criticize. Most couldn’t tell you whether Myers bats righty or lefty. He’s a name to them. A hot name because he’s put up big numbers, but just a name.

It’s silly to think that the Royals don’t know what they have in their prospects, especially when the same critics make a great show of crediting Moore’s assistant Mike Arbuckle for his shrewd drafting that netted the Phillies Ryan Howard, Cole Hamels, Chase Utley, and others. But in the interests of furthering the agenda to discredit the trade from the Royals’ standpoint, it suits the argument to suggest Arbuckle doesn’t know how to assess Myers, Odorizzi, Montgomery and Leonard.

Did the Royals make a trade to get better immediately and take the heat off of the GM? Possibly. Or it could be that they’ve seen firsthand the ups and downs of developing and playing their own youngsters, know that there are no guarantees, looked at a winnable AL Central, a weakened AL East and West and extra playoff spots available and decided to go for it.

2013 is Moore’s seventh year on the job. It does him no good to leave all these youngsters for his successor to look “brilliant” similar to the way in which Friedman was assisted by the posse of draft picks the Rays accumulated under Chuck LaMar because they were so terrible for so long. The list of players—B.J. Upton, Jeff Niemann, Davis, Shields, Jake McGee, Carl Crawford and Jeremy Hellickson—were there when Friedman took over as GM. That’s not diminishing the great work Friedman’s done. It’s fact.

Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Salvador Perez, Alex Gordon, and Billy Butler make a solid, young, and controllable foundation to score enough runs to win if they pitch.

And this has nothing to do with Jeff Francoeur. He’s a convenient buzzword designed to invite vitriol and indicate ineptitude.

Now with Shields, Davis, Ervin Santana and Jeremy Guthrie, they can pitch.

When Friedman or Billy Beane makes a big trade, it’s “bold,” when Moore does, it’s “desperation.”

I don’t see it that way. The Rays did what they do with a freedom that other clubs don’t have to do it; the Royals made themselves better. It’s not the “heist” that it’s being framed as to credit Friedman while torching Moore. Both clubs get what they needed in the immediate future by making this trade.

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MLB Draft Dollars And The Strategy Of Spending

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Why do I get the feeling that with all the talk about clubs spending, spending and spending some more in the MLB Draft, that 2011 will wind up going down as the year that teams overspent and got little return?

We can go up and down, back and forth with the arguments for carting wheelbarrows of cash in the draft and bringing in top-quality talent, but the fact remains that the draft is the ultimate crapshoot.

As opposed to one of the most idiotic assertions in Moneyball that the genius Billy Beane was counting cards in a casino (repeated by Michael Lewis in the afterword/extra chapter of the paperback version as if saying something stupid once wasn’t enough), all you can do with drafted players is hope.

Naturally giving them an opportunity to play in the majors instead of continually bringing in veterans is a key to their development and becoming useful big leaguers, but the truth about the draft is that you don’t know until you know.

Picking a year at random (and I’m actually picking a year at random) with 2004 and the 1st round.

How many “star” players are there? There are two: Justin Verlander and Jered Weaver.

Apart from that, you have useful cogs (Huston Street; Jeff Niemann; Phil Hughes; Neil Walker; J.P. Howell; Gio Gonzalez); the underdeveloped (Bill Bray; Homer Bailey; Blake DeWitt; Philip Humber); and the busts (Matt Bush; Jon Poterson; Greg Golson).

Being a 1st round pick and getting a load of money increases expectations and the amount of time a player is going to get with the organization. The bigger amounts of attention and money they receive, the more a club is going to want to get some kind of return on that investment; that goes a long way in keeping a player employed and moving up the ladder even if he doesn’t deserve it.

The obvious and easy response to any failure or perceived success is to go all in. So if teams are seen to be “winning” with the Moneyball system, that’s what will come en vogue; if teams win by signing veteran players, that will be the new strategy.

It’s the same with the draft and development—others will copy it while it appears to be working; then they’ll move on to something else.

The drafted players have taken advantage of MLB’s complete lack of competence in implementing the bonus slots. The reliance on the draft to find players not to collect and trade, but to use is making them more valuable and the bonuses reflect that. But simply spending isn’t the answer on the big league level nor in the draft; it’s a matter of picking correctly.

This strategy of spending might be a one-and-out, because judging from history, it’s unlikely to succeed as well as the money or public accolades indicate it should.

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B.J. Upton Runs On The Rumor Treadmill, Jeff Niemann Might Be The One Traded

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It’s very strange how the Washington Nationals are in the middle of every trade rumor, but never seem to make any trades. They wait until the winter and make stupid free agent signings. (See Jayson Werth.)

The latest object of their pursuits—who won’t be traded to the Nats—is B.J. Upton.

The enigmatic Upton has been on and off the trade block (or part of stories suggesting that he’s on the trade block—true or not—forever). In part because of his on-again, off-again success and attitude; a desire to finally get a long-term contract and be paid like his brother Justin Upton has with the Diamondbacks; has, at various points, had management and teammates wanting to strangle him; and that he’s a free agent after the end of the 2012 season, Upton is a frequent subject of rumors.

With the premium the Rays place on defense and that they’re still in the playoff race, I don’t expect them to trade Upton.

The same can’t be said about their pitchers. More talk has centered around James Shields, but the pitcher I see being moved is Jeff Niemann.

Shields has been excellent this year and is signed through 2014—there’s no real reason to trade him unless they’re blown away by an offer; given Shields’s durability, there’s little risk in hanging onto him and waiting until the winter to make a trade.

With Niemann, he’s had back problems; he’s arbitration-eligible after the season; he’s benefited greatly from the Rays magnificent defense; and he’s not particularly good.

A workmanlike mid-rotation starter is useful enough, but the Rays could replace him relatively easily and his status as a former 1st round draft pick and other clubs not taking the reality of his “success” into account could yield a decent return for a pitcher they’re likely to eventually trade anyway.

Why not do it now when teams are starting to panic?

The Rays aren’t going to give up on the season now; I don’t think they’re trading Upton or Shields; but Niemann? He’s a name to watch as the deadline approaches because it makes perfect sense to get something for him. Now.

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Executive Perception

Books, Media, Players

The nature of the job in being a baseball executive is such that it’s no longer a “baseball guy” who can sit behind his desk, try to do his job and avoid the media until he has no other choice.

He has to be part salesman; eloquent spokesman; charmer; spin-doctor; in addition to smart baseball guy.

It’s how we’ve gotten style over substance; perception over truth.

You have to sift through the muck to get to that reality, but once you do you’re able to separate fact from fiction; truth from puffery.

Royals GM Dayton Moore is one such case where he’s suddenly receiving accolades from opposing executives, media and fans for the great farm system he’s developed.

The word “he” is the operative term.

How much influence Moore had in the drafting/acquisitions of said players is unknown, but I have a question: why is Moore given the credit for the players the Royals have accumulated and the likes of former Devil Rays GM Chuck LaMar, former Phillies (and current Astros) GM Ed Wade and Giants GM Brian Sabean are ridiculed because their work on the whole was considered poor or they don’t talk a good game?

I find it laughable that the Phillies current crop of prospects are credited to former assistant Mike Arbuckle, but Wade is considered little more than an afterthought to the juggernaut that succeeded after Wade was long gone.

The Devil Rays became the Rays; the new front office became the stuff of legend and now the subject of a book—The Extra 2% by Jonah Keri; I just received a copy in the mail; a review will be forthcoming. But the foundation of draft picks—B.J. Upton; Jeff Niemann; James Shields; Carl Crawford—was already there when they arrived. He also traded for Scott Kazmir. Does LaMar get a footnote in the way the Rays have been built? Or is he simply considered a fool who took advantage of the annual top picks in the draft because the big league product was so rancid under his watch?

Sabean has made a habit of finding pitchers and developing them. Because he overspent for Aaron Rowand and Barry Zito and doesn’t indulge in the numbers racket baseball has become in certain arenas, he’s savaged as an old-school thinker who got lucky. Did he get lucky with Tim Lincecum? With Matt Cain? With Brian Wilson? With Madison Bumgarner? Was he an ancillary part along for the ride while others made the calls? Or should he receive similar congratulations as Moore is getting now?

I’m sorry, it doesn’t work the way it’s framed.

The totem for the all-powerful executive—Billy Beane—is seen as such because of Moneyball and his skills with the language. Recently Jerry Crasnick wrote this piece about Beane and the Athletics solid off-season.

Beane’s a smart guy but he’s also highly manipulative and cultivating of his reputation as that CEO. The “zero-sum game” line comes straight out of Wall Street; his twisting of language makes it sound as if he’s saying something profound when he’s speaking in circles as if every word warrants applause. Such verbal gymnastics like the A’s are dictated to what they can’t do sound nice—they make great snippets—but are more-or-less sprinkled trickery to tilt the heads of the listeners and intimidate them with his well-rounded approach—an approach whose objective reality has been poor in recent years by every metric other than his ability to talk and that there are those clinging to the myth out of selfish interests.

In an extreme example, Beane would get credit for the “genius” of Wilson’s beard; Sabean would get blame for letting his players look so unkempt.

No executive is an island—they all have help from others in the front office—whether that’s good or bad help is the key to their success, but if a club is successful or unsuccessful, it’s not only the titular head who is responsible for the results.

There has to be the protagonist of any story, it’s easy to take a Beane, Moore, Wade or whoever and make them the hero/villain; but it’s not accurate. Nor is it fair.

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Masters Of The Universe

Hot Stove

Pending physicals, the Rays have traded RHP Matt Garza, OF Fernando Perez and a player to be named later to the Cubs for RHP Chris Archer, OF Brandon Guyer, C Robinson Chirinos, SS Hak-Ju Lee and OF Sam Fuld.

This is a gutsy and smart move for the Rays to extract a large chunk of the Cubs system for a pitcher who was going to get a big raise in arbitration and has always been a temperamental “go this way or that way” type who might implode (he has before) on the mound if a 3-2 borderline pitch was called against him.

Would the Rays front office led by GM Andrew Friedman be this courageous if they were functioning in a crisis-a-day atmosphere like that in New York, Boston or Philadelphia?

Don’t automatically say yes because the mental adjustment and accounting for public reaction—i.e. ticket sales and sports talk radio—is not something to dismiss out of hand. Even those who partake in such ancillary concerns may not realize they’re doing it; it’s imperceptible and affecting as it seeps into the thought process before making a deal.

Teams like the Mets have historically allowed an expected reaction, positively or negatively, influence what they do—many times to club detriment.

The Rays are able to do things such as trading their number 2 starter, Garza, or allow big free agent Carl Crawford to leave without any fight at all (a fight in which they had no chance to win) and clear out the entire bullpen because they’re in a venue that doesn’t live and die with the Rays. Judging from the comparatively sparse attendance figures for such a good team, much of Tampa barely pays attention to them at all.

The Crawford case is indicative of this. Other clubs would’ve been compelled to make a perfunctory offer knowing that it would be refused. Not the Rays. They tried to sign Crawford to a team-friendly extension and were rebuffed; they accepted that they were losing him and moved on safe in the knowledge that they were getting draft picks and had Desmond Jennings to replace him.

While it would be nice for the Rays organization to get more recognition, the lack of attention has allowed them to build the team correctly and cut loose players of diminishing returns and higher cost to replenish the system.

The Rays do it right. Part of the reason they’re able to do it “right” isn’t that they have a bunch of former “Masters of the Universe” (quoting from The Bonfire of the Vanities) running the club—the arrogance inherent in such a vocation and statement isn’t unimportant as they think they can do anything and get away with it—but because they don’t have anyone picking at everything they do; such entities in the media have one eye on ratings; another eye on fan reaction; and a third eye on waiting and seeing how it works out before taking a stand.

As for the players involved in the deal, I can only go by the ones I’ve seen and the stats of the minor leaguers.

I like Garza a lot and said so in my posting on New Year’s Day:

Garza just turned 27, he’s arbitration-eligible for the first time and the Rays have been listening to trade offers for him; he’s got three years to go before free agency, but he’s undoubtedly looking for his payday before then. He’ll be motivated to have a big year.

Having gone 15-10 in 2010, he’s primed to win 18-20 this year. His strikeouts dropped by 39 from 2009-2010; his hits allowed increased; but his walks diminished drastically, so he may have been pitching to contact by design.

He’s ready to step forward.

The Rays were able to do this because of the aforementioned departures, diminished expectations, the retooling on the fly and that they have enough starting pitching depth to get by with what they have if James Shields rebounds and Jeff Niemann steps up. With David Price at the top of the rotation and youngsters Wade Davis and Jeremy Hellickson at the back end, the Rays will be okay without Garza.

For the Cubs, it’s a questionable move.

What are they?

They needed a starter—there’s no question about that. The offense is serviceable; the bullpen is serviceable; the starting rotation is rife with questions. Ryan Dempster has essentially proven over the last three years that he’s consistent and trustworthy; but Tom Gorzelanny? Randy Wells? Carlos Silva? And the wildest of wild cards, Carlos Zambrano?

What are they getting out of this group with Garza and Dempster?

It’s an absurd assertion that Zambrano’s blowup in August cleansed his palate and led the way to a terrific final month of the season; to see this is a portent of a maturation and finally fulfilling his limitless potential is a recipe for disaster. He’s flighty; he’s mercurial; and he’s by no means a guarantee for anything one way or the other.

As mentioned earlier, Garza’s not Mr. Congeniality either. New manager Mike Quade doesn’t tolerate garbage, so if Garza or Zambrano start acting up, they’ll hear about it; but that doesn’t eliminate the explosive combination of ingredients the Cubs have thrown into the pot.

They’re a veteran team with immovable contracts like that of Zambrano and Alfonso Soriano. The situation is untenable unless everything works out right. If Zambrano wins 18 games and Garza repeats his 2010 season, the Cubs will contend for a playoff spot; if not, they’re around a .500 team in a rough division. Trapped in that vacancy, the only saving grace for the Cubs is—as it’s always been—the loyalty of their fan base.

Maybe that’s part of the problem.

It was either try to win now or hang onto those prospects and know they were non-contenders in 2011. Time will tell if they did the right thing.

For the Rays, they extracted a lot from the Cubs.

Chris Archer is 22 and his minor league numbers are ridiculously good; he might be a contributor to the Rays out of the bullpen—much like Price was—late in the season if they’re in contention. And they might be contenders despite all the turnover.

Sam Fuld is a fallen prospect who put up good numbers in 2009 and slumped back to the minors in 2010; the Rays have shown a propensity of getting use from such players as they did with Gabe Gross.

I can only judge the others by their numbers.

Brandon Guyer is a soon-to-be 24-year-old outfielder with speed and pop; Robinson Chirinos is a 26-year-old catcher who bashed both Double and Triple A pitching in 2010 and can really throw from behind the plate (his caught-stealing percentages are impressive); and shortstop Hak-Ju Lee is a speedy, 20-year-old shortstop.

It’s clear the Cubs did this deal because they felt they had no choice if they wanted to be relevant at all in 2011.

The Rays are the exact opposite.

In general, teams that do deals because they think they “have” to make mistakes.

The Rays don’t make many mistakes.

Do the Cubs? You tell me.