Reading Between Sandy Alderson’s Lines

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Sandy Alderson was a guest with Mike Francesa on WFAN in New York yesterday and said a lot without going into great detail as to what his true intentions are. This is nothing new. Alderson is cautious and makes it a point to give himself room by not saying anything that could later come back to haunt him. But if you read between the lines of what he said, you can come to a conclusion as to where he’s heading for the Mets in 2014 and beyond.

Matt Harvey – surgery or not?

According to Alderson, by next month there should be a plan in place on what to do about Harvey’s partially torn ulnar collateral ligament. While Harvey’s determination to avoid surgery to help the Mets is admirable, it was clear from listening to Alderson that he and the Mets want Harvey to get the surgery done, have his elbow repaired and be 100 percent for late 2014/early 2015.

Alderson is essentially saying what the self-educated “experts” in the media and on social media should say: “I’m not a doctor and we’ll do what the doctors’ consensus is.” If I were Alderson, I would speak to Harvey’s dad, Ed Harvey, who is a notable high school coach and make certain he understands the ramifications of Matt not getting the surgery and express that to his son.

Ike Davis and Lucas Duda

Alderson sounds as if he’s unsure about Davis and likes Duda much better. I agree. The bottom line with the two players is that Duda’s a better hitter. He’s got more power; he’s got a better eye; he hits lefties; he’s got a shorter swing that will be more consistent in the long run; he takes the game more seriously; and he can play a similar defensive first base to Davis.

Alderson brought up Duda’s struggles but made sure to point out that in spite of them, he still had one of the highest OPS’s on the club. Davis improved in certain aspects when he returned from his Triple A demotion, but his power is still missing. He’s walking more, but unless Davis is hitting the ball out of the park, what good is he?

The strained right oblique that Davis suffered in Washington has all but ended his 2013 season. This is a positive and negative for the Mets. It’s a negative because they won’t be able to get a look at Davis over the final month to see if the improved selectivity yielded an increase in power over the final 30 games. It’s a positive because they can play Duda every single day at first base and get a gauge on whether they can trade Davis and trust Duda without it exploding in their faces.

Joel Sherman came up with a ridiculous series of scenarios for Davis including trading him for the likes of Chris Coghlan, Gordon Beckham or Jeremy Hellickson. Coghlan is a possible non-tender candidate after this season and Beckham and Hellickson have done nothing to warrant being traded for a player who hit 32 home runs in 2012.

It’s almost as if Alderson is pleading with Duda to give him a reason to hand him the job in 2014. Alderson clearly wants Duda to put a chokehold on first base so the Mets can trade Davis.

Ruben Tejada

The Mets had implied as far back as spring training 2012 that Tejada’s work ethic was questionable. It’s not that he doesn’t hustle or play hard when he’s on the field. He does. It’s that Alderson came right out and said that Tejada has to be dragged onto the field for extra infield, extra hitting and any kind of after-hours instruction. Whereas players like Juan Lagares can’t get enough work, Tejada doesn’t think he needs it. They’d never gone as far as to openly say it, but now it’s out there. Unless Tejada shows that he’s willing to go as far as he needs to to be the Mets’ shortstop, he’s not going to be the Mets’ shortstop. In fact, it’s unlikely that he’s going to be their shortstop next year whether he suddenly finds a determination similar to Derek Jeter’s. He doesn’t hit for enough power to suit Alderson and he can’t run.

The status of manager Terry Collins

Collins is going to be the manager of the Mets in 2014. While there has been a media/fan-stoked idea that if the Mets tank in September and come completely undone that will spell doom for Collins, it’s nonsense. That might have been the case had David Wright, Davis, Harvey and Bobby Parnell been healthy and if they hadn’t traded Marlon Byrd and John Buck. Now that they’re without all of these players and are on the cusp of shutting down Zack Wheeler, they’re playing so shorthanded that a September record of 10-19 would be expected. If they go 14-15 or thereabouts, Collins will get the credit for overachievement.

How can anyone in their right mind hold Collins responsible if the team has a poor September when they’re going to be trotting Daisuke Matsuzaka and Aaron Harang out to the mound for a number of starts just to get the season over with?

The upcoming winter and spending

I’m not getting into speculation on the Wilpons’ loan payments due in 2014. So many have already done that and the vast majority of them have been completely wrong every step of the way since the arrest of Bernie Madoff and the financial meltdown. From the outside, I’m going to say that the banks are going to let the Wilpons renegotiate the debt. In truth, considering the amount of money they owe, what it will cost to sign a few players – even expensive players – is relatively negligible. It’s not in Alderson’s DNA to pay $150 million for a free agent because as Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, Carl Crawford and so many others have proven, it’s just not worth it in the majority of cases. The Mets will be in on the likes of Bronson Arroyo, Carlos Beltran and Jhonny Peralta whose prices will be “what’s the difference?” outlays. Alderson said they have financial flexibility and they do. The Mets are going to spend this winter because they’re out of excuses and they can’t afford not to.




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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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Trading Wil Myers Would Be “Moore” of the Same For the Royals

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Of course I’m referring to Royals GM Dayton Moore who, in his time as their GM and as an assistant with the Braves, has proven himself to be a shrewd drafter and accumulator of young, minor league talent. He has, however, faltered in signing and trading for established big leaguers. Someone with strengths and weaknesses so clearly defined might not be the best choice to run the entire organization. He’s under contract through 2014 and is going to get the opportunity to see things through for better or worse, so the Royals and their fans need to hope that he doesn’t keep doing the same things over and over and expect a different result.

During his tenure, there’s been little bottom line improvement with the Royals’ definable results—i.e. their record—but they have a farm system that is bursting with talent, particularly on offense. Rather than trade away some of that talent, they need to hang onto it and scour the market for pitchers that would be willing to sign with the Royals in a mutually beneficial deal between themselves and the club.

Considering the stagnation of Luke Hochevar (a non-tender candidate); that last season Bruce Chen was their opening day starter; that Danny Duffy needed Tommy John surgery; and that veteran imports Jonathan Sanchez have failed miserably, it’s understandable that they would use their surplus of bats to try and get a legitimate, cost-controlled young starter who could front their rotation. They’ve improved the rotation relatively cheaply and on a short-term basis with Ervin Santana and by keeping Jeremy Guthrie (who people don’t realize how good he’s been). They do need pitching and while it would help them to acquire a frontline starter like James Shields or a young, inexpensive arm such as Jeremy Hellickson, Trevor Bauer, or Jonathon Niese, the Royals would be better served to wait out the falling dominos without doing something drastic like trading Wil Myers, Eric Hosmer, or Billy Butler. Instead of a blockbuster deal of youngsters, perhaps signing a veteran such as Dan Haren who’s looking to revitalize his value and get one last big contract, would be preferable.

The Royals have the makings of a big time offense that’s cheap and productive. Weakening it to repeat the risky maneuvers of the past and hoping that they don’t turn into Sanchez is not the way to go. It would yield a headline and more hot stove stories of the Royals preparing to take the next step, but they’ve been there before multiple times in recent years and have wound up in the same place—70 wins or so. It’s a circular history and they’ve failed to make innocent climb into noticeable improvement, respectability, and finally contention. If any club knows first hand the risks of pitchers, it’s the Royals. The last thing they need to do is double-down on the risk and cost themselves a young bat like Myers or Hosmer before they’ve given them a chance to develop in a Royals uniform. There are pitchers like Haren who wouldn’t cost anything other than money. They think they have a comparable young replacement for Myers/Butler in Bubba Starling and you can find a first baseman, but would being patient hinder them?

If it’s an affordable price, the free agency has better options than trading young bats to get a young arm that might or might not make it and is more likely to repeat the process that has put the Royals in this position where they need pitching because the young pitchers they’ve had haven’t lived up to the hype or gotten hurt. Why do it again?

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My 2011 MLB Award Winners (And They Should Be Yours Too)

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Here are my 2011 Award Winners along with the other contenders listed 1-5. Also my pre-season picks are included.

American League Award Winners

MVP

1. Justin Verlander, RHP—Detroit Tigers

Verlander carried a mediocre team into contention and was about as brilliant as a pitcher can possibly be for the entire season. The Tigers record makes them look better than they were at mid-season when they were far from a playoff lock. Verlander won the pitching Triple Crown with 24 wins (5 losses); a 2.40 ERA; and 250 strikeouts in 251 innings.

If you use advanced statistics like WAR as a barometer, Verlander was second in the American League behind Jose Bautista with an 8.5.

The combination of being the best at his position and being imperative to the team’s success—they wouldn’t have been where they are without him—makes him the MVP.

2. Jose Bautista, OF/3B—Toronto Blue Jays

3. Jacoby Ellsbury, CF—Boston Red Sox

4. Adrian Gonzalez, 1B—Boston Red Sox

5. Miguel Cabrera, 1B—Detroit Tigers

Before the season, I picked Carl Crawford.

Yes. Well.

Cy Young Award

1. Justin Verlander, RHP—Detroit Tigers

See above.

2. CC Sabathia, LHP—New York Yankees

3. Jered Weaver, RHP—Los Angeles Angels

4. James Shields, RHP—Tampa Bay Rays

5. Mariano Rivera, RHP—New York Yankees

My preseason pick was Verlander.

Rookie of the Year

1. Ivan Nova, RHP—New York Yankees

Nova has overcome every obstacle put in front of him including an “odd man out” treatment from the club that quite probably prevented him from winning 20 games as they had too many starters and Nova still had minor league options remaining. He’s fearless, he’s cool and he comes up big when the Yankees need him to. He went 16-4 with a 3.70 ERA and was completely reliable on a team that had more questions at the beginning of the season than they care to admit—including a failure to truly believe in Nova.

2. Eric Hosmer, 1B—Kansas City Royals

3. Jeremy Hellickson, RHP—Tampa Bay Rays

4. Mark Trumbo, 1B—Los Angeles Angels

5. Jordan Walden, RHP—Los Angeles Angels

My preseason pick was Kyle Drabek of the Blue Jays. He wound up back in the minors.

Manager of the Year

1. Joe Maddon—Tampa Bay Rays

Maddon did a magnificent job in leading the Rays from “out” of contention into the playoffs. Had the Red Sox held onto their playoff spot, I’d have picked Joe Girardi, but the late season run by the Rays stole a playoff spot and the MOY award for Maddon. Girardi did a magnificent job this year and that must be noted.

2. Joe Girardi—New York Yankees

3. Jim Leyland—Detroit Tigers.

4. Mike Scioscia—Los Angeles Angels

5. Ron Washington—Texas Rangers

My preseason pick was Leyland.

National League Award Winners

MVP

1. Matt Kemp, CF—Los Angeles Dodgers

Kemp’s come a long way from being benched and ripped publicly by the club for his lazy, disinterested play and poor attitude that seemed to have come from going “Hollywood”.

He dedicated himself to the game in 2011 and almost won the Triple Crown while playing Gold Glove defense in center field. He put up massive numbers with 39 homers, 126 RBI, a .324 batting average, a .399 on base and 76 extra base hits.

2. Ryan Braun, LF—Milwaukee Brewers

3. Prince Fielder, 1B—Milwaukee Brewers

4. Lance Berkman, RF—St. Louis Cardinals

5. Clayton Kershaw, LHP—Los Angeles Dodgers

My preseason pick was Albert Pujols.

Cy Young Award

1. Clayton Kershaw, LHP—Los Angeles Dodgers

Kershaw won the National League pitching Triple Crown with 21 wins, a 2.28 ERA and 248 strikeouts in 233 innings. He walked 54 and allowed only 15 homers.

2. Roy Halladay, RHP—Philadelphia Phillies

3. Cliff Lee, LHP—Philadelphia Phillies

4. Ian Kennedy, RHP—Arizona Diamondbacks

5. Craig Kimbrel, RHP—Atlanta Braves

My preseason pick was Lee.

Rookie of the Year

1. Craig Kimbrel, RHP—Atlanta Braves

Never mind the games he blew late in the season, Kimbrel struck out 127 in 77 innings and saved 46 games for the Braves. They collapsed, but it wasn’t because of Kimbrel.

2. Freddie Freeman, 1B—Atlanta Braves

3. Brandon Beachy, RHP—Atlanta Braves

4. Vance Worley, RHP—Philadelphia Phillies

5. Wilson Ramos, C—Washington Nationals

My preseason pick was Kenley Jansen.

Manager of the Year

1. Kirk Gibson—Arizona Diamondbacks

This is partially good work and partially managing a team from whom not much was expected. Gibson’s intensity and the way it rubbed off on his players and the Diamondbacks won the NL West title.

2. Charlie Manuel—Philadelphia Phillies

3. Don Mattingly—Los Angeles Dodgers

4. Ron Roenicke—Milwaukee Brewers

5. Tony LaRussa—St. Louis Cardinals

My preseason pick was Mattingly.

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The Rays Chicanery

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I’d be very, very careful if I were an interested club and the Rays start taking offers for James Shields after this season.

I’d be even more careful if they do it begrudgingly; portraying the role of the hamstrung, financially-strapped entity that needs several pieces and can’t afford to keep Shields while entertaining the possibility of signing B.J. Upton to a long-term contract.

Suffice it to say that the Rays aren’t going to sign Upton to a long-term contract.

It’s all part of the subterfuge and trickery that’s become a part of the Rays way of doing business.

And parties interested in Shields need to be wary before giving up the house for him.

Yesterday, Shields pitched his 11th complete game. Even in the Roy Halladay-circle of old-schoolness, that’s an unheard of number of complete games. The Rays have pushed Shields hard this season. Curiously hard.

When examining his gamelogs this season, you’ll notice that he’s been allowed to throw a lot of pitches and pitch deeply into many games despite having one of baseball’s better bullpens backing him up.

It makes me wonder why.

Under GM Andrew Friedman, the Rays have never been a club to capriciously limit their pitchers because of arbitrary, easy to remember numbers like 100 pitches or 200 innings; Shields has been supremely durable during his career and has been allowed to regularly pitch deeply into games with over 100 pitches.

Has he learned to use his defense and pound the strike zone to a greater degree? Wheras he was pitching into the 6th-7th innings in prior years and giving up a lot more hits than innings pitched, in 2011 he’s drastically increased his strikeouts and reduced the number of hits allowed. The defense is a large factor in this as his batting average on balls in play (BAbip) this season is .267 and he’s allowed 22 homers; in 2010 it was .344 and he allowed 34 homers; in 2009 it was .311 and he allowed 29 homers. His line drive percentages are the same; his ground ball percentages are up; he’s walking more batters and striking out more.

Part of his success this year is due to better luck. The disparity between a .344 BAbip and a .267 BAbip accounts for a large amount of his improved results.

Shields will be 30 in December; by the end of this season, he’ll have thrown 215 innings in four of the past five years; the one he didn’t (2010), he threw 203. He’s signed through 2014 with club options for $7 million in 2012 ($2 million buyout); $9 million in 2013 ($1.5 million buyout); and $12 million in 2014 ($1 million buyout); his value is never going to be higher than it is now and there’s a limited number of innings a pitcher—no matter how tough—has before a decline/breakdown occurs. Believe me when I say the Rays have crunched those numbers. They also have to start thinking about contract extensions for David Price, Matt Joyce and possibly would like to sign Desmond Jennings and Jeremy Hellickson to cheap, preemptive contracts as they did with Evan Longoria.

The Rays have used the “we don’t have the money” excuse to let Rafael Soriano walk after his career-best season and take the draft picks as compensation; to trade Matt Garza and Scott Kazmir for multiple young, cheap players. That excuse is highly convenient, true and should be examined with suspicion since they keep doing it over and over again and making off like bandits in the process.

With the dearth of good starting pitching out there; the way Shields has pitched; the cheapness and long-term nature of his contract; and that his value is never going to be higher, it’s right to be a little dubious if he comes available. Interested teams need to wonder why the Rays are willing to discuss him. And if the Rays say it’s because they want to sign Upton, those teams had better run away. Fast.

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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.