MLB Trade Deadline: Relievers and the Eric Gagne-Jesse Crain Parallel

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It’s safe to say the two veteran relief pitchers the Red Sox just signed to minor league contracts, Brandon Lyon and Jose Contreras, won’t be the missing pieces to their hoped-for 2013 championship puzzle. Suffice it to also say that neither will pitch as terribly as Eric Gagne did when the Red Sox surrendered three players to get the veteran closer from the Rangers in 2007. If they do, it’s no harm/no foul.

The trade for Gagne was meant to create shutdown eighth and ninth innings with Gagne and Jonathan Papelbon and lead them to a World Series title. They won the title with no help from Gagne, who posted a 6.75 ERA with 26 hits allowed in 18 2/3 innings after the trade and pitched as badly in the post-season as he did in the regular season. In retrospect the trade wasn’t one in which the Red Sox are lamenting letting young players they needed get away.

For Gagne, they traded former first round draft pick outfielder David Murphy, lefty pitcher Kason Gabbard and young outfielder Engel Beltre. Murphy has been a good player for the Rangers, but the Red Sox haven’t missed him. Gabbard was a soft-tossing lefty whose career was derailed by injuries and actually wound up back with the Red Sox in 2010 for 11 Triple A appearances and hasn’t pitched since. If the Red Sox wind up regretting the trade it will because of Beltre who is still only 23, has speed, occasional pop and can play centerfield. Regardless of what happens with him, few will hold it against them for trading a 17-year-old in the quest of a championship that they wound up winning independent of Gagne’s terribleness.

The trade could have been far more disastrous than it was and it was due to the club overvaluing both the player they were getting and the importance of a relief pitcher who was not a closer. Interestingly, as written by Terry Francona and Dan Shaughnessy in The Red Sox Years, the Red Sox original intention was to use Papelbon as a set-up man and install Gagne as the closer. They went so far as to go to Papelbon’s home prior to pulling the trigger to discuss the possibility of letting Gagne close. Papelbon objected and the club made the trade anyway to use Gagne as the set-up man. As the numbers show, it didn’t work and it might have been hellish had they made Gagne the closer by alienating Papelbon, angering a clubhouse and fanbase still harboring dreaded memories from the failed 2003 attempt at a closer-by-committee, and repeating a mistake that the Red Sox have—even today—continued to make in undervaluing a good and reliable closer.

No one is expecting Lyon or Contreras to be key contributors to a title run, but they’re “why not?” moves to see if they can get cheap production from a couple of veterans. It’s doubtful the Red Sox are going to give up a top prospect for a non-closer again. Already the club inquired with the Mets about Bobby Parnell and the Mets reportedly asked for Jackie Bradley Jr., to which the Red Sox wisely said no. The Mets are willing to move Parnell if they get that kind of offer but it’s hard to see that happening, so it’s unlikely that they trade him. However, one relief pitcher who is on the market and will be traded is Jesse Crain of the White Sox. What happened with Gagne should not be lost on a team hoping to bolster their relief corps by acquiring Crain.

Gagne, before the trade, was closing for the Rangers. He’d saved 16 games, posted a 2.16 ERA, struck out 29 in 33 1/3 innings and allowed 23 hits. For the White Sox this season Crain made the All-Star team and is in the midst of the year of his life with a 0.74 ERA, 31 hits allowed in 36 2/3 innings (with a .337 BAbip), 46 strikeouts, 11 walks and no homers. Crain has always been a solid set-up man, strikes out more than a batter-per-inning and is a free agent at the end of the season. He’s a good pitcher, but he’s not worth what the White Sox are going to want for him and might possibly get from a desperate team looking to help their bullpen. In reality, the team that acquires Crain won’t win the championship because of him if he pitches as well as he is now, nor will they lose it if he falls to earth.

There are times in which it’s worth it to give up the top prospect to get that last missing piece if the championship is the goal. The Marlins traded former first pick in the draft Adrian Gonzalez to get Ugueth Urbina in 2003. That trade is nowhere near as bad as it would’ve been if Gonzalez had blossomed for the Rangers and the Marlins hadn’t won the World Series, but the Rangers also traded Gonzalez (no one knew how good he really was), and the Marlins did win the World Series that year. They might’ve won it with or without Urbina, but the bottom-line perception is what counts and the title justifies anything they did to get it. It’s the same thing with Gagne. The Red Sox won the title, so nothing else really matters.

Will Crain yield that for the team that acquires him? Is it likely? Probably not on both counts. The only time to give up a significant piece for a known set-up man is if you’re getting Mariano Rivera from 1996 Yankees or the Rob Dibble/Norm Charlton combination from the 1990 Reds’ Nasty Boys. Other than that, a team is better off doing what the Red Sox did with Lyon and Contreras and tossing a dart at a dartboard or finding a reliever who isn’t in the midst of his career year as Crain is and hoping that a move to a contending team and more than a little luck turns into a “genius” move when it was exceedingly lucky.

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MLB Trade Deadline: Questions Surrounding the White Sox Players and the Manager

Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, History, Management, Media, MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Waiver Trades, Players, Trade Rumors

Looking at the White Sox, the main thing preventing them from making huge changes at the trading deadline is that, objectively, they don’t have many things that other teams would want. Or at least they don’t have many players that teams are going to give anything worthwhile to get.

Jake Peavy, if he was healthy, would attract interest. He’s not. If Peavy returns from his fractured rib and pitches well, he’ll get through waivers in August due to his $14.5 million contract for 2014, so someone would take him if the White Sox pick up a portion of his contract. It’s unlikely but possible. John Danks is still recovering and finding his groove after shoulder surgery. A potential trade chip, Gavin Floyd, is out for the year with Tommy John surgery. No one’s taking Adam Dunn. Someone would take Alex Rios and they’re going to get an overpay for Jesse Crain. Nothing earth-shattering is coming back for any of these players.

The big question is whether they’ll trade Paul Konerko. They could get something for Konerko, but that opens up another issue: how could they make Konerko the player-manager if they trade him?

No. I’m not kidding.

Ken Williams was willing to do anything when he was the everyday GM and now that he’s been moved up to executive VP of baseball and Rick Hahn has taken over as GM, Hahn will take his cue from Williams and listen to whatever is floated. The problem they have now is that there’s really not much of anything to do to improve their fortunes in the near future. Williams was serious when he said he considered Konerko as player-manager prior to hiring Robin Ventura and Ventura is not going to be the White Sox manager for much longer. It’s not because they’re going to fire him, but because he took the job as a “let’s see if I enjoy this” test endeavor and he certainly didn’t sign up for a team that’s going to lose 95 games in 2013 and has a few years of retooling ahead of them. There was talk earlier this year that Ventura wasn’t planning on managing for very long and he sort of “aw shucksed” it as a brush off without a fervent denial when he turned down the club’s offer of a contract extension. He might enjoy managing, being around the players and the competition, but he doesn’t need it and that attitude can tend to get on the players’ nerves. He’s signed through next year, but I think it’s iffy that he manages in 2014.

If Ventura leaves and with Konerko a free agent at the end of the year, I could easily see them pulling the trigger and making Konerko the manager if he retires or player-manager if he wants to do it. It would distract from the retool/rebuild, give Konerko experience in handling a media circus and managing for when the White Sox are ready to contend again because, by then, he’ll almost definitely be retired. There hasn’t been a player-manager since Pete Rose and it would be a juicy story to watch and distract the masses as to how bad the White Sox promise to be for the next several years as they move on from this group and reload.

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The Twins Lost Their “Way”

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And General Manager Bill Smith was fired because of it.

You can read about the Smith gaffes everywhere—how he shunned the Twins reliance on trusted bullpen arms; spent terribly on Tsuyoshi Nishioka; traded a needed backup catcher and top prospect Wilson Ramos for Matt Capps.

The Twins retreated from the template that made them an admired organization who functioned under a system and a budget by spending money badly and executing poorly conceived, desperation trades.

A change had to be made.

Former GM Terry Ryan is taking over on an “interim” basis that some don’t believe is all that interim.

If he’s taking the job, he should just take the job and say he’s taking the job.

Don’t think that Ryan is going to walk back into the GM chair and fix the 99-loss Twins immediately. Already they’re said to be cutting the payroll from an un-Twins-like $113 million in 2011; he has to address the backup catcher situation and decide exactly how many games Joe Mauer will catch and how many will be spent DHing or playing first base; they’re losing Michael Cuddyer and possibly Jason Kubel and Joe Nathan; Justin Morneau‘s playing status is in limbo after repeated concussions and other injuries; Nishioka is a disaster; the starting rotation is mediocre at best and the bullpen is in shambles.

With the defending division champion Tigers; the high-priced White Sox; and the rising Royals and Indians in the AL Central, it’s going to be next-to-impossible for the Twins to contend in 2012.

It’s not as if Ryan oversaw a quick-fix the first time he took charge as GM in late 1994 replacing Andy MacPhail.

The Twins were mostly terrible from 1995 through 2000; only in 2001—Tom Kelly‘s final season as manager—did the team finish over .500 and this was after threats of contraction and haplessness surrounded the franchise.

From 2002 onward, the Twins have been a case study in frugal and gutsy free agent signings and trades; Ryan adhered to the designated limits on payroll and weeding out players who didn’t behave off the field and execute fundamentally on the field.

His top-level drafts were shaky, but he did find some late-round sleepers who were integrated into that “Twins way”. He served the organization’s best interests in drafting Mauer over Mark Prior in spite of the insistence of armchair experts that they should’ve taken Prior; he selected functional late-rounders in Kubel, Danny Valencia and Pat Neshek; his picks of Denard Span, Jesse Crain, Scott Baker, Brian Duensing and Kevin Slowey yielded useful big leaguers who fit into roles; his trades for Johan Santana, Francisco Liriano and Nathan were strokes of genius.

Now he’s looking at a club not dissimilar to that which he took over in 1994. Rife with bloated mediocrity at the big league level, there are some young players with promise—Chris Parmelee and Joe Benson among them. Both make it less of an issue to let Cuddyer walk and to field offers for Span.

That’s what the Twins have to do.

Ryan’s first order of business will be to consider dealing Liriano and Span now or wait until the season is underway—the Twins must infuse the club with young, high-level and cheaper talent. That’s the way he built the club that dominated their division for most of the past decade.

It’s not something that can be done on an interim basis.

If he’s not in it for the long haul—loyalty to the organization or not—then he shouldn’t be entrusted with the all-important deals that can make or break a franchise.

He’s done it before.

Ryan has a lot of work to do and he needs to be all-in to do it properly.

Is he?

He and the Twins have to make that determination quickly and act boldly; and if he’s not, the Twins need to hire someone who is. Someone who knows and understands The Twins Way.

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Covering The Bases Of Inaccuracy

Books, Games, Management, Media, Paul Lebowitz's 2011 Baseball Guide, Players

Considering his success as a manager, it’s odd that certain factions have chosen to take the Twins awful start and a statement he made yesterday as an all-encompassing indictment of the entire tenure of manager Ron Gardenhire.

Gardenhire said that he and pitching coach Rick Anderson have been trying to convince Francisco Liriano to “pitch to contact” rather than try and rack up strikeouts.

Was this a discouragement against the strikeout? No, I doubt it. I see this as an entreaty for Liriano to trust his stuff and stop being so concerned with missing bats; make the pitches and let the movement, velocity and location take care of itself.

Laying the blame for the Twins slow start at the manager’s desk an after-the-fact emergence of those who’ve surreptitiously criticized the Twins and their style for years, but didn’t have the courage to do so while the team was making the playoffs on an annual basis.

Because they do things their own way, the stat people have ridiculed them as a creation of luck; that Gardenhire was along for the ride as they’ve made the playoffs in six of his nine years as manager; the one year they didn’t, they lost in a one-game playoff. His faults have been perceived as evident in their consistent playoff losses.

It’s a fact that they’ve only gotten past the ALDS once.

But facts don’t always tell the entire story. The reasons for the criticisms of Gardenhire may be accurate and factual in the bottom line, but it doesn’t make it fair.

You can’t have it both ways.

You can’t say the manager is at fault for the negatives and deserves no credit for the positives. In stat circles as an excuse more than a reason, the playoffs are seen as a crapshoot. If that’s the case, you can’t hold Gardenhire responsible for continually running into the Yankees in the ALDS and losing; nor can you say his strategies didn’t work if there’s no blame to be doling out.

Now the Twins are off to an atrocious start not because of anything Gardenhire has said, done or not done; they’re off to an atrocious start because they’re a strangely constructed team that endured heavy under-the-radar free agent losses that undermined their template for winning.

Without the bullpen arms Matt Guerrier, Jon Rauch and Jesse Crain; and the departure of defensively superior shortstop and second baseman J.J. Hardy and Orlando Hudson, how do you think the pitchers—none of whom apart from Liriano are particularly good—are going to fare?

When a contact-based, bullpen reliant starting staff has their defense compromised and relievers dispatched, what’s going to happen?

It doesn’t help that the Twins haven’t hit, but their defense is awful and this is directly affecting the pitchers. They’re walking too many people; giving up too many hits and homers.

Could it be that the pitchers don’t trust the defense and trying too hard to pitch differently from what they’re accustomed to and what they’ve been taught? That the absence of trustworthy bullpen arms is in their heads as they feel they have to pitch deeper into games? Are they trapped in the purgatory of  bad defense, pitching to contact, conserving pitches and an offense that hasn’t started hitting?

As much as his decisions can be criticized, Gardenhire is in control of the clubhouse and his players play the game in a fundamentally correct fashion. It’s worked for them every year. Through lost stars like Johan Santana, injuries and a limited payroll, they’ve won.

Gardenhire wasn’t appreciated for the good things, but now all of a sudden his managing is why the Twins sit at 4-7?

He’s not doing anything different than he did before. His team’s just oddly constructed and not very good.

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Minnesota Has Bigger Problems Than Just Michele Bachmann

Books, Management, Paul Lebowitz's 2011 Baseball Guide, Players, Spring Training

All due respect to the overt danger of Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann contemplating a presidential run and that there are unsupervised adults who are supporting this endeavor, there are bigger issues currently confronting the people of Minnesota.

Representative Bachmann has zero chance of being elected president, thereby rendering her run meaningless. The Twins on the other hand have had a viable claim to being World Series contenders for much of the past decade. It’s not simply due to talent; the “Twins Way” has been as responsible for their consistency as any trades, free agent signings, smart draft choices or stability.

There’s a chain-of-command with the Twins; a code of conduct and behavior off the field; and an adherence to fundamentals on it that has served them well despite injuries, defections and financial constraints.

But now there are holes that they’ll have a tough time overcoming.

Let’s take a look.

Systematic departures:

The Twins are not a club of dominating starting pitching. Their rotation—apart from the potential star Francisco Liriano—is a strike-throwing, innings-gobbling group of cogs in the machine.

They’re not asked to do too much. They need to pound the strike zone, not surrender crooked numbers and get the game to the bullpen with a lead.

That’s the problem.

Departed relievers Matt Guerrier, Jon Rauch and Jesse Crain were keys to manager Ron Gardenhire’s strategy.

Guerrier was durable with 70+ appearances every single year and consistent numbers. Crain didn’t allow many homers, threw hard and could strike people out. Rauch was versatile, able to set up and close.

All three are gone and so too is sidearming Pat Neshek who was placed on waivers and claimed by the San Diego Padres.

The return of Joe Nathan and a full season from Matt Capps (one will close, the other will set-up) will help in their efforts to move forward without the above-mentioned pitchers, they still have several gaps to fill in the middle innings. And they haven’t done it.

If you think Carl Pavano‘s 2010 season and his brilliant spring training are a portent of a continuation of that work into the regular season, you’re banking a lot on a pitcher who was a running joke not long ago and has a history of relaxing (to say the least) once he has contractual security.

Apart from Liriano, the rest of the Twins staff is extremely hittable and will be hurt badly by the departures of the defensively-oriented J.J. Hardy and Orlando Hudson.

With a bullpen-based team and mediocre starting rotation that needs its defense, do you see the problem here as the bullpen has been drastically altered and gutted of the unsung arms that were imperative to team success?

Teams don’t realize what they had until it’s gone; replacing Guerrier, Rauch and Crain won’t be a matter of plugging someone else in andc continuing with the same template.

Questionable defense, declining offense:

Alexi Casilla has moved to shortstop to replace J.J. Hardy. Japanese import Tsuyoshi Nishioka—a shortstop in Japan—will play second base.

Do you know what to expect from either one of these players?

It was a year-and-a-half ago when Casilla—the erstwhile second baseman—was sent to the minor leagues for poor, lackadaisical play. Will he hit? And can he play shortstop on an everyday basis?

Nishioka has killed the ball this spring, but that means nothing. You won’t know how a Japanese import is going to perform until the season starts and he does it. Nishioka batted .346 last season; stole 22 bases; and walked 79 times—stats.

But so what?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: you don’t know what you’re getting from a Japanese import. You could be getting a Hideo Nomo-like phenomenon; you could be getting a Hideki Irabu disaster. Offensively, you might get Ichiro Suzuki or Hideki Matsui or you could get Kaz Matsui.

You don’t know.

There are some who believe that a team is only as good as their up-the-middle personnel. The Twins have Joe Mauer behind the plate—state of the art and one of the top three all-around hitters in baseball; in center field, they have the talented Denard Span who should rebound from a sub-par 2010; at second and short, they have two question marks both offensively and defensively.

A weaker offense:

The Twins seem to still be holding their collective breaths with Justin Morneau as he recovers from the concussion he sustained last year. They have the depth to mix-and-match and survive with Jason Kubel, Michael Cuddyer, Jim Thome in some permutation.

But with the departures of the bullpen pieces; the new middle of the diamond; the likelihood of a fallback year from Delmon Young; and the questions surrounding Morneau’s health, they won’t score as many runs as the did last season and will allow more due to a diminished pitching staff.

The Twins are banking a great deal of their 2011 season on Casilla and Nishioka—an eventuality I would not be comfortable with.

Hangover and fallout:

The Twins put everything they had into last season. They spent money to acquire veteran talent Orlando Hudson, Hardy and Thome; they made bold in-season acquisitions with Capps and Brian Fuentes; they felt they had the goods to finally take out the Yankees.

For five innings in game 1 of the ALDS, they were killing the ghosts from their playoff nemesis…then the wheels came off.

After the Yankees exploded for 4 runs in the top of the 6th inning of game 1, the Twins put forth their final stand in the series by tying the game in the bottom of the inning; but Mark Teixeira‘s 2-run homer gave the Yankees a 6-4 lead—which they held.

The Twins whole aura changed. All the confidence and self-belief they carried into the series, telling themselves that this time would be different, floated off into the distance and disappeared like a lost helium balloon.

As much as it’s said that such an instance can be overcome when the next season starts, this is not the same team. It’s weaker and the White Sox and Tigers are stronger.

It all adds up to a down year for a model franchise.

The 2011 Twins are going to go about as far as former Governor Tim Pawlenty’s own (more realistic than Rep. Bachmann’s) presidential aspirations: the Twins players and Pawlenty are good guys; solid backgrounds; experience; systematic beliefs and a limited chance to win based on reality.

They’re in for an awakening and it’s not going to be gentle.

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I published a full excerpt of my book a week ago here.

The book is available now. Click here to get it in paperback or E-Book on I-Universe or on Amazon or BN. It’s also available via E-book on Borders.com.

Now it’s out on Amazon Kindle too! Dig it!!!



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The Bubble Contenders

Free Agents, Players, Spring Training

The importance of spring training won/lost records and performances aside—yes, I’m being sarcastic—certain teams have numerous questions entering the 2011 season. Some will have to make the decision relatively early as to whether to clear out marketable players for the future or move forward and add in a desperate attempt to save the season.

Here are some of the teams whose seasons could go either way from contention to a rapid plummet and the players about whom needy clubs should inquire.

(This is independent of teams like the Pirates and Mariners—we know where their seasons are heading.)

Tampa Bay Rays

They have the ingredients to hang around contention but they have a load of young pitching and veterans like James Shields trying to regain his form; the bullpen has been completely redone; they’ll score, but they could be overmatched in the AL East if they get off to a bad start.

The obvious names to call about at mid-season will be Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon; but I’d call about Ben Zobrist. Zobrist is signed, he’s versatile and coming off a bad year after his star turn in 2009.

Someone would take B.J. Upton—I wouldn’t touch him—but he’s a center fielder and they’re in demand. I’d field offers on him now.

Minnesota Twins

The bullpen—their most underappreciated attribute to winning all these years—was gutted with the departures of Matt Guerrier and Jesse Crain; the starting rotation is workmanlike, mediocre and needed that bullpen to survive.

Francisco Liriano will be up for auction if the Twins falter and the Twins will try to hold someone up. If I’m the Yankees, there’s no way I surrender Ivan Nova for Liriano—Nova’s about as useful without the flashy name of Liriano.

Jim Thome would help someone down the stretch and Michael Cuddyer is a pending free agent after the season.

Los Angeles Angels

Scott Kazmir, Joel Pineiro, Bobby Abreu and Fernando Rodney are the pending free agent vets and would be on the trade block if the Angels fall.

But there’s another name who’s worth a shot: Jered Weaver.

The Angels relationship with Weaver’s agent Scott Boras is shaky at best after the Mark Teixeira mess; Weaver and the club are going year-to-year with arbitration threats and settlements. He’s not signing a long-term deal and is a free agent after 2012. He’d be worth a fortune in prospects to clubs like the Yankees, Cardinals and Rangers.

If I were the Yankees, I’d steer clear of Liriano and go after Weaver.

Oakland Athletics

The lovelorn worship of Billy Beane is starting up all over again and I’ve taken a new tack in my attempts to contextualize his so-called “genius”; I call it the “Chris Russo Argument With Ludicrous Leaps Of Logic”. Here it makes sense. Briefly, I call it “win something”.

Enough with being the prom king.

Win something.

No more “genius” and applause based on washing himself with a rag on a stick obese Bart Simpson-style.

Win something.

As for the players, the A’s are a trendy pick for the playoffs, but young pitching fluctuates and there’s no guarantee they’re going to be as good as people think.

Hideki Matsui, Josh Willingham, David DeJesus, Mark Ellis, Coco Crisp and Kevin Kouzmanoff would all be on the market if things go badly.

I love the way Willingham hits and the Braves could really use him.

Florida Marlins

They’re heading into a new ballpark in 2012; the division is a nightmare; expectations are unreasonably high.

Javier Vazquez will be in demand if he pitches competently and is healthy. If I were the Marlins, I’d trade Anibal Sanchez before he gets hurt again. Wes Helms could be an asset for a contender with his penchant for clutch homers.

San Diego Padres

The one name on everyone’s lips will be Heath Bell.

A free agent at the end of the year and ready to cash in for the first time in his career, he might make the difference in a championship as a set-up man or closer.

I’m convinced the Padres front office was surprised by their rapid leap into contention last season and, in the long run, it might have been a detriment to the long term plan especially since they faded and missed the playoffs. They did the right thing in trading Adrian Gonzalez last winter and unless Bell agrees to a hometown discount, they have to keep an open mind.

Ryan Ludwick, Jorge Cantu and Brad Hawpe might yield a couple of prospects for a team needing a veteran bat.

Colorado Rockies

I would call Rockies GM Dan O’Dowd and tell him that if their season goes poorly, don’t rule out considering a trade of Ubaldo Jimenez. He’s willing to think outside-the-box and presumably would at least listen to offers; that’s the first step in getting a deal done. It’s unlikely since Jimenez is signed through 2014 for a pittance commensurate with his abilities, but why not ask?

Aaron Cook, Huston Street and possibly Todd Helton would be movable parts who could be of ancillary assistance to a contender.

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