Dealing With The Closer Issue

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Complaining about closers is like complaining about the weather: everyone talks about it, but no one does anything about it. The difference between the weather and closers is that something can be done about closers.

Amid all the talk about “what to do” with struggling relievers Jim Johnson and Fernando Rodney and the references of clubs who have found unheralded veterans to take over as their closer like the Cardinals with Edward Mujica and the Pirates with Jason Grilli, no one is addressing the fundamental problems with needing to have an “established” closer. Here they are and what to do about them.

Veteran relievers like to know their roles.

Managers like Whitey Herzog, Sparky Anderson, Billy Martin and Earl Weaver had the ability to tell their players that their “role” is to pitch when they tell them to pitch. Nowadays even managers who are relatively entrenched in their jobs like Joe Maddon have to have the players on their side to succeed. The Rays are a different story because they’re not paying any of their relievers big money and can interchange them if need be, but they don’t because Maddon doesn’t operate that way until it’s absolutely necessary.

Other clubs don’t have that luxury. They don’t want to upset the applecart and cause a domino effect of people not knowing when they’re going to pitch; not knowing if a pitcher can mentally handle the role of pitching the ninth inning; and don’t want to hear the whining and deal with the aftermath if there’s not someone established to replace the closer who’s having an issue. Rodney was only the Rays’ closer last season because Kyle Farnsworth (a foundling who in 2011 had a career year similar to Rodney in 2012) got hurt.

Until managers have the backing of the front office and have a group of relievers who are just happy to have the job in the big leagues, there’s no escaping the reality of having to placate the players to keep clubhouse harmony.

Stop paying for mediocrity in a replaceable role.

The Phillies and Yankees are paying big money for their closers Jonathan Papelbon and Mariano Rivera, but these are the elite at the position. Other clubs who have overpaid for closers include the Dodgers with Brandon League, the Red Sox with money and traded players to get Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan, the Nationals with Rafael Soriano, and the Marlins who paid a chunk of Heath Bell’s salary to get him out of the clubhouse.

Bell has taken over for the injured J.J. Putz with the Diamondbacks and pitched well. The Cubs, in desperation, replaced both Carlos Marmol ($9.8 million in 2013) and Kyuji Fujikawa (guaranteed $9.5 million through 2014) with Kevin Gregg. The same Kevin Gregg who was in spring training with the Dodgers and released, signed by the Cubs—for whom he struggled as their closer when they were trying to contend in 2009—as a veteran insurance policy just in case. “Just in case” happened and Gregg has gone unscored upon and saved 6 games in 14 appearances.

As long as teams are paying closers big money, closers will have to stay in the role far longer than performance would dictate in an effort to justify the contract. It’s a vicious circle that teams fall into when they overpay for “established” closers. When the paying stops, so too will the necessity to keep pitching them.

Find a manager who can be flexible.

A manager stops thinking when it gets to the ninth inning by shutting off the logical remnants of his brain to put his closer into the game. If it’s Rivera or Papelbon, this is fine. If it’s anyone else, perhaps it would be wiser to use a lefty specialist if the situation calls for it. If Chase Utley and Ryan Howard are hitting back-to-back and a club has Randy Choate in its bullpen, would it make sense to use a righty whether it’s the ninth inning and “his” inning or not?

Maddon is flexible in his thinking and has the support of the front office to remove Rodney from the role if need be. One option that hasn’t been discussed for the Rays is minor league starter Chris Archer to take over as closer in the second half of the season. With the Rays, anything is possible. With other teams, they not only don’t want to exacerbate the problem by shuffling the entire deck, but the manager is going to panic if he doesn’t have his “ninth inning guy” to close. Even a veteran manager like Jim Leyland isn’t immune to it and a pitcher the front office didn’t want back—Jose Valverde—is now closing again because their handpicked choice Bruce Rondon couldn’t seize his spring training opportunity and the “closer by committee” was on the way to giving Leyland a heart attack, a nervous breakdown or both.

The solution.

There is no solution right now. Until teams make the conscious decision to stop paying relievers upwards of $10 million, there will constantly be the “established” closer. It’s a fundamental fact of business that if there isn’t any money in a job, fewer people who expect to make a lot of money and have the capability to make a lot of money in another position are going to want to take it. Finding replaceable arms who can be used wherever and whenever they’re told to pitch, ignore the save stat, and placed in a situation to be successful instead of how it’s done now will eliminate the need to pay for the ninth inning arm and take all the negative side effects that go along with it. Games will still get blown in the late innings, but at least it won’t be as expensive and will probably happen with an equal frequency. It’s evolution. And evolution doesn’t happen overnight, if it happens at all.

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A-Rod, Ibanez, and Changing the Culture at Closer

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Watching for the reaction from Alex Rodriguez fits neatly into a narrative of the player’s struggles. Would he accept the unprecedented maneuver to pinch-hit for him with Raul Ibanez, or would he pull a Scottie Pippen and throw a public tantrum? Would A-Rod have negative things to say in spite of the move working? Would it be all about him?

This aspect is a non-story. A-Rod hasn’t acted like a diva since his opt-out in 2007 and subsequent return to the Yankees. He’s eager to help his younger teammates and contemporaries and is smart and self-aware enough to know that he’s not getting the job done. While he would have liked to have gotten a shot to do what Ibanez did? Yes, but logic and current reality dictates that had it been A-Rod at the plate against Orioles’ closer Jim Johnson, he would have failed. He’s still smart and savvy as a player (evidenced by his run-saving deke of J.J. Hardy in game 2), and while the traps he once set for pitchers by looking intentionally awful at a pitch just so the pitcher would throw it again when the situation called for it and A-Rod could crush it, he knew Joe Girardi did the reasonable—and gutsy—thing before Ibanez’s heroics.

On that same theme of game-knowledge, I find offensive the implication that managers as smart and experienced as Buck Showalter and Jim Leyland are unaware of the faults that lie within the concept of the one-inning closer who’s inserted into the game simply because it’s a save chance regardless of the hitters scheduled to bat or possibilities on the bench.

They know.

Johnson has been brilliant this whole season, but prior to 2012 he had zero experience pitching for a contender and zero experience in the playoffs. He’s blown two of the three games this series. Did Showalter have a better option than him? No. And it’s irrelevant to this argument that Johnson’s numbers are very good against both righties and lefties. It’s the era that’s the problem.

In order to change the culture of the “closer,” there has to be a team that does what Tony LaRussa did when he implemented the one-inning save with Dennis Eckersley. What LaRussa did was innovative and based on what he had; what others have done in years since is simply copying LaRussa so they don’t have to think on their own and risk being criticized. “I had my closer in the game,” is an excuse, not a reason. It’s a shield against reasonable questioning as to why a manager does what he does.  

LaRussa’s idea was bastardized and has evolved into the unrecognizable and mindless zombie it is today when that wasn’t LaRussa’s intent at all. LaRussa defined the roles for his relievers because he had the relievers to fill those roles effectively; Eckersley was more durable and effective in his mid-30s when he didn’t have to pitch more than one inning. It was cold-blooded analysis rather than an effort to reinvent the game.

The most ludicrous thing about the one-inning closer pitching against all comers is that prior to the ninth inning, the managers engage in a duel from the sixth inning to the eighth, mixing and matching their pitchers to specifically face certain hitters based on numbers, stuff, history, and other factors; then when the ninth comes around, for the Tigers, it’s Jose Valverde; for the Orioles, it’s Johnson, and no one dare interfere with the closer’s realm whether it’s the smart baseball move or not.

To think that Leyland is comfortable with Valverde on the mound and that some guy with a website or column on ESPN has the knowledge and nerve to make a change in the hierarchy, possibly upsetting the entire applecart, is the height of arrogance and cluelessness of how a baseball team is handled off the field. Johnson is effective against both righties and lefties, but if it was the seventh inning, would a righty have been pitching to Ibanez? Or would Showalter have brought in a lefty to face him?

The idea of an “ace” reliever is similar to the “ace” starting the first game of a playoff series. You want to have your best out there on the mound when it’s most important and, in the case of the Orioles, Johnson is the best they have. But in other cases, such as Valverde, is he the “best” choice or the choice to keep the peace among the pitchers by having it known, “You’ll pitch here; you’ll pitch there; you’ll pitch against X; you’ll pitch against Y.” During the regular season, if the team is good enough, it makes the manager’s life easier because the closer designate is likely going to convert his save opportunities, but in the playoffs, as we’re seeing now, it’s not a guarantee.

Mariano Rivera is considered the “greatest” closer in history because he’s gotten the big outs in the post-season, not because he’s accumulated the highest save total. Amid the saves he’s racked up in the playoffs—the vast number of them due to the opportunities accorded by pitching for a team in the playoffs just about every year—have been three high-profile gacks that cost his team a shot at the World Series title. In 1997, he allowed a game-losing homer to Sandy Alomar Jr.; in 2001, he blew game 7 of the World Series; and in game 4, it was a Dave Roberts stolen base that undid him and the Yankees. If Rivera hadn’t accrued the capital from the games he’s closed out, these would be defining moments in his career just as blown saves are for Trevor Hoffman, Neftali Feliz, and others.

What I would like to see is a team that is willing to try something different, has a manager willing to stand up to the scrutiny from the media and the complaints of the pitchers, and a front office that backs him to say, “Enough of this,” with the designated closer. Not in the way the Red Sox did, to disastrous results, in the 2003 season, but by having a group of pitchers—sidearming righties and lefties; specialists with numbers or a pitch that is effective for matchups—and use these pitchers in a similar way in the ninth inning as they do in the earlier innings.

A team that could experiment with this is the Rockies. Already trying a different tack with their starting pitchers and relievers rotating with a set number of pitches and the management unconcerned about stats; with an atmosphere not conducive to starting pitchers being successful; and a closer, Rafael Betancourt, that is in the role just because he’s there and not because he’s got a long history of doing the job, they could alter their relief configuration in the same way they’re trying to do it with starters. If it works, other clubs will copy it.

The save stat is ravaged as meaningless. In and of itself, it is meaningless. But until the mentality is changed from the top of an organization all the way through the entire system, there will still be calls for the “closer” even when a sidearming lefty who can’t get anyone out but lefties would be preferable to the guy who’s “supposed” to be out there because it’s “his” inning.

It’s not “his” anything. It’s the team’s thing. That’s what A-Rod proved by being a professional and an adult, and that’s what managers should strive to prove in the future with their bullpens.

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Baltimore Orioles vs New York Yankees—ALDS Preview and Predictions

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New York Yankees (95-67; 1st place, AL East) vs Baltimore Orioles (93-69; 2nd place, AL East; Wild Card Winner; Won Wild Card Game over Texas Rangers)

Keys for the Yankees: Rafael Soriano; hit the ball out of the park; get good starting pitching; hit the Orioles hard and early.

Soriano has been gutty, durable, mentally and physically tough, and reliable—aspects that no one expected nor thought him capable of in his first year-and-a-half as a Yankee. What he does in the post-season as a closer could be the difference between getting a 3-year deal for X amount of dollars and a 5-year deal for Y amount of dollars.

I don’t see the Yankees reliance on the home run as a “problem.” Were their hitters supposed to stop trying to hit home runs? I don’t know what the solution was. The absence/return of Brett Gardner is being made out as an important factor, but I don’t think it’s as important as it’s being portrayed. Teams with speed are criticized for their lack of power; teams with power are criticized for their lack of speed. It’s only noticeable when it’s not there and the main strategy isn’t working.

If the Yankees lose, it won’t be due to a lack of stolen bases, it will be due to a lack of home runs.

The Orioles have responded to every challenge and naysayer this entire season, but the Yankees have been here over a dozen times and the Orioles haven’t. If the Yankees pop them early, they might be able to shake them and get this over with before the Orioles realize what happened or get to game 3 and start thinking they’re going to win.

Keys for the Orioles: Get the game to Jim Johnson; hit home runs of their own; have a quick hook with the starters; don’t be “happy to be here.”

The simplistic and stupid “key” you might see on other sites with “analysis” of “stop Robinson Cano” is ridiculous. It’s unlikely that anyone is going to “stop” Cano. The best the Orioles can do is to keep the bases clear in front of him and not pitch to him. Cano is not going to see one good pitch to hit this whole series.

The Orioles starting pitching is questionable at best and manager Buck Showalter knows this. He can’t waste time and hope the starters find it because it might be 10-0 by the time it’s realized they don’t have it.

For the first time in forever there’s no distinct advantage for the Yankees with Mariano Rivera closing games. Now we don’t know who has the advantage. In the regular season, it was a wash; in the post-season, we don’t know. Soriano has been bad and Johnson’s never been there.

The Orioles, after so many years of dreadful baseball, are in the playoffs for the first time since 1996 when they lost to… the Yankees. Getting there isn’t enough. They can win and they have to believe that and act like it.

What will happen:

The Yankees stumbled in mid-September with injuries and slumps among their big bashers. CC Sabathia’s health was in question; Ivan Nova was pulled from the rotation; Phil Hughes was inconsistent; and David Robertson allowed some big homers and hits. Sabathia pitched well recently, but that doesn’t mean he’s “back.” I don’t trust Hughes; Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte are pitchers to rely on.

Given everything on the line for Soriano and his shaky post-season history (3 homers allowed in 7.2 innings) I wouldn’t feel comfortable with him until he closes out a game without incident. Scott Boras is already planning Soriano’s contract opt-out and scouring MLB to see where he can steer his client to be a closer on a multi-year deal, but the dollar amount is contingent on October.

Alex Rodriguez cannot catch up to a good fastball anymore. There’s a mirror image aspect from The Natural between A-Rod and Orioles’ rookie third baseman Manny Machado. Can A-Rod do what Roy Hobbs did and have that moment in the twilight of his Hall of Fame career as happened in the movie? Or will he strike out as Hobbs did in the book?

Nick Swisher is also trying boost his free agent bona fides after years and years of non-performance; Ichiro Suzuki knows this might be his last chance at a ring. If the Yankees warriors don’t come through; if Soriano falters, they’re going to lose.

Mark Reynolds loves the spotlight and is a leader on and off the field. Machado, Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, Chris Davis, Johnson—they don’t have the experience or history to know they’re not supposed to be doing what they’re doing; that they’re facing the “mighty” Yankees and should bow rather than hit them back. They’ve hit them back all season and Showalter has had a magic touch all year.

There’s a movement afoot from those who expected the Orioles to continue the decade-and-a-half of futility and embarrassment to justify their preseason prediction by continually referencing the poor run differential as a basis to chalk the Orioles’ 2012 success up to “luck”. These people—such as Keith Law—are more invested in their own egomania than enjoying the game of baseball. Rather than say, “Wow, the Orioles are a great story and it’s nice to see a storied franchise return to life,” we get, “They’re not a good team.” Why? It’s because those invested in stats who think reading a spreadsheet and regurgitating scouting terms they picked up along the way will replace a true, organic investment in the game by knowing its history and appreciating a story like that of the Orioles. The Orioles have had some luck, but they’ve also been opportunistic and clutch. A baseball fan understands this; a baseball opportunist and poser doesn’t.

It’s a great story.

And it’s going to get better when the Orioles take out the Yankees.

PREDICTION: ORIOLES IN FOUR

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American League Fantasy Sleepers

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These names jumped out at me as I’m working on my book. (See the sidebar. Available soon.)

B.J. Upton, CF—Tampa Bay Rays

Upton is probably one of the most aggravating players in all of baseball to fans, teammates and everyone else. So talented that he can do anything—-anything—on the field, his motivation and hustle are contingent on the day and his mood.

But he’s a free agent at the end of the season and wants to get paid. Expect a big power/stolen base season and a return to the high on base numbers from 2007-2008.

Carlos Villanueva, RHP—Toronto Blue Jays

He won’t cost anything and was under-the-radar impressive when the Blue Jays put him in the starting rotation last season.

They have starting pitching, but with Kyle Drabek a question to make the team and the limits still being placed on Henderson Alvarez and Brandon Morrow, Villanueva is a veteran they could count on as a starter they don’t have to limit.

As a starter, he was able to use all of his pitches including a changeup. Strangely, he gets his secondary pitches over the plate consistently, but not his fastball.

Jim Johnson, RHP—Baltimore Orioles

The Orioles haven’t specifically said what they’re doing with Johnson. They’ve implied that he’s staying in the bullpen, but the acquisition of Matt Lindstrom frees them to make Johnson a starter where he could be very effective.

Either way, he’s not a “name” closer or guaranteed starter who’d be overly in demand.

Jacob Turner, RHP—Detroit Tigers

As the Tigers proved with Rick Porcello, they don’t let a pitcher’s inexperience dissuade them from sticking him in the rotation.

Turner has far better stuff than Porcello—a good fastball and wicked hard curve. He throws multiple variations on his fastball, has great control and is poised and polished.

Adam Dunn, DH—Chicago White Sox

I have trouble buying that a veteran who hit 40 home runs annually and wasn’t a PED case suddenly lost it all at once.

The not-so-witty line, “Dunn is Done” is a cheap shot and inaccurate.

He was terrible last season to be sure, but he was also unlucky (a .240 BAbip vs a career number of .292).

Dunn still walked 75 times and in comparison to his absurd .159 average, a .292 OBP is pretty good.

The combination of the new league; the expectations and pressure from a big contract; and a raving maniac manager in Ozzie Guillen put Dunn out of his comfort zone. A year in with the White Sox and a more relaxed and understanding manager, Robin Ventura, along with the diminished team-wide expectations will let Dunn be himself—a gentle giant who walks a lot and hits home runs.

Hisanori Takahashi, LHP—Los Angeles Angels

The Angels were kicking the tires on Francisco Cordero and Ryan Madson and it wasn’t to be a set-up man.

If Jordan Walden is suffering from shellshock after the way his massive gack against the Athletics late in the season essentially eliminated the Angels from contention, they might have to pull him from the closer’s role sooner rather than later.

Manager Mike Scioscia is loyal to his players and doesn’t make changes like this until he absolutely has to, but the Angels can’t afford to mess around with the money they spent this off-season and the competition they’re facing for a playoff spot.

Takahashi can do anything—start, set-up, close—and is fearless.

Worst case, if your league counts “holds”, he’ll accumulate those for you.

Fautino De Los Santos, RHP—Oakland Athletics

Don’t ask me what the A’s are planning this year because as the trades of their starting rotation and closer and signing Yoenis Cespedes signing prove, they’re flinging stuff at the wall and hoping something sticks.

Although Brian Fuentes and Grant Balfour are on the roster, they might be willing to look at a younger, inexperienced closer at some point. Fuentes is hot and cold and Balfour has never been a full time closer.

De Los Santos has an upper-90s fastball and as the season rolls on, it’s likely that both Fuentes and Balfour will be traded. They’ll need someone to rack up the saves and De Los Santos is as good a choice as any.

Kila Ka’aihue, 1B—Oakland Athletics

His minor league on base/power numbers are absurd and the A’s first base situation is muddled at best.

The Royals kindasorta gave Ka’aihue a chance for the first month of 2011, but abandoned him when he got off to a bad start. The A’s have nothing to lose by playing him for at least the first half of the season and, if nothing else, he’ll walk and get on base.

Hector Noesi, RHP—Seattle Mariners

Noesi doesn’t give up a lot of home runs and has good control. These attributes will be magnified pitching in the big ballpark in Seattle and with the Mariners good defense. He also strikes out around a hitter per inning, so that all adds up to a good statistical season if you’re not counting wins.

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Jeremy Guthrie for Jason Hammel and Matt Lindstrom Makes Sense

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It was approximately a year ago when it was reported that the Phillies had inquired with the Rangers about Michael Young.

No one seemed to understand why.

Young had $48 million remaining on his contract and a no-trade clause; the Phillies had a star second baseman in Chase Utley, a star first baseman Ryan Howard; a former MVP and team leader shortstop Jimmy Rollins; and a third baseman, Placido Polanco, with two years remaining on his contract and coming off a season in which he batted .298 and played excellent defense at third base.

What did they need Young for? Why would they take such a heavy contract when their budget was already at or near its max?

No one knew, so everyone tried to come up with a reason.

I postulated that the Phillies were either going to use Young as a roving utilityman who’d get 450-500 at bats playing all over the field or they were doing their due diligence to see what the asking price was on a good, available player.

As it turned out, the explanation came when spring training started and it was revealed the Utley’s knee tendinitis could, potentially, have kept him out for the whole season. Plus Polanco had an elbow issue and other assorted injuries that threatened to keep him out for significant stretches.

Young would’ve been playing and playing regularly all season for the Phillies.

There was a logical explanation that was far simpler than anyone realized.

Now we’re seeing similar quizzical wonderment as to why the Orioles traded righty starter Jeremy Guthrie to the Rockies for another righty starter Jason Hammel and hard-throwing righty reliever Matt Lindstrom.

The analysis is wide-ranging and mostly critical of the Orioles for making this move.

But it’s an even trade.

Guthrie is a free agent at the end of the season, has posted 200+ innings in the last four seasons and is a pretty good pitcher with a solid ground ball/fly ball rate that allowed him to survive pitching in the AL East and his home games at Camden Yards—he should do well in Colorado. The Rockies are contenders who could use an innings-eating starter with a slightly better history in all aspects than Hammel.

Hammel is inconsistent, but also has a good ground ball/fly ball rate, is a viable replacement for Guthrie and won’t be a free agent for two years. Lindstom has struggled with the home run ball, but is a former closer with a fastball that can reach the upper 90s; he doesn’t strike out many hitters, but he’s always around the plate and is not a free agent until after 2013.

In response to the criticism, Orioles’ GM Dan Duquette said that they hadn’t received any offers of high-end young talent—what most of the critics suggested the Orioles should’ve gotten for Guthrie—and that this was the best offer he had.

Could he have waited until mid-season to see if a team panicked and offered too much for Guthrie?

What are the odds of that really? It’s Jeremy Guthrie. What were they going to get? A mid-range prospect? Maybe? Instead, they got two big league arms that give them versatility and they have them for two full years.

Some have said that the Orioles should’ve traded Guthrie at mid-season 2011. Well, Duquette wasn’t the GM then, so what would they like him to do? Build a time machine? Compound a perceived mistake made by the prior regime by doing nothing when an offer he deemed acceptable came his way?

There are ancillary shifts that could be made also. With Lindstrom, they could install him as the closer and place Jim Johnson in the starting rotation where he has the repertoire to be successful. So in exchange for Guthrie, they got Hammel—as good as Guthrie and someone who will give 180 innings; they got Lindstrom; and possibly the ability to move Johnson into a more valuable spot in the rotation.

Those who would criticize the concept of Lindstrom closing are the same stat people who say that the closer is essentially irrelevant and anyone can rack up the saves since the general rule of thumb for all teams that enter the ninth inning with a lead is that even the worst closers will convert the vast majority (95% or so) of the saves, so the concept of overpaying for a closer or having someone who has the capability of starting as the closer is a self-defeating endeavor.

Which is it?

Here’s the hard truth: the Orioles will be lucky to avoid losing 100 games this year in that division, so anything they can do to get multiple players for someone who was a short-term Oriole to begin with is a smart move.

The Rockies are contenders in the NL West and they’ve accumulated a stable of starting pitchers to choose from. Guthrie, in the short term, will help them more than Hammel or Lindstrom would have.

The Orioles traded an okay pitcher for two other okay pitchers that could set the stage for other maneuvers. The Rockies got an innings-eating starter who’ll be motivated to pitch well in his free agent year.

It’s nothing to ridicule and is a positive move for both sides.

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Hot Stove Losers, 2011-2012

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On Friday I listed the winners of the off-season. Now let’s look at the losers.

Boston Red Sox

It’s not the maneuvers they made that are specifically bad.

Confusing? Yes, trading Marco Scutaro to free up some money and then spending some of that money to sign Cody Ross while leaving shortstop in the questionable hands of Nick Punto, Mike Aviles and/or rookie Jose Iglesias was one of a long line of bizarre decisions, but none could be called “bad”.

My focus is on the perceived and practical appearance of disarray that’s taken hold in Boston since the departure of Theo Epstein.

Say what you want about Epstein and the moves he made, but you knew he was in charge.

Now, with Ben Cherington elevated to GM and Larry Lucchino clearly diving into the breach and interfering in team matters (Bobby Valentine would not be the Red Sox manager without Lucchino championing him), there’s a troubling lack of cohesion.

What you have is a team of well-paid stars whose behavior was enabled by a disciplinary lackadaisical former manager, good guy Terry Francona; a transition from a clubhouse dominated by Jason Varitek to…who?; a front office with multiple voices and philosophies trying to gain sway; and a polarizing manager who won’t want to blow what is probably his final chance to manage in the majors and working on a 2-year contract.

They haven’t addressed issues in the starting rotation other than hope that Daniel Bard can make the transition from reliever to starter and sign a bunch of low-cost veterans on minor league deals to see if they can cobble together a back-end of the rotation. But what happened with the Yankees and Freddy Garcia/Bartolo Colon in 2011 doesn’t happen too often, so the Red Sox shouldn’t expect to get similar renaissance-level/amazing rise performances from Aaron Cook, Vicente Padilla, John Maine and Clayton Mortensen.

There are more questions than answers with this team and the solution to what ails them starts at the top.

And at the top, it’s chaos.

Baltimore Orioles

Regardless of the ridicule his hiring received, Dan Duquette is a highly competent baseball man who never got the credit he deserved for helping put together the Expos of the 1990s or the Red Sox of recent vintage.

But the Orioles are devoid of talent, especially on the mound, and it doesn’t matter how qualified the manager (Buck Showalter) and GM are, you can’t win if you don’t have talent.

What the Orioles have to do is make the difficult decision to take their most marketable assets—Nick Markakis, Adam JonesJim Johnson and even Matt Wieters—and let the rest of baseball know that they’re open for business and willing to listen to any and all offers.

Whether owner Peter Angelos or Showalter will be on board with that is up in the air.

Oakland Athletics

So Billy Beane gets another rebuild?

How many is this now? Five?

The Athletics use a lack of funds and a difficult division—along with their GM’s increasingly ridiculous and fictional reputation as a “genius”—to justify trading away all of their young talent for the future.

That future is far away in the distance and contingent on a new ballpark that they hope, pray, plead, beg will one day come their way.

Here’s a question: why do the Rays, facing the same logistical issues as the Athletics, try and win by making intelligent, cost-effective moves with their players and somehow succeed while a supposed “genius” is continually given a pass because of a resume that is bottom-line fabricated from start-to-finish?

Yet we’ll again hear how Beane got the “right” players in dumping Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill and Andrew Bailey.

Right players for what?

If the answer is losing close to 100 games, then he’s definitely succeeded.

Oh, they kept Coco Crisp and signed Bartolo Colon.

Beane deserves an Oscar more than Brad Pitt for maintaining the veneer of knowing something others don’t.

It’s a ruse and you’re a fool if you continue to fall for it.

Milwaukee Brewers

They understandably lost Prince Fielder because they couldn’t and wouldn’t approach the $214 million he received from the Tigers.

Signing Aramis Ramirez was a good decision and they kept their bullpen and starting rotation together, but their hot stove season was pockmarked with the failed(?) drug test of NL MVP Ryan Braun and possible 50 game suspension for using PEDs.

With the pitching and remaining offense in a mediocre division, they’d be able to hang around contention even without Fielder, but missing Braun for 50 games could bury them.

St. Louis Cardinals

You can’t lose three Hall of Fame caliber people and consider the off-season a success. Albert Pujols, Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan are all gone. Lance Berkman and Carlos Beltran will offset the loss of Pujols…somewhat, but he’s still Pujols and fundamentally irreplaceable.

Mike Matheny has never managed before and it was the rebuilding aptitude of Dave Duncan that salvaged something out of the broken down and finished pitchers he continually fixed like an abandoned but still workable car.

LaRussa is the best manager of this generation.

A seamless transition? No way.

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Why Would Anyone Want To Be The Orioles GM?

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The problems are familiar and circular.

One recognizable and respected name after another has taken a job with the Baltimore Orioles and been mitigated by ownership meddling and circumstance.

Even with Buck Showalter in place, nothing much has changed; the enthusiasm and excitement from having a manager of his stature quickly receded into the abyss, drowned by vicious competition and a lack of talent.

Why doesn’t Showalter simply take over as GM?

It’d be much easier for everyone.

The club could hire someone to do the grunt work that no one ever realizes is going on with the rock star status that certain general managers enjoy nowadays; Showalter could pick the players and run the entire show doing things the way he wants.

The names that are coming in for interviews are young, impressive and irrelevant; the only benefit they’ll have is to be able to toss their hands in the air and say, “what could I do?” when things go wrong as they did for Pat Gillick, Frank Wren and Andy MacPhail.

In addition to that, the new “boss” won’t have any final say-so with Showalter as the guy in charge. That’s not an advantageous position for a GM to be in whether he’s onboard with it or not.

It’s a resume-builder to say, “I’ve been a GM before”. They can’t win on or off the field and if the Orioles somehow find a way into contention within the new GM’s tenure, the credit will largely go to Showalter.

The Orioles situation is a continuing saga of inertia.

They can hit, but have very little pitching and not much on the horizon in the high minors.

Jeremy Guthrie, Zach Britton, Brian Matusz, Jim Johnson, Alfredo Simon—all have talent; but in that division, the Orioles can’t compete unless they bring in some legitimate arms, but that leads them back onto that failed cycle of overpaying for veterans, seeing them come to Baltimore and fade, repeating the process all over again. If they want to get a “name” free agent like C.J. Wilson or CC Sabathia, they have to drastically overpay and even then they’re not guaranteed to be anything other than a bargaining chip for another club to match or beat their offer.

At this point, until they’re showing marked improvement, why would any free agent with options want to go to Baltimore? The Yankees, Rays and Red Sox have vast talent that the Orioles don’t; and mark my words: the Blue Jays are going to shock baseball in 2012.

Where does that leave the Orioles?

Where they’ve been for the past 13 seasons—on the treadmill. Going nowhere.

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