The Tigers’ Options At Closer (AKA Coffee, Cigarettes And Baseball)

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Tigers’ manager Jim Leyland is openly and passive aggressively letting it be known that he’s unhappy with the concept of Bruce Rondon as his closer. So far in spring training, Rondon has been wild with 5 walks in 3.2 innings pitched, and has surrendered 5 hits and 3 earned runs. That’s in four appearances.

The Tigers spent the entire winter shunning any pretense of bringing back erstwhile closer Jose Valverde (who Leyland wanted back as recently as a few days ago), stayed away from any and all available veterans like Rafael Soriano, Heath Bell or Joel Hanrahan, and essentially handed the job to Rondon. With the regular season three-and-a-half weeks away, Leyland is looking at his loaded club with a powerful lineup, a deep starting rotation and a solid pre-closer bullpen and panicking at the thought of the entire thing crashing down because he doesn’t have someone he can moderately trust pitching the ninth inning. Valverde had some major meltdowns at inopportune times, but in 2012 he did save 35 games and had a solid hits/innings pitched ratio of 59/69. His strikeouts and velocity were way down making me think there was something physically wrong with him that the Tigers kept quiet, attributing his slump to the ambiguity of closing and mechanical woes. To a veteran manager like Leyland, the known and shaky veteran who’s gotten the outs for him before is better than the unknown rookie who can’t throw strikes.

So what to do about it?

Are there still-available closers—apart from Valverde—that are any good and gettable? Carlos Marmol can be had and if he’s in a better situation than with the Cubs, he might work. The Nationals aren’t trading Drew Storen or Tyler Clippard. The Tigers could sign Brian Wilson and hope the remaining bullpen members—Phil Coke, Octavio Dotel, Joaquin Benoit—hold down the fort (or seize the job) until Wilson is ready to pitch. If the Brewers fall out of contention, John Axford might be on the market. Francisco Rodriguez is sitting out. There are outside-the-box arms like Derek Lowe—40 in June—who was an All-Star closer with the Red Sox before becoming a starter and still wants to pitch. He’s said that he doesn’t want to be a reliever, but that was as a long-reliever. Would he want to take a last shot at closing for a championship-level team? Could he do it? Physically, who knows? Mentally, there’s no doubt. His ground ball rate is still superior and he’d be ridiculously cheap.

At his age, Leyland doesn’t need the aggravation of a rookie closer who can’t throw the ball over the plate. If he’s publicly carping about it, you can imagine what he’s saying to his coaches and is only being slightly more diplomatic with his ostensible boss, GM Dave Dombrowski. Leyland has a bratty side and, like any overgrown child even as he protests that he’ll deal with the situation as best he can, his sour face and underlying tone of displeasure combined with his already tense and jittery presence from a lifetime of coffee, cigarettes and baseball is surely felt throughout the clubhouse in spite of his protestations to the contrary. The players know Leyland, know the American League and probably don’t feel any more comfortable with Rondon sabotaging a potential championship season than the manager does. Rondon doesn’t have much time to get his act together. If he doesn’t, the Tigers are going to have to do something about it before it destroys everything they’re trying to accomplish.

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Potential Difference Makers for the Stretch—National League

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Yesterday I talked about players who could make a difference to contenders down the stretch from the American League. Now let’s look at the National League.

Jason Bay, LF—New York Mets

I know he’s been about as bad as bad can possibly be and is owed $19 million next year, but if someone gets him out of New Yor…I’m sorry. I thought I could get through it and make myself sound convincing. But I can’t.

It was worth a try.

Francisco Rodriguez, RHP—Milwaukee Brewers

K-Rod was awful after he took over for John Axford as Brewers’ closer and it was his poor performances against the Phillies in helping blow two games that led to the Brewers tossing in the towel on the season and trading Zack Greinke. But he’s a veteran who’s got post-season experience and is a free agent at the end of the season. A contending team could get him for nothing. I’ve thought for awhile that he’d wind up back with the Angels and it’s still a fit.

Alfonso Soriano, LF—Chicago Cubs

The speculation has already started up again that the Giants would be a landing spot for Soriano now that Melky Cabrera has been suspended for 50 games for using a banned substance. Soriano can still hit the ball out of the park and the change to a new venue and a contending team could wake him up. Soriano’s owed $36 million in 2013-2014, so the Cubs would have to pay a chunk of it. They probably would to get him out of town and get a decent prospect or two.

Wesley Wright, LHP—Houston Astros

He’s a lefty specialist who’s held lefty bats to a .221/.295/.314 slash line with 30 strikeouts in 96 plate appearances. I can’t see the Astros being too demanding in trading him.

J.J. Putz, RHP—Arizona Diamondbacks

The Diamondbacks are 5 ½ games out of first place in the NL West behind both the Giants and Dodgers; they can forget about the Wild Card with the Braves rolling the way they are and the Pirates, Cardinals and one of the two teams in their division still fighting for one of the two extra playoff spots. Putz has a $6.5 million club option with a $1.5 million buyout. David Hernandez will be closing for the D-Backs next year and they’re not going to pick up Putz’s option. It makes sense to trade him and save that buyout money while getting a prospect or two from a contender, which they are not.

Luke Gregerson, RHP—San Diego Padres

The Padres aren’t selling. In fact, they’ve signed several players who might’ve been available—Huston Street, Carlos Quentin, Mark Kotsay (?)—to contract extensions; but they reportedly offered Gregerson to the Mets for Daniel Murphy. I’ve always liked Gregerson and if he’s available, he can help someone. I doubt they’re trading him though. He’s under team control for two more seasons.

Rafael Betancourt, RHP—Colorado Rockies

Betancourt could help multiple teams a great deal as a set-up man, but the Rockies haven’t shown the willingness to make any trades of their veterans and with the change in the power structure from Dan O’Dowd as the GM to Bill Geivett taking charge of the big league operation, it’s still unclear as to what’s going on in Colorado. I doubt they’ll do anything significant until the season’s over. Betancourt is signed for 2013 with a reasonable option for 2014 and unless an interested team gets crazy with an offer, they’re not moving him.

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National League Central—Buy, Sell or Stand Pat?

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Cincinnati Reds

Reds’ GM Walt Jocketty is a buyer and wants to win now. The Reds have what it takes to go far in the playoffs with a deep starting rotation and bullpen and mashers in the middle of their lineup. They’re still in need of a bat at shortstop, third base or in the outfield. The only position where they should consider a long-term solution is third base and that’s where they should make a move on Chase Headley. Jocketty and Padres’ GM Josh Byrnes came together on a mutually advantageous blockbuster last winter when the Reds acquired Mat Latos so they’re able to come to consensus on deals.

Apart from Headley, short-term upgrades in centerfield or at shortstop would be better than more expensive, longer-term options. If the Phillies put Shane Victorino on the block, he’d be a positive addition. At shortstop, Stephen Drew of the Diamondbacks is absolutely available. An extra lefty for the bullpen would be of use with Joe Thatcher and Jose Mijares attractive targets.

Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pirates have to decide whether they’re going for it with a bomb or going for it with short precision passes.

What I mean by that is if they’re going for it with a bomb, then their top prospects Starling Marte and Gerrit Cole would have to be on the table. The “bomb” type players they could acquire would include Justin Upton, Starlin Castro, Giancarlo Stanton or a similar young bat.

A shorter pass would include Drew or Carlos Quentin.

The Pirates are legitimate contenders and do need a bat, but I would not gut the system to get it. Another concern of mine would be messing with team chemistry by trading for a star player who’s going to be with the club longer than for the rest of this season. They’ve charted a course and need to stick to it because it’s working.

St. Louis Cardinals

GM John Mozeliak has proven himself to be aggressive in the fact of overwhelming odds to the point that he was perceived as desperate and delusional at the trading deadline last season when he made his one marketable young player, Colby Rasmus, the centerpiece of the deal that got them Edwin Jackson, Marc Rzepczynski and Octavio Dotel.

Will the Cardinals make a similar decision this season? Tony LaRussa is gone and it’s doubtful that Mike Matheny’s voice will elicit the same wearing down effect that LaRussa’s whining and organizational politicking did.

The Cardinals are leading the league in runs scored but should bolster their bench with a Ty Wigginton or Jason Giambi. They need a starting pitcher and have the prospects to get Zack Greinke or Cole Hamels. I can’t imagine the Cubs trading Ryan Dempster or anyone else to the Cardinals. For the bullpen, they could look to the Mariners for Brandon League; the Athletics for Grant Balfour; the Padres for Thatcher, Huston Street or former Cardinals’ prospect Luke Gregerson; or the Rockies for Matt Belisle or Rafael Betancourt.

I don’t think the Cardinals are legitimate contenders as currently constructed and will fade without improving the pitching.

Milwaukee Brewers

Mixed signals are coming from Milwaukee. Like the Phillies, they’re waiting and listening. Francisco Rodriguez just replaced the struggling John Axford as closer, but K-Rod is a free agent at the end of the year and would bring back a couple of prospects from a team like the Angels or Rangers. There’s speculation that Greinke is hurt after he was pushed back from his start to “recharge his batteries”—whatever that means. They’re supposedly accepting offers for a free agent they signed last winter, Aramis Ramirez.

I don’t think they know what they are at present.

The problem the Brewers have is that their farm system is essentially gutted and they put everything into winning last season and didn’t. The next two weeks will determine the remainder of 2012, but they have to be open to trading Shaun Marcum, Randy Wolf, K-Rod, Ramirez and calculate the draft pick compensation they’d get for Greinke in comparison to what teams are offering.

They’re not out of contention…yet. Considering where they’re heading with a rebuild/retool on the way after this season, they might be better off adding a Drew, Victorino or Bryan LaHair rather than clean house.

Chicago Cubs

Everything must go.

They’ve denied it, but I think they will absolutely be willing to trade Castro. When the manager of the team, Dale Sveum, has to bench a player and have that player sit next to him to explain why things are happening on the field and quiz him about where he should be in certain situations and what he should be doing, he’s not a Theo Epstein-type of self-starter who plays the game correctly. Castro’s extremely talented, accumulates hits and makes a sparkling play here and there, but he’s not good.

Matt Garza doesn’t have to be traded and that makes him more valuable since he’s under team control through 2013. Dempster’s getting traded; LaHair might get traded; if he was hitting, Geovany Soto would be in heavier demand than he is and might get traded anyway. They should do whatever they can to get rid of Alfonso Soriano and if that means accepting the sunk cost of his contract and paying him off, so be it. Someone might be willing to take a chance that a change of scenery would help the strikeout/walk-machine, on-again/off-again closer Carlos Marmol.

Houston Astros

GM Jeff Luhnow got a couple of useful pieces for Carlos Lee. They were willing to listen on Jed Lowrie, but Lowrie’s hurt. Brett Myers is marketable as is Brandon Lyon. Wesley Wright will be in play as a lefty reliever. The opinions on Wandy Rodriguez are varied and vast. I’ve always liked him and think he’d be a good addition to a team with a solid defense and playing in a park where it’s not easy to hit home runs like the Mets, Angels, Dodgers and Marlins.

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2012 National League Central Predicted Standings

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Wins Losses GB
1. Cincinnati Reds 91 71
2. Milwaukee Brewers 87 75 4
3. St. Louis Cardinals 77 85 14
4. Pittsburgh Pirates 77 85 14
5. Chicago Cubs 73 89 18
6. Houston Astros 60 102 31

Cincinnati Reds

Dusty Baker’s teams have a tendency to win when his job is on the line or his contract is coming to a conclusion—and this is the final year of his contract.

GM Walt Jocketty made a bold move in trading a large portion of the Reds’ farm system to get an ace-quality starter in Mat Latos and bolstered his bullpen by signing Ryan Madson and trading for Sean Marshall.

Offensively, the Reds have some question marks but were second in the National League in runs scored last season and first in 2010. Scott Rolen’s injuries are an issue and shortstop is likely to be manned by a talented rookie Zack Cozart.

But with a deep starting rotation; a very good bullpen; Joey Votto in the middle of the lineup; the emerging Jay Bruce and Drew Stubbs; and the additions from the winter, the Reds are a championship threat.

Milwaukee Brewers

If Mat Gamel hits and Aramis Ramirez posts his normal numbers, they’ll have enough offense without Prince Fielder. Alex Gonzalez is a good pickup offensively and defensively to replace the limited Yuniesky Betancourt; Zack Greinke is sure to have a big year heading towards free agency; and the bullpen is superlative with Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford.

The questions surrounding the Ryan Braun failed drug test and technical knockout of his 50-game suspension are not going to go away.

Braun has to hit from the beginning of the season to the end and he’s still going to be hounded with a press contingent waiting for a reasonable answer as to how he failed the test in the first place. A slow start will be the death knell to his season and probably the Brewers’ playoff hopes.

And don’t forget how much vitriol their arrogance engendered throughout baseball last season. When the world-at-large was pulling for a Tony LaRussa –led team, you know their oppenents were despised.

There’s a 2006 Mets feeling about the Brewers that they missed their chance and we know what happened to the Mets in the aftermath of their upset loss to the Cardinals.

St. Louis Cardinals

It’s idiotic to base one’s hopes for a repeat championship on the idea that losing the generation’s best manager (Tony LaRussa); hitter (Albert Pujols); and a magician of a pitching coach (Dave Duncan) are going to be easily covered with Mike Matheny (never managed before—ever); signing Carlos Beltran and shifting Lance Berkman to first base (they’re older players); and Derek Lilliquist (um…).

You cannot dismiss the contributions of those three men—all of whom are Hall of Famers.

As respected and well-liked as Matheny is, there’s a learning curve to manage.

The Cardinals have starting pitching, but their bullpen is still a question mark and Matheny’s handling of said bullpen is going to be an issue.

Beltran and Berkman will make up for Pujols’s production to a degree, but if you’re banking your hopes on David Freese being the same star he was in the playoffs and Rafael Furcal, Jon Jay and Skip Schumaker, you’re dreaming.

This team is rife for a big fall and major turmoil.

Pittsburgh Pirates

We’ll never know what the Pirates’ 2011 season would’ve become had they not been so horribly robbed in that play at the plate and egregious call by Jerry Meals in the 19-inning game against the Braves in late July. Those who think that an entire season can’t hinge on one game are wrong.

The Pirates did many good things mostly as a result of manager Clint Hurdle’s simple mandate of discipline and not taking crap.

They’ve locked up key players Andrew McCutchen and Jose Tabata and acquired cheap, high-ceiling veteran starters A.J. Burnett and Erik Bedard.

They’re not ready to contend, but they’re getting better and if things go well, they have a shot at third place.

Chicago Cubs

Those expecting a Theo Epstein arrival/revival and immediate rise to championship-level status as happened when he took over the Red Sox need to take a step back.

The Red Sox had a lot of talent and money to spend when Epstein took over in 2003; the Cubs are trying to clear onerous contracts of declining veterans like Alfonso Soriano and already got rid of Carlos Zambrano (and are paying him to pitch for the Marlins).

A large part of my analysis isn’t simply based on what a team has when the season starts, but what’s going to happen as the season moves along. The Cubs are going to be ready to deal with Carlos Marmol, Ryan Dempster and Marlon Byrd possibly on the move.

It’s not going to be a quick fix to repair this organization.

Houston Astros

There’s a perception that simply because they hired a stat-savvy GM in Jeff Luhnow and he’s at work rebuilding the system that the Astros are “guaranteed” to have success in the near future.

Are you aware of what happened to similar thinking baseball people like Paul DePodesta and Jack Zduriencik?

The Astros neglected their minor league system for so long that they’re tantamount to an expansion team. Luhnow brought in high-end talent like Fernando Martinez cheaply; he’s scouring the scrapheap with Livan Hernandez for big league competence while he cleans up the mess; and he’s hired like-minded people to help him.

But it’s not a guarantee and his “success” with the Cardinals minor league system is based on perception depending on your own beliefs and/or biases on how to run a club rather than bottom-line reality.

Here’s what we can agree on: in 2012, they’re going to be terrible.

Click here for a full sample of Paul Lebowitz’s 2012 Baseball Guide (this link is of the Blue Jays) of team predictions/projections. My book can be purchased on KindleSmashwordsBN and Lulu with other outlets on the way.

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Boras Doesn’t Play Defense

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The only reason I can think of for Francisco Rodriguez to have accepted the Brewers $8 million offer rather than go to arbitration is that K-Rod and his agent Scott Boras were told that if they went to arbitration and, as expected, were awarded something close to the $11 million+ he would probably have gotten, they would simply have released him. If that scenario came to pass, he’d have been completely helpless and gotten a fraction of that $8 million to pitch for someone looking for a bargain.

There’s no other logical explanation for the decision to take what amounts to a lowball offer for someone with K-Rod’s resume who’s not even going to be closing for the Brewers in 2012.

K-Rod’s hiring of Boras has turned out to be an unmitigated disaster.

First, he made the overtly stupid decision to hire a new agent in July just as the Mets were looking to dump K-Rod, his salary, his baggage and his onerous contract kicker that would’ve been activated if he’d finished 55 games—which he was well on the way to doing. K-Rod would’ve been paid $17.5 million in 2012 had he reached the incentive.

Then when the agent change was made, Mets GM Sandy Alderson acted swiftly and like a ruthless combination of a corporate lawyer (which he is) and a Marine (which he was) by dealing K-Rod before Boras had the chance to submit a list of teams to whom he could not be traded. The Brewers would’ve been one of those teams.

K-Rod, wanting his free agency, had Boras nullify the contract kicker even though it had been rendered moot when he joined the Brewers and was functioning as a set-up man for John Axford. His buyout on the deal had been $3.5 million, which the Mets paid. The Brewers added $500,000 and K-Rod was a free agent after the season.

But the market was flooded with closers leaving K-Rod and Boras scrambling. There were so many closers available, not enough landing spots, nor clubs with the money to pay them that he could either wait or take arbitration. Rather than do what his Boras agency stablemate Ryan Madson did and see if he could find a multi-year deal only to wind up taking a 1-year contract, K-Rod accepted the Brewers offer of arbitration.

At least Madson is going to close for the Reds. K-Rod’s going to spend another year setting up for Axford and he’s doing it for far less money than anyone could reasonably have expected given his accomplishments and far, far, far less than what he could’ve expected when he made the retrospectively stupid decision to hire Boras in the first place.

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MLB CBA Analysis: HGH Testing

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The clearest and easiest to understand explanation of the multi-pronged new labor agreement between MLB and the Players Association is found here at Baseball Nation.

I’m separating my take on the new deal into segments.

First the HGH test; below is the clip from the above-linked piece on HGH:

Testing for Human Growth Hormone
The players and owners agreed to limited blood testing for human growth hormone. During 2012 spring training, players will have blood drawn and will be monitored for their physical reaction to the blood test. The blood samples will be tested for HGH and will then be destroyed. (Recall, however, that when urine tests for steroids were first introduced, the urine samples were supposed to be destroyed. They were not, and the FBI then seized the urine samples during its investigation of BALCO Labs.)

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Anyone who’s followed performance enhancers in bodybuilding and sports knows that the chemists are forever trying to come up with something new, undetectable and relatively safe.

Laymen and the self-righteous don’t want to hear that steroids and HGH are not dangerous if used in the proper dosages and administered by a qualified medical/sports supplement professional.

But that’s a different argument.

The average fan wants to know that the records they’re seeing set are “real” without any common denominator definition of what “real” is and no assigned blame to MLB’s overlords and team owners who cast a blind eye out of convenience to what they knew was going on; to what they tacitly encouraged.

Be that as it may, this will put forth the pretense of “cleanliness”.

Bear in mind that the players will find something else to give them a boost.

They always do.

Regarding said players, it will be an interesting case study in reactions and handling of pressure and scrutiny.

For those whose careers took wondrous and unexpected leaps from nothingness to stardom, an immediate suspicion will permeate the baseball world; if they get off to slow starts or have a noticeable body change early in 2012, the whispers will begin immediately.

Was Jose Bautista a late-bloomer?

Did John Axford‘s rising velocity result from a mechanical tweak?

Was Kevin Long’s alteration of Curtis Granderson‘s swing responsible for his burst of power?

Why was Jacoby Ellsbury suddenly able to hit home runs and stay healthy?

These are not accusations. They’re just questions. They’re going to be asked and it’s not unreasonable to ask them.

If there is a marked difference in the way a player looks or performs, first it will be whispered; then it will be said; then it will be accused.

And barring a series of leaks like the 2003 tests, we won’t know who passed and who failed. If the players are smart, they’ll make sure—under threat of legal action against MLB—that those samples are destroyed as they’re supposed to be.

Of course, that doesn’t mean the names won’t come out somehow.

This isn’t good for the game or bad for the game; it just is.

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World Series Preview—Texas Rangers vs St. Louis Cardinals

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Texas Rangers vs St. Louis Cardinals

Keys for the Rangers: Knock the Cardinals starters out early, hit the bullpen; maintain their hot hitting; continue the quick hook with the starting pitching; don’t put their manager in a position to make a gaffe.

The Cardinals overcame woeful starting pitching in the NLCS because the Brewers starting pitching wasn’t much better; a Cardinals bullpen that had been a relatively weak point earlier in the season was dominant against the Brewers. The Rangers are deep offensively with nary a break from 1-9 in the batting order; the Brewers were top-heavy with Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun and once those two bats were quieted after the first game, the Brewers had to rely on the background players who, in some respects, played over their heads (i.e. Yuniesky Betancourt), but weren’t enough.

With the blazing hot Nelson Cruz accompanying the professional hitters Michael Young, Josh Hamilton, Ian Kinsler and Adrian Beltre—plus their team speed and aggressiveness—the Rangers have more weapons and are smarter than the Brewers were.

You can make the case that the Rangers starting pitching isn’t all that important with the depth of the bullpen and that they have two starters—Scott Feldman and Alexi Ogando—who pitched tremendously in the ALCS; manager Ron Washington has yanked his starters at the first sign of trouble because of that depth; of course it would be preferable to count on C.J. Wilson rather than Feldman since Feldman wasn’t even a guarantee to be on the post-season roster, but they’re loaded up with arms who can get the outs, so why not use that advantage?

Washington’s main attribute as a manager is that the players play hard for him; if he gets into a mind-war with Tony LaRussa, he’s going to lose. Badly.

The Tigers were beaten up physically and exhausted by the time they got to the Rangers; the Cardinals aren’t; the Cardinals are far more patient and dangerous surrounding Albert Pujols than the Tigers were with Miguel Cabrera. The Rangers can’t give extra outs to the Cardinals and not expect to be made to pay by Pujols, Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman.

Keys for the Cardinals: Get better starting pitching; continue their hot hitting; continue their bullpen dominance; keep the Rangers off the bases via the walk.

Much is being made of the Cardinals getting past the Brewers with the starting pitching having not made it past the fifth inning in any of the 6 games, but that wasn’t really relevant against a Brewers team that was terribly flawed; in fact, the Cardinals were probably better off having the ability to mix-and-match with their bullpen against the two main threats in the Brewers lineup, Braun and Fielder, than staying with their starting pitcher in the middle innings simply because he was their starter and was pitching serviceably.

They can’t count on their bullpen to continue that trend against a deeper and more well-rounded Rangers lineup, so they have to get big-time performances from Chris Carpenter as they did when he took down the Phillies.

Mike Napoli is 3 for 3 with a home run in his career vs Carpenter.

The Rangers won’t be able to run wild on the Cardinals because of Yadier Molina, but stealing bases is only a small part of the Rangers offense; in fact, they really don’t need to steal bases at all with their power. If the Cardinals walk the Rangers, the Rangers will score a lot.

What will happen.

An advantage the Rangers have had with their organizational decision to push their starting pitchers deeper into games by reducing the reliance on pitch counts is that there’s no point in opposing offenses making the attempt at patience and to push their pitch counts up because they’re not going to get tired as other staffs do; with the Rangers depth in the bullpen, there’s not the prototypical “soft underbelly” and they have little to worry about if their starters don’t pitch well.

Wilson has been terrible in the playoffs, but it doesn’t matter much since the Rangers bullpen has the ability to quiet down any rally and give their high-powered offense a chance to catch up.

A problem the Brewers had with their construct became evident when their starting pitching struggled; their long relievers weren’t particularly good and unless they were able to hand the ball off to the late-inning relievers Takashi Saito, Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford, it didn’t help to have a deep starting rotation and shutdown bullpen. With an atrocious defense and lackluster offense behind Braun and Fielder, the Cardinals had advantages against the Brewers they will not have against the Rangers.

Because the Rangers can continually shuttle arms from the bullpen; hit the ball out of the park; and have an airtight defense, the Cardinals will find themselves getting into shootouts that they can’t win.

The Cardinals biggest advantage with pitching is that their ace, Carpenter, has come through in the post-season and the Rangers ace, Wilson, hasn’t. But that’s not going to make a difference if Wilson is pulled before any big innings occur. And Carpenter has had his share of gacks in post-seasons past.

Regardless of the tactical advantage the Cardinals will have if the mistake-prone Washington starts going move-for-move with LaRussa, the Rangers are too deep in the bullpen and on offense and too good defensively for it to cost them the series.

I thought they’d lose the ALDS and they didn’t.

I thought they’d lose the ALCS and they didn’t.

I think they’re going to win the World Series.

And they will.

This is the Rangers year.

PREDICTION: RANGERS IN SIX.

WORLD SERIES MVP: MIKE NAPOLI.

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The Brewers Had Better Win This Year

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I’d scarcely remembered hearing Brewers manager Ron Roenicke talk before last night’s NLCS game 2 between the Cardinals and Brewers.

Now I know why.

During his in-game interview on TBS, it became crystal clear why the Brewers on-field behaviors are so out-of-control that they’ve become despised throughout the league.

Apart from Brewers (and presumably Cubs) fans, everyone wants to see them lose to a Cardinals team that, prior to this series, wasn’t exactly a contender for Miss Congeniality.

Tony LaRussa clubs aren’t well-liked because they play old-school and on the edge—they’re not out there to make friends; they’re out there to beat you. The Brewers are reviled because they think they’re better than they are; they behave as if they’ve won 5 championships; and are so overt in their celebrations that their arrogance is palpable.

On the Brewers roster are three players who have championship rings: Francisco Rodriguez, Craig Counsell and Jerry Hairston Jr.

One self-interested pitcher—whose reputation isn’t sterling in any context—and two utility players.

I doubt their voices carry much weight—literally or figuratively—in that clubhouse.

The player with the weight, Prince Fielder, is running things and he’s a sullen, mercurial individual who has come through for his club, but is also the one who has to be viewed as the catalyst for the Brewers act.

Nyjer Morgan can be referenced as the “attitude” behind the Brewers, but it all stems from Fielder. If he told Morgan to tone it down, Morgan would tone it down.

Roenicke is so soft-spoken and understated that the only way to judge him is the way his team behaves. There are managers who don’t say much in the Gil Hodges tradition, but players know not to muck with them and are aware that the manager is in charge.

Roenicke is just sort of there in the Bob Brenly scope of a manager hired not to screw it up. And he hasn’t. Yet.

He had a resume of managing in the minors and was on a well-respected coaching staff for a strong-handed manager Mike Scioscia.

But Scioscia’s teams don’t disrespect their opponents and the game the way these Brewers do.

They can defend “The Beast” silliness in which they raise their arms when they do….whatever; say that it’s all in good fun. But it’s offensive; and what makes it worse is that these players have accomplished absolutely nothing to warrant it. There are teams that expect to win and behave appropriately when they do; and there are teams for whom circumstances have coalesced into a perfect storm so their results are better than the reality.

The Brewers loaded up on starting pitching with Shaun Marcum and Zack Greinke joining Yovani Gallardo and Randy Wolf; they brought in an All Star closer in K-Rod to set-up for John Axford; their two main bashers Ryan Braun and Fielder have carried them beyond a terrible defense and top-heavy lineup.

Teams like this can win with a weak manager, but they’re not in it for the long haul because Fielder’s not coming back after this season and once the novelty wears off and they need discipline, Roenicke isn’t going to be able to provide it.

The potential championship is worth the compromises they’ve made. But they’d better get that championship this year because it’s the only chance this group is going to have.

All of baseball is watching.

And rooting against them.

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Arizona Diamondbacks vs Milwaukee Brewers

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Arizona Diamondbacks (94-68; 1st place, NL West) vs Milwaukee Brewers (96-66; 1st place, NL Central)

Keys for the Diamondbacks: Get into the Brewers middle relief; keep the bases clear in front of Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder; get depth from their starters; jump out to a lead early in game 1.

The Brewers strength is their starting rotation and their power. The Diamondbacks have been a more-than-the-sum-of-their-parts club; they don’t have an overt “strength” despite the statistically similar pitching staff in comparison to the Brewers.

The Brewers starting pitching is so deep and so good that the Diamondbacks have to get their pitch counts up and hope the Brewers rookie manager Ron Roenicke jumps the gun either by pinch hitting for his pitchers or pulls them in the middle innings. In the late innings, they’ll have Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford to contend with.

Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder are both MVP candidates this season; the Brewers offense is top-heavy and limited with Yuniesky Betancourt and Casey McGehee occupying two spots in the lineup along with the pitcher; the Diamondbacks have to keep the runners off the bases to either mitigate how much damage Braun and Fielder can do or to pitch around them when necessary.

Ian Kennedy won 21 games and was masterful this season, but in his time with the Yankees he proved to be a pitcher who thought way too much about what he was doing; those types tend to take a pressure situation and use it to formulate ways in which they can make themselves “better” rather than doing what it was that got them to where they are in the first place. If Kennedy gets through the first 3 innings relatively unscathed, he’ll be fine—the Diamondbacks coaching staff has to get it through his over-analytical head that what he’s done all season long has worked and there’s no reason to change it because it’s the playoffs.

Daniel Hudson is still a young pitcher despite winning 16 games and providing over 200 innings in 2011; McGehee is 5 for 5 in his career against Hudson with a double and a homer; Fielder is 2 for 5 with a homer.

Joe Saunders is a control-based lefty who cannot be expected to hold down the Brewers lineup. Braun has 2 homers in 6 at bats vs Saunders. Gibson has to have a quick hook with Saunders.

The Brewers are loud and bullying. They have a lot to say, are overt in their mannerisms and take their cue from Nyjer Morgan and Fielder. They’re not particularly likable and Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson isn’t the type to let his players take a lot of junk. If the Diamondbacks jump to an early lead, that will prevent the Brewers from starting with their nonsense.

Keys for the Brewers: Depth from their starters; get the game to K-Rod and Axford; get runners on base in front of Braun and Fielder; lay down the law early with the Diamondbacks young starters.

This is why the Brewers made those drastic maneuvers last winter in getting Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum. They have two of the best pitchers in baseball fronting their rotation with Greinke and Gallardo; a very good one in Marcum; and the veteran Randy Wolf. Greinke has never pitched in  the post-season; nor has Marcum. Gallardo pitched 7 solid innings against the Phillies in the 2008 NLDS.

With K-Rod and Axford for the eighth and ninth innings, the Brewers are well-suited to get as many innings as they can from their starters and hand it over to a shutdown bullpen with two quality closers.

Morgan is good at getting on base and wreaking havoc with his legs and his obnoxious personality. With the all-or-nothing spots in their lineup occupied by Yuniesky Betancourt and McGehee, the Brewers have to get production from Braun and Fielder.

The Brewers are frontrunners; if they fall behind the Diamondbacks early, their bullying will be prevented.

Miguel Montero has hammered Greinke, Wolf and Marcum in his career and has to be watched.

What will happen.

The Diamondbacks were not expected to be here and take their cue from their ultra-competitive manager. They have some pop, they don’t strike out as much as they before GM Kevin Towers cleared out some of the wind producers, but they still strike out a lot. They have solid starting pitching, but it’s inexperienced in these types of circumstances; their bullpen isn’t as flashy as the Brewers, but it’s still good.

There will be tension in this series and how that goes might determine the outcome. The Brewers are loud and arrogant. Gibson isn’t going to tolerate that kind of attitude and will tell his players not to let it go by without response. The Brewers will push the Diamondbacks early, the Diamondbacks will push back and tempers will flare.

If Kennedy can get to the middle innings without giving up a crooked number and the Diamondbacks take the first game, they’ll be in great position to win the series. Justin Upton is 3 for 9 in his career vs Gallardo and Lyle Overbay 2 for 3.

If the Diamondbacks are going to win this series, they’ll be better-served to win the first game.

The Brewers infield defense is terrible; it didn’t hurt them during the season, but it will in the playoffs.

Far too impressed with themselves, the Brewers think they’ve accomplished something without actually having accomplished much of anything apart from making angry clubs throughout baseball with their behaviors led by Morgan.

The Diamondbacks functioned under-the-radar all season long and they’ve proven themselves again and again to be a formidable opponent that plays the game the way their manager did—hard.

The Diamondbacks are going to quiet the Brewers quickly and drop them in 4 games.

PREDICTION: DIAMONDBACKS IN FOUR.

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The Cardinals’ Last Stand

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Having swept three straight from the Brewers at Miller Park, the Cardinals have kept themselves alive in the NL Central race. They’re still down 7 1/2 games with 25 to play so a comeback would be bordering on the miraculous, but they’re still around—and that was the first step.

This weekend is supremely important for the Cardinals to—at the very least—stay 7 1/2 games behind. The Brewers are in Houston for a 3 game series with the Astros while the Cardinals are going home to play the Reds.

On Monday, the Brewers go to St. Louis for 3 games.

If the Cardinals can cut the deficit another game or two, Monday becomes very, very interesting and important. Let’s say the Cardinals manage to get within 5 games after their home series with the Brewers. The Brewers are then going to Philadelphia to play the Phillies; the Cardinals have the Braves coming to town.

Without providing schedules for each team down the stretch (their opponents are mostly the same), the Cardinals have to make their move now.

It’s hard to see the Brewers stumbling in a 2007 Mets-type way and being caught or passed by the Cardinals. Those Mets were drastically flawed in the starting rotation with Oliver Perez and John Maine both having been coaxed to unexpected 15 win seasons by Rick Peterson and Tom Glavine and Pedro Martinez were shells of what they once were; this Brewers club with Zack Greinke, Yovani Gallardo, Shaun Marcum and Randy Wolf has legitimate starting pitching.

You can also throw the 2008 Mets into that mix. With Johan Santana their starting pitching was better than it was in the previous year, but the bullpen was relying on journeyman Luis Ayala to close after Billy Wagner went down with Tommy John surgery; the Brewers have two legitimate closers in John Axford and Francisco Rodriguez.

2007 Mets manager Willie Randolph panicked and 2008 manager Jerry Manuel was outgunned; I don’t know how Brewers rookie manager Ron Roenicke is going to react if his club is pressed by Tony LaRussa‘s Cardinals over the last two weeks.

But the Cardinals crawled back into striking distance with the sweep—similar to the way the Phillies did against the Mets (twice) in the final 5 weeks of the 2007 season.

The last thing the Brewers want to do is let the Cardinals think they have a chance.

That’s what the Cardinals are thinking now.

And if things break a certain way, in seven days time they might have more than a chance. They might have a race; a race the Brewers neither wanted, needed nor expected.

The Brewers have to take care of business by next Thursday or they could have a problem on their hands.

A big one.

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