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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Valverde’s Signing Was Inevitable

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Jim Leyland tried the soft approach. He tried to gently discuss how uncomfortable he was with the Tigers’ decision to go cheap and unproven with their closer when they’d invested a massive amount of money in this current group while in the final year of his contract. In public, he was agreeable and conciliatory when the Tigers let Jose Valverde walk and didn’t bring in a legitimate, proven closer via trade or free agency. He was willing to move forward with the Bruce Rondon experiment and, when the rookie faltered in spring training, stated his intention to use a bullpen-by-committee and do the best they could.

All it took, though, was one blown save from Phil Coke in the second game of the season for the Tigers to acquiesce to their manager’s clear wishes and bring back Valverde on a minor league contract. He’ll go to Lakeland and “get in shape” (whatever that means for the prominently bellied Valverde) and, before long, will be back with the Tigers and given the opportunity to regain the job he lost with a series of terrible performances including a horrific gack in game 1 of the ALCS against the Yankees that could easily have cost the Tigers the series.

Leyland is jittery and constantly fretful, but he trusts his veterans more than he’ll trust any rookie or unproven commodity. He might very well have thrown a patented Leyland tantrum after yesterday’s loss and gone as far as he possibly could in demanding that the Tigers bring back Valverde. As bad as Valverde was at times last season, he was nearly perfect in 2011 and Leyland knows that any issues his erstwhile closer might have won’t be related to a mental issue. There are pitchers on the Tigers’ staff who can conceivably close. Coke can do it if given the opportunity over the long term. Octavio Dotel is 39, but has closed and as long as he’s healthy would get the job done. But using Coke, Valverde, Joaquin Benoit or establishing someone unproven such as Al Alburquerque or Rondon in the ninth inning would reduce the Tigers’ depth in the earlier innings and make the manager and everyone around him nervous.

If there’s a man in baseball whose personality permeates his clubhouse while he’s not doing or saying anything at all—just his aura is enough—it’s Leyland. He’s passive aggressive and made clear that he didn’t want a rookie closer and that he did want Valverde back. Now he’s getting what he wants and if Valverde has his velocity and looks adequate in extended spring training, he’ll be closing for the Tigers again within a month because that’s what the manager wanted from the beginning and he let everyone know it through multiple methods of expression.

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

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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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National League Breakout/Rebound Candidates (Or Cheap Gets For Your Fantasy Team)

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Last week, I looked at breakout/rebound candidates for the American League, some of whom will be very, very cheap pickups for your fantasy clubs. Now I’ll look at the National League.

Wilson Ramos, C—Washington Nationals

Ramos is coming back from a torn ACL in his knee and because the Nationals traded for Kurt Suzuki from the Athletics last season, there’s no need to rush Ramos back before he’s 100%. But he will eventually take over as the starting catcher and it’s not just because he’s a future All-Star and potential Gold Glove winner.

Suzuki is a competent everyday catcher who’s shown 15 homer power in the past. Even if he’s not hitting, the Nationals lineup is strong enough to carry one mediocre bat and Suzuki’s good with the pitchers.

There’s a financial component though. Suzuki has a club option in his contract for 2014 at $8.5 million. The option becomes guaranteed if Suzuki starts 113 games in 2013. Barring another injury to Ramos, that is not going to happen. Ramos will be catching 5 of every 7 games by the summer.

Freddie Freeman, 1B—Atlanta Braves

It’s easy to forget about Freeman due to the number of power-hitting first basemen around baseball, but he’s gotten steadily better every year as a professional and with the infusion of Justin Upton and B.J. Upton into the lineup, plus Brian McCann, Jason Heyward and Dan Uggla, teams won’t be worried about Freeman’s power leading to him getting more pitches to hit.

Lucas Duda, LF—New York Mets

Given the Mets on-paper outfield (Collin Cowgill, Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Mike Baxter, Marlon Byrd, Marv Throneberry, George Theodore, Jan Brady, Cindy Brady, Gilligan, Barnaby Jones, Cannon), there’s plenty of fodder for ridicule. Duda is the butt of jokes because of his last name; that he’s a bad outfielder; because he seems so quiet and reticent. The criticism is missing an important factor: he can hit, hit for power and walk. If the Mets tell him he’s their starting left fielder, period, they’ll be rewarded with 25-30 homers and a .360+ on base percentage. So will fantasy owners.

Bobby Parnell, RHP—New York Mets

With Frank Francisco sidelined with elbow woes, Parnell has been named the Mets’ closer…for now. They have Brandon Lyon on the team and are still said to be weighing Jose Valverde. None of that matters. Parnell was going to get the shot at some point this season and with a little luck in Washington last season when defensive miscues cost him an impressive and legitimate old-school, fireman-style save, he would’ve taken the role permanently back then.

Jacob Turner, RHP—Miami Marlins

The Tigers were concerned about Turner’s velocity at the end of spring training 2012 and he wound up being traded to the Marlins in the deal for Omar Infante and Anibal Sanchez. He acquitted himself well in seven starts for the Marlins and will be in the 2013 rotation from start to finish. He has all the pitches, a great curve, command and presence.

Justin Ruggiano, CF—Miami Marlins

It’s natural to wonder if a player who has his breakout year at age 30 is a product of unlocked talent and opportunity or a brief, freak thing that will end as rapidly as it came about.

Ruggiano has been a very good minor league player who never got a shot to play in the big leagues. He took advantage of it in 2012 and will open the season as the Marlins starting center fielder.

Billy Hamilton, CF—Cincinnati Reds

The Reds have major expectations in 2013 and much of their fortunes hinge on their pitching staff; they’re functioning with Shin-Soo Choo playing an unfamiliar position in center field; at mid-season (or earlier) it may become clear that Choo can’t play the position well enough for the pitchers nor to bluff their way through to the playoffs. Hamilton is in Triple A learning center field after a shift from the infield and can make up for any educational curve with sheer, blinding speed that has yielded 320 stolen bases in 379 minor league games. He also provides something they lack: a legitimate leadoff hitter and an exciting spark that other teams have to plan for.

Vince Coleman spurred the 1985 Cardinals to the pennant by distracting the opposing pitchers into derangement and opening up the offense for Willie McGee to win the batting title and Tommy Herr and Jack Clark to rack up the RBI. The same thing could happen with Hamilton, Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Choo.

Jason Grilli, RHP—Pittsburgh Pirates

Grilli is a first time closer at age 36, but he’s a late-bloomer with a fastball in the mid-90s and a ripping strikeout slider. The Pirates starting pitching and offense are good enough to provide Grilli with enough save chances to make him worthwhile as a pickup.

Kyuji Fujikawa, RHP—Chicago Cubs

Fujikawa was a strikeout machine as a closer in Japan and history has proven that Japanese closers tend to transition to North America much better than starters without the fanfare. Takashi Saito and Kazuhiro Sasaki are examples.

The Cubs are in full-blown rebuild and will trade incumbent closer Carlos Marmol during the season. They’ll let him close at the outset to boost his value, then dump him, handing the job to Fujukawa.

Dale Thayer, RHP—San Diego Padres

Closer Huston Street is injury prone and the Padres, for whatever reason, don’t think much of Luke Gregerson (they tried to trade him to the Mets for Daniel Murphy and when Street was out last season, they let Thayer take over as closer.)

Thayer has a strikeout slider that leads stat-savvy teams like the Rays, Mets, and Padres continually picking him up. If Street gets hurt, Thayer will get closing chances.

Yasmani Grandal, C—San Diego Padres

His PED suspension has tarnished his luster, but he’s still a top catching prospect and once he’s reinstated, there’s no reason for the Padres not to play him with Nick Hundley and John Baker ahead of Grandal. Neither of the veteran catchers will be starting for the Padres when they’re ready to contend; Grandal will. He hits and he gets on base.

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American League Breakout/Rebound Candidates (Or Cheap Gets For Your Fantasy Team)

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Let’s look at some of the lesser-known players or rebounding veterans in the American League that are likely to play more than expected and could produce at a cheap price.

Eduardo Nunez, INF—New York Yankees

Nunez doesn’t have a position, but the Yankees are insisting he’s a shortstop so he’ll see time at shortstop while Derek Jeter is periodically rested or is the DH. Kevin Youkilis has been injury-prone in recent years and when he’s playing, will see time at first base as well as third with Mark Teixeira DH-ing against lefties. In a best-case scenario, the Yankees can’t expect any more than 350 at bats from Travis Hafner and that’s stretching it by 100-150 at bats. Plus he doesn’t hit lefties. No one knows when or if Alex Rodriguez will be able to play and his latest foray into the front of the newspaper puts into question whether he’s ever going to suit up for the Yankees again. Their bench is terrible.

All of these factors will open up at bats for Nunez. He can’t field and is a hacker, but he can hit.

Chris Tillman, RHP—Baltimore Orioles

He still runs up high pitch counts but his walks are decreasing incrementally. If examined as a step-by-step process, first comes the better control, then comes the lower pitch counts. If Tillman is able to continue improving in this manner, he could become a 30 start/180-200-inning arm for the Orioles.

The Orioles haven’t bolstered their starting rotation. Brian Matusz showed he’s better off out of the bullpen; they’re waiting for Dylan Bundy and hoping for a repeat performance from Miguel Gonzalez. They’ll need innings from Tillman.

Phil Coke, LHP—Detroit Tigers

In last season’s ALCS, with Jose Valverde shelved because he couldn’t be trusted to even hold a four-run lead, Coke was pressed into service as the nominal closer in a bullpen-by-committee. Valverde’s gone and the Tigers have a former closer on the roster in Octavio Dotel; they’re insisting they’ll give rookie Bruce Rondon every chance to claim the role. Rookies have emerged as closers in the past (Jonathan Papelbon, Craig Kimbrel) but manager Jim Leyland is not going to be patient with a 1-year contract, a veteran team expected to be a World Series contender and a rookie closer. Coke got the job done for Leyland in the post-season and the manager won’t forget it if he has to replace Rondon.

Greg Holland, RHP—Kansas City Royals

Holland will be the Royals’ closer, struck out 91 in 67 innings last season and saved 16 games after Jonathan Broxton was traded. The Royals stand to be pretty good this season giving him save opportunities and he’s arbitration-eligible after the season giving him the incentive of money at the end of the road or perhaps even a preemptive long-term contract to guarantee him at least $10 million-plus through his arbitration years.

Justin Morneau, 1B—Minnesota Twins

Morneau looked like his former MVP self for most of the second half of 2012 after a dreadful start, so perhaps his concussion/injury problems are behind him. Both Morneau and the Twins will have significant mutual benefit from him putting up big numbers. The Twins are in full-blown rebuild and won’t want to keep the pending free agent Morneau after the season. Morneau won’t want to stay in Minnesota for the full season because if he does, the Twins will make the qualifying offer for draft pick compensation and he might be in the same position in 2014 that Michael Bourn and Kyle Lohse are in now. It behooves him to have a hot start and be traded in July.

Aaron Hicks, CF—Minnesota Twins

The Twins’ current center fielder is listed as Darin Mastroianni. Mastroianni can steal a few bases and catch the ball in center field, but he’s a fourth outfielder and a reasonable facsimile of Jason Tyner.

Hicks is a former first round draft pick whom the Twins have no reason not to play after he spends the first month of the season in Triple A to keep his arbitration clock from beginning to tick.

Lance Berkman, DH—Texas Rangers

Berkman’s problems in recent years have been injury-related and if he doesn’t have to play the field, that will reduce the stress on his knees. 81 games in the hitting haven of Texas has made the likes of Mike Napoli into an All-Star. Berkman is a far superior hitter who still accumulates a high on-base percentage. As long as he’s healthy, he’ll post a .380 OBP and hit 25 homers.

Garrett Richards, RHP—Los Angeles Angels

Richards is currently the sixth starter for the Angels, but 3-4-5 are Jason Vargas, Tommy Hanson and Joe Blanton. They’re interchangeable and have major warts. Vargas was a creature of Safeco Field with the Mariners; Hanson’s shoulder is said to be teetering with injuries and horrible mechanics; Blanton allows tons of hits and homers. Richards will end up being the Angels’ third starter by the end of the season and could be the key to them making the playoffs and saving manager Mike Scioscia’s job.

Hisashi Iwakuma, RHP—Seattle Mariners

Iwakuma is what Daisuke Matsuzaka was supposed to be amid the media circus of the Red Sox winning the bidding and hyping him up. Iwakuma is just doing it for a minuscule fraction of the price and none of the aggravation. He picked at the strike zone as a reliever and allows a few too many homers, but as a fulltime starter he’s got the stuff to be a Hideo Nomo sensation. And, unlike Matsuzaka, he actually throws the Bigfoot of the baseball world (often sighted but never proved): the gyroball.

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San Francisco Giants vs Detroit Tigers—World Series Preview and Predictions

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San Francisco Giants vs Detroit Tigers

Keys for the Giants: Keep runners off the bases in front of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder; get the Tigers’ starting pitchers’ counts up to get into the bullpen; try not to fall behind in the World Series as they have in the first two playoff series.

When a team has two bashers in the middle of the lineup the magnitude of Cabrera and Fielder, it goes without saying that you don’t want to face them with runners on base. The Giants have gotten above-and-beyond performances from the unheralded Barry Zito and Ryan Vogelsong as Tim Lincecum and Madison Bumgarner have struggled. Delmon Young has accumulated a multitude of big hits in the post-season this season and last and has to be accounted for as well.

The Tigers’ strength has been in their starting pitching and despite Phil Coke’s series-saving work against the Yankees, in this series, the Tigers are definitely going to need to use Jose Valverde at some point. He and Joaquin Benoit—the Tigers’ usual eighth and ninth inning pitchers—have been shaky. Tigers’ manager Jim Leyland doesn’t push his starters beyond their breaking points so it’s important to work the counts against the Tigers’ starters.

The Giants fell behind the Reds in the ALDS 2 games to 0 and came back to win.

They fell behind the Cardinals 3 games to 1 and came back to win.

If they fall behind 3 games to 1 in this series, they’re going to face Justin Verlander in game 5 with him smelling a championship to go along with his 2011 Cy Young Award and MVP and perhaps another Cy Young Award in 2012. These types of moments are what builds a Hall of Fame career and they’re not going to beat Verlander if they wind up in that hole.

Keys for the Tigers: Feast on the struggling Giants’ starters; get runners on base in front of Cabrera and Fielder; don’t overthink the closer situation or stick Valverde back there because it’s “his” job.

The Giants won the World Series two years ago riding a superlative starting rotation backed up by a flamethrowing and fearless closer. But Lincecum and Bumgarner have been bad; Zito is always on the verge of implosion; and Brian Wilson is out after elbow surgery. The strength isn’t exactly a weakness, but the Tigers can match and surpass the Giants’ rotation.

Obviously, the Tigers want to have their table-setters on the bases ahead of their mashers.

Leyland showed incredible flexibility (and didn’t have much choice) in removing Valverde from “his” inning. This is the World Series and the bottom line is winning, not feelings and roles. He’s going to need Valverde at some point, but when it gets to the ninth inning, he’s got to mix and match rather than insert the “closer”.

What will happen:

Zito is starting the first game for the Giants and after his brilliant performance against the Cardinals, he’s gained a bit more trust than the pitcher who Giants’ manager Bruce Bochy would allow to pitch 5 innings and have the bullpen ready to pull him when the first sign of trouble appeared. Zito is still getting by with a fastball that barely breaks 85 mph on a good day and his control is up and down. The Tigers are going to bash him and the feel good story will revert to talk of Zito’s massive contract and how it’s been a disaster. Zito spent a chunk of his career in the American League, but has limited history with the Tigers and nothing noticeable to watch for.

Bumgarner is starting game 2 after discovering what he and the Giants are saying were mechanical flaws that diminished his stamina and caused his poor outings. I’m not sure I’m buying that, especially with the Tigers’ bats like Cabrera and Fielder. Fielder is 3 for 7 in his career against Bumgarner, but they were all singles.

By the time the Giants get to their more reliable starting pitchers, they could be down 2 games to 0. Vogelsong is pitching game 3 and Matt Cain game 4. Lincecum is nowhere to be seen and will be in the bullpen. He could be an important factor.

The talk of home field advantage for the Giants is meaningless. In fact, Verlander is probably better off pitching in San Francisco in game 1 than he would at home because he’s going to have the opposing pitcher to face at the plate.

The Giants are battle-tested and fearless. Buster Posey is a star; Marco Scutaro is reveling in his playoff star turn. There are dangerous bats in their lineup with Pablo Sandoval and Hunter Pence, but the Tigers have too many weapons on offense and a deeper starting rotation.

The Tigers bullpen will blow a game or two in this series, but it’s not going to be enough to turn the tide in favor of the Giants.

PREDICTION: TIGERS IN SIX

WORLD SERIES MVP: PRINCE FIELDER

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ALCS Preview and Predictions—New York Yankees vs Detroit Tigers

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New York Yankees (95-67; 1st place, AL East; defeated Baltimore Orioles 3 games to 2 in the ALDS) vs Detroit Tigers (88-74; 1st place, AL Central; defeated Oakland Athletics 3 games to 2 in the ALDS)

Keys for the Tigers: Tack on runs and keep the game out of the hands of Jose Valverde; hold down the Yankees’ bats as the Orioles did; get runners on base in front of Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera.

Valverde has been terrible this year. Yes, he has a fastball and a split that can get strikeouts, but the hitters—and especially the Yankees—know to give him a chance to start walking people and he’ll oblige. His strikeouts were way down this year with only 48 in 69 innings. The Yankees will be supremely confident even if they’re trailing going to the ninth inning with Valverde coming in. The Tigers have the offense to put up big numbers and they’ll feel better en masse if they’re not placing the game in the hands of Valverde.

The focus was on Alex Rodriguez because he wound up being benched, but A-Rod was benched because the Yankees had options to do so. They don’t have that option with their other struggling hitters Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson. Nick Swisher isn’t going to be in the lineup every game if he doesn’t provide some offense early in the series. The Orioles did it with Joe Saunders, Jason Hammel, and Miguel Gonzalez. The Tigers are trotting out Justin Verlander, Doug Fister, Anibal Sanchez, and Max Scherzer. Maybe the more familiar pitchers will help the Yankees have better at bats.

With Fielder and Cabrera, the Tigers have bashers that the Orioles didn’t. If the Yankees are in a position where they have no choice but to pitch to one or both, they’ll do damage.

Keys for the Yankees: Hit; don’t hesitate to make lineup changes with Swisher or A-Rod; get similarly great starting pitching as they did in the ALDS.

Mark Teixeira is coming off of a calf injury that could’ve ended his season and is an injury that has a tendency of recurring even when it feels as if it’s back to normal. He’s running hard and his key stolen base set the stage for the Yankees to take the lead in game 5 against the Orioles.

Cano, on the other hand, is running at perhaps 60% of capacity. He does it because he’s allowed to get away with it. It’s unacceptable. I can deal with him struggling at the plate; I can live with an error once in awhile; but this attitude of, “I don’t have to run because I can hit better than 98% of baseball,” is a warning sign to the Yankees that they should think very long and seriously before handing Cano—at age 31 a year from now—a contract for 8-10 years at over $200 million. His laziness on the field could extend to off the field; what once came easy will no longer come easy; and if he’s not willing to run out a double play ball in the playoffs, then what makes anyone think he’s going to work hard off the field to stay in shape when his bat slows down and his reactions aren’t as quick?

He was actually worse that A-Rod in the ALDS because A-Rod has the excuse of age and declining bat speed. I had thought Cano would be mitigated because he wasn’t going to see any pitches to hit, but in the series with the Orioles, he saw plenty of pitches to hit. He just didn’t hit them.

Andy Pettitte, CC Sabathia, and Hiroki Kuroda are warriors; Phil Hughes has the fans and media acting skittish whenever he’s out on the mound, but he’s been able to handle the pressure games and do his job.

By my estimation, Swisher will get the first two games against Fister and Sanchez to see if he produces. If he doesn’t hit, by game 3 when Verlander is on the mound, Swisher will be sitting.

It was interesting that both Joe Girardi and Jim Leyland left their aces out on the mound in a game 5 when they definitely would’ve pulled them in favor of their closers in a less-important game.

What will happen:

The Tigers are not the Orioles. They’re not relying on a bunch of journeymen and youngsters. They’re trotting star power out there with Fielder and Cabrera. Austin Jackson and Quintin Berry are speed players who pose a threat on the bases. Alex Avila and Delmon Young have had big hits in the playoffs. With their starting pitching, they’re more capable of shutting out the lights on the Yankees than the Orioles. Sabathia is not pitching until game 4 after his complete game effort in game 5 of the ALDS against the Orioles.

Cabrera has brutalized the Yankees’ pitchers—link.

Fielder hasn’t been as successful, so the series is going to hinge on him and Young, both batting behind Cabrera.

Valverde has had success against the Yankees, but he can’t be trusted. Nor can Yankees’ closer Rafael Soriano who, despite pitching well against the Orioles, has not been trustworthy in playoffs past. Both Leyland and Girardi will be inclined to leave their starters in the game rather than entrust a close game to questionable bullpen arms when they can help it. Joaquin Benoit has been shaky for the Tigers and David Robertson gets himself into trouble seemingly for the sake of getting out of it and that’s not going to work with Cabrera and Fielder.

I don’t see how A-Rod, Swisher, and Granderson will suddenly rediscover their strokes against better pitching than they saw in the Orioles series. I have no idea what to expect from Cano.

Leyland has bounced the Yankees the two times he’s faced them in the playoffs and with the Tigers lineup performing better than the Yankees and an even matchup on the mound, the Tigers will stop the Yankees again.

PREDICTION: TIGERS IN SIX

ALCS MVP: PRINCE FIELDER

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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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Detroit Tigers vs Oakland Athletics—ALDS Preview and Predictions

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Oakland Athletics (94-68; 1st place, AL West) vs Detroit Tigers (88-74, 1st place, AL Central)

Keys for the Athletics: Get depth from their young starters; maintain their magic; mitigate Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera; don’t be “happy to be here”.

The A’s young starters Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone, and A.J. Griffin have shown no fear in becoming acclimated to the big leagues and carrying a team that no one expected to be contenders to the playoffs. That said, unless they’re successful in keeping runners off the bases ahead of Fielder and Cabrera and putting themselves in a position to use the multiple lefties in their bullpen late in the game against Fielder, they’re not going to win.

With the veterans Jonny Gomes, Grant Balfour, Coco Crisp, and Seth Smith, it’s not as if this is a purely young club that will be shell-shocked by the post-season. They’ve been freewheeling and feisty all season long in direct contrast to the outwardly calm and patient manager Bob Melvin.

They hit a lot of home runs and they pitch. If they fail to do one or the other against the Tigers, they’re going to lose.

Keys for the Tigers: Win Justin Verlander’s starts; receive contributions from hitters other than Fielder and Cabrera; get runners on base in front of Fielder and Cabrera; hope that Jose Valverde is able to close without incident or Jim Leyland smoking seven cigarettes at once in the runway while Valverde is on the mound.

A team with a pure ace such as Verlander holds a distinct advantage in a short series, but Verlander hasn’t pitched well in past post-seasons. For him to truly validate his place in history, he needs to go further than being a regular season horse and Cy Young Award/MVP winner, he has to come through in October. If Verlander is able to give the A’s pause early in the first game and make them think that the have to win the three games he’s not going to pitch, it could be a blow to the solar plexus for a young team that, for the most part, has not been in this situation before.

Contrary to perception, the Tigers offense is not limited to Fielder and Cabrera. Austin Jackson had a breakout season; Quintin Berry provided a spark and speed; and Delmon Young has a penchant for hitting homers in the playoffs.

Valverde is shaky and gets himself into trouble seemingly for the sake of getting himself out of it. It’s devastating to any team when they get a lead to their closer and their closer blows the game, and it happens remarkably often in the playoffs and World Series.

What will happen:

2012 was meant to be a rebuilding year for the A’s, but this season has been about inexplicable (statistically and otherwise) leaps for both the A’s and the Orioles. The A’s rode youngsters Parker, Milone, Ryan Cook, Josh Reddick, Yoenis Cespedes, and Griffin, along with veteran journeymen Balfour, Crisp, Brandon Moss, and Gomes to a shocking AL West title.

Can the young pitchers who reveled in the pressure during the regular season continue that trend in the playoffs? Parker is starting the opener against Verlander. Because of the new playoff rules, the team with the inferior record is beginning the playoff series at home. It’s a bizarre set-up but home field is generally overrated in baseball.

The A’s need their young pitchers to maintain their fearlessness against a Tigers’ lineup that houses Fielder and Triple Crown winner Cabrera. But that won’t help them if they don’t account for Jackson, Berry, and Young.

The A’s don’t have a long history against Verlander. Crisp is the only player on their roster with more than 20 plate appearances against him (8 for 22). They have a lineup of bats who like swinging at fastballs, but Verlander is more than just a near-100 mph fastball. He has a feel for pitching and gets better as the game wears on; if the A’s are going to get to him, it has to be early. If it gets to the fifth or sixth inning and Verlander gets his groove, the A’s are in trouble.

Max Scherzer isn’t scheduled to start for the Tigers until a possible game 4 after a shoulder injury put him on the sideline and an ankle injury set him back. I’d be concerned if the Tigers enter game 4 down 2-1 in the series and are relying on a rusty Scherzer.

The bullpens are similar with somewhat shaky closers who’ve lost their jobs at various times in their careers. It wasn’t long ago that Balfour wanted out of Oakland for having the job taken away from him in favor of rookie Cook. Valverde is unreliable at best.

The Tigers can hit for power with the Athletics and have the starting pitching to shut down the A’s offense. The bullpens are even; the starting pitching is an edge for the Tigers with Verlander looming for two games in the series.

The A’s magic ride was contingent on production that couldn’t have been crafted into believable fiction. The experience of the Tigers will show and they have star power that the A’s currently don’t.

PREDICTION: TIGERS IN FOUR

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The Truth About The Yankees’ Home Runs

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The simple stupidity of the Yankees being criticized for relying on the home run ball speaks for itself. Are they supposed to stop trying to hit home runs to prove they can win without it? What’s the difference how they score their runs? Are they sacrificing other aspects of their game chasing homers?

The answer to the above questions is no.

They have players who hit a lot of home runs. If they lose games in which they haven’t homered, it’s a safe bet that they ran into a pretty good pitcher.

The out-of-context stat argument is more complicated. Picking and choosing a convenient stat to bolster an argument is not the true intent of using statistics to begin with. They’re designed to promote a factual understanding and not to fool readers into seeing things the way the writer wants.

Is it a bad thing that the Yankees score via the home run? No.

Is it indicative that they’ll continue that trend once the playoffs start and do they need to be prepared to find other ways to score runs when they’re in games against better teams with better pitchers? They’ll hit their homers, but it won’t be like it is now.

The truly important factor to examine isn’t whether or not they’re hitting home runs, but who they’re hitting the home runs against.

During the regular season there aren’t the top-tier pitchers they’re going to face in the playoffs. The better the pitcher is, the better his stuff is; the better his command is; the better his control is. He’s not going to make the same mistakes as the mediocre and worse pitchers they’re fattening up their power numbers against.

I looked at all the pitchers the Yankees have homered against this season.

The list follows:

Russell Martin: Clay Buchholz, Justin Verlander, Jose Mijares, Homer Bailey, James Shields, J.P. Howell, Jonathon Niese, Jon Rauch

Mark Teixeira: Anthony Swarzak, Felix Doubront, Matt Albers, Bruce Chen, Luis Ayala, Tyson Ross, Bartolo Colon, Graham Godfrey, Hisanori Takahashi, Alex Cobb, Dillon Gee, Mike Minor

Robinson Cano: Jason Marquis, Luke Hochevar (2), David Price, Bronson Arroyo, Tyson Ross, Bartolo Colon, Ervin Santana, Alex Cobb, Johan Santana (2), Tom Gorzelanny, Anthony Varvaro, Tommy Hanson, Miguel Batista (2)

Alex Rodriguez: Ervin Santana, Clay Buchholz, Derek Holland, Justin Verlander (2) Tommy Hottovy, Will Smith (2), Octavio Dotel, Jonny Venters, Tommy Hanson, Jon Niese

Derek Jeter: Wei-Yin Chen, Hisanori Takahashi, Carl Pavano, Matt Capps, Bruce Chen, Justin Verlander, Tommy Hanson

Raul Ibanez: James Shields (2), Jason Isringhausen, Neftali Feliz, Burke Badenhop, Felix Hernandez, Hector Noesi, Bronson Arroyo, Jonny Cueto, Randall Delgado, Chris Young

Curtis Garnderson: Jake Arrieta, Ervin Santana (2), Carl Pavano, Anthony Swarzak (2), Jeff Gray, Phil Coke, Max Scherzer, Brian Matusz, James Shields, David Price, Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, Will Smith, Bobby Cassevah, Casey Crosby, Bobby Parnell, Tim Hudson, Tom Gorzelanny, Edwin Jackson

Nick Swisher: Joel Peralta, Kevin Gregg, Clay Buchholz, Vicente Padilla, Drew Smyly, Jose Valverde, Luke Hochevar, Tyson Ross, Johan Santana, Cory Gearrin, R.A. Dickey

Eric Chavez: Clay Buchholz (2), Jason Hammel, Tommy Hanson, Jon Rauch

Andruw Jones: Darren O’Day, Matt Maloney, Collin Balester, Steve Delabar, Tommy Milone, Johan Santana, Jon Niese

There are some names above that the Yankees might be facing in the post-season. Shields, Price, Verlander, Hanson and a few others. But they’re not going to be able to use Hochevar, Pavano or most of the other mediocrities to beat on.

I don’t see the names Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, Dan Haren, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez or Yu Darvish in there.

If the Yankees don’t hit homers, then what?

Understanding the value of their homers is not the brainless bully strategy of, “Me swing hard; me hit home runs; team win.”

What was the score when the home runs were hit? What where the weather conditions? Did the pitcher make a mistake or did the hitter hit a good pitch? Was the game a blowout and the pitcher just trying to get the ball over the plate to get the game over with in either club’s favor?

These questions, among many other things, have to be accounted for.

Those who are complaining about the club needing to “manufacture” runs don’t know any more about baseball than those who are blindly defending the use of the home run without the full story.

Of course it’s a good thing that the Yankees hit a lot of home runs, but those home runs can’t be relied upon as the determinative factor of whether they’re going to win in the post-season because they’ll be facing better pitching and teams that will be able to use the homer-friendly Yankee Stadium themselves mitigating any advantage the Yankees might have. Teams that are more versatile, play good defense, steal bases and run with smart aggression and have strong pitching will be able to deal with the Yankees’ power.

Teams like the Mets are unable to do that.

The Yankees’ home runs are only an issue if they stop hitting them. Then they’ll have to find alternative ways to score when the balls aren’t flying over the fences. This is why it’s not a problem that they don’t have Brett Gardner now. In fact, it seems like the fans and media has forgotten about him. But they’re going to need him in the playoffs because he gives them something they barely have with this current configuration: he can run and wreak havoc on the bases and is an excellent defensive left fielder.

As much as Joe Morgan was savaged for his silly statements blaming the Oakland A’s inability to manufacture runs in their playoff losses during the Moneyball years, he wasn’t fundamentally inaccurate. It wasn’t about squeezing and hitting and running capriciously as Morgan wanted them to do and altering the strategy that got them to the playoffs; but it was about being able to win when not hitting home runs; when not facing a pitching staff that is going to walk you; when a team actually has relievers who can pitch and not a bunch of names they accumulated and found on the scrapheap.

The A’s couldn’t win when they didn’t get solid starting pitching or hit home runs.

Can the Yankees?

That’s going to be the key to their season. Then the true value of their homer-happy offense will come to light.

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