Off Season Winners In Retrospect

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Let’s look at the teams whose off-season moves are paying off so far in 2012.

Tampa Bay Rays:

Acquired:  Jose Molina, Hideki Matsui, Luke Scott, Carlos Pena, Fernando Rodney

Subtracted: Johnny Damon, Kelly Shoppach, Casey Kotchman, Juan Cruz, John Jaso

The Rays did what the Rays always do. They cut out the players that were getting too expensive or had been signed as a short-term veteran stopgaps and replaced them with youngsters or other veteran stopgaps.

Molina hasn’t hit; Pena is doing what Pena does with a low batting average, good on base percentage and power; Rodney has been brilliant. None of the players they dispatched—Damon, Shoppach, Kotchman, Cruz, Jaso—have been missed or are doing much with their new teams.

Baltimore Orioles

Acquired: GM Dan Duquette, Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, Matt Lindstrom, Wilson Betemit

Subtracted: GM Andy MacPhail, Jeremy Guthrie, Luke Scott, Vladimir Guerrero

The Orioles have played over their heads but Dan Duquette got rid of Guthrie and acquired Hammel and Lindstrom who are under team control and have pitched well. Chen has been very good.

Chicago White Sox

Acquired: Manager Robin Ventura, Kosuke Fukudome

Subtracted: Manager Ozzie Guillen, Mark Buehrle, Sergio Santos, Carlos Quentin, Juan Pierre

Getting rid of the volcanic and tiresome personality of Guillen and replacing it with the laid back Ventura has been exactly what the White Sox needed. They cleared salary by getting rid of veterans Buehrle, Quentin and Pierre. They’re not as good as they look right now, but the AL Central is wide open and they have enough starting pitching to stay in the hunt. They underachieved horribly in recent years under Guillen and are overachieving now under Ventura.

Texas Rangers

Acquired Yu Darvish, Joe Nathan

Subtracted: C.J. Wilson, Darren Oliver, Endy Chavez, Matt Treanor

Darvish has been as brilliant as I expected. Nathan is having a good season. They haven’t missed Wilson on or off the field.

Seattle Mariners

Acquired: Jesus Montero, Hector Noesi, John Jaso

Subtracted: Michael Pineda, Josh Lueke, David Aardsma, Jose Campos

For Michael Pineda (disabled list), Jose Campos (hot prospect and on the disabled list), the Mariners got a top hitting prospect in Jesus Montero who’s still finding his way and showing flashes of immense power and a young starting pitcher who’s also learning his craft in the big leagues in Noesi. They got rid of the troublesome Lueke for Jaso who’s been contributing big hits of late.

Oakland Athletics

Acquired: Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Reddick, Collin Cowgill, Bartolo Colon, Jonny Gomes, Ryan Cook, Jarrod Parker, Tom Milone, Seth Smith, Kila Ka’aihue, Manny Ramirez

Subtracted: Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, Andrew Bailey, David DeJesus, Josh Willingham, Ryan Sweeney

Reddick has 14 home runs and is heading for the All Star Game. Cespedes was a silly signing for a team like the A’s, but there’s no denying his talent. We’ll see what Manny does and the young pitchers Millone and Parker are high-end arms.

Washington Nationals

Acquired: Gio Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson, Ryan Perry, Mark DeRosa, Brad Lidge

Subtracted: Ivan Rodriguez, Todd Coffey, Jonny Gomes

Gonzalez has been terrific across the board and might deserve to start the All Star Game. Jackson has been consistent despite not accumulating wins.

Miami Marlins

Acquired: Manager Ozzie Guillen, Carlos Zambrano, Jose Reyes, Heath Bell, Mark Buehrle

Subtracted: Javier Vazquez, Chris Volstad, Clay Hensley, Burke Badenhop

Zambrano showed up in shape, has kept his temper in check and is showing why the Cubs gave him that contract in the first place (the majority of which they’re paying for him to pitch for the Marlins). Reyes is getting hot and Buehrle is a leader off the field and innings-eater on it. Bell’s been a disaster, but it pitching better lately.

Guillen was hired to draw attention and he did so negatively when he started trouble almost immediately with his idiotic comments praising Fidel Castro. Jeffrey Loria is under investigation for the stadium deal and looked silly using Muhammad Ali as a human shield to protect himself from getting booed at the regular season opener of the new stadium, but apart from Bell they’re getting what they paid for for the most part.

San Francisco Giants

Acquired: Melky Cabrera, Angel Pagan, Clay Hensley, Gregor Blanco

Subtracted: Carlos Beltran, Jonathan Sanchez, Andres Torres, Ramon Ramirez, Pat Burrell, Cody Ross

Cabrera’s not going to maintain this pace, but he’s still a good player and they got him for Sanchez who’s been hurt and had worn out his welcome with the Giants. Pagan is batting .314 with 10 stolen bases and has contributed several big hits to go along with his usual array of space cadet maneuvers. Blanco and Hensley have been solid, cheap pickups off the scrapheap.

Arizona Diamondbacks

Acquired: Trevor Cahill, Jason Kubel, Craig Breslow

Subtracted: Micah Owings, Ryan Cook, Collin Cowgill, Jarrod Parker

The Diamondbacks are struggling because they’re not getting the same above-and-beyond performances from the players that carried them to a stunning division title in 2011. That doesn’t diminish the work that Cahill, Kubel and Breslow have done. If the Diamondbacks don’t right the ship, it won’t be because of the players they acquired over the winter.

Los Angeles Dodgers

Acquired: Chris Capuano, Jerry Hairston Jr., Mark Ellis, Aaron Harang, Matt Treanor

Subtracted: Jon Garland, Jonathan Broxton, Jamey Carroll, Hiroki Kuroda, Casey Blake, Rod Barajas, Vicente Padilla

Capuano is pitching about 20 miles over his head; Hairston is hitting about 20 miles over his head; Ellis and Harang are respected, under-the-radar veterans.

The Dodgers didn’t spend a lot of money this past winter, but are getting far more than they paid for.

Off season losers and incompletes will be in forthcoming postings.

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The Pirates Are On The Right Track—Believe It

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For the second straight game the Pirates won and did it with a journeyman righty reliever, Juan Cruz, saving both games because All-Star closer Joel Hanrahan is day-to-day with a tight hamstring.

The Pirates are 5-7 after 12 games almost exclusively because, apart from megastar-in-waiting Andrew McCutchen, they haven’t hit. But if they do hit and continue pitching the way they have; if they get the above-and-beyond performances from pitchers like Cruz and the rest of the bullpen of misfits and youngsters; if they pick one another up like a team, they’re going to sneak up on some people.

After so many years of one step forward and three steps back mostly because of self-inflicted damage, tone deafness, missteps in talent recognition and mistaken acquisitions and subtractions, the Pirates are finally (really) on the right track.

Manager Clint Hurdle has instilled discipline and a no excuses attitude; the front office is taking steps to keep the young players they’ve cultivated with the signings of McCutchen and Jose Tabata and they’re interested in an extension with Neil Walker. The rotation is filled with talented journeymen like Erik Bedard and, when he gets back, A.J. Burnett. I’ve long been a fan of Kevin Correia and James McDonald; and Charlie Morton is still growing accustomed to the Roy Halladay imitation he’s trying to pull off with his motion.

They’re talented and are learning to play the game correctly as a unit.

This isn’t to suggest they’re on the verge of a 2008 Rays-type run into the playoffs, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility that they’ll finish at or near .500; and if they’re loitering around the outskirts of contention in July/August, they might be too hard-headed (stemming from their manager) to know that they’re not supposed to be doing what they’re doing.

They do have to start hitting.

Their free agent signings to improve the offense—Clint Barmes and Rod Barajas—are batting under .100 as is former 2nd overall pick in the draft Pedro Alvarez. (Alvarez homered today.)

No matter how good their pitching is, they have to hit or find a way to manufacture runs.

But they’re no longer a punching bag nor are they the weak kid in the schoolyard for the bullies like the Yankees and Red Sox to plunder for players at the trading deadline while doling a few prospects on them as a courtesy.

The Pirates have starting and relief pitching; they catch the ball defensively; they have some pop and speed in their lineup; and their manager doesn’t tolerate the old attitude of, “We’re the Pirates and we’re not supposed to win.”

They’re on the way up.

Believe it.

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That Rays Magic

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Closer attention is being paid to the Tampa Bay Rays and their “way”.

A large part of this is because of Jonah Keri’s book, The Extra 2%.

The hunger for a template in how to build a team using different methods was what created the myth of Moneyball and resulted in the disastrous attempts inside and outside of baseball to follow and validate that fantasy written by Michael Lewis.

Keri’s book is not twisted in the manner of Moneyball; it simply tells how the Rays have accomplished what they have within a tight budget in a hellish division. There’s no pompous, unsaid but clear statement, “this is the way you should do it or you’re a moron” inherent in the telling of the Rays tale.

And it’s why they’re built to last regardless of free agent defections; necessary trades; lack of financial resources and whatever other obstacles pop into their collective paths.

In 2011, they’re again defying conventional wisdom as they’ve rebounded from a rotten start to climb into first place in a division that still houses the Yankees and Red Sox along with the improving Blue Jays and Orioles.

So how have they done it this time?

Like in Keri’s book, it’s been a combination of luck, intelligence and putting their team into a position to succeed by executing the fundamentals correctly.

Let’s take a look how they Rays are at it again.

A blessing in disguise.

Manny Ramirez‘s retirement saved the Rays nearly $2 million. Presumably, had he held out in his contention that he didn’t use any PEDs that led to the failed drug test and precipitated his sudden retirement, they wouldn’t have had to pay him, but the money for Manny’s contract might’ve been tied up throughout the process of his investigation. To the Rays, that money isn’t an incidental cost—they need every penny they can get. With Manny off the books, that gives them nearly $2 million to add at mid-season in a deal.

I’m not convinced that Manny was completely finished despite his 1 for 17 start with no walks; he still had to be pitched to carefully and that would’ve held true into June—by then, other teams might’ve said, “let’s just pitch to Manny, he looks done”. Eventually, the Rays would’ve had no choice but to release him and pay the full freight.

Once Manny was gone, the Rays were free to move Johnny Damon to DH and insert Sam Fuld into the lineup. I’m not a believer in Fuld—midnight’s about to strike on his Cinderella story—but the Rays have gotten far more from Fuld than anyone could reasonably have expected; he can run and play great defense, two things that are constant whether he hits or not.

Desmond Jennings is murdering the ball in Triple A and it won’t be long before he’s up in the big leagues and playing left field in place of Fuld—that might not have happened this season had Manny hung around.

Pitching, speed and defense lead the way.

How is it possible that the Rays, with a gutted bullpen, injuries to Damon and Evan Longoria and a bunch of journeymen like Felipe Lopez, Kyle Farnsworth, Fuld and Casey Kotchman leading the way are still near the top of the tough AL East?

They have the speed to get to balls other clubs don’t and they catch it when they get there; they’re leading the American League in fielding percentage.

Bolstered by the confidence that balls that are kept in the ballpark are going to be caught, their pitchers throw strikes.

It’s easy to reference pitchers from the Rays past who’ve come into games and racked up massive strikeout numbers like Grant Balfour and Joaquin Benoit; but this year’s bullpen is an entirely new cast from the crew that was dispatched after last year and this staff is 12th in the American League in strikeouts.

More important than the strikeouts, they don’t walk anyone and allow few homers.

Could it be that the key to the Rays unlocking the aggravating abilities in Farnsworth and Juan Cruz—disparaged and dumped veterans both—are that simple? That they no longer has to worry about striking everyone out and can concentrate on keeping the ball down and in the ballpark confident in the knowledge that if there’s a defender anywhere close, he’ll catch it?

Maybe.

Hot starts and the beneficial schedule.

After he’d been knocked all over the place in the past two seasons, no one could’ve expected the hot start from James Shields.

Casey Kotchman is hitting .346.

You read that right.

Casey Kotchman is hitting .346.

Matt Joyce is hitting .369.

Ben Zobrist is back to being Zorilla.

Damon, Dan Johnson and Fuld have all gotten big hits or made game-saving defensive plays.

Had any of these occurrences not come to pass, the Rays would probably be hovering around .500 or worse.

The schedule has been an advantage for them as well.

The Rays 0-6 start was accumulated against a hot and enthusiastic Buck Showalter-led Orioles club and the Angels in games pitched by Jered Weaver and Dan Haren. This was seen as a portent of a long season in Tampa.

But they righted the ship against the Red Sox as they too staggered out of the gate; they then fattened their record against the Twins, White Sox and falling-to-earth Orioles.

They’ve yet to play the Yankees and have the rough part of their schedule upcoming. They have to play the Marlins, Reds and Cardinals in inter-league play in addition to the regular matchups against the AL East.

Presumably, they’ll run into inevitable lulls because of playing better teams; but the Rays way isn’t a negligible bit of fundamental correctness. They have the players to execute their plan because they can run and catch the ball.

It’s a cohesiveness that permeates the club from top-to-bottom and it all starts with that small aspect of range and glovework. It’s extended to the pitching staff and overcomes an offense that was without their MVP candidate Longoria until last week and has relied on the aged; the journeyman; the young players who are trying to establish themselves.

It seems easy to say, “throw strikes and we’ll catch the ball”, but if it’s so easy, why don’t other teams do it?

Could it be that other teams don’t have the athletes to execute the plan? That the pitchers don’t trust their fielders to handle so many balls as flawlessly as the Rays do? That the Rays speed in the field extends to running the bases and they score enough to support the pitching staff that has garnered confidence from that defense?

It’s a cycle.

A cycle to win.

Given their upcoming schedule, I’m not prepared to jump on the Rays bandwagon as so many have (some of whom jumped off after the terrible start); but they’ll be competitive for the reasons elucidated above; and if they’re competitive late in the season, they’re dangerous.

Because they do the little things right.

And that ain’t Moneyball.

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