American League Remaining Schedule and Playoff Chance Analysis

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Let’s take a look at the remaining schedules for all the teams still in the hunt for an American League playoff berth.

Boston Red Sox

Record: 89-58; 15 games remaining

Current Position: First Place by 9.5 games, American League East

Remaining Schedule: 1 game at Rays; 3 games vs. Yankees; 3 games vs. Orioles; 3 games vs. Blue Jays; 2 games at Rockies; 3 games at Orioles

The Red Sox have the best record in the American League by five games. They’re going to have a significant say in which team gets the second Wild Card given their six games against the Orioles and four against the Yankees. They’re not going to lay down as evidenced by manager John Farrell’s somewhat odd – but successful – decision last night to use Koji Uehara is a tie game that meant nothing to them. I’m wondering if Farrell has received advice from Patriots coach Bill Belichick on going for the throat at all costs because it was a Belichick move.

They don’t seem to have a preference as to whether they knock out the Yankees, Rays or Orioles. They’re playing all out, all the way.

Oakland Athletics

Record: 84-61; 17 games remaining

Current Position: First Place by 3 games, American League West

Remaining Schedule: 1 game at Twins; 3 games at Rangers; 3 games vs. Angels; 4 games vs. Twins; 3 games at Angels; 3 games at Mariners

The A’s lead the Rangers by three games and have three games with them this weekend. Strength of schedule can be a dual-edged sword. This isn’t the NFL, but teams whose seasons are coming to a disappointing close are just as likely to get some motivation by playing teams that have something to play for as they are to bag it and give up. The Angels have played better lately and the Mariners can pitch.

Detroit Tigers

Record: 84-62; 16 games remaining

Current Position: First Place by 6.5 games, American League Central

Remaining Schedule: 3 games vs. Royals; 4 games vs. Mariners; 3 games vs. White Sox; 3 games vs. Twins; 3 games vs. Marlins

The Tigers’ upcoming schedule is pretty weak and they have a good cushion for the division. They can’t coast, but they can relax a bit.

Texas Rangers

Record: 81-64; 17 games remaining

Current Position: Second Place by 3 games, American League West; lead first Wild Card by 3.5 games

Remaining Schedule: 3 games vs. Athletics; 4 games at Rays; 3 games at Royals; 3 games vs. Astros; 4 games vs. Angels

The Rangers are in jeopardy of falling out of the playoffs entirely if they slip up over the next ten games. All of those teams have something to play for and the Rangers have been slumping.

Tampa Bay Rays

Record: 78-66; 18 games remaining

Current Position: Second Place by 9.5 games, American League East; lead second Wild Card by 1 game

Remaining Schedule: 1 game vs. Red Sox; 3 games at Twins; 4 games at Rangers; 4 games at Orioles; 3 games at Yankees; 3 games at Blue Jays

With the way they’re currently playing (think the 2007 Mets) they’re not going to right their ship in time to make the playoffs. They’d better wake up. Fast.

New York Yankees

Record: 78-68; 16 games remaining

Current Position: Third Place by 10.5 games; 1 game behind for the second Wild Card

Remaining Schedule: 1 game at Orioles; 3 games at Red Sox; 3 games at Blue Jays; 3 games vs. Giants; 3 games vs. Rays; 3 games at Astros

There’s a reluctance to say it, but the Yankees are better off without this current version of Derek Jeter. He was hurting the team offensively and defensively. Their problem has nothing to do with schedules or how they’re playing, but with age and overuse. They’re hammering away with their ancient veterans for one last group run. Mariano Rivera is being repeatedly used for multiple innings out of necessity; Alex Rodriguez is hobbled; David Robertson is pitching hurt; Shawn Kelley isn’t 100 percent; Andy Pettitte is gutting his way through. If they’re in it in the last week, will there be any gas left in their collective tanks?

Cleveland Indians

Record: 77-68; 17 games remaining

Current Position: Second Place by 6.5 games, American League Central; 1.5 games behind for the second Wild Card

Remaining Schedule: 4 games at White Sox; 3 games at Royals; 4 games vs. Astros; 2 games vs. White Sox; 4 games at Twins

The White Sox are playing about as badly as the Astros without the excuse of lack of talent/innocent youth. They just don’t seem to care. The Indians’ schedule pretty much guarantees they’ll at least be alive in the last week of the season.

Baltimore Orioles

Record: 77-68; 17 games remaining

Current Position: Fourth Place by 11 games, American League East; 1.5 games behind for the second Wild Card

Remaining Schedule: 1 game vs. Yankees; 3 games at Blue Jays; 3 games at Red Sox; 4 games at Rays; 3 games vs. Blue Jays; 3 games vs. Red Sox

The Red Sox are taking great, sadistic pleasure in hampering the playoff hopes of anyone and everyone and have shown no preference in who they’re beating on. This will hurt and/or help the Orioles. The big games to watch are those four with the Rays.

Kansas City Royals

Record: 77-69; 16 games remaining

Current Position: Third Place by 7 games, American League Central; 2 games behind for the second Wild Card

Remaining Schedule: 3 games at Tigers; 3 games vs. Indians; 3 games vs. Rangers; 3 games at Mariners; 4 games at White Sox

I’d like to see the Royals make the playoffs because: A) they’re a likable young team; B) we need some new blood in the post-season; and B) the likes of Rany Jazayerli, Rob Neyer, Joe Sheehan and the rest of the stat-obsessed “experts” who live to bash the Royals will either have to admit they’re wrong (unlikely) or will join together to play a disturbing game of middle-aged men Twister (hopefully clothed) to justify why they were “right” even though Dayton Moore’s moves worked and the Royals leapt into contention and more.

It will be nice having an experienced arm like James Shields for a one-game Wild Card playoff or for the first game of the ALDS. I have a feeling about the Royals making the playoffs. And it’s gonna be funny.




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Rethinking the GM, Part II—American League Central

2013 MLB Predicted Standings, All Star Game, Award Winners, Ballparks, Books, CBA, Cy Young Award, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, Hall Of Fame, History, Hot Stove, Management, MiLB, MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Waiver Trades, MVP, Paul Lebowitz's 2013 Baseball Guide, PEDs, Players, Playoffs, Prospects, Spring Training, Stats

You can read the basis of these postings and part I here.

Detroit Tigers

Mike Ilitch is the epitome of the “do the right thing” owner with all of his sports franchises. He hires people who are both perceived to know and do know what they’re doing and gives them the resources to be successful. With GM Dave Dombrowski, there’s none of the “look how smart I am” pretense in which he wants to win but more than winning, he wants credit for winning and being the architect of the franchise.

Dombrowski is the classic old-school baseball guy who worked his way up organically and didn’t trick anyone with an array of numbers and catchy business-themed buzzwords. Some owners want to hear that stuff and it’s usually either the ruthless corporate types who have no interest in anyone’s feelings and putting out a product that will be both practically successful and aesthetically likable; or a rich guy who didn’t work for his money and is interested in seeing his name in the papers, but doesn’t have the faintest concept into what running a sports franchise is all about and isn’t able to comprehend that you can’t run a baseball team like a corporation and expect it to work.

Ilitch knows and understands this and lets Dombrowski do his job. Dombrowski has built three different clubs to success with the Expos, Marlins and Tigers and had a hand in the early 1980s White Sox who rose to prominence under manager Tony LaRussa. For those who consider Dombrowski a product of Ilitch’s willingness to spend money and little else, it’s simply not true and is only presented as an excuse because he’s not a stat guy. He knows talent, spends money when necessary, but also has an old-school GM’s aggressiveness going after what he wants when others wouldn’t know what they’re getting as evidenced by his under-the-radar trade for Doug Fister. Most people in baseball barely knew who Fister was at the time the Tigers traded for him and the acquisition exemplified Dombrowski’s thinking and decisionmaking as he refused to take Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik saying “no” for an answer. The prospects Dombrowski gave up to get Fister haven’t done much for the Mariners and Fister is a solid mid-rotation starter at age 29.

Cleveland Indians

The Indians use the transfer of power approach when they name their GM. John Hart passed his job on to Mark Shapiro and Shapiro moved up to the team presidency and Chris Antonetti took over as GM. This is not a situation where the GM is actually running the whole show. Shapiro may have moved up to a more powerful position above the player personnel fray, but he still has significant input in the club’s construction.

In general when there’s a promotion of this kind, it’s done so that the team president doesn’t have to deal with the day-to-day minutiae that the GM has to deal with. I’m talking about press conferences, giving the final nod on the draft, listening to manager/player complaints and other redundant and tiresome exercises that make a GM want to get the promotion (or demotion) in the first place.

The Indians GM job and other front office positions are rarely if ever in jeopardy. It’s understood that there are payroll constraints and Shapiro and company have the freedom to teardown and rebuild as they see fit. This year is different because they hired a pricey name manager in Terry Francona and spent money on players Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, Mark Reynolds and make a bold trade in sending Shin-Soo Choo to the Reds. Much of this is rumored to be due to owner Larry Dolan wanting to boost the product and attendance to increase the franchise’s sale value and then sell it.

Chicago White Sox

The White Sox are unique in that owner Jerry Reinsdorf trusts former GM and now Executive V.P. Ken Williams implicitly and lets him do what he wants even if that includes considering making Paul Konerko player/manager prior to hiring an unproven Robin Ventura who had no managerial experienced whatsoever.

Much like the Indians, Williams moved up to a higher executive perch and Rick Hahn took over as the day-to-day GM with Williams maintaining significant influence on the club’s construction. Outsiders rip Williams but he wants to win at the big league level every year and tends to ignore development. If contending is not in the cards, he reacts preemptively and blows it up. Another reason he’s so loathed by the stat person wing is because he scoffs at them with the reality that they haven’t the faintest idea as to what running a club entails, nor does he care about what they say.

Minnesota Twins

The Twins are insular and won’t bring in a new GM from the outside who’s going to want to clear out the house of former employees, marginalize longtime implementer of the “Twins way” Tom Kelly, and fire manager Ron Gardenhire. With that in mind, when they demoted Bill Smith from the GM position, they reached into the past for the GM of the club during their annual trips to the post-season, Terry Ryan.

The Twins have a packed farm system and should be back contending in the next couple of years. Ryan is decidedly old-school, has a background in scouting and worked his way up like Dombrowski. He’s willing to listen and discuss his philosophy with the stat people at their conventions, but will continue to be a scouting and “feel” GM as he looks for players that fit into what he, Kelly and Gardenhire prefer rather than someone whose OPS jumps off the page but might not behave in the manner the Twins want their players to.

The Twins ownership is one of the wealthiest in sports but there’s a tradeoff with their manner of ownership: they don’t interfere with the baseball people, but they don’t give them any more money than is within the budget. They treat it like a business. There are probably more benefits to that than negatives since they’re willing to have a $100+ million payroll and aren’t asking Ryan to complete the very difficult task of winning with $60 million or less.

Kansas City Royals

What’s funny about Dayton Moore becoming a punching bag for the Royals horrific backwards streak in which they went from 17-10 to 22-30 is that none of his more vicious critics was saying much of anything when the team was playing well and it looked like Moore’s decision to trade a package led by Wil Myers to the Rays for a package led by James Shields was going to yield the desired result.

Moore learned as an assistant to John Schuerholz and played a significant role in the Braves having a fertile farm system through the 1990s and early 2000s, but might not be cut out to be a fulltime GM. He’s good at building a farm system and has trouble sprinkling in necessary ingredients to supplement the youngsters on the big league roster.

When Moore was making the rounds as a GM candidate, he almost seemed to be reluctant to take the job. He interviewed with the Red Sox in 2002 and withdrew from consideration after the first interview. He then took the Royals job at mid-season 2006. Perhaps he knew something that those who touted him as a GM candidate didn’t; maybe he was happy as an assistant and didn’t want the scrutiny that comes from being a GM and took it because he was expected to move up to the next level as a GM.

Whatever it was, I think of other GMs and former GMs who had certain attributes to do the job but weren’t cut out to be the guy at the top of the food chain because of the missing—and important—other aspects. Omar Minaya was like that. Minaya is a great judge of talent, can charm the reporters and fans, has a fantastic rapport with the Latin players and can be a convincing salesman. When he was introducing his new free agent signing or acquisition in a big trade, he was great with a big smile and nice suit as a handsome representative for the team. But when there was dirty work to be done like firing his manager, firing an assistant, or answering reporters’ questions regarding a controversy, his shakiness with the English language and propensity to be too nice came to the forefront and he couldn’t do the job effectively.

There’s nothing wrong with being a great assistant when the alternative is being a mediocre-to-bad GM and winding up right back where he or she started from.

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Rethinking the GM, Part I—American League East

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Maybe it’s time to rethink how GMs are hired instead of lauding owners for adhering to stats; for placating media demands; for listening to fans; for doing what they think will be well-received and garner them some good coverage while hoping that it’s going to work in lieu of hiring the best person for the job and all it entails. Some people may have sterling resumes, extensive experience, a great presentation and charisma and then fail miserably at one or another aspect of the job. Just because a GM was great at running another club’s draft, running the farm system or was a valuable jack-of-all-trades assistant doesn’t make them suited to do the big job.

With the struggles of GMs from both sides of the spectrum like the Mariners’ Jack Zduriencik, who built his club based on stats; and the Royals’ Dayton Moore, who rebuilt the entire Royals farm system into one of baseball’s best, after-the-fact and self-indulgent criticisms from the aforementioned factions of stat people, media and fans are essentially worthless. Zduriencik’s bandwagon has emptied since his first overachieving season as Mariners GM in 2009 when the team, which he had little to do with putting together, rose from 61-101 to 85-77 due to luck and performance correction rather than any brilliance on his part. Moore is a veritable punching bag for the Royals collapse from 17-10 after 27 games to 21-29 and sinking.

Instead of ripping the GMs for what they’ve done, perhaps it would be better to look at each GM and examine how he got the job without a retrospective on the moves they made and the teams they’ve built. This isn’t as flashy as dissecting his decisions as GM, but it’s probably more useful to those doing the hiring in the future. In short, was the hiring a good one in the first place and was the decision made based on factors other than putting a winning team together?

If you think it’s so easy to put your individual stamp on the job of being a Major League Baseball GM, then walk into your boss’s office today (if you have a job that is) and tell him or her some of the things you say on blogs and message boards and tweets to Keith Law: “This is how it’s gonna be, and I’m gonna do this my way and you better just give me full control…” On and on. Then, after you’re done, go get your resume ready to look for a new job. It doesn’t work in the way people seem to think it does and the audacity of someone who’s working the stockroom at Best Buy telling experienced baseball people how they should do their jobs needs to be tamped down a little. Actually, it needs to be tamped down a lot.

Let’s go division by division. First the American League East with subsequent postings to be published discussing all of the other divisions in baseball.

Boston Red Sox

Ben Cherington was the next-in-line successor to Theo Epstein when Epstein abandoned ship to take over as president of the Cubs. He’d worked in the Red Sox front office going back to the Dan Duquette days and was a highly regarded hire. His first season was pockmarked by the aftermath of the disastrous 2011 collapse, the interference of Larry Lucchino and John Henry and that he was overruled in his managerial preferences for someone understated like Gene Lamont in favor of Bobby Valentine. Now the team has been put together by Cherington and they’re trying to get back to what it was that built Epstein’s legacy in the first place.

New York Yankees

Brian Cashman walked into a ready-made situation when he took over for Bob Watson after the 1997 season. He’d been with the Yankees since 1986 working his way up from intern to assistant GM and barely anyone knew who he was when he got the job. His hiring inspired shrugs. He was known to George Steinbrenner and Cashman knew what his life would be like functioning as Steinbrenner’s GM. He was taking over a team that was a powerhouse. Little was needed to be done in 1998 and his main job during those years was to implement the edicts of the Boss or steer him away from stupid things he wanted to do like trading Andy Pettitte. If the Yankees had hired an outsider, it wouldn’t have worked because no one would’ve been as aware of the terrain of running the Yankees at that time as Cashman was. He’s a survivor.

Baltimore Orioles

Whether the Orioles would’ve experienced their rise in 2012 had Tony LaCava or Jerry Dipoto taken the job and been willing to work under the thumbs of both Peter Angelos and his manager Buck Showalter will never be known. Dan Duquette was hired as a last-ditch, name recognition choice whose preparedness in the interview was referenced as why he got the nod. Duquette has never received the credit for the intelligent, gutsy and occasionally brutal (see his dumping of Roger Clemens from the Red Sox) work he did in laying the foundation for the Red Sox championship teams or for the Expos club he built that was heading for a World Series in 1994 had the strike not hit. He’s a policy wonk and devoid of the charming personality that many owners look for in today’s 24/7 newscycle world in which a GM has to have pizzazz, but he’s a qualified baseball man who knows how to run an organization. Suffice it to say that if it was LaCava or Dipoto who was the GM in 2012, more credit would’ve gone to the GMs by the stat-loving bloggers than what Duquette has received. All he’s gotten from them is silence after they torched him and the Orioles when he was hired.

Tampa Bay Rays

For all the talk that Andrew Friedman is the “best” GM in baseball, it’s conveniently forgotten that he is in a uniquely advantageous situation that would not be present anywhere else. He has an owner Stuart Sternberg who is fully onboard with what Friedman wants to do; the team doesn’t have the money to spend on pricey free agents nor, in most cases to keep their own free agents unless they do what Evan Longoria has done and take far down-the-line salaries to help the club; and he’s not functioning in a media/fan hotbed where every move he makes is scrutinized for weeks on end.

If he were running the Yankees, would Friedman be able to tell Derek Jeter to take a hike at the end of this season if it benefited the club? No. But if it got to the point where any Rays player from Longoria to David Price to manager Joe Maddon wore out his welcome or grew too costly for what he provides, Friedman has the freedom to get rid of one or all. That wouldn’t happen anywhere else, therefore his success isn’t guaranteed as transferrable as a matter of course.

Toronto Blue Jays

After the rollercoaster ride on and off the field that was having J.P. Ricciardi as their GM, they tabbed his assistant Alex Anthopoulos as the new GM. There were no interviews and no interim label on Anthopoulos’s title. He was the GM. Period. Anthopoulos was a solid choice who had extensive experience in front offices with the Expos and Blue Jays. He’s also Canadian, which doesn’t hurt when running a Canadian team.

Should the Blue Jays have done other interviews? If the former GM is fired because his way wasn’t working, then that’s not just an indictment on the GM, but on his staff as well. No one in a big league front office is an island and if the prior regime didn’t succeed, then interviews of outside candidates—just to see what else is out there—would’ve been wise. It’s like getting divorced and then turning around marrying one of the bridesmaids. Anthopoulos still might’ve gotten the job, but it would not have been done with such tunnel vision.

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The Royals and Confirmation Bias

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If you’d like to rip the Royals for this pathetic backwards plummet they’re on in which they’ve gone from 17-10 to 21-27 in the span of three weeks, then fine. Their horrific run however doesn’t automatically confirm the doom and gloom that was predicted the second GM Dayton Moore made the decision to send a package to the Rays led by top prospect Wil Myers, pitcher Jake Odorizzi and others for pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis. Before starting the “I was right” brigade as if the record and stumble somehow interlocks with their retreat into familiarly rudderless territory and the only hope being that their young players will eventually develop and produce, looking at the real reason the team has played so badly is required.

Manager Ned Yost has received the bulk of the blame for the way the Royals have played since their 17-10 start and his decision to pull Shields out of the game that started the slide on May 6th at 102 pitches can be seen as the impetus to the fall. The whole purpose of acquiring Shields was to have the horse at the top of the rotation who would tell the other players—most of whom are young and inexperienced and have no history with a winner—this is how it’s done; I’ll carry you and show you the way. Yost didn’t accord Shields the opportunity to pitch that complete game against the White Sox after he’d allowed 2 hits and no runs, striking out 9 in eight innings. The game was handed over to closer Greg Holland by rote more than well-thought-out baseball maneuver and Holland blew the game. Then the Royals’ world came undone.

You can say that we wouldn’t be discussing this had Holland had a 1-2-3 ninth inning and the Royals went to 18-10 that day. You can say that Shields might have blown the game in the ninth as well. You can say that the team might’ve come apart anyway and instead of being 21-27, they’d be 22-26. And that type of woulda, shoulda, coulda only hammers home the point that whether they had made the trade of Myers for Shields or not, there’s no connection between them losing 17 of 21 and that the fall is being presented as Exhibit X as to why Moore needs to be fired or, at the very least, they need a new manager.

So what’s wrong with the Royals? The bullpen has been inconsistent; the back of the rotation (including Davis) has been shaky; and they’re not getting any offense from Mike Moustakas or enough offense from Eric Hosmer. That could be due to the two hitting coaches; it could be due to Yost’s familiar overwhelming intensity and strategic gaffes; or it could be due to bad luck. Myers isn’t exactly killing the ball in Triple A for the Rays (.263/.344/.441 slash line with 7 homers in 209 plate appearances) and Odorizzi was recently recalled to the majors. Would the Royals be in better position with those players in their lineup? Maybe, maybe not.

There are assertions to be made that the Royals weren’t ready to take that leap into going for it by trading youth like Myers and Odorizzi for veterans like Shields and Davis; that the front office jumped the gun by making that move now before the likes of Moustakas, Hosmer and Salvador Perez proved they needed veteran supplementation to become contenders; that they should’ve given Myers the right field job, kept Odorizzi and given their homegrown group a chance to win prior to doing something so drastic. But to imply the Shields trade is the “why” the Royals are staggering or that had it not been made they’d be in much better shape than they’re in now as if it has been “proven” to be a mistake is confirmation bias for those who hated the trade, hate the GM and hate the manager and are using it as a cudgel to batter their own desires into the public consciousness as if they “knew” it would happen.

I didn’t hear them complaining at 17-10.

It’s as if they were hiding and waiting to boost their own egos and would prefer to be right than be happy, to have their team lose and start the rebuilding process all over again with a new GM, one who will do what they want as if the strategies they prefer are unassailable and guaranteed to work any better than what Moore’s done. The trade was savaged and now the team is playing poorly, but there’s really not a link between the two. When ego and self-justification are involved, though, the reality doesn’t matter and instead of looking for solutions the Royals are getting “I told you sos.” And that rarely helps. In fact, it doesn’t help at all.

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Kansas City Royals: Early Season Notes

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Because it’s unquantifiable on their spreadsheets many stat people ridicule the concept of “veteran presence.” The most prominent player whose intangibles are scoffed at is Michael Young. Young has been a very good hitter for his career and a leader in the clubhouse. Why that’s something to try to use as weapon to hammer him with is hard to understand. Much of it, I believe, is due to the likes of Keith Law and his combination of arrogance and obnoxiousness regarding the concept followed by the gang mentality of others who, in trying to garner favor from Law (for inexplicable reasons), provide the sycophantic, “HAHA!!! Veteran presence?!? Absurd!!” as if they have any clue about what it entails in the first place. I’d venture to guess that the majority of these people never participated in team sports and haven’t the faintest idea of how important it is to have leaders in the clubhouse and people who know the terrain of crafting a winner. It’s not simply about having good players. It’s about having people who’ve been there before and can be trusted not to panic regardless of the circumstances.

It was the same Law-style, self-proclaimed “experts” who, last December, abused Royals GM Dayton Moore for trading a large package of youngsters including top outfield prospect Wil Myers to the Rays for James Shields and Wade Davis. The trade was seen as a panic move on the part of Moore in an attempt to have short-term, on-field gain in order to save his job. The opposite argument asks how many years they were supposed to try and rebuild before taking a gamble to move up. They needed pitching and, yes, veteran presence to facilitate taking the next step. Shields was a key part of a Rays team that made a similar rise with homegrown prospects. That franchise was the object of an endless stream of jokes because of their consistent ineptitude. It’s not simply that Shields is standing in the middle of the clubhouse saying, “I’m the leader,” but that he shows it on the field with innings, complete games, and gutting his way through when he doesn’t have his best stuff.

Most young players need a “this is how you do it” guy to teach them. The vast majority of the Royals’ roster is a group of youngsters who’ve never been part of a big league winner. The 2008 Rays’ leap into contention was, in part, brought about by the young players they’d drafted during their years of being atrocious and some savvy trades, but another significant part was due to their acquisitions of veterans Cliff Floyd, Troy Percival, Dan Wheeler, and Jason Bartlett who’d won before and knew how winning clubhouses functioned.

The Royals are currently 10-7 and are teetering like a child learning to walk. They’ve accomplished that record with good starting pitching; a bullpen that has the potential to be devastating; and are leading the American League in runs scored in spite of Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer being off to slow starts.

The Royals were roundly savaged when they traded Myers; they were waved away when they posted a 25-7 record in spring training; and since most of their analysis isn’t based on being accurate, but accruing the perception of having been accurate no matter the amount of twisting required to do it, the “experts” are quietly hoping that the acquisitions of Shields and Davis along with the re-signing of Jeremy Guthrie fail so they’ll have been “right.” If they have the tiniest flicker of baseball intelligence, they’re seeing the reality of the 2013 Royals: they’re very dangerous and have shown the resilient signs and growing confidence of something special happening in Kansas City for the first time in almost 30 years.

Essays, predictions, player analysis, under the radar fantasy picks, breakout candidates, contract status of all relevant personnel—GMs, managers, players—and anything else you could possibly want to know is in my new book Paul Lebowitz’s 2013 Baseball Guide now available on Amazon.comSmashwordsBN and Lulu. It’s useful all season long. Check it out and read a sample.

2013 Book Cover 3

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Rays and Orioles: Early Season Notes

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Tampa Bay Rays

The Rays were one of the few teams with a “surplus” of starting pitching. So they dealt James Shields and Wade Davis to the Royals and signed Roberto Hernandez (AKA Fausto Carmona) as insurance and to vie for a role in the rotation. Jeff Niemann’s season-ending shoulder surgery put a damper on the depth and they’ve gotten off to a rocky start as Hernandez has pitched poorly and Jeremy Hellickson—who I’m not a fan of anyway—has been inconsistent.

Key parts of the lineup haven’t hit. Some, like Yunel Escobar and Matthew Joyce, will. Others like James Loney and Ryan Roberts might or might not. In the end, they’ll score enough runs to win…if the pitching is good enough or David Price and Matt Moore carry the load for the shakiness of the back of the rotation.

This should’ve been expected of a team like the Rays who run their club making trades and signings with an eye on saving money, spending where they can, and hoping to hit at the roulette wheel with the likes of Hernandez and Loney. Amid all the hits such as Fernando Rodney and Casey Kotchman, there are also misses like Pat Burrell and Matt Bush. Some have been costlier than others.

There are calls to bring up Wil Myers to boost the offense and, in some manner, justify having traded Shields and Davis to get him. Inside the Rays clubhouse there are expressions of pained understanding as to why the Rays traded Shields and Davis, with the unsaid wishing that they were still there to help in the now.

The Rays front office isn’t concerned about what the players think. No winning organization is. They may listen to a point in order to placate the stars, but in the end, it’s the organization’s decision. Few sports figures exert as much influence over their club as Tom Brady does with the New England Patriots and even he had his knuckles rapped by club owner Bob Kraft over Brady’s overt displeasure at Wes Welker being allowed to leave. “I don’t answer to Tom Brady,” Kraft said.

Nor should he.

Bending to pressure, inside and out, would betray the entire reason the Rays made the trade in the first place; in fact it would contradict the entire foundation of the rebuilding of the Rays into a team that wins in spite of payroll constraints. Myers was acquired because he’s a top-tier prospect, cheap and will have value for them when they can no longer afford some of the players in their lineup who are expected to be significant offensive contributors now, like Joyce. If and when Myers is recalled, it won’t be until it’s financially and practically beneficial to the Rays, not before.

In general, veteran players will provide what’s expected of them and what they’ve historically done barring injuries or an age-related decline in skills. This is why there’s no need to be concerned about Escobar and Joyce and there is need to be concerned about Hernandez and Loney.

This is the situation the Rays face on an annual basis. Maybe it’ll work out and maybe it won’t.

Baltimore Orioles

To GM Dan Duquette’s credit, he didn’t make the mistake the Mariners did under Bill Bavasi and equate an overachieving 2007 season of 88-74 into an idea of “all we need is one more pitcher” and trade a large chunk of his system to the Orioles—including Adam Jones and Chris Tillman—for Erik Bedard.

(Interestingly, Mariners current GM Jack Zduriencik did pretty much the same thing in trading for Cliff Lee after a similarly overachieving season that was based more on luck than reality in 2009. Yet he was referred to as a “genius” for doing what Bavasi did. He’s not being called a genius anymore, but that’s another story.)

The Orioles of 2012, unlike the Mariners of 2007, made the playoffs. They bounced the Rangers and shook the Yankees before losing in the ALDS in 5 games. The Orioles, having won, are no longer viewed as a last resort location for old and declining players to get a last paycheck. The temptation to use the new street cred among marketable players willing to join the Orioles must have been great, as must have been the offers for the likes of Manny Machado and Dylan Bundy. Duquette did a tweak here and a tweak there, but mostly stood pat in spite of the Orioles having reason to say they were going for it in 2013, even though that would’ve been a mistake.

They’re around .500 now and the “experts” in the media had them taking a dramatic fallback to, at best, .500 for the season.

That doesn’t mean they’re going to stay there. Currently relying on the same template as last season with a deep bullpen, a power-hitting lineup and pedestrian starting pitching, the situation looks the same as in 2012, but is actually subtly different.

If his elbow stiffness subsides and he’s pitching in the minors soon, the Orioles can expect Bundy to help them in the second half of the season; Machado will be with the team all year. If they’re hovering around .500 and still in contention in a parity-laden AL East at mid-season, they’ll be very dangerous down the stretch.

I don’t see people referring to Duquette with starstruck, agenda-driven awe as they did with Zduriencik, but Duquette’s the one with the past success, courage of his convictions, and is a better executive.

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

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Good News and Bad News: Halladay’s Not Hurt

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The Phillies would be better off if Roy Halladay was hurt. At least that would be a viable explanation for this sudden and cliff-diving decline from what he was to what he is. What makes the lost velocity and increased confidence of the hitters even more frightening is that there’s no physical malady or mechanical hiccup to fix and get the soon-to-be 36-year-old back to the greatness he’s exhibited for the past decade. His mechanics are fine and if he was ailing, the Phillies wouldn’t continue to put him on the mound. That was true in spring training as the “experts” speculated on what was wrong with Halladay and implied that there was an injury that the Phillies were hiding. What possible reason would they have to do that in spring training?

No. He’s not hurt. His arm slot is around where it was when he was at the top of his game with a slight deviation that has nothing to do with pain or compensation and isn’t going to revert him back to what he was if it’s “fixed.” He’s not finished and not in the last days of a great career. He can continue to pitch this way once he learns how to get hitters out more effectively with diminished stuff, but he’s not going to be the unstoppable, grinding, durable force he was. This is evidence of the ravages of time and work. In the past two decades, we’ve grown accustomed to pitchers continuing to perform in their 40s as they did in their 20s and for the most part in cases like Roger Clemens it was due to the evident use of PEDs, but with the new testing the one thing that can’t be quantified is when the body says enough’s enough. Halladay’s seems to be informing him that he has to figure something else out to be effective.

The sheer number of pitchers and players who weren’t simply maintaining their level of work in their supposed primes, but were surpassing it due to the use of certain substances made it seem normal when they should’ve been seen as a rarity. Nolan Ryan and Steve Carlton were anomalies not just because they lasted into their 40s, but for the most part they maintained their effectiveness late into their careers pitching the same way they always did. There was no transition from what they were into something else.

Halladay’s velocity is down from a high of 96 and a consistent 94 at the tiptop of his game two years ago to barely hitting 90 last night. This has been a recurring issue all spring and spurred the worries that are rising with every subpar start. For the hitter, there’s a significant difference between preparing for 96, being used to 94 and seeing 89-90. That’s an eon of pitch recognition time. Add in that he doesn’t have the same pop you get the results Halladay’s produced in his first two starts.

Counting him out is silly. Pitchers like Carlton, Bert Blyleven and Jack Morris have been labeled as “finished” and come back to be productive, even Cy Young Award contending arms at Halladay’s age and beyond. He still has his intelligence and his stuff is good enough to get hitters out, but he’s got to learn how to do it and it doesn’t happen overnight.

On another note with the Phillies, the Charlie Manuel contract situation is going to get messy. Were it not for a blown save by Greg Holland of the Royals in which he couldn’t find the strike zone, the Phillies would be sitting at 1-6 with a lame duck manager, an angry fanbase and ominous speculation concerning the age of their roster. Manuel has no intention of walking quietly into the night at the end of the season as the Phillies clearly want him to do and he’s working with his clear heir apparent, Ryne Sandberg, on the coaching staff.

This has happened with Manuel before. With the Indians in 2002, his contract was up at the end of the season, he wanted to know where he stood and basically told them to give him an answer or fire him. The Indians were in a similar position then as the Phillies are now with an aging core and an unavoidable rebuild beckoning, so with the club 39-47 and far from playoff position, they fired him. Manuel deserves better from the Phillies after all he’s accomplished—an extra year on his contract as severance even if they have no intention of him fulfilling it and not having to look at the guy who’s going to replace him every single day—but he’s not going to get it and if this thing spirals out of control, Sandberg will be managing the Phillies by June 1st.

Or sooner.

Extended discussions of this along with predictions, player analysis, under the radar fantasy picks, breakout candidates, contract status of all relevant personnel—GMs, managers, players—and anything else you could possibly want to know is in my new book Paul Lebowitz’s 2013 Baseball Guide now available on Amazon.com, Smashwords, BN and Lulu. Check it out and read a sample.

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We Get It: Mike Francesa Demands Justin Morneau

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Ignoring multiple realities save for the ones that exist only in his mind, Mike Francesa is clinging to the farfetched notions that:

a)    The Twins will just give Justin Morneau up in a salary dump

b)   They’ll give him to the Yankees before offering him around the league

c)    The Yankees have the prospects to get Morneau now

d)   The Yankees will surrender the prospects to get Morneau

Yet he clings to the prayer from a desert island that the ship off in the distance will see his persistent waving; that the plane hovering in the sky will spot and explore his abandoned outpost; that the “Yankee magic” steeped from the historical foundation of, “Da Yankees want, dere-fore da Yankees get,” will hold true in spite of the reality of other factors: money; that other clubs have no choice in trading players to a club willing to absorb the salaries; that players wanted to go to the Yankees because the Yankees were prohibitive preseason favorites.

It’s not magic. It’s not history. It was because of factors no longer in existence or not relevant in this particular instance.

You can hear one of Francesa’s delusional Morneau rants here on Bobs Blitz. It was right after Mark Teixeira’s injury and could have been chalked up to the panic of the moment, trying to find an escape route from the prison or appeal on the conviction before acceptance of the circumstance set in.

But he’s still at it.

I’d understand if there was a basis for this Morneau obsession, i.e. the Twins making clear that they’re looking to trade him just to get out from under the $14 million salary for 2013, but I have not seen a rumor, a story or anything else from even the schlockiest of schlock sites, the trollingest of trolls saying that this is the case. I’d also understand if Morneau was presented as a faceless example of the type of player the Yankees should pursue, but Francesa’s not coming up with other names, nor is he providing well-thought-out analysis as to whom the Yankees could give the Twins to make it worth their while to trade Morneau before the season starts when the Twins are also trying to put forth the pretense of competitiveness, at least at the outset of the season.

On Twitter, a close follower and analyst of the Twins Brandon Warne said to me that he wouldn’t be surprised if the Twins not only kept Morneau for the season, but signed him to a contract to stay. Brandon’s dialed in on how the Twins think and is right. Regardless of the clear reasoning to deal Morneau and open a spot at first base for Joe Mauer, the Twins sometimes do things like that even if they don’t appear to make any sense. When they were winning, it was the “Twins Way.” Now that they’re losing it’s “stupid.” Neither assessment is any more accurate than the other, it just is.

If the Yankees were looking for the type of player that Francesa is insisting Morneau is now—a veteran with a terrible team looking to dump salary just to get money off the books—they’d go to the Astros and try to get Carlos Pena; they’d approach the Rockies about Chris Nelson and move Kevin Youkilis to first base; they’d come up with something reasonable and doable. “Reasonable” and “doable” are not categories in which Morneau fits.

Other unavailable names that have been bandied about by desperate Yankees fans and apologists are Garrett Jones and Billy Butler. Jones is gettable from the Pirates, but the days of the Pirates handing their lunch money over to the bullying Yankees are over; Butler is a star hitter who most fans are entirely unaware of how good he is and the Royals aren’t moving him.

Here’s a flash that maybe you’ll get if I capitalize it: THESE PLAYERS ARE NOT AVAILABLE FOR THE SCRAPS THE YANKEES ARE WILLING TO GIVE UP!!!!

If the Yankees were to surrender Gary Sanchez, Slade Heathcott, Jose Campos, even David Robertson or the rehabbing Manny Banuelos, yes, they can get someone to fill in at first base. But they’re not doing that. Accept it.

Also accept this: the Yankees are currently a mess. They want to lower payroll and won’t give up any prospects to improve in the moment. Brian Cashman clung to Eduardo Nunez in trade talks for veteran help like Cliff Lee in 2010, proclaiming him “untouchable,” but is now refusing to make the simplest and most obvious decision and let Nunez play third base and move Youkilis to first, basically saying that Nunez isn’t that good.

He was so good that he was untouchable a year ago but, now they’re implying he can’t play regularly simultaneous to insulting the intelligence of any sane person who’s ever seen Nunez play shortstop by saying, “We see him as a shortstop.” Where? On Mars? He’s so great a prospect that he can’t be traded, but not good enough to actually play at third? Left field? First base? Somewhere?

The reality is setting in everywhere but at 1:00 PM EST on WFAN in New York, where the Yankees are still able to demand that other clubs hand over what the Yankees want. Just because they’re the Yankees.

It doesn’t work that way anymore and truth be told, it never really did.

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Keys to 2013: Kansas City Royals

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Starting Pitching Key: Wade Davis

The Royals can write down what they’ll get from the majority of their starting pitchers. That goes for the good (James Shields), the bad (Bruce Chen, Luke Hochevar), and the sometimes good/sometimes not so good (Jeremy Guthrie, Ervin Santana). The season and the decried trade the Royals made with the Rays in which they surrendered Wil Myers and other young players to get Shields and Davis will go a long way in determining their 2013 fate and the job status of GM Dayton Moore and manager Ned Yost.

Davis was a serviceable starter for the Rays in 2010-2011. He was moved to the bullpen in 2012 due to the depth the Rays had in their rotation and now he’s going to start again for the Royals. He has to be more than serviceable. If they can cobble him into a 190-210 inning arm, Davis can be a long-term, inexpensive solution because he’s signed with contract options that make him super cheap through 2017. If he falters, the trade will boil down to getting a top-tier starter in Shields and a swingman in Davis for one of baseball’s best prospects, Myers, and other talented youngsters.

Relief Pitching Key: Greg Holland

Holland takes over as the fulltime closer. He struck out 91 in 67 innings last season and saved 16 games after Jonathan Broxton was traded. He has a mid-90s fastball, a sharp curve and only surrendered 2 homers last season. If he improves his command, Holland can dominate.

Offensive Key: Eric Hosmer

Hosmer endured a sophomore slump in 2012. He failed to adjust to the way pitchers were approaching him and he must lay off the breaking balls in the dirt. As a young hitter who had it come easy to him as a rookie, there’s a resistance to taking advice from anyone. The next logical progression is taking advice from everyone. Neither is wise.

Hosmer can be an offensive force with power and speed. He doesn’t strike out and if he can be just a bit more selective while maintaining his aggressiveness, he’s an MVP candidate.

Defensive Key: Alcides Escobar

The Royals starting rotation is loaded with contact, groundball pitchers. Shields and Davis were reared in the Rays organization where they’re taught to pitch to contact and rely on defensive positioning and heavy slabs of data. The Royals are a more old-school organization in that they put the shortstop at shortstop, the second baseman at second base, etc.

The shortstop is the key to the infield. Mike Moutstakas has good range at third base which will allow Escobar to cheat a bit more toward the middle. If the Royals don’t catch the ball behind their starters, they’re in for a rough time.

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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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