Keys to 2013: Tampa Bay Rays

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Starting Pitching Key: Matt Moore

Moore’s done his flashy playoff introduction to the world as David Price did. He had an inconsistent rookie year as Price did. Now, he’s ready to take the next step into Cy Young Award contender in his second season as Price did.

Moore has a smooth, clean, simple and repeatable motion similar to Cliff Lee. He’s refining his command and harnessing his changeup. The changeup is usually the last pitch a pitcher needs to master before fulfilling his potential. If Moore’s able to do that at age 24, the Rays will be legitimate World Series contenders.

Relief Pitching Key: Chris Archer

Fernando Rodney is not going to repeat his 48 save, 0.60 ERA. The question is whether he’ll revert to the on-again/off-again closer he was with the Tigers and Angels or will be able to get the job done the majority of the time. If he can’t and Kyle Farnsworth, the closer in 2011, can’t do it either, the Rays might turn to Archer.

Archer has been a starter in the minors, but has the power fastball to be a dominating reliever. The Rays have never been shy about using young pitchers in very important roles and Archer could play a major factor in 2013.

Offensive Key: Evan Longoria

As Longoria goes, so go the Rays. The other lineup bats Desmond Jennings, Kelly Johnson, Yunel Escobar, Matthew Joyce and eventually Wil Myers are undoubtedly important and the Rays are opportunistic and adaptable, but with Longoria they’re a title contender and without him, they’re not.

Defensive Key: Desmond Jennings

If Jennings has to play center field, he has to be at least adequate at the position. Sam Fuld is a fine defensive outfielder, but he can’t hit enough to justify being in the lineup as an everyday player. The Rays were in the market for a legitimate center fielder, but as the season moves along and Myers is recalled, they’re going to need to find a place to get Myers and Joyce in the lineup. Someone’s going to have to play the outfield and if Myers/Joyce are the DH, one is going to have to play left with Jennings in center.

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Potential Difference Makers for the Stretch—American League

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Two examples of trades that made a significant difference in their team’s fortunes—and were under-the-radar, shrugged at, or ignored at the time—were when the Tigers traded for Doyle Alexander in August of 1987 and the Cardinals traded for Cesar Cedeno in 1985.

The veteran Alexander had experience in pennant races and was expected to bolster the Tigers’ rotation. Instead he pitched masterfully with a 9-0 record, a 1.53 ERA and, if you’re looking for numbers to prove how valuable he was, a 4.3 WAR. You can look at what the Tigers traded for him and say it was a mistake since they traded Michigan native, lifelong Tigers’ fan and future Hall of Famer John Smoltz to get him. But to be fair, Smoltz was a 22nd round pick who’d struggled in his time with the Tigers in the minors. In the moment, Alexander was the difference between the 1987 Tigers making or missing the playoffs. Had they won the World Series, I’m sure the Tigers would’ve said it was worth it even without 20 years of Smoltz. And there’s no guarantee that Smoltz would’ve been for the Tigers the pitcher he was with the Braves. We don’t know.

The veteran Cedeno, entering the closing phase of a career that should’ve been far better than it was given his talent, was traded to the Cardinals as a veteran bat off the bench in exchange for a minor leaguer who never made it and Cedeno posted a .434/.463/.750 slash line with 6 homers in 82 plate appearances. I was at the John TudorDwight Gooden classic pitcher’s duel where Gooden pitched 9 scoreless innings and Tudor 10. Cedeno homered off of Jesse Orosco in the top of the 10th to win the game. (That was also the night Pete Rose broke Ty Cobb’s hit record.)

There’s no telling how leaving a team playing out the string and joining a contender will wake up a veteran player and spur him to make a major contribution. It could be a starter, a reliever, a position player or a bench player, judgment comes in retrospect.

Let’s take a look at some American League players who are presumably available and could be to their new clubs what Alexander and Cedeno were for theirs.

Their National League counterparts will be posted later.

Josh Beckett, RHP—Boston Red Sox

He’ll get through waivers and loves the pressure of the post-season. Beckett would undoubtedly feel liberated by leaving Boston. The Red Sox would love to be rid of him on and off the field and the fans would also welcome his departure regardless of what they get for him—probably nothing more than salary relief. He’s got $31.5 million coming to him for 2013-2014 and is a 10 and 5 player; the Red Sox would have to pick up some of the freight to get rid of him. He’d okay a trade and it would be worth it to fans around the world to take up a collection to pay him off just to see how badly he’d unleash on Bobby Valentine and the Red Sox on the way out the door.

Kelly Johnson, 2B—Toronto Blue Jays

Talk surrounding the Blue Jays has centered around them trading shortstop Yunel Escobar to install young Adeiny Hechavarria at shortstop, but with Escobar under team control through 2015, the Blue Jays might be better-served to trade the pending free agent Johnson and let Hechevarria play second base. Johnson has power, walks and is solid enough defensively at second base.

Travis Hafner, DH—Cleveland Indians

He’s a free agent at the end of the season and no one is going to pay whatever he’s owed for the remainder of this season and the $2.75 million buyout. He’s also back in his office—the disabled list—with a back injury retroactive to August 6th. Someone would take him for nothing if the Indians pay his contract. He’d be a lefty bat with power and walks off the bench if he’s able to play. He’ll get traded at the end of the month.

Jeff Francoeur, RF—Kansas City Royals

Frenchy has been energized by changing addresses before. When he was let out of his Braves prison in 2009, he went on a tear for the Mets and, for a brief while, looked like he’d fulfill his potential away from the pressures and poor handling of him by the Braves. When the Mets traded him to the Rangers, he helped them with pop and his usual excellent defense. A team trading for him would be taking him on for 2013 at $6.75 million. Don’t be surprised to see him back in Texas with the Rangers. If he’d been in right field as a defensive replacement in game 6 of the World Series last year, the Rangers are world champions right now.

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Time For The Blue Jays To Move Up

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The Blue Jays are looking for a closer. They also could use another bat and definitely need a starting pitcher to function as an anchor for the young starting rotation.

Let’s take a look at what they could and should do.

Closer.

With the top tier closer off the market as Jonathan Papelbon signed with the Phillies and the Blue Jays reluctant to spend that amount of money on a short-reliever anyway, they have to look at the other options; these options might not be as splashy as the Papelbon signing, but they would fit into the Blue Jays budget and serve their purpose in the regular season.

The names of a lower tier/cheaper variety include the affordable, warted veterans Brad Lidge, Jonathan Broxton, Matt Capps and Joe Nathan.

Then there’s Heath Bell, who’s not young (34) and won’t demand as much as a Papelbon, Ryan Madson or Francisco Rodriguez.

The Blue Jays could wait and see if the market crashes on Madson or K-Rod; or they could try and make a trade for Joakim Soria, Huston Street or Carlos Marmol.

The prices for Soria and Marmol are likely to be exorbitant; I’d steer clear of Bell, Madson, Broxton, Capps and Street—they don’t fit for the Blue Jays.

That leaves Nathan and Lidge.

Lidge has had his highs and lows in the post-season; his confidence is hair-trigger and his injury history concerning; he’d be cheap and might be very, very good or very, very bad.

Nathan pitched well once he regained the job as stopper from Capps and in his second year back from Tommy John surgery, he’s a good gamble to regain his form at a highly affordable price.

What I would do: Sign Joe Nathan for 2-years, $11 million guaranteed with incentives to push it to $15 million and a mutual option for a 3rd year.

Starting pitcher.

In the summer when it looked like the Cardinals were going to clear salary to keep Albert Pujols, I suggested that the Blue Jays bring back the pitcher they drafted but non-tendered when he got hurt—Chris Carpenter.

Carpenter was signed by the Cardinals, allowed to recover, had his motion torn apart and rebuilt by Dave Duncan and developed into one of the best pitchers in baseball over the past decade.

But Carpenter signed a contract extension with the Cardinals.

What the Blue Jays need is a horse. Someone to eat innings and set an example for the talented youngsters Brandon Morrow, Kyle Drabek, Henderson Alvarez and current ace Ricky Romero.

There are pitchers like this available.

Mark Buehrle is team-oriented; can show the youngsters how to get by when they don’t have their good stuff; and when he’s on, he pitches no-hitters. He’d probably prefer to stay in Chicago (with the White Sox or Cubs); go to the Cardinals (who don’t have room for him barring a trade or three); or stay relatively close to the Mid-West. That shouldn’t dissuade the Blue Jays from pursuing him.

Hiroki Kuroda has wicked stuff and is mean, but it’s hard to see him leaving the West Coast.

Edwin Jackson is represented by Scott Boras and the Blue Jays won’t want to pay him—nor should they.

Roy Oswalt isn’t looking for a long term contract and won’t be interested in the pressure-packed, big city atmospheres of Boston or New York—he’d like to go to Texas or the Mid-West, but maybe he’d also listen to the Blue Jays.

Like Jackson, C.J. Wilson will cost more than they’d like to spend on a starting pitcher.

Javier Vazquez had major success in Canada with the Expos and was one of baseball’s best pitchers over the second half of last season for the Marlins; he has yet to decide whether he’ll pitch in 2012 (I suspect he will) and he’s had bad experiences in the American League overall and the American League East in particular with two hellish stints with the Yankees.

Trade candidates include Bronson Arroyo; Francisco Liriano; Trevor Cahill; Gio Gonzalez; Mike Pelfrey; Brett Myers; Wandy Rodriguez; and Joe Saunders.

All have positives and negatives. Of the group, the ones I’d serious pursue are Arroyo—he’s an innings-eater, is signed for $13 million through 2013, and has guts and experience in the AL East; Cahill—a sinkerballer who pounds the strike zone and has succeeded with a bad Athletics team; or Rodriguez—terrific stuff and an underrated competitor.

What I would do: Explore a trade for Arroyo and go after both Oswalt and Buehrle—see what the asking prices are, who wants to come to Toronto and will be the most reasonable.

A bat.

I would stay away from the massive financial commitment to Prince Fielder; I wouldn’t touch David Ortiz.

If Joey Votto is put on the market, any team would have to try getting him, but he’s going to cost a chunk of the farm system.

Here’s the best strategy: let Kelly Johnson leave; sign Carlos Beltran to play right field; shift Jose Bautista to third base; and move Brett Lawrie to second. When Beltran is the DH, they can play Edwin Encarnacion at third and have Bautista in right.

Beltran’s contract demands are no longer going to be Borased because he and Boras parted ways in the summer; he won’t cost any draft picks because it was inserted into his contract he can’t be offered arbitration by his prior club; and he could DH when his knees aren’t feeling up to playing the outfield—it might be more often than it would normally be due to the artificial turf at the Rogers Center.

He’d be a more athletic, versatile and cheaper alternative to Fielder; and is a quiet leader who has performed in the big city and during pressure-packed moments. The big concern I’d have with Ortiz is that there’s a chance he’s a “Red Sox player” who won’t perform when removed from the venue where he made his name and became the Big Papi character. That “character” is also an issue—while the Red Sox are used to him, his outspokenness might be seen as an intrusion for a new, young club.

What I would do: Sign Beltran for 3-years, $40 million and make the position switches listed above.

The above maneuvers would fill the Blue Jays needs; leave them financial room to add as they need to at mid-season; and put them in a legitimate position to contend for a playoff spot rather than hope that if everything goes right, then maybe they’ll hang around the outskirts while knowing that they had little-to-no chance.

They have the talent now; the Red Sox are vulnerable; the Yankees are aging.

It’s time to move up.

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The 2011 Diamondbacks And The Towers Of Credit

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The Diamondbacks turnaround and success under first-year GM Kevin Towers has cemented his supposed brilliance. A brilliance that became more pronounced while he wasn’t a GM and had his name bandied about as a “perfect” choice for any number of GM jobs. Like a backup quarterback in football, Towers could do no wrong as long as he wasn’t specifically doing anything. It’s a safe place to be.

After being fired by the Padres, Towers was an assistant to Brian Cashman with the Yankees for the 2010 season; as various jobs opened up, he was a candidate for all of them. He was hired by the Diamondbacks and took steps to improve the club’s woeful strikeout rate by trading Mark Reynolds and in the process acquired a valuable bullpen arm in David Hernandez.

Among other moves Towers made like signing J.J. Putz at a reduced rate and retaining manager Kirk Gibson, there’s little he’s had to do with this current club—a club that’s in first place, streaking with 7 straight wins and has opened some daylight between themselves and the reeling Giants. They now lead the NL West by 5 games.

But does Towers deserve all the credit he’s getting?

Much of the foundation of this club was already in place and it’s been there for awhile. The two prior regimes acquired many of the players on the team now.

Joe Garagiola Jr. was a highly underrated GM who won a World Series, dealt with a micromanaging organizational gadfly, Buck Showalter; and an empty uniform, Bob Brenly.

Garagiola’s replacement, Josh Byrnes, contributed as did interim GM Jerry DiPoto. In fact, DiPoto warrants accolades more than Towers; he’s still with the Diamondbacks as an assistant and is a top GM candidate himself.

Garagiola acquisitions:

Stephen Drew, SS—1st round draft choice, 2004.

Justin Upton, OF—1st round draft choice, 2005.

Miguel Montero, C—amateur free agent from Venezuela, 2001.

Gerardo Parra, OF—amateur free agent from Venezuela, 2004.

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Byrnes acquisitions:

Chris Young, CF—acquired from the White Sox for Javier Vazquez in December 2005.

Ian Kennedy, RHP—acquired in a 3-way trade with Edwin Jackson for Daniel Schlereth and Max Scherzer.

Ryan Roberts, INF, OF—signed as a minor league free agent in November, 2008.

Josh Collmenter, RHP—15th round draft choice, 2007.

Paul Goldschmidt, 1B—8th round draft choice, 2009.

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DiPoto acquisitions:

Joe Saunders, LHP—acquired from the Angels in the Dan Haren trade in July 2010.

Daniel Hudson, RHP—acquired from the White Sox in the Edwin Jackson trade in July 2010.

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Towers acquisitions:

J.J. Putz, RHP—signed as a free agent for 2-years, $10 million.

Zach Duke, LHP—signed as a free agent for 1-year at $4.25 million with a club option for 2012.

Henry Blanco, C—signed as a free agent for 1-year at $1.25 million with a mutual option 2012.

Willie Bloomquist, INF—signed as a free agent for 1-year, $900,000 with a mutual option for 2012.

Brad Ziegler, RHP—acquired from the Oakland Athletics for Brandon Allen and Jordan Norberto in July 2011.

Then there’s the deal of Kelly Johnson to the Blue Jays for Aaron Hill and John McDonald; its results remain to be seen.

There are certain things that Towers is good at. He builds excellent bullpens on the cheap; he loads his bench with versatile, leader-type players; and he can clear salary. But to suggest that the Diamondbacks are a product of Towers is the same fractured logic that led to him being so widely feted during the time that he wasn’t even a GM.

The one superiorly smart thing he did was to retain Gibson as his manager. Gibson lobbied hard for the job and said that his team was not going to be a pleasant opponent; they’d take people out on the bases; pitch inside; and retaliate when needed. And they have.

This Diamondbacks team is more than the sum of their parts; they play very, very hard and on the edge—like their manager did. He brought the football mentality to baseball when he was a player, took everything seriously and was more interested in winning over personal achievement; that’s how this Diamondbacks group plays.

Did Towers see that in Gibson? Was he enamored of the intensity that Gibson was going to instill? Or was it more of a, “he’s here and he’s not going to cost a lot of money” for a team that wasn’t expected to come this far, this fast?

Maybe.

Towers is a good GM.

In public perception Towers is responsible for the rise of the Diamondbacks; how much he’s owed in reality is limited because a large portion of this club was in place on his arrival and is succeeding as a matter of circumstance rather than grand design on the part of the GM.

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2012 Starts Now For The Blue Jays

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The Blue Jays can and will contend for a playoff spot in 2012 if they make smart personnel decisions this winter.

Here’s what they have to do:

Get a legitimate closer.

GM Alex Anthopoulos is notoriously close-to-the-vest in how he runs his team; there’s no ironclad “strategy” of using stats or scouting; he doesn’t betray his hand and acts stealthily and aggressively in making his moves.

He may or may not care what’s said about him, but he doesn’t allow it to interfere with what he does.

This past winter, Anthopoulos signed two former closers in Octavio Dotel and Jon Rauch; he also traded for Frank Francisco.

In the logistical sense, they were all interchangeable and were signed to short-term deals to preclude widespread complaining about not being the closer. But if the Blue Jays want to be taken seriously next season, they have to get someone better and more trustworthy than Rauch or Francisco. (Dotel was traded to the Cardinals at the end of July.)

The market will be flush with established closers via free agency and trade. Heath Bell, Francisco Rodriguez, Jonathan Papelbon (who worked with Blue Jays manager John Farrell with the Red Sox) and Ryan Madson are all free agents or potential free agents. Jonathan Broxton is a probable non-tender; and Joakim Soria is a trade candidate.

All are worthy of consideration and are better than Rauch/Francisco.

Find a veteran anchor for the starting rotation.

The Blue Jays let a future Cy Young Award winner get away.

No. I’m not talking about Roy Halladay. I’m talking about Chris Carpenter.

To be fair, when the Blue Jays non-tendered Carpenter under J.P. Ricciardi’s regime, Carpenter was injured and hadn’t been particularly effective; the talent that made him a 1st round draft choice wasn’t going to be fulfilled until he was streamlined—mentally, mechanically and physically—under Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan with the Cardinals. The Blue Jays wanted to bring him back for less money, but he smartly went to the Cardinals, rehabbed his injury for a year and became a star when he got healthy.

Carpenter has a $15 million option for 2012, but he’s a 10-and-5 player so he can veto any trade; for him to waive it, the trading team would presumably have to give him a contract extension.

The Cardinals are in major flux, but if they’re looking for salary relief and want to bolster a sagging farm system, they could exercise the option rather than pay Carpenter’s $1 million buyout and trade him. This would all have to be done within a rapid series of maneuvers to make it work.

Shedding that $15 million and trading him would give the Cardinals room to re-sign Albert Pujols; re-signing Pujols might be the key to LaRussa coming back for another year; Adam Wainwright will be back next season and they could bring back Joel Pineiro to fill Carpenter’s slot and hope reuniting with Duncan will return Pineiro to his Cardinals form.

The Blue Jays have prospects to trade.

Carpenter leading a rotation with Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow and Kyle Drabek would be superior to most of baseball if the younger pitchers fulfill their potential; Carpenter could teach them how.

Be flexible and think outside-the-box.

They don’t have the cash to go after Jose Reyes and they signed Yunel Escobar to a contract extension; but Brett Lawrie‘s ability to play third and second base allows the Blue Jays to go after a David Wright.

The recently acquired Kelly Johnson is a free agent, but if they offer him arbitration he’d probably take it. An infield of Adam Lind, Johnson, Escobar and Lawrie can mash—whether it’d be adequate defensively for the pitching staff would have to be determined.

The Mets probably aren’t going to trade Wright, but the Blue Jays have a lot of young pitching and outfield bats. Anthopoulos thinks outside-the-box and goes after players who “probably aren’t” getting traded. Sometimes the players who “probably aren’t” getting traded do get traded and extract a major chunk of a trading team’s farm system. (See Ubaldo Jimenez.)

Alter the strategy on the bases and with the lineup.

The Blue Jays run the bases with abandon. If they’re doing it at the bottom of the lineup to try and make something happen, it’s an arguable premise; doing it in front of a basher like Jose Bautista is a mistake.

Without doing any deep statistical research into the matter, there’s no excuse for Bautista to have 37 homers and only 83 RBI.

Before Corey Patterson was traded, he was batting in front of Bautista for much of the season; Patterson steals bases, but has a woeful on base percentage. Escobar also batted in front of Bautista and gets on base at a good clip. Since his arrival, Colby Rasmus has been batting second with Bautista third.

A better plan would be batting Bautista fourth and having Escobar lead off; Johnson would bat second; Lawrie third; and Rasmus and Lind behind Bautista.

The haphazard stolen bases also have to stop.

Temper expectations and idol worship.

There was recent talk of Anthopoulos being a “genius”.

Yah. Well. Billy Beane was a genius once too. So was Theo Epstein. So was Jack Zduriencik.

Are you getting my point?

Listening to sports talk radio on Friday, Jim Mora Jr. was being interviewed about the upcoming NFL season and he subtly hit back at the notion of Patriots coach Bill Belichick being a “genius” saying something to the tune of, “he’s a good football coach; a genius is someone who comes up with life-saving vaccines”.

He’s right.

The Blue Jays have been built the right way so far, but expectations and idolatry have doomed even the smartest people with the most coherent and logical plans.

They’re in a great position now to take the next step, but keeping from doing something stupid isn’t as easy as it sounds.

If they follow some incarnation of the plan I laid out (or something similar), they could be a playoff team in 2012.

If….

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MLB Waiver Deals 8.23.2011

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Rockies claim Wandy Rodriguez.

It was something of a surprise that the Rockies claimed Rodriguez with his contract and their payroll constraints.

There are several factors surrounding Rodriguez that make his movement simultaneously iffy and possible.

The Rockies argument to the Astros will be that they’re giving them payroll relief to adhere to pending new owner Jim Crane’s payroll reduction demands and therefore shouldn’t be asked to give up anything significant for Rodriguez. The Astros can turn around and point out that Rodriguez is a good, durable pitcher who’s worth the money he’s getting.

I like Rodriguez a lot and always have, but if I’m the Astros, I consider the big picture and desire to start fresh with a lower payroll and let Rodriguez go for whatever the Rockies are willing to give…within reason. A couple of good-moderate prospects with upside or some attribute like a power fastball or speed on the bases would do it for me.

I think a deal is somehow going to get done. The Astros need to clear that payroll will supersede any reluctance to take limited return for Rodriguez.

Blue Jays trade Aaron Hill and John McDonald to the Diamondbacks for Kelly Johnson.

This is a worthwhile trade for both clubs.

Hill is signed through 2014 with team options in 2012 ($8 million), 2013 ($8 million), and 2014 ($10 million). He’s been offensively inept for two years running after a breakout 2009; he’s a good fielding second baseman.

McDonald is a useful utility glove who doesn’t hit; he’s versatile defensively and a feisty player.

I’m not the biggest Kelly Johnson fan. He was good with the Braves to start his career, had injury problems and slumped and they non-tendered him; the Diamondbacks picked him up and he was very good in 2010; this season, he’s hit for pop with poor on base/batting average production. He’s a free agent at the end of the season and it’s hard to imagine the Blue Jays doing this if they didn’t intend to try and keep him.

I’ll guess Johnson will be offered arbitration by the Blue Jays and accept it to try and increase his value for another shot at free agency after 2012. This benefits the Blue Jays because they have their eye on a playoff run next season—and they’re going to make a serious one.

If I were the Diamondbacks, I would be extremely concerned about Hill’s precipitous decline at the plate; but he’s signed for a similar amount of money that they’d wind up paying Johnson if he were offered arbitration and accepted it; you’re not going to get a talent like Hill for a pending free agent like Johnson when he’s hitting.

It makes sense in all aspects.

Rockies acquire Kevin Kouzmanoff.

Didn’t the Rockies do this before the season when they got the same player as Kouzmanoff in Jose Lopez?

It didn’t work then; given Kouzmanoff’s consistent disappointment, I don’t see this working any better than Lopez did.

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