McClendon Responds To The Cano Hustle Debate

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The ongoing back and forth about Robinson Cano’s hustle or lack thereof is gaining momentum and a life of its own. While Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long’s response to questions about Cano’s preference not to run hard to first base on ground balls was more of a simple answer to a question rather than an attempt to smear his former pupil, Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon responded in an attempt to defend his new player.

I wrote about the initial statements made by Long regarding Cano here on AllVoices.com.

McClendon is in a tricky situation in his new job with the Mariners and had no choice but to defend his player publicly. Having waited so long to get another chance as a manager and with a general manager in Jack Zduriencik who is clearly on the hotseat, McClendon is facing the prospect of one bad season and being fired in a massive purge of the entire Mariners baseball hierarchy. What choice does he have other than to stand up for his player even if he knows that Cano is notorious around baseball for not running out ground balls and it’s a running commentary about how blatantly he does it?

Yes, it’s true that many players – including the best one in Mariners history Ken Griffey Jr. – didn’t hustle, but Cano takes it to the extreme of not even putting up the pretense of running moderately hard to first base. It’s also true that the number of plays in which it matters is a minuscule percentage and the argument is valid that it’s not worth the risk of injury for a meaningless play and would only harm the team in the long run. But Cano isn’t willing to act as if he’s giving the effort. Whereas for players like Griffey, they were running at, say, 75 percent, Cano is running at 45 percent. That’s too slow not to be noticed and it’s not going to change now that he’s a Mariner with a $240 million contract. Lest anyone believe that Cano’s status as a veteran leader and the highest paid player in club history is going to alter his view on the needlessness of running hard to first base.

The prevailing implication, elucidated by McClendon, is that Long spoke out of school and should keep quiet. In truth, he was uttering a truth that had been kept quiet by the Yankees to placate Cano. They and the rest of baseball have been aware of it. Some are bothered by it. Others don’t think it’s that big of a deal. Yankees GM Brian Cashman sounded surprised that Long said what he did and gave the politically correct – and mostly accurate – answer that Cano played every day and put up the numbers. It did not come from the Yankees organization with Long as the mouthpiece ripping Cano. They did their own version of taking a shot at him when they gave his uniform number away immediately to Scott Sizemore.

McClendon spent many years playing and working for Jim Leyland. He’s a good baseball man and learned his lessons well from Leyland that the players have to be shielded and it’s the managers job to do it. However, he’s not a manager who is going to be able to get through to Cano that it’s important that he set an example to the rest of the club. McClendon said, “As long as you don’t dog it down the line, what’s the difference between 65 and 85 percent? Just run down the line.” But Cano did dog it. And the 65 percent reference is an example of searching for points on a math test so the student will pass. Cano’s effort was rarely that high on balls in which he knew he was going to be out.

McClendon can state publicly how much he supports Cano and that his hitting and defense are far more important than keeping critics at bay with a transparent sprint to first base once a week. He knows that Cano isn’t going to bust it to first base, nor will he be able to threaten Cano into running hard. If Joe Girardi and Joe Torre couldn’t do it, what chance does McClendon have? His former Yankees managers, Long, Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira and many other players tried to get it through his head and it never sunk in. McClendon will have the same experience and won’t do anything different. He’ll shrug, accept it and take the bullets for his star player because he has no other choice.




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Meet the New Bonds, Same As the Old Bonds

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There’s a combination of childlike innocence and institutionalized lack of empathy with Barry Bonds whenever he speaks publicly. This is not a criticism or an indictment, it just is. Like an earthquake or a hurricane, it’s not an entity that should know better. There’s no changing it nor truly understanding it.

As Bonds is facing the likelihood of his deserved Hall of Fame accomplishments being superseded by the belief that he took performance enhancing drugs to fuel his late-career explosion of exponential production that dwarfed what he did in his clean, younger days as the underappreciated best player in baseball.

One of the reasons Bonds speaks in such reverential tones of Jim Leyland is because Leyland was one of the few people who didn’t want anything from Bonds other than what was precisely on the table: a good performance and professional behavior. Leyland didn’t let Bonds get away with the things that were allowed to pass from the time he was a child and through his big league career because he was the son of Bobby Bonds; how talented he was; his draft status; his MVPs, Gold Gloves, and all-around play. As a result, Leyland is one of the few people who have passed through Bonds’s life for whom he has any respect.

Able to put up that front of behaving as a normal person, Bonds is clearly incapable of comprehending the why behind the actions of others. Like the decision upon the propriety of a handshake/hug/kiss hello and goodbye for an acquaintance or distant family member, Bonds just doesn’t know how to act. It’s an understandable perspective when Bonds was treated as something wholly other because of his name and skills on the baseball field. This was not evident in a contemporary, Ken Griffey Jr., who is seen as the white hat to Bonds’s black hat because Griffey wasn’t placed in that same bubble with a contentious relationship with Ken Griffey Sr. as Bonds had with his father. In later years, there was the pretense of a close relationship. Barry would demand that Bobby be a coach on the Giants’ staff; when Bobby died, Barry claimed he’d “lost his coach.” But it again reverts to the perception designed to be salable to a society that never lived the way Bonds did and has no clue as to why he’s the way he is.

That’s not a defense of the mostly dark side of Barry being Barry. It’s reality.

So when saying to Bonds that he ruined his legacy by choosing to allegedly take PEDs, he has neither the analytical ability to examine the circumstances from the position of anyone other than himself. It made perfect sense to him to use the drugs as well given that he, as the unacknowledged best player in baseball who had an all-world season in 1998, found himself largely ignored in favor of two players—Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa—who were using PEDs and became a worldwide phenomenon while having a fraction of the ability of Bonds. In Bonds’s view, he was playing baseball and they were playing home run derby; they were getting all the accolades, and he was shoved to the side.

In a sense, Bonds was right and proved his point by being better than most every player in baseball clean, then being better than most everyone in baseball when the playing field was again leveled because he was using the same drugs they were. His results were better in both instances because he was better. It’s why he received all those privileges growing up; why he was able to get away with anti-social behaviors; and why he was validated to act as he did: as long as he hit and performed, he could do what he wanted.

Now Bonds is trying a different tack of the regular guy who wants his due, but is doing so in the same vacuum in which he existed as a player and person. He claims he cares about his Hall of Fame prospects and his legacy. No longer are we seeing the arrogant and bullying Bonds; this new Bonds is trying to refurbish his image with such acts of kindness as paying for the college education of Giants’ fan and Dodger Stadium beating victim Bryan Stow’s children (truly a nice thing to do) and is expressing his bewilderment at the seeming blackballing of him out of the game. Bonds claims he wants to be a hitting coach. He would truly be a great one. In comparison to Bonds, few hitters understood what pitchers were trying to do; had that unyielding vision of the strike zone; a natural genius for the game in all its aspects; and the ability to explain complex concepts in terms that would be easily grasped and applicable. It’s not an exercise in “look how much I know” by regurgitating hitting terminology to intimidate, it’s unpretentious knowledge to teach.

He’s not going to get that chance to be a hitting coach because of the memories of Bonds’s behavior. McGwire’s a hitting coach because people like him. Bonds won’t because people didn’t like him; they tolerated him because they had little choice.

Hall of Fame voters are using the PED allegations as a way to keep Bonds out when, had he been a clean Jim Rice type of player on the borderline, his attitude and that he wasn’t nice to them would be the real reason for keeping him out as it was with Rice. They can’t deny him due to questionable credentials, so he’ll be denied because of PEDs. It’s partial dogmatism; partial hardline response to the apparent drug use via punitive measures; partial vindictiveness.

My criteria for a Hall of Fame yay or nay with the PED era is whether the player was a Hall of Famer before he is accused of having used the drugs. McGwire, Sosa and others weren’t. Bonds and Roger Clemens were. Therefore they should be elected.

That’s not going to sway a vast number of the voters, though. They’ll keep him out because they want to keep him out, and the Bonds PR blitz isn’t going to swing them in his favor because they don’t believe he’s changed from what they thought he was. Probably because he hasn’t. Probably because he can’t.

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The Trout vs Cabrera MVP Battle Is Over, But The Argument Rages On

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Remember a player named Mike Blowers? He’s a broadcaster now for the Mariners and had a few relatively productive seasons for them in the mid-to-late-1990s. One season in particular stands out. In 1995, the Yankees castoff Blowers posted an .809 OPS with 23 homers and 96 RBI for a Mariners team that came back from 13 games out of first place in August to win the AL West. They bounced the Yankees in the ALDS coming back from 2 games to 0 down before losing to the Indians in 6 games in the ALCS.

That season, you will remember, was shortened by the strike, so Blowers only played in 134 games. Had it been a full schedule, he certainly would have driven in 110+ runs. On the surface, it looks like a solid season. But in reality, was it? Or were his RBI totals cushioned by big games? During that season, Blowers had games with RBI totals of: 8, 5, 5, 6, 4, 4, 4, and 7. Right there that’s 8 games out of 134 where he accumulated 43 of his 96 RBI. Add in that he spent the season batting behind Tino Martinez (.369 OBP); Jay Buhner (.343 OBP); Ken Griffey Jr. (.379 OBP); and Edgar Martinez (.479 OBP), and you wonder why he had so few RBI.

This isn’t to pick on Blowers as a random player, but it proves a point that any stat—not just the old-school ones such as RBI—can be torn apart when they’re examined in depth with an end in mind.

The debate between Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera for American League MVP still rages even though Cabrera was given the award. The Cabrera backers present the following case: he won the Triple Crown; his team won their division; the opposing pitchers said they feared Cabrera more than any other hitter in baseball. The Trout backers point to his 10.7 WAR; his defensive brilliance; his speed; his power; and that the Angels were 6-14 when he arrived and went 81-58 with him in the lineup.

None other than newfound political celebrity Nate Silver made his case for Trout on his Fivethirtyeight.com blog here. Along with the stats such as WAR, Silver uses Trout playing in a “harder division” and other bits of randomness to bolster his case, but it’s not as clear-cut as he implies, nor is Cabrera’s case as clear-cut as the other side implies.

You can use a phantom argument as a means of patting the non-stat people on the head by saying, “Look at their record with him in the lineup and without it,” as if it’s connected on its face. I picture Silver rolling his eyes and thinking, “Here, idiots. Here’s a simplistic number you can understand. Wins.” It’s done as a concession to convince. Because Silver drilled the presidential election doesn’t mean his opinion and calculations in baseball are unassailable. In fact, his history at predicting baseball with PECOTA is quite pedestrian even though it’s promoted for its accuracy. PECOTA is a formula. It’s math and math isn’t the determinative factor with baseball players that it clearly is in the political arena. There’s no variable and no analysis. It’s a sum and when it’s wrong, there’s always an excuse of the faults of human beings in not living up to what was expected.

Does that make it okay to be wrong? To suggest that they would’ve been right if X happened and Y didn’t? If (BLANK) great pitcher didn’t mistakenly groove a fastball to Cabrera so he could knock it into space? If (BLANK) mediocre pitcher didn’t throw the best curveball of his life to strike Trout out with the bases loaded?

If we begin with the premise that Trout’s presence was solely responsible for the Angels rise from that atrocious start, how do we figure where it began and when it ended? How about the acquisition of a reliever named Ernesto Frieri who stabilized the Angels’ atrocious bullpen after they’d demoted closer Jordan Walden? The Angels were 10-17 when they acquired Frieri. Is he suddenly the MVP because they were 79-56 with him on the roster? With the Angels talent—dysfunctional and infighting as it was—do you truly believe they were going to keep playing as badly as they started? The concept of a statistical formula like PECOTA would tell you that it wasn’t going to happen; that they’d get themselves straightened out with or without Trout, but that is conveniently glossed over to promote Trout as the MVP because of his “presence”. Did he show up with donuts every day? Did he smell really good to make the other players happy? The presence argument is fleeting and incalculable before or after it happens and is mitigated by both Cabrera and Trout having positive things said about them. Which is accurate and which isn’t? Which counts and which doesn’t?

The comparison of home runs that were hit to whether or not they would have left a different ballpark is questionable as well. The pitchers pitch differently in a bigger park than they do in a smaller one; they might be more willing to challenge a player like Trout knowing who’s batting behind him (a guy named Albert Pujols) and test the rookie rather than run the risk of putting runners on base for Pujols and the other Angels bashers. Everyone knows the numbers nowadays and applies them to a certain degree. With everyone knowing the numbers, the strategies pitching coaches impart to their catchers as a way of devising a gameplan are contingent on what the opposing lineup does with pitches in various locations. Unless everything—everything—is torn apart to examine when, where, how, and why, WAR or the Triple Crown cannot be the final arbiter of the MVP.

You can’t have it both ways. When lobbying for the Hall of Fame, you can’t say that a player like Ron Santo was far superior to Jim Rice because of his defensive greatness at third base, ballpark factors, and plain factional disputes of arguing for the sake of it and then criticize a Cabrera because he was a bad third baseman, simultaneously crediting Trout because he’s a great center fielder. Rice was playing half of his games in Fenway Park with the Green Monster—a spot more nuanced than reliant on speed and range. He was good at playing that wall. Also he was a prideful and somewhat misunderstood black man playing in Boston in the 1970s which put more pressure on him, pressure that can’t be examined through a statistical lens. Third base is a harder to fill position and, despite his defensive inadequacies, Cabrera was serviceable at the position considering the expectations. He made the routine plays, which was all he was asked to do.

Asked to do.

If you’re asked to do something at work, are you criticized because someone whose duties are totally different from yours; whose skills are in a different category; is working in a totally different department, does their job in a “better” way than you do by metrics that are not in line with one another? That can’t be in line with one another?

No. So why do it with Cabrera and Trout?

With that comes the inevitable question, not of replacing these players with a baseline, invisible Triple A player as WAR does, but with an actual person. The Tigers had no one viable to play third base to take over for Cabrera while the Angels could’ve cobbled it together without Trout had they stuck Peter Bourjos out there (a 4.8 WAR player in 2011) and hoped he reverted to what he was in 2011 after a terrible start in 2012. Does that matter?

This is a tribal debate with the stat people on one end jumping up and down for Trout while shouting about the “injustice” and the old-schoolers gloating that Cabrera won. No one’s going to change their minds. But if this is the way it’s going to be, then it shouldn’t be about the Triple Crown, WAR, team results, aura, or whatever. It should be completely dissected pitch-by-pitch, play-by-play, everything-by-everything. Then there will be a final answer. Until that happens, there will be this endless presentation of supposed facts twisted to suit the purposes of the one arguing, truth and willingness to listen irrelevant and ignored for the sake of the self.

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The Media Vultures Circle The Mets Again

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Since the Mets have come apart after a surprising first half of the season when it was being speculated as to whether or not they’d be heavy buyers at the trading deadline, the same reporters who were so sure that the Wilpons days as owners were numbers just a few short months ago and wrote relentless pieces about the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme and its damage to the franchise have popped up again.

They were silent for a period of time, trying to maintain an aura of credibility that only exists because they’re in the media, as if that matters. Being paid by the New York Post, Newsday, ESPN or whatever other entity you can name doesn’t automatically imply knowing what they’re talking about. No one—no…one—I read speculated on the possibility of a Madoff settlement to save the Wilpons. In fact, the Wilpons might even wind up getting money back after all is said and done. They didn’t get rich being stupid and to suggest that they’re broke and the team is still in danger of being lost to the family is based on the same shoddy speculation that was indulged in months ago and turned out to be wrong.

It’s similar to the same so-called experts who felt that the Mets’ farm system was destitute of prospects. As it turns out, Omar Minaya’s scouting/drafting operation was far better than anyone thought.

Now, as the team has stumbled from their unexpected heights of contention at the All-Star break, the doom and gloom has returned. I’m not talking about from the fans—that’s expected; I’m talking about from the supposedly credible “insiders” in the media. Just the other day it started again about the possibility of David Wright leaving the club after next season. Compared with the Jose Reyes situation, will the Mets let Wright leave as they did Reyes? Are they going to be a stripped down version of other teams that haven’t spent one penny more than the bare minimum? Of course not. Wright’s going nowhere. The two situations were totally different on and off the field.

The Mets front office baseball people didn’t want to spend the necessary money to keep Reyes and wouldn’t have done so even if they had the money to spend and were allowed to run the team as they wanted. Last winter the Madoff trial was hanging over the oraganization’s collective heads like a guillotine. But money or not, GM Sandy Alderson would not want to allocate $100+ million to a speed player approaching 30 who’s had multiple injury problems; and if you look at Reyes in 2012 with the Marlins, it’s trendy to point to his recent hitting streak and solid play after a slow start, but the Marlins exponentially more dysfunctional than the Mets, are terrible and in the midst of a housecleaning that’s put them in a worse position than the Mets. Don’t bet on Reyes being with the Marlins past next season.

Wright’s different. A power bat that walks, is the de facto captain of the team (the Mets should make it official already), and who plays a difficult to fill position is not getting traded, nor is he going to be allowed to leave as a free agent. It’s true that the Mets have a large financial commitment to Jason Bay and Johan Santana next season ($50 million with their contracts and buyouts), but that will free a large amount of money to re-sign Wright and import players for 2013 with either backloaded free agent contracts or via trade. This idea that simply spending money would’ve made a significant difference in 2013 is ignoring that the teams that have spent tons of money on players in recent years haven’t succeeded. The Red Sox were supposed to “challenge the 1927 Yankees” as the best team in history in 2011, but collapsed in September and that collapse revealed disciplinary and personal fissures that resulted in the departure of manager Terry Francona, the hiring of Bobby Valentine and desperation maneuvers to patch over their holes and hope that they’d revert to performances and team-oriented behaviors of the past. Needless to say, it hasn’t worked and the Red Sox are in deep trouble moving forward as long as there are factional disputes and power grabs in the front office and the insistence that they don’t need to substantially alter the personnel.

The Phillies? They had an all-world starting rotation, signed a top-notch closer and had an offense that should’ve scored enough to support that rotation. But they’re old and injuries removed significant names from their everyday lineup and rotation. They’re not getting any younger and have contract commitments that made it necessary to trade Hunter Pence and consider again trading Cliff Lee to re-sign Cole Hamels and hope to have the health and performance they’ve lacked in 2012.

The Angels? Jered Weaver is 15-1; Mike Trout is on his way to winning the Rookie of the Year and the American League MVP; they traded for Zack Greinke; stole Ernesto Frieri from the Padres; Mark Trumbo is having an MVP-caliber season of his own and will eventually hit a ball that will never land; and signed Albert Pujols (this generation’s Joe DiMaggio) last winter, are still hovering around mediocrity and are in serious danger of missing the playoffs. Could the fact that they had too many players for too few positions and a manager, Mike Scioscia, who was used to being totally in charge and found his power usurped with a roster that doesn’t fit his style have something to do with their lack of cohesion and simply looking off?

Importing stars and spending money is not necessarily the answer and with the Mets, who were they supposed to get last winter? Would they be any better now if they’d signed Jonathan Papelbon? First, Papelbon wasn’t signing with the Mets; second, they didn’t have the money. Who else was other there that would fill a hole the Mets had? C.J. Wilson? He wasn’t coming to the Mets. Prince Fielder? Would he take an IOU?

The 1998 Mariners had Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr., and Edgar Martinez in their lineup and went 76-85. In 1999, they went 79-83. They traded Griffey for nothing after 1999 and lost in the ALCS in 2000. After that season, they lost A-Rod…and won 116 games in 2001. If you said in 1999 that the team would lose those two stars and win 116 games two years later, people would think you insane.

We don’t know what’s going to happen with prospects; how much luck will be involved; what the future holds. But the Mets have enough young players—especially young pitching—for a bright future.

Madoff was a PR disaster and financial nightmare for the Mets, but what it did was free the organization to let them rebuild correctly. As much as Minaya is savaged for spending money and for the contracts he gave to Oliver Perez, and the soon-to-mature big money deals he gave to Bay and Santana, no one could’ve expected the Wilpon financial empire to come undone. Whether they suspected that Madoff was a fraud or not, did anyone think it would come crashing as it did? Even with the Bay/Santana contracts, they should very well have had some money to spend if things had gone on as they were.

In retrospect, it’s going to be viewed as a good thing that the Mets had to trade Carlos Beltran and got Zack Wheeler; that they couldn’t toss more money at the wall and hope that stacks of cash would fill holes in a foundation that needed what’s being done now: a true rebuild.

If you think that a Mets’ starting rotation in 2013 of R.A. Dickey, Santana, Jonathon Niese, Matt Harvey and Wheeler won’t be able to make a run at a playoff spot if there’s a halfway decent bullpen and a couple of more offensive weapons, then you’re not accepting facts. As for the financial holes, no one knows how much money the Mets have to spend or not. They settled the Madoff case and, much to the poorly concealed disappointment of Howard Megdal, Bob Klapisch, John Harper and Joel Sherman, paid off several of the loans they’d taken out to continue to do business.

And they still own the team.

With the Bay/Santana money coming off the books after next season, Wright will be re-signed. A realistic idea to improve the offense and make Wright more willing to stay and not hold the organization hostage would be to make a serious play for Justin Upton to play right field (signed through 2015 with $38.5 million coming to him from 2013 onward); and pursue his brother B.J. Upton to play center field. B.J.’s not getting the $100 million he’s probably going to want, but would $70 million over 5 years get it done? To play with his brother and Wright, their childhood friend from Virginia? Maybe. And a lineup of Ike Davis, Daniel Murphy, Ruben Tejada, Wright, the Uptons, Jordany Valdespin or Kirk Nieuwenhuis, and a better hitting catcher would score enough runs to support that starting rotation.

It’s doable.

Ignore the media as they’re seeking ways to make up for their inability to write epitaphs for the Mets by writing them pre-death; also tune out the fans who are throwing tantrums as the team spirals. They weren’t expected to be any better than this. The young players are showing promise and things are far more positive than anticipated from December to April. Realistically that’s all the Mets and any organization can ask for when they’re rebuilding from the ground up amid financial catastrophe, declining attendance, media hit squads and palpable fan anger.

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Zduriencik and the Mariners Are Free From the Shackles of Ichiro

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A window was opened into the reality of the Mariners’ relationship with Ichiro Suzuki when, right before Ichiro wound up being traded to the Yankees, GM Jack Zduriencik stated publicly and somewhat ludicrously that Ichiro was still a franchise player with the unsaid implication that, like it or not, Ichiro was staying with the team beyond his contract’s end at the conclusion of this season. Of course it was over the top, but no one knew that Ichiro had already asked to be traded. Given some of the strange and ethically questionable things Zduriencik has done as GM, there was a very real possibility that he was really going to end up keeping Ichiro beyond his current contract.

Former Mariners’ star Jay Buhner said he would vomit if the Mariners signed Ichiro to a contract extension. Buhner’s planned purge was rendered irrelevant when, in a shocking decision, Ichiro was traded to the Yankees for two moderately warm bodies and the Mariners were finally free of a player who had become an unproductive on-field presence, an off-field albatross, and a spike in the tires of progress to get better. Only people inside the organization know how much pressure from ownership has been exerted on Ichiro’s behalf and sabotaged anything the baseball people wanted to do. Zduriencik hasn’t shown the skills at subtly nudging his bosses in the direction he wants them to go. His reputation was sullied when he somehow managed to give the Yankees the moral high ground in a botched trade that would’ve sent Cliff Lee to the Yankees and backed out of it for what was supposedly a “better” package and got the recently demoted Justin Smoak and simultaneously acquired an accused sex offender Josh Lueke, then was accused of lying as to how much he was told by the Rangers about Lueke’s past. Now, with the way the team has played since Ichiro’s departure, that one deal might have Zduriencik’s job.

It’s absurdly simplistic and a post-trade cheap shot to say that the dumping of one player had this much of an influence on team fortunes especially when they got rid of him just to get rid of him and because he asked out, but players know the difference between someone who’s interested in himself and his own numbers and one who’s doing what he can to help the team win. It’s a fine but easily recognizable line—to a player—when there’s a goal of individualism masquerading as “helping the team” and actually helping the team. Could Ichiro have swung for a few more home runs? Yes. Could he have stolen some bases when it was important rather than to bolster his stolen base percentage? Absolutely. In short, as the team’s fortunes declined and they were in full-scale rebuild, it was known in February and March that the games were going to be meaningless by May and he had nothing to do but build up his Hall of Fame resume.

And that’s what he did.

The diva superstar is tolerated as long as he’s productive and bringing fans into the ballpark. The problem with Ichiro was that he was no longer productive, was making a lot of money, the team was not helped by his presence, and the Mariners are currently 11th in the American League in attendance. Fans will go to watch a loser for so long before finding other activities. They’ll go to the games if the loser is somewhat interesting, but the Mariners weren’t even that anymore. When he was accumulating 240 hits (most of them singles), but was stealing bases, playing great defense and there were power bats hitting behind him to drive him in after his singles, it was fine. But that’s not what the Mariners have been for most of the past decade. What you had was a player who still notched his singles, but no longer did it with the frequency he once did and saw his batting average decline. Since he rarely walks, along with the batting average decline so went his on base percentage. This is not an indictment of Ichiro’s amazing on-field skills, but a legitimate criticism of his application of those skills. He misused his talents in a team sense.

In his final few years as a Mariner, he was essentially useless to them. There’s nothing worse than a fading star who still exerts power over the organization based on what he was. Ichiro’s looming presence had hindered the Mariners for so long that he was entwined with anything the team did or didn’t do. It had gotten to the point where Ichiro was called “great” because he was supposed to be called “great” and if anyone dared imply that he wasn’t a team player or wasn’t as good as his stat compiling suggested, they were chased from the town by a bat-wielding mob. The Mariners are 8-2 since Ichiro was dispatched. That’s more of a function of playing the bad Royals and the mediocre Blue Jays, but wins are wins. There are things for which Zduriencik deserves to be held accountable like the Lueke/Smoak deal and Chone Figgins’s contract, but given the clear interference from ownership with Ichiro and Ken Griffey Jr., perhaps he deserves one more winter and at least half of 2013 to try and get it right without Ichiro and Ichiro’s reputation and relationship with ownership standing in the way.

Ichiro was harming the team’s attempts to get better, but his request for a trade may have saved the GMs job, for awhile at least. What Zduriencik does with the freedom from the shackles of Ichiro will determine his long-term prospects for staying and winning in Seattle, but at least there’s not that shadow hovering over the franchise as he tries to do it.

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Trade Felix Hernandez!

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At least that’s what Ken Rosenthal suggests in his latest posting on Fox Sports.

On the surface, it makes sense.

In that same vein, while it was self-serving, Yankee-centric and gutsy-when-it’s-not-his-neck-on-the-line, the proposed trades of Cliff Lee and Carlos Gonzalez from Joel Sherman (that I discussed in my prior posting) weren’t pure idiocy in theory—someone other than Sherman could make a coherent case for them if they weren’t wearing their Yankees footed pajamas while writing it anyway. They’re not going to happen and Sherman, in spite of his puffed out chest of what “he’d” do if he were a GM, wouldn’t have the nerve nor the intelligence to run a team, let alone run it correctly with the fearlessness he openly says he’d have.

But if a team was operating in a vacuum and if there weren’t other concerns like fan reaction; attendance; media response; and player perception, the Mariners would be better-served in the long-run to trade Felix Hernandez for 4 prospects including a big league-ready, blue chip bat.

The inherent problem being that a team isn’t run in a vacuum and the Mariners have been self-destructively cognizant of outside forces.

GM Jack Zduriencik has made some mistakes in his tenure; his reputation took a beating when the Yankees accused him of reneging on an agreed-upon trade for Lee in the summer of 2010; and he was clearly dishonest in his recollection of the circumstances surrounding the Mariners’ acquisition of the accused sex offender Josh Lueke from the Rangers. But he’s not to blame for Ichiro Suzuki still being on the club. He wasn’t at fault for the ignominious career closure of Ken Griffey Jr. And I’m starting to believe that the decried and silly re-acquisition of Russell Branyan in 2010 was more a byproduct of upper management telling him to “do something and I don’t care what it is” than an actual baseball maneuver.

I’m sure that Zduriencik would consider dealing Hernandez; that Hernandez would welcome a trade to a contender. It takes a toll on a great pitcher to constantly have to pitch shutouts to have a prayer of winning a few games. Hernandez’s record in 2012 is 4-5; in 2010-2011 he went 27-26. He won the Cy Young Award in 2010 with a 13-12 record when, if he were with a good team and pitched similarly, he would’ve won 25 games.

This season he should have around 8-9 victories.

As much as stat people try to diminish the importance of wins in the grand scheme, it matters to players to have a gaudy record. For every Brandon McCarthy who understands and tries to implement advanced stats, there will 10 players who think like Jeff Francoeur and say that on base percentage isn’t important because it’s not up on the scoreboard when hitters come up to the plate.

If available Hernandez would set off a feeding frenzy that would make a school of sharks stop and stare with stricken awe. He’s got a limited no-trade clause (10 teams) and is signed through 2014 with $18.5 million in 2012; $19.5 million in 2013; and $20 million in 2014. He’d want an extension if the Mariners try to trade him to a team on his no-trade list, but what would the Yankees give up for him? The Mets? The Dodgers? The Red Sox?

The Phillies’ problem with Cole Hamels’s pending free agency would be solved right there and then. Get Hernandez for the rest of this season and beyond; let Hamels walk.

Any team would want Felix Hernandez and the Mariners could get a ton for him.

But many times players’ desires and team on-field needs are far down on the list as to whether a trade is considered and consummated.

By those parameters and that the Mariners will lose one of their longtime gate attractions in Ichiro after this season makes it a practical impossibility that they trade Hernandez.

The only variable is if Hernandez asks for it. That would change the landscape just as Roy Halladay‘s trade request did for the Blue Jays. If it happens, it won’t be until the winter. It’s not a mid-season deal and the Mariners would need to start a press blitz to explain that it was Hernandez’s decision and not theirs.

It’s not just about baseball. It’s about PR as well.

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My Annual MLB Draft Rant

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I tuned into the draft coverage on the MLB Network last night for a brief moment as they were up to pick 40 or so.

When talking about the newly minted MLB draftees, Harold Reynolds had the same look on his face as Sarah Palin when she discusses neuroscience.

And among the panel on the MLB Network, Reynolds was the eloquent one.

Reynolds himself was the 2nd pick in the 1980 MLB Draft. To get a gauge on how convoluted the draft was back then, Reynolds was taken in the secondary phase of the June draft. It’s safe to say that if he’d been taken in the regular phase, Reynolds would not have been the second overall pick when Darryl Strawberry, Darnell Coles and Billy Beane—prep school standouts all—were in the draft.

Reynolds was a good big league player, but not worth such a high pick under any circumstances. That analysis is, of course, in retrospect.

He might’ve been drafted that highly because no one–no….one–knows what 99.9% of the drafted players are going to become. There are so many variables that it’s impossible to know. And that’s the point.

John Hart was also on the MLB Network panel and he has a unique perspective into the draft because he’s been a baseball man and run two different organizations. That perspective should have led Hart to toss his hands up in the air and say, “Who knows?”

Hart was one of the GMs who passed on Derek Jeter in 1992. In the case of the Indians (Hart’s club) it was in favor a right-handed pitcher named Paul Shuey.

Was it the ghastly mistake that hindsight suggests it was? Or did the Indians and the other teams who let Jeter “slip” by see something in another player that made those players preferable to Jeter?

There are very few players who are consensus first round picks and can be expected to be star big leaguers. It didn’t take much effort to look at Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Bryce Harper or Stephen Strasburg and anoint them as future megastars. For Jeter, who would’ve looked at that skinny and somewhat funny looking high school kid with the fade haircut and expected him to become what he’s become?

No one. Not even the Yankees.

Hart knows this. The armchair experts don’t.

Most of the draft comments I saw were coming from people who don’t know anything about MLB itself, so what are the odds they’re going to know anything about the draft?

What I found laughable was what passed for “insider” analysis from people on the web. They were regurgitating stuff they read in a scouting directory or saw online and treating it as if it’s gospel. If the inside baseball people don’t know what a player is going to be, then you can be pretty sure that a guy sitting in front of his computer and never picked up a baseball doesn’t know either.

There were players being compared to Willie Mays.

Willie Mays!!!

Willie Mays is, by many estimates, the best player ever. So some 17-year-old kid is going to be the next Mays? Really?

I can tell you right now that the odds of that happening are zero point zero zero zero zero zero zero zero.

In other words, it’s not going to happen.

Then imaginary controversies were created. What did it mean to Jose Iglesias that the Red Sox drafted a shortstop with their first pick?!? Did it mean they no longer believe in Iglesias?

No. It means that they saw a player they had use for—in some way as a player, as a trade chip, as a guy they didn’t want and decided to draft to save the money for next year’s draft, for whatever—and selected him. A shortstop can be moved anywhere on the field and play adequately. Bret Saberhagen was drafted as a shortstop who’d pitched a bit in high school and the Royals decided that he was going to pitch after they’d drafted him. Two Cy Young Awards and a World Series MVP later, a potential Hall of Fame career as a pitcher had been derailed by injuries. Saberhagen would not have been what he was as a shortstop if he even made it to the big leagues at all.

There’s no “approach” to the draft. It’s not about signability; it’s not about drafting college players who are close to the big leagues to help immediately; it’s not about money in the bottom-line sense. It’s about picking players who you think have talent and hoping they develop to be used as trade chips or to make it to the big leagues and play for the team that drafted them.

The talk about the changes made to the draft in the CBA are irrelevant and missing the main point that it’s the big league players in the union now who screwed the amateurs because they’d had enough of the Harpers and Strasburgs of the world getting money that could have (and in their mind should have) been allocated to established big leaguers. I can tell you the thinking of the big leaguers who were faced with a relatively hard salary cap and teams like the Athletics and Rays telling potential free agents that they only had X amount of money to spend per year on the organization as a whole; Y was allocated to the big league product; Z was going into the draft.

Why would any big leaguer in his right mind want to see a $15 million check handed to some kid out of high school when an agreement could be made to tamp that down as a rule with punishing sanctions dropped on the collective heads of the teams that flout those rules?

The attitude of the MLB union chafing at a player never having played professionally getting that kind of money isn’t wrong. Let them work their way up. Let them deal with constrictions of what they can make.

You’re being sold snakeoil. The draft is important, but it’s not worth all this faux attention given to it by people who don’t know much of anything about the players they’re talking about apart from what they’re fed.

Reynolds, Hart and everyone else used the buzzwords: upside, power fastball, speed, athleticism to cover up the fact that they had no idea who or what the majority of the drafted players were.

It’s a speculative farce.

When he was broadcasting NFL games, Terry Bradshaw used to use a fake player’s name as being in on a tackle every single week regardless of which teams were playing. No one noticed.

I’d love to come up with a fictional player for next year’s draft complete with a bio, photo and video and say that he’s a potential top pick with some array of skills that make him viable not as the first pick in the first round, but as someone who could be taken between rounds one and five. Someone would buy into it’d go viral.

For a player and person who doesn’t exist.

Would anyone notice?

I’m dubious.

That might explain how ridiculous this whole charade is and the attention paid to it would stop.

It would work too. I know it would. And it would absolutely be more entertaining that this current nonsense.

It’s no contest.

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The Truth About the Drafts—NFL and MLB

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New York football Giants’ GM Jerry Reese was a guest with Mike Francesa yesterday to discuss his team’s haul in the NFL draft a week ago.

You can listen to the interview here.

Reese has won two Super Bowls and is the top football man of one of the most organized and serious front offices in the profession. During the interview, when discussing the media’s and public’s analysis of players and the draft, Reese said something very simple, highly intelligent and laser precise enough to stick a pin in the enormous and bloated egos of those who think they’re more qualified to assess, analyze, advise and criticize the players that are taken in any draft than those who are making the picks.

Well, I just think that there’s so many draft shows and people talk about draft picks and people don’t do it professionally for a job. We have guys who do it for a living. And the guys who don’t go to all the ballgames and scout them like we do here, I think there can be some misinformation.

He was speaking from his position running the Giants, but it applies to all drafts. My focus is on the NFL draft and the MLB draft.

The NFL draft has long been an extravaganza with a phalanx of armchair experts anointed credibility in a circular exercise without end. It’s easy to sit on the sidelines—with no responsibility—and say anything. Occasionally you’ll be right; occasionally you’ll be wrong; but without a career or job on the line, what difference does it make? All that’s necessary are a forum, the buzzwords and an audience.

I say this having great admiration for what a true NFL draftnik like Mel Kiper Jr. has been able to do in creating a niche for himself where there wasn’t one before. He worked very hard to get where he is and has made a lot of money doing what he loves.

That said, is anyone going to notice if Kiper says that he’d choose X player over Y player and Y player turns into a star? Probably. But is he going to lose his job? No.

Because the mandate of the draft analysts on ESPN, NFL Network, MLB and other outlets is to stimulate debate, disagree and draw attention to what they’re saying, there’s no reason to take it seriously.

If the mock drafts pop up and the repeated changes, “raging debates” and “eureka” discoveries as to why the “experts” are changing their minds isn’t based on any new information, what’s the point? We’re oversaturated with information as it is. It’s designed to attract webhits, ratings, attention and to sell draft guides. From higher ratings come more advertising dollars. If you know this going in and still partake for the theater, fine; if you don’t, then you’re being treated as and acting like a mindless sheep.

I could get my hands on a reputable website with the list of the top 30 potential picks in the NFL and MLB drafts, pick one and formulate a roundabout explanation as to why I did it without actually saying anything and there would be 1000 people saying it’s brilliant and another 1000 saying it’s idiotic.

Jon Gruden was savaged on Twitter for his negativity about drafted players. Said savagery was uttered by people who have no credentials to be critiquing someone like Gruden who is a Super Bowl winning coach, has extensive experience and would have another coaching job almost immediately if he chose to leave the broadcast booth.

Are you more credible than Jon Gruden? Is some guy on Twitter?

With the number of NFL players who were late-bloomers (Rich Gannon); lower round draft choices who found themselves in an advantageous system and circumstances (Joe Montana; Tom Brady); journeyman free agents who wouldn’t give up (Kurt Warner); or foundlings (Victor Cruz), and the number of top 3 pick busts (Ryan Leaf, Tony Mandarich, Blair Thomas), it’s not a science. Top NFL people are going to hit and miss.

So where does that leave Twitter-guy? Guy with a draft book and a dream? Radio man? Mel Kiper Jr.?

MLB former top picks in the draft are no more of a guarantee of success on the field or intelligence off the field. Just last week, former first overall pick Delmon Young was arrested for a fight outside a New York hotel that was classified as a hate crime because he, in a drunken state, made anti-Semitic references to the people he was fighting with.

In hindsight, Young hasn’t been a player worthy of the top pick in the draft either.

Anointed megastar Bryce Harper was caught in a viral video playing softball in a Washington DC park. What would’ve happened if Harper, trying to impress the people he was playing with, swung too hard and awkwardly and tore his shoulder in a softball game?

The video is below. It’s evidence.

Brien Taylor got into a fight and destroyed his shoulder.

Scouts were split on whether to select Ken Griffey Jr. first overall or a player named Mark Merchant. Mike Piazza was drafted in the 62nd round as a favor to his godfather Tommy Lasorda. James Shields was a 16th round pick. Albert Pujols was a 13th round pick. Jose Bautista was a 20th round journeyman who hopped from one organization to another before getting a chance to play with the Blue Jays—who almost released him.

The Reese quote basically says that if a talking head on TV gets a pick wrong, he’s still going to be a talking head on TV the next year and five years after that. If Jerry Reese gets it wrong, he might survive in his job for a year or two, but five years of mistakes and he’s out of a job and possibly out of football entirely.

It’s their living.

If you’re suggesting that you know more than they do and have on the line what they have on the line, here’s a flash: you don’t.

It’s even worse if you say you do.

Because you don’t. And won’t.

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2012 American League West Predicted Standings

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Wins Losses GB
1. Texas Rangers 93 69
2. Los Angeles Angels* 90 72 3
3. Seattle Mariners 70 92 23
4. Oakland Athletics 64 98 29

* Denotes predicted Wild Card winner.

Texas Rangers

The Rangers lose starting pitching (Cliff Lee, C.J. Wilson), but find innovative ways of replenishing it.

They lost Lee after 2010 and inserted Alexi Ogando into the rotation and he made the All-Star team.

They lost Wilson after 2011 and finally shifted Neftali Feliz into the rotation permanently and signed Joe Nathan to take his place as closer. Then they won the bidding for Yu Darvish.

They can hit, they can field, they can run, they can pitch, they’re willing to make bold trades in-season, and they’re not constrained by contemporary orthodoxies that are circular in nature and taken as fact because “everyone is doing it”.

If everyone is doing it, it’s probably as good a reason as any to do something else.

Los Angeles Angels

The Angels were never the team to spend lavishly on the biggest of the big name free agents, but after losing out on Carl Crawford last year and taking on the toxic contract of Vernon Wells, GM Tony Reagins was fired and replaced by Jerry DiPoto. DiPoto was handed what amounted to a blank check to make the team better, they signed Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson and traded for Chris Iannetta.

The bullpen is still a question mark, but they trot out four ace-quality starters and have more bats than they know what to do with.

The balance of power has shifted West and the days of the Yankees and Red Sox being anointed playoff spots as a rite of spring are over.

Seattle Mariners

Jack Zduriencik supporters are leaping from his ship like it’s the Hindenburg.

Not every negative thing that’s happened with the Mariners is his fault—I find it hard to believe he wanted to bring Ken Griffey Jr. back for a second season in 2010 and if he has a brain in his head, he’d love to be rid of Ichiro Suzuki—but he got the credit, he gets the blame.

Chone Figgins has been a disaster. They’re trying again to give him a starting job at third base and are batting him leadoff.

That won’t last.

The trade Zduriencik made in getting Jesus Montero and Hector Noesi is going to be terrific.

The Mariners are still offensively challenged, are relying on a patched together bullpen with upside, have good starting pitching and defense.

The division is a nightmare and support of this regime is crumbling. They’d better overachieve or Zduriencik is going to be in serious trouble by the waning days of the season.

Oakland Athletics

Is the intense study of sabermetrics undertaken by Brandon McCarthy going to repair his constant injuries? He’s the darling of the stat guys because he implemented numbers to improve his results—and it worked—but it’s all a bit over-the-top thinking he’s turned a corner, never to return to what he was.

Their number two starter is Bartolo Colon; their bullpen is gutted; the offense is woeful; the defense is questionable.

But ignore the facts. Billy Beane is a genius because a book and a movie said so.

It’s Hollywood and creative non-fiction!! You can believe it if you want…if you’re an indoctrinated, agenda-driven moron.

Far more in depth analysis is in my book, Paul Lebowitz’s 2012 Baseball Guide, now available.

Click here for a full sample of team predictions/projections. My book can be purchased on KindleSmashwordsBN and Lulu with other outlets on the way.

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Managers/GMs on the 2012 Hotseat

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It’s never too early to talk about who might be in trouble in the front office and dugout.

Let’s take a look.

Jack Zduriencik, GM—Seattle Mariners

Zduriencik was hired in late October of 2008. In retrospect, the worst thing that could’ve happened for the Mariners was the turnaround from 2008-2009 when they went from 61-101 to 85-77.

The 2008 team wasn’t 100-loss bad. They sustained crippling injuries to closer J.J. Putz and would-be ace #2 Erik Bedard and the entire season came apart. By the end of May, they were 15 games under .500 and double-digits out of first place.

When the news came out that Mike Morse had signed a contract extension with the Nationals, the trade Zduriencik made sending Morse to Washington for Ryan Langerhans was referenced on Twitter along with the now-laughable ranking of the Mariners of the sixth best organization in baseball a couple of years ago.

The trending topic is #6org as if it’s the most absurd thing in the world.

But, like the rise from 100-losses to moderate contention in the span of a year, it’s all in the details.

Zduriencik has done many good things as he’s reduced the Mariners’ payroll from $117 million when he took over to around $94 million in 2012. His drafts have yielded Dustin Ackley, Daniel Hultzen and Kyle Seager.

He’s also done some stupid things like signing Chone Figgins and engaged in activities that, at best, are described as amoral such as trading for Josh Lueke, signing Milton Bradley and double-dealing on the Yankees in the Cliff Lee trade negotiations.

It’s not all his fault. Some of what’s happened has been forced on him by the front office (re-signing Ken Griffey Jr. and keeping Ichiro Suzuki). But he got the credit for the 2009 rise, he gets the blame for everything else. That’s how it works.

The Mariners are in a nightmarish division and just pulled off a risky trade sending Michael Pineda and prospect Jose Campos to the Yankees for Jesus Montero and Hector Noesi. We won’t know the true end result of this trade for years, but if Pineda pitches well in pinstripes and Montero and Noesi don’t live up to expectations, that could be it for Zduriencik. The “right track” stuff won’t play if the Mariners again lose 90 games and with his contract running through 2013, Zduriencik may be running out of time.

Fredi Gonzalez, Manager—Atlanta Braves

Much to the chagrin of the more dialed-in Braves fans, unless they start the season 10-25, he’s not going anywhere.

He did a poor job last season even before the collapse that drove the Braves from a playoff spot that should’ve been assured. His strategic decisions were occasionally nonsensical and he appeared defensive and borderline arrogant in justifying the way he ran his team.

Do the Braves have an on-staff replacement and if they make a change? Would they be willing to hire an unproven Terry Pendleton? Probably not.

One intriguing option was Terry Francona, but Francona joined ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball and I doubt he’s going to step out of the booth and back on the field in 2012. I’m getting the feeling that he took his interviews with the Cubs and Cardinals right after leaving the Red Sox looking to keep managing and when he didn’t get those jobs, he came to terms with broadcasting as a new career option and will enjoy being around the game without the stifling pressure from managing in Boston for 8 years—pressure that negatively affected his health.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Francona doesn’t return to managing at all for the foreseeable future.

The one name that’s possible with Gonzalez—not likely, but possible if the season is spiraling out of control and needs to be saved—is Bobby Cox.

The veterans would welcome him back and while he’d be reluctant to replace his hand-picked successor, if John Schuerholz and Frank Wren tell Cox that Gonzalez is gone whether he takes the job or not, he’ll take the job. Chipper Jones could go to upper management and says enough’s enough with Gonzalez and try to convince Cox to take over for the rest of the season.

Remember that Cox didn’t want to move from GM to manager in 1990 when Russ Nixon was fired and Cox subsequently stayed until 2010 and wrote his ticket to the Hall of Fame.

Dusty Baker, Manager—Cincinnati Reds

Baker and GM Walt Jocketty have never been on the same page. Baker’s contract is up at the end of the season and the only thing that saved him from being fired at the conclusion of his last contract in 2010 was that he won the NL Central.

As evidenced by trading a large chunk of their minor league system for Mat Latos and the signings of Ryan Madson and Ryan Ludwick, the Reds are going for it now and have to win.

There’s no veteran successor on staff and Francona would be an option in Cincinnati if he were looking to get back in the dugout, but he’s not.

One interesting scenario is if Tony LaRussa is bored in retirement and his old cohort from Oakland and St. Louis, Jocketty, comes calling. LaRussa and Baker despise each other and it probably wouldn’t sit well with several of the Reds players, but if they’re not fulfilling their mandate, they’d have no one to blame but themselves and, like the Red Sox with Bobby Valentine, would have to deal with the consequences.

It won’t matter because the Reds are going to play well this year and Baker’s a survivor, but the expiring contract is hovering over the manager and team.

They’d better get off to a good start.

Brad Mills, Manager—Houston Astros

The new front office led by Jeff Luhnow kept Mills, but that may be because it makes no sense to pay a different manager to run a team that’s going to lose 100 games in 2012 regardless of who’s in the manager’s office.

Mills’s contract is up at the end of the season. The Astros mess is not his fault and he seems to be a competent manager, but Luhnow and new owner Jim Crane inherited him and it’s only fair that they hire their own man if that’s what they’d like to do.

One can only hope they don’t hire a new manager and, like Sig Mejdal’s new age title of “Director of Decision Sciences”, they choose to refer to the manager as “Director of On-Field Strategic Interpretations and Implementations”.

Maybe they’ll hire Keith Law to manage the team. I know I’d love to see that as he deals with Brett Myers.

That would be a narrative!

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