Phillies 2013 Success Hinges on Halladay, Hamels and Lee

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Here are the facts about the 2013 Phillies:

  • They’re old
  • They’re expensive
  • Their window is closing
  • Their system is gutted of prospects
  • Their success is contingent on their top three starting pitchers

With all the ridicule raining down on Phillies’ GM Ruben Amaro Jr. for his acquisitions of players who are frequent targets of attacks from the SABR-obsessed in Delmon Young and Michael Young (no relation that we know of), the reality of the situation dictates that the Phillies go all in with players who are the equivalent of duct tape.

It’s the epitome of arrogance to think that the Phillies aren’t aware of the limitations of both Youngs; that they don’t know Michael Young’s defense at third base is poor and, at age 36, he’s coming off the worst season of his career; that they aren’t cognizant of the baggage the Delmon Young carries on and off the field when they signed him for 1-year and $750,000. But what were they supposed to do?

They needed a third baseman and their options were Michael Young and Kevin Youkilis. Youkilis hasn’t distinguished himself on and off the field over the past several seasons and Michael Young was cheaper (the Rangers are paying $10 million of his $16 million salary for 2013).

They needed another outfielder and they were left with the dregs of the free agent market like the limited Scott Hairston, who’s not any better than what they’ve already got; signing Michael Bourn, giving up a draft pick, paying Scott Boras’s extortion-like fees, and having two speed outfielders with Bourn and Ben Revere; trading for Vernon Wells; or signing Delmon Young. Delmon Young hits home runs in the post-season and that’s where the Phillies are planning (praying) to be in October.

This isn’t about a narrative of the Phillies being clueless and signing/trading for bad or limited players. It’s about working with what they have. Amaro isn’t stupid and he tried the strategy of building for the now and building for the future in December of 2009 when he dealt Cliff Lee for prospects and replaced him with Roy Halladay for other prospects.

Amaro, savaged for that decision, reversed course at mid-season 2010 when he traded for Roy Oswalt and then did a total backflip when he re-signed Lee as a free agent. The team has completely neglected the draft for what appear to be financial reasons, leading to the high-profile and angry departure of former scouting director Chuck LaMar.

The decision was tacitly made in the summer of 2010 that the Phillies were going to try and win with the group they had for as long as they could and accept the likelihood of a long rebuilding process once the stars Halladay, Lee, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley were past their sell-by date. The signings made this winter are not designed to be lauded or viewed as savvy. They’re patchwork in the hopes that they’ll get something useful from the Youngs; that Utley will come back healthy in his contract year; that Howard is better after a lost season due to his Achilles tendon woes.

As for the open secret that the Phillies no longer think much of Domonic Brown to the level that they’re unwilling to give him a fulltime job and are handing right field to Delmon Young, this too is tied in with the Phillies gutted farm system. Perhaps it was an overvaluation of the young players the Phillies had or it was a frailty in development, but none of the players they’ve traded in recent years to acquire veterans—Jonathan Singleton, Kyle Drabek, Travis d’Arnaud, Lou Marson, Jason Donald, Carlos Carrasco—have done anything in the big leagues yet. They wouldn’t have helped the Phillies of 2009-2012 much, if at all. Outsiders can look at Brown’s tools and his minor league numbers and wonder why the Phillies are so reluctant to give him a chance, but in his big league chances, he’s appeared limited and overmatched. There’s a similarity to Cameron Maybin in Brown that his assessments are off-the-charts until he’s actually with the team and they see him every day, then they realize that he’s plainly and simply not that good. The Phillies know him better than anyone and if they don’t think he can play every day, then perhaps he can’t play every day.

The 2012 Phillies finished at 81-81. Even with their offensive ineptitude for most of the season, with a healthy Halladay would they have been a .500 team or would they have been at around 90 wins and in contention for a Wild Card?

This is the last gasp for this group. Manager Charlie Manuel just turned 69 and is in the final year of his contract. Within the next three years, they’re going to be rebuilding with a new manager and young players. In the near term, it’s down to the big three pitchers.

The ages and wear on the tires for Halladay and Lee are legitimate concerns for 2013 as is the shoulder issue that Hamels had last season, but regardless of how the offense performs, the Phillies season hinges on how those aces pitch. If they don’t pitch well, the team won’t win. If they do pitch well, the team will be good for three out of every five days with Mike Adams and Jonathan Papelbon in the bullpen.

The Youngs, Revere, Howard, Utley, Rollins—none of it matters if they hit at all. It’s the starting pitchers that will determine the Phillies’ fate. Everything else is just conversation.

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The R.A. Dickey Trade Part III—Desperation or Progression for the Blue Jays?

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Since replacing J.P. Ricciardi as Blue Jays’ GM, Alex Anthopoulos has done many things that garnered him credit for running his club the “right” way by combining old-school scouting with new age stats; for showing aggressiveness when the time called for it; and for being fearless. The Blue Jays, in that time, were rebuilding and reloading; clearing salaries and planning for the “future.” They had John Farrell, a stat-based manager with a sterling reputation; they’d accumulated prospects that were just about ready to take the next step forward and, if everything went well, would contend in 2012.

But again, as is the possibility with a club that doesn’t spend a lot of money and is relying on the development of young players, the 2012 Blue Jays were ravaged by injuries and inconsistency, fell from 81-81 to 73-89 and sat by impotently as the Orioles came from nowhere to make the playoffs. After so many years of building for the “future,” when was that “future” going to come? For so long, the Blue Jays have been frozen in place or moving backwards, shoving the rock up the hill only to see it come tumbling back down again, many times right on top of them.

With a bolt of lightning, the Marlins’ latest fire sale led to the Blue Jays acquiring Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes, Emilio Bonifacio, and John Buck for Henderson Alvarez, Yunel Escobar and prospects. After that, with the decision to try and win now essentially made, they surrendered two more top prospects, Travis d’Arnaud and Noah Syndergaard, to the Mets to get reigning National League Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey. They signed Dickey to a contract extension worth $25 million to complete the trade.

This isn’t a spending spree for its own sake nor is it a drastic philosophical deviation from one strategy to the other, but it’s more of a realization that the time to go for it is now. The Yankees and Red Sox are shells of what they were. The Orioles overachieved in 2012. The Rays are still fighting payroll constraints. With the extra Wild Card, the door is wide open for a team like the Blue Jays to move up.

Farrell was the equivalent of a replaceable teen idol—he was there because he fit the suit, the fans screamed when they saw him, and he couldn’t actually do any of the things a manager needs to do well. His results were disastrous in every respect and there’s a palpable relief that he’s gone. He’s been replaced by the former Blue Jays’ manager John Gibbons who was horribly underrated for his strategic acumen and is a sound, unexpected hiring.

Having seen firsthand the risks of trading a star pitcher Roy Halladay and, in the subsequent series of deals, winding up with Kyle Drabek (having just undergone his second Tommy John surgery), Anthony Gose, and d’Arnaud, they are rightfully dubious of prospects and their projections.

They didn’t alter strategies on the fly and make panicky maneuvers for Anthopoulos to try and save his job. Nor did they show desperation and haphazardly try to take advantage of the weakness in their division. They’ve made a natural progression based on opportunity and availability.

There’s a difference between the Blue Jays’ winter refurbishing and a Marlins-type spending spree designed to validate a beautiful new ballpark with an owner, Jeffrey Loria, elusively hovering in the dark ready to pull the plug and backtrack on promises and commitments.

There’s a difference between the Blue Jays’ flurry of acquisitions and the Angels signing Josh Hamilton, reportedly on orders of ownership, in order to take some of the spotlight away from their crosstown rivals, the Dodgers.

There’s a difference between the Blue Jays being decisive and the Dodgers new, endless amounts of cash netting Zack Greinke as a free agent and providing them the ability to absorb the contracts of Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez and Josh Beckett from the Red Sox.

What these clubs and the Blue Jays have done are totally independent of each other.

The simple narrative is that the Blue Jays have chosen to spend with the big boys, but the reality is that they built up the farm system to give themselves the assets to acquire players when they were ready to win. Did they expect it to happen this quickly? Probably not, but Athopoulos was allowed to take on those contracts—many of which are heavily backloaded—and for the first time in 20 years, they have a viable chance to win. The waters parted to open a path and they took it. It’s not a change in the blueprint, but adapting to the situation. Now they’re ready to contend.

The Blue Jays haven’t made the playoffs since their second straight World Series win in 1993. They have a rabid and loyal fanbase and now they now have the goods to make another run—with similar star-level talent to their title-winning teams—two decades later. If they pull it off, the only people who are going to care about the money they spent are the same constituency whose metrics aren’t about winning, but about doing it cheaper than the other guy to prove how smart they are. That faction has become increasingly marginalized into what it truly is: a small, fringe group that shouts loudly into the wind. If the Blue Jays play up to their potential, the money they spent or the prospects they surrendered will be irrelevant because, in the end, it’s about winning. Now the Blue Jays have the goods to do it not just on paper and with best case scenarios, but with superior on-field talent.

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Alex Anthopoulos’s Kitchen Sink

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Unwed to a particular strategy as his predecessor was, when Alex Anthopoulos took over as Blue Jays’ GM replacing J.P. Ricciardi, he exhibited a freshness that invigorated the franchise. Ricciardi did a better job than he’s given credit for, but a series of poor drafts and feuds with players from his team and others as well as the consistently mediocre, “almost there” results, led to his ouster. Anthopoulos took the controls, executed a series of well-regarded trades getting quality prospects Kyle Drabek and Travis D’Arnaud for Roy Halladay; as well as acquiring Brandon Morrow for Brandon League and was rightfully judged as a solid choice and up and coming executive who could be trusted.

The Blue Jays looked to be a team on the rise with plenty of young talent and a forward thinking GM who knew the numbers, but also trusted his old-school baseball people with flexibility of trying speed in lieu of power and on base percentage. But the on-field results are still mediocre-to-bad and now there’s a rising scrutiny on Anthopoulos. His great moves such as getting Morrow and finding a taker for Vernon Wells‘s atrocious contract have been mitigated by his poor moves such as trading Mike Napoli for Frank Francisco. Colby Rasmus and Yunel Escobar were two players who had worn out their welcomes in their prior stops, but were talented enough to make it worthwhile to get them. Escobar is still a player the front office wants to strangle because of his brain dead behavior and Rasmus has been the same disappointment with the Blue Jays he was with the Cardinals; in fact, he’s been worse.

Now the strange decision to sign career utility player Maicer Izturis to a 3-year, $10 million contract while trading a better player Mike Aviles to the Indians for a scatterarmed reliever (the Blue Jays have plenty of those) Esmil Rogers calls into greater question what the plan is. In 2012, the entire pitching staff was decimated by injuries and the strategy Anthopoulos has used to construct his bullpen with journeymen such as Kevin Gregg, Francisco, Jon Rauch, Octavio Dotel, and Sergio Santos has been a failure. His hand-picked manager, John Farrell, was roundly criticized for game-handling skills that were bordering on the inept and a profound lack of fundamentals that cost the club numerous games.

This kitchen sink strategy is reminiscent of a sous chef getting the head chef job, having many plans and innovative ideas, then overdoing it making things worse than they were before. Anthopoulos is trying a lot of different tactics, but it doesn’t hide the bottom line that his choice as manager was traded away only because the Red Sox desperately wanted him and was in serious jeopardy of being fired if they hadn’t; that the Blue Jays have consistently been labeled a team to watch, but sat by haplessly as the team that finally overtook the Red Sox and Rays in the AL East was a different kind of bird, the Orioles, with a roster that was widely expected to lose 95 games in 2012.

The Blue Jays have yet to hire a manager to replace Farrell. The trade was completed on October 21st. How long does it take to find a new manager? The pedestrian names who struggled elsewhere such as Don Wakamatsu and Manny Acta have been bandied about. How many managers does Anthopoulos get to hire and fire? How many tries at getting the recipe right will he get before the scrutiny falls squarely on him?

Getting Brett Lawrie and Morrow; dumping Wells’s onerous contract; and the perception of knowing what he’s doing have carried him this far. Much of what’s gone wrong with the Blue Jays hasn’t been the fault of Anthopoulos, but there comes a time when there has to be a legitimate improvement on the field before the question, “What’s the problem here?” is asked. That time is coming and if the Blue Jays don’t get better quick, it will be asked of Anthopoulos and right now, given the ponderous managerial search, it doesn’t appear as though he has an answer that will placate the angry masses.

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Red Sox Need To Examine John Farrell Objectively

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Before the Red Sox go crazy in trading players and doling a lucrative long-term contract on their main target to replace Bobby Valentine, John Farrell, they had better make sure that they know exactly what they’re getting. It’s not a matter of, “We’ll hire Farrell and everything will be okay.” That straw man is was erected under the supervision of those who went to the Josh Beckett school of “don’t blame me.” Valentine was part of the problem for the Red Sox this season, but only a small part. Hiring Farrell doesn’t repair the rotation; the bullpen; the pockmarked lineup; and the jockeying for power in the front office.

Because Farrell was popular amongst the players and media and an audible sigh of relief would be exhaled en masse if they hire him is another reason to hesitate. Giving the players, fans, and media what they want is one of the things the Red Sox intentionally got away from when they began rebuilding the organization as far back as Dan Duquette’s era. Considering their brattish behavior when it came to Valentine, the players lost all rights to dictate anything to the front office, let alone whom they wanted in the manager’s office. Many of the players who betrayed the “beloved” Terry Francona are gone; some remain and some undermined Valentine from the start. Now they want Farrell? And the front office is prepared to give them what they want and possibly trade players to do it?

The Red Sox had better look at Farrell objectively, not as a man but as a manager. He’d handle the media better than Valentine and the players wouldn’t overstep their bounds as they did with Valentine, but these are no longer the days in which the Red Sox had such an overwhelming array of talent that they were able to overcome controversies and dysfunction to win regardless of their issues. The team is not very good and Farrell’s managing isn’t much better. Strategic mishaps happen with every manager and they sometimes cost games; but sometimes the mistakes managers make wind up succeeding. I would say that the number of mistakes a manager makes over the course of a game are mitigated by an unknown pitcher having a great game; a hitter doing something he doesn’t normally do; or the opposing manager committing a worse gaffe. There’s a difference between a strategic and a fundamental error and I’m not talking about a shortstop booting a ground ball or the left fielder missing the cutoff man. I’m talking about a manager insisting, “This is the way we play,” when it diametrically opposes what they should be doing and what works.

The Blue Jays were mediocre in 2011 under Farrell, but they had an excuse because they were retooling the organization under GM Alex Anthopoulos. In 2012, they had expectations of playoff contention. Injuries have been proffered as an excuse as to why they’re currently 19 games under .500, but they were a .500 team before Jose Bautista, Brandon Morrow, Kyle Drabek, and Drew Hutchison got hurt. They’ve gotten a career year from Edwin Encarnacion and are frequently cited as a team with plenty of prospects and money to spend in the upcoming off-season.

When the actual on-field improvement will come is anyone’s guess and a large chunk of their failures have stemmed from the managerial mishaps of Farrell. He allows his players to run wild on the basepaths, stealing bases—and getting thrown out—seemingly at will; they swing for home runs and are over-aggressive at the plate. In short, they don’t play the game correctly.

Last night, for example, the final result of the game looks to be an 11-4 Yankees blowout, but in the bottom of the eighth inning, the score was 9-4 when, with one out, Rajai Davis singled off of David Robertson. Anthony Gose came up, the count went to 2-0, and Gose swung at the next pitch grounding out to the first baseman.

The Blue Jays were down 5 runs with a pitcher who has the propensity to walk people and has been shaky of late, and Gose—a speed player who has shown occasional pop in the minors—swings at a 2-0 pitch. Why? Even if he’d achieved the best possible on-paper result and hit a home run, then what? The score would’ve been 9-6. And the likelihood of that happening, with Gose having hit 1 homer in 151 plate appearances in the big leagues this season, was nearly nonexistent. Had he gotten on base with Brett Lawrie and Colby Rasmus behind him, there was a chance that one of them would run into a pitch and hit it out of the park to get the Blue Jays back in the game. The proper baseball move was to tell Gose to take a strike. Is it possible that Farrell did that and Gose swung anyway? I suppose. But given the way the Blue Jays play with trying to hit home runs and overaggressiveness on the basepaths, and their overall underachievement, does Farrell deserve that benefit of the doubt?

No.

It’s similar to him not deserving to be anointed the Red Sox manager just because he was a coach on the team when they were contending for World Series wins and that people like him. The Red Sox need to think long and hard before making a desperation move on Farrell because there’s a chance that he might actually make things worse.

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The Blue Jays: New Management, Talented Players, Same Mediocre Results

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The Blue Jays have to start winning some games.

Going back to the J.P. Ricciardi years, they’ve been on the verge of something special only to have circumstances on and off the field sabotage them. During that time they were unfortunate enough to be trapped in a division with the Yankees and Red Sox when those clubs were at the height of their rivalry and powers. Then from 2008 onward, they not only had the Yankees and Red Sox to deal with, but the young and hungry Rays rose to prominence as well.

The Ricciardi Blue Jays teams are seen as a retrospective failure in the context of Moneyball because Ricciardi was widely quoted in the book and was the one GM who closely approximated the strategies therein. They also spent money to try and win and didn’t.

Objectively those Blue Jays teams—especially the 2003, 2006 and 2008 squads—would’ve made the playoffs had they been housed in a less imposing division. Sometimes it breaks that way.

Ricciardi was perceived negatively because of Moneyball blowback; due to his un-GM-like proclivity for speaking his mind rather than in the circles favored by the new age GMs; and that he had public dustups (most of his own doing) with media members, players and coaches on his team and others. He made mistakes; he wasn’t a bad GM.

When Ricciardi was fired after the 2009 season, his replacement Alex Anthopoulos immediately made his presence felt with aggressiveness; a less polarizing personality; and fearlessness. He knew the numbers and was also willing to take chances on talented players who might not light up a rotisserie league team, but could contribute to his club in other ways.

The first year of a new regime is generally a freebie but in 2010 as they moved past the days of Ricciardi and the traded Roy Halladay, they rode Jose Bautista’s shocking rise to 54 homers, a power-laden and homer-hungry lineup and a pretty good starting rotation to an 85-77 finish.

Anthopoulos began to put his stamp on the club following 2010 as he hired his own manager, John Farrell, to replace Cito Gaston. He traded for Brett Lawrie; amazingly found a taker for Vernon Wells’s contract while only paying $5 million to cover a portion of it; and signed Bautista to a contract extension.

The 2011 Blue Jays ended at .500. They were a team to watch for 2012.

The original idea was to watch them as they rose in the standings. Instead we’re watching them and wondering why they’re still at .500.

It’s June 14th and they’re sitting at 31-32, tied for last place in the AL East with the Red Sox.

Injuries have robbed them of closer Sergio Santos and starter Brandon Morrow. Kyle Drabek left his start on Wednesday with a popping sensation in his elbow. Adam Lind didn’t hit and was dispatched to the minors, unlikely to return. Colby Rasmus is playing identically to the player who was the rope in a tug-of-war between his former manager with the Cardinals Tony LaRussa and his dad Tony Rasmus. Manager Farrell allows his players to run the bases with abandon and steal bases at odd times.

Are these excuses or are they reasons?

The American League East has five teams that are either over .500 or within one game of .500. But earlier this season, the division was wide open with the Yankees pitching failing them and Mariano Rivera out for the season. The Red Sox were playing terribly and infighting. The Rays lost Evan Longoria for an extended period.

And the Blue Jays didn’t take advantage.

Again.

What should be most galling to the Blue Jays and their fans is that it was the Orioles—that perpetual doormat—that jumped to the top of the division with a stunning run of solid fundamental play and led by a far superior strategic manager to Farrell, the experienced Buck Showalter.

At what point does the Blue Jays’ building and rebuilding end and do expectations and demands replace the mantra of “patience”?

There was enough talent on the Blue Jays during the Ricciardi years that they could’ve made the playoffs 2-3 times with a little better luck and a less difficult division. Now they have as much if not more talent in a weaker division and they remain trapped in the vacancy of mediocrity.

When does it stop?

Eventually the Blue Jays have to get past the “we’re building” excuse and start winning some games; to become a legitimate contender when there’s an extra playoff spot to be won and they have the talent and the opening to win it.

Yet here they are at .500 and looking for that missing piece to put them over the top.

Over the top of what is unknown. Is it over the top of the “mountain” of .500? Or is it over the top of their divisional rivals to make some noise in the regular season as something other than a cool pick for the prognosticators who’ll repeat the process from November to February and fall back to what they are?

I don’t know.

And nor do they.

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American League Fantasy Sleepers

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These names jumped out at me as I’m working on my book. (See the sidebar. Available soon.)

B.J. Upton, CF—Tampa Bay Rays

Upton is probably one of the most aggravating players in all of baseball to fans, teammates and everyone else. So talented that he can do anything—-anything—on the field, his motivation and hustle are contingent on the day and his mood.

But he’s a free agent at the end of the season and wants to get paid. Expect a big power/stolen base season and a return to the high on base numbers from 2007-2008.

Carlos Villanueva, RHP—Toronto Blue Jays

He won’t cost anything and was under-the-radar impressive when the Blue Jays put him in the starting rotation last season.

They have starting pitching, but with Kyle Drabek a question to make the team and the limits still being placed on Henderson Alvarez and Brandon Morrow, Villanueva is a veteran they could count on as a starter they don’t have to limit.

As a starter, he was able to use all of his pitches including a changeup. Strangely, he gets his secondary pitches over the plate consistently, but not his fastball.

Jim Johnson, RHP—Baltimore Orioles

The Orioles haven’t specifically said what they’re doing with Johnson. They’ve implied that he’s staying in the bullpen, but the acquisition of Matt Lindstrom frees them to make Johnson a starter where he could be very effective.

Either way, he’s not a “name” closer or guaranteed starter who’d be overly in demand.

Jacob Turner, RHP—Detroit Tigers

As the Tigers proved with Rick Porcello, they don’t let a pitcher’s inexperience dissuade them from sticking him in the rotation.

Turner has far better stuff than Porcello—a good fastball and wicked hard curve. He throws multiple variations on his fastball, has great control and is poised and polished.

Adam Dunn, DH—Chicago White Sox

I have trouble buying that a veteran who hit 40 home runs annually and wasn’t a PED case suddenly lost it all at once.

The not-so-witty line, “Dunn is Done” is a cheap shot and inaccurate.

He was terrible last season to be sure, but he was also unlucky (a .240 BAbip vs a career number of .292).

Dunn still walked 75 times and in comparison to his absurd .159 average, a .292 OBP is pretty good.

The combination of the new league; the expectations and pressure from a big contract; and a raving maniac manager in Ozzie Guillen put Dunn out of his comfort zone. A year in with the White Sox and a more relaxed and understanding manager, Robin Ventura, along with the diminished team-wide expectations will let Dunn be himself—a gentle giant who walks a lot and hits home runs.

Hisanori Takahashi, LHP—Los Angeles Angels

The Angels were kicking the tires on Francisco Cordero and Ryan Madson and it wasn’t to be a set-up man.

If Jordan Walden is suffering from shellshock after the way his massive gack against the Athletics late in the season essentially eliminated the Angels from contention, they might have to pull him from the closer’s role sooner rather than later.

Manager Mike Scioscia is loyal to his players and doesn’t make changes like this until he absolutely has to, but the Angels can’t afford to mess around with the money they spent this off-season and the competition they’re facing for a playoff spot.

Takahashi can do anything—start, set-up, close—and is fearless.

Worst case, if your league counts “holds”, he’ll accumulate those for you.

Fautino De Los Santos, RHP—Oakland Athletics

Don’t ask me what the A’s are planning this year because as the trades of their starting rotation and closer and signing Yoenis Cespedes signing prove, they’re flinging stuff at the wall and hoping something sticks.

Although Brian Fuentes and Grant Balfour are on the roster, they might be willing to look at a younger, inexperienced closer at some point. Fuentes is hot and cold and Balfour has never been a full time closer.

De Los Santos has an upper-90s fastball and as the season rolls on, it’s likely that both Fuentes and Balfour will be traded. They’ll need someone to rack up the saves and De Los Santos is as good a choice as any.

Kila Ka’aihue, 1B—Oakland Athletics

His minor league on base/power numbers are absurd and the A’s first base situation is muddled at best.

The Royals kindasorta gave Ka’aihue a chance for the first month of 2011, but abandoned him when he got off to a bad start. The A’s have nothing to lose by playing him for at least the first half of the season and, if nothing else, he’ll walk and get on base.

Hector Noesi, RHP—Seattle Mariners

Noesi doesn’t give up a lot of home runs and has good control. These attributes will be magnified pitching in the big ballpark in Seattle and with the Mariners good defense. He also strikes out around a hitter per inning, so that all adds up to a good statistical season if you’re not counting wins.

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Oswalt as the 6th Man

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When the Blue Jays were one of the frontrunners for—and in fact were widely expected to get— Yu Darvish, I wrote that their intention might have been to use Darvish in his familiar 6-man rotation to both make him comfortable and manage his workload while holding down the innings counts of their young pitchers Henderson AlvarezKyle Drabek and Brandon Morrow.

The Blue Jays missed out on the Japanese/Iranian righty and the Rangers eventually got Darvish.

After shifting Neftali Feliz into the starting rotation and signing Joe Nathan to take over as closer, the Rangers’ rotation appears set.

But their interest in Roy Oswalt lends another option into the mix along with questions as to why they need another established starter.

Could it be that the Rangers are also considering going with a 6-man rotation, but for different reasons?

Because the Rangers have gone so far against the new conventional orthodoxy of babying their starting pitchers and are telling them as they make their way up through the minor league system that six innings and 100 pitches (whichever comes first) aren’t going to cut it, they’ve been the subject of resistance from the Rick Petersons of the world who are invested in the “scientific” study of pitchers (along with selling their theories to information-hungry and desperate amateurs).

What would a team that specifically pushes their starters deeper into games have to do with a 6-man rotation?

If they implemented such a plan, the Rangers would be diminishing the workload of their pitchers in a different way than limiting their innings and pitches. The extra day of rest would allow the pitchers to go even deeper into games than the 7-8 innings and 120 pitches that are now seen as extreme. They’d be able to rest their bullpen periodically while not putting forth the perception of abusing their pitchers in some random experiment that has no basis in the hard (and ineffective) data that has led the Yankees to placing the likes of Joba Chamberlain in a plastic bubble and simultaneously destroying any chance he ever had of fulfilling his potential.

The Rangers, staffed by Hall of Fame former pitchers Nolan Ryan and Greg Maddux along with the highly respected pitching coach Mike Maddux, can look at a pitcher and use their own experiences to say, “his back leg is dragging”; “he’s not following through completely”; “his hips aren’t turning with the same force they were earlier in the game”; or “he’s not showing the same ferocity” and determine that the pitcher is tired because of fatigue, not because he’s reached a previously prescribed number that they pulled out of the air and are referencing a series of studies to justify their paranoia.

Thinking one is tired and being tired are two different things. If a pitcher knows beforehand that he’s only expected to put in a certain amount of work, that’s how his mind will focus and he might think he’s got nothing left when he does have something left.

Not everyone is a Roy Halladay and wants to finish what he starts.

As pitchers, Greg Maddux and Ryan weren’t babied and stayed out on the mound in good health and effectiveness to a remarkable degree.

This isn’t to suggest that the pitchers should be told to toughen up and stay out on the mound if they’re not feeling right—Greg Maddux was criticized late in his career for pulling himself out of games after a certain number of pitches—but it’s understanding what they’re looking at and taking into account everything that goes into throwing a baseball in a repeated and stressful manner every 5 (or 6) days.

These men are in a unique position to say what they’re doing and why without adherence to outsiders telling them they’re wrong.

Shunning the armchair experts like Keith Law, who vomit scouting terminology and say things to make it sound as if they’re insiders when they’re only putting forth a pretense of such; or looking at the specious and self-indulgent reasoning behind writer Tom Verducci’s so-called “Verducci Effect” aren’t indicative of resistance to an ever-changing reality, it’s actual analysis without cowering amongst the masses in an effort to avoid criticism if it doesn’t work.

Calculating an individual on a chart, graph or by sputtering randomness because it sounds good and having the hypnotized sheep take every word said as gospel doesn’t make one an expert. For all of his down-home, country simplicity in a pleasant Southern drawl and known old-school Texas conservatism, Ryan was one of the first pitchers to lift weights; he paid close attention to his mechanics and was willing to listen to others like the late Angels coach Jimmy Reese, who showed him the value of vitamins and good nutrition. Ryan trusted his own instincts and understanding of his body and he’s transferred that to his work as an executive.

In certain circles, a 6-man rotation would be seen as a concession to the times. Some would probably twist it to validate themselves. But if the Rangers consider it, it will be because they have a method behind doing it and not because they want to place their pitchers in a sealed sarcophagus and protect them from the war of attrition known as pitching, preferring failure to the risk of injury and a misinformed public’s vitriol.

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The Sixth Man in Toronto?

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If the Blue Jays win the rights to negotiate with Yu Darvish and sign him, could they make a concession to what Darvish is accustomed to while simultaneously protecting and limiting the innings and workload of their young pitchers by using a six-man rotation?

It makes sense for several reasons.

The Blue Jays have taken a conservative approach in rebuilding Brandon Morrow from his damaging days with the Mariners; they’re developing Kyle Drabek and Henderson Alvarez; with Darvish, they would have a young rotation anchored by Ricky Romero and permeated by arms in the early-to-mid 20s with substantial ability, but still under careful watch.

Since Darvish is accustomed to the extra rest, it wouldn’t affect his command or preparation; Morrow is only next year going to close in on 200 innings for the first time; and Drabek/Alvarez will be in the Morrow position of 2011 with a limit of around 170-180 innings.

As Red Sox pitching coach, Blue Jays manager John Farrell experienced the Daisuke Matsuzaka transition first hand;  Matsuzaka’s complaints about the Red Sox training regimen for pitchers and his attempts to hide injuries sabotaged his production and damaged his relationship with the club—they enabled him; Farrell’s not going to make that mistake with Darvish. If the Blue Jays are making a strong commitment to Darvish, they’ll have learned from the common-denominator mistakes made with Matsuzaka because Farrell was in the middle of them.

With the pitching depth they’ve accumulated, they have the arms to do it in the rotation and bullpen. A six-man starting rotation of Romero, Morrow, Darvish, Drabek, Alvarez and some combination from Jesse Litsch, Carlos Villanueva, Brett Cecil and Dustin McGowan would work with the odd-men out functioning as relievers.

The concept has been criticized, but given the way pitchers are babied today and the advent of bullpen roles and rosters carrying 13 pitchers, why not take advantage of the manpower while protecting the young arms?

A six-man rotation would also put a damper on pitch counts and innings limits. The pitch counts wouldn’t be an issue because 120 pitch outings would be mitigated by the extra rest; the innings-pitched would be reduced as a natural byproduct of the fewer starts made by the pitchers.

It could be tweaked as was the similarly criticized change to a five-man rotation in the 1970s and 80s. Back then the top starters were used for 36-38 starts and there was the “swing man” who pitched out of the bullpen, but also took the extra starts when the top four pitchers needed an extra day; eventually the five-man rotation became the norm.

Romero, as the ace, could get his 30-32 starts and the other pitchers would be shielded from overwork.

Pitchers are being babied today but the innings and pitch limits are hindering their growth as they’re punished for pitching deeply into games.

A six-man rotation is a legitimate and workable strategy for the Blue Jays if they land Darvish.

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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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Farrell’s Choice

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It’s not as painful as Sophie’s Choice, but has the potential to be as tragic.

Blue Jays manager and former Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell has been mentioned as a possibility to take over for Terry Francona as Red Sox manager.

Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos has said that the club doesn’t have a policy of keeping employees against their will, so the door is open from their end to let Farrell leave if that’s what he chooses to do.

There are reasons for Farrell to go. The Red Sox have more money to spend and it’s familiar terrain for him with the way things are run; he knows the players and the media.

But there are compelling reasons to stay in Toronto.

Let’s take a look.

The known vs the “I think I know, but don’t really know”.

We can get into the romantic idiocy of the “rich tapestry of history” with clubs who’ve been around as long as the Red Sox; but the Blue Jays have a pretty good history of their own and a surprising worldwide loyalty.

Would he have the stomach and the wherewithal to walk in and be a different person that who he was as Francona’s pitching coach? To discipline those that need to be disciplined?

Familiarity with the landscape is fine, but Farrell was the pitching coach and not the manager; it’s a different animal to be the man who has to stand there and answer the questions after the loss rather than one of the lieutenants who has authority, but not total authority.

And if he makes the mistake of thinking, “oh, I’ll get through to those guys; they love me”, then he’s walking the plank before he starts.

Strategy, money, and power.

Farrell handled the pitchers well with the Blue Jays, but as has been the case with other pitchers/pitching coaches who became managers like Bud Black, his strategies were questionable when it came to the offense.

The Blue Jays lineups were oddly constructed and didn’t maximize the awesome production of Jose Bautista; Farrell let them try to steal bases at will, running themselves out of innings.

These types of mistakes wouldn’t be allowed to pass in Boston; the front office demands a large say in how the on-field decisions are made; the fans and the media would latch onto one gaffe and let it drag on for a week.

If he thinks the Red Sox are going to pay him more to be their manager than the Blue Jays, he needs to look at the facts surrounding his predecessor and the way the club feels about their managers. The details of Farrell’s contract with the Blue Jays have never been disclosed; this could be residue of the perceived mistakes made by former Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi letting it be known how lowly paid his managers were, thereby limiting their authority with the players because there would be no hesitation for fire them due to financial obligations.

Here’s news: the Red Sox don’t want to pay their managers either; Francona’s salary didn’t break $1 million until he was with the team for two years and had already won a World Series; he didn’t start making truly big money along the lines of other managers with his accomplishments until 2009.

Francona had moderate say-so in personnel to the tune of “we’ll listen to what you have to say and then do what we want”; Farrell would function under the same constraints and probably less at the start.

The stomach to do what must be done.

Would Farrell have it in him to crack necessary heads in the Red Sox clubhouse? To confront Josh Beckett when he pushes the envelope? To tell Kevin Youkilis to quit whining? To advocate the dispatching of Jason Varitek and Tim Wakefield? To hit back against the media?

There’s something to be said for the unknown. Not only do the Red Sox need to clear out some of the poison in that clubhouse, but they have to bring in an outsider as manager who won’t have any interest in “we don’t do it this way here”.

Farrell knows how things were done and would be expected to maintain that template.

Just like Francona couldn’t alter his personality to be the guy who flipped the food table or ripped people in the media, the players would know what they’re getting in Farrell and that would be a negative.

The innocent climb vs the establishment.

The obvious choice would be to jump to the Red Sox, but examining their respective rosters and circumstances in an objective way, the Blue Jays are in far better shape than the Red Sox.

They’re younger; they have a load of young pitching with the underrated Ricky Romero; the Cy Young Award-caliber talent Brandon Morrow; plus Kyle Drabek and Henderson Alvarez.

The media expectations aren’t as stifling; the fans aren’t as expectant of success; there’s not a crisis-a-day atmosphere nor the suffocating aura and underlying anger of what went wrong.

The Red Sox are old; they’re in absolute disarray; the media is still picking clean the bones of the rotting corpse of their 2011 collapse and subsequent departures of Theo Epstein and Francona; and there are painful changes that must be made to the clubhouse culture that would render it unrecognizable from what Farrell was a part of for four years.

The dynamic isn’t what it was when he started as Red Sox pitching coach and it grew more infected as the core group and the same management team was kept together.

It’s easy to survey the situation from the safety of Toronto; to speak to people from the Red Sox to find out exactly what happened—the players and his former bosses—and to come to the conclusion, “it wouldn’t happen with me there”; but it might’ve happened with Farrell there.

The Blue Jays are younger; they have some money to spend; they’re hungry; and they’re ready to win.

The question Farrell has to ask himself is does he want to be the obstetrician and oversee the birth of something that could be special?

Or does he want to be the hospice doctor/coroner and dismantle and dissect what may already be dead?

I’d stay in Toronto.

And that’s what Farrell should do.

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