Keys to 2013: Texas Rangers

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Starting Pitching Key: Yu Darvish

The Rangers’ starting rotation isn’t as deep as it once was. They know what they can expect from Matt Harrison and Derek Holland. The back of the rotation is a giant question mark and they don’t even have Scott Feldman to step in as a swingman while they wait for Martin Perez and Colby Lewis to return from injury. Alexi Ogando has proven he can be effective as a starter, but the key for the Rangers rotation is Darvish.

Darvish was everything the Rangers could have wanted when they paid the big posting fee (almost $52 million) and signed him to a $50.5 million contract. If he evolves into a season-long Cy Young contender, the Rangers are a title contender. If he falters, their search for starting pitching will get serious.

Relief Pitching Key: Joakim Soria

Soria is still recovering from Tommy John surgery, but the Rangers have a hole in the eighth inning with the departure of Mike Adams and the shifting of Ogando to the rotation. They’re also waiting for the return (probably late in the season if they’re still contending) of Neftali Feliz.

A major question regarding the Rangers’ bullpen is whether the new delineation of duties with Nolan Ryan’s possible departure and GM Jon Daniels’s promotion leads to a more conventional pitch count/innings limit for the starters that was decidedly abandoned when Ryan was truly in charge. If the Rangers switch strategies, the bullpen will be pushed harder and be increasingly important.

Offensive Key: Lance Berkman

If Berkman is healthy, he’s going to hit. A knee injury limited him to 32 games for the Cardinals in 2012 and he considered retirement. Now, with the Rangers, he can be a designated hitter and not worry about playing the field. Less stress will be placed on his knees. He still hits and walks and with the Rangers friendly home ballpark, it’s reasonable to expect Berkman to hit 25+ homers and post a .380 OBP.

Defensive Key: Craig Gentry

The Rangers’ offense is not the machine it once was with Josh Hamilton gone. Gentry can run, but that’s secondary to catching the ball in center field. The Rangers are not as deep as they’ve been in the last several years and their margin for error is diminished. Fundamentals are imperative to overcoming these changes and not missing the offense from Hamilton too greatly.

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American League Breakout/Rebound Candidates (Or Cheap Gets For Your Fantasy Team)

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Let’s look at some of the lesser-known players or rebounding veterans in the American League that are likely to play more than expected and could produce at a cheap price.

Eduardo Nunez, INF—New York Yankees

Nunez doesn’t have a position, but the Yankees are insisting he’s a shortstop so he’ll see time at shortstop while Derek Jeter is periodically rested or is the DH. Kevin Youkilis has been injury-prone in recent years and when he’s playing, will see time at first base as well as third with Mark Teixeira DH-ing against lefties. In a best-case scenario, the Yankees can’t expect any more than 350 at bats from Travis Hafner and that’s stretching it by 100-150 at bats. Plus he doesn’t hit lefties. No one knows when or if Alex Rodriguez will be able to play and his latest foray into the front of the newspaper puts into question whether he’s ever going to suit up for the Yankees again. Their bench is terrible.

All of these factors will open up at bats for Nunez. He can’t field and is a hacker, but he can hit.

Chris Tillman, RHP—Baltimore Orioles

He still runs up high pitch counts but his walks are decreasing incrementally. If examined as a step-by-step process, first comes the better control, then comes the lower pitch counts. If Tillman is able to continue improving in this manner, he could become a 30 start/180-200-inning arm for the Orioles.

The Orioles haven’t bolstered their starting rotation. Brian Matusz showed he’s better off out of the bullpen; they’re waiting for Dylan Bundy and hoping for a repeat performance from Miguel Gonzalez. They’ll need innings from Tillman.

Phil Coke, LHP—Detroit Tigers

In last season’s ALCS, with Jose Valverde shelved because he couldn’t be trusted to even hold a four-run lead, Coke was pressed into service as the nominal closer in a bullpen-by-committee. Valverde’s gone and the Tigers have a former closer on the roster in Octavio Dotel; they’re insisting they’ll give rookie Bruce Rondon every chance to claim the role. Rookies have emerged as closers in the past (Jonathan Papelbon, Craig Kimbrel) but manager Jim Leyland is not going to be patient with a 1-year contract, a veteran team expected to be a World Series contender and a rookie closer. Coke got the job done for Leyland in the post-season and the manager won’t forget it if he has to replace Rondon.

Greg Holland, RHP—Kansas City Royals

Holland will be the Royals’ closer, struck out 91 in 67 innings last season and saved 16 games after Jonathan Broxton was traded. The Royals stand to be pretty good this season giving him save opportunities and he’s arbitration-eligible after the season giving him the incentive of money at the end of the road or perhaps even a preemptive long-term contract to guarantee him at least $10 million-plus through his arbitration years.

Justin Morneau, 1B—Minnesota Twins

Morneau looked like his former MVP self for most of the second half of 2012 after a dreadful start, so perhaps his concussion/injury problems are behind him. Both Morneau and the Twins will have significant mutual benefit from him putting up big numbers. The Twins are in full-blown rebuild and won’t want to keep the pending free agent Morneau after the season. Morneau won’t want to stay in Minnesota for the full season because if he does, the Twins will make the qualifying offer for draft pick compensation and he might be in the same position in 2014 that Michael Bourn and Kyle Lohse are in now. It behooves him to have a hot start and be traded in July.

Aaron Hicks, CF—Minnesota Twins

The Twins’ current center fielder is listed as Darin Mastroianni. Mastroianni can steal a few bases and catch the ball in center field, but he’s a fourth outfielder and a reasonable facsimile of Jason Tyner.

Hicks is a former first round draft pick whom the Twins have no reason not to play after he spends the first month of the season in Triple A to keep his arbitration clock from beginning to tick.

Lance Berkman, DH—Texas Rangers

Berkman’s problems in recent years have been injury-related and if he doesn’t have to play the field, that will reduce the stress on his knees. 81 games in the hitting haven of Texas has made the likes of Mike Napoli into an All-Star. Berkman is a far superior hitter who still accumulates a high on-base percentage. As long as he’s healthy, he’ll post a .380 OBP and hit 25 homers.

Garrett Richards, RHP—Los Angeles Angels

Richards is currently the sixth starter for the Angels, but 3-4-5 are Jason Vargas, Tommy Hanson and Joe Blanton. They’re interchangeable and have major warts. Vargas was a creature of Safeco Field with the Mariners; Hanson’s shoulder is said to be teetering with injuries and horrible mechanics; Blanton allows tons of hits and homers. Richards will end up being the Angels’ third starter by the end of the season and could be the key to them making the playoffs and saving manager Mike Scioscia’s job.

Hisashi Iwakuma, RHP—Seattle Mariners

Iwakuma is what Daisuke Matsuzaka was supposed to be amid the media circus of the Red Sox winning the bidding and hyping him up. Iwakuma is just doing it for a minuscule fraction of the price and none of the aggravation. He picked at the strike zone as a reliever and allows a few too many homers, but as a fulltime starter he’s got the stuff to be a Hideo Nomo sensation. And, unlike Matsuzaka, he actually throws the Bigfoot of the baseball world (often sighted but never proved): the gyroball.

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Does Mike Napoli Miss Mike Scioscia Yet?

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The notoriously contentious relationship between Mike Napoli and his former manager with the Angels Mike Scioscia was probably due to the manager expecting and demanding more from his catchers than Napoli understood. It wasn’t personal. With the deal between Napoli and the Red Sox in suspended animation and each side staking out their positions while showing no evidence of moving anytime soon, Napoli might be longing for those halcyon days when the main thing he had to worry about was whether Scioscia was going to yell at him for calling a curveball instead of a slider in the sixth inning of a July game against the Orioles.

Sciosica’s tough on his catchers. The Red Sox are tough on their prospective free agent signees.

This essence of the Red Sox-Napoli holding pattern stems from a problem the club saw with Napoli’s hip during his physical and it’s being reported that the club wants to shorten the 3-year, $39 million contract that was agreed to in early December to one year. It’s not a small thing and it presents more problems for Napoli than it does the Red Sox. At this late date, the Red Sox can still figure out another option for first base (Mike Morse, Justin Morneau or even taking a flier on Kyle Blanks) and already have three catchers with David Ross, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Ryan Lavarnway able to provide defensive competence and pop. They don’t need Napoli as the final piece to a puzzle that’s already haphazardly constructed and not improved enough from the 69-93 monstrosity they were in 2012 to be considered viable contenders in 2013.

But Napoli needs the Red Sox.

Teams and player agents like to leak information prior to official, legally bound contracts so it’s harder to come undone. Once there’s an “agreement” there’s not an official agreement until the player has undergone his physical and both sides have signed the contract, but the deal is done…unless the club spots an issue and is prepared to use that issue to hold up or nix it. Generally it’s a formality, but with the Red Sox that’s not always the case.

The Red Sox deserve credit and blame for their behaviors in this vein. One one level, many clubs would blow off the concerns they may have found during the physical to spare themselves the embarrassment and aggravation of having to announce that the deal is off or trying to alter it and protect themselves. With Napoli, they’d move forward in spite of the hip problem and hope he stays healthy. On another level, that they’ve held up the finalization for over a month traps Napoli. When news of a signing leaks, both team and player, to an extent, are boxed in. Without the hip issue, the Red Sox would be beholden to signing Napoli regardless of possible second thoughts; Napoli wasn’t going to do better anywhere else.

Now Napoli’s in a cage and the Red Sox have the only key. With public knowledge of the hip problem, what team is going to give him more than the Red Sox newly rumored offer of one year? And forget the $39 million, which is probably more money that Napoli had realistically imagined he’d get in the first place. He’ll be lucky to get a guarantee of half that.

It’s late in the winter, pitchers and catchers report in a month and the hip problem is known leaving any executive vulnerable if Napoli is signed and gets hurt. I suppose a team hunting for offense and desperate to make a splash in an unusually tranquil winter (such as the Yankees) wouldn’t mind taking Napoli away from the Red Sox on a one-year contract. If the Red Sox are steadfast with their new offer and Napoli wants some vengeance on the Red Sox, that’s the way to do it and it would certainly enliven a Yankees fanbase that is growing angrier and angrier by the day. Aside from that, where can he go?

Teams like the Rangers that are looking at the situation objectively and might possibly have had interest in Napoli have filled his role cheaper with Lance Berkman and A.J. Pierzynski. Other clubs like the Mariners and Orioles are destinations, but they’re not going to surpass the Red Sox renewed offer and does Napoli really want to go to Seattle?

Napoli has two choices in the staredown with the Red Sox: sign the reduced deal or talk to the Yankees and secure an offer before telling the Red Sox to take a hike. The fact is that he’s at the mercy of the Red Sox who’ve altered their template from systematically ripping a player and leaking his medical records on the way out the door (Pedro Martinez, Nomar Garciaparra, Jason Bay) to doing it before he walks in the door.

Napoli’s caught in the bear trap and it’s up to him whether he’s willing to gnaw off his limb to escape. A year of captivity and sustenance is better than nothing and that appears to be what the Red Sox are banking on in their hardline stance with a player to whom they offered too much money and too many years to begin with.

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Berkman A Great Signing For The Rangers On All Levels (If He’s Healthy)

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Lance Berkman is a great signing with limited risk for the Rangers. Let’s take a look at why.

He’s can still hit

Berkman, even at age 37, can still hit the ball out of the park and walks a lot. In his down years, Berkman’s on base percentage was consistently 120 points above his batting average. Last season, he missed a chunk of the season with knee surgery, but in 2011 he signed with the Cardinals, agreeing to play the outfield and losing the requisite weight to make it possible. His defense, while not good, was reasonable and he caught all the balls he could reach. Offensively, for the eventual World Series champions, Berkman was a low-priced and excellent bookend for the other Cardinals power bats Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday. For the Rangers, he’ll benefit from their friendly hitters’ park and wind up being a superior acquisition than trading the assets to get a Justin Upton, as well as a more cost-effective option than overpaying as the Red Sox did for Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino.

The knee problem and durability

Berkman has had issues with both knees in his career. For most players, this would be viewed as significant, but without this knowledge and looking at his annual tally of games played combined with consistent power and production, few would know he was ever injured at all.

Every season from the time he became a fulltime big leaguer in 2001 until 2011, he played in at least 145 games in eight of those seasons; the years he didn’t were 2005 (132 games), 2009 (136 games), and 2010 (122 games).

Can he be expected to play every single day in 2013? Probably not. But the Rangers should expect 125-135 with 25 homers and a .380+ OBP.

The Rangers needs

The talk of Berkman only being effective as a left-handed hitter is silly, but righty power wasn’t a glaring need for the Rangers with Nelson Cruz, Adrian Beltre and Ian Kinsler in their lineup. Berkman’s nowhere near as good batting righty as he is lefty, but with the loss of Josh Hamilton, the Rangers main need offensively was power from the left side of the plate. They solved that problem by signing A.J. Pierzynski and Berkman. They’ve also excised Michael Young from the lineup. Given how bad Young was last season, pretty much anything would’ve been a suitable replacement or an improvement.

They’ve lost guaranteed production because Hamilton’s not there, but in the long-term the money and risk they saved (and that was taken up by their division rival Angels) gives them financial and logistic freedoms they wouldn’t have had if they were saddled with the landmine-laden albatross of Hamilton.

They’ll need Mike Olt to produce in his shift to the outfield, but their lineup as it stands will hit enough for them to contend.

Money

One year at $11 million for Berkman compared with Mike Napoli’s (still uncompleted) $39 million contract with the Red Sox is a no-brainer advantage for the Rangers. They saved $6 million in dumping Young (paying $10 million toward his contract when he was traded to the Phillies), have the Hamilton allocation of around $20-25 million annually to play with, and signed Pierzynski for $7.5 million.

Tallying it up, the annual payout of $40-45 million vs. the $24 million they’re spending with these new players and the contribution to Young’s deal, it’s a significant savings for the Rangers and they’re still around a 90+ win team with room to operate from now to mid-season to make other additions.

The bottom line

A few weeks ago, as the Rangers lost out on Zack Greinke, Hamilton, Napoli and refused to surrender the package the Diamondbacks were demanding for Upton, there was panic stricken fear that the Rangers window was closed and they needed to rebuild. Instead, circumstance has smiled on them and they’ve filled their holes in a far less expensive fashion, altered their clubhouse to an edgier place and are still a legitimate playoff contender.

That edginess could be viewed as dangerous, but the Rangers core had been together for so long that perhaps the feisty personalities of Pierzynski and Berkman will liven the place up.

The key with Berkman is that troublesome knee. If he’s physically unable to perform, it was still worth the risk considering the Rangers limited options.

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Notable Remaining MLB Free Agents

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The Boras Bunch

Here’s the story of a man named Scott Boras

On one hand, who could’ve imagined that Boras would’ve gotten the 7-year $126 million contract he did for Jayson Werth with the Nationals or the 3-year, $35 million deal he got for Rafael Soriano from the Yankees, both following the 2010 season. On the other, with clubs clinging to their draft picks like they’re hanging by their fingernails in fear of going over MLB’s version of the “fiscal cliff,” can any be expected to dole out a similar contract—in January—to the clients Boras currently has waiting for an offer?

Michael Bourn, Kyle Lohse and Soriano all had excellent seasons in 2012. Soriano understandably opted out of the third year on his contract with the Yankees, but teams rarely pay big money for closers anymore so he’s again waiting, hoping and trusting his agent. In Bourn’s and Lohse’s cases, they fill positions of need as a center fielder and starting pitcher, but while Ryan Dempster has received a guaranteed $26.5 million from the Red Sox, Lohse is still waiting. This happened with Lohse before in 2008 and he signed a 1-year contract with the Cardinals, rejuvenated his career under Dave Duncan and Tony LaRussa, and received a $41 million extension. He had a great year in 2012, but it hasn’t translated into an offer deemed suitable for Boras and Lohse.

Considering the draft pick compensation that will be surrendered for signing these players, I don’t know how they’re going to get a long-term deal with a contender. If a club sees one as a bargain and judges winning in 2013 as more valuable than the draft pick, they’ll sign one cheaper than market value deal. The top 10 picks are protected, but among those teams the only ones spending to get better immediately are the Blue Jays, Red Sox and Indians. None of them are going to go overboard for Lohse, Soriano or Bourn.

Some clubs can use these players and have money, but are they using the compensation issue as an excuse to sell to the fans for not overspending or do they simply not want these players? Depending on the situation, it’s probably both.

I wouldn’t underestimate Boras because he’s shocked the world so many other times, but there have been times where his players have had to settle for a one year deal for low dollars hoping to boost his value, as was the case with Lohse when he signed with the Cardinals.

Short-term, cheap and useful

Lance Berkman

Berkman hasn’t specifically stated he’s going to play and is notably difficult. He speaks his mind and does so without thinking, then finds himself having to backtrack on what he said when the initial statement was probably what he really thought.

The comments linked above were about the Rangers and now there’s a chance that Berkman will sign with the Rangers to be their DH/part-time first baseman.

Comments such as those made by Berkman are conveniently forgotten when there’s a mutual need and with teams like the Rangers, Yankees and Indians, there’s a mutual need for Berkman’s bat. Berkman didn’t work out well in the few months he spent with the Yankees in 2010 and he probably wouldn’t want to go to New York, but with their desperate need for a bat and adherence to short-term contracts, there could be a fit there if nothing else pans out for either.

The Indians need power and are clearly trying to contend. Berkman might like to play for Terry Francona.

The Rangers are the best spot for him and the team. Berkman can still hit and wants to stay near home in Texas. With the Rangers, playing half his games in their hitter friendly home park, 25 homers and a .380+ OBP is a reasonable expectation and he wouldn’t want more than a one year contract.

Buyer Beware

Scott Hairston

The desperation to get a righty bat coupled with Hairston’s career year in 2012 has Hairston in surprising demand.

Contrary to his 2012 production, there’s hasn’t been an overt advantage from Hairston when batting against lefties. He had his career year against lefties in 2012 and all of a sudden, he’s seen as a right-handed “power bat.” He’s a useful bench player and a decent defensive left fielder who can provide some pop off the bench. Is that worth a two-year contract, which is what he seems to want?

The Mets have set a line in the sand on Hairston and will be accused of being cheap and/or broke when he departs for more money and the extra year on his contract, but the future will prove them right when Hairston reverts to what he’s been for his whole career—a limited bench player with occasional power and no major advantages against lefties or righties.

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2012 MLB Award Winners—National League Manager of the Year

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Awards time is coming up fast in MLB. Yesterday I wrote why Bob Melvin should win the Manager of the Year award on the American League. Last month, I listed my Cy Young Award picks. Now, let’s look at the National League Manager of the Year along with who I picked before the season and who I think is going to win as opposed to who should win.

1. Davey Johnson, Washington Nationals

Johnson retuned to the dugout at mid-season 2011 at age 68 replacing Jim Riggleman and taking over a team that had been rebuilt from top-to-bottom and was on the cusp of taking the leap into contention. 2012 was supposed to be a step forward with a chance at making the playoffs if everything broke right. It turned out that everything broke right and then some.

Johnson straddled the line of development and winning; of protecting and letting fly and the Nationals won 98 games and the NL East title.

In his long managerial career, Johnson’s confidence has never been lacking. He’ll tell you his team’s going to win and tell you that it will be, in part, because they have Davey Johnson as their manager. He dealt with the rules and was onboard—reluctantly I think—with the limits placed on Stephen Strasburg. He didn’t hinder Bryce Harper learning how to play and behave in the big leagues and, for the most part, the 19-year-old exceeded expectations especially considering the reputation he carted with him from the minors as a loudmouthed brat.

The veterans have loved Johnson in all of his managerial stops because he lets them be themselves and doesn’t saddle them with a lot of rules and regulations. He doesn’t care about the length of their hair or that their uniforms are all identical as if they’re in the military. He treats them like men and they responded by getting him back to the playoffs.

2. Dusty Baker, Cincinnati Reds

The criticism Baker receives from the stat-obsessed is bordering on fanatical and doled out just for its own sake. He does and says some strange things sometimes, but so does every manager in baseball. He lost his closer Ryan Madson in spring training and replaced him with the unproven Aroldis Chapman and manipulated the bullpen well. The starting pitching was solid from top-to-bottom and remarkably healthy. The lineup lost star Joey Votto for a chunk of the season, but got through it and won the NL Central in a walk. The bottom line for Baker is this: he wins when he has good players and the players play hard for him. That’s all that matters.

3. Bruce Bochy, San Francisco Giants

Bochy is old-school and would fit in perfectly in the late 1800s with his gravely voice, gruff and grumbly—though likable—manner of speaking, and professional handling of his players. Like Baker, Bochy lost his closer Brian Wilson; dealt with Tim Lincecum’s poor season; and manipulated the lineup getting useful production from journeymen like Gregor Blanco after the suspension of Melky Cabrera.

4. Mike Matheny, St. Louis Cardinals

Matheny made some strategic mistakes as he was learning on the job after never having managed before, but the Cardinals made the playoffs and got past the expected pains of evolution following the departures of Tony LaRussa, Dave Duncan, and Albert Pujols. Matheny coaxed a career year out of Kyle Lohse, transitioned Lance Lynn into the starting rotation and an All-Star berth, and overcame the injuries to Lance Berkman and Yadier Molina.

5. Fredi Gonzalez, Atlanta Braves

Gonzalez learned from his mistakes by not burning out his bullpen and overcame injuries and questions in the starting rotation and lineup to win 94 games. Gonzalez and pitching coach Roger McDowell developed Kris Medlen; didn’t abuse Craig Kimbrel; overcame the struggles of Randall Delgado and Tommy Hanson; and the injuries to Brandon Beachy and Jonny Venters. Dan Uggla dealt with prolonged slumps; Chipper Jones was in and out of the lineup; and the Braves went through multiple shortstops, but still emerged in a tough division to make the playoffs.

My preseason pick was Johnson and that’s who’s going to win.

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Pujols May Save the Cardinals Again

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Albert Pujols did the Cardinals a huge favor by departing for Anaheim and the Angels. Not only did he save them from paying a player who’s listed at age 32 (but might be older) $220 million for 10 years, but he gave them a substantial amount of money to use in other areas. Because they won the World Series last year, the afterglow gave them a pass for any perceived negativity.

With Pujols gone and Lance Berkman already onboard from a mid-season 2011 contract extension, they signed Carlos Beltran at $26 million for two years. He’s been an MVP candidate for them.

This current Cardinals team isn’t that good; their manager Mike Matheny has made some rudimentary strategic mistakes—as would be expected from someone who’d never managed before anywhere; they have holes in the starting rotation due to injuries to Jaime Garcia and Chris Carpenter. But they’re only 2 ½ games out of first place in a mediocre division and parity-laden National League and they have the farm system to make big deals. With the money available from not having to pay Pujols along with the expiring contracts of Carpenter, Berkman, Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook, they can pursue a Zack Greinke and potentially bolster the bullpen by expanding a Greinke trade to include Francisco Rodriguez. Greinke wouldn’t have to be a rental either; the freed up money could be used to sign him long-term.

The Cardinals without Tony LaRussa are being run more like a business with Matheny a functionary and not having the power to win turf wars as LaRussa did. Carpenter is out for the season with surgery to repair nerve damage in his shoulder. In the past it would’ve been guaranteed that LaRussa would bully his way into getting Carpenter another contract in spite of his age (38 next April) and frequent injuries. Now that’s not the case. The Cardinals let Pujols leave making any player disposable if his demands are extreme.

Thanks to Pujols, the Cardinals can be big buyers at the deadline and it could benefit them greatly for the rest of 2012 and beyond.

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Mid-Season Trade Candidates—Kevin Youkilis

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Name: Kevin Youkilis
Tale of the tape: 1B/3B; 33-years-old; bats right; throws right; 6’1”; 220 lbs.
Contract status: $12 million in 2012; $13 million club option for 2013 with a $1 million buyout.

Would the Red Sox trade him?

Barring injury to Will Middlebrooks, Adrian Gonzalez or David Ortiz, they’re going to trade Youkilis somewhere.

What would they want for him?

Whatever they can get.

Perhaps they can move him for a player who’s not performing well with his current club but could be of use to the Red Sox like a Grant Balfour or Ryan Roberts.

Even if they pay the rest of his 2012 salary, they’re not going to get much of a prospect for him.

Which teams would pursue him?

The Orioles have been mentioned in certain circles, but I doubt the Red Sox are going to trade him in the division.

Casey Kotchman has been a disaster with the Indians and they could slot Youkilis in at first base. The AL Central is winnable for them and Youkilis might be a change-of-scenery player who goes on a tear (if he’s healthy) once he’s out of Boston.

The White Sox have been playing Brent Morel and Orlando Hudson at third base and neither one has hit or played particularly good defense.

It would be an admission that they were wr-wr-wr-wrong (think Fonzie from Happy Days), but the Tigers could get Youkilis and put Miguel Cabrera where he belongs—in the DH spot.

Gaby Sanchez has been atrocious for the Marlins but putting Youkilis in that hair-trigger clubhouse is a bad idea.

The Phillies might make one last desperation move on Youkilis to try and save the season before taking offers on Cole Hamels and Shane Victorino.

The Pirates are an intriguing option because they’re hovering around contention and could use a veteran with name recognition and send a signal that they’re serious about winning without giving up the farm.

The Cardinals could use insurance for their questionable status at first base as they wait (hope) for Lance Berkman to come back; David Freese has had frequent injuries in his career and Youkilis is insurance for that.

It would be an odd acquisition for the Cubs, but Theo Epstein knows Youkilis and they’re not giving up on 2013 in spite of the rebuild they’re planning. They can try and steal a Wild Card next season while simultaneously stocking the farm system by trading other veterans on their roster.

Both the Dodgers and Diamondbacks could use a corner infield bat.

The Athletics would be a weird landing spot but given the bizarre moves made by Billy Beane—clearing out the house of his starting rotation and closer and signing Yoenis Cespedes and Manny Ramirez—maybe he’d like to get his hands on the player he coveted back when Moneyball was believed to be reality. The Greek God of Walks was almost an A when Beane was taking the Red Sox job and Paul DePodesta was going to be the new A’s GM. Youkilis was the compensation for Beane being let out of his A’s contract. But Beane backed out on the Red Sox and Youkilis became a star in Boston.

The A’s need a first baseman and with their young pitching and needs at first and third base, they could trade for Youkilis and renegotiate his 2013 option to sign him for a couple of years. He might be rejuvenated as a fiery leader and dirt-caked, win at all costs type to show the young team how it’s done.

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The Yankees’ Grand Delusion

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In today’s NY Times there’s a piece by Benjamin Hoffman discussing the luck of the Mets in achieving their 28-23 record in spite of a -24 run differential and how the Yankees 27-23 record is about right based on their +15 run differential.

Run differential is usually a ridiculous and out-of-context stat from the start and it’s worse in this case. The Mets’ pitching has had games in which they’ve allowed 18 runs; 14 runs twice; 11 and 10 runs. They’ve scored in double-digits once.

The Yankees haven’t allowed double-digits at all and have had three games that they’ve scored a total of 36 runs.

It’s misleading and used as the foundation for the customary argument that the superiorly reinforced Yankees will eventually start dominating baseball and waltz into the playoffs as an odds-on favorite while the Mets will fade out to their customary mediocrity and continue their rebuild.

What will happen with the Mets remains to be seen, but the Yankees—just like the silly stat of run differential—aren’t exactly what they seem to be when examined as a monolith from 1995 until now. The Yankees’ apologists in the media and deluded fans, under the mistaken belief that because they’ve made the playoffs in 16 of the past 17 years, think that it automatically anoints them that spot. But those teams were different from this one. Mariano Rivera is gone. Alex Rodriguez is a shell of what he was. The starting pitching that once had the veterans David Wells, David Cone, Orlando Hernandez, Mike Mussina and Roger Clemens now has one pitcher who could be mentioned in that group, CC Sabathia, and a series of question marks behind him.

It’s not the same.

Sweeny Murti of WFAN appeared on Kim Jones’s radio show recently and put forth the egomaniacal premise that since the Yankees have won an average of 97 games a season since he’s been covering the team that he expects them to do it again.

What one thing has to do with the other was never addressed.

Mike Francesa pompously and condescendingly (in many ways sounding like the spoiled fans he ridicules) comes up with inane arguments to support the shoddy foundation that since they’ve “always” been there, they’ll be there again. They’ll buy what they need at the trading deadline and off they’ll go.

Listening to this fanciful nonsense a non-baseball fan might think that the Yankees simply win the championship every year as a matter of course and if they don’t there was a glitch or fluke somewhere that prevented it.

They’ve won one championship since 2000. They’re not the dynasty they were in the late-1990s.

Whom are they trading for and what do they have to get these available star players? The Yankees’ main chip, Jesus Montero, was given away to the Mariners along with a useful arm in Hector Noesi to acquire two pitchers—Michael Pineda and Jose Campos—who are both on the disabled list. Of their other “untouchable crown jewels” in the system, Manny Banuelos, is also on the disabled list with a sore elbow and Dellin Betances has walked 46 in 52 innings. They’re not even willing to take on long-term money to get the players they want as they did with Bobby Abreu a few years ago. So what are they doing at the deadline other than making the same types of deals they’ve made in recent years when they got pending free agents Kerry Wood and Lance Berkman?

There’s an aura of “If we keep repeating it, it’ll come true.” The Yankees have the “great” players, but they’re not so great anymore. Salary aside, it’s unfair to hold a soon-to-be 37-year-old A-Rod to a standard of the A-Rod of 2007. It’s lunacy to think that Andy Pettitte is going to be the anchor he was in his prime and that Derek Jeter will keep up his frenetically blazing start to the season.

All of these players are at an age where they should be receding into the background to make way for the new blood; where they should be occasional contributors who can rediscover their greatness in spurts. Yet they’re still keys to the Yankees’ season because the replacements—apart from Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson—haven’t taken the handoff of responsibility.

The competition is hungrier, faster, smarter and has greater organizational depth. The Yankees are contending with the Rays, Angels and Rangers. There are the teams that have struggled amid higher hopes, the Red Sox and Tigers; the Blue Jays are young, talented and have money to spend; the Indians are playing well; the Orioles and White Sox have been surprises.

There’s not an open pass into the post-season anymore and gazing longingly at records and rosters of years gone by while inserting oneself into the narrative as if there’s an unseen connection between the two is a self-important fantasy that’s doomed to failure.

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2012 National League Central Predicted Standings

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Wins Losses GB
1. Cincinnati Reds 91 71
2. Milwaukee Brewers 87 75 4
3. St. Louis Cardinals 77 85 14
4. Pittsburgh Pirates 77 85 14
5. Chicago Cubs 73 89 18
6. Houston Astros 60 102 31

Cincinnati Reds

Dusty Baker’s teams have a tendency to win when his job is on the line or his contract is coming to a conclusion—and this is the final year of his contract.

GM Walt Jocketty made a bold move in trading a large portion of the Reds’ farm system to get an ace-quality starter in Mat Latos and bolstered his bullpen by signing Ryan Madson and trading for Sean Marshall.

Offensively, the Reds have some question marks but were second in the National League in runs scored last season and first in 2010. Scott Rolen’s injuries are an issue and shortstop is likely to be manned by a talented rookie Zack Cozart.

But with a deep starting rotation; a very good bullpen; Joey Votto in the middle of the lineup; the emerging Jay Bruce and Drew Stubbs; and the additions from the winter, the Reds are a championship threat.

Milwaukee Brewers

If Mat Gamel hits and Aramis Ramirez posts his normal numbers, they’ll have enough offense without Prince Fielder. Alex Gonzalez is a good pickup offensively and defensively to replace the limited Yuniesky Betancourt; Zack Greinke is sure to have a big year heading towards free agency; and the bullpen is superlative with Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford.

The questions surrounding the Ryan Braun failed drug test and technical knockout of his 50-game suspension are not going to go away.

Braun has to hit from the beginning of the season to the end and he’s still going to be hounded with a press contingent waiting for a reasonable answer as to how he failed the test in the first place. A slow start will be the death knell to his season and probably the Brewers’ playoff hopes.

And don’t forget how much vitriol their arrogance engendered throughout baseball last season. When the world-at-large was pulling for a Tony LaRussa –led team, you know their oppenents were despised.

There’s a 2006 Mets feeling about the Brewers that they missed their chance and we know what happened to the Mets in the aftermath of their upset loss to the Cardinals.

St. Louis Cardinals

It’s idiotic to base one’s hopes for a repeat championship on the idea that losing the generation’s best manager (Tony LaRussa); hitter (Albert Pujols); and a magician of a pitching coach (Dave Duncan) are going to be easily covered with Mike Matheny (never managed before—ever); signing Carlos Beltran and shifting Lance Berkman to first base (they’re older players); and Derek Lilliquist (um…).

You cannot dismiss the contributions of those three men—all of whom are Hall of Famers.

As respected and well-liked as Matheny is, there’s a learning curve to manage.

The Cardinals have starting pitching, but their bullpen is still a question mark and Matheny’s handling of said bullpen is going to be an issue.

Beltran and Berkman will make up for Pujols’s production to a degree, but if you’re banking your hopes on David Freese being the same star he was in the playoffs and Rafael Furcal, Jon Jay and Skip Schumaker, you’re dreaming.

This team is rife for a big fall and major turmoil.

Pittsburgh Pirates

We’ll never know what the Pirates’ 2011 season would’ve become had they not been so horribly robbed in that play at the plate and egregious call by Jerry Meals in the 19-inning game against the Braves in late July. Those who think that an entire season can’t hinge on one game are wrong.

The Pirates did many good things mostly as a result of manager Clint Hurdle’s simple mandate of discipline and not taking crap.

They’ve locked up key players Andrew McCutchen and Jose Tabata and acquired cheap, high-ceiling veteran starters A.J. Burnett and Erik Bedard.

They’re not ready to contend, but they’re getting better and if things go well, they have a shot at third place.

Chicago Cubs

Those expecting a Theo Epstein arrival/revival and immediate rise to championship-level status as happened when he took over the Red Sox need to take a step back.

The Red Sox had a lot of talent and money to spend when Epstein took over in 2003; the Cubs are trying to clear onerous contracts of declining veterans like Alfonso Soriano and already got rid of Carlos Zambrano (and are paying him to pitch for the Marlins).

A large part of my analysis isn’t simply based on what a team has when the season starts, but what’s going to happen as the season moves along. The Cubs are going to be ready to deal with Carlos Marmol, Ryan Dempster and Marlon Byrd possibly on the move.

It’s not going to be a quick fix to repair this organization.

Houston Astros

There’s a perception that simply because they hired a stat-savvy GM in Jeff Luhnow and he’s at work rebuilding the system that the Astros are “guaranteed” to have success in the near future.

Are you aware of what happened to similar thinking baseball people like Paul DePodesta and Jack Zduriencik?

The Astros neglected their minor league system for so long that they’re tantamount to an expansion team. Luhnow brought in high-end talent like Fernando Martinez cheaply; he’s scouring the scrapheap with Livan Hernandez for big league competence while he cleans up the mess; and he’s hired like-minded people to help him.

But it’s not a guarantee and his “success” with the Cardinals minor league system is based on perception depending on your own beliefs and/or biases on how to run a club rather than bottom-line reality.

Here’s what we can agree on: in 2012, they’re going to be terrible.

Click here for a full sample of Paul Lebowitz’s 2012 Baseball Guide (this link is of the Blue Jays) of team predictions/projections. My book can be purchased on KindleSmashwordsBN and Lulu with other outlets on the way.

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