The Giants Must Address Their Closer Situation

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The Giants’ loss of Brian Wilson unravels much of their winning strategy.

Santiago Casilla was designated as the replacement closer when it was revealed that Wilson would miss the rest of the season with Tommy John surgery.

That decision was either short-lived or not final-final because when Casilla started the ninth inning of Friday night’s game against the Mets with a 3-2 lead, he had a short leash of one batter. Jason Bay led off with an infield hit and manager Bruce Bochy yanked Casilla in favor of Javier Lopez to pitch to the Mets lefties Lucas Duda, Kirk Nieuwenhuis and Josh Thole.

Strategically, it was the correct move even though it didn’t work. But if Wilson were available, Wilson would’ve been pitching regardless of lefty or righty bats coming to the plate.

The Mets tied the game and the Giants won the game in the tenth inning, but to do it they had to use Lopez, Sergio Romo and Clay Hensley to finish the game when, under normal circumstances, they would’ve used one pitcher, Wilson.

And that’s the problem.

The Giants have a very strong bullpen as long as they have a legitimate closer to be the linchpin. When there’s such disarray as to the roles and the pitchers don’t know when they’re going to be called on, it turns into anarchy that makes it very hard to win. Bochy has never functioned with a closer by committee; there are managers who can do that. Davey Johnson likes to have more than one short reliever racking up the saves; Buck Showalter and Joe Maddon are capable of doing it. It’s not a strength of Bochy. For his entire managerial career he’s either had Trevor Hoffman and Wilson. The haphazard way in which they’re coping with Wilson’s loss is indicative of Bochy’s need to have that ace in the bullpen.

As much as the Giants’ starting pitching is considered their strength, the problem they now have is that without Wilson, they’re likely to reconsider pulling their starters when they normally would because they might need them to go deeper into the games. As the season winds down, that extra stress and workload due to the absence of Wilson will take its toll on the team—a team that isn’t going to run away with any division. They’re going to make their playoff run in September and have to be healthy and fresh.

Tim Lincecum should be fine; Matt Cain is a workhorse; Madison Bumgarner is a rising star; Ryan Vogelsong and Barry Zito are still question marks. Zito especially, with his 84 mph fastball, has zero margin for error and, in a larger scope, nor do the Giants.

It’s very hard to compete when relying so desperately on the starting pitching and having an All-Star closer if that closer is no longer there. Their defense has been horrible and they don’t hit. When you combine the sequence of events, it’s going to be a bad ending in San Francisco unless they do something definitive to address one or more of these issues.

They’re going to need someone who can close.

Brett Myers is likely to be available; I’d prefer Carlos Marmol whom the Cubs will absolutely want to unload.

When Wilson went down, so did the Giants blueprint. It has to be dealt with. Soon.

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Imagine Beltran Back to the Mets

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Jokes about the Mets taking a bridge loan from Bank of America aside, they had the money available to make try and sign Jose Reyes for $80 million and have spent about $10 million of the Reyes money on Frank Francisco and Jon Rauch (the Andres Torres/Ramon Ramirez acquisitions for Angel Pagan are a financial wash).

So what if the Mets are one of the mystery teams who are after Carlos Beltran?

Before shipping him to San Francisco for Zack Wheeler, the Mets made it a point to ask Scott Boras if the outfielder would be willing to consider returning if they traded him; at the time, I thought it was for appearances only and that they wanted no part of Beltran in the future.

But maybe it wasn’t.

Beltran fired Boras and replaced him with Dan Lozano who’s been busy with a few other “i” dots, “t” crossings, controversies, accusations and contracts.

Now he’s looking for a home for Beltran.

With the talk that the Mets willing to listen to offers on Ike Davis, Sandy Alderson could be truly interested in bringing Beltran back.

I believe that Lucas Duda is going to be a more productive power hitter than Davis; he doesn’t strike out as much and walks more; plus he’s a year behind Davis in service time. Duda is a horrible right fielder and an adequate first baseman; Davis would bring back quality on the trade market and the Mets know that Beltran can handle New York and being a Met—such as that is.

Beltran is an attractive option for multiple teams because he’s a switch-hitter; has power; showed he was recovered sufficiently from knee problems to steal a few bases; transitioned well to right field; is a big game performer; is a well-liked person; and doesn’t cost any draft picks.

Would it be so absurd for the Mets to consider bringing him back and would he think about it? They asked in the summer and Beltran said he would.

It’s unlikely given the contending and finanical status of the teams that are already known to be interested—the Cardinals, Rockies, Blue Jays and Red Sox among them—but it wouldn’t be such a terrible thing as a domino effect to make the Mets better in 2012 and beyond.

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The Mets Can’t Win

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I don’t mean on the field.

Obviously it’s going to be hard for them to compete in the National League East with the Phillies, Braves, Marlins and Nationals; but as I said when the Jose Reyes signing by the Marlins was leaked to the media, this is where the Mets are. They didn’t have the money and/or the desire to pay Reyes and let him leave.

What’s being ignored is that the Mets weaknesses in 2011 were not at the plate. In fact, they were more than capable of surviving without Reyes, David Wright and Ike Davis in the lineup and enduring poor years from Jason Bay and Angel Pagan.

How did they do it?

They had the second highest on base percentage in the National League which led to them finishing sixth in the league in runs scored. They had no power as Carlos Beltran led the team with 15 homers despite being traded in July. With the outfield fences being moved in, Citi Field will be more hitter-friendly to Wright and Bay which should lead to more production. One thing about the Mets front office led by Sandy Alderson: they did the math of how the new park dimensions will affect the hitters and the pitchers. Whether the projections are accurate or not is unknown. If anything, the mental block that has affected Wright since he set foot in the new, cavernous park will be removed.

There are two ways to go about building a team in the off-season: you can bolster strengths or address weaknesses. As difficult as it is to believe, the Mets strength was actually offense. That’s only in part due to the career season of Reyes— a career season that included two stints on the disabled list; a controversial bunt to win the batting title; a .337 average and a weak .384 OBP in conjunction with that lofty average. He also stopped stealing bases after his hamstring woes in what looked to be a concession to staying healthy as he headed towards free agency.

Their weaknesses were the bullpen, a lack of depth—both personnel wise and in innings pitched—in the starting rotation; and black holes in the lineup.

One of those black holes was Pagan.

Pagan has long been an impressive talent. Something like a baseball Frankenstein, Pagan’s creation seems to have been through mined bodyparts from a baseball graveyard. Somewhere in that body, he can run like Tim Raines; hit like Bernie Williams; and field like Garry Maddox.

He was also deprived of a functioning baseball brain.

For a management group that either wants players who listen to instruction or know what to do and when to do it, Pagan was a clear target for dispatching. It could’ve been any number of things that hastened his departure—his rising salary; his frequent injuries; his consistent on-field mistakes—but it was probably his attempt to double off a Cardinals baserunner—by throwing the ball towards Cardinals first base coach Dave McKay—that was the catalyst for the team to say enough’s enough.

Pagan was traded to the Giants for outfielder Andres Torres and right handed reliever Ramon Ramirez.

It’s partially addition by subtraction and partially getting functional bodies who will be better than what they had.

Both Torres and Ramirez are better and cheaper than what the prior bullpen inhabitants.

The Mets also signed two former Blue Jays relievers Jon Rauch and Frank Francisco.

Rauch receives a 1-year deal for $3.5 million; Francisco 2-years at $12 million.

All the relievers they acquired are relatively cheap and competent. Relief pitchers fluctuate from year-to-year and overpaying for them—especially with limited finances—is absurd.

Will these decisions spur a load of season ticket purchases? Inspire the media to suddenly cease the bashing of the team for doing the things that Alderson and Co. did with the Padres and Athletics they were faced with not having the money for big ticket items and instead went the affordable and sane route?

Probably neither, but the Mets filled needs in the bullpen and by getting rid of Pagan. The entire 2012 season is hinging on the improvement of young pitchers Jonathon Niese and getting something useful from Mike Pelfrey; the offense might be improved by the aforementioned factors of ballpark and Davis coming back; also Lucas Duda showed an impressive spurt of power late in the season.

Considering the way they were constructed in recent years and the doom accompanying the overreacting devastation at Reyes’s departure, they made some smart decisions that were what the media and fans were clamoring for in opposition to just buying things that were overpriced as they did under the prior regime.

Overall, things could be much worse.

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Prospects For The 2012 Mets Looking Increasingly Dim

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In comparison to last winter when the Mets biggest press conference apart from the introductions of new GM Sandy Alderson and new manager Terry Collins was the gala event celebrating the acquisition of Chin-lung Hu, you’d think the winter of 2011-2012 could hardly get worse.

And you’d be wrong.

With the public posturing by the Marlins that they’re going to be aggressive in free agency; the burgeoning young talent on the Nationals; and the Braves and Phillies all residing in the National League East, where does that leave the financially stagnant Mets?

Jose Reyes is 50-50 to stay or go; if Reyes stays, bet on David Wright to stay; if Reyes goes—especially if he goes to a division rival—the Mets can’t take offers on Wright because the remaining Mets fans willing to pay to see this team play won’t have any reason to go whatsoever apart from there being no line at Shake Shack.

There’s ample money coming off the books and negligible raises to players currently on the roster; if they keep Reyes, they should still have a few bucks to spend; but what they’re looking at is the same situation as last year—few viable options that will: A) help that much; B) want to join the Mets when they have other teams pursuing them.

So where does that leave them?

Trapped in the world of “hope”. Hope that Johan Santana comes back in some semblance of effectiveness and durability; hope that Jason Bay becomes the Jason Bay they thought they were getting; hope that the young players who’ve shown promise like Lucas Duda and Ruben Tejada continue to improve; hope that Ike Davis comes back…

Hope, hope, hope. It’s a planet few ever leave with their desires fulfilled.

At least they agreed to an extension with Tim Byrdak.

That should reduce the sting infinitesimally.

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Einhorn Or No Einhorn

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Amid their egocentric beliefs that they’re influential in the big business that is baseball ownership, you can read the clumsily presented and agenda-driven Mets stories from those who have neither the skill nor the nuance to even try to hide their contempt for the Wilpons.

They’re everywhere.

Or you can read what Bill Madden wrote yesterday in the NY Daily News.

It says something that there are very few in-depth, verifiable narratives regarding the deal collapsing apart from broad-based assumptions and outsider statements of what’s “obvious”.

We don’t know what happened; Einhorn said his piece, rife with corporate cliches; the Wilpons have said nothing.

Don’t automatically think that the supposed “white knight in a bad hairpiece”—Einhorn—is being entirely forthright as to the chain of events and that the Wilpons’ silence is an admission of “guilt”.

The main issue that’s being debated now is how much money are the Mets going to have to spend this winter to improve the club and who’s in their price range.

You’ll find your answers if you care to look for them.

Here are the facts: the Mets have prohibitive contracts coming off the books; there’s not much available via free agency; the Mets improvement—if any—in 2012 will come from rebounds, returns from injury and young players stepping forward.

The contracts of Luis Castillo ($6 million) and Oliver Perez ($12 million) are expiring; and they’ve already dumped Francisco Rodriguez and Carlos Beltran.

The one free agent the Mets are absolutely going to pursue and will pay is their own free agent, Jose Reyes.

Apart from that, here are the big name free agents this winter: Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Lance Berkman, Beltran, Mark Buehrle, Edwin Jackson, Hiroki Kuroda, Heath Bell, Jonathan Papelbon, K-Rod.

The Mets don’t need a first baseman; they could use Buehrle and Kuroda, but neither is coming to the Mets; Jackson is big and durable and I’d go after him, but the Mets aren’t giving him the $70-90 million (at least) he’ll get on the open market and he’s represented by Scott Boras. Given what the front office believes about relief pitchers, they’re not paying for Bell or Papelbon; if they go after a closer as a backup to Bobby Parnell, it’ll be a Brad Lidgetype on an incentive-laden contract.

What free agents are they missing out on sans Einhorn?

On the trade front, they could go after B.J. Upton or Marlon Byrd; check in on Brandon Phillips. There are useful though not earth-shattering free agents like Jason Kubel and Josh Willingham.

These are ancillary acquisitions who would help, but not throw a scare in the NL East that the Mets are coming.

The Mets improvement in 2012 will stem from finding out what’s wrong with Jason Bay and getting him into some semblance of what he was with the Red Sox and Pirates, or trading him for another heavily-paid underachiever like Chone Figgins.

The rotation will be solid if Johan Santana comes back and gives them 180 innings at 75% of what he was; if Mike Pelfrey is serviceable; if Jon Niese steps forward; and if R.A. Dickey continues to pitch as well as he has.

They’re not spending big on the bullpen. Teams build superior bullpens with castoffs and retreads and, money or not, that’s what the Mets were and are going to do.

Offensively—with or without Reyes—they’ll have enough to score a fair amount of runs with David Wright, Ike Davis, Bay, Lucas Duda and an improved Angel Pagan.

The size of the offer they present to Reyes will be a greater window into the financial circumstances of the club; not a pieced together extrapolation that pops up—without disclosed sources—in the blogosphere or on Twitter.

When the Reyes negotiations start, then we’ll know.

And not before then.

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The Mets Have To Get Better Players

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It’s unfair to compare the rebuilding Mets under a first year front office that’s diametrically opposed to the previous one and the Phillies who are in the midst of a run of excellence they haven’t enjoyed since the late 1970s-early 1980s, but it’s instructive to look at the two teams to understand why the Phillies are where they are and what the Mets need to do to get there.

Let’s take a look.

Draft, scout and develop.

The Phillies have benefited from a strong farm system in a multitude of ways. Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels, Ryan Madson, Vance Worley and Carlos Ruiz all came up through the Phillies organization; Shane Victorino was found in the Rule 5 Draft; Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Hunter Pence were acquired in trades because the Phillies had prospects other clubs coveted; Raul Ibanez, Cliff Lee and Placido Polanco were signed as free agents; and even Wilson Valdez, a journeyman castoff from the Mets, has been a valuable utilityman standing in at various times for the injured Utley, Polanco and Rollins.

The Mets have some players from their system with promise. Jonathon Niese, Lucas Duda, Ruben Tejada and Bobby Parnell all have potential. They also developed Jose Reyes and David Wright. but others have failed for one reason or another. Fernando Martinez can’t stay healthy; Josh Thole isn’t going to hit enough; Ike Davis is hurt. The Mets didn’t have the prospects to trade for veterans as the Phillies did and their rampant dysfunction in recent years made them an unappealing destination for players with choices. Players will want to go where a team appears to have its house in order or will pay them more money than anyone else. That’s essentially how the Mets got Jason Bay, Francisco Rodriguez and Johan Santana. While the Phillies have gotten production from their free agents, the Mets haven’t.

Role players should be role players.

When talking about Phillies utilityman Valdez, it’s instructive to look at the Valdez-type players the Mets have and see that they’re playing more frequently than would be optimal for a good team.

Justin Turner, Scott Hairston, Dillon Gee, Jason Isringhausen, Pedro Beato—all have use on a limited basis—but the Mets are utilizing them as regular, key players. When limited players are playing almost every day, they’re going to be exposed for what they are; and when 4-5 of them are playing every single day, it’s going to catch up; that’s what’s happening to the Mets.

They’re not a good enough team and they don’t have enough good players. The only reason they’ve stayed as close to .500 as they have is because the rest of baseball is so laden with parity that no one can tell which teams should be bad and which should be atrocious.

Play the game correctly.

It was laughable when, in the waning days of the 2010 season, Utley took Tejada out on a play at second base and the Mets reacted like a bunch of Southern women at a church social, indignant that such a thing would occur. There was talk of retaliation and the team taking a different approach to plays on the bases and at the plate.

Different approach? How about playing the game correctly without it being a response?

It was about time the Mets decided to stop being so nice to their opponents and let them have it when the opportunity arose. Following Utley’s take-out of Tejada, Carlos Beltran slid hard toward Utley and, in typical Mets fashion, missed him completely.

Had Utley been knocked into left field, he wouldn’t have said a word about it because he’s old-school, keeps his mouth shut and plays the game the right way.

You want to send a message? When Utley blocks second base with his knee as an opponent is stealing second, drive your spikes so hard into his leg so to break the skin. You don’t like him standing so close to the plate, dawdling and messing with the pitchers’ heads? Hit him in the back.

It’s called doing something about it other than yapping.

This is playing the game the way it should be played and is one of the reasons the Phillies are where they are and the Mets are where they are.

Be aggressive, smart and lucky.

This isn’t to imply that the Phillies do everything correctly because GM Ruben Amaro Jr, has made some horrible gaffes and silly free agent signings in his time as GM; it’s been glossed over by the way the team has played and that he rectified the bigger mistakes by trading for Oswalt a year ago and getting Lee back via free agency last winter; but those two deals stemmed from the fact that both Oswalt and Lee were willing to join the Phillies because the Phillies were contenders and in an atmosphere the players wanted to be a part of. Neither Oswalt nor Lee wanted to join the Mets because the team was in such disarray and the club’s reputation has taken a brutal beating due to the off-field mishaps and lawsuits surrounding team ownership.

But the Phillies weren’t exactly the bastion of cohesion until they started winning. In fact, they were a joke for 14 years from 1994 through most of 2007 before the Mets collapse and Phillies rise.

These things change quickly. The Mets have a new drafting style, a top-down chain of command that won’t be usurped as it was with Tony Bernazard running roughshod over the organization, a plan of attack and a GM able to express himself coherently—all of this gives them every chance to turn things around within the next three years.

All they have to do is adhere to the principles elucidated above.

They have to be a more than a little lucky.

They have to get better players and not use roster-filler on a daily basis in key roles.

It’s that simple. And that difficult.

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Mike Francesa’s “Expansion”

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No. I’m not talking about his waistline.

Two days ago, in his weekly spot with Mets manager Terry Collins, Mike Francesa again showed why he’s an impossible guy to take seriously when it comes to the all-encompassing sports knowledge he claims to possess.

Before and during the interview, while discussing Mets rookie Lucas Duda, Francesa repeated turned the phrase “expanding his swing” as if he was a scout and he’d noticed that Duda, growing more comfortable in the big leagues and with the pitchers, was looking to hit the ball with more power as opposed to just hitting the ball, period.

He said it numerous times.

There’s nothing wrong with the analysis. In fact, Collins agreed with Francesa.

That’s the problem.

I hadn’t noticed that Duda had altered his swing from one thing to the other—which doesn’t make the assessment wrong—but how would Francesa know this? I guarantee you that he barely watches the Mets at all anymore and almost certainly isn’t scrutinizing Duda’s at bats with the intensity nor the knowledge to make such an assertion about him.

So where’d this come from?

Here’s my guess: someone inside baseball whispered it to Francesa or someone at the station; Francesa lifted it—without crediting the source—and adopted it as his own to make himself seem to be a “baseball expert” when he’s only slightly more knowledgable than 95% of his callers.

Sound familiar?

To me, there’s nothing wrong with saying to Collins, “I heard this from a scout Terry, is Duda trying to hit for more power by expanding his swing?”

But then that would imply that Francesa didn’t know something without being told; therefore he wouldn’t know everything; therefore he wouldn’t be able to portray himself as knowing everything; therefore it’s not something he could say publicly without framing it as his observation.

Duda is “expanding his swing”; Francesa is expanding his ego.

Par for the course.

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Mets DFA Boyer; Recall Isringhausen And Igarashi

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What the Mets were expecting from Blaine Boyer is a mystery.

There are players for whom you look beyond their statistics and decide to give them a chance even if it’s at the expense of more proven commodities; but Boyer was a journeyman reliever with poor strikeout/control numbers before joining the Mets and that’s what he was with the Mets—beard, goatee, clean-shaven or whatever.

It made little sense to keep Boyer and run the risk of losing the younger and better Manny Acosta and letting proven veteran Jason Isringhausen retire or go to another club.

The Mets were lucky that Acosta got through waivers and is still with the organization; that Isringhausen was willing to hang around extended spring training for a couple of weeks before making a decision to retire or go to another team. Had the Mets not recalled Isringhausen, he’d shown enough that another team was going to pick him up.

In addition to Isringhausen, the Mets recalled Ryota Igarashi and optioned Lucas Duda to Triple A Buffalo—ESPN Story.

Despite struggles and injuries last season and his status as a forgotten man this spring, Igarashi has a power fastball and strikeout stuff; he showed flashes last season and has the potential to be a useful component.

I’m all in with finding journeyman-type relievers like Boyer and giving them a chance to pitch well out of the bullpen—that’s the proper way to build a bullpen inexpensively and intelligently; but it can’t be at the expense of better options; that’s exactly what Igarashi, Isringhausen and Acosta are.

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Paul Lebowitz’s 2011 Baseball Guide is available and will be useful for your fantasy leagues all season long. Plus I write, um….good.

I published a full excerpt of my book here.

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