The Giants’ rebuild hits a snag: They’re winning

MLB, MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Waiver Trades

Bumgarner pic

When the Giants hired Farhan Zaidi away from the Dodgers to replace Brian Sabean as the head of baseball operations, they did not do it to maintain the status quo. The Giants were long one of the main holdouts for the old-school way of running an organization, eschewing a deep dive into statistics as the final determinative factor in procuring and retaining players. It certainly worked for them with three World Series titles in five years starting in 2010.

However, the Giants are an organization that knows which way the wind is blowing – perhaps a lingering aftereffect of Candlestick Park – and moved away from the Sabean/Bruce Bochy line of thought and into the same environment which has built and maintained the Bay Area cohabitants the Athletics as well as the Dodgers, which were the two organizations Zaidi worked for before heading to San Francisco.

While the Giants did not go the route of the full teardown as the Cubs and Astros did under Theo Epstein and Jeff Luhnow respectively (and successfully), Zaidi has not concealed his intentions. Over the winter, the most recognizable names the Giants acquired were Pat Venditte (the switch-pitcher), Drew Pomeranz and Gerardo Parra. These were not moves to radically improve a 90-loss team and they definitely were not designed to close the gap with the Dodgers. They were done for veteran competence and players who might yield a prospect or two at the deadline.

If this were the defending champion Giants or the “we’re going for it” Giants, these are reasonable, role players to add to a championship mix. For a club that finished 64-98 in 2017 and 73-89 in 2018, the latter with a payroll of $200 million, sticking to the admittedly successful blueprint from the past was cannibalizing and foolish. Had the Giants wanted that, they would not have gone so far in the opposite direction from Sabean’s methods to Zaidi’s.

There’s a fine line between trying to lose and not caring about losing. The Cubs and Astros, during their rebuilds, “tanked.” They were not “throwing” games, but the teams were so terrible that losing was a natural byproduct of the terribleness of those rosters. This relatively new phenomenon is not all that new. Upon informing Ralph Kiner that he had been traded to the Cubs, Pirates GM Branch Rickey famously told him that they finished last with him and could finish last without him. The idea gained prominence with the Devil Rays/Rays under current Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman by ostensibly saying, “We’re gonna lose anyway, so what’s the difference between losing 90 and 100?”

The Astros and Cubs took it to its logical conclusion and were positioned to do so with the new heads of baseball ops inheriting bloated contracts, dead farm systems, a history of failure and owners willing to hand the keys to them because there was no history to protect and nothing to lose.

The Giants had played poorly; the players who comprised the foundation for those championships were getting old and underperforming; and the template had run its course. Add in that the National League West housed Zaidi’s old team, the Dodgers, and they had exacted a dominance over the division that the Giants could not come near without radical changes to the structure. That radical change was, in short, copying the Dodgers.

In its actions, the Giants tacitly admitted they were moving on from the Bochy/Madison Bumgarner/Buster Posey/Brandon Belt/Brandon Crawford/Pablo Sandoval years – the last remaining residue of the championships.

Manager Bochy’s spring announcement that he planned to retire after the 2019 season put an exclamation point on the organization’s direction. The question as to whether Bochy is really retiring or is being granted the respect to leave on his own terms so Zaidi and his staff can hire a manager whose thinking corresponds with theirs will be answered if Bochy takes some time off and then leaks that he’s bored and will listen to offers to manage.

Posey, Belt and Crawford are under contract for the foreseeable future, but if they are not traded, they will be ancillary players who fit in with the scheme rather than the foundation around which the scheme is crafted. With no contract extension forthcoming for Bumgarner, they had essentially said he was going to be traded by the deadline. The only question was where.

Then, from the nadir of their season so far on June 29 when they were 12 games below .500, eight games from a Wild Card spot and ahead of only the Marlins in the overall National League standings, the Giants started winning. In the subsequent three weeks and after Thursday night’s/Friday morning’s 16-inning win over the Mets, the Giants were 13-2 and gained 5.5 games in the Wild Card standings.

This is where it gets complicated. Having this happen so close to the July 31 trade deadline in the season after August trades were eliminated by MLB, the Giants and every other team must decide on what they are and what they want to be. The second Wild Card has opened so many scenarios to make an argument to stand pat that the fans and media will not accept a club punting on a season when there is the remotest possibility of making a run. It takes an experienced and entrenched baseball operations boss plus a willing ownership to do that.

Some teams will take a wait-and-see approach to their midseason status before acting. The Mets fall into that category, but they are not in the same circumstance as the Giants in that they have enough young talent and starting pitching under contract that they can say they’re going to retool and try and win in 2020. Some will disagree with the philosophy and its ambiguity, preferring the resoluteness of “this is what we’re doing, like it or not.”

The Twins were faced with a comparable conundrum in 2017. Having abandoned their longtime method of running things with the “Twins Way,” they fired veteran GM Terry Ryan and manager Ron Gardenhire, mitigated background architect Tom Kelly and moved on with former Cleveland Indians director of baseball operations Derek Falvey as the Twins new chief baseball officer They had lost 103 games the previous year and were not expected to be anything more than, at most, a 90-loss team. Instead, they hovered around contention for the second Wild Card and a likely one-game dismissal by the Yankees or Red Sox if they made the playoffs.

Instead of having the freedom to do what they wanted with a 100-loss team, Falvey and GM Thad Levine were suddenly saddled with trying to make a playoff run when it was inconvenient to their plans; was a waste of time, energy and assets; and hindered rather than helped. So, they vacillated. They made trades to “improve” as the second Wild Card spot played down to them instead of vice versa. They acquired Jaime Garcia for show, and traded Garcia and Brandon Kintzler a week later as a concession…and then still won the second Wild Card that no one in the front office wanted. They got hammered by the Yankees in the playoff game and were then free to continue their rebuild. Still, loitering around contention might have prevented them from maximizing their best tradeable assets Brian Dozier and Ervin Santana and stagnated what they set out to accomplish. It didn’t hurt them significantly as they are currently in first place, but it didn’t help either.

It might be a bit much to say that Zaidi is displeased that the Giants are playing so well, but it does put a wrench in the machine he’s constructing. Certainly, his life would be much easier if they continued that late-June spiral and freed him to gut the place because, what was the difference?

Now, it makes a difference. Could ownership step in and say it’s worth the shot to get into the Wild Card game with Bumgarner pitching it and see what happens? Absolutely.

Would the fans accept trading a team legend when the club is suddenly in the mix to make the playoffs in a weak Wild Card scrum and vulnerable teams – even the Dodgers – leading the respective divisions? They wouldn’t be happy about it even if the Giants and Zaidi extract a ransom for Bumgarner, Will Smith and Crawford and salary relief for Jeff Samardzija.

Given Zaidi’s background, he will still trade Bumgarner at the deadline and ignore this quixotic leap into the playoff conversation. But the Giants’ hot streak has put that decision from the definite category to the maybe category. Retaining Bumgarner and even adding at the deadline is precisely what Sabean would have done, and that is not what Zaidi or the Giants intended when he took the job.

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Madison Bumgarner has the cachet to say no to “the opener”

MLB

Bumgarner pic

According to San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy, Madison Bumgarner sent him a text message informing him that if the Giants – as rumored – plan to integrate “the opener” into their game strategy and he is in any way affected by this, he will simply walk out of the ballpark.

As another example of the statistical revolution and willful change to baseball orthodoxy, the specialization and strategies that accompany those changes has led to teams having less reliance on one starting pitcher.

Most pitchers are agreeable to it because they have little choice in the matter. It’s a choice of either going along or being eliminated. If there is any byproduct to teams implementing these strategies and finding players who fit into their blueprint rather than vice versa, it’s the fungible nature of a vast proportion of the players. Teams do not want to overpay for Bryce Harper or Manny Machado when they can cobble together similar production by signing, trading for, or developing several players who are more readily available and cost efficient.

Why pay a starting pitcher $25 million a year and adhere to his desires to be left alone to start his game, get in and out of trouble and have a say in how he’s utilized when six replaceable relievers can be used and cost a total of $10 million, if that much?

It’s a matter of time before a self-proclaimed expert who has never played a competitive sport and wants to turn baseball into the equivalent of a cubicle-laden office exclaims in shock and outrage: “But Bumgarner is a subordinate and he’s making inappropriate demands of a superior!”

Bumgarner is an old-school tough guy. It was Bumgarner who had zero interest in receiving a bath of sticky sports drink glop when, after he had a game-winning hit, teammate Alen Hanson attempted to douse him in the contents of the cooler and Bumgarner effortlessly shoved the jug and Hanson away with one arm.

This is how he is.

Bumgarner has the history and reputation to tell the organization that he’s not playing this game. This goes beyond Bumgarner himself. Obviously, Clayton Kershaw, Jacob deGrom, Justin Verlander and other top-line starters will be given that freedom. “Some Guy” will not and organizations are increasingly relying on Some Guy not just for the freedom to use the strategies they prefer, but so they don’t need to pay them, nor do they need to adhere to the Bumgarner dictate that he’s not tolerating having his games interfered with in such a way.

This goes beyond strategy and is part of the ongoing ideological fight. Bumgarner wins the battle because he’s Bumgarner and has the hardware, salary and negotiating leverage to do it. But the Bumgarner faction will need to indulge in harder tactics to win the war. Others do not have his cachet. Taking that away is intentional on the part of organizations for reasons beyond strategy.

Don’t Expect The Giants To Trade Lincecum

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Now that the Dodgers have crawled back over .500 the talk of firing manager Don Mattingly and a series of drastic sell-off trades has subsided. If they do anything, it will be to add and Ricky Nolasco was the first domino to fall. Say what you want about Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti, but he doesn’t have a hidden agenda. The only time he’ll sell is when his team is clearly out of contention late in the season. Apart from that, he’s buying to try and win today.

In fact, it’s doubtful that Colletti ever had it in his mind to sell while the Dodgers were floundering at twelve games under .500 on June 21. The addition of Yasiel Puig and overall parity in the National League West allowed the Dodgers to get back into contention. In retrospect it was somewhat silly to consider a fire sale so early with the amount of money the team has invested in their on-field product. There are times to conduct a housecleaning and there are teams that can do it early in the season, but those with hefty payrolls and mandates to win immediately like the Dodgers, Red Sox and Yankees are not in a position to make such maneuvers. The only big money team in recent memory to pull off such a drastic trade to clear salary is the Red Sox and they sent Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett to the Dodgers. Unless Colletti has some diabolical scheme in mind, I doubt he could pull a Dr. Evil and clear salary with himself.

Knowing that Colletti spent a significant amount of his time in baseball working for the Giants and Brian Sabean, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the two think the same way. With that in mind, don’t expect a fire sale from the Giants or for them to trade Tim Lincecum.

This has nothing to do with Lincecum having just pitched a no-hitter. It has to do with the limited return they’d likely get for the pending free agent and that in spite of their atrocious 15-29 record since May 26 they’re still only 6 1/2 games out of first place. The Padres have come undone and the Rockies are not contenders. In the NL West that leaves the Diamondbacks, Dodgers and Giants to battle it out for the division. All have their claims to be the club that emerges and all are looking to get better now. The Giants could use a bat and another starting pitcher. They were in on Nolasco and if they acquire a first baseman like Justin Morneau, they could move Brandon Belt to the outfield for the rest of the season. The change to a contender in a new city with his own pending free agency might wake up Morneau’s power bat.

Before labeling a team as a seller or buyer based on record alone, it’s wise to examine their circumstances. The Dodgers couldn’t sell because it was so early in the season and they had the talent to get back into the race. The Giants can’t sell because of the limited options on what they’ll receive in a trade of Lincecum; because they need him to contend; and with their history of late-season runs and two championships in three years, they owe it to their fans and players to try and win again.

A winning streak of eight games or winning 14 of 20 will put the Giants right near the top of the division. If they get into the playoffs with their experience and Lincecum, Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner as starters in a short series, they have as good a chance of emerging from the National League as anyone else. Trading away players that can help them achieve that possible end makes no sense. Don’t expect them to do it.

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The Yankees Saved Hughes For His Next Team

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If the innings limits and protective strategies had worked at least once, I’d say there’s a basis for having them, but this applies to Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy, Joba Chamberlain, Stephen Strasburg and any other pitcher who’s been held back in the interests of clubs “protecting” their investment: THEY DON’T WORK!!!!

The Yankees placed these rules on all their young pitchers they drafted highly and valued to keep them healthy. Neither Hughes nor Chamberlain stayed healthy and they haven’t been particularly effective either. So what was the point? The false, weak argument will say, “Well, we had no idea about that then; we were following doctors’ advice; we studied the numbers and history; we’d do it again.”

Isn’t the point of drafting and developing pitchers to have them pitch and pitch well for the team that drafted them? Hughes is going to be 27 in June and has a solid won/lost record for his career of 52-36. The record is a byproduct of having pitched for the Yankees for his entire career in an era when they won over 90 games on an annual basis and were loaded with offense and a deep bullpen that doesn’t blow leads. His peripheral numbers are mediocre and the same logic that qualified Ivan Nova’s 16-4 record in 2011 as not entirely accurate also applies to Hughes with the main difference being that the Yankees didn’t use the same strategies on Nova and didn’t think much of Nova, yet he’s been just as good as a pitcher they did tie up, Hughes.

That’s bad for the perception, so it’s ignored.

Yesterday Hughes was diagnosed with another injury, a bulging disk in his neck, said to have occurred during infield practice. It’s not the Yankees’ fault, but it’s an example of the fragility of athletes in general and pitchers in particular when they’re performing the occasionally dangerous and stressful activity of baseball.

What have they gotten with all the developmental rules? With the numbers that they, hopefully, didn’t extrapolate from Tom Verducci? With the constant shifting of roles, shutdowns, break periods, and pitch counts?

Nothing.

This is not to pick on the Yankees. Many teams are doing the same things with similar results, but Hughes’s latest injury makes him a worthy example. Hughes has been a mediocre pitcher who could have been a star had they just left him alone. Like Kennedy, Hughes will have to develop elsewhere and be allowed to pitch the 200 innings that, after six years in the big leagues, he’s yet to do. He’s a free agent at the end of the season and there will be a team that looks at Hughes and says, “We’ll sign him and let him pitch,” and will be rewarded with, at least, more than the Yankees have gotten from him.

Teams are paranoid and afraid to do something different from the current orthodoxy and self-proclaimed experts sitting behind computers, crunching numbers and waiting for an opportunity to critique. The Giants, with an old-school GM Brian Sabean, have built one of the best pitching staffs in baseball—one that’s brought them two World Series titles in three years—and they did it by drafting two high school pitchers (Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain) and one pitcher who was too small and had such a unique motion and training regimen that teams didn’t want to touch him (Tim Lincecum). What do the Yankees have? Two failed would-be stars and another top prospect who almost won the Cy Young Award for the Diamondbacks two years ago.

The Moneyball concept of not drafting high school pitchers because of the “risk” has thankfully been tossed overboard. The Verducci Effect is in the process of being phased out. (For the record, if my GM said he was using the arbitrary research of a sportswriter to develop and dictate how he used his pitchers, I’d fire him.) Teams are looking at the reality and realizing that maybe young pitchers might be better-served to be allowed to throw innings and incorporate other factors rather than the numbers handed to them by Ivy League graduates armed with an algorithm. Isn’t this is why there are pitching coaches, managers and scouts: to determine a pitcher’s tics, movements and mechanics to decide when he’s tired; when he’s at risk for injury; how he should be deployed?

Pitchers are fragile, but instead of using that fragility as a basis to freeze them for a later date, perhaps the opposite would be a better strategy: let them pitch while they can pitch and move on when they can’t. A team deciding to do that will certainly get better results than the Yankees have with Hughes, who is probably counting the days until he can get out of the Yankees constraints and go to a club that will let him enjoy his prime years as something other than a what might have been. Currently, he’s a failed experiment in building a young pitcher and a case study of those poor decisions creating a pitcher who can be found on the market cheaply to be used and discarded.

Hughes keeps getting hurt; he’s the Yankees’ fourth starter; he’s leaving at the end of the season because the Yankees won’t want him back at the money he’ll ask for and the pitcher would probably like to get a fresh start. With all of these facts, tell me, what was the point of the rules they used as a garrote to strangle his future?

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The Giants Do It Old School

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With the tiered playoff system, single game play-ins, and short series, two World Series titles in three years counts as a dynasty in today’s game. By that metric, the San Francisco Giants are a new-age dynasty. That they accomplished this with decidedly old-school principles in the era of stat-based dominance and condescension, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Michael Lewis—the chronicler of the paragon of stat-based theories of Billy Beane in Moneyball—step over Beane and saunter over to Giants’ GM Brian Sabean and declare that he always knew there were alternate methods to success in baseball, but simply forgot to say it; that Moneyball was about more than just numbers and Ivy League educated “geniuses” permeating (or infecting) baseball morphing front offices from cigar-chomping old men using randomness into put their teams together to something resembling a Star Trek convention. It was actually about value and was not a denigration of alternate methods to finding players.

Of course that would be a lie, but truth has never stood in the way of Lewis when he has an ending in mind and is willing to do whatever necessary to get to that ending—accuracy be damned.

The boxing promoter Don King was famous for his sheer and unending audacity in this vein of going with the winner, exemplified early in his career as a boxing promoter (and not long after his release from prison) when he walked to the ring with then-heavyweight champion Joe Frazier and rapidly switched allegiances to George Foreman when Foreman knocked Frazier out. King magically emerged as part of the celebration in Foreman’s corner.

But King is a genius and Lewis isn’t. In fact, King wallowed in his amorality; Lewis doesn’t realize what he’s doing is amoral to begin with. Masked by legitimacy and critical acclaim, Lewis is far worse than King could ever be.

Because the Athletics had a shocking season in which they won 94 games and made the playoffs, losing to the AL Champion Tigers in 5 games, Lewis and Moneyball again entered the spotlight as if the 2012 A’s validated a long-ago disproved narrative. As this Slate article by Tim Marchman shows, such is not the case.

Had the Athletics been as awful as many—me included—predicted, would Lewis have abandoned his vessel out of convenience? Or would have have stuck with Beane still trying to find a reptilian method of explaining away the fall of Moneyball?

I’ll guess on the latter, but don’t discount the possibility of a new book extolling the virtues of Sabean; his veteran manager with the 1880s-style mustache and grumbly voice, Bruce Bochy; and the way the Giants championship club was built.

Before that can happen, let’s get in front of whatever the latecomers and opportunists try to pull and examine how this team was put together.

Players acquired through the draft

Brandon Crawford, SS

Crawford was taken in the 4th round of the 2008 draft out of UCLA. He received a $375,000 signing bonus.

Brandon Belt, 1B

Belt was selected in the 5th round of the 2009 draft out of the University of Texas at Austin. He received a $200,000 signing bonus.

Buster Posey, C

Posey was drafted from Florida State University in the 1st round with the 5th pick by the Giants in the 2008 draft. He received a record (at the time) signing bonus of $6.2 million.

Sergio Romo, RHP

Romo was drafted in the 28th round of the 2005 draft out of Mesa State College in Colorado. Romo took over for injured star closer Brian Wilson and was brilliant.

Madison Bumgarner, LHP

Bumgarner was drafted in the 1st round of the 2007 draft with the 10th pick out South Caldwell High School in Hudson, North Carolina. He received a $2 million bonus.

Tim Lincecum, RHP

Lincecum was drafted from the University of Washington in the 1st round of the 2006 draft with the 10th pick. He received a $2.025 million signing bonus.

Matt Cain, RHP

Cain was taken in the 1st round (25th pick) of the 2002 draft—the “Moneyball” draft that was documented by Lewis as exhibit A of stat guy “genius” from Paul DePodesta’s laptop. He was taken out of high school in Tennessee—exhibit B of “mistakes” that clubs make when drafting players because selecting high school pitchers was presented as the epitome of risk and stupidity.

Cain received a $1.375 million signing bonus. The A’s took Joe Blanton out of college the pick before Cain. Blanton received a $1.4 million signing bonus.

Acquired via free agency

Pablo Sandoval, 3B

Sandoval was signed by the Giants out of Venezuela as an amateur free agent at age 17 in 2003.

Gregor Blanco, OF

The veteran journeyman Blanco signed a minor league contract with the Giants after spending the entire 2011 season in Triple A with the Nationals and Royals. He was an integral part of the Giants’ championship team with speed, defense, and a key homer in the NLDS comeback against the Reds.

Ryan Vogelsong, RHP

Vogelsong’s signing was mostly luck helped along by opportunity and the alteration of his game under pitching coach Dave Righetti. Vogelsong was a journeyman who has become a post-season star and rotation stalwart at age 35.

Jeremy Affeldt, LHP

Affeldt was signed as a free agent from the Reds in 2008.

Ryan Theriot, INF

Theriot signed a 1-year, $1.25 million contract before the 2012 season.

Aubrey Huff, 1B/OF/PH

Huff was a low-cost free agent signing in 2010 and was a large part of the World Series title that year. He re-signed for 2-years and $22 million and didn’t contribute on the field to the 2012 title.

Barry Zito, LHP

The Giants were in need of a star to replace Barry Bonds as they rebuilt from the “Build around Bonds” days and Zito was the biggest name available in the winter of 2006-2007. They signed him to a 7-year, $126 million contract that has $27 million guaranteed remaining for 2013. A pitcher being paid that amount of money is expected to be an ace, but Zito has been a back-of-the-rotation starter at best and was left off the 2010 post-season roster entirely. In 2012, he won 14 games and picked up the slack for the slumping Lincecum and Bumgarner to help the Giants win their 2012 championship.

Santiago Casilla, RHP

Casilla was signed as a free agent in 2009 after the Athletics non-tendered him.

Joaquin Arias, INF

Arias signed a minor league contract before the 2012 season. People forget about this, but in the Alex Rodriguez trade from the Rangers to the Yankees, the Yankees offered the Rangers a choice between Arias and Robinson Cano.

Neither the Yankees nor the Rangers knew what Cano was.

It was Arias’s defense at third base on the last out that helped save Cain’s perfect game in June.

Guillermo Mota, RHP

Mota has been with the Giants for three seasons and signed a 1-year, $1 million contract for 2012.

Hector Sanchez, C

Sanchez was signed as an amateur free agent out of Venezuela in 2009.

Players acquired via trade

Melky Cabrera, OF

The contribution of Cabrera will be debated forever considering he failed a PED test and was suspended for the second half of the season. He was eligible to be reinstated for the playoffs, but the Giants chose not to do that. It was Cabrera’s All-Star Game MVP performance that wound up giving the Giants home field advantage for the World Series

Cabrera was an important factor in the first half of the season, but the Giants were 62-51 with Cabrera on the active roster and 32-17 without him. The Giants’ success was based on their pitching more than anything else and they won the World Series without Cabrera.

Cabrera was acquired from the Royals for Jonathan Sanchez, who was talented and inconsistent with the Giants and outright awful for the Royals.

Javier Lopez, LHP

Lopez was acquired from the Pirates in July of 2010 and was a key lefty specialist on the two title-winning teams.

Angel Pagan, CF

Pagan was acquired from the Mets for center fielder Andres Torres and righty reliever Ramon Ramirez. Pagan had a fine year at the plate and in the field, leading the majors in triples with 15 and stealing 29 bases including the one in the World Series that got everyone a free taco from Taco Bell.

George Kontos, RHP

The Yankees traded Kontos to the Giants for backup catcher Chris Stewart. Kontos is a solid reliever who’s more useful than a no-hit catcher.

Hunter Pence, RF

Pence was acquired from the Phillies for minor league pitcher Seth Rosin, catcher Tommy Joseph, and veteran big league outfielder Nate Schierholtz. The Giants are set at catcher, so Joseph was expendable. Pence had a .671 OPS in 59 games with the Giants, but it was his stirring, wild-eyed speech before game 3 of the NLDS against the Reds that was widely credited by teammates as waking them up to make their comeback. His teammates were either inspired or frightened by Pence’s intensity, but whatever it was, it worked.

Marco Scutaro, 2B

Scutaro was almost steamrolled by Matt Holliday of the Cardinals in the NLCS, but he came back from that and batted .500 in that series, winning the MVP. Then he had the game-winning hit in game 4 of the World Series.

Scutaro was acquired from the Rockies in late July for infielder Charlie Culberson.

Manager Bochy was run out of his longtime home as a manager, coach and player with the Padres when the front office wanted someone cheaper and more agreeable to the new age statistics and doing what he was told. Then-Padres team president Sandy Alderson allowed Bochy to interview for the Giants’ job—a division rival no less—and made utterly absurd statements of his policy being to allow his employees to seek other opportunities blah, blah, blah.

The Padres didn’t want Bochy back because Bochy didn’t do what he was told by the stat guys in the front office. In exchange, they got a far inferior manager Bud Black, and the Giants now have two championships and the hardware (and parades) to say there are different methods to use to win. Sometimes those methods work better without the fictionalized accounts in print and on film.

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San Francisco Giants vs Detroit Tigers—World Series Preview and Predictions

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San Francisco Giants vs Detroit Tigers

Keys for the Giants: Keep runners off the bases in front of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder; get the Tigers’ starting pitchers’ counts up to get into the bullpen; try not to fall behind in the World Series as they have in the first two playoff series.

When a team has two bashers in the middle of the lineup the magnitude of Cabrera and Fielder, it goes without saying that you don’t want to face them with runners on base. The Giants have gotten above-and-beyond performances from the unheralded Barry Zito and Ryan Vogelsong as Tim Lincecum and Madison Bumgarner have struggled. Delmon Young has accumulated a multitude of big hits in the post-season this season and last and has to be accounted for as well.

The Tigers’ strength has been in their starting pitching and despite Phil Coke’s series-saving work against the Yankees, in this series, the Tigers are definitely going to need to use Jose Valverde at some point. He and Joaquin Benoit—the Tigers’ usual eighth and ninth inning pitchers—have been shaky. Tigers’ manager Jim Leyland doesn’t push his starters beyond their breaking points so it’s important to work the counts against the Tigers’ starters.

The Giants fell behind the Reds in the ALDS 2 games to 0 and came back to win.

They fell behind the Cardinals 3 games to 1 and came back to win.

If they fall behind 3 games to 1 in this series, they’re going to face Justin Verlander in game 5 with him smelling a championship to go along with his 2011 Cy Young Award and MVP and perhaps another Cy Young Award in 2012. These types of moments are what builds a Hall of Fame career and they’re not going to beat Verlander if they wind up in that hole.

Keys for the Tigers: Feast on the struggling Giants’ starters; get runners on base in front of Cabrera and Fielder; don’t overthink the closer situation or stick Valverde back there because it’s “his” job.

The Giants won the World Series two years ago riding a superlative starting rotation backed up by a flamethrowing and fearless closer. But Lincecum and Bumgarner have been bad; Zito is always on the verge of implosion; and Brian Wilson is out after elbow surgery. The strength isn’t exactly a weakness, but the Tigers can match and surpass the Giants’ rotation.

Obviously, the Tigers want to have their table-setters on the bases ahead of their mashers.

Leyland showed incredible flexibility (and didn’t have much choice) in removing Valverde from “his” inning. This is the World Series and the bottom line is winning, not feelings and roles. He’s going to need Valverde at some point, but when it gets to the ninth inning, he’s got to mix and match rather than insert the “closer”.

What will happen:

Zito is starting the first game for the Giants and after his brilliant performance against the Cardinals, he’s gained a bit more trust than the pitcher who Giants’ manager Bruce Bochy would allow to pitch 5 innings and have the bullpen ready to pull him when the first sign of trouble appeared. Zito is still getting by with a fastball that barely breaks 85 mph on a good day and his control is up and down. The Tigers are going to bash him and the feel good story will revert to talk of Zito’s massive contract and how it’s been a disaster. Zito spent a chunk of his career in the American League, but has limited history with the Tigers and nothing noticeable to watch for.

Bumgarner is starting game 2 after discovering what he and the Giants are saying were mechanical flaws that diminished his stamina and caused his poor outings. I’m not sure I’m buying that, especially with the Tigers’ bats like Cabrera and Fielder. Fielder is 3 for 7 in his career against Bumgarner, but they were all singles.

By the time the Giants get to their more reliable starting pitchers, they could be down 2 games to 0. Vogelsong is pitching game 3 and Matt Cain game 4. Lincecum is nowhere to be seen and will be in the bullpen. He could be an important factor.

The talk of home field advantage for the Giants is meaningless. In fact, Verlander is probably better off pitching in San Francisco in game 1 than he would at home because he’s going to have the opposing pitcher to face at the plate.

The Giants are battle-tested and fearless. Buster Posey is a star; Marco Scutaro is reveling in his playoff star turn. There are dangerous bats in their lineup with Pablo Sandoval and Hunter Pence, but the Tigers have too many weapons on offense and a deeper starting rotation.

The Tigers bullpen will blow a game or two in this series, but it’s not going to be enough to turn the tide in favor of the Giants.

PREDICTION: TIGERS IN SIX

WORLD SERIES MVP: PRINCE FIELDER

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NLCS Preview and Predictions—San Francisco Giants vs St. Louis Cardinals

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San Francisco Giants (94-68; 1st place, NL West; defeated Cincinnati Reds 3 games to 2 in NLDS) vs St. Louis Cardinals (88-74; 2nd place, NL Central; won Wild Card; defeated Atlanta Braves in Wild Card play-in game; defeated Washington Nationals 3 games to 2 in NLDS)

Keys for the Giants: Get depth from their starting pitching; keep the scores low; score tack-on runs; maintain their closer diversity; don’t let Carlos Beltran beat them.

Because they had to win the final 3 games against the Reds to make it to the NLCS, the Giants have listed Madison Bumgarner, Ryan Vogelsong, and Matt Cain as the first three starters in the series. It’s undecided who will go in game 4. I wound start Tim Lincecum, but Barry Zito is an option—a bad option, but still an option. The Cardinals can score in bunches, but the Giants have the starting pitching to turn out the lights on anyone’s offense.

The Giants are no longer the team that couldn’t score and relied on their starting pitching to a desperate degree in recent years. With Buster Posey, the Giants have a weapon in the lineup and behind the plate. That said, they can’t score in bunches with the Cardinals.

Carlos Beltran is a post-season machine. Early in the series I’d pitch around Beltran and make Matt Holliday beat me.

Keys for the Cardinals: Raise the Giants’ starters pitch counts up and get into the bullpen; get a better performance from Adam Wainwright; put up crooked numbers.

The Giants’ bullpen has depth, but they’re still shaky. If the Cardinals can put up big numbers against the starters, they’ll get into the Giants’ bullpen while simultaneously putting a limited offense in the position of having to score a number of runs they’ve shown finite capability in scoring. If the Cardinals put the Giants in a position of playing catch-up, they’ll be in a great position.

Adam Wainwright pitched well in his first start against the Nationals, but got shelled in game 5, nearly costing the Cardinals the series.

What will happen:

The Cardinals escaped the play-in game against the Braves—in part—due to the horrific infield fly call; then they got past the Nationals because the Nats’ bullpen blew up in a stranger-than-fiction manner.

Will that happen against the Giants? The Giants starting pitching is better than that of the Nats and there’s not the bullpen use by rote that doomed the Nationals. If the situation in the ninth inning calls for a lefty, there’s not going to be a “my closer is in the game” from Giants’ manager Bruce Bochy because their true closer, Brian Wilson, is on the disabled list. If the situation calls for Sergio Romo, Romo will pitch; if it calls for Javier Lopez, Lopez will pitch. Some see this as a disadvantage and in the regular season, maybe it is. In the playoffs, it isn’t.

Lance Lynn is starting the opener for the Cardinals. Lynn got off to a blazing first half of the season as a starter, but was sent to the bullpen in August. He seemed to run out of gas. The Giants have an edge in rotation depth and in the bullpen.

The Giants will not let Beltran beat them and if Matt Holliday isn’t hitting, the Cardinals offense is mitigated.

The Cardinals have been functioning with an inexplicable amount of magic and/or luck in the past two years. They’ve gotten by with miraculous comebacks, have lost star players, managers and pitching coaches, taken advantage of unforeseen opportunities, and walked away with a World Series title and are back in the NLCS.

Their luck is going to run out in this NLCS.

PREDICTION: GIANTS IN SIX

NLCS MVP: MADISON BUMGARNER

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San Francisco Giants vs Cincinnati Reds—NLDS Preview and Predictions

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San Francisco Giants (94-68; 1st place, NL West) vs Cincinnati Reds (97-65; 1st place, NL Central)

Keys for the Giants: Get depth from the starting pitching; keep the Reds hitters in the park; don’t fall behind and need to score against the Reds bullpen.

The Giants won the World Series two years ago behind a deep starting rotation and a dominating closer in spite of a limited lineup. They still have a deep starting rotation and it’s probably deeper than it was in 2010, but they’re without closer Brian Wilson. This series—and the Yankees series against the Orioles for that matter—will be a good case study of how important it is to have a “name” closer in the playoffs. The Giants have survived with a closer-by-committee with Santiago Casilla, Sergio Romo, Jeremy Affeldt, Javier Lopez, and Clay Hensley. They’d probably prefer to have their starters throw a complete game or three to prevent the question from even being asked of how much they miss Wilson.

The Reds have a lineup full of power hitters and will also have bench players (depending on who among Todd Frazier and Scott Rolen are in the starting lineup) who can go deep.

The Reds bullpen has a diverse set of arms led by Aroldis Chapman and his searing 100+ mph fastball and 122 strikeouts in 71.2 innings.

Keys for the Reds: Get ahead, stay ahead; hit the ball out of the park; try and be patient to get the Giants’ starters’ pitch counts up.

The Reds pitching from top-to-bottom is too good to fall behind them. Johnny Cueto had a breakout, 19-win year; Mat Latos overcame a slow start to slot in neatly behind Cueto; Bronson Arroyo is a solid veteran who won’t be intimidated by the post-season. With that bullpen, no team wants to fall behind late in games, but the Reds have so many power bats—Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Ryan Ludwick, and Brandon Phillips—that keeping them in the park is a difficult order. On the bright side for the Giants, the Reds don’t manufacture runs with walks and stolen bases, so if the Giants keep them in the park, they have a great chance of low scores.

The Giants starting pitching has the ability to turn out the lights on any lineup no matter how good that lineup is, so the Reds need to try and get early leads and hand the games over to their pitchers.

What will happen:

If the Reds play poorly early in the series, it’s only a matter of time before the “witty” Dusty Baker critics make coarse jokes about his recent illnesses and suggest that the Reds would’ve been better off if he’d stayed sick. I guarantee it.

With Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, and a resurgent Tim Lincecum, the Giants pitching is among the best in baseball. The Reds have talent in their starting rotation, but it’s not on a level with that of the Giants. I don’t trust Cueto in a playoff game. Arroyo, as gutty as he is, is hittable.

The Giants offense doesn’t have the lightning strike power that the Reds do, but the Giants wound up 6th in the National League in runs scored, while the Reds were 9th. Buster Posey is a bona fide star who might win the MVP in the National League. After his dreadful first half, Lincecum quietly finished the season respectably, if not in his Cy Young Award form.

The Giants’ pitching will keep the Reds in the park during the first two games in San Francisco. Because the Reds are aggressive at the plate and limited on the bases, they have to hit the ball out of the park to score. If that doesn’t happen, they have a hard time winning. The Giants have speed, some power, and more ways to score without the homer than the Reds do.

This series will come down to starting pitching and the Giants starting pitching is battle-tested and simply better.

PREDICTION: GIANTS IN FOUR

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Leo Mazzone’s Criticism of the Nationals’ Handling of Stephen Strasburg Invites a Strong and Selective Reaction

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Leo Mazzone’s reputation as a pitching coach guru was bolstered by having three Hall of Famers and a pretty good background cast of characters with the Braves and was subsequently ruined by going to the Orioles and functioning without much talent. Like most coaches (and managers for that matter), it’s more about the talent than it is about any set of principles implemented by the coach or organization.

When Mazzone had Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz, he looked smart. He had Rodrigo Lopez and Kris Benson with the Orioles and therefore, didn’t look as smart.

That said, it can’t be ignored that Erik Bedard had his two best and healthiest seasons working under Mazzone; that relatively pedestrian pitchers Denny Neagle, Kerry Ligtenberg, Greg McMichael, Mike Remlinger, and John Thomson blossomed with him as their pitching coach and did nothing notable anywhere else; that Kevin Millwood and Steve Avery developed under Mazzone; that Russ Ortiz, John Burkett, Jaret Wright and Mike Hampton all experienced a renaissance under him; or that the Braves came undone after Mazzone left.

Was it talent? Was it Hall of Famers? Was it technique? Was it Bobby Cox? Was it that the Braves in those years were super good and could’ve shuttled anyone out there and had them look better than they were?

Or was it a combination of everything?

Or is it something that can’t be defined as “this is why”?

Mazzone hasn’t gotten a pitching coach job since he was fired by the Orioles which leads me to believe that his reputation as someone who doesn’t adhere to organizational edicts—a version of going along to get along that’s been in place forever—is preventing him from being hired. Or perhaps it’s something else.

I don’t know and nor do you. This is why it’s silly to take Mazzone’s quotes about the Nationals’ parameters and much-discussed decision to limit Stephen Strasburg as the ranting of a has-been baseball dinosaur by referencing Steve Avery as “proof” (as Craig Calcaterra does here on Hardball Talk) that Mazzone’s way is one of the past and his opinions carry zero weight.

With the proliferation of self-proclaimed experts, stat sites, and insertion of viewpoints available at the click of a button, it’s hard to know which end is up. Everyone’s knows better than the previous person whether that person is an experienced baseball man or not. Dave Righetti and the Giants’ methods involving their young pitchers functioning similarly to the Braves of the 1990s drew old-school respect as Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum flourished. But Lincecum wasn’t working under the Giants’ program and was essentially left on his own. So where does the credit lie? Is it Lincecum’s dad? Is it the Giants for their willingness to let Lincecum pitch without limits? And who gets the blame for his poor season and decreased velocity? Does Righetti get the accolades for Cain and Madison Bumgarner? How does it work?

The Yankees can provide reams of printouts and cutting-edge medical recommendations for their treatment of their young pitchers, but all are either hurt (Jose Campos, Manny Banuelos); inconsistent or worse (Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain); stagnant (Dellin Betances); or have the fault shifted elsewhere for the Yankees’ shoddy assessments (Michael Pineda).

Did Avery get hurt because of the Braves’ overusing him or would he have gotten hurt anyway? Avery was another pitcher who learned his mechanics from his dad and was left to his own devices. It was only after he got hurt that those mechanics were deemed as the culprit. And now, years after the fact, Mazzone’s getting the blame.

Would he have gotten hurt anyway? Judging from the way pitchers are constantly injured—clean mechanics or not—it’s a pretty safe bet that he would’ve.

Will Strasburg get hurt? He was babied from college onward and still needed Tommy John surgery.

Some pitchers are overused at a young age and get injured; others stay healthy. Why doesn’t Calcaterra reference Maddux, who as a 22-year-old was handled by another old-school manager Don Zimmer and pitching coach, Dick Pole, and allowed to throw as many as 167 pitches in a game in 1988? Maddux credited Pole for teaching him proper mechanics and Pole has bounced from team-to-team because he—guess what?—asserts himself and doesn’t go with the organizational flow.

Jim Bouton wrote about this phenomenon in Ball Four when discussing why Johnny Sain hopped from club-to-club and never lasted very long in any one place. Ego and control are far more important to an organization than getting it right and iconoclasts don’t last unless they have massive success.

Mazzone’s not wrong here. In truth, nor are the Nats. There is no “right” or “wrong”. I disagree with the way they’ve implemented their plan because there were methods to keeping Strasburg’s innings down without going to the controversial extreme of shutting him down when they’re going to need him most in the playoffs (the 6-man rotation for example), but the smug condescension and retrospective denigration of Mazzone’s work is pure second guessing and random outsider expertise to prove an unprovable theory with the selective references to match.

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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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