Rethinking the GM, Part II—American League Central

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You can read the basis of these postings and part I here.

Detroit Tigers

Mike Ilitch is the epitome of the “do the right thing” owner with all of his sports franchises. He hires people who are both perceived to know and do know what they’re doing and gives them the resources to be successful. With GM Dave Dombrowski, there’s none of the “look how smart I am” pretense in which he wants to win but more than winning, he wants credit for winning and being the architect of the franchise.

Dombrowski is the classic old-school baseball guy who worked his way up organically and didn’t trick anyone with an array of numbers and catchy business-themed buzzwords. Some owners want to hear that stuff and it’s usually either the ruthless corporate types who have no interest in anyone’s feelings and putting out a product that will be both practically successful and aesthetically likable; or a rich guy who didn’t work for his money and is interested in seeing his name in the papers, but doesn’t have the faintest concept into what running a sports franchise is all about and isn’t able to comprehend that you can’t run a baseball team like a corporation and expect it to work.

Ilitch knows and understands this and lets Dombrowski do his job. Dombrowski has built three different clubs to success with the Expos, Marlins and Tigers and had a hand in the early 1980s White Sox who rose to prominence under manager Tony LaRussa. For those who consider Dombrowski a product of Ilitch’s willingness to spend money and little else, it’s simply not true and is only presented as an excuse because he’s not a stat guy. He knows talent, spends money when necessary, but also has an old-school GM’s aggressiveness going after what he wants when others wouldn’t know what they’re getting as evidenced by his under-the-radar trade for Doug Fister. Most people in baseball barely knew who Fister was at the time the Tigers traded for him and the acquisition exemplified Dombrowski’s thinking and decisionmaking as he refused to take Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik saying “no” for an answer. The prospects Dombrowski gave up to get Fister haven’t done much for the Mariners and Fister is a solid mid-rotation starter at age 29.

Cleveland Indians

The Indians use the transfer of power approach when they name their GM. John Hart passed his job on to Mark Shapiro and Shapiro moved up to the team presidency and Chris Antonetti took over as GM. This is not a situation where the GM is actually running the whole show. Shapiro may have moved up to a more powerful position above the player personnel fray, but he still has significant input in the club’s construction.

In general when there’s a promotion of this kind, it’s done so that the team president doesn’t have to deal with the day-to-day minutiae that the GM has to deal with. I’m talking about press conferences, giving the final nod on the draft, listening to manager/player complaints and other redundant and tiresome exercises that make a GM want to get the promotion (or demotion) in the first place.

The Indians GM job and other front office positions are rarely if ever in jeopardy. It’s understood that there are payroll constraints and Shapiro and company have the freedom to teardown and rebuild as they see fit. This year is different because they hired a pricey name manager in Terry Francona and spent money on players Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, Mark Reynolds and make a bold trade in sending Shin-Soo Choo to the Reds. Much of this is rumored to be due to owner Larry Dolan wanting to boost the product and attendance to increase the franchise’s sale value and then sell it.

Chicago White Sox

The White Sox are unique in that owner Jerry Reinsdorf trusts former GM and now Executive V.P. Ken Williams implicitly and lets him do what he wants even if that includes considering making Paul Konerko player/manager prior to hiring an unproven Robin Ventura who had no managerial experienced whatsoever.

Much like the Indians, Williams moved up to a higher executive perch and Rick Hahn took over as the day-to-day GM with Williams maintaining significant influence on the club’s construction. Outsiders rip Williams but he wants to win at the big league level every year and tends to ignore development. If contending is not in the cards, he reacts preemptively and blows it up. Another reason he’s so loathed by the stat person wing is because he scoffs at them with the reality that they haven’t the faintest idea as to what running a club entails, nor does he care about what they say.

Minnesota Twins

The Twins are insular and won’t bring in a new GM from the outside who’s going to want to clear out the house of former employees, marginalize longtime implementer of the “Twins way” Tom Kelly, and fire manager Ron Gardenhire. With that in mind, when they demoted Bill Smith from the GM position, they reached into the past for the GM of the club during their annual trips to the post-season, Terry Ryan.

The Twins have a packed farm system and should be back contending in the next couple of years. Ryan is decidedly old-school, has a background in scouting and worked his way up like Dombrowski. He’s willing to listen and discuss his philosophy with the stat people at their conventions, but will continue to be a scouting and “feel” GM as he looks for players that fit into what he, Kelly and Gardenhire prefer rather than someone whose OPS jumps off the page but might not behave in the manner the Twins want their players to.

The Twins ownership is one of the wealthiest in sports but there’s a tradeoff with their manner of ownership: they don’t interfere with the baseball people, but they don’t give them any more money than is within the budget. They treat it like a business. There are probably more benefits to that than negatives since they’re willing to have a $100+ million payroll and aren’t asking Ryan to complete the very difficult task of winning with $60 million or less.

Kansas City Royals

What’s funny about Dayton Moore becoming a punching bag for the Royals horrific backwards streak in which they went from 17-10 to 22-30 is that none of his more vicious critics was saying much of anything when the team was playing well and it looked like Moore’s decision to trade a package led by Wil Myers to the Rays for a package led by James Shields was going to yield the desired result.

Moore learned as an assistant to John Schuerholz and played a significant role in the Braves having a fertile farm system through the 1990s and early 2000s, but might not be cut out to be a fulltime GM. He’s good at building a farm system and has trouble sprinkling in necessary ingredients to supplement the youngsters on the big league roster.

When Moore was making the rounds as a GM candidate, he almost seemed to be reluctant to take the job. He interviewed with the Red Sox in 2002 and withdrew from consideration after the first interview. He then took the Royals job at mid-season 2006. Perhaps he knew something that those who touted him as a GM candidate didn’t; maybe he was happy as an assistant and didn’t want the scrutiny that comes from being a GM and took it because he was expected to move up to the next level as a GM.

Whatever it was, I think of other GMs and former GMs who had certain attributes to do the job but weren’t cut out to be the guy at the top of the food chain because of the missing—and important—other aspects. Omar Minaya was like that. Minaya is a great judge of talent, can charm the reporters and fans, has a fantastic rapport with the Latin players and can be a convincing salesman. When he was introducing his new free agent signing or acquisition in a big trade, he was great with a big smile and nice suit as a handsome representative for the team. But when there was dirty work to be done like firing his manager, firing an assistant, or answering reporters’ questions regarding a controversy, his shakiness with the English language and propensity to be too nice came to the forefront and he couldn’t do the job effectively.

There’s nothing wrong with being a great assistant when the alternative is being a mediocre-to-bad GM and winding up right back where he or she started from.

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The Bourn Signing From All The Angles

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For Michael Bourn

A 4-year, $48 million contract with an option for 2017 making it possibly worth $60 million over five years isn’t what Bourn and agent Scott Boras had in mind when the asking price was around $15 million annually. Considering the market, the late date and that Bourn was costing a draft pick and the loss of money to spend in the draft, it’s a good contract for him.

The Indians are a relatively low-pressure atmosphere in spite of the spending and Terry Francona is an easy manager to play for. Bourn shows up to work every day and does his job. He’s durable, will steal 50 bases and play excellent defense in center field.

For the Indians

The concerns about Bourn’s age (30) and that he’s a “speed” player are overblown. For the life of the contract, he’ll be able to play his game and can hit independent of his speed. The Indians are being aggressive in a way they haven’t in years. Their rebuild had stagnated with the players they acquired in the CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee trades contributing very little. With Nick Swisher, Bourn and Mark Reynolds added to the lineup, they’ll score more runs and be better defensively. Their starting pitching is the key. Unless Ubaldo Jimenez reverts to what he was in 2010 with the Rockies, Trevor Bauer develops quickly and they squeeze whatever remains in Scott Kazmir and/or Daisuke Matsuzaka, they’re around a .500 team. Francona’s not a miracle worker and short of the Indians turning around and hiring Dave Duncan, they can’t manufacture pitchers out of nothing.

For Scott Boras

It’s naïve to think that Boras, when asking for the $75 million for Bourn, hadn’t calculated the factor of draft pick compensation and that the number of teams willing to spend that kind of money on Bourn was limited. Compared to what he publicly suggested as Bourn’s asking price to what he got, it’s a loss. But Boras is smart enough to know and to have conveyed to his client that the numbers might have to come down to get a long-term deal done and he’d have to sign with an unexpected entrant into the sweepstakes like the Indians.

For the Mets

If they’d gotten him, Bourn represented an upgrade in center field and signaled that the Mets weren’t sitting on the sidelines and yessing their fans to death with no intention of sealing the deal. I wrote about the positives and negatives for the Mets with Bourn and risking the 11th pick in the upcoming draft to sign him. If Sandy Alderson and the Mets were telling Bourn to hold off on signing a contract to see if they could get the compensation pick waived, they’re at best arrogant and at worst delusional. Had Bourn stalled the Indians, they might’ve told him to take a hike knowing that he was waiting out the Mets. Bourn took the deal in hand and was wise to do so.

The Mets weren’t pulling any sleight of hand to trick their fans and the media to think they were serious when they really weren’t, but it’s easy to see how some can view it that way. In the end, it’s Michael Bourn. He’s a useful player who would’ve helped the Mets, but not someone to get into a frenzy over either way.

For Francona and other managers

Imagine what Manny Acta is thinking right as he watches this. In his first managerial job, he was saddled with the woeful Nationals, had the difficult personalities Lastings Milledge, Elijah Dukes and Scott Olsen in his clubhouse, and got fired from a team that wouldn’t have won with Tony LaRussa, Joe Torre, Casey Stengel or any other managerial luminary overseeing it. In 2013, they’ve got the talent to win 100 games and have the veteran Davey Johnson at the helm.

Then Acta went to the Indians, overachieved in 2011 with limited talent and was fired when the team played up to their potential with 90+ losses in two of his three seasons.

Acta has no power to dictate terms. The above-mentioned names did. Francona does. None of those name managers would take that kind of job once they’ve established themselves as “winners” who can be sold as such to the fanbase. This has happened before. Lou Piniella was hired by the Devil Rays and promised that they were going to spend money. They didn’t and all he did was lose. He left and was absolved of blame for what happened in Tampa due to his reputation and previous work with the Mariners, Reds and Yankees. Hired by the Cubs, they spent big on free agents and were in the playoffs in his first season.

That’s how it works before the fact. Sometimes spending on a name manager and expensive players fails in practice as we saw with the 2012 Marlins and Ozzie Guillen. Guillen, a manager with a championship and successful run with the White Sox, will have trouble getting another job after that one disastrous year with the Marlins.

This is life for managers when they’re trying to gain footing or replenish a reputation. Fleeting and subjective, a manager is judged on perception and results. Acta is a good tactical manager and the players like him, but he’s been stuck with bad teams. Whether he gets another shot remains to be seen. He probably will and, as is customary, success hinges on the players the front office gives him.

Francona wasn’t immune to it either. He too had to fend off the somewhat accurate belief that he got the Red Sox job because of Curt Schilling, and that he’d work cheap while taking orders from the front office. It’s partially true. Francona won two World Series titles and he’s able to dictate that he’ll be paid handsomely and his team will spend money on “name” players. Francona did his time in the minors and managing a horrible Phillies team, now he’s reaping the benefits of his work with the Red Sox as the Indians are giving him players that Acta never had. He, unlike Acta, will be expected to win. If he doesn’t, he’ll suffer the same fate as Acta, only it will be pricier in terms of money and the future with the bartered draft picks, not to mention Francona’s reputation.

The Indians have put forth the image of “trying.” Now, they have to “do.”

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Reds, Indians and Diamondbacks 3-Way Trade Hinges on Bauer and Gregorius

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The Reds, Indians and Diamondbacks completed a three team trade that broke down in the following way:

Let’s look at this from the perspectives of all three.

For the Reds:

The 29-year-old Choo was back to his normal self in 2012 after a terrible 2011 season that included an injury to his oblique and a DUI arrest. He hits for power, steals bases with a high rate of success, walks, and hits for average. He does strike out a lot, his defense is statistically on the decline, and he’s a free agent at the end of the 2012 season. The Reds have said they’re going to play him in center field but it’s a ridiculous idea. Reds’ right fielder Jay Bruce has experience in center and Choo has played 10 career games at the position in the majors.

Choo is going to want a lot of money on the market next winter, will be in demand and is represented by Scott Boras. The Reds aren’t expecting him to sign a long-term extension, so he’s a one-year rental and a good one. He makes the team better offensively than they were with the free-swinging strikeout machine Stubbs, and as long as Bruce can play an adequate center, the defensive downgrade is negligible—Stubbs wasn’t exactly Paul Blair out there.

Donald is a versatile backup infielder replacing former utilityman Todd Frazier who will take over as the everyday third baseman.

Gregorius was blocked by Zack Cozart at shortstop and the Reds did very well considering they only gave up Stubbs and a minor league shortstop they really didn’t need.

For the Indians:

For better or worse, new Indians manager Terry Francona is having his voice heard by the front office and they’re looking toward the long-term by acquiring a potential frontline starter in Bauer. Albers is known to Francona from their days with the Red Sox. Also known by Francona is Anderson, for whom he had no use with the Red Sox and couldn’t wait to be rid of from the Indians.

Stubbs is a decent journeyman outfielder with pop. He’s going to strike out over 200 times a year and combining him with Mark Reynolds in the Indians lineup will create enough wind power to benefit both the Indians and the Reds by reducing energy costs for the entire state if they choose to use their baseball detriments for a statewide positive.

For the Diamondbacks:

Apparently Bauer’s “attitude” issues were a problem in spite of the Diamondbacks repeatedly saying they weren’t. If a rookie is arriving in the big leagues with a unique motion, a big mouth and he won’t listen to anyone, there’s going to be tension especially when the manager is an old-school type in Kirk Gibson and the pitching coach is a former big league All-Star in Charles Nagy. Teams love a youngster with attitude and feistiness until they need to bridle him and that attitude and feistiness circles back on them and he’s ignoring them. That appears to be what happened with Bauer. In general, very few players—especially high draft choices in whom clubs have invested a lot of money—aren’t going to change until they decide to do so or if they repeatedly fail at the big league level and find themselves trapped in the minors. With Bauer, the “this or that” was about three years away, if it happened at all, so they cut their losses.

There are a couple of ways to look at this: first you can credit the Diamondbacks for accepting that the player they selected 3rd overall in 2011 isn’t a fit for their organization and they moved him before concerns turned into a full-blown disaster. Or they can be criticized because they drafted him and should’ve known all of these things beforehand, calculating the negatives with the positives and perhaps shying away from him for another player.

That they got Gregorius as the centerpiece with the useful lefty reliever Sipp (he can get out both lefties and righties), and Anderson is a very limited return on a former top three pick who, to our knowledge, isn’t hurt.

No one should be surprised considering the warning flags on Bauer. I wrote about it before he was drafted here when he was absurdly compared to Tim Lincecum, and it was discussed in this Yahoo piece. Those same warning flags were basically screaming to stay away from him. I wouldn’t have touched Bauer, but the Diamondbacks drafted him based on talent and it took a year-and-a-half for them to see that that iconoclasm was either not going to change or the package they unwrapped wasn’t worth the time and aggravation it was going to cost to get him to change.

The Indians are banking on that talent, got him for relatively little, and didn’t have to pay the $3.4 million signing bonus Bauer received from the Diamondbacks. Perhaps Francona can get through to him or they’ll just let him be in a way the Diamondbacks wouldn’t. Francona’s far more laid back than the hair-trigger Gibson.

He’s an iffy prospect at this point and it’s clear GM Kevin Towers‘s decision to trade him is an admission that they shouldn’t have drafted him in the first place; they realized that and dumped him before it truly spiraled. What makes the decision to select Bauer even worse is that Towers is often lauded for his player-like sensibilities. He’s not a highly educated outsider who decided to enter a baseball front office. He played in the minors and knows players and the clubhouse dynamic, yet still chose to draft Bauer and look past the obvious.

Towers is a mediocre GM. The Bauer drafting and subsequent trade is a blot on his resume right up there with his ridiculous waiver claim on Randy Myers in 1998 while GM of the Padres—a decision that almost got him fired. With the Diamondbacks, he benefited greatly from a lot of luck and pieces that were in place prior to his hiring and the club won the NL West in 2011 before falling back closer in line to their talent level with a .500 finish in 2012.

Towers compared Gregorius to a “young Derek Jeter.” Having watched video clips of him, Gregorius looks more like a lefty swinging Hanley Ramirez. At first glance (there’s a video clip below), he’s impressive and fills a need at shortstop for the club. If he evolves into that (sans the Ramirez-style attitude that got Bauer shipped out), then it will be a great deal for the Diamondbacks. If not, it was costly on a multitude of levels for Towers, whose rose, as expected, is losing its bloom in the Arizona desert.

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2012 Award Winners—American League Manager of the Year

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A few weeks ago, I listed my picks for the Cy Young Award in each league. Along with that, I listed who I picked before the season and who I think will actually wind up winning. You can read it here.

Now let’s look at the intense debate for Manager of the Year in the American League.

The two candidates for the award are the Orioles’ Buck Showalter and the Athletics’ Bob Melvin. You can’t go wrong with either. For my purposes, I have to go point-by-point to see if I can find an advantage to tip the argument in the favor of one or the other and come to a conclusion that makes sense.

The Orioles started the season with an $84 million payroll; the Athletics started with a $52 million payroll. Showalter had more proven veteran talent. With Matt Wieters, Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, J.J. Hardy, and Mark Reynolds, the Orioles’ lineup was going to score runs. Their question marks were in the starting rotation and with bullpen depth. Showalter worked his way around not having one starting pitcher throw 200 innings. It was his deft use of the bullpen that carried the Orioles through.

Melvin was working with a patchwork quilt of pitchers comprised of youth (Jarrod Parker, Dan Straily, A.J. Griffin); journeyman veterans (Bartolo Colon); and the injury prone (Brandon McCarthy). The bullpen was also in flux as he bounced back and forth between Ryan Cook and Grant Balfour as his closer. The lineup was similarly makeshift with unknowns (Yoenis Cespedes); youngsters who’d never gotten a chance (Josh Reddick); and other clubs’ refuse (Brandon Moss, Brandon Inge).

Neither team had any expectations before the season started. Both clubs were in divisions where they were picked—across the board—to finish in or close to last place. The American League East and American League West had powerhouses with massive payrolls, star power and history behind them. But the Orioles and A’s overcame their disadvantages to make the playoffs.

Is there a fair way to break what is essentially a tie in making a pick?

Yes.

The one method I can think of to determine who should win is by looking at the managers, but switching places and determining whether Showalter or Melvin would have been capable of replicating the success they had with their club and mimicked it with the other club.

Could Showalter have done the job that Melvin did with the Athletics?

Could Melvin have done the job that Showalter did with the Orioles?

Showalter has long been a manager who maximizes the talent he has on the roster with his attention to detail, flexibility, and perceived strategic wizardry, but his teams have sometimes wilted under his thumb and tuned him out. Showalter’s unique maneuverings have invited quizzical looks and accurate criticism. One example was the decision not to hold Mark Teixeira on first base in the fifth inning of a scoreless tie in game 5. Teixeira stole second and scored on a Raul Ibanez single. Under no circumstances should Showalter have done that. Teixeira was running well on his injured calf and the risk wasn’t worth the reward to let him take the base. It cost them dearly, and because he’s Showalter, he gets away with it. It was a mistake.

In every one of his managerial stops, Melvin has been an underappreciated manager to develop youngsters and let them have a chance to play without scaring or pressuring them into errors, physical and mental. His strategies are conventional. He lets his players play. The players like playing for him and play hard for him. Every time his teams have underachieved, it hasn’t been Melvin’s fault. That’s not the case with Showalter as the Diamondbacks and Rangers grew stagnant with him managing their teams. On that basis, Melvin’s style would’ve translated better to the Orioles than Showalter’s to the Athletics.

In the end, it comes down to who was faced with the bigger disadvantages to start the season and overcame them; who had more proven talent on his roster; and who held the ship together when the circumstances were bleakest. The Orioles were never under .500 in 2012; the A’s were 9 games under and 13 games out of first place in June and came back to win the division.

Based on these factors, the Manager of the Year is Bob Melvin of the Oakland Athletics.

In the preseason I picked Manny Acta of the Cleveland Indians to win the award.

Before any laughter, it gets worse. The following is 100% true: Prior to making a last-minute change, I had initially written that the Indians were going to be a disappointment after positive preseason hope and hype and that Acta would be fired and replaced by Sandy Alomar, Jr. But I changed my mind and picked the Indians to win the AL Central (mistake number 1), and selected Acta as Manager of the Year (mistake number 2).

I believe that in spite of Melvin’s slightly better case as the recipient, Showalter is going to win.

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Baltimore Orioles vs New York Yankees—ALDS Preview and Predictions

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New York Yankees (95-67; 1st place, AL East) vs Baltimore Orioles (93-69; 2nd place, AL East; Wild Card Winner; Won Wild Card Game over Texas Rangers)

Keys for the Yankees: Rafael Soriano; hit the ball out of the park; get good starting pitching; hit the Orioles hard and early.

Soriano has been gutty, durable, mentally and physically tough, and reliable—aspects that no one expected nor thought him capable of in his first year-and-a-half as a Yankee. What he does in the post-season as a closer could be the difference between getting a 3-year deal for X amount of dollars and a 5-year deal for Y amount of dollars.

I don’t see the Yankees reliance on the home run as a “problem.” Were their hitters supposed to stop trying to hit home runs? I don’t know what the solution was. The absence/return of Brett Gardner is being made out as an important factor, but I don’t think it’s as important as it’s being portrayed. Teams with speed are criticized for their lack of power; teams with power are criticized for their lack of speed. It’s only noticeable when it’s not there and the main strategy isn’t working.

If the Yankees lose, it won’t be due to a lack of stolen bases, it will be due to a lack of home runs.

The Orioles have responded to every challenge and naysayer this entire season, but the Yankees have been here over a dozen times and the Orioles haven’t. If the Yankees pop them early, they might be able to shake them and get this over with before the Orioles realize what happened or get to game 3 and start thinking they’re going to win.

Keys for the Orioles: Get the game to Jim Johnson; hit home runs of their own; have a quick hook with the starters; don’t be “happy to be here.”

The simplistic and stupid “key” you might see on other sites with “analysis” of “stop Robinson Cano” is ridiculous. It’s unlikely that anyone is going to “stop” Cano. The best the Orioles can do is to keep the bases clear in front of him and not pitch to him. Cano is not going to see one good pitch to hit this whole series.

The Orioles starting pitching is questionable at best and manager Buck Showalter knows this. He can’t waste time and hope the starters find it because it might be 10-0 by the time it’s realized they don’t have it.

For the first time in forever there’s no distinct advantage for the Yankees with Mariano Rivera closing games. Now we don’t know who has the advantage. In the regular season, it was a wash; in the post-season, we don’t know. Soriano has been bad and Johnson’s never been there.

The Orioles, after so many years of dreadful baseball, are in the playoffs for the first time since 1996 when they lost to… the Yankees. Getting there isn’t enough. They can win and they have to believe that and act like it.

What will happen:

The Yankees stumbled in mid-September with injuries and slumps among their big bashers. CC Sabathia’s health was in question; Ivan Nova was pulled from the rotation; Phil Hughes was inconsistent; and David Robertson allowed some big homers and hits. Sabathia pitched well recently, but that doesn’t mean he’s “back.” I don’t trust Hughes; Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte are pitchers to rely on.

Given everything on the line for Soriano and his shaky post-season history (3 homers allowed in 7.2 innings) I wouldn’t feel comfortable with him until he closes out a game without incident. Scott Boras is already planning Soriano’s contract opt-out and scouring MLB to see where he can steer his client to be a closer on a multi-year deal, but the dollar amount is contingent on October.

Alex Rodriguez cannot catch up to a good fastball anymore. There’s a mirror image aspect from The Natural between A-Rod and Orioles’ rookie third baseman Manny Machado. Can A-Rod do what Roy Hobbs did and have that moment in the twilight of his Hall of Fame career as happened in the movie? Or will he strike out as Hobbs did in the book?

Nick Swisher is also trying boost his free agent bona fides after years and years of non-performance; Ichiro Suzuki knows this might be his last chance at a ring. If the Yankees warriors don’t come through; if Soriano falters, they’re going to lose.

Mark Reynolds loves the spotlight and is a leader on and off the field. Machado, Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, Chris Davis, Johnson—they don’t have the experience or history to know they’re not supposed to be doing what they’re doing; that they’re facing the “mighty” Yankees and should bow rather than hit them back. They’ve hit them back all season and Showalter has had a magic touch all year.

There’s a movement afoot from those who expected the Orioles to continue the decade-and-a-half of futility and embarrassment to justify their preseason prediction by continually referencing the poor run differential as a basis to chalk the Orioles’ 2012 success up to “luck”. These people—such as Keith Law—are more invested in their own egomania than enjoying the game of baseball. Rather than say, “Wow, the Orioles are a great story and it’s nice to see a storied franchise return to life,” we get, “They’re not a good team.” Why? It’s because those invested in stats who think reading a spreadsheet and regurgitating scouting terms they picked up along the way will replace a true, organic investment in the game by knowing its history and appreciating a story like that of the Orioles. The Orioles have had some luck, but they’ve also been opportunistic and clutch. A baseball fan understands this; a baseball opportunist and poser doesn’t.

It’s a great story.

And it’s going to get better when the Orioles take out the Yankees.

PREDICTION: ORIOLES IN FOUR

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American League Wild Card Play-In Game Preview—Baltimore Orioles at Texas Rangers

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It wasn’t until Thursday afternoon that the Orioles announced Joe Saunders as their starting pitcher. Since his acquisition from the Diamondbacks on August 26th, Saunders went 3-3 in 7 starts for the Orioles and was a consistent arm in the Orioles rotation for their run to the playoffs. He gives up a lot of hits, can be homer-prone, and accumulates high pitch counts because of his propensity to lose the strike zone. He doesn’t walk that many (39 in 174 innings in 2012), but he goes to a lot of deep counts. He doesn’t have the stuff to miss his spots and if he misses his spots in a homer haven like Texas against the Rangers lineup, the Orioles will be staring at an early crooked number and have to get the bullpen hot quickly.

Manager Buck Showalter will have someone in mind to take over in the first inning if Saunders gets into immediate difficulty. Many of the Rangers players have experience against Saunders from his days with the Angels, and Ian Kinsler has hammered him with a 1.464 OPS and 4 homers in 28 plate appearances. Nelson Cruz has 2 homers in 20 plate appearances, Josh Hamilton is 4 for 10 with a homer, and Geovany Soto is 4 for 6 in his career against Saunders with a homer and two walks.

Saunders struggled in his post-season opportunities with the Angels and has a 6.00 ERA in 18 innings.

We won’t see Saunders for long.

The Rangers are countering with their high-priced Japanese import Yu Darvish. After the consternation as to whether Darvish was going to be another Daisuke Matsuzaka and come to North America with great hype only to fail, perhaps a lesson was learned not to judge a player simply because of his nationality. Darvish and Matsuzaka are nothing like one another apart from both having come from Japan.

Darvish was made even more interesting due to his unique heritage of being half-Japanese and half-Iranian. He was everything that the Rangers could have wanted and more. He went 16-9 with a wonderful innings-pitched/hits ratio of 191/156, and 221 strikeouts. Bear in mind that he walked 89 and can be very wild. Darvish did not pitch against the Orioles this season.

Like Saunders, I wouldn’t expect Darvish to be sharp and in complete command of his enthusiasm and emotions in a home start to send his team deeper into the playoffs. The Rangers are reeling from having blown the AL West to the Athletics and don’t have the peace of mind and relief from just having made the playoffs that prior teams that blew the division like the 2006 Tigers did. There’s no 3 of 5 series to get themselves straight. This is one game and the Rangers need Darvish to be throwing strikes and focused. If his mind is going in twenty different directions, the Rangers are going to have the bullpen ready to go like the Orioles will.

Mike Napoli, Cruz, and Hamilton have all put up great showings in post-seasons past, but where is Hamilton’s head? His dropped pop-up and casual jog after the ball when it fell was indicative of a rampant disinterest as to whether the Rangers won the division or not. It could very well have cost them the game and ruined their season if they lose to the Orioles.

The Orioles have played with magic all season long. I’ve had enough of people saying they’re not a “good” team, or that they’re “lucky” as a justification for having ripped them as hopeless and a perennial loser before the season started. I picked them to finish in last place and was wrong. I’m happy to see an organization as historically significant as the Orioles back in the playoffs after a decade-and-a-half of futility and embarrassment. And what’s wrong with being lucky anyway? They’re opportunistic and cohesive; they get contributions from unexpected sources such as Nate McLouth and Lew Ford, and have stood toe-to-toe with teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays that shoved their faces in the dirt for far too long. They have bashers who can hit the ball out of the park with Mark Reynolds, Chris Davis, Adam Jones, and Matt Wieters.

Both teams, going in, are evenly matched with a decided advantage in the Orioles dugout with Showalter over Rangers’ manager Ron Washington.

The starters are not going to last long and this game will be a shootout. I would prefer not getting into a shootout with a Texas Ranger in Texas and that will be the Orioles downfall.

PREDICTION: Rangers 10—Orioles 7

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Beware the Rejuvenated Rays’ Castoffs

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The Orioles are said to be considering signing Casey Kotchman.

What they’re going to do with him is a mystery since they just signed Wilson Betemit, have Mark Reynolds and Chris Davis for first and third base. None are defensively adept at any of the positions although Reynolds occasionally makes a spectacular play to make it appear as if he’s better than he is. It’s similar to a weekend in which he’ll hit 6 home runs—many of the “ooh” and “ahh” variety in distance and hangtime to make it appear as if he’s better than he is. Then he reverts to hitting .200 and striking out every 2.6 at bats.

Kotchman is a very good defensive first baseman and had his career year at the plate for the Rays in 2011 with a slash line of .306/.378/.422 and .800 OPS.

That’s what should concern any team making a serious investment in Kotchman.

Considering the lateness of the date and that spring training is approaching along with the availability of better hitters on the market like Derrek Lee, it’s doubtful the Orioles or anyone else is going to overpay for Kotchman, but a team considering a former player for the Rays who had his best season with the Rays needs to examine history and look at the decline of Jason BartlettScott KazmirRafael SorianoAkinori Iwamura and just about every scrounged screapheap salvaged detritus from their patched together bullpen who’s been used for a brief time and dispatched only to revert to the performance that led them to winding up on the scrapheap to begin with. Sometimes, as with Lance Cormier and Carlos Pena, they wind up back with the Rays.

Is Kotchman as good as he was in 2011?

History proves he’s not. Even when he was at his best with the Angels and Braves in 2007-2008, he wasn’t a force at the plate. He was useful if surrounded by a few power bats and has always been a good fielder, but teams tend to want better power production from first base than what Kotchman provided. If they can make up for it in other areas, then fine; but setting a limit on the amount of money they’re willing to pay Kotchman is a wise move.

Was the issue with his eyes that Kotchman referenced in this NY Times piece and its repair the genesis of his struggles in 2009-2010?

Clearly.

But that doesn’t make a Rays’ castoff any more of a guarantee to continue the work he did with the Rays as he reestablished his value. They seem to know which way the wind is about to blow and how to judge a player and determine whether he’s “figured it out” or is enjoying his career years in Tampa. That’s a reason for interested teams to look at these players with a jaundiced eye and wonder if they’re getting the pre-Rays or post-Rays player and if they’ll be overpaying to do it.

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The 2011 Diamondbacks And The Towers Of Credit

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The Diamondbacks turnaround and success under first-year GM Kevin Towers has cemented his supposed brilliance. A brilliance that became more pronounced while he wasn’t a GM and had his name bandied about as a “perfect” choice for any number of GM jobs. Like a backup quarterback in football, Towers could do no wrong as long as he wasn’t specifically doing anything. It’s a safe place to be.

After being fired by the Padres, Towers was an assistant to Brian Cashman with the Yankees for the 2010 season; as various jobs opened up, he was a candidate for all of them. He was hired by the Diamondbacks and took steps to improve the club’s woeful strikeout rate by trading Mark Reynolds and in the process acquired a valuable bullpen arm in David Hernandez.

Among other moves Towers made like signing J.J. Putz at a reduced rate and retaining manager Kirk Gibson, there’s little he’s had to do with this current club—a club that’s in first place, streaking with 7 straight wins and has opened some daylight between themselves and the reeling Giants. They now lead the NL West by 5 games.

But does Towers deserve all the credit he’s getting?

Much of the foundation of this club was already in place and it’s been there for awhile. The two prior regimes acquired many of the players on the team now.

Joe Garagiola Jr. was a highly underrated GM who won a World Series, dealt with a micromanaging organizational gadfly, Buck Showalter; and an empty uniform, Bob Brenly.

Garagiola’s replacement, Josh Byrnes, contributed as did interim GM Jerry DiPoto. In fact, DiPoto warrants accolades more than Towers; he’s still with the Diamondbacks as an assistant and is a top GM candidate himself.

Garagiola acquisitions:

Stephen Drew, SS—1st round draft choice, 2004.

Justin Upton, OF—1st round draft choice, 2005.

Miguel Montero, C—amateur free agent from Venezuela, 2001.

Gerardo Parra, OF—amateur free agent from Venezuela, 2004.

***

Byrnes acquisitions:

Chris Young, CF—acquired from the White Sox for Javier Vazquez in December 2005.

Ian Kennedy, RHP—acquired in a 3-way trade with Edwin Jackson for Daniel Schlereth and Max Scherzer.

Ryan Roberts, INF, OF—signed as a minor league free agent in November, 2008.

Josh Collmenter, RHP—15th round draft choice, 2007.

Paul Goldschmidt, 1B—8th round draft choice, 2009.

***

DiPoto acquisitions:

Joe Saunders, LHP—acquired from the Angels in the Dan Haren trade in July 2010.

Daniel Hudson, RHP—acquired from the White Sox in the Edwin Jackson trade in July 2010.

***

Towers acquisitions:

J.J. Putz, RHP—signed as a free agent for 2-years, $10 million.

Zach Duke, LHP—signed as a free agent for 1-year at $4.25 million with a club option for 2012.

Henry Blanco, C—signed as a free agent for 1-year at $1.25 million with a mutual option 2012.

Willie Bloomquist, INF—signed as a free agent for 1-year, $900,000 with a mutual option for 2012.

Brad Ziegler, RHP—acquired from the Oakland Athletics for Brandon Allen and Jordan Norberto in July 2011.

Then there’s the deal of Kelly Johnson to the Blue Jays for Aaron Hill and John McDonald; its results remain to be seen.

There are certain things that Towers is good at. He builds excellent bullpens on the cheap; he loads his bench with versatile, leader-type players; and he can clear salary. But to suggest that the Diamondbacks are a product of Towers is the same fractured logic that led to him being so widely feted during the time that he wasn’t even a GM.

The one superiorly smart thing he did was to retain Gibson as his manager. Gibson lobbied hard for the job and said that his team was not going to be a pleasant opponent; they’d take people out on the bases; pitch inside; and retaliate when needed. And they have.

This Diamondbacks team is more than the sum of their parts; they play very, very hard and on the edge—like their manager did. He brought the football mentality to baseball when he was a player, took everything seriously and was more interested in winning over personal achievement; that’s how this Diamondbacks group plays.

Did Towers see that in Gibson? Was he enamored of the intensity that Gibson was going to instill? Or was it more of a, “he’s here and he’s not going to cost a lot of money” for a team that wasn’t expected to come this far, this fast?

Maybe.

Towers is a good GM.

In public perception Towers is responsible for the rise of the Diamondbacks; how much he’s owed in reality is limited because a large portion of this club was in place on his arrival and is succeeding as a matter of circumstance rather than grand design on the part of the GM.

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Showalter’s Yankees Comments Are Ridiculous

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Buck Showalter‘s image was that of a strategic wizard; a baseball hard-liner; an organization-builder and Mr. Fix-It who doesn’t tolerate small transgressions like a player wearing his socks at a different specification than Showalter deems appropriate. Nor does he allow large errors—mental and physical—like failing to hit the cut-off man, missing a sign or not running hard to first base.

It was the focus on “small stuff” like the socks that eventually grated on his veterans’ nerves and left his clubs tight and weary of the nitpicking. The Yankees, Diamondbacks and Rangers were all better because of his presence…and they were all better after he left.

With the Orioles, there was a “miracle-worker” aspect to the way the team went on a 34-23 run over the final two months of the 2010 season when he was hired to replace Dave Trembley; it was only exacerbated when they won 6 of their first 7 games to start the 2011 season.

Some actually expected this Orioles team to contend in the American League East with the Yankees and Red Sox still powerhouses and the Rays and Blue Jays having greater strengths of their own.

It didn’t take long for the Orioles to fall into a familiar fit of losing. Now they stand in their familiar terrain of last place, 25 games under .500 amid questions as to whom is going to run the club from the front office with the likelihood that Andy MacPhail will not return.

There is promise in Baltimore because of Showalter and the young players they’ve accumulated and acquired. Despite terrible records, Brian Matusz and Chris Tillman have good arms; their offense is productive with Adam Jones, J.J. Hardy, Mark Reynolds, Nick Markakis and Matt Wieters; and Showalter can strategically manipulate his team to a few more wins than they’d have under a lesser manager.

Whether he was reeling from the suicide of Mike Flanagan or was, in part, frustrated by the way the season came apart after the accolades and promise, Showalter’s comments about the Yankees being disrespectful to Flanagan for preferring to play a doubleheader in advance of Hurricane Irene on Friday rather than schedule the make-up for early September is ridiculous to the point of embarrassing.

The entire quote follows:

“First of all, I felt that some of the stuff was a little disrespectful to Flanny quite frankly. That didn’t sit with me very well. I can tell you that. We didn’t say much — I think we had an April rainout there — and they just told us when we were playing. We were Ok with that. Like I told you the other day, you tell us when we’re playing, we’ll play. The whole scheme of life, the things that really consume you. We understand that sometimes our opinions on things are not relevant. They come to me when there is two options and talk about it from a baseball standpoint. Every club does that. But some of it kind of has a feeling of [hypocrisy]. I don’t know. I don’t dwell on it. Their opinion on what the Baltimore Orioles should do for their fans and for their organization isn’t really that relevant to me personally. I can tell you that. We’ll do what’s best for our fans and for our organization and we expect it back that they’re going to do the same on their side.”

Orioles director of communications Greg Bader added the following (clipped from The Sporting News):

“Are we really still talking about this? We’ve just seen a hurricane come through this region which has caused millions to be without power, tens of millions of dollars in property damage and even several deaths,” Bader told ESPNNewYork.com in an email Sunday night. “We’ve got people out there literally trying to put their lives back together and yet there are some still worrying about a rescheduled game time?”

How the Yankees preferring to keep one of their two scheduled days off for September turned into a show of “disrespect” for Flanagan and a lack of concern for people whose lives were impact by the hurricane is a mystery to me.

That Showalter and Bader would bring other issues into the debate as if the Yankees were sitting around and diabolically scheming to sabotage the Flanagan tribute and simultaneously downplaying the severity of the hurricane indicates a tone-deafness bordering on the stupid.

The Orioles need follow their own rules of propriety and put things in perspective. They should let it go before saying something else idiotic and looking more petty than they do now.

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Viewer Mail 8.3.2011

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Brendan writes RE Brian Cashman, Derek Jeter and the Yankees:

“What if he’s not there to be the one voice to prevent Randy Levine and Hank Steinbrenner from doing such short-sighted and stupid things as outbidding themselves for a pitcher with issues on and off the field like Soriano?”

Correct me if I’m wrong and I’m the one living in a parallel universe, but didn’t the Yankees do exactly the short-sighted and stupid thing described above despite the wise, cool-handed GM? And didn’t they do the very same thing with their 37-year-old, 85 OPS+ing future Hall of Fame shortstop?

Cashman was adamantly opposed to the Rafael Soriano maneuver and said so before and after. My point was that there are going to be other such decisions if Cashman’s not there and another GM is brought in—a GM with less capital than Cashman’s accumulated from his long association with the club and success and ability to rebel and maybe get his way.

If Cashman were making the call regarding Jeter, and it was a pure “in the now and future” baseball move, he’d have looked for an alternative and moved on with a different plan; there were ancillary concerns with Jeter and they weren’t based on sentiment and team history alone.

Aside from the 3000th hit and the disastrous PR hit they’d have taken had he left (and Jeter really had nowhere to go anyway), they didn’t have a suitable replacement for him as we’ve seen in their attempts to fill in with Eduardo Nunez and Ramiro Pena. I suppose, if they had to, they could’ve shifted Alex Rodriguez back to shortstop and found a third baseman along the lines of Mark Reynolds, but the reaction to that among the fan base would’ve been terrible.

Despite their shoddy treatment of Jeter, the fans would’ve had a fit if they saw him playing shortstop for the Tigers, Giants or Reds.

Money isn’t the problem with Jeter and it never truly is with the Yankees—they have the money; and if they lose, it won’t be because the lineup couldn’t carry him and his diminished production.

Cashman has been ruthless in his assessment of players. It was he that wanted to allow both A-Rod and Jorge Posada to leave as free agents before he was overruled by ownership. He was right in both cases.

I’ve been as intense a critic of Cashman as anyone. His pitching decisions have been atrocious with Kyle Farnsworth, Steve Karsay, A.J. Burnett and others along with the foolish rules enacted to “protect” the pitchers; but to criticize him for Jeter? You can’t do it. They knew what the deal was and what they were getting.

Jeff at Red State Blue State writes RE Moneyball and my posting about Billy Beane.

Right on point. Had me LOLing from “Yay” onward.

Oh, just wait.

Did you see this bit of revisionist history/pitiful whining in Sports Illustrated by Tom Verducci?

I’m preparing to unleash the full power of the Dark Side because there are certain bullies who deserve every single bit of it.

Beane’s one of them.

If there’s collateral damage to those who are invested in the appellation of genius to the extent of losing any and all concept of “objective reality”, so be it. They’ve earned it too.

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