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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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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Final Analysis on the Strasburg Shutdown

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The shutdown of Stephen Strasburg has taken the tone of an overhyped movie marketed to an increasingly uninterested public. It’s been talked about for so long that when it finally happens, no one’s going to notice or care. The Nationals say they’re going to do it and, judging from the latest statements emanating from the club, Strasburg’s last start will be on around September 12th. Then the rest of the team will head for the playoffs without him. Perhaps they’ll need a coping device such as imagining that he’s injured and lost for the season. Maybe it can be treated as a delusional fuel in a formulaic drama of triumph over adversity in which you know the ending before you walk into the theater, but do it anyone for a moment of predictability amid the randomness of reality.

We don’t know what’s going to happen for the Nationals in the playoffs; we don’t know what’s going to happen with Strasburg in the future, whether this decision will be seen as wise or a retrospective waste of time and energy. If Strasburg were allowed to pitch for the rest of the season, started a playoff game and got blasted, the inevitable snark, “Looks like they should’ve shut him down after all,” would be predictable and reminiscent to Sandy Koufax refusing to pitch in the opening game of the 1965 World Series because he’s Jewish and it was Yom Kippur. Don Drysdale started and got rocked. So began the jokes that the Dodgers would’ve been better off if Drysdale had been Jewish too.

But they’re doing it. At the very least, they’re following through on their statements—statements that began the whole mess in the first place.

Let’s look at some questions regarding Strasburg once and for all and end this manufactured story in advance of its implementation.

What do other players think about this?

His Nationals’ teammates are, to a man, sticking to the script. Jayson Werth put it succinctly when asked about it by essentially saying that they knew it was coming and they’ll move forward without him. It’s best to ignore what the Nationals and their players are saying about this because you’re not going to get an honest answer. I’d venture a guess that they’re saying something drastically different in private than they are in public.

Broadcasters like Ron Darling, who has a foundation to speak out on this subject as a former top 10 starting pitcher in baseball and the intelligence to express it as a graduate of Yale, has ridiculed the notion that Strasburg shouldn’t go beyond X number of innings. Darling takes his old-school sensibilities to the extreme by shaking his head at pitchers who notify their pitching coach and manager when they’re tight or can’t get loose and are removed from games. Darling himself logged a great number of innings and racked up high pitch counts as was commensurate with his era. Darling also lost his fastball before he reached age 30, hung on until he was 35 using his ample mind rather than stuff, and was finished when he could conceivably have had 4 or so more years of effectiveness and paychecks.

Would he trade the work he did in the 1980s with the Mets to hang on for a couple of more years? Would he have wanted to be perceived as self-interested enough not to pitch late in the season or give a few more innings, a few more pitches in the interest of the club and not himself? Probably not.

The culture and era has dictated much of what’s gone on with Strasburg. If this were 15-20 years ago, his innings limit wouldn’t be a story because it wouldn’t exist.

That said, there are undoubtedly people in baseball who think Strasburg is a wimp (and would use a more coarse vernacular than that) because he’s gone merrily along with the puppeteers telling him what he’s going to be doing rather than saying he wants to pitch and taking steps to make sure it happens such as going on a media blitz of his own. There have been the made-for-media soundbites like, “They’ll have to rip the ball out of my hand,” but it’s easy to say that knowing they are going to rip the ball out of his hand.

The “I just work here and do what I’m told” stuff doesn’t wash when he has more leverage than his employers.

Could Strasburg prevent this?

Of course he could. The Nationals and Strasburg could’ve put their money where their guidelines and the “future” are by agreeing to a long-term contract so Strasburg wouldn’t have to worry about financial security and the Nationals would have their investment locked up so they’re not saving the bullets they’re allegedly trying to save for him to sign with another team after the 2016 season. How’s that going to look if the Nats get bounced early in the playoffs and flounder in upcoming years, realize that 2012 was their chance, and then agent Scott Boras and Strasburg leave Washington? Will it still have been the “right” thing to do?

The money aspect is a bit silly as well. Boras is looking at $200+ million in contracts over the next ten or so years for his client, but it’s not as if Strasburg is a third year player, waiting for arbitration and making a pittance in comparison to what other starting pitchers are making nor is he encumbered by the new rules regulating how much bonus money a drafted player can make. He received a $7.5 million bonus to sign and is being paid a guaranteed $3 million this season. It’s not an amount of money that’s on a level with what he’ll make if he stays healthy from now through 2016, but it’s substantial. The “future” argument could be rendered meaningless and the concerns about his health tamped down if the Nationals and Strasburg agree to a down-the-line contract for mutual benefit.

The Nationals arguments for the shutdown

GM Mike Rizzo can chafe at the repeated questioning of his decision—and I do mean his decision since he’s gone to great lengths to make clear that he is the decider—but he brought this on himself. The Nationals could have kept quiet about the innings limit without giving a number. This isn’t politics and they didn’t need to provide a background to sell to the world as to why they’re doing what they do. But they did. Rizzo can cite medical studies until the end of time suggesting that this is the “right” thing to do, but it seems as if they had an end in mind and made sure they had the medical data to back up what they were doing. If they went to a truly independent doctor and that doctor said that he saw no physical reason to make Strasburg stop pitching if the Nationals and Strasburg do X, Y, and Z, then it would oppose what they want to; what’s safe for them to do; and more importantly, what Boras wants them to do to protect his client.

The NY Times published a piece about Strasburg on August 21st. In it, random cases for both sides are cited. Jordan Zimmerman has been healthy and very good in 2012 after operating under these identical constraints last season and after having undergone the same Tommy John surgery that Strasburg did. Pitchers who have not been under such limits are also mentioned. Greg Maddux, Matt Cain, CC Sabathia on one end; Steve Avery, Mike Witt, Bret Saberhagen on the other.

It never ends if you continually point of examples where there’s no baseline breaking point of what’s enough—no one knows.

The Nationals could very easily have copied what the Tigers did with Justin Verlander in 2006 when he was the exact same age as Strasburg; has an almost identical pitching style; both had very short stays in the minors; and the 2006 Tigers and 2012 Nationals made rapid and relatively unexpected leaps into title contention. But Verlander pitched in the playoffs and World Series and Strasburg won’t.

People can mention the Tommy John surgery as a notable difference between Strasburg and Verlander, but the surgery is supposed to make the ligament stronger than before. Why should it be an issue if Strasburg’s recovered from it? Wouldn’t the wear-and-tear prior to the surgery be more of a reason to limit him than after it?

In the NY Times article, the ones who stay healthy with a bigger workload are referred to as “physical freaks”; the ones who get hurt are considered the normal end result of overuse. But you can’t reference studies and reams of reports to justify Strasburg’s case and chalk durability up to random “freakishness”. It doesn’t mesh.

If you look at any medical malpractice trial, any lawyer can find a doctor who’s willing to say whatever is in the best interests of his client be it the plaintiff or the defendant. Are they truly independent doctors who are providing the truth to the entities—the Nationals and Boras—who are retaining them? Highly doubtful.

This isn’t to say the Nationals are wrong. Protecting that gifted arm is a wise thing to do, but doing it at the expense of their own personal interests and not taking steps to prevent this shutdown from becoming reality when the Nationals are going to need him most showed a remarkable lack of foresight.

They could’ve gone to a 6-man rotation; they could’ve shut him down at mid-season for 3-4 starts; they could’ve done a number of things to have him available for the playoffs. They didn’t.

And the idea that the Nats didn’t expect to be this good, this fast is contradicted by reality. If they didn’t have an intent on trying to win, then why did they gut the system to get Gio Gonzalez? Why did they pay Werth all that money before the 2011 season? Why sign Edwin Jackson?

The Nationals tried to win and are winning. This is not the developmental phase of a team that they hope to be good 3 years from now. Their future is now and Strasburg is not going to be a part of that “now” as soon as the clock strikes midnight on his season—that midnight is apparently coming on September 12th.

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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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National League—Mid-Season Award Winners

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Yesterday I listed my American League mid-season award winners. Now here’s the National League along with my preseason picks from my book.

MVP

1. Andrew McCutchen, CF—Pittsburgh Pirates

It’s a pleasure to watch a player who I knew would be a star the first time I saw him run out a triple begin achieve that vision; that he’s doing so for a team that hasn’t had a winning season since 1992 and suddenly finds itself in first place in the NL Central and is a legitimate playoff contender makes it all the more gratifying,

McCutchen is leading the Majors in batting at .362; he has a .414 OBP and .625 slugging with 18 homers and 14 stolen bases. It was almost as if he was sending a message on Sunday to let the world know that he’s not playing around; that this is the real McCutchen as he went 3 for 5 with 2 homers.

I’ve seen some random, inaccurate comparisons to Barry Bonds but in reality McCutchen is more like an Eric Davis-squared and is fulfilling what Davis was supposed to be but just barely missed becoming—an MVP.

2. Joey Votto, 1B—Cincinnati Reds

The Reds’ leader on and off the field is celebrating his new, long-term contract by replicating his MVP season of 2010. Votto is leading the Majors is OBP and OPS, has 35 doubles, 14 homers and is leading the NL in walks.

3. David Wright, 3B—New York Mets

It’s amazing what happens when a star player is healthy and playing in a home ballpark that no longer makes it necessary to change one’s swing to have a hope of hitting a few home runs.

Wright’s having his best season since 2007-2008 when he was an All-Star, MVP candidate, Silver Slugger and Gold Glove winner.

4. Ryan Braun, LF—Milwaukee Brewers

Those hoping he’d fall flat on his face after getting out of a PED suspension on a technicality are being horribly disappointed.

5. R.A. Dickey, RHP—New York Mets

Sylvester Stallone couldn’t conjure a story this ridiculous.

In my book I picked Troy Tulowitzki. He’s been injured.

Cy Young Award

1. R.A. Dickey, RHP—New York Mets

It’s not simply that he’s dominating and doing it with a knuckleball, but he’s throwing a knuckleball at 80+ mph and is able to control it. Hitters have looked helpless and he’s been the Mets’ stopper when they’ve appeared to waver in their greater-than-the-sum-of-the-parts play.

2. Matt Cain, RHP—San Francisco Giants

The ace of the Giants’ staff is not named Tim Lincecum anymore.

3. Johnny Cueto, RHP—Cincinnati Reds

Cueto’s ill-conceived comments about Tony LaRussa aside, he’s had a great year.

4. James McDonald, RHP—Pittsburgh Pirates

Another Pirates’ player whose talent I lusted after is fulfilling his potential. This is how fiction-style stories of teams rising from the depths are written.

5. Cole Hamels, LHP—Philadelphia Phillies

His rumored trade availability, pending free agency and “look how tough I am” antics are obscuring how well he’s pitched as the Phillies’ empire crumbles around him.

My preseason pick was Lincecum. I think we can forget that now.

Rookie of the Year

1.  Bryce Harper, OF—Washington Nationals

Considering his arrogant statements and behavior in the minors, I was dubious about his maturity. He’s proven me wrong and been an absolute professional handling the scrutiny like a 10-year veteran.

On the field, he’s the real deal.

2. Wade Miley, LHP—Arizona Diamondbacks

Miley has picked up for the inconsistent Ian Kennedy and the injured Joe Saunders and Daniel Hudson; the Diamondbacks would be buried in the NL West without him.

3. Todd Frazier, INF—Cincinnati Reds

He’s had more than a few big hits in picking up for the injured Scott Rolen.

4. Norichika Aoki, OF—Milwaukee Brewers

He’s 30 and a rookie in name only, but he’s batting .300 and has played well for the Brewers.

5. Wilin Rosario, C—Colorado Rockies

He’s struggled defensively and is a hacker, but he does have 14 homers.

My preseason pick was Yonder Alonso.

Manager of the Year

1. Clint Hurdle, Pittsburgh Pirates

He…doesn’t…take…crap.

2. Davey Johnson, Washington Nationals

Johnson was always a bridesmaid in the Manager of the Year voting. He still is. He’s dealt with the new age game that clearly grates on him with the pitch counts and the relentless “experts” from the outside questioning him; he’s also dealt with the Harper/Stephen Strasburg sideshows far better than other veteran managers dropped into the middle of it would.

3. Don Mattingly, Los Angeles Dodgers

They Dodgers have slumped lately, but Mattingly has proven he can handle pretty much anything.

4. Terry Collins, New York Mets

What he’s done with this team amid all the off-field distractions and non-existent expectations is Amazin’.

5. Bruce Bochy, San Francisco Giants

Lincecum’s been horrific and he lost his closer but still has the Giants hovering around first place in the NL West.

My preseason pick was Johnson.

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The Cliff Lee Trade Rumor Factoid

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The Phillies are not trading Cliff Lee.

Get it?

If that means they’re not going to be able to keep Cole Hamels, so be it.

Is this even a rumor or is it a viral bit of nonsense that started with the crown prince of tabloid buffoonery Joel Sherman in his Sunday column?

In that piece Sherman naturally suggested Lee go to…the Yankees.

Shocking.

In that same column, Sherman also wants the Yankees to make a move on Carlos Gonzalez of the Rockies.

Anyone else Joel?

How about the Yankees just take R.A. Dickey with them when they visit Citi Field this weekend? That Andrew McCutchen is something special, why not him? Justin Verlander? Matt Cain? Bryce Harper? Yu Darvish? Aroldis Chapman? Shouldn’t they all be Yankees? And if the Yankees don’t need them, so what? It’s not enough to have a $200 million payroll and stars at every position. Perhaps they can put an auxiliary team in reserve so the regulars–Robinson Cano, Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson, CC Sabathia–can have preplanned vacations during the season. Or they can take the entire season off! “Just show up for game 1 of the World Series CC. Earn your money then.”

It’s the stuff of a thousand Mike Francesa hang-ups.

Sherman is the tabloid editor’s dream. Whereas most writers are told to write certain stories and include information that may not be relevant or accurate in the interest of drumming up webhits and clicks to increase advertising dollars, Sherman does it on his own and he does it better. Or worse, depending on your point-of-view.

But, as is my wont, I disappoint with evenhanded reality.

If the Phillies have to make the choice between Lee and Hamels, the financial and practical decision favors keeping Lee. Hamels is going to ask for somewhere in the vicinity of $140-$170 million after this season and the Phillies have to draw the financial line somewhere. Hamels has been worked hard as he’s heading for his fifth straight season of 200+ innings and playoff work. It’s a big risk signing him for 6-8 years at the dollars he’s looking for.

Lee is signed. He’s been mostly durable and is locked in through 2015 with a 2016 option. He’s guaranteed $87.5 million after this season. Who’s taking that contract? No one. Not even the Yankees.

The Phillies, without Hamels and with a rotation fronted by Roy Halladay, Lee, Vance Worley and whichever pitchers they sign or trade for to replace the departed Hamels, are still good enough to contend in a world of two Wild Cards. This is not a situation where the Phillies are going to trade Lee and replenish the farm system for the “future”. They tried that. It didn’t work. They’re going to turn around and do it again?

Without explicitly saying it, the Phillies admitted the mistake of trading Lee in two ways. First they acquired Roy Oswalt at mid-season 2010, then they re-signed Lee after the 2010 season.

Let’s suspend absurdity for a second and say the Phillies do trade Lee. Is any top-tier free agent going to want to sign with the Phillies without a full no-trade clause to protect them from Ruben Amaro Jr’s lies, schemes and desperation deals that would be evident if he traded Lee a second time?

And what of Hamels? If he hasn’t signed an extension when the Phillies trade Lee, how tight of a grip is he going to have on the club’s collective throats? They’ll have to pay him whatever he wants because if he leaves they won’t have him or Lee.

Then what?

So it’s not happening. Lee’s not getting moved.

It’s foolish. It’s nonsense. It’s fabricated.

It’s Joel Sherman of the New York Post.

Reader beware.

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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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