Round and Round the Majors, 5.10.2012

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Not enough people are paying attention to Nick Swisher’s terrific throw to the plate on B.J Upton’s sacrifice fly to tie the game. Swisher nearly cut Sean Rodriguez down at the plate. It would’ve ended the game.

The focus, naturally, has been on David Robertson blowing the game in the ninth inning. It was his second save chance since replacing Mariano Rivera and the second time in a row in which he’s gotten into immediate trouble. He got through the first one, not so the second.

Robertson was pulled after allowing a 3-run homer to Matt Joyce in the Rays’ eventual 4-1 win. Some fans at Yankee Stadium booed while others showed patience.

Robertson has time to get himself right and comfortable, but that time is finite. The fans, media and organization will give him breathing room, but eventually he has to get the job done.

What I didn’t like was Robertson’s body language. It was as if he was shrugging; a “tra la la, I’ll just do the best I can and if I fail, so be it” reaction as he was removed. If he doesn’t have a sense of urgency, he’d better get one and he’d better get it quick.

After the years of consistency he posted, did anyone really believe that a non-PED case like Adam Dunn had just lost it all in one year?

The combination of the new league, a failing and fractured team and raving maniac for a manager appeared to put Dunn out of sorts in 2011. That’s not defending someone who was paid $12 million for a .569 OPS, but it’s a reason.

With Ozzie Guillen gone and the expectations for the White Sox as a whole tamped down and for Dunn non-existent, he’s again doing what he does.

He’s striking out—a major league leading 47.

He’s walking—an AL leading 25.

He’s homering—10.

And he’s slugging—a .970 OPS.

This is the guy the White Sox thought they were getting.

  • The Twins’ stability is in question.

That anyone would even speculate on the job security of Twins’ manager Ron Gardenhire is madness.

GM Terry Ryan is a different story because he’s still got the “interim” tag attached to his name and, at his age and having come back from an early retirement, he might not have the stomach to do what needs to be done to this current group that’s well on the way to losing 105 games.

It was silly to think that Ryan’s mere presence in the big chair was going to fix what ails the Twins—no starting pitching; a mediocre bullpen; black spots in the lineup; and a compromised former MVP, Justin Morneau.

It wasn’t all that long ago that the Twins were considered a netherworld that “couldn’t” win under their self-imposed payroll constraints. They were completely hopeless from 1993-2000. There was no “Twins Way” of operating like there was from 2002-2010.

Their cycle has passed and they need to start over, but you can’t credit Gardenhire as a stabilizing force and natural heir apparent to two-time World Series winner Tom Kelly, then blame him when things go wrong.

Gardenhire is exactly the type of disciplined, no-nonsense, “you’ll perform the proper fundamentals or you won’t play”-type of manager a team like the Twins needs to reboot.

As for a GM, Ryan either has to take the job and commit or let them hire someone else.

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Tampa Bay Rays vs Texas Rangers

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Tampa Bay Rays (91-71; 2nd place, AL East; won Wild Card) vs Texas Rangers (96-66; 1st place, AL West)

Keys for the Rays: Don’t be satisfied with simply making the playoffs; expose the Rangers starting rotation; force Ron Washington into mistakes; play solid defense; B.J. Upton.

It goes one of two ways with teams that make a frantic late-season run into the playoffs out of nowhere: they either maintain their good play and streak on (the 2007 Rockies); or they get into the playoffs, are satisfied with that and get bounced early (the 2007 Phillies).

Neither the Rockies nor the Phillies had the playoff experience that the Rays do—they’ve been here before—so they won’t be relaxed and happy that they proved a point by overtaking the Red Sox; they’re here to win.

The Rangers starting rotation is overrated after C.J. Wilson.

Colby Lewis was excellent in the playoffs last season, but he allows a lot of homers and was very inconsistent in 2011. Lefties feast on him making him a target for Johnny Damon, Matt Joyce, Casey Kotchman and Ben Zobrist.

I don’t trust Derek Holland—the Rays beat him up twice this season.

I don’t trust Matt Harrison—both Johnny Damon and Evan Longoria hammer him.

With all the extra bullpen arms Rangers GM got for manager Ron Washington, it leads down the road of overmanaging and making unnecessary changes once the starters are out of the games. Koji Uehara‘s strikeout numbers are impressive, but so too are the towering homers he gives up (11 out of the bullpen for the Orioles and Rangers is a lot); and Mike Adams has never pitched in the post-season.

The Rays are in this position because of their superior defense and a strike-throwing pitching staff—they can’t make any mistakes if they’re going to hold down the Rangers potent offense.

B.J. Upton is on a mission. He wants to get paid after next season and don’t discount the extra motivation of a potential World Series matchup with his brother Justin Upton of the Diamondbacks. When he’s playing as hard as he can—aggressively and smart—he’s something to watch at the plate, in the field and on the basepaths. In fact, he’s unstoppable.

Keys for the Rangers: get depth from their starting rotation; take advantage of Kyle Farnsworth‘s gopher ball; score a lot; mitigate managerial mishaps from Washington; keep the Rays off the bases; stop Upton and Longoria.

If Wilson and Lewis pitch as well as they did in last year’s post-season, the Rangers are going to be hard to beat. They have a lot of power and a superior defense behind their pitchers which is the actual strength of the pitching staff—not the pitchers themselves. They pound the strike zone and let the fielders—especially a nearly impenetrable infield—help their cause.

Washington tends to make too many moves once he gets into the bullpen; the Rangers push their starters during the regular season and will push them deeper in the playoffs to avoid that eventuality.

Farnsworth had a fine year closing for the Rays, but he’s still a manager’s nightmare with his wildness and tendency to allow homers. The Rangers have a group of bats who can crush a fastball—Josh Hamilton, Adrian Beltre, Ian Kinsler and Nelson Cruz.

Yorvit Torrealba also has a flair for the dramatic and has gotten big post-season hits before.

Because the Rays steal plenty of bases, it’s best to keep them off-base entirely. With their defense and strike-throwing pitchers, this is a reasonable goal for the Rangers.

Upton and Longoria have carried the Rays over the past month. If they don’t produce, the Rays lose.

What will happen.

Because they finally broke their playoff hex a year ago, got past the first round; beat the Yankees; and made it to the World Series, the Rangers are a battle-proven and experienced group in their second straight season in the post-season.

But the Rays have experience of their own from the World Series run in 2008 to last season when they lost to…the Rangers.

The Rays were beaten last year in large part due to the unreliability of closer Rafael Soriano. Soriano’s gone and the Rays overall pitching is in better shape now than it was a year ago.

I don’t like the Rangers bullpen despite the acquisitions of Adams and Uehara and the presence of Neftali Feliz.

Their starting pitching after Wilson is still questionable and they’re going to have to score plentiful runs to outshoot the Rays.

The Rays pitching is in a bit of perceived disarray after their desperate climb over the Red Sox to take the Wild Card; they’re starting rookie Matt Moore—their top prospect—in game 1.

But it could be the triumph of the uncluttered mind and the self-confidence of youth that makes starting Moore a brilliant maneuver.

The Rays have used young pitchers in key spots before. David Price closed games for them in 2008 and if they think Moore can handle it, I wouldn’t bet against that analysis.

A year ago, the Rangers were the team playing with low expectations and bent on killing demons of past post-season failures; they had a full-blown ace at the top of their starting rotation in Cliff Lee; they played with reckless abandon and a go-for-it mentality of “no one expects us to be here”.

The Rays are in that exact same position this year.

Wilson thinks he’s an ace—ask him and he’ll tell you in depth—but that doesn’t mean he is one on a level with Lee; if doesn’t mean he’s going to gut it out as James Shields and Price will. And don’t discount the financial aspect in Wilson’s mind as he tries to increase his free agent paycheck after the season a la Lee and Carlos Beltran.

No one expected the Rays to be here before or during the season; in fact, the consensus I’ve seen doesn’t think they’re going to be around that long either in the post-season.

But the Rays are here to stay.

They’re going to the ALCS and the Rangers are going home.

PREDICTION: RAYS IN FOUR.

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The Rays Chicanery

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I’d be very, very careful if I were an interested club and the Rays start taking offers for James Shields after this season.

I’d be even more careful if they do it begrudgingly; portraying the role of the hamstrung, financially-strapped entity that needs several pieces and can’t afford to keep Shields while entertaining the possibility of signing B.J. Upton to a long-term contract.

Suffice it to say that the Rays aren’t going to sign Upton to a long-term contract.

It’s all part of the subterfuge and trickery that’s become a part of the Rays way of doing business.

And parties interested in Shields need to be wary before giving up the house for him.

Yesterday, Shields pitched his 11th complete game. Even in the Roy Halladay-circle of old-schoolness, that’s an unheard of number of complete games. The Rays have pushed Shields hard this season. Curiously hard.

When examining his gamelogs this season, you’ll notice that he’s been allowed to throw a lot of pitches and pitch deeply into many games despite having one of baseball’s better bullpens backing him up.

It makes me wonder why.

Under GM Andrew Friedman, the Rays have never been a club to capriciously limit their pitchers because of arbitrary, easy to remember numbers like 100 pitches or 200 innings; Shields has been supremely durable during his career and has been allowed to regularly pitch deeply into games with over 100 pitches.

Has he learned to use his defense and pound the strike zone to a greater degree? Wheras he was pitching into the 6th-7th innings in prior years and giving up a lot more hits than innings pitched, in 2011 he’s drastically increased his strikeouts and reduced the number of hits allowed. The defense is a large factor in this as his batting average on balls in play (BAbip) this season is .267 and he’s allowed 22 homers; in 2010 it was .344 and he allowed 34 homers; in 2009 it was .311 and he allowed 29 homers. His line drive percentages are the same; his ground ball percentages are up; he’s walking more batters and striking out more.

Part of his success this year is due to better luck. The disparity between a .344 BAbip and a .267 BAbip accounts for a large amount of his improved results.

Shields will be 30 in December; by the end of this season, he’ll have thrown 215 innings in four of the past five years; the one he didn’t (2010), he threw 203. He’s signed through 2014 with club options for $7 million in 2012 ($2 million buyout); $9 million in 2013 ($1.5 million buyout); and $12 million in 2014 ($1 million buyout); his value is never going to be higher than it is now and there’s a limited number of innings a pitcher—no matter how tough—has before a decline/breakdown occurs. Believe me when I say the Rays have crunched those numbers. They also have to start thinking about contract extensions for David Price, Matt Joyce and possibly would like to sign Desmond Jennings and Jeremy Hellickson to cheap, preemptive contracts as they did with Evan Longoria.

The Rays have used the “we don’t have the money” excuse to let Rafael Soriano walk after his career-best season and take the draft picks as compensation; to trade Matt Garza and Scott Kazmir for multiple young, cheap players. That excuse is highly convenient, true and should be examined with suspicion since they keep doing it over and over again and making off like bandits in the process.

With the dearth of good starting pitching out there; the way Shields has pitched; the cheapness and long-term nature of his contract; and that his value is never going to be higher, it’s right to be a little dubious if he comes available. Interested teams need to wonder why the Rays are willing to discuss him. And if the Rays say it’s because they want to sign Upton, those teams had better run away. Fast.

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