Why was the 2019 MLB Trade Deadline so different from the past?

MiLB, MLB, MLB Trade Deadline

Cashman pic

The 2019 MLB Trade Deadline was radically different from how it was in the past.

There are several factors that factored in with this peculiar turn of events. Certain teams illustrated this more than others.

Yankees

General manager Brian Cashman is getting scorched for his failure to act. At his press conference, he made reasonable sense as to why he didn’t trade for a prominent starter or reliever. Still, “reasonable sense” is not what made the Yankees so alluring to fans around the world. They won a lot and that will certainly draw attention; but there was always action going on. Now, instead of getting the biggest available names who fit their blatant needs and surrendering the prospects necessary to do so, Cashman again cuddled his prospects, many of whom are quietly being described as overrated.

Ignoring whether this is a wise course of action or not, the fundamental reality is that the Yankees of the Steinbrenner offspring are not the same as the Yankees of the Steinbrenner patriarch. George Steinbrenner would not have wanted to hear about Deivi Garcia if he was all that was standing in the way of getting the caliber of starting pitcher that would have made his team the favorites to win the World Series. This, more than any baseball operations philosophy, is why the Yankees have become so passive to the point of appearing impotent.

Arguing that their injured list with Luis Severino and Dellin Betances rehabbing provides them with two “acquisitions” is theoretically sensible, but it’s also Met-like – one that rarely yields the result the team expects. By now, it is wise not to expect anything from either and the Yankees know that.

The current Steinbrenner ownership does not have the unquenchable thirst to win and dominate that George Steinbrenner did. It wants to win, sure. But it’s not fanatical and desperate. Their desire to win is folded in with advancing the brand. Instead of a World Series-or-bust attitude, they’re content to be contenders, have a chanceto win a championship while understanding the vagaries that go into that result, and do not overreact when it is unsuccessful.

The Boss might have understood all this in a rational sense (or he might not have), but his rage inevitably took over and he reacted by firing people, signing free agents, trading for stars and doing something. That is not to imply that capricious brutality is preferable to wise conservatism, but there needs to be nuance. There wasn’t and these Yankees did nothing.

Having cost control with a respectable farm system and flexibility is great, but it is not the Yankee way. It’s the way of the game itself in 2019 and the Yankees in their years of dominance never adhered to what everyone else was doing. They were trendsetters and everyone wanted to play for them. If other teams couldn’t keep up? Too bad.

While shunning Bryce Harper and Manny Machado made financial sense, it might have had a hidden cost in that players are no longer looking toward the Yankees as their ideal destination. If they’re going to treat it as a cruel business, so are we. In retrospect, the Yankees were right to avoid both on the field, but it could have had a radical aftereffect in the greater context.

Hal Steinbrenner has been conscious of payroll and Cashman was a willing cohort as both got what they wanted. Steinbrenner has the immediately recognizable and financially lucrative brand; Cashman gets to show the baseball bona fides that eluded him when he inherited the late 1990s dynasty and bought his way to maintaining contending status. He rebuilt the team and is now perceived in a category with Theo Epstein, Billy Beane, Andrew Friedman and Jeff Lunhow as an architect. Yet the last championship in 2009 came after a half-billion-dollar spending spree.

Every team ownership in New York has been hammered for its faults. The Yankees have largely been shielded from that. However, Steinbrenner expressed his willingness to go beyond the luxury tax and in trading prospects to get what the Yankees needed.

And they didn’t do it.

Was this Cashman? Did Steinbrenner leave it to the baseball people to decide on cost effectiveness? Or was there a wink and nod with Steinbrenner knowing Cashman would “do the right thing” while they made statements to quell rising fan apprehension?

Put it this way: George Steinbrenner would have told Cashman to get pitching and he didn’t care what it cost. Hal Steinbrenner didn’t.

Padres

General manager AJ Preller has been there for five years and they have achieved absolutely nothing concrete. It’s all about ephemeral prospect rankings and lusty gazes regarding his “outside the box” thinking, aggressiveness, lack of interest in making friends and, in some cases, indifference for adhering to moral and ethical standards.

The latest was acquiring another top prospect, Taylor Trammell in a three-team trade with the Indians and Reds.

Most prognosticators love Trammell and he adds to the Padres’ already strong farm system. But when does the transition from rebuild to trying to win take place? There’s a difference between being happy to win and trying to win. There’s no middle ground with Preller. It’s one end of the spectrum with a ridiculous buying spree like in 2014-2015 or the rebuild where he burned the organization to the ground not with a controlled demolition, but arson. There’s the signing of Eric Hosmer; there’s the trading of Brad Hand; there’s the signing of Manny Machado; there’s the trading of Franmil Reyes; there’s the pursuit of Noah Syndergaard.

Which is it? When does this reach its conclusion? Or is this the conclusion?

Maybe “What is he doing?” is the strategy. Always maintain a plausible deniability that he’s failing. This is year five of the rebuild and they’re 20 games behind the Dodgers in the NL West and in “if we have a hot streak” contention for the Wild Card.

The spin from Preller’s first offseason as Padres GM in which he gutted the system he inherited and traded for and signed name players and then pivoted to an ongoing full-blown rebuild happened within his first year on the job. While his system has received laudatory and even beatific praise since then, he is still doing the zigzag of willingness to trade anyone and everyone while simultaneously adding the likes of Hosmer and Machado on big money contracts.

There seems to be a total disregard for actual results, replaced by a reliance on prospect rankings that, one must remember, are completely exterior from baseball front offices!If that obnoxious, arrogant buffoon Keith Law ranks a prospect number 10 in baseball, that does not mean he’s judged the same way by those who are making the actual decisions. It’s a moneymaker. It’s clickbait. Just as there is no award for winning the winter championship, there’s no tangible award for having the best farm system as ranked by some guy.

There is a benefit, though. If and when Preller’s bosses say enough’s enough and ask when the team will start show success on the field, he can point to the praise and prospect rankings and promote it as progress when it is contextually meaningless. When does the plan come to fruition? Year seven? Year nine?

It’s beginning to take the tone of a flimflam man with a modicum of competence who has tricked a wide swath of people and inspired a Manson-like loyalty sans criticism for fear of inundation from his indoctrinated loyalists.

Astros

GM Jeff Luhnow spots vulnerability and compounds that with a willingness to act. Comparing owner Jim Crane to George Steinbrenner is unfair in terms of temperament and overreaction, but not in terms of the hunger to win.

The Astros had several irons in the fire to acquire starting pitching, but would not surrender what the Mets were asking for to get either Zack Wheeler or Syndergaard – namely Kyle Tucker. Then they spun around, gave up a big haul of prospects to the Diamondbacks to get Zack Greinke (not including Tucker or Forrest Whitley) and suddenly the Yankees were KO’d with a shot they did not see coming.

Contrary to the immediate overreaction, this does not mean the Astros are guaranteed a World Series win. In a short series, anything can and usually does happen. But Luhnow’s willingness to deal while still retaining his untouchable prospects is unique. Other teams – like the Padres with Preller – are not simply looking to improve, they’re looking to screw you while they do it. Luhnow will give up value for value. And if it doesn’t make sense, he doesn’t do it.

Once this window of contention begins to close, he won’t patch it with duct tape. He’ll clean house before anyone expects or advocates it and start all over again. That’s why the Astros are where they are.

Mets

Finally, the Mets were caught in the middle of “what are they doing?” with “why are they doing it?”

It’s unlikely that GM Brodie Van Wagenen thinks the Mets are legitimate contenders in 2019. But they’re not at the point where it makes sense to clean out the entire house either. Edwin Diaz and Syndergaard were bandied about in trade talks. Wheeler, a pending free agent, was all but guaranteed to go. Yet they stayed.

With Syndergaard, there was zero point in trading him unless the Mets got exactly what they wanted. For Wheeler, the cost-benefit hinged on comparing the acquisition of prospects to what they will get with the draft pick compensation after making the qualifying offer following this season, re-signing Wheeler or in the unlikely event he accepts the QO.

It’s important to remember that Van Wagenen manipulated the entire MLB Draft to get Matthew Allan – a consensus top-20 talent who fell because he was expected to attend college – at the approximate spot where they’ll get the compensatory pick if Wheeler rejects the QO.

With their recent hot streak that has gotten them within striking distance of a Wild Card and that they added Marcus Stroman to the rotation giving them a devastating starting five of Jacob deGrom, Syndergaard, Stroman, Wheeler and Steven Matz, and there was no urgency to trade anyone. This rotation is tantamount to the “big five” the Mets had long touted as their future with Matt Harvey replacing Stroman, but the Mets only cycled that group once and it was for sentimental “what might have been?” reasons as Harvey was immediately jettisoned after it happened.

As for adding to the bullpen, trading Diaz and adding a few names would have been shuffling the same cards. There’s no guarantee the relievers they acquired would handle New York any better than Diaz; would adjust to the set-up role as Jeurys Familia has not. Rather than change for its own sake, it was better to get Stroman, retain what they had and hope the mediocrity of the National League and improved performances from their own players worked for the rest of 2019 and they could retool for 2020.

***

Teams are no longer passively letting Trevor Bauer and Stroman get traded to obvious contenders, deferring to those whose need is more pronounced and holding their chips – and the good will with their peers – for when they need the help.

The new rule that prevents trades after July 31 had a greater impact than expected. Teams were aware they could not wait out the likes of Justin Verlander and other star players whose contracts likely precluded an August waiver claim meaning they would be eligible to be traded after the “deadline” that was not a hard deadline. Now, it is a hard deadline. Now, the decision as to whether a team was a legitimate contender, a nominal contender, a non-contender or “wait ‘til next year (or, in the case of the Padres, the next-next year; or the next-next-next year), or a team that has surrendered and is adhering to a “plan” is harder to make with any certainty.

There was still a flurry of activity, but much of it was surprising in that the usual suspects who are aggressive in filling holes – the Yankees, Dodgers, Cardinals and Red Sox – were quiet. Teams that are not close enough to first place to warrant a buying spree to go for it still made moves that were in part for 2019, but were largely done for 2020. “Sellers” were few and far between as most clubs have shunned the gutting rebuild and tanking, preferring to lean toward a moderate attempt at respectability and maybe even a lightning strike playoff run. Even teams that were willing to sell big pieces added similarly big pieces before deciding to stand pat. This is better for the game, not worse.

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A note about the Mets bullpen and revisionist history

MLB

Erase the Past Words with Pencil

As catastrophic as the Mets bullpen has been, there is a significant amount of second-guessing, “look how smart I am/give me credit,” and agenda-laden statements masking itself as analysis that is secondary to objective assessment.

This is not a statistical gauging of the Mets’ relievers. It’s a look back at the moves the club made to bolster what they already had and what could reasonably have been expected in terms of performance.

In the offseason, the Mets acquired Jeurys Familia, Edwin Diaz, Justin Wilson and Luis Avilan.

Are these bad acquisitions? Could anyone have predicted that all would be disastrous? And what were the alternatives?

When attacking Brodie Van Wagenen and the Wilpons, there are legitimate criticisms to the hire. However, had Van Wagenen come marching in with a blueprint that so radically deviated from established norms and sought not just to reinvent the wheel, but reinvent one that would turn on Neptune, then it’s justifiable to go over the top in issuing blame. He did not do that.

He signed Familia for three years and $30 million. Had the Mets not done it, someone else would have. He is a historically good – even excellent, if not elite – reliever.

He signed Wilson who in his first six full seasons in the majors appeared in a minimum of 58 games and generally appeared in about 70. He was not solely a lefty specialist and was generally effective as a second-tier relief pitcher.

The Diaz trade was a risky gambit. In its favor, Diaz was dominant in 2018 and had the type of stuff that left hitters inert. To get him, they were forced to surrender two prospects including the sixth overall pick from 2018, Jarred Kelenic. The deal was expanded to include Robinson Cano who has looked every bit of his 36 years after a PED suspension and is combining his trademark lackadaisical act with indifference and defiance. The trade for Cano, however, was to clear the dead contacts of Jay Bruce and Anthony Swarzak. For those who lament the way Bruce and Swarzak have performed in 2019, if they had been this good in 2018, we’re not discussing any of this; it’s likely that Sandy Alderson would have kept his job.

It was a major roll of the dice that looks atrocious now, but cannot be accurately judged for at least five years when Kelenic’s fate will be determined and Diaz will either have gotten acclimated to New York and performed up to his capabilities or he will not.

Avilan was the identical type of signing that every team makes of a longtime MLB veteran who is seeking work and will sign a minor-league contract to earn a spot.

These arms were joining a bullpen that had Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo.

In a preseason assessment, is the following a bad bullpen: Diaz, Familia, Wilson, Lugo, Gsellman and Avilan plus whichever young arms the Mets needed to recall from the minors?

If you say yes, you’re a liar or suffering from confirmation bias.

When discussing potential options in lieu or in addition to the relievers the Mets acquired, big money names like Craig Kimbrel are frequently mentioned.

Signing Kimbrel is in the same ballpark – not identical, but in the same ballpark – of trading Kelenic and Justin Dunn for Diaz. Kimbrel wanted $100 million and he did not back off from that even as his market collapsed and he sat out, waiting. The Mets were not paying him $100 million and no one else was either based on the fundamental fact that he didn’t get it.

Add in the draft pick that would have been Competitive Balance B which was exactly where Van Wagenen and his staff used a clever sleight of hand to get Matthew Allan who Baseball America ranked 16th overall and scared off many teams because he had committed to the University of Florida.

So, pick one. Do you want to hammer the Mets for trading Kelenic and not signing Kimbrel as well, or do you want to hammer them for gutting the system and ignoring any semblance of future planning? You can have one or the other, but not both.

As for the other available “name” relievers? Who’s been good? One pitcher – Adam Ottavino – has been worth the money and he was going to the Yankees, period. Other teams didn’t even really bother pursuing him with any intensity because this reality was known throughout the industry.

Zack Britton? It’s unlikely he was signing with the Mets and they weren’t overpaying for him. His walks are a major worry.

Andrew Miller? His knee injury was a factor and he’s got a 4.15 ERA, a 5.22 FIP and has surrendered 6 home runs.

Joe Kelly? He’s been effective in June, but started horribly and cannot be trusted in a big spot.

Who did you want instead of what the Mets got? Who was better and was moved? Who was available?

Facts hurt, but they’re still facts. No one with any objectivity could have foreseen the bullpen being this rancid.

Some critics, like Buster Olney of ESPN, torched the hire of Van Wagenen from the start. Most others either took a wait and see attitude, lauded many of the moves Van Wagenen made, then sat quietly to see how they turned out before parachuting in with the “I knew it” template. Repeatedly screaming “rebuild” is not a strategy. Yet the moles are popping out of their holes with criticisms and no solutions. And that is not how anything is fixed. Acknowledging the truth is the first step. Then comes fixing it. The factions are incapable – or unwilling – to do that as they wallow in their own egomania and delusions of grandeur.

A lesson for the Mets on the manager from none other than Billy Beane

MLB

Manager definition

As the Mets are resistant to do the obvious and relieve manager Mickey Callaway of his duties, it is difficult to know the justification of retaining him.

His salary is minuscule compared to name managers.

General manager Brodie Van Wagenen is under siege himself for roster deficiencies and did not hire Callaway.

The pitching coach and bullpen coach have already been fired with the relievers pitching at least as badly as they did before, if not worse.

Jeff Wilpon is a target of ridicule for his perceived role in this burgeoning debacle.

And even if they do make a change, there’s no guarantee that they will make the obvious and right move in hiring Joe Girardi.

It’s a trendy shield for teams to assert that managers are largely irrelevant to the overall results of a team and most subscribe to it. This protects them from firing people, paying them not to work and avoids caving to public pressure to hire the decreasing number of “proven” managers who are going to demand a big salary and expect autonomy on the field.

With front offices becoming so immersed in every aspect of how a team is run from top to bottom, the line that general managers never crossed no longer exists. Owners regularly crossed that line with calls to the manager’s office with various orders, but they were the owners. Today’s GMs are younger, hungry for attention, convinced that they know better than the emotional and reactive field staff, and do not want anything to sabotage their algorithms of optimal moves.

The days of Whitey Herzog, Billy Martin, Tommy Lasorda, Earl Weaver, Davey Johnson, Dick Williams and Joe Torre – managers in the truest sense of the word with their own belief systems, preferred style of play and personalities – are gone. The preference is to have a disposable, replaceable and faceless automaton who will carry out the orders of the front office, be the public face of the franchise, not deviate from the plan and play the part of manager rather than be the manager. None of those mentioned would even get a managing job today, except in cases where the owner ordered the hiring over protestations of the front office. They would have problems relating to players who expect to be coddled and know they have the power and could not stand the dissection of every single decision they made with public criticisms from an exponential number of outlets who would never be forced to face them in person.

The altered landscape is aptly described at the end of Casino when Robert De Niro as Sam Rothstein laments how times changed with the corporations taking over Las Vegas:

In the old days, dealers knew your name, what you drank, what you played. Today, it’s checking into an airport. And if you order room service, you’re lucky if you get it by Thursday. Today, it’s all gone. You get a whale show up with four million in a suitcase, and some twenty-five-year-old school kid is gonna want his Social Security Number.

There’s a clear parallel between this perspective and how baseball teams are run.

Billy Beane is cast as the first GM who was publicly portrayed as running the team from the front office. It was Beane who wanted a manager to follow orders. It was Beane who allowed this desire to be out there for all to see. And it was Beane who repeatedly downplayed the importance of managers by discarding them to be replaced by “another guy.” It didn’t matter who.

When he elevated his close friend Bob Geren to the manager’s chair, the Athletics were embarking on another retooling. Geren was the epitome of mediocrity. A vanilla personality who maintained the same blank look on his face regardless of what was happening around him, he certainly fit the role of “some guy” standing at the corner of the dugout and epitomizing the factotum. The results on the field were just as bland as Geren. Never better than .500; never worse than 12 games below .500. They were blah. He was blah.

Eventually, with players complaining about Geren’s communication failures, the team floundering and – perhaps most importantly – Beane’s image reaching fluke status, Geren was dismissed.

Beane steadfastly refused “name” managers in his previous hires with Ken Macha and Geren. This time, however, he did bring in a known entity in Bob Melvin. This was a tacit admission that the model from which he had been working was not a good one. Still, he clung to the tenets when explaining why he dismissed Geren by ignoring player complaints as though they were irrelevant and blaming the media and the speculation infecting the franchise.

Beane’s actions and the aftermath of those actions do not match the rhetoric and that was clearly intentional. He clung to the narrative while deviating from it making it obvious that he knew the other way was not working and was not going to work with a team that did not have the spending power to put a self-sustaining product on the field.

Whereas Geren did not have the resume to protest Beane’s orders and was known to be one of his closest friends, with whom could the players confide if there were issues with the front office? Who had their backs?

Melvin had two previous jobs as manager. In the first, he inherited Lou Piniella’s Mariners as they were just beginning their downward slide. He won 93 games in his first season and the entire club came apart in his second, losing 99 games. He was fired. The next year, he came in second to Wally Backman for the job to manage the Diamondbacks. When Backman was found to have lied on his job application, he was fired and Melvin took over. After four full seasons including one division title and an NLDS win, he was fired 29 games in to the 2009 season as he resisted front office interference and GM Josh Byrnes famously said he wanted someone who provided “organizational advocacy.” Ironically, the person tabbed to replace Melvin and for whom any chance of success was detonated with those two words as he was viewed as a spy, was AJ Hinch – currently considered one of baseball’s best managers with the Astros.

There is no doubt that Hinch’s experience in Arizona is a reason he is now successful in Houston.

The A’s played better under Melvin after he replaced Geren. Then, the next year, they won the first of back-to-back division titles and made the playoffs in the third year as a Wild Card.

Was it the players? Was it the manager? Was it the front office realizing that maybe it was time to give the manager a bit more freedom and respect than they did before? Was it a combination?

Experience. History. Knowing when to push back against the front office. All are key parts of managing that will never change, especially if the team is not the Yankees or Dodgers and does not have the money and personnel to gloss over a nameless, faceless manager who does what he’s told. For most teams, the season hinges on 15 or 20 games where the manager makes the difference. If he’s losing games due to his ineptitude, then it’s time to make that move to hire a person who has a clue.

It benefits the players to have a manager they respect; one who has a salary large enough that he won’t be dumped just to hire the same guy with a different name and face; one who can speak to the media without sounding as if he’s a hostage reading from a script; and one who will make the decisions he feels are in the team’s best interests in the short and long-term rather than because he was ordered to by guys in suits and polos in the front office suite. Even if the players disagree with the manager, a track record gives a certain amount of leeway. “At least he knows what he’s doing” is as good a reason as any to hire a manager who has done it before.

To continually present the manager’s job as meaningless while maintaining the veneer of an all-powerful and all-knowing front office is cannibalistic and destructive.

So many front offices either don’t understand this or are too paranoid and egomaniacal to admit to any level of weakness. But the players know. It would help if front offices did too. Maybe the Mets will learn this before someone else hires Girardi and they take the first step toward fixing what ails them with the simple act of hiring a manager who knows what the hell he’s doing.

The Mets and ending their definition of mediocrity

MLB

Edwin Diaz

Earlier in the week, New York Mets manager Mickey Callaway elicited eye-rolls when he discussed the Mets’ struggle to reach .500 and get on a roll to get beyond the record that is the objective definition of mediocrity. After Tuesday’s doubleheader split with the injury-riddled crosstown Yankees and Thursday’s rain suspended tie against the equally mediocre St. Louis Cardinals, there are certain fundamental realities that the club and the fans must accept and act upon to maintain a glimmer of hope that this team can make the postseason.

Forget Jarred Kelenic

That means stop mentioning Jarred Kelenic.

Stop obsessively tracking the progress of Jarred Kelenic.

And come to the acceptance stage of the grieving process that the Mets no longer have Jarred Kelenic.

They have Edwin Diaz who, despite his struggles, is still a top-three closer in baseball when he’s performing up to his capabilities. He’s in a slump. His advanced statistics have been relatively consistent with his 2018 numbers with the Seattle Mariners. He’s given up more home runs, but that could be a byproduct of his home games being a park where it’s easier to hit home runs at Citi Field compared to what they were in then-Safeco Field, that the ball is clearly juiced, and hitters are going to the plate trying to hit home runs in every at-bat.

The mental aspect cannot be ignored. He knows who he was traded for and what the fans and large factions of the media said when the trade was made. He’s hearing the whispers and seeing the laments. Demoting him, trading him in a housecleaning, rebuilding – none of this is going to happen. Rather than repeat the same pattern that achieves nothing but validate an entrenched confirmation bias, live with what the Mets have and ignore what they traded away.

Dom Smith must play

Certainly, no one is expecting Smith to maintain his basic statistical split of .354/.442/.573. Nor can anyone believe that his advanced statistics of wRC+ of 174 is sustainable. His BAbip is an absurd .417. He’s only had 95 plate appearances, so he’s going to fall back to earth. The only question is whether the landing will be soft and he’ll settle into his minor league splits of .295/.360/.425 or it will be a crash landing of his previous non-production in the majors.

The Mets have openly said they’re not writing lineups based on contracts or veteran status. Smith has played left field adequately. Once Brandon Nimmo and Robinson Cano return, that should not impact whether Smith is in the semi-regular lineup. If that means putting into practice the recent suggestion of Jeff McNeil seeing some time in center field, so be it. If Cano and Nimmo are unhappy about it, it’s simple: When you play, hit. If you don’t hit, you don’t play. If that means Cano will sit if he’s not hitting, he’ll need to sit without complaint.

They must buy – within reason – at the trade deadline.

As mentioned earlier, the idea of a gutting and rebuild is a fantasy from those who have:

A) never run a business

B) are harboring dreams – as inexplicable as they are – that losing 100 games for three years automatically results in a dynasty

The Mets either need to be bold at the trade deadline and add or essentially stand pat and wait for the offseason to make radical changes (that will not include a gutting rebuild).

The Atlanta Braves have been playing excellently and were aggressive in signing Dallas Keuchel.

The Philadelphia Phillies are ravaged by injuries and, with a flurry of trades and roster shuffling, are repeating the same failed blueprint from 2018 when they made panicky maneuvers to fix a flat tire by buying a new car.

The entire National League is flawed. With the Mets’ moves in the winter designed to win right now, they can’t do an about face and sell the likes of Zack Wheeler and Todd Frazier to look toward 2020 and beyond unless they completely collapse and fall double-digits out of the division lead and Wild Card spots.

What is buying “within reason?”

It doesn’t mean gutting the farm system for a rental. It does mean looking for upgrades at positions of need with relievers Brad Hand of the Cleveland Indians, Will Smith of the San Francisco Giants and Cam Bedrosian of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. They cannot sit on the sidelines and expect different results from similar strategies used in the past of waiting out injured players and expecting them to be comparable to deadline acquisitions as they did with Wheeler in 2016, Yoenis Cespedes and Jed Lowrie.

The problem Mickey Callaway won’t have time to fix with the Mets

MLB

Van Wagenen Callaway

Even in baseball’s current landscape of data-centric strategies and tightly controlled implementation, there are fundamental job requirements making it difficult for just anyone to do it. While managerial experience and tactical knowhow is no longer deemed as make or break in hiring someone and other aspects – handling the media, steering the clubhouse, adhering to front office edicts – have taken precedence, there are unavoidable factors that make it necessary for certain clubs to have a manager who can blunt interference from the front office and ownership and make in the trenches decisions that might not come out of the new managerial manual.

As the New York Mets tread water in the National League East and hover around .500, it is abundantly clear that manager Mickey Callaway is not equipped to handle the job as it stands. Either the situation must change making it more tenable for this manager or the manager must be changed. There’s no in between.

Fortunate though they are that the division and nearly the entire National League is mired in mediocrity keeping them within striking distance of a playoff spot, at some point they need to win their own games and establish a level of consistency. That means not blowing games they should win. On this road trip through Los Angeles and Arizona alone, bullpen implosions have cost them two games they should easily have won. Contrary to popular sentiment, the Mets’ bullpen is not unusual in being inconsistent to the point of terribleness. However, the Mets do not have the wiggle room to lose these games and think it will eventually even out.

There are teams that can hire a manager with limited or no bona fides for the job and get away with it. With the crosstown Yankees’ stellar play, it’s difficult not to give credit to Aaron Boone, but he is still functioning as a conduit to the front office with general manager Brian Cashman and his staff calling the shots. Dave Roberts has done nothing but win since he became Los Angeles Dodgers manager, but he too benefits from abundant information and little left to his whims. Those clubs also have resources they’re willing to spend. These things cannot be said about the Mets. The Mets do not have the same margin for error that clubs like the Dodgers and Yankees do. They can survive knowing that the template covers for real-time managerial errors that the numbers crunchers didn’t have time to mitigate with a flowchart of “if this-then that” moves.

If Callaway seems overmatched, he’s only partially at fault for that. No, he did not have any managerial experience whatsoever when he took the job, but his history having played for Mike Scioscia and Buck Showalter and serving as Terry Francona’s pitching coach should have been sufficient for him to have absorbed enough managerial touch and feel that these snap decisions would not be as worrisome as they are. Worse, he says and does one thing and the players and front office will openly contradict him making him appear not to know what is happening in his own clubhouse. This was evident in Saturday night’s loss and Jacob deGrom’s hip concerns being the latest example.

Deciding on who catches based on “catcher win percentage”; denying that there will be a personal catcher system between deGrom and Tomas Nido, but if there is it will be a problem in the playoffs; saying Edwin Diaz would only pitch one inning and then backing off on it after viral critiques and questions – all appear to have come either from the front office or fear of what the front office will say if he exercises the autonomy the manager must have to maintain credibility.

But he has no autonomy, is losing credibility, and does not have the experience or the contract to resist.

Obviously, a chunk of that is because of front office dictates that seemingly stem from reaction to fan anger and media attacks, not because they have examined the problem and formulated a detailed and information-based solution for it even if it is neither popular nor understandable to the critics.

All too often, he is relegated to the organizational puppet whose job is not to manage the team, but to serve as its punching bag, making statements before and after the game that sound like flimsy excuses because he doesn’t know how to frame his words and is too nice to make generic “because I’m the manager” statements that are tantamount to telling the questioner to shut up and mind his or her business without saying it so combatively.

In the past decade, the Mets have not been an organization that entered the season with a relatively accurate interpretation of what they will be, barring injuries and unforeseen occurrences. They have had a series of ifs and maybes with the best and worst-case scenarios dictating the midseason strategy. If they deemed themselves close enough to warrant buying at midseason and trying to win, that’s what they did. If they were trapped in the middle, they stood pat. If they were hopelessly out of contention, they sold players who were pending free agents. There has not been a deep dive into a single blueprint that they would stick to no matter what. Whether that was due to fear or mitigation or both is irrelevant.

Having hired Brodie Van Wagenen as GM, they made clear they are trying to win now. Still, they have not gone all in with that attempt.

After the sweep by the Miami Marlins two weeks ago, Callaway’s job was clearly in jeopardy, but the Mets tried to go the “let’s be fair” route and understood that the team’s woes are not solely the fault of the manager. They gave him a reprieve, to quote Van Wagenen, “for the foreseeable future.”

Fairness is one thing, but acknowledging reality and the inevitable is another. Callaway is not the problem, but he’s clearly not the solution either.

The Mets have two choices: either change the way the team is run from the top and let Callaway handle the job or hire someone who can do the job in this environment. With the division still winnable and the team staggering, something must be done to save the season even if it means that the front office will need to defer to its new manager and pay him a salary commensurate with his experience.

Hiring Joe Girardi, Showalter, Scioscia or Dusty Baker does not mean the bullpen won’t keep blowing games. It does eliminate the randomness in the usage of the relievers; stops statements from being made and immediately backtracked on because outsiders don’t like it; and the manager will have the contract and the cachet to say why he did what he did and not sound as if he’s clumsily trying to talk his way out of a speeding ticket.

Dallas Keuchel fits for the Mets…after the MLB Draft

MiLB, MLB

Keuchel

Let’s say the Mets do what the fans and media are pushing them to do and simultaneously designate Jason Vargas for assignment and sign Dallas Keuchel within the next five days. That would be around April 17.

Presumably, Keuchel has been throwing regularly and is in reasonable shape. Reasonable shape is not Major League Baseball game shape. So, he’d need to go to extended spring training and then make a few starts in Double and Triple-A. Being conservative but reasonable, say he’s ready by May 5 and joins the starting rotation on or around that date.

The MLB Draft is June 3. The Mets would get, at most, five starts from Keuchel prior to the draft. Is it worth the total cost? What are the Mets sacrificing and what are they getting?

Here’s the applicable rule regarding a free agent in Keuchel’s position from MLB.com:

A team that neither exceeded the luxury-tax threshold in the preceding season nor receives revenue sharing will lose its second-highest selection in the following year’s Draft, as well as $500,000 from its international bonus pool for the upcoming signing period. If it signs two such players, it will also forfeit its third-highest remaining pick and an additional $500,000.

The Keuchel contract is secondary and is not the issue. The issue is that the Mets would be surrendering a draft pick to sign him. They would also be giving up $500,000 in the increasingly valuable international spending money.

The same people who called the Mets shortsighted or outright stupid for trading 2018’s sixth overall pick Jarred Kelenic as the centerpiece of the deal to get Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz are screaming that the Mets “all-in for 2019” justification means they should continue that trend by sacrificing a relatively high pick and that international money to get someone who is a stylistically similar pitcher to the one he’s replacing.

It cannot be ignored that the pick they’re surrendering by such a move is in the same general vicinity of where they selected Pete Alonso – another subject about which the media and fans engaged in intense and mostly ignorant debate of how best to handle his service time and whether he should have been demoted for the first two weeks of the season to save a year of team control.

Alonso’s performance aside, the Mets and general manager Brodie Van Wagenen said it would be the best 25 players making the roster. In spring training, Alonso was one of the best 25 players. He made the roster. Everything else is noise. The damage that would have been done not just to Alonso, but to Van Wagenen as he tries to establish himself in his nascent new career as a GM, might have been worse than that extra year of team control that could end up being irrelevant.

There is a limited percentage of fans and media members who want to hear or accept these fundamental realities no matter how fact-based they are. Fewer will want to hear the next fundamental reality that Keuchel, despite being five years younger and far more decorated, is essentially the same type of pitcher as Vargas.

Not the same, but the same type.

He’s touch and feel; will not blow anyone away; needs a solid defense behind him; and if he’s not hitting his spots, he’ll get pummeled.

Sure, Keuchel’s velocity is a few miles superior to that of Vargas, but we’re not talking about 94 to 97. We’re talking 86 to 89 – numbers that make it imperative that both are hitting their spots and have sufficient differential between the fastball and changeup so both can be effective.

They’re not the same, but are similar enough to pause before immediately thinking the problem will be fixed by replacing one with the other.

The arguments for Keuchel are not based on Keuchel himself, per se and those aggressively pushing for him to be signed if not openly demanding it are using an argument that is not based on the same objective facts they purport to use via sabermetrics, but are that of a reactive sports talk caller, delusional blogger or Twitter lunatic.

After the draft, there will be greater competition for Keuchel’s services and he will likely end up elsewhere. But by then, the Mets’ situation and needs will be far clearer than they are now. Perhaps whomever takes Vargas’s spot in the rotation – Corey Oswalt, Hector Santiago, Robert Gsellman, Seth Lugo or by using “the opener” – will have a body of work to make an informed decision if one needs to be made at all and they’ll have their draft pick and international bonus money.

The real competition in the National League in general and the National League East particularly will be known. Teams might throw in the towel on the season and make arms available – arms who were not projected to be available on April 14, two weeks into the season.

The Mets can use Keuchel, but it’s not make or break for their season. The cost is not worth it. Not now, anyway.

Despite risks, a contract extension benefits both Mets and deGrom

MLB

deGrom pic

 

In the past week, Mike Trout, Blake Snell and Alex Bregman all signed contract extensions either to gain financial security or to preclude rapidly approaching free agency. The Mets and Jacob deGrom are functioning under a deadline set by deGrom and his representatives to complete an extension prior to the start of the regular season. The link between deGrom’s situation to that of the above-listed players is weak. However, there is motivation for both parties to get an agreement done and the sides will be better off if they do just that. Here’s why.

The Mets will pay less; deGrom will be guaranteed a certain amount no matter what

Judging by other players’ contract extensions and the current financial climate, figure a contract extension would add six years and $168 million to his current salary of $17 million for 2019. That would be seven years, $185 million taking him to his 37th birthday. It’s a tenable amount for the club.

From deGrom’s perspective, maybe he could get more on the open market. Just as the Mets are taking a risk if they pay him and he gets injured after the deal is done, deGrom is taking the risk of a career-damaging or ending injury costing him $200 million in earnings for his career.

His age is secondary to his workload and his workload is comparatively light

Predominately an infielder at Stetson University, he threw only 83 innings from the mound.

Having had Tommy John surgery in his first season as a professional, his innings were limited further. Before reaching the Majors, he threw 323.1 minor-league innings. He’s thrown 897.2 regular season innings in the Majors plus 25 in the postseason.

Contrast that with a contemporary like Clayton Kershaw. Kershaw is two months to the day older than deGrom. In the minors, he threw 238.1 innings. In the Majors, he’s thrown 2,096.1 innings plus 152 in the postseason.

Kershaw is declining practically and physically due, in part, to that heavy workload. DeGrom may be on the upswing in his career because he has about six years more tread on his tires.

It takes the heat off ownership and the new general manager

The Wilpons will be criticized regardless, but at least they’ll keep their star in the fold.

It’s more complicated for general manager Brodie Van Wagenen. The hiring of a former agent to be the new GM is polarizing enough, but when that new GM and former agent represented the player the team is trying to sign, it gets worse. Van Wagenen’s aggressiveness, outside-the-box thinking and charm offensive aside, it can all be undone before his first season even starts if the talks with deGrom break off without the resolution that the player, the club and the fans are hoping for.

When assessing the situation, it is preferable for everyone to get a deal done so it no longer needs to be a topic of conversation, no matter the long-term results.

Why Brodie Van Wagenen might succeed as Mets GM

MLB, Uncategorized

Mets

As the Mets move toward the finish line in their search to replace Sandy Alderson as GM, reports are stating that Brodie Van Wagenen, Doug Melvin, Kim Ng and Chaim Bloom are receiving second interviews. It has been a ponderous process for the Mets with rumors, innuendo and the familiar mocking the club must endure as a matter of course.

The inevitable questions about control, inherited staff, financial parameters and how much influence Jeff Wilpon will have will continue regardless of whom the Mets hire.

A total outsider like Van Wagenen might be viewed as a blatant attempt on the part of the Mets to reinvent the wheel, but it does make some sense and could succeed.

Let’s look at why.

Understanding both sides.

Any good lawyer will know how to make the other side’s argument. As a longtime player agent and co-head of CAA Sports’ baseball division, Wagenen has relationships with every major-league team and its executives. When trying to maximize the value of contracts and endorsements for his clients, he also needs to understand what the other side is thinking. It’s a short step over the velvet rope from being seller to the buyer.

This is not someone who will be parachuting in with theories, demands and expectations without having the faintest clue as to what really happens in the trenches.

He played baseball at a relatively high level.

Van Wagenen played baseball at Stanford University (as a teammate of Astros manager AJ Hinch). He wasn’t great, but he was serviceable. Playing at a Division I school in the Pac-10 – especially a school like Stanford that does not provide academic breaks to its athletes – is notable.

Many front office staffers are inhabiting a persona based on their environment. Chewing dip and carrying around an empty bottle in which to spit the juice does not make one a peer of professional athletes. If anything, it invites eye-rolling and ridicule from those same professional athletes. Similarly, uttering the lingo of athletes and trying to be one of them is transparent and deservedly ridiculed.

No, he did not make it to the major-leagues. He didn’t even play professionally. But as a former player, he will have a well-rounded idea of what it’s like to play and run a ballgame on the field, limiting the reactive know-it-all responses and insecurity that is inherent from those who cannot say the same and find themselves in an undeserved position as a front office boss, top-tier executive, or well-compensated analyst.

Delegation.

It is highly unlikely that Van Wagenen will be in the middle of every single deal big and small and interfere with the heads of the baseball departments.

The best executives are the ones who hire or retain smart people and allow them to do their jobs. If Omar Minaya, John Ricco, et, al. are part of the deal and will not be replaced, Van Wagenen can accept that and let them work without looking over their shoulder, sowing discord, and making passive aggressive maneuvers and statements to undermine them.

Managing the owner.

For an organization like the Mets, with Wilpon insisting that he will be involved, it takes people skills that a player agent must have to nudge him in the right direction without him knowing he’s being nudged. The idea of autonomy is secondary to this peacekeeping nuance.

Younger GMs are looking for autonomy and control in part because it grants them at least three years of on-field results being irrelevant. That’s three years of job security and blamelessness. They’re heavy on data and short on interpersonal skills. That is not an issue with Van Wagenen who understands the numbers, but also knows how to persuade.

The tactics.

There are repeated demands that the Mets tear the entire structure of the organization down to its exoskeleton and start over. Is that wise? With Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Michael Conforto, Brandon Nimmo and Amed Rosario among others, the team is not destitute at the big-league level. In the minors, the farm system is better than it was given credit for in preseason assessments.

Certainly, when there is a barren farm system, bloated contracts and declining players, it makes perfect sense to gut it and start over. The Mets are not in that position and hiring Van Wagenen is not only a signal that the Mets are serious about contending quickly, but that the Wilpons are ready to give him some money to spend to make that a reality instead of a bait-and-switch to sell season ticket plans with the same digging through the bargain bin, crafting an “if everything goes right” roster and hoping that it somehow works out.

Salesmanship.

What is an agent if not a salesman?

To take the job, he will need to divest himself of any agent-related interests in the players, but the relationships will remain in place because he got his players paid and because most players will be smart enough to realize that he might turn around and go back to being an agent after his tenure with the Mets concludes. Other organizations will know it too.

***

At first glance, the mentioning of player agents running an organization sounds quirky for its own sake. In the case of the Mets and Van Wagenen, it’s a radical departure from what the Mets and the Wilpons have done in the past and, in the grand scheme, it isn’t such a terrible idea.

If the Mets want Omar Minaya, they should just hire Omar Minaya

MLB, Uncategorized

minaya

For weeks now, the New York Mets have been dropping hints that Omar Minaya is their preferred choice to return to his former role as general manager on a permanent basis. Minaya, who was rehired in spring training as an assistant to GM Sandy Alderson as a troubleshooter to blunt relentless and fair criticism of the club’s minor league system, is a current member of the triad of baseball decision makers along with John Ricco and J.P. Ricciardi. The three have been running things since Alderson’s leave of absence to address his recurrence of cancer. Alderson’s exit has been labeled a firing without a firing. Alderson himself all but said if he were making the hiring and firing decision on the job he’s done in the past two years, he’d have fired himself.

Recognizable names like Ben Cherington, Dan Duquette and Kim Ng among others have been mentioned to replace Alderson, but the looming presence of Minaya is a constant. Already, various incarnations of the same story have surfaced with Minaya either spearheading the entire search or as an inherited, non-negotiable part of any new front office structure.

Whether the Mets truly intend to conduct an exhaustive search or not is known only to them. With the strategic leaks emanating from the club saying Fred Wilpon wants someone more old-school and that Minaya is a candidate to pull a Dick Cheney, be put forth as the person overseeing the vetting process before jumping into the fray himself with a, “hey, how about me?” move, he could very well get the job.

Perhaps it’s calculated and the Wilpons have already made clear to Minaya that once the smoke clears and they can effectively sell it to a perpetually angry fan base and dubious, hypocritical media, he’s the guy.

There is reason to be hesitant to again entrust Minaya with the fate of the organization. However it’s a mistake to base that hesitancy on faux baseball “experts” who are granted a forum and have an inexplicable following as they respond to the mere suggestion of Minaya with such florid and baseless made-for-social-media responses such as “facepalm” or “eyeroll” without formulating a well-organized and cogent critique and what credentials the Mets should be looking for in their new GM instead of those Minaya brings to the table.

Reading Moneyball/Astroball/Whateverball does not make one an expert; nor does having a basic grasp of sabermetrics or the ability to regurgitate stats and scouting terminology while posing as a peer of experienced baseball people. Of course, a critique of Minaya’s time as Mets GM can be done. There were positives and negatives to the regime, but that can be said about any executive in any business.

During Minaya’s first tenure, the club relied on antiquated strategies even for the time-period as the sports information boom had yet to explode and permeate the game as it has today. Advanced statistics were scoffed at and ignored. While the aggressive spending on Pedro Martinez, Carlos Beltran and Billy Wagner worked in the immediate aftermath, the patchwork to fill holes and salvage the remnants of their near misses from 2006 to 2008 resulted in a series of sunk costs and declining, injured veterans. The farm system was decried at the time, but in later years, it was found to be far stronger than that the prospect rankings suggested. Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Jeurys Familia, Lucas Duda, Steven Matz among others were already present.

As innovative and advanced as statistical analysis has become, every team has a department dedicated to using the new metrics to assess players. They’re mostly working from the same playbook with subtle differences in how diligently they rely on the numbers. With much of the playing field leveled by these advancements, something of a necessary reversion is taking place with a greater reliance on the unquantifiable and eyeball assessment – something Minaya is good at.

When he’s doing crisis control, such as clumsily firing Willie Randolph, when Tony Bernazard was accused of abusive and arrogant behaviors, or dealing with incidents like Francisco Rodriguez beating his pseudo father-in-law in the clubhouse family room, he’s repetitive and clueless.

There’s no debating that Minaya has a checkered past as Mets GM and is certainly not the type of person who fits in the mold of this era’s preferred top baseball executive. If they’re going to do this, the key to its success is to examine and understand Minaya’s strengths and weaknesses and remove the weaknesses from the equation.

When flashing his glittering smile in a finely tailored and stylish suit while introducing his glossy new free agent signing or trade acquisition, Minaya is great – one of the most charismatic baseball executives around. His ability to persuade players to believe in what he’s doing and sign with the Mets when the club’s history and inherent issues – namely the Wilpons – would normally give pause to any player and agent with options is notable and impressive. Even when he doesn’t get what he wants at first, he revisits the idea and makes it happen where the player has no choice as he did with trading for Carlos Delgado one year after he spurned the Mets’ free agent pursuit to sign with the Florida Marlins.

Letting him head baseball operations and leaving Ricco to do the hatchet work and organizational spokesman stuff when the inevitable problems crop up can work.  Certainly, Minaya is not the guy to hire if an organization is looking for the creation of a new algorithm. That this is even up for consideration and knowing how Minaya operates as a Euro-fútbol manager who buys international stars implies that the Wilpons were not lying when they said their finances are stabilized and they’re ready to start pouring money into the team again. Why else would it be floated that they’re considering a move of Amed Rosario to center field unless they’re ready to unleash Minaya to do what he does best and go on a big game hunt for Manny Machado to take over at shortstop?

The easy answer for the Wilpons is to follow the current trends and hire a 30-something numbers guy with an impressive degree from a high-end school and let him or her move the Mets into the present and future with a technocratic tilt. Besides the reality that doing that doesn’t guarantee success on the field, more damage can be done when hiring a top executive due to outside pressure than by hiring someone who has known flaws but is trusted and familiar to ownership. Already any outsider is handcuffed by inheriting Minaya and Ricco while simultaneously needing to mitigate Jeff Wilpon. That hire might be told when getting the job that there will be reasonable autonomy, but that will last until the new baseball “boss” walks into Wilpon’s office with a trade proposal that will yield five prospects for deGrom and receives a bemused hiccuppy laugh followed by, “We’re not trading deGrom.”

Then what?

Minaya knows the deal and he loves the Mets. The Wilpons trust him. He’s well-liked throughout baseball. If he’s allowed to stay in his lane, he could legitimately achieve what the club has been pushing since mid-summer amid mocking and ridicule and return the Mets to contention by 2019.

Rather than adhering to what will get them better media coverage and nods of approval from those whose opinions are irrelevant, they should do what they’re comfortable with. If that means rehiring Minaya, so be it.

On David Wright, Peter Alonso and the Mets

MiLB, MLB, Uncategorized

Wright pic

It’s clear by now that the Mets are treating David Wright’s rehab with the passing glance of practical indifference. The comments of one-third acting GM John Ricco hammered home this point.

 

In other words, the Mets are saying “if he wants to try, go nuts” while not granting him any accommodation because he’s a franchise icon and the captain of the team. By assessing him as they would any other player, the Mets can make the decision of whether to activate him based on baseball-only considerations.

“Baseball-only” also encompasses the insurance they are collecting while he’s injured. It’s 75 percent of his contract. It’s not a few bucks. It’s a lot. To imply that the organization should not calculate the value of Wright playing a game or two as a sentimental sideshow in a lost season is nothing more than searching for ways to rip the organization when they are not only within their rights to think about money, but would be stupid not to think about money in this context.

Were they contending and Wright had the capacity to provide an emotional boost and serve as a useful bat off the bench down the stretch, then there’s a minimal argument for activating him. With the team playing out the string and Wright’s litany of injuries capable of putting him back on the shelf – perhaps permanently – at any moment, what’s the point?

This is a prime example of the Mets being criticized regardless of what they do. If they activated him, it would be to sell tickets. Since they’re not activating him, it’s because they’re cheap and don’t want to forfeit the insurance they’re collecting on his contract.

If this is how they’re treated, they might as well do what’s in the organization’s best interests and that means refusing to kowtow any longer to this fantasy of a Wright return not just in some semblance of his old form, but for him to return to the major leagues at all.

Peter Alonso

On a busy Tuesday for an also-ran, the Mets also said they were not recalling prospect Peter Alonso for a September looksee. Their stated reasons – no spot in the lineup, poor defense – is clashing with the rea$on others are citing in that they do not want to put him on the 40-man roster and perhaps save money in the long run by keeping him in the minors and off the 40-man, thereby delaying his chance at arbitration.

When other teams do this, they’re being smart by manipulating the rules to their advantage. When the Mets do it, they’re being petty and cheap.

Again, as with Wright, there’s no way for the club to win when the argument takes this turn. And again, with that in mind, they should and are looking out for their own interests.

Alonso expressed his disappointment and his agents made some comments into the wind about which the Mets do not and should not care. He has no bargaining power and his agents are in the “Should we say something? We have to say something” phase to which the Mets should roll their eyes at its meaninglessness.