Loria’s Marlins Mistake

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Instead of the accusation that Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria made the change, let’s say that the Marlins President of Baseball Operations Larry Beinfest or, preferably, GM Michael Hill called down to manager Mike Redmond and told him to switch the pitchers in the day/night doubleheader against the Twins and had Jose Fernandez pitch the opener rather than Ricky Nolasco. Would there be this huge uproar over Loria’s “interference?”

Loria denies that he did this, but given the allegations from Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle that Loria lied to their faces and his history of using the gray areas of business to justify his flexibility with the truth, believing him is impossible.

The angry reactions for this, however, are over-the-top. In the above-linked piece, Jeff Passan writes that Loria is guilty of “overstepping boundaries no other owner in baseball would dare.” How he would Passan know this? Is it out of the realm of possibility that owners across baseball are letting their opinions be known and that the employees are well-advised to, as Passan also put it in reference to Loria and manager Mike Redmond, “listen to the man who signs his paycheck?”

What happened to the front office running the team and having a pliable manager who does what he’s told as an implementer of the organizational plan? Whether or not the organizational plan meets the approval of the media and fans is irrelevant. Loria is the owner as he’s more than willing to say and act upon. He did it again in this case.

As for the potential undermining of Redmond, the threat of losing his job, and the unhappiness of the players, what was expected? Just as history has shown that Loria is willing to do anything at any time with gutting trades, lies, bloviating that would’ve embarrassed George Steinbrenner, financial shenanigans that Frank McCourt would feel are excessive, and arrogance that would lead Jim Crane to cringe, he’s also willing to fire managers and has no issue ignoring the feelings of players.

Redmond is in his first major league managing job and any job involving managing/coaching for the Marlins is rapidly turning into being hired by the late Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis to coach the team: a no-lose/no-blame situation. If good things happen, they were unexpected and a byproduct of the good work done by the manager; if bad things happen, they were a result of the endless dysfunction and impossibility of the circumstances. Redmond has a three-year contract and his salary is unknown, but given that it’s the Marlins, that he’s a rookie and they’re still paying former manager Ozzie Guillen the final three years of his four-year, $10 million contract, Redmond’s salary can’t be more than $1.5 million for the duration of the deal. For Loria, if he decides to make a change at some point for any reason, that’s a business expense he’s ready to absorb.

Respect of the players? How much respect was Redmond going to have from the start? The Marlins veterans know what’s happening and will go along to get along, waiting to be traded or allowed to leave as free agents; the young players have no power whatsoever to disrespect the manager, so it’s similar to Redmond still managing in the minor leagues: do what you’re told, keep your mouth shut or you won’t play.

Regarding the supposed “standard protocol” that Passan references when it comes to Nolasco having the option of which game he’ll pitch, it’s not in the basic agreement nor is it a gentleman’s agreement that Loria is beholden to adhere to. It’s a courtesy and Loria ignored it. Nolasco is in the last year of his contract and is going to be traded sooner rather than later. Why should the Marlins care what he thinks about anything?

In retrospect, what Loria should have done was to have Beinfest or Hill tell Redmond of the change. Speaking of protocol, the smart protocol for Loria would have been to use intermediaries to get what he wanted done. This would have insulated him and provided plausible deniability for his orders. It would’ve been known, but not known and the deluge of criticism mitigated.

Either way, what’s the difference? He’s the owner. He can do what he wants. And he’s proven that to be exactly what he’s going to do.

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Accepting the Marlins Inevitable Reality (It Was Clear from the Get-go)

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In today’s New York Times, Tyler Kepner writes about the empty seats in Marlins Park; about the gutting of the franchise; and the possibly bright future the Marlins have because of all the prospects they accumulated in trades of veterans.

We can go into the lack of attendance and perceived wrongdoing of owner Jeffrey Loria, but what he does is in the same ballpark (pardon the dual entendre) of what the Astros are currently doing, but the Astros are receiving widespread praise for putting together a big league club that is a big league club in name only. Weeks ago, I gave Astros owner Jim Crane a written lashing for his arrogant statements that if fans want the team to spend money, they should write him a check among other, “I’m a big shot, you’re not” alpha male nonsense, but no one else did. Astros GM Jeff Luhnow is a stat guy centerfold and little criticism is heading the way of their front office in spite of their on-field atrocity.

The political machinations that got Marlins Park built, predominately at the expense of Floridians, is still being sorted out with allegations, accusations and SEC investigations. Does anyone really believe that the investigation will amount to much, if any penalties for the likes of Loria or the powerbrokers who facilitated him getting his new park and not paying for it? Loria fits every small bit of chicanery into the flexible rules under which he operates. Similar to the Astros within-the-rules stripping of their payroll to the bare minimum and putting a team on the field that on most days is non-competitive against legitimate Major League teams, there’s no rule saying Loria can’t sign free agents and trade them a year later; that he can’t fire his manager Ozzie Guillen one year into a four year contract; that he can’t take the benefits from the new park, pocket the profits and flip a chubby middle finger at anyone who dares question him.

The Marlins were a disappointment in 2012. Loria was right to fire Guillen for the poor job he did on the field and the ridiculous statement he made early in the season praising Fidel Castro. He had options rather than gutting the club (again) by retooling with a different manager and a tweak here and there to give it another shot in 2013. But it wouldn’t have made a difference with the fans if the Marlins were contending in 2013 with a manager who didn’t alienate a vast portion of the fans they hoped to attract. It wasn’t and isn’t going to work in Miami because the fans aren’t interested.

The Marlins attendance improved dramatically last season in comparison to 2011. During that year, their usual numbers were between 10,000 and 20,000. It was an annual problem. When there were higher attendance figures, it stemmed from ancillary attractions like the Mets and Dodgers fans who’ve relocated to Florida and wanted to watch their teams. One the one hand, it’s not fair to question the reasons the fans are coming—their money is just as green regardless which club they’re rooting for—but on the other, the Marlins can look at the increase in attendance and realize that it’s fleeting and say, “Yeah, but they didn’t come to see us,” and act accordingly.

In 2012, the attendance was better than it was when they played in Sun Life Stadium, a football facility. With the new park, they regularly drew crowds of nearly 30,000 and finished twelfth in the National League in attendance. That’s counting the second half after they’d conceded the season and traded Hanley Ramirez, Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante. Before 2012, they were annually at the bottom in attendance going back 15 years. In 1997, when they spent a ton of money and won the World Series, they were fifth in the National League in attendance, but it’s petered out and whether the team was good or not, the fans don’t have the passion. Since then, it’s gone rapidly downhill and even after they won another World Series in 2003, there wasn’t the usual accompanying attendance spike. The Marlins have stayed anchored to the bottom of the ocean of attendance.

And that’s the point. The Miami fans are not fickle, hammering home the point that the new park shouldn’t have been built in the first place. If someone stood up and told Loria to take his threats and his team and move if that’s what he had to do, none of the other stuff—the park, the investigation, the free agents, the trades, the faux anguish—would’ve happened. If he received a new park in San Antonio, Oregon, North Carolina or anywhere, the overwhelming probability is that he would’ve moved and done the exact same thing that he does in Miami—bought people’s favor, made promises and then utilized flexible statements and semantics to justify the gutting of the team and defend against accusations of ruthless profiteering. He’s a combination of a politician and a classically brutal businessman. He may want to have a team that wins, but when he sees that it’s not going to happen, all bets are off. It’s admirable in its way if you know what you’re dealing with going in.

Amid all the head shaking and abuse raining down on Loria, it all goes back to the initial mistake: giving in to his threats to move the club and Florida allowing him to get his park without paying for it. No one should be surprised, chagrined, or angry at the Marlins method of doing business. The system was rife for abuse and Loria abused it. There was no other way this could’ve ended and if the traded players Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes, et al, didn’t see it coming; if the people who could’ve stopped the park from being built didn’t make a greater effort to do so; if MLB is allowing clubs like the Marlins and Astros to do whatever they want in their own best interests, then it’s on them for allowing it to happen. Lamenting it after the fact as if the money spent on the park would’ve been better-used for charitable causes is ludicrous. The Monday morning quarterbacking is done so in the same vein as the original decision to let the Marlins build the park. It was done for expediency and self-interest. The park wasn’t for the fans nor was it to “save” baseball in Miami because baseball in Miami can’t be saved. They don’t care whether it’s there or not.

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Toronto Blue Jays: Early Season Notes

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Considering that the majority of players on the roster have never won anything and that they acquired a vast percentage of one of the most disappointing and dysfunctional teams in recent memory in the 2012 Marlins, there is reason to be skeptical about the Blue Jays. The slow start certainly didn’t help. But to equate this team with the 2012 Marlins just because Josh Johnson, Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Emilio Bonifacio are on the team as if their mere presence in the problem is searching for reasons to criticize. The Marlins were working for a hair-trigger ownership more interested in the number of fans they’d immediately attract rather than giving the club—and fans—a chance to get to know one another. There was constantly the hovering paranoia of a housecleaning if it didn’t work, with good reason as it turned out.

John Gibbons is not Ozzie Guillen and won’t start savaging the players in the press. There haven’t been the off-field issues with the 2013 Blue Jays that there were with the 2012 Marlins and the Blue Jays’ fans are going to come to the park to support their team. There’s no threat of a dismantling at mid-season.

The backs of the baseball cards are highly relevant with the Blue Jays and R.A. Dickey, Johnson, Buehrle, and Jose Bautista will be fine. The key will be how much Edwin Encarnacion can replicate his 2012, 42 homer performance. He’s currently hitting .133. Brett Lawrie has to get healthy. Reyes is on the disabled list.

They’re not deep enough to withstand a litany of injuries and underperformance and there’s still an ominous, “I don’t know if this is gonna work/I hope this works” from inside and outside the organization. The AL East is parity laden so no team is going to run off and hide, giving the Blue Jays wiggleroom to get their bearings. Once the starting rotation gets its act together, Lawrie returns, Bautista starts hitting and if Encarnacion can be 75% of what he was last year, they’ll be okay.

One note regarding Reyes, I’d understand the references to his injury history if he’d pulled a hamstring, but he severely sprained an ankle sliding into second base. It was an impact injury that could’ve happened to anyone at any time and had nothing to do with a history of maladies.

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The Giancarlo Stanton-Mets Talk

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It was reported this week that the Mets are “monitoring” Giancarlo Stanton of the Marlins and that it’s not just talk, but there’s some “heat” there.

Far be it from me to be cynical, but the Mets and just about everyone else are “monitoring” Stanton to see if the woeful Marlins will make him available and the implied “heat” is due more in part to the combustion created from rubbing a load of crud together and hoping to start a fire. The truth is that while the Mets could use Stanton and the Marlins would absolutely listen to offers for him, there’s not a fit between the clubs with the potential offer of Travis d’Arnaud and Zack Wheeler.

Let’s see why.

For the Mets

The Mets absolutely need a legitimate, mid-lineup, outfield power bat and Stanton is a 23-year-old near clone of Dave Winfield. Should they be interested in acquiring him? Absolutely. Should they trade one of baseball’s top catching prospects to do it when they don’t have any other catching prospects of note and the market is notoriously thin in signing or trading for them? Should they trade one of baseball’s brightest pitching prospects when they need pitching and one with Wheeler’s minimum potential will cost $100 million and maximum potential will cost $200 million?

No on both counts.

It would be a typical Mets thing to do if they look at what John Buck has done in his two weeks with the team as he’s leading the majors in homers and RBI and think they’ve “found” their catcher for the future by consciously ignoring what he’s been for almost 1,000 big league games. One of the reasons Sandy Alderson was hired is because he’s not going to do “old Mets” things and he won’t in this case either.

Buck is good with the pitchers behind the plate, is a club leader, and has pop. They could live with him as their starter, but d’Arnaud could be an All-Star. In addition, if Buck is still hitting and the club is out of contention at mid-season, it would betray everything they’ve tried to do in rebuilding over the past three years to hold onto him if a team makes a solid offer for him.

Regarding Wheeler, the Mets were referenced as if they had a pitching surplus this past winter which flew out the window when Johan Santana was lost for the year and Shaun Marcum got hurt. It’s not easy to find pitchers and it’s certainly not easy to find ace-quality pitchers, which is the consensus of what Wheeler can be. If they trade Wheeler and d’Arnaud for Stanton, they fill the outfield hole for the next decade, but they’ll still need a starting pitcher and a catcher, making it a wash.

For the Marlins

With a player like Stanton, the Marlins wouldn’t be out of line to ask for five players in exchange with the return including three blue-chip prospects and two good ones. Here’s why:

  • He’s 23
  • He’s not going to be a free agent until after 2016
  • He’s a 40-homer man who can play good defense
  • He’s a marketable face and a star who’ll sell tickets in a baseball-friendly town

What possible reason would the Marlins have to give him to the Mets for two still-uproven prospects so early in Stanton’s career when he’s not making any money and there’s the chance that another team will offer more between now and next winter when he’s initially eligible for arbitration? In spite of the supposed unhappiness of Stanton, I believe there’s a chance the Marlins will sign him to a long-term deal.

Teams can call and ask for Stanton. The Marlins will listen. They’re not going to jump at an offer like d’Arnaud and Wheeler when they can get two similar top prospects with another prospect or two thrown in or sign Stanton long-term.

In theory, it’s an idea for the Mets to think long and hard about and for the Marlins to give brief consideration to, but it doesn’t appear to have basis in actually being discussed with any seriousness. It sounds like speculation on the part of the media and a headline sparked by that speculation. It’s not going to happen and judging from the positions and needs for both clubs, it shouldn’t.

Essays, predictions, player analysis, under the radar fantasy picks, breakout candidates, contract status of all relevant personnel—GMs, managers, players—and anything else you could possibly want to know is in my new book Paul Lebowitz’s 2013 Baseball Guide now available on Amazon.comSmashwordsBN and Lulu. Check it out and read a sample.

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The Yankees Are Aware

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Team policies are fine as long as they’re either necessary or enforceable. The Marlins, for example, refuse to give out no-trade clauses. Players who chose to sign with the Marlins, in a weird case of role-reversal considering the team name, were reeled in with the bait of guaranteed money. They tacitly accepted the risk when they went to Miami during the Marlins’ spending spree in the winter of 2011-2012. Regardless of the allegations from Mark Buehrle and Jose Reyes that Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria lied to their faces about not trading them, they entered into the agreement to go to Miami willingly and with childlike naïveté if they weren’t cognizant of Loria’s history and the real reason they don’t give out no-trade clauses being that he wanted the freedom to trade them whenever and wherever he felt like it.

The Yankees, on the other hand, have had a longstanding policy of not doling out contract extensions to players before the contracts had expired. It goes back to the days of George Steinbrenner and it wasn’t due to any business plan he adhered to, but like much of what he did, it was just because. Safe in the knowledge that the Yankees could and would outbid anyone for a player they wanted to keep and the egomaniacal delusion that everyone wants to be a Yankee, for the most part it succeeded in keeping the stars—Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Alex Rodriguez—even if the Yankees overpaid to do so.

That policy was exemplified, sort of, in the Jeter negotiations after the 2010 season. Jeter was a free agent and had subpar numbers the previous year. The Yankees weren’t raking him over the coals and using his ties to the organization to lowball him, but the identification and perception of loyalty of Jeter being Mr. Yankee, the captain of the team were weapons they knew Jeter had no defense for. If he was going to leave, it would’ve been to prove a point and ruin a large portion of why Jeter is so revered in the first place. In other words, short of telling him to go, Jeter was staying. They did tell him to shop around and see if any club chose to make a better offer than that of the Yankees. They knew the odds of that were minimal. Other teams knew the reality as well. Reluctant to be a negotiating tool, clubs steered clear of Jeter and he wound up returning to the Yankees for a relatively team-friendly, three-year deal with a player option for 2014.

None of these factors are in place with Robinson Cano and if the Yankees want to be assured of keeping him after this season, they’re going to need to deviate from club policy and sign him to an extension during the season.

Ignoring all the factors that make a $200+ million contract a bad idea—that Cano is already lackadaisical, running when he feels like it and nonchalant to the point of looking as if he needs a pillow—they’re not going to have any choice in the matter if they want to bring him back. In the past, the number of teams that had the means to sign Cano was limited to, perhaps, five. The number willing to do it would’ve been fewer. Now, it’s two. The second, however, is the Dodgers and they’re serious and flush with cash, uninterested in tweaking the Yankees by forcing them to pay more as the Red Sox used to, but pursuing Cano because they want to sign him.

Two clubs vying for one player is all agent Scott Boras needs if one is serious and the other is the club his player already plays for and desperately needs him back.

In years past, the Yankees were able to sell their history; the outside moneymaking possibilities; the city; the allure of being a Yankee and entering the Hall of Fame as a Yankee and never having worn another uniform; that they were in contention every year and wound spend enough cash to continue that trend; and that they would offer the most money.

Can they do that with Cano given the self-enacted constraints on payroll that they insist on reaching $189 million (or lower) by 2014? Can they sell history when there’s a club on the West Coast with a storied history of their own and more money and willingness to spend that money than the Yankees? Can they sell the concept of staying as part of the core group when the rest of the core group—Rivera, Jeter, Andy Pettitte—are at or near the end of their careers?

They can certainly still pay Cano what he wants—whether logic dictates they do or not—but what would he be signing up for? A team with unfamiliar faces surrounding him and the arrogant expectation that simply because they’re putting on a Yankees uniform the new players will be suitable replacements for the aging and departing veterans?

The Dodgers are a glossy collection of stars in Hollywood. While that may not be conducive to winning, the situation may be more attractive to Cano unless the Yankees make an overwhelming offer or sell him on the idea of their future being as bright as the past.

The majority of the time, when a player hires Boras, he does so to get paid the maximum amount of money. Amid all the talk and credit given to Evan Longoria and David Wright for eschewing the free agent riches that awaited them and signing cheaper extensions with their current clubs, neither is represented by Boras.

The Yankees have already indicated a willingness to depart from team policy and sign Cano to an extension before he’s a free agent. Fans like to ask “are you not aware?” when Cano does something positive on the field; the Yankees are certainly aware of the situation right now. If the Yankees don’t give Cano an extension to preempt his availability, the Dodgers are going to let him and Boras know that they’ll trump any offer. Then the Yankees have a choice. It’s either pay him now or lose him. They’re smart enough to know that. The question is whether they’re willing to take the steps to prevent it from coming to pass.

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National League Breakout/Rebound Candidates (Or Cheap Gets For Your Fantasy Team)

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Last week, I looked at breakout/rebound candidates for the American League, some of whom will be very, very cheap pickups for your fantasy clubs. Now I’ll look at the National League.

Wilson Ramos, C—Washington Nationals

Ramos is coming back from a torn ACL in his knee and because the Nationals traded for Kurt Suzuki from the Athletics last season, there’s no need to rush Ramos back before he’s 100%. But he will eventually take over as the starting catcher and it’s not just because he’s a future All-Star and potential Gold Glove winner.

Suzuki is a competent everyday catcher who’s shown 15 homer power in the past. Even if he’s not hitting, the Nationals lineup is strong enough to carry one mediocre bat and Suzuki’s good with the pitchers.

There’s a financial component though. Suzuki has a club option in his contract for 2014 at $8.5 million. The option becomes guaranteed if Suzuki starts 113 games in 2013. Barring another injury to Ramos, that is not going to happen. Ramos will be catching 5 of every 7 games by the summer.

Freddie Freeman, 1B—Atlanta Braves

It’s easy to forget about Freeman due to the number of power-hitting first basemen around baseball, but he’s gotten steadily better every year as a professional and with the infusion of Justin Upton and B.J. Upton into the lineup, plus Brian McCann, Jason Heyward and Dan Uggla, teams won’t be worried about Freeman’s power leading to him getting more pitches to hit.

Lucas Duda, LF—New York Mets

Given the Mets on-paper outfield (Collin Cowgill, Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Mike Baxter, Marlon Byrd, Marv Throneberry, George Theodore, Jan Brady, Cindy Brady, Gilligan, Barnaby Jones, Cannon), there’s plenty of fodder for ridicule. Duda is the butt of jokes because of his last name; that he’s a bad outfielder; because he seems so quiet and reticent. The criticism is missing an important factor: he can hit, hit for power and walk. If the Mets tell him he’s their starting left fielder, period, they’ll be rewarded with 25-30 homers and a .360+ on base percentage. So will fantasy owners.

Bobby Parnell, RHP—New York Mets

With Frank Francisco sidelined with elbow woes, Parnell has been named the Mets’ closer…for now. They have Brandon Lyon on the team and are still said to be weighing Jose Valverde. None of that matters. Parnell was going to get the shot at some point this season and with a little luck in Washington last season when defensive miscues cost him an impressive and legitimate old-school, fireman-style save, he would’ve taken the role permanently back then.

Jacob Turner, RHP—Miami Marlins

The Tigers were concerned about Turner’s velocity at the end of spring training 2012 and he wound up being traded to the Marlins in the deal for Omar Infante and Anibal Sanchez. He acquitted himself well in seven starts for the Marlins and will be in the 2013 rotation from start to finish. He has all the pitches, a great curve, command and presence.

Justin Ruggiano, CF—Miami Marlins

It’s natural to wonder if a player who has his breakout year at age 30 is a product of unlocked talent and opportunity or a brief, freak thing that will end as rapidly as it came about.

Ruggiano has been a very good minor league player who never got a shot to play in the big leagues. He took advantage of it in 2012 and will open the season as the Marlins starting center fielder.

Billy Hamilton, CF—Cincinnati Reds

The Reds have major expectations in 2013 and much of their fortunes hinge on their pitching staff; they’re functioning with Shin-Soo Choo playing an unfamiliar position in center field; at mid-season (or earlier) it may become clear that Choo can’t play the position well enough for the pitchers nor to bluff their way through to the playoffs. Hamilton is in Triple A learning center field after a shift from the infield and can make up for any educational curve with sheer, blinding speed that has yielded 320 stolen bases in 379 minor league games. He also provides something they lack: a legitimate leadoff hitter and an exciting spark that other teams have to plan for.

Vince Coleman spurred the 1985 Cardinals to the pennant by distracting the opposing pitchers into derangement and opening up the offense for Willie McGee to win the batting title and Tommy Herr and Jack Clark to rack up the RBI. The same thing could happen with Hamilton, Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Choo.

Jason Grilli, RHP—Pittsburgh Pirates

Grilli is a first time closer at age 36, but he’s a late-bloomer with a fastball in the mid-90s and a ripping strikeout slider. The Pirates starting pitching and offense are good enough to provide Grilli with enough save chances to make him worthwhile as a pickup.

Kyuji Fujikawa, RHP—Chicago Cubs

Fujikawa was a strikeout machine as a closer in Japan and history has proven that Japanese closers tend to transition to North America much better than starters without the fanfare. Takashi Saito and Kazuhiro Sasaki are examples.

The Cubs are in full-blown rebuild and will trade incumbent closer Carlos Marmol during the season. They’ll let him close at the outset to boost his value, then dump him, handing the job to Fujukawa.

Dale Thayer, RHP—San Diego Padres

Closer Huston Street is injury prone and the Padres, for whatever reason, don’t think much of Luke Gregerson (they tried to trade him to the Mets for Daniel Murphy and when Street was out last season, they let Thayer take over as closer.)

Thayer has a strikeout slider that leads stat-savvy teams like the Rays, Mets, and Padres continually picking him up. If Street gets hurt, Thayer will get closing chances.

Yasmani Grandal, C—San Diego Padres

His PED suspension has tarnished his luster, but he’s still a top catching prospect and once he’s reinstated, there’s no reason for the Padres not to play him with Nick Hundley and John Baker ahead of Grandal. Neither of the veteran catchers will be starting for the Padres when they’re ready to contend; Grandal will. He hits and he gets on base.

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The Bourn Signing From All The Angles

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For Michael Bourn

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

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

For the Indians

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

For Scott Boras

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

For the Mets

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

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

For Francona and other managers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Astros Strip The Spaceship For Parts

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Stat-centric people are looking at the Astros and nodding their heads approvingly at the series of maneuvers that may have improved their farm system and future. GM Jeff Luhnow is implementing the sabermetric template in what’s developing into a case study of how a purely stat-based organization would be run. They’re creating new job titles in baseball circles (Director of Decision Sciences), hiring people from Baseball Prospectus, and gutting the big league club of any and all competent major league players while signing the refuse that’s available cheaply and who have nowhere else to go. If you wanted to see a team that was run by the people at Fangraphs, here are your 2013 Houston Astros sans Jed Lowrie who was traded to the Athletics yesterday along with reliever Fernando Martinez for Chris Carter, Brad Peacock and Max Stassi. The players they received may be assets for the future, but financially they cost a fraction of what Lowrie was going to make in 2013 ($2.4 million).

Whether the Astros’ strategy works or not will take at least three and probably five years to determine. As of now, though, MLB has to take a hard look at what the Astros are doing, and decide if it’s fair to the spirit of competition to have a team with what projects to be a $25 million payroll and won’t just be the worst team in baseball for 2013 (that’s a given), but will possibly be one of the worst teams in the history of the sport. To think that the Astros, who lost 106 games in 2011 and 107 games in 2012 could somehow find a way to sink lower than that ineptitude is mind-boggling, but they’ve done it.

When Jim Crane bought the team and hired Luhnow, the organization was a barren, expansion-like wasteland. That’s not an excuse for what they’re doing. The days of teams having to endure half a decade of 100-plus losses ended when the Diamondbacks showed that an expansion team can win if they’re truly committed and intelligent about it. With free agency and teams’ willingness to trade, there is no longer 1960s Mets-style acceptance of being a league punching bag until the young players develop. There’s no reason that a team has to turn itself into an embarrassment while they’re rebuilding.

The Cubs are embarking on a similar restructuring and overhaul with people who come from the same mindset (though not as extreme) as Luhnow. Theo Epstein was one of the first to turn his club into a sabermetrically-inclined organization with the Red Sox in 2003, but he also used scouting techniques and a lot of money to create a juggernaut that won on the field and “won” off the field in terms of popularity and profit. The Cubs lost six fewer games than the Astros did in 2012, but while Epstein, GM Jed Hoyer and the rest of the staff alter the way the club is run from top-to-bottom, build through the draft and search for international players to sign, they’re also bringing in veterans like Edwin Jackson and Scott Hairston to join Starlin Castro (whom they signed to a long-term deal), Matt Garza and a few other recognizable players.

In fairness, the Cubs were in a slightly better situation than the Astros when the new front office took charge and the Astros weren’t going to win many more games with Lowrie than they will without him, but the Cubs tried to bring in big league caliber players all winter and the Astros didn’t. The Cubs have more money to spend and a fanbase that’s going to show up no matter what, but the Astros are essentially spitting in their fans’ faces with a team that no one is going to want to go see as a “root, root, root for the home team” group. Houston fans will go to the games to see opponents Mike Trout, Derek Jeter, Yu Darvish and Felix Hernandez, but they’re not going to see their own Lucas Harrell. By July, the Astros won’t be able to give tickets away.

MLB saw fit to intervene when the Marlins used financial sleight of hand to pocket revenue sharing money. They mandated that the money be used to improve the on-field product. Does realistic competence dictate that the commissioner’s office step in and tell the Astros that this simply isn’t acceptable?

The Astros are trying to run their club like a business, but in MLB or any other sporting conglomerate, there’s a responsibility to ensure a baseline of competitiveness not just for the people of Houston, but for the rest of baseball.

Is it right that the four other teams in the American League West will have 19 games each against the Astros while the AL East is so parity-laden? Clubs like the White Sox and Royals in the AL Central—who have an argument to make a playoff run—can deem it wrong that a playoff spot in the West will have an easier path because the Astros are openly presenting a product that has no intention nor chance to win a vast majority of the games they play through sheer lack of talent.

I’ve long been against a minimum payroll in baseball. If a team is smart enough to succeed by spending less, they should be allowed to do so without interference. That, however, is contingent on the teams trying to compete, something the Astros are currently not doing.

It’s fine to adapt outside world business principles to sports, but unlike the outside business world, a sports franchise is not operating in a vacuum as an individual company. Like the battle between pitcher and catcher, it’s one-on-one in a group dynamic. They’re individuals, but are functioning within a group.

Since there’s no such thing as European football-style relegation in MLB where actual punishment is possible, the overseers need to seriously consider creating a payroll floor to stop what the Astros are blatantly doing because it’s hindering the competitive balance that has long been the goal. The Astros are scoffing at that notion and it’s unfair to the rest of baseball that they’re being allowed to do it with impunity.

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The Wilpons Are Going Nowhere, Part I—Preying on Ignorance

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After the avalanche of personal financial losses combined with the inability to spend to bolster a flagging franchise and heavily backloaded contracts, the Mets fell from legitimate World Series contender and big market spender to scrimper and saver. They scoured the scrapheap to find bargains and hoped to remain competitive while the organization was rebuilt from top to bottom with a drastically reduced payroll at the big league level and an ownership under siege from all angles. Attendance collapsed and fans called—prayed—for the Wilpons to sell the franchise. The Mets had no money to keep their own free agents such as Jose Reyes, nor to buy the bigger names available on the market. Rookies got the chance to play not out of development nor having won jobs outright, but because they had no one else to put out there.

Between the lines you can read the clear disappointment from media members who’ve made it their life’s mission to prove that their initial assessments of the Wilpon financial nightmare would eventually result in them unloading the Mets to pay their bills. They made their statements, factually, in the beginning. Then the tenor changed to reflect the “I want to be right,” dynamic.

Howard Megdal, who wrote a book regarding the Mets and Madoff, is constantly shifting field position from one area to the next as if it was a preplanned or desperate attempt to wind up being accurate in his projections about something. Much like the Wilpons, he’s adapting, except the Wilpons are doing it successfully.

This piece on Capital New York refers to the attendance figures and the bond ratings for Citi Field being lowered by Standard and Poor’s because of poor on-field projections and attendance; this latest one indulges into the same random speculation that’s been evident in the reporting from the start but was more effectively camouflaged then as opposed to now.

I’m not questioning the math used by Megdal and Richard Sandomir of the New York Times, but I am questioning the interpretation of the math and the agendas behind the interpretation.

Does any of this—the bonds, the debt, Madoff—matter now? Or will a rejuvenated Mets club with some money to spend and young players showing their wares at the big league level breathe new life into a jaded fanbase and improve the situation to the point that the bond rating rebounds? And is it time to move on from the endless prophecies of financial doom and accept that the Wilpons are going to survive as owners of the Mets?

Few if any predicted a settlement with the Wilpons in the lawsuit that Irving Picard, the trustee in the Madoff recovery case, had filed. Yet they settled. Megdal writes that the trustee “had” to settle for fear of the Wilpons being unable to pay as if the circumstances of the settlement (the “why”) render the result meaningless. I thought the end result was the key. It’s like a homegrown club winning a World Series or a group of free agent mercenaries winning the World Series—what’s the difference?

There is a correlation between payroll and attendance, but as with any position of advocacy, the “why” is twisted to suit this line of thought. Teams with a low payroll are:

  • Rebuilding, financially-strapped clubs like the Mets and Indians
  • Functioning with a low payroll through conscious ownership decision and profiteering like the Marlins
  • Dealing with not having any money like the Rays and doing the best they can under those constraints.

It doesn’t take complicated formulas to determine why teams draw or don’t draw. The Rays’ attendance woes stem from a lack of fan interest without connection to how good the team is. Cubs fans go to the games no matter what. With the Yankees, we’ll see in 2013-2014 how much the outlandish prices fans pay for tickets, parking, food, etc., plus a team that’s not as strong as it’s been in the past will influence fan enthusiasm/apathy. Knowing the Yankees fanbase, I’d say their attendance will fall commensurately with how their mediocre current roster is expected to play.

An interesting case study to the on-field product/attendance/payroll connection will be the 2013 Red Sox. They’ve had a top four payroll and a top four attendance figure in the AL in recent years, but their 2012 season was a disaster and there are still ominous signs for a team that’s spent to improve and will have a payroll around sixth or so in MLB, but might not be significantly better in 2013 than the .500 club they were before they gutted the team in August of 2012. By the summer, the fans might stop going to Fenway. Bad team=bad attendance independent of payroll.

Each team in each city has a reason that there may be an attendance ceiling or that it may plummet through the floor. There’s no theory of relativity and immutable law of the universe to explain why this is the case for every single club because it’s different for every single club.

It’s market-driven and cyclical. It can’t be chalked up to “big payroll=big attendance” any more than “big money star players=championship team”. That was proven by the Angels, Marlins and Red Sox just last season. The A’s won their division and were twelfth in the AL in attendance. Since the Rays became contenders in 2008, the highest they’ve finished in attendance on the AL is ninth. Usually they’re last or next-to-last.

You can’t make a state like Florida suddenly love going to baseball games by putting together championship caliber teams (as both the Rays and Marlins have done in the past 15 years); by spending money (as the Marlins have done); or by building a beautiful new park with luxurious, non-baseball-related amenities (as the Marlins have also done). It doesn’t work because the fans in Florida are not interested. In New York, once the Mets fans believe that the team is for real, they’ll go to the games again. When the team was playing well over their heads into the summer for the past two seasons, the fans didn’t come back to the park in droves because they (accurately) didn’t believe in its reality. It’s not hard to calculate.

Few expected the Mets to have the willingness or ability to re-sign David Wright to a contract that he deemed acceptable. The prevailing view was that they’d tender an offer that was done so for its own sake with zero intention of keeping him, then keep him for his star status while he was signed, trade him in July of 2013, or let him leave as a free agent. But they jumped in with a major, fair market deal to keep their most marketable player. Few expected them to have any money available at all until possibly after the 2013 season when Jason Bay and Johan Santana both come off the books, but now with the loan they’ve taken out against SNY, they have money to play with.

There’s a fine line between objective reporting and, “Look, I was right.” Where the fuzziness ends and clarity begins is in the eye of the reader, but it’s become an egomaniacal prophecy to be “right” and prove that the Wilpons are shady characters who behaved either as outright greedy criminals or were willing accomplices without getting their hands dirty as they should have known something was amiss, but didn’t want to ask questions to stop the money from coming in.

In the end, it no longer matters because they’re getting the house in order financially and on the field, like it or not.

All through Megdal’s piece about S&P, there’s an underlying “Haha!!! Look!! It’s not just me that’s saying this!!!” along with the caveats to provide enough wiggleroom to save face in certain quarters that don’t know any better and say, after the fact, that “X was always a possibility,” with another phantom trapdoor looming ahead.

The media members haranguing the Wilpons are doing so to: A) bolster their own arguments; and B) stir up discontent in the fan base with flashy, summarized assertions that, when dissected, are not the entire story. They’re playing on people’s ignorance of the ins and outs of the financial quagmire the Wilpons found themselves in rather than explain all possibilities in objective terms, simply and concisely. They report with an end in mind and that can’t be classified as reporting at all.

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Javier Vazquez’s Comeback and Potential Suitors

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Javier Vazquez surprisingly retired after a solid season for the Marlins in 2011 in which he posted a 13-11 record; a 3.69 ERA; a hits/innings pitched ratio of 178/192 with 50 walks and 178 strikeouts. It must be added that he also had a dreadful start, pitching terribly until mid-June. For the entire second half, he was a different pitcher, one who was in demand as a free agent and chose to “retire” at age 35.

He can still pitch, just not as a Yankee, having failed there twice. I certainly wouldn’t bring him back to the Yankees, nor to Boston or Baltimore, but every other contending or would-be contending club is an option and Vazquez, while not saying he’s definitely returning, will pitch in the World Baseball Classic for Puerto Rico and has said he’s considering a comeback to MLB. For a $10 million payday, why not?

So which teams could use Vazquez and meet the criteria as contender?

Let’s take a look.

Toronto Blue Jays

The Blue Jays don’t really need another starter, but I suppose they could trade Ricky Romero and attach Adam Lind to him to get Lind’s contract off the roster in exchange for a 1B/DH bat and install Vazquez into the spot, but I’d keep Vazquez away from the AL East.

Tampa Bay Rays

Vazquez isn’t coming back for an incentive-laden deal with a low base salary, which is essentially the only method in which the Rays invest in free agents as they did with Roberto Hernandez (née Fausto Carmona). Tampa would be a good spot in every aspect, but they can’t pay him.

Cleveland Indians

The Indians agreed to terms with Brett Myers yesterday and are using him as a starter. They’re clearly intent on trying to win within their means under new manager Terry Francona and Vazquez would fall into the veteran starting pitcher template. Francona’s gentle handling of his players would suit Vazquez.

Los Angeles Angels

Vazquez is better than Joe Blanton, Tommy Hanson and Jason Vargas, but again, teams didn’t know Vazquez was available. The Angels don’t have any room for him now.

Texas Rangers

His penchant for allowing home runs is a concern in Texas, but their infield defense would also help him greatly. They’re a contender, would prefer a pitcher on a short-term contract and have had success with pitchers like Colby Lewis who’ve left for Japan and came back to MLB making Vazquez’s departure and return a non-issue.

The Rangers are a definite possibility.

Washington Nationals

The Nationals are waiting out Adam LaRoche and his free agency tour. In a free agency family tree sort of situation, LaRoche might go to the Red Sox if their contract snag with Mike Napoli isn’t ironed out and the deal comes undone. If that’s the case, the Nats won’t be able to trade Mike Morse. If they can trade Morse, they can move him for a starting pitcher. Or they can sign Vazquez and worry about the other stuff later.

Vazquez spent the first six years of his career with the Nats organization when they were in Montreal. He’s a perfect fit back in the NL East where he had his best years and pitching for a legitimate World Series contender in Washington.

Atlanta Braves

The Braves have enough starting pitching, so much so that they traded Hanson to the Angels for Jordan Walden. But Brandon Beachy is returning from Tommy John surgery and Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado are kids, so there’s a spot for a veteran like Vazquez if they want him. Vazquez had the year of his life with the Braves in 2009, won 15 games (he should have won 22) and finished 4th in the NL Cy Young voting. It’s doubtful they’d do it, but it’s logical.

Philadelphia Phillies

Vazquez is better than John Lannan and Kyle Kendrick—the two pitchers at the back of the Phillies rotation and gigantic steps down from the top three of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels—but the home run ball would be an issue for Vazquez and the Phillies offense and defense aren’t what they once were to account for Vazquez’s faults. He’d surrender a ton of homers in Philadelphia. He’s probably ill-suited mentally to the fans of Philadelphia booing him if he pitches 6 no-hit innings and then gives up a run in the seventh with the team leading 10-1.

Milwaukee Brewers

They desperately need starting pitching and have money to spend, but I’m not sure they’re contenders even though they can hit.

Pittsburgh Pirates

They just spent a large portion of available funds on Francisco Liriano. But they might be able to swing Vazquez. They’re intriguing for Vazquez and vice versa. The Pirates are a NL Central club with a big ballpark and enough young talent to be taken seriously as a contender, so perhaps they can work something out with Vazquez if they clear some money elsewhere.

San Diego Padres

The Padres don’t have a ton of money to toss around nor status as a winter contender, but they could surprise in 2013 with their onrushing young talent. They also brought the fences in and lowered the walls at Petco Park, which would affect a homer-prone pitcher like Vazquez.

They could jump in on him in a surprise move.

Vazquez didn’t plan this very well if he wanted to start a bidding war. He realistically could’ve guaranteed himself $12 million if he’d made his services available at the conclusion of the 2012 season and seen the bidding go up with a 1-year deal plus an option with the requisite buyout. He could’ve made $15 million if he’d played it right.

All things considered, Vazquez and the Nationals are destined to wind up together. That’s if he decides to pitch; and if the Nats don’t trade Morse; and Yankees GM Brian Cashman doesn’t try to prove himself “right” by going after Vazquez again for the Yankees.

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