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The Nationals are reportedly going to name Matt Williams as their next manager. This comes as no surprise since Williams has long been rumored for the job due to his relationship with Nats GM Mike Rizzo from their days together with the Diamondbacks when Williams was a player and Rizzo was their Director of Scouting. Let’s look at what the Nats can expect from Williams.

Running the games

In 2007, Williams managed very briefly for the Diamondbacks organization in Double A. He managed in the Arizona Fall League last year. He’s been a coach in the Major Leagues with the club for four years. As much as experience is routinely ignored in the hiring of managers today, it matters.

Williams doesn’t have much managerial experience. For a team like the Nats, a concern for an inexperienced manager will be handling the pitching staff and making pitching changes – something Williams has never done and initially might not be adept at. He’ll need an experienced bench coach and pitching coach who he’ll trust and listen to and not men who are selected for the oft-mentioned “loyalty to the organization.” Those guys are generally there and will be there whether the manager succeeds or not creating the potential for mistrust.

It hasn’t been decided whether pitching coach Steve McCatty will return and Randy Knorr, who was passed over for the managing job, was the bench coach for Davey Johnson over the last two seasons. One would assume that both will stay.

The relationship with Rizzo

Rizzo has had high-profile dustups with the two managers he hired as Nats GM, Jim Riggleman and Johnson. Riggleman quit after 55 games in 2011 when he wanted his contract option exercised and Rizzo refused. Johnson disagreed with the Stephen Strasburg shutdown, openly chafed at the overseeing he had to endure in today’s game and threatened to quit/dared Rizzo to fire him. Had Johnson not been retiring at season’s end, it’s likely that Rizzo would have done just that at mid-season and replaced him with Knorr.

If Williams is thinking that the prior relationship between the two will put him in a better position than Johnson, he’s mistaken. Rizzo is in charge and he lets the manager know it. Considering Williams’s quiet intensity as a player, a disagreement between the two could become a problem. He’s not going to simply nod his head and do what he’s told.

The team

Williams is walking into a great situation that probably won’t need much hands-on managing. With the Bob Brenly-managed teams that Williams played for with the Diamondbacks, there wasn’t much for Brenly to do other than write the lineup and let the players play. The veterans policed the clubhouse and Brenly was sort of along for the ride. The same holds true for the Nats. Apart from tweak here and there, the lineup is essentially set. The starting rotation and bullpen are also going to be relatively unchanged.

The one mistake Williams can’t make is to walk in and decide that he has to put his stamp on the team by doing “something” like deciding they’re going to rely more on speed and inside baseball. Writing the lineup will be more than enough. The decision to consciously keep his hands off what doesn’t need to be changed is a window into a manager’s confidence. While Brenly wasn’t a good manager, his style was similar to that of Barry Switzer when he took over the powerhouse Dallas Cowboys in the mid-1990s – he knew enough not to mess with it. It worked and the team won. Of course, no other team was going to hire either man to manage/coach for them, but that didn’t have a bearing on the job they were hired to do and they did it.

Williams is going to benefit greatly from the improved health of Bryce Harper and Wilson Ramos; he’ll be free of any constraints with Strasburg; the team is loaded. All he needs to do is be the serious, stern competitor he was in his playing days and he’ll be fine. Saying it and doing it are two different things and with a brand new manager who’s never done it before, there are still a lot of traps he could fall into and won’t know how to get out of. That’s what he has to look out for. Apart from that, it’s a great opportunity…as long as he doesn’t screw it up.




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An All-Around Bad Year for Rizzo and the Nats

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Mike Rizzo said that the Nationals have a “run left in us.” There’s a precedent for teams coming out of nowhere in the final month of the season and making the playoffs. The Rays and Cardinals both did it in 2011 with the Cardinals winning the World Series after having trailed the Wild Card-leading Braves by 10 1/2 games on August 25 of that year. The Cardinals and Reds are currently the National League Wild Card leaders. The Cardinals have been ravaged by injuries; the Reds haven’t played consistently; and the NL Central leading Pirates are still young and collapsed in both 2011 and 2012. There’s some justification for Rizzo not to quit. Prior to yesterday’s game, the Nats claimed David DeJesus from the Cubs. It was seen as a signal that they’re still trying to add to win now and perhaps have a player in DeJesus they can use in 2014.

The assertion that the Nats are still “in it” would likely have been better-received had the team not gone and immediately responded to the GM’s confidence and gotten hammered by the Cubs 11-1. The DeJesus acquisition wouldn’t have looked like Rizzo and his staff are a bunch of screw-ups if there was a hint that they truly wanted DeJesus and it wasn’t a waiver claim mistake that they tacitly admitted by placing DeJesus back on waivers immediately after getting him. And the team might have had a better shot in 2013 if they had played like a cohesive unit with a definition of purpose from the first day of the season rather than an arrogant, self-important group that believed winning a division title in 2012 automatically meant they were going to be a playoff team every single year based on talent alone.

Rizzo isn’t going anywhere, but manager Davey Johnson won’t be back in 2014. This was meant to be his final year in the dugout with the hope that it would be a logical step in the innocent climb from first round playoff loser to World Series winner with Johnson’s experience being a key. Instead, Johnson’s warts—his riverboat gambler’s mentality; the trust in his players; open insubordination—reared their heads. Barring a late-August hot streak, Rizzo might relive him of his duties for the final month in a similar fashion as the Phillies did with Charlie Manuel. The Phillies wanted to have a look at Ryne Sandberg. The Nats might want to do the same with Randy Knorr.

The Nats are dysfunctional mess. The Stephen Strasburg shutdown from September of 2012 is being used to symbolize the organizational hubris and it’s a perfect example of why nothing can be taken for granted.  In 2013, they don’t have to worry about any innings limits or shutting anyone down because the rest of baseball is doing the job for them by sending the Nats home, far from where they thought they’d be and currently having more questions than answers as to where they go from here.




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We Know What’s Wrong With The Nats, But How Can It Be Fixed?

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The Nationals were expected to dominate. Instead, the team that won 98 games in 2012 and seemingly improved over the winter is under .500, out of contention and facing a large number of changes this off-season. It’s not hard to diagnose what went wrong and here’s a brief synopsis:

  • Injuries

The Nationals lost Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth, Wilson Ramos and Ross Detwiler for extended periods.

  • Underperformance

Dan Haren was signed to shore up the back of the rotation and has been awful. Drew Storen is out of his element as a set-up man and wound up back in the minors. Denard Span has been a disappointment. And Danny Espinosa’s numbers (.158/.193/.272 split with a .465 OPS and 3 homers) are worse than those of Cubs’ pitcher Travis Wood (.267/.298/.489 split with a .787 OPS and 3 homers).

  • Bad approach/bad luck

The Nats are seventh in the National League in home runs and next-to-last in the league in runs scored. They’re twelfth in the league in walks and fourteenth in on-base percentage. In 2013, they’re thirteenth in the league with a BAbip of .282; in 2012, they were fourth at .308.

  • Poor defense

The Nats’ catchers have caught 13 percent of the runners trying to steal on them. Anthony Rendon is a third baseman playing second. Ryan Zimmerman is in a defensive funk that’s gone of for the better part of two years.

  • Dysfunction

Manager Davey Johnson has openly clashed with general manager Mike Rizzo. Tyler Clippard ripped the organization for their demotion of his friend Storen. The players appear to have thought they’d have a cakewalk to the playoffs given the hype and star power.

In short, the Nats have gone from an embarrassment of riches to a plain embarrassment. With 2013 essentially over and 2012 long gone in the rearview mirror, what do the Nats have to do to get back to where they were supposed to be? What should they do?

With Rizzo having received a promotion and contract extension, it’s his baby. The luck/design argument is irrelevant. The Nationals happened to be the worst team in baseball two years in a row when once-a-generation talents were sitting there waiting to be picked first overall in Harper and Stephen Strasburg. That’s no one’s fault and to no one’s credit. It just is. Rizzo put a solid team together, but there’s been a semblance of overkill with the signings of Haren and Rafael Soriano. Haren’s performance in 2013 is indicative that his decline that began last season with the Angels was not an aberration. Soriano has pitched well, but he was not really a necessity for the Nats. He was available, they didn’t trust Storen and preferred Clippard as the set-up man. In retrospect, both were mistakes.

The question of who the manager will be going forward is vital. Johnson bears a large portion of the responsibility for this team’s underachievement. As great as his record is and as much as the media loves him for his personality and candor, Johnson’s style was a significant reason the 1980s Mets failed to live up to their talent level. He doesn’t care about defense, he trusts his players far too much in preaching aggressiveness, and the festering anger over the 2012 Strasburg shutdown—that I’m sure Johnson thinks cost his team a World Series—has manifested itself in open warfare between the manager and GM. If Johnson weren’t retiring at season’s end, Rizzo likely would’ve fired him a month ago along with hitting coach Rick Eckstein, or Johnson would simply have quit.

Johnson’s positives (he wins a lot of regular season games) don’t eliminate his negatives (he’s insubordinate and his teams are fundamentally weak). Thirty years ago, Johnson was seen as a computer geek manager. Nowadays, he’s considered a dinosaur. In reality, Johnson is and always has been a gambler and an arrogant one at that. His attitude is that the team he’s managing needs him more than he needs it. He doesn’t want people telling him what to do and he’s never taken well to front office meddling. The Strasburg shutdown and firing of his hitting coach are two instances in which Johnson would like to tell the front office to take a hike and let him run the team his way. Rizzo had problems with Johnson and his predecessor Jim Riggleman. With the next hire, he’d better get someone younger and on the same page. That doesn’t mean he should hire a yes man, but someone who he can work with sans this lingering tension and open disagreements.

With the personnel, a lesson can be learned from the Big Red Machine Reds from 1971. In 1970, GM Bob Howsam and manager Sparky Anderson had built a monster. The Reds won 102 games and lost the World Series to the Orioles. Widely expected to repeat as NL champs, they fell to 79-83 in 1971. With cold-blooded analysis, Howsam realized that the Reds were missing the elements of leadership, speed, intensity and defense, Howsam traded 39-homer man Lee May and starting second baseman Tommy Helms with Jimmy Stewart to the Astros for Joe Morgan, Cesar Geronimo, Jack Billingham, Ed Armbrister and Denis Menke. The clubhouse was transformed and they were suddenly a faster team with Gold Glovers at second base and in center field. In fact, it was that decried move that spurred their run to greatness.

Rizzo needs to look at the team’s deficiencies in the same way that Howsam did and act decisively. If that means getting a defensively oriented catcher, trading Ian Desmond, Clippard and some other names that are supposedly part of the team’s “core,” then they have to explore it. If a team underachieves from what they were supposed to be, there’s nothing wrong with dropping a bomb in the clubhouse. In fact, it’s necessary in order to get back on track. With their youth and talent, the Nats can get back to where they were with the right managerial choice and a gutty trade or two.

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Early Season Underachievers: Washington Nationals

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Just a note: these “underachievers” are based on what the majority of the prognosticators thought prior to the season and not what I thought. For example, I had the Phillies at 79-83 in my book (which, for the record, is now available on I-Tunes). The majority of the predictions I saw had the Phillies as contenders. I had the Nationals winning 103 games.

For a team as loaded as the Nats to have a .500 record after almost 20% of the season is unexpected. Is it something to be overly concerned about though? The answer is no.

Both Adam LaRoche and Danny Espinosa are proven players who are batting under .200. That won’t continue. The starting pitching and bullpen are deep and diverse and as the season moves along, GM Mike Rizzo will find a lefty specialist somewhere—Wesley Wright, Mike Dunn—because several will eventually become available.

That’s not to say there’s not potential for things to go wrong. They’re leading the Major Leagues in errors and manager Davey Johnson made a typical Davey Johnson managerial move when the Nats were playing the Mets two weeks ago and it neatly summed him up for better or worse. With the Mets leading 2-0 in the top of the eighth inning Mets reliever Scott Rice gave up a single to Steve Lombardozzi, walked Denard Span, and went to 3-0 and Jayson Werth. Werth was given the green light, swung at a low, outside pitch and grounded into a 6-4-3 double play. The Mets won the game.

That’s Johnson. It’s always been Johnson. It always will be Johnson. With the Mets in the 1980s, the lack of discipline, overaggressiveness and arrogance in believing that the fundamentals would be unnecessary as long as they pitched and hit home runs cost them playoff spots multiple times to teams like the Cardinals who were schooled in playing the game properly. Whitey Herzog’s hardline treatment of his players was well-known and if they didn’t do what they were supposed to do when they were supposed to do it, they didn’t play.

Is it a problem for the Nats? Yes and no. One of the reasons he’s been so successful is that the players love him and know he’s going to put the game in their hands. There wouldn’t be a debate if Werth hit the ball out of the park. It’s not the strategy that was the issue, but the execution. Werth was overanxious and swung at a bad pitch and criticizing him or Johnson won’t matter because telling Johnson what he did was wrong is only going to accomplish one thing: he’s going to do it more just to prove how smart he is and how dumb his critics are.

The Nats are too talented and deep to play in so mediocre a fashion for much longer.

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The Phantom Link Between Strasburg and RG III

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The connection between what the Nationals did with Stephen Strasburg in shutting him down at a preplanned innings limit and what the Redskins did with Robert Griffin III only exists in the minds of those desperately searching for one.

It was again mentioned in today’s New York Times in this piece by Harvey Araton. To Araton’s credit, he references that an “a-ha moment” was a “surface comparison” with the unsaid inference that RG III and Strasburg were in no way connected except as a lukewarm defense to what Nats’ GM Mike Rizzo did in shutting Strasburg down and as an indictment for what Redskins’ coach Mike Shanahan didn’t do in leaving Griffin in the team’s playoff game against the Seahawks only to see Griffin severely injure his knee, possibly costing him the entire 2013 season and a portion of the running ability that made him so special.

The equating of Griffin and Strasburg is ludicrous. Because the Nats chose to end Strasburg’s season, the old-school types considered it heresy. Bolstered by the Nats’ loss in the NLDS to the Cardinals, the ill-informed and agenda-driven arguments suggest that had Strasburg been available, the Nats would have blown past the Cardinals and possibly gone on to win the World Series; that Rizzo’s overprotectiveness cost the Nationals that rare opportunity to win a championship—one that is not guaranteed in the future regardless of teamwide talent levels.

The truth is that the Nationals should have won the series against the Cardinals and only blew it because of a mistake they made during the season and it wasn’t shutting Strasburg down. The mistake they made was reinstalling Drew Storen as the closer as if he was a veteran along the lines of Mariano Rivera who deserved to return to his job by status after having missed the majority of the season with an elbow problem. Tyler Clippard had done an admirable job in the role and should have been left alone at least for the remainder of the season. Manager Davey Johnson, however, chose to be his iconoclastic self and hand the ninth inning back to Storen. Storen blew the fifth game of the NLDS after being within a strike of ending the game and the series three separate times with what began as a 2-run, ninth inning lead. Storen was not a veteran who had earned his stripes and had the right to walk off the disabled list and right back into the ninth inning, especially with a team that was streaking toward the playoffs. In fact, Storen didn’t regain the closer’s role until the playoffs, making the choice all the more questionable. (Notice I said “regain” and not “reclaim.” The job was just handed back to Storen based on nothing other than him having been the closer before.)

To make matters worse, this off-season the Nats decided that Storen wasn’t even going to be their closer for the next two and probably three years by signing Rafael Soriano to take the job. So what was the purpose of naming Storen closer for the playoffs if: A) he hadn’t re-earned the role; and B) he’s not their long-term solution?

The Strasburg shutdown was based on paranoia and out-of-context “guidelines” that gave Rizzo the impetus to do what he wanted to do all along: protect himself rather than protect his pitcher. Innings limits and pitch counts are tantamount to the architect of the parameters saying, “If he gets hurt, don’t blame me.” It’s selfishness, not protecting an investment.

Strasburg had already blown out his elbow once while functioning within the constraints of innings limits and pitch counts that went all the way back to his days under Tony Gwynn at San Diego State. The object of this style protectiveness is to keep the player healthy, but nothing is said when the player gets hurt anyway. Compounding matters, they continued down the road of self-interested and random limits based on whatever advice and statistics supported their decision.

If Strasburg gets hurt again, the shutdown will be seen as useless; if he stays healthy, it will be seen as the “why” when it had just as much chance of having nothing to do with it as it did in him needing Tommy John surgery in the first place.

As for the RG III-Strasburg link, no common bond exists other than that Shanahan made a mistake in leaving RG III in the game to get hurt and the Nats yanked Strasburg from the rotation in the interest of “saving” him.

In retrospect, as a guardian of his young, star-level quarterback, Shanahan should have taken RG III from the game, but he didn’t. That’s separate from what the Nats did with Strasburg because retrospect hasn’t come yet and if it does, there won’t be the aforementioned “a-ha” moment in either direction. Both players play for teams based in Washington; both are once-a-decade talents; and both had injuries. Apart from that, there’s nothing that places them in the same category except for those looking for a reason to justify or malign, and that’s not the basis for a viable argument.

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What To Watch For Over The Final Month—National League

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I discussed the American League and what to watch for over the final month on Thursday along with a warning for those seeing the Wild Card as an oasis in the desert. It’s not.

Now let’s take a look at the National League.

The Nationals shutdown of Stephen Strasburg

I’m planning a more in-depth discussion of this in an upcoming post, but Strasburg’s imminent shutdown has become the dominant story for a team that should be talking about the positive aspects of their rise to a legitimate championship contender instead of this Strasburg silliness.

I’m beginning to believe that they’re not going to shut him down and as an organization, they’re coming up with alternatives to: A) keep his innings limit within reason and use him in the playoffs; and B) create a story to sell to the media as to why they fudged on their prescribed innings limit.

A really isn’t all that difficult. Their lead in the division is secure enough that they can give him extra rest in September. B shouldn’t even be a factor, but since GM Mike Rizzo has been so stupidly forthright regarding his plans, it is a factor.

Don’t be shocked when Strasburg is standing on the mound and starting in game 2 of the NLDS.

Chipper Jones’s farewell tribute from the Mets

I gotta see this thing.

Jimmy Rollins’s behavior

He’s being selfish and setting a terrible example for the rest of the team with his lack of hustle, embarrassing for the supposed “heart and soul” and clubhouse leader. Manager Charlie Manuel’s benching of Rollins and Rollins’s subsequent apology isn’t worth much since he’s definitely going to do it again over the final month, probably multiple times.

Rollins is guaranteed $22 million for 2013-2014 and he has a vesting option for 2015 that he won’t reach based on the contract kickers of plate appearances (the Phillies won’t let him), but if the contract doesn’t vest, the club has an $8 million option that they won’t exercise and Rollins has a $5 million option that, at age 36 and with his performance declining and his reputation soiled, he very well might exercise to get one last paycheck. So the contract actually calls for him to make $27 million through 2015.

The “everything is hunky dory” tone of the Rollins apology story glosses over the facts that he’s declining as a player, is signed for several more years, and the Phillies on the whole are old, expensive and not good.

The Marlins attendance

They’re currently 12th in attendance which is a step up from finishing last every season, but in context with a beautiful, brand new park and a team that had spent money to try and win, one would think they’d have been better than 12th—a position they’ve held steady from the beginning of the season until now.

They’re in last place and traded away most of their stars. They’re not likable, nor are they fun to watch. Football season is starting next week. No one’s going to pay attention to the Marlins and no one’s going to go to the games.

I’m not sure where they, as an organization, go from here. The fans just don’t care.

Dusty Baker’s contract

It’s not right that Baker has the Reds steamrolling towards the playoffs, has done a fine job in handling the club from top-to-bottom, and is functioning without a new contract. One would assume that he’s safe, but he also led the Giants to the World Series in 2002 and was out of a job that winter in a contract-based dispute that turned ugly. I would say he’ll definitely be back, but in 2002 I would’ve said the same thing.

The Dodgers playoff push

With all the headline-blaring moves they made, their playoff spot is far from guaranteed. Now they may have lost closer Kenley Jansen for the season with a heart ailment. He’ll find out on Tuesday if he can pitch again this season. If they lose Jansen, they have two options: 1) use someone they already have on the roster like Brandon League; 2) trade for someone for the month of September to make the playoffs and use Jansen when he’s able to pitch again.

Considering the moves they’ve made this season, I’d say they’re going to lay the foundation to trade for someone who can do the job if League falters and Jansen’s out. GM Ned Colletti is probably making calls now to that end.

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Strasburg Ambiguity Mars The Nationals’ Magical Season

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How can anyone involved with the Nationals justify looking into Stephen Strasburg’s face and telling him that while the team is on its way to the playoffs and is a legitimate World Series contender that because of a random number of innings and the edicts of one person’s dictatorial, unchecked authority, he can’t be a part of it?

The number (supposedly 160 innings or thereabouts), so random and capricious with no ironclad guarantee that it’s going to help him stay healthy over the long-term, predicates that Strasburg should resist and use his power over the situation to escape it.

There are so many compelling stories with the Nationals that the looming shutdown of Strasburg is marring all they’ve accomplished and it’s coming down to the self-proclaimed final word, GM Mike Rizzo. Given the number of GMs who’ve been celebrated in recent years and either found themselves fired (Omar Minaya); on the hotseat (Jack Zduriencik, Dan O’Dowd); or seen their reputations shattered (Billy Beane), Rizzo might not even be there in 2015. Manager Davey Johnson and pitching coach Steve McCatty are going along to get along, but Johnson’s style in his prior stops and the atmosphere in which he spent his formative baseball years—the Earl Weaver Orioles of Jim Palmer throwing 300+ innings—do you really think Johnson, at age 69, wants to hold back on the once-in-a-lifetime arm of Strasburg when he might be writing his ticket to the Hall of Fame with another World Series win? A win that could hinge on Strasburg being allowed to pitch? Do you believe that McCatty, who saw his own career demolished by Billy Martin’s and Art Fowler’s abuse, doesn’t understand the limits of a pitcher and when he needs to have the brakes put on? It’s inexplicable to hire qualified people to do their jobs and not let them do them; to have experienced baseball people whose in-the-trenches understanding of the game are dismissed in the interests of self-protection and “I’m not gonna be the one that’s blamed if he gets hurt.”

That’s what Rizzo is doing. It’s got nothing to do with studies or protecting the player; Rizzo is protecting himself. No one else.

The implementation of pitcher workloads has become a circular defense and is a logical fallacy. Because Jordan Zimmerman underwent the same Tommy John surgery as Strasburg and was limited to 160 innings last season, it’s presented as validation for Strasburg’s final number of 160 or so innings. But they’re two different pitchers with two different levels of talent and two different thresholds along with dozens of other variables that aren’t being publicly accounted for in the interests of a short and sweet, salable list of “reasons” to place Strasburg on the sidelines as the kid who has to take his piano lessons while the other kids in the neighborhood out enjoying the sun and playing ball.

No one’s saying to abuse him as the Cubs, chasing a dream and trying to slay ghosts, did to Kerry Wood in 1998. But to just say STOP!!! and be done with it is a different form of abuse.

Strasburg doesn’t want to have his season ended prematurely, but if the Nats get to the playoffs or World Series, he’s not going to be a participant; or if he is, it will be after a month of barely pitching. It’s ludicrous and could also hinder his career rather than save it. Strasburg has to have some recourse. Saying all the right things and being a willing accomplice are separate. If I were Strasburg and his representatives, I’d push back. Agent Scott Boras, no stranger to hardball as a former player and negotiator, knows the terrain of arm-twisting organizations in the interests of his clients. Strasburg and Boras have a large share of the say-so in this situation. The point of power is to use it. If it’s put out publicly that Strasburg won’t sign any long-term deal with the Nationals if they continue to put their constraints on his career, what’s going to happen? Strasburg could refuse to report to the club next season and force his way out of Washington; he could be a test case because the Nats are not operating in his best interests. The blowback of Strasburg tearing at his chains legally and in a public relations blitz would be fierce and Rizzo wouldn’t have a choice but to back down.

The number of great players in sports who have been part of teams that made it to the pinnacle of team achievement or came thisclose but didn’t close the deal are legion. Ernie Banks, Don Mattingly and the new Hall of Famer Ron Santo are three of dozens of examples who would’ve traded years of their careers for a title shot.

Exacerbating this travesty is that the Nationals—or simply Rizzo and Rizzo alone—didn’t take steps such as the 6-man rotation to specifically prevent the need to end Strasburg’s season in September.

It’s easy to suggest that what the Nats have built will be sustainable and they’ll have multiple opportunities to make it back again and again; that with Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman and the young pitching staff, they’ll be contenders for years to come. Facts and history say otherwise. It’s not true that they’re absolutely going to have chance after chance. Ask Dan Marino if he’s stunned by never having made it back to the Super Bowl after his sophomore season in which he demolished the NFL record books and carried the Dolphins to the NFL’s ultimate game. Then ask him if he’d have sat by quietly if the coaches and front office decided that he’s thrown too many passes after 13 games and they were sitting him down to lengthen his career. You can say it’s not the same thing, but it actually is the same thing. Strasburg is a baseball player; he’s a pitcher. Sometimes, regardless of how they’re handled and babied, they get injured as happened with Strasburg two years ago. Nothing is to be gained by sitting him down with numbers that have no basis in reality. Yet that’s what the Nats are doing and it’s not about protecting anyone other than the GM of the team, which makes it exponentially worse.

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It’s Not 1998 And The Yankees Are Not 46-10

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Did  the Yankees start the season 46-10 and I missed it?

I must’ve because the tone of the Yankee-centric media and fanbase implies that they’re still in the midst of a dynasty that ended 12 years ago.

Or maybe I didn’t miss anything. Maybe there’s such an overtone of arrogance that surrounds the Yankees’ organization in general and extends to everyone within some semblance of its orbit that they think they’re the world champions even when they’re not the world champions.

It never ends. If you watch the YES Network, listen to Mike Francesa or Michael Kay and have any ability to sift through the propaganda and see reality, you’ve sensed it too.

Here’s reality: the Yankees are not 46-10. They’re a mediocre 31-25 with an aging starting lineup, a shaky bullpen and a starting rotation that has found itself dependent on a returning hero who had retired after the 2010 season. This idea that the Mets are going to enter Yankee Stadium starstruck and spend the entire 3 game series at Yankee Stadium gazing longingly at the pinstripes and wishing that they were plying their trade across town rather than in Queens feeds into the monster that has created this lie.

During his team report on WFAN, Sweeny Murti was talking to Francesa about Nationals’ rookie sensation Bryce Harper. He related a story from spring training when the Yankees were playing the Nats and Harper was watching the Yankees take batting practice with an intensity that bordered on hypnotized. Apparently one of Harper’s favorite players is Mickey Mantle, which makes perfect sense for a 19-year-old to idolize someone who hadn’t played since 1969 and has been dead since 1995. That same someone who is the poster child for misplaced idolatry engaged in by the likes of Francesa in spite of being the epitome of a once-in-a-lifetime talent who threw much of that talent away with drinking and carousing.

Suffice it to say I would not want Harper to emulate Mantle.

Harper was so engrossed and googly eyed at the sight of the Yankees (according to Murti) that Nats’ GM Mike Rizzo went over to Harper, pulled him aside and (again, according to Murti) said something to the tune of, “Look, we know you’re gonna be with the Yankees when you become a free agent, but for now you’re a Nat. Watch them from the dugout.”

Really?

Is that what happened?

Is this hyperbole on the part of Murti or did Rizzo actually say that to his prize prospect?

Either way, it’s ridiculous. The days of the Yankees getting every free agent they want ended with the new collective bargaining agreement and the conscious decision not to spend so much money on players of other teams. That the players themselves might have a say in the matter is irrelevant to the blind Yankees supporters, but Cliff Lee decidedly said no to the Yankees and signed with the Phillies because he preferred a team other than the Yankees.

It does happen.

Trust me when I tell you that if Harper is everything he’s hyped to be, the Nationals are not going to let him smell free agency and will lock him up long-term. In fact, they might try to do it in the next year or two to make sure they have him until he’s at least 30.

It’s this type of thinking that led to the appellation of the word “tragedy” on Mariano Rivera’s season-ending knee injury.

Tragedy?

Anyone who thinks it’s a tragedy should consider themselves lucky that they’ve never experienced such an actual tragedy that a baseball player’s injury is judged as such.

YES’s website still doesn’t have any information on the injuries to Manny Banuelos or Jose Campos. They never mentioned Brian Cashman’s off-field issues with his stalker and are loathe to discuss the nightmarish trade that netted them Michael Pineda and Campos.

YES is no more of a “sports news” network than a paid televangelist channel or something Kevin Trudeau would come up with. It’s not designed to disseminate sports information in a bipartisan way. It’s there to promote the Yankees. Any “reporter” who works for the network in any fashion knows that and tailors their work accordingly. They’re not reporters, they’re PR people wearing a press pass.

General support for the team a network focuses on is completely understandable—even expected. But with the Yankees, it’s turned into a general sycophancy that requires this fantasy of superiority even where one doesn’t exist.

The Yankees mandate is World Series or bust. That has extended to the spoiled rotten fanbase that throws a self-indulgent tantrum when things don’t go the way they’re “supposed” to go. It’s systemic and disturbing. With that mandate, it’s indelibly connected to their success or failure and by that metric, they’ve only been successful in one season since 2000. How can that be called success? And how can it be called success when the team has made the playoffs every single year but one and gotten bounced each time except in 2009? How can that be called success when they spend $200 million a season on payroll while most teams spend half of that and less? Shouldn’t their financial might beget more than one title in 11 years?

The adjustment of the expectations are stark. Before, when they were winning every year, it was because they’re the Yankees. Now that they’re more likely to lose in the playoffs than win, the concept of the playoffs is at fault and—as Moneyball stated as an excuse for Billy Beane’s clubs losing every year—it’s a crapshoot.

If you want to see a crapshoot, check out the draft.

Yankees’ apologists have said such ludicrous idiocies as “the Yankees do most of their draft damage in the 20th round and beyond”.

Damage?

What damage?

Any player taken past the 10th round who makes it is a product of late blooming, an alteration in their game or pure luck. But because in 1990 they drafted a skinny infielder named Jorge Posada in the 24th round and a lanky lefty named Andy Pettitte in the 20th round, it was Yankees’ foresight and mystique.

If it’s damage, it’s retrospective damage on what they became, otherwise known as serendipity.

I hate to break it to you, but two picks in the 20th and 24th rounds doesn’t imply design. Since it happened 22 years ago, it doesn’t have any connection to the Yankees draft in 2012 nor their drafts from 1991-2011.

What you have is a clinging to the myth of the Yankees being superior to other organizations based on history, but that history has nothing to do with now. They’re a contender with holes. They have the money and prospects to fill those holes, but as of right now they’ll have to fight their way into the playoffs.

Alex Rodriguez is aging and has to cheat (not in the PED sense) to be able to catch up to a good power fastball—sometimes he does, most of the time he doesn’t. They’re reliant on Pettitte, grasping for a way to patch together their bullpen with the absences of Rivera, David Robertson, Joba Chamberlain and navigate mangaer Joe Girardi’s still odd and questionable pitching decisions.

In short, this isn’t 1998. The Yankees are not dominating anyone and there’s no reason for an opposing team to walk in and stare at their array of stars as if they’re beaten before the games start. They’re 31-25. That’s their record. That’s what they are. Those are facts. You can accept them or you can tune into YES and WFAN.

It all depends on your concept of truth.

The dynasty is over whether you like it or not; whether you believe it or not. And no amount of denial is going to bring it back.

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Bounties vs Targets—the NFL and MLB

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The New Orleans Saints have been given harsh sentences for defensive coordinator Gregg Williams encouraging a culture of paying cash bonuses for his players on hard hits and knockouts of opposing players. Head coach Sean Payton was suspended for the season; GM Mickey Loomis for the first eight games of the season; and Williams, who was hired as the defensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams in January, was suspended indefinitely—NY Times Story.

On Sunday afternoon Peter Gammons, filling in for Jerry Remy on the Red Sox TV broadcasts, was talking with broadcast partner Don Orsillo about the NFL bountygate. Gammons said it was inexcusable and that if anyone in baseball did it, Bud Selig had told him that those involved would be banned for life. Period.

If it was a player, I’m sure the MLBPA would have something to say about that penalty.

In what was a conveniently timed sequence of events, Phillies’ starter Cole Hamels hit Nationals’ rookie Bryce Harper in the back with a fastball in Sunday night’s Phillies-Nats game in Washington and then inexplicably announced that he’d done it intentionally in an “old-school” method of initiation for an arrogant, hot shot rookie.

Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo called Hamels a series of names including “gutless” and said he was “opposite of old-school”. Ken Rosenthal said it was an overreaction on the part of Rizzo for a legitimate play from years gone by. Other sportswriters like Jon Heyman, admired the “toughness” of Hamels.

This is on the heels of Mike Francesa’s suggestion two weeks ago that the Mets, rather than give Jose Reyes a small video tribute on his return to Citi Field as an opponent with the Marlins, throw the ball at his head.

He said this twice.

It’s very easy to encourage these types of things when not actually standing in the box and facing the prospect of getting hit with a 95-mph fastball that can end a career or seriously injure the recipient.

I don’t have a problem with Hamels popping Harper; I do have a problem with him announcing it as if he wants credit for it. It was obvious to any longtime observer of baseball that it was done intentionally, but did the pleased-with-himself Hamels need to say, “Look! See what I did?”

In essence, because Harper is a former number 1 overall pick and is widely expected to embark on a potential Hall of Fame career starting now, he had a bulls-eye on his back and Hamels hit that bulls-eye.

We can debate the propriety of the decision by Hamels to throw at Harper just like we can debate collisions at the plate; umpires having larger strike zones for rookies to test them; or any other rites of passage that occur as a common hazing ritual for newcomers.

But you don’t announce it.

This all fits in neatly with Gammons’s discussion of the bounty program used by the Saints.

What’s missed in many of the analysis and commentaries regarding the Saints is that it wasn’t the program itself that got them in trouble. It was that the NFL told them to stop it, they said they would and didn’t.

And they got caught.

The NFL—conservative as a whole and run by Roger Goodell, whose father was a Republican U.S. Senator—is image-conscious and serious about their perception and disciplinary programs. Punishing the Saints is a combination of punitive measures and a message to everyone else not to do this.

Transferring one sport’s rules and regulations to another can be done in theory but is difficult to do in practice. There’s an overt failure to account for the differences between baseball and football. I’m not talking about the classic George Carlin comedy routine in which he declares the superiority of football to baseball—YouTube link. I’m talking about the fundamental differences between the two sports on and off the field.

MLB players have guaranteed contracts and 100% medical coverage. NFL players don’t. Because NFL players’ contracts are not guaranteed, there’s more pressure for them to play in order to keep those game checks coming in. They can be cut at anytime and be completely out of work. The NFL, such as it is, is a close-knit community and if a player is judged as not being willing to take shots and medications to get out on the field and play when he’s hurt, the rest of the league is going to know about it. It spreads like wildfire and affects their careers negatively or ends them completely.

For every star like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning who have the power to command their organization to make certain maneuvers, there are the rank and file players who have to adhere to the culture or else. It’s a brutal version of survival of the fittest and most resilient, rewarding the player who can live through the war of attrition in exchange continued employment.

This doesn’t happen in baseball.

When a player signs a $100 million contract in football, his stature as a talent predicates a large signing bonus which he gets to keep, but the rest of the deal isn’t guaranteed; therefore it’s not really $100 million even though that’s what the news reports say without full context of the disposability of the contract. We see situations where teams can’t cut a player they’d dearly love to be rid of (Santonio Holmes of the Jets for example), but can’t because of salary cap ramifications. But that’s due to overzealousness and a myriad of other factors such as arrogantly thinking “we’ll be able to handle this guy”. Historically when one team can’t “handle” a guy and gets rid of him based on that and that alone, no one—not the Jets; not the Al Davis Raiders of the 1970s and 80s—will be able to handle him for any amount of money. That’s a foundational error.

Contracts in baseball are such that when Albert Pujols signed a $240 million contract with the Angels last winter, it was guaranteed that he’d collect $240 million if he never plays another game.

How many MLB players do you read about committing suicide after their careers are over? Winding up in serious trouble with the law? Have debilitating injuries?

Just last week Junior Seau committed suicide and it was forgotten the next day because the “tragedy” of the day became Mariano Rivera tearing his ACL and being lost for the season.

Which is the true tragedy?

Both are future Hall of Famers in their respective sports; both were well-liked; but Rivera will collect his $15 million salary for 2012 and receive a similar contract for 2013; Seau was rumored to be having financial troubles and domestic squabbles and was entirely unable to adjust to the freedom, emptiness and depression of not having a season or game to prepare for to go along with the wear-and-tear of a 13-year NFL career.

You can call baseball a “contact” sport, but considering the uproar when a collision at home plate occurs and knocks out the catcher, it—clean or not—becomes the impetus for calls to outlaw the home plate collision entirely. It degenerates into a pseudo-contact sport. In football, the mandate is to hit hard—it’s inherent; in baseball, a hard hit is a rare, incidental and predominately unintentional byproduct.

In football, they’ve taken steps to reduce the injuries and number of hard hits because of the bottom line need for offensive production and the stars being on the field to keep the fans engaged and happy, but they’re still very large, well-conditioned men running into one another at full speed. People get hurt. If you can’t or won’t play through pain and the backup will, then your job and career are in jeopardy without any outlet for the aggression that led to an NFL career in the first place, nor the opportunity to make the kind of money they’re making once their careers are over.

Players don’t know what to do with themselves once their regimented lives as football players are done. The simultaneous addictions to the attention, painkillers, money, pain and the compulsive need to keep going in spite of the threat of long-term damage already in place is being exacerbated; irrationality and rudderless post-career lives are too often rife with financial missteps, legal entanglements, after-effects and early deaths.

Coaches and managers are not exempt from the urgency of their professions.

MLB managers and coaches are not working the hours that NFL coaches are. Rank and file MLB assistants are comparatively well-paid and their jobs are many times as a result of patronage, friendship, loyalty or payback. In reality, apart from the pitching coach, not many MLB coaches influence the team to any grand degree.

Not so with the NFL on any count.

NFL assistants work ridiculous hours and, apart from star coordinators, aren’t paid all that well and, like the players, if they don’t have friends in the league or a good reputation, they won’t have another job when they’re let go.

John Madden left coaching because of his ulcer and didn’t return because he replaced it by carving out a Hall of Fame broadcasting career. Jim Brown retired at the top of his game to go to Hollywood. Barry Sanders and Tiki Barber both retired while they still had a few years left in them, but also had their health.

How many other football players can say that?

Mostly they play until they’re dragged off the field knowing what awaits them in the aftermath.

The sporting ideal of competitiveness, honor and fair play doesn’t truly exist. Baseball players subsist in the bubble of individual achievement within a team concept. It’s one man against another when a pitcher and hitter square off. It’s not that way in football where no one player can function without the other ten men. Football players are warriors who know their time is short and every play could be their last with nothing to fall back on aside from a lifetime of pain and mounting bills for medical and family expenses. Baseball players are covered. Football players can’t just turn off that intensity and otherworldliness that allows them to ignore aches and pains that would hospitalize a normal man.

Baseball is languid; football is full-speed and frantic.

Comparing baseball and football is apples and oranges. They’re different. A bounty program wouldn’t specifically exist in baseball because how would it be enacted? A bounty program in football is easy because, in general, a player contract in the NFL is a bounty, but it’s a bounty the player places on himself. He knows when he signs it that one day, he’ll have to pay up with his physical and emotional well being.

Sometimes he pays with his life in quality and permanence.

They know that going in and, invariably, it gets them in the end.

The bounty a player puts on his own head is carried out by football itself.

And football is tantamount to the monolithic hit man that never, ever fails in its objective.

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What To Expect From the New Dodgers’ Ownership

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Dodgers’ owner Frank McCourt selected a group led by former Los Angeles Lakers star and NBA Hall of Famer Magic Johnson and former Braves, Nationals and Atlanta Hawks team president Stan Kasten as the winning bidder to purchase his team—NY Times Story.

It’s a good choice to return the Dodgers to glory on and off the field and reclaim their place as one of the most star-studded, glamourous and stable franchises in baseball.

Here’s why:

Star power and ruthlessness.

Magic Johnson wasn’t just one of the greatest basketball players in history. He was glitzy; he was clutch; he was fearless; and he was ruthless. That has extended into his post-athletic career as he dealt with HIV and became a brilliant and successful businessman.

Magic isn’t simply a smiling face who knows everyone in L.A. and can gladhand at parties as a prize showhorse. It was Magic who, in 1982, orchestrated the ouster of coach Paul Westhead in favor of Pat Riley. He was a brutal competitor and transferred that into his battle against a dreaded disease that many thought would kill him within five years and into the business world.

Competence.

Kasten has helmed and helped turn around moribund franchises three times and the Dodgers are going to be the fourth.

He installs quality people and lets them do their jobs while allowing them the freedom to spend money on the big league product and build through the draft.

With Magic and Kasten, the speculation will be that they’re going to want a “name” GM to run the team. Current Dodgers’ GM Ned Colletti has an out in his contract following this season if there’s an ownership change.

One thing I don’t want to hear is the inevitable mentioning of the name Billy Beane to run the Dodgers.

The only people who want Beane are the media members and the Hollywood types who either don’t know or don’t want to know the true scope of Beane’s work with the Athletics—that he’s a propped up character whose true resume bears no resemblance to the falsehoods and contradictions in Moneyball.

They’d be better off hiring Brad Pitt.

Old school flavors and swagger.

The easy storyline will be that the Dodgers are going to find some young, impressively educated “genius” to take over the franchise and rebuild it from top-to-bottom.

The only name I would pursue toward that end would be Andrew Friedman.

Johnson won’t want to deal with some young kid walking in and whispering sweet nothings in his ear about how much cheaper and better the Dodgers are going to be. Johnson will want someone who’s competent in being the front man for the club with swagger and charm while simultaneously running the organization correctly and not to generate headlines as the new “genius”.

Kasten worked with older GMs Bobby Cox, John Schuerholz and Mike Rizzo and, barring Friedman (who I think is a viable possibility), they’ll hire a veteran baseball guy with automatic name recognition and a track record.

Bolstering the foundation; stability and recognizability in the manager’s office.

Going back to their initial years in Los Angeles, the “Dodgers Way” was to have stability in the manager’s office with Walter Alston and Tommy Lasorda; a group of players that they could build around; and smart free agent signings.

With Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers already have top-level stars on both sides of the ball. Once you have that, two giant pieces of the puzzle are in place.

Given the circumstances, Don Mattingly has done an admirable job as the manager and will deserve another chance elsewhere, but I would expect Magic will have a historical Dodger in mind to take over the team on the field. Lasorda has forever pushed one of his favorite players as a potential manager and, in spite of my general belief that pitchers aren’t my first choice as managers and inexperience is a definite negative, I’d make an exception in one case: Orel Hershiser.

Hershiser carried the Dodgers to the World Series in 1988—something Magic saw first hand—with 59 straight scoreless innings and post-season dominance in upsetting the Mets and A’s; he’d be a perfect choice on and off the field.

A rapid return to prominence.

The McCourt tenure was embarrassing for the revelations that the team was used as a virtual cash machine to fund a lavish lifestyle for the owners; the Bryan Stow beating was a horrible example of ignorance to ancillary factors—safety—that make an organization fan friendly and sound.

On the field, the product was actually quite good. McCourt’s Dodgers made the playoffs in 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2009 and with a little luck could’ve won a championship or two.

But he’s leaving.

Magic and Kasten are going to learn from the Dodgers’ history—the good and bad—and follow the historical blueprint that made them this valuable in the first place. They’ll return to what made the Dodgers what they were and it’s going to happen as early as 2013.

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I’ll be a guest with Mike Silva of New York Baseball Digest tonight at 8 PM EST talking about my book, Paul Lebowitz’s 2012 Baseball Guide.

Click here to check it out.

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