Ricky Nolasco Proves the Market Rewards Mediocrity

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The Ricky Nolasco contract with the Twins was announced last night. I haven’t looked at the reactions yet, but presumably they range between indignation, head shakes and grudging acknowledgements that “that’s the market.” Whether or not he’s worth that money is beside the point. Nolasco is a better pitcher than he’s been given credit for and he’s durable. He’s not the pitcher you’d prefer to have starting opening day or the first game of a playoff series, but he’s a professional arm who will provide innings and competence. In today’s market, that’s going to get him $50 million. I’m not judging it one way or the other. It just “is.” Personally, I’d prefer Bronson Arroyo to Nolasco. But Nolasco is certainly a better risk than Masahiro Tanaka. It’s all about context.

It’s not a free money policy in an industry that is flush with cash that is causing teams to make seeming overpays for slightly above-average pitchers. It’s the overall culture of wastefulness that has permeated baseball through ridiculous developmental rules for pitchers that make necessary the purchasing of whatever is on the market for the going rate due to supply and demand.

Teams and analysts talk out of both sides of their mouths – as well as other orifices – when they put forth the pretense of running the organization as a business and then toss uncountable amounts of money at mediocrity, wondering why they get mediocrity when that’s what they bought.

A.J. Burnett was the epitome of a pitcher who was overpaid based on need and availability. Having missed the playoffs in 2008 and desperate for starting pitching, the Yankees threw money at their problems and it worked. One pitcher they signed was A.J. Burnett. Burnett was always the epitome of the “million dollar arm, five cent head” pitcher, one who could throw a no-hitter striking out 18 one game and give up a three-run homer to the opposing pitcher in the next game. For that, the Yankees doled a contract worth $82.5 million for five years. They kept him for three, paid the Pirates $20 million to take him off their hands and didn’t even get useful prospects in the trade.

The galling aspect of Burnett’s three year tenure in pinstripes was that there was a belief that he’d arrive and suddenly fulfill his potential just because he was a Yankee. In truth, he pitched in the same frustrating, aggravating way he always pitched. It was the height of Yankee arrogance to think they were going to get anything different. During his whole time as a Yankee, when the media and fans screamed about his inconsistency, I responded with an identical and more logical scream that I gave when they signed him: This is what you bought!!! This is A.J. Burnett!!!

The reason the Yankees needed pitching that year was because their attempts to “grow their own” in an effort to save money over the long-term by not having to buy other teams’ arms failed miserably with Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy either getting hurt, pitching poorly or fluctuating in their roles in 2008. With 20/20 hindsight, the Yankees and other clubs who use the pitch counts/innings limits/overprotectiveness for their young pitchers can examine these failures, the need to spend their way out of trouble to purchase breathing bodies who can eat innings and ask whether or not it was worth it.

I don’t want to hear about injuries, changing roles, unsuitability for New York and the other excuses that are proffered to explain away the failures of these three pitchers – that’s all part of why they failed. The fact is that for 16 combined seasons from Chamberlain, Hughes and Kennedy, the Yankees got an 80-68 won/lost record, a 4.37 ERA and wasted years when they were in their early-to-mid 20s and should have been at their strongest and most useful. Don’t start looking for advanced stats either because that’s only going to make the case for the way the Yankees used them worse. They could have been good and weren’t. It’s not hard to figure out why.

If you combine the draft pick compensation that many teams are unwilling to surrender to sign pitchers, the number of pitchers on the market declines even further. That absence and the number of top-tier talent who sign long-term deals to stay with their current teams leads to pitchers like Nolasco getting $50 million deals. Nolasco was traded at mid-season meaning he wasn’t subject to being offered arbitration, therefore there’s no draft pick compensation. Arroyo wasn’t offered arbitration by the Reds. Tanaka won’t cost anything other than money. That’s why they’re attractive.

The Giants were roasted for signing Tim Lincecum to a two-year, $35 million contract rather than let him go as a free agent, but now the decision looks astute. You’d be hard-pressed to find any stat person willing to give Giants general manager Brian Sabean credit for anything, but he kept Lincecum. It was wiser to do so considering the options of trading young players to get an arm or offering Lincecum arbitration hoping he’d take it and no one would offer him a Nolasco-style deal. In retrospect, it was simply easier and better long-term thinking to keep him. The Giants also signed Tim Hudson to a two-year contract. Without compensation attached to him and with the deal Nolasco just signed, Hudson might have lowballed himself by signing so early even at age 38.

Are teams really so in love with Tanaka that they’re willing to give upwards of $150 million to secure his rights and sign him? Or is it that there’s no other payments necessary apart from the posting fee and signing him to a contract? To sit and claim that Tanaka is a sure thing is ridiculous considering the attrition rate of pitchers who arrive with similar hype and expectations. Again, it’s the market and the desperation to hold true to draft picks, luxury tax and other aspects that are influencing which pitchers are getting big money and which aren’t.

The Rays have the right idea with their own pitchers: they use them without overt abuse or overprotectiveness; they don’t sign them to long-term contracts; and they trade them at their highest value for a package of prospects. It’s easy to say, “just copy the Rays” but how many teams have the freedoms the Rays do? How many teams are able to say, “We can’t pay him and it makes no sense to keep him for that extra year when these offers are on the table in a destitute market?” For all the credit the Rays get for their success and intelligence, a substantial portion of it is directly because they have no money; because they’ve been able to win under their tight financial circumstances; because they don’t have a brand-new ballpark with three million fans in attendance; because the media doesn’t go crazy when they trade Matt Garza, James Shields and listen to offers on David Price.

When a team needs 200 innings and isn’t going to get it from their top pitching prospects due to an arbitrary number of innings they’re allowed to pitch to keep them healthy, they have to buy it somewhere else. Stephen Strasburg is entering his fifth season in the big leagues, will be a free agent after 2016, will demand $150 million and as of now still hasn’t broken the 200-inning barrier. Unless the Nats pay it, another team will benefit from the protective cocoon he’s been in. Oh, and he got hurt anyway. Scott Boras will be more than happy to use the hammer of the Nats having signed, paid and developed Strasburg and won’t want to let him leave to force them to pay more money than his performance indicates he’s been worth.

For every Clayton Kershaw or Chris Sale who are allowed to pitch, there are five Strasburgs and Chamberlains who aren’t. And who benefits from the absence of arms? The Nolascos and Tanakas. Production be damned. They have what teams are looking for because most teams – through their own short-sightedness and stupidity – can’t make it on their own.

How is that a wise business model?

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Mike Morse, the Mariners and Jack Z

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Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik was roundly roasted when he made the three-way trade with the Athletics and Nationals to acquire Mike Morse. The trade to get Morse was considered about as bad as the trade Zduriencik made at mid-season in his first year at the helm that sent Morse to the Nationals for Ryan Langerhans. In truth, the reacquisition was an understandable deal.

The Mariners sent John Jaso to the Athletics and the Athletics sent young pitchers A.J. Cole, Blake Treinen and Ian Krol to the Nats. This was a trade that made sense to all sides. Despite the stat guy lust for Jaso that would make one think the A’s were getting Johnny Bench, he’s a mediocre defensive catcher who has some pop and gets on base. The Mariners were intent on taking a long look at Jesus Montero, had Mike Zunino on the way and signed veteran Kelly Shoppach. They needed a power bat more than they needed Jaso and thought they were getting one in Morse. Morse had hit 31 homers two years ago and appeared to have figured out how to use his massive size effectively. He hit eight homers in April, three in May and then spent a month on the disabled list from early-June to late July with a strained quadriceps.

If the Mariners were expecting a mid-lineup basher when they acquired Morse, they made a significant mistake in judgment. Morse has tremendous power, but he’s vulnerable to power pitchers and has trouble laying off the high fastball and low breaking stuff. He’ll hit mediocre-to-bad pitching and average fastballers.

With the Orioles, he’ll probably have better success playing in a smaller ballpark. For the Mariners, it was a calculated risk considering what they were giving up and the chance that Morse would be motivated to repeat his 2011 season in his free agent year in 2013. The end result of trading Jaso is that the Mariners wound up with a speedy fifth outfielder in Xavier Avery. The Rays are widely regarded as the smartest organization in baseball and when they traded Jaso to the Mariners, all they received was Josh Lueke with his character issues and 7.50 ERA as a Ray. The difference is they made a worse trade than the Mariners did and were shielded from criticism due to their perception.

If anyone got the best of this deal, it’s the Nationals. Morse was worth a gamble for the Mariners and it didn’t work out.

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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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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.


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.


Kyle Lohse—Free Agency Profile

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Name: Kyle Lohse

Position: Right-handed starting pitcher

Vital Statistics: Age—34; Height—6’2”; Weight—210 lbs; Bats—Right; Throws—Right

Transactions: June 1996—Selected by the Chicago Cubs in the 29th round of the MLB Draft

May 21, 1999—Traded by the Chicago Cubs with RHP Jason Ryan to the Minnesota Twins for RHP Rick Aguilera and LHP Scott Downs

July 31, 2006—Traded by the Twins to the Cincinnati Reds for RHP Zach Ward

July 30, 2007—Traded by the Reds to the Philadelphia Phillies for LHP Matt Maloney

March 13, 2008—Signed as a free agent with the St. Louis Cardinals

Agent: Scott Boras

Might he return to the Cardinals? Yes

Teams that could use and pay him: New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles, Boston Red Sox, Toronto Blue Jays, Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals, Minnesota Twins, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Texas Rangers, Philadelphia Phillies, Washington Nationals, Miami Marlins, St. Louis Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers, Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Dodgers

Positives: With the Cardinals, when he’s been healthy, he’s been a very good starter. He’s learned to pound the strike zone, keep the ball down and in the ballpark, and use his defense. Lohse had what amount to a career year in 2012, in part, because of a friendly BAbip of .267. That number was in line with another solid year he had in 2011 of .272. His advanced statistics of hits-per 9 innings; strikeouts-per 9 innings; walks and home runs-per 9 innings were the best of his career in 2012, but he’s been solid with those numbers his entire career. He’s consistent at home and on the road and against righties and lefties.

Negatives: He’s represented by Boras and in 2011-2012 he’s gone 30-11. Boras is going to ask for a lot of money, years, and benefits. Lohse turned his career around with the Cardinals under the tutelage of Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan; he maintained and got even better under Mike Matheny and Derek Lilliquist, but the lingering questions remain as to whether he can transition to another locale and stay this productive. He’s had injuries sabotaging his seasons and is 34-years-old.

What he’ll want: 4-years, $50 million with a partial no-trade clause

What he’ll get: 3-years, $35 million with a vesting option for 2016 at $15 million and a $2.5 million buyout

Teams that might give it to him: Orioles, Red Sox, Blue Jays, Tigers, Royals, Angels, Nationals, Marlins, Cardinals, Brewers, Dodgers

The Orioles need a starting pitcher to give them 32 starts and 200 innings with the stuff to keep the ball in the ballpark. They have money to spend, and are an agreeable location to play and win after their 93-win 2012.

The Red Sox are desperate for starting pitching and have money to burn. The Blue Jays also have money, are trying to win, and are seeking another starter. The Tigers won’t want to overpay to keep Anibal Sanchez and Lohse is cheaper and shorter-term. I wrote yesterday that rather than trade one of their young bats for a starting pitcher, the Royals should delve into the free agent market and Lohse is a reasonable target. The Angels might be desperate if they can’t keep Zack Greinke and Lohse falls into a “next level” category in terms of knowing what to expect, price, and availability. The Nationals might be in on Greinke; have the prospects to trade for James Shields; or could jump in on Lohse as a fallback. They have a sound relationship with Boras and tons of cash.

I mention the Marlins because with everyone in baseball angry at what they did in their gutting trade with the Blue Jays, it’s possible that Jeffrey Loria might want to placate the critics by doing something like signing Lohse. I doubt it will happen, but no one saw that trade coming either.

The Cardinals will make an offer to Lohse and it probably won’t be high enough in dollars or years, but if his market crashes, he could end up going back to St. Louis. The Brewers have money, talent and want to win; the Dodgers can’t be discounted for any free agent and need an arm.

Would I sign Lohse? Not for what Boras is going to want. If he’s on the outside looking in and I could get him for two years with a reasonable option based on performance, I’d sign him.

Will it be a retrospective mistake for the team that signs him? If they acquiesce to Boras’s demands that will reach $45-55 million, they will. I’d keep him out of the American League.

Analysis: If there’s a bigger “we don’t know” in baseball’s free agency this side of Josh Hamilton, it’s Lohse. Which Lohse would a team other than the Cardinals be getting? Would it be the homer-prone mediocrity he was with the Phillies and Reds? The pretty good mid-rotation starter he was at times with the Twins or the highly hittable arm he was at the end of his Twins tenure? The All-Star, innings-eating winner he was for long spurts with the Cardinals or the shaky and injured pitcher?

In my mind, I keep seeing flashes of Cardinals pitchers of the past who’ve fallen apart after they left the winning organization, friendly confines of Busch Stadium, the supportive fans, and baseball-loving atmosphere from a bygone era. The vision tells me to shy away from Lohse.

One example in particular is Lohse’s former teammate Joel Pineiro. Like Lohse, Pineiro’s career was floundering before he got to St. Louis and was willing to listen to Duncan and alter his mechanics, mental and physical approach and become something different from what he was in order to save his career. He rejuvenated and reinvented himself to garner a 2-year, $16 million contract from the Angels when he should’ve stayed with the Cardinals. He started off well in Anaheim, they altered his mechanics from what had been undone and rebuilt by Duncan, and he suffered injuries to his oblique and shoulder. Pineiro pitched in 5 minor league games for the Orioles in 2012 and, barring another comeback, appears to be finished at 34.

It’s a cautionary tale for a club thinking of believing the Cardinals Lohse is the Lohse they’ll get.

Prediction: Lohse will sign a 3-year deal with the Nationals.


Josh Hamilton—Free Agency Profile

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Name: Josh Hamilton

Position: Outfielder

Vital Statistics: Age—31 (32 on May 21st); Height—6’4”; Weight—240 lbs.; Bats—Left; Throws—Left

Career Transactions: Drafted in the 1st round (1st overall) by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in the 1999 amateur draft; drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the Rule 5 draft in December of 2006; purchased by the Cincinnati Reds in December of 2006; traded by the Cincinnati Reds to the Texas Rangers for RHP Edinson Volquez and LHP Danny Herrera.

Agent: Michael Moye

Might he return to the Rangers? Yes.

Teams that could use him, pay him, and might pursue him: Boston Red Sox; Baltimore Orioles; Chicago White Sox; Kansas City Royals; Texas Rangers; Seattle Mariners; Washington Nationals; Philadelphia Phillies; Atlanta Braves; Milwaukee Brewers; Chicago Cubs; San Francisco Giants; Los Angeles Dodgers.

Positives: Hamilton has the power to hit the ball out of any park at any time and is capable of hitting 10 home runs in a week. He is a former MVP, is a good defensive left fielder and can play a decent center field.

Negatives: He’s injury-prone. His concentration lapses amid negativity leading to off-field questions as to how he’ll cope with them. Hamilton’s substance abuse problems and known incidences of drinking since supposedly getting clean raise massive red flags. At age 32, his body has been abused for extended periods making it reasonable to wonder when his physical decline will begin and if it’s going to be earlier than it would be with other players.

What he wants: 7-years, $175 million

What he’ll get: 4-years, $95 million

Teams that might give it to him: Red Sox, Orioles, Rangers, Mariners, Nationals, Phillies, Dodgers

The Red Sox were said to have serious interest in Hamilton, but that was later played down. Unless they’re shut out on every other avenue, the Red Sox are not going to repeat the mistakes they made with players like Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and John Lackey who were not emotionally equipped to handle Boston and the intense pressure and expectations that come along with being a big name free agent signee. That said, with the Blue Jays improvement and a very tough division, they might panic.

The Orioles have the money and a hole in the middle of their lineup. It was at Camden Yards that Hamilton hit 4 homers in one game earlier this year and is a career .370 hitter there. Baltimore is sufficiently less-pressurized than New York, Boston, and Los Angeles that the temptations Hamilton has to face will be limited.

The Rangers and Hamilton have set their winter positions with the Rangers saying they won’t go past 3 years and Hamilton wanting 7. There’s room for negotiation and if they aren’t able to get a Justin Upton, a B.J. Upton, or to improve their offense in another manner, they and Hamilton might agree to re-up.

The Nationals have a ton of money and would be able to make room for Hamilton by moving Mike Morse to first base. The Phillies need an outfield bat desperately, but I would not put the sensitive Hamilton in Philadelphia. The Dodgers don’t have room for Hamilton, but with the money they’re spending and the willingness of GM Ned Colletti to do anything and everything, they can’t be discounted.

Would I sign Hamilton? Yes and no. I would not go over 4 years. If he’s so insistent on 5-7 years, I would give 4 guaranteed and want the option to nullify the contract immediately if he fails a drug test or is caught drinking.

The Players Association would never go for it and nor would Hamilton, so reality dictates that he would not sign with me.

Will the team that signs him regret it? If he signs a 3-4 year contract, no. If someone gives him 6-7 years at $150-175 million, they will absolutely regret it.

Prediction: Hamilton will either sign with the Orioles for 6-years or wind up back with the Rangers on a 4-year contract with a reachable incentive to get a 5th and 6th year and legal language giving the Rangers some recourse if he starts using/drinking again.


2012 MLB Award Winners—National League Manager of the Year

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Awards time is coming up fast in MLB. Yesterday I wrote why Bob Melvin should win the Manager of the Year award on the American League. Last month, I listed my Cy Young Award picks. Now, let’s look at the National League Manager of the Year along with who I picked before the season and who I think is going to win as opposed to who should win.

1. Davey Johnson, Washington Nationals

Johnson retuned to the dugout at mid-season 2011 at age 68 replacing Jim Riggleman and taking over a team that had been rebuilt from top-to-bottom and was on the cusp of taking the leap into contention. 2012 was supposed to be a step forward with a chance at making the playoffs if everything broke right. It turned out that everything broke right and then some.

Johnson straddled the line of development and winning; of protecting and letting fly and the Nationals won 98 games and the NL East title.

In his long managerial career, Johnson’s confidence has never been lacking. He’ll tell you his team’s going to win and tell you that it will be, in part, because they have Davey Johnson as their manager. He dealt with the rules and was onboard—reluctantly I think—with the limits placed on Stephen Strasburg. He didn’t hinder Bryce Harper learning how to play and behave in the big leagues and, for the most part, the 19-year-old exceeded expectations especially considering the reputation he carted with him from the minors as a loudmouthed brat.

The veterans have loved Johnson in all of his managerial stops because he lets them be themselves and doesn’t saddle them with a lot of rules and regulations. He doesn’t care about the length of their hair or that their uniforms are all identical as if they’re in the military. He treats them like men and they responded by getting him back to the playoffs.

2. Dusty Baker, Cincinnati Reds

The criticism Baker receives from the stat-obsessed is bordering on fanatical and doled out just for its own sake. He does and says some strange things sometimes, but so does every manager in baseball. He lost his closer Ryan Madson in spring training and replaced him with the unproven Aroldis Chapman and manipulated the bullpen well. The starting pitching was solid from top-to-bottom and remarkably healthy. The lineup lost star Joey Votto for a chunk of the season, but got through it and won the NL Central in a walk. The bottom line for Baker is this: he wins when he has good players and the players play hard for him. That’s all that matters.

3. Bruce Bochy, San Francisco Giants

Bochy is old-school and would fit in perfectly in the late 1800s with his gravely voice, gruff and grumbly—though likable—manner of speaking, and professional handling of his players. Like Baker, Bochy lost his closer Brian Wilson; dealt with Tim Lincecum’s poor season; and manipulated the lineup getting useful production from journeymen like Gregor Blanco after the suspension of Melky Cabrera.

4. Mike Matheny, St. Louis Cardinals

Matheny made some strategic mistakes as he was learning on the job after never having managed before, but the Cardinals made the playoffs and got past the expected pains of evolution following the departures of Tony LaRussa, Dave Duncan, and Albert Pujols. Matheny coaxed a career year out of Kyle Lohse, transitioned Lance Lynn into the starting rotation and an All-Star berth, and overcame the injuries to Lance Berkman and Yadier Molina.

5. Fredi Gonzalez, Atlanta Braves

Gonzalez learned from his mistakes by not burning out his bullpen and overcame injuries and questions in the starting rotation and lineup to win 94 games. Gonzalez and pitching coach Roger McDowell developed Kris Medlen; didn’t abuse Craig Kimbrel; overcame the struggles of Randall Delgado and Tommy Hanson; and the injuries to Brandon Beachy and Jonny Venters. Dan Uggla dealt with prolonged slumps; Chipper Jones was in and out of the lineup; and the Braves went through multiple shortstops, but still emerged in a tough division to make the playoffs.

My preseason pick was Johnson and that’s who’s going to win.


Terry Francona Chooses the Indians—Why?

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Terry Francona could conceivably have had his choice of jobs as the baseball managerial wheel spins. But, shockingly (to me at least), he decided to take over as the manager of the Cleveland Indians on a 4-year contract. The move is being lauded widely, but is it the right one for both sides?

Let’s see what this means for the Indians and Francona and why it might’ve happened.

Francona wants to prove himself

After his tenure in Philadelphia and in the throes of the Moneyball craze in which a manager was seen as little more than a faceless automaton whose prime directive is to follow orders from the front office, Francona took over as the Red Sox manager. He was hired because he was willing to do what he was told; would take short money; was agreeable to the players and especially Curt Schilling, whom the Red Sox were trying to acquire from the Diamondbacks; and he wasn’t Grady Little.

Even as the Red Sox won their long-elusive championship and another one three years later, there was forever an underlying feeling that Francona—in spite of his likability and deft handling of the media and egos in the Red Sox clubhouse—was along for the ride. Perhaps he’d like to show off his managerial skills in a less financially free situation such as that of the Indians. The Indians have some talent on the big league roster. Asdrubal Cabrera, Carlos Santana, Lonnie Chisenhall, Shin-Soo Choo, Justin Masterson, and Ubaldo Jimenez are the foundation for a decent club. They should also have some money to spend on mid-level improvements with both Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore coming off the books.

In order for a manager to eliminate the perception of what he was in his prior stop, he has to go to a totally different situation. Francona certainly has that with the Indians.

He enjoyed his time with the Indians, has ties to Cleveland, and misses the competition

Francona was a former front office assistant with the Indians and his father Tito Francona was an All-Star player for the Indians in the early-1960s. He knows the front office and there will be a cohesiveness that wasn’t present with the Red Sox. As successful as Francona was in Boston, there was a limit to his sway. With the Indians, his opinions will be heard and he must feel they’ll be adhered to.

That’s not necessarily a good thing. If a club is rebuilding and the manager is trying to justify his reputation, he’s going to want to win. There’s a tug-of-war at play when a manager wants to win and the organization is trying to develop. Francona might not be the same person he was when working for the Indians in his pre-Red Sox days and if the Indians aren’t willing to mortgage the future in a win-now maneuver, there could be unexpected friction.

Being around baseball as a broadcaster isn’t the same as being in the middle of the fight. Francona recharged his batteries, or may think he recharged his batteries after a year away, and wants to jump back into the fray.

He didn’t want to wait and see about other, higher-pressure jobs

The implication of Francona as the prototypical “nice guy” isn’t exactly accurate. He, like Joe Torre, has been a far more calculating presence than his portrayal and persona suggests. He played the martyr following the Red Sox collapse and became a victim to the players’ decision to disrespect him and the front office need to kick someone overboard as a show of “doing something.”

Was he innocent? It’s part of the manager’s job to be hypocritical, but if he was going to get the credit for being laid back when the team was winning and it was okay that the starting pitchers who weren’t working that day were off doing whatever, then he also gets the blame when clubhouse leaks and team fractures result in a disappointing fall. The idea that Francona wasn’t to be held accountable in any way for the Red Sox slide in 2011 (and in 2012 for that matter) is ludicrous. If his calm leadership was credited for them winning in 2004 and 2007, then his porous discipline is part of why they came undone.

Will there be expectations in Cleveland? Based on Francona’s reputation, there will be factions thinking the “proven manager” theory will work. But in the end, it’s about the players. Francona could have sat in the ESPN booth and waited for other jobs with more attractive on-field personnel—the Angels and Tigers specifically—to open. He wants to win, but with the Indians, he won’t get the blame if they don’t.

The Indians presented a plan to spend a bit more freely

As mentioned earlier, the Indians will be free of Hafner’s, Sizemore’s, and Derek Lowe’s paychecks and they may look to trade Choo. That should give them increased flexibility. If I’m Manny Acta, I would be offended if the Indians spend this winter, signing and trading for players who were off-limits due to finances simply because they hired Francona. Acta has been unlucky in his managerial stops. With the Nationals, he oversaw the breaking of the ground in their rebuild and was fired. He got the Indians job and did as much as he could with limited talent and again was fired. It’s a similar situation that we’ve seen with Art Howe and Torre. Howe left the Athletics for the Mets for many reasons. The Mets were going to pay him more than the A’s would have; Mets’ GM Steve Phillips wanted someone he could control better than the fired Bobby Valentine and another candidate Lou Piniella; and he also wanted to prove that his success wasn’t the fluke it was presented as in Moneyball.

Torre was fired by the Cardinals in 1995 and this was well before he became “The Godfather” of baseball and St. Joe—both images promulgated by Torre himself. He was considered a retread who knew how to handle the clubhouse, but wouldn’t do much to help the team one way or the other. If you examine the 1995 Cardinals team that Torre was fired from 47 games into the season, they weren’t very good and didn’t spend any money (20th in payroll that season). They’d allowed Gregg Jefferies, one player who had blossomed under Torre’s gentle hand where he’d failed everywhere else, to depart to the Phillies without replacing him. Back then, Tony LaRussa was viewed as the Mr. Fix-It who could win anywhere by sheer force of will and strategic brilliance. LaRussa was hired as Cardinals’ manager that winter after he left the Athletics as a managerial free agent and, lo and behold, they imported players LaRussa wanted because he had a power that Torre didn’t have and for him to take the job, that guarantee had to be made. A bad team was transformed into a club that lost in game 7 of the NLCS.

Torre, to put it mildly, landed on his feet with the Yankees.

Howe, on the other hand, took over a Mets team in disarray with a power struggle at the top and awkwardly moving on from the late 1990s-2000 years of contention. The 2003-2004 Mets under Howe had a misleadingly high payroll because of prior financial commitments they’d made to declining players. When Omar Minaya took over as GM late in the 2004 season, it was announced that Howe would finish the season and not be retained. The Mets hired an inexperienced Willie Randolph and opened the checkbook in the winter of 2004-2005 spending big money on Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran. They finished at 83-79 in 2005 and would’ve finished with pretty much that same record under Howe. An in-demand manager can say what he wants and have it done. A retread can’t. Torre was a retread; Howe was a bystander; with the Phillies, Francona was a shrug. LaRussa was LaRussa and got what he wanted.

Will it work?

In the end, it’s the players. If Francona’s going to succeed in Cleveland, it won’t be through some “magic” that doesn’t exist. His reputation might be conducive to players wanting to go to Cleveland; his laid-back demeanor will be easier for young players to develop without someone screaming or glaring at them; but it won’t be due to the simplistic, “He won with the Red Sox so he’ll win here.” He didn’t win in Philadelphia because the team was bad. Does that factor in? If not, it should.

If the Indians toss the same roster in 2013 as they did in 2012, they’re not going to be all that much better under Francona than they were under Acta and Sandy Alomar Jr.

If that’s the case, then Francona wouldn’t have taken the job. The “name” manager gets his way, justified or not. If it fails or succeeds, we’ll know why.


Final Analysis on the Strasburg Shutdown

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

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

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

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

What do other players think about this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Could Strasburg prevent this?

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

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

The Nationals arguments for the shutdown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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