American League Remaining Schedule and Playoff Chance Analysis

2013 MLB Predicted Standings, Ballparks, Football, Games, History, Management, Media, Players, Playoffs, Stats, World Series

Let’s take a look at the remaining schedules for all the teams still in the hunt for an American League playoff berth.

Boston Red Sox

Record: 89-58; 15 games remaining

Current Position: First Place by 9.5 games, American League East

Remaining Schedule: 1 game at Rays; 3 games vs. Yankees; 3 games vs. Orioles; 3 games vs. Blue Jays; 2 games at Rockies; 3 games at Orioles

The Red Sox have the best record in the American League by five games. They’re going to have a significant say in which team gets the second Wild Card given their six games against the Orioles and four against the Yankees. They’re not going to lay down as evidenced by manager John Farrell’s somewhat odd – but successful – decision last night to use Koji Uehara is a tie game that meant nothing to them. I’m wondering if Farrell has received advice from Patriots coach Bill Belichick on going for the throat at all costs because it was a Belichick move.

They don’t seem to have a preference as to whether they knock out the Yankees, Rays or Orioles. They’re playing all out, all the way.

Oakland Athletics

Record: 84-61; 17 games remaining

Current Position: First Place by 3 games, American League West

Remaining Schedule: 1 game at Twins; 3 games at Rangers; 3 games vs. Angels; 4 games vs. Twins; 3 games at Angels; 3 games at Mariners

The A’s lead the Rangers by three games and have three games with them this weekend. Strength of schedule can be a dual-edged sword. This isn’t the NFL, but teams whose seasons are coming to a disappointing close are just as likely to get some motivation by playing teams that have something to play for as they are to bag it and give up. The Angels have played better lately and the Mariners can pitch.

Detroit Tigers

Record: 84-62; 16 games remaining

Current Position: First Place by 6.5 games, American League Central

Remaining Schedule: 3 games vs. Royals; 4 games vs. Mariners; 3 games vs. White Sox; 3 games vs. Twins; 3 games vs. Marlins

The Tigers’ upcoming schedule is pretty weak and they have a good cushion for the division. They can’t coast, but they can relax a bit.

Texas Rangers

Record: 81-64; 17 games remaining

Current Position: Second Place by 3 games, American League West; lead first Wild Card by 3.5 games

Remaining Schedule: 3 games vs. Athletics; 4 games at Rays; 3 games at Royals; 3 games vs. Astros; 4 games vs. Angels

The Rangers are in jeopardy of falling out of the playoffs entirely if they slip up over the next ten games. All of those teams have something to play for and the Rangers have been slumping.

Tampa Bay Rays

Record: 78-66; 18 games remaining

Current Position: Second Place by 9.5 games, American League East; lead second Wild Card by 1 game

Remaining Schedule: 1 game vs. Red Sox; 3 games at Twins; 4 games at Rangers; 4 games at Orioles; 3 games at Yankees; 3 games at Blue Jays

With the way they’re currently playing (think the 2007 Mets) they’re not going to right their ship in time to make the playoffs. They’d better wake up. Fast.

New York Yankees

Record: 78-68; 16 games remaining

Current Position: Third Place by 10.5 games; 1 game behind for the second Wild Card

Remaining Schedule: 1 game at Orioles; 3 games at Red Sox; 3 games at Blue Jays; 3 games vs. Giants; 3 games vs. Rays; 3 games at Astros

There’s a reluctance to say it, but the Yankees are better off without this current version of Derek Jeter. He was hurting the team offensively and defensively. Their problem has nothing to do with schedules or how they’re playing, but with age and overuse. They’re hammering away with their ancient veterans for one last group run. Mariano Rivera is being repeatedly used for multiple innings out of necessity; Alex Rodriguez is hobbled; David Robertson is pitching hurt; Shawn Kelley isn’t 100 percent; Andy Pettitte is gutting his way through. If they’re in it in the last week, will there be any gas left in their collective tanks?

Cleveland Indians

Record: 77-68; 17 games remaining

Current Position: Second Place by 6.5 games, American League Central; 1.5 games behind for the second Wild Card

Remaining Schedule: 4 games at White Sox; 3 games at Royals; 4 games vs. Astros; 2 games vs. White Sox; 4 games at Twins

The White Sox are playing about as badly as the Astros without the excuse of lack of talent/innocent youth. They just don’t seem to care. The Indians’ schedule pretty much guarantees they’ll at least be alive in the last week of the season.

Baltimore Orioles

Record: 77-68; 17 games remaining

Current Position: Fourth Place by 11 games, American League East; 1.5 games behind for the second Wild Card

Remaining Schedule: 1 game vs. Yankees; 3 games at Blue Jays; 3 games at Red Sox; 4 games at Rays; 3 games vs. Blue Jays; 3 games vs. Red Sox

The Red Sox are taking great, sadistic pleasure in hampering the playoff hopes of anyone and everyone and have shown no preference in who they’re beating on. This will hurt and/or help the Orioles. The big games to watch are those four with the Rays.

Kansas City Royals

Record: 77-69; 16 games remaining

Current Position: Third Place by 7 games, American League Central; 2 games behind for the second Wild Card

Remaining Schedule: 3 games at Tigers; 3 games vs. Indians; 3 games vs. Rangers; 3 games at Mariners; 4 games at White Sox

I’d like to see the Royals make the playoffs because: A) they’re a likable young team; B) we need some new blood in the post-season; and B) the likes of Rany Jazayerli, Rob Neyer, Joe Sheehan and the rest of the stat-obsessed “experts” who live to bash the Royals will either have to admit they’re wrong (unlikely) or will join together to play a disturbing game of middle-aged men Twister (hopefully clothed) to justify why they were “right” even though Dayton Moore’s moves worked and the Royals leapt into contention and more.

It will be nice having an experienced arm like James Shields for a one-game Wild Card playoff or for the first game of the ALDS. I have a feeling about the Royals making the playoffs. And it’s gonna be funny.




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The Reality of the Yankees’ Playoff Chances

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Regardless of what happens in today’s game against the Red Sox, the Yankees are still going to be in position for a run at the last realistic Wild Card spot. Ignoring that they’re injury-ravaged, have no pitching left and are staggering toward the finish line, that is not going to change in the next several days at least.

No matter how many times we hear the mathematical probabilities from the New York Times, the truth about their current and future state from the New York Daily News and Mike Francesa’s death bed postmortem, the fact remains that the Yankees are still only 2.5 games behind the plummeting Rays and 1.5 games behind the Orioles and Indians. They have a four-game series in Baltimore this week and, obviously, if they pitch as they have against the Red Sox the real funeral for the Yankees of 2013 will be underway. But now? No. They’re a three game winning streak and a little luck away from suddenly being in the lead for the second Wild Card.

Of course, one thing that many seem to ignore is that making the playoffs with the Wild Card isn’t a guarantee of anything beyond one extra game. Given how battered the Yankees are and that the team they’re going to play in the game is the Athletics or the Rangers, their chances of advancing even if they make it that far are weak. They’re old and in significant transition. The overwhelming likelihood is that they’re as done as the above-linked articles say. The idea that they were “the team no one wanted to face,” or other clubs were feeling the Yankees’ breathing down their necks, or that the old warhorses Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Andy Pettitte still had something to say in the playoff race were no more than reminiscing for remember when. Pettitte has been good and A-Rod has had his moments.

Then we come to Jeter.

The decision by manager Joe Girardi to pull Jeter from yesterday’s game was made because he didn’t like the way Jeter was running. It’s clear that he’s nowhere near 100 percent. In fact, he’s probably at around 70 percent. His range, never that great to begin with, is even worse; he’s not hitting; he’s not helping the team on the field. All the talk of the lineup not looking the same without him in it and how his mere presence in the lineup is a lift for the team is a politically correct thing to say to play up Jeter’s value. Except his current value isn’t all that much. He can lead from the clubhouse and they can put someone into the game who’s going to provide more on the field and considering that someone is Eduardo Nunez, that says about as much about what Jeter can currently do as anything else.

This could change within the next 2-3 days, but the fact is that the Yankees are still in contention no matter what the numbers and opinions say.




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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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Manny Ramirez’s Last(?) Fight

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Manny Ramirez will either wind up like Muhammad Ali or George Foreman. With Ali, his final comeback attempt (not counting a last-last, this is definitely the last fight in 1981 in which he lost to journeyman Trevor Berbick) came when he took a ferocious beating from a reluctant, in-his-prime heavyweight champ Larry Holmes. Ali went to great lengths to show what great shape he was in prior to the fight by getting back to the weight he fought at when he defeated Foreman in Zaire. But the fact that he was in shape didn’t matter. Holmes battered him in a perfunctory manner and, by the end, was screaming at the referee to stop the fight before he seriously injured Ali. Ali certainly didn’t need the money nor the increased number of blows to his already damaged brain, but he couldn’t stop himself from seeking the limelight and that one last shot at glory doing the one thing he truly knew how to do better than anyone else.

With Foreman, he was ridiculed when he came out of retirement and is still looked at with a jaundiced gaze by saying God told him to do it. He was overweight and old, but the laughter ended when he showed he still had the punching power and savvy to win fights. He put up a great show when losing to Evander Holyfield and eventually knocked out Michael Moorer to regain the title he’d lost twenty years earlier to Ali in 1974.

With Ramirez, he is returning after a stint hitting against, in boxing parlance, tomato cans in Taiwan. In Taiwan, they’re professionals and they’re talented, but they’re not on a level with a good Double A team in North America. While there, he was hitting subpar pitching in accumulating a .352 average, .422 OBP, and eight homers in 49 games. Abruptly leaving his Taiwanese team—the EDA Rhinos—Ramirez was rumored to be heading to Japan before deciding he’d like another shot with an MLB team. No one seemed interested until the Rangers decided to take a chance on him. The question is, can he help them?

Ramirez hasn’t played with a major league team since he went 1 for 17 for the Rays in 2011 before walking away and subsequently being caught failing another PED test. Amid much fanfare in an otherwise dreary off-season for the Athletics in the winter of 2011-2012, he was signed to a minor league contract. At that point, the A’s were embarking on another rebuilding project and for half the season, played as poorly as predicted before a sudden hot streak vaulted them into the playoffs. No one knew they could achieve those heights when they signed Ramirez and they needed him to sell a few seats with the mere hint of him being in the big leagues as a sideshow. In a best case scenario, he’d attract a few fans and hit well enough for the A’s to trade him to a contender (because not even Billy Beane thought they’d contend in 2012); worst case, they’d release him. He batted .302 in 63 at bats for Triple A Sacramento with no homers. The A’s released him last June and he went to Taiwan.

Now he’s back.

Can the Rangers expect anything from him? Like the decision on the part of the A’s to sign him, this is a test case for team benefit. The Rangers are contenders and need a righty bat. The trade deadline is July 31st and the Rangers are aggressive and active in improving their team. With a month to go before the time comes when they’ll have to make an acquisition along the lines of Mike Morse to boost their righty power, it’s cheaper and zero risk to look at Ramirez and get an answer as to whether he can still hit. Like Ali’s last fight, it could be a “would you stop it already?” moment. Or it could be an out-of-shape former star who shows he can still perform as Foreman did. The odds are it’s the former and even if the evidence is clear that Ramirez needs to hang it up, he probably won’t. Either way, there’s no risk for the Rangers to have a look.

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The Solution For Brian Cashman’s Tantrums

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Multiple reasons have been floated for Yankees general manager Brian Cashman’s explosive overreaction to the Alex Rodriguez tweet that he’d been given the go-ahead to play in rehab games by the doctor who performed his hip surgery. Are Cashman and the organization sick of A-Rod and everything surrounding A-Rod? Do they not want him back? Is Cashman tired of answering questions about the latest A-Rod misadventure? Is it all of the above?

Cashman’s response was silly and he apologized for it, but that doesn’t cloud the number of times that the once taciturn Cashman has incrementally come out of the shell of nebbishness in which he once cloaked himself and done so in a clumsy and overtly embarrassing manner to himself and the Yankees. It’s not just the A-Rod incidents, but it’s the way he publicly dared Derek Jeter to leave in a game of chicken that he knew the Yankees would win; it’s the way his personal life became tabloid fodder; and it’s the hardheaded arrogance with which he insisted that his young pitchers be developed to results that have been mediocre (Phil Hughes) to disappointing (Joba Chamberlain) to disastrous (Manny Banuelos, Dellin Betances).

Cashman’s attitude in press conferences and interviews even comes through when reading his words instead of hearing them: he doesn’t want to be there; he doesn’t want to be doing the interviews; and every time he speaks to the press, he sounds as if he’s either heading for, enduring or just left an exploratory anal examination. (Again, maybe it’s all of the above.)

But the GM of a baseball team has to speak to the press, doesn’t he? So what’s the solution?

Here’s the solution: Promote him.

I’m not talking about giving him points in the team as the A’s ludicrously did with Billy Beane. I’m not talking about him being moved up as a way to get him out of the baseball operations. I’m talking about benefiting him and the club by giving him a break and a change from the job he’s done for so long.

There are two types of promotions. One is when the individual is given an entirely new job and new sets of responsibilities; the other is when the individual has certain responsibilities that he or she doesn’t want to do anymore and no longer has to worry about them, but the other duties performed will essentially be the same. With Cashman, he wouldn’t be titled team president, but he could be named similarly to the titles that Theo Epstein has with the Cubs, Ken Williams has with the White Sox and Jon Daniels has with the Rangers. The change to president of baseball operations would not be made so he’d accumulate more power, but so he wouldn’t have to talk to the media every single day as the upfront voice of the organization. No longer would he run the risk of his frustration boiling over and manifesting itself with inappropriateness as it is on a continual basis now.

No matter what you think of him, Cashman has accomplished far more in his post than either Williams or Daniels have. In fact, he’s accomplished more in the bottom line than Epstein and Beane in spite of their fictional media portrayals as unassailable geniuses. But he’s still basically doing the same job he did when he was hired as GM in 1998. Yes, George Steinbrenner is gone and replaced with the rational Hal Steinbrenner; yes, he’s got more sway than he did then; and yes, he brought the entire baseball operation under his control without the Tampa shadow government, but he’s still the VP and general manager. He still has to do these press conferences and batting practice “chats” where he’s likely to have a fuse worn down to a nub and explode whenever the name A-Rod is mentioned, when he’s asked about what he’s planning to do to make the club better, when he’s asked about the Robinson Cano contract or anything else.

Of course there are other problems associated with the idea. First, current team president Randy Levine might see a Cashman promotion as an usurping of his position and react in a Randy Levine way by saying, “He can’t be the president, I’m the president.” Then slowly rising to a gradual climax with a raised voice, “I’m the president!!!!!” And finally, pounding on his desk with his face turning the color or a ripe eggplant as he strangles himself with his own tie, bellowing at the top of his lungs, “I……AM…..THE….PRES….I….DEEEEEEENNNNNNNTTTTTTTT!!!!!!!!!”

Jason Zillo would be dutifully standing nearby in sycophantic agreement presented in such a way that he almost appears to believe it, “Yep, he sure is. Randy’s the president.” Adding, “And I’m the gatekeeper,” with a certain smug pride and said in the tone of the child saying, “And I helped,” when his mother made the Stove Top Stuffing.

Would it really affect anyone if Cashman is kicked upstairs so he doesn’t have to endure the drudgery that he’s clearly tired of? If Damon Oppenheimer or Billy Eppler can handle the day-to-day minutiae that comes with being a GM—minutiae that is clearly taking its toll on Cashman—why not make the change? It wouldn’t alter the structure of the baseball operations in any significant way other than giving Cashman a bump that he’s earned after time served and a break from having to look at Joel Sherman and answer his ridiculous questions day after day.

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Rethinking the GM, Part III—American League West

All Star Game, Award Winners, Ballparks, Books, CBA, Cy Young Award, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, Hall Of Fame, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Waiver Trades, MVP, Paul Lebowitz's 2013 Baseball Guide, PEDs, Players, Playoffs, Politics, Prospects, Spring Training, Stats, Trade Rumors, World Series

Click on these links to read part I and part II.

Texas Rangers

Jon Daniels is a popular and well-respected GM today but that wasn’t the case when he took over for John Hart in October of 2005 and one of the first big trades he made sent Adrian Gonzalez and pitcher Chris Young to the Padres for Adam Eaton and Akinori Otsuka. That will go down as one of the worst trades in the history of the sport.

If he was able to rebound from that and craft the Rangers into an annual contender with a reasonable payroll and deep farm system while dealing with the alpha-male presence of Nolan Ryan and navigating his way through the financial woes of former owner Tom Hicks, then he’s got something on the ball.

Daniels got the GM job very young at 28 and clearly wasn’t ready for it, but grew into the job and is not a stat guy or scouting guy, but uses every outlet at his disposal and is also able to do the dirty work mentioned earlier to consolidate his power.

Oakland Athletics

Just ignore Moneyball for a moment when thinking about Billy Beane. Look at his body of work without the accolades, best-selling book and ridiculous move to accompany the star status Beane’s cultivated and persona Beane has created and look at his work objectively. Is he a good GM who worked his way up through the ranks from scouting to assistant GM to GM to part owner? Yes. Would he be as lusted after without that ridiculous bit of creative non-fiction known as Moneyball? No.

It can be argued that Moneyball has done an exponential amount of damage in comparison to the good it did in introducing the world at large to statistics that they would not otherwise have realized existed. Due to Moneyball, everyone thinks they can study a spreadsheet, calculate some numbers and suddenly run a big league baseball team. One of the under-reported aspects of Moneyball is that Beane played in the Major Leagues with a nondescript career as a journeyman when he was talented enough to be a superstar. It’s part of the narrative that made the Beane story so fascinating, but now that he’s become this totem many of his worshippers probably aren’t even aware that he played at all.

Beane had a perfect storm when he took over as GM. There had been a brief Sports Illustrated profile of him and his transition for player to scout and he was known in MLB circles as an up-and-comer, but the Athletics were so bad and so consistently bad for several years due to financial constraints that Beane was able to implement the strategies of statistics into his player procurement. It worked because no one else was doing it or paying big money for players who didn’t just get on base, but had undervalued attributes.

Beane’s “genius” has been a media creation. He’s been smart, he’s been lucky and he’s also been unlucky. He’s crafted the image of the brilliantly cold corporate titan when it’s not true. He’s a former player who entered the front office, took advantage of the opportunities presented to him and has been successful. A large part of that is due to the circular nature of Moneyball giving him the freedom and leeway to make bad trades and have half-a-decade of futility in which he blamed everyone but the man in the mirror and still kept his job.

Los Angeles Angels

Jerry Dipoto has two issues that are tarnishing his reputation as a GM. One, people don’t remember that it was Dipoto, functioning as the interim GM of the Diamondbacks after Josh Byrnes was fired in 2010, who made two trades that have paid significant dividends to the current Diamondbacks by acquiring Patrick Corbin and Tyler Skaggs for Dan Haren and getting Daniel Hudson for Edwin Jackson. Two, he’s overseeing an Angels team that has played better recently but is still in rampant disarray with overpaid, underperforming players; a manager who has had his own power within the organization mitigated by the hiring of Dipoto; and is trying to rebuild the farm system in his own way with scouts he knows and a new school sensibility while the owner wants a championship now and the manager has a contract to 2018. It’s highly doubtful that Dipoto wanted to commit so much money and so many years to the likes of Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton.

Dipoto was a journeyman relief pitcher who scouted and worked in many front offices with varying philosophies before getting the Angels job and is a qualified baseball man. It’s difficult to know what he’s wanted to do with the Angels and what’s been forced upon him. If the situation really comes apart, he might be cleared out with the rest of the Angels hierarchy and have to wait to get another opportunity due to the damage done to his reputation with what’s happening with the Angels.

Seattle Mariners

The ice is cracking under the feet of Jack Zduriencik and if he is eventually dismissed he will be a cautionary tale that no one will listen to when anointing the next “genius” by giving credit for that which he had nothing to do with. After the fact, if you ask Zduriencik what his biggest regret is, it’s likely to be that the Mariners had such a luck-filled rise from 101 losses the year before he arrived to 85 wins in his first year on the job. It accelerated the process spurring the trade for Cliff Lee and drastically raised the expectations.

Unsurprisingly the expectations were not met; much of Zduriencik’s subsequent moves have gone wrong and if he is indeed fired, the next GM will likely benefit from the farm system seeds Zduriencik planted. That brings me to the next point: there are GMs who are better-served as assistants, farm directors, scouts, and other lower-level positions in an organization. It may not be as flashy, but is no less important and for all the talk of “GM prospects,” it must be examined whether or not the person will be able to do all aspects of the job as an overseer rather than as an underling.

Houston Astros

Jeff Luhnow is not only getting a pass for the horrific Astros club he’s put together—that is on a level with an expansion team—but for the Cardinals fertile farm system that is continually producing players. The draft is a communal effort and not one person deserves or should receive all of the credit in the same manner that a GM shouldn’t get the blame if drafts go poorly. Luhnow didn’t work his way up in baseball and was a private businessman when Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt hired him. This infuriated the old-school people in the Cardinals organization namely Walt Jocketty, Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan and created factions between the stat people and the scouting people that eventually resulted in Jocketty’s firing. Luhnow also lost the power struggle to LaRussa in the months prior to leaving the Cardinals to take over the Astros. If nothing else, it was the experience in trying to transition into a baseball front office that has shaped Luhnow’s building of his Astros staff and construction of the roster from the top down as he’s got people who are going to do things in the stat-based way and are told before they’re hired how it’s going to be or they’re not going to get the job.

Of course the portrayal of Luhnow as the newest/latest “genius” and musings as to when (not if) he’ll be the subject of the new Moneyball are absurd. In four years he could be in the same position as Zduriencik or he could be Andrew Friedman. Know this: Astros owner Jim Crane is not going to accept failure and if the Luhnow project doesn’t work all the trust and belief that Crane has put into the Luhnow experiment will be quickly forgotten if the team doesn’t show concrete results on the field.

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Umpiring Won’t Change For A Generation

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The two-game suspension of umpire Fielden Culbreth for his inexplicable mistake in the Angels-Astros game is fine. While it’s not much of a deterrent for an umpire to make a gaffe since Culbreth didn’t do it intentionally, it’s a symbol to the fans and the media that MLB is “doing something.”

That umpiring error along with Angel Hernandez’s failure to overrule a missed home run call off the bat of Adam Rosales of the A’s after he saw the replay has again dragged umpiring into the spotlight. Amid the demands for a command central to handle home runs as they do with goals in the NHL and more strict overseeing of the jobs the umps are doing, the fact is that the umpiring culture will not change to a by-the-book methodology for another generation.

Umpiring is ingrained and comes from the ground up. They’re taught by former umps; there’s a brotherhood, a clique, and a learned strategy for “handling” players; and they aren’t entreated to follow the rulebook to the letter, therefore they don’t. Until that changes and an MLB-crafted guideline is created to train and recruit the umpires, there won’t be a monolithic difference in the way the games are called.

We’ve come a long way from Doug Harvey being the only umpire to enforce niggling rules like only one batter being allowed to hover in the on-deck circle at a time; from Harry Wendelstedt enforcing a rarely-if-ever referenced rule that Dick Dietz being hit by a Don Drysdale pitch that would’ve ended Drysdale’s scoreless inning streak was nullified because Dietz didn’t try to get out of the way; from Ed Runge testing young batters with a gigantic strike zone, staring at them to see how they reacted, and telling stars like Mickey Mantle that he’d better straighten out mouthy rookies who dared question him. Now all the games are on television, the umpires are known by face and name, commentary abounds on what “must” be done and how to “fix” the umpiring without some blogger realizing: A) how fast the game is; and B) that the umpires, for the most part, do a very good job, treat the players and the game with respect and are respected in turn.

The problem is that the blown calls are prominently featured as news stories and the demand that umpiring be improved trumps the fact that the majority of games move along without a hitch. When the Hernandez and Culbreth mistakes—as separate and different as they were—happen as rat-a-tat as they did, it exponentially raises the scrutiny on the umps and, by proxy, on MLB’s VP of Baseball Operations Joe Torre and MLB itself.

Because players are so much more lucratively paid than the umpires it almost takes the tone of a cop stopping a guy in a Porsche for running a stop sign and being subjected to a browbeating as to how much higher the driver’s net worth is than the police officer’s. There’s no justification for the increasing incidences of umpire abuse or for the likes of Curt Schilling to have smashed the QuestTec device because it was altering “his” strike zone. But this is the culture that was built and it’s going to take a long time for it to change.

It starts from the training schools and minor leagues with the conscious decision to shun the oft-heard umpire lament of “my” strike zone; and “my” way of calling a game; and “my” style. You don’t see officials in the NFL making up their own version of the rules as the game goes along because the NFL is harder on their officials and the rules are the rules—there’s no self-aggrandizing interpretation. As the veteran umpires retire and are replaced by younger ones, the structure will change if the younger umps are trained correctly and taught that they have to enforce the rulebook as is and not put their own artistic flair into something that is supposed to be sacrosanct. It won’t be until 20 or 30 years from now that the seeds planted now will have sprouted. Until then this will continue and not much, if anything, can be done about it.

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Keys to 2013: Oakland Athletics

All Star Game, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, History, Management, PEDs, Players, Playoffs, Prospects, Spring Training, Stats

Starting Pitching Key: Jarrod Parker

With the departure of Brandon McCarthy and the questionable status of Bartolo Colon (he’s getting blasted in spring training following his suspension for PED use), the A’s need Parker to step in and be a top-of-the-rotation starter with 200 innings and ace-level performance to match his abilities. Once he harnesses control of his live fastball and gets his changeup over the plate, he can be a star. He has to mature sooner rather than later if the A’s have any chance to repeat their success from 2012.

Relief Pitching Key: Ryan Cook

Grant Balfour is streaky as the closer and in 2012 lost his job to Cook. He regained the job and held it during the team’s magical run to the division title. While Balfour will start the season as the closer, he’s a free agent at the end of the season and will be looking for more money than the A’s are willing to pay. Maybe something can be worked out that’s agreeable to both sides for Balfour to stay. Balfour must be cognizant of the crashing market for closers and understand that the A’s aren’t married to the concept of the highest paid arm automatically closing based on his salary. Cook is the cheap closer for the future if Balfour’s gone and maybe even if Balfour’s still there.

Offensive Key: Josh Reddick

Anytime there’s a player who surpasses what could reasonably have been expected in a realistic scenario, it’s unwise to think he’ll repeat it. That could be said of Brandon Moss and it could be said of Reddick.

In spite of Billy Beane playing up the journeyman Moss and refusing to discuss him in trades, the sudden display of power from Moss might disappear as rapidly as it happened. With Reddick, the A’s got him for his superior outfield defense and figured he’d hit 15-20 homers if he played every day. Instead, he hit 32. They’ve bolstered the offense with the acquisitions of Jed Lowrie, Hiroyuki Nakajima, John Jaso and Chris Young. Even with that, they need at least 25 from Reddick in 2013 to mitigate Moss’s unavoidable fall to earth.

Defensive Key: Hiroyuki Nakajima

It’s unfair to pigeonhole Japanese imports because of the failures of their predecessors, but if something repeatedly happens, it has to be factored into the equation. Neither Kazuo Matsui nor Tsuyoshi Nishioka could play shortstop well enough defensively to stay there. Matsui could hit a bit and was moved to second base, having a few productive years after he left the Mets; Nishioka was a disaster for the Twins.

Nakajima will get the first shot at shortstop for the A’s, but they acquired Lowrie because they know he can handle the position defensively. If Nakajima hits but proves to be another Japanese player who can’t cover the ground on grass that he did on the preferred surface in Japan, turf, he’ll play at third or second with Lowrie taking over at short. How long the A’s stick with him at short if he can’t play the position adequately is the question. Given the way Beane runs the team, it won’t be long before a move is made if Nakajima can’t do it.

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2013 Astros Will Be A Pennant Race Factor

Ballparks, CBA, Draft, Free Agents, Games, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Waiver Trades, Players, Playoffs, Prospects, Spring Training, Stats, Trade Rumors, World Series

The aftermath of the Astros gutting and pending 2013 disaster won’t simply affect their organization. In a positive sense, they’re getting rid of their moderate-to-highly paid players and bringing volume into their farm system, plus they’re at the top of the MLB draft and will be so for the foreseeable future. In a negative sense, they’ve all but conceded any and all pretense of fielding a legitimate big league team.

Unlike Michael Kay’s ridiculous, uninformed, petty and vindictive “prediction” that the 2012 Mets were going to lose well over 100 games, I can say without rancor or bias that the 2013 Astros are, at best, a 55 win team. It’s probably going to be fewer than that. Let’s look at why this is the case and why a horrendous club will play so great a role is the 2013 playoff chase.

Their division and status as a target

Two teams from the AL West, the Athletics and the Rangers, made the playoffs last season. A third, the Angels, significantly underachieved but still won 89 games. The fourth team, the Mariners, has improved. Because they’re going to play 19 games each against all of these clubs, the Astros and their opponents will enter each series knowing the Astros will be lucky to win a game.

Other clubs are going to go all out to beat the Astros. The games won’t take on the tenacity of Yankees-Red Sox, Reds-Cardinals or Dodgers-Giants, but they’ll entail opposing managers treating them as such because they’re games they have to win. Losing to the Astros this season will be tantamount to a fundamental gaffe such as failing to touch a base, getting caught leaving too soon on a sacrifice fly, not having the proper reliever warming up or hitters batting out of order. It’s inexcusable.

The rest of the American League

For the Yankees, Blue Jays, Rays, White Sox and Royals, the Astros are a problem. With the strength of the AL West teams, three from the division might make the playoffs based strictly on the extra few victories they’ll accumulate by beating up on the Astros.

Let’s say the Red Sox are out of contention by August and the Yankees are hovering around a playoff spot. On the weekend of August 16th the Yankees are playing the Red Sox while the Angels playing the Astros. The Red Sox won’t have a personal stake in the outcome, but nothing would please them more than hurting the Yankees. The Angels will have what amounts to a sparring session while the Yankees and Red Sox are staging a typical four hour wrestling match regardless of their positions in the standings.

Having a team on the schedule for 19 games and realistically penciling in 13-15 wins goes a long way in bolstering one’s win total and assisting a playoff run.

Job savers and game changers

The Mariners 2013 offense is more potent with the additions of Kendrys Morales and Mike Morse. Their pitching will be affected by the decision to move in the fences at Safeco Field. They were 75-87 last season and GM Jack Zduriencik and manager Eric Wedge are both in the final year of their contracts. Zduriencik’s job is on the line. Would a perceived “improvement” of rising to, say, 84-78 be enough to convince ownership that the Mariners are on the right track and that Zduriencik and Wedge deserve at least one more season? If the Astros weren’t in the AL West, the Mariners would probably be around a 75 win team again. With the Astros there, the Mariners should be over .500. This could potentially save the jobs of their GM and manager.

The Angels’ manager Mike Scioscia’s job is also in jeopardy if the high-priced group plays in a similar lackluster fashion as they did last season. In spite of insistence to the contrary, GM Jerry Dipoto and Scioscia are not on the same page. Owner Arte Moreno wasn’t happy with anyone in his organization after splurging for Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson and missing the playoffs. This past winter he spent even more money on Josh Hamilton and kept his management team in place. None of that changes the fact that this current configuration is not a Scioscia team that, in the past, relied on deep starting pitching and bullpen. The starters gobbled innings; they had a proven closer and set-up men; they embodied solid fundamentals, inside baseball strategies, speed and defense. Apart from Mike Trout and Erick Aybar, this team is plodding. They rely on power, power, power with a shaky starting rotation. Could the Astros’ presence give the Angels with the extra 4-5 wins they wouldn’t get otherwise? A number of wins that last season would’ve vaulted them into the playoffs despite the dysfunction?

On the other coast, the Yankees have gotten worse this winter, not better. They’re relying on ancient veterans and reclamation projects, pinching pennies and have a manager, Joe Girardi, on the final year of his contract. If they don’t make the playoffs, someone is on the chopping block. History has proven that Brian Cashman is now the Teflon GM. It won’t be Girardi’s fault, but hypothetically if the Yankees miss the playoffs, he could be gone and it would be in large part due to the Astros getting beaten so consistently by other playoff contenders who have the advantage of 13 more games against them than the Yankees do.

The Astros will get worse as the season moves along

You wouldn’t think it possible for them to get worse with a projected payroll of $25 million and open admission from GM Jeff Luhnow that they’re going to be awful. In response to the criticism for his latest deal in sending Jed Lowrie to the A’s, Luhnow said:

“We’re not going to do something to improve a few games in 2013 that comes at the expense of our ability to compete over the long haul.”

In other words, “We’re going to be as bad or worse than we’ve been in the past two years when we lost 107 and 106 games.”

In a sense, he’s right on all counts. What’s the difference to the Astros if they win 65 or 50 games? But there’s something untoward about a team not even putting forth the affectation of caring whether they win or lose—in fact, trying to lose to get a higher draft position.

The remaining big league-caliber players they have will be traded as well. They’re already willing to listen to offers on their best pitcher and highest paid player, Bud Norris. He’s going to be dealt at some point. The other mediocre veterans they have will be available at mid-season. Carlos Pena still has power and a good glove at first base. Strikeouts and under .200 batting average aside, a contender will take him for their stretch run. Jose Veras is the Astros’ closer and if he’s pitching well is a veteran bullpen asset for the second half. Wesley Wright is a lefty specialist and every team needs more than one lefty specialist in the playoffs.

Luhnow has shown total indifference to trading his players. He’ll send them to division rivals or anywhere that he can get the most in exchange. Pena, Veras, Wright can help the Angels, Rangers, Yankees, White Sox—anyone to win that extra game or two to take a playoff spot.

The Astros are a Triple A team now and will be a Double A team by July. They can talk about the future all they want, but the present has consequences for the rest of baseball.

Expect complaints from teams like the Yankees that it’s not fair. Opposing franchises will say that the Astros should have to field a reasonably competitive big league team. Eventually, something might be done about this strategy with MLB forcing teams to provide a competent product. There’s not much MLB can do right now, but they could try to install a payroll floor in the future, something the Players Association and most other owners would agree to.

In 2013, though, it won’t change the reality or the outcome. As a direct result of the Astros switching leagues, people will save or lose their jobs because of it.

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The Astros Strip The Spaceship For Parts

Ballparks, CBA, Draft, European Football, Free Agents, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, Players, Prospects, Stats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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