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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Blame Joba?

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You can’t blame both Joe West and Joba Chamberlain for last night’s Yankees loss to the Red Sox. When seeking a responsible party, Mariano Rivera also has to be part of the mix. But since that’s not allowed in Yankee-centric circles, the focus turns away from Rivera to the reviled Chamberlain and the cranky veteran ump West.

There were concession speeches going on when Chamberlain was seen warming up in the bottom of the ninth inning. Not even Michael Kay could muster any enthusiasm – phony or otherwise – to show a small positive notion that Chamberlain would do anything more than what he did: give up a run to lose the game. He gave up the run and took the loss, but it’s not entirely his fault.

It really wasn’t that long ago when there were “Joba Rules” T-shirts all over Yankee Stadium; concerns were expressed that then-manager Joe Torre would abuse Chamberlain as he did Scott Proctor and other relievers to ruin his incredible arm; and near fistfights and lunatic rants as to whether Chamberlain should be a starter or reliever were a daily occurrence and went on for years.

It’s 2013 and rather than swat the Cleveland midges that partially defined Chamberlain’s 2007 coming-out party, he’s gotten so heavy that he simply would eat them to add to his prodigious girth. The Yankees and their fans can’t wait until he’s some other team’s problem. The story has come 75 percent of the full circle.

The midges are an appropriate allegory for Chamberlain’s career with the Yankees. It was sabotaged and missed being something special. Who knows what would have happened had Chamberlain been placed in the starting rotation and allowed to pitch and figure things out on his own rather than be subject to the stifling and counterproductive innings limits and pitch counts that ruined not only him, but Phil Hughes as well? What could he have been if he’d been placed in the bullpen as Rivera’s set-up man and allowed to do his job in the same devastating fashion he did when he was a sensation for two months in 2007?

As the years passed and the Yankees jerked him from the rotation to the bullpen and back, as Chamberlain himself ate and trampolined his way out of the club’s and fans’ good graces, he’s become the “Oh God, no” pitcher that no one with anything invested in the Yankees wants to see. Last night’s result was what was expected, but it wasn’t due to anything Chamberlain did. While the Shane Victorino check-swing was viewed as so cut-and-dried that it was portrayed an obvious swing and Chamberlain got himself ejected for arguing it after he was pulled from the game, it wasn’t so blatant that the entire episode should be placed at the feet of West.

After the check-swing, Victorino hit a looping single to right field to score Jacoby Ellsbury. Right fielder Ichiro Suzuki’s throw to the plate would’ve been in time to get Ellsbury had catcher Austin Romine held onto it. How are any of the events subsequent to the check-swing Chamberlain’s or West’s fault?

Chamberlain is immature and was damaged by the way the Yankees anointed and babied him since his debut. That said, he still throws a fastball that reaches the upper-90s and has a hard slider that will accumulate a lot of strikeouts if he’s simply allowed to pitch without all the hovering hatred and preordained negativity that follows him around as long as he wears pinstripes. He’s going to go somewhere next season, either be a set-up man or closer and rejuvenate his value simply because that’s what happens with pitchers the Yankees have played up as their homegrown saviors and are tormented and dispatched when they don’t produce results commensurate with the overwhelming expectations.

Don’t be surprised to see both Hughes and Chamberlain with a team like the Marlins on cheap deals and pitching well. Or for Chamberlain to be the Astros closer. Or for the Rays to try to do what they did with Kyle Farnsworth and Fernando Rodney, give Chamberlain the chance to close and coax 50 saves out of him. Then the fans will turn their ire away from Chamberlain to the Yankees themselves for not getting out of him what another team will. He can be of use. It just won’t be as a Yankee and for that, much like last night’s loss, there’s plenty of blame to go around.

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Hal Steinbrenner Summons His Yankees Staff

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Hal Steinbrenner is thoughtful, calm and polite. He’s running the Yankees like a business and doing so without the rampant firings, missives and bluster that his father George Steinbrenner used to intimidate, bully and get what he thought were results. It’s the son’s demeanor that is probably even more intimidating to the gathered staff than anything his father ever did. The George Steinbrenner meetings were a regular occurrence with a red-faced Boss shouting, threatening and firing people only to calm down, feel badly about what he’d done and immediately rehire whomever he’d briefly fired. Hal’s different. If he makes changes, they’re made and that’s that.

The news that Hal convened a high-level meeting with his staff is a serious matter to the future of the Yankees’ baseball operations. It’s obviously not lost on him or any of the other Steinbrenners and Randy Levine that the baseball people led by general manager Brian Cashman have been trumpeting home-grown talent in recent years while producing very little of it. For all the talk that the Yankees were going to grow their own pitchers similarly to the Red Sox, Giants and Rays, the last starting pitcher drafted and developed by the Yankees who had sustained success as a Yankee is still Andy Pettitte. That’s twenty years ago.

A new storyline referenced repeatedly is that the Yankees intended to draft Mike Trout in 2009, but the Angels beat them to him. Are they looking for credit for players they wanted to draft four years ago after he’s become one of the best players in baseball?

The defense implying that the Yankees’ success caused them to only have late-round first round draft picks thereby reducing their ability to find top-tier players is weak as well. You can find players late in the first round and in the second and third rounds. The Yankees talk out of both sides of their mouths when they claim that Pettitte (22nd round), Jorge Posada (24th round), and Bernie Williams and Mariano Rivera (undrafted free agents) were due to the Yankees’ methods and then complain about their low draft status and inability to find players. It’s one or the other. Either there’s a Yankees “specialness” or they’re a victim of their own success.

They haven’t signed any impact free agents from Cuba, Japan, Taiwan, Venezuela or the Dominican Republic and their drafts have been failures in the early, middle and late rounds. Dustin Pedroia, Jordan Zimmerman, Giancarlo Stanton, Freddie Freeman, Chris Tillman, Trevor Cahill and Justin Masterson were all second round picks. You can find players if you’re savvy and give them an opportunity. The Yankees’ lack of patience with young players combined with the overhyping to suit a constituency and narrative has certainly played a part in the failures, but they’ve also made some horrific gaffes in evaluation and planning. They have yet to publicly acknowledge that Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, Ian Kennedy, Michael Pineda and Ivan Nova were all mishandled, nor have they indicated a willingness to alter their strategy in building pitchers.

With the military school training that he has, it’s no surprise that Hal—as Commander in Chief of the Yankees—is seeking answers as to why the club’s farm system is so destitute and few players have been produced to help the Yankees at the big league level as they downsize the payroll. If they’re not going to spend as much money on free agents, young players are a necessity to maintain some level of competitiveness. But they don’t have them to use for themselves to to trade for someone else’s more established star. The logical next step after this meeting is to start replacing some of his staff.

This recent hot streak aside, the overwhelming likelihood is that the Yankees will miss the playoffs in 2013. There will be the complaints that injuries were the main reason, but teams with $200 million payrolls really don’t have much of a leg to stand on when coming up with excuses. After the season is over, there will be a lament that “if the season had gone on a week longer” then the rest of baseball would’ve been in trouble; or that the way Rivera goes out with a declining, also-ran team is not befitting his greatness; and that the post-season “loses its luster” without the Yankees.

These are diversions and attempts to make the Yankees more important than they actually are.

No one, least of all Hal Steinbrenner, wants to hear it. He’s the boss now and he’s been patient. He’s justified in looking at the Yankees’ annual payrolls and wondering why, with a roster full of the highest salaried players in baseball for as long as anyone can remember, they’ve been rewarded with one championship since 2000. Why, with the money at their disposal and an ownership willing to green light just about anything to make the organization better, they haven’t been able to find young talent and nurture it to success. Why the Rays, Athletics and Cardinals among others have been able to win and develop simultaneously while spending a minuscule fraction of what the Yankees have spent. And why his GM so openly criticized the acquisition of Alfonso Soriano when Soriano has turned into a bolt from the sky in his return to pinstripes.

What this will do is embolden Hal, Levine and the rest of the Steinbrenners to believe that perhaps the implication of “baseball people” knowing more than anyone else might be a little overplayed.

This meeting is a precursor to a change in the structure of the baseball operations and with Cashman’s repeated public embarrassments, inability to hold his tongue and abject errors, he’s on the firing line. The Steinbrenners have been agreeable, loyal and tolerant to Cashman’s demands and decisions. With the details of this meeting strategically leaked, it looks like they’re greasing the skids to make a change. George Steinbrenner was more emotional than calculating and his meeting would have been eye-rolled and head shaken away as the ranting of a lunatic, quickly dismissed. Hal Steinbrenner isn’t like his father, but the result might be the same when the season ends and he’s not going to change his mind five minutes later.

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MLB Trade Deadline Analysis: Diamondbacks-Padres Trade

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The fact about Ian Kennedy is that his baseline stats don’t tell the whole story. He’s not as good as he was in 2011 when he was 21-4 with an ERA of 2.88 and finished fourth in the Cy Young Award voting, nor is he as bad as he’s been this year with a record of 3-8 and a 5.23 ERA. Kennedy requires several things to be successful as a big league pitcher. He needs:

  • A sound infield and outfield defense
  • Luck on balls in play
  • To keep runners off the bases for when he surrenders home runs

The Yankees’ initial estimation of him was that of the three young arms they were promoting as their future, he was more polished and poised that Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain and would be the best of the three. Once he got his shot, it became abundantly clear that Kennedy was never going to make it with the Yankees. Hughes’s home run problems would’ve looked minuscule in comparison to those that Kennedy would’ve had if he’d stayed in New York. They saw this in his brief time with them and in combination with his big mouth that grated on the nerves of the veterans, chose to move him before his value disappeared completely.

With the Diamondbacks, he kindasorta fulfilled the potential the Yankees touted, but it too was based on other factors. He had great luck on balls in play in 2010 and 2011 and poor luck on balls in play in the past two seasons. The Diamondbacks’ defense in 2013 isn’t as good as it was in 2011 and Kennedy’s results reflect that change. Kennedy is going to make a lot of money in arbitration; the Diamondbacks have a surplus of starting pitching; the veteran lefty specialist Joe Thatcher fills a strategic need for the Diamondbacks’ stretch run; and the Padres have a huge ballpark and excellent defense. Add it up and it makes sense for the sides to pull the trigger now.

The minor leaguer the Diamondbacks received in the trade, righty Matt Stites, has eye-catching numbers. He’s a relief pitcher, is 5’11” and throws very hard. This is inspiring comparisons to Craig Kimbrel. Of course a comparison to Kimbrel based on velocity and stature is ridiculous at this point. He’s an arm who could help the Diamondbacks as early as this season.

This was a deal based on need, philosophy and bottom-line numbers. The Diamondbacks are contenders, needed relief help and their GM, Kevin Towers, likes to accumulate power arms and depth in the bullpen. The Padres are not contenders and their GM, Josh Byrnes, likes to collect starting pitchers. It’s a fit for both sides and gives each what they need under their current circumstances.


MLB Trade Deadline: Thinking Outside The Box With Hughes And Chamberlain

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The Yankees are trying to unload both Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes. In Chamberlain’s case, they’ll take whatever a team is willing to give. In Hughes’s case, they’d like to boost their offense with a third base or outfield bat. With the pending free agency and poor performance from both former phenoms, they’re not getting much of a return on either. Because the interest in the pitchers is limited, it would help the Yankees in their cause to get something for them if they alter the landscape. How about Hughes as a reliever, where he’s been successful in the past; and Chamberlain as a starter to see if he can perform adequately in the role over the remaining two months of the season?

In what would be a combination of Mike Francesa’s current dream and revisiting of a past nightmare by approaching the Twins to see if they’d send Justin Morneau in exchange for Chamberlain and the suggestion that the rebuilding Twins try Chamberlain as a starter, they might be willing to give it consideration if the Yankees throw in another prospect. The trade interest in Morneau is reportedly just as limited for the Twins as Chamberlain and Hughes are for the Yankees, so why not suggest to the Twins that they might get something from Chamberlain as a starter? Perhaps they’d see something they liked, would be able to sign him for another year and give him a full year in the rotation and an opportunity the Yankees never gave him: to function in one role without expectations, demands, hovering questions, rules and alterations that played a large part in his eventual destruction and disappointment.

Chamberlain would be agreeable to the idea because he knows he won’t get a lot of money as a free agent in his current state. Few will dispute that the Yankees mishandled him from 2008 onward. He needs a change of scenery and in spite of his status amongst his peers as overrated and the joy they take in his downfall because he’s not a likable person, he still has a mid-90s fastball and hard slider. His ancillary pitches have diminished due to lack of use, but he does have a curveball and changeup. Naysayers will say “he can’t start,” but no one knows if he can start because he was never given a true opportunity to be a starter with the Yankees’ ridiculous constraints on him in the interest of “protection.” Even when he had a brief run of sustained success in late July of 2009, the Yankees disrupted his rhythm by decreeing that he needed extra rest, made him wait a week between his July 29 start and his August 6 start and he reverted back to what he was with mediocrity and inconsistency. The Yankees’ self-harm with Chamberlain appeared almost intentional like a teenage girl cutting herself.

At this point it’s senseless to go into another rant regarding the mistakes the Yankees made with Hughes and Chamberlain. That the pitchers have neither come close to fulfilling their potential nor living up to the hype the Yankees saddled upon them goes without saying. That’s a matter for discussion once both are gone. Now that Hughes is performing as a back-of-the-rotation starter and Michael Pineda is ready to return makes it wasteful to keep Hughes as a starter or a reliever. A contending team might want Hughes as a starter and give up a low minor leaguer for him, or they might look at his prior success as a reliever for the Yankees’ 2009 World Series winning team and think he can help them as a set-up man for the final two months of the season and let him leave as a free agent with little risk or cost. The team that trades for him might even want to keep him as a starter or reliever.

The fact is that the value of Hughes and Chamberlain is gone. The Yankees don’t need them. They don’t even want them. The best bet for everyone is to restart the whole process and move along. The Yankees can still get something for them and they can be of use to whatever team trades for them if the participants think a bit differently and consider them in different roles than they’re being used in now.


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.


Tamp Down Immediate Zack Wheeler Expectations

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Based on the manner in which prospects are hyped and the number of those prospects that fail to immediately achieve expectations—or even competence—it’s wise to sit back and let Zack Wheeler get his feet on the ground before anointing him as part of the next great rotation with Matt Harvey and Jonathon Niese as a modern day “big three” to be compared with Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels or Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine. It must be remembered that all of those pitchers struggled when they got to the big leagues.

Other hot prospects who were expected to dominate baseball like the Mets from the mid-1990s of Generation K with Jason Isringhausen, Paul Wilson and Bill Pulsipher flamed out as the only pitcher to achieve anything noteworthy was Isringhausen and he had to do it as a closer. The Yankees’ intention to have Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy function as homegrown starters has degenerated into nothingness with Kennedy fulfilling his potential with the Diamondbacks and both Hughes and Chamberlain approaching their final days in pinstripes. The list of instnaces such as these is far more extensive than the would-be “stars” who either didn’t make it at all or had their careers derailed and delayed.

Given the Mets’ historic clumsiness in recent years, it was a surprise as to how good Harvey really was. The Mets didn’t treat him as a prodigy, nor did they overpromote his rise to the majors as anything more than a young pitcher who’d earned his chance. His maturity, style, intensity and preparedness has yielded one of the best pitchers in baseball whose leap inspires memories of Roger Clemens in 1986. They kept Wheeler in the minor leagues as well in part to make sure he was ready and in part to keep his arbitration clock from ticking so they’d have him for an extra year of team control. These were wise decisions.

As good as Wheeler is and as much as those who see him predict great things, he’s also a power pitcher who has had some issues with control and command. His motion is somewhat quirky with a high leg kick and a pronounced hip turn with his back toward the hitter. If he’s slightly off with his motion, he’ll open up too soon, his arm will drag behind his body and his pitches will be high and flat. In the minors a pitcher can get away with such issues because minor league hitters will miss hittable fastballs with far greater frequency than big league hitters. The biggest difference between minor league hitters and Major League hitters is patience and that big leaguers don’t miss pitches they should hammer.

Wheeler’s 23 and is as ready as he can be for a rookie. As for ready to be a marquee pitcher immediately, that might take some time just as it did with Lee, Halladay, Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz. Saddling Wheeler with the demands of a star before he’s even thrown a pitch in the Major Leagues is a toxic recipe.


Could the Giants Trade Tim Lincecum?

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This is the second straight year that Tim Lincecum hasn’t just been a disappointment, but he’s been outright bad. His old-school numbers—wins/losses and ERA—are terrible and have been so for the last two seasons. His peripherals are not as bad as all that. His ground ball rates, strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed have been consistent throughout his whole career, but the sum of the parts does not bode well for the future. His velocity is down from what it was when he was winning Cy Young Awards, but it’s in the same vicinity it’s been for the past four seasons, two of which he was still a top pitcher. His breaking stuff isn’t as sharp and he’s had to rely on his fastball and changeup. What is concerning however is that his line drive percentage is up and the hitters are squaring up on him with greater consistency and appear to have figured him out in a way that they couldn’t from 2007 to 2011. It’s becoming clear that Lincecum is nowhere near what he once was and that pitcher isn’t going to return anytime soon with a mechanical tweak, greater intensity, a “get it back” fitness program, or the realization that he’s going to be a free agent at the end of the season and has cost himself about $100 million with his results in 2012-2013.

In short, he’s lost his specialness that allowed him to get away with being a hands-off entity for the Giants coaching staff who was only allowed to have his mechanics fiddled with by his father. The questions surrounding him when he was drafted—his size, unique mechanics and training regimens—are no longer seen as wink and nod quirky as a point of salesmanship and charm. Now he’s just a short, skinny pitcher who’s not that good anymore.

As we approach the summer, the question may not be, “How can the Giants fix Lincecum?” It might evolve into, “Will the Giants trade Lincecum?”

If you think it’s crazy, it’s not.

The Giants have built up a tremendous amount of capital with their two World Series wins in three years and could get away with trading a personality like Lincecum as long as he’s not performing. With the titles, they’re still not a huge market club that can afford to spend gobs of money to maintain the championship template. Lincecum is a free agent at the end of the season and at this point the Giants are unlikely to either offer him arbitration because he’d probably take it or give him a long-term contract paying him for past accomplishments which will presumably be what he expects. As with any player, there was a dual-sided risk to Lincecum shunning the Giants attempts to sign him to a long-term contract at below-market value: he might not continue performing the way he did when it seemed like a sure thing to sign him for 5-7 years and $90+ million years before he hit free agency. And he hasn’t.

At the end of the season, the Giants have Lincecum, Barry Zito, Hunter Pence and Javier Lopez coming off the books. They’ll have money to spend and it certainly doesn’t appear as if they’re going to spend it on a declining Lincecum. The hottest name bandied about as a trade candidate has been Cliff Lee. The Phillies are going to eventually have to start rebuilding their farm system and get their payroll down. The best way to do that is to get a bounty for Lee if they come to the conclusion that they’re out of it by mid-July. Maybe the Giants would have interest in Lee in exchange for Lincecum and prospects or the clubs could find another team interested in coming to a three-way deal that would send Lee to the Giants. The Yankees would love to ship pending free agent Phil Hughes out of town, he’d benefit from the friendly pitchers parks in the NL West in San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, is from the West Coast, and he’d cost a fraction of what Lincecum will as a free agent. Lincecum would certainly be better than Hughes as a Yankee, he’d fill the park, and the change of scenery might wake him up for the rest of the season.

There are options that would help the Giants now and in the future. Given Lincecum’s struggles and that this is increasingly looking like his last year in San Francisco, they have to explore them.

Like the child actor who loses his appeal when he hits puberty, “Whatchoo tawkin’ ‘bout Willis?!?” goes from funny to disturbing and Lincecum’s uniqueness goes from part of his charm to a significant series of performance issues that no one seems to be able to fix. He’s hit puberty as a pitcher and it’s not cute anymore. It might be time that the Freakshow in San Francisco gets canceled before the end of the summer season.


The Mets “Teach” Valdespin, But Who Teaches The Mets?

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Because the current Mets are so unrelentingly dull on the nights Matt Harvey isn’t pitching we’re getting stories created out of thin air like a Hollywood public relations expert deciding that it would be good idea to tamp down Calista Flockhart anorexia rumors by having her “caught” on camera at a ballgame munching on a hot dog. A few weeks ago it was Zack Wheeler complaining about the light air in Las Vegas affecting his pitching; now it’s Jordany Valdespin and the hit by pitch “controversy” from over the weekend against the Pirates. For a nothing story, this certainly has legs and it’s due in large part to there being only so much to write about Rick Ankiel and the days between Harvey’s starts.

Is this worth all the attention? Is Valdespin worth all this attention? And do these Mets from manager Terry Collins on down have the moral high ground to be dictating to anyone what it takes not just to act like a big leaguer, but to win in the big leagues?



And definitely no.

For all the irritating, high-handed condescension based on public relations and a crafted image than any actual reality, the Yankees are in a position to dictate to players, “This is how it’s done.” “This is how you behave when you win.” For Derek Jeter to scold a teammate (or to order his enforcer Jorge Posada to do it years ago), there’s a basis for him to tell them they’re not acting appropriately. When the Yankees got rid of Ian Kennedy in large part because of Kennedy’s mouth, they can accept the fact that he blossomed for the Diamondbacks into becoming what they promoted him to be as the most “polished” of the three “future stars” with Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain.

Only die-hard Yankee-lovers want to hear and believe Michael Kay’s tiresome, wide-eyed storytelling about impressive rookie reliever Preston Claiborne’s dad telling his son while they attended a Yankees-Rangers game in Texas that, “This is how to conduct yourself like a classy professional,” or some other paraphrased nonsense, but there’s a foundation of fact in a team that’s had extended success like the Yankees, Cardinals, Rangers and Phillies to publicly scold a misbehaving youngster. The Twins have had two consecutive atrocious years, but the structure of the organization with Terry Ryan, Tom Kelly and Ron Gardenhire implementing the code of conduct and “Twins Way” has given them the freedom to tell young players to act with a certain comportment or they’re not going to be with the Twins for much longer whether they’re winning or not.

For the Mets? As likable a player as John Buck is, he’s been on one winning team in his entire Major League career in 2010 with the Blue Jays and that team was an 85-win also-ran. Can he give a treatise on winning?

Ike Davis is the bastion of absence of accountability with his annual horrific start and usage of popularity in the clubhouse as a shield from the consequences that befell Lucas Duda when he was demoted last summer and Valdespin now. It’s almost as if Davis has accepted the lost months in the spring as a “just the way it is” addendum making it okay. It’s not okay.

Collins? Fired twice due to in-house mutinies and presiding over teams that appeared to quit late in the season in his two Mets seasons, does he really want to get into this type of teaching method from the old-school?

Valdespin is a talented and immature player and person who clearly needs to learn the proper way to act. The things that are seeping out about him now are, in my experience, a small fraction of what’s gone on with him. With any player if there are ten stories reported, there are 50 others that haven’t gotten out yet. But that doesn’t matter. The way the Mets are trying to “teach” him with the open lambasting, stony silence in answering questions without answering them, and making the situation worse by tossing him into a spotlight he can’t handle will serve to damage him further. The majority of these Mets—including the manager—are not in a position to take a young player with ability and say, “Get him outta here; he can’t help us win,” because most don’t have the faintest idea of what winning looks like to begin with.


The Yankees Saved Hughes For His Next Team

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If the innings limits and protective strategies had worked at least once, I’d say there’s a basis for having them, but this applies to Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy, Joba Chamberlain, Stephen Strasburg and any other pitcher who’s been held back in the interests of clubs “protecting” their investment: THEY DON’T WORK!!!!

The Yankees placed these rules on all their young pitchers they drafted highly and valued to keep them healthy. Neither Hughes nor Chamberlain stayed healthy and they haven’t been particularly effective either. So what was the point? The false, weak argument will say, “Well, we had no idea about that then; we were following doctors’ advice; we studied the numbers and history; we’d do it again.”

Isn’t the point of drafting and developing pitchers to have them pitch and pitch well for the team that drafted them? Hughes is going to be 27 in June and has a solid won/lost record for his career of 52-36. The record is a byproduct of having pitched for the Yankees for his entire career in an era when they won over 90 games on an annual basis and were loaded with offense and a deep bullpen that doesn’t blow leads. His peripheral numbers are mediocre and the same logic that qualified Ivan Nova’s 16-4 record in 2011 as not entirely accurate also applies to Hughes with the main difference being that the Yankees didn’t use the same strategies on Nova and didn’t think much of Nova, yet he’s been just as good as a pitcher they did tie up, Hughes.

That’s bad for the perception, so it’s ignored.

Yesterday Hughes was diagnosed with another injury, a bulging disk in his neck, said to have occurred during infield practice. It’s not the Yankees’ fault, but it’s an example of the fragility of athletes in general and pitchers in particular when they’re performing the occasionally dangerous and stressful activity of baseball.

What have they gotten with all the developmental rules? With the numbers that they, hopefully, didn’t extrapolate from Tom Verducci? With the constant shifting of roles, shutdowns, break periods, and pitch counts?


This is not to pick on the Yankees. Many teams are doing the same things with similar results, but Hughes’s latest injury makes him a worthy example. Hughes has been a mediocre pitcher who could have been a star had they just left him alone. Like Kennedy, Hughes will have to develop elsewhere and be allowed to pitch the 200 innings that, after six years in the big leagues, he’s yet to do. He’s a free agent at the end of the season and there will be a team that looks at Hughes and says, “We’ll sign him and let him pitch,” and will be rewarded with, at least, more than the Yankees have gotten from him.

Teams are paranoid and afraid to do something different from the current orthodoxy and self-proclaimed experts sitting behind computers, crunching numbers and waiting for an opportunity to critique. The Giants, with an old-school GM Brian Sabean, have built one of the best pitching staffs in baseball—one that’s brought them two World Series titles in three years—and they did it by drafting two high school pitchers (Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain) and one pitcher who was too small and had such a unique motion and training regimen that teams didn’t want to touch him (Tim Lincecum). What do the Yankees have? Two failed would-be stars and another top prospect who almost won the Cy Young Award for the Diamondbacks two years ago.

The Moneyball concept of not drafting high school pitchers because of the “risk” has thankfully been tossed overboard. The Verducci Effect is in the process of being phased out. (For the record, if my GM said he was using the arbitrary research of a sportswriter to develop and dictate how he used his pitchers, I’d fire him.) Teams are looking at the reality and realizing that maybe young pitchers might be better-served to be allowed to throw innings and incorporate other factors rather than the numbers handed to them by Ivy League graduates armed with an algorithm. Isn’t this is why there are pitching coaches, managers and scouts: to determine a pitcher’s tics, movements and mechanics to decide when he’s tired; when he’s at risk for injury; how he should be deployed?

Pitchers are fragile, but instead of using that fragility as a basis to freeze them for a later date, perhaps the opposite would be a better strategy: let them pitch while they can pitch and move on when they can’t. A team deciding to do that will certainly get better results than the Yankees have with Hughes, who is probably counting the days until he can get out of the Yankees constraints and go to a club that will let him enjoy his prime years as something other than a what might have been. Currently, he’s a failed experiment in building a young pitcher and a case study of those poor decisions creating a pitcher who can be found on the market cheaply to be used and discarded.

Hughes keeps getting hurt; he’s the Yankees’ fourth starter; he’s leaving at the end of the season because the Yankees won’t want him back at the money he’ll ask for and the pitcher would probably like to get a fresh start. With all of these facts, tell me, what was the point of the rules they used as a garrote to strangle his future?