Sandberg would have been better off staying with the Cubs

MLB

In retrospect, perhaps Ryne Sandberg would have been better off having fought harder for the job managing the Chicago Cubs a year after he’d left the organization. To dispel the notion that Sandberg left the Cubs after Theo Epstein took over as team president, the fact is that Sandberg had departed the previous year when he was passed over for the job as manager in favor of Mike Quade. Quade had replaced Lou Piniella when Piniella resigned in August of 2010.

Having paid his dues as a minor league manager, learning his craft and the organization’s prospects rather than stepping off the field and using his Hall of Fame career and credentials as a Cubs hero to force his way onto the big league staff and, eventually, as manager, Sandberg did it organically and was still bypassed based on a misinterpreted strong finish by the Cubs under Quade. In his first year after leaving the Cubs, as he was managing the Philadelphia Phillies Triple A club in Lehigh Valley, the 2011 Cubs – like the 2015 Phillies – were in the midst of the last throes of a relatively successful run they had under Piniella and general manager Jim Hendry. They had come apart and needed the radical overhaul that Epstein was prepared to undertake.

It’s not often that a former star player like Sandberg will shun the airs that accompany such lofty status and show the willingness to go down to the low minor leagues, ride buses great distances, essentially do everything in running the club and do so in the interests of making the same primordial climb as a manager that he did as a player to get to the big leagues. Sandberg could have avoided that. He could have launched a public relations blitz, coerced friendly reporters with an agenda into supporting him, and subtly planted the seed within the fan base that the former Cubs superstar was the man to resurrect the declining franchise while there was still time to do so.

He didn’t. Since he started his professional career and had his first cup of coffee in the Majors with the Phillies, there was a linear aspect to him joining that organization. Again, he did not shoehorn his way onto then-manager Charlie Manuel’s staff as an interloping manager-in-waiting. That came later and had little to do with Sandberg. At the time, the Phillies, like the Cubs of 2009 to 2011, were plummeting from a star-laden contender into an ancient and crumbling structure that had to be detonated.

After he joined the Phillies coaching staff as the third base coach in 2013, it was no secret that he would eventually be the next manager when and if Manuel was dismissed or pushed into retirement. With the team floundering, Manuel still showed no interest in walking away by his own volition and he was fired so Sandberg could watch the club from the manager’s chair for the remainder of the season and get a gauge on what he wanted to do.

What he saw was a team of insolent, declining veterans who had grown complacent and too accustomed to the mostly hands-off approach of Manuel. Sandberg focused on the fundamentals, tried to discipline the likes of Jimmy Rollins, and tamp down on the country club atmosphere and eye rolls of “we’ve won here and we know what we’re doing” even if the team was no longer winning and the “knowing what they’re doing” included being lax and arrogant.

Getting the job managing the Cubs when Epstein took over as team president would have put forth the impression that team ownership was heavily influencing the new baseball czar in a way that was reminiscent of the situation Epstein had just escaped in Boston as the GM of the Red Sox and even if Sandberg had pushed for it, it probably was not going to happen. But, in retrospect, Sandberg’s focus on fundamentals and knowledge of the Cubs farm system at the time – particularly Starlin Castro and Darwin Barney, among others – could have benefited the Cubs in the first two seasons under Epstein as Epstein’s hand-picked manager, Dale Sveum, was fired largely because of the lack of adherence to the basics and failures in development of those particular young players.

Given how he was willing to work his way up the ladder as a minor league manager, Sandberg would likely have adapted as necessary and followed the organizational plan when it came to on-field strategies of the new front office. And how much worse could he have done than Sveum, who took the job expecting to be allowed to deal with the inevitable 95-to-100-loss seasons as the Cubs tanked to accrue high draft picks and was still fired?

For managers, the situation has to be right, the front office has to be agreeable, and the players have to be willing to listen. The key is to get the players to do what the manager wants them to do without the players acting as if they’re doing the manager a favor by doing it. The manager who gets his way is seen as a keeper while the manager who doesn’t is on the way out. Looking at Sandberg’s time as Phillies manager, is there really a giant difference between his perceived cluelessness and that of current Cubs manager Joe Maddon in his first two seasons as manager of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays? Maddon has become the embodiment of pretentiousness, believing and furthering the media hype of being the “best” manager in baseball when he was, in reality, along for a great ride with a smart and lucky front office in Tampa as they starting winning with him running the club. The Cubs hired him as they too are on the precipice of title contention and he will get credit for it whether he deserves it or not. His career could easily have gone the way of Sveum and Sandberg had Tampa not been as patient and understanding of the circumstances.

Sandberg did not do a good job as Phillies manager, but he did do a good job as a minor league manager with the Cubs. He was overmatched in the big leagues, but did well with the youngsters in the minors. Taking someone who was good at one thing and putting him in an entirely different circumstance without a commitment is dooming him to failure. After trying to discipline the players, there was a sense of “what do you want me to do?” from Sandberg when the players didn’t follow his instructions and openly challenged his authority. When the front office didn’t make the decision to get rid of those players who were defying the manager and, in fact, enabled the insubordination, they extinguished any chance Sandberg had at success.

The situation he inherited was terrible with an organization that mortgaged the future for the present and whose present was burning down to its embers and cooling like a dying star. It is eerily reminiscent to the fading players he had to deal with in Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Rollins, Cliff Lee, Carlos Ruiz and Jonathan Papelbon. He got caught up in that mudslide in the same way he got swallowed up when the Cubs were in transition. Now, as the Phillies are also on the verge of sweeping changes with Andy MacPhail widely reported as the next baseball boss, Sandberg walked off the cliff before they could push him. He was in a no-win situation and, unsurprisingly, he didn’t. With the Cubs, it might have been different had he chosen to stay with an organization that, while ruthless, has a more logical tack than the bottomed out Phillies.

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Cole Hamels thinks the Phillies will lose. He’s right, but…

MLB

When the media refers to an athlete’s “refreshing honesty,” it generally means that the athlete said something he or she shouldn’t have said. Such is the case with Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels as he told Bob Nightengale of USA Today the following: he would like to be traded (without demanding that it come to pass); he wants to win; and he knows it’s not going to happen with the Phillies.

The first two statements are acceptable in an honest competitor sort of way, but the last one? No.

The media might have been refreshed. The fans might have been amused. I doubt the Phillies felt either refreshment or amusement.

On one level, Hamels is absolutely, 100 percent correct. This Phillies team isn’t bad. It’s terrible. In a best case scenario, if they keep Hamels and Cliff Lee and both have ace-like, 200+ inning seasons with 15-18 wins apiece; if Chase Utley is fully healthy; if they get an identical year from Aaron Harang in 2015 that the Atlanta Braves received in 2014; if Chad Billingsley comes back strong; if their relatively strong bullpen – keeping Jonathan Papelbon – performs, their pitching is solid enough to compete. That’s a lot of “ifs.”

It must also be remembered that they: are planning on an everyday role for oft-injured Grady Sizemore; are basically sentenced to giving Ryan Howard significant at-bats to try and establish some value so another team will take him and his contract; are starting Freddy Galvis at shortstop. In that context, you see the accuracy of Hamels’s statement, proper or not. They’re might lose 100 games.

The Phillies have experienced baseball men permeating their organization. They know the situation. Manager Ryne Sandberg spent almost his entire big league with the Chicago Cubs. Do you really believe there weren’t seasons in which he walked into spring training knowing the team was going to lose 90 games? But as a respected veteran leader, he put up the front of, “You never know”; “We still have to play the games”; “Let’s see what happens,” etc.

Team president Pat Gillick was the GM of the one-year-old Toronto Blue Jays beginning in 1978. Of course he knew that the team was going to be atrocious until they acquired some legitimate talent. Did he openly say it prior to spring training? Or did he hope for the best knowing it would likely be the worst.

We know they’re a terrible team. They know they’re a terrible team. That’s why Hamels is even on the market to begin with. But it’s not a wise thing for the players to be saying it especially if it’s a post-season hero and someone who’s supposed to be a leader and linchpin on and off the field.

Several years ago, Hamels’s former Phillies teammate Roy Halladay found himself in a situation with the Toronto Blue Jays similar to what Hamels currently faces. He knew the team wasn’t going to win and also realized that both he and the club would be better off if they maximized his value and traded him for a large package of prospects. He, however, handled it far differently and in a classy, professional way by quietly saying he wanted out. They accommodated him after the season.

The Phillies are under no obligation to trade Hamels and this doesn’t hurt his marketability all that much. Even if he outright demands a trade, they don’t have to trade him. No team does. When a player asks to be dealt, most teams will try to accommodate him as a matter of courtesy. Often there’s mutual benefit to it. But it’s not a contractual requirement and most players won’t pull the Manny Ramirez trick of acting hurt or jogging around on the field making it an absolute necessity to get rid of him. Hamels hasn’t gone that far, but his words still look terrible.

The behavior illustrates how different they are and how little Hamels learned from Halladay. Halladay is defined by his nickname: Doc. Hamels’s nickname – Hollywood – also fits as he’s behaving like a spoiled, entitled brat who acts as if he cares about the team and winning and is only interested in himself.

The Positives and Negatives of Stephen Drew for the Mets

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The Mets have spent the last three seasons fielding a lien-up rather than a lineup. Since the Bernie Madoff scandal and the conscious decision to rebuild from the bottom up in part due to finances and in part because it was what they needed to do, the Mets haven’t spent significant money on any players. In retrospect, it will be seen as a positive that the team didn’t overpay and give up a draft pick for Michael Bourn or any of the other players Mets fans were demanding they sign for pretense and little benefit on the field.

Now that they’re free of the onerous contracts of Jason Bay and Johan Santana, the Mets have invested some of their available cash to improve the lineup with Chris Young and Curtis Granderson. They bolstered the starting rotation with Bartolo Colon. There’s a public debate as to whether they should sign the still-floating free agent shortstop Stephen Drew. Let’s look at how Drew fits for the Mets.

Cost

Drew’s market is hindered by the relatively few number of teams that need a shortstop and are willing to pay what agent Scott Boras wants. A year ago, Drew signed with the Red Sox for one year and $9.5 million with the intention of replenishing his value for a big-money contract. He replenished his value all right, but the big-money contracts have yet to present themselves. Drew was everything the Red Sox could have asked for. He was solid defensively, hit for pop with 50 extra base hits, and had an OPS of .777 which was close to his career average.

The problem for Drew remaining in Boston as appears to be his preference is that the Red Sox have a ready-made replacement for him at shortstop in young Xander Bogearts. They also have a competent third baseman in Will Middlebrooks. Neither are expensive and both can make up for Drew’s departure if the price isn’t similar – or slightly higher – than what the Red sox paid for him last season. If his price drops, then the Red Sox will gladly take him back, but it won’t be for a multi-year deal and they don’t need him.

The Yankees have already said they’re out on Drew and it’s not because they don’t need him. They do. But they’re tied to keeping Derek Jeter at shortstop and the idea of signing Drew to move him to third base is insulting to the intelligence of anyone who can see the reality that Jeter will not be able to play a competent defensive shortstop at age 40 as he returns from a serious ankle injury.

Drew has few alternatives other than the Mets and Red Sox. The Mets are being coy and the Red Sox are waiting him out. The Mets can get him if they decide they want him. A decision that they want him would mean they have to pay him. A three-year, $30-33 million deal would probably get it done. Are they willing to do that? Can they afford it?

How he fits

Drew is a clear upgrade over Ruben Tejada offensively and defensively. Tejada can play, but he’s never going to hit for the power that Drew does; he’s similar defensively; and he’s got a reputation of being lazy. The main attribute of Tejada for the Mets is that he’s cheap. But with the signings of Granderson and Young and that they’re intending to start the season with the still questionable Juan Lagares and Travis d’Arnaud in center field and catcher respectively, they’re running the risk of having three dead spots in the lineup before the season even begins. With Drew, they’d know what they’re getting and he would at least counteract Lagares and d’Arnaud. Drew is an up-the-middle hitter and his power comes when he pulls the ball. He wouldn’t be hindered by Citi Field and he’d hit his 10 homers and double-digit triples.

No matter how superlative he is defensively, the Mets won’t go through the whole season with Lagares in center field if he doesn’t hit. They’ll simply shift Young to center for more offense. They’re committed to d’Arnaud and he’ll play every day no matter what. If they want to have a chance for respectability and perhaps more, they can’t worry about whether they’re getting the Tejada from 2013 or the Tejada from 2011-2012. And the Tejada from 2011-2012 was serviceable and useful, but not close to what Drew can do.

With Drew, the Mets would be better in 2014 when they’re striving for respectability and in 2015 when Matt Harvey returns and they clearly have designs on contending.

The Mets pitching staff is not one that racks up a lot of strikeouts. The left side of the infield with Drew and David Wright will be excellent. Daniel Murphy is mediocre at best at second base. Lucas Duda is a solid defensive first baseman. With Lagares in center field, they have a Gold Glove candidate. Young can play the position well. They’re better in all facets of the game with Drew, plus they’re getting offense they will not get with Tejada. The difference between 77-85 and also-ran status and 85-77 and bordering on the fringes of contention might be Drew. That makes the signing worthwhile for on-field purposes.

His Drew-ness

The Drew family has long been known for its prodigious baseball talent. They’re the physical prototypes for baseball players. Along with that, they’ve been the prototypes for Boras clients.

J.D. Drew sat out a year rather than sign with the Phillies when he was drafted second overall in 1997. They didn’t meet his contract demands. The Cardinals drafted him fifth overall the next season and he signed. He was an excellent player for the Cardinals, but flummoxed manager Tony LaRussa with his lack of passion and aloofness. He was traded to the Braves for Adam Wainwright as the Braves expected him to be happier closer to his home. He had his career year and left to sign with the Dodgers. He spent two years in Los Angeles, then exercised an opt-out in his contract to go to the Red Sox.

In short, he was never happy with where he was and was constantly looking for the next opportunity. It could have had to do with money or it might have had to do with a wanderlust. Or he could simply have been treating the game as a business and listening to every single word uttered by the Svengali, Boras.

Stephen Drew has many of the same traits as his brother. Both are injury-prone, though Stephen is not hurt to the extent that his brother was; both are supremely talented and never appear happy where they are; both wanted to get paid and might be making decisions detrimental to their careers in listening to every whisper from their agent.

In retrospect, should Stephen have accepted the Red Sox qualifying offer and tried for free agency in another year when it’s pretty much a certainty that the Yankees are going to be looking for a replacement for Jeter and will be free of any financial constraints? Probably. Does he regret not taking it? We’ll never know because the Drews don’t rattle the Boras cage.

If the Mets go hard after Drew, there’s the possibility that they’re being used to get the Red Sox or the famed Boras “mystery team” to ante up and top the offer. For the Mets, while it wouldn’t be catastrophic not to get Drew, it would extinguish much of the good will they did accumulate by signing Granderson and Colon if they pursued him and failed to reel him in.

The conclusion

The Mets should go after Drew and see whether they can get him at a reasonable price. If Boras will take something in the neighborhood of three-years at $30-33 million, the Mets would have a bridge shortstop until former first round draft pick Gavin Cecchini is ready. They’d be better in the short term and definitely have someone who could help them do what the true intention is: contend in 2015. If Boras is being unreasonable or the feeling is that they’re just waiting for the Red Sox to up the offer, the Mets should move on and figure something else out. If that means they’re hoping that Tejada decides he wants to play and shows up early and in shape, so be it.




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(Over) Reactions To The Phillies’ Firing Of Charlie Manuel

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Considering what I wrote in my preseason book, the Phillies’ decision to fire Charlie Manuel and replace him with Ryne Sandberg should come as no surprise:

Manuel will either resign or be fired (my money’s on a firing because he won’t resign) during the season to pave the way for Sandberg.

It happened yesterday and the responses from fans, media members and players ranged from “Manuel deserved better,” to an attack on general manager Ruben Amaro, Jr., to shock and outrage, to the assertion that Manuel should have been allowed to finish out the season.

In a fictional utopia, I suppose there are arguments to be made for all of the above. In reality, even with its perceived brutality, the decision makes sense. Let’s look at the participants:

Charlie Manuel

Let’s not turn Manuel into a blameless 69-year-old man who is being forced out of a job he wants to continue doing. The same logic that says Manuel isn’t to blame for the Phillies’ 53-68 record also nullifies the credit he receives for the five division championships and 2008 World Series.

Which is it? One, the other or both?

Manuel did a good job with the Phillies and his main attributes were corralling a roomful of egos and not taking crap. The players knew he was in charge and, for the most part aside from Jimmy Rollins, played hard for him day-in, day-out. That said, independent of Manuel’s substantial accomplishments as their manager and as a baseball man in general, he’s 69-years-old and the Phillies are set to undergo a retooling.

Did it make sense to move forward for another day with Manuel when it’s been known for a year that, barring a World Series win, he wasn’t going to be back in 2014? When Sandberg had the heir apparent moniker attached to him from the time he joined the Phillies as their Triple A manager? When the Phillies were 21 1/2 games out of first place in the NL East and 15 1/2 games out of the second Wild Card spot?

Sentimentality is fine and it wouldn’t have hurt the Phillies to let Manuel finish the season, but it wouldn’t have helped either. If they’re going to commit to Sandberg to manage the team, they need to have a look at him and he needs to have a look at the roster as the man in charge. They have to see how he handles the media and the egos. In short, they have to see without speculation and guessing. Giving him the chance now gives them that opportunity.

Ruben Amaro, Jr.

Another line from my book sums up Amaro’s future as GM:

Amaro’s status after the year is also uncertain. Then the long rebuild will begin in earnest as the Phillies come apart.

The Phillies are financially bloated, destitute of impact youngsters and trapped in a division with four other teams that are younger and with brighter futures. While not overtly defending many of the things Amaro has done in his tenure as GM, I understand why he did them. That won’t save him at the end of the season if ownership decides that they need a whole new regime.

Amaro had been completely upfront about Manuel’s future. There was no contract extension offered and given the team’s struggles last season, their age and huge holes, even Amaro knew that everything would have to break right for them to contend. It’s broken wrong and it was time to move on.

Giving Manuel the last month-and-a-half of the season might’ve been the nice thing to do, but why? There’s the “what’s the difference?” argument and there’s the “we have to see what we have” argument. Amaro chose the latter and it wasn’t wrong in a moral or practical fashion. He didn’t callously shove an old man in a wheelchair out a window. He dismissed his manager who wasn’t going to be managing past this season anyway.

Ryne Sandberg

Sandberg is far from a guy who decreed, “I’m a Hall of Fame player and now I wanna be a big league manager. Give me the job.” He began his managerial career in the minors with the Cubs, worked his way up from A ball to Triple A and left the Cubs organization after he was passed over for the big league managerial job in favor of Dale Sveum. He joined the Phillies, managed for two years in Triple A Lehigh Valley before joining Manuel’s coaching staff this season.

Only Manuel knows whether he felt threatened by Sandberg’s presence; whether there was an undermining aspect to Sandberg as to what he would’ve done in certain situations had he been managing. With the decision essentially fait accompli as soon as Sandberg joined the organization and hammered home when he joined the coaching staff, all the ambiguity was gone. Manuel was going to manage in 2013 and, unless there was the aforementioned and unlikely World Series run, he wasn’t going to be back. There was no reason for Sandberg to undermine or run interference because he was going to get the job regardless.

The Phillies organization

The Phillies are entering a new phase. Their signing of Chase Utley to a contract extension and refusal to clean out the house of marketable veterans Cliff Lee, Carlos Ruiz, Jonathan Papelbon and Michael Young is an indicator that they have no intention of starting over again from scratch, but they’re incorporating young players like Cody Asche and must get younger and cheaper over the next several years. Part of that process includes the manager. Sandberg is younger and cheaper than Manuel. They knew what they had in Manuel and don’t know with Sandberg. It might sound cruel, but the Phillies had to break with the past and the only difference between doing it now and doing it after the season is that waiting would’ve postponed the inevitable. It elicited a fiery public response, but it was coming one way or the other. Doing it now was the logical decision.




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MLB Trade Deadline: Why Didn’t The Phillies Sell?

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The easy answer you’ll find on Twitter and in sabermetric circles is that Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. is, at best, delusional. At worst, they’ll say he’s an idiot. Neither is true.

The Phillies have lost 11 of 12 and are imploding. They’re old, expensive and have few prospects on the horizon. Amaro doesn’t think they’re contenders—he can’t—and he’s not stupid. He’s made some contractual mistakes, but like anything else unless there’s inside information as to whether these decisions were made by Amaro or through nudging on the part of his bosses, it’s unfair to place the entire onus of the burgeoning disaster on him. It’s just easier for the sabermetric crowd and Twitter experts to blame the GM and pronounce with all the courage in the world what “they’d” do. But there’s an underlying reality with the Phillies that has to be examined before calling the failure to sell a mistake.

  • The demands for Phillies’ players were steep

Teams that called about Cliff Lee were reportedly told that the trading club would have to absorb Lee’s $62.5 million contract (plus whatever’s left for this year) and give up several, significant, close-to-ready big league prospects. The number of teams that had the money, the prospects and the willingness to do this was nonexistent and Amaro knew it. In other words he was saying, “I’ll trade him if I get a metric ton for him.” It’s like being a happily married man and saying, “I’ll cheat if Megan Fox hits on me.” Lotsa luck.

  • No trade clauses and other issues

Apart from Lee, the other players who the Phillies could conceivably have had on the block were either hurt (Ryan Howard), have a no-trade clause they said they wouldn’t waive (Jimmy Rollins, Michael Young), have been awful and obnoxious (Jonathan Papelbon) or they want to keep (Chase Utley and Carlos Ruiz).

  • The farm system is barren

Amaro assistant Chuck LaMar resigned in a huff last year because of the lack of attention paid to the farm system and Mike Arbuckle left for the Royals when he didn’t get the GM job to replace Pat Gillick. The Phillies development apparatus is in flux in large part because they either neglected it to pay for the big league product or traded it away to add the likes of Roy Oswalt, Lee, Roy Halladay, Hunter Pence, Ben Revere and Young. Even when they dumped a player like Pence, they didn’t recoup what they traded to get him.

They’ve got a few pieces like the recently recalled Cody Asche and Phillippe Aumont, but there’s not a Mike Trout in their farm system—a player to build around. The decision to focus on the majors and allocate the vast amount of resources there was a conscious one. When Amaro basically exchanged Lee for Halladay after the 2009 season, his intention was to achieve cost-certainty and maintain some semblance of a farm system. By mid-season 2010, when the Phillies needed a pitcher, Amaro made a decision that not many GMs would have when he acknowledged his mistake and traded for Oswalt. He went all-in after 2010 be reacquiring Lee as a free agent and with subsequent decisions including paying a lot of money for Papelbon and Mike Adams.

Do the math: the farm directors who helped put the club together are gone; they gave up draft picks to sign free agents; and they traded away their top youngsters for veterans. Having homegrown talent ready to replace their stars immediately is impossible.

  • A housecleaning would gut the major league roster and attendance

As of now Phillies fans are angry and as always aren’t shy about showing it. Some targets, like Papelbon, have asked for it in both his performance and his comments. If the Phillies traded away every possible veteran asset, the fans would stop caring entirely especially with the football season coming quickly. Citizens Bank Park would be a ghost town in September and few players are going to want to join them this winter knowing that a rebuild is in progress.

For a club that is only now starting to again pay attention to the draft and has few prospects ready to make a dent in an increasingly difficult division, it’s better to tread water, keep the veterans and hope for a renaissance with what’s there while simultaneously trying to restock the minor league system.

  • 2014’s roster will be similar to 2013’s with a new manager

As much as the fans and critics will hate it, the Phillies aren’t going to have room to do much this winter. No one will take Papelbon unless the Phillies are taking a similarly bad contract in return and then they’ll need to find themselves a replacement closer. Rollins won’t allow himself to be traded. Lee is still one of the best pitchers in baseball. Cole Hamels is under contract. Howard can’t possibly be as bad as he’s been in recent years. Halladay has a contract option that is likely to be declined, but don’t be surprised to see him sign a contract to stay and re-prove himself.

Of course these are all qualifications and prayers. The odds of it coming to pass are slim, but this is still a more salable marketing strategy than blowing it up. The one thing that’s essentially fait accompli is that manager Charlie Manuel will be out. The decision as to whether to replace him with Ryne Sandberg or a veteran manager will be made, but it’s safe to say that Manuel’s time as Phillies’ manager is over. As far as changes, you’ll see a tweak here and there, but the general core is going to be the same.

In short, they have no real options other than to hope they players they have will rebound and make a run at one of the extra playoff spots in 2014 because many of their contracts are immovable and they can’t convince their grouchy fans to accept a new five-year plan to rebuild while still coming to the park.  The Phillies didn’t make a dramatic series of trades at the deadline because of these factors. It may not be popular, but it’s the way it is and the cost of putting together the type of team that won five straight division titles and was a preseason World Series favorite for a half-decade. It’s the circle of baseball and the Phillies’ circle is closing with a crash that they can’t avoid or prevent. The only thing they can do is limit the damage in its aftermath.

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Cliff Lee And The All-Star Look

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If there are a trail of bodies or body parts scattered from Cleveland to Philadelphia to Seattle to Texas and back to Philadelphia, be on the lookout for this man.

cliffleeallstar

What is Cliff Lee’s problem? Never mind that his All-Star look was more appropriate for a man awaiting a decision as to whether or not he’d get the death penalty and the question as to whether he’d ever learned to fake a smile and tip his hat. This isn’t about that face which would make a hardened criminal or sociopathic dictator think twice before messing with him, but it’s about the repeated trades of Lee and how he’s seemingly always up for discussion in trade talk. We’ve seen instances of him glaring at teammates who make errors behind him and even confronting them as he did with Shane Victorino. Much like the B.J. UptonEvan Longoria incident when Longoria questioned Upton as to why he didn’t hustle on a ball hit in the gap, it obviously wasn’t the first time that players, coaches and the manager spoke to Upton regarding his lackadaisical play. Lee’s name prominently featured in trade talks, his strange history as a journeyman in spite of how good he is and that face make it a viable question as to whether he’s worth the aggravation unless he’s pitching like an All-Star.

Is Lee a clubhouse problem? While his teammates appear to respect his commitment and status as one of the top pitchers in baseball over the past five years, it reverts back to wondering why he’s always a negotiable topic in trade discussions. With the Indians the trade to the Phillies was spurred by his contract status, that the team was rebuilding and they wanted to maximize his value rather than lose him for nothing a year-and-a-half later. With the Phillies, the club got the idea that he wanted to test the free agent waters after the 2010 season and they preferred someone who was with them for the long-term in Roy Halladay while simultaneously maintaining some semblance of a farm system. Lee denied that he told the Phillies he didn’t want to negotiate an extension prior to the trade.

With the Mariners, the club was in the midst of a disastrous season in which the planned dual-aces at the top of their rotation with Felix Hernandez and Lee wasn’t working out and they traded him to the Rangers for a large package of youngsters. Lee certainly didn’t look any happier with the Mariners than he did during the All-Star introductions.

He went back to the Phillies after the 2010 season, spurning the Rangers and Yankees. Whether or not Lee is a clubhouse problem or is just an introverted, intense competitor who lets his emotions get the better of him is known only to his teammates and the organizations he’s played for. With Lee, though, there’s been a smirking shrug when things aren’t going his way as if it’s not his fault.

The Phillies’ decision to trade Lee once was based on pure business practices. When the parties reunited after backbiting and back-and-forth accusations as to what went wrong the first time, it was viewed as Lee liking Philly better than New York and the Phillies offering more money than Texas. For the Phillies it was an overt admission of the initial mistake in trading Lee. Given their continued willingness to listen to offers on Lee, it’s clearly evident that the relationship is still a business one. Lee didn’t want to bring his family to New York where his wife had a bad experience during the playoffs against the Yankees while he was pitching for the Rangers. The Phillies wanted to build a juggernaut. Both got what they wanted.

Currently there is speculation that the Phillies might trade Lee if they decide to sell at the trading deadline, but they’ve said they’re not going to. It’s not because they’re in love with Lee, but because they think they’re still in contention for 2013 and will be in contention in 2014, so they’ll be a better team with Lee than they would be with the prospects he’d bring back or the players they could sign with the money freed up after getting his contract off the books. Lee doesn’t sound as if he’s all that bothered by the trade talk. His attitude and that face indicate he’s treating the game as a business and if he’s traded, that’s part of the deal. He’ll get paid and will escape another town and use his glare to scare off onlookers yet again in a new venue.

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Phun With The Phillies

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Todd Zolecki’s piece on MLB.com about the Phillies’ drama sums the situation up perfectly at the end when he writes:

But simply, this is a meeting that never would have happened if the team was playing well. But with the season on the brink, things like this get magnified.

It is nothing a winning streak can’t fix.

Team meetings and entreaties from manager Charlie Manuel and general manager Ruben Amaro, Jr. for the club to act professionally won’t go very far. The Phillies’ fortunes will be decided on the field. With a veteran team that has had success for the majority of the past seven years and with players who are earning significant guaranteed paychecks, what precisely can the manager and GM do to get them to “behave” anyway?

Cliff Lee’s reaction to the meeting and scolding was indicative of the attitude that has gotten Lee traded so frequently and placed his name out there as a negotiable commodity again. He can be a moody, petulant brat who is tolerated when the team is going well and he’s performing as one of the best pitchers in baseball, but his act wears thin when the club fortunes are not heading in a positive direction and his attitude grows darker and more sullen. Teams will continue to want him as a true ace at the top of a rotation, but they’ll also be willing to deal him when it gets to be too much. Lee’s pitching great and the team is staggering, placing the depth charges for an explosion like we saw the beginning of over the weekend. When a player moves around as much as Lee does, there’s a reason for it and there seem to be a vast subsection of baseball people who tire of his act. If the Phillies fade out and do trade Lee, it will be to get his salary off the books, to bring back some prospects and to get him out of the clubhouse, not necessarily in that order.

The days of players having to listen to management have been over for almost two decades. The players know they’re going to outlast the manager and GM and if they don’t, they’re going to get paid anyway. Rookies who are hungering to stay in the big leagues and get big contracts of their own are more likely to listen to what they’re told. In certain instances there are the rookies who don’t adhere to the hierarchy and clubs exercise the option to demote them or get rid of them as the Diamondbacks did with Trevor Bauer last winter. That was a form of cutting losses, something the Phillies must consider now.

With the Phillies, what can Manuel or Amaro say to Lee or anyone else who they feel needs to set an example and take things a bit more seriously especially when the team is getting blown out and the players are acting as if they don’t care? “Please stop”? Of course it looked bad to have the Phillies goofing around in the middle of the game, but they don’t want to hear that and won’t listen to it. A manager today can’t be a taskmaster and disciplinarian unless he has a young team that doesn’t have any choice but to listen. A club like the Phillies that has veterans with long-term contracts and has been with the same manager for nearly a decade is going to tune him out when he tries to pull in the reins. It’s just the way the game is today.

What is seen as a laxity of discipline for a team that’s losing is seen as looseness for a team that’s winning. If the Phillies were 20 games over .500 and heading toward the playoffs, joking around even during a blowout would be seen as shrugging off a bad day. As they’re under .500 and debating whether or not to start dealing veterans like Chase Utley, Jonathan Papelbon and Lee, it’s seen as complacency or out-and-out not caring.

The Phillies’ problem isn’t their behavior or their perception. It’s that they don’t have the players to compete with the younger, stronger and better teams in the National League, their farm system is dilapidated at best, and with their contracts a full-blown rebuild is out of the question. They’re in a vacancy. Whether the players sit in the dugout with their hands folded in their laps, cheer on their teammates like it’s high school, or behave in such a way that it spurs the manager and GM to take action to quell it doesn’t make a difference unless they play better and that’s something they do not appear to have the capability to do.

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MLB Trade Deadline: A Phillies Selloff Makes No Sense

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The discussion of a possible Phillies selloff is promoted by the media for the idea that some of the sexiest potential trade targets are on their roster, namely Cliff Lee and Jonathan Papelbon. Unless Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. is blown away by an offer, Lee’s not going anywhere. Papelbon is the name to watch, but he’ll get them financial relief and won’t yield a bounty of prospects in return. Apart from that, the Phillies’ situation—both financially and practically—has to be examined before stating with unequivocal certitude of what they “should” do while not being in Amaro’s position.

The Phillies are not a good team and it’s not due to injuries or age. It’s because they’re not very good. They would’ve been a good team if they had Roy Halladay pitching in the form he did in his first two years in Philadelphia, but he’s not that anymore even if he’s healthy. If Halladay was healthy, they’d be mediocre and nominal playoff contenders. With the Braves and Nationals in their own division and the Pirates (who are for real), the Cardinals and Reds in the Central division, snagging one of the two Wild Cards is a delusion for the Phillies in their current state. Ordinarily, that might predicate a housecleaning of pending free agents and marketable veterans. But it again returns to the Phillies’ situation and it leaves them with few options.

Because the Phillies went all-in in 2010 when they were, on paper, playing the same way they are now and traded for Roy Oswalt to spur a blazing hot streak over the final two months of the season, there’s a dreamy hope that they’ll repeat the process in 2013. The difference is that they don’t have any prospects left to trade for a pitcher of Oswalt’s stature and the rest of their club isn’t underperforming, but is performing what they’re currently capable of because they’re beaten up and old.

They can move Michael Young and I think they will, but they’re not going to get much for him. They can offer Chase Utley around, but he’s a pending free agent and despite the fact that a new setting and a legitimate pennant race will wake him up and possibly revert him to the MVP-status he enjoyed during the Phillies years of NL East dominance, teams won’t go crazy for a rental and give up the prospects to justify the Phillies not keeping Utley, trying to sign him to a reasonable deal to stay or letting him leave and taking the draft pick compensation. Delmon Young might be a reasonable acquisition for an AL club that is going to be in the playoffs so he can DH and do one thing he does well: hit in the playoffs. Carlos Ruiz is a free agent at the end of the year and he too would help a legitimate contender, but again, they won’t get bring back stud prospects.

That leaves Lee and Papelbon.

I don’t believe the Phillies are going to trade Lee. It doesn’t make sense considering the rest of the roster being entrenched in trying to win over the next couple of years while the club begins rebuilding their gutted farm system that was neglected as the available money for development was allocated for the big league product. Teams that do what the Phillies did in trading all their top prospects to try and win now and simultaneously ignore the draft know they’re mortgaging the future with a balloon payment. That balloon payment is due soon and they’re going to have to pay it.

Amaro is not going to do a full-blown rebuild because he can’t afford to have an empty park waiting five, seven, ten or however many years it takes for the team to be good again. It’s easier to hope that they’ll get a resurgence with the veterans under contract and slowly start resuscitating their minor league system. Realistically, what would they get for Lee? He has a limited no-trade clause so there are only eight teams to which he can be traded and he’s owed $62.5 million through 2015 not counting his salary for the rest of 2013. To get viable prospects to make the deal worth the Phillies’ while, they’d have to pick up a chunk of his money. To get out from under his full salary, they’d have to take nothing back in return. Then what? They’d need pitching for next year to try and win with the players they still have with none as good as Lee on the market. So it makes no sense to even speculate about in any manner other than to garner attention for something that’s highly unlikely to happen during the season.

As for Papelbon, he’s one name who could help a club like the Tigers who need a closer. He could put them over the top and for the Phillies, he’s replaceable if they’re not in the playoff hunt. He doesn’t appear happy in Philadelphia, they don’t seem to like him very much and getting rid of his salary for a couple of mid-level minor leaguers would appeal to everyone. If they’re out of the race in the second half, they could give Phillippe Aumont a look as the closer and after the season go the cheap (and ironic) route and bring back Ryan Madson who, by then, might not have thrown one pitch for another team after leaving the Phillies only to return two years later to have a shot to be the closer again.

The idea behind trade deadline speculation is to formulate a clear-cut scenario of either/or. Either we’re in it and we buy or we’re out of it and we sell. That comes from the Moneyball school of thought with no obstacles other than financial, but that’s fiction just like Moneyball. The Rays can get away with that kind of attitude. The teams with fans who pay to see the team and live and breathe with the idea that they could possibly challenge for a World Series in spite of the odds—the Phillies, Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers—can’t do it that easily. The Phillies won’t sell. They’ll tweak. That means Papelbon will be the one of the whales to go and Lee will stay.

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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.

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The Mouth That Roared By Dallas Green—Book Review

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Given his reputation throughout baseball as a straight-talking, old-school baseball guy, if Dallas Green was going to put his career in perspective with an autobiography, he had to go all-in.

Green doesn’t disappoint in The Mouth That Roared: My Six Outspoken Decades in Baseball written with Alan Maimon.

From his time as a journeyman pitcher who was constantly on the fringes of being sent to the minors, Green was a players’ player who worked as both a union representative in the nascent days of the MLB Players Union and saw the geographical shift from the owners controlling everything to the unfettered free agency that accompanied Marvin Miller, Curt Flood, Catfish Hunter and Andy Messersmith. His feelings on the matter have swung from decrying the players’ indentured servitude, clamoring for some say in their careers, battling for a crumb of the pie from ownership to today wondering how much good the $200 million contracts are doing for the game.

Green has the breadth of experience from functioning as a player clinging to his career with arm injuries and poor performance to a minor league director to a manager to a GM. He helped Paul Owens build the 1970s Phillies who almost but not quite made it over the hump from annual division winner to championship club, then went down on the field at the behest of Owens when the soft, inmates running the asylum approach of Danny Ozark was no longer working, got into the faces of veteran players, benching them, threatening them, ripping them publicly and dragged them to a World Series title in 1980—the first championship in Phillies’ history.

One interesting footnote from 1980 is that with all the complaining from closers of yesteryear about the one-inning save in today’s game, Green didn’t adhere to it during that championship season because nobody adhered to it until Tony LaRussa implemented it in 1988 with Dennis Eckersley. Pitchers like Tug McGraw, Bruce Sutter, Rollie Fingers and any closer worth anything pitched multiple innings. That had drawbacks that aren’t discussed by the “in my day” crowd (Green isn’t one of them) as McGraw pitched two innings in the first game of the World Series, had worked very hard including three innings pitched in game 3 of the NLCS and appearances in games 4 and 5, plus game 1 of the World Series, and wasn’t available to close in game 2 of the World Series with Ron Reed doing the job. That would never happen today.

The original intention was for Green to take over for Owens as Phillies GM with managing only a short-term gig. Owens had no plans to retire as the Cubs came after Green calling—repeatedly with consistently sweetened offers—to take over as their GM with carte blanche to run the team as he saw fit. He turned them down multiple times before finally saying, “Yes.”

With the Cubs, Green turned a perennial loser into a division champion with smart trades in getting Ryne Sandberg, Rick Sutcliffe and Ron Cey. However, as should be noted in today’s game where there’s the perception of the GM with absolute power, it doesn’t exist for anyone and never really did at any time. Even today’s luminaries like Theo Epstein and Billy Beane answer to someone. After his first season as the GM in 1982, Green thought he had a handshake deal in place that would land Dodgers free agent first baseman Steve Garvey for the Cubs. As a corollary to that trade, the Cubs would have traded Bill Buckner (a player Green didn’t want on his team because of selfishness and in whom he took a certain perverse amusement when the 1986 World Series was lost by the Red Sox in part because of Buckner’s error) to the Phillies. The Cubs upper management didn’t okay the deal and Garvey wound up signing with the Padres who, ironically, beat the Cubs in the 1984 NLCS with Garvey helping significantly. It was then that Green learned what he was dealing with working for a corporate ownership in the Tribune Company. It was Green’s constant pursuit of putting lights in Wrigley Field that played a major role in the stadium being saved by their installation in 1988.

After the Cubs won the division and appeared to be on their way up, it became a case of too much too soon. Green’s plan was to use his own long-term contract to rebuild the Cubs’ dilapidated farm system, sign key free agents, change the culture from one that accepted losing, and make wise trades to have a consistent pipeline of talent. When the Cubs won the division in 1984, it was expected that they were going to win a World Series shortly thereafter and when they took a step back in 1985 and came completely undone in 1986 and 1987, Green was fired. The signal that it wasn’t going to work as Green planned with the Cubs occurred when an executive with the Tribune named John Madigan began going to baseball meetings, learned and used the terminology and started interfering with baseball moves. From Green this was an example and a none-too-subtle shot at people who have no baseball experience thinking that learning a few catchwords is a substitute for knowing the game itself through experience.

Following his firing the Cubs won another division title in 1989 with a team comprised of players that Green had acquired and drafted. By then, he was managing the Yankees.

For all the enemies he hammers in the book like Bobby Valentine (“He thinks he knows more about the game than anyone else.”); Gene Mauch (“lack of people skills”; “inherent mistrust of younger players…”); Joe McIlvaine (“I ended up hearing through the grapevine that he might be spending a lot of time on non-baseball activities in Atlantic City.”); and Buckner (“Buck was happy to put his numbers up, but he was never truly content. And he most definitely never embraced the idea of baseball as a team sport.”), Green never took overt shots at George Steinbrenner from his brief tenure managing the Yankees.

No one who knew Dallas Green and George Steinbrenner could possibly have thought it was going to work not just because of the clash of personalities of one person who wanted things done his way and the other one who wasn’t going to take crap (you can pick which would be which), and it inevitably and quickly failed with Green fired in August. It didn’t help that the 1989 Yankees plainly and simply weren’t any good and wouldn’t be good again for another four years in large part because of Steinbrenner hiring people like Green and not letting them do what it was that got them hired and made them successful in other venues in the first place.

Green then joined the Mets as a scout and eventually took over as a “clean out the barn” manager. He couldn’t get through to many players from veteran Hall of Famers like Eddie Murray and young Jeromy Burnitz, but he did forge decent relationships with and got good performances from Bret Saberhagen after a rough start and John Franco. He stated openly that his experience in developing players with the Phillies told him that the Mets heavily promoted trio of “Generation K” Jason Isringhausen, Bill Pulsipher and Paul Wilson weren’t ready for the big leagues as the centerpieces when they were pushed as such. He’s right when he says all three needed more time in the minors to learn how to pitch.

An interesting aspect of Green’s career is the influence he’s had and how players who may have hated him while he was managing them took his lessons into their own management careers. Larry Bowa couldn’t stand Green and felt he was too openly critical of players. The relationship wasn’t bad enough to prevent Green from acquiring Bowa in the Sandberg trade to play shortstop for him with the Cubs and to trust him to mentor top draft pick Shawon Dunston. Nor did it stop Bowa from becoming a manager whose style was nearly identical to Green’s. As a player he didn’t like to be yelled at; as a manager, he learned that some players need to be yelled at. Like Green, he got fired for it.

Today as he’s an assistant in the Phillies front office, he sees the way deals are made with a nearly nonexistent focus on people and a detrimental focus on numbers with the money players are being paid and the almost misanthropic nature of the people making the decisions today in a cold, corporate atmosphere and yearns for a time when baseball people made baseball decisions when he says, “Many general managers today only know how to evaluate talent in front of a computer.”

The final chapter of the book is dedicated to his granddaughter, nine-year-old Christina Taylor-Green. Christina was one of the people killed in the Tucson, Arizona assassination attempt on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. The old-school baseball man Green is also old-school when it comes to the right for responsible people to bear arms, but his case for gun control is coming from someone who doesn’t see any reason for automatic weapons designed for one purpose—to kill people—continue to be sold and has lost a loved one to make this point tragically clear.

While it would have been easy for the book to degenerate into a treatise on the superiority of the old school both on and off the field; for it to turn into a Richard Nixon-like unfettered attack against his lengthy enemies list, Green manages to state his case as he sees it with a matter-of-fact tone that has no hallmarks of a vengeful attack or manufactured controversy designed to create buzz and sell books.

A person whose life has been steeped in in-the-trenches baseball will see their beliefs validated, but those who are relatively new to the game and think they’re experts after learning how to calculate OPS+ will also find value if they read it rather than use it as an indictment of the old school and take what Green says to learn from his successes and acknowledged mistakes.

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