The Astros and the Antiquated “Process”

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In this Tyler Kepner piece in today’s New York Times, the Astros and their plan for the future is again detailed. You can insert your own joke about their early spring training activity of practicing a post-victory celebration. By the time we get to August and they’ve likely traded off the rest of the veteran players they have on the roster including Carlos Pena, Bud Norris, Jose Veras, Rick Ankiel and Wesley Wright and released Philip Humber and Erik Bedard, they’ll be so dreadful that a post-victory celebration will be so rare that the celebration should resemble clinching a post-season berth.

What’s most interesting about the piece is the clinging to the notion that the key to success is still the decade ago Moneyball strategy (first put into practice by the late 1990s Yankees) to run the starting pitchers’ pitch counts up to get them out of the game and get into the “soft underbelly” of the middle relief corps and take advantage of bad pitching in the middle innings.

Is it still an effective tactic if everyone is doing it and the opposition is better-prepared for it? There’s a case for saying no.

Back then, most teams were still functioning with a middle relief staff of journeymen, youngsters and breathing bodies. In 1998, for example, the Red Sox won 92 games in comparison to the Yankees 114, made the playoffs, and had as middle relievers Rich Garces, John Wasdin, Carlos Reyes and Jim Corsi. The Indians of 1998 were the one team that put a scare into the Yankees that season and had Paul Shuey, Eric Plunk, Jose Mesa (after he’d lost his closer’s job to Michael Jackson and before he was traded to the Giants at mid-season), and other forgettable names like Steve Karsay, Chad Ogea and Ron Villone.

These were the good teams in the American League. The bad teams starting rotations were bad enough before getting into their bullpens that it didn’t matter who a team like the Yankees were facing, they were going to hammer them.

Today, the game is different. The pitch counts are more closely monitored, but certain teams—the Rangers, Giants and Cardinals—don’t adhere to them so fanatically that it can be counted on for a pitcher to be yanked at the 100-pitch mark. Also, teams have better and more diverse middle relief today than they did back then because clubs such as the Rays are taking the job more seriously.

Waiting out a great pitcher like Felix Hernandez is putting a hitter in the position where he’s going to be behind in the count and facing a pitcher’s pitch. In that case, it makes more sense to look for something hittable earlier in the count and swing at it.

With a mediocre pitcher like Jason Vargas of the Angels, he’s more likely to make a mistake with his array of soft stuff, trying to get ahead in the count to be able to throw his changeup, so looking for something early in the count makes sense there as well. In addition, with a pitcher like Vargas (and pretty much the whole Angels’ starting rotation), you’re better off with him in the game than you are with getting into the bullpen, so the strategy of getting into the “weaker” part of the staff doesn’t fit as the middle relievers aren’t that far off in effectiveness from Vargas.

Teams use their bullpens differently today. You see clubs loading up on more specialists and carrying 13 pitchers with a righty sidearmer, a lefty sidearmer, a conventional lefty specialist, and enough decent arms to get to the late relievers. The Cardinals are an example of this with Marc Rzepczynski as their lefty specialist; Randy Choate as their sidearmer; and Trevor Rosenthal and Joe Kelly, both of whom have been starters, can provide multiple innings and throw nearly 100-mph.

I’m not suggesting hitters go to the plate behaving like Jeff Francoeur, willing to swing at the resin bag if the pitcher throws it, but swinging at a hittable fastball if it comes his way and not worrying that he’ll get yelled at for being a little more aggressive and deviating from the faulty “process.”

The Astros can use this idea of “process” all they want, but the reality is that they may hit a few homers and be drilling it into their hitters from the bottom of their minor league system up that they want patience and don’t care about batting average, but by the time they’re in the middle of their rebuild it might get through that this strategy isn’t what it once was. Waiting, waiting, waiting sometimes means the bus is going to leave without you. Other teams have adjusted enough so it won’t matter if the hitter is trying to intentionally raise the pitch count because it won’t have the same result as it did when the idea first came into vogue with Moneyball. And it’ll go out the window just as the theories in the book have too.

Essays, predictions, player analysis, under the radar fantasy picks, breakout candidates, contract status of all relevant personnel—GMs, managers, players—and anything else you could possibly want to know is in my new book Paul Lebowitz’s 2013 Baseball Guide now available on Amazon.comSmashwordsBN and Lulu. It’s useful all season long. Check it out and read a sample.

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American League Central—Buy, Sell or Stand Pat?

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I’m going division by division. This morning I went through the AL East. Now it’s time for the AL Central.

Chicago White Sox

They’re buyers and should be, but they need to do it within reason.

They’ve already made one move to fill a hole by getting Kevin Youkilis essentially for nothing, they need a starting pitcher and some bullpen help.

Could they cobble together the prospects to get a Cole Hamels, Zack Greinke or Matt Garza? Probably. Should they? Probably not. But GM Ken Williams is going to do what he’s going to do and won’t apologize nor backtrack. They’ve played this well up to this point with John Danks and Philip Humber injured.

I would tweak the bullpen with a Brandon League, Huston Street, Rafael Betancourt or Francisco Rodriguez if he comes available; plus another lefty like Joe Thatcher. The best improvements to the club will be if Danks and Humber come back effectively and if Alexei Ramirez starts hitting. That’s more important than any acquisition they could make. A desperation trade would be counterproductive.

Cleveland Indians

They need a bat at first base, the outfield or at DH. I’d leave the pitching alone unless they can get Ryan Dempster at a reasonable price. Yes, Travis Hafner’s off the disabled list, but judging from history he’ll be back on it soon enough. Neither of their veteran acquisitions—Johnny Damon and Casey Kotchman—have hit; they can forget about getting anything from Grady Sizemore.

They could use a lefty out of the bullpen and should make a move on the just released Brian Fuentes. For a bat, Carlos Quentin is out there. If the Cubs will pay his whole salary, they might want to take a look at Alfonso Soriano. At the very least he’d hit them some homers. Ty Wigginton would be a useful and cheap extra bat.

If they’re inclined, they could craft an offer for Justin Upton and wait to see if B.J. Upton comes available.

Detroit Tigers

The second they signed Prince Fielder and moved Miguel Cabrera to third base, the Tigers were all-in to win now. They need a starting pitcher and while I wouldn’t trade Jacob Turner, that’s probably what’s going to have to happen to get one of the big names out there, Hamels, Greinke and Garza. I have a feeling that Placido Polanco is going to be playing second base for the Tigers before the end of July.

A lot will depend on how realistic it is to pin their needs for a bat on Victor Martinez getting back from knee surgery well before he was expected to.

The Tigers can still salvage their season and make the playoffs. There’s no dominant team in the AL Central.

Kansas City Royals

A couple of weeks ago I asked why they would be selling when they were only 5 games out of first place and had played well since a rancid start. Now they’re 9 ½ games out of first place and are said to be willing to move closer Jonathan Broxton but won’t give him away. They have players who have use like Jeff Francoeur, Bruce Chen and Jose Mijares.

They should get what they can for Mijares and stay where they are, giving the young players a chance to right the ship. This can still be a positive season for the Royals.

Minnesota Twins

They need to sell some of the key pieces from their long run in dominating the division. That means Justin Morneau and Francisco Liriano. I still think Morneau winds up in Los Angeles with the Dodgers. Liriano is going to be in heavy demand for multiple teams as a starter or reliever. Matt Capps will wind up getting traded somewhere maybe as part of a Morneau to the Dodgers deal.

I would not trade Denard Span.

If Carl Pavano returns and shows himself healthy, he’ll get through waivers in August and teams will need a body with a functioning arm. I suppose Pavano qualifies in that respect. Sort of.

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Are the White Sox Rebuilding or Not?

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White Sox GM Kenny Williams uttered the unutterable word after the club’s disappointing 2011 season ended and manager Ozzie Guillen had been traded to the Marlins when he said, “rebuilding”.

After following the win-now edict and acting accordingly by relying on veterans and mostly ignoring the farm system as anything other than a means for immediate help or to trade for veteran players, they hired a neophyte manager in Robin Ventura; traded closer Sergio Santos; and allowed veterans Mark Buehrle, Ramon Castro and Juan Pierre to depart via free agency.

But Williams’s actions don’t imply a full-blown teardown.

Such is the case as he signed lefty starter John Danks—about whom he was listening to trade proposals—to a 5-year, $65 million contract extension precluding his free agency after next season and locking him up for four years hence.

Danks is a good pitcher and if he maintains his performance from the past 5 years, he’ll be a bargain in comparison to what he would’ve gotten as a free agent.

But I don’t understand the dual messages the White Sox are sending.

Are they rebuilding or not?

If they are rebuilding while trying to remain competitive, wouldn’t they have been better off signing Buehrle to a contract similar to what he got from the Marlins and trading Danks for 2-3 prospects? Buehrle presumably would’ve given a discount to the White Sox to stay and Danks is a very marketable arm.

So which is it?

If the White Sox were in the American or National League East or the AL West, I’d say they should start over, but they’re not. The AL Central doesn’t have a dominant team and any team can win it in 2012.

So many things went wrong for the White Sox over the past two seasons, perhaps the managerial change from the controversial and loud Guillen to the calm and respected Ventura, plus a tweak here and there, places them right back in the thick of things.

Given the immovable nature of some of their contracts—Adam Dunn and Jake Peavy especially—what sense did it make to give these mixed signals of their planned course?

There are plenty of “ifs” involved with their 2012 club.

If Chris Sale transitions well to the starting rotation…

If Philip Humber can continue pitching as well as he did in 2011…

If Peavy can return to some semblance of his Padres form…

If Dunn hits better than a moderately threatening starting pitcher who doubled as an outfielder in college…

If, if, if…

But there’s enough talent to contend in that parity-laden division—all the teams have flaws—and with that in mind, what the White Sox are currently doing doesn’t make much sense at all.

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MLB Draft Dollars And The Strategy Of Spending

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Why do I get the feeling that with all the talk about clubs spending, spending and spending some more in the MLB Draft, that 2011 will wind up going down as the year that teams overspent and got little return?

We can go up and down, back and forth with the arguments for carting wheelbarrows of cash in the draft and bringing in top-quality talent, but the fact remains that the draft is the ultimate crapshoot.

As opposed to one of the most idiotic assertions in Moneyball that the genius Billy Beane was counting cards in a casino (repeated by Michael Lewis in the afterword/extra chapter of the paperback version as if saying something stupid once wasn’t enough), all you can do with drafted players is hope.

Naturally giving them an opportunity to play in the majors instead of continually bringing in veterans is a key to their development and becoming useful big leaguers, but the truth about the draft is that you don’t know until you know.

Picking a year at random (and I’m actually picking a year at random) with 2004 and the 1st round.

How many “star” players are there? There are two: Justin Verlander and Jered Weaver.

Apart from that, you have useful cogs (Huston Street; Jeff Niemann; Phil Hughes; Neil Walker; J.P. Howell; Gio Gonzalez); the underdeveloped (Bill Bray; Homer Bailey; Blake DeWitt; Philip Humber); and the busts (Matt Bush; Jon Poterson; Greg Golson).

Being a 1st round pick and getting a load of money increases expectations and the amount of time a player is going to get with the organization. The bigger amounts of attention and money they receive, the more a club is going to want to get some kind of return on that investment; that goes a long way in keeping a player employed and moving up the ladder even if he doesn’t deserve it.

The obvious and easy response to any failure or perceived success is to go all in. So if teams are seen to be “winning” with the Moneyball system, that’s what will come en vogue; if teams win by signing veteran players, that will be the new strategy.

It’s the same with the draft and development—others will copy it while it appears to be working; then they’ll move on to something else.

The drafted players have taken advantage of MLB’s complete lack of competence in implementing the bonus slots. The reliance on the draft to find players not to collect and trade, but to use is making them more valuable and the bonuses reflect that. But simply spending isn’t the answer on the big league level nor in the draft; it’s a matter of picking correctly.

This strategy of spending might be a one-and-out, because judging from history, it’s unlikely to succeed as well as the money or public accolades indicate it should.

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