NLDS Playoffs Preview and Predictions – St. Louis Cardinals vs. Pittsburgh Pirates

Games, Players, Playoffs

St. Louis Cardinals (97-65) vs. Pittsburgh Pirates (94-68)

Keys for the Cardinals: Get runners on base; continue trend of hot hitting with runners in scoring position; try not to leave the game in the hands of the bullpen; get the goods from their proven post-season performers.

The Cardinals led the National League in runs scored using a similar formula as the Yankees of the 1990s used by having a very high teamwide on-base percentage and no big home run hitters. Instead of having that one basher in the middle of the lineup hitting 35-45 homers as they did with Albert Pujols, they spread the wealth in the home run department with six hitters in double figures. Not one, however, had more than 24. In addition, the Cardinals had a .330 batting average with runners in scoring position.

The Cardinals bullpen is deep and diverse. Edward Mujica pitched well for much of the season as the team’s accidental closer after Jason Motte was lost for the season with Tommy John surgery. Mujica saved 37 games and walked only five batters in 64.2 innings. Home runs have always been his bugaboo and he surrendered nine. With Mujica’s struggles, the Cardinals have to decide whether to stick to the regular season script and leave him in the role, go with Trevor Rosenthal or a closer-by-committee.

The Cardinals have a roster full of players who’ve put up big numbers in the post-season with Adam Wainwright, Carlos Beltran, Allen Craig, David Freese and Yadier Molina. Players who’ve performed in the post-season have a tendency to do it again.

Keys for the Pirates: Don’t wait too long with their starting pitchers; don’t change their game; keep the Cardinals off the bases; get into the Cardinals’ bullpen.

The Cardinals were vulnerable to lefty pitchers but with Francisco Liriano having started the Wild Card Game against the Reds, he won’t pitch until game three in Pittsburgh. The Pirates are starting A.J. Burnett in game one and Gerrit Cole in game two. Even though he struggled in September, I might’ve rolled the dice and started Jeff Locke in game one if I were manager Clint Hurdle. The Pirates have a deep bullpen and shouldn’t wait too long with their starting pitchers before making a change. Locke as a middle reliever might end up being more effective than having him start.

As stated earlier, the Cardinals get a lot of runners on base. The Pirates have a solid defense and have to shun the walk – this is especially true for Burnett with his scattershot control.

If the Pirates don’t get the Cardinals starting pitchers’ pitch counts up and force manager Mike Matheny to go to the bullpen, they might not get a shot at Mujica.

The Pirates won their games this season with good starting pitching, speed, power from Pedro Alvarez, a great back of the bullpen and defense. They have to maintain all facets of their game.

What will happen:

The Cardinals are built more for the long season than for a short series. While they have those aforementioned big time post-season players, the Pirates have the pitching and bullpen depth to neutralize them. If the Cardinals don’t get runners on the bases, they’re not going to score because they don’t hit enough home runs and the Pirates don’t surrender many home runs. Mujica is not trustworthy as a post-season closer and if it comes down to a one-run lead in the ninth inning, everyone in St. Louis will be holding their collective breaths waiting for the inevitable longball.

The Pirates are riding a wave with their veteran acquisitions Russell Martin and Marlon Byrd leading the way joining Alvarez, Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker in the lineup. A lack of post-season experience could be a problem. The Cardinals have loads of it and the Pirates have nearly none. It could also go the other way. With the first playoff appearance and playoff win in two decades under their belts, the Pirates won’t feel the pressure. That’s one instance when the Wild Card Game will benefit a young and inexperienced team.

I don’t like the way Matheny handles the bullpen as if he’s panicky and desperate not to do the wrong thing rather than do the right thing.

The Pirates’ method of winning has a better chance to carry over into the post-season. They rely on fundamentals, speed and pop; the Cardinals relied on getting on base and clutch hitting. The Pirates are younger, stronger, faster and hungrier than the Cardinals. They’re better too.

PREDICTION: PIRATES IN THREE




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Sandy Alderson Is Smarter Than You

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Has the screaming and yelling from July 31 at the Mets not trading Marlon Byrd died down yet?

Yesterday the Mets sent Byrd and John Buck to the Pirates for highly touted single A second base prospect Dilson Herrera and a player to be named later. So is it okay that Alderson didn’t pull the trigger on Byrd a month ago just because it would’ve been better-received publicly by a wing of fans that won’t be happy no matter what he does?

What people fail to understand is that no matter how smart a baseball fan a person thinks he or she is; how many stats are quoted; how arrogant they are in thinking they know more than experienced baseball people, the fact is they’re not smarter, don’t know how to apply the stats and don’t know more. Alderson made it plain and simple when he explained why he didn’t trade Byrd at the deadline: the offers weren’t good enough to make it worthwhile and he was prepared to keep Byrd if he didn’t get an acceptable one now. This is what’s known as being a GM.

Maybe you’d like Omar Minaya back. Minaya’s tenure as Mets’ GM has become fodder for ridicule but, in reality, he did some very good things in his time. As always, Minaya’s main faults as GM are his problems with handling a crisis and that he’s too nice. Part of that niceness exhibited itself when he made the colossal blunder of trading Billy Wagner to the Red Sox for mediocre non-prospects Chris Carter and Eddie Lora.

Wagner didn’t want the Mets to offer him arbitration when he hit free agency after that season but unlike Carlos Beltran, he didn’t have it in his contract that the team couldn’t offer him arbitration. Rather than tell Wagner that business is business, hold onto him for the remainder of the season and offer arbitration or wait for a better offer than what the Red Sox presented, Minaya did the nice thing rather than the smart thing. He sent Wagner to a club that was going to the playoffs, got two players who did very little for the Mets and ruined what could have been two draft picks as compensation. The picks the Red Sox got were the 20th and the 39th. The players they took, Kolbrin Vitek and Anthony Ranaudo, are still in the minors. Available at those draft spots were: Noah Syndergaard, Taijuan Walker, Mike Olt and Nick Castellanos. Would any of these players been better than Carter, Lora and Minaya retaining his justified perception as a nice man?

Alderson isn’t interested in what the public thinks and he has no concern about being nice. That’s what it takes to be an effective GM.

There’s nothing wrong with a little healthy disagreement and complaining about what one’s team does. There are significant factions, however, who disagree for its own sake. No matter what, there will be a few people who rant and rave about it and stir other weak-minded/like-minded people to join in. It wouldn’t be as much of an issue if there weren’t owners who listened to everything the fans and media say and force their GMs to make moves they don’t want to make. Most GMs will speak in corporate circles to make these segments believe that their opinions have value and that consideration was given to what they want. When he traded Jeremy Guthrie to the Rockies for Jason Hammel and Matt Lindstrom, there were calls for the head of Orioles GM Dan Duquette amid wondering why he didn’t get “more.” Similar to Alderson, the wonkish Duquette said straight out that it was the best deal he was offered.

In the end, it turns into disagreement just because or with a clear agenda in mind. There’s no avoiding it. The Mets have a GM who’s smarter than that. He was hired to be the adult in the room and that’s what he is.




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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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Dealing With The Closer Issue

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Complaining about closers is like complaining about the weather: everyone talks about it, but no one does anything about it. The difference between the weather and closers is that something can be done about closers.

Amid all the talk about “what to do” with struggling relievers Jim Johnson and Fernando Rodney and the references of clubs who have found unheralded veterans to take over as their closer like the Cardinals with Edward Mujica and the Pirates with Jason Grilli, no one is addressing the fundamental problems with needing to have an “established” closer. Here they are and what to do about them.

Veteran relievers like to know their roles.

Managers like Whitey Herzog, Sparky Anderson, Billy Martin and Earl Weaver had the ability to tell their players that their “role” is to pitch when they tell them to pitch. Nowadays even managers who are relatively entrenched in their jobs like Joe Maddon have to have the players on their side to succeed. The Rays are a different story because they’re not paying any of their relievers big money and can interchange them if need be, but they don’t because Maddon doesn’t operate that way until it’s absolutely necessary.

Other clubs don’t have that luxury. They don’t want to upset the applecart and cause a domino effect of people not knowing when they’re going to pitch; not knowing if a pitcher can mentally handle the role of pitching the ninth inning; and don’t want to hear the whining and deal with the aftermath if there’s not someone established to replace the closer who’s having an issue. Rodney was only the Rays’ closer last season because Kyle Farnsworth (a foundling who in 2011 had a career year similar to Rodney in 2012) got hurt.

Until managers have the backing of the front office and have a group of relievers who are just happy to have the job in the big leagues, there’s no escaping the reality of having to placate the players to keep clubhouse harmony.

Stop paying for mediocrity in a replaceable role.

The Phillies and Yankees are paying big money for their closers Jonathan Papelbon and Mariano Rivera, but these are the elite at the position. Other clubs who have overpaid for closers include the Dodgers with Brandon League, the Red Sox with money and traded players to get Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan, the Nationals with Rafael Soriano, and the Marlins who paid a chunk of Heath Bell’s salary to get him out of the clubhouse.

Bell has taken over for the injured J.J. Putz with the Diamondbacks and pitched well. The Cubs, in desperation, replaced both Carlos Marmol ($9.8 million in 2013) and Kyuji Fujikawa (guaranteed $9.5 million through 2014) with Kevin Gregg. The same Kevin Gregg who was in spring training with the Dodgers and released, signed by the Cubs—for whom he struggled as their closer when they were trying to contend in 2009—as a veteran insurance policy just in case. “Just in case” happened and Gregg has gone unscored upon and saved 6 games in 14 appearances.

As long as teams are paying closers big money, closers will have to stay in the role far longer than performance would dictate in an effort to justify the contract. It’s a vicious circle that teams fall into when they overpay for “established” closers. When the paying stops, so too will the necessity to keep pitching them.

Find a manager who can be flexible.

A manager stops thinking when it gets to the ninth inning by shutting off the logical remnants of his brain to put his closer into the game. If it’s Rivera or Papelbon, this is fine. If it’s anyone else, perhaps it would be wiser to use a lefty specialist if the situation calls for it. If Chase Utley and Ryan Howard are hitting back-to-back and a club has Randy Choate in its bullpen, would it make sense to use a righty whether it’s the ninth inning and “his” inning or not?

Maddon is flexible in his thinking and has the support of the front office to remove Rodney from the role if need be. One option that hasn’t been discussed for the Rays is minor league starter Chris Archer to take over as closer in the second half of the season. With the Rays, anything is possible. With other teams, they not only don’t want to exacerbate the problem by shuffling the entire deck, but the manager is going to panic if he doesn’t have his “ninth inning guy” to close. Even a veteran manager like Jim Leyland isn’t immune to it and a pitcher the front office didn’t want back—Jose Valverde—is now closing again because their handpicked choice Bruce Rondon couldn’t seize his spring training opportunity and the “closer by committee” was on the way to giving Leyland a heart attack, a nervous breakdown or both.

The solution.

There is no solution right now. Until teams make the conscious decision to stop paying relievers upwards of $10 million, there will constantly be the “established” closer. It’s a fundamental fact of business that if there isn’t any money in a job, fewer people who expect to make a lot of money and have the capability to make a lot of money in another position are going to want to take it. Finding replaceable arms who can be used wherever and whenever they’re told to pitch, ignore the save stat, and placed in a situation to be successful instead of how it’s done now will eliminate the need to pay for the ninth inning arm and take all the negative side effects that go along with it. Games will still get blown in the late innings, but at least it won’t be as expensive and will probably happen with an equal frequency. It’s evolution. And evolution doesn’t happen overnight, if it happens at all.

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The Mets Outsource Valdespin’s Discipline

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The Jordany Valdespin drama with the Mets isn’t just about his complete lack of understanding for the etiquette of baseball and overexcitement. There are obvious things going on behind the scenes that the public doesn’t know about. If a player is criticized for his behaviors on the field as Valdespin has been; if he has to be pulled aside by the acknowledged team leader David Wright to explain to him why he can’t be wearing a T-shirt when he enters the clubhouse on the road; if the other players are okay with him getting drilled for “admiring” a home run he hit in the ninth inning of a game the team was losing in a blowout; and if the manager Terry Collins was basically asking the Pirates to hit his player as a means of outsourcing discipline, you can bet that there are probably 50 other little (or big) things that Valdespin has done to draw the ire of the organization to this degree.

That said, the Mets are sending the wrong message to Valdespin and the rest of baseball when they simply let it go when one of their own is so clearly thrown at. In fact, Collins’s made a ridiculous comment pining for yesteryear when he was quoted as saying:

“Will they throw at him? I have no idea. Fifteen years ago, the answer would have been yes.”

Collins might also want to note (or maybe not) that fifteen years ago he was in his second managerial job with the Angels and was a year away from being fired following a mutiny. This was after having been fired in 1996 by the Astros because he frightened the young players and annoyed the veterans with his screaming. Going back in time has its negatives too and Collins barely got a sniff for a big league managerial job for a decade before the rebuilding Mets tapped him.

There’s old school good and their old school get over it and this was a case of old school get over it. The game isn’t the same as it was when Bob Gibson would throw the ball at a hitter’s head to send a message as to who the alpha male on the field was that day.

You don’t let other parents spank your children and group dynamics like a baseball team shouldn’t leave the spanking to others at the expense of team unity and reputation. And to leave it to the Pirates? It’s nonsense that the Pirates with no winning seasons since 1992 and a leaguewide laughingstock for much of that time are in a position to be teaching other clubs’ players how to act; or that Collins who was fired twice from his prior managing jobs following mutinies because of his raging temper and who has not overachieved nor underachieved with the Mets—he’s just “achieved” by pretty much maximizing their abilities—has the right to express his frustration with a young player by winking and nodding at the Pirates to pop him with impunity.

These rules of etiquette are fine and if the Mets are so upset with Valdespin that they chose to shun their own responsibilities in disciplining him by passing it off to the opponent hoping it works, then perhaps Valdespin shouldn’t be on the team. Or maybe they need to seriously consider the way in which they’ve tried to reach him and the people doing the reaching because passing it off to the other team is not a good message to send to Valdespin or anyone else.

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We Get It: Mike Francesa Demands Justin Morneau

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Ignoring multiple realities save for the ones that exist only in his mind, Mike Francesa is clinging to the farfetched notions that:

a)    The Twins will just give Justin Morneau up in a salary dump

b)   They’ll give him to the Yankees before offering him around the league

c)    The Yankees have the prospects to get Morneau now

d)   The Yankees will surrender the prospects to get Morneau

Yet he clings to the prayer from a desert island that the ship off in the distance will see his persistent waving; that the plane hovering in the sky will spot and explore his abandoned outpost; that the “Yankee magic” steeped from the historical foundation of, “Da Yankees want, dere-fore da Yankees get,” will hold true in spite of the reality of other factors: money; that other clubs have no choice in trading players to a club willing to absorb the salaries; that players wanted to go to the Yankees because the Yankees were prohibitive preseason favorites.

It’s not magic. It’s not history. It was because of factors no longer in existence or not relevant in this particular instance.

You can hear one of Francesa’s delusional Morneau rants here on Bobs Blitz. It was right after Mark Teixeira’s injury and could have been chalked up to the panic of the moment, trying to find an escape route from the prison or appeal on the conviction before acceptance of the circumstance set in.

But he’s still at it.

I’d understand if there was a basis for this Morneau obsession, i.e. the Twins making clear that they’re looking to trade him just to get out from under the $14 million salary for 2013, but I have not seen a rumor, a story or anything else from even the schlockiest of schlock sites, the trollingest of trolls saying that this is the case. I’d also understand if Morneau was presented as a faceless example of the type of player the Yankees should pursue, but Francesa’s not coming up with other names, nor is he providing well-thought-out analysis as to whom the Yankees could give the Twins to make it worth their while to trade Morneau before the season starts when the Twins are also trying to put forth the pretense of competitiveness, at least at the outset of the season.

On Twitter, a close follower and analyst of the Twins Brandon Warne said to me that he wouldn’t be surprised if the Twins not only kept Morneau for the season, but signed him to a contract to stay. Brandon’s dialed in on how the Twins think and is right. Regardless of the clear reasoning to deal Morneau and open a spot at first base for Joe Mauer, the Twins sometimes do things like that even if they don’t appear to make any sense. When they were winning, it was the “Twins Way.” Now that they’re losing it’s “stupid.” Neither assessment is any more accurate than the other, it just is.

If the Yankees were looking for the type of player that Francesa is insisting Morneau is now—a veteran with a terrible team looking to dump salary just to get money off the books—they’d go to the Astros and try to get Carlos Pena; they’d approach the Rockies about Chris Nelson and move Kevin Youkilis to first base; they’d come up with something reasonable and doable. “Reasonable” and “doable” are not categories in which Morneau fits.

Other unavailable names that have been bandied about by desperate Yankees fans and apologists are Garrett Jones and Billy Butler. Jones is gettable from the Pirates, but the days of the Pirates handing their lunch money over to the bullying Yankees are over; Butler is a star hitter who most fans are entirely unaware of how good he is and the Royals aren’t moving him.

Here’s a flash that maybe you’ll get if I capitalize it: THESE PLAYERS ARE NOT AVAILABLE FOR THE SCRAPS THE YANKEES ARE WILLING TO GIVE UP!!!!

If the Yankees were to surrender Gary Sanchez, Slade Heathcott, Jose Campos, even David Robertson or the rehabbing Manny Banuelos, yes, they can get someone to fill in at first base. But they’re not doing that. Accept it.

Also accept this: the Yankees are currently a mess. They want to lower payroll and won’t give up any prospects to improve in the moment. Brian Cashman clung to Eduardo Nunez in trade talks for veteran help like Cliff Lee in 2010, proclaiming him “untouchable,” but is now refusing to make the simplest and most obvious decision and let Nunez play third base and move Youkilis to first, basically saying that Nunez isn’t that good.

He was so good that he was untouchable a year ago but, now they’re implying he can’t play regularly simultaneous to insulting the intelligence of any sane person who’s ever seen Nunez play shortstop by saying, “We see him as a shortstop.” Where? On Mars? He’s so great a prospect that he can’t be traded, but not good enough to actually play at third? Left field? First base? Somewhere?

The reality is setting in everywhere but at 1:00 PM EST on WFAN in New York, where the Yankees are still able to demand that other clubs hand over what the Yankees want. Just because they’re the Yankees.

It doesn’t work that way anymore and truth be told, it never really did.

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Erik Bedard and the Astros—A Marriage of Convenience

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There’s nothing to lose for the Astros to sign Erik Bedard and have a look at him, but there’s probably not much to gain either. Bedard, age 34 in March, has seen his time come and go. When he was traded from the Orioles to the Mariners, the Mariners were expecting an ace whose frequent injuries and attitude problems would be tolerated if he pitched as he did for the Orioles in 2006-2007.

Considering his disdain for reporters and brusqueness with teammates, the Mariners weren’t getting him for his congeniality; they got him because they thought he could pitch…if he stayed healthy. He didn’t. The injury problems began almost immediately upon his arrival in Seattle and didn’t stop until he left.

First it was his hip; then it was his back; then it was his shoulder. Because Mariners’ GM Bill Bavasi traded a package of players including Adam Jones, George Sherrill and Chris Tillman to get him, the trade is a retrospective nightmare for the Mariners. Like the Royals’ trade this winter to get James Shields and Wade Davis from the Rays for a package including top prospect Wil Myers, the Mariners were in “win now” mode, hoping that their 88-74 season in 2007 was a portent of contention and with Bedard fronting the rotation with Felix Hernandez, the club would make a playoff run. It didn’t work for the Mariners. It might for the Royals.

In 2008, Bedard got hurt and so did closer J.J. Putz; the Mariners wound up losing 101 games leading to the firing of Bavasi and the hiring of Jack Zduriencik. Zduriencik’s reign has resulted in a different set of mistakes and disastrous decisions which have left the Mariners pretty much where they were before Bavasi made the trade for Bedard.

In Bedard’s 3 ½ seasons being paid by the Mariners, when he pitched he was effective. In 46 games, he threw 255 innings; struck out 249; had a 15-14 record for a terrible team; and posted a 3.31 ERA. These numbers would be acceptable for a season-and-a-half, not for an entire tenure.

Traded to the Red Sox at mid-season 2011, Bedard pitched in only 8 games because of a knee problem, but was a witness to the historic Red Sox collapse. In 2012, he signed with the Pirates for 1-year and $4.5 million. He was worth a shot on a 1-year deal, but the expectations should’ve been muted. In his heyday with the Orioles, his velocity was around 91-93. Combined with a nasty curve and deceptive across-his-body motion, he racked up the strikeouts. With the Pirates, his velocity was around 88 and his curveball lacked the same bite. The diminished break of the curve coincided with the increased breakdown of Bedard’s body. These things happen with age.

He showed enough effectiveness with the Pirates to warrant him getting a look from someone for 2013, but it’s telling that the Astros are the club that signed him. If teams thought he had something left, a better one than the Astros would’ve brought him in. Perhaps Bedard thinks the expansion-level Astros provide him with the best chance to garner a spot in the starting rotation and rejuvenate his career. In that sense, he’s right. The 2013 Astros are quite possibly the worst team I’ve ever seen. Ever. While I understand that they’re rebuilding the whole organization, there’s something to be said for putting a competent big league product on the field. Spending money on name free agents for cosmetic purposes is self-destructive, but this roster is embarrassingly bad; moving to the rough AL West makes a team that lost 106 games in 2011 and 107 games in 2012 on track to lost 115 (or more) in 2013. With an expected payroll under $30 million, MLB has to take a look at what’s happening in Houston and ask some serious questions as to the intentions of the new ownership and front office.

This is a marriage of convenience for Bedard and the Astros that could benefit both. Reality says it probably won’t. That they wound up together in the first place is indicative of the state of Bedard’s career and the Astros’ 2013 expectations. Neither are good.

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Javier Vazquez’s Comeback and Potential Suitors

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Javier Vazquez surprisingly retired after a solid season for the Marlins in 2011 in which he posted a 13-11 record; a 3.69 ERA; a hits/innings pitched ratio of 178/192 with 50 walks and 178 strikeouts. It must be added that he also had a dreadful start, pitching terribly until mid-June. For the entire second half, he was a different pitcher, one who was in demand as a free agent and chose to “retire” at age 35.

He can still pitch, just not as a Yankee, having failed there twice. I certainly wouldn’t bring him back to the Yankees, nor to Boston or Baltimore, but every other contending or would-be contending club is an option and Vazquez, while not saying he’s definitely returning, will pitch in the World Baseball Classic for Puerto Rico and has said he’s considering a comeback to MLB. For a $10 million payday, why not?

So which teams could use Vazquez and meet the criteria as contender?

Let’s take a look.

Toronto Blue Jays

The Blue Jays don’t really need another starter, but I suppose they could trade Ricky Romero and attach Adam Lind to him to get Lind’s contract off the roster in exchange for a 1B/DH bat and install Vazquez into the spot, but I’d keep Vazquez away from the AL East.

Tampa Bay Rays

Vazquez isn’t coming back for an incentive-laden deal with a low base salary, which is essentially the only method in which the Rays invest in free agents as they did with Roberto Hernandez (née Fausto Carmona). Tampa would be a good spot in every aspect, but they can’t pay him.

Cleveland Indians

The Indians agreed to terms with Brett Myers yesterday and are using him as a starter. They’re clearly intent on trying to win within their means under new manager Terry Francona and Vazquez would fall into the veteran starting pitcher template. Francona’s gentle handling of his players would suit Vazquez.

Los Angeles Angels

Vazquez is better than Joe Blanton, Tommy Hanson and Jason Vargas, but again, teams didn’t know Vazquez was available. The Angels don’t have any room for him now.

Texas Rangers

His penchant for allowing home runs is a concern in Texas, but their infield defense would also help him greatly. They’re a contender, would prefer a pitcher on a short-term contract and have had success with pitchers like Colby Lewis who’ve left for Japan and came back to MLB making Vazquez’s departure and return a non-issue.

The Rangers are a definite possibility.

Washington Nationals

The Nationals are waiting out Adam LaRoche and his free agency tour. In a free agency family tree sort of situation, LaRoche might go to the Red Sox if their contract snag with Mike Napoli isn’t ironed out and the deal comes undone. If that’s the case, the Nats won’t be able to trade Mike Morse. If they can trade Morse, they can move him for a starting pitcher. Or they can sign Vazquez and worry about the other stuff later.

Vazquez spent the first six years of his career with the Nats organization when they were in Montreal. He’s a perfect fit back in the NL East where he had his best years and pitching for a legitimate World Series contender in Washington.

Atlanta Braves

The Braves have enough starting pitching, so much so that they traded Hanson to the Angels for Jordan Walden. But Brandon Beachy is returning from Tommy John surgery and Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado are kids, so there’s a spot for a veteran like Vazquez if they want him. Vazquez had the year of his life with the Braves in 2009, won 15 games (he should have won 22) and finished 4th in the NL Cy Young voting. It’s doubtful they’d do it, but it’s logical.

Philadelphia Phillies

Vazquez is better than John Lannan and Kyle Kendrick—the two pitchers at the back of the Phillies rotation and gigantic steps down from the top three of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels—but the home run ball would be an issue for Vazquez and the Phillies offense and defense aren’t what they once were to account for Vazquez’s faults. He’d surrender a ton of homers in Philadelphia. He’s probably ill-suited mentally to the fans of Philadelphia booing him if he pitches 6 no-hit innings and then gives up a run in the seventh with the team leading 10-1.

Milwaukee Brewers

They desperately need starting pitching and have money to spend, but I’m not sure they’re contenders even though they can hit.

Pittsburgh Pirates

They just spent a large portion of available funds on Francisco Liriano. But they might be able to swing Vazquez. They’re intriguing for Vazquez and vice versa. The Pirates are a NL Central club with a big ballpark and enough young talent to be taken seriously as a contender, so perhaps they can work something out with Vazquez if they clear some money elsewhere.

San Diego Padres

The Padres don’t have a ton of money to toss around nor status as a winter contender, but they could surprise in 2013 with their onrushing young talent. They also brought the fences in and lowered the walls at Petco Park, which would affect a homer-prone pitcher like Vazquez.

They could jump in on him in a surprise move.

Vazquez didn’t plan this very well if he wanted to start a bidding war. He realistically could’ve guaranteed himself $12 million if he’d made his services available at the conclusion of the 2012 season and seen the bidding go up with a 1-year deal plus an option with the requisite buyout. He could’ve made $15 million if he’d played it right.

All things considered, Vazquez and the Nationals are destined to wind up together. That’s if he decides to pitch; and if the Nats don’t trade Morse; and Yankees GM Brian Cashman doesn’t try to prove himself “right” by going after Vazquez again for the Yankees.

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The Dual-Edged Sword of Hiring Gary Sheffield as an Agent

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A player agent with experience might’ve had it in mind that there was the possibility—injury or trade—that his client’s new contract might require a few “if-then” incentive clauses. That doesn’t appear to have been the case with Jason Grilli whose agent, Gary Sheffield, didn’t get such clauses inserted into the contract Grilli signed to return to the Pirates. Because of that, as Grilli is set to take over as the Pirates’ new closer once the Joel Hanrahan to the Red Sox trade is finalized, he will collect his salary for 2013-2014 (2-years, $6.75 million), and not get one penny more whether he saves 40 games or 0.

Was Sheffield required to do more and what’s the trade-off when Grilli shuns an established agent who might see Grilli as a low priority and opts for Sheffield, who doesn’t have a long list of clients?

In the past, agents like Scott Boras have treated their lower-tier clients as moderate inconveniences, expecting them to be happy to take a back seat to the big names and wait their turn. Felipe Lopez was such a player who pushed back in February of 2010 when he fired Boras. Lopez wasn’t in Grilli’s situation when Grilli hired Sheffield in 2010. Grilli was out of baseball and looking for work; Lopez, in 2009, had had one of the best seasons of his career with a .310/.383/.427 split and 9 homers for the Diamondbacks and Brewers. Lopez was a flawed player, but should’ve gotten a suitable job offer before February considering his bat, pop and that he was defensively versatile playing a passable second and third base.

Boras’s reaction wasn’t an apology to his client or an explanation. Instead, he announced that he was going to “confront the player,” and made cryptic references of “reasons” why Lopez wasn’t offered a job that he declined to disclose. It’s as if he—the employee—was in charge and was exacting revenge for being fired. Boras is powerful and Lopez had little leverage, but in the end, Boras worked for Lopez, not the other way around.

While Sheffield might not have the most sparkly reputation around the executives and teams that he angered throughout his career and that is definitely going to hurt the players he represents because they simply will not want to deal with Sheffield, he’s going to speak up and fight for the people on his side. His clients—Grilli and Josh Banks—weren’t in a great position to bargain. They were looking for work. Would someone have signed Grilli and Banks without Sheffield? Probably. But what’s the difference? Maybe players like these need someone like Sheffield who has nothing to gain by representing them instead of Boras who probably has lower level associates handling the Lopezes of the world on a daily basis and forgets about them completely until they do what Lopez did and publicly fires him, embarrassing him. Boras certainly couldn’t let that go by without face-saving response.

Grilli’s main obstacle as a closer is handling it mentally. The Pirates have a shot at a playoff spot in 2013, so his closing opportunities will be important. Pitchers in the past that have proven themselves as set-up men and couldn’t close have been legion—one in particular last season was David Robertson of the Yankees, who looked as if he was about to hyperventilate on the mound when he took over for Mariano Rivera, then got hurt. It opened the door for the more proven Rafael Soriano and Robertson went back to being a set-up man. It’s not that Soriano’s stuff is better than Robertson’s—it’s not—but Soriano can close. Whether Robertson can or not remains to be seen. The first impression wasn’t good.

That mentality, more than stuff, is the key to closing. Grilli’s strikeout numbers have spiked and he’s found a velocity in the mid-90s that he didn’t have earlier in his career. He has a chance to be good at the job that Sheffield the agent clearly didn’t expect his client to have. Should Sheffield and his partner, lawyer Xavier James, have realized that there was a chance that Grilli could accumulate a few saves and prove himself as a closer, possibly putting himself in line to make a lot more money? Yes. But Grilli is also 36 and his annual salary for a 15 year professional career surpassed $1 million for the first time in 2012. Taking the guaranteed cash was the smart move. Another agent would’ve insisted on the clause and that might’ve wound up costing Grilli the opportunity and left him sitting out and waiting as Lopez was.

It’s a dual-edged sword. Sheffield, perhaps unwittingly, served his client and got him a guaranteed two year contract in the now. That’s not a bad thing.

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The One Punch Knockout and the New Yankees Reality

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The Yankees are in the midst of taking an accumulation of punches that place their 2013 hopes on the precipice of ending in December. The organization isn’t used to that; the rest of baseball isn’t used to that; and the media isn’t used to that; and the fans are definitely not used to that.

Let’s look.

The losses

None of the players who have departed the Yankees this winter are irreplaceable on their own. Nick Swisher just agreed to a 4-year, $56 million contract with the Indians. Rafael Soriano is still on the market. Eric Chavez, Russell Martin and Raul Ibanez all went to other teams. Individually, each would inspire a shrug from the Yankees of old and they’d simply spend money or trade for other pieces to replace them. But when you combine the weak free agent market with the combination of Yankees’ needs and that they’re not spending any cash to fill them, you have a mess.

When was the last time the Yankees didn’t retain players that they wanted to keep? They wanted to keep Martin; they wanted to keep Chavez; they wanted to keep Ibanez. Martin went to the Pirates—the Pirates!!! Chavez to the Diamondbacks; and Ibanez to the Mariners. Three teams with nowhere near the spending power the Yankees are supposed to have, nor the historically winning environment. Yet all three are gone. While, on the surface, it may seem that the Martin departure was the most shocking and painful, leaving the largest hole, it’s really Ibanez’s decision not to wait for the Yankees to make their offer that signifies how far the Yankees have fallen both perceptively and in fact.

It strikes of pure Yankees arrogance to tell Ibanez to sit tight and wait without any guarantees that they’re going to make him an offer and expect him to do it. The days in which players will wait for the Yankees are over. Ibanez had a job offer in hand and likely significant playing time with the Mariners or he could’ve waited out the Yankees for an offer that might never come.

Can anyone blame him for walking? And do the Yankees have a backup plan for any of these departures?

The replacements and retentions

Ichiro Suzuki was re-signed because the Yankees were left with few options other than him. If you listen to GM Brian Cashman’s politely uninterested tone when he was asked if Ichiro was going to be back, and amid the hemming and hawing, you hear everything but the word he really wanted to say—no. Eventually, though, they not only brought Ichiro back, but they gave him a two-year contract.

Cashman, who wants power hitters, is now faced with Ichiro in right field and Brett Gardner in left. These are not power hitters. Jason Kubel is available from the Diamondbacks and has one year remaining on his contract. As flawed a player as he is, he’s a power hitter that would fit neatly into the current Yankees’ lineup as something other than a fan-placating addition or 38-40-year old former star signed with an unsaid prayer that they have enough in the tank to get them through 2013. That said, Kubel is a platoon player who is at his best against righties. D-Backs GM Kevin Towers isn’t giving Kubel away, and considering what Ibanez took from the Mariners ($2.75 million) and what Kubel is due ($8.5 million), they’d have been better off keeping Ibanez. Defensively each is as bad as the other.

Who are they getting to fill the remaining holes at DH and catcher? A.J. Pierzynski signed with the Rangers on a one-year contract and the Yankees didn’t even make an offer to him. Francisco Cervelli is currently at the top of their depth chart at catcher. They’ve signed Kevin Youkilis to replace the injured Alex Rodriguez at third base, and they don’t have a bench.

These are the Yankees? Piecing and patching and praying?

And the talk that the Cashman tends to make big moves late in the winter sounds more desperate and hopeful than expectant.

The veterans and the human element

Will the Yankees’ players realize where the season is going if they’re at or below .500 in June or are far out of playoff position? Will they choose to live to fight another day?

The concept that they’re the Yankees and they never quit no matter the circumstances is convenient to the narrative, but is totally ignorant of the human element involved with older athletes who have their money and may not have the stomach (or the available “helpers”) to spend the last four months of a season mounting a heroic comeback.

Age is not a factor to be dismissed. Because the Yankees’ stars have such accomplished resumes, it’s reasonable to expect a certain minimum/maximum level of performance, but with age comes a natural decline. Players who are in their late-30s/early 40s and are coming off serious injuries as Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera are and as A-Rod will, can’t grind it out and put up the same effort on a nightly basis they did when they were 10 and even 5 years younger. Drug testing making it impossible to take amphetamines or any other form of chemical assistance renders a 40-year-old to being a 40-year-old with the accompanying aches, pains and inconsistencies.

If those veterans see the season is shot in July, they’re going to bail just as they did in the ALCS. What’s the difference between doing it three months earlier if continuing to push is little more than postponing the inevitable?

“Everyone wants to be a Yankee”

Yes. Everyone wants to be a Yankee as long as they pay the most money. When this chapter of Yankee history is fully written in a decade or so, the first domino to tip over in the Yankees downfall wasn’t the 2012-2013 winter and the failure to retain their free agents or to make significant improvements with younger players; nor will it be the $189 million payroll mandate to be met by 2014. It will be the winter of 2010-2011 when Cliff Lee shunned the Yankees and instead chose to sign with the Phillies.

Prior to Lee, when was the last time the Yankees avidly pursued a player, offered him the most money and were turned down? Greg Maddux comes to mind. Before that, who? When did the Yankees refuse to overpay to get a player they wanted even if that player was indifferent about being a Yankee and would’ve gone elsewhere if he had a choice like CC Sabathia?

First it was Lee. Then it was Carl Pavano right after Lee. Now they’re reduced to losing out on Martin, Chavez and Ibanez.

Players wanted to be Yankees, but it wasn’t because they were longing to play in New York, or they wanted to win a championship, or that they were hypnotized (as the Michael Kay wing of mythmaking would assert) by the pinstripes and “rich tapestry of history.” It was because of money.

It’s quite simple. Offer the most money, the players will come and say that they always wanted to be a member of whatever team it was that offered them the most money. When Bobby Bonilla did it with the Mets in the winter of 1991-92, he was called an opportunistic liar because he didn’t really want to be with the Mets. When Sabathia did it, he didn’t come for the money. He was concerned about the reputation in the clubhouse of being dysfunctional and miserable.

That concern was assuaged and he signed. Oh, and the Yankees paid him the most money.

With each passing day the Yankees new truth becomes clearer and clearer. Because they don’t have the cash to spend now, the players aren’t coming. As a result, this is the team they’ve put together—one that had it been built in 2005, would’ve been similar to the 1998 team that won 114 games and is considered one of the best in history. But the players they have today are not the players they were eight years ago. Those results are going to show on the field. Then they’ll show up in the newspapers with critical columns followed by disinterest; it will in the stands with empty seats; and on TV and radio with hosts reminiscing of the good old days or ignoring the Yankees completely.

Like a sculpture, it’s not the first chip that does the damage, but an accumulation. The Yankees cumulative age, lack of funds, and diminished reputation are chipping away at what they were. The foundation has been decaying for years. This is the end result. If it looks bad now, just wait until the season starts. Then the crumbling infrastructure will be obvious to all and the “it’ll all be okay,” delusion prevalent now will be mercifully end.

Reality has a way of sorting itself out.

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