MLB Hot Seat – Brian Cashman, Yankees

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Manager Joe Girardi’s contract expires at the end of the season, but if he leaves it will be of his own choosing. There will be an abundance of managerial jobs potentially opening up and all would be appealing to Girardi. The Nationals, Angels, Tigers, Blue Jays, Royals, White Sox and Mariners all have positive aspects. The overwhelming likelihood is that the Yankees will give Girardi a lucrative three-year contract extension no matter who the general manager is. And that’s the question: is Brian Cashman safe? Do the Steinbrenners and Randy Levine want to keep him and does he want to stay?

There is circumstantial evidence that the answer is no on both counts. Hal Steinbrenner’s convening of an organization staff meeting is a signal that ownership is displeased with how Cashman has run the minor league system. Since wresting control of the baseball operations from the Tampa faction in 2005, his strategy for procuring and developing talent has been found wanting in theory and practice. They haven’t developed anyone to the maximum since Cashman took command and now that the club is cutting back on payroll, it’s turning into a problem that can’t be solved by buying their way out of it. When they were able to just spend to cover holes, it wasn’t as much of an issue.

Beginning from the time the Yankees whiffed on Cliff Lee, players are increasingly choosing other venues as free agents. First it was the big names like Lee that shunned the Yankees, then it turned into the Nate Schierholtz, Raul Ibanez, Eric Chavez-type player. If a club limits its spending and doesn’t have young prospects to use for themselves or trade, they’re going to have a trouble competing. That falls on the general manager.

Another issue for Cashman is the clear chasm between him and ownership. The acquisition of Alfonso Soriano was the second time the GM was overruled by ownership in acquiring a player with the surname of Soriano. Cashman openly disagreed with ownership’s decision to sign Rafael Soriano. In both cases, the deals wound up helping the Yankees.

Before getting into his newfound mouthiness (cursing at Alex Rodriguez; telling Derek Jeter to shop his offer around) and embarrassing peccadillos, his actual baseball work warrants a dismissal. From the viewpoint of ownership, it’s perfectly understandable that they look at the Rays and Athletics, see how they’re able to succeed spending in three and four years what the Yankees spend in one, and place scrutiny on their general manager.

With the newfound austerity, developmental failures and constant drama swirling around Cashman, do they feel comfortable going forward with him as their architect? Hal Steinbrenner is more cautious than his father was. There haven’t been any significant changes made under his watch—no threats to the manager, coaching changes or missives. While they’re patient, they’re not blind either. If the Yankees miss the playoffs this season, someone will be made to pay and the most logical target is Brian Cashman.




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We Know What’s Wrong With The Nats, But How Can It Be Fixed?

2013 MLB Predicted Standings, Award Winners, Ballparks, Draft, Free Agents, Games, Hall Of Fame, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, Players, Playoffs, Prospects, Stats, Trade Rumors, World Series

The Nationals were expected to dominate. Instead, the team that won 98 games in 2012 and seemingly improved over the winter is under .500, out of contention and facing a large number of changes this off-season. It’s not hard to diagnose what went wrong and here’s a brief synopsis:

  • Injuries

The Nationals lost Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth, Wilson Ramos and Ross Detwiler for extended periods.

  • Underperformance

Dan Haren was signed to shore up the back of the rotation and has been awful. Drew Storen is out of his element as a set-up man and wound up back in the minors. Denard Span has been a disappointment. And Danny Espinosa’s numbers (.158/.193/.272 split with a .465 OPS and 3 homers) are worse than those of Cubs’ pitcher Travis Wood (.267/.298/.489 split with a .787 OPS and 3 homers).

  • Bad approach/bad luck

The Nats are seventh in the National League in home runs and next-to-last in the league in runs scored. They’re twelfth in the league in walks and fourteenth in on-base percentage. In 2013, they’re thirteenth in the league with a BAbip of .282; in 2012, they were fourth at .308.

  • Poor defense

The Nats’ catchers have caught 13 percent of the runners trying to steal on them. Anthony Rendon is a third baseman playing second. Ryan Zimmerman is in a defensive funk that’s gone of for the better part of two years.

  • Dysfunction

Manager Davey Johnson has openly clashed with general manager Mike Rizzo. Tyler Clippard ripped the organization for their demotion of his friend Storen. The players appear to have thought they’d have a cakewalk to the playoffs given the hype and star power.

In short, the Nats have gone from an embarrassment of riches to a plain embarrassment. With 2013 essentially over and 2012 long gone in the rearview mirror, what do the Nats have to do to get back to where they were supposed to be? What should they do?

With Rizzo having received a promotion and contract extension, it’s his baby. The luck/design argument is irrelevant. The Nationals happened to be the worst team in baseball two years in a row when once-a-generation talents were sitting there waiting to be picked first overall in Harper and Stephen Strasburg. That’s no one’s fault and to no one’s credit. It just is. Rizzo put a solid team together, but there’s been a semblance of overkill with the signings of Haren and Rafael Soriano. Haren’s performance in 2013 is indicative that his decline that began last season with the Angels was not an aberration. Soriano has pitched well, but he was not really a necessity for the Nats. He was available, they didn’t trust Storen and preferred Clippard as the set-up man. In retrospect, both were mistakes.

The question of who the manager will be going forward is vital. Johnson bears a large portion of the responsibility for this team’s underachievement. As great as his record is and as much as the media loves him for his personality and candor, Johnson’s style was a significant reason the 1980s Mets failed to live up to their talent level. He doesn’t care about defense, he trusts his players far too much in preaching aggressiveness, and the festering anger over the 2012 Strasburg shutdown—that I’m sure Johnson thinks cost his team a World Series—has manifested itself in open warfare between the manager and GM. If Johnson weren’t retiring at season’s end, Rizzo likely would’ve fired him a month ago along with hitting coach Rick Eckstein, or Johnson would simply have quit.

Johnson’s positives (he wins a lot of regular season games) don’t eliminate his negatives (he’s insubordinate and his teams are fundamentally weak). Thirty years ago, Johnson was seen as a computer geek manager. Nowadays, he’s considered a dinosaur. In reality, Johnson is and always has been a gambler and an arrogant one at that. His attitude is that the team he’s managing needs him more than he needs it. He doesn’t want people telling him what to do and he’s never taken well to front office meddling. The Strasburg shutdown and firing of his hitting coach are two instances in which Johnson would like to tell the front office to take a hike and let him run the team his way. Rizzo had problems with Johnson and his predecessor Jim Riggleman. With the next hire, he’d better get someone younger and on the same page. That doesn’t mean he should hire a yes man, but someone who he can work with sans this lingering tension and open disagreements.

With the personnel, a lesson can be learned from the Big Red Machine Reds from 1971. In 1970, GM Bob Howsam and manager Sparky Anderson had built a monster. The Reds won 102 games and lost the World Series to the Orioles. Widely expected to repeat as NL champs, they fell to 79-83 in 1971. With cold-blooded analysis, Howsam realized that the Reds were missing the elements of leadership, speed, intensity and defense, Howsam traded 39-homer man Lee May and starting second baseman Tommy Helms with Jimmy Stewart to the Astros for Joe Morgan, Cesar Geronimo, Jack Billingham, Ed Armbrister and Denis Menke. The clubhouse was transformed and they were suddenly a faster team with Gold Glovers at second base and in center field. In fact, it was that decried move that spurred their run to greatness.

Rizzo needs to look at the team’s deficiencies in the same way that Howsam did and act decisively. If that means getting a defensively oriented catcher, trading Ian Desmond, Clippard and some other names that are supposedly part of the team’s “core,” then they have to explore it. If a team underachieves from what they were supposed to be, there’s nothing wrong with dropping a bomb in the clubhouse. In fact, it’s necessary in order to get back on track. With their youth and talent, the Nats can get back to where they were with the right managerial choice and a gutty trade or two.

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The Royals Should Not Sell

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One you reference Joe (the Twins should’ve drafted Mark Prior over Joe Mauer amid dozens of other analytical baseball travesties) Sheehan as the basis for your logic, your foundation is built for collapse. In this SB Nation posting, Rob Neyer suggests the Royals throw the towel in on the season while they’re still within reasonable striking distance of first place by trading Ervin Santana, Greg Holland and Luke Hochevar. Needless to say, I’m not swayed by the Baseball Prospectus playoff percentages that are used as tenets to make these moves and I really don’t care what Sheehan says about anything.

The Royals have disappointed this season. They made a series of deals to try and win now and they’ve been hit or miss. James Shields has been good; Wade Davis inconsistent; Wil Myers, now with the Rays, is looking like the hype was real. The Royals haven’t scored in large part because their approach has been atrocious and Mike Moustakas has played poorly enough that they might want to consider sending him to the minors. But wouldn’t a sell-off of Santana, Holland and Hochevar be giving up on a season when they are still only seven games out of first place behind the somewhat disappointing Tigers? That’s an eight game winning streak away from getting it to three games. They have a large number of games against the White Sox, Mets, Mariners, Twins and Marlins. They have a lot of games left with the Tigers as well. Is it out of the question that they can get to within five games by September 1? If it were a team run by Sheehan or Neyer, would it be justified to give up on the season while still within five games of first place with a month left? Or is the loathing of general manager Dayton Moore so intense that it clouds their judgment to try and get him fired?

It appears that the hardcore stat guys have still not learned the lesson that taking every single player at a certain position and lumping them into a group as what teams “should” do with them based on that position is not analysis. It’s hedging. The lack of consistency in the suggested strategy and examples are conveniently twisted. At the end of the piece, Neyer writes, “We know what the A’s and Rays would do, though” when discussing why closers are disposable. Neyer writes that Holland is “probably worth more now than he’ll ever be worth again.” Yet the Rays, who got the best year of his life out of Fernando Rodney in 2012 and had him under contract at a cheap rate for another year, didn’t trade him when he was in a similar circumstance. The Rays had traded for a big money closer in Rafael Soriano before the 2010 season, much to the consternation of the “pump-and-dump/you can find a closer” wing of stat guys. Which is it? Is there consistency of theory or consistency when it confirms the bias as to what “should” be done?

I also find it laughable when people like Sheehan and Neyer have all the guts in the world to make these decisions while sitting behind a keyboard simultaneously having no responsibility to try and adhere to the various aspects of running a club—doing what the owner wants, attracting fans and keeping the job.

There’s an argument to be made for making deals to get better for the next season if the situation calls for it. If not an outright fire sale, a concession to reality by dealing marketable commodities is the correct move when a team is underachieving. The Blue Jays are an example far more relevant to the concept of giving up in late July than the Royals are. The Blue Jays have a GM, Alex Anthopoulos, who thinks more in line with what the stat people think and is probably more likely to be fired after the season than Moore.

With Neyer, Rany Jazayerli and presumably Bill James (even though he now works for the Red Sox), I can’t tell whether they’re providing objective analysis based on the facts or they’re Royals fans hoping the club comes completely undone because they don’t like Moore and would like someone closer to their line of thinking running the team. If that’s the case there’s nothing wrong with that if one is honest about it, but it’s somewhat untoward and shady to be using stats and out of context examples to “prove” a point.

Regardless of how they’ve played, the Royals are only seven games out of first place. That’s no time to start clearing the decks of players they might need to make a run. And numbers, hatred of the GM and disappointments aside, a run is still possible, like it or not.

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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 Tigers’ Options At Closer (AKA Coffee, Cigarettes And Baseball)

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Tigers’ manager Jim Leyland is openly and passive aggressively letting it be known that he’s unhappy with the concept of Bruce Rondon as his closer. So far in spring training, Rondon has been wild with 5 walks in 3.2 innings pitched, and has surrendered 5 hits and 3 earned runs. That’s in four appearances.

The Tigers spent the entire winter shunning any pretense of bringing back erstwhile closer Jose Valverde (who Leyland wanted back as recently as a few days ago), stayed away from any and all available veterans like Rafael Soriano, Heath Bell or Joel Hanrahan, and essentially handed the job to Rondon. With the regular season three-and-a-half weeks away, Leyland is looking at his loaded club with a powerful lineup, a deep starting rotation and a solid pre-closer bullpen and panicking at the thought of the entire thing crashing down because he doesn’t have someone he can moderately trust pitching the ninth inning. Valverde had some major meltdowns at inopportune times, but in 2012 he did save 35 games and had a solid hits/innings pitched ratio of 59/69. His strikeouts and velocity were way down making me think there was something physically wrong with him that the Tigers kept quiet, attributing his slump to the ambiguity of closing and mechanical woes. To a veteran manager like Leyland, the known and shaky veteran who’s gotten the outs for him before is better than the unknown rookie who can’t throw strikes.

So what to do about it?

Are there still-available closers—apart from Valverde—that are any good and gettable? Carlos Marmol can be had and if he’s in a better situation than with the Cubs, he might work. The Nationals aren’t trading Drew Storen or Tyler Clippard. The Tigers could sign Brian Wilson and hope the remaining bullpen members—Phil Coke, Octavio Dotel, Joaquin Benoit—hold down the fort (or seize the job) until Wilson is ready to pitch. If the Brewers fall out of contention, John Axford might be on the market. Francisco Rodriguez is sitting out. There are outside-the-box arms like Derek Lowe—40 in June—who was an All-Star closer with the Red Sox before becoming a starter and still wants to pitch. He’s said that he doesn’t want to be a reliever, but that was as a long-reliever. Would he want to take a last shot at closing for a championship-level team? Could he do it? Physically, who knows? Mentally, there’s no doubt. His ground ball rate is still superior and he’d be ridiculously cheap.

At his age, Leyland doesn’t need the aggravation of a rookie closer who can’t throw the ball over the plate. If he’s publicly carping about it, you can imagine what he’s saying to his coaches and is only being slightly more diplomatic with his ostensible boss, GM Dave Dombrowski. Leyland has a bratty side and, like any overgrown child even as he protests that he’ll deal with the situation as best he can, his sour face and underlying tone of displeasure combined with his already tense and jittery presence from a lifetime of coffee, cigarettes and baseball is surely felt throughout the clubhouse in spite of his protestations to the contrary. The players know Leyland, know the American League and probably don’t feel any more comfortable with Rondon sabotaging a potential championship season than the manager does. Rondon doesn’t have much time to get his act together. If he doesn’t, the Tigers are going to have to do something about it before it destroys everything they’re trying to accomplish.

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Big Bri On His Skydiving Action Playset

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A Yankees executive whose position owed more to his presence (just showing up) than overt and noticeable skill has become something of a legend with his on and off field misadventures. The players raise their eyebrows, shake their heads, smirk and occasionally laugh at the predicaments he finds himself in; the odd way he speaks; the ego underneath the humdrum and unchangeable averageness. A bespectacled nebbish whose capabilities were in question from the beginning was constantly one step ahead of the sharks nipping at his feet be they expectations, unavoidable ravages of age, or a new reality from which he can’t escape, this particular person was forever under the raving mania of George Steinbrenner. Somehow he survived. In some circles, he’s judged to be competent—even good at what he does. In others, there’s a shrug at the underlying duplicitousness; at his arrogant and hidden bewilderment that there are people functioning in the world that believe him and his flexibilities with the truth.

Of course I’m referring to one George Costanza, former traveling secretary for the New York Yankees on Seinfeld.

Costanza was, among other things, committed to an insane asylum by Boss Steinbrenner; accused of stealing and selling Yankees merchandise; and eventually traded for a fermented chicken drink and chicken snacks (according to ESPN).

George Costanza is a fictional character. The real Yankees GM, Brian Cashman, is having his own midlife crisis that has led to the latest escapade of breaking his right fibula and dislocating his ankle skydiving. That it was for a good cause (the Wounded Warrior Project) is irrelevant. In recent years, the vanilla personality, almost opaque to the point of invisibility, has been replaced by a man who was caught in a reported affair with a woman who was also married; who got divorced; who was involved with a woman who supposedly stalked and blackmailed him (after he wrote a reference letter on Yankees letterhead on her behalf); who has been doing all sorts of adventurous stuff indicative of searching for fulfillment. For some, it manifests in debating whether or not to have an affair, to get a hair transplant, to change a wardrobe. Cashman, however, has been expressing himself with activities that would make Sebastian Junger step back and say, “Whoa!”

As for his job, his main attribute has been to spend money. In ambiguous circumstances, it’s impossible to know how much credit or blame one individual should receive for what’s gone right or wrong. Could other GMs have done as well as Cashman’s done with four championships as a GM considering the amount of money available? Or has he navigated the terrain as well or better than anyone else who might have had the opportunity? It can’t be forgotten that his predecessor, Bob Watson, won a World Series as well and left after two seasons opening the door for Cashman, so his survival skills are just that—a skill for which he deserves credit even if his recent baseball maneuvers such as Michael Pineda have been disastrous. Apparently he’s decided, as part of his exploration of the limits to his abilities, to rappel down walls and jump out of airplanes. Now he’s hurt himself.

At what point do his employers tell him it’s enough? The Yankees, under the Boss, would have put a stop to all this nonsense a long time ago. And writing a reference letter for a woman who, by most accounts, is crazy on Yankees letterhead? He seems too secure in his job. From the open criticisms of the organization for the Alex Rodriguez and Rafael Soriano signings, to basically telling Derek Jeter to leave if he doesn’t like the offer they presented to him when he was a free agent, he’s making the club look foolish and he’s doing it repeatedly. This is still George Steinbrenner’s team, but the sons are not running it like a Steinbrenner. If that’s okay with them, they should continue on this current course; if they’ve had enough of the humiliating headlines, they need to express that to Cashman. If he was a player with this track record of questionable success and off-field mishaps, he’d have been dispatched. The GM is far more replaceable than most players. Why are they tolerating this?

I’m not one for telling someone how to live his life—I really don’t care what Cashman does—but it’s gone far past the point of embarrassment and has entered satire. He’s lucky he didn’t kill himself while skydiving. Writing a check for charity and writing his name on Yankees letterhead for a good cause is just as effective, if not more, than jumping out of a plane or scaling buildings. These activities are hindering his job whether they admit it or not. The Yankees need to tell him to either rein it in or he can leave and travel the world as an X-Games participant and not be the Yankees GM anymore.

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Keys to 2013: New York Yankees

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Let’s take a look at each team and their various keys to achieve their goals for 2013. For some clubs, like the Yankees, it’s to win no matter what. For others, like the Mets, it’s a means to an end by developing and clearing the last bloated salaries from the previous baseball operations regime. Unlike prior years, the 2013 Yankees are functioning with a strict budget, tamped down bravado among the media and fanbase, and the acknowledgement of the possibility of a disappointing year. The demands, however, remain the same: Win. Period.

Starting Pitching Key: CC Sabathia

Following the 2012 season, Sabathia required surgery on his elbow to remove a bone spur. He pitched in pain for much of the year without admitting it and still had what would’ve been a Cy Young Award caliber season had he not missed 4-5 starts with a strained groin and the elbow issue.

The age and shortness in the Yankees’ rotation makes Sabathia’s health and performance all the more important. He has to give them 220+ innings and his usual 18+ wins as the horse carting the pitching staff on his back or they’re in major trouble.

Relief Pitching Key: Mariano Rivera

The talk that Rivera will be an automatic stems from the deity-like status he’s acquired. Is it likely that he’ll be his old self again? Even if he isn’t he’ll probably still be very good and better than most other closers, but he’s also 43-years-old and returning from a serious knee injury. The Yankees don’t have a ready-made replacement for him if he goes down again as they did with Rafael Soriano.

Offensive Key: Mark Teixeira

Teixeira’s reported “decline” and desperation to hit home runs at home have turned into factoids. Everyone says it, therefore it’s accepted as truth. His batting average has dropped to .256 and below between 2010 and 2012 after never hitting lower than .281 since his rookie year, but a large portion of that is bad luck and the defensive shifts that are deployed against him. His BAbip has dropped to an average of about .250 in those years. He still walks and he’s not striking out more than he did in his best years.

The problem for Teixeira will be other teams focusing on stopping him. No one can stop Robinson Cano—that’s known—they try to contain him. Teixeira, on the other hand, is streaky and vulnerable. With the losses of other power bats in the Yankees’ lineup and the players returning from injury, there won’t be any reason to give Teixeira pitches to hit. If he grows impatient and expands his strike zone trying to produce, he’ll have a bad year.

Defensive Key: Derek Jeter

Jeter’s range has been getting exponentially worse for years and now he’s coming back from a broken ankle and surgery which will further diminish his speed. Their pitching staff gets a lot of ground balls and many of them go back toward the middle of the diamond. Without the powerful offense and margin for error the Yankees have had in the past, they’ll need to compensate in other areas and if Jeter can’t get to a significant number of grounders that a faster and rangier shortstop would, it will cost them games—games they can’t afford to lose.

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The Phantom Link Between Strasburg and RG III

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The connection between what the Nationals did with Stephen Strasburg in shutting him down at a preplanned innings limit and what the Redskins did with Robert Griffin III only exists in the minds of those desperately searching for one.

It was again mentioned in today’s New York Times in this piece by Harvey Araton. To Araton’s credit, he references that an “a-ha moment” was a “surface comparison” with the unsaid inference that RG III and Strasburg were in no way connected except as a lukewarm defense to what Nats’ GM Mike Rizzo did in shutting Strasburg down and as an indictment for what Redskins’ coach Mike Shanahan didn’t do in leaving Griffin in the team’s playoff game against the Seahawks only to see Griffin severely injure his knee, possibly costing him the entire 2013 season and a portion of the running ability that made him so special.

The equating of Griffin and Strasburg is ludicrous. Because the Nats chose to end Strasburg’s season, the old-school types considered it heresy. Bolstered by the Nats’ loss in the NLDS to the Cardinals, the ill-informed and agenda-driven arguments suggest that had Strasburg been available, the Nats would have blown past the Cardinals and possibly gone on to win the World Series; that Rizzo’s overprotectiveness cost the Nationals that rare opportunity to win a championship—one that is not guaranteed in the future regardless of teamwide talent levels.

The truth is that the Nationals should have won the series against the Cardinals and only blew it because of a mistake they made during the season and it wasn’t shutting Strasburg down. The mistake they made was reinstalling Drew Storen as the closer as if he was a veteran along the lines of Mariano Rivera who deserved to return to his job by status after having missed the majority of the season with an elbow problem. Tyler Clippard had done an admirable job in the role and should have been left alone at least for the remainder of the season. Manager Davey Johnson, however, chose to be his iconoclastic self and hand the ninth inning back to Storen. Storen blew the fifth game of the NLDS after being within a strike of ending the game and the series three separate times with what began as a 2-run, ninth inning lead. Storen was not a veteran who had earned his stripes and had the right to walk off the disabled list and right back into the ninth inning, especially with a team that was streaking toward the playoffs. In fact, Storen didn’t regain the closer’s role until the playoffs, making the choice all the more questionable. (Notice I said “regain” and not “reclaim.” The job was just handed back to Storen based on nothing other than him having been the closer before.)

To make matters worse, this off-season the Nats decided that Storen wasn’t even going to be their closer for the next two and probably three years by signing Rafael Soriano to take the job. So what was the purpose of naming Storen closer for the playoffs if: A) he hadn’t re-earned the role; and B) he’s not their long-term solution?

The Strasburg shutdown was based on paranoia and out-of-context “guidelines” that gave Rizzo the impetus to do what he wanted to do all along: protect himself rather than protect his pitcher. Innings limits and pitch counts are tantamount to the architect of the parameters saying, “If he gets hurt, don’t blame me.” It’s selfishness, not protecting an investment.

Strasburg had already blown out his elbow once while functioning within the constraints of innings limits and pitch counts that went all the way back to his days under Tony Gwynn at San Diego State. The object of this style protectiveness is to keep the player healthy, but nothing is said when the player gets hurt anyway. Compounding matters, they continued down the road of self-interested and random limits based on whatever advice and statistics supported their decision.

If Strasburg gets hurt again, the shutdown will be seen as useless; if he stays healthy, it will be seen as the “why” when it had just as much chance of having nothing to do with it as it did in him needing Tommy John surgery in the first place.

As for the RG III-Strasburg link, no common bond exists other than that Shanahan made a mistake in leaving RG III in the game to get hurt and the Nats yanked Strasburg from the rotation in the interest of “saving” him.

In retrospect, as a guardian of his young, star-level quarterback, Shanahan should have taken RG III from the game, but he didn’t. That’s separate from what the Nats did with Strasburg because retrospect hasn’t come yet and if it does, there won’t be the aforementioned “a-ha” moment in either direction. Both players play for teams based in Washington; both are once-a-decade talents; and both had injuries. Apart from that, there’s nothing that places them in the same category except for those looking for a reason to justify or malign, and that’s not the basis for a viable argument.

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The MLB PA Sowed the Seeds Keeping Bourn and Lohse Jobless

CBA, Draft, Free Agents, History, Hot Stove, Management, MiLB, Players, Prospects

It’s February 4th and the two biggest names remaining on the free agent market are Michael Bourn and Kyle Lohse. With spring training rapidly approaching, there are reasons for both players to still be available at this late date. It’s easy to blame obscene financial demands, agent Scott Boras, age, lack of funds, lack of need or other viable but misapplied reasons. This, however, misses the prominent point that has left them waiting so long: teams don’t want to give up the draft picks. The clubs at the back of the draft probably don’t need Bourn or Lohse; the clubs at the front of the draft won’t want to give up a high pick for Bourn or Lohse leaving them stuck in a middle-limbo.

Because the Major League Baseball Players Association agreed to the draconian limits on signing bonuses for draft picks, as well as the compensation due to clubs who made qualifying offers to their free agents that they knew—especially in the case of Boras’s clients—would be rejected, they inadvertently drained the river of cash that would previously have been awaiting players like Bourn and Lohse, both of whom had the best seasons of their careers heading for free agency.

Big league players have long resented the amount of money a draft pick received simply for signing his name. Agents like Boras cannibalized the process by using tactics such as those attempted in the case of J.D. Drew trying to steer his players to preferred locales while being paid millions of dollars straight out of college when they have accomplished nothing in professional baseball. It didn’t work then, but it was a fledgling strategy that agents modified over the years to accrue outlandish bonuses and big league contracts for Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg, among others. These payouts also served to force clubs to install a circuit breaker to make these young players earn their fortunes to a greater degree than before.

Unlike the clumsy, blatant, ill-thought-out, illegal and eventually very, very expensive methods owners used in the mid-1980s with collusion trying and briefly succeeding in stopping the free agent migration and limiting salaries, the players walked right into this new legally mandated austerity. Teams don’t have to come up with transparently weak excuses for not pursuing big name free agents. All they need to do is point to the luxury tax penalties on the horizon as the Yankees are, reference the draft picks they’ll lose if they sign a Lohse or Bourn, and explain away the perceived cheapness with statistical reasons that may or may not be spiritually accurate.

In short, with collusion, there was proof that the owners banded together to hold down salaries; with the draft pick compensation, the players agreed to it without truly understanding how it was going to affect them in the long run.

It could be argued that Bourn isn’t worth the $75 million+ that Boras wants, but he’s no less worth it than B.J. Upton and the Braves decided to pay Upton rather than retain Bourn. Upton is younger and has more power, but Bourn has performed on the field with more consistency and desire than Upton ever has. Lohse is at least as good as Ryan Dempster, but Dempster was traded to the Rangers from the Cubs at mid-season. The Red Sox signed Dempster. He doesn’t cost a draft pick and Lohse does.

Until the CBA expires again, agents are going to use various techniques to make sure their players aren’t subject to draft compensation once they reach free agency. In a brilliantly conceived bit of foresight, Boras had it written into Carlos Beltran’s Mets’ contract that the Mets couldn’t offer him arbitration when his contract expired, thereby making him a “free” free agent. The Mets traded him at mid-season 2011 in large part due to that and in large part due to the Giants offering their top pitching prospect Zack Wheeler.

In the final year of their contracts, players will also be more demanding when they request a mid-season trade from a non-contender. Zack Greinke was not subject to draft pick compensation because he’d been traded to the Angels at mid-season. While his financial demands precluded at least 25 of the 30 big league clubs from making an offer, it was a comfort for the Dodgers to know that they didn’t have to pay Greinke $147 million while simultaneously surrendering a 1st round draft pick, essentially magnifying his financial and practical cost.

Sign-and-trades are a method used by the hard-cap saddled NBA to make everyone as happy as possible within such a regimented system and get their players the money they desire. It was considered by MLB clubs earlier this winter and the Braves traded Rafael Soriano when he surprisingly accepted their offer of arbitration after the 2009 season. There are loopholes agents will find and exploit. That doesn’t help Bourn and Lohse now.

The players have always been selfish and in many cases, ignorant as to how much of they pie they’re entitled to. As the union heads convinced them to band together, the MLB PA evolved into one of the most powerful and feared unions in sports if not in any industry throughout the world. In search of labor peace and fan/media approval, they’ve forfeited the one hammer they used repeatedly and successfully: a work stoppage. It’s a good thing for the fans that there’s been labor peace since 1995, but for the players they’ve lost much of their bargaining power and the owners—many of whom grew rich in their other businesses by making sure they cut costs wherever they could, especially with their workforce—took advantage of it to maintain “cost certainty,” and “solvency,” on the backs of the players.

Ten years ago, would someone have already signed Bourn for far more than what Boras is now asking? Would someone have signed Lohse? Absolutely. Yet they’re still out there and waiting, hoping that in Bourn’s case the Mets are able to convince MLB to let them keep their first round draft pick if they choose to sign the center fielder or that the Rangers make a late strike; that a club will look at their pitching situation and realize that Lohse can help them and is worth a mid-to-late 1st round draft choice.

MLB shortsightedly doesn’t let clubs trade draft picks and they’ve implemented a hard cap and preventative techniques to stop players from making as much money for as many years as they could. Agents will adapt, but like Curt Flood, Dave McNally, Andy Messersmith and Catfish Hunter, Lohse and Bourn are case studies in why this situation is bad for the players and, like Flood, may not benefit from the fallout as anything but a footnote to get the ball rolling to change.

Players will have to deal with this new landscape until the CBA expires, then they’re going to play hardball to recoup the freedom that they lost through their own selfishness, trust, and bottom-line stupidity.

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Joba Chamberlain’s Spot Not Guaranteed With Yankees

CBA, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, Hall Of Fame, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, PEDs, Players, Playoffs, Prospects, Spring Training, Stats, Trade Rumors, World Series

How far in the eyes of the Yankees and baseball in general has Joba Chamberlain fallen?

The once-ballyhooed righty has avoided arbitration by agreeing to a 1-year contract worth $1.875 million; interestingly the contract is non-guaranteed. It’s a strange and unfamiliar choice on the part of the Yankees not to guarantee a deal for such a comparatively paltry amount considering some of the other players on their roster and that their self-enacted payroll constraints won’t come into effect until 2014. If they’re going to be successful this season, they’re going to need Chamberlain. The departure of Rafael Soriano and the age and status of Mariano Rivera—returning from significant injury—make Chamberlain a necessity and not a luxury.

In years past, the Yankees have been perfectly willing to spend (and sometimes waste) money on pitchers rehabbing from injuries with an eye on them contributing in the future even if that future wasn’t until the next year. They did it relatively successfully with Jon Lieber; unsuccessfully with Octavio Dotel; and the grade is still pending on David Aardsma. Have the Yankees’ cost-cutting hopes reached a level where they’ll be willing to cut Chamberlain to save the bulk of his salary with termination pay if he pitches poorly in spring training? Because that’s what this means. Below is the relevant clip from the basic agreement:

(T)he contract is not guaranteed, so if the player is released during Spring Training, the club would only owe the player 30 days or 45 days salary as termination pay, depending on when the player is released. (A player on an MLB 40-man roster receives 100% of what remains of his salary if he is released during the regular season).

The Cliff Notes version boils down to Chamberlain trying out in spring training and if he pitches poorly, they’ll dump him.

Chamberlain, while being a minuscule fraction of what he was supposed to be, is at the very least a serviceable relief pitcher who, conceivably, could close if Rivera is unable, leaving David Robertson to do the hard work as the set-up man. He has very little value on the trade market unless the Yankees pay a chunk of his salary and take another club’s similar player. If they start offering him around, teams will just wait until the Yankees terminate the deal and go after Chamberlain as a free agent.

It would be understandable if Chamberlain hadn’t pitched last season—as he wasn’t expected to after his accident in spring training in which he injured his ankle—but he returned far sooner than expected from both the ankle injury and 2011 Tommy John surgery and was an important member of the bullpen late in the season. He pitched very well in September as the Yankees were in an unexpected dogfight to make the playoffs. Now he’s fallen to unforeseen depths as a step above a non-roster invitee.

It seems so long ago that the debate regarding Chamberlain’s optimal role had grown so fierce with one side insisting that his dominance out of the bullpen was more valuable than any slightly better-than-average performance he’d be able to provide as a starter and screamed with violent intensity to hammer home the point. The Yankees jerked him around commensurately with the indecision, spurred by their own wishy-washiness on what he was and where he was best-suited to pitch. They played an overwhelming part in his destruction.

That the Yankees are mostly responsible for his ruination has been rendered irrelevant. In recent years Chamberlain had become an annual name on the most-overrated list in polls of other players. He’s no longer overrated. In fact, judging by the non-guaranteed contract, he’s not rated at all. He’s just sort of there and might not be there for very long. That’s a far cry from having been compared to Roger Clemens for those magical two months in 2007 when it appeared that the hype, for once, was real.

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