Analysis of the Braves-Diamondbacks Trade, Part II: For the Diamondbacks

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The avalanche of circumstances that necessitated the trade of Justin Upton began when Kevin Towers was hired as Diamondbacks GM. After a 65-97 season in 2010 during which longtime GM Josh Byrnes and manager A.J. Hinch were fired; interim GM Jerry Dipoto made several housecleaning trades by dispatching Dan Haren, Edwin Jackson, Conor Jackson, Chris Snyder, and Chad Qualls for prospects or salary relief; and years of mediocre drafts and failed trades had left the organization in retooling mode, it’s understandable that Towers arrived and made it clear that he’d be willing to discuss his best asset—Upton—to speed the refurbishment.

The Diamondbacks weren’t in the position of the Astros or Cubs in that the whole thing had to be gutted, but they certainly weren’t a trendy pick to rebound from 65 wins to 94 and the 2011 NL West title. Any realistic assessment of their roster in 2011 would have said, “We’re not as bad as we were last year. If everything breaks right with Ian Kennedy, Daniel Hudson and Joe Saunders pitching well; the new bullpen performing; a huge year from Upton; unexpected contributions from Gerardo Parra and Ryan Roberts; and youngsters like Paul Goldschmidt stepping up, we can hang around the periphery of contention and maybe—maybe—be in the Wild Card hunt.”

Stunningly, the club took to the fiery style of manager Kirk Gibson and overcame their limitations with teamwork, intensity and more than a little luck. Gibson himself was only there because Towers bought into the passionate presentation he gave when the interim manager was interviewed for the fulltime job.

Sometimes the planets align perfectly and that’s what happened with the 2011 Diamondbacks. After that season, there was no need to slowly build. Instead of seeing a team that needed time to develop and required significant changes, they were suddenly legitimate contenders and looking to bolster what was already there by trading for Trevor Cahill and surrendering a large chunk of the few prospects—Ryan Cook, Jarrod Parker, Collin Cowgill—they’d accumulated in the draft. Parker and Cook were significant factors to the Athletics’ stunning run to the AL West title in 2012. Cahill was, at best, inconsistent for the Diamondbacks.

What went right for the Diamondbacks in 2011 went wrong in 2012. It would probably have been wise to realize that Roberts would fall back from his career year; that Kennedy wouldn’t be as lucky on balls in play; that the number of times they said, “I don’t believe this is happening,” was a warning sign not to believe that it was going to happen again the next year.

There’s nothing wrong with being lucky, but when that luck is translated into design and the original blueprint is ripped to shreds midstream and replaced with a new one, it’s easy to miss things and set traps for oneself. That’s what happened with Towers and Upton. When the team made that wondrous leap from last place to first place, Towers made the same mistake that Mariners’ GM Jack Zduriencik did in 2009-2010 when the Mariners overachieved to rise from 101 losses to 85 wins: he believed the hype that the team was better than it was and made decisions accordingly. These were decisions he might not have otherwise made if he’d adhered to the original plan.

What Towers was stuck with, through his own doing, was an excess of outfielders, a hole at shortstop, a sensitive player in Upton who was letting the trade talk affect his play, and the public shouting from loquacious managing general partner Ken Kendrick that Upton wasn’t living up to his contract.

Right after he was hired, Towers took offers for Upton. There was never a need to get Upton out of town because he was a malcontent, overrated or lazy. They were performing due diligence by seeing what they could get for him and if some club offered a Herschel Walker package, they’d trade him. It snowballed to the degree that they not only had to move Upton, but they had to formulate an excuse to justify it while simultaneously explaining their overpay for Cody Ross by saying that Upton wasn’t the grinding type of player they wanted their version of the Diamondbacks to exemplify. Gibson quickly ran away from the idea that he didn’t want Upton, leaving Towers and Kendrick as the likely culprits in the move and, as I said before, Towers didn’t want to trade Upton as a matter of course, he was simply seeing what was out there.

So now what?

The return for Upton is haphazard and odd. When they initially tossed his name out as negotiable, they wanted a huge package for their future. The trade they made with the Braves is a now-and-later deal. They received Martin Prado, who will fill a hole at third base, but is a free agent at the end of the season and wants a lot of money. The Diamondbacks have said they want to sign Prado and hope to get an extension done quickly, putting themselves in another precarious position similar to the one they dove headfirst into with Upton. Prado is a fine, versatile player with speed, power and defense and will help them in 2013.

They also received shortstop Nick Ahmed, third baseman Brandon Drury, righty pitcher Zeke Spruill, and righty pitcher Randall Delgado. It’s a solid return. Delgado, with his deceptive shotgun windup, has the stuff to be a big winner. You can read about the young players here on Baseball America.

There is a “but” and it’s a big one.

It’s a good trade, BUT what was the point? The problem for the Diamondbacks is that this increases the perception of ambiguity. Are they building for the future with the young players? Are they trying to win now? If Prado doesn’t sign, are they going to see where they are at mid-season and spin him off in a trade if they’re not contending or if they are, will they use this excess of young shortstops with Ahmed and Didi Gregorius to get veteran help?

A lack of definition is the hallmark of an absence of planning. The Diamondbacks may have had a plan when Towers was hired. One would assume he presented said plan to get the job. There’s no evident plan anymore. It’s an unsustainable tapdance to adapt to the on-the-fly alterations. The intention was to build slowly while being competitive. The new construct was rushed and adjusted due to situational concerns. The structure has become a box without a sufficient escape route. They’d better learn to live in it, because they have nowhere else to go. It might be good. Then again, it might not.

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Analysis of the Braves-Diamondbacks Trade, Part I: For the Braves

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In exchange for outfielder Justin Upton and third baseman Chris Johnson, the Braves gave up infielder/outfielder Martin Prado, righty pitcher Randall Delgado, minor league infielders Nick Ahmed, and Brandon Drury, along with righty pitcher Zeke Spruill. They held onto defensive wizard and All-Star talent Andrelton Simmons who, in earlier trade discussions, was the player the Diamondbacks wanted to front the trade.

The Braves made this deal based on winning immediately, filling holes and achieving cost certainty. They were moderate title contenders as constructed, but with the retirement of Chipper Jones, they needed another power bat in the lineup; if they were trading Prado they needed someone that could play third base. Justin Upton is the bat and Johnson is the third baseman to achieve those ends.

With the free agent signing of B.J. Upton, they acquired a defensive ace in center field and a potential do-it-all player. The question with B.J. Upton has always been motivation. In short, he’s lazy. Of course the money that the Braves agreed to pay him (5-years, $75.25 million) should be enough to receive an all-out performance on a daily basis, but this is the same player who didn’t run hard on a double play grounder in the Rays’ 2008 World Series loss. Evan Longoria confronted him in the dugout after a particularly egregious bit of lollygagging in 2010. Given that it was a public scolding and that manager Joe Maddon had repeatedly disciplined him, it’s a sound bet that it wasn’t the first time a teammate got in the face of the gifted and flighty B.J. Upton.

Combined with the money, what better way to get B.J. Upton on the same page with the club and make sure he plays hard than to acquire his brother Justin? It’s not as if this is a Ken BrettGeorge Brett case where Ken was signed by the Royals in 1980 to inspire his brother in his quest to bat .400. Nor is it a lifelong minor leaguer Mike Glavine playing first base for the Mets late in the 2003 season as a favor to Tom Glavine. Justin Upton is an MVP-caliber player (like his brother) who’s actually put up MVP-quality numbers.

Overall B.J. Upton is more talented, but Justin Upton has done it on the field. Justin was traded by the Diamondbacks because of the flimsy excuse that he’s not intense enough, but the criticism wasn’t due to jogging around the field as if he didn’t care. Justin Upton is younger than people realize at 25. He was in the big leagues at 19 and if the Diamondbacks wanted him to step forward and be a leader, it might have been a case where he’s not comfortable doing that.

Not everyone can be the center of attention and fire up the troops—not everyone wants that responsibility. With the Braves, there are enough players willing to take that initiative with Dan Uggla, Brian McCann, and Tim Hudson that Justin Upton can do his job and not worry about running into walls to keep up insincere appearances for what the Diamondbacks wanted from him. The two Uptons in the outfield with Jason Heyward will be the Braves written-in-ink outfield at least through 2015. All three are in their 20s with MVP ability. Both Uptons need to perform. Braves fans turn on players rapidly if their expectations aren’t met and sustained, so the honeymoon will be short-lived if neither brother hits.

Prado is popular, versatile and defensively solid wherever he plays. He can run and has pop. But he’s a free agent at the end of the season and unless they find a taker for Uggla (good luck), the cost-conscious Braves would have no chance of keeping Prado and their other pending free agents McCann and Hudson. Prado was the logical trade candidate if they wanted to keep Simmons.

Johnson is a limited player. He’s mediocre defensively and strikes out a lot. He’s relatively cheap ($2.88 million in 2013) and has 10-15 home run power. They needed a stopgap third baseman and took Johnson as a concession to losing Prado. Given the third base market, they could do worse. Better still, Johnson isn’t the type to be intimidated by replacing the future Hall of Famer Jones.

The initial reaction to a trade like this is generally, “Wow, look at what the Braves could be.” But what they will be is contingent on B.J. Upton hustling full-time and not just when he feels like it. If Justin Upton being there assists in that, his value will be exponentially increased from what he provides on the field.

The Braves are a win-now team and the young players they traded weren’t going to help them win on the field in the immediate future, but by trading them for Justin Upton, they did help them for 2013 and beyond.

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The Diamondbacks Grind Justin Upton Out Of Arizona

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The Diamondbacks sought offers from Justin Upton almost immediately upon Kevin Towers taking over as GM and in all that time—two-and-a-half years—they never gave a legitimate reason as to why. Few could formulate an obvious justification to place a 25-year-old outfielder with speed, solid defensive skills and power on the trade block so publicly.

Now that Upton has been traded to the Braves, it’s being said that the Diamondbacks wanted more “grinders,” and that Upton wasn’t that type of player. This would be fine if they were exchanging an easily replaceable player who didn’t fit into the clubhouse dynamic they were trying to create, but Upton isn’t a journeyman player. He’s not even a potential All-Star if all breaks right. He’s an MVP candidate in his mid-20s, signed to a reasonable long-term contract worth $38.5 million through 2015.

The pat excuses—lack of money; clubhouse malcontent; rebuilding—didn’t fit with the desperation to trade Upton, so it appeared as if they were trading him just for the sake of it. This all goes back to the hiring of Towers and the 2011 division title. I doubt that when Towers was hired he expected a few bullpen moves and the pieces that were already in place would result in a stunning NL West title. There was no rebuilding project to undertake because they won immediately with the remnants of what former GMs Josh Byrnes and his interim replacement Jerry Dipoto had left for Towers and manager Kirk Gibson to work with.

That division title might have hypnotized the Diamondbacks into thinking they were better than they actually were; into believing that the edited, simplistic version of Towers’s resume and the four playoff appearances and one pennant he won as GM of the Padres were accurate as a final determinative factor of his quality of work. In reality, the NL West was a weak division that the Padres won in back to back seasons in 2005 and 2006 because they were the best of a rotten bunch. Somehow, Towers garnered a reputation that he never truly earned. He’s a competent executive to be sure, but as for someone whose every word should be adhered to because he has a “track record of success,” it’s highly presumptuous. Towers’s executive accomplishments may be true, but they’re not 100% accurate.

All the speculation that there might have been off-field issues with Upton (because there was no other possible explanation for this obsession to trade him) were rendered moot when it was strategically leaked that he wasn’t intense enough to suit Towers and Gibson. As a response to search for reasons to the publicly inexplicable solicitation of offers for Upton, the Diamondbacks found one that can’t be quantified, therefore not disputed as anything other than an opinion.

Because Gibson was a run through the wall, football-mentality type doesn’t mean that’s what every player has to be in order to be successful. I’m not of the mind that the manager is a faceless, nameless functionary installed to implement front office edicts, but I’m also not of the mind to bend over backwards to adjust the roster to fit what the manager wants to do, especially when it involves trading a player who has the ability to win the MVP. The recent death of Earl Weaver and the accompanying tributes and obituaries discussed his love for the 3-run homer, defense and pitching, but Weaver was also able to adapt when he didn’t have the personnel to play that way. Gibson is not Weaver and sounds as if he’s distancing himself from the implication that he wanted tougher players than Upton.

Here’s the impression I get from the way this entire mess played itself out: Towers arrived as Diamondbacks GM, looked at the prospective 2011 roster and felt there were too many holes to fill through making small trades and affordable free agent signings. He sent feelers out regarding Upton hoping for a massive haul to rebuild the team and contend in perhaps 2012-2013. No massive offer came and they held onto Upton. Things went perfectly in 2011, they won the division with Upton finishing fourth in the MVP voting and they were suddenly viable contenders for the immediate future. After trading for Trevor Cahill and making a bizarre signing in Jason Kubel, they were going for it all in 2012. But they didn’t win it all. The pitching had injuries and the rotation and bullpen weren’t as good in 2012 as they were in 2011. They wound up at .500.

Who was to blame? Judging by what they just did it was Upton and his lack of fire. 2012 and the ongoing saga notwithstanding, the damage was done in late 2010 when Towers tossed Upton out there as a negotiable entity. Upton seemed perplexed and hurt by the trade talk but was great in 2011. In 2012, he played through injuries and his numbers suffered. This didn’t stop Diamondbacks’ Managing General Partner Ken Kendrick from calling out Upton and Stephen Drew for substandard play. Never mind that it’s been revealed that Upton had an injured thumb or that Drew was returning from a ghastly ankle injury, they weren’t playing up to Kendrick’s standards and he tore into them.

The Diamondbacks still had Upton on the table at mid-season 2012 and made their intentions clear when they signed Cody Ross for three-years and a whopping $26 million. There was nowhere for Upton to play. Towers traded for Heath Bell, whose main skill at grinding is grinding on the nerves of teammates, coaches, managers and front office people.

Clamoring for a shortstop, Towers traded his own former top draft pick Trevor Bauer to the Indians in a three-team trade that brought them Didi Gregorius from the Reds. Towers immediately compared to Gregorius to Derek Jeter. Then he agreed upon a trade of Upton to the Mariners knowing that the Mariners were one of the teams on Upton’s no-trade list and having been told beforehand that Upton was not going to okay the move under any circumstances. Like an undaunted explorer, Towers was formulating new ways to venture to the point of no return.

In the trade with the Braves, he sent Upton and Chris Johnson to Atlanta and acquired another shortstop Nick Ahmed along with Martin Prado, Randall Delgado and Zeke Spruill.

He’s got the young Jeter in Gregorius, I’m waiting for him to compare Ahmed to Nomar Garciaparra to have his very own late-1990s, inter-organizational war as to who’s better, Nomar or Derek.

The Diamondbacks finished off their Upton gaffe and obviously didn’t learn the error of their ways when, with Prado, they announced that they planned to sign him to a long-term contract to prevent his free agency after 2013. How about talking to his agent first and seeing what he wants before boxing oneself and making Prado’s contract extension a necessity rather than a desire?

Then it became public that they were going to try and trade for Rick Porcello of the Tigers. The Diamondbacks are a club that operates under the pretext of going beyond full disclosure to overexposure without understanding what kind of damage they’re doing to their plans (if they have any).

There’s been no acknowledgement of what got them in this situation in the first place: The Upton rumors that started when Towers first took the job. If there’s no accepting and admitting of the problem, then the problem can’t be solved. Towers wanted a shortstop in exchange for Upton and was trying to get Jurickson Profar from the Rangers. When the Rangers said no, he turned his attention to minor leaguers like the ones listed above. His current big league shortstops are Cliff Pennington, Willie Bloomquist and John McDonald—none of whom are any good.

Are they rebuilding? Are they trying to win now? Is Towers undoing what was there when he arrived and trying to tailor a club to fit his manager even though the manager is the first one to go when things come undone?

The Diamondbacks put themselves in this position and rather than climb out of the hole they’ve dug, they’re continuing to dig hoping that digging deeper yields an escape route. Logic dictates that it won’t and they’ll keep making things worse until it won’t matter what kind of team they want because the players they have aren’t good enough.

Upton was good enough. He’ll be showing that with the Braves in 2013 and beyond as the Diamondbacks grind themselves into the ground.

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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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2012 MLB Award Winners—National League Manager of the Year

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Awards time is coming up fast in MLB. Yesterday I wrote why Bob Melvin should win the Manager of the Year award on the American League. Last month, I listed my Cy Young Award picks. Now, let’s look at the National League Manager of the Year along with who I picked before the season and who I think is going to win as opposed to who should win.

1. Davey Johnson, Washington Nationals

Johnson retuned to the dugout at mid-season 2011 at age 68 replacing Jim Riggleman and taking over a team that had been rebuilt from top-to-bottom and was on the cusp of taking the leap into contention. 2012 was supposed to be a step forward with a chance at making the playoffs if everything broke right. It turned out that everything broke right and then some.

Johnson straddled the line of development and winning; of protecting and letting fly and the Nationals won 98 games and the NL East title.

In his long managerial career, Johnson’s confidence has never been lacking. He’ll tell you his team’s going to win and tell you that it will be, in part, because they have Davey Johnson as their manager. He dealt with the rules and was onboard—reluctantly I think—with the limits placed on Stephen Strasburg. He didn’t hinder Bryce Harper learning how to play and behave in the big leagues and, for the most part, the 19-year-old exceeded expectations especially considering the reputation he carted with him from the minors as a loudmouthed brat.

The veterans have loved Johnson in all of his managerial stops because he lets them be themselves and doesn’t saddle them with a lot of rules and regulations. He doesn’t care about the length of their hair or that their uniforms are all identical as if they’re in the military. He treats them like men and they responded by getting him back to the playoffs.

2. Dusty Baker, Cincinnati Reds

The criticism Baker receives from the stat-obsessed is bordering on fanatical and doled out just for its own sake. He does and says some strange things sometimes, but so does every manager in baseball. He lost his closer Ryan Madson in spring training and replaced him with the unproven Aroldis Chapman and manipulated the bullpen well. The starting pitching was solid from top-to-bottom and remarkably healthy. The lineup lost star Joey Votto for a chunk of the season, but got through it and won the NL Central in a walk. The bottom line for Baker is this: he wins when he has good players and the players play hard for him. That’s all that matters.

3. Bruce Bochy, San Francisco Giants

Bochy is old-school and would fit in perfectly in the late 1800s with his gravely voice, gruff and grumbly—though likable—manner of speaking, and professional handling of his players. Like Baker, Bochy lost his closer Brian Wilson; dealt with Tim Lincecum’s poor season; and manipulated the lineup getting useful production from journeymen like Gregor Blanco after the suspension of Melky Cabrera.

4. Mike Matheny, St. Louis Cardinals

Matheny made some strategic mistakes as he was learning on the job after never having managed before, but the Cardinals made the playoffs and got past the expected pains of evolution following the departures of Tony LaRussa, Dave Duncan, and Albert Pujols. Matheny coaxed a career year out of Kyle Lohse, transitioned Lance Lynn into the starting rotation and an All-Star berth, and overcame the injuries to Lance Berkman and Yadier Molina.

5. Fredi Gonzalez, Atlanta Braves

Gonzalez learned from his mistakes by not burning out his bullpen and overcame injuries and questions in the starting rotation and lineup to win 94 games. Gonzalez and pitching coach Roger McDowell developed Kris Medlen; didn’t abuse Craig Kimbrel; overcame the struggles of Randall Delgado and Tommy Hanson; and the injuries to Brandon Beachy and Jonny Venters. Dan Uggla dealt with prolonged slumps; Chipper Jones was in and out of the lineup; and the Braves went through multiple shortstops, but still emerged in a tough division to make the playoffs.

My preseason pick was Johnson and that’s who’s going to win.

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National League East—2012 Present and 2013 Future

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Click to read about the AL East, Central, and West.

Here’s the NL East.

Washington Nationals

For some it’s a validation and for others it’s an unsatisfactory and paranoid result, but now that the Stephen Strasburg debate has been concluded once and for all, the Nationals are moving on without their best pitcher. They’ve taken a tremendous and rapid leap forward to the playoffs and an all-but-certain division title. They look identical to the Braves of 1991 with a young pitching staff; power bats; and an ownership willing to spend to keep the team together and aggressive enough to improve. They also have something those Braves never had: a bullpen. It’s that bullpen that will counteract the loss of Strasburg for the playoffs. In fact, it’s probably more important to have a deep, versatile bullpen in the playoffs than it is to have a great starting rotation. That’s something else the dominant Braves of 1991-2005 proved year-after-year.

The Nats are here to stay and we’d better get used to them being in the playoffs on an annual basis.

Atlanta Braves

The Braves overcame their collapse better than any other team in recent memory that experienced a similar meltdown. Part of that is due to manager Fredi Gonzalez’s acquiescence in not overusing the bullpen early in the season; Jason Heyward’s comeback season; Michael Bourn’s full-season in his walk year; Kris Medlen’s second-half brilliance with the club overcoming underachievement from Tommy Hanson, ineffectiveness from Jair Jurrjens, the injury to Brandon Beachy, and the stagnation of Randall Delgado.

Their ownership doesn’t spend a lot of money, so it’s hard to see them keeping Bourn. Brian McCann is a free agent after 2013, but with Chipper Jones’s money coming off the books and McCann’s status as a Georgia native, that will get worked out.

With or without spending, the Braves have enough young talent to be contenders for the future.

On a note about the Braves’ bullpen, Craig Kimbrel has been all-but unhittable. I get the sense that the NL Cy Young Award voting will split between R.A. Dickey and Gio Gonzalez and Kimbrel’s going to win it.

Philadelphia Phillies

Now that the dreams of a miraculous comeback suffered a deathblow in Houston by losing 3 of 4 against the rancid Astros, then resuscitated briefly by humiliating the Mets, the Braves all but ended the Phillies’ hopes over the weekend as Roy Halladay got blasted on Saturday in the game the Phillies absolutely had to win.

Now what?

They underachieved in 2012 with a payroll of $170 million-plus and are very old. They re-signed Cole Hamels and with he, Halladay, and Cliff Lee, along with Jonathan Papelbon in the bullpen, they’ll be playoff contenders in 2013. The vault is not going to be as wide open as it was, so any thoughts of Zack Greinke should end now. They’ll need starting pitching so it’s more likely that they pursue a Dan Haren type—a good starter coming off a bad year and on a short-term deal. They need a center fielder and there’s been talk of a reunion with Michael Bourn. I would not overpay for Bourn, but GM Ruben Amaro Jr. tends to go after what he wants regardless of cost. I’d also expect Ryan Madson to return to the Phillies as a set-up man following his Tommy John surgery and lost year with the Reds, and he’ll be good.

It appears as if all systems are go for Chase Utley to move to third base, but his knees are a chronic problem. If he’s unable to start the season again, then the Phillies will be right back where they started from trusting Freddy Galvis at second and having a black hole at third. They desperately need an outfield bat of the Cody Ross variety—affordable and pretty good. If I were Amaro, I’d call the Indians about Asdrubal Cabrera.

New York Mets

Because of their second half nosedive, they’re still viewed as something of a laughingstock, but when examining even worse situations such as the Marlins, Astros, Red Sox, Cubs; and teams that spent big and haven’t gotten bang for their bucks with the Tigers, Phillies, Angels, and Dodgers, the Mets are in a pretty good position.

The young pitching prospects Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler will join Jonathon Niese and R.A. Dickey in the rotation at some point in 2013, and they also have young arms Jeurys Familia and Jenrry Mejia. Jason Bay and Johan Santana are coming off the books after 2013 (unless they can trade one or both for commensurately expiring deals), so they’ll have money to spend after 2013.

This doom and gloom is based on looking for reasons to tear into the organization. The low minor leagues is increasingly well-stocked.

They need a catcher who can hit and desperately have to get a bat for the middle and top of the lineup. Names to pursue are Justin Upton, Shin-Soo Choo, Dexter Fowler, Ian Kinsler, B.J. Upton, and Shane Victorino.

I’d stay away from Bourn.

Miami Marlins

I wrote about them yesterday, but just when it seemed as if it couldn’t get worse, it got worse.

Heath Bell went on a radio show and basically called manager Ozzie Guillen a liar. The host of the show, Dan Sileo, prodded Bell while doling responsibility on everyone but Bell. It’s an awful interview by an awful interviewer topped off by ridiculous baseball analysis. You can find it here.

Whether or not Bell is accurate in his criticism is irrelevant. That Bell still can’t keep quiet is indicative of one of the main problems the Marlins have had: no veteran leader to stand in the middle of the clubhouse and speak up. It was Bell’s dreadful performance that, more than anything else, set the stage for the Marlins’ terrible season. But he…won’t…shut…UP!!!!

Braves’ manager Gonzalez, who was fired by the Marlins, said of Marlins’ owner Jeffrey Loria:

“There’s not a manager dead or alive that Jeffrey thinks is good enough. Not Connie Mack, not anyone.”

Loria called the comments “classless.” Does it help that the comments are 100% true?

It’s going to get worse from here for the Marlins as they plan to cut payroll from $95 million to $70-80 million. (Bet on the under.) It remains to be seen who’s going to get fired and who isn’t, but they’ll desperately try to unload Bell and if that means attaching him to any deal in which a club wants to acquire Josh Johnson, then that’s what they’ll do.

I believe Johnson will be traded this winter; Jose Reyes will be traded during the season in 2013, as will Ricky Nolasco.

All of that said, the Marlins do have some young talent with the acquisitions they made of Nathan Eovaldi, Jacob Turner, and Rob Brantly to go along with the monster Giancarlo Stanton, so they’re not going to be an atrocity and they certainly won’t be as bad as they were in 2012.

Those advocating or actively pursuing a new stadium for the Rays need to take note what’s happened with the Marlins. Florida fans are simply not invested enough in baseball to make it a worthwhile expenditure for either private investors of public referendum. The ballpark should not have been built. Either the club should’ve been contracted, allowed to move to a baseball-friendly venue in the United States, or they should’ve sat tight and waited out the end of the Castro regime in Cuba, hoped for a new, free country 90 miles away from Miami, and moved the team there.

An MLB team in Cuba would be huge. Instead there’s a beautiful new park in Miami with few fans and a top-to-bottom case study in dysfunction and absence of responsibility. It’s a train wreck.

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Don’t Blame Fredi This Time

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What’s wrong with the Braves?

Is it the pitching?

Is it manager Fredi Gonzalez and his coaches?

Is if the offense?

What?

Mike Minor has been mostly dreadful; Randall Delgado inconsistent; Jair Jurrjens was on the trade block and was sent to the minors; and Brandon Beachy was brilliant before he got hurt. They were one of the few teams in baseball that didn’t have a starting pitching issue before the season but are now on the lookout for starting pitching with a pursuit of Zack Greinke in the offing.

Gonzalez has made a conscious effort—in conjunction with the front office—to limit the use of his more trusted relievers Jonny Venters, Craig Kimbrel and Eric O’Flaherty. He’s still done the inexplicable “Fredis” such as when he left Venters in to pitch to Alex Rodriguez with the bases loaded as the tying run at the plate. Naturally A-Rod homered to tie the game and the Braves lost.

With Gonzalez as manager, these gaffes are tacitly accepted and understood.

The Braves’ offense is, statistically, much better and that credit could grudgingly go to new hitting coach Greg Walker. Former coach Larry Parrish advocated an aggressive approach that resulted last season’s .308 OBP and finishing 10th in the NL in runs scored. This season their OBP has risen to .323 and they’re 4th in runs scored.

How much of that is due to Walker and the dismissal of Parrish are realistic questions. Their clubwide pitches per plate appearance ratio is up from 3.79 to 3.87. Dan Uggla and Jason Heyward have improved noticeably in that regard. Is it that the Braves are waiting for their pitches to hit or that they have Michael Bourn for a full season, a healthy Heyward and an Uggla off to a better start? Brian McCann and Freddie Freeman are both far behind where they were last season. Does Parrish get the credit for the good things or just the blame for the bad things? Is that the criteria for Walker and Gonzalez. What’s more important: results, process or perception?

The Braves’ main issues have been on the mound. So does pitching coach Roger McDowell come under fire? Or is it explainable by Jurrjens’ decreased luck and the aforementioned pitchers who are struggling and hurt?

There’s no reason for a team with this level of talent to be barely over .500 and 6 games out of first place. But that’s where the Braves are. Those with an ulterior motive to get rid of Gonzalez for the greater good would love to latch onto this mediocrity as validation to make a change, but in reality if they had Bobby Cox back in the dugout running things, I’m not so sure they’d be much better than where they are right now. Gonzalez’s job could be in jeopardy in the near or distant future, but if they were going to fire him they should’ve done it after the collapse of 2011 and not now.

It would be strangely ironic if Gonzalez survived when he probably should’ve been replaced and is fired for the first half of 2012 when there’s no much he could’ve done differently.

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The Truth About The Yankees’ Home Runs

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The simple stupidity of the Yankees being criticized for relying on the home run ball speaks for itself. Are they supposed to stop trying to hit home runs to prove they can win without it? What’s the difference how they score their runs? Are they sacrificing other aspects of their game chasing homers?

The answer to the above questions is no.

They have players who hit a lot of home runs. If they lose games in which they haven’t homered, it’s a safe bet that they ran into a pretty good pitcher.

The out-of-context stat argument is more complicated. Picking and choosing a convenient stat to bolster an argument is not the true intent of using statistics to begin with. They’re designed to promote a factual understanding and not to fool readers into seeing things the way the writer wants.

Is it a bad thing that the Yankees score via the home run? No.

Is it indicative that they’ll continue that trend once the playoffs start and do they need to be prepared to find other ways to score runs when they’re in games against better teams with better pitchers? They’ll hit their homers, but it won’t be like it is now.

The truly important factor to examine isn’t whether or not they’re hitting home runs, but who they’re hitting the home runs against.

During the regular season there aren’t the top-tier pitchers they’re going to face in the playoffs. The better the pitcher is, the better his stuff is; the better his command is; the better his control is. He’s not going to make the same mistakes as the mediocre and worse pitchers they’re fattening up their power numbers against.

I looked at all the pitchers the Yankees have homered against this season.

The list follows:

Russell Martin: Clay Buchholz, Justin Verlander, Jose Mijares, Homer Bailey, James Shields, J.P. Howell, Jonathon Niese, Jon Rauch

Mark Teixeira: Anthony Swarzak, Felix Doubront, Matt Albers, Bruce Chen, Luis Ayala, Tyson Ross, Bartolo Colon, Graham Godfrey, Hisanori Takahashi, Alex Cobb, Dillon Gee, Mike Minor

Robinson Cano: Jason Marquis, Luke Hochevar (2), David Price, Bronson Arroyo, Tyson Ross, Bartolo Colon, Ervin Santana, Alex Cobb, Johan Santana (2), Tom Gorzelanny, Anthony Varvaro, Tommy Hanson, Miguel Batista (2)

Alex Rodriguez: Ervin Santana, Clay Buchholz, Derek Holland, Justin Verlander (2) Tommy Hottovy, Will Smith (2), Octavio Dotel, Jonny Venters, Tommy Hanson, Jon Niese

Derek Jeter: Wei-Yin Chen, Hisanori Takahashi, Carl Pavano, Matt Capps, Bruce Chen, Justin Verlander, Tommy Hanson

Raul Ibanez: James Shields (2), Jason Isringhausen, Neftali Feliz, Burke Badenhop, Felix Hernandez, Hector Noesi, Bronson Arroyo, Jonny Cueto, Randall Delgado, Chris Young

Curtis Garnderson: Jake Arrieta, Ervin Santana (2), Carl Pavano, Anthony Swarzak (2), Jeff Gray, Phil Coke, Max Scherzer, Brian Matusz, James Shields, David Price, Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, Will Smith, Bobby Cassevah, Casey Crosby, Bobby Parnell, Tim Hudson, Tom Gorzelanny, Edwin Jackson

Nick Swisher: Joel Peralta, Kevin Gregg, Clay Buchholz, Vicente Padilla, Drew Smyly, Jose Valverde, Luke Hochevar, Tyson Ross, Johan Santana, Cory Gearrin, R.A. Dickey

Eric Chavez: Clay Buchholz (2), Jason Hammel, Tommy Hanson, Jon Rauch

Andruw Jones: Darren O’Day, Matt Maloney, Collin Balester, Steve Delabar, Tommy Milone, Johan Santana, Jon Niese

There are some names above that the Yankees might be facing in the post-season. Shields, Price, Verlander, Hanson and a few others. But they’re not going to be able to use Hochevar, Pavano or most of the other mediocrities to beat on.

I don’t see the names Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, Dan Haren, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez or Yu Darvish in there.

If the Yankees don’t hit homers, then what?

Understanding the value of their homers is not the brainless bully strategy of, “Me swing hard; me hit home runs; team win.”

What was the score when the home runs were hit? What where the weather conditions? Did the pitcher make a mistake or did the hitter hit a good pitch? Was the game a blowout and the pitcher just trying to get the ball over the plate to get the game over with in either club’s favor?

These questions, among many other things, have to be accounted for.

Those who are complaining about the club needing to “manufacture” runs don’t know any more about baseball than those who are blindly defending the use of the home run without the full story.

Of course it’s a good thing that the Yankees hit a lot of home runs, but those home runs can’t be relied upon as the determinative factor of whether they’re going to win in the post-season because they’ll be facing better pitching and teams that will be able to use the homer-friendly Yankee Stadium themselves mitigating any advantage the Yankees might have. Teams that are more versatile, play good defense, steal bases and run with smart aggression and have strong pitching will be able to deal with the Yankees’ power.

Teams like the Mets are unable to do that.

The Yankees’ home runs are only an issue if they stop hitting them. Then they’ll have to find alternative ways to score when the balls aren’t flying over the fences. This is why it’s not a problem that they don’t have Brett Gardner now. In fact, it seems like the fans and media has forgotten about him. But they’re going to need him in the playoffs because he gives them something they barely have with this current configuration: he can run and wreak havoc on the bases and is an excellent defensive left fielder.

As much as Joe Morgan was savaged for his silly statements blaming the Oakland A’s inability to manufacture runs in their playoff losses during the Moneyball years, he wasn’t fundamentally inaccurate. It wasn’t about squeezing and hitting and running capriciously as Morgan wanted them to do and altering the strategy that got them to the playoffs; but it was about being able to win when not hitting home runs; when not facing a pitching staff that is going to walk you; when a team actually has relievers who can pitch and not a bunch of names they accumulated and found on the scrapheap.

The A’s couldn’t win when they didn’t get solid starting pitching or hit home runs.

Can the Yankees?

That’s going to be the key to their season. Then the true value of their homer-happy offense will come to light.

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