Why a veteran player like Brett Lawrie would be released in March

MLB

brett-lawrie

The initial (over)reaction to the Chicago White Sox release of a relatively limited player with the known history of Brett Lawrie originates from the somewhat surprising nature of it, that he’s an “I recognize that guy” player, and that the club could have non-tendered him during the offseason and saved themselves the trouble of retaining him and then changing their minds.

However, there are several justifications for the club to have operated in the manner it did with Lawrie serving as a symbol for what an organization takes into consideration when mapping out their plans. Let’s look at the reasoning of a move not just as it pertains to Lawrie and the White Sox, but in general.

Money

Lawrie was set to earn $3.5 million in 2017, his final season under team control before free agency. In context, that’s not a lot of money. However, the White Sox are embarking on a long-overdue rebuild. For teams that are planning for an unknown future, there are categories into which players are placed:

  • There are the stars who are judged as to whether they will be useful once the background characters are ready to make significant contributions and if it is worth it to retain them or trade them for a large package of youngsters.
  • There are the young, unknown players set to be assessed and given opportunities to be part of that future.
  • Then there are the middling players like Lawrie who are useful on a good team as long as they’re not too heavily relied upon, but not integral nor indispensable.

Given the timing of the release, once Lawrie clears waivers – and he will – the White Sox are responsible for $570,000 of that $3.5 million. With the hamstring injury that shelved him for the final two months-plus of the 2016 season and that he’s still suffering from its lingering effects and has not played yet in 2017 spring training, it made no sense to move forward with him considering the twin realities between player and team. The money is better spent elsewhere or saved entirely.

This is not a decision based on cheapness, but one of frugality. There’s a difference. If a club releases the aforementioned “known” player in spring training who, if healthy, has moderate value, the dollars are a factor for every team including those that spend in the upper tier of baseball like the White Sox, at the top tier like the Los Angeles Dodgers, or the lower end like the Tampa Bay Rays.

His playing time was not guaranteed.

Veteran Todd Frazier is a third baseman. The White Sox have Matt Davidson, whose minor league numbers show that he at least deserves an extended look. Yoan Moncada, the centerpiece of the Chris Sale trade, has played some third base, but is primarily a second baseman.

In short, was there a benefit to keeping Lawrie?

Lawrie is intense and plays the game with an edge. In the past, he’s gone over the edge. There have never been known complaints about his attitude, but as he heads for free agency for a rebuilding team, there was no guarantee that he was going to get to play even if he was 100 percent healthy.

Players across the board whether perceived as “all about team” or “all about the me” have it in the backs of their mind that they want to get paid. For them to get paid, they have to play regularly.

Similarly, it’s a precarious situation for new manager Rick Renteria. Renteria is widely acknowledged a players’ manager, but he can still be sabotaged by circumstances as he was in his first chance at a big league managing job with the crosstown Cubs.

When a veteran player who has his own interests on the front burner, there could easily be an undercurrent of resentment that can infest a clubhouse and negatively impact young, impressionable players. As the video clip above indicates, Lawrie can explode. Even the most mild-mannered player can express his displeasure with numerous people – like the manager – caught in the crossfire.

This does not indicate that a player who is at least passively considering his future is to be reflexively labeled a “bad” guy, but that it could cause an issue when he’s sitting in favor of the unproven because the team knows what he is and needs to know what the other guys are.

Injuries and performance

Were Lawrie healthy, the White Sox could have held onto him and waited until midseason to see what they could get for him in a trade. If they were hell bent on playing Davidson, Moncada, et, al., they could have simply waited until the last few days of spring training, checked with teams who were weathering injuries on the infield, and moved him for a prospect.

But he’s not.

Teams who release a player at this juncture are doing so for a reason. Lawrie is precisely the player the White Sox thought they were getting when they acquired him from the Oakland Athletics for two low-level prospects. He’ll hit a few homers, play a solid second and third base, strike out a lot, post a low on-base percentage, and be a complementary piece. The problem for the White Sox is they they need frontline players, not complementary pieces. It took years for them to come to the acceptance phase of that reality and after annually spending, filling in and continuing to use the same antiquated playbook they did a decade ago when general manager Ken Williams and manager Ozzie Guillen won the 2005 World Series with a cast of reclamation projects, attitude issues and castoffs, they finally started to rebuild in earnest acquiring massive packages of prospects in trades of Sale and Adam Eaton. They’re doing so with the data-centric Rick Hahn making the decisions. The previous blueprint would likely have meant keeping Lawrie.

More trades are likely coming and the list of players who will yield notable prospects – Jose Abreu, Frazier and David Robertson – does not include Lawrie.

Courtesy.

The earlier he’s free to look for other opportunities, the better it is for him to find one. And he will find one. It certainly won’t be for the $3.5 million guarantee he had with the White Sox, but once he shows he’s healthy, he can get a million-dollar base salary with a multitude of incentives to reach and perhaps surpass that original dollar amount.

Players in Lawrie’s category of not reaching All-Star status, but being of some use will frequently ask the club to allow them to move on if there’s not a legitimate opportunity and clubs will respond by granting that request provided it’s not a player they can trade for value. Players know which teams are willing to be agreeable in this manner and which are unabashedly business-centric with the players functioning as little more than faceless chattel. The White Sox had multiple dustups with players over the past year over silly off-field issues and any amount of goodwill they can engender will only help them.

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This decision might have seemed unusual, but it’s not. It’s going to happen again and with Lawrie as an example of why it’s done, the questions are not as necessary when it happens.

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MLB Trade Deadline: Questions Surrounding the White Sox Players and the Manager

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Looking at the White Sox, the main thing preventing them from making huge changes at the trading deadline is that, objectively, they don’t have many things that other teams would want. Or at least they don’t have many players that teams are going to give anything worthwhile to get.

Jake Peavy, if he was healthy, would attract interest. He’s not. If Peavy returns from his fractured rib and pitches well, he’ll get through waivers in August due to his $14.5 million contract for 2014, so someone would take him if the White Sox pick up a portion of his contract. It’s unlikely but possible. John Danks is still recovering and finding his groove after shoulder surgery. A potential trade chip, Gavin Floyd, is out for the year with Tommy John surgery. No one’s taking Adam Dunn. Someone would take Alex Rios and they’re going to get an overpay for Jesse Crain. Nothing earth-shattering is coming back for any of these players.

The big question is whether they’ll trade Paul Konerko. They could get something for Konerko, but that opens up another issue: how could they make Konerko the player-manager if they trade him?

No. I’m not kidding.

Ken Williams was willing to do anything when he was the everyday GM and now that he’s been moved up to executive VP of baseball and Rick Hahn has taken over as GM, Hahn will take his cue from Williams and listen to whatever is floated. The problem they have now is that there’s really not much of anything to do to improve their fortunes in the near future. Williams was serious when he said he considered Konerko as player-manager prior to hiring Robin Ventura and Ventura is not going to be the White Sox manager for much longer. It’s not because they’re going to fire him, but because he took the job as a “let’s see if I enjoy this” test endeavor and he certainly didn’t sign up for a team that’s going to lose 95 games in 2013 and has a few years of retooling ahead of them. There was talk earlier this year that Ventura wasn’t planning on managing for very long and he sort of “aw shucksed” it as a brush off without a fervent denial when he turned down the club’s offer of a contract extension. He might enjoy managing, being around the players and the competition, but he doesn’t need it and that attitude can tend to get on the players’ nerves. He’s signed through next year, but I think it’s iffy that he manages in 2014.

If Ventura leaves and with Konerko a free agent at the end of the year, I could easily see them pulling the trigger and making Konerko the manager if he retires or player-manager if he wants to do it. It would distract from the retool/rebuild, give Konerko experience in handling a media circus and managing for when the White Sox are ready to contend again because, by then, he’ll almost definitely be retired. There hasn’t been a player-manager since Pete Rose and it would be a juicy story to watch and distract the masses as to how bad the White Sox promise to be for the next several years as they move on from this group and reload.

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Rethinking the GM, Part II—American League Central

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You can read the basis of these postings and part I here.

Detroit Tigers

Mike Ilitch is the epitome of the “do the right thing” owner with all of his sports franchises. He hires people who are both perceived to know and do know what they’re doing and gives them the resources to be successful. With GM Dave Dombrowski, there’s none of the “look how smart I am” pretense in which he wants to win but more than winning, he wants credit for winning and being the architect of the franchise.

Dombrowski is the classic old-school baseball guy who worked his way up organically and didn’t trick anyone with an array of numbers and catchy business-themed buzzwords. Some owners want to hear that stuff and it’s usually either the ruthless corporate types who have no interest in anyone’s feelings and putting out a product that will be both practically successful and aesthetically likable; or a rich guy who didn’t work for his money and is interested in seeing his name in the papers, but doesn’t have the faintest concept into what running a sports franchise is all about and isn’t able to comprehend that you can’t run a baseball team like a corporation and expect it to work.

Ilitch knows and understands this and lets Dombrowski do his job. Dombrowski has built three different clubs to success with the Expos, Marlins and Tigers and had a hand in the early 1980s White Sox who rose to prominence under manager Tony LaRussa. For those who consider Dombrowski a product of Ilitch’s willingness to spend money and little else, it’s simply not true and is only presented as an excuse because he’s not a stat guy. He knows talent, spends money when necessary, but also has an old-school GM’s aggressiveness going after what he wants when others wouldn’t know what they’re getting as evidenced by his under-the-radar trade for Doug Fister. Most people in baseball barely knew who Fister was at the time the Tigers traded for him and the acquisition exemplified Dombrowski’s thinking and decisionmaking as he refused to take Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik saying “no” for an answer. The prospects Dombrowski gave up to get Fister haven’t done much for the Mariners and Fister is a solid mid-rotation starter at age 29.

Cleveland Indians

The Indians use the transfer of power approach when they name their GM. John Hart passed his job on to Mark Shapiro and Shapiro moved up to the team presidency and Chris Antonetti took over as GM. This is not a situation where the GM is actually running the whole show. Shapiro may have moved up to a more powerful position above the player personnel fray, but he still has significant input in the club’s construction.

In general when there’s a promotion of this kind, it’s done so that the team president doesn’t have to deal with the day-to-day minutiae that the GM has to deal with. I’m talking about press conferences, giving the final nod on the draft, listening to manager/player complaints and other redundant and tiresome exercises that make a GM want to get the promotion (or demotion) in the first place.

The Indians GM job and other front office positions are rarely if ever in jeopardy. It’s understood that there are payroll constraints and Shapiro and company have the freedom to teardown and rebuild as they see fit. This year is different because they hired a pricey name manager in Terry Francona and spent money on players Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, Mark Reynolds and make a bold trade in sending Shin-Soo Choo to the Reds. Much of this is rumored to be due to owner Larry Dolan wanting to boost the product and attendance to increase the franchise’s sale value and then sell it.

Chicago White Sox

The White Sox are unique in that owner Jerry Reinsdorf trusts former GM and now Executive V.P. Ken Williams implicitly and lets him do what he wants even if that includes considering making Paul Konerko player/manager prior to hiring an unproven Robin Ventura who had no managerial experienced whatsoever.

Much like the Indians, Williams moved up to a higher executive perch and Rick Hahn took over as the day-to-day GM with Williams maintaining significant influence on the club’s construction. Outsiders rip Williams but he wants to win at the big league level every year and tends to ignore development. If contending is not in the cards, he reacts preemptively and blows it up. Another reason he’s so loathed by the stat person wing is because he scoffs at them with the reality that they haven’t the faintest idea as to what running a club entails, nor does he care about what they say.

Minnesota Twins

The Twins are insular and won’t bring in a new GM from the outside who’s going to want to clear out the house of former employees, marginalize longtime implementer of the “Twins way” Tom Kelly, and fire manager Ron Gardenhire. With that in mind, when they demoted Bill Smith from the GM position, they reached into the past for the GM of the club during their annual trips to the post-season, Terry Ryan.

The Twins have a packed farm system and should be back contending in the next couple of years. Ryan is decidedly old-school, has a background in scouting and worked his way up like Dombrowski. He’s willing to listen and discuss his philosophy with the stat people at their conventions, but will continue to be a scouting and “feel” GM as he looks for players that fit into what he, Kelly and Gardenhire prefer rather than someone whose OPS jumps off the page but might not behave in the manner the Twins want their players to.

The Twins ownership is one of the wealthiest in sports but there’s a tradeoff with their manner of ownership: they don’t interfere with the baseball people, but they don’t give them any more money than is within the budget. They treat it like a business. There are probably more benefits to that than negatives since they’re willing to have a $100+ million payroll and aren’t asking Ryan to complete the very difficult task of winning with $60 million or less.

Kansas City Royals

What’s funny about Dayton Moore becoming a punching bag for the Royals horrific backwards streak in which they went from 17-10 to 22-30 is that none of his more vicious critics was saying much of anything when the team was playing well and it looked like Moore’s decision to trade a package led by Wil Myers to the Rays for a package led by James Shields was going to yield the desired result.

Moore learned as an assistant to John Schuerholz and played a significant role in the Braves having a fertile farm system through the 1990s and early 2000s, but might not be cut out to be a fulltime GM. He’s good at building a farm system and has trouble sprinkling in necessary ingredients to supplement the youngsters on the big league roster.

When Moore was making the rounds as a GM candidate, he almost seemed to be reluctant to take the job. He interviewed with the Red Sox in 2002 and withdrew from consideration after the first interview. He then took the Royals job at mid-season 2006. Perhaps he knew something that those who touted him as a GM candidate didn’t; maybe he was happy as an assistant and didn’t want the scrutiny that comes from being a GM and took it because he was expected to move up to the next level as a GM.

Whatever it was, I think of other GMs and former GMs who had certain attributes to do the job but weren’t cut out to be the guy at the top of the food chain because of the missing—and important—other aspects. Omar Minaya was like that. Minaya is a great judge of talent, can charm the reporters and fans, has a fantastic rapport with the Latin players and can be a convincing salesman. When he was introducing his new free agent signing or acquisition in a big trade, he was great with a big smile and nice suit as a handsome representative for the team. But when there was dirty work to be done like firing his manager, firing an assistant, or answering reporters’ questions regarding a controversy, his shakiness with the English language and propensity to be too nice came to the forefront and he couldn’t do the job effectively.

There’s nothing wrong with being a great assistant when the alternative is being a mediocre-to-bad GM and winding up right back where he or she started from.

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The Cubs’ GM Search

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Speculation as to whom the Cubs are going to hire isn’t enough; it’s already turned into the media and fans trying to dictate whom they should hire, and that’s the last thing Cubs fans and front office people should want.

The poorly disguised agendas pop up immediately.

We saw it last Fall when the Mets fired Omar Minaya and conducted an intensive and judicious search by interviewing Al Avila, Allard Baird, Rick Hahn, Josh Byrnes and Sandy Alderson. They wanted to interview Dan Jennings of the Marlins and were rejected; they even had the audacity to ask for permission to talk to current Marlins president Larry Beinfest—they were rejected there too.

Now the names linked to the Cubs are similar and depend on factional allegiances:

Pat Gillick—the Hall of Fame old-schooler who’s rebuilt teams all across baseball.

Andrew Friedman—one of the architects of the Rays who may want to have the opportunity to work with a big payroll and baseball-mad fanbase.

Brian Cashman—his contract is up at the end of the season and despite his protestations that he wants to stay with the Yankees, winning with the Cubs would be a ticket to the Hall of Fame.

Theo Epstein’s name has come up.

Some of the people the Mets spoke to are bound to be in the mix as will Logan White of the Dodgers; Kim Ng of MLB; Royals and former Phillies scouting guru Mike Arbuckle; and others who haven’t been mentioned.

Would Billy Beane be a possibility?

The Moneyball silliness is reaching its inevitable conclusion and Beane’s reputation is in tatters with another on-field nightmare for the Athletics, who have again failed to meet preseason hype. He’d be a big name for the Cubs to pursue; he’s familiar with the stat-based theory they’re said to be looking for; and both he and the Athletics have to move on from one another.

Regardless of who’s hired, it should be the decision of the Cubs ownership and no one else.

Back when the Mets were in the middle of their interviews, the wave of sentiment was twisted ham-handedly in the direction of Alderson by the likes of Joel Sherman of the NY Post.

Sherman may as well have written, “Me want Sandy” and it wouldn’t have been any more skillfully navigated than the stuff he did write; at least it would’ve been honest.

Everyone had their preferred choice for one reason or another be it a convenient story; continuity of beliefs; or name status.

But I wouldn’t want Joel Sherman hiring my GM. (Or my groundskeeper for that matter.)

And the Cubs shouldn’t want any outsiders drumming up sentiment and inviting calls to all-sports radio as to what they ought to do based on nothing other than self-indulgent propaganda.

There are many decisions that will have to be made once the new Cubs GM is in place, most notably with Carlos Zambrano, Aramis Ramirez and manager Mike Quade.

A younger, more insecure GM will want a manager who’s going to “be on the same page” as in “do what he’s told”; someone more experienced could deal with a cult-of-personality type like Bobby Valentine (who’d be a great fit with the Cubs).

Owner Tom Ricketts has to account for what would be best for the current configuration of the roster; who’d handle the Cubs checkered history; how much money there is to spend; and how quickly they’re planning to have a contender in place.

Hiring Gillick is a short-term call to win fast; hiring Friedman or Beane wouldn’t be.

Independent of what the media thinks, it’s a decision that has to be made by the ownership. The stuff coming out now amounts to little more than noise; noise that would be best ignored for the greater good.

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