Captainship in Baseball

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The Yankees name Derek Jeter captain and it’s part of their “rich tapestry of history.” The Mets do it with David Wright and it’s foundation for ridicule. Neither is accurate. What has to be asked about baseball and captaincies is whether there’s any value in it on the field or if it’s shtick.

The three current captains in baseball are Wright, Jeter and Paul Konerko of the White Sox. In the past, teams have had captains but the most prominent in recent memory have been Jason Varitek of the Red Sox and Jeter. The Mets named John Franco the captain of the team in May of 2001 and he had a “C” stitched to his jersey like he was leading the New York Rangers on the ice for a game against the Philadelphia Flyers. Varitek was named captain of the Red Sox after his somewhat contentious free agency foray following the Red Sox World Series win in 2004. The Red Sox couldn’t let Varitek leave a week after losing Pedro Martinez to the Mets, but they didn’t want to give him the no-trade clause that Varitek had said was a deal-breaker. Varitek’s pride was at stake and the unsaid compromise they made was to give Varitek the captaincy and no no-trade clause. Whether or not Varitek was savvy enough to catch onto the trick is unknown. It reminded me of an old episode of Cheers when—ironically—the fictional former Red Sox reliever Sam Malone and two other workers walked into the boss’s office seeking a raise and were met with a surprising agreeability and open checkbook as long as they didn’t ask for a title. They got the titles and not the raises.

Is the captaincy worth the attention? Will Wright do anything differently now that he’s officially the captain of the Mets—something that had been apparent for years? Probably not.

The Mets have had three prior captains. Keith Hernandez was named captain, similarly to Jeter, while he was the acknowledged leader and the team was in the midst of a slump in 1987 with management trying to fire up the troops and fans. An insulted Gary Carter was named co-captain in 1988 as a placating gesture. Then there was Franco. If the captain had any legitimate on-field value than for its novelty and “coolness” (Turk Wendell wanted the “C” in Franco’s jersey for that reason), a closer couldn’t be an effective captain and then-Mets manager Bobby Valentine certainly would not have named Franco his captain considering the difficult relationship between the two. Valentine’s reaction was probably an eye-roll and, “Yeah, whatever. Make him captain. As if it means anything.” Franco never got over Valentine taking the closer job away and giving it to Armando Benitez while Franco was hurt in 1999 and he got his revenge when, due to his close relationship with the Wilpons, he helped cement the decision to fire Valentine after the 2002 season. Franco could be divisive, selfish and vindictive when he wanted to be.

While the Yankees exhibit a smug superiority as to the “value” of their captains, there’s a perception—probably due to silent implication that the truth doesn’t feed the narrative of Yankees “specialness”—that the three “real” captains of the Yankees in their history have been Lou Gehrig, Thurman Munson and Jeter. But did you know that Graig Nettles was a Yankees captain and thought so little of the “honor” that he angered George Steinbrenner by saying, in his typical caustic realism:

“Really, all I do as captain is take the lineups up to home plate before the game.” (Balls by Graig Nettles and Peter Golenbock, page 20, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1984)

Of course Steinbrenner had a fit:

“The captain is supposed to show some leadership out there. That’s why he’s captain. To show leadership.” (Balls, page 21)

Nettles, the “captain” and so important to team success because of his leadership was traded to the Padres in the spring of 1984 after signing a contract to remain with the Yankees as a free agent after the 1983 season in large part because of that book.

Before Gehrig, the Yankees captain had been Hal Chase. Chase was a notorious gambler and repeatedly accused of throwing games. The Yankees would prefer Chase’s name not be affiliated with them in their current incarnation. Chase wasn’t a “Yankee,” he was a “Highlander.” Two different things I suppose.

After Nettles, the Yankees named Ron Guidry and Willie Randolph co-captains and then Don Mattingly as captain. The team didn’t win in those years and the captaincy didn’t help or hurt them toward that end. The teams weren’t very good, so they didn’t win.

The Yankees made a big show of the captaincy because Steinbrenner liked it. He thought it was important in a similar fashion to his rah-rah football speeches and constant haranguing of his field personnel with firings and entreaties to “do something” even when there was little that could be done.

Depending on who is named captain, it can matter in a negative sense if the individual walks around trying to lead and gets on the nerves of others. For example, if Curt Schilling was named a captain, he’d walk around with a beatific look on his face, altered body language and manner and make sure to do some “captaining,” whatever that is. But with Wright, nothing will change, and like Jeter and Konerko, it won’t matter much. It’s not going to affect the teams one way or the other whether the captain is in a Yankees uniform and has become part of their “storied history,” of if it’s the Mets and the world-at-large is waiting for the inevitable cheesiness that is a Mets trademark. It’s an honor and it’s nice for the fans, but that’s pretty much it.

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Josh Hamilton Fallout

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Let’s look at how the Angels’ signing of Josh Hamilton will affect everyone involved.

Josh Hamilton

Southern California is a far better locale for Hamilton than New York, Boston or Philadelphia would have been and perhaps his time in Texas had come and gone. Amid all the talk of Hamilton being injury-prone, he played in 148 games in 2012. If the Angels get that out of him, they’ll be fine with it. The other storylines with Hamilton from last season suggesting he was distracted and disinterested, or that his numbers took a freefall after his 4 homer game in Baltimore in May are profoundly negative.

The facts are that Hamilton is still in his prime, had numbers nearly identical home/away, and hit 43 homers, with 128 RBI, and a .930 OPS. If he didn’t have the history of addiction problems, he would’ve gotten $200 million on the open market even with the injury history. Those personal demons will constantly be there and no location—Southern California, Arlington, Boston, New York, Philly—would shield him from temptation or the desire to escape when things aren’t going his way. The Angels must put him under what amounts to Secret Service protection/surveillance to keep him straight.

As crazy as it sounds, considering his on-field production, for 5-years and $125 million, the Angels got a discount if Hamilton is clean and healthy for his majority of his tenure with the team.

Los Angeles Angels

Buster Olney said the following on Twitter:

It’s become evident that this Hamilton deal was made over the head of the Angels’ baseball operations department.

If this is true, then the Angels’ situation is worse than I thought.

Their lineup is one of the most intimidating in baseball, but their entire template of speed, defense, starting and relief pitching has changed while they’re keeping aspects of their old methods of doing business (manager Mike Scioscia) and their new methods of doing business (GM Jerry Dipoto) with open interference from non-baseball people that is reminiscent of George Steinbrenner trashing the Yankees in the 1980s after dispatching of all the qualified people—Gabe Paul, Gene Michael, Al Rosen—who put a check on his whims in the 1970s. In those times, Paul was able to say to Steinbrenner something to the tune of, “If you trade Ron Guidry, it’s going to be your deal and you’ll be responsible if it goes bad.”

Steinbrenner backed off because the last thing he wanted was to be the final man standing when the music stops in the game of responsibility.

That’s what the Angels are becoming: the 1980s Yankees, and Arte Moreno is starting to act like Steinbrenner.

It’s going to end the same way as the 1980s Yankees did too.

I get the sense that Scioscia’s not going to last beyond May of 2013 as manager through a “this isn’t working,” “let’s put him out of his misery,” style dismissal. This Angels group isn’t his type of team and perhaps he’d be better off elsewhere, escaping this ship as it starts to leak and before it sinks completely.

One name to watch if this goes bad and Scioscia’s out: Tony LaRussa. He might be rested and bored with retirement; he has the star power Moreno clearly wants; would look at the Angels as an opportunity to win another title quickly; he can deal with Albert Pujols and maybe—maybe—cobble it together if it goes as I think it’s going to go with Scioscia and this foreign, star-studded crew of mercenaries: poorly.

The American League

The Rangers were blindsided by the Angels rapid strike on Hamilton, but much of their dismay could be partially due to not having gotten anything else they wanted—Justin Upton, Zack Greinke—this winter; and partially to keep up appearances as to wanting Hamilton back desperately. I don’t think they did. In the long-run, they’re better off that he left. The relationship had run its course.

The Athletics are so young and oblivious that the vast majority of them won’t realize that Hamilton is on the Angels until they’re in Anaheim and they seem him striding up to the plate. “When did the Angels get Hamilton?” They won’t be too bothered either.

The Mariners are a farce. Now they’re reduced to the née “Amazin’ Exec” Jack Zduriencik signing Jason Bay to “boost” their offense with reports that they were “in the hunt” on Hamilton to the very end.

How nice. So…so….close!!!

Zduriencik’s close to something alright. That something is getting fired. Don’t be surprised if there’s a new braintrust in place in Seattle before 2013 is over with perhaps Pat Gillick returning to the Mariners as the man in charge of baseball ops and Mike Arbuckle as day-to-day GM.

The Yankees and Red Sox are staging their own wrestling match as to which of them can make the more desperate and inexplicable signings to cling to what the world was like 10 years ago instead of accepting today’s reality. Ryan Dempster, Ichiro Suzuki, Kevin Youkilis, Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli—all are short-term painkillers to persuade the fans that it’s all going to be okay. They can look toward the West and worry about the clubs vying for playoff spots as a diversionary tactic from their mano-a-mano battle for the bottom of the AL East, because that’s what they’re fighting for if they stay as currently constructed.

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Yankees Modern Art

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If it were 2002 instead of 2012 and the Yankees had been humiliated by getting swept in the ALCS, there wouldn’t be organizational meetings; statements pronouncing the job security of the manager and general manager; assertions that players who had failed miserably would be back in pinstripes. Since their four game meltdown at the hands of the Tigers, there hasn’t been the outraged lunacy in the organization that would’ve accompanied a George Steinbrenner team not simply losing, but getting swept.

They didn’t run into a hot pitcher. They didn’t walk into a buzzsaw lineup. They weren’t devastated by injuries to irreplaceable players to the degree that they should’ve gotten whitewashed. They didn’t lose a tough 6-7 game series and put up a good show while doing it.

They got swept.

Swept like leaves tumbling to the ground during the Fall season that is supposed to belong to the Yankees. Swept like ash from from one of Tigers’ manager Jim Leyland’s ever-present Marlboro cigarettes.

Swept.

Steinbrenner would’ve openly congratulated the Tigers, noting what a great job Leyland and GM Dave Dombrowski did, complete with the glare and unsaid, “And my staff didn’t.”

As capricious and borderline deranged as Steinbrenner was, he served a purpose in creating a sense of urgency and accountability for even the most seasoned and highly compensated stars. They’ve become an organization that tolerates failure and allows indiscretions and underperformance to pass unpunished. Would he have sat by quietly as the team spiraled in September? Would he have exhibited such passivity while the decisions made by the entrenched GM elicited one expensive disaster after another?

Passivity vs accountability is an ongoing problem for the Yankees and there is an in-between, but the Yankees haven’t found it. How is it possible that the GM is not under fire for his atrocious drafts, dreadful trades, and inflexible and unsuccessful development of pitchers? Is it lost on observers that the two teams that are in the World Series made it with an array of starting pitchers who were not babied in the way that Cashman decreed would be the method of acquisition and development for his pitchers—all of whom are either stagnant and inconsistent (Dellin Betances, Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain), on the disabled list (Michael Pineda, Manny Banuelos, Jose Campos), traded (Ian Kennedy, Phil Coke), or failed completely (Andrew Brackman)?

Could the Yankees have used George Kontos this year? He’s a forgotten name, but appeared in 44 games for the NL champion Giants and was a useful reliever for a pennant-winning team. In exchange for Kontos they received Chris Stewart, a journeyman backup catcher for whom defense is supposedly a forte and whose numbers, on the surface, imply that he was “better” for the pitchers than starter Russell Martin. In reality, Stewart was CC Sabathia’s semi-personal backstop and 18 of Sabathia’s 28 starts were caught by Stewart. It’s easy to look “better” when catching Sabathia as opposed to Freddy Garcia.

If a team is limiting its payroll and can’t spend $14 million for a set-up man who could be the closer just in case Mariano Rivera gets hurt as they did with Rafael Soriano, they need to keep pitchers like Kontos who could help them cheaply. They can’t toss $8 million into the trash on pitchers like Pedro Feliciano, then look across town to blame the Mets expecting the usual cowering silence for the accusation. (At least the Mets replied for once and shut the blameshifting Yankees’ GM up.)

Firing someone for no reason is not the answer, but firing someone for the sake of change is a justifiable reason to make a move—any move. No one’s losing their jobs over this? The majority of the club—including Alex Rodriguez—is coming back? Cashman hasn’t been put on notice for his on and off field faults?

Manager Joe Girardi has lost a serious amount of credibility in that clubhouse coming off the way he buried the veteran players who’d played hard and hurt for him during his entire tenure. There wasn’t a love-fest going on with Girardi, but there was a factional respect for the job he did that was demolished with his huddling with Cashman in the decision to bench A-Rod.

What they’re doing in bringing back the entire front office, manager, coaching staff, and nucleus of players is saying that there was nothing wrong with the team in 2012; that a season in which, apart from June and September, they were barely over .500 and putting forth the thought that they’ll be the same, but better in 2013. How does that work? The already aging players are a year older, but they’ll improve?

No. That’s not how it goes.

If the Boss were around, there would be demands to do something. It might be a bloodbath, it might be a tweak here or there, it might be a conscious choice to get A-Rod out of pinstripes no matter the cost. But there would be something. Coming from his football/military background, it wasn’t a bullying compulsion alone that Steinbrenner had to fire people and make drastic changes when something didn’t go according to plan. It was a necessity. Occasionally that resulted in stupidity the likes of almost trading Ron Guidry for Al Cowens; of trading Willie McGee for Bob Sykes; of trading Al Leiter for Jesse Barfield; for firing highly qualified baseball men in the front office and as manager and replacing them with sycophants whose main function in life was to make sure the Boss got his coffee at just the right temperature.

Where’s the middle?

Questions would be asked rather than adhering to a plan that’s not working. There was an end to the threats. Now there don’t appear to be consequences. They’ve gone from one extreme to the other when, in his last decade in charge, there was a middle-ground (still leaning heavily to the right) when Steinbrenner was alive.

There have been calls for the Yankees to return to the “feel good” tenets of 1996 and the dynastic confidence of the cohesive and well-oiled machine of 1998-2000. It’s true that during that time there wasn’t an A-Rod magnitude of star sopping up a vast chunk of the payroll and making headlines in the front of the newspaper more often than the back, but those teams were also the highest-paid in baseball. There was no Little Engine That Could in 1996.

With the mandate to reduce the bottom line to $189 million by 2014, it’s not judging how the team failed as they did in 2008 by not making the playoffs, and buying their way out of it with Mark Teixeira, Sabathia, and A.J. Burnett. Players aren’t running to join the Yankees in quest for a championship anymore and the money isn’t as limitless as it once was, so the playing field is level and the venue no longer as attractive.

You can’t have it both ways and claim to be superior to everyone else while having loftier goals than everyone else and being more valuable than everyone else, then run the team the same way as everyone else. It can’t work.

But they’re keeping this main cast together. It’s Yankees modern art where losing is tolerated and the aura of the Boss is mentioned as a historical artifact like the dinosaurs. He really existed once. It seems longer ago than it actually was and it’s fading off into the distance with each passing day and each organizational staff member’s comfort to the point of complacency.

They’re complacent all right; they’re consistent too. Every year it’s the same thing with the same people, and they expect it to change in the next year.

Trust me, it won’t.

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McClure Was Fired Because He Didn’t Work

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The key word with a pitching coach is “work”. I don’t mean working hard nor do I mean to imply the the fired Red Sox pitching coach Bob McClure didn’t do as much as he could to help the Red Sox pitchers and do his job; I mean that the pitching coach has to have a working relationship with the manager and his pitching techniques have to work with the pitchers. Neither appears to have been the case between Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine, McClure, and the Red Sox pitching staff.

That McClure was hired a month before Valentine and that McClure was uncomfortable (for whatever reason) with making the pitching changes as Valentine prefers his pitching coaches to do were immediate warning signs that the relationship was not going to be a successful one.

This is not the fault of Valentine or McClure but, like everything that’s gone wrong with the Red Sox organization as a whole this season, it’s the fault of the organization in general.

Larry Lucchino has interfered and openly meddled, seemingly taking joy in the newfound freedom to assert his will with the departure of Theo Epstein.

Ben Cherington has not done enough to make sure the staff people he wanted were hired and that the players he wanted to keep and dispatch were there or gone.

Valentine is guilty of being Valentine—a crime in and of itself.

McClure’s transgression is that he wasn’t the right person to be Valentine’s pitching coach and the pitchers, specifically Jon Lester and Josh Beckett, pitched poorly.

There’s plenty of blame to go around and it extends to the departed Epstein and Terry Francona.

When a team hires Valentine, they have to be all-in with Valentine. Splitting the baby doesn’t work. He has to have coaches that he trusts and will buy into his methods; he has to have a longer contract than two years to eliminate the idea that he’s on a short leash, tryout type deal who can be dumped without any financial and perceptive hit; and he has to have that aforementioned working relationship with the pitching coach.

He has or had none of that in Boston. In some cases the firing of coaches is a warning to the managers that they’re going to be next if things don’t improve. That was so when Mets’ GM Steve Phillips fired Bob Apodaca as Valentine’s pitching coach and installed one of his assistants, Dave Wallace, as the new Mets’ pitching coach. Valentine and Wallace were not on the same page, but Wallace was a respected pitching voice; was willing to make the pitching changes (it sounds small, but McClure not doing it was a symptom of the illness); the team won; the pitchers pitched well and had been around Valentine long enough to know that he wasn’t going anywhere and learned to pretty much tune out his distractions.

Valentine liked having his people around and that included new Red Sox pitching coach Randy Niemann, his former Mets’ hitting and bench coach Tom Robson, and Apodaca. Niemann and Robson were also fired by Phillips when he fired Apodaca.

With the Red Sox, Valentine has been surrounded by front office appointees and those he didn’t know; for someone as justifiably paranoid as Valentine, a target for the knives was immediately placed on his back.

I’m not an advocate of the manager getting to pick his coaches without front office okay. For years, Billy Martin wanted Art Fowler around not because Fowler was a brilliant pitching mind, but because he was Martin’s drinking buddy. Pitchers on the old Yankees’ staffs like Ron Guidry would sing the praises of Fowler, but it wasn’t because of any wisdom he imparted. It was because Fowler left them alone and kept Martin calm. Omar Minaya (yes, Omar Minaya) put it succinctly when explaining why he didn’t let his managers pick their coaches on their own when he said that he didn’t want the manager surrounding himself with his buddies.

My criteria would be that the manager doesn’t have any coach on his staff that he doesn’t want. The decisions will be made as a consensus, but both the front office and the manager has a veto. Valentine was so grateful to have a chance to manage again and had no other options to do so that he would’ve agreed to almost anything including a short-term contract and a pitching coach he didn’t know or whose philosophies he didn’t agree with.

In explanation of the firing, the Red Sox basically admitted that they couldn’t go on with Valentine and McClure together. The obvious question is, “Why didn’t they do this two months ago?” Now is no different from then aside from having less time for the change to make a difference in the season.

If this was a conciliatory gesture to Valentine for 2012, it’s a bit late to help. Reading between the lines, this could bode well for Valentine coming back in 2013 with his coaches on the staff, substantial changes to the personnel, and more of a say in the construction of the club. This Red Sox team, regardless of the coaches, isn’t very good and I’m tired of hearing injuries being presented as an excuse. They’re dysfunctional, enabled and mismatched and that would be the case if the entire planned roster was healthy.

Perhaps Valentine demanded this change. Or it could be that the front office is realizing their mistake in using Scotch Tape to repair an infrastructure that needs a significant reconstruction. If Valentine is back in 2013, Beckett won’t be; Jose Iglesias will be at shortstop; Ryan Lavarnway will see legitimate playing time behind the plate; Daniel Bard will be in the bullpen from day 1; and Apodaca and Niemann will be part of the coaching staff. Valentine walked into this situation with one arm tied behind his back and duct tape around his mouth. (He chewed through the tape.) If he returns for 2013 and goes down, at least he’ll go down his way.

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