Javier Vazquez’s Comeback and Potential Suitors

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

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

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

Let’s take a look.

Toronto Blue Jays

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

Tampa Bay Rays

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

Cleveland Indians

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

Los Angeles Angels

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

Texas Rangers

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

The Rangers are a definite possibility.

Washington Nationals

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

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

Atlanta Braves

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

Philadelphia Phillies

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

Milwaukee Brewers

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

Pittsburgh Pirates

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

San Diego Padres

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

They could jump in on him in a surprise move.

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

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

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The R.A. Dickey Trade Part III—Desperation or Progression for the Blue Jays?

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Since replacing J.P. Ricciardi as Blue Jays’ GM, Alex Anthopoulos has done many things that garnered him credit for running his club the “right” way by combining old-school scouting with new age stats; for showing aggressiveness when the time called for it; and for being fearless. The Blue Jays, in that time, were rebuilding and reloading; clearing salaries and planning for the “future.” They had John Farrell, a stat-based manager with a sterling reputation; they’d accumulated prospects that were just about ready to take the next step forward and, if everything went well, would contend in 2012.

But again, as is the possibility with a club that doesn’t spend a lot of money and is relying on the development of young players, the 2012 Blue Jays were ravaged by injuries and inconsistency, fell from 81-81 to 73-89 and sat by impotently as the Orioles came from nowhere to make the playoffs. After so many years of building for the “future,” when was that “future” going to come? For so long, the Blue Jays have been frozen in place or moving backwards, shoving the rock up the hill only to see it come tumbling back down again, many times right on top of them.

With a bolt of lightning, the Marlins’ latest fire sale led to the Blue Jays acquiring Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes, Emilio Bonifacio, and John Buck for Henderson Alvarez, Yunel Escobar and prospects. After that, with the decision to try and win now essentially made, they surrendered two more top prospects, Travis d’Arnaud and Noah Syndergaard, to the Mets to get reigning National League Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey. They signed Dickey to a contract extension worth $25 million to complete the trade.

This isn’t a spending spree for its own sake nor is it a drastic philosophical deviation from one strategy to the other, but it’s more of a realization that the time to go for it is now. The Yankees and Red Sox are shells of what they were. The Orioles overachieved in 2012. The Rays are still fighting payroll constraints. With the extra Wild Card, the door is wide open for a team like the Blue Jays to move up.

Farrell was the equivalent of a replaceable teen idol—he was there because he fit the suit, the fans screamed when they saw him, and he couldn’t actually do any of the things a manager needs to do well. His results were disastrous in every respect and there’s a palpable relief that he’s gone. He’s been replaced by the former Blue Jays’ manager John Gibbons who was horribly underrated for his strategic acumen and is a sound, unexpected hiring.

Having seen firsthand the risks of trading a star pitcher Roy Halladay and, in the subsequent series of deals, winding up with Kyle Drabek (having just undergone his second Tommy John surgery), Anthony Gose, and d’Arnaud, they are rightfully dubious of prospects and their projections.

They didn’t alter strategies on the fly and make panicky maneuvers for Anthopoulos to try and save his job. Nor did they show desperation and haphazardly try to take advantage of the weakness in their division. They’ve made a natural progression based on opportunity and availability.

There’s a difference between the Blue Jays’ winter refurbishing and a Marlins-type spending spree designed to validate a beautiful new ballpark with an owner, Jeffrey Loria, elusively hovering in the dark ready to pull the plug and backtrack on promises and commitments.

There’s a difference between the Blue Jays’ flurry of acquisitions and the Angels signing Josh Hamilton, reportedly on orders of ownership, in order to take some of the spotlight away from their crosstown rivals, the Dodgers.

There’s a difference between the Blue Jays being decisive and the Dodgers new, endless amounts of cash netting Zack Greinke as a free agent and providing them the ability to absorb the contracts of Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez and Josh Beckett from the Red Sox.

What these clubs and the Blue Jays have done are totally independent of each other.

The simple narrative is that the Blue Jays have chosen to spend with the big boys, but the reality is that they built up the farm system to give themselves the assets to acquire players when they were ready to win. Did they expect it to happen this quickly? Probably not, but Athopoulos was allowed to take on those contracts—many of which are heavily backloaded—and for the first time in 20 years, they have a viable chance to win. The waters parted to open a path and they took it. It’s not a change in the blueprint, but adapting to the situation. Now they’re ready to contend.

The Blue Jays haven’t made the playoffs since their second straight World Series win in 1993. They have a rabid and loyal fanbase and now they now have the goods to make another run—with similar star-level talent to their title-winning teams—two decades later. If they pull it off, the only people who are going to care about the money they spent are the same constituency whose metrics aren’t about winning, but about doing it cheaper than the other guy to prove how smart they are. That faction has become increasingly marginalized into what it truly is: a small, fringe group that shouts loudly into the wind. If the Blue Jays play up to their potential, the money they spent or the prospects they surrendered will be irrelevant because, in the end, it’s about winning. Now the Blue Jays have the goods to do it not just on paper and with best case scenarios, but with superior on-field talent.

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The R.A. Dickey Trade, Part II—As A Means To Bash The Mets

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R.A. Dickey was found money for the Mets. Rather than spend it immediately, they invested it wisely in blue chip stocks to secure their future. It was the smart move. But as a means to bash the Mets, it’s a handy weapon. There’s a movement to lump the decision to cut ties with Jose Reyes (batting champion) after 2011, and Dickey (Cy Young Award) as additions to the prototypical “long list of Mets’ mistakes” as if they just dumped Tom Seaver in a front office fit of pique; to cast it as more of the same from the Mets, a franchise whose main function is to torment their fans by testing their loyalty, seeing how much abuse they’ll take.

It suits the storyline, but comes nowhere close to suiting reality. The sports media has transformed from analyzing and assessing to validating fan anger or writing controversial columns to accumulate webhits and attention.

The truth about Dickey is that while he won the Cy Young Award, he is not in a class with prior winners of that same award. Therefore, he should not be treated as such just because he won the award. Looking at the winners in the American and National Leagues in the past five years alone and you see something akin to Sesame Street’s “Which of these doesn’t belong?”

2012: R.A. Dickey, David Price

2011: Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander

2010: Roy Halladay, Felix Hernandez

2009: Tim Lincecum, Zack Greinke

2008: Lincecum, Cliff Lee

Barring financial constraints and extenuating circumstances, would any of these pitchers have been on the market immediately following the season in which they won the award? I’m not talking about the next summer when the pitcher is a pending free agent or a year later when he’s making it clear he wants a contract extension or wants out. I’m talking about a month later.

Because Dickey is such a unique story throwing a trick pitch; is 38-years-old with a Mets team whose 2013 is unlikely to be much different with or without him, he can’t be placed into a category as a Cy Young Award winner who must not be traded. Unlike Verlander, Lincecum and the others, Dickey was an iffy proposition to be a significant contributor to a potential Mets’ renaissance in 2014 and beyond.

Ignoring irrelevant media and fan responses to this trade, the facts are that the Mets organization was barren at catcher and now, in sending Dickey to the Blue Jays, has a soon-to-be 24-year-old, power hitting catcher who can throw in Travis d’Arnaud. They acquired a 20-year-old, flamethrowing righty pitcher in Noah Syndergaard, a competent veteran catcher John Buck, and a 17-year-old throw-in, outfielder Wuilmer Becerra. They received all of this in exchange for Dickey, whom they got for nothing and whose rise is unlike anything anyone’s ever seen in a non-fiction setting; who, at 38-years-old, wanted another $25 million+ to sign a contract extension to forego free agency after 2013; and whose value was never, ever going to be higher for a team that, tacitly or not, knows their time to try and contend is in 2014 and not 2013. They also sent Josh Thole and Mike Nickeas to the Blue Jays, neither of whom the Mets would need with the acquisitions of Buck and d’Arnaud and who the Blue Jays required to catch Dickey’s knuckleball.

The most fascinating aspects have nothing to do with the deal itself, but the negative reactions to it and that Mets GM Sandy Alderson got the okay from ownership to pull the trigger. Fans are taking their cue from critics and the media and expressing anger at losing their Cy Young Award winner and eloquent, likable spokesman, Dickey. Objectively, however, the return on this trade was beyond anything the club could’ve expected in a best case scenario.

It’s a subtle and Executive of the Year level accomplishment that Alderson was able to impress upon the Wilpons that the short-term pain wouldn’t be any worse than the vitriol they already engender for reasons real and exaggerated, and that the long-term gains were beyond measure. A key part of being a GM, especially when working for an embattled ownership group so cognizant of public perception as the Wilpons, is to dissuade them from short-term maneuvers for short-term gain when the long-term is where their focus should be. Somehow, Alderson managed it and it’s in the best interests of the club and the fans.

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Below are video clips and analysis of d’Arnaud and Syndergaard.

Travis d’Arnaud

His bat wiggle and leg lift are, to a gentler degree, reminiscent of Gary Sheffield. The leg lift is fine as long as he gets his foot down in time—it’s a timing mechanism. There will be slumps due to the moving parts; specifically he will have stretches where he’s behind a good fastball because he’s not getting his foot down in time, but it’s not a giant hitch to be exploited and will be counteracted by his short arms and short swing. For a power hitter, he doesn’t strike out an inordinate amount of the time. At worst, he’ll hit 15 homers and bat .275 in the big leagues, but is more likely to be a 20-25 homer man with a .280 BA, a .350 OBP, and an .820+ OPS.

Considering that the Mets catchers last season (mostly Thole and Nickeas) had a .218/.281/.286 slash line with 5 homers and threw out 24% of stealing baserunners, it won’t take much to top what the Mets had before. The righty-swinging d’Arnaud could bat lefty and surpass that offensive production; he threw out 30% of basestealers in Triple A.

The Mets will keep him in the minors for the first few weeks of 2012 to keep his arbitration clock from ticking, but don’t be surprised to see them sign him long term shortly after he arrives in the majors as the Rays did with Evan Longoria.

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Noah Syndergaard

Syndergaard is big (6’5”, 200 pounds) and has the strikeout-accumulating combination of a power fastball, a sharp overhand yellowhammer curve, a changeup, and that he’s sneaky fast.

Syndergaard already has a mid-90s fastball, but his short and quick pre-stretch (when he brings his arm down after taking the ball out of his glove) and that he hides the ball behind his body as he accelerates will confuse the hitter and make his velocity appear to be closer to 100+ mph.

In general, a pitcher will take a longer time to deliver and the ball will be visible when collapses his back leg to generate power. In Syndergaard’s case, it isn’t. He lifts his leg, separates his hands and ZOOM!!! the ball’s on the way. Because of that rapid fire delivery, the fastball explodes on the hitter, hence the term “sneaky fast.” If he rips off a curve or changeup, it’s very difficult to adjust.

He’s only 20 and spent 2012 in A ball, but it’s not unreasonable to think he could be in New York and pitching for the Mets by late 2014.

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The way to judge a trade isn’t after the fact. The way to judge a trade is to determine if it made sense at the time it was consummated. For the Mets, with Dickey, it did. Any criticism is self-serving and misinformed. They did the right thing and got a lot for a pitcher from whom they expected nothing when the prior regime signed him as an, “Oh, yeah. Him.” It worked out and they took maximum advantage of Dickey’s rise. Anything else would’ve been foolish and the Mets’ future is brighter because of that luck and this ruthless intelligence.

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The Phillies Go Backward; The Twins Go Forward

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The Phillies were linked to free agent center fielder Michael Bourn and chose to acquire Bourn—the 24-year-old version of him—by trading righty pitchers Vance Worley and Trevor May to the Twins for Ben Revere.

Looking at Revere and you see essentially the identical player Bourn was when the Phillies traded him to the Astros after the 2007 season to acquire Brad Lidge. Bourn had speed, great defensive potential, limited selectivity at the plate, and no power. Revere has those same attributes but comes at a minuscule fraction of the cost a reunion with Bourn would’ve exacted on their payroll. Other than the hope that they’re getting Bourn without paying for Bourn and that the Phillies are going to use the money they didn’t spend to improve the offense at another spot (right field and third base), this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

The Phillies and GM Ruben Amaro Jr. are again straddling the same line they did in December of 2009 when they chose to trade Cliff Lee away to get Roy Halladay in the interests of maintaining and bolstering their farm system while achieving certainty that they’d have Halladay past the 2010 season when Lee was set to be a free agent. As it turned out the Phillies dipped into the market and brought Lee back a year later, but that was after a disappointing first half of the season and teetering on falling from contention due to a shortness of pitching led them to acquiring Roy Oswalt to fix the problem Amaro created by trading Lee away in the first place. It had appeared that Amaro learned a hard lesson that a team with the age and expectations of the Phillies couldn’t simultaneously build for the future while winning in the present, but pending other acquisitions, he apparently hasn’t.

This is another Amaro move where it’s clear what he’s doing, but reasonable to ask why he’s doing it because unless the Phillies make a drastic addition to the offense (and Michael Young or Kevin Youkilis are not “drastic”), they’ll find themselves in the same position they were in during the summer of 2010, but instead of getting an Oswalt to fix the pitching, they’ll need to make other deals to fix a sputtering offense and save the season and don’t have the prospects they did then to facilitate such a maneuver. The landscape is also different with a new and highly competitive National League East. What worked in 2010 is unlikely to be as successful in 2013.

For the Twins, they’re trying to improve a profound lack of depth in the organization and desperately need pitching. At first glance, they seemed to have short-changed themselves when they sent Denard Span to the Nationals for Alex Meyer, but I like Meyer a lot. He’s big (6’9”), has a free and easy motion, a power fastball, and outstanding mound presence. The potential is there for a top of the rotation starter.

With Worley, there were murmurs about attitude problems and thinking he’s a part of the Lee/Halladay/Cole Hamels group without having accomplished anything to be a part of such a high-end rotation. He was dominant in 2011, but the sense of “here’s my fastball, hit it,” brought back images of Jason Isringhausen when he burst onto the scene with the Mets in 1995, blew away the National League, came back in 1996 and struggled with an inability to adapt to the hitters’ adjustments and injuries. If Worley is willing to listen and lose the macho “me fire fastball” strategy, then he can be successful. If not, the American League is going to educate him quickly. In fairness, he was pitching hurt in 2012 and required elbow surgery. He’s not a guarantee and was expendable for the Phillies while being a clear asset to the Twins. That’s if he learns to act properly, something the Twins insist on.

The Twins did well in acquiring these pitchers for the two center fielders they had on their roster, but as is the case with most clubs who trade from a moderate strength to address a weakness, they’ve created another hole. Considering the rebuild they’re undertaking though, they didn’t have much of a choice.

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Alex Anthopoulos’s Kitchen Sink

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Unwed to a particular strategy as his predecessor was, when Alex Anthopoulos took over as Blue Jays’ GM replacing J.P. Ricciardi, he exhibited a freshness that invigorated the franchise. Ricciardi did a better job than he’s given credit for, but a series of poor drafts and feuds with players from his team and others as well as the consistently mediocre, “almost there” results, led to his ouster. Anthopoulos took the controls, executed a series of well-regarded trades getting quality prospects Kyle Drabek and Travis D’Arnaud for Roy Halladay; as well as acquiring Brandon Morrow for Brandon League and was rightfully judged as a solid choice and up and coming executive who could be trusted.

The Blue Jays looked to be a team on the rise with plenty of young talent and a forward thinking GM who knew the numbers, but also trusted his old-school baseball people with flexibility of trying speed in lieu of power and on base percentage. But the on-field results are still mediocre-to-bad and now there’s a rising scrutiny on Anthopoulos. His great moves such as getting Morrow and finding a taker for Vernon Wells‘s atrocious contract have been mitigated by his poor moves such as trading Mike Napoli for Frank Francisco. Colby Rasmus and Yunel Escobar were two players who had worn out their welcomes in their prior stops, but were talented enough to make it worthwhile to get them. Escobar is still a player the front office wants to strangle because of his brain dead behavior and Rasmus has been the same disappointment with the Blue Jays he was with the Cardinals; in fact, he’s been worse.

Now the strange decision to sign career utility player Maicer Izturis to a 3-year, $10 million contract while trading a better player Mike Aviles to the Indians for a scatterarmed reliever (the Blue Jays have plenty of those) Esmil Rogers calls into greater question what the plan is. In 2012, the entire pitching staff was decimated by injuries and the strategy Anthopoulos has used to construct his bullpen with journeymen such as Kevin Gregg, Francisco, Jon Rauch, Octavio Dotel, and Sergio Santos has been a failure. His hand-picked manager, John Farrell, was roundly criticized for game-handling skills that were bordering on the inept and a profound lack of fundamentals that cost the club numerous games.

This kitchen sink strategy is reminiscent of a sous chef getting the head chef job, having many plans and innovative ideas, then overdoing it making things worse than they were before. Anthopoulos is trying a lot of different tactics, but it doesn’t hide the bottom line that his choice as manager was traded away only because the Red Sox desperately wanted him and was in serious jeopardy of being fired if they hadn’t; that the Blue Jays have consistently been labeled a team to watch, but sat by haplessly as the team that finally overtook the Red Sox and Rays in the AL East was a different kind of bird, the Orioles, with a roster that was widely expected to lose 95 games in 2012.

The Blue Jays have yet to hire a manager to replace Farrell. The trade was completed on October 21st. How long does it take to find a new manager? The pedestrian names who struggled elsewhere such as Don Wakamatsu and Manny Acta have been bandied about. How many managers does Anthopoulos get to hire and fire? How many tries at getting the recipe right will he get before the scrutiny falls squarely on him?

Getting Brett Lawrie and Morrow; dumping Wells’s onerous contract; and the perception of knowing what he’s doing have carried him this far. Much of what’s gone wrong with the Blue Jays hasn’t been the fault of Anthopoulos, but there comes a time when there has to be a legitimate improvement on the field before the question, “What’s the problem here?” is asked. That time is coming and if the Blue Jays don’t get better quick, it will be asked of Anthopoulos and right now, given the ponderous managerial search, it doesn’t appear as though he has an answer that will placate the angry masses.

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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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Figures of Attendance, Part III—the Genius Can’t Conjure Fans to Come to the Park

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When discussing attendance and its connectivity or lack of connectivity to publicity and results, how can we ignore the Athletics? They’re still pining for a new park in San Jose with the Giants an example of how a new, fan friendly park can help attendance. Would a new ballpark in Oakland help the A’s replicate what the Giants have done? No. The A’s have rarely drawn fans when they were on top of the world and not; when they were the subject of creative non-fiction like Moneyball to turn their GM Billy Beane into a deity or when they were awful for years and living off their GM’s reputation of being “smarter than the average bear”. A new ballpark in Oakland isn’t going to fix that. It’s a football town and the current population doesn’t have the money to pay for the seats no matter how reasonably priced some of them are. The A’s of the late-1980s were an anomaly because they were the highest-paid team in baseball despite not having the resources to be that if the owner ran the club as a business. The Haas family saw the team as a local and public trust; they were willing to take a loss financially to win on the field and they did. When the landscape changed, so did the attendance and payroll. When the Beane-A’s were in their heyday and winning 100 games in 2003, they still wound up 8th in attendance. The 2012 A’s have a good, young team and are 12th in the AL in attendance. That won’t change unless they get the new park in San Jose, something the Giants are understandably resisting.

The Giants did it right for their market. They build around Barry Bonds when he was the home run king and putting up cartoon numbers to go along with his cartoon muscles; they let it decline to 90 losses when they were making the transition from “build around Barry” to “build around pitching” and they’re drawing near the top of the NL again.

Much like the simplistic nature of the argument from stat people who suggest that every team should be run a certain way, it’s a logistical impossibility for the Yankees or Red Sox to allow their clubs to degenerate to 100+ losses and maintain fan attendance, advertising, concession sales and other ancillary moneymakers as the Rays, Astros and Athletics have. Phillies’ GM Ruben Amaro Jr. tried to maintain a winning club while preparing for the future with a deep farm system when he basically exchanged Cliff Lee for Roy Halladay and prospects in a frenzied series of deals. But it didn’t work and fan anger was palpable enough, team struggles so evident that the plan was abandoned in the middle of the 2010 season when he traded for Roy Oswalt and re-signed Lee as a free agent after the 2010 season. He signed his veteran players like Ryan Howard to ludicrous contracts; imported Jonathan Papelbon; ignored the draft and gutted the system. The team has come apart and the Phillies’ oft-mentioned sellout streak has ended.

No kidding.

The Phillies’ fans are quick to jump on and off the bandwagon and boo everything that goes by while on it. The team is 10 games under .500 and has conceded the season with their trades of Hunter Pence, Shane Victorino, and by again listening to offers on Lee. Of course the fans are going to find other things to do.

With these clubs, it’s win and they’ll come back. Simple.

The Rays are allowed to run their team as they do because of the lack of interest on the part of the fans; because the media isn’t hounding them to do something; because they’re not maintaining attendance—there’s no attendance to begin with.

The Astros are in total flux right now and are tantamount to an expansion team preparing to play in the American League in 2013; they’re on the way to losing 110 games and GM Jeff Luhnow has cleared the decks of every veteran on his roster. He’s getting a pass because the team was so rancid when he arrived and there’s a new owner in place and they’re as bad as a team gets right now. He’s new and there’s nowhere to go but up.

Read Part II here.

Read Part I here.

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2012 Trade Deadline Analysis—Philadelphia Phillies

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The Phillies are kindasorta cleaning house.

Ruben Amaro Jr. is Omar Minaya with a championship ring, a better grasp of the English language and without the scouting skills and likability. It’s easy to say that because Amaro was the GM when the Phillies made 3 or their 5 straight playoff appearances that he’s the one responsible for putting the team together, but what deals did he make that were laudable? He spent money and took the veteran players—Roy Oswalt, Hunter Pence, Roy Halladay—other teams were trying to unload while doling out ridiculous contracts on the likes of Ryan Howard. The people who built the Phillies during this run were Pat Gillick, Mike Arbuckle, Chuck LaMar and, while his name is reviled by Phillies’ fans, Ed Wade.

Now Amaro is starting a retool. It’s not a rebuild. He’s trying to change on the fly and that is very hard to do for the better GMs around baseball. Amaro is competent and willing to accept mistakes and adjust accordingly, but that’s doesn’t make him one of the “better” GMs around baseball.

They may not be done dealing because all of their stars are going to get through waivers in August because of their contracts.

OF Shane Victorino was traded to the Dodgers for RHP Ethan Martin and RHP Josh Lindblom. Victorino is a pending free agent and one would assume that he’s going to play leftfield for the Dodgers. Matt Kemp is the alpha-dog in LA and he’s not having his position usurped. Victorino steals bases, racks up the extra base hits and has pop. He’s also accustomed to pressure.

Martin was a 1st round pick (15th overall) of the Dodgers in 2008; he’s been a starter in the minors and has a very simple, gentle motion that bodes well for his durability. He can be wild, but doesn’t allow many homers.

Lindblom throws hard, but gives up a lot of home runs for a reliever, 9 in 47.2 innings this season. He’s effective against righties and lefties and can function as a set-up man for Jonathan Papelbon.

In the other big trade made by Amaro, he sent Pence to the Giants for OF Nate Schierholtz, RHP Seth Rosin and C Tommy Joseph.

Pence is going to get a massive raise in arbitration this winter and is a free agent after 2013. Since the Phillies 2012 season is shot and they’re going to try and contend in 2013, holding onto Pence made little sense (rhyme!!!) if they weren’t willing to sign him long-term and the return on this trade was more than what they’d get for him in the winter or at the 2013 deadline.

Schierholtz is a journeyman outfielder with occasional power. He’s good defensively and with the Phillies so short-handed, he’s going to get a chance to play semi-regularly. The Phillies have to see what they have in Domonic Brown for an extended period; he’s going to be 25 next month and has done everything he can possibly do at Triple A. Either he’s a 4-A player, won’t make it with the Phillies and needs a change of scenery, or will be an important part of the Phillies 2013 lineup. What use he is to the Phillies has to be determined once and for all.

Rosin is a big (6’5” 250) righty reliever in A ball; he racks up the strikeouts and has been closing. He reminds me of Brad Penny. Joseph is a 21-year-old catcher and former 2nd round draft pick in 2009; he has power and a strong caught stealing percentage behind the plate.

The Phillies took steps to rejuvenate a flagging farm system, but with the commitments they still have to veteran players Rollins, Howard, Chase Utley and Halladay, it’s not clear whether these minor league players they acquired are part of the Phillies’ future or will be auctioned for other veterans to replace the ones they just traded. With Amaro, either is possible.

The worst part of all this is that we’ll no longer see Pence’s acting turn looking like Corky from Life Goes On in pushing bread.

But, as they say, life goes on.

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Your 2012 Trade Deadline Reality Check for a 2011 “Guaranteed” World Series Participant—Part II

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In this vein, I discussed the Red Sox yesterday. As a postscript, they shouldn’t let a series win in Yankee Stadium delude them into thinking they should do something drastic to salvage a doomed season. It would only make things worse going forward.

Today it’s the other 2011 “guaranteed” World Series participant on the docket and they’re having a far worse season than the Red Sox. I’m talking about the Philadelphia Phillies.

In 2011, the Phillies had put together an “unstoppable” starting rotation and, unlike the Red Sox, they fulfilled their part in the bargain by winning 102 regular season games before getting bounced in the first round by the Cardinals.

Currently 45-57, an unfathomable 16 ½ games behind the Nationals in the NL East and 9 games back in the Wild Card race, they can forget this season. There’s not going to be a 50-10 run to 95 wins this year. With most GMs, I’d say they understand that and will act accordingly, but Phillies’ GM Ruben Amaro Jr. has been haphazard in his decisions. To his credit, he learned from his mistakes and rectified them such as when he traded Cliff Lee away and accepted that he’d left his club woefully short on pitching and traded for Roy Oswalt at the next trading deadline; then he turned around and re-signed Lee.

I doubt there’ll be a blockbuster addition of a bat to gloss over a team that’s 12 games under .500 and reeling after experiencing what the Mets have experienced for years in their house of horrors known as Turner Field in a 3 game sweep at the hands of the Braves. The Braves looked like they took glee in kicking the Phillies after the Phillies (in a retrospectively regrettable decision) ably assisted the Cardinals by playing all out in the last three games of the 2011 season and completed the Braves’ collapse from a post-season berth they should’ve clinched in mid-September.

The Phillies are done for 2012, but that doesn’t mean they can’t prepare for 2013 with much the same core cast. They don’t have much choice with some players. Jimmy Rollins has two guaranteed years left on his contract and is a shadow of his former MVP self. There’s talk of dealing Hunter Pence to free up money, but all that would do is create another hole they’ll have to fill—it’s not going to happen. Shane Victorino and Joe Blanton will be traded. Ty Wigginton and Juan Pierre are probably going as well. Placido Polanco would’ve gone too if he hadn’t been placed on the disabled list with a sore back. If he’s able to play, he’ll get through waivers in August and be traded.

Truth be told, they’re not going to get much for any of the above players. The Phillies will get some volume for their dilapidated minor league system and save a few bucks to bolster the veterans they’re going to have for the foreseeable future. This team in 2013, 2014 and 2015 hinges on the players in their early-to-late 30s, Roy Halladay, Lee, Rollins, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and the other star-level players signed long-term Jonathan Papelbon and the newly signed Cole Hamels.

With Hamels, the Phillies were faced with signing him or signing someone else’s free agent and given his post-season accomplishments and that he’s able to handle the tough town of Philadelphia, keeping Hamels made sense, even for $144 million. There’s not going to be a rebuild in Philadelphia. It’s this crew or bust and they do have the foundation for a rebound in 2013.

There was a stupid concept of them trying to trade Papelbon. It’s ridiculous.

Other speculation has centered around Lee. They’re not trading Lee now and if they even consider it after the season, they’re in essentially the same spot as they were with Hamels in a different way. Any trade would have to bring back a Major League ready player whether it’s a centerfielder and/or a young pitcher who’s going to give them the 200 innings they’ll be surrendering with Lee. They’d also be hamstrung in where they could trade Lee due to the $87.5 million remaining on his deal after this season and his limited no-trade clause. Are they moving forward with a top 3 rotation of Halladay, Hamels and Vance Worley in 2013? For a team whose window is rapidly closing? I highly doubt it. If Lee is put on the block, it would be a year from now and only if 2013 is a repeat of 2012.

That there would be a thought of trading Lee as a “well, maybe we could…” tells me that Lee’s decision to re-sign with the Phillies after they’d unceremoniously dumped him following the 2009 season was a business decision on both ends and there wasn’t all that much “love” with the City of Brotherly Love for Lee and the Phillies. He didn’t want to pitch for the Yankees and the Phillies offered the most money and a venue that his wife preferred. I’m also getting the impression that Lee is a frontrunner. When the team was rolling to 100 wins and he was notching shutouts, all was wonderful; when he’s got a record of 1-6 as we enter August, he’s making faces at his outfielders’ misplays and putting forth the attitude of, “What do you want me to do? I pitched great, these guys can’t score or catch the ball.”

And that’s not good.

The Phillies need to accept reality and that reality says they’re not going anywhere in 2012 and their only hope against spiraling to a 100-loss disaster by 2015 is if their veterans find their games and are healthy and they’re able to clear enough money to import proven commodities to surround them.

This is the team they have and there’s not going to be a housecleaning. It’ll be more of a moderate refurbishing, nothing more.

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National League East—Buy, Sell or Stand Pat?

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Washington Nationals

They have the minor league system to do something significant, but looking at their roster and the players they’re due to have eventually returning from injury, they don’t need anything.

Their offense has been somewhat disappointing as they’re 10th in the NL in runs scored. They’re not particularly patient at the plate, but they spent a large chunk of the first half of the season without Michael Morse and Jayson Werth; they lost Wilson Ramos and were playing Rick Ankiel in centerfield.

When they have their regular, everyday lineup out there and put either Bryce Harper or Werth in center to replace Ankiel, they’ll be fine in the run-scoring department.

Their bullpen has been lights out and Drew Storen will be back. In regards to Storen, I wouldn’t put much stock in his rehab results—he got blasted yesterday; as long as his velocity and movement are there, let him get back in shape without worrying about how he pitches.

What do they need? Some bench help? Okay. That’s something that can be acquired after the trading deadline when more teams are willing to clear out some players. Marco Scutaro, Ty Wigginton, Mike Aviles, Justin Turner are names to consider, but the Nats will be perfectly fine if they simply stay where they are and move forward with who they have.

Atlanta Braves

They need to buy but I don’t know if they will.

The Braves could use a big time starting pitcher but as has been the situation in the past, are they going to add payroll to get it?

GM Frank Wren made a big show of looking for a shortstop after Andrelton Simmons got hurt and then was forced to act when Jack Wilson got hurt as well. He traded for Paul Janish.

That’s not a big, bold maneuver.

They’ve been linked to Zack Greinke but I’m not getting the sense that the Brewers are ready to sell. Recently the suggestion was made that they were looking at Jason Vargas. Vargas and the words “impact starter” were used in the same sentence. Vargas is not an impact starter, but if I were a Braves’ fan, Vargas or someone similarly meh is what I’d expect them to obtain.

New York Mets

The three game sweep at the hands of the Braves is being taken as a calamity, but the Mets have been resilient all season long. They’re not buyers and nor are they sellers. They’ll look to improve within reason and not give up a chunk of the farm system to do it. Can they add payroll? No one seems to know. I’d guess that they can add a modest amount in the $5-10 million region and that’s only if it’s a player that the front office believes can make a significant difference and/or they’ll have past this season.

I’d avidly pursue Luke Gregerson for the bullpen and inquire about Joe Thatcher, both of the Padres.

Here’s one thing I would seriously consider: crafting an offer for Justin Upton centered around Ike Davis and Jordany Valdespin. The big time pitching prospects in the minors—Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler—are off the table. The Mets could move Lucas Duda to his natural position of first base and get a 25-year-old, cost-controlled, potential MVP in Upton.

The Diamondbacks can consider moving Paul Goldschmidt for pitching.

Miami Marlins

They should probably just stay where they are and hope, but they have little choice but to be buyers.

Carlos Lee was acquired from the Astros to try and fill an offensive void and he hasn’t done much so far. Would they think about including Logan Morrison in a trade to shake things up? Justin Ruggiano is killing the ball in his first legitimate opportunity to play regularly in the Majors and his numbers mirror what he posted in the minors as a regular. But he’s 30. They have to determine its legitimacy.

The bottom line is this: they need pitching in the rotation and bullpen and are running out of time. Francisco Liriano is a target as is Grant Balfour, Jonathan Broxton, Huston Street and any of the other suspects.

Philadelphia Phillies

Here’s the situation: In spite of winning the last two games of their series against the Rockies, the Phillies are still 39-51 and 14 games out of 1st place in the division. They’re 7 ½ games back in the Wild Card race. Some of the teams still in the Wild Card race are going to fade. Realistically it’s going to take around 88 wins to take the last Wild Card spot. In order for the Phillies to reach that number they’re going to have to go 49-23 the rest of the way. Even with Roy Halladay returning tomorrow night, it is an almost impossible feat for them to pull off. If they were playing reasonably well, I’d say, “Okay, maybe they can do it.” But they’re not.

I have no idea what’s going to happen with Cole Hamels as the new talk is that they’re preparing a substantial offer to keep him. Maybe it’s true. But they need to get rid of Placido Polanco and Shane Victorino; see what they can get for Wigginton.

It’s not their year and if they sign Hamels that will probably assuage the angry fans—to a point—if Ruben Amaro Jr. concedes the season and gets what he can for the veterans who definitely won’t be back.

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