(Over) Reactions To The Phillies’ Firing Of Charlie Manuel

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Considering what I wrote in my preseason book, the Phillies’ decision to fire Charlie Manuel and replace him with Ryne Sandberg should come as no surprise:

Manuel will either resign or be fired (my money’s on a firing because he won’t resign) during the season to pave the way for Sandberg.

It happened yesterday and the responses from fans, media members and players ranged from “Manuel deserved better,” to an attack on general manager Ruben Amaro, Jr., to shock and outrage, to the assertion that Manuel should have been allowed to finish out the season.

In a fictional utopia, I suppose there are arguments to be made for all of the above. In reality, even with its perceived brutality, the decision makes sense. Let’s look at the participants:

Charlie Manuel

Let’s not turn Manuel into a blameless 69-year-old man who is being forced out of a job he wants to continue doing. The same logic that says Manuel isn’t to blame for the Phillies’ 53-68 record also nullifies the credit he receives for the five division championships and 2008 World Series.

Which is it? One, the other or both?

Manuel did a good job with the Phillies and his main attributes were corralling a roomful of egos and not taking crap. The players knew he was in charge and, for the most part aside from Jimmy Rollins, played hard for him day-in, day-out. That said, independent of Manuel’s substantial accomplishments as their manager and as a baseball man in general, he’s 69-years-old and the Phillies are set to undergo a retooling.

Did it make sense to move forward for another day with Manuel when it’s been known for a year that, barring a World Series win, he wasn’t going to be back in 2014? When Sandberg had the heir apparent moniker attached to him from the time he joined the Phillies as their Triple A manager? When the Phillies were 21 1/2 games out of first place in the NL East and 15 1/2 games out of the second Wild Card spot?

Sentimentality is fine and it wouldn’t have hurt the Phillies to let Manuel finish the season, but it wouldn’t have helped either. If they’re going to commit to Sandberg to manage the team, they need to have a look at him and he needs to have a look at the roster as the man in charge. They have to see how he handles the media and the egos. In short, they have to see without speculation and guessing. Giving him the chance now gives them that opportunity.

Ruben Amaro, Jr.

Another line from my book sums up Amaro’s future as GM:

Amaro’s status after the year is also uncertain. Then the long rebuild will begin in earnest as the Phillies come apart.

The Phillies are financially bloated, destitute of impact youngsters and trapped in a division with four other teams that are younger and with brighter futures. While not overtly defending many of the things Amaro has done in his tenure as GM, I understand why he did them. That won’t save him at the end of the season if ownership decides that they need a whole new regime.

Amaro had been completely upfront about Manuel’s future. There was no contract extension offered and given the team’s struggles last season, their age and huge holes, even Amaro knew that everything would have to break right for them to contend. It’s broken wrong and it was time to move on.

Giving Manuel the last month-and-a-half of the season might’ve been the nice thing to do, but why? There’s the “what’s the difference?” argument and there’s the “we have to see what we have” argument. Amaro chose the latter and it wasn’t wrong in a moral or practical fashion. He didn’t callously shove an old man in a wheelchair out a window. He dismissed his manager who wasn’t going to be managing past this season anyway.

Ryne Sandberg

Sandberg is far from a guy who decreed, “I’m a Hall of Fame player and now I wanna be a big league manager. Give me the job.” He began his managerial career in the minors with the Cubs, worked his way up from A ball to Triple A and left the Cubs organization after he was passed over for the big league managerial job in favor of Dale Sveum. He joined the Phillies, managed for two years in Triple A Lehigh Valley before joining Manuel’s coaching staff this season.

Only Manuel knows whether he felt threatened by Sandberg’s presence; whether there was an undermining aspect to Sandberg as to what he would’ve done in certain situations had he been managing. With the decision essentially fait accompli as soon as Sandberg joined the organization and hammered home when he joined the coaching staff, all the ambiguity was gone. Manuel was going to manage in 2013 and, unless there was the aforementioned and unlikely World Series run, he wasn’t going to be back. There was no reason for Sandberg to undermine or run interference because he was going to get the job regardless.

The Phillies organization

The Phillies are entering a new phase. Their signing of Chase Utley to a contract extension and refusal to clean out the house of marketable veterans Cliff Lee, Carlos Ruiz, Jonathan Papelbon and Michael Young is an indicator that they have no intention of starting over again from scratch, but they’re incorporating young players like Cody Asche and must get younger and cheaper over the next several years. Part of that process includes the manager. Sandberg is younger and cheaper than Manuel. They knew what they had in Manuel and don’t know with Sandberg. It might sound cruel, but the Phillies had to break with the past and the only difference between doing it now and doing it after the season is that waiting would’ve postponed the inevitable. It elicited a fiery public response, but it was coming one way or the other. Doing it now was the logical decision.




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MLB Trade Deadline: Why Didn’t The Phillies Sell?

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The easy answer you’ll find on Twitter and in sabermetric circles is that Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. is, at best, delusional. At worst, they’ll say he’s an idiot. Neither is true.

The Phillies have lost 11 of 12 and are imploding. They’re old, expensive and have few prospects on the horizon. Amaro doesn’t think they’re contenders—he can’t—and he’s not stupid. He’s made some contractual mistakes, but like anything else unless there’s inside information as to whether these decisions were made by Amaro or through nudging on the part of his bosses, it’s unfair to place the entire onus of the burgeoning disaster on him. It’s just easier for the sabermetric crowd and Twitter experts to blame the GM and pronounce with all the courage in the world what “they’d” do. But there’s an underlying reality with the Phillies that has to be examined before calling the failure to sell a mistake.

  • The demands for Phillies’ players were steep

Teams that called about Cliff Lee were reportedly told that the trading club would have to absorb Lee’s $62.5 million contract (plus whatever’s left for this year) and give up several, significant, close-to-ready big league prospects. The number of teams that had the money, the prospects and the willingness to do this was nonexistent and Amaro knew it. In other words he was saying, “I’ll trade him if I get a metric ton for him.” It’s like being a happily married man and saying, “I’ll cheat if Megan Fox hits on me.” Lotsa luck.

  • No trade clauses and other issues

Apart from Lee, the other players who the Phillies could conceivably have had on the block were either hurt (Ryan Howard), have a no-trade clause they said they wouldn’t waive (Jimmy Rollins, Michael Young), have been awful and obnoxious (Jonathan Papelbon) or they want to keep (Chase Utley and Carlos Ruiz).

  • The farm system is barren

Amaro assistant Chuck LaMar resigned in a huff last year because of the lack of attention paid to the farm system and Mike Arbuckle left for the Royals when he didn’t get the GM job to replace Pat Gillick. The Phillies development apparatus is in flux in large part because they either neglected it to pay for the big league product or traded it away to add the likes of Roy Oswalt, Lee, Roy Halladay, Hunter Pence, Ben Revere and Young. Even when they dumped a player like Pence, they didn’t recoup what they traded to get him.

They’ve got a few pieces like the recently recalled Cody Asche and Phillippe Aumont, but there’s not a Mike Trout in their farm system—a player to build around. The decision to focus on the majors and allocate the vast amount of resources there was a conscious one. When Amaro basically exchanged Lee for Halladay after the 2009 season, his intention was to achieve cost-certainty and maintain some semblance of a farm system. By mid-season 2010, when the Phillies needed a pitcher, Amaro made a decision that not many GMs would have when he acknowledged his mistake and traded for Oswalt. He went all-in after 2010 be reacquiring Lee as a free agent and with subsequent decisions including paying a lot of money for Papelbon and Mike Adams.

Do the math: the farm directors who helped put the club together are gone; they gave up draft picks to sign free agents; and they traded away their top youngsters for veterans. Having homegrown talent ready to replace their stars immediately is impossible.

  • A housecleaning would gut the major league roster and attendance

As of now Phillies fans are angry and as always aren’t shy about showing it. Some targets, like Papelbon, have asked for it in both his performance and his comments. If the Phillies traded away every possible veteran asset, the fans would stop caring entirely especially with the football season coming quickly. Citizens Bank Park would be a ghost town in September and few players are going to want to join them this winter knowing that a rebuild is in progress.

For a club that is only now starting to again pay attention to the draft and has few prospects ready to make a dent in an increasingly difficult division, it’s better to tread water, keep the veterans and hope for a renaissance with what’s there while simultaneously trying to restock the minor league system.

  • 2014’s roster will be similar to 2013’s with a new manager

As much as the fans and critics will hate it, the Phillies aren’t going to have room to do much this winter. No one will take Papelbon unless the Phillies are taking a similarly bad contract in return and then they’ll need to find themselves a replacement closer. Rollins won’t allow himself to be traded. Lee is still one of the best pitchers in baseball. Cole Hamels is under contract. Howard can’t possibly be as bad as he’s been in recent years. Halladay has a contract option that is likely to be declined, but don’t be surprised to see him sign a contract to stay and re-prove himself.

Of course these are all qualifications and prayers. The odds of it coming to pass are slim, but this is still a more salable marketing strategy than blowing it up. The one thing that’s essentially fait accompli is that manager Charlie Manuel will be out. The decision as to whether to replace him with Ryne Sandberg or a veteran manager will be made, but it’s safe to say that Manuel’s time as Phillies’ manager is over. As far as changes, you’ll see a tweak here and there, but the general core is going to be the same.

In short, they have no real options other than to hope they players they have will rebound and make a run at one of the extra playoff spots in 2014 because many of their contracts are immovable and they can’t convince their grouchy fans to accept a new five-year plan to rebuild while still coming to the park.  The Phillies didn’t make a dramatic series of trades at the deadline because of these factors. It may not be popular, but it’s the way it is and the cost of putting together the type of team that won five straight division titles and was a preseason World Series favorite for a half-decade. It’s the circle of baseball and the Phillies’ circle is closing with a crash that they can’t avoid or prevent. The only thing they can do is limit the damage in its aftermath.

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Phun With The Phillies

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Todd Zolecki’s piece on MLB.com about the Phillies’ drama sums the situation up perfectly at the end when he writes:

But simply, this is a meeting that never would have happened if the team was playing well. But with the season on the brink, things like this get magnified.

It is nothing a winning streak can’t fix.

Team meetings and entreaties from manager Charlie Manuel and general manager Ruben Amaro, Jr. for the club to act professionally won’t go very far. The Phillies’ fortunes will be decided on the field. With a veteran team that has had success for the majority of the past seven years and with players who are earning significant guaranteed paychecks, what precisely can the manager and GM do to get them to “behave” anyway?

Cliff Lee’s reaction to the meeting and scolding was indicative of the attitude that has gotten Lee traded so frequently and placed his name out there as a negotiable commodity again. He can be a moody, petulant brat who is tolerated when the team is going well and he’s performing as one of the best pitchers in baseball, but his act wears thin when the club fortunes are not heading in a positive direction and his attitude grows darker and more sullen. Teams will continue to want him as a true ace at the top of a rotation, but they’ll also be willing to deal him when it gets to be too much. Lee’s pitching great and the team is staggering, placing the depth charges for an explosion like we saw the beginning of over the weekend. When a player moves around as much as Lee does, there’s a reason for it and there seem to be a vast subsection of baseball people who tire of his act. If the Phillies fade out and do trade Lee, it will be to get his salary off the books, to bring back some prospects and to get him out of the clubhouse, not necessarily in that order.

The days of players having to listen to management have been over for almost two decades. The players know they’re going to outlast the manager and GM and if they don’t, they’re going to get paid anyway. Rookies who are hungering to stay in the big leagues and get big contracts of their own are more likely to listen to what they’re told. In certain instances there are the rookies who don’t adhere to the hierarchy and clubs exercise the option to demote them or get rid of them as the Diamondbacks did with Trevor Bauer last winter. That was a form of cutting losses, something the Phillies must consider now.

With the Phillies, what can Manuel or Amaro say to Lee or anyone else who they feel needs to set an example and take things a bit more seriously especially when the team is getting blown out and the players are acting as if they don’t care? “Please stop”? Of course it looked bad to have the Phillies goofing around in the middle of the game, but they don’t want to hear that and won’t listen to it. A manager today can’t be a taskmaster and disciplinarian unless he has a young team that doesn’t have any choice but to listen. A club like the Phillies that has veterans with long-term contracts and has been with the same manager for nearly a decade is going to tune him out when he tries to pull in the reins. It’s just the way the game is today.

What is seen as a laxity of discipline for a team that’s losing is seen as looseness for a team that’s winning. If the Phillies were 20 games over .500 and heading toward the playoffs, joking around even during a blowout would be seen as shrugging off a bad day. As they’re under .500 and debating whether or not to start dealing veterans like Chase Utley, Jonathan Papelbon and Lee, it’s seen as complacency or out-and-out not caring.

The Phillies’ problem isn’t their behavior or their perception. It’s that they don’t have the players to compete with the younger, stronger and better teams in the National League, their farm system is dilapidated at best, and with their contracts a full-blown rebuild is out of the question. They’re in a vacancy. Whether the players sit in the dugout with their hands folded in their laps, cheer on their teammates like it’s high school, or behave in such a way that it spurs the manager and GM to take action to quell it doesn’t make a difference unless they play better and that’s something they do not appear to have the capability to do.

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MLB Trade Deadline: A Phillies Selloff Makes No Sense

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The discussion of a possible Phillies selloff is promoted by the media for the idea that some of the sexiest potential trade targets are on their roster, namely Cliff Lee and Jonathan Papelbon. Unless Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. is blown away by an offer, Lee’s not going anywhere. Papelbon is the name to watch, but he’ll get them financial relief and won’t yield a bounty of prospects in return. Apart from that, the Phillies’ situation—both financially and practically—has to be examined before stating with unequivocal certitude of what they “should” do while not being in Amaro’s position.

The Phillies are not a good team and it’s not due to injuries or age. It’s because they’re not very good. They would’ve been a good team if they had Roy Halladay pitching in the form he did in his first two years in Philadelphia, but he’s not that anymore even if he’s healthy. If Halladay was healthy, they’d be mediocre and nominal playoff contenders. With the Braves and Nationals in their own division and the Pirates (who are for real), the Cardinals and Reds in the Central division, snagging one of the two Wild Cards is a delusion for the Phillies in their current state. Ordinarily, that might predicate a housecleaning of pending free agents and marketable veterans. But it again returns to the Phillies’ situation and it leaves them with few options.

Because the Phillies went all-in in 2010 when they were, on paper, playing the same way they are now and traded for Roy Oswalt to spur a blazing hot streak over the final two months of the season, there’s a dreamy hope that they’ll repeat the process in 2013. The difference is that they don’t have any prospects left to trade for a pitcher of Oswalt’s stature and the rest of their club isn’t underperforming, but is performing what they’re currently capable of because they’re beaten up and old.

They can move Michael Young and I think they will, but they’re not going to get much for him. They can offer Chase Utley around, but he’s a pending free agent and despite the fact that a new setting and a legitimate pennant race will wake him up and possibly revert him to the MVP-status he enjoyed during the Phillies years of NL East dominance, teams won’t go crazy for a rental and give up the prospects to justify the Phillies not keeping Utley, trying to sign him to a reasonable deal to stay or letting him leave and taking the draft pick compensation. Delmon Young might be a reasonable acquisition for an AL club that is going to be in the playoffs so he can DH and do one thing he does well: hit in the playoffs. Carlos Ruiz is a free agent at the end of the year and he too would help a legitimate contender, but again, they won’t get bring back stud prospects.

That leaves Lee and Papelbon.

I don’t believe the Phillies are going to trade Lee. It doesn’t make sense considering the rest of the roster being entrenched in trying to win over the next couple of years while the club begins rebuilding their gutted farm system that was neglected as the available money for development was allocated for the big league product. Teams that do what the Phillies did in trading all their top prospects to try and win now and simultaneously ignore the draft know they’re mortgaging the future with a balloon payment. That balloon payment is due soon and they’re going to have to pay it.

Amaro is not going to do a full-blown rebuild because he can’t afford to have an empty park waiting five, seven, ten or however many years it takes for the team to be good again. It’s easier to hope that they’ll get a resurgence with the veterans under contract and slowly start resuscitating their minor league system. Realistically, what would they get for Lee? He has a limited no-trade clause so there are only eight teams to which he can be traded and he’s owed $62.5 million through 2015 not counting his salary for the rest of 2013. To get viable prospects to make the deal worth the Phillies’ while, they’d have to pick up a chunk of his money. To get out from under his full salary, they’d have to take nothing back in return. Then what? They’d need pitching for next year to try and win with the players they still have with none as good as Lee on the market. So it makes no sense to even speculate about in any manner other than to garner attention for something that’s highly unlikely to happen during the season.

As for Papelbon, he’s one name who could help a club like the Tigers who need a closer. He could put them over the top and for the Phillies, he’s replaceable if they’re not in the playoff hunt. He doesn’t appear happy in Philadelphia, they don’t seem to like him very much and getting rid of his salary for a couple of mid-level minor leaguers would appeal to everyone. If they’re out of the race in the second half, they could give Phillippe Aumont a look as the closer and after the season go the cheap (and ironic) route and bring back Ryan Madson who, by then, might not have thrown one pitch for another team after leaving the Phillies only to return two years later to have a shot to be the closer again.

The idea behind trade deadline speculation is to formulate a clear-cut scenario of either/or. Either we’re in it and we buy or we’re out of it and we sell. That comes from the Moneyball school of thought with no obstacles other than financial, but that’s fiction just like Moneyball. The Rays can get away with that kind of attitude. The teams with fans who pay to see the team and live and breathe with the idea that they could possibly challenge for a World Series in spite of the odds—the Phillies, Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers—can’t do it that easily. The Phillies won’t sell. They’ll tweak. That means Papelbon will be the one of the whales to go and Lee will stay.

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Brandon McCarthy vs. Keith Law—Live On Twitter

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An entertaining and extended Twitter fight went into the early morning hours (EST) between Diamondbacks pitcher Brandon McCarthy and ESPN writer Keith Law after Law sent out a tweet decrying the concept of Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera being “locked in” during his three homer night against the Rangers. Cabrera also singled and walked. The Rangers won the game 11-8.

This isn’t about the debate of whether, as Law said, being locked in is a “myth.” Law’s argument centers around there not being any evidence to prove that being “locked in” exists. I don’t agree with the premise. Simply because there’s no study to prove or disprove “its” existence doesn’t mean the “it” doesn’t exist. It’s weak and pompous to suggest that there’s a conclusion one way or the other because there’s no study to footnote. Has anyone even tried to examine the brain-body link when a player is in a “zone” or “locked in” to see if there’s a difference between a hot streak and a slump? Pitchers’ mechanics and hitters’ swings are dissected through attachments of body to computer to spot flaws and correct them, so what about the brain-body link and the possibility of being “locked in”? If it hasn’t been studied, how do you prove it doesn’t exist? And how do you declare it’s a myth?

I feel some semblance of sympathy for Law here. As obnoxious, phony and as much of a created entity as he is, he tweeted one thing and found himself under siege not just by people who dislike him, but by many who actually are fans of his and a big league player who is sabermetrically inclined and cerebral basically telling him he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. It was one tweet that ended with a marathon that I’m sure Law wanted no part of after the first fifteen minutes, but couldn’t find a way to extricate himself from the situation while maintaining his unfounded reputation as an “expert.” It went on for hours and will undoubtedly continue throughout the day. Or the week. Or the month. Or the year. That’s how Twitter is.

I believe in the “locked in” idea and it’s not based on some throwaway line. Anyone who’s ever played a sport—or done anything at all on a regular basis—knows that there are times that it just feels “right” and there are instances when it’s not necessary to think about the things that a pitcher or hitter has to think about, sometimes to his detriment. When a hitter or pitcher has his mind on mechanics—where the hands are, where the feet are, where the landing spot is—and then has to deal with the pitches coming at him or the hitters standing at the plate, it makes it exponentially harder to focus on the one moment they need to be focusing on for sustained success. There are times when it all comes together and there’s no need to think about those mechanical necessities because all is in symmetry and it’s automatic.

The “you never played” argument is treated as if it’s irrelevant by those who never played because they can’t combat the assertion. It’s not easy to make it to the Major Leagues whether it’s someone who understands stats like McCarthy or someone for whom stats are an inconvenience like Jeff Francoeur. It is, however, remarkably easy in today’s game to make it to a Major League front office or into the media as an “expert.”

Law’s entire career has been based on an if this/then that premise. He was a writer on statistics and when the Blue Jays hired J.P. Ricciardi out of the Athletics front office as the Moneyball theory was first starting to be known and implemented, he hired Law. Law worked for the Blue Jays, left to take a job at ESPN and suddenly morphed through some inexplicable osmosis from the arrogant and condescending stat guy who Michael Lewis described in Moneyball (and after the Moneyball movie came out and Law panned it, in an entertaining slap fight between the two) into an arrogant and condescending stat and all-knowing scouting guy. In reality, there’s no scouting guy in there. He’s regurgitating stuff he heard. Nothing more, nothing less. There’s no foundation for his status as the ultimate insider and someone who knows both scouting and stats.

Law didn’t pay his dues as a writer meeting deadlines, covering games and trying to get a usable quote from Barry Bonds; he didn’t play; he didn’t work his way up in the front office from getting coffee for people as an intern to a low-level staffer and eventually a baseball executive. I don’t agree with much of what Law’s fellow ESPN “Insider” Jim Bowden says, but at least Bowden was a scout and a GM who made the primordial climb working for George Steinbrenner and Marge Schott. Law just sort of showed up and was anointed as the all-seeing, all-knowing totem of the stat people.

And there’s the fundamental issue with him.

He’s a creation. The ridiculous mock MLB Drafts, smug style and wallowing in objective data as well as his only recently discovered interest in in-the-trenches scouting is similar to the marketing of a boy band. There had to be something there to start with, of course. Law’s obviously intelligent as he constantly tries to show with his “look how smart I am” tweets in Latin, but that doesn’t translate into industry-wide respect that they’re trying to desperately to cultivate. With a boy band, it’s a look and willingness to do what they’re taught, sing the songs they’re given and be happy that they’re making money and have girls screaming their names on a nightly basis. With Law, it’s his circular status as a guy who’s worked in an MLB front office as if that denotes credibility on all things baseball. Those who hate GMs and former GMs who shun many of the new and beloved stats wouldn’t listen to Omar Minaya, Bill Bavasi or Ruben Amaro Jr. if they were given the forum that Law has, so why does Law automatically receive undeserved respect?

Just like veteran baseball front office people and players have to deal with unwanted suggestions and the presence of people they don’t think know anything about how the actual game of baseball is played, so too do the sportswriters—many of whom worked their way up as beat reporters for box lacrosse until they’re in a coveted baseball columnist position—have to look at people like Law and wonder: “Why’s he here?” “Why does anyone listen to him?”

What must make it worse for the real reporters at ESPN like Buster Olney and Jayson Stark is that for the good of ESPN webhits and advertising rates, they have to promote Law’s writing due to organizational needs and orders from above. According to speculation, Law and Olney aren’t exactly buddies. It must burn Olney to have to lead his followers to Law’s mock drafts that Olney is experienced enough as a baseball writer to know are ridiculous.

Because it was McCarthy, a player who understands and utilizes the same stats that Law propounds in practice as a Major League baseball player and not a “me throw ball, me swing bat” player who isn’t aware of the war going on in Syria let alone WAR as a stat, Law couldn’t use the argument of an eyeroll and hand wave with backup from his minions. That, more than the relatively meaningless debate, is probably what stings most of all.

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Don’t Expect a Phillies Selloff

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Because they fall into the category of early-season disappointment, there’s already speculation as to a Phillies selloff at mid-season if they continue to play like a team that can finish with, at best, a .500 record. History has proven, however, that under GM Ruben Amaro Jr. any move that is made will be either to double-down and go for it in spite of widespread negativity and perception that they’re “done,” or he’ll make trades of players who aren’t keys to the team and those who won’t be part of the long-term future.

For all the criticism Amaro has received for mortgaging the future by gutting a fertile farm system for veterans, overpaying on contract extensions for players already on his roster, and essentially ignoring the draft, he had a different idea when he took over as GM after the 2008 season. What he wanted to do was maintain some semblance of a solid core of young players. This was the intention of trading away Cliff Lee for prospects as he was entering his free agent year and trading other prospects to acquire Roy Halladay who was willing to sign a long-term contract just to get out of Toronto and join a contender.

Amaro was savaged—by me included—for that decision and did a total about-face at mid-season 2010 first by trying to get Lee back from the plummeting Mariners, then filling the hole in the rotation that his plan created by acquiring Roy Oswalt. The Phillies had been rumored to be listening to offers for Jayson Werth at that point, were barely over .500 and fading. They got hot, won the NL East, advanced to the NLCS before losing to the eventual World Series champion Giants.

By then, there wasn’t a pretense of building for the present and the future. It was all-in for the now as evidenced by the advancing age of their roster and the subsequent acquisitions of Lee (as a free agent), Hunter Pence, and Jonathan Papelbon. Farm director Chuck LaMar resigned in a public dustup with Amaro because of the rapidly deteriorating farm system and lack of money available to repair it.

But what Amaro was doing was similar to what Theo Epstein wanted to do sans the ridiculous appellations of “genius” after the Red Sox 2004 World Series win. The expectations from the fans and media, as well as ownership demands, sabotaged what Epstein wanted to do and the Red Sox degenerated into a battle of one-upmanship with the Yankees as to who could spend the most money on the biggest free agents. It resulted in a dysfunctional group of mercenaries and organizational collapse culminating with the 69-93 showing in 2012 with rampant inter-organizational contretemps and hatred combined with a self-protective blame game from everyone involved.

The Phillies haven’t fallen to those depths yet. But with an aging and declining roster and few prospects on the way up, it will happen eventually.

The question is, what do they do about it?

The simple answer is: nothing.

Could the Phillies clean out the house at mid-season and save money for an on-the-fly rebuild by signing free agents and trading for players that other teams can no longer afford? Yes. Will they do that? Probably not.

When clubs are trading players in salary dumps, the get-back is usually not all that impressive. Many will point to the Red Sox salary dump of Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett to the Dodgers for a package of prospects including two who are impressive—Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa—but the key point being missed is that Gonzalez is still a star-level, MVP-caliber talent whom the Red Sox had surrendered three top prospects to acquire just a year-and-a-half earlier. Were they supposed to give him away just to get out from under the contract? And were the Dodgers just doing the Red Sox a favor along the lines of the nouveau riche just buying things they recognized?

The Dodgers also claimed Lee when the Phillies placed him on waivers last year. If there was an intention on the part of Amaro to extricate himself from Lee’s contract, he could’ve just handed him to the Dodgers and moved on. He didn’t do that and won’t do it this year with Lee unless he’s getting something back. If a team is accepting the $62.5 million Lee is guaranteed through 2015, they’re not surrendering a top-tier prospect for a soon-to-be 35-year-old with that much cash coming to him. Nor will they get significant packages of younsters for Halladay or Rollins. They might get something decent for Chase Utley, but it won’t be a franchise remaking deal that will be pointed to in 2017 as the building block for the next Phillies run.

There are other concerns in play here. It’s a ridiculous premise to believe that the GM has the final say in all personnel moves. Evidence of Amaro answering to his bosses was clear in the negotiations to retain Ryan Madson as the team’s closer after the 2011 season when the strongly cited rumors were that the Phillies had made a $44 million offer to Madson that the player and his agent Scott Boras accepted. Then when Amaro went to get approval from CEO David Montgomery, a hold was put on the agreement and a few days later, Papelbon was signed. In retrospect, with Madson not having thrown a Major League pitch for the two organizations he’s signed with since, Amaro and the Phillies were lucky it fell apart, regardless of who pulled the first thread as the catalyst of the fabric disintegrating.

Prior to the contract extension given to Cole Hamels, there was endless speculation that the staggering Phillies would trade him. Instead, they gave him what was, at the time, the richest contract ever given to a pitcher.

Apparently Amaro doesn’t read the rumors and do what they’re saying he’s about to do or supposed to do.

Another issue is the attendance factor. Amid all the talk that of the loyalty of Phillies’ fans and the daily sellouts during the club’s run of excellence, like most fanbases if the team isn’t contending and isn’t good, the fans aren’t going to go. This is part of the reason the Cubs have been so historically bad—there’s no motivation to consistently try and win because the fans show up either way. It would take annual contention over the long-term (a decade) and at least one World Series win for the Cubs to: A) lose the lovable loser mantle they so proudly wallow in; and B) accumulate the apathy that comes from fans being disgusted with losing when they expected to win to the point that they’ll find something to do other than going to the park.

That’s not so with the Phillies. If the fans see a team without Lee, without Jimmy Rollins, without Halladay, without Papelbon, without Utley, they’re not going to the park to see a backend starter packaged as a top prospect in Jonathan Pettibone, Ben Revere, Domonic Brown, and Hamels for a team that’s going to win 75 games and is rebuilding.

This is the team they’ve put together. Amaro accepted that when he tacitly acknowledged that it’s all but impossible to win and build simultaneously with the Oswalt acquisition and unsaid admission that he was wrong to trade Lee. He reacted accordingly and this is where they are. With the extra Wild Card, the parity in the National League, their pitching and impossibility of trading their veterans for the quality youth necessary to justify it, they’re not blowing it up now.

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Phillies 2013 Success Hinges on Halladay, Hamels and Lee

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Here are the facts about the 2013 Phillies:

  • They’re old
  • They’re expensive
  • Their window is closing
  • Their system is gutted of prospects
  • Their success is contingent on their top three starting pitchers

With all the ridicule raining down on Phillies’ GM Ruben Amaro Jr. for his acquisitions of players who are frequent targets of attacks from the SABR-obsessed in Delmon Young and Michael Young (no relation that we know of), the reality of the situation dictates that the Phillies go all in with players who are the equivalent of duct tape.

It’s the epitome of arrogance to think that the Phillies aren’t aware of the limitations of both Youngs; that they don’t know Michael Young’s defense at third base is poor and, at age 36, he’s coming off the worst season of his career; that they aren’t cognizant of the baggage the Delmon Young carries on and off the field when they signed him for 1-year and $750,000. But what were they supposed to do?

They needed a third baseman and their options were Michael Young and Kevin Youkilis. Youkilis hasn’t distinguished himself on and off the field over the past several seasons and Michael Young was cheaper (the Rangers are paying $10 million of his $16 million salary for 2013).

They needed another outfielder and they were left with the dregs of the free agent market like the limited Scott Hairston, who’s not any better than what they’ve already got; signing Michael Bourn, giving up a draft pick, paying Scott Boras’s extortion-like fees, and having two speed outfielders with Bourn and Ben Revere; trading for Vernon Wells; or signing Delmon Young. Delmon Young hits home runs in the post-season and that’s where the Phillies are planning (praying) to be in October.

This isn’t about a narrative of the Phillies being clueless and signing/trading for bad or limited players. It’s about working with what they have. Amaro isn’t stupid and he tried the strategy of building for the now and building for the future in December of 2009 when he dealt Cliff Lee for prospects and replaced him with Roy Halladay for other prospects.

Amaro, savaged for that decision, reversed course at mid-season 2010 when he traded for Roy Oswalt and then did a total backflip when he re-signed Lee as a free agent. The team has completely neglected the draft for what appear to be financial reasons, leading to the high-profile and angry departure of former scouting director Chuck LaMar.

The decision was tacitly made in the summer of 2010 that the Phillies were going to try and win with the group they had for as long as they could and accept the likelihood of a long rebuilding process once the stars Halladay, Lee, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley were past their sell-by date. The signings made this winter are not designed to be lauded or viewed as savvy. They’re patchwork in the hopes that they’ll get something useful from the Youngs; that Utley will come back healthy in his contract year; that Howard is better after a lost season due to his Achilles tendon woes.

As for the open secret that the Phillies no longer think much of Domonic Brown to the level that they’re unwilling to give him a fulltime job and are handing right field to Delmon Young, this too is tied in with the Phillies gutted farm system. Perhaps it was an overvaluation of the young players the Phillies had or it was a frailty in development, but none of the players they’ve traded in recent years to acquire veterans—Jonathan Singleton, Kyle Drabek, Travis d’Arnaud, Lou Marson, Jason Donald, Carlos Carrasco—have done anything in the big leagues yet. They wouldn’t have helped the Phillies of 2009-2012 much, if at all. Outsiders can look at Brown’s tools and his minor league numbers and wonder why the Phillies are so reluctant to give him a chance, but in his big league chances, he’s appeared limited and overmatched. There’s a similarity to Cameron Maybin in Brown that his assessments are off-the-charts until he’s actually with the team and they see him every day, then they realize that he’s plainly and simply not that good. The Phillies know him better than anyone and if they don’t think he can play every day, then perhaps he can’t play every day.

The 2012 Phillies finished at 81-81. Even with their offensive ineptitude for most of the season, with a healthy Halladay would they have been a .500 team or would they have been at around 90 wins and in contention for a Wild Card?

This is the last gasp for this group. Manager Charlie Manuel just turned 69 and is in the final year of his contract. Within the next three years, they’re going to be rebuilding with a new manager and young players. In the near term, it’s down to the big three pitchers.

The ages and wear on the tires for Halladay and Lee are legitimate concerns for 2013 as is the shoulder issue that Hamels had last season, but regardless of how the offense performs, the Phillies season hinges on how those aces pitch. If they don’t pitch well, the team won’t win. If they do pitch well, the team will be good for three out of every five days with Mike Adams and Jonathan Papelbon in the bullpen.

The Youngs, Revere, Howard, Utley, Rollins—none of it matters if they hit at all. It’s the starting pitchers that will determine the Phillies’ fate. Everything else is just conversation.

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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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The Blue Jays Managerial Search and the ESPN Disease

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Jim Riggleman isn’t a bad idea as manager for the Blue Jays, but he hasn’t heard from them. You’d never know that unless you followed the story after what Buster Olney said on Twitter:

The Jays are close to announcing their next manager. Two of the final names they discussed were Jim Tracy and Jim Riggleman.

There’s sufficient ambiguity in this tweet to explain it away after Riggleman’s own agent said there had been no contact between the Blue Jays and Riggleman. He also said that Riggleman would be very interested in the job. It could be said that the name was kicked around by the Blue Jays; that the two sentences are unconnected; that Olney has a source telling him this; or that ESPN told Olney to say something provocative regarding the Blue Jays while they’re a hot topic to accumulate some webhits to ESPN.com.

I like Olney. He’s got a thick skin; he can take a joke without freaking out in a “how dare you question me?!?” tantrum; and he writes his columns and reports without vindictiveness or self-promotion, but the ESPN Disease pops up on occasions in which he and other mostly respectable reporters toss something out there that they know is, at best, a twisted exaggeration. One would assume that they’re enacting an editorial order. Similar to a few years ago when there was a “rumor” from somewhere that the Cardinals and Phillies had discussed a trade of Albert Pujols for Ryan Howard, there was a brief uproar with factions arguing and screaming about the mere concept; with Phillies’ GM Ruben Amaro Jr. livid at having to answer questions as to the possibility of a story he knew nothing about. Olney was a guest on ESPN News at its height and the host asked him something to the tune of, “How close is this to happening?” as if, barring a zombie apocalypse, it could’ve happened. And I can picture a drooling zombie looking at Pujols and Howard and grunting, “Nooooooo!!!!” in between guttural growls and throaty sputters. Even zombies know better.

The ESPN employees go along with the program, entertain the nonsense, talk about Tim Tebow, and “report” this stuff because it’s their job, but what they miss is how this style of journalism diminishes quality people and their credibility when they’re forced to engage in cheap attention grabs.

As for the Blue Jays managerial search, the two names that Olney dropped—Tracy and Riggleman—would actually be good choices for that situation. The Blue Jays need to hire an experienced manager and, with the collection of talent they now have, it doesn’t have to be someone with the resume of Joe Torre for it to work. It just has to be someone who knows the terrain; who has managed in the big leagues; who won’t tolerate the same terrible fundamentals as former manager John Farrell did; can deal with the press; and will be respected by the veterans.

Riggleman has the baggage from his resignation from the Nationals hovering over him, but he’s always implied that there’s more to the story than we know. If he’s going to be interviewed for a big league managerial job, he’d better have a ready and reasonable explanation why he walked away from the Nationals amid the perception that he was throwing a tantrum because the club refused to exercise his 2012 option.

Tracy, despite his critics, is a good manager who got a bad rap with the poor endings in his prior stops managing the Dodgers, Pirates, and Rockies. He has all the attributes I mentioned above, the players have always liked him and played hard for him, he’s sound strategically, and is good with the press.

If I were making the decision, before anything else, I’d call Tony LaRussa and see if he’s bored with retirement and if he is, would Dave Duncan like to come along as well? They already reportedly inquired with Bobby Cox and Cox said no, so why not LaRussa? It’s a tailor made situation for him with a rabid fanbase and the new challenge back in the American League. He might be competitively recharged after a year away. He surely seemed to enjoy himself at the All-Star Game.

The Blue Jays cannot make the same mistake they did with Farrell. In addition to all the other problems Farrell had in his two seasons, his eyes were cast back toward Boston with a lusty gaze and the players didn’t think he knew what he was doing. They were right. He didn’t. This Blue Jays team can win, but they’re more likely to fail if they hire a cheap, convenient alternative to manage the club rather than someone who’s got the bona fides to maximize their talent.

That could be Riggleman; it could be Tracy; it could be LaRussa; or it could be someone else—it had better be someone who has the known ability to do the job unlike the last manager GM Alex Anthopoulos hired, Farrell. After so many years of expectations and waiting and hoping, 2013 is the Blue Jays chance and they can’t afford to blow it, especially on an unknown field boss.

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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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