Do The Mariners Want To Win Or Not?

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The following is from Nick Cafardo in his Sunday Baseball Notes:

Ichiro Suzuki, OF, Mariners — It would be a terrible burden to place on manager Eric Wedge, but the absentee Japanese ownership loves Suzuki and it wouldn’t be shocking to see the veteran get another contract. That is, if he wants it. Suzuki’s abilities have declined, and Wedge’s attempt to get him going by moving him from first to third and back to first in the lineup have only worked to a point. It seems that ownership would stick with a player for the sake of reputation.

If this is a legitimate possibility then Mariners’ GM Jack Zduriencik has to put his foot down and say enough’s enough with the interference from ownership and that he has to be allowed to run this team correctly if he’s going to do the job at all.

This love affair with Ichiro is a negative circle that has to be eliminated.

I’m not defending Zduriencik. Many of his moves have been disastrous; of spotty integrity; and made under specious, stat-based reasons.

Their offense has been historically dreadful.

But there are reasons for guarded optimism not because Zduriencik understands and implements advanced metrics and someday, someday, someday the math will work, but because there’s talent in the system.

With Felix Hernandez, they have a legitimate ace in his prime. Jesus Montero has massive power potential; Hector Noesi could be an innings-eater and a solid mid-rotation starter (his 2-10 record is horribly misleading). In the minors they have a load of pitching on the way. Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker, Andrew Carraway, Stephen Pryor, Chance Ruffin and Carter Capps either have dominant stats, high draft status or well-regarded potential.

They need bats.

Another year of Ichiro? As what? A showhorse? Someone on the roster to hang around and be Ichiro? Is he going to play regularly at the expense of a rightfielder who can bash? Instead of a DH who hits the ball out of the park? They need offense. Ichiro doesn’t provide offense. What’s so hard about letting him go?

Zduriencik is in his fifth year on the job and the team hasn’t practically improved in the won/lost record. This front office is getting a pass from the media-at-large because Zduriencik is a stat guy with old-school scouting experience. It’s a pass that few other GMs with Zduriencik’s record—on and off the field—would get.

How much longer is that going to last? The stat person’s loyalty doesn’t go further than advancing their supposed revolution. There are still a few holdouts that think Moneyball is real and try to portray it as such. Others are shifting its goalposts and the vast majority are using it as validation for their line of thought and faux credibility while adjusting the template from “this is how to do it” to “that’s how Billy Beane did it at the time”.

There’s a major difference.

If the Mariners were winning Zduriencik would be the toast of SABR, celebrated as one of “them”. Since they’re losing the remaining supporters are lurking with opaque defenses and “it’s not his fault” laments.

Will the seeds he’s planted will benefit him or the next GM?

Oftentimes it’s not the man who did the bulk of the building who gets the credit when a team’s youngsters begin to perform. We’re seeing that now with the Orioles and Andy MacPhail and the Mets with Omar Minaya. Both men did much of the grunt work with the rosters of the clubs that have vaulted into surprising contention, but they’re forgotten or dismissed because they’re no longer there or their tenures were pockmarked with failure and controversy. They’re blamed for what they didn’t do and not credited for what they did.

Maybe that’s the way it’s going to go with Zduriencik.

But if he’s going down, he’d be well-advised to go down his way and tell ownership that it’s enough with Ichiro; that he can’t win with him and he needs to go. Period.

They have to move on and find bats who can actually produce. If teams and executives want to be successful, they can’t retain players for what they were. The business is one of, “What have you done for me lately?” In the case of Ichiro, the answer to that question would be absolutely nothing.

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The Best Manager In Baseball(?)

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Put Joe Maddon in the manager’s office of the Padres, the Athletics, the Cubs or even the Red Sox and their record isn’t going to be any different with Maddon than it is with their current managers.

So how can Maddon be repeatedly referred to as the “best” manager in baseball when his style is tailored to fit his Rays’ clubhouse? When his team bonding exercises and lack of off-field discipline wouldn’t work anywhere else?

Saying Maddon is the “best manager in baseball” is based on fleeting criteria that can’t be transferred. It’s the Mike Francesa logic from preseason 2011 as he picked the Twins in the AL Central for no reason other than, “I awlways pick da Twins.”

Is that a viable foundation for picking them or is it laziness based on history that has no connection to the present?

If the individuals comprising that history are no longer the same, then of what value is the history? It’s the same thing as having picked the Rays to lose 100 games in 2008 because they’d lost or almost lost 100 in every year of their existence. History hinges on the participants and what caused the history. If the players were different and better; if the front office was smarter; if the competition was weaker, then why would the predictions automatically be the same?

Reality is based on perception and the perception now—because of the Rays’ success—is that Maddon is the “best” manager in baseball.

Well, he’s not. The mere appellation itself has no quantifiable basis and is formulated from nothing other than a similar belief system between the manager and the person who’s doing the ranking.

The Rays are a unique, almost unprecedented club in that they don’t have money to even put forth the pretense of keeping their players long-term for big money. If those players aren’t willing to do as Evan Longoria, Matt Moore and Ben Zobrist did and take longer term deals well before their arbitration years and have those deals contain options that will take them past free agency, they’ll be traded for younger players to continually replenish the farm system. That a Rays team that has made the playoffs in 3 of the past 4 years still doesn’t draw fans gives them a freedom from having money to spend and needing to spend that money to keep a rabid fan base and media horde happy. They’re 12th in the American League in attendance this season; were 13th last season and haven’t finished higher than 9th since they became good in 2008.

It works for Maddon because of the situation he’s in. It has nothing to do with being the “best”. It has to do with what’s working in the circumstances. If the team was exhibiting poor behavior off the field and wasn’t hustling then it wouldn’t look as cute as it does while the Rays are winning.

Their defensive metrics, bullpen construction, sabermetrically-inclined front office and funky manager are part of the equation, but the Rays have been as much of a beneficiary from high draft choices and luck as from their clever defensive alignments and ability to find relievers or failed starters who succeed with the Rays in ways they haven’t in prior stops.

In 2012, their bullpen has been statistically middle-of-the-pack and saved by the excellent work done by Fernando Rodney. Their vaunted defense is near the worst in baseball in fielding percentage; is third in errors; is -19 in fielding runs above average (if you’re into advanced fielding metrics that make the Rays do the profound amount of shifting that they do).

If you think they’re making up for their defensive issues with pitchers racking up strikeouts, you’re wrong. Their staff is sixth in the majors in strikeouts. Their pitchers do keep the ball in the park and they, as a team, have taken advantage of slumping opponents to hover around first place.

But it’s not the same as it was when the Rays shocked the world in 2008 and made the playoffs in 2010 and 2011.

They’re not the dominant group of youngsters who catch the ball, throw strikes and hit clutch homers. It’s a different dynamic.

Maddon is a good manager, but his quirky little bits of shtick are only taken positively because the team has won. If he were in another town with a team out of control and 15 games under .500, his new age style would be blamed for it.

In fact, if the Rays fade this season, there’s an argument to say that it’s in part because of Maddon’s defensive alignments and bizarre decisions based on nothing like playing Hideki Matsui because it was his birthday. Of course playing Matsui on his birthday is no more ridiculous than some of the out-of-context numbers that are used to justify things that don’t make sense, but it sounds weird. Sounding weird is enough to make certain factions go critical.

If the Rays stumble, will there still be a “best manager in baseball” chorus trailing everything Maddon does? Or will he be criticized?

Maddon’s gimmicks work because the Rays have won. If they were still the 100-loss calamity they were in his first two seasons as a manager, then we’re not discussing this because he would’ve been fired long ago. The “best manager” stuff is moot because it’s dependent on the players and the front office. A true barometer of the best would require so many categories and caveats that it’s not worth discussing in such a narrow frame. The manager is important, but not to the degree of blind worship without facts as it’s become with Joe Maddon.

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Mike Francesa’s Rant Against Twitter (With Video)

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Mike Francesa went on a semi-rant about Twitter a few days ago. The clip is below. In short, he’s against the concept.

Given the amount of ridicule Francesa receives on social media and that Twitter is specifically built for the quick witticism and has limited oversight, it’s understandable that he wouldn’t want to partake and, as he put it, wishes it never happened.

Francesa, like most old-school guys would prefer to go back to the late-1950s and a Pax Americana (basically peace on American terms in a Superman “truth, justice and the American way” concept). He openly pines for the long-lost hero of his youth, Mickey Mantle; reminisces about the days in which pitchers would throw at hitters’ heads; and wants reinstitution of the walls that separated people in sports from the common masses.

Part of it is absolute nostalgia and part of it is the marginalization of those who do what he does. Sports commentary was far easier on the commentator in the days of Dick Young, Jimmy Cannon and Tim Cohane when their views were in the newspaper and there were no 24-hour sports talk stations; no ESPN; no MLB package where every game could be watched; and the viewer wasn’t relying on the recaps of the writers and play-by-play of the broadcasters to know what was happening.

Obviously it makes his job harder when he says something totally ignorant like “I don’t know how much Andrew McCutchen is gonna hit” as if McCutchen is a sprinter placed in a uniform as Renaldo Nehemiah was by Bill Walsh of the San Francisco 49ers. The more the listener knows, the harder a Francesa-type has to work to make sure he’s being factual or, at least, logical.

On some level, I empathize with Francesa. For him to have worked his way up to where he is now—and he did work hard to get where he is now, like him or not—it must be draining to have to interact with people who’ve never picked up a baseball and decided that reading a stat sheet and understanding basic concepts of sabermetrics made them a baseball “expert”.

But he also has to realize that he’s benefited from this new technology. Francesa is known worldwide because of the YES Network simulcast; because of the ability to listen to his show via the web; because of social media sites like Facebook, LinkedIn and yes, Twitter.

Like anything else, it has its drawbacks but there’s nothing that can be done to stop it and complaining about it because of the negatives doesn’t make it worthless. You get out what you put in. Short-term attention grabs are exactly that: short-term. Working to gain and maintain an audience isn’t about splashy statements that may or may not be true or boring ruminations about one’s day, but about providing interesting content. The new mediums are making Francesa have to work harder. And that might be the underlying problem.

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The Astros’ New Name

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The Houston Sabers.

It immediately came to me like a bolt of Force Lightning from my Sith fingertips when I read the following tidbit from the NY Times:

ASTROS CONSIDER NAME CHANGE The new Houston Astros owner, Jim Crane, is considering changing the name of the franchise as well as its uniforms.

Crane said Monday that the team would conduct a study to decide whether to switch the name.

The team was established in 1962 as the Colt .45s and has been called the Astros since 1965, when it was changed to coincide with the move to the Astrodome.

Any changes would not happen until 2013, when Houston moves to the American League.

“We had the Colt .45s, and everybody liked that one,” Crane said. “So you can imagine how upset they were when we switched that. What you get when you look at the fan base is the older we get and I’m old, you don’t like to change. But the younger fans are very receptive to change and the older ones aren’t, so that’s what we saw with the American League.”

If the Astros do change their name, I suggest the new name reflect their organizational philosophy and attach itself to something that’s going to attract the Sabermetrics crowd that’s already lining up to worship at the altar of new GM Jeff Luhnow and his lieutenants, the Director of Decision Sciences (whatever that is) Sig Mejdal and Coordinator of Amateur Scouting Stephanie Wilka.

They even interviewed Keith Law! And, depending on who you believe, supposedly offered him a job. Of course that would mean you believe…Law, since Law was the only one who provided any information on this implied (not said, implied) job offer which he graciously turned down (or was never offered) to remain at ESPN.

Apart from a morbid curiosity of how bad they’re going to be; when manager Brad Mills will be fired; which injury lands Fernando Martinez on the disabled list; or if they somehow find a taker for Carlos Lee, there’s really no reason to watch the Astros.

They have to find a way to get people to pay attention to them.

Presumably, Crane will be smart and use this consideration as an opportunity to garner that attention for his club—a club that’s going to be atrocious for the next two seasons before the switch to the American League—and have fans weigh in on what the new name should be.

Whether the new strategies are going to work is the question and I’m curious to see the answer myself.

But if they’re thinking of a new name, there’s only one that fits into the evolving blueprint: the Houston Sabers.

There’s no other choice.

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