The Giants’ rebuild hits a snag: They’re winning

MLB, MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Waiver Trades

Bumgarner pic

When the Giants hired Farhan Zaidi away from the Dodgers to replace Brian Sabean as the head of baseball operations, they did not do it to maintain the status quo. The Giants were long one of the main holdouts for the old-school way of running an organization, eschewing a deep dive into statistics as the final determinative factor in procuring and retaining players. It certainly worked for them with three World Series titles in five years starting in 2010.

However, the Giants are an organization that knows which way the wind is blowing – perhaps a lingering aftereffect of Candlestick Park – and moved away from the Sabean/Bruce Bochy line of thought and into the same environment which has built and maintained the Bay Area cohabitants the Athletics as well as the Dodgers, which were the two organizations Zaidi worked for before heading to San Francisco.

While the Giants did not go the route of the full teardown as the Cubs and Astros did under Theo Epstein and Jeff Luhnow respectively (and successfully), Zaidi has not concealed his intentions. Over the winter, the most recognizable names the Giants acquired were Pat Venditte (the switch-pitcher), Drew Pomeranz and Gerardo Parra. These were not moves to radically improve a 90-loss team and they definitely were not designed to close the gap with the Dodgers. They were done for veteran competence and players who might yield a prospect or two at the deadline.

If this were the defending champion Giants or the “we’re going for it” Giants, these are reasonable, role players to add to a championship mix. For a club that finished 64-98 in 2017 and 73-89 in 2018, the latter with a payroll of $200 million, sticking to the admittedly successful blueprint from the past was cannibalizing and foolish. Had the Giants wanted that, they would not have gone so far in the opposite direction from Sabean’s methods to Zaidi’s.

There’s a fine line between trying to lose and not caring about losing. The Cubs and Astros, during their rebuilds, “tanked.” They were not “throwing” games, but the teams were so terrible that losing was a natural byproduct of the terribleness of those rosters. This relatively new phenomenon is not all that new. Upon informing Ralph Kiner that he had been traded to the Cubs, Pirates GM Branch Rickey famously told him that they finished last with him and could finish last without him. The idea gained prominence with the Devil Rays/Rays under current Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman by ostensibly saying, “We’re gonna lose anyway, so what’s the difference between losing 90 and 100?”

The Astros and Cubs took it to its logical conclusion and were positioned to do so with the new heads of baseball ops inheriting bloated contracts, dead farm systems, a history of failure and owners willing to hand the keys to them because there was no history to protect and nothing to lose.

The Giants had played poorly; the players who comprised the foundation for those championships were getting old and underperforming; and the template had run its course. Add in that the National League West housed Zaidi’s old team, the Dodgers, and they had exacted a dominance over the division that the Giants could not come near without radical changes to the structure. That radical change was, in short, copying the Dodgers.

In its actions, the Giants tacitly admitted they were moving on from the Bochy/Madison Bumgarner/Buster Posey/Brandon Belt/Brandon Crawford/Pablo Sandoval years – the last remaining residue of the championships.

Manager Bochy’s spring announcement that he planned to retire after the 2019 season put an exclamation point on the organization’s direction. The question as to whether Bochy is really retiring or is being granted the respect to leave on his own terms so Zaidi and his staff can hire a manager whose thinking corresponds with theirs will be answered if Bochy takes some time off and then leaks that he’s bored and will listen to offers to manage.

Posey, Belt and Crawford are under contract for the foreseeable future, but if they are not traded, they will be ancillary players who fit in with the scheme rather than the foundation around which the scheme is crafted. With no contract extension forthcoming for Bumgarner, they had essentially said he was going to be traded by the deadline. The only question was where.

Then, from the nadir of their season so far on June 29 when they were 12 games below .500, eight games from a Wild Card spot and ahead of only the Marlins in the overall National League standings, the Giants started winning. In the subsequent three weeks and after Thursday night’s/Friday morning’s 16-inning win over the Mets, the Giants were 13-2 and gained 5.5 games in the Wild Card standings.

This is where it gets complicated. Having this happen so close to the July 31 trade deadline in the season after August trades were eliminated by MLB, the Giants and every other team must decide on what they are and what they want to be. The second Wild Card has opened so many scenarios to make an argument to stand pat that the fans and media will not accept a club punting on a season when there is the remotest possibility of making a run. It takes an experienced and entrenched baseball operations boss plus a willing ownership to do that.

Some teams will take a wait-and-see approach to their midseason status before acting. The Mets fall into that category, but they are not in the same circumstance as the Giants in that they have enough young talent and starting pitching under contract that they can say they’re going to retool and try and win in 2020. Some will disagree with the philosophy and its ambiguity, preferring the resoluteness of “this is what we’re doing, like it or not.”

The Twins were faced with a comparable conundrum in 2017. Having abandoned their longtime method of running things with the “Twins Way,” they fired veteran GM Terry Ryan and manager Ron Gardenhire, mitigated background architect Tom Kelly and moved on with former Cleveland Indians director of baseball operations Derek Falvey as the Twins new chief baseball officer They had lost 103 games the previous year and were not expected to be anything more than, at most, a 90-loss team. Instead, they hovered around contention for the second Wild Card and a likely one-game dismissal by the Yankees or Red Sox if they made the playoffs.

Instead of having the freedom to do what they wanted with a 100-loss team, Falvey and GM Thad Levine were suddenly saddled with trying to make a playoff run when it was inconvenient to their plans; was a waste of time, energy and assets; and hindered rather than helped. So, they vacillated. They made trades to “improve” as the second Wild Card spot played down to them instead of vice versa. They acquired Jaime Garcia for show, and traded Garcia and Brandon Kintzler a week later as a concession…and then still won the second Wild Card that no one in the front office wanted. They got hammered by the Yankees in the playoff game and were then free to continue their rebuild. Still, loitering around contention might have prevented them from maximizing their best tradeable assets Brian Dozier and Ervin Santana and stagnated what they set out to accomplish. It didn’t hurt them significantly as they are currently in first place, but it didn’t help either.

It might be a bit much to say that Zaidi is displeased that the Giants are playing so well, but it does put a wrench in the machine he’s constructing. Certainly, his life would be much easier if they continued that late-June spiral and freed him to gut the place because, what was the difference?

Now, it makes a difference. Could ownership step in and say it’s worth the shot to get into the Wild Card game with Bumgarner pitching it and see what happens? Absolutely.

Would the fans accept trading a team legend when the club is suddenly in the mix to make the playoffs in a weak Wild Card scrum and vulnerable teams – even the Dodgers – leading the respective divisions? They wouldn’t be happy about it even if the Giants and Zaidi extract a ransom for Bumgarner, Will Smith and Crawford and salary relief for Jeff Samardzija.

Given Zaidi’s background, he will still trade Bumgarner at the deadline and ignore this quixotic leap into the playoff conversation. But the Giants’ hot streak has put that decision from the definite category to the maybe category. Retaining Bumgarner and even adding at the deadline is precisely what Sabean would have done, and that is not what Zaidi or the Giants intended when he took the job.

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Madison Bumgarner has the cachet to say no to “the opener”

MLB

Bumgarner pic

According to San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy, Madison Bumgarner sent him a text message informing him that if the Giants – as rumored – plan to integrate “the opener” into their game strategy and he is in any way affected by this, he will simply walk out of the ballpark.

As another example of the statistical revolution and willful change to baseball orthodoxy, the specialization and strategies that accompany those changes has led to teams having less reliance on one starting pitcher.

Most pitchers are agreeable to it because they have little choice in the matter. It’s a choice of either going along or being eliminated. If there is any byproduct to teams implementing these strategies and finding players who fit into their blueprint rather than vice versa, it’s the fungible nature of a vast proportion of the players. Teams do not want to overpay for Bryce Harper or Manny Machado when they can cobble together similar production by signing, trading for, or developing several players who are more readily available and cost efficient.

Why pay a starting pitcher $25 million a year and adhere to his desires to be left alone to start his game, get in and out of trouble and have a say in how he’s utilized when six replaceable relievers can be used and cost a total of $10 million, if that much?

It’s a matter of time before a self-proclaimed expert who has never played a competitive sport and wants to turn baseball into the equivalent of a cubicle-laden office exclaims in shock and outrage: “But Bumgarner is a subordinate and he’s making inappropriate demands of a superior!”

Bumgarner is an old-school tough guy. It was Bumgarner who had zero interest in receiving a bath of sticky sports drink glop when, after he had a game-winning hit, teammate Alen Hanson attempted to douse him in the contents of the cooler and Bumgarner effortlessly shoved the jug and Hanson away with one arm.

This is how he is.

Bumgarner has the history and reputation to tell the organization that he’s not playing this game. This goes beyond Bumgarner himself. Obviously, Clayton Kershaw, Jacob deGrom, Justin Verlander and other top-line starters will be given that freedom. “Some Guy” will not and organizations are increasingly relying on Some Guy not just for the freedom to use the strategies they prefer, but so they don’t need to pay them, nor do they need to adhere to the Bumgarner dictate that he’s not tolerating having his games interfered with in such a way.

This goes beyond strategy and is part of the ongoing ideological fight. Bumgarner wins the battle because he’s Bumgarner and has the hardware, salary and negotiating leverage to do it. But the Bumgarner faction will need to indulge in harder tactics to win the war. Others do not have his cachet. Taking that away is intentional on the part of organizations for reasons beyond strategy.

Ricky Nolasco Proves the Market Rewards Mediocrity

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The Ricky Nolasco contract with the Twins was announced last night. I haven’t looked at the reactions yet, but presumably they range between indignation, head shakes and grudging acknowledgements that “that’s the market.” Whether or not he’s worth that money is beside the point. Nolasco is a better pitcher than he’s been given credit for and he’s durable. He’s not the pitcher you’d prefer to have starting opening day or the first game of a playoff series, but he’s a professional arm who will provide innings and competence. In today’s market, that’s going to get him $50 million. I’m not judging it one way or the other. It just “is.” Personally, I’d prefer Bronson Arroyo to Nolasco. But Nolasco is certainly a better risk than Masahiro Tanaka. It’s all about context.

It’s not a free money policy in an industry that is flush with cash that is causing teams to make seeming overpays for slightly above-average pitchers. It’s the overall culture of wastefulness that has permeated baseball through ridiculous developmental rules for pitchers that make necessary the purchasing of whatever is on the market for the going rate due to supply and demand.

Teams and analysts talk out of both sides of their mouths – as well as other orifices – when they put forth the pretense of running the organization as a business and then toss uncountable amounts of money at mediocrity, wondering why they get mediocrity when that’s what they bought.

A.J. Burnett was the epitome of a pitcher who was overpaid based on need and availability. Having missed the playoffs in 2008 and desperate for starting pitching, the Yankees threw money at their problems and it worked. One pitcher they signed was A.J. Burnett. Burnett was always the epitome of the “million dollar arm, five cent head” pitcher, one who could throw a no-hitter striking out 18 one game and give up a three-run homer to the opposing pitcher in the next game. For that, the Yankees doled a contract worth $82.5 million for five years. They kept him for three, paid the Pirates $20 million to take him off their hands and didn’t even get useful prospects in the trade.

The galling aspect of Burnett’s three year tenure in pinstripes was that there was a belief that he’d arrive and suddenly fulfill his potential just because he was a Yankee. In truth, he pitched in the same frustrating, aggravating way he always pitched. It was the height of Yankee arrogance to think they were going to get anything different. During his whole time as a Yankee, when the media and fans screamed about his inconsistency, I responded with an identical and more logical scream that I gave when they signed him: This is what you bought!!! This is A.J. Burnett!!!

The reason the Yankees needed pitching that year was because their attempts to “grow their own” in an effort to save money over the long-term by not having to buy other teams’ arms failed miserably with Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy either getting hurt, pitching poorly or fluctuating in their roles in 2008. With 20/20 hindsight, the Yankees and other clubs who use the pitch counts/innings limits/overprotectiveness for their young pitchers can examine these failures, the need to spend their way out of trouble to purchase breathing bodies who can eat innings and ask whether or not it was worth it.

I don’t want to hear about injuries, changing roles, unsuitability for New York and the other excuses that are proffered to explain away the failures of these three pitchers – that’s all part of why they failed. The fact is that for 16 combined seasons from Chamberlain, Hughes and Kennedy, the Yankees got an 80-68 won/lost record, a 4.37 ERA and wasted years when they were in their early-to-mid 20s and should have been at their strongest and most useful. Don’t start looking for advanced stats either because that’s only going to make the case for the way the Yankees used them worse. They could have been good and weren’t. It’s not hard to figure out why.

If you combine the draft pick compensation that many teams are unwilling to surrender to sign pitchers, the number of pitchers on the market declines even further. That absence and the number of top-tier talent who sign long-term deals to stay with their current teams leads to pitchers like Nolasco getting $50 million deals. Nolasco was traded at mid-season meaning he wasn’t subject to being offered arbitration, therefore there’s no draft pick compensation. Arroyo wasn’t offered arbitration by the Reds. Tanaka won’t cost anything other than money. That’s why they’re attractive.

The Giants were roasted for signing Tim Lincecum to a two-year, $35 million contract rather than let him go as a free agent, but now the decision looks astute. You’d be hard-pressed to find any stat person willing to give Giants general manager Brian Sabean credit for anything, but he kept Lincecum. It was wiser to do so considering the options of trading young players to get an arm or offering Lincecum arbitration hoping he’d take it and no one would offer him a Nolasco-style deal. In retrospect, it was simply easier and better long-term thinking to keep him. The Giants also signed Tim Hudson to a two-year contract. Without compensation attached to him and with the deal Nolasco just signed, Hudson might have lowballed himself by signing so early even at age 38.

Are teams really so in love with Tanaka that they’re willing to give upwards of $150 million to secure his rights and sign him? Or is it that there’s no other payments necessary apart from the posting fee and signing him to a contract? To sit and claim that Tanaka is a sure thing is ridiculous considering the attrition rate of pitchers who arrive with similar hype and expectations. Again, it’s the market and the desperation to hold true to draft picks, luxury tax and other aspects that are influencing which pitchers are getting big money and which aren’t.

The Rays have the right idea with their own pitchers: they use them without overt abuse or overprotectiveness; they don’t sign them to long-term contracts; and they trade them at their highest value for a package of prospects. It’s easy to say, “just copy the Rays” but how many teams have the freedoms the Rays do? How many teams are able to say, “We can’t pay him and it makes no sense to keep him for that extra year when these offers are on the table in a destitute market?” For all the credit the Rays get for their success and intelligence, a substantial portion of it is directly because they have no money; because they’ve been able to win under their tight financial circumstances; because they don’t have a brand-new ballpark with three million fans in attendance; because the media doesn’t go crazy when they trade Matt Garza, James Shields and listen to offers on David Price.

When a team needs 200 innings and isn’t going to get it from their top pitching prospects due to an arbitrary number of innings they’re allowed to pitch to keep them healthy, they have to buy it somewhere else. Stephen Strasburg is entering his fifth season in the big leagues, will be a free agent after 2016, will demand $150 million and as of now still hasn’t broken the 200-inning barrier. Unless the Nats pay it, another team will benefit from the protective cocoon he’s been in. Oh, and he got hurt anyway. Scott Boras will be more than happy to use the hammer of the Nats having signed, paid and developed Strasburg and won’t want to let him leave to force them to pay more money than his performance indicates he’s been worth.

For every Clayton Kershaw or Chris Sale who are allowed to pitch, there are five Strasburgs and Chamberlains who aren’t. And who benefits from the absence of arms? The Nolascos and Tanakas. Production be damned. They have what teams are looking for because most teams – through their own short-sightedness and stupidity – can’t make it on their own.

How is that a wise business model?




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Why Is Ned Colletti’s Work With The Dodgers Forgotten?

2013 MLB Predicted Standings, Ballparks, Books, CBA, Cy Young Award, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Waiver Trades, Players, Playoffs, Prospects, Stats, Trade Rumors, World Series

It’s to be expected that because Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti doesn’t fit today’s profile of what a GM is “supposed” to be, he won’t get any credit for the Dodgers’ blazing hot streak that has them suddenly declared World Series favorites. This is the same team that was on the verge of firing manager Don Mattingly in June and were hurtling toward a financial and on-field disaster. The easiest thing to do is to point to the club’s $220+ million payroll as a reason why they’re now in first place. Although the club’s turnaround has been due in part to their high-priced players Hanley Ramirez, Zack Greinke, Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, they’ve really been helped along by homegrown or found talent Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen, Hyun-jin Ryu and Yasiel Puig.

Puig is the big one because it was his recall that was seen as the catalyst and it was the decried decisions to pay big money for Ryu and Puig that are now paying significant dividends. Yet Colletti is an afterthought. If it was Billy Beane making these decisions, he would’ve been touted as a forward-thinking “genius” even while the team was struggling. Where are Colletti’s accolades?

The Puig signing was considered “puzzling.” The Ryu signing “foolish.” The Dodgers were torched for absorbing all those salaries from the Red Sox; for trading for Ramirez and moving him back to shortstop; for keeping Mattingly. Yet no one looks at the facts surrounding Colletti’s regime and that he’s dealt with circumstances that were nearly impossible to manage without the flexibility that comes from having spent a life in baseball in a variety of jobs and working his way up from public relations to the GM’s chair.

Having dealt with Frank McCourt’s circus and making the playoffs three times was enough to think that maybe he has an idea of how to run an organization. Now, amid all the talk of money, the fact is that the Dodgers turnaround was based on not blaming the manager for things he couldn’t control and a group of  players that Colletti’s staff selected.

With all the trades the Dodgers have made for veterans over the Colletti years, how many young players have they given up that are eliciting regret? Carlos Santana? He’s a good hitter, weak defensive catcher and not someone who’s missed. Rubby De La Rosa? He has a great arm and is wild. It’s going to take time to harness his control and then time to work on his command. Allen Webster? He’s a back-of-the-rotation starter, maybe. Where are these players the Dodgers should still have? The ones Colletti’s overaggressiveness cost them?

The convenient storyline is that Colletti doesn’t use the numbers as a be-all, end-all and therefore is a dinosaur that has to be euthanized through critical analysis from armchair experts. It’s when the team starts playing well that qualifications and silence are the responses. Coincidentally, Colletti was hired by the Dodgers after serving as an assistant to Giants GM Brian Sabean. Sabean saw his stellar work as the Giants’ GM diminished by the discovery of the “brains” behind the operation, Yeshayah Goldfarb. Also conveniently, few even knew who Goldfarb was before it became abundantly clear that the Giants two championships contradicted the narrative of stats, stats and more stats, so a “reason” was found for an old-schooler like Sabean to succeed. Except it doesn’t fit. It’s a plot device that fails. I’m expecting a similar type of clumsy, collateral attack against Colletti because the frontal attack is no longer working. Unfortunately, some people will buy it as the “truth.”

The Dodgers are lighting up the world and the person who should be given credit for it is the GM, but that’s not going to happen as long as there are these shrieking voices sitting in darkened rooms declaring how things “should” be and running away rather than admit they’re wrong and blow their cover.

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Could the Giants Trade Tim Lincecum?

All Star Game, Award Winners, Ballparks, CBA, Cy Young Award, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, Hall Of Fame, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Waiver Trades, MVP, PEDs, Players, Playoffs, Prospects, Stats, Trade Rumors, World Series

This is the second straight year that Tim Lincecum hasn’t just been a disappointment, but he’s been outright bad. His old-school numbers—wins/losses and ERA—are terrible and have been so for the last two seasons. His peripherals are not as bad as all that. His ground ball rates, strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed have been consistent throughout his whole career, but the sum of the parts does not bode well for the future. His velocity is down from what it was when he was winning Cy Young Awards, but it’s in the same vicinity it’s been for the past four seasons, two of which he was still a top pitcher. His breaking stuff isn’t as sharp and he’s had to rely on his fastball and changeup. What is concerning however is that his line drive percentage is up and the hitters are squaring up on him with greater consistency and appear to have figured him out in a way that they couldn’t from 2007 to 2011. It’s becoming clear that Lincecum is nowhere near what he once was and that pitcher isn’t going to return anytime soon with a mechanical tweak, greater intensity, a “get it back” fitness program, or the realization that he’s going to be a free agent at the end of the season and has cost himself about $100 million with his results in 2012-2013.

In short, he’s lost his specialness that allowed him to get away with being a hands-off entity for the Giants coaching staff who was only allowed to have his mechanics fiddled with by his father. The questions surrounding him when he was drafted—his size, unique mechanics and training regimens—are no longer seen as wink and nod quirky as a point of salesmanship and charm. Now he’s just a short, skinny pitcher who’s not that good anymore.

As we approach the summer, the question may not be, “How can the Giants fix Lincecum?” It might evolve into, “Will the Giants trade Lincecum?”

If you think it’s crazy, it’s not.

The Giants have built up a tremendous amount of capital with their two World Series wins in three years and could get away with trading a personality like Lincecum as long as he’s not performing. With the titles, they’re still not a huge market club that can afford to spend gobs of money to maintain the championship template. Lincecum is a free agent at the end of the season and at this point the Giants are unlikely to either offer him arbitration because he’d probably take it or give him a long-term contract paying him for past accomplishments which will presumably be what he expects. As with any player, there was a dual-sided risk to Lincecum shunning the Giants attempts to sign him to a long-term contract at below-market value: he might not continue performing the way he did when it seemed like a sure thing to sign him for 5-7 years and $90+ million years before he hit free agency. And he hasn’t.

At the end of the season, the Giants have Lincecum, Barry Zito, Hunter Pence and Javier Lopez coming off the books. They’ll have money to spend and it certainly doesn’t appear as if they’re going to spend it on a declining Lincecum. The hottest name bandied about as a trade candidate has been Cliff Lee. The Phillies are going to eventually have to start rebuilding their farm system and get their payroll down. The best way to do that is to get a bounty for Lee if they come to the conclusion that they’re out of it by mid-July. Maybe the Giants would have interest in Lee in exchange for Lincecum and prospects or the clubs could find another team interested in coming to a three-way deal that would send Lee to the Giants. The Yankees would love to ship pending free agent Phil Hughes out of town, he’d benefit from the friendly pitchers parks in the NL West in San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, is from the West Coast, and he’d cost a fraction of what Lincecum will as a free agent. Lincecum would certainly be better than Hughes as a Yankee, he’d fill the park, and the change of scenery might wake him up for the rest of the season.

There are options that would help the Giants now and in the future. Given Lincecum’s struggles and that this is increasingly looking like his last year in San Francisco, they have to explore them.

Like the child actor who loses his appeal when he hits puberty, “Whatchoo tawkin’ ‘bout Willis?!?” goes from funny to disturbing and Lincecum’s uniqueness goes from part of his charm to a significant series of performance issues that no one seems to be able to fix. He’s hit puberty as a pitcher and it’s not cute anymore. It might be time that the Freakshow in San Francisco gets canceled before the end of the summer season.

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The Astros and the Antiquated “Process”

2013 MLB Predicted Standings, Award Winners, Books, Cy Young Award, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Games, History, Management, Media, MiLB, MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Waiver Trades, Paul Lebowitz's 2013 Baseball Guide, Players, Playoffs, Prospects, Stats, Trade Rumors

In this Tyler Kepner piece in today’s New York Times, the Astros and their plan for the future is again detailed. You can insert your own joke about their early spring training activity of practicing a post-victory celebration. By the time we get to August and they’ve likely traded off the rest of the veteran players they have on the roster including Carlos Pena, Bud Norris, Jose Veras, Rick Ankiel and Wesley Wright and released Philip Humber and Erik Bedard, they’ll be so dreadful that a post-victory celebration will be so rare that the celebration should resemble clinching a post-season berth.

What’s most interesting about the piece is the clinging to the notion that the key to success is still the decade ago Moneyball strategy (first put into practice by the late 1990s Yankees) to run the starting pitchers’ pitch counts up to get them out of the game and get into the “soft underbelly” of the middle relief corps and take advantage of bad pitching in the middle innings.

Is it still an effective tactic if everyone is doing it and the opposition is better-prepared for it? There’s a case for saying no.

Back then, most teams were still functioning with a middle relief staff of journeymen, youngsters and breathing bodies. In 1998, for example, the Red Sox won 92 games in comparison to the Yankees 114, made the playoffs, and had as middle relievers Rich Garces, John Wasdin, Carlos Reyes and Jim Corsi. The Indians of 1998 were the one team that put a scare into the Yankees that season and had Paul Shuey, Eric Plunk, Jose Mesa (after he’d lost his closer’s job to Michael Jackson and before he was traded to the Giants at mid-season), and other forgettable names like Steve Karsay, Chad Ogea and Ron Villone.

These were the good teams in the American League. The bad teams starting rotations were bad enough before getting into their bullpens that it didn’t matter who a team like the Yankees were facing, they were going to hammer them.

Today, the game is different. The pitch counts are more closely monitored, but certain teams—the Rangers, Giants and Cardinals—don’t adhere to them so fanatically that it can be counted on for a pitcher to be yanked at the 100-pitch mark. Also, teams have better and more diverse middle relief today than they did back then because clubs such as the Rays are taking the job more seriously.

Waiting out a great pitcher like Felix Hernandez is putting a hitter in the position where he’s going to be behind in the count and facing a pitcher’s pitch. In that case, it makes more sense to look for something hittable earlier in the count and swing at it.

With a mediocre pitcher like Jason Vargas of the Angels, he’s more likely to make a mistake with his array of soft stuff, trying to get ahead in the count to be able to throw his changeup, so looking for something early in the count makes sense there as well. In addition, with a pitcher like Vargas (and pretty much the whole Angels’ starting rotation), you’re better off with him in the game than you are with getting into the bullpen, so the strategy of getting into the “weaker” part of the staff doesn’t fit as the middle relievers aren’t that far off in effectiveness from Vargas.

Teams use their bullpens differently today. You see clubs loading up on more specialists and carrying 13 pitchers with a righty sidearmer, a lefty sidearmer, a conventional lefty specialist, and enough decent arms to get to the late relievers. The Cardinals are an example of this with Marc Rzepczynski as their lefty specialist; Randy Choate as their sidearmer; and Trevor Rosenthal and Joe Kelly, both of whom have been starters, can provide multiple innings and throw nearly 100-mph.

I’m not suggesting hitters go to the plate behaving like Jeff Francoeur, willing to swing at the resin bag if the pitcher throws it, but swinging at a hittable fastball if it comes his way and not worrying that he’ll get yelled at for being a little more aggressive and deviating from the faulty “process.”

The Astros can use this idea of “process” all they want, but the reality is that they may hit a few homers and be drilling it into their hitters from the bottom of their minor league system up that they want patience and don’t care about batting average, but by the time they’re in the middle of their rebuild it might get through that this strategy isn’t what it once was. Waiting, waiting, waiting sometimes means the bus is going to leave without you. Other teams have adjusted enough so it won’t matter if the hitter is trying to intentionally raise the pitch count because it won’t have the same result as it did when the idea first came into vogue with Moneyball. And it’ll go out the window just as the theories in the book have too.

Essays, predictions, player analysis, under the radar fantasy picks, breakout candidates, contract status of all relevant personnel—GMs, managers, players—and anything else you could possibly want to know is in my new book Paul Lebowitz’s 2013 Baseball Guide now available on Amazon.comSmashwordsBN and Lulu. It’s useful all season long. Check it out and read a sample.

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Lusting For Luhnow, Part II

2013 MLB Predicted Standings, Award Winners, Books, CBA, Cy Young Award, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, Hall Of Fame, History, Management, Media, MiLB, MVP, Paul Lebowitz's 2013 Baseball Guide, PEDs, Players, Playoffs, Prospects, Stats, Trade Rumors, World Series

The narrative of Jeff Luhnow having been the scouting director who drafted the most players who opened the 2013 season on a Major League roster is taken far out of context in the effort to create a pithy and simple-minded conclusion that he was the mastermind behind the Cardinals and is a guarantee to rebuild the Astros in a similar manner.

Is it technically true that Luhnow has the most draftees on big league rosters in 2013?

Yes.

Is it accurate in its basest sense?

No.

The drafting of players is such a random thing and their making it or not making it is based on so many factors that have nothing to do with talent that it’s a meaningless assertion to make to credit any one person for it. How many high draft picks have flamed out and not made it to the degree they were supposed to? How many late-rounders became stars? Albert Pujols was with the Cardinals club that Luhnow supposedly built and was a 13th round draft pick. Chris Carpenter was a first round draft pick of the Blue Jays who was a combination of bad and injury-prone before he came under the tutelage of Dave Duncan and Tony LaRussa and was completely rebuilt into one of the best pitchers in baseball over the past decade.

No one in their right mind is going to try and take credit for Pujols as a 13th round pick and say they “knew” what he was. His selection was a combination of a late-bloomer, luck and who knows what else? The scouting director is the one who receives the credit, but in reality it’s the cross-checkers and in-the-trenches scouts who find the players to begin with and recommend them to the front office who decide which player they want. Much of it is innate talent, happenstance, teaching, and opportunity. To think that any club believes a player drafted from the 8th round and beyond will do anything significant in the majors is absurd. The ones who do are an anomaly, the product of a trick pitch, late growth spurts or PEDs.

Yet here we are. No matter what Luhnow does, it’s treated as if he’s reinventing the game and receiving undue credit for his new thinking. But we can’t avoid the reality that his current club is going to lose somewhere between 105 and 115 games in 2013. Does that not matter?

The fervent and evangelical support he’s receiving is akin to George W. Bush abandoning the pretense of Constitutional separation between church and state and holding up a Bible saying he answers to a higher authority while mega-churches prayed for his election and turned out en masse to make it happen. Instead of the New Testament, Luhnow is metaphorically holding up a copy of Baseball Prospectus and answering to that “higher authority” and plucking people from its staff to function as his assistants.

It’s sort of like Mitt Romney’s binder of women only it’s Luhnow’s paperback of stat geeks.

They have their impressive degrees, theories and worship from the masses who see them as examples of what they believe as if that’s the final word on what’s right. This is a conceit that is growing prevalent as its supporters are emboldened by increased validation, accurate or not. The congregation—the like-minded media, bloggers, and social media “experts”—spread the gospel and make ham-handed and pompous fumblings with “conversion.” It maintains the undertone of an insecure, “we don’t really believe it” desperation and whininess asking why others don’t see the “truth.”

Because Luhnow is adhering to his beliefs and has the support of the likes of Keith Law, he’s receiving a pass for this monstrosity into which he’s crafted the Astros as they play, not to compete, but to accumulate draft picks. The teams that have had success in recent years but have done it in a decidedly old-school manner and told the outside “experts” to take a hike, namely the Giants and their GM Brian Sabean, are not credited for what they’ve created with the GM failing to get the accolades he deserves. Instead, before the champagne in the carpet of the Giants’ clubhouse had even dried, the media made it a point to search for someone, anyone in the Giants organization who would bolster them and render meaningless the argument that Sabean’s old-school methods worked. What they found was Yeshayah Goldfarb who is the Giants “Moneyball” guy in a Moneyballless organization. Goldfarb, who few even knew existed before he was dragged into the spotlight, was the behind the scenes wizard who pulled Sabean’s strings and “really” crafted the Giants into a World Series winner in two of the past three years.

At least that’s how the story was framed.

So how’s it work? If the GM fits the aesthetic as Luhnow does, he’s a hero and if he doesn’t (like Sabean), he got help from a guy in a darkened room recommending the team sign Juan Uribe? If the storyline doesn’t translate neatly into some singular person being a “genius,” by believing what the baseball revolutionaries believe, a Goldfarb has to be found somewhere?

The Luhnow rhetoric stems from what “we’d” do with the “we” being the aforementioned bloggers, media and people on Twitter. But because the “we” agrees with what someone is doing doesn’t make it right; it doesn’t make it unassailable; and it doesn’t make someone a “genius” before they’ve accomplished anything at all other than accumulate a load of worshipful hype, driven payroll down as low as it can possibly go and put together one of the worst clubs in history.

Let’s wait on the smiling bust of Luhnow to be placed in the room of every would-be GM who’s memorized the latest edition of Baseball Prospectus and thinks that somehow qualifies him or her to be a GM and tell experienced baseball players, coaches, managers, and executives how to do their jobs. He’s done nothing up to now other than demolish what was admittedly a crumbled infrastructure. But anyone with a wrecking ball and sufficient motivation could’ve done that. So far he’s a media creation and nothing more.

Paul Lebowitz’s 2013 Baseball Guide is now available on Amazon.com, Smashwords, BN and Lulu. Check it out and read a sample.

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Jeter’s Pinstriped Parachute

All Star Game, Award Winners, CBA, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, Hall Of Fame, History, Management, MVP, Players, Playoffs, Spring Training, Stats

A side note of Mariano Rivera’s announcement that he plans to retire at the end of the 2013 season has nothing to do with the accolades and feting he’s receiving as a preface to what will go on during the whole season for his farewell tour. The Yankees flux has gone beyond their age, their lack of significant acquisitions over the winter, the injuries, the talk of whether or not the Steinbrenners are in for the long-term, and the shifting of expectations. Fans are beginning their panic and, as reality sets in that there’s no intention nor desire to replace star players with other star players, the realization is a terror-filled nightmare that the Yankees’ two-decade run with Rivera, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte and stars surrounding them with “magic” and “tradition” carrying them through all adversity is coming to an end.

It may get worse from here.

The Rivera retirement and likelihood of a down season and missed playoff spot will put Jeter is a position where he has the Yankees organization in a vise to overpay him in 2014-2016 at age 40-42.

The main focus of pending free agents, money and the future has centered around Robinson Cano; the intent and implementation of getting the payroll down to $189 million by 2014; and what to do with Alex Rodriguez’s onerous $114 million remaining on his deal. But it’s been forgotten that Jeter is also eligible for free agency after the 2013 season. He has a player option for 2014 at $8 million. He’s already activated an extra $1.5 million in bonus money for winning the Silver Slugger in 2012. There’s a $3 million buyout. Depending on how he plays in 2013 (there are also bonuses for All-Star/Playoff/World Series MVPs and for finishing in the top six in the MVP voting), the Yankees will owe him a guaranteed $10.5 million or the $3 million buyout.

If Jeter returns to form after his ankle injury, he’s not exercising an option for $10.5 million. He’ll want more money and he’s not forgetting the treatment he received from the Yankees during his last foray into free agency when they essentially told him to leave if he didn’t like the offer they presented. It didn’t escape his notice that GM Brian Cashman sat at the press conference disinterestedly texting and looking supernaturally bored by the proceedings.

Let’s look at the worst possible scenarios for the Yankees and why Jeter’s power in the relationship will rise exponentially as the club’s fortunes fall.

  • The Yankees have a bad year of 85 wins (or fewer) and finish out of the playoffs
  • Cano files for free agency and is making the tour with the Dodgers continually raising the ante, trapping the Yankees in the vacuum of either going far beyond the money and years they wanted to pay or letting their one remaining in-his-prime star leave
  • Pettitte sees how the team is declining and retires
  • Rivera’s departure is official
  • Jeter has a good year and declines his option

What then?

With this avalanche of transition coming down on the organization, Jeter won’t be as conciliatory and agreeable in the contract negotiations as he was after 2010. As competitive and coldblooded as he can be, loyalty and personal preferences won’t factor into the equation. He’ll retaliate for what happened in 2010 and make sure the Yankees have to compensate him on the backend for the perceived disrespect they showed him by lowballing him and daring him to walk away. In the end, they paid him, but it was not smooth and it was certainly not friendly. It was business and Jeter can spin that around and stick it to the organization in an identical fashion to the manner in which they stuck it to him because they can’t withstand the above-listed factors and Jeter openly considering leaving for better pastures with his hometown Tigers, the championship level Giants, or even the Dodgers along with Cano. If he truly wants to play hardball, he could flirt with the Mets or Red Sox!!

While the Yankees are staring into the abyss of another $240 million contract and an extended war with Scott Boras and the Dodgers over Cano, they’ll also have to give Jeter a contract for severance, time-served and a pinstriped parachute because they used every possible means to drag him over the coals in 2010. I’d say something to the tune of an agreement to take a lower base salary in 2014 to help the team get to $189 million, then an extra 2-3 years at a total of $45-60 million would placate Jeter and assuage his bruised feelings.

Jeter wants to be a Yankee for life, but he won’t forget what happened during his last negotiation. He holds the hammer now and you can bet he’s going to slam it down. Hard.

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Nolan Ryan’s Present And Future

Ballparks, Games, Hall Of Fame, History, Management, Media, MiLB, Players, Politics, Spring Training, Stats

People are forgetting who Nolan Ryan is and why he has the reputation he does.

As a player, he was an ornery, competitive, strong and silent Texan who let his fastball and his performance do the talking. Now that he’s in the Rangers’ front office, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he’s staking out his territory and trying to control his own destiny by waiting to see exactly where he stands in the new hierarchy. It’s still unknown what his job description is and how far his power extends with former GM Jon Daniels now promoted to President of Baseball Operations; Rick George is running the business side; and Thad Levine—as soon as Ryan’s fate is determined—probably taking over a significant part of Daniels’s former duties in the day-to-day minutiae of running the club. Ryan has a right to stop and say, “Hold awn just a dern second here, pardner,” with his hand on his sidearm and an icy glare at the town politicians who are trying to take away his sheriff’s badge.

It seems that Ryan is being contrary because he’s not sure as to the delineation of the new parameters and wants to be certain he’s still wanted with the Rangers for his experience and advice. Daniels has said nothing will change, but that’s not worth much until there’s a disagreement between the two and Ryan knows that Daniels doesn’t have the power to shrug off what Ryan wants and do as he prefers without approval from his “boss.” Ryan also has an ego as big as Texas and doesn’t want to be seen as a caddy for his 35-year-old underling.

The Rangers baseball people are, by and large, highly educated and stat-centric. That’s not Ryan. While Ryan’s preferred method of developing pitchers deviated from the stat guy template, were Daniels and Levine onboard with what he was doing? Or were they cringing at the medieval methods and went along to get along because Ryan had the owner’s ear and they quietly hoped that no one got hurt or too much damage wasn’t done to the young arms Matt Harrison, Derek Holland, Martin Perez and others as they were pushed harder than the numbers dictate is optimal? If Ryan’s tactics are shunted to the side and more “science” is injected into the equation, it will be clear what was going on with the Rangers. This is independent of whether Ryan’s there or not.

I believe it’s a mistake to let Ryan leave. While he prefers layman terminology and old-school sensibilities, he’s also able to adapt. When he hooked up with Tom House as his pitching coach and advisor in the 1980s-90s, he took House’s penchant for long-winded technical terms and innovations such as throwing a football and made them accessible for everyone. With his resume, if Ryan was doing it it had to be okay. It’s the same dynamic with the stat guys in the organization. He’s not a grumpy old man with no interest nor capability to understand the new metrics. He plays the opposite side from a position of having the experience to know what works and what doesn’t and he won’t be intimidated by condescension and high-end vocabularies. On the other side of the coin, with people who have their own theories and beliefs on building a club, they don’t want to hear the growling, memory-lane laced, “In my day, grumble, grumble…” from someone who doesn’t have the faintest interest nor comprehension of what the stat people are trying to do.

Ryan will not accept being a figurehead and those who are suggesting the Astros hire him away from the Rangers (Johnette Howard and Richard Justice) mention that Ryan couldn’t be a figurehead if the Astros did hire him. But what would he do there? The Astros have taken dramatic steps and made pointed hirings of pure stat people who never picked up a baseball. GM Jeff Luhnow has made no secret as to his intentions with the team and he’s implementing his beliefs as to how to rebuild a dead and dilapidated franchise. Whether it works remains to be seen, but he’s plotted his course and is sticking to it. That blueprint doesn’t include an old-schooler who wants substantial say-so and is used to getting his way in the male-dominated world of baseball in which might makes right.

Teams have plenty of former stars on their payrolls. Willie Mays is listed as a member of the Giants’ front office as a special assistant. Soon to be age 82, how much special assistance do you think Mays is providing? How much interest do you think he has in doing it? Mays is there to hobnob with the people who were kids when he was in his say heyday, want to say, “Wow!! I met Willie Mays!!” and have the money to purchase season tickets, luxury suites and hold corporate events at AT&T Park.  The Yankees bring in their former stars to stand around in spring training, mingle with the fans and help them sell stuff with nostalgia and stories. Sometimes, as was the case with Andy Pettitte, they even come back to play and contribute. But they’re not there with legitimate power, if any at all.

For the Astros, hiring Ryan would be diametrically opposed to what they’ve done since Luhnow took command. While it may make some fans happy for a moment, if they’re inserting Ryan’s methods into their rebuilding process, the inevitable question as to why they were they so hell-bent on tearing the thing down to its brass fittings and putting together a team that will compete for the title of worst in history if they were going to bring in Ryan and his opposite viewpoint as a decision maker?

Ryan could have been governor of Texas if he’d chosen to. He has neither the time nor the desire to stand around talking to people he doesn’t know and being the former hero who’s there to make everyone smile at the memories he created with his power fastball, longevity, and intensity. He wants to work. That may be possible with the Rangers, but it’s completely off the table for the Astros. The Rangers should make sure Ryan feels wanted because they need him to stay with the organization for his presence and his knowledge.

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The Wilpons Are Going Nowhere, Part II—Evil Fred

All Star Game, Award Winners, Ballparks, CBA, Cy Young Award, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Waiver Trades, MVP, PEDs, Players, Playoffs, Politics, Prospects, Spring Training, Stats, Trade Rumors, World Series

It’s time to stop with the “yeah buts” and come to the realization that the Wilpons are more resourceful than they’ve been given credit for. Fred Wilpon didn’t get rich by being stupid and the money they’re borrowing, while viewed as a desperate lifeline with the opportunity to pay down a debt that’s set to rise exponentially in 2014, is a daily business endeavor for people who have the money to purchase a sports franchise in the first place. If a person owes the banks hundreds of millions of dollars, it benefits neither the banks nor the borrower if there’s a default. In fact, it’s a disaster. Therefore it behooves the Wilpon creditors to help them, and if that means providing a loan at favorable terms and the Wilpons borrowing against SNY, then that’s what they’re going to do. It’s easier to assist the current owner than it would be to stage a liquidation or for MLB to force them to sell the Mets.

Since the Bernie Madoff swindle was exposed, there’s been an overt attempt to display the Wilpons in an unfavorable light by tossing everything that’s happened to them personally and with their ballclub into one giant Dutch oven and somehow concoct a palatable meal with ingredients that don’t mesh.

When they backed out of the agreed upon deal with David Einhorn they were “being the Wilpons.” Actually, the deal was unfavorable to them as Einhorn wanted significant say-so in the operations of the club and preapproval as majority owner. With Einhorn being so aggressive, the relationship was doomed to end with a power struggle for control of the club and it was a battle that the Wilpons, still trying to find their financial equilibrium, would probably not be in shape to win. They were wise to pull out from it when they had the opportunity to do so.

Steve Cohen and Jim McCann were buying their way in? Both have questionable histories in their business lives with Cohen employees investigated and arrested for insider trading and McCann’s 1-800-Flowers operation accused of overcharging customers.

Is it the people or is it the businesses they’re involved in that leaves them ripe for financial mistakes that, to the layman, would view as “illegal” or “wrong”? I have no idea what Cohen and McCann were up to. Perhaps they knew what was happening with their companies and perhaps they didn’t. Either way, it’s ridiculous to link that with Wilpon involvement. Because these people were investing in the Mets, it was equated into the Wilpons being at fault as if they’re supposed to comb over every little instance in a friend/potential business partner’s past before accepting his or her money to be a partial owner of the club.

Bill Maher bought his way in as well and he’s a controversial, potty-mouthed, unabashedly left wing political commentator and comedian who likes to smoke pot. Does that mean that Fred Wilpon is sitting in Maher’s Jacuzzi with a group of strippers and getting high? Given the nature of the attacks against the Mets owners, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the implication.

All that’s missing is the ominous music in the background, Fred and Jeff Wilpon walking in slow motion, and a ludicrous connection from so far in outer space that people believe it because it’s so asinine.

Every huge business with tentacles flowing all over and poking multiple pies on numerous platforms will have circumstances that don’t look quite right. Sometimes that’s intentional and sometimes it’s not.

In opposition to the obvious accusations of graft that accompanied Frank McCourt’s tenure as Dodgers owner in which MLB essentially shoved him out the door as bankruptcy filings indicated that he was possibly taking money from the club to maintain a lavish lifestyle like some sort of Beverly Hillbilly, the Wilpons are well-liked by the other owners in baseball and Fred Wilpon is close with Commissioner Bud Selig. Selig, if he could help it, wasn’t going to take steps to force the Wilpons out. Perhaps it was friendship or perhaps it was that Selig and his inner circle people examined the Wilpons’ plans and understood that if they settled the Madoff lawsuit with trustee Irving Picard, regained some of the money they lost, and got their array of businesses back on solid financial footing, then they could do as they just did and secure a loan to have more cash available to spend on the team.

While the easy decision is to take that money and purchase cosmetic upgrades, given the manner in which GM Sandy Alderson and his staff have gone about rebuilding the farm system and swiped top prospects from the Giants (Zack Wheeler) for the soon-to-be-free agent Carlos Beltran in the summer of 2011 and Blue Jays (Travis d’Arnaud and Noah Syndergaard) for R.A. Dickey, it would make little sense to spend for the sake of it. There are players out on the market that can help the Mets, but the strength of the NL East and their own weaknesses makes it risky to even part with a second round draft pick as compensation plus pay the amount of long term dollars it will to get a Michael Bourn. The Mets could use Bourn, but is it worth it at his agent Scott Boras’s current requests? No.

The important fact is, though, that they can do something significant with the money available. This team isn’t far away from contention. With the young pitching they’ve accumulated; their new young catcher with All-Star potential d’Arnaud; David Wright having re-upped to stay long-term; the pitching and Ike Davis, they’re on the verge of taking the next step.

It has to be remembered that the Madoff nightmare began in December of 2008 when the contending Mets from 2006-2008 were on the downside of that cycle. It took another two years for the entire apparatus to come down completely with Omar Minaya fired and a new regime—with the aforementioned limited funds and mandate to rebuild the farm system—in place with Alderson.

Five year plans are five year plans for a reason. It takes at least three to get rid of the dead weight (Jason Bay); change the template of how they find players; draft well and let the young players develop; and to alter the perception of the team as a dead-end, transforming it into a destination that players will welcome rather than use because they were traded there or have no other choice.

It’s hard to remember, but there was a time that no one wanted to go to the Phillies, the Dodgers, the Yankees, the Red Sox. Things change.

No matter when the club finally turns the corner, the Wilpons will be the owners of the team. They’re going nowhere. By the time 2014 rolls around (or even 2013 if the young pitching comes along faster than expected), no one’s going to say a word about the ownership since the on-field product will make the Mets fans and fans in general forget that Bernie Madoff even existed and the media members whose agendas are all-too-clear will run out of places to put the goalposts to salvage their predictions—few of which have come to pass.

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