The Astros Strip The Spaceship For Parts

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Stat-centric people are looking at the Astros and nodding their heads approvingly at the series of maneuvers that may have improved their farm system and future. GM Jeff Luhnow is implementing the sabermetric template in what’s developing into a case study of how a purely stat-based organization would be run. They’re creating new job titles in baseball circles (Director of Decision Sciences), hiring people from Baseball Prospectus, and gutting the big league club of any and all competent major league players while signing the refuse that’s available cheaply and who have nowhere else to go. If you wanted to see a team that was run by the people at Fangraphs, here are your 2013 Houston Astros sans Jed Lowrie who was traded to the Athletics yesterday along with reliever Fernando Martinez for Chris Carter, Brad Peacock and Max Stassi. The players they received may be assets for the future, but financially they cost a fraction of what Lowrie was going to make in 2013 ($2.4 million).

Whether the Astros’ strategy works or not will take at least three and probably five years to determine. As of now, though, MLB has to take a hard look at what the Astros are doing, and decide if it’s fair to the spirit of competition to have a team with what projects to be a $25 million payroll and won’t just be the worst team in baseball for 2013 (that’s a given), but will possibly be one of the worst teams in the history of the sport. To think that the Astros, who lost 106 games in 2011 and 107 games in 2012 could somehow find a way to sink lower than that ineptitude is mind-boggling, but they’ve done it.

When Jim Crane bought the team and hired Luhnow, the organization was a barren, expansion-like wasteland. That’s not an excuse for what they’re doing. The days of teams having to endure half a decade of 100-plus losses ended when the Diamondbacks showed that an expansion team can win if they’re truly committed and intelligent about it. With free agency and teams’ willingness to trade, there is no longer 1960s Mets-style acceptance of being a league punching bag until the young players develop. There’s no reason that a team has to turn itself into an embarrassment while they’re rebuilding.

The Cubs are embarking on a similar restructuring and overhaul with people who come from the same mindset (though not as extreme) as Luhnow. Theo Epstein was one of the first to turn his club into a sabermetrically-inclined organization with the Red Sox in 2003, but he also used scouting techniques and a lot of money to create a juggernaut that won on the field and “won” off the field in terms of popularity and profit. The Cubs lost six fewer games than the Astros did in 2012, but while Epstein, GM Jed Hoyer and the rest of the staff alter the way the club is run from top-to-bottom, build through the draft and search for international players to sign, they’re also bringing in veterans like Edwin Jackson and Scott Hairston to join Starlin Castro (whom they signed to a long-term deal), Matt Garza and a few other recognizable players.

In fairness, the Cubs were in a slightly better situation than the Astros when the new front office took charge and the Astros weren’t going to win many more games with Lowrie than they will without him, but the Cubs tried to bring in big league caliber players all winter and the Astros didn’t. The Cubs have more money to spend and a fanbase that’s going to show up no matter what, but the Astros are essentially spitting in their fans’ faces with a team that no one is going to want to go see as a “root, root, root for the home team” group. Houston fans will go to the games to see opponents Mike Trout, Derek Jeter, Yu Darvish and Felix Hernandez, but they’re not going to see their own Lucas Harrell. By July, the Astros won’t be able to give tickets away.

MLB saw fit to intervene when the Marlins used financial sleight of hand to pocket revenue sharing money. They mandated that the money be used to improve the on-field product. Does realistic competence dictate that the commissioner’s office step in and tell the Astros that this simply isn’t acceptable?

The Astros are trying to run their club like a business, but in MLB or any other sporting conglomerate, there’s a responsibility to ensure a baseline of competitiveness not just for the people of Houston, but for the rest of baseball.

Is it right that the four other teams in the American League West will have 19 games each against the Astros while the AL East is so parity-laden? Clubs like the White Sox and Royals in the AL Central—who have an argument to make a playoff run—can deem it wrong that a playoff spot in the West will have an easier path because the Astros are openly presenting a product that has no intention nor chance to win a vast majority of the games they play through sheer lack of talent.

I’ve long been against a minimum payroll in baseball. If a team is smart enough to succeed by spending less, they should be allowed to do so without interference. That, however, is contingent on the teams trying to compete, something the Astros are currently not doing.

It’s fine to adapt outside world business principles to sports, but unlike the outside business world, a sports franchise is not operating in a vacuum as an individual company. Like the battle between pitcher and catcher, it’s one-on-one in a group dynamic. They’re individuals, but are functioning within a group.

Since there’s no such thing as European football-style relegation in MLB where actual punishment is possible, the overseers need to seriously consider creating a payroll floor to stop what the Astros are blatantly doing because it’s hindering the competitive balance that has long been the goal. The Astros are scoffing at that notion and it’s unfair to the rest of baseball that they’re being allowed to do it with impunity.

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Mets Signing of Marcum Linked to Other Moves and Issues

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The timing of the Mets’ decision to sign Shaun Marcum to a 1-year contract coincides with Scott Hairston signing a 2-year contact with the Cubs, so perhaps the Mets were waiting until Hairston made his decision before allocating the Hairston money elsewhere. By that logic, the currently undisclosed salary that Marcum is getting should be around $2-3 million plus incentives.

Let’s not make this out to be more than it is. Marcum is a decent mid-to-back rotation starter who has had multiple injury problems in his career. He had shoulder soreness before the 2012 season and missed two months during the season with an elbow problem. He also underwent Tommy John surgery in 2009, costing him the entire season. He’s surpassed 195 innings twice in his career in 2010 and 2011. The Mets aren’t expecting him to turn into a horse with 220 innings pitched in 2013. Marcum’s splits on ground balls/fly balls are about even—link—and he relies heavily on a changeup, a slider and command of his cutter. He doesn’t throw hard and never has, but velocity isn’t as important to a pitcher like Marcum as long as his changeup is working and he’s locating well. He won’t surrender a lot of homers at Citi Field. Three-quarters of the Mets’ infield defense is solid; the outfield defense as it currently stands could present challenges for Marcum.

For the Mets, this is a multiply-pronged decision and a wise one. No one can say what they’ll get out of Johan Santana or Dillon Gee rebounding from injuries. The rookie Matt Harvey probably won’t be pushed much further than a maximum of 180-185 innings. If Zack Wheeler is recalled, it won’t be until mid-season. Marcum gives the team needed rotation depth.

The Mets are currently weighing what it’s worth to sign Michael Bourn in exchange for a large chunk of long-term cash and the 11th pick in the first round of the June draft.

When looking at Bourn, several of the same reasons the Mets didn’t want to sign Jose Reyes to a long-term deal apply. Bourn is a speed player who turned 30 in December. Once he begins to lose his speed and defensive range, what good will he do? On the other hand, he’s not injury prone as Reyes was and the Mets had a ready-made replacement for him at shortstop with Ruben Tejada, plus their financial situation is far better now than it was when they plainly and simply couldn’t afford to keep Reyes even if they wanted to. Their center field options are limited to Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Collin Cowgill and Matt Den Dekker. The club has to look at the upcoming draft and determine which would be more useful, Bourn or the draft pick.

Marcum is a solid signing for the club in the moment, but it’s also heavily connected to decisions yet to be made. Getting him makes it easier to pull the trigger on other moves in the coming weeks.

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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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Notable Remaining MLB Free Agents

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The Boras Bunch

Here’s the story of a man named Scott Boras

On one hand, who could’ve imagined that Boras would’ve gotten the 7-year $126 million contract he did for Jayson Werth with the Nationals or the 3-year, $35 million deal he got for Rafael Soriano from the Yankees, both following the 2010 season. On the other, with clubs clinging to their draft picks like they’re hanging by their fingernails in fear of going over MLB’s version of the “fiscal cliff,” can any be expected to dole out a similar contract—in January—to the clients Boras currently has waiting for an offer?

Michael Bourn, Kyle Lohse and Soriano all had excellent seasons in 2012. Soriano understandably opted out of the third year on his contract with the Yankees, but teams rarely pay big money for closers anymore so he’s again waiting, hoping and trusting his agent. In Bourn’s and Lohse’s cases, they fill positions of need as a center fielder and starting pitcher, but while Ryan Dempster has received a guaranteed $26.5 million from the Red Sox, Lohse is still waiting. This happened with Lohse before in 2008 and he signed a 1-year contract with the Cardinals, rejuvenated his career under Dave Duncan and Tony LaRussa, and received a $41 million extension. He had a great year in 2012, but it hasn’t translated into an offer deemed suitable for Boras and Lohse.

Considering the draft pick compensation that will be surrendered for signing these players, I don’t know how they’re going to get a long-term deal with a contender. If a club sees one as a bargain and judges winning in 2013 as more valuable than the draft pick, they’ll sign one cheaper than market value deal. The top 10 picks are protected, but among those teams the only ones spending to get better immediately are the Blue Jays, Red Sox and Indians. None of them are going to go overboard for Lohse, Soriano or Bourn.

Some clubs can use these players and have money, but are they using the compensation issue as an excuse to sell to the fans for not overspending or do they simply not want these players? Depending on the situation, it’s probably both.

I wouldn’t underestimate Boras because he’s shocked the world so many other times, but there have been times where his players have had to settle for a one year deal for low dollars hoping to boost his value, as was the case with Lohse when he signed with the Cardinals.

Short-term, cheap and useful

Lance Berkman

Berkman hasn’t specifically stated he’s going to play and is notably difficult. He speaks his mind and does so without thinking, then finds himself having to backtrack on what he said when the initial statement was probably what he really thought.

The comments linked above were about the Rangers and now there’s a chance that Berkman will sign with the Rangers to be their DH/part-time first baseman.

Comments such as those made by Berkman are conveniently forgotten when there’s a mutual need and with teams like the Rangers, Yankees and Indians, there’s a mutual need for Berkman’s bat. Berkman didn’t work out well in the few months he spent with the Yankees in 2010 and he probably wouldn’t want to go to New York, but with their desperate need for a bat and adherence to short-term contracts, there could be a fit there if nothing else pans out for either.

The Indians need power and are clearly trying to contend. Berkman might like to play for Terry Francona.

The Rangers are the best spot for him and the team. Berkman can still hit and wants to stay near home in Texas. With the Rangers, playing half his games in their hitter friendly home park, 25 homers and a .380+ OBP is a reasonable expectation and he wouldn’t want more than a one year contract.

Buyer Beware

Scott Hairston

The desperation to get a righty bat coupled with Hairston’s career year in 2012 has Hairston in surprising demand.

Contrary to his 2012 production, there’s hasn’t been an overt advantage from Hairston when batting against lefties. He had his career year against lefties in 2012 and all of a sudden, he’s seen as a right-handed “power bat.” He’s a useful bench player and a decent defensive left fielder who can provide some pop off the bench. Is that worth a two-year contract, which is what he seems to want?

The Mets have set a line in the sand on Hairston and will be accused of being cheap and/or broke when he departs for more money and the extra year on his contract, but the future will prove them right when Hairston reverts to what he’s been for his whole career—a limited bench player with occasional power and no major advantages against lefties or righties.

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Figures of Attendance, Part I–the Mets, Rays and Marlins

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In today’s NY Times, amid the accolades doled out on R.A. Dickey for another superlative performance, the attendance situation surrounding the Mets is discussed. GM Sandy Alderson all but said he’s keeping veteran outfielder Scott Hairston in spite of his attractiveness on the trade market as a power righty bat off the bench and as an occasional starter because wins help credibility and he might help the team win a few extra games.

It’s very easy to criticize the decision and say that once a team is guaranteed of missing the playoffs that there’s no difference between winning 76 games, 66 games of 56 games. Apart from the requisite jokes of a team being so terrible that they lose over 100 games, there’s some logic in the theory. Specifically, in his book The Extra 2% about the Rays, Jonah Keri said that the Rays new ownership and management team knew they were awful and shunned the idea of wasting money and resources to bring in players that would likely have helped them win 5 or so more games, but wouldn’t have done much of anything to help them in the long term.

The Rays could do that because they were such a perennial laughingstock and no one knew what to make of the financial guys who’d taken over the team. Given the moves they did make—changing the name, appearing to be afraid of making a mistake in trades to the point that they were frozen in time—there was much to ridicule. But bolstered by the high draft picks; some truly savvy trades; clever long-term contracts and service time sleight of hand; and more than a little luck, the Rays have become the case study of building a winning team under a strict budget.

That the Rays have made the playoffs in 3 of the past 4 years and have a chance to make it again this year doesn’t alter the fact that their attendance is 13th out of 14 AL teams in 2012; was 13th last season; 9th in 2010; 11th in 2009 coming off their pennant in 2008; and were 12th in 2008. In 2007, they lost 96 games and were last with almost 1.4 million fans coming to Tropicana Field. They’ve gained around 400,000 people a season since they started winning. That’s not good.

The Marlins have a new ballpark and went on a spending spree to try and win. Non-baseball-related amenities and attractions were installed in Marlins Park with the undertone of ownership not caring why people were coming to the park; whether they were there to watch the game, go to a restaurant or nightclub, get a haircut or just look at women mattered little. Attendance hasn’t risen to the levels they desired and the 51-61 Marlins are 12th in the National League. That’s after being last from 2006-2011 and next to last in 2005; 14th in 2004 (coming off a World Series win); and next to last in 2003 when they did win the World Series.

If the Rays think a new park in St. Petersburg or wherever else in Florida they can find the space and get the approval to build one is going to help, they need only to look at the other Florida franchise to see the truth. And good luck after the way the Marlins ballpark was built with the subsequent investigations into the shady practices that were its genesis.

With mercenaries; corporate entities; team bosses who think their installation was based on merit and not on marrying someone; and questionable ethics and morals, the Marlins are getting what many think they deserve. It gets worse from here.

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Mid-Season Player Trade Predictions—National League

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Yesterday I predicted where various available American League players would wind up (or if they won’t be traded at all). Now let’s have a look at the National League. Bear one thing in mind: the irony shouldn’t be lost on you that Brett Myers was traded from the Astros to the White Sox and the “insiders” and rumormongering schlock sites had no inkling that Myers was even on the White Sox’ radar. They don’t have any more viable information than you or I do and are either making things up or working hand-in-hand with organizations and one another to wag the dog and accumulate webhits, attention and increase advertising rates.

Know what you’re reading and determine credibility based on logic and intelligence, not a circular reputation based on a shoddy foundation.

New York Mets

Ike Davis, 1B—He hasn’t been rumored anywhere that I’ve seen, but if they can move Davis as part of a deal for Justin Upton, it has to be explored. Davis has power, is a good fielder and his teammates love him, but he strikes out way too much; is streaky; and has a growing negative reputation with the umpires as a whiner. If he thinks the whining is going to get him close calls, he’s sorely mistaken. He won’t be traded in-season; in the off-season, the Mets will listen.

Daniel Murphy, 2B/1B/3B—He can hit and does have the ability to hit the ball out of the park 10-15 times a year in spite of his low power numbers in 2012; his defense at second base has been serviceable and no one works harder, but is he going to be the Mets’ second baseman when they take the next step into contention? If not, they should explore dealing him for pitching help. He’ll go as part of a deal for Huston Street so the Mets can get Jordany Valdespin into the lineup.

Scott Hairston, OF—The talk of trading the likes of R.A. Dickey at his “high value” is ridiculous, but they could get bullpen help for Hairston. I doubt they trade him.

Jason Bay, OF—They could get a similarly bad contract like Chone Figgins and probably money to pay off a worse contract like Vernon Wells. It would be best for everyone, but Bay’s not going anywhere now. They’ll release him after the season.

Miami Marlins

Carlos Zambrano, RHP—Nobody wants him and after yesterday’s display of 6 walks in 3.1 innings and his awful pitching of late, when the Marlins start making the inevitable changes, they’ll just release him and make a big show of it as evidence of them “doing something”.

Hanley Ramirez, 3B/SS—They won’t trade Hanley in-season. If they make a move, it’ll be over the winter. Even then, I doubt they’ll pull the trigger. In fact, amid all the talk of a “Marlins sell-off”, they can’t clean out the house halfway into the first season in a new park just because the flawed team they put together hasn’t performed. Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson and Giancarlo Stanton aren’t going anywhere…for now.

Logan Morrison, LF/1B—LoMo is another matter. He’s too one-dimensional to be this much of an organizational pest. He irritated the club with his tweeting and subversive behaviors and if they’d like to set an example, this is the way to do it.

The Orioles need a bat who can hit the ball out of the park.

Ricky Nolasco, RHP—Nolasco needs a change of scenery and if teams realize the Marlins are moving some pieces after the names that are floating around now are off the board, Nolasco’s a pretty good consolation prize. The Cardinals could use him.

Anibal Sanchez, RHP—Another former Red Sox’ farmhand like Ramirez, he’s available and very good when he’s healthy. Back to the Red Sox he goes.

Heath Bell, RHP—Who wants the contract? Who wants him? Nobody and nobody.

Omar Infante, 2B—They won’t trade him.

John Buck, C—Who wants him?

Greg Dobbs, 3B/OF/PH—The Giants need a bat off the bench.

Philadelphia Phillies

Cole Hamels, LHP—They’re going to sign him.

Cliff Lee, LHP—Here’s a flash for the Joel Shermans of the world of which there are far too many: THEY’RE NOT TRADING LEE!!!!

Shane Victorino, OF—The Yankees are being pushed to acquire an outfielder they don’t need and are said to have asked about Victorino. He’ll be traded and I say to the Indians.

Ty Wigginton, INF—He’s a Kirk Gibson-type player who’d help the Diamondbacks as a corner infielder and bat off the bench.

Hunter Pence, OF—They’re not trading Pence.

Jimmy Rollins, SS—If they’d like to free up some money for Hamels, they could explore getting rid of Rollins. The Giants like veterans, but Brandon Crawford hit a grand slam yesterday; they demoted Brandon Belt; if the Giants look for a bat, it will be at first base. Nobody’s taking Rollins.

Juan Pierre, OF—The Cardinals could use bench help and speed.

Placido Polanco, INF—Back to the Tigers.

Joe Blanton, RHP—The Orioles need a starter to gobble innings.

Milwaukee Brewers

Zack Greinke, RHP—Greinke won’t sign long-term with the Brewers, but they’re close enough to contention to hang onto him and take the draft pick when he leaves.

Randy Wolf, LHP—Another pitcher who will be on the second tier after the names come off the board. He’ll go to the Dodgers.

Shaun Marcum, RHP—He won’t be traded.

Aramis Ramirez, 3B—Nobody’s taking that contract.

Francisco Rodriguez, RHP—Back to the Angels.

Chicago Cubs

Matt Garza, RHP—The blogosphere went bonkers when Garza was yanked from last night’s game after 3 innings. “Was he traded?” “Where was he traded?”

He wasn’t traded. He had cramping in his triceps.

Unless the Cubs are knocked over, why trade him now? He’s under contract for 2013 and whatever they’d get now, they can get after the season. He’ll stay.

Ryan Dempster, RHP—Don’t buy into the teams that are supposedly “out” on Dempster. He’s a Jim Leyland-type of pitcher and the Tigers need starting pitching.

Starlin Castro, SS—They’ll listen but won’t move him in-season.

Geovany Soto, C—If he’s moved, it will be in the winter.

Bryan LaHair, 1B—With the Giants sending Belt to the minors, they need a bat at first base.

Carlos Marmol, RHP—I don’t know who’d want him. He strikes out a lot of hitters, but walks a lot as well.

Alfonso Soriano, LF/DH—The Cubs would have to pay off his remaining contract ($36 million for 2013-2014), but what’s the difference at this point? I doubt anyone’s taking him even for free.

Houston Astros

Wandy Rodriguez, LHP—He’s owed up to $26 million for next season with his 2014 option becoming guaranteed with a trade. The Blue Jays need pitching and have money and prospects to deal.

Wesley Wright, LHP—The Rangers need another lefty reliever for the playoffs.

Arizona Diamondbacks

Justin Upton, RF—They’ve made such an overt display of putting him on the market, they pretty much have to trade him now. The Rays will jump in with a package and hope that the unification of the Justin with his brother B.J. Upton will inspire B.J. to play hard over the second half and perhaps steal another playoff spot.

Stephen Drew, SS—The Braves need a shortstop and Paul Janish ain’t it.

Ryan Roberts, INF/OF—Roberts is a utility player who had a career year in 2011 and the Diamondbacks began to think he’s an everyday player. They’ll keep him and put him back where he belongs as an extra bench man.

San Diego Padres

Chase Headley, 3B—Their demands are high for a controllable player and won’t trade him.

Carlos Quentin, LF—He and the Padres are supposedly nearing a contract extension.

Huston Street, RHP—He’ll go to the Mets.

Luke Gregerson, RHP—They won’t trade him.

Clayton Richard, LHP—They won’t trade him.

Joe Thatcher, LHP—The Indians need another lefty out of the bullpen.

Edinson Volquez, RHP—They won’t trade him.

Colorado Rockies

Dexter Fowler, CF—They’d listen but won’t move him. If GM Dan O’Dowd goes to ownership with a deal that’s as big as it would be to trade Fowler and ownership says to hold off, O’Dowd should start getting boxes for his stuff and prepare to clean out his office.

Rafael Betancourt, RHP—Back to the Indians.

Ramon Hernandez, C—The Rays have interest and that’s where he’ll go.

Jason Giambi, 1B/PH—The Reds need a lefty bat off the bench who can play sparingly at first base until Joey Votto is 100%.

Carlos Gonzalez, OF—More nonsense from Joel Sherman who said recently that the Yankees (shocking coming from Sherman) should go after Gonzalez. He’s not available even to the Yankees who, supposedly, are preordained to be handed whatever they want whether it be Lee, Gonzalez or whoever.

Gonzalez’s not getting dealt.

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The Mets Have To Get Better Players

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It’s unfair to compare the rebuilding Mets under a first year front office that’s diametrically opposed to the previous one and the Phillies who are in the midst of a run of excellence they haven’t enjoyed since the late 1970s-early 1980s, but it’s instructive to look at the two teams to understand why the Phillies are where they are and what the Mets need to do to get there.

Let’s take a look.

Draft, scout and develop.

The Phillies have benefited from a strong farm system in a multitude of ways. Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels, Ryan Madson, Vance Worley and Carlos Ruiz all came up through the Phillies organization; Shane Victorino was found in the Rule 5 Draft; Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Hunter Pence were acquired in trades because the Phillies had prospects other clubs coveted; Raul Ibanez, Cliff Lee and Placido Polanco were signed as free agents; and even Wilson Valdez, a journeyman castoff from the Mets, has been a valuable utilityman standing in at various times for the injured Utley, Polanco and Rollins.

The Mets have some players from their system with promise. Jonathon Niese, Lucas Duda, Ruben Tejada and Bobby Parnell all have potential. They also developed Jose Reyes and David Wright. but others have failed for one reason or another. Fernando Martinez can’t stay healthy; Josh Thole isn’t going to hit enough; Ike Davis is hurt. The Mets didn’t have the prospects to trade for veterans as the Phillies did and their rampant dysfunction in recent years made them an unappealing destination for players with choices. Players will want to go where a team appears to have its house in order or will pay them more money than anyone else. That’s essentially how the Mets got Jason Bay, Francisco Rodriguez and Johan Santana. While the Phillies have gotten production from their free agents, the Mets haven’t.

Role players should be role players.

When talking about Phillies utilityman Valdez, it’s instructive to look at the Valdez-type players the Mets have and see that they’re playing more frequently than would be optimal for a good team.

Justin Turner, Scott Hairston, Dillon Gee, Jason Isringhausen, Pedro Beato—all have use on a limited basis—but the Mets are utilizing them as regular, key players. When limited players are playing almost every day, they’re going to be exposed for what they are; and when 4-5 of them are playing every single day, it’s going to catch up; that’s what’s happening to the Mets.

They’re not a good enough team and they don’t have enough good players. The only reason they’ve stayed as close to .500 as they have is because the rest of baseball is so laden with parity that no one can tell which teams should be bad and which should be atrocious.

Play the game correctly.

It was laughable when, in the waning days of the 2010 season, Utley took Tejada out on a play at second base and the Mets reacted like a bunch of Southern women at a church social, indignant that such a thing would occur. There was talk of retaliation and the team taking a different approach to plays on the bases and at the plate.

Different approach? How about playing the game correctly without it being a response?

It was about time the Mets decided to stop being so nice to their opponents and let them have it when the opportunity arose. Following Utley’s take-out of Tejada, Carlos Beltran slid hard toward Utley and, in typical Mets fashion, missed him completely.

Had Utley been knocked into left field, he wouldn’t have said a word about it because he’s old-school, keeps his mouth shut and plays the game the right way.

You want to send a message? When Utley blocks second base with his knee as an opponent is stealing second, drive your spikes so hard into his leg so to break the skin. You don’t like him standing so close to the plate, dawdling and messing with the pitchers’ heads? Hit him in the back.

It’s called doing something about it other than yapping.

This is playing the game the way it should be played and is one of the reasons the Phillies are where they are and the Mets are where they are.

Be aggressive, smart and lucky.

This isn’t to imply that the Phillies do everything correctly because GM Ruben Amaro Jr, has made some horrible gaffes and silly free agent signings in his time as GM; it’s been glossed over by the way the team has played and that he rectified the bigger mistakes by trading for Oswalt a year ago and getting Lee back via free agency last winter; but those two deals stemmed from the fact that both Oswalt and Lee were willing to join the Phillies because the Phillies were contenders and in an atmosphere the players wanted to be a part of. Neither Oswalt nor Lee wanted to join the Mets because the team was in such disarray and the club’s reputation has taken a brutal beating due to the off-field mishaps and lawsuits surrounding team ownership.

But the Phillies weren’t exactly the bastion of cohesion until they started winning. In fact, they were a joke for 14 years from 1994 through most of 2007 before the Mets collapse and Phillies rise.

These things change quickly. The Mets have a new drafting style, a top-down chain of command that won’t be usurped as it was with Tony Bernazard running roughshod over the organization, a plan of attack and a GM able to express himself coherently—all of this gives them every chance to turn things around within the next three years.

All they have to do is adhere to the principles elucidated above.

They have to be a more than a little lucky.

They have to get better players and not use roster-filler on a daily basis in key roles.

It’s that simple. And that difficult.

//

K-Rod’s Kicker (As Opposed To K-Rod’s “Puncher”)

Books, Games, Management, Paul Lebowitz's 2011 Baseball Guide, Players

When I say “kicker” I’m referring to Mets’ closer Francisco Rodriguez‘s contract option for 2012 that activates if he reaches 55 games finished this season. The “puncher” implies negative connotations considering his 2010 arrest and suspension for beating his girlfriend’s father in the Citi Field family room.

There’s been endless discussion and observation as to whether the Mets are going to consciously prevent K-Rod from reaching the magic number of 55 to guarantee his contract—it’s worth $17.5 million with a $3.5 million buyout; of course the team would be better-served to not have him reach the required number of games finished.

So far, manager Terry Collins has had a reasonable excuse for his use of K-Rod. There are grounds for a conspiracy theorist or paranoid personality to say, “they’re using him like this so they don’t have to pay him next year”, but you can’t really argue with manager Collins’s reluctance to use K-Rod for two innings in the second game of the season when they beat the Marlins 6-4 in 10 innings.

The Mets could’ve left him in to close it out after they took the lead, but he’d thrown 27 pitches in the bottom of the ninth as he allowed the tying run to score; he’s not accustomed to pitching more than one inning and isn’t particularly good at it; and Scott Hairston was sent up to pinch hit for K-Rod with runners on second and third to try and blow the game open after the Mets took the lead in the top of the tenth. Hairston struck out; Blaine Boyer got the save.

There hasn’t been the situation in which K-Rod is the logical and obvious choice and wasn’t used because of any perceived attempt to deprive him of a game finished on his stat sheet, but there undoubtedly will be at some point this season.

Will the Mets intentionally prevent K-Rod from finishing a game? Is the front office going to tell Collins to refrain from using K-Rod in a game to avoid it?

It’s possible; it might even be smart, but the only way I see it happening is if the Mets are out of contention and have no chance at a playoff spot. Then it makes perfect sense and there’s not very much K-Rod’s agents and the Players Association can do about it apart from filing a grievance. You can’t force a club to use a player in a specific role and if the Mets engage in any chicanery, the new front office will cloak it more effectively than the previous one would.

Either way, the only chance K-Rod has of being a Met in 2012 for that giant paycheck is if the team is in contention. That idea is very precarious considering their holes and competition.

Preventing the option is the sensible alternative because even without the current financial hardships hovering over the Mets organization, no one wants to pay $17.5 million for a closer; with that in mind, they’re going to do everything within their power to stop that from happening without it depriving the club of a chance at a playoff spot.

It’s business.

****

Paul Lebowitz’s 2011 Baseball Guide is available and will be useful for your fantasy leagues all season long. It’s not a “preview”; it’s a guide.

I published a full excerpt of my book here.

It’s available now. Click here to get it in paperback or E-Book on I-Universe or on Amazon or BN. It’s also available via E-book on Borders.com.

It’s also out on Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble Nook.

If anyone would like to purchase an autographed copy, leave a comment; Email me; contact me on Facebook or Twitter. We’ll hash out the details.

I’ve started a Facebook fan page if you’d like to check it out.

//

Redemptive Realization

Hot Stove
  • The Mets know where they’re at:

More importantly, so do the fans.

I also think the media and the critics who take cheap shots at the Mets as a matter of course to compensate for a lack of ingenuity and wit are aware of it as well.

As new GM Sandy Alderson and his staff sift through the dysfunctional mess that was left behind after years of disorganization and infighting, they’re making maneuvers designed to limit expenses, maximize reward (as much as it can be maximized) and bide their time until their hands are free to be aggressive and drastically improve the club.

For some impatient fans and the media who make a living on attacking the Mets, this acceptance appears to have hit home. Because Alderson is so respected, he’s getting the benefit of the doubt on his lack of movement. At the very least there’s a plan. Whether it’s going to work or not is a different matter, but there’s a plan.

Right now, the plan is to wait out the expiring contracts of Oliver Perez and Luis Castillo (who are unlikely to be on the roster for opening day); see what happens with Carlos Beltran and Jose Reyes; and sign players who elicit yawns and eye rolls to inexpensive, incentive-laden deals.

No one who’s looked at Chris Young over the past few years can reasonably think the Mets are going to get anything of substance from him. So hungry for something to attach themselves to, fans were repeatedly mentioning Chris Young‘s name as if he was a consolation prize for the club not jumping in on Cliff Lee.

He’s not.

He’s a fine pitcher if he’s healthy, but he hasn’t been healthy for 2 1/2 years and when he was, he had a tendency to tire out at the end of the season after quick starts.

That’s not to say he can’t have value if that’s what they’re getting. A key to building a successful franchise isn’t collecting stars, but maximizing the abilities of what you have. Earl Weaver was a master at that. John Lowenstein and Gary Roenicke were two players who—examined alone—were mediocre and not suited to playing every day; combined, they were a match for the best left fielders in baseball. Pat Kelly used to hit well in April and May, so Weaver would play him a lot in the early part of the season, then reduce his playing time as the season wore on.

It was cold-blooded and rational and it worked because Weaver had a plan and didn’t let sentiment or outside influences affect his decisions.

And the players? Weaver couldn’t care less what the players thought.

The Mets signings of Young, Scott Hairston, Tim Byrdak, Taylor Buchholz, Taylor Tankersley; Ronny Paulino; Willie Harris—all might seem negligible in the now-now-now sense that permeates today’s culture; but they’re a means to an end in eliminating the instability that played a large part in the team failures between 2007-2010.

I truly believe that Alderson has learned his lesson from his decried tenure as president of the Padres in which he cultivated an atmosphere of mistrust among the different factions and their beliefs. It’s a dictatorial strategy to have everyone looking behind them and wondering who’s holding the knife; it keeps all power in the hands of the person in charge and it’s not a viable way to win over the long term; nor is it a positive reputation to have as one who encourages such behaviors.

Everyone with the Mets—including the fans—are on the same page now. You rarely see people screaming about the club refusing to indulge in an overpriced free agent crop that would do little to help the Mets now as they’re finding their way; they certainly wouldn’t help in the years ahead when the team is ready to make a move into contention.

Apart from generating headlines, Lee, Jayson Werth, Carl Crawford, Rafael Soriano—none of these players would do much to alter the Mets fortunes for 2012; in fact, pursuing and spending the money to get one of these players would’ve done more harm than good.

The Mets are building their bullpen the right way with available names on the cheap. That’s the way you build a competent bullpen—having a good closer and pitchers who will accept their roles looking for the big payday, and that payday will undoubtedly have to be achieved elsewhere.

Will the fans be silent as the Phillies are running off with the division and the Braves are right behind them? As the Marlins are ahead of the Mets in the standings? As the Nationals have made flashy (and stupid) acquisitions to garner attention while simultaneously doing little to improve their fortunes for 2012?

Some won’t. But most have accepted the need to do what Alderson is doing. 2011 will be dedicated to weeding out the players who aren’t going to be part of the solution. One will definitely be Beltran who—if he’s at all competent at playing the position—will win the center field job based on nothing other than the fact that it increases his trade value at mid-season. If Beltran’s hitting, they’ll be able to extract valuable pieces for him.

Reyes is a different matter. While hoping he is reasonable with a contract extension, the Mets are going to keep and open mind in dealing him. And if he loves the Mets so much, perhaps he’d be willing to accept a second half trade to another club and the Mets could pursue him as a free agent.

I’d let it be known—as I’m sure Alderson has—that the club will be open to anything and everything as the season moves along.

The Mets are being smart rather than desperate to placate critics. This is the first step in turning things around in the short and long term. The short term may not be clearly indicated in the standings, but the Rays began turning around the organization when they stopped tolerating bad behavior from the likes of Elijah Dukes, Josh Hamilton and Delmon Young. Many people didn’t notice, but it was the first step in getting them to where they are now.

The Mets can and are doing the same thing.

There are no contractually mandated scholarships for playing time anymore.

  • Viewer Mail 1.21.2011:

Jane Heller at Confessions of a She-Fan writes RE Brian Cashman and Carl Pavano:

I agree that it would have been lunacy to bring Pavano back. Cashman really revealed his desperation on that one.

I’d be frightened that it wasn’t desperation; I’d be concerned that he genuinely thought it was a good idea. Desperation would be a more acceptable reason.

Jeff at Red State Blue State writes RE Cashman:

Forget the idiocy of Pavano talks, how ’bout Cashman’s candid “this isn’t my decision” speech during the Soriano press conference. Um… can you say… awkward? I imagine if Mozeliak did that to DeWitt, Mozeliak’s ass would be gone. Why does Cashman get a pass?


Gabriel also writes RE Cashman:

What Jeff mentions is what shocked me the most. As an employee, how do you react to your boss saying that he didn’t want to hire you? Terrible PR.

I don’t get it either. Is Cashman so concerned about his image that he doesn’t want to be seen as having “lied” or misled the media when he stated he was not going to give up the draft pick for Rafael Soriano?

He’s a baseball GM—it’s his job to mislead; given Cashman’s known skills at speaking for an extended period while saying nothing at all, where was the nuance?

I’m not a fan of this, “don’t blame me” stuff as if it’s a protective cloak if something doesn’t work. He’s the Yankees GM—an underling—and it’s part of his job to take the bullets if something fails.

I’m not going to go so far to suggest that Cashman is exhibiting an “I don’t care anymore” pretense, but these outward showings of inner-organizational debates are in the same ballpark.

The smart thing to say would’ve been, “After discussing it as an organization, we felt that since all other avenues of improving the club have been exhausted, Soriano was the correct decision for us at this time. I didn’t want to lose that draft pick because of the value I place on them, but this improves the team’s chance to win now.” Then when asked if he would’ve done the deal, he could’ve parsed as he usually does without confirming or denying.

I’m wondering if Cashman’s gotten too immersed in his numbers and “plan” to realize he might be willingly placing his head in the hangman’s noose. Honesty is one thing. Flinging the bosses under the bus is another, but they must’ve been okay with him doing it.

Whether they were or not, I don’t think it’s good.