Keys to 2013: Cleveland Indians

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Starting Pitching Key: Ubaldo Jimenez

Usually when there’s a big trade of youth for an established veteran the trade can be judged within a year-and-a-half. Sometimes that judgment is floating and interchangeable. The problem with most deals is that there’s an immediate reaction of a “winner” and a “loser” before any of the players even get their uniforms on.

For the Rockies and Indians, who completed a big trade in the summer of 2011 with Jimenez going to the Indians for a package of youngsters including Drew Pomeranz, Alex White, Matt McBride and Joe Gardner, there has yet to be a payoff for either side.

For the Rockies, if Pomeranz doesn’t develop, the trade will be a disaster. I think he will, but he hasn’t yet. White was traded to the Astros; McBride is about to turn 28 and has the looks of a 4-A player. Gardner’s mechanics make him an arm injury waiting to happen; if he doesn’t get hurt, he’s a reliever.

It can be seen as the Indians didn’t give up much of anything for a former All-Star and third place finisher in the Cy Young Award voting, but now that they’re looking to contend, they need the Jimenez from 2010 or, at worst, 2009. He’s been awful from 2011 onward with an attitude to match and his ERA has risen by over 3 ½  runs since the end of June 2010 while his velocity has declined by 4-5 mph. Nobody’s expecting him to keep up an ERA under two, but over five? 92-94 is plenty enough fastball to be effective. He has a club option for 2014 at $8 million that he can void himself since he was traded mid-contract. If he’s as bad as he was over the past two seasons, the Indians will trade him at mid-season or sever ties after the season.

Relief Pitching Key: Chris Perez

Perez’s complaints about the Indians fans not caring and the front office not spending any money were assuaged this past winter, but he has to hold his end of the bargain up by getting the job done in the ninth inning. The Indians are better than they were, but they’re not good enough to afford blowing games in the late innings. To make matters more precarious, Perez’s status for opening day is in question because of a shoulder strain. He could also be traded if the Indians are underperforming and Vinnie Pestano indicates he can handle the job.

Offensive Key: Carlos Santana

For all the talk of Santana being an offensive force and the Dodgers making a huge mistake by trading him to get Casey Blake, he’s been something of a disappointment. Santana’s productive, but not the unstoppable masher he was supposed to be. If he’s able to be a competent defensive catcher then his current offensive numbers are fine; if he has to be shifted to first base, he’s a guy you can find on the market.

Defensive Key: Santana

Whether or not the Indians have the depth to contend is not known yet. I don’t think they do. Regardless with the new manager and the money they’ve spent, they have to be competent and that hinges on the pitching. The starting rotation behind Justin Masterson and Brett Myers are temperamental (Jimenez); young, difficult and have already yapped their way out of one venue (Trevor Bauer); and are scrapheap reclamation projects (Daisuke Matsuzaka and Scott Kazmir). Manager Terry Francona might look at Santana’s defense and realize he can’t win with him behind the plate. Santana at first base would make everyone else move to a different position and force a far weaker offensive catcher into the lineup in Santana’s place.

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The Bourn Signing From All The Angles

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For Michael Bourn

A 4-year, $48 million contract with an option for 2017 making it possibly worth $60 million over five years isn’t what Bourn and agent Scott Boras had in mind when the asking price was around $15 million annually. Considering the market, the late date and that Bourn was costing a draft pick and the loss of money to spend in the draft, it’s a good contract for him.

The Indians are a relatively low-pressure atmosphere in spite of the spending and Terry Francona is an easy manager to play for. Bourn shows up to work every day and does his job. He’s durable, will steal 50 bases and play excellent defense in center field.

For the Indians

The concerns about Bourn’s age (30) and that he’s a “speed” player are overblown. For the life of the contract, he’ll be able to play his game and can hit independent of his speed. The Indians are being aggressive in a way they haven’t in years. Their rebuild had stagnated with the players they acquired in the CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee trades contributing very little. With Nick Swisher, Bourn and Mark Reynolds added to the lineup, they’ll score more runs and be better defensively. Their starting pitching is the key. Unless Ubaldo Jimenez reverts to what he was in 2010 with the Rockies, Trevor Bauer develops quickly and they squeeze whatever remains in Scott Kazmir and/or Daisuke Matsuzaka, they’re around a .500 team. Francona’s not a miracle worker and short of the Indians turning around and hiring Dave Duncan, they can’t manufacture pitchers out of nothing.

For Scott Boras

It’s naïve to think that Boras, when asking for the $75 million for Bourn, hadn’t calculated the factor of draft pick compensation and that the number of teams willing to spend that kind of money on Bourn was limited. Compared to what he publicly suggested as Bourn’s asking price to what he got, it’s a loss. But Boras is smart enough to know and to have conveyed to his client that the numbers might have to come down to get a long-term deal done and he’d have to sign with an unexpected entrant into the sweepstakes like the Indians.

For the Mets

If they’d gotten him, Bourn represented an upgrade in center field and signaled that the Mets weren’t sitting on the sidelines and yessing their fans to death with no intention of sealing the deal. I wrote about the positives and negatives for the Mets with Bourn and risking the 11th pick in the upcoming draft to sign him. If Sandy Alderson and the Mets were telling Bourn to hold off on signing a contract to see if they could get the compensation pick waived, they’re at best arrogant and at worst delusional. Had Bourn stalled the Indians, they might’ve told him to take a hike knowing that he was waiting out the Mets. Bourn took the deal in hand and was wise to do so.

The Mets weren’t pulling any sleight of hand to trick their fans and the media to think they were serious when they really weren’t, but it’s easy to see how some can view it that way. In the end, it’s Michael Bourn. He’s a useful player who would’ve helped the Mets, but not someone to get into a frenzy over either way.

For Francona and other managers

Imagine what Manny Acta is thinking right as he watches this. In his first managerial job, he was saddled with the woeful Nationals, had the difficult personalities Lastings Milledge, Elijah Dukes and Scott Olsen in his clubhouse, and got fired from a team that wouldn’t have won with Tony LaRussa, Joe Torre, Casey Stengel or any other managerial luminary overseeing it. In 2013, they’ve got the talent to win 100 games and have the veteran Davey Johnson at the helm.

Then Acta went to the Indians, overachieved in 2011 with limited talent and was fired when the team played up to their potential with 90+ losses in two of his three seasons.

Acta has no power to dictate terms. The above-mentioned names did. Francona does. None of those name managers would take that kind of job once they’ve established themselves as “winners” who can be sold as such to the fanbase. This has happened before. Lou Piniella was hired by the Devil Rays and promised that they were going to spend money. They didn’t and all he did was lose. He left and was absolved of blame for what happened in Tampa due to his reputation and previous work with the Mariners, Reds and Yankees. Hired by the Cubs, they spent big on free agents and were in the playoffs in his first season.

That’s how it works before the fact. Sometimes spending on a name manager and expensive players fails in practice as we saw with the 2012 Marlins and Ozzie Guillen. Guillen, a manager with a championship and successful run with the White Sox, will have trouble getting another job after that one disastrous year with the Marlins.

This is life for managers when they’re trying to gain footing or replenish a reputation. Fleeting and subjective, a manager is judged on perception and results. Acta is a good tactical manager and the players like him, but he’s been stuck with bad teams. Whether he gets another shot remains to be seen. He probably will and, as is customary, success hinges on the players the front office gives him.

Francona wasn’t immune to it either. He too had to fend off the somewhat accurate belief that he got the Red Sox job because of Curt Schilling, and that he’d work cheap while taking orders from the front office. It’s partially true. Francona won two World Series titles and he’s able to dictate that he’ll be paid handsomely and his team will spend money on “name” players. Francona did his time in the minors and managing a horrible Phillies team, now he’s reaping the benefits of his work with the Red Sox as the Indians are giving him players that Acta never had. He, unlike Acta, will be expected to win. If he doesn’t, he’ll suffer the same fate as Acta, only it will be pricier in terms of money and the future with the bartered draft picks, not to mention Francona’s reputation.

The Indians have put forth the image of “trying.” Now, they have to “do.”

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Can Kazmir Take The Abuse?

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The Indians are in the middle of a rapid/deliberate rebuild with a new manager (Terry Francona), a new right fielder (Nick Swisher), and a new top prospect (Trevor Bauer). Amid this flurry of moves, they also decided to take a shot on a former phenom who once had a similarly bright future to Bauer, Scott Kazmir.

Kazmir has had a star-crossed career from top draft pick of the Mets in 2002; to being traded by the Mets; to becoming the ace of the Tampa Bay Rays and receiving a long term contract; to being traded to the Angels and flaming out completely with injuries and ineffectiveness.

Seemingly changed from the swaggering, fastball-heaving lefty he was, Kazmir was out of baseball and trying out for big league clubs without an offer being made. He went to the Independent League Sugar Land Skeeters (the same team for whom Roger Clemens pitched last year), and posted a 3-6 record with 74 hits allowed in 64 innings and poor across-the-board numbers. If he still had a lot left in the tank as the same pitcher he was, he should’ve done far better than that for an Independent League team.

If Kazmir is willing to change to accommodate his limited stuff, hopeful comparisons will inevitably be made to another lefty pitcher who reinvented himself to win a lot of games, make himself a lot of money, and earn widespread respect for his determination and willingness to become something different than what he was to succeed—Jamie Moyer.

But there are significant differences between Moyer and Kazmir as pitchers and people. Moyer never threw that hard to begin with. When he began the long journey from released pitcher at age 29, he was offered a coaching job by the Cubs and turned it down choosing to keep trying to make it as a pitcher. He didn’t have much of a backup plan nor a lot of money in the bank. He wasn’t a bonus baby as a 6th round pick in 1984 and by the time his career as a big league player appeared over in 1992, he’d made slightly more than $1 million.

It took Moyer another year-plus in the minors and three years in the big leagues bouncing between the Orioles, Red Sox and Mariners before baseball people looked up and realized that perhaps Moyer had figured something out. He’d never had any substantial success in the big leagues before his reinvention.

Kazmir is not in that position. He was an All-Star, the ace of a pennant winner and made over $30 million as a player. Unless he’s been idiotically wasteful, he never has to work another day in his life. He’s willing to swallow his pride to take a minor league deal and get a chance with the Indians, but will he go to the minors and stay there, altering the way he’s pitched all his life with power and dominance? Will he bounce to another team if the Indians tell him they’re sorry, but they don’t think he can help?

What makes it more difficult for Kazmir is the personality that so grated on veterans with the Mets and was a large part of his mound presence. He might have the same personality, but there won’t be the goods to back it up if he’s no longer blowing people away. The comments he’s going to hear in spring training if he’s popping maximum 84-88 instead of 93 are difficult to take for someone of his former stature and attitude. It will get worse if he decides to go down to the minors. Someone like Moyer could take hearing such clever witticisms as, “Hey, I’ve never seen a butterfly land on the ball in mid-flight!” Or, “Now pitching: Eephus Pus!!” Or “They’re clocking your velocity with a sundial!!” Or when he gives up a tape-measure homer, “Did they serve dinner on that flight? Buy a first class ticket and see, big shot!”

It’s embarrassing and tough to swallow. Is Kazmir humbled enough after his crash and eventual release by the Angels and determined enough to take that abuse without saying, “The hell with this,” and leaving?

I’m not so sure.

What Moyer did is unlikely to happen again anytime soon. Moyer could take it and give it back. Why did he do it? Possibly it’s because of money; possibly it’s because of not knowing what else to do with himself; possibly it’s because he didn’t want to give up; and possibly it’s because he was too hard-headed to listen when everyone—everyone—was telling him to move on.

Moyer realized that he wasn’t going to suddenly develop a 95-mph fastball, so he began to transform himself into a craftsman who could still get a fastball in the low-to-mid-80s past a hitter using control, intelligence and by changing speeds. It’s not as easy as “pitch like this.” It takes work.

Is Kazmir prepared to sacrifice his energy, time and pride to put in that level of effort and make it back as Moyer did? It takes a deep commitment and given what Kazmir was and what he is now, his career trajectory has replicated another lefty who was a high draft pick and had a brief career as a top tier starter with a power fastball. He lost the fastball and bounced from team to team, altering his delivery, having surgeries and trying to get it back—Steve Avery. He never did get it back and was done at 33.

Will Kazmir be a Moyer? Or will he be an Avery?

It all depends on him, what he’s willing to do and how much he’ll take to get it.

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The Rays-Royals Trade Part I—The Truth

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The Rays traded RHP James Shields, RHP Wade Davis and a player to be named later to the Royals for OF Wil Myers, RHP Jake Odorizzi, LHP Mike Montgomery and 3B Patrick Leonard.

Let’s look at the trade from the standpoint of the Rays, the Royals and the players involved.

For the Rays

Trading away name players—specifically pitchers—for packages of minor leaguers has become the template for the Rays under their current regime. They did it with Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza, and Edwin Jackson. As much as their GM Andrew Friedman is worshipped for his guts and willingness to make a deal a day too early rather than a day too late, the get-back on those trades has been retrospectively mediocre. In those trades, they got a lot of stuff, the most notable up to now is Matthew Joyce, whom they received for Jackson. Apart from that, they’ve yet to show a big bang from any of those deals and mostly got salary relief.

Friedman stockpiles. There’s nothing wrong with that, but let’s not turn him into Branch Rickey and prepare his bust for the Hall of Fame just yet.

In this trade, the Rays cleared Shields’s $9 million for 2013. He has a club option for $12 million in 2014 with a $1 million buyout. They also got rid of Davis and his $7.6 million guarantee through 2014. (He has club options through 2017.) They received Myers, one of baseball’s top hitting prospects who, ironically, looks like a clone of Evan Longoria at the plate; they received Ororizzi, Montgomery and Leonard. Of those last three, Odorizzi is the only one close to big league ready.

Friedman maximized what he was going to get for Shields and the youngsters will certainly get a chance to play in the big leagues without the pressure and expectations to perform they would’ve been subjected to elsewhere, but that doesn’t mean they’ll become stars.

Considering the Rays’ financial constraints and strategies of bolstering the farm system by trading their veterans, this is a great move for them.

For the Royals

In 2012, the Royals were expected to take the next step (sort of like the Rays did in 2008) and have all their accumulated top draft picks vault them into contention or, at least, respectability. It didn’t work.

At some point a team has to try and win.

The Royals saw what happened when they acquired a scatterarmed and talented lefty, Jonathan Sanchez, before the 2012 season and he was about as bad as a big league pitcher can possibly be before getting hurt. Montgomery’s mechanics are heinous with a stiff front leg and across-his-body delivery; he has a power fastball with zero command and a curveball he’s yet to bridle. The young starting pitchers the Royals had developed have either faltered with inconsistency (Luke Hochevar) or gotten hurt (Danny Duffy).

They also saw a top young prospect Eric Hosmer experience a sophomore slump and exhibit why it’s not as easy as making the gradual progression with massive minor league production translating into big league stardom. The struggles of Hosmer clearly had an affect on how they viewed Myers and when he was going to help them.

With Shields, they get a proven 200+ inning arm that they have for the next two years. With Davis, they’re getting a potential starter who can also give them 200+ innings and he’s signed through 2017. We know what Shields is; Davis was very good as a reliever in 2012 and his overall numbers in two years as a starter have been mediocre. The Royals had a pitcher who’d struggled as a starter, was moved to the bullpen, pitched very well and was shifted back to the rotation. His name was Zack Greinke. Davis doesn’t have Greinke’s stuff, but his bloated ERAs from 2010 and 2011 stemmed more from individual games in which he got blasted. He’s a control pitcher who, if he doesn’t have his location, gets shelled. A pitcher like that can be a useful starter.

These are not rentals and they’re not desperation acquisitions for a GM, Dayton Moore, under fire. We’re already hearing from the armchair experts on social media making references to “cost certainty,” “team control,” and “upside.” They’re words that sound good as a reason to criticize. Most couldn’t tell you whether Myers bats righty or lefty. He’s a name to them. A hot name because he’s put up big numbers, but just a name.

It’s silly to think that the Royals don’t know what they have in their prospects, especially when the same critics make a great show of crediting Moore’s assistant Mike Arbuckle for his shrewd drafting that netted the Phillies Ryan Howard, Cole Hamels, Chase Utley, and others. But in the interests of furthering the agenda to discredit the trade from the Royals’ standpoint, it suits the argument to suggest Arbuckle doesn’t know how to assess Myers, Odorizzi, Montgomery and Leonard.

Did the Royals make a trade to get better immediately and take the heat off of the GM? Possibly. Or it could be that they’ve seen firsthand the ups and downs of developing and playing their own youngsters, know that there are no guarantees, looked at a winnable AL Central, a weakened AL East and West and extra playoff spots available and decided to go for it.

2013 is Moore’s seventh year on the job. It does him no good to leave all these youngsters for his successor to look “brilliant” similar to the way in which Friedman was assisted by the posse of draft picks the Rays accumulated under Chuck LaMar because they were so terrible for so long. The list of players—B.J. Upton, Jeff Niemann, Davis, Shields, Jake McGee, Carl Crawford and Jeremy Hellickson—were there when Friedman took over as GM. That’s not diminishing the great work Friedman’s done. It’s fact.

Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Salvador Perez, Alex Gordon, and Billy Butler make a solid, young, and controllable foundation to score enough runs to win if they pitch.

And this has nothing to do with Jeff Francoeur. He’s a convenient buzzword designed to invite vitriol and indicate ineptitude.

Now with Shields, Davis, Ervin Santana and Jeremy Guthrie, they can pitch.

When Friedman or Billy Beane makes a big trade, it’s “bold,” when Moore does, it’s “desperation.”

I don’t see it that way. The Rays did what they do with a freedom that other clubs don’t have to do it; the Royals made themselves better. It’s not the “heist” that it’s being framed as to credit Friedman while torching Moore. Both clubs get what they needed in the immediate future by making this trade.

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Joel Sherman’s Hackdom Reaches New Lows Even For Him

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This is from the August 27th issue of The Weekly Standard and has to do with the plagiarism of Fareed Zakaria:

Plagiarism is not a crime in any legal code, but among people who make their living with words, there is no deeper offense. The plagiarist has not just stolen from the work of another writer; he has used it to disguise his own inadequacy. It is a symptom of laziness, to be sure; but above all, it’s a crime of arrogance.

If there are a series of words that appropriately describe New York Post baseball columnist Joel Sherman, “lazy,” “inadequate,” “arrogant,” and “plagiarist” come immediately to mind.

There’s no proving it beyond a shadow of a doubt, but the evidence is clear that in May of 2010, Sherman plagiarized me. You can decide for yourself by reading my posting from my old blogspot site here, dated May 22nd, 2010 and having to do with the Astros trying to trade Roy Oswalt; here’s Sherman’s posting on his NY Post Blog on May 25th.

What he wrote regarding then-Astros owner Drayton McLane, Scott Kazmir, Cliff Lee and the Phillies is nearly verbatim to what I wrote three days earlier. When I pointed it out in a subsequent posting here (scroll down to the section beginning with “Hmmmm,”) and challenged Sherman directly on Twitter, he responded by blocking me.

It’s typical.

The same Joel Sherman who writes with the tone of the tough Brooklyn street kid he portrays himself to be ran away when directly called on his transgressions. Sherman, who often writes of the “professionalism” exhibited by the New York Yankees—professionalism that he implied so “engaged” David Wright to the degree that Sherman suggested in this column from March of 2011 that Wright would do well to have a two-week “furlough” to see first-hand the professionalism of—are you ready?—the Yankees and Red Sox clubhouses. Yes. The Red Sox turned out to be so professional that they’ve come completely undone a year-and-a-half later amid infighting, blame, and entitlement. The Yankees’ myth of dignity and professionalism is part of the sale of the franchise as better than everyone else, bolstered by the constant harping on history and inherent self-importance from the YES Network, Michael Kay, Suzyn Waldman, Mike Francesa and anyone else who thinks they played an integral part in the Yankees’ success over the past two decades. George Steinbrenner is no longer the meddlesome buffoon he was in the 1980s, but a beloved patriarch whose attention to detail and conservative values laid the foundation for the juggernaut the Yankees have become.

Of course it’s nonsense.

I doubt Wright was “engaged” by anything. It’s more likely that he was just staring off into space and waiting for Sherman to slink off in another direction and leave him alone. The Yankees are the favored team of him and his newspaper, but in spite of all that professionalism oozing from the Yankees organization, it has yet to embed itself into Sherman. Either that or he doesn’t understand the concept well enough to indulge in it himself.

Or maybe he does and has accepted the fact that he hasn’t the capability to behave as a professional, so he chooses to adhere to the mandates of his editors and his own anti-Mets bias and write the sort of drivel that inevitably ends with anything and everything culminating in a clumsy indictment against the Mets regardless of what they do or don’t do. The latest was on Sunday when, as Craig Calcaterra summed it up here on Hardball Talk, the true losers in the massive blockbuster trade from last weekend between the Red Sox and Dodgers were…the Mets!!!

Obviously!!!!!

This is on the heels of Francesa’s deranged and scattershot ranting and raving session against the Mets days earlier.

The suggestion that the Mets would’ve been able to package Johan Santana and Jason Bay with Wright is so out-of-context and indicative of the media’s desire to torment the Mets that it’s not even worth discussing in a baseball sense. Josh Beckett, right now, is able to get on the mound and pitch and is making the same amount of money in 2013-2014 that Santana is due next year alone; Bay is a lost cause while Carl Crawford’s downfall hasn’t been a clear loss of skills as is the case with Bay, but because of injuries; I suppose Wright and Adrian Gonzalez are comparable, but the Mets are not going to trade Wright and alienate the remaining fans they have willing to come to games, buy merchandise and support the club for a collection of minor league prospects that may or may not make it. Aside from Sherman’s warped world, there’s no correlation between the trade the Red Sox and Dodgers made and the Mets.

This is not about the Mets in a direct criticism and blueprint for turning the ship around, but the Post’s gleeful use of the Mets as a perpetual target to accumulate webhits, spur discussion, and aggravate Mets’ fans. Sherman’s evangelical fervor and condescending hypocrisy is highlighted by his pure lack of ability to smoothly put into words an attack on the Mets that isn’t this transparent. Following the edicts of his editors in a “kill them all and let God sort them out” way, he’s unable to face the consequences and hides when called on his trash. Much like his conceited attempts to be the first to break the story of Cliff Lee’s trade to the Yankees (a trade that wasn’t completed and never came to pass) and his subsequent explanations of why he was wrong, he wasn’t really wrong because Mariners’ GM, Sherman’s “Truly Amazin’ Exec” Jack Zduriencik (dubbed as such in another attack on the Mets) had used shady practices to extract what he perceived to be a better deal for the Rangers and left the Yankees and their apologists angry and slighted.

Sherman knows shady techniques well because he partakes in them on an everyday basis. He’s an annoying pest—Howie Spira without the nerve.

Those poor Yankees were done wrong. And those hideous Mets are “losers” because they failed to make a blockbuster trade that wasn’t available to them and wasn’t going to happen because they’re not trading Wright. Strangely, there was less of this vitriol when the Mets were playing well; when they had young players contributing significantly to their surprising first half of the season; when the Bernie Madoff lawsuit that was going to bankrupt the Wilpons was settled out of court.

Does it matter that GM Sandy Alderson—who Sherman continually pushed the Mets to hire—isn’t going to acquiesce to the media pressure as his predecessor Omar Minaya did? That it’s quite likely that Alderson has told the Wilpons that they’re going to have to take these public floggings for the club to be financially stable and a contender in 2014?

The team is rebuilding. This is what a rebuild looks like. They have financial problems, but spending available money to sign players who won’t help much to get the press off their backs, or making stupid trades to get down to the bare bones with unrecognizable players who will “someday” be part of the renaissance, aren’t going to fix the team, nor will it be salable for 2013 when Wright and R.A. Dickey are at least reasons for fans to come to the park.

Sherman exemplifies clumsy opportunism from a low-level sleaze who followed orders from management well enough to garner himself a column while using “sources” that may or may not exist, bad writing, and self-aggrandizement to put forth his agenda. That agenda is to hammer the Mets and whether the hammer is held from the wrong end and swung awkwardly and ineptly doesn’t matter, nor does the fact that all he succeeded in doing was whack himself in his own nether regions that are, judging by his behavior, quite small or even nonexistent.

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The Roger Clemens Comeback Attempt

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Whatever Roger Clemens’s agenda is, he doesn’t have to explain himself to anyone as to why he wants to pitch again. It could be boredom; it could be a conscious decision to return to the big leagues to delay his Hall of Fame eligibility (and delay the embarrassment of not getting elected); it could be to prove that he can pitch cleanly at age 50; or it could be for no reason whatsoever.

Does he deserve the ridicule he’s receiving? I don’t see why he does. If Jamie Moyer was able to come back (and back, and back, and back) and teams signed him, then why can’t Clemens pitch for the independent team in Texas, the Sugar Land Skeeters, and see if he still has any juice (pardon the double entendre) left in the tank?

Athletes have retired or taken time off and tried comebacks before. There were the ludicrous (Pedro Borbon); the shocking and ill-fated (Jim Palmer); the otherworldly (George Foreman); and successful (Michael Jordan). It’s not impossible.

There’s every possibility that Clemens would pitch in the majors and embarrass himself as Orel Hershiser did when he hung on one year too long with the Dodgers in 2000 and his body wouldn’t cooperate with his still-fertile baseball mind. Moyer adjusted to his declining fastball with savvy and control. Clemens’s biggest downfall was when then-Red Sox GM Dan Duquette uttered his famous, retrospectively accurate, and cold-blooded assessment of Clemens when he chose to let him leave the Red Sox by saying the pitcher was in the twilight of his career at age 33. Any pitcher at age 33, without the use of drugs or a superhuman will to stay in shape and Nolan Ryan-like longevity, would be in the twilight of his career. But it’s easily forgotten when assessing Clemens’s last year with the Red Sox and focusing on his 10-13 record for an 85-77 also-ran that Clemens had terrific secondary numbers that season including 242 innings pitched and an American League leading 257 strikeouts. Duquette might not have wanted to pay Clemens for 4-5 years when he probably would’ve gotten production for 2-3, but Clemens could still pitch.

We’ll never know what he would’ve accomplished for the Blue Jays had he not allegedly done what it’s been pretty well documented that he did to enjoy the renaissance from 1996 veteran who could still recapture his greatness in spurts to the consistent dominance he exhibited in the 1980s, but there was something left.

Could Clemens return to the big leagues at age 50 and get hitters out if he adapts to what he is now and doesn’t try to recapture what he was then? If he uses his brain and doesn’t try to bully the hitters with a fastball to the head, then he can. Does he want to do that? I don’t know. He wasn’t prepared to do it in the late-1990s and that’s what got him in this position of being persona non grata to begin with and almost got him tossed in jail. It also made him a lot more money than he would’ve made otherwise.

He might need the money now given how his fortune was likely decimated by ongoing legal battles.

Major League Baseball would exert not-so-subtle pressure on any team that entertained the notion to sign Clemens not to do it. They don’t want to see him or hear from him again. But there’s nothing to stop a club if they truly decide to sign him and nothing MLB can do about it.

Scott Kazmir is also pitching for the Sugar Land Skeeters, but no one thinks it’s a joke because Kazmir is trying to resurrect his career and is only 28-years-old. If nothing else, he can transform himself into a lefty specialist and will be back in the big leagues once he acknowledges that the strikeout machine he once was is gone.

Clemens was once faced with the same quandary and chose to bring back the strikeout king through illicit means that have yanked the Hall of Fame and historic greatness away from him. Had he stayed clean and just accepted the ravages of time both he and Barry Bonds—not exactly well-liked during their careers—would be viewed with a post-career respect as having done it clean in what’s known as a fake and dirty era of steroids. Instead, they understandably joined in to again prove that they were better on what was a level playing field of most everyone using PEDs.

Would Clemens have the clarity to accept what he is now and put his ego aside to get batters out? Or would he revert to exerting his will on the hitters when he doesn’t have the weapons to do it and be humiliated back into retirement?

He has the capability to get hitters out if he takes the Moyer-route, but it’s doubtful that he has the willingness to endure the abuse he’d receive if he tried, so I wouldn’t expect this “comeback” to go much further than with the Skeeters.

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1st Round Draft Picks Traded for Middle Relievers is a Bad Move

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One of the more curious trades made on deadline day was the Cardinals sending former 1st round pick Zack Cox to the Marlins for Edward Mujica, a mediocre reliever who has a penchant for giving up lots of home runs. There are many palatable explanations to feed to the hungry public as to why such a deal would be made. With the Cardinals, Cox’s path was blocked at first base by Allen Craig and Matt Carpenter and at third base by David Freese; at 23, Cox is struggling at Triple-A after tearing apart the lower minors; the Cardinals needed help in the bullpen and wanted—for whatever reason—Mujica.

All are legitimate enough. But I’d think a former 1st round pick would bring back more than a homer-prone, journeyman relief pitcher who, bottom line, isn’t that good. There could be issues we don’t know about. Scott Kazmir was traded by the Mets in an atrocious maneuver, in part, because of his attitude. Trading Kazmir wasn’t the mistake the Mets made—pitching coach Rick Peterson wound up being right about Kazmir’s small frame and breakdown potential—but that they traded him for Victor Zambrano.

In today’s game, 1st round draft picks are losing their value and it’s not because they’re not talented, but because teams are more willing to trade them since one of the main reasons 1st round picks get chance after chance is due to the attachment to their names, “1st round pick” and that the clubs no longer have as much money invested in these players. Cox received a $3.2 million, 4-year contract when he was drafted as the 25th overall pick in 2010, including a $2 million bonus. That was relatively in line with the rest of the draft, apart from the Dodgers giving over $5 million to Zach Lee three picks later.

Now things are drastically different in the MLB Draft. The implementation of what amounts to a salary cap with punishments for exceeding the spending limits has rendered nonexistent the leverage of drafted players. That is clearly going to affect how clubs value those high picks and they’ll be more willing to trade them for less than what would be perceptively acceptable to the outsider. With the attention paid to the draft by the newly minted “draftniks” who think they know more than in-the-trenches scouts and experienced GMs, there’s a greater scrutiny placed on what’s done with those picks. When a team like the Nationals or Diamondbacks trades a chunk of their farm system to get a veteran Gio Gonzalez or Trevor Cahill, it’s debated more intensely than when the Red Sox traded Jeff Bagwell (a 4th round pick) for Larry Andersen in late August of 1990. As terribly as that trade is viewed now, the Red Sox weren’t wrong. Bagwell was a very good hitter and back then, the value of on base percentage wasn’t what it is now. He didn’t have any power in the minors and they had Wade Boggs blocking him with Scott Cooper ahead of Bagwell in the minor league pecking order. Anderson posted a 1.23 ERA in 15 relief appearances for the Red Sox and did exactly what they wanted him to do in helping them win their division. Who could’ve looked at Bagwell and expected him to become an MVP, Gold Glove winner, and future Hall of Famer? No one.

The Cox for Mujica isn’t similar to that trade because Andersen was a proven veteran reliever and Cox has shown minor league power that Bagwell never did. Is Cox what he was projected to be when the Cardinals drafted him and paid him so well? Probably not. But he’s 23 and his numbers in the lower minors were bolstered by a high batting average so his on base percentage looked better than it does now even though he’s walking about the same amount of the time. The Marlins got a better third base prospect than the one they gave up, Matt Dominguez, to get Carlos Lee (who they’re going to unload soon), and all they gave up was Mujica, who was a Marlins’ non-tender candidate after this season.

It was a productive deal for the Marlins and a head-scratcher for the Cardinals. With the diminished amount of money spent on high draft picks, we’ll see more of this in the future. While it wasn’t a good thing for players to get repeated passes for poor on-field play and bad off-field behaviors because of draft status and clubs’ fears of being embarrassed by a failed pick, nor is it a good thing that top draft picks are traded for middle relievers. It will happen again and teams are going to regret it because it’s not a smart baseball decision to make.

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Hatcher’s Firing Was Inevitable

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In an unavoidable decision, the Angels fired hitting coach Mickey HatcherESPN Story.

I called it on April 30th in the following clip from this posting.

(Arte Moreno’s) not a quick trigger owner, but if (the Angels are) not hitting by mid-May, Hatcher’s gone. This could expose a rift between manager Mike Scioscia and the front office. Scioscia’s influence has been compromised with the hiring of Jerry Dipoto and if one of his handpicked coaches and friends is fired, a true chasm will be evident. Firings will be shots across the bow of Scioscia and, armed with a contract through 2018 (that he can opt-out of after 2015), if he’s unhappy with the changes he’ll let his feelings be known.

There will be talk that Scioscia’s sway over the organization is on the wane. Hatcher has been a coach on Scioscia’s staff since 2000. Twelve years is a long time. Maybe it’s too long.

Outsider speculation is just that. It’s hard to imaging Scioscia wanting to fire his hitting coach and friend, but there could also be an element of realization and pragmatism that something needed to be done. We don’t know whether Scioscia had a heavy hand in the decried decisions the Angels made in the past such as doling lucrative and wasted contracts on Gary Matthews Jr. and Justin Speier and making disastrous trades for Scott Kazmir and Vernon Wells. Scioscia had significant say-so in the team construction and this current group—on offense at least—is not the type of team that Scioscia generally preferred to have. For better or worse, he’s a National League-style manager who learned his trade under Tom Lasorda. What that means is that he liked having starting pitchers who gave him innings, a deep and diverse bullpen with a hard-throwing closer, a few boppers in the middle of the lineup, speed and defense.

Perhaps the failed decisions listed above were what caused the change in course in the front office from the manager having major input and the mandate to say no, to his opinion being taken under advisement with upper management doing what it wants whether the manager is onboard or not.

That’s pretty much how it is throughout baseball no matter who the manager is.

Following the drastic and uncharacteristic acquisition on Albert Pujols, there’s a lack of definition to this current Angels group.

No manager would say no to Pujols and eventually the rest of baseball is going to pay for what Pujols is going through at the moment. He’s not finished. He’s going to hit. But was it a decision that Scioscia would’ve made? Or would have preferred to spend that money elsewhere on a better bullpen? Another starting pitcher? An infielder who can do it all? Given the template of the Angels and what they needed, Jose Reyes was a better fit for the team than Pujols was, but with the new cable network deal on the way and Moreno’s desire to be the focus of Southern California, he wanted the big fish and got him.

The firing of Hatcher is cosmetic. To suggest that anyone aside from Pujols receives credit or blame for what he does on the field is silly. We can’t judge with any certainty how much a hitting coach influences a player when he steps up to the plate. The media will try to anoint certain coaches a mythical, guru status when, in reality, it’s the hitters themselves who do the dirty work. Many times a hitter simply needs someone with whom he connects regardless of the information he’s receiving. If the coach says good morning to him in the right way or gets in the player’s face when necessary, it will be seen as the “turning point”.

Was it a turning point? Or did the hitter just happen to meet the perfect person to make him feel better mentally to go up to the plate in the state he—as the individual—needed to succeed? That state could be anger, it could be peace or it could be anything. We don’t know.

Did Charlie Lau make George Brett or was Brett going to shine through with or without Lau?

Did Lou Piniella’s adjustments with Don Mattingly convincing Mattingly to try and pull the inside pitches over the short right field wall at Yankee Stadium create Donnie Baseball or would he have done it once he grew comfortable in the big leagues?

Hitting coaches like Rudy Jaramillo have been lauded and hired amid great fanfare and not helped at all in the bottom line.

The hitting coach is a convenient scapegoat to wake up the team, to put forth the pretense of “doing something” and to send a message to the manager.

In the case of the Angels, it’s probably all three.

It might not help, but given the talent on the roster, they certainly can’t be much more of a disappointment than they’ve already been.

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The Saga of Scott Kazmir

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Drafted, disciplined, traded, lionized, traded, released, finished.

The saga of Scott Kazmir is summed up neatly with that order of words.

With the news in this Jayson Stark piece on ESPN that his fastball is puttering in at 84-85 mph, he might be better-suited to begin throwing sidearm and marketing himself as a lefty specialist.

Because he was such a high-profile player and representative of so many different things—a questioned draft pick and trade; a falling star; trading a name player sooner rather than later; an attitude problem—it’s easily lost that Kazmir, with his draft status and subsequent salaries in mind, has been mostly a bust.

The Mets drafted Kazmir in 2002 and it wouldn’t have been as noteworthy had the process not been detailed in Moneyball. The Mets were going to draft Nick Swisher if Kazmir wasn’t available—and they didn’t think he would be—but he was and they took him.

In the minors, Kazmir had a reputation for swaggering arrogance and off-field mishaps. It drew the ire of the Mets’ influential veterans Al Leiter and John Franco when, in the team’s weight room, Kazmir changed their radio station and they told him to change it back.

Mets’ pitching czar Rick Peterson advocated the ill-fated trade the Mets made for Victor Zambrano in July of 2004 not because of disciplinary issues, but because of the cold, hard data that Peterson relies on in judging his charges. Zambrano would help immediately and Peterson felt that he could repair his mechanics and make him more effective; Kazmir was small, had a stressful motion and wouldn’t be a durable rotation linchpin for at least another 2-3 years and only that for a short period of time.

The Devil Rays acquired him while still being run by Chuck LaMar and brought him to the big leagues later that season. Opposing hitters were impressed and writers eagerly used the array of power stuff displayed by Kazmir to hammer the Mets decisionmakers for trading him. It was that Mets regime’s flashpoint and death knell. Zambrano went on the disabled list after three starts and the Mets came apart leading to the demotion of GM Jim Duquette in favor of Omar Minaya and the firing of manager Art Howe.

Peterson survived the purge.

Kazmir was impressive over parts of the next five seasons with his best and most durable year coming in 2007 with the rebuilding Rays. He struck out 239 hitters in 32 starts and made the All Star team. But there were warning signs. He had elbow and shoulder woes and, under the pretense of financial constraints and falling from playoff contention in August of 2009, the Rays made him available via trade.

The Angels came calling and dealt three prospects for Kazmir and the $20 million+ remaining on his contract.

In reality, the Rays saw that Kazmir was declining and an injury waiting to happen, so they dumped him and his salary and got some useful pieces in Sean Rodriguez and two minor leaguers in exchange.

Kazmir had a mysterious “back injury” in 2011 that was more likely a face-saving gesture from the Angels to let him try and straighten himself out while not enduring the embarrassment of a former All-Star being sent to the minors. While trying to come back, he got pounded in 5 minor league starts and the Angels released him.

After his release, teams considered Kazmir, but no one signed him.

As much as the Mets are rightfully criticized for that trade, it turned out that the mistake wasn’t dealing him, but what they dealt him for. Following that season, there was every possibility that they could’ve centered Kazmir around a deal for Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder or inquired about Ben Sheets. Instead, they got Zambrano; Zambrano got hurt; and there was a regime change in Flushing.

Kazmir is about done now. The next step is either have a surgery that he may or may not need to “fix” a problem that doesn’t exist and “prove” that he’s on the comeback trail and will again have that velocity and movement that made him such a coveted prospect to begin with.

My advice to Kazmir is, as I said earlier, become a sidearming lefty specialist. He’ll always have a job and might even be effective in that role.

But will his ego be able to handle it? Unless he’s remarkably stupid and wasteful, he has enough money to live the rest of his life, so it comes down to whether or not he wants to continue playing baseball.

It won’t be as an All-Star starter because that pitcher, along with the one who’s immortalized in print and perception for the right and wrong reasons, is gone forever.

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Beware the Rejuvenated Rays’ Castoffs

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The Orioles are said to be considering signing Casey Kotchman.

What they’re going to do with him is a mystery since they just signed Wilson Betemit, have Mark Reynolds and Chris Davis for first and third base. None are defensively adept at any of the positions although Reynolds occasionally makes a spectacular play to make it appear as if he’s better than he is. It’s similar to a weekend in which he’ll hit 6 home runs—many of the “ooh” and “ahh” variety in distance and hangtime to make it appear as if he’s better than he is. Then he reverts to hitting .200 and striking out every 2.6 at bats.

Kotchman is a very good defensive first baseman and had his career year at the plate for the Rays in 2011 with a slash line of .306/.378/.422 and .800 OPS.

That’s what should concern any team making a serious investment in Kotchman.

Considering the lateness of the date and that spring training is approaching along with the availability of better hitters on the market like Derrek Lee, it’s doubtful the Orioles or anyone else is going to overpay for Kotchman, but a team considering a former player for the Rays who had his best season with the Rays needs to examine history and look at the decline of Jason BartlettScott KazmirRafael SorianoAkinori Iwamura and just about every scrounged screapheap salvaged detritus from their patched together bullpen who’s been used for a brief time and dispatched only to revert to the performance that led them to winding up on the scrapheap to begin with. Sometimes, as with Lance Cormier and Carlos Pena, they wind up back with the Rays.

Is Kotchman as good as he was in 2011?

History proves he’s not. Even when he was at his best with the Angels and Braves in 2007-2008, he wasn’t a force at the plate. He was useful if surrounded by a few power bats and has always been a good fielder, but teams tend to want better power production from first base than what Kotchman provided. If they can make up for it in other areas, then fine; but setting a limit on the amount of money they’re willing to pay Kotchman is a wise move.

Was the issue with his eyes that Kotchman referenced in this NY Times piece and its repair the genesis of his struggles in 2009-2010?

Clearly.

But that doesn’t make a Rays’ castoff any more of a guarantee to continue the work he did with the Rays as he reestablished his value. They seem to know which way the wind is about to blow and how to judge a player and determine whether he’s “figured it out” or is enjoying his career years in Tampa. That’s a reason for interested teams to look at these players with a jaundiced eye and wonder if they’re getting the pre-Rays or post-Rays player and if they’ll be overpaying to do it.

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