For the Cardinals, was it firing Matheny, changing the roster, or both?

MLB, Uncategorized

Shildt

At first glance, the St. Louis Cardinals’ season turned around on July 14 when they fired manager Mike Matheny and replaced him with bench coach Mike Shildt. It’s an easy story to tell. Given the focus on the manager, especially a polarizing one like Matheny, the simple act of making a change can be labeled as the flashpoint. Firing the manager won’t make a bad team good, but it can make an underachieving team achieve. There’s certainly no defending Matheny, whose fate was sealed not just by the team’s lackluster play, but by the bursting into the open of clubhouse fissures and a veteran-rookie caste system that he not only failed to corral, but tacitly encouraged.

It never looks good for the former manager when, after his dismissal, the team behaves as if it was released from a Soviet gulag. This will undoubtedly affect Matheny if he tries to get another managing job. With his current perception throughout baseball, his best route is to be a bench coach or front office assistant and just be present if the club’s current manager is fired and he’s the guy standing there to take over on an interim basis.

That aside, the Cardinals’ jump to the second-best record in the National League goes beyond a managerial change. Often, such a change is cosmetic and/or a capitulation – and with the Cardinals, assessing their subsequent moves after pulling the trapdoor on Matheny, it might have been a bit of both.

As watered down as it is, there must have been a certain amount of “maybe this’ll light a spark” thought process in the Cardinals front office. Clearing some unproductive and problematic players truly ignited it. This is not to downplay the searing hot streak that has pushed Matt Carpenter to the top of Most Valuable Player contention, but that alone would not have carried the club to where it is now.

After firing Matheny and installing the steady Shildt, the following also happened to benefit them:

Fowler and the organization have been at odds all season. The hatred between player and manager was palpable. As much as teams say salary and contract have no bearing on lineup decisions, a .576 OPS and an embarrassing 58 OPS+ are sufficient to bench any player. When adding the implications of Fowler’s lackadaisical play, he should not have been playing. What reason other than salary can be used to justify Fowler’s continued presence in the lineup before he got hurt?

An unproductive player whose presence in the lineup is based on nothing more than salary and status sends a ripple through the clubhouse that a merit-based strategy comes in second to other factors. A steadier lineup configuration with Carpenter moving to first base, Jed Gyorko installed at third, and Jose Martinez moving shifted to right field not only removed the stigma of ancillary factors holding sway, it made the team better simply by Fowler’s absence.

Pham was largely justified in his anger at the organization. The chip on his shoulder was legitimate. The club keeping him in the minors far longer than it should have and failing to give him a chance until it had no other choice has cost him several years of his prime and a significant amount of money. That lingering rage, though, is something that can permeate a clubhouse and stoke tensions even if it is kept at a low simmer. It’s a sigh of relief when the multiple tensions of managerial missteps and failure to lead; a player who was getting by on minimal effort and shielded by a contract; and a player who was perpetually pissed off are all out of the picture.

With Pham gone, Harrison Bader was installed in center field. He’s a better defender than Pham and it also let them make the previously listed lineup maneuvers sans Fowler.

  • The pitching was reconfigured.

Greg Holland was a disastrous late-spring training signing. He walked as many batters as he struck out and never seemed to overcome the missed time in the spring. That he has pitched well since joining the Washington Nationals makes it appear that his problems were, partially, atmospheric.

They acquired Chasen Shreve from the New York Yankees for Luke Voit and Shreve has been excellent since arriving in St. Louis.

John Gant and Austin Gomber have filled in nicely in the starting rotation.

***

Dumping the manager is an easy sacrifice, especially when the team is underachieving and the manager is generally perceived to have the job because of looking the part rather than tactical acumen. What appears more likely is that the attitude change and using different players was as, if not more, important than the act of firing Matheny even if firing Matheny is the easy story to write about the Cardinals’ turnaround.

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Once the Mike Matheny veneer was gone, so was Matheny

MLB, Uncategorized

Matheny

As much as the St. Louis Cardinals will deny it and say there was not any one single incident that sparked their sudden urgency to make a change at manager, the tipping point to finally pull the trigger and fire manager Mike Matheny was the revelation that relief pitcher Bud Norris was using various tactics to “teach” rookie reliever Jordan Hicks how to behave like a major leaguer and did so with the tacit and chuckling approval of the manager. The issue was discussed here.

That, combined with the club hovering around .500 and rapidly hurtling toward irrelevance, made it the obvious decision.

Inevitably, the question regarding Matheny’s dismissal will be, “Why?” This answer is more nuanced than saying the team was not living up to expectations or that he lost control of the clubhouse. The reality of Matheny’s dismissal is not the “why” in the conventional sense. If on-field struggles and strategic gaffes were the barometer of Matheny keeping or losing his job, then he would have been fired after 2016 or 2017. Instead, he was given a three-year contract extension after the 2016 season on top of the contract he was already working under, so he’s signed through 2020 making it even more surprising that an owner such as Bill DeWitt agreed to the change. DeWitt is not “cheap” in the literal sense, but he is frugal. If they make the obvious move and hire Joe Girardi as the replacement, Girardi will want a contract commensurate with his resume and that means he’s not taking an entry-level deal. Presumably, DeWitt is aware of this and accepts it for the greater good.

Regarding Matheny, much like players are increasingly assessed by their combination of skills, so too does that apply to managers and front office personnel. It’s no surprise that given the star-like nature of today’s front offices with the entire organizational solar system revolving around it, few managers are blamed for what happens on the field and fired, especially during the season. Matheny is the second manager who has been dismissed during the 2018 season. The Cardinals will be lucky to get the same results the Cincinnati Reds have gotten by replacing Bryan Price with Jim Riggleman.

The root cause of team’s inconsistency and mediocrity is difficult to pinpoint and discern. Looking at their roster and they should not be playing .500 ball. But that was also the case in 2017. On the other side of the coin, should Matheny not be credited for the positive work he did in the first four seasons of his managerial career when he made the playoffs in each and won a pennant in 2013?

The implication that Matheny was completely inept is misplaced. He was hired to fill a role and he did it. He had substantial success during his tenure. Replacing a legend in Tony La Russa and stewarding a team that was transitioning from one rife with veterans and big money players to one that is built more on younger players, sabermetric principles and opportunism along with the ever-present “Cardinals way” was not as seamless as it appeared. History is littered with managers and coaches who took over for a legend, ran a team that was expected to win and failed. So, he was not a failure, nor was he a mistaken hire. Based on results, it’s difficult to envision anyone having done better than Matheny did.

However, as the on-field results declined and the smoldering controversy with how he oversaw and even encouraged Norris’s behavior grew into a blaze, the team continued to play poorly. If the team was not playing well and his status as having superior skills at corralling the diverse personalities in a clubhouse and navigating the difficult terrain of the media were decaying, what was the benefit of retaining him?

Once that veneer was gone, so was Matheny.

On Bud Norris, Mike Matheny and the line in policing the clubhouse

MLB, Uncategorized

Jeff Nelson, Mike MathenyA story reported initially by The Athletic and discussed here by Yahoo brings up an issue that will never change in sports and probably shouldn’t change in sports – how a clubhouse/locker room is handled by the veteran players and the steps said veteran players should take to teach younger players how to behave in the top professional leagues.

In this instance, St. Louis Cardinals reliever Bud Norris is reportedly “riding” flamethrower Jordan Hicks and has been doing so since spring training. Complicating matters is manager Mike Matheny’s role in the situation as he has shed any notion of ambiguity and chuckled about it with tacit approval.

While greater attention has been paid to so-called “hazing”, for many veteran players, there is a belief that they are extending a hand to the young players and helping them by showing them the proper way to act.

Of course, there are the players who are simply jerks and, were it not for their status in the .0001 percentile of having the athletic ability to reach the top level of their sport, they’d bounce from job to job and blame everyone else for their self-inflicted problems. Mel Hall is one. Jon Rauch is another. Both needed to be threatened to stop their act: Hall by Gerald Williams when he wouldn’t leave Bernie Williams alone with the early 1990s Yankees; Rauch by Matt Harvey with the Mets when Harvey was the target of the treatment.

If the player is relatively useless and is lucky to have a job, the organization can take advantage of these issues to have the player serve as an example and get rid of him for his behavior.

Into which category does Norris fall?

He’s not totally disposable as he does have some use. But he’s not someone from whom any organization should tolerate off-field distraction. Fortunately for him, he’s having a very good year as the Cardinals closer.

Still, veterans get their leeway in overseeing the clubhouse sans interference from the manager. Matheny’s mistake is not in signing off on the behavior, but in commenting on it at all. One of the fastest ways for a manager to lose support in the clubhouse is to interfere with the clubhouse hierarchy and how the veterans police it. The clubhouse is supposed to be sacrosanct and the domain of the players. Managers stepping in over such trivial issues tends to explode in their faces.

Part of the manager’s job is assessing the situation and determining if the target of the treatment is being negatively impacted by the behavior; if it is affecting his performance and, by extension hurting the team, or if he’s just being too sensitive to mostly harmless hijinks. If it’s the former, then he must step in for the good of the club and its sole purpose: winning.

With social media and the disappearance of the line as to what the public should and should not know, outside voices who have never been athletes and part of the competitive world of intense scrutiny and pressure they inhabit will transpose a sports organization into a conventional workplace when it is not that and should not be perceived as such.

Some young players arrive in the majors and immediately misbehave. If that misbehavior is damaging the player and the team, the veteran players are correct in addressing it. If that is viewed as hazing, so be it.

As for Norris going to Matheny with infractions that deviate from the oft-mentioned and unabashedly self-important “Cardinals culture”, that’s not going to win him any friends not just with the Cardinals, but throughout baseball. It does cross a line, this time in the opposite direction, breaching the same protocol managers adhere to with their hands-off approach.

Nobody likes a rat. If said rat is costing the players money in fines and perhaps disfavor with the manager and possibly the entire organization, it can easily escalate from a veteran educating a young player to irreparable fissures. While Matheny essentially named Norris as the bullpen capo who keeps the others in line, there remains a difference between Norris following the standard he set in policing the clubhouse and running to the manager as a tattletale.

It’s Matheny’s clubhouse and he can run it as he sees fit. He’s a tough guy and old-school player. He’s extended that to his role as manager. If he’s adhering to that, he should know that the bad far outweighs the good in having a player running to the manager with stories about code violations and that he makes it worse by telling the media about it.

It’s not up to the media or fans to judge any of this, but there should at least be some boundaries on both sides and from all the insider perspectives.

NLCS Prediction and Preview: Los Angeles Dodgers vs. St. Louis Cardinals

Games, History, Management, Players, Playoffs, Stats, World Series

Los Angeles Dodgers (92-70) vs. St. Louis Cardinals (97-65)

Keys for the Dodgers: Get into the Cardinals’ bullpen; stop Carlos Beltran; mitigate the Cardinals’ big post-season performers; coax manager Mike Matheny into mistakes.

The Cardinals’ strength lies in its hot playoff performers and the starting pitching of Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha and the potential of Joe Kelly. The Dodgers must get the starting pitchers’ pitch counts up to dig into the Cardinals’ weak point: the bullpen. The Dodgers have the depth in their offense to get to the Cardinals. They might, however, not have the patience to get their pitch counts up. They like to swing the bat and that might not be the best possible strategy against these Cardinals pitchers.

Beltran is a very good to great player during the regular season. In the post-season, he becomes a historic player. For his career against current Dodgers’ pitchers, Beltran has hammered Ronald Belisario and Ricky Nolasco. In the playoffs, it doesn’t matter who’s on the mound, Beltran is a constant threat. To the dismay and disgust of Mets fans, that excludes Wainwright, who he won’t hit against because they’re teammates. If the Dodgers stop Beltran, they have a great chance of stopping the Cardinals.

The other Cardinals’ post-season performers have history of their own against the Dodgers’ pitchers. Matt Holliday has the following numbers against some of the Dodgers’ top arms:

Clayton Kershaw: .303 batting average; .465 OBP; .424 slugging; two homers.

Zack Greinke: .346 batting average; .393 OBP; .577 slugging; two homers.

Nolasco: .462 batting average; .481 OBP; .885 slugging; two homers.

David Freese is hitting .333 vs. Greinke; and 500 vs. Nolasco.

Manager Matheny has done some strange things in his time as manager, especially with the bullpen and he doesn’t have a closer. He could be coaxed into panicky mistakes.

Keys for the Cardinals: Hope the Dodgers pitch Nolasco; lean on their playoff performers; get depth from the starters; hope the games don’t come down to the bullpen.

Nolasco is listed as the game four starter. We’ll see if that actually happens. If the Dodgers are down two games to one in the series when game four rolls around, I can’t imagine them pitching Nolasco with the numbers the Cardinals’ hitters have against him. In addition to Holliday, Beltran, Daniel Descalso, Jon Jay and Freese have all battered him as well. If he pitches, the Cardinals’ history says they’re going to bash him.

With the Cardinals, there can’t be any discussion without referencing Wainwright, Beltran, Molina, Holiday and Freese with their post-season performances. Very few teams can boast these prime time players.

Apparently, Trevor Rosenthal is going to close for the Cardinals. Matheny – with good reason – doesn’t trust seasonlong closer Edward Mujica. Rosenthal throws very hard, but was shaky in his save chance against the Pirates in the NLDS. Matheny will push his starters as deep as he can.

What will happen:

The Cardinals barely got past the Pirates and much of that was due to the Pirates’ lack of experience in games of this magnitude. The Dodgers won’t have the lack of experience going against them. With their lineup, the Dodgers will feast on the Cardinals’ bullpen. Kershaw and Greinke can match Wainwright and Wacha. Kelly is a complete unknown and the Dodgers have the veteran hitters – Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, Juan Uribe, Hanley Ramirez – to get at the Cardinals pitchers, especially their relievers.

If this series comes down to a battle of the bullpens, the Dodgers have a distinct advantage with Brian Wilson and Kenley Jansen at the back end. The Dodgers’ bats have some post-season experience, but nothing in comparison to that of the Cardinals. The Dodgers’ bats aren’t youngsters, so it’s unlikely they’ll be intimidated. And Yasiel Puig isn’t intimidated by anything. In fact, he’s the type of player who’ll relish the spotlight and want to show off in front of Beltran.

The Dodgers have too much starting pitching, too deep a bullpen and too good a lineup. The Cardinals are a “sum of their parts” team. The Dodgers have the star power and depth where it counts.

PREDICTION: DODGERS IN FIVE

NLCS MVP: YASIEL PUIG




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NLDS Playoffs Preview and Predictions – St. Louis Cardinals vs. Pittsburgh Pirates

Games, Players, Playoffs

St. Louis Cardinals (97-65) vs. Pittsburgh Pirates (94-68)

Keys for the Cardinals: Get runners on base; continue trend of hot hitting with runners in scoring position; try not to leave the game in the hands of the bullpen; get the goods from their proven post-season performers.

The Cardinals led the National League in runs scored using a similar formula as the Yankees of the 1990s used by having a very high teamwide on-base percentage and no big home run hitters. Instead of having that one basher in the middle of the lineup hitting 35-45 homers as they did with Albert Pujols, they spread the wealth in the home run department with six hitters in double figures. Not one, however, had more than 24. In addition, the Cardinals had a .330 batting average with runners in scoring position.

The Cardinals bullpen is deep and diverse. Edward Mujica pitched well for much of the season as the team’s accidental closer after Jason Motte was lost for the season with Tommy John surgery. Mujica saved 37 games and walked only five batters in 64.2 innings. Home runs have always been his bugaboo and he surrendered nine. With Mujica’s struggles, the Cardinals have to decide whether to stick to the regular season script and leave him in the role, go with Trevor Rosenthal or a closer-by-committee.

The Cardinals have a roster full of players who’ve put up big numbers in the post-season with Adam Wainwright, Carlos Beltran, Allen Craig, David Freese and Yadier Molina. Players who’ve performed in the post-season have a tendency to do it again.

Keys for the Pirates: Don’t wait too long with their starting pitchers; don’t change their game; keep the Cardinals off the bases; get into the Cardinals’ bullpen.

The Cardinals were vulnerable to lefty pitchers but with Francisco Liriano having started the Wild Card Game against the Reds, he won’t pitch until game three in Pittsburgh. The Pirates are starting A.J. Burnett in game one and Gerrit Cole in game two. Even though he struggled in September, I might’ve rolled the dice and started Jeff Locke in game one if I were manager Clint Hurdle. The Pirates have a deep bullpen and shouldn’t wait too long with their starting pitchers before making a change. Locke as a middle reliever might end up being more effective than having him start.

As stated earlier, the Cardinals get a lot of runners on base. The Pirates have a solid defense and have to shun the walk – this is especially true for Burnett with his scattershot control.

If the Pirates don’t get the Cardinals starting pitchers’ pitch counts up and force manager Mike Matheny to go to the bullpen, they might not get a shot at Mujica.

The Pirates won their games this season with good starting pitching, speed, power from Pedro Alvarez, a great back of the bullpen and defense. They have to maintain all facets of their game.

What will happen:

The Cardinals are built more for the long season than for a short series. While they have those aforementioned big time post-season players, the Pirates have the pitching and bullpen depth to neutralize them. If the Cardinals don’t get runners on the bases, they’re not going to score because they don’t hit enough home runs and the Pirates don’t surrender many home runs. Mujica is not trustworthy as a post-season closer and if it comes down to a one-run lead in the ninth inning, everyone in St. Louis will be holding their collective breaths waiting for the inevitable longball.

The Pirates are riding a wave with their veteran acquisitions Russell Martin and Marlon Byrd leading the way joining Alvarez, Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker in the lineup. A lack of post-season experience could be a problem. The Cardinals have loads of it and the Pirates have nearly none. It could also go the other way. With the first playoff appearance and playoff win in two decades under their belts, the Pirates won’t feel the pressure. That’s one instance when the Wild Card Game will benefit a young and inexperienced team.

I don’t like the way Matheny handles the bullpen as if he’s panicky and desperate not to do the wrong thing rather than do the right thing.

The Pirates’ method of winning has a better chance to carry over into the post-season. They rely on fundamentals, speed and pop; the Cardinals relied on getting on base and clutch hitting. The Pirates are younger, stronger, faster and hungrier than the Cardinals. They’re better too.

PREDICTION: PIRATES IN THREE




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MLB Trade Deadline: A Phillies Selloff Makes No Sense

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

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

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

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

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

That leaves Lee and Papelbon.

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

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

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

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

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The Costas Factor

All Star Game, Award Winners, Ballparks, Football, Games, Hall Of Fame, History, Management, Media, MiLB, MVP, NFL, Players, Playoffs, Politics, World Series

I’ll preface this by saying I agree with Bob Costas’s premise that the overt celebrations in baseball when there’s a walkoff of any kind, especially a walkoff homer, have gone so far over-the-top that it appears as if a relatively meaningless game in June is the seventh game of the World Series. We’re not that far away from players gathering at home plate on a first inning home run like they do in college and high school. It’s bush league, amateurish and ruins the specialness of games in which there should be a legitimate celebration: no-hitters, perfect games, milestone achievements, post-season clinchings and series victories.

When presenting the afternoon’s baseball highlights, however, Costas gave a mini-editorial with smiling disdain while calling the Mets’ celebration after winning in walkoff fashion on Kirk Nieuwenhuis’s home run “another indication of the ongoing decline of Western civilization.” The clip is below.

The truth of the matter regarding these celebrations is that everyone does it. Costas’s snide comment regarding the second division Mets and Cubs is accurate in the overriding silliness of the act, but the “classy” Cardinals and Yankees do it as well. Prince Fielder celebrated a walkoff homer with teammates by acting as if he was a bowling ball and knocking over the pins (his teammates) and got drilled for it the next year. Kendrys Morales, then of the Angels—a club that took their cue on stoicism and professionalism from manager Mike Scioscia—severely damaged his ankle leaping onto home plate and lost a year-and-a-half of his career because of it. They’re not going to stop doing it no matter how badly Costas wants to go back to 1960 with players celebrated by shaking hands like they’d just had a successful meeting at IBM.

Frankly, I couldn’t care less what Costas says. As he’s aged and his status has grown as a crossover broadcaster whose opinions on a wide range of subjects are given weight, he’s turned increasingly crotchety, preachy, smug and obnoxious. He’s almost a likable Bill O’Reilly with a smile—sort of how Bill O’Reilly was when he was hosting Inside Edition and when The O’Reilly Factor first started before market dictates and egomania forced him to lurch far to the right and put forth the persona of screaming in people’s faces as an omnipotent pedant. Costas has the forum and gets away with it because he’s Bob Costas, therefore he does it and this will happen again unless his bosses tell him to can it.

This is only a small blip in comparison to his halftime op-ed regarding gun control the day after Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher’s murder/suicide last December. That clip is below.

Speaking of the decline of Western civilization, the conceit that is evident everywhere stemming from the me-me-me attitude that has been exacerbated with social media, easy fame and its trappings has led to a rise in pushing the envelope to make one’s voice heard over the din whether it’s the proper forum to do so or not. Would a Costas commentary on gun control be given airtime anywhere if he didn’t blindside his employers by interjecting it during an NFL halftime show? Would anyone listen to it if there wasn’t a captive audience of people gathering to watch the game who were suddenly inundated with Costas’s political rant?

The NFL halftime show is meant to be talking about Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Robert Griffin III, not going into a long-winded diatribe directly challenging the beliefs of a massive constituency of the NFL—conservatives who believe in the right to bear arms. If Costas has these little vignettes planned on the state of sports and the world in general, perhaps he should save it for a time in which people who are tuning in would expect it and make the conscious choice to hear what he has to say on the variety of off-field subjects and negligible behaviors that he’s made it a habit of sharing his feelings on. But then, maybe no one would tune in because they want to hear Costas talk about sports and would prefer if he saved his personal feelings for a time when it’s appropriate, not when viewers looking for sports and highlights have to endure his arrogant and high-handed opinions.

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The Reality of Legacies and Latter Round MLB Draft Picks

Award Winners, CBA, Cy Young Award, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, Hall Of Fame, History, Management, Media, MiLB, Players, Prospects, Stats

As nice and uplifting a story as the Diamondbacks drafting of paralyzed former Arizona State player Cory Hahn in the 34th round of the MLB draft is, it also provides insight as to how little teams think of the draft’s latter rounds and the likelihood of finding useful on-field talent that can make it to the big leagues.

In another pick that got significant attention, the Yankees drafted Andy Pettitte’s son Josh in the 37th round out of high school. Because Pettitte’s son has committed to Baylor University, Josh Pettitte is not expected to sign with the Yankees. That’s probably a relief for them because a 37th round draft pick is not expected to be anything more than organizational filler. If Josh Pettitte was considered an actual prospect, he would’ve been taken by a team other than the Yankees well before the 37th round, commitment to Baylor or not. When the Yankees selected Paul O’Neill’s nephew Michael in the third round, they did so not as a legacy or a favor to the O’Neill family but because he can actually play. The Mets made a similar selection with Lee Mazzilli’s son L.J. in the fourth round. These are players who would have been selected by another club at around the same spot had the Yankees and Mets not made the selections. There’s no doubt that the legacy was a tiny factor in picking the players, but not to the degree that the Yankees selecting Pettitte and this is the difference between players selected in the first 10-15 rounds—for any reason—and those picked after.

For every late-round draft pick who makes it to the majors, there are thousands of others who don’t get past the low minors. Players who are drafted past the tenth round are not expected to make it. Once in a long while you’ll have the occasional freak occurrence like Albert Pujols (13th round), James Shields (16th round), Domonic Brown (drafted as a pitcher in the 20th round), Mark Buehrle (38th round), and Mike Piazza (62nd round as a favor to Tom Lasorda). By and large, the players who make it to the majors are those who are picked in the first 20 rounds with the numbers decreasing significantly as the rounds pass. Players taken in the first few rounds will receive repeated opportunities not just because of latent talent, but because of the money teams invest in them. That’s become even more pronounced with the slotted bonuses and limited amount of money teams are allowed to spend in the draft. They don’t want to toss money away on a player even if, after three or four years, he shows he’s not what they thought he was. In some cases, these players make it to the big leagues so teams can say, “Look he made it to the majors at least,” as if that’s some form of justification for an overall miss on a high draft pick.

Indicative of how little teams think of the latter rounds were the decisions to make these selections of players like Hahn and Pettitte. They create a story for a brief time but devolve into the realm of the forgotten because they weren’t meant to be remembered in the first place.

Should teams spend more time and money on the draft past the initial stages? Are there enough talented draft-eligible players to make it worth their while? It depends. Some clubs don’t want to spend the money and resources it will take to mine through the amateurs for 50 rounds to find perhaps five players that have a chance to contribute. Others, like the Cardinals, have made it a regular occurrence to draft players on the third and fourth days of the draft such as Matt Carpenter, Trevor Rosenthal, Allen Craig, Luke Gregerson, and Jaime Garcia. The Cardinals and then-scouting director Jeff Luhnow have been credited with the Cardinals’ fertile farm system, but perhaps the truth is more of a matter of the conscious decision not to waste late-round picks on legacies and heartwarming stories, instead choosing to draft players who they think might be able to help them at some point.

The Yankees and their apologists can point to the inexplicable luck the team had in 1990 with Pettitte the father (22nd round) and Jorge Posada (24th round drafted as an infielder) as reason to think Josh Pettitte has a chance, but that’s wishful thinking. They got lucky in 1990 just as the Cardinals got lucky with Pujols and the Devil Rays got lucky with Shields. On the same token, teams have repeatedly failed with top-tier picks for one reason or another be it injuries, miscalculation, off-field problems or bottom line bad luck. If the Yankees were going to draft a player in the 37th round who had a miniscule chance of becoming useful to them or the Diamondbacks were going to do the same thing in the 34th round, then why not draft the players they did and accrue some publicity? Overall, there’s no difference because a paralyzed player like Hahn only has a slightly less chance of making it than someone else who was drafted in the 34th round, so the Diamondbacks did something nice and it won’t harm their draft because on the field, it won’t make much difference either way.

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Rethinking the GM, Part III—American League West

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Click on these links to read part I and part II.

Texas Rangers

Jon Daniels is a popular and well-respected GM today but that wasn’t the case when he took over for John Hart in October of 2005 and one of the first big trades he made sent Adrian Gonzalez and pitcher Chris Young to the Padres for Adam Eaton and Akinori Otsuka. That will go down as one of the worst trades in the history of the sport.

If he was able to rebound from that and craft the Rangers into an annual contender with a reasonable payroll and deep farm system while dealing with the alpha-male presence of Nolan Ryan and navigating his way through the financial woes of former owner Tom Hicks, then he’s got something on the ball.

Daniels got the GM job very young at 28 and clearly wasn’t ready for it, but grew into the job and is not a stat guy or scouting guy, but uses every outlet at his disposal and is also able to do the dirty work mentioned earlier to consolidate his power.

Oakland Athletics

Just ignore Moneyball for a moment when thinking about Billy Beane. Look at his body of work without the accolades, best-selling book and ridiculous move to accompany the star status Beane’s cultivated and persona Beane has created and look at his work objectively. Is he a good GM who worked his way up through the ranks from scouting to assistant GM to GM to part owner? Yes. Would he be as lusted after without that ridiculous bit of creative non-fiction known as Moneyball? No.

It can be argued that Moneyball has done an exponential amount of damage in comparison to the good it did in introducing the world at large to statistics that they would not otherwise have realized existed. Due to Moneyball, everyone thinks they can study a spreadsheet, calculate some numbers and suddenly run a big league baseball team. One of the under-reported aspects of Moneyball is that Beane played in the Major Leagues with a nondescript career as a journeyman when he was talented enough to be a superstar. It’s part of the narrative that made the Beane story so fascinating, but now that he’s become this totem many of his worshippers probably aren’t even aware that he played at all.

Beane had a perfect storm when he took over as GM. There had been a brief Sports Illustrated profile of him and his transition for player to scout and he was known in MLB circles as an up-and-comer, but the Athletics were so bad and so consistently bad for several years due to financial constraints that Beane was able to implement the strategies of statistics into his player procurement. It worked because no one else was doing it or paying big money for players who didn’t just get on base, but had undervalued attributes.

Beane’s “genius” has been a media creation. He’s been smart, he’s been lucky and he’s also been unlucky. He’s crafted the image of the brilliantly cold corporate titan when it’s not true. He’s a former player who entered the front office, took advantage of the opportunities presented to him and has been successful. A large part of that is due to the circular nature of Moneyball giving him the freedom and leeway to make bad trades and have half-a-decade of futility in which he blamed everyone but the man in the mirror and still kept his job.

Los Angeles Angels

Jerry Dipoto has two issues that are tarnishing his reputation as a GM. One, people don’t remember that it was Dipoto, functioning as the interim GM of the Diamondbacks after Josh Byrnes was fired in 2010, who made two trades that have paid significant dividends to the current Diamondbacks by acquiring Patrick Corbin and Tyler Skaggs for Dan Haren and getting Daniel Hudson for Edwin Jackson. Two, he’s overseeing an Angels team that has played better recently but is still in rampant disarray with overpaid, underperforming players; a manager who has had his own power within the organization mitigated by the hiring of Dipoto; and is trying to rebuild the farm system in his own way with scouts he knows and a new school sensibility while the owner wants a championship now and the manager has a contract to 2018. It’s highly doubtful that Dipoto wanted to commit so much money and so many years to the likes of Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton.

Dipoto was a journeyman relief pitcher who scouted and worked in many front offices with varying philosophies before getting the Angels job and is a qualified baseball man. It’s difficult to know what he’s wanted to do with the Angels and what’s been forced upon him. If the situation really comes apart, he might be cleared out with the rest of the Angels hierarchy and have to wait to get another opportunity due to the damage done to his reputation with what’s happening with the Angels.

Seattle Mariners

The ice is cracking under the feet of Jack Zduriencik and if he is eventually dismissed he will be a cautionary tale that no one will listen to when anointing the next “genius” by giving credit for that which he had nothing to do with. After the fact, if you ask Zduriencik what his biggest regret is, it’s likely to be that the Mariners had such a luck-filled rise from 101 losses the year before he arrived to 85 wins in his first year on the job. It accelerated the process spurring the trade for Cliff Lee and drastically raised the expectations.

Unsurprisingly the expectations were not met; much of Zduriencik’s subsequent moves have gone wrong and if he is indeed fired, the next GM will likely benefit from the farm system seeds Zduriencik planted. That brings me to the next point: there are GMs who are better-served as assistants, farm directors, scouts, and other lower-level positions in an organization. It may not be as flashy, but is no less important and for all the talk of “GM prospects,” it must be examined whether or not the person will be able to do all aspects of the job as an overseer rather than as an underling.

Houston Astros

Jeff Luhnow is not only getting a pass for the horrific Astros club he’s put together—that is on a level with an expansion team—but for the Cardinals fertile farm system that is continually producing players. The draft is a communal effort and not one person deserves or should receive all of the credit in the same manner that a GM shouldn’t get the blame if drafts go poorly. Luhnow didn’t work his way up in baseball and was a private businessman when Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt hired him. This infuriated the old-school people in the Cardinals organization namely Walt Jocketty, Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan and created factions between the stat people and the scouting people that eventually resulted in Jocketty’s firing. Luhnow also lost the power struggle to LaRussa in the months prior to leaving the Cardinals to take over the Astros. If nothing else, it was the experience in trying to transition into a baseball front office that has shaped Luhnow’s building of his Astros staff and construction of the roster from the top down as he’s got people who are going to do things in the stat-based way and are told before they’re hired how it’s going to be or they’re not going to get the job.

Of course the portrayal of Luhnow as the newest/latest “genius” and musings as to when (not if) he’ll be the subject of the new Moneyball are absurd. In four years he could be in the same position as Zduriencik or he could be Andrew Friedman. Know this: Astros owner Jim Crane is not going to accept failure and if the Luhnow project doesn’t work all the trust and belief that Crane has put into the Luhnow experiment will be quickly forgotten if the team doesn’t show concrete results on the field.

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Dealing With The Closer Issue

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Complaining about closers is like complaining about the weather: everyone talks about it, but no one does anything about it. The difference between the weather and closers is that something can be done about closers.

Amid all the talk about “what to do” with struggling relievers Jim Johnson and Fernando Rodney and the references of clubs who have found unheralded veterans to take over as their closer like the Cardinals with Edward Mujica and the Pirates with Jason Grilli, no one is addressing the fundamental problems with needing to have an “established” closer. Here they are and what to do about them.

Veteran relievers like to know their roles.

Managers like Whitey Herzog, Sparky Anderson, Billy Martin and Earl Weaver had the ability to tell their players that their “role” is to pitch when they tell them to pitch. Nowadays even managers who are relatively entrenched in their jobs like Joe Maddon have to have the players on their side to succeed. The Rays are a different story because they’re not paying any of their relievers big money and can interchange them if need be, but they don’t because Maddon doesn’t operate that way until it’s absolutely necessary.

Other clubs don’t have that luxury. They don’t want to upset the applecart and cause a domino effect of people not knowing when they’re going to pitch; not knowing if a pitcher can mentally handle the role of pitching the ninth inning; and don’t want to hear the whining and deal with the aftermath if there’s not someone established to replace the closer who’s having an issue. Rodney was only the Rays’ closer last season because Kyle Farnsworth (a foundling who in 2011 had a career year similar to Rodney in 2012) got hurt.

Until managers have the backing of the front office and have a group of relievers who are just happy to have the job in the big leagues, there’s no escaping the reality of having to placate the players to keep clubhouse harmony.

Stop paying for mediocrity in a replaceable role.

The Phillies and Yankees are paying big money for their closers Jonathan Papelbon and Mariano Rivera, but these are the elite at the position. Other clubs who have overpaid for closers include the Dodgers with Brandon League, the Red Sox with money and traded players to get Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan, the Nationals with Rafael Soriano, and the Marlins who paid a chunk of Heath Bell’s salary to get him out of the clubhouse.

Bell has taken over for the injured J.J. Putz with the Diamondbacks and pitched well. The Cubs, in desperation, replaced both Carlos Marmol ($9.8 million in 2013) and Kyuji Fujikawa (guaranteed $9.5 million through 2014) with Kevin Gregg. The same Kevin Gregg who was in spring training with the Dodgers and released, signed by the Cubs—for whom he struggled as their closer when they were trying to contend in 2009—as a veteran insurance policy just in case. “Just in case” happened and Gregg has gone unscored upon and saved 6 games in 14 appearances.

As long as teams are paying closers big money, closers will have to stay in the role far longer than performance would dictate in an effort to justify the contract. It’s a vicious circle that teams fall into when they overpay for “established” closers. When the paying stops, so too will the necessity to keep pitching them.

Find a manager who can be flexible.

A manager stops thinking when it gets to the ninth inning by shutting off the logical remnants of his brain to put his closer into the game. If it’s Rivera or Papelbon, this is fine. If it’s anyone else, perhaps it would be wiser to use a lefty specialist if the situation calls for it. If Chase Utley and Ryan Howard are hitting back-to-back and a club has Randy Choate in its bullpen, would it make sense to use a righty whether it’s the ninth inning and “his” inning or not?

Maddon is flexible in his thinking and has the support of the front office to remove Rodney from the role if need be. One option that hasn’t been discussed for the Rays is minor league starter Chris Archer to take over as closer in the second half of the season. With the Rays, anything is possible. With other teams, they not only don’t want to exacerbate the problem by shuffling the entire deck, but the manager is going to panic if he doesn’t have his “ninth inning guy” to close. Even a veteran manager like Jim Leyland isn’t immune to it and a pitcher the front office didn’t want back—Jose Valverde—is now closing again because their handpicked choice Bruce Rondon couldn’t seize his spring training opportunity and the “closer by committee” was on the way to giving Leyland a heart attack, a nervous breakdown or both.

The solution.

There is no solution right now. Until teams make the conscious decision to stop paying relievers upwards of $10 million, there will constantly be the “established” closer. It’s a fundamental fact of business that if there isn’t any money in a job, fewer people who expect to make a lot of money and have the capability to make a lot of money in another position are going to want to take it. Finding replaceable arms who can be used wherever and whenever they’re told to pitch, ignore the save stat, and placed in a situation to be successful instead of how it’s done now will eliminate the need to pay for the ninth inning arm and take all the negative side effects that go along with it. Games will still get blown in the late innings, but at least it won’t be as expensive and will probably happen with an equal frequency. It’s evolution. And evolution doesn’t happen overnight, if it happens at all.

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