Mike Morse a Useful Bat and Not a Huge Difference-Maker

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The Nationals are listening to offers on outfielder/first baseman Mike Morse after re-signing first baseman Adam LaRoche to a 2-year, $24 million contract. With the presence of Denard Span, Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper in the outfield and the retention of LaRoche, there’s nowhere for Morse to play. He’s stated that he’d be uncomfortable as a designated hitter, but given that he is under contract for one more year at $6.75 million and is a free agent after 2013, he doesn’t have any say in the matter. He’s a below-average defensive player, but he’s not an outright liability in the outfield or at first base.

The Nationals are counting on several variables to repeat their 2012 division-winning performance and 98 wins. Dan Haren is replacing Edwin Jackson in the starting rotation and while Jackson was a guaranteed 190-200 innings, Haren’s back injury limited him to 176 in 2012 and he’s not a certainty to return to durability and form in 2013. On a one year contract, he’s worth the risk at $13 million in comparison to the 4-year, $52 million deal Jackson got from the Cubs. Stephen Strasburg’s limits are gone, so they can count on him for 30 more innings than the 159 he was allowed to throw in 2012. With Haren and Strasburg’s newfound freedom, that should counteract the loss of Jackson.

They’ve lost their two lefties out of the bullpen Tom Gorzelanny and Sean Burnett. Unless they replace them from the outside or get another starting pitcher in order to place Ross Detwiler in the bullpen where he belongs, these departures are going to hurt the Nationals.

They’re said to be seeking lefty bullpen help in exchange for Morse or young starting pitching. Teams in need of Morse’s bat include the Braves, Mets, Rays, Phillies, Orioles, Yankees, Mariners, and Indians. If the Nats think they’re getting at top-tier starting pitching prospect for Morse, they’re deluding themselves.

Morse has tremendous power, but his walks dropped significantly in 2012 in spite of his pitches-per-at-bat percentage remaining static for what it’s been for his career. That could be explained by several things. The Nationals’ batting order, with LaRoche having a very good power year and batting behind Morse, might have led to pitchers challenging Morse a bit more. He could have altered his approach and gotten too aggressive with pitches that he shouldn’t have—that was the case on 2-0 counts and it was a detriment to his production. Or the league might have, to a certain extent, figured out that he’s not an elite slugger and a power fastball up in the zone can get by him with breaking stuff in the dirt leading to strikeouts.

He has legitimate 25-30 homer pop, but not overwhelming value.

What I would try to do if I were the Nationals is to seek something a bit more out of the box than what’s been mentioned as a return in a Morse trade. The likeliest combination of return for Morse would be, for example, from the Mariners Charlie Furbush and Hector Noesi. That’s not a bad deal for either side.

From the Yankees, I wouldn’t ask for young pitching they don’t have, but I would ask for another pending free agent after 2013, one who’s fallen out of favor with the club from his days as a big time prospect: Joba Chamberlain. I’d also ask for Clay Rapada. This would bolster the Nationals bullpen with a situational lefty and possibly give them a shutdown seventh, eighth and ninth innings with Chamberlain, Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen with three pitchers who can interchangeably close.

They won’t get a ton for Morse, but they’ll get useful pieces. The team that gets Morse will get a power bat who hits righties and lefties equally as well and won’t be affected by ballpark factors because he’s big enough and strong enough to hit the ball out of any park. He’s not a major difference-maker, but he’s a chip they can trade to fill immediate needs.

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Final Analysis on the Strasburg Shutdown

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The shutdown of Stephen Strasburg has taken the tone of an overhyped movie marketed to an increasingly uninterested public. It’s been talked about for so long that when it finally happens, no one’s going to notice or care. The Nationals say they’re going to do it and, judging from the latest statements emanating from the club, Strasburg’s last start will be on around September 12th. Then the rest of the team will head for the playoffs without him. Perhaps they’ll need a coping device such as imagining that he’s injured and lost for the season. Maybe it can be treated as a delusional fuel in a formulaic drama of triumph over adversity in which you know the ending before you walk into the theater, but do it anyone for a moment of predictability amid the randomness of reality.

We don’t know what’s going to happen for the Nationals in the playoffs; we don’t know what’s going to happen with Strasburg in the future, whether this decision will be seen as wise or a retrospective waste of time and energy. If Strasburg were allowed to pitch for the rest of the season, started a playoff game and got blasted, the inevitable snark, “Looks like they should’ve shut him down after all,” would be predictable and reminiscent to Sandy Koufax refusing to pitch in the opening game of the 1965 World Series because he’s Jewish and it was Yom Kippur. Don Drysdale started and got rocked. So began the jokes that the Dodgers would’ve been better off if Drysdale had been Jewish too.

But they’re doing it. At the very least, they’re following through on their statements—statements that began the whole mess in the first place.

Let’s look at some questions regarding Strasburg once and for all and end this manufactured story in advance of its implementation.

What do other players think about this?

His Nationals’ teammates are, to a man, sticking to the script. Jayson Werth put it succinctly when asked about it by essentially saying that they knew it was coming and they’ll move forward without him. It’s best to ignore what the Nationals and their players are saying about this because you’re not going to get an honest answer. I’d venture a guess that they’re saying something drastically different in private than they are in public.

Broadcasters like Ron Darling, who has a foundation to speak out on this subject as a former top 10 starting pitcher in baseball and the intelligence to express it as a graduate of Yale, has ridiculed the notion that Strasburg shouldn’t go beyond X number of innings. Darling takes his old-school sensibilities to the extreme by shaking his head at pitchers who notify their pitching coach and manager when they’re tight or can’t get loose and are removed from games. Darling himself logged a great number of innings and racked up high pitch counts as was commensurate with his era. Darling also lost his fastball before he reached age 30, hung on until he was 35 using his ample mind rather than stuff, and was finished when he could conceivably have had 4 or so more years of effectiveness and paychecks.

Would he trade the work he did in the 1980s with the Mets to hang on for a couple of more years? Would he have wanted to be perceived as self-interested enough not to pitch late in the season or give a few more innings, a few more pitches in the interest of the club and not himself? Probably not.

The culture and era has dictated much of what’s gone on with Strasburg. If this were 15-20 years ago, his innings limit wouldn’t be a story because it wouldn’t exist.

That said, there are undoubtedly people in baseball who think Strasburg is a wimp (and would use a more coarse vernacular than that) because he’s gone merrily along with the puppeteers telling him what he’s going to be doing rather than saying he wants to pitch and taking steps to make sure it happens such as going on a media blitz of his own. There have been the made-for-media soundbites like, “They’ll have to rip the ball out of my hand,” but it’s easy to say that knowing they are going to rip the ball out of his hand.

The “I just work here and do what I’m told” stuff doesn’t wash when he has more leverage than his employers.

Could Strasburg prevent this?

Of course he could. The Nationals and Strasburg could’ve put their money where their guidelines and the “future” are by agreeing to a long-term contract so Strasburg wouldn’t have to worry about financial security and the Nationals would have their investment locked up so they’re not saving the bullets they’re allegedly trying to save for him to sign with another team after the 2016 season. How’s that going to look if the Nats get bounced early in the playoffs and flounder in upcoming years, realize that 2012 was their chance, and then agent Scott Boras and Strasburg leave Washington? Will it still have been the “right” thing to do?

The money aspect is a bit silly as well. Boras is looking at $200+ million in contracts over the next ten or so years for his client, but it’s not as if Strasburg is a third year player, waiting for arbitration and making a pittance in comparison to what other starting pitchers are making nor is he encumbered by the new rules regulating how much bonus money a drafted player can make. He received a $7.5 million bonus to sign and is being paid a guaranteed $3 million this season. It’s not an amount of money that’s on a level with what he’ll make if he stays healthy from now through 2016, but it’s substantial. The “future” argument could be rendered meaningless and the concerns about his health tamped down if the Nationals and Strasburg agree to a down-the-line contract for mutual benefit.

The Nationals arguments for the shutdown

GM Mike Rizzo can chafe at the repeated questioning of his decision—and I do mean his decision since he’s gone to great lengths to make clear that he is the decider—but he brought this on himself. The Nationals could have kept quiet about the innings limit without giving a number. This isn’t politics and they didn’t need to provide a background to sell to the world as to why they’re doing what they do. But they did. Rizzo can cite medical studies until the end of time suggesting that this is the “right” thing to do, but it seems as if they had an end in mind and made sure they had the medical data to back up what they were doing. If they went to a truly independent doctor and that doctor said that he saw no physical reason to make Strasburg stop pitching if the Nationals and Strasburg do X, Y, and Z, then it would oppose what they want to; what’s safe for them to do; and more importantly, what Boras wants them to do to protect his client.

The NY Times published a piece about Strasburg on August 21st. In it, random cases for both sides are cited. Jordan Zimmerman has been healthy and very good in 2012 after operating under these identical constraints last season and after having undergone the same Tommy John surgery that Strasburg did. Pitchers who have not been under such limits are also mentioned. Greg Maddux, Matt Cain, CC Sabathia on one end; Steve Avery, Mike Witt, Bret Saberhagen on the other.

It never ends if you continually point of examples where there’s no baseline breaking point of what’s enough—no one knows.

The Nationals could very easily have copied what the Tigers did with Justin Verlander in 2006 when he was the exact same age as Strasburg; has an almost identical pitching style; both had very short stays in the minors; and the 2006 Tigers and 2012 Nationals made rapid and relatively unexpected leaps into title contention. But Verlander pitched in the playoffs and World Series and Strasburg won’t.

People can mention the Tommy John surgery as a notable difference between Strasburg and Verlander, but the surgery is supposed to make the ligament stronger than before. Why should it be an issue if Strasburg’s recovered from it? Wouldn’t the wear-and-tear prior to the surgery be more of a reason to limit him than after it?

In the NY Times article, the ones who stay healthy with a bigger workload are referred to as “physical freaks”; the ones who get hurt are considered the normal end result of overuse. But you can’t reference studies and reams of reports to justify Strasburg’s case and chalk durability up to random “freakishness”. It doesn’t mesh.

If you look at any medical malpractice trial, any lawyer can find a doctor who’s willing to say whatever is in the best interests of his client be it the plaintiff or the defendant. Are they truly independent doctors who are providing the truth to the entities—the Nationals and Boras—who are retaining them? Highly doubtful.

This isn’t to say the Nationals are wrong. Protecting that gifted arm is a wise thing to do, but doing it at the expense of their own personal interests and not taking steps to prevent this shutdown from becoming reality when the Nationals are going to need him most showed a remarkable lack of foresight.

They could’ve gone to a 6-man rotation; they could’ve shut him down at mid-season for 3-4 starts; they could’ve done a number of things to have him available for the playoffs. They didn’t.

And the idea that the Nats didn’t expect to be this good, this fast is contradicted by reality. If they didn’t have an intent on trying to win, then why did they gut the system to get Gio Gonzalez? Why did they pay Werth all that money before the 2011 season? Why sign Edwin Jackson?

The Nationals tried to win and are winning. This is not the developmental phase of a team that they hope to be good 3 years from now. Their future is now and Strasburg is not going to be a part of that “now” as soon as the clock strikes midnight on his season—that midnight is apparently coming on September 12th.

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What To Watch For Over The Final Month—National League

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I discussed the American League and what to watch for over the final month on Thursday along with a warning for those seeing the Wild Card as an oasis in the desert. It’s not.

Now let’s take a look at the National League.

The Nationals shutdown of Stephen Strasburg

I’m planning a more in-depth discussion of this in an upcoming post, but Strasburg’s imminent shutdown has become the dominant story for a team that should be talking about the positive aspects of their rise to a legitimate championship contender instead of this Strasburg silliness.

I’m beginning to believe that they’re not going to shut him down and as an organization, they’re coming up with alternatives to: A) keep his innings limit within reason and use him in the playoffs; and B) create a story to sell to the media as to why they fudged on their prescribed innings limit.

A really isn’t all that difficult. Their lead in the division is secure enough that they can give him extra rest in September. B shouldn’t even be a factor, but since GM Mike Rizzo has been so stupidly forthright regarding his plans, it is a factor.

Don’t be shocked when Strasburg is standing on the mound and starting in game 2 of the NLDS.

Chipper Jones’s farewell tribute from the Mets

I gotta see this thing.

Jimmy Rollins’s behavior

He’s being selfish and setting a terrible example for the rest of the team with his lack of hustle, embarrassing for the supposed “heart and soul” and clubhouse leader. Manager Charlie Manuel’s benching of Rollins and Rollins’s subsequent apology isn’t worth much since he’s definitely going to do it again over the final month, probably multiple times.

Rollins is guaranteed $22 million for 2013-2014 and he has a vesting option for 2015 that he won’t reach based on the contract kickers of plate appearances (the Phillies won’t let him), but if the contract doesn’t vest, the club has an $8 million option that they won’t exercise and Rollins has a $5 million option that, at age 36 and with his performance declining and his reputation soiled, he very well might exercise to get one last paycheck. So the contract actually calls for him to make $27 million through 2015.

The “everything is hunky dory” tone of the Rollins apology story glosses over the facts that he’s declining as a player, is signed for several more years, and the Phillies on the whole are old, expensive and not good.

The Marlins attendance

They’re currently 12th in attendance which is a step up from finishing last every season, but in context with a beautiful, brand new park and a team that had spent money to try and win, one would think they’d have been better than 12th—a position they’ve held steady from the beginning of the season until now.

They’re in last place and traded away most of their stars. They’re not likable, nor are they fun to watch. Football season is starting next week. No one’s going to pay attention to the Marlins and no one’s going to go to the games.

I’m not sure where they, as an organization, go from here. The fans just don’t care.

Dusty Baker’s contract

It’s not right that Baker has the Reds steamrolling towards the playoffs, has done a fine job in handling the club from top-to-bottom, and is functioning without a new contract. One would assume that he’s safe, but he also led the Giants to the World Series in 2002 and was out of a job that winter in a contract-based dispute that turned ugly. I would say he’ll definitely be back, but in 2002 I would’ve said the same thing.

The Dodgers playoff push

With all the headline-blaring moves they made, their playoff spot is far from guaranteed. Now they may have lost closer Kenley Jansen for the season with a heart ailment. He’ll find out on Tuesday if he can pitch again this season. If they lose Jansen, they have two options: 1) use someone they already have on the roster like Brandon League; 2) trade for someone for the month of September to make the playoffs and use Jansen when he’s able to pitch again.

Considering the moves they’ve made this season, I’d say they’re going to lay the foundation to trade for someone who can do the job if League falters and Jansen’s out. GM Ned Colletti is probably making calls now to that end.

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Leo Mazzone’s Criticism of the Nationals’ Handling of Stephen Strasburg Invites a Strong and Selective Reaction

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Leo Mazzone’s reputation as a pitching coach guru was bolstered by having three Hall of Famers and a pretty good background cast of characters with the Braves and was subsequently ruined by going to the Orioles and functioning without much talent. Like most coaches (and managers for that matter), it’s more about the talent than it is about any set of principles implemented by the coach or organization.

When Mazzone had Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz, he looked smart. He had Rodrigo Lopez and Kris Benson with the Orioles and therefore, didn’t look as smart.

That said, it can’t be ignored that Erik Bedard had his two best and healthiest seasons working under Mazzone; that relatively pedestrian pitchers Denny Neagle, Kerry Ligtenberg, Greg McMichael, Mike Remlinger, and John Thomson blossomed with him as their pitching coach and did nothing notable anywhere else; that Kevin Millwood and Steve Avery developed under Mazzone; that Russ Ortiz, John Burkett, Jaret Wright and Mike Hampton all experienced a renaissance under him; or that the Braves came undone after Mazzone left.

Was it talent? Was it Hall of Famers? Was it technique? Was it Bobby Cox? Was it that the Braves in those years were super good and could’ve shuttled anyone out there and had them look better than they were?

Or was it a combination of everything?

Or is it something that can’t be defined as “this is why”?

Mazzone hasn’t gotten a pitching coach job since he was fired by the Orioles which leads me to believe that his reputation as someone who doesn’t adhere to organizational edicts—a version of going along to get along that’s been in place forever—is preventing him from being hired. Or perhaps it’s something else.

I don’t know and nor do you. This is why it’s silly to take Mazzone’s quotes about the Nationals’ parameters and much-discussed decision to limit Stephen Strasburg as the ranting of a has-been baseball dinosaur by referencing Steve Avery as “proof” (as Craig Calcaterra does here on Hardball Talk) that Mazzone’s way is one of the past and his opinions carry zero weight.

With the proliferation of self-proclaimed experts, stat sites, and insertion of viewpoints available at the click of a button, it’s hard to know which end is up. Everyone’s knows better than the previous person whether that person is an experienced baseball man or not. Dave Righetti and the Giants’ methods involving their young pitchers functioning similarly to the Braves of the 1990s drew old-school respect as Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum flourished. But Lincecum wasn’t working under the Giants’ program and was essentially left on his own. So where does the credit lie? Is it Lincecum’s dad? Is it the Giants for their willingness to let Lincecum pitch without limits? And who gets the blame for his poor season and decreased velocity? Does Righetti get the accolades for Cain and Madison Bumgarner? How does it work?

The Yankees can provide reams of printouts and cutting-edge medical recommendations for their treatment of their young pitchers, but all are either hurt (Jose Campos, Manny Banuelos); inconsistent or worse (Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain); stagnant (Dellin Betances); or have the fault shifted elsewhere for the Yankees’ shoddy assessments (Michael Pineda).

Did Avery get hurt because of the Braves’ overusing him or would he have gotten hurt anyway? Avery was another pitcher who learned his mechanics from his dad and was left to his own devices. It was only after he got hurt that those mechanics were deemed as the culprit. And now, years after the fact, Mazzone’s getting the blame.

Would he have gotten hurt anyway? Judging from the way pitchers are constantly injured—clean mechanics or not—it’s a pretty safe bet that he would’ve.

Will Strasburg get hurt? He was babied from college onward and still needed Tommy John surgery.

Some pitchers are overused at a young age and get injured; others stay healthy. Why doesn’t Calcaterra reference Maddux, who as a 22-year-old was handled by another old-school manager Don Zimmer and pitching coach, Dick Pole, and allowed to throw as many as 167 pitches in a game in 1988? Maddux credited Pole for teaching him proper mechanics and Pole has bounced from team-to-team because he—guess what?—asserts himself and doesn’t go with the organizational flow.

Jim Bouton wrote about this phenomenon in Ball Four when discussing why Johnny Sain hopped from club-to-club and never lasted very long in any one place. Ego and control are far more important to an organization than getting it right and iconoclasts don’t last unless they have massive success.

Mazzone’s not wrong here. In truth, nor are the Nats. There is no “right” or “wrong”. I disagree with the way they’ve implemented their plan because there were methods to keeping Strasburg’s innings down without going to the controversial extreme of shutting him down when they’re going to need him most in the playoffs (the 6-man rotation for example), but the smug condescension and retrospective denigration of Mazzone’s work is pure second guessing and random outsider expertise to prove an unprovable theory with the selective references to match.

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The Nationals Need a Pitcher More Than a (Prince) Fielder

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Any team can use a bat that will hit 30-40 homers and get on base 40% of the time, but when that bat is attached to a body of jiggly flesh that’s going to grow larger and more jiggly as time passes; when the team doesn’t have the DH available to stash said player to account for his defensive deficiencies that are going to grow worse as he grows older (and larger); when the player is represented by an agent whose demands are starting at 10-years; and when the team has holes on the mound bigger than in their lineup, it makes little sense to spend the vast amount of money it’s going to cost to sign that player.

The Nationals have the money to sign Prince Fielder; they can certainly use his power; their ownership is very wealthy; and the team is on the cusp of legitimate contention, if not already there. But do they need him?

Their offense finished 12th in the National League in runs scored, but that’s misleading. Jayson Werth was awful in 2011 and will absolutely be better in 2012—in fact, I think he’ll have a very good year. Ryan Zimmerman missed a chunk of the season with an abdominal injury. They’re replacing offensive hindrances with occasional power, Rick Ankiel and Laynce Nix, in the regular lineup.

If Adam LaRoche returns and hits his 20 homers, they’ll score enough to win if their pitching performs; the rotation as currently constructed is good enough to loiter around contention; the bullpen is shutdown with Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen shortening the game. But they need another starting pitcher who can be trusted to take the ball every fifth day and give them a designated number of innings. Mark Buehrle would’ve been perfect, but he signed with the Marlins.

The Nationals will eventually start to win as a matter of circumstance even as the front office does baffling things like trading a package for Gio Gonzalez that would’ve been suitable for a far better pitcher like Matt Garza; signing a good background player like Werth to a contract befitting a star; or seriously considering meeting agent Scott Boras’s* demands for Fielder.

*Do people realize that Boras was a minor league player before becoming an agent of evil? Click on his name above; he was actually a good hitter.

As much as the Nationals are playing up their starting rotation with the addition of Gonzalez, they don’t have a horse at the front. Stephen Strasburg is an ace talent, but your number one starter cannot be on an innings/pitch count—he’s not going to give them 200 innings next season. John Lannan is a good pitcher, but he’s not an every fifth day, “put the team on his back” guy either. No one can predict what Chien-Ming Wang is going to do. Jordan Zimmerman is in the same position as Strasburg.

The Nationals have talked about moving Werth to center field until next winter when B.J. Upton—in whom they’ve long had interest—will be available; Werth can play center field serviceably enough, but the smart thing for them to do would be to steer clear of Fielder; sign a pitcher who will give them 200 innings like Edwin Jackson; sign Cody Ross as a left field stopgap; and install Michael Morse in right.

Also, Bryce Harper is going to get a legitimate shot to make the team out of spring training. The Nats have to be careful with Harper and manager Davey Johnson must learn from the mistakes he made with a similarly hyped prospect and immature personality, Gregg Jefferies. Johnson coddled Jefferies and enabled the diva-like behaviors exhibited by the then 19-year-old; when he stopped hitting and his self-centeredness drew the ire of the Mets veterans, Johnson continued writing his name in the lineup creating a fissure between himself and the players with whom he’d cultivated a relationship from their formative years.

He cannot do that again.

If Harper is in the big leagues and Werth or Zimmerman feel the need to dispense old-school clubhouse discipline on the mouthy youngster, Johnson has to stay out of it; and if Harper isn’t hitting, he shouldn’t play simply because his name is Bryce Harper.

The one free agent bat at a key position they could’ve used was Jose Reyes; like Buehrle, he signed with the Marlins. Now the big offensive name remaining on the market is Fielder. But having a lineup inhabited by two players who are going to be contractually locked in for the next eight years limits flexibility and will result in diminishing returns quickly. If the Nationals have a budget, it will hamstring them financially as well.

They don’t need Fielder.

Signing him would be spending just for the sake of it and not help them achieve their goals any faster than they are now.

They’d be allowing Boras to play them just as they did last winter with Werth and it’s a mistake.

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