Knicks, Oakley and organizational estrangement

Basketball, MLB, NFL, Uncategorized

madison-square-gardenThe incident at Madison Square Garden in which former New York Knicks player and longtime fan favorite Charles Oakley was arrested for a confrontation with arena security has yielded a visceral reaction from fans and media members who see Oakley as the epitome of what the current Knicks are missing. As a player, he did the dirty work, protected his teammates and was the “lunch pail” guy – the ones no team or business in general can function successfully without and whose work is largely appreciated in every context but the stat sheet. Long since retired, Oakley does not have an official role with the organization.

Given their current plight with team president Phil Jackson viewed as a disinterested observer of a team he was tasked – and received a contract for close to $12 million annually – to rebuild and owner Jim Dolan’s perceived ineptitude, it’s no wonder that the anger is reaching explosive proportions.

Regardless of the negative views of Jackson and his commitment and Dolan and his competence, is Oakley to be granted the benefit of the doubt for his behavior when no one seems to know what the dispute was even about? There must be a separation between what a player might have represented to the organization in the past and what is good for business in the future.

Every sport has these uncomfortable situations of trying to respect the past, granting deference to those who played an integral role in it and doing what’s right for the organization in the present and future. Not all reach the level of embarrassment as Oakley and the Knicks, but they’re everywhere. Legacy jobs are often harmless as long as there’s no actual decision making involved with them, but when a person is given a role without the ability to function in it effectively, it’s like a virus.

Sandy Alderson’s New York Mets regime has faced passive aggressive criticism from former Mets stars Howard Johnson and Mookie Wilson among others for their abandonment of the team’s past, but the biggest name that has elicited an over the top reaction is Wally Backman. This in spite of the Mets giving Backman a job as a minor league manager when no one else would; in spite of him repeatedly angering Alderson and his lieutenants for going off the reservation, for self-promoting, and for being the last thing anyone wants in a minor league manager: visible. In September of 2016, Backman either left the organization of his own accord or was fired – it’s still fuzzy – smothering his supporters’ lingering hopes that he would be given a chance as, at a minimum, a coach on Terry Collins’s staff.

By now, it’s clear to anyone who can read between even the flimsiest of lines that Backman only lasted as long as he did with the Mets because of his popularity with the fans and that the Wilpons were protecting him from Alderson’s axe. There are still conspiracy theories speculating about the real genesis of Alderson’s issues with Backman and whether Backman has been blackballed or not.

The only thing we have to go on is what’s happened. With that, if Backman truly is the managerial genius his fans purport him to be, it only worsens the practical reality that no affiliated club will hire him in any capacity. That Backman, for lack of big league opportunities, needed to take a job in the Mexican League is conveniently ignored in the narrative of negativity that still surrounds the Mets even as they’ve won a pennant, made the playoffs as a wild card and are a favorite to contend for a World Series in 2017, all under Alderson and Collins.

Ozzie Smith was angry with the way Tony La Russa reduced his role in 1996 and basically forced him out when Smith wanted to keep playing after that season.

Smith is royalty with the Cardinals and was treated as such by Whitey Herzog and his successor Joe Torre. By the time La Russa arrived, he was unattached to the Cardinals’ past. The club had been declining for several years, sparking the hiring of La Russa to begin with. Was La Russa supposed to enter the 1996 season relying on a 41-year-old Smith who had batted .199 the previous year? Or should he have pinned his hopes on what Smith had been five years before to keep from angering fans who want to have a winning team but also want to continue treating their stars with blind loyalty?

In his lone year playing for La Russa, Smith had a solid comeback season showing a portion of his fielding genius and batting .282 in 82 games, sharing the job with Royce Clayton. Could he have maintained that over the course of the season at that age? Could La Russa bank on that? Deferring to the past has its place, but when there are substantive changes made, collateral damage is unavoidable. La Russa didn’t go to St. Louis to mess around with what was already there and had finished 19 games below .500 in 1995. Caught in the crossfire was Smith. He’s still bitter about it, but who can argue with the success the Cardinals had under La Russa? Now had the club been worse under La Russa than it was under the prior, old-school Cardinals front office or Clayton fallen flat on his face, then there would have been a larger contingent of angry fans and media members standing behind Smith just as Knicks fans are doing with Oakley.

Tom Landry was unceremoniously fired by Jerry Jones in 1989 when Jones bought the Dallas Cowboys. When Jones made the clumsy and necessary decision and subsequently walked face first into a public relations buzz saw, no one on this or any other planet could have envisioned that less than three decades later, Jones would be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame to take his place among the sport’s luminaries along with Landry.

In retrospect, the same fans and media members who were outraged at the crude dispatching of Landry had been privately saying that the coach needed to go and a full overhaul was needed. Jones, in telling his predecessor Bum Bright that he was not buying the team unless he was able to replace Landry with Jimmy Johnson, was setting the conditions that many advocated but few had the guts to follow through upon. By the time the Cowboys’ rebuild was completed four years later and culminated with a Super Bowl (and two more in the next three years), no one cared whether Landry would acknowledge Jones or still felt embittered about his dismissal.

The insular nature of sports front offices is exactly what owners sought to get away from when they hired outsiders from other industries to take charge. Before that, a large percentage of former players who rose to upper level positions in a front office did so not because of competence or skill at the job they were hired to do, but as a form of patronage. That is no longer the case and invites a backlash. When Jeff Luhnow was hired to run the Houston Astros and gutted the place down to its exoskeleton, the on-field product was so hideous and former Astros stars so callously discarded that the response was inevitable: he had abandoned luminaries and made the product worse. The Astros are contenders now and the groundswell is largely muted even if the anger is still there.

Giving former star performers a ceremonial title is not done to grant them sway with the club. It’s a placating measure to engender goodwill with the fans and media. When that comes undone, incidents like the Knicks and Oakley exacerbate current problems and provide evidence of ongoing and unstoppable turmoil.

The issue for the Knicks is that they’re in such disarray that this type of incident involving a player who was a key component of their glory years will be magnified.

The Oakley incident can be viewed as the nadir of the Knicks under Jackson and Dolan based on nothing more than Oakley having been a favorite of the fans and the media during his playing career and representing a past that is so far in the rearview mirror that a large bulk of younger fans are unlikely to believe it even existed in the first place. It occurred directly on the heels of a typically cryptic Jackson tweet that seemed to disparage Carmelo Anthony and sent the team president and “Zen master” into familiar spin control only contributes to their perceived dysfunction. If the Knicks were riding high and this happened, the reaction would have been that Oakley needs to know his place. Since they’re not, it’s symbolic of that which ails the club.

Adhering to the past might be palatable, particularly when Oakley-type incidents take place, but there needs to be a separation between what’s happening within the organization and its outskirts even if they appear to be inextricably connected.

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The Positives and Negatives of Stephen Drew for the Mets

Ballparks, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, History, Hot Stove, Management, MiLB, Players, Playoffs, Prospects, Stats, Trade Rumors

The Mets have spent the last three seasons fielding a lien-up rather than a lineup. Since the Bernie Madoff scandal and the conscious decision to rebuild from the bottom up in part due to finances and in part because it was what they needed to do, the Mets haven’t spent significant money on any players. In retrospect, it will be seen as a positive that the team didn’t overpay and give up a draft pick for Michael Bourn or any of the other players Mets fans were demanding they sign for pretense and little benefit on the field.

Now that they’re free of the onerous contracts of Jason Bay and Johan Santana, the Mets have invested some of their available cash to improve the lineup with Chris Young and Curtis Granderson. They bolstered the starting rotation with Bartolo Colon. There’s a public debate as to whether they should sign the still-floating free agent shortstop Stephen Drew. Let’s look at how Drew fits for the Mets.

Cost

Drew’s market is hindered by the relatively few number of teams that need a shortstop and are willing to pay what agent Scott Boras wants. A year ago, Drew signed with the Red Sox for one year and $9.5 million with the intention of replenishing his value for a big-money contract. He replenished his value all right, but the big-money contracts have yet to present themselves. Drew was everything the Red Sox could have asked for. He was solid defensively, hit for pop with 50 extra base hits, and had an OPS of .777 which was close to his career average.

The problem for Drew remaining in Boston as appears to be his preference is that the Red Sox have a ready-made replacement for him at shortstop in young Xander Bogearts. They also have a competent third baseman in Will Middlebrooks. Neither are expensive and both can make up for Drew’s departure if the price isn’t similar – or slightly higher – than what the Red sox paid for him last season. If his price drops, then the Red Sox will gladly take him back, but it won’t be for a multi-year deal and they don’t need him.

The Yankees have already said they’re out on Drew and it’s not because they don’t need him. They do. But they’re tied to keeping Derek Jeter at shortstop and the idea of signing Drew to move him to third base is insulting to the intelligence of anyone who can see the reality that Jeter will not be able to play a competent defensive shortstop at age 40 as he returns from a serious ankle injury.

Drew has few alternatives other than the Mets and Red Sox. The Mets are being coy and the Red Sox are waiting him out. The Mets can get him if they decide they want him. A decision that they want him would mean they have to pay him. A three-year, $30-33 million deal would probably get it done. Are they willing to do that? Can they afford it?

How he fits

Drew is a clear upgrade over Ruben Tejada offensively and defensively. Tejada can play, but he’s never going to hit for the power that Drew does; he’s similar defensively; and he’s got a reputation of being lazy. The main attribute of Tejada for the Mets is that he’s cheap. But with the signings of Granderson and Young and that they’re intending to start the season with the still questionable Juan Lagares and Travis d’Arnaud in center field and catcher respectively, they’re running the risk of having three dead spots in the lineup before the season even begins. With Drew, they’d know what they’re getting and he would at least counteract Lagares and d’Arnaud. Drew is an up-the-middle hitter and his power comes when he pulls the ball. He wouldn’t be hindered by Citi Field and he’d hit his 10 homers and double-digit triples.

No matter how superlative he is defensively, the Mets won’t go through the whole season with Lagares in center field if he doesn’t hit. They’ll simply shift Young to center for more offense. They’re committed to d’Arnaud and he’ll play every day no matter what. If they want to have a chance for respectability and perhaps more, they can’t worry about whether they’re getting the Tejada from 2013 or the Tejada from 2011-2012. And the Tejada from 2011-2012 was serviceable and useful, but not close to what Drew can do.

With Drew, the Mets would be better in 2014 when they’re striving for respectability and in 2015 when Matt Harvey returns and they clearly have designs on contending.

The Mets pitching staff is not one that racks up a lot of strikeouts. The left side of the infield with Drew and David Wright will be excellent. Daniel Murphy is mediocre at best at second base. Lucas Duda is a solid defensive first baseman. With Lagares in center field, they have a Gold Glove candidate. Young can play the position well. They’re better in all facets of the game with Drew, plus they’re getting offense they will not get with Tejada. The difference between 77-85 and also-ran status and 85-77 and bordering on the fringes of contention might be Drew. That makes the signing worthwhile for on-field purposes.

His Drew-ness

The Drew family has long been known for its prodigious baseball talent. They’re the physical prototypes for baseball players. Along with that, they’ve been the prototypes for Boras clients.

J.D. Drew sat out a year rather than sign with the Phillies when he was drafted second overall in 1997. They didn’t meet his contract demands. The Cardinals drafted him fifth overall the next season and he signed. He was an excellent player for the Cardinals, but flummoxed manager Tony LaRussa with his lack of passion and aloofness. He was traded to the Braves for Adam Wainwright as the Braves expected him to be happier closer to his home. He had his career year and left to sign with the Dodgers. He spent two years in Los Angeles, then exercised an opt-out in his contract to go to the Red Sox.

In short, he was never happy with where he was and was constantly looking for the next opportunity. It could have had to do with money or it might have had to do with a wanderlust. Or he could simply have been treating the game as a business and listening to every single word uttered by the Svengali, Boras.

Stephen Drew has many of the same traits as his brother. Both are injury-prone, though Stephen is not hurt to the extent that his brother was; both are supremely talented and never appear happy where they are; both wanted to get paid and might be making decisions detrimental to their careers in listening to every whisper from their agent.

In retrospect, should Stephen have accepted the Red Sox qualifying offer and tried for free agency in another year when it’s pretty much a certainty that the Yankees are going to be looking for a replacement for Jeter and will be free of any financial constraints? Probably. Does he regret not taking it? We’ll never know because the Drews don’t rattle the Boras cage.

If the Mets go hard after Drew, there’s the possibility that they’re being used to get the Red Sox or the famed Boras “mystery team” to ante up and top the offer. For the Mets, while it wouldn’t be catastrophic not to get Drew, it would extinguish much of the good will they did accumulate by signing Granderson and Colon if they pursued him and failed to reel him in.

The conclusion

The Mets should go after Drew and see whether they can get him at a reasonable price. If Boras will take something in the neighborhood of three-years at $30-33 million, the Mets would have a bridge shortstop until former first round draft pick Gavin Cecchini is ready. They’d be better in the short term and definitely have someone who could help them do what the true intention is: contend in 2015. If Boras is being unreasonable or the feeling is that they’re just waiting for the Red Sox to up the offer, the Mets should move on and figure something else out. If that means they’re hoping that Tejada decides he wants to play and shows up early and in shape, so be it.




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The Wrath Of Sandy

Books, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, Hall Of Fame, Management, Media, Players

As smart as Sandy Alderson is, it’s doubtful even he knew what he was walking into when he took the job as Mets General Manager.

Having gone through combat in Vietnam and navigated his way around the legal profession before entering the dysfunctional and illogical world of baseball, one would assume Alderson was ready for anything.

But as his first season as Mets GM reaches its halfway point and the team is playing far over their heads and expectations, he’s confronted with the choice of trading or not trading Carlos Beltran, Francisco Rodriguez and any other player on the roster. On one hand he has the faint hopes that the team can stay over .500 and within striking distance of a playoff spot and keep them to placate the masses and let things evolve (or devolve) naturally.

On the other, it’s clear the decks and build for 2012 and beyond.

It’s not as simple as it must’ve appeared when he took the job.

Running a New York team isn’t a matter of saying, “this is what’s best for the organization, this is what I’ll do”. There are ancillary factors that have to be accounted for. When he was the GM of the Athletics, he had the best manager in the game in Tony La Russa and an ownership that spent money. The fans were supportive while the team was good and once things came apart, the attendance and interest dropped; La Russa left and no one paid much attention to the A’s or Alderson anymore. It’s not hard to function with no pressure and no expectations.

With the Padres, there was the Moneyball afterglow in which Alderson took the presidency of the club as the conquering hero, the man who was behind the “genius” Billy Beane; he sought to validate the book and it didn’t work.

In his other endeavors, he’s been known as a problem-solver and straight-shooter.

Now he’s with the Mets.

He’s dancing through the Madoff raindrops; waiting for the ownership/cash circumstances to play out; enduring the questions of what’s going to happen with the current players and the looming free agency of Jose Reyes.

It’s not as easy as following the blueprint of doing what needs to be done; of ignoring all obstacles real or perceived.

Alderson has the media intimidated. He’s not here to be everyone’s friend and while he clearly has an interest in how he’s perceived in an “I did this” sort of way, he’s not going to fall into the Omar Minaya trap of being nice and wanting “friends”; of having people like him at the expense of doing his job properly.

The Mike Francesas and Joel Shermans of the world have learned first hand what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a subtle, eloquent Alderson backhand; both cower at the mere hint of the wrath of Sandy.

Alderson’s not betraying his hand for the trading deadline. He’s straddling the line with the knowledge that this solid burst of Mets play is partially a mirage and partially due to parity—it’s unlikely to continue; even if it does, the Phillies, Braves and other playoff contenders are too strong for the Mets to keep up with them over the summer.

It’s a truth that must be accepted and accounted for in moving forward.

As painful as that is, it’s for the greater good of the organization if decisions are made for the future and not a present that will beget nothing in the end apart from critics saying, “well the Mets weren’t as bad as we thought”.

It’s a meaningless “compliment” and contributes nothing to the future of the franchise.

I have confidence that Alderson will do what must be done for the Mets.

And whether the public at large/media likes it or not can’t factor into the equation.

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These Guys Ain’t Young

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

It’s easy to stop seeing sports figures—especially polarizing ones—as human beings; but Tony La Russa‘s illness with shingles that is going to keep him from managing “indefinitely” is a reminder of that.

La Russa is 66-years-old and puts so much energy and intensity into managing that any health problem is going to be exacerbated by the self-imposed pressure he places on himself; and shingles is serious.

It’s not simply limited to club personnel who are treated as if they’re inanimate objects who are always going to be there. WFAN’s Mike Francesa is often lambasted because he takes his vacation in the summer and misses a large chunk of the baseball season in July and August including the trading deadline.

His appearances are infrequent in the summer, but look at it logically. Francesa is working alone and talking for 5 1/2 hours from Monday to Friday during the baseball season; during football season, he’s working on Sundays as well.

He’s not young (57); he’s not exactly the picture of health for a man near 60 with the extra weight and endless bottles of soda; he has young children at home; and it’s physically draining to be talking into a microphone for that amount of time and dealing with the callers, the criticism and other aspects that go along with the job.

The man has a right to his vacations.

Nothing should interfere with evenhanded analysis—there can be no sympathy there if you’re doing it correctly—but perhaps a little empathy would be appropriate in the human sense.

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I’m administrating a discussion group on TheCopia.com. Click on the link to leave a comment or start a new topic. Check it out.

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Please purchase my book, Paul Lebowitz’s 2011 Baseball Guide.

I published a full excerpt of my book here.

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

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

If anyone would like to purchase an autographed copy, leave a comment; Email me; contact me on Facebook or Twitter.

Become a fan on my Facebook fan page. Click on the link.

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Season’s Over…Noitsnot!!!

Books, Fantasy/Roto, Games, Management, Media, Paul Lebowitz's 2011 Baseball Guide, Players, Spring Training

The Cardinals are in first place in the NL Central.

This is after their season was declared “over” when they lost Adam Wainwright for the year at the start of spring training with Tommy John surgery.

Apparently the Cardinals’ season wasn’t over despite the doom, gloom and Jonny Gomes celebratory singing at the injury.

Taking advantage of above-and-beyond performances from Kyle Lohse, Kyle McClellan and Lance Berkman, they’ve also overcome a slow start from Albert Pujols and a bullpen in flux to stay competitive and more.

Who or what gets the credit?

Manager Tony La Russa?

Pitching coach Dave Duncan?

A parity-laden National League?

The aforementioned players?

All of the above?

It’s irrelevant really.

Berkman isn’t going to keep up the pace of hitting close to .400; Pujols will be in the MVP mix by the end of the season; they may need to find a starting pitcher somewhere.

None of that matters.

What matters is that the negativity and near panic that accompanied Wainwright’s injury news was more widespread amongst the fans and media than it was with the players and club management.

Yes, the Cardinals were shocked and concerned when Wainwright was lost; yes, it helped that he was injured before spring training started so it wasn’t as much of an elephant in the room; but once his absence was verified, it was accepted. Players, coaches, managers and executives don’t—if they’re any good anyway—think the same way as outsiders do.

They move on.

Whether Adam Wainwright is pitching on Thursday wouldn’t affect Kyle Lohse if he’s pitching on Monday; it won’t enter the mind of Yadier Molina when he’s facing a Bronson Arroyo curveball.

Players move on.

In the 24-hour news cycle, there’s a tendency to evacuate before thinking about the true consequences of any bit of information. For the Cardinals to maintain competitiveness, they had to get improved performances from Jaime Garcia and Lohse; they had to get competence from whomever took the Wainwright spot in the rotation. They’ve gotten that and more.

There was no need to pack up the equipment and go home; no cause for celebration on the part of a journeyman player like Gomes for a Reds team that is coming off of their first playoff season since 1995.

Circumstances dictate how drastic a maneuver to make in response to an injury.

When Alex Rodriguez tore his hip labrum two years ago, there was a call for the Yankees to go get a third baseman.

A-Rod was due back in May/June. That Yankees lineup couldn’t survive a couple of months without A-Rod? They had to go get a star to replace a star? Why?

The answer is they didn’t.

A different situation is that of the Phillies. Looks of confusion surrounded GM Ruben Amaro‘s winter inquiry about Michael Young of the Rangers after Young formally requested a trade. No one understood what the Phillies were going to do with Young…until it was revealed that Chase Utley‘s knee problem was serious enough that it might cost him the entire 2011 season.

Salary aside, Young would be useful to the Phillies whether Utley is there or not. Third baseman Placido Polanco and shortstop Jimmy Rollins have both had injury problems; Domonic Brown is a rookie and Raul Ibanez is 39-years-old; Young could be a roving utility player and would probably wind up with 500 at bats without an everyday position.

It wouldn’t have been a desperation move on the part of the Phillies to get Young because they weren’t reacting to one lost player by doing something crazy to placate a skittish fan/media contingent.

Acquiring a player should rarely be about doing something for its own sake; it’s about doing something smart—or doing nothing and waiting—to see how the team responds.

The Cardinals are responding and they’re doing it without Wainwright.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise.

I’m administrating a discussion group on TheCopia.com. Click on the link to leave a comment or start a new topic. Check it out.

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Please purchase my book, Paul Lebowitz’s 2011 Baseball Guide. It’s still useful for your fantasy sports needs.

I published a full excerpt of my book here.

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

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

If anyone would like to purchase an autographed copy, leave a comment; Email me; contact me on Facebook or Twitter.

Become a fan on my Facebook fan page. Click on the link.

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There Are Better Ways To Commit Career Suicide

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

Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell was either drunk or left his brain back in Atlanta before the team’s trip to San Francisco as he pretty much covered all the bases of job-ending stupidity in a public rant against the San Francisco fans and various groups in general—NY Times Story.

You can read about calls for McDowell’s firing everywhere; obviously he’s not going to be able to keep his job after this.

That the offended family chose to hire matron saint of the cause célèbres and tabloid fodder, attorney Gloria Allred, is a clear indicator that they’re not letting this go until they get paid; McDowell gets fired; or both.

McDowell did something so far beyond the scope of acceptable and excusable bouts of dunderheadedness that he’s going to be forced out as Braves pitching coach. No ifs, ands or buts. At first I thought the his apology was sufficient before reading the full context of the story, but he’s gotta go.

If McDowell was a star, difference-making pitching coach with a track record that would justify his retention despite this incident, obviously the Braves would find a way to keep him on. Dave Duncan gets a pass for most transgressions because he’s Dave Duncan and Tony La Russa wouldn’t let him be fired without a patented La Russa tantrum; McDowell doesn’t get that same leeway.

Mentioning La Russa isn’t a small part of such an equation. If Bobby Cox were still managing the Braves and insisted that McDowell be given the chance to redeem himself, McDowell might survive this inexplicable act of self-immolation; new manager Fredi Gonzalez has enough problems of his own trying to establish himself amid the new clubhouse culture and rampant criticisms of his strategies that he doesn’t need to be answering questions regarding his pitching coach’s misanthropic, homophobic, abusive rant.

The Braves have no option other than to force McDowell’s resignation and presumably pay a settlement to the “damaged” family. They hired Allred because they want attention and money.

They’ll get it.

And McDowell will be gone from the Braves dugout. Soon.

I have no idea what the Braves would do for a replacement pitching coach; presumably they’d hire someone from inside the organization. Rick Peterson is out of work and highly respected, although I don’t know if the Braves would want to go the Peterson route—he’s got a short shelf-life and might infringe on Gonzalez’s authority; but he’s a good pitching coach with proven results.

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I’m administrating a discussion group on TheCopia.com. Click on the link to leave a comment or start a new topic.

****

Please purchase my book, Paul Lebowitz’s 2011 Baseball Guide.

I published a full excerpt of my book here.

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

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

If anyone would like to purchase an autographed copy, leave a comment; Email me; contact me on Facebook or Twitter.

Become a fan on my Facebook fan page. Click on the link.

//

Lines Of Office

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

I repeatedly tried to assuage the fears of Braves fans that Fredi Gonzalez was a strategically poor manager who got the job to replace Bobby Cox based on Braves ties and his reputation as a man who controlled the clubhouse.

He did some strange things as manager of the Marlins, but his teams were always competitive and—apart from Hanley Ramirez—played the game hard and correctly.

But 17 games into his first season as the Braves manager, Gonzalez is inviting legitimate bewilderment into his decisions. Not only is he backtracking on his statements that implied he was sticking with his choices for the time being as was the case with Jason Heyward batting sixth (he’s now batting second); but he’s also vacillated on the spring training pronouncement that both Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel would be used as the designated closer based on matchups. It’s been Kimbrel, period.

Sunday’s game against the Mets was a case study in managerial idiocy that cost the Braves a win against a reeling and desperate club that resorted to using starting pitchers Chris Capuano and R.A. Dickey in relief to try and snap a 7-game losing streak.

In the second inning trailing 2-1, Gonzalez called for a suicide squeeze with Tommy Hanson at the plate, 2 strikes, 1 out and Eric Hinske on third. Hanson can’t hit; nor can he bunt. Hinske can’t run. It made absolutely no sense especially with Mets-killer Martin Prado on deck.

In the eighth inning, Brian McCann got picked off first base on a failed steal attempt with Hinske at the plate and Jason Isringhausen on the mound. Heyward had drilled Isringhausen’s first pitch over the center field fence; McCann had walked. With one out, the call was ludicrous with Hinske at the plate and Chipper Jones on deck.

The Braves fans who thought Gonzalez’s penchant for “doing stuff”—a common frailty among managers—was a recipe for disaster are seeing their nightmare come to life.

With a team this talented, presumably the manager’s game-costing decisions will be muted by sheer ability; but if the Wild Card/division comes down to one or two games, Gonzalez’s missteps could cost the Braves a playoff spot.

One unknown is where GM Frank Wren stands in all of this.

Does he question his manager—as is his right—after a gaffe-laden adventure like Sunday afternoon? Or does he let it go, confident that things will work out in the end?

If I were the GM, I’d be all over my manager for any decision I saw as questionable. It’s not out of line for the baseball boss of the organization to ask his field manager why he did what he did. There are the Tony La Russa-types who chafe at having their judgment and lines of office being crossed; they have a “how dare you?” reaction when questioned, but that shouldn’t preclude the GM from doing his job regardless of poor body language and short-tempered reactions from the manager.

It’s within the GM’s job description to oversee his manager. It’s not in the vein of a Moneyball-style middle-manager who takes orders, but an honest discussion between people who have to work together to make sure things run smoothly.

Did Wren step in with Heyward batting second? Possibly.

Did he question Gonzalez as to why he didn’t tell Hanson to stand there with the bat on his shoulder and wait to strike out to give Prado a chance to drive in runs? Why he had McCann stealing a base?

If he didn’t, he could’ve.

And should’ve.

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I’ll be hosting a discussion group on TheCopia.com starting this afternoon around 12:30-1:00 Eastern Time. Given my history of saying lots of stuff, it should be….interesting.

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Purchase my book, Paul Lebowitz’s 2011 Baseball Guide. It’s great for your fantasy baseball stuff all year long.

I published a full excerpt of my book here.

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

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

If anyone would like to purchase an autographed copy, leave a comment; Email me; contact me on Facebook or Twitter.

Become a fan on my Facebook fan page. Click on the link.

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Twins Problems Won’t Be Solved By A Closer Change

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

If only it were that easy.

The Twins have moved Joe Nathan out of the closer’s role and replaced him with Matt Capps.

At least Ron Gardenhire has an experienced option to make the change, something Tony La Russa and Ozzie Guillen don’t have as they have their own issues with late-inning relievers. It’s a fine line for a manager to walk with his players in switching roles and if Gardenhire didn’t have Capps; if Nathan wasn’t returning from Tommy John surgery, it’s unlikely that he’d have pulled the trigger this quickly.

But the litany of issues affecting the team won’t be solved by Capps pitching the ninth inning instead of the eighth.

The short-handed Twins can’t keep losing games they should win.

Joe Mauer is on the disabled list; they’re not hitting as a team; they have a questionable up-the-middle infield defense; and they’re not taking advantage of good starting pitching that’s not going to last.

Francisco Liriano has been terrible and will get better; but Carl Pavano and Nick Blackburn will come back down to earth. What happens when the starters stop pitching well as well as they have; if the bullpen, aside from Nathan, isn’t as solid as it’s been?

Their offense is better than last in the league in runs scored. Justin Morneau, Jim Thome, Mauer and Delmon Young have the career history that they’ll produce.

Will that be enough to account for mediocre starting pitching, the inexperienced bullpen and unsettled situation at closer?

The prior Twins teams had a continuity; a meshing that allowed them to win with fundamentals and players doing their jobs; if one didn’t do his job, his teammates picked him up.

That’s missing.

You can point to a number of factors beyond Nathan and the lack of offense. The new double play combination and broken leg suffered by Tsuyoshi Nishioka; the gutted bullpen and new configuration; the hangover from putting everything they had into last year only to be swatted away by the Yankees like an inconvenient annoyance—there are no clear-cut answers to be had.

They’ve made a change at closer because that was the obvious thing to do and they had a replacement on hand. But it’s not going to fix their current mess. Not at all.

****

Purchase my book, Paul Lebowitz’s 2011 Baseball Guide. It’s great for your fantasy baseball stuff all year long.

I published a full excerpt of my book here.

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

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

If anyone would like to purchase an autographed copy, leave a comment; Email me; contact me on Facebook or Twitter.

Become a fan on my Facebook fan page. Click on the link.

//

Those Last Three Outs

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

Tony La Russa, when scoffing at the suggestion that “anyone” can close games has said something to the tune of, “those last three outs are different”.

It’s not something that can be equated by stats or stuff. Closing is a mental endeavor more than anything else. It helps to have a power fastball like Goose Gossage; a bat-destroying cutter like Mariano Rivera; or a split-finger fastball like Bruce Sutter, but what all three of these pitchers and the other great closers of past and present have had is that they’ve been able to handle the mental and physical stresses of the job.

This phenomenon is being played out in front of our eyes as we’re seeing another quality arm who should be able to do it, one who I specifically pointed out as a winning choice—White Sox lefty Matt Thornton—imploding in his first week as the full-time closer.

Thornton has a high-90s fastball and good slider; he strikes out tons of hitters; has historically handled righties and lefties; doesn’t allow many homers; and throws strikes. His demeanor is indicates a closer’s mentality with the aura of “gimme the ball”.

But he’s been awful so far this season. So awful that while manager Ozzie Guillen is sticking with him, he’s come out and said he wants to see better results—ESPN Story.

In other words, time’s running out on Thornton’s foray as the White Sox closer.

Can it be explained by dissecting Thornton’s games and finding a reason why he’s gotten off to an atrocious start in his star turn? He’s had three save opportunities this season and blown them all including the April 8th game against the reeling and winless Rays in which he got tattooed for 5 runs. His defense certainly didn’t help him, but that’s no excuse.

Is it a slump? Or is being the designated “closer” in his head?

Some pitchers have been very good as set-up men and, when asked to pitch one inning later, have faltered. LaTroy Hawkins and Guillermo Mota were two solid relievers who simply could not do it.

La Russa always chafes at the implication that he destroyed the game with his specialization and role-based strategies.

The accusation is a misnomer. La Russa was simply doing what was best for his club at the time—the Athletics—and used Dennis Eckersley in a way that was best suited to what Eckersley could and couldn’t do.

The suggestion that “anyone” can get the outs in the ninth inning is contradicted by the qualified pitchers who’ve failed.

It’s not as simple as going out there and recording three outs. It’s an exercise in mental toughness more than a lights out fastball or sharp breaking pitch.

It’s important for one new to the situation and designation as the “ace” out of the bullpen to get off to a good start. Thornton’s already gacked that test. Next is whether he can overcome adversity and regain his bearings—another prerequisite.

Can he recover?

Judging from the statements of his manager, Thornton had better get a move on or he’s going back to the set-up role and Chris Sale will be closing sooner rather than later.

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Paul Lebowitz’s 2011 Baseball Guide is available.

I published a full excerpt of my book here (coincidentally, it’s the section about the Mets).

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

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

If anyone would like to purchase an autographed copy, leave a comment; Email me; contact me on Facebook or Twitter.

I’ve started a Facebook fan page. Click on the link.

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Hammering

Books, Games, Hall Of Fame, Management, Media, Paul Lebowitz's 2011 Baseball Guide, Players, Podcasts

Scott Kazmir‘s precarious position in the Angels starting rotation got me to—again—think about why teams insist on hammering square pegs into round holes.

There are certain belief systems that have to change to maximize the talent a club has on their roster. Did anyone ever stop to think that perhaps pitchers like Kazmir and Rich Harden would be better off as relievers?

After getting past the numerical argument that a decent starter is better than a good reliever, what happens if the pitcher isn’t a decent starter anymore; or if he’s good, but can’t stay healthy? Why does there have to be this ironclad set of rules that pitcher A is a starter and he’s going to stay a starter?

Kazmir and Harden can’t stay healthy as starters; Kazmir is no longer effective as a starter—why not see if he can possibly help out of the bullpen?

An onus is placed over a player who can’t do certain things and it’s at the expense of what he can do. One of the things that made Earl Weaver a genius wasn’t his adherence to stats; it wasn’t his discipline; it wasn’t his utter ruthlessness in getting rid of players who could no longer help him win; it was his conscious decision to put his players in the best possible circumstances to succeed.

He did it with Gary Roenicke and John Lowenstein—separately they could only be described as average players at best; combined, they were one of the most devastating platoons in memory.

So why can’t Harden be placed in the bullpen to see if he can fire his power fastball and slider for an inning or two, not worry about pacing himself and hope he can stay healthy?

If he continues his downward spiral, why not stick Kazmir in the bullpen as the 7th-8th inning man—or even let him close on occasion—and see if the adrenaline rush from being a reliever and never knowing when he’s going to be needed to pitch blows his fastball back into the mid-90s?

Tony La Russa has forever been blamed for the one-inning closer because of the way he deployed Dennis Eckersley; the truth is that Eckersley pitched more than one inning regularly when he first moved to the bullpen and La Russa’s decision to use his short reliever in that manner was based on Eckersley being better that way; it was not some grand scheme that this is how it should be done.

Does anyone think that Eckersley would’ve been of more use had he stayed in the starting rotation as his career was nearly undone at age 32 because he was no longer an effective starter? He didn’t want to go to the bullpen—he had no choice—now he’s in the Hall of Fame.

With the way relievers—aside from Mariano Rivera—are so inherently unreliable, the entire fabric of how to deploy one’s pitching staff has to be overhauled; it would take a gutty front office and manager to do it, but with the new blood permeating baseball and shoving back at conformity with a flourish, someone’s going to say they’re doing it another way…eventually.

Old-school people who repeatedly reference Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter and Dan Quisenberry as closers who were legitimate relief aces tend to forget that those great pitchers blew games too.

George Brett used to lie in wait for a Gossage high fastball because he was one of the few hitters in baseball who was quick enough to get on top of it. Other hitters with whom Gossage had trouble were fastball hitters like Champ Summers* and Richie Zisk.

*Summers was a piece of work. He was a Vietnam vet who loved—not liked—loved to fight.

In fact, when Gossage signed with the Yankees in 1978, he allowed homers in his first three appearances. It wasn’t all “lights out, ballgame over” when these pitchers came into games, selective memory and factional disputes as to eras aside.

From memory, Sutter was the reliever I feared more than any other because he’d come into a game in the sixth inning and close it out. But Sutter’s greatness was proven to be limiting as well when he left the Cardinals, signed a massive free agent contract with the then-woeful Atlanta Braves and his presence didn’t help them at all because they weren’t any good; the Cardinals won the pennant the first year without Sutter.

A team has to be complete; it has to have all the puzzle pieces arranged correctly. We don’t know what would happen with a Kazmir or Harden if they were made into relievers, but we certainly know what they currently are as starters, so why continue the charade? Why not make a career change and see if it works?

They’re not doing much good now, so what’s the difference if they fail as relievers as well?

And it just might work.

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My podcast appearance with SportsFanBuzz previewing the season is posted. You can listen here The SportsFan Buzz: March 30, 2011 or on iTunes.

I was on with Mike at NYBaseballDigest and his preview as well. You can listen here.

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Paul Lebowitz’s 2011 Baseball Guide is available and will be useful for your fantasy leagues all season long.

I published a full excerpt of my book here.

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

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


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