Keys to 2013: Minnesota Twins

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Starting Pitching Key: Vance Worley

The Twins acquired Worley from the Phillies along with Trevor May for Ben Revere. In 2011, Worley was dominant to the point of making it look easy and acting as if it was easy as the fifth in the Phillies foursome of star starters, caddying for Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt. Worley’s attitude appeared to be one of, “Here, hit my supercharged fastball. This big league stuff is a breeze.”

Then in 2012, it wasn’t a breeze and hitters took him up on his offer of hitting his fastball. Relied on as more than a rookie at the back-end of the rotation, he struggled with his command, gave up a lot of hits and had recurring elbow problems. Once the Twins are back to their normal method of doing business with a fundamentally sound defense combined with a big ballpark, Worley could be a big winner. He has to learn to pitch rather than bully his way through. That prehistoric “me young and tough” act can work the first time through the league, but the second time the hitters humble even the cockiest rookies as they did with Worley in 2012.

Relief Pitching Key: Glen Perkins

If I’m going to have a lefty closer, I’d prefer him to be a flamethrower who can blow people away with a moving fastball a la Billy Wagner. Perkins’s fastball reaches the mid-90s and his strikeout numbers have improved since the move to the bullpen, but I wouldn’t classify him as a strikeout pitcher. He’s also vulnerable to the home run ball. To be an effective lefty closer over the full season, he’ll have to have the threat of an inside pitch to righties. That must be established early in the season so it’s known. Once the word’s out that he’s working righties on the inner half, he won’t have to do it as often and risk leaving a hittable fastball out over the plate.

Offensive Key: Justin Morneau

If the Twins had their sights on legitimate contention, the key might be Aaron Hicks, the rookie center fielder. A team’s true key, however, is contingent on their goals. For the 2013 Twins, they’re incorporating youngsters and looking to move past the era in which Morneau was a mid-lineup linchpin and MVP candidate.

A free agent at the end of the season, if Morneau is hitting, his trade value will skyrocket. A significant return on a trade will speed the Twins’ rebuild.

Defensive Key: Pedro Florimon

Florimon will get the first crack at shortstop. The Twins, with their preferred strategy of pitchers who pound the strike zone and trust their defense, need a shortstop to catch the ball and show good range. Trevor Plouffe is the Twins’ third baseman and his range is limited to a step to the left and a step to the right leaving Florimon with more ground to cover and making defensive positioning and strategy important. He’s not much of a bat and if he doesn’t give the Twins what they need defensively, they’d be wise to throw Eduardo Escobar out there and give him a chance since he’s probably their best long-term solution at short anyway which says more about the current state of the Twins than anything else.

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The Phillies Go Backward; The Twins Go Forward

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The Phillies were linked to free agent center fielder Michael Bourn and chose to acquire Bourn—the 24-year-old version of him—by trading righty pitchers Vance Worley and Trevor May to the Twins for Ben Revere.

Looking at Revere and you see essentially the identical player Bourn was when the Phillies traded him to the Astros after the 2007 season to acquire Brad Lidge. Bourn had speed, great defensive potential, limited selectivity at the plate, and no power. Revere has those same attributes but comes at a minuscule fraction of the cost a reunion with Bourn would’ve exacted on their payroll. Other than the hope that they’re getting Bourn without paying for Bourn and that the Phillies are going to use the money they didn’t spend to improve the offense at another spot (right field and third base), this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

The Phillies and GM Ruben Amaro Jr. are again straddling the same line they did in December of 2009 when they chose to trade Cliff Lee away to get Roy Halladay in the interests of maintaining and bolstering their farm system while achieving certainty that they’d have Halladay past the 2010 season when Lee was set to be a free agent. As it turned out the Phillies dipped into the market and brought Lee back a year later, but that was after a disappointing first half of the season and teetering on falling from contention due to a shortness of pitching led them to acquiring Roy Oswalt to fix the problem Amaro created by trading Lee away in the first place. It had appeared that Amaro learned a hard lesson that a team with the age and expectations of the Phillies couldn’t simultaneously build for the future while winning in the present, but pending other acquisitions, he apparently hasn’t.

This is another Amaro move where it’s clear what he’s doing, but reasonable to ask why he’s doing it because unless the Phillies make a drastic addition to the offense (and Michael Young or Kevin Youkilis are not “drastic”), they’ll find themselves in the same position they were in during the summer of 2010, but instead of getting an Oswalt to fix the pitching, they’ll need to make other deals to fix a sputtering offense and save the season and don’t have the prospects they did then to facilitate such a maneuver. The landscape is also different with a new and highly competitive National League East. What worked in 2010 is unlikely to be as successful in 2013.

For the Twins, they’re trying to improve a profound lack of depth in the organization and desperately need pitching. At first glance, they seemed to have short-changed themselves when they sent Denard Span to the Nationals for Alex Meyer, but I like Meyer a lot. He’s big (6’9”), has a free and easy motion, a power fastball, and outstanding mound presence. The potential is there for a top of the rotation starter.

With Worley, there were murmurs about attitude problems and thinking he’s a part of the Lee/Halladay/Cole Hamels group without having accomplished anything to be a part of such a high-end rotation. He was dominant in 2011, but the sense of “here’s my fastball, hit it,” brought back images of Jason Isringhausen when he burst onto the scene with the Mets in 1995, blew away the National League, came back in 1996 and struggled with an inability to adapt to the hitters’ adjustments and injuries. If Worley is willing to listen and lose the macho “me fire fastball” strategy, then he can be successful. If not, the American League is going to educate him quickly. In fairness, he was pitching hurt in 2012 and required elbow surgery. He’s not a guarantee and was expendable for the Phillies while being a clear asset to the Twins. That’s if he learns to act properly, something the Twins insist on.

The Twins did well in acquiring these pitchers for the two center fielders they had on their roster, but as is the case with most clubs who trade from a moderate strength to address a weakness, they’ve created another hole. Considering the rebuild they’re undertaking though, they didn’t have much of a choice.

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Your 2012 Trade Deadline Reality Check for a 2011 “Guaranteed” World Series Participant—Part II

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In this vein, I discussed the Red Sox yesterday. As a postscript, they shouldn’t let a series win in Yankee Stadium delude them into thinking they should do something drastic to salvage a doomed season. It would only make things worse going forward.

Today it’s the other 2011 “guaranteed” World Series participant on the docket and they’re having a far worse season than the Red Sox. I’m talking about the Philadelphia Phillies.

In 2011, the Phillies had put together an “unstoppable” starting rotation and, unlike the Red Sox, they fulfilled their part in the bargain by winning 102 regular season games before getting bounced in the first round by the Cardinals.

Currently 45-57, an unfathomable 16 ½ games behind the Nationals in the NL East and 9 games back in the Wild Card race, they can forget this season. There’s not going to be a 50-10 run to 95 wins this year. With most GMs, I’d say they understand that and will act accordingly, but Phillies’ GM Ruben Amaro Jr. has been haphazard in his decisions. To his credit, he learned from his mistakes and rectified them such as when he traded Cliff Lee away and accepted that he’d left his club woefully short on pitching and traded for Roy Oswalt at the next trading deadline; then he turned around and re-signed Lee.

I doubt there’ll be a blockbuster addition of a bat to gloss over a team that’s 12 games under .500 and reeling after experiencing what the Mets have experienced for years in their house of horrors known as Turner Field in a 3 game sweep at the hands of the Braves. The Braves looked like they took glee in kicking the Phillies after the Phillies (in a retrospectively regrettable decision) ably assisted the Cardinals by playing all out in the last three games of the 2011 season and completed the Braves’ collapse from a post-season berth they should’ve clinched in mid-September.

The Phillies are done for 2012, but that doesn’t mean they can’t prepare for 2013 with much the same core cast. They don’t have much choice with some players. Jimmy Rollins has two guaranteed years left on his contract and is a shadow of his former MVP self. There’s talk of dealing Hunter Pence to free up money, but all that would do is create another hole they’ll have to fill—it’s not going to happen. Shane Victorino and Joe Blanton will be traded. Ty Wigginton and Juan Pierre are probably going as well. Placido Polanco would’ve gone too if he hadn’t been placed on the disabled list with a sore back. If he’s able to play, he’ll get through waivers in August and be traded.

Truth be told, they’re not going to get much for any of the above players. The Phillies will get some volume for their dilapidated minor league system and save a few bucks to bolster the veterans they’re going to have for the foreseeable future. This team in 2013, 2014 and 2015 hinges on the players in their early-to-late 30s, Roy Halladay, Lee, Rollins, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and the other star-level players signed long-term Jonathan Papelbon and the newly signed Cole Hamels.

With Hamels, the Phillies were faced with signing him or signing someone else’s free agent and given his post-season accomplishments and that he’s able to handle the tough town of Philadelphia, keeping Hamels made sense, even for $144 million. There’s not going to be a rebuild in Philadelphia. It’s this crew or bust and they do have the foundation for a rebound in 2013.

There was a stupid concept of them trying to trade Papelbon. It’s ridiculous.

Other speculation has centered around Lee. They’re not trading Lee now and if they even consider it after the season, they’re in essentially the same spot as they were with Hamels in a different way. Any trade would have to bring back a Major League ready player whether it’s a centerfielder and/or a young pitcher who’s going to give them the 200 innings they’ll be surrendering with Lee. They’d also be hamstrung in where they could trade Lee due to the $87.5 million remaining on his deal after this season and his limited no-trade clause. Are they moving forward with a top 3 rotation of Halladay, Hamels and Vance Worley in 2013? For a team whose window is rapidly closing? I highly doubt it. If Lee is put on the block, it would be a year from now and only if 2013 is a repeat of 2012.

That there would be a thought of trading Lee as a “well, maybe we could…” tells me that Lee’s decision to re-sign with the Phillies after they’d unceremoniously dumped him following the 2009 season was a business decision on both ends and there wasn’t all that much “love” with the City of Brotherly Love for Lee and the Phillies. He didn’t want to pitch for the Yankees and the Phillies offered the most money and a venue that his wife preferred. I’m also getting the impression that Lee is a frontrunner. When the team was rolling to 100 wins and he was notching shutouts, all was wonderful; when he’s got a record of 1-6 as we enter August, he’s making faces at his outfielders’ misplays and putting forth the attitude of, “What do you want me to do? I pitched great, these guys can’t score or catch the ball.”

And that’s not good.

The Phillies need to accept reality and that reality says they’re not going anywhere in 2012 and their only hope against spiraling to a 100-loss disaster by 2015 is if their veterans find their games and are healthy and they’re able to clear enough money to import proven commodities to surround them.

This is the team they have and there’s not going to be a housecleaning. It’ll be more of a moderate refurbishing, nothing more.

//

The Cliff Lee Trade Rumor Factoid

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The Phillies are not trading Cliff Lee.

Get it?

If that means they’re not going to be able to keep Cole Hamels, so be it.

Is this even a rumor or is it a viral bit of nonsense that started with the crown prince of tabloid buffoonery Joel Sherman in his Sunday column?

In that piece Sherman naturally suggested Lee go to…the Yankees.

Shocking.

In that same column, Sherman also wants the Yankees to make a move on Carlos Gonzalez of the Rockies.

Anyone else Joel?

How about the Yankees just take R.A. Dickey with them when they visit Citi Field this weekend? That Andrew McCutchen is something special, why not him? Justin Verlander? Matt Cain? Bryce Harper? Yu Darvish? Aroldis Chapman? Shouldn’t they all be Yankees? And if the Yankees don’t need them, so what? It’s not enough to have a $200 million payroll and stars at every position. Perhaps they can put an auxiliary team in reserve so the regulars–Robinson Cano, Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson, CC Sabathia–can have preplanned vacations during the season. Or they can take the entire season off! “Just show up for game 1 of the World Series CC. Earn your money then.”

It’s the stuff of a thousand Mike Francesa hang-ups.

Sherman is the tabloid editor’s dream. Whereas most writers are told to write certain stories and include information that may not be relevant or accurate in the interest of drumming up webhits and clicks to increase advertising dollars, Sherman does it on his own and he does it better. Or worse, depending on your point-of-view.

But, as is my wont, I disappoint with evenhanded reality.

If the Phillies have to make the choice between Lee and Hamels, the financial and practical decision favors keeping Lee. Hamels is going to ask for somewhere in the vicinity of $140-$170 million after this season and the Phillies have to draw the financial line somewhere. Hamels has been worked hard as he’s heading for his fifth straight season of 200+ innings and playoff work. It’s a big risk signing him for 6-8 years at the dollars he’s looking for.

Lee is signed. He’s been mostly durable and is locked in through 2015 with a 2016 option. He’s guaranteed $87.5 million after this season. Who’s taking that contract? No one. Not even the Yankees.

The Phillies, without Hamels and with a rotation fronted by Roy Halladay, Lee, Vance Worley and whichever pitchers they sign or trade for to replace the departed Hamels, are still good enough to contend in a world of two Wild Cards. This is not a situation where the Phillies are going to trade Lee and replenish the farm system for the “future”. They tried that. It didn’t work. They’re going to turn around and do it again?

Without explicitly saying it, the Phillies admitted the mistake of trading Lee in two ways. First they acquired Roy Oswalt at mid-season 2010, then they re-signed Lee after the 2010 season.

Let’s suspend absurdity for a second and say the Phillies do trade Lee. Is any top-tier free agent going to want to sign with the Phillies without a full no-trade clause to protect them from Ruben Amaro Jr’s lies, schemes and desperation deals that would be evident if he traded Lee a second time?

And what of Hamels? If he hasn’t signed an extension when the Phillies trade Lee, how tight of a grip is he going to have on the club’s collective throats? They’ll have to pay him whatever he wants because if he leaves they won’t have him or Lee.

Then what?

So it’s not happening. Lee’s not getting moved.

It’s foolish. It’s nonsense. It’s fabricated.

It’s Joel Sherman of the New York Post.

Reader beware.

//

Mid-Season Trade Candidates—Cole Hamels

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Name: Cole Hamels

Tale of the tape: 28-years-old; bats left; throws left; 6’3; 200 lbs.

Contract status: $9.5 million salary for 2012; free agent at the end of the season.

Would the Phillies trade him?

Earlier in the season, there was no chance they’d deal him. The talk of a mid-season selloff for the Phillies was suggested by websites and “insiders” in the interests of generating webhits. It stemmed from a paucity of other things to write about. Now that’s no longer the case.

The Phillies have played poorly and are still waiting for Ryan Howard and Chase Utley to return from injury with no concrete dates for their comebacks and no justifiable expectation of what they’ll provide or that the Phillies will be in contention when they do return.

Roy Halladay is on the disabled list and won’t be back until late July at the earliest.

In recent years the Phillies have been unabashed buyers at the deadline, but their injuries, age, demolished farm system and dwindling hopes to contend are making doubling and tripling down an exponential mistake and will speed their teamwide decline. Are they willing to keep Hamels and hope that he’ll stay as a free agent? Hamels has given no indication that he’ll provide a hometown discount and paying him $140-$160 million isn’t the soundest financial decision for the Phillies. Their payroll is bursting as it is and they have to draw the line somewhere. That somewhere is increasingly looking like it will be Hamels’s contract demands.

It’s unlikely that they trade him, but if they’re hopelessly behind in both the division and the Wild Card, GM Ruben Amaro Jr. has to listen.

What would they want for him?

If they’re trading Hamels, they’ll have a hole in their rotation for 2013 and would need a young starter who could—at the very least—slot in behind Halladay, Cliff Lee and Vance Worley immediately. They also need a bat that can play third base, second base or centerfield.

Which teams would pursue and have the prospects to get him?

Forget the National League East. The Phillies aren’t trading him within the division no matter what they’re offered. They’d prefer to send him to the American League if they can help it, but would send him to a National League club if their season is lost.

The Yankees, Orioles, Red Sox, Blue Jays, Rays, Indians, Tigers, White Sox, Angels, Cardinals, Pirates, Giants and Dodgers could all do it.

Would Hamels sign with the team that trades for him and forego free agency?

At this point, it makes no sense. But if a team comes up with the money and blows the other clubs out of the water as a preemptive financial strike, why not? The Dodgers are a team to watch in this regard because they have a new ownership and will be looking to make a splash, win in 2012 and put a team together that their fans can buy tickets to see for years to come.

What will happen.

I don’t think the Phillies are going to give up on the season under most circumstances. If things really spiral out of control and they’re trailing in both the division and Wild Card by double digits, they have to deal him.

That’s hard to see happening, but it’s possible.

What teams that are interested in Hamels should do (and presumably are doing) is to call Amaro and let him know they want Hamels and he should start thinking—in an act of due diligence—about which prospects he wants in exchange.

A month-and-a-half ago, it was a fantasy to suggest that the Phillies would be deadline sellers. 45 days of uninspiring baseball, the still-awaited returns of Howard and Utley and Halladay’s trip to the disabled list may not have put Hamels on the table, but he’s a specialty item on the menu available for a hefty price and contingent on the environment.

The Phillies’ environment is growing dark.

That dark will put Hamels in play.

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A Halladay Injury Might Make Hamels Available

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Pain in the back of the shoulder sounds pretty bad to me.

Phillies’ ace Roy Halladay left today’s start against the Cardinals with those symptoms and the ominous clouds continue to accrue around the Phillies.

Am I the only one who’s noticed that when a pitcher is seriously injured, he rarely grabs his arm falls to the ground writhing in agony and has to be helped off the field?

This of course is different from the clearly devastating injuries sustained by Joel Zumaya, Tony Saunders, Tom Browning and Dave Dravecky when they broke their arms while performing the stressful activity of throwing a baseball. Most of the time we hear them say: “there’s a pulling feeling”; or “it’s clutching”; or “it locked”; or “it’s a dull ache”; or “I feel weakness”; or “I can’t get loose”. Rarely does a pitcher’s elbow or shoulder explode for everyone to see.

If the Phillies lose Halladay for an extended period or—perish the thought—the entire season, then there might be an opening for the oft-mentioned and heretofore silly talk of auctioning Cole Hamels.

There’s no making up for Halladay’s innings, stuff, presence and dominance. If the Phillies had their regular offensive troops at their disposal, then maybe they’d be able to hang around contention and hope to get one of the Wild Cards. But they don’t. There’s no indication that Chase Utley is going to be ready to play soon. Ryan Howard is beginning baseball activities. Their pitching is gutted without Vance Worley and now Halladay. Kyle Kendrick is already in the rotation as a replacement for Worley and in Triple A the Phillies have the veterans Dave Bush and Scott Elarton pitching well along with former Met Pat Misch. If it’s a short stint on the disabled list for Halladay, they can get by with one of those journeyman stopgaps. If it’s long-term they can forget 2012.

The talk of Roy Oswalt (which is apparently never, ever going to stop) will ramp up in earnest, but he’s not going to be ready until mid-late June and might wind up on the DL himself after one start. The Phillies could be 10 games out by then. It’s easy to reference their comeback in 2010 as proof that they can do it, but that’s sabotaged by reality and human nature. Will Hamels want to overexert himself in a lost cause of a season when he has $160 million riding on his left arm? Will Shane Victorino want to pull a hamstring when he’s going to be a free agent and plays a difficult to fill position of centerfield? These aspects can’t be ignored and they happen more often than we realize.

I said recently that the Phillies won’t clean out the veteran players unless they’re 20 games out of first place at the trading deadline. Losing Halladay would be its equivalent and if teams want to get their hands on Hamels, they should call Ruben Amaro Jr. and see if he’s willing to listen.

He might not have a choice.

//

Creative Writing and Cole Hamels

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Is there a reason that Cole Hamels‘s pending free agency is constantly updated as if there’s something to discuss?

It’s more trolling and laziness when there’s nothing to write about, so a “story” is formulated regardless of reality.

Here’s my logical outsider’s perspective from both sides of the bargaining table.

For the Phillies.

Eventually there has to be financial sanity; a realization that this cycle is ending and they must shift focus on a future that’s approaching faster than anticipated. At some juncture, they’ll need to restrain spending on the big league product and rebuild the minor league system.

The Phillies have a lot of players making a lot of money and giving Hamels the contract he’s going to demand may not be the best possible maneuver for them.

Cliff Lee is guaranteed $87.5 million from 2013 through 2015.

Roy Halladay is guaranteed $20 million in 2013 with an option for another $20 million in 2014 with kickers based on innings pitched that, barring catastrophe, he’s going to achieve.

Ryan Howard is guaranteed $105 million from 2013 through 2016.

Chase Utley is signed for 2013 at $15 million.

Jonathan Papelbon is guaranteed $13 million annually from 2013-2015 with a $13 million vesting option for 2016 based on games finished.

Jimmy Rollins is guaranteed $22 million for 2013-2014 with an $11 million option for 2014 based on plate appearances. If the Phillies aren’t as good as they’ve been in recent years, Rollins is not going to get enough at bats to activate the option.

Hunter Pence is arbitration eligible after this season and a free agent after 2013.

Shane Victorino, Placido Polanco and Joe Blanton are free agents after this season.

Hamels is making $15 million this season and they could backload his contract to account for the money coming off the books in the future, but then they’ll be paying $25-30 million annually for a pitcher at age 33-36 as they’re doing with Lee now. It’s easy to say they should let Victorino leave along with the likely departures of Blanton and Polanco, but the Phillies farm system is gutted and they’ll still have to replace their centerfielder, their third baseman and their fifth starter. With Halladay, Lee, Hamels and (if his elbow doesn’t blow out) Vance Worley, that’s a good 1-4 starting rotation. They could find someone to fill out the fifth slot and be okay pitching-wise with Papelbon as the closer. But their problem this season has been a lack of offense and they’re going to be replacing Victorino’s offense and defense with whom? And who’s going to play third?

The Phillies have shown little willingness to give their young players a chance to play in their new incarnation of a star-studded, big name-centric club and they don’t have any major prospects ready to fill those positions for 2013.

This is also assuming Utley comes back and is: A) able to play; and B) able to contribute 60-75% of what he was in his prime. With his recurring knee issues, that’s not a reasonable expectation.

I suppose they could swing a deal with the Red Sox to get Kevin Youkilis for 2013 while he’s signed and stick him at third, but he’s been injured and declining similarly to Utley.

B.J. Upton will be too expensive to sign as a replacement centerfielder and to keep Hamels and to find a third baseman who can hit. Torii Hunter could be a stopgap for a year or two in centerfield. Or they could keep Victorino.

For argument’s sake, let’s say the Phillies pay up to keep Hamels. What they’ll be doing is mortgaging the future—when both Lee and Halladay will be gone—and rely on an aging Hamels to be their ace for a team that will be in the midst of a major rebuild. He’ll be untradeable, fading and expensive. If they keep him, it would be with an eye on chasing a title in 2013-2014 and not worrying about 2015 and beyond.

Is that worth 7-8 years at $160-180 million?

For Hamels.

There is no reason whatsoever for Hamels to agree to a down-the-line contract during the season and shun his first opportunity at free agency while he’s pitching brilliantly at age 28.

Hamels has thrown at least 180 innings from 2007-2011 and he’ll break that threshold again this season. He’s got the post-season bonafides including the NLCS and World Series MVPs in 2008. He can handle pressure and a tough home crowd.

Why shouldn’t he maximize his dollars by exploring free agency?

The Yankees are always looking for pitching and given the disasters of their attempts to develop their own, if the 2012 season doesn’t go according to their mandate of championship or bust, they might use their checkbook to fill their self-created holes as they did after 2008 when they signed CC Sabathia.

The Dodgers new ownership is aggressive, willing to spend and Hamels is from Southern California.

The Cubs have money; the Mets’ finances are getting in order; the Orioles are finally showing signs of legitimate improvement; the Rangers consider everything and willing to pay; the Blue Jays are about ready to go for a title; the Marlins could continue their spending spree.

Hamels likes Philadelphia and presumably would like to stay, but he’s not going to do the Phillies any favors when it comes down to dollars.

In short, there are landing spots for Hamels. Why would he sabotage himself by signing now?

The answer is he won’t.

The reality.

This talk of the Phillies and Hamels having “discussions” or “contact” or “preparing to engage” or whatever terminology is considered new is just that: talk.

Or nonsense.

There’s not going to be a deal during the season and if the Phillies want to keep Hamels, it’ll take a big check. It won’t be until after the season and both sides will examine their circumstances and move forward accordingly.

It could go either way. Don’t let “insiders” or websites tell you any different.

//

Believe It Or Don’t—The Bad (National League)

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In recent days, I’ve looked at teams that were either underachieving or overachieving based on expectations. Let’s check the National League underachievers (or achievers as the case may be).

  • Miami Marlins

What they’re doing.

The Marlins are 23-19 and in 3rd place in the NL East, 2 1/2 games behind the Braves.

How they’re doing it.

Their starting pitching has helped them overcome Heath Bell’s rancid first two months, a shaky overall bullpen and struggling lineup.

Bell’s been better in his last several outings, but no one, nowhere in Miami is going to feel comfortable with him closing an important late season game against any contender.

The lineup, which was supposed to be a strength, is 13th in the NL in runs scored. Jose Reyes hasn’t been the sparkplug they thought they were getting and his defense is drastically declining. Emilio Bonifacio is on the disabled list; John Buck and Gaby Sanchez are both hitting under .200 with Sanchez just having been sent to the minors; Logan Morrison has 2 homers; most glaringly and concerning (not counting last night’s game), Hanley Ramirez has played in a combined 133 games in 2011-2012 and hit 17 homers with a slash line of .259/.323/.412.

Then there’s the Ozzie Guillen-Fidel Castro controversy that, luckily for the Marlins, died down.

In addition to all of that, there’s the new ballpark and newly remodeled club and a still-underwhelming attendance that’s 8th in the National League.

Believe it or don’t?

I’d be very worried about Ramirez. With their starting pitching and Josh Johnson finding his form, they’ll have enough to loiter around contention, but their hitting and bullpen are so problematic that being barely over .500 is pretty much it for the Marlins.

Believe it.

  • Philadelphia Phillies

What they’re doing.

The Phillies are 21-22, in last place in the NL East and 5 games behind the Braves.

How they’re doing it.

They’re without Chase Utley and Ryan Howard; Jimmy Rollins is hitting around .230; they’re carrying hitters like Freddy Galvis who’s not ready for the big leagues; and playing role players Ty Wigginton and John Mayberry Jr. regularly.

Roy Halladay hasn’t been his normal, machine-like self. Cliff Lee was on the disabled list and Vance Worley is on the disabled list. Cole Hamels and Joe Blanton have picked up the slack and helped the Phillies stay competitive through their injuries and offensive malaise.

Believe it or don’t?

Don’t believe it and don’t listen to Jim Bowden/schlocky websites/trolling columnists when they suggest that the Phillies are going to be sellers at the trading deadline. They’re not selling anything unless they’re 20 games under .500, and that’s not going to happen.

The Phillies will be back at or near the top of the NL East by the time the season is over.

  • Milwaukee Brewers

What they’re doing.

The Brewers are 17-25 and 6 games behind the Cardinals in the NL Central.

How they’re doing it.

Losing Prince Fielder was bad enough, but his designated kindasorta replacement in the lineup, Aramis Ramirez, is hitting .218 with 3 homers; his actual replacement at first base, Mat Gamel, blew out his knee; and for good (or bad) measure, shortstop Alex Gonzalez blew his knee out as well.

The starting pitching has been good and the bullpen hasn’t.

Ryan Braun has picked up where he left off from his MVP season in 2011 and—presumably—he’s not going to be stupid enough to do anything that might cause a failed PED test.

Believe it or don’t?

This team is flawed and short-handed offensively. They have the pitching to get back within striking distance of a playoff spot, but unless they hit, they’re a .500 team at best.

Believe it.

  • San Francisco Giants

What they’re doing.

The Giants are 22-20, 7 games behind the Dodgers in the NL West.

How they’re doing it.

They’ve lost closer Brian Wilson for the season, but their bullpen is still deep enough even without their horse. Starting pitching is carrying them and that’s with Tim Lincecum carting around an ERA over six.

Their hitting has been better than the popgun it was in the past, but pitching is what carries the Giants.

Believe it or don’t?

Don’t believe it. The Giants are better than a .500 team and once Lincecum gets straightened out and Pablo Sandoval is back healthy, they’ll be in the thick of the playoff race.

  • Arizona Diamondbacks

What they’re doing.

The Diamondbacks are 19-24 and 10 1/2 games behind the Dodgers in the NL West.

How they’re doing it.

A lot went right for the Diamondbacks in 2011, especially in the bullpen. The lineup has black spots. Chris Young is just off the disabled list and they’re waiting for Stephen Drew.

Paul Goldschmidt and Ryan Roberts have a combined 4 homers. You can’t win with Willie Bloomquist playing every day and your first and third basemen not hitting the ball out of the park.

Trevor Cahill is 2-4 and that’s with a .262 BAbip. Imagine if he wasn’t as lucky as he’s been. Ian Kennedy has an ERA of nearly 4.5 and is leading the National League in hits allowed.

J.J. Putz has been a calamity as the closer.

Believe it or don’t?

Believe it. Their luck from 2011 has abandoned them and they’re plainly and simply not that good.

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Pitcher Injuries and Hindsight

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What’s the solution when a pitcher gets injured, there’s no specific cause and it’s automatically assumed that it was due to the vague term “workload”?

The Phillies have placed righty Vance Worley on the disabled list with elbow inflammation and the desperate search for a reason is beginning. His MRI has shown no structural damage so it’s not a catastrophic injury—Delaware Online.

How does anyone know the cause? And what were they supposed to do about it?

While pitching at Single A in 2009, Worley threw 153 innings at the age of 21.

With Double A, Triple A and a cup of coffee the big leagues in 2010, Worley threw 171 innings at age 22.

In 2011, Worley began the season in Triple A, logged 50 innings and was called up to the big leagues and added 131 innings to make his total 181.

Is this considered abuse?

The Phillies were conscious of Worley’s pitch counts and took care to make sure he wasn’t pushed too far with a general pitch limit between 100 and 110. In a rotation with Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, there were no expectations for Worley to be the ace of the staff. He was able to fade into the background as the fourth or fifth starter and learn his craft without the team’s hopes riding on him.

A clear case of a pitcher who was abused in his rookie season was Kerry Wood. In 1998, Wood was a sensation with a blazing fastball and knee-buckling curve. He was consistently left in games to throw 120-130 pitches and led the Cubs to the playoffs—1998 Gamelogs. The weight of carrying a mediocre team resulted in Wood tearing an elbow ligament and needing Tommy John surgery in 1999. It doesn’t take research of stick figures or computer simulations to examine Wood’s history and say that the Cubs overdid it and expedited his injury.

Wood was also a pitcher with mid-to-upper-90s fastball and hard curve with a severe elbow snap to get that nasty break. He might’ve—and probably would’ve—gotten hurt eventually anyway.

With the proliferation of pitching expertise inside and outside of baseball expressing their theories—dutifully detailed on blogs and supposedly reputable websites—a reason for an injury is readily available whether it’s accurate or not. Teams like the Yankees are using medical recommendations to regulate innings and pitch counts in an effort to “develop” their pitchers with the results we see in Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, Michael Pineda and Jose Campos.

Who really knows?

The logical end to stopping a workload-related injury to a pitcher would be to limit the workload. But how? What’s the limit? And what to do if the pitcher is needed and he’s approaching his limit? Is the team or the individual more important? How’s that judged?

Throwing a baseball is damaging and there are a myriad of factors that go into a pitcher staying healthy or getting hurt. It’s a zero-sum game. It’s become impossible to develop a pitcher without hundreds of eyes with multiple theories, a forum and no accountability for the outsiders as they wait to pounce and self-promote. Retrospect and hindsight are easily transferred to “prove” whatever theory one prefers to use with pitchers. The Giants didn’t hinder their young starters with limits and have one of the best pitcher developmental programs in baseball.

It’s when one gets hurt that we hear post-injury criticism. The problem is there’s no defense for the charges when the charges are based on after-the-fact theories that are more convenient than diagnostic.

The only answer is to let the pitchers pitch and use common sense. They’re going to get hurt. It’s in the job description and that will never, ever change.

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Warning Signs Abound for the Phillies

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It’s no secret that the window for the Phillies to continue dominating the National League East is closing rapidly. Looking at their roster, age and contracts, there were concerns before the news that they intend to go with Ty Wigginton as their regular first baseman and a platoon of John Mayberry Jr. and Laynce Nix in left field to replace Raul Ibanez.

(Domonic Brown? What’s a Domonic Brown?)

A left field platoon of Nix and Mayberry should be productive enough. Nix’s good defense and pop will counteract—to a point—his lack of on-base skills. Mayberry deserves the chance to play every day, but GM Ruben Amaro Jr. said there will likely be a platoon.

Wigginton can’t field, Jim Thome can barely move, and Chase Utley’s range is compromised by his physical breakdown. The Phillies strength on the mound will be damaged by porous defense on the right side of the infield.

The National League East no longer automatically belongs to the Phillies. The Marlins have made major free agent acquisitions; the Nationals are improved; and the Braves are being ignored because of their lack of movement, but are still very good.

The Phillies are old, expensive and trapped by a payroll that’s at its limit. Despite assertions to the contrary, Roy Halladay is human and can’t keep up his excellence forever. They can rely on their top three starters for 2012 as Halladay and Cliff Lee are still at the top of their games and Cole Hamels is singing for his free agent supper. Vance Worley is entering his second go-round through the league and, much like Jason Isringhausen proved with the Mets from 1995-1996, it’s not as easy as Worley made it look in 2011 by blasting fastballs and swagger.

The Phillies offense was a problem last season in spite of the pitching carrying them to 102 wins. They didn’t hit in the playoffs and it was the main reason they got bounced in the first round.

They’ve done nothing to improve that offense and will be without Ryan Howard for at least the first two months of the season.

Have they repaired the problems that contributed to their playoff losses in 2010-2011? An upgrade was made by replacing their on-again/off-again closer Ryan Madson with one of baseball’s best in Jonathan Papelbon, but it’s not an upgrade so significant that it will account for worsening offense and defense.

Considering their payroll issues and that their farm system is largely gutted, they won’t be able to do anything drastic at mid-season to fix their issues as they have in the past.

Flashing warning signs are everywhere and teams that have had five year runs as the Phillies have tend to come apart quickly. Due to reality, circumstance, personnel errors, desperation trades, overpriced contracts and compromises to the present, the Phillies fall might come a year or two early.

That fall will be rapid. Don’t be stunned if it begins in earnest in 2012.

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