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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Booing The Yankees’ Closer

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The Yankees’ closer has brilliant across-the-board numbers.

He’s saved 33 games in 36 opportunities. He’s only allowed 2 homers in 52.2 innings pitched; has struck out 53, walked 17, given up 46 hits. He’s been reliable and borderline dominant. If you’re interested in advanced stats, his ERA+ is 207 and his WAR is 2.2.

No, I’m not talking about Mariano Rivera. I’m talking about Rafael Soriano.

The same pitcher who the GM Brian Cashman didn’t want and openly said he didn’t want; the same pitcher who was little more than an injury-prone, whining, complaining nuisance in his first season with the team; who refused to get with the Yankees’ program and surrendered the backbreaking homer to Delmon Young in the turning point game 3 of last season’s ALDS; who wasn’t designated as the replacement for Rivera until all other options had been exhausted, has been a key to the Yankees staying in first place and playoff position all season long.

Soriano was booed last night by Yankees’ “faithful” after allowing a 3-run homer (I repeat, the second homer he’s allowed all season) to Blue Jays’ outfielder Colby Rasmus to turn a 6-4 lead into a 7-6 deficit. The Yankees tied the game in the bottom of the 9th when Derek Jeter homered, but lost it in the 11th.

Soriano blew the game, but did he deserve to be booed? Was it simple idiocy on the part of some fans or was it indicative of the problem among segments of the spoiled and greedy fanbase that there can never be failure of any kind. Success is expected and unappreciated; failure is a hanging offense. This is all symptomatic of the onrush to a logical conclusion built for failure: the concept that every player must be an All-Star; that the idea of a workmanlike and useful component can’t fill the shoes of greatness for even one month, one week, one game. How long before a CC Sabathia has his start pushed back because of flulike symptoms and the fans and media inundate the airwaves, web and print with demands to replace him—even for one game—with a star of commensurate magnitude?

It sounds ridiculous? Well, it’s not. Just look at the behaviors from last night. It’s inexplicable audacity for anyone to boo Soriano after the work he’s done not just on the mound, but in withstanding the pressure of replacing Rivera. The concept of “anyone could’ve done it”, which is a stat person’s lament, is ludicrous and selective in its application. The David Robertson as closer experiment was short-lived and the Yankees were retrospectively saved from the replacement “closer” blowing 3-5 more games before a move to Soriano was necessary. Had Joba Chamberlain been available at the time, he too would’ve been ahead of Soriano in the pecking order in spite of Soriano’s experience at doing the job.

Experience.

That’s far more important than stuff in being a successful closer. We can go on ad nauseam as to the true value of the guy who pitches the ninth inning and accumulates the watered down save stat, but it’s not as easy in practice as it is on paper. It’s a mentality that can’t be taught; can’t be drilled in; can’t be transferred to the faceless “PITCHER” as stat people imply. Robertson couldn’t do it and was far more valuable pitching the seventh and eighth innings than he would be in the ninth. But the succession of power dictated that Robertson, the set-up man, take over for Rivera as closer. How many times have we seen a good set-up man unable to pitch the ninth inning? It happens repeatedly. The Red Sox didn’t trust Daniel Bard as their new closer, in part, because he’d struggled in the role during the few save chances he’d had. That led to the trade of Josh Reddick for Andrew Bailey; the installation of Alfredo Aceves as the closer; and Bard being made into a starter, failing, and now rapidly degenerating into a disaster in need of a full mental and physical makeover as he pitches in Triple A as a reliever.

Soriano has not only taken over for the best closer in history, but been a major reason why the Yankees are still in the position they’re in. Had Robertson not injured his oblique and stayed as the closer for another week, where would the Yankees be now? What would they have done? Would they have gone to Soriano for any reason other than not having a choice? Would they have tried to make a trade to get someone else? And how would that have worked?

The Yankees playoff spot is currently not guaranteed. There are 5 spots for 7 teams that are legitimate contenders and eight if you count the floundering Angels, which I do. Manager Joe Girardi also brought up an important point during his press conference yesterday when he said it’s imperative for the Yankees to win the division because the Wild Card spots, while having an extra entry point, are a one-game and out affair. There’s no longer an automatic waltz into a best 3 of 5 series against a division champion for winning the Wild Card. A playoff spot for the Wild Card teams are limited to one game, and in one game, anything can happen.

In the American League overall standings, The Yankees are 2 games behind the Rangers; have a 2 ½ game lead on the White Sox; a 3 ½ game lead on the Orioles and Athletics; a 4 game lead on the Rays; a 4 ½ game lead on the Tigers; and an 8 game lead on the Angels. One bad week and they could fall from second in the league to sixth. Easily. And without Soriano, they probably would be in that position.

Boo Soriano and diminish his accomplishments if you choose to, but understand how he’s saved the Yankees both literally and figuratively before doing so. He stepped into massive shoes and, for the most part, has filled them. Yankees’ fans should consider where they’d currently be without Soriano. That’s, of course, if they’re capable of being objective and comprehending that they don’t have a divine right to the playoffs and that not every player can be a megastar/future Hall of Famer. That greed is their undoing and could be the eventual undoing of the entire organization if they’re not careful, prudent, and smart.

Are they careful, prudent and smart? The fans booing and criticizing Soriano certainly aren’t and, as said before, that attitude spreads like a disease and is getting worse and worse, even incurable, by the day.

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Off Season Losers In Retrospect

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Several days ago I listed the off season winners in retrospect discussing teams and the moves they made this past winter. Now it’s time for the losers.

New York Yankees

Acquired: Michael Pineda, Raul Ibanez, Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, Jose Campos

Subtracted: Jorge Posada, A.J. Burnett, Jesus Montero, Hector Noesi

The YES Network website still hasn’t mentioned Jose Campos since he got hurt. For that matter, nor have they mentioned Manny Banuelos’s recent injury. Maybe they haven’t been informed yet. Yeah. That’s it.

The trade of Montero and Noesi for Pineda and Campos is an absolute and utter disaster—a fireable offense for GM Brian Cashman.

Kuroda’s been good and unlucky.

Pettitte’s unexpected return has been a bolt from the blue and Ibanez has contributed the power I expected.

It’s fine to talk about them “having” to get rid of Burnett, but they’re paying him; they got low minor leaguers for him; he’s pitching well for the Pirates; and the players the Yankees got haven’t played yet in 2012. Had Pettitte not returned I guarantee there would be people now lamenting the loss of Burnett.

Guarantee.

Boston Red Sox

Acquired: GM Ben Cherington, Manager Bobby Valentine, Andrew Bailey, Ryan Sweeney, Cody Ross, Kelly Shoppach, Mark Melancon, Nick Punto

Subtracted: GM Theo Epstein, Manager Terry Francona, Jonathan Papelbon, Marco Scutaro, Josh Reddick, Tim Wakefield, Jason Varitek

It’s only when you look at the list above all at once do you realize how rancid an off-season the Red Sox had. Never mind the exchange of GMs/managers. Had he stayed, Epstein probably would’ve had better success fending off the advancing power grab of Larry Lucchino but it would’ve taken a Herculean effort for Epstein to prevent the mediocrity that the Red Sox have become.

I’m sick of seeing Francona complaining about how he was treated in Boston. If it weren’t for the Red Sox, the hot chicks to whom he’s sending candid photos of himself wouldn’t know who he is; not to mention would he not have two World Series rings and respect as a “great” manager—which he’s not.

Bailey got hurt as Reddick is on his way to making the All Star team and has been the Athletics’ best player. Melancon is back in the minor leagues; Shoppach is on the trade block; Ross was playing well before he got hurt; Punto is Punto.

No one’s saying they should’ve overpaid to keep Papelbon, but giving Scutaro away for a journeyman righty Clayton Mortensen made no sense.

Detroit Tigers

Acquired: Prince Fielder, Octavio Dotel, Gerald Laird, Collin Balester

Subtracted: Wilson Betemit, Brad Penny, Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Guillen, Joel Zumaya

Fielder and Cabrera are doing their jobs at the plate and more. The porous defense created by the signing of Fielder and shifting of Cabrera to third base hasn’t been as catastrophic as expected. That’s unless the pitching staff has it in their heads that they have to strike out more hitters or pitch differently to prevent balls from being hit to the right or left sides of the infield—highly unlikely.

The Tigers are 5 games under .500 because their pitching has been bad. The off-season isn’t a failure because of the signing of Fielder, but 5 games under .500 wasn’t what Mike Ilitch had in mind when he paid all that money to sign a huge bat like Fielder to replace Victor Martinez and team him with Cabrera.

Minnesota Twins

Acquired: GM Terry Ryan, Josh Willingham, Jamey Carroll, Jason Marquis, Ryan Doumit, Joel Zumaya

Subtracted: GM Bill Smith, Joe Nathan, Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel, Kevin Slowey

Terry Ryan was supposed to come back into the GM’s chair and start doing things the “Twins’ Way”. Well, that “way” is no longer working. The reason that vaunted “way” worked in the past was because they had talent on the roster and a club that was built for how Ron Gardenhire managed.

That’s no longer the case.

Marquis was released. Carroll hasn’t hit. Willingham’s been fantastic. The Zumaya signing was worth a shot I suppose, but he got hurt again. What he needs now is a friend—a real friend—to tell him that it’s over and he should retire before he damages himself permanently.

Maybe that’s what the Twins need too.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Acquired: GM Jerry Dipoto, Albert Pujols, C.J. Wilson, Chris Iannetta, Jason Isringhausen, LaTroy Hawkins

Subtracted: GM Tony Reagins, Fernando Rodney, Jeff Mathis, Tyler Chatwood

Pujols has started hitting and the Angels will rise and fall on what he does, but the uncharacteristic decision on the part of the Angels to depart from the template they’ve adhered to for a decade has led to this disconnect between GM Dipoto, manager Mike Scioscia and the club.

Scioscia’s hitting coach, Mickey Hatcher, was fired against Scioscia’s wishes. They never took serious steps to bolster the bullpen and had too many players for too few lineup spots.

Owner Arte Moreno made maneuvers that were not team-related, but related to the TV deal he wanted to secure. And he did.

They did business like the 1980s Yankees and they’ve been playing and behaving like the 1980s Yankees. The one thing that will save them is the thing that was lacking in the 1980s: the Wild Cards.

Cincinnati Reds

Acquired: Mat Latos, Ryan Madson, Ryan Ludwick

Subtracted: Ramon Hernandez, Yonder Alonso, Yasmani Grandal, Edinson Volquez, Edgar Renteria, Francisco Cordero

The Reds are in first place and playing well no thanks to Latos (he’s been horrific); Madson (out for the year with Tommy John surgery); and Ludwick (.205/.290/.402 slash line with 6 homers in a homer-friendly home park).

It’s not as if they needed Alonso with Joey Votto ensconced at first base. They have a young catcher in Devin Mesoraco so they didn’t really need Grandal. And Volquez has been consistently inconsistent and injured since his great rookie year with the Reds.

But the winter moves are what’s relevant here and if they’d held onto the players they traded for Latos (and I’m not retrospectively ripping the deal since I thought it was good for both sides), they could’ve gotten mid-season help rather than an in-season nightmare.

Milwaukee Brewers

Acquired: Aramis Ramirez, Alex Gonzalez, Norichika Aoki, Jose Veras, Brooks Conrad

Subtracted: Prince Fielder, Yuniesky Betancourt, Casey McGehee

Ramirez is starting to hit and will hit put up numbers by the end of the season. We’ll never know whether the improved defense and pop from Alex Gonzalez and a full season from Mat Gamel would’ve made up for the loss of Fielder because both blew out their knees within days of each other.

It’s not really anyone’s fault. They did the best they could under their financial and practical circumstances.

St. Louis Cardinals

Acquired: Manager Mike Matheny, Carlos Beltran, pitching coach Derek Lilliquist

Subtracted: Manager Tony LaRussa, pitching coach Dave Duncan, Albert Pujols, Edwin Jackson, Octavio Dotel, Gerald Laird, Nick Punto.

So wait…now that the Cardinals are at .500 and freefalling it’s been miraculously discovered that the transition from a Hall of Fame manager/pitching coach combination to a manager who’s never managed before anywhere wasn’t going to go as smoothly as it did when they got off to a hot start?

That replacing Pujols wasn’t as simple as signing Beltran and moving the now-injured 36-year-old Lance Berkman to first base?

Shocking.

Colorado Rockies

Acquired: Michael Cuddyer, Marco Scutaro, Ramon Hernandez, Jeremy Guthrie, Tyler Chatwood, Tyler Colvin, Jamie Moyer

Subtracted: Chris Iannetta, Jason Hammel, Matt Lindstrom, Ian Stewart, Seth Smith

The starting pitching has killed them.

They loaded up on starters, but it hasn’t been enough as Drew Pomeranz got hurt and they gave Moyer 10 starts. It hasn’t helped that Hammel has been very good for the Orioles while Guthrie has been terrible for the Rockies.

Cuddyer has been everything advertised. Scutaro and Hernandez haven’t.

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Baseball Will Adapt to Playoff Expansion

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When the devastation of the 1994 strike and subsequent canceling of the World Series is discussed, the main topics are usually the Expos’ demise; the Yankees’ interrupted return to glory; Matt Williams’s run at Roger Maris; and Tony Gwynn’s shot at hitting .400.

That the Texas Rangers were in first place with a record of 52-62 is rarely mentioned.

So what would’ve happened had those Rangers made the playoffs with a record under .500?

It’s easy to say, “Oh, they’d have gotten swept in the first round by the Yankees.”

But would they have?

The Rangers of 1994 had Kevin Brown and Kenny Rogers in their starting rotation; they had Tom Henke as their closer; and they could bash.

Is it so farfetched to think they could’ve bounced the Yankees?

In addition to the other division leaders—the Yankees and White Sox—there were eight teams in the American League alone with better records than the Rangers when the strike hit.

Eight.

Would it be absurd to think that those Rangers would’ve made the playoffs with a record of 77-85, entered with house money thinking they had nothing to lose and gotten a hot pitcher like Brown—who happened to be unhittable when he was on—and rode their lineup and closer to a title that would’ve been seen as a large black spot on baseball’s system had it happened?

You don’t think it was possible?

It’s happened before.

The 1973 Mets and 1987 Twins were two clubs that shouldn’t have been in the playoffs if they’re judged on their regular season records. The Mets had a hellacious starting rotation and upset the Big Red Machine Cincinnati Reds in the then-best of 5 NLCS; the Twins had won 29 games on the road all season, knocked out the high-powered Tigers in the best of 7 ALCS and won the World Series by winning all of their games at home against the Cardinals.

At the time, home field advantage in the World Series was rotated. If the Twins had won the pennant in an even numbered year, they might not have won the championship.

It was circumstance. Or luck. Or design. Or all of the above.

Drastic changes to the game’s foundational rules have long been lamented as ruinous. The shift in strategy of inside baseball to the reliance on the home run; the outlawing of the spitball; expansion to the West Coast; the lowering of the mound; the draft; divisional play; the DH; free agency; the Wild Card; deep statistical analysis; drug allowance and drug testing—I can go on and on.

But the game survived and thrived.

It adapted.

You can be a purist and point out all the things that might’ve been better had certain new rules not been enacted, but it’s hindsight and one small alteration in the fabric of time sets in motion a million other possibilities.

I have no issue with 10 teams out of 30 having a chance to win a World Series after 162 games. Teams that win their divisions will have a far better chance in doing so than the four Wild Card teams that are going to be playing one game to get to the dance.

One game.

Anything can happen in one game.

Anything.

For every really good team that missed out on the playoffs under the old rules—the 1993 Giants and 1980 Orioles come immediately to mind—there are teams that weren’t very good and made the playoffs because of the Wild Card or that they were in a weak division.

Is it fair? Should they have been left on the outside looking in because they happened to be trapped in a division with a team that wound up with a better record than they did? Should they have been excluded because they won their division with 82 wins?

Maybe they should. But maybe they shouldn’t.

Yes, there will be teams that play for third place, get into the playoffs and eventually win the World Series.

But so what?

With the one game playoff, the Wild Card is no longer as easy an avenue as it once was. A one game playoff is not what any team wants to bank their hopes on, so in essence this new configuration will provide more motivation for a team to win their division.

It’s in human nature to adapt.

And baseball will adapt as well.

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