Tuesday, September 9, 2008

In A Daze, In A Malaise, The Tampa Bay Rays

  • Red Sox 3-Rays 0:
The Rays are staggering and stumbling toward the finish as teams who've had a smooth
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season-long ride sometimes do; occasionally it costs them, occasionally it doesn't. I don't see this sudden rash of losing as affecting the team one way or the other once the playoffs start. Right now, it looks like the Red Sox are going to overtake them for the division, but all that's going to do is change the matchups in the first round. Simply because a team has an awful close to their season doesn't mean they're going to continue that in the playoffs.
The Tigers and Cardinals of 2006 looked like expansion teams over the last month of that season and both wound up in the World Series; once the playoff spot is clinched (and the lead the Rays built up will ensure they're going to make the playoffs no matter how many more games they lose), they should relax and get back to playing as well as they did earlier this season. Given the lead they built up, some adversity and guidance from the leaders in the clubhouse, how to overcome it and return to the solid baseball that got them into this position in the first place isn't a bad thing whether or not they win the division title; making the playoffs is the most important thing and the Rays have that sewn up.
  • Angels 12-Yankees 1:
The statements uttered above about the Rays may not have been so clear cut had the
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Yankees and manager Joe Girardi acted more quickly to prevent Darrell Rasner from blowing the game up last Thursday----Blog 9/5. It would be interesting to see what position the Rays would be in and how much panic would be going on if they were in the midst of a seven game losing streak.
The scuffle between the Yankees and Angels last night looked like it stemmed more from frustration on the part of the Yankees than any real animosity between the teams; it's a bad sign that the benches cleared and the Yankees, instead of getting fired up and playing better, looked like they packed everything in and let the Angels blow them out afterwards.
Hank Steinbrenner was quoted yesterday as saying that Girardi will be back next season----ESPN Story----but I don't think that's as guaranteed as the Baby Boss implies in his statement. What happens if the Yankees collapse completely over the final eighteen games and go 6-12 or somewhere in that area and end the season at 82-80? It's seen as almost a sure thing that Brian Cashman returns, but what happens if the Washington Nationals job opens up and the Philadelphia Phillies job is offered to him and he decides on his own to abandon ship? It's likely that the Yankees would promote from within with Damon Oppenheimer to replace Cashman, but if they go elsewhere for a replacement, what if the new GM doesn't want Girardi?
If George Steinbrenner were still running things, there's no question what the end result of
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this season would be; neither Cashman nor Girardi would return and the money coming off the books with the departing free agents Jason Giambi, Carl Pavano, et al would be going into the pockets of C.C. Sabathia and Mark Teixeira. People mistake Joe Torre's unprecedentedly long reign as Yankees manager as evidence that the Boss mellowed in his old age; maybe he was slightly more patient than he would have been fifteen-to-twenty years earlier, but Torre survived for one reason----he kept winning the World Series; other than that, he would have joined the long list of Yankee managers who were fired with or without their success and loyalty to the organization.
It's conveniently forgotten that Torre was days (perhaps hours) away from being fired in 1998 when the team started out at 1-4; he was able to right the ship in time to save himself and make history with a team that is widely regarded as one of the best in baseball history. Will Girardi be back next season? I'd say probably, but it's not a definite thing because if Hank gets angry enough and realizes that his bluster and threats are met with widespread skepticism and outright ridicule, he might just turn around and fire Girardi. It's at least in the realm of possibility.
  • Billy Wagner out for the rest of 2008, 2009 and perhaps for his career:
Here's one thing I don't understand about this diagnosis, did he tear the ligament while he was pitching that simulated game on Sunday, or was it already an undiagnosed tear? And if
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it was already torn, why did it take until Monday to diagnose it after he'd seen all of those doctors to try and find out what was wrong initially? That's neither here nor there I suppose, because it doesn't sound like rest and rehab were going to do much good; if the ligament was going to go, it was going to go. Wagner throws very, very hard and has been durable for much of his career, so it's no surprise that he's got a serious arm injury as his career winds down. The thing the Mets now have to decide is what to do about a closer for 2009.
For 2008, they're in the same position they were before Wagner was officially out for the season. I don't think they were expecting him back when he first went on the disabled list and were looking at it as a bonus is he was going to be able to return. Luis Ayala is going to close for the rest of this season as long as he's getting the job done and I have no problem with that. Ayala has handled the pressure, he throws strikes and has very good stuff. There are voices in the media, notably Mike Francesa on WFAN, who are implying that the Mets are walking the tightrope this season with Ayala, but in order to prove his point, he's twisting reality to suit himself. On Sunday for example, Ayala gave up a run and it was seen to be a struggle for him to record the final three outs against the Phillies in the Mets 6-3 win. Looking at the box score and taking the situation out of context makes it appear that way, but it's not the case.
Ayala did give up a deep drive to Andy Tracy that Endy Chavez caught by the left field wall; and he gave up a run, but the two hits he allowed traveled about a combined total of 75 feet with swinging bunts by Shane Victorino and Matt Stairs; they were lucky hits and no reflection on how well or poorly Ayala might have been pitching. From what I can see, Ayala is pitching very well and is handling the job better than anyone else the Mets have right now.
As for next year, the immediate speculation will center on the possibility of signing the impending free agent Francisco Rodriguez from the Angels or trading for Huston Street of the
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Athletics. I would not pony up the $60-70 million it's going to require to get Rodriguez. As gaudy as K-Rod's stats are, he walks a lot of hitters; has a stressful, over-the-top motion and history has proven that importing big money closers is a wasted effort much of the time. While I don't believe the closer-by-committee strategy can work in today's game, I do believe that teams can develop a closer of their own inexpensively. I wouldn't touch Street either given how shaky he's been and the concern about his health; plus Athletics boss Billy Beane is like a predator waiting for a team like the Mets to panic if they look like they're desperate to make a splash and bring in a recognizable name.
What I would do is sign a veteran stopgap like Todd Jones or keep Al Reyes just in case the designated closer falters. If they try to move forward with Ayala or use one of their youngsters like Eddie Kunz or Robert Parnell, then this is the correct strategy; I would also seriously consider shifting John Maine into the role next year. Spending more money or prospects on a different closer would be a big mistake because there are other viable options that would work just as well, if not better.
  • How does this affect Wagner's Hall of Fame candidacy?
This doesn't affect Wagner's candidacy at all because he wasn't getting in one way or the other. Rob Neyer wrote this in his blog yesterday:

And what of Wagner? This year he's been just about as good as ever, when he's been able to pitch. But how good will he be in 2010? I think he'll be pretty good. John Smoltz certainly was, when he came back. But Smoltz was only 34, and Wagner will turn 39 in 2010. Even if he's pretty good, we can't assume he'll be great. Which I'm afraid puts a real damper on his Hall of Fame candidacy.

Billy Wagner is not a Hall of Famer. Hall of Fame voters elect closers under
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protest to begin with. If the truly great closers of yesteryear like Bruce Sutter, Goose Gossage and Rollie Fingers had to wait for election, what would it say about a pretty good, but not great closer like Billy Wagner if he were even to receive serious consideration? In today's era, Dennis Eckersley was the first of the "one-inning save" closers who got in, but that's in part because he won a load of hardware as a closer (Cy Young Award, MVP, ALCS MVP); was a top six finisher in the Cy Young/MVP voting three other times; and was also a great starting pitcher early in his career. Mariano Rivera will get in on the first ballot because of the championship teams for whom he was an indispensable linchpin, but as for the others, it's a big question mark.
Trevor Hoffman is often referred to as a "future Hall of Famer", but I'm not so sure. I would have to think long and hard about voting for Hoffman because he has no hardware, has struggled in big games; he has finished in the top six of Cy Young voting four times (twice coming
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in second). Hoffman has a better shot than Wagner does, but if these closers get in, it opens up a bunch of other names that would have a legitimate argument for their own induction. Those guys, including names like John Franco and Lee Smith, are not Hall of Famers. And Franco has something that Wagner doesn't since he recorded a huge save in the playoffs by striking out Barry Bonds as the winning run at the plate in game two of the 2000 NLDS. Wagner has failed miserably in big situations time after time. This injury and the possible end to Wagner's career doesn't hurt or help his candidacy because he ain't gettin' in either way.
  • Reds 5-Brewers 4:
Strategically, there's no way to blame Brewers manager Ned Yost for this loss. He could
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have left starter Dave Bush in to pitch the ninth given how shaky the Brewers bullpen has been; how well Bush pitched; and that Bush had only thrown 99 pitches, but Salomon Torres has been mostly reliable as the Brewers closer; there was no reason to think he wouldn't be able to hold a two run lead.
That being said, the Brewers are gagging again as the season winds down and it is very possible that neither the Mets nor Phillies are going to be left out in the cold in this year's playoff race because the Brewers are a likely candidate to collapse down the stretch. It's indicative of Yost's tightness that after Torres was hit with Corey Patterson's line drive and Yost ventured onto the field to watch Torres make a couple of warm up tosses to make sure he was okay, Yost's jaw muscles were contracting with such ferocity that he looked like he might spontaneously combust right there on the field.
Yost is eerily similar to another tightly wound manager whom the players tolerated and eventually mutinied against, former Astros and Angels manager Terry Collins. Off the field, Collins is said to be a very nice guy, but his tempestuous nature wore on the veterans in both of his
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managerial stops and frightened the young players to the point that they were petrified to make a mistake. He was moderately successful because he had some talent to work with, but his teams were winning in spite of him and not because of him. In both of Collins's managerial stops, the players let management know that enough was enough with him and his temper. In his case, as with Yost's, a change was needed for the talented teams to make it to the next level from potential contender to true contender. If the supremely talented Brewers falter again, it will be partially because of their bullpen, but predominately because of their manager and a change is going to have to be made to someone more temperate if they want to win when it counts.

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