Sunday, August 29, 2010

Sunday Lightning 8.29.2010

  • Smelling blood:

The Twins are always looking to improve in-season and generally take steps to beef up the bullpen more than any other area. It is with that in mind that they acquired Matt Capps from the Nationals for top prospect Wilson Ramos and Brian Fuentes from the Angels for a player to be named later.

In what was likely a preview to the way the Twins are going to use their relievers for the playoffs, Fuentes was called upon to get the final out in yesterday's 1-0 win over the Mariners. Nick Blackburn had rolled through the Mariners lineup allowing only 2 hits, but with Russell Branyan at the plate. Twins manager Ron Gardenhire brought in Fuentes. Fuentes struck out Branyan.

Because of the wide open American League and evident flaws with each and every team, the Twins have spotted an opening that they're taking steps to exploit. Their bullpen is deep with three pitchers who've closed----Fuentes, Capps and Jon Rauch----to go along with dependable role-pitchers Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain and Brian Duensing. The injuries to Ron Mahay and Jose Mijares made it necessary to get another lefty and they didn't simply get a situational type like Pedro Feliciano or Doug Slaten, but they got Fuentes. Now they're a major threat to all the potential playoff opponents.

The Yankees starting pitching is in absolute disarray; the Rays have to contend with a heavy workload placed on their starters, dead spots in their lineup and the shakiness in pressure situations of closer Rafael Soriano; the White Sox bullpen is inconsistent; the Rangers have youth and inexperience in their bullpen and must be silently concerned about Cliff Lee.

That leaves the Twins.

Certain teams have a strategy and they stick to it. Winning within a budget and relying on competent starters; good defense; timely, versatile bats; and an interchangeable bullpen, the Twins are in contention every single year. When they've made the playoffs, they've been undone----more than anything else----by injured closer Joe Nathan's meltdowns, mostly against the Yankees.

Nathan's hurt.

They've had to piece it together with Rauch early in the year and now with Capps and Fuentes. Manager Ron Gardenhire would scoff at the suggestion that the Twins may be better off with someone other than Nathan closing. He comes from the Tom Kelly school of simplicity. I remember reading an article in Sports Illustrated from 1992 about the Twins longtime manager Kelly (Gardenhire's mentor and one of the architects of the "Twins Way" that's been so successful) as he tried to explain without condescension why he did certain things. The entire article can be found here.

"I used to try to educate the fans who called in," says T.K. "If they wanted to know why I bat this guy here instead of this guy, I would tell them. Why wouldn't you hit Brian Harper second? He hits so good, and you don't have a second-place hitter. And I would explain to them that while Brian Harper is a tremendous hitter, he is not exactly what you would call adept on the base paths. So now I've hurt their feelings because I'm telling them that they're wrong.

"He hits so good" probably wouldn't work with the stat zombies; nor would it placate the fans and media who have a list of reasons why Brian Harper should not have been batting second; in fact, there would be a large segment of "experts" who would suggest better offensive and defensive options behind the plate than Harper. Harper was actually a good all-around player.

Because of that, if anyone dared to suggest that the club is better off without Nathan, they'd receive eye-rolls and head shakes. But the fact is that the team may be better off in the playoffs without Nathan. Gardenhire isn't a manager who's worried about the second-guessing after the game; he doesn't make his decisions to have an answer for the media and fans. He's not a safety-first automaton as Jeff Torborg was.

There's still the question if he had Nathan available, would Blackburn have started the ninth inning yesterday? Or would he have gone to the closer because that's what he's supposed to do? The Twins have a chance to truly use a bullpen by committee; and it won't be with a series of journeymen that undid the Red Sox attempt at the system in 2003 as they cost themselves the World Series a year before they won it; it would be with closers who have an idea of what the job entails; and no one----not Capps, Rauch or Fuentes----will have a right nor the audacity to moan about it in the press because they weren't given the save chance. The Twins don't operate that way.

This is much like the situation when the agent of Francisco Liriano, Greg Genske, was complaining about his client being kept in the minors two years ago despite pitching well enough for a recall (link) and Gardenhire reacted angrily with the following statement:

"I just back into town and I hear all this stuff, and Buster Olney is making my team up now and [Genske] wants to tell me who is going to pitch here," Gardenhire said. "No one is going to tell us who to put on our team and no one on ESPN is going to tell us who should pitch for my team. They haven't been here all year. If they had been down there and seen the guy pitch, and then started talking, that's one thing. But to read stats, that's another thing. I recommend they go down there and watch him pitch, come back with a good report for me and walk into my office."

The Twins don't want to hear it and don't put up with it. There are clubs in baseball in which the inmates are running the asylum; that is not the case in Minnesota; and the players who could make a case for running things----Joe Mauer----don't.

Fuentes was used to retire Branyan because it was the correct move. It's something that observers should watch for in October because if Robinson Cano is batting with a chance to wreck the game in the ninth inning and Capps is on the mound, the "closer" is going to be removed in favor of Fuentes. Such would not happen if Nathan were healthy.

Nathan's injury left the Twins scrambling and forced them to use Rauch; then they bolstered the relief corps further with Capps and Fuentes. It was a devastating blow to lose their All Star closer in the spring, but now it's not looking all that bad anymore because as a direct result they're able to put winning ahead of the assigned roles. If there's a different result in two months than their annual playoff loss, it won't be because of the acquisitions themselves, but because of the alteration in strategy that the injury to Nathan made necessary.

Gauging the Mets for next year and ignoring the obvious unknowns----whether they'll be able to exchange Luis Castillo for a similar contract; if they can move Francisco Rodriguez; how they're going to configure the outfield; what steps they'll take for the bullpen; how much money the Wilpons have to spend; who's going to be running the baseball operations----one piece of speculation that they might reach into their glory days to bring in the fiery Wally Backman to run the team is gaining steam and making more sense not because it's a gimmick, but because the personnel might be best suited to someone of Backman's style and temperament.

Regardless of ancillary factors, the foundation of the 2011 team is set. They lineup will be exorcised of Jeff Francoeur and Castillo; the starting rotation will be intact aside from the addition of a veteran of the Bronson Arroyo, Hiroki Kuroda type; and there will be a few new relievers----Grant Balfour, Scot Shields, Matt Thornton, Scott Linebrink----brought in. With the way the team is set based on speed and defense, they're going to need a manager who is going to be aggressive. Backman is nothing if not aggressive.

The Whitey Herzog Cardinals (AKA the Runnin' Redbirds) of the 1980s didn't worry about being caught stealing; they had little power; their starting rotation was full of reclamation projects or rookies; and they had a deep bullpen. They won a title with a Hall of Fame closer in Bruce Sutter; and they got by with an array of reliable relievers and a rookie, Todd Worrell after Sutter left. It was "get on base and run". In order to do that, the manager has to be of the mindset that the hard-charging, go-go-go attitude will be enough of a distraction to the opposing pitcher and defense that the number of times it fails makes it still worth the risk.

Is Bob Melvin that type of manager? Is Joe Torre? Is any other name that's bandied about as the Mets 2011 manager, aside from Backman, that personality type? It might only work for a short-time. Like Billy Martin, I'd have concerns that Backman would have a penchant for self-destruction; but for the next couple of years, it's an infusion that fits in with the current construction of the team.

The more thoughtful, passive managers in the vein of Melvin and Torre aren't going to give their players the free rein to make those mistakes. Backman would. I remember when the Cardinals had been drastically rebuilt under Herzog in the early 80s and speed was back en vogue, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, latched onto the idea that speed kills and it's resistance to slumps made it a winning formula, turned the Bronx Bombers into a track meet. He let Reggie Jackson leave and brought in Ken Griffey and Dave Collins to go along with Jerry Mumphrey as "speed" players. The details of the switch can be found in Graig Nettles's book Balls:

When we got to spring training, it was pretty clear we didn't have the kind of speed George was bragging about. Also, if you're going to run, you have to have an aggressive manager, and Bob Lemon is not that type, and neither is Gene Michael. When the season started, we hardly ever stole a base.

Steinbrenner had a third manager that year, Clyde King, and he wasn't that way either.

So you had a mishmash of players of negligible talents slammed into an ill-fitting system with a series of managers who didn't encourage the freedom to run, bunt and hit and run.

Needless to say, it didn't work.

The personality required to do such a thing has to be of the John McGraw, Backman, Martin school. Herzog was able to do what he wanted because he was essentially running the team from top-to-bottom; the media wasn't as suffocating then as it is now and the middle-American reporters weren't as vicious as they are in New York----Herzog had them intimidated; and it had worked with the Royals and was working with the Cardinals.

This is the personnel the Mets have and it can be shaped to fit the ballpark with a tweak here and there. Backman might ignite and then flame out; he might do something that will force the front office to keep a leash on him or even dump him. But in a short burst, it could work. Given the way the team is listless and heading toward a younger group, Backman might be the man to liven things up on and off the field very, very quickly.

  • Viewer Mail 8.29.2010:

Kimberly writes RE Stephen Strasburg:

The news about Strasburg is very sad. It is sad in the way that any athlete needing Tommy John (or any other type) surgery would be unfortunate. For some reason, I have some bitterness about Strasburg--but he is completely blameless for my negative feelings. My issue is the overwhelming praise that was heaped on Strasburg before he ever threw a big league pitch. I can't figure out why "sports writers" at ESPN (and elsewhere) feel the need to hype a player like Strasburg to such a nauseating degree. I it because they don't want to be late in identifying a future Hall of Famer? Do they worry that they may be caught behind the times? Or could the reason be that they find current sports--current athletes--so boring that they have to create a story where there may not be one?
It's almost like you said in your post--MLB is trying to be like the NFL or NBA. The problem is, while it's easy to predict the NFL potential of a college player, baseball is totally different. So many variables will affect the success of a baseball player. There are no sure things in the MLB. The "experts" don't seem to get this.

Strasburg's injury is sad in an on-field sense, but in reality, he's an athlete with a great talent and he got hurt. The implication that it's a "tragedy" is pure melodrama. Nick Adenhart was a tragedy. Stephen Strasburg is not a tragedy. What I find funny is the search for citations in warning the masses about Strasburg. Brewers pitching coach Rick Peterson was quoted in Bill Madden's column today....and used it to try and play up his company:

The career-threatening elbow ligament injury to Stephen Strasburg has Rick Peterson, the former Mets pitching coach now with the Brewers, even more flabbergasted that more teams have not taken advantage of the biomechanical analysis clinic he has utilized for years with Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham, Ala. Strasburg's injury was not the product of over-use but rather flaws in his delivery. "An MRI and a physical may reveal the injury, but a biomechanical analysis can tell you the predictability of one and make the chances far greater of correcting those flaws," Peterson said. "Not to do it when you have access to it is insane. It's like buying a used car without Carfax."

Peterson has a track record of success with pitchers others couldn't reach----Oliver Perez----so he gets a pass for this year's atrocious showing with the Brewers. Perhaps the Strasburg camp should've been more proactive in keeping him healthy by consulting with Peterson/Andrews as a preventative measure.

ESPN had a stake in Strasburg because any mention of the phenom meant clicking on the stories; web traffic; viewership increases; and raised advertising revenue from the attention. The Nationals wanted to have an ace at the top of their rotation of course, but they too wanted to benefit from such a larger-than-life character.

Credible people like Peterson have a right to speak out, but the leeches are appearing now with their, "I knew his motion was ripe for TJ" borderline gloating after the fact. In a way, they're worse than those who anointed Strasburg before he'd made it to the big leagues and looked dominant because they were silent until it was safe to start crowing. "Could Strasburg's injury have been foreseen and prevented?" will be the new storyline.

One thing feeds into the other and it's unstoppable. It's going to happen again. And again. And again. And again. Not much thought goes into the hype and when there's money involved? Watch out.

  • New stuff:

I posted some new stuff yesterday on my alternate writing site----It's My Father's Ring----if anyone's interested.

I was a guest a week ago Thursday with Sal at SportsFan Buzz. You can click the link to Sal's site to download the Podcast or listen directly here. Also, check Sal's Facebook page here.

My book is still available on Amazon, I-Universe and Barnes and It's available for download as an E-book here. You can also now get it for less that five bucks on BN via download here.


She-Fan said...

The Twins have been quietly doing a great job, and I expect them to be right there at playoff time, as always - even with Mauer having a down year.

Jeff said...

I like the idea of having Backman at the helm. Why not? I think too much credit is given to managers these days.

One only need to look at the overhyped delusions of grandeur involving Joe Giardi to realize that truth.