Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Objective Analysis

Since there are still so many misapplied perceptions about Oakland Athletics boss Billy Beane; and he's still considered a top-tier GM based on little other than Moneyball, a few good maneuvers, some inherited talent and luck; and there are many people in the media and public advocating Beane as a reasonable successor to Omar Minaya as Mets GM, it's time to take an evenhanded examination of Beane's tenure in running the Athletics.

There will be as few mentions of Moneyball as is humanly possible. (Really.)

Let's take a look.

Rise to power:

Beane took over a moribund franchise in 1998 replacing Sandy Alderson as GM. Alderson himself had crafted a reputation as a successful administrator based on two things: money and Tony La Russa.

The Athletics of the late 1980s and early 1990s were built by La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan's excellence and owner Walter Haas's disinterest in turning a profit at the expense of fielding a competitive team. The A's were consistently at or near the top of baseball in terms of payroll. Alderson made some excellent trades in acquiring the likes of Rickey Henderson and signing underappreciated contributors like Dave Henderson and Ron Hassey, but to think that Alderson's career was the culmination of a brilliant baseball mind is nonsense.

All one needs do is look at what happened after the team was sold to Steve Schott, the money was gone, La Russa left and the team collapsed. Alderson is disciplined; he's smart; and he's brutal; he's also fond of fostering factions among his underlings (as the disaster with the Padres proved) in order to maintain command of the various turf battles.

Beane rose from advance scout to Alderson's assistant. Beane had walked off the field where he was a backup outfielder on those late 80s A's teams and joined the front office; his scouting acumen and desire were noticed and detailed almost immediately----Sports Illustrated article, Sept. 17, 1990----and he was immediately cast as a future GM.

Contrary to the cover stories being presented, there wasn't a ruthless rise to power under Alderson making the end result of consolidation and recognition a guarantee once he did take command; instead, Beane was said to follow Alderson around like a baby duck at the meetings and sit by passively, watching. He took over as full-time GM in 1998 and inherited a terrible team which Alderson, doubtlessly, thought was ungovernable and irreparable.

Naturally, once the A's began winning under Beane, there was Alderson to suggest that he laid the foundation for the turnaround and gave Beane his start. It was this "strawman" (a favored Bill James term for a specious argument that has no basis in reality when dissected) that led to Beane's rampant fame and Alderson's continued employment within baseball.

Just like any cover story to sell to the masses----George Washington chopping down the cherry tree and not lying about it; Robin Hood robbing the rich to give to the poor; John F. Kennedy writing "Profiles in Courage"----there's a kernel of truth, but it's not....quite....accurate.

On-field results:

The 1998 Athletics went 74-88. They were old and slow and packed with journeymen and mediocre youngsters. On the club were two core members of the future contender, Jason Giambi and Miguel Tejada; aside from that, there was little to be excited about as the team looked hopeless.

Beane had yet to implement his "strategies" based on the sabermetric principles that were the impetus of the club's return to contention and Beane's rise to prominence. In 1999, there were signals for a positive future. Tim Hudson arrived and went 11-2 as a rookie; Giambi became a feared power hitter; and they received above-and-beyond performances from Matt Stairs and John Jaha. They finished the year at 87-75 and second place in the AL West.

The teams from 2000-2003 were built by Beane's smart maneuvering and the decisions that formed the basis for the future worship he would engender. Giambi evolved into a wrecking machine; the young pitchers Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito all developed into stars; they had a deep and well-constructed bullpen; and burgeoning lineup forces with Tejada and Eric Chavez. He found contributors in Scott Hatteberg and Cory Lidle. It was Beane's use of statistics and ancillary attributes that led to the success of those teams under a tight payroll and, by proxy, drew the attention of Michael Lewis; attention that sowed the seeds for Moneyball.

Every year from 2000-2003 the Athletics won and made the playoffs; and every year they got bounced. Beane used the absurdity "the playoffs are luck" to explain away his team's failures; it was a handy excuse for Beane to absolve himself of blame for a bad ending. Had he been holding up the World Series trophy at the conclusion of any one of those years and stood on the podium in a champagne soaked clubhouse, I have a hard time believing anyone with his ego would utter the words, "we got lucky".

In 2004, the A's finished one game behind the Angels for the AL West title and missed the playoffs. Hudson and Mulder were growing too expensive to keep; he sensed the window for the group was closing and he started trading his stars to retool.

2005 was something of a rebuilding year, but the A's still went 88-74; in 2006, they won a surprising division title and knocked the heavily favored Twins out of the ALDS before being swept by the Tigers in the ALCS.

By 2007, things started coming apart. Since that year, the A's and Beane----no longer able to use the statistically based agenda to find players they could afford because other teams caught onto the act----stumbled back into mediocrity and worse. They haven't won more than 76 games since.

Trades/free agent signings:

Was it brilliance?

Was it luck?

Was it freedom from accountability and public interest that allowed Beane to do what he wanted initially; then the idea that "the man must know what he's doing" that was a direct result of the accolades to protect him for being held responsible for mistakes?

Or was it all of the above?

First, the brilliance.

Early in his tenure. He specifically made the Mets GM Steve Phillips a victim by getting Terence Long (not great, but okay for a time) for Kenny Rogers; and the big score, Jason Isringhausen for Bill Taylor. He perpetrated an absolute heist in getting Johnny Damon, Mark Ellis and Lidle for Ben Grieve, Angel Berroa and A.J. Hinch (yes; that A.J. Hinch). He got Jermaine Dye for three non-descript minor leaguers; he acquired Dave Justice for Mark Guthrie and Tyler Yates (again from the Mets); Ray Durham for Jon Adkins; Ted Lilly came over for Jeremy Bonderman and Carlos Pena (neither of whom have done much to make that regrettable; Pena was dumped by a bunch of teams before finding a home----through luck----in Tampa); Chad Bradford was acquired from the White Sox for Miguel Olivo; he got Dan Haren and Daric Barton from the Cardinals for Mulder and Mulder's arm blew out 2 years later; Nick Swisher yielded Gio Gonzalez and Ryan Sweeney.

With free agents, Beane made some major hits like the aforementioned Hatteberg; Marco Scutaro; Jack Cust and Frank Thomas were both looking for mutually advantageous situations----Cust had run out of options with other clubs after failing time and again; Thomas wanted to prove he was healthy and signed an incentive-laden deal, nearly winning the MVP.

Then there are the bad trades. Milton Bradley behaved himself and was solid for the Athletics, but they gave up Andre Ethier to get him. Aaron Harang was traded for Jose Guillen. Tim Hudson went to the Braves for Dan Meyer, Charles Thomas and Juan Cruz. Haren was sent to the Diamondbacks for a package that included Carlos Gonzalez, but Gonzalez was spun to the Rockies for Matt Holliday, who couldn't handle the American League, got off to a slow start and was traded to the Cardinals for Brett Wallace. Rich Harden was traded to the Cubs for a bunch of bodies.

With free agents, Beane has been capricious with money and seen it go down the tubes. Ben Sheets was guaranteed $10 million for reasons few seem to understand; Esteban Loaiza received 3-years and $21 million; he inexplicably brought back a shot Giambi before the 2009 season in what was a concession to sentimentality more than hard data; and he signed Coco Crisp before this year.

You'll notice that as Beane's reputation and profile increased, teams were at first reluctant to deal with him for fear of getting ripped off; and then didn't want to help him because of his participation in the way Moneyball crafted the storyline of Beane knowing all/everyone else is an idiot. There are more than a few people within baseball who are not unhappy at Beane's struggles and fall from grace in recent years.

The draft:

I can't discuss the draft without wading into the Moneyball farce.

The implication in the book was that Beane and his consigliere Paul DePodesta had found a way to "count cards" in the draft and find baseball players rather than tools guys who looked good in jeans.

It's garbage.

The self-protective cover story regarding the playoffs being a crapshoot is misapplied; the true crapshoot is the draft. As the Stephen Strasburg injury is proving now, you never, ever know what you're going to get from a prospect; you can put all the pieces in place and insert your young players into the cocoon of history and numbers; provide a motherly, nurturing environment...and they can still fall flat on their faces.

The Jeremy Brown case is indicative of this phenomenon. The poster boy for the Beane draft technique was smothered rather than developed and that suffocation is a direct result of Michael Lewis. Because he was "fat" and slow, Brown was kept in the lower echelon of team draft boards, but Beane drafted him in the first round of 2002, got him to take a down-the-line salary and he epitomized the way the Athletics were "reinventing" the draft. In reality, Brown was a good player who might have had a chance to make it in the big leagues if he was more under-the-radar and didn't have Moneyball hanging over his head. He lasted six years in the minors, had a cup of coffee in the big leagues and retired after 2007 at age 27.

The Beane hits in the draft list follows. I'm not parsing due to who was in control of the scouting and development; Beane was the GM, he gets credit or blame; players are mentioned based on having some use whether it's in trades or for the A's themselves:

1998: Mark Mulder, Gerald Laird, Tyler Yates, Jon Adkins

1999: Barry Zito, Ryan Ludwick

2000: Rich Harden

2001: Bobby Crosby, Dan Johnson, Jeremy Bonderman

2002: Nick Swisher, Mark Teahen, Joe Blanton, John Baker

2003: Andre Ethier

2004: Huston Street, Kurt Suzuki, Ryan Webb, Dallas Braden

2005: Cliff Pennington, Travis Buck

2006: Trevor Cahill, Andrew Bailey

2007: Sam Demel

2008: Tyson Ross

I can get into the players they passed on to select the mostly negligible contributors above, but it's pointless. The draft is what it is----a selection of 18-22-year-olds coming from various backgrounds and talent levels whose abilities may grow or flame out as they reach the professional level. The game is so vastly different from the amateurs (with aluminum bats and sliding scales of competition) that there's no ironclad way to determine whether or not a player's skills are going to translate. Then there are maturity factors, personalities, coping skills----all contribute to success or failure. It can be accounted for, but it can't be guaranteed. To imply that Beane had "built a better mousetrap" fit into the myth and had absolutely no basis in reality.

Treatment of his managers:

Here's something I truly do not understand. How is it possible to give credit to the GM for the wins and blame to the manager for the losses?

Art Howe was never a great manager, but he's no worse strategically than Joe Maddon, Bud Black or even Joe Girardi. But Howe has become the epitome of a non-entity and "along for the ride" of an excellent team. Howe's contributions to his teams was more along the line of not scaring the young players into failure and it's an important, but unquantifiable, attribute. He didn't screw it up. The playoff losses from 2000-2002 were not the fault of Art Howe. Beane actually did Howe a favor by letting him out of his contract to take over the Mets in 2003 (financially anyway); yes, Howe's reputation took a beating, but he made an amount of money he never would've gotten from the Athletics or anywhere else.

Ken Macha was not popular among the players and Beane never appreciated him as anything more than a function of circumstances. Macha made mostly the correct strategic calls with a noticeable gaffe here and there; but he was at the helm when the A's broke through in the division series and beat the Twins in 2006. Then they got swept by the Tigers and Macha was fired. This was a year after contract negotiations broke off and the A's walked away from Macha only to have the two sides reconcile. Macha was being paid for two years after Beane fired him.

The floating value of the manager and his disposability has been exemplified by Beane's treatment of his latest manager, Bob Geren. Is Geren's holding onto his job amid the A's performance from 2007 onward anything more than a byproduct of him being Beane's "best" friend? Would any other manager----a middle-manager as they're referred to in stat zombie circles----still be managing the team after an annual 75 wins? The A's were expected to contend in 2009 and didn't; they were expected to contend in 2010 and (despite assertions to the contrary) aren't.

How is Geren still there?

By the logic that predicated the dumping of Howe and Macha, shouldn't Geren have been held to the same standard and gotten fired? Is this objectivity or is Beane showing weakness in the reluctance to replace his friend? (And the Athletics teams of recent years have fulfilled their potential for the most part; no other manager would've done much better than Geren has; Geren's a solid enough manager.)

The personality:

Billy Beane has reached larger-than-life status. Along with the accolades comes a certain amount of responsibility; responsibility he's been hesitant to accept. It's fine when everyone's referring to someone as a genius and they bear no burden for negativity. Beane is a sought after corporate speaker; has parlayed his crafted reputation into an ownership stake in the A's; and can essentially do what he wants because of that persona and the lack of interest inherent with running a team in Oakland. Very few people actually care enough to call him out on his mistakes.

Is it any wonder why Beane turned down the opportunity to take over the Red Sox after 2002?*

*By the way, if you read Moneyball, look at his planned list of moves upon taking over. They included moving Manny Ramirez to permanent DH (precluding the signing of David Ortiz); trading Jason Varitek; and signing the shot Edgardo Alfonzo; oh, and Kevin Youkilis would've been traded to the Athletics as compensation for Beane being let out of his contract. How would the Red Sox have looked then?

For Beane, the comfort of being in Oakland was, in part, due to the proximity to his young daughter from whom he was separated after his divorce; part happiness where he was; but it was also due to the lack of consequences for whatever he did. For years after the book and the A's run of playoff appearances, Beane could do whatever he wanted with impunity. If he wanted to fire the manager; clean house of expensive veterans; sign strange free agents; make bizarre trades----all were shielded by his identity as a "genius".

Such is no longer the case.

As the A's have floundered, new focus is placed on what Beane's actually done and the well of excuses has run dry. Financial constraints only go so far and eventually, there have to be results. The pressure in Boston would've been overwhelming from a fan base that would've expected him to win and win big immediately. Judging from the projected trades/free agent signings, that would not have happened. Then where would he be?

Billy Beane was and is a compelling story.

He's a smart baseball man.

But the continued reference to him as the man to fix an organization is misplaced and wrong. There are those ratcheting up the rhetoric against Mets GM Omar Minaya and continually postulating that Beane would be a perfect fit for New York and the Mets.


In the past 5 years, Minaya has actually done a better job in building a team and farm system than Beane has. Beane would be swallowed up by New York and there would not be the freedom to do whatever he wanted without anyone paying attention or questioning him. Those that are gazing from afar at Beane and wondering what he'd do if he were given control of a team with a payroll double what he has in Oakland need only look at what happened when DePodesta took over the Dodgers and had neither the evaluative skills nor the nuance to deal with everything that involves being a GM in a large market.

It's a similar sentiment as when Jeff Torborg was hired to take over the Mets after the 1991 season. There were "experts" in the media saying, "yeah, yeah, yeah!!" and entreating the club to do whatever needed to be done to get the poor-man's La Russa, someone immersed in logic and organization like Torborg, to come and restore order with a disorganized and fading group of stars. Torborg, a nice and intelligent man, was not suited to the cauldron of New York; he couldn't handle the media; was tuned out by the recalcitrant veterans; and went by the "book" to such a degree that he wasn't managing, he was pushing buttons and too often, the wrong buttons. It was only when the expensive package was unwrapped that the faults of Torborg were discovered and he's known as the worst Mets manager in my memory of following the team for over 30 years.

Billy Beane would be an expensive failure for the Mets along the lines of Torborg.

If the club is truly looking for a replacement for Minaya, there are other names----Mark Shapiro, Gerry Hunsicker, Logan White, Larry Beinfest, Rick Hahn, Bill Stoneman----to speak to before even thinking about Beane. It should not be assistant GM John Ricco and the Mets must not make the same mistake they've made in previous years by acting as if the prospective employee is doing them a favor by taking over and being granted full control of a team with a massive payroll, loyal (but disgusted) fan base, and beautiful new ballpark.

While his aptitude for corporate double-talk, adept manner in saying "stuff", but not saying anything at all, and deftness at handling crises will be a vast departure from Minaya's shaky command of the English language and outright discomfort in firing people, Beane would be a better out front organizational representative; but would he be a more effective GM in the imperative area of building the team?


It would take one bad trade or wasteful free agent signing for the fans to turn on him; and the media would quickly lose interest in his "story".

Beane is not the man for the Mets and they have to realize this before making another huge mistake in pursuing him with the promise of riches, autonomy and the arrival befitting a conquering king. He's conquered nothing aside from being a propped up demagogue and his risks far outweigh the potential rewards.

  • The Prince on the Podcast:

I'm scheduled to be on with Sal at SportsFan Buzz on Thursday. Prepare. Although it won't do you much good.

My book is still available on Amazon, I-Universe and Barnes and Noble.com. 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.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Baseball's Silver And Black

  • "No Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!"

It's somehow appropriate that the main team color of the Chicago White Sox is black because the way GM Kenny Williams runs his team is eerily reminiscent to the glory days of the original man in black/outlaw of sports, Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis.

The similarities are striking and apply to the decades in which Davis was at the height of his power and maintained all his faculties.

Neither man cares what people say about them, but one would assume that they do want credit for what they do; both are fearless and ruthless; and they have interest in one thing----winning. Negative reputations or age-related decline do not dissuade them from bringing in whoever they feel they need to win; and money is no object. (In Davis's case, that was because he owned the place; in Williams's case, it's because he has the unwavering support of owner Jerry Reinsdorf.)

I liken Williams to a James Bond villain, brilliant and cunning. Davis was referred to as "Darth Raider", secretive, paranoid, vindictive, vengeful and successful. With skills at evaluating talent and a history of success, they're nearly mirror images of one another.

While Davis has become something of a sad sight, still clinging to power; refusing to let age and infirmity take him out of the public spotlight in running his team as he deteriorates, entering the press room aided by a walker and going on scattershot rants against his enemies, his borderline incoherence is embarrassing to those who remember his as the wiry and intimidating presence he was. He's got his team in a death grip/spiral literally and figuratively. It's somewhat understandable. Al Davis's life was dedicated to football on the whole and the various compartments of the game itself. It's all he knows.

But that doggedness and iconoclastic personality that drove him all those years won't let him retire; and if he did decide to step down, what would he do with himself? Retirement would be a death and that would, in a way, be worse than a physical death.

The procurement of players is one of the more glaring common denominators in the two men. In his heyday, Davis was famous for his reclamation projects and squeezing the very last bit of juice out of veterans who were supposedly shot. Believing, as I do and presumably Williams does, that any athlete who's known greatness can rediscover that at any moment and should never have their desire to continue competing brought into question regardless of age, they put that into practice repeatedly. You saw it over the course of Davis's career with Jerry Rice, Jim Plunkett, John Matuszak, Lyle Alzado among many others who'd either flamed out, failed or been dispatched from other venues because of personality/off-field issues and became useful again with the Raiders.

Williams has exhibited the same strategy. His manager, Ozzie Guillen, is widely perceived as a lunatic (he's not, but that's neither here nor there); the clubhouse is filled with players who ran themselves out of other organizations just by being themselves (A.J. Pierzynski); had off-field issues (Bobby Jenks); floundered (Alex Rios); were considered injury-prone busts (Carlos Quentin); reclamation projects (Freddy Garcia); or were a matter of Williams's talent recognition skills coming to the forefront in the face of shaky results (John Danks, Gavin Floyd).

There have been instances where it hasn't worked as was the case with Ken Griffey Jr. Williams long coveted Griffey and, despite the player's inability to play an adequate center field nor function as the lineup terror he once was, he traded for him anyway giving up a great arm in Nick Masset. It didn't work. With Williams, if you pointed out this fact, he most likely shrug.

How many other GMs would have the security to put with the ancillary stuff and import players who no one else wanted for a variety of reasons and live with the consequences and ridicule?

There are GMs with the courage to run their teams correctly in the face of public scorn: Larry Beinfest, Andrew Friedman, Theo Epstein, Brain Sabean, Jon Daniels----some are totems to various factional disputes prevalent in baseball today; some are simply ripped and reviled; but how many would do all the things Williams does and say the things he says without fear of reprisal?

Now Williams is taking another risk by claiming Manny Ramirez from the Dodgers (and apparently getting him by agreeing to do nothing other than take the remaining money on Manny's contract----ESPN Story).

The White Sox are 4 1/2 games behind the Twins in the AL Central. The Wild Card is not going to be an option because both the Yankees and Rays are 10 games ahead of them. They have to win the division if they want to make the playoffs. Having relied on the light-hitting Mark Kotsay as their primary DH for much of the season, how could they not take a chance on Manny by doing little more than taking his contract? They needed a bat and are weak in terms of tradeable prospects. Having made a major play for Adam Dunn and failing, they jumped on Manny.

Which Manny are they getting? Is he the injury-prone and disinterested Manny that has made the Dodgers look foolish in the past two years with his PED suspension and frequent lapses on and off the field? Or is it the inspired Manny who, when he wants to play, is still one of the most dangerous and terrifying hitters in all of baseball? He's been hurt and has barely played lately because----presumably----the Dodgers didn't want him to re-injure himself to prevent them from getting rid of him.

If Manny arrives in Chi-Town healthy enough to contribute and is motivated by whatever motivates Manny (you can venture a guess as to what that might be), if nothing else, he's someone who has to be accounted for in the lineup even if he's not hitting. You can't say that for Kotsay. Does Manny want to play next year? (I'm guessing he does.) Or would he like to end his storied and controversial career with a bang possibly helping the White Sox to the post-season?

Much in the same vein as Williams and Davis will literally do anything to win, anything is possible with Manny including the idea that he'll get his Sox confused and think he's going back to Boston. Williams has the freedom----financially and theoretically----to do this. Why not?

"Just win baby."

"The deep strike."

"Commitment to excellence."

These are all favored statements of Al Davis as he was when he cast his shadow over the NFL with his fondness for litigation and interest in nothing other than being the architect of a championship team and the ego to want to be known as a "genius".

The same can be said for Kenny Williams----James Bond villain.

  • Flinging ideas at the wall (that make financial and practical sense):

The Mets, as desperate as they are to dispatch troublesome contracts and people, could approach several teams about taking Francisco Rodriguez and other problems that need to be eliminated for them to move forward. Some make sense (Chone Figgins from the Mariners), some don't (Milton Bradley from the same Mariners; or Vernon Wells from the Blue Jays); but here's an idea: K-Rod and Luis Castillo to the Rangers for Michael Young.

The Rangers have a history of bringing in players with off-field issues and getting production from them as they have with Josh Hamilton; they've been understanding in cases where I wouldn't have been of a similarly generous mind (manger Ron Washington's failed drug test last season), and they could use a veteran closer to shift current closer Neftali Feliz into the starting rotation, which is where his long-term future lies. The money comes close to matching up with the Mets taking on Young's excess.

K-Rod is due a guaranteed $15 million with the probability of his $17.5 million performance/health option being activated for 2012. Of course this is all contingent on the Mets losing their attempt at "unguaranteeing" K-Rod's contract for his assault on his father-in-law----the Mets winning the case is an unlikely event.

Castillo has $6 million on his deal for next year.

Young is owed $16 million annually through 2013.

Monetarily and logistically, it fits. The Mets would get rid of two players they want out of their sight; they could shift the well-respected Young back to second base (he grew up a Mets fan); and find a new closer. The Rangers would have money free to possibly keep Cliff Lee; Feliz would start; and K-Rod could close. Perhaps they could shift Ian Kinsler to third base to replace Young and play Castillo, whose bat might rejuvenate in the hitter-haven of Texas.

There are worse suggestions out there. Much, much worse.

I posted on my alternate writings site on Saturday if you're interested----It's My Father's Ring.

  • The Prince on the Podcast:

I'm scheduled to be on with Sal at SportsFan Buzz on Thursday. Be afraid.

My book is still available on Amazon, I-Universe and Barnes and Noble.com. 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.

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 wonder...is 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 Noble.com. 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.