Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Two for the Hall

The writers elected two retired players to baseball's Hall of Fame. Derek Jeter sailed in on the first ballot. one vote shy of unanimity; we will now be treated to a cavalacade of outrage that any voter would dare leave Jetes off his (or her) ballot.

Also selected, barely, on his 10th and final chance with the BBWAA, was Larry Walker, the Canadian -born outfielder whose numbers went from very good with Montreal in his early-to-mid 20s to something completely different in Colorado.

It took Walker a decade to get past the understandable wariness. Coors Field is such an extreme environment, so favorable to hitters, that entire mines are required for the metaphoric grain-of-salt skepticism. And writers have had no shortage of equally- or better-justified candidacies to support in recent elections.

Jeter compiled 72.4 WAR (wins above replacement) over the course of his 20-year career (as figured by Baseball Reference's formula). Walker, whose talents had a different shape, had 72.7 WAR in 17 seasons. That's a pretty good match.

That Jeter's election wasn't unanimous, that it took Walker the full 10 years to get to 75 percent -- these things ultimately don't matter. Future visitors to the Hall's plaque room in Cooperstown will find the two side by side. Let us ignore any mock outrage and celebrate their brilliant play.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Managers needed

The spectacle before us today: Three teams with postseason ambitions are suddenly, less than a month before spring training, without managers. One of them has to rebuild its front office. Two of them -- including the one without a baseball ops head -- apparently need a major culture change.

This is intriguing stuff. In some regards the needs of the Astros, Red Sox and Mets are similar. In others, they are not. Let's scroll through and consider the issues involved:

New York Mets

I liked this line uttered on MLB Network by Joel Sherman: This is not their scandal, but they've been splattered by the blood.

Carlos Beltran was hired after a rather lengthy interview process that appears to have emphasized, at least late in the process, inexperienced managers. One of the finalists, former Twins bench coach Derek Shelton, wound up with the Pittsburgh job and is therefore unavailable. Another, Eduardo Perez of ESPN, might still be the pick.

But with pitchers and catchers due to report in a few weeks, the Mets might benefit from an experienced hand who doesn't need months to organize and set up a spring training routine. Dusty Baker, not considered in the initial search, has reportedly emerged as a major candidate.

My thought: Baker should be a candidate for all three of these jobs, but Boston or Houston might be a better fit. If the Mets thought in November that Beltan checked their boxes, they probably should go with Perez, who appears to check the same boxes.

Boston Red Sox

A major market, high-stress environment with a major star eyeing free agency, rumors of a financially-motivated teardown in the offing, a newbie at the helm of the front office and unknown penalties in the offiing.

This sounds like a job for Johnnie B. Baker. who seems to have a way of making problems disappear by walking in the door. The obvious issue is age. Baker is 70. He's so old -- how old is he? -- he's so old he was teammates with Tito Francona.  Not the Tito Francona who manages Cleveland, his dad.

Chaim Bloom, the new Red Sox GM, may wish to go younger and bring in somebody who can be a long-term pairing with him.

My thought: Baker ought to be the guy. No, he's not likely to be a five-year solution. But he is equipped -- if anybody is -- to deal with the current complexities. Install him and worry about the future later.

Houston Astros

If there is substance behind the "they're still cheating" chatter of recent days, if indeed such crucial players as Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman are involved, this team has to have a hard hand at the helm.

Buck Showalter has reportedly already interviewed. He seems the perfect fit for a team that lacks an established general manager and needs a drastic change in attitude and approach.

My thought: Why haven't they hired this guy already? The biggest drawbacks on his well-established record are, in this case, features, not bugs. Yes, he's had clashes with veteran teams; yes, he has been accused of overreaching into areas not in his job description. The Astros can, at least for 2020, not just tolerate those risks but benefit from a bit of a control freak.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Bye bye Beltran

That Boston manager Alex Cora would not survive the damning report on sign-stealing in Houston was patently obvious. I did not foresee that Carlos Beltran would never get a game as Mets manager.

So now, with pitchers and catchers due to report in less than a month, three teams, all with postseasons ambitions if not expectations, need managers, and one needs a general manager. Astounding.

The Mets, unlike the Red Sox and Astros, can probably promote a manager from within the organization. Boston and Houston pretty clearly need somebody unconnected to the sign-stealing schemers, and that rules out their current coaching staffs. Any thought of an insider taking over for AJ Hinch or Cora had to be dashed Thursday afternoon when Twitter erupted with a claim that Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman specifically had been wearing patches that could be buzzed to notify them of specific pitches.

True or not, that's the kind of thing the Astros and Red Sox are going to face all season. No accomplishment will be above suspicion. (For what it's worth, Joel Sherman of the New York Post said on Twitter that the Astros investigation looked specifically at those rumors but turned up nothing.)

So Houston and Boston need managers from the outside. Which shouldn't be that difficult if they want to do a short-term hire. The names of Dusty Baker and Buck Showalter came up immediately -- two veteran managers of accomplishment and authority. Showalter has, apparently, already been interviewed in Houston. If the patches allegations have any validity, the new manager will require a taste for confrontation.

Meanwhile, I have no appetite for self-congratulatory "we did it the right way" commentary from anybody on any other team. It smacks too much of the anti-steroid boasts of the past, which too often proved phony. We have no idea how widespread this kind of chicanery was. I cannot believe the Astros and the Red Sox were alone (and yes, I am presuming the Red Sox had an active sign-steal technology system in place under Cora). Thursday afternoon on MLB Radio, former player Ryan Spilsborghs said something like: If you want to unwind this ball of thread further to the beginning, you know where it leads, and the others on the broadcast immediately responded: The 2016 Yankees.

But that's not likely to be dug into. The commissioner has implied that his "Apple Watch" line in the sand is as far back as he intends to dig, because that's where he specifically notified everybody that (a) penalties for electronic surveillance would be far harsher in the future and (b) that he would hold team management responsible for violations. And that's fine -- but it took a player (Mike Fiers) puttig his name on the allegations to get anywhere in the constant swirl of Houston rumors. And it may take another tattletale to get anywhere on other teams as well.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Hello, Donaldson

Josh Donaldson isn't officially a Minnesota Twin yet, but nobody's denying that the deal's in place. A few thoughts, none particularly unique, about adding The Bringer of Rain to the Bomba Squad:

* He is an immediate and significant defensive upgrade at third base, which figures to help the pitching staff. The best gloveman on this team is still Byron Buxton in center; I think Donaldson is the next best defensive player. Maybe Max Kepler is a better right fielder than Donaldson is a third baseman, but I'm inclined to rate Donaldson higher.

*The gain at third may to be offset by a decline at first, which will now be occupied by Miguel Sano. There was a noticeable decline in defense at first base last year when C.J. Cron replaced the retired Joe Mauer; expect another falloff with Sano.

* No matter how one arranges the batting order, this is a scary lineup, with six men who hit at least 30 homers in 2019 (Donaldson, Sano, Kepler, Eddie Rosario, Nelson Cruz and Mitch Garver), supplemented by the impressive bat-on-ball skills of Luis Arraez and Jorge Polanco and the slash-and-dash of Buxton. In my view, the worst hitter of the default lineup is Rosario.

* The default lineup -- outfield of Buxton flanked by Rosario and Kepler; infield of Sano, Arraez, Donaldson and Polanco; Garver catching and Cruz at DH -- leaves no obvious place for Marwin Gonzalez. Rocco Baldelli is not a manager who wants a lineup of iron men, and he's going to make playing time for Gonzalez. But Gonzalez is a weaker hitter than any of the default nine, and other than at first base, he's not necessarily a defensive upgrade anywhere. (Maybe at second, but we didn't see much of Gonzalez in the middle infield in 2019.)

*Adding Donaldson makes fitting Willians Astudillo on the 26-man roster tougher. Figure 13 position players. with the nine default players. Gonzalez makes 10, second catcher Alex Avila 11, Ehrie Adrianza 12 ... 13 comes down to Astudillo or Jake Cave/LaMonte Wade Jr. I'd vote for Gonzalez as the primary fourth outfielder and keeping Astudillo over Cave or Wade, but the Twins may see it differently.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

A.J.Hinch and the meaning of leadership

The commissioner's office decapitated the Houston Astros organization Monday in the sign-stealing scandal. Banished for a year are Jeff Ludnow, the director of baseball operations who designed and executed the tear-down and buildup that has resulted in three consecutive 100-win seasons, and A.J. Hinch, the manager who carried out Ludnow's vision on the field. About an hour after the announcement, the Astros owner, Jim Crane, fired both of them.

Also banished for at least year -- he'll have to reapply for reinstatement -- is the Astros' former assistant general manager, Brandon Trautman, earlier fired for ... well, basically a gratuitous defense of employing a domestic abuser and then lying about it.

The purpose of the punishment should be to keep other teams from doing what the Astros did -- using electronic surveillance to steal on-field signals in real time. I'm not sure, harsh as the suspensions may be, that this is enough. The Astros won a World Series doing this, and the flag flies forever. Maybe these suspensions will effectively end the baseball careers of Ludnow and Hinch, but I expect Hinch will manage a major league team again, and Ludnow may well get another rebuilding job.

But beyond that, I find myself fascinated by Hinch's apparent unwillingness -- or inability -- to curtail an activity that he disapproved. The report issued by the commissioner's office says the scheme was devised and carried out by players and then-bench coach (now Boston manager) Alex Cora. Hinch apparently didn't like it, didn't want it, and twice damaged the monitor used in the scheme (which was promptly replaced), but never explicitly forbade it.

Why? My guess -- purely a guess -- is that his reading of the clubhouse was that he would lose too many important figures if he ordered the sign stealing ended. Carlos Beltran -- now the manager of the New York Mets -- was a driving force behind the project. Cora was the engineer. It was easier for Hinch to go along with them than to impose his authority and risk their displeasure/alienation. He let the followers lead.

And I find myself thinking of Whitey Herzog running Ted Simmons out of St. Louis when he took over the Cardinals. Simmons, who had become something of a civic figure in St. Louis, resisted Herzog's authority, and Herzog didn't hesitate to get rid of him, star or not. Hinch wouldn't, couldn't, didn't, deal as forthrightly with Beltran.

And now Hinch is gone. Cora, clearly, will be gone from Boston soon; the report is particularly damning on him. Beltran faces no official sanction, but starts his own managerial career with this shadowing him.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Rotating the rotation

I say it frequently here: Bullpens are always a work in progress. Nobody should expect a bullpen to feature the same arms in the same roles throughout the season.

Starting rotations are, ideally, a different story. Teams with strong starting pitching generally have stable rotations. They can trot the same three or four or five guys out for the first inning in September as they did in April.

And having written that sentence, I begin to doubt its accuracy in the baseball of the second decade of the 21st century. The 35-start pitcher is extinct today; the 200-inning pitcher has become a rarity. The Houston Astros won the 2017 World Series; nobody even met the 162-inning mark to qualify for the ERA title for them (I exclude Justin Verlander, who did most of his pitching for Detroit).

The stable rotation is definitely a plus; it is not a necessity, not in an era of openers, bullpen games and roster shuffles.

The Twins in 2019 got 120 starts from its four most-used starters, 146 from its top five (Jose Berrios, Jake Odorizzi, Kyle Gibson, Martin Perez and Michael Pineda). That leaves just 16 starts for everybody else, and that's about as stable as it gets. But even that rotation was falling apart by season's end, with Pineda suspended, Gibson ailing and Perez ineffective.

The 2020 Twins know their rotation won't be as stable. They're planning on a transition. They know Pineda and free-agent signee Rich Hill won't be there at the start. Hill can, seriously, be viewed right now as a trade-deadline acquisition, a reasonable ETA is the second half of July,

April's rotation will have Berrios, Odorizzi, Homer Bailey and a prospect to be selected in spring training. Remember, the Twins last year went several weeks using a four-man rotation, what with scheduled off-days and postponements. They may well not need a true fifth starter until Pineda finishes his suspension.

So ... Pineda arrives in May, and slots in somewhere amid Berrios, Odorizzi, Bailey and the fifth guy. Hill arrives in July. Whose spot does he take?

It's a question without a definitive answer in January. Maybe somebody will be hurt. Maybe somebody will be ineffective. Maybe the rookie starter will be brushing up against some innings limitations. And maybe Hill won't be ready to roll then either. All these things are possible, and that at least one of them happens is probably probable, if probably probable makes sense.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

New Year, new pitchers

Since I last posted, the Twins have announced the signings of three veteran free-agent pitchers. While none of them are stars, they each meet an important team need.

Tyler Clippard is a right-handed reliever who turns 35 next month. He's bounced around the majors for 13 years; he hasn't stuck in one place for more than a season since 2014. The Twins will be his 10th major league team.

The intriguing thing about Clippard is that he has backward platoon splits -- he's more effective against left-handed hitters than against righties. Last year, for example, lefties slashed .123/.210/.255 against him, rights .227/.292/.455. This is not a one-time fluke; Clippard's career numbers are better against lefties than against righties.

This is an intriguing skill set to add to a bullpen that has depth but also has just one lefty, Taylor Rogers. Most second lefties in major league bullpens are specialists, guys managers don't let face right-handed hitters in game situations. The new restrictions on bullpen moves -- a pitcher must either face three hitters or finish the inning -- severely dampens the value of LOOGYs (Left-handed One-Out GuYs). Clippard can handle the LOOGY role, and be a bit more than that.

Homer Bailey is a right-handed starter who figures to raise the floor of the end of the rotation. He turns 34 in May and he, like Clippard, has 13 years in the majors. He threw no-hitters in 2013 and 2013, at a time when he appeared to be an emerging star with Cincinnati.

Then the injuries hit soon after he signed a lucrative multi-year deal with the Reds. Last season, split between Kansas City and Oakland, was his first full season in a rotation since 2013.  He's not a front-of-the-rotation guy, but he figures to give the Twins starts and innings, and they needed a veteran to fill the rotation between the front end (Jose Berrios and Jake Odorizzi) and the unchosen prospect at the end. The goal with Bailey is quantity of innings and starts.

Rich Hill is kinda the opposite: the goal is quality innings, and specifically in October. The southpaw will be 40 before he throws a pitch for the Twins, and he won't throw that first pitch until sometime in July at best; he's recovering from October elbow surgery. His contract is said to be very incentive-heavy; low base, but once he actually starts pitching, the rewards mount quickly.

Hill has over the past five years or so established that he has two modes: He's either extremely effective, or he can't pitch at all. The Dodgers, for whom he was toiled the past three-plus seasons, seldom let him pitch more than five innings in a start or get much beyond two turns through the batting order. Expect similar usage with the Twins, but not until mid-summer.