Did the Phillies Learn the Wrong Lesson from Boston?

 From 2006 to 2011 the Philadelphia Phillies won more games each season than the season previous, raising their win total from a modest 85 to an outstanding 102. 

Their front office built a starting rotation headed by a trio of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels that teams and fans around the sport would drool over. The Phillies finished first in the NL East in five consecutive seasons from 2007 to 2011. 

But like a character in a sitcom who is living “the life of Riley” until the show needs a ratings boost and they draw the short straw, the Phillies began to realize that the good times would not last forever

Posting a .500 record last year and on pace to lose more games than they win for the first time since 2002 this season, reality has arrived in Philadelphia. The time to rebuild their once championship-caliber core may be at hand.

GM Ruben Amaro, however, is taking his time adjusting to the lean years. Looking at a roster that includes names like Lee, Papelbon, Hamels, Rollins, Utley, and Howard, the Phillies executive remains bullish on his club. 

Speaking with CSNPhilly.com in June, Amaro argued his team could duplicate the turnaround of the Boston Red Sox, a last place team in 2012 currently leading the AL East as the All-Star break approaches. 

Amaro expanded on this idea, saying, “There’s no blowing up. There might come a time when we make changes to improve for the future, but we don’t have reason to blow it up. Boston didn’t blow it up last year. They retooled.” 

Since then the GM has backed off his denials that the team could become a seller before the trade deadline, but his point stands: if the Red Sox could return to respectability in an offseason, why can’t the Phillies? It’s not quite that simple.

In Ben Cherington first year as general manager for the Boston Red Sox, the team fell on its face. 

One year after being heralded as the best team in baseball, only to miss the playoffs in embarrassing fashion, the Red Sox made a series of lesser free agent signings: Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, Jonny Gomes, Ryan Dempster, David Ross, and Koji Uehara. 

Rather than go after Zack Greinke or Josh Hamilton, Boston moved down a tier in their acquisitions and filled in gaps with players who had some question marks. 

Napoli and Victorino were coming off down years, Gomes had succeeded mainly as a platoon player, Dempster was moving to the DH league, Ross was only a backup catcher, and Uehara had been a very good relief pitcher who, as he neared 40, was scaling back his workload. 

Yet, the Red Sox are among the best in baseball, one season after losing more than 90 games.

Ruben Amaro would seem to be correct: the Phillies were a .500 team in 2012 and are just a bit off that pace this year, why can’t they stick with a their already-signed core (Lee, Hamels, Howard, Papelbon, and now, Dominic Brown) and match the Red Sox, adding a few complimentary free agents and return to the top of the NL East? 

Phillies fans, if you are starting to get excited, don’t hold your breath.

The Red Sox didn’t just retool, a storm of signings, health, and a miniature fire sale worked in concert to make the 2013 roster possible. Starting with The Trade, we know that the Red Sox didn’t just dump spare parts onto the Los Angeles Dodgers. 

They parted ways with Adrian Gonzalez, their starting first baseman who was acquired for a package of prospects just shy of two seasons prior. The Dodgers took on nearly all of the remaining 6 years and $127 million left on his contract. Gonzalez was a player the Sox did not want to trade. He was the result of a multi-year search for a new franchise first baseman. 

But the team did so to sweeten the rest of the trade: five years of Carl Crawford’s at approximately $85 million dollars and the remainder of Josh Beckett’s deal, worth approximately $31.4 million over two years. 

While Beckett pitched well down the stretch in 2012, his 2013 was disappointing before he succumbed to season-ending surgery. Crawford, battling injury himself, is on his way to a bounce back season hitting .284/.343/.443 with five home runs and nine steals when he’s been able to take the field. 

Adrian Gonzalez too has rebounded from his disappointing 2012 hitting nearly .300 with some decent power (13 homers, 19 doubles) in the first half. The Dodgers got a lot of talent for a number of years from the Red Sox in exchange for pitching prospect Allen Webster and and young pitcher Rubby De La Rosa, who was making his return from Tommy John surgery.

The 2012 Red Sox were not in last place simply because of a trade: the team was without Jacoby Ellsbury, David Ortiz, John Lackey, and Andrew Bailey for much of the season, all of whom have returned to the field and, with the exception of Bailey, performed above expectations in 2013. 

The Phillies are missing Roy Halladay, who struggled in 2012, dropped down another peg in 2013, and is now recovering from surgery. But other than that, the Phillies have their team on the field. And it’s performing like an aging roster is expected to: not that well.

The version of the Red Sox story that Ruben Amaro is telling is one of offseason additions. Roy Halladay, even if healthy, is a free agent at the end of this season. He is not signed for the future the way John Lackey was during his lost year. This is important to remember because Lackey has been a force for Boston out of the rotation when his contribution was expected to be minimal.

For the Phillies to duplicate the revival of Boston they need to free salary, move valuable assets (Lee, Papelbon, pending free agent Chase Utley) with a bad contract like Ryan Howard’s. Hopefully they can acquire some prospects in the exchange and then use the money freed up from the veteran players to do what the Red Sox did and fill in their lineup with fresh, new, players. 

The Red Sox did all three of these things, not just the last bit about signing free agents in the offseason after a down year that Amaro is pointing to as the retooling rather than rebuilding.

There is a lesson to be learned in what the Red Sox have accomplished: big market teams working with other big market teams, can unload contracts, grab a few prospects, and trade a slice of their competitive window for a temporary step back. 

The Red Sox were still at .500 on August 6, 2012, and just six games under .500 when the trade with the Dodgers occurred. Without the trade they might have avoided last place in the AL East, but would not have had the financial or roster flexibility to do what they did in the offseason. 

There is no reason the Phillies can’t take some dead money, tie it to a few valuable players who can bring back a solid return in terms of prospects, and have plenty of room to spend in the offseason, reallocating a couple big deals into several small ones.

Baseball Confession Time

It’s become something of a punching bag for the media, analysts, fantasy sports folks, and more recently but I like the All-Star Game. Is it perfect? No. Is it the game my dad watched as a kid (well, one of two ASGs back in the day apparently), no. But it’s still fun to see a living fantasy team take the field. 

The voting system isn’t perfect – not the fan voting or the player voting – the roster use can be a mess, and the game isn’t played like it counts, despite holding what can be a decent advantage for the winning league, home field for the World Series. 

Our Father, who art in Calgary, Bobsled be thy name. Thy kingdom come, gold medals won, on Earth as it is in Turn Seven. With Liberty and Justice for Jamaica and Haile Selassie. Amen. – Irving Blitzer

Without getting too into it, what would I change to improve an event I already enjoy?  

First, either go all-in on “it counts” and run the game like a real game or return it to the exhibition it was in the past. Just picking one of these eliminates a number of issues because if the game doesn’t count for anything, who actually plays doesn’t matter as much.

Second, change up the selection system. Take the two MVPs from the previous season and make them captains. Each chooses a starting 9. The fans get to vote on the bench and the starting pitcher. The manager gets to assemble a bullpen and choose the “final vote” candidates so that a Bryce Harper or Yasiel Puig can get on the team because everyone wants to see them play. 

Third, eliminate the rule requiring every team to get an All-Star representative. Back when Joe Torre loaded every team with Yankees this seemed like a logical move to prevent too many teams from being left out, but today the manager doesn’t have as much control and with online voting, fans can make their voices heard in a more powerful way than ever before.

And that would be it. Shake up the game, mess with the rules, and have fun. Oh, and each All-Star Game format would last say, five years, and then shake it up again. The game should be fun but it should be a game.

San Diego Padres: A Team on Friar

On May 1, the San Diego Padres were 10-17, good enough for last place in the National League West. They had allowed a NL worst 129 runs while scoring just 103. The team’s run differential of -26 was the second worst in the National League, ahead of only the Miami Marlins. 

Since losing that night to the Chicago Cubs, the Padres have gone 30-23 (15-11 in June, as of Friday night’s victory over the Marlins) and sit just three games back of the Arizona Diamondbacks for the division lead, tied with the Colorado Rockies, and ahead of the defending World Series champion San Francisco Giants.

How is a team that finished 76-86 last season looking like a competitor? There must be a reason why Sports Illustrated’s Joe Sheehan picked the Padres to win the NL West when no one else did. What did he see?

At first guess, you’d probably figure the Padres third baseman, Chase Headley, who finished fifth in MVP voting last season was the one leading the team back to respectability. But, not so much. Headley has, to this point, put up his worst numbers since he became a full time player at the Major League level. His .227/.325/.355 line is a far cry from last year’s .286/.376/.498 mark and the nearly identical, aside from slugging, numbers he put up in 2011: .289/.374/.399.

One Padres player, Everth Cabrera, is hitting .300. Unfortunately, he’s also on the disabled list right now. Regardless, Cabrera has been a revelation for the Friars. At 26, in his fifth season in the majors, the shortstop was in the midst of a breakout before subcuming to injury. His entire triple slash line, .305/.382/.418, would represent career highs by at least 58 points per category. Just 69 games into the season, Cabrera already hit more triples (4) than in any year since his rookie season in 2009 when he recorded eight three-baggers. 

His four home runs are already a career high, while his 24 RBI ties his 2012 production. Did I mention Cabrera can run? Even with a week on the DL, he’s leading the senior circuit in steals (31) and is on pace to shatter last year’s league-leading 44 stolen bases. Typically, you imagine a player having a breakout and “carrying” his team to be a slugger, but for the Padres, it has been their table setter.

The Padres aren’t without other offensive sources. Carlos Quentin, who was hitting just .169 with two home runs on May 8, has rebounded for a .319/.412/.534 line with six homers since his nadir. The slugging outfielder has a 22:15 strikeout to walk ratio over this stretch and has exposed himself to four hit by pitches. When the Padres signed Quentin to an extension rather than looking to move him in a trade, it raised a few eyebrows, but in a tight division, having another good player on the roster is looking pretty smart.

Quentin is joined in this journey with a revitalized Kyle Blanks. Injury and ineffectiveness have diminished Blanks’ stock over the last year, and the outfielder/first baseman was a non-entity entering this season. But, when called on, Blanks has come through.

In his first big league experience in 2009, Blanks launched ten home runs in 54 games. Through 56 games this season, he has 8 home runs. The similarity between the two seasons, separated by three lost years, is shocking. Runs: 24 in 2009, 25 in 2013. Doubles: 9 in each season. Walks: 18 in 2009, 16 in 2013. Strikeouts: 55 in 2009, and just 47 in 2013. His triple slash was .250/.355/.514 in 2009 and stands this year at .278/.350/.472 through approximately the same number of games this year. This is the guy who looked like a slugger whose power would play anywhere, even Petco Park, and San Diego fans are finally seeing him perform.

And that’s what’s amazing about this Padres team: the offense is where the talent lies. The rotation is the promising flamethrower Andrew Cashner and castoffs from the Island of Misfit Toys. Eric Stults, Jason Marquis, Edinson Volquez, and Clayton Richard round out a rotation without a big name.

While there are rumors of a trade with the Cubs for Matt Garza, so far the Friars have put together a run without anyone even approaching an ace to lead the rotation. Which take us to the last point: the Padres run isn’t a mirage built upon a weak schedule. They’ve won seven of their last nine games against teams with records over .500 and are performing against winning teams better than they have in either of the past two seasons.

In a division with a flawed Dodgers team, a Giants rotation that isn’t what it has been the last few years, and a Rockies club without Troy Tulowitzki, the Padres can’t be counted out.

Cross-posted at The Sports Post

Today In “Greek” History: Kevin Youkilis

Per @HighHeatStats on Twitter, the Kevin Youkilis era of the Boston Red Sox concluded one year ago today. It’s strange to look back and think about how much Youkilis was around for and how quickly he became irrelevant. 

When Kevin Youkilis was called up to the Red Sox in May of 2004,  Moneyball mania was in full swing. The Red Sox were coming off a disastrous 2003 ALCS and the batting champion, third baseman Bill Mueller, was on the disabled list. Youkilis was a savior, and excitement, and a bit of a worry because Mueller had made such an impression the previous season. I still remember I had a friend who was doing a summer semester in Greece and was freaking out when he got back that Youkilis had been called up.

Youkilis was around for both World Series runs, played in three All-Star Games, and showed Boston fans what he could do at first base and third base. You could even say “Youk knows third AND Youk knows first.”

Now that he’s back on the disabled list with back surgery, the end may be near for Youkilis. If so, he would finish with a career .281/.382/.478 line, 104 hit by pitches, and 539 walks.

 

AL East Meets NL West

This is not how it was supposed to be. The Los Angeles Dodgers are making history with a payroll just north of $239 million dollars — they may still end the season higher — and finding out that despite all the money they spent, the team is flawed. 

Manager Don Mattingly is very much on the hot seat. The organization that was full of excitement last season as a new ownership group replaced Frank McCourt, orchestrated a blockbuster trade with the Red Sox, and said building a championship team was priority number one, is in last place.

Who’s in first place? The Arizona Diamondbacks have top honors, the San Francisco Giants sit two games back, the somewhat surprising Colorado Rockies another half game past the Giants, the San Diego Padres six games back, and the Dodgers another game-and-a-half behind the Padres. In other words, the NL West has proven to be a decent approximation of the opposite of what offseason predictions called for.

Across the country and in the other league, the Boston Red Sox lead the AL East by a game, followed by the New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles, Tampa Bay Rays, and Toronto Blue Jays. After making their own blockbuster trade with the Miami Marlins and acquiring reigning NL Cy Young award winner R.A. Dickey, the Blue Jays were picked to win the AL East by fans, press, and baseball insiders.

Unlike the Diamondbacks, who traded away arguably their best player in Justin Upton, the Jays started slow and have continued to sputter. There is a certain amount of symmetry in the unlikely standings of these two divisions.

As a Red Sox fan, I sympathize for Dodgers fans out there. Heading into the 2011 season, the Red Sox were dubbed a “super team” after acquiring Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford during the offseason and boasting a star-studded rotation led by Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, along with Clay Buchholz, John Lackey, and the mercurial Daisuke Matsuzaka. The team responded to amazing levels of hype by losing six games out of the gate and going just 11-15 in April.

After teasing the world from the beginning of May through the end of August, leading the AL East by half-a-game, the Sox won just seven games in September on their way to one the most embarrassing collapses in baseball history. Manager Terry Francona was fired, general manager Theo Epstein escaped to Chicago, and Bobby Valentine arrived to oversee entirely new forms of pain in the 2012 season.

The Dodgers created their hype storm far differently, but the result is the same: the team is lost and becoming a laughing stock. The 2011 Red Sox won 19 games in May. The Dodgers won a total of 22 games entering today. Los Angeles faced the problem of “too much pitching” before the rotation went from a strength to just another fire to put out.

What happened? Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, since his return, have lived up to their reputations. The rest of the rotation has been a patchwork, although Hyun-Jin Ryu has been a solid contributor in his debut season in America. Ultimately, the blame falls on the position players. Despite the hype and the payroll, the Dodgers entered the season with a number of question marks around the diamond.

While the struggles of Matt Kemp (.251/.305/.335 with 2 HR) have been well documented, his down season is likely the product of shoulder surgery over the winter. It may simply be a longer recovery process than anyone anticipated. Andre Ethier is in the midst of his worst season as well (.253/.346/.392 with 4 HR). Carl Crawford, finally healthy, has been up to his old tricks batting .294/.354/.446 with 5 home runs and 9 steals.

That all three outfielders are in the middle of long-term contracts of dollar values previously thought immoveable, until the Dodgers-Red Sox trade of last summer, is something to consider when looking at the underperforming offense.

Another star signed long-term is Adrian Gonzalez. Like Kemp, Gonzalez is a player recovering from shoulder surgery. While Gonzo is several years removed from his operation, the power he displayed during his years in San Diego, pre-surgery, has not returned. Expected to be a 40-homer threat in Fenway Park, the first baseman instead hit just 27 home runs for the Red Sox in 2011 and 18 while splitting his time between Boston and LA.

Gonzalez has hit 7 home runs through the the first 48 games of the 2013 season. Gonzalez started off slowly this year but has raised his numbers to .333/.389/.520 while breaking out in a big way. Is it a hot streak? A healthy shoulder? Difficult to tell, but a promising sign for a formerly elite first baseman trying to get back on track. However, if his recovery process is any sort of guide for Matt Kemp, the Dodgers may need to look for other sources of power in the lineup. 

Next up: Hanley Ramirez. Or, he would be if he could recover from one injury long enough to contribute in games before struck with the next one. This may sound familiar, but Ramirez is a Dodger several years removed from his best seasons, despite being just 29 years old. From 2006-2010, the shortstop hit .313/.385/.521 for the then Florida Marlins, averaging 25 home runs and 39 stolen bases per year as a potent power-speed threat. Since the 2010 season, Ramirez has been in a tailspin of ineffectiveness and now, injury.

Hitting at just a .254/.328/.422 clip over parts of three seasons, Ramirez has hit a total of 35 homers, about one every seven games instead of every six. After stealing at least 32 bases in four of his first five season in the majors, Ramirez has swiped 20 and 21 bases the last two years. After recovering from a thumb injury that sidelined him for the first month of the season, Ramirez did both homer and steal in his four games of 2013 before injuring his hamstring, but there is no telling which of his skills will be ready when he next takes the field.

Amazingly, that’s it in terms of big names in the starting lineup. With Hanley expected to play shortstop for the Dodgers this season, third base and second base were filled cheaply. 

The Dodgers best — and closest — help in the minors is Yasiel Puig, but he’s an outfielder with less than one season in American baseball and unlikely to displace Kemp, Crawford, or Ethier. Dee Gordon was manning shortstop, but once again found himself unable to hit for average or power. In concert with an inability to take a walk, Gordon’s skills are an embodiment of the phrase “you can’t steal first base.”  So, he’s back in the minors.

The lack of depth for a team with playoff aspirations — really, expectations — is shaping up to the be biggest obstacle in Chavez Ravine. Despite the record-setting payroll, the Dodgers roster is surprisingly thin. But that’s not always such a limitation.

Across the country and in the opposite league sit the New York Yankees. The Yankees now have the second highest payroll in the game thanks to their former Brooklyn rivals. In a twist, the Yankees began the season as underdogs. Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter were expected to be absent for at least a chunk of the first half in Spring Training.

As the season was about to open, Curtis Granderson succumbed to an injury as well, and Mark Teixeira joined in the hurt parade for good measure. Combined with the departure of Russell Martin in free agency to the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Yankees looked down on their luck. The Bronx Bombers signed Travis Hafner from the scrap heap, Lyle Overbay after being cut from the Red Sox while competing for the backup first base job, and traded for one of the worst players in baseball over the past few seasons: Vernon Wells.

As play begins on May 30th, the Yankees are one game back in the AL East. Hafner has been healthy, playing in 42 games, and is hitting .256/.373/.496 with 8 home runs. Last season, Pronk played in 66 total games and hit 13 home runs for the Cleveland Indians. His health has been a question mark for for six years now, but as long as he’s on the field, he performs.

Overbay hasn’t done as well, posting just a .294 OBP, but he’s also knocked in 8 home runs. Vernon Wells? His .263/.313/.457 with 10 homers and 4 stolen bases is a far cry from the .230/.279/.403 11 home run line he posted in 2012. He’s played in the outfield and even third base for a notable appearance.

The Yankees catching duo has also performed better than most expected. Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart have both kept their OPS above .650. Kevin Youkilis, brought in to replace the injured A-Rod, chipped in with a .266/.347/.422 line before hitting the DL himself.

The Dodgers entered the season expected to dominate. The Yankees were expected to struggle while their stars recovered from injury. On the West Coast, players who were expected to contribute haven’t done so. On the East Coast, a handful of long shots are making their names known in pinstripes. And, we are given yet another reminder that team success is about as impossible to predict in professional baseball as the location of a knuckleball.

Cross-posted at The Sports Post

Google Glass Is Not the Next Segway

Since it was first revealed in early 2012, Google Glass has been met with equal parts excitement, skepticism, and mockery. While Google itself had an underwhelming specialized gadget almost-launch with the Nexus Q, the comparison that leaps to people’s mind is the Segway, Dean Kamen’s futuristic…scooter. This is a somewhat fair comparison to make but it doesn’t quite hit the mark.

Leading up to the fall 2001 unveiling, Segway, codenamed “IT” and “Ginger” was surrounded by secrecy. While a who’s who of celebrities and thinkers, including the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, were granted a private audience with Kamen and his invention, the rest of the world had only leaks and quotes to pass the time. Hearing only comments about how cities would change when IT was released, minds began to wander. Everything from a new Stirling engine to hovercraft technology was discussed about possible breakthroughs. Fantastic looking sketches began to surface in patent filings.

But at the end of the day, which incidentally was a morning (I know, I skipped school to see the big reveal) the Segway was just a standup scooter with a gyroscope so it wouldn’t tip over.

At $1500 for the Explorer Edition, Glass is not an impulse buy, world-changing gadget. But it is known. Right now Glass has very limited capabilities: taking photos and videos, using the headset in a Hangout, turn-by-turn navigation, and reading text messages/making phone calls by tethering to a smartphone to name a few. All of these features have been shown off since the initial unveiling.

The Segway? Hidden in a shroud of mystery to all but a few who could not say anything of substance about the unreleased device. Will Glass be a failure? Maybe. Will it find as much success as the Segway, a niche product that can find a home on city tours or a few other specialized uses? No reason it can’t. But no matter what the outcome, Glass is not the next Segway.

Sundar Pichai Solves Microsoft’s PR Problem

With Google I/O coming up later this week, Google OS chief Sundar Pichai sat down for a short interview with Wired’s Steven Levy. For the most part, it’s what you would expect, no huge storylines before the company’s biggest conference of the year. The head of Chrome and Android lowers expectations a bit by saying I/O is “not a time when we have much in the way of launches or new products or a new operating system” but he does provide some clarity to Google’s two-operating system initiative.

Users care about applications and services they use, not operating systems. Very few people will ask you, “Hey, how come MacBooks are on Mac OS-X and iPhone and iPad are on iOS? Why is this?”

This really struck me. It was the first time I recall Google going right to a comparison with iOS and OS X to explain the existence of both Android and ChromeOS. In the past, the theory was that Android was for touch interfaces and Chrome was meant for traditional mouse/keyboard/trackpad users. While it’s a bit of a dodge, the message is clear: the operating systems have different purposes, although the touchscreen-equipped Chromebook Pixel blurs that line a tad. Many words have been typed by others about what those purposes are and how they might be better served, but the point stands: different tools for different uses.

ChromeOS is a hands-off operating system that is maintained from afar. Chromebooks store everything in the cloud and can be wiped and replaced at will. Android devices behave like traditional computers: you install software written for the device, it gets backed up in a more traditional manner rather than syncing the entire phone online (although that does occur to a lesser extent). iOS is Apple’s mobile operating system, powering iPhones, iPads, and iPod Touches. Like ChromeOS it can be synced to the cloud and restored onto a new device without a hitch. iOS is touch based but built on the same underpinnings as big brother OS X.

Why didn’t Microsoft learn from these two examples when rolling out Windows 8 and Windows RT? RT, like Windows Phone could be the touch-first operating system out of Redmond. It could lack legacy support for older Windows programs. It could skip the traditional desktop for the ModernUI interface. Windows 8, on desktop PCs would look a lot like Windows 7. No ModernUI or using that as an alternative application interface only, similar to the widget screen on OS X. Something that is sitting out of the way until you need it. The Surface tablets could still exist. RT wouldn’t have the traditional desktop at all. Windows 8 on the Surface Pro could even be set to boot to ModernUI instead of the desktop because that’s the hybrid device, like the Chromebook Pixel, pointing the way towards Microsoft’s version of the future of computing.

Why two interfaces? All Microsoft would have to say is “Users care about applications and services they use, not operations systems.” One is for touch interface, the other for the traditional desktop experience.

The Los Angeles Dodgers and “Too Much Pitching”

Sometimes a cliche is just that – a simple saying that has become so overused that it no longer has any meaning outside of being a one-liner. No cliche in baseball gets more use than “you can never have too much pitching.” It seems like the phrase is used during every game, whether the man on the mound is performing well, reinforcing the wisdom of choice, or struggling, showing the lack of planning because there is no replacement. Scott Boras probably dedicates an entire chapter to the importance (and fragile nature) of pitching depth for each starter he represents.

A desire to have enough pitching is why the Yankees acquired Esteban Loaiza in 2004 and traded Jesus Montero to get Michael Pineda in 2012. It’s why the Red Sox signed Brad Penny and John Smoltz in 2009. It’s why the A’s took a chance at resurrecting the career of Bartolo Colon and why Roger Clemens, Roy Oswalt, and Pedro Martinez have been able to make mid-season comebacks in the twilight of their careers.

The Dodgers entered 2013 with one of the deepest starting rotations in baseball. Since Opening day, however, that depth has been tested and depleted. Aaron Harang was traded to the Seattle Mariners, Zack Greinke was injured in a brawl with Carlos Quentin, Chad Billingsly succumed to Tommy John surgery, Chris Capuano hurt his leg while running from the bullpen during the aforementioned Greinke-Quentin melee and then aggravated the injury during his turn in rotation, Stephen Fife was called up from AAA and lasted just 4.2 innings before going on the DL himself. It’s a good thing the Dodgers started with so many options to fill the innings. Ted Lilly, who had been rehabbing in the minors to begin the year, no opening in sight, now finds himself with a grasp on a starting job.

Dodgers management is committed to winning and willing to spend, which is why GM Ned Colletti signed left-handed pitcher Hyun-jin Ryu out of Korea during the offseason. At the time the move seemed to indicate the Dodgers were going to part with one or two members of their pantheon of starting pitchers, but the team stood still. Ryu was just 25 at the time, celebrating his 26th birthday on April 2nd, so youth and inexperience with American baseball was on their side had the team eased the southpaw into MLB rather than handing him a rotation spot out of Spring Training. Yet the youngster impressed and in the process, pushed veterans Capuano and Harang, both surprisingly useful in 2012, to the sidelines. But that still left too many players and too few seats at the table. How could the Dodgers successfully take advantage of eight or nine capable starting pitchers?

As the other common baseball saying goes “these things have a way of working themselves out.” Injuries, poor performance, trades – any one of these can shake up a situation that looks to be set in stone. Aaron Harang was traded because there appeared to be enough depth to compensate for his loss. Chad Billingsley entered 2013 as a member of the walking wounded, having opted to skip surgery last fall and rehab his balky elbow instead. Two down of more-or-less natural causes. But Greinke and Capuano both sustaining injuries in a brawl? Unpredictable. Fife injuring himself as a replacement? That kind of poor timing is hard to imagine. Had young pitchers Allen Webster and/or Rubby De La Rosa remained in the organization rather than shipping off to Boston in the Adrian Gonzalez/Carl Crawford/Josh Beckett trade last summer, things wouldn’t have looked so bad. But again, at the time, they were additional excess pitching capacity.

Starting pitching is a commodity fungible enough to trade and valuable enough to hoard. There is a reason teams try to develop pitchers through the draft and international signings: it’s a resource that can suddenly run out, no matter what the reserve looks like before disaster strikes. It’s why the Cardinals under pitching coach Dave Duncan and the White Sox under his counterpart Don Cooper are renowned for their ability to take marginal pitchers and turn them into contributors. Being able to “fix” a guy who seems to have lost his stuff is something many teams will try every year, but only a few succeed. Kyle Lohse had logged over a thousand innings of 4.82 ERA ball in his career before joining the Cardinals in 2008. Since then his ERA is nearly a full point lower. And from the start of the 2011 season it stands at just 3.08. Lohse came to St. Louis as a reclamation project and left finishing 7th in NL Cy Young voting.

The Dodgers may not have a Kyle Lohse or a wizard masquerading as a pitching coach, but they are the latest team to learn that no matter how many pitchers they start with, it may still not be quite enough.

Cross-posted at The Sports Post

Barry Zito and Tim Lincecum: Cy Young Fifth Starters

When the Atlanta Braves were racking up first-place finishes in the National League East they relied on a trio of starting pitchers: Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz. When the Moneyball A’s were in their prime, they followed a similar strategy building a team around a core of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito. The San Francisco Giants the past few years? Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, and Madison Bumgarner. And of at the back of the rotation, Barry Zito. After the 2011 season Lincecum was one year removed from back-to-back Cy Young awards and Zito had pitched 821.2 innings of 4.55 ERA baseball since joining the Giants five years earlier. It was clear who was the ace and who belonged at the back of the rotation. But is it still?

The Vet

Barry Zito signed a seven-year $126 million deal with the Giants after a 2006 season that was arguably the worst of his career. The lefty, known for his sweeping curveball, put up his third highest ERA, highest WHIP, second highest home run rate, second highest walk rate, and the second lowest strikeout rate of his career. What he did do was stay on the mound, starting an  AL-leading 34 games and tossing 221 innings. Barry Zito, one of the A’s big three, had become an innings eater.

It wasn’t always that way. A first-round pick by the Oakland Athletics in 1999 (ninth overall) Zito began his Major League career with in 2000 finishing tied for sixth in AL Rookie of the Year voting behind Kazuhiro Sasaki, Terrence Long, Mark Quinn, Bengie Molina, and Kelly Wunsch while tying Steve Cox, Adam Kennedy, and Mark Redman, each of whom received just one vote. As a fun aside, Lance Berkman also received a single vote for the NL Rookie of the Year that same season, though voters at least picked Rafael Furcal to win. His career has been a bit more noteworthy than Sasaki’s. Zito went on to throw 214.1 innings in his sophomore season, the first of six straight years he would accomplish that feat. A modern horse, Zito started 35 games, again, a feat he would match three more times, including his 2003 campaign.

2003 was the year made for Barry Zito’s memorabilia collection. A shiny 2.75 ERA over just shy of 230 innings, the best WHIP and walk rates of his career, second highest K/9 (although still just 7.1) and a Cy Young award made it a year for his Wikipedia page. Zito would win Game 2 of the 2003 ALDS against the Boston Red Sox but lose the series-deciding Game 5. After 2003, Zito would begin a trend of rising ERAs, hits allowed, and walks, while also striking out fewer batters and giving up more long balls.

While a move to the National League, where pitchers hit (or, more often, simply stand at the plate with a bat in hand) has been known to rejuvenate aging American League starters who make the transition, the bleeding didn’t stop when he crossed the Bay. In his first five years in the Senior Circuit, Zito saw his ERA settle in the mid-fours, his walks average 4.1 per nine innings, and his strikeout rate fall to just 6.4 per nine. Barry Zito had become a hundred-million-dollar bust. No longer an ace, no longer a solid top-of-the-rotation pitcher. In five years he had failed to see a boost in the NL and was treading water while slowly sinking.

The Freak

With the tenth pick of the 2006 MLB June Amateur Draft the San Francisco Giants selected a slight right-handed pitcher with a funky delivery named Tim Lincecum. Lincecum had been drafted twice before, first in 2003 by the Cubs in the 48th round and then in 2005 with the Indians in the 42nd round, but stuck with the University of Washington and watched his stock and his ability to command a large signing bonus rise.

Lincecum started eight games after signing across A- and A+ levels in 2006 tossing 31.2 innings of 1.71 ERA with a mere 58 strikeouts or 16.5 Ks per nine innings. The next spring he would be rated #11 overall by Baseball America and would start five games for AAA Fresno, striking out 46 in 31 innings, before getting the call to the Majors. Lincecum would start 24 games for the Giants that year striking out 150 batters in his 146.1 innings. While his walk rate (4.0 BB/9) was a little high, the high strikeout rate offset the damage. And that was just the beginning.

Over the next two years Lincecum would put up seasons many players would like to have just once in their career: 452.1 innings, 526 strikeouts (10.5 K/9) against 152 walks (3.0 BB/9). He would toss six complete games, three of them shutouts, and have a combined ERA of just 2.55. He would win back-to-back Cy Young awards. The sky was the limit. The Freak was unstoppable.

In 2010 and 2011 Lincecum would take a small step back, edging a little closer to the level of the ordinary “ace” rather than the extraordinary. His ERA crossed the barrier of three to 3.08, he averaged 9.5 K/9 and 3.5 BB/9 with 451 strikeouts and 162 walks in 429.1 innings across sixty-six starts. Lincecum also chipped in during the 2010 World Series run with 37 excellent innings including a complete game shutout of the Atlanta Braves and an eight inning, one-run outing against the Texas Rangers.

However, some warning signs were there: over his first four full seasons Lincecum’s strikeout rate fell each year and his walk rate rose in each of the last two years after falling from 2008 to 2009.

2012: Turnabout Is Fair Play

Even given the decline in performance in 2011, Tim Lincecum was still a valuable pitcher heading into the 2012 season. Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner were there at the top of the rotation as well and Zito was still around for the back end. Ryan Vogelsong had been contributing admirably since his return to American baseball. And then the season began.

Lincecum had a very un-Lincecum debut allowing five runs in 5.1 innings while Zito tossed a complete-game shutout in hitter-friendly Coors Field. By the end of May Zito’s ERA stood at 3.41 while Lincecum’s was 5.82. The Freak had four starts where he allowed at least five runs in just two months after having just five such starts in each of the previous two years. After back-to-back 3.1 inning starts to begin July, things began to turn around after the All-Star Break. The former Cy Young winner allowed more than four runs just twice and put up a 3.83 ERA over his final fifteen regular season starts. The strikeouts weren’t quite there, just 86 over his final 89.1 innings,  and twelve home runs in just under 90 innings isn’t great, but there was hope that he was figuring out his issues and fixing his problems. For most of the postseason Lincecum came out of the bullpen and allowed just one run in eleven innings of relief. His lone start was a 4.2 inning, four-run outing against the Cardinals in the NLCS and Lincecum returned to the bullpen for the World Series putting up an 8:1 strikeout to walk ratio in 4.2 innings as the Giants defeated the Detroit Tigers.

Zito’s final fifteen starts would see him return largely to the Barry Zito that had been in San Francisco for several years: 85.2 innings of 4.31 ERA. But Zito limited the damage. By allowing more than four runs just once, and getting some help from his offence and bullpen, Zito would win eight of his second-half starts and the Giants would win twelve as they marched towards their second World Series in three years. Under the bright lights of the NLDS stage Zito wilted, lasting just 2.2 innings but he rebounded for the next two rounds tossing 13.1 innings of one-run ball across two starts. In un-Zito-like fashion he struck out 9 while walking just two. After not even making the roster for the Giants previous World Series run, Zito was redeemed in San Francisco.

2013 and Beyond

Whatever magic Zito uses to start the season seems to have continued into 2013 as the crafty left-hander began the new year with two scoreless seven-inning outings before the Milwaukee Brewers roughed him up for nine runs in just 2.2. Of course, he followed that up with another seven scoreless against the San Diego Padres.

Zito is in his last year of his deal with the Giants but the club retains an $18 million option for his services in 2014. Should they decline, Zito is due a $7 million buyout, so the Giants are really looking at a one-year, $11 million deal for a fourth or fifth starter who essential is what he is: dependably average.

2012 raised more questions about Lincecum than it answered. It showed a pitcher who was no longer at the top of his game as a starter but who could still dominate in relief. It showed a guy who had a bad first half and a decent second half. 2013 begins along the same lines: four starts into the season Lincecum has two good outings and two bad. He has two games with at least seven strikeouts and one with seven walks. Lincecum signed a 2 year $40.5 million contract after the 2011 season when the two sides were unable to reach a long-term deal. The Giants are probably breathing a sigh of relief on that one.

Which pitcher will perform better in 2013: the low-risk low(er) reward Zito or the high-risk, high reward Lincecum? Who will have a spot on the 2014 team? The answer to both questions may be Barry Zito, who, celebrating the ten-year anniversary of his Cy Young season has become a pitcher who can never live up to his contract but can be counted upon to reach a baseline of performance.

Cross-posted at The Sports Post

Alfredo Aceves Needs A New Home

As the Red Sox disastrous 2011 season came to an end, Alfredo Aceves was one of the notable successes, besides of course the MVP-caliber performance turned in by Jacoby Ellsbury. Aceves made four starts and fifty-one appearances out of the bullpen with a combined 2.61 ERA in both roles. While his starts were nothing special (14 runs in 21 innings although 8 of those came in one start) his body of work for the season was beyond what the Red Sox could have hoped for. At the time, much was being made about the club “stealing” Aceves away from the Yankees who had released the swingman due to injury concerns before the season started.

By the end of 2012 the goodwill was gone. A 5.36 ERA 8 blown saves and fighting with the manager – even embattled Bobby Valentine – will do that. Aceves rushed to join a brawl in the WBC and then began 2013 with an ERA approaching 9. Aveces was optioned to AAA Pawtucket, but he may not be long for the Red Sox organization. If the Red Sox finally cut ties with the troubled right-hander, through trade or release, where might he find work?

Los Angeles

The Dodgers entered 2013 with one of the deepest starting rotations in baseball. Since Opening day however, that depth has been depleted. Aaron Harang was traded to the Seattle Mariners, Zack Greinke was injured in a brawl with Carlos Quentin, Chad Billingsly succumed to Tommy John surgery, Chris Capuano hurt his leg while running from the bullpen during the Greinke-Quentin melee and then aggravated the injury during his start, Stephen Fife was called up from AAA and lasted just 4.2 innings before going on the DL himself. It’s a good thing the Dodgers started with so much depth. Management is committed to winning, willing to spend (though Aceves is relatively inexpensive at about $2 million this season) and has a good working relationship with the Red Sox. Don’t expect another Allen Webster in return, but a transfer to warmer climates might help all parties.

Houston Has a Pitching Problem

No team entered the season with lower expectations than the Houston Astros. Through Sunday, Astros pitchers – starters and relievers – have combined for a 5.51 ERA. Aceves could help out of the ‘pen, spot start if needed, and generally be out of the spotlight.

Canada

The Blue Jays have not gotten off to the type of start that many expected. A rebuilt starting rotation has Mark Buehrle (6.35 ERA), Josh Johnson (6.86), and R.A. Dickey (4.50 ERA) joining Brandon Morrow (5.27 ERA) and not retiring as many batters as expected. J.A. Happ (3.86 ERA), brought in to compete for the fifth starter spot has been the only bright spot.

It’s only the end of April, but almost every team can use extra pitching depth. With his history of starting and relieving, Alfredo Aceves has the skills to contribute to many organizations. Including the Red Sox, if he can put himself back together.