Friday, August 24, 2012

Out Of The Rubble

Is there a good way to lose? Only ten teams will actually have something in the way of a postseason record after this season ends. The other twenty are resigned to disappointment at worst and moral victories at best. This majority of teams, though all short of their pre-season goal of winning enough to make the playoffs, will yield an array of response from fans and analysts.

Take as an example the Astros and Cubs, the two worst teams in baseball by record. Yet, I for one (and there are others, I know this) believe their franchises are going in the right direction. On the other end of the spectrum, you have Philadelphia and Boston. Both are having very disappointing years and are generally as big of a mess as the US banking industry. 

An easier comparison to digest might be the 2011 Twins vs. the 2012 Twins. 2011 was a disappointment for pretty much everyone involved. The team finished with the second worst record in MLB and only real discovery was Glen Perkins as a power lefty. 2012 on the other hand has been somewhat encouraging, seeing the emergence and re-emergence of many players. What factors contribute to either the failure or success (if you could call it that) of a losing season?

The first and most obvious is expectations. Before 2011, the Twins were supposed to contend in the AL Central and prior to the current season both Philadelphia and Boston were considered as close to playoff locks as possible. However, pre-season predictions are largely out of a team's control and therefore this is the one factor that is simply cannot be handled 'well'. In addition, the difference between a prediction of success and a lack thereof usually consists of injury and lack of production from regulars. The management of a franchise can't do much about on-field issues such as these and is forced to react to the fallout.

How teams will handle the fallout is the most interesting and, in the end, most important part of a losing season. Minnesota's consecutive seasons offer case studies of two options losing teams will face.

It's easiest to begin with 2011, for the record this is not the way I would suggest a team operate. Early injuries to Tsuyoshi Nishioka, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Jason Kubel along with an utterly punchless pitching staff spelled an early doom for the team. By the end of June 1st, the Twins were 16.5 games off the lead in the Central division. At that point, any rational fan or analyst had the team written off. At which point, a rational front office probably should have began preparing for the next season. Minnesota did not.

Instead of dealing assets like Michael Cuddyer, Denard Span, Jason Kubel, Carl Pavano, Joe Nathan or Matt Capps (who were all attached to trade deadline rumors more or less), they stood pat at the deadline. Instead opting to wait until mid-August when the club was even further out of contention to make minor deals of Delmon Young and Jim Thome, receiving nothing of real value in return. I can't say I would have advocated cleaning house completely, the return on some of these players may not have been worth the PR hit. However, none of these players, with the possible exception of Span, figured into the long term plans of the team and any opportunity to return a player or two who could help in the long-term would have been a terrific addition.

The dormancy of the front office not only did nothing for bringing in future contributors but also stunted the growth of home grown options. It's hard to pinpoint fault here, because any player I say could have benefitted from an opportunity, a contrarian could say he needed time in the minors. For example, I would have been interested in seeing Joe Benson get more than the 74 plate appearances he saw last season or maybe some more time to Trevor Plouffe, Liam Hendriks or Anthony Slama (especially Anthony Slama). It's hard to point to players in particular, as surprises are just that, and you won't find any when you have Delmon Young, (an old but lovable) Jim Thome, Danny Valencia and Alexi Casilla clogging up space in the lineup. Eventually, Chris Parmelee got an opportunity and seized it, demolishing the American League for all of September.

In contrast, 2012 has been full of opportunity. Eleven different pitchers have started at least four games and eleven more have pitched out of the bullpen - thirteen if you count Les Oliveros' one outing and Drew Butera's shutdown inning. The entire rotation has been turned over since Opening Day, Jason Marquis and Nick Blackburn were removed from the roster due to ineffectiveness, Scott Baker and Carl Pavano had their seasons cut short by injury and Francisco Liriano was traded for good reason. In their place, Scott Diamond, Samuel Deduno, Cole DeVries and Liam Hendriks have seeen significant innings. Diamond has been the one to have a true, walking essentially nobody and establishing himself as a solid mid-rotation starter. Deduno and DeVries have posted polar opposite seasons: Deduno has impressed with his stuff, produced awful peripherals but good results, DeVries has shown pedestrian skills and mediocre results but terrific peripherals. Each of these guys are interesting, but won't be more than fifth starters or bullpen guys. Hendriks is clearly a ways away from a big league rotation, but I'm glad he's getting a shot to work out his problems. In relief, Jared Burton, Casey Fien, Anthony Swarzak  and Tyler Robertson have established themselves as an effective bottom half of a bullpen. Whether any or all of these pitchers can parlay their 2012 opportunity into a career is yet to be seen, but the fact the auditions took place is encouraging and adds a little excitement for the future.

On the other side of the ball, we've seen plenty of breakouts too. Given the full-time opportunity, Ben Revere has been outstanding. He's been top-5 in batting average and been a regular contributor to Baseball Tonight's Web Gems. The signs of the major league grind are starting to show, but no matter what happens over the next month, Revere has earned a spot in the outfield for next season. Joining Revere as a new addition to the daily lineup will be Trevor Plouffe, who filled the black hole at second base flashing real line drive power and a much improved batting eye. He's hitting .242 right now, but that should go up to around .255-.260 as his BABIP is an unsustainably low .247. Not only that, he's played a really solid third base, a huge improvement over Danny Valencia in my opinion. Unfortunately, Brian Dozier didn't work out as well as at least Gardy would have hoped. Consistent fielding lapses, a bad approach at the plate and a weak bat sent him back to the minor leagues.

The starting lineup isn't the only spot holding auditions; the bench is starting to take shape as well. Jamey Carroll has proven to be a terrific addition who can fill in at three positions, get on base and do everything the manager asks. Carroll won't be around past 2013, but with Dozier, Florimon and eventually Esocbar getting shots, the Twins should be able to find his replacement over the next 12 months. After trying out Erik Komatsu and Clete Thomas, Darin Mastroianni has been the ideal 4th/5th outfielder. Showing enough range for all three outfield positions, hitting the ball with authority and being a menace on the base paths. Adding in Drew Butera as the emergency catcher, a role he's actually qualified for, makes the basis of a solid bench for the future.

Terry Ryan's "no scholarships" system in 2012 has been turbulent, though effective. The ineffective players have been shed in a reasonable time allowing surprisingly effective players to rise out of the rubble.

If a team is going to be terrible, they might as well hold auditions for the next season. That might be why the Astros and Cubs seasons have been promising for the future and Phillies has been much less so. Circumstances out of anyone's control dictate what a team's fate will be, however, when dealt a losing fate, a front office should roll with the punches and get as much out of it as possible.

No comments:

Post a Comment