tony larussa

Opening Day 2014: Bold Predictions

1.  The St. Louis Cardinals will win more than 100 games.

Let me just say first of all that I kind of hate the Cards.  I hate Ozzie Smith, who is one of the most overrated players of all time.  He’s in the Hall of Fame (on the first ballot, to boot) and Alan Trammell isn’t?  Seriously?  Dude contributed virtually  nothing with the bat for his entire career, I don’t care how good he was with the glove (and come on, is there really that much of a difference between Ozzie and Omar Vizquel?  For that matter, is there even much of a difference between Ozzie Smith and Ozzie Guillen?)  I hate Tony LaRussa, who is going into the Hall of Fame despite being a complete dick of a person and managing players who were some of the most egregious steroid abusers.  I hate the 2006 version of the Cardinals, who didn’t deserve to win a World Series over my beloved Tigers and are the worst World Series champion of all time based on winning percentage.  God I hate them.

But it’s been awhile since the franchise has really given me anything to hate, so my feelings are returning towards ambivalence, and with that comes objectivity.  Entering the 2014 season, the Cardinals are the only team that are an absolute lock for the playoffs.  If we fast forwarded to October and you told me that any other team (say the Red Sox or the Dodgers) missed the playoffs, I wouldn’t be too surprised.  But there isn’t any way in hell that St. Louis doesn’t make the postseason this year.  This team not only has a stacked rotation, bullpen, offense and defense, they have a loaded farm system and depth all around the diamond.  No other team is as prepared to handle the inevitable injuries that can pile up during the course of the long regular season.  Combine all that with their relatively weak division, and I think it’s completely reasonable that this team just runs away from everyone else in the National League.  No team has won 100+ games since Philly in 2011 and overall there might be even more parity this year, but the Cards, as much as I hate to say it, will be the exception.  I take no joy in this prediction whatsoever.

2.  The Oakland A’s will finish with the most wins in the American League (and get to the ALCS).

In 2012, no one picked the A’s to do much of anything, but they finished one game shy of the best record in the AL.  In 2013, very few people picked the A’s to repeat, but they again finished one game shy of the best record in the league.  I think most prognosticators have learned their lesson, so no one is picking the A’s for a complete collapse this year, but most are not picking the A’s to match their 96 wins from last year.  But I like their chances of not only winning their division, but having the best record in the league.

There’s still a lot of upside on this roster that wasn’t captured in 2013.  So while Josh Donaldson likely won’t match his MVP-caliber performance, Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes are both primed to improve on poor 2013 season.  Coco Crisp won’t fall off as much as people think as long as he stays healthy (see previous post), and the A’s are getting close to perfecting the art of the platoon at both first base and at catcher (where I like both Derek Norris and John Jaso to have good seasons).  The real question with the A’s is with their rotation, after losing Jarrod Parker for the year and Bartolo Colon to free agency.  On top of that, A.J. Griffin is out for the first few weeks of the season.  But Sonny Gray looks like he could be a legitimate ace, something the A’s didn’t really have the last two seasons, and if they need another starter mid-season, I trust Billy Beane to go out and get one.  Moreover, I think any deficiencies in the rotation can be overcome by what looks like an even stronger bullpen than the 2012 and 2013 versions, which were both pretty damn good.

As for the postseason, the A’s deserved better than their two consecutive first-round exits at the hand of the Tigers.  So, I’ll say that they win the ALDS this year and exorcise some demons…but then lose in the ALCS in seven games to the Tigers, with Justin Verlander winning games 1, 4 and 7.  Sorry A’s fans, but hey, it’s one step further than last year.  I love Justin Verlander.

3.  The Toronto Blue Jays will contend for a playoff spot.

In the past two years, all four of the other teams in the AL East have made the playoffs.  It’s the Blue Jays’ turn!  Okay, well, baseball (and life) doesn’t exactly work like that, but I loved this team on paper last year and I like them even more this year.  The offense was fine last year and should be even better this season if Jose Bautista and Jose Reyes can stay somewhat healthy; I also like Melky Cabrera to come back and contribute, well, anything.  The bullpen, led by Casey Janssen, Sergio Santos, Steve Delabar and Brett Cecil, should be nails.  Like the A’s, the question marks are in the rotation. I’m a huge R.A. Dickey fan, so I think he has a good year, though maybe not quite Cy Young caliber.  Mark Buehrle is consistently mediocre, but at least he’s not going to kill you the way Josh Johnson did last year.  So really it comes down to Brandon Morrow, Drew Hutchison and Dustin McGowan in the back half of the rotation.  That’s an injury-prone strikeout artist with control issues, a high-upside rookie, and one of my favorite breakout fantasy candidates…from 2008 (and who has pitched less than 100 innings total at all levels since then).  That’s a ton of question marks, but I like the upside potential from this group.  If the Jays can get even league average performance from their starters, I like their offense and bullpen enough to keep them in the mix for a wild-card slot all year.  I’m not saying they’ll definitely make the playoffs, but they’ll get close.

4.  The Detroit Tigers will win less than 90 games.

Ahh…my Tigers.  I don’t even know what to do with these guys right now.  After an offseason and spring training where it appears ownership and upper management have gone collectively insane (Fielder-Kinsler trade, Fister trade, trading for two garbage shortstops to cover for Iglesias injury, failure to re-sign Scherzer, WTF Cabrera contract), this team just has a really bad juju to it.  I’m now prepared for the worst, but of course still hoping for the best.  But there is a ton of downside to this team.

– Offense:  With Prince Fielder departing, it looks like Miguel Cabrera could lead the league in homers…and the Tigers could finish last in the AL in home runs.  Where’s the power coming from in this lineup?  Even if you disregard power, however you set this lineup, spots six through nine in the batting order just look like black holes to me.  I expect Nick Castellanos to struggle to make contact his rookie year and I don’t have much hope for Alex Avila to be anything more than okay.  Granted, as long as the Tigers have Miggy they’ll at least be average, but will average be good enough?

– Starting pitching:  Despite the horrendously bad Doug Fister trade, I still think this could be the best 1 through 5 rotation in baseball if everyone stays healthy, even accounting for declines from Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer, but the Tigers have been pretty fortunate the last couple of years health-wise.  If even one of these guys goes down, there isn’t a single guy in the organization who can step in as a serviceable starter.  Jose Alvarez could have been that guy, but we just traded him for SS A. Romine (can’t remember whether he is Austin or Andrew) in a panic move.  One injury will be tough to recover from; two and the season’s over.

– Bullpen:  The Tigers’ achilles heel the last two postseasons has been the bullpen, though maybe more due to Jim Leyland’s mismanagement.  But as mediocre as last year’s bullpen was, this year’s is stacking up to be much worse.  The best three guys from the Tigers’ 2013 bullpen (Joaquin Benoit, Drew Smyly, Jose Veras) are gone (or, in Smyly’s case, moved to the rotation) and have been replaced by Joe Nathan and a bunch of garbage.  Now, Joe Nathan is a pretty good closer, but there’s no way that one closer makes up for three solid bullpen arms.  Despite having the big names on their roster, the Tigers have underperformed during the regular season the last couple years, largely due to bullpen weaknesses.  This is only going to get worse this year.

The Tigers aren’t going to win 90 games.  Their only hope really is that 88 wins or so is enough to win the AL Central.  I think it just might be enough, but if the Royals or Indians get a little lucky this year, we could be looking at the end of the Tigers’ three-year postseason streak.

Postseason Predictions:

AL East: Boston
AL Central: Detroit
AL West: Oakland
Wildcards:  New York, Toronto

NL East:  Washington
NL Central:  St. Louis
NL West:  Los Angeles
Wildcards:  Honestly, I would not be surprised if it were any teams other than New York, Miami or Chicago.  Let’s just say Cincinnati and San Francisco.

ALCS: Detroit over Oakland
NLCS: St. Louis over Washington

World Series:  Detroit (88 wins) over St. Louis (101 wins).  Revenge for 2006!  Suck it St. Louis.

Brad Ausmus, Managerial Reform and the Great Spring Hope

For the second straight postseason, Jim Leyland completely botched the management of his bullpen.  But after no playoff appearances in 19 years, the Tigers have made the playoffs four times in eight seasons since Leyland took over.  Also, by all accounts, the players adored and respected him.  He wasn’t going to get fired, period.  So when Leyland announced his retirement this offseason, man, was I relieved.

But where’s the relief in getting rid of a strategically-challenged manager only to replace him with another one?  With candidates like Dusty Baker, Charlie Manuel and Lloyd McClendon being mentioned for the job, I have to say that I agree 100% with the choice to hire former catcher Brad Ausmus.  Because even though Ausmus has no managerial experience and we have no idea what to expect from him as a manager, the unknown is better than the known garbage.

The hope is that Ausmus turns out to be a superior in-game strategos while also commanding the same respect that Leyland enjoyed.  And that’s how I would break down the primary roles of a baseball manager:  Strategy and People.

  • Strategy: This includes all of the manager’s roles as the field captain (i.e. determination of lineups, substitutions and rotations; managing bullpens; making calls for pinch-hitting, pinch-running, defensive subs or double switches; defensive alignment).  Strategy gets the most scrutiny in the media, because it’s the most visible.  We see Grady Little decide to leave Pedro Martinez in the game in the 2003 ALCS and we all have an opinion as to whether or not it was the right decision.  (For the record, I think it was a justifiable decision.)
  • People:  This role regards the management of human capital.  This is where the term “manager” makes the most sense, because in this aspect the baseball manager’s role isn’t any different from the manager of any other kind of business.  The manager needs to be able to understand and connect with his personnel.  He needs to maximize the results of the team by understanding how to motivate his troops.  When the media refers to a manager that has “lost” his players or a clubhouse that is out of control, this usually reflects a perceived failure in the People portion of the job (e.g. Terry Francona with the 2011 Red Sox or Bobby Valentine with the 2012 Red Sox).

Both roles are crucial to the performance of a manager.  But few managers actually appear to be competent at both.  As most managers tend to be former players and/or older men who are, uh, perhaps, more set in their ways, they tend to make in-game decisions relying on either a.) not enough statistical data (i.e. rely on their guts) and/or b.) the wrong statistical data (e.g. small sample size batter vs. pitcher data).  With all of the information that is becoming available to us through more and more advanced statistics, it seems like we are getting closer to understanding the ideal choice in nearly any game situation.  But given the level of mathematical inclination required to truly understand advanced stats (much less develop newer and better models than your competition), it almost seems too much to ask for one man to be responsible for both Strategy and People.

So how about having co-managers, one for each role?  Alternatively, each team should employ a strategy guru that would be on the field and have discretion to make most on-field decisions, while ultimately reporting to the manager or the front office.  Look, I can tell you right now that I think I could handle the Strategy role for a major league baseball team; but from the People perspective, I don’t know if I could command the respect of a clubhouse with no baseball experience whatsoever.

But then again, maybe it doesn’t matter.  I do think the People role is important, but how much does it really matter?  Is there any way to quantify this in terms of wins and losses?  Most people would say that Leyland was good at the People part of his job, but I would say that his Tigers teams of the last few years have underperformed, despite the playoff appearances.  We have enshrined Bobby Cox, Tony LaRussa and Joe Torre into the Hall of Fame as managers, but we still don’t know definitively whether they were great leaders of men or just lucky enough to have been carried to championships by amazing players.

Do we even need field managers at all?  Honestly, they kind of look bored most of the time.  Can’t all of the Strategy decisions be handled by someone like the general manager, who can make those calls from a luxury box?  Can’t one of the players, like a team captain, handle the People portion of the role?  The demise of the player/manager role in baseball makes me slightly sad; I remember getting a Pete Rose baseball card when I was a kid and saw his position listed as “1B-MGR” and my mind was blown.  He’s a player…AND a manager???  How cool is that?!

Ultimately, stats have come a long way in determining the value of what players do on the field.  And it seems like we are getting closer, at least, to understanding the value of what managers do on the field (check out this paper from MIT Sloan’s Sports Analytics Conference).  But we’re still a long ways away from being able to quantify the effect of good managers on an organization off the field, much less figure out which managers are actually good and which are bad.  I mean, I have a pretty good idea, but it’s pretty hard to prove that because Joe Maddon brings magicians into the Tampa Bay clubhouse the Rays actually win more games.  Maybe these effects can’t be quantified.  And if that’s true, I guess that’s fine.  I’m okay with the mystery.  I’m okay with not knowing anything about how Brad Ausmus, the manager, will perform this season.  Because it’s spring, and because hope is the answer to every unanswered question in the spring.  Everything is going to be okay.

This Will Escalate Quickly

Last night on Sunday Night Baseball on ESPN, the Cliff Lee – Chris Carpenter duel turned out to be an absolute beauty of a game. (I love pitchers’ duels.) Entering the 8th inning, Lee had a no-hitter going and Carpenter had finally settled down and was pitching strong. Now, Lee lost the no-hitter in the top of the 8th to that little piece of sh*t Yadier Molina. Which was fine, because you can never assume a no-hitter, these are major league hitters after all.  Then, in the bottom of the 8th, misanthropic manager Tony Larussa decided to lift Carpenter after only 89 pitches. 89 pitches!! This was an AL park, so he wasn’t lifted for a pinch hitter, and he certainly wasn’t laboring as he had breezed through the 6th and the 7th.  Now, never mind the fact that I owned both of these pitchers in my fantasy league and needed one or both of them to throw complete games to win my matchup (yeah, that’s not contributing to my rage at all).  But it really really bugs me when starting pitchers get pulled early from scintillating pitching duels.  I don’t know if anyone has ever heard me rant about Tony Larussa but this guy is a terrible human being. No one on his team likes him. He’s not even a good manager, he’s just a lucky bastard. His moves make no logical sense, they just happen to work out because he’s a lucky bastard. He’s strange, moody, quirky and friendless. He’s ugly. I hate this son of a bitch. I once bought a book by Buzz Bissinger because it was a baseball book by an author I had heard of, but it turned out to be a disguised Tony Larussa biography and a piss poor one at that. I shit you people not, I actually threw this book away because I was so disgusted by the poor quality of writing and the manifest unlikeability of this horrible human being, Tony Larussa.

Seriously, what is it with the f*cking Cardinals? The worst “good” manager in history in Tony Larussa, the worst World Series “champion” in history in the 2006 Cards (and that is a FACT, I am not kidding or exaggerating, I admit that there is some opinion and bias in this rant but this part is absolutely incontrovertible) and the worst “good” player in the history of the universe in Ozzie F*cking Smith. Burn in hell, all of you.