The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

 

One, Two, Three, Four

Item 1: my preview of the National League Championship Series between the Mets and the Cardinals is up at Baseball Prospectus. Playoff preview pieces are plum assignments at BP, so I feel honored to represent; it takes a little of the sting out of the fact that neither of my teams were able to advance so far. Here's what I had to say on the topic of the two opposing managers:
Weaned across town in a culture where an October berth is almost taken for granted, Willie Randolph managed the Mets to the postseason in just his second year on the job. Thanks to a hot start, the team's first place finish was a foregone conclusion by Memorial Day, but Randolph managed to keep the Mets sharp throughout the summer patching over injuries, and resting his big guns down the stretch. He played a big role in Reyes' great leap forward, he coaxed career years out of left-for-dead role players like [Endy] Chavez, [Jose] Valentin, and [Darren] Oliver, and he demonstrated a deft touch with running a bullpen. He even found a way to keep [Paul] Lo Duca fresh for the entire season, a challenge that's befuddled even Nobel Prize-winning scientists. Even more impressively, Randolph spun a disadvantage -- the injuries to the rotation -- into an advantage in the first round, demonstrating an unflappability that Joe Torre would be proud of.

There's a school of thought which says that due to all of the injuries the Cardinals sustained, this might rank as one of Tony La Russa's finest managerial seasons. That he and his staff were able to patch this team into the NLCS despite a sub-.500 Hit List Factor, the second-lowest of any playoff team ever (the 2005 Padres at .483 are the worst; the 1987 Twins were .0001 higher than this year's Cards), is definitely noteworthy. However, it's difficult to maintain such a sanguine view of the job La Russa has done in light of the team's near-collapse, given the Genius' insensitive reaction to [Jim] Edmonds' woes and his failure to integrate [Anthony] Reyes into the rotation early enough to save himself the trouble of being served Cream of [Jason] Marquis every five days.

Still, we are talking about a manager with 11 division flags, four pennants, and a World Championship to his credit, not to mention three straight berths in the NLCS. La Russa not only was able to guide his reeling team past the much hotter and more heavily favored Padres last week, but savvy enough to go for the kill by starting his ace in Game Four. It would hardly be out of character if he pulls off another surprise here.
Despite the fact that the Mets ended the Dodgers' season and stand to up the misery index in the Bronx with every additional October win, I'm pulling for them over the Cardinals mainly because of the contrast between skippers; I gained a lot of respect for Randolph last week, whereas my distaste for La Russa has only increased of late. Hell, I even have it on good authority the man likes to sneak the occasional ham sandwich despite fronting as a vegetarian.

Late note: Reyes is on the St. Louis roster and Marquis is not; since that information wasn't in by publication time I had to account for both contingencies in my writeup.

Anyway, the preview is free, so check it out.

Item 2: sharing space on the BP bill today is Alex Belth's touching, personal remembrance of Buck O'Neil. It's Mr. B. at his best. Go.

Item 3: Joe Torre is returning. On Sunday the situation looked grim, and as late as that evening there were still rumors all over the Internet that his firing was imminent. But by the time Brian Cashman had professed his desire for Torre to stay, it was pretty clear that an overly hasty removal of the manager simply to appease George Steinbrenner's rage would have plunged the organization into chaos, likely signaling a return to power of the Tampa mafia at the expense of the GM's neck. Sadly, I can't actually share all that I know on this topic without violating confidences (sorry to be a tease), but even an amateur Kremlinologist with a Yankee org chart could have fingered the loyalists who might whisper in the Boss' ear that Joe Must Go.

That said, I'm not 100 percent convinced that keeping Torre was absolutely the right thing to do; it was the hotheaded rush to judgment -- particularly to anoint notorious hothead Lou Piniella -- that angered me. I'd be sad to see Torre go, but I'd be devastated to see the toppling of the team's Age of Reason and culture of accountability.

At least one writer has argued that the latter has already been damaged. Joe Sheehan has suggested that Torre's handling of the Alex Rodriguez situation, inciting the drama by talking to Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated instead of defusing it as he's so expertly done for the past decade, then throwing his star third baseman under the bus in the elimination game by batting him eighth, was the nadir of his tenure and perhaps a fireable offense. Derek Jeter's complicity in this charade -- a team captain unwilling to show leadership by standing up for his teammate -- was utterly contemptible as well. At some point, Torre needed to bar the clubhouse door and bitchslap his players, saying words to the effect of: we're a team, we win as a team, we lose as a team, we don't point fingers, we don't kick each other when we're down, we pick each other up because ultimately everybody will need to help carry the load if we're going to win the whole thing instead of being catcalled from the back pages of the tabloids. Anything less than that was hearkening back to a Yankee tradition that had more to do with bloated egos, internecine power struggles and clubhouse disharmony of the late '70s than some hallowed pinstriped ideal.

Here's Sheehan:
What concerns me isn’t that the Yankees lost. What concerns me is that they and their manager set themselves up for a free ride going into the playoffs. After a season of laying all failures at the feet of Alex Rodriguez, and going so far as to inspire and participate in a Sports Illustrated story that furthered that storyline, the Yankees absolved themselves of responsibility. Complicit with the media, they washed their hands and let Rodriguez carry the water for their performance.

At just about any point along the way, one of the two most visible Yankees -- Joe Torre or Derek Jeter -- could have come forward and said what should be obvious: Alex Rodriguez is a great, great player, and in the worst season of his career he’s a star. Defining his season by his lowest points is doing him a disservice, and the constant focus on his play is an insult to the other members of the team. Whatever Rodriguez’s performance issues, such as they were, his overall contributions were valuable. Beyond that, he’s one of the game’s model citizens, with barely a controversy to his name in a time when so many others have been tainted.

That statement, completely true, would have done more to alleviate the pressure on Rodriguez than anything else. They didn’t do so, instead allowing petty nonsense like his desire to please people (heaven forfend) and his performance is varied subsets (in Boston, in the playoffs, against a small handful of pitchers, in 20 at-bats in July) to substitute for real information. They didn’t defend their teammate, and by allowing, even stoking, the situation, they absolved themselves and every other Yankee of blame for their fortunes. If they lost, it would be Rodriguez’s fault, no matter how the rest of them played.

...As far as Jeter goes, any claims to a captaincy or leadership skills are and will remain in doubt. His refusal to provide a full-throated defense of the player whose willingness to take his Gold Gloves to third base allowed the illusion of Jeter’s defensive prowess to grow to a point where he could get his own hardware is as much to blame as Torre’s sudden open-mouth policy. He could have stopped this with 50 well-chosen words. He didn’t, and it’s fair to wonder why.
John Harper of the New York Daily News was another writer willing to point the finger squarely at St. Derek:
There's only one person who can change the dispassionate climate surrounding the Yankees, and it's the reluctant captain, Derek Jeter. But if he hasn't been willing to embrace A-Rod by now, it's hard to believe anything is going to change.

...But the bigger problem is A-Rod's addled state of mind, the steady erosion of confidence that made him look clueless at the plate during stretches of the 2006 season, when he was guessing so badly that he was missing sliders by a couple of feet. And that surely is tied to his relationship with Jeter.

It is no news bulletin that A-Rod wants to be liked, accepted, loved, however you want to say it, by his teammates, especially Jeter. And the captain hasn't budged on the matter...

...Jeter sets the tone for everything the Yankees do, so where he got tons of credit, and rightfully so, when they won, he has to take some of the blame now for allowing the A-Rod mess to seemingly suffocate this team. He has kept A-Rod at arm's length, apparently all because he can't get past the famous Esquire article of five years ago in which A-Rod allowed his jealousy and self-esteem issues to first show publicly.
Steve Goldman kept the onus on the skipper:
Torre is a rotten tactician, though watching opposing managers I suspect he pulls fewer rocks than the average skipper. Despite this, when I consider the list of managers above and contemplate the alternatives -- Joe Girardi, who lost his job in Florida because he clashed with the front office and yelled at the owner? Lou Piniella, who maneuvered himself into the Tampa Bay job and then spent three years bitching about the club? -- I can see the Yankees taking a step back into a less rational time.

Still, Torre's day may be at an end. All managers, even the great ones, reach a point where they have been in one place too long, gotten too comfortable, too satisfied with their own judgments, too predictable with the players to keep them motivated.

...In the final analysis, it's the manager's job to get the most out of his players. Not only did Torre fail to do that with Rodriguez (not that Rodriguez needed all that much help), but he actively undermined him. Rodriguez is one of the best players in baseball, and certainly among the most talented. The Yankees organization has devoted major resources to obtaining and paying him. It is not for any manager, even a future Hall of Famer like Torre, to lightly throw that player away. Now, though, possibly as a parting gesture, Torre has put the Yankees in a difficult position. He's alienated Rodriguez from the team, or at minimum from the manager. Both cannot return.
At this moment, Rodriguez is staying as well, and I can't disagree there. Getting full value for A-Rod isn't likely, and the Yanks are better off being big boys and figuring out how to make the combination work instead of falling victim to the craven impulses of a bloodthirsty mob. Besides, as Peter Abraham points out, "[I]t does Cashman no good as a negotiator to say, 'Yes, we want him out.'"

Meanwhile, everybody and their mother has a plan on how to fix the Yanks' aging, expensive and largely inflexible roster. I'm in no mood to rush my own fixes into the blogsphere, largely because my winter plate is full of similar responsibilities for three other teams for Baseball Prospectus 2007. Rest assured I'll be weighing in on the Yanks soon enough.

Item 3A: speaking of rumors, Jon Weisman offers a handy guide to interpreting those of the Hot Stove variety. Read, take a deep breath, and read again.

Item 4: as for the rest of the playoffs, I've been laughing like hell with that Tommy Lasorda tough-love campaign for fans to watch the playoffs even after their teams have been eliminated, and I fully intend to follow suit.

"You guys can't handle October without your Indians? So your team's been knocked out, big deal! Buncha babies! But you're baseball fans, right? Get outta there. I live for this, you live for this, and the whole world lives for this. To the TV!"

Amen to that, Tommy. Amen to that.

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