Friday, October 5, 2012

Chipper’s Fine Whine And The Outfield Fly Rule

When is an infield fly really an outfield fly? And when should we know? We certainly didn’t find out Friday night when the St. Louis Cardinals defeated the Atlanta Braves in the first game of the 2012 Major League Baseball playoffs.

By now, we’ve all seen or heard about Andrelton Simmons’ eighth-inning fly ball to left field, a ball that fell to the ground untouched a good 175 feet from home plate, a mere split second before left-field umpire Sam Holbrook ruled Simmons out on the infield-fly rule. With runners on first and second when Simmons batted, the Braves should have had the bases loaded with one out. Instead, they had runners on second and third with two away and failed to score, squandering their last scoring opportunity of 2012.

Braves fans immediately showered the field with debris, prompting a 19-minute delay and threatening to put this game into the history books along with Cleveland’s 10-cent beer night and Chicago’s disco demolition night. Those two crowd debacles were different, poorly conceived promotions that predictably went bad and cost the home team a forfeit. The fans went to those games looking to get drunk and cause a melee. The crowd eruption at the Cardinals-Braves game was spontaneous combustion, natural ugliness turned loose, and Cardinals manager Mike Matheny understandably pulled his players from the field for fear of their safety. The game finally resumed, but even watching on television you could feel an ugly edge to the crowd. When the Cardinals recorded the final out to eliminate the Braves, they ran off the field to the safety of the clubhouse for their postgame celebration.

Bad umpiring is part of the game, but calls that bad shouldn’t be. We’ll never know whether or not the Braves would have cashed in that rally to tie the game. They were down 6-3 at the time and Simmons represented the potential tying run. Based on how lamely they played the rest of the game, the odds are they still would have failed to score, but we’ll never know. We have Sam Holbrook to thank for that. Truly an awful call, one of the worst in postseason history.

This was the first one-game wild-card play-in under MLB’s new playoff format, meaning the Braves now have been put out of their misery for 2012. And now that the deed is done, we’ll probably be subjected to endless carping by Braves fans about how unfair the one-game play-in is for the wild-card teams. This is an echo of tired complaints made far too loudly and far too frequently by now-retired Braves third baseman Chipper Jones. I have tremendous respect for Jones as a player, not so much for him as a person. His constant whining on this matter hasn’t helped.

Chipper, if you want fair, then win your damned division championship. If you finish second, don’t expect to be treated as though you really finished first, because you didn’t.

Bud Selig’s record on innovations to the game has been very mixed. He’s responsible for interleague play, the wild card and expanded playoff format, and the return of fan voting for the All-Star Game, all of which are very popular (although interleague play largely sucks). On the other hand, Selig gave home-field advantage in the World Series to the winner of the All-Star Game, has pushed back postseason start times to the point that only vampires see the end of most World Series games, and cancelled the 1994 World Series altogether. Oops on all of those.

This time, though, Selig hit it out of the ballpark, absolutely nailed it. For much of the past decade, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox both knew they were going to the playoffs and subsequently went through the motions the entire month of September. That was how the previous playoff system worked. The difference between being a division champion and being a wild card  was negligible at best, so neither the Yankees or the Red Sox gave damn those years whether they finished first or second. They also knew they wouldn’t have to face one another in the Division Series because they’re in the same division. When contending teams don’t even try to win their division championship the sport has a serious problem, but that’s what happens when you reward second-place teams the same way you reward division champions.

The new playoff format has eliminated that issue, giving contenders a powerful incentive to try and win every game until the races are over. Win your division and you’re in. Win a wild card and you’re truly a wild card, one and done.

Don’t go bitching about how unfair that is. It’s long past time that we started being fair to the six division winners instead. They finished in first place and won their divisions. The wild-card teams finished second (or second and third), and there’s no reason they should be rewarded the same way as a first-place team. And now they’re not.

Yes, the wild card teams were denied the home-field advantage in the first two rounds of the playoffs under the old format (until the World Series), but that’s pretty meaningless. Wild cards made up 25 percent of the playoff participants under the old format, but won 29 percent of the league championships (10 of 34) and 29 percent of the World Series (5 of 17) in that time. Clearly, playing a couple of extra games on the road was not much of a hardship.

There was a time not so long ago, prior to 1995, when there were no wild cards and no League Division Series. Second-place teams didn’t even get a one-game play-in. They went home and watched as Major League Baseball’s (then) four division winners played in the two League Championship Series. So it’s not even old school to whine about how we’re suddenly mistreating the wild-card teams. We never mistreated wild cards in the past, and we’re not mistreating them now. If anything, we used to spoil them. Now we’re giving them what they deserve.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Francona Seeking Indians Job? Really? Seriously?

The Cleveland Indians fired manager Manny Acta last Thursday, which was hardly a surprise. The surprise was the news that former Red Sox manager Terry Francona is very interested in the job.

Acta was hardly blame for the current sad state of Tribe baseball, his 20-52 record after the All-Star break notwithstanding. Firing the manager is easier than addressing the real reasons for the disaster that has unfolded at Jacobs/Progressive/Whatchamacallit Field since the team’s stunning collapse in the 2007 ALCS.

First, you have a financially overmatched owner in Larry Dolan, who overpaid for the team when he bought it from Dick Jacobs in 2000, and has been badly underfunded ever since. Impact free agents aren’t even considered in Cleveland, and when the team’s own players approach free agency, or even arbitration, they immediately become the subject of trade rumors. Add to that the club’s horrific record in the MLB draft — a track record so bad you couldn’t possibly make it up — and you have a franchise that is now light years removed from the glory days of the late 1990s, with little hope for the immediate future.

The Indians are hardly the only small-market team that can’t or won’t compete for top-name big league talent, and trading established stars for prospects is a serious gamble that can backfire badly (C.C. Sabathia for a sack of groceries in 2008; Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez for a matching set of tire tools in 2009). That makes drafting and developing players absolutely essential, yet after drafting Sabathia in 1998, Cleveland went on a nine-year draft skid (1999-2007) that produced virtually nothing for the major league club, a dry run in player development that is going to haunt the franchise for years to come. The Tribe’s first-round and supplemental first-round draft choices in that time were:

1999: none; pick awarded to Baltimore for signing Roberto Alomar
2000: Corey Smith, inf
2001: Dan Denham, rhp; J.D. Martin, rhp; Michael Conroy, of
2002: Jeremy Guthrie, rhp; Mark Whitney, inf
2003: Michael Aubrey, 1b; Brad Snyder, of; Adam Miller, rhp
2004: Jeremy Sowers, lhp
2005: Trevor Crowe, of; John Drennen, of
2006: David Huff, lhp
2007: Beau Mills, 1b

Sowers spent parts of four seasons in Cleveland but had marginal stuff and retired with an 18-30 record. Crowe was a fourth outfielder for parts of three seasons before the Indians released him in July. Huff finished 2012 in Cleveland after spending most of the year at Triple-A Columbus. His four-year big league record is a stellar 18-25. Guthrie scuffled for several years without winning a single game before the Indians shipped him to Baltimore, where he had some success. He’s now scuffling again, with the Kansas City Royals.

And that’s it. For nine years of first-round draft picks, the Indians got 36 wins, 55 losses, three home runs, 76 runs scored, 55 RBIs, 29 stolen bases and a .245 batting average.

Of course, the draft is more than the first round. What did the rest of those drafts bring to Cleveland? Well, other than a few who did not sign, the names don’t exactly jump off the page:

Jeff Baker, inf, 4th round, 1999 (did not sign)
Ben Francisco, of, 32nd round, 1999 (did not sign)
Brian Tallet, lhp, 2nd round, 2000
Ryan Church, of, 14th round, 2000
Luke Scott, of, 9th round, 2001
Ben Francisco, 5th round, 2002 (finally signed him)
Ryan Garko, c, 3rd round, 2003
Aaron Laffey, lhp, 16th round, 2003
Scott Lewis, lhp, 3rd round, 2004
Tony Sipp, lhp, 45th round, 2004
Jensen Lewis, rhp, 3rd round, 2005
Jordan Brown, 1b, 4th round, 2005
Desmond Jennings, of, 18th round, 2005 (did not sign)
Tim Lincecum, rhp, 42nd round, 2005 (did not sign)
Chris Archer, rhp, 5th round, 2006 (traded for Mark DeRosa)
Vinnie Pestano, rhp, 20th round, 2006

One all-star on the list, Lincecum, and he didn’t sign. Garko was a useful player but hardly an impact guy, and Sipp and Pestano have been servicable relievers. The rest of that list is a mess of pottage.

It appears that Cleveland has drafted somewhat better the last five years, with the likes of Jason Kipnis, Drew Pomeranz, Alex White, Joe Gardner, Franciso Lindor and Tyler Naqiun all drafted and signed. Kipnis, in particular, is a budding star in the big leagues, but the Indians squandered some of that draft success by shipping Pomeranz, White and Gardner to Colorado in the Ubaldo Jiminez fiasco. Chisenhall looks like the lone ranger from the 2008 draft, while Lindor, Naquin and the others taken the last two or three years are still a long way from ever playing in the big leagues.

Which means there is nothing currently in Cleveland’s farm system that is going to help the major league team any time soon, and there’s no way the Dolans are going to whip out the checkbook to acquire any established star players. They could try to make a trade or two — closer Chris Perez, outfielder Chin Soo Choo and righthander Justin Masterson all have trade value — but getting equal value is unlikely, and recent history says such a deal is likely to blow up in their faces. Hard to improve a team from a such a position of weakness.

The nucleus of next year’s team will be anchored by the four position players up the middle of the diamond. Kipnis and shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera form one of baseball’s best double-play combinations. That’s a nice start. Carlos Santana is a terrific-hitting catcher who doesn’t catch especially well. Center fielder Michael Brantley, pretty much all the Indians have to show for the C.C. Sabathia trade with the Brewers, has overachieved his way to being a pretty decent player. Brantley is probably better suited defensively to left field, and his best spot in the lineup should be second or ninth. The fact that he played center field most of this season and batted fourth for a lengthy stretch tells you all you need to know about the state of the franchise.

Around those four we have the makings of another 90-loss team. Chisenhall, a promising young third baseman, can’t stay on the field because of injuries. Choo, a good hitter with a strong arm in right field, is an impending free agent in 2013 and likely to be traded. Casey Kotchman, an outstanding defensive first baseman who can’t hit a lick, will almost certainly be gone. Left field is the null set. Travis Hafner’s albatross of a contract finally expires at the end of the season, leaving the Tribe without a designated hitter, not that they’ll notice the difference given Hafner’s meager production. The bullpen is good and deep, but it has to be because the rotation is a toxic waste site.

And so the Indians, awful in 2012, figure to be awful for the foreseeable future. Which brings us back to the manager’s job. Sandy Alomar, Acta’s bench coach and the catcher and de facto team captain during the glory years of the 1990s, was named interim manager upon Acta’s dismissal. Alomar’s interest in the job should be obvious. But Terry Francona?

The former Red Sox manager and current ESPN analyst is arguably the most successful manager in Boston history — he won more World Series than the previous 31 Red Sox managers combined — yet he wants to manage the Cleveland Indians. Doesn’t make a bit of sense. Francona spent a year working in the Cleveland front office before taking the job in Boston. He reportedly has very close ties with team president Mark Shapiro and general manager Chris Antonetti, both of whom have reputations as exceptional people. That’s a great story. So what.

As an Indians fan, I’d be delighted to see Francona take the job. He’s proven he can win big if given the resources, although no one should be foolish enough to think he’ll have any resources in Cleveland. He may not lose as much as Acta did, but unless he pulls a rabbit out of his hat he’s going to lose all the same.

Francona managed four years in Philadelphia, before their recent playoff run, and his record there was poor, 285-363. He lost 94 and 97 games in two of the four years. He’d almost assuredly do worse in Cleveland. But if he’s sincerely interested, and there’s no reason to think he isn’t at this point, then it’s a no-brainer. And a head-scratcher.