Zack the Knife and other D(eadline)-Day motions . . .

2019-07-31 ZackGreinke

Zack the Knife goes to the top of the AL West heap in Houston . . .

Watching the wheels. Watching the deals. Watching a few other things. And a little staggered when the Astros pulled off an eleventh-minute blockbuster, bringing them Diamondbacks ace Zack Greinke.

“The Astros just won the World Series,” said more than one tweeter, which is putting the proverbial cart slightly ahead of the proverbial horse, but let them have their fun for now. To get Greinke, the Astros sent a pair of righthanded pitchers (Corbin Martin and J.B. Bukaukas), first baseman Seth Beer, and infielder Josh Rojas.

In other words, Greinke didn’t cost the Astros absolute prime prospects. And their postseason chances do improve tremendously adding Greinke to a rotation already paced by another future Hall of Famer, Justin Verlander.

Before that, here’s what the running order was on D(eadline)-Day:

* The Yankees’ medical parade continues with Luke Voit facing sports hernia surgery. He’s not expected back until “well into September,” according to manager Aaron Boone.

* The surrealistic three-way between the Indians, the Reds, and the Padres barely settled in when the Reds sent pitcher Tanner Roark and cash to the Athletics for a minor league player Wednesday.

* Noah Syndergaard’s outing against the White Sox Tuesday night pretty much pulled him off the trading floor for the Mets, who might still think about moving Zack Wheeler (starter) and Edwin Diaz (reliever). The Yankees and the Braves were thought still interested in Wheeler as of 11:30 Pacific time today.

* The Nationals’ bid to remodel their season-long-dubious bullpen (behind closer Sean Doolittle) got a bump when they landed Daniel Hudson from the Blue Jays for Kyle Johnston (prospect), and added Roenis Elias from the Mariners while they were at it.

* The Astros missed Martin Maldonado behind the plate more than they thought: they brought him back in a deal with the Cubs, sending the Cubs recently-DFA’d Tony Kemp. Maldonado’s a spaghetti bat but he’s more effective behind the plate than any Astros incumbent, still.

* Barely half an hour after nailing Hudson and Elias, the Nationals dealt for . . . Hunter Strickland, the former Giant renowned for carrying almost three-year-old grudges and doing something about them at Nats’ expense. (Shame Bryce Harper isn’t a Nat anymore. P.S. The brawl Strickland set off by hitting Harper helped put paid to Michael Morse’s career after his collision with Jeff Samardzjia.) The Nats sent the Mariners Aaron Fletcher.

* The Phillies dealt for Pirates outfielder Corey Dickerson, looking to fortify for a last-ditch stretch run without sacrificing heavy prospects but with sending the Pirates a nice pile of money to use for international signings. Dickerson homered twice in the Tuesday night game against the Reds—and those bombs were almost forgotten when the scrum heard ’round the world (thanks to Reds outfielder Yasiel Puig being traded to the Indians during the game) broke out in the ninth.

Come to think of it, Dickerson played for the Pirates against the Reds Wednesday. If he arrives to the Phillies in time to suit up for Wednesday night’s game, he’d be only the fifth player in MLB history to play for two teams on the same day. (The last: Joel Youngblood, for the Mets and the Expos, in 1982.)

* The Braves also dealt for Giants reliever Mark Melancon and Tigers reliever Shane Greene. With the Giants reportedly taking care of much of the rest of Melancon’s salary.

* The Giants’ big deal with the Brewers turned out to be the Giants sending the Brew Crew pitcher Drew Pomeranz (starter) and righthanded reliever Ray Black in a swap for infielder Mauricio Dubon.

* The Giants also sent reliever Sam Dyson to the Twins, for a trio of prospects, fortifying further a Twins bullpen that already added former Giant Sergio Romo last Saturday night. Around the same hour, the Giants picked up second baseman Scooter Gennett—a rental who hits free agency this fall—from the Reds for cash considerations. The Giants are risking Gennett having something left for the season after missing most of it with a groin injury.

* Madison Bumgarner (Giants), Zack Wheeler (Mets), Mike Minor (Rangers), Felipe Vasquez (Pirates), and Syndergaard are staying put for now. Wheeler was more of a trade possibility than Bumgarner, really, with the Giants unexpectedly back in the thick of the wild card race but the Mets outliers with a thread-slim shot at it.

Other than Greinke to the Astros, then, it seems the big story of the first single trade deadline (there’s no more non-waiver deadline in August) is the Braves and the Nationals overhauling their bullpens. On the same day the Braves beat the Nats to take a three-game set and put a little more distance between themselves and the Nats in the National League East.

Heard of punching tickets out of town?

2019-07-30 YasielPuig

Yasiel Puig (66) didn’t instigate this Tuesday night brawl between the Reds and the Pirates. Neither did he know just yet that he’d just been traded to the Indians.

Well, now. Baseball government decided a fine but not a short ban was appropriate for Trevor Bauer after his Sunday afternoon tantrum. (“The last baseball Trevor Bauer threw for the Indians landed over the center-field fence,” crowed The Athletic‘s Hall of Fame baseball writer Jayson Stark. “And nobody even hit it!”)

The Indians may have decided otherwise.

They had more say in the three-way Tuesday evening deal that rid them of Bauer and brings them Yasiel Puig from the Reds than they had about Justin Verlander punching out thirteen Tribesmen en route the Astros shutting them out, 2-0.

But did the Indians elect to trade Bauer, in the deal also involving the Padres, because his reaction to surrendering a pile of runs and then manager Terry Francona coming out to lift him en route a loss to the Royals was to throw that ball over the fence?

And was some sort of cosmic mischief at play when Puig, still suited up for the Reds, found himself in the middle of a wild ninth-inning, bench-clearing brawl between the Reds and the Pirates that he had nothing to do with starting?

The three-way deal was announced while the Reds hosted and were being blown out by the Pirates. And, shortly before Reds relief pitcher Amir Garrett received a visit from pitching coach Derek Johnson in the top of the ninth.

Garrett had gotten Pirates shortstop Kevin Newman to ground out after serving pinch hitter Jose Osuna a two-seam fastball too meaty not to hit for a three-run homer that crowned what proved to be an 11-4 burial. But while Garrett was about to hand the ball off to Johnson—who was managing the Reds at the time, the circumstances behind which to come anon—a little chirping rom the Pirates dugout tripped Garrett’s trigger.

Apparently, it was Pirates pitcher Trevor Williams who chirped toward Garrett. Apparently, too, Garrett previously had words for Pirates first baseman Josh Bell, words some tweeters translated to be “[Fornicate] you!” And the next thing anyone saw, Garrett practically flew solo toward the Pirates dugout, fists flying with the intent of nailing anyone in Pirates’ colours, greeted by a swarm of Pirates with the equivalent intent of making sure he couldn’t get any piece of any of them.

The Reds were probably jolted enough at their man’s audacity that it took a couple of moments before they realised they weren’t seeing things and swarmed toward the Pirates swarm.

Puig was actually a late arrival to the dance. Late or no, he plunged into the swarm, apparently intent on getting Garrett the hell out of there by hook, crook, left hook, anything short of an ambulance populated by men and women in white coats armed with straitjackets.

And Puig probably didn’t know he wasn’t really a Red anymore.

The three-way deal sends Puig and minor league pitcher Scott Moss from the Reds to the Indians, Bauer from the Indians to the Reds, outfielder Taylor Trammell from the Reds to the Padres, and three Padres—Franmil Reyes (outfielder), Logan Allen (pitching prospect), and Victor Nova (minor league jack of most infield and outfield trades)—going to the Indians.

Puig and Reyes would make the Indians’ corner outfield that much more productive at the plate, since the pair of them have more home runs between them (49) than the combination of every players seen in the Indians’ outfield corners all season long. If Reyes was on pace to hit 40 bombs with pitcher-embracing Petco Park as his home playpen, Indians fans can only imagine and pray what he’ll hit with Progressive Field to call home.

But Puig was one of eight ejected as a result of the ninth-inning rumble in the Great American Ballpark jungle. It may be an open question as to whether he begins life with the Indians—a rental life at that, since he becomes a free agent for the first time after this season—on the field or on suspension.

All of a sudden, any of Bauer’s past transgressions, including but not limited to some pointed but slightly absurd accusations that Astros pitchers were putting a little too much pine tar on their pitching hands, seem like boys being boys compared to the Cincinnati gang war.

Keep in mind: the Pirates and the Reds aren’t exactly bosom buddies above and beyond common competition. The Pirates were a lot less than thrilled when Reds outfielder Derek Dietrich hit and couldn’t help admiring a pair of homers clean into the Allegheny River on their pitchers’ dollars, one of which triggered a brawl after Dietrich saw a Chris Archer pitch fly behind his head, prompting Puig to take on almost the whole Pirate roster.

The Pirates also make a lot of other people uncomfortable with their penchant for pitching inside as often as possible and even beyond. The Reds aren’t the only team in the game who think that what the Pirates call merely pitching inside is really headhunting.

“Hitters are crowding the plate more than ever to hit pitches on the outer corners,” observed Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer Nubyjas Wilborn earlier in July. “[Pirates manager Clint] Hurdle and the Pirates want to own the whole plate, and that’s where part of the conflict exists.”

Tuesday night’s shenanigans began when Pirates reliever Keone (Drinkin’ Rum and Coca) Kela threw one up and in enough to Dietrich to trigger a little bristling among assorted Reds in the seventh, including Joey Votto, who had a few sweet nothings to deliver to Kela before home plate ump Larry Vanover urged Votto back to his own lair.

And part of this conflict may also have rooted in Vanover handing both sides warnings after Kela zipped Dietrich, denying the Reds at least a single unmolested opportunity to send a return message. Ignoring the warnings, apparently, Reds reliever Jared Hughes got himself a premature date with the clubhouse shower, when he drilled Starling Marte with the first pitch of the top of the ninth.

Which is how Garrett got into the game in the first place. In between both, Reds manager David Bell got himself the ho-heave when he objected to a strike call with Puig himself at the plate in the eighth. And soon enough came basebrawl.

Hell of a way for Hurdle to celebrate his birthday. Bell got himself into further trouble when, despite having been tossed from the game, he ripped out from the clubhouse to the field on behalf of his players, gave Hurdle a shove, got into and broke his way out of a headlock from Pirates batting coach Rick Eckstein, and barked a little bit at Hurdle.

Bell has his partisans and detractors, too. For every tweeter singing a variation on the theme of Bell “ejected earlier and back on the field being his usual clown self,” there was another singing a variation on the theme of “I would fight a [fornicating] war for David Bell.”

Things looked as though settling down before, for whatever reason, maybe a Pirate hollering what he thought was something out of line, Puig circled back toward the dissipating swarm for a very brief encore before he was finally lured away. He was one of eight Reds and Pirates ejected from the game before the Pirates could finish the 11-4 thrashing they’d begun.

The ejected included Hughes and Reds bench coach Freddie Benavides over the Marte plunk; plus, Garrett and Puig for the Reds; and, Pirates injury-list catcher Francisco Cervelli plus pitchers Williams, Archer, and Kyle (Up the) Crick.

Now the Indians get themselves a Puig-in-the-box who can play baseball brilliantly enough, when he’s firing on the proper cylinders and avoiding the temptations to rumble. The Reds get themselves a million dollar pitching arm attached to a brain that often impresses people appreciative of the pitching talent as being deprived of a few critical resistors.

Almost forgotten in the middle of the trade that didn’t rudely interrupt the Pirates and the Reds replaying The Wild Bunch is that the Padres may have gotten the sleeper of the deal in Trammell, a talented left fielder who’d been the Reds’ top rated prospect and the number 30 prospect in all baseball despite a somewhat slumping season this year at Double-A Chattanooga.

For curiosity’s sake alone, I ran a search for major league baseball players who’ve tangled in bench-clearing brawls while or at least on the same days they were traded. The search result didn’t answer the question directly. But the first result was a headline about Tuesday night’s tarantella. With Puig’s name leading the head.

Some precedents ought not to be wished.

Vaya con dios, Vargas

2019-07-30 JasonVargas

Jason Vargas, from the frying pan to a pennant race, perhaps undeservedly.

Marcus Stroman is said to have been less than thrilled about his trade to a team he and almost all baseball thinks is slightly beyond the pennant race. It’s not that he objected to going to New York, but Stroman thought in his heart of hearts that, if the Blue Jays didn’t want to extend him, the Yankees wanted him, period.

To put things as politely as did Toronto Sun writer Rob Longley, Stroman’s reaction to his trade to the Mets “wasn’t pretty.” But barely a day after the Mets sent the Jays a pair of middle-regarded pitching prospects to get Stroman, they rid themselves of a fifth starter they should have unloaded over a month ago.

Trading Jason Vargas to anyone who’d have him should have been priority number one after the 23 June disaster in Chicago. Trading him to the Phillies now, as ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported Monday afternoon, means they weren’t kidding about Stroman’s importance to them. Maybe it means they really swapped Vargas for Stroman.

And maybe that’s giving both Vargas and the Mets a little too much credit.

Assume Stroman the new number two behind Jacob deGrom, and incumbent Noah Syndergaard still en route a new address before Wednesday’s trade deadline, and the Mets’ rotation already looks improved. But that shouldn’t have been the absolute top thought in moving Vargas at last.

Of course, this could also be a case of a too-delayed “we’ll teach him a lesson he won’t forget,” since fly ball pitchers like Vargas risk life and limb pitching in Citizens Bank Park. Except that the Mets aren’t that clever. Not that we know of.

The Mets got minor league catcher Austin Bossart for Vargas. They should have sent him on his way for any bag of balls or hammers as soon as possible after a 23 June nobody around the Mets will forget.

If the Mets had had a general manager like Washington’s Mike Rizzo—who suffers neither fools nor malcontents gladly and moves accordingly, even if he looks like he’s jumping the proverbial gun a bit much—Vargas would have donned another uniform as soon as possible then.

Because it was bad enough that embattled Mets manager Mickey Callaway let Seth Lugo—in relief of deGrom—work a second inning when he barely had his C+ stuff to survive his first in Wrigley Field that day. It was worse after Lugo surrendered a 3-2 Mets lead into a 5-3 Cubs lead that held up for a Mets loss.

Callaway then didn’t seem to get that the number one postgame question from any reporters covering the Mets, never mind Newsday‘s Tim Healey, and considering his issues in managing his dubious enough bullpen entering that game, wasn’t going to be how he rated Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg’s performance of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh inning stretch.

When Healey finished his questioning by saying nothing more offensive than, “See you tomorrow, Mickey,” Callaway sank into an expletives-undeleted reply that was merely vulgar but not in league with such legendary lashings as those of Lee Elia and Tommy Lasorda. The manager wouldn’t even listen when Healey tried assuring him he meant nothing sarcastic in his parting offering.

That’s when Vargas, who was within earshot of Callaway’s rant, addressed Healey with a plain but very troublesome “I’ll knock you the [fornicate] out, bro.” Healey acknowledged Vargas taking a step or three toward him while acknowledging as well that others claiming Vargas charged him were slightly exaggerated. But whether a step or a charge wasn’t half as important.

There were those close to the Mets who believed Vargas’s outburst was almost completely out of character for him. So was then-Nationals reliever Shawn Kelley’s moment of weakness, during an unlikely late-inning relief assignment near the end of a Nats blowout that made him an ex-Nat post haste.

Kelley slammed his glove to the ground after surrendering a home run that followed a gesture toward his dugout that Rizzo interpreted as an attempt to show up his manager Dave Martinez. It wasn’t that by any means and even Martinez suggested as much in its wake. Kelley himself said he wanted nothing more than some help from the skipper over a pair of contradictory umpires’ instructions toward him before he threw the fateful pitch. Rizzo, alas, was in no mood to hear anything except the sound of Kelley’s footsteps leaving town.

“You’re either in or you’re in the way,” was Rizzo’s pronouncement after he dealt Kelley to the Athletics—going, in other words, from one team struggling to stay in the races to another team with a clear strike toward a wild card at least. But Rizzo sent the message loud and clear. Just as he’d done shipping another reliever, Brandon Kintzler, out of town a little earlier, when he believed (erroneously) Kintzler was the source of leaks to the press revealing discord in the Nats clubhouse.

Rizzo may not have had all his factual ducks in a row, and it was baseball’s worst kept secret that he had no intention of asking Kelley for his side of the story. He wanted nothing from Kelley but his absence, and he got it, even if you’re tempted to wish you’d been in his living room when he watched Red Sox reliever Eduardo Rodriguez slam his glove to the ground after surrendering a World Series home run and survive.

But the message Rizzo sent through disappearing Kelley is exactly the message rookie Mets GM Brodie Van Wagenen should have sent immediately when it came to the Vargas incident in Chicago, no matter how well Vargas was pitching or would pitch, and Van Wagenen had far more cause to send it than Rizzo did.

The Mets’ clubhouse hasn’t always been cohesive this year, and those observing Callaway can’t stop believing he should have been canned long before now while still not believing he’s received more votes of confidence than a government figure who usually knows a vote of confidence today means his execution within a very few days to come.

But Vargas should have been run at once. Callaway was foolish enough going rogue on Healey, but at least he didn’t threaten to knock Healey the [fornicate] out. That can’t happen. Vargas committed a hundred times the crime Kelley committed.

Instead, both Callaway and Vargas were allowed to survive somehow. (In case you’ve forgotten, so were Kelley and Kintzler: Kelley went to the American League wild card game last year and is now having a remarkable 2019 with the Rangers; Kintzler went to the Cubs and the National League wild card game. Some punishments.) Even after their notorious non-apologies to follow.

Vargas has pitched well enough. He’s surrendered more than three earned runs in only one of sixteen starting assignments since he surrendered four in a 13 April start against the Braves that saw him not survive the first inning.

Instead of handing him his head on his plate over threatening Healey, though, the Mets let Vargas survive to become trade bait for . . . a minor league catcher with little apparent upside. Well, you suppose it might comfort Healey just a little to know he’s worth more than a bag of balls or hammers, after all.

But now we see that Van Wagenen has one thing in common with Rizzo. What kind of punishment is it, really, when your idea of ridding your team of the elements you think threatens its cohesion is to send the miscreants from the frying pan back into the pennant race?

Marcus Stroman and other trade deadline thoughts

2019-07-30 MarcusStroman

Marcus Stroman to the Mets—method to madness or madness to method?

As regards the Mets dealing a pair of mixed-reviews pitching prospects to the Blue Jays for their staff ace Marcus Stroman, and the coming trade deadline in general a few observations. Beginning with the one that tells me it seems at least three-quarters of baseball never saw this Stroman deal coming.

Anyone who thought Stroman’s new address would be New York by this year’s new single trade deadline figured it would involve the Yankees, leaders in the American League East, and not the Mets, strugglers to stay within reasonable sight of even the second National League wild card.

Or, if Stroman was going to move on from Toronto, he’d be more likely to land with one or another viable 2019 competitor—say, the Braves, where I seem to recall some observers thought he’d make a better mutual fit if the Yankees really were convinced Stroman was good enough to pitch but not necessarily fit.

But Stroman, who makes his living largely by way of his ability to lure ground balls, is now a Met. So where do we and they go from here?

1. Former major league general manager Jim Bowden, who now writes for The Athletic, says the Mets have no intention of landing Stroman just to flip him for a better package by the close of trade business Wednesday. And the two pitching prospects going to the Jays—Anthony Kay and Simeon Woods-Richardson—are considered solid but not elite prospects, but the Jays believed they weren’t going to get better than them for Stroman when all was said and done.

2. The Mets aren’t a team of elite defenders especially around their infield this year, and yet Steven Matz—returning to the rotation after a brief spell in the bullpen to re-horse—pitched a complete-game 3-0 shutout Saturday night in which his calling cards were a deft blend of breaking and off speed stuff and putting his fielders to work, which for a change they did rather admirably behind him.

3. Matz’s performance may well have had a firm impact on the Mets’ pitching thought. May. They’ve tried since 2013 to cultivate an arsenal of power arms in the rotation and seen, when all is said and done, only Jacob deGrom live up to any expectations. They watched Matt Harvey’s injuries collapse him from a power pitcher to one in search of a new cause and, now, a new team. They’ve seen Noah Syndergaard and Zack Wheeler bring the power without delivering the consistent results.

If the Mets had eyes for Stroman before Matz took the mound Saturday night, Matz’s performance had to have told them it wouldn’t be a terrible idea to add another arm to the rotation that belonged to a young man who uses more than his arm to survive on the mound. Stroman isn’t a strikeout machine; he has the second highest ground ball rate among all Show starting pitchers.

4. Maybe acquiring Stroman begins to get the Mets re-thinking their incumbent defense, too, especially marrying him to Matz in their rotation. Rookie of the Year candidate Pete Alonso forced Dominic Smith off first base, but Smith in the outfield looks almost exactly like the un-natural he is out there even though he hits with authority. Rookie general manager Brodie Van Wagenen’s willingness to take aging Robinson Cano if he wanted closer Edwin Diaz from the Mariners last winter forced Jeff McNeil, their obvious second baseman of the future, likewise into an outfield where he’s about as comfortable as an elephant in front of a mouse much of the time.

5. Diaz has been a mess not entirely of his own making this season, mishandled, sometimes mis-deployed, and while the raw talent is still there the Mets are now rumoured to be shopping him. Cano has four years left on the contract the Mets took on from the Mariners, making him almost an immovable force. Whether the Mets’ contradictory ownership might be willing to take a bath on the deal in order to start moving defensive parts back where they belong is anyone’s guess.

6. With Stroman off the market eyes turned not just upon Syndergaard but the rest of this trade deadline’s pitching market.

The Giants’ unexpected resurgence means Madison Bumgarner isn’t likely to go anywhere the rest of the season, compared to a month ago when the observers and speculators pondered where, not if he’d move on. The Yankees need whatever starting pitching help they can get but the market now seems more constricted—and as much as they’re wary of dealing with the Mets, Syndergaard now might look like an attractive Yankee target. Might.

And the Nationals, like the Giants but at a higher level, have had an unexpected resurgence of late after they were all but written off as dying as late as early June. They ran into a buzzsaw in Los Angeles this past weekend, needing Stephen Strasburg to pitch the masterwork he did in seven Sunday innings to escape with even a single win, but now Max Scherzer—whom all the Smart Guys said had to go on the trade deadline block once upon a time, in large part to bring them badly needed bullpen relief—may find his barking back barking well enough into August.

At first glance, then, it would seem the Nats have a big problem as they prepare to square off against the National League East-leading Braves Monday night. Except that the Braves, who ran roughshod over the league before the All-Star break and still lead the Nats by five and a half games, have suddenly regressed to being only human. Not only have they lost seven of their last eleven, they’ve lost two critical elements—shortstop Dansby Swanson, resurgent veteran right fielder Nick Markakis—to the injured list. The Nats won’t have Strasburg or Scherzer to throw at the Braves this week but the Nats might still gain key ground, anyway.

7. The bullpen dominos began falling over this past weekend, too. Veteran Sergio Romo, once a key to a couple of Giants World Series winners, just went from Miami to Minnesota where the Twins, this year’s American League surprise, just bumped their bullpen up several notches by bringing him aboard. Jake Diekman went from Kansas City to Oakland, a sign the Athletics are gearing up for another wild card run. There are contenders aplenty who need help in the pen and few more than the Nats.

8. If the Jays are rebuilding in earnest, bullpen-longing eyes may be cast upon the surprising Ken Giles. After his 2017 World Series mishap (which wasn’t entirely his sole responsibility) and subsequent personal and mound meltdowns, Giles has rehorsed completely in Toronto. As in, a career year: a 1.54 ERA and a 1.60 fielding-independent pitching rate. Not to mention a 5+ strikeout-to-walk rate and a 14.9 strikeout-per-nine rate.

Yes, the Nats have eyes upon Giles and his Jays pen mate Daniel Hudson. But so may the Red Sox and any other contender who needs a bump among the bulls. Even the Twins, despite landing Romo, might still make a play for Giles at least or, if Giles eludes them, Norman, whose 2.87 ERA and June-July of only four earned runs in 21 innings’ work yanked his trade value up accordingly.

Bowden rates the Stroman deal a B+ for the Mets and a B- for the Jays. It wouldn’t hurt the Jays’ standing to try prying a slightly better haul back for Giles and/or Hudson. And although Giles is dealing with a slight nerve issue in his pitching elbow, wiping out the side as he did in a Saturday night assignment should make his suitors breathe a little easier, assuming they don’t fall tempted to overwork him while he works through it.

9. The Mets may or may not yet have a wild card long shot this year, but don’t kid yourselves: they were thinking as much about 2020 as now when they made their play for Stroman. And since Stroman is under team control through the end of 2020, don’t be surprised if they like what they see from him the rest of this season and start talking extension with him before 2020 begins.

Which might also mean that Syndergaard at minimum, and Wheeler at maximum, may yet have changes of address coming by Wednesday afternoon. And with whisperings that the Red Sox have eyes upon Diaz for their pen, which needs a little help but isn’t as badly mismanaged as the Mets pen has been this year, the Mets should be thinking smart and looking very closely at that Red Sox farm system.

Because the Mets could also use a third base upgrade from veteran Todd Frazier, who’s reliable but beginning to show his age. And as thin as the Red Sox system is for now, AAA third baseman Bobby Dalbec was named both the offensive and defensive player of the year for 2018 in the Red Sox’s minor league award valuations. If the Olde Towne Team wants Diaz for their pen that much, the Mets should all but demand Dalbec in the return haul.

10. Too many teams never quite do what they should when it counts. The Mets, alas, are notorious for that. Even when they’re winning.

 

The Mets crank up the MixMatzer

2019-07-27 StevenMatz

Steven Matz put on a a splendid off-speed clinic Saturday night.

Beneath Steven Matz’s magnificent throttling of the Pirates Saturday evening lay a stone cold sobering fact. Mets manager Mickey Callaway, that embattled former pitching coach whose pitching management is under as much fire as almost everything else around the Mets, rolled serious dice to make room for it.

“To do it in 99 pitches is something else,” Callaway said of Matz’s masterpiece of a five-hit shutout. “That doesn’t happen too often. That was tremendous. That was unbelievable. We really needed him to do that.”

All he left out was “stupendous” and “colossal” and wearing a ringmaster’s striped pants, tailcoat, and top hat while rapping his cane on the Citi Field entrances, in describing maybe the single best Mets pitching performance of the season. By a guy who’d been exiled to the Mets’ bullpen for a spell before the All-Star break.

Callaway didn’t dare suggest what might have happened if Matz hadn’t found himself a way to work with efficiency and with a well-balanced blend between his slider, his changeup, and his sinkerball, not to mention if the Mets’ defense hadn’t been just as efficient behind him when he needed them to be the most.

Because sending Matz back to the mound late in games or the third or more time around the enemy batting order was previously a balance between a tightrope ride and a flying trapeze act that includes buttering the bar.

Matz came into Saturday’s game with the opposing order posting a lifetime .278/.323/.431 slash line against him when he’s still in for a third time around it. He’s least vulnerable historically the second time around the order and most vulnerable the first time, for all his talent. But it was still a considerable risk to let Matz even think about shooting for the complete shutout.

It would have been about twenty times the risk for Callaway to even think about going to his bullpen. Especially when Matz entered the seventh with a mere 1-0 lead that everyone in Queens knows is rarely if ever safe once the bullpen gate opens and out comes another bull. Clearly the skipper had to think fast. With about minus two seconds worth of time to think.

But closer Edwin Diaz, who’s suffered enough misuse and abuse so far, was deemed available somewhat officially, except that when he’s nursing a sore big toe on his landing foot you’re liable to be nursing a ninth-inning beating if you send him out and his delivery is hijacked.

Late-inning option Luis Avilan worked in three straight games before Saturday. Seth Lugo, who saved Friday night’s 6-3 Mets win, worked in two straight. Callaway might not have wanted to trust mightily struggling Jeurys Familia, even though Familia hadn’t pitched in a game in two days but was lit for two earned in two thirds of an inning against the Padres two days before the Pirates sailed into town.

And, perhaps re-learning a lesson about prudent bullpen usage, Callaway probably didn’t want to burn Justin Wilson—arguably the least arsonic Mets reliever the past week plus (five gigs, four innings, one earned run, four punchouts)—a second straight night.

So with Matz getting all those ground outs Callaway stood by him. And how could he not, when Matz put on a clinic in finding and using something other than pure raw power to get outs, something other than a howitzer to pull himself back from behind.

“The changeup got me back in some counts,” said Matz, who got first pitch strikes on only half his 31 batters. “So I just think, really mixed everything . . . It was just a recipe.”

Be gone, food processors. Welcome home, old-fashioned Mixmaster. Control the blending more directly. Between speeds when need be. Take that, all you guys trying to throw the proverbial lamb chops past the proverbial wolves. No wonder the game took a measly two hours and ten minutes and Matz missed a 100-pitch tally by one.

All of a sudden it didn’t seem all that tough to let Matz begin the seventh with a mere 1-0 lead. Oh, yes, he even shook off first and second and one out in the sixth by getting Melky Cabrera to dial an Area Code 5-4-3 that went around the horn smooth as whipped cream.

Then Michael Conforto made only the second Met hit of the game off Pirates starter Trevor Williams count with a drive into the right field seats in the bottom of that sixth. “Unfortunately for us,” Williams said after the game, “I was the one that blinked first.”

Matz and the Mets were so efficient that they almost blinked through the top of the seventh despite a two-out single. But in the bottom, after Todd Frazier reached on a one-out pop that Pirates shortstop Jung Ho Kang inexplicably let fall to the ground, J.D. Davis hit the first Williams service of the plate appearance, a four-seam fastball right down the chute, right over the center field fence.

Then Matz zipped through the top of the eighth with three straight ground outs and shoved Kevin Newman’s leadoff single aside in the top of the ninth to put the Pirates away on a fly out, a strikeout, and a ground out.

The Pirates played most of the game without manager Clint Hurdle, who was ejected in the first trying to keep Starling Marte from ejection after Marte huffed over a called third strike that ended the inning. Hurdle wasn’t thrilled about plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt’s slightly generous strike zone, and it did look as though Wendelstedt pulled a slightly too-swift trigger on the skipper.

But in fairness Wendelstedt blew a pocketful of strikes against both sides. One minute, Williams and Matz got strikes that were obvious balls, the next both pitchers got balls that were obvious strikes, just a little too often. It didn’t stop Williams from no-hitting the Mets through four and two thirds and pitching his own splendid seven innings ruined only by the pair of Met bombs. Any more than it stopped Matz from running the speed dial full spread against the Pirates.

The game left the Mets 9-5 since the All-Star break and the Pirates losers of seven straight and 2-15 since the break. Nobody’s quite ready to pronounce the Pirates officially doomed, nobody’s quite ready to pronounce the Mets officially back from the living dead, either, but it sure felt like the Mets got real old-fashioned pennant-race pitching.

No tank you very much

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So far, the 2017 Astros are one of a couple of  exceptions to the rule thus far that tanking is not a world championship guarantor.

When February got underway in earnest, I asked what you’d say if you knew each major league baseball team, rich and poor alike, is guaranteed about $60 million into its kitty before the regular season even begins. And without having to do a blessed thing to earn it other than existing in the first place.

Not to mention that each major league team would pull down about an average additional $100 million during a season through sources that only include the gate.

At that time the Major League Baseball Players Association thought aloud about pushing for imposing a tax on teams that seemed not to care less about putting even a mildly entertaining product on the field, a product showing the teams had even the mildest concern about trying to win. The MLBPA pondered such a tax costing tankers prime draft pick positions if they continued losing, or at least not trying to win all that much, beyond particular thresholds over certain periods.

Everybody with me? So far, so good. Because the redoubtable Thomas Boswell, the Washington Post‘s longtime baseball sage, has things to say about it. When tanking teams call their tanking “strategy,” Boswell calls it fan abuse:

The idea of trying to lose 100 to 115 games, while claiming it’s a long-term plan for glory, always has been a long-shot notion, seldom born out in actual baseball experience. Of the current 30 teams, 20 have never in the past 50 years lost more than 200 games in consecutive seasons, at least not after you exclude their early expansion-team days. Yet those 20 teams have won 33 of the past 50 World Series, exactly the ratio you’d expect if there was no difference between having a Horror Era and never being truly awful at all.

In other words, the back-to-back 2016 and 2017 World Series winners, the Cubs and the Astros, were outliers when they went into the tank to rebuild from the guts up, over three or four seasons previous, rather than retool on the fly and continue trying honest competition along the way.

Reality check: Unless you’re certain comic-opera teams of legend, or the Washington Generals, losing isn’t entertaining. Boswell notes six teams at this writing on pace to lose 98 games or more this season. In ascending order: the Mariners (98), the Marlins (101), the Blue Jays (101), the Royals (103), the Tigers (111), and the Orioles (111).

They’re about as entertaining as root canal work, southern California traffic jams, and today’s politics of demeaning. Actually, I’ll walk that back a little bit. Southern California traffic jams have occasional amusements.

Among other things the tankers are competing for that ever-popular number one draft pick. “[W]e’re watching a bull market in stupidity,” Boswell writes, perhaps unintentionally offering the emphasis on bull. “And cupidity, too, since all those teams think that they can still make a safe cynical profit, thanks to revenue sharing, no matter how bad they are.”

Since the draft began in 1965, there’ve been 55 number one overall picks. Four became Rookies of the Year, seventeen became All-Stars even once, and three became Hall of Famers. Historically, the draft more often becomes a case of good things coming to those who wait, on both sides of the draft tables.

In today’s terms it only begins with the game’s greatest player. Mike Trout waited until round 25 before the Angels chose him in 2009, and it took him two years to become listed by anyone as a number one prospect. And they’re already trying to figure out the language on his Hall of Fame plaque even though he has one more season to become minimally eligible.

His aging but no-questions-asked Hall of Fame teammate Albert Pujols waited until round thirteen before the Cardinals pounced in 1999. Guess who else went from the thirteenth round of the draft (in 1989) to the Hall of Fame? Does Jim Thome ring as many bells for you as he rung pitchers’ bells?

Those aren’t the only Hall of Famers incumbent or to-be who went well enough below the first round: Wade Boggs (1976)—seventh round. Goose Gossage (1970)—ninth. Andre Dawson (1975)—eleventh. Nolan Ryan (1965)—twelfth round. Ryne Sandberg (1978)—twentieth. John Smoltz (1985)—22nd.

Not to mention a passel of All-Stars who made distinguished careers even if they fell shy of being outright Hall of Famers, including but not limited to: Sal Bando (sixth, 1965), Tim Hudson (sixth, 1997), Jamie Moyer (sixth, 1984), Willie Randolph (seventh, 1972), Jim Edmonds (seventh, 1988), Eric Davis (eighth, 1980), Fred McGriff (ninth, 1981), Jack Clark (thirteenth, 1973), Dave Parker (fourteenth, 1970), Jake Peavy (fifteenth, 1999), Orel Hershiser (seventeenth, 1979), Kenny Lofton (seventeenth, 1988), Don Mattingly (nineteenth, 1979), Andy Pettitte (22nd, 1990), Roy Oswalt (23rd, 1996), and Mark Buehrle (38th, 1998).

And don’t get me started on the number one overall draft picks who barely (if at all) made the Show or didn’t quite survive for assorted reasons. Steve Chilcott (injured severely in the minors), David Clyde (rushed to the Show for two box office-minded starts, then mal-developed and injured), Al Chambers (couldn’t hit with a garage door, couldn’t field with a vacuum cleaner), Brien Taylor (injured defending his brother in a fight), call your offices.

While you ponder all that, ponder something else Boswell points out: A complete team dismantling and rebuilding is only justifable now and then, when it “may be the best of the available rotten options.” But even that runs a risk any team looking to put an honest product on the field should duck: “Rebuild in a few seasons — well, maybe . . . if you’re very lucky. But more likely, you’ll just stink for years and pick the public’s pocket.”

Once upon a time the Red Sox were as long-suffering as the season was long. The cause wasn’t any curse (of the Bambino or otherwise) but boneheaded (and, once upon a time, bigoted) organisational management. But even they’ve had only one season since 1934 in which they lost more than even 93 games.

Even the Cubs—the just-as-long-suffering Cubs, once upon a time—have only three 100+ loss seasons in their history. The third one happened in 2012. Three years later, they were division winners; a year after that, they won a World Series; they’ve since remained pennant competitive if not without a few hiccups that haven’t come within the same solar system as their formerly star-crossed past.

The incumbent Reds franchise has only one 100-loss season to show since they joined the National League—in 1882. Between them, Boswell reminds you, the Dodgers and the Angels have 121 seasons in or near Los Angeles . . . and only two squads between them (the 1968 and 1980 Angels) that ever lost more than 95 in a season. The Yankees haven’t had a 100-loss season since the year the Titanic sunk. The Cardinals haven’t lost more than 95 in a season since Grand Central Station’s first rebuild—a year after the iceberg.

The fictitious New York Knights of The Natural once employed a carnival hypnotist whose sole qualification seemed to be telling the hapless players, hypnotically, “Losing . . . is a disease.” In baseball, it doesn’t have to be terminal, no matter what today’s tankers do or don’t think. Though it seems that way in a place like Baltimore, where the Orioles went unconscionably from an organisation with one of the game’s most admirable cultures to one with one of the game’s most abhorrent.

As Boswell reminds us, the Orioles lost 202 in 1987-88 and went into complete rebuild; practically the only surviving incumbent proved to be Hall of Famer Cal Ripken, Jr. They’ve only won 90 or more games in any season three times since that teardown and had a fourteen-season streak of losing seasons. The franchise that was once the truly hapless St. Louis Browns only ever had a losing-season streak as high as twelve in their St. Louis decades.

The Oriole brand, Boswell knows, became so badly battered that it was no wonder major league baseball finally returned to Washington: “[T]here was nothing for MLB’s other 29 owners to protect by keeping a team off Baltimore’s doorstep.”

“Now it is all different,” wrote one-time New York Post sportswriter and recent editor of Ball Four, Leonard Shecter, after the crazy Mets were crazy enough to win a division, pennant, and World Series in their mere eighth season of play. “Casey Stengel is gone. The players, who try no harder than the old Mets, succeed more often and as a result are indistinguishable from baseball players all over. There is stuffiness in the front office. There is great concern about unimportant things . . . And, worst of all, when the Mets lose, there is nothing funny about it at all.”

Beware the tanking teams saying they’re just looking to the future. They’re nowhere near as entertaining in defeat as the 1962 Mets, the last era of the Browns (when Bill Veeck owned the team), or the 1930s Dodgers.

Ask any Mariners, Marlins, Blue Jays, Royals (never mind the rude interruption of their 2015 World Series conquest), Tigers, or Orioles fans. They’ll tell you. Losing is about as funny as a screen door on a submarine.

Don Mossi, RIP: Ugly is as ugly does

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Don Mossi, who proved ugly was only in the eye of the beholder on and off the mound.

“He could run ugly, hit ugly, throw ugly, field ugly, and ugly for power,” wrote Bill James about pitcher Don Mossi in The New Historical Baseball Abstract. “He was ugly to all fields. He could ugly behind the runner as well as anybody, and you talk about pressure . . . man, you never saw a player who was uglier the in clutch.”

Wrote the late Jim Bouton in Ball Four, while musing how players loved to choose up all-ugly lineups to pass time, “he looks like a cab coming down the street with the doors open.”

Hall of Famer Yogi Berra, the all-ugly receiver, once said, “It don’t matter if you’re ugly in this racket. All you have to do is hit the ball. And I never saw anybody hit one with his face.” Mossi, a brainy lefthander who made Berra resemble Cary Grant by comparison, could have said the same thing, with the codicil that he’d never seen anybody pitch one with his face.

Mossi, who died Friday morning at 90 in an Idaho hospital, had nothing on the mound but his brains, an unusual three-finger grip on his fastball, which didn’t travel like a speeding bullet but came to enough forks on the way to the plate and took them to keep hitters off balance, and a deadly enough curve ball. And it gave Indians manager Al Lopez a smart idea when Mossi made the team in 1954.

Lopez used Mossi’s wits and righthander Ray Narleski’s power as an effective bullpen counterweight whenever one of the Indians’ effective starters—Hall of Famers Bob Lemon and Early Wynn, Mike (The Big Bear) Garcia, and aging but still capable Hall of Famer Bob Feller—needed to be spelled, with elder veteran Hall of Famer Hal Newhouser the long man out of that pen.

Used so judiciously, that bullpen helped the 111 game-winning Indians whistle past the 103 game-winning Yankees and into the World Series, with Mossi rolling a 1.94 ERA and a staggering 194 ERA+, then pitching four innings in the World Series without surrendering an earned run or a walk.

If only the Series equaled Mossi’s performance: the Giants swept the Indians in four straight, and it only began with Willie Mays’s stupefying catch in Game One to rob Vic Wertz of a likely extra base hit at the Polo Grounds’s cavernous rear end. In due course, Mossi would admit he was scared to death as a rook until veterans such as Feller and Lemon put him more at ease.

A year later, Mossi was deadlier. He struck out 69 against only eighteen walks, posted a 2.42 ERA and a 2.01 fielding-independent pitching rate, and even drew a few Most Valuable Player votes while he was at it. Who knew that Narleski would begin experiencing elbow trouble and put an end to that skin-tight rear end of the Indians’ bullpen?

Perhaps inexplicably, the Indians moved Mossi and Narleski into the starting rotation for most of 1957. Perhaps also inexplicably, Mossi earned his only All-Star berth. Perhaps even more inexplicably, the Tribe traded both Mossi and Narleski to the Tigers after the 1958 season—for Billy Martin, well along the way to his second career of wearing out his welcome swiftly enough, wherever he landed, after Yankee general manager George Weiss got fed up with him in 1957.

As a Tiger, Mossi became a starter, mostly, and a reasonable back-of-the rotation option. In 1961, Mossi became a curious trivia element when he surrendered only one home run to Roger Maris but none to Mickey Mantle while that pair of Yankees chased ruthsrecord all season long. Mossi also started a 1 September game against the Yankees in which a near-flawless performance was ruined when, with two out, Elston Howard and Berra singled back to back before Moose Skowron drove home Howard with the winning run.

The loss kicked off an eight-game losing streak that knocked the Tigers out of the 1961 pennant race. And that was the last season Mossi pitched before incurring arm trouble that began slowly decreasing his starting assignments and increasing his bullpen options until the Tigers sold him to the White Sox during spring training 1964.

The White Sox put him back into the bullpen permanently, and Mossi responded with a 2.94 ERA over forty innings before the Sox released him after the season. The Kansas City Athletics took a flyer on him in May 1965, but he called it a career after the season.

His comparatively late major league start may have shortened his career a bit; he was 25 when the Indians brought him up in 1954 and one year removed from discovering that odd three-finger fastball grip. He was a good if unspectacular pitcher who married his mind to his arm and did the best he could with both.

Teammates appeared to have loved and respected Mossi. Once upon a time, according to a fan posting on Mossi’s Legacy.com obituary page, Rocky Colavito—dealt to the Tigers controversially in 1960 (Indians fans were ready to arrange the execution of general manager Frank Lane over that and other trades that essentially broke up the Indians’ perennial contenders)—drove a white Cadillac convertible and picked Mossi up in it on the way to Tiger Stadium as long as they were teammates.

But his distinctive (shall we say) appearance stuck in the minds of opponents and fans more than his ways and means on the mound. Beneath eyes similar to those of Edward R. Murrow, Mossi also wore a proboscis that made Danny Thomas’s look like a bob and ears that rivaled the batwing flaps of legendary Hollywood censor Will Hays, earning him the nicknames “The Sphinx” and “Ears.”

Well, now. The Sphinx with Ears ended up having a last laugh. He returned to his native California with his wife, Eunice, and their three children; he’d married his lady on the field at Bakersfield’s Sam Lynn Ballpark while pitching for the Indians’ farm in 1950. Mossi’s baseball afterlife included running several motels in California successfully, not to mention becoming a twelve-time grandfather and a 25-time great-grandfather.

A few years after Mrs. Mossi passed away, her husband retired to Idaho, where much of their family had relocated, and took up an active life indulging his passions for gardening, hunting, and camping. The Mossis were animal lovers to the point that the pitcher’s family declined a funeral service and asked instead that contributions be made to a pet hospital in nearby Oregon.

Clearly enough, ugliness was in the eye of the beholder, and Mossi’s was only skin deep. (Admittedly, you wonder, if Mossi had gone to medical school, he’d have put up with tons of needling about becoming an ear, nose, and throat specialist.) Beneath the ears and the schnozz there rested a competitor on the mound and a gentleman off it.

So laugh, clowns, laugh. This Donald had the last laugh known as a life lived very, very well. Call it winning ugly if you must. But emphasise winning.