Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 10, 2014

Time For The Front Office To Earn Its Keep

A NOTE TO READERS: NASCAR pays its annual summer visit to New England this weekend, and On Sports and Life will be taking in the racing action at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon. Sunday’s post will be delayed.

As the Great Game heads into its final weekend before the All-Star break, fans around the country prepare to turn their attention to Target Field in Minneapolis, home of the Twins. From the Yankees’ Derek Jeter, making his 14th and final appearance and 9th as a starter, to the Dodgers’ Yasiel Puig, one of 25 players named to their first All-Star team, the starting position players chosen by fans and the pitchers and reserves named either by votes of their fellow players or as manager selections will all be there; for what is both a meaningless exhibition and in its 85th occurrence an enduring reminder of the Game’s timeless appeal.

But amid all the hype and the hoopla, there will be a select group of people each of whom are as passionate about baseball as any fan and all of whom will be focused on things other than which team’s victory garners that league’s eventual World Series representative home field advantage come October. For general managers and their extensive support staffs, the All-Star break is the annual signal that the time for hard decisions is at hand.

While it is common to refer to the two portions of the longest season that are divided by the All-Star Game as the first and second halves of each campaign, in fact the split is not so even. All 30 franchises will have played in excess of 90 games by Sunday night.  A few lucky enough to have escaped multiple rainouts  will be closing in on 100 of the season’s 162 contests completed. While much can happen over the final 65 or so dates on the calendar, as the 2013 Dodgers and their fans will happily attest; no team can claim that its record to date is just a fluke of a small sample size. With the non-waiver trading deadline approaching at month’s end, now is the time when each GM must make a hard-nosed evaluation of his franchise’s chances of reaching the postseason.

Those for whom the possibility seems realistic are about to become buyers, willing to trade prospects or even everyday players deemed expendable in order to add the starting pitcher or the left-handed bat that is thought to be the missing piece for the stretch run. They will be dealing with their counterparts on teams that become sellers. The latter are run by GMs who are about to face the harsh reality that the bright hopes of Spring Training have steadily dimmed since those halcyon days under the late winter sun in Florida or Arizona. This group of disappointed executives will be willing to shed a fat contract and perhaps even part with a big name or two; in the twin hopes of acquiring prospects who will perhaps make future seasons more successful while hopefully also ensuring the dealmaker’s own continued employment in the front office.

The season has been over almost since it began for a handful of teams, like the Cubs. Chicago’s National League franchise is now entering the second decade of rebuilding according to the plans of baseball operations president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer. At least that must be what it seems like to the loyal fans who still make their way to Wrigley Field. The Cubs didn’t even wait for the break to become sellers. Last weekend Chicago shipped starting pitchers Jeff Samardzjia and Jason Hammel to Oakland for three top prospects, including the A’s first round picks in both the 2012 and 2013 drafts. This is becoming something of an annual tradition at Wrigley, where the Cubs traded a pair of starting pitchers for the third July in a row.

Samardzjia was the most sought after pitcher on the market, and the timing of the trade makes him the unluckiest All-Star, or more accurately almost All-Star. His 2-7 record was but the latest reminder of how little can sometimes be gleaned from a pitcher’s record. He was pitching for the Cubs after all. His ERA was 2.83, and his ERA+ an eye-popping 136. A pitcher who posts an adjusted ERA like that for a career would find himself among the top twenty of all time in that statistic. So it was no surprise that despite his record Samardzjia was named to the National League All-Star team. But since he no longer pitches in the senior circuit, the 29-year old won’t be in Minneapolis.

But if some teams are obvious sellers, this year a lot of franchises are on the fence, with general managers facing some hard choices in the next several days. The historical rule of thumb is that a team has to win 90 games to have a strong shot at the playoffs. But this has been a year in which a lot of teams have been just okay. The A’s stand out of course, and presumably just got better; GM Billy Beane going all in on what may be his best chance ever to finally reach the World Series.

But while Oakland will exceed 100 wins if they continue at their current pace, just two other divisions are led by teams that are winning at a 90-plus full season rate. It naturally follows that in both leagues at least one of the two Wild Card spots is currently held by a team that will have to improve down the stretch to get to 90 wins. The lack of dominating teams leaves a larger number of executives than usual thinking, or perhaps just imagining, that their franchise is still just one winning streak away from climbing up to the top of the heap. Only seven teams face double-digit deficits in the standings as this is written. Nine clubs are within five games of the six division leaders, meaning that half the general managers in baseball can reasonably argue that they should be buying talent, and soon.

There isn’t that much talent to go around, and some of those ostensibly reasonable arguments are really little more than wishful thinking. Still imagining oneself a buyer with a chance has to be vastly preferable to acknowledging that the season is lost. One year ago the Boston Red Sox were on their way to a remarkable worst-to-first turnaround. The 2013 Sox won 97 games and the World Series. This year Boston threatens to reverse the pattern in full. The Red Sox currently sit in last place in the AL East, and this week they began making moves that only sellers make. They jettisoned veteran catcher A. J. Pierzynski and called up rookie Christian Vasquez from AAA Pawtucket.

Wednesday night Boston’s starting lineup included five rookies, the most in more than 60 years. Manager John Farrell had to maintain a straight face while explaining to the media that the lineup card didn’t for a moment mean that the Red Sox were giving up on the season. Of course fans in New England know better. At least Ben Cherington isn’t one of the many general managers facing a hard decision; but he’d probably be happy to trade places with any of the ones who are.

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