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Steve Phillips

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Blue Jays closer Roberto Osuna was perfect earlier this season. He converted 22 consecutive saves from the end of April through the middle of July. In 33 games during that period, he threw 31.1 innings, striking out 43 while only giving up 13 hits and four walks. His 0.86 ERA elevated him among the elite closers in the game. He was dominant and an all-star.

But 33 games don’t make a season. The rest of the year has been a struggle for the 23-year-old. In his other 28 appearances, Osuna has blown 10 saves – including seven since the All-Star break. The ball doesn’t seem to be coming out of his hand as easily it did earlier in the season. His pitches lack life and bite. My initial instinct is to wonder about his health. I’m worried about fatigue and a potential injury.

In addition to the quality of his stuff being diminished, his approach in attacking hitters is different. He isn’t nearly as aggressive as he was earlier this season. He’s nibbling at the strike zone and looks like he is trying to miss bats rather than trusting his stuff and pitching to contact. It’s causing him to fall behind in the count and then have to throw the ball right in the hitter’s wheelhouse. Often, a pitcher who is compromised physically lacks confidence mentally and tries to get hitters to chase rather than trying to get them out over the plate.

I would give Osuna a week off to make sure he regains some strength and quality in his pitches. Then I would work him back to the mound in low-leverage situations, not as the closer. It’s not a demotion; it is a matter of setting him up to succeed by rebuilding his stuff, approach and confidence.

Once he has a couple of successful outings without pressure I would slip him back into the closer role. My sole intent would be to let the young closer finish the season feeling confident heading into the off-season.

 

Stealing signs

Cheating has been going on in baseball forever. Some individual or team is always trying to skirt the rules to gain an advantage. This time it’s the Boston Red Sox. 

A New York Times story earlier this week detailed how the New York Yankees reported to the commissioner’s office that they had evidence the Red Sox were stealing signs using technology, which is a violation of MLB rules.

An assistant trainer on the Red Sox used an Apple watch as a conduit to transmit information from the video room to runners on second base, who then signaled to the hitters which pitches were about to be delivered. Once confronted with the evidence, the Red Sox admitted they had indeed been doing this for a couple of months. Now baseball waits for a ruling from commissioner Rob Manfred.

I have first-hand experience with something similar to this from my time with the Mets. In 1997, Bobby Valentine’s first full season as manager, we installed cameras on the first base and third base photographers’ booths and one behind home plate on the backstop. The idea was to get appropriate angles to shoot video to help coach our hitters and pitchers.

Or so I thought.

In an August series against the Philadelphia Phillies, shortly after I had been promoted from assistant general manager to general manager, I was in my booth watching the game. Phillies assistant GM Ed Wade was in the booth next to me. During the game, Wade tapped on the window between us and asked if we could talk. I walked over to his box and he asked me why the camera behind the plate on the backstop turned toward their third-base coach between pitches. I told him I don’t know why but I would find out.

I called our video room coordinator and asked why the camera was shifting. He told me Valentine wanted to record the Phillies’ third-base coach giving signs so we would know when they were bunting and stealing. I told him to stop and to never do it again. I also told him that if he was ever asked to do it again to tell me, and I would handle it. I then went back to Wade and told him the camera wouldn’t move again. And it didn’t.

The Phillies informed the commissioner’s office about the camera situation. I relayed the story about the third-base coach. I also told them the cameras were never used to steal signs from the catcher, which was true. We never received any punishment. 

I asked how often we had recorded the opposing third-base coaches before that time we were caught and was told it was the first time. If you believe that I have a bridge to sell you.

The Red Sox have now offered a counter claim, sending evidence to the commissioner’s office, showing that a YES Network camera was focused exclusively on Red Sox bench coach Gary Disarcina during a game at Yankee Stadium.  Rob Manfred said he will investigate all claims and rule promptly.

The commissioner needs to deal with this with a heavy hand. Technology is opening up many doors previously not considered. His response to this situation needs to be swift and strong so the Red Sox and others understand that this is unacceptable.

Boston acted like it wasn’t that big of a deal. But it is if it affects the integrity of the schedule. If the Red Sox beat out the Yankees by one game, New York will have a legitimate complaint that their season was compromised by the cheating.

I expect the assistant trainer will face a suspension and the Red Sox organization will receive a significant fine. The question is whether manager John Farrell or club president Dave Dombrowski will be suspended.

I believe that Dombrowski had no knowledge of what was going on in the dugout, because I didn’t know what was going on in mine. I find it difficult to believe that Farrell didn’t hear the chatter going on in his dugout for two months around stealing the opponents’ signs. I don’t think he initiated the practice. My educated guess is that it was a player-generated action, but the buck stops with the manager and GM. I wouldn’t be shocked if one of the two gets dinged by Manfred as well.

As for the counter claim against the Yankees, I believe it will be dismissed without merit.

 

Spitting Seeds

- Vladimir Guerrero Jr., the top prospect for the Blue Jays, continues to move up the rankings for the future stars in the game. ESPN recently rated the Jays young third baseman as the top prospect in baseball. That shouldn’t worry all of you Josh Donaldson fans. The Jays will make whatever decision they think is appropriate with Donaldson and his future as a Blue Jay separate from Guerrero’s projection. There are enough questions about whether the son of former Expo Vladimir Guerrero will be able to stay at third base as he moves up the ladder. The Jays will find a place for the young man to play if Donaldson is signs a long-term deal. Guerrero can play first base, left field or right field (like his dad). It’s the young Guerrero’s bat that is his best tool. Donaldson and Vlad Jr. in the lineup together would be a great problem for Toronto to have.

- The Arizona Diamondbacks have won 13 straight in a streak that includes two sweeps of the Dodgers. The Diamondbacks have won nine of 17 on the season against Los Angeles. Right now they have confidence that they can beat the Dodgers in October. The Dodgers have been invincible for most of the season, but no more. L.A. has lost 12 of their last 13 games.  The only other teams that have lost 12 of 13 this season are the Phillies, White Sox, Reds and Giants, all of whom are last-place teams in their divisions.

- The Cleveland Indians have won 15 straight games. This is the first time ever that two clubs have concurrent winning streaks of 13 games or more. Cleveland is now the best team in the American League. They’re better than they were last year when they went all the way to the World Series. Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer give them a better starting staff than last year. Offensively, they have depth everywhere. Edwin Encarnacion, Bradley Zimmer, Austin Jackson and Jay Bruce all provide impact that they didn’t have a year ago.  The Indians are the team to beat in the AL and maybe in all of baseball.

- If you believe in storybook endings, the Houston Astros may be your team. They haven’t lost a game since returning home after the hurricane. They players have clearly been inspired by the tragedy and trauma suffered by their fan base.

I saw something similar with my Mets team back in 2001.  We had been playing lacklustre, uninspired ball for most of the season, but after the tragedy of 9/11 we started to play like a different team. It was like we suddenly had a purpose.  We started winning and made a hard push to try to make the playoffs. Even though we came up short, we made an impact in the healing of New York City. The Yankees were inspired as well, making it to the World Series only to lose to the Diamondbacks.

The Astros spike in performance is driven by the motivation to give back to the fans and the acquisitions of Justin Verlander and Cameron Maybin. The club is no longer pouting that they didn’t do much at the deadline. They now have the ace they so desperately needed.

- The game lost a very good man this week as Gene “Stick” Michael passed away. He was a longtime Yankee executive who was credited with rebuilding the franchise in the early 1990s when George Steinbrenner was banned from baseball. Michael is credited with the signing and development of the core four: Derek Jeter, Andy Pettite, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera.  Orioles’ manager Buck Showalter, who was hired by Michael as a minor-league manager back in 1992, called his former boss “the best baseball evaluator I ever saw.”

Michael is the one that Steinbrenner sent to scout our team for interleague play and the World Series in 2000. That alone tells you how much Steinbrenner thought of Michael. If he was good enough to scout the most important games for the Yankees, then he was the best. The World Series has obvious importance but the New York rivalry games during the regular season were just as important to The Boss.

- Sequels never seem to be as good as the originals. Proof of that is the return of Pablo Sandoval to San Francisco after his release from the Red Sox. The Giants re-signed the Kung Fu Panda with hopes of recapturing his previous magic, but it hasn’t gone quite as imagined. The third baseman hasn’t gotten a hit in his last 38 at-bats, setting a Giants record. It seems that he will likely be showing in a different theatre next year.

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Steve Phillips was general manager of the New York Mets from 1997 through 2003, helping lead the club to a National League championship in 2000 and its first World Series appearance since 1986. His analysis appears each week on TSN.ca, TSN Radio and SportsCentre. Follow Steve on Twitter at @StevePhillipsGM.