MLB

Phillips: Losing Lawrie highlights moves Jays didn't make

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Steve Phillips, TSN Baseball Analyst
8/8/2014 12:08:32 PM
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TSN Baseball Analyst Steve Phillips answers several questions surrounding the game each week. This week's topics include the Jays' treatment of Brett Lawrie, Nationals manager Matt Williams' two differing responses on Bryce Harper, the challenges that lie ahead for baseball's new commissioner and what to do about ballplayers who use PEDs.

1) After only three innings of action on Tuesday, the Toronto Blue Jays were forced to place third baseman Brett Lawrie back on the 15-day DL. Was he rushed back into action, or is this injury another one of those things that happens over the course of a baseball season? Is it possible the Jays felt pressure with their lack of deadline moves and the team discontent that stemmed from that situation to get Lawrie back into the lineup as soon as possible?

Lawrie lasting only three innings does not scream of bad decision-making in the medical department. He was on the DL with a broken finger and is now back on the DL with a strained oblique. I guess you can wonder whether the trainers did enough to replicate baseball activities and the rotation necessary to play the game while he was injured, but it isn't completely fair. Sometimes, stuff happens. 
 
I think this situation screams even more loudly what a lost opportunity the trade deadline was for the Jays. Ownership has let Jays fans down with their decision-making. If the season were to end today, the Jays would not make the playoffs. They have slid back to the pack so substantially, that the pack is now passing them. 
 
The Yankees may or may not make the playoffs, but they just won three of four from the Detroit Tigers. Guys like Chase Headley, Stephen Drew, Martin Prado, Brandon McCarthy and Chris Capuano are making major contributions.  GM Brian Cashman anticipated a need for depth, so he acquired more players than were obviously needed. I know what you are thinking - they are the Yankees and they have money to spend. But all of their acquisitions were of second and third tier players. They didn't break the bank.
 
This was the year to go for it for the Jays. Instead, they stood pat while others improved. Don't blame John Gibbons and don't blame Alex Anthopoulos. This is strictly an ownership issue. 
 
I feel bad for the Jays fans. Teams often come up with slogans for the season. It can be a rallying cry for the fans, players and media. The slogan this year in Toronto is - "Sometimes, stuff happens."
 
2) There has been some talk of the possibility that the Washington Nationals could send struggling star Bryce Harper down to the minors.  Manager Matt Williams has since squashed the rumours by saying it's something they are not considering as a possibility. But should they? Would a short stint in the minors help Harper get his head right and turn around his season, or would it stunt his growth and/or make him bitter and angry at the team?
 
Matt Wiliams attacked the media in Washington before their game against the Mets on Wednesday for asking the question posed above. What was bizarre about it is that on his weekly radio show in the morning, Williams answered the exact same question in a very reasonable way. He said, "Generally, if you have young players, that's what you do. But this guy is a special young player." 
 
Something must have happened between the morning interview and Williams' meeting with the media before the game.

Maybe Harper's agent Scott Boras caught wind of the speculation and called GM Mike Rizzo to complain.

Maybe Harper heard it and had a panicked conversation with his manager. Whatever happened, it sent Williams into a rage when asked the same question about the possibility of sending Harper to the minors. 
 
"I would caution everybody in this room," he started. "The minute you think you can read my freaking mind, you're sorely mistaken. It (ticks) me off to even think about, that somebody would take a comment I made on the radio and infer I am thinking one way or another. I've had it. Don't do it anymore.

"Bryce Harper is one of the guys on our team, he's a very important part of our team. Just like everybody else is. Do we understand each other?

"It's not fair to the kid, it's not fair to the rest of the guys in that clubhouse to even think about sending Bryce Harper to the minor leagues, or to cause a stir. It's unacceptable. It won't happen." 
 
That seemed pretty angry and pretty definitive. A pretty defensive response for a manager whose team is in first place by five games. Williams needs to take a deep breath. The question is a reasonable one for a struggling young player. 
 
Now here's a question for you: Is Bryce Harper a great player?
 
I know there's a ton of potential in him considering his exploits as an amateur. I know he's only 21-years-old. But he's a career .284 hitter. The most home runs he hit in a season is 22 and the most runs he has driven in is 59. He hit .228 with two homers and three RBI in July and was hitting .158 in August when Williams was asked the question. Harper has been significantly less than great. 
 
There is no shame in sending a player to the minor leagues to clear his mind and work on his game.  It allows him to get out of the spotlight.  At AAA he wouldn't have dozens of microphones in his face asking him what is wrong and why are you struggling.  Sometimes it helps to take one step back to take two steps forward.
 
There are no scholarships in the big leagues. It's about production. If Bryce Harper is going to be a superstar, there's nothing about being sent to the minors that would change that. In fact, it might get him going more quickly. 
 
I know Harper hit a game-winning homer in Thursday's game against the Mets. Everyone is now saying, "See, I told you so. He doesn't need to go to the minors." Before the homer, however, he was 1-for-5 with two strikeouts.  If you believe the saying that, "you're only as good as your last at bat," then Harper starts this day as a stud. But there are no guarantees in baseball. Harper may or may not have his confidence back. He may or may not be fixed. 
 
If Harper continues his struggles, someone will have to work up the courage to ask Matt Williams the question about the minors again. It just won't be me - because Matt Williams scares me.
 
3) Next week, owners of the 30 Major League teams are going to elect a new commissioner. Who should get the job?
 
Bud Selig will be stepping down in January and his replacement will be one of three men: Rob Manfred - MLB's chief operating officer; MLB's executive vice president of business Tim Brosnan and Boston Red Sox chairman Tom Werner. All three of the candidates, which were selected by a seven-person search committee, are from within baseball and it will take 23-of-30 votes to earn approval for selection as commissioner.
 
Each of the three candidates brings experience in their own substantial way. Rob Manfred has been the point person for Bud Selig in communications with the players' association. He's been part of the most successful runs of labour peace in modern sports history. He also has a keen understanding of internal baseball and business operations. He helped craft the strongest drug policy in professional sports.

Brosnan has helped foster and spread the exponential financial growth of the industry and negotiated their impressive national television rights deals.

Tom Werner is the chairman of the Boston Red Sox and formerly owned the San Diego Padres. He's also a member of the Television Hall of Fame as served as executive producer of a number of very successful television shows.
 
It's a bit surprising that the search committee is not presenting a candidate from outside of the game. Certainly an understanding of the game is critical to running the leagues, but baseball is in need of 'outside of the box' thinking in a desperate way. The game is losing its fan base at a record pace. There's a disconnect between the fans and the players. Kids find it far easier to relate to the NFL and NBA. The pace of the game needs to change. 

Baseball needs to market its stars in a much more substantial way. 
 
I thought for sure that Bob Bowman, CEO of MLBAM, would be a candidate to consider. MLBAM includes MLB.com, MLB.tv, MLB Radio, BaseballChannel.TV and MiLB.com. It generates close to a billion dollars a year in revenue.

And MLBAM is known for its creative and innovative technological developments including the MLB At Bat app. Bowman is a businessman and a visionary who gets things done. The only problem is that he is a no-nonsense, brash and abrasive personality that has rubbed owners the wrong way. 
 
So it shall be. The new commissioner will come from the three nominees mentioned above. 
 
The voting will take place next Thursday at the owners meetings and will continue until one of the candidates gets the required 23 votes. The speculation was that Rob Manfred would get the votes necessary to win but recently a number of anti-Manfred owners have been pushing for Tom Werner. Tim Brosnan doesn't seem to have the support that the other two have but he could emerge as a compromise option between the factions of owners. It will certainly be fascinating. 
 
For the record, I would vote for Rob Manfred. I believe that his working knowledge of the office and his relationship with the players association will be very important. Baseball must reframe itself in the eyes of its fans and yes, Manfred feels a bit connected to Bud Selig so he will have to surround himself with creative, forward thinkers who understand the 18-35 male demographic. 
 
I don't think that just because he worked for Selig - who is old school in his thinking - limits Manfred's ability to grow the game in the right direction. When I was an assistant GM for the Mets, I worked for a very good baseball man in Joe McIlvaine. Joe was an old school guy and when I succeeded him, I wasn't limited by his thinking. I completely restructured our scouting department, computerized the entire baseball department and used stats and sabermetrics in a way never considered before by the Mets organization.  That all said, Manfred can be his own man.
 
No matter who gets the job, there will be challenges ahead. 
 
Play Ball!
 
The most recent developments in the Biogenesis scandal in baseball reminds us that we will never be rid of PEDs. As long as there's money to be made, the chemists will stay ahead of the testers. Players will always look for an edge, especially with millions of dollars as a payoff. 
 
Sure, the players have agreed to increase the first-time penalties to 80 games - up from 50 games. Second-time offenders now lose an entire season and third-time offenders are banned for life. This is a nice gesture by the players, but it will not stop everyone from cheating. 
 
The DEA rounded up Tony Bosch and his co-workers from Biogenesis. This investigation will certainly drum up more evidence and information than the MLB one previously. The Feds have subpoena power that baseball didn't have.  We are hearing that more names will be exposed than the 14 major leaguers suspended a year ago. Certainly baseball will want those names and may very likely discipline the additional offenders. 
 
From the investigation will come helpful information as to the production and distribution chain of the drugs. We will learn, in detail, how professional and youth players were recruited by Biogenesis and like companies.  The prosecution of these drug dealers will certainly put a scare in others doing the same. 
 
Give baseball credit. Previously, it was the government that pushed baseball or more accurately its union into stricter drug policies. This time around, it was baseball that was the aggressor. The commissioner spent millions of dollars on the investigation of Biogenesis. Baseball brought evidence and information from some of the scoundrels arrested on Wednesday. And this time, it pushed the Feds into pursuing this issue. 
 
But baseball needs the justice system to help them out again. The Feds have never been interested in pursuing the users of PEDS - they seemingly only want to stop the production and distribution. Back when Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi and others were implicated in the investigation of BALCO Labs, it was only BALCO founder Victor Conte who was a target for prosecution. Bonds found himself in trouble not for drug use, but rather for hindering the investigation.
 
It's time for ballplayers who use illegal PEDs to be arrested and to serve time for their crime. The drugs they are using are illegal and they are illegally obtained. Some players share them with other players and that's illegal as well. The Feds need to prosecute players just as they do the labs. Nothing has been a deterrent for the players. They use PEDs and serve 50-game (now 80-game) suspensions and then signed multi-year, mega-million dollar deals. Melky Cabrera signed a two-year, $16 million deal with Toronto a couple of years ago after his suspension. Jhonny Peralta was punished for his steroid use with a four-year $53 million deal from the Cardinals last off-season.  
 
Please punish me like that! I am begging you! 
 
If players have to spend 60 days in jail for using PEDs, I'll bet they start making different decisions about what they put in their bodies. 
 
Lock them all up.

Brett Lawrie (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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