MLB

Phillips: The Blue Jays new energy, the Cardinals' way, more

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Steve Phillips
9/4/2014 10:49:39 PM
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1) The Toronto Blue Jays won their first series at Tropicana Field since 2007 this week. The team also called up prospects Dalton Pompey, Daniel Norris and Sean Nolin from the Buffalo Bisons on Tuesday, the same day the series started. Do you believe there was any correlation between the two?

Baseball is such a mental game.  Everything means something. Changes in personnel via trades, releases or call-ups can change the dynamic of the team.  That is why change for the sake of change sometimes works because it shifts something in the energy of the team. 

There is truly an energy around a team.  It changes over the course of the season. Often times the energy changes as the team plays better or worse.  The way players feel affects the way they play. 

Sometimes the calendar causes a unique energy. Injuries or activations from the DL can cause a shift in the feelings around a team.  Sometime the opponent generates a different emotion within the team.  If there was a brawl the last time two teams squared off then there is likely more energy and anxiety in the clubhouse and dugout.  There is definitely one feeling that a team has when they play at home and another when they are on the road.  The records typically reflect that difference. 

When a team has difficulty winning in a certain road stadium, like the Jays in Tampa, there is often a feeling of impending doom. You start waiting for something to go wrong that will be the reason you lose.  My teams with the Mets had that feeling every time we went to Turner Field to play the Braves and Yankee Stadium to play our hometown rivals.

In order to change that feeling something else has to change.  It isn't a surprise to me that the Jays played differently in Tampa with different players in the clubhouse.  The September call-ups often inspire the players who were in the major leagues already.  They get a chance to see their competition first-hand.  It can give them that little bit of push that can cause a shift in performance and a change in result. 

So the young call-ups absolutely impacted the energy of the Jays.  It is difficult to quantify the impact but I believe it is exactly the reason why the Jays beat the Rays. 

2) The Houston Astros are in need of a new manager after firing Bo Porter. How enticing of a destination will the Astros be to managerial candidates this off-season?

The Astros have made dramatic improvements from last year to this year.  That isn't saying all that much considering they lost 111 games in 2013.  But they have already won 10 more games this year so there certainly is progress. 

The Astros have some interesting young prospects that have made an impact this year to support Jose Altuve who is proving to be among the best second basemen in the game.  George Springer is an exciting power and speed type outfielder.  Cris Carter has 35 home runs already.  The Astros have high hope for first baseman John Singleton despite his struggles at the major league level.  Dallas Keuchel and Colin McHugh have had very good seasons in the starting rotation. 

The Houston farm system is highly respected as well.  They have the No. 2 prospect overall in SS Carlos Correa.  They also have a number of interesting pitching prospects on the way.

So from a player personnel perspective there is talent and there is hope. 

Sure they are in a very tough division with the A's. Rangers, Angels and Mariners but it isn't the AL East. 

Sounds good so far:  good players; competitive division; and throw in a domed stadium that has personality. 

There is a huge red flag though.  Bo Porter wasn't fired because of performance on the field.  He was fired because he did not have a unified view of the direction of the organization with GM Jeff Lunow.  For a managerial candidate this is scary.  It reeks of a GM who meddles in the day-to-day managing of the team.  The manager needs to be able to run the team as he sees fit without distraction from the front office.  If the manager is responsible for the result, he can't be told who to play and when to play them.  He can't be told how he needs to use his bullpen and when to pull the starter. 

In my opinion, general managers have the right to ask managers for the logic of their decision-making.  It is appropriate to ask if they considered this issue or that issue.  But it is not appropriate for a GM to tell a manager what to do and then to hold him responsible if it doesn't work. 

I would be concerned, that as the manager of the Astros I would have responsibility with no authority.  If that is the case then the manager is doomed to fail.  

The Astros will likely hire a player development, no-name manager.  They won't hire a big-name guy who will demand autonomy when running the team.  Lunow wants a malleable skipper whom he can manipulate to do his bidding. 

Overall it is not a very attractive job for an established major league manager. 

3) The Oakland Athletics are 13-19 since making their blockbuster trade to acquire Jon Lester and Jonny Gomes for Yoenis Cespedes and have gone from the leading the AL West to holding a Wild Card spot. What's wrong with the A's?

When the A's landed John Lester and the Tigers got David Price I thought the teams would match up in the ALCS.  As it stands today the two teams would meet in the single game wild card matchup.  The trades haven't completely gone according to plan. 

Billy Beane knew that by adding Lester he was getting a workhorse for his rotation.  Lester brings a big-game pedigree that we have seen in past playoff and World Series games.  Because of payroll limitations Beane knew he couldn't add Lester and Gomes' entire salaries.  He had to send salary back in the deal.  Effectively, what Beane had to do was rob Peter to pay Paul.   He had to take away from one area to fortify another.  He had to reconfigure his roster and how he was spending his money. 

At the time of the trade the A's were leading the AL in runs scored.  Beane thought he could sacrifice some offence to improve his pitching.  It was reasonable logic. 

Unfortunately, Cespedes' impact on the A's offence was more than anticipated.   He didn't only help with his production but his presence in the lineup impacted others.  Brandon Moss went in the tank after the big power-hitting left fielder was traded. Moss is seeing different pitches without Cespedes in the lineup.   Moss is trying too hard, figuring he would have to shoulder more of the load.  The rest of the lineup started to sputter as well.  It is not only Cespedes' bat that is missed.  It is his defence and his energy and his presence.  He plays with flair and pizzazz that impacts those around him. 

Another issue has been the on again off again health of Coco Crisp.  He is a spark plug for this team.  Crisp generates energy on offence and defence when he is healthy.  The problem is that he hasn't been healthy.

The A's starting pitching has started to falter as well.  Jason Hamel has imploded.  Jeff Samardajiza, Scott Kazmir and Sonny Gray seem to be running out of gas.  This game is so unpredictable.  Just when you think you have it figured out things fall apart. 

The A's can stop this slow fade but they need to do it now.  Momentum is only as good as your next day's starting pitching.  They need their pitchers to take the pressure off of the offence.
When the A's fall behind it changes the quality of the at bats from the offence and makes them unproductive.  If the pitching gives the hitters the opportunity for more relaxed at bats the offence will start to click again. 

The recent acquisition of Adam Dunn replaces Cespedes' power but not his energy, defence or presence.  It may be enough though to get the rest of the lineup going. 

The A's are not going to catch the Angels but they will hold on for a Wild Card spot.  They will still be a tough matchup in the playoffs regardless of what has happened to the offense. 

4) Yep. It has happened again.  The Cardinals are sitting atop the NL Central Division.  I know it makes fans in Chicago, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati sick.  Fans in New York, Colorado, and San Diego are green with envy.  Marlins fans are amazed as are fans in Arizona.  Those darn Cardinals are at it again. 

How do they do it?

Consistency is something that everyone strives for in baseball.  Players battle to remember what they do when things are going right, so they can repeat it.  General managers not only hope they can build a winning team, they hope they can sustain that success.   In recent years, we have had the Braves winning 15 consecutive division titles and the Yankees winning four World Series in five years while making the playoffs twelve consecutive years.  If and when the Cards make the playoffs again this year it will be four consecutive years and 12 of the last 16 years that they have done so. 

The Braves won because they had (for the most part) healthy Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz on the mound. They also had great leadership in the dugout with Bobby Cox and on the field with Chipper Jones.  The Yanks won because they had five home-grown stars in Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Andy Petitte and Mariano Rivera.  Joe Torre did a masterful job managing the fishbowl that is New York.  Plus they had the highest payroll, which certainly didn't hurt.

So why are the Cardinals winning year after year?

They don't have the big three pitchers like the Braves.  They never had the highest payroll like the Yankees.  They have changed managers during their run.  They have seen stars leave for big free agent contracts.  Yet, despite it all they continuously win. 

My experience is that the organizations that keep winning strive for continued excellence.  The have a certain way of doing things.  There is a Cardinals way of playing baseball.  There was a Braves way of doing things and a Yankee way as well.  Each organization carves its own path, in its own way. 

There was a long-time Cardinals' coach named George Kissel.  He is responsible for creating the Cardinals way.  He was a minor league player, coach, scout, instructor and major league coach in his 69 years in the organization.  He was known as “the professor.”  That's right.  A little man just 173 cm tall and 79 kg soaking wet is the most impactful Cardinal ever. 

He stressed the fundamentals.  He stressed perfect practice.  He taught players to understand their abilities and to play within them while maximizing their performance.  He taught players, coaches and managers.  He loved the game.  He was as student of the game and understood it in a way that the game's greatest stars never considered it. 

The Cardinals are the best at practice.  They develop their players more efficiently and fully than other teams starting in the minor leagues. The learning continues at the major league level.  I have broadcast Cardinals games over the years and I would always see their infielders taking fielding practice hours before the game.  Even the superstars participated.  The Cardinals' starting pitchers all go to the bullpen when another starter is throwing a bullpen session between starts.  This allows them to teach each other and to learn from each other.  It builds camaraderie and a competitive environment.  Their staff feeds off of each other.  Those are just a couple of examples of Kissel's impact. 

Over the years, Kissel's influence and direction created a structure that is still the fabric of the organization.  The names of the players and coaches and managers can change but the expectations and consequences of preparation are still the same.  That is why they can overcome the adversity of losing stars to injuries or free agents.  That is why they can change managers and not miss a beat.  Everyone gets inserted in the Cardinals structure and they know what to do. 

Certainly the Cardinals have great players.  I don't mean to diminish that at all.  But Kissel gets credit for that too.  His structure lends itself to certain types of players.  The scouts find those players and the minor league staff then develops those players.  The major league manager is the beneficiary of that process and is charged with maintaining that high level of performance.  Albert Pujols absolutely was a big part of the Cards success in the past.  So was manager Tony LaRussa and pitching coach, Dave Duncan.  But if you ask those three about George Kissel they will all tell stories of his impact on their growth.  The same stories are told today by manager Mike Matheny and pitching coach Derek Lilliquist.  Yadier Molina is the guts and glue of this Cardinals team.  Someday he will be a manager and George Kissel will live on in his words and structure.

Baseball is a copy-cat game.  When one team has success other teams mimic what they are doing.  They look for similar players. They hire staff members away from the organization.  The Astros hoped to transform the Cardinals Way into the Astros Way by hiring their general manager, Jeff Lunow, from the Cards.  The Reds hoped to do the same things when they hired GM Walt Jocketty after he left St Louis.  Cards third base coach Jose Oquendo will likely be hired as a manager this off-season by some organization wanting to duplicate the Cards success.  Look for Gary LaRocque, the Cardinals Director, Player Development to get hired as a general manager this year by an organization hoping to find players as talented and as intelligent as the Cardinals prospects all seem to be. 

I am grateful for my 20 years as a minor league player and major league executive, mostly with the Mets, but there is a part of me that wishes I had been a Cardinal too.

Dalton Pompey (Photo: Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
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