1. Matt Harrison is in the Best Shape Of His Life
Tommorrow’s narratives today: A pre-Spring Training primer
'The narrative' is one of the things that analytical fans despise about the ESPN mainstream. That isn't to say that sports don't tell us marvelous stories; it's that exterior factors tend to paint the opinions of the writers of the stories. For instance, how many articles and talk radio segments have been devoted to Richard Sherman yelling after the NFC Championship game compared to how many have been focused on the fact that Peyton Manning was accused of a sex crime in college?
Writers pick winners, and part of it is just human nature. If Mike Young and David Murphy are nice to you for years, and give you a steady stream of quotes to fill in column space, you're going to be more forgiving when it turns out they're not as good as baseball as Yu Darvish, who speaks through a translator, or Ian Kinsler, who thought it was enough to let his play speak for him.
That's why 'the narrative' gets so much angry e-ink thrown its way. Yet it persists, it survives, and it will dominate your radio, your television, and a good portion of the online world during this dead time before Spring Training gets under way. I've come to accept this.
In an attempt to lessen the impact these stories will have, I'm going to give them to you now, before the creative types wearing expensive suits behind a desk at ESPN or wearing cargo shorts on any local sports radio show starts handing them out with sides of Papa John's commercials or slideshows from Bleacher Report.
'Best Shape Of His Life' (or BSoHL for short) is an annual tradition. Each year, upon reporting to Spring Training (or training camp), some player who was either hurt or underperformed the year before will report in the BSoHL. Each team, each year, without fail. Either a new conditioning program, or a new diet, or possibly swearing fealty to the Lord of Light R'llhor over the Faith of the Seven creates a player who's leaner, meaner, and surely in line to produce an MVP-caliber season.
The funny thing, actual MVP caliber players are very rarely in the BSoHL. Adrian Beltre, Yu Darvish, or Elvis Andrus aren't the type of player to be in the BSoHL (Prince Fielder isn't either, but... that may be for a different reason).
Matt Harrison is a prime BSoHL candidate. After pitching in only 2 starts for less than 11 total
innings, last season was lost due to combination of back injuries and surgeries. This followed a breakout 2012 that saw him pitch 213 innings and compile 6.1 rWAR. As well, '13 was the first year of a 5 year, 55 million dollar contract extension for Harrison. Plus, Harrison dropped weight off his 250-pound frame to hopefully help his back.
The melange of injury, weight loss, and likely return to being a legitimate top of the rotation starter put Harrison as one of the best BSoHL candidates in recent memory.
The Real Story: If the pitchers just remain healthy, are not terrible, and one proves himself ready to hold Derek Holland's spot through the first half.
2. [Insert Reliever's Name Here] is ready to step in and close
The ninth inning is magical, and not just any regular mortal (who throws 90 plus with at least one good secondary pitch) can step in and pitch it. Closers are fabled, and the closer's mentality is so necessary to the job. Walking in to start the ninth inning with a lead is much, much more pressure packed than, say, coming in the sixth with two on, one out, and two already in in a tie game. Any old AAA arm can handle that one, right?
I've found that nothing quite upsets the established baseball collective quite like what new research has put forward regarding leverage, and what it says about reserving your best reliever for a ninth inning lead that may never come. It follows, then, that designating your best reliever as a closer and withholding him from high-leverage situations that could decide the game before he can impact it isn't the wisest decision.
That said, there's something to designating a closer that's impossible to quantify. People like to know their roles, and that goes double for baseball players. So having a closer seems to be borderline necessary. And closers make a lot of money, compared to other relievers (although this trend may be equalizing). The happy middle ground seems to be designating a good reliever as a closer, and another good (maybe better) reliever as the eighth inning guy, and then using your best reliever whenever the situation calls for him. The Rangers did just this last year; Nathan went for the saves, Scheppers was the eighth inning setup man, and Neal Cotts came in whenever you absolutely, positively needed outs.
That ecosystem was upset by the Rangers allowing Detroit to pay Nathan three times what Cotts, Scheppers, and Robbie Ross will play for. Now, Scheppers, Cotts, Ross, Neftali Feliz, Joaquin Soria, and possibly Jason Frasor will be considered to be the Ninth Inning Guy. And, likely, this will be a hefty topic of discussion amongst the team's beat writers and talk show hosts, because closing is a juicy topic.
Odds are, writers will gravitate towards either Soria, Feliz, or Scheppers as the guy who's 'ready' and 'determined' to become the team's closer, because they have either experience as a ninth inning guy or in the late innings.
One key to remember is Soria has a club option for 2015 and Feliz will once again be arbitration-eligible, but Cotts and Frasor all will be free agents after this season. This gives them a keen motivation to accumulate 30 or 40 saves for a contending ballclub, to give them more negotiating clout on the free agent market. Were I in their position, I would be casually mentioning to each and every reporter in earshot how I sure would like a chance to pitch the ninth, how I love the pressure, how I keep myself ready to close even if I'm pitching the seventh. Nothing wrong with that, at all, because these guys have a short career span to earn as much as they can.
But, remember, the closer's spot is ideally for your second or third-best reliever. You want your best guy ready at a moment's notice, to bail your team out of a hole you might not otherwise make it out of in time for your closer to mean anything.
The Real Story: How newcomers Ben Rowen and Alex Claudio do. Both sidearmers have chances to be legitimate major league relievers, and soon. Time spent working with Maddux and against major leaguers will both help their development, and highlight the need for more of it.
3. 'Yu Darvish is pitching with a chip on his shouder'
Three years ago, Yu Darvish signed a contract that will pay him 56 million dollars to pitch for five years.
Last week Masahiro Tanaka signed a contract that will pay him 155 million dollars to pitch for seven years.
The latter is a product of an alteration to one of the most broken and unfair systems MLB has deemed to put into place (which is saying something, because almost all of MLB's business systems are pretty broken and unfair) following Darvish's posting from Japan's NPB. Plus, Tanaka signed just as there's a rising wave of television contract money entering MLB that's either going to the players or to the owners (do you really think teams are going to lower prices for admission and soda and domestic adjunct lagers once you're in the stadium?).
Given that Tanaka and Darvish share a similar pre-MLB career path as well as nationalities, it's a simple connection to make between the two. And the obvious angle for writers is to compare the money the two received. To anyone with a basic sketch of the nature of the economics and policies of MLB, it's obvious why Tanaka got more money; that's not going to stop the appeal to the lowest common denominator (hey, Skip Bayless!) from penning columns about how Darvish must feel slighted that he's only receiving 10 million dollars next year while Tanaka rakes in 22 million, and how Darvish is going to use that as motivation fuel for the next season.
Regardless of his choice of steak, one of the reasons the Rangers were willing to make a landmark commitment to Darvish was that he is an absolute monster who is committed to doing whatever he has to do to be the best pitcher in the world. I'm sure Darvish is annoyed at the fact Tanaka was given more money than him, but to suggest that motivates him further is like tossing a handful of toothpicks on a bonfire and bragging about how much bigger and hotter the fire is now that you have tossed that handful of toothpicks on it.
There's also the nagging storyline of commentators voicing opinions about Darvish's status as an Ace, because he doesn't pitch well under pressure or big games or win games in which his offense scores a total of zero runs for him. As for that, let's all remember what Ralph Strangis has tattooed on his forearm and how that quote fits into the larger picture.
The Real Story: Yu Darvish is massively talented, and wasting any time while he is here not marveling at him is sad.
4. 'Jon Daniels is General Managing With a Chip On His Shoulder'
I realize this wasn't really a big story, or anything, but, last October, Nolan Ryan quit/got fired/retired from the Rangers. Really underreported, underdiscussed, under the radar deal.
The blame fell mostly on Jon Daniels, because he had the temerity to be both really, really good at his job and have differing opinions from Nolan Ryan. Quickly, the story built: Jon Daniels was in a Do-or-Die year, because if he was seen to have ran off a Texas legend like Ryan and then put together a disappointing season, he'd be run out of town on a rail (which sounds funny, but it was actually extraordinarily painful and often fatal. We should probably agree to stop using that phrase.).
Following, Jon Daniels pulled off probably the boldest non-Cliff Lee related move of his career, trading franchise cornerstone Ian Kinsler for Prince Fielder. After that, he pulled an under-the-radar move with some boom or bust potential in trading unlikely stalwart Craig Gentry for the largely unpredicatable Michael Choice. Then, he gave out the largest non-A Rod contract in Rangers history to Shin-Shoo Choo. Surely, all these moves are indicators of a GM desperate to keep his job against a rising tide of hate for chasing off Nolan Ryan, yes?
Of course not. It's silly to think so. The Ian Kinsler trade was one of three that had to happen; either Kinsler needed to be traded (or moved off second base, which he had, at the very least, hesitancy about), or one of Jurickson Profar or Elvis Andrus needed to be traded. Profar is going to be one of the ten most valuable players per salary in MLB next year, and Andrus is still an elite level shortstop with the possibility of his best years ahead of him. You have a player that pretty much needs to be moved, and Dave Dombrowski calls you to offer Prince Fielder and thirty million dollars for him.
As for the rest of the team's moves, it was obvious that 2014 was going to be a transformative year, ever since the tide started rising in 2009. 2014 was the year that Hamilton, Cruz, and Murphy were all going to either be gone or on new, high-dollar contracts. 2013 was the bridge year. TV money kicks in (which explains the jump in payroll) and you expect Darvish to begin hitting his career peak.
If the money behind the Rangers had qualms about Jon Daniels, to the point that one disappointing season would be enough to remove him, he wouldn't have outlasted Nolan Ryan here. The Ray and Bob braintrust decided to go with the guy who brought in Darvish, Beltre, Napoli, and Andrus, and to set aside the guy who brought in Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman. Don't get me wrong, Nolan's exit was sad, because he did deserve a better exit, but the bottom line is the Rangers don't deserve a rift in the decision making team, and they went with the more proven commodity in that department.
Of course, this list isn't meant to be exhaustive, because wouldn't that be exhausting for both of us? Likely you'll also see stories about an organizational depth soldier hitting way over his head through Spring Training, and what that means (which is basically nothing, but it's way good for him!), or the race for the fifth starter spot, or how someone didn't get their visa paperwork in on time and is stuck back on the island for now. Just remember what they truly are; space filler to beat deadlines and justify travel expenses.
The Real Story: Someone just needs to constantly ask him 'David Price?' twenty or thirty times a day. There is no story, I just don't want the idea far from his mind at any time.
WFAA is fully aware the above is just space filler to beat a deadline. If it pleases you, you'll note WFAA denied several travel expense claims for Joe Ursery over the last year, including airfare to the Dominican Republic to make fun of Julio Borbon during Winter Leagues. We will authorize your travel to twitter.com to follow @thejoeursery, though, since that's free.
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