You Make the Playoffs! And You Make the Playoffs!

Since we’ve been hearing about this for months, it’s not much of a surprise, but today we’re starting to hear that the proposal from Major League Baseball about adding another wild card for each league starting this season is about to become a reality.

Ken Rosenthal:

Baseball’s playoffs will expand from eight to 10 teams, starting this season, according to major-league sources.

The sport’s new collective-bargaining agreement stipulated that additional wild cards would be added in each league no later than 2013. But commissioner Bud Selig wanted the expansion to occur immediately, and management worked with the players’ union to ensure the switch to a 10-team format this season.

The agreement on the additional wild cards is not yet final, and one source said there are “still a few loose ends” to resolve. But an announcement could occur as soon as Thursday, sources said.

2012 is somewhat of a transitional year because they’re making this change now, but not moving the Houston Astros to the American League until 2013. So for one year, we’ll have 16 NL teams fighting for what will now be 5 playoff spots, and then next year you’ll have an even 15 teams in each league. That’ll require interleague play every day, which I really don’t like.

I’m somewhat torn on the idea of adding another wild card team. The old-timer in me says that I’m not thrilled with the idea of watering down the playoffs even further, since now 30% of baseball is going to be able to claim they’re a playoff team. You can see how meaningless the regular seasons are in hockey and basketball, and I don’t want that to happen to baseball; the idea of a sport that is built over the long haul like baseball is having a team go home because of a one-game playoff each year (in the wild card round) seems kind of against the spirit of the game. Besides, you could argue, look how amazingly incredible the end of the 2011 season was. With another playoff team in each league, there’s no Red Sox collapse. There’s no Braves collapse. Each of those teams would have made the playoffs under this new system. (Though I do find the idea of a team raising a pennant celebrating how they made it as a wild card then immediately got bounced in the first game immensely entertaining.)

I’m also kind of worried about what might happen to my favorite time of the year, the July trading deadline. If there’s only 4 or 5 teams who are completely out of it by that point, then there’s a lot fewer trade options available. That could potentially either reduce the amount of trades or lessen the star power of he moves we do see. It also doesn’t help that the new CBA has largely done away with compensation picks for veteran free agents; the combination of both could really depress the market, and I would hate to see the traditional July feeding fury become a snooze.

But there are positives, too. I’m sure we all hated the idea of the wild card when it first came up back in the 90s, yet it’s hard to argue that it hasn’t led to additional interest now that an entire division isn’t screwed if one great team pulls away from the start. If 2011 might not have played out exactly as it had, there’s still the added potential for multiple teams taking that second wild card down to the final day, since it’s probably going to end up in the mess of 86-90 win teams we see each year. The final details aren’t yet out, but one item that I really do like is that i really will give a bit more of a boost to a division winner, because the two wild cards are likely to play each other in a one-game playoff and that allows the champ to rest & reset their starting rotation against an opponent that has had to claw just to get there. For those who argue that a second wild card isn’t ideal, having both wild cards be at such a disadvantage really does help soften that concern a bit.

As for how this affects the Dodgers this year… well, I’m not sure it really does that much. You could say that a team such as this – one that’s probably built for 83-86 wins, give or take – could see this as an added opportunity to get into the playoffs. Of course, every team in the league that isn’t the Mets, Astros, Pirates, or Cubs (probably) is able to say the same. You still have to be a better club than the Giants, Rockies, Braves, Nationals, Marlins, Brewers, etc, and one additional wild card isn’t going to change that. It may make things more interesting, and it may make us think they still have a chance for a few additional weeks, but when it comes down to it, either the team is good enough, or they aren’t.

******

Elsewhere…

- Eric Stephen asked Don Mattingly if he had thought about hitting A.J. Ellis second in the lineup. “Not really,” replied the skipper. That’s not really in any way a surprise, I suppose.

- Steve Dilbeck voices what I’m sure many have been thinking: though it’s wonderful to have baseball back, six weeks of spring training for a team that already has 95% of its roster set is somewhat hard to get excited for.

- With the announcement that Facebook is opening up Timeline pages to brands and giving them a month to switch over, I thought I’d take the plunge and convert the MSTI page immediately. Take a look.

- And on a “site news” note, we’re approximately one month away from the launch of the new MSTI. (Yes, I’m putting this out there publicly in part to motivate myself to finish before the season.) I’ve been working on this for a while and I’m really excited by how it is turning out. Perhaps, if you’re lucky, we’ll have a sneak peek in a week or two.

Dodgers Finally Get Their (Old, Old) Men

Photo via Jon SooHoo's wonderful blog, http://dodgersphotog.mlblogs.com/

Via Ken Gurnick, we’ve learned that for the Dodgers, signing Aaron Harang and Jamey Wright this winter was actually the culmination of years of interest on the club’s part.

Harang:

In their third year of trying, the Dodgers finally landed starting pitcher Aaron Harang, who is expected to help plug an innings hole created by the departure of Hiroki Kuroda.

The Dodgers made a run at Harang at the 2009 Trade Deadline, again that offseason and yet again in the spring of 2010 before finally signing the free agent in December for two years and $12 million.

“It made it more enticing, knowing it wasn’t something just spontaneous, like, ‘Let’s just go after this guy,’” Harang said. “It’s been in the back of my mind that they’ve wanted me a while. That made it an easier decision, knowing people want you and have been working at something for multiple years.”

Wright:

This year’s Jeff Weaver. Wright pitched in relief for Seattle last year, appearing in 60 games with a career-best 3.16 ERA. A one-time innings-eating starter, Wright has pitched in relief exclusively since 2008. He had a deal worked out with the Dodgers for 2009 but failed a physical, a curious result considering he’s been a workhorse ever since.

That 3.16 ERA for Wright was of course accompanied by a 4.30 FIP, so let’s not get too excited about it; still, the usual “he’s an NRI so I don’t really care that much” caveats do apply. While we don’t know the terms of Wright’s scuttled potential deal back in 2009 – which, honestly, came as news to me – I do wonder if having successfully signed “this year’s Jeff Weaver” at the time may have prevented the arrival of the actual Jeff Weaver, who joined the team on February 9, 2009 after an atrocious 2008 spent entirely in the minors.

Back to Harang, we had heard rumors about the club potentially having interest in him in the 2009-10 offseason, as they desperately looked for a place to dump Juan Pierre before finally shipping him off to Chicago for John Ely and Jon Link. I don’t generally mind the idea of a big, innings-eating type to take up space in the back of the rotation, but it still kills me when I see things like this:

Harang, 33, is coming off a rebound season, going 14-7 with a 3.64 ERA for San Diego.

Uh-huh.

Harang, 2009
162.1 IP, 7.87 K/9, 2.38 BB/9, 4.14 FIP, 90.7 avg FB MPH

Harang, 2011
170.2 IP, 6.54 K/9, 3.06 BB/9, 4.17 FIP, 89.8 avg FB MPH

If it seems like Harang was better at 31 in 2009 than he was at 33 in 2011, well, I wouldn’t have much to argue with you on there. So what’s the big difference? Ah yes: 6-14, 4.21, vs 14-6, 3.64. It’s amazing what superficial stats (and Petco Park) still count for these days, and along with the dubious “number-crunching” that apparently contributed to the Chris Capuano deal, it’s fair to enter the season with a real amount of concern over the two older, injury-prone veteran imports who are only effective in larger parks like Dodger Stadium, CitiField, and Petco. Throw in Ted Lilly, yet another older flyball pitcher, and I’m starting to wonder if I need to look up what the team’s all-time record for biggest disparity in wins at home against on the road is. (I also can’t say that it helps that the Dodgers gave Harang $12m over two years after the Padres, who saw him up close all year, passed on their more reasonable $5m for one year option.)

We’ve been talking a lot lately about the excess of nearly-ready starting pitchers the Dodgers have, guys like Nathan Eovaldi, Allen Webster, Chris Reed, and more. The more you look at the starting rotation behind Clayton Kershaw, the more you wonder if that kind of depth this year is less of a luxury, and more of a necessity.

Seven Groups Still in Running for Dodger Ownership

Feels like we’re finally making progress in this ownership mess, aren’t we? For weeks, every bit of information that came out was blanketed in caveats like “at least” or “publicly known”; for a while, we didn’t even know how many bidders were actually involved in this thing. Earlier this month, we found out that eleven bidders remained, and today, Bill Shaikin lets us know the list has been sliced to seven. We already knew that both the Joe Torre and Peter O’Malley groups had dropped out, and today we learned that Memphis Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley and Milwaukee Brewers investor Tony Ressler are no longer involved. (Whether they dropped out voluntarily or had that decision made for them is unclear.)

Here’s an updated list of the seven survivors:

1) Magic Johnson / Stan Kasten
2) Stephen Cohen / Arn Tellem
3) Leo Hindery / Tom Barrack
4) Stanley Gold / family of Roy Disney
5) Alan Casden
6) Stan Kroenke
7) Jared Kushner

We’ve been through most of these groups before. Cohen and Kushner get massive, massive “DO NOT WANT” grades from me, while Kroenke troubles me somewhat because of the potential that he’s more interested in the Rams than in baseball. I honestly can’t say I’ve formed much of an opinion yet on Hindery/Barrack, Casden, or Gold/Disney, while the Johnson/Kasten group is really the only one that stands out to me right now as a particular favorite, particularly if uberbillionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong gets involved, as most expect he will. Remember, even at this late date, there’s no reason some of these groups couldn’t change. If, for example, the Gold/Disney group think they need to shore up the baseball side of things, they could always go out and bring aboard a Torre or an Orel Hershiser – it’s not set in stone. (And that’s just pure speculation on my part, as well.)

What this doesn’t answer is the open question about Frank McCourt’s position regarding the parking lots, which of course scared the hell out of all of us last week. Steve Dilbeck suggests that all of the bidders should drop out unless McCourt agrees to include the lots and completely rid himself of any association with the Dodgers, which, while noble, is pretty far-fetched. (Though it does raise the interesting legal question of just what would happen if a man with a legally obligated deadline to sell the team – but not the lots – suddenly had no bids at all.) Even former McCourt crony Steve Soboroff spoke up recently, saying that working with McCourt can always lead to more trouble.

Now that the Blackstone Group, the investment group which is handling this sale for McCourt, has settled on these seven bidders, the next step is that they are all submitted to Major League Baseball for final approval. We don’t know the exact timetable for that process; whomever makes it through MLB approval will then be considered the group of finalists from which McCourt will make his final decision. Since it’s just over a month until April 1, when McCourt is mandated to select his winner, we won’t have to wait too long.

There’s Only One Right Ellis To Hit High In the Order

A.J. Ellis is most likely going to bat 8th in 2012. Why? Because that’s simply what non-elite catchers do. Don Mattingly hasn’t quite come out and said it, but in each of the 25 games Ellis has started, he’s hit either 7th or 8th. Ellis is probably going to hit something like .245 with little or no power, and so you’ll stick him at the bottom of the order without a second thought – as you do.

Except… we should know better than that by now, right? Ellis has one real offensive skill, one he could potentially be quite good at: getting on base. Where there’s obviously value in that no matter where in the lineup a batter hits, that particular skill is somewhat less useful in the 8th spot in the order. Think about the various scenarios that could play out if Ellis gets on base from the 8th spot, as we hope he often does.

With two outs
Ellis gets on base. Pitcher (assuming it’s too early to pinch-hit) ends the inning something like 85-90% of the time, thus wasting Ellis’ achievement.

With one out
Ellis gets on base. Pitcher attempts to sacrifice Ellis to second, causing out #2. With two outs, Ellis scoring depends on Dee Gordon (.325 OBP in 2011) or Mark Ellis (.288 OBP) bringing him in, and for both to avoid making outs before Matt Kemp gets up.

With no outs
Ellis gets on base. Pitcher attempts to sacrifice Ellis to second, causing out #1. With one out, Ellis scoring depends on Gordon or Mark Ellis bringing him in, and for at least one to avoid making outs before Matt Kemp gets up.

Assuming Gordon leads off (which Mattingly has already said he will) and Mark Ellis hits second (which hasn’t been confirmed yet, but he’s a veteran second baseman in a lineup without an established #2 hitter, so of course he will), the 8th place hitter is likely to hit directly in front of three of the four worst OBP hitters in the lineup, excepting only Juan Uribe. As you can see, in order for A.J. Ellis, potentially one of the three best OBP hitters in this lineup (and think about that for a second) to be on base for Kemp or Andre Ethier to bring him in, you’re going to need to count on several hitters who specialize in making outs to do exactly the opposite.

It just doesn’t make sense, and that’s not only in thinking through scenarios like the ones above. The numbers back this up, as we can see from XeiFrank over at Dodger Sims, who ran various lineups through 100,000 different games to come up with the most optimal lineup.

And without any further ado, here is the Dodgers best lineups vs LHP and RHP. Note that in this exercise, I used the 2012 Zips Projections for all Dodgers hitters.

vs LHP Lineup vs RHP Lineup
A.J. Ellis A.J. Ellis
Andre Ethier Andre Ethier
Matt Kemp Matt Kemp
Juan Rivera James Loney
James Loney Juan Rivera
Juan Uribe Juan Uribe
Mark Ellis Mark Ellis
Dee Gordon Dee Gordon
Pitchers Spot Pitchers Spot

You can also see that the best spot for Gordon is 8th; not only does that make sense because of his potential on-base difficulties, but it also allows him the best opportunities to steal. With the pitcher following, you can give Gordon an eternal green light, hoping that a steal and a sacrifice could immediately turn Gordon singles into triples. That may not be the same strategy if he’s on base ahead of the heart of the lineup, because the last thing you want to do is have an inning end with Kemp at the plate because Gordon got thrown out stealing.

Now, even though I would put Gordon lower in the lineup, I haven’t spent too much time worrying about it. It hasn’t seemed worthwhile, because we’ve always known that Mattingly would have him lead off; while that may not be logically ideal, I can’t argue that the idea of him flying around the bases as Kemp & Ethier drive him home is pretty fun to think about out, and there’s not an immediately obvious alternative that a second-year manager could really go with.

But dumping A.J. Ellis at the bottom of the order while letting Mark Ellis hit 2nd, well, that’s a pretty less-than-optimal use of resources. For a team that is expected to have all sorts of offensive issues even if everything goes as planned, it’d behoove them to deploy the weapons they have in the best alignment to promote success. Of course, as XeiFrank notes, the overall impact here is probably only around 1-2 wins, since lineup alignment generally doesn’t have as much impact as we like to think it is. But for a team that most expect to be in the 82-86 win range, and especially with the possibility of a second wild card being available this year, one or two wins could be monumentally important. Let’s hope Mattingly has the courage to go against the grain and go with a the more non-traditional lineup that might lead to additional offense.

******

Other notes…

* Andre Ethier’s in camp, and he’s being a peach, as usual.

* Chad Moriyama has a good read on media coverage of the Ryan Braun situation, arguing that those who claim Braun got off “on a technicality” aren’t really being truthful.

* Minor injuries to unimportant pitchers: Dylan Hernandez reports that Shane Lindsay and Ryan Tucker have each been shut down, and Eric Stephen expands that Lindsay is dealing with a lat, while Tucker has a sore neck.

Frank McCourt Just Isn’t Going to Make This Easy, Is He

Like I was really not going to take advantage of the opportunity to bring this back

So Bill Shaikin brings us some good news

Rick Caruso and former Dodgers manager Joe Torre have withdrawn a joint bid to buy the Dodgers, three people familiar with the sale process said Thursday.

As you probably know, most of you know that I wasn’t all that excited about the possibility of Torre taking over control of the club, simply because he had to be considered by far the most likely of any of the potential new owners to retain Ned Colletti. So let’s enjoy a small victory there, and then jam our thumbs into our eye sockets as we see why it is that Caruso and Torre are no longer involved…

Caruso cited owner Frank McCourt’s refusal to include the Dodger Stadium parking lots in the sale, according to the people, who declined to be identified because they were not authorized to discuss the sale process. (snip)

Caruso and other bidders have believed the purchase of the parking lots would be negotiable. Caruso’s decision to withdraw offers the clearest evidence yet that McCourt intends to keep the lots and try to build on them.

…well, then. Shaikin also notes that McCourt claims he has at least one bid in hand that would allow him to retain the parking lots, and while I have absolutely no inside information to tell you who, it’s not too much of a stretch to wonder if that’s Stan Kroenke, since we’ve already heard suggestions that Kroenke might buy the Dodgers largely to team with McCourt in order to build a football stadium in the parking lots to bring the Rams back home.

Now before we all go off into a fury here, remember: this is Frank McCourt. As far as I’m concerned, he’d sell his own mother to North Korea if he thought it’d make him a few extra dollars, so it’s not at all hard to believe that McCourt may simply be playing hard to get when it comes to the lots in the hopes that some bidder will completely blow him away to get him to “reluctantly” include the parking lots.

Don’t also forget that McCourt has a legal obligation to sell the team by April 30. He can’t simply say that he didn’t get an offer he liked and change his mind, so he’s going to have to agree with somebody. It’d be nice if none of the bidders were willing to offer him deals that involve McCourt retaining the lots, so the indication that there’s at least one interested party who would let him keep the lots is quite disappointing.

But I’ll offer this: we just witnessed the winter of the “mystery team”. Who saw Prince Fielder going to the Tigers? Albert Pujols to the Angels? Yoenis Cespedes to the Athletics? You’ll notice that in the Shaikin story, the line that indicates McCourt has an offer that would allow him to keep the lots starts with the line, “McCourt has told people…” Well, I trust Bill Shaikin unconditionally, but that sentence might as well end with “…that Justin Bieber will be playing left field” or “…that he’s building parking lots on the moon.” Until we hear from a far more reputable source than Frank McCourt, we have no idea if there really is a bidder who is willing to let Frank stay involved. And if there’s not, then McCourt’s going to have no choice but to sell the team and the lots, if that’s the best he can do in the next few weeks.

As always, the clock is ticking, Frankie. See you in hell.