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Bug Bites and Backbiting (updated)

Quick note: I’ll be chatting today at Baseball Prospectus at 3 PM Eastern. Stop by and drop off a question if you’ve got one.

Injuries are an inevitable part of baseball. Last Friday’s Hit List noted the absences of the likes of big-name players like Alfonso Soriano, David Ortiz, Albert Pujols, John Smoltz, Rafael Furcal and J.J. Putz not to mention numerous other aches and pains and the the impacts on their teams as they try to work around them. Since writing that column, the Yankees, who have already spent most of this season running at well under 100 percent efficiency, have suffered a potentially crippling blow as the injury bug has bitten again. While running the bases in a blowout against the Astros, Chien-Ming Wang sprained the Listfranc ligament and tore a tendon in his foot, an injury that will keep him in a walking boot for six weeks and likely shelve him until September, as he’ll need another four weeks to get his arm back to full strength.

Even that timeframe may be optimistic. Will Carroll suggests he’ll be out 90 days in all, which would push his return into mid-September:

No one knows feet like Dr. Philip Kwong of Kerlan-Jobe, so I’ll just let him tell you about Wang: “It is unusual to have both a Lisfranc ligament sprain and partial tear peroneal longus together, and longer time will be needed for recovery (8-12 weeks if no significant instability occurs at the Lisfranc joints). The combined injuries represent greater rotational stress than would be experienced for each injury alone. Prognosis and time line for recovery will depend on the exact amount of ligament/tendon tear sustained and on the amount of tissue remaining to provide stability. Healing is the formation of scar tissue and not regrowth of the normal ligament or tendon tissue; consequently, future problems such as arthritis can occur at Lisfranc’s joints or reinjury of the peroneal longus tendon.” So as I’d expected, the additional damage beyond the Lisfranc is likely to add to the time Wang is out. It leaves very little wiggle time for him to come back and throw meaningful innings, not unless the Yankees are right and Wang comes back at the extreme low end of expectations. I think the Yankees’ record is going to dictate how this is eventually handled.

The pinstriped rotation has been a mess all year long, as youngsters Ian Kennedy and Philip Hughes have battled injuries and ineffectiveness while vets like Wang and Andy Pettitte have struggled to maintain consistency. As I wrote last week, they ranked 11th in Baseball Prospectus’ key pitching stat, Support Neutral Lineup Adjusted Value Above Replacement (SNLVAR, denominated in wins), which measures a pitcher’s impact independent of the run support he receives from his offense and the job his relievers do. They’ve since climbed to 10th at 4.5 wins, but Wang’s injury has cost them their most valuable starter:

Pitcher          SNLVARChien-Ming Wang   2.0Mike Mussina      1.3Darrell Rasner    1.1Andy Pettitte     0.7Joba Chamberlain  0.4Brian Bruney      0.2Kei Igawa        -0.3Philip Hughes    -0.3Ian Kennedy      -0.4

Mussina’s gaudy 10-4 record has been a pleasant surprise, but Wang’s ability to go deeper into ballgames (6.33 per start, compared to 5.42 for the Moose) made him the more valuable commodity, even given the slump that he appeared to have pulled out of prior to getting hurt.

When the injury initially happened, speculation centered around the idea that the Yankees would trade for defending Cy Young winner and pending free agent C.C. Sabathia, perhaps even offering slumping second baseman Robinson Cano, but as the New York Times’ Tyler Kepner explains, that’s an unlikely scenario. And if Yankee GM Brian Cashman balked at surrendering Cano as part of a package for Johan Santana over the winter, he’s unlikely to have changed his mind for the next-best pitcher to reach the market:

I do not believe the Indians will insist on second baseman Robinson Cano, even though they lack a solid second baseman. In this market, the value of a talented everyday player signed to a reasonable four-year contract is much greater than a pitcher – any pitcher — who is 18 or so starts from an expensive free agency.

…Cashman will surely consider the downside of a Sabathia deal: he trades valued young players, Sabathia proves to be a bad fit in New York, and the Yankees let him walk after the season. The upside there is that the Yankees would get two high draft picks in return, replacing some of the talent they would lose in the trade.

Another potential downside is this: the Yankees sign Sabathia to a rich contract extension (six or seven years, $19 million or so per year) and he breaks down physically like Mike Hampton or Kevin Brown, or turns into a 2-10 pitcher like Barry Zito. Cashman understands the horrible track record of pitchers who sign $100 million deals.

Of course, Cashman can’t do anything without a willing trade partner, and at this point there are none. As the GM explains, “There is no trade market at the moment… I’m not optimistic that something can get done on that front. We have to try and plug this gap internally and that’s not going to be easy.” Pete Abraham did a nice job of elaborating on the team’s short and long-term options, which include a still-rehabbing Kennedy, current Yankee reliever and recent callup Dan Giese, Triple-A prospect Dan McCutchen, the Devil You Know (Kei Igawa and Jeff Karstens), and the Devil You Don’t Know, injury-prone starters from elsewhere such as Oakland’s Rich Harden, who could cost a king’s ransom in prospects, San Diego’s Randy Wolf and free agent Freddy Garcia, who missed most of last year with a variety of shoulder issues — hardly what the Yanks need more of.

Anyway, it’s a mess, but at least the Yankees are playing decent baseball. They’re four games above .500 for the first time all year, and 17-9 since Alex Rodriguez’s return from the DL, as A-Rod has hit .366/.470/.710 with eight homers in that span. They’re 5.5 games behind Boston in the AL East, and 3.5 in back of Tampa Bay in the Wild Card chase (!), with the A’s 1.5 games ahead of them as well. In recent years they’ve come back from bigger deficits, but this one is going to be a real challenge both on the field and in the front office.

Things could be worse. They could be the Mets, who ended nine months of speculation by firing manager Willie Randolph, pitching coach Rick Peterson and first-base coach Tom Nieto in the wee hours of Tuesday morning. The team is 34-35 and has been beset by injuries and depth problems that are the responsibility of GM Omar Minaya, not Randolph. Reliance on aging, expensive, fragile players such as Moises Alou (limited to 54 plate appearances this year), Pedro Martinez (20.1 innings) and Orlando Hernandez (bupkus) has cost them dearly, as has cleaning out their prospect coffers to acquire Santana. The slow decline of Carlos Delgado (.242.321/.407) hasn’t helped, nor has the loss of productive Ryan Church due to a concussion or the recent struggles of the bullpen. As noted in the Hit List:

Can’t Get No Relief: The misery contineus for the Mets, whose brief respite from a five-game losing streak is overshadowed by the second of three straight blown saves by Billy Wagner. He’s not the only arsonist in a bullpen that’s fallen to 13th in the league in WXRL. Despite a 2.34 ERA and six innings per start from the Mets rotation this week, the relievers allow 19 earned runs in 23 innings and take five out of the six losses.

Worse than their current woes, the team has been unable to shake the memory of last year’s historic, ugly collapse, their 5-12 record after September 11 and 1-6 record during the final week. Randolph didn’t deserve to carry the weight of that collapse alone, though he didn’t help his cause when he played the race card a few weeks ago, suggesting that the media was covering him differently than the would a white manager.

Though the racial angle may have been overstated, there does seem to be truth to the fact that the bullseye was squarely on Randolph. As Joe Sheehan writes:

Randolph, like any manager, bears responsibility for his team’s performance, but when you look at what he actually does, what he has had to work with and the performance of the roster core, it’s difficult to argue that he is the problem. A quarter of his payroll has no-showed; that’s hard to overcome.

I am not arguing that Minaya needs to be fired, either. I am saying that firing Randolph doesn’t change anything for this Mets team on the field, and what it does for them off the field reeks of letting the media make decisions for you. The best argument for firing Randolph is that the constant coverage of his job status was a distraction for the players. However, that has nothing to do with Randolph or the players-it has to do with a voracious media filling column inches and air time, a group that entered the 2008 season with its sights set on Randolph. The amount of time spent questioning Randolph’s ability, versus the amount focused on the absences of Alou and Martinez, or the collapse of Delgado, or the execrable bench, is a bad joke. There’s no analysis of baseball or the Mets or any thought process at all; it’s just creating a story and then beating it until something happens.

This isn’t quite the Dodgers of 2004-05, whose general manager, Paul DePodesta, was the target of media criticism from the day he was hired and who was let go largely because the Dodgers owner had no plan other than to pander to that media. (How’s that working for you, Frank?) No, this is something a bit less blatant, but no less insidious. Randolph is out of a job today because a storyline was created, the Mets weren’t savvy enough to get out in front of it, and the situation snowballed. Omar Minaya may have made the phone call, but it was the media that made this transaction.

As Buster Olney writes, the Mets could have hardly done a worse job at handling this, :

Even the writers of “The Sopranos” could not have invented a more recklessly handled hit. The process really started after last season’s collapse, when Minaya — who came to the Mets having been promised full autonomy and, for more than a year, has had all the power of a marionette — first regressed into lawyer-speak. “Willie is the manager,” Minaya said over and over, as if repeating the phrase would somehow give the crafted but flimsy words backbone and fool anyone into thinking that Randolph wasn’t one really bad day away from being fired.

When the Mets sputtered in April, the backstabbing began, with Randolph being undermined along the way. Words of Randolph’s honest player evaluations in those staff meetings somehow made their way to the ears of players. That left the manager in a brutal position of trying to draw performance out of veterans who heard that behind closed doors the manager wasn’t so sure if they had the right stuff anymore. Some on-field staff members doubted whether they could trust the front office.

And when the losing continued, the front-office leaks to the newspapers became rivers of rip-jobs, the leakers inoculated by the fact that they fired first. It’s better to blame the manager and his coaches, after all, than to take responsibility. But even after Randolph’s demise became a fait accompli, which was sometime in the last days of May, the decision-makers stopped focusing on the change itself and started becoming concerned about properly scripting his firing.

Ugh. Makes Joe Torre’s departure look like a tea party by comparison. Just remember, Yankee fans, it could always be worse.

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