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Saturday 24th Feb 2018

This past weekend, the Detroit Tigers announced that manager Brad Ausmus will not be asked back for a fifth season in 2018. The club, entering a rebuilding phase, has decided to go in a different direction and will not renew the contract of the former Major League catcher.

Any time I hear about Ausmus, I am reminded of a movement across baseball that bubbled up in the 2012-2014 time frame, of which he was a part. During that period, at least three former 40-something year-old catchers without MLB managerial experience were handed the keys to their respective kingdoms.

First was Mike Matheny, with as different of a background as could be compared to the man he replaced starting in the 2012 season, Hall of Famer Tony La Russa. Matheny had no prior managing or coaching experience in professional baseball other than as a roving minor league catching instructor and was MLB’s youngest manager when hired following the 2011 season.

Mike Redmond took the reins of the Marlins in 2013 and Ausmus joined the Tigers as their field boss the next season.

It was hoped Redmond would shore up the crumbling Miami foundation following the tumultuous 2012 season with Ozzie Guillen at the helm, but time has proven that stability and the Marlins mix like oil and water. Before taking over in Miami, Redmond had two seasons of managing experience in Class-A.

Like Matheny, Ausmus followed a long-time managing great heading into retirement. Ironically, Jim Leyland is close personal friends with La Russa. Between the conclusion of his playing career in 2010 until his hiring by Detroit, Ausmus had worked as a special assistant with San Diego.

It is not as if former backstops do not have a long history becoming managers later, with Mike Scioscia and Joe Girardi among current examples, and even going back to Yogi Berra and many, many more. Still, these three were a bit surprising at the time and seemed to represent a trend.

Now, two of the three former catchers-first-time managers have been fired, with only Matheny continuing.

Working under less than ideal conditions in Miami, Redmond was the first to go, axed 38 games into his third season, in May 2015. Impatient owner Jeffrey Loria added Redmond to a long list of his former managers, including in-season firings Jeff Torborg and Fredi Gonzalez and one season-only skippers Girardi and Guillen. Redmond is currently the bench coach of the Colorado Rockies.

Ausmus was given four years with Detroit during a time of significant transition. In his first season, 2014, Max Scherzer was still atop the rotation with another future Cy Young Award winner, Rick Porcello, also among the starting five. The 90-win club reached the playoffs, but bowed out in the first round.

Late in a very rough 2015 in which the Tigers won just 74 games, long-time GM and team president Dave Dombrowski was released, then quickly snapped up by Boston. Assistant Al Avila took over as general manager. Ausmus then led the Tigers to an 86-win 2016, falling just three games short of a wild card berth as the upstart Cleveland Indians took over the American League Central.

For 2017, the Tigers were generally pegged as a second-place club again behind veterans Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler, J.D. Martinez, Justin Upton and Justin Verlander. Mounting losses coupled with impending free agency led to an in-season decision to begin the rebuilding process, with the latter three players mentioned dealt away for prospects. Mike Ilitch, team owner since 1992, had passed away in February, adding to the changes. Once the retooling direction was set, going in a different direction with the manager followed.

Unlike the others, Matheny’s clubs have logged six straight winning seasons and made regular post-season appearances from 2012-2015, though the team was eliminated earlier and earlier each year – until they missed out on October baseball entirely in 2016.

His seat grew hotter not only because of the emergence of the Chicago Cubs as the new powerhouse in the division (ironically Cleveland’s opponent in the 2016 World Series), but also because his 2017 club languished with a sub-.500 record into August. Chicago had turned the corner against its long-time rival by defeating St. Louis in the 2015 post-season before taking the division by 17 1/2 games in 2016.

Further complications included poor fundamental play by the Cardinals and questionable in-game decisions by the manager, especially with pitching. In a June segment, MLB Network ranked Matheny 30th among his peers as a tactician.

Yet, unlike Ausmus, who managed as a lame duck in 2017, Matheny has greater job security – including a significant financial commitment from his club. St. Louis’ skipper was given a three-year contract extension last fall - a year early.

Also unlike the Tigers, which had to deal with the white-hot Tribe, the Cardinals could remain close enough in the 2017 standings, in part because the Cubs could not repeat their 2016 dominance this year. As recently as last week, St. Louis had an identical record to the playoff-missing 2016 Cards. Chicago had double-digit fewer wins compared to the year before, however, because of its own sub-.500 first half.

That bought the Cardinals time.

Instead of selling off their impending free agents, including starter Lance Lynn and former closer Seung-hwan Oh, St. Louis stood pat in July. Reportedly, the Cards did shop players, but did not find deals to their liking. However, in August, they moved out disappointing starter Mike Leake to Seattle and brought in reliever Juan Nicasio from Philadelphia in early September, immediately installing him as closer.

The club responded with a 15-10 September record coming into Thursday that still has kept them on the very fringe of the wild card hunt. Whether or not the Cardinals made the October tournament, which is now extremely unlikely (at 0.8 percent), Matheny was not in jeopardy of joining Redmond and Ausmus on the former catcher-managerial unemployment line – at least not any time in the foreseeable future.

This past weekend, Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. reiterated his manager’s job security.

“I think he’s the right guy to lead us into the future,” the team owner said.

Still, given the events of the last three years, including most recently just five wins in 18 tries this season against the Cubs, what is almost certainly two consecutive playoff misses as well as a possible slide to third place in 2017, serve as vivid reminders that the Cardinals are consistently being outgunned in the battle for NL Central supremacy.

Matheny must reverse his club’s downward trend in 2018 to further separate himself from his fired catcher-turned-manager contemporaries.

Brian Walton was the 2009 National League Tout Wars champion, scoring the most points in the league’s 18-year history. He also holds the all-time NL Tout single-season records for wins and saves. His work can also be found daily at TheCardinalNation.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.

With two weeks remaining in the 2017 Major League Baseball regular season, it seems a good time to check on the races for the top pitching awards in the American and National Leagues, the Cy Young Awards.

If the annual recognition was decided by algorithms instead of via the votes of selected members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, what we might get is results similar to a tool that runs on ESPN’s website.

The “MLB Cy Young Predictor” formula, borrowed from sabermetric pioneer Bill James and Rob Neyer, includes innings pitched, earned runs, strikeouts, walks, saves, shutouts, wins, losses and provides bonus points for a division title. The intent is not to determine the best pitcher, but instead to best predict where the voters will land.

In all fairness, the formula seems to work pretty well compared to the human vote. In fact, nine of the last 10 winners over the last five years were correctly predicted. The one miss was a second-place finisher.

Here in 2017 in the Junior Circuit, 2014 winner and 2016 third-place finisher Corey Kluber of Cleveland has a sizeable lead over Boston teammates Chris Sale and Craig Kimbrel. Interestingly, those same two clubs have all top five spots locked down, with Carlos Carrasco (CLE) fourth and Drew Pomeranz (BOS) fifth.

It may be painful for San Diego fans to be reminded that both Kluber and Pomeranz were dealt away by the Padres, though in all fairness, the trades were six years apart.

Fame can be fleeting, as Boston’s Rick Porcello, the 2016 AL Cy Young Award winner, is not among the current top 10.

In the National League, the picture is also very different from a year ago, yet in a way quite familiar. In 2016, Clayton Kershaw was out of the race, having missed over two months due to injury before a September return. That cleared the way for Max Scherzer of Washington, who was also the 2013 American League winner while with Detroit and has another pair of top-five finishes.

In 2017, Scherzer is again among the favorites, though clustered with my bounceback player of the year, Arizona’s Zack Greinke, at third and fourth, respectively. Given the gap between these two and the top pair, their chances have to be considered slim.

It is almost a dead heat at the top of the NL Predictor list between three-time winner Kershaw and his club’s closer, Kenley Jansen. The Dodgers’ ninth-inning man was also close to Scherzer a year ago in the ESPN formula, but finished a distant third in the sportswriter voting, with the Cubs’ Jon Lester also slipping by.

History suggests a reliever would need help (in terms of less-dominating starters) to win, with the last bullpenner to take home the hardware being another Dodger, Eric Gagne in 2003. In the baseball circle of life, it seems fitting that Gagne attempted a comeback this very spring, with success in the World Baseball Classic for Team Canada, followed by a less-positive and career-ending (again) stint with the independent Long Island Ducks.

An AL closer hasn’t won since Dennis Eckersley in 1992, back when he had Prince Albert hair. (Never mind. Strike that last comment!)

Another more tangible reason Jansen should not be counted out is a recent turn of events during which Kershaw has suggested he is mortal. The lefty was charged with four earned runs allowed in two of his last three starts while taking his third and fourth losses of the season to go with 17 wins. The latter is tied with Greinke and Kluber for the MLB lead. Kershaw’s ERA is “up” to 2.26, still the best among all contending starters.

However, one reliever has an especially low ERA of 1.27 – Kershaw’s teammate Jansen.

The Curacao native continues to be the best lockdown closer in the game. Since his last blown save two months ago, Jansen has one win and 13 saves. In that time, he has tossed 21 1/3 innings, yielding just two earned runs, for an 0.84 ERA. The 29-year old fanned 32 against just five walks and 15 hits allowed.

While any intrigue over the identity of the American League winner appears to be over, the NL race may go down to the wire.

Brian Walton was the 2009 National League Tout Wars champion, scoring the most points in the league’s 18-year history. He also holds the all-time NL Tout single-season records for wins and saves. His work can also be found daily at TheCardinalNation.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.

One of the quickest actions to drive me out of a league is when commissioners and league members decide to make up rules on the fly and enact them during the season. Such an example was brought to Mastersball’s attention this week.

Here is the background from the affected owner:

“My league is 5 years strong with daily active participation amongst team owners,” he wrote. “It's a FAAB waiver wire that in the past has allowed waiver wire pickups to be 25th round keepers. (Each year keepers move up a round)

“We follow ESPN undroppable rules and had an interesting scenario play out today.

“The team owner of Bryce Harper dropped him today as he was taken off the ESPN undroppable list and it so happens that he has retained the most auction money to this point of the year and plans to pick him up tomorrow by out bidding all other teams and thus Bryce Harper becomes a 25th rounder for his team.

“How would you guys handle a situation like this?

“We have already come up with solutions going forward but team owners aren't thrilled allowing Bryce Harper to become a 25th rounder, however no rules were broken, should we allow this (as it was beautifully planned and executed within league rules) and make change in the future season?”

Todd Zola and I answered very differently. He was of a mind to talk Harper’s owner out of the move.

“The canned answer is rules are rules and the league should live with the consequences and fix the loophole,” said Zola. “My guess is that would be the majority answer.

“The ploy had to be in the conscious of the league since that's what the no-drop protects.

“That said, if the league is more for fun, with just bragging rights on the line, I'd approach the team and ask them to reconsider, even if it means adding Harper back, reversing the drop.”

I came out on the opposite end in my advice to this league owner.

“Todd likely knew what I was going to say,” I wrote. “The rules are the rules and they were not broken. The owner in question saved his money all year, passing up other players. He had no idea if/when ESPN would make Harper droppable. There is no chance there was cheating or collusion.

“As you said, you already have plans to close the loophole going forward, but in the interim, there is no reason he should not get to do what he is intending to do. Whether the league is for fun or for money does not matter. Either you back your rules or you don't. Personally, I don't want to be in leagues in which rules are made up on the fly.

“P.S. If you want to give the league these kinds of powers to circumvent the rules in the future, you should add a "for the best interests of the league" clause to your constitution. I would highly recommend you not put this in the hands of any one person, however. Consider league majority or maybe even better, three quarters vote.”

To be completely honest, I despise these “best interest” clauses. I know why they are there, but they can be misused to cover laziness or worse.

The “spirit” of the rules is nothing more than someone’s opinion - if not documented in the constitution.

One of the assumptions here is that this has never happened before. Among his many other skills is that Todd is an excellent historian, often remembering past situations in a particular league that could have established a precedent.

However, the best-run leagues don’t have to rely on memory. They put these past situations right into the rules, so next time it will be covered in writing.

Since there does not seem to be a “last time” here, I will move out of my sidebar and back into our story.

Two other commenters agreed with my position and my reply also seemed to resonate most with our owner.

“Thanks guys, I really appreciate your responses,” the owner wrote. “The statement about being a league commish that backs the rules in place really made me set in how this should be handled. As you said a league that can make rules on the fly could be a slippery slope for precedent and other unique situations in the future.”

However, his league mates shouted him down. The disappointed owner shared follow-up news a few days later.

“The league wasn't allowing it and gave him a 7th round value. Booo,” he concluded.

Don’t you wonder how they came up with seventh, instead of sixth or eighth?

I don’t have all the details of how this went down, but from what I can see, had I been participating, this would soon become an ex-league of mine.

Brian Walton was the 2009 National League Tout Wars champion, scoring the most points in the league’s 18-year history. He also holds the all-time NL Tout single-season records for wins and saves. His work can also be found daily at TheCardinalNation.com and thecardinalnationblog.com. Follow Brian on Twitter @B_Walton.

As another regular season of my baseball columns here at Mastersball nears its end, it seems the ideal time to look ahead to this fall and share an open invitation to a special conference held each year, First Pitch Arizona.

From November 2-5, the 2017 FPA event will run in Phoenix, Arizona. Founded by Ron Shandler and expertly run by the BaseballHQ team headed by Ray Murphy and Brent Hershey, FPA offers a mix of baseball forums with a fantasy focus in a classroom setting along with the opportunity to watch a number of Arizona Fall League games in the glorious desert outdoors.

Speakers include many prominent names in the fantasy baseball industry as well as selected outside baseball experts. Pretty much all the name-brand analysts you have followed for years participate as well as several professional scouts. The fare includes insight on which future stars to watch in AFL games as well as helping you get a head start on fantasy baseball preparation for 2018. There are main tent sessions as well as smaller group meetings enabling in-depth interaction, discussion and analysis.

Unlike many other events, in which speakers show up for their allotted time and leave, the vast majority of First Pitch speakers attend the entire three days and are available for questions and talk at breakfast, lunch, breaks and even during the games!

One annual special benefit is that the First Pitch schedule is aligned with the AFL’s Fall Stars Game, held this year on Saturday, November 4. This event, televised nationally on MLB Network, enables us to get up close with all the top prospects in the AFL in one contest.

First Pitch’s early bird fee is $399 (available through September 15 only), which includes the conference and AFL game admission. The enrollment does not include your hotel room, but special rates are offered. Next spring, attendees will also receive free copies of the 2018 Baseball Forecaster and Minor League Analyst, a $59 value.

During FPA, we hold the annual draft of the Xperts Fantasy League, or XFL. Not only does the 15-team keeper format league have the earliest industry draft each year, it is the manliest of settings. We conduct our fast-paced auction draft in front of a live and satellite radio audience completely without materials, other than standard 40-man rosters. That is a wonderful challenge, one that I have yet to master.

There is no doubt about my highlight of the Arizona trip - the AFL itself and the discussions with friends, old and new, that occur during the games themselves. Please join us this year at First Pitch Arizona. You will be glad you did.

Brian Walton was the 2009 National League Tout Wars champion, scoring the most points in the league’s 18-year history. He also holds the all-time NL Tout single-season records for wins and saves. His work can also be found daily at TheCardinalNation.com and thecardinalnationblog.com. Follow Brian on Twitter @B_Walton.

If you weren’t a Major League Baseball fan already, you probably did not notice MLB’s Little League Classic, held in Williamsport, PA on Sunday night. Still, ESPN and MLB did their best to promote the event, designed to help reconnect the game with youth - which oddly included Commissioner Rob Manfred walking around in the stands like a wayward hot dog vendor, passing out commemorative pins.

Numerous features on many individuals during the telecast of the Pittsburgh Pirates-St. Louis Cardinals game included the same messages - adults loved their time playing Little League and grew up to be successful, whether future Major Leaguers or the President of the United States.

The crowd, announced at 2,596, easily filled the tiny short-season Class A ballpark, with most attendees seemingly connected to the Little League World Series being played in town. Of course, most visible to the television camera were the brightly-colored uniforms sported by the LLWS participants from around the world.

But, what did the game really accomplish?

It seems to me that tip-of-the-iceberg youth audience in the stands is already as committed to baseball as any kids could be. Just because this Sunday night game was televised nationally, same as any other week, did large numbers of other youths watch it and wish they could play, too?

I really wonder about that.

At the conclusion of the game, something happened that last occurred in a MLB game (coincidentally also involving the Cardinals) back in 2004. In the universal gesture of sportsmanship, the two teams lined up to shake hands.

Why? Because the Little Leaguers do it and it would look bad for the big leaguers to act otherwise.

In doing so, MLB clearly reminded the youth of the world, “Do as I say, not as I do.”

Canadian hockey aficionado (of course) and unofficial member of the Hall of the Very Good, Larry Walker, proposed the opponent hand-shaking idea to St. Louis manager Tony La Russa during the 2004 National League Division Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. The two sides agreed, regardless of the outcome, and carried it out after St. Louis eliminated Los Angeles on October 12, 2004.

La Russa’s post-game remarks at the time are indicative of the old-school machismo thinking that remains today and can turn off fans and youth alike.

"I'm not sure how it's perceived, but I'm sure it's a good thing," La Russa told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Apparently the perception does not matter 364 days a year – except when MLB is packaging itself as youth-friendly. Then – and only then – it is ok to demonstrate being a good sport – by shaking the hand of someone other than those wearing the same uniform.

I doubt the players are the inhibitor.

Most of today’s ballplayers seem to care little about the game’s odd and archaic unwritten code, such as subdued on-field celebrations and no fraternizing with the opponent. In fact, no one says a word about in-game chatting between baserunners and defenders, which is the rule today, not the exception.

Just this past week, I was at Fenway Park. During one of the contests, St. Louis catcher Yadier Molina doubled and then carried on a long dialogue with Red Sox second sacker Eduardo Nunez. What really caught my attention is that between every pitch for more than one subsequent Cardinals batter, Nunez would leave his defensive position to walk over to Molina on the bag to continue the yak-fest.

The idea of showing sportsmanship at the conclusion of games between Major League Baseball players was put in the deep freeze from 2004 until resurfacing in Williamsport this past weekend. It is likely to disappear again just as quickly.

That would be a shame. It is long past time for this unwritten rule to bite the dust, and if so, this could be one clearly positive outcome derived from the Little League Classic.

Of course, it alone will not bring the millions of soccer-playing youth to pick up baseball, but it is the right thing to do regardless. So, let’s shake on it!

Brian Walton was the 2009 National League Tout Wars champion, scoring the most points in the league’s 18-year history. He also holds the all-time NL Tout single-season records for wins and saves. His work can also be found daily at TheCardinalNation.com and thecardinalnationblog.com. Follow Brian on Twitter @B_Walton.

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