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Phillips: Lawrie at second, Arencibia and L.A.'s Puig-mania

Steve Phillips, TSN Baseball Analyst
7/12/2013 1:41:32 PM
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Each week, TSN Baseball Analyst Steve Phillips breaks down all the big stories and issues around Major League Baseball on TSN.ca. In this edition, he looks at Brett Lawrie's possible move to second base, whether or not JP Arencibia deserves to be the Blue Jays' 'whipping boy' and how the Dodgers should deal with baseball sensation Yasiel Puig.

1) The Toronto Blue Jays are considering having Brett Lawrie play second base when he comes off the DL. Where should he play in order for the Jays to field their best lineup?

I can't stand when organizations continuously jockey players around from position to position assuming that it is no big deal. 

Here is how the conversations go:

"Oh, just move him to second base from catcher. Craig Biggio did it."
 
Then it's, "Let's try to move him to third base now. His bat profiles as more of a third baseman."
  
Then when it works and you get, "Wow, he looks pretty good at third base. He has excellent range. That range would really help us up the middle. Let's move him back to second base." 

When a player has versatility it is a blessing and a curse at times. 

It's a blessing because it allows a GM the ability to construct his team any number of different ways. This allows the manager to adapt and adjust to the ups and downs of a season - not only where injuries are at play, but also where underperformance may be hurting the team.

The curse of versatility is that the player never feels stability and doesn't form an identity for what he is as a player. A change of position, especially in season can disrupt a player's rhythm and confidence. It can force a player to focus so much on defence that his offence could suffer.  Also, too many changes in a role can make a player or team think there's no plan in place and that the GM is flying by the seat of his pants. 

With all that being said, I like the move of Brett Lawrie to second base. The blessing is that the move allows Alex Anthopoulos to put his best defensive team on the field with Maicer Izturis or Mark DeRosa at third and Lawrie and Jose Reyes up the middle. Defensive improvement is a critical factor if the Jays are going to make a run in the second half. And Reyes and Lawrie could be dynamic up the middle for a long time. The range would be much improved up the middle than if Izturis or DeRosa play second. And Emelio Bonifacio has been less than stellar defensively at second base and is much better suited to be a super-sub. 

Consider that the Blue Jays' second basemen have had twice as many chances (471) as the Jays' third basemen (235) through the first 91 games of the season.

The move also allows for the possibility of playing Edwin Encarnacion at third base and Adam Lind at first, so this would allow some flexibility at the DH role. 

And there will be more of a third base trade market at the deadline than with second. Guys like Mark Reynolds, Chase Headley, Placido Polanco, Martin Prado, Aramis Ramirez and Michael Young may be available to play third.

The curse is the fear that moving Brett Lawrie back to second base could disrupt his batting. 

Disrupt what? 

Do you mean he might hit less than .209 if he moves to second base?  I actually think for a struggling hitter like Lawrie (who is what I call a 'tryer'), this move can help his hitting. When Lawrie struggles at the plate, he grips the bat tighter and tells himself he has to get a hit. He 'over-tries' - when a hitter struggles at the plate he doesn't need to try harder he needs to relax more. The distraction of playing another position will actually cause less obsession about hitting for the 'over-tryer.'  I know because I was the same over-tryer as a hitter when I played. 

For the most part, I like the move because Lawrie seems energized by it. He recently tweeted, "Loved playin some 2 bag last night, feel comfortable every time out there, brings me back to my first 2 seasons over there #Deuces."  If it makes the kid feel good about himself, takes away the obsession of hitting and creates roster flexibility, then it's hard to find anything wrong with the move.  Go for it!

2) JP Arencibia got into it with local media last week. They have been critical of his approach at the plate and his handling of the pitching staff. Does he deserve to be the team's 'whipping boy' as John Gibbons called it?

We all love to play the blame game. When something goes wrong we want to find the one person who is at fault and assign blame. It's fun. It's what fans do and it's what the media does. It's easy. It's even easier when we can find one guy who is struggling in multiple areas. 

There's rarely only one person to blame when something goes wrong in baseball. It's a team game - you win as a team and you lose as a team and I truly believe that. 

Whenever the pitchers struggle and perform below expectations, we start pointing fingers. It's the pitcher's fault, the pitching coach's fault, the catcher's fault or the GM's fault. That leaves out the possibility that the manager may not be managing them properly or the fielders behind the pitchers may not be catching the ball. There's a lot of blame to pass around.

Ultimately, when any one component of the team is struggling there are always multiple factors as to why and any number of people who assume responsibility. 

Make no mistake about it, JP Arencibia is responsible for the struggles of the starting pitchers. But only partially - he needs to own it. 

He's also responsible for the success of the AL's second best bullpen. But only partially - he's allowed to own that too.

The fact is that Arencibia strikes out too much and he's not a functional major league hitter with a .256 OBP with 13 BB and 95 strikeouts in 295 AB. But he also has 15 home runs, so he needs to own his strengths and shortcomings offensively too.

Now Arencibia has become the target of a former pitcher in Dirk Hayhurst and a former catcher in Gregg Zaun. As ballplayers, we tend to point fingers at everyone before ourselves. Pitchers have a tendency of pointing fingers at the catcher and a former catcher can always find something wrong that a current catcher is doing. Even the best ones. This broadcast team automatically has a predisposition to overanalyze the catcher just because of their own respective experiences.
 
Arencibia's response to the criticism is understandable. Who likes to get ripped publicly? I sure don't, but it's the nature of the beast. The criticism of him was not personal, but he made it personal in return. That's a mistake. This is a war that JP can't win.

The media always has the last word or the last tweet. Always. 

Why can't Arencibia just say, "Yes I feel responsible for the struggles of my starting staff. I know we are better than what we have performed. I am going to continue to work hard on getting the most out of each guy. I hope I can have the same success with our starters as I am having with the most worked and most successful bullpen in baseball."

Then add, "As far as my offense goes I feel proud of the power production so far but that is not good enough.  I know I need to make more contact and be more selective at the plate.  I am going to continue to work on that."

One thing I've learned is that if I acknowledge my shortcomings, people move closer to me - not further away. When I acknowledge areas I need to improve, those analyzing me can relate to their own experience better.
 
JP Arencibia doesn't deserve to be the whipping boy for anything. No one does. But if he isn't careful, he'll find himself run out of town because he's picking a fight he has no chance of winning. 

3.) ESPN is reporting that MLB will seek to suspend Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun for 100 games each, the punishment for a second offence, even though neither player has been suspended for PEDs before. Should MLB be allowed to do this - essentially punishing the players twice for the same alleged offence?

Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun both have well-documented ties to PEDs in the past.

Rodriguez gave the interview to Peter Gammons in which he confessed to using drugs for a limited and contained time frame after a Sports Illustrated story that he was one of the 104 players that tested positive for drugs in 2003. He admitted that he took performance-enhancing drugs while playing for the Texas Rangers during a three-year period beginning in 2001.

Ryan Braun became the first major league player to have a positive drug test overturned when an arbitration panel ruled in his favour on appeal and decided against a 50-game suspension. He got off on a technicality and didn't challenge the validity of the test result. He questioned the process of how his sample was handled. Despite avoiding the suspension, he still tested positive for PEDs.

Both Braun and Rodriguez have made claims since that they are clean.

Major League Baseball is considering 100-game bans for these two as is typical for second offenses under the Joint Drug Policy. The Commissioner's Office sees receiving performance-enhancing drugs from Bosch and by lying about it as two offences.

And I think this is a fair and appropriate penalty under the policy.

It doesn't matter that there are no positive drug tests. The drug policy which the players agreed to calls for suspensions for a 'nonanalytical positive.' Braves outfielder Jordan Schafer was the first nonanalytical positive which led to a suspension when he was tied to HGH in 2008. He hadn't failed a drug test, but was connected to the drug by anecdotal evidence. Guilt by association.

Players have to be held accountable to tell the truth to the Commissioner's investigators.  If they lie, they should be punished.

Even if the additional 50-game suspension for lying gets overturned under appeal, it's worth the Commissioner's Office pursuing the penalty. It's time for the Major League Baseball Players Association to be held accountable for their defence of cheating and lying players.

So let the Union stand up and declare that even though the players lied, they shouldn't be penalized. Effectively let them defend that lying is okay - I would love to hear that argument!

FAIR or FOUL

Yasiel Puig, a Cuban defector with only 63 games of minor league experience has burst on the Major League baseball scene. He has taken over L.A. and is reminding Dodger fans of the days of Fernandomani, Nomomania and Mannymania. He's a Dodger phenom that seems bigger than life. 

In just 35 games, he's hitting .394 with eight home runs and 19 RBI while scoring 27 runs. He has 56 hits in those 35 games. When he was called up, the Dodgers were 23-32 and have since gone 22-13. He's completely turned their season around.

Now not only has he electrified Dodger fans, he has captured the imagination of baseball fans everywhere. His jerseys are already the 10th highest number sold this year and he's only been a big leaguer for a little over a month. There have been more Puig jerseys sold than (Triple Crown winner) Miguel Cabrera jerseys. 

We've debated the merits of his being an All-Star. Believe it or not, he received 842,915 write-in votes on All-Star ballots. He was a candidate for the NL Final Vote, but finished second.

And he's as popular a player as baseball has right now. Yet it hasn't been a completely smooth transition to the major leagues for Puig.

Just about a week after his call-up, Puig was hit with a pitch in a game versus Arizona that saw two bench-clearing incidents resulting in eight suspensions. Puig was an aggressor in the skirmishes and fined for his role, but he wasn't suspended, something that angered D-Backs players and others around the league as it seemed he received preferential treatment.

In another instance, Puig was thrown out easily at the plate in a game against the Diamondbacks but he collided with catcher Miguel Montero and then stared him down as he walked back to the dugout.

In yet another incident with the Diamondbacks, Puig was approached during batting practice by former Arizona star Luis Gonzalez. Gonzalez starting to talk to Puig about the start of the youngster's major league career and how he, like Puig, has family roots in Cuba.  And Puig didn't give Gonzalez the time of day. It took Dodger hitting coach Mark McGuire to confront the young slugger and point out the disrespect he was showing.

ESPN's Pedro Gomez reported that Puig's interpreter has gotten into trouble this season for trying to get women's phone numbers for the slugger. That is a clear sign of entitlement and misguided priorities.

With the kind of success that Puig has had come significant media attention. Everybody wants to talk to him for a story of some sort. Puig is extremely uncomfortable with the media; full of distrust and disdain. He refuses talk to the media before games and is hard to pin down after games.

Puig seems completely ill-prepared to handle the instant fame that his performance warrants.

"In Cuba, there wasn't much press," he said. "Here, I have a lot of press on me and it's not something I really like. Maybe they don't understand the situation I'm in. I'm not bad, I just don't like the press and I don't like the fame. I'm having fun and I want my team to get the attention. There are a lot of guys in the bullpen or in the dugout waiting for their turn to talk. It's not that I don't want to give an interview, I just don't want all the press all over me."

Unfortunately for Puig, the more reluctant he is to give interviews, the more aggressive the media will become. 

As exciting as Yasiel Puig has been, the Dodgers have a crisis on their hands. If there's this much turmoil in such a short time on the field it makes you wonder what's happening off the field. In late April he was charged with speeding, reckless driving and driving without proof of insurance in Chattanooga, TN where the Dodgers' Double-A team is located. 

The Dodgers must immediately put together a plan to help develop this young man socially, mentally and emotionally.  He needs to learn how to be a professional and everything that it entails. 

His physical ability is much more advanced than his personal development. The Dodgers need to reign in his ego while not putting a bushel over his bright light. 

His sense of entitlement needs to be confronted and contained. He must be held accountable for his words and actions.  He needs to learn to respect the game and the people in it.  Puig needs to learn whom to trust and whom not to trust. The Dodgers also need to educate him on the media. They must control his access to the media - making him available before and after the games for every game.

He needs structure. He needs a mentor. He needs it on the field and off the field. He needs it quickly.

Yasiel Puig has been the story of the year in baseball. He has distracted us from the Biogenesis drug scandal and given us a new superstar for whom to cheer. But if he doesn't get the help he needs, his career will explode on the back end as much as it has exploded on the front end. 

Steve Phillips was general manager of the New York Mets from 1997 through 2003, helping lead the club to a National League championship in 2000 and its first World Series appearance in 14 years.




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