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Phillips: How important is 'character' for an MLB team?

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Steve Phillips
7/26/2013 12:07:50 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 the Jays' acquisitions of players like Brett Lawrie and Colby Rasmus, what the team should do with Brandon Morrow and suggests what Major League Baseball and the players' union should do about performance-enhancing drugs.

1) Over the last few seasons, the Toronto Blue Jays have acquired talented players with purported character issues (Brett Lawrie, Colby Rasmus, Yunel Escobar, Brandon Morrow). With the team's struggles this season, is it time to re-visit the types of players they acquire?

I joined the New York Mets' front office in 1990 as an administrative assistant for minor leagues and scouting. I helped run the drafts for the scouting department and assisted the management of the minor league system. 

Later, I became the minor league director, then the assistant general manager and finally VP of Baseball Operations/General Manager. As I worked my way through the organization, I was preparing for the day that I would run it. I noticed things that I liked and things that I didn't within the operation. 

When I finally took over the baseball operations in 1997, I knew exactly what I wanted to do to build the organization into a championship team. 

One of the immediate changes I made was to eliminate a psychological test that we administered to amateur players prior to the draft. This test had become a deciding factor in why the organization selected one player over another. If a player had good make-up and character, he was moved up the draft board.

And if he had poor make-up he was moved down. 

The result of this was that we had some really nice kids in the organization - but none of which who could play baseball very well. 

Here's an example of how the obsession of make-up could have crushed the Mets. When Manny Ramirez was a senior in high school, he was a highly-regarded prospect. In our draft meetings, scouts raved about his ability to hit. But when it came time to place him on the draft board, he was moved down because his test scores were not great. The test indicated that he had low self-esteem and lacked the confidence necessary for a hitter to break out of a slump. 

I raised my hand in the meeting and said, "That's okay - because he's such a good hitter, he'll never go into a slump." Of course, the scouts chuckled at me as I was a young new executive still wet behind the ears. 

Ramirez was moved down the board - well below where his talent justified and we would not have selected him in the first round. Fortunately for us, he was chosen by the Cleveland Indians even before our selection. But the fact still remained that because of his character assessment, the Mets would have passed on Ramirez with their first pick. He went on to hit .312 with 555 home runs and 1,831 RBI in his career (And is looking to add to that now as he is in the Rangers' minor league system hoping for a call-up). 

Talent wins. Character does not. 

Sure, Manny Ramirez is quirky and aloof. He doesn't always hustle and sometimes he comes up with phantom injuries because he wants a mini-vacation during the season. But he's won two World Series with the Red Sox. 

So the Blue Jays have a few guys that are rough around the edges. They're angry, immature and moody at times. They can be royal pains in the neck. Every other team in baseball has them too, including the ones that will make the playoffs this year. God doesn't make perfect players. There are very few with great character and great talent. Most players have varying degrees of each.  ut in the end, the teams that win aren't the nicest guys; it is the ones who play the best.

The Blue Jays' problems are not about character issues. Their problems are about bad pitching and defence. They can win a championship with Brett Lawrie, Colby Rasmus and Brandon Morrow

Heck, the Tampa Bay Rays may win one this year with Yunel Escobar. I rest my case. 

2) With Brandon Morrow now out for at least six weeks with a forearm injury, is it time for the Blue Jays to move him back to the bullpen because he seemingly can't stay healthy? There's been a debate about what is easier on a pitcher's arm - pitching out of the bullpen or starting. 

A starting pitcher certainly throws more innings over the course of the season and during each appearance but they are structured innings with a substantial rest between outings. 

A reliever may pitch multiple days in a row (which can be a challenge) but he throws only an inning or two at a time. 

Lingering forearm inflammation has limited Morrow's availability this year. There is even a question about whether or not he will pitch at all again this season. He's only made 30 starts in a season once in his career. He has never thrown over 180 innings pitched. His unpredictability makes it very difficult on a manager. He's always a question mark after each start as to whether he will be available for his next start. This takes a toll on a team.
Morrow needs to move back to the bullpen to have any shot of contributing in a consistent way. 

Some may say that he could be a burden in the bullpen because he may not be able to pitch back-to-back days or have the ability to warm up a few times before coming into a game. 

And that's why Brandon Morrow needs to be a closer. 

The closer's role is one of the least taxing on the pitching staff. Rarely does a closer warm up and not immediately enter the game. Most closers enter the game at the start of the ninth inning. The role is predictable and easy to manage. It would be the easiest of all roles on Morrow's powerful but delicate arm. 

But wait, the Jays have a closer in Casey Janssen!  

Janssen has a club option on his contract for next year at $4 million - an affordable closer, who, although unproven in big games, has been effective. He may be an interesting trade chip in the offseason, as he could bring back a mid-rotation starter in a trade. In order to re-tool the pitching staff, the Jays may have to re-configure their staff. 

That said, Alex Anthopoulos will need to get creative this offseason and moving Morrow to the end of the game is creative.

3) With the Nationals and Pirates finishing up their series against each other, which team is the bigger surprise to you this season?

The Pittsburgh Pirates are having an amazing season. They are 60-40 and would be a Wild Card winner if the season ended today. Certainly they are winning at a surprising rate.

Most people forget that last year on this same date, they were 13 games over .500 (55-42) and leading the Wild Card race as well. But they collapsed the rest of the way. Not only did they miss the playoffs, but they finished below .500 for a 20th straight season. 

That being said, it's not a complete shock that they are competitive again this year. I thought they'd be better but just not this good. It feels less likely that they will collapse again and they seem to have a legitimate shot at the playoffs. They're one of the best stories in baseball. 

As surprising as the Pirates have been, I'm even more surprised by how poorly the Nationals have played. The Nats won 98 games last season and seemed like they would be even better this year. They had all the makings of a World Series contender. 

They started the year with better depth in the starting rotation with the addition of Dan Haren. They also expected to have Stephen Strasburg available for an entire season. The signing of Rafael Soriano as the closer added experience to a young bullpen. The pitching was the National League's best in 2012 and appeared to be even better this season. 

Now the pitching has been a bit disappointing this year, but it's better than a 49-52 record would indicate. The bigger problems for the Nationals lie with their defence and their offence. 

Their team defence has fallen off significantly. They allowed 51 unearned runs in 2012 on 94 errors. This year, they have already given up 37 unearned runs on 71 errors. The most disappointing part of this is that they have effectively the same roster this year as they did a year ago. 

The defence has been poor, but nearly as bad as the offence.  The Nats scored 731 runs last year, but are on pace for only 601 this year. They're hitting for less power and less average. Injuries have hurt them to a degree, but there's no excuse for this much of a decline.

They have already changed hitting coaches as Rick Eckstein lost his job and was replaced by Rick Schu. If things don't turn around quickly, manager Davey Johnson may lose his job during this season instead of at the end.  Johnson and the Nats agreed prior to the season that this would be his last as manager and he will serve as a special advisor to the general manager next year. 

If the offence is going to improve to the point of making a difference, it rests on the shoulders of their leaders Ryan Zimmerman and Bryce Harper. It's a bit unfair to ask so much from such a young player as Harper but this team needs a spark and Harper plays with the chip on his shoulder that his teammates need to find. 

As surprised as I am that the Nats have been this bad, I will be even more surprised if they make the playoffs. 
 
FAIR OR FOUL

The Biogenesis story continues to dominate major league baseball. 

The one thing that is very clear in all of this is that the penalties for failures within the Joint Drug Policy do not serve as a deterrent.  Neither does public ridicule or shame. 

This week, Ryan Braun surprisingly accepted a 65-game suspension for his relationship with the drug company. He will lose approximately $3.5 million in salary while suspended. But when he returns to the Brewers next season, he will start collecting on the remaining $100 million on his contract. Remember, Braun failed a drug test in 2011 only to get his suspension overturned on a technicality in an appeal. Was he scared by almost getting caught?  No - he went right back out and cheated again. 

And nineteen other players still face suspensions. Alex Rodriguez is one of those players and speculation is that MLB has more info on A-Rod than they had on Braun and therefore he will likely face a more significant suspension. If Rodriguez, gets a 150-game suspension - as has been speculated in a number of places - he will lose over $20 million. But when he returns, he will still be owed another $90 million or so. He will also still be eligible to earn another $30 million if he reaches home run thresholds during the contract.

Blue Jays outfielder Melky Cabrera is also one of the players on the Biogenesis list. It remains unclear whether baseball will look at this as a new offense or whether the 50-game suspension he served last year will suffice.  Cabrera is in the midst of the two-year, $16 million contract he received as a free agent after being found a cheater just last season. Where was the penalty to Cabrera? He won a World Series, received a full share of playoff money from the Giants and then got the largest contract of his career. 

Most players use PEDs in order to make money. They want to enhance their performance in order to get the big payday. The better the numbers, the better the contract. Some also use PEDs for their egos. They want to maintain a high level of performance to continue to get the attention and adulation that comes with it.  Whatever the motivation, it's far greater than the ramifications of getting caught. 

That said, baseball needs to address the penalties associated with failure under the Joint Drug Policy. Typically these negotiations and subsequent changes to the policy are only done as part of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement.  The union may be willing to upgrade the suspension for a first offence to 100 games and second offence to 150 without re-opening the entire agreement. Many players seem outraged enough by the current events that a change may be accepted and that will certainly have an impact on the decision-making of players.

In order to really have penalties that serve as deterrents, they have to attack the greatest motivation as to why players take the drugs in the first place -  MONEY!

In the next CBA negotiations, Major League Baseball must call for players' contracts to shift from guaranteed to non-guaranteed status. If a player tests positive or is found with links to PEDs under the policy - like Biogenesis - his contract is no longer guaranteed. This will hit the players where it counts the most. If they cheat to make the big money then they should lose the money if they get caught. The new rule should be called the A-Rod rule. If you are found cheating, your contract is no longer guaranteed. 

Baseball must dig in and fight for this change. The players won't like it and the Union will resist. The owners need to shut the game down for as long as they have to in order to get this agreement. Make the players stand up and explain why cheaters should still get paid millions of dollars. I am sure the fans would love to hear that explanation. 

One of the most offensive things about baseball is the guaranteed contract. Players will do anything to get the money and then have no accountability once they have it. It's time to hold the players accountable.

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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