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Deep Thoughts: Rotation and Manager Edition

Today's Deep Thoughts guest is Ben Lindbergh, editor/author at Baseball Prospectus, analyst at Bloomberg Sports and recent BBWAA member. We discuss the Rays options on the starting pitching front and a possible new market inefficiency. Enjoy.

Erik Hahmann: The Rays have a problem. Sort of. They have seven viable starting pitchers (Shields, Price, Hellickson, Davis, Niemann, Moore, Cobb) and only five spots for them. The offense has some positions that could stand to be upgraded, so it would seem as if someone(s) has to be moved at some point. Matt Moore's recent contract seemingly assures him a spot in the opening day rotation. That leaves Davis, Niemann and Cobb has the most likely candidates to be traded. My first question to you, Mr. Lindbergh, is who should be moved?

Ben Lindbergh: First of all, I reject your rosteronormative contention that the Rays have only five rotation spots to fill. Who's to say what a rotation's supposed to look like in our enlightened times? But let's assume that Maddon doesn't decide to do something Maddon-y and sticks with the standard rotation we've all come to love. Shields, Price, Hellickson, and Moore seem like locks. Even if Hellickson was something of a mirage last season, you can't very well demote someone for being the Rookie of the Year, and Hellickson's the rare mirage with some substance--in other words, he's the kind of pitcher who may have had a fluky season, but whom you wouldn't necessarily expect to flop, since some improvement in his peripherals could counteract a turn for the worse in his luck. (Side note: I'm really going to miss all those "The Rays haven't had a single start by someone who's not in their 20s" stats. Shields just had to go and turn 30 this winter.)

So really, we're just talking about filling the fifth-starter slot here. Trading Davis now smells like selling low. I'm not telling DRB readers anything they don't know, but the Davis of the second half wasn't all that much like the Davis of the first half, either stuff-wise or results-wise. Unfortunately, the two Davises have the same Baseball-Reference page, and the first one is still making the second one look bad. That means the Rays might get less for him than he's worth. If you have to trade someone, I'd probably trade Niemann, and not solely because that's what R.J. Anderson thinks and I owe all my Rays-related knowledge to him. He's arb-eligible, he's older than all the other guys in the mix, and he can't seem to avoid breaking down. (Niemann, that is, not R.J.) Those all seem like good reasons to make him the one to go. Of course, those also seem like good reasons why you'd get a smaller return for him, but let's just ignore that for now.

EH: It would be awesome, and sad because I love him, if Friedman traded Shields solely to keep that streak alive. The scenario in your second paragraph is the big issue. Which one of Niemann and Davis brings back the biggest return? Also, they could conceivably trade both, putting Alex Cobb in the five slot, but that would leave Jeremy Hellickson, in his second season, as the third most tenured member of the rotation. If this was the 2007 Devil Rays I could see that happening, but not now. The team also values it's pitching depth, sespite having one of, if not the, healthiest rotations over the past four seasons. They don't want to be faced with a Jason Hammel type situation where they're forced to trade a player for pennies on the dollar. Their bullpen is pretty full, so moving one of the exiled starters to the pen may not work either. What DO they do, Ben?

BL: Man, being a Rays fan sounds like fun. If you couldn't tell (and I don't know how you could've), that last sentence was serious and sarcastic at the same time. It's fun in that you get to watch a bunch of super-smart people run a baseball team. Also in that you got to watch Winston Abreu for a few innings a couple years ago. Oh yeah, and also in that you keep making the playoffs, sometimes in the most exciting way imaginable. But on the other hand, you never really get to sit back and enjoy all the wins. The wolf is always at the door. Not Winston Wolf, who might be exactly what the Rays need--imagine how quickly he could've disposed of Pat Burrell's body!--but the proverbial one, the kind that's always threatening to make you poor and eat Liam Neeson. You constantly have to be thinking about tearing the team down in order to keep it barely competitive rather than figuring out how to build on the core to create a powerhouse. Rays fans must all have excitement/anxiety ulcers. I both envy and pity all of you. Hugs all around.

It's hard to strike the right balance between trying to win now on a limited budget and trying to win later on a budget that shows no signs of being any less limited. It's the Desmond Jennings/Matt Moore conundrum from last season all over again. Do we call them up now, even if it means we can't pay them later? Or do we go for broke and hope things will work out if we make the playoffs? (Because if there's one thing the past few seasons have shown us, it's that as long as the Rays are winning, attendance at the Trop will be fine.) I think the Rays know this competitive window might not stay open forever, no matter how hard they keep trying to prop it up, and there's something to be said for winning while you can. So no, I don't see them trading everyone with experience and handing an important role to someone unproven. In some cases, you can do that and still stay competitive--Matt Moore wasn't proven when he was called up. (He was also Matt Moore, which is even better, if not the best thing it's possible to be.) But some sort of trade seems to make sense.

But what if they didn't do anything? What if they held on to all their arms and let things play out for a while, prepared to make a move at midseason if necessary? Would that be so bad? Would they be any worse off than they were a year ago, which turned out to be well off enough to win the wild card?

EH: Well, how would that shape up to you? Does Davis go to the pen? Cobb toils in AAA? Outsider opinion, wanted.

BL: I hate to break it to you, but an insider opinion would probably be more informative. If you insist on asking for mine, though, I'd be content to leave Davis at the end of the rotation. For now, Niemann can just kind of stand around looking tall and deceptively like a guy who should be able to throw a lot of innings. Maybe he'll get hurt again and make things easier on everyone. But he's the guy I think it makes the most sense to trade, so let's say that happens. As for Cobb, TOS ended his season early. Plus, he had a rib removed. Who knows if he'll be as good without that rib?? It may have been the secret to his success. I don't see any problem with letting him go to Durham for a while to establish that he's healthy and that the missing rib wasn't actually all that important. By the time he's built his value back up, there might be an opening in Tampa Bay, or on another team.

EH: As it stands right now that seems like the plan, though I'd guess if anyone had to go to the pen it would be Davis. He has the velocity to be a good late inning reliever.

Changing topics, yesterday you wrote about managers and how they seem to be the new market inefficiency. Your poll of exactly seven front office types revealed that they believe a manager operating at an optimum level would net his team an average of three wins per season. THREE. That's a lot. Is a polar opposite manager likely to cost his team three games? I'm interested in your end line "If teams are aiming to make "decisions based on the best and most timely pieces of information that you can have at your fingertips," how much longer will they entrust that information to someone liable to go with his gut?" So, you're saying you're going to welcome our new robot overlords?

BL: Three wins is a lot, or at least I thought so. (That's three wins above the average major-league manager, by the way.) But "out with the humans, in with the robots" wasn't really my point. I'd encourage everyone to read the full article, because A) more hits for me, and B) I explained myself more fully there than I'm going to here. What I was getting at is that managers may no longer be the people best suited for making tactical decisions. Thirty years ago, when the manager and whatever constituted the front office at the time probably came from the same background, sure. But things have changed, and much of the change has skewed toward the front office. Managers are as essential as ever--the roles they play in the clubhouse and with the media are full-time jobs in themselves, and by virtue of being close to the players, they know things a statistical model never could. But just as they've delegated other responsibilities to their ever-growing coaching staffs over the past century or so, it may be time to leave the tactical decisions to the people who've studied the impact of each move more closely. It seems like the natural next step in the ongoing specialization of the managerial role.

Then again, there's Joe Maddon, who seems open-minded and analytical enough that he's not only adept with the interpersonal aspects of the job, but essentially an extension of the front office when it comes to tactical decisions. If there were more Maddons out there (and eventually, there probably will be), those missing three wins would be easier for other teams to come by.

EH: Serious question; How far are we from a manager wearing an ear piece and having someone from the front office telling him what to do in key situations? Assuming that hasn't happened already?

BL: Well, as far as I know, the use of electronic devices in the dugout is prohibited, so that would probably require a rule change, unless there's a loophole to exploit (or a mid-game TV interview to do, I guess). I'm not familiar with the exact language. In principle, I like the idea, and maybe it's not that different from what we already see in football. Aside from the possible rule against it, the major impediment to the earpiece plan is tradition. No manager who's become accustomed to pulling the strings would surrender his autonomy willingly, so you'd probably have to start from scratch with someone who accepts the job under those conditions. But as I pointed out in the article, GMs have sacrificed or delegated a lot of their responsibilities in order to run their teams more efficiently. Maybe managers should do the same.

EH: Well, I meant more along the lines of a team doing it without telling MLB. I don't suspect that umpires check a manager's ear before a game or between innings. THAT would be the extra 2%. I agree that it would take building someone from scratch. Do you think we'll ever see another player/manager?

BL: I don't. I kind of wish we would, though that's mostly my nostalgia speaking. But I think both players and managers have too much on their plates to take on both at once. Neither of those jobs is easy. Look how bad at playing Pete Rose was once he started managing! That probably had nothing to do with the fact that he was pushing 45. (The Rose example gives teams another reason not to think about bringing back the player-manager, actually--it's hard for a manager to know when it's time to bench himself.)

Thanks to Ben for joining us. Follow him on Twitter @ben_lindbergh and check out the Best of Baseball Prospectus books.

To me, it's always a good idea to always carry two sacks of something when you walk around. That way, if anybody says, "Hey, can you give me a hand?," you can say, "Sorry, got these sacks."