Welcome back. I’m scrapping the format I used for the first post in this series. You’ll see one of several reasons soon. No big, long introduction needed here. Let’s just recap some baseball talk.

Episode 3: Thunder

The Style: These early episodes are minimal in their levity, as Ben and Sam strive for brevity. They exchange pleasantries, swap topic proposals and jump right in. There’s a quick sidebar in this instance, as Sam explains that, if they choose Ben’s topic in this episode, they will be cornered into “a Teddy Roosevelt in the mascot races thing,” whereby they always pick Ben’s topic as a gag. They agree that this wouldn’t really work, in the long run, so they choose Sam’s topic (the Texas Rangers) over Ben’s (the Stephen Strasburg innings-limit issue).

The Substance: The Rangers had begun the 2012 season on a tear. I’m using selective endpoints here, but it’s true: Texas was 31-18 and had outscored their opponents by 109 runs at one point near the end of May. They looked utterly unstoppable. They’d achieved 100-percent playoff odds in Baseball Prospectus’s model before the end of April. Sam had written an interesting piece about all the things that could eventually contribute to the Rangers’ decline, but closed out the piece with the verbal version of a hand-wave. He had been very confident in the Rangers’ sustainability.

A mere two months later, the faith Sam—and everyone else—had placed in the team seemed misplaced. They still held a six-game lead in the AL West, but their run differential was not only no longer historic; it was scarcely the best in the league anymore. Sam asked Ben whether he feared Texas could miss the playoffs; Ben said he didn’t. Neither did Sam. They noted that poor health had befallen the Rangers through the early part of the summer, but that their pitchers were on the way back, and that righting the ship should be easy. The notes of caution they did sound centered mostly on the sudden dearth of offense; Sam asked Ben to guess who held the third-highest OPS on the club, after Josh Hamilton and Adrian Beltre. The answer was Craig Gentry.

The Supplement: Hindsight gives us both perspective on the Rangers and a successor in their (story)line. The Oakland Athletics eventually caught those 2012 Rangers, and beat them, taking the AL West title and sending the Rangers to the Wild Card Game—which they lost. The next season, the Rangers battled a lot of the same issues that derailed their early bid for history in 2012, and narrowly reached a tie-breaker for the right to play in the Wild Card Game—a tiebreaker game they lost. In 2014, the fates doubled down on their punishment of some unseen Rangers sin, and the Rangers lost 95 games.

Go back and click on Sam’s article about the Rangers, if you haven’t already, and you’ll be able to identify elements of all the causes of decay on which Sam touched. In particular, though, the A’s turned out to be an unexpectedly hostile neighbor, as it were, and GM Jon Daniels’s efforts to keep up with Oakland in a couple consecutive trade-deadline spending sprees began to stretch them thin. Injuries hit hard over that span, and cut easily through the insufficient depth of the roster.

Of course, the A’s are now undergoing their own version of that 2012 Rangers story. Like Texas two years ago, Oakland looked like an unbeatable juggernaut during the early going this season. Like Texas two years ago, this Oakland team was on its third year of prominence, and looked to be really cementing itself as a powerhouse—maybe a dynasty. Then, as quickly as that feeling came, it was cruelly stamped out. Injuries hit. Players regressed. The A’s were 34-22 after 56 games, and had outscored their opponents by 112 runs. They would finish just 88-74, despite a lunging pair of inventory-draining July trades, barely eking into the Wild Card Game—which they lost.

Through this prism, Billy Beane’s actions this winter make a little more sense. He could well be surrendering one more year of being good and giving away an opportunity, but his goal is to be able to cycle back up to the top of the division in as little time as possible, and he’s taking measures to avoid the pitfalls that took down the Rangers. We’ll see whether it works.

Episode 4: Harp

The Style: Four episodes in, we get our first format change. Sam and Ben announce their plan, at the urging of unnamed listeners, to address two topics per day, instead of choosing one and discarding the other every day. The two make what will turn out to be an unfortunate joke, thanking us all for making Effectively Wild the number-one sports podcast on iTunes. They mention, a handful of episodes later, that family members thought that was serious, and they then had to explain the joke.

The Substance: Topic number one is Ben’s; he wants to talk about the Marlins. After a spending spree leading up to the opening of their new ballpark, the 2012 Marlins were sinking, slowly and sadly, toward the bottom of the NL East. Ben notes the lack of a huge attendance spike, which Sam attributes (in part) to the community being uncertain about the seriousness of the club’s commitment to them. In conjunction with the poor season on the field, that led Miami to offload Hanley Ramirez ahead of the trade deadline, and people began to get nervous about whether the Marlins could be trusted to follow through on their apparent commitment to spending and winning in the short term. Ben and Sam weigh their general feelings on the issue, mostly coming to a non-conclusion.

Sam’s topic is Francisco Liriano, who, at the time of the recording, was on a hot streak leading up to the trade deadline. They kick around Liriano, as a pitcher, talking about his strengths (all those strikeouts), his weaknesses (poor command and, especially, unreliable health) and how he fits into the Twins organization (Sam ends with a quote from Ron Gardenhire, about Liriano: “When you get in trouble, most times, it’s because you’re trying to strike people out.”). It’s breezy, for the most part. They just try to make sense of his good run, and end up declaring him interesting but not overly valuable.

The Supplement: Obviously, the Marlins’ story would get worse—and more controversial—before it got better. The team tore down most of the roster it had built (at such expense) prior to 2012, and did so before 2013 even began. They lost 101 games, very much going into the tank, and started over. At the time, though bizarre, that trade actually made some sense. The team had gotten a false start toward contention, and they needed a more sustainable model for success. It was crass and cold-blooded, and there was clearly financial motivation for it, but that didn’t make it wrong.

By contrast with that wretched 2013 team, the 2014 Marlins were a source of great hope. Giancarlo Stanton regained his full status as the game’s best power hitter. A few other young players made forward progress. Free-agent acquisition Jarrod Saltalamacchia helped stabilize the lineup a bit, as did scrap-heap find Casey McGehee. They signed Stanton to the richest contract in the history of the sport last month. They made a very real push forward.

The winter has, thus far, been less encouraging. In particular, the deal they made Wednesday sends up a few red flags. Miami gave up Andrew Heaney, one of the game’s elite starting pitching prospects, and three other players for Dee Gordon, Dan Haren (who may elect to retire, rather than report to the team) and Miguel Rojas. Heaney is ready starting right away in April. He’s a front-line pitcher, in the long run. That’s an awful lot to give up for a light-hitting, poor-fielding second baseman, a utility infielder and a veteran who might not even wish to pitch for you. That Miami gave up other prospects worth knowing exaggerates the problem.

The most salient part of that deal, in terms of tying it back to a two-year-old banter about them, is this: The Marlins come out some $13 million ahead in the trade, most of it cash if Haren retires. I’d like to believe that Miami’s front office simply made a bad decision, but until I see whether Haren does hang it up and how much the Marlins cash in, I have to retain the thought that they may be putting profit margins unduly ahead of wins and losses again. Not much has changed on this front, since that conversation between Ben and Sam.

Francisco Liriano, however, has turned his career around, and it really did all begin with the hot streak the co-hosts considered on that early episode. He was traded to the Chicago White Sox at the end of the month, and signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates after the season. From the get-go in Pittsburgh, there was a fit. Liriano made some adjustments, physical and mental. The team became one of the league’s most aggressive in shifting against batters and earning extra outs from defensive positioning. Liriano stayed healthy (well, Liriano’s version of healthy), and turned in back-to-back seasons of huge strikeout rates, livable other rates and complete dominance of left-handed batters. This week, he signed a three-year, $39-million deal to return to the Pirates. I was glad to see that. I had pegged Liriano as the pitching market’s best bargain, and I think that holds up, especially in light of Brandon McCarthy’s apparent four-year, $48-million pact with the Dodgers. Re-signing with the Pirates, though, is especially encouraging. Liriano has had so many, varied struggles during his career, that being able to continue work with a manager, pitching coach, training staff and ballpark in which he has a strong foundation of success seems the perfect thing to do. The ending to his story is as happy as the ending to the Marlins story is sad.

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