Though no decision has apparently been reached yet, for a lot of reasons it will be a major upset if Gary LaRocque — the Cardinals’ player development director who’s had a heavy hand in the flurry of system players contributing significantly to their second half surge back into contention — becomes the next Mets general manager.
Why the 65-year-old LaRocque over, say, Indians assistant GM Mike Chernoff, former Red Sox GM Ben Cherington, or Nationals’ special assistant to the GM Dan Jennings, all of whom were reported by various media outlets to also be under consideration? Let us count the reasons:
LaRocque, who served as Mets VP of scouting from 1998-2005, knows the territory, has a good relationship with the Wilpons, especially Fred, and, as such, would come into the job with no illusions of the kind of autonomy Sandy Alderson enjoyed.
The Mets owners are said to want more of a tried and true baseball person than someone from the new wave of analytics eggheads who never played the game. (LaRocque began his baseball career as an infielder in the Brewers’ chain in 1975.)
If there was one area where the analytics-minded Alderson failed, it was in player development — which has been LaRocque’s strong point with the Cardinals. As injuries decimated the Cardinals starting pitchers, the entire rotation that started the season at Triple-A Memphis – John Gant, Jack Flaherty, Dakota Hudson, Austin Gomber and Daniel Poncedeleon – have come up and filled in effectively. Perhaps most impactful, however, has been the development of 21-year-old high velo set-up man Jordan Hicks, who was originally signed as a starter but immediately was converted to a reliever after LaRocque and Cardinals’ GM John Mozeliak first saw his blazing fastball — which has been clocked over 100 MPH 430 times this season!
LaRocque’s record as Mets’ scouting director was mixed. Before hitting big in the 2001 draft with first-rounders David Wright and Aaron Heilman and in 2002 with Scott Kazmir, his early drafts were mostly devoid of any players who made it to the majors. But he has thrived as a player development director with the Cardinals after taking over from Jeff Luhnow, who left in 2011 to become GM of the Astros.
“The biggest thing Gary brought to the table was organization,” a former Cards exec told me. “He made sure everyone in the organization, from the minor league players, managers, coaches and trainers were all on the same plan. He restored the (legendary Cardinals farm director) George Kissell way of doing things and it’s no accident all these kids who came up to them this year came up ready to perform.”
Although the Mets’ minor league system is in need of a total overhaul, this is not a hopeless situation the new GM will be walking into. The present GM troika of John Ricco, Omar Minaya and J.P. Ricciardi did the right thing at the trading deadline by holding on to Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Zack Wheeler because if you’ve got quality frontline starting pitching, you have a chance. In recent weeks, there have been some positive developments with the everyday lineup — Jeff McNeil looks like the real deal at second base, Michael Conforto seems to be re-finding his stroke, Brandon Nimmo is showing he has potential 20-plus homer power.
What the Mets need most is a right-handed power bat to bunch in among all the left-handed hitters in the middle of the order, and a catcher. The former is not going to be found on the free agent market. The Mets shouldn’t involve themselves in Scott Boras’ Bryce Harper circus – how have the Nationals fared with Harper? – and with Amed Rosario coming into his own, Manny Machado (who will likely have far more enticing options) doesn’t make sense either. Maybe that right-handed power guy is first baseman Peter Alonso, waiting in the wings at Triple-A Las Vegas.
What is not fair is the notion that the Wilpons are cheapskates if they choose to sit out the Harper and Machado sweepstakes. Not with a payroll of $149 million. They’ve proven in the past they’re willing to shell out for the right player. Unfortunately, all those supposed right players – Jason Bay, Yoenis Cespedes and now Jay Bruce – wound up burning them in one way or another.
IT’S A MADD, MADD WORLD
The blown strike three call by home plate umpire Tony Randazzo on the Giants’ Nick Hundley that should have ended the fourth inning for Jacob deGrom Thursday at Citi Field was just the latest example of atrocious ball and strike-calling that has seemingly run rampant this season. Though the classy deGrom blamed himself for allowing himself to lose his concentration after walking Hundley and giving up an RBI double to his opposing pitcher, Madison Bumgarner, Randazzo’s blown call changed the entire complexion of the game. Every time Angel Hernandez is behind the plate, players know it’s going to be an adventure. Same thing with Phil Cuzzi and C.B. Bucknor, two of the other worst umpires in baseball. But still these guys go on. Never get fired or demoted.
There is no better evidence that the quality of umpiring is getting worse, not better, than the 47.2% overturned calls upon review this season. Nearly half the calls were blown calls! Unfortunately, there is no review for balls and strikes and, god knows how many of those calls are blown? Players are complaining more than ever before.
“The problem is all these umpires have different strike zones and there’s no consistency,” said a major league exec, who requested anonymity. “It’s become a joke. At least when Sandy Alderson installed the Ques-Tec system in the early 2000s we got some uniformity. We need to get to a system where balls and strikes are called electronically.”
Last year, Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said he could see when that day could come. Replay is saving baseball from its bad umpiring on the field, but the even bigger problem is the umpiring behind the plate, where it’s not allowed to be used…
Call it a mulligan, if you will, but Cubs president of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein’s acquisition of Cole Hamels at the trading deadline is helping a lot to ease the pain of the foolhardy six-years/$126 million he gave Yu Darvish and three years/$38M to Tyler Chatwood last winter. Hamels’ 4-0, 0.79 ERA in his first five starts for the Cubs is offsetting the lost seasons of Darvish and Chatwood and he may well wind up being the difference maker in the Cubs’ winning the NL Central.
If he does, Epstein may have no choice but to pick up his $20M 2019 option.