The 9 Most Boneheaded Decisions of the MLB Season

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterAugust 26, 2021

The 9 Most Boneheaded Decisions of the MLB Season

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    In retrospect, the Angels played themselves when they released Albert Pujols.
    In retrospect, the Angels played themselves when they released Albert Pujols.Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

    The Major League Baseball postseason is nearly here, and that means we're that much closer to participating in everyone's favorite pastime: eviscerating crucial October decisions that go wrong.

    To hold us over, how about we take a closer look at a few boneheaded choices from the regular season?

    We picked out nine decisions in particular that are deserving of scrutiny. These involve trades that teams did or didn't make, as well as player usage decisions that have backfired. We also set our sights on a cluster-mess born out of the 2021 draft, along with one all-time misfire on the part of the league office.

    To clarify, anything that happened during the 2020-21 offseason was off limits. Matters that have roots in spring training, on the other hand, were fair game.

    We'll start with those and then go in no particular order from there.

The Rockies Hold on to Trevor Story

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    After the Colorado Rockies traded Nolan Arenado in February, the odds of Trevor Story remaining in Denver throughout the season seemed close to nil. Yet there he is, still in Denver.

    In the Rockies' defense, the two-time All-Star shortstop hasn't exactly upheld his previous value throughout 2021. He had just a .665 OPS during spring training, and so it's gone during the regular season as he's put up a .770 OPS (i.e., a 97 OPS+).

    It's nonetheless baffling that Story didn't immediately follow Arenado out of town. Especially knowing that he stayed put because Jeff Bridich, then the Rockies general manager, didn't want to commit to a rebuild in spite of the Arenado trade.

    That stance should have imploded once Bridich stepped down in April, but the shift of the All-Star Game from Atlanta to Denver actually tightened the club's grip on Story. It effectively wasn't until the July 30 trade deadline that Story finally landed on the block, but the Rockies ultimately declined offers for him.

    The whole ordeal understandably left Story "confused" and has almost certainly guaranteed his departure as a free agent this winter. If so, the Rockies will have to hope that the compensatory draft pick they'll gain by way of the qualifying offer will eventually justify their decision-making.

The Reds Find Out That Eugenio Suarez Is Not a Shortstop

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    Jeff Dean/Associated Press

    After their shortstops combined for an MLB-low minus-0.3 rWAR in 2020, the Cincinnati Reds rightfully had it in mind to upgrade at the position over the winter.

    What's more, the Reds were reportedly aiming high. According to Jon Morosi of MLB Network, at one point they were considering Marcus Semien, Didi Gregorius and Andrelton Simmons on the free-agent market and Francisco Lindor and Trevor Story on the trade market.

    The Reds' first mistake was not following through on their interest in those players. But for the purposes of this exercise, an even bigger mistake was their choice to move ahead with Eugenio Suarez at short.

    Though Suarez found his footing in the majors as a shortstop in 2014 and 2015, he only played there in an emergency capacity after moving to third base full time in 2016. His rustiness was immediately apparent on Opening Day when he made a pair of errors, which unfortunately set the tone for the weeks to come.

    Mercifully, the Reds abandoned the Suarez experiment for good in May. The damage he did at the position is nonetheless seen in a .660 OPS and minus-10 outs above average, not to mention the Reds' 14-17 record in 31 games with Suarez as their starting shortstop.

Craig Kimbrel as a Setup Man

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    Matt Marton/Associated Press

    It was a big deal when the Chicago White Sox acquired ace reliever Craig Kimbrel on deadline day, but then they had the brilliant idea of turning one of baseball's all-time great closers into a setup man.

    Though the thinking these days is that elite relievers should be able to work in any high-leverage situation, Kimbrel always has been and still is an old-school type who lives for when the game is on the line.

    His career ERA in non-save situations is 57 points higher than in save situations. His ERA in the eighth inning is 127 points higher than his ERA in the ninth, in which he's only allowed eight hits and zero runs in 2021.

    White Sox manager Tony La Russa has nonetheless brought Kimbrel out in the eighth inning in nine of his 10 appearances with the team. He's unsurprisingly struggled to the tune of a 6.48 ERA in those outings, with one blown save and one loss. 

    It's easy to pin this all on La Russa, particularly in light of the other controversies (see here, here and here) he's courted this season. But the blame for the White Sox's misuse of Kimbrel also flows up to the club's front office. In any case, they'd better hope the damage isn't irreparable.

The Angels DFA and Release Albert Pujols

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    Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

    When the Los Angeles Angels designated for assignment and subsequently released Albert Pujols in May, anyone who wasn't privy to the context might have said, "Well, it's about time."

    Though Pujols only had five months to go before his 10-year, $240 million contract with the Angels would finally come to an end, whatever hope he had of living up to his deal had long since come and gone. Since the start of the 2017 season, in particular, he had managed only a .694 OPS and minus-2.1 rWAR for the Angels.

    And yet, the circumstances that led to Pujols' release were questionable even at the time.

    According to one report, the Angels let the future Hall of Famer go after he (understandably) got incensed when he was benched for a game against left-handed starter Ryan Yarbrough. Per Angels general manager Perry Minasian, the move was actually meant to open up first base for young slugger Jared Walsh.

    Either way, the Angels might have kept Pujols and used him in a platoon role against left-handers. As evidenced by the .319 average and eight home runs he's posted against lefties since joining the Los Angeles Dodgers on May 17, it's a role he apparently doesn't mind and can clearly handle.

The Rays Trade Willy Adames

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Even if he wasn't the most consistent hitter or defender, the Tampa Bay Rays had themselves a pretty good shortstop between 2018 and 2020.

    That was Willy Adames, who managed an above-average 106 OPS+ and two defensive runs saved across those three seasons. For '19 and '20, specifically, his 5.9 rWAR placed him among the five best shortstops in the American League.

    Because of the rise of wunderkind prospect Wander Franco, however, Adames' days as the Rays' everyday shortstop were numbered even at the outset of 2021. He gave them the excuse they needed by hitting just .197 through 41 games. So, away he went to the Milwaukee Brewers in May.

    Now that Franco is breaking out in the big leagues, the Rays have been vindicated to a certain extent. Yet it would be better if they had Adames right now, as he's been one of the best players in baseball while posting a 146 OPS+ and hitting 17 home runs in 81 games for the Brewers since May 22.

    For their part, the Brewers should be thrilled that their new franchise shortstop is controlled through 2024 and that all it cost to acquire him was a package of two good-not-great relievers.

The Red Sox Neglect to Fill Their Biggest Needs

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    The trade deadline was a wild time in the American League East, during which the Tampa Bay Rays (Nelson Cruz), New York Yankees (Joey Gallo and Anthony Rizzo) and Toronto Blue Jays (Jose Berrios) each loaded up.

    The Boston Red Sox? Not so much.

    They weren't completely inactive, as they did acquire All-Star slugger Kyle Schwarber and relievers Hansel Robles and Austin Davis. Since they already had the lead in the AL East at the time, it wasn't an entirely unforgivable moment for second-year front office head Chaim Bloom.

    It didn't go unnoticed, however, that Bloom neglected to fill the Red Sox's most pressing needs. Namely at first base, where their production is the worst in the league, and in their starting rotation, which had a 4.51 ERA and was still two weeks away from getting Chris Sale back going into deadline day.

    In explaining his conservative approach, Bloom alluded to having to "take care of the future." That's all well and good, but his lack of impact moves is a contributing factor in a 9-14 slide since the deadline. Once in first place, the Red Sox are now in third place and fighting for their lives in the AL wild-card race.

The Padres Sit Out the Trade Deadline

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    Derrick Tuskan/Associated Press

    It's unfair to lump the San Diego Padres in with the Red Sox as a club that flubbed the trade deadline on at least one account: They really tried.

    The Padres did acquire All-Star second baseman Adam Frazier, and there was a moment when they were close to getting three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer from the Nationals. After he instead went to the Dodgers, Jose Berrios reportedly became a "primary target" for San Diego.

    But when the deadline came and went, the Padres were left standing with empty hands.

    From reading MLB.com writer AJ Cassavell's breakdown of the whole situation, Padres general manager A.J. Preller's swing-and-miss was a result of other teams trying to exploit him for more young talent than he was willing to give up. As the man himself said after the deadline, "The value of young talent is huge."

    Like with Boston, this is nonetheless another case in which a team's focus on the future is having disastrous effects on the present. The Padres rotation, which badly needed help, has just a 5.42 ERA amid an 8-14 stretch since the deadline. As a result, the Padres are also battling for their wild-card lives.

The Mets' Kumar Rocker Blunder

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    Rebecca S. Gratz/Associated Press

    The New York Mets had the right idea when they selected Vanderbilt right-hander Kumar Rocker with the No. 10 pick in the 2021 draft.

    Sure, his velocity had been inconsistent during his third season with the Commodores. But he was still arguably one of the five best players in the draft class—and thus a steal at No. 10 overall. 

    What the Mets didn't know, however, was that the 21-year-old had some red flags in his medical files. Those shook the team so much that it backed off its initial agreement on a $6 million bonus. So come the August 1 deadline for teams to sign their picks, Rocker and the Mets went their separate ways.

    The Mets' unwillingness to play ball could pay off if they land a future star with the No. 11 pick in next year's draft, a la when the Houston Astros drafted Alex Bregman after failing to sign Brady Aiken in 2014.

    And yet there's room to criticize the Mets for the time being. As R.J. Anderson of CBS Sports covered, the organization erred in not taking out an "insurance policy"—i.e., a player potentially worth more than his slot value—later in the draft. As a result, more than $1.3 million of New York's bonus pool went to waste.

MLB's Midseason Crackdown on Sticky Stuff

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    No matter what happens the rest of the way, the 2021 season will always be remembered for MLB suddenly making a change right up there with lowering the mound and outlawing PEDs in terms of significance.

    On the off chance that anyone has forgotten, we're talking about the league's crackdown on pitchers using foreign substances on the ball, which began in earnest in May before becoming official on June 21.

    To some extent, the ban has had the desired effect. The leaguewide spin rate is down from 2,278 RPM through May to 2,210 RPM since June, while batting average has increased from .236 to .247. There's also only been one no-hitter in the last three months, compared to six in the first two.

    But does this excuse all the embarrassment MLB has had to put up with as a result of the ban? Arguably not, considering said embarrassment has arisen from situations that range from—in the case of Scherzer and Lance Lynn—the ridiculous to—in the case of Tyler Glasnow—the tragic.

    This is not to suggest that MLB never should have cracked down on sticky stuff. But the best time to do it always was during the winter, not smack dab in the middle of the season.

             

    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

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