I think it can be safely said that Billy Wagner operates without a filter. The Mets’ closer nearly initiated a brawk with the University of Michigan after one of their players tried to lay down a bunt against him in the fourth inning of an exhibition game. Wagner became furious after the bunt attempt, which came with one out and a runner on second base, and began yelling at the young collegian, “Save that for Villanova!” After the game, Wagner said that if the bunt had stayed fair, he would have “drilled” the next hitter. Oh, please. Since when did it become a rule that hitters can’t attempt bunts in exhibition games? And even if this was somehow a breach of baseball etiquette, why does Wagner feel that he has to bully a no-name college player, one who probably already feels a level of intimidation playing against major leaguers?
This kind of nonsensical ranting from has typified Wagner since he first signed with the Mets. After all, this is the same guy who criticized his manager for putting him in to pitch the ninth inning with a four-run lead. It’s the same guy who dubbed the Mets’ off-season a failure in December, with nearly two months to go before the start of spring training. Gee, I wonder if Wagner has revised his assessment of the Mets as a third-place team since the acquisition of Johan Santana.
I can hear the refrain of Mets fans already. “Shut up, Billy,” they must be screaming, “and just make sure you start getting some outs in October.”…
While Wagner spouts off in Port St. Lucie, the Yankees continue their training in Tampa at the newly named Steinbrenner Field. The Yankees have put on a brave public front with regard to Jason Giambi, whom they regard as the leading candidate to play first base. I’m a big fan of Joe Girardi and his managerial potential, but he must be kidding himself if he thinks that Giambi can a) play a competent first base and b) stay healthy enough to play the position regularly. I’m normally not one to obsess about the defensive inadequacies of a first baseman, but Giambi is an absolute brute at the position; he combines the throwing arm of Steve Garvey with the agility of **** “Dr. Strangelgove” Stuart. On the plus side, he does have soft hands, but even that attribute is negated by his inability to stretch on throws that are off target.
The Yankees would be smart to turn first base over to a platoon of Shelley “Crash” Duncan and Wilson Betemit, or Morgan Ensberg and Betemit. Duncan, an extremely hard worker, has already impressed the Yankees with his aptitude in learning first base. Converted from the left side of the infield, Ensberg and Betemit should be able to handle the transition to a less challenging position like first base. Most importantly, either of those combinations would easily give the Yankees more offensive production than what they extracted from last year’s trio of Doug Mientkiewicz, Andy Phillips, and Miguel Cairo.
Rumors of the Tampa Bay Rays’ interest in Barry Bonds have created the question-of-the-day in the hours leading up to the spring exhibition openers: will Bonds play anywhere in 2008?
In spite of his agent’s claims that Japan remains an option (could you imagine Bonds trying to conform to the radically different expectations of the Japanese culture?), I expect that it will be the major leagues or bust for Bonds in ’08. More specifically, it will have to be the American League. Other than the Cardinals, almost all of the Bonds speculation has involved American League teams. According to the consensus of most scouts, Bonds has become too much of a defensive liability in left field, where his popgun arm and alarming lack of range prevent him from making the most basic of plays. Furthermore, his knees won’t likely respond to the twisting and turning that would come with a positional switch to first base. Those realities leave potentially 14 AL teams who could become landing spots for Bonds–at least theoretically.
Of those 14 teams, several already have a fulltime designated hitter, or in some cases, hitters. The Red Sox (David Ortiz), White Sox (Jim Thome), Indians (Travis Hafner), Tigers (Gary Sheffield), Yankees (Hideki Matsui/Jason Giambi), and Blue Jays (Frank Thomas, backed up by Matt Stairs) have no vacancies at the DH inn. So we can realistically eliminate those six teams. Several other clubs (the Orioles, Royals, Twins, A’s, and Rangers) don’t appear to be realistic pennant or playoff contenders, eliminating them from having legitimate interest in a fortysomething player who may be approaching his final season. So let’s cross those five off the list, too.
That leaves us with three American League teams–the Rays, Angels, and Mariners. The Rays, who could be ready to catapult the .500 level for the first time in franchise history, could certainly make room for Bonds to be their DH, especially after trading Delmon Young and Elijah Dukes during the winter. But there is a downside. Even with Bonds, the Rays don’t figure to match either the Red Sox or Yankees (or anybody from the AL Central and West) in a battle for the AL wildcard. So would it be worth their while to create a distraction-filled media circus, which is what will happen with the arrival of Bonds, just to have a record that is .500 or slightly better? Perhaps not. That’s why I remain skeptical that the Rays will become serious suitors for Bonds.
If the Rays are indeed out of the question, that leaves us with the Angels and Mariners as the most logical destinations. Both teams figure to contend (directly against each other, for that matter)–and both could use the offensive boost created by Bonds. The Angels would likely have to make soom room in their lineup by trading Gary Matthews, Jr. and moving Garret Anderson back to left field on a fulltime basis. That’s doable. The Mariners would also need to make soom room by either trading incumbent DH Jose Vidro or moving him to the bench, again a manageable proposition. Yet, neither the Mariners nor the Angels have shown any interest whatsoever in signing Bonds. Perhaps it’s the indictment hanging over his head, or the $10 million salary that he likely wants, or maybe it’s the fear that Bonds will poison the clubhouse with his spoiled, surly nature.
There’s likely that nothing can be done about the indictment, aside from his lawyers trying to delay any trial until after the season ends. But Bonds himself can do something about the other hurdles he faces. If he really wants to play, if he really wants to join the 3,000-hit club this summer, he should lower his financial demands to something in the $5 million range, with incentives based on the number of games he is able to play. And just as significantly, Bonds needs to drop the diva act. He should cease his demands for perks like extra locker space, which represented part of the special treatment package that he came to expect from the Giants. Prospective teams, such as the aforementioned Rays, would be more likely to sign Bonds if they knew he would not create such a bad example for the many young players who occupy such an impressionable clubhouse. Without Bonds’ craving for special favors in a place like Tampa Bay, there would be far less potential for resentment from youthful teammates who are still learning how to win games.
If Bonds is willing to play by the same rules as everyone else, while also taking a more drastic paycut, he might just be able to extend his career by one more summer. Otherwise, Bonds could be looking at a long year, with little prospect of playing ball and far stronger prospects of going to court.
Some general managers view the prospect of making trades with the same level of joy that most of us would feel picking up a skunk. Many GMs would rather sit back and watch young players develop, as a way of filling in holes from within the organization. But sometimes a general managers has no choice but to make a trade, especially when it involves a player who is out of options. Those players can’t be sent back to the minor leagues without first clearing waivers, often a difficult proposition.
Several potentially useful players are caught in the predicament of not having guaranteed roster spots—while also having no options remaining. As a result, some of those players could be moving on in spring training trades. Here are six of the most significant names that could be moving on:
Andy Marte (Indians): At one time listed as the game’s top prospect, Marte has seen his stock plunge like a lead weight over the last two seasons. He appears to have the inside track on one of Cleveland’s backup spots, but his mediocre hitting at Triple-A in 2007 and overall lack of versatility (he’s strictly a third baseman) make him less than ideal for the bench. Still, the Indians are reluctant to trade him. They don’t want to repeat the same mistake that they made with Brandon Phillips, whom they basically gave away to the Reds two seasons ago.
Sean Henn (Yankees): GM Brian Cashman has raved about the movement on Henn’s 92 mile-per-hour fastball, but it hasn’t translated into any positive results in the Bronx. Henn could lose out to non-roster invitees Heath Phillips and Billy Traber, or could watch the Yankees carry all right-handers in the bullpen. Expect a trade; after all, Henn is young and left-handed, so someone will want him.
Dan Johnson (A’s): With the signing of Mike Sweeney to a minor league contract, Johnson could be the odd man out in Oakland. He hit poorly for the A’s last summer, survived a series of rumors that had him traded to the Yankees, and then sat back and watched the organization acquire Sweeney and future first baseman Chris Carter. The A’s will shop Johnson to all interested parties, which likely will include their Bay Area rivals in San Francisco. The Giants, who need just about everything, could use a left-handed bat with Johnson’s power potential. One B-level or C-level prospect might get the deal done.
Jason Botts (Rangers): The health of Milton Bradley and the trade status of Marlon Byrd (rumored to be on the block) will have a direct affect on Botts’ chances of making the Rangers as a backup outfielder and part-time DH. Botts’ ability to switch-hit could make a difference in whether he makes the team—or is sent packing to a team like the Marlins, Cardinals, or Giants.
Nelson Cruz (Rangers): He is battling Botts head-to-head for one of the spots on the Texas bench. Cruz’ Winter League performance has the Rangers excited to the extent that he could fill a role as an outfielder and DH. As with Botts, his status will be affected by any trade involving Byrd. If no trades are made, either Botts or Cruz will make the team, with the other player left on the outside looking in.
Ruben Gotay (Mets): On the surface, Gotay’s second half would seem to have secured him a spot on the Opening Day roster, but the Mets’ bench is loaded with good players. Damion Easley’s ability to play shortstop makes him a lock for one of the infield spots. And then there is Jose Valentin, who is in camp as a non-roster player and has recent experience at second and third base. Valentin has more power than Gotay, whose struggles in turning the double play have become a concern to Willie Randolph. If the Cubs fall short in their pursuit of Brian Roberts, they could become a suitor for Gotay.
A baseball genius died on Tuesday; sadly, few people seemed to take notice.
When Bob Howsam joined the front office of the Cincinnati Reds in 1967, the franchise was mired in non-contention. In fact, the Reds had not won anything tangible since 1961, the year of their last National League pennant, and had not captured a world championship since 1940. By the time that Howsam stepped down as the Reds’ chief executive and team president in 1978, the team had won six division titles, four pennants, and two world championships within the span of a dozen seasons. As the primary architect of the “Big Red Machine,” Howsam made the Reds relevant for the better part of the 1970s.
Howsam resuscitated the Reds’ franchise by using a two-tiered approach. He simultaneously rebuilt Cincinnati’s farm system while also executing a series of shrewd trades, some of the blockbuster variety and some that failed to create a ripple at the time. The restocking of the farm system laid the foundation for Reds success; the trades provided finishing touches to what would become a mini-dynasty.
Unsuccessful in his two-year stint as the general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, Howsam completely reversed the course of his career in Cincinnati. Under his leadership, the Reds drafted and developed young pitchers like Don Gullett, Gary Nolan, and Wayne Simpson, who all became major contributors to the 1970 National League championship team. Howsam then oversaw the draft selections of Dave Concepcion and Ken Griffey, Sr., who became important supplements to the Big Red Machine of the mid-seventies. With Gullett, Concepcion and Griffey all playing vital roles, the Reds advanced to the World Series in 1972, 1975, and 1976, winning world titles the latter two seasons.
Yet, it was at the trading table where Howsam displayed the height of his brilliance. In 1971, he pulled off two deals that sealed Cincinnati’s fortunes as a future world champion. The first one came in May, producing few headlines with its announcement. Knowing that Concepcion would fill the shortstop role for years to come, Howsam peddled light-hitting infielder Frank Duffy and minor league pitcher Vern Geishert to the San Francisco Giants for spare outfielder George Foster. Facing a logjam of outfielders in San Francisco, Foster would eventually become the Reds’ everyday left fielder, one of the league’s top right-handed power sources, and the 1977 National League MVP.
Then came Howsam’s master stroke during the 1971 winter meetings. With his lineup leaning too heavily to the right and the Reds’ defense shaky in spots, Howsam dealt Lee May, Tommy Helms, and Jimmy Stewart to the Houston Astros for Joe Morgan, Denis Menke, Cesar Geronimo, Ed Armbrister, and Jack Billingham. In one fell swoop, Howsam improved the Reds defensively at three infield positions, with the new configuration moving Tony Perez from third base to first base. Most critically, Howsam obtained one of the greatest players of the seventies in Morgan, who would win two MVP awards while adding speed, range, on-base percentage, and a left-handed bat to the Cincinnati equation. That trade, engineered by Howsam, remains one of the best in major league history.
Bob Howsam died on Tuesday at the age of 89, a victim of heart failure. Since he was overshadowed by so many great components of the Big Red Machine–a machine that he helped construct–very few people outside of Cincinnati paid much attention to his passing. Hopefully that will change one day, when Howsam takes his rightful place in the plaque gallery at Baseball’s Hall of Fame.
Reds fans concerned about Dusty Baker’s religious obsession with veteran players have to be a little worried when they read that their new manager is talking to free agent outfielders Kenny Lofton and Corey Patterson. Unless the Reds are planning to trade Adam Dunn (not likely), the signing of either flychaser could doom super-prospect Jay Bruce to an unnecessary stint at Triple-A to start the season. As the game’s best everyday prospect, Bruce has earned the chance to play in Cincinnati this spring, either as a fulltime starter or as a platoon partner with the useful Ryan Freel. An unconditional five-tool talent whom both scouts and statisticians love, Bruce is the odds-on favorite to win National League Rookie of the Year honors–if he gets the chance. He’s been compared to Larry Walker, but with the ability to play center field on a regular basis. Now that’s not to say that Lofton and Patterson aren’t useful players. Lofton would make sense as a leadoff man, at least against right-handed pitching, but not at the expense of playing time for a prospect like Bruce. The rangy Patterson would be terrific as a fourth outfielder and late-inning replacement for Dunn, but herein lies the problem. Once Baker has his hands on a veteran (especially players like Lofton and Patterson who previously played for him in Chicago), he tends to play him more than a deserving rookie, as his critics in Chicago and San Francisco will tell you oh-so-quickly…
Baker’s disdain for rookies and young players will certainly be tested in Cincinnati. Other than the D-backs, no team in baseball has more young major league talent at its disposal than the Reds. In addition to prospects like Bruce, Joey Votto, Johnny Cueto, and Edinson Volquez, the Reds will call on youthful veterans like Brandon Phillips and Edwin Encarnacion and second-year pitcher Homer Bailey to be major contributors in 2008. It’s certainly no stretch to say that this version of the Reds is the most talented since the Lou Piniella teams of the early 1990s…
The effort to save the Hall of Fame Game isn’t dying; if anything, it’s picking up steam, especially in the political arena. New York Senator Charles Schumer has lent his support to the official online petition, while fellow Senator Jim Seward has called upon President Bush to pressure MLB into reconsidering its decision to cancel the game. I applaud the grassroots efforts led by Cooperstown native and current Washington, D.C. resident Kristian Connelly to restore the game, but would like to see organizers re-focus their aim. Rather than sending messages to Commissioner Bud Selig, they need to address concerns directly to the Players Association, headed by Don Fehr. After all, it’s the players’ complaints about the Hall of Fame Game that led to the January announcement regarding the termination of the game…
Finally, my thanks to Adam the Bull of WFAN Radio in New York for inviting me to appear as a guest on his Sunday night show. Adam and I have ties to the Utica area, where we both worked as sportscasters for a time. It’s nice to see someone from the old neighborhood making it to the bigtime. Adam, whose real name is Adam Gerstenhaber, was recently hired by WFAN as a fill-in host and will also be doing some work for MLB.com in the area of minor league statistics. Congratulations on the new gigs, Bull.
The rites of spring training perennially bring with them the latest wave of trade rumors. Players on the trade block usually include players returning from injury who face new competition (Nick Johnson and Joe Crede), veterans who are giving way to hot prospects (Coco Crisp and Scott Hatteberg), players who have become extraneous because of the acquisition of better players (Brandon Inge), and higher salaried veterans who are part of a youth movement (Brian Roberts and Joe Blanton).
Seven well-known players figure to have their names ground through the rumor mill during the six weeks of spring training. The longer they remain “untraded,” the more rumors they figure to generate, unless an unexpected injury changes their value to their current teams. With that in mind, let’s take a look at each of the Rumored Seven:
Joe Blanton: “The Bulldog” is a competent No. 3 starter, a highly valued commodity in today’s watered down pitching market. With the Mets’ interest having subsided after their heist of Johan Santana, the Reds remain the hottest pursuers, viewing the 27-year-old Blanton as the perfect supplement to Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo in an improving rotation. As much as the Reds like Blanton, they are finding the asking price too expensive. Fresh off his successful extraction of a six-player haul for Dan Haren, A’s GM Billy Beane wants two to three premier prospects for the workmanlike Blanton. He’s already asked for a package of Joey Votto and either Homer Bailey or Johnny Cueto, but the Reds are reluctant to give up any of those players even straight-up for Blanton. Given such a divide, a compromise could be a long way off.
Joe Crede: Prior to any trade, the 29-year-old Crede must first establish that his back is healthy and then the White Sox will have to decide whether Josh Fields should play third base. If both questions are answered affirmatively, a trade of Crede becomes more likely. There are forever teams in need of help at third base, always a difficult position to fill. Let’s count the Twins, Giants, and possibly the Padres among the potential suitors. The Giants, who need a third baseman more badly than anyone, could offer left-hander Noah Lowry. The Twins, whose lineup leans toward the left, could use Crede in a platoon with newly signed free agent Mike Lamb. The Padres could come into play if they continue to watch Kevin Kouzmanoff box ground balls on the infield dirt in Arizona. Even with an achy back, Crede is a far superior defensive player to the mismatched Kouzmanoff.
Coco Crisp: The Red Sox are taking the politically correct stance that Crisp will compete for playing time, but Jacoby Ellsbury simply has to start in center field, making the veteran defender the most expensive No. 4 outfielder in the major leagues. That job description won’t last for long; the Red Sox want to move the 28-year-old Crisp for pitching help, either for bullpen depth or as a buffer against Curt Schilling missing at least half a season. Finding a suitor for Crisp will be difficult, especially since teams like the Braves (Mark Kotsay), the Marlins (Cameron Maybin), and Giants (Aaron Rowand) have already addressed their center field dilemmas. We can probably cross the Twins off the list, too, since they seem committed to a trial-and-error run with Carlos Gomez. Two National League teams, however, would seem to make sense for Crisp: the Pirates and the Cardinals. Both clubs desperately need established outfielders with strong defensive skills. But it’s unlikely that either team will be willing or able to surrender the kind of pitching the Red Sox desire.
Scott Hatteberg: Though he’s the least glamorous name on this list, he’s a potentially valuable addition to a pennant-contending team looking for one more left-handed bat. From a public standpoint, the Reds have stated that Hatteberg will compete with Joey Votto for the first base job, but the youngster is expected to gain the nod by the end of spring training. The 38-year-old Hatteberg could be used as a backup—a defensive replacement, pinch-hitter, and emergency third-string catcher. But the Reds, who have the less expensive Andy Phillips and Craig Wilson in camp as potential backups, might not want to carry Hatteberg’s $1.65 million salary in a pinch-hitting role. Several American League teams will inquire about Hatteberg, including the Yankees, Mariners, and Blue Jays.
Nick Johnson: “Nick the Stick” seems like he’s been around longer and certainly looks older, but is still only 29. When healthy, his ability to reach base makes him a highly desirable commodity; unfortunately, he hasn’t played a game since breaking his leg in 2006 and has never been a particularly durable player. Even if Johnson plays well this spring, he finds himself blocked by Dmitri Young at first base, making a trade an inevitable result. I wouldn’t be shocked to see Johnson wearing Yankee pinstripes by the end of spring training, especially if Brian Cashman doesn’t like what he sees from Morgan Ensberg and Wilson Betemit. The Nationals would probably be happy with one good prospect, or at least two decent prospects, in return for the virtual on-base machine. A package of right-hander Ross Ohlendorf and shortstop Alberto Gonzalez might entice the Nationals.
Brandon Inge: The odd man out after the blockbuster acquisition of Miguel Cabrera, Inge is unhappy and apparently unwilling to make a fulltime move behind the plate. (It’s amazing to me how many contemporary players are unwilling to switch positions, even if such a move makes them more valuable in a trade or on the free agent front.) The trade market for Inge has been almost non-existent, apparently because too many scouts are concerned by his offensive regression in 2007. Even the Giants have shown little interest. For now, the Tigers are saying that they plan to use Inge as a backup (he does have experience in the outfield, too), but Jim Leyland will have little patience for a bad attitude on the bench. Privately, the Tigers are hoping that some team’s third baseman goes down with an injury, creating a need for a skilled defender and power threat like Inge. Inge can help matters with a strong spring, making him more attractive to a team like the Padres.
Brian Roberts: He’s the best everyday player on this spring’s trade market, an excellent leadoff man and skilled defender who brings speed and toughness to the table. Those are some of the qualities that make Peter Angelos hesitant to trade him, but ultimately Andy MacPhail will win out as part of his continuing youth movement. The Cubs remain the most likely destination, but they will probably have to budge from their standing offer of Ronny Cedeno, Matt Murton, and Sean Gallagher. The O’s would prefer Felix Pie over Murton, or Sean Marshall over Gallagher, and either of those switches may be doable. If not the Cubs, who then? Several teams could use help at second base, including the White Sox, but they are determined to give Danny Richar the longest of looks this season. Then there are the Astros, who could reunite Roberts with double-play partner Miguel Tejada. But the Astros have few prospects they’re willing to surrender after giving up four youngsters for Tejada back in December. Other teams like the Giants are so far from contention that a veteran like Roberts makes little sense in the long run. So, in spite of Roberts’ value, there seems to be little market for him beyond the Cubs. That could change, though, with the first takeout slide of spring training.
While Roberts and the rest of the Rumored Seven are the most prominent names on the spring training trade block, they are certainly not the only players who could be moving on in deals. Other names like Oakland’s Dan Johnson, the Rangers’ Nelson Cruz, and Pittsburgh’s Xavier Nady could be traded for a variety of reasons, though their chances of being dealt are probably less than those of Roberts and company. Johnson might be squeezed out by free agent pickup Mike Sweeney, Cruz is facing a logjam in the Rangers’ outfield while his value has reached a peak after a terrific Winter League performance, and Nady could fall victim to the Pirates’ never-ending cost cuts. And then there’s a potentially significant pitcher who is rumored to be available: Milwaukee’s Chris Capuano. I have my doubts about Capuano being traded—after all, few contenders deal veteran pitchers in the spring—especially now that his value has fallen after a terrible second half in 2007.
So now that spring training has commenced, let the next set of trade rumors begin their inevitable and entertaining cycle.
It has become the latest rule of pitching—the “Rule of 30.” Championed by baseball writers like Tom Verducci, the rule is meant to limit the number of innings thrown by young pitchers, specifically those in the 25-and-under category. According to the “rule,” a developing pitcher should not be allowed to exceed his previous season’s innings total by more than 30. In other words, if a pitcher threw a combined 150 innings between the major leagues and the minor leagues in 2007, it is recommended that he not throw any more than 180 innings in 2008.
The Rule of 30 has become the primary motivation in the Yankees’ apparent decision to start Joba Chamberlain in the bullpen this season before eventually moving him to the top of the rotation. By limiting his early season innings totals, the Yankees hope to cap “Joba the Heat” at about 140 innings—or 30 more than the 112 frames he pitched last summer between New York and his various minor league stops.
I have no idea whether the Rule of 30 is a good idea. And why 30? I’m really not sure, though it does add up to one inning over each of roughly 30 starts. People involved in player personnel have only embraced the rule within the last five years; there really hasn’t been enough of a sampling to tell us whether it will be effective in limiting major pitching injuries to the 25-and-below crowd. Here’s what I do know. This is just the latest rule that managers and pitching coaches have to deal with in trying to handle and maintain a pitching staff. Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the five-man rotation became all the rage, mandating four days of rest between starts. Then came Tony LaRussa’s decision to limit his closer—Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley—to one inning in the 1980s, which resulted in a copycat handling of closers that continues to the current day. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, pitch counts became fashionable, reaching a point where 100 pitches has become the breaking point for many starters. (I’m not against pitch counts per se, but have serious questions about the seemingly arbitrary choice of 100 as a magic number.) And then came the decision to limit most relief pitchers to one inning per outing, essentially ridding the game of the onetime staff staple, the long reliever.
With the Rule of 30 being added to the list, we have now reached a saturation point with regard to the handling of major league pitching staffs. Managers now find their hands completely tied, so much so that they need to call on a minimum of three to four pitchers per game and need to have as many as 12 or 13 pitchers on a staff at any given time. (Oh for the days of the nine-man pitching staff!) As a result, weaker pitchers are populating the back end of the major league roster and are soaking up more innings as they show off their shortcomings. Given the glut of rules and restrictions, winning games has become secondary, on many an occasion, to the religious adherence to the regulations. Otherwise, the managers will face the wrath of their general managers, the fans, and Sabermetricians, though not necessarily in that order.
Perhaps these rules will limit the number of injuries we see to pitchers at the major league level. If it does, then there is some nobility to this cautious trend. But it has come at the cost of strangling managers, to the point of making their jobs even more thankless than they already are. More importantly, it has come at the cost of undercutting the quality of play that we witness most nights at the ballpark.
I sometimes wonder if sportswriters watch the same game that we do. In the Sunday edition of the New York Post, Yankee beat writer George King wrote the following as part of his gloom-and-doom assessment of the 2008 Yankees. “There was nothing wrong with Andy Phillips and Doug Mientkiewicz [at first base], but the Yankees got rid of them,” wrote King in the Post. “Instead, they are looking at [Shelley] Duncan, Wilson Betemit, Jason Lane and Morgan Ensberg. How long before [Alex] Rodriguez complains about not having a glove guy saving him errors?”
My goodness, what is King talking about? There was nothing wrong with Phillips and Mientkiewicz? Phillips had a .338 on-base percentage and slugged at a rate of .362. Those numbers might be acceptable for a strong defensive-minded catcher, but they are putrid for a first baseman who falls well short of the Gold Glove standard. (Phillips played a good defensive first base for the Yankees, but he was never the Wes Parker-J.T. Snow clone that some portrayed him to be.) As for Mientkiewicz, he was a bit better, with an on-base of .349 and a slugging percentage of .440. Minky’s on-base percentage was respectable, and his glovework was certainly first-rate, but the rest of his game fell flat. He hit all of five home runs in 166 at-bats, offered little speed on the basepaths, and, for the third straight season, missed significant time with injuries. Nothing wrong with Phillips and Mientkiewicz. It’s difficult to find much that was right with these two below-average journeyman players.
Let’s tackle the second part of King’s assessment. He believes that A-Rod will be complaining about the lack of defensive skill displayed by the Yankees’ first baseman. First off, that’s an unnecessary swipe at A-Rod, who has rarely if ever complained about teammates’ deficiencies during his Yankee tenure. Second, the Yankees have little to worry about defensively at first base, unless they foolishly allow Jason Giambi to play the position again. The switch-hitting Betemit is likely to gain most of the playing time at first base, at least against right-handed pitchers. Betemit came up through the Braves’ system as a shortstop and has since learned how to play second base and third base. I’m sorry, but if you can play shortstop and are sufficiently tall, you can handle first base, a far less demanding position. At six feet, two inches, the athletic Betemit should have little trouble adjusting to first base. Similarly, Ensberg is a third baseman by trade. Given the demands of third base, a position that generally requires quicker reactions and a stronger throwing arm, he should find first base easier to handle. Lane, a converted outfielder, is facing long odds of making the team, and figures to be a non-factor in the first base derby. Now, I would agree that Duncan is a defensive liability at first base, but he’s likely to be a platoon player, which would severely limit the number of chances he receives at the position.
None of this analysis is meant to indicate that first base is a strength for the Yankees. Far from it, first base remains the team’s biggest concern among the regular positions in the lineup. But those concerns have little to do with the “losses” of Phillips and Mientkiewicz. Given their lack of hitting and lack of power, the Yankees can’t help but to have better production at first base in 2008…
As we near Wednesday’s congressional hearings involving Roger Clemens, let’s hope that our elected representatives minimize the grandstanding and the speechmaking, and maximize the tough questions that need to be posed to “The Rocket.” These are the kinds of questions that I want to hear after Clemens raises his right arm on Wednesday in Washington:
*In explaining your delay in responding to the Mitchell Report, why did you tell “60 Minutes” that you had no idea you were being accused by Brian McNamee when in fact you knew in advance that McNamee had made serious allegations against you? In other words, why did you lie to Mike Wallace?
*Why do you expect us to believe that McNamee told the truth about Andy Pettitte but lied about you?
*Why would you allow anyone but a medical doctor or trained nurse to inject you with anything, be it steroids, B-12, or a flu shot?
*In retrospect, do you feel guilty or regretful that you taped your phone conversation with McNamee without his knowledge?
*How much steroid use have you been aware of in baseball over the last 15 years? (And then a necessary follow-up, depending on Clemens’ answer.) If you claim to be aware of little steroid use, how does that jive with the findings of the Mitchell Report?
*Why do you continue to insist that steroids have no real effect in improving a player’s performance, contrary to the consensus of most medical experts, which states that steroids improve strength and the ability to recover from injury?…
Well, so much for Craig Wilson signing with the Mets. The veteran first baseman-outfielder has instead agreed to a minor league deal with the Reds. He’ll attend spring training as a non-roster player, but will have to contend with a difficult numbers game at first base. The Reds already have Joey Votto, Scott Hatteberg, and Andy Phillips on the depth chart, not to mention Adam Dunn, who is once again scheduled to play out of position in left field. Votto is given the inside track of being the starter, while Hatteberg could be trade bait, leaving Phillips and Wilson to battle for a backup spot on the roster.
Now that the Erik Bedard deal has been finalized, expect the Orioles to trade Brian Roberts to the Cubs—perhaps as soon as this week. Andy MacPhail, having shown himself fully committed to a youth movement with the trades of Bedard and Miguel Tejada, would like to deal Roberts while his value remains close to its peak. The underrated second baseman will waive his no-trade clause to play in Chicago, where he’d be an ideal tablesetter for Alfonso Soriano, Derrick Lee, and Aramis Ramirez. The last obstacle to a deal is determining the package of pitchers and outfielders the Orioles would receive for the switch-hitting. Ideally, Baltimore would love a package of center fielder Felix Pie and pitchers Sean Gallagher and Sean Marshall, but might settle for Matt Murton as a substitute for Pie…
The Padres have officially closed the deal on free agent first baseman Tony “The Tiger” Clark, who was a subtle part of Arizona’s success in 2007. Clark’s interest in the Padres makes sense; born and bred in San Diego, he later attended San Diego State University. The Padres’ interest in Clark, who signed a one-year deal for $900,000, is not as obvious. Clark plays the same position as Adrian Gonzalez, who is arguably the Padres’ best position player. The 35-year-old also has little experience in the outfield—he played one game in left field in 2003—where the Padres hope to use him as a backup to Scott Hairston or Chase Headley (in left) and Brian Giles (in right field). At six feet, seven inches and 240 pounds, Clark will be an awkward site trying to handle the expansive outfield at Petco Park…
The Mets are razor-close to bringing Craig Wilson to spring camp as a non-roster player. Although Wilson’s career has been given up for dead by some talent evaluators, the Mets remain hopeful that he can regain the power stroke he showed for Pittsburgh as recently as 2006. If he makes the team, Wilson will be used as a backup to Carlos Delgado at first base, while giving Willie Randolph a right-handed pinch-hitting option. But it won’t be easy for Wilson to crack the Mets’ roster, given their deep and talented bench. Ramon Castro, Endy Chavez, Damion Easley, and Marlon Anderson are all locks to make the Opening Day squad…
While the Mets talk to Wilson, the Yankees continue to talk to another right-handed batter, Kevin “The Head” Mench. Though he’s severely limited defensively, Mench would help balance a roster that swings heavily from the left side. With career marks like a .361 on-base percentage and a .563 slugging percentage against left-handed pitching, Mench qualifies as the kind of right-handed platoon player the Yankees seek. He would likely sign a minor league contract, attempt to make the 25-man roster, and perhaps even participate in a right-field platoon with Bobby Abreu. Mench would also join Morgan Ensberg and Jason Lane as veteran right-handed hitters signed to minor league contracts by the Bombers… The Rangers have also shown interest in bringing Mench back to Texas, where he played from 2002 to the middle of 2006. While the Rangers don’t figure to contend in the AL West, they could offer Mench more playing time (primarily as a DH) than the Yankees. The Rangers have also indicated that they’d like Mench to go to Triple-A if he doesn’t make the Opening Day roster, and that could be a deal-breaker… Another suitor for Mench can be found in Kansas City. As with the Rangers, Mench could receive major playing time as the Royals’ DH, but will have to do so in the context of non-contention for 2008.
Anyone who has read my columns here over the last three years—and I hope there are at least a few of you—knows that I place a high value on the quality of a team’s bench. In an age when managers are very cautious about injuries, and with few off days built into the relentless regular season schedule, the bench has become exceedingly important. And each manager has to rely on a smaller bench these days, because of the trend toward carrying 11, 12, or even 13 pitchers on the active roster. That means that each bench player is asked to do more, in terms of being able to play multiple roles and multiple positions.
Due in part to the changing dynamic of the bench, I’m carrying the banner for the Mets heading into the 2008 season. Yes, the addition of Johan Santana plays a huge role in my making the Mets the favorites in the National League East. It is amazing what the addition of the game’s top left-hander will do to the look of any team’s rotation. But my presence on the Mets’ bandwagon is also linked to the bench that Omar Minaya has assembled. With a cast of extra characters that could include some combination of Ramon Castro, Ruben Gotay, Damion Easley, Jose Valentin, Angel Pagan, Endy Chavez, and Marlon Anderson, the Mets have the kind of depth that should support a top-flight starting nine.
Simply put, Castro is one of the best backup catchers in the game. It wouldn’t shock me if Castro becomes part of a strict platoon with Brian Schneider—or if he becomes the No. 1 catcher by July. The infield is well covered with Gotay, who can hit well from the left side, and Easley, who has power from the right side and the versatility to play all four infield positions. Chavez might be the best No. 4 outfielder in the National League—he’s a Gold Glover at all three outfield spots and an excellent pinch-running option—while Anderson is one of the few pinch-hitting artists remaining in today’s game. If Valentin makes the team, he’ll provide some power, while backing up Luis Castillo at second base and possibly David Wright at third base.
The Mets’ bench is very good—but not perfect. Willie Randolph has a need for right-handed power (what with his lineup heavy on left-handed batters and switch-hitters) and some depth behind the aging Carlos Delgado at first base. Ideally, the Mets could use one additional bench player to fill both roles. If Delgado’s bat continues to slow, as it did in 2007, the Mets have no viable everyday options. Other than depth in the bullpen, the lack of production at first base looms as the Mets’ Achilles heel.
Along those lines, the Mets have expressed some interest in the unemployed Craig Wilson. He was miserable with the Braves and the White Sox’ top farm clubs last summer, but is only two seasons removed from a productive four-month stretch with the Pirates. When healthy, the “Blond Bomber” has the kind of right-handed power that could prove useful against the league’s left-handed starters. He also has the ability to play the outfield corners, while also serving as an emergency third-string catcher.
The Mets will be scanning the waiver wires and trade markets this spring for other options. If Morgan Ensberg can’t crack the Yankee roster, he would become a logical fit for the Mets. If the Orioles continue their youth movement, they could trade Kevin Millar; the Mets will surely listen. And then there’s Josh Phelps, who is facing the task of having to make the Cardinals’ Opening Day roster as a little-used backup to Albert Pujols. Phelps was terrific for the Pirates during the second half last season, then needlessly dumped by a team that seems to have little direction.
If the Mets can acquire that one final piece as a hedge against Delgado’s decline, they might just be able to boast of having the best bench in either league.
On a personal note, I received some good news this week. I’ve been accepted as a presenter at the annual Cooperstown Baseball Symposium, scheduled for the first week in June at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. I’ll be discussing the 1968 world champion Tigers and their relationship to the civic unrest that engulfed the city of Detroit in the late 1960s.