“I didn’t see that coming.” Isn’t that what someone said in
a recent commercial for beer, or pizza, or chicken wings? Well, that’s what a
lot of us are saying after hearing that the Tigers had released Gary Sheffield.
The severing of a brand name usually carries some degree of shock, and it will
carry a cost for the Tigers, who still have to pay the $12 million salary due Sheffield in 2009.
The Tigers must think that Sheffield
40, is completely cooked to swallow that sizeable sum of money. An increasing
frequency of injuries along with a substantial loss of bat speed convinced the
Tigers that Sheffield would have been more of
a hindrance than a help. With Sheffield gone, the Tigers can feel more
comfortable in giving the majority of their DH at-bats to Marcus Thames, while
also sliding Thames into an outfield rotation
that features everyman Carlos Guillen in left, super stud Curtis Granderson in
center, and political lightning rod Magglio Ordonez in right.
I had always thought that Sheffield
would age gracefully because of his incredible bat speed, which was arguably
the fastest in the game at its peak. Even with some loss of bat speed, I
figured that Sheffield would retain enough to
remain a forceful hitter into his early forties. Unfortunately, Sheffield lost so much quickness in his wrists and hands
over the last year that it rendered him merely mortal at the plate. The lack of
bat speed became plainly evident this spring, as Sheffield
wallowed with an average under .200.
Is Sheffield done? The
Tigers obviously think so, but the odds are likely that at least one of the 29
other teams will take a flier on his right-handed power. The world champion
Phillies, who remain vulnerable to left-handed pitching, have already made
contact with Sheffield’s agent. Sheffield might fit the Phils as a platoon left fielder
(where he would share time with Raul Ibanez) and occasional first baseman
(where he could spot Ryan Howard against the occasional southpaw).
In regards to Sheffield’s
milestone and home run issues, they need to be relegated to the back burner of
the stove. Outside of Sheffield’s most devoted
fans, no one really cares that he remains one short of the 500-home run club. (No
other milestone has lost more luster in recent seasons.) The Tigers obviously
didn’t care, either, knowing that no additional fans would show up to Comerica Park
to watch Sheffield pursue history.
Furthermore, writers need to stop referring to Sheffield
as a future Hall of Famer. He was always going to be a borderline case because
of his career-long crankiness and shoot-first-think-later approach to the
spoken word. Because of his association with the BALCO scandal, Sheffield now has about as much chance of winning 75 per
cent of the writers’ vote as Albert Belle does…
One of the most underrated managers in the history of the
expansion era died on
Monday. Herman Franks, the major leagues’ oldest living
ex-manager, passed away at the age of 95. At first glance, Franks’ managerial mark with the Giants and the Cubs might look pedestrian. In seven seasons, he
failed to take any of his teams to the postseason. With the lack of postseason glory, his record pales in comparison to contemporaries like Walter Alston, Dick Williams, and even Ralph Houk. That’s the cursory look, and
as usual, it tells us little about the man’s true accomplishments. So let’s
look deeper. In those seven seasons, Franks’ teams never finished worse than
four games below .500. And his teams always contended, never concluding a
season worse than five games behind the division or league leader.
In the late 1960s, Franks guided the Giants to three
second-place finishes. Unfortunately, the National League was stacked at the
time, with powerhouse clubs in place in Los Angeles
and St. Louis,
and the Pirates posing a threat as intermittent contenders. If only the league
had been split into two divisions prior to 1969, Franks likely would have
pushed one or more of his Giants teams into postseason play.
Franks, however, did his most impressive work a decade later
with the Cubs, where he lacked the talent of the Mays-McCovey-Marichal Giants.
In 1977, Franks led Chicago
to a record of 81-81, remarkable for a club that featured four of five starting
pitchers with ERAs of over 4.00. The Cubs’ lineup also had its share of holes, with
Jose Cardenal missing a ton of games in the outfield, and mediocrities like
George Mitterwald and the “original” Steve Ontiveros claiming regular playing
time at catcher and third base, respectively. Two years later, Franks did
similar wonders with a band of misfits, coaxing a career year out of Dave
Kingman and using an innovative approach with Bruce Sutter. Realizing that the
Hall of Famer’s right arm had come up lame the previous two summers, Franks
began to use Sutter almost exclusively in games in which the Cubs held the
lead. It’s a practice that has become the norm in today’s game (to the point of
being overdone), but Franks was the first to realize the benefit of reserving
his relief ace for late-game leads.
For his troubles, the Cubs unfairly fired Franks with seven
games remaining in the season. The following year, the Cubs finished 64-98,
nearly 30 games out of first place. They should have kept Franks.
There are those who believe that spring training performance
is too misleading to be useful in determining who should win spots on an
Opening Day roster. I would tend to agree with that, at least in the case of established
veteran players, but the Grapefruit and Cactus League seasons can be helpful in sorting out the best
and worst among younger players.
The 2009 Yankees provide a classic case in point. On Sunday,
Joe Girardi announced that Brett Gardner had won the center field battle, with
Melky Cabrera relegated to backup duties. Gardner
hit a leadoff home run in the Yankees’ first exhibition game this spring–and
has continued to hit all spring, even with surprising power. Cabrera, after a
slow start, has rebounded to lift his average into the .340 range, which is
very good, but still short of Gardner’s
In my mind, Girardi has made a perfectly reasonable and
rational decision in choosing Gardner.
Both players have their strengths, Gardner
his speed and range, and Cabrera his throwing arm, but neither has a huge edge
in talent over the other. Both are younger players still trying to establish
their levels of value in the major leaguers. Neither player hit well in 2008,
leaving question marks about their staying power as regular center fielders. If
Girardi can’t use spring training as a major factor, then what else can he rely
on? Tarot cards?
I believe that the pressure of spring training performance
can also tell us something about a player. If a player knows he has to hit well
in the spring in order to win a job, and then he goes out and does exactly
that, it may be an indication that he can handle the pressure that comes with
the major leagues. Similarly, I believe that competition should bring out the
best in good players. And based on the way that both Gardner and Cabrera have
responded to this spring’s competition, the Yankees may find center field to be
in far more capable hands than they originally planned…
The Mets nearly made a puzzling trade with the Tigers last
week. GM Omar Minaya was prepared to send reliever Brian Stokes to Detroit for
infielder-outfielder Ryan Raburn, but backed out after watching Stokes continue
to throw spring training smoke. I’m not sure why Minaya considered this trade
in the first place. Raburn is versatile–he can play third base, second base,
and all three outfield spots–and did slug .507 two years ago, but he slumped
badly in 2008 and basically duplicates Fernando Tatis as a super utilityman.
Raburn, 27, is really not the answer to the Mets’ second base problems either.
Second base is one of his worst positions defensively; he’s committed seven
errors in 37 career games playing the pivot.
The Mets are better off with the live-armed Stokes. Minaya
has done a good job of collecting hard-throwing right-handers, including
veterans Francisco Rodriguez and J.J. Putz and phenom right-hander Bobby
Parnell. Stokes is a good supplement to that collection, someone capable of
giving the Mets a quality inning or two, especially on days when Livan
Hernandez is scheduled to start or Oliver Perez is doing the moonwalk. So let’s
put this one in the familiar category of “The best trades are the ones you
Speaking of categories, let’s put the following in the file
of the “strange and bizarre.” On Sunday, with the Orioles and Mets waiting out
a first-inning rain delay, Baltimore Assuming that Angel’s story is
true, I hope the Orioles call the radio station “decision-maker” on the carpet
for this one. He or she deserves to be publicly embarrassed for leaving the
broadcasters, the fans, and the listeners out to soak in the proverbial rain. Announcers Joe Angel and Fred Manfra, working the game on the team’s flagship
station, signed off and left the ballpark. The rains eventually stopped,
allowing the O’s and Mets to resume play, but the broadcast did not. Onlookers
immediately blamed Angel and Manfra for being lazy and impatient, but that may
not be the correct story. On Monday, Angel provided his version, explaining
that radio station management made the decision to pull the plug on the
broadcast in the midst of the rain delay. Angel says that he and Manfra wanted
to wait out the rain and call the game–it’s their job, after all–but radio
station “decision-makers” opted for Plan B. I tend to believe Angel, who is one
of the more professional play-by-play men in the game. I’ve worked for station
managers who treated broadcasts of games as “optional” programming, rather than
regular programming that is contractually bound–and that fans have every right
Leave it me to insert my size-12 foot squarely into my mouth. Just a few hours after complaining of a lack of trades (or even trade rumors) this spring, major league teams executed three deals on Friday. None of the trades were blockbusters, but they all included players who could potentially make Opening Day rosters. Two of the deals involved the same player, catcher Ronny Paulino, who was first traded by the Phillies to the Giants for lefty reliever Jack Taschner before being peddled to the Marlins for a minor league right-hander. In the other trade of the day, A’s general manager Billy Beane, always one to ditch convention, acquired catcher Curtis Thigpen from the Blue Jays for a player to be named later. And with all of that, the A’s, Marlins, Phillies, and Giants showed just little I know about changing trends.
Paulino’s situation is particularly interesting. While it’s been fairly common for players to move to two different teams as part of a three-way deal, I can’t remember a player being involved in two separate trades on the same day. Paulino has now been traded three times in the span of four months, dating back to the wintertime deal that saw the Phillies acquire him from the Pirates. At one point, the Phillies envisioned him as their backup catcher to Carlos Ruiz, but Paulino hit terribly this spring while piling up too many strikeouts and too little contact. The Phillies claim that they had no problems with Paulino’s weight or work ethic–which were major issues during his years in Pittsburgh–but I have to wonder if Philly is just being polite here. Whatever the case, Paulino will now serve as Florida’s No. 2 catcher, a backup to young John Baker.
In the meantime, let’s wait and see if Friday’s dealing leads to a few more trades between now and Opening Day, now just over a week away. As for any more predictions, I’ll stay out of that business for now.
In all my years following baseball closely–a state of mind
that dates back to the mid-1970s–I can’t ever recall a spring training so
devoid of trade rumors as this one. There seems to be so few actual trade
discussion going on between general managers that even the rumors have dried
up, even the ones that are made up by those of us with usually creative minds.
In reality, this year’s quiet spring is simply a continuation of what we’ve
seen in recent years. There have been very few spring trades of substance over
the last decade. The last major spring deal I can remember involved the Reds
and Red Sox, who swapped Wily Mo Pena for Bronson Arroyo back in 2006. And even
that, while a significant trade, was hardly a blockbuster.
So why has the spring become such a dead time for dealing? I think a few
causes, each interrelated to the other, are at the root of this trend.
*Major league teams, more so than ever, have become conscious of dealing with
budgets. Budgets are set during the winter, allowing for the signing of free
agents and a significant trade or two for each team. By the time spring
training starts, teams simply do not want to increase the levels of their
budgets. Even if a talented veteran player becomes available, it becomes
problematic because of the expense of bringing in an expensive contract past
*The numbers game has become a bigger factor. By the middle of spring training, teams
are looking to cut down their rosters, as part of the master objective to pare
down to the 25-man limit by Opening Day. With most teams looking to reduce
rather than increase their roster numbers, it becomes more difficult to make
trades, especially involving players who are out of minor league options. If
you are going to trade for a veteran player, you have to be sure that he
represents an upgrade over the existing player at that position–and you have
to be certain you will have room for him on your 25-man roster.
*Teams, more than ever before, believe that they can find cheaper solutions to
their talent problems by relying on their minor league prospects. I’ve heard at
least three general managers or managers make the following statement this
spring: “We believe the answer to Problem X is right here in camp.”
This refrain has become so common that it’s almost become cliche. Sometimes, I
think the general managers are deluding themselves when they make this kind of
remark. A minor league player currently in camp might provide a cheaper answer
to a problem, but he might not necessarily provide a good answer…
One of the few players who has been mentioned in various rumor mills is Melky Cabrera. The Yankees’ onetime center fielder of the future has
drawn interest from the White Sox, a scenario that speaks volumes about Chicago’s center field
quagmire. Brian Anderson, Jerry Owens, and Dewayne Wise all have questionable
resumes and have failed to advance their causes through slapdash spring
performances. The White Sox like Cabrera’s defense and throwing skills, but I
have to wonder how much they would offer for a player who was an offensive nonentity
for most of 2008. If the ChiSox were willing to fork over a young catcher or a
third baseman, the Yankees might have to
take the bait. The power and bat speed displayed by Austin Jackson this spring,
along with Brett Gardner’s rejuvenated swing, have the Yankees thinking better about
their center field depth, thereby making Cabrera more expendable. By trading
Cabrera, who is out of options, the Yankees could also open up a roster spot
for another infielder or a third catcher…
The Washington Nationals, amidst an already turbulent spring, are facing another quandary created by departed GM Jim Bowden. It seems that Bowden made a handshake deal with first baseman Dmitri Young over the winter, guaranteeing the veteran a spot on the Opening Day roster. But Young is overweight and generally out of shape, and happens to play a position where the Nats are already heavily stocked with Nick Johnson and Adam Dunn. Simply put, the Nationals don’t need Young, whose presence would create flexibility problems on a roster that is already lacking in talent. So what should the Nationals do? Given that Bowden departed because of his alleged involvement in skimming bonuses from Dominican players, I think the Nats are well within their rights to tell Young that his handshake deal departed when Bowden departed.
It has been only one day since Joe Girardi revealed that
Xavier Nady would be his starting right fielder based on spring training
performance to date, but the reaction has already reached a severe level of
intensity. Most of the Internet analysis I’ve read has been negative; the more
Sabermetrically inclined writers favor Nick Swisher as the better player in
head-to-head comparisons with Nady.
Two thoughts come to mind in hearing this development. First,
Girardi placed a time condition on his announcement, saying only that the
“X-Man” would be his Opening Day right fielder if he had to make a decision right now. Let’s remember that nearly
two full weeks remain on the spring training exhibition schedule. Swisher could
go on a tear, someone could get hurt, or (in a long shot possibility) Nady
could be traded to some other team for a third baseman. After all, two weeks is
a long time in the baseball world. Second, most of what I’ve read about the
Nady-Swisher debate centers on a clear-cut starter and backup emerging for the
Yankees. Well, why couldn’t the Yankees put together a platoon, with Nady
playing against left-handers and the switch-hitting Swisher taking most of the
at-bats against right-handers? I know that platooning has become somewhat of a
lost art in today’s game, but if ever a team had the semblance of a workable
platoon, it would be the Yankees with Nady and Swisher. Furthermore, there’s
also the fragile nature of many of the Yankees’ veteran outfielders and DHs,
especially Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui. If either of those players visits
the disabled list in 2009, both Nady and Swisher will have everyday roles…
Unfortunately, there’s sad news to pass along regarding a
fellow Internet writer. John Brattain, who has contributed to The Hardball Times
several years, died on Monday at the age of 44. While I often disagreed with
John’s opinions on heated baseball issues, I found him to be a talented and
creative writer who exuded a good-natured, upbeat personality through his words.
John was also a frequent and popular contributor to Baseball Think Factory,
where he signed all of his posts with his trademark wish of “Best Regards.” Without
question, John will be missed by both of those web site communities. A
religious and caring family man, John is survived by his wife and two
Finally, you may have heard that MLBlogs has added Keith
Olbermann to its stable of writers. My reaction? I’m genuinely disturbed by the
decision to carry and promote a blog written by the controversial and partisan
MSNBC talk show host. I plan to write more about this development later in the
week, but let me say this for now, repeating a sentiment I’ve frequently
expressed in this column. In a world
inundated with political turmoil and debate, we need to have as much separation of sports and politics as we can
possibly muster. (There are exceptions to this rule, times when politics
and sports meet head-on, but the presence of a political commentator on a
sports blog involves a far different and avoidable association.) Those who want
to discuss politics have plenty of venues to do so, both on the Internet and
through cable news programs. Those of us who prefer to focus on baseball, even for
a little while in our daily lives, deserve to have a respite from the vitriol
of the political world. I hope that MLB.com reconsiders this decision.
Those who read this blog faithfully have probably noticed that I have written virtually nothing about the World Baseball Classic this spring. That’s because I refuse to take this event seriously–at least until Team USA takes it seriously.
Oh, I’ve enjoyed watching the coverage, both on the new MLB Network and ESPN. I’ve watched with interest games played by Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and, of course, the United States. I’ve found it interesting to observe the different styles of play, along with the mix of established major leaguers and virtual no-names. I’ve also watched with frustration as Team USA has approached this tournament as nothing more than a glorified exhibition, while all of the other teams have played it with the idea of actually winning it. The biggest USA culprits have been the pitchers, who have worked these games while trying to build up arm strength–ala the usual exhibition season mentality. Then there have been the managerial decisions and the construction of the roster, with both elements leaving something to be desired.
Let’s take a look at the problems one by one:
1) Jake Peavy and Roy Oswalt, ostensibly two of the best pitchers on the planet, each turned in awful performances in this year’s WBC, with Oswalt’s fourth inning meltdown essentially eliminating the USA on Sunday night. Both men had ready-made excuses prepared by the media. They were both building up their pitch counts and working out the kinks, as is usually the case during the middle of spring training. Unfortunately, that doesn’t cut it for games carrying higher ticket prices and the prestige of world competition. All of the USA pitchers need to push up their training regimens and start throwing in January or February, so that they are ready to handle the requisite pitch counts at each level of the March competition mandated by the WBC. If that’s not feasible–or if it’s just not possible for the USA pitchers to do this–then the United States should withdraw from future WBC competition.
2) The manager of the USA team, in this case the respected Davey Johnson, made decisions based on political reasons, rather than being guided by the basic principle of putting the best team on the field. Case in point: Johnson handled the shortstop situation with a compromise solution that succeeded in compromising the possibility of winning. Johnson alternated Derek Jeter and Jimmy Rollins, giving each man playing time at shortstop and each time at DH. In the semifinal game against Team Japan, Jeter played shorstop while Rollins DHed. Jeter also made a costly throwing error that led to an extra run scoring for the Japanese team. As much as I like Jeter, this should never have been allowed to happen. Rollins is the better defensive shortstop of the two, with more range and a stronger arm. Rollins should have played every one of the WBC games at shortstop, with Jeter either serving as a DH or coming off the bench. If the USA is to continue playing the WBC in future years, then their managers need to stop doling out playing time to satiate egos and avoid bruised feelings–this isn’t Little League, for crying out loud–and instead put the best nine-man lineup on the field each game.
3) Once Kevin Youkilis went down with injury, Team USA had no reliable first baseman available to step in. Johnson tried converted outfielder Adam Dunn (a butcher no matter where he plays) or the versatile Mark DeRosa (who tried hard but is a middle infielder/outfielder by trade). Both players made critical errors during this tournament. Given the fact that Team USA was able to draw from 30 major league teams, management should have had better contingency plans in place. I understand that Team USA tried to bring in Derrek Lee, but he was coming off an injury at the time, which made him reluctant to play. What would have been the harm in carrying a legitimate first baseman-outfielder from the start, in the event of a Youkilis injury? After all, the same principles that apply to creating a roster for a major league team should apply to the World Baseball Classic.
4) Finally, we may need to reexamine some of the priorities current major leaguers place in the way they play the game. I saw too many Team USA hitters strike out with men on base (especially with runners in scoring position), in contrast to the Japanese players, who take a much more diligent two-strike approach, almost as if they are embarrassed by the consequence of striking out. Several other teams, including the Japanese, also flashed much better defensive play throughout this tournament, with better quickness and range than some of their USA counterparts. While it’s true that the USA talent level remains the highest of any team, shortcomings on defense and in situational hitting can be killers in a double-elimination format like the WBC. Even moreso than in the American postseason, defense, fundamentals, and pitching rule in a format where two consecutive losses result in the end of the tournament.
Clearly, there is a lot of work to be done. If the USA is prepared to make at least some of the proposed changes, then I’m on board for the next WBC. If not, if building up arm strength, playing politics, and an inability to execute some of the game’s finer points remain the norm, I’d just as soon not watch Team USA embarrass itself again on the global stage that is the World Baseball Classic.
Every once in awhile I enjoy tweaking my father-in-law by
making a reference to Juan Marichal. The mere mention of the “Dominican Dandy”
brings out a few exclamation marks from my wife’s dad. You see, he’s a Dodger
fan, going all the way back to the Brooklyn days, and he remembers all too well
the time that Marichal decided to take a bat to the head of Dodgers catcher
John Roseboro. I try to explain to my father-in-law that Marichal is really a
pretty good guy, that he actually reconciled with Roseboro, but he won’t buy
that line–not at all.
This 1974 card of Mr. Marichal is one of the last two
regular cards that Topps issued for the Hall of Fame right-hander; the other
one is part of the Topps Traded series for 1974, featuring Marichal in the
colors of the Red Sox. Yes, it is strange to think of him in Beantown after all
those years by the Bay, sort of like watching Elston Howard finish up his
career in Boston
after all those seasons in pinstripes.
Although it has no remarkable monetary value, the regular
issue ’74 Marichal encapsulates the lasting image of the great right-hander’s
most memorable attribute–not his onetime bat-wielding incident, but an
extraordinarily high leg kick that counterbalanced a no-windup delivery. The
photographer skillfully manages to catch Marichal’s left leg near its highest
point, with the toes of his left foot practically even in height with the tip
of his cap. (Don’t try this at home; it’s sure to cause a muscle pull or some
other significant injury.) The photo on the card is particularly striking
because few pitchers in today’s game use this kind of a motion, in part because
of the modern-day emphasis on the slide step and in part because pitching
coaches like to teach more compact motions, thereby lessening the possibility of
bad mechanics. As distinctive as Marichal’s motion seems in contrast to today’s
big league pitcher, it’s hardly the only one of its kind in baseball history. A
number of great pitchers have used high leg kicks and–in contrast to
Marichal–large, convoluted windups, including Hall of Famers Bob Feller and
Warren Spahn. For years, the high leg kick was considered important for a
variety of reasons; it added to a pitcher’s velocity, proved distracting to a
hitter, and helped a pitcher hide the ball–and his pitching arm– behind his
While one’s eyes naturally tend to gravitate toward
Marichal’s front leg, his back leg is also worth a look. In the photo, he’s
bending his right knee severely, almost unnaturally, as a way of absorbing all
of the weight that the leg kick causes to shift to the back side. The more I
look at that back knee, the more my own joints start to suffer.
Other attributes of this card bear exploring. The photograph
for the ’74 Marichal was taken during a day game at Candlestick Park, at a time
when the old stadium still featured artificial turf–and lots of empty seats
beyond the left-field fence. Yeah, those were the really fun days in Frisco, when players not only had to deal with
the howling wind and glaring sun at The Stick, but also the rock-hard turf that
supplied a pounding to the legs of infielders and outfielders. Of course, the
fans didn’t have much fun either while dealing with the Candlestick elements,
which kept down the size of the crowds in 1973, the year that this Marichal
photo was taken. (The Giants finished a more-than-respectable 88-74 that
season, but drew fewer than 900,000 fans, the third-worst figure in the
National League.) So even on a day when the popular Marichal pitched, fans
showed their apathy in the form of their absence.
Still, for those who had a chance to watch Marichal, he
usually entertained us with a speckled assortment of breaking pitches and that
gymnastic leg kick. And perhaps the joy that he brought us helped him atone for
that one incident–one that he probably regretted for years–at least until he finally
made amends with Mr. Roseboro.
Shortly after hearing that Aaron Boone will need open heart surgery to repair an aortic valve, I began to think about John Hiller.
The Tigers’ relief ace for the most of the 1970s, Hiller is the only other major leaguer that I can recall who endured severe heart problems during his playing days. In January of 1971, the 27-year-old Hiller suffered a major heart attack at his off-season home. The effects of the attack sidelined him for all of the 1971 season and most of 1972. His career given up as a lost cause by most casual observers, Hiller proceeded to stage one of the most remarkable comebacks in baseball history. In 1973, the talented and determined left-hander set a then-major league record with 38 saves and finished fourth in the American League’s MVP balloting. Hiller never quite reached such a dominant level again, but remained an effective closer for nearly the rest of the decade. He did not retire until 1980, some nine years after he was felled by the heart attack that had seemingly ended his career on the spot.
Unlike Hiller, Boone’s aortic problem does not fit the description of an “emergency” condition, but it does have to be treated through an open-heart procedure, which always carries serious concerns. Because of that, Boone’s 2009 season is over before it begins. Doctors believe that he can eventually return to the playing field, but Boone does not have the benefit of age on his side, as did Hiller. Hiller was in his late twenties when struck by the heart attack; Boone just turned 36, and has already become a journeyman who has to grapple for his job on a year-to-year basis. According to the earliest timetable, Boone would be able to resume playing in 2010, by which time he will be 37 and hoping that a one-year layoff hasn’t completely eroded his skills.
Does that mean Boone’s career is over? Well, I wouldn’t give up on him just yet, considering that Boone has always kept himself in good shape and has a reputation as a rock-solid worker. And if he can find some inspiration from John Hiller–who has already done what many thought was impossible–perhaps his chances of a comeback will get that much better.
It has made for a nice story this week, but I’m not inclined to
believe that the Astros’ rumored signing of Pudge Rodriguez is directly tied to
his eye-popping performance in the World Baseball Classic. The fact of the matter
is this: the Astros had already made an offer to Rodriguez prior to the WBC, as
part of their winter-long search for a veteran catcher to replace Brad Ausmus.
Now it’s possible that Rodriguez’ uplifting efforts for Team Puerto Rico raised
the Astros’ offer, bringing it up to a level that was more acceptable for the
future Hall of Famer. That I can
Will I-Rod help the Astros? When the alternatives are
unproven catchers of questionable hitting pedigree (J.R. Towles and Humberto
Quintero), the answer is definitively yes. Rodriguez is in better shape than
most 37-year-old receivers, still has the requisite bat speed, and maintains a
better-than-average profile defensively. I’m also convinced that his
late-season struggles with the Yankees had less to do with the complete
breakdown that comes with old age and more to do with the difficult adjustment
that comes with learning an entirely new pitching staff in mid-season. With
nearly two weeks to go in spring training, Rodriguez should receive a needed
jumpstart in learning what he needs to know about Roy Oswalt and Company.
Rodriguez won’t be enough to vault the Astros into
contention with the Cubs in the NL Central, but he should make things more
interesting in a division where rivals Milwaukee
and St. Louis
have been hurt by key off-season losses. And in the short term, his signing
will distract some attention from Houston’s
atrocious but nearly meaningless spring training record…
I was all ready to jump on the Royals’ mini-bandwagon–a
small wagon that has them looking to improve but not contend in the AL
Central–and then they went and did something inane like sign Sidney Ponson to a
contract. Ponson will now be allowed to compete for one of the last two spots
in Kansas City’s
rotation. When will all of baseball come to the necessary revelation that
Ponson simply cannot pitch at a competitive level? Ponson is no longer a kid;
he’s 32, and years removed from his last decent season. He’s still overweight,
despite constant reminders that he could lose a pound or 15. And he has little
or no endurance, limited to five-inning stints of subpar pitching.
Hopefully, the Royals will come to their senses and find
better solutions to the problems at the back end of their rotation. It would be
a shame if they allowed someone like Ponson to torpedo a team that has a chance
to make some upward movements in the central. I like the promise of a rotation
built around veteran Gil Meche and buttressed by younger right-handers Zach
Greinke and Luke Hochevar. The bullpen has a premium closer in Joakim Soria.
Offensively, Jacobs will provide 30-home run power to a lineup that badly needs
punch from both sides of the plate, while perhaps lessening the pressure on
disappointing phenom Alex Gordon. And with Crisp in center field, flanked by
David DeJesus and Jose Guillen, the Royals may have their best defensive
outfield since the days of Willie Wilson, Amos Otis, and Al Cowens…
After watching Hideki Matsui play on Tuesday night against
the Pirates, I’m ready to proclaim “Godzilla” the early favorite for AL
Comeback Player of the Year honors. The game marked Matsui’s fourth consecutive
start at DH, an indication that his right knee is nearly ready for the start of
the season. In his first at-bat, Matsui turned on an inside fastball, launching
a tower-scraping drive high over the right field wall at Steinbrenner Field. It
was the kind of swing missing most of last season, as Matsui struggled on balky
knees, one of which was recovering from surgery while the other was anticipating
a similar procedure. While much of Yankee camp has centered on the abilities of
new third baseman Cody Ransom, Matsui will be an especially important Yankee
during the first six weeks of the season. With Alex Rodriguez on the disabled
list, Matsui will serve as the Yankees’ cleanup hitter, making him resident
protection for the newly-signed Mark Teixeira. A good start for Godzilla will
help soften the blow of losing A-Rod for any length of time.
Alex Rodriguez absence of six to nine weeks is certainly
doable for the Yankees, especially when the first three weeks will be swallowed
up the balance of spring training. With the kind of starting pitching and
improved defense the Yankees have assembled, they should be able to survive the
loss of Rodriguez for what will amount to about six weeks of regular season
So what now? Should the Yankees stand pat and just wait out
A-Rod’s triumphant return, or should they take a more aggressive approach and
try to shore up the infield, whether it be third base specifically or the
utilityman role? If Brian Cashman is to be believed, the Yankees will not be
“proactive” in searching for reinforcements. I hope that Cashman is either
kidding with this remark, or just posturing so as to discourage teams from
trying to extract a king’s ransom–pardon the unintended pun–for a mediocre
infielder. If Cashman’s is being sincere, then he’s awfully shortsighted. While
I’m fairly confident that Cody Ransom, with his power and athleticism, can do
an acceptable job at third base, I’m shuddering at the thought of Angel Berroa making
this team in any role. (I have clearly not joined the Angel Berroa Fan Club.) But
barring a trade, Berroa will almost certainly
make the Opening Day roster. With just one more ill-timed injury, the
Yankees could be looking at a nightmare scenario that features both Ransom and
Berroa as prominent members of the starting infield.
The Yankees would be well advised to shore up their infield
depth, which was already a concern with a healthy
A-Rod. There is no one in the system who is ready to help at either third,
second, or shortstop, leaving the trade market and free agency as the only
options. The key will be finding a player who can help in the short term, while
A-Rod is hurt, and contribute to the
team after the superstar’s return in mid-May.
The free agent market offers two possibilities. One name
that keeps popping up is Mark Grudzielanek, the former Royal who is 38 but not
yet ready to retire. Though primarily a second basemen, Grudzielanek has
experience at third base and can also play shortstop (his original position) on
an emergency basis. He has little speed or power, but did reach base 34 per
cent of the time in 2008 and would represent an upgrade over Berroa. One
potential drawback with Grudzielanek involves compensation. He’s a Type-B free
agent, requiring that the Yankees surrender a second-round draft choice.
Frankly, I think this is a non-issue. When you’ve invested as much money as the
Yankees have in this year’s team, you go all-out to win and don’t worry about
the possibility of a second-rounder making the major leagues four years from
The other free agent option is 37-year-old Ray Durham.
Unlike Grudzielanek, Durham
has no experience at third or shortstop, but he is the better player, more
adept at drawing walks and stealing bases. Durham could be used in a platoon with
Ransom, but that begs the more important question: does he have the arm strength
to make the throw from third base? To that question, I have no idea. Yankee
scouts will have to help out on this one.
So how about trade options? As is usually the case, better
players are available through trade, but they’ll cost something in terms of
prospects or established talent. Two teams, in particular, could be matches for
the Yankees because of their surplus of infielders. One is the Royals, who have
decided to move starting left fielder Mark Teahen into the role of
super-utilityman. The Royals insist that Teahen, 27, will be a backup
outfielder, third baseman, and second baseman (the position he’s learning this
spring), but I have a hard time believing that they will pay him over $5
million to serve as a utility player. That’s a costly proposition for a
non-contending team, but a workable proposition for the Yankees, who could use
Teahen as a backup this year and then move him into the starting outfield in
2010, by which time Johnny Damon, Xavier Nady, and Hideki Matsui could all be
gone as free agents. The Royals could use some of the excess relief pitching
the Yankees have to offer; a package involving Humberto Sanchez and Anthony
Claggett might be tempting to the Royals.
The Brewers, already linked to the Yankees in winter trade
talks, could be another source of infield help. The presence of veteran Mike
Lamb and two minor league prospects makes Bill Hall very available. The
29-year-old Hall, who has had two disappointing seasons in a row, will make
$6.8 million this year, too. How could Hall help the Yankees? Though he’ll
never duplicate his career year of 2006, he has plus-power, above-average
speed, and the versatility to play any of the infield positions, along with
center field. In terms of trade value, he’d likely carry a cheap price tag,
someone like Kei Igawa and a low level minor leaguer in return. And like
Teahen, Hall would remain valuable even after Rodriguez returns from hip
Clearly, Cashman has several options in trying to minimize
the damage caused by Rodriguez’ absence. We’ll soon find out if he explores one
of those options, or chooses to live up to his latest words.