January 31, 2010
On the Beat
The World Series has been over for nearly three months, spring training begins in a little less than three weeks, and Charlie Manuel is nearly 60 pounds lighter than he was at this time a year ago. Yet it still stings when the Phillies manager thinks about how his team missed its chance to become the first National League team since the 1975-76 Reds to win back-to-back World Series in 2009, losing in six games to the Yankees.
The Yankees entered the World Series as the favorite after leading the major leagues with 103 victories in the regular season and polishing off the Twins and Angels in the American League playoffs. Yet the Phillies had momentum going, too, having beaten the Rockies in four games in the National League Division Series and the Dodgers in five games in the National League Championship Series.
Manuel felt sure the Phillies were going to win back-to-back Fall Classics. The loss has left him openly rooting for a rematch in the 2010 World Series, reflecting on last year's Series by noting, "We didn't really play as good as we can against the Yankees. It might have been because of their bullpen and their pitching. We ran into a situation in the World Series where the Yankees were a well-balanced team with their offense. At the end, (closer Mariano) Rivera did what he's been doing all these years. We can play better and we can pitch better. I felt like in the ones they beat us, they were like a step ahead of us. We were always chasing them and trying to catch up. It was who got the breaks, and they got the good breaks. We can beat them. At the end of the World Series last year when I talked to our team, I told them that I feel like we owe the Yankees one."
The Phillies will get a crack at the Yankees in their first Grapefruit League game on March 4 in Clearwater. Of course, that won't be the same as playing in October or, as was the case in 2009, November, as the exhibition lid lifter will deteriorate by the middle innings into a game, with plenty of guys wearing numbers like 72 and 85.
When the Phillies convene in Clearwater, they will have an almost identical lineup to the one that won the pennant in 2009 and finished first in the league in runs scored, with an average of 5.06 a game. The Phillies allowed third baseman Pedro Feliz to walk to the Astros as a free agent and replaced him with free-agent Placido Polanco. Polanco signed a three-year, $18-million deal after a lackluster season with the Tigers that saw him post a .254 EqA, which was just eight points higher than Feliz's .246.
Manuel plans to break up the top two in his batting order this season. Shortstop Jimmy Rollins will continue to bat leadoff despite a .257 EqA and a .296 OBP last season, and Polanco will now hit second despite having a .331 OBP during his poor 2009. Meanwhile, center fielder Shane Victorino will be moved from the second spot to the seventh, despite posting a .287 EqA and .358 OBP a year ago.
"I look at Polanco as a top-of-the-line hitter in the two holes," Manuel said. "He makes good contract. He puts the fat part of the bat on the ball as good as anybody on the team. He plays situational baseball and can move the runners. I look at Shane, and he's the type of hitter that gives us some options."
The Phillies' biggest off-season move, though, came in the starting rotation, as they acquired a premier pitcher but then traded one to make room. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. has taken his share of heat for trading left-hander Cliff Lee to the Mariners at the same time he acquired Roy Halladay from the Blue Jays. Amaro's rationale was that he was able to get Halladay to agree to a below-market contract extension of three years and $60 million that runs through the 2013 season, and Lee is eligible for free agency at the end of the season. Furthermore, Amaro liked the idea of acquiring three prospects from the Mariners to keep the farm system stocked after giving up three prospects to the Blue Jays.
The Phillies could have had a terrific starting staff, with Halladay and Lee fronting a rotation that would have included lefties Cole Hamels and J.A. Happ and right-hander Joe Blanton. Manuel didn't go so far as to lobby Amaro to keep Lee, but he admits he would have loved to have the lefty as his second starter.
"Halladay is the best pitcher in baseball right now, and Lee may be a tad behind him," Manuel said. "Of course, it would have been nice to have Halladay, Lee, and Hamels. I'd be looking good. I might be buying more expensive furniture than me and the missus have been buying lately. Baseball is baseball. I have my own opinions and suggestions but, like everyone else, I have a boss. The Phillies, over the last two or three years, have made good decisions. You get into a situation where you have to make decisions. I trust them. What we got is what we will play with until we see something we need to improve on."
The Phillies' bullpen needed improvement after closer Brad Lidge posted a -3.257 WXRL, the worst mark in the history of the statistic, and then underwent arthroscopic elbow and knee surgeries this winter. Left-hander J.C. Romero is also coming back from a season that included elbow surgery and a 50-game suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs. However, Manuel is excited about the signings of veteran free agents Danys Baez (0.569 WXRL for the Orioles in 2009) and Jose Contreras (0.481 WXRL with the Rockies).
"We have two guys if they're sore or stiff or have a headache, they'll pitch and I know they'll pitch," Manuel said. "They are mentally tough guys. They are not going to the trainer or the doctor. That makes me feel good."
Losing weight has also made Manuel feel good, as he has slimmed down from 286 pounds at the start of 2009 to 228, as he noted, "I looked at a picture and my stomach was over my belt. I had a pretty big gut." Now he observes, "I definitely have more energy. My knees feel a heck of a lot better. I can move quicker and still hit a golf ball pretty good, too."
It was five years ago that the Nationals relocated from Montreal and GM Jim Bowden had to hurriedly put together a skeleton front-office staff both because of time constraints and because the other 29 owners wanted to run a bare-bones operation in order to milk as much profit as possible from a franchise that was then a ward of Major League Baseball.
Bowden resigned last March in the wake of allegations that Nationals scouts were taking part in a bonus-skimming scam in the Dominican Republic, and assistant GM Mike Rizzo took over the baseball operations. Rizzo was promoted to GM in August and has been given the go-ahead by the Nationals owners, the Lerner family, to put together a full front office.
During the offseason, the Nationals have hired two assistant GMs in Roy Clark and Bryan Minniti (a future GM candidate), two new senior advisers in former White Sox GM Ron Schueler and former major-league manager Davey Johnson, a new director of baseball operations in Jay Sartori, and a new director of player development, Doug Harris. They also promoted Kris Kline to director of scouting and added a number of scouts to their staff, including two well-respected ones in Jay Robertson and Kasey McKeon.
Robertson told the Washington Post's Chico Harlan that the reason so many talented people wanted to come work for the Nationals, even though they had the worst record in the major leagues at 59-103 last season, is Rizzo. "You need some identity, and I think the Nationals were void of that," Robertson said. "That's what Mike has changed in the last six months."
Rizzo is well respected among scouts, as he was one of them long before he became the Diamondbacks' scouting director and before his move to the Nationals. Thus, it was easy for Rizzo to recruit good people for the organization. "There were a lot of well-wishers in the industry, because I was a guy who came from where everybody else started and ascended to the general manager's job, which was a good story, and along the way, it wasn't an overnight thing. It took me 28 years to get here," Rizzo said. "People were happy for me. And then, with my years of experience in the game, I knew who I wanted to go after. A lot of people want to come here. And there is a momentum. There's a synergy here that's attracting people. If you'd told me coming off a 59-win season that we would have all this interest from people, it's really remarkable. People in the industry get it. They see what we're doing."
It is not very often that a team and player go to an arbitration hearing over an injury grievance, but the Twins and left-hander Glen Perkins almost did so this offseason. A strained left shoulder bothered Perkins for much of last season, a situation that left some Twins officials privately questioning his pain tolerance and willingness to compete. He was on the disabled list and going through rehabilitation at the Twins' spring training complex in Fort Myers, Florida, on August 30 when GM Bill Smith decided to activate Perkins from the DL and option him to Triple-A Rochester.
The move cost Perkins the needed service time to become eligible for salary arbitration as a player who would have been among the top 17 percent of players with at least two seasons of big-league time but less than three years in the major leagues.
"We had confidence we were doing things within the rules," Smith told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune's Joe Christensen.
Perkins and his agent, John Courtright, didn't share that sentiment and filed a grievance. A hearing was set for November 13 in New York, but the sides settled on a deal that would give Perkins an additional seven days of service time but still leave him short of being arbitration-eligible. Thus, Perkins will have a salary of around $450,000 this year instead of possibly making as much as $1 million through arbitration.
"I guess I really found out the hard way that it's a business," said Perkins, who has been mentioned in various trade rumors this winter. "I grew up (in Minnesota) and spent my life cheering for that team. I got drafted by them (in 2004) and got to the majors quick (in 2006), and two weeks later we're in the playoffs. I had a really good year in '08 and everything was rosy. You find out the hard way that it doesn't really matter."
Kenny Lofton was a rare speedster in the Steroid Era, a time when baseball got away from the stolen base and became all about home runs. Now that Mark McGwire, Alex Rodriguez, and other sluggers have either admitted using performance-enhancing drugs or have been implicated in their use, Lofton can sit back and say, "I told you so."
"It was obvious what was going on," Lofton said. "I mean, guys weren't openly doing the drugs, but you knew something was up by the way guys' bodies were changing. I've always been a believer, though, that if something bad is happening that it will eventually be brought into the light, and it has been."
Lofton stole 622 bases and hit 130 home runs in his 17-year career as a center fielder from 1991-2007. He played for 11 teams. The announcement this past week that he will be inducted into the Indians' Hall of Fame this summer gave him an opportunity to reflect on what his chances of getting into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown might be if he had tried to enhance his power output.
"I could have hit more home runs and gotten more notoriety, but I never used steroids and I never even thought about using steroids," Lofton said. "It was frustrating for those of us who were clean, though. I just sat there and watched guys do things on the field that weren't natural. It was frustrating to have to compete against that type of competition because it wasn't fair, but I'm proud that I was still able to have a good career."
MLB Rumors and Rumblings: The Twins have made so much progress in their attempt to sign catcher Joe Mauer to a long-term contract extension before he becomes eligible for free agency after the 2010 season that a deal is likely to be announced before pitchers and catchers report to Fort Myers. While free-agent outfielder Johnny Damon says he is receptive to any offers at this point, he would prefer to sign with the Rays, as he lives in nearby Orlando. He has not completely ruled out a return to the Yankees, even though they have signed Randy Winn to presumably take his place on the roster. The Mets are attempting to sign free-agent righty Braden Looper to bolster their rotation. They also have interest in John Smoltz and Chien-Ming Wang on the open market. The Reds have offered outfielder Jonny Gomes the chance to return on a minor-league contract. The Tigers are looking into signing free-agent infielders Hank Blalock and Adam Kennedy as insurance in the event rookie second baseman Scott Sizemore shows he isn't ready for the major leagues, and if third baseman Brandon Inge's balky knees act up ... Look for former NFL star running back Jerome Bettis and hockey Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux to join the Rangers' ownership group that is headed by Chuck Greenberg and Nolan Ryan. The group is awaiting official approval to begin running the franchise. Lemieux, who owns the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins, also has serious interest in buying the Pirates, but Bob Nutting is making so much money off revenue sharing that he has little incentive to sell despite declining attendance and revenues.
The Rockies are in serious talks with free-agent reliever Kevin Gregg. Twins GM Bill Smith dispels the idea that he signed Jim Thome as a free agent with the idea he would be the regular designated hitter and DH Jason Kubel would shift to left field, forcing the disappointing Delmon Young into a reserve role. "We've been very up-front about this, that we're looking at Jim in a back-up role, as a threat off the bench," Smith said. Manager Terry Francona is all for the Red Sox revamping their lineup with an eye on defense, as third baseman Adrian Beltre, shortstop Marco Scutaro, and center fielder Mike Cameron have been signed as free agents. Jacoby Ellsbury will move from center to left field to replace Jason Bay, who signed with the Mets as a free agent. "Our goal isn't to lead the American League in runs scored, but to win as many games as we can," Francona said. Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik admits he has to temper the fans' enthusiasm in the Pacific Northwest in the wake of trading for Lee. "You have to remember that we still finished third (in the AL West) last year with a good team. The Angels are a good club that knows how to win and the Rangers are a very formidable foe."