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February 3, 2010

On the Beat

Indian Spring

by John Perrotto

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When Manny Acta holds his first team meeting as manager of the Indians later this month at the beginning of spring training in Goodyear, Arizona, he will be armed with some numbers. Anyone who knows Acta isn't surprised by that. He is a firm believer in the value of statistical analysis and has based part of his approach to managing from things he read in Mind Game, a book published by Baseball Prospectus, that explained how the Red Sox used brainpower to build their World Series-winning team in 2004.

The statistic Acta will emphasize most is the Indians' propensity to get off to slow starts under Eric Wedge, who was fired late last season after seven years as the club's manager. The Indians were over .500 at the end of May just once during the Wedge era, in 2007, when they used a 33-19 start in the season's first two months to win the American League Central and come within one game of getting to the World Series; they lost to the Red Sox in the American League Championship Series.

Acta and his coaching staff discussed the slow starts at length two weeks ago when they met for organizational meetings in Goodyear.

"We emphasized having a plan in place to address that," Acta said. "I think one thing we have to do is make the players more aware of what's happened in the last few years regarding the slow starts. Sometimes players get so into playing games every day that they aren't always aware of the statistics and their record."

Wedge was well aware of the history of slow starts, but he never found the right formula to counteract the problem. Acta, who spent more than two seasons as the Nationals' manager before getting fired at last season's All-Star break, knows exactly what he wants to do in spring training to have his team as prepared as possible when it opens the season April 5 against the White Sox in Chicago.

"We will try to put our club together the last week to 10 days of camp, and the players who are going to be on the Opening Day roster will do most of the playing in those last games," Acta said. "You can't always think you're going to get to Opening Day and then just hit the switch and start winning games. We want to make sure we're fully prepared when we take the field in Chicago."

Acta learned the value of fast starts the hard way with the Nationals, as they were 26-61 when he was fired last season at the All-Star break. Though the Nationals still finished with the worst record in the major leagues at 59-103, they went 35-42 under Jim Riggleman, who was elevated to manager from bench coach.

"It's important for morale to get off to a good start," Acta said. "If you fall behind in the race early, guys start to press and the situation just gets worse."

While Wedge was highly regarded by general manager Mark Shapiro and the rest of the front office, owner Paul Dolan wanted a change to create a better atmosphere around the team. Wedge is a good baseball man, but he became so intense at times that the joke around the Indians was that if they won the World Series, his first comment at the postgame press conference would be, "We can't get too caught up in the excitement of this because we've got another season to get ready for."

"Eric and the coaching staff were good guys and good baseball men," reliever Chris Perez said. "They were also very businesslike. That's not a bad approach by any means, but I don't know if it necessarily works as well with a young team like ours. From what little bit I've been around Manny and talking to guys who played for him, he is more relaxed and makes the game fun. I think that's what we need at this stage."

The Indians had both a poor start and a poor finish last season, as they went 65-97 for their worst record since losing 105 games in 1991. Following the trade of reigning Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee to the Phillies for four prospects and All-Star catcher Victor Martinez to the Red Sox for pitcher Justin Masterson and two prospects, the Indians struggled mightily over the final two months and lost 25 of their last 33 games.

The Indians aren't expected to be contenders this season, but Acta is heartened by the good news he has been hearing on the medical front this winter. Center fielder Grady Sizemore is expected to be 100 percent after undergoing abdominal and thumb surgeries at the end of last season, while designated hitter Travis Hafner's shoulder is finally fully healed after undergoing surgery at the end of the 2008 season. Jake Westbrook will likely be the Opening Day starting pitcher after sitting out all last season and the final five months of 2008 while recovering from Tommy John surgery on his elbow.

Acta also likes the potential of young players such as first baseman Matt LaPorta and left fielder Michael Brantley, who figure to spend their first full season in the major leagues this year along with catcher Lou Marson, one of the players acquired in the Lee trade.

"This is a good franchise with good people running it and a lot of good players," Acta said. "It's a very good situation to be in as a manager. I can't wait to get to Arizona and get started."

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Ruben Amaro Jr. is truly the support-neutral GM at the moment. Phillies fans love him for trading for Blue Jays right-hander Roy Halladay, but they hate him for dealing Lee to the Mariners. The fans can only fantasize how a rotation with Halladay, Lee, and Cole Hamels in the lead would have made the Phillies overwhelming favorites to become the first team to win three consecutive National League pennants since the 1942-44 Cardinals.

Yet, Amaro had his reasons for trading Lee and refused to second-guess his decision. He stood firm in his decision while talking to reporters on Monday night at the 106th annual Philadelphia Sportswriters Banquet. Amaro believes he had no choice but to restock his farm system with the three prospects he received from the Mariners after trading three prospects to the Blue Jays.

"I was talking to some people the other day and I said, 'I'm not a dummy. I know what Cliff Lee means to our rotation in addition to Halladay and Hamels. It's a no-brainer,'" Amaro said. "Our goal is to be a contender every year, not just to be a competitor, but to be a contender every year. That's really my job. As an executive of the club, it's my job to do what I can to try to maintain that level of talent on the club and that hope from the fans. So, yes, I'd like to have a championship, but not at the cost of having our organization not be good for 10 years. Absolutely not. That's not the goal. The goal is to be a contender every year. And once you get to the World Series or get to the playoffs, it's really a matter of who's playing the best baseball, who's hottest, who has the karma."

That being said, Amaro comprehends why the fans are upset that he traded Lee away, especially after he went 4-0 in the postseason.

"I guess I'd characterize myself as someone who is aggressive and someone who understands what the fans want," Amaro said. "But at the same time, I have to do right by this organization, and in turn, I think that's doing right by the fans."

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The whispers that were going around baseball circles last summer have been confirmed by Rangers president Nolan Ryan: The club was on such shaky financial ground last season that Major League Baseball felt compelled to give owner Tom Hicks a budget to follow and allowed him to deviate from it only with permission from the Commissioner's office.

Hicks agreed to sell the Rangers to a group led by Ryan and Pittsburgh attorney Chuck Greenberg last month for a reported $560 million. The deal still must be approved by three-fourths of the other 29 major-league club owners before it becomes final.

MLB officials visited the Rangers in July and reviewed their financial records, according to Ryan. The limitations that were placed on the Rangers were the primary reason why they were unable to sign pitcher Matt Purke, their first-round draft pick. The Rangers were told they could not offer a signing bonus of more than $4 million, and Purke, who reportedly wanted at least $5 million, opted to play college ball at Texas Christian.

"MLB did not want to impact the day-to-day operations of the club, and they tried to be very accommodating, but we had some limitations and we were trying to pare down expenses," Ryan said. "I always went to Tom first on any issue and we'd discuss it. If it was something we felt like we needed to do, then one of us would make a call to MLB."

---

Rick Peterson is a man of many theories about baseball, but you can be assured he will be reiterating one basic tenet during his first season as the Brewers' pitching coach: pitch down in the strike zone. He has the statistics to back it up.

"In the last decade in Major League Baseball, if you look at all the balls put in play at the very bottom of the strike zone, the average batting average is .210," Peterson told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel's Michael Hunt. "Almost everybody on our pitching staff at the bottom of the strike zone has a batting average in the .160, .170, .180 range. We're beating the league averages. The issue is we're not getting enough balls down in the strike zone."

Of course, it remains to be seen if the Brewers' pitchers can execute Peterson's plan. The Brewers were 15th in the 16-team NL in runs allowed last year, as they gave up an average of 5.06 a game.

Not surprisingly, GM Doug Melvin's off-season focus has been pitching, pitching, and more pitching. He signed left-hander Randy Wolf to a three-year, $29-million contract as a free agent to bolster the starting rotation and also signed lefty Doug Davis for the rotation and reliever LaTroy Hawkins to serve as Trevor Hoffman's primary set-up man.

Peterson, though, sees good things for the pitching staff and a team that finished 80-82 last season almost solely on the strength of finishing third in the NL in scoring with 4.85 runs a game.

"You think about winning 80 games last year and having the worst starting pitching in baseball, and you've got a chance," Peterson said. "If we can make some incremental differences and with the addition of Randy Wolf and the help in the bullpen, we have the expectations and hopes of playing in October."

---

MLB Rumors and Rumblings: The Tigers would like to sign free-agent outfielder Johnny Damon, but not unless he comes down from his asking price of $6 million for one year with an option for 2011. … Astros owner Drayton McLane is truly on the fence about whether he wants to sell the club, and is seeking at least $650 million in any deal. … Look for the Red Sox, Astros, Mets, Phillies, and Rangers to most actively pursue left-hander Noah Lowry as a free agent once he proves he is healthy after missing the last two seasons. … It appears Clay Buchholz and knuckleballer Tim Wakefield will compete for the one open spot in the Red So rotation in spring training, behind Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, John Lackey, and Daisuke Matsuzaka. … The Tigers were encouraged by the way right-hander Armando Galarraga pitched in winter ball in his native Venezuela. … The Royals have sorted their outfield situation out and will go with an alignment of Scott Podsednik in left, Rick Ankiel in center, and David DeJesus in right. … Look for Randy Winn and Brett Gardner to platoon in left field for the Yankees. … The Athletics will hold a three-man competition for one open rotation spot as Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, and Vin Mazzaro will vie to slot in behind Ben Sheets, Justin Duchscherer, Dallas Braden, and Brett Anderson.

Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston is pushing for his club to sign Carlos Delgado as a free agent, presumably to serve as the designated hitter. … Those around the Cubs would not be the least bit surprised if Xavier Nady unseats Kosuke Fukudome as the starting right fielder by Memorial Day. … Rockies manager Jim Tracy vows to give first baseman Todd Helton more rest this season, using Jason Giambi as a spot starter. … The Marlins will only sign free-agent first baseman Russell Branyan if he agrees to a minor-league contract, as they are content to have rookies Logan Morrison and Gaby Sanchez compete for the job in spring training. … Infielder Ronnie Belliard must have his weight down to 209 pounds by some point in spring training, or the Dodgers can void his one-year contract. … The Mets have decided hard-throwing Bobby Parnell will work out of the bullpen even though their competition for the fifth starter's spot is less than compelling, as it includes lefties Jon Niese and Pat Misch along with Fernando Nieve, Nelson Figueroa, and Josh Fogg. … Juan Uribe will open the season as the Giants' second baseman if Freddy Sanchez is not recovered from his shoulder and knee surgeries. … The Nationals will look at right-hander Miguel Batista, who they signed as a free agent, as a starter in spring training.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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