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February 10, 2010

On the Beat

Mid-Week Update

by John Perrotto

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Last season was a bittersweet one for the Giants. They finished 88-74 and stayed in contention until late in the season, which was a step up following four consecutive sub-.500 years. The Giants also led the major leagues in run prevention, allowing just 3.77 a game behind the dynamic young starting pitching duo of Tim Lincecum (8.2 SNLVAR) and Matt Cain (7.5).

Yet the Giants could only wonder how great 2009 might have been if they had just been able to score runs at an average pace. Instead, they were 13th in the National League and 26th in the majors with an average of 4.06 a game. Furthermore, the Giants' .309 on base percentage was the lowest in the majors, and their .389 slugging percentage was third from the bottom.

"All those statistics were mentioned to me when I interviewed for the job back in November," new Giants hitting coach Hensley Meulens said with a small chuckle. "I'm well aware of what happened last season."

"Bam Bam" Meulens spent last season, his first in the Giants' organization, as Triple-A Fresno's hitting coach. He then joined the major-league club in September once the Pacific Coast League season ended and watched the Giants' offense struggle, killing their chances of beating out the Dodgers for the NL West title or the Rockies for the wild card.

"I saw a lot of guys get overanxious and swing at first pitches." Meulens said. "We have some outstanding hitters, but they tended to get themselves out at times without making the pitchers work."

General manager Brian Sabean and manager Bruce Bochy saw the same things Meulens did during his short time sitting in the major-league dugout. Thus, Carney Lansford was fired as the hitting coach at the end of the season and Meulens got the job over Giants minor-league hitting coordinator Bob Mariano, another highly regarded baseball man. The biggest problem Meulens must solve is the low OBP.

"The most important part of scoring runs is getting people on base," Meulens said. "I know it sounds basic, but you can't do one without the other."

However, teaching plate patience is a hitting coach's most difficult task at the major-league level. Most hitters have either established themselves as aggressive or patient hitters, or somewhere in between, at that point in their careers.

"You're not going to change a guy who has been playing in the major leagues 10, 12, 14 years," Meulens said. "You don't stay in the big leagues that long without being successful, and guys aren't going to go away from what has made them successful. While we might not walk a lot more, what I do want to do is get our hitters focused on getting their pitch to hit. A lot of times last September, I saw guys who weren't relaxed and swinging at the first pitch. I want to stress that you need to get a pitch you can hit. It might be the first pitch in the at-bat. It might be the fifth pitch. It might never come, so just take the walk.

"Now, you're not going to take (catcher) Bengie Molina, who walked 13 times all year (in 2009), and all of a sudden make him draw 40 or 50 walks. However, if you can get him to wait for his pitch, he is going to probably draw a few extra walks, but the big difference is he will increase his batting average and slugging percentage."

The Giants have one of the best young hitters in the game in third baseman Pablo Sandoval. The Kung Fu Panda had a .317 EqA last season, his first full year in the majors. The Giants are also hoping for bounce-back seasons from shortstop Edgar Renteria (.231), who played with three large bone chips in his elbow last season before undergoing surgery, and center fielder Aaron Rowand (.260), who has lost 15 pounds this winter.

They are also hopeful two free-agent additions, first baseman Aubrey Huff (.239 EqA with the Orioles and Tigers) and super-utilityman/left fielder Mark DeRosa (.266 EqA with the Indians and Cardinals) can show increased production, along with second baseman Freddy Sanchez, who had just a .221 EqA last season for the Giants after being acquired July 30 from the Pirates. Sanchez, though, is unlikely to be ready by Opening Day after undergoing shoulder and knee surgeries since the end of last season.

"We have a lot of good hitters, and Freddy is one of the best in the game from a pure hitting standpoint," Meulens said. "Even guys who have proven they can play at this level struggle from time to time. They might go through a stretch where they drop their hands in their swing or start pulling off the ball. It's my job to get the hitters on track when things are going bad, and to keep them on track when things are going good. I know how important it is going to be for us to score some runs this season. With our pitching, there is no reason why we won't win a lot of games if we just do our fair share of the work from a hitting standpoint."

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Trading a disgruntled player (Milton Bradley) for an overpaid and overweight pitcher (Carlos Silva) was the biggest move of the winter for Cubs GM Jim Hendry. Beyond that, he signed free-agent center fielder Marlon Byrd to a three-year, $15-million contract, signed outfielder Xavier Nady as a free agent after he was limited to seven games with the Yankees last season before undergoing Tommy John surgery on his elbow, and traded for Athletics middle reliever Jeff Gray.

It doesn't seem like much wheeling and dealing for a GM under fire from the fan base after the Cubs' two-year reign as NL Central champions ended last season when they went 83-78 to finish 71/2 games behind the Cardinals. However, there wasn't a lot Hendry could do this winter, as he already had $102 million tied up in seven players for 2010: left-hander Ted Lilly, right-handers Ryan Dempster and Carlos Zambrano, first baseman Derrek Lee, third baseman Aramis Ramirez, left fielder Alfonso Soriano, and right fielder Kosuke Fukudome.

Hendry, though, believes the Cubs can return to the top of the division in 2010, particularly with the addition of hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo, whose charge is to boost an offense that was ninth in the NL last season when it scored 4.4 runs a game.

"It's not like we had a lot of room for new bodies," Hendry told the Chicago Tribune's Paul Sullivan. "We just needed to get a couple of pieces, and we really think Byrd and Nady are going to help us in a lot of areas, especially offensively. And I'm optimistic some of the people that didn't hit last year will. Rudy is going to help us. I think we're quite a bit better."

Hendry's quiet offseason has certainly been different than last winter, when he made plenty of moves after the Cubs were swept in the National League Division Series for a second straight year. Such acquisitions as Bradley, relievers Kevin Gregg and Aaron Heilman, and infielder Aaron Miles all turned out poorly despite raising the payroll to a club-record $135 million at the start of last season.

The Cubs were still owned by the Tribune Company then. The Ricketts family bought the club late last season, and one wonders how long they will stick with Hendry if the Cubs don't show improvement this season.

"The dollars leaving the door is not the issue," Tom Ricketts, the Cubs' chairman, said. "It's the third-highest payroll (in the major leagues). The issue is getting the right performance for the number of dollars you spend."

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The Yankees could be facing a most interesting offseason following the 2010 season. Closer Mariano Rivera and shortstop Derek Jeter, two franchise icons, will become eligible for free agency, and manager Joe Girardi's three-year contract will expire.

The Yankees have a strict policy of not negotiating contracts until the current one has expired. Thus, questions about the future of all three will hang over the Yankees all season. GM Brian Cashman, though, does not see that as a potential problem.

"Everybody signed those contracts and there is a lot of money being made and people are comfortable," Cashman told the New York Post's irascible George Arthur King III.

Joe Torre's exit as the Yankees' manager following the 2007 season came down to job security. He wanted a two-year contract to keep the media from asking the players about their manager's job security. Torre, though, was offered one year and turned it down. Girardi was hired and signed to a three-year contract while Torre moved on to the Dodgers.

"It doesn't make any difference," Cashman said. "(The media) brought his job (security) up when he had two years left on the contract in (2008). It doesn't matter. You can have a contract for 10 years and it doesn't matter."

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The Brewers have six established starting pitchers for five spots in their rotation: left-handers Doug Davis, Manny Parra and Randy Wolf and right-handers Dave Bush, Yovani Gallardo, and Jeff Suppan. That means someone is going to be seemingly disappointed at the end of spring training. GM Doug Melvin is not apologizing, though.

"You've got 30-some games to play in spring training," Melvin told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel's Tom Haudricourt. "To have any kind of injury, we're protected now. You're always one injury away from being too short of talent. We like the depth that we have. We'll wait and see how that all turns out. We're fond of both Dave Bush and Jeff Suppan, and they're both quite capable of stepping up and performing, maybe better than what they did last year."

The Brewers thought they had too many starters two years ago when they headed to spring training. With a week remaining in camp, they released Claudio Vargas to pare the rotation to five and save a few dollars. Sure enough, left-hander Chris Capuano injured his elbow two days later and hasn't thrown a pitch in the major leagues since.

"Every other day, we would meet with the media or talk to fans and say, 'What are we going to do about the (excess) pitching?'" Melvin said. "Then, in two days, we went from six starting pitchers to four."

The situation got even worse when Gallardo blew out a knee on May 1 and missed the remainder of the regular season. It took trading for reigning American League Cy Young winner CC Sabathia in July to get the Brewers into the postseason for the first time in 26 years.

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MLB Rumors and Rumblings: The Braves and Tigers are the two most serious suitors for free-agent outfielder Johnny Damon, but both refuse to offer more than one-year contracts, and are ready to wait him out. The Cardinals have interest in signing free agents Felipe Lopez or Joe Crede to compete with David Freese for the third base job, but preferably on a minor-league contract while Tyler Greene will also be an in-house candidate for the job. Meanwhile, Kyle McClellan will be given a chance to move from the bullpen and win the Cardinals' fifth starter's job in a competition with Rich Hill and rookie Jaime Garcia. The Rays have at least some level of interest in Lopez, and the Rockies could also be in the picture, because while they like Clint Barmes' power and defense, they would also like a second base alternative with better on-base skills. ... White Sox hitting coach Greg Walker was impressed with right fielder Carlos Quentin's physical conditioning after visiting him in California recently. The Tigers are leaning towards keeping Robinzon Diaz as the backup catcher behind Gerald Laird so Alex Avila can get regular playing time at Triple-A Toledo. The Twins can't wait to see left-hander Francisco Liriano in spring training after his fastball was clocked at 96 mph during winter ball in the Dominican Republic and his slider showed its pre-Tommy John wipeout ability. Mariners first baseman Ryan Garko, who was drafted as a catcher by the Indians, will see action behind the plate during the exhibition season. The Mariners are also giving serious consideration to re-signing outfielder Endy Chavez, who is making rapid progress in his recovery from reconstructive knee surgery. Most Yankees insiders believe Joba Chamberlain has the edge over Phil Hughes in the spring battle for the fifth starter's job.

Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell feels off-season acquisition Jesse Chavez has the stuff to be a dominant set-up man for closer Billy Wagner. The Marlins signed Derrick Turnbow, Jose Veras, and Seth McClung to minor-league contracts with the idea any of them might be moved into the closer's role if Leo Nunez struggles this season. Torre twice talked with the Dodgers this winter about extending his contract beyond this season, but the conversations didn't go far. The Giants are considering using top catching prospect Buster Posey in the infield this season while Molina handles the bulk of duties behind the plate. Meanwhile, Nate Schierholtz has the edge in an open competition for the starting right fielder's job that will also include John Bowker, Fred Lewis, Eugenio Velez, and Andres Torres. Michael Brantley is the favorite to win the Indians' left-field job, but he will get spring competition from Trevor Crowe, Jordan Brown, Austin Kearns, and Shelley Duncan. The Mets plan to lower the height of the center-field wall at Citi Field to from 16 feet to eight feet. Pirates third base prospect Neil Walker, who began his professional career as a catcher, is willing to become a super-utilityman if it means a spot on the major-league roster following two seasons at Triple-A Indianapolis.

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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