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June 11, 2010

On the Beat

Friday Update

by John Perrotto

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The Red Sox have long been at the forefront of statistical analysis. They have a metric for just about everything and sound reasoning for each move they make, whether it turns out good, bad or in between.

Red Sox manager Terry Francona has reams of statistical information at his disposal to help in his decision-making process and pays attention to it. However, Francona is also an old-fashioned baseball guy at heart as his father Tito Francona was an outfielder in the major leagues for 15 seasons from 1956-70, long before current Red Sox special adviser Bill James came along and revolutionized things.

Thus, Francona understands that some things in the game of baseball are hard to measure. In fact, he believes one of those intangibles is part of the reason the Red Sox have heated up after a slow start.

"I think it took a while for this team to kind of develop its personality," Francona said. "Sometimes, it just doesn't happen overnight. Things kind of have to blend together and jell. It took awhile with this team but you get the sense that everyone is a lot more comfortable and relaxed now."

General manager Theo Epstein spent the winter retooling the roster after the Red Sox made a quick exit from the postseason last year, getting swept by the Angels in three games in the American League Division Series. Right-hander John Lackey led a free agent shopping spree that included third baseman Adrian Beltre, shortstop Marco Scutaro and center fielder Mike Cameron, Epstein citing that each scored high in the various advanced defensive metrics last season, which, in turn, sparked talk that the Red Sox had shifted their focus from being a run-scoring team to a run-prevention outfit.

Red Sox management took plenty of heat when the team stumbled to an 11-14 start through May 2. However, the Red Sox have turned it on since as they have gone 24-13 to improve their record to 35-27, which puts them in third place in the American League East, five games behind the first-place Rays and three in back of the Yankees.

And, as if to justify Epstein's off-season plan, defense has helped fuel the Red Sox's run. They lead the major leagues with a .722 defensive efficiency since May 3 after ranking 19th with .687 mark through their first 25 games.

"We didn't play very well at the start of the season," Francona said. "We were very inconsistent. It was a situation where we had some new guys coming into the organization that we're still getting used to being on a new team and we had guys who had been here for a while who were being asked to take on different  roles than they had in the past. I think everyone was unsettled when the season started. It just took a while for everyone to adjust, but once they did, we've played very good baseball, the type of baseball we expect to play every season."

As Francona alluded to, three veterans of the Red Sox's World Series championship teams in 2004 and 2007 have been asked to take on somewhat reduced roles. Jason Varitek has ceded the starting catching job to Victor Martinez, David Ortiz no longer plays every day at designated hitter as he now sits against tougher left-handed pitchers and ageless knuckleballer Tim Wakefield was shifted to long relief before rejoining the starting rotation when ace John Beckett went on the disabled list on May 19 with a lower back strain.

Francona has also had to delicately handle Jacoby Ellsbury, first asking him to move from center field to left field in the offseason after Cameron was signed. Ellsbury has also been limited to just nine games this season because of broken ribs suffered in a collision with Beltre and it became public that some in the Red Sox's organization questioned Ellsbury's pain tolerance.

"Managing the Red Sox is never an easy job because of all the media attention we get and how much the fans care about us," Wakefield said. "The great thing about (Francona), though, is he is honest. He'll tell you how it is. I mean, I certainly didn't want to hear that I was being sent to the bullpen but he was straightforward and honest about it. He didn't beat around the bush, didn't have an agenda. That's why everyone respects him and he's able to get us through the tough times."

Times are better now but Francona realizes the Red Sox could have a terrific season and still miss the postseason with the presence of the Rays and Yankees in the same division. However, he likes the direction his club is headed after the bad start, even with Beckett and Ellsbury not coming back anytime soon and Cameron's long-term status being dicey as he tries to play through painful strained abdominal muscles rather than succumbing to surgery.

"We're playing a lot better all the way around," Francona said. "When we play with consistency, we're good enough to win every single day. I think we've shown that the last month or so. We had some rough patches early that we had to get past but we've put that behind us and we're playing pretty darned good baseball."

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The White Sox are 26-33 and nine games behind the Twins in the AL Central while the Brewers are 25-35 and 9 ½ games behind the Reds in the National League Central. However, while White Sox GM Ken Williams admits his team cannot win with its roster as currently constituted, Brewers owner Mark Attanasio is telling his GM, Doug Melvin, to stay the course.

"I don't know what and I don't when, but some changes need to take place," Williams said. "Things aren't happening the way that we envisioned, and when they don't happen the way you envision you've got to make an adjustment."

Williams says he is ready to make deals right now. However, the season has yet to reach a point where many teams are either prepared to give up on being a contender or believe they are one or two players away from being pushed over the top.

"I guess I'm not so much on my own timeline as I am on other clubs' timelines," Williams said. "It's still the early part of June, and a lot of clubs are trying to figure their situations out and determine whether they're in it or not in it or what kind of money they have to spend. There are a lot of variables that go into the mix, so even if I want to do something, it's not always in my control. And even if something does arise, you always run the risk of, particularly in our case where there are a lot of desirable players that people seem to want but why we can't put it together is a mystery. But other teams seem to want our players, so I have to gauge whether something that comes along sooner is better off for our mix and chance to get in it or wait and be a little patient until July, when kind of all the information is in and people are bidding against one another for our players."

Williams admittedly would like to dump some contracts and players who can become free agents at the end of the season. However, he is also quick to point out that he does not plan to completely strip the roster.

"You just try to do the best you can in a given year, and in '08 we made the playoffs," Williams said. "Last year wasn't so good, and this year, so far, isn't what it was supposed to be. I guess the good thing about that we have a number of players that are young players that have high ceilings and a lot of potential. So we're not talking about tearing something down. If we do something it will be along the lines of shuffling the deck with the expectation that we're going to add impact guys to help us win."

Williams should not waste his time calling Melvin in an effort to make a trade. The Brewers aren't raising the white flag.

 "The way baseball works, everybody is cautious," Attanasio said. "It almost decides for you. No team is going to throw in the towel yet. There are other teams with players who asked for trades, but you don't see any activity. That probably doesn't happen until late June."

The Brewers made one move this week, releasing right-hander Jeff Suppan and eating the more than $10 million left on the final year of his contract. However, Attanasio said that sunk cost will not hamstring the Brewers from making moves.

 "We run the team with a lot of fiscal discipline," he said. "So, while it's something you have to absorb, it's all built into the budget. Honestly, financial considerations were never part of the picture here. I never called Doug and said because of financial reasons we can't make a move here. It was Doug's call as to what we do and how we do it, with players on the roster."

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There were many amazing aspects to Stephen Strasburg's ballyhooed major-league debut Tuesday night for the Nationals. The most amazing might been that Strasburg struck out 14 batter despite throwing just 94 pitches in his seven-inning outing against the Pirates. Never before had a major-league pitcher recorded so many strikeouts in so few pitches.

"The way he was going, he probably could have thrown 194 pitches," Nationals manager Jim Riggeleman said, before quickly adding, "of course, we'd never do that."

Riggleman, though, will have some interesting decisions to make when it comes pitch counts and innings totals for the 21-year-old Strasburg. Most likely, Strasburg will be cut off at around 100 pitches in each start and the Nationals would like to hold him to around 100 major-league innings.

The Nationals plan to pitch Strasburg every fifth day from now until the All-Star break, skipping their more established pitchers in the rotation at times in order to get the rookie used to a regular major-league workload. The Nationals are also leaning toward skipping some of Strasburg's turns in late-July and early August so he will still be available in September in order to get him acclimated to the six-month major-league season.

"I'm probably going to make some decisions in some games that are going to upset some people," Riggleman said of possibly pulling Strasburg early from starts. "That's OK, though. I hope Stephen pitches well enough that people don't want to ever see him come out of a game."

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MLB Rumors and Rumblings: The Cardinals signed Suppan to fill a hole in their rotation but are also interested in trading for a starter, with the Royals' Brian Bannister and Orioles' Kevin Millwood two of their targets … The Yankees could wind up pulling off a blockbuster trade with the Astros as they are interested in both right-hander Roy Oswalt and first baseman Lance Berkman, who would become the designated hitter … The Mariners are so discouraged by Ian Snell's recent performances that they are considering designating him for assignment. They are also so impressed with the way utility infielder Josh Wilson has performed at shortstop that Jack Wilson will not be given his starting job back when he is activated from the disabled list next week … Club broadcaster and former catcher Rick Dempsey would be like to considered for the manager's job with the Orioles and ESPN commentator and former major-league manager Bobby Valentine will be interviewed for the job that became vacant last week when Dave Trembley was fired … With catcher Jeff Mathis ready to return from the disabled list this weekend, look for Mike Napoli to begin seeing regular duty at first base for the Angels with Bobby Wilson taking over as the No. 2 catcher … John Maine will continue to be used as a starter when he comes off the DL next week after the Mets considered moving him to the  bullpen to take stress off his injured shoulder.

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Scouts views of various MLB players:

White Sox second baseman Gordon Beckham: "He looks really defensive at the plate and he's cheating on fastballs like hitters usually do when they get older and start losing bat speed. He's gone from being one of the best rookies in the American League last year to looking like an old man. It's strange."

Orioles catcher Matt Wieters: "The only pitches he is able to handle right now are mistakes out over the heart of the plate. He's lost his swagger and I think the Orioles should bite the bullet and send him to the minor leagues for some more seasoning."

White Sox outfielder Andruw Jones: "It's like he has taken a good, long drink from the fountain of youth. His bat speed is back to the point that he can turn on inside fastballs again and he plays a pretty darn good center field. If I'm a contender that needs a center fielder, I'd take a shot on trading for him."

Mariners second baseman Chone Figgins: "He just hasn't looked right all year. I'm going to play amateur psychologist here and think that maybe he is just having a rough time making the adjustment to being away from the Angels after playing for them for so many years. He doesn't look like he is enjoying playing like he used to."

Royals right-hander Zack Greinke: "His stuff is still plenty good but he is having a harder time putting the ball where he wants it this year, especially his off-speed stuff. Last year, he hit his spots with such precision that it was scary. That's not the case this year."

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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