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August 23, 2010

On the Beat

Retooling on the Fly

by John Perrotto

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You've got to hand it to Jerry Manuel. The Mets manager works in the biggest media center in the world, runs a club in which a controversy seems to erupt every third day or so, and is constantly the subject of speculation that his job is in jeopardy. Yet the man is somehow able to keep the faith.

The Mets are 62-62 with the dog days of August on the verge of dissolving into the stretch run of September. They are 11 games behind the Braves in the National League East and trail the Phillies by 8 ½ games in the wild-card standings. Baseball Prospectus' Playoff Odds Report gives the Mets just a 1.6 percent chance of ending their four-year post-season drought. However, Manuel still refused to run up the white flag.

"We can still make a run and get back in this thing," Manuel insists. "I know we have in it us, I really do."

Perhaps they do, but that run is going to have to occur very soon, like, in right now. The Mets have just 38 games left and a lot of ground to make up, especially for a team that has won only three road series all season and has a 26-40 record away from Citi Field.

The good news is that the Mets play 23 of their last 38 at home. However, that does not take away from the fact that they're a serious longshot.

"If we're going to have any chance, we've got to start winning on the road," said third baseman David Wright. "We've been horrible on the road all season. We've got two road trips left and they're going to have be very good ones. And we'll also have to take care of business at home. You never want to say it's impossible, but we've put ourselves in a tough spot and we're going to have play great baseball the rest of the way to get into the postseason."

The Mets don't seem well suited to making a miraculous run, particularly since they have such a hard time scoring. The Mets are averaging just 4.07 runs a game, which ranks 13th in the NL and 23rd in the major leagues. Normally reserved hitting coach Howard Johnson became so frustrated with the lack of offense that he lashed out at hitters in a meeting last Friday night, accusing them of being more focused on clubhouse card playing than pre-game preparation.

The Mets responded by scoring a combined 12 runs in a pair of victories over the Pirates on Friday and Saturday but then reverted back to form Sunday and managed only one run in a loss. Furthermore, Mets hitters did not seem willing to give Johnson high marks for his motivational skills.

"I'm not a meeting-type guy and I really believe meetings are overrated," Wright said. "It wasn't like HoJo gave us some great words of inspiration and we suddenly remembered how to hit."

Wright (.306), left fielder Angel Pagan (.298), and shortstop Jose Reyes (.281) are the only three Mets regulars with a True Average over .280. Left fielder Jason Bay has a .283 TAv, but he has been out with a concussion since July 26 and there is a chance he will not return this season. Bay has hit just six home runs in 401 plate appearances after signing a four-year, $66 million contract as a free agent last winter.

"When you forecast your winter and you bring in that piece and then you didn't get all that you wanted, then you think at least at some point that's going to happen for you," Manuel said. "It's difficult not to ever see it. I think that's the strange thing about this particular season. He played good baseball, don't get me wrong. But we never saw that power and all that his history had indicated, averaging 30 and 100. The RBI would have been something that we would have really liked to have seen. The home runs would have been good, too."

The dichotomy of the Mets' situation is that while Manuel continues to cling to post-season dreams, his lineup includes three rookies in catcher Josh Thole, first baseman Ike Davis, and second baseman Ruben Tejada. While the Mets aren't going to a full-bore youth movement, they are integrating the trio of rookies into a lineup that includes a pair of 27-year-old stars in Wright and Reyes.

"Even though we play in the biggest market of all, you can't just go out and buy a championship because that doesn't work," Manuel said. "I really believe to have a consistently good team, you need to have a core of good home-grown players and supplement that with free agents and trades. These kids who are getting experience now have a chance to be really good players. They've all made good strides this season and could help us for many years to come."

---

The Pirates plan to increase their payroll in 2011 by a "meaningful" amount. No, that is not a headline pilfered from The Onion. Pirates team president Frank Coonelly told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that next year's payroll will go up after starting this season at $34 million, the lowest in the major leagues.

"We have the capacity to add to payroll in a meaningful way," Coonelly said. "We'll be evaluating the trade market and free agency and, if we see a player or players we like, we'll be aggressive in pursuing that player."

The Pirates have not pursued a top-tier free agent from another club since nearly signing Pete Rose during the 1979-80 offseason. Thirty years later, they are not about to buck tradition and start handing out eight-figure contracts.

"We're not going to be in the market for Cliff Lee," Coonelly said. "When we bring in players at that level, they have to be the Jameson Taillon and Pedro Alvarez types through the draft."

Taillon was the Pirates' first-round draft pick this year and Alvarez was their top selection in 2008. The Pirates, with the worst record in the major leagues at 41-83, have already clinched their 18th consecutive losing season, extending their major North American professional team sports record. The embarrassment has apparently reached the point where owner Bob Nutting is willing to spend on major-league talent.

"This year has been more painful than anything I've experienced," Connelly said. "Our performance this year has been an embarrassment, to the city, to the Pittsburgh Pirates, and to our fan base."

General manager Neal Huntington and manager John Russell both have one year remaining on their contracts. However, Coonelly would not guarantee their return in 2011, saying, "nobody's job is absolutely safe."

"I hate the vote-of-confidence questions, but I do still have confidence in Neal and JR," Coonelly said. "But we need to figure out why we're underperforming the way we are."

---

While the losing goes on in Pittsburgh, things have never been better from a baseball standpoint on the other side of Pennsylvania. The Phillies celebrated their 100th consecutive sellout at Citizens Bank Park recently, a streak that started on July 6, 2009 and moved manager Charlie Manuel to address the crowd in a pre-game ceremony.

"I just wanted to say you're the best fans I've ever seen in baseball," Manuel said. "And your energy, the fact that you pull for us every night, is going to get us back to the World Series again."

The Phillies are playing to 103.3 percent of capacity this season. The only other two teams that have played to over 100 percent capacity are the Red Sox (101) and Twins (100.4).

"That's great," shortstop Jimmy Rollins said. "They'll keep showing up if we keep winning. It's simple."

That is part of the reason why the Phillies are concentrating on overtaking the Braves in the NL East rather than on trying to win the wild card. The Phillies would have a chance for home-field advantage in the NLDS and NLCS if they win the division, and they are 42-22 at Citizens Bank Park this season.

"Our fans produce a lot of energy," Manuel said. "They follow us and stay with us and expect us to play well. Their expectations are high of us, and all that helps us."

---

Angels right fielder Torii Hunter had been back to Minneapolis since leaving the Twins as a free agent following the 2007 season. However, his trip this past weekend was special because it was the first time Hunter got to play at the Twins' new Target Field. Angels manager Mike Scioscia called it "The House That Torii Built."

Hunter was quite impressed by the facility as he got a guided tour from Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. In fact, Hunter admitted to getting teary-eyed at the sight of an outdoor baseball facility in Minnesota.

"This place is awesome," Hunter said. "This was our dream. As a player playing in the Metrodome, we heard about it all the time, how we were trying to get a new stadium. Now to see the finished product—this was our dream."

It is not a stretch to say Hunter had a hand in Target Field becoming reality. The Twins went from a franchise being considered for contraction after the 2001 season to making the playoffs four times in Hunter's last six seasons in Minnesota. The resurgence helped spark the way to get public funding for the $545 million ballpark.

"Maybe a small percentage is because of me," Hunter said with a smile. "I think with all the talk of contraction, we wound up winning the division (in 2002) and showing we were a pretty good team. That probably saved us, saved baseball in Minnesota. I definitely feel a little part of this—not financially, though. They got a video room now, they got nice batting cages, not made out of fishnet, a real weight room and not the pieces that we bought to bring in."

---

MLB Rumors & Rumblings: The Rangers appear to the be the front-runners to sign outfielder/first baseman Brad Hawpe, who was released by the Rockies last week, though Colorado has an interest in re-signing him once the roster limit expands from 25 to 40 on September 1. … The Giants' primary reason for claiming Marlins center fielder Cody Ross off waivers was to block him from going to the Padres rather than adding him to their roster. … Designated hitter Johnny Damon says he would like to re-sign with the Tigers as a free agent even if he is part of a waiver trade before the end of the month. … Rookie right-hander Jeremy Hellickson will return to the Rays as a reliever on September 1 after spending the next week with High-A Port Charlotte, where he will make the transition from being a starter. … The Nationals will recall right-hander Jordan Zimmermann after he makes one last start for Triple-A Syracuse. … Reds shortstop Orlando Cabrera (oblique) could come off the disabled list tonight. … Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler (groin) will undergo an MRI today, which should provide the framework for when he can return. … Twins first baseman Justin Morneau (concussion) still has no timetable for a return. … The Padres believe that right-hander Chris Young (shoulder) will be able to make some starts in September. … Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek (foot) is likely to return at some point in September. … Royals right-hander Luke Hochevar (oblique) is expected to begin a rehab assignment this week.

---

Scouts' views on various major-leaguers:

Blue Jays left-hander Brett Cecil: "The more you watch him, the more you like him. He mixes his pitches well, throws strikes and is efficient with his pitches. He really knows how to pitch for a young guy and his stuff is pretty good, too."

Brewers reliever Trevor Hoffman: "He's got enough left to hang on and get to 600 saves, but he's not the old Trevor Hoffman. He still throws strikes, but that's not necessarily a good thing anymore because his pitches are hittable. He's a no-doubt Hall of Famer, but I hope he understands it's time to go and doesn’t try to hang on past this year."

Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina: "I'm really worried that he's going to get worn down because he never gets a day off and the Cardinals are hurting without (backup catcher) Jason LaRue. His bat seems dead. He makes good contact but the ball doesn't jump off the bat at all. That's a sign of fatigue."

Mariners left fielder Michael Saunders: "I hope they take a good look at this kid down the stretch. He's got a lot of ability. He needs some polish, especially when it comes to things like chasing pitches out of the strike zone, but I think he has a chance to be a good regular in the major leagues."

---

Three series to watch with probable pitchers and all times Eastern:

Twins (72-52) at Rangers (69-54), Monday-Thursday August 23-26
Nick Blackburn vs. Rich Harden, 8:05 p.m.; Carl Pavano vs. Colby Lewis, 8:05 p.m.; Francisco Liriano vs. C.J. Wilson, 8:05 p.m.; Brian Duensing vs. Cliff Lee, 8:05 p.m.

Braves (73-51) at Rockies (63-60), Monday-Wednesday August 23-25
Tim Hudson vs. Jason Hammel, 8:40 p.m.; Derek Lowe vs. Jorge De La Rosa, 8:40 p.m.; Jair Jurrjens vs. Esmil Rogers, 3:10 p.m.

Reds (72-52) at Giants (69-56), Monday-Wednesday August 23-25
Edinson Volquez vs. Matt Cain, 10:15 p.m.; Travis Wood vs. Jonathan Sanchez, 10:15 p.m.; Homer Bailey vs. Madison Bumgarner, 3:30 p.m.

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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