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September 15, 2010

On the Beat

Ready for a Return

by John Perrotto

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Andy Pettitte certainly didn't look ready to return to the major leagues one batter into his second and final rehabilitation start for the Double-A Trenton Thunder on Wednesday night. The Yankees' left-hander threw a 1-2 cutter that didn't cut and the Altoona Curve's Chase d'Arnaud hit it over the 385 sign in left-center field at Blair County Ballpark, causing 5,501 Central Pennsylvania baseball fans to take a break from Penn State football to go bonkers and orange-costumed Al Tuna to pop through a hole in the right-center field fence and jump around in celebration.

Things got better from there for Pettitte, though. Al Tuna did only one more jig as Pettitte, who has been on the disabled list since July 19 with a strained groin, settled down and allowed two runs and six hits in five innings with one walk and four strikeouts. He threw 67 pitches, 49 for strikes then made 10 more throws in the bullpen to cap his evening.

While he was not dominant, the 38-year-old Pettitte was healthy. For that, he was pleased.

"I feel good," Pettitte said. "My last inning, I got into some trouble and they ran my pitch count up but I still felt strong at the end. That's a good sign. You want to see how you feel when you're taxed. That's one of the biggest tests you go through when you're on a rehab."

Thus, Pettitte will return to the Yankees' rotation on Sunday and face the Orioles at Baltimore. Considering the Yankees have designs on defending their World Series title, Pettitte's return can't come soon enough, as he will have three starts to prepare for the postseason.

The Yankees desperately need Pettitte to be back in top form in October because he still ranks second on the staff in SNLVAR with 3.6 behind CC Sabathia (5.6) despite spending almost two months on the DL. Phil Hughes (2.5) and A.J. Burnett (1.9) are the only two Yankees starters who added as much as one full victory above replacement level this season.

Manager Joe Girardi took advantage of off days last year to get through the postseason with just three starters in Sabathia, Burnett, and Pettitte. The strategy worked as the Yankees beat the Twins in ALDS, the Angels in the ALCS, and the Phillies in the World Series. If Girardi is to go with a three-man October rotation again in 2010, Pettitte will have to be a key figure, as Sabathia is their only other battle-tested reliable starter and Hughes pitched in relief last October.

Furthermore, the Yankees could use a boost either physically or spiritually as they have hit their roughest patch of the season, going 1-4 so far on their nine-game road trip, getting swept in three games by the Rangers last week and splitting the first two to the Rays, blowing a 6-0 lead before pulling out an 8-7 victory Tuesday night. The skid has dropped the Yankees' lead on the Rays in the AL East to just a half-game.

"The hardest part of being injured is not being there with my teammates while they keep grinding every day," Pettitte said. "I hope our guys get a lift by my coming back. Whether they will or not I don't know, but it's been a tough season for us. We've had a lot of guys banged up, had to battle through a lot of injuries. And we're not the type of team that's going to slow down or have people feel sympathy for us. We're playing in the American League East, the toughest division in baseball. You have no choice but to give it your all every day."

While no one would ever question Pettitte's effort, it is easy to wonder just how effective he will be after laying off for so long and not dominating Eastern League hitters. However, Altoona manager Matt Walbeck, who spent 11 seasons as a major-league catcher, believes Pettitte's intangibles will serve him well.

"He's a pitcher and you could see it tonight," Walbeck said. "He gave up the home run to the first hitter and he ramped it up and started throwing a little harder. When we loaded the bases against him, had him in trouble, he grabbed a comebacker and turned it into a 1-2-3 double play. He's been like that his whole career. He knows how to get out of trouble and doesn't get rattled."

Pettitte is the first to admit he needs a little more fine-tuning with his pitches. He will find out in the final 15 days of the season if that will be enough for him to have more playoff success, as he has a 3.90 career ERA in 40 post-season starts spanning 249 innings.

"Three starts is going to have be enough," Pettitte said. "That's all I've got. But I'm ready to get back to the major leagues. It's been a long couple of months."

---

Cubs GM Jim Hendry is staying quiet about his search to find a replacement for manager Lou Piniella. However, interim manager Mike Quade is at least making a case for himself as the Cubs are 13-7 since he was promoted from third-base coach when Piniella retired.

"I think he's doing an outstanding job," Hendry said. "I couldn't be happier for him. He's managing the game well. He's managing the personnel well, managing the people and the clubhouse well. He's certainly done a very good job."

Both Piniella and his players gave the appearance they had quit on the season as the Cubs were 51-74 at the time of the managerial switch. However, the Cubs have certainly played with more enthusiasm since the switch in managers.

"I think the guys are playing hard for him," Hendry said. "Obviously, we're playing a lot of young guys and pitching a lot of young guys. Like I told him, I was never hung up on what our record would be. We're winning our share and getting improvement out of some of the young kids. I give him a lot of credit. I think he's done a real good job so far."

While Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg, manager of the Cubs' Triple-A Iowa farm club, is considered the favorite to become the next manager, former big-league skippers Fredi Gonzalez, Bob Melvin, and Eric Wedge are also said to be on Hendry's list.

---

The status of Brewers manager Ken Macha is up in the air during the season's final weeks. His two-year contract expires at the end of this season and the Brewers have not decided if they will exercise a club option for 2011.

While Macha, Melvin, and Brewers assistant GM Gord Ash have been having meetings to discuss personnel in recent days, the manager's situation has not been broached.

"That's entirely up to (Melvin), how they handle that," Macha said. "(Waiting) is fine. Last year, I told him at the end of the year I didn't want (an extension). I wanted to win. That hasn't happened this year. We've got some young guys in there now and we'll see how they do."

The Brewers are 66-78 and all but certain to finish with a losing record for the second straight year under Macha. That comes after the Brewers ended a 26-year post-season drought in 2008, winning the National League wild card despite firing manager Ned Yost late that season. However, Macha said the discussions with Melvin and Ash have been upbeat.

"You sit down and talk baseball, and I'm a baseball guy," Macha said. "I've done that all the years I've been employed. You have a baseball discussion for that length of time involving what we're doing here. We spent an equal amount of time on all aspects (of the club)."

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Ironically, Yost is now the manager of the Royals, who are 59-85 and will spend the postseason at home for the 25th consecutive year. That is the second-longest drought behind the Nationals, whose franchise's lone playoff appearance came in 1981 when they were the Montreal Expos.

However, Yost says the Royals have plenty to play for in the season's last 2 ½ weeks. Most notably, the players are playing for jobs in 2011 as the Royals have what is generally considered the best farm system in the game.

"These guys have the advantage because they have the first crack at it," Yost said. "So they need to take advantage of it, because these opportunities aren't going to last forever. If you're not a winning-type player, you just plain and simple won't be here. For some of these guys, these are the most important three weeks of their life. There is plenty of room for what we've got coming on this team, and they have the first opportunity to prove that they can be here when the time is right."

First baseman Eric Hosmer and third baseman Mike Moustakas are first-round picks who could be in the major leagues next season. They are two of six Royals farmhands who will play for the United States in the Pan-American Games.

"We've got guys coming," Yost said.

---

MLB Rumors & Rumblings: While the Diamondbacks seem to be leaning toward hiring former Padres GM Kevin Towers as their GM, interim GM Jerry DiPoto is also in the mix along with Dodgers scouting director Logan White and Angels scouting director Eddie Bane. … The next Mets manager will come down to whether owner Fred Wilpon or son Jeff has the final say. Fred favors bringing Bobby Valentine back while Jeff is leaning toward hiring Wally Backman, manager of the Mets' short-season Brooklyn farm club. … The Marlins plan to spend money on free agents this winter in anticipation of their new stadium opening in 2012, and one of their primary targets is expected to be Red Sox catcher Victor Martinez. … The Phillies plan to alter their starting rotation so their three top pitchers—Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt—line up for their NL East three-game showdown series with the Braves that starts next Monday. … The Athletics are expected to drop outfielder Travis Buck from the 40-man roster in the offseason after failing to make him a September call-up from Triple-A Sacramento

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Scouts' views on various major leaguers:

Royals middle reliever Jesse Chavez: "He's started throwing sidearm and maybe that's the thing that will help realize some success. He throws hard enough, usually around 95 mph, but hitters have always been able to pick up his pitches."

Mariners center fielder Franklin Gutierrez: "Last year was as good as it's ever going to get for this guy. He's very inconsistent in his approach at the plate and gives away too many at-bats. And for all those people who pegged him as the second coming of Willie Mays as a defensive center fielder last year—where are they now?"

Angels right-hander Dan Haren: "He hasn't made a difference for the Angels as far as the standings, but they made a good trade because he gives them a legitimate No. 1 starter for the next two seasons. He's perfected his cutter to the point where it's become an unhittable pitch, not quite to level of Mariano Rivera's cutter but pretty darn good."

Rays right-hander Jeremy Hellickson: "Those people who are expecting him to be a lights-out reliever in the postseason like David Price was two years ago are asking too much. He doesn't blow people away like Price. His strength is hitting his spots and mixing his pitches. He's a starter all the way."

Brewers middle reliever Jeremy Jeffress: "He's been a little tentative, which is natural for a young pitcher getting called up for the first time. He has a great arm, though, and the biggest thing that could keep him from being a good short man is if he can't stay out of trouble off the field."

Mets right-hander Jenrry Mejia: "I'll never figure out what the Mets tried to do with this kid by having him make the team out of spring training then hardly using him out of the bullpen. He's got a chance to be a really good starter with the 96 mph fastball and hard curveball. You just hope they didn't delay his development by jerking him around for half the season before sending him back down to the minors."

Red Sox outfielder Josh Reddick: "He's going to need to calm down in the batter's box to succeed at the major-league level. He has that deer-in-the-headlights look and he swings at a lot of bad pitches. That being said, he's young and has talent, so things should get better."

Diamondbacks center fielder Chris Young: "The biggest difference between this year and last year when he got sent to the minors is that he's made adjustments to get to the inside fastball. Pitchers would continually jam him last year but he's opening up his hips and turning on those pitches this year."

Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman: "He's kind of lost that face-of-the-franchise tag since (Stephen) Strasburg came along but, for me, he's the guy who is going to lead them out of the wilderness. He's a great player. He really has no weaknesses as a hitter and he plays a terrific third base."

---

Three series to watch with probable pitching matchups and all times Eastern:

Padres (82-62) at Cardinals (74-69), Thursday-Sunday September 16-19
Tim Stauffer vs. Jake Westbrook, 8:15 p.m.; Mat Latos vs. Kyle Lohse, 8:15 p.m.; Cory Luebke vs. Jaime Garcia, 4:10 p.m.; Jon Garland vs. Adam Wainwright, 2:15 p.m.

Blue Jays (73-72) at Red Sox (81-64), Friday-Sunday September 17-19
Brett Cecil vs. John Lackey, 7:10 p.m.; Ricky Romero vs. Josh Beckett, 7:10 p.m.; Marc Rzepczynski, vs. Jon Lester, 1:35 p.m.

Athletics (72-72) at Twins (86-58), Friday-Sunday September 17-19
Brett Anderson vs. Nick Blackburn, 8:10 p.m.; Dallas Braden vs. Kevin Slowey, 1:10 p.m.; Bobby Cramer vs. Francisco Liriano, 2:10 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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