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October 11, 2012

On the Beat

Managing the Golden Oldies

by John Perrotto

One of the easiest jobs in baseball would seemingly be writing out the Yankees' lineup. With the game's biggest payroll, three future Hall of Famers at the top of the lineup, and All-Stars filling out the other six spots, it would seem Joe Girardi needs nothing more than a rubber stamp.

However, Girardi says the task isn't as simple as it seems. In fact, he believes it’s more challenging because he has a roster that includes iconic players and superstars. Players usually don't reach iconic stature or superstardom until they are older. In fact, the only two Yankees regulars under 30 are second baseman Robinson Cano and Russell Martin—and Cano will be 30 on October 22, while Martin is 29. The top of the Yankees' batting order includes two 38-year-olds in shortstop Derek Jeter and left fielder Ichiro Suzuki, and a 37-year-old in third baseman Alex Rodriguez. All are headed to the Hall of Fame, but they also need their rest, even if it means a game at designated hitter instead of playing in the field.

"You know, I've always talked about when you manage aging players, self-evaluation either makes my job easy or it makes it hard," Girardi said. "One of the things about great players is they have strong minds and always believe they can do it. It can be a tough part of the job. It's not something that I have to worry about every day. If I thought about my year this year, probably my two biggest concerns were injuries and managing players that were older and how much they could play for us."

Girardi is known for his preparation, especially when it comes to knowing the statistical tendencies of both his players and those of the opposition. In fact, Yankees fans occasionally take shots at Girardi for relying too much on the binder that is always by his side in the dugout.

Yet whether you love or hate Girardi, or if you are somewhere in between, there’s no denying that he got the most from his veteran lineup this season. The Yankees won the American League East with a 95-67 record, holding off a strong challenge by the surprising Orioles, and were second in the major leagues in runs scored with an average of 4.96 per game.

While the three Cooperstown-bound players might not be putting up elite numbers anymore, they certainly were serviceable in the regular season. Rodriguez had a .280 True Average, Jeter finished with a .274 mark, and Suzuki's TAv was .277 in 240 plate appearances following his late-July trade. They have also been good enough to get New York to within one win of reaching the American League Championship Series, as they hold a 2-1 lead over Baltimore in the American League Division Series.

Girardi says the largest portion of his pre-game preparation is putting together his batting order. He usually does it the day before the game, so he has ample time to inform the starters if they are getting a day off and the reserves if they are getting a start.

"People ask me how much time do I usually spend on my lineup all the time," Girardi said. "I probably spend more time worrying about the lineup than I do the bullpen. The bullpen is dictated by where you are at during the game. The lineup is trying to put the best hitters in there to help you succeed and putting them in spots where they are most likely to be successful."

While statistics, particularly batter-pitcher matchups, play a large part in Girardi's decision-making process, he says there are other factors that go into deciding the batting order. Girardi also isn't afraid to make it a group decision by asking for help from others.

"I'll watch video of the opposing pitcher against the club and I'll look at the matchups," Girardi said. "I'll look at our guys' strengths and what I think our guys' strengths are during the course of the season, how they match up against a guy, because sometimes numbers don't always tell the true story. That's why I like to watch the at-bats. Sometimes a hitter just sees (a pitcher) really well. I'll talk to my coaching staff about it, sometimes talk to the front office a little bit about it. It's a process I go through every day."

But for Girardi, what’s most important in making out his lineup is knowing his players and having open dialogue with them, especially the older ones.

"I've managed some players that have gotten some age and start to get near the end of their career, or it's their last year and you have to go through some tough situations and you've just got to deal with them," Girardi said. "Each player is different. Each player is going to handle things differently, and it's important that you have the pulse of the player. You spend a lot of time developing that relationship, so when situations arise there's a trust factor there."

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A few minutes with Nationals third-base coach/Astros manager-in-waiting, Bo Porter

On how is able to deal with holding two jobs: "My No. 1 priority right now is the Nationals. When the Astros hired me as manager, they were kind enough to extend the Nationals the courtesy of retaining my services until the final game of the season, which I hope is when we win the last game of the World Series. We're in the postseason, and that takes precedence. Jim Crane and Jeff Luhnow are very understanding of that. The day after our season is finished—and I certainly hope that's a few more weeks down the road—then my energies go into trying to make the Astros the best club we can possibly be.

On why the Astros' job is attractive, even though they lost 106 games last season and 107 games this year: "When I interviewed there, I was extremely impressed with Jeff Luhnow. He's a general manager who knows exactly what he wants to do with the organization. He has a real vision of what the Astros can become and a great plan in place to help the organization get there. He certainly made me a believer, and I think we can accomplish great things in Houston. I've always been the type of guy who was looked upon as a leader on the teams I played with, and I look forward to being able the Astros to championships."

On how the Nationals getting into the postseason after losing at least 100 games in both the 2008 and 2009 seasons gives him hope for the Astros: "To have been a part of what we've done here is special, and it makes me believe we can do a similar thing in Houston. Our philosophies are similar. We want to primarily build from within with talented young players. The Astros have a lot of good young players, but when you have young players, you have to go through the learning process with them. That being said, if you're patient, you see what that payout can be when you look at the Nationals. We won 98 games this season, more than any team in the major leagues."

On what is more exciting: playing in the Rose Bowl when he was a defensive back at the University of the Iowa or being a major-league coach in the postseason: "Well, it all depends on the stage of your life, I guess. As a kid who was 19, 20 years old, playing in the Rose Bowl was pretty much the ultimate. Now that I'm 40, I think it'd be pretty hard to top the thrill of winning a World Series. That would be the ultimate for me now."

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Scouts' views

Athletics left-hander Brett Anderson: "I know he had to be in pain (in ALDS Game Three) because of that oblique strain, and he still pitched six shutout innings. That tells you how good a pitcher he is and also that's he a pretty tough kid. It was a really impressive performance."

Reds right-hander Johnny Cueto: "Normally, you'd say a team has no chance when they lose a pitcher this good in the postseason, but I think the Reds can overcome it. They've got an awfully good rotation and enough depth, especially with Mike Leake in reserve, that they can still win the whole thing without Cueto."

Cardinals left-hander Jaime Garcia: "They're going to miss him. For me, he was their best pitcher down the stretch. Once he came off the disabled list, he was throwing as well as I've ever seen him throw. They have starting pitcher depth with Lance Lynn and Joe Kelly, but Garcia is pretty good, especially at Busch Stadium."

Rangers center fielder Josh Hamilton: "He's almost cursed because of his great talent. He can be so dominant in stretches that he makes the game look too easy. When he has the inevitable bad stretches, they look even worse than they are by comparison. As badly as his finish was this year, he's still as talented as anybody in the game and somebody is going to pay him a fortune, though I suspect it won't be the Rangers."

Tigers center fielder Austin Jackson: "He was the unsung hero of that team during the regular season, and he has to get on base in the postseason to make that offense go. As great as Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder are, they can't hurt you nearly as much if they are batting with the bases empty."

Orioles closer Jim Johnson: "He really showed me something in Game Two (of the ALDS). He got whacked around in the first game, shook it off, and came right back out and pitched great the next night. That's hard to do in the postseason. It's easy to let one bad game bleed into another, then the next thing you know things are spinning out of control and the series is over."

Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez: "Everyone wants to know what's wrong with A-Rod? Well, here's what wrong: He's not a kid anymore and he's had a lot of injuries. It's called getting old, and it happens to everyone eventually."

Giants right-handed reliever Sergio Romo: "He might have the best slider I've ever seen. The hitters know it's coming because he throws it about three-quarters of the time, but they still can't hit it. It's like it disappears right when it gets to the plate."

Braves catcher David Ross: "He's a great luxury item for the Braves, a backup catcher who should really be a No. 1. He could be pivotal for them early next season if Brian McCann winds up having shoulder surgery in the offseason."

Nationals right-hander Jordan Zimmermann: "He's one guy I didn't think would be affected by the post-season stage, even though he's young. He's usually unflappable, but he looked shaken (in Game Two of the NLDS). He was just throwing the ball up there with no game plan. He was totally rattled."

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In this week's Must Read, Chris Jaffe takes a look at the season's most exciting games for The Hardball Times and has a formula to determine the most exciting team.

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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