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September 16, 2007

Every Given Sunday

Brewing up a Stretch Surprise?

by John Perrotto

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Ned Yost is in the midst of his first pennant race as a major league manager but his talking like someone who has been here many times before. The Brewers skipper has been insisting all season that he has not paid any attention to what other teams in the National League Central are doing. Now that just 15 days remain in the season and the Brewers, who haven't been to the postseason since 1982, and the Chicago Cubs are locked in a duel for the division title, Yost says he is still not scoreboard watching.

"Why should I?," Yost said. "I have no control over what happens in the other games. There is nothing I can do about it. Watching the scoreboard only detracts for what my job is and that's to do everything in my power to help these kids try to find a way to win the game that day. Even with all the excitement and hype that surrounds the pennant race, you can never lose sight of that."

Perhaps Yost's refusal to get wrapped up in the pennant race is one the reasons why the Brewers are still in the hunt for the NL Central title. The Brewers are 75-72 and trail the Cubs (77-72) by one game while standing even in the loss column. The Brewers held an 8 -game lead in the division after beating Kansas City 7-1 on June 23, and Milwaukee fans were understandably trying to find out when playoff tickets would going on sale. However, the Brewers squandered that entire lead in barely more than a month, losing 19 of 34 while the Cubs got hot and tied Milwaukee for first place. The Brewers hung on to the top spot before giving up the lead on Aug. 17 then fell 2 games back on Aug. 28.

In the time in which they went from 8 up to 2 down, the Brewers had a 22-35 record. Seemingly everyone wrote off their early success as nothing more than a nice little run. "A lot of people jumped off our bandwagon," Yost said. "It would be have easy for our guys to just quit at that point, been happy that they stayed in the race for while."

However, the Brewers didn't fold. Instead, they have won nine of their last 14 games, which may not seem like much, but it is still a significant move forward in a division in which Cubs manager Lou Piniella joking says, "the only way to make up ground is get rained out." As Yost observes, "It says a lot about the character of the guys on this team. They didn't quit. They've fought back. We have a lot of young guys on our team going through a pennant race for the first time and that can be tough. There are so many peaks and valleys. You'll be going along well and think you have it all figured out and then you'll hit a lull and nothing goes right. Then, you start thinking you'll never get out of that rut and win again, and you start to press. Then, suddenly, you get your confidence back and you start winning again. Then, thing take a wrong turn again and it goes on and on and on like that. But I really like the way our guys have really handled the ups and downs."

Certainly, the Brewers' young power hitters have handled the stress of going through their first pennant race as first baseman Prince Fielder (46 home runs), third baseman Ryan Braun (30), shortstop J.J. Hardy (25), and outfielder Corey Hart (21) have all hit at least 20 homers. All are 25 or younger. Only one of other team in baseball history has ever had four players that young hit at least 20-plus homers in a season, the 1979 Montreal Expos, with Larry Parrish (30), Andre Dawson (25), Gary Carter (22), and Ellis Valentine (21). Fielder is sixth in the NL in VORP at 63.3, and Braun is 12th at 49.9. Hart (36.2) and Hardy (23.4) is have also been doing their part in providing the club with offensive value.

It will be interesting to see where the Brewers go from here. The Expos missed the playoffs in 1980 by falling behind the Phillies only two days before the season's end, but they made the franchise's first postseason appearance with its young nucleus of power hitters a year later, losing a heartbreaking series to the Dodgers in the NLCS when Rick Monday hit his game-winning home run in the ninth inning of the decisive Game Five. It would be the last appearance the Expos made in postseason play.

The Brewers hope to fare better than that in the years to come, and it helps that none of the members of their quartet 20-homer hitters are eligible for free agency until Hardy comes due after the 2010 season. Yost believes the experience of this season will pay off for his sluggers for quite a few years to come. "There is no substitute for the experience of going through a pennant race," Yost said. "These guys are playing with expectations at the major league level for the first time in their careers. They are learning how to deal with the extra pressure that comes with that and I think they are handling it well. We haven't built this team for just a one-year run. We plan on being contenders for quite a long time to come. Obviously, we want to win the division and go to the playoffs and I really believe we can do it. Even if we don't, the positive of the whole season is that these kids have learned what it's like to experience success and failure in a pennant race and that is only going to make them stronger for the future."

  • Terry Ryan gave an illustrative reason about why he decided to step down after 13 years as general manager of the Minnesota Twins this past week. "I look like I'm 75, but I'm 53, and I'd probably be better served out in the field and out there on the diamond instead of behind that desk," Ryan said.

    Like many around baseball, Cincinnati GM Wayne Krivsky was stunned when he heard that Ryan was leaving the GM's chair to be a special advisor for the Twins. Krivsky was Ryan's assistant GM before being hired by the Reds prior to last season. "I would not be sitting here now if not for Terry Ryan," Krivsky told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. "Terry wrote the textbook on how to run an organization. That why so many people use them as a model."

    Ryan said he'd thought about making the move for months, and had also spent the past few weeks talking with trusted members of the organization. Ryan said he noticed how the business of baseball had been affecting him in a negative way, as he took losses harder and was worn out after the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline, when he failed to swing a deal to help the Twins, who were then on the fringe of contention. He took heat from the clubhouse for moving popular second baseman Luis Castillo to the Mets for two prospects. Ryan also found himself becoming short with people, especially the media, this season. "There were a couple instances this year where I changed and I didn't like it," he said. "I need to get out. I don't want to change."

    Just as they did when Ryan replaced Andy MacPhail back in 1994, the Twins replaced Ryan internally by promoting assistant GM Bill Smith. "Bill was ready (to become a GM) 10 years ago," Ryan said. "There isn't a thing he hasn't done. If some of these owners had come in and talked to Bill, he'd have blown them away."

  • That the Chicago White Sox gave manager Ozzie Guillen a contact extension this past week wasn't a surprise. Rumors had been flying about it for weeks. However, that the White Sox locked up Guillen through 2012 raised a few eyebrows. While the White Sox did win the World Series in 2005, they are 97-128 since July 6, 2006, and are challenging for the worst record in the major leagues this season. White Sox GM Ken Williams got defensive when asked about the curious timing of the deal. "We've been down this road," Williams told the Chicago Tribune. "Hell, I was a surprise, too, when I was named to this position. We do things here that we think are right for our own reasons, and we don't do things haphazardly. We've put a lot of thought into it, a lot of consideration of which way we're going. If people don't understand that, I can't do anything about that because I'm not going to tell them of all the conversations that we have in the back rooms. I don't care if it's a popular decision or not. I know the man, and I know what we're trying to accomplish."

    Williams says the onus of getting the White Sox back into contention falls on him, not Guillen. "'The problems that we are having right now, I simply do not believe that they are problems with our coaching staff or with our manager. I put all that weight on my shoulders," Williams said. "I'm the one that has to put them in a better position to win, and that means going out and making the necessary adjustments to get this team where we are better and get guys back up to their normal level of production."

    Financial terms weren't disclosed but it is believed that Guillen will receive a significant increase on his $1.1-million salary. "One of my kids said, 'I think you're the first Venezuelan manager to come to the big leagues and manage, and you were the first (Venezuelan) manager to win the World Series-and I think you're the first manager to sign when you're in last place,'" Guillen said. "I appreciate (Williams and White Sox Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf still believe in me. They still believe what I can bring to this ballclub. I don't want to say I feel proud, but I feel good somebody believes, not what I did in the past, what I can do in the future."

  • After spending the past nine years as Major League Baseball's senior vice president and labor counsel, Frank Coonelly's first order of business after taking on his new role as the Pittsburgh Pirates' president this past week will be to hire a general manger, though he has neither a timetable for finding one, nor a set profile on the type of person he would like to hire. The Pirates are looking for a GM after firing Dave Littlefield last Friday; player development director Brian Graham is serving as the interim GM.

    "Ideally, you would like to have a general manager in place by the end of the season (Sept. 30) so he can start making the necessary decisions to prepare for next year," Coonelly said. "However, I also don't want to rush into a decision because it if was very important that we find the right person for the job." Coonelly also said he would look at candidates of varying backgrounds for the job: "I'm not wedded to the idea that we either have to hire a 'baseball guy' who is 50 or older who knows nothing about statistics, or a 'numbers guy' who is in his 20s and has an Ivy League education. I don't want to close us off to any particularly candidate because I know there are a lot of good ones out there and I'm very confident we will find the one who can help us get back to being a winning franchise."

    Coonelly did make one thing clear, though. Statistic analysis will be part of the Pirates' player evaluations from now on. "I'm not saying statistics tell the whole story, but I've seen how using statistical analysis as part of making personnel decisions has helped clubs build winning teams," Coonelly said. "The first thing I did when I met with the people in the baseball operations department was to have them give me an inventory of all the statistical data that is available to us. I want to make sure we have the absolute best and broadest amount of date possible to analyze when making player moves. That's a must for me."

  • From the rumor mill: The Pirates plan to keep their GM search private but among those expected to be interviewed are Mets VP of Player Development Tony Bernazard, Blue Jays player personnel director Tony LaCava, the Brewers' special assistant to the GM and amateur scouting director, Jack Zduriencik, D'backs AGM Peter Woodfork, and Phillies AGM Ruben Amaro Jr. ... Andy Pettitte says he will either exercise his $16 million option with the Yankees in 2008 or retire, ending speculation that the left-hander might return to his hometown of Houston for a second stint with the Astros. Tired of his ever-changing attitude, look for the Orioles to make an extra effort to trade shortstop Miguel Tejada this winter. Limited to a part-time DH role with Oakland, Mike Piazza is considering retiring at the end of the season. The Angels almost certainly will not use either right-hander Bartolo Colon or Ervin Santana in the postseason. Also, don't look for them to make any effort to re-sign Colon when he becomes a free agent this offseason. Outfielder-turned-first baseman Dan Ortmeier has a good chance of being in San Francisco's starting lineup next season if he continues to make a good showing in the final two weeks of this season. The Giants have had special assistant J.T. Snow, a former Gold Glove winner at first, tutoring Ortmeier on how to play the position.

    John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
    Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

    Related Content:  Pennant Race,  The Who,  GM,  A.J. Ellis,  Manager Of The Year

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