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May 4, 2008

Every Given Sunday

Keystone Greatness in the Keystone State

by John Perrotto

Joe Morgan says many things in his role as an ESPN color analyst that make viewers shake their heads. Hence, the website www.firejoemorgan.com. However, the Hall of Fame second baseman did raise a rather interesting point two weeks ago while broadcasting the Sunday night game between the Mets and Phillies in Philadelphia. The subject of Chase Utley came up, and Morgan told broadcast partner Jon Miller that the Phillies star would eventually go down as the greatest offensive second baseman in baseball history. Offense-minded second basemen should be something Morgan knows about. He was one of the best of his era, hitting .271/.392/.427 in a 22-year career from 1962-84.

When Morgan's comment was relayed to Charlie Manuel, the Phillies manager gave a knowing smile, responding, "I would agree with that assessment. Chase is a great hitter and he's going to do some great things before his career is over. Heck, he already has done some great things and he's got a lot of years ahead of him."

Utley seems on his way to the best of his six major league seasons. In his fourth year as a full-time starter, he leads the major leagues with 13 home runs and has slash stats of .369/.440/.787 in 141 plate appearances. He also leads the major leagues with a 28.3 VORP and is third with a .378 EqA. Yet, Utley is unimpressed by his fast start this season or what he has accomplished in his career. He also isn't fazed by Morgan's comment, other than to call it "a very nice compliment."

"Hitting is really a day-to-day thing," Utley said. "That's why I don't really look past today or think a whole lot about the future. Hitting really comes and goes. You can be swinging the bat well today, and fall out of a groove by tomorrow."

That certainly isn't going to win Quote of the Week honors but it does say a lot about Utley's approach to hitting. He takes nothing for granted and works at the craft on a daily basis. "There are a lot of good hitters out there but there are certain things that separate the great hitters from the good hitters and Chase has those things going for him," Manuel said. "For one thing, he wants to be a great hitter. He's not satisfied with being good. He works hard every day. The way you see him work in the cage, you would never think he was an All-Star. He puts as much time into his hitting as anyone I've ever seen. Everything about him as a hitter is good. The way he sets up in the box. The way he studies pitchers and knows how they are trying to work him. The way he steps into the box with a plan in every single time he is at bat. The way he isn't afraid to hit with two strikes or with the game on the line. There isn't a situation that comes up that he's not prepared for or intimidated by."

Utley takes his hitting seriously and believes that is a key to his success. "You're trying to succeed every at bat, whether it's an important at bat or a not-so-important at bat," he said. "I try to keep it the same all the time, so nothing is different from one at-bat to the other. Taking the same approach is the only thing that could work for me."

PECOTA believes in Morgan's assessment of Utley, as it sees him continuing to be a productive player into his mid-30s with slash stats of at least .280/.364/.489 through 2014, when he will turn 35. The projection is also for him to hit 157 home runs over the next seven seasons, which would raise his career total to 254. The current top five for home runs by a second baseman are: the Dodgers' Jeff Kent (342), Ryne Sandberg (277), Morgan (272), Rogers Hornsby (265) and Bret Boone (251).

Yet, while Utley is being projected to be one of the best second basemen ever, his national profile seems low. "Maybe a lot of people don't know who Chase Utley is yet, but they're going to find out one of these days," Manuel said. "People in baseball know who he is. They know he's one of best players in the game. The rest of the world is going to find out because he's going to do some great things before he's done playing. Heck, he's doing some great things this year. He's had some great years and this looks like it's going to be his best one yet."

---

The Toronto Blue Jays thought this was going to be the year they might finally be able to hang with New York and Boston and contend in the American League East. However, despite winning three games in a row, the Blue Jays are last in the division with a 14-17 record. Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi has spent a good portion of the season admitting mistakes. First he told Sports Illustrated that he went against the advice of his scouts in 2005 when he drafted Cal State Fullerton left-hander Ricky Romero with the sixth overall pick instead of Long Beach State shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, who went on to help Colorado to its first-ever World Series berth last season. Ricciardi also said he erred in signing designated hitter Frank Thomas to a two-year contract prior to last season. The Blue Jays released Thomas last month and ate $8 million in salary.

The Blue Jays are 12th in the AL in runs scored with an average just over four a game, and speculation has been rampant that manager John Gibbons could be fired. However, Ricciardi said those pointing the finger at Gibbons are misdirecting the blame. "What can he do?" Ricciardi asked the Toronto Sun. "He can't swing the bat for them. He has tried a lot of things. He has shaken the lineup up, he has hit-and-run in a couple spots. He has hit-and-run with Vernon (Wells), which is a guy that traditionally you don't do that with. We've tried to steal a little bit more. Man on third, less than two outs, someone has got to drive a run in. He can't go up there and do that. He can't hit-and-run at that spot. I think our manager has done everything possible. I can't give you an excuse. There is no excuse. We're better than this and we need to play better than this. It's not any one person's fault. Really, if you want to blame anybody, I put the team together, so blame me. I'll assume all the responsibility."

Ricciardi is under contract through 2010, but Gibbons is one of only two major league managers whose contract expires after this season without any kind of option for 2009. (The other is Bobby Cox, and he will call the shot on whether he returns in Atlanta next season.) Even when Gibbons spent Monday's offday visiting his 96-year-old grandmother in New England, he couldn't avoid talk of his future. "She's still pretty sharp," Gibbons said. "She asked me: 'What's wrong with your team?' I said that's a good question. Then she said: 'Are you going to get fired?' That's another good question. I didn't expect her to hammer me. I thought she'd give me a hug or something."

If Gibbons or Ricciardi need a hug, though, Blue Jays third baseman Scott Rolen has open arms. "In my time here, I've seen Gibby create a mentality for winning," said Rolen, acquired from St. Louis in an off-season trade. "I really think it's great. He gives players a lot of credit. He has a lot of respect for the players and the coaching staff, the whole group. I hope we can give Gibby some track and fingers don't point in that direction. I don't think that's fair. I think 25 guys have to turn this around, not one manager--or general manager."

---

A four-game winnings streak by his Rangers has helped take some of the heat off of manager Ron Washington in Texas. However, he is still not in the clear, as the Rangers are tied for Seattle for last place in the AL West at 13-18. The Rangers' 18 losses in April were a club record for the month. The Rangers have also committed the most errors, and allowed the most unearned runs in the AL. That's not a good sign for Washington, considering much of the outstanding reputation he developed as a coach in Oakland was built upon him helping the Athletics' defense. The skipper had the Rangers take infield practice--something rarely ever seen anymore at the major league level--before the final two games of their homestand that ended Wednesday.

Yet, Rangers executives are quick to say that all the blame shouldn't fall on Washington. "Ron doesn't pitch, he doesn't hit, he doesn't field," Rangers President Nolan Ryan told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "I think that the fans are going to have to understand we're not going to have a knee-jerk reaction."

Washington says he can do nothing but try to block out the talk of his job potentially being in jeopardy. "I'm the manager of the Texas Rangers," he said. "We're not doing very well, and that's when the heat flies. I've been in the game a long time. I'm going to keep my head in the air, and I'm going to continue to focus on the things that are right."

---

May has been a very merry month for the San Diego Padres in recent years. They are hoping that is the case again in 2008, because April was pretty much a disaster. Over the last three Mays, the Padres went 59-26: 22-6 in 2006, 19-10 in 2006, and 18-10 in 2007. They entered this May with an 11-17 record and promptly lost two more games before winning at Florida on Saturday night.

"You know what it might be? It starts to warm up," first baseman Adrian Gonzalez told the San Diego Union-Tribune about the Padres' propensity to play well in May. "The ball begins to travel more." That might aid the Padres' hitters but it would seem to hurt their pitchers. Yet, Gonzalez disagrees. "Our pitchers are so good, it doesn't matter," he said.

Some of the Padres' April lowlights included:

  • Being nine games out of first in the NL West at the end of the month, the most they've trailed on May 1 since 1987.
  • The 17 losses in April equaled the most in club history.
  • In going 6-9 at Petco Park, the Padres averaged 2.9 runs. Their overall average was just 3.30 runs.
  • They went 1-6 in games decided in the final at-bat, and 3-7 in one-run games.

---

AL Rumors and Rumblings: Yankees rookie pitcher Ian Kennedy appears to be one more bad start from being sent back to the minor leagues, though New York's best option at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre is disappointing left-hander Kei Igawa. Right-hander Bartolo Colon did not exercise the May 1 opt-out clause in his contract that allowed him to leave Boston if he wasn't on the major league roster. Colon and the Red Sox now have an informal deal that he can leave if he is not in the big leagues by June 1. The Red Sox are considering moving their spring training base in Florida from Fort Myers to Sarasota, which will be without a team after next year as Cincinnati plans to move to Goodyear, Arizona, in 2009. Cleveland is expected to begin pursuing trade opportunities for a corner outfielder with power, and Pittsburgh's Jason Bay and Xavier Nady and Cincinnati's Adam Dunn are players they have interest in. Baltimore rookie shortstop Luis Hernandez can breathe a little easier now that Brandon Fahey has been sent to the minors, but Alex Cintron looms at Triple-A Norfolk. Seattle designated hitter Jose Vidro figures to be a loser in the Mariners' roster this past week as he will now play only against left-handed pitchers with rookie Jeff Clement serving as the DH against right-handers. Chicago first baseman Paul Konerko gained 10-and-5 rights this past week, meaning he now has 10 years of service time, including five with the White Sox, giving him the right to veto any trade.

NL Rumors and Rumblings: San Diego is becoming increasingly convinced that Jim Edmonds is at the end of the line, and is considering dealing for a younger center fielder. They have an eye on the Cubs' Felix Pie. Atlanta is looking to trade for a starting pitcher now that John Smoltz is likely headed to the bullpen when he comes off the disabled list; Texas' Kevin Millwood and St. Louis' Anthony Reyes pique the Braves' interest. Cincinnati first baseman Scott Hatteberg and Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Juan Pierre would both welcome trades to places where they would get more playing time. Right-hander Matt Morris says he has no interest in continuing his career after being released by Pittsburgh, and has a standing offer to remain in the Pirates' organization as a roving minor-league coach or special assistant to GM Neal Huntington. Philadelphia right-hander Brett Myers' fastball has rarely touched 90 mph this season and the Phillies are concerned that he did not condition himself properly to make the switch back to starting from closing this year. Colorado center fielder Willy Taveras says he plans to be more aggressive on the bases and attempt to steal whenever he has the chance.

Interesting facts as Week Five of the regular season comes to a close:

  • Kenny Rogers, Detroit's 43-year-old left-hander, beat the Yankees on Tuesday night. He became the oldest pitcher to start against the Yankees since 45-year-old Nolan Ryan for Texas on July 4, 1992. Rogers allowed two runs and six hits in six innings of a 6-4 victory, while Ryan pitched a three-hitter and struck out 13 in a 4-1 win over Scott Kamieniecki.
  • San Francisco's Bruce Bochy, born in Landes de Bussac, France, became the winningest foreign-born manager in major league history Monday night with a 4-0 victory over Colorado, surpassing Felipe Alou of the Dominican Republic. Bochy, who replaced Alou prior to last season with the Giants, now has 1,035 wins in 14 seasons.
  • When Yankees catcher Jorge Posada went on the disabled list Monday with a sore right shoulder, it marked the first time he was not on New York's active roster since Sept. 1, 1996. The Yankees lost to the California Angels 4-0 that day, as Chuck Finley beat the ubiquitous Kenny Rogers.
  • The Yankees have gone 27-7 in games right-hander Chien-Ming Wang has started after a loss in his career, including the last 11 in a row.

Series to watch this week, with rankings based on Jay Jaffe's Prospectus Hit List:

  • No. 9 Phillies at No. 1 Diamondbacks, Monday-Thursday May 5-8
    Probable starting pitchers: Jamie Moyer vs. Max Scherzer, Adam Eaton vs. Randy Johnson, Kyle Kendrick vs. Micah Owings, Randy Myers vs. Brandon Webb
  • No. 1 Diamondbacks at No. 2 Cubs, Friday-Sunday May 9-11
    Probable starting pitchers: Dan Haren vs. Ted Lilly, Max Scherzer vs. Jason Marquis, Randy Johnson vs. Ryan Dempster
  • No. 3 Cardinals at No. 14 Brewers Friday-Sunday May 9-11
    Probable starting pitchers: Todd Wellemeyer vs. Manny Parra, Joel Pineiro vs. Ben Sheets, Braden Looper vs. Jeff Suppan

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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