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May 25, 2008

Every Given Sunday

Under Review

by John Perrotto

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It was not a good week to be one of the men in blue. Umpiring in the major leagues is a thankless job, with the only recognition coming when there is a blown call. The umpires have been getting recognized quite a bit lately, as there were four instances this past week in which the wrong call was made on a potential home run.

It started last Sunday, when the Mets' Carlos Delgado hit an opposite-field shot that bounced off the left-field foul pole at Yankee Stadium for an apparent three-run homer; however, the ball was ruled foul. A night later, the Cubs' Geovany Soto hit what appeared to be a home run to left-center at Minute Maid Park, as the ball hit the yellow line above the fence. The umpires ruled it in play, though the slow-footed catcher wound up with an inside-the-park homer anyway. Back at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday night, the umps missed another call when the Yankees' Alex Rodriguez hit a ball that bounced off a railing beyond the right center field fence and back on the field; the umps incorrectly ruled it a double. And on Friday night, it happened yet again, this time at Progressive Field, when the Indians' Ben Francisco hit a blast that hit the yellow line above the left-field wall for what should have been a home run; instead, the arbiters ruled it a double.

Not surprisingly, there has been a groundswell of people calling for Major League Baseball to adopt instant replay, following the lead of the NFL, NBA, and NHL. Replay proponents, at the least, want the umpires to be able to review videotape involving home runs. General managers voted 25-5 in favor of replay at their yearly meetings last November.

However, Commissioner Bud Selig has admittedly never been a big fan of the concept. "The commissioner calls instant replay umpires getting together and trying to get the call right," said Bob Watson, MLB vice president of standards and on-field operations. "That is instant replay in his estimation." But when Selig was a guest on XM Radio's The Baseball Beat on Friday, he told host Charley Steiner that he is at least willing to consider replay. "Everybody knows how I think about these issues," Selig said. "I really am a traditionalist because I think it is right to understand the history of this sport, to be very careful anytime you make a change. But I am very seriously reviewing this entire matter, and I'll take it from there. I can't say any more now, because I don't know how it is going to come out."

As the GM vote suggests, most people in the game are already in favor of limited instant replay. "I think it can be a win-win situation if everyone ends up voting for it," Royals manager Trey Hillman said. "I would be in favor of it because some of the calls--fair or foul, or contact calls [in or out of the park]--are tough for umpires to make."

Astros manager Cecil Cooper would like to see replay used in what he calls 'game-changing' situations. "I think we should have like they do in basketball," Cooper said. "All the times at the end of quarters or end of the games they always let the video determine whether the guy got the shot off."

Cubs manager Lou Piniella, though, is a contrarian, and wants no part of instant replay. He admits to getting frustrated when watching NFL games on television and seeing the coaches throw their red flags to challenge an official's call. "When they start reviewing calls, I know I have five minutes to go to the refrigerator," Piniella said. "It just really slows the game down. All the general managers and either managers or bench coaches were just required to be on an hour-long conference call [Wednesday] with the commissioner's office about speeding up the pace of the games. Replay would only slow games down. Players make mistakes, coaches make mistakes, managers make mistakes, and so do umpires. We're all human, and I don't think you should take the human element out of the game."

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Willie Randolph's time as the Mets' manager seems to be growing shorter by the hour. Randolph survived last year's collapse, in which the Mets blew a seven-game lead in the final 17 days of the season to finish second to the Phillies in the National League East. However, the Mets are now 23-24 after snapping a five-game losing streak Saturday, and are in fourth place in a division most picked them to win.

Making matters worse is that Randolph played the race card last week in an interview with the Bergen Record, claiming he gets criticized more for his low-key style because he is black. Randolph also said he is portrayed poorly on game telecasts by SportsNet New York, which is also owned by the Mets owners, because it only shows camera shots of him sitting passively in the dugout rather than interacting with his players and coaches.

He quickly had to back down. Randolph made a public apology Wednesday night before the Mets' game against the Braves in Atlanta, reading a statement first during his weekly appearance on WFAN-AM, the team's flagship radio station, and then to reporters assembled in the visiting dugout at Turner Field. "There's no excuse for it. I own up to it. The fact of life is that we haven't been playing very well as a team. I want to apologize to the Mets ownership, SNY, and my team for the unnecessary distraction that I created, that I caused the last couple days. I shouldn't have said what I said. It was a mistake, as simple as that. It was a mistake. We've been very inconsistent; we've talked about that before. When that happens, you're going to get criticized for that. I understand it. It's been a tough couple of months, for the team, for myself, and I understand that goes along with it. I take full responsibility for what I said out of frustration, and hope that we can put a close to this matter and focus on winning a lot of baseball games. That's what we're here to do, win a championship."

However, a sign that Randolph's time may be running out was his acknowledgment that he tried to contact team owners Fred and Jeff Wilpon to apologize, and they failed to return his call. Instead, the Wilpons prefer to meet face-to-face with Randolph on Monday night before the Mets host the Marlins.

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It is certainly not uncommon for teams to get a lack of production from a certain position. However, rare is the case where an entire outfield is an offensive black hole. That has been so with the Nationals this season, because their outfielders are barely outhitting their pitchers. Center fielder Lasting Milledge has the best EqA of the Nationals' three starting outfielders, with a paltry .227 mark, while left fielder Wily Mo Pena is at .176 and right fielder Elijah Dukes at .102. The Nationals' two reserves aren't any better, as Willie Harris has a .229 EqA and Rob Mackowiak's is .202.

Right fielder Austin Kearns carried a .198 EqA onto the disabled list this past week and is likely to miss the next month after having arthroscopic elbow surgery. That leaves manager Manny Acta with one less outfield option, though none of his options inspire confidence.

"There's only so much you can do because every single one of them is struggling," Acta told the Washington Times. "I look at the bench and I'm like, 'What am I going to do? Pinch-hit a guy who's struggling for another guy who's struggling?' The good thing about it is everybody's getting their chance to get some at-bats. It's a fair fight."

Nationals GM Jim Bowden seems to be running out of patience with his outfielders, though, and called up veteran Ryan Langerhans on Friday from Triple-A Columbus, where he had a translated .264 EqA. Bowden noted, "We've got a lot of young hitters that are learning and developing at the major-league level. It's going to take patience. With that comes development pains and growing and learning. We've got guys that have to make adjustments. We didn't expect it to be right away, but that being said, we also expected them to hold their own, and some of them are not right now."

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Mike Piazza officially announced his retirement this week, though the 30 major league clubs actually made the decision for him by not offering him a contract as a free agent after he had a .267 EqA in 329 plate appearances with the Athletics last season. Piazza retires as the greatest offensive catcher in history. He hit .308/.377/.545 in his 16-year career, while belting 427 home runs. Piazza will be yet another test case for 10-year members of the Baseball Writers Association of America when he appears on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2013, in terms of seeing if he will be penalized for playing during the "steroids era."

Angels manager Mike Sciosica believes Piazza should be a shoo-in for Cooperstown on the first ballot. Scioscia has a unique perspective, as he was the Dodgers' starting catcher for 12 years being retiring following the 1992 season, and being succeeded by Piazza. Scioscia was also the bench coach during Piazza's last two seasons with the Dodgers, in 1997 and '98. "He brought the offensive side of what a catcher can do to a level that I don't think is going to be matched," Scioscia told the Orange County Register.

Piazza was often criticized for being below-average defensively, but Scioscia praised him for working hard on that aspect of his game. "You had to see Mike from the early days to appreciate how far he came," Scioscia said. "He took it to heart. He really cared about the job he did behind the plate."

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AL Rumors and Rumblings: With each Mariners loss, manager John McLaren's job security becomes more tenuous. There are some close to the situation who believe that general manager Bill Bavasi could be fired in tandem with McLaren. The Orioles and Brewers appear to be the top two suitors for right-hander Julian Tavarez, who changed his mind and opted for free agency after originally agreeing to accept an assignment to Triple-A when the Red Sox designated him for assignment. With Bartolo Colon apparently in the Red Sox rotation to stay, it would not be a surprise to see rookie Clay Buchholz used in relief once he comes off of the disabled list to help shore up a shaky bullpen. The Royals are considering a permanent move of left fielder Mark Teahen to first base.

The Indians need an offensive upgrade desperately, and are bringing up Rockies third baseman Garrett Atkins and left fielder Matt Holliday in trade talks. The Indians, though, do not plan to send struggling second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera to the minor leagues despite his hitting woes because they don't feel Josh Barfield would be an upgrade. The Rangers are trying to sign outfielder Josh Hamilton to a long-term contract that would buy out his arbitration years and also possibly his first year or two of free agency. The Orioles have no plans to give top catching prospect Josh Wieters a look at the major league level this season despite the way he is tearing up the High-A Carolina League. Major League Baseball is expected to announce this week that the Angels will host the 2010 All-Star Game at Angel Stadium. One long-time scout asserts that Rays catcher Dioner Navarro is the most improved player in the AL this season.

NL Rumors and Rumblings: There are some close to the Phillies' situation who believe the team will trade first baseman Ryan Howard before next season rather than risk seeing him get a significant bump over his $10 million salary in arbitration. The talk of Ken Griffey Jr. being traded back to the Mariners has died down and it is likely the right fielder will play out the season with the Reds. The Mets are in the market for a right-handed set-up man and are willing to trade incumbent Aaron Heilman to a club willing to convert him back to a starting pitcher. Hall of Famer Gary Carter, currently managing the Orange County Flyers in the independent Golden Baseball League, has openly politicked for the Mets manager job with Randolph on thin ice. Veteran outfielder Jim Edmonds has shown little for the Cubs since they signed him as a free agent earlier this month following his release from the Padres, and there is a sense that his time in Chicago will be short. The Nationals are leaning toward keeping young Jesus Flores as their starting catcher even when veterans Paul Lo Duca and Johnny Estrada are healthy enough to come off of the disabled list. The Padres want top prospect Chase Headley, who was converted from third base to left field in spring training, to spend a little more time learning the position at Triple-A Portland before likely promoting him to the major leagues sometime next month. One scout who recently watched Diamondbacks right-hander Brandon Webb insists that his changeup is now almost on par with his devastating sinker.

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Interesting facts as week eight of the regular season comes to a close:

  • Soto's inside-the-park home run was the first by a Cubs catcher since Cal Neeman hit one on June 17, 1959 off the Pirates' Harvey Haddix.
  • Second baseman Dan Uggla has hit 11 home runs in May, the first Marlins player to reach double digits in a month since Cliff Floyd hit 10 in 2002.
  • Astros right-hander Shawn Chacon's major league record of nine straight starts with a no-decision to begin a season ended Wednesday when he beat the Cubs.
  • Daisuke Matsuzaka is the 11th Red Sox pitcher to begin a season 8-0. The only pitchers with better starts were Roger Clemens (14-0 in 1986), Roger Moret (11-0 in 1973), Boo Ferriss (10-0 in 1946), Ike Delock (10-0 in 1958), Sonny Siebert (9-0 in 1971), and Josh Beckett (9-0 in 2007).
  • Red Sox rookie right-hander Justin Masterson allowed three hits in 6 1/3 innings to beat the Royals on Tuesday in his second major league start after allowing two hits in six innings against the Angels in his debut April 24. Only three other Red Sox pitchers gave up three hits or less in their first two starts: Blaine Thomas (1911), Lee Rogers (1938), and Frank Bauman (1955). The last major league starter to pitch at least six innings and give up three hits or less in his first two starts was Brian Bannister for the 2006 Mets. The last major leaguer to pitch at least six innings and give up three hits and one run or less in his first three starts was Rudy May for the 1965 Angels.
  • Bobby Cox's record on his birthday is now 17-6 after his Braves beat the Mets 11-4 on Wednesday. No manager has won more games on his birthday. The rest of the top five: Al Lopez (14-3), Joe McCarthy (14-4), Wilbert Robinson (13-6), and Joe Torre (13-9).
  • Braves third baseman Chipper Jones has 398 career home runs and is two away from joining Frank Thomas, Manny Ramirez, and Alex Rodriguez as the only active players with a .300 lifetime batting average, 400 homers, and 1,300 RBI.
  • When right fielder J.D. Drew and third baseman Mike Lowell hit grand slams Thursday in a win over the Royals, they became the first Red Sox teammates to hit bases-loaded homers in the same game since Tony Armas and Bill Buckner connected against the Tigers' Jack Morris on Aug 7, 1984. The last time the Red Sox had two slams in a game was July 29, 2003, when switch-hitter Bill Mueller became the first player to ever hit bases-loaded homers from both sides of the plate in the same game, connecting against the Rangers' Aaron Fultz and Jay Powell.
  • When Indians left-hander Cliff Lee (0.67) and Reds right-hander Edinson Volquez (1.12) faced each other last Sunday in Cincinnati, it marked the third time since interleague play began in 1997 that a game featured each league's ERA leader. The Reds beat the Indians 6-4, as Volquez got the win by allowing two runs in six innings while Lee took the loss with six runs allowed (five earned) in 5 2/3 innings. The other two instances came on June 26, 1998, when the Mets' Al Leiter (1.60) faced the Yankees' Hideki Irabu (2.19), and on June 16, 2002, when the Braves' Tom Glavine (1.53) opposed the Red Sox's Derek Lowe (1.80). Irabu got a no-decision in the Yankees' 8-4 win over the Mets, as he gave up four runs in 5 2/3 innings, while Leiter took the loss by allowing five runs (four earned) in 6 1/3 innings. Lowe got the win in Boston's 6-1 win over the Braves by allowing only one run in seven innings, while Glavine was tagged with the loss after surrendering five runs (three earned) in five innings.

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Three series to watch this week, with rankings according to Jay Jaffe's Prospectus Hit List:

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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