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July 23, 2008

On the Beat

Texas Comebacks and Fond Farewells

by John Perrotto

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The public perception of Milton Bradley as a glowering, angry man is a fairly accurate portrayal. The Rangers' designated hitter has had his share of problems throughout his career, much of it triggered by his quick temper, whether it has been walking off the field in the middle of a spring training game, throwing a plastic bottle at a fan, yelling at a reporter in a crowded clubhouse during the postseason, blowing out a knee while being restrained by his manager from going after an umpire, or rushing to the press box in an attempt to “introduce” himself to an opposing team’s broadcaster.

However, Bradley can crack the occasional smile, as he did during last week’s All-Star Game festivities in New York when asked about the career rebirth of both himself and Rangers center fielder Josh Hamilton. “We’re the 'Risk Brothers,'” Bradley said. “We’re the guys the Rangers took a chance on this year.”

Except for the incident where he tried to enter the broadcast booth in Kansas City earlier this season, Bradley has remained relatively calm, and has forged a close relationship with Rangers manager Ron Washington. Hamilton was suspended by Major League Baseball for three seasons from 2004-06 for repeatedly failing tests for crack cocaine, but this year he has built upon the amazing comeback story that began last season with a fine, injury-shortened rookie season with the Reds.

So far, it's been a case of big risks yielding big rewards, as the Rangers are staying on the fringe of the American League playoff chase despite allowing more runs per game (5.8) than any team in the major leagues. However, Bradley and Hamilton are playing a big role in the Rangers' leading the majors in runs per game with a 5.5 average. The two offensive and defensive extremes have equaled a 52-49 record that leaves the Rangers 9 games behind the Angels in the AL West but 6 games behind the Red Sox in the wild-card chase.

“Winning the division is going to be tough,” second baseman Ian Kinsler conceded. “The Angels are an awfully good team, and it’s going to be tough to make up that kind of deficit. We’re still in the wild-card race, though. We definitely feel we can make a move. We’re going to need to play well, better than we did in the first half, but we also feel we’re capable of playing our best baseball down the stretch.”

If nothing else, the Rangers believe they can score runs, thanks to the quartet of All-Star players in the batting order of Bradley and Hamilton combined with the most prolific offensive double-play combination in the major leagues in Kinsler and shortstop Michael Young. Bradley leads the AL with a .339 EqA, while Kinsler has a .316 mark, Hamilton is at .306, and Young has a .268 mark—not great, but certainly good by shortstop standards this season. Kinsler leads the AL with 48.0 VORP.

“We can score runs with anybody,” Young said. “When everyone is clicking, it is kind of scary. The key for us is going to be the pitching. We don’t need to have great pitching with the way we score runs, we just need those guys to consistently keep us in the game.” That's proving to be a bit of a problem; right-hander Vicente Padilla is the only starting pitcher who has been as much as one win over replacement level, and his 1.2 SNLVAR ranks 109th in the majors.

While the Rangers will likely have to keep outscoring opponents, Hamilton and Bradley will continue to be compelling story lines. The Rangers traded right-hander Edinson Volquez to the Reds for Hamilton last winter, and it has truly been a deal that has helped both teams, as Volquez is fifth in the majors with a 4.6 SNLVAR. Volquez’s comeback story has been impressive in its own right, as the Rangers had knocked him all the way down to A-ball to begin last season after he compiled a 7.29 ERA in eight starts in 2006.

Nothing matches Hamilton’s story of overcoming a drug addiction so strong that he still doesn’t carry more than $20 cash, in case he gets the urge to buy crack. Furthermore, the Rangers, like the Reds, employ a special coach, Johnny Narron, whose main responsibility is to keep an eye on Hamilton when he's away from the ballpark. Narron was one of Hamilton’s youth coaches in Raleigh, NC, and is the brother of former Rangers and Reds manager Jerry Narron.

“I’m very gratified with what I’ve been able to accomplish these last two years and I give thanks to God every day because He has given me a second chance at not only baseball but living a normal and productive life again,” Hamilton said. “I don’t take anything for granted. I realize I would throw this all away if I ever go back to drugs. I don’t want to go back to where I was. I’m very happy with my career, my family, and my relationship with God.”

Hamilton was besieged with questions about his comeback during his two days in New York for the All-Star Game, in which he stole the show at the home run derby by going deep 28 times in the first round, before eventually losing to Twins first baseman Justin Morneau. Hamilton doesn’t mind recounting his tale. “Telling my story never grows old,” he said. “It’s my privilege to tell the story. If it helps change just one person’s life for the better, then all the times I tell the story will be worth it.”

Bradley, on the other hand, does get tired of recounting his story. An extremely bright guy who scored an 1120 on his SAT and had a 3.7 GPA at Poly High School in Long Beach, CA before being drafted by the Expos, he tires of people thinking he's “some kind of freak. I just wish everyone would take time to get to know me, because they would see that the reality is not the same as the perception. I’m not some kind of out-of-control monster. Not too many people have every tried to understand me, but Ron Washington has. There are very few people in this game who you can trust and Wash is one of them. I’ve never been more comfortable in my entire career, and that is why I’m having my best season.”

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Texas’ other major league team, the Astros, would seem to be a much longer shot to get to the postseason than the Rangers. Yet, that did not stop the Astros from adding pitching help by acquiring left-hander Randy Wolf from the Padres in a trade on Tuesday for minor league right-hander Chad Reineke. The move seems curious considering that the Astros are 46-54, 12 games behind the Cubs in the National League Central and 11 games behind the Brewers in the NL wild-card race. The Astros insist they are not surrendering and the acquisition of Wolf proves that they are still pushing for the playoffs. “We felt if we had the opportunity to upgrade our starting rotation between now and the (July 31 non-waiver) trade deadline, it made sense for us to try to do that,” Astros GM Ed Wade said.

The trade would seem to only make sense if Wolf re-signs with the Astros as a free agent after this season, as he seems unlikely to spark a pennant push in 2008. Wolf has a 2.2 SNLVAR, which ranks only 64th in the major leagues, but ties Brian Moehler for the lead in the Astros’ rotation. Wade is optimistic that he can keep Wolf beyond this year. The Astros tried to lure Wolf as a free agent last winter after he left the Dodgers, but he opted to stay in his native southern California and sign with the Padres.

“I’m going to remain optimistic that we’re going to play solid,” Wade said. “The Wolf trade is a case where we have a chance to improve both short term and long term because it is a one-year deal, he is a free agent at the end of the year, and he is pitching for his next contract. He hasn’t given any indication that he doesn’t want to continue to play. This gives us the short-term help that we need. It gives us an opportunity to get our foot in the door with Randy if he pitches well enough that we want to extend his contract.”

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While statistics that can be found on this site such as WXRL are considered a much better measure of a relief pitcher’s performance, the most popular mainstream number used to evaluate relievers is the save. The inventor of the save, long-time Chicago baseball writer and Hall of Famer Jerome Holtzman, passed away Monday at the age of 81. Major League Baseball adopted the save as an official statistic in 1969 after Holtzman had been tracking the stat for most of the decade in his weekly column in The Sporting News. The save was the first major statistic added to the official record by MLB since RBI began being counted in 1920.

“Pitchers owe him,” former White Sox GM Roland Hemond told the Chicago Tribune. “Jerome should have gotten a percentage from all the closers for creating the save. He helped a lot of relief pitchers become wealthy.”

Holtzman actually came to regret the save in his later years, and felt managers had cheapened the stat by holding back their closers to pitch only in save situations. “The reality is, he revolutionized baseball,” former Chicago Sun-Times columnist Bill Gleason said. “He glamorized the relief pitcher, who was just another guy before (the save rule). Jerome said not long ago that he was sorry he’d come up with the concept, that it wasn’t necessary. But there was no need to apologize. If there were more people who thought like Jerome Holtzman, the newspaper business would be in better shape.”

MLB hired Holtzman as its official historian after he retired as the Chicago Tribune’s baseball columnist in 1998. “It’s a sad day for everybody in baseball,” the man who hired him, Commissioner Bud Selig, said of Holtzman’s death. “Jerome was Hall of Fame in everything he did, in every sense of the word.”

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One closer who figures to be made wealthy by Holtzman’s invention is the Angels’ Francisco Rodriguez. With 62 games remaining, he now has 41 saves, just 16 shy of the record of 57 set by Bobby Thigpen with the 1990 White Sox.

Rodriguez is eligible for free agency at the end of this season and plans to hit the open market. Rodriguez figures to land a large contract, especially now that closers Joe Nathan of the Twins and Brad Lidge of the Phillies have re-signed with their teams since the beginning of spring training. “The door has always been open to talk but the Angels haven’t opened that door since last winter,” said Rodriguez, who turned down a three-year, $34 million offer last November. Meanwhile, Rodriguez says he is not concerned about catching Thigpen. “It’s been an amazing run for me but it’s too early to be thinking about records,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez should be fresh for his quest for the record. He has pitched in 48 games and logged 45 innings, putting him on pace to finish the season with 73 innings. He has worked that many innings three times in his five full major-league seasons. “It’s how things have worked out,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia told the Los Angeles Times about how he's been keeping Rodriguez’s workload relatively light. “It’s worked out to where he’s gotten enough of a breather and been able to maintain his stuff.”

Scioscia has limited Rodriguez to one inning or less in each of his appearances this season, after he worked more than one inning eight times last season and 13 times in 2006. “There's no magic number for anyone, and it depends on the workload,” said Scioscia of how he decides to rest Rodriguez. “Some saves take seven pitches, some take 30, but if he goes five of six days, most likely he’ll get a day off.”

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NL Rumors and Rumblings: The Pirates’ Neal Huntington may be fielding more calls than any other GM with the trade deadline looming, as he has a number of veteran players available who could potentially help contenders, notably left-handed relievers Damaso Marte and John Grabow, first baseman Adam LaRoche, shortstop Jack Wilson, and outfielders Jason Bay and Xavier Nady. The Yankees have expressed interest in Bay and Nady recently, the Red Sox are eyeing Marte, and the Dodgers continue to try to deal for Wilson. … Right-hander Greg Maddux has told the Padres he would only waive the no-trade clause in his contract to stay on the West Coast, meaning he likely won’t be dealt unless the Dodgers are interested. … While the Dodgers have made acquiring Wilson their top priority, they also have Blue Jays shortstop David Eckstein on their radar as a Plan B. … The Mets have seemingly cooled on trying to acquire Bay or Nady and are now looking at such outfield options as the Rangers’ Marlon Byrd, the MarinersRaul Ibanez, and the IndiansCasey Blake. … The Giants have a number of veterans they are willing to move, including right-handed reliever Tyler Walker, shortstop Omar Vizquel, and infielder Rich Aurilia, and are also gearing up to make an off-season splash by pursuing a big hitter, with players mentioned including Braves first baseman Mark Teixeira and White Sox third baseman Joe Crede (who can become free agents in November), or trade targets such as Bay, Nady, Mariners third baseman Adrian Beltre, and Rockies third baseman Garrett Atkins. … The Phillies will reportedly make Rockies left fielder Matt Holliday their top trade target this winter as a replacement for Pat Burrell, who can become a free agent. … Speculation persists that Nationals GM Jim Bowden is on thin ice and could be fired at season’s end. … The Brewers are interested in signing former Orioles first baseman/outfielder Jay Gibbons, now playing in the independent Atlantic League, to a minor league contract. … The Marlins are concerned that they won’t be able to move into their new stadium until 2012, a year later than planned, because of the lawsuit filed by former Philadelphia Eagles owner Norman Braman over the legality of the allocation of public funds to help build the ballpark.

AL Rumors and Rumblings: The Red Sox are rethinking their plan of staying quiet at the trading deadline. In addition to Marte, they're interested in Rockies left-handed reliever Brian Fuentes, Royals lefty Ron Mahay, and Athletics closer Huston Street, who is also on the radar of the White Sox and Brewers. Like the Phillies, the Red Sox may make a big off-season pitch for Holliday if they decide not to exercise the 2009 club option on Manny Ramirez. … The White Sox are willing to trade third baseman Josh Fields, currently at Triple-A Charlotte after hitting 23 home runs as a rookie last season, to the Athletics for Street. … The showcase for scouts to watch free-agent right-hander Freddy Garcia, coming off of shoulder surgery, has been pushed back two weeks to the first week of August, but the Tigers are still expected to be at the head of the pack of teams trying to sign him for the stretch run. … Orioles closer George Sherrill is still not being marketed, but the Cardinals have a lot of interest, and the Angels also are said to be considering making a pitch. … Cito Gaston will likely be back as the Blue Jays’ manager next season, whether or not GM J.P. Ricciardi is retained. … The Indians are deciding between Double-A Huntsville center fielder Michael Brantley and High-A Brevard County third baseman Taylor Green as the player to be named coming from the Brewers to complete the CC Sabathia trade.

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Scouts’ views on various major-league players:

  • Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder: “I find it funny that everyone made a big deal about him becoming a vegetarian in spring training. He’s bigger than ever, and it looks like one of his favorite vegetables is carrot cake. The kid can still hit the ball out of the park, though, and that’s the main thing.”
  • Pirates second baseman Freddy Sanchez: “Up until the last few days, he’s looked totally lost at the plate. It’s like he had lost all confidence in what he wanted to do, and had no idea how pitchers were trying to work him. It’s hard to believe, because he has always been a smart hitter.”
  • Rays left fielder Carl Crawford: “It’s kind of strange how his team has been one of the best stories in baseball and he is having his worst year. He just isn’t swinging the bat with any authority at all, like he’s suddenly lost his power.”
  • Royals right-hander Zach Greinke: “I just love this kid. He has such a great feel for how to pitch. He never throws the same pitch twice, and he has conviction with every pitch he throws. I know he had confidence problems in the past, but they seem to be gone now.”
  • Athletics designated hitter Jack Cust: “He’s the ultimate sabermetric player with the Three True Outcomes. Give the A’s credit, though, because they’ve been able to look past the fact that he is not hitting for much of an average but is still a productive player. Most teams would take one look at his batting average and glue him to the bench.”

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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