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July 30, 2008

On the Beat

Teams Fine-Tune for the Final Stretch

by John Perrotto

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Karla Hurdle is finally figuring out what her husband has been talking about. "My wife and I were talking the other night, and she mentioned that I had been saying since April that we were going to get hot, and she was tired of hearing me say it," Rockies manager Clint Hurdle said with a laugh. "Well, Mrs. Hurdle doesn't have to worry about Clint repeating himself anymore."

The Rockies have finally gone on a tear, winning nine of 12 since the All-Star break following a 39-57 first half that ended with a three-game road sweep at the hands of the Mets during which they scored only one run. "As much as my wife got tired of me saying we were going to get hot, I think our players got even more tired of me saying it," Hurdle said. "It finally got the point where we said, 'Let's just shut up and go out and play. Don't ask questions, just focus on execution.' The pitching has been better and we've been swinging the bats better than we have all season long. We got hit by a real knockout punch there in New York, and how we responded to that knockout punch has been very impressive."

The Rockies certainly have made an impression since the break, outscoring opponents 84-46 and averaging seven runs per game. The Rockies have also averaged a major league-best 6.2 runs a game in July, a month in which they've gone 16-9. "We've felt the whole year that we're a good team, but a team that needed to click," said shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. "Everything has started to click now. We're getting good pitching, timely hitting, and solid defense. I know all teams that are going well would tend to say that same thing, but it's really true. It's just taken a lot longer than we had hoped."

Despite the hot streak, the Rockies' record is still only 48-60. Only five teams in the major leagues are worse-the Indians (46-59), Giants (44-62), Padres (42-66), Mariners (40-66) ,and Nationals (38-68). Yet the Rockies still have visions of a second consecutive Rocktober. They believe they can put themselves in position to at least have a chance to defend their first-ever National League pennant, despite being 12 games under .500 at exactly the two-thirds mark of their season.

Of course, anything is possible in the weak NL West. They're in third place, seven games off the pace of the first-place Diamondbacks and six behind the Dodgers. While the Rockies' July statistics have been good, their overall numbers on the season are not indicative of a playoff team. They're in the middle of the pack among major league teams in runs scored with 4.7 per game, and 28th in runs allowed (5.1).

The Rockies have only two reliable options in their starting rotation, Aaron Cook (4.0 SNLVAR) and Ubaldo Jimenez (3.1). Jeff Francis was considered the ace coming into the season, but he has 0.9 SNLVAR and will come off of the disabled list next week after missing a month with a sore shoulder. No other starter has been even one full win above replacement level this season. Set-up man Taylor Buchholz (2.458 WXRL) and closer Brian Fuentes (1.485) highlight a bullpen that is otherwise made up of pitchers just around replacement level as well.

Left fielder Matt Holliday (.333 EqA, 48.0 VORP) is carrying an otherwise average offense that is missing center fielder Ryan Spilborghs (.313) and first baseman Todd Helton (.277), both down with injuries. Helton has been out since July 4 with a sore back, and Spilborghs since July 9 with a strained oblique. The Rockies have no definitive timetable for either player's return. "This is probably not the strongest team we've put on the field this year, but it's been the best team," Hurdle said.

It remains to be seen whether it's a team that is good enough to get back to the postseason. The Rockies believe they still have a little magic on their side left over from when they won 14 of their last 15 regular-season games in 2007 to win the NL wild card before sweeping the Phillies in the NLDS and the Diamondbacks in the NLCS. "I'm not saying we can duplicate something like that, winning 21 out of 22 games," Tulowitzki said. "That might be asking the impossible. However, it does give us confidence that anything is possible."

"It's like when you were a kid and you put a tooth under your pillow and you got money for it-you're going to try it again," Hurdle said. "The reality is that what we did last year may never happen again. We may have already opened and closed the book on that. But instead of waiting for September, why not do it in August? Instead of winning 21 out of 22, why not win nine out of 10 four times in a row? I know this much, our guys think they're carrying something good around in their pocket."

---

The Angels seemingly had the least motivation of any contender to land a big-time player before Thursday's non-waiver trading deadline. After all, the Angels have the best record in the major leagues at 66-40, and an 11-game lead over the Rangers in the American League West. None of the majors' other five division leaders hold more than a three-game edge. However, first-year general manager Tony Reagins pulled off a big move on Tuesday when he acquired first baseman Mark Teixeira from the Braves in a trade for first baseman Casey Kotchman and Double-A Arkansas reliever Stephen Marek. In contrast, former Angels GM Bill Stoneman was always hesitant to make a major in-season trade, and took his share of criticism for it.

The Angels needed a big bat like Teixeira's. They're only 19th in the majors in runs scored (4.5 per game) while ranking sixth in runs allowed (4.1). Teixeira's .304 EqA should fit in nicely on a club whose leader in that department is second baseman Howie Kendrick at .286. "A Mark Teixeira-type player puts our lineup in a different perspective," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "This player at this time is very important to us. I think this gives a different look to our offense. It makes us deeper. It's something that's going to make us significantly better this year."

Reagins certainly gained credibility in the clubhouse by landing Teixeira. "He's tough," center fielder Torii Hunter told the Orange County Register. "He's like, 'Forget that. I want to win.' He came after me [five years, $90 million], went after Teixeira. He's very aggressive. A lot of people said we needed that extra bat in the lineup. OK, you got it. Believe me, you definitely got it. Not too many people hit like this guy."

---

Dallas Green turns 73 next week, but that doesn't mean the Phillies' senior advisor to the general manager is mellowing. In fact, Green was as candid as ever when asked about Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins by the Bucks County Courier Times' Randy Miller recently. "I think we're all disappointed in Jimmy's reaction to what's going on," said Green, who managed the Phillies to the only World Series title in franchise history in 1980. "His body language is just brutal right now. The body language doesn't say that 'I'm busting my ass' right now.'"

Rollins has a .276 EqA and 23.8 VORP a year after being voted the NL's Most Valuable Player. Rollins was removed from a June 5 game against the Reds by manager Charlie Manuel for not hustling, and then benched for a key game against the Mets last Thursday after arriving late to Shea Stadium and saying he had been stuck in New York traffic. "Jimmy doesn't sense, I don't think, that [his teammates] are starting to get upset with him," Green said. Green also stated that he would not hesitate to share his feelings with Rollins the next time their paths cross. "Jimmy and I have a pretty good relationship," Green said. "I'll tell him when I think he's done right and I'll tell him when I think he's done wrong. He's done wrong. He's done wrong for the team, he's done wrong for himself, and he's done wrong for Charlie."

---

Former Expos and Giants manager Felipe Alou has been selected to manage the team of his native Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic next year, and he is not taking the job lightly. Alou said he'll be disappointed if the Dominican Republic doesn't do better than it did in the inaugural WBC in 2006, when it was eliminated in the semifinals. "There were teams that let their countries down and their fans down and the media down because of the way they underachieved," Alou, a special assistant to Giants GM Brian Sabean, told the San Francisco Chronicle. "I believe it is easy to know what those countries are, and we are one of them. We are obligated to do a better job. Players need to understand that the Classic is for real. It's not a joke. A lot of players thought it was a joke, the first one. I believe the USA and Venezuela and Puerto Rico and the Dominican should do better than we did in the first Classic."

Japan won the '06 WBC at Petco Park in San Diego. Next year's semifinals and finals will be played at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, with the official announcement coming Thursday. Alou is proud of his heritage and still recalls playing for the Dominican Republic in the 1955 Pan-Am Games as "one of the highlights of my life. "I have managed some Dominican players in the big leagues," Alou continued. "This is going to be an all-Dominican team. At the end of the day, it you have an opportunity to do that, with an all-Dominican coaching staff-and Stan Javier is the GM-it's something incredible."

---

Scouts' views on various major-league players:

  • Tigers right-hander Justin Verlander: "He got off to the rough start this year, but now he's throwing the ball better than ever. His stuff is so good, and he has just a great idea of how to pitch. If this kid doesn't win a couple of Cy Youngs before he's through, I'll be shocked."
  • Angels closer Francisco Rodriguez: "He doesn't throw as hard as he did a couple of years ago, but he has really perfected his changeup to the point nobody can hit it. You can't sit on either the heater or the change, and that's helped him compensate for losing a little velocity."
  • Royals utility player Esteban German: "He's become a very valuable player. He can hit a little, he can run a little, and you can play him all over the field. Fans overlook someone like him, but managers love guys like that."
  • Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina: "Boy was I wrong on this guy, because I thought he was finished last year. It's like he has held back the hands of time and he's throwing like he did five years ago. He's a really smart pitcher, and that's his strength now, but his stuff has been pretty good too this year."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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