September 14, 2008
Every Given Sunday
Don't Look at Us Now
About the best thing that the Royals have to say about themselves is that they aren't the Pirates. The Pirates matched one of the most inglorious records in baseball history a week ago today when they clinched their 16th consecutive losing season, matching the 1933-48 Phillies streak of futility. While the Royals' run of losing seasons isn't as long as Pittsburgh's, their only winning record in the last 14 years was in 2003, when they finished 83-79, and this year they have assured themselves of another sub-.500 finish with a 64-84 record that ranks ahead of only Seattle (57-90) in the American League. "It's disappointing because I know we have more talent than this," said Royals right fielder Jose Guillen, who has had an unsettling first season in Kansas City after signing a three-year, $36 million contract as a free agent last winter, ripping his teammates and fans in two separate tirades with reporters. "We have good guys, but they just don't know how to win yet. We haven't won in so long here that they just don't know how to do it or what it feels like."
First-year manger Trey Hillman won't necessarily disagree with Guillen. "I knew coming in that it was going to be hard to turn everything around overnight," Hillman said. "You're talking about a franchise that quite frankly has been a perennial last-place team for a long time. You just don't snap your fingers and change everything. The biggest thing I felt we had to do was change the culture, and I've seen it change to an extent. However, I haven't seen it change enough. We really aren't finishing up very well, and that's disappointing. I thought we would show more improvement than this."
If anything, the Royals have been quite mercurial this season. They lost 12 in a row from May 19-30, ran off 11 wins in 12 games from June 14-27 during the interleague portion of the schedule, and now they're fizzling at the end with an 11-24 record since August 5. It's not as though there are any quick fixes to the Royals' problems, as they are lacking in all areas. They're 26th in the major leagues in runs scored per game (4.1), 25th in runs allowed (5.0), and 23rd in defensive efficiency (.684), so it comes as no surprise that general manager Dayton Moore seems willing to push the plunger on the detonator and blow his team up. "I've made up my mind on this team," Moore said. "I've got a pretty good idea on where we need to go and what we need to do. I've been watching this team for two years now. It's the same group of guys. Anybody who puts on a uniform or anyone who follows this team every day or makes decisions about player personnel knows we have to get better. Ultimately, it's my responsibility to put the best team we can on the field. That's what we're going to do."
Moore figures to dip into the free agent market for a third straight winter. The Royals signed right-hander Gil Meche to a five-year, $55 million contract after the 2006 season, and Guillen was their big acquisition last winter. They are reportedly considering Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Rafael Furcal as their primary target this upcoming offseason, which would enable them to move rookie surprise Mike Aviles across the bag from short to second. Moore is also open to making trades in an effort to improve his roster. Those close to the Royals say they would consider dealing anyone except for Meche, right-hander Zach Grienke, and closer Joakim Soria.
Hillman came to the Royals highly regarded after a five-year stint as manager of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in the Japanese Central League. He led the Fighters to their first pennant in 25 years in 2006 when they won the Japan Series and Asia Series, and they repeated as league champions last year. Hillman also drew high marks during his 12 seasons managing Yankees minor league affiliates and for his one year as the Rangers' farm director. "I've never been afraid of a challenge," Hillman said. "I've been accepting challenges my whole life. It was a challenge to keep a job in the Yankees organization for 12 years, not a lot of people do that. It was a challenge running a farm system. It was a challenge going to a foreign country and taking over a franchise that was considered the worst in Japan. This, too, is a great challenge, but I have no doubt in my mind that we can win here. It hasn't been the easiest of seasons, but I'm not deterred. I really believe the Kansas City Royals can be a winning franchise again or I wouldn't have taken this job. Despite the ups and downs we've had this season, I still believe that."
The Angels became the first team to earn a playoff berth when they clinched the AL West title on Wednesday. By clinching on September 10, the Angels just missed setting a record; the only team ever to win a division title earlier was the 2002 Braves, who wrapped up the National League East on September 9. The Angels had a rather raucous celebration despite nailing down the division with 17 games remaining. Third baseman Chone Figgins admitted that it seemed odd to be celebrating so early in the month. "It's a great thing to have, but it's a weird feeling because there's so much baseball to be played," he said.
LA won the AL West for the fourth time in the last five seasons, but they've failed to advance to the World Series in any of those years; the Angels' lone World Series appearance in franchise history came just before, in 2002, when they won a seven-game series over the Giants. "I would say as far as the clubhouse vibe, I'd liken this a lot to 2002," said Angels right-hander John Lackey, who was a rookie when he started Game Seven of the '02 World Series. "It's fun in the clubhouse. We have a good time in here, and on the field we handle our business. I'd say we're more talented than that team, but you never know how it plays out."
Angels manager Mike Scioscia believes his team can go all the way in October. "This team has incredible potential, still," Scioscia said. "It will be interesting when we get [injured infielders] Howie [Kendrick] and Erick [Aybar] back in there. We've got a lot of youth that's come up this year, and they've handled themselves extremely well. The opportunity is there for us to be one of the special Angel teams since we've been here, in the last nine years."
On the other end of the spectrum are the Pirates, who are 62-86. Needless to say, they didn't have any raucous celebrations when they clinched losing season number 16. "Nobody's happy with the record," Pirates manager John Russell said. "Nobody's happy with losing. But the work we're putting in and the things we're doing is causing us to see a lot of progress. It's not equating to wins right now, but it will continue. We'll continue to battle. It's going to be a lot of fun someday. I know the city of Pittsburgh is dying for a winner, and we're going to do everything we can to make that happen."
First-year GM Neal Huntington knew he would have a major rebuilding job when he was hired last September to replace Dave Littlefield, who left a barren farm system and a thin major league roster. The Pirates have especially struggled since trading outfielder Xavier Nady and left-handed reliever Damaso Marte to the Yankees and left fielder Jason Bay to the Red Sox in late-July deals that netted the organization eight young players.
The Pirates are just 12-28 since the beginning of August, but Huntington warns that it would not be wise for any of the Pirates players to begin trying to play out the string. "Nobody is on scholarship anymore," he said. "We've been in the evaluation process since the day we got here, and those evaluations will continue through the last day of the season. A lot of good things have happened this year, just not at the major league level, but in scouting and player development. We're building something good for the long term here. At the same time, the most important thing we do is winning at the major league level. If we lose the major league game, it doesn't matter if every one of our minor league teams win on that particularly day, because it doesn't make up for it. Our goal is still to win every day and that's not going to change."
White Sox GM Ken Williams played his last major league game in 1991 as an outfielder with the Expos, but he says he gets more nervous watching games as an executive than he ever did while playing in them. "I still haven't learned how to strike a balance anxiety-wise, emotional-wise, intensity-wise, in the game of baseball," Williams said. "I watch every baseball game like it's a football game, still. Try doing that over a course of six months."
Williams is 44 years old and still not much over his playing weight of 187 pounds, but he admits to feeling considerably older. "One of my favorite things is to look at pictures of guys when they first become managers or general managers," Williams said. "Then I look at a snapshot of them after three years or later. Oh, my gosh! You should see a picture of Ozzie [Guillen] and me when I first hired him [as manager in 2003]. We were handsome guys back then. There's a little wear and tear on us now."
Williams is a bright guy who attended Stanford, and admits he sometimes feels silly about becoming so wrapped up in the games, but he also believes he has justification for doing so. "I'll be honest. I'm almost embarrassed about [worrying too much about the White Sox], because I come from a family of hard-working people," Williams said. "This is a tough economy, a tough world we live in right now. And here we are, fortunate to be in the position we are. And I'm stressing about it? I'm stressing about the games that we play? Part of the reason I do is I know for many, many people we are part of their stress-reliever, part of their entertainment. The further we can go, the more we can give them hope for another championship."
Interesting facts as the 24th week of the regular season comes to a close:
NL Rumors and Rumblings: The Rockies want to add a pitcher who can top their rotation, and are willing to give up left fielder Matt Holliday in the right trade. ... The Braves want to add two starting pitchers this winter, and GM Frank Wren traveled to Japan earlier this year to scout potential free agents Koji Uehara and Kenshin Kawakami. ... The Marlins will try to trade deposed Kevin Gregg in the offseason, and are likely to non-tender him rather than offer arbitration if they can't find a taker. ... Look for outfielder Felix Pie to see more playing time down the stretch for the Cubs with right fielder Kosuke Fukudome and center fielder Jim Edmonds fading. ... The Cubs' planned post-season rotation goes Carlos Zambrano (if healthy), Ryan Dempster, Ted Lilly, and Rich Harden. ... The Diamondbacks originally planned to move set-up reliever Jon Rauch into the closer's role next season and allow Brandon Lyon to leave as a free agent, but they are now re-thinking that plan in light of Rauch's struggles. ... The Nationals will look for first-base help over the winter despite having the oft-injured Nick Johnson and Dmitri Young (struggling to control his diabetes) under contract.
AL Rumors and Rumblings: If GM Brian Cashman decides in light of the news that his power would likely be reduced that he will not return to the Yankees next season, look for the Steinbrenner brothers to stay in-house and promote vice president of scouting Damon Oppenheimer to GM. ... Left fielder Raul Ibanez is unlikely to return to the Mariners as a free agent, and is a good bet to land with the Rays as their designated hitter in 2009. ... Right-hander A.J. Burnett will exercise the opt-out clause in his contract even though his first preference is to work out a deal to stay with the Blue Jays, though the Yankees, Orioles, and Nationals all figure to be players for him in the free-agent market. ... The Indians want to add an infielder over the winter and they are flexible about the position; second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera is also a very capable shortstop, and shortstop Jhonny Peralta has long been a candidate to be converted into a third baseman. ... Designated hitter Mike Sweeney would like to latch on with a contending team for the final days of the season after being released by the Athletics. ... Rookie right-handed reliever Kevin Jepsen has so impressed the Angels with his 97 mph fastball since being called up from the minor leagues last week that he almost certainly will be on their post-season roster.