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October 1, 2008

On the Beat

Let the Games Begin

by John Perrotto

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PHILADELPHIA- When the Brewers' team bus pulled up to Citizens Bank Park on Tuesday morning, it hit Dale Sveum all at once. "We were just here a couple of weeks ago and never did I think I would be right back here in the situation I'm in now," the Brewers interim manager said. "It's amazing how things can change in this game." It certainly is.

The Brewers left the City of Brotherly Love on September 14 reeling after having been swept by the Phillies in a day-night doubleheader and a four-game series. They had squandered the entire 5-game lead they held in the National League wild-card race to begin the month, dropping into a tie with the Phillies, and seemed headed for a second straight final-month collapse in their never-ending bid to end a playoff drought that stretches back to 1982. The Brewers faltered in September last year after once holding an 8-game lead on the eventual champions, the Cubs, in the NL Central.

The morning after being swept in Philadelphia, Brewers owner Mark Attanasio fired manger Ned Yost and replaced him with third-base coach Sveum. Attanasio was criticized publicly by many analysts, and privately by many executives inside the game, for making a seemingly rash move with just two weeks left in the season. Yet, while firing Yost smacked of desperation and panic, on some level it worked. The Brewers won the wild card on Ryan Braun's dramatic two-run home run in the eighth inning Sunday that gave them a 3-1 win over the Cubs in the season finale. The Brewers finished one game ahead of the Mets, who wound up second in the NL East behind the late-charging Phillies.

Ironically enough, the Brewers will be back in the ballpark where their season nearly went code blue this afternoon to face the Phillies in the opener of the National League Division Series. "I think the move was intended to shock us, and it did," Braun said Tuesday before the Brewers held a workout. "I think it made everyone realize how serious the situation was, but it also gave everyone hope that management and ownership still thought we could get to the playoffs and hadn't given up on us. It was a surprise, and I don't think anyone in our clubhouse really expected a change of managers, but it ended up working because here we are."

The Brewers initially lost four of their first five games under Sveum to fall 2 games behind in the wild-card race, before rallying with six wins in their final seven games to reach the postseason for the first time since disco was on its last legs and Hall of Famers Robin Yount, Paul Molitor, Rollie Fingers, and Don Sutton all wore Milwaukee uniforms as teammates of 1982's Cy Young Award winner, Pete Vuckovich. Sveum, a chronic straight shooter, refuses to take any credit for the Brewers' surge to the postseason. "There were 12 games left in the season, so it's not like anyone could come into a situation like that and make a huge difference," Sveum said. "I made a few lineup changes, but the main thing I tried to do was set a good tone. We've got a good group of guys, a lot of good young kids and some really good veterans, who get along and know how to play the game. I kept reminding them that we were a good team and had won a lot of games this season. I'm a positive person by nature and I kept things positive."

Sveum did make a series of small changes, including dropping left-hander Manny Parra from the rotation to the bullpen, moving reliever Seth McClung back into a starting role, and using Ray Durham to platoon with Rickie Weeks at second base, and Craig Counsell to platoon with Bill Hall at third. The move with Parra made sense, as the rookie had hit a wall with just two quality starts in his previous nine outings. However, there seemed to be no discernible difference in giving more playing time to Durham (.284 season EqA when Sveum took over) over Weeks (.262) or Counsell (.240) over Hall (.236), but in part, beyond the platoon advantages, Sveum wanted players in the lineup who had been through pennant races before, and Durham hit .321/.406/.500 in 32 plate appearances during the final two weeks while Counsell had a funky .185/.450/.222 line in 40 plate appearances.

Sveum also brought a sense of calmness to an increasingly tense situation. While Yost is a fine baseball man and had taken a franchise that had lost 106 games in 2002 to the brink of the postseason over the course of his nearly six seasons as manager, he also tends to be emotional, and his meltdowns last September had a negative effect on the Brewers. Once a shortstop with a bright future after hitting 25 home runs for the Brewers in 1987 before shattering an ankle, Sveum became a utility infielder who was soon noted for his potential as a future mangaer. When the Yankees decided to release Sveum the player during their remarkable 1998 season, manager Joe Torre kept him around as a batting-practice pitcher and de facto coach. When Sveum's active career ended in 2000 during spring training following his release by the Pirates, he stayed with the club that season in a variety of roles, including charting games on a computer while learning the ins and outs of managing from then-skipper Gene Lamont.

Sveum followed that experience with three seasons as manager of the Pirates' Double-A Altoona farm club before beginning his major league coaching career as the Red Sox's third-base coach during their reverse-the-curse 2004 season. "I've been preparing for this job since I was still a player, so I'm confident I can do it," Sveum said. "I just never would have dreamed it would be under these circumstances. It's been a remarkable couple of weeks, to say the least. It's been like an out-of-body experience. It's almost like nothing could ever surprise you again after something like this."

Being on a World Series winner might qualify as a surprise; the Brewers have zero titles to their credit since being born as the Seattle Pilots in 1969, and their starting pitching is in such a mess beyond CC Sabathia that Yovani Gallardo, who worked just 24 innings in the regular season because of two knee surgeries, will start Game One today against Cole Hamels. Furthermore, right-hander Ben Sheets, the Brewers' long-time ace until Sabathia was acquired from the Indians in a July 7 trade, said Monday that he has a tear near his pitching elbow and almost certainly won't be able to pitch in the postseason.

The Brewers remain undaunted after what happened to them in that short time since their last visit to Citizens Bank Park. "I know a lot of people point to the young guys we have on this team and wonder if a lack of playoff experience will hurt us, but it's like we've already been in the playoffs for a week now," Sveum said. "Our guys went into the last week of the season knowing they would have to win at least six out of those last seven games to even have a chance, and they did it. Once you've come through something like that, everything that comes after it seems like a cakewalk."

---

The Phillies' first post-season appearance in 14 years last season ended almost before it began. They were swept in three games by the Rockies in the NLDS, and the Phillies' fans and Philadelphia media haven't forgotten that fact. Many of the questions asked of Phillies' players before their workout on Tuesday concerned last year's sweep, and how important it would be to win Game One today, but the Phillies weren't biting on the urgency of today being a do-or-die situation.

"Last year was last year, and this is a new year," center fielder Shane Victorino said. "We all know what happened last year, and it was a disappointment to everyone in this clubhouse, but just because we got swept last season doesn't mean we are going to get swept this season. We're better for having gone through the experience of being in the playoffs last season and that can only help this year." Hamels agreed, adding that, "The best thing about last year's playoffs is that I could check playoff experience off my list of things to accomplish in my career. So could a lot of other guys on our club. We've got that experience now, and the newness is gone."

While the Brewers had to play well in the season's final week to get into the playoffs, they are not on the same kind of roll that the 2007 Rockies were on entering the postseason. The Rockies won 14 of their last 15 regular-season games, and then seven straight in the postseason against the Phillies and Diamondbacks in the National League Championship Series, before being swept by the Red Sox in the World Series. "We ran up against a team that was on an incredible streak last year, a once-in-a-lifetime streak," Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard said. "We were just in the wrong place at the wrong time last year. It's a new year."

The Phillies also admit that going out in the first round again would be a huge disappointment. "It was obvious from the first day of spring training that just getting to the playoffs wasn't going to be enough for this organization this time. You could feel it from the very first workout in Clearwater," said closer Brad Lidge, who converted all 41 save opportunities in the regular season after being acquired in a winter trade from the Astros. "The expectations were high for this team, and they should be. We have the kind of team that can play deep into October. We would all be surprised if we didn't."

---

The most potentially intriguing GM situation of the offseason came to a quick resolution Tuesday as Brian Cashman agreed to return to the Yankees on a three-year contract that reportedly will pay him $6 million. His previous three-year deal was set to expire October 31. The Yankees had made the playoffs 13 straight seasons until finishing third in the American League East this year, the last 11 with Cashman as GM after he replaced Bob Watson following the franchise's first World Series title in 18 years in 1996.

There had been much speculation in July and August that Cashman would leave the organization, either voluntarily or involuntarily. Cashman was expected to be the front-runner for GM openings with the Mariners, where Bill Bavasi was fired in June, and the Phillies, where Pat Gillick has said he is retiring at the end of the season. Furthermore, it was long thought that Yankees co-chairperson Hank Steinbrenner wanted to fire Cashman, but it appears his brother and co-chairperson Hal Steinbrenner won out in his desire to keep the GM. "I know I've said it before, but it's an incredible opportunity and honor to hold the title of general manager for the New York Yankees," Cashman said. "With it comes a great responsibility to ownership, the people who wear the uniform, and our fan base. I've got a job to finish here. That's the bottom line. I consider coming off a season where we didn't reach the playoffs for the first time since 1993 as a personal challenge. I've never been one to run from a challenge, and I look forward to having the chance to go after this thing again."

---

For the second straight season, the Mets were eliminated from playoff contention on the final day of the regular season after blowing a sizeable September lead in the NL East. New York led the Phillies by 3 games on September 10, but proceeded to lose 10 of their last 17 games. The Mets also failed to hold their 2-game wild-card lead on the Brewers in the last eight days of the season. In 2007, the Mets led the Phillies by seven games with 17 to go and wound up in second place. "They are part of us and will always be mentioned until we get to the postseason," said interim Mets manager Jerry Manuel, who is expected to be given the job on a permanent basis this afternoon, of the back-to-back collapses.

So, where do the Mets go from here? GM Omar Minaya was vague about his off-season plans while meeting with the media the day after the season ended. "We've got a lot of work to do," Minaya said.

The Mets may need more work on the mental side of things than on the actual physical reconstruction of the roster after a second straight September not to remember. "It feels like a wasted season," third baseman David Wright said after the 4-2 loss to the Marlins in Sunday's finale. "It burns. It's a bad feeling, and this is just the beginning." Indeed, the loss seemed to be the start of a long winter. "We had everything right in front of us and let it go for the second straight year," shortstop Jose Reyes said. "Nobody feels good right now, and nobody's going to feel good for a long time."

---

AL Rumors and Rumblings: The Orioles are ready to spend, and will target Angels free-agent first baseman Mark Teixeira, a Baltimore kid, and also Blue Jays free-agent right-hander A.J. Burnett, whose wife is from Baltimore. They're also trying to sign right fielder Nick Markakis to a multi-year deal that would buy out the rest of his arbitration years and part of free agency. ... The Yankees are unsure if left-hander Andy Pettitte and right-hander Mike Mussina will retire or return for 2009. They also seem to be backing off the idea of signing Brewers left-hander CC Sabathia as a free agent, and will instead pursue Teixeira and Diamondbacks second baseman Orlando Hudson on the open market while trying to trade second baseman Robinson Cano for pitching or a center fielder. ... The Twins are expected to sign catcher Joe Mauer to a long-term contract extension this winter that will likely exceed $100 million. ... Blue Jays assistant GM Tony LaCava's name is starting to pop up as a possibility for the Mariners' GM opening, though Dodgers assistant GM Kim Ng is still considered the favorite. ... The Athletics are expected to make plenty of changes this winter, as former closer Huston Street and shortstop Bobby Crosby will both be on the trading block. Reliever Keith Foulke, outfielder Emil Brown, and designated hitter Frank Thomas are not expected to be retained as free agents, and right-hander Kirk Saarloos is likely to be non-tendered. ... The Rangers are leaning toward going with Frank Francisco as their closer next season and using C.J. Wilson as their primary set-up reliever. ... The Indians are likely to select Double-A Huntsville outfielder Michael Brantley as the player to be named to complete the four-prospect package they got from the Brewers in the trade for Sabathia.

NL Rumors and Rumblings: The Giants plan to create a stir this winter in an attempt to get back into contention in the NL West, including making a bid for Sabathia and trading for a big bat-either Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder or Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard. If they fail to land one of those sluggers, the Giants' B-list of trade options includes second baseman Dan Uggla and third baseman Jorge Cantu of the Marlins, Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, Yankees left fielder Xavier Nady, and Braves right fielder Jeff Francouer. ... The Diamondbacks plan to bring left-hander Randy Johnson back next season to bid for his 300th career victory-he has 295-but only if he takes a significant cut from his $16 million salary. ... Expecting to lose Hudson as a free agent, the Diamondbacks are considering moving backup catcher Miguel Montero to third base next season, and shifting Mark Reynolds from third to second. ... The Braves refuse to give up any of their top prospects in a bid to bolster their starting rotation through trades, and instead are targeting free agents such as Dodgers right-handers Derek Lowe and Brad Penny, Burnett, and Cubs right-hander Ryan Dempster, though he is likely to re-sign with Chicago at the end of the postseason. ... The Mets also have Lowe on their list of free-agent pitchers they want to sign. ... The Rockies are likely to keep left fielder Matt Holliday and use third baseman Garrett Atkins as trade bait to improve their starting pitching. They are also likely to non-tender Willy Taveras and turn the starting center fielder's job over to Ryan Spilborghs. ... The Braves are unlikely to pursue a center fielder this winter, and instead have a three-man spring-training battle among Josh Anderson, Gregor Blanco, and prospect Jordan Schafer. ... The Padres are now leaning toward picking up right fielder Brian Giles' $9 million club option for 2009. ... Left-hander Mike Hampton says he would be interested in returning to the Astros if he doesn't re-sign with the Braves as a free agent. ... The Reds are interested in trading for Padres right-hander Clay Hensley. ... Two interesting and unemployed names, Leo Mazzone and Rick Peterson, have come up as possibilities to replace fired Pirates pitching coach Jeff Andrews. Mazzone has ties to the Pittsburgh area, as he is from nearby Cumberland, Maryland, and Peterson's father, Harding, was the Pirates' GM from 1977-85.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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