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October 22, 2008

On the Beat

The Final Round

by John Perrotto

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ST. PETERSBURG-One of the more interesting questions going into the beginning of the World Series tonight is how much of a factor David Price might play for the Rays. The rookie left-hander recorded the final four outs, including a bases-loaded strikeout of J.D. Drew to end the eighth inning, to get credit for the save in the 3-1 win over the Red Sox in Game Seven of the American League Championship Series on Sunday night. It was the first save of Price's major league career, which had consisted of one post-season inning and 14 regular-season innings to that point. The Rays are without closer Troy Percival, who has missed the postseason with back tightness after recording 28 saves in the regular season, so it would seem logical for Price to step into that role.

Rays manager Joe Maddon isn't ready to commit to that however, and will continue to let the situation dictate who will get the last out, just as he has done throughout the postseason after doing likewise in the regular season once Percival had to head to the disabled list with hamstring and knee injuries. Price, with his 97 mph fastball and wipeout slider, still figures to be a factor at some point, as the Phillies boast such dangerous left-handed hitters as first baseman Ryan Howard and second baseman Chase Utley in the middle of their lineup. Furthermore, the Phillies' two best hitters on the bench, infielder Greg Dobbs and outfielder Matt Stairs, also hit from the left side. "We'll use whoever is available and we feel is the best guy to get that last out," Maddon said. "The great thing about our bullpen is that as great as 'Percy' was for us all year, we've had a lot of guys get the last out. There are a bunch of guys who have experienced that and have the talent to finish off a game. It could be David if it's the right move to make, but it could be any number of guys and that's a great luxury to have."

The Rays had five other pitchers beside Percival record saves during the regular season: Dan Wheeler had 13, Grant Balfour had four, left-hander J.P. Howell had three, and Jason Hammel and lefty Trever Miller had two each. The Rays' two post-season saves have been picked up by Wheeler and rookie Price, the first overall pick in the 2007 first-year player draft from Vanderbilt. The way Maddon has handled his bullpen in the postseason recalls Bill James' long-standing assertion that managers should use their best relievers in the highest-leverage situations regardless of the inning, instead of having a designated closer always pitching the ninth. In an era when relief strategy is dictated almost entirely by the save rule, the only team in recent memory to try James' approach was the 2003 Red Sox, and it was quickly abandoned after some difficult late-inning losses early in the year.

As a result, there's irony in the Rays' beating the Red Sox, in part because of the unconventional way in which Maddon deployed his relievers. That's before adding in that James works for Boston as a special advisor. Maddon believes that James' theory could work over a full season in the right circumstances. "There are certain relievers who I call 'ahead' or 'tied guys,' pitchers you feel comfortable in using in the late innings when you're ahead or tied," Maddon said. "I believe you need to have at least four of those relievers to make the committee thing work, because you need flexibility and depth knowing that all four are not always going to be available on a given day. We're able to do that with our club because we have a lot of good relievers, as the numbers indicate."

The Rays led the major leagues with 15.23 WXRL in the regular season after having the league's worst mark last year at -1.76. Six Rays finished among the top 34 in the AL in WXRL this season: Howell (4.64, fifth), Balfour (3.43, 10th), Wheeler (2.09, 23rd), Percival (1.67, 29th), and Trever Miller and Chad Bradford (1.52, tied for 33rd). And then there is Price, whose performance in Game Seven of the ALCS was reminiscent of what rookie right-hander Francisco Rodriguez did for the 2002 Angels as they won their lone World Series title. Maddon was the bench coach for manager Mike Scioscia on that team, and he watched Rodriguez go 5-1 with a 1.93 ERA in 11 post-season relief appearances after having only 5 2/3 innings of regular-season experience. However, Maddon said Rodriguez's success has had no bearing on him using Price in relief, and that they cannot be compared. "K-Rod had been a relief pitcher in the minor leagues, so he knew how to warm up fast and he was used to coming into games with guys on base and a lot of stuff going on," Maddon said. "David has been a starter, and that is definitely where his future lies. It also makes what he did in Game Seven so amazing."

Price says that he has made the adjustment to the bullpen and feels he provides added value because he is a starter by trade. "I can come in for someone in the fourth inning if needed and go long, or I can come in as a lefty specialist and get one batter, or basically do whatever Joe needs," Price said. "It's been fun. I really haven't found it that difficult. It's still pitching. You still have to get people out." To this point, the toughest part of pitching out of the bullpen for Price was finding himself at the bottom of the dog pile at the end of Game Seven in the ALCS after getting pinch-hitter Jed Lowrie to ground into a series-ending force play. "It was Navi [catcher Dioner Navarro] and I at the bottom of the pile, and it was a little scary, a little hard to breath, and I kind of felt like I was suffocating," Price said. "You know what, though? I wouldn't trade that experience for the world. In fact, I'd love to experience it one more time this year."

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The Rays led the major leagues in stolen bases during the regular season with 142, but no team was more efficient in the running game than the Phillies, who were 136 out of 161 on stolen-base attempts for an outstanding 84.5 percent success rate, a year after going 138-for-157 for 87.9 percent, the best clip for steals in major league history. Much credit goes to Phillies first-base coach Davey Lopes, who was a prolific basestealer throughout his 16-year playing career from 1972-87, as he totaled 557 swipes, 25th on the all-time list.

"The biggest key to having a team that can successfully run the bases is to have the athletes," Lopes said "We have some very athletic players who, in addition to possessing good speed, are intelligent and really understand when they can and can't run. You also have to have an organization committed to be willing to run, because a lot of teams had gotten away from stealing bases, but [manager] Charlie Manuel is willing to take some risks."

Statistical analysis shows that teams need to be successful approximately 75 percent of the time for the stolen base to have a positive effect on the offense. Even with that high standard to make the tactic useful, Lopes believes the steal is coming back into vogue. "The game is changing," Lopes said. "We went through a period where teams just wanted to try to win ballgames by hitting the ball out of the park. Well, that era is over. Those days of guys hitting, 50, 60, 70 home runs is gone. You're not going to be successful by just sitting back and waiting for the long ball. We're getting back to the point where you need to string together three and four hits in an inning and try to maximize your scoring chances by taking the extra base if it's there, or stealing a base if the opportunity presents itself. It's an exciting brand of baseball. I love baseball, but watching guys swing for the fences all day long gets boring after awhile. I think fans enjoy seeing guys show off their skills by making things happen on the bases. It makes the game interesting and more fun."

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Under normal circumstances, Cubs general manger Jim Hendry would not have had to flirt with another club in order to get a contract extension after putting together a team that won two straight division titles. The Cubs are not in a normal situation however, as Sam Zell has had the club up for sale ever since acquiring it when he bought the Tribune Company last season. Hendry did not receive an extension until the Mariners asked the Cubs for permission to interview him for their GM vacancy last week and were denied. The sale process is going slowly because the downturn in the nation's economy has caused bidders to proceed with caution, but Zell did give Cubs chairman Crane Kenney permission to sign Hendry to a four-year extension that keeps him under contract through 2013. "From the day I arrived here and was fortunate to be given the job of general manager six years ago, I had no desire go elsewhere," Hendry said.

The Cubs did not want Hendry to leave, but the sale process has complicated things; it now ties the next owner to the GM for five seasons. "From Sam's perspective, this was an easy one to make," Kenney said. While the Cubs have won the NL Central the last two seasons, they have also been swept in the NLDS both years, by the Diamondbacks in 2007 and the Dodgers in 2008. Hendry admits that there is no magic formula for building a team to succeed in the postseason. "We're all going to put our heads together to see if there are other ways we can improve the club," Hendry said. "All you can do is try to get in [the postseason] every year and keep working on trying to get better once you get in there. There's a whole history in professional sports of clubs that kept getting close, kept getting close, and finally they knocked that door in. That's we're going to try to do."

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GMs have privately voiced concerns recently that the demands of the job have become so great that there is no down time at any point in the year. Those concerns are likely to grow after Nationals GM Jim Bowden revealed to the Washington Post this week that he put off having surgery for skin cancer throughout the second half of the season. Bowden was found to have squamous cell carcinoma on his forehead, a type of skin cancer that usually requires surgery within a month. Bowden felt that he could not afford to take time off during the season, however, and he didn't have the surgery until earlier this month. The seemingly routine matter turned into a five-hour procedure as the cancer had spread to a second area on his forehead because he'd delayed treatment. Fortunately, doctors were able to remove it all.

Bowden will require checkups every six months to make sure that the cancer does not return, and he admitted he made a mistake by waiting to have the surgery. "It's just with baseball, there's not a lot of time when you have the draft, then the trade deadline," Bowden said. "Just a lot of things have to happen. I got different opinions. Some said it was OK to wait, others said you shouldn't wait. In retrospect, I would advise anyone to get it done as soon as possible because that type of cancer can grow extremely fast."

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Major League Rumors and Rumblings: The Brewers will try to re-sign left-hander CC Sabathia, but theirs is a long-shot bid, and their back-up plan is to attempt to trade for Padres right-hander Jake Peavy, who wants to stay in the NL and wants a full no-trade clause added to his contract if dealt. ... The Brewers have interviewed former Athletics manager Ken Macha for their managerial vacancy, and former Mets manager Willie Randolph is also expected to get strong consideration. ... Dodgers right-hander Derek Lowe is eligible for free agency, and his first choice is to return to the Red Sox, though the Yankees, Mets, Tigers, Indians, Cardinals, Cubs, Angels, Braves, Phillies, Rangers, Astros, and Blue Jays are also expected to make bids. ... The Phillies could be the landing spot for Dodgers free-agent left fielder Manny Ramirez, as he is very close to manager Charlie Manuel, who was his hitting coach with the Indians when he broke into the major leagues. ... The Royals will look to trade outfielder Jose Guillen this upcoming offseason, and the Mets have interest. ... Red Sox reliever Mike Timlin is expected to retire.

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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