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November 16, 2008

Every Given Sunday

Seabiscuit, Salomon, and Skippers

by John Perrotto

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Tim Lincecum's aunt came up with the perfect nickname for her nephew a few years ago when she began calling him Seabiscuit. The Giants right-hander certainly has a few things in common with the legendary racehorse: they're both undersized, and they're both winners. Lincecum, listed at 5'11" and 170 pounds (though he seems an inch shorter and 10 pounds lighter), struck a blow this past Tuesday for all those who've been told that they aren't big enough when he won the National League Cy Young Award. He's four inches shorter and 61 pounds lighter than the average height and weight of the five other pitchers receiving votes: the D'backs' Brandon Webb, the Mets' Johan Santana, the Phillies' Brad Lidge, the Brewers' CC Sabathia, and the Cubs' Ryan Dempster. "This has to give Tim a lot of satisfaction, because there's little doubt people have been telling him he's too small his entire life," Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti said.

As a freshman at Liberty High School in Renton, Washington, he was 4'11" and 85 pounds, and still only 5'9" and 135 as a senior, when despite being player of the year in Washington he wasn't drafted until the Cubs selected him in the 48th round, long after the point where teams had begun making selections as favors to friends and team employers.

Lincecum had gone 12-1 with a 0.70 ERA while striking out 183 in 91 1/3 innings, a year after going 4-2 with a 0.73 ERA and 86 strikeouts in 49 innings as a junior. If there was ever a case that might add fuel to the stats-versus-stature debate, this was it. After the late draft selection, Lincecum decided to pass on professional baseball and play at the University of Washington. There, while striking out 491 in 452 innings over three seasons of college baseball, he was so overpowering that he became a first-round draft pick following his junior year in 2005. He had gone 12-4 with a 1.94 ERA and 199 strikeouts in 125 1/3 innings, with most scouts agreeing that he was the best arm available. Nevertheless, he had to wait until being taken 10th overall by the Giants.

Lincecum was the seventh pitcher selected; Luke Hochevar went first to the Royals, Greg Reynolds was picked second by the Rockies, Brad Lincoln fourth by the Pirates, Brandon Morrow fifth by the Mariners, Andrew Miller sixth to the Tigers, and Clayton Kershaw was picked seventh by the Dodgers. Lincecum has compiled 13.3 WARP3 in his two major league seasons, more than the combined total of the six pitchers chosen ahead of him (Miller 5.9, Hochevar 2.6, Kershaw 2.5, Miller 1.1, Reynolds -0.6, with Lincoln falling victim to Tommy John).

General manager Brian Sabean gave credit to territory scout Mark Woodward and vice president of player personnel Dick Tidrow following the announcement that Lincecum had become the Giants' first Cy Young winner since Mike McCormick in 1967. While the Giants have not been at the forefront of statistical analysis, their scouts understood that Lincecum's numbers correlated with his ability level and trumped any doubts about his size. "Matt sat in the rain and watched Timmy pitch up in Seattle many times, and was convinced that, despite his size, he had what it took to be an excellent major league pitcher," Sabean said. "And Dick showed a lot of intestinal fortitude to draft Timmy, because a lot of teams were scared off by him being a smaller guy. It took some guts to make the pick and you've already seen the results."

Lincecum is now immune to the talk about his physical stature, and he downplayed becoming the smallest Cy Young winner since Pedro Martinez (also listed at 5'11" and 170) captured the AL award in back-to-back seasons with the Red Sox in 1999 and 2000 while also winning in the NL in 1997 with the Expos. "I never even think about my size anymore, I really don't," Lincecum said. "I've heard about it forever, and I'm just used to it. I don't feel I have anything left to prove anymore when it comes to that."

Lincecum, now 24 years old, tied Sabathia for the major league lead in SNLVAR with 8.6 this year, and his 72.5 VORP was fourth among major league pitchers behind Sabathia (76.2), the Indians' Cliff Lee (75.0), and Santana (73.4). He was one of the few bright spots on the Giants roster, as they finished under .500 for a fifth-straight season by finishing at 72-90.

Sabean is hopeful that Lincecum can be the guiding light as the Giants attempt to climb back to the level of play that had them in the postseason three times during the four-year span from 2000-03. "What you saw this season is a young pitcher who grew up in front of our eyes," Sabean said. "He was always out front, always there when he pitched well and even in the few times when he didn't pitch well. There were a number of times when we didn't help with run support and made things more difficult for him, but he never complained. The thing that really stands out the most about Timmy, though, is that he is one tough SOB. When he takes that ball in his hand, his only expectation is to win the game, and the entire team and organization also expects to win that game. He might be not the biggest guy, and he might look even younger than he is, but he's a tough, tough kid. He doesn't back down from anything. I'm hoping what he has done will have a drag effect on the other young guys. You hope they see what he's accomplished, how he's made himself a household name in San Francisco and around baseball, and that pushes them to work that much harder to follow him. He's certainly set a good example for his teammates."

---

Salomon Torres retired for the second time in his rather remarkable career this past week when the 36-year-old reliever told the Brewers he had decided not to pitch next season. The Brewers were ready to exercise the $3.5 million club option in Torres' contract after he had helped them reach the postseason for the first time in 26 years with a team-best 3.02 WXRL that ranked 10th in the National League. "I'm not coming back this time," Torres said with a laugh. "This time it's for real. I'm finished. The next time you see me at the ballpark, I'll be sitting in the stands and cheering just like the rest of the fans."

Torres abruptly retired midway through the 1997 season when the Expos, who had acquired him from the Mariners in an early-season trade, sent him to the minor leagues. Torres had been compared to fellow Dominican Juan Marichal while coming up through the Giants' farm system, and was just 25 years old at the time, and had pitched in just 68 major leagues games with San Francisco, Seattle, and Montreal. Torres spent four years as the pitching coach for the Expos' team in the Dominican Summer League before coming out of retirement with the Pirates in 2002. He had gained a measure of infamy among Giants' fans for starting and losing the final game of the 1993 season against the Dodgers as a rookie. That loss kept a 103-win team at home for the postseason; the Giants finished one game behind the Braves in the NL West in the final year before the wild card was instituted.

According to research by BP database wizard Bil Burke, Torres has pitched in 425 games over the past seven seasons with the Pirates (2002-07) and Brewers (2008). That is the most appearances ever by a pitcher after working in at least 68 career games and then being away from the major leagues for at least four full seasons. Hall of Famer Bob Feller is closest to Torres' numbers, logging 205 appearances for the Indians before heading off to World War II from 1942-45, and then returning to pitch in 365 more games (although as a starting pitcher, Feller's opportunities were defined differently from Torres', which came overwhelmingly as a reliever).

"It's really remarkable, and a blessing from God that I was able to have the career I had," Torres said. "I am so happy that I decided to give it a second chance. It has been more rewarding and thrilling than I could have ever imagined."

Torres and his family make Pittsburgh their permanent home, and he has decided to retire because he doesn't want to spend so much time away from his three young children. He also had a bit of an epiphany during his final career appearance in Game Three of the National League Division Series, the Brewers' only win before bowing in four games to the eventual World Series-champion Phillies. Torres got out of a bases-loaded jam in the ninth inning without allowing a run, closing out a 4-1 victory in the first post-season game in Milwaukee since Game Five of the 1982 World Series against the Cardinals.

Reflecting on that game, Torres noted, "I never had a chance to pitch in the World Series, and that was my only time to be in the playoffs, but I can't imagine having a better moment. I was closing in a playoff game, and getting the last out in front a great group of fans who had waited 26 long years for that moment and were going crazy. To me, that was the top of a personal mountain. I knew it was the right time to leave. I went out on top, and not a lot of people ever leave this game in that position."

Torres then laughed and said, "I didn't go out on the top in 1997. I'm not going to press my luck this time."

---

Two of the more memorable moments in the Mariners' generally spotty history involve Joey Cora during the 1995 postseason. One is his bunt single leading off the two-run rally in the bottom of the 11th inning that pushed the Mariners to a 6-5 win over the Yankees in the decisive Game Five of the ALDS. The other is of Cora sitting in the dugout at the Kingdome crying after the Mariners had been eliminated by the Indians in a 4-0 loss in Game Six of the ALCS.

Cora is now the White Sox' third-base coach, and a candidate for the Mariners' managerial vacancy. Cora has been an unsung hero during Ozzie Guillen's five-year tenure as White Sox manager. The astute and understated Cora is a perfect complement to Guillen, who manages more on emotion, and is apt to make outrageous statements at any moment. "I'm the one who gives Ozzie a different perspective every day, because I'm not Ozzie. Nobody is Ozzie," Cora said. "So far, we've been very successful in Chicago. We won the World Series [in 2005], and made the playoffs this year even though we had a lot of injuries."

While Cora may not be as flamboyant as Guillen, that should not mask his desire to win with the Mariners, who have never been to the World Series since joining the AL as an expansion franchise in 1977, and to try to help turn around a franchise that went 61-101 last season and became the first team in baseball history to lose 100 games with a payroll of more than $100 million. "I know the fans in Seattle. I know what they want," Cora said. "They want a World Series there. That's the way it is. Seattle sports fans have had a tough time."

"There's got to be pride, got to be a way to play the game that the fans and the organization feel proud of, making sure that the other teams worry about us," Cora observed. "We don't want to worry about them. We want to make them worry about us. With the White Sox, we knew we were going to play the Mariners and we would think about Ichiro [Suzuki], about [Felix] Hernandez and a couple other things, but they had problems. Obviously, if they didn't have problems, I wouldn't be interviewing for the manager's job. Obviously, they have talented players, but we need to get back to the way things were, where we hope to win a World Series."

New GM Jack Zduriencik is likely to choose a manager in the next few days; he decided to cut off the interviews at seven after also talking with Red Sox bench coach Brad Mills and third-base coach DeMarlo Hale, Diamondbacks third-base coach Chip Hale, Cardinals third-base coach Jose Oquendo, Athletics bench coach Dan Wakamatsu, and Randy Ready, manager of the Padres' Triple-A Las Vegas farm club. "I vetted them all before the interviews began, and was happy with the seven guys we brought in," Zduriencik said.

---

The Twins signed manager Ron Gardenhire to a two-year extension this past week, keeping him under contract through the 2011 season. Minnesota lost a one-game playoff to the White Sox for the AL Central title, just missing the playoffs in a season following their trading away Johan Santana to the Mets and losing center fielder Torii Hunter and right-hander Carlos Silva to free agency. Twins GM Bill Smith said that Gardenhire, who has compiled a 622-512 record while winning four division titles in seven years, had his best season as a manager. "I think our coaching staff, and Gardy specifically, did a fantastic job managing all the changes," Smith said. "They came into the season unwilling to settle for anything less than being a contending team."

Should Gardenhire last through the duration of his contract, the Twins will have had just two managers in the past 25 years. Tom Kelly replaced Ray Miller with 23 games left in the 1986 season, and stayed on the job until retiring at the end of 2001, at which point Gardenhire was promoted from within after time spent as part of Kelly's coaching staff. For the sake of comparison, the Mariners will soon be hiring their sixth manager since 2002. "As far as going other places, I don't even give it a thought," Gardenhire said. "It would be hard to leave. I love it here."

---

AL Rumors and Rumblings: The Yankees have decided to concentrate on adding starting pitching in free agency, with the hope of pulling off a triple play by signing Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Derek Lowe. They are also awaiting right-hander Mike Mussina's decision on whether or not to retire, which should come this week. The focus on pitching, coupled with the recent acquisition of Nick Swisher from the White Sox, means that first baseman Mark Teixeira will most likely either return to the Angels or sign with the Red Sox, though the Nationals and Giants are both wild cards in that sweepstakes. ... The Red Sox plan to hold firm on not going beyond two years in their bid to re-sign catcher Jason Varitek, and they're also hoping that Lowe may be inclined to leave some money on the table in his desire to return to Boston. ... If the Athletics decide to flip newly acquired left fielder Matt Holliday at the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, expect Boston to be at the top of the list of prospective suitors. ... The Red Sox are pushing hard to host the 2012 All-Star Game, which would mark the 100th anniversary of the opening of Fenway Park. ... The White Sox are not done dealing, and they would consider moving closer Bobby Jenks and right fielder Jermaine Dye for the right offers. ... The Blue Jays' four-year, $54 million offer to Burnett, who opted out of the final two years of his five-year, $55 million deal with Toronto, is still on the table, and they also have interest in free-agent right-handers Ryan Dempster and Brad Penny. ... The Twins are in hot pursuit of free-agent third baseman Casey Blake, and also trying to re-sign lefty reliever Dennys Reyes. ... The Rangers are in on Blake as well, and they're also considering free agents Joe Crede and Nomar Garciaparra for third base, which would enable them to make Hank Blalock their designated hitter. The Rangers are interested in plenty of free agents to help the pitching staff, including Penny, Freddy Garcia, and Ben Sheets for the rotation, and Chad Cordero, Brian Fuentes, and Eddie Guardado for the bullpen. ... The Tigers are looking both at free agents (Trevor Hoffman, Brandon Lyon, and David Weathers) and trade options (the Pirates' Matt Capps and Orioles' George Sherrill) to fill their open slot at closer, and are also pursuing free-agent left-handers Darren Oliver and Arthur Rhodes for the bullpen. However, the Angels want to re-sign Oliver, and the Marlins are expected to make a strong bid to retain Rhodes.

NL Rumors and Rumblings: The Brewers remain serious in their attempts to re-sign Sabathia, though the Yankees' six-year, $140 million offer dwarfs their five-year, $100 million bid. If Sabathia leaves, re-signing Sheets is a possibility, along with trading center fielder Mike Cameron or shortstop J.J. Hardy for pitching help. ... Manny Ramirez has made it clear to friends that he, rather than agent Scott Boras, will have the final say on where he lands as a free agent, and all indications are that he prefers to stay with the Dodgers. ... Despite their seemingly ugly breakup this past week, some close to the situation believe that free agent Randy Johnson will still be in a Diamondbacks' uniform on Opening Day, though the Dodgers and Cubs have interest in the veteran left-hander. ... Also breaking up to make up could be Kerry Wood, who may return to the Cubs on a low-budget contract with the market for relief pitching this winter flooded, and in light of the limited interest being shown in the big right-hander by other teams. ... Dempster re-signing with the Cubs is no longer a certainty after he turned down a four-year, $50 million offer, especially since they want to have money available to sign a left-handed hitting outfielder, either Bobby Abreu or Raul Ibanez. ... The Braves are interested in Dempster, Burnett, and Lowe after failing to complete a trade with the Padres for right-hander Jake Peavy. Padres GM Kevin Towers is looking to bring a third team into the discussion in an effort to restart the talks. ... The Mets will make at least a cursory offer to re-sign right-hander Pedro Martinez, but the Pirates are shaping up as a surprise suitor. Martinez has a long history with the Pads' new pitching coach, Joe Kerrigan, and is a cousin of reliever Denny Bautista, who he calls "my son, my little baby boy." ... The Mets have made Lowe their top target, and they will also consider trading for Jenks or the Mariners' J.J. Putz if they find the prices on free-agent closers Francisco Rodriguez and Fuentes to be too high. ... The Dodgers are pursuing free-agent shortstop Orlando Cabrera; they have decided not to go four years on a contract to re-sign Rafael Furcal, who is being courted by the Giants and Royals. The Giants also have interest in shortstop Edgar Renteria on the free-agent market, as do the Cardinals.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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