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January 25, 2009

Every Given Sunday

Comings and Goings

by John Perrotto

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The Angels led the major leagues with 100 regular-season victories last year, but there aren't many indicators pointing to that happening again in 2009. The Angels were 15th in the major leagues in runs scored last season with 4.7 per game, and ninth in runs allowed (4.3 per game), and they exceeded their Pythagorean record of 88-74 by a stunning 12 wins. One of the basic tenets of sabermetrics holds that those teams that outplay their projected record will regress to the mean the following season, and the Angels, having lost both first baseman Mark Teixeira and closer Francisco Rodriguez to free agency this winter, will be hard-pressed to slow the expected downturn.

The Angels gladly let Rodriguez walk, despite his record 62 saves, and his 5.65 WXRL last season that ranked third in the major leagues, behind only Brad Lidge of the Phillies (7.62) and the Yankees' Mariano Rivera (6.17). Those who, like BP's Will Carroll, keep close watch on a pitchers' mechanics and their portent of potential injury, have long felt that Rodriguez is a major arm surgery waiting to happen, and the Angels apparently did not want to continue rolling the dice on such a high-risk possibility. They think they've found an adequate replacement for Rodriguez in left-hander Brian Fuentes, who they signed as a free agent to take over the closer's role. Fuentes was 12th in the majors with 3.59 WXRL last season for the Rockies.

As for Teixeira, the Angels had hoped to bring back the switch-hitting first baseman to anchor their lineup after having dealt him to the Braves for first baseman Casey Kotchman and a minor leaguer late last July. Teixeira had a combined .328 EqA in 2008, and despite having only 234 plate appearances with the Angels, his 35.2 VORP ranked second on the team, behind only that of right fielder Vladimir Guerrero (41.0).

With Teixeira gone and the Angels reportedly having no interest in signing the biggest bat left on the free-agent market in Manny Ramirez, they seem set to begin the year with Kendry Morales as their starting first baseman. Morales has a .249/.302/.408 line in 407 major league plate appearances over the past three seasons with the Angels, and his career WARP3 is 2.1; by comparison, Teixeira posted a 10.3 in that category last season alone.

The Angels are confident, however, that Morales can help a lineup in which catcher Mike Napoli (.316), Guerrero (.300), and center fielder Torii Hunter (.281) are the only holdovers with EqAs above .280 last season. "There's a need for offense, but it doesn't always have to come from the free-agent market," said Angels manager Mike Scioscia. "Some of it can come from internally, and we've got really high hopes with what young guys like Morales and [second baseman Howie] Kendrick are going to do. We're going to have a good team. We're confident that we're going to have the team that we need to reach our goals."

Kendrick, who had been touted as a future batting champion while moving up through the Angels' farm system, has been something of a disappointment since reaching the major leagues. He had a .266 EqA in 361 plate appearances last season, and his career WARP3 is 11.3 through 997 plate appearances in the past three seasons.

Kendrick has spent the winter working out in Arizona in an attempt to overcome chronic hamstring problems, and the Angels have been encouraged by his progress, but the off-season news that really caught their attention was Morales' hitting .404/.450/778 with eight home runs in 111 plate appearances in the Venezuelan Winter League. "I think winter ball is definitely higher intensity than spring training," Scioscia said. "I think the atmosphere is certainly higher than Triple-A, and I think it's a great proving ground for a young player. It's not always statistical analysis that goes into what you're looking at. These guys are getting evaluated by our scouts, they're getting evaluated by whatever coaches we have around areas, and you're looking for different things from guys, like where Kendry Morales is hitting from the right side. Kendry obviously has given us a lot of things to be excited about this winter."

One other tenet of sabermetrics holds that when a team does well in close games one year, it will tend to go in the opposite direction the next. If that turns out to be the case for the Angels in '09, they could be in for a rather precipitous fall; they were 31-21 in one-run games last season, and 30-7 in two-run games. Scioscia, though, believes that a strong pitching staff-in particular a good bullpen-will enable the Angels to turn the odds in their favor again in 2009. "Our starters nightly gave us a chance to get to a certain point of the game, and if we had a lead, our bullpen was there last season," Scioscia said. "We had enough depth in our bullpen to be able to hold leads, and what Francisco Rodriguez did with the last three outs was certainly a big part of that. But what Scot Shields did, what Darren Oliver did, what Jose Arrendondo did-I think you have to point to our entire bullpen for helping us win the close games. We lost Rodriguez, but we gained a top closer in Brian Fuentes, and everyone else will be back, so I see no reason why our bullpen shouldn't be strong again."

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History was made this past Tuesday when Barack Obama became the 44th President of the United States and the nation's first commander-in-chief of African-American heritage. President Obama is an unabashed White Sox fan and can often be seen sporting a well-worn cap with their logo, and the White Sox have proudly played up their ties with the new president. "Our White Sox brand is about pride, passion, and tradition, and President Obama will take those same ideas with him to Washington, DC," said vice president of marketing Brooks Boyer. "To have those same brand values, it will serve our country and fans well."

Vice president of communications Scott Reifert admitted to the Chicago Tribune that the White Sox did not want to turn people off by being too opportunistic. He says the organization also does not want to understate the importance of Obama' historic presidency. "We are talking about the accomplishment of one of our fans," Reifert said. "We would be just as excited if a White Sox fan won the Nobel Prize. This is really the way I think about it, and it's open to argument. Michael Jordan was once the most popular man on the planet, in terms of being recognized and popularity, and he was part of the White Sox [playing for Double-A affiliate Birmingham in 1994] for a little while. Who is the most popular man right now, in a cultural-type way? It's President Obama. How cool is that, when he goes on vacation to Hawaii, he wears his White Sox cap when he's on his way to work out? It's really a sort of connection for every White Sox fan."

White Sox general manager Ken Williams and Reifert both attended the inauguration in Washington. Reifert's eight-year-old daughter is best friends with Sasha Obama, the youngest of the president's two daughters. "What a day. Through my daughter, we know the family personally, and to stand there today and have my kids recognize-they hear a lot that you can be anything you want to be, and do anything you want to do, but to have your best friend's dad up there taking office, what better lesson? We were within six yards of the Capitol steps on a beautiful day. To turn around behind us and see a million people, or whatever they are calling it, that's kind of what stuck with me. As he was giving the speech, he was pausing, and you'd hear the response reverberate all the way down the Mall and all the way back. The only other time I've been in a crowd like that was the [White Sox's 2005] World Series championship parade. There you had nearly two million people. It's a little different in that it was strung all over the parade route, whereas here it was all in the capital's Mall."

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Jeff Kent announced his retirement this past week, ending a 17-year career often noted perhaps more for his surliness with teammates and the media than for his hitting more home runs than any second baseman in major league history. While Kent did show a soft side during his retirement speech as his eyes reddened and he had to stop to compose himself, he also showed some of the old combative side.

On his career, Kent appeared in only one World Series, and wound up on the losing end as the Giants fell to the Angels in seven games in 2002. Kent believes the Giants would have won that World Series if he would have challenged long-time antagonist Barry Bonds to a clubhouse fight after San Francisco blew a 5-0 lead in the last three innings to lose Game Six. "After that game, it was the quietest locker room ever-you could even hear guys' belts hitting the floor," Kent said. "If I had fought Barry, I could have gotten the focus off of losing, and we could have been better prepared for Game Seven."

That attitude endeared Kent to some, and reduced him to something of a clubhouse loner with others, but Kent said that making seven post-season appearances in his career is proof that he did things the right way. "Over 17 years, some didn't get it," Kent said. "That's OK. Sometimes I didn't get it either. I have absolutely no regrets in the way I carried myself in my communication with my teammates. I guess, to a fault, I've never wanted or never allowed anyone around me to have less of a respect or less of an appreciation of the game. At times, that got me in trouble, but it also got me in the playoffs for half of my career."

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Jimy Williams was one of the reasons why the Phillies won the World Series last season. As bench coach, Williams was manager Charlie Manuel's primary sounding board, and some around the Phillies believe he was almost a co-manager. When the team did not offer Williams the contract he felt he deserved, he walked away in November. Pete Mackanin was hired to replace him.

While Mackanin is highly regarded and did a fine job in stints as an interim manager with the Pirates (2005) and Reds (2007), Williams is considered by some as one of the top tacticians in the game. "We wanted him back," Phillies assistant GM Ruben Amaro Jr. said. "We asked him to come back. Frankly, we just couldn't come to the same place."

Manuel said that he and Williams have not spoken since his departure, but Manuel also said the lack of communication is one of awkwardness rather than bitterness. "I really don't know what to say to him, to tell you the truth," Manuel said. "I have a lot of respect for Jimy Williams. He's a tremendous baseball guy."

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NL Rumors and Rumblings: The Phillies are looking for a veteran right-handed bat to add to their bench, and they have interest in free agents Moises Alou, Rich Aurilia, Nomar Garciaparra, Mark Grudzielanek, and Kevin Millar. ... The Cardinals are likely to use prospect David Freese at third base while Troy Glaus begins the season on the disabled list recovering from shoulder surgery, though utility types Brian Barden and Brendan Ryan may also be factors. ... The Reds will have Chris Dickerson, Jonny Gomes, and Norris Hopper competing for the left-field job in spring training. ... While the Rockies would prefer outfielder Carlos Gonzalez begin the season in Triple-A, they have not ruled out the possibility of his being their center fielder, with Ryan Spilborghs moving to left field.

AL Rumors and Rumblings: After not finding any team interested in him as a regular first baseman, free agent Sean Casey has decided to retire. He'll become an analyst for MLB Network. ... Left-hander Kenny Rogers, a free agent after spending the past three seasons with the Tigers, has also decided to retire. Like Casey, he has yet to make an official announcement. ... The Rangers have stepped up their pursuit of free-agent pitcher Ben Sheets. ... The Twins appear to be the most likely destination for free-agent third baseman Joe Crede, though the Giants are also expected to make an offer. ... The Athletics and Twins are both pursuing veteran reliever Russ Springer on the free-agent market. ... The Tigers could trade outfielder Brent Clevlen, who is out of minor league options. ... Indians first baseman Ryan Garko could lose some playing time to starting catcher Victor Martinez, who is likely to see more action at first base, while backup catcher Kelly Shoppach should still see lots of time behind the plate after last season's breakout. ... The Mariners will look at right-handers Aaron Heilman and Brandon Morrow as starters in spring training, though both could wind up figuring in the closer mix, while Endy Chavez and Wladimir Balentien will compete for the left-field job. ... The Athletics plan to go with Justin Duchscherer, Sean Gallagher, Dana Eveland, and Dallas Braden as their top four starters.

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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