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February 25, 2009

On the Beat

Changing Gears

by John Perrotto

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One of the more enigmatic teams heading into the 2009 season has to be the Arizona Diamondbacks. They were the surprise winners of the 2007 National League West despite a very youthful lineup, and they swept the Cubs in the NLDS before being swept themselves by the red-hot Rockies in the NLCS. They then got off to a 19-7 start last season and built a 6 1/2-game lead by late April, but they sputtered from then on and finished second at 82-80, two games behind the division-winning Dodgers.

D'backs manager Bob Melvin spent much of the winter wondering which aspect of the team might show up this year, and he concluded that they can get back to the 2007 version by remembering the lessons learned in '08. "I think maybe we lost our aggressiveness last season, and that would be my fault," said Melvin. "I think we're closer to the 2007 team, and we're going to show it this season. I think I see a different look in our guys' eyes this year. We have a little chip on our shoulder. We're not happy. I don't think these guys have forgotten what happened last season."

While PECOTA does not factor emotion into its forecasts, it nonetheless expects the Diamondbacks to return to the top of the NL West this year, and there are plenty of reasons why. First and foremost, the Diamondbacks' hitting attack is still comprised of a young and talented nucleus. The only potential starter who would be older than 29 on Opening Day is 33-year-old outfielder Eric Byrnes, who has to win back a starting job this spring after being limited to 224 plate appearances last year because of two torn hamstrings.

First baseman/left fielder Conor Jackson (.280 EqA last season), shortstop Stephen Drew (.273), catcher Chris Snyder (.270), and right fielder Justin Upton (.270) all had solid years in 2008, and third baseman Mark Reynolds (.261) and center fielder Chris Young (.254) both have substantial upside. "I think we're lucky to have a younger group that is not making a ton of money yet, so we have to rely on each and every one of these guys getting better," Melvin said. "Whether it's Mark Reynolds, whether it's Justin Upton, whether it's Chris Young, whether it's Chris Snyder-we feel all these guys have room to get better, and that none of them have really reached their ceiling yet. So, we're going to have to rely on our talent nucleus to get better."

The D'backs have only one addition to a lineup that was 20th in the major leagues in runs scored last season with 4.4 per game: Felipe Lopez, who is almost certainly going to be a drop-off from Orlando Hudson at second base. Hudson's .276 EqA last year was 20 points higher than what Lopez put up for the Nationals and Cardinals.

The most interesting problem for Melvin to solve during this exhibition season will be to find a way to fit Byrnes back into the lineup after his EqA had fallen from .283 in 2007 to .219 in '08. The '07 season had prompted general manager Josh Byrnes to sign the veteran to a three-year, $30 million contract, which drew fire at the time, so there's considerable pressure to see better results. Melvin could shift Jackson from left field back to first base full-time, but that would relegate Chad Tracy (and his .242 EqA) to the bench. "Eric kind of comes into a situation now where he was a couple years ago when he came to the Diamondbacks, but he's not afraid of competing for a job," Melvin said. "I think all our guys could potentially be better for it in the outfield, knowing that if you don't hold up your end of the bargain there's someone there to take your spot, where I don't think we were in that position last year."

The Diamondbacks won't have much competition for spots on the pitching staff this spring after finishing 10th in runs allowed with 4.4 per game last season. Melvin has already answered the major question surrounding the staff by saying that he'll likely go with Chad Qualls as the closer, replacing the departed Brandon Lyon. Qualls had a 1.95 WXRL last season, while Tony Pena had a 1.61 mark. Jon Rauch, acquired from the Nationals in an August trade for stretch work, had an overall WXRL of 1.39, but that was because of his -0.63 WXRL in 23 1/3 innings with the Diamondbacks.

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One of the focal points of Moneyball was that the Athletics had become successful by selecting college pitchers in the Major League Baseball first-year player draft, because they were more polished and closer to being ready to pitch in the big leagues than high school pitchers were. The Athletics' old big three of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito all came from the college ranks. Something has happened, however, since the book was published seven years ago, because while college pitchers became all the rage, high school pitchers became undervalued, and finding undervalued commodities has always been the key concept behind the Athletics' philosophy for acquiring talent. Now, many of the Athletics' top pitching prospects are coming from the high school ranks.

BP's Kevin Goldstein has five pitchers in his list of the A's top 11 prospects, and four of them were drafted out of high school-Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson, Gio Gonzalez, and Vin Mazzaro-while the #1 prospect, Michael Ynoa, was signed as a 16-year-old free agent out of the Dominican Republic last summer. Not all were A's picks; Anderson was originally chosen by the Diamondbacks, and Gonzalez was a White Sox draft pick.

Athletics GM Billy Beane admits that although the change in philosophy has been challenging at times, it has still been beneficial to the organization. "It was good for us, it got us out of our comfort zone," Beane told Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle. "We've learned patience."

The biggest changes that the Athletics have had to deal with was making more allowances for the maturity level of teenagers, as opposed to those prospects who have at least three years of college experience. "We started seeing that some of these kids weren't very far along," player development director Keith Lieppman said. "They needed a different learning curve, both on the mental side of it and the physical side. When you get such young kids who need more time and understanding, it's kind of a new way of thinking. You might just see a guy with an electric arm, but he's also having issues missing home or a girlfriend, really the types of things that go on [during] freshman year of college."

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The biggest criticism leveled at Joe Girardi in his first season as the Yankees' manager last year-other than the failure to make the postseason-was that he was too distant from his players. Many had equated his impersonal nature with that of a football coach. Girardi had vowed to make changes this past offseason, and it appears that he has. On Monday, he canceled the team's spring training workout and organized a pool tournament at a nearby billiards establishment.

That made quite an impression on the Yankees' players, including new first baseman Mark Teixeira. "He realizes how much work we've put in," Teixeira told George King III of the New York Post. "He expects a lot from us on the field, and we give it to him, so he wanted to reward us a little bit-let us get to know each other as teammates off the field. We really appreciate what he did for us. I've never [heard of a team doing something like this] but I think more teams should. This was a great time, great for all of us to get together."

Girardi actually stole a page from a football coach's book: the New York Giants' Tom Coughlin, long criticized for his aloofness, held a bowling tournament during training camp in 2007, and his team went on to win the Super Bowl by stunning the unbeaten New England Patriots. "I do pay attention to what [Coughlin] did," said Girardi. "I would love to go bowling, but we can't do that because we have too many arms in camp. Pool is safe. Some guys would have loved to have jet-ski races. I think it's important to make adjustments. Every year here you want more and more knowledge about the players, and feel closer to the players, where you can read between the lines."

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As usual, the Yankees have been at the center of the baseball universe during the early part of spring training with the acknowledgment by third baseman Alex Rodriguez that he used steroids after Sports Illustrated reported that he failed what was supposedly a confidential survey test in 2003. The other New York team, the Mets, have had a relatively quiet camp on the other side of Florida in Port St. Lucie, save for manager Jerry Manuel's stirring things up by saying that he wants to drop shortstop Jose Reyes from the leadoff spot and that Daniel Murphy will be the regular left fielder. "I'm sure it's difficult on Alex personally, and difficult for the team," Mets center fielder Carlos Beltran told Bob Klapisch of the Bergen Record. "It's a distraction to have to answer, 'What's going on with A-Rod?' every day. They're professional, they'll get through it, but if you're asking me, I'm glad it's not us."

Mets GM Omar Minaya, however, knows that controversy can strike at a moment's notice when a New York team is involved, and it could very easily be him answering tough questions from the media at some point instead of his Yankees' counterpart Brian Cashman. "Cash knows non-baseball issues are part of this market. He's capable of dealing with it," said Minaya. "Look, I do say to myself, 'I'm glad [the scandal] isn't here,' but I'm not kidding myself to think we're immune. It's not always going to be quiet here. Things can change in one day."

Manuel, who has a looser demeanor than Girardi, says he enjoys a little controversy from time to time because it makes his job more interesting. "I know what's going on with the Yankees, but to be honest, I don't mind adversity once in a while," Manuel said. "I find that it brings a team together. So I'm not too hung up on everyone being happy all the time."

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AL Rumors and Rumblings: The Athletics appear to be the most likely team to sign left-hander Mark Mulder as a free agent, and they're also in pursuit of left-handed reliever Dennys Reyes on the free-agent market. ... Catcher Kurt Suzuki has switched his uniform number from 24 to 8 this spring, opening the way for the Athletics to retire number 24 for Rickey Henderson, who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame in July. ... The Blue Jays may initially use Casey Janssen, who is returning from shoulder surgery, in relief, before moving him back into the starting rotation later on during the season. ... Catcher Jeff Clement has been working out at first base in the Mariners' camp, and he could see action there during the season. ... Reliever Joe Borowski, who was released by the Indians last season, has decided to retire after drawing little interest on the free-agent market.

NL Rumors and Rumblings: It appears that the Nationals will fire GM Jim Bowden over the alleged bonus-skimming scandal in the Dominican Republic, and hire Blue Jays assistant GM Tony LaCava. ... Dodgers left-hander Shawn Estes says that he'll retire if he does not make the club out of spring training. ... In the wake of their signing Orlando Hudson, the Dodgers want to make Blake DeWitt more versatile by trying him out at shortstop during the exhibition season; DeWitt began last year as their third baseman before shifting over to second base down the stretch. ... The Giants will try utility infielder Eugenio Velez in the outfield during exhibition games in an attempt to increase his versatility. ... Journeyman Luis Rodriguez is the favorite to become the Padres' starting shortstop. ... Homer Bailey, Nick Masset, and Micah Owings are competing for the job as fifth starter on the Reds. ... The Diamondbacks are the favorites to host the 2011 All-Star Game at Chase Field.

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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