March 8, 2009
On the Beat
The Tigers are going through a hype-free spring training this year, and that's quite a switch from what they went through in 2008. The buzz last spring was over a Tigers' offense so powerful it was expected to score 1,000 runs. In turn, 1,000 runs were supposed to lead to possible 100 wins. Unfortunately, the Tigers were instead one of the biggest disappointments in baseball last season; not only did they fail to even come close to scoring 1,000 runs, but they finished last in the American League Central with a 74-88 record.
Tigers manager Jim Leyland certainly did not expect to finish in fifth place with the third-highest payroll in the major leagues ($137 million), but last spring he had warned everyone that the expectations being placed on his club were unrealistic. "First of all, I think people underestimate how good the pitching is in the American League," said Leyland. "Everyone says that all the pitching is in the National League and all the hitting is in the American League. I don't buy that. It's not true. Second, do you realize how difficult it is to score 1,000 runs? That's over six runs a game. You're facing major league pitchers. You're not going to score six runs a game day in and day out. I know last year was a bad year, but asking any major league team to score 1,000 runs is crazy."
What really drove Leyland crazy was the lineup maneuvering that he felt compelled to do before the season was even a month old. While he has a knack for getting contributions from all 25 players on a roster, he's also a fan of lineup stability, yet before April had ended, third baseman Miguel Cabrera was moved across the diamond to first base, first baseman Carlos Guillen was moved to third base, and Brandon Inge, displaced as the third baseman because of the acquisition of Cabrera from the Marlins in a blockbuster trade at the Winter Meetings, wound up playing catcher and center field. "It was chaos," said Leyland. "We were shifting guys all over the place because the pieces didn't fit the right way, and we were trying to line our guys up so we could have them in spots where it would give us some decent defense. It might have been gingerbread for the writers, given them something to write about, but it was a headache for the manager, I'll tell you that much."
While the Tigers scored 821 runs-one less than when they had won the AL pennant in 2006-they still averaged 5.1 per game, good for fifth in the major leagues. The problem though, was that the Tigers were 27th in runs allowed at 5.3 per game, and their .685 defensive efficiency was 23rd, so they're trying a different approach this season. While they still have the heart of their offense that includes Cabrera (.298 EqA last season), right fielder Magglio Ordonez (.296), center fielder Curtis Granderson (.294), and Guillen (.288), the Tigers spent the offseason adding defense.
They acquired catcher Gerald Laird from the Rangers in a trade to replace Ivan Rodriguez, which will allow Inge to move out from behind the plate and back to third base, while Guillen shifts from third base to left field. Shortstop Adam Everett was signed to replace Edgar Renteria, who was allowed to leave as a free agent after his range had diminished to what one Tigers' source said was "from his left foot to his right foot, because he couldn't move at all." Everett had 8 FRAA, despite playing in just 48 games with the Twins last season because of a strained shoulder and bruised hand (Renteria was at -6).
The Tigers' starting pitching was so disappointing last year that Armando Galarraga, acquired from the Rangers after they had designated him for assignment, had a team-high 3.9 SNLVAR. Justin Verlander (2.9) and Zach Miner (1.7) were the only others pitchers above 1.0. The Tigers are counting on right-hander Jeremy Bonderman's bouncing back after having surgery last season to remove a blood clot from his pitching arm, talented right-hander Edwin Jackson taking a step forward after being acquired from the Rays in a trade, and one of two left-handers, Nate Robertson or Dontrelle Willis, to get their careers back on track following disastrous results in 2008.
The uncertainly also extends to the bullpen; the Tigers hope that free-agent acquisition Brandon Lyon can succeed as the closer, even though Lyon had just a 1.29 WXRL last season with the Diamondbacks and had lost the closer's job during the pennant race. The Tigers' other ninth-inning option is right-hander Fernando Rodney, but his WXRL was -0.13 last year.
The Tigers have been encouraged early in the exhibition season both by the work of 20-year-old starting prospect Rick Porcello, and that of reliever Ryan Perry, their first-round draft pick of '08 and a guy seemingly destined for stardom since he bears the names of two Hall of Fame pitchers. Ideally, though, both would begin the season in the minor leagues to gain more experience.
"Pitching is the key because I really believe we're going to score enough runs," said Leyland. "Pitching is obviously a question mark for us at this point. I like the guys we have, and think we could have a very good staff. You just don't know with pitchers, though. We'll either have too much pitching, or not enough pitching when it's all said and done, because that's how it always works. Hopefully, we'll have too much."
According to those close to the situation, the Nationals' initial reaction was to clean house over the Dominican bonus-skimming allegations that caused general manager Jim Bowden to resign and Jose Rijo, one of his special assistants, to be fired. Instead, Nationals president Stan Kasten appointed himself as interim GM, though the de facto GM is assistant GM Mike Rizzo, highly regarded throughout the industry, and whose chances of getting the job on a permanent basis seemed to be improving. "We needed a little bit of calming, instead of more changes," said Kasten, who is also grieving the loss of his mother, who died this past week after suffering with Alzheimer's disease. "It's been a hectic couple weeks for us, but we've put a lot of turmoil behind us, and things have been operating so smoothly and comfortably that that's exactly how we're going to continue for the foreseeable future."
While Rizzo will be a candidate when the time comes to find a permanent GM, Kasten still plans to talk to people outside of the organization. Persistent reports put Blue Jays assistant GM Tony LaCava at the top of the list; he had worked for the Braves when Kasten was their president. "Let me assure you, the list of people who have already offered their availability is lengthy and impressive," said Kasten.
Rizzo served as the Diamonbacks' scouting director for seven years, and he had hoped to succeed GM Joe Garagiola, Jr. when he left to become Major League Baseball's senior vice president of baseball operations after the 2005 season. Instead, the Diamondbacks hired Josh Byrnes, and Rizzo became the Nationals' assistant GM midway through the 2006 season. "My goal has always been to be a major league general manager, and as Stan said, we have a good feel for each other right now, and I think we have a good group put together with the Nationals," said Rizzo.
Dana Brown will remain as the scouting director, and assistant GM Bob Boone will continue his primary responsibility of overseeing the player development system.
Dodgers GM Ned Colletti could finally smile this past Thursday after left fielder Manny Ramirez officially returned as a free agent, signing a two-year, $45 million contact after some of the most protracted negotiations in baseball history with agent Scott Boras. "This started 141 days ago," Colletti said. "I felt like I spent Thanksgiving with Scott, Christmas with Scott, New Year's Eve with Scott, Groundhog's Day with Scott. In fact, many days felt like Groundhog Day, but we got it done."
Colletti's ability to stick with the negotiations and land Ramirez for a lot less money than the five-year, $100 million contract he was reportedly seeking at the start of the offseason impressed Dodgers owner Frank McCourt. In fact, Colletti's ability to stare down Boras, whose claims that other teams were interested in Ramirez turned out to be exaggerated, could enable him to keep his job once his four-year contract expires on October 31. "There's nobody I know that works harder and wants to achieve the objectives of this organization more than Ned," McCourt said. "He works very, very hard to do that. He embraces all of what we're trying to accomplish. He's extremely level-headed. He was very, very level through this whole thing."
The only other team that had emerged as a real possibility to sign Ramirez was the Giants, but it turns out that they only wanted him on a one-year deal with a low base salary that was heavy on performance bonuses. The Giants' players weren't upset to see Ramirez return to their National League West rivals. "We were intent the whole time on going straight ahead and being excited about the guys we had, and not waiting for that golden ticket," said left-hander Barry Zito.
The Phillies not only won the World Series last year, but they also became the first major league team of the modern era to have two players with a success rate of over 90 percent in at least 20 stolen-base attempts.
Right fielder Jayson Werth had 20 steals in 21 attempts (95.2 percent), which tied him with Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia for the major league lead. Shortstop Jimmy Rollins was safe on 47 of 50 tries (94 percent). If center fielder Shane Victorino would have kept up his pace from 2007, he would have given the Phillies a third base stealer with a 90 percent-plus success rate, but his percentage fell to 76.6 last season; he was 36 of 47 in '08, after going 37 for 41 the year before (90.2 percent).
Phillies first base coach Davey Lopes, who is the team's base-running instructor, feels that Victorino will return to his previous form this season. "He slipped back into some of his old habits," Lopes said. "Maybe he was second-guessing himself at times. It's a confidence factor. A couple of times, I thought he was doubting himself a little bit."
NL Rumors and Rumblings: The Cubs are interested in dealing for Athletics shortstop Bobby Crosby, who asked to be traded after losing his starting job to Orlando Cabrera, who was signed as a free agent. ... The Mets are emerging as the team most likely to sign left-handed reliever Will Ohman, and they're considering releasing right-handed reliever Duaner Sanchez, whose velocity has never returned since injuring his shoulder in a taxi accident during the 2006 season. ... The Brewers plan to release Eric Gagne, who has an injured shoulder and is in spring training on a minor league contract. ... Outfielder Juan Pierre, headed back to the bench following the signing of Ramirez, has asked the Dodgers to trade him. ... The Marlins are considering trading infielder Robert Andino, who is out of minor league options. ... Reliever Matt Wise, who made eight relief appearances with the Mets last season before being sidelined by a shoulder injury, has decided to retire. ... Rookie right-hander Jason Motte is emerging as the Cardinals' likely closer when the season begins. ... Josh Anderson has become the frontrunner to be the Braves' center fielder.
AL Rumors and Rumblings: The Athletics are interested in signing left-handed reliever Joe Beimel as a free agent. ... The Rays are leaning toward sending left-handed pitching prospect David Price back to Triple-A Durham for more seasoning, especially with left-hander Carlos Hernandez emerging as a strong candidate for the fifth-starter's job despite being five years removed from his last major league appearance with the Astros in 2004. ... Veteran infielder Cody Ransom is the most likely in-house candidate to take over at third base for the Yankees if Alex Rodriguez ends up having hip surgery. ... Dayan Viciedo, the 19-year-old signed out of Cuba as a free agent last year, has looked so good this spring that he could beat out Josh Fields at third base. ... Royals catcher Brayan Pena, who is out of minor league options, is already drawing a lot of interest from scouts in anticipation of being placed on waivers later this spring; Miguel Olivo has been named the starter behind the plate.