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March 29, 2009
On the Beat
The Yankees have the distinction of being the only franchise in professional sports with expectations so high that if they don't win it all they consider their season a failure. The Yankees' chief rival in the American League East may also be reaching that challenging plateau; now that the Red Sox have ended their 86-year championship drought by winning two World Series in a four-year span between 2004-07, their fans also expect titles every year.
The Red Sox had a long winter in New England after losing to the upstart Rays in last year's ALCS, and the disappointment still lingers even though the beginning of a new season is just eight days away. "We were a pretty beat-up team by the end of that series," said Red Sox' manager Terry Francona. "I was disappointed we lost that series, sure, but I wasn't disappointed in our effort. Our guys gave everything they had, they just didn't have a whole lot left to give. We played a good team that was playing great baseball, and it was the Rays' time. That's just how it works in baseball sometimes. We didn't lose the series. The Rays won it. I don't think it means it wasn't a successful year. We had a great year."
The fans expected general manager Theo Epstein to add a big bat during the offseason, especially after designated hitter David Ortiz was bothered by a torn tendon sheath in his wrist for most of the year, right fielder J.D. Drew was slowed by a bad back for most of the home stretch, and third baseman Mike Lowell finally succumbed to a torn labrum in his hip during the ALCS and ended up requiring surgery.
The Red Sox set their sights on free-agent first baseman Mark Teixeira and felt that their reported $168 million offer over eight years was competitive. They were going to move first baseman Kevin Youkilis to third base and turn Lowell into a trade chip or a highly paid bench player, but events did not go as planned. Teixeira was one of three major free agents signed by the Yankees during an unprecedented shopping spree that also saw them agreeing to terms with left-hander CC Sabathia on a seven-year, $161 million deal, and right-hander A.J. Burnett for five years and $82.5 million. It might now appear that the Yankees have blown by the Red Sox and the defending division champion Rays as the team to beat in the AL East.
Francona isn't quite so eager to write off his team's chances of winning the division, though. "I like our club, I like it a lot," he said. "I know people made a big deal about us not signing Teixeira, but as a manager, it's always better to focus on the guys you do have. I love Mikey Lowell. He's been one of the key players on our club and a respected veteran in our clubhouse. He's come back from the surgery better than we could have hoped, and I'm looking forward to big things from him. I like our lineup. It's going to be just fine."
The Red Sox finished third in the major leagues in runs scored with 5.2 per game last season despite all of the injuries. Drew (.314 EqA) led a group of four players with an EqA over .300 that included Youkilis (.313), Manny Ramirez (.310), and Jason Bay (.302). Ramirez and Bay, of course, were traded for each other at the July 31 non-waiver deadline. Second baseman and AL MVP Dustin Pedroia (.298) and Ortiz (.295) also had good years. The biggest addition to the offense was signing free-agent outfielder Rocco Baldelli away from the Rays. He had a .286 EqA last season, though in only 90 plate appearances; he suffered from a chanellopathy that caused his muscles to fatigue quickly. Baldelli is an immensely talented player who has been limited to 155 games over the past four seasons because of injuries and illness. "We're in uncharted territory with Rocco," said Francona. "We're kind of learning as we go with him as far as how much we can use him, but our training staff is encouraged that he is gaining more stamina."
The Red Sox were seventh in the majors with 4.3 runs allowed per game last season, and their key off-season acquisitions in that department join Baldelli as members of the Will Carroll Under The Knife All-Star team. Right-handers Brad Penny (shoulder tendonitis), Takashi Saito (elbow tendonitis), and John Smoltz (shoulder surgery) are all coming off of seasons marred by injuries.
Penny was slowly eased into action this spring and his fastball is now back up to 95 mph, Saito will be one of the primary set-up men, and Smoltz is expected to return in June with his role to be determined by need. Francona realizes that the Red Sox took risks in signing all three, but he's confident they'll be rewarded for the strategy. "Penny is getting better and better every time out, and it's hard to believe Saito is 39 when you watch him pitch because he is in such great shape," Francona said. "Smoltz might be the youngest 41-year-old I've ever seen. He's in phenomenal shape, and we really have to be conscious to put the reins on him so he doesn't overdo things, because he's so intent on coming back as soon as he can. We didn't sign these guys thinking that they had to take on big roles in our pitching staff. We had other options. We signed them with the idea they could make our staff better if they were healthy. Off what I've seen this spring, I have no reason to believe that all three won't make contributions, maybe big contributions, this season."
The eventual shift of the Padres' ownership continued this past Thursday when former high-profile agent Jeff Moorad assumed the roles of both CEO and vice chairman of the board. Thus began the first stage of the sale from John Moores to a group of 13 led by Moorad that may take anywhere from one to five years to complete. The sale is being modeled after the transfer of ownership of the NFL's Baltimore Ravens, which closed in 2004 and took three years to finish. Moorad and Moores expect the Padres' transaction to also take three years, and though the cost hasn't been determined because the sale has yet to be completed, the best estimate is that the final price tag will be in the range of $525 million.
For now, Moores has ceded control of the team to Moorad, who had been CEO of the Diamondbacks before resigning that position in January to begin his purchase of the Padres. "Jeff and I are friends and partners," said Moores. "Both sides agreed to a process that also made sense for the other side. The club is firmly in the hands of Jeff and his group. I think it is in good hands."
Moores remains in control of the franchise and will represent the Padres in league matters, but Moorad will oversee the day-to-day operations, including the product on the field. "There are two bosses," said Moorad, who replaced Sandy Alderson as CEO. "John and I are partners. John has made it clear the baseball decisions are mine to make. Will I run those past John? Absolutely. I love the leadership challenges. I'll be an owner-operator. I love the business. I've always had the dream of one day owning a club."
The Padres lost a one-game playoff to the Rockies for the NL wild card just two seasons ago, but last year they fell to 63-99 and last place in the NL West. Moorad said that his charge is to make the Padres competitive again and eventually lead them to a World Series title, something that has eluded the franchise since its inception in 1969. "My goals are twofold," Moorad said. "First, maintaining an affordable product. Affordability for our fans is a key thing moving forward. Businesses that emphasize affordability are helping themselves. I care less about incremental dollars than having fans in the seats. And I want to build a consistently winning organization that can compete for a World Series."
That World Series likely won't be coming this year. Even general manager Kevin Towers admits that there are no expectations for the Padres. "There should be absolutely zero pressure on our players," Towers said. "Last year, we suffered a residual effect of missing out in '07, and it carried over in '08 and resulted in a bad year. Now, there is no pressure. When you lose 99 games, the bar isn't set too high to improve."
Padres right-hander Chris Young, however, respectfully disagrees with Towers. "We're here to win," said Young. "I know there are no expectations outside the clubhouse, so I guess we can't disappoint anyone, but the expectations in here are much higher. We expect to win."
Commissioner Bud Selig says that he would like to see the United States "push up the intensity" when the next World Baseball Classic is played in 2013, after Team USA lost in the semifinals to Japan this year and was knocked out in the second round in the inaugural event in 2006. That comment did not sit well with US left-handed reliever Matt Thornton of the White Sox. "For someone to say that, and I heard other people say that, no one was in the dugout but us," Thornton told the Chicago Tribune. "Our team was into it, every single game. Everyone was prepared, ready, and battling, and they wanted to win it all. The intensity was there. We didn't win it, but you couldn't say the energy and life wasn't there because it was. [Selig] was never around. He wasn't in our clubhouse. He wasn't in our dugout. It was a great experience for everyone. I think everyone in the game was trying to win."
Cubs left-hander Ted Lilly, one of the US starting pitchers, also felt that it was unfair to question Team USA's desire or the fact that several top American major leaguers decided to skip the WBC. "There were a lot of good players on the team," Lilly said. "There's no guarantee you're going to win. Looking around, the Dominican Republic didn't have Manny Ramirez or Alfonso Soriano or some of their stars [like] Aramis Ramirez. The bottom line is, there were some good teams put together, and Japan played the best baseball."
Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins, who split time at the position with the Yankees' Derek Jeter for the United States, feels that the intensity level would be higher if the WBC timeframe was shortened. Team USA played just seven games in 16 days. "They could shorten it up, but of course it's about money," said Rollins. "They're going to get as many games in each individual city as they can. There isn't one moment I would take back, but if they could [make it shorter], which they can, it might be better."
Athletics GM Billy Beane's disdain for managers was laid bare for all to see in Moneyball, as he constantly belittled Art Howe in Michael Lewis' best-selling book. Beane also fired Kevin Macha after the 2006 season even though the Athletics had just reached the American League Championship Series for the first time in 14 years.
Now Beane finally seems to have found a manager to his liking in Bob Geren; the two grew up together in San Diego, and Geren was the best man in Beane's wedding. "We've known each other a long time, and that certainly helps," Beane said. "We have a healthy understanding of both parties' jobs."
The Athletics added a year to Geren's contract this past week, extending him through 2010 and adding a club option for 2011. Geren is 157-172 in his two seasons as manager, but the Athletics have used the disabled list 47 times in that span, and they also traded such stalwarts as Joe Blanton, Rich Harden, Dan Haren, Nick Swisher, and Mark Kotsay. "Given everything that's gone on, Bob has done a phenomenal job," said Beane. "He brings a can-do attitude every day. It wasn't really a hard decision for us."
"Bob was a critical part of that decision-making, and he understood what we were doing," owner Lew Wolff said of the Athletics' rebuilding. "It was hard to see, but he did a masterful job last year guiding the way through a lot of land mines we set for him."
NL Rumors and Rumblings: Eric Gagne, who was released by the Brewers earlier this month, has opted against having shoulder surgery and plans to work in front of scouts in Arizona in the near future. ... The Pirates have jumped to the front of the pack in an attempt to sign free-agent left-handed reliever Will Ohman, who has also drawn interest from the Marlins, Dodgers, and Giants. ... The Rockies are willing to trade catcher Yorvit Torrealba as well as infielder Jeff Baker, who has also drawn the Pirates' interest. ... The Marlins are leaning toward sending first-base prospect Gaby Sanchez to Triple-A New Orleans, moving third baseman Jorge Cantu to first base, and playing Emilio Bonifacio at third.
AL Rumors and Rumblings: The Red Sox have interest in trading for Reds infielder Jeff Keppinger. ... The Rangers are making outfielder Frank Catalonotto available in trade talks, and they've narrowed the choice for their fifth starter to Scott Feldman and reclamation project Kris Benson. ... The Yankees are willing to trade outfielder Melky Cabrera and go with Brett Gardner in center field.