April 19, 2009
On the Beat
It seems as if Cecil Cooper isn't sure what to make of having the oldest roster in the major leagues. On one hand, the Astros' manager worries if his team's 4-7 start might be a sign that his team is too old. "You don't expect a veteran team to start off this slowly," Cooper said. "You expect that more from a younger team still trying to get its feet on the ground."
On the other hand, Cooper figures the Astros need time to ease into the season since they have some tired old bones. "Older players don't always do well in cold weather, especially early in the season," Cooper said. "They need a little while longer to get those muscles loosened up. It might take a while for us, but we'll be fine."
While spring training is usually not a very good indicator of how a team will fare in the regular season, the Astros went just 12-20 in exhibition play, and looked terrible doing so. Yet, Cooper proclaimed late in the camp that the Astros were capable of winning 90 games this season, reasoning that this year's roster was stronger than the one that compiled a 86-75 record last year in his first full season as manager.
Owner Drayton McLane does not believe in rebuilding. That's a good thing, in the sense that BP's Kevin Goldstein ranks the Astros' farm system last among the 30 major league organizations, but every organization needs to retrench at some point, and try to build its roster back up with some youth. General manager Ed Wade, though, has been put in the unenviable position of trying to hold together a team that has such stars and/or famous names as catcher Ivan Rodriguez, first baseman Lance Berkman, shortstop Miguel Tejada, and left fielder Carlos Lee in the lineup and closer Jose Valverde anchoring the bullpen, with a starting rotation that would have struck much more fear in the hearts of opponents in 1999 than 2009.
Lined up behind Roy Oswalt and Wandy Rodriguez in the rotation when the season began were Brian Moehler, Mike Hampton, and Russ Ortiz. Moehler is 37 and hasn't made 30 starts in a major league season since 1999 with the Tigers. He sprained his knee in his second start this year, necessitating a trip to the disabled list. Hampton is 36, missed the 2006 and 2007 seasons because of injury, and made just 12 starts in 2005 and 13 in 2008 with the Braves. Ortiz is 34 and hasn't made 34 starts in a season since 2004 with the Braves. His start on Thursday against the Pirates was his first in the major leagues since August 19, 2007 with the Giants, as he missed last season while recovering from reconstructive elbow surgery.
Cooper realizes the limitations of having an older starting rotation and vows to do everything he can to keep them fresh. He plans to take them out an inning earlier than normal whenever he can, and pitching coach Dewey Robinson will closely monitor their between-starts throwing sessions to make sure they don't overextend themselves. "These guys are all great competitors, which is why they're still pitching at their age, and after overcoming some serious injuries," Cooper said. "My biggest concern isn't if they will hold up for a full season, because they take pride in staying in shape. My biggest fear is that they try to overdo things and get hurt. We're going to have to keep a watchful eye on them because of that."
To this point, it has been the offense dragging the Astros down; they're last in the major leagues with an average of 2.7 runs scored per game. They're 16th in runs allowed at 4.9 per game, and 26th in defensive efficiency with a .663 mark.
Cooper insists that he is unconcerned about an offense that also has its share of age. He points out that the Astros are a team that has started off slowly a number of times in this decade before finishing fast. Last season, the Astros were nine games under .500 at 46-55 after losing on July 23, then closed 40-20 to get back into the National League wild-card race. The 2005 Astros were 44-46 after losing on July 17, but managed to win the franchise's lone NL pennant in its 47-year history. A year earlier, they were 56-60 after losing on August 14, but made it to the National League Championship Series.
"I guess we wouldn't be the Astros if we got off to a good start," Cooper said.
With Major League Baseball having celebrated Jackie Robinson Day on Wednesday by having all players, managers, and coaches wear No. 42 in honor of the man who broke the sport's color barrier in 1947 with the Dodgers, it reminded me of a conversation I had with New York Jets cornerback Darelle Revis a few years back when he was still in high school at Aliquippa, Pennsylvania.
Revis was both a great football and basketball player in high school, and gave the impression that he could have excelled in any sport. I asked why he didn't play baseball, and he said, "It looks like fun, and I thought about trying it, but it's a white man's game. It's not for black kids."
Mariners designated hitter/outfielder Ken Griffey Jr., who made the suggestion to commissioner Bud Selig more than a decade ago that players be allowed to wear No. 42 on the anniversary of Robinson's debut, has some interesting ideas on why African-American youth have little interest in baseball. Primarily, he believes that MLB does a lousy job of marketing the sport to the younger crowd.
"They've got to start off with better commercials," Griffey told the Seattle Times' Larry Stone. "The commercials are [bad]. Think about it. You look at the NBA, the NFL, their commercials, and they make you want to go out and play basketball, go play football. They show the excitement of the game itself. In baseball, it's come to the All-Star Game, and that's it. They don't show the excitement of the game."
Griffey said he long ago conveyed his thoughts on the matter to Selig, but was apparently ignored. "If you're going to see a drastic improvement, it has to be at the ground level," Griffey said. "That's where the love of the game starts. It doesn't start in high school or college. It starts off in tee ball. You've got to want to go out there and play. If doesn't matter whether you're black or white. The commercials are terrible. It doesn't show who we are as people. It doesn't show any of the fun stuff that goes on. It just promotes the All-Star Game or postseason."
Understandably, the Angels continue to have a hard time coping with the death of rookie right-hander Nick Adenhart, who was killed in an automobile accident in Fullerton, California, on April 9. The Angels, who are 4-7, have kept Adenhart's locker intact at Angel Stadium, except for a few mementos that his parents took home to Williamsport, Maryland. They're also setting up a locker with his jersey during each road stop throughout the season.
"We're human, too," Angels center fielder Torii Hunter told Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register. "We're still professionals. We're trying to find it. You can tell at the plate by what guys look like. You can tell guys are trying to find it. We're better than what we're showing. You can feel the energy is kind of low in the clubhouse. I don't want to make an excuse, but it's hard, tough."
Right-hander Shane Loux had the particularly difficult task of taking Adenhart's place in the rotation this past Tuesday against the Mariners. It would have normally been a joyous occasion for Loux, who was making his first major league start since September 24, 2003, when he was with the Tigers.
"I tried to put it out of my mind, but it didn't work," said Loux. "Every inning, I thought about it. Every time I came back to the dugout, I thought about it. Every time I looked at the MLB symbol on the ball, I thought about it. Every time I looked in to [catcher Mike] Napoli, I thought about it. It was a little more difficult than I thought, but I'm glad it's over. I was able to take a deep breath and move on."
Rays first baseman Carlos Pena received his 2008 American League Gold Glove this past week, and was quite humbled. "It's a beautiful trophy, first of all," Pena told the St. Petersburg Times' Marc Topkin. "It's really nice looking, but what it represents means the world to me. I've taken pride in my defense and worked really hard. To get recognized, I'm very grateful for it."
Pena became the first player in the Rays' 11-year history to win a Gold Glove. Manager Joe Maddon, though, believes a number of other Rays are capable of winning the award, including catcher Dioner Navarro, second baseman Akinori Iwamura, third baseman Evan Longoria, shortstop Jason Bartlett, left fielder Carl Crawford, and center fielder B.J. Upton. "It's something I've challenged all the infielders and outfielders to do this year, and actually the pitching staff, is to win a Gold Glove," Maddon said. "That is one of our goals, a group goal, to have several guys win Gold Gloves this year."
News and Notes
Three series to watch in the early part of the week with probable pitching matchups: