May 3, 2009
On the Beat
Outside and Looking In
Pedro Martinez, a three-time Cy Young Award winner, is still looking for work. A two-time Most Valuable Player, Frank Thomas, is jobless. Jim Edmonds, an eight-time Gold Glove center fielder is one of the nation's many unemployed workers. Nine other players who have been selected to All-Star Games are also still sitting on the free-agent market: Paul Byrd, Brendan Donnelly, Ray Durham, Damion Easley, Luis Gonzalez, Mark Grudzielanek, Geoff Jenkins, Mark Mulder, and Ben Sheets.
One can stretch the mind and not remember a time when so many high-profile players were available one month into the season. Yet the aforementioned 12 players are all on the outside looking in, and no one knows how many of them will play in the major leagues this season or ever again. The general feeling among baseball executives is that many will fade away into involuntary retirement. Part of the reason why has to do with the poor economy, as major league teams are looking to cut costs and go with younger, cheaper talent over experienced players who command a higher wage. However, a more practical reason was brought forth by Brewers general manager Doug Melvin this past week when he denied a report that his team was interested in signing Martinez. "We really have nothing to go by as far as scouting reports on him, because he isn't pitching anywhere," Melvin said.
Martinez pitched six scoreless innings for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic. Since then, he has been working out on his own, which gives any GM pause for concern before committing even the minimum salary of $400,000, let along Martinez's reported asking price of $5 million. As one American League GM who asked not to be named said, "I don't care how hard of a worker someone is, you can't be working out on your own and step right into a major league starting rotation or a major league lineup. If you sign any of these guys, you're going to need time to let them get their legs under them again. So, really, you're better off bringing somebody up from your farm system who is already playing."
A National League GM believes some of the veteran free agents could wind up playing independent ball when those leagues open their seasons. "I would be more willing to sign someone who my scouts have had a chance to see play in independent league games than just taking on a flier on someone who hasn't played at all since September," the GM said. "Even some of the guys who were released in spring training, like Jenkins and Catalanotto, they haven't played in a month. You're not going to sign someone like and put them right in the major leagues after such a long layoff. They need to go play."
There are some free agents who seemingly could make a difference in a pennant race. As has been shown throughout the Wild Card era, one game in the standings can determine who plays in October and who goes home for the winter. There are eight players currently sitting on the marked who had a WARP3 of 1.0 or better last season, meaning they were worth at least one added victory above a replacement-level player. Sheets leads that group at 5.0, and is followed by Grudzielanek (2.7), Edmonds (2.2), Durham (2.1), Byrd (1.7), outfielder Jay Payton (1.6), Gonzalez (1.1), and Thomas (1.1).
Sheets is the most likely to land in the major leagues at some point this season, in part because he is only 30 years old. The only question is how quickly he can recover from the arthroscopic elbow surgery he underwent in February, which killed a two-year deal he had in place with the Rangers. Most clubs would ideally like to sign Sheets to a two-year contract that would enable them to get whatever they can this season then have him for a full season in 2010. However, with so many contenders likely to seek an extra starter for their stretch runs, Sheets would seemingly have enough leverage to sign a contract for 2009 only should he choose to, allowing him to go back on the open market next winter with what might be a stronger negotiating position.
However, the others aren't even getting a sniff. Gonzalez has been offered a front-office position by the Diamondbacks, but has put them on hold because he still has hopes of playing. He could have been talking for all of the unemployed veteran free agents when he told the Palm Beach Post's Joe Capozzi, "I'm working out, but as time goes on, the window of opportunity starts closing up a little bit. It's just one of those things where you and wait and you wait, and if it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen."
It would take a few clicks of the mouse for Angels manager Mike Scioscia to see that his team is 29th in the major leagues in Defensive Efficiency with a .663 mark, ahead of only the Orioles. Scioscia, though, says he doesn't need a string of digits to tell him his team's glove work has been leaky, to say the least, through the first four weeks of the season. "I've looked at some of those (defensive statistics) but it can't replace visual evaluation of a player," Scioscia said. "Some of that is interesting, but it does not take the place of eyes on a player. I don't think we need numbers to see some of our guys are not playing to their potential defensively."
It has long been vogue to say the Angels are consistent winners because they do the little things well, such as play solid defense. However, despite winning four American League West titles in the previous five seasons, their defense has never ranked higher than ninth in the majors during that span. Their rankings from 2004-08: 21st, ninth, 12th, 24th, and 14th.
Scioscia believes the Angels should have one of the better defenses in the game. "Our defense should be an asset for us, and we haven't played to the level we need to but it's there," he observed. "All of those guys should be plus defenders and some should be difference makers."
Part of the problem in the skipper's opinion is that he believes players and teams can go into fielding slumps just as easily as they fall into hitting slumps. "Any player has to get into a flow and a rhythm of playing," Scioscia said. "We need these guys to settle in. Some guys have been a tick off. I'm not sure we're turning the page as well as we need to. These guys need to focus on making plays and not worrying about making mistakes."
The Cubs and Cardinals got into a mini-feud last weekend, not a surprise since theirs is the most intense rivalry in the National League Central, and perhaps the entire NL. But who knew the Brewers and Pirates were about to turn into archrivals? Until this past week, it seemed the only thing they had in common was being in lockstep in consecutive losing seasons, until the Brewers ended their streak at 13 in 2005 while the Pirates' continues at 16. However, when the teams meet for a two-game series at PNC Park starting Monday, things could get heated. Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun was upset about getting hit in the upper back by a pitch from the Pirates' Jeff Karstens this past Monday two innings after he had hit a home run.
"We play them 17 more times. Tell Mr. Selig, we'll see what happens," Braun said after that game. "It will be interesting." Braun was even angrier the next day, noting, "When I saw it on the replay I was even madder. That pitch was way too high."
Karstens wound up getting fined by Major League Baseball but pleaded innocent, saying he was only trying to pitch Braun inside. Brewers pitchers hit three Pirates in the second game of the three-game series on Tuesday, and Pirates right-hander Ian Snell fanned the flames after striking out Braun three times in the series finale on Wednesday. "You shouldn't say stuff like that," Snell said. "You should just keep your mouth shut because it might come back to bite you in the butt."
To add a little bit of additional drama, Snell is scheduled to pitch in this week's series finale on Tuesday. Lost in all the tough talk is the fact the Brewers have won 15 consecutive games against the Pirates, the longest such streak in the major leagues since the Athletics beat the Mariners 15 times in a row in 2006.
Meanwhile, the rest of the Cubs-Cardinals games this season could be even more intense than usual following last Sunday's meeting at Busch Stadium. After the Cardinals' Todd Wellemeyer hit Cubs left fielder Alfonso Soriano in the head with a pitch, the Cubs' Rich Harden hit Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols. Pujols stared at Harden before taking his base. "He didn't say anything, he just looked at me," Harden said. "I'm giving everything I've got out there. I really wanted to challenge him and go in, and if I miss, miss in. Especially with the type of hitter he is, you don't want to give him stuff down the middle."
The teams next meet on May 19 in St. Louis.
The Tigers put left-hander Dontrelle Willis on the DL late in spring training with anxiety disorder. Mets manager Jerry Manuel sounds like he would like to make the same move with his hitters. While the Mets are averaging 4.7 runs a game, a mediocre 16th in the majors, they rank fourth in the NL in team EqA.
Because they're 10-13, scapegoating somebody appears necessary. While plenty of studies have shown clutch hitting is a random act, Manuel isn't so sure. "When we get in a position where we're trailing late in games, it almost seems like it's an insurmountable lead," Manuel said. "Our anxiety takes over at that time." However, according to baseball-reference.com, in high-leverage at-bats, Mets hitters have an OPS+ of 100, exactly average, while generating slash stats of .272/.373/.401.
Manuel's perception, though, caused him to make quite an odd move during this past Wednesday's 4-3 loss to the Marlins: with the bases loaded, two outs, and the Mets trailing by one run in the ninth inning, Manuel called on Omir Santos, a 28-year-old rookie with 36 career plate appearances, to pitch-hit for backup catcher Ramon Castro. Manuel's rationale was that Santos would have a better chance of getting a hit off hard-throwing Marlins closer Matt Lindstrom even though Castro had two hits earlier in the game off starter Josh Johnson, another fireballer. Santos popped out to end the game.
Mets left-hander Johan Santana thinks everyone around the Mets should just take a chill pill to reduce any anxiety. "Even though this team is not going the way right now a lot of people want it to, I think it's better than last year's team, and we only missed the playoffs by one game," Santana said.
Interesting facts from early action:
Three series to watch in the early part of the week, with probable pitching matchups: