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May 6, 2009

On the Beat

A Red Scare?

by John Perrotto

There's something that has stuck with Dusty Baker since his playing days with the Dodgers from the mid-1970s to early-1980s, when Al Campanis was their general manager. "Al used to always say that you don't make any judgments about teams or players until you've gone around the league one time in a season," said Baker, now the manager of the Reds.

With today's major league schedule forced to accommodate interleague play and significantly more games inside the division than outside, it can take a long time to get around the league. It will be August 7, when they meet the Giants for the first time this season, that the Reds will have finally faced every team in the National League. "It used to be that you had been around the league by the end of May, but it's been a long time since I played," the 59-year-old Baker said with a smile. "That's what Al meant. You really can't make any judgments until you're a couple of months into the season."

That's one of the reasons that Baker is trying not to get too excited that his team seems to have landed in a parallel universe where its weakness has suddenly become its strength. The Reds are fifth in the major leagues in runs allowed with an average of 4.1 per game. To put that into context, consider that the Reds have had eight straight losing seasons since 2001. In those seasons, they never finished higher than 20th in the majors in runs allowed, with rankings (in chronological order) of 23rd, 21st, 27th, 27th, 28th, 20th, 27th, and 23rd.

After so many years of bad pitching, it's understandable that Baker is being somewhat cautious, but right-hander Bronson Arroyo has a hard time containing his enthusiasm. "I feel this is definitely the best pitching staff since I've been here," said Arroyo, who joined the Reds in 2006 when he was acquired from the Red Sox in a spring training trade. "You can feel the confidence continue to build. It's just breeding, because one guy pitches well, then the next guy pitches well, and it keeps going on down the line. Everyone who takes the mound feels like he is going to get the job done."

Leading the way in the rotation have been Johnny Cueto, who is seventh in the major leagues with 1.5 SNLVAR, and Aaron Harang, who ranks 21st with 1.1. Cueto had shown flashes of dominance early in his rookie season last year, and then struggled and finished with 2.6 SNLVAR. However, the 23-year-old has stepped to the forefront this season, and along with 25-year-old Edinson Volquez, who was 17th in the majors last season with 5.7 SNLVAR, they give Cincinnati hopes of having two co-aces for the long term. "After getting a taste of being in the major leagues last year, it made me want to work harder so I could win more games, and stay in games longer so I could help the team more," Cueto said. "I feel like I've improved from last year."

Baker is impressed by how much more poise Cueto has shown this season. "When he gets behind in the count or gets into trouble, he just takes a step back, takes a deep breath, and gets out of it," Baker said. "He's really matured, and he's pitching great. We saw Volquez do that last year, and now Cueto is following."

The Reds, though, need to get their offense in sync with their pitching; they're 27th in the majors in runs scored with 3.8 per game. Despite playing in the bandbox that is Great American Ballpark, the Reds were 23rd in the majors in runs scored in 2006, 15th in 2007, and 23rd 2008, after having finished fourth in 2005.

It's safe to assume that the Reds would have a record better than 14-12 if they were scoring more runs. First baseman Joey Votto has carried the load to this point with a .332 EqA, building on his .290 mark as a rookie last season. "If we can hold them down as a pitching staff a while longer until we score more runs, we'll be fine," Arroyo said. "We've got a lot of good hitters. Eventually, we're going to bust out and start scoring eight or nine runs a game."

If the Reds did that, they'd be the greatest scoring team in baseball history, which is extremely unlikely. Arroyo, though, was dealing in semantics rather than statistics. Baker isn't expecting that kind of offensive output, but he is a self-professed hitting guy who sees more runs on the horizon. "We're going to hit," he said. "I'm not worried about that. We're going to hit. The question to me is if we can keep pitching like this. If we do, then we have a chance to have a pretty darn good team."

---

The contracts of Giants general manager Brian Sabean and manager Bruce Bochy are up at the end of the season, leading to speculation that first-year managing general partner Bill Neukom might make major changes before the year is out. However, Neukom downplayed the idea that he was considering a shakeup. "I just don't think there's a story here," Neukom told the San Francisco Chronicle's John Shea. "The first week I was here, I said we've got a lot of work to do. We want to play winning baseball. Let's concentrate on that. There is plenty of time to evaluate at the end of the season. Unless something wild and crazy happens, we want to find a way to play winning baseball and play the season out. The story is baseball. We're hard at work. There's no multitasking here."

Giants' fans became accustomed to the franchise spending money when Peter Magowan was in charge. They felt that the Giants should have tried to sign left-hander CC Sabathia (a local product), or outfielder Manny Ramirez on the free-agent market last winter. While the Giants expressed some interest in Ramirez, they never made a bid, and he wound up re-signing with the Dodgers, which particularly sticks in the fans' craw since the Dodgers have already built a 5-game lead in the division race over the second-place Giants, who are 13-12.

Instead, the Giants prefer to take a different approach than during the Magowan era, and are changing gears to try and build through scouting and player development. "There could have been a situation where one or both those guys could've been accessible to us," Neukom said of Sabathia and Ramirez. "It didn't come out that way. The counterpoint is, I think the best ticket in minor league baseball is about 45 miles from here in San Jose."

That is where the Giants' High-A farm club in the California League is located, and among those on the roster are such top prospects as pitcher Madison Bumgarner, catcher Buster Posey, and first baseman Angel Villalona.

---

St. Petersburg in Florida has now been home to major league baseball for 12 seasons, but the Rays' fans are still learning the ways of the game at the highest level. In fact, those fans frustrated Rays manager Joe Maddon and his players last Sunday during the ninth inning of their 5-3 win over the Red Sox at Tropicana Field.

Rays third baseman Evan Longoria reached into the third-base stands and was ready to catch Jacoby Ellsbury's popup for the final out when a fan in the second row snagged the ball. Ellsbury ended up flying out to right to the end the game, but closer Troy Percival couldn't help but feel a bad vibe (to use one of Maddon's favorite expressions) when Longoria was prevented from making the play, especially with last year's American League MVP, Dustin Pedroia, on deck. "I was a little chapped," Percival told Joe Smith of the St. Petersburg Times. "You got Pedroia on deck in a two-run ballgame, but you know what, fans aren't thinking about that at that time, they're thinking about the $12 ball that's coming down."

While Maddon realizes that once the ball goes into the stands it's fair game for the fans, he is hoping they give his team more of a home-field advantage next time. "I'd like the fan on the third-base side to understand you don't do those things," Maddon said. "Really, our fans need to know that, in a game like that, in your ballpark, you let our fielders field that ball."

---

Because official scoring seems to be coming under more scrutiny with each passing season, Major League Baseball has been considering an idea to go with five-man umpiring crews. The fifth umpire in the rotation would serve as the official scorer, replacing the part-time employees who now receive $135 a game.

According to MLB vice president of club relations Phyllis Merhige, however, that idea hasn't gained much momentum in the central office. "I don't know if a good umpire would make a good scorer, any more than a good scorer would make a good umpire," Merhige told Tom FitzGerald of the San Francisco Chronicle. "We have a system that we think works."

Giants hitting coach and former major league third baseman Carney Lansford believes that MLB should change their scorers' system, but not by using umpires. "They miss enough calls behind the plate," Lansford said. "I think it should be an ex-player."

---

Three series to watch this weekend, with probable pitching matchups:

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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