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May 13, 2009

On the Beat

Mid-week Update

by John Perrotto

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The White Sox' defense of their American League Central title hasn't gone very well so far as manager Ozzie Guillen will bluntly tell you. "We stink," Guillen said.

Guillen isn't letting himself get too worked up about his team's struggles, though. Instead, he looks at the AL Central standings and shrugs. "We've stunk, but it's that way all over the American League Central because nobody is playing good baseball," Guillen said. "The Royals were in first place for a while, and they don't have a good record. Then the Tigers moved into first place, and they aren't off to a good start, either. I don't know what it is, but nobody in this division is very good. Someone is going to get hot sooner or later. I hope it's us."

The White Sox are 15-17 and in fourth place, but just 2 games behind the first-place Tigers, who are a mediocre 17-14 and percentage points in front of the Royals, who are 18-15. The Twins are only two games out at 16-17, and the Indians haven't fallen out of sight as they trail by 6 games despite a 12-22 record that is second-worst in the major leagues to the Nationals' 10-21.

It is only fitting that the standings would be bunched up in the AL Central since two extra days had to be added to the schedule last season before its champion could be determined. The White Sox beat the Tigers in the make-up of a postponed game the day after the season was scheduled to end, forcing a one-game playoff in which they beat the Twins in a 1-0 classic, capturing their first division title since 2005. "We could be buried by now, but we're not," Guillen said. "We should count our blessings."

The White Sox seem to have been stuck in neutral since beating the Royals on Opening Day. They have won consecutive games just three times, but they have also lost consecutive games just three times. The White Sox' problems are many, including an inability to score runs; they rank 26th in the majors with an average of 4.2 per game. Their pitching is 20th at 4.8 runs allowed per game, and they're 27th in Defensive Efficiency. "We've been really inconsistent," said Guillen. "It seems like we never pitch well and hit well on the same day. It's always one or the other. And it seems like when we're bad, we're really bad. We don't just play OK. We either look good, or we stink."

General manager Ken Williams' goal this season is to try to repeat as division champions while making an aging team younger. It's an unconventional strategy to try to rebuild and win simultaneously, but Williams has proven his doubters wrong in the past. The youth movement is centered in the infield, where Alexei Ramirez has moved to shortstop after playing at second base as a rookie last year. Rookie Chris Getz is playing second base, and Josh Fields is back at third base two years after hitting 23 home runs as a rookie while Joe Crede was recovering from back surgery. The results have been lukewarm in the early going; Getz's EqA is a passable .268, but Fields' is .236 and Ramirez's is a paltry .191.

As usual, center field has been a revolving door for the White Sox, as four players have already made five starts there: Brian Anderson (.248), DeWayne Wise (.147), Scott Podsednik (.157), and Brent Lillibridge (.188). Wise began the season as the starter, but he separated his shoulder while making a diving catch in the second week of the season and is likely out until mid-June. Anderson went on the DL with a pulled oblique muscle, but he's expected to be activated on Friday and get yet another chance to prove that he's an everyday player in the majors, particularly because Podsednik is not a viable major league regular anymore, and Lillibridge, a one-time shortstop prospect, is now viewed as a super-utility player.

Closer Bobby Jenks (0.78 WXRL) has been good in the bullpen, though not dominant, and left-handers Mark Buehrle (1.7 SNLVAR) and John Danks (1.2) have been the only two members of the rotation pitching consistently well. Right-hander Gavin Floyd (-0.1) has taken a step back after his breakout 2008, and right-hander Jose Contreras (-0.4) was so bad that the White Sox, with his permission, sent the 37-year-old to Triple-A Charlotte on Monday. "Jose needs more experience," Guillen said with a big laugh when asked why Contreras was sent out.

His tone was more serious, however, when he was asked about Floyd. "Gavin has obviously been more consistent than Jose, but it's not consistent enough," Guillen said. "He's going through a tough time. Like I always say, in the big leagues, if you don't throw strikes, I don't care how good you are, you're going to get killed. Real bad command. He's not getting ahead in the count. If you don't throw strikes, it's going to be hard for you to win games. In the game of baseball, if your starting pitcher throws well, you have a chance to be in the game. We're not doing that right now."

---

The Dodgers have played five games since losing left fielder Manny Ramirez to a 50-game suspension by Major League Baseball for using performance-enhancing drugs. The early results for the Dodgers in the very few games played so far into their Manny interregnum have not been good. They've lost four of the five games, though with the exception of hitting just two home runs in that span, the Dodgers' offense hasn't suffered that much, putting up a .299/.350/.497 line. Before the suspension, they were hitting .283/.376/.426.

The loss of Ramirez would likely be felt at some point as he ranks 10th in the majors in VORP with 17.9, and second in the majors with a .381 EqA, behind only the Red Sox's Kevin Youkilis (.388). Though the weak-hitting Juan Pierre has taken Ramirez's spot in left field, the Dodgers insist that their offense will continue to be potent, and they won't do anything differently in order to manufacture runs by taking advantage of Pierre's speed to compensate for the loss of Ramirez's power. "It's not going to change the way we approach the game," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. "When Manny was in the lineup, we didn't keep anybody from trying to steal bases. So it's really the same mentality, but just a different type of player in the lineup now."

Second baseman Orlando Hudson believes that the Dodgers can compensate by getting just a little extra production from the hitters in the middle of their lineup, especially with the speed at the top of order with him and shortstop Rafael Furcal, and with Pierre hitting ninth in the batting order. "We've got guys capable of hitting 25 to 30 home runs," said Hudson. "We've got Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Russell Martin, and James Loney. We still have four big guns that can put the ball out of the stadium. I like having three leadoff men. It's fun to be part of that and have so much speed. We have speed and power. That's why I think we're still going to score a lot of runs, even with the big man out."

---

The Rockies went to the World Series for the first time in their history in 2007. That same season, the Indians came within one win of the Fall Classic before falling to the Red Sox in seven games in the American League Championship Series.

Two years later, Rockies manager Clint Hurdle and Indians manager Eric Wedge are coming under fire from fans that want to see change, as neither team looks close to making another October run this season. While the Indians are last in the AL Central, the Rockies are 13-18 and in third place in the National League West, 7 games behind the Dodgers.

There had been speculation that the Rockies might make a managerial switch after the Diamondbacks dumped Bob Melvin last week and promoted farm director A.J. Hinch, but Rockies owner Charlie Monfort denied reports that high-level meetings have taken place in recent days to discuss Hurdle's future. "I haven't been in any conversations like that, and I'd like to think they would include me," Monfort told the Denver Post's Troy E. Renck. "Ever since that deal went down in Arizona, there are some people who think that's what we ought to do here. We all have been together long enough that we air our frustrations from time to time, but this isn't our first rodeo or first bad stretch. We will get through it. If you make the change, what is going to be better? We're not going to make a change just to make a change."

Wedge, meanwhile, appears to have the solid backing of Indians ownership and general manager Mark Shapiro. Nevertheless, when sports fans in Cleveland aren't anticipating LeBron James leading the Cavaliers to the city's first major professional sports championship since 1964, they're complaining about Wedge. "I've got thick skin," said Wedge. "I've got broad shoulders. It comes with the territory of being a major league manager. I believe in these guys, but we've got to do better. I'm the manager and it's my fault we're not playing better. I'm not out there playing, but I'm the one responsible for having our team prepared to play."

---

Filming for Moneyball, the big-screen adaptation of the Michael Lewis bestseller which detailed Athletics GM Billy Beane's quest to build a contending team on a small budget, begins next month. Steven Soderbergh will direct the movie, while Brad Pitt will play the role of Beane, and comedian Demetri Martin will play then-assistant GM Paul DePodesta.

A number of people who were characters in the book will play themselves, including former manager Art Howe, then-pitching coach Rick Peterson (also the film's technical director), ex-scouting director Grady Fuson, and retired first baseman Scott Hatteberg.

The biggest surprise is that Howe will take part in the film. He was portrayed in a negative light in the book, being in some ways depicted as Beane's whipping boy, but Howe agreed to be in the movie after Soderbergh visited him at his home in Houston. Howe's perspective of his sometimes tense relationship with Beane is expected to be told in more detail in the movie than it was in the book. "Talking to Steven, I'm comfortable about how everything is going to be handled," Howe told Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Beane, though, wants no part of Hollywood. "My guess is the producers find it a more attractive product if it's someone other than me," Beane said.

---

Scouts' perspectives of various major league players:

  • Rockies third baseman Garrett Atkins: "His bat has been slow, like he's swinging under water. He's too young to be going over the hill, but something's not right there."

  • Blue Jays left-hander Brett Cecil: "What I like about this guy is he's not scared, even though he's young. He attacks hitters and he isn't scared to back them off the plate. He's got an air of confidence about him that leads me to believe he is going to be a good major league starting pitcher."

  • Padres right-hander Kevin Correia: "He should really be a reliever. I think if you put this guy in a situation where he could just throw max effort for an inning or two, that he might be pretty effective."

  • Phillies left-hander Cole Hamels: "He's finally starting to get healthy and looking like his old self, but I still think all those innings he threw last season are going to catch up to him at some point this year."

  • Nationals reliever Joel Hanrahan: "I'll give the guy points for more mental toughness than I thought he had. He got banged around something awful at the start of the season, but he's hung in there and is starting to pitch better."

  • Giants first baseman Travis Ishikawa: "I just don't see why the Giants are messing around by playing this kid. He hits more like a utility infielder than a first baseman."

  • Braves starter Kenshin Kawakami: "You see flashes of why the Braves thought this guy could settle in and pitch in the middle of the rotation, but I don't know. It might be too early to make a judgment, but he looks to me like he fits better in long or middle relief."

  • Indians reliever Masa Kobayashi: "I know he was a star in Japan, but his stuff just doesn't play in the big leagues. They should just release him."

  • Red Sox shortstop Julio Lugo: "He's swinging the bat better than ever, but you can see he still hasn't recovered from his knee surgery. He's not moving well in the field at all."

  • Brewers third baseman Casey McGehee: "Another example of how spring training is usually a mirage. He tore the cover off the ball in Arizona, but now that the games count he's showing why he's a Triple-A guy."

  • Pirates right fielder Brandon Moss: "He's got some pop, but he doesn't make adjustments from one at-bat to the next. He has a one-groove swing, and pitchers exploit that."

  • Reds outfielder Laynce Nix: "He's really smoking the ball right now, and if I were Dusty Baker I'd ride the hot hand. That being said, I don't think he's a big-league starter. If the Reds get a big bat for left field instead of messing with this guy and Chris Dickerson, they might just steal the NL Central."

  • Astros reliever Russ Ortiz: "They made the right move by taking him out of the rotation, and I don't even think he can help them out of the bullpen. He's got nothing left."

  • Mets second baseman Jose Reyes: "Citi Field was made for him because he can slap the ball into those huge gaps and run forever. He's going to lead the National League in triples for years to come."

  • Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira: "He just doesn't look comfortable at all. I don't know if it's because he's playing in New York, trying to live up to the big contract, or whatever, but his body language doesn't exactly exude confidence."

  • Rays reliever Dan Wheeler: "His stuff is down a tick across the board this season. His pitches don't have the same life as last season."

  • Twins left fielder Delmon Young: "He isn't a whole lot better now than when he was a senior in high school. I think he's regressing, and I'm starting to think he's nothing more than a fourth outfielder."

---

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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Premium Article On the Beat: Weekend W... (05/10)
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Premium Article On the Beat: Dark Clou... (05/17)
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