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August 16, 2009

On the Beat

Weekend Roundup

by John Perrotto

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The Rangers are trying to be copycats this season. In this instance, with Ron Washington as their manager, it only seems fitting. Thanks in large part to a vastly improved defense, the Rays went from losing at least 91 games in each of their first 10 seasons of existence to winning the American League pennant last year. That coincided with them improving from last among the 30 major-league teams in Defensive Efficiency in 2007 to first in 2008. The Rangers have made near the same leap this season after finishing last in Defensive Efficiency a year ago; they rank fifth in the majors in that category, and second in the American League behind only Seattle.

The Rangers' record has improved accordingly. They are 65-50 after finishing under .500 in the last four seasons and eight of the previous nine. Furthermore, the Rangers put themselves in contention for their first playoff berth since 1999 as they are 4½ games behind the Angles in the AL West and a half game behind the Red Sox in the wild-card standings, who they host this afternoon in the rubber match of a three-game series.

"Pitching and defense. Defense and pitching. Whatever order you want to put them in, that's been the key for us," Washington said. "They go hand in hand. Our pitching is much better and I attribute that, at least in part, to the defense because we're making plays behind our pitchers that we haven't made in other seasons."

The Athletics' run of five playoff appearances in seven seasons from 2000-06 was generally attributed to general manager Billy Beane's exploitation of the devaluation of on-base percentage. Washington was an unsung hero on those clubs, though, as the third-base coach and infield instructor under managers Art Howe and Ken Macha. Beane often eschewed defense in order to get as much offense as possible into the lineup, but Washington drew high marks for his coaching as he turned some rather un-athletic Athletics into decent glove men. In fact, Washington has a Gold Glove on the mantle of his New Orleans home that was given to him by Athletics third baseman Eric Chavez in appreciation for all the defensive work Washington put in with Chavez.

Thus, the biggest surprise about the Rangers' improved defensive play is that it hasn't happened until Washington's third season as manager. It took Washington and club president Nolan Ryan, who returned to the Rangers last season, some time to change the culture of a franchise from one that relied on run production because it played at the hitter-friendly Ballpark at Arlington into one emphasizing run prevention. The Rangers are first in the American League in runs allowed with an average of 4.4 a game but eighth in runs scored at 4.8.

"I don't think it was that we didn't have guys who couldn't play defense before, but they decided this season to put more of an emphasis on that part of the game," Washington said. "They are starting to understand the importance of defense. They are seeing that if you play good defense that you win ballgames. Our guys are taking a lot more pride in that part of the game now. You don't see any careless errors. We make all the plays we're supposed to make and a lot of tough ones, too."

In terms of FRAR, the Rangers have three of the top 12 defenders in the AL. Second baseman Ian Kinsler is first with 32, rookie shortstop Elvis Andrus is fifth with 29, and right fielder Nelson Cruz is 12th with 25 as he has shattered two myths this season, that he is nothing more than a Triple-A slugger, and that he is a one-dimensional player. The only drawback is that while Kinsler came off the disabled list Friday, Cruz took his place with a sprained left ankle.

The Rangers decided to make a controversial move in the winter to strengthen their defense by asking shortstop Michael Young, who won a Gold Glove last season, to move to third base so that rookie shortstop Elvis Andrus could be promoted from Double-A. Young initially balked at the move, but eventually gave in. In turn, Andrus and Kinsler have become a strong middle-infield tandem.

"Kinsler has really worked at his defense over the years, and has reached the point where all the work has paid off and he has really improved," Washington said. "The kid at shortstop is outstanding and he makes Kinsler and Young better, and I can't tell you how much better Young is at third base compared to the start of the season. His actions over there look so natural now; he is really becoming a good defensive third baseman."

"It was tough when they first asked me to make because everyone who reaches this level obviously has a certain amount of pride," Young said. "However, it's turned out to be best for the team. We're definitely playing the best defense in the nine years I've been here, and all you need to do to see how it is paying off is look at the standings."

While the defense has made a positive impact on the pitching staff, the rotation has been bolstered by the resurgence of Kevin Millwood (4.4 SNLVAR) and the breakthrough season of Scott Feldman (4.3). In turn, the strength of the rotation has covered for the absence of a lockdown reliever; waiver pickup Darren O'Day leads the club with a 2.406 WXRL.

As hard as it is to fathom with this franchise's history, the Rangers do not have a player among AL top 20 in EqA. Young (.300) and Cruz (.292) are the only two regulars over .280 while outfielder Andruw Jones (.283) has had a rebound season with the Rangers in a part-time role after a disastrous 2008 with the Dodgers in which he had a .171 EqA.

"We're a different ballclub now," Young said. "We tried it one way for a long time here and it just didn't work. The way we're doing it now is the right way. When you look at teams that have won the World Series, which ones didn't have really good pitching and defense? Not many."

Now, the Rangers will try to ride that pitching and defense all the way into October. "It's different than it's been the other two years I managed here because your tail is out there on the line every night," Washington said. "The games at this time of year definitely have more meaning. I don't know if fun would be the right word, but it makes things a lot more interesting. We're made it this far and we want to see how much further we can take it."

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Nearly two years have passed since David Eckstein left the Cardinals as a free agent, as the 2006 World Series Most Valuable Player departed from St. Louis after the 2007 season. However, he still harbors hard feelings toward general manager John Mozeliak, who Eckstein feels made misleading statements to the media in the wake of his leaving. Mozeliak said at the time that the Cardinals did not re-sign Eckstein because his asking price was too high. The New York Daily News reported in November, 2007 that Eckstein was seeking a four-year contract worth between $36-40 million while he negotiated with Mets. Instead, Eckstein wound up signing with the Blue Jays for one year and $4.5 million.

Eckstein said he never priced himself out of the Cardinals' range and was disappointed Mozeliak portrayed the story that way to the media and, ultimately, the fans. "It was kind of attacking my character and my family's character and my agent's character," Eckstein said. "That was the biggest thing. Just tell the truth. You didn't want me."

Eckstein said he felt the Cardinals based their decision on the Daily News story rather than talking with him or his agent. "I just want to know where he got that information from," Eckstein said. "Because if he got the information from that article, that's how you run your club? Or if he got it from (the Mets), that would be collusion. The one thing he did promise me was he would never lie. We go to church together, and so you make that statement and do that?"

Eckstein also said Mozeliak provided misinformation by saying he would not agree to move to second base, the position he now plays with the Padres. "I love second base," Eckstein said. "Second is my position. Yeah, playing shortstop was something that I've done, but second base has always been my home."

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It has long been assumed that Indians general manager Mark Shapiro would eventually be promoted to club president to replace Paul Dolan. That may happen someday, but not in the near future. Speculation from earlier this week suggested that Shapiro might be poised to make that move, particularly after reports came out that the Nationals had narrowed their general manager search to three candidates, and that Indians assistant general manager Chris Antonetti wasn't among them. Antonetti has long been assumed to be Shapiro's successor, and has turned down chances to be interviewed for GM openings with other clubs. However, it has also been thought that Antonetti would be interested in the Nationals' job, since he is a Georgetown graduate.

Thus, when Antonetti was not on the Nationals' list, there was speculation that he was staying with the Indians because he was about to be promoted to GM. However, Shapiro told the Cleveland Plain Dealer's Paul Hoynes that he wants to stay in his current position, particularly since the underachieving Indians are 50-66. "I definitely feel I have unfinished business as a general manager," Shapiro said. "There's always been that kind of chatter going around because throughout my conversations with Paul. The ability to continue to grow professionally and personally is important to me and may involve a shift in roles. Right now, however, there's too much work to do. I've been here almost 18 years now and I prefer to see this thing through."

The Indians have retrenched following the trades of left-hander Cliff Lee and catcher/first baseman Victor Martinez last month, deals made less than two years after the team lost to the Red Sox in seven games in the American League Championship Series. That was not the way the Indians expected 2009 to go, as they were considered one of the pre-season favorites to win the AL Central. "I say it's an organizational disappointment because I think we've underachieved with the talent we've got," Shapiro said. "Ultimately, we've done that too many times in the last few years. We've got to look to address why our team isn't achieving up to the level of talent that we think should create wins and losses. Not only us but other people within the industry, objectively and subjectively, believe this as well."

With Antonetti staying put, the Nationals will decide whether to give the job to assistant GM Mike Rizzo, who has been performing the GM duties since Jim Bowden resigned March 1, or if they will go outside the organization and hire either the Diamondbacks' vice president of player personnel, Jerry DiPoto, or Red Sox assistant GM Jed Hoyer.

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White Sox GM Ken Williams took a huge risk when he made a waiver claim on Blue Jays right fielder Alex Rios. The White Sox are 2½ games behind the Tigers in the AL Central and trail the Red Sox by 6½ games in the wild-card race, so some sort of move needed to be made. But at what cost? He knew there was a chance that the Blue Jays might not recall Rios and stick the White Sox with a bill of $62 million, the amount remaining on a seven-year contract he signed prior to the 2008 season.

Yet, Williams says he has no regrets about making the move and indeed being forced to take on Rios' contract. "I expected to make a trade," Williams said. "The (Blue Jays) deemed my request of money off the contract was not worth as much to them as the savings of cash. At the end of the day, I have to call (owner) Jerry Reinsdorf and lay all the cards on the table and he said, 'I absolutely love the idea of not having to give up some of these players' and we're OK with the cash because of the way we structured our payroll over the years."

The claiming of Rios came after the White Sox traded for Padres right-hander Jake Peavy at the July 31 non-waiver deadline, taking on the $52 million guaranteed on his contract through 2012. "If we don't win, Jerry and I might need second jobs," Williams said jokingly. "We're out on the limb a little bit with the last two acquisitions, but we have seen in recent games our fans are starting to wrap their hands around this team. The walk-ups have been great and people are getting excited about the possibility. I think they can see this team being a dangerous team if we get to the playoffs and match up against anyone."

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MLB Rumors and Rumblings: Athletics right-hander Justin Duchscherer has yet to throw a pitch in the major leagues this season after undergoing elbow surgery in March, but that hasn't stopped the Red Sox and Tigers, among others, from heavily scouting his rehabilitation starts in the minors with an eye toward trading for the veteran. … Once John Smoltz, who was designated for assignment by the Red Sox, clears waivers, look for the Marlins, Dodgers, Cardinals, and Rangers to make strong bids to try to sign him. … Another pitcher designated for assignment, Rangers right-hander Vicente Padilla, is drawing almost no interest because of his off-field issues. … The Padres figure to deal first baseman Adrian Gonzalez in the offseason after nearly trading him to the Dodgers last month; scouting director Grady Fuson's days in San Diego also appear numbered. … If Mets GM Omar Minaya does return next season, assistant GM John Ricco is expected to have a larger role in the decision-making process and handle most of the responsibilities in dealing with the media.

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Three series to watch this week, with probable pitching matchups (all times Eastern):

Twins at Rangers, Monday-Thursday (August 17-20)
Francisco Liriano vs. Tommy Hunter, 8:05 p.m.; Carl Pavano vs. Scott Feldman, 8:05 p.m.; Scott Baker vs. Kevin Millwood, 8:05 p.m.; Anthony Swarzak vs. Derek Holland, 8:05 p.m.

Cardinals at Dodgers, Monday-Wednesday (August 17-19)
Chris Carpenter vs. Charlie Haeger, 10:10 p.m. (ESPN); Mitchell Boggs vs. Chad Billingsley, 10:10 p.m.; Adam Wainwright vs. Clayton Kershaw, 10:10 p.m.

Mariners at Tigers, Tuesday-Thursday (August 18-20)
Felix Hernandez vs. Rick Porcello, 7:05 p.m.; Ian Snell vs. Justin Verlander, 7:05 p.m.; Ryan Rowland-Smith vs. Jarrod Washburn, 1:05 p.m. (MLB Network)

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 Transaction Action: We... (08/16)
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