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October 21, 2009

On the Beat

A Showdown Lowdown

by John Perrotto

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The Dodgers are down to their last potential gasp of 2009, and while waiting to exhale, they will send Vicente Padilla to the mound tonight in the hope he can salvage their season. Such a scenario would have been unthinkable just two months ago; the Rangers designated the right-hander for assignment on August 7 despite being only one game behind the Red Sox in the wild-card standings, and 3 games behind the Angels in the AL West.

The reason for Texas' discarding the veteran was that they had grown weary of Padilla, who was universally disliked in the clubhouse. Padilla was chronically late for pitching staff meetings, and sometimes decided not to participate at all. He seldom spoke to his teammates and drew the wrath of manager Ron Washington for frequently staying in the clubhouse during games to catch up on his e-mail and text messages rather than sitting in the dugout. The Rangers players reportedly were so happy with Padilla's dismissal that they broke into spontaneous applause when general manager Jon Daniels walked into the clubhouse on the day he was designated for assignment. Unable to find any team willing to trade for Padilla, the Rangers released him at the end of the 10-day DFA period. The Dodgers and Nationals reportedly were the only teams willing to sign Padilla as a free agent, though they only had to pay the approximately prorated $100,000 left on the minimum $400,000 salary, with the Rangers on the hook to pay the rest of his $12 million annual compensation.

Yet, Padilla now seems to be the Dodgers' best starting pitcher, and manager Joe Torre validated that idea by tabbing the 32-year-old to start Game Five of the National League Championship Series against the Phillies tonight in Philadelphia. The Dodgers are on the brink of elimination, as they trail 3-1 in best-of-seven series. Padilla had 1.2 SNLVAR and a .554 SNWP in seven regular-season starts for the Dodgers and has allowed only one run in 14 1/3 innings in the first two post-season starts of his 11-year career. He shut out the Cardinals for seven innings in Game Three of the Dodgers' sweep of their National League Division Series, and then allowed only one run in 7 1/3 innings against the Phillies in Game Two of the NLCS.

Though Clayton Kershaw started Game One against the Phillies and Padilla started Game Two, Torre has flip-flopped them in the rotation to take advantage of the hot hand, and also to let the 21-year-old pitch at Dodger Stadium in a potential Game Six; Kershaw had a 1.83 ERA at home in 88 1/3 innings during the regular season, compared to a 3.81 mark in 82 2/3 innings on the road. "We had the option of going one way or the other," Torre said. "I was set on Padilla because of his experience, because of how he pitched against St. Louis, how he pitched against this ballclub earlier, and he's on full rest."

Padilla had just 1.9 SNLVAR and a .490 SNWP in 18 starts for the Rangers this season, but the Dodgers' scouts believed he still had the stuff to be an effective pitcher in the weaker NL. General manager Ned Colletti was well aware of Padilla's reputation, which was stained by alcohol-related incidents earlier in his career, and did his due diligence in checking on his character. Colletti had two in-house sources, as third-base coach Larry Bowa managed Padilla with the Phillies and left-hander Randy Wolf was his rotation mate in Philadelphia. "I don't know what happened in Texas, but to me, he's a good teammate," Wolf told the Los Angeles Times. "He's quiet. He works hard. He does his work in between starts. He wants to win. He's been competitive. He's been a great pickup."

Bowa believes pitching on a contender and the postseason has challenged Padilla. However, Bowa is also pragmatic and knows Padilla can become a free agent next month if the Dodgers, as expected, decline to pick up the $12 million club option in his contract for 2010. "I think he understands the magnitude of every game now," Bowa said. "Let's be honest, too. He wants a contact for next year. When guys are playing out the last year of their contract, for some reason that notch goes up a little bit higher."

It is quite fitting that Padilla will pitch a day after Colletti received a contract extension. The GM's contract was set to expire at the end of the postseason, and the Dodgers' ownership situation figures to soon be put into flux as Frank and Jamie McCourt are filing for divorce and the proceedings are expected to become nasty. The signing of Padilla at a bargain price was a masterstroke for Colletti, who has made his share of blunders on big-ticket blunders, including signing right-hander Jason Schmidt for three years and $47 million, outfielder Juan Pierre for five years and $44 million, and center fielder Andruw Jones for two years and $36.1 million. Schmidt had -0.8 WARP1 in his Dodgers' career, a period that ended earlier this season and was wrecked by shoulder surgery-even though the Dodgers knew he had a rotator cuff tear when they signed him. Pierre has contributed 2.4 WARP1 in his first three seasons. Jones' 2008 season was such a disaster, including -2.0 WARP1, that the Dodgers negotiated a buyout with him last winter. In contrast, Padilla has already out-WARP1'd the three combined in two months.

---

Alex Rodriguez has spent the past two weeks putting to rest the talk that he chokes in October and can't handle the pressure of the postseason. The third baseman is a major reason why the Yankees are within one victory of getting to the World Series, as they hold a 3-1 series lead over the Angels in the ALCS. Rodriguez is hitting .407/.469/1.000 with five home runs in 32 plate appearances during the postseason.

So what has been the difference? Rodriguez says it has been a combination of factors, including admitting at the beginning of spring training that he used steroids from 2001-03 while playing for the Rangers and undergoing hip surgery in March. "It was like there were no expectations this year after everything I went through at the start of spring training," Rodriguez said. "It put me in a good place and I've stayed there all year and felt comfortable. I wish I had something more profound for a reason but that's really it."

Rodriguez's teammates say it is clear that he has been more relaxed than at any point since the Yankees acquired him from the Rangers in a trade on the eve of spring training in 2004. "He's one of the greatest players who has ever put on a uniform," left fielder Johnny Damon said. "His only downfall in his career so far has been he hasn't won a championship. He has had success in the postseason but the past couple have not been so great for him. Pitchers would pitch around him and I think he understands that more now. He knows he doesn't have to carry the whole load now because he has (designated hitter Hideki Matsui) right behind him, ready to do some damage, then (catcher Jorge Posada), then (right fielder Nick Swisher), then (second baseman Robinson Cano). Alex is in that comfort zone now. He knows he's a big part of this team but he also knows that he doesn't have to carry the load. He's always had the pressure of having the big contract, being the highest-paid player in the game but he's very relaxed now. He's really happy and productive."

---

Let the hyperbole begin. The free-agent market hasn't yet opened for business, and agent Scott Boras is already touting Cardinals outfielder Matt Holliday as the greatest player in the history of baseball. OK, Boras hasn't quite gone that far, but he has started his attempt to drive up Holliday's price tag by comparing him to another of his high-profile clients, Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira. The comparison is actually valid, however. Holliday has 27.8 WARP1 in his seven major league seasons. When Teixeira signed his eight-year, $180 million contract with the Yankees last winter, he had accumulated 27.7 WARP1 in seven seasons.

"These guys are blue-collar superstars," Boras said. "They don't hit 50 home runs, but they're complete players. They can give you something without swinging a bat. There are differences between hitters and complete players. Matt Holliday is a complete player. There is, frankly, no one like him on the market."

Agent Joe Urbon might disagree, and his client, Red Sox left fielder Jason Bay, will hit the open market with 25.2 WARP1 in his seven major league seasons. However, Holliday has the better chance of getting the bigger contract. At 28, Holliday is three years younger than Bay, and such big-market teams as the Yankees, Mets, and Angels are all expected to join the bidding on him. While the Red Sox want to re-sign Bay, a stumbling block could be that they seem to only want to offer a three-year deal with an option. There is also a growing sense that Bay would prefer to play on the West Coast, as he grew up in British Columbia and lives in Seattle, his wife's hometown. The Giants and Mariners both might make serious plays for him.

---

The Indians have started their second round of interviews for their manager's job, and the finalists are former Nationals manager Manny Acta, Torey Lovullo (the manager of the Indians' Triple-A Buffalo club), Dodgers hitting coach Don Mattingly, and ESPN analyst and former Rangers and Mets manager Bobby Valentine.

The Astros talked to 10 candidates for their manager's job in their first round of interviews, and had each of them meet the Houston media. Former Mariners and Diamondbacks manager Bob Melvin was said to have made a particularly strong first impression. Owner Drayton McLane will join the second round of interviews, but GM Ed Wade has decided to institute a news blackout until a final decision is made.

The Nationals don't plan to step up their managerial search until after the World Series, a strong indication they have their eye on some coaches whose teams are still playing in the postseason. Mattingly said the Nationals received permission from the Dodgers to talk with him, though they have yet to set up an interview. Phillies bench coach Pete Mackanin, who interviewed with the Astros, and Angels bench coach Ron Roenicke might also be of interest.

Another club might also be joining the hunt for a new skipper. Cardinals manager Tony La Russa is without a contract for next season, and has yet to decide if he will return. La Russa has been a big-league manager since 1979, and has hinted at retirement in recent seasons. "When you get to the end of the year, you're a little beat up and want to make a decision with as clear a head as you can," La Russa told the San Francisco Chronicle's John Shea. "I told them I wouldn't take forever. At some point, sooner rather than later, I'm going to do something else. Thirty years is a long time."

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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