March 3, 2010
On the Beat
It was the third inning of the first game of spring training for the Mets on Tuesday afternoon, and a player was already walking off the field in pain while accompanied to the dugout by a trainer. It would have been understandable if everyone associated with the Mets would have cringed.
During a spring training in which the Mets are dedicated to distance themselves from a dreadful 2009 season, they had a flashback when right-hander Elmer Dessens was hit on the top of the right knee by a line drive in off the bat of Braves catcher Brian McCann. Dessens was fine after the Mets' 4-2 victory in the Grapefruit League lid-lifter at Tradition Field, having nothing more than a small wrap on the knee.
All was well that ended well, but you still couldn't help but think back to last year when 18 Mets players went on the disabled list a total of 21 times, resulting in 1,451 days and $52 million of value lost. There were enough injuries to make the hair grow back on Will Carroll's head. The list of players who paraded to the DL had star power, too, as it included Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado, Oliver Perez, J.J. Putz, Jose Reyes, Johan Santana, Gary Sheffield, and Billy Wagner.
"Every team has injuries, and you never like to use them as an excuse," general manager Omar Minaya said. "What really hurt us, though, is that we had so many injuries to premium players. You can build enough depth to overcome a certain amount of injuries, but when you're constantly putting your best players on the disabled list, it's tough to overcome that in the long haul."
The Mets weren't able to overcome the hurts, as they finished 70-92 and 23 games behind the National League East-winning Phillies. It was a frustrating season, to say the least.
"It made for a long winter," third baseman David Wright said. "Everyone went home at the end of last season with a bad taste in their mouths. We had high hopes at the start. We felt we could win the division. We thought we could go to the World Series, and I still think that would have been possible if we wouldn't have had practically every player on the club hurt. It was one of those years that once things started going bad, they just kept getting worse, and it was like there was nothing we could do to stop it."
The Mets have changed their spring training regimen in an attempt to stop the injuries that not only doomed 2009, but made a big dent in 2008. The Mets had 16 players combine for 23 DL stints that spanned 1,645 days and resulted in a lost value of $34 million two years ago when they collapsed in September for a second straight season and finished three games behind the Phillies.
The buzzwords this spring for the Mets are "prevention" and "recovery." The training staff wants the players to be cognizant of preventing injuries and allowing their bodies to recover following workouts. On-field workouts have been shortened, players have been encouraged to lighten up on the weight-room workouts, and there has been more "active stretching" exercises incorporated into the daily routine rather than traditional stretches.
Manager Jerry Manuel took the prevention message seriously Tuesday. After a heavy rainstorm struck about three hours before game time, manager Jerry Manuel removed all the regulars and went with a lineup that, beyond Gary Matthews Jr. and Mike Jacobs, looked like one the Buffalo Bisons might field on Opening Day in the International League.
"We just didn't want to take any chances," Manuel said. "The field dried quickly, but there is a lot of foul territory here and we felt it was too much of a risk to get somebody hurt."
If the training changes take hold this spring, Minaya is willing to fall back on one of most basic of statistical theorems. "I figure the law of averages has to be on our side this season," he said with a smile.
There are actually an inordinate number of smiles around a clubhouse of a team that was 22 games under .500 last season. Part of that has to do with the natural optimism that surrounds spring training and part has to do with ownership springing for a four-year, $66-million contract for free-agent left fielder Jason Bay in January. However, the good feeling goes deeper than that.
"We feel like we're going to win," said Reyes, fully recovered from surgery to reattach a torn hamstring to the bone. "We know we have a good team. We know we have a lot of talent here. And we know it's our year to have good health. We're due for some good luck."
PECOTA isn't so sure, which is ironic since Bill Pecota finished his career with the Mets. The system initially projects the Mets to finish 77-85. When that was mentioned to Wright, he gave a most refreshing answer, stating, "We're not the type of team to take the old us-against-the-world mentality. I don't think anybody is ever going to look sympathetically on a team from New York. We're expected to win. We're not going to be an underdog story if we win."
Minaya, though, wouldn't really be particular about how the story of a championship might be written. He would just like to read it. "Everyone thought we were the favorites last year, and you saw what happened," Minaya said. "Now everyone thinks we don't have a chance to win this season. Hopefully, everyone will be wrong again."
The Nationals were the only team to finish behind the Mets in the NL East last season, as their 59-103 record was the worst in the major leagues. Yet optimism abounds at the Nationals' camp this spring as reliever Jason Bergmann, who has participated in each spring training since the franchise relocated from Montreal prior to the 2005 season, can attest.
"It just feels different because of the personnel around me," Bergmann told the Washington Post's Adam Kilgore. "More than last year, more than the year before that, I believe in this team. Everything seems stable. Every year, there's been an issue. This year it's strictly about baseball."
Washington had a tumultuous spring last year, as GM Jim Bowden resigned on March 1 amidst allegations that he knew about a bonus-skimming scandal in the Dominican Republic involving Nationals scouts. Assistant GM Mike Rizzo took over Bowden's responsibilities and eventually was promoted to GM as the Nationals went 33-48 in the second half of the season after being 26-61 at the All-Star break.
Rizzo addressed the team at the start of full-squad workouts last week. Though his speech lasted but two minutes, it was inspired and had a tone that said, "We're putting 2009 behind us because our expectation is to win."
"I just wanted to make sure they heard it from me," Rizzo said. "The players should be focused to win, prepare to win, and expect to win. There really has been a different attitude. We're all tired of losing. We're all tired of talking about 100-loss seasons and No. 1 picks. You have to believe you can win before you start winning. I think that has taken place."
That has made the Nationals' situation so much better than a year ago at this time. "Last year was about the worst possible vibe you could have," club president Stan Kasten said.
Now that Mark McGwire is back in the game's good graces as the Cardinals' hitting coach after admitting to and apologizing for using steroids and human growth hormone, could that open the door for all-time home run leader Barry Bonds to return to baseball? Bonds admitted during the offseason that he has finally given up on the hope of playing again, as he has not received any offers as a free agent following a 2007 season in which he hit 28 home runs in 340 plate appearances while leading the NL with a .480 on-base percentage and posting a .352 TAv.
The San Jose Mercury News' Andrew Baggarly posed that question to former Giants manager Felipe Alou. Now a special assistant to GM Brian Sabean, Alou said he would love to see Bonds return to the Giants in a coaching or advisory position. Alou believes Bonds knows much more about hitting than McGwire.
"McGwire never won any batting titles, did he?" Alou said. "McGwire was a great home run hitter. Barry was a great hitter, period. He was a great student of hitting. The home runs were just one part of his career. This is a guy who was a great outfielder, a destructive base runner, a smart player. There's a lot he could bring, but I don't know if he's interested."
While McGwire became reclusive following his retirement in 2001 until returning this spring, Bonds has made occasional appearances at AT&T Park since his career ended. He also has a 10-year personal services contract with the Giants that he has yet to begin.
"I do expect he will be at the ballpark this year," Giants president Larry Baer said. "We're in pretty good touch with him. He's got some stuff to get through and we'll see where things go for him in his life. His situation is different (from McGwire's) in a lot of ways. I can tell you we certainly enjoyed him when he came for our reunions (in 2008). The players enjoy being around him, getting some of his hitting wisdom. He's taken time with them, too. A lot of them grew up watching him play. So we'll see. Right now, all channels are open."
If there is one knock about the Rockies after making two playoff appearances in the last three years, it is that they are a bit bland. They don't have a superstar, or even a player with a personality that might get him noticed outside Denver. However, manager Jim Tracy could care less. He has always been a proponent of the team concept.
"It's the personality of some of the individuals in that clubhouse and, frankly, that's the way I like that," Tracy told the Denver Post's Jim Armstrong. "It's not necessary to create bulletin-board fodder for other clubs. We recognize who we are and go about our business accordingly. And through the course of our actions over a period of time, that's when people walk away from you shaking their heads and saying, 'Boy, they're awfully good.'"
Tracy feels his club's steadiness comes from first baseman Todd Helton and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, two players on opposite ends of the experience spectrum. Helton is 36 years old and entering his 14th major-league season, while Tulowitzki is 25 and starting his fourth full season.
"You know every day that clubhouse door opens and either of those guys walks in, it's 'All right, boys, we can get started now,'" Tracy said. "That's what you love about it. It's not like we're all waiting around to see what kind of mood they're in today. You know what's coming through there, and it makes it very easy if you're a younger player in that clubhouse. I don't think you need any type of dissertation as to 'Here's how we do it.'"
MLB Rumors and Rumblings: It appears that John Smoltz, still a free agent, is 50-50 on whether he will try to pitch again at some point this season or retire. The White Sox plan to use Mark Kotsay as their designated hitter against right-handers, and Andruw Jones against lefties. The trickle-down effect of the Tigers signing free agent Johnny Damon to play left field is that Carlos Guillen will now be a full-time designated hitter, and Ryan Raburn will play off the bench after the last two were expected to split time at both positions. Chris Dickerson has emerged as the early favorite to get the bulk of starts in left field for the Reds. The Angels plan to take a look at Hideki Matsui in left field during the exhibition season after the Yankees used him strictly as a DH last season. The Rangers have decided that rookie center fielder Julio Borbon will be their leadoff hitter. The Yankees' signing of reliever Chan Ho Park as a free agent might bump Alfredo Aceves back to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. The Red Sox have been working utilityman Bill Hall out at first base, one of three positions he has not played in the major leagues along with pitcher and catcher. The Cubs are considering giving Mike Fontenot starts at shortstop when Ryan Theriot gets days off in order to add more offense to the lineup.