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March 24, 2010

On the Beat

Mid-Week Update

by John Perrotto

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DUNEDIN, Fla.—Much has been made of Braves manager Bobby Cox retiring at the end of the season. We even waxed poetically about it in the last installment of this non-award-winning column on Sunday.

However, there is another major-league manager who is retiring at the end of the season. Like Cox, he will stay in his current organization as a special adviser beyond 2009. In fact, this manager even beat Cox and the Braves in the 1992 World Series. However, the Blue Jays' Cito Gaston is getting ready for his last go-round without anyone barely noticing.

There hasn't been a steady stream of media visiting the Blue Jays' spring training camp to write 'Farewell to Cito' odes. Sadly, though, that is the Blue Jays' world as we begin the second decade of the new millennium. They have become all but irrelevant as they have not been to the postseason since the second of the two World Series titles in franchise history. The Expos/Nationals, Pirates and Royals are the only franchises with longer post-season droughts.

Gaston, like the Blue Jays, was never very prominent after the second World Series triumph. He was fired after the 1997 season and, amazingly, never landed another manager's job despite having two world titles on his resumé and universal respect within the game.

Gaston had a stint as a special assistant to the club's ownership and as the Blue Jays' hitting coach until former general manager J.P. Ricciardi asked him to return to the dugout in June, 2008 to replace the fired John Gibbons. While Ricciardi hoped that Gaston could return the Blue Jays to their glory days, it hasn't happened, as they don't have to even think about competing with heavyweights like the Yankees and Red Sox in the American League East or even the upstart Rays. The Blue Jays lack an ace, a closer, or any truly exciting offensive talents in the major-league lineup beyond second baseman Aaron Hill and designated hitter Adam Lind.

The Blue Jays finished fourth each of the last two seasons despite going 126-124 under Gaston. It is hard to imagine the Blue Jays placing any higher this season in a division with three powerhouses in the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays and an Orioles team with a cadre of intriguing young talent.

Gaston stops short of running up the white flag. However, he is also realistic, noting, "It's probably going to take three years before we're ready to be truly competitive in this division. You never know, it could happen sooner, but it's going to be tough for us for a couple of years until we get this organization back to where it needs to be."

Ricciardi was fired during the final weekend of last season and replaced by assistant GM Alex Anthopoulos. Following 17 playoff-less seasons, Anthopoulos wisely retained Tony LaCava, perhaps the most underrated personnel man in the game, and decided to rebuild the organization on a grass-roots level by overhauling and bolstering the scouting department.

Beefing up the scouting, though, is just the first step in trying to get the franchise back on its feet. Those scouts have to find good players and then those prospects will need to be developed in the farm system. It's a time-consuming process one and Gaston realizes is it not the right situation for a manager who turned 66 last week. Thus, he is staying on to help the franchise through a transitional phase while Anthopoulos decides on who he wants to bring in as the next skipper.

"Alex is a really bright guy," Gaston said of his latest GM, who is 34 years his junior. "He is doing the right thing by deciding to put a big emphasis on scouting and player development. We always prided on ourselves on that. If you look at the history of this franchise, a lot of our best players are guys who we either drafted or signed as free agents from Latin America. Really, what Alex is doing is taking us back to our roots."

Just as Pat Gillick, the Blue Jays' original GM did, when he transformed a franchise that was part of AL expansion in 1977 into a contender in the mid-1980s then finally a repeat world champion in the early 1990s. Gaston was there when the World Series-winning teams were drawing four million fans a season to SkyDome, the game's first retractable-roof stadium and what is now known at Rogers Centre. The Blue Jays' attendance dropped below two million last season.

"It's always going to be hard to draw fans when you're not winning," Gaston conceded. "But I know how excited the people, not only in Toronto, but all of Canada can get when we put a good team on the field. We're going to have to be patient but I know we're on the right track. When we start winning again, there is no doubt in mind the fans will be back and there will be that same kind of enthusiasm that there was back when we were winning championships."

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We've praised Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez on this site in the past for eschewing the sacrifice bunt. Of the seven National League managers with at least three years of experience, Gonzalez called for the fewest sacrifices by position players from 2007-09 with 65. The Phillies' Charlie Manuel was second with 67, and the Cardinals' Tony La Russa is third with 107.

However, Gonzalez told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel's Juan C. Rodriguez that his decision to let his hitters swing away comes more from roster construction than strictly adhering to sabermetric principles.

"We've got guys you wouldn't bunt with, like Dan Uggla, Jorge Cantu, and Cody Ross," Gonzalez said. "I think I've tried with Cody before and it didn't work out well. We've always had a free-swinging team that can score runs."

On the other hand, Gonzalez likes the intentional walk. He issued 186 in the last three years, second-most among the aforementioned seven skippers behind Cox (228). So why does Gonzalez micromanage so much on the pitching side?

"My philosophy on that is I want to take the pressure off the pitcher," Gonzalez said. "I've seen too many pitch-around mistakes and all of a sudden it's a double. I want to take that responsibility off him and put it on me. Sometimes you just have to pick your poison. Another reason I do it sometimes is I don't like to play the infield in. You have second and third, a base open, instead of the pitch-around just put him on."

Gonzalez also made the most pitching changes, according to the Bill James Handbook 2010, among the seven managers with 1,599 in the three-season span. Cox was second with 1,560. However, Gonzalez has used relievers on back-to-back days 374 times while Cox did so on 409 occasions.

"I'm very conscious of that," Gonzalez said. "I don't know if it's a good thing or a bad thing, but I pride myself in wanting to take care of those guys' arms."

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When Rangers owner Tom Hicks hired Nolan Ryan as club president late in the 2008 season and told GM Jon Daniels that he would be reporting to the Hall of Famer, it seemed like an arranged marriage between two mismatched people. Ryan is the tough Texan who became a pitching legend, and Daniels is the polite, boyish-looking executive from Queens who didn't play high school ball.

Both men admit they didn't have a close relationship at first. They were cordial and able to work together, but there was no feeling of kinship. That changed last season in the aftermath of manager Ron Washington coming to them and admitting he had used cocaine just before he was to be subjected to the once-a-year drug test that all major-league managers and coaches are required to take. Suddenly, Ryan and Daniels were faced with the difficult decision of keeping Washington or firing him.

They decided to retain Washington, who admitted last week to his cocaine use after SI.com's Jon Heyman broke the story. It was during that bit of soul-searching last summer that Ryan and Daniels started to realize they had quite a bit in common.

"You go through something like that together, and we were spending a lot of time behind closed doors, just the two of us, there is a bonding process that takes place," Daniels said told the Dallas Morning News' Evan Grant. "Everything is stripped down. It's not about his public image or mine. It all comes down to your character there. It's about your belief system and your values. We found out that we really had a lot of similar beliefs. It was reaffirming that we saw things the same way."

Those meetings were an eye-opener to Ryan, who admitted to seeing a different side of Daniels.

"Over time, your relationships get stronger but I'd have to say this really changed things," Ryan said. "I found out he cares about people. He's supportive of the people he cares about, but he also has expectations. We were a lot more similar than we were different. We were just in agreement. It was not me overriding him or him disagreeing with me. And we knew there was a pretty good chance we were going to have to stand up together sometime and explain why we decided to keep him and deal with the criticism that came along with it."

---

At times it seems likes the Pirates are like Don Quixote tilting at windmills in their never-ending pursuit of a winning season. They have finished under .500 for 17 straight season, a record for major North American professional team sports. It has gotten to the point where the Pirates have shied away from even mentioning .500. However, when pressed, manager John Russell admits the streak constantly hangs over the franchise.

"I've told the players that I would love nothing more than for hit group to break the streak," Russell said. "Myself, I'm not going to love it until we make the playoffs and ultimately win the World Series. For the players, though, it would be great for them to be the team associated with breaking the streak. I really like this team a lot and I'd like to see these guys be successful."

However, it would take quite a turnaround for the Pirates to get over .500 this season. Considering they finished 62-99 last season with a late-season rainout helping keep them from a 100-loss season, the Pirates would need to win 20 more games this year to finish 82-80.

"I think we're going to be better than people think and I think we have a chance to become really good a lot faster than a lot of people expect," Russell said. "We're not that far away from being a very good team. We have a lot of talent here, it's just talent that people don't know about yet."

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MLB Rumors and Rumblings: Dodgers manager Joe Torre's decision to table negotiations on a one-year contract extension that would take him through next season has more to do less with money and more with what kind of advisory role he would fulfill following 2011, when is he expected to hand the managerial duties to hitting coach Don Mattingly. … The Twins have not decided on who will be their closer after knowing for more than two weeks that Joe Nathan would likely need season-ending Tommy John surgery on his elbow, lending validity to the reports they are trying to trade for Padres closer Heath Bell. … Mets first baseman Mike Jacobs has put on the catcher's gear for the first time since 2005 in an attempt to help his chances of winning a bench job. … The competition between J.R. Towles and prospect Jason Castro to become the Astros' starting catcher is so close that a decision might not be made until the last day of spring training. … The Orioles are at least considering giving Jim Johnson a share of the closer's job to start the season, as Mike Gonzalez has yet to reach 90 mph with his fastball this spring. … The Padres will have the lowest payroll in the major leagues at approximately $43 million, with at least 16 players will be making $428,000 or less.

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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