July 5, 2010
On the Beat
Charlie Manuel has been called many different things during his time as the Phillies' manager. The always-tough Philadelphia fans, jumping on his easy-going manner and heavy Virginia drawl, derisively called him "Jolly Charlie" and "Good-Time Charlie" until he won them over with a World Series championship in 2008. The Phillies players good-naturedly call their likeable skipper "Big Chuck."
However, with his team's chances of winning a third straight National League pennant seemingly getting tougher with each disabled list move, Manuel is angling to have yet another name bestowed on him. Perhaps it's time to begin calling him Norman Vincent Manuel.
His lineup keeps shrinking along with his pitching depth, yet Manuel is not ready to concede that his team might be in trouble playing in the National League East with two teams in the Braves and Mets who don't appear to be going away anytime soon. The Phillies are in third place, five games behind the Braves, and host Atlanta in a three-game series beginning tonight at Citizens Bank Park.
"We can get through it," Manuel said. "Yeah, we can get through it. In fact, let me put it to you this way: We're going to get through it. We've still got a lot of season left. We've got guys that can play and have won championships. We're not going to give up. We're not going make any excuses. We're just going to keep playing. Anything can happen in baseball. You've got to stay positive."
Deep down, though, it has to be hard for Manuel to stay positive in light of the latest injury to strike his team. Second baseman Chase Utley had surgery last Thursday to repair a torn ligament in his left thumb. It seems Utley, in the best-case scenario, won't be back before September 1 and could conceivably miss the rest of the season if the healing process is slow as the ligament tore off the bone and had to be reattached.
Utley is just one of seven Phillies on the disabled list. Third baseman Placido Polanco will be sidelined until the latter part of the month with left elbow inflammation and catcher Carlos Ruiz is out indefinitely after suffering a concussion nearly three weeks ago. Ryan Madson, the Phillies' top set-up man, is one of four pitchers on the disabled list along with left-handed starter J.A. Happ, lefty reliever Antonio Bastardo, and right-handed reliever Chad Durbin.
Utley's loss, though, is clearly the biggest blow for the Phillies as all of the advanced metrics have shown him to be the team's best player during their run of three consecutive NL East championship seasons, even if infield mates Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins have won NL Most Valuable Players awards and Utley has not. Phillies right-hander Roy Halladay, in his first season in the NL after spending the first 12 years of his career with the Blue Jays, has been so impressed by Utley's overall game and professionalism that he refers to him as "the Derek Jeter of the National League."
The Phillies have so much faith in Utley that his teammates, almost to a man, believe he will be back before September. In fact, they talk about Utley almost as if he has superhuman healing powers. Phillies athletic trainer Scott Sheridan, part of a medical staff that won Baseball Prospectus' Dick Martin Award last season, also believes in Utley.
"I'll tell you one thing, nobody is going to work harder than he is," Sheridan said. "If it could happen, I would bet on him before I'd bet on other people or whatever. Chase is going to work hard. You know that. He's not going to do anything differently than he does on the field."
While Utley's .304 TAv ranks second on the team to right fielder Jayson Werth's .310, Ruiz (.284) and Polanco (.282) have also been steady contributors. Thus, the Phillies must replace production at three positions, trying to fill the holes with such journeymen as catchers Brian Schneider and Dane Sardinha and infielders Juan Castro, Greg Dobbs, Cody Ransom, and Wilson Valdez.
That puts more responsibility on players like Howard, Rollins, Werth, left fielder Raul Ibanez, and center fielder Shane Victorino to perform at a higher level. Manuel certainly isn't averse to putting pressure on those veterans.
"We have a lot of guys who have been good big-league hitters for a long time," Manuel said. "That's why I think we can get through this. We have guys who have been All-Stars, who have been MVPs. They're going to have to hit like that now. If we do that, we can overcome these injuries and keep on winning. That's why we've got to do."
Watching Schneider, Valdez, and Sardinha all hit three-run home runs last week made Manuel remember back to 1992 when he was managing in the Pacific Coast League with Triple-A Colorado Springs, then an Indians farm club. It brought back memories of an obscure catcher named Carlos Mota, who managed just 34 plate appearances in the regular season that year while Jesse Levis and Brian Johnson split starting duties behind the plate.
"We had a heckuva team and the Indians took almost all of my good players to the major leagues in September," Manuel said. "That made me so mad because they didn't leave with much for the playoffs and I had to play Mota as my catcher. Well, the guy started getting hits and throwing out guys like he was Johnny Bench, and we ended up winning the playoffs. Sometimes, you need guys like that to play like that for you."
Whether someone steps up to be this year's Mota for the Phillies remains to be seen. However, Norman Vincent Manuel's optimism is rubbing off on his players.
"There's no reason to panic," Werth said. "The last three years, we've been a team that has played its best baseball in September and October. There is a lot of season left and I think we're positioned right where we want to be."
Rare is the day when a team swallows hard and eats a contract with 5 ½ years remaining on it. However, that is what the Diamondbacks did when they fired general manager Josh Byrnes, who was signed through the 2015 season and also had a partial ownership stake in the franchise.
Manager A.J. Hinch also got the ax, just 14 months after he was promoted from farm director by Byrnes when Bob Melvin was fired. He has 2 ½ years on his contract. Reportedly, the Diamondbacks are paying Byrnes and Hinch more than $7 million to go away and leave the team in the hands, at least on an interim basis, to Jerry DiPoto, who was promoted from player personnel director to GM, and Kirk Gibson, who was promoted from bench coach to manager.
Managing general partner Ken Kendrick and team president Derrick Hall began evaluating the entire organization in mid-May. They came to the conclusion that Byrnes and Hinch had to the go with the Diamondbacks entrenched in last place in the NL West, where they also finished last season, with a 31-48 record.
"Basically, we didn't win enough games," Kendrick said. "There were a variety of things that weren't working. The bullpen is the obvious one, a team that, at the present, doesn't do the little things that good baseball teams do, the propensity to have strikeouts at levels that are certainly for us unprecedented with a number of our players. We need to look at the players, too. They need to take some responsibility for their part in this. And our farm system is a less talented part of our organization now than we'd like it to be."
It had been an open secret around the Diamondbacks that the players did not respect Hinch. They were upset that Melvin was fired and felt Hinch had been planted in the clubhouse as a spy by Byrnes. Even more than a year after the firing, it was obvious the players still hadn't warmed to Hinch as they were ecstatic that Gibson was named the interim manager.
"It wasn't all (Hinch's) fault but we were losing a lot of games," catcher Miguel Montero said. "Gibby's a great dude and he's going to be a great manager. I think he's going to help us. He's got that winning mentality."
DiPoto will work in concert with Hall in retooling the roster. The Diamondbacks are expected to be active between now and the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.
"He'll have a very big voice," Hall said. "We're going to rely on him and his judgment and we'll all make decisions together, yet he is interim general manager and it really comes down to him."
The Diamondbacks would seem ripe for a major roster overhaul, as they are headed to a second straight last-place finish just three years after winning the NL West and advancing to the NLCS. However, Hall says he does not believe the Diamondbacks need to start all over again.
"We don't necessarily need to make moves right now," Hall said. "The players will be the first to tell you that they have underperformed. But we don't want to blow this up. This isn't a complete makeover. We've had to tweak here and there and we'll see if we respond differently."
Cito Gaston is retiring as the Blue Jays' manager at the end of this season. However, he will still have a role in the development of the team next year when he become a special assistant to GM Alex Anthopoulos. When Gaston was asked what his advice to Anthopoulos would be in looking ahead to 2011, his first answer was something the GM should not do: Mess with the rotation.
"What I see is this organization will be able to stand up and say: 'We've got as good a starting rotation as any team in baseball,'" Gaston said. "That's what I see happening with Ricky (Romero) and (Brandon) Morrow. And (Shaun) Marcum is still a young guy, too. He's not an old man. Jesse (Litsch)? Don't know about Jesse, but if he comes back and pitches like he did two years ago (prior to Tommy John surgery). (Brett) Cecil has only had about three bad starts this year. He's a good, consistent young left-handed starter. This pitching staff is just going to get better."
The Blue Jays lead the major leagues with 120 home runs but are 18th among the 30 clubs in runs scored with a 4.4 runs a game average. The primary reason why the home runs and runs don't correlate is that the Blue Jays are 28th with a .305 on-base percentage. Gaston, a hitting coach, at heart, admits that Anthopoulos would be well-served to find some high-OBP hitters.
"All these guys aren't going to be back here, for sure," Gaston said. "To get better, we're on the right track as far as the pitching goes. Maybe we need to add a little bit in the bullpen, too."
MLB Rumors and Rumblings: While it is generally considered that the Twins have the best chance of trading for Mariners left-hander Cliff Lee, many in baseball believe the Reds may be able to put together a tempting enough package of young players to get him. The Dodgers are looking for pitching, and the Indians could be a match as would consider trading starters Fausto Carmona and Jake Westbrook and closer Kerry Wood. The Giants want an impact hitter from the left side, and there are indications they may try to land Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder. Outfielder Jermaine Dye continues to work out in hopes of signing with someone as a free agent after the All-Star break and the Rockies, Rangers, and Padres are all possible destinations. The Marlins are looking to sure up their bullpen, and Pirates closer Octavio Dotel is one of their targets. The Yankees and Phillies are both interested in Orioles infielder Ty Wigginton and Royals utility player Willie Bloomquist. One prospect the Phillies will not give up in a trade is Triple-A Lehigh Valley outfielder Domonic Brown. The Cardinals are looking to add a bat and among the possibilities are Nationals left fielder Josh Willingham, Indians left fielder Austin Kearns, Athletics center fielder Coco Crisp, and Royals right fielder David DeJesus. Look for Yankees special assistant Kevin Towers, formerly the Padres' GM, to get serious consideration for the Diamondbacks' GM job. The Orioles' decision on their manager appears to be between Buck Showalter and Eric Wedge. White Sox set-up reliever J.J. Putz has proven he is again healthy this season and wants to try to sell himself as a closer on the free-agent market in the offseason.
Three series to watch with probable pitching matchups (all times Eastern):