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September 20, 2010

On the Beat

Being Part of the Solution

by John Perrotto

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Everything is lining up for Kirk Gibson to have the "interim" removed from his title and continue as the Diamondbacks' manager past the end of this season. The Diamondbacks' search for a permanent general manager is down to two, with interim GM Jerry Dipoto and former Padres GM Kevin Towers the finalists and a decision likely to come this week. Dipoto will keep Gibson, who was promoted from bench coach to interim manager on July 1 when A.J. Hinch and general manager Josh Byrnes were fired, and Towers is expected to do the same if he is hired.

Ask Gibson if we like to continue on as manager and he does not give a direct answer. Gibson wasn't a politician during his 17-year career as a major-league outfielder from 1979-95, and no-nonsense remains the perfect adjective to describe him today.

Instead of saying yes, Gibson talks about the burning to desire to win a World Series as a manager. He won two rings as a player with the 1984 Tigers and 1988 Dodgers and the pride of being part of such an accomplishment shows more than two decades later.

"When I played football, the goal was to win a national championship," said Gibson, who was an All-America wide receiver at Michigan State. "When Michigan State got put on probation, the goal became to win the Big Ten and we did that. When football ended and I became a baseball player, the goal became the World Series. I was fortunate enough to do it twice and no one can ever truly understand what it feels like when you reach that accomplishment unless you've done it. There is no other feeling like it. I want these guys to feel that. Heck, I want to feel it again. It's been a long time."

The Diamondbacks have experienced that feeling once in their history, taking down the Yankees in 2001 on Luis Gonzalez's game-winning bloop single off Mariano Rivera in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game Seven. However, nearly everything about the franchise has changed since that magical November night in the desert, including the entire roster, ownership, general manager, manager, and even the uniforms.

Considering the Diamondbacks' current plight, it seems more like 90 years since the franchise captured a World Series championship in just its fourth year of existence. They are 59-91 and last in the National League West, 25 ½ games behind the Giants. Since winning the division in 2007, the Diamondbacks fell to 82-80 in 2008 then 70-92 last season.

The Diamondbacks have played somewhat better since Gibson replaced Hinch. They were 31-48 at the time of the switch and 28-43 since. However, ask Gibson if he is happy at the progress the Diamondbacks have made and he scoffs.

"I'm not happy to be in last place, I'll never be happy about that," he said. "One thing we have gotten better at is not allowing innings to get out of hand and games to get out of control. Our guys have learned to play to the scoreboard better."

What Gibson didn't say but clearly meant is that the Diamondbacks quit on Hinch at times. However, Gibson and the Diamondbacks organization have tried to create a different mindset since Hinch and Byrnes were jettisoned.

The Diamondbacks, for better or worse, are getting away from the sabermetrically-based decision-making process that Byrnes favored. Instead, they are expected to overhaul the roster this winter and base their decisions more on scouting and character and less on statistics and production.

"I really wonder at times if all of the guys truly understand the passion and commitment that our front office and our staff have in trying to make this a championship organization," Gibson said. "So much goes into winning a championship, the trust you build among each other and the relationships you build. It truly is a case of where everybody pulls together for a common goal. When you reach that goal, there is nothing in the world more fulfilling. That's what everybody has to strive for. The offseason is pretty short but those are some special months when you get to bask in what you've accomplished and it's a great feeling to go to spring training as the defending champions."

The Diamondbacks will gather at their new spring training facility on the Gila Indian Reservation in suburban Phoenix in February as the two-time reigning NL West cellar dwellers. Either Dipoto or Towers will have work to do in reshaping the roster as the Diamondbacks are 16th in the major leagues and eighth in the NL in runs scored (4.46 per game), 28th and 15th in runs allowed (5.29), and 21st and ninth in Defensive Efficiency (.686).

The Diamondbacks are on the verge of setting the major-league record for strikeouts as they have 1,397, two short of the 1,399 the 2001 Brewers had. Mark Reynolds (201) leads the whiff brigade that includes five players in triple digits, including Adam LaRoche (155), Justin Upton (152), Chris Young (134), and Kelly Johnson (133). Stephen Drew is also seemingly a lock as he has 95. All the strikeouts bother Gibson.

"You put the ball in play, you are going to score more runs. It's as simple as that," Gibson said. "There has to be a conscious and mental effort to do so. I tell them you guys have more left in your tank. Don't accept that that's who you are. You are not that animal. You can overcome that."

An awful bullpen was too much to overcome early in the season and sabotaged the Diamondbacks' chances of being competitive. Juan Gutierrez leads the relief corps with a WXRL of 0.376 that is barely above replacement level. Gutierrez has been the Diamondbacks' stopper du jour in recent weeks, but Gibson says finding a reliable closer must be a high priority in the offseason.

"We don’t have anybody in our bullpen who is a closer," Gibson said. "We need to have a closer next season. Good teams need to have a closer and we want to have a good team next year."

---

The biggest knock on Don Mattingly becoming the next Dodgers manager is that he has never held that job at any level. However, that didn't stop from Dodgers from deciding to promote him from bench coach to replace Joe Torre, who will retire at the end of the season. Furthermore, the Dodgers players seem fine with the idea of Mattingly running the club, though they are naturally curious if he will change with his new title.

"I've seen coaches take the manager's position and they think they have to take on a different personality, or maybe it's their true self coming out," third baseman Casey Blake said. "Knowing Donnie, it would be the same personality that he shows on a day-to-day basis. You never know, though. There's got to be some fire under there. He's Donnie Baseball. He's a fierce competitor. He's succeeded in a tough place to succeed in New York City. Maybe there is something under there that will be rude awakening for us."

General manager Ned Colletti hired Torre during the 2007-08 offseason with the idea that his successor would be on the coaching staff. That meant that either Mattingly or third-base coach Larry Bowa would almost certainly become the next manager, and it became clear by the end of the 2008 season that Mattingly was the front-runner. Torre felt the time had come to hand the reins to Mattingly as the Dodgers are 72-77 after winning the NL West the last two seasons.

"I just felt the club needed a different voice, a younger voice," the 70-year-old Torre said. "There's no one I'm more secure turning it over to than Donnie."

Everyone involved likes the idea of the continuity that comes with the transition.

"It's not a guessing game," right fielder Andre Ethier said. "We know it's going to be different next year. There will be new personnel. Who knows where. But you won't spend the offseason wondering what this manager will be like, if you'll get along with him. I'm excited to keep playing for Donnie and playing under a guy who definitely learned a lot of the mannerisms and style of how Joe goes about his business."

Bowa is expected to interview for the Marlins' manager's job once the season is over. Bowa said he will remain with the Dodgers and be part of Mattingly's staff if he doesn't get a managing gig.

Tim Wallach, manager of the Dodgers' Triple-A Albuquerque farm club, was also considered a possibility as Torre's successor. While he is likely to interview for other managerial openings after the season, Wallach is open to joining Mattingly's staff .

"Donnie put in his time," Wallach said. "I am really happy. I put in my time, but this isn't about me. It's about Donnie. He has the knowledge, the temperament, the ability to deal with the players on this level. I haven't thought about this job. I didn't take the Triple-A job to necessarily manage the Dodgers."

Fellow Southern California manager Mike Scioscia of the Angels knows Torre well. In fact, Scioscia is one of the few managers to have gotten the better of Torre, going 55-53 against his Yankees and Dodgers and winning ALDS against New York in 2002 and 2005. Scioscia believes Torre is deserving of a spot in the Hall of Fame after winning four World Series with the Yankees.

"You're not going to find too many guys who have the entire package he has," Scioscia said. "As a player, he achieved at a very high level. He has a deep understanding of the game in every facet. His intuitiveness of knowing when just to back off and let a guy play and when to interject something—it's just a gift he has. His knowledge of the game, the way he communicates, his feel for players and evaluating—it just puts him on a short list of guys that have been doing it for a long time and that have been doing it that well for so long."

---

The Twins are making a run at finishing with the best record in the major leagues after it seemed a foregone conclusion that honor would go to winner of the Yankees-Rays battle royals in the American League East. White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen wouldn't be surprised if the Twins finished with the best record in the major leagues after they swept a three-game series from his club last week.

The sweep essentially clinched the American League Central title. The Twins have a 10-game lead over the White Sox, a magic number of four, and have the third-best record at 89-60, right behind the Yankees (90-59) and Rays (89-59).

"A lot of people talk about Tampa Bay, New York, Texas," Guillen said. "I don't hear anybody giving those guys the credit they deserve. They are playing well all year long. They are playing without a couple players, and they still produce. They find players out of nowhere to play good. I hate talking about the Twins because a lot of people think I'm a Twins fan. I see a lot of comments out there that Ozzie gives them too much credit. No, I think that's the way it is."

The Twins are on course for their sixth postseason in nine years. They have not gone to the World Series in that span, have reached just one ALCS and been knocked out in the ALDS four straight times, by the Yankees on each occasion. However, Guillen would not be surprised to see the Twins reach the Fall Classic for the first time since 1991.

"The way they play baseball, yes," Guillen said. "The way they play right now, yes. Good baseball wins games, not good talent. They're putting everything together."

The Twins are also gunning to the majors' best record. They have certainly built plenty of momentum, as they are 43-17 since the All-Star break and 13-3 in September. If nothing else, getting the top seed in the AL playoffs would mean one less game at Yankee Stadium if the Twins were to meet the Yankees.

"It would be awesome to have home-field advantage (in the ALCS), not just the first round, especially the way we play at Target Field," reliever Jesse Crain said. "It's something that I think we're going to try to do. Obviously it'd be great to have home field against the Yankees. We've been there too many times and lost too many games in Yankee Stadium, old and new."

"It's a great feat for a team, obviously, to have the best record in baseball," pitcher Carl Pavano said. "There's only one team that gets that honor but we still have some games to play."

The Yankees and Rays face each other in a four-game series beginning tonight at Yankee Stadium. However, the Yankees say they will not try to win the division and/or home-field advantage at all costs.

"As long as we qualify, I don't really care," GM Brian Cashman said. "I just want our team to make it happen. Not just qualifying. I want them to make it happen all the way through October. And if I were an opposing team, I wouldn't want to play us, just like we don't want to play a lot of these guys because we know the competition's tough. We're in this to try to win a World Series and if we don't, people will remember that we didn't more than whatever we did. This is about trying to line us up and getting our guys playing in full gear."

---

Vancouver, British Columbia could play host to its first regular-season major-league games next season. The Mariners are slated to play a three-game series against the Marlins from June 24-26 at Miami but there is a scheduling conflict at Sun Life Stadium with a U2 concert. While the Marlins have proposed playing the games at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the Mariners are pushing to have the series move to BC Place in Vancouver, which hosted the opening and closing ceremonies in this year's Winter Olympics.

"My first thought is that it would be good, because we love to be able to reach out to that part of our market," said Mariners president Chuck Armstrong of Vancouver, located three hours from Seattle.

However, BC Place also holds bad memories for the Mariners. It was there in 1993 that Edgar Martinez, coming off an AL batting title, severely injured a hamstring during an exhibition game at BC Place. The injury led to Martinez shifting from third baseman to designated hitter.

"It was a long time ago," Armstrong said. "And the Vancouver area has always been very important to us."

---

MLB Rumors & Rumblings: The Angels' top off-season target on the free-agent market will be Rays left fielder Carl Crawford, but they are also expected to pursue a short reliever with Rays closer Rafael Soriano, Giants left-hander Jeremy Affeldt, Twins set-up man Jon Rauch, and White Sox middle man J.J. Putz reportedly on their list. … Twins right-hander Scott Baker will start Tuesday to give the rest of the rotation extra rest but is expected to work out of the bullpen in the postseason. … Yankees right fielder Nick Swisher is likely to get a few starts at first base in the final two weeks of the regular season just to keep him sharp for the postseason in the event first baseman Mark Teixeira's playing time is limited because of toe and wrist injuries. Lance Berkman would most likely start at first base if Teixeira can't play. … Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp's chances of being traded have lessened with the managerial switch, as he has a good relationship with Mattingly. … Pirates right fielder Lastings Milledge will be on the trading block in the offseason and is likely to be non-tendered if he isn't dealt. … Cardinals backup catcher Jason LaRue is expected to retire. … The Tigers will likely have a three-way competition between Will Rhymes, Scott Sizemore, and Danny Worth for the second-base job next spring as Carlos Guillen is not expected to be ready for the start of the season following knee surgery. 

---

Scouts' views on various major-leaguers:

Orioles right-hander Brad Bergesen: "They've stuck with him through the bad times and now they're getting a payoff. He's no great shakes but he throws strikes and can be pretty decent when he gets his slider over for strikes."

Cubs center fielder Marlon Byrd: "He's had an OK year but I still wouldn't have committed to three years of him like the Cubs did. He can do damage on fastballs over the heart of the plate but he struggles with off-speed stuff and chases too many pitches out of the strike zone. The one thing I have been impressed this season is his defense. He's gotten to balls I haven't seen him get to in the past."

Brewers left-hander Chris Capuano: "You've got to give the guy a lot of credit because it was a long road back for him from that second Tommy John surgery. He's still getting the feel back for his slider and he's not going to be an All-Star anymore. That being said, you could do worse than him as a fifth starter next season."

Royals left-hander Bruce Chen: "He might be the most unlikely pitcher in the major leagues to win in double digits this season but I wouldn't get too excited. Other than sharpening up his curveball a little and throwing more first-pitch strikes, his stuff is still pretty pedestrian.

Phillies right-hander Roy Halladay: "I guarantee you there will be a million stories leading up to the playoffs wondering if he will be able to handle the pressure of pitching in the postseason for the first time. Ignore them. Nothing bothers him. He's got four plus pitches, he's durable, and he is always well-prepared."

Blue Jays first baseman Lyle Overbay: "He might have a hard time finding a job this winter but I'd take a shot on him, especially at a reduced price. He's become more susceptible to the breaking ball but he still hits the ball hard."

Braves third baseman Martin Prado: "He's really blossoming into the type of hitter who might win a batting title someday. He's closed up some holes in his swing and sharpened his approach at the plate. He'll still occasionally chase a breaking ball in the dirt with two strikes, but he's become a very tough out."

Yankees middle reliever Kerry Wood: "You've got give the Yankees credit on this trade. He was really struggling with the Indians but the Yankees saw something that was fixable. They got him to raise his arm slot and now his fastball has a lot more movement and he's been pitching great. I'd bet he plays a major role for them in the postseason."

---

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

Rays (89-59) at Yankees (90-59), Monday-Thursday September 20-23
Matt Garza vs. Ivan Nova, 7:05 p.m.; James Shields vs. Phil Hughes, 7:05 p.m.; Wade Davis vs. A.J. Burnett, 7:05 p.m.; CC Sabathia vs. David Price, 7:05 p.m.

Braves (85-65) at Phillies (89-61), Monday-Wednesday September 20-22
Jair Jurrjens vs. Cole Hamels, 7:05 p.m.; Mike Minor vs. Roy Halladay, 7:05 p.m.; Tommy Hanson vs. Roy Oswalt, 7:05 p.m.

Rangers (83-65) at Angels (73-76), Monday-Wednesday, September 20-22
Derek Holland vs. Jered Weaver, 10:05 p.m.; Colby Lewis vs. Ervin Santana, 10:05 p.m.; C.J. Wilson vs. Dan Haren, 10:05 p.m.

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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