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October 12, 2008

Every Given Sunday

Manny-Free, Regret-Free

by John Perrotto

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ST. PETERSBURG—The Dodgers' acquisition of Manny Ramirez will undoubtedly go down as one of the greatest in-season moves in baseball history. The left fielder played a huge role in the Dodgers winning the National League West and advancing to the National League Championship Series. He hit .396/.489/.743 with 17 home runs in 53 regular-season games after being acquired from the Red Sox as part of a three-team deadline-day trade that also included the Pirates. That was enough for Ramirez to lead all Dodgers’ hitters with 47.6 VORP while also posting a sizzling .404 EqA. Ramirez was 5-for-10 with two home runs and five runs scored in the three-game sweep of the Cubs in the National League Division Series, and has gone 3-for-8 with a homer in the first two games of the NLCS. Nevertheless, the Dodgers trail the Phillies 2-0 in the best-of-seven series that resumes tonight at Dodger Stadium.

Even while Manny's thrived out west, however, the Red Sox are not complaining with the way the trade has worked out on their end of the deal. They got left fielder Jason Bay from the Pirates, and he has played a major role in the Red Sox's reaching the American League Championship Series, which is now knotted at 1-1 between the Sox and Rays, and resumes Monday at Fenway Park after an offday today.

Bay hasn't matched Manny in production, but he hit .293/.370/.527 in 49 regular-season games for the Red Sox with 15.2 VORP and a .302 EqA. He was also the star of their four-game victory in the American League Division Series over the Angels, as he went 7-for-17 (.412) with two doubles and two home runs, while also scoring the series-winning run on Jed Lowrie’s single in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game Four. Bay is 4-for-8 with a double and a homer in the ALCS. "Losing a guy like Manny out of the lineup was hard, and we didn’t know what would happen," Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz said. "But Jason has been great. He’s a big part of this team. He’s a really good player."

Playing for the Pirates is a baseball player’s version of being in the federal witness protection program. The Pirates haven’t had a winning season since 1992, and haven’t been on ESPN’s Sunday night game of the week since 2001. Thus, except for being a great hometown story during the 2006 All-Star Game at PNC Park—when he was the starting left fielder for the National League—Bay has toiled far from the spotlight. Because he played in such anonymity, the logical questions when Bay was dealt to the Red Sox were if he could handle the pressure of playing in a pennant race, how he would be able to adjust to an environment where every move the hometown team makes is dissected by millions of Red Sox fans, and whether he would put too much pressure on himself in trying to replace a future Hall of Famer in Ramirez.

Bay has answered all the questions in the affirmative, though he still has to stop and pause from time to time to consider his new surroundings. "It’s been great and a completely different world than what I was used to in Pittsburgh," Bay said. "I love Pittsburgh, and the people there were great to me, but it’s just a different atmosphere in Boston. The Red Sox are there like what the Steelers are in Pittsburgh, everybody is into every little single thing that goes on with our club. It was a bit of an adjustment at first, but it’s been fun to be put into this kind of situation. As a professional athlete, you want to have a chance to win and compete for a championship. I’ve never had that, and it’s exciting."

Bay still keeps in touch with many of his former teammates, particularly via text message, the preferred method of communication of the modern-day baseball player. He is also fitting in well with his new teammates. "He’s just a great guy that you can’t help but like, both as a person and a player," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "What helped is that he produced right away. That took off any heat that might have been put on him. He’s been able to relax from the start, and we’ve all been able to find out just how good a player he is. He’s been terrific, just terrific."

While Ramirez has gained cult-hero status in Los Angeles, he was loathed in Boston; the perception, rightly or wrongly, was that he had quit on the Red Sox because he wanted to ensure they would not exercise the two $20-million club options on his contract for 2009 and 2010, which would have prevented him from becoming a free agent. Ramirez had not only tested Francona’s seemingly endless supply of patience, but also that of general manager Theo Epstein and his teammates. Thus, the Red Sox felt they had no choice but to trade Ramirez for Bay, also giving up reliever Craig Hansen and outfielder Brandon Moss to the Pirates in the deal, while the Dodgers sent third baseman Andy LaRoche and right-hander Bryan Morris to Pittsburgh. "Let’s just say we’re happy with the trade," Francona said diplomatically. "I like our team the way it stands now. I’m extremely happy to have Jason Bay on our club."

Bay is signed through next season, and can then become a free agent. That, too, was part of the lure of trading for him, but what the Red Sox like most about him is that he is the anti-Manny. An unassuming native of Trail, British Columbia, Bay has no drama surrounding him, and easily blends into a crowd off of the field. "Jason is comfortable with who he is," Epstein said. "He’s not the type to put too much pressure on himself or to change his behavior to try to be something he’s not. He hasn’t tried to replace Manny Ramirez and we never asked him to do so. He’s been himself—a steady, productive all-around good player and great teammate."

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It is hard to find a team comparable to the 2008 Rays, who lost at least 92 games in their first 10 years of existence before suddenly leaping to a 97-65 record this season and a victory over the White Sox in the American League Division Series. The Rays are the first team to go from last place in their division one season to the ALCS the next since the 1991 Twins. But those Twins were only four years removed from a World Series title, and three years removed from a 91-win season. Perhaps the team these Rays most resemble is the 1969 Mets, who went on to win the World Series in their eighth season of existence. Prior to '69, the Mets had lost 100 games in five of seven years, and never had fewer than 89 defeats in a season.

Rays manager Joe Maddon was a 15-year-old growing up in northeastern Pennsylvania as a Cardinals fan in that summer of ’69, and remembers watching the Mets’ telecasts on WOR on a new-fangled invention called cable television that his uncle Carli had in the luncheonette he owned in Hazleton. Maddon believes comparing the Rays to the ’69 Mets is not only fitting but flattering.

"The pitching staff was incredible," Maddon said. "They had all those power arms and they had the great bullpen. The biggest thing was that they kept beating the odds and they continued to move forward from the meager past that they had. I remember primarily the fact that they played with a lot of heart. They always seemed to rise to the occasion and come back and win big games. Different guys, just like us, would play a big role."

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Dale Sveum spent just 16 games as the Brewers’ interim manager at the end of the regular season and in the four-game loss to the Phillies in the National League Division Series. That was a large enough sample size for Sveum to realize he wants to keep the job on a permanent basis after being elevated from third-base coach to replace the fired Ned Yost on September 15. "I believe this organization is in position to become really great," Sveum said. "I’d like to be here for that. I’d like to be the guy to lead this club because I think our best days are still ahead."

Sveum will have to wait until the Brewers resolve general manager Doug Melvin’s situation. Melvin has one year remaining on his contract, and owner Mark Attanasio has said he wants to extend that deal. Melvin would obviously want a contract with at least the same term as the next manager. Once Melvin’s status is clarified, he plans to meet with Sveum in the interim manager’s hometown of Phoenix.

Because of the hurried nature of Yost’s firing, Melvin and Sveum never had the chance to discuss the long-term vision for the franchise. "I want to ask questions and see what he thinks needs to be done," Melvin told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. "I want to get a feel if he matches with my style. Being a coach and being a manager are two different jobs."

The Brewers went 7-5 under Sveum to finish the regular season, including six wins in the final seven games that enabled them to win the NL Wild Card and make their first post-season appearance in 26 years. The offense was in a major slump and the starting pitching was hanging by a thread when Sveum took over, but Melvin also points out that Sveum had the advantage of having 10 extra players at his disposal in the regular season, as the Brewers carried a 35-man roster in September following the addition of 10 callups and waiver claims. Sveum’s only previous managerial experience was a three-year stint with the Pirates’ Double-A Altoona farm club from 2001-03. Sveum then spent two years with the Red Sox before becoming Yost’s bench coach for two seasons before shifting to third base this year.

As a player, Sveum was the Brewers’ first-round draft pick in 1982 as a high school senior, and was an infielder with them in the major leagues from 1986-91. "I always considered myself a Brewer, and I always wanted to find my way back to Milwaukee because it’s a great city," Sveum said. "I would hate to leave now, especially with the organization back on its feet after so many years of struggling."

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Angels manager Mike Scioscia figures to be second-guessed well into the offseason for his decision to try an unsuccessful suicide squeeze in the ninth inning of the decisive Game Four against the Red Sox in the ALDS. With the score tied 2-2 in the top of the ninth and Reggie Willits on third base with one out, Scioscia had Erick Aybar attempt to bunt. Unfortunately, Aybar missed Manny Delcarmen’s 2-0 pitch, and Willits was tagged out by catcher Jason Varitek as he tried to scramble back to third base. Delcarmen got out of the inning, and the Red Sox won the game and series in the bottom of the ninth on Lowrie’s RBI single.

Scioscia took a beating on the talk shows, chat rooms, and newspapers in Southern California for most of the week, but he refuses to second-guess his decision, especially since Aybar led the Angels with nine sacrifice bunts in the regular season, and Willits is one of the fastest players on the team. "If it wasn't part of Erick's game or Reggie's game or the situation at the time, it would make it a much tougher thing to live with," Scioscia told the Los Angeles Times. "And this page is heavy, let me tell you. It's not heavy for the fact that the decision didn't work out, what's heavy is the fact that it was a series that we did not play as well as we needed to, and I'll take responsibility for that."

Scioscia has also been criticized for employing too many one-run strategies with a roster that lacked speed and was more suited for playing for big innings. Scioscia does not plan to alter his approach, a style he learned while playing and coaching in the Dodgers’ organization. "If you’re afraid of the downside of any situation, you’re never going to achieve," Scioscia said. "I thought it was our best chance right there to get that run in and get this game to [closer] Frankie Rodriguez in the bottom of the ninth. There was a very high probability that that ball was going to be put down to where Reggie walks home. That was the basis of my decision. It was an extremely high-percentage play given the count, the guy that was on base and the guy who was in the batter's box. And I'll tell you what, if it happens again, we're doing it again and Erick's getting that bunt down. I can guarantee you that."

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NL Rumors and Rumblings: The Cubs might consider having right fielder Kosuke Fukudome begin next season at Triple-A Iowa following his second-half collapse if they don’t trade him first, even though he has three years and $38 million remaining on the four-year contract he signed as a free agent last winter. ... The Phillies will almost certainly buy out reliever Tom Gordon’s $4.5 million club option for 2009 for $1 million now that he is expected to have elbow surgery. ... Four former major league managers—Davey Johnson, Don Baylor, Jim Tracy, and Art Howe—have surfaced as potential candidates to fill the Rockies’ bench coach vacancy.

AL Rumors and Rumblings: The Mariners interviewed at least seven people for the job of general manager this past week, including assistant general manager Peter Woodfork and player personnel director Jerry DiPoto of the Diamondbacks, Mets vice president of player development Tony Bernazard, Dodgers assistant GM Kim Ng, Blue Jays assistant GM Tony LaCava, and in-house candidates Bob Engel (their international scouting director) and Lee Pelekoudas, who was promoted to interim GM from assistant GM when Bill Bavasi was fired in June. ... Athletics assistant GM Dave Forst turned down an invitation to interview with the Mariners, yet another indication he figures to eventually succeed GM Billy Beane in Oakland. ... As much as White Sox GM Ken Williams wants to make his club more athletic, his hands will be tied this coming offseason, as he already has 13 players under contract for $97 million for 2009. A series of moves the White Sox are likely to make, though, is to allow shortstop Orlando Cabrera to leave as a free agent, move second baseman Alexei Ramirez to shortstop, and play rookie Chris Getz at second base. ... The Blue Jays apparently are going to offer to add two years and $30 million to right-hander A.J. Burnett’s contract, which would make it a four-year, $54 million deal, in order to try to prevent him from opting out of his contract and becoming a free agent.

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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