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November 23, 2008

On the Beat

Short People Got Reason

by John Perrotto

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When Randy Newman sang "short people have no reason to live" in his campy 1977 pop hit "Short People," he had it all wrong. Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia offered proof this past week that short people have a place in the major leagues, just as Giants right-hander Tim Lincecum had the week before. Pedroia, who is 5'9" tall, won the American League Most Valuable Player award just one year after being named the AL Rookie of the Year, becoming only the third player to win the ROY and MVP awards in consecutive seasons, joining Cal Ripken Jr. (1982-83 with the Orioles) and Ryan Howard (2005-06 with the Phillies).

Like the 5'11" Lincecum, Pedroia has spent most of his 25 years trying to prove the naysayers wrong. "I've heard all my life that I'm not big enough, I'm not strong enough, I'm not fast enough," Pedroia said matter-of-factly. "I hear it all the time now. I heard it when I was in high school. I know when I walk down the street, people probably don't think I'm a baseball player and I understand that. I've always been in a position to prove people wrong. I might be forever, who knows?"

After just two full major league seasons, Pedroia already has a roomful of awards; he also added his first AL Gold Glove and his first Silver Slugger this year. There may be many more laurels for Pedroia to look forward to; from his rookie to sophomore seasons he has raised his WARP3 (7.1 to 9.8), his EqA (.285 to .299), and his VORP (35.9 to 59.8). "I don't think there is any question that Dustin has established himself as one of the premier players in the league now, and there is no reason to believe he won't continue to be for a long time," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona.

Don't expect Pedroia to lose the little-man complex though, as he will continue to play with a chip on his shoulder, believing that the rest of the world doubts him. "That's the only way I can play," Pedroia said. "That's who I am. I have to find a way to have an edge. I always have to find something to motivate me. This year, when I went to spring training, everybody asked me about the sophomore slump, and if I was going to have a bad year because of it. In 2009, when I get to spring training, I'm sure everyone is going to ask me if this season was a fluke. I always have something to prove to someone, and that's fine. It just makes me want to work that much harder this winter to get ready for next season."

The Red Sox took their share of criticism for selecting Pedroia in the second round of the 2004 first-year draft, but he made his major league debut just two years later before replacing Mark Loretta as the Red Sox' second baseman at the start of the 2007 season. While many scouts were turned off by Pedroia and his swing-from-the-heels style, the statistical analysts loved him because of his gap power and plate discipline, both as a college player at Arizona State and as a minor leaguer. PECOTA projected Pedroia to have a .274 EqA and 21.7 VORP as a rookie. "I always felt I could play at this level," Pedroia said. "When I received a scholarship to Arizona State and played well, I really believed I could go on to the major leagues. I'm not surprised that I'm in the major leagues, but I don't think anyone expects to come to the major leagues and win the Rookie of the Year and MVP awards in back-to-back seasons. It's more than I could have ever imagined or dreamed about."

While Pedroia, much like Lincecum, would seem like a classic case of the stats winning out over the evaluations of scouts, Francona does not agree with that assessment. He believes it is a tribute to the Red Sox scouting department, reflecting that it thought progressively enough to recognize Pedroia's talent. "There is probably a scout in our organization who deserves a medal, because I'm sure when they put Dustin up on video, he (Pedroia) was dismissed by a certain number of people because of his size," Francona said. "I'm sure there are scouts around baseball that are scratching their heads now about the success he has had. For us to scratch our heads, though, would be disrespectful, because this kid is one of the very best in the game."

Pedroia is quickly evolving into the leader of a club that also includes such homegrown players as left-hander Jon Lester, closer Jonathan Papelbon, set-up relievers Manny Delcarmen and Justin Masterson, first baseman Kevin Youkilis, shortstop Jed Lowrie, and center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury. "A lot of us came through the minor leagues and grew up together, so we have a lot of pride in playing for the Boston Red Sox," Pedroia said. "We all push toward the same goal, and that's to win the World Series. The biggest thrill of all for me in winning the MVP was my teammates text-messaging me with congratulations. I'm together with those guys eight months out of the year. They're like my family, and I'd do anything for them."

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Any questions about whether new Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik would have final say in baseball decisions were answered this past week when he hired Athletics bench coach Don Wakamatsu as manager, replacing Jim Riggleman. Many top-ranking officials on the business side of the organization reportedly wanted White Sox bench coach and former Mariners second baseman Joey Cora to get the job. Zduriencik began contemplating the possibility of one day becoming a GM, after being hired as the Brewers scouting director five years ago. He started a list of potential managerial candidates, and he kept hearing good things from people in baseball about Wakamatsu.

Wakumatsu's major league playing career as a catcher consisted of just 18 games with the 1991 White Sox, primarily working behind the plate when knuckleballer Charlie Hough pitched. He managed and coached in the Angels' farm system for six years, and spent five years on the Rangers' coaching staff before going to the Athletics last season. "Don always came across as a guy who, someday, would have the qualities to become a major league manager," Zduriencik said. "Little did I know that at this point in time, Don would be our selection."

Zduriencik said that Wakamatsu stood out during his interview, and received strong recommendations from Athletics GM Billy Beane and former Rangers manager Buck Showalter. "The thing I think that Don brings to the table is tremendous consistency," Zduriencik said. "His work habits are impeccable. In fact, Buck Showalter said, 'You won't beat him to the ballpark, and he'll be there when you leave.' I thought that was a tremendous tribute from a guy who I consider to be a fantastic worker."

Zduriencik said that he consulted with chief executive officer Howard Lincoln, club president Chuck Armstrong, assistant GM Lee Pelekoudas, special assistant Tony Blengino, and scouting director Tom McNamara before settling on Wakamatsu. "You go with your gut feelings, you go with your instincts," Zduriencik said. "I listened to everyone's opinion, but we didn't put together a voting chart. I asked them for their opinions, they gave me their opinions, but when the day was said and done, I went with the guy I felt most comfortable with."

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The Yankees said goodbye to two potential Hall of Famers this week. Principal owner George Steinbrenner officially ceded control of the franchise to his son Hal, who is co-chairperson along with his brother Hank, and right-hander Mike Mussina announced his retirement following the first 20-win season of his 18-year career.

While Hank Steinbrenner has been the most outspoken of the two brothers, it is Hal who has had the most direct involvement with the Yankees in recent years, spending considerable time in the club offices in New York while Hank primarily works out of the spring training facility in Tampa. Commissioner Bud Selig said that he did not ask, nor did he know, why George Steinbrenner had chosen Hal to take over control of the Yankees. "I'm not going to ask people in the family why they picked one against the other," Selig told the New York Times. "I've got enough troubles as the commissioner. I don't need to get into family squabbles. It is what George wanted, and I think it is a very positive move for the Yankees."

George Steinbrenner bought the Yankees in 1973, and the franchise won 10 pennants and six World Series under his stewardship. "I realize it's a great responsibility," Hal Steinbrenner said. "My dad is, needless to say, a tough act to follow, but I'm going to do it to the best of my ability and give it my all every day." Hal Steinbrenner also said that the way the Yankees do business should not change just because his father has been less involved in recent years. "Really, for the last couple of years, I have been intimately involved with all aspects and all departments of the company," Hal Steinbrenner said. "It's what I've been doing day to day. My duties aren't really going to change, and my work isn't really going to change much. It's as much a procedural thing within the family at this point."

Meanwhile, the 39-year-old Mussina decided to call it quits, despite being only 30 victories away from the magical 300-win mark, finishing his career with a record of 270-153. He had decided to retire before the season even began, and the surprise 20-win season couldn't change that. "I always said when I got to this point, I wanted to go out on my own terms," said Mussina. "I didn't want to go out with somebody telling me it was time to go, that I'm trying to find a job and I can't find a job. I never wanted to bounce around from one team to another, to keep playing at 41 or 42, trying to scratch out eight wins this year and 10 wins the next year. I don't want to do it that way. I've never wanted to do it that way."

In an informal poll of veteran baseball writers, it appears Mussina may not be a lock to get into the Hall of Fame when his name will first appear on the ballot in 2013. However, no eligible pitcher with a won-lost record of at least 117 games over .500 has ever been denied entry into Cooperstown. "I think I've done as much as I'm capable of doing at the level I want to do it at," Mussina said of his Hall chances. "If it creates a good argument, that's all the better."

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Right-hander Ryan Dempster created a bit of an uproar this past week when he signed a four-year, $52 million contract to stay with the Cubs, and then suggested his team had not been prepared for the National League Division Series in which they were swept by the Dodgers. "Maybe we underestimated how prepared you have to be, how ready you have to be, especially in a five-game series," Dempster said. "It's like a short heavyweight bout. Ding, the bell is ringing, you've got to go."

When Cubs manager Lou Piniella won the NL Manager of the Year award earlier this month, he said that his team may have put too much pressure on itself during the season that marked the 100th anniversary of the franchise's last World Series title. Dempster, conversely, believes the Cubs thought they were almost predestined to win because of the anniversary. "I think we almost expected it, go out there and play hard, and we're good enough and just expect it to happen, and we'll win this series, and then the next one, and all the excitement will happen once we get to the World Series," Dempster said. "Maybe LA was just a little more prepared for us than we were for them."

The Cubs secured home-field advantage throughout the NL playoffs by compiling the league's best record; that appeared to be a significant edge as they were 55-26 at Wrigley Field. Dempster, however, thinks that being at home may have worked against the Cubs in the NLDS. "It almost felt like it was just going to be a given that we win Games One and Two, and move on and go from there," Dempster said. "You still have to play the games. You have to put the uniform on, go out there and compete. If anything, we've learned that."

Dempster unwittingly put Piniella in a bad light by suggesting that the Cubs were unprepared for the postseason. Not surprisingly, Piniella was not thrilled by the comments, and he refuted them. "Look, the team was prepared," Piniella told WMVP-AM in Chicago. "The Dodgers just beat us."

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NL Rumors and Rumblings: The Giants are expected to enter the bidding for left-hander CC Sabathia this week, and he would likely consider giving them at least a bit of a hometown discount since he grew up near San Francisco in Vallejo, California. ... The Mets appear to be the leading contenders to sign free-agent closer Francisco Rodriguez, but they want to hold the line at a three-year contract, particularly since they also like free-agent left-hander Brian Fuentes as a potential closer, and are also considering trading for the Mariners' J.J. Putz or the Rockies' Huston Street. ... Mets right-hander Aaron Heilman says he would rather be traded then spend another year in the bullpen, but there are no signs that New York plans to move him to the starting rotation. ... The Phillies have considered signing outfielder Raul Ibanez as a free agent to fill the hole expected to be left if left fielder Pat Burrell does not re-sign. ... The Cardinals are close to finalizing a free-agent deal with left-handed reliever Trever Miller. ... The Dodgers have decided against re-signing left-handed reliever Joe Beimel, but he has plenty of suitors, including the Reds, Rockies, Tigers, and Mets.

AL Rumors and Rumblings: The Red Sox plan to outbid everyone, including the Yankees and Angels, for free-agent first baseman Mark Teixeira, unless someone comes in with an offer of $200 million or more. The Red Sox also have interest in right-hander A.J. Burnett on the free-agent market, though it is described as "mild" by a person familiar with the situation, and many believe he will return to the Blue Jays if they offer a five-year contract, though the Braves, Orioles, and Phillies also have varying degrees of interest. ... The Royals would at least consider trading outfielder David DeJesus after acquiring center fielder Coco Crisp from the Red Sox in a trade, and there has been talk of a swap with the Yankees for second baseman Robinson Cano. ... The Red Sox are considering free-agent Rocco Baldelli to fill the fourth-outfielder void left after they traded Crisp. ... The Indians have interest in signing second baseman Orlando Hudson as a free agent; they would then move second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera to shortstop, and shortstop Jhonny Peralta to third base. ... The Orioles may sign free-agent shortstop Cesar Izturis, but they will also apparently consider trading for the Athletics' Bobby Crosby if Oakland signs shortstop Rafael Furcal as a free agent. ... Outfielder Bernie Williams, who last played in the major leagues with the Yankees in 2006 and is now 40 years old, has never filed retirement papers with Major League Baseball, and has not ruled out returning to play in 2009.

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Every Given Sunday takes a break next week for the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, but returns December 7 with a preview of the winter meetings, scheduled to begin the next day in Las Vegas.

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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