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December 10, 2008

On the Beat

Winter Meetings

by John Perrotto

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LAS VEGAS-Nolan Ryan's 27 seasons as a major league pitcher seem to have spanned every era of baseball history except that of the dead ball. The Hall of Famer began his career in 1966, during a time when pitchers frequently threw complete games, and he ended it in 1993, when the era of one-inning closers and a platoon of set-up men was well under way, and when managers became just a little more ready to settle for six innings out of their starters.

Ryan prefers the old style of play, and would like to see starting pitchers become more durable. As he prepares for his second season as the Rangers' club president, Ryan is overseeing the introduction of some changes in the way that they develop starters both at the major league level and in the minor leagues. "I'd like to see our starters throw more innings," Ryan said Tuesday during the second day of the Winter Meetings at the Bellagio. "I don't see any reason why guys can't pitch more innings than they do today. I'm not saying we should run the starting pitchers into the ground, but I think it's reasonable to ask a little more out of them. It would make a big difference in our club."

No Rangers starting pitcher was even close to having 200 innings pitched, with Vicente Padilla leading the rotation with 171 frames in 2008, as they went 79-83 and had the worst ERA in the majors with a 5.37 mark. The Rangers' pitching problems go beyond last season however; they've finished in the top half of the 14-team AL in ERA only once in the last 11 seasons, when they ranked fifth in 2004. "With the setup we have in the bullpen, it would be a dream come true if we could get more production out of our starting rotation," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "It would take some pressure off the bullpen, especially when you start getting deep into the season. I don't think they would be so tired. Starting pitching can save your bullpen. I think everyone would like to see a starter at least give you six innings."

Rangers starters averaged 5.4 innings per outing last season, and Ryan is determined to change that next year. Spring training begins a week earlier in order for players to prepare for participation in the World Baseball Classic, and the Rangers plan to put that extra time to good use. "We'll have our pitchers on a different schedule than in other years," Ryan said. "They will throw more on the side. They will throw more live batting practice. We will take the extra time to try to build them up to pitch more innings this season. I really believe that if you condition your body to handle a heavier work load, that it will respond. I don't see any reason why all of our starters can't exceed their innings-pitched totals of last season next season."

While Ryan admits to being a little old school, he also is not looking to blow out the pitching staff. He says that the Rangers will use a heavy dose of common sense while ramping up their conditioning program. "We're not going to ask our pitchers to do something they aren't capable of doing, or put them in a position where they are more susceptible to injuries," Ryan said. "It's just that I feel, with sports medicine being what it is and the advancement in training and injury prevention, that we can find a way to condition pitchers better without risking them to injury."

The Rangers will also ask their minor league pitchers to work harder, but again, it will be within reason. "You have to be really careful with the younger kids in the minor leagues because so many of them have played select ball in the summer, played in travel tournaments, and just really have had their arms abused in situations where there are no restrictions on pitch counts or innings limits," Ryan said. "You can't ask a kid like that to come in and throw 200 innings in a season. However, when our guys begin moving up through the organization, we want them to be able to handle a heavier workload, to where pitching at least 200 innings in a season by the time they get to the major leagues becomes second nature because their bodies are used to doing it."

With Mike Maddux being hired away from the Brewers last month, the Rangers will have a new pitching coach to implement Ryan's program. Maddux had been the pitching coach for the Astros' Triple-A Round Rock affiliate for three years from 2000 through 2002, a team that is owned by Ryan, and they have built an outstanding relationship.

While Maddux is a progressive thinker, he is also on board with Ryan's theories about increasing the number of innings and pitches thrown by the starters. Maddux was the pitching coach last season when CC Sabathia won three straight starts on short rest at the end of the season to lead the Brewers to their first playoff appearance in 26 years. "It seems like 100 is the magic number for pitch counts now, and managers automatically go the bullpen at that point," Ryan said. "Sometimes, though, there really isn't a difference between 100 or 120 pitches. If you are staying in your delivery and not having a lot of stressful innings, there are some games where 120 pitches are easier on your arm than 100 might be if you're pitching in a close game and everything in riding on each pitch. I think you need to use some common sense in that case. That's all we're looking to do, just use some common sense, and see if we can't get more out of our starting pitchers."

---

There was only a single trade made for a second straight day, and it again centered around a catcher as the Orioles shipped Ramon Hernandez to the Reds for utility player Ryan Freel and two minor league infielders, Justin Turner and Brandon Wearing. The Reds had been looking for a veteran catcher to share time with and serve as a mentor to rookie Ryan Hanigan. Hernandez, 32, had a fine first season with the Orioles in 2006 when he had a .281 EqA and 7.6 WARP2. However, those numbers have fallen in both of the last two seasons (.253, 3.2, and .251, 4.0).

The Reds hope that Hernandez is not a player on the decline, but rather someone who will be rejuvenated by switching teams and leagues. "Our scouts did notice that there was probably some level of frustration he was experiencing in Baltimore," Reds general manager Walt Jocketty said. "I did research on it with other people who have had him and got great reports, so we do think a change of scenery will help him immensely. We've got a pretty good pitching staff that I think he will develop and work well with while showing renewed energy."

Freel, 32, was limited to 48 games last season by a torn hamstring and had a .246 EqA. Orioles manager Dave Tremblay likes Freel's versatility. "He's like two players in one, because he can play all four infield positions and all three spots in the outfield," Trembley said. "We're more like a National League team than most American League teams. I like to pinch hit and pinch run more than most American League managers, and ability to play so many positions will come in handy."

The trade leaves the Orioles without a catcher on the 40-man roster. Vice president Andy MacPhail made it clear that the deal was made primarily to open a lineup spot for catching prospect Matt Wieters, though the Orioles will look to add a veteran backstop in case their top draft pick from 2007 needs to spend at least the beginning of the season at Triple-A Norfolk.

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The Safety and Health Advisory Committee, made up of members from Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association, hope that they've found some solutions to curb the ever-growing problem of bats shattering during games, and on Tuesday they presented a list of nine recommendations.

A total of 2,232 bats broke during the final three months of the 2008 regular season, including those that cracked but stayed in one piece and those that broke into multiple pieces. The bats were collected and sent to a panel of experts for analysis. It was determined that bats made of maple were three times more likely to break than bats made of ash.

Among the requirements adopted by the committee are that all bats must now conform with newly adopted slope-of-grain techniques, with manufacturers placing an ink dot on the handle so a player can easily view the slope of the grain. Bat makers also must attend a MLB-sponsored workshop that will come up with ideas to make their products more shatter resistant, and bats will be randomly audited by an MLB representative throughout the season. "We know tremendously more about wood and bat construction than we did just a few months ago, and I believe that there is more to be learned, but the recommendations for 2009 are one step in the process," said Padres chief executive officer Sandy Alderson, serving as spokesman for the committee. "The issue of bat and bat construction is far more complicated than any of us initially realized, or in some respects, even bat manufacturers themselves realized. What we've accomplished in a few months will create a safer situation for players and fans, and I'm happy to have been a part of a very collaborative effort."

---

In a bit of long overdue news, Tony Kubek was named the winner of the 2009 Ford C. Frick Award for meritorious service to baseball broadcasting by the Hall of Fame on Tuesday. Kubek will be honored during the July 26 induction ceremonies in Cooperstown.

Kubek becomes the first exclusively television-based analyst to win the Frick Award, which was instituted in 1978. He gained election from a field that also included Billy Berroa, Tom Cheek, Ken Coleman, Dizzy Dean, Jacques Doucet, Lanny Frattare, Graham McNamee, Joe Nuxhall, and Dave Van Horne.

Kubek began working for NBC in 1965 after retiring from the Yankees that year as a player, and he worked on the popular Saturday afternoon Game of the Week series until it ended following the 1989 season. Kubek also worked on Yankees' telecasts on MSG Network from 1990-94, and on Blue Jays' games for The Sports Network and CTV from 1977-89. He broadcast 11 World Series, 14 American League Championship Series, and 10 All-Star Games.

"For an entire generation of baseball fans, Tony Kubek was the face and voice of the game," Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson said. "In the days before all-sports TV networks, Tony brought baseball into your living room every Saturday afternoon for almost three decades. His straightforward style, quick and detailed analysis, and no-nonsense commentary on the game's nuances gave viewers an insider's look at what the players were experiencing on the field."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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