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March 11, 2009

On the Beat

Spring Dust-Up

by John Perrotto

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Dusty Baker is as cool as any manager in baseball-that is, until you mention his reputation for mis-handling young players. Suddenly, the friendly and talkative Baker will become agitated and defensive, insisting that the tales of his disdain for young players are greatly exaggerated, and that he can't wait to see his young Reds take the field on Opening Day. "This is the type of team I've always wanted to manage, a team that is young and athletic," said Baker. "I'm looking forward to it. It's going to be a lot of fun."

Baker does have a past history as a manager of favoring the veteran player in almost every instance, but he says that the reputation is unjustified, and he's tired of hearing about it after 15 years as a big-league skipper with the Giants, Cubs, and Reds. "No, no, no," Baker said. "There has always been that perception. I got that perception when I got to Chicago. I managed the Giants for 10 years before I got to Chicago. There were a lot of misperceptions when I got to and left Chicago. We can stop that right now. You go ask young players anywhere who I play in spring training, and they'll tell you the young kids. I've always been fair with young players."

To illustrate his point further, Baker began talking about his family life. "When you've got a nine-year-old son and a 29-year-old daughter, how do you not like young people? That makes no sense. Have you ever seen kids around me? You understand what I'm saying? I'm the oldest of five in my family, I've got 18 nieces and nephews. They all love Uncle Dusty. I've got 22 godchildren, so how do I not like young people? That just floors me. I don't even want to defend that anymore."

Baker won't have to be worry about defending it this year. The Reds are going to play their share of youngsters after suffering through eight consecutive losing seasons. Six of the eight players in the Reds' projected Opening Day lineup are 27 or younger: first baseman Joey Votto, second baseman Brandon Phillips, third baseman Edwin Encarnacion, left fielder Chris Dickerson, center fielder Willy Taveras, and right fielder Jay Bruce. The Reds also have a pair of precocious right-handed starters in their rotation, 25-year-old Edinson Volquez and 23-year-old Johnny Cueto.

If the Reds are to mount a surprise challenge to the two-time defending champion Cubs in the National League Central this season, it will be with this young core of talent. "I'm excited about the potential of this team," said Baker. "It's a young team that's willing to learn, that's willing to be molded into a championship club. Our guys have the right attitude, and I'm looking forward to seeing these guys grow up together. It's a different situation than I've been in before. It's always been a case of having to win now. We had to do it in San Francisco, because [former Giants owner] Peter Magowan had a mortgage to pay off on a new ballpark. We had to win right away in Chicago, because the Cubs haven't won a World Series in over 100 years. I'm not saying we don't want to win now, too. It's just that we can afford to go with the younger players, and live with the inevitable growing pains that come with the young guys."

During the Reds' recent run of consecutive sub-.500 seasons, the biggest problem had been run prevention, but last year they had problems on both offense and defense; they finished 74-88, and were 23rd in the major leagues in both runs scored per game (4.4), and runs allowed per game (4.9). This season, however, the Reds believe that they have their best starting rotation in years, with Volquez serving as the ace after finishing 17th in the majors with 5.7 SNLVAR last year. Arroyo had 3.5, Harang 2.9, and Cueto 2.6, not shabby, but the Reds are confident that all three will significantly improve this season.

The Reds have also been encouraged by the spring showings of young right-handers Darryl Thompson and Homer Bailey, the latter of whom, as a 22-year-old, is trying to restore some of the luster lost from his former blue-chip prospect status. Baker feels Volquez and Cueto can give him the same kind of young dynamic starting duo that he had with the Cubs in Mark Prior and Kerry Wood in 2003, when they advanced to the National League Championship Series before blowing a 3-1 series lead to the Marlins. "The young pitching is one of the reasons I came here, and one of the reasons I came to Chicago," Baker said. "I analyzed their young pitching staff, and I liked it. I like young kids who come to play. I like young kids who have ability. I think Cueto and Volquez have a lot of ability."

The same could be said for many of the Reds' young hitters. Votto had a .291 EqA as a rookie last season, and Bruce is expected to improve upon his .255 mark as a rookie in 2008. Encarnacion was at a solid .273, and Dickerson posted a fine .325 mark, albeit in just 122 plate appearances as a rookie.

Don't throw the EqAs and SNLVARs in Baker's direction, though; he readily admits that he doesn't make much use of statistical analysis to evaluate young talent. "Stats don't show a guy's guts," Baker said. "They can't tell you the human side, help you recognize fear, or figure out who is having a good day or a bad day. I look at the numbers all the time, but people who play fantasy games don't have to look a guy in the eye or try to help restore his confidence. That's the thing with young players, it takes learning their personalities, and who can handle playing at this level and who can't."

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One baseball book that has already created quite a stir during spring training is The Yankee Years, by Joe Torre and Tom Verducci, which gives a candid look at Torre's time as the Yankees' manager, and even recounts what were, in theory, personal conversations between him and his players.

Another book beginning to land in bookstores that should be quite interesting is Becoming Manny, which takes an in-depth look at Dodgers left fielder Manny Ramirez, and is co-authored by former Lawrence Eagle Tribune reporter Shawn Boburg and University of Massachusetts Boston professor Jean Rhodes, a clinical psychiatrist.

Ramirez is an intensely private person whose dealings with the media have been sporadic throughout his career. However, in Becoming Manny, the authors try to explain the enigmatic Ramirez after being granted unprecedented access to the slugger. "It took years to get cooperation from Manny, but we ended up getting a lot of cooperation," Rhodes told the Boston Herald. "We went to his house in Florida and talked to him there. His family became our family. I'm still close to his sisters and niece."

So why did Ramirez decide to open up to a news reporter from a newspaper in suburban Boston and a college professor? "We're not huge baseball people," Rhodes said. "We're outside that world, and that world is something Manny would not have responded to. He's got a lot better grip of English than he lets on, but he finds the world of PR and media reporters distracting. It's not a place he wants to go."

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The Yankees will most likely be without third baseman Alex Rodriguez until mid-May, after he underwent surgery this week to alleviate some of the pain in his hip caused by a torn labrum.

That the Yankees will feel Rodriguez's loss is obvious; he was seventh in the major leagues in VORP last year at 62.9. They also went 9-15 early last season while A-Rod was on the disabled list with a strained quadriceps. However, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman says that he won't rush into any trades in an attempt to replace Rodriguez's productivity. "We're not going to sell the farm," Cashman told George King III of the New York Post. "Alex is coming back."

The Yankees' plan is to play journeyman Cody Ransom at third base. The 33-year-old had a .338 EqA in 51 plate appearances with the Yankees last season, but .a 245 EqA at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. "I don't think you replace Alex," Ransom said. "If they ask me to play third base, though, that's what I'll do."

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While hitting 30 home runs and stealing 30 bases in the same season isn' t quite the unique feat it once was, 40-40 is still considered rarefied air. Jose Canseco, Barry Bonds, and Rodriguez are the only members of that club, but Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp thinks that he can reach the 40-40 level someday. The 24-year-old's career highs in those categories are 18 homers and 35 steals, both set last season. "Sure, I think I'm capable of doing something like that," Kemp told Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times.

Dodgers manager Joe Torre also believes that Kemp has 40-40 talent, even though he's still learning the game. "It's all about walking before he can run, but he's not taking anything for granted," Torre said. "He's working hard. There's no reason, with his ability, that wouldn't happen."

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Major League Rumors and Rumblings: The Orioles have only passing interest in signing right-hander Pedro Martinez as a free agent, and certainly not at his reported asking price of a $5.5 million base salary with the opportunity to make $5 million more in performance bonuses. ... The Cubs are considering releasing reliever Luis Vizcaino, even though doing it would cost them $4 million. ... The Cardinals have decided on converted outfielder Joe Mather as their starting third baseman while Troy Glaus recovers from shoulder surgery, and they've also put veteran set-up man Ryan Franklin into the closer's mix with Josh Kinney and rookies Jason Motte and Chris Perez. ... The Indians plan to give the fourth slot in the rotation to right-hander Anthony Reyes, fearing they would lose him on a waiver claim if they tried to send him back to the minor leagues since he is out of options.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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