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March 25, 2009

On the Beat

Reality Checks

by John Perrotto

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If Bud Selig ever retires as commissioner, he'll be leaving quite the interesting legacy. He is the man who cancelled the postseason during the 1994 players' strike, and he's also responsible for interleague play, the Wild Card, the All-Star Game deciding home-field advantage in the World Series, revenue sharing, and drug testing. Selig also pushed for the World Baseball Classic, and now that two WBCs have been completed, it remains difficult to assess whether that is a good or a bad thing.

The players who have participated in the WBC say that they've enjoyed themselves and have been honored by representing their countries, and ESPN's ratings were higher for this year's version than the inaugural event in 2006. Yet there is a sense that most American fans don't really care about the WBC; they're more concerned with following their favorite teams in spring training, or watching the NCAA basketball tournament in March.

Adding to the American fans' apathy is that the US has not fared well in the WBC. Team USA failed to make it out of the second round in 2006, and then needed to score three runs in the bottom of the ninth inning to beat Puerto Rico and escape the second round this year, before being blasted by Japan 9-4 in the semifinals on Sunday night at Dodger Stadium. In an impromptu press conference during Saturday night's semifinal between Korea and Venezuela, however, Selig steadfastly insisted that the WBC will eventually become a premier event. "Long after I'm gone, this will get to be bigger and bigger and bigger," said the 74-year-old Selig.

Perhaps that will be the case, but it's clear that many major league clubs and American players simply aren't interested. The US roster was so thinned by a lack of talent and injuries that Indians third baseman Mark DeRosa was forced to start at first base in the semifinal loss. Many clubs, though not admitting so publicly, discourage their star players from participating because they fear potential injuries to their major investments. "The clubs hear this all the time, but I'm going to say this to you as directly as I can: This is a time in life where I know how important your individual club is, this is a time to put the best interests of the game ahead of your own provincial self-interest," Selig said. "Everything we have ever tried to do, whether it was the wild cards or whatever, there was always some criticism. I accept it, and I understand that, but the clubs themselves years ago took a vote on this. They agreed that we had to do something internationally, that we needed to go to China, and we decided that this was the vehicle we were going to use to do that. Now we've got to cooperate with that vehicle."

The US will need to take the WBC more seriously and become more competitive before the event can ever become truly significant. The easiest remedy for the United States' problems in the WBC would be to begin spring training earlier. Major League Baseball added a week to camps this season in an effort to be better prepared, but the Americans still could not compete with a Japanese team that began training right after the start of the New Year.

There would seem to be no chance of major league teams allowing their WBC players to begin training in January. It's also highly doubtful that many players would give up that much of their increasingly shorter offseasons. Instead, the US will have to be content playing at a disadvantage, despite being the nation that invented the sport. While the WBC may grow the game internationally, as is Selig's intention, Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins knows the event might always be an afterthought with Americans. "It was definitely an international tournament, there was no doubt about that," Rollins said, alluding to the crowd support many of the foreign countries received while playing in the United States. "Regardless, we had a lot of fun, despite being an underdog and knowing we were at somewhat of a disadvantage as far as having time to prepare. It shows the support and passion these other countries have for baseball. In America, we have so many sports that our attention is on, whichever sport is going on at the time. But in other countries, when their team and country is being represented, they stand behind them 100 percent."

Pirates right-hander Ian Snell had a unique perspective on the WBC. He was born and raised in Delaware, but pitched for Puerto Rico because of his father's lineage. "At the WBC, you saw little kids from Venezuela and Puerto Rico yelling and waving little flags," said Snell, who pitched in the first two rounds in San Juan and Miami. "You don't see that same kind of craziness here. People go crazy at football games and basketball games, but never at baseball games. One day I'd just love to see the crowd at a major league game singing and dancing and setting off horns like they did at the WBC. That would be fun."

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While the Astros have been drawing plenty of notice for their awful spring training performance and their 6-16 record in Grapefruit League play, the Diamondbacks have been nearly as bad in Arizona with a Cactus League mark of 8-15.

The D'backs' poor play has reached the point where manager Bob Melvin called a rare team meeting in March to tell his team to drop the tried-and-true spring excuse that they were 'working on things,' and start playing better baseball. "I think to an extent we've been a little more focused on the things we've been working on," Melvin told Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic. "It hasn't been pretty, but I think from this point on we need to tighten those areas up and start focusing on what we've been doing in the games."

Left fielder Conor Jackson admits that all of the losing has become a little embarrassing, especially after the Diamondbacks held a 4-game lead in the National League West on August 29 last season only to wind up finishing second, two games behind the Dodgers. "You never strap on spikes and a uni to go out there and lose, especially the way we're losing," Jackson said. "We're just playing sloppy. We're making errors, and it's definitely something that's already been addressed. We know we have to pick it up."

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The Astros continue to have a bad spring, but manager Cecil Cooper's mood is becoming brighter as Opening Day draws near. Cooper admitted last week that he was frustrated by the losing, but he told Jose de Jesus Ortiz of the Houston Chronicle this week that the Astros should win 90 games in 2009.

Cooper bases his prediction on the fact that a bad spring has no bearing on what will happen during the regular season for a veteran club. "If you've got a bunch of young kids and a young team, and [losing] is happening, then you've got be a little worried," Cooper said. "I mean, really, really worried. Veterans-their focus is on mainly getting ready and pacing themselves to a certain time."

The Astros went 86-75 last season, finishing third in the NL Central, 11 games behind the Cubs. While PECOTA forecasts a 68-94 finish for the Astros this season, first baseman Lance Berkman says that history suggests there will be a different outcome. "Why wouldn't we win 90?," Berkman said. "We won 86 last year. I feel like we have a better team this year. This is the Houston Astros. It just means that we play better than we look on paper."

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The Rays have gone from long-running joke to an organization that others are trying to imitate. It seems every downtrodden organization, from the Pirates and the Orioles, to the Reds, the Royals, and the Rangers, are all hoping to be the 2009 version of the Rays a year after Tampa Bay went from having the worst record in the major leagues to winning the AL pennant. "Anytime a group does what we did last year-and you could look at the Rockies prior to that and the Tigers prior to that-you're always looking for that kind of hope if you've never been to that particular level before," Rays manager Joe Maddon told Marc Topkin of the St. Petersburg Times. "So I'm sure we're this year's poster child in regard to going from nothing to something pretty good."

Rangers general manager Jon Daniels says the Rays are indeed the standard for all rebuilding mid-market and small-market franchises, as much for their vision as for the actual execution of a systematic plan. "One thing impressive to me about the Rays, and I hope we're able not to replicate it but do it in our way, is that they're very much on the same page in terms of ownership, front office, field staff, development, scouting," Daniels said. "They have a real clear vision and understanding of their identity and what they're about. We've approached it differently in the past, but now we have a very clear vision and understanding of who we are. We know we're not the Angels and the Yankees, and we know what we have to do to be successful."

Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman truly believes that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. "It's obviously a great compliment to this entire organization that teams want to emulate bits and pieces of what we did to achieve success," he said.

---

AL Rumors and Rumblings: The Red Sox have focused on trying to acquire Phillies catching prospect Lou Marson, but the asking price is a top young pitcher, either Clay Buchholz or Daniel Bard. ... Outfielder Andruw Jones does not plan to exercise the "out" clause in his minor league contract with the Rangers, though he can win nothing more than a bench job with the major league club. ... The Yankees plan to start Xavier Nady in right field and make Nick Swisher a bench player. ... The Rangers will go with Jarrod Saltalamacchia as their starting catcher and Taylor Teagraden as the backup. ... Endy Chavez is on the verge of beating out Wladimir Balentien to be the Mariners' left fielder. ... The White Sox' center-field situation is somewhat clearer; Brian Anderson will play against left-handed pitchers, but neither Jerry Owens nor Dewayne Wise has claimed the other half of the platoon. ... Scott Lewis appears to have the edge on fellow left-handers Zach Jackson and Aaron Laffey in the Indians' fifth-starter competition. ... Brad Mills, Scott Richmond, and Ricky Romero are competing for two spots in the Blue Jays' rotation.

NL Rumors and Rumblings: While Yu Darvish starred for Japan in the WBC, he is apprehensive about attempting to pitch in the major leagues; he wonders if Americans would accept him since he is Iranian on his father's side. ... The Braves would like to add a young third baseman to become Chipper Jones' eventual successor, and they have a number of trade chips that include pitchers Jeff Bennett, Buddy Carlyle, and Jorge Campillo, infielder Martin Prado, and outfielder Josh Anderson. ... The Astros have strong interest in trading for Rockies utilityman Jeff Baker to play third base. ... The Giants want to sign free-agent left-handed reliever Will Ohman, but they're trying to trade lefty reliever Jack Taschner to clear space on the roster and payroll. ... The Phillies are willing to trade outfielder Geoff Jenkins. ... The Brewers are close to releasing veteran outfielder Trot Nixon. ... Ross Ohlendorf has all but sealed a spot in the Pirates' rotation, leaving Jeff Karstens and Virgil Vasquez in competition to be the fifth starter.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

Related Content:  The Who,  WBC

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