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May 31, 2009

On the Beat

Weekend Roundup

by John Perrotto

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Matt Wieters or David Price? That was the debate over who was the best prospect in baseball as teams had gone into spring training. Now, the two can compete for American League Rookie of the Year honors after both were called up from the minor leagues to great fanfare this past week.

The Rays recalled Price, the dazzling left-hander who starred in last year's postseason, from Triple-A Durham on Monday, and he had a poor first start, but followed it up with an outstanding second outing. Wieters was recalled from Triple-A Norfolk, and the switch-hitting catcher's major league debut on Friday night was the biggest regular-season moment for the Orioles since Cal Ripken Jr. broke Lou Gehrig's consecutive games played streak in 1995. "It's like we're calling Bill Dickey up," Orioles manager Dave Trembley cracked, referring to the former Yankees' catching great the night before Wieters' debut.

Even Wieters' veteran teammates admitted they were caught up in the hype accompanying the most highly touted catching prospect of this millennium reaching the major leagues. "I'm absolutely excited to see him," said first baseman Aubrey Huff. "I've always been a big fan of his. The kid has got a great head on his shoulders. In spring training nothing seemed to rattle him, even with all the hype around him. I don't expect all this hype to affect him one bit. He's above all that. He just seems like a big old country boy, a simple-minded guy who loves to play the game."

Orioles' fans haven't had a winning team to cheer for since 1998, and Wieters is expected to be the centerpiece of a youth movement that began earlier this month when left fielder Nolan Reimond and right-hander Brad Bergesen were called up from Norfolk. Wieters, however, says he doesn't feel any pressure to live up to the great expectations of both leading a franchise back from irrelevancy and becoming the next Johnny Bench. "Nobody has higher expectations of me than I do, so I don't let what other people think bother me," Wieters said. "It's something I'm going to go through. I feel I'm prepared for it. The biggest thing to me is just to keep being the same player I've always been. Everybody says it's a big jump to go to the major leagues, but the best way to handle it is play the game the way you know how and everything will be all right."

Considering that the Orioles spent most of the first two months of the season going with the veteran catching tandem of Gregg Zaun and Chad Moeller, it would only be fair to wonder if management had decided to keep Wieters at Norfolk strictly to avoid his accruing enough service time to become a "super two" player, which would make him eligible for salary arbitration after his second major league season instead of now likely not earning those rights until after the 2012 season. Orioles president Andy MacPhail, however, believes that Wieters benefited from his time at Norfolk, where he hit .305/.387/.504 in 161 plate appearances with a .297 translated EqA. "He was really starting to hit the ball over the last 10 days at Norfolk," said MacPhail. "He has made the progress, the power is starting to come. It's time. He's done what he needed to do at that level."

Price was a sensation in relief for the Rays last October, but they also had their reasons for sending him back to Durham to begin this season. They want to make sure he doesn't exceed his 2008 innings total of 129 1/3 by more than 20 percent, and they felt they could get a better handle on holding his innings at 155 this year by starting him off in the minor leagues. They also wanted Price to polish some rough edges before returning to the majors as a starter. "The easiest thing in the world would have been to bring David north with us out of spring training and try to squeeze every inning possible out of him this season because he is so talented," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "That's the way America is today. Everybody wants instant gratification. Nobody wants to fertilize the crops and give them time to grow. David needed to grow in the minor leagues. He needed to have better command of his fastball and his breaking pitch. He has shown improvement since spring training, but he still has work to do. That's why we sent him to the minor leagues."

Indeed, Price did not quite shine at Durham; he had a translated PERA of 6.69 in 30 2/3 innings. After needing 100 pitches to get through 3 1/3 innings in a loss to the Indians on Monday, he struck out 11 in five innings to beat the Twins on Saturday. Price admitted that it was difficult going "from pitching in front of 50,000 screaming fans in the World Series to 3,000 fans in the International League," but he also understood the Rays' decision to have him begin the season at Durham. "The expectation of this franchise is to get back to the postseason, and they want to make sure my arm is still strong when we get there," Price said. "That's what I want, too. When I'm still fresh in October, I'll know it was the right plan to follow."

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Rockies manager Clint Hurdle was fired on Friday, less than two years after having led the Rockies to a remarkable late-season run and the only World Series appearance in their history. That wasn't a complete surprise, since the Rockies were 20-28 this season after going 74-88 last year, but the heat is now on general manager Dan O'Dowd, the man who has constructed a roster that looked poised to be successful for many years to come, but whose team has faltered since being swept by the Red Sox in the 2007 World Series. "I knew that would happen," O'Dowd said of being on the hot seat. "Clint was on the firing line because he was on the field, but the attention on me was always there anyway. It doesn't change how I will do my job. I just want to do what's in the best interest of the organization, both short-term and long-term. Clint is a good man, but this was the right decision."

O'Dowd has tied his future to Jim Tracy, who was promoted from bench coach to replace Hurdle for the remainder of the season. Tracy has seven seasons of major league managerial experience, five with the Dodgers from 2001-05, and two with the Pirates from 2006-07. He compiled a 562-572 record and had one post-season appearance when he guided the Dodgers to the 2004 National League West championship.

A strong finish would not only save O'Dowd's job, but it would probably give Tracy a good chance of returning as manager in 2010. "We have to create a culture of what is expected, no matter what our talent level is," O'Dowd said. "We have not done that. Players have to know when they come up and play for the Rockies that this is how we play. Jim knows that's what he will be evaluated on."

Tracy, despite winning his first two games, has quite a task ahead of him as the Rockies are last in the NL West, 12 games behind the first-place Dodgers. "I know this is not a perfect scenario," Tracy said. "What we need to do is reestablish our identity, and to do that we need to recall the past. We don't need to look far, just two years. The players have to realize that their performance to this point has been subpar, and we're not going to pretend we're OK with that."

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Cubs GM Jim Hendry's big off-season moves in the wake of being swept in the National League Division Series for a second straight year haven't worked out very well so far. Right-hander Ryan Dempster was re-signed as a free agent for four years and $52 million, but he has 0.5 SNLVAR. Kevin Gregg, acquired from the Marlins to replace Kerry Wood as closer, has 0.310 WXRL. Mark DeRosa, the Cubs' primary second baseman last season, was traded to the Indians for three minor league pitchers so that money could be freed up to sign Milton Bradley as a free agent from the Rangers to play right field, and also to open a spot for Mike Fontenot to play second. Bradley has a .249 EqA and Fontenot's is .236, while DeRosa has a .267 mark for the Tribe.

That has led to plenty of second-guessing by Cubs' fans, and Hendry is fine with that. "It's OK. I understand that," said Hendry. "Some of the moves work right away, and some of them take a little time to work out. And sometimes they don't work. It's just part of the gig."

DeRosa was traded because manager Lou Piniella wanted his lineup to become more left-handed after the Cubs were shut down by the Dodgers' right-handers in the NLDS last year. With the way the roster was configured, DeRosa was the easiest right-handed hitter for Hendry to trade. "Mark's a terrific guy and he was a good player for us, but the thinking in the winter was that we already had five right-handed hitters penciled in that weren't going anywhere," Hendry said. "And we were concerned with how [left-handed-hitting Kosuke] Fukudome was going to come back. If he hadn't come back well and we kept Mark, we were probably looking at seven of eight right-handed hitters every day in the lineup. Then we would have that issue again."

So far, that new balance in the lineup hasn't worked very well; Cubs left-handed batters are hitting .241/.335/.392, and right-handed hitters have a .255/.322/.419 line.

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Don't count Nationals manager Manny Acta as a fan of instant replay, particularly after his team came out on the wrong end of two calls this past week against the Mets at Citi Field.

Gary Sheffield hit a deep drive to left field on Monday that was initially ruled a three-run home run before Acta argued that a fan had reached over the fence and interfered with the ball. Crew chief Larry Vanover and two of the other umpires reviewed the play and upheld the call even though the Nationals' television feed on MASN clearly showed the fan reaching over the fence and touching the ball below the orange line that separates the wall from a railing above the stands.

Two nights later, the Mets' Daniel Murphy hit a long fly to right field that appeared to hit the warning track and bounce up against the wall. Initially, the umpires ruled that the ball was in play, and Sheffield was thrown out at home plate. The umpires got together again and ruled it a home run, though replays showed the ball may have glanced off of a Subway advertisement that hangs eight feet above the fence before falling to the warning track and bouncing back up against the wall. "Something has to be done, because this was supposed to be to help make the right call, help the umpires," Acta said. "It's supposed to be a clear-cut home run. If it is so inconclusive, then the call shouldn't be changed. They either need to get better feeds, or something."

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NL Rumors and Rumblings: The Phillies have stepped up their pursuit of a starting pitcher now that right-hander Brett Myers will likely miss the rest of the season because of hip surgery, and they're said to be aiming high, with Mariners left-hander Erik Bedard and Astros right-hander Roy Oswalt being their top targets. ... The Mets haven't been actively shopping for a first baseman while Carlos Delgado recovers from hip surgery, but the Nationals' Nick Johnson is said to be at the top of their list if they do decide to make a move. ... The Cardinals might trade for a third baseman now that it looks as if Troy Glaus could miss the entire season after having had shoulder surgery over the winter, and two players they like are DeRosa and the Rockies' Garrett Atkins. ... The Marlins have interest in signing right-hander Daniel Cabrera if he clears waivers and becomes a free agent as expected after having been designated for assignment by the Nationals.

AL Rumors and Rumblings: Closer Troy Percival and left-hander Scott Kazmir may have played their last games with the Rays; Percival is said to be leaning toward retirement after going on the disabled list with an injured shoulder, and Kazmir is known to be available in trade. ... The Yankees couldn't move right-hander Joba Chamberlain from the rotation back to the bullpen if they wanted to at this time, because shoulder problems make it too difficult for him to warm up quickly. ... That the White Sox promoted top infield prospect Gordon Beckham from Double-A Birmingham to Triple-A Charlotte this past week, and moved him from shortstop to third base is a rather significant sign that he's on the verge of taking over at the hot corner for Josh Fields at the major league level. ... The White Sox are also said to have interest in Oswalt, though there are no indications that the Astros are willing to trade him. ... The Red Sox have considered trading for Braves right fielder Jeff Francoeur, but they reportedly only want him at a bargain price.

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Three series to watch this week, with probable pitching matchups:

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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