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June 17, 2009

On the Beat

Dugout Turnover

by John Perrotto

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Manny Acta is still the Nationals' manager, though it appears that won't be the case for much longer. Fox's Ken Rosenthal reported last Saturday that Acta was going to be fired this week. Those around the Nationals are resigned to their manager's fate, and are expecting the ax to fall at any time, most likely on Friday before they return home to open a three-game series against the Blue Jays.

The holdup appears to be that the Nationals are trying to decide on a permanent replacement now, rather than going with bench coach Jim Riggelman as an interim manager for the remainder of the season. Beyond his experience skippering the Padres and Cubs, Riggleman also has experience as an interim manager after running the Mariners for the final 90 games of 2008 after John McLaren was fired on June 19.

All indications are that the Nationals want to make a splash with their next manager. The franchise has already lost much relevancy in the nation's capital, less than five years after it was transferred from Montreal and barely more than one year since Nationals Park opened. The owners of the team, the Lerner family, have a reputation for being extremely cheap, but they realize that they'll have to spend to get a name manager to come to the Nationals, if for no other reason than to reawaken the team's fan base.

Thought Acta appears on the way out, interim general manager Mike Rizzo will be staying beyond this week. In fact, it looks as if he will get the full-time gig after being promoted from assistant GM when Jim Bowden resigned under fire on March 1. The Nationals' 16-46 record is easily the worst in the major leagues, and Acta is 148-237 since taking over prior to the 2007 season. One could make a strong case that Bowden left Acta with no talent before skipping town, but Acta is not pointing fingers. "I said coming into the season this was the most talented team we had since I've been here, talking about the position players," said Acta. "We also knew we were rebuilding a bullpen. We lost our top two guys on the back end, three if you want to include Luis [Ayala] in there. It is the still the best and most talented team we've had here when it comes down to position players. That being said, we haven't played the way we were expecting to play, and we're not going to put the blame on anybody. We're all accountable for what's going on here."

It appears that Acta is going to take the fall. Club president Stan Kasten did not dismiss the reports of Acta's imminent demise when questioned about his manager's status. "I've been asked a variation of that question by some media outlet almost every day since the first week of the season," said Kasten. "If I had a policy of talking about personnel, I'd have to do that story every single day, so I don't. Having said that, I can confess to you how perplexed I am by this season, this team, and the things that are going on. Our record is a real trouble to me, every single day. I'm troubled by everything, and we continue to look for solutions. Have I thought about every possibility? Of course I have, as has Mike, as have our owners. We're certainly not satisfied with our record, far from it. We're distraught over it, and we're going to consider anything we need to do to make it better."

The Nationals could use an influx of talent, though a young starting rotation has shown promise. The Nationals are last in the majors in run prevention (allowing 5.9 runs per game) and Defensive Efficiency, while ranking 17th in runs scored with a 4.5 average. The Nationals do have some offensive weapons in outfielder Adam Dunn (.316 EqA), third baseman Ryan Zimmerman (.313), and first baseman Nick Johnson (.306). However, left-hander John Lannan (1.9 SNLVAR) is the only starter who has added as much as one full win above replacement level, and the disaster of a bullpen has included eight pitchers who have posted negative WXRLs.

For the sake of full disclosure, Acta is a personal favorite of many at BP. He has not only been an avid reader of our work, but has long sung our praises, going back to his days as a coach with the Expos and Mets. Acta has a great reputation inside the game, and he'll have no trouble landing another job, but he will likely have to take a step back and become a coach again before getting another chance to manage.

During a spirited discussion on our in-house e-mail list following Rosenthal's report on Saturday, Christina Kahrl came up with a great managerial comp for Acta-the Red Sox's Terry Francona. Francona got his first chance to manage with the Phillies from 1997-2000 when they were a rebuilding organization and had a 285-363 record over four seasons. After spending one year as a scout with the Indians and one season each as a bench coach with the Rangers and Athletics, Francona got a second crack at managing with the Red Sox, and he has compiled a 508-365 mark with four playoff berths and two World Series titles in five-plus seasons. And, as Francona is fond of saying, "it's amazing how much smarter you become when you have good players."

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The Rockies appeared desperate when they fired manager Clint Hurdle and promoted bench coach Jim Tracy to interim skipper on May 29. The Rockies were 18-28 and 14 games behind the Dodgers in the National League West, but the Rockies have gone 13-5 since Tracy took over. While they are still under .500 at 31-33 and 11 games in back of the Dodgers, they have drawn within 3 games of the Wild Card-leading Cardinals.

Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki isn't necessarily sure that changing managers has made the difference, but he did admit that the team's confidence is at its highest level since it ran off 21 victories in 22 games, including the final 15 games of the regular season and seven National League playoffs games, to reach the World Series for the first time in franchise history in 2007. "The biggest thing for me is the mood on the field has changed," Tulowitzki told the Denver Post. "Early on in the season, we were expecting bad things to happen. Now we're expecting good things to happen. We're waiting for the big pitch, we're waiting for the big hit, and we're getting it. Whereas before, we were thinking out there, 'What's going to happen? What's going to go wrong? How are we going to blow this lead?'"

Tracy says that he has not come up with any magic formula for the turnaround, and he insists he is just in the right place at the right time. "Personally, I really feel like they're playing baseball very much according to the plan that was mapped out in spring training," Tracy said. "We got off to a slow start, and when you start analyzing the ages of some of these players, that might have something to do with it."

While the Rockies have retained much of the core of the team that had won the pennant two years ago, they have mixed in some players from the minor leagues, notably catcher Chris Iannetta, outfielder Carlos Gonzalez, and center fielder Dexter Fowler. Tulowitzki is in just his third season, but has already seen the full spectrum with the Rockies, from their spin as NL champions in 2007 to a 74-88 finish last year. "Since I've been here, it seems like when we get rolling we run off a few in a row, and when we start getting cold we'll lose a few games in a row," he said. "Right now we're playing well, so we just got to keep it going."

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The Phillies have a three-game lead over the Mets in their attempt to win a third straight NL East title, but that doesn't mean that GM Ruben Amaro Jr. is standing pat. He is on the hunt for pitching, has top-shelf prospects he is willing to trade, and has been given the OK by ownership to increase the $113 million payroll.

The Phillies are third in the majors in run scored with 5.5 per game, but 23rd in runs allowed with a 4.9 average, so Amaro will be looking for help in the rotation and bullpen. "We'd like to improve both areas," Amaro told the Philadelphia Inquirer's Jim Salisbury. "We need all of the above. We're pursuing both. That doesn't mean we're going to get any, but you're always trying to improve."

The Phillies would really prefer add a front-line starter after right-hander Brett Myers underwent hip surgery last month that will likely sideline him for the remainder of the season. "It's pretty clear when you lose your number two starter, you'd like to replace him with someone who can give you a similar performance," Amaro said.

Amaro realizes that there are no guarantees that he will be able to land a pitcher. With 24 of the 30 major league teams within 6 games of a playoff berth, trade partners are scare. "So many teams are in it, and so many are looking for pitching," he said. "Wanting to do something and actually doing something are often totally different things. Right now, we're throwing the ball well enough to keep our heads above water." Amaro, however, will be able to entice a team with trade offers that could include such prospects as right-hander Carlos Carrasco, catcher Lou Marson, and shortstop Jason Donald.

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Mike Ilitch came up short in his bid to win another Stanley Cup as the owner watched his Detroit Red Wings lose to the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game Seven of the finals last Friday night. Now, Ilitch will try to win a World Series with the Tigers, something that has eluded him since buying the franchise in 1992.

The Tigers are narrowly in first place in the AL Central by two games over the Twins. Despite already having a $115 million payroll in a city devastated by the downturn in the automobile industry, Ilitch said that he is willing to spend more "We're going to do whatever we've got to do," Ilitch told the Detroit Free Press. "What are we going to do? There are a lot of things that we can do. We're going to try to improve one way or the other."

While Ilitch realizes that winning generates more revenue for a franchise, he also understands that Detroit is in serious need of a dose of civic pride during a time in which unemployment and homelessness is on the rise in the city. "I've lived in this city all my life, and this is probably the most crucial year so far, in that I've never seen the fans so excited and so feeling a part of togetherness and pulling for each other," said Ilitch.

---

Scouts' views on various major league players:

  • Indians outfielder Ben Francisco: "He has gotten an extended chance to prove himself as an everyday guy this season, and hasn't taken advantage of it. He doesn't have enough pop to play on the corners, and he's never going to be the regular center fielder in Cleveland with Grady Sizemore around. For me, he's an OK fourth outfielder."

  • Athletics infielder Nomar Garciaparra: "He really shouldn't play in the field any more, because the leg injuries have robbed of him of all his range."

  • Red Sox infielder Nick Green: "I didn't think he would help the Red Sox at all when they started giving him regular time at shortstop, but he's done a respectable job filling in. I'm not saying he's anything more than a utility man, but he has definitely contributed."

  • Dodgers catcher Russell Martin: "You talk about a young player growing old before our very eyes. His bat is slowing down, and he's not moving very well behind the plate. I don't know what's wrong with him."

  • Braves catcher Brian McCann: "Every time I watch him play I wonder why nobody talks about him being a superstar. He's an extremely productive hitter in the middle of the order and plays a key defensive position, but it's like he is invisible."

  • Mariners right-hander Brandon Morrow: "This poor kid has been jerked around so much that he doesn't know if he's coming or going. He's a reliever, then he's a starter, then he's a reliever, then he's a starter. He's got a great arm and a chance to be a helluva pitcher, but they've got to figure out what to do with him, and then leave him alone."

  • Yankees catcher Jorge Posada: "He can still hit, but his skills behind the plate are deteriorating rapidly. He is reaching the point where he is going to have to get most of his at-bats as a DH."

  • Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols: "I know there is nothing left to say about what a great player he is, but goodness gracious, there isn't anyone who means more to their team. He picks that offense up and carries it on his back day after day, week after week, and month after month. He's going to go down as one of the game's immortals."

  • Orioles left fielder Nolan Reimold: "He's been kind of lost in the shuffle with the Orioles bringing up Matt Wieters, but he's got some pop. I don't think he will be a high-average guy, but he has some pop and he's going to hit some home runs in the big leagues."

  • Diamondbacks third baseman Mark Reynolds: "He obviously strikes out a ton, but that doesn't detract from him being a dangerous hitter. The strikeouts are always going to be there, but this guy is really turning into one of the best power hitters in the game."

  • Mets left-hander Johan Santana: "He doesn't want to cut loose with the fastball. He has a changeup that's otherworldly, but only if he throws the fastball enough to set it up."

  • Marlins right-hander Chris Volstad: "I just love this kid. He's tall, gets good downward plane on his pitches, and makes guys beat the ball into the ground. He's also smart. He's going to be a good one for a long time."

  • Blue Jays center fielder Vernon Wells: "I keep waiting for him to get his career turned back around, but now I'm starting to think it's not going to happen. He's just a run-of-the-mill player now who is making a ton of money."

  • Rangers left-handed reliever C.J. Wilson: "I like him as the eighth-inning guy, but not so much as the ninth-inning guy. Some guys just don't handle that ninth inning very well, and he's one of them."

---

Three series to watch this weekend, with probable pitching matchups (all times Eastern):

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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