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September 20, 2009

On the Beat

Weekend Wrapup

by John Perrotto

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Just two in-season managerial changes have been made this year in the major leagues. As a result, t will be interesting to see how many there will be once the season ends in two weeks. Of the two made during the season, one has been credited for making a major impact. and the other has restored some measure of respectability to a franchise that seemed headed towards challenging the big-league record 120 losses compiled by the 1962 Mets.

The first, as you should recognize, came when the Rockies fired Clint Hurdle on May 28, and elevated bench coach Jim Tracy (also a former Dodgers and Pirates skipper) to interim manager. The Rockies were 18-28 at the time Hurdle was canned, and have gone 66-37 to improve. At 84-65, they hold a 3-game lead in the National League's wild-card standings over the Giants, and are five games behind the Dodgers in the NL West.

The latter case was the Nationals firing Manny Acta at the All-Star break, a point at which they were 26-61. They also promoted their bench coach, Jim Riggleman (also a former big-league skipper), to interim manager. The Nationals have gone 25-36since the switch, giving them a 51-97 record, which is still the worst in the major leagues, but spared the club that run at infamy.

It seems certain that once the regular season ends, other teams will be changing managers. The biggest surprise among them might be the Braves. Bobby Cox would not commit to coming back for a 25th season this past week when pressed on the matter by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Jeff Schultz. Cox said during spring training in 2007 that he planned to retire following the 2008 season. However, the end of last season came and went without Cox even hinting that he wanted to step down and the subject had been left dormant until now. The Braves are 79-69 and 4 games off the Rockies' NL wild-card pace, likely meaning they will miss the playoffs for a fourth straight season after their run of 11 consecutive division titles ended in 2006. Cox has also taken his share of criticism from the fans and media for his handling of the bullpen and other strategic decisions.

However, Cox insists he never reads the newspapers or logs onto the internet, and those who know him well say he is telling the truth. If there is one factor that could cause Cox to step down, it is that he is now 68 and has missed plenty of family time with his eight children and 14 grandchildren because of the day-to-day demands of managing in the major leagues.

Still, Cox admits he would miss the game dearly if he were to step down. "The game is still amazingly fun," Cox said. "To be able to participate in a game every day is every kid's dream. That's never changed. I still love it. It's the competition. Whether it's a so-so-team or a great team, it's still competition. It's what you thrive on."

It's also something he would have a hard time finding a substitute for if he was to spend most of his summer days at his farm in Marietta, Georgia. "There really won't be a substitute but I think I'll still be around a little bit," Cox said. "As long as you're connected a little bit, I think you're OK. I'd still like to go to spring training and things like that."

It will be interesting to see who the Braves would hire to replace Cox, whenever that day comes. They stayed in-house when general manager John Schuerholz became club president after the 2007 season, promoting assistant GM Frank Wren. If they follow the same pattern, hitting coach Terry Pendleton would be Cox's likely successor.

Meanwhile, back in DC Riggleman has been lobbying hard through the media in recent days to get the job on a full-time basis, insisting his team is improved. Though GM Mike Rizzo has plenty of respect for Riggleman, it seems a near certainty that the team's owners, the Lerner family, will have Rizzo seek a replacement from outside the organization. "You pick up the paper, you hear things and a lot of comments get started with, 'The worst team in baseball, the Washington Nationals,'" Riggleman said. "You know, we're not the worst team in baseball. Unfortunately, you are what your record says you are but we've got a good ballclub."

The Indians' Eric Wedge and the Orioles' Dave Trembley are both considered on the bubble as far as returning in 2010. GM Mark Shapiro is a staunch supporter of Wedge, who has one year left to run on his contract. However, with the Indians having lost 17 of their last 21 games to fall to 61-87, there is a growing feeling that club president Paul Dolan will order Shapiro to make a change. If Wedge gets the ax, Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell will be at the top of the Indians' wish list.

The Orioles continue to show some spark despite being in last place in the American League East at 60-88, 34 games behind the Yankees. They took two of three from the Yankees on the road last weekend, and their spirited play might be enough for Trembley, whose contract expires at the end of the season, to get at least one more year.

There has much speculation surrounding the future of the Astros' Cecil Cooper, even though he received a one-year contract extension in April that takes him through 2010. Always-unpredictable club owner Drayton McLane is reportedly torn over what to do with Cooper, as the Astros may finally decide to go with a youth movement next season, which would almost demand they hire someone who might relate better to his younger charges.

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There has been much talk about the Angels possible being in the Yankees' heads if the two teams should meet in the American League Championship Series. The Angels knocked the Yankees out in the American League Division Series in 2002 and 2005. Before a potential ALCS between the Angels and Yankees, it seems a certainty that the Angels and Red Sox will meet in the ALDS. There has also been plenty of talk of the Red Sox being in the Angels' heads after beating them in the 2004, 2007 and 2008 ALDS.

The Angels' frustration against the Red Sox reached its peak this past Wednesday night in a 9-8 loss at Fenway Park. The Red Sox rallied with two runs in the bottom of the ninth inning as Nick Green drew a bases-loaded walk off of closer Brian Fuentes on a close 3-2 pitch to tie it, and Alex Gonzalez followed with a game-winning RBI single that left fielder Juan Rivera gave a half-hearted effort on.

The loss caused Angels center fielder Torii Hunter to question whether his team was capable of competing in a hostile venue like Fenway Park. "We get here and we make mistakes that we haven't been making all season," Hunter said. "I don't give a damn about this place. I just play. I can't speak for everybody else. We've got to play better. If you do this in the regular season, what's going to happen in the playoffs? A lot of players on this team are getting it wrong. It's not more important to play this team (the Red Sox) than the Tampa Bay Rays or Seattle Mariners. You play the same game. You do what you do. You have fun. You don't change your game because it's the Red Sox or the Yankees. If you play nervous, you're going to make mistakes. Show some (guts)."

Catcher Mike Napoli echoed Hunter's sentiments. "You've got to come out and play," Napoli said. "It you're scared or timid, if you think something bad is going to happen, you shouldn't be out there."

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The Yankees, meanwhile, are in position to have home-field advantage throughout the postseason as their 95-54 record is the best in the major leagues. Few teams have used home field more to their advantage than the Yankees in their first season at the new Yankee Stadium. The Yankees have had 14 walk-off wins, the most in the major leagues and the most by the franchise since the won a record 17 in 1943. Eight different Yankees have had walk-off hits. Furthermore, the Yankees lead the major leagues with 48 come-from-behind victories and 26 triumphs in their last at-bat. Of those comeback victories, 34 have been at Yankee Stadium, which ties the franchise record set in 1932, when the Yankees won one of their record 26 World Series titles.

"I think there is a feeling that you can always do it because you've done it so many times," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said of his team's numerous walkoffs. "When guys have that kind of confidence, they are different players. There is no doubt about that."

That confidence can even transform a rookie third-string catcher like Francisco Cervelli into a superhero. He provided the latest game-winning heroics with his ninth-inning single this past Wednesday against the Blue Jays. Cervelli was in the game only because starting catcher Jorge Posada had been suspended for three games by Major League Baseball for his part in a brawl with Blue Jays pitcher Jesse Carlson a night earlier, while backup catcher Jose Molina had left the game for a pinch hitter an inning earlier. "What a moment," Cervelli said. "Everything was perfect."

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Owner Mark Attanasio took the Brewers' payroll up to $87 million this season after they snapped a 26-year playoff drought in 2008. However, the Brewers are 73-75 and 13 games behind the Cardinals in the National League Central. But while the Brewers aren't headed back to the playoffs, Attanasio says he does not regret spending so much money despite owning a team in one of the sport's smallest markets. He also has no plans to blow up the roster and start over again in 2010.

"Fans want to see a winning team," said Attanasio, mindful the Brewers have sold over three million tickets this season. "I'm not anticipating breaking the team down. We're not to the point. It's very disappointing this year to have games in September that don't mean anything. The only team that got it right in our division this year is the Cardinals."

There has been much speculation that the Brewers might try to trade first baseman Prince Fielder in the offseason in order to lower the payroll and at least begin retooling the roster if not going into an outright rebuilding phase. "I think that would be a very easy, to cop out," Attanasio said. "We're not going to do that. (GM) Doug Melvin is very methodical and he is going to access everything at the end of the season when all the data is in. We certainly deserve the right to go look at that. If that seems like the right thing to do then we'll consider doing it. But it really seems like a copout to me to blow everything up, though it makes for good internet fodder and conversation."

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MLB Rumors and Rumblings: Some around the Chicago baseball scene would not be shocked to see a major cross-town trade of right-handers in the offseason, in which the Cubs would deal Carlos Zambrano to the White Sox for Jake Peavy. The Cubs, meanwhile, are trying to sign left-handed reliever John Grabow and outfielder Reed Johnson before they can become free agents at the end of the season, and are also flirting with the idea of moving their spring training base to Naples, Florida, from Mesa, Arizona. Those who know Braves third baseman Chipper Jones believe he is serious when he says he will retire at the end of next season and forgo the final two years of his contract if he does not perform up to his usual standards in 2010. Considering right-hander Josh Johnson does not plan to take a large hometown discount to stay with the Marlins, there is a chance they could trade him this upcoming winter, even though he cannot become a free agent until after the 2011 season. Look for first baseman Russell Branyan to re-sign with the Mariners before he gets to the free-agent market. While owner Fred Wilpon says GM Omar Minaya and manager Jerry Manuel will return next season, there is a chance hitting coach Howard Johnson might unfairly take the fall for the Mets' poor season.

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

Twins at White Sox, Monday-Wednesday (September 21-23)
Nick Blackburn vs. D.J. Carrasco, 8:11 p.m.; Jeff Manship vs. John Danks, 8:11 p.m.; Brian Duensing vs. Mark Buerhle, 8:11 p.m.

Yankees at Angels, Monday-Wednesday (September 21-23)
Andy Pettitte vs. Joe Saunders, 10:05 p.m.; Chad Gaudin vs. Ervin Santana, 10:05 p.m. (MLB Network); A.J. Burnett vs. Scott Kazmir, 3:35 p.m.

Phillies at Marlins, Tuesday-Wednesday (September 22-23)
Joe Blanton and Jamie Moyer vs. Josh Johnson and Anibal Sanchez, doubleheader, 4:10 p.m.; Cole Hamels vs. Rick VandenHurk, 7:10 p.m. (ESPN)

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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