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December 20, 2009
On the Beat
Millions of us face the same dilemma this week. Christmas is five days away, and we can't figure out what present to buy for the person who has everything. The Mets, on the other hand, are in the opposite situation. They are the team that seemingly needs everything following a season in which they collapsed under the weight of key injuries and had a 70-92 record, good for fourth place in the National League East. About the only thing good that can be said of the 2009 Mets is they didn't blow a big late-season lead to the Phillies the way that they had in the previous two seasons.
Yet while the Mets are needy, manager Jerry Manuel is still waiting for a little something more than Ryota Igarashi to be stuffed into his stocking. Signing the Japanese reliever as a free agent has been the most significant off-season move for the Mets, who are also cornering the free-agent market on back-up backstops by landing catchers Henry Blanco and Chris Coste. The Mets have reportedly offered five years and $75 million to free-agent left fielder Jason Bay, who apparently doesn't have any other bidders close to that figure. That Bay has yet to sign with the Mets is a clear indication he would rather avoid them if he had his druthers, which might not be a bad idea considering spacious Citi Field doesn't seem conducive to his game, either offensively or defensively.
Other than that, the Mets have been extremely quiet this winter. They were supposed to be players for John Lackey, but general manager Omar Minaya admitted that the free-agent right-hander signed a five-year, $82.5 million contract with the Red Sox before he ever got around to having a meaningful conversation with his agent. Unless they are keeping it under wraps, which is almost impossible with all the great reporters among New York's baseball writing corps, the Mets don't appear to be in on free-agent left fielder Matt Holliday.
However, Manuel insists he is not getting nervous about his team's lack of activity. "I think we have to be careful not to be too hasty and make sure that we put the pieces in the right place," Manuel said. "The important thing is we have to make sure by the time spring training starts we have some pieces in place that will give us a good shot. The timing of when we make the moves isn't as important as making the right moves."
There was a question coming into the offseason of whether Minaya would be able to make a splash. Reports had Fred Wilpon, the Mets' owner, losing anywhere from $300-700 million this year in Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme, while other reports claimed he actually made money in the deal. The hefty offer to Bay is a strong indication Minaya has been given the OK to spend money.
Manuel, though, is one the few people who call Queens home who doesn't feel tthe Mets need to throw cash at their problems. Manuel says the Mets' primary problem last season was health. Shortstop Jose Reyes, center fielder Carlos Beltran, and first baseman Carlos Delgado (now a free agent) missed significant chunks of time because of injury, as did Oliver Perez, the consistently erratic left-hander. Staff ace Johan Santana, a consistently consistent lefty, was shut down early to have arthroscopic elbow surgery. "With the year that we had, it's very difficult to evaluate where you are as a team simply because of the depletion of the roster," Manuel said. "We really have to get healthy and our players that get healthy have to play in the form and fashion that we project them to be. I think if we do that, we can compete in the National League East. Would I like to see us do some things? I might like this or that, but you have to be somewhat cautious of going out and doing things that don't fit what you're trying to put together."
Manuel is also hopeful that having a full season to adjust to Citi Field will be beneficial to the Mets. The hitters complained about the dimensions of the new ballpark, but statistics show it wasn't the primary reason the Mets hit 95 home runs, fewest in the major leagues in 2009. The Mets actually hit more home runs at home than on the road, 49-46.
"It's a different type of venue for Major League Baseball in the sense that it's very spacious," Manuel said. "We saw a lot of triples hit in our ballpark. We have some people that have that type of ability. When you get the return of a Jose Reyes, you have guys like Angel Pagan, Luis Castillo, Carlos Beltran, and David Wright, you have a lot of guys that can hit triples. So I think with our ballpark the way it is, it gives us an opportunity to kind of set a different philosophy or put a different emphasis on a different part of the game that we haven't before. Everybody puts an emphasis on pitching and defense but we really have to emphasize that a lot now, because if you throw strikes you have a chance in our ballpark and that could be a simple remedy for us."
If there was such a thing as the General Manager of the First Half of the Offseason Award-and maybe we should start one-the winner would be the Mariners' Jack Zduriencik. The man with the name that everyone outside his hometown of New Castle, PA, has a hard time spelling or pronouncing made a huge first impression last season when he oversaw the Mariners' 24-game improvement from 61-101 to 85-77. Now he seems set on making the Mariners the favorites to win the American League West in 2010 after trading for Phillies left-hander Cliff Lee, signing third baseman Chone Figgins to a four-year, $32 million contract as a free agent and trading for terminally disgruntled Cubs outfielder Milton Bradley.
Before we go on about Zduriencik's winter, please indulge me for a few paragraphs while I play amateur psychologist and explain why I think trading for Bradley just might work despite the fact he is now on his eighth team in 11 years. While it isn't standard for a BP article to promote the idea of clubhouse chemistry making a difference in a team's performance, I do think it was a factor in the Mariners' turnaround. When I caught up with the Mariners in late April of 2008, I walked into the tensest clubhouse in memory. It was basically 25 guys going their separate ways with almost no interaction and glum looks on their faces. I encountered the Mariners again in the first game after the All-Star break last season and it was a much more harmonious clubhouse, with jokes and laughs all around.
Those connected with the Mariners point to two reasons why the atmosphere changed so much. One is manager Don Wakamatsu, who took over prior to last season, being an easygoing guy yet tough enough to put players in their place if they try to cross him. The second is Ken Griffey, Jr., who is no longer a great player but is a master of integrating everyone into the clubhouse fun. Griffey was the man responsible for bringing Ichiro Suzuki out of the shell he had lived in throughout his eight years in the United States. Griffey made Ichiro the subject of so many clubhouse pranks that he began showing a light-hearted side that few believed existed. "This is the most fun I've ever had playing baseball in my life," Ichiro said that night last July. "I never knew the game could be this much fun."
The Mariners are convinced Griffey can have the same kind of effect on Bradley. If Griffey does, he might succeed President Obama as the Nobel Peace Prize-winner. Bradley, though, is not the last piece to the Mariners' puzzle. They could still wind up with Bay as it certainly seems that a large part of the reason why he is stalling the Mets is because Seattle is his adopted hometown and come to terms with the Mariners since Seattle is his adopted hometown. They also want to re-sign third baseman Adrian Beltre, in which case they would shift Figgins to second base and second baseman Jose Lopez to first base. On top of all that, the Mariners would also like to sign left-hander Jarrod Washburn, who they traded to the Tigers at last July's non-waiver deadline.
Figgins has completely bought in to what Zduriencik as selling. When asked by the Seattle Times' Steve Kelley what sales pitch he would give to Beltre, Figgins had a ready answer. "I would tell him that he knows that this organization is trying to move in the direction of trying to win a division," Figgins said. "If you're willing to win and want to win and want to play in a place where you're comfortable, this is the place for you to be. Your decision is easy for you. I think he knows which way the organization is going. I know he knows it's a lot of upside. He knows the city. He knows the travel. He knows it's a great place to play."
Like Tom Cruise's Maverick character all those years ago in Top Gun, White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen has long expressed his need for speed. He got it this past week when the White Sox made a contribution to the Frank and Jamie McCourt Divorce Fund by taking outfielder Juan Pierre off the Dodgers' hands in a trade. Just about every move the White Sox have made since the latter part of last season has been with an eye toward making their roster unleaded. They picked outfielder Alex Rios off the waiver wire from the Blue Jays, and traded designated hitter Jim Thome to the Dodgers in August. They then declined to exercise the option year in right fielder Jermaine Dye's contract in November before dealing for Pierre, who will presumably play center field and bat leadoff.
"We have a more athletic ballclub and can do a lot of things," Guillen said. "And I was looking for the challenge to see how good I can be, moving the pieces the way I like to move them. I always want teams with pitching, defense and speed. We've had teams with pitching and defense before but never one with the speed we have now."
General manager Ken Williams admits he would feel better about the White Sox' chances to win in 2010 if he could add a left-handed power bat to the middle of the lineup. Guillen, though, says he likes the club he has now. Thus, Williams concedes the White Sox are pretty much done with making roster moves this winter after also signing reliever J.J. Putz, infielder Omar Vizquel, and outfielder Andruw Jones as free agents. "I certainly don't want to do anything from my seat that conflicts with what my manager wants, so regardless if I think there may be a need for a bigger left-handed bat in the middle of the lineup, he's the one in there and I fully support how he and his coaching staff see the situation fitting," Williams said.
Scott Boras, king of all agents, has been hard-selling the idea that the Cardinals must re-sign Holliday, who happens to be his client, if they want to have any chance of re-signing first baseman Albert Pujols once he becomes eligible for free agency after the 2011 season. To hear Boras tell it, Pujols will be long gone if he doesn't have Holliday hitting behind him in the batting order.
Dan Lozano begs to differ, and he is a man who should know. While he might not have Boras' profile, he is Pujols' agent. "With all due respect to Matt, Albert respects Matt and would love to have him as a teammate and hopes he gets his money, but Matt's situation must be seen as independent of Albert's," Lozano told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Joe Strauss. "We've made it clear on numerous occasions that the most important thing to Albert is that the Cardinals are committed to putting a competitive, contending club on the field. That's it."
MLB Rumors and Rumblings: The Rangers are targeting free-agent designated hitter Vladimir Guerrero after their attempt to trade for Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell ended on Saturday when Lowell failed a physical examination. … The Rockies have turned their attention to free-agent catcher Miguel Olivo after being unable to strike a deal to re-sign Yorvit Torrealba to back up Chris Iannetta. … The Nationals have become serious bidders for reliever Matt Capps, who became a free agent last weekend when he was non-tendered by the Pirates.