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December 30, 2009

On the Beat

Midweek Update

by John Perrotto

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Sabermetricians long ago dismissed the idea that managers make a huge impact on the performance of their teams. Yet, by any measure, it would be hard to quibble with the job Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez did last season. The Marlins entered the season with the lowest payroll in the major leagues at $36 million, yet they stayed in contention until the latter stages of the season and finished 87-75, second in the National League East and six games behind the Phillies.

Gonzalez nearly got fired for his efforts, though. Word leaked out during the last weekend of the season that Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria was in serious talks to hire ESPN analyst and former Rangers and Mets manager Bobby Valentine as manager. Loria took such a beating from the press and fans that he did an about-face and kept Gonzalez.

Three months later, Gonzalez says he is not worried about his job security if the Marlins start slowly in 2010. "It's water under the bridge and we move forward," Gonzalez said. "You think you did a good job, and nobody wants to have bad stuff written about them or said about them. But it's over with. We never make an excuse about payroll or any of that kind of stuff. You want to win ballgames and our owner, Mr. Loria, expressed that he expects us to win, which is fine. No problem."

Gonzalez understands the Marlins' way of doing business, which is cutting the payroll and dumping most of their best players when they become too expensive. Second baseman Dan Uggla seems certain to be the next star to go, as he won a $5 million salary in an arbitration hearing last winter, and figures to get another significant pay raise through the process this winter. Uggla was part of the reason the Marlins finished fifth in the NL in scoring last season with an average of 4.8 runs a game, as he had a .285 EqA while hitting .243/.354/.459 in 668 plate appearances.

The Marlins already have an alternate plan for if and when Uggla is traded. Most likely, they will move speedy slap-hitter Emilio Bonifacio to second base, shift first baseman Jorge Cantu to third, and play a rookie, either Gaby Sanchez or Logan Morrison, at first. "We always have to look at alternatives," Gonzalez said. "That is how we have to approach it in our situation. We don't complain. We just try to find ways to win with what we have."

One player the Marlins know they will have is shortstop Hanley Ramirez. Ramirez finished second to Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols in the NL in VORP last season (98.3-79.9) and seemingly can still get better, as he is just 26. "With his [Ramirez's] maturity and the way he's progressing in his career, I like what I see," observes Gonzalez. "His career is progressing the right way. It really is. It's a sign of his maturity and work habits. He is taking the game more seriously and understanding the hard work that goes into being a star player."

That Ramirez finished second to Pujols in the NL Most Valuable Player voting was no surprise, as he had long been hyped as a potential superstar. That left fielder Chris Coghlan won the NL Rookie of the Year Award in 2009, however, was unexpected. He was considered a solid second base prospect coming into last season, which he began at Triple-A New Orleans, before being quickly converted into a left fielder when the Marlins decided to send struggling rookie center fielder Cameron Maybin back to the minor leagues while shifting right fielder Cody Ross to center and left fielder Jeremy Hermida to right. Coghlan had a .299 EqA while hitting .321/.390/.460 in 565 plate appearances.

"I think what we saw of him last year is a pretty clear snapshot of the type of player he is going be in the major leagues for a long time," Gonzalez said. "He's an on-base guy that's going to have in-the-gap power and will run it out of the ballpark if you make a mistake on him."

The Marlins have plenty of young, raw talent on their pitching staff, but Josh Johnson's 6.6 SNLVAR dwarfed the rest of a starting rotation in which Ricky Nolasco (2.3) and Anibal Sanchez (2.1) were the only members to add as many as two victories. Leo Nunez becomes the full-time closer following last month's trade of Matt Lindstrom to the Astros, though his 1.454 WXRL last season does not inspire great confidence. Nevertheless, Gonzalez is optimistic pitching can take a step up after ranking 10th in the NL last season when it allowed 4.7 runs per game. "I always said going through the pennant race last year that, in the worst-case scenario, the experience would help their careers for the coming years," Gonzalez said. "Everybody is a year older. Everybody has got a lot more major-league innings, so you're looking for them to learn from that and get better."

The question, though, is if gaining that experience will be enough to get the Marlins over the hump and into the playoffs next season for the first time since their improbable run to a World Series title in 2003. "You would think that by the experience we got that we get a little closer in the division, but the Phillies put a pretty good product out on the field and they know how to play the game," Gonzalez said. "For us, we are going to have to play injury-free baseball and maybe get some help player-wise to catch them. If they have some injuries on their team, maybe we catch them. It's going to be tough, though. It's a pretty good ballclub they run out there."

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The Brewers, unlike most small-market clubs, are willing to spend. Owner Mark Attanasio got a taste of winning in 2008 when the Brewers made the playoffs for the first time in 26 years as the National League's wild-card team, and has given general manager Doug Melvin a payroll of approximately $80 million for 2010 in an effort to get back to the postseason following last year's 80-82 finish.

Melvin has dipped into the free-agent pitching market twice this winter, signing left-hander Randy Wolf to a three-year, $29.75 million contract, and reliever LaTroy Hawkins to a two-year, $7.5 million deal. He'd love to sign another starter and maybe a reliever. However, he is now reduced to waiting for bargains to start sifting out when spring training nears and players begin scrambling for contract.

The Brewers' $80 million only goes so far because of two dubious decisions Melvin made during the 2006-07 offseason, signing free-agent right-hander Jeff Suppan to a four-year contract worth what was then a club-record $42 million and giving infielder Bill Hall a four-year, $24 million extension. The Brewers traded Hall to the Mariners last season after designating him for assignment, and will pay $7.15 million of his $8.4 million salary in 2010. Suppan will have a $12.5 million salary next season after contributing just a 0.5 WARP2 in his first three years with the Brewers.

"If you have injuries or underperformance, you have a season like last year, which is 80 wins," Melvin said. "The difference in that and 88, 89, 90 victories is everybody staying healthy and producing. It depends on who the injuries are to. We had it to starting pitchers (in 2009). There's the performance factor, too. We're carrying Bill Hall's contract as part of our payroll. I'm sure if the Yankees had that, it doesn't affect them much."

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Former second baseman/outfielder Eric Young was considered a potential manager during his 15-year career from 1992-2006 that saw him play in 1,730 games despite being the Dodgers' 43rd-round draft pick in 1993. After ESPN decided not to renew Young's contract as an analyst for 2010, he will begin what he hopes is a path toward becoming a major-league skipper by joining the Astros' organization as a roving minor-league baserunning and outfield instructor.

"It gets me back in uniform and it gives me an opportunity to help youngsters," Young said. "I'm very excited to give the experiences and knowledge I gained coming up. Hopefully, I can make a difference and possibly become a manager one day."

Young lives in Houston, and Astros GM Ed Wade and assistant GM Ricky Bennett were intrigued with the idea of adding him to the organization after ESPN made its decision. "He's got unbelievable energy and passion for the game," Bennett said. "That's the type of leadership that we're looking for from our staff to develop big-league players. I knew EY as a player a little bit, but I didn't really know him. Obviously I knew of him with his playing career, but I kept hearing good things about him as a person and his character. He was assertive, and we sat and talked for three hours, and it felt like we had known each other for years. He has the energy and passion, and that's something I wanted to add to my staff."

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MLB Rumors and Rumblings: The Braves are emerging as the team most likely to trade for Uggla after the Giants decided to sign free-agent infielder Mark DeRosa than deal for the second baseman. While Bobby Cox has announced that 2010 will be his last season as Braves' manager, those close to him believe he could wind up managing again at some point, as the idea of stepping aside was not entirely his. The Cubs are considering free agents Rick Ankiel, Marlon Byrd, and Scott Podsednik to play center field, but they also have interest in trading for the Rays' Fernando Perez. The Tigers are considering the idea of making rookie Casper Wells the replacement for Curtis Granderson in center field, as he had a strong Arizona Fall League season following two years at Double-A Erie.

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Finally, this concludes my third season of writing On The Beat, and my enthusiasm only grows with each passing column. I certainly appreciate you, the readers, for all your feedback. Even if I can't answer all the e-mails and comments, I read them all and appreciate your criticisms and praise. We're going to have to some exciting news concerning my role with BP in the coming weeks, and I can't wait until I can share it with you.

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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Prospectus Q&A: Best Q... (12/30)
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The Year in Quotes (12/31)

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