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January 6, 2010

On the Beat

Midweek Update

by John Perrotto

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You didn't have to have a bat in your hands and stand just 60 feet and six inches away from Randy Johnson to understand the Big Unit was not the intimidating pitcher of old last year. The 6-foot-10 left-hander just did not strike fear into the hearts of opposing hitters last season, his first with the Giants, and the 21st of his major-league career. The fastball was 90 mph instead of 100, and the slider that gave left-handed hitters no chance and made right-handed batters cringe lacked the old bite.

The numbers weren't pretty. He was limited to 96 innings because of a torn rotator cuff in his shoulder that he suffered July 5 and contributed a 1.6 SNLVAR, -0.2 WARP2, and 4.3 VORP. In other words, he was down around replacement level. Then again, Johnson was 46 years old with a bad arm. Most human beings, let alone professional athletes, are in the decline phase of life in general by that point.

Johnson thought about coming back for 2010, considered returning to the Giants after living out his childhood dream of playing for the team he grew up rooting for as a child in Livermore, California. PECOTA gave him a 34 percent chance of improving, a 31 percent chance of attrition, a 23 percent chance of breakout, and a 10 percent of collapse. The mean projection was a 4-5 record with a 4.73 ERA in 18 games.

Johnson chose attrition and retired Tuesday night. Ironically, he left the game less than 24 hours before the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum will announce if the Baseball Writers Association of America has elected any players for induction this year. Johnson will not have to sweat out the balloting results in 2015 when his name first appears on the ballot, as he should easily get the 75 percent of the vote. He ought to be a unanimous choice, though at least one of my hard-headed BBWAA compatriots will find a reason not to put a check mark next to the name of a man who won 303 games, struck out 4,875 batters at an all-time record rate of 10.6 K/9, and had a 3.29 ERA with a 136 ERA+.

"I never really felt that I would play this long and I feel blessed that I did," Johnson said during a teleconference with reporters. "Eventually, you have to say it's time. Could I play another year? I believe I could. I realize the last three or four years, my skills were diminishing, and the bar is still very high for me to do the things I once did."

Sometimes it seemed Johnson set such a high standard that it pained him to attempt to reach it. Most fans' memories of Johnson will be of the perpetual scowl he had on the mound. He never appeared to be having fun, even when he was making opposing hitters look ridiculous, like he did during the nine seasons he led his league in K/9, or the six years he topped his league in the lowest rate of hits allowed per nine.

Johnson never let many people get close to him, either, particularly media types. However, if you were able to somehow crack the tough veneer, you found a remarkably intelligent man with a wonderful sense of humor. So why did he always look so miserable? "I don't regret being that way," Johnson said. "I got the most out of myself being that way because when I took it out on the mound, it was an intangible I had and I made it work for me. I didn't realize it early in my career, but it really started to click in around 1993 and I was adamant about being as focused as I could be in this game. If it meant being a littler ornery or animated or fierce or however someone may want to describe it, well, that was just me on the day I pitched."

While Johnson talked about doing such things as parachuting, zip lining, and swimming with the Great Whites off the coast of Australia in retirement, he did not sound like a man who wants to stray very far from the game. Johnson developed a close relationship with Jonathan Sanchez, the Giants' inconsistent 27-year-old lefty who threw a no-hitter last season, and enjoyed imparting his advice so much that he would like to do it on a larger scale.

"Sanchez is a lot like I was at his age," Johnson said. "He really has everything. He just needs to put together. I would like to coach down the road. I like talking pitching with the younger guys like Sanchez."

---

The debate is raging as to whether Jason Bay can play left field effectively at spacious Citi Field, or whether he'll need center fielder Carlos Beltran to call for ever fly ball between right-center field and the left-field line. (That's an area which amounts to about 40 percent of Queens.) The Mets are spending at least $66 million over four years to find out after signing the free agent.

BP's FRAR indicates that Bay was markedly improved in the field last season, contributing nine runs to the Red Sox with his glove work after being -2 with the Pirates in 2007 and a combined -12 with both clubs in 2008. Other defensive metrics weren't as kind in measuring Bay's 2009 defense. Fangraph's UZR/150 had him at -11.2 and John Dewan's Plus/Minus system calculated him at -8, including -14 on balls hit deep.

Naturally, one of the questions posed to Bay during his introductory press conference Tuesday was about his fielding. He's inclined to think BP is more in tune with his abilities. "Pittsburgh has a very spacious left field, too," Bay said, referring to PNC Park. "You also play half your games on the road. I'm not really concerned. It's something that's there, but I'm confident in the type of player I am. Ballpark or not, I'm still going to do what I do. So that had a zero factor in anything in my decision. I've said before, I'm by no means Torii Hunter out there. I know that, but I still think I'm pretty good. It will be a chance to show everyone I can be."

---

Third baseman Chipper Jones' initial reaction to Bobby Cox announcing last September that the old skipper would step down as the Braves' manager at the end of this upcoming season was to say, "I'll believe it when I see it." Jones, though, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Dave O'Brien that he made the comment in jest.

However, Jones did speculate on what life might be like in 2011, playing without the only manager he has had in his 16-year career. "It's just going to be weird," Jones said. "I wouldn't want to be the guy who comes in because it's going to be such big shoes to fill. It's going to take a special person to deal with the delicate aspects of a person stepping away and somebody else stepping in, trying to run the ship as well as Bobby ran it and at the same time put their own stamp on it."

Jones is likely headed to Cooperstown when his career ends, and he believes Cox is a shoo-in for induction. "As a person, he's been like my favorite granddad," Jones said. "As a player, Bobby's been the guy who's given me the best opportunity to be successful in the big leagues. He sat down and treated me like a man when I went through some personal issues. That will never be forgotten by me. And his record on the field speaks for itself. He's going to the Hall of Fame for what he's done on the field."

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Jed Hoyer has been awfully quiet in the two-plus months since he was hired as the Padres' general manager. In fact, his biggest move has been not making the move to trade first baseman Adrian Gonzalez despite having plenty of potential partners. Hoyer also isn't inclined to trade closer Heath Bell, and there has been less interest in third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff than hoped. Hoyer will likely have to improve a club that went 75-87 last season through free agency, which is not an easy thing to do with a payroll of around $45 million. As is, the club also needs a veteran starting pitcher, a right-handed-hitting center fielder, and a utility infielder. Thus, Hoyer is counting on some asking prices to fall as pitchers and catchers get closer to reporting.

"There are going to be some bargains out there as spring training approaches," Hoyer told the San Diego Union-Tribune's Bill Center. "There will be players, although you might not be able to be selective. We want to be sure we target a handful."

The Padres finished last season on a 37-25 run that created plenty of optimism in the organization, with the thought that they could be a factor in the National League West race this year. Manager Bud Black said last September he would be content to go into 2010 with basically the same roster. However, Hoyer is cautious, and not getting too enthused. "It'd be great to see what we have, but it's a different environment starting out the season," Hoyer said. "I'd like to see them go from day one under pressure."

---

MLB Rumors and Rumblings: Orlando Hudson looks like he is going to have to sit on the market for a long time as a free agent for a second consecutive winter and sign a below-market contract. The Twins appear to be the frontrunners, though the Tigers and Mets also have interest in the second baseman. Melvin Mora's days as a starting third baseman are over, so his agent, Eric Goldschmidt, is trying to get interest in the free agent by marketing him as a super-utilityman. One baseball executive's reaction to the report by ESPN's Buster Olney that free-agent first baseman Adam LaRoche rejected a two-year, $17 million contract offer from the Giants: "I thought Adam LaRoche had more sense than that."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

Related Content:  Jed Hoyer,  The Who,  Bobby Jones

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