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January 17, 2010

On the Beat

Weekend Update

by John Perrotto

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At first glance, Adam LaRoche gives the impression that he is a little slow on the uptake. He does not immediately respond to questions, instead pondering them before giving answers. He also talks rather deliberately. However, you do not have to spend much time with the Diamondbacks' new first baseman to realize that he is a very bright guy. The reason he deliberates before answering is because he prefers to give sincere and thoughtful answers rather than the usual pablum that comes out of the mouths of so many professional athletes and coaches.

With that in mind, it is easier to understand why LaRoche ultimately left $10.5 million on the table in his first journey through the free-agent market, even though it made him the favorite to win the not-quite-coveted Worst Decision of the Offseason Award. The Giants offered LaRoche a two-year, $17 million contract early in free agency, but he turned it down because he understands that AT&T Park has reduced the production of almost every left-handed hitter not named Barry Bonds. LaRoche eventually signed a one-year contract with the Diamondbacks on Friday that guarantees him $6 million, as he will have a $4.5 million salary in 2010 and a $7.5 million mutual option for 2011 that has a $1.5 million buyout.

It has been reported that LaRoche turned down the Giants' offer because he had been seeking a three-year, $30 million contract, and he jumped on the deal with the Diamondbacks because he knew it was his only option. However, LaRoche insists he had other offers and his choice was always going to be about park effects and having a chance to win.

"As a hitter, for whatever reason, when you're in a ballpark where you know you can drive the ball out from foul pole to foul pole, it just does something to your confidence," LaRoche said. "I felt that a little bit playing in Atlanta. I enjoyed hitting there. It was very fair. But the fact is, when you go into a place like Cincinnati or Philadelphia, some of these smaller ballparks where the ball travels well, your confidence is up. That definitely weighs on your decision."

The numbers suggest LaRoche would have been better off picking the Giants based on very small sample size. He has hit .395/.460/.767 in 50 plate appearances at AT&T Park, including a home run into McCovey Cove off Tim Lincecum in 2007, but he has hit .238/.256/.405 in 50 plate appearances at Chase Field. However, LaRoche also understands that it's a small sample size.

"Not just the fact that the ball flies, I like the fact that it's a dome and the climate here," LaRoche said on why he prefers Chase Field. "There's something about it, I don't know if it's the backdrop or the batter's eye. It's a good park to see the ball."

Another interesting factor in LaRoche's decisions is that the Giants seem to have a better chance of dethroning the two-time defending champion Dodgers in the National League West in 2010 than the Diamondbacks. The Giants went 88-74 last season and finished in third place, seven games behind the Dodgers, while the Diamondbacks were last, 25 games out at 70-92.

"Not to bash the Giants at all, I just had to weigh it," LaRoche said. "Was it worth going there for a couple of years or just riding it out and seeing what kinds of options were available? They kind of started dwindling fast. When this one came, when I first heard about it, I remember telling my agent, 'Let's try to get this done.' This is a chance that I didn't want to let pass and kind of fizzle out. That's why it went as quickly as it did. I was pretty adamant that if we could work something out this is where I want to be."

The Diamondbacks believe they have upgraded their offense by adding the right side of the Braves' infield, as they signed second baseman Kelly Johnson last month as a free agent after he was not tendered a contract. Signing LaRoche also allowed the Diamondbacks to move Conor Jackson to left field. It also buys first base prospect Brandon Allen some more developmental time at Triple-A Reno after he bombed in the Arizona Fall League.

Manager A.J. Hinch's Opening Day lineup could very well look like this: shortstop Stephen Drew, Jackson, right fielder Justin Upton, LaRoche, third baseman Mark Reynolds, catcher Miguel Montero, center fielder Chris Young, and Johnson. The Diamondbacks were eighth in the NL in runs scored last season, with an average of 4.4 a game, but were just 13th in team EqA at .253.

"Our offense still needs to get better, but Adam really helps our lineup," general manager Josh Byrnes said. "At the end of the day, we have a pretty strong one through eight with good depth behind it, and the ability to score more runs if we need to."

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The Red Sox' winter philosophy has been to improve its club by upgrading defensively, a formula that has become popular among major-league teams in recent seasons because it is easier to fit more good fielders into a payroll than good hitters. That is why the Red Sox have signed third baseman Adrian Beltre, shortstop Marco Scutaro, and center fielder Mike Cameron as free agents.

With that in mind, it is certainly interesting to see what Red Sox senior adviser Bill James thinks of GM Theo Esptein's strategy. James, after all, brought statistical analysis into the forefront by publishing his Baseball Abstracts.

"What I'm most curious about in 2010 is how much better we're going to be defensively," James told the Boston Globe's Peter Abraham. "I don't think anyone questions that we're going to have a better defensive team. But are we going to be as much better defensively as we want to believe we are, and is that going to have as much impact on (the pitching staff) as we hope it does?"

Those inside have often argued that statistics cannot accurately gauge a player's defensive worth, and that it is best evaluated by watching someone play over a period of time. However, James vehemently disagrees with that premise, particularly in light of the various fielding metrics that have been developed in recent seasons.

"The only difference between our ability to evaluate defense and offense at this point is confidence," James said. "Defense, at this point, can be evaluated with the same degree of precision and the same degree of agreement among different methods as offense. We haven't been doing it all our lives. We've had pretty good methods now for five or six years. I've been doing the (offensive) stuff all my life. I know what's a normal gap between two seasons (offensively) and what isn't. I don't know the same (defensively)."

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When the Royals hired Ned Yost as a special assistant to baseball operations this past week, it certainly looked like GM Dayton Moore had lined up a potential successor. Moore and Yost, who managed the Brewers for six seasons, have a long relationship, dating to when both worked for the Braves. Actually, the Royals now have two former major-league managers in their organization, as former Blue Jays skipper John Gibbons was hired as the bench coach prior to last season. However, Yost insisted to the Kansas City Star's Sam Mellinger that his job is not to just sit tight until things inevitably go wrong for the Royals, who have had six straight losing seasons and have finished under .500 in 14 of the past 15 years.

"We never talked about that," Yost said. "I don't think that's the reason they brought me in. I think they brought me in for my experience, another major-league manager who's been through it and can help the organization get where they're going to get. That's the sole purpose. I wouldn't read anything into it more than that."

Yost was the Braves' bench coach for the first 12 seasons of their record run of 14 consecutive postseason appearances from 1991-2005. The Brewers were 56-106 in 2002 before Yost replaced Jerry Royster the following year. He led them to their first winning season in 15 years in 2007. He was fired with 12 games left in the 2008 season, but the Brewers won the NL wild card for their first postseason appearance in 26 years. Yost believes the Royals are ready to follow in the footsteps of the Braves and Brewers by getting their franchise turned around.

"I see the exact same thing here," Yost said. "Dayton's had some really good drafts, and they've got some extremely talented kids in the pitching department. When they get here (to the majors), they've got a chance to do something special."

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We couldn't get through this twice-weekly exercise without bringing up the name of the man who is currently the most controversial figure in baseball. That, of course, would be former slugger and steroids user Mark McGwire, who will launch a new career next month as the Cardinals' hitting coach.

Lost among all the steroids talk is the fact that McGwire will be inheriting a lineup that finished seventh in the NL in runs scored, with an average of 4.5 a game last season, and just sixth in team EqA (.265), and that was with the presence of Albert Pujols. The Cardinals won the division in spite of a mediocre offense, and manager Tony La Russa feels that McGwire can perhaps help the hitters in ways that the fired Hal McRae apparently couldn't.

McGwire, for his part, is looking forward to the challenge. While he had been pretty much in exile since retiring following the 2001 season, McGwire has worked individually with various major-leaguers, including current Cardinals second baseman Skip Schumaker and left fielder Matt Holliday.

"He's so passionate about it," Schumaker told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Derrick Gould during a workout this past week with McGwire in Huntington Beach, Calif. "Until you come here and watch, nobody really knows how passionate. That's what everyone is about to understand."

McGwire says he cannot wait to officially get started, even if the steroids controversy continues, because he disingenuously claimed that using performance-enhancing drugs in 1998 had no effect on him setting what was then the major-league record of 70 home runs.

"I would love to be doing this for the rest of my life," McGwire said. "That's one thing I told my wife: When we decide to go forward and do this, I'm not in 100 percent, I'm in it 200 percent. Going into spring training, my mind's a walking encyclopedia, just ready to throw out knowledge. I'll be an open book to all the players. This is my job now, and I'm totally entrenched in it."

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MLB Rumors and Rumblings: The Major League Baseball Players Association plans to make revenue sharing a major part of the talks when the Basic Agreement next comes up for negotiating in 2011. The MLBPA forced commissioner Bud Selig to make a joint announcement in which the Marlins were told to get in accordance with the revenue-sharing language in the current collective bargaining agreement and begin spending money on player payroll. The MLBPA, under new executive director Michael Weiner, is reportedly now targeting the Pirates and also considering forcing Selig to take action against other clubs. Conversely, Major League Baseball is expected to push hard to get a worldwide draft and a draft bonus slotting system put into the next CBA. … One Mets source insists that the past week's whole knee surgery saga with center fielder Carlos Beltran might be the "final straw" for GM Omar Minaya's job security. … Though the 30-day window for the group led by Chuck Greenberg and Nolan Ryan to buy the Rangers from Tom Hicks has expired, the deal is still expected to get done. … Now that the Athletics have traded for third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff, they plan on playing Eric Chavez primarily at first base in an effort to prevent the wear and tear on his back. … The Cardinals plan to go with the untested David Freese as their third baseman next season rather than sign a free agent such as Miguel Tejada or Felipe Lopez. The Cardinals also have interest in re-signing pitcher John Smoltz and are eying pitcher Jon Garland on the free-agent market. And a scout on the Cardinals signing former Red Sox knuckleballing prospect Charlie Zink as a minor-league free agent: "It could turn out to be one of the steals of the offseason. When he's good, he's very good."

The Orioles are targeting Joe Crede, Tejada, and Hank Blalock as free agents to play third base now that LaRoche has been signed; Garrett Atkins would be shifted to first base. Another idea the Orioles are kicking around is moving left fielder Nolan Reimold to first base and playing Felix Pie in left. … The Brewers are going to allow free agent pitcher Mark Mulder to work out at their spring training facility in Phoenix as he continues a comeback, a pretty strong indication they plan to sign him. … Former Brewers ace Ben Sheets, who missed last season because of elbow surgery and is a free agent, is scheduled to throw in front of scouts Tuesday at the University of Louisiana-Monroe. Former Brewers closer Derrick Turnbow, who did not pitch in the major leagues last season, had his fastball clocked as high as 95 mph during a workout in Arizona this past week. … New Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos is certainly dedicated to his job, talking to six general managers and discussing three trades during his honeymoon in Hawaii that ended last weekend. … The Nationals have decided to keep Cristian Guzman and are not trying to sign a free agent to play second base.

The Rangers and Giants are the leading candidates to sign catcher Yorvit Torrealba, once he drops his demand for a two-year contract down to one year. The Padres and Mariners also have interest. … The Mets have interest in utility man extraordinaire and future television personality Jerry Hairston Jr. The Mets also like what they've seen of first baseman Carlos Delgado in his recovery from hip surgery in the Puerto Rican Winter League, enough that they might re-sign him as a free agent. … One executive on the Tigers' signing of closer Jose Valverde: "I wasn't so sure they'd contend before they signed him. Now, I think they could." … The Cubs are leaning toward moving their spring training base to Naples, Florida from Mesa, Arizona, and an announcement could come within 10 days. Team officials were also thrilled to see pitcher Carlos Zambrano and catcher Geovany Soto show up at this weekend's Cubs Convention in outstanding shape. … The Pirates plan to sign free-agent pitcher Octavio Dotel to be their closer primarily to buy more time for right-handers Joel Hanrahan and Evan Meek to develop before being put into higher-leverage situations.

While the Red Sox publicly say they believe pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka is in the best shape of his career, they privately regret spending $103 million to bring him from Japan as a free agent prior to the 2007 season. … Free agent Jose Contreras has given up on the idea of playing in Japan because he is drawing interest from multiple major-league teams looking for pitching. … The Dodgers plan to offer two-year contracts to closer Jonathan Broxton, first baseman James Loney, and right fielder Andre Ethier after signing center fielder Matt Kemp to a two-year, $10.95 million contract to avoid arbitration. … Ben Zobrist will compete with Sean Rodriguez and Reid Brignac for the starting second baseman's job in spring training. If Zobrist doesn't play second, he will instead be the starting right fielder. … Chris Perez is expected to begin the season as the Indians' primary set-up man with the idea he will take over for Kerry Wood as the closer in 2011.

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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