As the Astros prepared to take the field for their first game following the All-Star break, manager Brad Mills looked at freshly-minted hitting coach and franchise legend Jeff Bagwell. Mills had just one thing to say to Bagwell.
"I told him I hoped it didn't take him as long to get his first win as it did me," Mills said with a smile. "I wouldn't wish that on anybody."
Mills was hired last winter to replace Cecil Cooper, who was fired with 13 games left in a 2009 season that saw the Astros finish 74-88 and in fifth place in the National League Central. It marked Mills' first chance to manage at the major-league level after spending the previous six seasons as the Red Sox bench coach under Terry Francona. And Mills couldn't have gotten off to a worst start. The Astros lost their first eight games, getting outscored 44-14. That put them six games out in the division before Mills finally notched his first victory.
It would only be natural for Mills to have questioned himself and worry that his team might give up on him and the season before it had barely started. However, he was pleasant surprised by how his players reacted.
"It was tough," Mills said. "You get so anxious to get that first win under your belt, not just as a manager but as a team. When it doesn't come for a more than a week, it can get frustrating. The great thing about it, though, is that our guys never got down. They kept battling hard every night and believing good things would happen. And they've been that way all season."
The Astros haven't been world-beaters by any means. While they have gone 38-47 since the 0-8 start, they still have the fifth-worst record in the major leagues, their 38-55 mark sitting behind the Orioles (30-63), Pirates (33-60), Diamondbacks (36-58), and Mariners (36-58).
However, Mills is a glass-half-full guy. He is relentlessly positive while showing the same trait as Francona, his mentor and close friend. In addition to their time together with the Red Sox, Mills was also Francona's bench coach for four seasons with the Phillies from 1997-2000, and their relationship dates back to their playing days both at the University of Arizona and with the Expos in the 1980s.
"There is no question that being around Terry Francona for so many years rubbed off on me," Mills said. "I'm an optimistic person by nature, and Terry is as positive of a person as you'll find. Managing in Philadelphia and Boston can be tough because there can be so many distractions, but Terry always kept a positive atmosphere and the players responded to that. I know that style of managing works because I've seen it work."
That is not to say Mills is delusional. He realizes the Astros have a long way to go to return to respectability as they are 28thin the major leagues in runs scored (3.54 a game), 25thin runs allowed (4.92) and last among the 30 teams with a .662 Defensive Efficiency. Bagwell was brought in at the break to replace Sean Berry to address the offense, but simply put, Houston is bad in all phases of the game.
"We have played better as the season has gone on, and I like the guys have kept after it and kept working," Mills said. "That being said, there is accountability here, too. Our players understand that being this far under .500 isn't acceptable and they realize that we have to play better or changes are going to be made."
The biggest question surrounding the Astros is if big changes will be made between now and the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline. The Astros seem to be a team in desperate need of off-loading high-salaried veterans so it can begin a youth movement. The three most logical players to trade are first baseman Lance Berkman, left fielder Carlos Lee, and right-hander Roy Oswalt. General manager Ed Wade is noncommittal about whether he will make any major moves. It also seems likely that Berkman is the only one of three who is very attractive to other clubs because his contract expires at the end of the year, while Oswalt is signed through 2011 and Lee is signed through 2012.
"You have to be mindful of the fact that this is the time of year where there are some opportunities that present themselves to change the face of your club and, hopefully in the process, improve your club," Wade said. "You also have to be prepared to go forward with the club you have right now. There are no guarantees that the club changes in any fashion, much less dramatically."
Mills, for his part, plans to take things as they come while Wade decides whether to blow up the roster.
"We're facing it like everybody we have here is going to be here for the rest of the season," Mills said. "We'll go to the war with the players who are here today and go from there. There is really no other way to handle it."
Considering the Yankees came so close to trading for Mariners left-hander Cliff Lee earlier this month, it would stand to reason they are back in the market for a starter now that lefty Andy Pettitte will miss at least a month with a strained groin. However, GM Brian Cashman says that the Yankees will fill the rotation hole internally with Sergio Mitre.
"I would just say that Cliff Lee was a special case," Cashman said. "We are getting Andy Pettitte back, and this is exactly what Sergio Mitre is here for. He'd be in most other teams' starting rotations, and he will get the chance to fill that spot until Andy comes back."
The Yankees plan to make a run at Lee as a free agent in the off-season and thus have little interest in Oswalt because he is signed through next year. Other starting pitchers who have been linked to the Yankees include the Indians' Fausto Carmona, the Diamondbacks' Dan Haren, the Astros' Brett Myers, and Cubs left-hander Ted Lilly. Yet, Cashman said he is not close to making a move for a starter or any other help.
"Right now it's pretty quiet, but it's still early," Cashman said. "There have been conversations with teams, but I don't see them leading to anything right now."
While White Sox GM Ken Williams can usually be counted on to make a big trade at the deadline, he sounds like a man who won't be wheeling and dealing this year. He said he does not see any obvious fits for his club on the market, even though the White Sox are going with rookie Daniel Hudson in their rotation now that Jake Peavy is out for the season.
"What we view as potential help … there's only a small group of players," Williams said. "And even with that, we all still have to have the conversation amongst ourselves and we kind of do it on a daily basis this time of year amongst ourselves what we're looking at the right fit. The right fit, both skill-set wise, fit in the lineup or fit, whether it be a bullpen piece, a starter piece. Is it the right fit? Are you going to gain exponentially by making that move in lieu of staying with what you have? And I'm very mindful of how this team has banded together and overcome a mountain of hurdles to get to where they want to get right now, so I think you have to be very cognizant of doing something that isn't exponentially better and making sure it's not disruptive at the same time."
Jed Hoyer inherited manager Bud Black when he replaced Kevin Towers as the Padres' GM at the end of last season. In Hoyer's mind, it was quite a great inheritance, which is why Hoyer extended Black's contract for three years through the 2013 season on Monday. The contract also includes club options for 2014 and 2015. Black had only been under contact through this season.
"My faith in Bud goes beyond wins and losses," Hoyer said, though mindful that the Padres are the surprise leaders in the NL West. "Buddy's a great guy as well as manager."
Meanwhile, Black has built an outstanding relationship with Hoyer, observing, "We enjoy working together. When Jed took the job, he came to me and said he had no one out there that he had in mind to be his manager, so let's just move forward, and we have.'"
Meanwhile, Dodgers manager Joe Torre's contact expires at the end of this season. The 70-year-old says he has yet to decide if he will continue his career or retire to an advisory position in the Dodgers' front office. While Torre is still deciding about his future, he is thankful that health will not impact his choice.
"When I see people my age not as active as I am, it makes me feel like whatever I'm doing is heading in the right direction," he said. "I resent the fact that some days I'm more tired than other days and remind myself that I'm a little older. But I'm active, I feel good, and I still have the energy to do everything I did 10 years ago. I don't think that will be a factor, that it will change between now and next month or September."
The Pirates seems to be going backward, if that is possible for a franchise that has already set a major North American team sports record with 17 consecutive losing seasons. The Pirates are 27 games under .500 and in position to possibly catch the once seemingly uncatchable Orioles for the worst record in the majors.
Yet Pirates ownership is showing either extraordinary patience or complete apathy. No one has yet paid with their job this season, though the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported last weekend that upper management is starting to doubt that John Russell is the long-term answer as manager.
Russell and GM Neal Huntington are signed through next season, secretly given one-year contract extensions last October that were not revealed by club president Frank Coonelly until June, when reports first surfaced that the Pirates were thinking of changing managers. The continuing reports that Russell might be on the verge of being fired bother Huntington, who says he has no plans of making a change, thought most people familiar with the Pirates' situation say Coonelly will ultimately make that decision.
"When you hide behind imaginary sources that aren't going to go on the record, you can say anything you want," Huntington said. "Ultimately, the responsibility comes back to me, and it always will. The ultimate evaluation is, 'Are we getting better?' And there will come a time when wins and losses are the ultimate tool of judging the major-league staff. We're not there yet. The looking for somebody to take the fall, to have the finger pointed at them, that's not what I'm about."
MLB Rumors & Rumblings: Triple-A Iowa manager and franchise icon Ryne Sandberg is the overwhelming favorite to replace Cubs manager Lou Piniella, who is retiring at the end of the season, but bench coach Alan Trammell and broadcaster Bob Brenly, both former major-league skippers, will also get consideraton. … The Phillies are in hot pursuit of trading for a starting pitcher to take Kyle Kendrick's place in the rotation, and Oswalt is reportedly one of their targets along with Haren, the Orioles' Jeremy Guthrie, and the Athletics' Ben Sheets. The Phillies are expected to clear payroll space by trading right fielder Jayson Werth, who is eligible for free agency at the end of the season, and then replacing him with top prospect Domonic Brown. … The Twins are increasing left-handed reliever Brian Duensing's pitch count to get him ready to move into the rotation, and have also zeroed in on Lilly and Sheets in trade talks. … The Mets still have interest in Lilly and Myers, but are said to be turning their attention to Indians right-hander Jake Westbrook. … The Cardinals are making a stealth bid to bring back Haren via trade. … The Dodgers have added Pirates left-hander Paul Maholm to their list of trade targets. … The Red Sox aren't expected to make any big trades, but are trying to acquire left-handed reliever Scott Downs from the Blue Jays. … The Cubs are considering releasing starter Carlos Silva and moving left-handed reliever Sean Marshall into the rotation. … The Reds plan to work out reliever Jason Isringhausen, who has been out of baseball since being released by the Rays last year in spring training, while the Royals, Yankees, and Cardinals also have interest. … The Tigers will likely platoon left-handed hitting Don Kelly and right-handed hitting Ryan Raburn at third base while Brandon Inge is on the disabled list, though they reportedly have their eye on the Orioles' Ty Wigginton as a trade candidate. … The Tigers are also interested in Blue Jays catcher John Buck and Athletics reliever Michael Wuertz. … Nationals manager Jim Riggleman is considering going with a three-man rotation in the middle infield, with Cristian Guzman shuttling between shortstop and second base, depending on if either rookie shortstop Ian Desmond or second baseman Adam Kennedy is not in the lineup. …Indians manager Manny Acta said he will decide between Jason Donald, who had been filling for injured shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, or Jayson Nix as his starting second baseman later this week, with Donald headed to Triple-A Columbus if Nix is the choice. … In a never-ending quest to find some use for Oliver Perez, the Mets plan to use the left-hander strictly as a match-up reliever against left-handed hitters, quite a narrow role for a pitcher making $12 million this season. … Ben Francisco has been getting the majority of starts in left field in recent weeks when the Phillies have faced left-handed pitchers, but manager Charlie Manuel insists that Raul Ibanez has not been reduced to a platoon player. … The Diamondbacks plan to limit left-hander Ian Kennedy's innings to 185 in his first full major-league season, and he is currently at 116 1/3.
Scouts' takes on various major-leaguers:
Red Sox reliever Michael Bowden: "I think it was a smart move by the Red Sox to move the kid to relief. It gives them a fresh arm for the stretch run and he's better suited to pitching out of the bullpen in the long run."
Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro: "He's really starting to settle down in the field and at the plate. He's a nice little player and he's got a bright future."
Nationals first baseman Adam Dunn: "Everyone always wants to talk about what this guy doesn't do—make consistent contact. But he hits home runs, draws walks, and would help a contender down the stretch."
Blue Jays shortstop Yunel Escobar: "He seems rejuvenated since the Braves traded him. He's got a spring in his step, and he's driving the ball, which is something he didn't do the entire first half in Atlanta.
Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder: "If I'm the Brewers, I trade him right now because his value will never be higher. I really believe, because of his conditioning, when he starts to go downhill that the slide will be rapid."
Braves third baseman Chipper Jones: "Ever since he talked about retiring, it seems like his bat speed picked up. I have no idea if it's just a coincidence, but it's like he's trying to convince himself that he's not done."
Marlins reliever Jose Veras: "He has always been a tease because he has a power arm, but has never gotten hitters out consistently. But he's pitching as well now as I've ever seen him in his career, so maybe he's a late bloomer."
Three series to watch with probable pitching matchups (all times Eastern):
Mets (49-45) at Dodgers (49-45), Thursday-Sunday July 22-25
Rockies (51-42) at Phillies (48-45), Friday-Monday July 23-26