Dusty Baker readily admits that this is not what he bargained for when he stepped out of the ESPN broadcast booth last November to return to managing after a year away from the dugout. Baker signed a four-year contract with the Reds and took over a team that some observers felt was finally ready to contend in the National League Central after seven straight losing seasons. Now, with just one week remaining in August, the Reds are in last place, and 22½ games behind the Cubs, the team that Baker managed from 1993-96.

“It’s been a little difficult, to say the least,” Baker said. “I’ve always been used to having stability as a manager, both in San Francisco and Chicago. Obviously, there hasn’t been a whole lot of that this season. This team looks nothing like what we thought we had coming out of spring training, and many things have changed. I don’t see too many teams who have taken the hits we’ve taken this year.”

The changes started early, when owner Bob Castellini fired general manager Wayne Krivsky on April 23 following a 9-12 start, and replaced him with Walt Jocketty, architect of the 2006 World Series champion Cardinals. Jocketty has begun a makeover of the Reds in recent weeks by trading their two biggest sluggers, shipping right fielder Ken Griffey Jr. to the White Sox, and left fielder Adam Dunn to the Diamondbacks. There has also been a slew of injuries that have seen 14 players placed on the disabled list, including shortstop Alex Gonzalez, out for the season since spring training with a knee injury.

The Reds have some key young building blocks in right-handers Edinson Volquez and Johnny Cueto, first baseman Joey Votto, and right fielder Jay Bruce. Second baseman Brandon Phillips and third baseman Edwin Encarnacion appear to be keepers as well, and a pair of rookies-catcher Ryan Hanigan and outfielder Chris Dickerson-are getting opportunities to show that they can be part of the long-term future.

While Baker bristles at the idea that he is better suited to managing a veteran team, he does admit there are challenges to using a younger lineup. “You have to protect certain guys when they are just starting out,” Baker said. “You try to use them against pitchers you feel they match up well against. Basically, you’re trying to put them into position to succeed and build some confidence. The worst thing you can do is throw a guy into the fire too quickly, and ruin him before he ever has a chance to succeed. It’s certainly hard to replace Junior and Adam Dunn, though. Those are big losses. We’re giving some kids some opportunity to show what they can do though, and I really believe that we have the makings of a potentially good team with some of the young guys we have.”

Castellini is impatient, however, and wants to win now, as he demonstrated when he fired manager Jerry Narron last season and gave no thought to retaining interim manager Pete Mackanin, even though he had led the Reds to a 41-39 finish. Castellini did not bring in high-profile people like Jocketty and three-time NL Manager of the Year Baker just to rebuild, and he is expected to give Jocketty the directive to hit the free-agent market hard this upcoming winter. The Reds took the rather unusual step of posting a letter to their fans this past week on their official web site, in which they vow to field a competitive team in 2009 and beyond. The Reds seemingly need help in all areas, as they are 23rd in the major leagues with 4.2 runs scored per game, 24th with 5.0 runs allowed per game, and 29th with a .672 defensive efficiency.

That the Reds will be active in free agency is exactly what veterans like right-hander Bronson Arroyo want to hear. He believes that the Reds are very close to being contenders if they can just bolster their lineup, despite their current standing within the division. “We have enough in our starting staff and bullpen to win this division, that’s for sure,” Arroyo insists, despite the numbers indicating otherwise. “We really need a starting catcher, unless they’re going to go with Ryan Hanigan, and I haven’t seen him enough. We need a solid guy you can run out there five days a week, a guy who can hit a little bit, a regular guy instead of dividing it up between a couple of guys. Our infield is decently set if Alex Gonazalez comes back, so we need a couple of outfielders to replace those home runs we lost [with Dunn and Griffey]. We just need a lineup, from top to bottom, that feels the same when we pitch against the other team’s lineup, so we don’t have as many weak spots. I mean, with the Cubs I’m facing a seven-hole hitter like Mark DeRosa, who hits .280. That’s the feeling we need to project to other teams.”

As the surprising Twins hold a half-game lead over the White Sox in the American League Central standings, they are in the beginning stages of their toughest test of the season, having vacated the Twin Cities for the Republican National Convention. The Twins began a 14-game, 15-day trip on Thursday that started with a four-game series against the Angels and includes stops in Seattle, Oakland, and Toronto. It’s the Twins’ longest road trip since 1969, and the sixth-longest in club history. They have a 46-23 mark in the Metrodome and a 28-32 record on the road as they approach a stretch of playing 24 of 30 games away from home. After a six-game homestand following this current trip, their mettle will be tested again with a 10-game jaunt to Baltimore, Cleveland, and Tampa Bay. “We have a chance to go to the playoffs,” Twins backup catcher Mike Redmond told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “I don’t care if we’re on a 50-game road trip. You’ve got to be fired up to go out there and play these games because they mean something.”

The Twins feel that they’ve been unfairly labeled as a poor road team after being swept in consecutive series by the White Sox in Chicago, the Yankees in New York, and the Red Sox in Boston-by a combined score of 100-32 over 10 games. “I think it looks a lot worse than it is,” Twins closer Joe Nathan said. “I don’t think we’re going out there and are like, ‘We are in trouble now because are playing on the road.’ It’s one of those things where we’ve got our tails beat around pretty good for a good stretch so it made our record look pretty bad.”

Winning on the road hasn’t been easy this season in the major leagues, as only five of the 30 teams have winning records away from home. “We’ve done well and so far we’re right in the race,” Twins first baseman Justin Morneau said. “Obviously it is a tough stretch. If we want to make the playoffs we’re going to play well and that’s it. We can’t feel sorry for ourselves. Go out, deal with it, try to win series, come back, and that’s it.”

The Rays (79-49) and Angels (78-50) are locked in a battle to see who will have home-field advantage in both rounds of the AL playoffs. The Rays have shown they would be tough to beat at Tropicana Field; they have a 47-18 home record this season, including a 5-1 mark against the Angels after taking two of three in a series this past week. “This is a different team than I’m used to playing here,” said Angels first baseman Mark Teixeira, who spent the first four months of this season in the NL with the Braves while the Rays were becoming one of the best stories in the game. “When we used to come in here with the Rangers, we’d score 10 runs almost every game. That’s just the way it was. Now they have good pitching. Anytime you have good pitching and can hold the other team down and keep it close to the end, any home-field advantage is going to give you a chance to win.”

The Angels insist they won’t feel like underdogs if they return to St. Petersburg in October. “They’ve gotten the better of us here, but we know from our experience that October is a whole new ballgame,” reliever Scot Shields said. “Trust me, if we end up facing these guys down the road, us losing five games here is not going to enter our minds. This team will rise to the challenge.”

Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins has been hearing his share of boos at Citizens Bank Park in recent days, after going on Fox Sports Net’s “The Best Damn Sports Show” and saying that Philadelphia fans are “frontrunners” who only support the local teams and players when they’re going well. Rollins did not back down from these comments, and has taken them a step further by saying that the fans make it difficult for the Phillies to sign top free agents. “We have had a lot of things said about fans here by guys on other teams,” Rollins said. “Most of them you can’t repeat. That’s their opinion. They get to come from the outside and look in. I think a lot of players, they ask knowing their free-agent year is coming up. They try to get a feel for how the fans are. I think they have a good idea of how the team is. They like the team. They enjoy the team. A lot of times, and I’ve actually heard it, they don’t want to put their family and their kids in a situation where they come to the field and these are the types of things their kids are going to have to sit through and listen to. That’s just the truth. Those aren’t my words. Those are words I’ve actually heard.”

AL Rumors and Rumblings: White Sox bench coach Joey Cora is emerging as the early-line favorite to become the Mariners‘ next manager, with interim skipper Jim Riggleman having little chance of getting the job on a full-time basis. … The Indians are giving right-hander Jensen Lewis a chance to audition for the closer’s role for the remainder of the season, and then will determine whether he will be the guy in 2009, or if they will need to go shopping for someone else during the winter. … Although they need a starter now that left-hander Nate Robertson has been removed from the rotation, the Tigers don’t plan on recalling left-hander Dontrelle Willis from Triple-A Toledo now, nor do they plan to do so after the roster limit expands on September 1. … The Red Sox are convinced that rookie Jed Lowrie can handle being an everyday shortstop in the major leagues, and they will look to trade shortstop Julio Lugo in the offseason. … Orioles left-hander Garrett Olson was sent to Triple-A Norfolk this week, and will return to the major leagues after September 1 as a reliever. … Rookie Matt Joyce is likely to be the Tigers’ left fielder next season.

NL Rumors and Rumblings: Despite his success this season, the Cubs will be reluctant to re-sign right-hander Ryan Dempster to a big contract as a free agent this upcoming winter. They already have left-hander Ted Lilly and right-handers Carlos Zambrano, Rich Harden, and Jason Marquis under contract for 2009. … Cubs general manager Jim Hendry is waiting for the club’s sale to be completed, and will then pick up the 2010 option on manager Lou Piniella‘s contract and add an option year for 2011. … The Mets are expected to make an off-season push to trade for Mariners right-hander Carlos Silva, who they feel would thrive if reunited with former Twins teammate Johan Santana. … Astros catcher Brad Ausmus is eligible for free agency, and will continue playing next season only if he can sign with one of the Southern California teams (the Padres, Dodgers, or Angels). Some Astros observers believe Ausmus will be the eventual successor to manager Cecil Cooper in Houston. … The Diamondbacks are considering moving third baseman Mark Reynolds to second base next season, as it is unlikely they’ll be able to re-sign second baseman Orlando Hudson as a free agent. … The Pirates almost certainly will trade shortstop Jack Wilson by Opening Day, 2009 as they continue to look to get younger. … The Marlins will likely trade left-hander Scott Olsen over the winter to keep their payroll down.

Interesting facts as the 21st week of the regular season comes to a close:

  • Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter became the 88th player all-time and the sixth active to reach 2,500 hits when he singled off of the Orioles’ Radhames Liz on Friday. Jeter now has 2,501 hits, and is only the third player to record 2,500 hits as a Yankee, joining Lou Gehrig (2,721) and Babe Ruth (2,518). Jeter also has 1,252 hits at Yankee Stadium, 17 short of Gehrig’s record of 1,269 with 15 games remaining in the buiding’s history. The other active players with at least 2,500 hits are White Sox outfielder Ken Griffey Jr. (2,659), Giants shortstop Omar Vizquel (2,634), Tigers designated hitter Gary Sheffield (2,596), Yankees catcher Ivan Rodriguez (2,593), and Marlins outfielder Luis Gonzalez (2,577).
  • The Blue Jays are 32-23 since Cito Gaston took over as manager on June 20. Since July 8, they are 25-15, and their .625 winning percentage is second in the American League in that span.
  • Blue Jays right-hander Roy Halladay leads the major leagues with 34 complete games since the start of the 2003 season, 12 more than Rockies right-hander Livan Hernandez and Brewers left-hander CC Sabathia. Halladay’s total is higher than 21 team totals during that span.
  • First baseman Justin Morneau has 99 RBI this season, and needs only one more to become just the second player in Twins history with three consecutive 100-RBI seasons. Harmon Killebrew had 140 in 1969, 113 in 1970, and 119 in 1971; Morneau had 130 in ’06 and 111 in ’07.
  • Yankees right-hander Mike Mussina has a 266-151 career record, making him one of 18 pitchers in major league history with a career record at least 115 games over .500. Twelve of those pitchers are in the Hall of the Fame, and the five others (Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez, and Mussina) are not yet eligible for consideration.
  • Athletics rookie left-hander Greg Smith has 14 pickoffs this season, the most by a major league pitcher since Andy Pettitte had 14 for the 1997 Yankees.
  • Athletics rookie-reliever Brad Ziegler has a 0.41 ERA this season, allowing two earned runs in 44 innings. That currently ranks him with the second-lowest ERA in history of any pitcher who has worked at least 30 innings in a season, behind the 0.38 mark of Buck O’Brien of the 1911 Red Sox. The rest of the top five consists of Dennis Eckersley (0.61 for the 1990 Athletics), George McQuillan (0.66 for the 1907 Phillies), and Hank Aguirre (0.69 for the 1968 Dodgers).
  • Sabathia is the third starting pitcher in the last 90 seasons to win his first eight decisions following a mid-season change of teams, joining Virgil Trucks in 1953 after being traded from the Browns to the White Sox, and Doyle Alexander in 1987 after being dealt from the Braves to the Tigers.
  • Left-hander Jamie Moyer has allowed three runs or fewer in each of his last 14 starts, the first Phillies’ pitcher to do so since Chris Short had a 23-game streak in 1967.

Series to watch this upcoming week with ratings according to Jay Jaffe‘s Prospectus Hit List:

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