Many people inside baseball felt A.J. Hinch was on the fast track, and they were right. They just didn’t know exactly what track Hinch was on. Neither did Hinch. When he was named to replace Bob Melvin as the Diamondbacks‘ manager on May 8, he was as surprised by the move as everyone else both inside and outside the Valley of the Sun.
The 32-year-old had aspired to become a general manager since his seven-year career as a major league catcher with the Athletics, Royals, Tigers, and Phillies was winding down in 2004. “I wanted to get in on the ground floor with an organization and eventually work my way up to become the GM somewhere,” Hinch said. “That’s would I thought my post-playing career would be like.”
Hinch was hired by Diamondbacks GM Josh Byrnes to oversee the organization’s farm system in 2006. Hinch performed so well in that role that he received a new title last winter, becoming the vice president of player development. Then the Diamondbacks got off to 12-17 this season, and Byrnes decided he needed to change managers. Melvin was fired just two years after guiding the Diamondbacks to the National League Championship Series. Byrnes decided go to make what he termed an “unconventional” choice by having Hinch take over as manager despite his youth and total lack of managing or coaching experience.
Hinch was stunned when Byrnes approached him with the idea. “It completely caught me off guard because I had never expressed a desire to manage, and Josh had never mentioned anything to me about ever possibly managing,” Hinch reflected. “It was a tough situation because Bob Melvin is such a good man and so highly respected by everyone in the game. It was tough to know that he was going to lose his job. Once I was able to digest what was going on, I got excited. I’ve always been the type of person who loves a challenge, and managing a major league team is about as difficult of a challenge that you could ever face. I decided to seize the opportunity and I haven’t regretted it all. It has been a great challenge and very rewarding so far.”
The Diamondbacks have veered off sharply off course since being swept by the Rockies in the 2007 NLCS. They held a 4½-game lead in NL West on Aug. 29 last season, but wound up finishing two games behind the Dodgers. The Diamondbacks then got off to the poor start this year under Melvin. Byrnes thought Hinch would be the guy to get the Diamondbacks on track because he dealt with so many of their young players as the farm director. Byrnes also admitted he had input in making the batting order, something that made Melvin chafe, and felt Hinch would be a better fit for the purposes of “organizational advocacy.”
Hinch has admittedly had some rough spots in his rookie season. The players were skeptical not only because of his lack of experience but because they felt he would serve as a clubhouse spy for Byrnes. Now more than three months into the job, Hinch seems to have gained the player’s trust. “I get the sense everyone is on the same page now, which wasn’t the case early on,” Hinch said. “That was understandable. There was a feeling-out process. Even though many of the players knew me as the farm director, they didn’t know me as a manager. It’s a totally different set of circumstances. Over time, a sense of familiarity has developed.”
Diamondbacks catcher Chris Snyder says the players are no longer skeptical. “A.J. got put into a tough spot,” Snyder said. “He had never managed and all of a sudden he’s managing in the major leagues in the middle of a season. He has had to learn on the fly, but he’s done a good job.”
Hinch readily admits he still has much to learn about managing and the myriad responsibilities to go with the job. “I’m not so sure there is a more apt title of any job in any occupation than that of manager in baseball,” Hinch said. “You’re managing people from the time you walk into the ballpark until the time you leave. There are literally thousands of decisions you’re making every day, some big and some little. Over the course of the game, you’re making decisions on every single pitch. It’s daunting, but I’m getting comfortable with it.”
The Diamondbacks’ record has not gotten appreciably better since Hinch replaced Melvin. They are 43-54 since the switch, giving them a 54-71 record overall, which puts them 19 games off the first-place Dodgers’ pace in the NL West. Third baseman Mark Reynolds (.304 EqA) and right fielder Justin Upton (.298, and currently on the Disabled List) are the only hitters have what could be considered good seasons. Although the rotation’s been without Brandon Webb since the staff ace suffered a season-ending shoulder injury on Opening Day, Dan Haren (6.1 SNLVAR) has repeated last year’s success in the rotation; Doug Davis (3.8) has been the only other reliable starter. Chad Qualls (2.459 WXRL) has been the leader of a pedestrian bullpen.
However, Hinch feels the Diamondbacks can return to contender status in 2010, and that 2009 is more of an aberration. “The pieces are here,” Hinch said. “I’m convinced the pieces are here to have a very good team. It’s a matter of getting this team to play back up to its capabilities, and that falls on me because I’m the manager. It’s been a challenge, and it will continue to be a challenge, but I know these guys and I have a lot of faith in their ability.”
The Cardinals have put a hammerlock on their lead in the NL Central as they’re now nine games ahead of the Cubs. That has helped transform GM John Mozeliak’s image in St. Louis. Fans considered Mozeliak public enemy number one last summer, when he failed to acquire any mid-season help in his first season on the job after being promoted from assistant general manager to replace Walt Jocketty. The Cardinals finished in fourth in the division, 11½ games behind the Cubs, and Mozeliak was criticized for being unwilling to trade any prospects.
However, Mozeliak is being hailed as the potential Executive of the Year in 2009 after trading for super-utilityman Mark DeRosa, infielder Julio Lugo, and left fielder Matt Holliday, and also signing right-hander John Smoltz after he was released by the Red Sox. He also showed willingness to trade prospects, including highly touted third baseman Brett Wallace to the Athletics in the deal for Holliday, and well-regarded reliever Jess Todd to the Indians for DeRosa.
“From a leadership standpoint, I’m pleased to see where we are,” Mozeliak told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch‘s Joe Strauss in discussing how things have developed. “A lot of elements within the clubhouse and the front office have gone into this. What it shows is that we did have a plan. That plan may not have been the most popular at times, but it was never a tweak in philosophy; our philosophy has always been to win. There is no doubt our philosophy is to attempt to be self-sufficient through scouting and player development. We also understand from a strategic standpoint that you have to look outside from time to time if you can’t fill a need from within. No one would question that we tried to give players opportunity from within. We will try to draft and develop but we all recognize in order to contend, you sometimes have to give something up.”
Mozeliak said he felt the Cardinals did not have a strong enough roster to win a championship last season, which is why he did not risk trading young players. However, he believed differently this time and was willing to part with a prospect of Wallace’s caliber in the right deal. “It’s a totally different situation compared to last year,” Mozeliak said. “There was greater difficulty finding deals to our liking and, frankly, given some of our health concerns, there was a question about that team’s potential.”
The Cardinals’ potential seems limitless this season, but Mozeliak isn’t counting any championships yet. “It’s been enjoyable but we haven’t done anything yet,” he said. “We’re continuing to work toward our goal, winning our division. The fact is it’s nice to be where we are but I don’t think anybody I work with feels we can relax.”
The White Sox have dropped to .500 at 63-63 after losing six of their last nine games, and are now tied with the Twins for second place in the American League Central, 4½ games behind the Tigers. However, it is a far cry from the 15-22 record the White Sox had on May 18, and manager Ozzie Guillen believes that GM Ken Williams has given him enough talent to win it all. “I think right now, this club is good enough to win the World Series,” Guillen said. “I think it will be disappointing if we don’t win, of course, but in the meanwhile, if you look at our record early in the season, I never thought we’d make it to .500 with the way we started. Little by little, we climb and I still think we have plenty of time to be in first place. Kenny has given me a good club. Always. He’s given me the guys to win this thing and I’m not going to say anything bad about Kenny because he’s given me the talent to work with.”
Guillen also has plenty of good things to say about owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who gave Williams the go-ahead to make to two major acquisitions in the last month by trading for Padres right-hander Jake Peavy and claiming Blue Jays outfielder Alex Rios off waivers. “Jerry showed the fans how much he wants to win,” Guillen said. “He showed the players how much he wants to win. I think Kenny and me are lucky enough to work with this guy. We’re very lucky. Jerry is a very tremendous businessman. He knows what he wants. He knows what to do. If Jerry said yes to his players, it’s for a reason and we’re lucky enough to have him as a boss. We don’t have pain-in-the-ass bosses, who put their noses where they don’t have to. Jerry is a baseball fan, who loves his team, loves his organization. Everyone has a job. Jerry never gets involved with Kenny or myself, how to manage or do our jobs. Everyone has to do their job and he trusts people in the organization.”
The Padres feel they have a Gold Glove candidate in third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff. However, their quandary is how to get the word out about him, because they are far off the national radar with a 53-74 record that puts them last in the NL West, 21½ games behind the Dodgers.
While college sports information departments live to promote their athletes for national awards, it is considered a breach of etiquette for professional team to push their players too hard. Thus, Padres media relations director Warren Miller, one of the best in the business, is trying to drum up support for Kouzmanoff without being obtrusive. “A lot of players and almost every coach has come up to me and said, ‘We’ve got to do something,;” Miller told the San Diego Union-Tribune‘s Tim Sullivan. “We don’t know what that is.”
Miller sent a note to media relations directors around the league for advice and likes the idea of putting together a DVD of Kouzmanoff’s top plays and sending it to each NL team as the managers and coaches vote on the Gold Gloves. “That intrigues me,” Miller said. “You do a DVD and write sort of a personal letter: ‘I don’t want to bother you. I don’t want to insult your intelligence.’ But then again, it is San Diego, we’re a last-place team and he’s not a household name yet.”
Miller might not want to mention that Kouzmanoff’s evaluative defensive statistics aren’t as special. By John Dewan’s Plus/Minus, he’s 11th in the majors, by The Hardball Times’ Revised Zone Rating he’s ninth, and by Clay Davenport‘s Rate2, he’s a notch below average by normalized all-time standards at third by clocking in with a 99.
Scouts’ views on various major leaguers:
- Phillies catcher Paul Bako: “There is a reason why this guy hangs on in the major leagues-because he is outstanding at handling pitchers. He has really helped ease Cliff Lee‘s transition to the National League.”
- Padres outfielder Kyle Blanks: “He is a very large man but he is also a good athlete. I think he has a chance to be a star.”
- Royals first baseman Billy Butler: “This kid is turning into a premier hitter, and some of those doubles he was hitting in the first half are becoming home runs now. He is one reason for hope in Kansas City.”
- Cubs cornerman Jake Fox: “He can definitely rake, but they’ve got to trade him to an American League team over the winter because his only position is DH.”
- Tigers center fielder Curtis Granderson: “As good of a player as he is, Jim Leyland is going to have to keep benching him against left-handed pitchers. He looks helpless against lefties right now, and you can’t have an automatic out at the top of your lineup in a pennant race.”
- Rays left-hander Scott Kazmir: “He’s just not right physically. He’s become a soft-tosser, and his pitches lack bite. If Tampa Bay does get to the postseason, I don’t think [they] can afford to pitch him.”
- Nationals left-hander John Lannan: “The poor kid has carried that pitching staff all year, and you can tell he’s exhausted. He’s about out of gas, but I love his smarts and competitiveness.”
- Blue Jays outfielder Travis Snider: “He looks a lot more relaxed this time than when he up in the majors at the beginning of the season. He needed more time in the minor leagues, but he looks like he is in the big leagues to stay now with the way he’s swinging the bat.”
- Athletics right-hander Brett Tomko: “He’s found the right home ballpark in Oakland because all those fly balls he tends to give up get swallowed by the big gaps and heavy night air.”
- White Sox left-handed reliever Randy Williams: “He’s a journeyman with average stuff but he’s helping that club because he’s tough on lefties, gets ground balls, and doesn’t rattle.”
Three series to watch this weekend, with probable pitching matchups (all times Eastern):
Rays at Tigers, Friday-Monday (August 28-31)
Matt Garza vs. Armando Galarraga, 7:05 p.m.; David Price vs. Rick Porcello, 4:05 p.m. (Fox); Jeff Niemann vs. Justin Verlander, 1:05 p.m.; James Shields vs. Jarrod Washburn, 1:05 p.m.