The Sunday Scuttlebutt

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The Mets finally did the sensible thing in placing Carlos Delgado
on the disabled with a potentially career-threatening hip injury, but now they
face a bit of a quandary in trying to replace him. Do they continue to play
Gary Sheffield in left field every day, thereby freeing up Fernando Tatis and
Daniel Murphy to play first base? And why are they playing Jeremy Reed, a
mediocre hitter with limited experience on the infield, as part of a
three-headed monster at first base? I don’t know that Sheffield
will hold up, considering his age and the fragile state of his shoulder. A
better plan might be to play Murphy every day at first base, while switching
between Tatis and Sheffield in left field.
Tatis or Reed could then serve as defensive caddies for Sheffield,
replacing him in the late innings of games in which the Mets hold the lead…

 

Jerry Manuel’s Sunday night lineup against the Giants left
me scratching my head. Manuel put Reed at first base and kept Murphy in left
field, even though Reed hasn’t played the position fulltime since college and
Murphy is still a brutal defensive outfielder. Wouldn’t it have made more sense
to put Reed in left, where he is very good, and switch Murphy to first base,
where he has been working out in recent days? That way, the Mets would have had
only one player out of position, instead of two…

 

I’m simply amazed at the ferocity with which Raul Ibanez
continues to hit for the Phillies. So much for the theory that hitters need a
few months to acclimate themselves to a different set of pitchers in a new
league. Ibanez has obviously kept some good notes from his experience in interleague
play, because he is off to a career-best start in 2009, even though he’s 36 and
supposedly on the downhill climb. (He’s also enjoying the benefits of playing
his games in a hitter-friendly home part, in contrast to the pitchers’ parks of
Seattle (Safeco Field) and Kansas City (Kauffman Stadium). With 13 home
runs and a Babe Ruthian slugging percentage of .714 through the first six
weeks, Ibanez has been the Phillies’ clear-cut MVP, an impressive achievement
considering the presence of teammates Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Jimmy
Rollins. Now the Phillies just need to straighten out their starting pitching,
where everyone is underachieving, and their closer situation, where Brad Lidge
has reverted to the struggles of his latter days with the Astros…

 

As I watched the Giants’ Pablo Sandoval for the first time
this weekend, I immediately thought that Gates Brown had come out of retirement
to play third base for San Francisco.
(Brown, the old Tiger left fielder and DH, had the ultimate bad body, but was
one of the most dangerous pinch-hitters and part-time players of the sixties
and seventies.) Nicknamed “The Panda” by his teammates, the hefty Sandoval
carries the oddest physique (5’11” and 245 pounds) I’ve ever seen at third
base, a position that requires a degree of nimble dexterity. Sandoval is more
agile than his body would indicate, but it’s on offense where the switch-hitter
stands out. He can flat-out hit, and with his sizeable power to all fields,
he’s the Giants’ cleanup-hitter-in-waiting. He also brings the bonus of
versatility; Sandoval can catch, which gives the Giants some depth behind the
underrated Bengie Molina…

 

The Red Sox can still win the AL East without a vintage David
Ortiz, but his inability to hit with any semblance of power will make the chore
that much more challenging. With Ortiz at or near his peak, the Red Sox had
three hitters that struck fear into opposing pitchers. Now they’re down to two,
Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis, both right-handed hitters. The Red Sox say
that Ortiz will return to the lineup on Tuesday after being benched for three
games over the weekend, but they may need to make contingency plans if Ortiz
cannot regain his lost bat speed. The Red Sox could eventually turn to prospect Jeff
Bailey or veteran Rocco Baldelli to take up the slack at DH, but the lack of a
left-handed hitting platoon partner for either player remains a concern…

 

With three consecutive walkoff wins against the Twins, the
Yankees achieved something they had not done since August of 1972. That was the
last time that the Yankees posted three consecutive wins with game-ending
at-bats. Johnny Callison accounted for two of those victories with game-winning
singles, while old favorite Horace Clarke won the other game with a sacrifice
fly. Callison and Clarke now have company, as Melky Cabrera, Alex Rodriguez,
and Johnny Damon provided the more recent heroics with a single, a home run,
and another home run, respectively…

 

The Yankees are hoping to receive a triple-boost of talent
sometime this week. It’s possible that Brian Bruney, Chien-Ming Wang, and Jorge
Posada could all return from the disabled list within the next seven days.
Although he is the lesser name among the three players, Bruney’s return could
loom the most important. The Yankees have struggled to find pitchers who can
handle roles in the seventh and eighth innings; Jose Veras and Edwar Ramirez
have both flopped badly, while lefty Phil Coke has brought forth mixed results.
Without Bruney, the Yankees don’t have a single favorable eighth-inning option
among their current pitching contenders. With Bruney, the Yankees can continue
to resist the talk show calls for Joba Chamberlain to return to the bullpen.

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The Nickname Game: The Road Runner

Garr.jpg

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Several
players of 1970s vintage were known as “Roadrunner,” including Pirates
teammates Gene Clines and Manny Sanguillen, but only one man became the true “Roadrunner”
(or “Road Runner,” to be completely accurate).

 

That
honor belongs to former Braves, White Sox, and Angels outfielder Ralph “The
Road Runner” Garr. For those who saw Garr play, the name made obvious sense.
Garr, a slashing line drive batter who hit to all fields, could flat-out fly
around the bases. Of all his contemporaries, only one may have been faster.
That was Mickey Rivers, who actually began his pro career in the Braves’
organization at virtually the same time as Garr. Rivers was traded to the
Angels as part of the Hoyt Wilhelm deal, but Garr remained with the Braves long
enough to win the 1974 National League batting title–with a remarkable average of .354

 

Garr
became almost as well known for the “Road Runner” nickname as the original
Looney Tunes cartoon figure created by Chuck Jones. The Braves’ public
relations department gave Garr the nickname after he arrived in the big
leagues; in fact, the Braves so wanted to market Garr that they wrote to Warner
Brothers, Inc. to receive official permission to use the nickname and the catch
phrase “Beep! Beep!” in promotional efforts.

 

Warner
Brothers, through its agent, Licensing Corporation of America (LCA), came to a
history-making agreement with the Braves. “Our contract with the Braves makes
Ralph the first licensed nickname to our knowledge anywhere in the world,” said
Jay Emment, who was the chairman of LCA at the time. The unusual agreement also
made it illegal for any other athlete to use the nickname. (That agreement was
probably unenforceable in reality, but Clines’ “Roadrunner” appellation did
seem to fade into disuse.) Curiously, Garr’s officially certified nickname was
never once included in any of his entries in the Baseball Register from 1969 to 1981.

 

The
Baseball Register might not have recognized it, but just about everybody else
remembers Ralph Garr as the “Road
Runner.”

A Smattering of Intelligence: Managers, Mitts, and Cactus Jack

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Now that Bob Melvin has been fired as the skipper of the
Diamondbacks, the speculation can begin as to which team will be the next to
fire its field manager. The Cleveland Indians could be that team; with a record
of 13-22, the Indians have the worst record in the American League. That may
not bode well for the future of Eric Wedge, who has been on the hot seat ever
since the Indians started last season
so poorly.

 

Many observers have pointed to the Indians as first-class
underachievers, one of baseball’s biggest disappointments. Just two months ago,
the Indians were the fashionable pick to win the American League Central, a
balanced division ripe for the taking. Personally, I think that prediction was
a bit of a stretch, considering the departure of CC Sabathia, the regression of
Fausto Carmona, and the unsettled state of Cleveland’s outfield beyond superstar
Grady Sizemore. Still, there’s no question that the Indians have underachieved. They shouldn’t be
buried so many games below .500, just a couple of ticks ahead of the Washington
Nationals, the most dreadful team in either league. There’s just no excuse for
such a poor standing.

 

The Indians will probably give Wedge at least two to three
more weeks before making any kind of a change. If they do, they have two highly
logical candidates in place within their organization. First up is Joel
Skinner, currently their third base coach and now in his ninth year on the
staff. Skinner also has prior managerial experience. He served as the Indians’
interim skipper in 2002. Prior to that, Skinner managed for several years in
the Tribe’s farm system, developing a reputation for winning and developing
young talent. A former catcher, Skinner is very bright and familiar with the
organization from top to bottom. The other top candidate is Torey Lovullo,
currently the manager of the Columbus Clippers, who just so happen to be the
Indians’ Triple-A affiliate. Lovullo’s minor league managerial record is
spotless. He has won two International League titles, the highlight of a resume
that features a winning record every season he’s managed.

 

If none of those candidates are to your liking, then how
about this blast from the past? Mike Hargrove, who left the Mariners in
mid-season two years ago, is also available. He’s scheduled to manager a summer
league team of college prospects, but that contract could be broken in favor of
a return to the Midwest…

 

There’s an old axiom in baseball that says, “Every game you
watch, you’ll see something different, something you’ve never seen before.”
That’s an exaggeration, of course, but baseball is such an unpredictable game
of diverse outcomes that we often do come away seeing something new and without
precedent. That happened to me on Tuesday night, as I watched the game between
the Mets and Braves. In the top of the 10th inning, Mets utilityman
Alex Cora, who’s normally a middle infielder, took over at first base. (Cora
had played the position just once before, back in 2005 with the Red Sox.) After
warming up with a standard issue first baseman’s mitt, Cora decided he wasn’t
comfortable with it, ran to the dugout, and replaced it with a regular infielder’s
glove. As Mets broadcaster Gary Cohen commented that he had never seen that
before, I thought the same thing. I’ve never
seen a first baseman play the position without a first baseman’s mitt, just
like I’ve never seen a catcher go behind the plate without a standard catcher’s
mitt. It’s something that probably happened during baseball’s early history,
before gloves and mitts became so advanced and specialized. It might have even
happened sometime since World War II, but I just can’t recall it. Perhaps
someone out there has seen a first
baseman play without a mitt. If so, feel free to let us know…

 

Earlier this week, former big league right-hander Jack Billingham
visited the Hall of Fame here in Cooperstown.
As Billingham explained to a friend of mine, Hall senior researcher Bill
Francis, he and his wife Jolene, along with his sister and brother-in-law, have
been touring the country in RVs. Along the way, they’ve visited some of Jack’s
old stomping grounds, including Cincinnati (where he pitched most of his career
with the Reds) and Detroit (where he pitched for three seasons late in his
career).

 

This was not Billingham’s first visit to Cooperstown.
Forty years ago, he came to town as part of a contingent with the Astros to
play in the annual Hall of Fame Game. He also has an indirect connection to the
Hall of Fame. Billingham is a distant cousin of Christy Mathewson, part of the
inaugural Hall of Fame Class in 1939.

 

“Cactus Jack,” as he’s sometimes called, remains one of the
most underrated members of Cincinnati’s
“Big Red Machine.” Too often Billingham is remembered for giving up Hank
Aaron’s record-tying 714th home run, and that’s just not fair. While
the Reds’ offensive stars, like Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench and Tony
Perez, garnered most of the publicity, Billingham turned in workmanlike
performances for a reliable rotation that also included Gary Nolan, Don
Gullett, and Fredie Norman. Durable and consistent, Billingham used a
sinkerball to post consecutive 19-win seasons in 1973 and ’74, before winning a
total of 27 games during the two world championship seasons of 1975 and
’76.  He raised his level of pitching in
World Series play, allowing only one earned run in just over 25 innings, and
still holds the record for lowest ERA in World Series history.

 

Yes, Cactus Jack was pretty good.

Card Corner: Hoss Clarke

Clarke.jpg

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For too long now, we in the media have referred to the
Yankees of 1965 to 1974 as representatives of the “Horace Clarke Era.” The
team’s starting second baseman for much of that period, Clarke has come to
symbolize the mediocrity of those Yankee clubs. Seen here in his final Topps
card (vintage 1974), Clarke was viewed as an inadequate player, symptomatic of
a team that was inadequately built to win any pennants or division titles
during that ten-year span.

 

The criticism of Clarke has run on several different levels.
Too much of a free swinger, he didn’t draw enough walks. He didn’t have great
range at second base, especially toward his backhand side. He also didn’t turn
the double play well.

 

To some extent, the criticisms are all true. He never coaxed
more than 64 walks in a season and usually finished below the 50-mark.
Defensively, he paled in comparison to two other Yankees, predecessor Bobby
Richardson and successor Willie Randolph. On double plays, Clarke bailed out
early and often. Instead of pivoting at the bag, he sometimes jumped out of the
way of runners while holding onto the baseball.

 

Those critiques provide only a partial view. The
switch-hitting Clarke stole bases, bunted adeptly, and usually hit for a
respectable average (at least for that era), which would have played acceptably
as the eight-hole or ninth-place hitter. The Yankees made the mistake of using
Clarke as a leadoff man because he looked and ran like a tablesetter. That was
their mistake, not his. In the field, Clarke had his shortcomings, but for a
guy who supposedly lacked range, he did lead the American League in assists six
times. Part of that might have been attributable to having a sinkerballer like
Mel Stottlemyre on the staff, but it’s also an indication that Clarke had pretty
good range to his left.

 

Was Clarke a top-notch player? Of course not. But I would
say that he was better than mediocre. (The Yankees of that era, like Clarke,
were also better than advertised. Just look at the records of the 1970 and 1974
 teams.) I think the Yankees could have
won a division with a second baseman like Clarke, if only they had been better
at other positions, like third base (prior to Graig Nettles’ arrival) or right
field. If you want to find the real reasons why the Yankees so often struggled
during those years, you need to look no further than the revolving doors at
those slots. The Yankees had substantially weaker players at third base (Cox,
Kenney, Sanchez) and right field (Kosco, Swoboda, Callison). It’s just that
none of the third basemen or right fielders lasted long enough to become
targets of the critics.

 

Putting aside the issue of talent evaluation for a moment,
Clarke was an intriguing player to follow, especially for a young fan like me. Clarke
came attached with a cool nickname. He was called “Hoss,” raising memories of
Dan Blocker’s iconic character from Bonanza. (Bill White, in particular, loved
that nickname. “Hosssss Clarke,” he liked to say with flourish.) Clarke also
had an intriguing background. He was one of the few players I can remember who
hailed from the Virgin Islands. So that made
him a little bit different from your run-of-the-mill player. Then there was
Clarke’s appearance. He wore very large glasses, the kind that became so horribly
fashionable in the early 1970s, really round and overly noticeable. On the
field, Clarke not only wore a helmet at the plate; he sported one while
patrolling second base. I haven’t been able to figure out exactly why he did
that. It may have had something to do with his fear of being upended on
double-play takeout slides. Several years ago, Darren “Repoz” Viola of Baseball
Think Factory asked former Yankee broadcaster Bob Gamere why Clarke wore the
helmet at second base; Gamere explained that it may have stemmed from a 1969
incident in which Clarke was hit in the head with a ball, but he wasn’t
completely certain. Whatever the reason, the helmet made Clarke a distinctive
landmark on the middle infield.

 

For all of those reasons, and for being a quiet guy who
rarely complained, Hoss Clarke was a likeable guy. He was also a decent ballplayer.
So let’s stop vilifying the man who was once booed during pre-game introductions
on Opening Day at the old Yankee Stadium. Let’s stop raking the man that one New York writer
repeatedly referred to as “Horrible Horace.” I’d prefer to call him “Helpful
Horace.” Let’s go with that instead.

Bunts and Boots: Updating the Hall of Fame Classic

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Fans of baseball in the 1970s and eighties will have plenty
of memories to draw from on June 21, when the inaugural Hall of Fame Classic
takes place here in Cooperstown. The list of
retired players who have committed to play in the classic–a seven-inning
old-timers game at Doubleday Field–continues to grow. Last month, the MLB
Alumni Association announced the names of the five Hall of Famers who would
play in the game. Now we’re learning the identities of some of the other
players who will fill out the rosters for the National and American League
teams.

 

The Alumni Association has indicated that it will place a
special emphasis on recruiting players with ties to the Red Sox, Yankees, and
Mets, the three teams followed most rabidly in the Cooperstown
region. With that in mind, here is a rundown of those players who will be
joining Paul Molitor, Brooks Robinson, Bob Feller, Ferguson Jenkins, and Phil
Niekro in Cooperstown on Father’s Day Weekend.

 

Bobby Grich: Of
all eligible players not in the Hall of Fame, Grich is one of the best–and one
of the most deserving of enshrinement in Cooperstown.
Hopefully, the Veterans Committee will one day put Grich in the Hall, on the
legitimate merits of his vacuum-like defense at second base, his keen batting
eye, and his surprising power, unusual for middle infielders of his era. Grich
also carried one of the best nicknames–“The Lizard”–during his hey day in the
seventies and eighties.

 

George Foster:
“The Destroyer” should find the short left-field fences at Doubleday Field to
his liking. It’s easy to overlook Foster’s contributions to the “Big Red
Machine,” considering all of the deserved publicity received by former teammates
Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, and Pete Rose. But let’s not forget his status as one
of the game’s great run producers of the late 1970s, capped off by his 50-home
run season in 1977. Given the Hall of Fame Classic’s slant toward the New York teams, I’ll be
curious to see whether Fosters wears a Mets uniform in the game. His days with
the Mets were not the happiest, especially in contrast to his prime years with
The Machine.

 

Lee Smith: The
king-sized closer has become a frequent visitor to Cooperstown,
though not as a Hall of Fame member. (At least not yet.) I remember the first
time I saw Smith enter a game for the Cubs; as he jogged in from the Wrigley
Field bullpen, he looked absolutely gargantuan,
a cross between a linebacker and a power forward. (Now I know how fans must
have felt when they first saw Dick “The Monster” Radatz.) Once Smith harnessed control of his
fastball, he became one of the dominant relievers of the eighties and nineties.
It seems like he pitched for just about everybody, most notably the Cubs,
Cardinals, and Red Sox, but he also played briefly for the Yankees during their
ill-fated run at the AL East title in 1993.

 

Jim Kaat: Like
Bert Blyleven and Tommy John, “Kitty Kaat” is part of a contingent of longtime
starters who fell just short of the 300-win club but remain on the cusp of
election to the Hall of Fame. Kaat did most of his damage with the Twins and
White Sox, but did pitch briefly for the Yankees in the early 1980s. After a
short retirement from broadcasting, where he excelled on the YES Network’s
coverage of Yankee games, Kaat has returned to the booth as an analyst with the
new MLB Network. Even though Kaat is now in his seventies, he keeps himself in
terrific physical condition, so don’t be surprised to see him log a couple of
innings in the HOF Classic.

 

Jon Warden: This
former Tigers left-hander pitched only one season in the big leagues, but it
was a memorable one, coinciding with Detroit’s
world championship in 1968. Though his career was cut short by subsequent arm
trouble, Warden has made a name for himself as one of baseball’s funny men. A
sort of modern day Joe Garagiola, Warden enjoys poking fun at himself, his
hefty physique (he’s the anti-Kaat), and any players who do anything the least
bit embarrassing during the Alumni Association gatherings. If the HOF Classic
has a “Kangaroo Court,” Warden will surely serve as the presiding judge. And,
much like Garagiola or Bob Uecker, he will get his deserved share of laughs.

 

Bill Lee: Like
Warden, Lee will bring plenty of color to Cooperstown
for the Classic. Always outspoken, “The Spacemen” has forged a reputation as an
idiosyncratic rebel and offbeat philosopher. He became a cult figure in Boston, where he
eventually feuded with Don Zimmer. After his major league playing days came to
an end, Lee has traveled the globe as a semipro pitcher, written two critically
acclaimed books, emerged as a star on Ken Burns’ Baseball, and even managed a team in the now-defunct Senior League.
Not surprisingly, Lee drew the ire of management and received his walking
papers after only a handful of games.

 

Steve Rogers: A
teammate of Lee with the Expos, Rogers emerged as one of the National League’s
top starters in the late seventies and early eighties, in spite of a testy
relationship with manager Dick Williams. Along the way, he claimed five berths
in the All-Star Game, a league ERA crown in 1982, and two huge wins for Montreal in the 1981
Division Series. Highly intelligent and well spoken, Rogers has become a high-ranking member of
the Players’ Association, where he reports to union chief Donald Fehr.  

 

Johnny Grubb:
Though he had a name that rhymed with “scrub” and played much of his prime
years with some dreadful Padres and Rangers teams in the 1970s, Grubb was an
underrated offensive player who did well in a platoon role, usually as a
sure-handed left fielder. The owner of a lifetime on-base percentage of .366,
the lefty-swinging Grubb did his best work against right-handed pitching. He
lasted 16 seasons, long enough to earn an All-Star Game selection and pick up a
world championship ring as a backup outfielder for the 1984 Tigers. After his
playing days, Grubb served as one of Phil Niekro’s coaches with the Colorado
Silver Bullets, the now-defunct women’s professional team.

 

Joe Lahoud: Like
Grubb, Lahoud was a left-handed hitting outfielder who had to scrape for
playing time. Lahoud didn’t hit for average and had a reputation as a poor
defensive outfielder, but he did draw walks and hit with power, making him a
subtle contributor to teams like the Brewers and Angels. During the early stage
of his career, Lahoud found himself caught in the middle of the Red Sox feud
that developed between Carl Yastrzemski and Tony Conigliaro. Lahoud was
friendly with both players, but the clubhouse tension contributed to the trade
that sent him and Tony C. to Milwaukee
as part of the George Scott-Tommy Harper blockbuster.

 

Jim Hannan: The
former Senators and Tigers right-hander is best known for being part of the
Denny McLain blockbuster. Along with Aurelio Rodriguez and Eddie Brinkman,
Hannan went from Washington to Detroit as part of the
payoff for McLain. At age 69, Hannan will be one of the oldest retired players to
participate in the Classic. He’ll also be one of the most outgoing, an
energetic sort who has done some terrific work in building the Alumni
Association since its inception in the early eighties.

 

Other players scheduled to participate in the Classic
include utilityman Steve “Psycho” Lyons, now a broadcaster with the Dodgers, former
big league right-handers Ron Robinson, Anthony Telford,
and John Doherty, and ex-Yankee left-hander Dennis Rasmussen. An additional
five players will be added to the rosters for the Father’s Day game, with those
announcements coming over the next several weeks. As always, we’ll try our best
to keep you posted.

The Sunday Scuttlebutt

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It may be small consolation to their frustrated fan base, but if the Orioles can find someone halfway decent to patrol
left field, they can make an argument for having the best outfield in the game.
Center fielder Adam Jones has blossomed in his second season, adding a robust
bat to his already imposing glove. Right fielder Nick Markakis is now a
legitimate star, having elevated his game each of the last three seasons. Unfortunately, left field remains a problem for the Birds. Felix Pie (.158
batting average and .238 on-base percentage) has hit just as poorly in Baltimore as he did in Chicago, while utilityman Lou Montanez is no
more than a stopgap solution. A more immediate short-term answer might be found at Triple-A, where the
Orioles just assigned Joey Gathright, freshly acquired from the Cubs.
Gathright, who is still one of the three fastest runners in the game (I’ll vote
for Emilio Bonifacio and Brett Gardner as the others) and can handle left field
defensively. As to how much Gathright will hit, that remains the eternal
question…

 

On Saturday night, Steve Stone provided another example of
why he’s one of baseball’s best color analysts. During the broadcast of the
White Sox-Rangers game, Stone listed Josh Fields and Carlos Quentin as the Sox’
two best runners in terms of going hard into second base and breaking up potential double
plays. That’s just great information. How many color announcers even pay
attention to such overlooked aspects of baserunning, especially in an era when
hitting and pitching are so much the focus of on-air discussion? Keep up the
great work, Steve…

 

It’s really no mystery why Zack Greinke has been so
masterfully overpowering for the Royals. He has two phenomenal pitches–an
exploding fastball and a biting overhand curve–and throws everything in his
arsenal for strikes. His start to the season is no fluke; he’s a legitimate No.
1 starter that the Royals can build around for years to come. With Greinke, Gil
Meche, and Brian “The Animal” Bannister now in the rotation, and former No. 1
pick Luke Hochevar on the way, the Royals have the makings of a starting staff
that will contend–if not in 2009, then next summer…

 

Just how low have the Yankees sunk? Fresh off their
disheartening five-game losing streak this week, the front office decided that
answers to their problems could be found in journeyman mediocrities Kevin Cash
and Brett Tomko, recalled from Triple-A Scranton. Cash is the ultimate
good-field, no-hit catcher, a limited player of borderline major league capability.
Tomko pitched horribly for the Padres last season, despite the benefit of
pitching in Petco
Park half of the time. While
it’s undeniable that the Yankees have been hit with a crushing tidal wave of
injuries, it’s inconceivable that such a wealthy franchise has such little
organizational depth. It’s also an indictment of general manager Brian Cashman
and his stunning lack of attention to detail. Remarkably, Cashman failed to put
in a waiver claim on hard-hitting backup catcher Brayan Pena, who was demoted
to Triple-A Omaha by the Royals…

 

I understand that A.J. Hinch is a bright young mind who has
done well in developing Arizona’s
farm system. But wouldn’t it have made more sense for the Diamondbacks to tap
someone with at least some on-field experience in hiring their new manager,
especially in the middle of the season. There are some legitimate managerial
candidates who have track records in running ballclubs. Torey Lovullo is a
terrific young manager who has won two minor league titles in the Indians’
system. Why didn’t the D-Backs at least approach the Indians about the
possibility of hiring Lovullo? Another possibility would have been Davey
Johnson, fresh off his stint as manager of Team USA in the World Baseball Classic.
Or perhaps the D-Backs could have stayed in-house by promoting bench coach Kirk
Gibson, who could have at least managed the team on an interim basis. Gibson
certainly doesn’t lack fire, which was one of the criticisms aimed at fired
skipper Bob Melvin…

 

Rickie Weeks, a notoriously poor fielding second baseman,
has been one of the game’s most improved defenders through the first five weeks
of the season. Much of the credit goes to new Brewers coach Willie Randolph, who
was hired as part of Ken Macha’s new-look staff. Randolph was one of the most
fundamentally sound second baseman of his era, so it’s no surprise that he’s
having such a positive impact on the talented but erratic Weeks…

 

Sandy Alomar, Sr. has been a player, coach, or minor league
instructors for 49 straight years, dating back to 1960, his first year in
professional ball with the Los Angeles Angels’ organization. Yet, Alomar had
never managed even a single game–mostly because he had no such aspirations–until
this weekend.  Alomar’s debut took place
on Saturday, as he managed the Mets during Jerry Manuel’s one-game suspension
for incidental contact with an umpire. The Mets won that game against the
Pirates, 10-1, which means that Alomar will have a perfect record as manager
for awhile, at least until the next time that Manuel is suspended. Good for
Alomar, one of the solid men who have been a life-long servant to the game…

 

Of all the team statistics I’ve heard bandied about, none is
more shocking than this. The Phillies are a meager 3-and-9 at home in games in
which they have faced right-handed starting pitchers. That is simply stunning
for a team that is so heavily loaded with left-handed hitting studs like Ryan
Howard, Chase Utley, the switch-hitting Jimmy Rollins, and new sensation Raul
Ibanez. The Phillies’ poor record against righties is a severe indictment of
their shaky starting pitching, which has too often failed to keep them in
games. None of Philly’s starters–particularly ace Cole Hamels or the
prehistoric Jamie Moyer–have pitched anywhere near their 2008 levels.

A Smattering of Intelligence: Hinch, Freel, and The Little Professor

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Less than six weeks into the season, the Diamondbacks have
decided that a major change is in order for their underachieving team. By
sacking Bob Melvin and hiring front office farm director A.J. Hinch to manage
the team, the D-Backs have signaled a radical change in the direction of their
on-field leadership. Hinch has no prior managing or coaching experience at any
level, not even in rookie ball. What he does have is an eye for young talent,
an ability that the D-Backs hope will translate into an ability to develop that talent. The latter area is
where Melvin fell short; too many of Arizona’s talented young players (like Mark
Reynolds and Chris Young) have failed to become significantly better than they were in
2007, when the Baby Backs came within two games of the World Series.

 

Did Melvin deserve to get fired? Perhaps, but not at this
early stage of the season. I tend to think that managers–like young unproven
players–deserve at least two full months of the season before we make
wide-sweeping judgments about their ability. I would have given Melvin until
the end of May; if the D-backs had shown no signs of a turnaround, a move would
have been mandatory. And what about Hinch? I know he’s a bright guy who has
drawn good reviews for his work as an Arizona’s
front office whiz kid, but his lack of any kind of on-field coaching or
managing experience is alarming. Contrary to what most Sabermetric general
managers like Josh Byrnes (and Billy Beane) seem to think, you cannot put just anyone into the managerial chair. It’s
not an interchangeable position. Rather, it’s a highly demanding and important
job that requires the right kind of temperament, personality, and experience.
Who knows how Hinch will do…

 

The Cubs made an interesting, if not major, transaction on
Friday, acquiring utilityman Ryan Freel from the Orioles for spare outfielder
Joey Gathright. Is this Chicago’s
way of trying to right the wrong that was done when GM Jim Hendry dealt Mark
DeRosa to the Indians for three middle-road prospects? Or is Hendry simply
trying to fortify his bench while ridding himself of a player (Gathright) who
had become so extraneous that he was sent to the minors earlier this week?

 

Freel isn’t the player that DeRosa is, either in terms of
power or versatility, but he does provide some flexibility. Freel can play
second base, third base, and all three outfield spots, while giving Lou
Piniella a decent pinch-running option in the late innings. Gathright is
certainly the more dangerous baserunner, but he’s strictly an outfielder, a
position that has become especially deep for Chicago given the resurgence of Kosuke
Fukudome and the presence of supersub Reed Johnson. This is really a no-brainer
move for the Cubs, who will benefit from Baltimore’s
inability to find a role for Freel…

 

In the late 1990s, Ted Williams championed Dom DiMaggio for
the Hall of Fame while serving as a member of the Veterans’ Committee. Even
with credit for the three seasons he lost to World War II, I felt that DiMaggio
fell short of the Hall of Fame standard. He was a very good player, but a bit
short of Cooperstown greatness.

 

That’s a trivial point, however. In many ways, Dom DiMaggio
represented everything that is good about baseball. DiMaggio, who died early
Friday morning at the age of 92, was a five-foot, nine-inch outfielder who wore
glasses; “The Little Professor” looked about as imposing on the ballfield as Chicken Little. But as
an overachiever performing in a sport where size plays little importance, he made
himself into a fine player who hit for average, drew walks, and played a dandy
center field–a very substantial player on some fine and underrated Red Sox
teams of the late 1940s. He was also, by all accounts, a true gentleman who was
highly regarded for his character by teammates and opponents alike. And that
matters a lot more than any argument about whether DiMaggio belongs in the Hall
of Fame.