Tagged: Jerry Manuel

A Smattering of Intelligence: Martinez, Hurdle, and the HOF Classic

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Along with most rational and reasonable fans, I would expect
that rookie ballplayers, fresh off their recall from the minor leagues, will
run hard and play hard at all times in order to make a good impression. With
that in mind, it is with some sadness that I feel motivated to discuss Fernando
Martinez’ decision not to run out a
pop-up on Wednesday night. As Washington’s Wil
Nieves dropped the ball, Martinez
remained near home plate and nearly 90 feet away from first base, when he
should have been crossing the bag.

 

How can this possibly happen, especially in what was only
the second game of Martinez’
major league career? Believe it or not, there is an explanation. Martinez , the
No. 1 prospect in the Mets’ farm system, has obviously been watching too many major
league highlights from his Triple-A perch with the Buffalo Bisons. For the last
two and a half seasons, the major league Mets have made a painful habit of not running out pop-ups, not running hard on drives to the
outfield wall, not understanding that
you don’t make the third out at third base, and not sliding on close plays at second base or home plate. The Mets
epitomize all that is wrong with the sorry start of baserunning in today’s
game, where the notion of running hard three to four times a game has
mindlessly become optional for too
many contemporary players. (Since when is it so strenuous for major league
athletes to run hard a few times a game?) The Mets have set a terrible example
for fans and young ballplayers, an example that top prospects like Martinez have become all
too obliged to follow.

 

Frankly, the Mets’ baserunning problems have become so
embarrassing that the situation has reached a boiling point. It’s time for
manager Jerry Manuel to take off the kid gloves and adopt a zero tolerance
policy toward lackadaisical baserunning. He needs to say something to this
effect to his ballplayers, veterans and rookies alike: if you don’t run hard, you will sit the bench the following day. If the
problem persists and you again don’t run hard, you will ride the pines for two
days. And so on and so forth.
At this point, the threat of the bench is
perhaps the only way to get through to the Mets’ thick-headed players.

 

Unfortunately, the Mets have been so thick-headed when it
comes to baserunning that if Manuel adopts such a policy, he will probably run
out of players within a week…

 

 

Two years ago, Colorado’s
Clint Hurdle and Arizona’s
Bob Melvin were on top of the world, both men leading their teams to the 2007
National League Championship Series. Both are out of jobs now, after Hurdle was
fired on Friday in what may be the least surprising ousting of a manager in
major league history. The Rockies have played brutal, uninspiring ball all season
for Hurdle, a veteran of seven seasons as Colorado’s skipper. Hurdle has displayed
some unusual tendencies, like often playing for one run during the early
innings of games at the Coors Field hitter’s haven. He has also failed to
motivate his players to play hard, always an indictment of a manager. Of
course, Hurdle has also had to play shorthanded. His best player, Matt
Holliday, is now in Oakland.
His best pitcher, Jeff Francis, is out for the season after surgery. His best
reliever, Brian Fuentes, is now an Angel. 

While some observers could build a reasonable case that
Hurdle deserved longer rope from the Rockies,
there is no reasonable case for the hiring of Jim Tracy, the team’s bench
coach. Tracy
has failed badly in not one, but two managerial stops: first with the Dodgers
and then with the Pirates. Most successful managers possess either a fieriness
that helps them motivate or a strategic acumen that gives them an in-game
advantage; Tracy
appears to have neither of those qualities…

 

 

More names continue to be added to the list of participants for
the first Hall of Fame Classic. Former Yankee Kevin Maas, a one-year wonder in
the Bronx, is the latest retired player to commit to the June 21st old-timers game here in Cooperstown. He will
join other ex-Yankees Phil Niekro, Jim Kaat, Dennis Rasmussen, and Lee Smith,
who all made prior commitments to the game. There have been rumors that two
other former Yankees, Mike Pagliarulo and Chad Curtis, will play in the Hall of
Fame Classic, but neither has been formally announced.

 

Several retired Red Sox will also play at Doubleday Field,
including Steve “Psycho” Lyons, Joe Lahoud, Ferguson Jenkins, Bill “Spaceman”
Lee, and Mike Timlin. Thus far, only two ex-Mets have signed up for the game:
George Foster, better known for his hitting exploits in Cincinnati, and Jeff Kent, who retired after the 2008 season.

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The Other Side of the Steve Phillips Argument

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General manager-turned-broadcaster Steve Phillips has taken
a lot of flack over the last few days, ever since he made a series of critical
comments about the Mets’ Carlos Beltran during ESPN’s Sunday night broadcast.
Frankly, some of the blowback against Phillips has been overdone, with his
comments taken severely out of context by some critics who don’t like his commentary to begin with or haven’t forgiven him for a spotty record as a general manager.

 

First of all, Phillips only suggested trading Beltran IF the
Mets were to fail to make the postseason for a third consecutive year. Let’s be
honest here. If the Mets fall short of the playoffs for a third summer, no one in the organization will be
untouchable. GM Omar Minaya and manager Jerry Manuel will likely be fired, and
one of the Mets’ big three–either Beltran, Jose Reyes, or David Wright–will
almost certainly be traded. (And if you don’t agree with that possibility, you
simply haven’t been following the Mets’ fortunes since October of 2006.) Furthermore,
one of the reasons that Phillips “picked on” Beltran has to do with the ages of
both Reyes and Wright, who are both 26 and likely have a number of prime years
remaining. Beltran is no kid anymore–he’s 32, an age by which most players
start to show some decline–and therefore not likely to have as prolonged a
future as either Wright or Reyes. Yet, because of his all-round greatness as a
player, Beltran will still command something substantial in a potential trade.

 

In posing some of his criticisms of Beltran on Sunday night,
Phillips chose some of his words badly and came off sounding awkward. For
example, he talked about Beltran not delivering enough “winning plays,” a
strange and nebulous way of wording things, to say the least. That kind of
terminology certainly did not help Phillips’ argument, leading to some of the
negative reaction on the Internet. That’s fair criticism. But some of Phillips’
points about Beltran are legitimate. Twice this year, Beltran has inexplicably failed
to slide on the basepaths when sliding should have been his first and only
option. (Beltran is just part of the problem here; as a team, the Mets are simply
atrocious running the bases. They don’t hustle, they don’t understand game
situations, and now they even miss bases.) In the field, Beltran has also made
a habit of missing the cutoff man, which is surprising for a center fielder of
his rather considerable defensive talents. And Beltran has never been much of a
vocal leader, which is an attribute the current Mets severely lack–and have
lacked for a few years now. Hey, when you make the big bucks, like Beltran
does, some people expect you to speak up in the clubhouse every once in awhile. 

 

Did Phillips make his case against Beltran poorly? Yes,
absolutely. Did he belabor his criticisms of Beltran during the broadcast? No
question. But let’s keep things in context here, while looking toward the
possible future. If the Mets continue their inconsistent play and miss out on a
postseason berth for a third consecutive season, Beltran will be one of just
many people in the organization holding their heads on the chopping block. And
if the Mets can get the right package of players in return for Beltran–who is
still one of the top ten players in the game and a future Hall of Famer–that might be one of the steps they
need to take to change the dynamics of a team that too often seems dazed and
disinterested.

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.

A Smattering of Intelligence: Murky Manuel, Baseball Cards, and Shameless Promotion

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The calendar has yet to turn from April to May, but the
calls for Jerry Manuel’s head have already begun to sound in New York. A second straight loss to the
previously slumping Marlins has created a sea of discontent, with much of the
focus centered on some bizarre strategy by Manuel in the ninth inning of
Wednesday afternoon’s loss to Florida.
With two outs and the bases loaded and the Mets down by a run, Manuel called
back Ramon Castro, who had banged out two hits in four at-bats. He summoned
backup catcher Omir Santos from the bullpen to pinch-hit, then watched him hit
a soft pop-up to end the game.

 

While the hue and cry for a change in managers is silly at
this early stage of the season, Manuel left me scratching my head with this
decision. Castro is a much better hitter than Santos, a career minor leaguer who has always
had a reputation as a good-field, weak-hit catcher. A few good games with the
Mets this past week should not have erased that reputation, nor should it have
fooled Manuel into thinking that Santos
posed more of an offensive threat than Castro. Bad move.

 

If Willie Randolph had pulled such a managerial rock, the New York media would
have roasted him. Manuel, who is a genuinely good guy and a great interview,
will probably be given a pass by most of the writers, but the fan base is beginning to lose patience with the Mets’ continuing ineptitude. In the meantime, expect
everyone to turn up the heat on David Wright, who looks lost at the plate and
in the field. Another target can be found in the Mets’ bullpen, which
was directly responsible for the one-run loss to the Marlins. J.J. Putz walked
the first two batters of the eighth inning, setting the stage for Florida’s comeback
rally. A few more outings like that, and we’ll start to hear speculation on
when Billy Wagner might be able to return this summer from Tommy John surgery.
It’s easy to forget that Wagner remains under contract to the Mets; just imagine a
three-man crew of Wagner, Putz and Francisco Rodriguez putting out fires in the
eighth and ninth innings of late-season games…

 

In anticipation of the new month of May, we’ll be changing our
baseball card image (which currently honors the late Dock Ellis) this weekend.
Feel free to submit nominations for a new card, either by posting a
recommendation here or by sending me an e-mail at bmarkusen@stny.rr.com. Topps cards are
preferred, but we’ll consider Upper Deck, Fleer, and Donruss cards, as well.
Heck, if the suggestion is a good one, we’ll consider just about any company…

 

On a promotional note, my 2006 book, The Team That Changed Baseball, is now out in paperback. The book
tells the story of the 1971 Pirates, who fielded major league baseball’s first
all-black lineup on the way to winning the world championship over the heavily
favored Orioles. For more information, or to purchase a copy (hint, hint),
please visit the website www.westholmepublishing.com.
My thanks to publisher Bruce Franklin for his continued support and faith in
the book.

Opening Day Arrives!

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If ever a team needed a dramatic come-from-behind win on
Opening Day to rejuvenate the hopes of a sagging fan base, it was the
Pittsburgh Pirates. Down by two runs with two outs and a man on base in the top
of the ninth, the Pirates mounted a nearly miraculous rally. Facing newly
crowned Cardinals closer Jason Motte, Adam LaRoche kept the Pirates alive with
an RBI single. Eric Hinske, one of the team’s few veteran winter acquisitions,
followed with a double, putting runners on second and third. After Motte hit
Brandon Moss with a pitch, light-hitting Jack Wilson delivered a two-strike
double to the gap, clearing the bases to give the Bucs a 6-4 lead and setting
the table for one of the franchise’s most thrilling wins in recent memory.

 

The Pirates did little of tangible consequence over the
winter, adding only Hinske, backup outfielder Craig Monroe, and utility
infielder Ramon Vazquez as low-end free agent signings. With such little cause
for optimism, most Pirates fans have resigned themselves to another last-place
finish in the NL Central. That still might happen, unless the Reds or the
Astros fall back even further in a weakened division, but at least the long
suffering Steel City can take some solace in an
exhilarating Opening Day win against a division rival. Watch out, ’71 Pirates,
here comes Mashing McLouth and the LaRoche Brothers!…

 

While the Pirates have few burdens of high expectations, the
Yankees find themselves at the opposite end of the rainbow. Their high-priced
winter pickups failed miserably on Day One as part of an ugly 10-5 loss to the
ever-rebuilding Orioles. CC Sabathia failed to make it through five innings,
while walking five batters and failing to register a single strikeout. Mark
Teixeira didn’t fare much better; he went 0-for-4, topped off by an
eighth-inning at-bat in which he stranded the potential tying run on base.
Still, the Yankees found themselves in the game, down only 6-5, before watching
relievers Phil Coke, Brian Bruney, and Damaso Marte implode during a four-run
eighth. Hey, it’s only one game, but CC and Tex will surely be reminded of their
exorbitant salaries in Tuesday’s editions of the Post and Daily News. The
pressure will only grow if their Opening Day futility becomes a trend, and
that’s something the Yankees don’t need as they try to avoid repeating what has
become a bad habit in recent seasons–lousy play in April and May that puts the
team into early holes…

 

The Mets did much better than the Yankees in their opener,
clipping the Reds, 2-1, on a dreary, cold afternoon in Cincinnati. Jerry Manuel surprised the Mets
broadcasters, most of their fans, and yours truly by pulling Johan Santana
after only five and two-thirds innings. With Santana’s pitch count nearing the
dreaded 100 marker (he was at 99)–and bells, whistles, and alarms sounding in
the minds of the pitch-count preachers–Manuel called on ex-Mariner Sean Green
to quell a sixth-inning rally. Manuel decided to use the rest of the game as a
showcase for three of his newest relievers, with Green followed by more
heralded pickups J.J. Putz and Francisco Rodriguez. The trio of bullpen
newcomers pinned the Reds down the rest of the afternoon, combining to pitch
three and a third innings of hitless relief. From the Reds’ perspective, Dusty
Baker will surely draw the wrath of the aforementioned pitch counters, as he
allowed ace Aaron Harang to throw 114 pitches in 39-degree weather. As long as
Baker remains in charge, Sabermetricians and second-guessers alike will have
plenty of material with which to attack Baker for his old-fashioned way of
doing things…

 

With a new season upon us after an extraordinarily long and
bitter winter, you may have noticed a few subtle changes to our homepage here
at “Cooperstown Confidential.” For the first month of the 2009 season, we’ll honor
the memory of the fallen Dock Ellis by displaying his Topps rookie card from
1969. Hopefully, Dock was wearing curlers and smiling from above as he watched
his Pirates pull out a finish that would have made the “Lumber Company” proud.
In other changes, we’ve added links to some of our favorite baseball web sites,
including Baseball Think Factory and Bronx Banters. Lovers of film and TV will
notice the link to the incredible IMDB site, too. We’ll be adding more links as
the season progresses.

 

Other plans are in the works. We’ll be adding some few
features (including an historical piece on great nicknames), keeping tabs on
Keith Olbermann, and generally posting more often during the new baseball
season. Please let us know what you think of the changes, and feel free to make
suggestions about what you would like to see and read in this space. Let the
comments fly in 2009!

Monday’s Bunts and Boots–Manuel, Wells, I-Rod (and Sean Penn, Too)

Jerry Manuel is not afraid to shake up things up when it comes to the construction of his lineup. Less than two weeks into spring training, the Mets manager has already made two major pronouncements. He created a few headlines early during the first week when he said he would like to experiment with the embattled Luis Castillo as his leadoff man. And now in week No. 2 of the spring, he has declared that Daniel Murphy will be his everyday left fielder–and not a platoon partner of Fernando Tatis, as most of us had expected. I have my doubts about Castillo’s ability to handle the leadoff role at this stage of his career, but I like the move with Murphy, who appears to have the offensive skills to fill a role as the Mets’ No. 6 hitter, batting behind some combination of Carlos Delgado and David Wright. This move might also free up Tatis to assume more of a utility role, taking Delgado’s place at first base against selected left-handers and backing up Wright at third base. The Mets need to take advantage of Tatis’ versatility; he can play four positions (both the infield and outfield corners), an ability that will come in handy now that Damion Easley is an ex-Met…

There are a few certainties in life: death, taxes, and Sean Penn making a jackass out of himself at the Oscars. Here’s another–injuries in spring training. The Blue Jays have suffered the first major setback of the spring, as Vernon Wells strained his hamstring during workouts on Monday. Wells is expected to miss a full month, which could be cutting it close in terms of his availability for Opening Day. This is exactly the kind of news the Jays don’t need after a winter that saw them lose A.J. Burnett to free agency while failing to make any major acquisitions of their own. With a few bad breaks, the Jays could be looking at last place in the stacked AL East, behind even the perennially disfunctional Orioles…

While most of the free agent focus remains centered on Manny Ramirez, another future Hall of Famer (at least in my mind) finds himself at home, waiting for the right offer. Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez is still available, a rather shocking development considering the lack of catching depth around the major leagues. I-Rod has received at least one offer–coming from the Astros–but is believed to be holding out hope for a contract offer from the Mets. Unfortunately for Pudge, the Mets have two healthy and capable catchers in Brian Schneider and Ramon Castro. At some point, Rodriguez will have to accept the Astros’ offer or swallow hard on a non-roster invite to some other spring locale. Whichever team ends up with Rodriguez will be getting a bargain, though. I’m convinced that his poor hitting with the Yankees late last season was caused, at least in part, by the difficult task of having to learn an entirely new pitching staff in mid-season. Given such defensive distractions, it’s understandable that Rodriguez hit so poorly as a stand-in for the injured Jorge Posada.