When the Mariners acquired Aaron Heilman as part of their multi-player haul for J.J. Putz, it was widely assumed that the changeup specialist would take his place in Seattle’s remodeled rotation. That won’t happen now–not after the M’s traded Heilman before he even threw a pitch for them, sending him to the Cubs for infielder Ronny Cedeno and failed Oriole Garret Olson. Long desiring a rotation role, Heilman almost certainly would have started for the Mariners, but now he’ll have to battle for the fifth starter spot in Chicago, all while doing so for an impatient manager named Lou Piniella. I have my doubts as to whether Heilman will succeed. He’s basically a two-pitch pitcher–featuring that dandy change and a passable fastball–but he’ll need to come up with an improved third pitch to succeed as a starter. He’ll also have to show off the ability to shake off the emotional effects of a horrid 2008, a season that saw him become the No. 1 punching bag in the Mets’ putrid bullpen…
With the addition of Cedeno to a team that already has Jose Lopez and Yuniesky Betancourt, the Mariners continue to collect middle infielders of questionable hitting ability. There’s been plenty of talk that the M’s will move Lopez to first base; if so, Seattle would have one of the worst offensive infields of the last 20 years. (It would also be reminiscent of the days when Dan Meyer, Julio Cruz, Craig Reynolds, and Bill Stein formed an anti-Murderers’ Row infield for Seattle in 1978.) Although Lopez enjoyed career highs with 17 home runs and 89 RBIs in 2008, his on-base percentage remained a problematic .322. As a second baseman, Lopez can be an offensive asset; as a first baseman, he’s probably an average player at best…
Up until now, I’ve resisted writing anything about Joe Torre’s revealing and provocative book on his years with the Yankees, and will continue to reserve final judgments until I’ve actually read the volume. (My wife has already placed an order with a local bookstore in Cooperstown, but actual arrival will not take place until next week.) I will say this, though. I’m very curious to read Torre’s defenses and/or explanations of his decisions to use Jeff Weaver in the 2003 World Series, his failure to use an effective Chris Hammond in that same postseason (except for a lone two-inning scoreless stint), and his refusal to run against Jason Varitek and Tim Wakefield during the 2004 collapse to the Red Sox. I’d also be curious to hear what Torre has to say about the lack of effort that plagued Yankees players during the first halves of the 2006 and 2007 seasons.
Monday kicks off one of the biggest weeks of baseball’s off season. In addition to the start of the winter meetings in Las Vegas, the Hall of Fame will be announcing on Monday afternoon the results of its two Veterans Committee elections. One of the ballots involves players whose careers began post-1943; the other ballot features players whose careers started before then.
According to my sources at the Hall of Fame, Gil Hodges and Ron Santo stand their best chances of gaining overdue admittance to Cooperstown; in fact, both are likely to receive the 75 per cent of the vote they need from the living Hall of Famers who will be casting ballots. Then there is the possibility of Tony Oliva receiving enough votes to enter the Hall, too.
As I’ve stated many times over, Hodges and Santo have been long deserving of Cooperstown canonization, Hodges for his combined work as a run-producing first baseman and a world championship manager, and Santo for his status as the National League’s premier third baseman of the 1960s. The inclusion of both will finally satisfy many disenchanted fans in New York and Chicago, who have repeatedly watched both the baseball writers and various incarnations of the Veterans Committee shun these two significant baseball men.
In regards to Oliva, I have to admit I’m torn on his election. In some years, I’ve been inclined to vote for him, in others, I’ve felt that his candidacy comes up lacking in longevity. On the plus side, he won three batting titles in his career and, prior to a series of knee injuries, was a well-rounded player who could run the bases and play a solid right field. Unfortunately, his career just might have been two short. Of his 15 seasons, two consisted of cups of coffee at the beginning and two others were largely eradicated because of injuries. I’m afraid I’ll have to stop short on Oliva this time around.
I would, however, vote for two others on the post-1943 ballot. One of the choices is obvious: Joe Torre, who deserves election based on the combination of four world championships as a manager and general excellence as a hard-hitting catcher-third baseman for the Braves and Cardinals. Torre won’t receive the 75 per cent support that he needs until he retires as a manager, but since he’s on one of the players’ ballots, the rules stipulate that he’s eligible for induction right now.
And then there is Dick Allen, a more controversial pick who has become a polarizing figure among baseball historians. His detractors claim that his negative influence prevented his teams from winning; his supporters say that he was a victim of circumstances, often racial. The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in between. I’m voting for Allen because he put together nine Hall of Fame seasons during his career (including an out-of-this-world season in 1972), hit 351 home runs during a pitchers’ era, and was one of the smartest and most aggressive baserunners of the 1960s and seventies. He’s a close call, but Allen deserves the Hall of Fame nod, along with Torre, Santo, and Hodges.
Finally, we have the pre-1943 ballot. From what I’m hearing, the late Mickey Vernon, a Keith Hernandez play-a-like, stands the best shot at election. He’s another close call, but his three batting titles, nearly 2500 hits, and preeminence as a defender and baserunner put him in the neighborhood of Cooperstown. Here’s what pushes him over the top. He deserves credit for the two seasons he missed while serving in World War II. If not for those missed years, he would have come remarkably close to 3,000 hits and might have finished with 200-plus homers. And then there is the Hall of Fame’s character clause, listed as part of Rule No. 10. Like it or not (and I like it), “integrity, sportsmanship, and character” are considered part of the criteria for Hall of Fame election, and few would grade out any higher in those attributes than Vernon. Simply put, he was one of the most well-liked and highly respected players of his era.
In addition to Vernon, I’d vote for three others on the pre-1943 ballot. They are shortstop Bad Bill Dahlen (a fabulous two-way player at the turn of the century who has been victimized by anti-19th century bias), Joe Gordon (a phenomenal defender and power hitter who missed two and a half seasons because of World War II), and shortstop Vern Stephens (a power-hitting shortstop who drew plenty of walks long before such an animal became fashionable). Frankly, I think that Dahlen, Gordon, and Stephens are all obvious selections for Hall of Fame induction, but they’ve all been deceased for so long that they’ve become forgotten by too many writers and fans.
So there you have it: Dahlen, Gordon, Stephens, and Vernon on the old-time ballot, in addition to the four horsemen on the younger ballot. Between my two ballots and eight selections, let’s hope that at least a few will have a chance to join Rickey Henderson and Jim Rice in the Hall’s regal plaque gallery next summer.
Well, it appears the Daily News was wrong. Joe Torre is staying. He will return to manage the Yankees in 2007, though it’s not known exactly what his team will look like next spring. The fates of several players–including Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, Mike Mussina, Jaret Wright, and Ron Villone, to name a few–remain unknown at the moment.
The news of the manager’s return really means only this: Torre will start the 2007 season in pinstripes. That doesn’t mean he will be managing the team in May, or June, or come the postseason. For the first time since his early days as Yankee skipper, Torre is skating on ice the thickness of copy paper. If the Yankees endure a bad start–as they did when they stumbled out of the gate at 11-19 in 2005–Torre will be fired. If they don’t make the postseason, he will be fired. If they don’t reach the World Series, he will be fired. And even if they win the World Series, Torre’s days as Yankee manager might still come to an end because his contract is up and he could decide that 12 years in the Bronx is enough.
The announcement that Torre is coming back probably reduces the chance of A-Rod returning for a fourth season in Yankeeland. Lou Piniella, who appeared to be the heir apparent, has a good relationship with A-Rod going back to their days in Seattle. Torre’s relationship with his third baseman is not as sound, given the two lineup demotions that A-Rod endured in the postseason. If Rodriguez consents to waive his no-trade clause, the Yankees will aggressively pursue trade options with the Angels, White Sox, Mariners, Dodgers, and Phillies, all teams looking for either a third baseman and/or a power hitter… Expect the Angels to be the most aggressive team to pursue A-Rod. Owner Arte Moreno wants Rodriguez badly, and might pressure general manager Bill Stoneman to offer a high-end package of Ervin Santana, Scot Shields, Chone Figgins, and Kendry Morales…
Overshadowed by the Torre/Piniella saga, the American League Championship Series begins tonight in Oakland. It’s a rematch of the 1972 playoffs, when Billy Martin’s Tigers and Dick Williams’ A’s did battle in a classic five-game matchup. And we do mean battle. In Game Three, Tigers relief pitcher Lerrin LaGrow hit Campaneris with a fastball in the ankle on instructions from Martin, motivating Campaneris to fire the bat helicopter-style at LaGrow, which in turn prompted a bench-clearing, bullpen-clearing brouhaha of massive proportions. (Campaneris drew a suspension for the rest of the ALCS, but was allowed to play in the World Series–a controversial decision by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn.) Somehow I don’t think we’ll see any similar histrionics in the 2006 version of this rivalry, if only because managers Jim Leyland and Ken Macha don’t behave anything like the pugilistic Martin. (Then again, nobody does among today’s managerial set.) Still, we should see a very competitive, highly contested series between the two teams that have the best combination of pitching and defense in the American League. I’ll take the A’s in seven, given their home field advantage, better pitching depth in a long series, and superiority in closers. Leyland is clearly the better tactical manager, however, and that could make a large difference in any close games that develop in the series…
Over the weekend, the Hall of Fame hosted its second annual fantasy camp, featuring four Hall of Famers and six other retired major leaguers. On Saturday night, the Hall hosted an entertaining Legends Event with the group of ten former big leaguers. I learned a few things I didn’t know, including the following tidbits… Enos Cabell, who served as one of the fantasy camp instructors, is actually the brother-in-law of Hall of Famer Eddie Murray. Murray was supposed to be at the camp, but had to be replaced at the last minute because he was a little busy handling coaching duties for the Dodgers against the Mets in the Division Series. Cabell, by the way, is currently working for the Astros’ in the community development department, managing a youth team in Compton, California… Hall of Famer George Brett revealed that Dickie Noles did try to intentionally hit him in the head with a pitch during the 1980 World Series between the Royals and Phillies. Years after the incident, the two ran into each other, and Noles admitted that he threw at Brett on purpose, in part because of his addiction to drugs and alcohol at the time. Thankfully, Noles has recovered from his problems and now spends much of his time preaching against the lifestyle that short-circuited his career in the 1980s… Robin Roberts told the Cooperstown audience that the best managers of his era, “head and shoulders above everyone else,” were Al Barlick and Larry Goetz. Barlick is already enshrined in the Hall of Fame, but Goetz has never received the Cooperstown call…Former Tigers left-hander Jon Warden stole the show with a series of brief but humorous answers to audience questions. “I know I look like the groundskeeper,” said the hefty Warden, “but I really did pitch in the major leagues.”
Yankee fans tend to become spoiled by the team’s overwhelming level of success. That’s only natural, given the New Yorkers’ run of 10 straight postseason appearances since 1995. Still, this year’s Yankees team is testing the patience of most pinstriped diehards. With so much talent at hand and a $200 million price tag attached, the expectations have been understandably high since the first day of spring training. Those expectations haven’t come close to being met, however, as evidenced by the team’s current four-game losing streak and a recent run of 0-and-5 in games against the American League’s worst: the awful Devil Rays and Royals.
The Yankees’ play in this current series against Kansas City has been near shameful. Two players have been picked off (including Tony Womack in a back-breaking situation in the late innings), catchable balls have been falling in, the hitters have managed four runs in 18 innings, and supposed ace Randy Johnson allowed a cache of hits against a terrible offense.
This current group of Yankees exhibits a deadly combination–they don’t play hard and they don’t play smart. Unfortunately, poor roster decisions aren’t helping matters. Journeyman Russ Johnson is somehow on the 25-man roster while the more talented (and younger) Andy Phillips is not. There isn’t a real center fielder to be found now that Bubba Crosby is in Columbus. And there’s only one player capable of playing right field, which forces the Yankees to play an outfielder out of position on days when Gary Sheffield’s aching wrist flares up. Here’s the bottom line: the Yankees aren’t going to get better until the following things happen:
1) A true center fielder (Preston Wilson? Gary Matthews, Jr.?) is acquired, allowing Hideki Matsui to play left field every day. The Yankees simply have to address what has become the worst defensive alignment in the American League.
2) Bernie Williams becomes the everyday DH and Jason Giambi isn’t allowed to soak up any more wasted at-bats. The Yankees cannot allow contracts to dictate playing time, not when a playoff berth is at stake.
3) Andy Phillips is brought up to platoon with the aging Tino Martinez at first base. A proven minor league player, Phillips deserves a chance to play against left-handed pitching in the major leagues.
4) Tony Womack becomes a utility player, backing up rookie Robinson Cano at second base and Matsui in left, while also being available as a late-inning pinch-runner. Such a move would improve a woeful Yankee bench, simply one of the worst in the American League.
5) Randy Johnson starts pitching like a dominant No. 1 starter and not an OK No. 3 starter. The Yankees need Johnson to be great, not merely very good.
The last stipulation depends on Johnson himself; the other four depend on Brian Cashman and Joe Torre making some smart decisions about the composition of the roster and the starting lineup. If the proper adjustments aren’t made, the Yankees will miss out on the postseason for the first time in a decade.
Cano and Carew
Yankees manager Joe Torre took some heat over the internet earlier this week when he compared rookie second baseman Robinson Cano to Hall of Famer Rod Carew. Some of Torre’s Sabermetric critics, who are always on the lookout for axes to grind with the more traditional Torre, belittled the Yankee skipper for making the link between the two, given that Carew won seven batting titles while Cano was rated only a B-level prospect by some scouts. Well, the criticism of Torre is off base here. Torre said that Cano “reminded” him of Carew, in terms of his physical appearance and his swing, and not that he necessarily expected Cano to become as a great a player as Carew. There’s quite a difference between Torre saying that Cano “reminds” him of Carew as opposed to saying that he expected Cano to “become the next Carew.”
Torre has actually used these kinds of comparisons in the past, whereby he creates a depiction of a current player by talking about who that player reminds him of stylistically. Cano has a very smooth swing at the plate, which is probably what influenced Torre to make the Carew remark. A few years ago, Torre talked about the swing of a young Ricky Ledee and how it reminded him of the hitting style of Billy Williams. On another occasion, Torre and former Yankee coach Don Zimmer compared Alfonso Soriano to Hank Aaron, not by saying that they expected Soriano to hit as many home runs but in terms of the similarity in the strength and quickness of their wrists. (And that’s a comparison that was also sounded by several major league scouts.) I think Torre uses these comparisons as a way of conjuring up a mental image for the fans and media (and not to create an undue set of expectations) so that they might have a better idea of how a young player looks in the way that he plays the game. If anything, Torre’s method shows a respect for baseball history and for the strengths of the young player in question. That’s a good thing, and not something meant to create an unreasonable or impossible expectation… Yankee batting coach Don Mattingly also made a comparison involving Cano during spring training, but that analogy didn’t create as much of a firestorm as Torre’s comments. Mattingly said that Cano’s swing and style at the plate reminded him of Ruben Sierra during the latter’s younger days. In terms of statistical output, that’s probably a better gauge of what Cano may be able to do; he’s not likely to win the seven batting championships that Carew garnered with the Twins and Angels, but might be capable of putting up offensive numbers similar to those of Sierra… While Cano doesn’t have the hitting ability or footspeed that Carew had in his prime, he does have one advantage over the Hall of Famer. Cano is a very good defensive second baseman–he’s twice been named the best defender in his league during his minor league days–and likely won’t have to switch positions as Carew was asked to do in the midst of his career with the Minnesota Twins. In 1976, the Twins moved Carew, a subpar defensive second baseman, to the less demanding position of first base, where he played for the remainder of his career.
And Another Thing
For those who are interested, Hall of Fame web manager Dan Holmes and I will be hosting presentations on Ty Cobb and Ted Williams, respectively, in the Hall of Fame’s Bullpen Theater this Sunday (May 22) beginning at 1:00 pm. After the presentation, Dan will be signing copies of his book, Ty Cobb: A Biography, and I’ll be signing copies of my book, Ted Williams: A Biography. And then on Monday, May 23, beginning at 10:00 am, I’ll be signing copies of Tales From The Mets Dugout at Augur’s Book Store located on Main Street in Cooperstown.