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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
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!
Now that we’ve had a few days to digest the major transaction of last week, it’s time to ask the question: what effect will the addition of Mark Teixeira have on the rest of the Yankees’ lineup configuration? More specifically, the Yankees need to find a new role for Nick Swisher, who was originally targeted to play first after being acquired for Wilson Betemit. They also need to figure out roles for Xavier Nady and Hideki Matsui, while deciding who will play center field on a regular basis.
In the aftermath of the Teixeira signing, I’ve heard a few observers suggest that the Yankees will put Swisher in center field, sandwiched between Johnny Damon in left and Nady in right. That alignment would maximize the Yankees’ offensive potential, but would also leave them with a below-average defensive center fielder, continuing an unsavory tradition that first began with Bernie Williams’ declining years. Personally, I think the Yankees want better defense in center field, a desire that will lead to Brett Gardner winning the position in spring training.
Another potential solution, one that seems to be more popular, would be to trade one of the following: Swisher, Nady, or Matsui, thereby alleviating the logjam in right field and DH. Some teams have already shown interest in one of the spare outfielders, including the Reds, Giants, and Mariners. If I were in the shoes of Joe Girardi and Brian Cashman, I wouldn’t necessarily vote against that possibility, but only if the Yankees could acquire something of value in return, specifically a veteran center fielder or a backup catcher, or a useful pitcher. There should be no giveaways here; if the offers for Nady, Swisher, and Godzilla are subpar, the Yankees should keep them all. There’s nothing wrong with having one of those veterans on the bench each day. The Yankees have operated without a competent bench for far too long.
Barring a trade, here’s the alignment I would try, one that would make defense and flexibility higher priorities. I’d put Swisher in right field, where he would platoon with Nady. I’d tell Nady to bring his infielder’s glove to spring training and be ready to put in work as a backup at both the hot corner and first base. Matsui would remain in the DH role, where he would give way to Jorge Posada on days in which the Yankees faced left-handers. And then I’d hand the center field reins over to Gardner, who gives the Yankees the most range and speed of any of their outfielders. If Gardner, batting ninth, ends up a failure against major league pitching, then the Yankees can always try Melky Cabrera or Swisher later in the season.
Defense, flexibility, and the bench. Those should be the Yankees’ points of emphasis. Either directly or indirectly, Teixeira will help all three areas. Now it’s up to Cashman to make the next right move.
Like most members of the media, I don’t believe for a moment that the Red Sox have completely fallen out of the Mark Teixeira pursuit. Owner John Henry says his team won’t “be a factor,” but it sounds like he’s trying to send a dual message to agent Scott Boras: a) don’t use our bids to jack up the asking prices of other teams and b) get back to us when you’re ready to make a deal.
This doesn’t mean that the Red Sox will end up with Teixeira, because Boras is all about extracting the highest possible bid. If the Nationals or the Orioles offer him the most money, then I think he’ll sign with one of the two Beltway teams. If the Red Sox or Angels can match the highest offer, then one of those teams will win out because they offer the best chances of contending right away.
In one respect, Teixiera doesn’t make the greatest sense for the Red Sox. Let’s consider that their top-rated prospect is a first baseman, Lars Anderson, who is probably one year away from playing in the major leagues. In fact, some scouts believe Anderson could hit in the big leagues right now. If the Red Sox were to sign Tex, they would have no place to play Anderson, who also would find himself blocked at DH (by David Ortiz). The Red Sox need to ask themselves if that’s the kind of problem they want to create, especially at the cost of about $180 million, which is likely what it will take to sign Teixeira…
As long as Teixeira remains unsigned, there will continue to be little action on the free agent hitters market. Manny Ramirez won’t sign until Tex has set the market, even though their disparate ages make them difficult to compare. If Tex signs with the Red Sox, I think the Yankees will make a hard run at Ramirez. If Tex ends up signing with the Angels, Nats, or Orioles, then they might go the cheaper route of signing Adam Dunn, who might be the most overlooked of the big name free agents. Dunn, like Bobby Abreu and Pat Burrell, is finding the market particularly soft for one-dimensional hitters who struggle to play the outfield…
Finally, this story didn’t receive the attention that it should have, but one of the great closers of the 1980s passed away earlier this week. Dave Smith, the anchor of the Astros’ bullpen for much of that decade, died from a heart attack on Tuesday. He was just 53.
Smith, it seems, was always underrated, both during his career and in retirement. Maybe it was his name, which was so plain-sounding. Or perhaps it was his physical appearance. Smith was one of the most unathletic pitchers I’ve ever seen. With his large gut, paunchy face, and bushy blond hair, Smith looked more like a retired surfer than a star reliever. He didn’t throw hard either, but instead relied on a devastating change-up. When Smith had good command of his change, hitters found him close to unhittable. From 1985 to 1990, Smith quietly assembled a stretch of hallmark seasons for the Astros. He became a component of some awfully good pitching staffs–an underrated and essential component.
Following and studying the Winter Meetings for the last 20-plus years has taught me a couple of lessons: always be skeptical of rumors involving four-team trades and forget about rumors of big-name free agents signing with bad teams just because they happen to play near their “hometowns.” With those principles in mind, let’s look at Day Two of the meetings:
*The Cubs say that the much-rumored four-way trade involving San Diego’s Jake Peavy is “not close” to being completed. Given today’s complicated contracts, it’s tough enough for teams to make conventional two-way deals. Three and especially four-way trades have become a near impossibility. So don’t hold your breath on the Peavy four-team deal allegedly involving the Phillies and Orioles…
*Reports continue to circulate that the Nationals will make a huge offer to free agent Mark Teixeira in hopes of capitalizing on his hailing from the Beltway region. Why in the world would Tex sign with a lowly team like the Nats, who are still two or three years away from contention, when he can expect similar big money offers from the Angels, Red Sox, and possibly the Yankees? It’s nice for Washington to dream, but this sounds about as realistic as talk of Maury Wills making the Hall of Fame…
*It appears that money does talk after all. Hours after it appeared that CC Sabathia would spurn the Yankees to talk turkey with the San Francisco Giants, the Yankees have reportedly signed the massive left-hander to a seven-year deal worth $160 million. If so, the Yankees actually bid against themselves. Although no other team came close to matching the Yankees’ initial offer of six years and $140 million, the Yankees decided to throw in another season and another $20 million to sweeten the deal. Amazing…
*The Mets aren’t done with the free agent market, even after signing Francisco Rodriguez to a relative bargain contract of three years and $37 million. The Mets are very much interested in Raul Ibanez, so much so that they are prepared to make him a lucrative two-year offer. Ibanez would play left field, with Fernando Tatis and Daniel Murphy assuming utility roles at the new Citi Field. One note of caution with Ibanez: he is a brutal left fielder, perhaps the worst I’ve seen since the days of Greg “The Bull” Luzinski. At some point, the Mets would be well advised to think about moving Ibanez to first base and trading Carlos Delgado, whose questionable presence in the Mets’ clubhouse has become a cause for concern…
*One trade did take place on Tuesday, with the Orioles sending Ramon Hernandez to the Reds for Ryan Freel and a couple of low-level minor leaguers. Given the state of catching in the major leagues, I like this deal for the Reds. Hernandez, despite some decline in his game, is still a legitimate No. 1 receiver and will benefit from a change of scenery, leaving the sad sack O’s for a Reds team that may be able to contend in the NL Central in 2009…
*Finally, here’s a smattering of rumors from the second day in Las Vegas. The Indians are close to signing Kerry Wood to a two-year deal to be their closer… The A’s appear to be close to signing Jason Giambi to a contract, probably a one-year deal with an option for a second… The Cubs are making a serious run at free agent Milton Bradley, who would become their right fielder and help balance the righty-heavy lineup that Lou Piniella puts out in Chicago… The Astros continue to dangle expensive shortstop Miguel Tejada, with his original team, the A’s, among the other interested parties… And the Cardinals have let it be known that they will consider offers for center fielder Rick Ankiel, who hit 25 home runs last season, but happens to be a Scott Boras client who is only one year removed from free agency.
We’re just about ten days into the free agent season, but very little has been cooking in terms of actual signed contracts. Oh, there have been plenty of trades, including deals involving Matt Holliday, Nick “Son of Steve” Swisher, and Coco Crisp, which have already altered the lineup configurations of several teams. But on the free agent front, only one player of significance has changed teams (the underrated Jeremy Affeldt, who left the Reds for the Land of the Giants) and only one has re-signed with his 2008 club (Ryan Dempster, back to the Cubs).
So what’s the holdup? In one sense, this is nothing new. In the early years of free agents, big name players tended to sign more quickly, often before Thanksgiving and almost always before Christmas. In more recent years, the premier free agents have bided their time, so that they can shop their wares on nationwide tours, lift their egos as they’re being courted, and ratchet up the bidding to a war-like state. And with agents like Scott Boras, who is never in a hurry to get his headline names signed and sealed, the process becomes even more protracted.
Yet, there may be other factors at work this year that could end up bringing the process to a turtle-like halt. With the national economy in a seemingly constant state of peril, few teams (other than the Yankees) want to start throwing out contract offers like frisbees, at the risk of being untimely and insensitive. Then there is the ever-growing presence of Sabermetrically inclined and financially aware general managers, who want to be as cost-efficient as possible in signing new players to lucrative new deals. At one time, baseball’s general manager class was filled with wheeler dealers like Whitey Herzog, Clyde King, Joe McIlvaine, and Syd Thrift, who thought of baseball first–and finances a distant second. (They let their owners worry about that.) Today’s GMs, for better or worse, are more aware of economics, and are more apt to be cautious when it comes to doling out huge offers at the start of the free agent season. Whereas GMs used to prefer moving quickly during the hot stove season, many now prefer to take their time in the hopes (often failed) of bringing the market down to a more restrained level.
Given these realities, the week of Thanksgiving could be another quiet one on the free agent front. The elite free agent in this market, CC “California Coast” Sabathia, seems to be in no rush to sign a contract for 2009 and beyond. (Only in baseball could a guy leave unanswered an offer for six years and $140 million dollars!) As a result, most other free agent starters may wait for him to set the bar. And then there is Mark Teixeira, the elite position player in this year’s crop. Tex says he wants to sign before Christmas, but that’s not a great concession considering that the holiday is still five weeks away.
So, with the give-and-take of free agency in a holding pattern and the big names not feeling pressed for time, don’t be surprised if the current waiting game waits just a little bit longer.
In a small village like Cooperstown, we’re not used to downtown gridlock, bumper to bumper cars on Route 28, or crowds of 75,000 people in town at one time. Well, we experienced all of those big city symptoms over the weekend, when Cooperstown became Baltimore North.
As someone who experienced crowds of 50,000 in 1999, I can safely say that the 2007 turnout made that summer’s induction seem like a private party. Hall officials have a tendency to exaggerate the sizes of induction crowds, but 75 grand seems dead solid accurate to me. The fields of the Clark Sports Center were entirely filled–something I’ve never seen–with people jammed in so tightly that there were few open aisles to speak of. Thankfully, there were no major emergencies. If there had been, I don’t know how the EMTs would have made their way through the mass of lawn chairs and people to tend to the ailing…
I’m a former employee of the Hall of Fame, so pardon me for saying I cringed a bit when Gary Thorne, the emcee for Sunday’s induction ceremony, referred to the “Major League Baseball Hall of Fame.” It was always drilled into us that the Hall has no formal or contractual affiliation with MLB (though it works closely with MLB on numerous ventures). After all, the place is called the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Though Thorne was filling in for regular emcee George Grande, he’s a veteran baseball journalist who should know better and a broadcaster whose work I generally enjoy. It hasn’t been a particularly strong year for Thorne, especially given the Doug Mirabelli/bloody sock fiasco from earlier this season. According to Thorne, Mirabelli had told him that Curt Schilling’s bloody sock was a fake. Mirabelli denied ever talking to Thorne, resulting in an apology from the Orioles’ play-by-play man…
Someone asked me what I thought about the speeches delivered by Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken. I thought they were OK, but nowhere near the top of the line of Hall of Fame speeches. Gwynn sounded sincere but unprepared, while Ripken sounded formal and stiff. Their messages were good, but their deliveries were not particularly smooth. Ripken is not a good public speaker to begin with, but his charisma and character make that a moot point in the eyes of most onlookers. Gwynn is also so likeable that his forgetting to bring his notes to the podium only made him look more human…
The VIP seating section at the Hall of Fame ceremony included John Travolta, wife Kelly Preston, Richard Gere, and Lynda Carter. That’s three A-listers and one 1970s icon who were part of the induction crowd here in Cooperstown. We’ve never seen that kind of Hollywood presence in Cooperstown previously…
One of my favorite local pastimes is keeping tabs on those non-Hall of Famers who visit Cooperstown over induction weekend. To the best of my ability, here’s a complete list of former big league players and managers who visited us during the big weekend in 2007: Joe Altobelli, Brady Anderson (ugh), Jesse Barfield, Ralph Branca, Paul Blair, Al Bumbry, Jerry Coleman, Mike Flanagan, Steve Garvey, Rich “Goose” Gossage, Jim “Mudcat” Grant, Mark Gubicza, Chris Gwynn, Jack McKeon, Denny McLain (double ugh), John “The Count” Montefusco, Graig Nettles, Joe Orsulak, Jeff Reboulet, Billy Ripken, Pete Rose (triple ugh), David Segui, Larry Sheets, George Shuba, Ken Singleton, Rusty Staub, and B.J. Surhoff… I had a chance to meet Montefusco on Saturday at CVS, where he was signing autographs for a local charity. The former Giant, Brave, Padre, and Yankee right-hander was scheduled to appear for only two hours, but continued to sign for an extra half-hour and didn’t turn down a single request for a personalized autograph or photograph. Having never visited Cooperstown before, Montefusco was surprised by the town, both in terms of the crowds and the sights. The Count hopes to return to baseball with the Giants, his first major league organization. Montefusco would like to work with young pitchers in San Francisco’s minor league system…
I was saddened to hear of the death of Bill Robinson on Sunday. Robinson was working as a minor league batting instructor for the Dodgers and had even been mentioned recently as a candidate to succeed the fired Eddie Murray in Los Angeles. Two things always come to mind when I think about Robinson. First, he was that rare example of a player who performed better in his thirties than he did in his twenties. After struggling to find himself as an outfielder-third baseman with both the Braves and Yankees, Robinson became a productive left fielder for the mid-1970s Phillies and the 1979 world champion Pirates. While most players reach their peak physically during their twenties, some need more time to adjust to the mental stress of playing at the highest level of professional baseball. That adjustment took several years for Robinson, who didn’t start to succeed until his age 30 season with the Phillies (1973). Second, I’ll remember Robinson being prominently mentioned as a candidate to become the first black manager of the Mets, but never receiving that opportunity. Though a highly regarded hitting coach during the Mets’ successful run in the late eighties, Robinson found himself out of work and took a job serving as an analyst for Baseball Tonight in the early 1990s. I don’t know if Robinson was the victim of racism, or whether he simply interviewed poorly, but it seems that he had the smarts and toughness to be a good major league manager. Sadly, that chance never came…
Here’s my initial reaction to the Braves-Rangers blockbuster involving Mark Teixeira: the Rangers brought in a huge haul of young talent for a guy who may have peaked two years ago. First off, I’m a big fan of Jarrod Saltalamacchia. He reminds me of a young Ted Simmons, but with a much stronger defensive presence behind the plate. Switch-hitting catchers who have Saltalamacchia’s hitting and fielding portfolios are extremely hard to find. Given his ability to catch and the small size of his contract, I’d rather have Salty for the next five seasons, as opposed to possibly only a season and a half of Teixeira. With teenage shortstop Elvis Andrus and two pitching prospects added to the mix, this becomes a big winner for the rebuilding Rangers…
Let’s finish with some thoughts on potential deals. Kyle Farnsworth’s blowup with Jorge Posada on Sunday practically guarantees that the eccentric right-hander will be traded by Tuesday’s deadline. If his latest faux pas doesn’t result in him being shipped out of town, then the Yankees will never move the flaky Farnsworth… If the Yankees can acquire Eric Gagne without having to give up Melky Cabrera, they will be very happy. Gagne, who is quietly having a standout season for the Rangers, could be coming to the Yankees for a package of pitching prospects that might include Tyler Clippard and Matt DeSalvo… The Mets will make out very well if they finalize the rumored deal for veteran second baseman Luis Castillo, who has long been the object of New York’s affection. The switch-hitter’s ability to get on base will make him an ideal No. 2 hitter behind Jose Reyes. Castillo also has gobs of postseason experience, first with the Marlins and more recently with the Twins… Once the Jermaine Dye deal is completed, he will become a part of the most expensive platoon in major league history. As part of a new look right field configuration, Dye is expected to platoon with J.D. Drew, one of the few disappointments in an otherwise banner season for Boston.