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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
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
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.
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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!
Each winter brings outrageous free agent demands by players and their agents. At the start of the current off season, Scott Boras let it be known that he wanted a ten-year, $250 million contract for prized client Mark Teixeira. Last week, Boras “settled” for an eight-year deal worth $180 million. But even Boras’ initial demands don’t represent the most outrageous request by an agent or player this winter. No, that honor belongs to Jason Giambi, who has had the gall to insist that the A’s give him a three-year contract running through the 2011 season. That would be a three-year contract for a 38-year-old, one-dimensional slugger with a bad body and a severe lack of athleticism. That would be three years for a guy who plays first base with all the dexterity of a stone statue, and will be limited to DH duty for the balance of the contract. That would be three years for a streak hitter who disappears for long stretches, making him an offensive non-entity because of his lack of foot speed and inability to make contact. Is Giambi out of his mind? How did A’s GM Billy Beane prevent himself from keeling over with laughter after hearing that particular demand from Giambi’s agent? I mean, you can’t write this stuff…
Because of Giambi’s desire a three-year deal, the A’s have turned to two other free agents of left-handed vintage, Bobby Abreu and Garret Anderson. Abreu makes some sense because of his ability to maintain a high on-base percentage and steal bases, but Anderson is harder to figure. Never a patient hitter, Anderson doesn’t draw walks the way the A’s would like their sluggers to do. He also has a bad reputation for failing to run out grounders and pop-ups, a criticism that dates back several years with the Angels. Frankly, I’m surprised the A’s haven’t made a run at underrated free agent Adam Dunn, whose combination of power and patience makes him the consummate “Moneyball” player. Dunn also has seen his market shrink this winter, making it possible for the A’s to sign him to a three-year deal at reasonable terms. With Dunn and Matt Holliday in the middle of the Oakland order, the A’s would have their best one-two power punch since the hey day of Giambi and Miguel Tejada…
Dunn’s former team, the Reds, made a risky signing over the weekend. They inked the non-tendered Willy Taveras to a two-year contract, thereby committing themselves to him as their new leadoff man. Taveras is a good defensive center fielder with plenty of range, but his .320 on-base percentage is less than satisfactory in the leadoff spot. And while he did lead the major leagues with 68 stolen bases, it’s always a bad sign when your stolen base total exceeds your runs scored total; Taveras scored a mere 64 runs in 2008. He’s really only a slightly upgraded version of Omar Moreno, which is fine when you have players like Bill Madlock, Dave Parker, Willie Stargell, Bill Robinson, and Mike “The Hit Man” Easler batting behind you, but the Reds don’t have that assemblage of talent backing their leadoff man. In an ideal world, Taveras should be batting eighth in a National League lineup, but the Reds don’t have anyone else who fills the bill properly…
With Taveras in place, the Reds now have two-thirds of their outfield set: Taveras’ presence in center and allows Jay Bruce to move to right field, where he’ll be a better long-term fit. Still in need of someone to play left field, the Reds are considering moving Edwin Encarnacion from third base to the outfield, but they’d first have to sign Ty Wigginton. The Reds have also made contact with the Yankees about one of their spare outfielders, either Hideki Matsui, Xavier Nady, or Nick Swisher. Let’s rule out Matsui, mostly because no one knows whether his two surgically repaired knees will hold up playing the outfield. IT could come down to a preference for either Nady (who can be a free agent after 2009) or Swisher (who is signed long term), with the Yankees likely looking for two solid bench players in return. A package including a catcher (Ryan Hanigan?) and an infielder like Jeff Keppinger could get it done, or perhaps Keppinger and a B-level prospect.
Now that the Thanksgiving holiday weekend has come to an end and teams will finally have to decide by Monday whether to offer arbitration to their own free agents, we should start to see some activity on the hot stove front by later in the week. Finally. One veteran pitcher who might not be offered arbitration is Andy Pettitte, who made $16 million last year and actually might be in line for an increase despite a poor year in the Bronx. (You have to love arbitration–if you’re the players, that is!) The Yankees would like to bring Pettitte back, but only at a cut from his exorbitant $16 million rate–an understandable desire in my opinion. One would think that Pettitte, who embarrassed himself with his involvement with HGH, would gladly accept a modest paycut after an off year in order to stay with a team he likes, but like so many other Yankees, he seems unwilling to accept any kind of a discount. If that’s truly his attitude, it may be time for the Yankees to say, “Good riddance.”
As free agents try to maximize every last dollar, teams continue to talk trade. One of the more intriguing conversations has involved the Reds and White Sox. In need of both a right fielder and a right-handed power hitter, the Reds would like to add Jermaine Dye. So far, they’ve been willing to offer Homer Bailey and scraps, but that doesn’t appear to be enough from Chicago’s perspective. In some ways, Dye makes sense for the Reds, but he’s also 35 years old and probably not enough of a difference maker for a team trying to make up a 16-game gap in last year’s wild card race. If I were the Reds, I’d be very careful how much I surrender for an aging Dye.
Finally, the Cubs are trying to include the Orioles as the third team as part of their on-again, off-again Jake Peavy discussions with the Padres. The Cubs would be willing to send Felix Pie to Baltimore for Garrett Olson, who would then be re-routed to San Diego. I’m not sure that I completely understand Baltimore’s interest in Pie, who has been a standout minor leaguer but has looked lost at the plate in various major league trials. Pie strikes out too much, doesn’t walk enough, and has shown little big league power. His No. 1 talent, his defensive play in center field, would also be wasted in Baltimore, since the O’s already have Adam Jones pegged to play the position for the next six to ten years. At this point, Pie is clearly a project–and one that might be a better fit for a team more desperately in search of a young center fielder.
Robinson Cano might not be the biggest individual disappointment in major league baseball this year, but he has to rank among the top five failures. In Wednesday afternoon’s loss to the Twins, Cano went hitless at the plate and committed three mental mistakes in the field as the Yankees fell, 4-2, to close out a 3-and-7 road trip. Without those mistakes, the Yankees might have played the Twins to a tie, setting the stage for a second straight day of extra innings.
The Yankees envisioned Cano having a breakout season in 2008, hitting .315-plus with power and playing Gold Glove defense at second base. Instead, they’ve watched Cano sink to his lowest major league levels, as he struggles to hit .265, shows no additional patience at the plate, and waltzes around the infield, playing the position without passion or hustle. The regression is so stunning that I have to believe Cano misses the influence of Larry Bowa, the Yankees’ former third base and infield coach. Bowa, with his relentlessly aggressive style, had a way of lighting a fuse under Cano; without Bowa, Cano plays too often as if he is sleepwalking.
In 2008, the Yankees have shown many deficiences–a lack of hitting, no bench, inconsistent starting pitching, and age. They’ll need to fix at least some of those areas over the winter. They’ll also need to address the mindset of Cano. If he continues to play more and more like Horace Clarke, and less like Rod Carew, the Yankees will again find themselves in third place–or worse–in 2009…
With the Yankees on the verge of falling completely out of the playoff picture, the Rays and Red Sox can breathe easier. Or can they? There’s no guarantee that the American League wildcard will come out of the East, so the Rays and Sox will need to stay ahead of the pace set by the Twins and/or the White Sox. That mission became a bit more difficult this week. The Red Sox had to place Mike Lowell and Tim Wakefield on the disabled list, weakening the middle of their lineup and the back end of their rotation. Thankfully, the Red Sox have depth. They can move Kevin Youkilis to third base, and slide Sean Casey in at first base. They also made a wise move in picking up the durable Paul Byrd, who has pitched well since the All-Star break and should be a short-term improvement over the enigmatic Clay Buchholz.
In the meantime, the Rays will have to operate without the ailing Evan Longoria and Carl Crawford, both out with hand injuries. Longoria’s injury is especially cruel; he had become the league’s second best third baseman, right behind Alex Rodriguez. Crawford, while having a down year, remains one of the league’s most intimidating baserunners, an outright blazer who can steal bases and distract pitchers almost at will. The Rays simply aren’t as deep as the Red Sox, a factor that may force the front office to become more serious in its pursuit of Gary Sheffield. Baltimore’s Melvin Mora and Seattle’s Adrian Beltre could become targets, too, depending on the length of Longoria’s stay on the disabled list…
It appears that the Reds will receive Micah Owings from the Diamondbacks as one of the players to be named later in the Adam Dunn deal. I’d like to see the Reds get creative with Owings and use him in a pitcher/player utility role, ala Brooks Kieschnick a few years back with the Brewers. Owings has had little success as a major league pitcher, but has shown legitimate hitting talent, whether it’s starting the game or pinch-hitting. The Reds could platoon Owings with Joey Votto at first base, giving him regular duty against left-handed pitching. On the other days, Owings would be available to pinch-hit, or log some innings out of the bullpen, especially in games that have degraded into blowouts. In this day and age of 12-man pitching staffs, a versatile player/pitcher like Owings would give the Reds an extra bat and an extra arm.
Where does one begin in handing out bouquets to the National League champion Rockies? Incredibly, the Rockies have become the first team since the 1976 Cincinnati Reds to win their first seven games of the postseason. Given that those Reds featured the Hall of Fame likes of Johnny Bench, Tony Perez and Joe Morgan and would-be Hall of Famer Pete Rose and won the LCS and the World Series with those seven games, the Rockies have taken their place next to some of baseball’s immortals.
The Rockies have played well in all facets in winning 21 of their last 22, but two areas have stood out in my eyes: their remarkable ability to hit with runners in scoring position their sensational defensive play. The third and fourth games of the series exemplified Colorado’s clutch hitting, as the Rockies twice mounted game-winning rallies with two outs. Defensively, the Rockies have shown almost no weakness, whether it comes to surehandedness, range, and athleticism. Other than Matt Holliday, who is a bit clunky in left field, the Rockies have no below-average defenders who play regularly. They also have several terrific fielders, including the rangy and power-armed Troy Tulowitzki, the fleet Willy Taveras (who is reminding me more and more of Garry Maddox), and the ever-reliable Todd Helton at first base.
As well as the Rockies played in sweeping the National League Championship Series, that’s how badly–and stupidly–the Diamondbacks performed throughout the four games. The D-Backs committed a host of baserunning errors, from Miguel Montero making the final out of Game One at second base to Justin Upton’s forearm shiver of Kaz Matsui to Chris Young being picked off at the start of Game Four. Then there was Stephen Drew stepping off the base when he wasn’t sure if he had been called out and Eric “Captain America” Byrnes foolishly diving into first base, the latter bringing a fitting end to a series filled with mental mistakes and an inability to hit in the clutch. Putting aside Game One, the D-Backs lost the final three games by a total of six runs, giving Arizona fans plenty of “what-if” ammunition for the long winter ahead. If the D-backs had hit just a little bit better with runners in scoring position or run the bases appreciably better, then this series would be moving on to Game Five.
Fortunately for the Diamondbacks, they are a young team loaded with talented players and have every right to expect to contend in the NL West for the foreseeable future. If Drew, Young, and Upton fulfill even 75 per cent of their perceived potential, they will be playing in plenty of All-Star games over the next decade. Conor Jackson, Mark Reynolds, and the injured Carlos Quentin (remember him) also have chances to be very good players, giving the D-Backs a terrific core of everyday players. Then it’s just a matter of finding two young starters to supplement Brandon Webb in the rotation and adding one more bigtime arm to a bullpen that already features closer Jose Valverde and the Other Tony Pena. That could spell some long-term trouble for the Dodgers, Giants, and even the Rockies in what remains a balanced NL West.
So much for the philosophy that it’s easier to pitch in the cold weather than it is to hit. The Yankees have tried to disprove that longstanding theory all by their lonesome through the first week of the season. Their starters have surrendered 24 runs in 22 and a third innings, giving them an ERA of 10.00 through five games. Joe Torre has had to call on his relievers a remarkable 22 times through those five games; at this rate, Torre will have blown out his bullpen by the end of the month. While the horrid pitching will only raise the clarion call for Roger Clemens and increase the temperature on Ron Guidry’s hot seat, the Yankees may have to expedite a third (and most immediate) option: dipping into the deep pool of pitching prospects at Scranton-Wilkes Barre. Under ideal circumstances, the Yankees would like to wait until at least June before placing a call for either Phil Hughes or Ross Ohlendorf. They may have to move the recall date to sometime in April or May, especially if Hughes continues to pitch as well as he did in his minor league opener, when he allowed only two hits and two runs in five innings…
The state of the Yankees’ bench is almost as scary as the starting rotation. On Sunday, the Yankees started two of their reserves–Wil Nieves behind the plate and Miguel Cairo in left field–giving the bottom of the order a look that was too reminiscent of those awful Yankee teams from the early 1990s. For all the good that Brian Cashman has done in reducing the age of his team, recruiting young pitching, and adding flexibility to the 25-man roster, Cashman continues to stumble in the area of constructing a bench. The Yankees haven’t had a top-drawer backup catcher since Joe Girardi or a truly effective utility infielder since Luis Sojo. And with Cairo clearly out of place in the outfield, the Yankees’ decision to carry only four outfielders looks like another early-season mistake. Heck, the Yankees have almost as many first baseman (three) as they do outfielders. It’s a far cry from the days when the Yankees had so much depth in the outfield that they could start games with Sweet Lou Piniella, Oscar Gamble, and Bobby Murcer available to come off the bench…
While the Yankees are concerned about the ghastly state of their starting pitching, whispers out of Boston express some worry about the Red Sox’ sudden lack of patience at the plate. Red Sox batters failed to work the count throughout their weekend series against the Rangers, a trait that runs completely counter to recent Boston teams and the preferred philosophy of general manager Theo Epstein. Some critics are pointing to the change in hitting coaches. Former batting instructor Ron Jackson preached the important of patience and walks, yet was let go in favor of current hitting coach Dave Magadan. While I understand the reason for worry, I find it hard to believe that Magadan is the culprit. Magadan was an extremely patient hitter throughout his major league career; if anything, he took criticism for being too passive at the plate. I can’t fathom that he’s changed his philosophy so radically that he has Red Sox hitters swinging wildly at pitches ala Yogi Berra and Manny Sanguillen…
The dull starts experienced by the Red Sox and Yankees represent the disappointing end of the major league spectrum. On the other side, we find surprising teams like the Twins, Pirates, and Reds, who have raced out to good starts despite lackluster winters. (Hey, why couldn’t the Pirates have started out like this last year, when I was trying to sell copies of The Team That Changed Baseball? Oh well, the book has sold well anyway.) Those three small market teams are a combined 12-5, with expected bottom feeders Cincinnati and Pittsburgh leading the way in the NL Central, and Minnesota doing the same in the AL Central. The Pirates’ play has been arguably the most impressive. They’ve won four of their six while playing on the road, survived most of the first week without the injured Freddy Sanchez, and have watched their bullpen work to near perfection, having stranded every inherited baserunner. Salmon Torres is four-for-four in save opportunities and making a case to be this year’s version of Joe Borowski…
The Reds’ bullpen has actually been just as good as Pittsburgh’s. Reds relievers didn’t give up their first runs of the season until Sunday’s loss to the Pirates. And then there’s been the early play of Adam Dunn, who has shown hints that he might be able to take the step from one-dimensional slugger (like Frank Howard) to All-Star mainstay (think Reggie Jackson). Dunn banged out two more hits on Sunday to raise his early batting average to .381. The “Big Donkey” also has three home runs, an .857 slugging percentage, and two stolen bases thrown in for good measure…
The Twins initially seemed like an afterthought in the stacked AL Central, but their pitching beyond Johan Santana has been remarkably poised. Ramon Ortiz and Carlos Silva both turned in good starts during the first week, successfully holding the fort until more talented young pitchers are deemed ready for recall. For all of their critics, Ron Gardenhire and Terry Ryan remain one of the most effective manager-GM teams in all of baseball.