Friday, October 31, 2008

Friday: Covering the Bases

Some musings on Halloween Friday…

  • Congratulations are in order for Royals GM Drayton Moore who made the first boneheaded move of the offseason by trading reliever Leo Nunez to the Marlins for first baseman Mike Jacobs. While the 25-year-old Nunez is no Brad Lidge, he did post a very respectable 2.98 ERA and WHIP of 1.24 in 2008. Nunez will be a cost-effective option for the Marlins in 2009, earning close to the major league minimum salary of $400,000. Jacobs, on the other hand, is terribly overrated and not nearly as cost-efficient. Although Jacobs’ 32 home runs last year will be a welcome addition to a Royals lineup which seriously lacks power, his .299 OBP will be an albatross for a team that was second-to-last in the American League in that category. The left-handed Jacobs is also a liability against southpaws, having hit them at a meager .235/.275/.414 clip in 338 career plate appearances. His mediocrity notwithstanding, Jacobs’ expected 2009 salary of $2-3 million will make him a much more expensive option than incumbent Royals Billy Butler, Ryan Shealy and Kila Ka’aihue – all of whom could easily match his shoddy defense and 2008 OPS of .812 despite earning approximately the league minimum.
  • From the “We told you so” department: Prior to the start of the World Series we explained how David Price’s left arm would be a difference maker for the Rays in their quest for the title. Too bad their manager Joe Maddon doesn’t read Infield Chatter. Instead of bringing in Price and his electric stuff in the 7th inning of Game 5 after Tampa Bay had tied it 3-3 on Rocco Baldelli’s solo home run, Maddon went with the soft-tossing duo of J.P. Howell and Chad Bradford. The result was a Pat Burrell moon shot off the center field wall for a double followed shortly by Pedro Feliz’ RBI single, which proved to be the game winner. When Price finally did enter the game in the bottom of the 8th, he breezed through the heart of the Phillies order. Next time listen to us, Joe!
  • Moving the World Series to a neutral site in an effort to combat unruly fall weather is nothing less than a moronic idea. True, the conditions in Philadelphia were miserable, but did that really matter to the 45,000 Phillie fans who were still at the park at 2 AM on Saturday or the same number who braved the elements for hours on Monday before Game 5 was suspended? Of course not. Baseball has always been a sport where local ties run deep. To sever this connection on the eve of baseball’s most grandiose moment would be a tremendous disservice to millions of fans who have supported their teams through the thick and thin of a grueling 162-game season. If anything, MLB should take note of the fact that the Phillies had 16 days off during an October in which they played just 14 games and eliminate some of the excessive days off between games and series. This would shorten the post-season by at least one week and reduce the chances of the World Series being plagued by inclement weather.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Mariners Start to Right the Ship

It won’t get the front page publicity of Jake Peavy’s emergence on the trade market, the Mark Teixeira free agent sweepstakes, or even the photos depicting the final stages of the new Yankee Stadium’s construction, but the Mariners’ hiring last week of Jack Zduriencik (pronounced Zur-en-sik) will prove to be one of this off-season’s most important developments. And rightly so.

The 57-year-old Zduriencik had most recently worked as the Brewers’ scouting director and, after C.C. Sabathia, was the individual most responsible for the team’s first playoff birth since 1982. As Milwaukee’s scouting director since 2000, Zduriencik was the man who brought all of the team’s young core into the fold. This includes not just early-round draft picks, such as J.J. Hardy (2nd round, 2001), Prince Fielder (1st round, 2002), Yovani Gallardo (2nd round, 2004), and Ryan Braun (1st round, 2005), but also second-day selections like Corey Hart (11th round, 2000) and Manny Parra (26th round, 2001). Of the 25 players on its NLDS roster, Milwaukee boasted twelve who were home-grown – the second most among the eight teams that advanced to the post-season (the Angels had 17). This, more than any other piece of data, is indicative of the outstanding work done by Zduriencik and his staff over the past eight years.

The importance of Zduriencik’s arrival in Seattle cannot be overstated. With a 61-101 record in 2008 and one of baseball’s worst farm systems (infielder Carlos Triunfel and pitcher Phillippe Aumont will be the only Mariners unanimously included on this winter’s Top 100 Prospects lists), the organization is light years from contending. By bringing in Zduriencik, the organization has thumbed its nose at a mere patch-up job and instead displayed its commitment to a full-out rebuilding process that, if done the right way, should eventually transform the team into a perennial contender in the American League West. Though it remains to be seen how adept Zduriencik will be at procuring talent via trades with other organizations, negotiating with player agents, dealing with the media, and performing the numerous other functions associated with his new job title, it’s plainly evident that he’s a superb scout and first-rate amateur talent evaluator. And that’s exactly what the downtrodden Mariners need right now.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Melvin's Mistake?

The Milwaukee Brewers last Friday awarded GM Doug Melvin a three-year extension that will keep him in the Beer City through 2012. The move was well-deserved as Melvin, who took over for Dean Taylor at the end of 2002, guided the Brewers to their first playoff appearance in 26 years as well as their first back-to-back winning seasons in 16 years. He’s also presided over what has become one of the game’s premier scouting and player development systems.

Despite Melvin’s accomplishments, he might have made a crucial error last week when he decided not to bring back interim manager Dale Sveum for 2009. Sveum, you might recall, replaced former skipper Ned Yost on September 15th while the Brewers were in the midst of a 3-11 slide which saw them relinquish a seemingly ironclad grip on the Wild Card lead (sources maintain this highly controversial and unprecedented move was carried out at the behest of team owner Mark Attanasio, not Melvin). Under Sveum, Milwaukee posted a 7-5 record and edged out the Mets for the National League’s final post-season birth on the final day of the regular season. Milwaukee’s celebration was short-lived, however, as the Phillies beat them in four games in the NLDS.

Although 16 games is indeed a small sample size, the 44-year-old Sveum displayed more than enough managerial moxie to warrant a chance to guide the Brewers in 2009 and beyond. The former infielder proved to be a calming influence in a young clubhouse that had experienced much infighting and turmoil under the stewardship of the high-strung Yost. He also garnered praise as an able strategist whose decisions to pitch ace C.C. Sabathia on three days rest, replace the underachieving Rickie Weeks with veteran stalwart Ray Durham and remove the gassed Manny Parra from the starting rotation were all instrumental in reversing the Brewers’ fortunes during the team’s traumatic second consecutive September swoon. And, let’s not forget the none-too-important familiarity concept – in his three years on the coaching staff Sveum was a key figure for Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, J.J. Hardy, Corey Hart and the rest of the young Brewers as they made a successful transition to the major leagues. Retaining Sveum would inject the Milwaukee clubhouse with much-needed stability as the team’s young core continues to mature and faces much higher expectations in coming seasons.

In his search for the Brewers’ new manager, Melvin has supposedly set the bar high. He’s looking for not just an experienced big league manager, but one who has also enjoyed a high degree of success. Multiple sources have confirmed that Melvin has zeroed in on the following five candidates:

1) Buck Showalter
2) Willie Randolph
3) Ken Macha
4) Mike Hargrove
5) Bob Brenly

Their compelling resumes notwithstanding, all five candidates have major warts. Showalter has displayed an excellent baseball mind and essentially built the expansion Diamondbacks from the ground up. However, in each of his three managerial stints – New York, Arizona and Texas – Showalter was known as a tightly wound control freak who had trouble connecting with today’s player. A six-time all-star as a player and long-time coach with the Yankee dynasty of the late 1990’s, Randolph presided over the Mets’ record-setting collapse in 2007 when they failed to qualify for the playoffs despite enjoying a seven game lead with just 17 to play. Macha and Hargrove have enjoyed sustained managerial success, but both left their last posts under inauspicious circumstances. By the time Macha was dismissed from Oakland at the end of 2006, he was known as a mere puppet of A’s GM Billy Beane who had lost his grip of the team (current Brewers catcher and clubhouse ringleader Jason Kendall included); Hargrove’s departure was even more bizarre. He “retired” from the Mariners’ post in the middle of 2007 citing burnout even though the team was in contention. Finally, there’s Brenly, whose 2001 World Series win with Arizona makes him the most qualified of the five. Yet, those close to the former catcher say his sweetheart broadcast deal with Cubs carrier WGN would be a substantial impediment to any future managing gig.

It’s obvious that Sveum’s resume isn’t as glitzy as any of his potential successors. He never put together an expansion team like Showalter, never was selected to the all-star team as a player like Randolph, and hasn’t enjoyed long-term success as a big league manager like Macha, Hargrove or Brenly. But what Sveum did do was take over the controls of a Brewers ship that was sinking fast and steer it to safety while earning the respect of an entire roster in the process. For this he should have been rewarded but wasn’t. He definitely deserved better. So did Brewer fans.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Price is Right

Following the dramatic conclusion of Game 7 of the ALCS Sunday night, it’s evident that rookie southpaw David Price will play a significant role for the Rays in the upcoming World Series – a development that could have dire consequences for the National League champion Phillies. Coming out of the bullpen in the late innings, Price’s 96 mph fastball and biting 88 mph slider will not only neutralize Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, the potent 3-4 combo in the Philadelphia lineup, but will also render left-handed DH/pinch-hitters Greg Dobbs, Matt Stairs, and Geoff Jenkins practically useless. With journeyman Chris Coste the only right-handed bat available, Charlie Manuel’s hands will be tied.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Price, less than two months into his major league career, will be in a position to play such a crucial role in the Fall Classic. Any astute baseball fan realizes that come October bats are slow (especially in this post-performance enhancing drug era) and therefore vulnerable to high heat and biting breaking balls darting through the zone. The list of young power relievers who have made their mark in the postseason is virtually endless. Mariano Rivera (Yankees, 1996), Francisco Rodriguez (Angels, 2002), and Adam Wainwright (Cardinals, 2006) are just three of the most recent flame-throwers whose high-octane arsenals helped seal the deal in highly leveraged situations and propelled their teams to the Promised Land. And now David Price stands poised to join them.

True, the Phillies have a more lethal and balanced lineup, as well as young stud Cole Hamels (whose 38 career wins at 24 are 15 more than Johan Santana had at the same age) atop the rotation. However, Price’s ability to neuter Philadelphia’s power bats in the late innings combined with a deeper pitching staff and home field advantage should bode well for Joe Maddon & Co. The result: the Rays win their first ever championship in seven games.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Play Ball!

Hey Everybody, it's Harris. With the Leveraged Finance market in the tank, I've decided to put my spare time to good use and create this blog. I'm hopeful it will provide me with a useful forum to express my thoughts on all things baseball -- from the soon-to-be-commencing Hot Stove League to College Baseball and everything in between. Feel free to post your comments.