August 2012

Suddenly, life has become hard for the Braves

It tells you how strange this season has been that the Atlanta Braves have at times looked like a team capable of winning the World Series. At other times, they’ve looked like a team that may not make the playoffs. One of the things we love about baseball is the ebb and flow of a long season, and the Braves have had plenty of the good and the bad.

GM Frank Wren has done a terrific job in adding Ben Sheets, Paul Maholm and Paul Janish. He stuck with Mike Minor when a lot of Braves fans were ready to pull the plug. Meanwhile, manager Fredi Gonzalez has worked hard to monitor the workload of his relievers.

That said, the Braves have hit a tough patch, losing six of seven thanks primarily to an offense that has produced 2.4 runs per game and is hitting .197. The Braves have dropped from four to 6 1/2 games behind the Nationals, but still lead the race for the two National League Wild Card berths.

Now it’s a matter of playing through the current problems, and there are several significant ones:

  • Brian McCann is trying to play through an aching shoulder. His average is down to .230, and he’s hitting .161 with no home runs in his last 56 at-bats.
  • Dan Uggla is hitting .153 since June 22.
  • Ben Sheets is winless in his last three starts with a 7.71 ERA.
  • Tommy Hanson has one quality start in his last six with a 6.82 ERA.

Every team goes through stretches like this. The Braves still have enough to get by. Wren has managed to construct a good rotation despite getting just eight victories from Brandon Beachy and Jair Jurrjens. Gonzalez doesn’t have many options other than to keep playing Uggla and to monitor McCann’s health.

Besides that, who is going to catch the game. The Pirates and Diamondbacks have their own problems to deal with. The Dodgers are on the verge of a huge trade, but can they make a serious run without a healthy Chad Billingsley? There’ll be questions about a repeat of last season when the Braves lost 17 of their last 25 and were eliminated on the final day of the season. They appear to be a better team now, with fewer problems in the rotation and a more rested bullpen.

They’ve got a lot of non-contending teams left on their schedule, but those teams sometimes are the toughest. They’re playing without pennant race pressure and occasionally injected talented young kids into the mix. In other words, nothing is guaranteed.

Mariners winning with pitching, defense, youth and enthusiasm.

When the Mariners began their search for a general manager four years ago, Jack Zduriencik wasn’t exactly high on their list. Actually, he wasn’t on their list at all. When he finally got his foot in the door for an interview, the search process pretty much ended. The Mariners were impressed with his blueprint, organization, people skills and attention to detail. Also important was the fact that he had a track record in constructing a first-rate farm system in Milwaukee.

We may be seeing a lot of good work come together with the Mariners, who’ve won 22 of their last 23 games with an everyday lineup that includes six regulars 25 or under. The Mariners also have three twentysomething starting pitchers, including King Felix. Jason Vargas, Blake Beavan and the King are 15-2 since the All-Star Break.

The Mariners have the second-best ERA in the American League since the All-Star Break at 3.11. They’re just 12th in runs, but with young guys scattered up and down the lineup, there’s plenty of reason for optimism. Zduriencik can see his vision of the M’s coming into focus, and manager Eric Wedge has done a terrific job creating the right environment for the young guys.

And:

  • Mariners are 23-13 since the All-Star Break, tied for best in the AL.
  • Mariners have won 13 of their last 14 at Safeco Field.
  • They’ve had three series sweeps since the break, tied with the A’s and Rays for the most in the American League.
  • Their home ERA is 2.90, second-best in the majors.
  • They lead MLB with a .99o fielding percentage and haven’t made an error in 85 of 123 games.

The Mariners have so many young players–Dustin Ackley, Michael Saunders, Justin Smoak, Kyle Seager, etc.–that’s it’s impossible to know how quickly they’ll adjust to the big leagues. And the Mariners play in a division with the Rangers, A’s and Angels, so every division game is tough. Still, after 10 seasons out of the playoffs, there’s plenty of room for optimism in Seattle.

As the Nationals and Braves played into the night, Edwin Jackson came up huge.

“If you’ve been watching the emotions of the players, it was almost like a playoff game because we made high-energy mistakes.”–Davey Johnson.

I love this stuff. Edwin Jackson had thrown 103 pitches in a seven-inning 2-0 loss to the Mets on Saturday. In his normal routine, he’d pitch again on Thursday. But as the Nationals and Braves played on and on Monday night, as Davey Johnson started to run out of arms, Jackson put his cleats on and went to the bullpen.

He didn’t get into the game, but gestures like that mean a lot in a long season. It was a big August series, a series that could go a long way toward determining the National League East, and Jackson let every teammate know he was going to do his part.

Johnson used eight pitchers (and 20 players in all) in a game that Nationals won in the 13th inning after 4 hours, 27 minutes. He pinch hit for Craig Stammen in the bottom of the 13th, and if Chad Tracy hadn’t delivered the game-winning hit, Jackson was the next man up.

“I wasn’t doing it for heroism,” Jackson said. “But the bullpen was done. It was a game that we could possibly win.”

Astros are looking for a manager, and if Joe Maddon were cloned tomorrow, they’d sign him up.

The Astros are on their way to 100 losses for the second straight season. If that sounds a lot like the Rays team Joe Maddon took over in 2006, well, so be it.

The Astros love that comparison, and they’re hoping the similarities don’t stop there. Like the Rays of 2006, the Astros have just hired an unproven young general manager. If Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow turns out to be as good as Tampa Bay’s Andrew Friedman, there are happy days ahead.

There’s one other comparison. Friedman took over a franchise that had a solid farm system, a farm system that produced plenty of the core guys that allowed the Rays to go from 101 losses in 2006 to the World Series in 2008.

The Astros believe they’ve got a very solid farm system, one that has been systematically upgraded the last few years. There’s no guarantee with young players, so there’s no way of knowing how soon the Astros are going to compete.

All that’s for sure is that, like the Rays, the Astros have an owner, Jim Crane, who understands that good organizations are built from the ground up and that there are no shortcuts. He’s willing to give Luhnow the resources and the patience to do things right. He hopes that once the Astros are back in contention, they’re in contention for a long time.

Maddon was the perfect hire for Friedman in 2006. He had a long career in the minor leagues and then had worked at the right hand of one of baseball’s best, Mike Scioscia. He also had an open, curious mind that devoured the stacks of analytical data that Friedman and his staff provide. That data helps Maddon with everything from lineups to defensive positioning.

That’s exactly the guy the Astros are looking for. Luhnow may interview some veteran managers to replace Brad Mills, who was fired on Saturday, but here’s guessing he ultimately hires an under-the-radar guy who, like Maddon, has great communication skills and a track record in player development.

From the moment Crane bought the Astros last fall, this was the plan he laid out. The thing that’s different about Major League Baseball from other sports is that there are no quick fixes. By the time a franchise is in trouble, by the time it’s clear the farm system is weak, it’s usually a two-, three- or four-year fix. It can only be repaired by stacking one good draft class on top of another and by being aggressive internationally.

The Astros are off to a terrific sport. Luhnow has begun his tenure by making massive changes in the front office and on the roster. Next season is likely to be a tryout camp of sorts as the franchise’s best young minor league talent is given an opportunity to show it belongs. By this time next year the Astros will know a lot more about how quickly they can contend again.

To help the reconstruction along, Luhnow is looking for a manager who can lead, communicate, identify talent and help develop that talent. There may not be a perfect manager out there, but Maddon is awfully close. He would be perfect.

 

 

To Freddy Garcia with love. Thanks for King Felix. Signed, Mariners fans.

Felix Hernandez wasn’t a legend by the time he was 15. That’s how we’ll remember it years from now when his plaque goes up in Cooperstown. Besides, it’s close enough to the truth. Scouts definitely knew his name by then. They knew he had electric stuff even for that age, and they believed he would get even stronger and bigger as he got older. When he turned 17, he had a stack of offers. Teams worked him hard, worked the family, worked every angle.

The Astros had done great work in Venezuela and were thought to have an advantage because of the brilliant Andres Reiner, the architect of the program that signed Freddy Garcia, Richard Hidalgo and Bobby Abreu. The Yankees, as always, were a factor. The Braves threw around all kinds of numbers. In the end, though, Hernandez signed a $710,000-deal with the Mariners.

His father, Felix Sr., believed in the plan that Mariners scout Bob Engle laid out. Engle had done great work building a relationship with the family, and when the dollar figures began to blur, King Felix went with the guy he trusted. He was also attracted to the Mariners because his boyhood hero, Freddy Garcia, pitched for them.

Garcia had originally signed with the Astros, but was traded to the Mariners in the deal that sent Randy Johnson to Houston in 1998.

He signed the deal a few weeks after turning 16 and pitched his first professional game a year later, in 2003. He appeared in the Futures Game in 2004, and by that time, he was a legend in baseball circles. The Mariners sent him to Triple-A in his third pro season, and later that summer, on August 5, 2005, he made his Major League debut at the age of 19.

At the moment, there’s no one better. In the last couple of weeks, we’ve seen him shut out both the Yankees and Nationals. In both games, he seemed to be toying with hitters. He has that 100-mph fastball, but because his changeup is so good, because his breaking ball is so good, it probably looks like 200 mph to hitters.

There are stretches of games when he’s absolutely capable of getting outs with any of his pitches. He commands the strike zone with all of them, and rather than setting up hitters, he seems to pick a pitch to throw and execute it perfectly. He’s a joy to watch, an absolute joy. He’s performing at a level we don’t see very often.

At the Major League Owners Meetings in Denver, Commissioner Bud Selig, Joe Torre and others stopped what they were doing to watch the final couple of innings of King Felix’s perfect game against the Rays.

He got five of his last six outs on strikeouts, and he went down the whole list. He got Evan Longoria on a curveball, Ben Zobrist on a change and Carlos Perez on a change in the eighth. In the ninth, he got every out on change-ups. That’s because he’d commanded his 95-mph heat so brilliantly earlier in the game that hitters had to look for it first. They ended up off balance and looking back.

He’s only 26 years and should still have prime years remaining. For a franchise like the Mariners, a franchise that’s being rebuilt, a franchise that could be a year or two from getting back to the playoffs, there probably was the temptation to trade him. In the end, the Mariners decided he was too good to trade. He’s good enough to build a franchise around, plus a marketing campaign and plenty of other things. His every start is an event. There’s an extra buzz in the park. He had his greatest day ever on Wednesday afternoon, but it’s surely not the last great day he has.

“I don’t know what to say other than our starting pitcher did not pitch well.”–Jim Leyland

At the moment, four of the top five payroll teams wouldn’t make the playoffs. Only three of the top 10–Yankees, Rangers and Giants–would be in if the season had ended last night. Meanwhile, three of the bottom six–A’s, Rays, Pirates–are in a good place. If you’re ranking the disappointing teams, you’d probably put them in this order: 1. Angels. 2. Tigers. 3. Red Sox. 4. Phillies.

The Phillies have been gutted by injuries, so their five-year run of division championships is understandable. The Red Sox have been hit hard by injuries as well, but those wouldn’t matter if Josh Beckett and Jon Lester had pitched better. The Red Sox are 16-27 in their starts. Lester’s ERA is a shade over five, Beckett’s a shade under.

The Angels are pretty much the same story. A rotation that looked so good during Spring Training has been a huge disappointment. Mike Scoscia has been forced to rely heavily on a bullpen missing Jordan Walden and Scott Downs, and the result is a team fighting to hang in the playoff race.

Now about the Tigers. On paper, they were as good as any team in baseball last spring. And isn’t that a killer? In fact, Jim Leyland tried to warn us several times that there’s a difference between projections and actually doing it. What’s so maddening about the Tigers is that there have been stretches when they’ve been as good as advertised.

Whenever they win a couple, it’s easy to think this is the beginning of a 30-10 run to the finish line. So far, it hasn’t happened. But they’re good enough to do it.

Doug Fister is healthy and productive. Max Scherzer has turned his season around. Rick Porcello has shaken off a slow start. Yet, there’s just no consistency. Anibal Sanchez was supposed to stabilize the rotation, but he’s 1-3 with a 7.97 ERA. Now the Tigers have lost five of six and fallen two games behind the White Sox in the American League Central.

Sanchez allowed 13 baserunners and five runs in 5 1/3 innings of a 9-3 loss to the Twins on Monday. He seems to have trouble dealing with the deeper American League lineups, or maybe as he approaches free agency, he’s struggling with the pressure of the situation. Him aside, it’s still tough imagining the Tigers not making the playoffs.

Yes, I know the games aren’t played on paper. But a team with Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder in the middle of the lineup and a team with a bunch of quality arms in the rotation ought to be good enough to win. They’re right there–two out in the division race, 1 1/2 games out in the Wild Card chase.

C.C. Sabathia joins A-Rod, Rivera, Pettitte, etc., on the disabled list, and the Yankees keep on rolling

Let’s say we’d tapped Yankees manager Joe Girardi on the shoulder on the first day of spring training and told him that on August 12th his disabled list would include:

  • Alex Rodriguez.
  • Mariano Rivera.
  • C.C. Sabathia.
  • Andy Pettitte.
  • Brett Gardner.
  • Michael Pineda

And then we would have told Girardi he wouldn’t have Joba Chamberlain for 102 games or David Robertson for 28. Do you think he would still have believed his team would still have the best record in the American League and the largest division lead in all of Major League Baseball.

Actually, I suspect Girardi wouldn’t have been a bit surprised to know his Yankees were up by six games in the American League East and cruising toward another playoff spot. He would have known that those injuries weren’t going to be a good excuse for all those millions of people love the Yankees.

(Since A-Rod went down on July 25, the Yankees have started Eric Chavez, Casey McGehee and Jayson Nix in his place. They’ve hit .375 with six home runs, and according to the Elias Sports Bureau, that’s the highest average in the game at third and ties the Padres for the most home runs. Eric Chavez is hitting .467 with four home runs and nine RBIs in his last nine games.)

For the Yankees, it’s completely a bottom-line business. They’re expected to win and win big no matter how many injuries, slumps, bad breaks, etc. Girardi and his players accept that they’re going to have more advantages than any other team in baseball. In return, they’re expected to produce.

If this season ends with a 28th championship, the Yankees might find it one of their most rewarding. Despite the injuries, they’ve been alone atop the American League East for 61 straight days, their longest such streak since the final 77 days of the 2009 season.

Phillies reveal their 2013 blueprint

Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee allowed five earned runs in 24 innings in their last starts. Hamels and Halladay pitched brilliantly, and Lee allowed four runs in seven innings in a loss to the Cardinals today. Chase Utley hit a two-run home run in one game, Ryan Howard in another.

And there’s the blueprint for 2013.

General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. has some work to do this winter, especially in the bullpen. But the bottom line is that if he can get productive seasons from his five most important players, the Phillies will be back in contention.

This season has reminded us that there are few perfect teams. The Nationals are close to a complete ball club. The Braves are awfully good, too. But we’re also reminded that teams that can pitch and play defense can go to the playoffs. The Rays and A’s are the best examples of this.

The Phillies have plenty of primetime players, and they’re all under contract for 2013. If they can stay healthy and be productive, there’s no reason the Phillies can get back to the postseason with this core group. There obviously are questions about health and productivity. Utley may no longer be the great player he once was, but if he’s capable of being productive, it’s still attention-getting for opposing managers to have him and Howard back-to-back.

The 2013 Phillies will look different, but if they can just keep their main guys on the field, there’s a real good chance, they’re going to be heard from again.

And the Angels thought it would be a nice pleasant trip to Texas, Chicago and Oakland

Plenty of people thought the Angels had baseball’s most complete team after they acquired Zack Greinke. He deepened a rotation that was already decent. Mike Trout had long since energized the offense. And manager Mike Scioscia had mixed and matched the pieces in a bullpen that had gotten better by the day. For a long time, it looked like GM Jerry Dipoto’s trade for closer Ernesto Frieri might be a season-saver.

And then came a 10-game swing through Texas, Chicago and Oakland. The Angels went 4-6. They lost six of their last eight and dropped from three games to seven games behind the Rangers in the AL West. They’re still just 1 1/2 games out in the AL Wild Card race, but trending the wrong way.

Their bullpen had a 10.54 ERA on the trip. The Angels held a lead in the fifth inning or later in nine of the 10 games. The bullpen was charged with five losses and four blown saves in the last eight games. It leads the AL with 17 blown saves.

Latroy Hawkins had a 13.50 ERA on the trip and blew a couple of save chances in last 2 appearances. Frieri blew one save but hasn’t had a chance in almost a week.

To quote Bill Ripken, “Show me a good bullpen, and I’ll show you a good rotation.” Angels starters haven’t gotten an out in the seventh inning in 24 of the last 37 games. Five time, it was Jered Weaver.

Greinke is winless in four starts for his new team, and against the A’s on Wednesday, he threw his 60th pitch in the second inning.

The Angels apparently don’t believe they have good bullpen options at Triple-A, so GM Jerry Dipoto is keeping an eye on waiver wire. Their best hope is to get Jordan Walden and Scott Downs back from DL and to hold on until then.

How ’bout dem Birds, hon?

“It’s not a team that’s sitting there going, ‘Woe is me. Let’s get this over with.’ They grind it. They put in so much effort. It takes so much intensity to get back into that game that sometimes it’s tough to get over the hump to actually win it. They were able to do that again tonight.”–Buck Showalter

Let’s go to our Orioles tote board:

  • 12 straight extra-inning victories.
  • 23-6 record in one-run games.
  • 11 straight victories in one-run games.
  • 37-17 in games decided by one or two runs.

Now a special tip of the hat to Andy MacPhail. Shortly before the start of Spring Training in 2008, he shipped his staff ace, Erik Bedard, for five prospects. The Mariners saw it was a trade as putting the final piece to the puzzle in place. The Orioles were retooling, or whatever the term is.

Four years later, that trade looks far different. It did not put the final piece of the puzzle in place for the Mariners. Bedard was only 15-14 in 46 starts for the Mariners. Meanwhile, CF Adam Jones is a two-time All-Star and Gold Glove winner for the Orioles. RHP Chris Tillman is 5-1 with a 2.38 ERA in six starts since being summoned back to the big leagues.

Finally, another player obtained in that deal, Steve Johnson, makes his first Major League start for the Birds tonight. It comes 23 years to the day after his dad, Dave, won his first Major League game, also for the Orioles. Dave is now a TV analyst for the Birds, and if I start thinking about it, I’m going to cry.

Tillman has given the Orioles help at their most vulnerable position. Showalter has used nine different starting pitchers and is leaning on a pair of 24-year-olds in Tillman and Zach Britton. Once Jason Hamel returns from the Disabled List, the Orioles may have a decision to make, and Showalter hopes it’s a really tough one.

One of Showalter’s most interesting decisions was moving Nick Markakis from No. 3 to leadoff in his batting order. He made the move after Markakis came off the DL on July 13. Showatler said he didn’t even have to do a selling job. Markakis said if it was best for the team, he was fine with it.

Since the move, Markakis is hitting .360 with a .400 OBP. The Orioles are 14-11 with him hitting first.

Plenty of us thought the O’s would have faded by now. There just didn’t appear to be enough starting pitching, but Showalter has continued to run guys out there, sending a message to minor leaguers that all a guy has to do to get a chance is perform well. The Orioles haven’t been to the playoffs in 15 years, and these Birds are in a dogfight with the Rays, Angels, etc. But they rallied from a 7-2 deficit against the Mariners to win 8-7 in 14 innings Tuesday night and long ago showed that they’re mentally tough, that they’re not going to go away quietly and that baseball is back in Charm City.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 85 other followers