Aroldis Chapman had a terrific season for the Reds, converting 38 of 43 save chances, including 27 in a row at one point. He was consistently clocked at 100 mph, and as Diamondbacks third baseman Chris Johnson said, “I haven’t faced anyone tougher. He’s not just throwing 100. He’s throwing 100 with movement.”
Still, Reds GM Walt Jocketty never lost sight of the reason he made a $30-million commitment to Chapman: He believed then and now that Chapman could be a top-of-the-rotation starter. Chapman ultimately could end up back in the bullpen. That’s always an option. But Chapman is more valuable to the Reds as a potential 200-inning starter than a 68-appearance reliever.
So the Reds will go back to the plan they had for Chapman last spring. He was their best starter last spring, but switched to the bullpen when Ryan Madson got hurt. It’ll be interesting to see how Chapman is able to refine his secondary pitches.
Actually, it’ll be interesting to see how he refines his change-up. He already has a decent slider even if he only threw it about 12 percent of the time last season, according to Fangraphs.com. He could also evolve into a hard-thrower like Max Scherzer, who has ridden a fastball-changeup combination to great success. He, too, has a breaking pitch and does throw it. But if a pitcher can command the strike zone with his fastball and can keep hitters off-balance with a changeup, that’s enough.
If Chapman can make it as a starter, he’d maximize the Reds’ value on that $30-million investment. He was a very good closer, but was often unable to work more than two days in a row. Moving to the rotation would put him on regular rest, thus perhaps preventing the loss of velocity he suffered at times in 2012. Either way, Chapman has proven his value to the Reds.
The Rays were reaching the point where they had to make a decision on Evan Longoria. They had club options on him through 2016, and while his salary was to increase from $6 million in 2013 to $11.5 million in 2016, he was still going to be one of baseball’s best bargains. Rather than risk having an unhappy player or even shopping their most valuable guy, the Rays moved aggressively to lock him up longterm and give him a market-value deal worth $100 million over the next six years.
Rays GM Andrew Friedman still has all kinds of work to do in fixing an offense that was the fourth-lowest in the American League last season. If Longoria stays healthy, that would be a huge step in the right direction, but that’s just a beginning. Friedman’s toughest call will be whether to trade one of his young starters for offense. With almost every team desperate for pitching, Friedman has a surplus of it, and the Rays have shown that rotation can keep them competitive.
(The Rays led the Majors with a 3.19 ERA and set an American League record with 1,383 strikeouts. Their 3.19 ERA was lowest by an AL team since the 1990 A’s (3.18). The 1975 Orioles, who had a 3.17 ERA, were the last American League team to finish with an ERA that low and miss the postseason.)
We pause now for another tribute to the brilliance of the Rays. In the last five seasons, they’ve averaged 92 victories a season and made the playoffs three times. In those five seasons, their payroll ranked 25th among 30 clubs. To make the playoffs once would be an accomplishment. To do it three times shows how smart and efficient the Rays are.
They probably would have gone again in 2012 if Longoria had stayed healthy. He played just 74 games because of a left hamstring injury that required post-season surgery. The Rays were 47-27 with him in the starting lineup, 43-45 without him. In the American League, only Yoenis Cespedes had a greater impact on his team’s W-L record. Here’s the top five in all of baseball
1. Todd Frazier, Reds (70-39), .642.
2. Yoenis Cespedes, A’s (82-46), .641.
3. Michael Morse, Nationals (65-37), .637.
4. Evan Longoria, Rays (47-27), .635.
5. Jayson Werth, Nationals (50-29), .633.
The Rays scored 4.79 runs per game with Longoria in the lineup, 3.86 runs per game without him. When he was not available, Rays manager Joe Maddon used eight different third baseman, seven different No. 3 hitters and eight different No. 4 hitters. The Rays used 10 third basemen, the most for any team since the 2003 Rays and Rays both used 10.
The Rays obviously have issues with their attendance and stadium. They’d like to shop around the entire Tampa Bay area for a ballpark site, but St. Petersburg city officials for now intend to hold them to a lease that runs through 2027. The Rays have proven they can be competitive on a shoestring budget, but they’d like a facility that elevates them into a middle-of-the-pack revenue area.
Still, they’re not backing down. They could have gotten a bounty of young talent for Longoria, but they didn’t believe they could get anyone more productive or who could mean as much to the franchise. His signing—and that of Joe Maddon last winter—sends a message to every other Rays player that maybe, just maybe Tampa Bay isn’t a stopover on the way to big money.
John Gibbons brings toughness, organization and smarts to his new gig, which just happens to be his old gig, too.
It’s the start of the ’08 season.
We’re sitting around jawing in the visiting manager’s office at old Yankees’ Stadium. Gibbons’ time as manager is growing short. He knows it. We know it. But we’re all trying to pretend this isn’t the beginning of the end.
We start talking about something we’ve all seen in the New York Times that morning — an attempt by a mathematician and baseball fan to metricize the performance of big-league managers.
“How’d I do?” Gibbons asks.
“You were sixth,” someone says.
A smile be hauling up the sides of Gibbons’ face like sails being raised on a longship. A comic beat passes.
“In the American League East,” someone else says.
The smile collapses. The room quiets, turning uncertainly to the guy who delivered the zinger. Then Gibbons bends forward in his chair and begins to laugh. He is rocking back and forth, delighted. No one appreciates a John Gibbons joke more than John Gibbons.
(It should be noted that he was sixth. In all of baseball.)
John Gibbons got all kinds of attention for getting into spats with his players, with Shea Hillenbrand and Ted Lilly and Randy Bush and maybe one or two more. There’s nothing wrong with examining those incidents because they’re part of his track record. At times, though, they seem to be all people focused on.
Gibbons did a terrific job with the Blue Jays. He was given only one really good team and led it to a second-place finish in the American League East. Otherwise, he had less talent than almost any other manager. He’s terrific at organizing a bullpen and running a game. He also does his job with energy and enthusiasm. Those things will play well over the course of a long season.
The Blue Jays are a more interesting job with the addition of Jose Reyes, Melky Cabrera, etc., but that doesn’t mean it’s an easier job. Now the Blue Jays have something they haven’t had in a long time: expectations.
Gibbons has worked so hard to get this second chance that he probably guessed would never occur that he seems likely to hold up just fine. Actually, he went through a similar situation one year with the Blue Jays and passed with flying colors. There are a long list of people who like him and are happy he got this second chance.
Here’s to the man who loved baseball and who along the way signed two of the best players of his time.
In the spring of 1996, Dr. James Farrar drove a few hours into rural Mississippi to follow up on a tip he’d gotten about a young right-hander pitching for Holmes Community College. He loved the kid’s stuff, and the more he asked about him, the more impressed he became.
Roy Oswalt didn’t look the part of a guy who’d have success in the Major Leagues. He stood a shade under 6-feet tall, and many franchises are hesitant to draft short right-handers. But Farrar believed Oswalt had a chance and convinced his boss of it, too. Well, sort of.
The Astros took Roy Oswalt in the 20th round as a draft-and-follow. That means they would keep an eye on him, and if they decided he was worth the money, they’d sign him before the 1997 First Year Player Draft.
Oswalt got better and better, and the Astros ended up getting him for the bargain-basement price of $500,000. He flew through the Minor Leagues and won the first of his 143 games for the Astros on May 14, 2001. He ended up being $500,000 well spent.
Farrar, 81, died last week after a long fight against cancer and other health issues. His was a baseball life. He was a respected coach in Louisiana and a scout for for the Astros for 27 years. And Oswalt might have been the second-best player he ever signed. He was also the guy who got J.R. Richard’s name on a contract in 1969.
Scouts are extraordinary people. They love the game more than most of us can comprehend and think nothing of driving 500 or more miles in a day, sometimes seeing three games in the hope of finding the next Roy Oswalt or J.R. Richard. One scout I know once attended games, holding a baby bottle for his infant son in one hand and a radar gun in the other.
They don’t do it because they’re going to get rich. They’re not. They do it because it’s in their blood and because they trust their instincts to see something in players others don’t. They see hundreds of players, looking for a skill or a work ethic that will allow them to have a chance.
Once when I asked Farrar why he’d driven so far out of his way for a player who was considered a long shot, he just laughed.
“This,” he said, “is what we do.”
It’s way more than that. It’s what they love doing. It’s a job, but it’s a passion too.
“Listen, Nick Swisher was awesome for us. If we don’t have him, we’re going to miss him big-time.”—Yankees GM Brian Cashman
Regardless of what Yankees GM Brian Cashman thought of Nick Swisher when he acquired him from the White Sox four years ago, it’s safe to say that he surpassed all expectations. In four years, he averaged 26 home runs and 34 doubles a season and had an .850 OPS. He gave the Yankees switch-hitting balance. He could play any outfield position or first base. He also brought energy and noise and laughter to the clubhouse.
When I asked Cashman about the holes he’s trying to fill, he turned the answer into a tribute to Nick Swisher.
“Listen, Nick Swisher was awesome for us,” he said. “This is a player in the marketplace, a switch hitter, plate discipline, power. He can play multiple positions.
“Teixeira goes down, you can swing him to first base. That is a beast. What he has done for us has been significant.
“Especially when you balance the lineup out and you have all these left-handers, it’s nice to have a Teixeira and Swisher.”
Swisher made $10.25 million in 2012, and because he’s still only 31 years old, he’s could find himself in a nice position this off-season as the free-agent market plays out.
“We’re trying to retain him,” Cashman said. “If we don’t have him, you’re going to miss him big time.
“He’s a helluva player. If it’s not him out there–I can’t say one way or the other, I can’t predict—it’s going to take a lot of work to replace what we provided, not just production-wise but that switch-hitting ability, that flexibility, that athleticism. That was beneficial as hell.
“Before we got him, he was playing center fielder everyday for the White Sox. He’s not a center fielder, but he can play left, he can play right, he can DH. He’s durable. Switch-hitter. Power. Plate discipline.
“He’s a good man. There are a lot of things there that are positives.”