February 2013

The American League West is going to be a fascinating case study in different philosophies of roster building

The Angels, Rangers and Athletics have been constructed so differently, with such different thinking and possibly even different values, that the AmericanLeague West race could be a litmus test, of sorts, on the different philosophies. The Angels may be picked to win, primarily because of having Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton hitting first, third and fourth. But the Angels have significant questions in the rotation and also in the bullpen if Ryan Madson isn’t healthy. Okay, back to those different philosophies.

The Angels have taken a sledgehammer approach to roster building. Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols were picked off the free-agent market with deals totaling $365 million. C.J. Wilson was lured from Texas for $77.5 million. Vernon Wells, who was obtained from the Blue Jays, has $49 million remaining on a contract the Blue Jays gave him worth $126 million. Even the manager, Mike Scioscia, has six years remaining on a 10-year contract.

The Angels were supposed to be looking to hold their payroll to last year’s $155-million total, but then when Hamilton hung around on the free agent market, he signed for $125 million over five years. The Angels have eight players making at least $8 million, so Scioscia will have some big egos to navigate through. What’s really strange is that, having spent all that money, the Angels’ rotation is the third-best in the division. Their bullpen may be the third-best in the division as well, so if pitching decides the division—and it almost always does—Anaheim is beatable.

It’ll be fascinating to see how Hamilton responds to a new role. He’s going to find out that big money brings big expectations, and unlike Rangers fans, who adored the game, he has no equity with Angels fans. When he goes into one of those week-long funks when he seems barely interested in playing, the reception may not be kind.

And teams seem finally to have gotten a good, smart scouting report on him. Here’s a brief summary: Don’t throw him a strike. He goes up there hacking. He hits bad pitches about as well as anyone, but he’s simply not patient enough to take walks. When someone asked Scioscia last week if he’d show Hamilton the book the Angels had on him, Scioscia said, “He already knows what teams are tying to do to him.”

Meanwhile, the A’s are a manager’s dream. GM Billy Beane has again given Bob Melvin options up and down the roster in terms of lineup match-ups and late-inning pitching match-ups. The A’s also have a deep, talented rotation. Unlike the Angels, who are likely to have a set lineup, Melvin will mix and match all over the place.

Even though the A’s will again have one of the five lowest payrolls in baseball, Beane has put together a roster that probably works. Melvin won the AL West last season by plugging guys in and out of the order and putting them in position to succeed. The A’s have a terrific clubhouse environment. It’s drama free, and even without last year’s leaders, Jonny Gomes and Brandon Inge, the A’s probably will figure out a way.

And there are the Rangers. At this moment—and this changes every 20 minutes—I’d pick Texas to win the American League West. While the off-season focus has been on losing Josh Hamilton, Mike Napoli, Mike Adams and Michael Young, the Rangers still have a core of players that knows how to win.

If Lance Berkman has another productive year left in him and if Derek Holland, Matt Harrison and Yu Darvish stay healthy, Texas might be an eyelash better than the A’s.  This is an interesting year because GM Jon Daniels was very disciplined in his spending, once more establishing himself as one of baseball’s best.

He probably has the money to go dollar-for-dollar with the Angels, and indeed he will have a payroll of close to $120 million, including the $10 million he agreed to pay the Phillies in the Young trade. But he wouldn’t meet Hamilton’s asking price and ended up losing him. He declined to part with the prospects that would have gotten him Justin Upton. He didn’t match the Dodgers spending for Zack Greinke. If the Rangers don’t make the playoffs, he’ll be second-guessed for not going crazy.

But as Opening Day approaches, he has positioned his club nicely. The Rangers still have one of baseball’s best teams at the Major League level, and they also have one of its strongest farm systems. If he needs a player at the trading deadline, he has the prospects to go and get that player.

Pressure could play a role, and the Angels have more of it than the Rangers and A’s combined. The A’s have virtually none. As Beane pointed out, the A’s are coming off a season in which they won the AL West and are again being overlooked by some. He’d probably tell you that’s a good thing.

His credibility with ownership has given him the freedom to do things the way he wants to do them. He’s happy and confident this spring, believing the A’s might just trick ’em again. Then again, the Rangers might end up doing the same thing.

In praise of baseball’s best general manager of the last half-century

It happens two or three times a year. I’ll be listening to a general manager discuss his job, and many of them inevitably will bring up Pat Gillick’s name. He constructed playoff teams in Toronto, Seattle, Baltimore and Philadelphia. His teams won the World Series three teams. He was one of the all-time best at evaluating talent, but beyond that, he understood the fine art of putting a roster together. He also treated scouts, staffers and everyone with respect. If there’s a more beloved figure in the last half-century of baseball, I don’t know who it is.

I was talking to Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers on Monday morning when he, too, talked about some of the things he’d learned from Gillick.

“I remember one year when Jayson Werth was non-tendered by the Dodgers. I thought I had him signed. I called his agent and asked, `Are we getting a deal done?’ He said, `I don’t think so. Pat Gillick is in the family home in Peoria, Illinois, right now.’ I said, `Jayson Werth?’ He said, `Yeah, he flew down there.’

“Sure enough, he got him. Gillick would never sign anybody without looking a guy in the eye. Which more of us should do.

“Pat was always kind of a mentor. I love sitting and talking baseball players with him. He told me maybe 10 years ago, `When I first got into this game, I thought it was 70-percent skill set, 30-percent makeup. Now I think it’s the other way around.”

How about an Indians-Reds World Series? Travel time: 3 hours, 57 minutes.

Indians GM Chris Antonetti has put together a terrific offense: Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn. Asdrubal Cabrera and Jason Kipnis. There’s an intriguing young guy at third in Lonnie Chisenhall and interesting options all around for Terry Francona. If Trevor Bauer is the real deal, if Carlos Carrasco is healthy, if Ubaldo Jimenez has a productive year, this could be a fun baseball summer in Cleveland. When the Indians were really good and their home ballpark was packed, there was no better place to watch a game, and that’s the hope after years of building the farm system and now a winter spending spree.

Just down the road, the Reds are a finished product. Walt Jocketty has built a great team. There’s a completely different kind of pressure on the Reds. They’ve won the NL Central two of the last three years and with success comes pressure. Late last season when I asked Dusty  Baker if the 2012 Reds had been an easy team to manage, he looked at me and smiled. Actually, it had been just the opposite, and Jocketty admitted feeling it himself. When anything less than the playoffs will be considered failure by so many, when there are so many competitive teams in the sport, the climb to the top is incredibly difficult.

Still, the Reds are really good. They’ve have no weaknesses and a proven manager and a group that knows how to survive the grind of a pennant race. The Cardinals will be good again, and the Brewers could be good. The Cubs are getting better. So there won’t be a cake walk. But it’s better than having a team attempting to overcome all kinds of weaknesses.

As legacies go, Chris Carpenter’s is about as good as it gets.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever witnessed a better competitor or leader than Chris. He’s a real throwback in the game and commanded respect with how he went about his business and treated people.”—Cardinals manager Mike Matheny on Carpenter.

From Roger Clemens, he learned about work ethic and competing and leaving nothing to chance. Chris Carpenter’s career may have turned out exactly the same even if he hadn’t played those two seasons with the Rocket because he had a relentless will to succeed. He worked harder than almost anyone and was thorough in his preparation. He also had some of the Rocket’s fire. Did you ever catch video of him screaming into the opposing dugout? It was stunning to see because off the field he was quiet and unfailingly polite.

My favorite Chris Carpenter story—okay, it’s actually about five stories—occurred late in the 2011 season. In August, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa called a team meeting to encourage his players to continue giving a professional effort. Even though it seemed unlikely they’d make the playoffs, he wanted them to play hard until the end and see how far it got them.

That same day, La Russa sat down with a schedule and ran his finger down to Game 162, at Houston. He scribbled in Carpenter’s name. From there, he worked backward, his thinking being that if the Cardinals had a chance to win, he’d want to put the season in Carpenter’s hands.

Sure enough, it played out just the way he’d hoped. The Cardinals made up 10 games in the National League Wild Card race, and on the final day of the regular season, Carpenter pitched a two-hit shutout to clinch a playoff berth. He was a monster down the stretch, compiling a 2.73 ERA in his last 19 starts and a 1.13 ERA in his final five. When the Cardinals needed him, he was there.

There was more to come. He pitched a three-hit shutout in a clinching Game 5 victory over the Phillies. He won Game 1 of the World Series that year and then went six innings on short rest to get the victory in Game 7. When Game 6 was rained out, it meant La Russa would be able to pitch Carpenter in Game 7. To a lot of Cardinals, that meant game, set, match.

He finished with 273 innings that season, and whether that total had anything to do with the injury that kept him out most of 2012 and now seems likely to end of his career probably is beside the point. All Carpenter knew was that his team needed him for 273 innings. If there were consequences, he’d worry about them later.

I’m guessing he wouldn’t change a thing. That team was close. Players genuinely liked and respected one another. To win a championship is always special. To win a championship in St. Louis, to win a championship with friends, is really, really special.

He was injured frequently in his career, coming back from two shoulder injuries and Tommy John surgery. He was an All-Star hockey player in his native New Hampshire, and he brought a little of that tenacity to everything he did. When he was able to pitch, he was as good as almost anyone. He was also a workhorse, running up regular-season totals of 241, 237, 235, 221 and 215 innings in his career. And he was money in the postseason, going 10-4 with a 3.00 ERA in 18 starts. In four World Series starts, he was 3-0 with a 2.00 ERA.

The Cardinals knew Carpenter might not pitch this season. They also knew he would do everything in his power to be ready. When he telephoned Cardinals GM John Mozeliak last week to say he couldn’t go, he apparently was devastated. He probably thought he could will himself past the neck and shoulder issues, which he probably did in returning to the mound late last season.

Carpenter helped define a special era for one of baseball’s most successful franchises. During Carpenter’s nine seasons with the Cardinals, they went to the postseason six times and won two championships. As Mozeliak said, “He helped create the model of success here.”

Billy Beane has had another productive off-season, and the A’s are poised to contend again in the AL West

“One of the lessons I learned from Paul Owens is that it’s important to try and get better every single day. That can be anything from hiring an instructor to making a trade. It doesn’t even have to be something anyone will notice. But it’s how I see the job of general manager.”—former Phillies and Astros general manager Ed Wade.

This philosophy seems to be a large part of the genius of A’s GM Billy Beane. No general manager in the history of the game has run a more efficient operation. That is, doing more with less. He’s relentless, too. Lost amid all the big splashy moves—Yoenis Cespedes, Tommy Milone, Josh Reddick, etc.—he made last off-season were a bunch of smaller acquisitions that paid dividends: Jonny Gomes, Seth Smith, Bartolo Colon, Brandon Moss. He added Stephen Drew and Brandon Inge during the season.

This has been a quieter off-season for the A’s, who won 94 games and the American League West, then took the Tigers to a deciding Game 5 in a divisional series. Now, though, a week before Spring Training, with a series of smart moves, the A’s look significantly different than they did at the end of 2012.

Beane has added a starting catcher (John Jaso), a probable starting shortstop (Hiroyuki Nakajima), a solid outfielder (Chris Young) and a gifted young infielder who can play third, short or second (Jed Lowrie). Lowrie was acquired from the Astros on Monday for three players—first baseman Chris Caster, right-hander Brad Peacock and catcher Max Stassi.

In making the deals, Beane was dealing from an organizational position of strength. He had depth at all those spots, and in return, gets a guy capable of making a significant impact. Lowrie is a gamble. At 28, he’s coming off a season when he played a career-high 97 games despite two stints on the disabled list. Regardless, he had a productive .796 OPS.

So with Spring Training a week away, the A’s again appear good enough to compete with the Angels and Rangers in the American League West. As usual, much depends on their starting pitching, and it’s both deep and talented. No manager in baseball did a better job than Bob Melvin did with the A’s in 2012.

It’s a competitive division with the Angels seemingly the consensus favorite. The Rangers have a ton of question marks, but probably have enough pitching to stay in the rest. The Mariners got better this winter, but they, too, are counting on their young guys to improve. A new generation of A’s learned how to win last season, and it was great fun watching it happen. Here’s to another nice ride.

Scott Rolen might be the perfect final touch to the Dodgers’ roster

Two years ago, Reds GM Walt Jocketty asked Scott Rolen to travel with the club even when he was on the disabled list. That’s how much Jocketty thought Rolen brought to the table in terms of leadership and presence. So even though Rolen is 37 years old and has played just 157 games the last two seasons, it’s understandable why the Los Angeles Dodgers are interested in him. Dodgers manager Don Mattingly faces the challenge of making the various parts of his roster—Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Andrew Ethier—form a cohesive team. Rolen could be a stabilizing influence, and also—and it’s a bottom-line business—he was once one of the best third basemen of his generation.

If Hanley Ramirez plays shortstop, the Dodgers will use Luis Cruz at third. In a star-studded lineup, third is about the only position where there are some questions about both experience and production. The Reds have said that if Rolen wants to come back, he’s welcome to become back with them. Jocketty still believes he’d be a positive on the roster. But with Todd Frazier ready to play and with Joey Votto at first, it’s anyone’s guess how many at-bats Dusty Baker would be able to get for Rolen.

Rolen played 92 games for the Reds last season—he had 80 starts at third—and batted .249 against right-handed pitching and .234 against lefties. His overall .716 OPS was off significantly from his .855 career number. But the Dodgers may feel that if they give him regular season and count on him to be honest with how he’s feeling, they could still get a productive season out of him. Regardless, he’s a good man and a really good teammate, and with Mattingly’s challenge being making it all fit, Rolen still brings plenty to the table. He’s one of those players who can have a career in baseball if he chooses to stay in the game.