STRIKE ONE -- SAME AS THE OLD BOSS DEPT.
Elsewhere on this site, you can find a column I wrote on two Atlanta Braves managers -- past (Bobby Cox) and present (Fredi Gonzalez). (Actually, it's right here). But one topic I never got to in that column was that it wasn't just Cox who was lobbying hard for Gonzalez to succeed him.
It was also his players.
Chipper Jones topped that list -- and admits it, saying: "I think I dropped enough hints to lay the groundwork."
I asked Jones what his impression was of the end of Gonzalez's managerial reign in Florida. And Jones implied heavily he thinks Florida Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria was essentially out to get his manager.
The Chipster then used Gonzalez's public benching of Hanley Ramirez last year (for not hustling) as evidence. The manager attracted widespread praise around baseball for taking that stand, you'll recall -- and got fired anyway shortly thereafter.
"No matter how much respect Fredi had around the game for the way he handled certain things, it didn't help his relationship with the owner," Jones said. "And that was unfortunate. Let me tell you something: Fredi handled things on the field exactly the way Bobby would have handled them. Exactly.
"Whether it's pulling your star player off the field, disciplining him, those things have to be done sometimes. And when Bobby pulled Andruw Jones off the field [in 1998], you didn't hear [owner] Ted Turner ripping the manager because he did it. Everybody thought that it was deserved. And that situation last year was no different."
But Jones isn't complaining, because Gonzalez's firing in Florida allowed the Braves to hire the guy he was desperately hoping they'd hire.
"The way I see it," he said, "we just got a younger version of Bobby."
STRIKE TWO -- IS COKE THE REAL THING DEPT.
For years, says Detroit Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski, one of his most trusted special advisors, Dick Egan, used to tell him he should try to trade for a young Rangers left-handed reliever by the name of C.J. Wilson.
"He can start," Egan used to say of Wilson. "He's got enough pitches to start. I think he can be a good starting pitcher."
Well, as the world found out last season, C.J. Wilson can indeed be a top-of-the-rotation starter. Which explains why the Texas Rangers never showed any interest in dealing him -- to the Tigers or anyone else.
But that's not why Dombrowski found himself telling this story in the spring of 2011. He was telling it because, in December 2009, after the Tigers traded for another young left-handed reliever -- a fellow named Phil Coke -- Dick Egan was right back at it.
"When we got Phil Coke," Dombrowski said, "Dick had seen Phil Coke, and he said, 'Dave, I think we should start Phil Coke.' "
Well, it took the Tigers a year for Dick Egan to get his wish. But their game plan for 2011 is indeed to start Phil Coke -- and see if they can turn him into some version of The Next C.J. Wilson.
If Coke turns into anything close, the Tigers could have a special rotation, with Coke slotted behind Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello, with Brad Penny throwing well as the likely No. 5 starter, and with hot prospects Jacob Turner, Andy Oliver and Charlie Furbush just over the horizon.
Coke may have spent the past two seasons as an excellent left-handed specialist for the Yankees and Tigers. But he's a guy who had started for much of his career before that, who has three above-average pitches and who is adamant that this age of specialization we live in doesn't apply to him. Specialists, he said, are people you should find in a medical clinic, not a baseball clubhouse.
"Here's the thing with me," he said. "I can't stand being called a specialist. I hate that title, because I'm not out there to check your feet. I'm not out there to check your skin. I'm out there to get you out. I'm a baseball player. Specifically, I'm a pitcher. I'm not a specialist. I'm not a setup guy. I'm a guy who wants to get it done. And I don't care what my title is. I want to get it done.
"So a job change? [People act like] that should be a big deal. No. It's not. I've gone back and forth from starting to relieving my entire life. So it's not a big deal. But people wouldn't know that unless they ask that. But people don't ask that. People ask, 'How are you gonna handle it?' Well, probably like I have all my life."
And the numbers tell us, he's handled it just fine. Coke went 16-7, with a 2.77 ERA, as a starter in the Florida State League and the Eastern League in 2007-08. Then the Yankees converted him into a reliever, and he's handled that, too, with a 1.20 WHIP in 158 big-league appearances. If his transition back into the rotation goes as smoothly as Dick Egan expects, he could have a big impact -- both on the AL Central race and on fantasy drafts everywhere.
STRIKE THREE -- WHERE'S MY LOCKER DEPT.
When Robb Quinlan walked into the Philadelphia Phillies' clubhouse for the first time this spring, after signing a non-roster free-agent deal, he asked the usual question:
"Where's my locker?"
"It's over there," he was told.
"I said, 'No way I'm over there,' " said Quinlan, who has played five positions in his career, none of which include pitching. "So I started walking to the other side of the room, and they said, 'Where are you going? You're over there.' "
So Quinlan looked again and found that, because his number was 37, his locker was located right next to those of Lee (33), Halladay (34) and Hamels (35). And Oswalt (44) is only a couple of lockers away himself.
Told this clearly implied that the Phillies view him as a candidate for the rotation, Quinlan just chuckled. But when I asked him which game in the first week of the season he expected to be pitching in, he couldn't help himself.
"I imagine I'll start the opener," he quipped. "I mean, who else in here would start?"