Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Updated: June 26, 9:13 AM ET
Pairs who've really shone
By Jerry Crasnick
It's late June in a presidential election year, and you know what that means: lots of campaign fundraising trips, sniping via surrogates and wall-to-wall vice-presidential speculation.
Will Barack Obama and John McCain opt for geographical balance, ideological compatibility or electoral math in choosing their running mates? Only time and the vetting process will tell.
At the risk of torturing an analogy until it screams, synergy is an equally valuable commodity in the baseball world, where double plays, doubleheaders and ground-rule doubles are part of the lexicon. The biggest difference is that baseball puts an end to the suspense in October rather than November.
In this week's installment of Starting 9, we pay tribute to the game's best dynamic duos of 2008 -- guys who feed off each other and make each other better. The individuals mentioned below are all very good in their own right. But like a ballpark hot dog and a frosty cold beer, they're more effective in tandem.
Best performance by a general manager and manager: Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon, Tampa Bay
We really wanted to cite Baltimore's tandem of GM Andy MacPhail and manager Dave Trembley for their fine work. Trembley has injected the Orioles' clubhouse with a sense of energy and purpose, and MacPhail's fleecing of Seattle in the Erik Bedard deal looks better every day.
But when it's late June and the Rays are 45-31 with baseball's second-lowest payroll, how can you ignore Tampa Bay?
Maddon creates a productive environment for young players by giving them the freedom to fail, provided their mistakes are aggressive. He's shown he won't back down from the Yankees or the Red Sox, no matter how daunting their mystique, and lately it seems he's had a knack for pushing the right buttons. In a 4-3 victory over Houston last week, Maddon used three straight pinch-hitters in the ninth inning, and Eric Hinske and Dioner Navarro both reached base before Gabe Gross produced the game-winning double.
You also have to love a guy who refers to an umpire's strike zone as "slightly amorphous" and to hyperintense pitcher Matt Garza as a "recovering emotionalist."
Friedman is building an impressive body of work with assistance from consigliere Gerry Hunsicker. With the exception of Josh Hamilton's departure through the Rule 5 draft, it's hard to find a blemish on his résumé. In the past year alone, Friedman has made moves to fortify the Tampa bullpen (Troy Percival), defense (shortstop Jason Bartlett), starting rotation (Garza) and bench (Gross and Willy Aybar). In Tampa these days, nobody is lamenting the departures of Delmon Young and Elijah Dukes.
Friedman acquired Dan Wheeler for Ty Wigginton, Navarro in a deal for Mark Hendrickson and Toby Hall, Edwin Jackson for Danys Baez, and workhorse middle man J.P. Howell for Joey Gathright. Carlos Pena, who hit 46 homers last year, was a non-roster invitee. Hinske, the team leader in homers and RBIs, signed for $800,000 in early February. Three years into his tenure with Tampa Bay, Friedman's résumé is starting to look like one giant heist fest.
Honorable mention: MacPhail and Trembley, Baltimore.
There was a reason Seattle emerged as a fashionable AL West pick late in spring training. With John Lackey and Kelvim Escobar out for an extended period with injuries, the Angels' big advantage -- depth in the rotation -- was all but nullified.
Then Saunders and Santana stepped in and put an end to that nonsense. With the help of pitching coach Mike Butcher, they've tightened their mechanics and posted a combined 20-6 record with 21 quality starts. Most impressive, in a brutal year for road teams, they're 11-2 with a combined 2.57 ERA away from Anaheim.
Saunders throws a fastball in the low 90s, makes deft use of his changeup and breaking ball and rarely throws anything down the middle. Santana routinely hits 96-97 mph on the gun and complements his fastball with a terrific slider. His stuff is so overpowering, you wonder how he went 7-14 last year.
"A lot of teams are kicking themselves for not ponying up for Santana," said an American League executive. "I think if you were willing to trade value for value, you could have gotten him, but a lot of teams tried to pay 75 cents on the dollar. Who'd have guessed if you had stepped up on Cliff Lee and Ervin Santana this offseason, you'd have two All-Stars?"
The best news of all for the Angels: Lackey has been superb since his return from a triceps strain, and Escobar is about to head out on a rehab assignment in his comeback from a torn labrum.
Honorable mention: Carlos Zambrano and Ryan Dempster, Cubs; Brandon Webb and Dan Haren, Diamondbacks; Roy Halladay and Shaun Marcum, Blue Jays. And feel free to raise your hand if you predicted that Kyle Lohse and Todd Wellemeyer would be a combined 16-4 in St. Louis.
Both were beneficiaries (or victims, depending on your perspective) of early rookie of the year hype. They've done nothing to quell the enthusiasm.
Soto, who blossomed into a Pacific Coast League MVP last year after losing 30 pounds, ranks second to Atlanta's Brian McCann among catchers in homers (12), RBIs (43) and slugging percentage (.506). But the biggest surprise is how deftly and maturely he's handled the Chicago staff. Catchers live and die with their staff's ERA, and judging from Chicago's 3.67 mark, Soto has passed the test.
Fukudome's best offensive attributes are his patience and versatility. He ranks eighth in the NL with a .404 on-base percentage, and he's hit everywhere but third and eighth in the order as manager Lou Piniella's resident lineup Band-Aid. Fukudome is currently filling in at leadoff while Alfonso Soriano recovers from a broken hand.
A four-time Gold Glove winner in Japan, Fukudome also has given the Cubs the speed and athleticism they lacked in right field.
"He's really shored up our outfield defense," said general manager Jim Hendry. "It's little things that go unnoticed, like turning doubles into singles and triples into doubles. He's made a lot of plays that we haven't seen out there in years."
Honorable mention: Greg Smith and Ryan Sweeney, Athletics; Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, Reds; Ben Francisco and Aaron Laffey, Indians.
Kinsler, 26, looks like Ferris Bueller's little brother. Young, 31, is the soft-spoken, workaholic paragon of the Texas clubhouse -- the guy who sets an example for the kids and helps bring a sense of cohesion to the roster.
Kinsler wears No. 5 and Young dons No. 10, and they're so close that they're known as "Five and Dime" around the ballpark.
Though Kinsler is far from the classic speed demon atop the order, he gets the job done in his own way. He leads major league leadoff men in hits and runs, has a .500 slugging percentage and is 19-for-20 in steal attempts.
"We would in no way be surprised if he's a 30-30 guy at some point in his career," said Thad Levine, Rangers assistant GM. Last year, Kinsler hit 20 homers and stole 23 bases despite missing a month with a foot injury.
Young didn't help his All-Star Game chances with a recent 2-for-39 swoon, and his OPS+ has dipped from 131 in 2005 to 97 this season. But there's been a baseballwide dearth of production from the No. 2 spot this year, and one thing Young does well is collect hits.
Last year Young became the sixth player since 1900 to amass 200 or more hits in five straight seasons. Wade Boggs, Chuck Klein, Al Simmons and Charlie Gehringer are all in the Hall of Fame, and Ichiro Suzuki, the other member of the club, is a good bet to join them one day.
Honorable mention: Alfonso Soriano and Ryan Theriot, Cubs; Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox.
Bradley leads the American League with a .332 average. Hamilton leads the AL with 19 homers and ranks first in the majors with 76 RBIs. Bradley, a switch-hitter, has an .824 slugging percentage from the right side. Hamilton has an OPS of 1.127 at the Ballpark in Arlington.
Though Hamilton is the more heartwarming story, Bradley is the more pleasant surprise. No one envisioned he'd come back so quickly when he blew out his knee in September, but the Rangers have taken advantage of their outfield depth to keep Bradley fresh and productive as the team's principal designated hitter.
With the exception of that small flare-up with Kansas City broadcaster Ryan Lefebvre, Bradley has been histrionics-free this season. The bigger concern, as usual, is his health. Bradley has been touch-and-go since straining his quadriceps last week, and the Rangers hope it's just a bump in the road and not something that'll linger.
Honorable mention: Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez, Cubs; Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, Brewers; Chipper Jones and Mark Teixeira, Braves; Albert Pujols and Ryan Ludwick, Cardinals; J.D. Drew and Manny Ramirez, Red Sox; Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, Phillies; Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, Twins.
Best offensive double-play combination: Hanley Ramirez and Dan Uggla, Marlins
The Marlins, despite playing in a pitcher-friendly yard, are a threat to Houston's 2000 National League-record of 249 homers. It helps to have so much thump in your middle infield.
Uggla, the MLB leader with 23 homers, is doing his best to uphold the Ryne Sandberg-Jeff Kent slugging tradition. He's trying to join Rogers Hornsby as the only second basemen to amass 80 or more extra-base hits in consecutive seasons.
Uggla started slowly in the No. 2 hole, but he's taken off since manager Fredi Gonzalez moved him to fifth in the order. Freed from the constraints of taking pitches and trying to spray the ball around, Uggla is able to muscle up and deposit fastballs into the loge seats.
Ramirez began the season at leadoff, took a spin in the No. 3 spot and eventually returned to the top spot where he feels most comfortable. His .294 BA/.387 OBP/.520 SLG season is nothing special by his standards. But then, he has extremely high standards.
Honorable mention: Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley, Phillies; Michael Young and Ian Kinsler, Rangers; Yunel Escobar and Kelly Johnson, Braves.
Best defensive double-play combo: Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley, Phillies
Defense is tough to quantify, so we sought the guidance of John Dewan, author of "The Fielding Bible" and baseball's foremost authority on fielding acumen. Dewan and his video scouts review every batted ball in MLB and hand out plus-minus rankings based on the number of plays each fielder makes above the norm.
Last year, Dewan's system ranked Toronto's John McDonald and Aaron Hill as the best middle-infield pair in baseball. This April, the honor belonged to Orlando Cabrera and Juan Uribe of the White Sox, but Uribe lost his second-base job because of his meager offensive production.
Although Oakland second baseman Mark Ellis and Atlanta shortstop Yunel Escobar grade extremely well in Dewan's system, their double-play partners, Bobby Crosby and Kelly Johnson, do not.
So who's left at the top? The two guys in Philly.
Utley leads major league second basemen with a plus-19 ranking. He's no Ellis when it comes to turning the double play, but he has excellent range to his left and his right. "He's so underrated," Dewan said. "People don't realize it, but his defense is as good as his offense."
Rollins is smooth, sure-handed, and has graded consistently well in Dewan's system through the years. "He's not Adam Everett or Troy Tulowitzki, but he's very good," Dewan said.
Honorable mention: Erick Aybar and Howie Kendrick, Angels.
As power numbers decline, MLB teams have been more aggressive on the base paths. To stifle the running game, you need a pitcher who's attentive and quick to the plate to go with a catcher who gets rid of the ball in a hurry and makes strong, accurate throws.
Oh yeah -- the entire process has to unfold in 3.2 seconds or less.
Kendall, who threw out a woeful 13 of 124 base stealers with Oakland and the Cubs last season, is enjoying a defensive rebirth at age 33. He's the best in baseball with a 21-for-46 success rate (46 percent).
All it took, apparently, was a mechanical adjustment. Brewers manager Ned Yost, a former catcher, watched tape during the offseason and noticed that Kendall was sitting back and waiting to catch the ball before starting his release. Yost and bench coach Ted Simmons helped Kendall address his footwork issues in spring training, and his results show his improvement.
"Now we have him moving toward the ball," Yost told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "So instead of -- bang, bang -- being safe, they're out. As soon as I saw it, I knew it would make a big difference."
Suppan makes effective use of the slide step to hasten his deliveries to home plate. Only two of seven base stealers have made the trip successfully with him on the mound.
Honorable mention: Brian Schneider (14-for-32) and Johan Santana, Mets
Remember the big fuss over the Cubs' closer competition in March? It appears that Lou Piniella made the right call in keeping Marmol as his set-up man and anointing Wood as Chicago's closer. Those 110 strikeouts and 43 hits allowed in 83 2/3 innings are testament to his foresight.
It's easy to take Marmol for granted when he's sucking up outs in the seventh and eighth every night. He's averaging 12.80 strikeouts per nine innings, and he's been borderline flawless with the exception of ERA-wrecking flare-ups against San Diego, Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh.
The big concern is overuse. Marmol is tied for fourth in the majors with 39 appearances, and he might pitch 90 innings if the Cubs aren't careful. Piniella, cognizant of Marmol's value to the club, has cut down his appearances somewhat this month (eight innings) after using Marmol for 34 2/3 innings in April and May.
Wood, the artist formerly known as Kid Rehab, has shown he can handle both the physical and emotional demands of the job. He's displayed excellent control and the willingness to pitch inside. And a 95-98 mph fastball and plus curveball and slider never hurt.
"If you haven't done that role, there's some on-the-job training no matter how good your stuff is," Hendry said. "I didn't have a doubt in my mind that Woody could do it. He has a mentality for it and he likes the action. He was made for this role."
The Cubs are counting on two things to make life easier for Marmol and Wood: (1) more consistent innings from their starters, who have carried the 13th-heaviest workload among the 30 MLB staffs and (2) a strong finish by Bob Howry, who has gotten off to the obligatory slow start with a 4.82 ERA in 36 games.
Honorable mention: Francisco Rodriguez and Scot Shields, Angels.
Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.