Thursday, May 28, 2009
Managing with a human touch
By Jayson Stark ESPN.com
Unlike love, literature and season finales of "The Bachelor," baseball is an operation that allows very little room for sentiment.
But tell that to Terry Francona in Boston, as he contemplates what to do about the face of his franchise, David Ortiz.
Tell that to Charlie Manuel in Philadelphia, as he mulls the fate of his town's most beloved 46-year-old pitcher, Jamie Moyer.
Tell two of baseball's most humane managers they should just go ahead and make franchise-altering decisions on two of their most special players as if they were human computers, spitting out the most logical spreadsheet computations. Yeah, right.
Tell them to make those decisions without ever factoring in everything that Ortiz and Moyer have done and everything they mean to their teams, inside and outside the lines. Yeah, right.
To everybody who thinks managing is all about X's, O's and who should come stomping out of the bullpen to face Albert Pujols in the eighth, we say: Guess again.
What managing really is all about is how you handle the human beings affected by every X and every O. And no current plotlines in this whole sport prove that point better than the storms swirling around Ortiz, Moyer and the men who manage them.
But these are more than just fascinating windows into managerial mindsets. They're pivotal situations in the lives of two franchises with win-the-World Series aspirations. So let's take a look at these riveting baseball stories:
The easy part of David Ortiz's story is to tell you where he's been. From 2004-07, he was the only player in the entire American League to average 40 homers, a .300 batting average, a .400 on-base percentage and a .600 slugging percentage. But that's not all he was.
He had a presence larger than his numbers, a magnetic attraction to the big moment and a charisma that transformed his franchise.
Due to his struggles at the plate, David Ortiz has been dropped to sixth in the Red Sox's lineup.
So what does a manager do when he wakes up on Memorial Day and finds a guy like that who ranks 86th (out of 88) among AL qualifiers in batting average (.195), has a lower slugging percentage (.299) than Endy Chavez and has fewer homers (one) than Yovani Gallardo?
Well, Terry Francona already knew what he was going to do. He'd known for days, he said. But he also knew there was a respectful time and place to drop Big Papi out of the No. 3 hole, and a weekend series against the Mets wasn't it.
"All week, I probably knew what was going to happen," Francona told Rumblings. "But in the middle of a series in Boston, against New York -- I wasn't going to do that to him. I didn't want to do that, to put that scrutiny on him. I knew what had to be done, but I also try to understand the magnitude of this.
"It's very easy to sit back and say, 'This guy should hit eighth, or seventh, or whatever.' But there are some repercussions that come with that. So I try to look at the big picture, even when it's not always easy to do that."
The best managers in baseball have always been men who stayed fixated on that big picture no matter what grenades were blowing up around them on any given day. But that doesn't mean it isn't a challenge. And in Ortiz's case, staying patient, for the manager of the Red Sox, meant not merely tuning out the daily talk-show eruptions, but tuning in to the psyche of a man who wasn't just another player on Francona's roster.
"I've talked to David a lot," the manager said. "I respect David so much, and I know he's very proud. So I owed him that. But also, David and I can talk so easily. When I have something to say to him, I can just say it. So we've had some great talks in the last month. He's a pretty reliable guy to me. So I can sit and talk to him. I don't have to massage it. I can say, 'This is what I see. This is what I feel.'"
So Francona felt it was important to do more than just send Ortiz to "the penalty box." In the case of a player of this stature, the manager felt it was almost mandatory to keep him involved in the thought process involved in such a momentous decision.
"When times are getting tough, you've got to make decisions," Francona said. "And everybody understands that. But there needs to be some loyalty there. There needs to be communicating -- how it gets back to everyone else, how you say it. I don't want him to think he's going through this by himself. Just because he's not hitting 50 homers, that doesn't mean we don't care about him."
So Francona gave Ortiz 40 games' worth of rope before he made a move that had to be made. Would the manager have waited that long for just anybody to get rolling? He admits he wouldn't, and that he hasn't.
In 2006, he demoted his closer (Keith Foulke) three games into the season, and turned that job over to Jonathan Papelbon, "because I just thought that kid was special and we needed to make a move."
But Keith Foulke was no Big Papi. So the fundamental question is: Did Ortiz get all that extra patience out of pure sentiment? Or was there more than that going on here?
"I don't think I've ever done something I didn't agree with just because of how I felt about a player," Francona said, adamantly.
He has always believed, he said, that he owed it to players -- all players -- to "respect what they do and how hard it is to do it," and to treat them like human beings first and players second. But does that mean players like David Ortiz deserve some sort of extra-special treatment, just because of what they've done and what they've meant?
"You left out one part of that," Francona said. "And that's: What can he do? And that last part is probably the biggest part of the equation. The biggest part is what can we do going forward to get him going, because if he gets going like he can, we don't want to miss out on that."
So all around baseball, people continue to wonder: Is David Ortiz done? But that's a question his manager isn't ready to contemplate not yet, anyway.
"Not for me," said Francona. "We're talking about a guy who has been the guy, the very best in the game for the last five or six years. Now there's no getting around it; he's had a tough month and a half. But going forward, if he gets his swing back anywhere close to what he's been, we're a different team.
"My thought process is, we have a chance to get better if we're patient. If we pull the plug and we're not patient, we have a chance to lose out on one of the better bats in the league. So we're going to stay patient, because it's in our best interest."
But hovering above that patience is the hardest question of all: Where is David Ortiz going from here? And what happens if the patience he's been afforded isn't rewarded? That's a question the manager and the Red Sox will have to face, like it or not, when the calendar hits July. But not right now, Francona said.
"Right now, he's not hitting, and it's hard," the manager said. "But we want to help. And we're trying to do it together."
The ancient warrior
He's the oldest active player in baseball (46 years, 6 months). He led the World Series champs in wins last year (with 16). And he has won more games (85) since turning 40 than Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens or Warren Spahn.
Jamie Moyer is winless in his last five starts, and has a 7.42 ERA for the season.
But at the moment, Jamie Moyer has the highest ERA (7.42) of any pitcher in the big leagues with more than 45 innings pitched. The hitters he's faced are batting .342, and slugging .603, against him. He hasn't won a game in over a month.
We know what would have happened to Moyer by now if his name were Josh Fogg, or Carlos Silva, or Horacio Ramirez. He'd be out of the rotation. He might be back in Triple-A. He might even be casting fishing lines for the rest of his life.
But Jamie Moyer isn't just another replaceable part. Not in Philadelphia, the town he grew up in, the town where he once watched a World Series parade in 1980 and the town he helped lead to another World Series parade a mere seven months ago.
And Jamie Moyer isn't just another replaceable part in the fabric of his baseball team, a team where he fills a million roles besides "starting pitcher:" mentor, wise man, this-is-how-it's-done kind of pro, autograph-scribbling liaison between players and public.
So Charlie Manuel doesn't act like a manager ready to do anything except send this man out for his next start. And the one after that. And the one after that.
"I have a lot of respect for Jamie," Manuel told Rumblings. "I knew Jamie before he ever knew me. I saw him in the minor leagues. I saw him make two big comebacks in the minor leagues, when people in baseball acted like he was done, and get back to the big leagues to stay. And he's been there now for a long time. So I have all the respect in the world for him.
"To have to make any kind of decision on him, that would definitely be tough. And I'm definitely not there yet. He gets every chance in my mind. He gets every chance, as a manager, that I could possibly give a guy, because I think that much of him."
Now, it's not as if Manuel is a man afraid to mess with his rotation. He has already gonged one starter (Chan Ho Park) this year. And last summer, he sent his opening-day starter (Brett Myers) to the minor leagues. So clearly, this is a manager who will make those tough decisions when he feels the time has arrived.
But there might not be a harder pitcher in baseball to evaluate than Jamie Moyer. Yeah, he's 46, but he won 16 games at age 45. Yeah, he throws 82 mph, but it's not as if he ever threw 98. So sure, it's complicated to decide how to handle Moyer's future. But it's no more complicated, his manager said, than it's ever been trying to decide how to handle him every night he's ever gone out there.
"It's kind of like watching him pitch a game sometimes," Manuel said. "He'll be pitching a game, and he'll give up three runs in the first inning, and he'll get out of a bases-loaded jam or something and then you know what? He might go five or six innings that night and not even give up another hit. So it's hard to know when to even take him out of a game, to tell you the truth."
If every start is a microcosm of the big picture hovering over Moyer these days, then Manuel has had 87 mini-lessons (counting Moyer's postseason starts) in exercising the same sort of patience he is trying to exercise now. So the manager will keep pushing that patience button. And he says it isn't Moyer's popularity that is buying him more time.
"To me, as a manager, that doesn't play in a whole lot," Manuel said. "I think popularity might be part of it from the organization's standpoint." But for Manuel? Not at all.
"What I weigh," the manager went on, "is what he's done in the game. And where he's been. And how many times he's regrouped in his career and got it back. And the respect I have for him. And who he is and everything. So I feel like he should be given every chance."
Miguel Cabrera led the American League in homers last year, and he is leading the league in batting average this year. Should he win the batting title, he would become only the third active player who has led his league in both of those categories at some point in his career. Can you name the others? (Answer later.)
Some day, Manuel knows, somebody is going to have to look at Jamie Moyer and decide whether this is the end. That's no slap at the Phillies' ancient warrior. That's just reality. And no manager alive would like to have to make that call.
But like Francona and Ortiz, Manuel and Moyer have a special, trusting relationship. So Manuel says he has a feeling that "knowing him, I think he'll tell you if he knows he can't pitch anymore."
"I think he's that kind of guy," the manager said. "I think he's an upstanding kind of guy. And I think who he is, that's going to dictate how long he pitches, too. In the end, I think that he'll know when he can't pitch."
If it turns out to be that simple, that clear-cut, then at least the weight of that earthshaking decision wouldn't all rest above the manager's eyebrows. But history tells us it's rarely that easy, because it's even harder for a player to know when the end is here than it is for the men who manage them.
So for Charlie Manuel, for Terry Francona, every day is just one more walk along managing's most difficult tightrope. Some day, they might have to do something they dread. But for now, they're doing everything they can to treat two of their most unique employees not just as baseball players, but as men.
Ready to rumble
Still Jake-ing it: You'd think the Padres' 10-game winning streak would have caused them to back off on their Jake Peavy sales pitches, at least temporarily. But baseball men we've surveyed say that's not the case. The Padres are still telling teams that Peavy remains available, and their intent is to deal him as soon as something comes along that works for him and both clubs involved. Among the tidbits we've picked up since that deal with the White Sox died last week:
1. Peavy never seriously contemplated approving that White Sox trade -- at least for now -- and never even got to the point where he or agent Barry Axelrod informed the White Sox they would need his 2013 option year guaranteed (at $22 million). So the White Sox's willingness to discuss that possibility was a non-factor.
2. Peavy remains locked in on staying in the National League. And if he's going to change leagues, the Angels appear to be the one club he'd actually think about.
3. Almost anywhere he goes, Peavy will want his partial no-trade clause in 2011-13 converted into a full no-trade. He has a complete no-trade through 2010.
4. His preference is still to stay in the Pacific time zone, as close to his new home in San Diego as possible. So the Dodgers would now loom as his first choice, assuming those two teams could ever find a way to do business. But while Peavy might have done a quick thumbs-down on the White Sox, the Cubs still appear to rank second on his wish list.
5. And once you get beyond the Cubs and Dodgers, his next tier of preferred destinations appears to include the Giants, Cardinals and Astros (because of his friendship with Roy Oswalt). Then the Brewers would lag slightly behind that group. East Coast teams like the Phillies, Mets, Yankees and Red Sox would probably have to jump through so many hoops and offer so many dollars and perks, we'd bet heavily against Peavy winding up in the Eastern time zone any time soon.
Jake-ing one more: Here's a tale we've heard a couple of different times, from people tight with Oswalt: The Astros ace has lobbied on multiple occasions with owner Drayton McLane to get his club to make a run at Peavy. But that conversation is said to have ended when McLane turned to Oswalt and asked: "Are you gonna pay for half the contract?"
Phil 'er up: Is there a prominent starting pitcher in the July shoppers' catalogue that the Phillies haven't looked into? Clubs all over baseball report that the Phillies are, as one exec put it, "looking everywhere for starters." And for once, he said, "they've got pieces to give" to get one.
The list of pitchers they've called on, from what we've heard, includes every conceivable usual suspect: Oswalt, Peavy, Brandon Webb, Roy Halladay, Doug Davis, Erik Bedard, Cliff Lee, Aaron Harang, Brad Penny, Chris Young and Jason Marquis.
But which Phillies prospects are clubs targeting? The group we're hearing starts with three Triple-A names the Phillies have balked at dealing in the past -- catcher Lou Marson, infielder Jason Donald and pitcher Carlos Carrasco -- plus catcher Travis D'Arnaud, shortstop Freddy Galvis, pitcher Kyle Drabek and outfielder Dominic Brown (all in A-ball).
Then there's a left-hander who is climbing everybody's charts, Antonio Bastardo, who has a 50-9 strikeout-walk ratio between Double-A and Triple-A. The Phillies dangled Bastardo in July for Rockies reliever Brian Fuentes. But a year later, he is actually drawing some Johan Santana comparisons, and might have passed Carrasco as their No. 1 pitching prospect.
Brave old world: You can add the Braves to the list of teams with interest in their old buddy, Mark DeRosa. Cleveland wants pitching back, and the Braves are one club with a pitching surplus. But teams that have spoken with Atlanta say the Braves' entire prospective rotation (including Tommy Hanson) is off-limits. And they would want a significant return for Jo-Jo Reyes, Charlie Morton or Kris Medlen.
The Braves would obviously talk about dealing young arms for an impact bat, a la Matt Holliday. But they've been telling clubs that if they give up young players for any hitter with a hefty paycheck, they would expect the team they're dealing with to pick up a major chunk of the salary.
As for those reports that the Braves are looking to move Jeff Francoeur, clubs we've talked to say they're mostly listening, in part because they need to add bats, not subtract them, and in part because no one is too sure of Francoeur's true value anymore, including the Braves themselves.
Who's on first? While the Mets have explored the first-base market, we hear: (A) they don't like their options, (B) they think they'll have more and better options by July, (C) they're still holding out hope that Carlos Delgado will be back and (D) they see no urgency to strike now as long as they're surviving all their injuries and hanging in the race. So they look more like July shoppers than springtime shoppers, for now.
Giant shadows: The Giants continue to step up their efforts to dangle Jonathan Sanchez and/or pitching prospects for a middle-of-the-order bat. They were shot down by Florida on Dan Uggla and Jorge Cantu. And we also heard a rumor they were scouting Carlos Lee, a guy they hotly pursued as a free agent three winters ago. But Lee has a full no-trade through 2010. And one club that inquired about him over the winter says it was told Lee has already informed the Astros he's "not going anywhere" as long as his no-trade is in place.
Passing the Bucco: According to an official of one team that spoke with the Pirates, Pittsburgh has almost no interest in moving any of its young pitching. The only exception: free-agent-to-be John Grabow. But Jack Wilson remains eminently available. And scouts that have followed the Pirates say he could help a contender like Boston.
"I'll tell you what," said one scout. "Jack Wilson is a real good player, and he never has his name mentioned when people talk about shortstops. You know, I actually think he has less trade value than he should because he's never mentioned in the media. That shouldn't be true, but I really believe that even other GMs are suspicious of small-market players. But I think Jack Wilson is a winning player."
Odd Roy out? There are still no indications that the Astros are open to dealing Roy Oswalt, according to teams that have felt them out. But scouts who have watched Oswalt lately think he's pitching like a guy who needs a change of scene.
"It's time," said one scout. "The way he's going, I'm actually convinced that team could win more games with the pitchers they get back than they'll win with him pitching the way he's pitching. He's lost his edge. I really think that if he went to a more competitive club, he'd come back to a more competitive plateau himself. He's just not pitching with the kind of commitment a No. 1 starter has to his team."
The welcome Matt: America's favorite catching prospect, Matt Wieters, arrives in Baltimore this weekend. But before you project him as your every-day fantasy catcher, here's something that might shock you:
Only twice since the first week of the season has he caught more than two days in a row. After Wieters tweaked his hamstring in April, he's generally spent one game as a DH for every two at catcher. So there are quite a few scouts questioning whether he's ready to catch in the big leagues.
"I think he'll hit enough that nobody will complain," one scout said. "But I just don't see him as a catcher. For a while, I thought maybe it was just me. So I asked around, and other guys said the same thing: Move him to first base."
The Smoltz watch: Scouts who have seen John Smoltz's rehab starts report that he's showing the effects of his shoulder surgery, but that doesn't mean he can't make an impact on the Red Sox in the second half.
"He's not as free and easy as he used to be," one scout said. "He's got to force and push more than he used to. And his velocity is 86 to 91 [mph] on the fastball, and 81-82-83 on the slider. But he still has command. He still has the will. And he still shows you he can make the big pitch when he has to. So he's probably more like a fourth starter than a No. 1. But he's a guy who could give them some good outings down the road."
Battle of the bandboxes: It was just last week in Rumblings that we presented evidence, through hittrackeronline.com's exhaustive home run data, that it was at least possible that too much was being made of the wind-tunnel effect on home runs at new Yankee Stadium.
But this week we surveyed players from another team that plays in a hitter's palace, the Phillies, after they returned from their first visit to the House That A-Rod Built. And after a series that featured a seven-homer game and a broken-bat home run (by Mark Teixeira), they voted, just about unanimously, that Citizens Bank Park is a regular Petco compared to the new crib in the Bronx. One typical reaction:
"There's some sort of tornado effect," Jayson Werth said. "The wind comes in, swirls circularly and creates an upshoot -- because fly balls actually shoot up
"I know it was only three days. But I think the ball definitely flies better there than [in Philadelphia]. In Philly, the park can play big at times. I don't know if that park in New York can play big, because there's nowhere for the wind to blow in. The place is so closed, there's nowhere for the air to get in and blow balls back."
Addendum to last week's trivia question: As approximately 1.7 trillion readers have checked in to tell us, Vladimir Guerrero was 24 in 1999 when he drove in 131 runs -- not 23, as our trivia answer reported. Unfortunately, the source for that answer, Lee Sinins' otherwise sensational Complete Baseball Encyclopedia, was released before Guerrero revealed this March that he'd been fibbing about his age for his entire career. So the computer was convinced Guerrero was a year younger than all you trivia-question addicts now know he actually is. Sorry to cause all that consternation. Can we blame it on the U.S. Customs department?
The Rumblings scouting bureau
More insight from America's foremost scouting minds:
• On Tigers starter Rick Porcello: "He's not a pure power guy. He's more like a Todd Stottlemyre-type, but a better pitcher overall. He's not dominating, but he's got a great curveball and very good feel for what he's trying to accomplish. I see him as a steady, 16- to 18-game winner. And that's not bad."
• On Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon: "It's just fastball after fastball. It's almost like he wants to be Mariano Rivera and show he can be a great one-pitch closer, and he can't do it. He's got good secondary stuff. He just doesn't use it as much as he should."
• On Phillies closer Brad Lidge: "Fastball command is his key, and he acts like he's afraid of that pitch. He doesn't trust his ability to throw that pitch where he wants to."
• On Braves right fielder Jeff Francoeur: "I'm one of the people who thinks he still has plenty left in the tank. All I know is, he was on a decent roll in spring training, when he went 48, 49 straight plate appearances without a punchout. Now it's like he's fallen back into his old habits. He's going back to what got him in trouble in the first place."
List of the week: The no-homer club
Among the places you can still find a donut in the old home run column:
Angels leadoff men
Pirates leadoff men
Dodgers No. 5 hitters
Rays second basemen
Mets second basemen
Twins center fielders
White Sox center fielders
Quotes of the week
From Albert Pujols, after he was asked whether he expected the Cardinals to bill him for knocking out the lights in the "I" with a home run into Big Mac Land last week:
"Nah. I'm expecting a Big Mac."
From laid-back Cubs manager Lou Piniella, after a week that included a dazzling Carlos Zambrano tirade, Ryan Dempster's assault on the dugout Gatorade dispenser and Ted Lilly's ejection from a game he wasn't even pitching:
"I'm the only calm, cool and collected one around here."
From Phillies behemoth Ryan Howard, after a bizarre game in Yankee Stadium last weekend in which he hit no homers but did have two infield hits and a stolen base:
"I don't know of anybody in baseball who maximizes their speed any better than that."
Headliner of the week
From the always-entertaining Chicago parody site, theheckler.com, on the real reason Jake Peavy turned down that deal to the White Sox:
Peavy Unwilling To Give Up 7-Bedroom Ocean Side Property For Trailer In Bridgeview
Late-nighter of the week
From David Letterman: "Boy, at the Yankee game the other night, Larry King threw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium. I saw that and I said, 'Wow, this guy is actually old enough to be in the Yankees' starting rotation.'"
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.