Wednesday, August 26, 2009
Hoping for a September to remember
By Jerry Crasnick
September is a time for college dorm openings, Jerry Lewis sightings, foliage tours to begin booking seats and the NFL's preseason Super Bowl odds to take final shape.
In baseball, the month is noteworthy for scoreboard watching, award ballots to crystallize and late-season call-ups trying to make an impression as the rosters expand.
Kids and contenders aren't the only ones with something riding on September. For the veteran player near the end, a strong finish might mean the difference between another contract and a retirement announcement. For the manager under the gun, a few more victories in September could help convince ownership that the team is still engaged and it's too early to pull the plug.
In this week's installment of Starting 9, we take a look at players, managers and executives whose job status and outlook for 2010 could be affected by how events transpire over the final month of the season. Best of luck, guys.
Pick a Met
Things change quickly -- and inevitably for the worse -- in the summer of 2009 in Flushing.
Two days ago, reliever J.J. Putz would have made this list. The Mets weren't likely to exercise his $8.6 million option for 2010, but Putz could have helped his cause in free agency by showing he was healthy. Then he suffered a setback in his rehab from a elbow injury, and now he's out for the season.
The news isn't great for Carlos Delgado, either. He was hoping to return from hip surgery in September to showcase his skills in advance of free agency. But he recently suffered an oblique strain, and the timetable for his return is hazy.
Finally, there's Gary Sheffield, who was having a nice bounce-back year before resurrecting his "time bomb" reputation with a contract snit last week. The furor came and went, and Sheffield needs to keep his mouth shut and continue to produce. Judging from that .282/.371/.462 line, he still has something to offer.
"He's going to have some challenges because of this," said a National League official. "If he had just behaved, some teams might have jumped at him. If he plays the way he's played all year, he has a chance. But he has some explaining to do."
General manager Omar Minaya and manager Jerry Manuel are both under scrutiny, but owner Fred Wilpon's endorsement of Minaya lowered the temperature a little bit. All those injuries and the three years left on his contract mean Minaya will be around when the Mets assemble for spring training in Port St. Lucie. Barring an 8-23 caliber collapse in the final month, so will Manuel.
J.P. Ricciardi, Blue Jays GM
Ricciardi is characteristically blunt when asked about speculation that his run with Toronto is in jeopardy after eight seasons.
"There are people in the media up here who've wanted me out of here for a long time," Ricciardi said. "They have their own agenda, and if they write that, they write that. No one from ownership has told me anything. And I don't stay up at night worrying about it."
The Roy Halladay trade frenzy was just the most notable episode in a turbulent season for Toronto. The Jays have gone 30-52 since a 27-14 start. They dumped B.J. Ryan and ate $15 million in salary, gave away Alex Rios on a waiver claim by the White Sox, traded Scott Rolen to Cincinnati, and have introduced a slew of rookies in a season that's been wrecked by injuries.
Ricciardi's relationship with CEO Paul Beeston is believed to be quite strong -- contrary to what you might hear in MLB press boxes -- but Beeston's future is also unclear. He's holding down the job in Toronto on an interim basis, and is looking for a successor even though commissioner Bud Selig has lobbied him to stick around and continue running the club. Beeston couldn't be reached for comment on Ricciardi's status.
Martinez has a 5.14 ERA in his first three appearances (2-0) with the Phillies, but he's struck out 13 batters in 14 innings and been clocked as high as 92 mph on the gun. Thus far, the reviews are mixed.
"With the state of pitching, the way it is, this guy should be able to help somebody even if he's half of what he used to be," said a National League executive.
But that's not a universal sentiment -- yet.
"I'm trying to give him the benefit of the doubt, because he hasn't had a lot of starts and he's still working his way back," said an NL talent evaluator. "But I just don't think he has a whole lot left. He can still lay a changeup on you and strike you out, but his fastball velocity and command just aren't the same. He has so little margin for error now."
At a career mark of 216-99, with three Cy Young Awards, Martinez is a Hall of Fame lock. But he's still horsing around, having fun and acting like a guy who cherishes each minute at the ballpark. Even if he doesn't fit into the Phillies' plans for 2010, a positive audition is sure to put him on the radar with a lot of other clubs this winter.
Eric Wedge, Indians manager
General manager Mark Shapiro held firm and refused to fire Wedge in the middle of the season, but his status will be a prominent topic of discussion when the Indians conduct a top-to-bottom organizational review this winter.
Amid questions about Wedge's bullpen management and penchant for tinkering with lineups, the biggest issue is how poorly the last two Cleveland teams have played out of the chute. Last year, the Indians rallied to finish at .500 after bottoming out at 37-53. This year they were 35-54 at the All-Star break, and they're 20-16 since.
It's a good news, bad news scenario: The Indians refuse to mail it in under Wedge and run balls out from April through September. But when they're buried in the standings by May, who cares?
Although Shapiro will make the call based strictly on his baseball judgment, public sentiment in Cleveland is weighing heavily against Wedge's return. The Indians were expecting to draw 2.2 million fans this year, and they're likely to come in around 1.8 million. Bringing back Wedge will not be a boon to season-ticket sales in 2010.
Jim Riggleman, Nationals interim manager
Riggleman has led the Nationals to a 19-20 record since taking over for Manny Acta, but much of that success has come against San Diego, Arizona, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and the Mets. The schedule looks more challenging in September, with lots of games against the Phillies, Dodgers, Marlins and Braves.
Riggleman is a steady presence, respected for his depth of baseball knowledge and lack of ego. Although he's patient and generally upbeat, he's shown his competitive side by popping a vein in his neck once or twice in response to bad calls.
Once a managerial hotshot, Riggleman has posted a .446 winning percentage in 1,214 games covering four stops. His new reputation is that of Mr. Fix-it -- the veteran coach who'll step in and help a team navigate hard times in an emergency.
Mike Rizzo, Washington's new general manager, paid his dues to get his dream job, so he'll be inclined to give Riggleman a fair shot. But numerous questions linger: How much input will Rizzo, president Stan Kasten and the Lerner family have in the hiring process? When do the Nats actually expect to be competitive? And do they feel the need to hire a manager with some cachet who can fill some of those empty seats at Nationals Park?
After 40 forgettable innings in Boston, Smoltz struck out nine batters in five shutout innings in his first start as a Cardinal. The performance generated hope that he'll join Jeff Weaver, Kyle Lohse, Joel Pineiro and numerous other pitchers on the list of David Duncan revival stories.
"It looks like he drank the magic potion, huh?" said a National League executive.
Now that Smoltz has officially outlasted Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, and there's no chance of a "Three Amigos" induction ceremony in Cooperstown in 2014, why not prolong the fun?
Agent Keith Grunewald said Smoltz "is definitely interested" in pitching in 2010. With a few more solid outings and a strong postseason, Smoltz can only enhance his chances of returning to St. Louis or finding another comfortable place to land. In the aftermath of his Boston experience, rest assured that it will be with a National League club.
Dave Trembley, Orioles manager
It's hard not to pull for Trembley. He spent 20 years and 2,782 games in the minor leagues waiting for his big opportunity. He's funny, engaging, knows the game and is respected by his peers. If you saw how warmly Jim Leyland greeted him when the Tigers were in Baltimore earlier this season, you'd know.
When the Orioles hired Trembley as full-time manager in 2007, the conventional wisdom was that he'd baby-sit a young team until the O's were "ready to win." Two years later, the Orioles still aren't ready, and Trembley is in limbo. General manager Andy MacPhail has committed to keeping Trembley through the end of the season, but nothing beyond that.
The Orioles are 11-26 since the All-Star break. Although they've made a staggering number of baserunning gaffes and fundamental errors, many of the transgressions have come from the team's veterans rather than the kids. It's also hard to fault Trembley and pitching coach Rick Kranitz for the team's 5.05 ERA when the Orioles have given 73 starts to rookie pitchers, 13 starts to Rich Hill and eight more to Adam Eaton this season.
Things got a little testy recently when third baseman Melvin Mora complained about a lack of playing time and ripped Trembley for "disrespecting" him. But that was more a case of Melvin being Melvin than an indictment of the manager
The Orioles have an option on Trembley for 2010. If they decline to exercise it and make a change, it's hard to see what purpose it will serve. Ray Miller, Mike Hargrove, Lee Mazzilli, Perlozzo and Trembley have all failed to produce .500 teams since 1998, so the franchise's problems run deeper than the manager.
Cecil Cooper, Astros manager
Houston general manager Ed Wade declined to address Cooper's status in a brief interview before leaving on the Astros' last road trip.
"I don't do votes of confidence," Wade said. "When you get into a situation of assessing somebody's job status at particular point in time, there's just no value to that."
Considering how shaky Houston's starting rotation looked on Opening Day -- and the fact that the Astros have placed 18 players on the disabled list a total of 20 times -- the team is about where it should be in the standings. But Cooper has still been at the center of some needless storms this summer.
Cooper held a team meeting in June to apologize after neglecting to congratulate Pudge Rodriguez for breaking Carlton Fisk's record for games caught. The Houston players reportedly tuned Cooper out this summer, and the local media have variously described him as "angry" and "defensive."
A National League scout who's spent a lot of time watching the Astros thinks Cooper's strategic missteps have outweighed his positives. It's tough to live down intentionally walking Nick Johnson to face Hanley Ramirez.
"It's like he manages inning to inning rather than three innings down the road," the scout said. "I think he'd be better off as a first-base coach and working with hitters. He's had some good moments, but a lot of questionable moments as far as how he addresses and reacts to situations."
The return to Oakland was a fiasco (as in .193 with 11 homers in 328 at-bats), but Giambi found new life when the Rockies signed him to a minor league deal. Now he has a chance to contribute for a young team with legitimate postseason aspirations.
The steroid baggage notwithstanding, Giambi has always been a good clubhouse guy. During a press conference with Triple-A Colorado Springs, he talked about his excitement over playing in the National League for the first time, and expressed no reservations about his new role as a bat off the bench for manager Jim Tracy.
"There is no small role when a team's in the pennant race," Giambi said. "I've been in a lot of them over my career and it's exciting to watch those guys play."
This might well be the final stop for Giambi. But if he's productive in Colorado, shows he's healthy and is willing to accept a minor league invite and the prospect of 200 to 250 at-bats, maybe he can squeeze out another season as a DH-pinch hitter. If Mark Sweeney could stick around until age 38, don't count out Giambi at 39.
Others of note: Andy Pettitte, Yankees; Pudge Rodriguez, Rangers; Vicente Padilla, Dodgers; Ken Griffey Jr., Mariners; Jose Contreras, White Sox; Randy Johnson, Giants; Ken Macha, Brewers; Trey Hillman, Royals.
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.