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Don't blame the managers
By Peter Gammons
Special to ESPN.com
Buck Showalter knows it's coming, but while he says "it's hard to debate with some of the inaccuracies in a local paper," he'll go quietly. On a Friday in which he was savaged, he presented Dusty Baker with a silver toothpick holder and went on with his business.
Gene Lamont has known for a month that it's coming, but asked to finish the season with dignity and refused comment until it becomes official Monday. Terry Francona figures it's coming, but has pushed on with his boundless energy. Jack McKeon has effectively said nothing, knowing for weeks that his time as a major-league manager is likely done.
Lamont, of course, is not the reason the Pirates did not fulfill Kevin McClatchy's goal of 90 wins; a lot of things went wrong, from pitching injuries to Chad Hermansen batting .224 -- in Nashville. Francona is not the reason the Phillies, who still don't know about a ballpark and seem frozen in the headlights with a $45 million payroll in an $80 million division, disappointed. McKeon is hardly the sole reason the Reds didn't win 96 games again, just as Tom Kelly, Davey Johnson, Larry Dierker, Larry Rothschild and the other bubble managers weren't the causes for their teams' struggles.
The ugliest scenario is Boston, ever the "dysfunctional family" as Derek Lowe put it. Because there is no one representing ownership who can seemingly deal with the rift between Dan Duquette and Jimy Williams -- one that people in the organization says was "frigid" going back to last December's winter meetings -- two stubborn individuals spent too much energy the last two months in a tug-of-war.
There is no right side, no wrong side to these battles; as Steve Phillips articulated this spring, there are few manager-general manager relationships these days that aren't rocky. And as uncommunicative as Duquette can be, he is not the only GM who wants to select the roster -- Phillips, Billy Beane, Pat Gillick and a lot of very successful GMs make no bones about their perception of the relative roles. Maybe the best thing is for Duquette to approach Chuck LaMar or Gillick and propose a deal for his manager, then go out and, if he feels it would be too risky at this time to turn the job over to minor-league field coordinator Dave Jauss, get Showalter or trade for Felipe Alou.
If he were able to hire another manager with whom he didn't fight over Michael Coleman, Sang Lee and Izzy Alcantara, would Duquette admit that micromanagement -- right down to neutering their domestic scouting staff -- is as much a problem as Williams' stubbornness? There's a reason the same complaints that were heard in the Kevin Kennedy clubhouse are now heard in the Jimy Williams clubhouse, with fingers pointed upwards.
In every one of the situations that necessitates the firing of managers, such a question can be asked, be it Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, Los Angeles or Houston. You can be certain LaMar has already looked long and hard in the mirror, as has Cam Bonifay and Gerry Hunsicker and Jim Bowden.
What's interesting about the Arizona situation isn't that Showalter is not without fault; he is, in terms of control and issues in his players' eyes. But some of those at the top and around the top of that franchise -- not the good men like Joe Garagiola and Sandy Johnson, but the non-baseball men -- are seemingly still under the delusion they are reinventing the game. They won 100 games in their second season, and in the third they dropped in attendance for a second straight year. They have borrowed so much money to win right away that they face potential cash flow problems, and the minor-league system is shallow as well. Jerry Colangelo's problem was that he didn't understand baseball management and gave his manager the same kind of authority the Celtics heirs gave Rick Pitino, which didn't work, either.
And for all the faults in Tampa Bay, from the market to the ballpark to the community perception of owner Vince Naimoli, when the dust settles and the teams have established their identities, the Devil Rays will have a far better team than Arizona. It takes eight years to develop a consistent talent base; ask Bobby Cox about taking over the Braves in November 1985. Take the three best-run expansion franchises: the Blue Jays, Royals and Mets were all built on scouting and development, and started winning in their ninth, eighth and seventh years, respectively. Oh, some point to the Rockies and Marlins as success stories, but they have each been in business eight years, each has been to one postseason and each is now in the upper stage of rebuilding, right on the same schedule as the Jays, Royals and Mets.
"We tried to speed our timetable up and go above .500 by spending some money last winter," says LaMar. "We all see it didn't work out too well. We were devastated by injuries, but there's nothing we can do about that. But we made a couple of deals at the trading deadline to lower payroll and bring some talent in, and now we have to get back to building this franchise. And from what we've seen these last couple of weeks (especially beating up on the Yankees so badly that George Steinbrenner stomped out in the seventh inning of Thursday's game), we can see some light. But it's not going to come overnight. The timetable for developing an expansion franchise the right way doesn't change."
Unless ownership decides to slash payroll, the Rays likely will not rush into their next stage. Brent Abernathy, acquired from Toronto, looks like a keeper at second base and played superbly for the Olympic team; he could be ready for 2001. But while Aubrey Huff can hit, he may need more work at third, and catcher Toby Hall and outfielder Jason Tyner could each use more time in Triple-A. It may take a few more minor-league starts for Travis Harper, Jason Standridge, Matt White, Olympian Bobby Seay, Jesus Colome and Dan Wheeler to be ready for the American League.
So the plan is to keep Vinny Castilla, Fred McGriff, Gerald Williams, John Flaherty, Roberto Hernandez and Juan Guzman to open the season. By July, especially if Castilla and Guzman are healthy, LaMar should be able to get a half dozen more prospects for all those players whose contracts are up at the end of the 2001 season. And by then the Rays' Double-A outfield of Josh Hamilton, Carl Crawford and Kenny Kelly will be ready. If they finish with the worst record -- which their late run over the Yankees and Red Sox may kill -- then by August they will have switch-hitting Georgia Tech third baseman Mark Teixeira in Double-A, and their scouts believe Teixeira is the best college hitter they've ever seen.
Rothschild may be sacrificed this week, although neither LaMar or Naimoli will imply that he was the problem, or that Rothschild ever stopped working his heart out. But the organization, from scouting to development, is in place and there are great young players on the horizon.
If the people who walk so proud and talk so loud and thought they were reinventing baseball in Arizona think Buck Showalter is the only reason the D-Backs are finishing with the sixth- or seventh-best record in the National League, then reality may not seep in until 2003. By then they may be wishing they'd given Joe Garagiola the kind of authority LaMar has and that they had been more like the Devil Rays.
Yankees' struggles open up AL playoffs
"If Cleveland could get through the crack and get into this thing, they could get to the World Series despite their bullpen problems," says a rival GM. The Yankees seemed a lock three weeks ago, but now the injury to Roger Clemens' thigh makes them less invincible, as does Denny Neagle's collapse, the middle relief problems, no RBI from Scott Brosius since September 10, no run scored from Paul O'Neill since September 12 and the infield uncertainty.
Can the Yankees turn it back on? Of course, especially if Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Orlando Hernandez pitch well, because that's still the best top three in the playoffs. It may be that Joe Torre uses Chuck Knoblauch as DH and a Jose Vizcaino/Luis Sojo platoon at second, as he seems to have tired of the all-or-nothing strikeouts from Jose Canseco.
If the Yankees are knocked out early, it will be interesting to see how Steinbrenner reacts. If he feels he must upgrade offensively, then his two veteran driving wheels, O'Neill and Tino Martinez, would seem the most likely to be sacrificed to sign Manny Ramirez or trade for a Mo Vaughn (a popular choice, but not a Yankee Stadium hitter). Several GMs believe Manny will be a Yankee, for what it's worth. If Cleveland is on the outside looking in for the playoffs, then New York's experience still means something; their roster has been through 288 clinches, as calculated by Buster Olney of the New York Times, with David Cone, O'Neill and Mike Stanton going through 16 apiece.
Vaughn, who has been overshadowed by Darin Erstad, Troy Glaus and Garret Anderson, clearly misses the safety net of Fenway Park's wall, for his swing is completely different from the one that hit between .300 and .337 his last five years in Boston. Vaughn said this week that he wants to meet with Angels president Tony Tavarez and GM Bill Stoneman this week to discuss what direction the club is going and which pitchers he thinks they should add. If he's not happy with the answers he said he would be open to a deal.
News and notes
The next A's?
In almost every case, the answer was "Kansas City."
They have developed a pretty good starting rotation the last six weeks, with Dan Reichert, Blake Stein (who's starting to get it), Jeff Suppan and Brian Meadows joining Jose Rosado, presuming he comes back to his All-Star form. They are happy with Kris Wilson and would like to re-sign Bottalico and have Shawn Sonnier (2.25 ERA, 64 IP, 41 H, 23 BB, 90 K) coming out of the minors.
They can mash, and if GM Allard Baird can find a catcher, they have a very good team. That is ... if they can afford it. Baird is trying to extend Johnny Damon, Mike Sweeney and Jermaine Dye, but whether or not David Glass' payroll will allow it is another story. Damon is a fifth-year arbitration case and has indicated he'd like to stay with the Royals, but at what price? "I look at players and look at three things," says Baird, "ability, character and durability. Johnny fits all three counts, so we're going to try our best."
Bring on the lefties!
Calling around, here are some suggestions of left-handed starters who can take off next year: Pittsburgh's Jimmy Anderson, if he gets a defense behind him; Anaheim's Scott Schoeneweis, once he gets a changeup to go with the best groundball/flyball ratio in the AL; Baltimore's John Parrish; the Cubs' Joey Nation; Minnesota's Johan Santana, especially if he gets a couple of months in the minors. A lot of people still like the Yankees' Randy Keisler and Mark Buehrle of the White Sox.
Everyone knows about Sabathia, Seattle's Ryan Anderson and Kansas City's Chris George, potential front-line starters. Scouts offered a few more names on the rise: Montreal's Josh Girdley, Atlanta's Horacio Ramirez, K.C.'s Mike Stodolka. And others still have hopes for Seay, Arizona's Nick Bierbrodt and Florida's Geoff Goetz.
But there is one hugely overrated factor -- benching left-handed batters against left-handed pitchers. Many lefty pitchers are better against right-handed batters, especially the inferior right-handers many end up seeing. Jimy Williams drove Red Sox fans crazy by not letting Trot Nixon hit against lefties. Check this list of left-handed batters who through Wednesday had at least 150 at-bats against left-handed pitchers: Damon, O'Neill, Jason Giambi, Tino Martinez and Fred McGriff were all benched against lefties at some point in their careers.
Lefty hitters vs. lefty pitchers (min. 150 at-bats)
Player AB H AVG Johnny Damon, K.C. 166 59 .355 Paul O'Neill, N.Y. 153 54 .353 Darin Erstad, Ana. 205 69 .337 Garret Anderson, Ana. 185 61 .330 Carlos Delgado, Tor. 181 59 .326 Jason Giambi, Oak. 168 53 .315 Matt Lawton, Min. 162 48 .296 Tino Martinez, N.Y. 168 48 .286 Steve Finley, Ari. 156 43 .276 Fred McGriff, Tam. 157 43 .274 Jim Edmonds, Stl. 150 41 .273 Ben Grieve, Oak. 184 50 .272 Ken Griffey Jr., Cin. 152 40 .263 Shawn Green, L.A. 178 46 .258 Bobby Higginson, Det. 176 45 .256 Terrence Long, Oak. 161 41 .255 Luis Gonzalez, Ari. 175 44 .251 Jeromy Burnitz, Mil. 158 38 .241 Mo Vaughn, Ana. 187 38 .203
Now, there are some left-handed pitchers who bury lefties, and sometimes -- as is the case with Al Leiter -- that is learned. Here are the best:
Left-handed pitchers vs. left-handed hitters (min. 20 at-bats)
Pitcher HR SLG AVG Al Leiter, N.Y. 3 .235 .118 Mike Myers, Col. 1 .200 .121 Greg Swindell, Ari. 2 .236 .160 Kelly Wunsch, Chi. 1 .248 .168 Doug Creek, Tam. 1 .256 .174 Felix Heredia, Chi. 2 .333 .179 B.J. Ryan, Bal. 1 .291 .182 Dennys Reyes, Cin. 2 .310 .183 Vic Darensbourg, Fla. 2 .321 .192 Brian Bohanon, Col. 5 .337 .196 Gabe White, Col. 4 .343 .196 Armando Almanza, Fla. 1 .333 .197 Buddy Groom, Bal. 2 .282 .200 John Rocker, Atl. 1 .286 .200 Ray King, Mil. 1 .306 .204 Randy Johnson, Ari. 0 .232 .207
The midway point for all left-handed pitchers against left-handed batter -- taking everyone with 20 or more plate appearances -- is .250. Among those pitchers who fared worse against lefties:
Pitcher HR SLG AVG Jamie Moyer, Sea. 5 .450 .281 Mark Redman, Min. 5 .450 .282 Jeff Wallace, Pit. 3 .490 .286 Mike Magnante, Oak. 2 .397 .288 Denny Neagle, N.Y. 8 .472 .289 Terry Mulholland, Atl. 2 .388 .293 Scott Schoeneweis, Ana. 4 .399 .294 Omar Daal, Phi. 6 .496 .298 Glendon Rusch. N.Y. 3 .411 .304 Jimmy Anderson, Pit. 5 .500 .305 Jim Parque, Chi. 5 .449 .308 Dennis Cook, N.Y. 3 .460 .310 Kenny Rogers, Tex. 5 .512 .316 Mike Sirotka, Chi. 7 .486 .318 Billy Wagner, Hou. 3 .679 .321 Matt Perisho, Tex. 4 .468 .324 Doug Davis, Tex. 4 .506 .325 Mike Stanton, N.Y. 3 .508 .339 John Halama, Sea. 4 .506 .340 Mark Mulder, Oak. 4 .523 .368
The moral of the story is that kneejerk platooning is overrated.
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