Archive for July, 2008
Sunday, July 13th, 2008
As The Deadline Approaches: There is a common notion now abroad among baseball analysts that, at least during the dog days of July,Â the baseball world is divided intoÂ two kinds of people — “buyers” andÂ “sellers.” These wordsÂ are used to denote whether a team is contending or not and, therefore, whether it will shuck itself of unwanted contracts, underperforming players, or stars who can bring in a bevy of new prospects. And so it is that Ken Rosenthal of Fox SportsÂ is reporting that Jon Rauch has drawn interest from the Rays,Â Red Sox and Diamondbacks.
ButÂ here’s the real shocker:Â Rosenthal is alsoÂ reporting that Jim Bowden is taking a close look at the Rockies Matt Holliday.Â
Holliday is a veteran slugger, a team player with post-season experienceÂ and affordable. Holliday isÂ signed through next season andÂ he’s still young, with seven to ten years of good baseballÂ ahead of him. But, whileÂ the willingness of Jim Bowden to trade Rauch forÂ prospects might beÂ understandable,Â giving those same prospects (or virtually so) back to Colorado is more than a little puzzling.
StillÂ it’s possible to forge an intriguingÂ model for how this might work. After all,Â the Nats are competing in the same market as the Rockies, who are danglingÂ reliever Brian FuentesÂ to the same teams –Â the Rays, Red Sox and D-Backs.Â My hunch is that the Rays are more in the market forÂ Xavier NadyÂ than HollidayÂ and might preferÂ Pittsburgh’s Damaso Marte to eitherÂ Rauch or Fuentes. Then too, it seems unlikely that the Rockies would trade Fuentes to the Snakes,Â a division rival.Â Yet, the Rockies are known to covet a number of Arizona prospects soÂ . . .Â Â so Rauch goes to Arizona and the D-Back’s prospectsÂ go to the Nats, who then package them forÂ Holiday.
Or Not:Â The Rockies are known to be in the market forÂ young players to round out the core that got themÂ to the 2007 World Series. There’sÂ only one piece missing:Â starting pitching. The Snakes might have sinker-baller Brooks Brown available, as well as RHP Hector Ambriz andÂ Barry Enright, who theÂ D-Backs think is the pitching equivalent of Ryan Zimmerman: he’s ready for the big leagues now.Â But the D-Backs would never trade these guys to Colorado and it seemsÂ unlikely the SnakesÂ would send them to DC if they believed that Jim Bowden would turn around and send them to the Rockies for Holliday.Â Â Â
But this begs the question.Â Why would the Nats be willing to give upÂ prospects for Matt Holliday, when every piece of evidence we haveÂ is that the Kasten-Bowden tag team is doing everything they can to stockpileÂ the young and unproven? There are three reasons:
— so long as Zimmerman, Balester, Lannan, Flores and Milledge are not included in any deal, everything is on the table. I would include Elijah Dukes and Garret Mock, very tentatively, in that mix;
–Â Now that interleague play is finished and the “Battle of the Beltways” is history, the Nats need toÂ put people in the seats.Â Holliday could do that. AndÂ bringing Holliday in would silence those critics whoÂ claimÂ the Lerner’sÂ areÂ more interested in padding their own pockets than providing a winner.
— Holliday provides a veteran presence in the clubhouse and in the outfield that isÂ lacking. Milledge and DukesÂ could use someone like Holliday to show them how to play the game.
So if you really want Holliday, but getting prospects from Arizona and then trading them to Colorado is out of the question, what do you do?
Talk To TheÂ Nation:Â Bowden isÂ considering trading Cristian Guzman to teams who need a shortstop. TheÂ line forms behind the Red Sox, who just put Julio Lugo on the 15 day DL.Â The Nats could trade Guzman (a “rental”) and Rauch to the NationÂ (where lifeÂ with Manny Delcarmen and Hideki Okajima isÂ an adventure)Â and then ship some of those prospects to Colorado.Â The Nation gets a reliever andÂ shortstop;Â the Nats get prospects and Holliday.
Nor should we discount the impossible. A 2009 team of Zimmerman, Guzman (who would return for a newÂ contract), Milledge, Flores, Lannan, Balester, a healthy Johnson and Matt Holliday begins to look like a team that can win some games.Â
So Jim: pull the trigger.
Saturday, July 12th, 2008
Down On Half Street: Let us now dispense forever with the tiresome: “Houston you have a problem” signs and simply note thatÂ while the cynicsÂ say that it was only a matter of time before the Nats’ bats were loosed against the likes of the lowly Astros, it was damned good to see.Â From where I sat, the first Belliard home run looked like it was going foul, so the explosion of fandom was all that much sweeter.
It was good to see Kentucky’s batÂ come to life and you have to feel good forÂ Tim Redding, who finallyÂ notched a win after throwing his standard very good game for six innings. But while we’re focused on the bats and Timmy, let’s note that reliever Steven ShellÂ looks like the (proverbial) real deal.Â Note to Jim Bowden: perhaps you should trade Shell to another team for some prospects! Oh wait, Shell is a prospect. Hey, I have an idea, let’s keep him.
Me Droogs: In an unprecedented show of friendship, the three writers of this blog met for an evening of baseball. We actually sat together during the Nats loss to theÂ Tracy’s — an 11 inning 7-5 affair that the Nats should have won, and would have won, were it not for (in my humble opinion) a late game non-interference call by umpire Angel Hernandez. Every umpire misses a call, but Hernandez’s missed calls are famous — as are his temper tantrums. In 2001 he threwÂ football player Steve McMichael out of WrigleyÂ Field after McMichael (who sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame),Â had the temerity of questioning his competence. In another incident, Hernandez threw Dodger first base coach Mariano Duncan’s hat into the stands after Duncan threw it to the ground in arguing a call.
In any event, it was great to see the Droogs who, in the midst of the Thursday night loss, received newsÂ that Ryan Langerhans was being called up from Columbus and would soon be rejoining the club. We were thrilled.Â
Buyer’s Remorse: The first assessment is in on who got the better of the Rich Harden to Chicago for Sean Gallagher, Matt Murton, Eric Patterson and Double-A catcher Josh Donaldson trade– and the nod goes to Billy Beane and theÂ A’s. The common notion is that Gallagher was the key to the trade for Oakland, with early reports suggesting that outfielder Matt Murton would head to Sacramento, Oakland’s triple-A affiliate. But MurtonÂ has always been underestimated and it’s no secret that Lou Piniella never really took to him. So when Murton arrived in Oakland, they told him he would start in left field. A very smart decision. I always thought Murton would look good in a Nats uniform: he has a career .294 batting average, a .362 OBP and .448 slugging.
Yesterday, both Gallagher and Murton shined in the Connie Mack’s 9-2 drubbing of the Angels and over at Thunder Matt’s Saloon (named for the now-departed), fans of the BabyÂ Bears were sufferingÂ buyer’s remorse. They weren’t the only ones:Â the Trib’s Fred Mitchell noted that 44 years ago the Cubs made a transaction that sent future Hall of Famer Lou Brock to St. LouisÂ –Â a trade against whichÂ “all other major Cubs transactions are measured.”Â And just who did the Cubs get for Brock? This guy:
The Nation: Everything seems to be clicking in Boston, where Dustin Pedroia’s bat has come to life. The second sacker (and starting All Star) is hitting .311 and sending the Bosox faithful into paragons of ecstacy. There’s no question about it. He’s simply the best baseball player who ever lived. (And he will be … Â until, that is,Â the day that the Evil Empire signs him for $140 million.) I know — let’s talk about Duston PedroiaÂ onÂ Baseball Tonight!
The Bosox are now the class of the AL, and godonlyknows just how good they can be when the get a little from the bullpen. Even so, I can’t help noting that “Red Sox Nation” has been notably silent on the one transaction they onceÂ trumpeted — the signing of this guy to a “no lose” minor league deal:
We here at the Dogz have recently learned that Bartolo is either on the DL or that he is the unknown in that song about “the man who never returned.”Â My bet? He is lost forever ‘neath the streets of Boston.
Thursday, July 10th, 2008
The Fanbase: Recent numbers reported by Dan Steinberg in his sports blog reflect a woeful story.Â MASN’s Nat’s numbers have dropped precipitously over the last year — so that now there are only 9000 households in DC who tune into Nats games, a figure that is down 43.5 percent from last year. Steinberg’s firebell warning was in response to an article on baseball television ratings that was written by SportsBusiness Journal reporter John Ourand, who notes that TV numbers for baseball games are down all over the country. Except, of course, for select markets.
MASN’s viewer ratings are, in fact,Â more than disturbing; they could be pointing to an overall trend that would reinforce those critics who have always claimed that D.C. is simply not a baseball town. Even so, amidst this piece of bad news there is some good — modest though it might be. Nats fandom, for one, continues to support the team; attendance numbers are good, particularly considering the on-the-field product, and supportÂ for the team (an intangible) is growing. The NATS are sixteenth in attendance, averagingÂ over 29,000 fans per game. The NATS are ahead of the first place White Sox and Rays, the second place Marlins, as well as the A’s, Rangers and Twins.
While it’s true that a continued poor showing of the on-the-field product could bring those numbers down next year, the Nats can be justly proud of taking the necessary first step in building a loyal following: the city has built a beautiful ballpark in a soon-to-be-booming neighborhood with a commitment to finding good young ballplayers. There are skeptics, but I believe the commitment. So … I amÂ simply unwilling to follow the advice given by Ian Koskie, over at NationalsPride, who says he will not renew his season tickets. He gives eight reasons: reckless call-ups, unfulfilled promises, widely available individual game tickets, inability to give away excess tickets, sheer boredom, MASN HD, constant extortion and no hope.
Ian can make his own decisions and he has a right to, but I’ve made mine. I will be renewing my season tickets. Here’sÂ five reasons why:
1. Fulfilled promises: The Nats promised they were going to build a team from the bottom-up, with young players who were committed for the long haul. They’ve kept that promise by putting Ryan Zimmerman, Jesus Flores, John Lannan, Collin BalesterÂ and Lastings Milledge on the field. They’re good ballplayers, not castoffs — and they could form the nucleus of one of the National League’s better franchises.
2. The Team Cares: I saw the D-Backs play the other night on MASN (I am one of those 9000 households). They looked like they didn’t care. Chad Tracy Buckner’d a ball in the 7th inning that he should have had and Micah Owings took himself out of the game. I have seen some pretty poor play in the 17 games I have gone to at Nationals Park, but I have never seen the team concede a game. I have never seen Manny Acta lose focus. So here it is: as long as they give a shit, so will I.
3.Â MASN: Don Sutton and Bob Carpenter are very, very good announcers. I like Sutton (I don’t like his love affair with Austin Kearns, but hey — he has a right) and the in-studio commentary of Johnny Holiday and Ray Knight is first rate. Ray Knight knows his stuff and I get the sense there isn’t a mean bone in his body. You want lousy announcing — go to Cincinnati or St. Louis or listen to a White Sox broadcast.Â They’re just plain awful. It’s like listening to NFL analysis: it’s all about character and leadership and “smash-mouth” competition. Waddabunchacrip. Not with Sutton, et. al. They think it through.Â Byron Kerr and Debbi Taylor are better than average, and I like Phil Wood. He’s clearly a fan who ended up behind the microphone and he talks like a fan. These people, it seems to me,Â are dedicated to doing the best they can. Someday, they’ll be rewarded with tens of thousands of viewers.
Or would you rather go back to the days of Ron Darling?
4. Nationals Park: I was standing outside the 1st Base gate one night (inhaling my lousy habit) and I started talking with another fan. Here’s what he said: “Isn’t this great?” and I nodded. “You know,” he said, “maybe I shouldn’t say this, but I just have to. These guys got this right. What a stadium — what fun it is to be here.” That’s right: this city can’t even build a decent convention center, but somehow they built a ballpark. Nationals Park is just a great place to watch a game. And the people in the stands are beginning to realize that. You ever been out to watch a Redskins’ game? I have. Once. I won’t go again.
5. Grow Up: What did we think would happen? I’ve been a Cubs fan since 1962. You know what that’s been like? If you’re a Cubs fanÂ you regularly blame the drought on black cats and errant foul balls. But the truth is, for thirty of those years, the Cubs were owned by people who just didn’t care. No Cubs fan will say that out loud — but it’s true. So you learn to be a baseball fan, to root for the game, to appreciate a good play. And that’s what I’ve learned to do. The wins will come to the Nats. It’ll take a while. But they will come. And when they do, I’ll be in the same seats that I have now rooting for this team. Because that’s what being a fan means.
Now then, back to the sarcastic unfair criticism.
Tuesday, July 8th, 2008
Clem and the Whiz Kids: IÂ met Casey Stengel in an elevator of Milwaukee’s Schroeder Hotel when I was eleven years old, in the summer of 1962.Â “The old professor” was the then first year manager ofÂ the expansion New York Mets, but already a legend. “Say hello to Mr. Stengel,” my mother said. I recognized the name and man and he nodded to me and smiled. But as I remember it, he never asked whether I could play baseball: a conceit he allowed himselfÂ as he poked fun at a team that stands as one of the worst in baseball history.
I mention Stengel because I was reminded of him, the other night, when I channel-surfed right into the beginning of aÂ Twilight Zone episode from 1961.Â The Twilight Zone was one of my favorite shows as an eleven-year-old, in large part because it not only scared the bejesus out of me (honestly), but also because it was the last show I was allowed to stay up and watch on a Friday night filled with great shows — Route 66,Â Rawhide, Palladine and Gunsmoke. In that order. Â
“Mr. Dingle, The Strong” features Don Rickles and Burgess Meredith, with Meredith playing “a much abused everyman” who is suddenly given tremendous physical powers by visiting unseen aliens. That’s not the point: the point is thatÂ the reason Rickles picks on Meredith (they’re in a bar) is that Meredith disagrees with Rickles over who has “better stuff” — Clem Labine or Robin Roberts. When Meredith hesitantly says “Roberts” (he knows this is not what Rickles wants to hear) he is summarily punched in the nose. It is only when he is given the gift of superhuman strength by the visiting invisible “Martians” that Rickles learns his lesson.
But who in their right mind would ever believe that Clem Labine had better stuff than Robin Roberts.
Labine was a servicable reliever who has gotten more attention than most servicable relievers deserve, in large part because he was a part of those great Brooklyn Dodger teams of the mid-1950s. Back before the save was acknowledged as an important stat, Labine led the Dodgers in saves — and the league.
But Roberts was a behemoth. He was the leader of the 1950 Phillies (the “whiz kids”) and winner of twenty games in five consecutive seasons. Towards the end of his career he pitched for the Orioles, Astros and Cubs, but those so-so years never detracted from what he did for the Phillies. HeÂ was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1976. And for good reason. His stats are breathtaking: 305 complete games and 45 shutouts.
Of course, I am quite sure that there are Labine partisans out there, especially among that particular baseball breed that views the Brooklyn Dodgers as the center of the baseball universeÂ and are quick toÂ dismiss all the rest of us as mere hobbyists.Â Even so, if you love the Dodgers so much thatÂ you think that Clem Labine had better stuff than Robin Roberts you, like Luther Dingle, live your life with one foot in your mouth — “and the other in the Twilight Zone.”
Snakebit: It’s hard to feel sorry for the no-account D’Backs, particularly given their early season cheering section. One month into the season Baseball Tonight’s genetically incoherent Steve Philips dubbed the snakes “the team to beat” in the National League, which I cite as one of theÂ reasons for their subsequent collapse. The D’Backs are well-built: great draft picks, a better-than-average pitching staff (including Brandon Webb, Micah Owings and Randy Johnson), good upper management and a stellar farm system. But it’s hard to ooh and ahh over a team that would now get into the playoffsÂ while compiling more losses than wins. And let’s be honest. All that talk about their great young players is a little overdone: Justin Upton is hitting .242, Chris Young .236, and Alex Romero (we just can’t stop talking about Alex Romero) a breathless .243.
Then there’s the bevy of other players — dubbed “the D’Backs wealth of great young talent”: shortstop Stephen Drew (.256) and third baseman Mark Reynolds, who is hitting an anemic .255. Orlando Hudson is the only guy who has really met the team’s expectations; he’s hitting .302. Of course, the D’Backs have been beset by injuries, but that kind of whining doesn’t go down well in Anacostia. (Stop your whining and learn to hit a curve.) It would be great to sweep these guys, but that’s going to be tough, especially when you note thatÂ our beloved Nats have to come onto the field against, arguably, the best pitcher in baseball.
Friday, July 4th, 2008
Rays and Reds: One of the salutory things about being a father is that, from time to time, you get to schlepp your children’s . . .Â stuff . . . around the country when they decide to move. So it was that I was able to visit Boston at the same time the Bosox visited Tampa Bay. While that eliminated any chance I had to visit Fenway, itÂ yielded a late night foray to a Framingham bar, where a television larger than I have ever seen showed the Bosox taking on the Tampa Bay Rays in a Tuesday tilt at Tropicana. And it gave me a chance to rub shoulders with a group of baseball-savvy Bosox fans who, when not drinking, were yelling epithets at Terry Francona and Jason Varitek.
The Tuesday night Rays-Sox contestÂ was one of the best television games I had seen in some time and convincing evidenceÂ that — unless the rest of the AL comes armed and ready –Â they are likely to get schooled byÂ the rejuvenated Rays. The Rays swept the Sox in three (much as they had earlier swept the Cubs), and now sit atop the AL East. The world is turned upside down. “They’re good,” one Sox fan told me, “they’re the next Big Red Machine.” Well, probably not: but their bullpen is solid and with Evan Longoria and a rehabbed Carlos Pena at first (he had 46 home runs last year), the Rays are among the best teams in the game. But the key to their success (of course) is pitching.
On the night I watched, Matt Garza — who came over from Minnesota — shut down the Bosox for seven innings, before giving way to J.P. Howell and Grant Balfour. Howell looked unhittable, and when he set down Varitek the Bosox catcher looked absolutely baffled. It reminded me of the look Joe Morgan gave to Catfish HunterÂ during the second game of the 1972 World Series. Morgan could never solve Hunter, and the Reds (at the beginning of the Big Red MachineÂ era) hit a combined .209 against theÂ “Swingin’ A’s.”
“The Big Blue Machine” is, in fact, nothing like the 1972 Reds. But it’s a lot like the “Swingin’ A’s,”Â who were grounded by strong pitching and punch-and-judy hitters. Hunter, Odom, Holtzman, Fingers and Blue stifled the Reds “machine” of Bench, Rose, Concepcion, Morgan, Geronimo, and Foster — exhibit A of how good pitching always beats good hitting. So it was in the Rays-Bosox series: as Kazmir, Garza, Shields, Wheeler, Howell and Percival heldÂ theÂ Sawx toÂ ten earned runs in three games.Â “They’re the next big Red Machine,” a Red Sox fan told me, shaking his head after Grant Balfour shut down the B’s in game two. I disagree: if anything, the Tampa Bay Rays of 2008 are more like the “Swingin’ A’s.”
Speaking of which: Our beloved Nats are in Cincinnati for a four game set at the Great American Ballpark — where, after just one game and one inning, Junior has already hit number 304.
The Reds are Major League Baseball’s oldest franchise, and one of its most storied. But, since last winning a world series (in 1990), the “Redlegs” have fallen on hard times and are now rebuilding. The Dusty Baker 9 now features a great aging star, some sometime hitters, and a bevy of young throwers — all of whom (if Dusty’s legacy is an indication), will soon be on their way to the Mayo Clinic, for Tommy John surgery. These are not your daddy’s Reds: Brandon Phillips is their best ballplayer, Jay Bruce is one of their “emerging 8’s,” and Cueto and Volquez may well anchor a great pitching staff in the future. But the future seems a long ways away for those who decide to takeÂ in a game at the Great AmericanÂ Ballpark.