Archive for December, 2009

Another Bullpen Arm: Capps Signs With Nats

Thursday, December 24th, 2009

Nationals fans will be forgiven if they now view Pittsburgh as part of the Washington franchise feeder system — a kind of waiting room for Nats-to-be. With the signing of reliever Matt Capps on early Thursday morning, Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo has added a third Ahoy to the rebuilding Nats: a trio that also includes fleet centerfielder Nyjer Morgan and lefty set-up whiz Sean Burnett. The new Nats relief corps is also expected to include aging former star Eddie “Everyday Eddie” Guardado, who once notched 45 saves with the always surprising Twinkies. While the Guardado signing is not final, it is expected soon. Capps, team officials say, is expected to compete for the job of closer with Bruney in Spring Training.

With the signing of Capps, Nats fans will go into the Christmas holidays knowing that (while everything else might collapse), the ballclub’s end-of-game options will include a set of potential closers that includes a young Yankee, a steady Bucco and (perhaps) an ageless wonder. Coupled with Burnett and Clippard, the Nats’ bullpen seems stronger now than it has since the departure of sore-armed closer Chad Cordero, felled by a labrum tear back in 2007. The signing of Capps probably ends Mike Rizzo’s off-season efforts to shore-up the Nats bullpen (barring a bit of tweaking here and there), leaving the Anacostia Nine with several more holes to plug: the addition of a middle-of-the-infield glove (the Nats are still interested in signing second sacker Orlando Hudson), an add-on in the starting rotation (Jon Garland is still an option — albeit one that seems to be fading) and (as we hope) the signing of a versatile bat-and-glove man that could play second, left, short and (under a worst case scenario) third. The Nats could (could!) go into Spring Training with a rotation of Jason Marquis, Jon Garland, John Lannan and Craig Stammen (or maybe what’s-his-name) and an infield that includes Mark DeRosa or Orlando Hudson — and (will wonders never cease) two steady catchers. It’s certainly not out of the question that the signing of either Hudson or DeRosa would include a trade (and salary dump) of Cristian Guzman, who has been making noises about not wanting to switch to second.

Don’t Let It Go To Your Head: Remember all the yacking about how this year’s free agent class was weak with few marquee (ahem) players? Well, maybe. But don’t tell the Phillies — who have solidified their reputation as the Yankees of the National League. While Mike Rizzo has been busy deftly filling holes in the bullpen, starting rotation and behind the plate (and others have been sucking their thumbs about the eventual destination of Jason Bay and Matt Holliday), the Ashburns have been busy getting stronger — adding Placido Polanco as their new third baseman and engineering a blockbuster trade for Roy Halladay. While a gaggle of analysts say that the Mariners were “the big winners” in the Halladay sweepstakes (nailing down Cliff Lee), that’s not the way it looks from our perch outside a snowed-in Nats Park, where the spectre of a Halladay-Hamels-Happ-Blanton front four makes the Phillies (with a Polanco-Rollins-Utley-Howard infield) the class of the National League. And the Phuzzies aren’t done . . .

But The Mets Might Be: Whatever happened to the Mets front office? While the silence in New York has Mets fans upset, our friends over at TRDMB cite Newsday reporter David Lennon’s claim that Mets’ fans should learn to appreciate Omar Minaya’s patience in going after the likes of Bay and Holliday. After all, Omar says, the Mets are not as attractive a destination as Philadelphia and these things take time. “It’s not that they [free agents] don’t want to come here,” Omar says, it’s that the timing didn’t work out. As for Halladay and Lackey — well, the Mets were never really in the running on Halladay and Lackey – and Lackey “blindsided” the Mets when he signed with the Red Sox. That son-of-a-bitch, what was he thinking? Don’t worry, Omar says. All of this can be explained, Omar says. “Players like going to situations where they can win,” Omar says. Never fear, Omar says, the Mets have a plan. “I like our plan,” Omar says.

Yikes.

A Marquis Signing

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009

The Washington Nationals have signed Jason Marquis to a two year contract worth $15 million, the team announced today. The 31-year-old righthander was pursued by both the New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies — but the former Braves-Cards-Cubs-Rockies front-liner had said just two weeks ago that he would consider the Nats. The signing of Ivan Rodriguez probably did as much as the silver-tongued convictions of Nats’ GM Mike Rizzo: the Rodriguez signing was a needed first step in convincing baseballs’ 2009’s free agent class (and particularly the pitchers) that Washington had changed its ways and was committed to winning. What is so surprising about Marquis is that, despite his obvious talent, he has been kicked around to four teams in an otherwise solid career — he was 15-7 for the 2004 Redbirds, but was left off the postseason roster and 11-9 for the hardly pitch-rich 2008 Chicago Cubs, whose management spent the year bad-mouthing him.

The “Jason is good but not great” label and even “too inconsistent” (a puzzling tag given him by Cubs whiner Lou Piniella) shouldn’t bother the Nats, who need all kinds of things: an innings eater (Marquis consumed 216 frames last year with the Heltons), a mentor for their young pitching staff (he’s 31, they’re 14), someone who throws down in the zone (he’s a ground ball wizard), a history of good health (he has only flirted with the DL) , an experienced hand with all the right role models (Greg Maddux!) and an all around good citizen (three kids, one wife, no Milton Bradley software). There are things not to like about Marquis, I suppose: he’s not Walter Johnson (and never will be), but he’s also not  Daniel Cabrera. And he will come into Washington as the number one guy on the staff — something he’s never been. Then too, the Nats and Rizzo have been navigating the league’s treacherous off-season waters not only with sophistication (the Brian Bruney pick-up gives them a solid back-of-the-rotation stopper), but with something approaching actual insight. Rizzo has deftly ticked off a list of must-haves that, in the space of one month, has remade the team into a middle-of-the standings .500 club that has given the Nats something approaching league-wide respectability, something they haven’t had since the middle-of-the-decade.

There are skeptics: Tim Dierkes at MLB Trade Rumors thinks the Nats overspent: ” . . .  this is an uninspired move by the Nationals,” he writes. “I understand that an innings-eater is needed to take pressure off young pitchers, but it’s likely that similar pitchers will be available in March at a fraction of the commitment.  Plus, unlike an Erik Bedard type gamble, Marquis doesn’t have upside.” Here’s what I take to be the rough translation: Marquis is not John Lackey (which is true enough) and he’s not a roll of the dice — which is precisely what (as the Seattle Navigators will tell you) Eric Bedard would bring, along with a stint on the 30, 45 or 60 day DL. Then too, as Tim must know, the inspired Cubs of 2008 deemed Marquis not good enough to stick with the club, choosing instead to spend their money elsewhere. They regretted the decision last June, when Marquis was lining himself up as Colorado’s best producer, while the Cubs were holding a tryout for Randy Wells.

Is “The Fix” Really In?

Friday, December 18th, 2009

In yesterday’s Washington Post, Tom Boswell reported that Bud Selig has put together a group of the game’s best and brightest to, in Boswell’s words, “fix” the game.  Boswell seems to think the game is broken: I don’t.  He seems to think surgery is required; I think the patient just needs a trip to the chiropractor for an adjustment. But Boswell’s was a good piece and very well received by this baseball fan who hit his “Skins fatigue threshold” two months ago — and has ceased to be fascinated by Tiger’s woes.  It was a good not-yet-winter article to take my mind off the cold.

Despite my belief that the game isn’t as bad off as some believe, I love the managers who comprise the on-field contingent of the 14-man committee: La Russa, Leyland, Torre and Scioscia. Future Hall of Famers every one. The Wise Men of Baseball.  Who doesn’t like those guys? 

La Russa is a vegetarian lawyer — who just so happens to have also won a World Series and Manager of the Year award in both leagues. But he should also be admired for how he responded to his 2007 DUI arrest. He said he was embarrassed, then pleaded guilty and said “I accept full responsibility for my conduct, and assure everyone that I have learned a very valuable lesson and that this will never occur again.” In other words, unlike so many sport folk these days, he didn’t hire a crisis management team to carefully craft a statement. He manned-up and did the right thing. Leyland (on the other hand) is the crusty old baseball guy who takes crap from no one, smokes Marlboros in the clubhouse ramp between innings and does more with his teams than one would expect.  Did the Florida Marlins really win the ’97 Series?  Really?!  And, you gotta love a guy who gets thrown out before the first pitch.

Torre is Torre. It’s hard to say much that would add anything to his record in New York. He’s a class act who wins.  And his dugout persona makes La Russa look excitable.  Buddha in a ball cap. Scioscia (like Leyland) is a fiery type who knows the game. He won a World Series in his third year with the Angels and has won the division in five of the last six years. If he were an every day player he’d be considered “a gamer.”

But, to the point of Boswell’s article: he recommends that the committee take a look at the pace of the game, at the issue of awarding the World Series home field advantage to the winner of the All Star game, is opposed to playing the World Series in November and thinks the way to do this is to cut back on the 162 game season.

I’m in full agreement with no November baseball. It should never happen; end of story. Cutting back on 162 games?  No. Sorry. One of the great things about baseball are the stats and being able to make comparisons between the greatest players of all time. We had to get over the switch from 154 games, no reason to go through that again. Plus, its a non-starter from a revenue point of view. Ain’t gonna happen. Then too, I actually like the All Star game counting for something. Boswell seems to think these things go in streaks and one league dominates the All Star game for years at a time giving an unfair advantage for years in a row to one league at Series time.  Maybe, but my reaction would be for the “weaker” league to get better.  But I’d also be happy with awarding home field to the team with the most regular season wins as Boswell suggests.

And the pace of the game? It can be speeded up, but it was my perception that it had gotten much better in the last couple of years — especially in the American League. One of my idiosyncrasies is to look at game times at the bottom of the box score. I don’t know why but I just do. And I thought that the problem had been fixed. But let’s go with Boswell’s contention that the game still has much to do in this area and address his five ideas for speeding it up:

1) Ban mound visits: I assume Boswell is joking so I’ll just say that if Jim Leyland thinks it’s okay to use a Blackberry to calm a kid pitcher down with runners on second and third (with one out in a one-run game in the seventh) then it’s okay with me.

2) Limit the time to make a pitching change. Yup. Shouldn’t a reliever be be loose by the time he gets to the mound? 

3) End the singing of “God Bless America” during the Stretch. Yes again. Enough already.

4) Wave the hitter to first when an intentional walk is indicated. Nope. You never know when that kid pitcher will hit the backstop.

5) Requiring relief pitchers to face at least two batters to eliminate pitching changes. I go back and forth on this one; so I’ll waffle and say “perhaps.”

Agree with Boswell or not, it was a great exercise to think this through in mid December. The only thing better was to realize that pitchers and catchers report in 60 days.

“The Heater” Vs. “Old Reliable”

Friday, December 11th, 2009

Bob Costas had Bob Feller on his baseball show last week and “the Heater from Van Meter” was as outspoken and irascible as always. And fascinating. Feller, the former Cleveland great is now 90, knows how to turn a phrase, loves baseball — and has little modesty when it comes to dropping names of the great and near-great. He spent time with the Babe (“he was the best to ever play the game,” he said) and Gehrig. The three of them would head out to the bars in New York and Ruth “would bend an elbow” and Gehrig would be drinking water and not saying very much. “We never talked about baseball,” Feller told Costas. Feller thought Ruth was a fascinating man and much beloved and never had a bad word to say about anyone.

Feller was proud that in that last great picture of Ruth (the one where he’s leaning on a bat with his head down and the crowd is around him), the bat he used was Feller’s. The Indians were playing the Yankees that day and Ruth grabbed a bat from the Cleveland dugout to steady himself and he stood there and he waved his hat and then he listened to the cheers come down and he leaned on Feller’s bat. Feller took the bat and saved it and it’s now in his museum, just off of I-81 in Van Meter, Iowa. “The Babe was a very sick man,” Feller said. “He was dead in five months.”

Like Ruth, Feller doesn’t give the impression of being very modest, but he knows the game and loves it and he has decided opinions on pitchers and hitters. He’s an admirer of Nolan Ryan (“he’s a very close friend of mine,” he told Costas) and believes Sandy Koufax (I tilted an ear to hear this and think I got it right) was the best lefty he’d ever seen and “for five years” the best pitcher in baseball. Feller should know, I suppose, but vaulting Koufax to the top of the lefty list puts him ahead of Warren Spahn and Lefty Gomez. Feller talked about his own vaunted speed, saying that he had been clocked at 107 mph — an amazing feat if true. But no one was faster than Johnson, he said. He talked about World War Two, with Costas noting that Feller’s three years off to fight the war probably cost him 300 wins — and perhaps as many as 350-360. Feller says he has no regrets. “That was one we had to win,” he said. “Studio 42” (the Costas program) showed Feller in the Navy. Feller was a part of “The Great Mariana Turkey Shoot” in the Philippine Sea in June of 1944.  “If you were killed you were a hero,” Feller said. “If you didn’t you were a survivor.”  

Feller said that the champion 1948 Indians team (on which he played) was a good team, but not nearly as good as the 1954 team that lost four straight to the New York Giants. In ’48, Feller lost a first game nail biter to Braves’ pitcher Johnny Sain and then an 11-5 blow-out to Warren Spahn. Satchell Paige relieved Feller in the blow-out and Feller talked about him. “He was 44 at the time,” he said. “He claimed he was 42 but he was 44,” and then went on to talk about the barnstorming white teams that he had put together to play the Negro Leaguers prior to baseball’s integration. Paige, he said, had a wicked fastball “but not much of a curve.” The 1954 series, a 4-0 New York Giants sweep. Feller cited Willie Mays’ catch in the first game and Giants’ pitcher Johnny Antonelli’s pitching as the reasons for the sweep. “Antonelli never pitched better in his life,” he said.

Feller’s most interesting comments, however, had to do with hitters. He was particularly outspoken — blunt really — when talking about his success against great hitters. “Gehrig couldn’t hit me,” he said, “not at all.” During the last games of 1938, Feller recounted, he put Greenberg down in order to kill whatever chance the Detroit first sacker had of breaking Ruth’s home run record. Greenberg had 58 round-trippers that year, in addition to 146 RBIs. He walked 119 times. But he couldn’t solve Feller, who issued one of the best baseball one-liners I’ve ever heard: “Hank Greenberg couldn’t hit me with an ironing board,” he said. Rapid Robert’s answer to Costa’s question about who hit him well came as something of a surprise: “Tommy Henrich,” he said, and there was an edge of defiance in his voice. The great ones couldn’t hit Feller — one of the few who mastered Gehrig — but Tommy Henrich sprayed him to all fields.

Tommy Henrich is one of those Yankees who played in the shadow of Gehrig and Ruth and DiMaggio — but he was beloved by his teammates: in part because he seemed to play harder when the Yankees were behind. He had four World Series rings with a lifetime batting average of .282 with 183 home runs. Like Feller, he took three years away from baseball during World War II. He hit .308 with 25 HRs and 100 RBI in 1948, arguably his best season. But “Old Reliable” is probably best known for his heads-up play in the 1941 Series that might have saved the series for the Yankees. With Brooklyn set to tie the series at two games apiece and leading 4-3 with two outs in the ninth, Henrich came to the plate. With the count at 3-2 he swung at strike three. But Trolley catcher Mickey Owen couldn’t handle the ball and Henrich was safe at first. Joe DiMaggio then singled, and Charlie Keller doubled to score both runners and take the lead. Joe Gordon later doubled to bring in two more runs, and the Yankees had a 7-4 victory and a 3-1 Series lead. And the Yankees went on to win the series.

Henrich was a fine ball player and a good man. He was known for his glove in the outfield, his mentoring of younger players, his deep voice and good sense of humor — and his ability to hit the heck out of Bob Feller. Feller still can’t figure it out. “It’s just one of those things.” Oddly, a mere two weeks before the Costas-Feller interview was aired, Henrich died in Dayton, Ohio. He was 96. 

Does Signing Pudge “Send A Message?”

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

We just can’t let the signing of “Pudge” Rodriguez go without a comment: not only is the all-around-good-guy winner of 13 Gold Gloves the newest Nats signing, Nats beat reporter Bill Ladson (speaking on the Nats website on one of those webcast doo-hickey thingies) says that the Nats are “sending a message” to their fans that his signing means “they want to contend now.” Here’s our reaction — if that’s the message they’re sending, they ought to send it again. It’s easy to be critical, but Pudge stopped being one of the game’s indispensible players long, long ago: which (obviously) Mike Rizzo and Company know.

The reason Rodriguez is here is not to make the Nats a contender now (because he won’t), but to keep the box behind the plate warm for Jesus Flores (whose tender mercies have yet to fully heal) and to keep a dugout of trembling young pitchers from wetting their pants. Pudge is as close as the Nats can get, just now, to a player-coach — a clubhouse presence who’s been through the wars and an unruffled and steadying player who, at the end of his career, knows pitchers not because of any inherent genius, but because he’s seen so many of them. There’s something to be said for having years of experience behind the plate.

There’s a little odor to the deal among some sportswriters, who say that the Nats overpaid (sniff, sniff). That seems particularly true now that it appears as if the Purples will re-sign Yorvit Torrealba for a near-song: $5.5 million over two years. But the Nats not only probably (probably) couldn’t get Pudge for two years, they didn’t need him for one: there’s no guarantee that Flores will heal that fast or, even if he did, that he’ll stay healed. Then too, Derek Norris is not just a few months away — if he works out at all. The deal maker in this was Jim Bowden: he complained that “this was another bad signing.” Yeah, well he oughta know. Thus was inaugurated “the Bowden rule”: if Jim hates it, Mike Rizzo should do it. If he doesn’t, flee.

The Board of Directors here at CFG (you remember them, right?) likes the deal and so do I: the signing of Rodriguez saves fans from having to watch Josh Bard gimp his way to first base, or gaze in wincing shame as Wil Nieves (Who? Wil Nieves!) slams his bat in disgust at striking out. Fun as that was. Then too, unless you’re the Boston Red Sox and you think you can just let catchers walk out the door — they’re damned hard to find and every team needs one. Yeah, so the signing of Pudge Rodriguez sends a message: the Nats desperately needed a catcher and now they have one. Or, if things work out for the very best, they might even have two.

“A Fit For Us”

Thursday, December 3rd, 2009

Sure it’s the off-season, sure there’s a lot of other things to do and yes, there’s not always a lot to report (or comment on), but everytime one of us droogs sits down to write something for CFG, we are stopped cold by the idea that Mike Rizzo’s Big Idea for strengthening the Nats’ front four includes setting out hook and bait for Florida Marlins right hander Ricky Nolasco.  It’s not that Carlos Enrique is such a bad pitcher — it’s just that he’s not what Nats fans had in mind for an off-season upgrade of baseball’s worst starting rotation. Once upon a time, the list for a rotation make-over included the possibility of signing John Lackey or Jon Garland. Those were the days: “We don’t think that the free-agent class leads us to [pay big money],” Mike Rizzo told Nats beat reporter Bill Ladson. “I believe the things we need or want the most are out there, and we are going to address it. I don’t see us going after that super free agent like Matt Holliday or Jon Garland. I don’t see us playing on that level. We don’t think it’s a fit for us.”

It’s the last sentence that is bound to send shivers through the upper arms of Nats’ fans: when Mike Rizzo says that something’s not “a fit for us,” what he means to say is: “we’re not going to spend money to improve.” Ladson then opines that Nolasco’s name is being bandied about — which is hardly a surprise since, if you’re a Marlin, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll be traded. This isn’t the first time that Nolasco’s name has been linked to anywhere-but-Miami: Yardbarker says that Nolasco and Jorge Cantu are on the block (as well as Dan Uggla, of course): “Trading Nolasco, who had a terrible first two months of 2009 and returned to form after being sent down to the minors, should net the Marlins some top major league ready prospects. Nolasco pitched better than his 2009 stats indicate, so there should be many teams looking to deal for him.”

Okay, fine. So the Nats line up a trade for Nolasco. What top prospects in their top-notch farm system do they give up to get him? A recent Baseball America ranking of MLB farm systems put the Nats at #26, with this comment:  “They have the best prospect in the game in No. 1 draft pick Stephen Strasburg, plus solid talents in catcher Derek Norris, right-hander Drew Storen and shortstop Danny Espinosa. Beyond that, though, the Nats have very little help, especially at the upper levels, which is a pity considering the state of the big-league roster.” Who of that bunch would you give up to get Ricky? Derek Norris? Drew Storen? Danny Espinosa? How about: none of the above. It may be, of course, that Rizzo has something up his sleeve that will equal the Nyjer Morgan theft. Or it may be that Rizzo’s veto of signing a “super free agent” (a description he applies to Jon Garland) means that the Nats go into the Winter Meetings in Indianapolis next week with nothing to offer — and come out empty handed.