Saturday, March 11, 2006

Tracy Not a Swashbuckler

The Fan doesn't know much about Jim Tracy. Public records show that he played unspectacularly for the Cubs, managed in the minors for years and then took over the Dodgers and had four very good years and one bad one. Since Tracy's Dodgers always played on the opposite coast, there isn't much empirical data to add to the record.

The few times that the Dodgers did manage to make it to ESPN or worse, TBS, against the Braves, watching those few games were fairly boring. Tracy seemed stoic and stiff. He never seemed overly animated. What is remembered is that the Dodgers always seemed to have the pitcher batting with one out and a runner on first or second. The pitcher always tried to bunt.

There is a trend with Major League Baseball, for managers to be fired and replaced by an opposite. The Fan, again, doesn't have enough observed data to know if Lloyd McClendon was a good or a bad manager. The results certainly weren't there. But evidence seems to indicate that McClendon was a fiery kind of guy. ESPN's Baseball Tonight always seemed to have a clip of the former Pirate manager getting tossed from a game after screaming at the umpire.

From most accounts, the Pirates weren't very good with fundamentals either. Tracy is the polar opposite and preaches small ball and fundamentals and seems to stay pretty low key--which could be a quiet intensity.

Tracy did have a commendable record in Los Angeles including a division championship in 2004. Last year's poor season seems more related to the Dodgers losing Beltre to Seattle and Green to Arizona and the injury to Gagne. But does he have anything to work with in Pittsburgh--perennial losers since the end of the "We Are Family" days?

Tracy's Pirates should have a pretty good offensive team. Jason Bay is a true superstar and as such, improves his stats every year. New acquisition, Sean Casey, won't kill you with power, but is a clog-the-bases kind of player with a high average and on-base percentage. Randa and Burnitz are both turning 37 this season, but may help with the bat and with leadership.

Two offensive keys are the spectacular fielding duo of Jack Wilson at short and Jose Castillo at second. Castillo needs to improve his on-base percentage and should start to do that as he enters only his third full season. Is Jack Wilson the .300 hitter he was in 2004 or the .250 hitter he was in 2003 and 2005?

A wildcard in the mix is Craig Wilson. Two years ago, Wilson was a rising star who hit 29 homers to go along with 35 doubles. Last year, wrist injuries limited him to 59 games and cost him his starting job. Wilson is learning to catch and could be one of those 400-at-bat-play-him-anywhere kind of guys. Though a good on-base percentage guy, Wilson needs to cut down his strikeout ratio (nearly one strikeout for every three at bats).

Like every other team in baseball, the Pirates will live and die with pitching. The Pirates don't have any stars on their pitching staff. They do have some fascinating possibilities. Zach Duke came up last year and went 8-2. Ryan Vogelsong shows flashes. Oliver Perez could pitch like he did in 2004 instead of like he did in 2005. Paul Maholm went 3-1 after his call up last year with a 2.18 E.R.A.

The bullpen could be decent with the ageless Roberto Hernandez, Salomon Torres and the exciting addition of Damaso Marte. Marte is nasty and could develop into the next great relief pitcher. The Pirates also have a proven arm in Mike Gonzalez.

Tracy has a proven track record and good reports are coming from his players. He may appear boring to this Fan, but the Pirates don't need a swashbuckler. They need a winner. They may have one.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Dodgers Go Old School

Grady Little (or is it William Grady?) doesn't fit with the trend in MLB. In fact, his manage-from-the-hip style cost him his job in Boston after two very successful years. Leadership in Boston is enamored with the Billy Beane school of baseball with its statistics and probabilities. Little never fit that mold, but he won. The Dodgers will take that chance because they need to win.

Jim Tracy seems like a heck of a guy. But he seemed kind of nondescript. The Dodgers have see-sawed back and forth between the staid and the homespun. They went from the quiet Walter Alston to the flamboyant Tommy Lasorda to the staid Tracy and now to the folksy Little.

The Fan has been in New England for 30 years and Grady Little was entertaining to watch. He was kind of the mischievous uncle that had the twinkle in the eyes and seemed to know more than he was telling. And he knew a great deal.

When Little joined the Red Sox, they were a mess. There was discord and inconsistent results on the field. Jimy Williams was fired and Little took over and there was an immediate drive to the team.

And then he made his big mistake in AL Championship Series. It's game seven and the Red Sox are up 5-2 over the dreaded Yankees with six outs to go. Little went against the modern game.

Pedro Martinez, the American League's best pitcher, had pitched his 100 pitches. He got the Red Sox to the eighth inning. Modern baseball dictates that you go to the bullpen. There was one problem. Grady Little is old school. He felt that his best pitcher was on the mound and that's the call he made.

We all know the rest of the story. The Yankees tied the game, and go on to win in the 11th inning with the famous Aaron Boone homer against Tim Wakefield. Red Sox Nation was crushed and Grady Little was the scapegoat and paid for his gut with his job.

His mistake is only a mistake in hindsight. If you had the best pitcher on the mound and needed six more outs, what would you do? He got paid to make the call, and a month later, faded out of view.

The announcement that the Dodgers hired Little was a surprise. Wherever Little was, it was low key and he had sunk from the radar. And now here he is. He also has a few old friends around him.

Bill Mueller, Nomar and Derek Lowe all played for Little in Boston. To hear Lowe's excitement at the Dodgers' choice speaks volumes. And the Dodgers have some talent.

In fact, the Dodgers have the makings of a great infield. Big free agent acquisition, Rafael Furcal, will bring excitement and a tradition of winning. Just 28, Furcal should be coming into his prime years and give the Dodgers a major boost.

Bill Meuller, if healthy, is a great third baseman and he brings a high on base percentage and is a former batting champion. Jeff Kent is a year or two away from cementing his Hall of Fame career. Last year, Kent drove in 100 runs for the eighth time in the last nine years. Garciaparra showed flashes of his former skills last year and will learn first base. He is a good athlete and will be just fine over there.

As solid as the infield appears, the outfield seems just as unsettled. Two of the three spots are taken by enigmas. And the other to an aging speedster.

J.D. Drew and Jose Cruz Jr., came into the league as can't miss prospects. Drew has been in the game seven seasons now and has reached 500 at bats once. He is an on base machine and if he wants to excel, still has time to do so.

Cruz Jr. just can't seem to climb out of the need to swing and miss. He has played nine years and has struck out 1019 times in 4196 at bats. He only has 30 more hits in his career than strikeouts. It's hard to believe that he can change at this stage of his career.

And then there is 39-year-old Kenny Lofton. Lofton did manage to hit .335 last year with the Phillies in 110 games and he still managed to steal 22 bases in 25 at bats. Does he have another year in him? Ricky Ledee provides capable back up, but there is little else to turn to if these three question marks falter.

Starting pitching is another question mark for Little. The stable of Lowe, Seo, Brad Penny, Odalis Perez and Brett Tompko all have the potential to win 15 to 17 games. They have just as much potential to lose that many. If they pitch to their talent, it could be exciting days in a pitcher's park. Relief pitching is solid, especially if Eric Gagne returns to form.

The Dodgers could be really good or they could be mediocre. Grady Little is a winner (despite the one inning he is known for) and could get the most out of an enigmatic team. The National League West is not a strong division and so anything can happen.

One thing is sure, the Los Angeles press will enjoy Grady Little's interviews a lot more that Jim Tracy's.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Last Word on Barry Bonds

The Fan really didn't want to talk about Barry Bonds. The best player of our generation has been defended in this space many, many times. And in fact, he was already a Hall of Famer before the 73 homer season.

The Fan isn't overly bothered by the steroid history in baseball. If a high percentage of players were using, and if MLB wasn't smart enough to ban it earlier, then it is what it is. You still have to hit the ball and throw strikes.

What was really troublesome was the revelation that Bonds went the steroid route out of jealousy for McGwire and Sammy Sosa. If that were indeed true, then a lot of respect is lost. It would be a truly shameful way to end a career of the ages.
Jim Leyland Managing the Tiger?

"Tiger's manager, Jim Leyland," just doesn't sound right. In fact, it doesn't sound any better than, "Rockies' manager, Jim Leyland," which was Leyland's last managing post. Of course, Tiger fans should be thrilled.

There are several questions here. First, Leyland has been away from managing since 1999. There is precedent for success in that situation. Frank Robinson was in the front office a long time between managing assignments, and he has done wonders with the Expos/Nationals considering the upheaval of that situation. And Leyland knows what he is doing and has a track record.

Leyland's success in the past well documented. His Pittsburgh teams in the early 90's won an average of 95 games for three years in a row. And then he won the World Series in Florida.

But a good manager won't succeed without a good team. Leyland endured terrible times in Florida after the "fire sale." And his teams had terrible years in Pittsburgh and Colorado. Consider that the highest batting average on the Tigers last year was .277. Twenty-one homers led the team! The best E.R.A on the team was 4.48

And the only significant addition in the off season was an elderly Kenny Rogers, whose off-field temper has tainted a pretty successful career. Will he have anything left?

And what of Ivan Rodriguez? I-Rod was a superstar just a few short seasons ago and was the cornerstone of the Marlins' World Series team. He had a good season in 2004, his first season with the Tigers. But last year was a disaster.

Rodriguez, who had never struck out 90 times in the first twelve seasons of his career has done so the last three years. Last year's 93 strikeouts were the highest of his career. What's worse, he only walked eleven times. Eleven! He batted .250 and had an on-base percentage of .290. Ouch!

If reduced production was the only concern with Rodriguez, that would be concern enough, but stories filtered out of Detroit the last two seasons of Rodriguez having the ear of the owner and circumventing his manager. It would be hard to imagine Leyland standing for that kind of behavior.

Leyland is a great manager of good players and an ordinary manager of lowly players. He has a 42 year old starter, a 38 year old closer (Todd Jones), a questionable star catcher who may have left his best days behind him and then a lot of other piece players who may or may not respond to their new manager.

Leyland says his fire is back. It will be interesting to see if he can keep it stoked if the Tigers get off to a terrible start.

Monday, March 06, 2006

You Just Never Know...

Kirby Puckett died today at the age of 44. His death comes 22 years after he burst on the scene with the Minnesota Twins in 1984. Nothing in Puckett's life was expected. His death, like his retirement in 1995 came suddenly and with much sadness.

There was no fade in or fade out for Kirby Puckett. He didn't have any cups of coffee before sticking full time in 1984 with 557 at bats. He used the Metrodome carpet and slapped the ball to all parts of the ballpark. He didn't hit any home runs his first year and only four the year after in 691 at bats!

The following year, twenty years ago...Puckett listened to some good advice that he should attack the ball instead of slapping at it. The results were stunning. Not only did his average improve, but Puckett hit 31 homers and raised his slugging percentage a hundred and fifty points. Kirby became a star, an All Star and a Hall of Famer.

And he did all those things with such exuberance. Always hustling, always smiling, crashing into walls to make spectacular catches at historic moments and pumping his fists all the way to the dugout. He exuberance was a large part of two world championships for the usually-lowly Twins.

Pucket played twelve years and averaged 190-plus hits a year along with 90-plus runs scored and runs batted in. Despite his slow power start, Puckett averaged over 56 extra-base hits a year. And he made crashing into the baggie famous long before Torii Hunter.

And then in 1996, at the age of 34, the stunning news came that Puckett was finished. An eye condition took away his vision and that was it. No fade out. He was gone.

It was a surprise when Puckett was elected to the Hall of Fame five years later. Lack of longevity would have presumed that Puckett wouldn't have enough time played to qualify. But he was special and he was in and it seemed right.

Puckett seemed to drift out of our consciousness after his election. A couple of disturbing news reports here and there, a rare appearance once in a while, but that was it. And then suddenly the news came yesterday that he suffered a stroke. Emergency surgery was performed, but it was too late. He was gone.

Kirby Puckett was not the kind of superstar that was like a comet. We didn't see him arc into view and slowly drift away. He was more the shooting star that suddenly flashed, thrilled us with it's light and then burned out quickly leaving nothing but wonderment at the moment we just witnessed.

Perhaps it is better this way. You just never know. And like all the other events of his life, we never saw this coming.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Some Old Dogs and Two New Kids

Six managers are managing their teams for the first time this year. Four of them are old friends and the other two are getting their first managing shots. The next series of posts will focus on the new jobs for Sam Perlozzo, Jim Leyland, Buddy Bell, Joe Madden, Grady Little and Jim Tracy.

Perlozzo, who had two cups of coffee in the major leagues, finished the year for the Orioles last year after being the bench coach. The dreaded "interim" has been removed from his title. Many of the problems from last year have also been removed.

Gone are Rafael Palmiero, Sammy Sosa and Sidney Ponson. Those kinds of headaches were what probably gave Perlozzo his job. But that doesn't mean that the Orioles are without question marks.

First on the list is Miguel Tejada. His earlier demand to be traded has to leave an uneasiness in Baltimore. Statistics from last year look pretty good for Tejada, but he never seemed like the force he was the year before. If the team starts slowly, will he lose the fire that seems to define his play?

Starting pitching seems questionable. The Orioles picked up Kris Benson, the most acclaimed pitcher who has never done anything. Perhaps Benson will finally grow into his billing. But just as perhaps not.

The other starters are interesting as well. Erik Bedard and Daniel Cabrera could be a real stars. If they can find the strike zone more often, they can sure make batters swing and miss. Rodrigo Lopez is like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He can look brilliant and terrible within the same week. Finally, Bruce Chen gives the Orioles solid innings and can win 15 to 17 games.

The Oriole core of hitting is pretty much intact. The familiar names of Mora, Matos, Gibbons and Roberts join Tejada in giving the Orioles some run producting capability.

Javy Lopez was a dissapointment last year and it's possible that his career year in Atlanta was a last hurrah. Lopez is now 36 and nearing the end of his career.

Also joining the Orioles are Corey Patterson and Kevin Millar. Millar, the leader of the "idiots" in Boston became unfunny after his third straight season with declining power numbers there. Likewise, the Cubs gave up on Patterson, who was touted with such promise and has proven an enigma. Perhaps they can revive their careers in Baltimore.

For the last two years, the Orioles showed flashes of outhitting their opposition and flashes of futility. After years of poor pitching, the Orioles have a chance to be respectable in that department this year.

It doesn't seem likely that the Orioles can threaten for the top of the division this year, and though Perlozzo has a chance to put his own stamp on this team, the questions seem to outnumber the possibilities.