Saturday, May 9, 2009
A-Rod's path to redemption: World Series title
Playing may be one of the easier parts of Alex Rodriguez's return. That's what he does and what he loves, and he loves working with younger Yankees. Alex will never stop caring what people think, but if he remembers what David Ortiz told him this spring about remembering "where you come from" and can stay focused on the fact that the gateway to the fans' grace is to bring the Yankees a world championship, he can stay on the road to baseball redemption.
Presuming he told the truth and that the only drug test he flunked was prior to the sport's current testing system, then A-Rod can survive this with his astounding skills. The same can be said for Manny Ramirez when he returns in July.
A-Rod was the talk of the sport Friday night for coming off the disabled list and hitting the first 90-something mph fastball he saw for a home run, a reminder of what he is as a player after three and a half months of attention for non-uniformed behavior. Because of A-Rod and Manny, Johan Santana, Zack Greinke and Justin Verlander were moved from Page One to Section E, for those of us who remember newspapers. All season, the best hitter in the world, Albert Pujols, has been on E-3; Pujols, who has 19 walks, 16 extra-base hits and 10 strikeouts, only leads the National League in OPS, homers and RBIs.
In Rodriguez's absence, Evan Longoria has emerged as the best player in the American League at this juncture. He trailed only Kevin Youkilis and Jason Bay in OPS going into Saturday, leads the majors in RBIs, is playing Gold Glove defense and in this his first full season does so with a calm comfort that Carlos Pena says "makes my job the best in baseball because I get to watch him from the on-deck circle."
Because Carlos Beltran says so little, his remarkable start is overshadowed by the daily public psychoanalysis of the Mets. Beltran went into Saturday hitting .382, his OPS second only to Pujols'; he is a great defensive center fielder and one of the best baserunners in the game. Because Chase Utley refuses to use the first-person pronoun, his greatness gets overshadowed; he was third in OPS going into Saturday, has more walks than strikeouts and owns a Gold Glove.
Because Jason Bay plays like the prototypical hockey player, skating his wing hard every game, his start has been an addendum. Let's see: second only to Youkilis in OPS, second to Longoria in RBIs
Take a look at Bay's numbers going into Saturday: 1.154 OPS, .477 OBP, .677 SLG, 11 at-bats per home run. In his last nine months with the Red Sox in 2007-2008, Ramirez produced these numbers: .901 OPS, .392 OBP, .508 SLG and 21.2 at-bats per home run.
We have Aaron Hill coming off serious concussion issues and hitting .357. Joey Votto has a 1.026 OPS. Ryan Zimmerman is halfway to Joe D.
And, finally as a reminder of what's great about the sport, there is Victor Martinez. Few players take more responsibility for their teams than Martinez. Last year he hit two homers because of a hamstring pull and an elbow operation. This year he has six, is hitting close to .400 with an 1.108 OPS, 18 walks, 17 extra-base hits and 10 strikeouts. As a leader, he spends time working with Asdrubal Cabrera on the mental and physical aspects of switch-hitting.
Like Martinez, two years ago A-Rod played the mentor role with young Yankees like Melky Cabrera and Robinson Cano. That's who he is, all he needs to be. In a season that has produced dozens of wonderful story lines in the first six weeks, he can do himself and the game immeasurable good by forgetting the Details magazine photo shoots and -- as long as nothing else out of his past surfaces -- be who he is.
No doubting Strasburg's talent
Even had he not thrown his no-hitter Friday, there is little doubt in anyone's mind that Stephen Strasburg is an extraordinary talent, one of the best pitching prospects to ever come along in the 45-year history of the draft.
Oh, some said the same things about Mark Prior in 2001; many ridiculed Terry Ryan and the Twins for taking a potential Hall of Famer named Joe Mauer with the first pick, but there were two delivery experts that argued that Prior's delivery was indeed flawed, which in time we learned at the expense of Dusty Baker, who was blindly blamed when those flaws -- not the manager -- led to injuries that derailed Prior's career.
Strasburg may well turn out to be better than David Clyde, who in 1973 became the first pitcher ever selected as the first pick in the draft. He may be better than Floyd Bannister, Mike Moore, Tim Belcher, Andy Benes, Ben McDonald, Brien Taylor, Paul Wilson, Kris Benson, Matt Anderson, Bryan Bullington, Luke Hochevar or David Price. But if Strasburg's signing goes to the Aug. 15 deadline, it seems folly to believe he will make more than a cameo appearance in September; Price was a postseason hero last October, but the Rays say his command as a starter has a ways to go and he's 1-4 with a 4.74 ERA in Triple-A so far in 2009, a small bump in the road of what should be a terrific career.
The aforementioned players are the other pitchers selected with the first pick, a baker's dozen whose combined major league record is 822-858. All of which makes the Rays happy, because they got B.J. Upton because the Pirates took Bullington and got Evan Longoria because the Royals and Rockies took Hochevar and Greg Reynolds instead of the best player in the American League right now.
In this case, the worst team will get the player who is head and shoulders above the rest of the draft, which has not often happened. When the commissioner's office failed to get a slotting system in the current labor agreement, they tried to institute their own slotting system, with threats made to owners who go above slot. Which further insured that the Pirates' drought would continue. Or allowed Rick Porcello to end up with the American League champions. Or cost the Astros Michael Bowden and Josh Lindblom -- whom they drafted out of high school but did not sign because Drayton McLane's loyalty to Bud Selig would not allow him to offer $30,000 above slot -- who now would be young rotation starters.
There is a chance that Scott Boras will have the first three picks in the draft if the Mariners take University of North Carolina outfielder/first baseman Dustin Ackley with the second pick and the Padres take Georgia high school outfielder Donovan Tate -- considered the best tools player in the draft -- with the third pick; problem is, Tate is signed to play quarterback at UNC and with spring football and a shortened summer season playing college football, playing both sports could severely restrict his baseball growth.
"The problem this year is that other than Ackley there are no impact college players," says one GM. "So there is a wide range of opinion on who are first-rounders and who aren't."
Diamondbacks general manager Josh Byrnes believes in "increasing the managerial applicant pool," so he went out of the box when Bob Melvin was fired. Byrnes appreciates A.J. Hinch's intellect, and believes that coming out of the farm director position gives him a keen view of the talents and personalities of their young players. Knowing what they have is important since, with their payroll, the D-backs are going to have to develop from within. Running a farm system makes for a complex résumé and builds skills that could be suitable for a number of jobs, and beyond his personality and presence, it's a reason John Farrell has already had one managerial offer and may end up a general manager without managing one game. In the end, it is a people business, and that's where Hinch comes in, a former catcher with extraordinary people skills and a very important characteristic: he loves players.
A fresh start
When Ricky Nolasco beat Colorado on Friday night, it was the first win by a Marlins starter since April 16, ending an 0-10, 5.78 run. But the Phish remained right next to the world champion Phillies after Cole Hamels won his first game the same night Nolasco broke Florida's skein. In that same period, the Phillies' starters were 4-5, 5.87.
Getting a leg up
Carl Crawford spent this past offseason working on his hamstrings, which he strained on the Trop turf last season, but he adds "when I first went to Athletes Performance Institute [in Tempe], I really didn't know how to run. They taught me how to explode into full speed in my first step. That's what makes my base stealing now." This is a guy who had a basketball scholarship to UCLA and a quarterback scholarship to Nebraska, and he had to learn how to run.
Tigers pitchers throwing serious heat
Justin Verlander has fanned 31 in the 23 innings he's pitched in his past three starts, and his 95.5 mph average velocity for the season is the hardest of any starter. Jim Leyland is giving Verlander an extra day's rest every second or third start, and Leyland has nurtured his bullpen to the point that it now is the premier power 'pen in the majors; Joel Zumaya is sitting 98, Ryan Perry is averaging 95.6 and there have been nights when Fernando Rodney has sat 96-98. That Edwin Jackson deal looks mighty good right now. "He is a horse," says Leyland. "He's held things together for us."
Tampa Bay's Big Z
Rays manager Joe Maddon maintains Ben Zobrist has blossomed into "one of the most valuable players in the game. I have no fear of playing him at seven positions; he's a switch-hitter and he has power. He's an amazing weapon."
Red Sox players take turns checking out the bone removed from Jed Lowrie's wrist. Huge. "I had [Dustin] Pedroia floating around in there," says Lowrie. "How in the world did you play?" asks David Ortiz.