From the “Under the Radar” Collection

One of the things I find most interesting during the Hot Stove season is to find a few MLB free agent nuggets — guys who, for lack of a better expression, fly under the radar a bit. These are guys who will come (relatively) cheap but, in my estimation, are likely to provide significant value to the right team. It’s easy to pine for Albert Pujols, but only the truly wise saw Jim Eisenreich as a guy who’d become a key player on the 1993 Phillies run to the NL Pennant.

Today my candidate is Casey Kotchman. A much better than average first baseman, and a career .268 hitter, he may indeed have had a career year last year when he went .306/.378/.422 for the Rays in 563 plate appearances. On the heels of a miserable 2010 campaign, he appeared much more like the top prospect he was as a first round pick (13th overall) in 2001. I’m not suggesting he’ll replicate or improve on those numbers, though it is possible that playing regularly for the first time in quite a while helped. But he wouldn’t be the first one time blue chipper to find his stride late and, even if he reverts to his career .268/.336/.398 ways, he’s a solid performer that fits in well with a team built to win with pitching and defense.

The remarkable consistency of his play over the years suggests last year’s bump was an aberration (as does his 139 point jump in average for times reaching base on balls put in play: either he got lucky last year and a lot more fell in or he suddenly learned to barrel it up a lot better). But he does bring intangibles that suggest he just might settle in at the higher level of play. He was on the 2001 national champion team of Seminole High School in Seminole, Florida, where he showed enough promise to warrant a first round selection in the draft. He is the son of Tom Kotchman, longtime Angels’ minor league manager and scout. Give me a manager’s or scout’s kid any day. All he’s missing is the big time Division I background — which he would have gotten if he hadn’t been drafted by the Angels.

Assuming last year’s performance doesn’t drive him into the big bucks category, I’m making him my first “under the radar” guy of this Hot Stove season.

Apparently, Breland Brown Is Too Young To Have Seen “Columbo”

Breland Brown did not grow up addicted to TV detective programs.

Not “Columbo.” Not “The Rockford Files.” Not even “Cannon.” No “Barnaby Jones” for our hero, a former .167-hitting Independent League player. Not even a late night, already-asleep-on-the-couch “Murder She Wrote.”

Posing as an agent, Brown approached the Australian Baseball League with an enticing offer: promising Pirates outfield prospect Xavier Paul would play in this fall’s ABL if Brown were also invited. Done and done, said ABL officials, no doubt pleased to have a quality player like Paul in the fold.

OK: anyone else here see the hole in this plan

Well, the obvious (that is, obvious to me and other fans of the thinly planned TV crime genre) took place. First, Paul read a couple of Internet articles mentioning his commitment to the ABL.

“Hmmmmm,” he wondered.

Then officials from the Brisbane Bandits (the team to which he’d been assigned) began calling to inquire why he was, you know, in the United States answering his home phone, eating delicious sandwiches, and pondering spring training free of worry about dingos. And, uh, not in Australia. Team and league officials began wondering about Brown in about 17 seconds and now, as you might imagine, the whole thing is being investigated by the Pirates, MLB, the ABL, and Paragon Sports International (who actually DO represent Paul). No word on whether they’ve reached out to Dan Tanna, who was always up for a trip to an exotic locale.

Goodness knows what Brown thought would happen once the games began and he, but not Paul, was there in uniform. Maybe he planned to go 4 for 4 right out of the chute, encouraging league officials to overlook the obvious subterfuge. (What? turn your back on trouble because a guy can play? Pshaw. Never happens.) Perhaps he planned to play as Paul while openly wondering about this Breland Brown character everyone was talking about. My guess is, crime drama novice that he is, he just didn’t think it through. He probably figured, “ah, Australia’s really far away and junk, and people probably don’t even speak English and stuff. This plan can’t fail.”

The best part is there’s no indication the two players, despite having grown up in towns about an hour apart, even knew each other. Paul seems to have been chosen at random.

At any rate, it’s probably time for Brown to kick in some old school television viewing.

 

 

Make Mine Madson

There are a bunch of closers floating around right now. Jonathan Papelbon, Ryan Madson, Heath Bell, and Francisco “I Can Whip Any Old Man” Rodriguez lead the pack, though Frank Francisco, Brad Lidge, Matt Capps, Jonathan Broxton, Kerry Wood, Joe Nathan, and Francisco Cordero are all out there, too. After the top four, they’re an intriguing vat of potential, age, injury, and mixed performances. But they’re mostly viable.

On one hand, it’s increasingly easy to argue that closer is the most overrated position in baseball. And maybe it is. After all, these guys throw about 60 innings per year in a game where your number five starter will throw more than double that amount. And the only reason the save isn’t the most overrated stat in the game is because there’s no one left who values it. (Not counting Rolaids, that is.) It can’t be overrated when no one really cares. A good situational lefty probably faces as many high stress moments as a top closer does. And the belief that you need a top closer to win has taken a mighty blow the past few years, starting off with the Phillies coming up 2 wins shy of a second championship in the midst of Brad Lidge having perhaps the worst season any closer has ever had. And the Cardinals and Rangers duked it out until the 11th hour, each team milking bullpens teetering between mediocre and awful.

(Side note: Tony La Russa reinvented baseball again this year with his bullpen use. Anyone who has coached youth tournament baseball will know what I mean…get a staff of hurlers, none really expected to give you more than a few innings, and keep rolling new guys out there, one after another, getting outs one at a time…)

But here’s the thing: while closer may be a position that’s no more valuable than your number four starter, it’s still better to have a really good one than it is to have a really crummy one. (See? La Russa isn’t the only smart guy around…) And with that background, I say Madson is the best one out there. The suspicion that he didn’t have the … the… whatever… to close now seems ludicrous. The guy has shined in numerous high tension moments in every recent postseason and did so as closer this season in his first real opportunity. At 31, he’s as old as Papelbon, and older than Rodriguez, but has better stuff than either. Sure, Pap lights it up a couple miles an hour better than Madson, but Madson combines that heat with an absolutely preposterous changeup. Check out the SABR-esque stats on swings and misses if you don’t believe me. (Yeah, yeah, strikeouts are fascist, but the name of the game is making batters miss, or mostly miss..). Rodriguez loses a couple MPH every year and doesn’t strike me as a great clubhouse guy. (Though he is willing to strike other, older people, and is happy whining about his role in the middle of a stretch run.) Madson’s free and easy motion suggests he can continue to avoid the DL, and the fact that his offspeed stuff is his out pitch suggests Father Time will have to work harder and longer to cut him down. Papelbon, on the other hand, has relied less and less on his splitter and more and more on the heat. Father Time smiles knowingly at that kind of trend.

Coupled with the fact that the Phillies’ bullpen is suddenly very thin and very young suggests Madson will be very rich, very soon. And in my world, “Mad Dog” is the top dog anyway.

It’s All About Pitching. Or Hitting. Or Hitting That Can’t Hit Pitching.

Diagnosing the Phillies seems pretty straightforward to me: they can no longer hit good pitching. A few years ago, when they began their remarkable run of success, the lineup was fearsome. They were never out of a game. Each at bat was a tenacious battle, a study of not only skill, but of willpower. They wore pitchers out, ground them down, and kicked them to the curb. They won battles mentally and physically.

Now, because of age and injury — and premature aging caused by injury — the lineup is a shell of what it once was. They still pile up decent numbers — and more than their share of big run-total games — during the course of a season. They face a lot of mediocre pitching (even in this era of better hurlers than we saw 10 years ago) and plenty of good pitching having off nights. It is, after all, a long, long, long season. Every team has that 10th pitcher. And the 11th and 12th. Heck, the Phillies had the best staff in 30 years and they spent half the season with Danys Baez manning the seventh inning. And in August, those 11th and 12th staff spots are manned by guys who were well into the teens in the pecking order coming out of spring training. Solid, serious, and professional guys like Ryan Howard will see plenty of lousy pitching as the season grinds on, and they’ll deposit a number of balls in the flower boxes as a result. And the numbers will approximate what you expect from them.

But the simple truth is that you could see the falloff begin a couple of years ago. Good pitching stops them now. Every guy on the team can be “pitched to.” And when you hit October, those bottom-of-the-staff pitchers worry more about getting coffee and staying warm and where dinner will be than they do about getting Ryan Howard out. That job is left to the guys who enjoy single digit status on the staff pecking order. And guess what? Those guys don’t make too many mistakes. They know where Ryan Howard’s holes are, and they hit them, again and again, and then Ryan Howard sits down.

To my eyes, it’s not a question of whether Howard gets healthy or Utley or Polanco can stay on the field or they re-sign Rollins or Victorino develops some plate discipline. It’s about building a better lineup. Individually, they’ll all continue to appear to be good (or very good) players, showing enough of their old selves frequently enough to seem like a team to be reckoned with. Collectively, though, what you have (right now, anyway) is pretty much a 1-8 that can be set down, over and over and very quickly, by a good pitcher having a normal night. And that, with the Phillies’ pitching staff, gets you a 100-win summer followed by early autumn tee times.

The Red Sox Get What They Had Coming

Among the many lurid details to come out in the wake of the historic Boston Red Sox collapse (and subsequent firing/quitting of good guy Terry Francona) comes the new information that starting pitchers were drinking in the clubhouse during games on days when they weren’t pitching. And not just this year, but for the past two, at least.

“Gluttony,” one executive called it. Francona called it “a sense of entitlement.” One player said “they don’t need a leader, they need a babysitter.” Tough guy Kevin Youkilis was singled out as a “sour and cynical” clubhouse problem in one report, as was John Lackey in another. Adrian Gonzalez shrugged off the mind-blowing late season collapse as the “will of God.” (Really? God worries about baseball games?) Jacoby Ellsbury, after last year’s season of innuendo (both in print and in the locker room) about his injuries, apparently has chosen to live on an island all to himself in the “room.” I can’t even count the millions of dollars the team pays guys to sit or, at best, play like AAA washouts.

Jason Varitek, no doubt, would like to wring a few necks, but in truth, that’s hard to do when you’ve been reduced, by age, to the role of backup catcher — even with the “C” on your uniform. I can only imagine that things got so bad that even a guy like Tek retreated to a corner of the clubhouse, no doubt talking with Pedroia and Wakefield about the whereabouts of character guys like Johnny Damon, Bill Mueller, and Kevin Millar. My money says 36 year-old Gabe Kapler makes the crucial, season-ending play that so richly, appropriately clanked off of Carl Crawford’s glove. And I’m talking now, not in 2004.

These guys are, in every way, the antithesis of the 2004 team that so captured the hearts and wallets of New England. Give me character over reputation any day.

Dear Jose Reyes: Thank You! Signed, Jimmy Rollins

A gardener friend of mine once said “if you can’t have a good looking yard in the spring, you should move on to a new hobby.”

And while the baseball season is most definitely in the fall stage, today is a rich, fertile, rainy spring for folks who like to write or talk about the game. After last night, pretty much everything is in full bloom. Take your pick. Googling “Red Sox Collapse” will net you about 144,000 things from which to pick. I recommend this for any Yankees fan who was forced to endure a single moment of the 2004 ALCS postscript, particularly if it involved images of weepy Nation fans holding up photos of dead grandpop bearing witness at the World Series parade. So with the Sox and the Braves in mind, and with a nod to the Cards and the Rays and a tip of the cap to Joe Girardi’s moronic managing, it’s Jose Reyes that draws my attention today.

Reyes, already a guy not blessed with the finest of reputations, elected to leave the ballgame after bunting for a hit in his first at bat in order to protect his lead in the batting race. The strategy, not surprisingly, paid off: he finished the season as the NL batting champ. It’s easy to point to the obvious Ted Williams correlation: 70 years ago on the same day, Boston’s “Teddy Ballgame” entered the day hitting .400 and went 6-for-8 in a doubleheader against the Philadelphia A’s to finish the season at .406. But even without that comparison — yeah, yeah, it’s a different era — it should be painfully obvious to Reyes that this just isn’t how it’s done. Not by big leaguers. Not by guys with pride. Mets fans, to their credit, recognize this, and essentially booed Reyes off the field. It’s bush and it’s transparent and it flies in the face of competition. I’m with C.J. Wilson, who called the ploy “weak.” Boo.

I figure the one guy who applauds this “effort” is the Phillies’ Jimmy Rollins. Like Reyes, Rollins goes into the winter as a free agent; the two players are by far the cream of the crop of available shortstops. If I’m a GM, I have to look at this as just one more reason to sort of wonder about Reyes’ makeup. Why risk anything if you might fail? Why make the long, daring throw from deep in the hole when there’s a chance you’ll just get charged with an error? Why hit behind a runner when it will just pull down your batting average?

I do agree with one thing Reyes said:  ”I don’t care what people think.” He went on to explain, in a deeply convoluted way, how he played even though a lot of people told him not to. Uh, Jose…what they meant was…avoid competition to protect your average. And, uh…Jose..that’s exactly what you did.

When guys like that are the heart of your team, what you get is….the Mets. Frankly, as good a player as he is, I’m not so sure they won’t be better off without him. And I’m thinking he just added a few more suitors and a few bucks to Jimmy Rollins’ next contract.

 

Lackey Lacking

I coach a Little League team, and have for the past several years. One of the things you learn — from experience as a coach and a player and from attending clinics held by veteran coaches with a ton of experience — is it’s as much about preparing a kid to be a team player as it is about developing a skill. By the time they’re 11 or 12, a lot of that is well ingrained for many of the players.

Among those mental skills is not acting like a baby. And in truth, that’s really all about recognizing that baseball, the most individual of team sports, is still a team sport. So you don’t react to a poor play by a teammate by throwing your hands in the air or pirouetting on the mound in disgust. You don’t react to a lousy season filled with disappointing personal performances by implying the fault lies with the media or with flawed fan interpretation of your efforts. You don’t get smacked around like a BP pitcher in a game of colossal importance to your team and give your manager (by all accounts a GREAT player’s manager) the “how could you be so stupid, you gotta be kidding me” staredown when he finally, mercifully comes to get you. (After 4 1/3 innings of 11 hit, 8 run ball no less…) You win together, you lose together.

This is a lesson John Lackey needs to learn now, on the cusp of 34, in the big leagues. Don’t act like a baby.

Similarly, he needs to treat the media with a wee bit of respect and, perhaps, learn to distinguish between the sports reporters he deals with daily and the clowns from outlets like TMZ. And he really needs to acknowledge that, well, he’s been stinking up the joint this year. His death march of snarky, snarly post game press conferences where he implies his struggles are greatly overblown by the media are as wearisome to fans as his antics on the field must be to his infielders.

Truthfully, today’s news that he has filed for divorce from his wife — already battling breast cancer — really has nothing to do with his on field antics and his idiotic behavior towards the media and fans. I don’t profess to know the deal there, though on the surface it’s not what I’d call a good PR move, to say the least. Whatever is going on in his personal life, it’s time to revisit a fundamental Little League lesson: quit acting like a baby.

Kid, Grab a Bat, You’re Pitching…

Each fall, as the the flood of minor leaguers called to the Show takes place, there are a number of great stories. My favorite this year is that of Joe Savery, former 1st round draft pick of the Phillies. Today marks Savery’s first trip to the bigs, and he’s certainly earned it.

By 2009 Savery was a former hotshot pitching prospect staring down the barrel of a failing career. His ERA was, for the third straight year, north of 4 — 4.66, in fact. But that was only part of the story. He’d surrendered 154 hits in 127.1 innings with 51 walks and 67 strikeouts. His won-loss record stood at 1-12. In short, the numbers didn’t lie. He didn’t miss many bats.

But he didn’t miss many balls when he swung a bat, either. So he asked the Phils if he could try and become a position player, and to their credit (no doubt willing to try anything to salvage that #1 draft spot), they said “sure thing, kid.” And all he did was hit .348 in 46 at bats. This year he returned and picked up right where he left off — smacking it along to a .294 clip as he progressed from A to AA to AAA.

Not a bad story, right? But wait, it gets better. Despite his success with the wood, he hadn’t really given up on pitching, and one night, in a long extra innings affair, he took the mound out of necessity. And, naturally, he tossed up a pair of scoreless innings. The Phils noticed. And so he began sitting in the bullpen when he wasn’t serving as the DH.

The time off from the mound clearly did him some good: he was hitting 94 on the gun, with a sharp, biting slider that had been MIA for quite a while. He struck out 14 in 9 innings at Reading and then appeared in 18 games at AAA, where he recorded a 1.80 ERA with 25 k’s in 26 innings. The Phils noticed.

And so Joe Savery is finally in the bigs today, with (amazingly) an outside chance to be on the playoff roster of the lefty-reliever-challenged Phillies. Or is it an outside chance to be the big lefthanded bat off the bench? Who knows? But it’s cool, either way.

Meanest Players? Most Miserable? Edgiest?

Sports Illustrated polled current MLB players to vote on the “meanest player in baseball.” The results are kind of weird. A.J. Pierzynski “won” the top spot — and frankly, no matter how you’re defining “meanest,” he’s a good guess.

But Chase Utley came in second, followed by Milton Bradley (does he even play anymore?) and Carlos Zambrano, and then, at number 9, Nyjer Morgan. Chris Carpenter is in there at number 7.

I’m not sure I get the rationale behind this list. Utley likes to block the bag, and he’ll run over a catcher at the drop of a hat, so I guess he’s mean. Bradley and Zambrano don’t strike me as particularly mean — just unhinged, and not in a good Bill Lee kind of way. They’d be 1-2 on a “bad guys” list. Morgan is a goof, saying and doing stupid things that make his teammates cringe and his general manager deal him. Is he mean?

But it’s interesting to think that 215 MLB players came up with this list. Pierzynski, for what it’s worth, won in a landslide. His manager, Ozzie Guillen, has described him thusly: “If you play against him, you hate him. If you play with him, you hate him a little less.”

http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1190442/index.htm