Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Wild Card Clock Is Ticking on the Angels---and Scioscia?

    By Ross Newhan

    This is not exactly a revealing statement, but I haven't seen it stated clearly anywhere else: The Angels are dead in the American League West.

    They are 10 games behind the Texas Rangers entering Tuesday night's game against the Boston Red Sox with 33 to play, and the Rangers are going to win the division for the third straight year. The one-time dominance of the Angels in the West during the mid-2010s is over, and this year's failure by Manager Mike Scioscia's team to even mount a challenge is an embarrassment.

    It is an embarrassment because the Angels have the most potentially potent lineup in their history and, potentially, the best rotation in the American League.

   The rotation, however, has been a second half disappointment, and the bullpen has been a season-long failure, which is not entirely a surprise.

    Jordan Walden has gone from a 32-save rookie surprise to one save. General Manager Jerrry DiPoto made a nice mid-season addition in Ernesto Frieri, but Frieri appears tired, set up man Scott Down does not appear healthy and the rest of the bullpen can't be trusted.

    The Angels enter the Boston series four games behind the American League's second wild card team. They still have a shot at the playoffs, and while that could ease a measure of discontent, they are a team that should have been better than a last gasp playoff team and they are an organization that should have dealt with the bullpen issue earlier in the season.

   With a payroll of almost $160 million, with that offense and potential rotation, it is easy to feel that something has been missing besides a deeper bullpen and reliable closer.

   DiPoto and owner Arte Moreno both insist that Scioscia will be back, and to question his status is a distraction.

   Scioscia has six more years remaining on his remarkable contract, but I don't totally accept that Scioscia's position is secure.

   The firing of batting coach Mickey Hatcher--on top of the previous departures of coaches Bud Black, Joe Maddon and Ron Roenicke--has changed the environment around Scioscia (and the firing of Hatcher, in particular, did little to strengthen the relationship between Scoscia and DiPoto).

   I don't know if Scioscia will be fired. I don't know if he would quit. I do believe, as stated above, there are internal issues that have been affecting the Angels performance and leadership.

  I do not remember while covering the Angels as a columnist and game reporter for The Times that I wrote as many instances of both subtle and outright questioning of Scioscia stratagy and personnel decisions as I have read this year in stories by writers I respect.

  The Rangers have buried the Angels (who even tral the under-manned and under-financed Oakland A's in the West), and there can be no more excuses.

 The wild card clocking is ticking on the Angels--and their manager?                

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Did Dodgers Overpay? Do New Owners Really Care If They Did?

      By Ross Newhan

      I get it.

      I get that Mark Walter and his fleet of insurance companies will pay the price--any price at this point a) to make the Dodgers more competitive at a time when their farm system can't do it and they are in the battle for a division or wild card playoff berth, b) to remove the stigma of Frank McCourt and c) to challenge the rest of the National League to sneer that they have become the Yankees of the West.

    What do I think of this blockbuster trade with the Boston Red Sox in the wake of the Dodgers' $85 contract extension for Andre Etheir, the signing of Cuban free agent Yasiel Puig for $44.2 million and the trades for Hanley Ramirez, Shane Victorino, Joe Blanton and others?

    I think the Red Sox, while getting little of player substance in return with the possible exception of pitchers Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Watson,, created financial flexibility in the closing weks of a disspiriting season and can begin rebuilding through free agency as soon as that bell rings, probably first firing manager Bobby Valentine.

   I think the Dodgers, in first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, acquired aother proven hitter for the middle of the lineup--a significant improvement on James Loney--and a Latino gate attraction who has six years and $127 million remaining on a contract that is in line with other first basemen of his caliber.

   The question that emerges then is this: Did the Dodgers overpay to get Gonzalez?

   The obvious answer is yes, but a clear cut answer as to by how much they overpaid won't be known until the Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford contracts play out.

   It is easy to believe the Red Sox when they insist that they didn't want to trade Gonzalez, but they were delighted to dump Beckett, Crawford and more than $262.5 million for the four players, including utility infielder Nick Punto.

  They were so delighted to create the financial flexibility--which will include evasion of the luxury tax--that, beginning next year, they will pay a total of $12 million of the contracted $262.5 million the Dodgers must pay, pennies under the Red Sox circumstances.

  This is not to say that pitcher Beckett and outfielder Crawford are totally worthless. It's just to say that we won't know how much value they retain until a measure of time passes in their new venue.

  Becket, 32, has gone backwards, plagued by back and clubhouse issues. He is 5-1l with a 5.23 earned-run average and owed $31.5 million for two more years. Yet, with Chad Billingsley having left Friday night's game with an uncertain elbow problem and Ted Lilly still on the disabled list, Beckett could be energized by the change of venue and play an important role down the stretch and beyond. He had to waive his 10 and five rights to approve the trade.

  Crawford, owed $102.5 million over the next five years, has had two disappointing and injury marred seasons with the Red Sox. He appeared in only 31 games this season and underwent Tommy John surgery Thursday, meaning the Dodgers may have to find a way to retain Victorino next year since it it is uncertain when Crawford will be ready to play.

  With all of that, the Dodgers are a better team today than they were yesterday.

  In the new math that the new owners are involved in, that seems to be the only yardstick they are concerned about.         


Friday, August 24, 2012

Will Dodgers Have to Take Beckett to Get Gonzalez

        By Ross Newhan

        The question--one of several--confronting the Dodgers and Guggenheim Baseball over the next 72 hours is this:

       Are they willing to take on Josh Beckett and the $31.5 million he is owed over the next two years in order to get Adrian Gonzalez?

      In one of the most intriguing waiver situations in recent history, the Boston Red Sox have accepted the Dodgers waiver claims on Gonzalez and Beckett, and now they have those 72 hours to work out a trade for one or both players, or Boston can withdraw the waivers with no trade.

     At 30, Gonzalez is owed $127 million over the next six years and is not having his best season--he is batting .300 with 15 home runs and 86 runs batted in--but the former San Diego Padres star is a vast improvement on the Dodgers duo of James Loney and Juan Rivera, figures to be energized by the return to the National League and the escape from a dissension riddled Red Sox clubhouse, and would provide the Dodgers with a legitimate Latino star, enhancing a lineup strengthened recently by Guggenheim's addition of Hanley Ramirez to go with Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier.

    The Dodgers have a shot at both the division title and a wild card berth, but if the Red Sox insist on Beckett being included--or they insist on the Dodgers giving up their two best pitching prospects: Zach Lee and Allen Webster--Guggenheim has a lot to weigh. Beckett, 32, has gone backwards and been hounded by injuries. He is 5-11 with a 5.23 ERA and has reportedly been trouble in the clubhouse. At $31.5 million--given the addition of Gonzalez and Ramirez--he would definitely put a load on Guggenheim's maneuverability during the off season, although at this point there is no other first baseball of Gonzalez' caliber in the next free agent market, and Beckett, too, could benefit by the change in venue.

    Stay tuned.        

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Zero Tolerance Only Answer for Baseball's Ongoing Drug Problem

         By Ross Newhan

         Victor Conte, the founder and president of BALCO, the Bay Area labratory intricately involved in baseball's steroid era and drug scandals, reacted to the recent 50 game suspension of San Francisco outfielder Melky Cabrera for employing a banned testosterone substance by insisting that 50% of big league players were still using a performance enhancing drug.

         With the Cabrera development still fresh, baseball took another hit Wednesday when Oakland pitcher Bartolo Colon was suspended 50 games for employing the same substance. Colon, 39, has been a key pitcher in the Oakland A's surprising playoff bid, going 10-9 with a 3.43 earned-run average after a poor season for the New York Yankees in which he was 8-10 with an ERA of four.

         Cabrera and Colon are the fourth and fifth major leaguers suspended this year, not counting Ryan Braun, who evaded a suspension on a technicality. The other players suspended were Giants' relief pitcher Guillermo Mota for 100 games for a second offense, Chicago Cubs outfielder Marlon Byrd for 50 games and Philadelphia infielder Freddy Galvis for 50 games.

      Baseball has come a long way in cleaning up the steroid era, but Conte and others believe there are still testing loopholes and designer drugs that are staying ahead of the testing process.

     It is the opinion of this writer that the only way to potentially eradicate the cheating is for baseball and the players union to agree to a policy of zero tolerance in which a player who tests positive is  suspended for a full year rather than 50 games and is then suspended for life rather than 100 games for a failed second test.     

Can Strasburg Really Be This Nonchalant About His Benching?

      By Ross Newhan

      With the Washington Nationals 31 games over .500, seven games ahead of the Atlanta Braves in the National League East and wondering if it is too early to put the champagne on ice, they are also preparing to shut down their best pitcher until next year. Stephen Strasburg, 24 and two years removed from Tommy John surgery, will probably make three or four more starts before his magic numbers become 2013.

     Strasburg, signed out of San Diego State as one of the most ballyhooed and blistering pitchers of the modern era, is 15-5, has a 2.85 earned-run average and leads the league with 183 strikeouts in 145 1/3 innings. He has a knee-buckling curve and a fastball in the high 90s.

    The decision to protect his most valuable asset by shutting him down early, by turning him into a spectator during the playoffs, was made by General Manager Mike Rizzo before the season began. Rizzo has not said how many innings he will allow Strasburg to pitch, but it is believed to be in the 170 area. Since Strasburg pitches about six or seven innings (at most) per start, three or four more is probably the outside limit

    Rizzo has not talked in depth about his reasoning, but agent Scott Boras has, citing medical evidence documenting that 24 year old pitchers in their first full season after Tommy John surgery have a far better shot at a longer career if protected wisely during their comeback season. Boras has been outspoken on this, ripping Tommy John himself after John pointed out that he made 31 starts and pitched 207 innings two years after his groundbreaking surgery in 1974 and ultimately pitched 15 years more.

   Strasburg is a power pitcher and John was more of a finesse pitcher, and it is probably impossible to predict career length given individual mechanics and physical traits.

   If Rizzo and Boras believe the smartest and safer course is to protect their valuable asset (Strasburg received a four year, $15.1 million contract when initially drafted), there is probably not a right or wrong to it. The befuddling aspect to me is the absense of vigorous argument from Strasburg, whose basic posture has been that he gets his information from the internet and that the decision is out of his hands.

  Give me a break.

  At 24 and obviously healthy, with his team hopeful that Strasburg represents repeated victories in the playoffs and no guarantee that the Nationals will advance that far next year or for several years, shouldn't Strasburg be hammering on Rizzo's desk and demanding to pitch out the season--no matter how far it goes?

  Instead, he is apparently satisfied pitching every fifth day into September and watching the golf channel in between starts.

  Rosters expand in September, so Strasburg will ultimately slip into an abyss and not be included on the 25 player post-season roster.

  The Nationals lead the NL in team earned-run average at 3.23, but Gio Gonzalez, 16-6, is the only Nationals pitcher other than Strasburg in double figures in wins.

  Will Strasburg be missed? What do his teammates really think, and what happens if another Nationals starters gets hurt in October when Strasburg won't be available? Shouldn't he be showing some annoyance at this decision, even though it is designed to extend his career in the view of Rizzo and Boras?

   It is possible that no prospective division winner has ever arbitrarily sat its ace, as the Nationals are about to do on the eve of the post-season.

   It is possible that no ace has ever simply shrugged and slipped away with a similar whimper instead of a bang.                                           

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Shamefully, Cabrera's Stupidity Taints the Perfection of King Felix

     By Ross Newhan

     How ironic.

     On a day that King Felix Hernandez demonstrated pitching perfection, as the Seattle Mariners right hander was destined to do at some point in his career, Melky Cabrera of the San Francisco Giants, proved there is no limit to stupidity in baseball (or in  anything else really) by being suspended for the remainder of a season in which he was a key member of a team battling for a division title or wild card berth at worst.

    Cabrera, the San Francisco outfielder batting .346 in what has been either a breakthrough season or one in which he benefited from an elevated level of testosterone, a level that resulted in his 50 game suspension under baseball's drug policy, will not be eligible to play until the Giants reach the sixth game of the playoffs, if they get that far. By violating the drug policy, and there is apparently no technicality involved, such as the one that enabled Ryan Braun to excape suspension earlier this season, he managed to taint the perfect game that Hernandez pitched against Tampa Bay in Seattle.

   Until baseball is totally free of illegal drug use--if that is possible--the cheaters will always cloud the accomplishments of the non-cheaters, which is a shame in the case of Hernandez, the 2010 Cy Young Award winner in the American League and arguably--along with Justin Verlander and Jared Weaver--a candidate for the award again and a player who has breezed through all of his drug tests.

   In pitching the third perfect game and sixth no-hitter of a season dominated at near historic levels by pitching, Hernandez improved his record over his last 11 starts to a remarkable 6-0 with a 1.73 earned run average. As usual, the Mariners provided meager support as King Felix managed to turn a single run into a 1-0 victory.

   Almost at the same time, the Giants, beginning play Wednesday tied with the Dodgers for the National League West lead, were losing to the Washington Nationals, 6-4, in the first game of Cabrera's suspension. He is the second San Francisco player to fail baseball's drug policy this year, joining pitcher Guillermo Mota, who is in the process of missing 100 games because of a second violation.

  Given a shocking pattern of drug violations at the minor league level it is obvious that baseball is still working its way through a major and underlying problem.

  At least, on Wednesday, King Felix stood above it--despite the shame of Melky Cabrera.        



Sunday, August 12, 2012

What If They Put the Baseball Teams in Sequins?

        By Ross Newhan

        So, another Olympics is almost over, and I have this to say:

        I don't mind BMX and mountain bike racing. I especially like the crashes.

        I don't even mind rhythmetic gymnastics. Who isn't captivated by ribbons and sequins?

       But another Olympics without hardball and softball? C'mon.

      The IOC doesn't like the fact that major league baseball is in season and can't put a dream team on the field, a la the U.S. basketball team.

      Let me ask, however: How many of the names are recognizable in 90% of Olympic sports? It's  a joke. Baseball has become a global game (even Israel is preparing a team for major league baseball's next world tournament), but the situation is unlikely to change before 2016, when the Olympics are in Rio de Janiero.

       At least we should get some regular shots from Copacabana.

      Even better than ribbons and sequins.


Tuesday, August 7, 2012

For Dodgers and Angels, the Dog Days Produce Fascinating Scenarios

        By Ross Newhan

        Amid the 100 degree dog days of August, I always tend to remember what the late Bill Rigney told me when I was a rookie on the baseball beat in another lifetime.

        "The team that can win in August," Rigney would say, "is the team that will win in September."

       When it comes to winning this month, the Dodgers and Angels are producing a mixed bag, but they have also produced and are producing a fascinating scenario, virtually a new story every day, a series of highs and lows that make it difficult to predict how September will play out amid a new playoff system in which two wild card teams in each league will qualify for a one game play-in to the post-season, enhancing and widening competition.

       Management has done what it can do.

      The new Dodger owners have been on a roll, from Hanley Ramirez to Brandon League, to Shane Victorino to Joe Blanton to a failed waiver claim on Cliff Lee despite the millions he is owed and his comparative ineffectiveness this season.

     The Anges management, pending a possible contract offer, gave up three top prospects for the right to rent potential free agent Zach Greineke amid a rotation collapse--a bit strong, perhaps--that has left Jered Weaver the only sure thing.

     Is a bullpen of musical chairs strong enough and consistent enough--and hasn't that been a concern since opening day?--in a division in which the surprising Oakland A's have emerged with the best overall pitching and the Texas Rangers, seeking a championship three-peat--are battling problems of their own: external, internal and medical.

    In the American League, on the morning of Aug. 7, Texas, Chicago and New York lead their divisions, and six other teams are within four games of each other in the wild card scramble. In the National League, on the morning of Aug. 7, San Francisco, Cincinnati and Washington lead their divisions, and four other teams are within four games of each other in the wild card scramble.

   The standings are much like the Presidential polls. It may not be until the Olympics are over and we have moved past Labor Day that many otherwise interested followers will take a hard and serious look. Nevertheless, for the Dodgers and Angels, with little breathing room amid soaring temperatures and tightening division and wild card races, every game of August has become critical. every game may carry long-term significances beyond the standings and playoffs.

   The work of general manager Ned Colletti and manager Don Mattingly through the stress of the  daily grind and the pressure of the trade deadline under new ownership has seemingly solidified their holds on those key positions with the Dodgers, initially a team of numerous questions, now becoming a contending and believing team.

   In Anaheim, the situation is different.

  The $154 million payroll, the $317.5 million investments in Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, the arrival of Mike Trout and development of Mark Trumbo as key parts of what should be one of the most potent offenses in club history and the hazy relationship between manager Mike Scioscia and general manager Jerry DiPoto--the firing of Scioscia ally and batting coach Mickey Hatcher still lingers--has all served to create an uncertain atmosphere around Scioscia despite a contract extending through 2018 if the Angels don't reach the playoffs. 

    It is difficult to believe Scioscia's job could be at stake given his overall record, the club's 12 years of stability and his long-term security, but with the payroll, the potential and key relationships under question, along with some open second guessing from media and clubhouse, it would not be a total surprise if Arte  Moreno's ultimate question pertains to "what have you done lately?" The Angels had 52 games left as of Tuesday. More so even than the Dodgers under their new ownership, the Angels can not afford to lapse into dog days exhaustion.

    X         X        X


   A group headed by Peter O'Malley, including his sons, Kevin and Brian, and nephews, Peter and Tom, along with Ron Fowler, chief exectuive of San Diego based Liquid Investments, will be approved as new owners of the San Diego Padres at an owners meeting in Denver on Aug. 15-16. The former Dodger owner is purchasing the club from John Moores for about $800 million, with his sons and nephews expected to take on a major leadership role in time, and locally based golfer Phil Mickelson participating on a visible basis.