SUBSCRIBE TO FOLLOW BY EMAIL

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Don't Blame Wainwright







      By Ross Newhan

      I'll join the chorus:

     Adam Wainwright did nothing wrong.

    He threw a fastball to Derek Jeter, participating in the celebration of a moment after taking his glove off and putting it on the mound with the baseball, clapping for Jeter as he led off the All-Star, All-Jeter game.

    The fastball that Wainwright then threw was still 90 plus and Jeter still had to hit it.

    The problem was, is, that the Commissioner has turned this annual exhibition--in this case celebration of a wonderful player in his final year--into something that counts, and we have seen repeatedly how home field advantage in the World Series DOES count.

     The bottom line: This was a fun game inside a fine tribute, but the All-Star game should count for nothing but league pride, if that still existis in an era in which league boundaries have been diluted by those nightly interleague games and players switching leagues with the drop of a dollar.

 . The Commissioner overreacted to the 2002 tie, and there was Wainwright, paying his respects by, perhaps, taking a little something off his fastball and trying to keep it semi-straight, while forgetting that this exhibition isn't just an exhibition any more.

    Who can blame him--in that emotional moment-- if confused as to what it is or should be?

Saturday, July 5, 2014

A's, Angels Stir Up AL West: Baseball's Best?





              By Ross Newhan

              With the two best records in the American League entering play Saturday, and a third West Division team, Seattle, tied for the fourth best, both Oakland and the Angels have been doing more than watching fireworks on the holiday weekend.

              The A's--operating from what General Manager Billy Beane has always maintained is a narrow financial window (''there are no five year plans in Oakland," he is fond of saying)--produced their own fireworks with the blockbuster trade with the Chicago Cubs, landing two starting pitchers for top prospects.

              The Angels snuck in at a less explosive level, sending two lower level prospects to Arizona for a veteran left handed reliever, Joe Thatcher, in an ongoing attempt (following the acquisition of Jason Grilli and departure of Ernesto Frieri) to stabilize their bullpen.

              The A's transaction, in particular, set the stage for what might be a wild month ahead of the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline and underscored Beane's belief that his team has to go for it when the opportunity is there. The A's have reached the playoffs seven times in his 16 years as GM but never the World Series, and the trade with Chicago represents another defining juncture for two teams at distinctly different places on the competitive road.

              Already boasting the AL's best rotation ERA, the A's acquired starters Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, who boast the 10th and 15th ranked ERAs in the National League and who significantly improve Oakland's depth. Hammel can become a free agent at the end of the current season while Samardzija can leave at the end of the 2015 season, but this is now and that is then, and there was concern in Oakland about the club's ability to hold off the Angels with a rotation led by right hander Sonny Gray, in his first full major league season, and lefty Scott Kazmir, who hasn't pitched more than 158 innings in a season since 2007.

             The center piece of the trade from the Cubs standpoint was 20 year old shortstop Addison Russell, who was the A's top draft pick two years ago and was perceived to be Oakland's potential shortstop as soon as next year if Jed Lowrie leaves as a free agent at the end of the current year. Again, however, that is then and this is now, and prospects are prospects until they are something more. Beane has never backed away from trading prospects, having now traded five of his last nine top picks, including outfielder Billy McKinney, who was the 24th overall selection in the 2013 draft and who was sent to the Cubs with the very highly touted Russell.

            How the latter fits into the Cubs long range shortstop picture isn't clear considering incumbent Starlin Castro, 24, is signed for five years and $44 million after this season, and Javier Baez, another highly regarded prospect at 21, is in the wings. Nevertheless, as a scout for an American League team told me in regard to Russell, "if this kid doesn't become a big league star I don't know my business."

            The Angels, by contrast, added an important bullpen piece in southpaw Thatcher, who had a 2.63 ERA for Arizona in 37 appearances, primarily at the expense of outfielder Zach Borenstein, who was their 2013 Minor League Player of the Year but only their ninth rated prospect according to Baseball America.

            It isn't clear if General Manager Jerry DiPoto is done working on the bullpen, or done improving his pitching overall, but this much does seem clear:

            Between the A's, Angels and swiftly improving Mariners, the West has become the AL's strongest division--maybe MLB's strongest--and it's conceivable that all of those three will have more to say before the trade deadline as they set the stage for a furious second half in which the division title is the obvious prize.

           No wants to face the heat and uncertainty of a one game wild card play-in.

             
                         

                         

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Lucroy and Trout First Half MVPs







                     By Ross Newhan

                     Every membership in the BBWAA is accompanied by the notarized promise that the new card holder will write an annual, mid-season awards column.

                     Just kidding, of course, but it does seem to be part of the DNA, and so here is mine:

                                                           MVP

                    American: 1. Angels center fielder Mike Trout. 2/3. Tie between Toronto first baseman Edwin Encarnacion and outfielder Jose Bautista.
                    Comment: Barring injury, neither Miguel Carbrera nor anyone else should deprive Trout of the 2014 MVP. The heart and soul of his contending team continues to reach new heights, on a seemingly nightly basis, achieving metrics no one has ever achieved at 22.

                    National: 1. Milwaukee catcher Jonathon Lucroy. 2. Pittsburgh center fielder Andrew McCutcheon. 3. Miami right fielder Giancarlo Stanton.
                    Comment: It would be easy enough to reward Colorado shortstop Troy Tulowitzki for his eye-popping, Coors Field enhanced stats (check his splits), but the Rockies are heading south again while Lucroy has provided baseball's best first half team with a two way foundation--behind the plate and in the batters box (.911 OPS and .331 batting average). Lucroy and catchers historically have a tendency to wear down in the second half, which is why only three (Joe Mauer, Ernie Lombardi and Bubbles Hargrave) have ever won a batting title, but Lucroy doesn't have to catch Tulowitzki (.351) to be MVP.

                                                      CY YOUNG

                   American: 1. Felix Hernandez, Seattle. 2. Masahiro Tanaka, New York. 3. David Price, Tampa Bay.
                   Comment: Hernandez and Tanaka share the ERA lead, but King Felix leads in just about every other category. It's a race within a race, and all those teams which failed to enter the Tanaka bidding, including the luxury tax obsessed Angels, or dismissed him as only a middle of the rotation possibility, including the Dodgers, should be shamefully reevaluating.

                   National: 1. Johnny Cueto, Cincinnati. 2. Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers. 3. Adam Wainwright, St. Louis.
                   Comment: I wasn't sleeping during Kershaw's fabulous June. Just saying he missed a sizeable chunk of the first half, doesn't have enough innings yet to qualify for the ERA title, and Cueto leads in just about every NL pitching category. Let's see how it plays out. The lithe Cueto has pitched 200 innings only once while Kershaw keeps building steam.

                                                 ROOKIES OF THE YEAR

                   American: Tanaka. National: Cincinnati center fielder Billy Hamilton.
                   Comment: The Yankee ace is proving it wasn't all hype, and Hamilton is proving he can do more than run--most importantly filling the Shin-Soo Choo leadoff and OBP role for about $129.5 million less.

                                              MANAGERS OF THE YEAR        
                         
                     American: John Gibbons, Toronto. National: Ron Roenicke, Brewers.
                     Comment: The Blue Jays have a variety of holes, but Gibbons has contained his sometimes volatility in directing his team to an unexpected lead in the weakened AL East. Similarly, no one anticipated that Roenicke's Brewers would have the best, mid-season record in baseball, turning the NL Central into a blue state rather than Cardinal red.

                                               
                                               ALL-STAR STARTERS
                                         (Based on first half performance)

                      American: 1B, Encarnacion, Toronto. 2B, Jose Altuve, Houston. SS, Erick Aybar, Angels. 3B, Josh Donaldson, Oakland. OF, Michael Brantley, Cleveland; Trout, Angels; Bautista, Toronto. DH, Victor Martinez, Detroit. Catcher, Salvador Perez, Kansas City.

                       National: 1B, Paul Goldschmidt, Arizona. 2B, Chase Utley, Philadelphia. SS, Tulowitzki, Colorado. 3B, Todd Frazier, Cincinnati. OF, Justin Upton, Atlanta; McCutchen, Pittsburgh; Stanton, Miami. C, Lucroy, Milwaukee.                  
                                                                       
          
                               
                     
                 

                         

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

That Strange Dodger Vacuum





       By ROSS NEWHAN

       The Dodgers continue to play in this strange vacuum---leading the major leagues in attendance while 70% of Southern California homes fail to get their games on television.

        It's now long past a point where people I talk to about the TV blackout care any more--and if they do it's only from the standpoint of fearing they might be missing Vin Scully's last or next to last season in the booth.

        There has certainly been plenty more to talk about and care about: Donald Sterling, the Los Angeles Kings, and now World Cup Soccer at a time when the NHL and NBA seasons are over and the Dodgers should be on Page 1 of the sports sections instead of Page 4 or 5 ignominy.

         I'm not saying the Dodgers have completely disappeared, out of sight and out of mind. In the wake of their 2013 playoff return they sold a club record number of season tickets, and the sale of single game tickets    is still relatively brisk. They have a world record payroll, and the internal friction that was inevitable while attempting to rotate four top dollar, ego oriented outfielders keeps restoring the club to a degree of morning conversation amid TV deprived fans as Don Mattingly talks about the need to pull on the same end of a frayed rope.

          What I AM saying, however, is that the lingering blackout keeps driving people away, and it is impossible to believe that smart guys like Mark Walter, Todd Boehly and Stan Kasten didn't foresee the possibility of this when they created their own channel and sold multi-decade rights to Time-Warner for $8.35 billion. I mean, business is business, and the cable giant was going to try and start recouping that investment as soon as it could, the reported result being the demand that the other carriers would have to pay $5 per subscriber to buy the Dodger channel and that there would be no pay as you watch plan.

            At a time when all subscribers have seen their monthly bills escalate (for a host of channel packages that are never watched), DirectTV and the other large carriers have simply balked at accepting the Time-Warner demand. Thus, only about 30% of a sprawling market is getting Dodger telecasts, and there seems to be no indication of a compromise by Time-Warner and, worse, no ongoing public statements by the club's brass that they are sorry about all of this and offering some sort of plan to get it resolved.

            Also among the missing has been Bud Selig. The Commissioner's power may be limited as far as direct involvement, but he should be continually outfront in support of the fan base in the nation's No. 2 media market, insisting this needs to be resolved and resolved quickly---although the Dodgers and Time-Warner are long past the point of quickly and Selig is long past the point of making a supportive statement.

            So, on a lovely Tuesday morning in the vast Los Angeles market, most fans are likely sad over the death at 54 of Tony Gwynn, worried about the hamstring injury of U.S. striker Jozy Altidore and arguing in the aftermath of the Kings victory parade what the Stanley Cup champions should do about their key free agents.

            The Dodgers? Did anyone see last night's game? Anyone?    

               

                                         

Monday, June 16, 2014

Remembering a Singular Hitter and Personality






                   By ROSS NEWHAN

                   Every time I gaze at a major league infield I see the 5.5 hole that Tony Gwynn patent.

                   Every time I think back to the cramped San Diego clubhouse at Qualcomm Stadium I see Gwynn at his corner locker in non-stop conversation with one reporter or, perhaps, twenty reporters. The number didn't matter nor the subject.

                    Throw out a question and Gwynn took it and ran--as much a singular personality as he was a singular hitter.

                     As much San Diego as Derek Jeter is New York.

                      His parents talked loyalty and Gwynn listened---20 years with the Padres when, on more than    one occasion, he could have left and earned more.

                       As a baseball writer and columnist for the Los Angeles Times I watched Gwynn from the press box, visited him in the clubhouse, during all of those 20 years and never tired of his inventiveness from the batter's box, his joy talking about it.

                      I am not now at the keyboard to break news. Tony Gwynn died Monday at 54.
                   
                     His weakening condition from the cancer was well known. Yet, there is no way to prepare.

                     Gwynn dead at 54? Bob Welch at 57?

                     How fortunate I feel to have covered them both, known them both. The one, Welch, a laconic pro. The other, Gwynn, more gregarious, sometimes annoying a teammate or two with that non-stop talking or the sense that there were more runs to be batted in if he was willing to yield in his approach..

                     My son, David, was a teammate, sharing a lineup card on occasion in his first season in the big leagues.

                     "I wouldn't say he took me under his wing," David said after hearing of Gwynn's death, "but he treated me fine, and it was definitely an experience watching him hit.

                     "My biggest memory is watching him go seven for eight one day in St. Louis and seeing those great fans there give him a standing ovation. I mean, it was more than 5.5. It was foul line to foul line. Pretty remarkable."

                     Gwynn had 3,141 hits, a career average of .338.

                     If his body wasn't that of a svelte athlete, he stole 319 bases, won five Gold Gloves, and he helped pioneer the use of video---but only watching his positive performances and never the negative.

                    Of course, how many negatives are there in any Hall of Fame career?

                    And how does anyone compare hitters over more than a hundred years of the sport?

                    I only know what I saw, and Gwynn belonged among the best--and not strictly in the style of a Boggs or Ichiro.

                   I will miss him, have missed him, both on and off the field.

      

                                           

                                           
                         
                   

                         

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Pujols: An Untarnished Milestone





                


             By ROSS NEWHAN

             The introduction of the designated hitter, extending many careers, and the widespread abuse of performance enhancing drugs, tainting many, has bit into the impact of the long coveted 3,000 hit and 500 home run plateaus.

             However, in the case of Albert Pujols, still primarily a first baseman at 34 and exempt from PED implication except for Jack Clark's legally challenged hearsay accusation (costing Clark his radio job), 500 homers are 500 homers, an honorable accomplishment that alone should secure first ballot election to the Hall of Fame except for the fact there is no longer any certainty to a process that needs restructuring.

            Pujols, of course, has an array of other Hall worthy statistics going for him, and if the first month of his third season with the Angels is an indication, rebounding from the heel injury of last year and with seven more seasons remaining on his $240 million contract, he is likely to scale other heights.

           For one, that other magic number of 3,000 hits is easily within contract reach, and he is going to continue up the home run ladder, possibly even passing Barry Bonds and Hank Aaron at the top if remaining reasonably healthy.
 
           At 26th, he is the third youngest to reach 500 behind the tarnished Alex Rodriguez and the very honorable Jimmie Foxx.

          With a major league leading eight homers in 20 games (plus 19 RBI) he is on an improbable pace for 64 and 152.  If he goes on to hit a more reasonable 40 this year he will rank 16th on the all-time list. If he averages 30 over the ensuing season seasons he will be at 750 and trailing only the injected Bonds at 762 and Aaron at 755. If he averages 32 for the seven seasons he will pass both.

           As it is, he should join Babe Ruth, Foxx and the PED scarred Manny Ramirez this year as the only players with 12 seasons of 30 homers and 100 RBI, with only A-Rod having more at 14.

           I have made the point previously that with better decisions and investments over the last six or seven years--retaining Mike Napoli, signing Adrian Beltre, rejecting Gary Mitchell Jr. and Vernon Wells, going the distance to keep Zack Greinke after giving up top prospect Jean Segura to get him-- the Angels could have avoided the potentially wallet strapping commitment to Pujols at 31 and the ensuing, $125 million deal with Josh Hamilton at 31.

           The Pujols and Hamilton expenditures certainly played a role in the off-season decision by Arte Moreno to draw a payroll line at the luxury tax threshold of $179 and not spend big on much needed pitching.

           That withdrawl could prove costly. Three-fifths of the rotation is unproven, and the Angel staff is dangerously thin with little in minor league reserve.

          Can Pujols maintain his April shower of hits and homers? Can Hamilton regain his pre-injury stroke? Both questions would seem to require a positive response if the Angels are going to end their four year playoff drought in a strengthened West Division.

          Tomorrow is tomorrow, however, and the moment belongs to Pujols and his milestone accomplishment in a milestone career.                   

          X

         A Happy 100th Birthday today to Wrigley Field. Always a happy stop for a former beat guy.