Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Don Mattingly? He Just Keeps Winning

     By Ross Newhan

      It's September and Quiz Time, and let me see if I have this right:

      The Los Angeles Dodgers and their No Good Manager are in the process of routing the National League West despite the continuing absence of 1) a regular outfield, 2) a dependable bullpen (aside from the closer), 3) a mid-to-back-end rotation certainty and 4) a set infield considering one shortstop is on the way out, another is on the way up (and possibly headed to third base), and who can say for sure when the regular second baseman will be back or who will be starting tonight on the left side of that infield?

       If I am right with the above, and I am, either the West is a federation of dunces (I know, I should have come up with something original) or the No Good Manager is Plenty Good, and while the West hasn't produced the anticipated increase in competitive depth, the No Good Manager has continued to enhance his credentials amid the usual firestorm from media cynics (a narrowing array?) and the True Blue doubters in the stands and on their couches.

       The point here, my point: let it be already, let it be.

       I mean, any correlation between the Dodgers'  World Record Payroll and the roster that Don Mattingly has had to juggle on a daily basis, well, re-read Paragraph 2 because it just hasn't been there, and yet the Dodgers are headed to another season of 90 plus wins and a third straight (it would have been four except for a next to last day elimination in 2012) playoff appearance under Mattingly, a record period of club success and one achieved amid ownership transition, front office upheaval, contract uncertainty and, most recently, a second major coaching change (initiated from upstairs) in the last two years to just make sure all of the shadows regarding the manager's future in L.A. don't entirely evaporate (and, oh yes, maybe the club's base running will also improve with this change).

     Sure, the Dodgers under Mattingly haven't won the World Series or reached the World Series, but have they been good enough in this era of parity or are they strong enough now given, particularly, the bullpen issue and the rotation question beyond Greinke/Kershaw, but, here it is, they will again have the chance to find out, and by the time the Division Series starts 11 National League teams will be sitting home--some, perhaps, with even fewer roster questions than Mattingly has had to cope with this year.
     The No Good Manager now has the Dodgers rampaging through late August and early September, and based on current standings they would play the New York Mets in the Division Series, with Donnie Baseball making a fall return to the Big Apple against a team whose manager, Terry Collins, carries the weight of his own baggage--September failures in other places, New York heat in regard to his leadership and strategical skills.

     How ironic. Now Collins and Mattingly are candidates for manager of the year in the National League (Mike Matheny? Ho-hum, don't the Cardinals always win?) , but it is doubtful an award, any award, would convince critics of the No Good Manager or insure his longterm residency in L.A. May be Miami, if reports of the Marlins interest are accurate, would be less stressful, but as Mattingly juggles his daily lineups and worries about those calls to the bullpen, as he leads the Dodgers toward another division title and another playoff appearance, he has proven he can cope with the stress and largely ignore the critics. To me, he is Plenty Good, indeed. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Calling the Umpires Out...Of the Replay Facility?


       By Ross Newhan

                There is growing and widespread opinion among major league managers, general managers and players that a replay system designed to produce the correct call on close plays is being undermined by hesitancy among umpires manning the New York review facility to overrule their colleagues on the field.

                 Over a three week period I talked with four general managers, three managers and several players, and while all were reluctant to speak for attribution on a subject that could be interpreted to impugn the integrity of umpires, they all suggested the process could be improved with fundamental changes that removed any hint of a "buddy system" among the umpires rotating through New York and those on the field.

                 "I want to be clear," said a National League general manager. "The umpires do a great job generally, and the replay system for the most part has been beneficial. However, the system is still relatively new and it's natural to consider it a work in progress with a definite need for some fixes. We have simply reviewed too many of our own challenges (to calls on the field) that were not overturned despite clear (video) evidence the call was wrong."

                 Among the executives, managers and players with whom I talked there was general unanimity that the umpiring staff should be removed from the review process, alleviating any perception of overriding allegiance between those doing the reviewing and the umpire who made the call.

                 They generally suggested three major changes

                 --The  hiring of independent personnel to man the replay facility.

                 --No longer informing the replay personnel of what the call on the field was and, when possible, reviewing only close ups of the play in question rather then wider shots showing the umpire making the call.

                 --A time limit of possibly two minutes on all reviews that would do away with the three minute-plus delays that have become prevalent in a series of recent games and which have impeded the pace of game initiative. If the replay evidence is simply not clear in that time the call on the field would stand.

              "I am reluctant to get into this even on an off the record basis," said a second NL general manager. "because I don't want it looked as if I am criticizing the umpires. They do a terrific job and they have embraced the replay system. If a bond exists between (those on the field and those off the field) that's only natural. I also tend to think they would embrace being removed from any process in which they may have to overrule one of their own."

              The current system allows umpires on the field to initiate their own challenges, and they have. However, one American League manager said "there is a lot of dismay over the number of calls not being overturned" in the face of clear video evidence "they should have been." Mike Scioscia, the Angel manager, spoke publicly about his head-shaking dismay after a game with Oakland this week in which two calls were not overturned despite his contrary view of the video.

              "We clearly need to sit down and discuss changes," he said.

              Any changes in the current format and the umpires role in it would have to be collectively bargained with their union. They accepted the expanded system when convinced the NY facility didn't expand their work load but merely represented another stop on their rotation through the big league cities and that the umpiring staff would be increased to help handle the assignment.

             An MLB executive said he was unaware of any discussions to put the umpires strictly on the field and not in the review facility.

            "I don't care what the sport is," he said. "You are always going to have two views of  just about every decision. We are in year two of this system, and before last season, we described the roll-out as a three year process. We made some modifications before this season based on our experiences of last year. We also have been pretty candid about the fact that while the system will not be perfect, it will ultimately correct hundreds of calls throughout the season."

            The percentages from this year's reviews are similar to last year's

            As of Monday, there had been 480 reviews this year. Of those, 113 of the calls on the field had been confirmed by replay, 225 had been overturned, 138 had been "let stand" because the replay was inconclusive in the view of the umpires monitoring the replay facility, and there had been four rules checks. The average interruption was one minute and forty eight seconds compared to 1:46 last year when there were 1,275 reviews of which 310 were confirmed, 603 were overturned and 352 were "let stand".
            It is unclear as to how loud the current grumbling will become, but it seems to be loud enough and coming from enough factions that it won't be allowed to simply "let stand."  


Saturday, May 9, 2015

A Couple Thoughts on A-Rod: Yes, Him Again

                     By Ross Newhan

                     So, Alex Rodriguez hits his 661st home run to pass Willie Mays in fourth place on the all-time home run list and seldom has a very major milestone been accompanied by less fanfare and reaction.

                     Oh, a Thursday night crowd of 39,816 at Yankee Stadium summoned A-Rod for a sheepish curtain call and the Yankees made a modest note of the event on the scoreboard.

                      Less said the better, perhaps, and I get it.

                     Mays, after all, is a baseball icon,, perhaps the greatest all-around player ever, and Rodriguez is a convicted liar and serial user of PEDs.

                     McGwire eclipses Maris, Bonds passes Aaron, Clemens wins his seventh Cy Young, Palmeiro amasses more than 3,000 hits and 500 home runs.

                     The Steroid Era has left a bloody and ongoing stain, and historians of the future should have a field day providing perspective.

                     I am at the computer to make only a couple points about the events of Thursday night, and A-Rod's performance after a year in purgatory.

                     1--The Yankees, with all of their Monument Park history, with all of their public distaste about having Rodriguez wear the sainted uniform again, with all of their insistance that they will not pay Rodriguez the $6 million milestone bonus included in his contract, are emerging a bit small and hypocritical. Somewhere along the Yankee high road they need to find a compromise over a bonus that would need to be paid again in the unlikely event Rodriguez climbs another step and reaches Babe Ruth at 714.

                     The bonus, the Yankees claim, was designed to repay Rodriguez for the marketing riches they would enjoy on his climb up the home run ladder. Now, however, his marketing value has evaporated, they insist, because  of the suspension and PED hangover. That argument, with it's measure of truth, would carry more weight if the Yankees were also pulling A-Rod's jerseys and other paraphernalia from their gift shops, which they haven't. Marketing is marketing, unless you have to pay for it.

                     In addition, while the Yankees may not have wanted Rodriguez back, guess who is frequently batting third in their lineup and delivering clutch hits in a 19-11 opening that has helped lift his team to a three game lead in the American League East as of Saturday.

                   Rodriguez, amid all of this, has taken a humble posture, wrapped himself in the modest embrace of teammates mostly interested in a distraction free final score, and refused to indicate whether he will wage a union fight for the milestone bonus. He has a month to decide, under terms of his contract, and this is where it seems a compromise would be easy, a gift in the name of the Yankees and Rodriguez to charity, removing the possibility of another unsettling and open wound.

                    2--I first met Rodriguez, in the Kingdome clubhouse, in his first full year with Seattle. He was 20, and said, "can I get you a chair and soft drink." I never had a player make that offer before or after, but he had already been schooled by agent Scott Boras and PR specialist Andrea Kirby and it eventually became apparent, through all the deceptive summers, that he was never quite real, never quite what he seemed to be.
                   Yet, it remains mind boggling to think of the ego that influenced Rodriguez to use steroids in the first place, the apparent need to inflate a talent that had already met and conquered the great expectations with those series of sensational, steroid free (an assumption) years as a wunderkind in Seattle and has surfaced again, at 40, after a year on the sideline, in a steroid free (another assumption) return with the Yankees. Rodriguez isn't tearing it up, but he is delivering more than what might have been expected in an awkward environment, letting his bat do the talking. And in the wake of a milestone that isn't all it could have been, should have been, and would probably have been reached without chemical help, I think back to that first meeting and the career and person that got away.                           

Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Opening Day Answer Man

The Opening Day Answer Man

           By Ross Newhan

           The first question, please.

           Question: Which is the best team in baseball entering the new season?

            Answer: The Washington Nationals, largely on the basis of elimination and their ace-deep rotation. One thing is certain: The Nationals are the only functioning organization in the capital.

            Q: What is the best division in baseball and who will win it?

             A: The American League Central, with Detroit, Kansas City, Chicago and Cleveland capable of winning and only Minnesota leaving Paul Molitor to wonder if he made the right decision, particularly now that Ervin Santana has set a record for stupidity by drawing an 80 game PED suspension after the Twins guaranteed him $55 million. As to the winner, I nervously tab the Tigers to make it five in a row, believing they can  pound out enough victories to overcome their suspect pitching. Then again, my son is the assistant hitting coach, so what answer did you expect?

            Q: Is is really true that Alex Rodriguez will be in the Yankees opening day lineup?

            A: Yes, at 40 and after missing a year and a half, A-Rod had a reassuing spring, hitting three home runs and batting .286 with a .400 OBP. And, look, the 2015 Yankees aren't loaded with a lot of Murderer's Row options.

            Q: Where do we look on opening day for some of those high dollar Cuban players?

            A: Check the minors, counting their money. That's where Boston's Yoan Moncada ($63M) and Rusney Castillo ($72.5M) will be. Arizona's Yasmany Tomas ($68.5M) was still on the big league roster as of Saturday morning but probably headed down since rookie Jake Lamb has won the third base job. The Dodgers' Hector Olivera ($62.5M) hasn't even left the Dominican Republic yet because of visa issues. Any one for a cigar.

            Q: Can Brandon McCarthy and Brett Anderson avoid the disabled list at the back end of the Dodger rotation?

           A: History suggests they can't, and that compounds the fact that Hyun-Jin Ryu is already opening the season on the DL and the L.A. bullpen is a mess with closer Kenley Jansen out until mid- or late May.

           Q: Are you saying the Dodgers won't win the NL West again?

           A: No, they are the team to beat, possibly even stronger than last year. Just saying there are reasons for supporters to hold their breath. Of course, 70% of supporters in the L.A. market won't be able to watch their favorite team again because of the greed involved in the ongoing TV issue, which is about as close to a resolution as a trade involving Andre Ethier, which isn't close at all.

           Q: Who are Johnny Giavotella and Tyler Featherstone?

           A: The former is the Angels replacement for Howie Kendrick at second base and the latter is his backup. The Big A now stands for Anonymity, which is not to say the team is close to a trade for Chase Utley, but, well, keep it in mind.

           Q: So, the Angels can't win 96 games again without a proven second baseman?

           A: No, they very well can, and I credit GM Jerry Dipoto for doing a good job picking up pieces to improve the overall depth, minimizing the uncertainty over Josh Hamilton and other potential roster issues-- and I know what the next question is: Do they hope Hamilton returns or would they prefer he retire? Well, management's over the top reaction to the absence of a suspension would make it seem they hope he stays home and cares for himself and his family, but what's the expression about making your bed and.....

           Q: Are the Mariners in the AL West, the Marlins in the NL East and the Indians in the AL Central as legitimate as many prognosticators are saying.

           A: Yes, each has a real chance in their respective divisions, but as the only prognosticator that counts I still lean toward the Angels in the West, the Nationals in the East and the Tigers in the Central. And, though you didn't ask, I tab the Orioles in the AL East, the Dodgers in the NL West, and the Cardinals again in the NL Central.

          Q: Aside from minor steps to improve the pace of games has the new commissioner done anything to ban shifts and improve the offenses?

           A: No, he is hoping the game begins a natural adjustment from pitching dominance. as it has done in both ways at times in the past. However, offensive statistics have seldom--if ever--been on a downward trend comparable to the last 15 years, and 2015 will be watch closely on Park Ave. with the possibility of  significant changes in 2016.

          Q: Pete Rose has applied for reinstatement. Will we see that happen in 2015?

          A: Rob Manfred seems more open to a fresh appraisal than his predecessor, and there has been speculation that Rose could be reinstated, becoming eligible for the Hall of Fame, while restricted to the type job he could accept in the game. However, I remain doubtful. I suspect the Hit Leader will remain banished with Shoeless Joe, and I regret that. I have long supported a permanent ban, long written that Rose had done  little to enhance his situation, but I have reached a point where I believe the point has been made and his contributions--if not the man himself--are worthy of reinstatement. It would be a powerful statement by the new commissioner and good for the game. It just makes sense.                                               

Friday, February 27, 2015

My Take on Josh Hamilton, and Myself

                       By Ross Newhan
                        I have no first-hand or family connection to addiction, and for that I am grateful, although I am undoubtedly being cavalier about that "first-hand" bit.

                        During all the years (decades), covering the Angels or Dodgers on the road, covering All-Star games and World Series, covering labor negotiations and owners meetings, the nightly habit was to have a drink or two when the writing was done.

                       And too often a drink or two led to three or four.

                       Even when covering a game at Dodger Stadium or in Anaheim, well, for many years there were post-game drinks served in the hospitality rooms behind the press box or there were stops on the way home.

                       I was lucky to have survived, lucky to have not produced an accident involving others.

                      My drink of choice at the time was VO and water. There was one night, covering the 1980 baseball winter meetings in San Diego, when I had no recollection the next morning of having driven from the Town and Country Hotel, where the meetings were held, to my hotel across the freeway.

                      I have not had a VO and water since, which is not to say I don't occasionally have a glass of wine or an occasional beer (with the driving left to my wife).

                     I am quite sure, during those many years of heavy drinking, I could have been, would have been, classified as alcoholic. An alcoholic functioning at high level (based on the reaction to and rewards for my writing), but alcoholic nevertheless.

                    Confession may be good for the soul but I am not looking for cleansing because there is an aspect of those years, an aspect of addiction, I do not understand and maybe can not.

                    Maybe? Probably? Undoubtedly I was (am) fooling myself, but I never felt that I HAD to have a drink. It was habit, social time with colleagues and competitors, unwinding after having produced 800 or so words in 20 or so minutes, another deadline down.

                   Even now, thinking about all that drinking, all those impaired miles behind the wheel, trying to grasp a truthful reason for it, it is impossible for me to understand the unrelenting addiction that has pulled at Josh Hamilton since his teenage years--the day by day, night by night, turmoil (terror?) behind locked doors and windows, accountability partner or not, loving family or not.

                   His story has been chronicled, and it is enough to repeat that he has been one of the great hitters of the last dozen years, an MVP winner and contender who has earned the admiration of teammates while handling high velocity fastballs amid a far more challenging obstacle of which he has talked openly. Now, he has clearly acknowledged a cocaine and alcohol relapse in meeting with MLB officials. He faces suspension as a repeat offender of the category called drugs of abuse, and I would not be so glib, as some have, to say it is time for Hamilton to walk away from the game and deal totally with an addiction that will always be there in some measure. Nor will I pile on the Angels--more than I already have--in regard to that five year, $125 million contract that has three years and $83 million left and carried a high risk from the time it was signed.               

                 Whether Hamilton will ever return the high reward that hopefully accompanied the risk remains uncertain and is probably not the current issue.

                  The issue is one of life, not livlihood, and while I have covered other players who had to cope with an addiction of one type or another, Hamilton has brought home new insight into the tenacious grasp of addiction at its fiercest.

                  I hope he can play again. I hope he can find a way to ease the stranglehold because there is more at stake than a uniform.

                  And, from a perspective I have not given comparable thought to before, it is probably best if I think in terms of "judge not...."                                  


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Reflections on a Wild Off-Season

       By Ross Newhan

        Pitchers, catchers and thoughts on a frenetic, finance-busting, franchise empowering off-season (with more action still to come):

                                                       TODDLIN' TOWN
        Chicago should be just that--Northside, Southside, both. No general manager nailed his winter blueprint quicker than Rick Hahn of the White Sox, and no one acquisition did more to energize a long suffering fan base than the Cubs signing of one-of-a-kind Joe Maddon as manager. The White Sox look like contenders in the AL Central without another move and the Cubs should be competitive, if not contenders, in the NL Central, with the next seven weeks helping to sort out the MLB's deepest fleet of seemingly ready prospects.

                                              LIGHTING UP THE GASLAMP

        Petco area businesses are salivating over the attendance impact expected for Padre home games because of the lineup overhaul by new general manager A.J. Preller, all via a series of adrenelin pumping trades except for the free agent signing of James Shields. This could be the best San Diego team since the 1998 World Series version, particularly if Will Myers can play center field and Will Middlebrooks is the everyday third baseman. With the Wills, there may be a way in the NL West. Otherwise, the Padres will have to do some unhappy juggling to shore up the defense behind that very good pitching and some of the new arrivals may be sitting--questions for spring.

                                                    SWOON OVER MIAMI?

        It is always difficult to know if the Jeffrey Loria of today will be the Jeffrey Loria of tomorrow, but this appears to go beyond the owners' whims and has all the look of a real, longterm deal for the Marlins given the foundation inspiring committment to Giancarlo Stanton, the additions of Dee Gordon, Michael Morse and Martin Prado, and the healthy mix of a productive farm system. If Jose Fernandez remains on track to return in mid-season from Tommy John surgery the Marlins should be wild card competitive in the NL East, where the rich get richer Nationals will be tough to unseat.

                                                     CUBA LIBRA, ANYONE?

        So, Yasiel Puig pumps the Dodgers with energy (and irritation) and Jose Abreau wins a Rooke of the Year award with the White Sox, and now the Cuban onslaught is in full swing. Rusney Castillo is expected to be an outfield starter with the Red Sox after costing $72.5 million and Yasmany Tomas is expected to start at third base for the Diamondbacks after costing $68.5 million, but, in all liklihood, you ain't seen nothing yet.   There are approximately 75 Cuban players pursuing contracts with major league clubs headed by infielders Yoan Moncada, Hector Olivera and Andy Ibanez and pitcher Yadier Alvarez. The international signing guidelines differ in each case, but the madcap, private workout pursuit of the 19 year old Moncada, in particular, is expected to culminate in the next 5 to 10 days with a (big market?) bonus signing that could top Castillo and Tomas, and include a 100% tax on the respective club's bonus pool overage. It's a complicated business, but the loosening of relations with Cuba could, in time, end MLB's dirty relationship with human traffickers and accelerate the push for a needed international draft.

                                                PANDA TRACKS (AND MORE)

         They are thinking first-to-worst-to-first in Red Sox nation, providing they can dig Fenway out of the snowback in time. Down in sunny Fort Myers, in the meantime, they will be putting Pablo Sandoval on the scales regularly and giving Hanley Ramirez regular lessons in left field, where the wall and diminsions are similar to those he will find in Boston. The early signings of arguably the two best hitters on the free agent market cost the Red Sox $183 million, and now they are considered the team that is in best position to make one of the splashiest late moves, dipping into a deep prospect system to trade for Cole Hamels, providing a missing ace for their pitching deck.

                                                  THE DH FACTOR?

          While Sandoval and Ramirez are moving to a league that in which the designated hitter provides them with an added lineup option, the three best and most expensive free agent pitchers on the market--Max Scherzer, Jon Lester and Shields--all fled the DH burden of the American League for the DH-less National. Each of the three is in his 30s, and while the opportunity to pitch to a pitcher rather than a bonafide hitter may not have been the primary motivation in their decisions, well, it's a nice thought in their senior baseball years. Besides, now they get a chance to hit themselves (LOL).

                                                     SICK BAY?

            A lot of what has happened to the Giants, since winning their every other year World Series, and to the A's, since at least reaching the wild card play-in game, hasn't been good. Or, looking at in another way, has been difficult to understand. Oakland GM Billy Beane renovated his roster, insisting he wasn't rebuilding because he is too old for a five year plan. Yet, as my former Times' colleague, Bill Shaikin, pointed out, Beane made nine trades involving 27 players, dismissing four of the five A's who hit 10 or more home runs and five of the seven who made the All-Star team. He is left with a still promising rotation, a moneyball mix and match lineup and the return of Barry Zito, 36, from retirement. The Giants had their parade, and then largely went quiet. Sandoval and Morse left, taking away 32 home runs, while their replacements, Casey McGehee and Nori Aoki, hit five. The rotation that Madison Bumgarner carried through the post-season is the same as it was, meaning the return of Matt Cain from elbow surgery seems critical.


         The new management of the Dodgers turned over the lineup in a 48 hour span of the winter meetings, emerging with a new shortstop (Jimmy Rollins) and second baseman (Howie Kendrick) and handing center field to Joc Pederson as Puig left for right field and Matt Kemp for San Diego. The defense should be better,    the bullpen (given veteran additions) deeper and much depends (big time) on the readiness of Pederson and the health of the new fourth (Brandon McCarthy) and fifth (Brett Anderson) starters. The Angels, looking to go farther than 94 wins took them (a division series wipeout to Kansas City), made smaller but possibly significant moves in the offseason, deepening their pitching and farm system. Do they have a replacement for Kendrick? Will Garret Richard be ready early in the season? Can CJ Wilson bounce back? Some of the big questions. The biggest? Josh Hamilton. Now you see him, now you don't.