May 2010

D-backs struggling, but two key guys thriving

MIAMI — Yes, the Diamondbacks — a team I thought would compete in what I felt was a wide-open National League West — are in last place. And, sure, that bullpen — with a 7.70 ERA that easily ranks last in the Majors going into Friday — has been dreadful. 

But there are some positive signs on this team, and two of them come from a couple of the guys fans were most worried about last season: shortstop Stephen Drew and center fielder Chris Young
Last year, Drew (pictured left) plummeted after a nice 2008 season by hitting just .261 in 135 games. Young, meanwhile, had never been able to follow up on a promising rookie season in 2007, as he sports a .235 batting average his previous three seasons. 
But both have turned it around so far.
Drew hit .365 in Cactus League play this spring and has carried that into the regular season, as he sports a solid .304 batting average with 19 RBIs in his first 39 games. Young tore it up last September — batting .278 with eight homers in his last 28 games of the season — and is hitting .282 with five homers and 29 RBIs in 41 games while playing outstanding defense in the outfield. 
I covered the D-backs when they played the Marlins at Sun Life Stadium earlier this week, and I got a chance to ask around about what has led to the early season turnarounds of these two.
In Drew’s case, hitting coach Jack Howell credits a simplified approach. 
“Last year, he spent a lot of time kind of going in and out of his swing,” Howell told me. “Because he gets a little lazy and the bat head drops, and he was getting more fly balls then balls that were backspun. So we spent a lot of time working on that, and then I think the thing that really helped him is that he’s getting better pitches to hit, and I think that’s a lot because he simplified his approach. And what I mean by that is we really talk more, but we don’t go into great-detail kind of stuff on how guys are trying to pitch him and go into all the percentages and stuff. He kind of just wants to know more velocity and the pitches the guy has and to think more see it and hit it.”
“We started that in spring, where he’s kind of focused on seeing it and hitting it hard,” Howell added. “And then any time, if the bat gets a little loopy or whatever, then we have a couple of drills that we work on to kind of get it in a better direction, which helps him stay in the zone longer.”
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As for Young (pictured right), manager A.J. Hinch credits his balance.
“He’s maintained really good balance at the plate,” Hinch told me. “And balance, you can say it’s physical balance. He’s not skating as much in the batter’s box and not getting out of position very often. But it’s almost a mental balance for him of taking every at-bat as a once-at-bat challenge and not dwelling on the mistakes that he makes or the misses that he has.”
The D-backs (18-24) are six games below .500 and 6 1/2 games back while in the basement of the NL West. But don’t blame the offense. They lead the league in runs and homers, while Drew and Young have been solid, new addition Kelly Johnson has been great, franchise player Justin Upton is starting to hit again, and Mark Reynolds is still doing his thing. 

Alden Gonzalez

What to do about a guy named Michael Stanton

MIAMI — What Stephen Strasburg is to the Nationals, Mike Stanton has become to the Marlins. 
Sure, Stanton was always a highly touted prospect in their system, and he’s been the top-ranked guy there for a while. But now is when it’s becoming a Strasburg-ish situation in South Florida, with anticipation building about exactly when he’ll be up in the big leagues for good. Heading into Sunday, Stanton (pictured) sported absurd numbers in pretty much every offensive category through 33 games: a .322 batting average, 36 RBIs, a ridiculous 1.237 OPS and a league-leading 15 home runs (one of them a mythical 500-plus-foot shot).
As my colleague Joe Frisaro and others have noted, it looks like late May or early June will be the time Stanton finally gets called up to the Major Leagues. 
When the Marlins sent Stanton down after he hit .286 with three homers in eight Grapefruit League games, manager Fredi Gonzalez said he’d let them know when he’s ready. Well, he’s ready, all right. And since the Marlins waited, they now delay his arbitration process and free-agency period by an extra year. 
But now the question remains — how do you make room for Stanton in the starting lineup? Here are some options that come to mind: 
* This is the one that may make the most sense: They can trade fan favorite Cody Ross for relief help to open up a spot in the outfield. Marlins fans love Ross, and for good reason — he’s a great clubhouse guy, is a solid defensive player and produces offensively at a reasonable price. But that’s also what makes him so attractive to other suitors, and what can perhaps get Florida the late-inning relief pitching it needs (perhaps maybe a solid lefty specialist). Ross is making $4.45 million and has one more year of arbitration, which could make him easier to move than this guy …
* Dan Uggla. The Marlins shopped their power-hitting second baseman all offseason but had no real takers. And though he’s having his best start to the season ever (.281 batting average, eight homers and 24 RBIs in 37 games heading into Sunday), he comes at a $7.8 million price tag and several teams are put off by his defense. Plus, while moving Ross would allow the Marlins to simply slot Stanton in right field, moving Uggla would take more shuffling. Chris Coghlan, who’s been very good in left field, would go to second base, and Stanton or Ross would migrate to left field. 
* Or you can do the same thing with Jorge Cantu, which would move Coghlan to third base — a position he also played in the Minors, though not nearly as much as second — instead. Moving Cantu would be tempting — despite his great knack for driving in runs — because he’s owed $6 million this year and is a free agent after the season. Cantu is solid at first base, but the Marlins see him as somewhat of a liability as a third baseman, which is why Wes Helms usually mans the position late in games. Cantu’s bat would be appealing to other clubs. 
* And then there’s Cameron Maybin. In many fans’ minds, this is the easier decision. You either option Maybin right back down to the Minor Leagues or trade him. But they may be a little hesitant to do that because it seems like finally — finally! — Maybin is starting to get the hang of this whole Major League thing. He’s taking better routes on balls in the outfield, and while the strikeouts will always be there, he’s put up back-to-back multi-hit games. No big sample size, sure. But he looks better at the plate, and the Marlins have so much invested in him (essentially, Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis), that it seems like it’d be tough to give up on him now. If you trade him, you give up on him. If you option him, then you’re sending a very bad message to a guy who’s been through this before and is actually now playing well (plus, you get nothing in return, even though you have a surplus of everyday players). 
I can’t see the Marlins keeping all of those guys and then having four everyday outfielders on the active roster. So, if you’re the Marlins’ brass, which of those options do you choose? 
— Alden Gonzalez

Will: To speed up MLB, ‘Change the mannerisms’

Major League Baseball has put an emphasis on speeding up the pace of games for quite some time. At the start of this season, the issue was brought to the forefront more than ever 

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when heralded umpire Joe West (pictured) criticized the Yankees and Red Sox for the pace in which they went about their games, calling them “a disgrace to baseball.”  

Obviously, though, this is about more than just the Yankees and Red Sox. 
In researching for a story about the larger scope of the pace-of-games issue, I had the pleasure of interviewing noted journalist George Will, who was named part of MLB Commissioner Bud Selig’s 14-member committee to review on-field issues in December. Will is a Pulitzer Prize winner who has written two best-selling books on baseball. He’s currently employed by ABC and The Washington Post, and he had some great insight on this topic. 
For the record, Will was talking more about his personal opinions, and he was not speaking for the committee in any way. Here’s what he had to say …
In your communication with Selig, how big of an issue is the current pace of games with him? 

I think the Commissioner has long been concerned about the pace of the game, and he’s been particularly concerned to emphasis that it’s not the length of the game, but the pace of the game. That is, baseball fans don’t mind a two-hour and 52-minute game — which was the average last year — as long as the pace of the game is better. The games have become longer, in part because of good baseball. The running game has made a bit of a comeback, there’s more throwing over to first base, teams — led, I guess, first by the Yankees — understood that batters going deeper into the count will wear down the starting pitcher and get into the other team’s middle relief sooner. These are all good baseball reasons, but there are also other reasons. Particularly, too much time between pitches, which is sometimes a fault of the pitcher and sometimes a fault of the batters stepping out of the batter’s box.

What can be done to improve that?

Change the mannerisms. Change the culture of baseball. It tends to trickle down. These mannerisms tend to trickle down all the way to Little League. And I think if players, if managers, communicate to their players that this is happening and it’s not necessary, it would help. Most pitchers know that the defense behind them is going to be better if they pitch quickly. And batters, it seems to me, have to wonder if they really are better at the plate when they’re sort of interrupting the rhythm of the game. 

I would assume, then, that if you’re going to attempt to change the culture, it’s going to take a while before we actually see some change, right? 

You’re quite right. Already, umpires have the power to call, I think, a strike on the batter if the batter doesn’t take his position in a timely manner. But that’s a judgment call, the umpires have quite enough on their plate without adding this to their duties. And I think we’d all like to see some way to address this without resorting to that particular provision. 

Can you ever see an actual rule being put in place to speed up the pace of games? 

Not at the moment. I think we’d all like to do it by, as you say, changing the culture. 

How would the League weigh the possible expansion of instant replay with trying to speed up the pace of games? 

Some people say that on some instant-replay calls, you might speed the game up, because instead of having a protracted argument on the field, the umpires just check the replay and see what happens. … But just speaking for myself, I’m very reluctant to expand instant replay beyond boundary calls. You can add fair or foul with regards to that Yankees-Twins call in the playoffs last year, down the left-field line, but beyond that, I think instant replay should be limited. 

Would you say speeding up the pace of games is more of an issue this year than it ever has? 

No, I think it’s about where it has been for some while. It’s on the agenda, it’s on people’s minds, and measures are being considered.
Here are some numbers on the average times of nine-inning games per decade, courtesy of the Elias Sports Bureau:
* 1970s – 2:30
* 1980s – 2:33
* 1990s – 2:47
* 2000s – 2:57
* 2010   – 2:54 (from April 19)
Look for a more in-depth story on the pace-of-game issue in MLB later this week on the homepage
— Alden Gonzalez

(One more shameless plug here: If you get the time, check out this story on Nate Winters, a high-school pitcher in Central Florida who has only one leg. We don’t often do stories on non-MLB players, but this was a special case. He’s the bravest kid I know.)
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