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Baseball Notes

Deep thoughts on players

Many stars don't shine when spotlight's bright

By Nick Cafardo
January 18, 2009
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For many teams, it's about getting deep into the postseason, winning it all. Yet how much thought goes into rosters to make sure teams have the players that will perform once they get there?

Generally, we're talking about Boston, both New York teams, both LA squads, the Chicago Cubs, and Philadelphia.

Since 2002, the Angels have been a consistent division winner, but they never seem to get very far. Why is that? Do they have players that just can't come up big in the biggest moments? The Angels added Mark Teixeira in late July and he provided some much-needed thump to their lineup. While Teixeira did more than his teammates in the playoffs (seven singles and one RBI in 15 at-bats), it wasn't enough.

Respected Indians general manager Mark Shapiro says identifying solid postseason players is difficult.

"In this market and in my opinion, [seeking good postseason players] is one small attribute that could be an added bonus but not a real driver in a decision," he wrote in an e-mail. "Postseason experience and, really, pennant race experience is meaningful in the ups and downs of a pennant race but difficult to quantify, and the bottom line is performance.

"We look at a lot of variables in the decision-making process - primarily subjective (scouting), objective (statistics), medical, financial, mental makeup, and personality. The experience you mentioned could fit in as a small, positive intangible that helps shape decisions but not impact them in a meaningful way."

This offseason, the Yankees went wild with the signings of Teixeira, CC Sabathia, and A.J. Burnett. Sabathia's postseason history is poor - 2-3. 7.92 ERA. Burnett has never pitched in the postseason. Incumbent Chien-Ming Wang, a two-time 19-game winner, is 1-3 with a 7.58 ERA in four postseason starts. Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, arguably the best all-around player in the game, is hitting .159 in his last 44 postseason at-bats with one homer and one RBI.

The Cubs have fizzled in their last two playoff appearances because of a lack of offense. Derrek Lee hit .545 (6 for 11) against the Dodgers in last season's Division Series, but didn't drive in a run.

The Red Sox won the World Series in 2004 and '07 because they had players such as Curt Schilling, Derek Lowe, Manny Ramírez, David Ortiz, Johnny Damon, Bill Mueller, Mark Bellhorn, Mike Lowell, Josh Beckett, and Jonathan Papelbon who stepped up their games when it counted most.

"[Identifying good postseason players] is certainly not a primary consideration - more of a secondary factor at best," said Sox GM Theo Epstein. "Ted Williams didn't perform in the postseason . . . I would take him!"

While Shapiro and Epstein appear to agree, you can't help but wonder why so many of these teams missed the boat on signing players who are proven postseason performers, such as Ramírez and Lowe. How could Lowe have gone to the Braves for four years and $60 million, and not to the Mets, Phillies, or even back to the Red Sox?

If you have a team that's really close and you need a player that can carry you when it counts the most, isn't Ramírez that guy? Is he risky because of his past behavior? Of course. But his numbers don't lie. In the postseason, he's a bear. He was last year with the Dodgers, and he was with the Red Sox in 2004 and '07.

In the playoffs is when the Sox will miss Ramírez most. In 2007, they had a fearsome threesome of Ortiz, Ramírez, and Lowell. Intimidating to any pitcher, no matter how good. But in '08, Ramirez misbehaved his way out of Boston, then carried the Dodgers in 53 regular-season games and the playoffs.

And the biggest mistake Dodgers manager Joe Torre made was not allowing Lowe to pitch more than the five innings in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series against the Phillies because Lowe still had a lot left, even on three days' rest.

"I think most GMs feel, 'We've got to get there and we can get there with these players,' " said one National League GM. "I think some think about, 'OK, I know we can get there, but what happens once we get there? How can we win the whole thing?' So you try and target those players who you feel can help you win the whole thing."

That seemed to be what the John Smoltz signing was about. Smoltz won't be the guy who carries you in April and May, but he may be the guy you give the ball to in late September and October. Smoltz has been phenomenal in the postseason - 15-4 with a 2.65 ERA and four saves in 207 innings over 40 appearances.

The Angels haven't added a player you feel will give them that postseason edge. Francisco Rodriguez was that guy as a rookie in 2002, but his last two postseasons, against the Red Sox, were disappointing, and he signed with the Mets this offseason. The Cubs? Aramis Ramírez has gone 2 for 23 the last two years in the Division Series. Last season's NL Rookie of the Year, Geovany Soto, went 2 for 11 in the Division Series.

Of course, players can reverse their fortunes. Barry Bonds hit .196 in his first 97 postseason at-bats with one homer and six RBIs, before he exploded for eight homers and 16 RBIs in the 2002 playoffs, including a .471 average in the World Series with four homers and six RBIs.

Paying attention to payrolls

One of the trends we're seeing in payrolls this offseason (and there's a long way to go) is that most big-market teams are coming down, and most small-market teams are going up.

The payrolls of the Red Sox, Yankees, Angels, Dodgers, White Sox, Mariners, Blue Jays, and Pirates appear to be going down. And it looks as though those of the Phillies, Mets, Cardinals, Orioles, Twins, Reds, Braves, and Giants are going up or staying at roughly the same level.

The Cubs are a big-market team whose payroll will be approximately $131 million this season, up from $118 million last Opening Day. The Brewers started 2008 with an $81 million payroll, which went up when CC Sabathia was acquired. But with Sabathia gone, the Brewers will likely start the season with roughly the same payroll as '08.

But teams like the Marlins, Royals, and Rays seem to be increasing payroll. The Marlins will likely be around $30 million, up from $22 million last season. The Royals have gone from $52.8 million to $70 million. They would love to trim payroll but haven't been able to. The Rays added Pat Burrell on a two-year, $16 million deal, and so far have gone from $43 million last season to $60 million.

Payrolls are always difficult to figure because of signing bonuses, deferred compensation, dead money, etc. But the Red Sox have trimmed $38 million with no Curt Schilling, Manny Ramírez, and Jason Varitek, but have added John Smoltz, Brad Penny, and Rocco Baldelli to incentive-laden contracts that could increase payroll. So, a payroll that started 2008 at $134 million, and dropped when Ramírez was dealt and Jason Bay was acquired, will likely be closer to the $120 million of 2006 when all is said and done.

Despite adding Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Mark Teixeira to a tune of $64.5 million this season, the Yankees' payroll projects to be about $199 million, or $10 million less than in 2008.

Opinions of Pirates' new adviser are years in the making

A few questions for Pirates senior adviser Bill Lajoie:

You got yourself a new job after three years with the Dodgers and a long stint with the Red Sox before that.

BL: "We'll, I'll be 75 years old and when the Dodgers moved spring training to Arizona, I wasn't going to be involved as much in the decision-making because I just can't travel across the country like I used to. So, the opportunity came up with Pittsburgh, which has spring training in Bradenton [Fla.], about 30 miles from my house."

What did you think of the Red Sox' moves? First of all, the two Dodgers - Takashi Saito and Brad Penny?

BL: "Saito is one of the nicest people you'll ever meet. I enjoyed him a great deal. Until he had his elbow problems he put up some amazing numbers. He's got great control. The fact he didn't have surgery tells me he's got something left and he should really help that bullpen. Penny is a guy you have to keep on top of, but I'm sure he's going to report in good shape. I think it's good that he's reunited with Josh Beckett because when they were together in Florida they really competed with one another. I thought that was very healthy, and hopefully they can continue that healthy competition in Boston."

I know you were in Atlanta for many years when John Smoltz was there.

BL: "The thing about Smoltz is success and money hasn't changed him one bit. He's the same guy he always was. He loves baseball. Whatever it is he has left, you'll get all of it. He wants to win more than anything."

Living down in Florida, you must have seen a lot of Rocco Baldelli?

BL: "He can still throw and charge the ball. He's got power. He can't run like he did, but now with the new diagnosis and new medication, who knows? Maybe now you get him for four or five times a week. He's a heck of an athlete."

Going to Pittsburgh, you'll be recommending players for different types of deals, I would think, from LA or Boston?

BL: "Probably so. I haven't really gotten into that yet, and I'm sure it will be different, but I'm still evaluating players and I hope they continue to listen to my opinions on players."

Etc.

Apropos of nothing
1. Great to see old friend and baseball fan Jim Schwartz get the Lions' head coaching job; 2. I think Gary Sheffield will have a very good season; 3. John Harrington receives the prestigious Bud Selig Award at the Scouts Foundation dinner tonight in Beverly Hills, Calif.; 4. We will miss one of the purest baseball shows, XM's "Baseball Beat" with Charley Steiner; 5. Why aren't the Angels doing anything?

Updates, facts, and figures
1. Jason Varitek, C, free agent: If the Sox can't come up with a young catcher like Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Taylor Teagarden, or even Miguel Montero, Varitek will likely be back. While it doesn't seem an obvious fit, a couple of Mariner advisers have talked up Varitek as someone who could help improve the Seattle pitching staff.

2. Ben Sheets, RHP, free agent: While Texas appears to be considering Sheets, don't be shocked if Philadelphia has interest as well. The Phillies have been arbitration-strapped, with a huge outlay likely headed Ryan Howard's way. The Phillies are trying to find a way to get someone of Sheets's caliber on their staff.

3. Julio Lugo, SS, Red Sox: He's serious about competing for the shortstop job. He opted out of winter ball to devote his time to conditioning and has gained 10 pounds of muscle. Jed Lowrie will be challenged.

4. Kevin Youkilis, 1B, Red Sox: His deal is for $41,089,018 over four years and includes a $1 million signing bonus. He'll also receive $6 million this season, $9.125 million in 2010, $12 million in 2011, and $12 million in 2012. There's a club option for $13 million in 2013 with a $1 million buyout. There are bonuses of $50,000 (All-Star, Silver Slugger, Gold Glove, LCS MVP), and $100,000 (MVP, World Series MVP). He'd receive $75,000 for coming in second in MVP voting and $50,000 for finishing third.

5. Kris Benson, RHP, free agent: He will work out next Saturday for the Dodgers, Diamondbacks, Rangers, and Cubs.

6. Tom Glavine, LHP, free agent: Glavine is throwing off the mound and is scheduled to meet with Dr. James Andrews early this week for an examination that could determine how soon the Braves sign him. Although Glavine wants to stay in Atlanta to be close to his family, he would entertain Washington. Nationals president and former Braves president Stan Kasten has kept in touch with Glavine to gauge his interest.

7. Gerry Fraley, freelance baseball writer: Old pal Frales came up with some interesting research on pitch counts. In 2008, 45 pitchers combined for 73 starts of 120-plus pitches. That's a 60.8 percent drop from 2004, when there were 186 starts of 120-plus pitches. CC Sabathia had five starts with 120 or more pitches, most in the majors. Tied for second were Milwaukee's Sheets and San Francisco's Tim Lincecum.

8. Rich Gossage, Hall of Fame pitcher: "I was so happy [Jim Rice was elected to the Hall of Fame]," said Gossage. "We were rivals. I wasn't scared of anyone, but he came the closest of any hitter I ever faced. I respected him so much as a player. I know we had looked forward to going in together last year, but he's one of us now. The game was different when we played because pitchers owned the inside part of the plate. If Jim played in this era, he'd be Manny Ramírez."

9. David Murphy, OF, Rangers: Murphy just recovered from a posterior cruciate ligament tear and bone bruise in his knee. Murphy will likely be the starting left fielder and expected to pick up some of the offensive slack left by Milton Bradley, who signed with the Cubs.

10. Andruw Jones, OF, free agent: Released by the Dodgers, the 10-time Gold Glove winner may get a chance to play with his old team again. The Braves would have to assume only $400,000 of the more than $21 million the Dodgers are paying him. Those who have been around Jones say he's stubbornly unwilling to change obvious trouble spots in his swing. "He could still come back," said former Dodgers hitting coach Mike Easler. "He's got some problems with his swing that we were starting to iron out."

Short hops
From the Bill Chuck files: "AL batting champion Joe Mauer hit .328 and struck out only 50 times, which is impressive until you remember that 1949 batting champion George Kell hit .343 and struck out only 13 times." Also, "Gio Gonzalez has a future as a trivia answer. Question: "In 2008, which Oakland pitcher gave up MLB all-time homers 249,998 (Magglio Ordoñez), 249,999 (Sheffield), and 250,000 (Sheffield)?" . . . Happy 45th birthday, Brady Anderson.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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