11th and Washington

11th and Washington: August 2010

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Ryan Howard looks back

As a Mets fan, it's tough to see Ryan Howard do well. As a baseball fan, it's a treat.

The big man (who, to this point, has managed to avoid a nickname that's stuck, as far as I know) is a bonafide superstar and a personable fellow who always gave me the comments I needed, both in 2002 as a developing first baseman with the BlueClaws and in the few times I've run into him since.

Last night in Lakewood, I took the night off, attending the game as a fan as his number was retired and he got three at-bats in a rehab start for the BlueClaws. It was Howard's second appearance at FirstEnergy Park since reaching the Major Leagues; in 2007, he played in two rehab games, including an 11 a.m. start I attended. Afterward, Howard joked that he couldn't remember the last time he had woken up so early.

This appearance was a more common 7:05 p.m. start, delayed a few minutes by the pregame ceremony to retire the No. 29 that Howard wore in 2002 and again last night. (In his 2007 rehab, he wore his Major League No. 6, which I saw on a fan in the stands.) His mother and brother were on hand and the No. 29 was unveiled on the center-field wall, to the right of center, far enough to the side to be clear of the batter's eye.

Part of what I love about Ryan Howard is that he remains a humble man. Yes, he's made a few contract demands in his time in Philadelphia, but other than that, you don't see any showboating from him, no showing up opponents and no grandstanding. He's one of the few Phillies who come to mind who (as far as I know) hasn't taken shots at the Mets on the radio or at victory parades or dropped f-bombs on live television (twice, Mr. Utley). I'm not saying he needs to be accomodating to his opponents, but he certainly treats them with respect, not only during the game, but afterward as well. He just lets his play speak for itself, not seeing any need to supplement it with verbal digs.

This graciousness has shown through during both of the rehab games I've seen him play in Lakewood. I've seen other established Major Leaguers back in the minors, most recently Shane Victorino and Carlos Delgado 10 days ago at Triple-A Lehigh Valley, but I haven't seen any of them interact and become one of the boys as much as Howard seems to do. That's not to say that Victorino, Delgado, John Maine, Robinson Cano, Phil Hughes and Derek Jeter have been standoffish or aloof, or even that the circumstances were the same. It just seems to me that Howard has gone out of his way to just blend in as one of the guys when he's been back in Lakewood -- even if he stands out as a big, hulking anomaly.

Case in point: in the big leagues, Howard is among the pajama-pantsed set. In Lakewood, he walks the high-socks walk with the rest of the BlueClaws. And he did in 2007, too.

Howard admitted last night that Lakewood "holds a special place" in his heart, so perhaps that's why he seems so at ease when he returns. And, of course, there's no guarantee he'll make it back again before the end of his career, which is why it was nice that it worked out so well last night. The BlueClaws had originally planned to retire his number on Sept. 2, an off-day for the Phillies and my birthday, on which I'll be flying to Chicago and wouldn't have been able to attend. But when it was announced that the Phillies and Rockies would make up a rainout that day in Colorado, Lakewood had to postpone the retirement ceremony. It worked out for them when Howard went on the DL with his ankle injury and the Phillies gave him to Lakewood for one night of rehab.

Howard's appearance may have kept Greensboro's Chad James from history. The hard-throwing left-hander (he was in the mid-90s in the first inning) came into the game with a 3-9 record and 5.32 ERA. He did not allow a hit until the sixth, when Howard crushed an opposite-field double to left-center, driving the ball over the outfielders' heads to score Leandro Castro. In Howard's two previous at-bats against James, he walked and grounded out to second as the Grasshoppers employed the drastic shift, putting the shortstop behind second base and the second baseman in short right field. James finished with six innings, one hit allowed, five walks and three strikeouts. He improved to 4-9 and lowered that ERA to 5.09. Two 'Hoppers (I have no idea if they're called that) relievers allowed just one more hit and two more walks in a 4-1 win.

Lakewood manager Mark Parent sent in a pinch-runner after that double, allowing Howard to jog off the field to a standing ovation and ending his night after three at-bats. He's scheduled to play for Triple-A Lehigh Valley tonight and could be back with the Phillies on Sunday. Last night may very well have been the last time a Lakewood BlueClaw will don No. 29 -- unless Howard has another rehab appearance somewhere down the line.

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Friday, August 06, 2010

Sensory overload

I'm still a bit overwhelmed by yesterday's visit to the National Sports Collectors Convention in Baltimore. It's a cliche in two ways: It's like I'd died and gone to heaven. Yet, it's also hell -- temptations all around.

I did alright for myself -- I stuck to my budget (that is, I brought just a little cash and didn't spend more than that) and found some cool and interesting (to me) items to bring home. I also went weak in the knees and salivated over a few things that were out -- way out -- of my price range. A $3,000 photo of Honus Wagner with his Paterson Silk Weavers semipro team in the late 1800s, a framed collection of 19th-century baseball club ribbons (starting bid was $5,000, and you can see what it sold for), and several other photos and programs of historical significance in New York and New Jersey, plus a shot of Hall of Famer Ed Walsh with his two sons when they were on the Notre Dame team -- with all three in Notre Dame uniforms.

I'll work on a more detailed post tomorrow, but I wanted to get a few thoughts down now. I'll update this post then.

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Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Cost per win through Aug. 2

Not sure why I was inspired to crunch these numbers, but here is how much each team has paid per win so far this season, based on these payroll numbers.

Rank = overall payroll rank
Rank Team Payroll Wins $ per W $ per player
3 Chicago Cubs $146,859,000 46 $3,192,586.96 $5,439,222
1 New York Yankees $206,333,389 66 $3,126,263.47 $8,253,336
2 Boston Red Sox $162,747,333 60 $2,712,455.55 $5,611,977
17 Baltimore Orioles $81,612,500 32 $2,550,390.63 $3,138,942
9 Seattle Mariners $98,376,667 39 $2,522,478.64 $3,513,452
5 New York Mets $132,701,445 53 $2,503,800.85 $5,103,902
4 Philadelphia Phillies $141,927,381 57 $2,489,954.05 $5,068,835
6 Detroit Tigers $122,864,929 52 $2,362,787.10 $4,550,553
14 Houston Astros $92,355,500 46 $2,007,728.26 $3,298,411
8 Los Angeles Angels $105,013,667 54 $1,944,697.54 $3,621,161
7 Chicago White Sox $108,273,197 59 $1,835,138.93 $4,164,354
12 Los Angeles Dodgers $94,945,517 54 $1,758,250.31 $3,651,751
18 Milwaukee Brewers $81,108,279 49 $1,655,271.00 $2,796,837
11 Minnesota Twins $97,559,167 59 $1,653,545.20 $3,484,256
20 Kansas City Royals $72,267,710 45 $1,605,949.11 $2,491,990
10 San Francisco Giants $97,828,833 61 $1,603,751.36 $3,493,887
13 St. Louis Cardinals $93,540,753 59 $1,585,436.49 $3,741,630
25 Arizona Diamondbacks $60,718,167 39 $1,556,876.08 $2,335,314
16 Colorado Rockies $84,227,000 55 $1,531,400.00 $2,904,379
15 Atlanta Braves $84,423,667 60 $1,407,061.12 $3,126,802
24 Cleveland Indians $61,203,967 45 $1,360,088.16 $2,110,482
23 Washington Nationals $61,425,000 47 $1,306,914.89 $2,047,500
19 Cincinnati Reds $72,386,544 60 $1,206,442.40 $2,784,098
22 Toronto Blue Jays $62,689,357 55 $1,139,806.49 $2,089,645
21 Tampa Bay Rays $71,923,471 66 $1,089,749.56 $2,663,832
26 Florida Marlins $55,641,500 53 $1,049,839.62 $2,060,796
28 Oakland Athletics $51,654,900 53 $974,620.75 $1,666,287
30 Pittsburgh Pirates $34,943,000 36 $970,638.89 $1,294,185
27 Texas Rangers $55,250,545 61 $905,746.64 $1,905,191
29 San Diego Padres $37,799,300 62 $609,666.13 $1,453,819

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Monday, August 02, 2010

The shadows are creeping in

Some fans and beat writers are looking at this road trip to Atlanta and Philadelphia as a make-or-break stretch of six games in the Mets' season.

But I think it's already broken.

This isn't just about yesterday's debacle against the D-backs, which, had things been a bit different (say, New York had won five out of six from Arizona, with yesterday being the one loss), might otherwise be looked at as just a learning experience for Jon Niese. The young lefty still threw 51 of 83 pitches for strikes and should soon learn how to get a left-hander out even after two straight hits. Mets Police and Metsgrrl (not to mention a kick-ass headline on the game recap) have summed up pretty well how I felt sitting out there in Queens yesterday. I'm sure there are plenty of other good summations, but I can't bring myself to read anymore.

But yesterday's events confirmed for me what might be the core problems of this team.

I'm not part of the camp that thinks a roster overhaul is in order, that trading David Wright or Jose Reyes or Carlos Beltran is what is needed to get things going in the right direction. Those guys -- particularly Wright and Reyes -- are the core and that's who they need to build around to get back on top of the NL East. And I'm glad they stood their ground at the trading deadline, not making a move for the sake of making a move (which it sounds like this one guy behind me yesterday wanted to see). Dealing a few mid-level prospects for a Jake Westbrook or Ted Lilly or Chad Qualls wasn't going to make up four or five games in the standings. Besides, it sounds like whoever the Mets contacted to sniff out a trade was asking for Niese or Ike Davis -- or both -- as a starting point. No, thank you.

And I'm not sure the Mets had too many tradeable veterans to send away to bring back a young player or two. Pedro Feliciano was probably the most attractive candidate, and maybe he could have been moved, but relief pitching is at a premium, and if this team is a few offseason moves away from fielding a legitimate contender, Feliciano is going to be part of that foundation. Francisco Rodriguez is probably untradeable (and, I'm sorry, for all his faults, he's not really any worse than most other closers. Overpaid? Sure, as are pretty much all ninth-inning guys not named Rivera). Jeff Francoeur? He can be dealt in August -- and he just might be, once we all get a look at the standings on Sunday night.

So I'm fine with the lack of activity at the deadline, because these three key problems aren't solvable in a July trade or two.

1.) Three particularly bad contracts are holding Omar Minaya and Jerry Manuel hostage. That is, they don't have the flexibility to improve the roster with the three-headed albatross of Oliver Perez, Luis Castillo and Alex Cora. Ollie and Castillo are untradeable, unless the Mets get another bad contract back in return. And for the money they're making -- at least that Perez is -- it's hard to designate them for assignment and eat that money, whether or not you believe the team is in financial straits because of the Madoff mess. Still, no one who was at the ballpark yesterday would care if they heard tonight that one or both was booted off the roster. And Cora, as a versatile backup infielder (even if he can't hit), isn't a bad contract for one year, but when he's starting 41 of the 61 games he's appeared in (numbers that should, at the very least, be reversed) and when he has a terrible vesting option that becomes guaranteed as soon as he plays in that 80th or 81st game, then it's a bad contract, because then you're stuck with a .200 hitter again next season.

The one tarnished silver lining I can find in these deals is that Omar stood his ground when Bengie Molina wouldn't take the Mets' one-year offer. (Though Cora's deal was also done this offseason, which doesn't help matters.)

2.) The faith in John Maine in the rotation -- and, relatedly, Perez, too -- helped sink the Mets this season. I don't think there was any question as to whether Maine would make the rotation this spring, or that he would be the No. 2 starter. Maine's ceiling may have once been as a No. 2, but he had done nothing since 2007 to show that potential. Going into spring training with Maine and Perez as the Nos. 2 and 3 didn't help. A contending team needs those slots to be rock-solid firm, not based on potential and hope for a bounce-back season. Mike Pelfrey and Niese certainly pitched like consistent top-of-the-rotation starters in the first half, but if Pelfrey doesn't get over this dead-arm period (or whatever it is) and Niese doesn't rebound from Sunday, the Mets can't go into 2011 with those two as the rock-solid Nos. 2 and 3.

This has been discussed elsewhere this season, but the Mets are pretty lucky that they didn't overpay (in dollars or years) for some of the free-agent pitchers that we were all clamoring for in the offseason, myself included. Jason Marquis hasn't pitched for the Nationals since April, I think; Ben Sheets is done for the year; and John Lackey would have been way too many dollars for certainly too many years. Joel Pineiro (10-7, 4.18 for the Angels) and Jon Garland (10-7, 3.60 for the Padres) would have helped keep Hisanori Takahashi in the bullpen, but would either have really made that much of a difference? (Both might have, but then Niese would be something like 12-2 for Buffalo right now.) Which brings us to my third key problem that has soured 2010 ...

3.) Why can't this team win on the road? At 20-33, the Mets are playing .377 ball on the road. Want to know who has better winning percentages away from their home parks? Toronto, Kansas City, Cleveland, Oakland, Milwaukee, the Cubs, Houston, Houston, Colorado and the Dodgers. The Mets are playing .635 baseball at home, better than everyone but the Braves, Phillies, Yankees, Cardinals and Rockies. If the Mets could play just close to .500 on the road (I'm talking 26-27 at this point, if they'd won six more games -- how about three in Arizona, one in Puerto Rico, and one each in San Francisco and Los Angeles), they'd be a half-game out of first as they begin a three-game set at Turner Field.

With such a difference in home and road winning percentage (at a .257 difference, the only teams with bigger gaps are the Tigers, .346; Braves, .285; Cardinals, .275; and Rockies, .276; and Atlanta leads baseball with a .723 winning percentage at home!) I don't know how that can be explained by anything other than the manager and coaching staff. As explained in Nos. 1 and 2, Manuel is a bit hamstrung because of some of the players on his roster, but if they can win 63 percent of their games at home, they shouldn't be losing 63 percent on the road. As much as I love Howard Johnson, he has to shoulder some of the blame when the team is shut out three times on the same road trip for the first time since the early '90s, or whenever it was. And then they added a fourth shutout for good measure. And Manuel, who I gave credit to when he had the team in first place back at the end of April and within half a game as late as June 27, has to do something to get this club a winning road trip. His refusal to use K-Rod for anything but a save situation in a tie game on the road is maddening. What's the point of keeping Rodriguez for a save situation that only might appear when Ryota Igarashi or Raul Valdes is taking the loss in the bottom of the ninth or 10th?

The sun's not setting, but it's getting lower in the sky

And so that's how I see it. Others may not agree, but for some reason I like to find two or three points that seem to be the root cause of the problem. I guess it's something of a baseball butterfly effect -- had things been different in these particular instances, then maybe, just maybe, everything would have turned out better in the end (or to this point).

As for this road trip, I can't see how anyone thinks this time will be any better than the last one. It's now August. There are two months left in the season, 29 home games and 28 road games (if I counted and subtracted correctly in my head). If the Mets play at their current rates at home and on the road, they'd go 51-30 at Citi and 30-51 on the road. Yes, folks, that's a .500 season. Except, for this road trip to "make" them, they need to do no worse than 4-2. There's not enough time left to break even in six games in Atlanta and Philly, not when there is another trip to each one still to come. They have to make close ground, winning two out of three at each stop this week. They can't afford any steps back.

And I don't think they can do it. The sun may not have set on this season, but it's casting some very long shadows.

My one final thought to wrap up this discourse is this: After the heartbreak of 2007 and '08 and the frustration of nothing going right in 2009, I just wanted a competent, competitive team. I let myself get excited over first place at the end of April and half a game out five weeks ago. I enjoy it when my teams are winning and I can't stand to criticize and nitpick their faults. I know someone who gets worked up over every at-bat, nearly every pitch. I just can't be a fan like that. I just wanted a team that had a chance to finish a strong second in the division, to look down on the Braves or Phillies, even if it meant the other one was on top and some team from the West was the Wild Card winner.

So much for that. Guess I'll have to look for some room on that Reds bandwagon. It'd be nice to see some fresh blood make some noise in October.

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