October 2009

Taking a break

It occurred to me that I forgot to mention that I was on vacation for a couple of weeks and there would be no blog posts in my absence.

No worries, though, I have left behind a few stories — a couple of which you’ve seen this week. Next week there will be a trio of stories assessing the current state of the team position-by-position heading into what figures to be an active Hot Stove season.

Hopefully those stories will spur some discussion here. I would very much like to hear if you agree or disagree with my assessments.

See you on Nov. 2.


Melvin and Price candidates for big league jobs

Former D-backs manager Bob Melvin will interview with the Astros on Friday for their vacant managerial job.

Meanwhile, former Arizona pitching coach Bryan Price interviewed last week to become the next pitching coach of the Brewers and has also been mentioned as a candidate for the pitching coach job in Florida.

The Astros have also scheduled interviews with Dave Clark, who took over for Cecil Cooper when he was fired in late September, former D-backs skipper Al Pedrique, Ned Yost, Randy Ready, Manny Acta, Phil Garner, Brad Mills and Tim Bogar.

Houston has also been granted permission to speak with Philadelphia bench coach Pete Mackinin, but an interview has not been scheduled yet.

It’s not surprising to see Melvin and Price in the mix for another opportunity. Both men are well respected in the game and likely will not be out of work for long. Melvin will continue to be paid by the D-backs through next season.

Criticism of D-backs misses the mark

I don’t want to go all firejoemorgan.com here and pick apart what a columnist writes, but I can’t resist commenting on Greg Hansen’s column in the Arizona Daily Star today.

Look, the D-backs just finished a season 70-92 so some criticism of the organization is understandable. Fans pay money for tickets and merchandise and more important than that they invest emotionally in a team. So when it does not do well, they have every right to be frustrated and there is certainly some decisions that have been made that are fair game for second guessing.

I also believe that Chip Hale is an excellent coach and I was sorry to see him let go Monday. I know that Hansen has strong feelings for Hale and I can certainly relate. Bob Melvin was a friend of mine and seeing him get dismissed this year was not easy for me.

So I get all that, but this column really misses the mark. In italics below are just a few of the things I think Hansen got wrong:

— Hansen cites a quote from Doug Davis at the end of the year, “Going into free agency, it was big for me,” Davis said. “It was a good thing, a good feeling.”

I was there when Davis said that and I believe he was responding to a question that I asked him (or maybe it was Nick Piecoro with The Arizona Republic) about reaching his goal of 200 innings and he essentially was saying that going into free agency it’s a good thing to have thrown 200 innings. It was not a comment about being free from the D-backs as he also went on to say that he has enjoyed his time in Arizona.

— In the six years since Jerry Colangelo was exiled and his credit cut off, the Diamondbacks are 80 games under .500. They have become a team without a future. They have become the Pittsburgh Pirates.

This is a bit of selective number-crunching given that Colangelo left in August of a season in which they finished 51-111 and their records since that season have been: 77-85, 76-86, 90-72, 82-80, 72-90. That’s not Boston Red Sox type good, but comparing them to the Pirates is just ludicrous. The Pirates have not had a winning season since 1992 for crying out loud while the D-backs won a National League-best 90 games two seasons ago and finished two games out of the playoffs last season.

— The ballpark, dreary Chase Field, is a warehouse. It is the Un-fun House. The farm system has gone bust, victimized by two poor draft classes, and there is not enough available money to buy a free agent who can make a difference. The once-foundering Angels have become a thriving, playoff-frequenting, fan-friendly franchise that draws more than 3 million fans per year, with a payroll of about $115 million.
There’s been a lot of talk about how much money the D-backs spend, or don’t spend, but the bottom line is they spend enough to be competitive. Of the reasons they did not win more in 2009, a lack of money is not one of them. Depending on what outlets payroll figures you use, the Rockies spent about $2 million more than the D-backs. Anyone think that $2 million made the difference between the two clubs? Or what about San Diego which spent $42 million and finished ahead of the D-backs.

No, how the money is spent is the issue. The fact that the D-backs were not able to overcome key injuries was a factor. Again, if you want to take issue with individuals moves or how the money was spent — Eric Byrnes’ $30 million deal — fine, there’s an honest debate to be had there, but this notion that Arte Moreno would spend $115 million on payroll if he owned the D-backs is hard to fathom. Moreno spends that kind of money because he’s in a market far, far, far bigger than Arizona’s.

Look, it would be great if the D-backs could spend $100 million on players or $150 million, but the fact is only a very select few clubs can do that and the money the D-backs do spend is enough for them to be competitive, it just doesn’t leave them much margin for err.

As for the ballpark, yeah with the roof closed the atmosphere it doesn’t look or feel as much like a ballpark as some places, but would you prefer the roof be open (or have no roof at all) when it’s 110 degrees?

The addition of the large jumbotron two years ago offered fans high definition replays and the team has bent over backwards whether through season ticket scholarships, or family ticket packages, or reduced prices on certain concessions to reach out to fans during a tough economic time. Name me another team in the Major Leagues where you can email the CEO during a game and get a response.

— Don’t count on Webb, Haren or Upton being in Phoenix long enough to figure out the difference between Washington and Jefferson streets.

Well, Webb has been here since 2003 so he probably has a pretty good idea of how to get around. Haren is under contract through 2012 (2013 if the club exercises an option) and isn’t going anywhere unless the team completely falls apart. As for Upton, he’s still a year away from arbitration so that’s another four years he’ll be around.

– The D-backs, by comparison, celebrated the arrival of postseason baseball by announcing a shake-up of their coaching staff. Whoopee. At least they’re not going to stand pat.

The D-backs also acknowledged during the same press conference in which they announced the coaching changes, that this is an important offseason for them and that they were looking to upgrade every aspect of the club. They also said the payroll will go up slightly as they try to do that.


The offseason

I want to apologize for the lack of posts during the last month of the season. I haven’t given you a reason to check this blog on a daily or semi-daily basis.

I plan on changing that here during the offseason with frequent posts. My hope is that we can turn this into a two-way communication forum.

I look forward to sharing my thoughts this offseason and even more so to hearing yours.

D-backs looking for extra degree in 2010

There is something about the 2009 season for the Arizona Diamondbacks that just doesn’t add up.

The Opening Day loss of Brandon Webb clearly hurt as did being without Conor Jackson, one of the team’s best hitters in 2008, for almost all the year.

But that still should not translate into entering the season’s final day 23 games under .500 and an embarrassing September. The talent that is on the roster should add up to better than that.

You look at the lineup the Padres ran out there against the D-backs that last weekend at Chase Field. Compare that to the one the D-backs started on that day and honestly would you take more than two or three Padres over their D-backs counterparts in that? I would not.

Yet somehow the D-backs are looking up at the Padres in the standings. Somehow the Padres managed to finish this season strong while the D-backs, well not so much.

There is something missing with this D-backs team. What that is I am not sure, but you can bet it’s a question that the Arizona front office has been pondering in a big way. Because this team has come off the rails since its 90-win year in 2007 and someway, somehow GM Josh Byrnes and his staff have to figure out exactly what it is that is missing and then how to fix it.

“It’s been a strange thing,” Byrnes said when we discussed the way things have gone since 2007. “A lot of these guys have been here for three years and on the front end had a lot of success. We know they’re talented, we know they’ve been part of a winning team before, it’s important to not lose sight of that.”

What it seems then is in addition to adding some more talent — another arm in the rotation and bullpen, picking up Brandon Webb’s option — the team needs to adjust its attitude and approach. That much at least is clear.

“There are a lot of issues that can get a team sidetracked from the issue of winning,” Byrnes told me. “And I think we need to get that mindset of everyday showing up to win a game. I can’t imagine 2009 doesn’t anger you, doesn’t frustrate you, it should. We need to go into next year and compete with some determination.”

That edge, that ability to push yourself, to be better than you are is what makes the difference at this level given the fact that the difference in talent between players is so small.

There is a book “212 the Extra Degree” that talks about this. The title is based on the fact that water is scalding at 211 degrees, but at 212 degrees it boils and it’s that one extra degree that can make the difference between being good and being great.

NBA legend Michael Jordan received some criticism for his Hall of Fame induction speech because he mocked some former adversaries in it. The speech should not have surprised anyone, because that was the way Jordan motivated himself during his career. It was that edge that kept him playing hard in meaningless games and practices even after he was recognized as one of the all-time greats.

Former D-back great Randy Johnson would often talk about “people who say I’m too old, people who think I can’t do it” even in years when he was winning 20-plus games and it was hard to find anyone who doubted him. But that was what he used to drive himself even though he had already accomplished so much in his career.

The point is different people use different methods, but the players who get the most out of their talent in sports just like the people who get the most out of their talent in whatever field or career they are in, find ways to motivate and push themselves.

Obviously not everyone does that and in that case Arizona manager A.J. Hinch has to figure out how to push his players. Some will need a kick, some will need a pat, some will need a kick followed by a pat.

The challenge then for Byrnes and his staff will need to figure how to retool the roster and Hinch’s is to get the most out of it.

Ultimately, though, the responsibility rests with the players, who come back. They have to find a way to get that extra degree to avoid another disappointing season.


Zavada enjoys Wrigley debut

CHICAGO — So Clay Zavada did get into Friday’s game with a large contingent of fans from his hometown of Streator, Ill. in attendance.

The left-hander threw a scoreless ninth inning on the field that he dreamed about setting foot on as a kid.

“That was awesome,” he said. “I kept the ball, it’s right up there in the locker. I  put up a zero and I was happy. That’s all you can ask for.”

A contingent of about 300 came up from Streator for the game including three busloads of fans.

“There was a little bit of pressure to pitch good for them because they spent a lot of time and money, sat through the cold weather,” Zavada said.

Of course, what Zavada may be most remembered for Friday was a play that happened in the seventh inning.
With runners on first and second, pinch-hitter Micah Hoffpauir hit a bullet down the right-field line. Because the bullpens at Wrigley Field are located just on the other side of the foul line, a pitcher typically will stand behind whoever is catching the pitcher warming up so as to protect him from, well, a bullet down the line.

Zavada was playing the role of protector while Blaine Boyer warmed up and he snagged the ball before it could hit bullpen catcher Jeff Motuzas.

The only problem was the ball was fair so Zavada quickly flipped the ball back down and took two steps back in hopes no one would notice.

His teammates watched the video over and over again in the clubhouse after the game laughing hysterically each time.

Here’s how Zavada explained things to us after the game:

“I thought it was foul. First of all it was going to smoke our catcher, alright?  It was going to hit him right in the back, it was curving. Now on the TV it didn’t look like that, but it was, the angle of the camera wasn’t good. I’m not making excuses, this ball was screaming.

“I made a great stab, OK and I look at the ump and he points towards fair and I go, ‘That was fair?’ And he goes, ‘Yep’  and I say oh no and I didn’t know what to do so I just threw the ball back into fair territory and took a couple of steps back. I did a good job, I protected my guy. I looked like an idiot in front of all my hometown and the rest of the world on WGN. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. If I had to do it all over again I would have done the same thing.”

Of course it should also be noted that Zavada possibly did save a run on the play since it was ruled a ground-rule double which prevented the runner on first from scoring.

“I thought I did good even though I screwed up,” he said. “It was stupid, it will be on not-so-top-10.
The ump did say I did a good job because it was going to smoke it. The only thing he said I screwed up on was throwing the ball back out there.”


Zavada sees Wrigley from different perspective

I had the pleasure of walking from the clubhouse to the dugout with Clay Zavada Friday morning as Zavada got his first look at Wrigley Field from the field.

As a kid growing up in Streator, Ill., Zavada would occasionally go to some Cubs games and you could see getting to return as a Major Leaguer was a big deal.

“I never went to any other parks so this was all I knew,” he said. “This is where I grew up watching baseball. I didn’t realize just how special, how unique it was until I got to see some of the other ballparks.

When he would come to games he let himself dream, but he never imagined he would one day be playing in Wrigley.

“I always dreamed of getting on the field,” he said. “I just never thought that it would be as a player.”

Zavada had plenty of people cheering for him Friday as there were three busloads of about 150 folks from Streator that made the trip to Wrigley Field. Zavada estimated another 150 came on their own.

I asked D-backs manager A.J. Hinch before the game if he was going to get Zavada into a game this weekend and he said he would like to do that if for no other reason than to get his first experience at Wrigley out of the way for next year.

For more on Zavada, check out a story I wrote on him earlier this year.