Saturday, August 05, 2006

In Which Rose Blinks In Disbelief

It's August.

The Dodgers have some new players.

Good new players.

The only guys missing are unproven, wouldn't be seeing regular playing time, or have... issues.

The players on whom the team's future supposedly rests are still there.

Could it be that the Dodgers finally have a front office team that wants to... you know... win?

Before the season started, Ned Colletti put together an impressive team on short notice. They looked good coming out of the gate. Then the injuries set in. The bullpen disintegrated. A team that started off a carefully balanced mix of veterans and up-and-comers was a taped-together mess of rookies -- great rookies, mind you, but still learning the big-league game -- and veterans playing out of position. Offensively, they were spiraling downward. Mostly-decent starting pitching isn't going to do you much good if the team can't score some runs to back it up.

Pretty typical July scenario in the City of Angels.

Except something happened, something that I don't remember seeing since the O'Malleys owned the team:

They made good trades.

The first trade of note was the Odalis Perez-for-Elmer Dessens deal. Odalis Perez, as you may recall, was put in the bullpen after blowing a few too many starts, and was downright disgruntled about it. He was a good candidate to be dealt away. The question was, what team would be desperate enough to want him?

Go on, take a guess.

Odalis Perez is now a Kansas City Royal. He was accompanied by some minor leaguers who may or may not work out.

Elmer Dessens seems very happy to be a Dodger again. Or maybe he's just thrilled about no longer being a Royal. Six of one...

That seems to be a theme among the new Dodger acquisitions: They're happy to be playing for a team that hasn't given up hope of making the playoffs.

"It's nice to have a reason to pitch besides doing it for myself," Greg Maddux told the LA Times. "That's what happens when your team falls out of the race. We are absolutely still in it."

Wait a minute. Greg Maddux?

The Dodgers collectively joined me in that disbelieving blink. Greg Maddux. Greg Maddux? Greg freakin' Maddux is a Dodger?

"I still can't believe we have him. It's like a miracle," coach Rich Donnelly marveled to the Times.

Catcher Russell Martin, who's just a little more than half Maddux' age: "He's so prepared. This guy knows exactly what he wants to do. I just hope he likes me."

(How cute is that? Russell Martin is so my new fake baby boyfriend.)

The people who called in to the postgame radio show were miffed, of course. Why else would you call a postgame show? They couldn't see why Ned Colletti would trade a young, proven shortstop for an aging pitcher who would probably only be there for the remainder of the season.

Does six innings of no-hit ball answer their question? What the naysayers are missing is that Maddux is built for the long haul. He's a very technical pitcher who can put the ball exactly where he wants it, without putting undue strain on his body. Heck, he might even stick around after this season. Who knows?

There's also the little matter of Cesar Izturis hitting barely above the Mendoza line. The best pitching in the world doesn't matter if it's not backed up by a little offense.

That's the other thing that has me blinking: The Dodgers have remembered how to hit a ball with a stick.

As I'm sure you noticed, dear reader, the Dodgers had a pretty dismal July. In the two weeks after the All-Star break, they won one and lost thirteen.

Things got so bad that manager Grady Little, GM Ned Colletti and owner Frank McCourt went on the radio to have a "what's wrong with the Dodgers?" roundtable. As you can imagine, the callers weren't happy. All the guys could do was say, in essence, "Look: You try things. Sometimes they work. Sometimes they don't. And right now, they aren't."

And now they are.

Maybe it's the new players. Maybe it was the day off after that awful two-week stretch. Maybe it was Tommy Lasorda's threat of a hunger strike. Whatever it is, the Dodgers are winning. Today made it eight wins in a row. Yeah, it was just the Nationals, Reds and Marlins, but still: A win's a win, and eight of them go a long way towards balancing out the losing streak.

I'm still getting emails which say, "What's up with the Dodgers?" The inflection is just different.

With 162 games in a season, baseball lends itself to streaks. If a team is a .500 ballclub, then statistically it doesn't matter whether they alternate wins and losses by the game or by the streak.

There's still a lot that can happen in two months. The pitching staff could gel or collapse. (I've a feeling I'll be making a few posts about the pitching either way.) The veterans could get better, or they could be out for the season -- or longer. Russell Martin and Andre Ethier could continue to be Rookie of the Year contenders, or they could burn out. An infield made up of position players-turned-utility guys could work out, as it's been doing, or start having trouble remembering where to throw the ball. When the roster expands, the minor league prospects might be ready, or not.

Two months to go. This is getting good.

By the by, I have an extra ticket for this Monday evening's game at Dodger Stadium versus the Rockies. My, as the kids say, "crew" will be sitting in the top deck behind home plate -- the best, and cheapest, seats in the house. If you or anyone you know wants to join us, you can email me for details at rose.auerbach at gmail dot com. (There's a handy-dandy link over at my other blog, for those of you who don't feel like re-typing the address with proper symbols.)

And, yes, I'll explain the infield fly rule, if you ask nicely. Devin can breathe a little more easily.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

How Shrek Got His Groove Back, or: Carlos Comes To Town

I'd like to start with a point or two of clarification, so we don't get confused here:

* I have been nothing but a fan of Kevin Mench during his whole time in Texas.

* I don't believe in making trades simply to appease the fan base, or players in the clubhouse.

* I hate explaning the Infield Fly Rule. (Just note it for future reference.)

While I don't think the six-player deal the Rangers and Brewers executed was the greatest trade our Little Red Shoes have ever pulled off (that would be the 1998 trade deadline move of Darren Oliver and Fernando Tatis to the Cardinals for Todd Stottlemyre and Todd Zeile, which helped us cinch up the AL West that year), it was the best thing the Rangers could have done to goose an offense that has not been firing on all cylinders the last two seasons.

It may also be one of those trades that works out for everyone involved, from the players involved to the teams dealing.

Here are your components:

Kevin Mench was growing frustrated with his spotty role in the Rangers ranks. He was always mentioned in trade talks, and he never really knew himself whether he would be in the lineup from day to day. In the last offseason, he appeared on a Philadelphia Eagles pre-game show (his hometown team) and said bluntly, "I really don't expect to be with the Rangers much longer." For whatever reason, Mench has been in manager Buck Showalter's "dog house," and never appeared to be able (or willing) to climb out of it.

His production hasn’t helped much. This season, Mench was hitting .284 / .338 / .469 with 12 home runs (most coming in the week-long stretch after his shoe size was correctly used). Those aren’t numbers you normally want to see from a corner outfielder. Granted, that might have been different had he played every day in the outfield. (Sorry, it’s the Mench apologist in me coming out. Can’t be helped.)

In Milwaukee, he'll get more playing time, a fresh start on a team with a manager he doesn't have to tiptoe around, and a chance to let his personality win over the home crowd (which should take about six minutes). In his first seven games with the Brewers as their everyday right fielder, he's 4-for-17 with one homer and five RBI.

For whatever reason, Francisco Cordero has not been able to come close to the level of dominance he showed in the 2004 season. That year, he recorded 49 saves (a club record), with five blown saves, a record of 3-4 and an ERA of 2.14. In 2005, you've got 37 saves, eight blown opportunities, a record of 3-1 and an ERA of 3.39. This year, it all falls apart: seven saves recorded, nine blown, a record of 7-4 and an ERA of 4.59; loses the closing job to Akinori Otsuka; begins to show some signs of consistency, but never fully recovers.

The appearance against the Yankees on July 26 was the final straw, allowing four runs to score in the eighth inning on a homer, a double and a wild pitch It spoiled a great effort by John Rheinecker, paved the way for a Yankees sweep, and punched his ticket to Milwaukee.

With luck, Cordero will find his mojo again in the land of Cheeseheads, but there was no sign of it happening at the Temple.

Laynce Nix played his way out of a starting job in center field this year, and the outlook for him returning to the Rangers has never seemed good since. Like Mench and Cordero, Nix was a fan favorite in Arlington, but had difficulty staying healthy and offensively productive.

It's highly likely we'll look back on the trade of these players and -- like so many other times in Rangers history -- wonder what would have happened had we not let them go (see: Sosa, S; Nen, R; Hafner, T, ad nauseum). But the players we got in return for Mench, Cordero and Nix soothe the pain a bit. In his first three games as a Ranger, Carlos Lee showed why he’s a threat both offensively (7-for-12, 1 RBI) and defensively (solid, accurate throws from the left corner every time).

Add in the hottest prospect from the Brewers’ farm system (outfielder Nelson Cruz), and it looks like Rangers GM Jon Daniels pulled a fast one on Milwaukee’s GM, our old friend Doug Melvin. But don’t be too sure Melvin didn’t get exactly what he wanted out of the deal, either.

Lee has made it clear he would not re-sign with the Brewers when his contract expired, turning down a four-year extension worth $48 million earlier in the month. Melvin was tasked with trying to get the most value for Lee while he was still a tradable commodity. While the GM for the Rangers, Melvin engineered the trade of Juan Gonzales to the Detroit Tigers to acquire Cordero (along with six other players), so he knew what CoCo was capable of. He also watched as Mench and Nix developed through the Rangers minor league system.

He wanted players who were major-league ready, not minor league prospects who may or may not be ready for prime time. The other five teams who were talking to the Brewers about Lee probably had players ready for the big club, but Melvin knew the guys on the Rangers’ offer sheet could be plugged in and produce from day one.

Add all of it together, and it looks like everyone’s gotten what they wanted: Daniels gets to add offensive firepower without trading away any key components of his farm system or the major league roster; Mench, Cordero and Nix get a fresh start with a new team; Melvin gets maximum value back from a player he was going to lose in the off-season.