NL West overshadowed by Manny

May, 30, 2009
The Dodgers' march through the National League West cost Bob Melvin and Clint Hurdle their jobs, two years after they managed against each another in the NLCS. The Diamondbacks fired Melvin two days after a two-game Dodgers sweep in Los Angeles; Hurdle was axed the day after the Rockies absorbed a three-game sweep by L.A. And the march may have prematurely forced what turned into the confusion that was the aborted trade of Jake Peavy to the White Sox.

That the Dodgers' success has continued without Manny Ramirez makes one wonder what they will be when he returns, both in terms of who loses playing time and just how dominant that lineup will be with the maturation of the Dodgers' young hitters in Manny's absence.

They have run up the best record and run differential with Hiroki Kuroda only making one start, while Randy Wolf, Eric Stults, Eric Milton and Jeff Weaver are 9-2 as starters. While the bullpen is second only to the Marlins in innings pitched, Jonathan Broxton, Ramon Troncoso and Ronald Belisario have not been burned up, because the Dodgers have a comfortable 8½-game lead closing in on June.

Now Ramirez's All-Star votes have obscured the Dodgers' successes, such as James Loney's RBI total or The Juan Pierre .400. Fans have the right to vote for Ramirez, and doing so is not a mandate on performance-enhancing drugs, or whether we will ever know exactly what he took, or why. But the best thing for Ramirez is to respectfully decline the honor if he is voted onto the team. He has earned more than $200 million playing baseball, and the sport doesn't need what should be a feel-good promotional exhibition turned into another forum on the steroids era when, in fact, Ramirez's suspension seems to affirm Bud Selig's testing policy.

The best thing for Ramirez is to come back and simply let his skills speak for themselves. If he helps the Dodgers get to the World Series for the first time since Clayton Kershaw was 7 months old, he will be absolved in MannyLand. However, if he holds some forced mea culpa news conference as he prepares to return to the lineup, he will say something that will take on a Roger Clemens sound bite life of its own and be a further distraction from what he is already trying to put behind him.

In this wake, we are missing the pitching the Giants are amassing to the north, not only with Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum and the revival of Barry Zito, but the knowledge that within a year they will have added two more great arms in Tim Alderson and Madison Bumgarner (6-1, 1.09 ERA with a 44-8 strikeout-walk rate moving from the California League to the Eastern League) and the expectation that Buster Posey is their Matt Wieters. Beware the Giants the next few years because Brian Sabean, with Dick Tidrow's advice and consent, is back in judging and developing talent.

We are missing the astounding major-league-leading home run production of Adrian Gonzalez in San Diego, where another wave of Friars may be on the way.

But, most of all, the arrival of one of the game's best young players has been lost in the Dodgers' wake. The All-Star issue should be less about the Ramirez morality play, and more about how the game should be the coming-out party for Arizona's Justin Upton.

Upton is 21. He went into Saturday's game seventh in batting at .337, fourth in OPS at 1.030, fourth in total bases and third in extra-base hits. GM Josh Byrnes has watched him take a Jake Peavy slider down and away and go yard to right-center; he has seen him take a Peavy fastball on the inside corner and pull it out.

"It truly is remarkable to watch Justin do what he does," Byrnes says. "He is probably the best athlete in major league baseball. If all players were lined up for a race, he would probably be one of the five fastest. He's going to be a Gold Glove outfielder, and it won't be long from now. He cannot remain under the radar for long."

Upton turns 22 on Aug. 25, but if one accepts this as his under-22 season, he will rank in the all-time top 10 in OPS, extra bases and total bases.

The D-backs are beginning to retool without Brandon Webb. Gerardo Parra, 22, has given them an old-school left-handed hitter who makes contact and sprays line drives in the middle of a right-handed-heavy strikeout lineup. Max Scherzer is emerging. Daniel Schlereth came up Friday, with his extraordinary stuff as a left-handed reliever. Jarrod Parker, 20, has 53 strikeouts in 49 innings climbing from Class A to Double-A.

The roller-coaster Padres are regaining their enthusiasm, which Kevin Towers thinks they never lost because of the intense spirit of David Eckstein, who Towers calls "our MVP." Nick Hundley has established himself as a major league catcher; the speedy Everth Cabrera will be back off the disabled list in two or three weeks; Kyle Blanks and Will Venable each have nine homers in Triple-A; and San Diego will soon promote right-hander Mat Latos, whose stuff has been compared to that of A.J. Burnett and who is 4-0, 0.50 ERA with 12 hits and 38 strikeouts in 36 1/3 innings in Class A and Double-A.

Next week's draft will add to the rebuilding. The Diamondbacks have seven of the first 64 picks. The Padres pick third, and while they have gone back and forth on whether or not to take Cartersville (Ga.) outfielder/quarterback Donavan Tate, they seem honed in on Vanderbilt left-hander Mike Minor. The Giants, who don't seem to miss, have been rumored to be interested in taking Millville (N.J.) outfielder Mike Trout; Sabean has been to see Mission Viejo (Calif.) left-hander Tyler Matzek and may go in that direction.

The Dodgers had a jump on the rest of the division with one of the game's most productive farm systems, and Ramirez helped some of their youngsters mature. But the rest of the division is building.

Manny doesn't belong in St. Louis because he will have missed 50 games. Adrian Gonzalez, leading the league in homers with a 1.011 OPS despite playing at Petco, belongs there. And one of the major storylines should be Justin Upton, who just may be, as Michael Lewis puts it, the "new new thing."

When Alex Rodriguez finished the interview in which he admitted that he had used performance-enhancing drugs during his tenure with the Rangers, he stepped outside and said, "All of a sudden I feel free." The failed drug test is behind him, so is the book, so is the hip surgery, and since he's been back, the Yankees have been the best team in the American League. Now, there is not a direct correlation between Rodriguez's return and the Yankees' going from a 13-15 team to first place for the first time since the last day of the 2006 season. The Yankees had actually scored fewer runs per game with A-Rod than without him, but the staff earned run average that was 5.85 when he returned is 3.68 since.

But this seems to be a different Alex, not the guy that the great Frank Deford once described as trying to play the role of Alex Rodriguez in a movie about Alex Rodriguez. It seems he better understands what he is, namely a great baseball player, not Brad Pitt. He hasn't made Mark Teixeira, who was hurt the first two weeks and has traditionally been a mediocre April hitter, but he has complemented him; now Rodriguez and Teixeira are what David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez were to Boston from 2003 to 2007.

These Yankees have a far different personality than the businesslike champions under Joe Torre. A.J. Burnett, CC Sabathia and Nick Swisher have brought a frat house element that has helped Rodriguez be himself. A-Rod has been able to go back to mentoring Robinson Cano and Melky Cabrera as he did two years ago, and it's a role he enjoys. The whole Derek Jeter/A-Rod thing seems to have been put aside, and the team that seemed aged has enjoyed a youthful uprising: Cabrera is playing great (.849 OPS, best defensive matrix of any center fielder), Cano has an .880 OPS and a bunch of energetic farm system guys like Brett Gardner and Francisco Cervelli are contributing.

Phil Hughes has had three straight good starts, Chien-Ming Wang seems to be coming back, and the pitching depth the Yankees thought they had bought and developed now seems realistic. Despite the three wins and two holds from Alfredo Aceves, there are still concerns about the eighth inning, but they are keeping Joba Chamberlain in the rotation. One very good reason is that in his recent starts, Chamberlain has taken a couple of innings to get from 89-91 to 93-95. "How can we bring him in as an eighth-inning lockdown guy if he's throwing 89-91?" asks a Yankee official. If he comes out throwing 95-98 again … maybe things will be different and he could pitch the eighth."

The Mets have rejected every inquiry about Bobby Parnell, including one from Washington for Nick Johnson. They love Parnell, and are worried that J.J. Putz is still at 93 mph with what one scout calls "a soft split. He used to be 98 with a killer split."

Boston has had four or five inquiries on Brad Penny, but unless the Red Sox get blown away, they will wait as they look for a shortstop and think about adding another bat should David Ortiz continue to struggle. When the Red Sox had their scouts covering the Braves, there was speculation Boston would trade for Jeff Francoeur, but it wasn't so. The Red Sox were simply doing their normal coverage.

One reason it sometimes take catchers so long to develop is that they've never called pitches in high school or college. "It's easier for Matt Wieters, [Buster] Posey and [Boston's Tim] Federowicz because all three pitched in college and understand the pitching mentality."

The Indians are hoping that they get Jake Westbrook and Aaron Laffey back around the third week of June.

Teams looking at Garrett Atkins have been vastly disappointed, but the good news for the Rockies is that another of their free agents, Huston Street, is throwing much better than he was earlier in the season. He makes sense for the Rays.

The industry feeling is that Cecil Cooper might have gotten the axe as Astros manager were Drayton McLane not so loyal to Bud Selig, who pushed for Cooper to get the job in the first place.

A very wise man says "the new Yankee Stadium will make New York a Mets town." Those suite seats are going for less than face value on StubHub.

Several teams have checked in with the Marlins on Jorge Cantu, but they are reluctant to deal him, especially with two of their best first-base prospects -- Logan Morris and Gaby Sanchez -- hurt.

He won't be drafted high because he plans to go to Vanderbilt, but if Carl Yastrzemski's grandson Mike Yastrzemski wanted to sign, he would go in the first three rounds. As expected, Yaz III has done extensive work with Walter Hriniak, who was such a help and ally for Carl Yastrzemski the last five years of Yaz's Hall of Fame career.


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