My favorite Ralph Houk story

    Thursday, July 22, 2010, 4:24 PM [General]

    It has been a depressing month if you’re a Yankees fan. A lot of history has left us, with Ralph Houk being the latest. Rather than write a full-on obituary profile of the player, manager, and general manager, which you can find elsewhere, I would just relate a few vignettes that seem characteristic or revealing.

    Houk was best known as a Yankees manager and general manager, and subsequently for managing the Tigers and Red Sox, but I tend to think of him for an event that took place late in the heated pennant race between the Yankees and the Red Sox in 1949. Houk was a permanent third catcher, and you can count the number of starts he received from September, 1949 (when he moved into the role) until 1954 on your fingers without getting too far onto the second hand. He was the “break glass in case of emergency” guy, and the glass almost never was broken—in this, he is a great argument against wasting a roster spot on a third catcher. The Yankees realized this to some extent and would sometimes give his spot to a more needed player. They liked having him around, though, for his leadership skills, and at those times Houk would not go down to the Minors like a Kevin Cash or Chad Moeller, but would stay on the roster as an unofficial coach.

    Houk hadn’t yet established this bifurcated role in 1949. He had spent most of the season in the Minors when one of those rare third-catcher emergencies occurred. Yogi Berra was out with a thumb injury, and on September 25, in an absolutely crucial game against the Red Sox, his capable backup Charlie Silvera went out as well—a Dom DiMaggio foul tip had hit him in the groin and he had to be carried from the field. The Yankees lost that game, allowing the Sox to tie the race with just six games to play.

    The next day, September 26, the Yankees played the Sox again. As the only ambulatory catcher on the roster, Houk got the start. If a meteor had struck behind home plate—or another Little Professor groin-ball—the Yankees were going to have to pick someone off the bench. Years later, in an extra-inning game in which Stengel had already lost Berra and had gambled by pinch-hitting for Silvera, he had turned to Hank Bauer. The move led directly to a loss as a passed ball allowed the winning run to move around the bases. The Yankees couldn’t afford that kind of loss; Houk had to stay alive.

    Credit home plate umpire Bill Grieve with keeping him there. Playing at Yankee Stadium, the Yanks led 6-3 through seven. The Sox rallied in the top of the eighth. Relief ace Joe Page, in since the fifth (that’s how the top relievers were used in those days), gave up a hit and a walk to open the inning. Dom DiMaggio ripped a high line drive to short. Phil Rizzuto leaped, seemed to come up with the ball, but it tipped off his mitt and went on into the outfield for a run-scoring single. At that point, the Yankees’ defense let down. Johnny Pesky grounded to second, but Snuffy Stirnweiss couldn’t hold on, allowing Pesky to reach and another run to score. Ted Williams came up. The Yankees put on a shift. Williams managed to rifle the ball past first baseman Tommy Henrich, but that shouldn’t have been a problem because Stirnweiss was there in short right field to pick up the ball. Unfortunately, Page forgot to cover first; Snuffy had to eat the ball. The bases were loaded with no outs—Dom DiMaggio on third, Pesky on second, and Teddy Ballgame on first. Two runs were in.

    Page succeeded in retiring the next batter, Red Sox cleanup hitter Vern Stephens. The problem was that it came on a fly to deep right field. DiMaggio scored to tie the game, and Pesky was able to advance from second to third. Another fly ball would give the Sox a one-run lead. Second baseman Bobby Doerr was at the plate. The squeeze was on. Doerr sent the ball rolling towards first base as Pesky broke for the plate. Henrich fielded, fired home to Houk, who put down the tag. Grieve made the call: safe.

    Houk lost it, sure that he had blocked the plate and gotten the tag down in time. He leapt up, bumping the umpire, screaming. Grieve had every reason to thumb him out of the game, but to his immense credit he did not, knowing that the Yankees would have had to play someone out of position had he done so. Casey Stengel continued the protest, earning himself the same $150 fine that Houk would later receive, but to no avail. Grieve later said, “The runner slid under Houk’s arm and that’s all there is to it. Sure, I could have made the easy call, giving it to the home club, but in my heart I know I made the right call.” One Yankee would receive an even larger fine and the threat of suspension, outfielder Cliff Mapes. Seeing Grieve under the stands after the game, Mapes said, “How much did you bet on the game, you [expletive].” A near fistfight ensued, the two being separated at the last moment.

    I find it amusing somehow that Houk, 29 years old, a decorated officer in World War II, a soldier brave enough to earn a Silver Star for courage under fire at the Battle of the Bulge, could get exercised enough about a baseball game to assault an umpire (or get near enough in baseball terms). You would think after war experiences like Houk’s—even aside from the Bulge, one of the most harrowing battles in American history, he did advance reconnoitering of enemy positions, essentially acting as a lure to bring the Germans out of hiding—that he might have been philosophical about anything else that might have happened. What’s a baseball game when you’ve faced down the Panzers?

    Houk managed fireballing reliever Ryne Duren at Denver and then was a coach for the Yankees when Duren was closing for Stengel. I’ve spoken to Duren; he is an intelligent, thoughtful man. Duren is a recovering alcoholic, but during his career he battled the bottle and frequently lost, and when he did, that intelligence was replaced by belligerence. Late in 1958, the Yankees clinched the pennant and were on a train en route to Chicago. The team was celebrating in a private car. Stengel had gathered the players and was warning them not to get too wild as they didn’t want another public incident—this was just a year after the “Copacabana incident” had cost Stengel the services of his favorite player, Billy Martin.

    As Stengel was giving this warning, Duren stumbled into the car. Stengel didn’t see him, but Houk did and recognized the signs of inebriation. He moved to intercept the reliever before he could disrupt the party. Words were exchanged. Duren pushed Houk’s ever-present cigar into his face. The fight was over quickly; Houk hit Duren, catching him above the eye with his World Series ring, and the big reliever went down. Stengel probably didn’t know what had happened until after it was over.

    This from Graig Nettles’ 1984 book Balls, relating the end of Houk’s long tenure with the Yankees, which but for wartime service lasted 33 years:

    Ralph said to me, “This owner is giving me a lot of trouble so far with all these phone calls, but one thing about him, he isn’t afraid to spend some money and buy some players when we need them. Ralph loved that, and so did I, because I had just come from Cleveland where they would never have made a move like that. In Cleveland they were worried most about saving a dollar…

    But Ralph kept complaining that George was calling him on the phone all the time. He’d call during the game, in the middle of the night… Ralph had never had to put up with that from an owner before. George was telling him who to play, what to do. Ralph would pick up the phone in the dugout during a game, and George would be on the other end. It still goes on.


    As we sat around on the stools by our lockers [after the last game of the 1973 season], Ralph came out and said, “I got to tell you guys something. I’ve had enough. I’m quitting.” And he broke down into tears.

    I spoke to him afterward and Ralph said, “I have to quit before I hit the guy.” Ralph said, “I don’t want to leave the game of baseball by punching an owner. But if he keeps on bothering me like he does, I’ll end up hitting him.”

    Houk was the first manager to leave George Steinbrenner’s employ. He was, I think the only one to walk away rather than be pushed out, and he never came back.

    What was the best Ralph Houk team? Many would snap, “1961” and walk away. I don’t accept that, because that was a continuation of the teams designed by Stengel and George Weiss. Houk made some changes that were ultimately more cosmetic than structural, such as going with a set lineup and pitching rotation. The team subsequently collapsed under his watch, though that was in part due to the reluctance of the owners to invest in the farm system at a time when they were planning to sell the team, as well as Weiss’ prejudices towards African Americans.

    The best team that could be reasonably called his was the 1970 club. His bullpen management was inconsistent, but in 1970 he had one of the best Yankees relief staff not to contain a Lyle, Gossage, or Rivera. He had two closers, Lindy McDaniel and Jack Aker, and used one-hit wonder Ron Klimkowski in middle relief. The rotation was solid but a bit short after Mel Stottlemyre and Fritz Peterson, and a lot of credit for the team’s second-place, 93-69 showing (four games above their projected record) has to go to the ’pen.

    Like many of Houk’s later teams, the ’70 squad didn’t have much in the way of offense, just Roy White, Thurman Munson, and Bobby Murcer (in order of productivity that particular year). Houk, as was a career-long habit, exacerbated the team’s deficiencies. He tended to structure his batting orders with the worst hitters on top, so that in 1970, second baseman Horace Clarke (.251/.286/.309) led off and third baseman Jerry Kenney (.193/.284/.282) batted second. In the second half, he moved Munson up to the second spot, but he never did move Clarke.

    Later in Houk’s career he had better, more obvious leadoff men such as Ron LeFlore and Wade Boggs. He used LeFlore appropriately, but second baseman Jerry Remy had to experience a career-ending injury before Boggs got to lead off. Houk’s idée fixe was that his second baseman was his leadoff hitter, and LeFlore was the only time that he got over it. In general, he underemphasized patience. One of the reasons the Yankees collapsed in the mid-1960s, in addition to general neglect, is that they became a team of hackers. Mickey Mantle was always patient. White and Murcer were above-average when it came to taking ball four. Most other members of the team swung away. In the Houk years (1961-1973, a period which includes his time as general manager while Yogi Berra and Johnny Keane ran the team on the field), seven of 13 teams were below average in on-base percentage, and of the ones that finished in the black, just three (1962, 1971, 1972) were significantly above average.

    Still, I tend to forget about all of that when thinking of Houk. I think not of the manager but of the Major, of the decorated soldier. Baseball is a wonderful diversion, but it’s not an act of patriotism. Houk helped end the greatest evil in human history, and what he did in baseball doesn’t matter a great deal beside that. While we like to laud those who served in World War II as “the Greatest Generation,” the truth is that most soldiers in that war did not go eagerly into danger. Most of them were doing their best to get home in one piece. In every unit, there were only a handful of men who willingly, repeatedly exposed themselves to the risks necessary to win the war. Houk was one of those men. He was a credit to baseball and to his country.

    3.7 (1 Ratings)

    Joba-be-gone? Not now

    Tuesday, July 20, 2010, 11:19 AM [General]

    The big topic of discussion on Monday, and for the foreseeable future, was Andy Pettitte’s injury. Would it motivate the Yankees to go after a starting pitcher? The Yankees were quick to issue a denial. Nope, said Brian Cashman, we want to bulk up our bullpen and bench.

    Now, it is swell for the Yankees to make statements like this, but you have to consider them with skepticism because this was the same team and the same general manager that wasn’t in on Mark Teixeira, nuh-uh, no room at the inn or the budget, we can’t even squeeze another locker into our super-sized new clubhouse, no way. More recently, the same front office, despite possessing a rotation that would seem full up by the standards of even great teams, made a stealth run at Cliff Lee. Thus, though it is clear that the Yankees do need to upgrade bench and pen, it is far from certain that they aren’t trying to do more.

    Having acknowledged that anything is possible, the question then becomes, “Who and how?” We talked a bit about the who on Monday. As for the how, that’s more complicated, because although it’s not easy to visualize how to fit prospects like Jesus Montero, Brandon Laird, and David Phelps into the present roster, you don’t want to just give them away if it can be avoided. However, in order to acquire a Roy Oswalt, Dan Haren, Prince Fielder, Adam Dunn, or Jayson Werth, just to name a few intriguing possibilities, a buyer is really going to have to spend. This is especially true for rebuilding teams like the Astros, Diamondbacks, and Nationals, who have to bring back an exciting package so as to justify the loss of a star to their fans (I watched Monday night’s Mets at Diamondbacks; official attendance was 18,000, but it seemed more like 1,800). That means that the ol’ Fernando Seguignol-and-cash-for-John Wetteland isn’t going to fly here. It’s going to take the proverbial package, not a bag of old groceries.

    I would suggest that one way to ease the pain of parting with potential is to include a player whose potential is seemingly already spent, Joba Chamberlain, but I don’t intend to imply, in naïve, call-in show fashion, that if the Yankees dangle the great and powerful Joba that general managers will faint and come stampeding into Cashman’s parlor to offer up their best and most potent players (those callers inevitably overvalue their trash and undervalue the other guy’s treasure). Joba’s performance has seemingly declined to a level where trading him now would make little sense. His value is at low ebb, and he’s going to need to show better results before he recaptures any of the mystique that surrounded him back in the pre-“A Bug’s Life” days.

    Joba may never be that good again, but it’s a safe bet that he’s going to finish the season in better form than he’s shown to date. Don’t think about his ERA or his won-lost record and just consider the basics: he’s pitched 39 innings. He’s allowed just two home runs—good. He’s walked just 14. That’s not Lee, but it’s also not Craig Kimbrell, so—good. He’s struck out 43, or 9.9 per nine innings—very good.

    What the heck is going on, then? Well, hitters are averaging .391 on balls in play. Whether that’s a result of bad luck or bad mechanics on Joba’s part I don’t know, but I do know that it should be fixable. The stuff is still there; with the return to the bullpen, he’s letting his fastball go at higher speeds than last year, if not the 100 mph form of 2007. The things that Joba can control—walks, strikeouts, keeping the ball in the park—are still there. The rain of hits is very likely transient. The one thing we can’t say for certain is when it will end, only that it should.

    Additionally complicating any trade is Chamberlain’s upcoming eligibility for arbitration. He’s making just under $500,000 this year, but that figure is going up. Few, if any, teams will want to be on the hook for a big raise given his performance so far. It’s just another reason why those that are so angry and disappointed by Joba’s performances of late had better holster their hate and count to 10; it’s going to be very difficult for Cashman to get something like real value for him right now. Battered AND expensive? That’s not going to bring a starting pitcher of position player, and as my wise Baseball Prospectus colleague Jay Jaffe says, “trading him for another reliever is a recipe for sitting next to Bill Bavasi and Dave Littlefield at the next winter meetings banquet.” The Yankees need a solid reliever, but he doesn’t want to be the guy who replaces Lou Gorman in the annual, “Which GM traded a coming star for one month of Larry Andersen?”

    So please, hang up the phone. Joba is a problem, part of a bullpen gone awry, but at 24 years old and with a fastball that has averaged 94 this year, it’s spectacularly premature to give up on him. He’s not the new Rob Dibble, sorry. He’s not an ace starter. Again, sorry. He’s been through a great deal in a short career, and the least the Yankees can do—for the team, not for him—is to leave him alone and figure out what they’ve got. They should be rewarded. Now, if Jerry DiPoto is reading the same numbers I am, if his scouts are telling him that the stuff is still there, and he calls up Cashman and says, “Hey, I’ll give you Dan Haren and Justin Upton for Joba and a prospect,” you can throw the foregoing out the window, but that isn’t going to happen. Failing that, holding on is the best choice.

    I’ve got a brief (free) bit up at Baseball Prospectus on the Lou Piniella All-Stars, a group that includes Don Mattingly. There is also the announcement of a live chat with yours truly on Friday at 1 p.m. Finish up your lunch (no fast food!) and come talk some baseball and what-have-you with your slightly dinged-up host. As usual, if you can’t make it then, you can input your questions at anytime.

    4.1 (3 Ratings)

    Pettitte's heirs

    Monday, July 19, 2010, 2:00 PM [General]

    On Sunday, David Phelps, 23, threw six innings for Scranton, allowing seven hits, one run, and no walks while striking out 10. In Trenton, D.J. Mitchell took the loss as Reading shut out the Thunder, but he allowed only three runs in seven innings. Somewhere around the same time, Andy Pettitte was leaving the mound at Yankee Stadium with a strained groin, gone for perhaps a month or more.

    In the short term, Pettitte’s spot will be taken by journeyman Sergio Mitre. In the long term, who knows? By “long term” I mean two things simultaneously: the next half-dozen starts and the next half-dozen years. Pettitte is 38 years old, playing year to year. For the Yankees, that’s an advantage—no extended commitment to a pitcher who might suffer a permanent loss of effectiveness at any time—and a disadvantage in that they don’t know how aggressively they need to try to fill that rotation spot. There are a few other things the Yankees don’t know: how reliable A.J. Burnett will be both for the rest of this year and for the remaining three years of his contract; who fills Javier Vazquez’s rotation spot next year, or, in case of a reversion to April form, the rest of this one; which Phil Hughes shows up the rest of the year, and just how many innings they’re prepared to give him even if he’s all aces from now on. You can see why Brian Cashman went so far to acquire Cliff Lee.

    With the Yankees’ most valuable starter so far now on the DL and the rotation aside from CC Sabathia seeming so fraught with uncertainty and the trade deadline rushing up like the ground floor towards a falling elevator, the question now will be whether the Yankees will try to make a deal for a starter. The argument here is that they don’t have to, even with so many question marks, even if Mitre fails, if Alfredo Aceves doesn’t come back, even if right now they have to look at Dustin Moseley as filet mignon instead of hamburger. There are internal options that should be pursued first.

    Phelps is one of those options. The right-hander pitched his way to Triple-A recently after putting up a 2.04 ERA at Trenton. The 2008 14th-rounder has good stuff and his secondary offerings, questioned before the season, have obviously been good enough for him to pitch quite well at two levels. Ivan Nova, whose name sounds like a character on “Babylon 5” (or maybe “Star Blazers”—“Derek Wildstar, you and Ivan Nova go polish the Wave Motion Gun”), doesn’t have the same kind of stuff but is having the best season of his career at Scranton, with a 3.21 ERA. His 3.5 walks/6.8 strikeouts per nine don’t inspire confidence, but remember, the Yankees don’t need to find peak-production Andy Pettitte here, but someone who is good enough that they can spend their trading capital on other goods. Moreover, just as Hughes and Joba Chamberlain made themselves integral parts of the team (perhaps transiently in Joba’s case) by pitching well at moments like this one, a Phelps, Nova, or, looking further into the system, a Hector Noesi, can distinguish themselves as possibilities for the Yankees’ future—or some other team’s right now.

    The Yankees’ untried options may very well be better than those available on the trade market. Pettitte was one of the top 20 pitchers in baseball this year. Those ahead of him aren’t going anywhere. Those below him who might be available are not of such guaranteed quality that they are worth giving up items of likely value. Perhaps Roy Oswalt would be an exception, perhaps not—there is a big difference between the NL Central and the AL East, although the Orioles are striving to erase the difference by out-Pirating the Pirates. He’s also expensive. Dan Haren might be another exception, but he too is expensive and hasn’t pitched all that well this year; his ERA in his last 10 starts is 4.41. He pitched well against the Yankees during interleague play, though the Red Sox thumped him a start earlier. Neither the Arizona defense nor the Arizona ballpark has done him any favors, so a buyer could get a nice turnaround, but you can’t know that for sure.

    The overarching point here is this: American League starting pitchers put together a quality start a little over half the time, say 16 times in 30 starts. They allow 4.67 runs per nine innings (4.33 ERA). The question here is how likely is a Mitre or Phelps to meet or exceed that standard compared to Oswalt, Ted Lilly, Ben Sheets, or Ricky Nolasco? Choose your pitcher, factor in what he will cost the Yankees in terms of talent and treasure, then make your decision. Consider also that the Red Sox have played so poorly of late that even if the Yankees somehow fell past Tampa Bay (which this weekend’s two-out of three made that much less likely), they currently have another 3.5 games to play with before they would be in any danger of losing the wild card spot. Then think about the future, and if any of the pitchers you might acquire would be a better choice than one of the youngsters to take Vazquez’s—or Pettitte’s—spot next year.

    It’s not easy, is it? No doubt the Yankees will take the next couple of weeks to see how Pettitte heals up so as to see how much urgency they need to feel about making a move. In the meantime, they might audition a kid or two, not just Mitre, to get a sense about the future. After all, they need a middle man as much or more than they need a starter, so it’s not like the righty will go to waste whatever his role is. That’s a suggestion that I imagine won’t be followed, but it seems like a prudent way to go, as the club has nothing to lose but the odd game and a 40-man roster spot. You can’t find out what options you really have until you go looking for them, and like I said, it’s cheaper than sending half the farm system to the Diamondbacks.

    On the other hand, what if you just sent them Joba? Would that do the trick?

    I’ll be back more later with some notes from the most depressing Old Timer’s Day since the Babe Bowed Out.

    Follow Steven Goldman on Twitter.

    3.7 (1 Ratings)

    The beast rises

    Friday, July 16, 2010, 2:49 PM [General]

    It’s only nine games, but Thursday night’s 3-for-4 with a home run and a walk against Toledo boosts Jesus Montero’s rates for the month to .333/.488/.567. More importantly, if my figurin’ is right, since the beginning of June, he’s hit .295/.372/.519 with 10 doubles, two triples, and five home runs. It’s not the .337/.389/.562 of last season, but it’s headed in the right direction. I might have suggested that the near-trade to Seattle for Cliff Lee played in role in Montero’s awakening, but he was already on his way before the Yankees dangled him over the Safeco Field abyss.

    It seems spectacularly unlikely that Montero will get any real Major League action this year given that he’s not on the 40-man roster, and that’s certainly defensible given his age and inexperience. Still, the DH situation needs a solution. Of late, the upshot of the lack of a regular at the position has meant semi-regular action for Colin Curtis in right field. While I applaud the Yankees giving any of their young players a chance, Curtis’ record is not one to inspire confidence in his ability to carry a corner spot, or any spot. There has got to be a better way.

    Remember, teams can hunt for pitching, but one solution to a shortage of hurlers is to increase your chances on offense. If you can’t raise the bridge, lower the river.

    Cincinnati Reds
    Scott Rolen: I figure him for the Hall of Fame eventually, especially if he can maintain this good season all the way through, keeping up his production and staying off the disabled list. He should finish the year with close to 2000 hits, his next home run will put him over 300 for his career, and he’s also got six All-Star selections and seven Gold Gloves. Next year, he should break into the top 10 for career games at third base. The only thing stopping him is… Ron Santo.

    Bronson Arroyo: Arroyo epitomizes the problem the Reds will have even if they hang on to win the NL Central. He has pitched reasonably well, but his strikeout rate is only 4.3 per nine innings. The Reds as a whole are K-ing 6.5 per nine innings, but that’s on the low side in a league where the top teams are whiffing eight batters a game. The Reds are third from last in this category, and that’s a dangerous thing—in the playoffs, you face the best offenses. When a good-hitting team puts the ball in play, bad things happen. The more batters walk back to the dugout holding their bats the better the outcome. The Reds are going to have to it the hard way.

    Cleveland Indians
    Shelley Duncan: Good to see him get another chance and make something of it. It’s that bad teams that are normally willing to take a chance on a journeyman like Duncan, figuring they have nothing to lose. See Garrett Jones last year in Pittsburgh. If they perform well, the Jones and Duncans of the world can make themselves attractive to the contenders and have a few years as a role player for a team that actually goes somewhere.

    Jhonny Peralta: In a world in which shortstops who can hit with reasonable competence are suddenly scarce, one wonders what the Indians could get for the 28-year-old from a team like the Tigers, which is essentially shortstop-less. Peralta wouldn’t make anyone in Detroit forget Alan Trammell with the glove, but he might make them forget Danny Worth, which would be an accomplishment. Given that the Tigers are trailing a fairly weak White Sox team, some kind of move needs to be made, the team acquiring Peralta can buy him out of his 2011 option for $250,000 if they feel like it, and Peralta won’t be part of the next great Indians team, not as a light-hitting third baseman.

    Colorado Rockies
    Dexter Fowler: The Rockies have five outfielders on their active roster, plus Eric Young, Jr. on the 15-day disabled list. They’ve also stuck old Melvin Mora in the pasture a couple of times. Jim Tracy likes to mix and match and platoon out there. This seems like a surplus to be exploited, and while Fowler, just back from the minors, is unlikely to go anywhere, there might be some small market for Ryan Spilborghs as a platoon/fourth outfielder or Brad Hawpe, whose contract can be bought out after the season, as a DH type…

    Jason Hammel: Nothing deep to say, except that a pitcher who couldn’t pitch for the Rays but has been strong for the Rockies proves that the universe is a wonderfully capricious place.

    Detroit Tigers
    Austin Jackson: Since April ended, he’s hit .271/.322/.360 with no home runs. Folks were ready to bury the Yankees for the Granderson trade at the beginning of the season, but by time it’s all over that notion is going to seem ludicrous.

    Phil Coke: Of course, the trade wasn’t only Jackson. The Yankees gave up Ian Kennedy, who has pitched well for the D’Backs, as well as the Pause That Refreshes. Not many spot lefties go 5-0, although that’s a bit flukey. He hasn’t dominated lefties (.254/.324/.313) but he’s been solid against everyone and has allowed only one home run this year despite a high fly ball rate. The Yankees could use an everyday middle man like Coke, or like VegitaBeta for that matter.


    0 (0 Ratings)

    600 lines about 30 teams (Part I)

    Thursday, July 15, 2010, 11:37 AM [General]

    Arizona Diamondbacks
    Stephen Drew:
    You hear the shortstop brought up in trade rumors from time to time. The problem with J.D. Drew’s little brother is that with a trade from the generous Chase Field he will disappear. This year, he’s hitting .291/.372/.464 at home, but only .259/.323/.367 on the road. His career home/road split is .288/.353/.481 at Chase, but only .253/.305/.402 on the road.

    Chris Snyder: In the offseason, I talked about him being a good add for the Yankees, and he still would be one given that he is signed through 2012—though he can be bought out for that last year. He would be able to augment Jorge Posada, or spell him when he’s only hitting, and perhaps hang around after Posada’s contract ends in 2011 to tutor (and provide competition for) the Romine or Montero who comes after. One would expect the Yankees to be easily outbid for his services by a team in more dire need of catching—the Tigers, perhaps?—but keep this in mind: Posada, 38, has hit .215/.348/.336 since coming off the disabled list; Frankie Cervelli has hit .200/.274/.236 over his last 37 games, a total which includes 30 starts.

    Atlanta Braves
    Yunel Escobar:
    I wrote this comment on Escobar earlier this week, intending to run this section on Tuesday. Instead, we had more urgent news to deal with. Here’s what I said prior to Escobar’s trade to the Blue Jays: age 27 is supposed to be a batter’s peak. Last year, Escobar seemed to establish himself as one of the top shortstops in baseball, hitting .299/.377/.436 with 14 home runs. He’s retreated from that like the Union at Manassas, hitting .238/.334/.284. His glove would seem to have held up, and his walk rate has been solid, so his season has been a positive one for the first-place Braves. Still, he can’t have much competition for “Year’s Biggest Disappointment, 2010.”

    The Yankees will now get to witness firsthand whether the trade works out for the Jays. Escobar’s slump, coupled with problems of professionalism, concentration, and communication, made dealing him for reliable-but-unspectacular ol’ Alex Gonzalez a palatable option for the Bravos, who in doing so took the unusual step of tinkering with a first-place outfit. The Jays gave up a couple of minor prospects and a 33-year-old shortstop to get a 27-year-old with loads of upside, so there is less risk for them; perhaps Cito Gaston can reach the lad where Bobby Cox failed. Thing is, Gaston isn’t supposed to be the manager once this season is over.

    Billy Wagner: The closer that Bobby Cox has needed since John Smoltz went back to starting but didn’t have—and they’re both retiring.

    Baltimore Orioles
    Ty Wigginton:
    A versatile player, yes, but since the end of May he’s hit .205/.289/.265 with one home run (149 plate appearances). Sure, we all have our faults, but the Orioles shouldn’t expect much more than a token for an imminent free agent journeyman. Andy MacPhail waited too long.

    Chris Tillman: The O’s have been strangely impatient with Tillman this year, sending him out to start the year, then demoting him after just four starts once he came up. Given his overall Minor League record, you’d think that giving him some time to sort things out in the Majors might be more important than, say, preserving Mark Hendrickson’s place in Orioles lore. Three days ago, he held the Rangers to one run on two hits in 7.1 innings, part of the Birds’ utterly unexpected four-game sweep. You’d think they might be more patient now.

    Boston Red Sox
    Mike Cameron:
    Since coming off of the disabled list, the venerable center fielder has hit reasonably well, batting .300/.333/.444 in 96 PAs. However, with just three home runs in that span, Cameron’s production hangs on the positioning of opposing fielders. As for his own fielding, it’s not what it once was. Boston has Cameron under contract for another season, lucky them. His decline makes a divorce from Jacoby Ellsbury somewhat more difficult.

    Michael Bowden: Presently pitching for Triple-A Pawtucket for the third season in a row, Bowden isn’t a coming ace, but with the problems the Sox have had with the back of their rotation and middle relief, one wonders why this right-hander hasn’t gotten a call. His aggregate record at Pawtucket is only 10-12 in 50 games, but in 256.1 innings he’s allowed but 213 hits, walking 81 and striking out 178. His ERA is 3.34. His strikeout rate seems to be dropping, a bad sign, but we’re talking about rolls in which you wouldn’t expect dominance anyway—Boston seems well into the take-what-you-can-get mode, and Bowden is freely available to the Sox since they own him. Short of his making an indecent proposal to a sheep and/or the wife of a Sox executive, there isn’t an obvious reason why they haven’t tried him.

    Chicago Cubs
    Starlin Castro: Hitting .239/.317/.358 since the end of May, and though he’s a far superior fielder to Ryan Theriot, the Cubs aren’t achieving much more than running up his arbitration clock. He’ll be expensive at 22 or 23 and a free agent at 26, leaving the Cubs looking for yet another shortstop assuming they haven’t parted ways with him before then.

    Ted Lilly: The big trade target that everyone seems to be aiming for, for what he’ll cost they should really be aiming for Carlos Marmol. The Cubs have far less reason to trade him, though he is arbitration-eligible. His slider combination has made him almost as hard on left-handers as on right-handers, meaning that if you had him in a setup role could forget about platoon issues. His walks would probably provide many a nail-biting moment, particularly in the postseason, but he’s all but unhittable, so as long as you pull him once the bases are loaded...

    Chicago White Sox

    Juan Pierre:
    Despite having just lost Jake Peavy for the season, the Pale Hose are in first place in the AL Central, holding the top spot with a slim half-game lead. As hapless as the Tigers and Twins can be, they’re probably not going to stay there without making some moves. With Peavy gone, Kenny Williams will be looking at the pitching staff, but it’s their offense that can really use some new additions or a TARP bailout. The latter might be easier, because the Chicago farm system is a depressingly barren place. Their worst bat, Gordon Beckham, should rebound at some point—which will be almost like making a trade given just how bad he’s been—but there’s less hope for several other positions, especially left field, where Pierre is killing the Sox on a daily basis.

    Despite a career .298 batting average, Pierre is a brutal hitter, especially now, when he’s not hitting .298 but .257. Imagine if Williams could make an offer on B.J. Upton and try to jump-start his career with some Windy City leadoff action, but no—the White Sox have perhaps three strong prospects. Two, catcher Tyler Flowers and pitcher Dan Hudson, who they need, and outfielder Jared Mitchell who is both far from the Majors and of a type that the Rays already have in Desmond Jennings.

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