Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Nine innings: 08.09.05

Playing nine innings while hoping Mark Bellhorn finds Pawtucket to his liking this time of year . . .

1) Theo and the Braintrust have coveted Tony Graffanino for a while, and to be honest, I never really understood the fascination. He entered this season a .259 hitter in nine seasons, and Baseball Prospectus's take on him seemed appropriate: As an everyday second baseman, he makes a heck of a utility infielder. The numbers told you he was Just Another Guy. But after watching him in these first 14 games with the Sox, you understand why the Sox were so disappointed when he turned down their offer to sign with Kansas City a season ago, and why they were so elated to acquire him a deal two weeks ago. He's better than steady at second base, makes pitchers work for every strike, and as he showed in concluding his Boggseqsue 10-pitch at-bat against Texas's Steve (I'm So Lousy Even The Yankees Cut Me) Karsay tonight, he can put a charge into the baseball every now and then. His three-run homer in the fifth inning gave the Sox an 8-5 lead in an eventual 11-6 victory and the shot into the Monster Seats may not have been his most impressive play of the night. He scored from second on a Johnny Damon infield single, hustling while the Rangers were lollygagging, and also made a couple smooth plays defensively. It's performances like that that are fast making a Graffinino a Fenway favorite - and reminding nitwits like me to put more faith in Theo's insight and intelligence than in Baseball Prospectus's projections and critiques.

2) Flipped on the Cubs-Mets game on ESPN Sunday night, mostly because I like to hear analyst extraordinaire Joe Morgan say "That's a cutter, Jon," 233 times per game. The man is a thinker, I tell you. As a bonus, I also got to witness the return from injury of one of the most important members of the 2003 Red Sox. You really should see Scott Williamson these days - physically, the Cubs' reliever looks nothing like the pitcher who tried his damnedest to save Grady Little from himself in the '03 playoffs. He's 25 pounds lighter, wears goatee/beard/shaving accident that only Matt Clement would dig, and his crewcut has grown into bushy, Greg Brady-style white-guy 'fro. Williamson's stuff looked nasty and uncontrollable, just as it always did, and while I thought he threw a great splitter, Little Joe repeatedly told me he throws a cutter, Jon. At any rate, it was nice to discover that Williamson has returned, elbow intact, from his latest Tommy John surgery. He was tougher than Curt Schilling gave him credit for, and he deserves some good fortune. (Say what? . . . You thought I meant who? . . . Oh, right . . . Nomar. Yeah, he's back too. Had a couple of hits, swung at a couple of first pitches, and looked like he now adheres to the Sammy Sosa/Pudge Rodriguez diet. We wish him well, blah yada whatever.)

3) In the aftermath of BALCO, and the Senate hearings, and the revelation that Rafael Palmeiro is a brazen, compulsive liar, in the aftermath of inflated bodies and inflated statistics, it's inevitable that history will remember the period of 1995 to 2004 as baseball's Steroid Era. It's a shame for many reasons, one being that we will never know which numbers are legitimate, something a certain suspiciously revitalized slugger in New York can attest to at the moment. But there are actually some small blessings in this scandal, believe it or not. Skeptical? Ponder this: What's more impressive - Sammy Sosa's 600-something homers - who knows how many of which were hit with a corked bat and a corked body - or Jim Rice's 382? Knowing what we know now, I'd say Rice's without a second thought. If circumstances make us more suspicious of every jacked-and-pumped slugger from recent seasons, the benefit is that it makes us more appreciative of some overlooked ballplayers from the recent past who could take a drug test without needing a Whizzanator. If all of these artificial records of recent years ultimately result in Rice and Andre Dawson taking their rightful place in Cooperstown, then maybe there is such a thing as positive fallout from this terribly disheartening story.

4) Isn't it ironic, don't ya think, that the two improvements Theo made to last year's ballclub at the trade deadline - adding speed (Saint David Roberts) and defense (Orlando Cabrera, Doug Mientkiewicz) - have popped up as flaws a season later. (Okay, so that's more coincidence than irony. Shove it, Alanis.) The speed guy off the bench is Rule 5 draftee Adam Stern, who ceases to wear a Just Happy To Be Here expression only when he's caught in his nightly rundown on the basepaths. Dave Roberts, he ain't. (Wayne Housie, he might be, however. . .)

. . . And as far as the defense is concerned . . . well, if you told me that Edgar Renteria has won two Gold Gloves to Cabrera's one during their overlapping seasons in the National League, I might roll my eyes and explain once again that a Gold Glove is a worthless popularity contest that very often doesn't reward the best defenders. My litmus test for how good a shortstop is defensively is pretty simple: Do you want the ball hit in his direction with the game on the line? With Nomar . . . not really. With Jeter . . . I'm sure Yankee fans do. With O-Cab . . . absolutely. With Renteria . . . certainly not based on what we've seen so far. He's occasionally spectacular, and his range to his left is vast, but too often he turns a routine or moderately difficult play into a baserunner. I hate dragging money into this to make a point, but for four years and $40 million, I expected more.

5) If the news tonight that the Sox have taken a flyer on Phillies/Cardinals/Royals/Phillies (again)/Mets/Diamondbacks/Brewers retread Ricky Bottalico isn't a blatant clue, then let's just spell out the reality regarding the Red Sox pitching staff: If the Keith Foulke who will soon return from his knee injury/hiatus doesn't closely resemble the Keith Foulke who had a sub-3.00 ERA the past six seasons and was fearless in the October spotlight, then the Sox can forget about an extended stay in the postseason, if they get there at all. Curt Schilling must return to the head of the rotation and reclaim his status as a postseason ace, and Foulke must make that possible by returning to the back of the bullpen and finding his closer mojo. It's as necessary as it is obvious.

6) TATB has long been of opinion that the size of Gary Sheffield's mouth has always been in inverse proportion to the size of his brain, and ol' Sheff made our case for us again this week. Only a first-ballot Moron Hall of Famer would dare take swipes at Captain Intangibles in New York, even if questions about his leadership - his true leadership, not the McCarver propaganda - might be legitimate. But Sheffield, in his headline-grabbing criticism of Jeter and A-Rod during an interview with New York magazine, did stumble upon one valid point: He is feared by opponents far more than his more publicized teammates. Jeter's reputation was made on the October stage(and aided by a publicity boost courtesy of FoxSports' production meetings and the fawning New York press), but he's more likely to punch a game-tying single to right than launch a three-run rocket off the Coke battles. A-Rod? Maybe his game-winning homer against Schilling a few weeks back was a sign that he's finally going to be a force to be reckoned with in this rivalry, but until he does it consistently, I'd just as soon see him at the plate with the game on the line, though I'd prefer he not slap any more Sox pitchers after failing. But Sheffield . . . maybe it's the menacing wag of the bat, maybe it's the whip-quick swing . . . but damned if I don't think he's going to hit a screaming line drive every time he steps into the batter's box. Yeah, we fear him, and fear is the right word. Can't fault him for knowing it. (P.S. - I had to laugh when the writer referred to Sheffield as "The All-Star with the gunslinger eyes." From now on, I think I'm going to refer to Manny as "The All-Star with the googly eyes.")

7) Jose Cruz Jr., we hardly knew ya - and not to be cruel, but judging by our brief introduction, we really weren't interested in getting to know you better, dude. The Sox designated Cruz for assignment tonight, eight days after he joined the team after being DFA'd by the Diamondbacks. (Hmmm, maybe the Snakes were on to something after all.) Kevin Youkilis, who should have started getting Kevin Millar's at-bats two months ago, was recalled from Pawtucket late this afternoon and arrived in time for tonight's ballgame, suggesting that he's not as patient behind the wheel as he is at the plate. As it is, we can gather a few things from today's version of the Red Sox Roster Shuffle:
1) Cruz is either injured or, at age 29, cooked. He doesn't look like he belongs in the big leagues, that's for sure.
2) The Sox realize that Youkilis, who was hitting .355 at Pawtucket and, I believe, is now out of options, has nothing left to prove in the minors.
3) Bill Mueller's back or elbow or knee must be hurting, the only explanation for those Hobson-in-'78 throws the normally steady third baseman has been unleashing of late.

8) I planned on making this item a recurring feature in this space, maybe call it This Week's Reason Why Kevin Millar Will Be Batting Seventh For The Hanshin Tigers Next Season. Had I done so, I'd probably have made light of his .297 slugging percentage on the road, or some other equally pathetic statistic, of which there are many choices. But I've decided to put this feature on hold, for three reasons:
1) As Crash Davis would say, "You know what the difference Is between hitting .250 and hitting .300? 1 got it figured out. Twenty-five hits a year in 500 at bats is 50 points. Okay? There's 6 months in a season, that's about 25 week - you get one extra flare a week - just one - a gork, a ground ball with eyes, a dying quail - just one more dying quail a week - and you're in Yankee Stadium!" The point? Millar's been getting a lot of flares, gorks, groundballs with eyes and dying quails lately, and his average has crept up to a respectable .274.
2) Millar could go Oh-Fer-August, gnaw off his left arm after mistaking it for a juicy drumstick, and decide he was no longer going to wear pants during day games, and he still wouldn't be the most repulsively useless first baseman in recent Sox history, not as long as Tony Clark's '02 season is still on file.
3) He once beat out Derrek Lee for the starting first base job for the Marlins. Yep, that Derrek Lee, he of the NL Triple Crown candidacy. Just thought that should be pointed out.

9) As for today's Completely Random Baseball Card:

And you thought Gabe Kapler got a warm welcome when he returned to the Red Sox. Can you imagine the earth-shaking ovation El Guapo would get if this comeback attempt indeed leads him back to Fenway? Every fat guy in New England would rise out of their La-Z-Boys as one, clapping and wheezing and saluting their patron saint. Then, of course, we'd go back to swilling Pringles and beer. It's what Guapo would want us to do.

(How funny is it to see Baby-Faced Guapo on that card? He looks like he just got kicked out of Menudo for trying to grow a mustache.)