This is the part of our weekly power rankings in which I include some fun video or GIF, then make some painfully punny joke. Well, that’s not going to happen this week. I’m not your monkey. I’ll usually try my best to meet your expectations, but this time we’ll just have to come up a little short.
It’s Week 20 of The 30.
Many of the stats and facts below are courtesy of the indispensable ESPN Stats & Info.
9. CINCINNATI REDS
They’re a third-place team, but also one of the scariest third-place teams we’ve seen in years.
As baseball’s most compelling race heads into the home stretch, the Reds wield just as many quality players throughout their roster as the Cardinals and Pirates do.1 That’s a tribute to the job done by GM Walt Jocketty and his predecessors, and especially scouting director Chris Buckley and those before him. Consider:
• Joey Votto, the second-best hitter in baseball over the past five years and a legitimate MVP candidate this year for people who believe that analysis entails more than counting on your own fingers, was a second-round pick by the Reds in 2002.
• Starting third baseman Todd Frazier, starting right fielder Jay Bruce, shortstop Zack Cozart, both catchers (Ryan Hanigan and Devin Mesoraco), four of the team’s top six starting pitchers, and the team’s closer (depending on how you want to interpret Aroldis Chapman’s signing) are also homegrown.
• They got no. 1 starter Mat Latos by dipping into that same fertile farm system for a five-player trade.
• They got All-Star second baseman Brandon Phillips by trading away the immortal Jeff Stevens.
This is how the Reds have built a team with strong pitching and very good defense. The lineup still has holes and could stand to acquire a new left fielder in a waiver trade should one become available, but when everyone’s healthy and with the addition of Shin-Soo Choo at the top of the lineup, it’s still a team with solid on-base ability.
You can’t quite call the Reds the favorites in the NL Central. Not with Johnny Cueto on the shelf, Dusty Baker continuing to make baffling decisions,2 and the more obvious predicament of trailing Pittsburgh by 2½ games and St. Louis by 1½. But even if Cincinnati merely lands a wild-card spot, this is a team with the talent to pull an ’02 Angels/’03 Marlins/’04 Red Sox/’11 Cardinals and make a deep playoff run, maybe even go all the way.
23. SAN DIEGO PADRES
In yet another disappointing season for the Padres, you look for silver linings, players who perform better than expected who could become key parts of next year’s roster. For that, we submit Tyson Ross.
A second-round pick in the 2008 draft by the A’s, Ross had sandwiched two lousy years around one pretty good one in his first three seasons in the big leagues. Wielding a four-seam fastball that topped out in the mid-90s, a sinker that fueled a career ground ball percentage above 50 percent, and a plus slider, it was tough to figure out why the 6-foot-6 right-hander wasn’t having more success. The Padres obviously felt the same way, acquiring Ross in a four-player deal over the winter and handing him a spot in the starting rotation to begin the season. He struggled with command over his first three starts, then hit the disabled list after injuring his non-throwing shoulder. Ross didn’t pitch again in the bigs until three and a half weeks later. When he returned, he was unable to swing a bat without pain, prompting a move to the bullpen.
The shoulder finally healed in July, and Ross returned from the All-Star break with his old starter’s job back. The results since then have been excellent: 34 innings pitched, 36 strikeouts, 10 walks, one homer allowed, and an opponents’ line of just .149/.224/.193. We’re still talking about a sample size of just five starts, making it tough to reach any sweeping conclusions. But on a granular level, it does appear that Ross is now doing a much better job of locating pitches and setting up hitters for strikeouts. Though the Padres have a passel of intriguing pitching prospects in the lower levels of the minor leagues, the high minors aren’t quite as flush. Add question marks over multiple starters coming back from Tommy John surgery, and Ross could have a chance to establish himself as a strong candidate to crack next year’s rotation.
Ross took a few minutes after batting practice Friday night to discuss his progression as a pitcher and what has led to his recent improvement.
Is there something you’re doing differently now that you weren’t before?
It definitely started working with [Padres pitching coach] Darren Balsley. We worked on throwing that fastball down and away to right-handed hitters. That was a point of emphasis right from spring training. If I could execute that pitch, then I could move the ball around a bit from there — the sinker, slider, all of it could play off that one pitch.
Well, sure, but doesn’t every pitching coach emphasize spotting your fastball? Did you do something that has helped you do a better job of it this year?
Early in spring training, Darren had me make a small adjustment to my warm-up routine that got me to get the timing down. I’m a tall, lanky guy, so he had me do this simple step-through drill. The idea was to sync up my foot strike to get my arm up in time. Everything flows from there. It was a very minor adjustment, but it’s what I needed to get on track. Last year I couldn’t get left-handers out [.353/.458/.517 vs. LHH in 2012]. I thought maybe it was because of a not-slow-enough changeup, something like that. Now I can throw that fastball in for a strike against lefties, then a slider off of that, get them to chase outside. Improving that glove-side fastball has really brought it all full circle.
You’d been mostly a starter the last couple years, then this year you spend two months in the bullpen. How did you adjust to that role?
When they traded for me, they were looking for me to be a starting pitcher. I had the injury early in the season, and I couldn’t swing the bat. So they had me pitch out of the pen instead. It would have been easy to just sit on the DL for two or three months and let the shoulder heal until I could swing. But I got to see a lot from the bullpen. I watched Luke Gregerson throw his slider and learned from that. Even with the starters I started paying closer attention, like watching [Jason] Marquis use his sinker to get double plays with runners on base. When you’re playing, you absorb a lot more information than when you’re not, and I could apply all of that to my game later.
The A’s were a young team that struggled when you first came up, then they got really good last year. What do you see from this year’s Padres?
We have a good team here. Our record might not show how talented we are. A lot of it has been injuries; I don’t think we’ve had our whole projected lineup on the field at any time this year. But we’ve got a lot of good pieces. I’m very excited about the future of this club.
24. PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES
Unlike true team sports like football and basketball, baseball is at its essence a sport of individuals. You either spot your slider on the outside corner or leave it spinning belt-high in the middle of the plate. You either hit the 95 mph fastball or fail miserably trying. You either possess the range to get to grounders up the middle or you don’t. There’s no one to block for you, no one to play help defense if your man beats you off the dribble. Fostering a harmonious clubhouse environment and urging your charges to play as a team … those skills might have some value, but nowhere near as much as they do in true team sports.
This is what makes managing a Major League Baseball team such a tough racket. You can be a master motivator, but that might only help squeeze out a win or two over the course of a 162-game season (and no one will be able to quantify it). You can do a better job filling out lineups than your counterparts in the other dugout, but that, too, will only help on the margins. Other than a few rare exceptions, you can’t turn a merely decent collection of players into a winning team. If your boss offers you a capable roster, you’ve got a shot. If he doesn’t, you don’t.
Charlie Manuel was not a master tactician. He fared best with a plug-and-play lineup full of boppers, and didn’t show any particularly strong interest in platoons and time-shares that might help maximize his team’s strengths and minimize its weaknesses. While every manager to some extent manages according to the confines of the save rule, Manuel was more pathological about it than most, and cost his teams several games as a result. Still, none of that explains why the Phillies went from NL East contenders to World Series winners to five-time division champs to one of the worst teams in baseball. The Phillies are now awful, and Manuel is now fired, for a much simpler reason: The chef got asked to make award-winning filet mignon out of broken-down old horse meat.
We’re not going to dump on Ruben Amaro Jr. too hard today. For one thing, we’ve already done that. For another, cashing in all of the team’s prospects and riding veteran, name-brand stars into the ground was and is Amaro’s mandate, given what’s at stake financially.
But Manuel getting fired because Amaro took the excellent talent developed during Ed Wade’s regime and the refinements made under Pat Gillick and turned them into a salt-the-earth campaign for (most) players younger than 30 neatly sums up the fickle nature of managers’ job security. Manuel didn’t suddenly go from the best manager in baseball to one of the worst, just as Don Mattingly isn’t a better manager now than he was two months ago, before the Dodgers decided to go on one of the best runs any team has seen in a century.
Manuel, like other big league managers, was still very well compensated and offered a turn in the limelight that many people would kill to have. And Ryne Sandberg may well prove to be a better fit for a Phillies team that might shift to a younger talent base in the coming years.3 But managers’ careers almost never end well, and at age 69, this might be it for Manuel. So here’s hoping this isn’t the final image we keep in our heads of someone who broke into the game 50 years ago as a kid playing rookie ball in Wytheville, Virginia.
When a man gives his entire adult life to baseball only to have it (possibly) end largely because of someone else’s mistakes, he deserves better. He deserves a tribute like this.