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Gammonds: Defense makes a difference

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  • Gammonds: Defense makes a difference

    All the way back in April, Buck Showalter predicted "there's a new game coming," and by May, several general managers and scouting directors wondered how much baseball would resemble the 1980s game five years after the institution of aggressive drug-testing.

    Then we got to October and the White Sox outed the Red Sox, the Cardinals continued their sweep through the National League with an entirely different style than last year, the Angels and Astros got to clinching positions.

    "This is a game of trends and trendy bandwagons," says one AL GM. "If the Angels beat the Yankees, we're going to hear a lot of people say that the new way to win is with pitching, defense and reckless baserunning. Of course, the White Sox didn't win that way. They have great pitching, they hit home runs [more than Boston], have great defense and play small ball in isolated cases, which they can do because of their pitching."

    The White Sox had better starting pitching than the Red Sox; they had a better bullpen; and their defense was far better: The two great catches by Aaron Rowand and the two plays Scott Podsednik made to hold Manny Ramirez and Jason Varitek to singles at crucial instances in Game 2 altered the series by helping steal a game in which Boston had great at-bats and hit the ball hard most of the night.

    "We played a very good game with terrific at-bats," says Theo Epstein. "They played better defensively. Give them credit." All of which makes Epstein wonder how he can improve his pitching with the worst statistical outfield defense in baseball.

    Defense was one of the stories this season. Go to your Baseball Prospectus Defensive Efficiency ratings. The Athletics, White Sox and Indians were the three best in baseball; the Yankees and Red Sox ranked 22nd and 23rd. In Oakland's case, it is no surprise because two years ago, when high on-base offensive players became costly, Billy Beane focused on defense as the game's most undervalued commodity. The Astros and Cardinals ranked fourth and seventh (Philadelphia was sixth), the Angels 10th.

    The offensive game will not change. Teams have to score runs (hitting at least some home runs), while on-base percentage will be the dominant offensive statistic. But defense improves pitching, and it is impossible to win without quality pitching.

    The majority of predictors thought the Red Sox would beat the White Sox because of their star power, their postseason experience and the fact they play in the AL East. While experience is wonderful, talent is better. The AL East is very tough, but the AL Central was six games over .500 against the East. Oh yes, then there was the pitching.

    "We may have worn down from having to have 45 come-from-behind wins, and never knowing if a lead was safe," says David Ortiz. "It's amazing that we had 95 wins and tied for first place." An unsaid reference to Boston's pitching and defense.

    The Cardinals were the best team in baseball during the regular season, with 100 wins, five fewer than 2004. They also scored 50 fewer runs and hit 44 fewer homers.

    "Last year, we battered opponents," says Tony La Russa. "This year, we had to be more inventive and play a lot of different styles. Remember, it all comes down to pitching, and defense is a major part of pitching."

    A few other observations
    Is blood testing not inevitable?

    Some feel this is a cost issue. Others claim it is a union issue.

    But until baseball administers blood as well as urine drug testing, there will be major questions about who is and who isn't cheating.

    We all want to believe that Jason Giambi's remarkable comeback and physical presence is all natural. He passed drug tests and friends swear that any use of human growth hormone or any other major enhancer could be extremely dangerous to the tumor on his pituitary gland. But, let's face it, there are minor-leaguers, major-leaguers and collegians looking at Giambi, thinking "he could have gone back onto HGH" and will be willing to spend the money to get the good stuff urine tests don't detect.

    For the good of the sport, baseball should hook up with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and eliminate further skepticism, not to mention potential scandal.

    Players win championships, more than managers. General managers provide the players, managers manage them. So why are owners so reluctant to pay general managers more than fifth starters, and why are some managers so paranoid about the GMs making personnel decisions?

    Every case is different. Paul DePodesta may have made some ill-advised personnel decisions; we won't know his personnel acumen for another couple of years because of the injuries that racked the Dodgers. Ken Macha resented Beane's control of the roster -- which presented Macha with one of the game's best young teams -- even as Beane made himself far more of a hands-off than a hands-on executive. Macha has taken some shots from former players who allege veiled charges of racism, which is totally unfair, because each case was simply a case of playing someone he believed was better.

    But one reason the game is messed up is that owners do not understand how important it is to have a general manager like John Schuerholz, Mark Shapiro or Beane, who shape an organizational mission and philosophy and make the ever-difficult calls on scouting, developing and trading for players, as well as determining who's on the rise and who's on the decline. As Theo Epstein is left negotiating his own contract 12 months after winning the World Series, he also is trying to reconstruct his team with players who are getting better rather than players who are getting worse.

    Bobby Cox and Joe Torre are two of the best managers of all time because they let the good players play, and those good players want to play for them. Cox has been brilliant taking what Schuerholz's talented lieutenants -- Roy Clark and Dayton Moore -- have given him and put them in positions where they can succeed. Many teams will look at what the Braves have done with Jeff Francoeur, Kelly Johnson, Brian McCann et al and think that's the way to go, but before they get too cavalier with young players, remember, not every team has Cox managing, and Atlanta is a very soft market in which to develop.

    There are going to be millions of dollars in bad contracts thrown around this winter.

    As has been well-documented, the free-agent talent is sparse (thanks to teams like the Brewers using their revenue-sharing dollars to lock up the Ben Sheets of the world), and with revenue-sharing, TV, XM Radio and Internet deals, there is a lot of cash waiting to be spent. The Blue Jays have $30M, the Royals $18M-$19M, the Tigers who knows what, and that's before the Yankees, Mets, Red Sox and other big markets weigh in.

    The Indians were unquestionably the most improved team in the American League, in 2005 and in the future.

    "By the end of the year, they were probably the best team in our division," says Ozzie Guillen. "It's a credit to our players that we held them off." Guillen had singled out Grady Sizemore as "the best player in our division." As long as C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee stay healthy, they will get better.

    The Mets were the most improved team in the National League.

    It may not have shown in the standings, but they had the best run differential of any wild-card contender. They have two great young players in David Wright and Jose Reyes; Carlos Beltran is better than he showed this season; and Pedro Martinez gave them back their swagger. They need bullpen help, and then there is the Manny Ramirez issue. Would they give up Beltran or some package like Mike Cameron, Lastings Milledge, Aaron Heilman and Yusmeiro Pettit to acquire Manny? On the last day of the season, Ramirez told clubhouse workers he wouldn't be back, then told his agents that night he loves Boston. As other agents try to swoop in and steal him, Manny can be summed up in one Andujar-ian move: "Youneverknow."

    Ed Wade does not deserve to get fired.

    He acquired Kenny Lofton, signed the winningest free-agent pitcher (Jon Lieber), held on to Brett Myers, made the Ugueth Urbina deal to clear room for Chase Utley to become a star, and kept Jimmy Rollins out of the free-agent market. He couldn't get Bobby Abreu to take over in September, but that may never happen. The Wade regime has spent a lot of money and has made some mistakes, but Ed had his best year.

    Orlando Hernandez was the MVP of the Chicago-Boston series.

    El Duque is one of the great October pitchers, and his performance Friday -- getting out of a none-out, bases-loaded jam and working three innings so crisply the Red Sox couldn't get Ortiz and Ramirez to the plate in the ninth -- sealed the series. But he is also responsible for the emergence of Jose Contreras. Four months ago, El Duque told Contreras to go back to the three-quarters arm slot that made him so good in Cuba, and to stop pitching backward. The result has been Contreras becoming one of the game's dominant starters.

    Around the majors
    • Jeff Moorad has made a lot of calls for his vacant GM spot, but what he's looking for is someone to run the farm system and draft while Moorad makes the decisions, with the help of Matt Williams. He asked Oakland assistant David Forst to interview, but Forst is staying with the Athletics. There have been several reports that Kevin Towers might be interested.

    • John Hart is not interested in another GM job -- for now. He's told friends he's tired of the wear of the job. His Rangers successor, Jon Daniels, is a rising star.

    • One of the problems the Braves have keeping Rafael Furcal is that they cannot collect insurance on Mike Hampton's $14.5M contract until late June, and even then, they get back only 50 percent. So to keep Furcal and Kyle Farnsworth, they may have to move Johnny Estrada, John Thomson and Chris Reitsma.