Bad News Bear: Cubs’ Manager Lou Piniella to Retire at Season’s End.

Apparently Sweet Lou has had just about enough of sour Chicago and the calamity-stricken Cubs’ losing ways.

According to a statement from the veteran skipper, 2010 will be his final year as manager of the Cubs, as he plans to retire at the end of the season and pursue a role in the front office.

Piniella was brought to Chicago to do what hadn’t been done in over 100 years–win a World Series with the Cubs.

But like many others before him Piniella wasn’t able to climb that seemingly insurmountable peak, and it became apparent this season that Chicago wasn’t likely to contend with him at the helm. While announcing his decision before the season ends might seem strange, it gives the Cubs time to find a suitable replacement from among the likes of Ryne Sandberg, Joe Torre and Fredi Gonzalez.

Piniella’s time in Chicago wasn’t all bad. He has a 308-272 record (.531) with the Cubs and won the National League Manager of the Year Award in 2008 when the North Siders won a league high 97 games. But back-to-back postseason flops and run-ins with Milton Bradley and Carlos Zambrano obscured the regular season success, and helped make it easy for Piniella to say goodbye to baseball’s most cursed and critiqued franchise.

While Piniella’s time in Chicago has been forgettable, his career as a manager was anything but. When Lou wasn’t busy entertaining fans with his memorable tirades, the cagy skipper was guiding the Cincinnati Reds, Seattle Mariners, Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Chicago Cubs to a record of 1827-1692 (.519). He led the Reds to a World Series title in his first year as manager (1990) and also steered the 2001 Seattle Mariners to a Major League record 116 wins. Whether his accomplishments as a manager are enough to secure Piniella a place in Cooperstown remains to be seen, but one thing is clear:

Baseball will never forget Sweet Lou.

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Plugging a Leak(e): Rookie Pitcher Keeps the Reds’ Season Afloat.

Leake has seamlessly made the transition from college to the pros--and the Reds are benefiting in a big way.

Coming into Spring Training it was Aroldis Chapman, not Mike Leake, who was receiving all the attention in the Cincinnati Reds camp. The Cuban flamethrowers triple digit fastballs easily overshadowed the quiet consistency of the rookie out of Arizona State University. Yet, a quarter of the way through the season, Chapman is still toiling in Triple-A while Leake is doing is best to keep Jason Heyward from running away with the rookie of the year award—not to mention helping the Reds soar to first place in the NL Central.  

The 22-year-old right hander is among a small group of hurlers who went straight to the majors without ever having thrown a pitch in the minor leagues (including such household names as Darren Dreifort, Tim Conroy and David Clyde) and Leake is making it look easy. In eight starts on the year, Leake is 4-0 with a 2.70 ERA and 42 strikeouts against 22 walks, and has flashed more control with each passing start. Leake’s makeup on the mound and pitching repertoire reminds many of Greg Maddux and the Reds can only hope that their young star has the same kind of career as the “Mad Dog”. Leake also shares another similarity with Greg Maddux—he handles himself at the plate with aplomb (.353 in his first 23 at-bats).

Though most pitchers not named Tim Lincecum struggle initially in the major leagues, Leake has been able to thrive in spite of his size (5’10”) and less than stellar stuff (topping out in the low 90’s). Leake explains his quick success in the major leagues:  

“It’s tough for me to get intimidated. I’m more of a self-competitor rather than competing against people. For example, people worry about or ask questions about who you’re facing. Say it’s Pujols — I’m not really worried about facing him. I’m worried about hitting the glove.”

Cincinnati is 26-20 after a loss to Pittsburgh on Tuesday night but still sit atop their division despite a slow start and inconsistent pitching outside of Leake. The Reds have built a strong nucleus to contend with St. Louis and Chicago for the next half decade, but few expected Cincinnati to be in contention this soon.

Of course, few expected Leake to become the team’s de facto ace less than a year after graduating from college…but that’s exactly what happened.

Major League Baseball and Its Players Continue to Drop the Ball: Cincinnati’s Volquez Tests Positive for PED’s.

Edison Volquez's suspension won't cost him anything more than money.

Another mysterious fertility drug, another failed PED test and another black eye for baseball and its players. Yeah, it sure seems like the sport has this steroids issue under control.

Major League Baseball announced on Tuesday that Cincinnati Reds’ starting pitcher Edinson Volquez tested positive for a banned substance during Spring Training and would be suspended for 50 games, effective immediately.

The catch? Volquez was already on the disabled list and unlikely to return to game action until mid-season. His suspension runs out June 15th—a date sooner than the Reds had anticipated Volquez being ready to pitch for their big league club. As it stands, Volquez will be able to continue his rehabilitation from elbow surgery while serving his “suspension” and will forfeit around $130,000 of his salary for the season. Somehow, I think Volquez will find a way to squeak by with the other $300,000 he is due to make in 2010.

Even his own teammates were stunned by the loophole in baseball’s punishment system. Fellow pitcher Bronson Arroyo reacted to the situation in an interview on Tuesday saying,  “I’m actually surprised they’re letting him do that.” Yeah, so is everyone else Bronson.

I’m not even mad at Volquez for using a banned substance…I’m mad at baseball for a punishment that doesn’t fit the crime. Despite a supposedly tougher stance on steroids, Volquez will miss exactly zero game-time for failing a drug test. Who is that fair to?

In the words of TV’s greatest lawyer Jackie Chiles: “Outrageous! Egregious! Preposterous!”

Preposterous indeed.

The Hunt for Reds in October: Is Cincinnati Ready to Join the Playoff Party?

Joey "the Canadian Crusher" Votto is the centerpiece of a talented Reds' lineup.

Despite having the endearingly clueless (unless of course you invested heavily in Mark Prior or Kerry Wood rookie cards) Dusty Baker at the helm, Cincinnati’s strong finish to last season convinced many that the Reds were ready to take a step forward and compete for the NL Central in 2010.  

The team went a combined 20-11 in September and October and enjoyed a strong season against their divisional rivals (46-34). Led by a stable of quality young arms and homegrown talent in the field, the Reds have been a chic pick by baseball pundits this Spring to sneak into the postseason. But, does the team have enough weapons to compete with St. Louis and Chicago and return to the playoffs for the first time since 2000? Let’s take a closer look at everyone’s favorite Cinderella for 2010, starting with their pitching:   

Although phenom Aroldis Chapman probably won’t see significant major league action in 2010, the Reds still boast a strong starting rotation of established arms and up and coming stars—the team finished 7th in the NL with a 4.18 cumulative ERA last season. Veterans Bronson Arroyo (15-13, 3.84 ERA) and Aaron Harang (6-14, 4.21 ERA) mentor a terrific triumvirate of young arms consisting of Homer Bailey, Johnny Cueto and Edison Volquez. All three have shown the potential to be staff aces but have struggled with inconsistency and injuries; they’ll need to step up this season if the Reds want to match the duo of Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright in St. Louis.  

Johnny Cueto has all the makings of an ace, and the Reds need him to perform at a high level in 2010.

Cincinnati’s bullpen is rock solid, with All-Star closer Francisco Cordero (39 saves, 2.16 ERA) and specialists like the ageless Arthur Rhodes (1-1, 2.53 ERA) and Nick Masset (5-1, 2.37 ERA) ready to put the game on ice. If their relief corps can continue to perform at a high level and Volquez, Bailey and Cueto live up to their potential, the Reds should have the pitching to compete with just about anybody. Can their offense keep up?  

Calling Cincinnati’s 2009 lineup pedestrian would be an insult to pedestrians. Their anemic offense finished 15th in average, 11th in runs, 15th in OBP, 13th in slugging and 13th in OPS out of 16 NL teams, and was a major reason why the Reds were outscored by 50 runs last year. Their lineup certainly isn’t devoid of talent, but Cincinnati will need more production from top-to-bottom this year in order to support the starting rotation.  

A full season of Joey Votto (.322-25 HR-84 RBI’s in 469 AB’s) should help the offense, as will steady vets Brandon Phillips (.276-20-98-25 SB) and Scott Rolen (.305-11-67), but young players like Jay Bruce (.223-23-58) and Drew Stubbs (.267-8-15-10 SB) need to stay healthy and live up to their potential if Cincinnati is going to take a step forward in the National League. Question marks also remain at shortstop (rookie Drew Sutton), catcher (an aging Ramon Hernandez) and leftfield (some combination of Wladimir Balentien and Jonny Gomes); those three positions will go along way in determining the Reds’ success or failure.  

There’s a lot to like about Cincinnati heading into 2010. They have a solid young nucleus of pitchers and bats and have done an amazing job of creating quality major league players through their farm system. The Reds have burgeoning flamethrowers in Homer Bailey and Edison Volquez and potential MVP candidates in Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, but they still need more time to develop and more firepower to compete with St. Louis and Chicago in the talented and balanced NL Central. Cincinnati has a chance to finish above the .500 mark for the first time in ten years, and should use the momentum heading into 2011, because it’s unlikely that the Reds will make the playoffs this season; not with the depth of their division.

Cinderella’s slipper doesn’t quite fit Cincinnati…at least not this year.

Baseball’s Top Five Breakout Stars for ’10

Gutierrez won't be able to hide out in the fog of Seattle much longer.

Besides “free Krispy Kremes” and “Ken Griffey Junior”, no three words in the English language are more exciting to me than “pitchers and catchers”. When I hear that magical combination of words I know that Spring Training has arrived and another season of baseball is on the horizon. With each new year a fresh crop of stars emerge and make their mark on the game, elevating themselves from good players to great players. Just like Jessica Simpson on the last stages of her “In This Skin” tour, the following players are poised for a major breakout.  

1) Franklin Gutierrez: In the eyes of most Mariners fans Gutierrez already had his breakout season—though no one outside of Seattle or the sabermetric community seemed to notice that in 2009. With a retooled roster that doesn’t include Carlos Silva (that’s one of my last shots at El Guapo, I promise) the M’s are a serious contender in the AL West and, if the team can stay in the playoff hunt late into the season, the best defensive centerfielder in baseball will finally receive the credit he deserves (or at least a Gold Glove). The affectionately named “Guti” made significant improvements at the plate last season, and if he continues to mature as a hitter, has the chance to become a legitimate 5-tool star. Don’t be surprised if Gutierrez goes for a line similar to .300-25 HR-90 RBI’s-20 SB’s in 2010…it is the Mariners year after all.  

2) Madison Bumgarner: You can laugh at his last name all you want (and his first name while you’re at it), but it won’t change the fact that Madison Bumgarner is one of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball. In two ridiculous minor league seasons, Bumgarner has posted a combined 27-5 record with a 1.65 ERA, 0.97 WHIP and a nearly five-to-one strike-to-walk ratio. I don’t care if you’re playing in the Soda Pop Valley League…those numbers are hard to ignore. If Bumgarner can replicate his success in the minors for a Giants’ pitching staff that already includes Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, San Francisco would become a very dangerous team in the wide open NL West.  

Will McCutchen become the best pirate since Captain Cook in 2010?

3) Andrew McCutchen: Hidden in the baseball wasteland that is Pittsburgh, McCutchen enjoyed a terrific rookie season, proving once and for all that the Pirates can occasionally do something right (although let’s be honest, A-Mac will be traded in two years). The former first-round draft pick finished fourth in the rookie of the year voting and put together a solid season at the plate (.286-12-54) and on the basepaths (22/27 in stolen bases). The young right-hander exhibited good patience at the dish and has the potential to become a 30-30 player for the next decade in Pittsburgh (or New York). It might seem like baby steps, but players like McCutchen are a step in the right direction for the Pirates…give ’em another 10 years and they’ll be right back in the thick of it (the middle of the NL Central that is). 

4) Matt Weiters: Sure “Orange Jesus” didn’t quite save the Orioles as they walked through the Valley of the Shadow of Death (aka the AL East) last year, but that just means he’s in no danger of a sophomore slump in 2010. One of the most hyped prospects in recent memory, Weiters got off to a slow start in 2009 (.259 pre-All Star batting average) but finished the year with a flourish (.301) and he will be counted on to lead a group of young talented Baltimore hurlers that includes Chris Tillman, Brian Matusz and David Hernandez (each of whom could have made this list themselves). Weiters should be one of the top three catchers in the AL in 2010, and it won’t be long before he’s challenging Joe Mauer for batting titles and MVP’s.  

Bailey and the Reds are looking to make some noise in the NL Central this season.

5) Homer Bailey: The number seven overall pick in the 2004 draft, Bailey has been anything but a homerun in his short major league career, though his finish to last season showed why the Reds thought so highly of him. The hard-throwing Bailey went 4-1 in September, with a 2.08 ERA and 42 strikeouts in 43 innings (numbers eerily similar to Zack Grienke’s last five starts of 2008–and we all know what he did the next year). Bailey will combine with Johnny Cueto, Edison Volquez and eventually Aroldis Chapman to form one of the best young rotations in baseball, and should turn quite a few heads in 2010. The Cincinnati Reds will be one of the biggest surprise teams in baseball next season due in no small part to the emergence of Bailey. Expect Homer to win 13-15 games with a sub-4.00 ERA and about 150 K’s.

Immortalized in Bronze? A Look At This Year’s Hall-of-Fame Ballot First Timers

Roberto Alomar has the numbers of a first ballot Hall-of-Famer.

Roberto Alomar: The best second baseman of the 90’s, Roberto Alomar was a model of consistency both offensively and defensively, winning 10 Gold Gloves (the most ever by a 2B) and capturing four Silver Sluggers during his illustrious career. The 12-time All-Star collected 2,724 hits, 504 doubles, 210 HR’s, 1,134 RBI’s, 474 stolen bases and hit an even .300 in his 17-year playing tenure with the Padres, Blue Jays, Orioles, Indians, Mets, White Sox and Diamondbacks. Delivering surprising pop and excellent speed for a middle infielder, Alomar is one of the most decorated second baseman in the history of the game and compares favorably to another recent Hall-of-Famer at his position, Ryne Sandberg. The native of Puerto Rico captured two World Series titles with Toronto in 1992 and 1993, hitting .480 in the ’93 Fall Classic and finishing with a .318 career postseason average. If there’s a knock against Alomar’s candidacy it would be an embarrassing incident in 1996 when he spat in the face of umpire John Hirschbeck, leading to a five game suspension. However, in an era of rampant steroid abuse and numerous other off-field transgressions, Alomar’s moment of stupidity probably won’t cost him that many votes. His numbers speak for themselves…Alomar is one of the game’s best second baseman ever. Verdict: First Ballot Hall-of-Famer

Barry Larkin: Barry Larkin was the preeminent shortstop of the National League in the 1990’s, making eight All-Star appearances in the decade. Born in Cincinnati, Larkin attended the same high school as Ken Griffey Jr and played the entirety of his 19-year career with the Reds after being selected fourth overall in 1985. Larkin’s tenure with Cincinnati was highlighted by his selection as the NL MVP in 1995 (.319-15 HR’s-66 RBI’s-51 SB’s), but he also thrived defensively, capturing three Gold Gloves at SS. Despite the fact that he won nine Silver Sluggers during his career, Larkin never led the league in a single offensive category, and his career numbers (.295-198 HR’s-960 RBI’s-379 SB’s) aren’t that overwhelming. He was a very good player for a long time, but the Hall-of-Fame was created for greatness. Verdict: Outside looking in

Edgar swung a mean stick, but will his lack of time in the field cost him a shot at the Hall?

Edgar Martinez: The only man who could legitimately challenge Ken Griffey Jr. as the most beloved player in Seattle Mariners’ history, Edgar Martinez helped to save a franchise on the brink with his steady presence and clutch hitting (his game winning double in the 1995 ALCS against New York is one of the best postseason moments of the past 20 years). Martinez was one of the game’s finest right-handed hitters, finishing his career with 2,247 hits, 514 doubles, 309 HR’s, 1,261 RBI’s and a .312 lifetime batting average. His career .418 OBP is 22nd all-time, placing him ahead of Hall-of-Famers Stan Musial, Mel Ott and Hank Greenberg, while his OPS is the 34th best in the history of baseball. “Gar” was a 7-time All-Star, 5-time Silver Slugger and 2-time AL Batting Champion (1992 and 1995) while playing his entire 18-year career in Seattle. The main argument against Martinez is that he accumulated the majority of his stats as a designated hitter, but he did so well enough that the award for the best DH is now named after him. The fact that he was never associated with steroids helps his cause, as does voters willingness to consider “newer” statistics like OBP and OPS in which Martinez excelled. Leaving a player out of the Hall-of-Fame simply because he didn’t play in the field seems like quite an injustice, especially if players who made their living almost solely defensively (Ozzie Smith, Luis Aparicio, etc.) or couldn’t field at all but hit well (Jim Rice, Paul Molitor, etc.), have been enshrined in Cooperstown. Verdict: Hall-of-Famer, but not in 2010

Fred McGriff: When he retired in the middle of the 2004 season, Fred McGriff fell just short of the mythical 500-HR plateau, finishing with 493 career longballs (although he could still pull a Bernie Mac and return for one last shot at glory ala Mr. 3000). Much like Larkin, McGriff was a good player for an extended period of time, making five All-Star teams and winning three Silver Sluggers. The Crime Dog was a consistent run producer with eight seasons of 100+ RBI’s and 10 seasons in which he hit 30 or more HR’s, although he never hit more than 36 in any one year. His career numbers (.284-493 HR’s-1,550 RBI’s-2,490 hits) are certainly impressive, but McGriff never finished in the top-3 of MVP voting, and is 8th all-time in strikeouts. There have been worse selections in the history of Cooperstown (Ted Lyons?), but McGriff isn’t quite worthy of joining baseball’s most exclusive fraternity. Verdict: Close but no cigar

Ken Griffey Jr. heads to the Windy City: The Kid looks for his first ring with the White Sox

Can the Kid recapture his mojo in the AL?

Can the Kid recapture his mojo in the AL?

In what eventually proved to be the penultimate trade of the day (see Ramirez, Manny) future first ballot hall of famer Ken Griffey Jr. was shipped from his hometown Cincinnati Reds to Chicago’s other team, the oft forgotten White Sox.

Griffey Jr. was traded for minor league infielder Danny Richar and reliever Nick Masset. As a condition of the trade the Reds and White Sox will agree to split the remaining portion of Griffey’s salary as well as the $4 million cost of his buyout at the end of the season.

The Sox hope that the addition of Griffey will add left-handed pop and veteran leadership to a team that enters today a half game ahead of the hard charging Minnesota Twins in the AL Central. Junior is expected to suit up tonight as Chicago travels to Kansas City to meet the Royals in the first of a three game series.

Although currently sitting at a line of only .245-15-53, Griffey is riding a 12-game hitting streak and Chicago GM Kenny Williams believes that the pennant chase may inspire a second half resurgence from Junior. Griffey hasn’t been to the postseason since 1997 with the Mariners, but in his three postseason series he is a .305 hitter, including tying a then postseason record of five homeruns in a series against the Yankees in 1995.

Cincinnati gains little from this deal, really only dumping some salary in a season that was lost long ago. Richar is a fringe major league second baseman, but the Reds signed Brandon Phillips to a four year deal in February and are set at that position through 2011, so the best case scenario is that he becomes a utility infielder. Masset was mediocre out of the White Sox bullpen with a 4.63 ERA but sported an atrocious 1.70 WHIP thanks in large part to allowing 55 hits in only 44 2/3 innings pitched. He may be able to contribute out of the pen as an average middle reliever, but neither of these players seem to factor in the long term plans of the Red’s organization.

Junior in pinstripes? It's worth a shot.

Junior in pinstripes? It's worth a shot.

While Chicago didn’t have to give up much to acquire Griffey, the real question becomes where does he fit into the lineup and defense? Jermaine Dye and Carlos Quentin are set at the corner outfield positions, leaving centerfielder Nick Swisher the odd man out. It’s expected that Swisher will move to first base to take the place of the dyingslumping Paul Konerko. If this all shakes out as planned Griffey will return to the position where he won 10 straight gold gloves, albeit the last one coming during the Clinton administration (1999).

I expect Junior to produce well at the plate as Cingular Field plays similarly to the Great American Ballpark in terms of homeruns and runs scored. While his power and average are both down, Griffey has shown patience at the plate and the ability to work a count, as he currently has the third-best BB/K ratio of his career. However, while the addition of him will marginally improve their offense, the White Sox outfield defense will suffer as Griffey has not played full time in center since 2006 and has been below average in right field this season. Overall, this looks like a decent deal for Chicago, who hope that Junior can capture the spirit of ’97 as they push forward towards the AL Central crown.