A National League scout recalls receiving a phone call last season from a scout from another team. The conversation went something like this: “The Royals signed Raul Ibanez. Why would they do it? He has nothing left.” The other scout responded, “You watch.”
Ibanez may only have hit .188, but the veteran brought that team together. The Royals lost to the Giants in the World Series, but it was another lesson learned for baseball executives. It’s not all about the numbers.
So, what did Royals general manager Dayton Moore do when Ibanez retired after last season? He put a full-court press on Torii Hunter, who eventually signed with the Twins, another team looking for a high-character guy.
Hunter, according to a group of scouts, GMs, coaches, players, and baseball writers we asked, is the embodiment of a winning player and a leader. He no doubt has made a huge difference for the transformed Twins. The Royals, Mariners, Orioles, and Rangers all competed for Hunter’s services.
Twins third baseman Trevor Plouffe said, “That [high-character] guy has to be able to do it on the field, as well. Torii can still do it on the field.”
The Astros are having a terrific season, but they lack that guy. We’ll see whether that comes back to hurt them later. The talented Jose Altuve is the closest thing the Astros have to it, but he’s a quiet player.
The Mets went out of their way to get Michael Cuddyer, a Hunter protégé who is making his presence felt in the clubhouse. The Red Sox have Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz. The Orioles have Adam Jones. The Blue Jays have Russell Martin and Josh Donaldson.
“I remember scouting both Torii and Johnny Damon in high school,” recalled longtime Astros scout Paul Ricciarini. “Johnny was the kid who’d drag the bags full of bats and baseballs across the field after the game. He was that guy even then. Torii was the guy. The talent, the love for the game, the zest and infectious nature he brought to the field.’’
The executives we asked believe one player can make a huge impact, but on the other side one player can be destructive. Names such as Milton Bradley and Carl Everett were mentioned. The Dodgers, for instance, seem better off without Matt Kemp and Hanley Ramirez.
Do you grow into the role of a high-character guy?
“There’s really no emergence,” Hunter said. “It’s who you are. I was born that way. I’ve always had character, even before I got to the majors. I had it in high school. I always made people laugh or try to make them happy and lift up their spirits. It’s just you. You are who you are.”
As a young player in Minnesota, Hunter also saw those traits in Kirby Puckett, and it had a profound effect.
“I appreciated Kirby Puckett, the way he had so much fun,” said Hunter. “He had a smile on his face every day. He said some funny things out loud, helped guys. You watch that as a youngster. These young guys are watching every move. I try to carry myself the right way because I know they’re watching.
“You’re with guys for so long they become like your brothers. We try to lift each other. You can tell when someone is down and going through some things. That’s me and [Paul] Molitor and [Eddie] Guardado. We’ve been in that position on and off the field.
“I’ve had to get tough a couple of times. It’s happened in my 17 or 18 years, maybe four or five times, even with my brothers. I had four brothers and we got into arguments so much. A couple of days later you forget all about it. That’s the way teams are too.”
Hunter signed with the Twins over the others because “I just wanted to win. I thought we’d have a chance to be the underdog. I saw that in the offseason. This is where I grew up. Special place for me. Good place to go out this year and next year.”
Hunter sees veteran players sometimes hold back their assistance because they don’t want a young player taking their job. But Hunter sees that as selfish. It’s what makes players such as Hunter stand out.
Other players mentioned as high-character weren’t surprising.
Brian McCann always had high character in Atlanta, and he does now in New York. Being a catcher also helps.
You don’t see it as often among pitchers, but the Padres’ James Shields is that kind of player. The Royals felt he was that guy for the pitching staff. He had also taken on that role in Tampa Bay.
Buster Posey is obviously a character guy in San Francisco, and Hunter Pence isn’t far behind. Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth in Washington have those traits, and don’t bet against Bryce Harper being that guy someday.
Alex Gordon and Paul Goldschmidt were mentioned, as were Jonny Gomes, Andrew McCutchen, and Anthony Rizzo.
Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez are that kind of guy. Mike Trout may be one of the best players in baseball, but he’s moving toward the clubhouse presence he needs to be. Albert Pujols always has been a quiet leader.
“Hard to find,” said one American League GM. “We all search for that guy. When you get him and it clicks, it’s a beautiful thing.”
MANAGING TO GET ALONG
Jennings adjusting well with the Marlins
Marlins GM-turned-manager Dan Jennings is getting more comfortable in the dugout. He will not be involved in the amateur draft for the first time in 30 years.
“It feels weird only because it’s the first time I haven’t been involved, but we have very capable people doing it and I’m sure we’ll come up with the very best players we can,” Jennings said.
Jennings’s Marlins have won their last two series, and there’s more of a sense of optimism. Jennings said he’s getting used to the daily routine of managing, organizing his day in a way that suits him.
He has newfound respect for managers, and certainly coaches.
“The work the coaches do is amazing,” Jennings said. “When I took the job I informed them that they were going to have to take on maybe a bigger role because I needed the help. The coaches on our ball club deserve so much credit for the amount of work they do preparing our team on a daily basis.”
Jennings, who had never managed, pores over scouting reports before each game and tries to create the best matchups for the Marlins.
He knows it’s cliché, but he’s taking things “one day at a time.” He understands that coming from the front office that players may look upon him with skepticism, or that he’s the evil man who may have beaten them in arbitration.
“I know I have to win their trust,” Jennings said. “I work on that aspect of it every day. I hope it’s working. I’m trying to stress that we’re all in this together and we’re reaching for a common goal.”
In football, it isn’t unusual for one man to assume the roles of coach and head of personnel. In baseball, it’s never done. Managers certainly have input on personnel, but not the final word.
Jennings picked the groceries as GM. Now he’s managing what he selected.
“We certainly did our due diligence on the players as a front office when we either drafted them, traded for them or signed them as free agents,” Jennings said. “This is obviously a different vantage point for me. Actually managing them on a daily basis is certainly different than choosing them for your organization. But it’s been an amazing experience for me to get to know them from this vantage point.”
Jennings still glances at the waiver wire and recommends players he likes or knows a lot about. As manager, one of the tougher things he had to do was send closer Steve Cishek of Falmouth back to the minors, but Cishek was struggling.
“There was a little mechanical thing he needed to work through and we felt that the best way to deal with it was send him back to the minors for a little while where his old pitching coach could get him back on track,” Jennings said.
Jennings never commented on criticism he received from fellow managers Buck Showalter (for using two of his relievers three days in a row) and Chip Hale, who questioned Jennings’s “gut feeling” in a game and later questioned the career path taken by Jennings to the dugout.
When Jennings took the job he knew the unorthodox move would bring comments from those who felt he hadn’t earned the right to be a manager. But Jennings doesn’t care what others think.
“I’m just trying to get better in this job, and we need to win,” he said. “I’m not concerned about the outside. I’m concerned on what’s happening with our team and that we get this thing back on the right track. We believed very strongly that we put together a very good team this offseason with the commitments we made.”
The good news is that Jose Fernandez is on a rehab schedule after Tommy John surgery, and if all goes well Jennings could have his ace back by the first week of July.
Apropos of nothing
1. Well, if the Red Sox manage to make the postseason, they will have a collection of some of the best World Series hitters ever in David Ortiz, Pablo Sandoval, Allen Craig, and Mike Napoli.
2. The fact that the Red Sox opted for Carlos Peguero and Alejandro De Aza as fill-in outfielders can’t bode well for Jackie Bradley Jr. and Bryce Brentz.
3. Torii Hunter, who once broke his ankle in the right-field corner at Fenway Park, calls it by far “the toughest place to play in baseball.” So, if Rusney Castillo struggles a bit, Hunter said, “Give him time. Be patient. I’m telling you, it’s rough.”
4. Kudos to Dave Stewart of the Diamondbacks and Jack Zduriencik of the Mariners for pulling off a significant deal in early June. Both GMs felt the need to do something big to jump-start their teams before it’s too late. Seattle got the power bat it needed in Mark Trumbo.
5. I asked Giants GM Bobby Evans kiddingly about Sandoval and whether he’d trade to get him back since Casey McGehee hasn’t worked out and is back in the minors. “I love Pablo. He’s streaky. You have to be patient with him,” Evans said. I guess that means, no, he wouldn’t trade for him.
6. You can see why Yankees GM Brian Cashman is looking for relief help in front of Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller. Heading into Friday, the two had combined for a 0.50 ERA and 14.7 strikeouts per nine innings. The rest of the Yankees’ bullpen had an ERA of 4.07.
Updates on nine
1. Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Rockies — Chatter has died down on Tulowitzki since he discussed the trade rumors last month. But the feeling around baseball is the Rockies would be crazy not to find a partner before the deadline as it will only get more difficult to deal him as he ages. The Rockies aren’t going anywhere with him, and it may be a couple of years before some of their pitching prospects start to emerge.
2. Tyler Clippard, RHP, Athletics — Clippard is the righthanded reliever several teams will have interest in as the trade deadline approaches. Clippard has been Oakland’s closer in Sean Doolittle’s absence but would make an ideal setup man. Look for the Yankees, Twins, Cardinals, Blue Jays, and others to have interest if the A’s find themselves out of contention.
3. Tommy Layne, LHP, Red Sox — Layne is a lefthander scouts have been eyeing as they evaluate the Red Sox. If the Sox don’t recover, he will be a sought-after commodity. As one AL scout put it, “With lefty relievers, get them while they’re effective. It can be fleeting. Look at [Craig] Breslow. He was a huge part of that 2013 bullpen and now he’s a mopup guy. Layne really comes right at you and battles you.”
4. Luis Severino, RHP, Yankees — Scouts are flocking to watch the Yankees’ top pitching prospect in Triple A after a successful Double A run. GM Brian Cashman has said Severino, 21, could find his way to the big leagues before long. And it doesn’t appear Severino could be had in a deal, though the Phillies are scouting him and have him on their wish list in any trade for Cole Hamels.
5. Rafael Soriano, RHP, free agent — New agent Alan Nero said on Friday that the Cardinals, Cubs, and Blue Jays have shown the most interest in Soriano and he would not be surprised to see the veteran reliever sign before Thursday’s workout for interested teams. Soriano dropped agent Scott Boras after growing impatient for a deal to be struck. Soriano wants to be a closer. He would have a chance to be that with the Cubs and Blue Jays.
6. Chase Utley, 2B, Phillies — While Oakland’s Ben Zobrist would be the perfect fit for the Yankees at second base, a less-expensive (in player-acquisition costs) solution might be Utley, who has begun to hit after a slow start. Utley, who would have to OK any deal, was hitting .099 on May 8. Since then, he is 26 for 79 (.329) with an .877 OPS. When Utley went 3 for 4 Tuesday night it pushed his season average over .200 for the first time.
7. Matt Wieters, C, Orioles — Important time for Wieters, who has returned from Tommy John surgery. He hadn’t played since May 10 of last season, when he had gotten off to a very good start offensively — .308 with five homers and 18 RBIs through 26 games. Wieters can be a free agent, so if he has a good and healthy rest of the year, the 29-year-old backstop will do well. It doesn’t appear the Orioles will re-sign him.
8. Jason Grilli, RHP, Braves — Several teams have Grilli as a target near the trade deadline. Teams such as the Red Sox and Yankees have always viewed Grilli as a perfect late-inning reliever who has been willing to take the ball in any role.
9. Chris Tillman, RHP, Orioles — Tillman has gone from a potential ace following 2014 to a liability. He’s definitely pitching coach Dave Wallace’s biggest project. Tillman’s 5.94 ERA is the fourth highest among qualifiers, better than only Jeremy Guthrie, Kyle Lohse, and Kyle Kendrick. A huge problem has been first batters of innings. They have reached 52 percent of the time against Tillman this year, worst in the major leagues.
From the Bill Chuck files — “The first time Pablo Sandoval faces a starter in a game he hits .275, but the second time he drops to .205 and the third time he hits just .189.” . . . Also, “From 2011-14 with the Braves, Craig Kimbrel had a 1.51 ERA, a WHIP of 0.880, and a hits per nine innings rate of 4.8. This year with the Padres, Kimbrel has a 4.50 ERA, a WHIP of 1.400, and a hits per nine innings rate of 9.0.” . . . Happy birthday, Roberto Petagine (44), Jeff Pierce (46), and Heathcliff Slocumb (49).