As the leaves change color and the weather slowly but surely cools down, emotions are running high in major league baseball
About ten teams have their eyes set on October, dreaming of the glory that could be. Quite a few teams are going through the motions, having been out of it for months and never having a real shot in the first place.
And for some teams, late September is rough. The burdens of missed opportunities and lost seasons weigh heaviest right now. For fans of teams like the Mets, the Cubs, the Indians, the Rays, it's hard to have hope.
A year ago, that was me, as my Tigers were coming off the most disappointing season in their one-hundred plus year history. I was holding out no hope for that team, even for a fresh start in 2010, and I know some fans in Denver and Seattle felt the same way about their Rockies and Mariners.
These were three of the most disappointing teams in baseball in 2008, and not one of them entered the off season with much cash to spend to throw at their problems. Clearly, Jack Zduriencik, Dan O'Dowd, and Dave Dombrowski were going to have to get creative.
And so, as the Yankees spent half a billion dollars to sign CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, and AJ Burnett, the Mets worked to fix their bullpen by acquiring Francisco Rodriguez and JJ Putz, and the Dodgers took all winter to resign Manny Ramirez, these three GMs worked under the radar to resurrect their clubs.
None of these teams were picked to make much noise in 2009, most experts picking them all to finish last or second-to-last.
As two of the three would make the playoffs if they started today, and the other one has well surpassed their 2008 win total, it's fair to say their moves worked out. And they all rebuilt themselves a similar way. Their success proves the point that if you make the right moves, flashy or not, unlikely as it may be, you can rebound.
A common theme among these three teams is that over the course of the off season, they all made more headlines for the players they lost then the players they acquired.
The Mariners saw Raul Ibanez, one of their few consistent bats in 2008, split for the world champion Phillies and they traded closer JJ Putz to the New York Mets. The Rockies traded Matt Holliday, the face of their franchise, to the Oakland A's and lost closer Brian Fuentes to the Angels. The Tigers rid themselves of Edgar Renteria after one disappointing year, and lost veterans Kenny Rogers and Todd Jones to retirement.
As analysts praised the Mets' acquisition of Putz, the fact that the Mariners had just assembled a defensive outfield for the ages by acquiring Franklin Gutierrez and Endy Chavez went totally unnoticed. Though Chavez has been hurt, Gutierrez has blossomed, putting up solid offensive numbers and catching everything in center field. He's been a tremendous asset to a Seattle pitching staff that leads the AL in ERA.
Oh yeah, JJ Putz has a 5.22 ERA and has been on the DL since June.
Matt Holliday has excelled in St. Louis, but he's only there in the first place because he struggled so much for the A's. As for the Rockies, they've got to be loving the return they got for their former franchise player. Huston Street has rediscovered the spark that made him an elite closer prior to the 2008 season. The long term jewel in the package they got is Carlos Gonzalez, a five-tool talent who has dazzled in limited playing time. He is on the verge of becoming a star.
The Tigers supposedly left the 2009 Winter Meetings empty-handed. They had struck out not only on acquiring JJ Putz from Seattle, but also saw Kerry Wood sign with the division rival Indians. Getting Edwin Jackson from the Tampa Bay Rays for OF Matt Joyce (a fan favorite), was but a compensation prize. It took Jackson a matter of mere starts to win over the Detroit fan base; he has been instrumental in the Tigers rebound this year, finally breaking out with his third organization. Until Joyce produces, the deal is a heist for Detroit.
These teams cut their losses. Any prospective rebounding team has to do as much.
All three teams have benefited from breakout performances from either promising young talent, or castoff veterans the organization took a chance on.
The Mariners boldly signed Russell Branyan and gave him the chance to play first base and hit every day. Branyan has responded by hitting 31 home runs; he'd probably have 40 now but he's been on the DL since late August. An even less flashy addition was their January trade for Boston's David Aardsma. As Brandon Morrow struggled to fill the closer role, Aardsma stepped in early in the year and has been nothing short of lights out, posting an ERA just over 2 and striking out 76 in 66 innings. The Mariners are hoping they've found two more hidden gems in trade deadline acquisitions Jack Wilson and Ian Snell; they've already seen favorable results from Snell. The Mariners also have to be encouraged as prospects like Michael Saunders and Matt Tuiasosopo start getting calls to the majors, and might not be far away from being there to stay.
Dexter Fowler was the crown jewel of the Rockies system coming into the season, and his speed has been a difference-maker for the club in his first year in the majors. They acquired Jason Hammel from Tampa for next to nothing, and he's responded by winning them 9 games and giving them good innings at the back end of the rotation. Recently, the late Jason Giambi addition has paid major dividends. That said, no acquisition has paid off more for the Rockies than the Jason Marquis trade. Acquired from Chicago for Luis Vizcaino (who they released less than a month into the season), Marquis has been invaluable to the Rockies, posting a sub 4 ERA, winning 15 games, and being selected to the All Star game.
The most important decision Dave Dombrowski made this off season wasn't made talking to an agent or calling a fellow GM; it was making a tough decision of his own at the end of Spring Training. It was then he made the call to bring North Rick Porcello, the talented but young starter they took in the first round of the 2007 Draft. The rest as they say is history; Porcello has won 13 games (most among ML rookies) and has been a consistent third starter behind Justin Verlander and Edwin Jackson. He went 5-0 in the month of May, and also has been dominant since the start of August, showing no signs of fatigue. Just as responsible for the Tigers turnaround as their pitching is their defense, and for all their struggles offensively, Gerald Laird and Adam Everett have been difference-makers defensively. Two decent pitching prospects and $1M were all the two of them cost.
Youthful exuberance and unexpected breakouts go a long way in putting a disappointing season in the past.
A lot of things have to happen for a team to bounce back, but not everything. Matter of fact, teams can actually experience a number of setbacks and still succeed if some other things go their way.
Adrian Beltre has been a non-factor for the Mariners this season thanks to injury and inconsistency. Kenji Johjima continues to do nothing. Erik Bedard has been on the DL since late July (shocker, I know) and Brandon Morrow was unable to succeed JJ Putz as the team's closer.
I've liked the makeup of the Rockies team since spring training, but I thought that when Jeff Francis was pronounced out for the season, that any chance they had of being competitive was gone. Can you imagine where they'd be with him healthy? Chris Iannetta has been a major disappointment, and it's as if Garrett Atkins was traded this winter too because that's how little he's done for the Rockies.
Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen have a combined 75 RBI for the Tigers. Armando Galarraga and Jeremy Bonderman have combined for 6 wins. Curtis Granderson has done literally nothing against left-handed pitching all year long, and is batting 25 points below his career average.
All three teams have managed to do enough to compensate.
Whether before or during the season, all three organizations made crucial personnel decisions.
First and foremost, the Mariners made an excellent hire in picking Jack Zduriencik to succeed Bill Bavasi as the team's general manager. Zduriencik received rave reviews for helping Doug Melvin assemble the young talent he did in Milwaukee. Every move he's made in Seattle has worked out, especially his hire of manager Don Wakamatsu, who has brought calmness to a once turbulent Seattle clubhouse and needs to at least be in the conversation for AL Manager of the Year.
When the Rockies fired Clint Hurdle on May 29, they were in last place, 13.5 games out of first. Since Jim Tracy took over, the team is 66-37 (that's a .640 winning percentage) and the team is in the driver's seat in the NL Wild Card. And to think some are actually debating who the NL Manager of the Year is.
The Tigers pitching staff struggled mightily in 2008, so they fired pitching coach Chuck Hernandez and brought in Rick Knapp, former minor league coordinator for the Twins. The Tigers' staff carried the team in the first half, though there is room for improvement. The best personnel move the Tigers made is the one they didn't make, not giving up on Jim Leyland after a tough 2008 campaign. Leyland has done one of his greatest managing jobs ever this season, and is surely in the AL Manager of the Year conversation.
A year ago, I'd have told you that you're crazy if you told me the Tigers were to rebound in 2009 after making no headline moves in the offseason. Many Mariners and Rockies fans probably felt the same way.
And here we are, with less than two weeks left in the regular season. The Tigers have a 3 game lead in the AL Central, and the Rockies have a 4 game lead in the NL Wild Card race. The Mariners will not make the postseason this year and they won't even come in second, but they have already won 19 more games than they did last season. Jack Zduriencik clearly has this organization headed in the right direction.
Through their surprise success this season, these teams have shown that it's the prudent moves, not necessarily the flashy moves that help teams in turmoil rise from the ashes.
GMs scratching their heads, fearing for their jobs, need only look at the blueprint these teams have laid down. Cut your losses, get some unexpected contributions from youngsters and veterans alike, roll with the punches, have the right personnel, and any underachieving team can get on the right track again and help their fans forget the failures of year's past.
And as someone who's witnessed their team do it, trust me when I tell you redemption is a beautiful thing.