Road To Redemption Begins For Gary Matthews and Louisville Bats Alike

Craig MeyerCorrespondent IJune 30, 2010

NEW YORK - MAY 10:  Pinch hitter Gary Matthews Jr #19 of the New York Mets walks back to the dugout after striking out against the Washington Nationals on May 10, 2010 at Citi Field in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

As the long and trying grind of a professional baseball season begins to take its toll, it is inevitable that a crop of players—talented as they may be—simply cannot cut it for a team hoping to contend. Injuries, often a result of basic wear and tear from so many games in such a short period of time, can plague a roster.

Sometimes a team just needs a boost from an outside source to kick-start a run. Since we are talking baseball, it’s probably good to clarify that I’m not referring to steroids in the latter part of that last sentence.

In the case of the Louisville Bats this year, help is something that has been desperately needed. As a young team devoid of much of the talent that lifted them to two consecutive International League West Division titles, the Bats have predictably struggled. Currently, Louisville is in the West Division cellar with an overall record of 36-42. That puts them 10 games behind division leader Columbus and five behind the next closest team (Toledo at 41-37).

Manager Rick Sweet is about as good as you can get in the minor leagues, but there’s only so much that can be done when talent and experience simply aren’t there.

While the five primary starters in the Bats rotation all have ERAs below 4.10, offensive production, along with a lack of a powerful veteran locker room presence, has been a gaping problem for this team.

A solution to each of these problems arrived last week when the Cincinnati Reds signed veteran outfielder Gary Matthews, Jr. to a minor league contract.

The arrangement seems perfect for the parties involved. The Bats' struggles have been alluded to throughout the last few paragraphs: run production has been a problem, as has a proven catalyst that is capable of leading a young team. The team could also use someone with speed, which has been in short supply in the Derby City so far this season.

The Bats are the benefactor in this favorable set of circumstances, being able to land a seasoned MLB player like Matthews because of a crowded Reds outfield that even struggles to find time for the guys currently on the roster.

And for Matthews, the timing couldn’t be better either. This is a man who came into baseball as a heralded prospect with an outstanding pedigree as the son of 16-year MLB veteran and current Philadelphia Phillies broadcaster Gary Matthews, Sr.

After a slow start to his career, bouncing around from team to team, Matthews found a home in Texas, where he instantly became a star outfielder. Many of his skills and much of his hard work culminated in a banner 2006 campaign for the Rangers in which he batted .313 with 19 home runs, 79 RBIs and 194 hits, while earning his first All-Star appearance in the process.

Matthews’ stellar season was rewarded as he hit free agency that offseason , ultimately signing a five-year, $50 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels.

However, just as quickly as Matthews’ rise materialized, his fall was even faster. Before the start of the 2007 season, a report surfaced that implicated him in a steroid ring in which he received and used human growth hormone . This evidence led to his name being listed in the Mitchell Report.

As if his off-field controversy wasn’t damaging enough, Matthews’ on-field production slipped tremendously from his 2006 apex, failing to live up to the immense hype that came with his contract. He never hit better than .252 or tallied more than 18 home runs and 72 RBIs in his three seasons with the Angels. His low point came in his last season there, in which he batted .250 with just four home runs and 50 RBIs.

This past offseason , Matthews was traded to the New York Mets, where he was cut a few months later, leading him to the Reds and subsequently the Bats.

The match, as it should be repeated, is stellar—a middling offensive, young ballclub lacking speed meets a fast, battle-tested, and offensively and defensively-gifted veteran looking for a shot at career rejuvenation.

Thus far, it is fair to say that even in a brief three-game sample study, Matthews has paid an immediate dividend for the Bats, even if it hasn’t translated directly to wins.

In 16 total plate appearances batting leadoff , he has hit .375, collected six hits for ten total bases, and has already belted a home run. True to form, he has also provided his advanced defensive ability to the Bats.

As has already been stated, don’t let the Bats’ series with Matthews against Norfolk confuse you. Sure the team went 1-2 in that span, but the benefits of fielding a player like Matthews will be reaped as the season continues to progress.

Of course the Bats are not getting Gary Matthews, Jr. circa 2006, but they're still getting a player who will provide a noticeable impact from the lead off spot. He will get on base, steal bases, stretch singles into doubles and doubles into triples. Even if he doesn’t live up to his offensive expectations, he’ll surely be an improvement over what the Bats got from the recently released Chris Burke.  

Matthews' defense alone will be a tremendous help to a team that has struggled mightily in that department this season. Additionally the presence of a proven Major League veteran should be beneficial for an exceptionally young locker room.

This piece isn’t meant to cloud the truth about what may end up being underwhelming. However, what cannot be ignored is that a struggling young team has just been handed a former major league All-Star searching for the road back to the Majors.

There’s always a chance that this deal could go bust and that this will all be nothing more than an afterthought by season’s end. But as things stand now, this looks like an arrangement that provides an excellent opportunity for two parties in search of redemption.