Time for Today’s March of the Dead

I know these are just rumors, and I know that in any other year I’d see them for the low-risk/low-reward inquiries they truly are. Hell, with the track record the Dodgers have with guys like this, it should almost be seen as a good thing. But the timing here is horrible because of the arbitration decisions and the McCourt “crying poor” report, and as we all know, the scary part about this year is that the Noah Lowrys and Kameron Loes of the world might actually be the biggest presents under the Christmas tree. It doesn’t get any better today, because now we’re hearing about Dodger interest in three more members of the walking dead. Let’s start off with another failed pitcher:

Luis Ayala was DFA’d or released three times in 2009, don’t forget. Yet somehow, that’s still an upgrade over Lowry or Loe. From Dylan Hernandez’ Twitter:

Source: Dodgers in discussions with right-hander Luis Ayala about a minor-league deal.

Fine, fine. A minor league deal is actually a smart move, so fine. Still, Ayala’s been on four teams in the last two years, with a history of personal problems that make Vicente Padilla look like a boy scout. I mean, the litany here is amazing.

In 2008, after getting put on waivers by the Nats (!!!) with a 5.77 ERA,  Ayala was traded to the Mets for a player to be named. Why?

Ayala requested the trade weeks ago because he wanted a change of scenery. He said that he lost focus because of personal problems off the field, which included having a divorce and getting shot in his left arm this past offseason. He said that those were the reasons why he was testy toward the local media during the first half of the season.

Ayala was lousy for the Mets (5.50 ERA) and signed with the Twins for 2009. After being mediocre with them (4.18 ERA), he was DFA’d in June, with manager Ron Gardenhire having this to say:

“He wanted an eighth-inning role; that’s why he signed over here. He wasn’t pitching well enough to be an eighth-inning guy. So there you have it.

“His thoughts were if we gave him the ball in that eighth inning, he’d be able to do the job. My thoughts are if you’re not getting them out, you’re not going to pitch in the eighth inning. We’re trying to win. So there’s your difference.

“When you walk into my office and tell me you don’t like your role, and he talked about his contract for next year — you lose me right there. I don’t deal with that. We’re talking about winning now. That’s why he’s out the door and another guy’s in there to pitch. And it’s not because he’s a bad guy. His theories are a little different.”

Sounds like a winner to me! But wait, it gets better. He was picked up by Florida, putting up a horrendous 11.74 ERA in 10 appearances. When they DFA’d him as well, whose fault was it? Not Ayala’s:

“It was terrible what they did,” Ayala said. “I don’t know why they called me up if they were going to do this. I think it’s a lack of respect. I know it’s a business, but for me, it’s something they’ve handled poorly.”

Again, it’s a minor-league deal, so: fine. But good lord, this guy seems like kryptonite to me. Do not want.

Brad Ausmus is not worth fighting over. From MLBTR:

Ken Rosenthal and Jon Paul Morosi of FoxSports.com report that the Dodgers and Giants are among the teams pursuing free agent catcher Brad Ausmus. Peter Mrowka, Ausmus’ agent, said it’s “possible” but “not likely” that his client will play for a team not based on the West Coast next year.

I don’t mind Ausmus, really. I think you could do better pretty easily than a guy who will be 41 next year and has been an awful hitter his entire life, but he’s not really going to make or break anyone’s season. Still, when you’re pinching pennies the way the Dodgers are, I do have to question the value of giving $1m or more to a backup catcher who will produce less than a minor leaguer could for the minimum.

Why do the Dodgers love Jamey Carroll so much? We’ve been hearing his name floated in Dodger rumors since back in 2008, when the idea of a trade for C.C. Sabathia, Casey Blake, and Carroll came up. Well, it’s happening again…

There’s no shortage of interest in Jamey Carroll this year. Ed Price of AOL FanHouse reports that the Red Sox, Angels, Dodgers, A’s, Rangers, Pirates, Reds and Indians all have interest in the 35-year-old utility man. We know the Marlins are interested, too.

Carroll hit .276/.355/.340 with the Indians last year, spending most of his time at second and third, and playing some outfield as well. UZR/150 suggests Carroll has been an above-average defender at second base over the course of the last five years. 

Look at the other teams involved, though. All have their second base positions totally settled, meaning they’d want Carroll to do what he’s supposed to be doing – being a nice utility glove who can get on base. With the Dodgers, he’s likely the new starting 2B, which is scary indeed.

MSTI’s 2009 in Review: Catcher

Well, it’s that time of the year again. Just like 2008 and 2007 (holy crap, have we really been around that long??) it’s our yearly review series. As always, we’ll touch on every single player, and as always, I’ll regret that decision right around the time I have to come up with something to say about A.J. Ellis.

The letter grades are mostly arbitrary, but keep in mind that they’re based on what you could have reasonably expected from the player before the year started, not as a comparison to any other player.  Less than 10 IP or 100 at-bats gets you an “incomplete”.

I had so much fun with the 1987 Topps last year that I tried to go with 1989 Topps this year, to make it a 20-year tribute thing and because I loved that design. However, the curvy name proved so frustrating to do, that I said screw it, and went with the ugly 1985 Topps out of spite. Spite for myself, I guess.

Let’s start off with catcher…

85toppsrussellmartinRussell (F.) Martin
(.250/.352/.329 7hr 53rbi)

Woof. Hell of a trend we’re on here, aren’t we, Russell? His MSTI grades have gone from “AmotherfuckingPLUS” (2007) to C- (2008) to this year’s F.

Even that glaring F doesn’t really state the case strongly enough, because it’s one thing to no longer be in the conversation with guys like Joe Mauer and Brian McCann about who’s the best young catcher in baseball, but it’s quite another to be in a discussion about whether you still deserve a starting gig. And it’s true, if only because I cannot state this point strongly enough: Russell Martin was outslugged by David Eckstein, .334 to .329. Eckstein is a magical pixie who’s pretty much the standard-bearer for “barely a major leaguer,” and yet even he had more pop than our supposed All-Star catcher.

It gets even worse when you compare him to other MLB catchers. You can’t use VORP, as it’s a counting stat and Martin had the 3rd-most PA of any catcher, so let’s use MLVr, which is a rate stat that roughly describes how many runs per game a player will contribute in a lineup of otherwise league-average performers.

The league average is 0.000, and the best catcher – ubergod Mauer – came in at .490, nearly half a run per game. 10 other catchers ranked above .100 (min 100 PA), and 20 catchers had positive scores. Martin? All the way down at 32nd, costing the Dodgers -.061 runs/game. That’s 32nd in a sport with 30 teams, don’t forget.

Plus, it’s not like I have to dig deep into the stats to show that he was hardly distinguishing himself as a backstop, either. Just in case I do, Phillies blog Crashburn Alley summed up some Baseball Prospectus research nicely in their NLCS preview:

Perhaps more importantly, however, Ruiz is the best among all qualified catchers in the Majors at blocking balls in the dirt, averaging about one passed ball or wild pitch every five games; Martin averages one PB or WP every two games and was the worst among qualified catchers in this department.

So what’s caused all of this? Back in June, I wrote a post titled “What Are We Going to Do With Russell Martin?” At the time, I noted that a scout said he thought Martin looked old and slow, and after doing some research I came to this conclusion:

Focus on the part about his bat slowing down, and you’re on to a big part of the problem… Martin is getting blown away by fastballs.

Over at FanGraphs, they’ve been able to assign a run value to the production on each type of pitch a batter sees, and then converted it to a rate. For example, if you look at Albert Pujols against fastballs, he’s been pretty consistently at 2-4 runs per 100 fastballs above average over his career, though he’s beating even that this year. In 2007, Martin’s first full (and best) season, he produced 1.69 runs above average every 100 fastballs. Last year, in which he was still decent but nowhere near as good as in 2007, that fell to 0.59. This year? Down to just 0.14.

In June, that 0.14 number was at least on the positive side of the ledger. What did he end up with? -0.8. It’s not foolproof, because you’ll see he was getting killed on every type of pitch this year. But when a guy can’t even hit the fastball anymore… when scouts think he looks old… when he’s noticably worse behind the plate… and when we’ve been saying for three years that Grady Little in ’06-’07 and Joe Torre in ’08 (though less so this year) had been playing the poor guy into the ground… well, all signs point to he’s just too beat up to play to his skill level.

Unfortunately, catcher is such a hard position to fill that as bad as Martin’s been, you almost want to give him another crack at it, just to see if a year of less use can help refresh him as he enters his peak age-27 year. I think they will do that, and I probably would too (with a better backup, though, as outlined in our 2010 plan). But if we don’t see a turnaround in 2010, I have no qualms with moving on. Sad to say, as he’s one of my favorites, but it’s been a solid year and a half now that he’s been killing this team.

Hmm, the Dodgers did have the best record in the NL, right? Not sure I like how depressing of a start this got off to.

85toppsbradausmusBrad Ausmus (B+)
(.295/.343/.368 1hr 9rbi)

Well, I guess I have to give Brad some credit here, because I really hated this signing at the time. But when he wasn’t fixing Guillermo Mota or getting love letters written about him by SI.com, he was only slightly below-average at the plate, with an 89 OPS+. That might not sound that great, but it’s also the best he’s managed since 1999.

Plus, though it’s pretty hard to see from Martin’s performance, just about every published report says that Ausmus had a huge impact on helping Martin learn game preparation skills. So all things considered, that’s $1m well spent. Hey, maybe he can replace Rick Honeycutt as pitching coach next year!

85toppsajellisA.J. Ellis (inc.)
(.100/.100/.100 0hr 1rbi)

If I copied and pasted last year’s review of Ellis, would anyone even notice the difference?

Ah yes, the fun part of writing about every player. You get to dissect the September expanded roster call-up who got just three at-bats. I think Ellis’ impact on the 2008 Dodgers can be mostly shown by the fact that I couldn’t even find an action picture of him in an LA uniform and had to go with a 2007 spring training shot. I think most of my thoughts regarding Ellis this year revolved around me hoping he’d at least get an at-bat, because after getting called up in September he got into three games without getting a chance at the plate.

Well, other than the fact that he finally got his first big league hit on the last day of the season and thus won’t have to go into the history books as a 0, it’s pretty much the same. As far as his future, well, A.J.’s got problems. His SLG dropped 80 points in AAA, and he’s going to be 29 next April, so time is clearly not on his side. What you’re seeing is basically what you’re going to get – a AAAA-type who’s your 3rd or 4th catching option, and if he’s even still in the Dodger system in 2010 he’s going to be pushed hard for that role by Lucas May.

Next: James Loney! Doug Mientkiewicz! Jim Thome (sort of)! It’s first base!

MSTI’s First Half Review: Offense

With the first “half” in the books after 88 games of the best record in the majors, it’s time to revive an MSTI tradition and do a quick first half review. Today we run through the offense, Tuesday it’s pitching, and Wednesday it’s the coaching and overall review.

Just like last year…

First, some quick ground rules. Completely unscientific and arbitrary, this is how we’ve seen the results of the season. One important distinction, is that the letter grade is based upon what we reasonably could have expected of the player entering the year, not comparing him to other MLB players at his position.

That last part’s important, because otherwise no one who’s not Albert Pujols would be getting an A. Anything less than 50 at-bats get you an “incomplete”.

Catcher
Russell Martin (.258/.373/.314 2hr 27rbi) (F…. ML)
Holy hell. Where do you even start here? It’s inconcievable to me that in last year’s first half review, Martin got an A+ and the high praise of “Without question, the best offensive player so far.” Turtle nose-dived through the rest of 2008, and fell so far this year that by mid-June, I was openly wondering how long we could stick with him. Seriously, how lousy has he been? This is what I wrote last month:

OPS!
Martin is at: .625
Which puts him: 160th in MLB (of 172 qualifiers)
Behind the likes of: Howie Kendrick (just demoted to AAA), Jhonny Peralta (just benched), and magical pixie elf David Eckstein (is David Eckstein). 
And that means… what’s worse, that he’s hitting worse than guys who are losing their jobs, or that he’s less potent than David Eckstein? The truly scary part here is that his .347 OBP is still pretty respectable thanks to the walks he draws, which means that when you look at just his slugging percentage…

Granted, Martin’s been much better over the last month (.308/.438/.397), but it’s taken just that to get him to 17th in catching VORP. Is that enough to kick him up from an F? No, it just kicks him up to an F, rather than the jokey non-letter grade he might have otherwise received.

Brad Ausmus (.286/.355/.375 1hr 5rbi) (B)
Well, he’s not Gary Bennett or Danny Ardoin, so that’s something. I didn’t really like the idea of giving a million dollars to the geriatric Ausmus, and he’s been predictably punchless, with just three extra base hits. That’d all be a recipe for a solid “C”, as in, “exactly what I’d thought he’d be”, but he may have actually turned Guillermo Mota around, so that’s worth a kick in the grading pants.

And hey, if Bill Shaikin gets his way, he’ll be the starting catcher!

A.J. Ellis (.000/.000/.000 0hr 0rbi) (inc.)
Three games, four at-bats. I’m sure there was a reason I decided to grade every player, but talk about being the definition of “incomplete”. But hey, at least his AAA OPS has dropped 162 points from last year’s impressive figure!

First Base

loneyfielding.jpgJames Loney
(.281/.350/.402 7hr 54 rbi) (C-)
Loney continues on his “not bad, but not all that great, either” streak of last year. It’s odd when you think about it, because a .281 BA is acceptable, and a .350 OBP is fine. But they’re not enough to overcome the .402 SLG – especially when you consider how stacked 1B is otherwise. Quick, off the top of your head – how far down the list of 1B do you have to go before you get to Loney? In a league that has guys like Pujols, Gonzalez, Howard, Fielder, Votto and Berkman right at the top, it’s not hard to see that Loney’s below-average. The stats back it up; he’s 11th of 13 NL 1B in OPS, and 14th in VORP. Even worse, this is the third year in a row his stats have declined. Sure, his glove has been great, and he’s never been killing the team at any point… but first base is hardly a highlight of the Dodgers right now.

Second Base
Orlando Hudson (.283/.353/.426 7hr 48rbi) (B)
Okay, I’m not above admitting I may have been wrong, and when I was so fervently against giving up a first-round pick to sign Hudson this offseason, that may have not been a high point on this blog. In my defense, there were still huge questions about his health (remember when we were reading that he couldn’t even bend his left wrist back?) and no one could have predicted the hot start he’d get off to. Plus, while his defense may not be what it was at his peak, compared to what we’d seen from Jeff Kent in years past, it’s like upgrading from Jessica Lange to Jessica Alba.

So why just the B grade? Because while Hudson may have made an enormous first impression (come on, a cycle in your first home game for your new team? Who does that?) I think it may have obscured just how horrible he’s been over the second half of the first half. (Shut up, that’s a thing.)

Apr. 6 – May 13: 35 games, .348/.429/.539
May 14 – Jul. 10: 49 games, .237/.300/.320

For some reason baseball-reference hasn’t updated to include yesterday’s games yet, so I am missing his 2-homer outburst in that latter section, but still: the difference is glaring. You’d like to think that was the start of something, because at some point he’s going to need to turn this around, or all of the good feelings of April are going to dissipate.

Third Base
Casey Blake (.285/.364/.486 12hr 55rbi) (B+)
Say this for Casey Blake, the man knows that timing is everything. On May 6, the day before Manny was suspended, Blake was hitting just .225/.324/.427. In the 46 games Blake played during Manny’s absence, Blake really stepped up, putting up a .319/.371/.530 line, with 6 homers. As the 11th most valuable 3B in MLB by VORP, the Most Interesting Man in the World has been more than serviceable at the hot corner.

Fortunately for Blake, we’re just grading the first half, because he’s notorious for running out of steam down the stretch – losing 50 points of OPS in the second half over his career. At least he’s still got that beard!

Shortstop

furcalrunning.jpgRafael Furcal (.256/.331/.350 4hr 21rbi) (D)
Well, the good news is he hasn’t had to hit the DL with any back problems, so that’s nice. Look, I never expected him to repeat last year’s ridiculous hot start, but I think we were all hoping for a little more than this, right? He’s just 12th in the NL in VORP, which is bad enough in a 16 team league – until you realize that Juan Castro is 11th, and that’s just downright depressing. Furcal’s OPS of .681 would be the worst of any season of his career, if it holds.

Now, the good news is that he finally seems to be turning the corner, hitting .417/.488/.556 in July. Whatever it is, he’d better keep it up – you just can’t have a guy who struggled as hard as he did hitting leadoff for a playoff team. Not exactly what we expected when we all celebrated his signing in December, is it?

Oddly enough, he’s split his year pretty equally between hitting first and hitting second, and while he was dreadful batting second behind Juan Pierre (.548 OPS), he’s been pretty effective as the leadoff man (.719 OPS). I have no idea why that would be, but with Manny’s return, Pierre is of course nailed to the bench, so Furcal should get plenty more leadoff at-bats.

Infield
Mark Loretta (.245/.344/.292 0hr 16rbi) (D)
You know, when Loretta signed, I was totally in favor of it - a quality veteran, crushes lefties, can play all over the infield? Considering the deal was only for $1.4m over one year, it was perfect. But here’s the funny thing; I never really noticed it until just now, but Loretta hasn’t even been all that great. If it holds, his 73 OPS+ would be the worst he’s had since his second year, back in 1996. Actually, part of the problem may lie with Joe Torre, because while Loretta’s still doing pretty well against lefties (.792 OPS), he’s been terrible against righties (.600 OPS). I know the D seems harsh, but remember our grading scale – he’s not been as good as we’d hoped, so that counts as below average.

Juan Castro (.352/.397/.437 1hr 9rbi) (A….re you kidding me?!)
Where’s the outcry for drug testing of Juan Castro? We’ve got a guy with a career OBP of .271 who has never put up an OPS+ of more than 79 in his entire life. Now, at 37, he’s putting up Manny numbers? Don’t get me wrong, I dig it, and I know it’s a small sample size of 70 at-bats; I just can’t concieve of a reality in which Juan Castro may possibly be a better shortstop than Rafael Furcal – and that’s without even considering that Castro is absolutely the better defender.

What a world we live in. You better believe that’s an A.

Blake DeWitt (.174/.240/.304 1hr 1rbi) (inc.)
Talk about a guy who’s seen his fortunes change from last year; here’s part of what I had to say about him in 2008′s mid-year review:

Just like Kent, this is a tough grade to assign. I know it seems like a long time ago now, but do you remember how desperate this team was at the hot corner at the end of March? Nomar was hurt, LaRoche was hurt, Abreu was hurt, and the trade options were either unavailable or unappealing. So we turn over the job to the guy who was guaranteed to put up Hu-like offensive numbers. Except that.. he was good. Really good, slugging .517 in May. He was a lock for Rookie of the Year and surprise of the year. Go Blake!

Of course, he couldn’t keep it up, got sent down, replaced by Casey Blake at 3B, and then resurfaced as the 2B in the playoffs, before getting replaced there by Orlando Hudson. So far in 2009, he’s spent more time traveling between LA and Albuquerque than he’s actually spent playing in either place.

My prediction? He gets traded before the month is out as part of a deal for a pitcher.

Doug Mientiewicz (.400/.400/.600 0hr 2rbi) (inc.)
If Eyechart was getting a grade, it’d probably be a 5.8 for the swan dive into second base that caused him to get injured in the first place. More importantly, it gives him plenty of time to be the most active athlete on Twitter I’ve ever seen. He had to fly through Detroit to get to Miami from Milwaukee yesterday!

Mitch Jones (.308/.400/.385 0hr 0rbi) (inc.)
If you remember Mitch Jones’ sad, sad song, then the fact that he even got a big league at-bat should be considered a huge victory. In fact, he got thirteen of them – eleven as PH or DH – and actually put up some production in that short time, before he was DFA’d to make room for Manny. See? If Manny doesn’t get himself suspended, Mitch Jones might still be waiting for that first at-bat. Last I heard, Jones cleared waivers and reported back to Albuquerque, so we might yet get to see him again.

Left Field
Manny Ramirez (.355/.487/.669 9hr 29rbi) (D… cup)
Without question, the most difficult grade to assign by far. I mean, when Manny’s played, he’s been all you could have asked for, and more. Just look at those numbers; if he had enough at-bats to qualify, that SLG would be second only to alien cyborg Albert Pujols. He’s 5th among NL LF in VORP, which is nice enough until you remember that VORP isn’t a rate, it’s a counting stat, which means that he’s been done that even despite missing half the season. 

Of course, you can’t ignore the fact that the fifty games he missed were, you know, entirely his own fault. (Though, I haven’t ruled out the idea that Bill Plaschke planted the test results, worried that he might have nothing to complain about all season otherwise.) So yeah, huge demerits for that, and that’s how a guy who’s continued to terrorize NL pitching ends up with a D for dumbass. 

Juan Pierre (.328/.387/.417 0hr 25rbi 23sb) (A)
I was so tempted to give Pierre a lousy grade, just to be contrary to all of the writers who act as though his three week hot streak overrides two and a half years of overpaid futility. Remember, just because Pierre was great right after Manny was lost in May, you can’t forget that he was completely horrible in June – worse than usual.

But then I realized something important; the three great weeks Pierre gave us is about four more good weeks than I ever could have reasonably expected from him. So, screw it! Give the man an A.

Center Field
Matt Kemp (.320/.384/.495 11hr 50rbi) (HOF. I mean, A+)
Well, I did call him the best center fielder in baseball just a few days ago, so there’s that. What more can you say? He’s striking out less, he’s walking and hitting more, and his defense and baserunning have improved markedly. Plus, he’s shown the rare ability that few players have to completely take over a game – and yes, I am talking about the “extra-inning grand slam/over-the-shoulder basket catch” in Milwaukee from the other day.

I’m sure there’s a reason that he’s still hitting 8th and not forming an absolutely brutal middle of the order combo with Manny, right? Right?!

Right Field

ethierrunning.jpgAndre Ethier
(.250/.338/.475 18rbi 56rbi) (B-)
If Ethier knows anything, it’s a fantastic sense of drama. The man loves his walk-off homers, and of his 18 homers, 11 have come in just 5 games. The only thing is, his season has been unbelievably up-and-down.

April: .976 OPS
May: .601 OPS
June: .952 OPS
July: .612 OPS

So how do you grade that? The unexpected power barrage (10th in the NL, but it’s almost not fair that there’s four Phillies ahead of him, playing in that park) has been a very pleasant surprise, and it’s likely that he’s going to be the first 30-homer Dodger since Adrian Beltre in 2004. And as you can see by his monthly breakdown, there’s been stretches where he’s absolutely carried this team. Unfortunately, there’s also been just as many times where he’s completely buried the offense, and if you don’t know which Andre you’re going to get, that could be a serious problem come playoff time.

Still, it’s hard to give a bad grade to a guy who’s finally put some power into the offense – and, really, is there anything more fun than walkoff wins?

Outfield
Jamie Hoffmann (.182/.167/.409 1hr 7rbi) (inc.)
Xavier Paul (.214/.313/.500 1hr 1rbi) (inc.)
I’m grouping these two guys together, because the Dodgers have used their backup outfielders so rarely this year there’s not all that much to differentiate them. These two combined for just 36 plate appearances, and save for one start and two at-bats by Mitch Jones in right field, that represents the sum of the backup outfield work in LA this year. As for their play, each had their moments, putting up their first major league homers and displaying excellent arms in the outfield. Paul is still on the disabled list thanks to the crazy staph infection he suffered in May in Florida, and when he’s ready, he’ll join Hoffmann down in Albuquerque.

—————————-

Don’t forget to come back tomorrow, when Vin checks in with the pitching grades. Remember the simpler times of yore, when I could just bash Brian Falkenborg all day?

Brad Ausmus Has the Wrong Job

You may remember back in January, when the Dodgers signed Brad Ausmus to a one-year deal to be the backup catcher, I was less than impressed:

He’ll get $1m for one year. Not to be outdone, the Padres then turned right around and signed Henry Blanco – who, as you’ll see below, is superior to Ausmus both at bat and defensively – for $250,000 less. Just in case you need to be bludgeoned over the head with it, the Dodgers just paid more for an older catcher who can’t hit or throw than the Padres did for a guy who can do a bit of both. Because, that makes sense. I strongly look forward to Vin Scully explaining that Ausmus went to an Ivy League school 50 times this year.

To no one’s surprise, Ausmus has been about as punchless as expected – his .666 OPS is slightly under his career average, even. To be fair, Blanco’s not doing a whole lot better in San Diego, but Ausmus has provided at least one piece of value this year; he may have saved Guillermo Mota’s career.

Mota, as you may remember, woke up on the morning of May 18 with a solid 9.00 ERA after allowing 4 runs in 1.2 innings against the Marlins, prompting me to inquire about his job status:

there’s one thing I’d like to touch upon: the continued employment of Guillermo Mota. We’ve mentioned how horrible he is before around here, and I’ve hardly been alone in that – even before Sunday’s disaster raised his ERA to 9.00, with 11 ER in his last 8.2 IP.

But whether or not Guillermo Mota is a terrible pitcher right now isn’t really the issue, nor is the thought that he hasn’t really been effective in nearly five years – or one steroid suspension ago. No, the question is, why haven’t the Dodgers done anything about it?

gmota.jpgAnd you had to figure that, sooner rather than later, the axe was going to fall. But then a funny thing happened; in his next appearance, 5 days later against the Angels, Mota threw a scoreless inning. Then another, two days later, also against the Angels, and another the following day in Colorado. Before you knew it, Mota had run off 11 scoreless outings in a row – a streak which has now made it to 18 of 19. In those 19 games, Mota’s ERA is a miniscule 0.41, allowing just 10 hits and a .406 OPS in 22 innings – with a remarkable 17/4 K/BB ratio. An ERA that was 9.00 after 15 games is now 3.89 after 34.

So what the hell happened? It’s not the first time Mota has ripped off a hot streak after hitting the skids – unfortunately, the last time that happened, it was immediately followed by a 50-game steroid suspension. (Seriously, check out the timeline. It couldn’t be more incriminating if he had called a national press conference to show people exactly how he injected.) For a pitcher turning 36 this month, showing no ability to be successful whatsoever, and with his history, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think he’d made a desperate attempt to stick in the bigs, no matter what the cost.

Fortunately for us, there’s a far less sordid answer to this turnaround – Brad Ausmus, pitching coach extraordinaire. For you see, Ausmus was the catcher on that disastrous night in Miami…

Mota said teammate Brad Ausmus told him that when Ausmus faced Mota in the past, he had trouble picking up the ball until it was almost being released. But in catching Mota this year, Ausmus said he picked up the ball sooner.

“That was a good tip right there,” said Mota, who huddled with Honeycutt and bullpen coach Ken Howell. Honeycutt went to the archives, digging up video of Mota pitching for the Dodgers in his first stint in 2004 and ’05.

Mota viewed the video at home and on the plane during the club’s recent trip and discovered that he no longer was swinging his leg or holding his left arm high.

Hard to believe that such minor changes could have such dramatic effects, but there it is. Mota wasn’t even a big-league quality pitcher beforehand, and since he’s been one of the most effective relievers in baseball.

Back to Ausmus: he’s been okay, but not great, on the field. Yet by turning around Mota, he’s made an immeasurable contribution to the Dodger season. Brad Ausmus for pitching coach? I like it.

We’re About To Learn What’s More Important

Update: apparently, Ausmus went ahead and agreed to terms with the Dodgers less than an hour after I originally posted this. He’ll get $1m for one year. Not to be outdone, the Padres then turned right around and signed Henry Blanco – who, as you’ll see below, is superior to Ausmus both at bat and defensively – for $250,000 less. Just in case you need to be bludgeoned over the head with it, the Dodgers just paid more for an older catcher who can’t hit or throw than the Padres did for a guy who can do a bit of both. Because, that makes sense. I strongly look forward to Vin Scully explaining that Ausmus went to an Ivy League school 50 times this year. The original post from this afternoon remains below.

Would you prefer having a backup catcher who can actually produce… or one that Joe Torre might actually play? We’re hardly alone in the Dodger blogosphere in calling for Russell Martin to get some more rest (check out his declining OPS by month last year, bouncing back only in September when he did get some time off); it’s been one of our recurring themes for quite some time. And no, Joe, third base does not count as a rest, though with Casey Blake around that’s unlikely to happen as much as last year.

While we’ve all spent countless words on Manny, Furcal, and starting pitching, it shouldn’t be ignored that backup catcher is a pretty important role if we want to see Martin live to age 30. In 2007, we had the Token Veteran Goodness of Mike Lieberthal, who had all of one RBI that year. In 2008, we had the Token Veteran Goodness of Gary Bennett explode in our faces
ausmus.jpg(and all over the infield), only to be replaced by Brotherhood of the Traveling Masks member Danny Ardoin. Clearly, the Token Veteran route hasn’t worked out. So what’s the plan for 2009?

Uh oh.

Free-agent catcher Brad Ausmus, seeking to play for a team near his home in Del Mar, Ca., is in the process of choosing between the Dodgers and Padres, according to major-league sources.
 
The Dodgers are Ausmus’ likely choice, sources say – they figure to be a stronger contender in the NL West next season than the Padres, who are reducing their payroll to $40 million.
Ausmus is going to be 40 years old in April, and hasn’t been a good hitter since… well, ever. Only twice in his long career has he even been a league-average hitter, and the last time came ten seasons ago in 1999 – when he hit the 100 mark right on the nose. Last year he sank all the way to an abysmal .218/.303/.296 with just 11 extra base hits in 81 games with Houston. ”But MSTI,” you might say. “A catcher who can hit is the exception, not the other way around. Ausmus is a good backstop with a strong arm, which is more important than his bat.” Well, that might have been true once upon a time. It’s just that now, he’s actually a detriment behind the dish – FanGraphs has his defensive value on a three-year slide, placing him at a negative value in the last two seasons. Plus, his 20.8% caught stealing ratio would place him third from the bottom of the catchers who played enough to qualify in 2008, if he’d been a qualifier.
 
Clearly, Ausmus isn’t going to help much whether he’s besides the plate or behind it, and it’s not like there aren’t other decent backstops out there. Former Dodger Henry Blanco is coming off a respectable .292/.325/.392 season with the Cubs, and has thrown out more than 45% of base stealers in four of the last five seasons. Former Red Javier Valentin put up a decent 2008 of .256/.326/.411 and is even a switch-hitter. So why are we considering a player that’s inferior to both at the plate and to at least one in the field?
 
Oh, right. Because he’s this year’s Token Veteran Backup Catcher. Maybe his name recognition will cause Torre to at least play him; but with those stats why would you want him to? You’d almost rather see a run-down Martin every day.  
 
(No, we didn’t miss today’s announcement that Jeff Kent was retiring. It’s just that it was basically a foregone conclusion and we’ve covered his career here already. Besides, now is not the time for looking backwards! We must move forward, not backward, upward not forward, and always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom! Best of luck, Jeff. We’ll miss you. There were more than a few times where you carried this offense. You prickly jerk.)