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Thursday, April 30, 2009

A Colloquy with Gerry Hunsicker; Bulls Split With Knights. Also, I Am Psychic.

Posted by on Thu, Apr 30, 2009 at 12:06 AM

click to enlarge Reid Brignac moves from short to second base, makes highlight reel catch.
  • Reid Brignac moves from short to second base, makes highlight reel catch.

DBAP/DURHAM—First (and second) things first: The Bulls split a two-game miniseries with the Charlotte Knights, sumoing them last night, 14-7, and then rolling over to receive same on "Education Day" this morning [sic], 9-1. The Bulls' PR people beat me to the choicest pun the way the first waiters to spot staff-meal always scarf up the tuna tartare.

Neither game was much fun to watch. The Bulls struck for six runs in the bottom of the first yesterday on a grand slam by Justin Ruggiano and a two-run shot by John Jaso. The Knights halved the deficit in the fourth, but the Bulls tacked on seven more runs in the fifth and sixth and yawned their way to victory from there. The teams collaborated on a seven-error, 11-walk game that somehow managed to finish in less than three hours. Most of the press box denizens were probably glad not to have to pay much attention to the proceedings, because they were more interested in the TV showing the Carolina Hurricanes' series-winning thriller over the New Jersey Devils.

Today's game was pretty much over by the middle of the fourth inning: The Knights scored six runs in that frame after tallying three in the third. Former New York Yankees first baseman Andy Phillips bashed a pair of home runs, one in each inning. From there it was a limp, stuffy affair, with weather to match.

A quick note about Carlos Hernandez before moving on: His fastball tops out in the mid-80s, and he isn't able to miss many bats with it. Now a soft-tosser in his post-surgery years, he's going to have to be perfect with almost every pitch he throws if he's going to be effective. Today he wasn't, and the Charlotte hitters sat dead-red on his flat fastball and pounded it. He faced 20 hitters and allowed nearly half to reach base on six hits and three walks. One of his outs came via a screaming liner that second baseman Reid Brignac made a superlative diving catch on.

What was that? Second baseman Reid Brignac? That's right. Brignac, a shortstop by trade, made his second 2009 appearance at the keystone sack, and that is very much by organizational design. Which brings me to Gerry Hunsicker. Hunsicker's official title is Senior Vice President of Baseball Operations for the Tampa Bay Rays. But that vanilla title, which suggests he's in charge of stocking the hitting machines or something, belies Hunsicker's importance to the franchise. He is closest to the ear of his boss Andrew Friedman (whom he's nearly twice as old as), and it's probably no stretch to say that the Rays make no transactions or signings without Hunsicker's input. Hunsicker has been in baseball most of his life, and was the Houston Astros' general manager until 2004, when he left unhappily after feuding with owner Drayton McLane.

In the press box at gametime last night, Bulls' television broadcaster Ken Tanner pointed Hunsicker out to me: He was sitting behind home plate in a Hawaiian shirt, jeans and loafers. He'll be in Durham all week. Hunsicker graciously answered questions during the sixth and seventh inning while we watched the Bulls and Knights trade sloppy three-run frames. His comments on the Bulls and the state of the Rays were quite illuminating.

First, about Brignac at second base: Get used to seeing him there this season. In fact, get used to seeing lots of players at lots of positions. I speculated a few posts ago (scroll down a bit there) that Bulls' manager Charlie Montoyo was juggling his lineup every night because he was looking to jolt the sluggish early-season hitting into gear. It turns out that Montoyo is actually executing the Rays' overall organizational plan, which is all about versatility and flexibility: Tampa wants guys who can do multiple things. Except in the case of can't-miss, blue-chip prospects, there is little emphasis on starmaking—a process which relies on locking a guy into a position and stubbornly keeping him there in the hopes that he'll blossom in that greenhouse. Indeed, if you look at the Rays' and Bulls' rosters, the lion's share of the players can move around the diamond. And in Montoyo, the Rays have deliberately found a manager who is willing and able to move them.

Hunsicker pointed to a number of reasons for this commitment to versatility. One is that he counts "character" as a main priority when assessing a player. Part of character has to do with having the mental soundness to grow, improve and contribute to a team-first environment. Players who are rigid in their thinking, or prima donnas who refuse to switch positions, or not adept enough to be flexible, don't appeal to Hunsicker. When he mentioned David Price and Jeff Niemann, he was as interested in their "learning how to pitch" and, in Niemann's case, in his developing confidence, as he was in the pitchers' raw skills. At the upper levels of baseball, most of the players have the athleticism necessary to succeed; many of them lack the character, the mental discipline and the spirit of selflessness that great teams need. Hunsicker deliberately omitted a couple of names, but it was obvious that the Rays jettisoned Elijah Dukes and Delmon Young for reasons that had little to do with their physical skills.

The issue of character and flexibility isn't just a philosophical one. It also manifests in players' technical approach to the game. In the case of Brignac and Elliot Johnson, Hunsicker noted that both players sometimes get enamored of their home run power and start swinging too much for the fences. Inevitably, that damages the mechanics of their swings, and it hurts the ballclub by producing too many popups. The Rays want their players—especially those like Brignac and Johnson, whose power isn't Ruthian—to spray the ball around the field. In the particular case of Johnson, who is in his third season with the Bulls and, now 25 years old, has to start carving out a role for himself if he's going to stick in the big leagues, Hunsicker advocated for his learning to be a utility player. He'll have to master hitting situationally and playing multiple positions in order to build that role and be useful to a major league club.

(Today Brignac, as though he'd been eavesdropping, hit a pair of doubles: one down the left-field line and the other into the right-field corner, as well as making that highlight-reel catch as a second baseman on Scott Podsednik's fourth-inning smash to Brignac's right.)

But in the age of Moneyball, with its statistical vogue for power hitting and walks, why would the Rays promote the dreaded slap-hitting, sacrifice-bunting small-ball of yore by turning its prospects into Jose Oquendo?

It isn't that simple, and not even Hunsicker could touch on the many reasons for what appears to be an outmoded approach. In fact, it isn't outmoded at all, but an innovative way of dealing with several realities in the modern baseball world. For one thing, the Rays don't have lots of big musclebound sluggers because the Rays can't afford lots of big musclebound sluggers. Those guys are mostly playing for the financially musclebound teams like the Yankees and the Red Sox. So some of this thinking isn't a priori but reactive. Utility guys are cheaper than power hitters, and in the current Major League Baseball ethos, teams like the Rays won't be able to afford power hitters: The tuna tartare is expensive, but there's plenty of decent canned tuna left over.

The comparison of big boppers on the diamond to titans in the league isn't accidental. The small-market Rays will always have to think creatively about how to get the most for the little money they have. Billy Beane exploited a certain kind of market inefficiency in Oakland, and the Rays are trying to find another one. As Hunsicker pointed out, it's very hard to predict how a draftee will do down the road—baseball talent is notoriously hard to descry in young players—and so it's best to have a bunch of guys who might wind up succeeding in any number of roles and formats. That's a way of covering your bases. You take your assets and spread them around, and ask each stock you've invested in to multi-perform in the hopes that you'll have a better chance of hitting more jackpots. This is modular thinking.

Nor is the word "musclebound" used randomly here. Another reason the Rays have fewer hulking hitters is that hitters have been shrinking in the post-steroid baseball world. We're seeing a market correction, and what's being corrected is the size of the assets. The Rays are responding accordingly. There will be more small ball because the players will be smaller. In many ways, this plays into the hands of a team like Tampa, which doesn't have an Alex Rodriguez-like player to hit countless homers, confess to steroid use, and then go down with an injury right afterward.

But don't think that the Durham Bulls will, as a consequence, forever be made up of a bunch of drably functional gadgets and multi-use robots. Hunsicker reminded me that a Triple-A team has another, perhaps more urgent function than merely serving as a proving ground for young (and not so young) talent: It has to have guys who can compete at the major-league level on a moment's notice. So the composition of the team reflects a consideration of the major league roster and its potential problem spots. That's why cash-poor Tampa went out and bought 30-year-old journeyman catcher Michel Hernandez from the Pittsburgh Pirates last August. The Rays' backup to starter Dioner Navarro was Shawn Riggans, who has a history of injury problems. Although the Rays have high hopes for current Bulls catcher John Jaso, they want to give him more minor-league seasoning. Sure enough, Riggans has been sidelined with ouchies twice since Hernandez was acquired, and Hernandez was promoted for the second time on April 13th, less than two weeks into the 2009 season. He's still in Tampa.

The pitching-rich Rays are also aware that their hitting may need some help, particularly where outfielders with power are concerned (although former Bull Ben Zobrist has gotten off to a hot start in Tampa). So they traded the mercurial pitcher Edwin Jackson to the Tigers for Matt Joyce, an outfielder with pop in his bat who has been productive so far in Durham after keeping the recuperating B. J. Upton's place warm in Tampa for the season's first few games. Fellow Bulls Justin Ruggiano, Ray Sadler and Jon Weber are also candidates for promotion should the Rays struggle to generate power from the corner outfield positions, where home run hitters are supposed to play. Meanwhile, the Durham bullpen has been showing well early on, and there's every reason to think that Dale Thayer and his setup guys have a good chance to earn trips to Tampa, where the bullpen isn't a finished cast. (That's also why rehabbing, former All-Star closer Jason Isringhausen was signed in February—he's now in Durham, by the way, and should get into tomorrow's game.)

In short, you few who may still be reading 2,000 words later, the mysteries behind the roster and lineups in Durham are no mystery at all. Gerry Hunsicker and his cohort in Tampa have a plan, and we're seeing it.

A quick final note about the chat with Hunsicker. When asked about the 75-pitch, five-inning limit imposed on the Bulls' starters—a limit that had clearly been lifted for Wade Davis last night (he threw 93 pitches in 5 1/3 innings)—Hunsicker said that the Durham starters will be stretched out to 100 pitches as the season progresses. The exception, of course, is David Price, one of the few old-fashioned blue chips in the Rays' portfolio. He'll stay at his limit until further notice. Hunsicker, for his part, said that he's in no hurry to recommend promoting Price. "Players tell you when they're ready," he said, via their performance and their demeanor.

Oh, you're wondering why I'm a psychic—I totally foresaw that! It started when I predicted that the Yankees would lose to the Diamondbacks in the 2001 World Series after they took a 2-1 lead late in Game Seven and then sent Mariano Rivera in to close it out. Then I predicted that Troy Glaus would homer off of Orlando Hernandez in the ALCS the following year. Then last week I called an Alfonso Soriano home run right before he hit it. So then, feeling emboldened, I more or less predicted an outburst of runs from the Bulls upon their return to Durham yesterday, and they obliged by scoring two touchdowns. (I don't know what happened to them today.) I said Chris Richard would heat up, which is only sort of true—he's 2-8 with a double and a couple of hard-hit outs in the last two games—but I'm kicking myself because I originally wrote that Ruggiano would do the same and then deleted it because I thought I was being greedy to finger two slump-breakers in one sentence. And so of course Ruggiano blasted a grand slam and a double yesterday, and then doubled again today. Figures.

But more presciently, after the baseball game ended last night I turned my attention to the last few minutes of the 'Canes-Devils game. The second Tim Gleason lunged to corral that loose puck with 1:24 remaining and the 'Canes down by a goal, I knew Carolina would win. I should have bet someone.

I won't be at the DBAP again until Sunday; the day-job (which is really an evening-job) calls. See you again in a few days.

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