The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

 

Clearing the Bases -- Hardtland Edition

Back in New York City after my late-August travels -- backpacking in Wyoming, eating fresh vegetables out of my dad's garden in Salt Lake, and attending my brother-in-law Aaron's wedding in Milwaukee -- I banged out a streamlined version of this week's Hit List while working on another Hit List-related piece that should run later this week. Here's the intro:
If it's Tuesday, this must be... home? The past two and a half months have been a blur for me, a string of seven out of ten weekends away from home for everything from weddings to funerals and milestone birthdays to miles into the Wyoming wilderness. Catching up on baseball isn't always easy under these conditions, but thanks to a patchwork of Baseball Tonight, an Internet-capable cell phone (nearly as fast as my parents' 56K modem) and a dog-eared pile of out-of-town newspapers, my latest ten-day absence has left me with just enough notes to get through a quickie Hit List in the service of the rankings while cobbling away at something I think my readers will enjoy: a helpful look at Hit List history that will run later this week. Until then...
The aforementioned piece, held because BP's editorial pipeline is a bit backed up due to the holiday weekend, is based on over a century's worth of Adjusted Standings data -- the raw stuff of the Hit List -- recently crunched by BP's Clay Davenport. It's an article I've been hoping to write for over a year, though the data at that point was little more than a twinkle in my eye. More on that piece when it runs.

In the meantime, the Tigers have relinquished the top spot on the Hit List for the first time since June 6, surrendering it to the Yankees; I believe the actual transfer of power occurred in the moment that skipper Jim Leyland paused mid-tirade to endure Kate Smith's war-horse version of "God Bless America." When I came out of the woods on August 30, I was surprised to find the Yanks eight games ahead of the Red Sox in the AL East; the latter had lost six straight and was preparing to ship David Wells off to San Diego, a de facto white flag on their 2006 season. The wheels which had begun to fall off during the Beantown Beatdown had gone the way of the axle holding them in place; the litany of injuries includes a scary diagnosis of non-Hodgkins lymphoma for Jon Lester, an irregular heartbeat that hospitalized David Ortiz, patellar tendonitis for Manny Ramirez (thus leaving the Sox without either of their two most fearsome hitters from August 27 to September 4), a strained fat lat for Curt Schilling, a transient subluxation of the shoulder for Jonathan Papelbon, and a Kevin Jarvis lodged in the rotation. When it rains, it pours.

Meanwhile, the Dodgers treated me to a three-game lead upon exiting the wilderness, the result of a seven-game winning streak. Of course, they've since squandered that; if there's one sure thing about this year's club, it's that they combine the highest highs of the 2004 division winners with the abject haplessness of last year's injury-addled underachievers, often within the lag time to publish an article. Case in point: my New York Sun piece was conceived on August 20, as the Dodgers put the finishing touches on a 19-3 run and widened their NL West lead to four games. By August 23, when the piece was submitted, the lead had shrunk to one game. The piece ("Dodgers Now the Sheriffs fo the Wild West") didn't run on August 25, as slated; the lead was still one game. Instead it ran on August 30, by which point it was back to three. I might have had to go fishing for a kill fee if they'd relinquished the lead. Not a kill fee from the Sun, mind you, a kill fee from Dodger fans to go off Ned Colletti or something drastic. Mark Hendrickson, my ass.

[As an aside, it appears that the Sun articles are no longer behind the subscription wall, so those of you who want more BP-flavored content -- especially lots of Steven Goldman -- can go crazy.]

Some notes from the midwestern portion of my jaunt:

• I flew from Salt Lake to Milwaukee via Chicago, and not only did I have a 6:30 AM departure out of SLC (severe enough to curtail my hike by a day because of the turnaround time in getting back to civilization), I had a two-hour layover in O'Hare for a flight leg of about a half-hour. I could have easily driven it faster. After checking every food option in three concourses and paying through the nose to download my email, I finally made my way to the American Eagle gate and found myself sitting next to two strapping young gentlemen in suits. Missionaries, I thought at first. Greaaaat.

Not really wanting to eavesdrop but having little better to do, I gradually picked up snippets of a conversation as the two of them began talking baseball. The curly-haired one broke out a USA Today sports section and began nitpicking the day's transactions. "Why the hell would the Marlins send Randy Messenger down to A-ball at this time of year?" Not missionaries, at least.

The buzzcut one one broke out a cell phone and called his dad. Something about Nashville. And tickets. And front office. And Miller... wait, as in Park? Ballplayers? Nashville is the Brewers' Triple-A affiliate, and it was September 1, time for the rosters to expand. When we arrived in Milwaukee, the two gents were greeted at baggage by an entourage that included an older man and a young wife with a two-year-old blonde girl in arms, wearing a Brewers t-shirt. No doubt about their organizational affiliation, at least.

But it wasn't until I opened the next day's Journal-Sentinel that I really knew what had transpired, because there on the page was a picture of the buzzcut one, wearing a Brewers cap. A local boy, apparently:
Growing up, Vinny Rottino spent a lot of time in the stands watching the Milwaukee Brewers. Now local youngsters will be watching him.

The Racine native, a versatile player who went undrafted out of UW-La Crosse but still worked his way into professional baseball, was brought up by the Brewers from Class AAA Nashville on Friday, when major-league rosters could expand.

Rottino, who can catch and play the corner spots in both the infield and outfield, was joined by right-hander Dennis Sarfate, a hard-throwing addition to the Milwaukee bullpen.

Rottino, 26, learned of his promotion Thursday night and was back in his home state a few hours later, living a dream he had as a kid at "quite a few games at County Stadium."

...Rottino was tied for eighth in batting in the Pacific Coast League with a .314 average. He had 25 doubles, seven home runs and 42 RBI and stole 12 bases. He hit .391 (63 for 161) over his final 45 games for the Sounds, including .420 in August (34 for 81).

And all this while playing all over the field. Rottino appeared in 85 games at third base, 18 behind the plate, 17 in the outfield and two at first base.

...With his parents, two sisters and assorted nieces and nephews still living in Racine, Rottino figured to have a large cheering section Friday night, assuming he could get enough tickets from the club and teammates.

"I don't know how it all works," he said with a smile. "I've got to figure that out now."
Heavens to murgatroid, a utilityman, even. Rottino's season continues a run of success that saw him win honors as Milwaukee's 2004 minor league player of the year for a campaign in which he drove in 124 runs for High-A Beloit. Baseball America ranked him as the Brewers' #28 prospect in their 2006 Prospect Handbook, noting that "[c]lub officials consider him the hardest worker in the system" and praising his "low-maintenance, line-drive swing," concluding, "He's not far from being a solid big league utilityman." Nice.

Here's what BP's Christina Kahrl has to say in today's Transaction Analysis:
Rottino's relatively uncomplicated, your basic organizational soldier who's started games at third, catcher, and the outfield corners while hitting .314/.379/.440. He's already 26 and far from prospectdom, but he demonstrates pretty nicely one of the benefits of the organization's longstanding willingness to give local-college products a shot: signed as an undrafted free agent out of Wisconsin-LaCrosse, he's a decent enough pick for the last spot on a major league bench. Think of him sort of as a latter-day Charlie Moore, without the unfortunate “let's make this guy an everyday right fielder” diversion that those Brewers were prone to back in the day.
Rottino made his major league debut on the 1st, striking out in a pinch-hitting appearance. He got his first base hit a couple days later and is now 1-for-6 with a run in his short career, which has included seven innings in leftfield and two at third base. He's got a fan here.

Sarfate, meanwhile, is a big (6'4", 210 lb) righty out of Queens. The J-S notes that he was 10-7 with a 3.67 ERA with 117 K's and a league-leading 78 walks at Nashville, shifting from the rotation to the bullpen midyear to take better advantage of his two-pitch repertoire and power arm. He was #24 in the Prospect Handbook, noted for a fastball which touches 97 MPH and sits 92-94, as they say. However. "[w]hen he leaves his heater over the plate he tends to get punished... None of his three pitches finds the strike zone enough." Oof. Kahrl was a bit more optimistic:
As I noted in this year's book, Sarfate seemed to drive PECOTA into a particularly pessimistic frenzy [weighted mean EqERA: 6.67]. His groundball rate has improved this year, and he hasn't allowed much power, but nevertheless, after opening the year in Nashville's rotation, he was bumped into the pen for the last month or so, a role in which he struck out 20 in 17.2 innings. His breakdown this season involves a pretty major platoon split, and since he's never had a solid breaking pitch, a move to the pen really does seem for the best. I wouldn't be surprised if he joins Jose Capellan next season in providing the club its best relief work, because like Capellan, he's a minor league starter who just didn't seem to have the staying power to make it in a big-league rotation. Taking a chance like this certainly beats investing much money in Dan Kolb, and I wouldn't worry as much about Sarfate's career arc as a reliever as PECOTA so obviously did over his prospects as a starter.
Sarfate pitched a scoreless 1.1 frames in his debut, whiffing three Marlins. Like his fellow passenger, rest assured that I'll be keeping my eye on him from here on out.

• Rottino, by the way, is the first Racine native to play for the Brewers, according to this article. I note this because while I'm not from Racine, I do know a bit about its famous city-wide high school prom thanks to a fabulous, award-winning documentary made by some friends of mine, including directors Chris Talbott (a Racine native) and Ari Vena. The World's Best Prom examines the event from the alternately amusing and bittersweet perspective of a handful of kids and adults, providing a history of this half-century-old tradition in which seniors from seven city high schools join together for a televised red-carpet extravaganza (the things you learn, man). It's a great piece of work which you can buy here.

• At the wedding banquet, I wound up seated between my wife, Andra, and her 13-year-old cousin Jason from Minneapolis, one of two kids at the table; Livia, Andra's shy 11-year-old second cousin, was on the other side of him. Knowing Jason's a baseball fan and trying to engage him in conversation, I began by asking him whether he thought the Twins could beat out the White Sox for the AL Wild Card.

"I dunno," he replied, as bored with the question as he was with the salad in front of him.

"Do you think Liriano will be back?"

"I dunno."

"Who's your favorite Jason on the Twins?" I figured with Bartlett, Kubel and Tyner to choose from, this might get the conversation going.

"Bartlett." Damn. I might have to resort to amateur dentistry to get this kid to talk, I thought.

"Who's your favorite Twin?" I finally asked in a last-ditch attempt. At which point Livia, who had spoken even less to this tableful of adults -- mutely shaking off any offer to try the salad -- leaned over and proudly interjected, "Mary-Kate and Ashley!"

Broke us up, that one did.

• The day after the wedding, the Hardt family and I attended a Brewers-Dodgers game exactly one year after I ran in the famous Sausage Race. This year's race itself was rather uneventful; it didn't even feature the newly-added Chorizo in the lineup; after his July 30 debut, he was sent out for "more seasoning" (the Brewer PR department's words, not mine), to return next year. At least the Hot Dog (which I represented last year) won going away.

So did the home team, snapping a 10-game losing streak, much to my chagrin but the delight of some 33 thousand fans at Miller Park. Greg Maddux, who'd been golden since coming over from the Cubs, was cruising into the fifth in a 1-1 duel with David Bush when all hell broke loose. After a leadoff single and a Bush sacrifice, Brady Clark hit a sharp comeback shot to the mound. The ball glanced off of Maddux's glove and the 15-time Gold Glove winner couldn't find it, turning towards the rosin bag behind the mound as the ball spun behind him. Had the ball gone through it would have been a simple infield groundout that wouldn't have advanced the runner, slow-moving catcher Damian Miller. Instead, a double, a sac fly, an intentional walk and a single brought home three runs to break the game open; only a fine throw by Dodger leftfielder Andre Ethier to nail Prince Fielder at the plate prevented the damage from being even worse.

The Dodgers rallied back with a pair of runs in the top of the sixth, but their inning ended on a play at the plate as well, with Corey Hart (not wearing sunglasses, as this was an indoor day game, and he's not a pop singer) cutting down Jeff Kent. The Brewers pushed across two more runs in the bottom of the frame, chasing Maddux in the process, and that was all she wrote.

Nearly as bad was the fact that I couldn't even find a "Cerveceros" shirt -- a relic of the same Hispanic-themed tribute that brought the Chorizo to the big leagues -- that fit. They were all absurdly long. I tell ya, tough day at the ballpark...

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