Thursday, October 22, 2009

Talking Nats Baseball With Phil Wood

Phil Wood on the right in this photo along with Hank Thomas--Walter Johnson's Grandson, Sohna and myself

Most fans of Our Washington Nationals know Phil Wood. The Washington Baseball Historian, MASN Broadcaster and columnist omnipresent at Nationals Park covering D.C.'s Major League Team--and Baltimore's too, The Orioles at Camden Yards. Well versed in the game of baseball, Phil and I are sort of kindred spirits. We both grew in the Washington, D.C. area with The Expansion Washington Senators as our team. The '60's Nats were fairly awful record wise (except for that wonderful '69 turnaround), but The Senators were Our Team and Frank Howard was Our Guy!!

As Phil likes to always say: "If we went to a Senators game and they lost--but Hondo hit one out--we went home happy."

So, very true. We had take what you could get out of D.C. Baseball back then. There was no future for Major League Baseball in The Nation's Capital after 1971 for over 33 years. A far different situation now surrounding Our Washington Nationals since Major League Baseball returned in 2005 and a new ballpark opened in 2008.

As the 2009 Season wound down--I approached Phil to see if we might get together again and review the just completed campaign and look ahead to what might be in store this off-season for Major League Baseball in the Nation's Capital. He readily agreed and just like last season when we met over lunch for a similar chat, this time we devoted ourselves to just talking about Our Current Nats. Phil Wood and I had lunch together this past Wednesday, October 21st in Arlington, Virginia to talk about all things Nationals. This conversation lasted nearly 90 minutes and is pretty encompassing. Most likely there will be at least three installments, but for sure this is part one. And we begin by chatting philosophy. What Washington is looking for in their managerial search and even from their players? Not necessarily who Mike Rizzo should trade for, or what guy they should sign this off-season.

With that, here we go with Talking Nats Baseball With Phil Wood.

I want to start with the managerial search. I’ve noticed that many of those that cover the team on a regular basis, including you, like Jim Riggleman as the choice. Why is that? (SBF)

“First of all he is experienced. Number two; he didn’t do anything to lose the job. I wasn’t thrilled when he put Ian Desmond in rightfield, but that was more Desmond’s idea, instead of Jim’s. And if you are a second division club and you want to see what someone can do—you can experiment like that. In general, he didn’t do anything to lose his job. I thought when they (Washington) brought him in as bench coach, that’s a brilliant move because he’s a local guy and because he is extremely experienced. And I know from talking to Manny Acta that Manny knew Jim and respected Jim. And having talked to Jim, he (Riggleman) felt they were of similar managerial styles. I thought they would be comfortable with each other.”

“As you look at all the other potential candidates in the field, whether it’s Bobby Valentine, now even Don Mattingly. Mattingly I am intrigued by. I have spoken to Don a few times. He’s a very smart guy. And as a player, he had that tangible that players these days seem to lack, which is he was intense whether he was doing infield practice before a game or actually playing in a game. Mattingly approached everything as if ‘this is important. We are not kidding around here. This is important.’ You have to love that. Right now in baseball you have 750 players where 730 of them don’t play like that (chuckling). But the fact is that he has never managed on any level. He’s been a hitting coach and he’s probably very good at that. Of course, there is an interesting tie-in locally, in the sense that Mattingly’s minor league hitting coach was Mickey Vernon (Washington Senators Great). And he (Don) loved Mickey. In fact, when Mattingly had his retirement ceremony in New York, he insisted Mickey be a part of it.”

“As you know, I knew Mickey pretty well, and having talked to him about Mattingly, I said: ‘What did you do with him when you had him at Columbus (then The Yankees Top Farm Club)?’ He said: ‘I looked at his swing and said—Son, stay away from me because there is nothing I can do to help you out! (Laughing). You’ve got a perfect swing now.’ Apparently, Mattingly had other hitting coaches who would say try this, try this, try this—to the point of changing him. Mickey was the first one to say: ‘Well, you seem to have it down.’ So, if that is his approach (Mattingly in instructing), then I think he has a very evenhanded approach. Not, I need to do something just for the sake of doing something.”

“But Riggleman is the type of guy that is solid--as solid of a baseball guy as you will find. He is exceptionally respected throughout the game. Every scout I know feels Jim deserves the job. I don’t know. I just think there is something, purely from the issue of karma, that fits. Here is a guy that grew up in Montgomery County (Maryland). He was an expansion Senators Fan, like you and me. He knows what it’s like to suffer and wake up smiling. And I think there is a positive to that. I can’t make the decisions for Mike Rizzo or (Stan) Kasten, but when Mike says that Jim has just as good a shot as anybody—I don’t think he is kidding. Rizzo really likes Jim. But I think they (The Nationals) need to go through this exercise looking at other candidates.”

You’ve sort of eluded to this right off the bat, when The Phillies came back to win in their last At-Bat the other night (Game 4 NLCS), both Barry Larkin and Dan Plesac on MLB Network stated The Phillies always play until that 27th out. And are one of the few teams that seem to do that consistently. Why is it that The Nationals can’t play that way? (SBF)

“Let me preface this by saying: the more I am around people who are inside the game, the more you get to appreciate the aspect of the game that is referred to as ‘make-up’. When I say there are only a handful of players that really have that ‘make-up’ to play to the 27th out, there are not many of them. The Phillies have several of them. The Boston Red Sox have some of the best in Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, Jacoby Ellsbury. (Derek Jeter of The Yankees-SBF) Yes. They are all playing on that higher level—if you will—of observation. They see everything around them and every move they make is important. I just don’t think The Nationals have enough of those players. In general, 2nd Division Clubs don’t and it’s difficult to scout those type of guys in high school or college.”

“Now, the one player that has it, in spades, on The Nationals—is Ryan Zimmerman. There is no doubt. You spend five minutes talking with him and it is clear he is focused. He is absolutely on it! And I think to a similar extent, although he is not gifted athletically, so is Adam Dunn. Once he got to play first base on a daily basis, Adam became a much better first baseman. He was so focused on doing a better job there that I think, at times, it impacted the way he swung the bat. He knew how he had embarrassed himself and the club in leftfield and wanted to avoid doing that at first base. Now he made some mistakes, but by season’s end he was at least average.”

“I think (Josh) Willingham has that same kind of make-up. But there are a lot of guys on this club—I wouldn’t refer to it as a culture of losing—I would refer to it as the comfort of losing in the sense that, win or lose, they feel pretty much the same after a game. And it’s not just The Nationals; every club has a lot of those guys. Some of them are gifted enough that the other players can kind of compensate for it. The more time you spend around scouts, and I have been absolutely blessed with about a dozen Major League Scouts who have trusted me—I’ve gotten some insights I would never get anywhere else. They (the scouts) talk about make-up over and over and over again. It’s that intangible that is important.”

“For instance, you have the guys that are referred to as ‘baseball rats’—guys who hang around the diamond. They are not great players, but they love it. One good example is a young man that played at Towson State University (Maryland) named Gary Helmick—an infielder that puts the ball in play, pretty good fielder, nothing special in anything that he does and he went undrafted. Well The Orioles signed him as a free agent and they sent him to the minor leagues. He hit around .270 (Rookie Ball). He hit better than many of the guys that were drafted. Everyone talked about him. This guy has got such great make-up. He wants it so badly that he is going to make sure he gives more, as they say, than 100%. It wouldn’t surprise me if in three or four years, Helmick is a utility player on some club in the Major Leagues. And you will know that he got there on his own. He didn’t get there because he is exceptionally gifted. So finding players that are gifted, athletically, as opposed to being just a ‘toolsy’ guy is just as important. Someone said a long time ago, you can have all the tools in the world, but if you can’t figure out how to use them you are not going to help."

"For instance, if you are an outfielder and you’ve seen something happen a number of times—and we certainly saw this with Lastings Milledge--and you can see it in Baltimore with Adam Jones--guys who are athletically gifted enough to get to anything. But the strategy of knowing what angle to take to get to it and actually catch the ball is something else. Which is why you will see lesser athletically skilled players as much better outfielders than the guys who have speed to burn. They get to the ball and can not catch it. Or, overrun it, or turn the wrong way. There is a mental aspect to this game that trumps pure athletic ability.”

Mike Rizzo talks about ‘make-up’ all the time. And Washington certainly needs more talent. But is he looking for ‘make-up’ in his new manager too? (SBF)

“Make-up in a manager comes down to whether the guy has the ability to determine which of his players have that make-up and which of them don’t. It’s also about having the relationship between that manager and the general manager where the field manager can go to the GM and say; ‘you know what, I know you like this guy, but let me tell you, he ain’t got it.’ For instance, as a pitcher he’s got it here (pointing to his throwing arm), but not here (pointing to his head). Baseball history is full of guys like that, million dollar arms and 10-cent heads. Certainly, The Nationals have had their share of guys like that. So yes, it’s the make-up of the manager, but it’s more the ability of the manager to recognize make-up in players.’

Was Manny Acta different in that respect? (SBF)

“Not really. Manny would be the first to tell you this. There are guys on the roster that he didn’t care for personally, but he put them in the lineup because he knew they could play. But I look at the demise of Manny Acta (in Washington) and it’s traceable to just one thing—the bullpen was just awful. It was something that Jim Bowden ignored. If Manny had the bullpen Riggleman finished the year with, he (Manny) would still be manager. I have no doubt. They would have won 72 or 73 games—somewhere in there. Look, they had, I believe, 22 blown saves; most of those came in the first half. You almost hated to see Manny walk out to the mound. The idea making you think: ‘who are you going to bring in that can do any better than the guy who is already in there.’ You go through that and hope that one of these guys (relievers) will figure it out. The light bulb will go off and he will say: ‘oh, that’s what he was talking about!’

So you are not surprised that Manny has made it, reportedly, to the finals for the Cleveland Indians manager? (SBF)

“No, I think he is deserving. I actually spoke to him the other day. He admitted the Cleveland thing came to him unexpectedly. He had already talked to Houston and he has a history with The Astros. When that position opened up and they (Houston) fired Cecil Cooper—that’s a job he really thought he had a great shot at. And he still may for all I know, but when Mark Shapiro (Cleveland GM) called him and said The Indians wanted Manny to come talk to them and then called him back for a second interview—Manny thought the first one went about as well as could be expected. He said you don’t go into these things knowing what phrases they are looking for you to say, or what buzz words they want to hear. It’s purely a gut feeling. But he thought it went well. My response to him was—it would have been lovely if it were a job with a contender? He said there are only 30 of these jobs—you can’t afford to turn anybody down.”

There is a story in the Cleveland Plain Dealer about a press conference Manny had after his second interview (but not yet been offered the job). That article was just like reading The Washington Post a few years back when Manny first came on board here—everyone in Cleveland—including the reporters was enamored with him. (SBF)

“The casual fan, not just here but anywhere, will look at a managers won and loss record and say—‘Oh, he stinks! He can’t do it.’ Or my favorite: ‘He lost the clubhouse.’ That always makes me laugh. People who wouldn’t know where to find the clubhouse say ‘he must have lost the clubhouse.’ The only guy that I thought Manny really had an issue with personally—was probably (Elijah) Dukes. It wasn’t because of Dukes’ past. It was times when they would go over things, over and over again—and they would think he had it. And the very next day, it was gone, whatever they talked about.”

“Now, when Dukes went back to the minor leagues, I think Tim Foli (Syracuse Manager) got something out of him by pushing the right buttons because when he came back (to DC) he was far more patient at the plate. But in general, Manny respected his players. He understood that many of them were not Major League Players and you play the hand you were dealt. The casual fan will take a look at this just completed season with 59 wins and say: ‘well, they were just as bad as the previous year. They are still the worst team in baseball.’ Well, they (The Nationals) had the worst record in baseball, but clearly from the second half (of ’09) they were not the worst team in baseball. They had gotten much better.”

“Obviously, there is the bullpen. There is the shoddy defense. Offensively, they scored a lot of runs. They scored enough runs to win a lot more games! But they couldn’t keep the other team off the scoreboard and they consistently gave the other team more than 27 outs night after night after night.”

You’ve just touched on something that many others always write about. I don’t think this franchise is as bad off as many continually claim. Where do you think The Nationals are solid? What have they done really well? (SBF)

“I think they have drafted pitchers very well. The Stephen Strasburg decision aside—which was basically a no brainer—they’ve got some other arms in their system that really show promise. Talking to the scouts who have seen these guys tons of times, and in fact a couple of scouts believe if you take Strasburg out of the equation and you look at just the other players The Nationals drafted—they still had one of the top two or three drafts in baseball. (2009 right? —SBF) Right. They had a pretty good eye for certain players and you give Mike Rizzo a lot of credit for that. You give the departed Dana Brown (former Director of Scouting) some credit for that as well. The Nationals Scouting Staff was rather small. This off-season they have hired some more scouts. That’s one of the things that Mike really wanted to do. Clearly, that is what his background is and he knew they were woefully short in that area. So, arm wise, I think they still want to have a veteran on the staff as some kind of mentor—which I think is a little overrated. But anyway, depending on whom you are able to get, whose name is not Daniel Cabrera (laughing), they’ve got some guys. Now, they don’t have a lot of position players, but if you look at what this club was when it moved in ’05 and what it is now—it is where you would expect a fifth year expansion club to be.”

“People want to say: ‘The Expos were around since ’69.’ Well, the last few years of The Expos, Major League Baseball spent no money on the farm system and spent no money on scouting. You couldn’t look at that objectively and say they came here (to Washington) with a system in place. It was again like starting over. But those things will work their way out. They clearly don’t have the strongest farm system in baseball, but they are now far from the worst. At this point, I would say they are somewhere between 11th and 12th. And that comes down to how much resources you are devoting to player development.”

“While the payroll has not been that high since the Lerner’s got the club, they’ve spent some money on player development. Has it been enough? There is really no way in knowing that yet. But when you start getting guys this next season coming out of their own farm system—like if Ian Desmond makes his mark? If Drew Storen is on the Big League staff next season? Some of the other guys they brought up. They got J.D. Martin as a minor league free agent. He pitched much better than I expected. Craig Stammen is a bulldog, but I don’t know if you could ever project him as more than a 4th or 5th starter—that's not bad though. So, they are getting something of their own out of their farm system. But there are still holes and there will be holes for another few seasons anyway. You can’t judge The Nationals Farm System and put it up against Boston or Atlanta. Some of the guys they just hired were hired to get them up to that point.”

That answer concludes Part One of Talking Nats Baseball With Phil Wood. Tomorrow in Part Two, Phil & I are going to pick up this conversation chatting about all those front office moves he just mentioned. The realignment of Our Washington Nationals off the field which hopefully sets up an ever brighter future for D.C. Baseball on the playing diamond.

1 comment:

DND said...

I love Phil Woods and the interview. Keep up the great work.