David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
Don Mattingly is used to the circus. After 14 years playing in the Bronx, and five seasons as manager of the Dodgers, Mattingly is accustomed to what he refers to as the “noise.” Good thing, because he won’t be lacking for attention at his new post with the Marlins, who already have created a ruckus two months before they show up for spring training.
After hiring Mattingly, the Marlins went headline-hunting again by enlisting Barry Bonds to be their hitting instructor. Bonds, of course, remains one of the most radioactive names in baseball for his PED-tainted past, despite his prodigious offensive ability, and his return to the game will no doubt attract a crowd.
For Mattingly, however, it won’t be all that strange. He did have Mark McGuire — an admitted steroid user — in that same role with the Dodgers, and eventually, it became business as usual. With Bonds, the Marlins are hoping that some of the expertise from the seven-time MVP will rub off on the current roster, even as a first-time coach still learning on the job.
“The knowledge is there,” Mattingly said this week at baseball’s winter meetings. “You know he understands — probably at a level that maybe not very many may understand. But also a guy that came through pretty good teaching. His dad was a good teacher. Willie Mays was a pretty good teacher.
“So he’s from a good teaching background. And his attitude of wanting to be good. When Barry Bonds tells me wants to be good at something, I think he’s going to be good.”
It won’t hurt that the team also plans to move in the outfield walls at cavernous Marlins Park, just as the Mets have twice made Citi Field more hitter-friendly, first for the 2012 season and again for 2015. Last years, Marlins Park yielded an average of 1.37 home runs, which ranked 29th in the majors. Only the Giants’ AT&T Park, at 1.35 per game, was more difficult go deep at.
“We’re really just talking about making it a little bit more dimension-friendly, the walls coming down a little bit,” Mattingly said. “Giancarlo is not worried about the fences coming in. He’s hitting them out to the Grand Canyon.
“I think you adjust to your ballpark and play with it. We should be a doubles-gap type of offense. Back to the Kansas City formula, what they’ve been able to do is you put the ball in play.”
While that’s welcome news for the slugging Stanton, the Marlins’ young ace, Jose Fernandez, is probably not thrilled by it. But he also may not have to worry about the cozier dimensions for very long. Given the high price of starting pitching — and crazy trade value — the Marlins entertained proposals for Fernandez at the winter meetings, but aren’t expected to consider moving him until a much later date.
And that means more on Mattingly’s plate as Opening Day inches closer, and the status of Fernandez will be a question the new Marlins’ manager will face early and often. Fortunately for Mattingly, he’s had plenty of practice at such things.
“I expect to win coming here,” Mattingly said. “I expected to win in L.A. I expected us to win when I was coaching in New York. To me, that’s just the noise that goes outside of what we do.
“I’ve always done that as a player — take care of my business. Everything else, we’ll try to handle it. I’ll try to handle everything else around it. I can take care of this. Be ready, get prepared, do your work. If we can do that, then either we’re good enough or we’re not.”
Post time for Japan’s Maeda
Sandwiched between the Red Sox’s signing of David Price for $217 million and the Diamondbacks unveiling a new $206-million deal for Zack Greinke was last week’s announcement that Kenta Maeda was posted by the Hiroshima Carp.
Two years ago, when Masahiro Tanaka was made available by the Rakuten Golden Eagles, Major League Baseball and its Japanese counterpart, Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), agreed to put a ceiling of $20 million on the posting bid. By doing so, that allows any team to post that price and negotiate freely with the Japanese player.
Maeda, 27, is considered the next ace in line, but in light of Tanaka’s elbow problems since coming to the Yankees, there could be increasing concern over how Japanese pitchers adapt to the five-man rotation rather than the six employed by NPB teams. Maeda made 217 starts for Hiroshima, totaling 1509 innings, with a 2.64 ERA and 7.4 K/9 in eight seasons for Hiroshima. He won’t come close to Tanaka’s seven-year, $155-million deal with the Yankees, but with the expensive prices for pitching these days, it will be interesting to see what Maeda can command.
“He’s a polished pitcher,” said Red Sox manager John Farrell, who watched him during the MLB’s Japan tour last year. “Surprisingly, there was more velocity than anticipated to his fastball. From a physical standpoint, there was more stuff, more power, more velocity than maybe was advertised.”
Despite their need for rotation help, the Yankees are not expected to bid for Maeda, according to a source familiar with the team’s thinking. But they could already be thinking ahead toward the availability of Shohei Otani, the fire-balling ace for the Nippon Ham Fighters. Otani, 21, is probably another two years from being posted, and the current MLB-NPB agreement expires after this season, perhaps making it more expensive again for teams to compete for Japanese players rather than relying on the $20-million maximum bids.
Super Joe to Super Zo
The Mets apparently were ahead of their time in employing Joe McEwing, who played every position but catcher during his five-year tenure in Flushing, a role that gave him the “Super Joe” nickname. But the Rays, under then-manager Joe Maddon, helped create the Ben Zobrist phenomenon, and reuniting with Maddon on the Cubs earned Zobrist a four-year, $56-million contract.
“It’s really becoming en vogue,” Maddon said of the versatility. “I thought there should have been a Super U player on the All-Star team. It’s an absolute position, just like second base or left field is. A real legitimate S.U. guy is a position, and it permits you to do so many different things with your lineup daily.”
In addition to Zobrist, Maddon said the Rays also tried to do it with Melvin Upton as part of the “thought process” to get him to the major leagues. Upton made 60 starts at third base, 48 at second and 16 at shortstop over his first fours seasons before switching to a full-time outfielder in 2008.