Many key personnel who contribute mightily to playoff-bound teams go unheralded and unsung throughout the baseball season. But that doesn't mean they are unimportant. Oftentimes coaches, scouts and typically uncelebrated front-office folks are true behind-the-scenes MVPs. Let's celebrate some of this year's greatest unsung heroes, baseball people who aren't necessarily all that well known to folks outside the sport's inner circle but are nonetheless making vital contributions to their team's success.
Here are my unsung heroes ...
1. Mike Maddux, Rangers pitching coach: Being Greg Maddux's brother means you've spent a lifetime going unnoticed. But Maddux, who was a serviceable major league reliever himself (certainly nowhere near in his brother's league), has done a terrific job with a relatively unknown and very young pitching staff. GM Jon Daniels summarizes Maddux with a few choice words: "most prepared and best communicator." Scott Feldman has come out of nowhere to win 16 games, though some of that credit has to go to former pitching coach Mark Connor, the perpetually optimistic coach who turned Feldman into a starter. Feldman, though, is only one of several success stories on the Rangers' pitching staff. Tommy Hunter and Dustin Nippert are two more Rangers pitching surprises. Maddux is probably overshadowed on his own Rangers coaching staff by Rudy Jaramillo, who may be baseball's best hitting coach. And what's more, a lot of folks are naturally giving the credit to Rangers president Nolan Ryan, the all-time pitching great whose rise to that role coincides (not coincidentally) with the club's newfound pitching success and can't be overlooked. But Maddux is a hero here, too.
2. Bill Geivett and Bill Schmidt, Rockies executives: Few teams have scouted, drafted and developed as many major league contributors as Colorado. Their stunningly excellent team, winners of seven straight now and suddenly a threat to the first-place Dodgers, is nearly all home grown, including young stars Troy Tulowitzki, Brad Hawpe, Ian Stewart, Seth Smith, Chris Iannetta, Ubaldo Jimenez, Franklin Morales, Aaron Cook, Jorge De La Rosa and, in fact, most of the Rockies roster. Those who weren't came over in a series of great trades by GM Dan O'Dowd, who endorsed his two guys, lamented their anonymity even compared to other top assistants and suggested they should be considered for GM jobs.
3. Mickey Hatcher, Angels hitting coach: There was a day last month where all nine players in the Angels lineup finish the game with a .300 batting average or higher, the first time that had been accomplished this late by any team in the last 70 years. Hatcher is extremely patient and positive, which is exactly how he was as a contributor on the most surprising World Series champion of the past half century, the 1988 Dodgers. With these results, it's no wonder he is positive. But he is cerebral, as well. People around the team say he tailors his approach to each hitter's need and style. He emphasizes the mental game over the mechanical, which seems to work just fine for one of baseball's best organizations.
4. Dave Duncan, Cardinals pitching coach: He's about as celebrated as a coach can be, and with good reason. While he's reputedly the highest-paid pitching coach in baseball, he still may be the most underpaid man in the game in any capacity. He has worked wonders for years, and this may be his finest season to date. It'll be interesting to see if a rift with the front office can be worked out after Duncan disagreed with the handling of his son Chris, who was traded for shortstop Julio Lugo. Top guys Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright are Cy Young candidates and currently form the best one-two punch in the game (ever so slightly better than the Giants' duo of Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain). But several other lesser talents are having big years as well. Ryan Franklin, a failure elsewhere, has become a star closer. Boston castoff Joel Pineiro has developed into a solid No. 3 starter. And John Smoltz, in the words of one scout, "had Duncan's magic dust sprinkled on him" and is back to being more than a semblance of Smoltz.
5. Kevin Long and Dave Eiland, Yankees hitting coach and pitching coach: Sure, they have a superb team worthy of their $200 million payroll. But these two relative unknowns have helped weather whatever storm has come their way. Summing up their contribution, GM Brian Cashman said, "They have great relationships with players, and they know what they're doing."
6. Rick Knapp, Tigers pitching coach: The longtime Twins instructor learned his trade in an organization that does things right. Fernando Rodney has scared a few folks with some ninth-inning performances but he's saved all but one of his chances, Edwin Jackson has become an elite pitcher and Rick Porcello is a 20-year-old phenom.
7. Fredi Gonzalez, Marlins manager: It's hard for a manager to go under the radar. But on this team that still isn't drawing despite contending, Gonzalez still hasn't gotten the plaudits he deserves. Club executives Larry Beinfest, Michael Hill and Dan Jennings rightfully get a lot of credit for putting together a competitive $35 million team. But no team that cheap is going to be very experienced, and Gonzalez somehow makes it work. A lot of things have gone on behind the scenes over the past few years, as this is typically baseball's youngest team (the airing out of Hanley Ramirez by Dan Uggla was a rare one that became public, as he did it in front of a reporter), and Gonzalez somehow keeps most of it under wraps. With four weeks to go, they are still in it, and that's to Gonzalez's credit.
8. Bob Schaefer, Dodgers bench coach: The baseball lifer recalled the "fourth out rule," nudging manager Joe Torre into making a winning argument to gain a run for the Dodgers in a first-week win en route to their fabulous start. On the play, Randy Wolf lined out to pitcher Dan Haren with Andre Ethier at third and Juan Pierre at second and one out. Haren threw to second baseman Felipe Lopez who tagged out Pierre for the apparent third out, but Ethier tagged home before Lopez tagged Pierre and the D-backs never tagged third for the "fourth out" before heading to the dugout. Besides the umpires, Schafer may have been the only one who knew the rule. Torre had Don Zimmer beside him or four World Series championships, and now he has to feel comfortable with old hand Schafer there. Logan White, DeJon Watson and other Dodgers development people are probably too well known to make this list, but nobody has more good young players, and by all rights, they could be an annual inclusion.
9. Dave Righetti, Giants pitching coach: He had his moment in the sun (actually several of them, not just the July 4, 1983 no-hitter he pitched for the Yankees against the rival Red Sox). The onetime New York star is by nature a blue collar worker who relishes his behind-the-scenes work with his pitchers and hometown team. Sure, he has excellent pitching talent in San Francisco, but he makes it work beautifully.
10. Mike Arbuckle, Marti Wolever, Phillies former and current scouting directors: Between then, they put together quite a nucleus, one that should make this team a threat for years.
The Yankees plan to treat Derek Jeter like everyone else, even though he's Derek Jeter.
Jeter isn't a free agent until after 2010, and apparently will have to wait until after 2010 for his new contract. The Yankees will honor Jeter for passing Lou Gehrig's franchise record for most hits (they are now tied at the top, at 2,721), but they are very democratic when it comes to contract negotiations.
This is the same way the Yankees handled Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera and Alex Rodriguez, plus Joe Torre and Brian Cashman. Things worked out for everyone but Torre with the Yankees. And everyone believes they will work out between Jeter and the Yankees, even if as expected the negotiations are saved for the last minute.
There's no doubt Jeter wants to stay a Yankee forever, and Jeter's Yankees bosses know they can't allow any other outcome. While Yankees higher-ups endured a sticky separation with Torre (and Torre's parting shots in his best-selling book, The Yankee Years.), they don't want to risk a divorce with Jeter. While he's 35, he obviously isn't slowing down yet (his MVP-caliber season is another reason for club executives to wait).
But just because they wait doesn't mean there's any great chance Jeter leaves. He did well to get a $189 million contract last time, wisely following the lead of Rodriguez's $252 million Rangers deal. But the team can't claim to be at all unhappy with how it's turned out, either.
They know they can't let him go. And he surely can't imagine himself elsewhere, either. This is a marriage that works. The guess here is that after 2010 the Yankees re-sign him for at least $60 million over three years, perhaps a little more than that.
Billy Wagner is doing a splendid job in a non-closing role with the Red Sox. But the great likelihood is that he'll be closing elsewhere next year.
The Red Sox have every intention to offer him arbitration, as became clear when they insisted on retaining that right before trading for him. And, barring some great change, he has every intention of turning it down so he can go someplace else to close. That's what he wants to do.
Some teams that could be interested in Wagner include the Braves, Tigers, Astros and Cubs. Another interesting team could be the Nationals, which is basically the Virginia resident's hometown team. All of those teams have closer issues.
• Carlos Delgado, who is trying to return after hip surgery, hasn't given up the idea of playing again this year. And the Mets are happy to accommodate him if he can make it back, not just for him but for them also. The Mets have thought about possibly bringing back Delgado on an incentive-laden deal, according to sources. While Daniel Murphy is showing signs of power in recent days, the Mets also haven't ruled out returning Murphy to the minors next year for more seasoning.
• The Mets might also consider Orlando Hudson once again. They liked the idea of going after Hudson as a free agent last winter, but only if they could first find a taker for Luis Castillo. Castillo performed unexpectedly OK this year, but it still may not be easy unloading him. Hudson is the type of clubhouse presence who could aid the Mets if they can find someone to take Castillo.
• John Lackey (10-7, 3.53) improved his free-agent outlook with a big-time performance against the Mariners. His big finish ensures that he's going to be the top pitcher on the free-agent market this winter. The Angels tried a four-year contract for close to $60 million last winter. But while Lackey isn't having his best year, the lack of other top free-agent starters means his price has risen.
• Ken Griffey Jr. is getting a nice send-off in Seattle. He hasn't said it yet but this has to be the end, no? That .214 average is unbecoming of an all-time great.
• The Phillies would still like to get Brad Lidge back to close to 2008 form, as it is believed they still prefer him to be the closer, even if manager Charlie Manuel gives Ryan Madson and perhaps Brett Myers a chance or two to close. While their other options aren't bad, the Phillies still envision Lidge as their playoff closer.
• The Royals don't do many things well, but they do make a decent spoiler. They prevented the Tigers from winning the division title in 2006, their victories over the White Sox and Twins made sure those two teams would have to play a playoff last year and their just-completed three-game sweep of Detroit has given hope to the White Sox and Twins. Royals ownership has often prevented its baseball people from making deadline trades in order to avoid the dreaded 100-loss season, according to people familiar with their situation, and this strategy probably works to their detriment in the long run. But it does make them a tougher team than some also-rans who hit the wall.
• Michael Brantley, acquired by Cleveland in last year's CC Sabathia trade, is performing superbly in Grady Sizemore's absence. He has 12 hits in his first 33 at-bats. Brantley will have to move to a corner outfield spot with Sizemore back next year, but as Jonathan Mayo pointed out on MLB Network, Brantley could be the type of leadoff hitter that enables Sizemore to move to the No. 3 spot in the order.
• Lou Piniella's body language did not look good at the games in New York last week. There's no evidence he's a candidate to be fired since his $4 million 2010 option was picked up long ago, but the question of whether he relishes a return has to be asked now.
• Losing 17 years in a row isn't easy, even if the Pirates made it look so.
• Time to go tweet. Follow me here: http://twitter.com/SI_JonHeyman.