Inside Baseball

August 04, 2002

Super Savers
Dave Roberts and other low-paid journeymen have kept the Dodgers
in the race

Early in spring training Dodgers manager Jim Tracy sat down with
journeyman outfielder Dave Roberts, who had been acquired from
the Indians in December for two low-level minor leaguers. "There
are four guys competing for the centerfield job," Tracy said,
putting Roberts in a group that included high-priced veterans
Marquis Grissom and Tom Goodwin plus former White Sox prospect
McKay Christensen, whom Los Angeles had traded for in July 2001.
"I don't care about salary or name. You have as much chance as
anybody to win the job."

Roberts, 30, had heard similar promises before and often found
them to be hollow. (He had just 165 major league at bats entering
this season.) But Tracy made sure that all four centerfield
candidates got equal playing time in the exhibition games, and
Roberts began to distinguish himself because of his ability to
make contact and get on base consistently. By the end of camp he
had won the starting job and the leadoff spot in the order.
(Grissom backs him up; Goodwin and Christensen were let go in
April.) "It was the first time I ever got significant at bats in
spring training," Roberts says. "[Tracy] stuck his neck out for
me. I can't think of many managers who would do that."

Roberts, who makes $217,500, a shade over the major league
minimum, has been one of the best bargains in the majors. Through
Sunday he was hitting .295 with 29 stolen bases, third most in
the National League, and had a solid .371 on-base percentage,
best on the team, just ahead of slugger Shawn Green. "He's our
catalyst," says Tracy, "and he's getting better and better."

Taking a chance on a player like Roberts is a typical Tracy move.
Though the Dodgers began the season with the fifth-highest
payroll in the majors ($95 million), they were one game ahead of
the Giants in the NL wild-card race at week's end, thanks largely
to a handful of low-paid former nobodies whom Tracy has turned
loose. The trend began last year when Tracy made Paul Lo Duca,
who had languished in the minors for eight years, his regular
catcher. Lo Duca had a breakout season in 2001 and through Sunday
was L.A.'s leading hitter (.305) this season. After starting the
season with a committee of closers, in mid-April, Tracy made
righthander Eric Gagne, a struggling starter for the last three
years, the sole closer; at week's end Gagne was second in the NL
with 35 saves. Righthander Giovanni Carrara (6-3, 3.52 ERA), who
hadn't made more than 19 appearances in a season before signing a
minor league deal with the Dodgers in January 2001, was leading
the team in relief innings pitched (64) this year and emerged as
the team's top setup man. Those four players, including Roberts,
earn less than $1.5 million combined.

"I'm not afraid to give an opportunity to a guy who might be
thought of as major league filler," says Tracy. "But he has to
fill the requirements of what I'm looking for."

In Roberts's case Tracy was looking for someone who would make
pitchers work, hit the ball on the ground and reach base. In 2000
and '01 Los Angeles ranked 15th in the league in leadoff on-base
percentage, and Tracy wanted a batter in that spot who was more
concerned with getting on base than hitting home runs. Roberts, a
speedy lefthanded batter who generally doesn't start against
lefthanded pitchers, hits 2.24 ground balls for every fly ball.
(By comparison the Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki's ratio is 2.61.)
Roberts's 24 infield hits were sixth most in the league through
Sunday.

"We know our pitching staff can match up with anybody's, so we
just try to get a lead and scratch out a run here and there,"
says Tracy. "That's the way we have to play."

Red-Hot Jeff Kent
Love the One You're With

Since Jeff Kent joined the Giants in 1996, his performance on the
field has often been overshadowed by his antics off it. He's had
a rocky relationship with Barry Bonds (the most recent incident
was a shoving match in the dugout shortly before the All-Star
break) and has often butted heads with management. He caused a
major stir this spring when he broke his left wrist after he fell
while washing his pickup truck (his story) or performing wheelies
on his motorcycle (alleged eyewitness accounts). That controversy
irked general manager Brian Sabean, who proclaimed he'd "had it
up to here with Jeff Kent."

The tussle with Bonds drew criticism from owner Peter Magowan and
prompted speculation that Kent, who will be a free agent after
this season, would be traded. There was only one catch: Kent was
so hot at the plate that San Francisco couldn't afford to send
him away. After a slow start following the injury, which caused
him to miss the Giants' first four games of the season, Kent had
hit .400 from June 1 through Sunday, the second-best average in
the NL in that time. Overall he was third in the league in
hitting (.332) and fourth in doubles (29).

Kent has been especially hot since manager Dusty Baker flipped
him and Bonds in the order in late June, batting Kent third and
Bonds cleanup. In his first 22 games in the third slot Kent hit
.453. As injured players started to pile up--Bonds, fellow
outfielders Reggie Sanders and Tsuyoshi Shinjo and catcher Benito
Santiago were either on the DL or missed significant time last
week--and the Giants fell six games behind the Diamondbacks in the
NL West, Kent, the National League MVP in 2000, was the player
keeping the team afloat. (On Sunday the Giants acquired
outfielder Kenny Lofton from the White Sox for two minor
leaguers.)

Kent said earlier this season that he was intent on testing the
free-agent market, but he has lowered his expectations of how
lucrative that market might be. Last week he said he would be
willing to accept a one-year deal, with the Giants or another
team. "The way things are going, I don't think there will be any
big free-agent contracts," Kent said, referring to the uncertain
labor situation. "I'll be a 35-year-old middle infielder, and I
don't think owners will be paying a lot of money."

COLOR PHOTO: JOE GIZA/REUTERS The speedy Roberts has come through in the leadoff spot for Tracy (inset), with a .371 on-base percentage. COLOR PHOTO: M. SPENCER GREEN/AP (INSET) [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON Scott Rolen

On Deck
NEXT UP IN THE WEEK AHEAD

RUNAWAY TRAIN
Arizona righthander Curt Schilling (18-3) is
scheduled to face the Expos on Thursday and the Braves on Aug.
6. With wins in each of those outings, he'll get to 20 victories
in the Diamondbacks' 113th game. That would be faster than any
other pitcher since the White Sox' Wilbur Wood won 20 in 103
games in 1973.

REDBIRDS FLY SOUTH
The Cardinals visit Atlanta for three games in a possible
postseason preview. That's good news for Tom Glavine, who's
scheduled to start on Friday. The Braves' lefthander is 15-5
against St. Louis in his career. That winning percentage is his
best against any team that he has faced more than nine times.

Deal of the Week

An NL advance scout analyzes the Monday trade in which the
Phillies sent third baseman Scott Rolen and a prospect to the
Cardinals for third baseman Placido Polanco, starter Bud Smith
and reliever Mike Timlin.

Rolen's numbers (.259, 17 homers, 66 RBIs through Sunday) are
down, but this year has been an aberration. St. Louis is a
perfect fit for him--more warm and fuzzy than Philadelphia. And
I'll take a big sensitive third baseman who plays as hard as he
does every day. The Phillies got some value in return, but not as
much as they would have gotten last winter. There are no impact
guys here. Polanco is a good utility player who gives Philly some
insurance if prospect Chase Utley isn't ready next year. Timlin
is inconsistent but still has good stuff. Smith is a fourth
starter with an above-average changeup. The one to watch is the
prospect the Cardinals got, Doug Nickle; he's been lights out as
a closer in Triple A.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)