The best managers don't just work in the dugout. They manage in the clubhouse, on the field during batting practice and, sometimes, even on an airplane.
Up in the air? Sure. Boston's Terry Francona did his best George Clooney on a flight from Los Angeles to Seattle last May after a series with the Angels when it became clear he was in danger of losing one of his players for the season: David Ortiz.
Big Papi was so low he was nearly subterranean after going 1 for 14 with four strikeouts during a three-game series against the Angels in Anaheim, including a stunning 0 for 7 with three punchouts in the last game that left him marooned with a .208 batting average.
"We got on the flight after that game and I said, 'David, you need to stay under the radar for a few days,'" Francona recalled this spring. "It was like he got punched in the stomach."
The poet laureate of some of New England's best hardball moments ever, Ortiz, who stayed under the radar when Francona sat him for all three games of the following series in Seattle, eventually bottomed out at .185 on June 1 with just one homer in 208 plate appearances.
That is a touchstone moment now for two reasons:
1. At 34 as the 2010 season opens, it's clear that Ortiz is somewhere in the twilight of his career (as former Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette might say -- and did say of Roger Clemens). How much sun he's got left, as they say, opposing pitchers will help decide that.
2. A culture change in Fenway Park toward emphasizing run prevention (read: pitching and defense) only emphasizes the need for Boston's designated hitter to be the guy who homered once every 18 plate appearances during the second half of last season (16 homers in 69 games) rather than the guy who homered once in 208 plate appearances during the first two months of last season.
Though he finished with 28 homers and 99 RBI last season, Ortiz tops our list of key players on contending teams who are in dire need of a bounce-back season in 2010.
Ortiz is an intensely proud man who could be playing his final season in Boston. His contract is up after 2010. The Red Sox hold an option on him for 2011. The math is pretty simple: If Ortiz is a shell of what he once was, his time in Fenway will be finished.
Meantime, the Red Sox did not bring back Jason Bay, meaning there is nobody in their lineup who hit as many as 30 home runs in 2009. Mike Cameron plays a mean center field, but he brings lot of strikeouts into the equation (156 in 628 plate appearances last year in Milwaukee, a whopping one in every four PAs).
Ortiz is a key. A very large key, both physically and metaphorically. Though the Red Sox know he no longer is the player who will mash 50 homers a season, they can't afford to have a DH whose droughts last as long as Ortiz's last year. The Yankees and Tampa Bay, among others, won't be waiting for them.
As long as the Sox are unable to trade third baseman Mike Lowell, Francona always could elect to platoon the right-handed Lowell (or someone else) with the lefty Ortiz. But that is not how Francona wants to manage.
"I really don't want to look at [Ortiz] like that," Francona said. "He's our full-time DH. For us to be as good as we want to be, if he is the full-time DH, we're probably a better team.
"If we ever got to the point where he wasn't, something went wrong. That's not what we're looking for."
Both Ortiz and hitting coach Dave Magadan were optimistic this spring.
"He did a lot of work in the offseason correcting minor mechanical issues," Magadan said. "To me, he looks as good or better as any other time I've seen him. In my eyes, it's just trusting what he's done in the offseason."
"My program this year in the offseason was different than the year before," said Ortiz, noting that a wrist injury limited his ability to hit two winters ago, whereas he was healthy enough to hit all this past winter.
Francona noted earlier this spring that Ortiz was staying short with his swing and driving many balls to left-center field. But in Grapefruit League play through this week, Ortiz was hitting just .226 with three homers in 53 at-bats.
One thing about 2009, left-handers had a far easier time against Ortiz than ever: He hit just .212 against them with six homers in 188 plate appearances.
"He was trying to cheat to get to pitches away," Francona said. "You start doing that with lefties, now it opens up both sides of the plate. ... career-wise, his numbers certainly are lower against left-handers, but they were still dangerous."
Magadan thinks it is important for Ortiz to get off to a good start in 2010, because "success early on will help with trust issues" in the work he put in with his mechanics over the winter.
No doubt, that would help. But if Francona winds up having to have another talk with Ortiz at 30,000 feet in the air, the Red Sox could be in trouble.
Twelve others in need of bounce-backs:
Milton Bradley, Mariners: Duh. The Mariners have high hopes for 2010, but scoring runs has not been an easy task for them lately. In theory, Bradley, 31, will help, but that's only in theory. In reality, this is a guy who washed out of Chicago last year (.257, 12 homers, 40 RBI) and who was ejected from two Cactus League games this spring. Does that sound like an attitude change?
"He just doesn't look that good to me anymore," one scout who watched Bradley in Arizona said. "He just might not have that much left."
Life will be a whole lot easier for the Mariners if he does -- and if he behaves.
Pat Burrell, Rays: He was Pat the No Bat in his first year with Tampa Bay last summer, batting just .221 with 14 homers and 64 RBI (down from .250, 33 and 86 the season before in Philadelphia). The Rays had a disappointing year overall, going from the World Series in '08 to failing to play in October last year, and Burrell contributed to that in a disappointing way.
Now? Well, at 33, Burrell is entering the final season of a two-year, $16 million deal. Like our other bounce-back players, he needs a good year personally, and the team really needs a big year from him. The general sentiment around the Rays seems to be this: In a contract year, Burrell will produce. And if not, there just might not be anything left.
Jeff Francis, Rockies: The Rockies won the NL wild-card slot last season with Francis watching the entire time from the side following last February's shoulder surgery. This is a guy who won 17 games for the Rockies in 2007, and if Colorado can mix him in with budding ace Ubaldo Jimenez, Aaron Cook, Jorge De La Rosa and Jason Hammell, well, as they say, it will be as good as acquiring an impact player via trade.
"Very encouraging," Rockies pitching coach Bob Apodaca says of Francis' spring. "Is he where we remember him? Not yet. The final piece will be that fine command that he had, being able to ride that off-speed pitch. His velocity has been in the upper 80s; when he won 17 games he'd touch 90 and pitch at 87, 88. That's where he is now. You couldn't tell watching him pitch [that he had the surgery]."
Troy Glaus, Braves: He's 33, and his 6-5, 240-pound body has taken a beating over the past several seasons at third base. Such a beating, in fact, that he managed to play in only 14 games (two RBI, .172 batting average) for St. Louis last summer because of back trouble.
Which is what makes his switch to first base for Atlanta both a lifeline for him and an interesting bit of creativity from the Braves, who need to find a way to score more runs. If Glaus can stay on the field, he stands a chance of adding to his 304 career home runs -- and the Braves stand a chance of remaining smack in the middle of the NL East race. This spring, he was taking to first base happily and easily.
"He's so excited," said Garret Anderson, Glaus' friend and former teammate in Anaheim. "He was going nuts last year not being able to play."
Hamilton's spring started roughly, with him getting hit in the left hand with a pitch and then needing a root canal. He was hitting .429 this spring through midweek with three homers, and all systems are running as he and the Rangers approach opening day.
J.J. Hardy, Twins: From All-Star in 2007 to a demotion to Triple-A Nashville last summer, you might say Hardy in Minnesota is the classic case of a player in dire need of a fresh start. Always a superb fielder, Hardy became so lost at the plate last summer that the Brewers were left with little choice but to ship him out. He finished at .229 with 11 homers and 47 RBI, a vast difference from his .283/24/74 in 2008.
This spring, Hardy spent lots of time with Twins hitting coach Joe Vavra and Hall of Famer Rod Carew in Fort Myers, and it's got him excited.
"We made some pretty big changes, and for the better," Hardy said. "Some things I've known I've needed to do but I just haven't been able to do it."
Most of those changes had to do with the way Hardy loads as he's preparing to swing. They discovered that the upper half of his body was turned too much toward third base instead of firing straight to the ball. Vavra helped get Hardy's hands and elbow in a spot that makes it hard for him to rotate the old -- and wrong -- way.
If it works, the Twins' record $96 million payroll will look even better.
Russell Martin, Dodgers: A two-time All-Star, Martin's offensive numbers have been in decline now for three consecutive seasons. The man who once walloped 19 homers and collected 87 RBI (2007) last year checked in with seven and 53. The man who once hit .293 (also in '07) last year batted .250.
Maybe, at 27, Martin already is worn out. He's been behind the plate for more innings than any catcher in the majors in two of the past three seasons, and that's a big toll no matter what a person's age. Maybe that's what Martin was thinking when he showed up to camp having gained so much weight this spring that the Dodgers were alarmed (and that alarm was on target, as it turned out, when Martin strained his groin early in camp and missed nearly a month). At any rate, this is a very big season for Martin -- both personally, to reverse the downward trend of his numbers, and for the Dodgers, who really need him as they try to win a third consecutive NL West title.
Carlos Quentin, White Sox: Two summers ago, Quentin was heavily involved in AL MVP talk. Last summer, he spent more time in the trainer's room than in MVP conversations. The beleaguered outfielder suffered from plantar fasciitis, a sore knee, a bad shoulder and a continuing adjustment to the screw that was inserted in his broken wrist the year before.
Now, the screw has been removed and the plantar fasciitis has been chased away by a winter of workouts focusing, among other things, on deep tissue maintenance. The result, Quentin and the White Sox hope, is something closer to the 36-homer, 100-RBI season he posted in 2009 than the injury-plagued 21-homer, 56-RBI exercise in frustration last summer.
"I'm feeling a lot better now," Quentin says. "Knock on wood. It's exciting this spring not to be hindered by those things."
5033125Jose Reyes, Mets: Whether you like the Mets or not, you've got to pull for Reyes. When he's going full speed, he's a joy to watch. And when he's not going full speed ... well, he worked so hard to recover from hamstring surgery that he stayed in New York for the winter.
"I only went [home] to the Dominican Republic for two weeks, at Christmas," Reyes said this spring. "It was hard. My family is very important, but this is very important for me. I depend on it for my game."
Just when the hamstring was looking good, Reyes was knocked for another loop when he was diagnosed with a hyperactive thyroid. This is a guy who led the NL with 78 steals in 2007, and led the NL with 204 hits in '08. The Mets have enough other issues. Reyes is the man who makes the entire lineup go, and they desperately need him.
Alfonso Soriano, Cubs: Bothered by a sore left knee for much of 2009, Soriano, 34, compiled a career-low .241 batting average and a career-low 55 RBI. It's worrisome on two fronts: One, the Cubs desperately need the old Soriano back if they are to contend this season. And two, Soriano has five years and $90 million remaining on his contract. The Cubs either get five more years of a productive, middle-of-the-lineup hitter ... or they're stuck with him for half-a-decade.
Good news is Soriano's knee feels great this spring, and new hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo worked very well with Soriano in Texas in 2004 and 2005. One thing is clear: Soriano had better hit the breaking ball better. According to Baseball Prospectus, only Philadelphia's Ryan Howard saw fewer fastballs than Soriano among NL regulars. Opposing pitchers have figured out that as far as Soriano can club fastballs, he's way too vulnerable to the breaking stuff.
Brandon Webb, Diamondbacks: With Webb and Dan Haren atop the rotation, Arizona is an instant contender in the NL West. With Webb sidelined -- and he'll open the season on the disabled list still rehabbing his shoulder after last summer's surgery -- not so much.
Their season swirled down the drain in '09 when Webb lasted only four innings on Opening Day and then was shut down for the summer. They insisted all spring that Webb did not have any setbacks, rather, it was just a conservative approach. If the D-Backs are to grace us with their presence in the 2010 pennant race, Webb, who won the 2006 NL Cy Young award and owns the game's deadliest sinker, must be a part of the plan.
Rickie Weeks, Brewers: Milwaukee is a trendy pick by some to either win the NL Central or, at the very least, to pose a serious challenge to St. Louis. If Weeks stays healthy and is out there at second base every day, it will make things a whole lot easier for the Brew Crew.
After clubbing 30 homers over the previous two seasons, Weeks played in only 37 games in 2009 before his season ended with a tear in his left wrist. During that time, he was hitting .272 with nine homers and 24 RBI. Even after losing CC Sabathia to free agency, the Brewers were leading the division at the time Weeks was injured in mid-May. They wound up third, 80-82, 11 games out.
When he was injured on May 17, Weeks was tied for seventh in the NL in runs scored (28) and tied for ninth in home runs (nine). He also was tied with Prince Fielder for the club lead with nine homers. He missed so much time it's easy to forget what an impact Weeks can have on the Brewers. And that would be a mistake.