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 starring 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 lead-off 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."