Peter Gammons: Veteran leadership essential to young players

david ortiz with xander bogaerts

There is a little James Joyce in David Ortiz, as his stream of consciousness rambles stir passion and reason and experiences. In Friday’s case, it was long before his rants after being slapped on the back by David Price, which was just another border war skirmish in what has turned every Rays-Red Sox game into the Balkans.

Ortiz’s thoughts were essentially that “it’s pretty much impossible to win with a bunch of kids who have to learn to play in the major leagues without veterans around to explain to them what it takes to win in the major leagues.” His thoughts were background on how Boston rookies Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley, Jr. and Brock Holt were earning their callouses and surviving in a third of a season that included a ten game losing streak, media finger-pointing and the cry for experienced replacements, be he Stephen Drew, Andre Ethier or Cameron Maybin. “I talk to Bogaerts almost every day,” Ortiz said. “I try to help him, with his approach, with dealing with how hard this game is to play every day. You have to have veteran players around to help these kids.” For when two or three rookies go hitless in a loss, they may be deemed “failures,” the team may be ridiculed for breaking in young players under the headline “Bridge Year.”

“I remember when I broke in with Minnesota we had no veterans,” Ortiz said. “We had 14 rookies. We had no clue what we were doing. The game’s too tough for that.”

Bogaerts has survived, and in walk-off wins Thursday and Friday was a major factor in key rallies. He is hitting .389 in his last 18 games. He has reached base the first two months more times than any rookie since Ichiro Suzuki in 2001. Bogaerts is 21. He would be the first pick in Thursday’s draft had he gone from Aruba to a U.S. college instead of signing. He is fourth in the American League in on base percentage, has a .304/.393/.435 slash and his WAR is the same as that of Albert Pujols. He knows all too well that Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia have pushed, prodded and helped him.

Ortiz’s streams branch off to Kansas City and Wrigley Field, Pittsburgh and Miami. The Royals, who used three hitting coaches last season, moved out Pedro Grifol and made Dale Sveum the coach who works with hitters. At the time, the Royals were last in the league in runs scored, and four of their big hitters—Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer and Salvador Perez, had combined for 10 homers. Now, they won their next two games and have moved to five homers in front of Nelson Cruz, but while many thought this Royals team, one that injected with the life of George Brett, went from 22-30 on May 31 to finishing 64-42 the rest of the season, would be a serious contender, at least for a wild card spot. It may still be. Dayton Moore isn’t going to fire Ned Yost. He isn’t going to discuss trading free agent James Shields, not unless they’re out by double digits come July 30.

And maybe this isn’t Yost’s fault, or Grifol, or Kevin Seitzer, who was let go in Kansas City and now given considerable credit for the discipline the Toronto hitters are exhibiting this season. Maybe it’s that teams like the Royals, who invest heavily and spend on getting the best young players they can find, aren’t spending enough on $10-12M veterans who can take the load off the youngsters. Is that a problem in Pittsburgh? In Miami, there was a concerted effort to get Casey McGehee, Rafael Furcal and veterans to help their young, talented core, to allow Giancarlo Stanton to just play, which he does as well as anyone.

And it’s something the Cubs have to think about in the next year. We get the costs of rebuilding Wrigley, such as replacing clubhouses that seemingly were constructed when Abraham Lincoln was Governor of Illinois. We know they have all kinds of high ceiling youngsters on the edge of the North Side. Kris Bryant won’t be a problem; he is that good. But when Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, Albert Almora, et al get to Wrigley, they need veteran leadership to guide those players along. Ask Charlie Blackmon about what Michael Cuddyer means to him.

This also applied to one of the most talent-laden organizations, Minnesota. It cannot be the way it was when Ortiz arrived, so it will fall on the shoulders of Joe Mauer and veterans they sign to stabilize the early years of Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, et al. All they have to do is look at Cleveland and see what Nick Swisher and Jason Giambi have meant to their development, the way Adam Jones credits Willie Bloomquist for his growth when they were together in Seattle.

It’s vitally important to draft and develop well, but the assimilation to the major league culture can be nearly as trying as it is for young players from other countries. Is Bogaerts a special player? Yes. Will Carlos Correa be special in two years? No doubt. But as intelligent and mature Correa happens to be, he is going to need a Pedroia or an Ortiz to do the things even the best of coaches cannot, and to be the infrastructure that leads the young players to listen to those coaches.

Just look at the Royals. Ownership had better look in the mirror and realize that saving on veteran players can be far, far more expensive than having three $8-15M veterans who have been there, done that and care enough to make their teammates the very best.

  • PKCasimir

    Peter, Peter, Abraham Lincoln was never Governor of Illinois. Prior to being elected President, Lincoln served four terms as a representative in the Illinois legislature and one term as a US Congressman. In both offices he served as a Whig. He made his mark as a “prairie lawyer” handling all kinds of cases, criminal and civil, but he made his mark as an expert in transportation law and as an appeals lawyer.

  • http://www.yougottalikethesekids.com/ Shankbone

    Despite the Giants rep as hoarders of savvy vets, they actually had a very young core group of players (Belt, Crawford, Posey, Sandoval were all 26 and younger), especially in 2012. Dealing for Angel Pagan at the beginning of the year and Marco Scutaro in the middle helped immensely. I think that has to have been a factor in their re-signing as well. You need a balance of ages and experience. Pat Burrell and Aubrey Huff were instrumental in 2010 with some of the same players, the pitching staff was a lot younger back then, same deal, a pre-season and mid-season acquisition.

  • inkstainedscribe

    The Braves’ long run of division titles began in 1991 when John Schuerholz brought in Sid Bream, Terry Pendleton, and Rafael Belliard to stabilize the defense behind the young pitching staff. Undoubtedly, they helped the young hitters relax more at the plate, too.