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Do you know how famous you are in fantasy circles right now?
I hear it in the bullpen a lot now, that I better not screw up or I’ll kill their fantasy teams. Somebody told me I was owned in 99.7% of leagues, so I guess I need to advertise myself better to the other .3%.

If you save 50 games every year until you’re 43, you’ll have almost reached Trevor Hoffman’s record. What can you tell us about the years you spent with the all-time saves king?
He’s the best there is. Just getting to see how he goes about his business everyday, his daily routine, that really helped me. It would help anyone, any pitcher. I couldn’t have asked for a better teammate, a better mentor. It’s definitely a big pair of shoes to fill, but I’m just glad I got to be around him.

You’ve been pretty outspoken this year. Have you changed, or are people just listening more?
I guess the fantasy guys have heard of me now, so it’s a story if I say something ridiculous. I don’t know, I’m a little crazy, but I don’t think I’ve ever been any different. I don’t take myself so seriously. I’ve always tried to keep one face with everybody, and that goes for my friends, my family, my teammates, the press — everyone close to me knows I’m a playful guy, I like to joke around with people, and I think sometimes when it’s printed out it loses its context.

It’s gotten you into some trouble. Do you really have a problem with, among others, ESPN and the Mets?
(Laughs) I really don’t have a problem with anyone. A lot of it is me just joking around and having fun, and I think people are taking it too seriously because the press and the fans are just getting to know me. I don’t have a Mr. Met voodoo doll at home. But I’m very competitive, and I think it’s natural to want to beat your old team and prove people wrong. The guys on ESPN have been picking us to be dead last — of course I’m not going to like that.

You closed at Triple-A Norfolk for a number of years, and you dominated like Danny Almonte dominated Little League. In 2006 you struck out 56, walked 8, and let up 5 earned runs in 35 innings. Why do you think you didn’t get a real shot with the Mets?
I’m not really sure. I think I ran into some bad luck when they called me up a couple times. I didn’t have a great ERA, but when you’re a reliever one bad inning kills your ERA. (New York) is a pretty high-stress environment — if they don’t win every day, the papers get on them, so they probably can’t be as patient as some other teams. I would’ve loved to make it there, and I think I could’ve helped them the past couple years. But no complaints, they sent me to a team that really wanted me. I love San Diego, I love the Padres, and it’s all worked out great.

Have you ever heard of pitch f/x? Did you know that your fastball is averaging 93.9 MPH this year?
What was I hitting last year?

93.8. And you’ve got more vertical movement this year.
Well that’s good to know. I’ve heard of it, but I don’t know what it all means. As long as I’m getting guys out, I don’t care if I’m throwing 75 straight down the middle.

You’ve been throwing your fastball a lot more this year, about 75% of the time, as opposed to 69% last year, and 62% in 2007. Is this a deliberate change?
It’s cold out. It’s hard to hit a 93.9 mile per hour fastball in cold weather. Once it gets warmer I’ll probably throw more breaking balls. But in the cold, guys are just waiting to get something off-speed.

You also have a two-seam fastball and an offspeed pitch which is sometimes called a slider, sometimes a curveball. What exactly is it?

It’s a curveball. I hold it like a curve, at least. Most people think it’s a slider, because it’s harder than a typical curveball, and sometimes it moves more horizontally than 12-to-6. But I’ve always called it a curve.

Do the Padres have a chance this year?
Don’t put anything past us. We’ve got some great players on this team, some guys who have been to the playoffs, some young guys — we expect to win.

You’re a newly-minted millionaire. What’s the coolest thing you’ve bought since you signed your contract?
I got a super-fast remote control Porsche, goes about 50 miles per hour. But I’ve been wasting money on useless toys for years, so now I’m just buying the cool kids’ version.

Now here’s an interesting guy. Heath Bell is in his first year as Padres closer, doing his best to follow in the footsteps of all-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman. Closing is nothing new for him, though; in nine minor league seasons, Bell recorded 108 saves, including 42 at Triple-A Norfolk. All told, he pitched 468.2 innings in the Mets’ system, with 544 strikeouts and 128 walks. The Padres noticed, shipping Ben Johnson and Jon Adkins to New York for Bell following the 2006 season. Since coming to San Diego, Bell has established himself as one of the best relief pitchers in the game, racking up 187 strikeouts against 60 walks in 183.1 innings, with a 2.55 ERA. He’s yet to allow a run this season, as he’s eight-for-eight in save opportunities, and has struck out 14 men against just two walks in 11.2 innings.

Heath sat down with us last week, and we talked about what it’s like to follow a legend, his apparent dislike for ESPN, pitch f/x, and a number of other things. Check this space tomorrow morning for our exclusive interview.

Manny Acta just finished his second season as Washington Nationals manager. The team struggled this year, finishing 59-102, after a surprising 73 wins in 2007. Acta previously managed in the Astros system, and coached for the Montreal Expos and the New York Mets. He is known as one of, if not the most, statistically-progressive Major League managers. We caught up with him last week and discussed the Nationals, sabermetrics, pitch f/x, and the World Baseball Classic, among other things:

Squawking Baseball: How would you evaluate your second season?
Manny Acta: Obviously we didn’t win as many games as we had hoped for. A lot of things happened that nobody could control, especially in terms of injuries. But on the other side, it makes it a challenge to constantly progress, to constantly get better, even when you have setbacks.

SB: Are there any ways that you’ve evolved as a manager?
MA: You always learn things. I’ve been managing and coaching for many years, I managed for a long time in the minor leagues, and every year you run into things you had never experienced before that you learn from. And we’re in a great era now too, since every year there is more to learn from a sabermetrics side. Every piece of knowledge I take in, I try to use it to our advantage, for myself as a manager and for the ballclub.

SB: A number of your coaches were let go at the end of the season. How do you feel about the changes that were made?
MA: When you have a season like the one we had, it’s common practice for changes to be made. It was tough, I was with those guys for two years, had good relationships. But it’s part of the game. We had a sound process finding the new staff, and we are all looking forward to the challenge.

SB: Day-to-day, how do you prepare for the next opponent?
MA: We get a lot of reports for each series. Scouting reports, spray charts, statistical reports. We try to be on top of individual matchups that show a real significant edge to one side, especially for late in games. And in the future I think pitch f/x will play a big part in day-to-day preparation.

SB: How much, if at all, have you used pitch f/x thus far?
MA: I’m still learning. I think it’s going to be a huge part of scouting, especially when it matures and is 100% accurate, and is integrated in the minor leagues and even in college. There are so many things you can learn that we could never know for sure. How good is this guy’s slider, really? Why is it good? All of the conventional wisdom in scouting will be put to the test, and you’ll see a whole new world in terms of data and information.

SB: You’re obviously a very statistically-inclined manager. How do you think that gives you an advantage over managers that aren’t as progressive?
MA: I want to win. More than being statistically-inclined, I’m very open minded. If someone can show me things that I didn’t already know, I am willing to change. I’m not stubborn. If the statistical evidence shows I’m wrong, and it helps me and my team win baseball games, then I would be a fool not to listen.

SB: Looking back, have there been any decisions that you made that perhaps you wouldn’t have if you had not been so aware of sabermetrics?
MA: I would have bunted less when I managed in the minors. I still would have had the minor leaguers run, because winning isn’t the most important thing down there, and most players have the green light to work on their baserunning skills.

SB: The Nats have the number one pick in next year’s draft. How involved are you in that process?
MA: I’m not very involved. I trust the people that make those decisions, and all my energy goes into managing the team on the field.

SB: In 2006, you managed the Dominican team in the World Baseball Classic. Will you be involved at all next spring?
MA: I won’t be managing, but I’ll be a consultant for the Dominican Republic.

SB: What effect does the tournament have on the players that take part? Is it worth it?
MA: It’s a good event, and it helps make our game more global. If you get injured, I don’t believe that’s due to the Classic. Spring training starts a week earlier to help players better prepare for it, and you have the same chance of getting hurt whether you play in the Classic or play in the Grapefruit League.

SB: Do you think the WBC is helping spread baseball around the world?
MA: It has already helped big time. The last classic did a lot for the game. I saw it firsthand in the Dominican. The second one can only continue that and make things better.

SB: Tell us about the ImpACTA Kids Foundation.
MA: Right now we’re building a baseball complex in my hometown, Consuelo, in the Dominican. It will have two Little League fields and a full-sized field. And this will only be the start. There are lots of talented people that only need a chance, and we want to give them that chance.

MA: What’s your favorite blog?
SB: Squawking Baseball. It’s fantastic, really. I like Baseball Prospectus, too. Joe Sheehan, Will Carroll, Nate Silver, PECOTA, the essential stuff.

SB: And what did you think of the presidential election?
MA: Super fantastic. I’ve gotten to live the American dream, and Barack Obama is too. It’s great to see.

Feedback? Write a comment, or e-mail the author at mike(AT)squawkingbaseball.com

John SmoltzIn case you missed it, we ran through the American yesterday. Now on to the senior circuit. For entertainment purposes only:

Arizona Diamondbacks Ð 86.5
Under: The Diamondbacks won 90 games last year, despite allowing more runs then they scored. Dan Haren is a nice addition, but heÕs allowed an average of 27 home runs over the last three seasons in a much more pitcher-friendly environment. Chris Young, Stephen Drew, Justin Upton, and the like will have to progress significantly for the D-Backs to return to the postseason.

Atlanta Braves Ð 84.5
Over: Andruw Jones is gone, Chipper Jones is another year older, Jeff Francoeur is still vastly overrated… and IÕm still taking the over. Atlanta underplayed their run differential last season, and a full season of Mark Teixeira should only help. Look for Smoltz and co. to be a darkhorse in the National League this year.

Chicago Cubs Ð 87.5
Over: The Cubs have quietly improved themselves a great deal, adding Kosuke Fukudome and shifting Geovany Soto into the everyday lineup. Rich Hill should have at least one or two superstar-caliber seasons in his career; if 2008 is one of them, the Cubs could beat that number handily.

Cincinnati Reds Ð 79.5
Over: This team could be competitive, if managed correctly; I don’t have that much faith. But they are talented enough regardless to beat up on the Pirates and Astros and play .500 baseball.

Colorado Rockies Ð 82.5
Over: Those 90 wins last year were not an aberration; the Rockies led the National League in run differential. Even if things don’t break quite as perfectly as last year, Colorado should be able to top 82.5.

Florida Marlins Ð 68.5
Over: Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis are gone, but there’s still some substance left over. Hanley Ramirez is a stud at shortstop, and Dan Uggla has become a very productive second baseman. If 2007 was Jeremy Hermida’s coming out party, 2008 could be the year he establishes himself as a true star. This isn’t a good team, but they should be able to reach 70 wins.

Houston Astros Ð 72.5
Under: Somebody has to lose to the Pirates.

Los Angeles Dodgers Ð 87.5
Over: Perhaps this is a bet on sensibility overcoming familiarity. The Dodgers have the horses to win the NL West, but Joe Torre may still need to figure that out. A pretty good pitching staff should carry them in the early going, until Joe and his staff finally work up the courage to put Juan Pierre and Nomar Garciaparra out to pasture.

Milwaukee Brewers Ð 84.5
Over: There is just too much talent here to bet the under. Team defense was the crux in 2007, a problem that should be softened a bit with Mike Cameron in centerfield and Ryan Braun off of third base.

New York Mets Ð 93.5
Over: On paper at least, the Mets are the best team in the National League. Their starting rotation, which was the big question only a few months ago, now looks to be one of the best in baseball. If Johan Santana and Pedro Martinez can stay healthy, this will be a very tough team to beat.

Philadelphia Phillies Ð 87.5
Under: The Phillies’ starting rotation needs a lot of help, which is not a good sign given the increased competition in the NL East. They failed to get better this offseason, perhaps Standing Pat for the final time. This looks to be a third place team in a tough division.

Pittsburgh Pirates Ð 68.5
Over: This one will come down to the wire. I’m going with a slight over, only because the new management team should fill in holes better than the old one did. Look for Jason Bay to rebound a bit, possibly becoming a more valuable piece of trade bait by midseason.
San Diego Padres Ð 84.5
Over: The Padres aren’t a great team by any means, but 85 wins should be reachable. There is a lot of upside to this pitching staff, particularly if Mark Prior is healthy. Team defense could become an issue.

San Francisco Giants Ð 71.5
Under: Possibly the worst offensive team in recent memory. Matt Cain’s 7-16, 3.65 ERA season may have only been the start.

St. Louis Cardinals Ð 78.5
Under: If the Cardinals fall out of the race early, we may see Albert Pujols finally go under the knife to repair his damaged elbow. The bottom may well fall out from there.

Washington Nationals Ð 70.5
Over: The Nationals got a better return for Ryan Church and Brian Schneider than the Twins did for Johan Santana. This team is young and intriguing, and has the best field manager in the game calling the shots (IMHO).

Feedback? Write a comment, or e-mail the author at mike(AT)squawkingbaseball.com

Manny RamirezI haven’t been chiming in here nearly enough, and I couldn’t resist taking a look at this year’s team over/unders. A lot of this is guess work, and I fully expect to look stupid on a bunch of them, but it’s fun as hell nonetheless. American League today, National League tomorrow. For entertainment purposes only:

Baltimore Orioles Ð 65.5
Under: It’s usually not smart to take the under on a number this low, but this was a 70 win team with Erik Bedard and Miguel Tejada. I’m a fan of Adam Jones, but this division is extraordinarily tough, and I can’t see the Orioles touching 66 wins without some luck.

Boston Red Sox Ð 93.5
Over: Big Papi should regress a bit, but Manny should be Manny once again. Daisuke will likely be better, and Clay Buchholz could be a difference maker, albeit in a limited number of innings. As mentioned above, the AL East is very tough, but the Red Sox are an elite team that should beat up on the league’s also-rans.

Chicago White Sox Ð 79.5
Under: I like Nick Swisher, but not this much. This team aged very quickly, and it may get a lot worse before it gets better.

Cleveland Indians Ð 88.5
Over: They should top this handily, as they bring back a team that won 96 games (91 pythag) despite some below-expectation performances from several key positions. Should win the AL Central.

Detroit Tigers Ð 93.5
Under: They’ve certainly helped themselves this offseason, but there are too many players on this team that played over their heads in 2007, particularly Magglio Ordonez, Curtis Granderson, and Placido Polanco. They’ll be good, but 94 wins may be a stretch.

Kansas City Royals Ð 71.5
Under: I flipped a coin and it landed on tails. They should be in the 70-win range plus or minus a few. That said, if either Billy Butler or Alex Gordon really breaks out, this could end up looking very stupid.

Los Angeles Angels Ð 91.5
Over: This isn’t a great team per say, but they play in a very weak division. Look for them to run away with the West.

Minnesota Twins Ð 72.5
Over: Johan is gone, but there are still enough good players on this team for them to win 73 games. If Francisco Liriano truly is back in form, they could approach .500 again.

New York Yankees Ð 93.5
Under: Jeter, Abreu, Giambi, Damon, Matsui, and Posada are all another year older, and even A-Rod is in line for some some regression to the mean. Their young pitchers are very good, but when you rely on young pitchers… With Tampa Bay improving and the Red Sox still rolling along, this could be the year the Yankees finally miss the postseason.

Oakland Athletics Ð 73.5
Over: They received some good value in this year’s yard sale, and there are still some decent players left over. In a weak division, this season may not be as bad as some think.

Seattle Mariners Ð 86.5
Under: If I was a betting man, this may have been my bet. As good as Bedard and Felix are, the Mariners’ offense is very weak, and they far outpaced their run differential last season. Look for them to be in the high-70s.

Tampa Bay Rays Ð 73.5
Over: Another easy one. The Rays will win more than they lose this year, and if they bring in Barry Bonds, the sky is the limit. Evan Longoria is the best prospect in baseball, and he’s only the next one on the assembly line.

Texas Rangers Ð 74.5
Under: Texiera is gone, and this team is very thin around the margins (a key injury or two could really hurt). They’ll have trouble keeping up with the A’s and the Mariners.

Toronto Blue Jays Ð 85.5
Under: The Blue Jays aren’t a bad team by any means, but they’re not particularly good either. In this division, that’s not going to cut it. They would have a very good shot in the NL West or Central.

Feedback? Write a comment, or e-mail the author at mike(AT)squawkingbaseball.com

The 2008 CHONE hitter projections have arrived, which is pretty exciting news since this system is one of the best ones out there.

Let’s get right into it. Top five projected hitters by wOBA:

  1. Albert Pujols, .437
  2. Barry Bonds, .434
  3. Alex Rodriguez, .431
  4. David Ortiz, .431
  5. Miguel Cabrera, .420

How about some free agent projections: [...]

At just 38 years old, Manny Acta has established himself as one of the best, and brightest, managers in baseball today. After taking over a team that many thought would lose well over 100 games, Acta led the Washington Nationals to 73 victories this season, his first as a big league skipper.Manny Acta

To those familiar with him, though, his success is anything but surprising. Few have been so prepared to take the reigns of a Major League team at such a young age. Acta managed in the Astros minor league system for eight years (1993-2000) before becoming a coach at New Orleans in 2001. He reached the majors the following year, working as Frank Robinson’s third base coach in Montreal. In 2005, he shifted to New York, following Omar Minaya and his staff to the Mets.

He had quickly built quite a reputation for himself around baseball, both in the United States and in the Caribbean. A staple of the Dominican Winter League for years, Acta was named manager of the Dominican Republic’s entry in the World Baseball Classic in the spring of 2006. Just months later, he was the new head man in D.C., taking over for his former boss, Frank Robinson. [...]

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