Twenty observations from an eventful opening three weeks
David Ortiz could be running out of chances as an everyday player in Boston
Atlanta's Jason Heyward has proved to be every bit as good as advertised
The Yankees and Phillies both look good enough to get back to the World Series
It's been an eventful first couple weeks, and here are my initial observations, suggestions, rumors, regrets and recriminations ...
1. David Ortiz appears lost and may be about to lose significant playing time.
Somehow, Ortiz has been even worse at the start of this season than he was at the beginning of last year. Through 11 games in 2009, Ortiz was batting .186 with a .275 on-base percentage and .209 slugging percentage, no home runs, four RBIs and 12 strikeouts; this year, he's hitting .146/.222/.268 with zero home runs, two RBIs and 17 strikeouts. But there's a big difference. Last year, all the other Red Sox started so well they could afford to carry Big Papi. That isn't the case this year. The Red Sox now have to guard against getting buried in a ridiculously tough division. The Yankees and Rays are everything everyone expected. But so far, the Red Sox are not. Mike Lowell got the call as starting designated hitter the last two games against left-handed pitchers, and he needs to keep getting more calls, against lefties and maybe even righties, too. Someone familiar with Boston's thinking say they know they are in deep already and can't waste time, saying it's "conceivable'' Ortiz could find himself riding an awful lot of pine in the near future.
Red Sox manager Terry Francona is thought to be more reluctant to switch away from Ortiz. He said he will start Ortiz tonight against Orioles right-hander Jeremy Guthrie and has referred to calls to bench Big Papi based on numbers "fantasy" baseball. But if Ortiz's nightmarish start continues along this path, Francona will have to confront the possibility that fantasy will have become a harsh reality.
2. Jason Heyward is everything he's been built up to be and more.
From the very first swing of his career -- an Opening Day home run against the Cubs -- Heyward has been electrifying. Still just 20 years old, the kid who entered the season as Baseball America's No. 1 overall prospect won a starting job in spring training and is hitting .286 with four homers, 16 RBIs and a .999 OPS. Scouts say he has incredible plate discipline and fabulous basreunning instincts. Indeed, he appears to be once-in-a-decade positional prospect.
3. Ozzie Guillen and Kenny Williams remain the odd couple.
According to people who know both men, White Sox manager Guillen and general manager Williams are regularly engaged in heated dialogue and aren't exactly loving each other lately. Guillen, who's making more progress with his Twitter account than his team, and Williams, who's smart like Guillen and can be just as feisty, do love each other when they're winning. But not so much now that the White Sox are 5-11 and in last place in the AL Central, already six games out. It doesn't matter; they know they are stuck with each other for better or worse, like a marriage. They are both Jerry Reinsdorf guys, and if you're one of Reinsdorf's guys, you're golden. So suck it up, fellas, your pitching is the best in your division and it's early enough to get back in it.
4. Andruw Jones has regained his form and his game.
After two wasted years in L.A. followed by a half-step back in Texas, Jones looks like his old self on the South Side of Chicago, batting .323 with four HRs. He's doing a lot of DHing for the offensively-challenged team, but he looked so good in spring training that one NL scout suggested Jones can still play center field close to the way he did as a perennial Gold Glover with the Braves and may be wasted as DH.
5. Never bet against the Twins.
Whatever you think their record will be, they usually do 10 games better. Sure, they gave up their beloved Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome. And sure, they lost their supposedly indispensable closer, Joe Nathan. But there they are back in first place again in their new park with Jon Rauch and his underwhelming stuff closing out victories. My first regret: not picking them to win the AL Central.
6. The Phillies look as good or better than everyone thought.
The "best team in the National League,'' one GM already declared. Which should come as no surprise. They've got a lot going for them, even with rotation, bullpen and injury questions early. Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins form about the best three-man nucleus in the game. Utley is picking up where he left of in the playoffs, and Howard is a superstar who doesn't get his due, possibly because he's in the same league and era as The Great Albert Pujols. And you know what? He's transformed himself into a decent first baseman. "He'll surprise you with his agility,'' is the way one scout put it. Ballyhooed newcomer Roy Halladay has been even better than expected, going 4-0 with a 0.82 ERA, top free-agent acquisition Placido Polanco has been just what they hoped for in the No. 2 hole (he's hitting .383) and Jose Contreras looks comfortable again in a relief role.
7. Neftali Feliz is making the Rangers look very smart
Rangers manager Ron Washington, who has some heat on him, made the right move in switching quickly to Feliz, who brings more heat than anyone in the game. He hit 102-mph on the gun in his latest game against the Red Sox, when he was between 99-102 on every fastball. No one in baseball throws harder. And maybe no trade from the past decade will prove to be better than Texas' blockbuster deal in 2007 to move Mark Teixeira to the Braves for a long list of bona fide prospects, none of whom have been better than Feliz.
8. We're close to a closer controversy in California.
Brian Fuentes came off the disabled list and on Wednesday he allowed a game-tying and then a game-winning home run, then was booed on his way off the mound. Even when he led the league in saves last year, he wasn't impressing anyone. The Angels were wise to sign Fernando Rodney as a free agent just in case they're up for a change.
9. Ubaldo Jimenez is "going to be a big-time star."
That's what one GM told me this spring. After basically flipping a coin I took Ricky Nolasco to win the Cy Young over Jimenez. (Halladay was too easy a choice.) But so far, nobody beyond Halladay has been better than Jimenez (3-0, 1.29), who became the first Rockies pitcher ever to throw a no-hitter, leaving the Rays, Padres and Mets as the only teams without one.
10. Big Pelf may be baseball's most improved pitcher.
After failing to live up to much of the hype that has accompanied him at the start of his career, the Mets' Mike Pelfrey is 3-0 with a 0.86 ERA and there are several reasons why. He replaced a so-so-slider with a dynamic split-fingered fastball, got himself into better shape with a new conditioning program, and appears to be benefiting from some offseason consultation with noted sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman. "He seems a little more under control,'' one scout said. Pelfrey was especially impressive in his most recent outings, volunteering to come out of the pen to save the Mets' 20-inning victory over the Cardinals in between bookend starting performances of seven shutout innings each.
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