Keep up with the latest news, notes and developments with Fungoes, a daily journal for all things baseball that will last all season long.
The Wild Card: Which Kids are Alright?
You don’t have to look any further than the money lavished this past offseason on Barry Zito ($126 million), Daisuke Matsuzaka ($103.1 million), Gil Meche ($55 million), Ted Lilly ($40 million), Adam Eaton ($24.5 million), and Jason Marquis ($21 million) to see that starting pitching is the most valuable commodity baseball.
That’s why last year’s crop of young hurlers was so exciting. Rookie Justin Verlander helped lead the Tigers to the World Series and won the American League Rookie of the Year award; Jered Weaver and Francisco Liriano dominated; the Giants’ 21-year-old phenom Matt Cain spent his first full season in the majors; and Cole Hamels invented socks. Then there was Cleveland’s Jeremy Sowers and the Marlins’ trio of 22-year-old starters led by no-hit artist Anibal Sanchez. What the game needed most, it was finally getting: an influx of talented, young, starting pitchers.
This year, Mike Pelfrey and Jason Hirsh, both of whom made their major league debuts in 2006, and the White Sox’s John Danks, who made his debut this season, broke camp as members of the Mets’, Rockies’, and White Sox’s rotations respectively, but the biggest debut of them all happened Thursday night in the Bronx. Twenty-year-old Phil Hughes, rated by both Baseball Prospectus and Baseball America as the top pitching prospect in the minor leagues coming into the 2007, struck out five Blue Jays in 4 1/3 innings in an expectedly rocky but overall impressive debut for a 20-year-old with just three starts above double-A on his resume.
Hughes will likely return to the minors for more seasoning before establishing himself as a permanent part of the Yankee rotation later in the year, but his arrival, as well as the approaching end of April, begs a look at what this year’s crop of young starting pitching talent might yield:
Tim Lincecum, Giants
Drafted out of the University of Washington last June, the 22-year-old Lincecum is known as "Seabiscuit" because of his small stature (5’10" 155 lbs.). Next to Hughes, he is the pitching prospect most likely to make a major impact this season. Lincecum dominated the high-A California League in six starts late last year (48 strikeouts and 25 base runners in 27 2/3 innings) and jumped straight to the triple-A Pacific Coast League this year. In four starts in the hitting-happy PCL, Lincecum has struck out 32 in 25 innings while allowing just 20 base runners and just one run. In San Francisco, fifth starter Russ Ortiz has faired better than expected, but it would seem to be just a matter of time before the bottom drops out. In the meantime, there are some whispers that Lincecum could be called up to help out in the Giants’ bullpen.
Homer Bailey, Reds
Bailey, like Hughes, is a big, hard-throwing, soon-to-be 21-year-old righty who was drafted out of high school in 2004. Also like Hughes, Bailey split 2006 between the high-A Florida State League and Double-A. Unlike Hughes, his organization’s major-league rotation is flourishing, though, like Russ Ortiz, one doesn’t imagine that Kyle Lohse, Eric Milton, and converted reliever Matt Belisle will all be able to maintain their solid early-season performances. Bailey, meanwhile, has had a solid start to his triple-A career with Louisville (1.69 ERA, 0.98 WHIP), but his strikeout rate, which had been consistently more than ten-per-nine innings over the last three levels, has thus far dropped by nearly half.
Yovani Gallardo, Brewers
Gallardo is another 2004 high school draft pick who answers to the same description as Hughes and Bailey. Despite being a few ticks down on most prospect boards, Gallardo has suffered no strikeout deflation over his first four starts in the PCL. After allowing four earned runs in his PCL debut (but still striking out seven in five innings), Gallardo has dominated in his past three outings, allowing just seven hits in 18 innings and striking out 26. He could be the first of the pitchers on this list to make a permanent move into his organization’s major-league rotation, as Ben Sheets’ fragility could create a large enough opening for Gallardo to come up and establish himself.
Matt Garza, Twins
Drafted out of Cal State Fresno in 2005, Garza made nine starts for the Twins last year but the results were poor and, despite a strong spring showing, he landed back in Triple-A Rochester this spring. That doesn’t sound so unfair when talking about a 23-year-old in his third professional season, but the fifth starter the Twins took north instead was Sidney Ponson, the washout who was released by three teams in a 12-month span from September 2005 through August ’06. It should come as no surprise to anyone, least of all the Twins, that Ponson has posted a 8.44 ERA and a 2.06 WHIP over his first four starts. Unfortunately, Garza’s return to Triple-A hasn’t gone as well as his original five starts there last year, and he missed his last turn with neck problems. That might temporarily turn attention to the Red Wings’ finesse righty Kevin Slowey, also a 23-year-old 2005 college draftee, who has dominated in his first three Triple-A starts, local lefty Glen Perkins (who currently resides in the Minnesota bullpen), or 2006 disappointment Scott Baker, who’s heating up with Rochester. Garza, however, remains the name to watch in this organization.
Adam Miller, Indians
This 22-year-old high school product was slowed by elbow concerns in 2005, but got back up to speed at Double-A Akron last year to reestablish himself as one of the top pitching prospects in the game. His early returns from Triple-A Buffalo have been mixed, but the Indians’ rotation has struggled in the early going, and the return of Cliff Lee from the DL may not be enough. Don’t be surprised if Miller rides a hot streak to Cleveland sometime around midseason.
Luke Hochevar, Royals
Hochevar was twice drafted by the Dodgers. Selected out of high school in 2002, he didn’t sign. Selected again out of the University of Tennessee in 2005, he drew out negotiations, twice switched agents, once reneging on a deal in the process, and ultimately failed to sign again. He spent 2006 pitching in the independent American Association until the Royals made him the first overall pick in last year’s draft and signed him to a four-year major league deal worth $5.3 million. Having made just four starts in A-ball last year, he’s essentially beginning his professional career at Double-A Wichita this year and seems to have found his groove in just his third start at that level. In his third and fourth starts of the young season combined, Hochevar has struck out 18 in 14 2/3 innings while walking none and allowing three runs on eight hits. He’s actually a month older than Zack Greinke, and there’s no one blocking his path to the Royals’ rotation.
Jeff Niemann, Devil Rays
Drafted out of Rice in 2004, Niemann didn’t make his pro debut until 2005, quickly shooting up to Double-A, but also having his season cut short by shoulder surgery. After returning in the second half last year, the 6’9", 280-pound 24-year-old is off to a solid, but not overwhelming start with Triple-A Durham. Provided he stays healthy, there’s no reason not to expect him to find a place in the dismal Devil Rays’ rotation later this year.
Philip Humber, Mets
Niemann’s teammate at Rice, Humber was taken one pick earlier in the 2004 draft (third overall to Niemann’s fourth). Like Niemann, Humber didn’t make his pro debut until 2005 only to have that season cut short by Tommy John surgery. After getting back on the horse last year, Humber pitched his way from rookie ball to double-A and topped it off with two hitless innings for the big club in a late-September call-up. This year he’s at Triple-A New Orleans, where he’ll be ready to swap places with struggling fellow rookie Pelfrey. Not that Humber doesn’t have his own issues. Though he’s been strong overall, he gave up four runs in three innings in his second of four starts thus far. Curiously, he struck out six in that outing. In his other three "good" starts combined, he’s struck out just 11 in 18 innings, a rather pedestrian rate given his typical pace of one per inning.
Andrew Miller, Tigers
The sixth overall pick in last year’s draft out of the University of North Carolina, Miller’s contract required him to see some action in the major leagues last year, which he did, handing out ten walks in 10 1/3 relief innings for the Tigers after dominating just five relief innings for their high-A Florida State League team in Lakeland. This year, the 21-year-old lefty is back with the Lakeland Flying Tigers and has thus far alternated impressive and unimpressive starts. His most impressive statistic thus far is his 4.36 groundout-to-flyout ratio. That won’t get him back to the bigs this year on its own, but he’s still a name to watch, especially in this organization, which proved last year that it’s not afraid to skip levels with college pitchers.
Labels: Wild Card
NL East: Where are the Rookies?
The 2007 National League Rookie of the Year will not hail from the NL East.
This thought occurred to me as I sat in the Dolphin Stadium press box on Tuesday night, watching the Braves flambé rookie Marlins starter Rick Vanden Hurk for six earned runs on four hits and four walks in his one and only inning of work. (I bet you didn't know -- and probably don't care to -- that Vanden Hurk is just the fifth Dutchman to play in the majors, after Bert Blyleven and the immortal Win Remmerswaal, Rikkert Faneyte, and Robert Eenhoorn.) The Marlins sent the vicious Henricius (Vanden Hurk's full first name) all the way down to Double-A Carolina immediately after the game, although one wonders if they entertained thoughts of shipping him back to Eindhoven.
In recent years, the NL East has produced bumper crop after bumper crop of rooks. Last season, thanks in large measure to the Marlins, more than 58 percent (7 of 12) of the NL ROY vote-getters came from the division, including the top four finishers in Hanley Ramirez, Ryan Zimmerman, Dan Uggla and Josh Johnson. Philadelphia's Ryan Howard won the award in 2005, with Jeff Francoeur finishing third; Dontrelle Willis took it in 2003; then-Brave Rafael Furcal won in 2000.
This spring, however, the field lies fallow. In a poll that appears in this week's SI in which 229 National League players were asked to predict who will win this year's ROY award, the top NL East vote getter was Mike Pelfrey at 4 percent -- and the ballyhooed Mets prospect has been mediocre in his three starts, currently sporting a 7.90 ERA after the Rockies creamed him yesterday.
Several players who have not before played a full season (including Braves second baseman Kelly Johnson, Mets starter John Maine and Nats starter Shawn Hill) have impressed in their first regular gigs, but they don't technically qualify as rookies. And while I expect a few first-years starters, including Pelfrey and Washington's Matt Chico, to move up the list in the next few months, none of them have so far done anything special. Here, then, is a thin rookie class's top five to this point, in descending order:
5. Matt Lindstrom, Marlins RHP
Lindstrom took the loss in Tuesday's game because Braves starter Mark Redman turned in a performance as bad as Vanden Hurk's and allowed four first inning runs of his own to tie the score (Lindstrom allowed only one run, the tie-breaker), but he's been a key component of the most overworked bullpen in the majors. The hard-throwing 6-4 righty has a sub-three ERA and is striking out more than a batter an inning. He still must work on his control (6 BB in 9+ IP).
4. Henry Owens, Marlins RHP
On Wednesday Florida manager Fredi Gonzalez continue to refuse to officially name Owens as his closer, but didn't deny it when reporters asked if it can be assumed that he is. (I was tempted to ask Fredi to cough or blink twice if it's true that Owens will receive the next save opportunity, but refrained). He's got a save and a WHIP under 1.30, but a team-worst K rate (3.09 per 9 innings); there aren't many clubs that can say that about their closer, and for good reason.
3. Alejandro de Aza, Marlins CF
Surprise, another rookie Marlin! De Aza started his career with an eight game hitting streak—then he sprained his ankle in his ninth game and hasn't played since. Still, he's a speedster hitting .303 who should regain his starting role and No. 8 hitting spot from Alfredo Amezaga when he returns. This year, that's good enough for third place.
2. Carlos Ruiz, Phillies C
Philadelphia signed free agent Rod Barajas from Texas to catch for them, but Ruiz, in his ninth year with the organization, has 50 at bats and a .300 average to Barajas's 22 and .189. The 28-year-old Panamanian has thrown out just three of 16 basestealers, but has allowed only one passed ball. Ruiz could solidify his hold on the job if Barajas continues to struggle with the bat.
1. Joe Smith, Mets RP
The "common name, uncommon game" joke has already been used by scores of New York writers, but it's appropriate. Smith, who a year ago was pitching for Wright State, pitched 32.2 innings in Single and Double A before making the big club this spring. Check out his line so far: 1-0, 10.0 IP, 10 K, 1.00 WHIP, 0 ER. Project those numbers out, and the NL East may have itself another Rookie of the Year after all.
Labels: NL East
AL West: How Do They Do It?
We're almost a month into the 2007 season, and I have one resounding AL West question: How in the name of Justin Duchscherer (just call him "Duke" -- it's much easier) are the A's in first place?
To explain this inquiry a bit further, let's review what's transpired since last season ended:
Once again -- how are the A's in first? Almost a month into the season, Oakland's offensive production has been nothing short of pathetic. The A's are last in the majors in batting average (.228) and slugging percentage (.340), and last in the AL in hitting with runners in scoring position (.221). The bullpen has been horrendous as well, posting a 5.22 ERA.
But for all the personnel losses, injuries, drama and offensive woes, the A's have excelled in quite possibly the most important aspects of the game: starting pitching and defense. Leading the majors in starter ERA (.207), Oakland has had 19 straight starters give up three runs or fewer (an A's record), with seven of the last nine yielding one run or fewer. Also, Wednesday night marked the 21st straight game in which the A's held their opponent scoreless in the first inning, an ongoing major league record to start the season. The glovework has been there, too: Oakland has an outstanding defensive efficiency rating (turning balls in play into outs) of .733.
The leader of the rotation thus far has been Dan Haren. Haren entered this year surrounded by breakout buzz, and through five starts he leads the AL in ERA (1.41). The A's have also received solid performances from Joe Blanton, Joe Kennedy and especially Rich Harden, who had the second lowest ERA in the league (1.42) before heading to the DL.
But the most pleasant surprise has been the performances of two youngsters thrust into the starting rotation. Filling in for Loaiza, Chad Gaudin has been brilliant. Coming off a solid '06 campaign out of the 'pen, the 24-year-old Gaudin has posted a 1.85 ERA over four starts. After Harden was placed on the DL, the A's called up Dallas Braden to start Tuesday. In his major league debut, the 23-year-old rode his screwball and baffled the Orioles over six innings to the tune of three hits, one run and six strikeouts.
As Huston Street recently told The Oakland Tribune, "Every team has injuries, but who steps in for those injuries? We have guys with the ability to step in and get it done. That's the reason for our success."
Granted, the A's record is just 11-10 and they are actually tied for first place with the Angels -- another team that has struggled with injuries in the early going. But the fact that Oakland holds an early share of the AL West lead after all it has been through should frighten the rest of the division. It's no secret that the A's are a second-half team; their .634 winning percentage (376-217) after the All-Star break since 1990 is tops in baseball. If Oakland finds itself atop the division at the break (the A's achieved this last season for the first time since 1990), watch out.
Labels: AL West
NL Central: It's Time to Bench Biggio
Everyone's waiting. Prized outfield prospect Hunter Pence -- arguably the Astros' finest hitting prospect since Lance Berkman -- is waiting. So are second baseman-turned-outfielder Chris Burke, All-Star second baseman Mark Loretta and the entire city of Houston. Everyone's waiting for Craig Biggio to reach 3,000 hits. The march to the milestone has become an agonizing waddle.
Biggio is Houston's leadoff hitter and everyday second baseman, and he is hitting .237 with a .284 on-base percentage. This is not simply the case of a slow start; last year, the 41-year-old hit .264/.325/.468, and only .178/.253/.388 on the road. His speed is fading, and his defense is now subpar. The time has come: On the cusp of the 3,000 hits, Craig Biggio must sit. Biggio should no longer be an everyday player. The punchless Astros rank 22nd in the majors in runs scored and have scored two runs or fewer in five of their first 19 games, and Biggio isn't helping.
The Astros, however, look committed to playing their icon daily until he joins the 3K-hit club, and even more perplexing, Phil Garner is committed to having Biggio bat leadoff. Meanwhile, Pence, who hit .571 with eight extra base hits in 28 spring training at-bats last month, is slicing up pitchers at Triple-A Round Rock -- he doubled three times on Tuesday to raise his average to .342 -- and has scouts saying he's a young Dale Murphy ready to rake in The Show. (His fate is tied to the seven-time All-Star because Burke has been pushed to center field by Biggio.)
Meanwhile, Houston is fading fast in the NL Central -- not to mention in the Roger Clemens sweepstakes.
Around the division:
Labels: NL Central
AL Central: Don't Forget the Twins
Who is Alexi Casilla?
It's an honest question. At 11-8, the Twins are tied for first in the AL Central, they've won their division four of the past five years and I still can't keep track of everybody.
Looking at Minnesota's 2004 roster –- the third of its four NL Central championships this decade –- feels like being in a time warp. Of the 10 players with the most at-bats that year, only Torii Hunter remains. So you can understand why, while watching Monday night's Twins-Indians tilt, I thought the announcers had made a mistake when they said that the Twins' speedy second baseman with the game-tying two-RBI double was Casilla. Seriously, they've had Luis Castillo two years and they can't get his name right?
Instead, the gaffe was mine. Casilla is simply next in the long line of Twins prospects. Minnesota track record of developing players is phenomenal, the unfortunate release of David Ortiz notwithstanding.
This is where playing in a small market is actually beneficial for the Twins -– they only need to worry about internal expectations. Unlike, say, the Yankees, who find themselves extraordinarily short-handed despite having baseball's biggest payroll. While Phil Hughes is rushed into the rotation Thursday night, Scott Proctor continues his pursuit of Cal Ripken's consecutive games streak (OK, slight exaggeration, but he did appear in 12 of New York's first 17 games), Andy Pettitte is applying for dual citizenship as a starter and reliever and the Jeff Karstens/Chase Wright era has produced a 10.22 ERA.
By contrast, The Twins lost ace-in-training Francisco Liriano for the season and still have the luxury of letting top prospect Matt Garza develop in Triple-A.
Clearly, Minnesota needs to put Sidney Ponson's pitching career to sleep. The man hasn't had a sub-5.00 ERA since 2003 and is off to a horrible start (1-2, 9.39 ERA, 2.28 WHIP). Do you think the pressure cooker of a New York or Boston could allow an every-fifth-day disaster like Ponson to remain in the rotation? No chance. Just last season he lasted a mere five appearances for the Yankees. Yet in Minneapolis, there was no outburst, just GM Terry Ryan telling reporters, "We're getting close to the point where we need to see more progress." Keep in mind that allowing only one earned run per inning would be progress at this point.
Of course, keeping the abundance of talent –- hope you like pinstripes, Johan Santana -– will be difficult, but flying under the radar seems to suit the Twins just fine. SI, for instance, picked them to finish fourth in their division. They've hit four fewer home runs than Alex Rodriguez, but they run well (perfect on their first 19 stolen base attempts), field cleanly (fourth in the majors in fielding percentage) and close games very well (arguably the best bullpen with Joe Nathan being set up by Pat Neshek and Juan Rincon).
As long as Carlos Silva doesn't try to sneak high fastballs by anyone -– Victor Martinez nearly poked a hole in the Metrodome roof last night with one such offering -– then the Twins ought to have as good a chance as anyone down the stretch, even in a division where two other teams have represented the AL in the last two World Series.
Labels: AL Central
NL West: Simply The Best?
You'll forgive some folks in Los Angeles if they're still a little gunshy about the Dodgers, the winningest team in the National League so far at 13-6. Two years ago, their team, just like this one, was 13-6 and leading the National League West, only to finish the year in disastrous 71-91, Jim Tracy- and Paul DePodesta-firing fashion.
The common assumption is that the 2007 Dodgers can suffer no similar collapse because they are deeper. Luis Gonzalez and Nomar Garciaparra have been producing, but many fans root for players like Matt Kemp and James Loney to rise from understudy status (see below). Meanwhile, strong Aprils by Mark Hendrickson and Brett Tomko have shown that the Dodgers can handle an injury to a starting pitcher (Jason Schmidt) before even asking promising youngsters like Chad Billingsley and the rehabilitating Hong-Chih Kuo to move into the rotation.
When Russell Martin hit a walkoff grand slam in the bottom of the 10th inning Saturday, an inning after the Dodgers scored the tying run on a walk, wild pitch, error and passed ball, you sensed that the opening scene of the "How They Reached October" highlights package was in the can.
But when Juan Pierre dropped a fly ball to center field Sunday, allowing the Pittsburgh Pirates to score their third run on their way to a 7-5 victory in Los Angeles, the rewrite team had its say.
In a twist on the old Garry Maddox proverb, two-thirds of the earth is covered by water -- and Gonzalez and Pierre have gone swimming. No one expected much defensively from the 39-year-old Gonzalez or the throwing arm of Pierre, but the startling revelations for those who haven't watched Pierre closely before are the bad reads he has been getting on fly balls. Expected to be the glue of the Dodgers outfield, Pierre has been almost as toxic as the adhesive on George Costanza's wedding invitations. The infield has been strong defensively, but anything past them has had opposing hitters thinking double right out of the box.
The Dodgers are also struggling offensively at third base, waiting for Wilson Betemit's hits to fall (he's 5 for 40 so far, though he has walked 10 times to nearly match Pierre in on-base percentage, .288 to .302). And as welcome as the strong starts by Tomko (2.65 ERA) and Hendrickson (1.62) have been, their long, nondescript careers offer no promise they can maintain those levels.
On the other hand ...
Here is a team that has won 68 percent of its games while getting a 7.36 ERA from Schmidt, a 6.52 ERA from Billingsley, zero innings from Kuo and sizzling minor leaguer Jonathan Meloan (0.96 ERA,14 strikeouts and no walks in 9 1/3 innings with AA Jacksonville) , a .438 OPS from Betemit, a .426 OPS from Rafael Furcal, and six major-league hits combined from highly anticipated prospects Kemp, Loney and Andy LaRoche. In other words, there's a cushion.
Most common misunderstandingsThe Dodgers were my top story this week, but I could easily have chosen the San Francisco Giants, who have won five straight and seven of eight, allowing only 2.5 runs per game in the process. With a 2-1 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks on Sunday, San Francisco moved into third place in the NL West at 9-8, three games back of Los Angeles. Swept by the Dodgers in the first week of the season, the Giants come to Los Angeles for a three-game series beginning Tuesday, looking to postpone revelation of their fluke status and show that starting pitching (1.08 ERA over the past seven days and Barry Bonds (1.270 OPS!) will be enough to keep them in the race for a little while.
In the meantime, I asked five dedicated NL West bloggers to pass along the most common misunderstanding about their teams. Here's what they said, leading with the Giants and then working our way clockwise geographically:
San Francisco Giants
Grant Brisbee, McCovey Chronicles: "I've been racking my brain trying to think of some great answer to this one, and I can't. Everyone pretty much has the Giants pegged. They're old and brittle. They don't have enough power. The bullpen's an anthropomorphic jug of kerosene. That was the consensus opinion before the season, and it's holding up. One area where the team doesn't get much respect, though, is the young pitching. Matt Cain looks as good this season as he did in the last half of '06, Tim Lincecum is striking out 27.5 hitters per nine innings in AAA, and Noah Lowry is a fine bottom-of-the-rotation guy who is locked up for the next few years. And while the Barry Zito contract is obscene, he should still be a good-not-great pitcher for a couple of years, at least. The pundits who are quick to bury the team in the same crypt as the '98 Orioles might want to wait and see what the young rotation can do. It's easier to build a young lineup than it is a young rotation."
Mark T.R. Donohue, Bad Altitude: For my part, I would rather people have misconceptions about the Rockies than simply not think about them at all, which is more common. I miss the days when there was an incredibly simple answer to this question, which was the old, "They need to find some gimmick strategy to win at altitude." Run-scoring trends at Coors Field have changed so erratically the last few seasons that no one is really sure whether the humidor is belatedly kicking in, the division is going through a protracted power shortage, or maybe the Rockies pitchers are a little better. Maybe it's not as inside-baseball as some other things that are underappreciated about the team, but I think the biggest misconception about the team is that they can't win, period, because they're the Rockies, and it's not really worth examining the talent they've so far assembled and the pieces they still need to find because they're just never going anywhere.
Jim McLennan, AZ Snakepit: I guess it's that the pitching rotation does not just consist of Brandon Webb, plus a bunch of has-beens and never will-bes. In Webb, Randy Johnson, Doug Davis and Livan Hernandez, we've got four men who were Opening Day starters on their teams last year, and even with Johnson out thus far, our starters have, to date, a cumulative ERA (approximately) the same as the much-more feted Dodgers staff. The walks being allowed by Davis do concern me, but in general, this is a rotation that will keep us in games, and save the bullpen from the punishment they endured in 2006. And at the back end, we have good prospects like Micah Owings, Dustin Nippert and Edgar Gonzalez; odds are they'll see their share of action, simply though normal wear and tear, but I'm not worried about depth as far as starters go. Now, relief pitching, that would be a horse of an entirely different color...
San Diego Padres
Geoff Young, Ducksnorts: Probably the biggest misconception is that this is an old team. The highest-profile players -- Trevor Hoffman, Greg Maddux, David Wells -- are way up there in years, but the Padres have a solid nucleus of young, affordable talent that should help them remain competitive now and into the future. Jake Peavy appears to be rebounding from a subpar (by his standards) 2006 and is on a long-term deal, while Adrian Gonzalez and Chris Young have just signed extensions of their own. Cla Meredith, who dominated last season and who has made Bonds look terrible at the plate twice in the early going, turns 24 in June. Even guys like Khalil Greene, Clay Hensley and Kevin Kouzmanoff are potential contributors who aren't old. The Padres don't have a lot of high-ceiling guys like, say, the Diamondbacks, and the farm system still needs retooling, but there's more going on here than a lot of people might realize.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Andrew Grant, True Blue L.A.: While people do recognize that the Dodgers' lineup lacks power, they tend to brush that off by saying that the Dodgers lacked power last year, and they had no trouble scoring runs. This is a situation where correlation doesn't equal causation. This offseason, the Dodgers lost J.D. Drew, who led the Dodgers in most offensive categories in 2006, and a surprisingly effective Kenny Lofton, who contributed a .360 on base percentage in 522 plate appearances. They were replaced by Gonzalez, who has declined for the last five years and is moving from one of the most hitter friendly parks in baseball to Dodger Stadium, and Pierre, who hasn't exceeded a .330 on base percentage since 2004. Also, this team was incredibly clutch in 2006. With runners in scoring position, the Dodgers' team OPS went increased by 43 points. If this regresses back to normal, the Dodgers could be in big trouble. However, this weakness could be mitigated if the Dodgers do their best to get prospects Kemp, LaRoche and Loney into the starting nine. These three are arguably the best hitters in the Dodgers organization and would provide a huge boost to a below-average offense.
Jon Weisman is an SI.com columnist and founder of Dodger Thoughts.
Labels: NL West
AL East: Jays hurting, O's winning
The most unusual thing about the current AL East standings can be summed up by the phrase "second-place Baltimore Orioles." Don't be fooled. The O's have won eight of their past nine games, but those games have all come against the Royals, Devil Rays and Blue Jays. The Blue Jays may not seem like they belong in that group, but the injury bug hit them hard a week ago and they've gone just 1-5 since. Before that, they too had fattened up on a menu of Rays and Royals, those two teams yielding the Jays' only series wins of the year thus far.
Within the span of three days, Toronto placed its starting left fielder, third baseman, and closer on the DL. Left fielder Reed Johnson went down with a herniated disk and will likely miss more than two months following back surgery. Closer B. J. Ryan, who was diagnosed with an elbow strain by famed Tommy John surgeon Dr. James Andrews, is expected to be out four-to-six weeks. Third baseman and No. 5 hitter Troy Glaus went down with bone spurs in his left heal and tight hamstring but could be back by end of month.
Though Johnson will be out the longest, his loss is the least significant. The Toronto pitchers will likely miss Johnson's defense in left, but 23-year-old rookie Adam Lind, whose career minor-league line entering the season was .319/.382/.511, should more than replace his production at the plate and could very well relegate Johnson to a fourth-outfielder role upon his return, which is a job Johnson's better suited for anyway.
The other two injuries are killers, however. The loss of Ryan won't so much be felt in the ninth inning, as Jason Frasor should do a fine job filling in as closer, but rather in the middle innings where the Jays are relying on converted starters Shaun Marcum, Casey Janssen and Victor Zambrano. Indeed, Marcum blew a game in the eighth inning on Thursday against the Red Sox, then combined with Janssen to blow a two-run lead in the eighth against Baltimore the next night, with Zambrano coming on in the ninth to take the loss. Manger John Gibbons shares the blame here. Jeremy Accardo is the team's second best righty reliever behind Frasor, but hasn't pitched with a lead in two weeks, while starter-turned very effective LOOGY Scott Downs has only pitched with a lead once in that span.
Then again, the problem could be that the Jays rarely have a lead. That brings us back to Glaus. Toronto has scored 6.25 runs per game with Glaus in the lineup and 3.20 runs per game without him. The Jays' current stop-gap is a platoon dominated by lefty-batting no-hit journeyman infielder Jason Smith (.234/.276/.384 career), with rookie Ryan Roberts, a solid-hitting second baseman playing out of position, confined to starts against lefties. Their backup option is veteran good-field/no-hit shortstop John McDonald (a career .240/.283/.316 hitter). That downgrade is far more detrimental to the offense than the loss of Ryan is to the bullpen. Glaus is supposedly expected back before the end of the month, but to read Will Carroll's description of his heel injury (bone spurs rubbing against and inflaming his Achilles tendon), it seems Glaus will have to cope with the problem all season long, which could result in extra days off, a possible decline in production, and perhaps even repeat trips to the DL. Unfortunately for Toronto, with Frank Thomas entrenched as the designated hitter, there's really no way to ease the strain on Glaus' heal without crippling the offense.
The Yankees are the mirror image of the Blue Jays. For one thing, their offense is seemingly indestructible. In a three-game series against the Red Sox's three best pitchers this past weekend, with Hideki Matsui on the DL, Johnny Damon missing a game due to back pain, and Jorge Posada limited to just three plate appearances all weekend by a bruised thumb, the Yankees scored nearly six runs per game, holding the lead in the seventh inning of the first and third games and sending the tying run to the plate in the ninth in all three. The Yankees' problem is the rotation, which has been in shambles all season and saw rookies Darrell Rasner, Jeff Karstens and Chase Wright take turns the last time through because three of their intended starters (Chien-Ming Wang, Mike Mussina, and, surprise, Carl Pavano) are on the DL. The good news for the Bombers is that, also unlike Toronto, they're activating players from the DL rather than placing them on it. Matsui returns tonight and claims to be at full strength after missing the minimum due to a hamstring pull suffered in the cold during the team's season-opening homestand. Wang returns tomorrow night to start against the Devil Rays. Mussina should rejoin the team next week in Texas. Meanwhile the struggles of Karstens and Wright in Boston over the weekend could motivate the return of Rasner, who pitched well in his last two starts before being demoted out of necessity to ease the strain on the American League's busiest bullpen, or start the pleas for überprospect Phil Hughes.
The Red Sox, took advantage of the hobbled Yankees this past weekend, but that's to their credit. Two of their three wins required late-game comebacks: a five-run eighth-inning rally against Mike Myers, Luis Vizcaino, and Mariano Rivera in the first game and a three-run seventh inning homer by Mike Lowell off Scott Proctor in the last. Assuming the Yankees will eventually solve their rotation problems, this division will likely come down to these two teams and Boston's three-game sweep this past weekend could loom large in September. The rivals rematch for a three-game set in the Bronx this upcoming weekend with more favorable pitching match-ups for New York, thanks in part to Wang's return from the DL.
Incidentally, the Red Sox honored Red Auerbach on Friday night by donning green jerseys and caps (actually an old St. Patrick's Day design that didn't look so terribly out of place in the green of Fenway Park). Also, because they were rained out on April 15, the Sox honored Jackie Robinson last night instead. Coco Crisp and David Ortiz were the Red Sox wearing 42, but Crisp only played the final two innings as a defensive replacement. Meanwhile, Ortiz wearing number 42 in a Red Sox uniform looks less like a tribute to Robinson than a tribute to Mo Vaughn.
Cliff Corcoran is the co-author of Bronx Banter.
Labels: AL East
AL East blog (Monday)
NL West blog (Monday)
AL Central blog (Tuesday)
NL Central blog (Wednesday)
AL West blog (Thursday)
NL East blog (Thursday)
Wild Card (Friday)