What do we make of good starts and bad starts? How long do teams hang in before they make drastic changes? Because things haven’t gone according to plan in the first month, do they begin to think they won’t turn it around?
The Phillies started horribly last season, turned things around somewhat, but not enough to come close to a playoff berth.
This season, Ryan Howard is back but unproductive, and scouts say he’s “not moving around well,” especially defensively. Roy Halladay is heading into the twilight despite a recent uptick (2-1, 1.71 ERA in his last three starts). Michael Young hasn’t yet worked out. The Phillies don’t have much in the minors ready to come up, so at some point, with the Braves soaring and the Nationals likely to pick it up, do they begin to sell off pieces such as Cliff Lee? Getting Carlos Ruiz back (after a 25-game suspension for amphetamines) and Delmon Young (by early May) should help the offense, but if they don’t, then what?
The Mariners can’t be this bad, can they? Jack Zduriencik, already under fire in Seattle, went through great pains to rebuild the offense by obtaining Kendrys Morales from the Angels and Michael Morse from the Nationals, and it still hasn’t helped. The Mariners have even lost four games to the hapless Astros, that’s how bad things have gone.
The Blue Jays have been a disaster so far. Everything that could have gone wrong has gone wrong. They’ve lost their spark plug — Jose Reyes — for three months. The pitching staff, led by last year’s NL Cy Young winner, R.A. Dickey, has yet to click. You wonder if the Blue Jays would disassemble their team, much like the Marlins and Red Sox did last season, if by midseason it’s still a disaster. They gave up a good chunk of their prospects in deals with the Marlins and Mets.
We should also watch the White Sox, because there’s always talk that they would sell off players such as Gavin Floyd, Jake Peavy, Alexei Ramirez, Alex Rios, and maybe even Paul Konerko.
And there are teams who think they have a chance who are already looking to fill needs.
The Yankees have hung in remarkably well considering they are missing four All-Stars. Now Kevin Youkilis’s back is balky and the Yankees are looking for third base help, and a middle infielder who can protect them with Derek Jeter out.
The Yankees also need pitching depth, and they’re not going to find it at Triple A. They are also looking for a righthanded hitter to come off the bench.
The Orioles know they have the goods to compete. Now Dan Duquette is trying to tweak the roster, perhaps with a power bat off the bench and another starting pitcher.
The Rangers and underachieving Angels are looking for pitching depth. The Rangers would love another starter and the Angels need bullpen help. The Royals are finally in position where they can make moves to help the major league team.
The Dodgers have used eight starting pitchers, have Zack Greinke out for a couple of months, and Chad Billingsley just underwent Tommy John surgery. Things couldn’t have gone worse for the Dodgers, which has created an opportunity for the upstart Rockies and Diamondbacks in the NL West.
“Most years, you’re going to need eight or 10 starters to get through the year,” Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. “Somebody always goes down here or down there. But most years you don’t expect you’re going to need them in the first 20 games.
“We’re still in pretty good shape. We’re going to end up with five guys who are accomplished major league starters. And we’re still going to get Zack back. Nobody wants to hear our complaints. A lot of teams would like to be where we are with five accomplished starters, and really a sixth [Greinke] coming.”
The Rays are looking for a young, controllable offensive player, because their pitching needs run support. Wil Myers does not appear to be ready for prime time as the major piece acquired from the Royals in the James Shields deal. If Yunel Escobar (hamstring) is out for a while, the Rays could also be a team that realizes it can’t compete for a division title or wild card because it isn’t well-rounded.
And in the NL Central, the Cardinals, Pirates, Reds, and Brewers are all off to solid starts and may be looking to go for it. The Pirates are trying to avoid their 21st consecutive losing season. The Cardinals are excelling despite the loss of Chris Carpenter for the season, and it appears Brewers GM Doug Melvin’s acquisition of Kyle Lohse was nothing short of brilliant. The Reds, meanwhile, are solid and balanced.
“At this time of the year everyone is hopeful that if you’re going bad you can turn it around, and if you’re going good you can keep it up all year,” said one NL GM. “If you’re going bad, though, it’s a sinking feeling, especially for teams like Toronto or the Dodgers or even the Tigers or Mariners, who feel they did everything right to prepare for the season. And then there are teams like Boston, who did things and they’ve worked out.”
Valverde back with Tigers
In the coming weeks we’ll find out whether Jose Valverde is up to the task after a poor 2012 postseason, which basically made the decision easy for the Tigers to walk away from him. No question, teams can find closers on their staffs. The Giants did it with Sergio Romo after losing Brian Wilson.
The Tigers’ situation was a head-scratcher. After all, they have an excellent team. They have a potent offense and competent starting rotation, so it was an eye-opener when GM Dave Dombrowski left the closer role, in essence, unmanned.
Closers can make or break teams. If you have one who can’t get the job done, it can destroy your team. Now that Valverde is back in place, Tigers manager Jim Leyland can set up roles in the pen.
Now, it’s true that after a blown save in the second game of the season, no Tigers pitcher had a save opportunity until Valverde saved a 7-5 win over Kansas City last Wednesday. In that three-week span, the Tigers led by at least four runs entering the ninth in all the games they won.
So, the bullpen by committee was never really tested. Nonetheless, the Tigers chose to eliminate the situation, making Valverde the closer.
When the Red Sox lost Joel Hanrahan, they had Andrew Bailey to turn to. While Bailey suffered a long-term thumb injury last season, upon his return he was rusty. The Red Sox went into the offseason feeling they had to protect themselves at closer, so they traded for Hanrahan and decided Bailey would become the setup man. Bailey has shown to be very effective again.
The Reds went into spring training trying to pull a Daniel Bard with Aroldis Chapman. They saw the three-digit velocity and wanted to see if that translated to a starting role. The Reds felt they had an established closer, Jonathan Broxton, ready to go, but after a while they came to their senses, keeping Chapman in the bullpen.
There is a peace of mind that comes with a good closer. Not in Arizona, where they already had blown seven saves entering the weekend.
“The great thing about Valverde,” said one longtime NL league scout, “is that the Latin players look up to him. He’s like their Big Papi. He has a big effect in that clubhouse. But if he starts to show he’s fading, then it could be tough going for them. I think everyone is surprised they didn’t address the closer spot in the offseason because nothing can bring a team down quicker than not being able to hold leads late in the game.”
Apropos of nothing
1. The Rays gave out Joe Maddon garden gnomes at the Trop last Wednesday, and they were selling for $55 on eBay on Thursday. “You always aspire to become a bobblehead,” Maddon said. “But to become a gnome is even beyond expectations. That part of it truly is hard to wrap your mind around.’’
2. Twins on Yawkey Way has raised more than $500,000 for the One Fund Boston by selling Red Sox B Strong hats.
3. Bill Ballou of the Worcester Telegram and Gazette brought up a good point as we get closer to the June amateur draft: The Red Sox have never picked No. 1 overall. And the only No. 1 who has played for them? Adrian Gonzalez.
4. With the seventh overall pick, the Red Sox will likely be in line for positional players such as Kris Bryant, a 6-foot-5-inch, 215-pound third baseman/outfielder from the University of San Diego; Colin Moran, who is B.J. Surhoff’s nephew, a corner infielder from North Carolina; and Kohl Stewart, a righthanded pitcher, outfielder, and third baseman who has a full ride to play quarterback at Texas A&M. Obviously, you never know who could fall or rise.
5. Always heard so much about Twins prospect Miguel Sano. Apparently, he’s putting on a show in Fort Myers (Single A), where he’s hitting .370 with eight home runs and 20 RBIs in 21 games. He’s got a bit of attitude, being ejected for sniping with the opposing dugout after hitting a home run and then standing there to admire it. And that was after he had a ball thrown behind his head.
6. Here’s hoping Red Sox groundskeeper Dave Mellor is healing fast from recent surgery.
7. Cincinnati’s Shin-Soo Choo has been hit by 10 pitches to lead the major leagues, a club record since 1916 for a month, eclipsing the mark of seven set by Frank Robinson in June 1956 and matched by Jason LaRue in April 2003. It’s the most by any player in a month since Houston’s Craig Biggio had 10 HBPs in August 1997.
Updates on 9
1. Alfredo Aceves, RHP, Red Sox — Surprisingly, baseball people have an open mind as far as acquiring him. While no team will give up a lot, one veteran adviser to a GM said, “You’d be crazy not to take that chance with an arm like that. Change of environment can do wonders for a player who might have had a troubled past. I think you always take that risk if the player has skills, and Aceves has skills.” Don’t be surprised if the Angels or even the Rangers sniff around.
2. Mark Melancon, RHP, Pirates — Melancon has found new life as Jason Grilli’s setup man. Melancon went to Pittsburgh in the Joel Hanrahan deal and has regained the form he showed with the Astros. Melancon has told people he had a sore elbow with the Red Sox, but now he’s throwing in the mid-90s, with a “nose to toes” curveball, as one scout described it. In his first 13 innings, Melancon struck out 11 and allowed one earned run.
3. Brandon Snyder, 1B, Pawtucket — Scouts who have watched him want him on their team. Snyder entered the weekend hitting .350 with three homers and 14 RBIs for the PawSox. He was Baltimore’s pick in the first round (13th overall) in 2005, a rich draft in which Justin Upton, Alex Gordon, Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun, Ricky Romero, Troy Tulowitzki, Mike Pelfrey, Cameron Maybin, Andrew McCutchen, and Jay Bruce were taken ahead of him. The Red Sox took Jacoby Ellsbury in that draft (No. 23 overall). “He’s a power righthanded bat,” one AL scout said of Snyder. “Don’t see how this guy couldn’t help a team either off the bench or as a starter. He’s one of those guys who got lost in that Baltimore farm system, but he’s an impressive-looking hitter.’’
4. Kyle Gibson, RHP, Rochester — “If this kid doesn’t make it big for the Twins, then I know nothing,” said one scout. Gibson has been there with Allen Webster on the impressive meter. “He’s got the great slider, heavy sinker at 92-94, and changeup. This kid can really pitch. He’s going to be at the top of that Twins rotation.”
5. Stephen Strasburg, RHP, Nationals — The Nats are trying to straighten out his first-inning problems. In 25 first-inning at-bats he’s allowed nine hits (.360) with a 10.80 ERA. In innings 2-7, opponents are batting .186 and he has a 1.85 ERA. “I was trying to throw the perfect pitch. I tell myself going into the game, ‘Don’t do that.’ And I go out there and I do it,” Strasburg said.
6. Yu Darvish, RHP, Rangers — They’re starting to wonder if Darvish can amass 300 strikeouts this season. It would be the first time since Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling did it for the Diamondbacks in 2002. He’ll enter Tuesday’s start against the White Sox with 49 strikeouts in 32⅔ innings. There are already comparisons to Nolan Ryan, the Rangers’ CEO, who while setting the season strikeout record of 383 in 1973, had struck out 41 in 32⅔ innings. Of course, Ryan made 39 starts and pitched 326 innings that season. No way Darvish will get that far. “He can finesse you, and he can overpower you,’’ Rangers manager Ron Washington said. “He knows what he has when he comes out of the bullpen, and he knows what he can use. He’s comfortable out there.’’
7. Ubaldo Jimenez, RHP, Indians — Entering Saturday, he was 13-23 with a 5.63 ERA in parts of three seasons with the Indians after going 56-45 with a 3.66 ERA in Colorado. What gives? There’s the feeling that the Indians should cut their losses and trade him, but they are sticking with him. Jimenez is a talented pitcher with good stuff, but he remains one of baseball’s great enigmas. Indians starters other than Justin Masterson are 1-10 with a 7.41 ERA. And now Brett Myers is on the disabled list.
8. Chien-Ming Wang, RHP, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre — Wang has made two good starts at Scranton, where he has a 0.75 ERA, but the Yankees feel the numbers are better than what they’re seeing. The heavy sinker hasn’t returned all the way.
9. Giancarlo Stanton, OF, Marlins — No homers and only four RBIs in his first 64 at-bats. Stanton doesn’t seem to be worried, and even made light of his slow start last week. “I probably could have batted lefthanded and done the equivalent of what I’ve done so far this year until my last at-bat. I’m not worried about it, but it’s the reality,” Stanton said.
From the Bill Chuck files: “Through the first 21 games, Daniel Nava and A.J. Ellis (20 games) had chased the fewest pitches out of the strike zone, swinging at just 19. Through 21 games, no Atlanta Brave had tripled.” Also, “The NL average team batting average is .248, which makes the Cardinals’ .245 seem unimpressive. However, the league’s average with runners on base is .259, which makes the Cardinals’ .317 very impressive.” . . . You can wish Kelly Shoppach (33), Wes Gardner (52), Steve Crawford (55), Rick Burleson (62), Tom House (66), and Luis Aparicio (79) a happy birthday on Monday.Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.