Saturday, April 19, 2003

PawSox lose

Well, we finally received the official sign that winter's over - my first sunburn of the year. I don't know why I always forget to put sunblock on when I go to baseball games, especially since I know that I always burn if I'm out in the sun for more than an hour or two. Anyways, Pawtucket lost to Rochester 3-2 in a very quick and mostly well-played ball game.

Bill Haselman hit his first home run as a member of the Red Sox organization since 1997 - a laser to left field - to give the Red Sox a 1-0 lead in the second inning. I'm not sure why Haselman doesn't have a major league job (surely he could be a backup catcher for some team), but it's nice to see him back with the Red Sox. He only hit 19 homers in his three years in Boston, but I seem to remember at least a few game winners.

Pawtucket's lead did not last long, as Rochester scored single runs in the third, fourth and fifth innings. Michael Restovich scored two of those runs after hitting ground-rule doubles in the third and fifth. With Restovich, Michael Ryan and Todd Sears in Rochester and Michael Cuddyer, Bobby Kielty, Dustan Mohr and Matthew LeCroy in Minnesota, it's amazing how many corner outfield/1B/DH types the Twins have who could hit in the majors.

Freddy Sanchez looked pretty good at the plate for the Red Sox, slapping singles all over the place - one to each part of the outfield - and drawing a walk to reach base in each of his four trips to the plate. He also looked smooth on defense - especially on two double plays - but he did make a mistake on the basepaths, getting thrown out at second after Rochester catcher Brandon Marsters had trouble handling a pitch.

Julio Zuleta is pretty much just as advertised - big, strong and slow. He struck out in his first two at-bats before hitting a screaming single to the centerfield wall to drive in Pawtucket's second run in the sixth. Unfortunately, he overestimated his speed (or underestimated his slowness) and was easily thrown out at second. Even if he had made it, he would have been out after he had trouble putting on the brakes and tumbled a few feet past the base.

So the PawSox lost, but I'll take a Pawtucket loss and a Boston win every day of the week (and twice on Sundays if they still scheduled doubleheaders). Derek Lowe was good enough to pick up his third win of the season, but he's still not where I thought he'd be this year (not that I expected him to repeat last year's success). He pitched five innings without giving up an earned run, but he did allow two unearned runs and 10 baserunners via walk or hit. He came out after throwing 104 pitches and the bullpen cruised the rest of the way. Jason Shiell pitched three shutout innings and Brandon Lyon allowed one hit in a scoreless ninth. As David Pinto points out the Boston bullpen has been dominant since Ramiro Mendoza's last appearance.

The OBP offense continued to excel, banging eight hits while drawing seven walks and getting hit by two pitches - one of which annoyed Manny Ramirez. The Red Sox scored five runs in the third, the 14th time this year they've scored at least three runs in an inning.

Boston has now won six straight games, the longest winning streak in the majors.

State of the Red Sox Saturday

It's gonna be alright

Anybody who has read the Boston papers or participated in Red Sox Nation chat rooms this year knows that the season's over. The bullpen's terrible, the starting pitchers aren't as good as last year, Pedro Martinez and Manny Ramirez have taken vows of silence, Theo Epstein's too young, Grady Little's too stupid, the defense isn't good enough and we're cursed to boot. Isn't it fun being a Red Sox fan?

At this very moment, the Red Sox are 11-5. They're only two games behind the mighty Yankees, who got off to the best start in team history. Sure, Boston hasn't played a team besides Tampa Bay, Baltimore or Toronto yet, but 11 wins in a 16-game span is pretty good no matter who the opponents are.

I might as well start with the thing that's caused the most anguish for Red Sox fans this year: the bullpen. It has been bad, there's no doubt about that. But the three biggest reasons that it has been bad are Bob Howry, Alan Embree and Ramiro Mendoza. Howry's now with Pawtucket, Embree's on the DL and Grady's made it clear that Mendoza won't get the ball in a meaningful situation again until he's demonstrated that he's back to normal. Take out the numbers of those three pitchers, and Boston's bullpen has a 2.52 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP. It's going to take awhile before the overall numbers look respectable, but there are some very good signs. And if any of the current pitchers start to struggle, there should be help on the way. Embree sounds like he's feeling good with his rehab, Tony Cloninger said he found a couple of flaws in Mendoza's delivery and Robert Person and Matt White are both rehabbing for potential spots in the bullpen.

One reason the bullpen has been exposed so much is that the starting pitchers have made the relievers pitch a lot. Tim Wakefield, Derek Lowe and John Burkett are each averaging just six innings per start. Casey Fossum's even worse at less than five and two-thirds innings per start. And, as we all know, Pedro's just 1-1 with a 3.76 ERA. Now, the bright side:

Pedro's WHIP is a paltry 0.99 and he's had three stellar starts to go along with the worst start of his career. I don't think he will have anymore starts as bad as the one in the home opener, but I do think he will keep piling on the stellar starts. If he gets run support, I think he wins Cy Young award No. 4 pretty easily. Lowe had two bad starts to begin the year, but his last outing against Baltimore was magnificent. I think he's back on track and expect a good start from him today. Wakefield hasn't been as great as he was last year, but he's done what he had to since his first start (when he pitched just five innings in the 16-inning marathon in Tampa). Wakefield saved the bullpen with two shutout innings in relief when they were struggling mightily and he was able to grind through last night's game with only three runs allowed despite putting 11 runners on base, throwing two wild pitches and confusing Doug Mirabelli on two passed balls.

Fossum had trouble getting through the fifth inning in his first two starts, but his last start was a seven-inning beauty. If he can keep doing that, he'll make a lot of people forget about any trades that weren't made in the offseason. Finally, Burkett's been a solid fifth starter, just like he was for the first half of last year. Hopefully he can keep it up the whole season this year.

The only complaint most people have about the offense is Grady's use of it. The reason for that is that Boston has one of the deepest, if not the deepest, offenses in baseball. Every day they can put a lineup on the field without a single bad hitter. The only position player I wouldn't consider to be a decent or better hitter is
Damian Jackson, and he's their fastest and most defensively flexible player.

Kevin Millar has proven to be worth every bit of the trouble it took to get him. He leads the team with five homers, a .404 batting average and a .483 OBP and .788 SLG for a 1.272 OPS. Nomar Garciaparra looks like he could become the second shortstop in a row to win the AL MVP Award, although Manny will definitely challenge him - and probably surpass him - for the role of the best hitter on the team before the season's over. Jason Varitek seems to be completely recovered from the 2001 injury and Mirabelli is again proving to be a valuable backup catcher/pinch-hitter after a very slow start (he's 5-for-8 with two homers in the last two games after starting 0-for-13). Shea Hillenbrand hasn't been as good as the .311 average and 20 RBI make it seem and I still think he should be traded for pitching help, but he's certainly not hurting the team right now. He's even drawn four walks already.

Jeremy Giambi and David Ortiz aren't hitting a lick, but their patience at the plate makes it so they're not complete wastes. They will eventually start hitting - and with power - and the offense could be even more dangerous. Especially considering that the top two hitters in the lineup - Johnny Damon and Todd Walker are both struggling so far. Their slow starts have been covered up by the great starts of Millar, Varitek and Trot Nixon.

So, the Red Sox should continue to churn out victories with the occasional loss for the next month or so. Then the season really starts, on May 19th, when the Yankees visit Fenway Park for the first game of two three-game sets in nine days with the New Yorkers. All I know about this year is that I'm going to enjoy it. It's the best-looking team we've had in awhile.

I won't actually get to see the Red Sox play in person until the end of May, but today I get the next best thing. I'll be at today's game between the Pawtucket Red Sox and the Rochester Red Wings (Minnesota's AAA club) and will make a post later today with my observations on the game (especially on guys like Freddy Sanchez and Julio Zuleta).

Let the pitchers hit (for Detroit)

After Aaron Cook's 3-for-5 night, the Colorado Rockies' pitching staff is batting .250 (8-for-32). The Detroit Tigers only have two players hitting better than that - Gene Kingsale and Ramon Santiago - and the entire Tigers' team is hitting .180 (93-for-517). The pitchers for the Cubs (7-for-36, .194), Expos (7-for-41, .170), Mets (5-for-28, .179), Pirates (7-for-33, .212), Padres (8-for-31, .258), Giants (8-for-39, 205) and Cardinals (12-for-35, .342) all have Tiger-like (or better) batting averages. The combined average for all of those pitchers is .225, which is 45 points higher than Detroit's (the pitchers have only 31 fewer hits in 242 fewer at-bats).

The Detroit Tigers are going to lose a lot of games and be the subject of a lot of jokes this year.

It's a brand new year

Tony Clark hit a three-run pinch-hit homer in the Mets 6-3 victory over the Marlins. Clark now has three home runs in 17 at-bats. Last year, he hit three homers in 275 at-bats while posting an anemic .556 OPS. The Red Sox thought he would be a fairly cheap solution at first base last year. If he keeps hitting like this, he will be an extremely cheap and valuable pinch-hitter/backup first baseman for the Mets this year.

Other hitters who are using the fresh start of a new year to erase memories of a subpar 2002:

Raul Mondesi's always had a wildly inconsistent batting average, but last year it reached it's lowest point at .232. A decent walk rate and 26 homers were able to raise his OPS to .740, 55 points below his previous worst. This year, a happier and healthier Mondesi is hitting .328 and already has five walks and four homers for a 1.057 OPS.

Carl Everett is one of the craziest players in the majors and is also prone to frequent injuries. However, he's a hitter to be feared when everything's going well. Unfortunately, he hasn't been very healthy in mind or body the last two years as his consecutive sub-.775 OPS seasons can attest. This year, Everett's been in the lineup almost every day and has already slammed five homers while hitting .348 with a .423 OBP and .717 SLG.

Expected to be the second great hitter in the Cubs lineup last year, Moises Alou was injured and ineffective, hitting .275 with a .337 OBP and .419 SLG in just 132 games. This year, he's healthy and hitting so far. He only has one homer, but he's driving in runs (15 RBI), drawing walks (9) and batting .328.

Sean Casey hit .310 or better (with an OPS of .827 or better) for three straight years before dropping to .261 with a .696 OPS last year. Through 15 games in 2003, he's back to normal with a .333 average and an .858 OPS.

Seemingly on the verge of stardom, Preston Wilson regressed in almost every phase of his game last year, posting full-season lows in hits, homers, RBI, stolen base success rate, average, OBP and SLG. A move to Coors Field was just what the doctor ordered, as Wilson is hitting .348 with four homers and 13 RBI in the early going.

It wasn't a big surprise that Richard Hidalgo was unable to duplicate his 1.027 OPS from 2000 in 2001. But when he followed 2001's .811 OPS with a .734 OPS last year, the people in Houston began to worry. He may never regain his 1.000-plus OPS, but if he can keep his OPS near it's current .876 mark, it will mean good things for the Astros.

When the Mets traded for Jeromy Burnitz after the 2001 season, they knew that along with striking out at least 120 times in four straight seasons he had also hit at least 31 homers and driven in at least 98 runs in those four seasons. Well, he brought the strikeouts to Queens, but not the power as he managed just a .365 SLG and a .676 OPS. The old Burnitz has returned for now with three homers and 15 strikeouts, good for a .542 SLG and an .886 OPS.

Always injury-prone, health was not the problem for
Rondell White last year. White never got going after signing with the Yankees and finished with a devilish .666 OPS. Relieved of the pressure of the Bronx when he was traded to San Diego, White has already hit five homers and has a respectable .826 OPS. If he can stay healthy, he could have his best overall season yet.

Friday, April 18, 2003

Location, location, location

Jeff Bagwell hit his league-leading seventh home run of the season in Houston's 11-5 win over Milwaukee. Bagwell is now hitting .377 with a .472 OBP and .787 SLG, but he only has 11 RBI. Why? Because his longtime "Killer B" partner, Craig Biggio, has a .273 OBP. Take away Biggio's five homers, and he's only put himself on base for other people to knock home 22.2% of the time. Bagwell's only come to the plate with runners in scoring position 11 times. In those 11 plate appearances, he's 5-for-7 with four walks and two homers.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have Boston third baseman Shea Hillenbrand, who leads the majors with 20 RBI despite just one homer and an .812 OPS. Hillenbrand has had twice as many plate appearances with runners in scoring position, thanks largely to hitting behind Kevin Millar and his .483 OBP.

This is just one example of why it's so absurd that RBI are often a large part of discussions about which player is more valuable. Bagwell's clearly been much more valuable to Houston's early success than Hillenbrand has been to Boston's, but Bagwell has barely half as many RBI as Hillenbrand.

Where's the real Garret Anderson?

While visiting Rob Neyer's page on today, I noticed that Garret Anderson is fifth in the American League in OPS. Anderson is a bit odd in that for the past few years, Neyer has been saying that Anderson is very overrated and Peter Gammons has been saying that Anderson is very underrated.

Anderson has been overrated because he's had at least 183 hits each of the last six years, but his OBP has never been higher than .336 over a full-season because he's never drawn more than 34 walks. So, while you often saw him on the leaderboards in hits, homers and RBI, you would never see him there for OPS - until last year. Last year, Anderson ranked 17th in the AL in OPS because he hit for his highest average over a full season and managed to slam 56 doubles without losing any of his home runs.

This year, Anderson is again hitting for a high average (.429) and hitting a ton of doubles (10). However, he is not hitting home runs (only one so far) and he IS drawing walks (6 in 16 games). It's obviously very early, but if Anderson keeps walking at that pace, he will walk twice as many times as last year and 26 more times than he ever has in his career. With that kind of jump in walks, even if his average returns to its career level (.299) he would post a career-best OBP in the vacinity of .355. It's just something to keep an eye on, because it's not often that a 30-year-old hitter whose walks/game ratio has been between .15 and .22 for the last eight years suddenly improves that ratio to .375.

Reyes is ready

Yesterday I wrote that the New York Mets should call up Aaron Heilman and give him David Cone's spot in the starting rotation. Today I've got another suggestion for the Mets. Call up Jose Reyes and make him the starting shortstop.

As many of you know, Reyes is a 19-year-old phenom who split last year between Single-A St. Lucie, where he hit .288 with a .353 OBP and .462 SLG, and Double-A Binghamton, where he hit .287 with a .331 OBP and .425 SLG. Between the two stops he stole 58 bases and was caught 24 times (70.7% success rate) in 134 games.

Many people, John Sickels included, think that Reyes should spend the entire 2003 season at Triple-A Norfolk refining his game. The argument is that he is probably not quite ready to be a good hitter in the majors, which is probably true, and playing in New York would put too much pressure on him at a young age. Let's take a look at both arguments.

First, his offense. Reyes is currently hitting .304 with a .327 OBP and .435 SLG in 12 games for Norfolk. He has struck out five times and walked twice. Granted, those are not tremendous numbers and it's unlikely that he would improve upon them in the majors. But look at his most impressive accomplishment so far in Triple-A: he's stolen 12 bases and has not been caught once. That is pretty amazing. Not many people can steal a base a game without being caught, even for a small number of games. So, while his bat might not be quite ready, I think he can bring something to the table offensively.

Now, let's look at the second argument - that there would be too much pressure on him. I know some players tend to press a bit when they move up a level, but it's not like he's being asked to replace Alex Rodriguez. For those of you who don't know, the starting shortstop for the Mets is Rey Sanchez, who is currently hitting .120 with a .170 OBP and .120 SLG. That's right, six hits - all singles - and three walks in 53 plate appearances. That's not really a fluke either. Sanchez has never posted an OPS of .700 or higher in any of his 12 seasons. The only time Sanchez looks good at the plate is when you compare him to the Mets' previous shortstop.

So, you call up Reyes, stick him in the eight hole and tell him to relax and just be himself both at the plate and in the field. If he really starts pressing and gets himself into a terrible slump, you can send him back to Norfolk and tell him not to worry because he'll be back up before he knows it.

My point here isn't that Reyes and Heilman are ready to burst onto the scene and win the MVP and Cy Young Awards, respectively. My point is that even if they are not quite ready to play up to their potential, they will still be better than the people currently holding down significant jobs for the Mets. Would the Mets make the playoffs with Reyes and Heilman? I don't know, but it would be a lot more likely than the Mets making the playoffs with Sanchez and Cone. Even if the Mets are still bad, Reyes and Heilman could be in a better position to help next year if they play this year in the majors.

Fantasy Friday

A "can't-miss" prospect one year after missing

Last year, there was no hitter more over-hyped than Texas third baseman Hank Blalock. I, like many other fantasy players, fell for it and drafted the "can’t-miss prospect" for two of my teams. As most everybody knows, he missed. Badly. This year, there was a new "can’t-miss prospect" in the Rangers camp: Mark Teixeira. While everybody was fawning over Teixeira, almost nobody talked about Blalock. Determined not to repeat my mistake, I avoided Teixeira like the plague in all of my drafts. Unfortunately, I also forgot about Blalock.

At this moment, Blalock is having his way with American League pitchers, hitting .423 with five homers. He only has nine RBI, but that's because he started the season hitting second. He hit fifth yesterday and will have plenty of RBI opportunities if he stays there. This should not really be a surprise. Players don’t get the "can’t-miss" label on a whim. Blalock has shown the ability to mash throughout his minor-league career. Why did he fail last year? Nerves, inexperience, who knows… These things happen sometimes and, unfortunately, the player in question often doesn’t get a second chance right away. Luckily for Blalock, Herbert Perry got hurt and Texas had no choice but to use Blalock every day to start this season.

Blalock obviously won’t hit quite this well all year, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him hit 30 homers and drive in at least 100 runs with a pretty good batting average. If you’re thinking of trading him while his value is high, don’t – especially if you’re in a keeper league. Blalock has what it takes to be a very good third baseman this year and an All-Star for years to come.

The other side of the Texas story is Teixeira. Just like Blalock did last year, Teixeira is struggling mightily. However, there are some differences between the two. First, the Rangers have already said that they are not going to send Teixeira back to the minors. Second, Teixeira is showing slight signs of breaking out of his slump. After starting the season 0-for-15, he's hit two home runs in his last six games. By no means should he be in your lineup right now, but he’s worth hanging onto if you can stash him on your bench. Regardless of what Teixeira does the rest of this year, don’t forget about him in your draft(s) next year.

Now, I’m going to discuss some other young players who were expected to become very good players eventually and see significant time this year.

Hee Seop Choi

Choi needed to get off to a good start this season, because Dusty Baker is well known for preferring veterans to youngsters. The Cubs just so happen to have a "proven veteran" available for first base in Eric Karros, and it’s likely that he would have replaced Choi had Choi struggled to start the season. Well, he has done anything but.

Choi homered for the fourth time this season (and the third game in a row) yesterday and, while his average is "only" .281, it’s clear that he knows how to hit. His 15 walks won’t help you in most leagues, but the fact that he understands the strike zone and the value of a walk means it’s less likely that he’ll have prolonged slumps. Fewer prolonged slumps means fewer chances for Baker to think about taking him out of the lineup. He’s currently batting fifth behind Sammy Sosa and Moises Alou, which means plenty of RBI opportunities.

Choi will probably keep his average in the .280-.300 range and can hit 25-35 homers and drive in 100-plus runs. He won't be in the top tier of first baseman this year, but he will give you good value at the position. If you can keep him, he'll eventually get into that top tier, perhaps as soon as next year.

Runelvys Hernandez

I’ve mentioned Hernandez each of the last two days, so without giving you any numbers I’ll just say that he’s been very impressive so far. If you have him, you should try to trade him right now. The best I could see Hernandez doing with his ratio stats is a 3.50 ERA and a 1.20 WHIP. While that would be very good, he may not hit those marks and you may be able to get better value than that in a trade if you act while the entire baseball world is in love with him. Also, even if he does post a 3.50 ERA and a 1.20 WHIP, he probably won’t win more than a dozen or so games for a couple reasons – 1) Kansas City’s offense is not great, which means he probably will not have a ton of run support and 2) he’s not likely to pitch more than six or seven innings in any start, which will give the bullpen two or three innings to blow his lead and leave him with a no decision. I’d be less inclined to trade him in a keeper league, but even then I’d definitely see what people are willing to give up for him.

Kurt Ainsworth

When the season started, I thought that if Ainsworth struggled he would quickly be replaced in the rotation by Jesse Foppert, another of San Francisco’s excellent pitching prospects. Well, two things have happened. Ainsworth has been the best starter in the Giants rotation and Ryan Jensen has been terrible and is now on the DL, which means Foppert is in the rotation anyway (or will be when the Giants need their fifth starter again). With these developments, Ainsworth’s job seems very secure and because of that he has two things going for him besides his great talent. First, he plays half of his games in a great pitchers park. Second, he plays all of his games with a very good offense backing him up. What I’m trying to say is that Ainsworth is a good pitcher to have on your staff. He’ll finish with good ratios, an above average strikeout total and enough wins to make him more than just a fourth or fifth fantasy starter.

Marlon Byrd

Byrd has been Philadelphia’s centerfielder of the future for awhile and the future was supposed to start this year. The Phillies were so confident that he would be up to the task, that they didn’t really have another centerfielder on the roster when the season opened. About the most conservative projections I saw for him were an average in the .260-.280 range, 15 homers, 15 steals, 75 runs and 75 RBI. With those numbers as his minimums, surely he’d be a valuable addition to most fantasy teams.

Well, it’s not looking so good now. Byrd had an awful 10-game tryout at the end of last year. That doesn’t mean much, but he had an awful 11-game start this year before landing on the DL with a leg laceration. Even if he comes back soon and completely healthy, I doubt he’s going to reach those conservative predictions. I still think he’ll be a good player, but it may not happen this year or even next year. If you’re in a deep league with a good-size bench, I guess you may as well keep him for now. Otherwise, let him go and keep an eye open just in case he puts everything together in a hurry.

Thursday, April 17, 2003

Baldelli ends streaks

For the first game in his major league career, Rocco Baldelli failed to get a hit. However, he also drew the first walk of his big league career. After 93 walkless plate appearance to end his minor league 2002 season and 62 walkless plate appearances to start his major league career, Baldelli walked in the third inning. As David Pinto pointed out earlier today, Pedro Martinez was already the only person to walk Rey Ordonez this season. Now he's the only person to walk Baldelli this year. He can probably live with that though, because he pitched seven shutout innings to win his first game of the year.

Curse of UBB, Inc.?

I don't want to give myself too much credit, but I did find it amusing that the day I talked about the great starts of the Giants, Royals and Yankees, all three teams lost.

San Francisco jumped out to a 5-0 over the first four innings, but Kirk Rueter gave all those runs back in the fifth. Craig Biggio started the rally with a three-run homer, his fourth of the season. The fact that Biggio already has four homers despite only hitting .239 with one walk and 11 strikeouts leads me to believe that he's swinging for the fences too much. He's never hit more than 22 homers in a season and his OBP has never been below .330 in a full season. San Francisco's bullpen gave up three more runs and Houston' bullpen pitched shutout ball, so the Astros were able to avoid the sweep.

Kansas City took an early 1-0 lead in the first, but Runelvys Hernandez finally proved that he's mortal by giving up three runs in the fourth. The good sign is that with the Royals trailing 3-1 after six innings and Hernandez having thrown 92 pitches, Tony Pena did not send him back out for the seventh. Kansas City came back to tie the game in the eighth, but Jason Grimsley loaded the bases with no outs in the ninth and the White Sox were able to push across the run they needed to win the game.

The Yankees fell behind 5-0 when David Wells gave up two runs in the fourth and a three-run homer to Carlos Delgado in the fifth. Wells gave up 11 hits in five innings, but he didn't walk anybody for the third straight start. He now has a 0.95 WHIP with the entire "Walks + Hits" part of the equation coming from his 21 hits allowed. I expect Wells to take his fair share of poundings, but if he can post an ERA under 4.50 he'll probably win at least 15 games. If he does that, he has a good chance at becoming the first pitcher to have more wins than walks since Bret Saberhagen did it for the Mets in 1994. With Wells done for the night, the Yankees stormed back with five runs in the fifth, but Toronto scored single runs in the sixth and ninth. Kelvim Escobar managed to save the game after giving Carlos Tosca a few gray hairs.

No Hollywood Story

It would certainly be a nice story if David Cone stayed in the New York Mets' rotation all year, won his 200th game and then some, won the Comeback Player of the Year Award and went into the Hall of Fame down the road. It would be a nice story, but it's not going to happen.

Cone took another loss for the New York Mets yesterday. After pitching five shutout innings with five strikeouts to win his first start, Cone has allowed 10 runs in his last nine innings. His ERA is up to 6.43, his WHIP is 1.71 and he's yet to pitch more than five innings in a game.

I was rooting for Cone as much as anybody else, but it was pretty improbable that he would come back and have success at age 40 after a full year completely away from the game. It may be early, but the Mets don't have the luxury of giving Cone a few more starts to get it together. They are 5-10 and in danger of falling out of playoff contention before the All-Star break. Aside from not putting the Mets in position to win when he takes the ball, Cone will also tire out the bullpen every time he starts a game.

Aaron Heilman has been the subject of much adulation and it's time for the Mets to see what he can do in the majors at age 24. If he bombs, they can just send him back to Norfolk (where he is currently 3-0 with a 1.80 ERA, 17 strikeouts and 5 walks in 20 innings) and try to find another solution. If they leave Cone in the rotation, he'll just keep putting up L's and they'll just be wasting time.

Wednesday, April 16, 2003

End of an era

I know this is a baseball blog and today isn't "Super Sports Sunday," but I wanted to talk about the final game of the greatest basketball player of all time. Michael Jordan came out of Washington's game against Philadelphia with 4:13 to play in the third quarter and the 76ers leading 75-56. Jordan had scored 13 points and he sat for the rest of the quarter. He stayed on the bench at the start of the fourth quarter and did not leave it as the quarter progressed. Finally, the fans in Philadelphia began chanting "We Want Mike!" and, with 2:35 to play, a timeout was called and the fans continued to stand and chant throughout the timeout. As the timeout ended, Jordan removed his warmup and left the huddle, sending the fans into an even bigger frenzy. With 1:45 left, Jordan was fouled, sank both free throws and that was it. Washington immediately committed a foul and Jordan came out of an NBA game for the final time, to a tremendous standing ovation. The game was put on hold for three to four minutes while every fan, every player and every coach stood and cheered for Jordan.

So, the man who had scored 32,277 in 1,071 games while winning six NBA titles, five MVP awards, two slam dunk titles and a Rookie of the Year award finished his career with 15 points in a 20-point loss on a team that tied for ninth in the weak Eastern Conference. I still grin from ear to ear whenever I see highlight reels of vintage Michael Jordan and I wish he had given us a moment this year to remember - the game-winning shot in the All-Star game, willing his team to the playoffs, 50 points in his finale, anything... - but we don't always get what we wish for. It was a great career to follow and some day I'll be telling my grandkids how amazing No. 23 was. Thanks for the memories Michael, you will be missed.

Reynolds vs. Robertson

The decision to release Shane Reynolds in order to open spots in the rotation for both Jeriome Robertson and Tim Redding was not a popular one in the Astros' clubhouse before the season. I don't think it got any more popular last night. The Braves signed Reynolds on April 10th and he made his first start last night, shutting out the Expos for five innings. Later last night, Robertson made his third start of the season and allowed six runs - three earned - in four innings of a loss to the Giants. Robertson now has a 7.04 ERA and a 1.57 WHIP.

This doesn't mean the Astros would have been better off keeping Reynolds, however, because they might have given the final rotation spot to Robertson and sent Redding, who has a 2.25 ERA despite less-than-stellar peripheral numbers, down to New Orleans. What's more, Reynolds seemed to be washed up, as at least 12 teams watched him work out and only the Braves were willing to give him a big league contract. Plus, Robertson and Redding obviously have more long-term potential.

If Reynolds continues to have success with Atlanta, it will be yet another testament to the amazing work of Leo Mazzone. In fact, I think the only way Atlanta can make the playoffs is if Mazzone gets Reynolds and Mike Hampton to pitch like they did when they were last teammates.

RoKKo no-BBaldelli

Rocco Baldelli is quickly becoming one of my favorite players. This is partly because he's off to a great start and partly because he's so confusing. In case you don't know, Baldelli is a 21-year-old speed demon who plays centerfield for Tampa Bay. He has started his Major League career by hitting in each of his first 12 games and collecting 23 hits total. He's batting .426 in 54 at-bats, but only has a .439 on-base percentage because he has yet to draw a walk. He has no homers, but seven extra-base hits give him a .593 slugging percentage. His OPS is 1.032, but he gets over 41% of that from his batting average. Compare that with Adam Dunn, who gets just 23.5% of his .850 OPS from his .200 batting average.

It's pretty clear that Baldelli will not hit .426 this year and I have serious reservations about his ability to hit even .300 with his strikeout-to-walk ratio (15-0). However, he would need to go hitless in his next 23 at-bats to drop his average under .300. As a service to everybody else who is very curious to see Baldelli's progress, I have added a table to the column on the right listing Baldelli's batting average, OBP, SLG, hits, walks and strikeouts. I will update this every day unless it's not possible for me to do so. If Baldelli does something that I think merits special attention, I will put it in a post.

Three teams, four losses

I want to thank everybody who stopped by yesterday and decided to come back again today. Now, as promised, it's time for my first real post.

With at least a dozen games in the book for each team, there are only three teams left with fewer than five losses, and those three teams have COMBINED for just four losses. They are, obviously, the San Francisco Giants (13-1), the Kansas City Royals (11-1) and the New York Yankees (11-2). The first thing I noticed that all three teams have in common is that they are not at full strength. San Francisco is without Robb Nen and may be for some time. Kansas City will get Carlos Beltran back this weekend. The Yankees are without Mariano Rivera for a couple more weeks and Derek Jeter for another six to eight weeks. Aside from the injuries, I wanted to take a closer look at the three teams and see what else they might have in common.

San Francisco

The Giants have scored 84 runs and allowed 53. They are 4-0 in one-run games and 1-0 in extra innings. Their expected record is 10-4, so they may have been a little lucky so far. San Francisco has only allowed more than four runs three times and has only scored fewer than five runs four times; the only loss was the one game in which they did both things. The four pitchers left in San Francisco's starting rotation each have sub-3.80 ERA's, although Jason Schmidt and Damian Moss have probably gotten a bit lucky since their WHIP's are 1.40 and 1.62!, respectively. The bullpen has been similarly good, but lucky with a 2.89 ERA and 1.35 WHIP.

The Giants offense has also been very good. Of the eight players with at least 40 at-bats, four have an OPS above 1.000, two have an OPS in the low .800's and two have an OPS in the low .600's. Barry Bonds, with a 1.207 OPS, is probably a bit below where he'll end up, but Jose Cruz Jr., J.T. Snow and Benito Santiago are playing way over their heads.

None of this is terribly shocking - after all, you don't win 13 of 14 games without some luck and some unexpectedly good performances - but it is bad news for the rest of the NL West. If the Giants win just half of their remaining games, they will finish 87-75. It's more likely that they'll win 97 games and run away with the NL West.

The interesting thing to me is the number 71. That's the number of walks the Giants have drawn, second in the majors to Philadelphia. I find it interesting because the knock on manager Felipe Alou, at least recently, has been that his teams don't walk enough. However, almost all of his teams in Montreal were stocked with young players who still had a thing or two to learn about patience at the plate, and he wasn't the right person to teach them. In San Francisco, however, he has a roster full of veterans with established track records, including the greatest walking machine of all time. Alou's presence in the dugout isn't going to make those players who walked a lot stop doing so, so this may be the best team for him to be in charge of.

Kansas City Royals

Easily the most surprising of the teams off to great starts, the Royals have scored 68 runs and allowed 37. I don't have a lot to add to the large amount that's already been written on the Royals chances for this season. Before the season, I thought they'd finish in fourth place and in the 90-loss range. Now, I think they'll win at least 70 games and should challenge Cleveland for third place. What I want to discuss is what this start means to the future in Kansas City.

I'll start with the young starting pitchers, who have ranged from unbelievably impressive (Runelvys Hernandez and his 0.45 ERA) to decent (Miguel Asencio and his 1.56 WHIP). Hernandez has thrown 83.7 pitches per start so far with a high of 89 in his most recent start. That's a very good sign, but the Royals need to continue to limit his pitches even when he struggling and 90-100 pitches can't get him through seven innings. The Royals have also been cautious with the other young starters, as Jeremy Affeldt has thrown 90 pitches per start, Chris George has thrown 89.5 pitches per start and Asencio has thrown 96.5 pitches per start. We've been hearing for a couple years about all the great young arms the Royals have and the best way to help at least a couple of them become great pitchers is to keep ALL of them healthy.

The next big key to the Royals start has been the bullpen, which has also reduced any urge Tony Pena may have had to leave starters in longer by providing excellent relief. Mike MacDougal has been the biggest key to the bullpen. He has struck out seven batters and allowed just two hits and no runs in seven innings. However, the big knock on him has been his control, and he has walked six batters already. Eventually, hitters are going to take more pitches and see if they can get on for free rather than trying to hit his nasty stuff.

The offense has been better than expected, especially with Beltran on the shelf. Except for Brent Mayne thinking he's Babe Ruth, the good hitters have been hitting very well and the bad hitters have been hitting very badly. Any time anybody talks about the Royals offense, they invariably talk about how bad it will be after the Royals have to trade Beltran and Mike Sweeney. Well, the offense would be historically bad if they did that, but they don't have to. If they finish this season within five games of .500, Sweeney will probably waive the clause in his contract that says he can become a free agent after 2004 if the Royals do not finish above .500 in either 2003 or 2004. Beltran has already said that he'd stay in Kansas City if they show improvement and a commitment to winning. If both of those players stay, the other young hitters continue to develop and the young pitchers stay healthy, Kansas City could have some very excited fans in a couple years.

New York Yankees

I don't even really need to look too closely at the numbers to know what I want to say about the Yankees. They have five good starting pitchers and a lineup full of good hitters. Anybody who thought that the Yankees would have trouble making the playoffs probably doesn't pay a lot of attention to baseball. New York's bullpen is a source of concern, but even that should be better when Rivera returns.

There are really only two ways the Yankees could fail to win the AL East - 1) Boston goes on a great winning streak at some point and wins over 100 games, in which case New York would still win the wild card, 2) the Yankees are absolutely decimated by injuries. I wouldn't bet too heavily against either of those things happening, but I wouldn't bet anything on the Yankees missing the playoffs. It's not really even a viable option.

Tuesday, April 15, 2003

About the author

My name is Ben Jacobs and I live in Rochester, NY with my girlfriend, Stacy. I am 23 years old and graduated from the University of Rochester in 2002 with a degree in Philosophy. I currently work part-time in the sports department at the Democrat and Chronicle. Most of the time I'm in the office taking phone calls from high school coaches, but I do get to go out and cover events on occasion and I've received over 150 by-lines since I started working there in September of 2000. I also have a weekly fantasy football column that appears in the paper every Friday, which I also link to on this blog.

I was born in Springfield, MA and am a die-hard New England sports fan. Baseball being my favorite sport, I follow the Red Sox most obsessively, but I'm also a die-hard fan of the Patriots and am getting to be a bigger fan of the Celtics every year. I like it when the Bruins do well, but their losses don't upset me too much. Stacy has started rooting for the Minnesota Twins (the parent club of the local Rochester Red Wings) in an attempt to increase her interest in baseball and so far it's working.

This blog will mostly be my general observations and opinions about the daily happenings in the majors. I try to make at least two or three posts every day, and hopefully they're all at least somewhat insightful. In addition, I also devote some Saturdays, which I call "State of the Red Sox Saturday," to the Boston Red Sox and I write about how I feel the Red Sox are doing (I will touch on the Red Sox during the week if something interesting happens, but this will be a more thorough examination). I do occassionally write about other sports, but mostly I stick to baseball.

Please don't hesitate to email me with any questions or comments. Thanks for stopping by and reading.