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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Usual Suspects

The "Rebel Rays" :

B. J. Upton - 2B
Delmon Young - RF
Elijah Dukes - CF

A year ago, the news out of Raliegh-Durham was that B. J. Upton was a drunk driver, Delmon Young was an aggressive bat-tossing hothead, and Elijah Dukes was a pothead thug. Put them together with tweeker Josh Hamilton, another first-rounder coming to terms with the Cougar Mellencamp credo - "I fight authority, but authority always wins." - and the Devil Rays seemed to have accumulated a quartet of future middle of the order hitters in the North Carolina Prison League. Many assumed by the end of last season that Dukes and Hamilton were already out of baseball for good, while Upton and Young were likely to be delayed in their big league appearances by the infamous "makeup" issues.

Turns out, on opening day 2007, all four were major-league starters. Josh Hamilton's emergence as Rule 5 draftee turned 3-hole hitter in Cincinnati has been among the most followed stories of the young season, but the dominance of the trio of young Rays - none of them older than 22 - has gone largely overlooked. The Devil Rays have a better record than the Yankees after Carl Crawford's grand slam lifted them over New York last night, and they've beat some of the league's best pitchers in the early going, including Johan Santana, thanks to the high-octane offense which has been bolstered by Dukes, Young, and Upton. The trio is batting .277 with 7 HR, 34 R, 11 2B, and 29 RBIs. Granted, A-Rod's been worth about as much as the three of them, but for the Devil Rays to be getting this type of production from players not named Carl Crawford is an indication of great things to come. If Tampa can keep them happy, healthy, and honest into their mid-20s, they will remind us of controversial young threesomes turned superstars like Bonds, Bonilla, and Bell in Pittsburgh; Belle, Baerga, and Ramirez in Cleveland; and Jones, Jones, and Jordan in Atlanta.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Soulful Seasons (Week 3)

Russell Martin - C - Los Angeles Dodgers

After outpeforming monsters like Joe Mauer and Brian McCann in the first two weeks, including 8 RBI, 9 R, and 4 SB during his 9-game hitting streak, Martin began to see a steady diet of breaking balls in week 3, inducing a modest 10 AB slump. Of course, there's possibly no better way to get the monkey off your back like a 10th inning walk-off grand salami. Just ask A-Rod.

Josh Hamilton - CF - Cincinnati Reds

Hamilton responded to winning a starting job in Cincinnati by hitting 3 HR in 4 games, driving in 6, and scoring 6.

Mike Lowell - 3B - Boston Red Sox

He hit a pair of bombs in the Sunday night game against the Yankees, batted .417 with 5 R and 5 RBI for the series, extended his hit streak to 9 games, and continued to grey his own beard with a litany of game-changing web gems. Because the league is so deep with superb talent at 3B, Lowell's solid play since joining Boston in 2006 as nothing more than a contract dump in the Josh Beckett deal has gone largely unnoticed. Last year he finished tied with Gold Glove winner, Eric Chavez, in fielding percentage, while finishing with a better Range Factor and Zone Rating in over 100 more innings and over 70 more chances. He made only 6 errors all year. He also finished in the top 10 among three baggers in OPS, slugging, average, hits, and doubles. He's already got 14 RBIs in 2007. And, perhaps especially important for somebody who bats behind on-base machines Big Papi, Manny, and J. D. Drew, Lowell has struck out only two times in 70 plate appearances.

Barry & Barry - San Francisco Giants
The much-maligned Barry "Baked" Zito had some hard luck in his first two starts of the year, fueling the inevitable $100 million dollar man publicity backlash. This week he (and the other Barry) headlined a 7-1 run by the Giants to get back above .500 for the season, after many pundits had them drawing dead after their poor start. Zito went 2-0 over 13 1/3 IP, allowing only 7 hits and no runs. Bonds had a hit in every game this week, including 3 HR, one of which provided the only scoring in Zito's 1-0 win over the D-Backs. For those who spurned Bonds' resigning in the offseason and predicted that he would struggle to pass Aaron this year, I would like to draw your attention to his 1270 OPS, second only to A-Rod, and his 6 HR, tied for 4th in the league. Now if only the Giants could trade Pedro Feliz for, say, Ryan Howard.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Bad Case of Feliz

Dear Brian Sabean -

I am writing on behalf of a dear friend. He is a lifelong fan of the Giants and a good-natured soft-hearted prototypical San Franciscan who wishes nothing but the best for his fellow man and, indeed, all living things. Unfortunately, recently he has been poorly. He is weak and does not leave the house. I cannot tell if he is sick or whether he despairs. If he is ill, I do not know the cause. All I can tell you is that the last time I saw him well we were watching the Giants. We were enjoying the wonderful experience of baseball and the light-hearted exchange of observations which so often accompanies it. Such observations, perhaps, should never be taken wholly seriously. For, after all, even grizzled managers and sagacious general managers like yourself, who have dedicated their whole lives to understanding the game, are challenged daily to interpret its intricacies. I regret, I made a passing comment. It was not intended to hurt. But it was made with the sophomoric boldness and carelessness of an amateur armchair quarterback. I claimed, offhandedly, that there was no worse everyday player in all of major league baseball than Giants third baseman Pedro Feliz. At first, my gentle friend took it as it was intended, as a facetious hyperbole. Morover, mainly for sport, he set about attempting to prove its outrageous inaccuracy. But as he fell deeper and deeper into his research he became solemn, and belligerent. He called me cruel, callous, and coy. Possessing nothing but the fondest feeling towards all who wear the sacred Giants uniform, he had never even considered that the team taking the field might be composed of anything less than the very best possible combination of players available to the organization. The Giants, he felt assured, would not stand for it. Certainly, they would not always win, but they would always field the best talent that was available to them.

As it turned out, however, it was difficult to believe that Pedro Feliz was anybody's best option. Superficial indications suggested that Feliz was a moderate defensive third baseman, with decent power (22 HR), and the ability to drive in runs (98 RBI). But a closer evaluation of his statistics revealed a frightening picture. In 2006, of the 160 players qualifying for the batting title, Feliz finished 155th. But, of course, many solid run-producers, like Adam Dunn, Eric Chavez, and Troy Glaus, also finished with very low batting averages. Any semi-knowledgeable 21st Century fan knew the there were many better indicators of a players worth. Unfortunately, such statistics did not provide any better evidence of Feliz' value. In OBP, he finished 157th, only surpassing three light-hitting shortstops, none of whom still had starting jobs in 2007. In OPS, he finished 147th, and what was worst, dead last among starting thrid basemen in both categories. It was a depressing picture, but my friend, ever the optimist, insisted that 2006 must have been an unusually bad year. As it turned out, however, in 2005 Feliz finished 146th out of 148 qualifying players in OBP, and 123rd in OPS. In 2004, 154/161 and 92/161. My friend began to wonder, for all of those times he could remember Feliz driving home a run, how many times had his heroes - Bonds, Vizquel, Alou, and Durham - been stranded on the basepathes or mowed down as part of a double-play, the only category in which Feliz had finished in the top 25 in the MLB in each of the last three seasons. What was going on? How could a player who had performed so badly for so long, and was now well into his thirties, with not the slightest hope of sudden drastic improvement, still be the Giants best option at a position which was generally expected to produce offensively? Forlorn and exhausted, he conceded. Feliz was the worst everyday player in baseball. It was true. And, worse yet, he found that Feliz was being paid over $5 million in 2007, as much as Chad Tracy, David Wright, Garrett Atkins, and Ryan Zimmerman - far superior third basemen all - combined. He shut off the television broadcast. He laid his head in his hands. He asked me to leave.

Since then, he has not left his home. I cannot conclude with certainty that his current condition is directly related to Pedro Feliz, but I cannot help but think that he may feel some relief, show some signs of recovery, if only you can provide an explanation as to why Feliz remains in the Giants lineup on a daily basis. I know, being ever faithful, that he believes that there must be a logical beyond what we can conceive of, and if you could find it in your heart to articulate it to a layman and save my dear friend, Mr. Sabean, I would be forever in your debt.


Dr. Hippeaux C. Bold

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Wrigley Void

In honor of the first major league appearance of Chicago Cubs Blue Chipper, Felix Pie, riddle me this: When was the last time the Cubs had a starting center fielder who finished the year with an OBP over .335?

That would be 1996, when Brian McRae posted a .360 OBP and scored 111 times from the leadoff spot.

I'm as excited as anybody about Pie's display today. A clutch RBI double and a beautiful outfield assist to home plate - not a bad way to start a career. But, hmmmm...highly anticipated center field prospect with blazing speed and incredible defensive ability, but lingering plate discipline and contact issues, that doesn't sound at all like Corey Patterson...or Gary Matthews Jr...or Jerome Walton.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Soulful Seasons (Jackie Robinson Edition)

I'm hesitant to say it, but Bud Selig has solidified a pretty impressive legacy. The Wild Card has been wildly successful. Interleague play still has some kinks, but it has created some exciting midseason dramas. The competition has rarely been more balanced. Money is rolling in. A repeat of the '94 strike has been avoided. And, now, perhaps his greatest achievement, an institutional enshrining of Jackie Robinson, whose number (#42) Selig retired a decade ago. Jackie Robinson Day - it's officially my favorite holiday. This year, the holiday's inauguration was marked by a lavish ceremony preceding the Sunday night game at Chavez Ravine in Los Angeles, as well as the opportunity for any player in the league to wear #42, which for most has not been available during their careers. Several games were postponed due to the Atlantic noreaster, but these are Sunday's most soulful performances featuring #42. And, by the way, Selig made it possible for anybody to choose to wear #42, so anybody who chose not to, well...that's just abominable, criminal even. For today at least, they haven't even the potential for soulfulness.

C. C. Sabathia - SP - Clevland Indians

It was Sabathia who early this season called the declining number of African American ballplayers a "crisis," blamed the MLB for pourly scouting in urban neighborhoods, and commentated that his Oakland-based primarily black high school team could've beat his first minor league club. Sabathia backed up bold words with a fast start. And on Jackie Robinson Day he threw 8 innings against a potent White Sox lineup, fanning 10 and giving up only 5 hits and one run, which was driven in by another #42, Jermaine Dye.

Rich Harden - SP - Oakland Athletics

Harden was one of very few caucasian players who chose to wear #42 (other than those on teams which wore it unanimously), and what better way to celebrate Jackie Robinson than throwing six dominant innings against the evil, evil Yankees. His bullpen might've found a way to lose the game nonetheless were it not for the heroics of Marcus "Pee Wee" Scuturo.

Tony Clark - 1B - Arizona Diamondbacks

The big, soft-spoken Clark provides one of the few veteran presences on the Baby Backs, but he rarely starts anymore, since the emergence of Conor Jackson. But on Jackie Robinson Day, manager Bob Melvin had a good feeling about the gentle giant. Clark blasted a pair of home runs, driving in three, and lifting the D-Backs past the Rockies, who were shamefully lacking in #42's.

Tony LaRussa - Manager - St. Louis Cardinals

The St. Louis game against the Brewers was the only which featured all 50 players, plus coaching staffs, dawning Jackie's numbers, which is probably how it should have gone down everywhere. If you think LaRussa, one of the great students of baseball history, didn't have anything to do with the decision, you're denser than Tim McCarver. Milwaukee manager Ned Yost is something of a LaRussa mentee, who I'm sure wouldn't have hesitated to comply with Tony's soft Sicilian suggestions. Tony felt it was important to honor Robinson, and when Tony thinks something is especially important, Prince Albert likes to hit two home runs.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Dueling Cy Candidates

Today Roy Halladay pitched a 10-inning complete game at home against the Tigers. It took him only 107 pitches. Through 9 innings he was matched pitch for pitch by Detroit's Jeremy Bonderman, who needed only 96 pitches for what would have normally been a dominant complete game victory. Bonderman gave up a homer to Alex Rios on his first pitch. Halladay allowed one to Magglio Ordonez in the 2nd. From the 3rd to the bottom half of the 10th, when Fernando Rodney relieved Bonderman, only four runners made it as far as second base. Each pitcher allowed six hits, and zero walks.

The key here is that Bonderman seemed to be feeding off of the elder Halladay, who demonstrates as much mound poise as any pitcher in baseball. Between them they only struck out six hitters (2 for Halladay, 4 for Bonderman). In 2006 Bonderman averaged 8.5 K/9IP, which most pundits will tell you is a great sign of his effectiveness. But Halladay won more games and pitched more innings with an ERA almost a run lower than Bonderman's, despite averaging only 5.4 K/9IP. Both Halladay and Bonderman display excellent control, rarely giving up free passes, but while Halladay lets his defense do most of the work, one of Bonderman's only weaknesses has been that he is often apparently seeking the K. This can lead to tiring innings, even when no damage is done, and explains why Halladay pitched the 7th in 24/32 (75%) starts, while Bonderman made it that far only 18/34 (53%) times. If Bonderman was truly emulating Halladay, and continues to do so, this will be the season that he pitches like the top-flight ace he has long been predicted to become.

Although the Cy Young discussion in the American League must start with Johan Santana, these two have to be considered among the frontrunners in the second tier (yes, Santana has the first tier to himself, at least for now). Halladay finished 3rd last season (as well as winning a Cy in 2003), and is pitching in front of the best lineup of his career. Bonderman is a very experienced 24-year-old, with 127 career starts and a World Series appearance already, also pitching in front of one of the leagues strongest offenses (and a stellar defense).

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Bold Observations (Young Guns - Tier Deux)

Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander, and Matt Cain are going to get plenty of attention, as well they should. But I'd like to draw your attention to three young arms that for whatever reason might be coming in under the radar early in the 2007 season.

Jeremy Sowers (24) - SP - Cleveland Indians

Sowers rarely raises the radar gun above 90 mph, but he's quietly gotten off to a stellar start, going 13 innings while only allowing 3 earned runs against two relatively strong offensive teams, the Angels and the White Sox. This after going 7-4 with a 3.57 in the very tough AL Central during 14 rookie starts in 2006. Sowers is never going to overpower a team the way Hernandez and Cain did in their dominant outings this week, but he has a nasty slider, movement on all his pitches, and he's not afraid to throw inside. The thing I like most about him is that when he gets into a difficult situation he maintains his poise better than the overpowering peers, like a pitcher with much more experience. He doesn't have the stuff to be a young Greg Maddux, but he could be an old Greg Maddux at a young age, and 14-16 wins a season year after year after year isn't unrealistic starting this season on a strong Indians team.

Mike Maroth (29) - SP - Detroit Tigers

True, he's not exactly young anymore, but he's just coming into his prime without the spotlight that following fellow 20 game loser Jeremy Bonderman. Before his injury last season he was 5-2 with a 2.45 ERA and six quality starts and now's he's off to a 2-0 start (although he's had some nice run support to help him on his way). In the very tight AL Central, many pundits were prepared to write off the Tigers when they lost Kenny Rogers. Maroth will more than make up for Rogers absence and Detroit has plenty of young arms to slide into the fifth slot.

Clay Hensley (26) - SP - San Diego Padres

Everywhere I turned this spring people were talking about the depth of the Padres rotation. "Jake Peavy, Chris Young, Greg Maddux, David Wells..." They would always trail off, as if they couldn't remember who the fifth starter was, or didn't think it mattered. Nobody seems to remember that Hensley threw quality starts in seven of his last nine outings in 2006. He lowered his ERA from 4.19 to 3.71 over that span. He has had a couple rough outings to begin this season, but the same thing happened to him early last year and it is a common problem for sinker ballers. Wang and Lowe both struggled in their first two outings last season. Hensley is entering his first full season as a starter in a park that's more or less designed for him, with improved infield defense working behind him, and probably slightly better offense supporting him. He's primed.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Soulful Seasons (Week 1)

Elijah Dukes - CF - Tampa Bay Devil Rays

Six months ago, nobody, including Dukes, was willing to bet that he had any future in professional ball. Now he's hit homers in each of his first two games, drawn a few walks, and looks to solidify is slot in the Devil Rays lineup as well as among the Rookie of the Year frontrunners.

Vladimir Guerrero - RF - Los Angeles Angels

Vlad the Destroyer (.440 - 3 HR - 10 RBI) quickly despelled any rumors that he was hiding a knee injury by co-winning the season's first AL Player of the Week Award. Especially soulful was the display against Texas on Tuesday. He was facing Vicente Padilla who plunked him last season to start one of the 2006's most heated brawls. Padilla continued to throw up and in to the Destroyer. He responded by going 4-for-4 with a HR, 3 RBI, and more than a few withering stares.

Alex Rodriguez - 3B - New York Yankees

A-Rod's dominant opening week would be much more soulful if it wasn't so inevitable. The New York press corps will find several moderately clever ways of pointing out that it's April.

Russell Coltrane Martin - C - Los Angeles Dodgers

Trane batted better than .300 with a double, a dinger, a pair of RBIs, and 4 runs scored. He has been a hit machine for the Dodgers, batting second while Rafeal Furcal recovers from a hamstring injury. Juan Pierre and Nomar Garciaparra have had typically slow starts, so Martin's presence atop the lineup has been especially helpful in for Jeff Kent and Luis Gonzalez, both of whom also had strong opening weeks. Perhaps most importantly, Martin has looked spectacular on defense. The Brewers and Giants both tested Martin's arm, which helped Russell to a major league-leading 4 men caught-stealing (as opposed to 2 successful) through 7 games.

Dontrelle Willis & Jake Peavy - SP - Florida Marlins & San Diego Padres

Taking a page out of the David Wells playbook, these pitchers drew attention away from their off-the-field issues.

Willis : 12 IP, 12 K, 4 ER, 2 W
Peavy : 13 IP, 9 K, 1 ER, 1 W

Pretty good numbers for drunk drivers.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Bold Observations

Bonds stole a base after singling in his first at bat of the season.
  • I spent some time in New York in the week leading up to the season, and although I will generally refrain from discussing the oft-chartered waters of the Hudson River between Queens and the Bronx, I will say this much. For all those who believed that Mussina's new contract, the reaquisition of Andy Pettitte, and the signing of Kei Igawa marked the end of the starting pitching inconsistencies that have been the Yankees major - perhaps only - weakness for the past three seasons, need look no further than the Bombers opening day starter to see that they've been had. Don't get me wrong, Carl Pavano may turn in a fine season if he's finally happy and healthy, but he's not exactly Curt Schilling...or Dice-K...or Josh Beckett. You get the picture.

  • As I've already ranted about on several occasions, in the age of "competitive balance," bet on depth. I love the Dodgers depth. Had they signed Luis Gonzalez to regularly spell and mentor their trough of young outfielders - Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp, Jason Repko, etc. - I would've applauded it. Instead they're using him as the everday left fielder and platooning Ethier and Kemp. Already, today, I saw a looping gapper that would've be comfortably caught by either of the speedy, strong-armed, athletic, young alternatives, drop in front of Gonzalez running at a dead sprint and roll to wall for a double (Estrada eventually scored) and Bill Hall turned a long single into a double because he had no fear of Gonzalez' arm. It's important to note, the Dodgers went on to lose by one run. These are scenes that I will surely get used to and won't sting as much if Gonzalez starts hitting, but so far...well, he's 0-7 with 4 men left on base.

  • Remember Russell Coltrane Martin from my Soulful Sleepers post. He was blanked by Ben Sheets yesterday, along with about everybody else. Today, he went 3-for-5 with a single, a double, a home run, two RBI, two runs scored, and an excellent run-saving, plate-blocking tag to foil a double steal.

  • A week ago I predicted that Detroit would not be so lucky as to get 30 starts from four or more pitchers this season. A few days later Kenny Rogers went on the DL. Somewhat surprisingly, Jim Leyland chose 29-year-old journeyman Chad Durbin, who only pitched 6 innings in the majors last year, all out of the bullpen, and has gone 13-26 with a 6.15 ERA over his career as a starter. Durbin is not the only or - it would appear from our perspective - the best option, but clearly Leyland sees something he likes. If Durbin struggles in his first couple starts look for Zach Minor or Wil Ledezma to see action. If Rogers doesn't appear to be close to coming back, or another starter goes down, freeing up a rotation slot for the long haul, we'll likely see the emergence of Andrew Miller, who could be this year's version of Jared Weaver, Jeremy Sowers, or Rich Hill.

  • My newest Soulful Sleeper is Elijah Dukes. For those of you who don't know about Dukes, he's the most controversial angry black baller since Gary Sheffield. His father is a murderer. He was arrested for assault for the first time when he was 13. He served three lengthy suspensions as a Devil Rays minor leaguer. He was arrested for possession of marijuana a year ago. But, he most resembles Sheffield in his tremendous bat speed and selective batter's eye, well better than the norm for a 22-year-old with tremendous talent, who could've coasted on his tools. Unlike fellow angry black Devil Rays, B. J. Upton and Delmon Young, Dukes is a very mature product on the field. Besides walking nearly as often as he strikes out, he plays excellent center field defense, steals bases at a better than 2-to-1 clip, and hits to all fields. He's prepared to make an impact immediately, as evidenced by his home run on opening day against the Yankees.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Bold Predictions - Opening Day

It's the cure for what ails you. Whether it's a long winter of depression, the stress of tax season, or recent heartbreak, baseball is the cure. And opening day baseball, especially. If I got chills after every Vladimir Guerrero RBI double, I'd be spending all summer under a blanket. But I get 'em on opening day.

There's a lot to look forward to this season. Frank Thomas, Jim Thome, Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, and Gary Sheffield are all within striking distance of 500 HRs. Sammy Sosa's looking for 600. And Barry Bonds, well, he may not get to 800 this season, but I bet there'll still be some fanfare following him. Randy Johnson needs 20 wins for 300. Tom Glavine needs 10. Craig Biggio needs 70 hits for 3000. Bonds need 159 (he hasn't had that many in a season since 1998).

Besides the statistical milestones, we could be opening one of the most competitive seasons since the invention of the wild card. Revenue sharing, unparalled revenue streams, and increasingly innovative general managers have contributed to creating that exciting culture of "competitive balance" that Bud Selig fantasized about while his Milwaukee Brewers were suffering a dozen straight losing seasons at the end of his tenure as owner. This year the Brewers are among the popular choices to win the NL Central, but then, so are the Cardinals, the Cubs, the Astros, and the Reds. And, I would argue at least, making an argument for the youthful Pirates is not much harder. Over at ESPN, 22 of 30 MLB teams got at least one sucker to pick them for a postseason berth from their panel of 18 experts. At USAToday even the Rockies and the Devil Rays got some support. Every division has to be considered at least a three horse race, and I expect to see some which will have four or more teams neck and neck into the stretch. It makes predictions difficult, but I'll make some anyway.

NL East:
1. Mets
2. Phillies
3. Marlins
4. Braves
5. Nationals

NL Central:
1. Cubs
2. Brewers
3. Cardinals
4. Pirates
5. Reds
6. Astros

NL West:

1. Dodgers
2. Giants (WC)
3. Padres
4. Diamondbacks
5. Rockies

AL East:
1. Red Sox
2. Blue Jays
3. Yankees
4. Devil Rays
5. Orioles

AL Central:
1. Tigers
2. Indians (WC)
3. White Sox
4. Twins
5. Royals

AL West:

1. Angels
2. Athletics
3. Mariners
4. Rangers

Division Series:
Dodgers over Mets
Giants over Cubs

Tigers over Angels
Red Sox over Indians

Championship Series:
Dodgers over Giants
Tigers over Red Sox

World Series:
Tigers over Dodgers

NL MVP - Derrek Lee
NL Cy Young - Barry Zito
NL ROY - Ryan Braun
NL Manager - Bruce Bochy

AL MVP - David Ortiz
AL Cy Young - C. C. Sabathia
AL ROY - Elijah Dukes
AL Manager - Jim Leyland