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Friday, April 11, 2008

When do you worry?

Although the optimism regarding the Tigers may have been a bit extreme, considering their obvious bullpen concerns and additional question marks in the rotation, nobody could have predicted they would start the season 1-8 and be the lowest scoring team in the American League. Detroit was repeatedly booed during the final games of their winless homestand to open the season, which is, in my opinion, inexcusable. The fans of the Tigers and Cubs (who were also booed on occasion at Wrigley Field last season) would do well to remember the decades of mediocrity which preceded a renewed dedication to winning on the part of their franchises. Such vulgar fairweather displays will make Detroit's return to the postseason this October much less sweet. Jerry Crasnick of ESPN has a good piece about teams which have recovered from similar (or worse) situations that Detroit, many of them within the last few years.

This week, however, I'm taking a look at some of the individuals who are getting booed or, at least, having April slumps which are getting noticed.

David Ortiz - DH - Boston Red Sox

Big Papi's average has dropped to .077 and he has only three hits and one homer in his first 40 at-bats. There has been a lot of speculation about the lingering effect of his off-season knee surgery. This is definitely a good opportunity to preach patience. April has generally been a problem month for Papi. In 2003, Ortiz hit only .212 with a single dinger. Along with several of the Red Sox, he may be suffering from prolonged jet lag after the opening road trip that would've made Jule Verne proud. Big Papi, like Albert Pujols, is a professional hitter who is more-or-less slump-proof. He will start punishing pitchers shortly.

Prince Fielder - 1B - Milwaukee Brewers

One thing I'm sure of, Prince Fielder's April power outage is not, as widely hypothesized, a result of his decision this offseason to become a vegetarian. If you see Fielder with sallow cheeks, twiggish forearms, and no gut, you can begin blaming his diet, but I watched him drive a ball into the gap against the Mets this evening and nothing about him looked malnourished. This is simply the case of a young, supremely-talented hitter coming off a breakout MVP-caliber campaign and trying to do too much in the early going, much as Ryan Howard did last year. You, remember, right? Ryan Howard hit only three homers in April last year. Oh, you don't? That might be because he had 44 HR and 123 RBI during the next five months. Maybe he should give Prince a call, tell him what he started eating for dinner.

Russell Martin - C - Los Angeles Dodgers

The Dodgers' sparkplug is batting .156 and has already struck out ten times in the young season.  He struck out less than 90 times in more than 600 plate appearances in 2007.  I would love to say that this is not cause for concern, but Martin's heavy workload for last season might be catching up to him.  Very few catchers have been able to play 145 games a season and maintain their offensive performance.  Jason Kendall did for a few years, but suffered a dramatic drop-off in both power and speed before he had even turned 30.  Joe Mauer struggled with injuries a year after posting his first 140-game campaign.  Even that mighty I-Rod has suffered four years of declining SLG%.  Martin has on his side that he is only 25, is a tremendous athlete, and didn't start catching full-time until 2004, so he doesn't have an entire lifetime of wear-and-tear on those knees.  Hopefully, he will respect Joe Torre's desire to rest him more consistently.

Andruw Jones - CF - Los Angeles Dodgers

What was supposed to be a strength for L.A., has turned out to be a major weakness in the early going.  Outfielders Andruw Jones, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, and Juan Pierre have combined for a single home run, six runs, and twelve RBIs.  None of them have an average above .278 or an OPS above 750.  Just for comparison: right down the road in Anaheim, the Angels outfield foursome has combined for 11 HR, 25 run, and 26 RBIs.  None of them has a OPS below 800.  

Andruw has been the biggest disappointment.  Coming off the worst year of his career, he has begun 2008 batting .114 with one extra-base hit and 1 RBI.  He looks lost at the plate, going 1-for-17 with 8 Ks in the last five games.  For me it is hard to believe that a player of Andruw's caliber could be declining at age 30, but unless he turns this season around pronto, that's what we will have to conclude.

C. C. Sabathia - SP - Cleveland Indians

C. C. has started the season going 0-2 with an 11.57 ERA in three starts.  I hate to say it, but this is what the Indians get for making him throw 255 inning last season.  Pitchers, even pitchers as good as Sabathia, break down after throwing that much.  The good news for the Indians is that the presence of Aaron Laffey, Jeremy Sowers, and Adam Miller means they can give Sabathia a bit of an in-season vacation and still be very competitive.  They will be best served by getting him on the D.L. shortly, if things don't improve dramatically in his next couple starts, and bringing him back renewed and refreshed a month or so down the line.

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