Baseball Crank
Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
April 19, 2001
BASEBALL: Opening Month Notebook 2001

Originally posted on the Boston Sports Guy website.

It's early yet, even if we remind ourselves that the Mets have faced the Braves six times, the Yankees-Royals season series is over already and new pages have already been added to the Sox-Yanks rivalry. What’s new this April? A few questions and answers.

But first... think like a manager! Here’s a strategy quiz based on an actual game situation in April 1999. The answer (well, at least what actually happened) appears at the bottom of this page:

1. Bottom of the third, Orioles up 2-0, one out, Kevin Appier on the mound for KC, Jeff Conine at the plate, Harold Baines on first base, Albert Belle on third, what does Ray Miller do?

a) Pinch hit for Conine with a lefthanded hitter
b) Let Conine hit and try to drive in the runs
c) Tell Conine to take one for the team so Willis Otanez can hit with the bases loaded
d) Squeeze play
e) Hit and run to stay out of the double play
f) Double steal
g) Put in a pinch runner for the 40-year old Baines, who had bad hamstrings and was slow when he was 21

Now... back to our April stories:

Q: Did the Rangers waste their money on A-Rod?
Oops, that question is outdated already . . .

Q: What’s with this Soriano guy?
Hot rookie stirs April buzz... a very old story. Soriano is an extremely talented athlete, and with power, speed, and the New York media behind him he’s been generating massive buzz since the Yankees first signed him. Like Timo Perez, he originally played in Japan. My older brother compares him to Juan Samuel, another power/speed guy who was never really in position at second or in the outfield but put in four seasons as a productive hitter before the league caught on to him in 1988.

Warning: in 120 major league plate appearances through Wednesday, Soriano had struck out 30 times and walked just once; even though he’s hitting .290 this season, his on-base percentage is an surreal .286. Soriano should hit some homers as well, but his career high in the minors was 19, so don’t expect him to suddenly turn into Miguel Tejada.

Q: How on earth is Jeff Fassero leading the major leagues in saves?
He’s working hard, and Flash Gordon is hurt. Given that Fassero has a 7.00 ERA, don’t expect Bobby Thigpen to start quivering in his shoes.

Q: Why did Joe Torre pitch to Manny last week?
If you missed this... I was flipping between the Mets-Reds game and the Sox-Yankees Friday night, and the same situation came up three times: do you walk the big gun to load the bases? Bobby Valentine had Ken Griffey walked (Griffey actually asked the home plate ump if he had to walk to first to be pinch run for), and Bob Boone had Mike Piazza pitched around to the point of walking him. Torre clearly told Mariano Rivera to be careful with runners on second and third, a one run lead, two outs in the tenth and Troy O’Leary on deck, but he let Rivera pitch and Manny set the tone for the series with the winning single. While he may have wanted to see if Manny – who was 0-for-12 lifetime against Rivera – could come through, you have to play for the win there.

(I know Rivera is usually lights-out, but this is the best hitter in baseball we are talking about and TROY O’LEARY is on deck. But all Tim McCarver could talk about was how Manny can’t hit the high fastball. The good thing about a guy like Rivera is he won’t walk someone like O’Leary. Maybe O’Leary gets a hit and maybe he doesn’t, but I’d pitch to him over Ramirez any day.)

Q: Will the Orioles lose 110 games this year?
Not with 19 against the Devil Rays they won’t. I hope you had “twelve” as the number of games Baltimore would play before they got a win from a starting pitcher. Actually, the O’s haven’t been that bad so far, but there hasn’t been any reason to believe they won’t lose 100 games. (By the way, any really comprehensive list of guys who were likely to regress this season should have had Jose Mercedes near the top).

One guy I liked and picked up for my rotisserie team: Jay Gibbons. Gibbons still needs to find playing time, but he is a legitimate major league hitter.

As for Tampa, manager Larry Rothschild has now been sacked, which seems a little unfair for a guy who made chicken salad out of chicken &$%# (he was stuck with thin pitching staffs and never had the horses offensively). I can't say the Rays were entirely unjustified in seeking a new direction, but Rothschild was killed by the incompetence of GM Chuck LaMar; it's hard to imagine how LaMar can justify firing his manager when he played the guys LaMar told him to play instead of demanding a lineup with some young hitters and fewer Randy Winns (young, not a hitter) and Fred McGriffs (hitter, not young). Hopefully a GM with a balanced team will give Rothschild a second chance to show whether he can manage or not.

Q: Who’s benefitting from the new strike zone?
Other than “the pitchers,” this is too early to call, but here’s my guess on one count: while lots of preseason speculation focused on the Royals as the team most likely to benefit, with a stable full of hard throwing youngsters with control problems, the team to keep an eye on is Anaheim. The Angels finally trimmed all the Belchers and Ken Hills off their roster (except for Pat Rapp), leaving them with a talented but unproven young staff including Ramon Ortiz, Jarrod Washburn, Scott Schoenweis, and possibly Matt Wise (who’s now disabled suffering from dizzy spells). Ortiz and Wise between them have struck out 24 batters and walked 5 thus far. That’s who to watch in the early going: pitchers with huge K/BB ratios, also including Curt Schilling, Chris Carpenter (who might have a big year but more likely will wear out and start getting shelled again), Wade Miller, Pat Hentgen, Esteban Loiaza, and of course the usual suspects like Mussina, Leiter and Pedro.

An unlikely beneficiary: the pinpoint control artists. Rick Reed hasn’t walked a batter yet – not while striking out 14 in 25 innings this season, and not all of spring training. Reed’s threw complete games of 96 and 98 pitches in his first two starts. Greg Maddux has thrown just 226 pitches through 20 innings and allowed just a single, unearned run.

On the other hand, projections that Matt Anderson would become a star were clearly premature . . .

Q: Who’s been hurt?
Way too soon to tell. Oakland’s struggles are clearly a coincidence; the guy who’s killing them is Damon, who was never the prototypical Athletic.

Q: Are the Twins for real?
I stand by my preseason pick of the Twins to finish third; they’ve got good pitching and improved defense, but they don’t have the bats. Still, USA Today’s Danny Sheridan had them listed before the season as a 50 million to 1 shot to win the World Series. Wish I’d put ten bucks on that...

Q: What about the Blue Jays?
Well, the pessimist’s view of Toronto was that too many guys had career-type years last season (notably Delgado and Fullmer), all the key hitters but Fletcher were healthy all year, and they still didn’t win anything. The team’s two best pitchers last year (Frank Castillo and David Wells) are gone, and Mike Sirotka might not pitch this season. Alex Gonzalez is still the shorstop.

But the optimist’s view was that Chris Carpenter, Roy Halladay, Kelvim Escobar and Clayton Andrews combined to start 66 games last season and pitch 443.2 innings with a 6.73 ERA. Those four pitchers, even with mountains of run support to work with, were a combined 25-36. The odds would have to be against getting pitching that bad again; Halladay has been dispatched to the Class A Florida State League, Escobar to the bullpen, Andrews back to the minors and Carpenter (who’s been spectacular so far this season) will be on a much shorter leash. A full season from Esteban Loaiza and the arrival of veteran mediocrity Steve Parrish promises less excitement but more stability, and Joey Hamilton is healthy again. Homer Bush may also lose his job to veteran Jeff Frye and utilityman Ryan Freel. All in all, the Jays have plugged enough holes that they might yet win the 90-92 games it will take to catch the Sox and Yankees if both teams are stumbling.

Q: Can we now fairly say the Reds got screwed in the Denny Neagle trade?
Yes and no. Neagle, after a fast start, didn’t live up to expectations with the Yankees lasts season, getting bombed most of the second half and being a non-factor in the postseason. But what the Reds got in return looks largely useless now. Drew Henson never intended to play for the Reds, which they should have been able to find out ahead of time, and had to be given back to the Yankees for Wily Mo Pena, an overpaid prospect whose upside is the next Ruben Rivera. Ed Yarnall went from “guaranteed a spot in the defending World Champions’ rotation” to “sold to the Orix Blue Wave” in just over a year, a testament to the unpredictability of young pitchers but also to a guy who thought “conditioning” was something you turn on when it gets hot outside. Nobody else in the deal really had a ton of promise anyway.

Q: Is the Coors Field effect overrated?
Don’t be fooled by the occasional good pitching outing there. I was never a big Vinny Castilla fan, but even I never dreamed that at sea level he’d be a .210 hitting singles hitter. Al Gore, Darryl Strawberry and the guy who designed Dale Earnhart’s seatbelt have all had more fun in Florida lately than Vinny Castilla. And Dante Bichette, like Castilla, is now bolted to the bench. Here’s a stat – lifetime batting averages before arriving in Colorado:

Dante Bichette: .254
Andres Galarraga: .267
Jeffrey Hammonds: .268

Q: El Sid couldn’t make it back after all?
You know Sid Fernandez was lying on the couch with a bag of chips when a voice on the TV said “they’re bringing back the high strike,” and next thing you know he’s on a plane to Florida. Fernandez could have prolonged his career as a reliever, but I guess he just didn’t have the same pop on his fastball after a few years away. I may do a longer column on Sid at some point – he was really a fascinating player to watch, a guy who could go from totally unhittable to useless in a matter of minutes.

Q: Whose injuries are worse than they originally looked?
Travis Fryman. Carl Pavano. Mark McGwire.

Q: Is Jimy Williams nuts?
That's another story, but he's actually done two things I suggested in my preseason preview:

1. Move Arrojo to the bullpen
2. Reduce Bichette's role

Unfortunately, the Nomar injury short-circuited any chance of completing the trifecta and cutting Mike Lansing. One reader wrote in to suggest that the Sox should cut a deal for Rey Ordonez, which would make a certain amount of sense (Ordonez could stabilize the infield and is really better suited to being a bench player, albeit a grumpy one) but wouldn't work because Ordonez has a big contract and the Mets' other options at short are even more frightening.

Q: Who will hit more homers, McGwire or Bonds?
That's a tough one, it depends on how bad McGwire’s knees are. Through Monday, Big Mac was 56 homers ahead, which is about a year and a half’s work for Bonds, or 2 full seasons’ worth if you look at what the tail end of his career might look like. A healthy McGwire should still hit anywhere from 50 to 65 homers in a full season, but it’s still unclear how much he can play; it wouldn’t be that surprising to see 25 homers this year and 30 next year followed by retirement if the knee keeps him out nearly half the time. That would leave McGwire at 610 homers, 24 ahead of current fourth-place holder Frank Robinson but 50 behind Willie Mays (even though Mays, unlike all the other 500 homer men except Ted Williams, spent nearly 2 full years in the military).

Bonds’ established home run level is 42; if he hits 42, 37 and 30 over the next three seasons that gives him 603, and unless he gets a serious injury I don’t see Bonds as a guy who would just hang it up at that point. Unlike Rickey Henderson or A-Rod or Pete Rose, Bonds has never given us enough insight to know if he’d just stick around for stats, though I suspect that at some point his pride in his game would compel him to retire on his own terms rather than just play for a buck. My guess is that Bonds will be with us a while, so he will outhomer McGwire unless McGwire can regain his role as an everyday player buy next season.

Q: Is Bonds better than Ted Williams? ran a comparison of Barry Bonds to Ted Williams and Rob Neyer weighs in as well. It’s a very interesting comparison and not a slam-dunk either way; I’ll return to the issue in depth myself some day. But for now, to make it fair, you have to (1) lop off the last six seasons of Williams’ career, including his horrid 1959, since Bonds is only now the age Williams was in 1955; (2) take away the 1989, 1990, 1991, all but a week of 1998 and all but a month of 1999 from Bonds to match what Williams lost to two wars (there go an MVP award, two All-Star appearances, three Gold Gloves, and 4 of Bonds’ 12 league leads in the percentage categories from his resume); and (3) cut all Bonds’ totals (except the 1994 and 1995 seasons, which were his own fault) by 5% to reflect the difference between the 154 and 162 game seasons. Then we have a fair fight.

(By the way, even playing in a mostly higher-scoring era, Bonds has never had a season that matched Williams’ career batting average or career on base percentage and he’s only topped Williams’ career slugging percentage in a season three times).

The two 300-game winners to pitch for the Yankees during their careers were Gaylord Perry (1980) and Phil Niekro (1984-85).

If you guessed (f), call for a double steal, you're right! With Harold Baines! And Albert Belle stealing home! The crazy thing was, it worked. This is how managers act when they expect imminently to be fired. Red Sox fans, take note.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 11:33 AM | Baseball Columns | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
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