Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
August 25, 2006
BASEBALL: Going Down, Down, Down, Down Part V
Resuming, with Part 5, my look at young or still-establishing-themselves players whose stock has fallen dramatically in 2006 and/or 2005 - the NL Central. (Parts I, II, III & IV here, here, here, and here, respectively)
The Cards actually don't have anyone who fits the bill, as this is a veteran team and the few young players are rookies. Randy Flores, maybe, as he had finally put together a solid big league season last year, but Flores is a 31-year-old middle reliever who never had much of a ceiling anyway.
Jason Lane: Lane, a free-swinging power threat, got a full shot in 2005 at age 28 and responded by doing what free-swinging power hitters do: 34 doubles, 26 HR, a .499 slugging % but only a .316 OBP. He chipped in 3 HR and 8 RBI in the Astros' postseason run, including a 4th inning homer in the dramatic 14-inning Game 3 of the World Series. Lane held the right field job entering this season, but ended up getting demoted back to the minors after batting just .207 in 246 at bats, leaving him fighting to reclaim his status as a regular.
Brandon Backe: Backe was nothing spectacular in 2005, but he was a young pitcher making progress, and he pitched some tremendous games in the postseason. This year he managed just 8 starts before hurting his elbow and now may face Tommy John surgery.
Ezequiel Astacio: The wages of postseason failure - Astacio had a solid (for a rookie) 66/25 K/BB ratio in 81 IP last year, giving hope that he could someday be an effective starter, once he cut down on that atrocious HR rate (2.6 per 9 IP). But Astacio, the last man in the Houston bullpen, melted down in the 14th inning of Game 3 of the Series after surrendering Geoff Blum's home run, and he wasn't the same pitcher this year in brief action, walking 6 in 5.2 IP. He's been better at AAA Round Rock, but still with a 4.76 ERA. Astacio is now a ways from contributing again at the major league level.
(By the way, although he's not a youth, this may be a useful point at which to look at Brad Lidge's unraveling in 2006 in light of my post last year on closers who blow the big one in the postseason).
JJ Hardy: Hardy struggled as much as an everyday player could possibly struggle in the first half in 2005, batting .187/.267/.293, but rebounded 180 degrees to bat .308/.503/.363 in the second half. This year, at age 23, Hardy was on a lot of lists of potential breakouts, as a guy expected to team with Prince Fielder and Rickie Weeks to anchor the Milwaukee infield for years to come, and he hit OK in April (.281/.449/.323). Instead, Hardy struggled badly in May, dropping his season numbers to .242/.398/.295 before going down for the season with ankle surgery.
(Weeks may also belong here - he performed quite well with the bat this season before his own season-ending injury, but his own glovework has been so bad, combined with a career year by Bill Hall, that the Brewers may end up sending Weeks to the outfield, making him much less valuable).
Ronny Cedeno: Cedeno's just 23 and batted .300 in a very brief trial last year (80 at bats), and had projected as a guy who might hit enough (Baseball Prospectus projection: .273/.387/.320) to hold a SS job and eventually develop into an offensive contributor. Cedeno's 2006 has been a total wipeout: .244/.329/.269, a deplorable 81/13 K/BB ratio, caught stealing in half his attempts, and a lower batting average each month (.308, .276, .234, .200, .185). You have to wonder about keeping a guy like that in the lineup.
Jerome Williams: In chaos there is opportunity, and precisely that opportunity presented itself to the onetime Giants prospect, still just 24, as the Cubs' rotation unraveled and Williams, who posted a 3.91 ERA last year in 106 innings for the Cubs, had the chance to prove himself. Granted, his peripheral numbers weren't all that impressive (59/45 K/BB ratio), but the chance was there. Instead, a 7.30 ERA and 11 walks in 12.1 IP got him an early ticket to Iowa, where he has been drilled to the tune of 131 hits in 98.1 IP while striking out just 45 minor leaguers.
Brandon Claussen: 2005: 121/57 K/BB ratio in 166.2 IP, a 4.21 ERA in 29 starts, and a lot of hope for the future. 2006: A 6.19 ERA and season-ending shoulder surgery.
Paul Maholm: Maholm is the same story as Duke - great ERA last year, mediocre one this year, and a low K rate that spells a low ceiling. Plus Maholm walks way too many batters.
Chris Duffy: Duffy's .341 average last year in 126 at bats now looks like a Tike Redman-ish fluke, as he has batted .217/.283/.273 this season in 185 at bats.
Ryan Doumit: Hamstring injuries have limited Doumit to just 57 at bats this year after a respectable rookie campaign; Ronny Paulino took his job while he was away and has hit .312, and Doumit may now face a battle to get playing time.
Nate McLouth: Yet another Buc with the same old story - decent but unspectacular as a 2005 rookie, helpless and hurt in 2006.