Cold Starts
April 16, 2005

Pardon me for one rant before I get started:
All those writers who thought the Nationals would stink, please sit down.  Stop writing about baseball because you are clearly missing a great game.  I'm not saying that the standings will stay this way all year, but anyone who thought the team that was in Montreal last year would oblige the NL East with a repeat performance this year just hasn't been paying attention.  This team is going to be pretty good this year and will only get better with the money that will be available to it.  You simply can not believe how much the crowd at RFK has energized these guys.  Many of the players were surprised how boisterous the fans were at the exhibition game against the Mets.  Most of them were practically speechless with the reception they got at the home opener.  Every single one of them had the same look on their face after that first home game: exuberant, like a little leaguer on pizza night.  And it's hard to underestimate how much of a positive effect the reduction in travel will have on this team later in the season.

Now, take a look at the roster.  No, it's not loaded like some of the AL East teams, but it ain't too shabby, especially with Wilkerson and Johnson getting on base at the top.  If Ryan Church develops like he did in AAA last year, this team will score enough runs, especially with the defense they have.  The rotation is pretty decent with Livan, Loaiza, Day and Patterson and they have a solid set-up and closer combo with Ayala and Chad Cordero.  The only thing that wil keep this team from contending for the division this year is depth.  They don't have much on the bench or in the bullpen.  No, the standings won't stay this way all year, but I'd be surprised if this team doesn't finish with a winning record.

OK, now to the real topic at hand: cold starts in the AL.  What's up with these guys?

Michael Cuddyer

This one is a bit of a puzzle to me because he hit so well in spring training (.314/.390/.647).  From what I've seen so far, he looks to be pressing a little causing him to just miss pitches he would normally crush.  Terry Tiffee's hot start hasn't helped I don't imagine.  However, the Twins would be better served if Cuddyer can claim the everyday job.  Both players are the same age but Tiffee's best season in the minors was last year when he posted an .879 OPS.  Cuddyer has twice topped .950 and he smacked 30 homers as a 22-year old in the AA Eastern League. Tiffee has the better eye at the plate, but Cuddyer has far more ability to do something with a pitch when he makes contact.  Last year, he was a good soldier and played wherever and whenever Gardenhire asked him.  Cuddyer is the type of hitter who need regular playing time to show what he can do and Gardenhire admits that.  So I'm sure Cuddyer will get his ABs and eventually settle down. 

Aaron Boone
With so much fanfare after Cleveland signed Boone, prompting Casey Blake to be moved to the outfield, Boone has fallen flat out of the gate.  However, this should not have been a surprise.  April has always been Boone's worst month.  He has a career .718 OPS in April with a .243 average.  He will get better and soon.  His career OPS in May is .794 and his best month is July with a .922 OPS.  One small bit of concern is his performance since moving to the AL, which hasn't been good.  Because of his injury and brief stay in new York, he may still be adjusting to the pitchers he's facing. 

Vernon Wells
When Carlos Delgado left, Wells was left with the burden of carrying the Blue Jays' offense.  Or so it appears, at least in Wells' mind.  The real Vernon Wells is the one we saw briefly in Japan last fall with the annual All-star trip and for the full season in 2003: a monster run producer.  Last year he was plagued by injuries but it was pretty clear in September that he was healthy again, hitting 7 home runs in the final month.  This spring, with Delgado gone, he pronounced that he was going 30/30.  While that may seem far fetched based on his career stolen base numbers, plenty of scouts forecasted he was capable of that kind of speed when he was in the minors.  However, it appears that in addition to having to make up for the loss of Delgado, Wells has added the burden of living up to his claim.  Fortunately, several other Blue Jays have gotten off to strong starts - Hillenbrand, Rios, Zaun and even Hinske seems to have rebounded from an off year - so Wells should be able to relax a bit and not put so much pressure on himself.  Like Boone, Wells has a tendency to get out of the gate slowly (.656 career OPS in April) so if you are looking to trade for him, now is the time to get him. 

Jermaine Dye
Perhaps Jermaine Dye simply isn't as good as we think he is.  When the Braves traded him to Kansas City, he astonished many with the year that he had and then followed it up with an even better year.  But that was 5 years ago and he really hasn't come close to reproducing those kind of numbers over a full season since.  Yes, he's had some tough luck with injuries but it's possible that those injuries have taken a significant and permanent toll on his ability to perform.  Worse still, they might have made him prone to the types of injuries that don't take him out of the line-up but still reduce his effectiveness, like muscle pulls and strains.  Even his spring numbers look suspicious with 15 strikeouts in 62 at bats.  Last year he posted the worst full season strikeout-to-walk rate of his career.  It's hard to imagine that a 31-year old is in such decline, especially in this era of dominant 40-somethings, but that may be the case here. 

Gary Matthews Jr.
Matthews' career has been such an up-and-down ride that a slow start to this season after what he did last year shouldn't be much of a surprise.  I'm been a fan of Matthews since his days as a Padre prospect and he has the talent to hit 15 homers and steal 20+ bases a season.  But for whatever reason, he gets into these terrible funks at the plate that eventually send him to the bench, often times in favor of lesser players.  It happened in Baltimore in 2002 when he lost time to Chris Singleton and also in 2003 when the Orioles actually cut him.  He came back later that season with the Padres and had a pretty solid year off the bench.  If Laynce Nix ever figures out how to hit (currently .259 in hitter friendly AAA Oklahoma), that same fate may befall Matthews again this year in Texas. 

Jay Gibbons
After scoring between 40-50 Oriole games a season for the last three years, I can say with a high degree of certainty that Gibbons is one of the worst guess-hitters I've ever seen.  It's one of the reasons he gets into such terrible slumps.  However, there are spans when he guesses right and he becomes a terrific producer, like in June of 2003 when he hit .304 with 6 homers and 25 RBI.  Last year he was plagued by injuries, but this spring he has been fairly healthy.  So my guess is that he's just going through one of his bad guess phases and it's only a matter of time before he gets torrid hot... and then numbingly cold.... and then hot... and then cold....etc. etc.

Calvin Pickering
As much as people enjoy and rely on MLEs, they don't always work out.  Sometimes, the numbers just don't translate.  For example, Calvin Pickering's MLEs from last year say he's a .280 hitter with 30 homer power.  The power is right, but the average... hmm, not so good.  His career average in the majors is .232 which is probably a little low on the expectation for his talent, but not by much.  How do I know?  He's a huge guy who's not very agile, so his strikezone has some very exploitable holes.  Check out his strikeout-to-walk ratio last year: 70 walks, 85 Ks in 299 AAA ABs, where pitchers aren't as precise as they are in the bigs.  Now his numbers in KC: 18 walks vs 42 Ks in 122 ABs.  Big league pitchers will more often than not find the holes.  Pickering will still jack the mistakes into the water at Kaufmann stadium, but his batting average probably won't rise much beyond .240.

Steve Finley
Finley had a remarkable year last year, but he has three things working against him this year.  The first is that he's a year older and for a guy who just turned 40, that's not necessarily a good thing.  The second is he's now playing in the AL for the first time almost 15 years.  So there's going to be a significant adjustment period as he faces a whole league of new pitchers.  The last is that he's coming from a park that's not too tough to hit homers (although it is still a pitcher's park) to a place where it is tough to hit homers, and much of Finley's offense last year came from his home runs.  He'll still be a solid addition to the Angels, but his season will probably be much more in line with what he did in 2001 or 2003 than what he did last year.

Charles Thomas/Nick Swisher/Eric Byrnes/Bobby Kielty
The A's have four players vying for playing time in the outfield corners and none of them have done anything to this point to warrant being given a full-time job.  In fact, Charles Thomas and Bobby Kielty are still looking for their first hits of the season.  Byrnes and Swisher have to be considered the favorites to get the majority of the playing time, but it's certainly no given that they'll get it.  Byrnes' 2004 campaign was somewhat of an outlier.  His only comparable season was in hitter friendly Sacramento in 2001 when he was significantly older than his competition.  The rest of his career projects out as a decent 4th outfielder.  Swisher, while patient at the plate, looks like he can be pitched to both up and away, which will make his job of adjusting to the improved pitching he's facing very hard.  The A's may stick with him regardless of his struggles for no other reason than they have so much invested in the Moneyball darling.  But if someone else gets hot, Swisher may end up sitting.  Which brings us to the aforementioned Thomas and Kielty, who have been anything but hot to date.  I've written before about Thomas so suffice it to say that I don't think he's as good as he looked last year.  There's really nothing in his resume that indicates he can come close to his production in Atlanta.  Maybe he's a late bloomer... or maybe (and more likely) it was a fluke that Schuerholz cashed in on.  So only Kielty is left.  Just a couple of years ago, he was the next big thing after a pretty solid year in a part-time role in Minnesota.   But the wheels fell off the following year and he's been somewhat of an enigma since.  His minor league numbers indicate a he's a pretty solid hitter with a good eye for balls and strikes and decent power.  Even last year when he hit for a career low .214 average, his strikeout to walk rate was pretty good.  Kielty strikes me as a player who could be pretty decent with regular playing time.  He could get that with a well-timed hot streak... like now would be a good time.