Early May Notes
May 6, 2008

As some of you may know, I'm no longer writing about baseball professionally.  Well, to be completely forthcoming, I'm not doing anything with baseball any more and yet I am still enjoying life very much.  Probably moreso.  Go figure.  Anyway, that doesn't mean I still don't enjoy watching games or playing fantasy baseball or Strat-o-matic.  Or writing down observations.  I guess I'm just a chatterbox that way. 

It's hard to tell much about a player from his debut so I'm not going to pass judgement on Max Scherzer's first outing as a starter quite yet.  I'm pretty sure he was overthrowing a little, costing some velocity on his fastball but it was still pretty good.  However, two things concern me - the first is that he's basically a two pitch pitcher: a very good four seam fastball and a good change-up.  His two seamer was decent but I don't recall him throwing it in the strike zone any of the few times he threw it.  His slider is nothing but a show-me pitch and until he can throw one of those two for quality strikes, his value will be limited because it will be tough to go deep in games with just two pitches.  The Phillies basically sat on his fastball and ignored anything else.  The other thing that troubles me a little is his delivery, which has a little recoil on the follow-through.  I don't think it will be an injury concern, just something that can get out of whack.  Still, that concern is mitigated by the fact that he has one of the better pitching coaches in the majors, Bryan Price, guiding him.  

Speaking of pitching coaches, last fall I took more grief about my position that Leo Mazzone was merely a good pitching coach, not a great one, and that Atlanta's success was largely due to the presence of Greg Maddux.  Here is some more grist for the mill: the Orioles under first year pitching coach Rick Kranitz, have posted a team ERA of 4.27.  Last year at this time under pitching genius Leo Mazzone they had an ERA of 4.33, and that was with Cy Young candidate Eric Bedard on the staff.  Want more stats?  The year before Mazzone showed up the O's posted a 4.56 ERA.  His first year with the team they posted a 5.35 ERA and his second full season they dropped a 5.17 on the fans.  I'm sure if the O's finish under 5.00 this year, the Mazzone worshippers will say it was due to a residual effect of his tutelage.  

But you want to know who is a great pitching coach?  Check out the Cardinals' ERA: 3.53, 5th best in baseball despite the fact that staff ace Chris Carpenter is on the shelf and they feature a staff of retreads - Joel Piniero, Kyle Lohse, Todd Wellemeyer and Braden Looper.  It's one thing to post great ERAs with top talent the way Mazzone did, but it's quite another to do it with second rate arms and retreads the way Duncan has done his entire career.  Sure, he can't reach everyone - see Marquis, Jason - but a pitching coach's primary job is to make as many as possible of his pitchers better.  Mazzone let several of his most talented fall through the cracks - Paul Byrd, Odalis Perez, Jason Schmidt, etc - Duncan has been more successful.  Maybe it's time those stat heads started looking at the actual stats.

OK, so enough rant.  The big question this time of year is "is my guy ok?" and the big category usually is saves.  So without more adieu, here are the "big name" closers I don't think will finish the season as closers based on what I've seen so far.

Eric Gagne will not make it past June as the Brewers closer.  He's nowhere near the same pitcher he was with the Dodgers.  Milwaukee is in contention, they have a team that can win that division but they can't do it with Gagne as a shadow of his former self.  There's some speculation that either Mota or Torres can step up but even though they have the physical tools to do the job there is something about their body language they says to me that they aren't the answer.  I bet the Brewers make a deal for a closer sometime in early July.

JJ Putz has been battling some injuries this year which probably explains why his velocity is down 5 mph.  That's a fine excuse to look ahead to next year but that won't help the Mariners if they want to try to make the playoffs this year, especially since the wild card is wide open.  Sorry Yankees fans, your team won't be playing in October: too many gaping holes.  The M's have a couple of good options in the pen to replace Putz.  The safe money is probably on Brandon Morrow but I really like Ryan Rowland-Smith despite the fact that he's a lefty and his numbers don't really say closer at all.  I just like the way he pitches.

I don't think Huston Street lasts the season.  His stuff is good but not great and he almost never pitches inside any more.  That's not a formula for long-term security.  I like the former Jairo Garcia, now called Santiago Casilla, to be the guy, especially if the A's do their usual trick of trading a closer away in order to build for the future.  

Jason Isringhausen has not looked good, obviously.  Kyle McLellan has looked very good so far and Tony LaRussa is not afraid to go with a young guy as his closer (see: Wainwright, Adam in the 2006 playoffs).

Kevin Gregg won't last the season as the Marlin's closer.  Of the guys already in a Florida uni I'd go with Justin Miller as his replacement but he hasn't quite been as convincing so far as I would like.  This is another team I expect to go shopping this summer for a closer if they remain in contention, which at this point looks like it might happen.

I don't have much confidence that Brian Fuentes finishes the season as the closer in Colorado.  Oddly enough, it's been Matt Herges who's been the most dominant statistically in the Rockies' pen, but I dont trust him either.  They may try Buchholz or Speier but they look like short-termers too.  I liked Kip Wells as a reliever coming into this season but his injuries have put the kybosh on that.  The Rockies don't look like a contender this year anyway so I can see them experimenting the whole season looking for lightning in a bottle they way they caught it last season with Corpas.  

Bobby Jenks is a boederline case that has me a bit worried as his velocity has been almost mediocre.  He's come up with another pitch to use so maybe he can trick his way through this season but his long term prospects aren't looking very good.  Matt Thornton has looked amazing but we've seen this movie before: looks unhittable one month then can't find the strike zone the next.  If he continues to make hitters look silly through May and the first part of June, buy, buy, buy!

You've probably noticed that I haven't mentioned the obvious one yet: Brandon Lyon.  That's because so far he looks like he can handle the job for the full season in Arizona.  However I would trade him before next season because there is no way he fools hitters for two seasons in a row.  Call him Matt Herges, Jr.

I also like Kerry Wood to keep his job.  Sure he's blown three saves, but look at his secondary numbers and then watch him.  His stuff is not vintage Kerry Wood, but it's still pretty good and I bet it improves a tad when the weather warms a little more.  He has a hard time getting loose quickly and the warmer weather should help that.

I like what I've seen from Brian Wilson the past two weeks.  He is beginning to look pretty comfortable with the job, being more aggressive in the strikezone and getting groundballs.  He may not get as many opportunities with the Giants, but I think he'll be plenty good to keep the job for the forseeable future.

Many doubted Troy Percival's comeback, myself included although unlike many I wasn't willing to suggest that his ability to close was a joke.  I would not be surprised if he did fine all this season; I don't think that will continue through next season.  

I would not expect anything out of Chad Cordero this season.  He's been used hard for the last four years and the workload has finally caught up.  Catch him on the rebound perhaps in 2010.  Jon Rauch is the guy this year.  One other thing about the Nats: I've been down on their starting staff this season with the exception of saying that Odalis Perez was a worthwhile flyer.  But they ahve some decent arms out there.  I was stunned to see the radar gun read the mid-90s while watching Joel Hanrahan and Tim Redding doesn't look like the same Tim Redding I've been watching for the last 10 years.  Maybe the clock will strike midnight on Timderella soon but it's been fun to watch so far.  It has been tough to wtch the clock strike 1, 2 and 3 AM on Matt Chico.  He got away with larceny last year but it's hard to keep that going.

OK, just a couple quick hits on other players of note:
Conor Jackson has been getting a lot of hype and deservedly so with his strong start.  I don't think he'll continue this power surge throughout the season but he'll be plenty solid.  Here's the thing - James Loney is a year younger, a better defender, a better contact hitter and I think has more power potential.  Enjoy the ride with Jackson this year but Loney is the better play long term.

It doesn't come as a complete surprise that Josh Hamilton is leading the AL in RBI so far this season.  He was a former #1 draft pick, has always had immense talent and is playing on a team that has some pretty good hitters in a good hitters park.  But do you know who is #2 in RBI right now?  Would you believe it's Emil Brown?  And he's doing it with an OPS of .725.  His 27 RBI to this point puts him on pace to drive in more than 100 baserunners despite probably falling short of hitting 20 homers.  Here's a fun fact for you: the last hitter to drive in more than 100 runs with a .725 OPS or lower without having a 20 homer season was Maurice Van Robays in 1940.  He and Heinie Zimmerman back in 1917 are the only two players in history to do it.  Furthermore, only a couple dozen guys have ever posted an OPS under .750 and drove in at least 90 with fewer than 20 home runs and only one - Derek Bell in 1996 - has done it in the last 15 years.  Emil Brown's value will never be higher.  One might be tempted to suggest the same thing of James Loney who is also running with fast company in the RBI department.  The difference between the two is that Brown is a career journeyman and Loney is a star on the rise who has never posted an OPS under .900 while playing in the majors.  Loney's other performance categories will catch up to his RBI production soon.

So what's the deal with Nate McLouth?  Is he for real?  I mean he's among the league leaders in RBI, doubles AND homers.  Well, he was a 25th round draft pick by the Pirates who've not shown much acumen for picking the best talent, his best home run season in the minors was 12 in A-ball and his best season overall was in AA where he hit 40 doubles and 8 homers.  So the anwer is probably no, just like Brian Roberts did a few years ago.  I do expect he'll hit for good average though.

Jack Cust is a polarizing player with an increasing number of people jumping on his bandwagon this spring.  They jumped off in April with his bad start but seem to be changing their tune again with his performance last week.  Just for the record, I have never been on his bandwagon.  Well, maybe I was as a DH but after watching him play in Baltimore I was convinced that he was not a player I would want on any team - real or fantasy - if I was a GM even after last season.  First, he is a liability in the field and on the basepaths.  He is perhaps the only man in the history of baseball to fail to score from second base on a base hit with no one covering home plate.  I scored that game in Baltimore for MLB and I still have the scorecard somewhere in my office.  Secondly, and this doesn't apply as much to fantasy as real baseball, he is a poor bet to help the team should they ever make the playoffs.  The majority of pitchers he'll face during the regular season are mediocre so he makes an acceptable DH if he gets lucky enough to make contact because he will either walk or slug mistake pitches often enough.  But during the post-season he faces mostly very good pitchers who don't make those stupid mistakes because they are both good and focused.  That eliminates almost his entire game making him a liability everywhere except maybe as a desperation pinch hitter.  And the word is getting around - except on the Texas pitching staff - that he can't handle hard stuff inside.  I'm just not seeing a good ending here.

I would just like to mention that in 2006 both here and at one of Ron Shandler's First Pitch Forums I singled out Justin Upton as the next ARod/Pujols/Griffey type superstar.  I also said that year in both of the aforementioned forums that even though he didn't have a great strikeout rate, that Chien-Ming Wang had the same kind of stuff that Kevin Brown had at the same stage of his career and that once he added another pitch, the studliness and the strikeouts would come.  There's an over-abundance of self congratualtion in the fantasy baseball industry, particularly when it comes to stating the obvious but I thought it was notable that these two pats on the back came after a tide of doubters... kinda like that Mazzone thing.