Hair of the Dog
June 8, 2006

It's interesting that both the Cardinals and Orioles have yet to move on Matt Lawton.  Currently, the Cardinals have career infielder/first-time outfielder Hector Luna patrolling left field, but his .591 OPS as a left fielder is not exactly the answer if the question is "how do we win?".  In fact, Cardinal left fielders as a whole have posted a .628 OPS (.248/.306/.321) with 14 RBI in 224 at bats.  Lawton can still play a little although his range and arm aren't nearly what they once were, but he'd only cost major league minimum.  While Lawton's offensive numbers in Seattle weren't impressive, part of his struggles might be attributed to getting very little playing time.  He posted an .836 OPS before the Break last year before getting sidelined with injuries.  So is his steroid suspension from last year what is preventing them from taking a chance here?  A team that has had two player suspended and spent years basking in Mark McGwire's glory?  If so, they might want to consider the Yankees' model with Jason Giambi.

Baltimore's situation isn't much better although they do have a long term solution in Nick Markakis.  They just have to just stick with him through his growing pains.  If the O's would stop deluding themselves into thinking they can contend this season, they might enjoy a nice second half from him.  It's not as if Jeff Conine or Luis Matos are going to make enough difference to vault the O's into the division race. 

Speaking of the Orioles, Melvin Mora is clearly a physically talented player, but he's had a tendency to make ill-advised decisions the last few years and this year even moreso.  Last night's game-ending gaffe was simply the latest.  With one out, down 5-3 with Mora on third and Luis Matos on second, Ramon Hernandez hit a short pop into left field that shortstop Aaron Hill flagged down for the second out.  Inexplicably, Mora tagged up, tried to dash home and was thrown out to end the game.  Why in the name of Earl Weaver would anyone risk making the last out of the game when a) the game tying run is already in scoring position with a very speedy runner no less and b) Mora's run, even if he makes it, still leaves the O's one run short.  The O's gain no strategic advantage by Mora trying to advance yet the cost of making an out was prohibitive.  Mora must have himself in a fantasy league and needed runs because that's the only logical reason anyone would do what he did.  Kevin Millar was coming up and was hitting .313 in June, .292 over the last three weeks and could have tied the game with a single.  I don't mean to keep bringing this up in just about every column, but Mora's blunder will not show up in the boxscore.  You'll look in the boxscore and see that he went 2-for-3 with a steal, a walk and a run scored and think, "he had a pretty good game" and have no clue that his fundamental lack of baseball smarts likely cost the Orioles the game or at the very least an excellent opportunity to tie it. 

Denny Bautista got moved to the bullpen which might be the best thing to happen to him.  He's struggled maintaining his mechanics largely due to the fact that he has a hard time staying focused.  While it's almost always best to try to get talented arms like his into the rotation, sometimes guys are simply better suited to relieve.  Maybe that's the case with Bautista.  I watched him pitch against the Rangers and he was hitting the high 90s with his fastball and he complemented it with a nice slider.  After giving up a home run to Ian Kinsler, he retired the next five batters he faced.  With the wild ride that is Ambiorix Burgos and the uncertain status of Mike MacDougal, maybe the Royals should consider trying Bautista as the closer.  True, the rotation should still be his ultimate goal but closing hasn't hurt Jonathan Papelbon's stock, nor has it ended thoughts of him eventually joining the rotation.   Perhaps the Royals should follow suit.

Justin Verlander didn't have his best stuff against the White Sox, but I was still transfixed to the TV watching him pitch.  His fastball topped out around 94 mph, but he was locating it and his knuckle curve looked like something from an XBox game; just an amazingly sharp break.  He set up everything with his fastball, or rather with the threat of his fastball, and used his change-up boldly even opening a couple of at bats with it.  One aspect of his game that might get lost in all the talk of his extraordinary stuff is the fact that he has an incredible pick-off move.  His feet are so quick that he catches many runners flat-footed.  It may come as a surprise but Verlander leads the AL in pick-offs with five, more than noted pick-off specialists like Mark Buerhle and Bruce Chen.  About the only thing preventing him from winning a Cy Young this year is maturity.   What I mean is that he still tends to over-rely on his fastball when he gets behind hitters.  Both Jermaine Dye and Jim Thome were sitting dead red when Verlander got behind and both crushed fastballs for homers.   If he starts throwing change-ups in fastball counts, he's golden.

To show what a funny game baseball is, before the season if anyone had been asked who would succeed Eddie Guardado as the Mariner's closer, probably 90% of the responses would have been Rafael Soriano.  George Sherrill might have even gotten a few votes.  JJ Putz probably wouldn't have gotten many because his career WHIP was over 1.400, his strikeout rate was below 7 per 9 innings and he had given up 18 home runs in just 126 innings.  Soriano, on the other hand, had surrendered 10 in 111 innings and had struck out over a batter per inning for his career.  But this year Putz has been lights out with a WHIP of 0.91 and striking out nearly 12 batters per 9 (nearly double his career rate) and has allowed just one homer in nearly 30 innings.  Meanwhile, Soriano has given up 4 homers in just over 30 innings, two of which he gave up to Josh Bard (!). 

I can't explain Putz' conversion.  After all, this is a guy who's only once in his career topped 7 Ks per 9 innings, and he's walked at least 3 batters per 9 every season he's been a professional.  In 2004, Baseball America had him rated as the M's 20th best prospect and talked about his low-90s fastball after his first season as a reliever.  He was 26 years old and had just completed his second season in Triple-A.  But now he regularly hits 95-96 and is one of the more dominating closers in the game.  Man, that's good coffee!  

As for Soriano, it seems that this is probably just a run of bad luck. Most big league players have one guy who they fare well against and sometimes the match-up is hard to explain.  Like how Mike Redmond completely owns Tom Glavine, hitting .438 with a 1.075 OPS against him.  He simply sees the ball well out of Glavine's hand.  Apparently, Josh Bard has Soriano's number in a similar fashion and has had the good fortune to have faced him twice this season.

I'm optimistic about how well AJ Burnett will do when he returns from his injury.  He'll have to get over the scar tissue issue, which can be tough for pitchers.  I remember talking with Johan Santana in 2004 about his elbow and he said it took him nearly two months to get comfortable letting go.  And he had only had bone chips removed.  Burnett has a bigger mental hurdle to overcome since he knows what it's like to come back from Tommy John surgery and doesn't want to experience that again.  Still, if he can come to grips with the notion that the scar tissue will remind him it's there for a little while but will eventually subside, I don't think he'll have as much trouble facing AL line-ups as many people suspect.  In 19 career starts versus AL teams he's 8-3 with a 3.15 ERA and 1.05 WHIP, striking out 7.54 batters per 9.  Some of those starts came in NL parks where he didn't have to face the DH, but he's a groundball pitcher in the Roy Halladay mold and he hasn't had too much trouble striking out batters in his two starts this year (10 in 10 innings, against Boston and Chicago no less).  If his rehab starts go well - which I'm postulating is a sign that he's comfortable with his elbow - he'll be worth trading for.