Youth is Served
August 19, 2006

I forget where I read it but I'd like to echo the sentiment that perhaps Eric Wedge has outlasted his usefulness as the Cleveland manager.  With few significant injuries to overcome and career best (so far) years from Travis Hafner, Grady Sizemore, Casey Blake plus solid years from his starting staff, for the Indians to be more than 20 games out of first place and 12 games under .500 points to a serious problem in the manager's office.  I've already mentioned in previous columns how I disagree with his handling of the everyday players who have struggled, but I'd especially highlight his handling of the bullpen as a serious weak point in his managerial resume. 

After the team traded Bob Wickman, he immediately anointed Fausto Carmona as his team's closer.  It might have made some sense had Carmona excelled as a reliever in Triple-A, but other than 4 innings back in the New York Penn League four or five years ago, Carmona had zero experience in relief until he was moved out of the rotation in Cleveland this year.  Granted, he was excellent in the role for his first 15-20 innings, but is that enough to crown him 'the closer"?   There's enough pressure closing out games, why add to it by announcing that the rookie with little late inning relief experience is now "the guy who'll finsh our games"?  Why not take the pressure off the guy and say "closer by committee" yet give him the first shot so if he does well, great, but if not, no big deal?  Let someone else get the next shot and if you're still sold on Carmona, give him the subsequent opportunity.  As we saw, the result was a guy who was not ready for that kind of responsibility and has since been largely worthless out of the pen after his highly publicized failures. 

If you are wondering who will be the closer in Cleveland, it's Tom Mastny.  Rafael Betancourt crumbles when there are men on base.  With runners on, his career ERA is 5.88.  This year, it's 6.47 with batters hitting .313 with 5 homers against him.  Brian Sikorski gives up a home run every third inning... literally... in 24 innings pitched his year he's given up 8 homers.  And Jason Davis can't handle the pressure.  Put him in a "clutch" situation and he either can't find the strikezone or finds way too much of it.  Yeah, he throws hard but a lot of guys can hit a straight 95 mph fastball.  His ERA with runners on base is 9.15 with hitters batting .354.  Fernando Cabrera could develop into "the guy" because bad things seem to roll off him pretty quickly and he has a nasty out-pitch, his splitter, but his mechanics can become a total mess at times which leads to some overly adventurous innings.  Mastny is the only guy in the pen who doesn't give up a lot of bombs - he has yet to surrender a home run this year - and has the strikeout pitch necessary for closing.  Plus it'd be really cool to have the majors' first closer who was born in Indonesia.  Of course, Mastny getting his shot depends on Eric Wedge recognizing his value.

Speaking of closers, the guy in KC is Joe Nelson.  Get him if you need saves.  He's got very good control of a 90 mph fastball and a nice breaking pitch, what he calls a vulcan splitter, where the ball rests between his middle and ring finger instead of the standard splitter which is middle and index finger.  It breaks more like a downward slider with roughly the same velocity, but unlike a slider it doesn't spin.  Very tough to pick up.  Plus, even from his first shot at closing, he was fearless challenging hitters with his fastball and spotting it beautifully.  There's a strong temptation to compare him to Brian Meadows - that was my first impression, too - but after seeing him again it's clear he's got better stuff.  He's much more likely to hold down the job and do well in it.  A nearer comparison might be Akinori Otsuka.

But back to Cleveland for a sec... for those of you holding out hope that Andy Marte's bat will start showing some life, don't get too giddy over his performance Friday against the Devil Rays.  Apparently, Casey Fossum decided to ignore the scouting reports - and not just one scouting report... every scouting report ever done on Marte - and threw him nothing but fastballs.  I take that back.  He did throw him a slider in the seventh inning that nearly went to the backstop.  But other than that, fastballs.  Must have been smelt night (see: Rabbit and the King). 

There's no question Fossum has the stuff to be a top starter.  Good fastball, breaking pitches, he's got it all.  But one has to wonder if a light will ever go on, and if it does, will it be brighter than a Christmas tree light.  If you know a guy can not hit a breaking pitch, and he's already hit two fastballs for doubles in his first two at bats, why on earth would you continue to throw the guy nothing but fastballs?  Guys who do that are often referred to as "minor leaguers" or "future shoe salesmen".

OK, enough of my biliousness... the topic today is rookies, eh.  No hosers here.

The rookie pitchers have gotten all the notoriety this year, but September will be dominated by the rookie hitters.  Adrian Gonzales is carrying the Padres offense since the Break, hitting .344/.411/.611 over the last month.  His 80 total bases since the All-Star Game ranks fifth among all National Leaguers.  And the power is legit.  He was a 19-year old with 55 extra base hits in the Midwest League, and then followed it up with 52 more in the pitcher friendly Double-A Eastern League.  Last year he hit 18 homers in Triple-A in 328 at bats as a 23-year old.  This guy is a definite keeper.

Mark Teahen is tied for 6th in the majors for total bases after the Break.  Whatever doctoring to his swing that he and his coaches did when he was sent down to Triple-A earlier this year, they should write a book about it and sell it for a thousand dollars a copy.  They'd still sell a couple hundred thousand of them.  Before getting sent down he was batting .195/.241/.351.  After his return he's hitting .307 with 13 homers, 15 doubles, 5 triples (.572 slugging) and an on base around .380.  The word is that he was being too patient, looking for the perfect pitch to hit in each at bat.  Buddy Bell and his coaches got him to start swinging at merely good pitches and the results speak for themselves. 

Brian McCann has become the NL equivalent to Joe Mauer.  Actually, he's in nobody's shadow, hitting .343/.398/.569 with 16 homers to his credit.  He's still a work in progress on defense and calling a game so he's not quite the complete package Mauer is, and probably won't ever be.  But for fantasy purposes, he's still plenty good.

The Cardinals struggled with production from left field for the first three months of the season.  Someone had the idea of letting the pitching coach's kid give it a try and Chris Duncan has made the most of his shot.  He's 5th on the team in homers with 11 despite playing in less than half as many games as the other regulars.  Give him equal time and he'd likely be second on the team behind only Albert Pujols.  Since the Break he's hit 8 homers along with a .365 average (.436 on base, 1.099 OPS) which makes the Cardinals signing of Preston Wilson somewhat curious.  It's probably as much a sign that Jim Edmonds' health is more of a concern than it is that the Cards have any doubts about Duncan's ability. 

After a brutal first half, the White Sox' Brian Anderson finally seems to be getting comfortable against major league pitching.  He's hitting .291/.340/.453 since the Break.  That's not great, but it's a huge step up from  the .192/.280/.324 over the first three months.  And it's much more in line with what he did last year in Triple-A: .295/.360/.469.

OK, I can't finish this without mentioning some pitchers, too.  Quick quiz: Who leads the majors in strikeouts since the All Star Break?  Johan Santana?  John Smoltz?  no, it's Cole Hamels with 52.  Matt Cain is tied for 5th in Ks with 48.  Ian Snell isn't far behind at 11th with 41.  But Hamels is the one to pay attention to as he has seemingly conquered his control issues, walking just 8 in his last 39.1 innings.  The Phillies have been on something of a rampage since trading Bobby Abreu, posting a 13-7 record, so if they can continue the good vibrations Hamels will be pretty studly down the stretch. 

After a fairly inauspicious start to his major league career, Chad Billingsley finally turned in a couple outings that demonstrated his potential.  Most of my initial evaluation was spot on although I might have projected a little too much when I suggested he might be better off in the bullpen.  The Dodgers have shown patience with him, but I guess that's easier to do when he allows more than 2 runs in an outing just three times in 12 starts.  I must admit that I was like a lot of people and overly focused on his high walk totals.  And it's certainly a concern, but it shouldn't be a dealbreaker. 

I was looking over his numbers for clues about his future performance and found something, although not in the usual place.  Six feet, 240 pounds.  When I hear those four words in that sequence I immediately think of one pitcher: Bartolo Colon.  But those are actually the dimensions of Chad Billingsley.  Like Billingsley, Colon had some struggles throwing strikes consistently his first season.  The following season, he had no such trouble although it wasn't until his second full season that he became a true ace.  Billingsley looks like he'll be taking a similar path.

Jered Weaver threw another gem tonight.  Given how pathetic the Mariner's offense has been in August, that's not at all surprising.  They've been held to 2 runs or less in 9 of their last 16 games.  So Weaver had a pretty easy night coming to him regardless.  But what I don't get is why hitters are still befuddled by this guy.  He shows them what he's throwing before he delivers it.  If you have a high definition TV, you can easily see his grip on the ball and tell whether he's going to throw a fastball or a breaking pitch.  You can even see it on regular TV if you look closely.  That's true of a good number of pitchers, but what's different about Weaver is that his backswing on his delivery shows the hitters this information as well.  Most pitchers hide the ball either behind their head or behind their leg before delivering to the plate.  Weaver's hand is exposed before he starts toward the plate, so hitters should be able to see the spread of his fingers on the ball for a quick snapshot of what is coming.  In his first two at bats tonight, it looked like Ben Broussard was keying on that because he did not swing at a breaking pitch.  Of course, he didn't do much with the fastball when he got it so the point is moot.  But I have to believe that if I can see this, so can the hitters.  He's got Boston the next time out and they are pretty quick studies when it comes to a pitcher's tells.  I'm feeling bold - I'll predict that Weaver gives up at least 8 hits and 4 earned runs his next start.