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Shaky bullpens hitting clubs hard
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The Orioles and Rangers have abandoned their closers. The Brewers’ Trevor Hoffman has allowed more home runs — three — than he did all of last season.
Several weak clubs — the Royals, Nationals, Astros — face their usual issues. Yet, a number of contenders also are scrambling for solutions.
Teams that set up their bullpens quickly often achieve lasting success. But most ‘pens usually remain works in progress, given the volatility of the pitchers involved.
Consider the plights of the following clubs:
Cubs: Their bullpen is awfully young, and cracks are showing. But frankly, the Cubs’ biggest problem is their offense. Their relievers pitch with no margin for error.
First baseman Derrek Lee, second baseman Mike Fontenot and right fielder Kosuke Fukudome are the only Cubs batting over .174. The team has scored just 18 runs in six games.
Can’t blame Milton Bradley.
Cardinals: Right-handed relief remains the team’s biggest question, though the bullpen pitched nine scoreless innings in Milwaukee before Kyle McClellan allowed Casey McGehee’s walk-off home run Sunday night.
Jason Motte, who allowed a walk-off homer in the Cardinals’ other loss, likely will assume a lesser role. Blake Hawksworth, coming off a poor spring, threw 95-96 mph in his first outing, and Mitchell Boggs gets into the upper 90s with movement.
Both Hawksworth and Boggs were starters in the minors; their expanded repertoires give them more weapons than Motte.
Rays: You saw it this weekend: The Rays badly miss left-hander J.P. Howell, who is likely out until at least mid-May with a shoulder problem. Randy Choate, the team’s only active lefty reliever, allowed hits to seven of the nine Yankees hitters he faced, including a go-ahead homer by Jorge Posada on Sunday.
Closer Rafael Soriano also has been shaky — not surprising for a pitcher who has worked a grand total of six innings since the start of spring training. Soriano, seeking to preserve his arm, followed his own program in the spring.
Phillies: Closer Brad Lidge and left-hander J.C. Romero can take their time recovering from elbow injuries: The Phillies started 5-1 against the sorry Nationals and Astros, and their next three games also are against the Nats.
Lidge needs to build arm strength: He failed to complete an inning in a rehab appearance Saturday, touching 91 mph, but throwing mostly 89. Romero might be slightly ahead of him, but both figure to be at least two weeks away.
Not to worry: The Phillies are averaging more than seven runs per game. Their bullpen, which includes a Rule 5 pick, David Herndon, and a waiver claim, Nelson Figueroa, has been largely untested.
Marlins: A daily adventure. The Marlins generally excel at finding relievers on the cheap, but they need to keep looking.
The team released righties Mike MacDougal and Seth McClung in spring training. Jose Veras, another reliever signed to a minor-league contract, has been awful.
Most of the other relievers lack a track record of success, and Leo Nunez is not exactly a lockdown closer.
Red Sox: The Sox’s top three late-inning specialists — lefty Hideki Okajima and right-handers Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon — all have suffered losses, and righty Ramon Ramirez has been awful in two of his three outings.
The Boston bullpen should be OK, but the Yankees’ is deeper. Righties Chan Ho Park and Alfredo Aceves both are capable of pitching multiple innings and the Yankees believe they have three potential setup men — Park, David Robertson and Joba Chamberlain.
Rockies: Their bullpen actually is performing well in the absence of closer Huston Street, who has yet to resume throwing due to shoulder stiffness. But imagine how good the Rockies might be if Street and left-handed starter Jeff Francis return and no one else gets injured.
At that point, lefty Franklin Morales and righty Rafael Betancourt would set up Street. Greg Smith would become the third left-hander in the bullpen, joining Randy Flores. The Rockies also could benefit from the return of righty Taylor Buchholz from Tommy John surgery in June.
ROSS: THE A’S NEW KNOCKOUT PUNCH
Speaking of bullpens, how is it that the A’s can open the season with righties Michael Wuertz and Joey Devine on the DL and still roll out a dominant relief corps?
One reason is rookie right-hander Tyson Ross, whose three-inning save against the Angels on Sunday marked his second impressive stint in long relief.
Ross, a second-round pick out of Cal in 2008, cracked the A’s Opening Day roster after making only nine appearances at Class AA last season. Most club officials opposed the move, but general manager Billy Beane basically asked, “Why not?” Ross throws 91-95 mph, occasionally touching 97, and his slider is tough on right-handed hitters.
The A’s still view Ross, 23, as a starter, and likely will return him to the minors after Wuertz and Devine return. Then again, as a shutdown long man, he could amount to yet another weapon for a bullpen that already is quite deep.
It’s early, but at 5-2 the A’s are the only team above .500 in the AL West. Their offense is almost certain to be a problem, but their pitching almost singlehandedly could keep them in contention, particularly in a weakened division.
JAYS’ TRADE CANDIDATES: MARCUM, NOT WELLS
Blue Jays center fielder Vernon Wells will need more than one hot week to re-establish his trade value and even if he keeps producing, his contract will remain extraordinarily difficult to move.
Anything is possible — the Rockies traded lefty Mike Hampton with six years left on his eight-year, $121 million contract in Nov. 2002. But for the Jays, moving right-hander Shaun Marcum would be much more simple.
Marcum, who has pitched well in his first two starts, could be highly attractive in July. He had a 2.65 ERA in the first half of 2008 before suffering elbow problems that led to Tommy John surgery.
Some scouts liken Marcum to a “poor man’s Greg Maddux,” raving about his changeup and competitiveness. Best of all, Marcum is earning a mere $850,000, and is under club control though 2012.
Wells, on the other hand, is owed $86 million from 2011 to ’14 in his back-loaded contract, which includes a full no-trade clause. He can opt out after ’11 just before turning 33, but would be walking away from $63 million.
RAYS’ DAVIS: A SPECIAL CASE
Rays rookie right-hander Wade Davis lost to the Yankees in his season debut Saturday, but his talent is obvious and his makeup could take him far.
Two stories illustrate Davis’ maturity:
Davis, 24, was brilliant in his major-league debut against the Tigers last season, allowing only one run in seven innings. He then watched the game unravel on the clubhouse TV, as the Rays’ bullpen blew a 3-1 lead in the ninth inning.
One Rays official who was standing with Davis says, “he never even blinked.” Another Rays official congratulated Davis afterward, but the pitcher would hear none of it.
“We lost,” he said.
Davis’ next start was not nearly as good — he allowed eight runs in 2-2/3 innings against the Red Sox at Fenway Park. Upon leaving the game, he immediately watched video of his performance, quickly identifying what went wrong.
“My whole style of pitching has always been aggressive, pitching inside no matter who’s hitting,” Davis says. “But I watched the video and guys were almost stepping on the plate to hit the ball on the outer half. They were too comfortable.”
He made up his mind, right then and there.
“That’s never going to happen again,” Davis says. “I may get beat, but not like that.”
SMALL WORLD FOR GRANDERSON, GIRARDI
Shortly after the Yankees traded for outfielder Curtis Granderson, manager Joe Girardi received a call from a woman who had babysat him when he was growing up in Peoria, IL.
The woman, Debbie Carr, told Girardi that she had been Granderson’s advisor at Thornton Fractional South H.S. in Lansing, Il. What’s more, her son, Jake, had played baseball at the same university as Granderson — Illinois-Chicago.
What kind of report on Granderson did Carr give Girardi?
“I don’t know if anyone has ever had a bad report on Curtis,” Girardi says.
Granderson, too, noticed after the trade how his paths had crossed with Girardi. One night, he was eating at a restaurant in Chicago’s Little Italy and noticed a photo of Girardi on the wall in his Cubs uniform. Granderson asked if Girardi had eaten there often. The answer was yes.
“It’s amazing how once the trade happened I found out all about these connections,” Granderson says.
THE CRAWFORD MARKET: HOW HIGH?
More than one executive thought I overstated the eventual price for Rays left fielder Carl Crawford when I wrote that, “Tiger Woods stands a better chance of being named “Husband of the Year” than the Rays do of re-signing Crawford to say, an eight-year, $120 million deal.”
I will concede that eight years, $120 million is probably the outer limit for Crawford in free agency, but I still think he is positioned for a major score.
The market next winter likely will be fairly thin. Crawford will attract interest from a large number of clubs. And the increased emphasis on defense should only heighten his appeal.
Crawford, who turns 29 on Aug. 5, is more than 3-½ years younger than Mariners second baseman Chone Figgins, a somewhat comparable player who received a four-year, $36 million free-agent contract last winter.
Ichiro, another “speed” player, signed a five-year, $90 million extension with the Mariners in July 2007. But Ichiro is a special case whose value extends beyond his performance. Ditto for Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, who is in the final year of a 10-year, $189 million contract.
Crawford should get at least $12-14 million per season, and I’m guessing his deal will be for at least seven years.
AROUND THE HORN
- Yankees manager Joe Girardi says the Twins’ offense is underrated, and he’s right. The Twins finished third in the AL in runs in ’08 and fourth in ’09, and could be even more productive this season. From designated hitter Jim Thome to shortstop J.J. Hardy to second baseman Orlando Hudson, the Twins are deeper than before.
- So, is the Rangers’ Neftali Feliz now a reliever for good? Not so fast. Feliz, who turns 22 on May 2, has replaced Frank Francisco as the Rangers’ closer, but the team still views him as a potential starter. For now, the Rangers are focused on this season, but staying open-minded. Feliz is their best current alternative to Francisco.
- Rays manager Joe Maddon says of Orioles catcher Matt Wieters: “No doubt in my mind, he’s the next Mauer.” Maddon notes that Wieters, like the Twins’ Joe Mauer, has a knack for putting balls in play and “missing defenders.” Mauer owns a .349 career batting average on balls in play. The major-league average usually is around .300.
- Rays designated hitter Pat Burrell had two singles Sunday after both manager Joe Maddon and hitting coach Derek Shelton said he was close to getting untracked. Still, Burrell is the Rays’ version of David Ortiz, a slumping slugger in the final year of his contract. The Rays have internal options — Willy Aybar, Matt Joyce, Hank Blalock — and could seek a left-handed upgrade over Blalock as well.
- Yankees outfielder Randy Winn, a teammate of Edgar Renteria’s with the Giants last season, says the shortstop’s elbow was more of an issue than anyone outside the team knew. Winn says Renteria never complained, never made excuses, but he ultimately required surgery to remove two centimeter-long chunks of calcified matter from his elbow.
- Some rival scouts believe that the Brewers will need to add a catcher, citing Gregg Zaun’s 0-for-14 start and George Kottaras’ shaky receiving. The Brewers, however, are more likely to turn to one of their two catching prospects: Angel Salome, who is beginning his second straight year at Class AAA; or the more highly regarded Jonathan Lucroy, who is beginning his second straight year at Class AA.
- Angels third baseman Brandon Wood is 1-for-19 with seven strikeouts and no walks. Manager Mike Scioscia ideally wants to be patient with Wood, a relatively inexperienced player, but the Angels are 2-5 and they’ve scored only 18 runs in their last six games. It might not be long before Maicer Izturis begins getting more regular playing time at third. Wood offers more power, but only if he is making contact.
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