Unlikely stars key for Pirates.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
In 2011, the Pittsburgh Pirates started the season 54-52 before falling apart in August. Last season, the Pirates started 59-44 before falling apart in August. This season, it's déjà vu all over again so far. Winners of eight of their past 10 games, the Bucs are 26-18, sit tied with the Reds for second place in the National League Central and have moved to a season-best 12th in the ESPN.com Power Rankings. And although no one expected Pittsburgh to keep up its upstart act in '11, and few were expecting it last year, this year might be another story.
"Unlikely stars" isn't a term you hear too often, and with good reason. But if the term applies to anyone in baseball the past two seasons, it's A.J. Burnett. After two seasons with a plus-5.00 ERA, the New York Yankees openly tried to discard Burnett to anyone who wanted him. At a bargain basement price, Neal Huntington & Co. in Pittsburgh took a chance on Burnett, and it has paid off handsomely. Burnett was a revelation last season, and he has been even better so far this season. Three pitchers this season are striking out more than three of every 10 batters they face: Yu Darvish, Max Scherzer and Burnett. Unquestionably the team's best pitcher, Burnett, is bringing stability to a rotation that has rarely had it since the days of Doug Drabek.
This is good because the rest of the rotation is a bit of a jumble at the moment. Wandy Rodriguez continues to play "how low can you go" with his strikeout rate, but considering he is also not walking anyone, his K-BB is at a career-best 3.56. Because he is missing even fewer bats than ever, it brings in question just how long he can be successful, but, right now, things are rosy.
Rich Schultz/Getty Images
Francisco Liriano has allowed just two runs in his first 11 innings in a Pirates uniform.
The same can be said for Jeff Locke of late. After a three rough starts, Locke has had five quality outings in his past six starts, posting a 1.70 ERA. He still is walking too many people, but there are positive signs. This is also true for Francisco Liriano, who has allowed just two runs in his first 11 innings in a Pirates uniform. Liriano hasn't been good for a whole season since 2010, but the Bucs will ride the wave until it crests.
Rodriguez and Liriano might disintegrate at any moment, but there could be reinforcements coming from two fronts. Jeff Karstens and James McDonald are on the shelf right now, but both could be back in the fold by June. Neither is going to be mistaken for Greg Maddux, but they will in all likelihood be better than the Jonathan Sanchez/Jeanmar Gomez duo of death the team has run out there at the back end of the rotation. Of course, there's a chance that, by the time they are ready, they will have been leapfrogged by Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon, the best pitching prospects.
Ranked eighth and 20th in Keith Law's preseason top 100 prospects list, the duo are repeating the high minors this season and could be ready by midseason. Cole, 22, was cuffed around by the Pawtucket Red Sox, and has struggled in general with his walk rate, but he mastered both High-A and Double-A in less than 70 innings apiece, so, if he continues on that path, he will be ready fairly soon. Taillon has been doing even better. He entered Sunday's action with a 2.82 ERA and 2.53 FIP (fielding independent pitching) in 44.2 innings for Double-A Altoona, then proceeded to toss a quality start in which he struck out 10 hitters. It was his second double-digit strikeout performance of the young season. Still just in his age-21 season, Taillon might need to graduate to Triple-A before the Bucs pump him to the big league level, but certainly there will be no hesitation on manager Clint Hurdle's part if the team thinks he can affect the pennant race.
Back in 2007, most left the Colorado Rockies for dead when injuries knocked out starters Aaron Cook and Jason Hirsh in the same week, and, although they had to patch one spot with the likes of Elmer Dessens, prospect Franklin Morales helped stem the tide. Ranked No. 30 by Baseball America heading into 2007, then-21-year-old Morales had just 17 starts at Double-A and three at Triple-A under his belt when he was summoned to the majors, and he didn't disappoint. He tossed eight starts down the stretch to the tune of a 3.43 ERA and was a big reason Hurdle's bunch helped coin the term "Rocktober" in Denver that fall. Cole and Taillon carry a better pedigree than did Morales, and both will shortly have just as much experience, so they certainly could figure into the mix as the dog days approach this summer.
Their presence could be just as instrumental as Morales and his fellow rookie in 2007, Ubaldo Jimenez, were for Hurdle's first playoff team. The other facets of Pittsburgh's game are good but not great. Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte might be capable of carrying a team for stretches -- and McCutchen in particular hasn't gotten really hot yet -- but, over the course of a season, they will need help. This is also true, albeit to a lesser extent, with Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon in the Bucs' bullpen. These four players make their units average, but not much more than that.
The good news is that the team doesn't have a major weakness anywhere on the diamond. The Pirates could use a better-hitting shortstop than Clint Barmes, and they are a little thin on designated hitter-type players, but neither is exactly a unique problem among NL clubs. A lack of major flaws doesn't necessarily beget excellence, however, and it will be on the starting pitching to push the Bucs to the next level. If Burnett continues to dominate, and Locke and the rest of the rotation can come through, dreams of a black-and-yellow October might commence in earnest.
Miggy eyes another Triple Crown.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
ARLINGTON, Texas -- If there’s an opportunity before the postgame on-the-field interview on "Sunday Night Baseball," I’ll give the player a quick heads-up about what questions I will be asking, especially if it’s anything out of the ordinary. It’s not standard operating procedure to ask the guy who got the decisive hit for the winning team about a player on the losing team.
So before the green light came on, I mentioned to David Murphy that I intended to ask him about Miguel Cabrera’s remarkable "Sunday Night Baseball" performance, when the Tigers third baseman clubbed three home runs.
Murphy smiled. “Good,” he said, “because I was going to talk about him anyway.” He went on to discuss how easily everything seems to come for Cabrera at the plate.
Watching Cabrera in 2013 is like seeing Babe Ruth in 1927, Ted Williams in 1949 or Hank Aaron in 1959: a Hall of Fame-caliber hitter at his peak, doing stuff that few people -- or nobody -- have done before. As of Monday morning, Cabrera is hitting .387, which is more than 20 points higher than anybody else. He has 47 RBIs in 42 games and is on pace for 181. He has 11 homers and an OPS of 1.116 while compiling almost as many walks (21) as strikeouts (23).
Jim Leyland managed Barry Bonds and knows something about great hitters, and while Leyland generally runs away from comparisons, he did have some general observations before Sunday’s game about the best of the best hitters:
1. They see the ball quicker, and they hit it better. When the pitcher is releasing the ball -- or maybe even before -- Cabrera and Bonds and hitters of that ilk have had the ability to recognize the pitch and its trajectory.
2. They understand when pitchers are trying to get them out on pitches out of the strike zone and have the wherewithal to react. We saw this repeatedly from Cabrera on "Sunday Night Baseball," when twice he fell behind in the count no balls and two strikes and then calmly took pitches out of the zone until he worked himself back into the count before clubbing home runs.
3. There is a consistency to Cabrera’s swing that Leyland compared to the metronome-like movement of windshield washers on a car. He doesn’t jerk his swing through, with the effort reducing the efficiency of the swing, and the swing path always allows him to reach the ball with the barrel. You will see aggressive swings from other excellent hitters -- guys like Prince Fielder, Adrian Beltre, etc. -- that will finish with the batter being a little off-balance, or in Beltre’s case, even on one knee. But with Cabrera, Bonds, Williams, the swing almost always looks the same, powerful and consistent and with maximum torque at the moment of contact.
What draws the notice of other hitters are his adjustments during at-bats. During a recent game against the Astros, teammates noted, Cabrera eschewed his typical stride against a Houston starter all the way up until the count was 3-2 before going with his usual leg kick on the last pitch.
Cabrera will go without a stride if he’s convinced the opposing pitcher is going to throw an off-speed pitch on the edge of the strike zone -- and will go with his leg kick if he thinks there is going to be a fastball. Few hitters in baseball can make these kinds of radical physical adjustments from pitch to pitch while maintaining their swings, and nobody is better at it than Cabrera.
Triple Crown threat
Through 42 games, last two years.
BA .304 .387 *
HR 8 11
RBI 34 47*
*1st in AL
His preparation for each pitcher is simple. Cabrera explained over the weekend that he doesn’t really dig into the written scouting reports that are available to the hitters, because he feels like that information is dated -- based on what the pitcher has done in the past. Cabrera does watch a little video as it runs in the Tigers’ clubhouse, but what he really wants to know is what each pitcher is doing that day -- how hard he’s throwing, what pitch is working for him, and, in Cabrera’s words, “how’s he going to try to get me out.”
He carefully watched Derek Holland warm up Sunday, saw him throw his first six pitches to Omar Infante and Torii Hunter, and Holland had it going. A crisp fastball, a hard-veering slider that broke down toward the back foot of each right-handed hitter. Holland is a good pitcher having a good season, and Cabrera completely overmatched him, as he has many pitchers.
The first home run he hit went 441 feet to right-center field. Cabrera’s second home run was a vicious line drive through the middle -- and on this replay, you can see how Holland threw his hands up in the air to protect himself because he thought the ball was coming at him. Instead, it landed about 350 feet away from him, over the center-field fence.
On Cabrera’s last home run, he fell behind in the count no balls and two strikes -- as he had before the second home run -- and looked a bit overwhelmed by a Tanner Scheppers nasty inside fastball. Cabrera was able to draw his hands in, get to the fastball and mash it over the center-field fence, again. It was as though hitting had stopped being difficult for him, to hit that pitch in that spot as far as he did.
The Tigers had a rough series, playing horrendous defense in one bad inning Sunday, and Cabrera made a mistake among many Detroit gaffes.
But he lorded over the field Sunday night in a way that few players ever have or ever will.
David Murphy, theoretically the star of the game in the Rangers’ win, met with other reporters.
"Very nice to be on the winning side," Murphy said. "Big game, fun game, national TV. We got to witness the best hitter in the game hit three homers."
From Elias: Cabrera is the first player in history to have a three-home-run game the season after winning the Triple Crown. On Sunday he became the 23rd player in MLB history to go 4-for-4 with at least 3 homers, 5 RBIs and 4 runs.
There is talk, again, of a possible Triple Crown, writes John Lowe. He is this era’s Ted Williams, says Alex Avila.
• The Rangers rallied repeatedly to win this series, writes Jeff Wilson. As Leyland, Rick Porcello and other Tigers noted, the Rangers just kept piling up great at-bats in this four-game series, one after another, and the stress on the Detroit pitching staff was extraordinary.
Justin Verlander lasted 2 2/3 innings in his start in this series, Anibal Sanchez made it through only 2 2/3 innings and Doug Fister lasted just 4 2/3 innings. Leyland kept having to go back to his bullpen, which is why he had to watch young reliever Jose Ortega melt down through 39 pitches in the sixth inning Sunday: He had to get outs from somewhere, and he had all but run out of options.
Over the four-game series, the Detroit relievers accumulated 17 1/3 innings and 278 pitches. Luckily for the Tigers, they have a day off Monday before facing Cleveland, because their bullpen needs a break.
• Jurickson Profar was called up from Triple-A to replace the injured Ian Kinsler on the Rangers' roster, but there is no indication whatsoever that Profar is in the big leagues to stay. The Rangers hope Kinsler’s absence will be confined to the 15 days he’s on the DL, and Profar wasn’t even in the lineup Sunday night. He is expected to start Monday night.
On top of that, Rangers manager Ron Washington does not seem ready to embrace the kind of rotating infield system (in which Beltre, Kinsler and the others would be rested regularly) that would be required to get Profar the kind of playing time he would need to develop. Profar may well be headed back to Triple-A.
Around the league
• The Dodgers’ bullpen blew it again, sinking L.A. to eight games under .500. A team that was built by its front office -- it thought -- to contend for a World Series title is instead on a pace to win 70 games. Which means that all bets are off and no move, no change short of Clayton Kershaw being asked to pitch right-handed should be considered a surprise.
Robin Ventura said it best when he met with the White Sox players last weekend: If the losing continues, something’s going to change. Players will lose their jobs, or staff members will lose their jobs, but something will change. Dodgers manager Don Mattingly doesn’t have a contract after the end of this season despite asking for one.
The upcoming series against the Brewers could be pivotal in decision-making.
It was Brandon League who had a big meltdown Sunday. Steve Dilbeck wrote the other day about the Dodgers’ shaky defense.
• From ESPN Stats & Info: The Indians have won 17 of their past 21 games and have a plus-52 run differential during that stretch. Along the way they’ve faced eight former Cy Young Award winners and have won seven of those games.
How Justin Masterson beat Felix Hernandez Sunday, in a start in which he threw seven scoreless innings with 11 strikeouts.
A) Strikeout machine: recorded third career double-digit strikeout game, and strikeout rate of 40.7 percent on Sunday was his most since 2009.
B) He had a great slider: hitters were 0-for-8, and he struck out 7 of 11 batters with that pitch (second-most since 2009).
Masterson was "the man," writes Dennis Manoloff. The Indians ran the bases aggressively.
• Matt Moore is 8-0 but not overwhelmed by it all.
• Here's my ranking of the top 10 teams in baseball, which is separate from ESPN.com’s more official power rankings that will come out later Monday:
2. St. Louis
You keep waiting for the Nationals to take off on a long winning streak.
Dings and dents
1. Eric O’Flaherty is resigned to the idea that he’s headed for season-ending surgery, writes Carroll Rogers.
2. Bryce Harper was out of the lineup again Sunday as he continues to get treatment after running into the wall in L.A. last week. Harper could be back in the lineup Monday.
3. A couple of Phillies are set for MRIs.
4. Andrew McCutchen is dealing with some soreness.
Moves, deals and decisions
1. Johnny Cueto is considering changes to his delivery, writes John Fay.
2. Ned Yost is likely to shift Kelvin Herrera out of an eighth-inning role.
3. The Cardinals called on a lefty.
4. Mike Rizzo hasn’t started talks about an extension with the Nationals, writes Adam Kilgore. From his story:
Earlier this season, the Washington Nationals exercised their option to extend General Manager Mike Rizzo’s contract through the 2014 season, a move widely interpreted as a reward for Rizzo’s stewardship of a franchise that ascended from losing 297 games in three seasons to a 2012 division title.
But exercising the option may have created a potential fissure in the relationship between ownership and its general manager. Rather than discuss a new deal that would keep Rizzo in Washington long term at a price commensurate with his experience as a GM, Nationals ownership instead locked Rizzo into one more year on its terms.
5. Ryan Flaherty was sent to the minors to play every day.
When small sample sizes matter.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Miguel Cabrera is the planet’s best hitter and he explained the other day why he doesn’t really draw much information on the written scouting reports available to all players: All of that is based on what has happened in the past, and isn’t necessarily related to what’s happening today.
Cabrera watches some video of opposing pitchers before each game, but what he really wants to see is the pitcher throwing at the outset of a game -- in his warm-ups, in working to the first hitters of the game. Cabrera feels like he’ll glean from that small sample so much usable information: How hard the pitcher is throwing that day, what pitches are working for him that day, how he the pitcher might try to beat Cabrera that day.
"Small sample size" has become a common performance observation, in dismissing particular results. It can be applied to players in September and October, but generally speaking, it’s probably heard more this time of year, as we try to wrap our brains around Josh Hamilton hitting .200 and Carlos Gomez hitting .360. "Small sample size" is employed as a cautionary phrase, as in: Be careful, don’t believe everything you see, because it’s not really representative.
But here’s the funny thing about that. Small sample sizes are used in decision-making dozens and dozens of times during in each game, before each game, after each game.
It starts early on a game day. A manager gives a player a day off because he didn’t look good in his at-bats the day before, like on Saturday, when Mike Scioscia gave Josh Hamilton time off the other day to "recharge." A staff sets its lineup according to who appears to be swinging well in recent at-bats.
A pitcher warms up in the bullpen and within a few dozen pitches, he has a feel for which pitches seem to be moving more effectively that day, and which are not. If his curveball isn’t good, if he’s spinning hangers and doesn’t have confidence in it, this greatly reduces the likelihood that he’ll throw the pitch, regardless of what all the data suggests about how the No. 3 hitter handles curveballs. The pitcher will keep searching for the curveball warming up between innings, but it’s also possible he’ll ditch the pitch all together. The catcher might recommend that based on the movement of the handful of changeups he’s seen in warm-ups, this pitch could be a better option.
A pitcher looking for solutions in a game might ignore the large sample sizes altogether, based on what he’s seen. I recently talked with Sergio Romo about his decision to throw Cabrera a meaty fastball for the final pitch of the 2012 World Series, and he talked about how Cabrera had seemingly begun to lock in on his slider, with better and better swings. Romo and catcher Buster Posey talked about this, about these handful of pitches that seemed to be losing ground for him, and decided to go with a fastball that froze Cabrera and created a moment that will be replayed over and over.
A lineup of hitters watch a pitcher work to the first couple of hitters he faces, and right away they’ll make decisions on what’s working and what is not. In the midst of the Rangers’ comeback on Sunday Night Baseball, Tigers rookie Jose Ortega missed with a breaking ball and Elvis Andrus stared out at the mound, like Clubber Lang staring down Rocky Balboa, trying to intimidate him, at the beginning of Rocky III. It was as if Andrus was trying to say: "You have to throw me a fastball, and I pity the fool." In that moment, everything that Ortega had done well in his career leading up to that at-bat, and to the David Murphy at-bat that followed, was completely meaningless. He was limited to fastballs, cornered by the small sample size of what he could control, and Murphy anticipated a fastball and clubbed it for a game-winning home run.
A catcher’s arm seems sluggish on a given day, so baserunners are more likely to take off. A reliever seems under the weather -- maybe he’s hung over, and the opposing players know it --- and they’ll adjust their strategy. A manager will call for a bunt and the hitter will look terrible making his first attempt, as if he’s not seeing the pitch well that day, and so the manager completely alters the strategy. A veteran starter looks fresh on a cool day, so the pitching coach lobbies the manager to let him go beyond his normal pitch limit.
A young pitcher is called up from the minors to make an emergency start and if he doesn’t do well -- like Josh Lindblom for the Rangers on Monday -- then he’s sent back.
If Lindblom had thrown six scoreless innings, regardless of what was on the back of his baseball card and written in his scouting reports, he’d get another shot, because of the small sample size. From Evan Grant’s story:
"What was clear Monday was that Lindblom’s fastball still isn’t refined enough to get major league hitters out on a consistent basis. Lindblom struggled with an average four-seam fastball during spring training and struggled again with it on Monday.
"There is a lot to learn from this," Lindblom said. "But, basically, it’s just about executing. I have to compete with my fastball, that’s my bread-and-butter. You talk to any pitcher, no matter what level they are at, and it comes down to fastball command."
A hitter gets a start and knocks out three hits, and as a result, he’ll get more starts, because in a lot of cases, there is surprising success. A.J. Ellis of the Dodgers wasn’t a high-end prospect, ever -- he was an 18th round draft pick, and had a .676 OPS in Class Double-A at age 25, but he kept getting better and kept taking advantage of each opportunity as he advanced. Now, at age 32, he’s one of the most productive everyday catchers in the big leagues, with an OPS of almost 1.000. The small sample sizes -- seemingly improbable, based on his history -- grew because the small samples created opportunity.
So should we ignore small sample sizes? No. Because the folks who run teams pay attention to them and make choices based on them, and so do the players.
Around the league
• Don Mattingly is the manager of the Dodgers, until the Dodgers say he’s not, and GM Ned Colletti is not talking. A sure-fire formula for dismissal speculation is when a team with a record-setting payroll gets off to a terrible start. Mattingly says he’s talked to his bosses and nobody has fired him.
But the good thing is that Mattingly gets to manage Clayton Kershaw once every five days, and on Monday, Kershaw was great again.
From Elias: This was the 22nd straight start in which Kershaw allowed three earned runs or fewer. The last pitcher with a longer streak was Pedro Martinez, spanning the 1999 and 2000 seasons.
How Kershaw won:
A) His curveball. He got 11 outs on 20 curveballs on Monday; his most outs recorded with that pitch in any of the five seasons for which we have data.
B) He's retired 42 hitters with his curveball this season, yielding one hit/walk with the pitch
C) He's gotten 12 swing-and-misses on it in his last 2 starts. He got 13 of them in his first eight starts of the season.
D) Kershaw averaged 93 MPH with his fastball, matching his fastest average fastball velocity of the season. He had nearly a 20 mph separation between that pitch and his curveball, which averaged 73.3 mph.
• Patrick Corbin has a perfect won-loss record so far.
From Elias: Patrick Corbin is the third visiting pitcher to throw a nine-inning complete game at Coors Field with 10 or more strikeouts, and the first since 1998. The other two? Pedro Martinez and Kevin Brown.
Patrick Corbin is the second pitcher in the last 20 seasons to open a season with nine straight starts in which he allowed two runs or fewer in six innings or more. The other is Ubaldo Jimenez, who opened 2010 with a dozen straight such starts for the Rockies.
How Corbin won:
A) His breaking ball. Corbin repeatedly tantalized Rockies hitters with his breaking ball. He threw 34 of them and the Rockies went after 21, missing on 15 of them (almost all of which were thrown down-and-in to righties or down-and-away from lefties).
B) This breaking ball is Corbin's signature pitch. Opponents have taken 94 swings at it and missed 54 times. His 58 percent miss rate is easily the highest in the majors.
C) Corbin's 39 strikeouts with his breaking pitches are the third-most of any pitcher in the NL this season, trailing only A.J. Burnett's 44 and Kershaw's 42.
Only with benefit of 20-20 hindsight could we know exactly how different the world could be for the Angels, who traded Jean Segura (in the Zack Greinke deal) and Patrick Corbin (in the Dan Haren deal) and did not sign Matt Harvey after drafting him in 2007.
• A couple of weeks ago, I e-mailed a friend who lives in Cleveland and asked about the area’s response to the Indians’ strong start, and his response was: mild.
But it’s probably getting stronger by the day, because the Indians keep winning, in a style fitting of the movie Major League. They had another wild win on Monday against the Mariners thanks to Yan Gomes' walk-off homer, and the excitement is building, writes Terry Pluto. Especially with Detroit coming into town tonight, with Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander lined up and ready to face the Indians.
From Elias: The last time Cleveland had three walk-off wins in the same series (and/or within a four-day span) was July 23-26, 1992, against Kansas City. Carlos Baerga hit a 14th-inning sac fly on the 23rd, Junior Ortiz singled in Mark Whiten on the 25th, and Baerga hit a solo homer on the 26th.
The Indians have the best record in extra-inning games (5-0), one-run games (11-3) and have the most walk-off wins (five).
From Elias: After the Indians’ victory on Monday, Terry Francona said, "You don’t often see your opponent score in three straight innings and you win." Indeed! It had been 17 years since any team rallied to win after its opponent scored a game-tying or go-ahead run in each of its last three turns at-bat. The last team to do so was the Red Sox in an 8–7 win over the Rangers in 1996, with more than 40,000 games played in the interim.
Gomes’s secret is beet juice, writes Paul Hoynes.
• From Elias: Yankees are 19-0 when scoring first. Only team since 1900 to open a season with a better such record -- 1990 Reds: 20-0 (went on to win World Series),
The heroes for them again on Monday were Lyle Overbay, who was cut free by the Red Sox in spring training; Travis Hafner, who wasn’t sure if his career was over during the winter; and Vernon Wells, who was given away by the Angels.
The downside for the Yankees is that CC Sabathia is not throwing well, as John Harper writes.
• The Phillies are now 1-9 in 10 Cole Hamels’ starts this season after Monday’s loss
• What happened Monday in the Rays’ game was baseball anarchy, says Joe Maddon.
• That team moving up mostly unnoticed in the NL West standings: the San Diego Padres, who won again on Monday.
Dings and dents
1. Ryan Vogelsong suffered a broken hand, and now the Giants need a starting pitcher.
2. Royals catcher Salvador Perez hurt his hip. Not good.
3. Shane Victorino is hurting.
4. A Nationals reliever broke his hand by punching something.
Moves, deals and decisions
1. A mayor got involved in the Astros’ TV negotiations.
2. White Sox GM Rick Hahn says there are no plans to dismantle his team. I’ve had conversations with rival evaluators this spring about a basic problem the White Sox have: Besides Chris Sale, they lack high-impact foundation players. They’ve got some good veterans, but not a lot of high-ceiling core guys.
And, as Mark Gonzales writes, it’s interesting that Gordon Beckham is playing some shortstop during his minor league rehabilitation assignment, because Alexei Ramirez is a tradable commodity. (The Cardinals could be an interesting fit.)
3. The Twins have some options as they consider another starting pitcher.
4. The Rangers cut Derek Lowe. http://www.latimes.com/sports/la-sp-0521-baseball-notes-20130521,0,2025795.story
Starting pitching market limited.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Since Major League Baseball and the players' association agreed to a new labor deal and MLB followed that up with record-setting television contracts, the clubs -- with money burning a hole in their front-office pockets -- have been aggressive in signing the best talent to long-term deals. Just ask Matt Cain, Cole Hamels, Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander, as well as others who’ve taken less.
One of the ripple effects, however, is that the ranks of the best of the summer trade market have been thinned out. Yes, more starting pitchers will become available as the summer goes along, and some teams will find gems -- remember the Tigers’ aggressive trade for Doug Fister -- but generally, the market for starting pitchers is shaping up to be limited. Here’s how you might rank them as of today:
1. Scott Feldman, Chicago Cubs
Feldman has had many peaks and valleys during his career, but right now he is getting excellent results. Opponents are batting .214 against him this season, and he’s allowed two earned runs or fewer in seven consecutive outings -- including his 6 2/3 innings of scoreless ball that he threw against the Mets on Saturday. His use of his curveball has climbed markedly, to complement his sinker and cutter; there is an effective range of velocity of about 14 miles per hour for him these days. From ESPN Stats & Info: how Scott Feldman won Saturday, in allowing no runs in 6 2/3 innings:
A. He had a very good curveball: The pitch retired seven batters (and netted him eight outs, since one batter hit into a double play).
B. Only one baserunner reached against his curveball -- Ruben Tejada on a Starlin Castro error.
From The Elias Sports Bureau: Feldman pitched 6 2/3 scoreless innings and added a two-run double in the Cubs’ 8–2 win over the Mets at Wrigley Field. Over his past four starts, Feldman is 3–0 with four RBIs. The only other Cubs pitcher in the past 15 seasons to go 3-0 or better and drive in four-plus runs over a four-start span is Carlos Zambrano, who did it in 2003 and again in 2006.
Would any team surrender a package of high-end prospects for Feldman? No. But in the starting pitching market that is beginning to take shape, he might be the best option.
Feldman just keeps rolling, writes Toni Ginnetti.
2. Matt Garza, Cubs
He will throw his first pitch of his 2013 season Tuesday, and what Chicago might get in return for him in trade would depend entirely on how he pitches. If he goes back to being Matt Garza of the Rays days, well, he could ascend to become the most-sought-after pitcher of the summer. He’s eligible for free agency this fall.
3. Ricky Nolasco, Miami Marlins
His results are not good -- he has a 4.39 ERA -- but other teams may be willing to give him a mulligan on those numbers because of how noncompetitive the Marlins are and focus instead on how Nolasco is throwing. Rival executives will probably focus more on his fastball command and quality of his secondary stuff than they will about his statistics, because pitching for a team so bad means he’s throwing in a lot of meaningless games. Nolasco is making $11.5 million this year, or about $2 million per month for any team acquiring him, and he'll be eligible for free agency in the fall.
4. Bud Norris, Houston Astros
Norris is 4-4 with a 4.32 ERA while making $3 million this year, and as an arbitration-eligible player, he is in line for a healthy raise this winter. Will Norris be around when the Astros begin to climb out of the competitive trench they are in now? Probably not. But Houston’s decision on when to trade Norris is complicated by the reality that it is in danger of becoming one of history’s worst teams. Is he worth more to the Astros -- and to Astros fans -- if they keep him in the hope that he gives them a better chance of winning, say, 50-55 games? Or should they take advantage of his market value this summer -- and the weak market -- while swapping one of the very few recognizable names the franchise has?
5. Lucas Harrell, Astros
Everything written about Norris above applies to Harrell, who is 3-4 with a 5.11 ERA.
6. Jason Marquis, San Diego Padres
He’s signed for $3 million this year and is off to a good start, with a 3.49 ERA -- with some good fortune, given his eight homers and 24 walks allowed in 49 innings. Some rival evaluators view him as an NL-only option, given his age and stuff.
7. Edinson Volquez, Padres
San Diego does have some starting pitching depth in the pipeline as others work their way back from injury, and Volquez is eligible for free agency this fall. He is off to a really rough start, at 3-4 and a 5.55 ERA, with 24 walks in 48 2/3 innings.
8. Bartolo Colon, Oakland Athletics
The Athletics have other options, and Colon is obviously not part of their long-term plan -- and he is affordable, making $3 million for this season. So far in 2013, Colon has a 4.56 ERA, with just two walks in 47 1/3 innings.
9. Cliff Lee, Philadelphia Phillies
A total wild card. The Phillies had the opportunity to consider dealing him (and maybe others) before and after the trade deadline last summer. But even after the Dodgers claimed him on waivers, the Phillies backed away from the idea of dealing him -- and in any event, Lee turns 35 in August, at a time when he’s among the most expensive pitchers in the game. He’s making $25 million this year, will make $25 million for 2014 and in 2015, then has a staggering $12.5 million buyout on a $27.5 million vesting option in 2016, when he turns 38. He’s pitching effectively now, with a 2.83 ERA in nine starts.
Depending on how teams fare in the weeks and months and assess the whole buyer/seller question, other pitchers could become available, like the Jays’ Josh Johnson. But for contenders looking for rotation help, the pickings could be incredibly slim -- which might make it a good time for teams that have increasingly expensive pitching talent with two to four years of service time to move their guys. (Like Jeremy Hellickson of the Rays).
News and notes
• I wrote here the other day about the ripple effects of the David Price injury for the Rays, and Marc Topkin sees it the same way.
The bottom line is that the Rays won’t get the big trade package they’d want for Price, whether it happens this winter or next year or the year after that, until Price shows dominance again.
• Derek Holland will pitch for the Rangers on “Sunday Night Baseball” against Fister. Holland outlined his routine in a conversation with Orel Hershiser and me Saturday, saying that the dominoes of routine start for him the day before his starts:
A late-night dinner of pasta -- chicken carbonara.
A hockey video game.
A breakfast of three eggs over easy, bacon, pancakes.
Another hockey video game.
A nap of about 1½ hours.
Food at the Rangers’ clubhouse, something like Subway.
Pre-warm-up routine, which will culminate between 6:30 and 6:35 Central time tonight, when he hears AC/DC’s Thunderstruck.
• Justin Verlander went back to basics in his bullpen session. He feels that his basic problem is mechanical and fixable. There was some sentiment on the Rangers’ side that Verlander’s arm action in his start on Thursday was something different, something they hadn’t seen before -- observations that support Verlander’s belief that there are fixes to be found in his delivery.
• Max Scherzer really feels like he has locked into something good with his curveball, in how he grips the ball -- a pitch that will complement his fastball, changeup and slider because it’s thrown at significantly less velocity. The pitch really kicked in for him, he says, when he started against Minnesota on April 29.
• By the time the second inning ended Saturday, Anibal Sanchez looked like someone who had done too much work in the Texas heat ... which was precisely his situation. He left in the third inning, and the Rangers won, John Lowe writes. Elvis Andrus had a really big day. Ian Kinsler is still hurting.
• The Diamondbacks won an unusual game.
• From Elias: Gerardo Parra’s first-pitch leadoff home run off Tom Koehler provided the only run in the Diamondbacks’ 1–0 win at Miami. The last time a first-pitch home run in the top of the first inning held up as a contest’s only run was on September 14, 1993, when the Pirates’ Freddy Garcia connected off the Marlins’ Chris Hammond at Joe Robbie Stadium in a game that was called due to rain after six innings. But the last time it happened in a nine-inning game was on Sept. 2, 1963, when rookie Pete Rose went deep off the Mets’ Jay Hook at the Polo Grounds in New York. That was the first of 18 career leadoff homers for Charlie Hustle and the penultimate leadoff home run hit at the ballpark on Coogan’s Bluff. (The Giants’ Felipe Alou would hit the last one 10 days later.)
• As of Sunday, the Marlins have the majors’ worst record at 11-32. The effort from Tom Koehler was wasted.
• Jeffrey Loria went to a game for the first time this season Saturday and nobody noticed, writes Dave Hyde, who says that apathy has set in. The Astros won Saturday with a really strong relief effort.
Dings and dents
1. Two seasons ago, the prime guys in the Atlanta bullpen bore an enormous workload, and whether it’s coincidence or not, two of the three have suffered major injuries. Eric O’Flaherty has a ligament tear, this just a couple of days after Jonny Venters had Tommy John surgery, Mark Bowman writes. Now the Braves’ bullpen -- thought to be the best and deepest in the majors -- is a concern for Atlanta.
The good news is that the Braves will get additional pitching depth in the weeks ahead when Brandon Beachy comes back. The bad news is that there figure to be extraordinarily few good options on the trade market this summer.
2. Alexi Ogando hid his arm pain from the Rangers, manager Ron Washington said.
3. Chris Young is back for Oakland, writes Susan Slusser.
4. Adam Dunn, who has just started to hit, is out with back spasms, Daryl van Schouwen writes.
Moves, deals and decisions
1. Jake Odorizzi is going to replace David Price in the Rays’ rotation while the left-hander is out.
2. Jose Altuve rejoined the Astros.
3. Josh Hamilton was benched again.
4. Ned Yost says he will remain patient with Mike Moustakas and others.
5. Tony Cingrani is going back to Triple-A.
6. The Yankees acquired Reid Brignac.
Twins set up for promising future.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Piece by piece, the Minnesota Twins are getting better. It’s just that you can’t really see it yet -- not at Target Field, anyway.
The big league Twins have been something of a surprise in how effective their pitching has been, and Minnesota begins today two games under .500, at 18-20, in last place in the packed AL Central. But it’s almost impossible to overstate how well the pieces have been coming together in the Twins’ player development, even beyond the emergence of Aaron Hicks and Oswaldo Arcia, outfielders who have made their respective major league debuts this season.
If you want to know how well third-base prospect Miguel Sano is progressing at Class A Fort Myers, well, let’s put it this way: He has been to the Florida State League this year what Miguel Cabrera has been to the American League, hitting .368, with a .465 on-base percentage and a slugging percentage of 1.142. There is a presence about Sano, who just turned 20 last week, and a leadership quality, says Twins assistant GM Rob Antony. Sano, born in the Dominican Republic, has been aggressively working on his English and insists on doing his interviews in his second language, Antony says. “Even though they might be in broken English,” said Antony, “he knows that’s important.”
If the Twins had just one high-end prospect like Sano, they would be doing fine, but then there is Byron Buxton, the center fielder who was the No. 2 pick in last year’s draft. He is 19 years old and wrecking the Midwest League, hitting .343 with a .445 on-base percentage. “Not that we had any questions about his makeup,” said Antony, “but he has maybe exceeded our expectations.”
Rather than go home and relax after last season, Antony said, Buxton started training early in the offseason, with the understanding that the preparation he did this past fall would help him get through the long season ahead. “He has treated this like his profession,” said Antony.
Kyle Gibson, the 2009 first-rounder who is recovering from the Tommy John surgery he had 20 months ago, has pitched well in recent outings and is likely on the cusp of a promotion to the big leagues. There are others, too, including D.J. Baxendale, who is dominating the Florida State League.
In a conversation last summer, Twins GM Terry Ryan talked about the need for more talent, for more help -- a lot of it. Soon enough, it will be in place for the Twins, who appear to be building a team that could be very powerful within a couple of years. I agree with what old friend Peter Gammons says: When you think of the Twins of 2013, think of where the Texas Rangers were in 2007 and 2008, and where the Rangers were headed at that time.
Sano has his agent’s attention, writes David Dorsey.
A bump between two outfielders cost the Twins on Friday night.
• For Reid Ryan, Friday was a special day, writes Alyson Footer.
From her story:
Possessing keen business savvy while also understanding the baseball side of the game is key for this position, which made Ryan a solid candidate and a target for [Jim] Crane. While overseeing the sales, marketing, ticketing and communications aspect of the [Astros'] organization, Ryan will be a resource for general manager Jeff Luhnow while also serving as a public face of the franchise.
Pointing out that player development and on-field decisions are Luhnow's to make, Ryan added: "I will be here to help Jeff all he wants. I feel like I maybe bring a dimension that some of the other people that have been in this job haven't had: I was a player -- I've been around it. I know enough to be dangerous. If Jeff wants my advice, I've never been short on giving my opinion, and I'll definitely do it."
Ultimately, Ryan's goals are twofold. First, put the fans first. "We've got to make sure we're taking care of their best interest," he said. "If we take care of their best interest, they'll take care of us."
No. 2: take care of the players. "We've got to make sure we're doing everything in our power to be able to develop the best players, to attract the best players and to obtain the best players we can, because it's all about the players," he said. "If you don't have good players, it's tough to be in this business. And they're coming. It may not be this year. It may not be next year. But they're coming, and it's got me really fired up."
Ryan says this is a dream come true, writes David Barron.
• There are only three teams with more wins than the Pittsburgh Pirates, who won again Friday when the Astros messed up. It doesn’t get much uglier than this.
Pedro Alvarez was "the man" for Pittsburgh.
• Rick Porcello was "the man" for the Tigers, who won Game 2 of the four-game series against the Rangers. We’ve got the Rangers and Tigers on "Sunday Night Baseball" this weekend. Miguel Cabrera is hitting lasers these days.
• Dr. Michael Kaplan was on the podcast Friday talking about David Price, Roy Halladay and Jonny Venters, and he sees a long recovery road ahead for one of the veterans.
• Matt Harvey’s starts have become must-see TV, and his start against the Cubs on Friday was an imperfect masterpiece, even before he got the game-winning hit.
From ESPN Stats & Information: Harvey is the second starting pitcher this season to get the go-ahead RBI in his win in the seventh inning or later. The other was Clayton Kershaw against the Giants on Opening Day. He’s the first Mets pitcher to do that since Sid Fernandez in 1993. It was only the second RBI by a Mets pitcher all season.
Harvey is faring considerably better than the rest of the Mets' pitchers this season.
W-L: Harvey is 5-0, and all others are 5-16
ERA: 1.55 versus 5.42
WHIP: 0.72 versus 1.60
How Matt Harvey beat the Cubs:
A) Established his fastball early (56 percent of his pitches first time through the order).
B) Increased the use of his off-speed stuff each time through the order (62 percent the second time through, 67 percent the third time through).
C) He threw eight first-pitch fastballs to the first nine hitters, then threw just eight to the next 18 hitters he faced.
D) He recorded six strikeouts, all with two outs (career high for two-out strikeouts).
E) Great command: His strike percentage of 73.6 was a career best (78 of 106 pitches were strikes).
F) Mixed up out pitches: third time in his career recording a strikeout with four different pitches (fastball once, changeup once, curveball and slider twice each)
G) Kept the ball down: He induced a career-high 10 grounders thanks to 35.9 percent of his pitches being down in the zone. That rate was the second-highest of his career.
Matt Harvey pitch selection, by time through order Friday
First: Fastball 56 percent, off-speed 44 percent
Second: 38 percent, 62 percent
Third: 33 percent, 67 percent
• Edward Mujica continues to be dominant.
• Justin Upton changed the game for the Braves.
From ESPN Stats & Info: Justin Upton's sixth-inning home run Friday went 461 feet, his longest home run of the season and fifth-longest of his career. The average distance of his home runs this season is 427.4 feet (MLB average: 397.4), the highest for any player with at least five home runs.
• Most good hitters feast on pitchers down in the strike zone, but Paul Goldschmidt is a dominant high-ball hitter, writes Mark Simon. Goldschmidt had four hits Friday night as the Diamondbacks crushed the Marlins and moved into a tie for first place.
Moves, deals and decisions
1. David Lough was promoted.
2. Jon Rauch has been cut.
3. The Mariners called up a reliever.
4. Hideki Okajima is back in the big leagues.
5. Mark Feinsand thinks the Yankees should give Joe Girardi an extension.
6. Jair Jurrjens is back in the big leagues today.
Dings and dents
1. Brett Myers made his first rehab start.
2. Adam Dunn is dealing with a sinus infection.
3. Joe Mauer has a stiff back.
4. Ross Detwiler will miss at least one start.
5. Jason Heyward was activated from the disabled list.
6. Brandon Beachy continues to make progress.
7. Alexi Ogando landed on the disabled list.
8. Ian Kinsler said his injury is not the result of his belly-flop slide, writes Evan Grant.
9. Colby Lewis could be about two weeks away from returning.
10. Logan Morrison is on track to start his rehab assignment.
11. Daniel Hudson is making progress.
12. Jose Reyes is making progress.