Gennaro Filice
Friday April 25th, 2008

1. Hanley Ramirez: Leading up to the season, all NL East discussion centered on a schoolyard squabble for supremacy between the Mets and Phillies. Meanwhile, the Marlins were nothing more than a punchline; a hopeless squad with a total payroll of $21.8 million -- less than the individual salaries of two Yankees players (Alex Rodriguez and Jason Giambi).

Take a quick gander at the standings, though: Florida sits atop the division at 13-9. And a lion's share of the credit goes to a 24-year-old shortstop making $439K.

In just his third major league campaign, Hanley Ramirez has already established himself as the most explosive leadoff hitter in baseball. The '06 Rookie of the Year is carrying the surprising Marlins with a .333 average and a gargantuan 1.028 OPS. His seven homers and eight steals through 22 games put him back on track for membership in the ultra-exclusive 30-50 club. (Last year, Ramirez fell one jack shy of joining Barry Bonds and Eric Davis.) He's also tied for the MLB lead with 20 runs scored.

The frightening thing is Hanley's still extremely raw and there is plenty of room for improvement in many aspects of his game. This is most evident in his defensive play. Although Ramirez boasts a solid arm and plus range, he seems to lose focus in the field, leading to a number of correctable miscues. And while most of his offensive numbers are MVP-caliber, he still strikes out twice as often as he walks.

Considering Hanley doesn't turn 25 until December, the ceiling on this kid is outrageously high.

Last season, ESPN's Jayson Stark raised plenty of eyebrows when he published this quote from an unnamed scout: "Other than Alex Rodriguez, Hanley Ramirez may be the best all-around player in the game."

The statement seemed absurdly far-fetched at the time, but its validity increases with each passing day.

2. Tiny Tim: Just like this weekend's NFL draft, the MLB draft places a huge premium on size, especially when it comes to pitchers. Just ask Tim Lincecum.

As the Golden Spikes Award winner during his junior season at Washington, Lincecum went 12-4 with a 1.94 ERA and 199 strikeouts in 125 1/3 innings. Boasting a 100 mph fastball, solid offspeed and a proven track record, Lincecum was projected as a possible No. 1 pick. But a number of teams questioned the durability of his 5-foot-10, 160-pound frame and he slipped to the Giants at No. 10. Six other pitchers were selected before him.

"We were kind of shocked he was there -- he was supposed to be in the top three," Giants scouting director Dick Tidrow told at the time.

Less than two years later, the 23-year-old is the Giants' ace and one of the best young hurlers in the game. At 4-0 with a 1.23 ERA, Lincecum leads the majors in strikeouts (36 in 29.1 innings pitched) and hasn't allowed a run in 16 1/3 innings.

Lincecum still struggles with command, rarely hitting Bengie Molina's targets. But his arsenal is so filthy it doesn't really matter where he throws the ball. He primarily utilizes three pitches -- a high 90s fastball, tight-breaking curve and steadily improving changeup -- but it's his deceptive, "windmill" delivery that really gives hitters trouble.

Lincecum recoils at the start of his delivery, completely turning his back to the plate. Then, as his body uncoils, he takes a gigantic stride and catapults the ball to home plate. The key to his velocity is an explosive hip rotation. (This video takes a pretty in-depth look at the unique motion.)

Known by a bevy of nicknames, including "The Franchise," "The Future" and "Seabiscuit" (a reference to his undersized dominance), Lincecum gives national fans a legitimate reason to keep taps on the lowly Giants.

3. Rays' 'pen: Back in November, Tampa Bay expunged the "Devil" from the franchise. But this simple name alteration pales in comparison to the exorcism the Rays performed on their biggest '07 demon: the bullpen.

Tampa Bay easily posted the worst bullpen ERA in baseball last season (6.16). Opposing hitters feasted on Rays relievers, racking up a .303 batting average. For Tampa Bay fans, a Joe Maddon call to the bullpen pretty much equaled defeat.

Twenty-one games into this season, though, the Rays boast the best bullpen ERA in baseball (2.39). The biggest key to the turnaround has been a significant decrease in walks by the staff. On an individual level, nobody has made a larger impact than 38-year-old closer Troy Percival, whose battle-tested arm is somehow still attached to his body. Percival, who signed a two-year, $8 million deal in the offseason, is 4-for-4 in save opportunities and has yet to allow a single run, over eight innings.

1. Ryan Howard in April: After breaking Adam Dunn's single-season strikeout record last season with 199 Ks in 142 games, Howard is picking up right where he left off. Through his first 22 games Howard's been punched out 34 times, putting him on pace to become baseball's first 200-strikeout hitter with 239.

But who really cares? The strikeouts are just a byproduct of a vicious home-run stroke that fuels Philly's offense, right? Well, not in April.

Howard is currently hitting .176 with four homers and a puny .638 OPS. Phils manager Charlie Manuel gave him a mental-health day yesterday (removing him from the starting lineup) and plans to do the same today. "If he's not on the bottom, he's close," Manuel told the Philadelphia Daily News.

The exasperating aspect is that Howard seems to begin every season at rock bottom. He hit just three homers last April and his career average for the month is .235. Howard acknowledges the disconcerting trend: "You can call my mom and she'll tell you that I've never hit good in April," Howard told the Philadelphia Daily News. "She'll take it all the way back to high school, I'm sure."

Fortunately for Philly, the slugger's career averages steadily progress over the next five months of the regular season: .259 in May, .280 in June, .294 in July, .307 in August and .304 in September.

So by the end of the year, Howard will most likely have at least 40 bombs and 120 RBIs. But you can bet management isn't too happy with this annual April swoon. Howard won his arbitration case in February, bumping his salary up from $900,000 last year to $10,000,000 in '08. Ten large calls for a bit of consistency.

2. Dave Littlefield: Yes, I know, Pittsburgh fired Littlefield last September. But the Pirates are still paying for Littlefield's mismanagement. Literally.

At last year's July 31 trade deadline, with his team 14 1/2 games out of first place, Littlefield made the most puzzling move of his senseless, seven-season tenure. He traded cheap outfield prospect Rajai Davis and a player to be named later (Stephen MacFarland) to San Francisco for over-the-hill pitcher Matt Morris, who was in the middle of a bloated, three-year, $27 million contract.

Upon arrival in Pittsburgh, Morris instantly became the highest-paid player in franchise history. He started 11 games for the Pirates in '07, going 3-4 with a 6.10 ERA. This season has been even worse. Set to earn a Pirates-record $10,037,283, Morris holds a 0-3 mark with a 9.15 ERA over his first four starts.

On the plus side, nobody will ever claim Dave Littlefield doesn't pick up tabs, especially in that city by the bay.

3. The 126 Million Dollar Man: While we're on the subject of ridiculous pitcher contracts ... On Tuesday Barry Zito became the first Giants pitcher to lose his first five starts of a season since Rich Clarkson in 1927. Zito allowed five earned runs over 3.2 innings -- his shortest outing as a Giant.

Following the game, the normally mellow Zito expressed his unadulterated frustration to the San Francisco Chronicle: "They gave me a lead of 3-0, and I feel like s---."

I channeled the pulse of Giants faithful and it's eerily similar: "We gave him a contract of $126 million, and we feel like s---."

And just in case there are any San Franciscans who don't feel like s---, the Chronicle has created a device that will certainly engender s---ty feelings: The Zito Pay Calculator. This disheartening tool tells you how many years it would take to match Zito's '08 wage ($14.5 million), based on your current salary. Personally, I'd have to stay on the grind until well into the 23rd century.

• Twenty-two games into the season, the D'backs have already built a six-game lead on the rest of the NL West, thanks to a 15-4 mark against division foes. Wasn't this supposed to be baseball's most competitive division?

• The A's brought back Frank Thomas on Thursday for the low, low price of $336,721. Any Oakland fans out there thinking Barry Bonds? And for that matter, isn't Mike Piazza a free agent. Let's reassemble the '97 All-Star team!

• At 3-0, Carlos Silva is living proof that good things happen when a pitcher just pounds the strike zone.

• Last Sunday Jair Jurrjens' gained big-time bragging rights in his homeland, the island of Curacao, striking out fellow countryman Andruw Jones all three times he faced him. After the game, Jones placed the blame on Turner Field: "In the daytime in this place, it is tough to see the ball." Sour grapes, eh.

• There's no better name in baseball than Padres rookie Callix Crabbe. Sounds like a suave jazz musician. "And on the alto sax, give a warm welcome to a very cool cat, a Mr. Callix Crabbe."

• Since coming over from Houston in the Jose Valverde trade, Chad Qualls has been outstanding in the Diamondbacks' 'pen. In his 12 appearances, he's induced five double plays.

• When are the Reds going to bring up top outfield prospect Jay Bruce and vaunted hurler Homer Bailey? Corey Patterson recently suffered a 0-for-19 stretch, and Matt Belisle sure doesn't look like the answer at the end of the rotation.

• Braves pitchers are 0-for-39 at the plate. Atlanta's the only National League staff without a hit.

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