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Worrymeter says no reason for Red Sox, Pujols to sweat slow starts

It's funny how the Red Sox say nobody should be panicking because of their bad start and yet manager Terry Francona has already penciled in their new, struggling $142 million man Carl Crawford to four different places in the lineup -- 1, 2, 3 and 7. Which could be a sign of concern, or even indecisiveness. At the very least, it's some mixed signals for a team with a $170 million payroll that isn't playing like it.

When asked about Boston's awful beginning a few days ago, Derek Jeter, himself starting slow, responded, "Does anyone think Albert Pujols will hit (.200)?'' referring to King Albert's sluggish start.

The point is, it's early.

But it's later for some than others. For instance, no baseball person could be found this week who doesn't think the 2-9 Red Sox will still be a major force in the vaunted AL East. The response of one scout was typical: "I wouldn't say they are sure to win 100 games like everyone was saying, but they are going to be very good.''

Still, folks are starting to notice a few flaws. As one scout put it, "I saw some cracks in spring training.''

Josh Beckett's brilliant two-hit performance over eight innings against the rival Yankees last Sunday allayed the biggest fear, which was that Beckett was going south just as his $68 million contract was kicking in. But there are still at least four, shall we say, imperfections: 1) No one seems sold on starting catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia; 2) they have no lefthanded relievers who could be described as above average ("I'm not sure why they gave up on Dennys Reyes so quickly,'' one scout says); 3) with so many major changes, especially at key spots like catcher and pitching coach, they may still be in a getting-to-know-you phase; 4) Daisuke Matsuzaka may have nothing left.

Two scouts who followed Salty, who is hitting .154, this spring say they don't expect much, and one says he thinks veteran Jason Varitek, who caught Beckett's gem, will become more prominent. Still, that scout says, "I like everything Varitek brings to the party. But how many games can he catch?''

It's also been difficult getting everyone on the same page when there's a new catcher and a new pitching coach. While coach Curt Young came highly recommended from Oakland, he is trying to replace John Farrell, almost a pitching coach legend, at a time Red Sox pitching is struggling. The 25-year-old Saltalamacchia, meanwhile, is not only new to Boston, he is as green as the monster, having never played 100 big league games in a season.

The struggles of Matsuzaka (0-2, 12.86 ERA) are only more worrisome than some others, as Clay Buchholz (0-2, 7.20) and John Lackey (1-1, 15.58) have been startlingly disappointing so far, as well. Buchholz's early troubles could be attributed to his new contract, which might have been "weighing on him,'' one Red Sox person speculates. As for Lackey, he just may not be an ace anymore. "He's probably a No. 4 starter on a good staff now,'' one scout says. "He's a command/control guy with not a lot of margin for error.''

Meanwhile, as for Matsuzaka, one scout says, "His stuff disappeared the last two years.'' The problems don't end there, either. While the bullpen has two possible closing alternatives should Jonathan Papelbon falter, their lefty situation is even weaker than most teams. Their lefties in the 'pen are Hideki Okajima, who is currently in the minor leagues, and prospect Felix Doubront, who was supposed to be starting in the minors.

Crawford also is struggling. One scouts says, "He wasn't good in spring,'' while another points out that there's an adjustment to Boston. He's joined below the Mendoza line by teammates Marco Scutaro (.172), Jacoby Ellsbury (.189) and Kevin Youkilis (.172). It isn't necessarily all that comfortable in Boston now but no one seriously thinks Boston will be anything less than stellar offensively. "It's too early (for them) to panic,'' one competing GM says.

Indeed, despite those struggles, on the 1-10 scale of the Worrymeter, where 10 is the highest, the Red Sox only merit a 3. Here are five more of the most surprising bad starts and whether there should truly be cause for concern, plus where each one falls on the Worrymeter.

1. Phil Hughes

Hughes, the Yankees' 24-year-old starter who used to throw 96 mph as a reliever, has had trouble cracking 90 mph in his first two outings this year, continuing a trend from spring training. He threw on the side the other day but couldn't tell if he had his missing velocity back. Even Hughes admits he's concerned. "It's obviously something to be worried about. This is my job, my livelihood. It's worrisome.''

Worrymeter: 8

2. Rays

With Evan Longoria out for now and Manny Ramirez out forever, their offense seems quite a bit short at the moment, leading to their 3-8 start. Carlos Peña's replacement at first base, Dan Johnson, is somehow managing to bat lower than Peña, who didn't even crack .200 last year. Johnson is at .122 which isn't that much worse than Ben Zobrist (.190), Matt Joyce (.138), Sean Rodriguez (.190), and John Jaso (.190) and actually better than the departed Ramirez (.059), who "looked great this spring,'' one scout says, before his average, his career and his reputation all took a turn for the worse. The Rays have tried to make up for their slumbering offense with aggressiveness and versatility, and newcomers Sam Fuld (a team leading .594 slugging percentage for the superb fielding and supposedly light hitting little sparkplug) and Eliot Johnson help in that regard. The bullpen also remains a major question mark. Joe Maddon somehow pulled together a seeming ragtag bunch last year, turning it into the top group in the league. Good luck with this crew. "The guys he has now are a lot younger and don't have the track record," a scout says. "I'd be concerned about that bullpen, and they are concerned.''

Worrymeter: 7

2. Derek Jeter

He's hitting .206, raising concerns in the Bronx that, at the least, maybe that four-year deal wasn't the greatest of ideas for the soon-to-be 37-year-old. Jeter has hit an inordinate number of weak grounders and has only one extra-base hit so far. He won't admit he's worried, but others are wondering whether his adjustments to his stride (he eliminated the stride this winter, and now it's back occasionally) is a tipoff to troubles. But others say not to read too much into so few games and a bit of tinkering (the great Yankee Don Mattingly was famous for doing the same thing). Jeter himself said, "It's only nine games.'' Even so, the speculation persists. Jeter supporters point out he's been through bad streaks before, sometimes when he wasn't completely healthy. But one scout says, "He's been tardy'' (on pitches), and another flat out says, "He looks done.'' That's doubtful. But one thing's for sure, and that's this. "I'm done talking about it,'' he says.

Worrymeter: 4

4. Giants

Defending a title is tough, and the 5-6 Giants have teams gotten some early competition out West from the hot-starting Rockies and rival Dodgers. Once scout sees the Giants as third best team in the division. But, he adds, "with their pitching, you can't count them out.'' That's definitely the case, but their pitchers can't be happy about the defense they see behind them at the moment. As one scout noted, they have limited range at second base (Freddy Sanchez) and "none'' at shortstop and third (Miguel Tejada and the slimmed-down Pablo Sandoval, respectively). And that says nothing about right field, where Aubry Huff "just doesn't have the skill to do it,'' as one scout points out. They may have to return him to first base, and move big-time prospect Brandon Belt back to the outfield, which he played some in the minors last season. San Francisco won last year with an average defense, but this year's version is something less than that. Still, their pitchers get a lot of flyballs (Matt Cain) and strikeouts (the other of the big four), so they may still survive with defense that's not as good as most.

Worrymeter: 1

5. Albert Pujols

For a while, he was missing his protector in the lineup, Matt Holliday, who missed a few games after having his appendix removed. Whether that was the cause, Pujols' slow start -- .200, one home run, four RBIs -- is surely only an aberration. It's certainly a different year for the three-time NL MVP because it's his free-agent year, but nobody expects that to affect him.

Worrymeter: 0

• Rangers superstar Josh Hamilton broke his arm Tuesday on what he called a "stupid'' play to have him tag up after he was thrown out trying to score from third on a foul popout down the third-baseline. Tigers pitcher Brad Penny forgot to cover third, and Rangers third-base coach Dave Anderson saw an opening for Hamilton, telling him to go, but Tigers catcher Victor Martinez, who'd left home for the foul that was caught by third baseman Brandon Inge, got back in time to make the tag. It probably wasn't such a great idea for Hamilton to slide head first either, as Hamilton will now be out about six to eight weeks, according to the Rangers medical people. The headfirst slide generally is not a good plan, as @injuryexpert (aka Will Carroll) points out. And Hamilton is injury prone to begin with; it was his health reports that caused medical people in Cincinnati to strongly suggest he be traded, which is how the Rangers got him in the first place.

• Texas, it turns out, was extremely close to sending Michael Young to Colorado about a month before spring training but may need him more now that Hamilton is out. The Rangers have until May 15 to trade Young to one of a select group of eight teams on his no-trade list. That's when he becomes a 10-and-5 player and acquires full veto power. Word is, Young most wanted to go to Colorado or either of the two Los Angeles teams. The Rockies loved the way he fit.

• One competing GM said if he were in charge in Seattle he'd take young pitchers Ivan Nova, Dellin Betances and Manuel Banuelos plus catching prospect Jesus Montero from the Yankees for reigning AL Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez. The Mariners, though, have said King Felix is unavailable. Banuelos, a 20-year-old wunderkind, is in this year's plans for the Yankees.

• The A's did well to lock up Trevor Cahill for five years and $30.5 million (and have two team options on the end), though Cahill's first start after the deal, in which he lasted just 4 2/3 innings, didn't live up to that contract. Next up for the A's to sign may be strikeout specialist Gio Gonzalez.

• Rafael Furcal was likely just being "emotional'' according to a Dodger person when he suggested upon breaking his thumb that he might retire. Furcal, 33, has plenty left. He recanted the next night.

• It's funny how both trades involving Scott Kazmir have turned out to be regrettable. First it was the Mets doing the regretting after they traded him in a deal for Victor Zambrano and one other player in 2004. Now it has to be the Angels, who took Kazmir and what was left of his three-year, $28.5 million contract from Tampa Bay in 2009. Kazmir (27.00 ERA) is currently on the D.L. and has yet to show signs of his old form.

• Some aren't shocked by Russell Martin's early success with the Yankees, which includes a .300 batting average and three home runs. "When healthy, he is a very athletic catcher," one GM said.

• The White Sox have dropped five flyballs already this year, as Mark Gonzales of the Chicago Tribune pointed out. Not so easy to do.

• Reliever and converted infielder Sergio Santos of the White Sox hit 97 on the gun Tuesday night in the win over the A's.

• Umpire C.B. Bucknor had some funny strikes on Tuesday, though the White Sox did not seem amused.

• Mariners young phenom Michael Pineda was clocked at 99 mph. That's even more impressive considering all the lowered velocities we're seeing this year.

• Talk about a swift reaction. Within hours after the Mets' Lucas Duda misplayed a fly ball into a double and Blaine Boyer gave up the game to the Nationals, Duda was optioned and Boyer designated. New GM Sandy Alderson would seem to have a honeymoon period, but no one likes to lose -- and as one competing GM says, "Being in New York is different.'' Veteran reliever Jason Isringhausen was brought up to the majors. He showed a decent cutter, and the hope is that he can be the seventh-inning man. Bobby Parnell, who has struggled, hasn't looked great in the eighth inning in a bullpen with a lot of issues, so Izzy might even take that role.

• Jeff Francis and Bruce Chen are off to nice starts with the Royals. As one GM put it, "(Royals GM) Dayton Moore did a good job bottom feeding this winter.''

• Fuld, a New Hampshire kid, had a spectacular Fenway debut before 30 friends and family. He already had a home run, triple and double when he lined one into the let field corner. Rather than stop at first base with a single in the blowout victory, Fuld legged it into a double.

• The Achilles injury of Andres Torres probably eliminates any chance the Giants would release Aaron Rowand anytime soon. They need centerfielders. Cody Ross is already on the shelf.

• There's been a lot of angst over the back end of the Yankees' rotation. But another rainout Tuesday pushed Freddy Garcia back again, and he has yet to start. Bartolo Colon, Kevin Millwood, Carlos Silva are candidates to start at some point, but the Yankees haven't even needed to use Garcia yet.

• New Pirates manager Clint Hurdle "has them playing hard,'' according to two competing scouts, in explanation for why the team that hasn't had a winning record since Barry Bonds left town after the 1992 season is starting so well.

• All the deliberation time in the Bonds case makes me wonder whether the trial could be headed for a hung jury. If so, that's $6 million the taxpayers should want back.

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