Ailing aces, trump Cards, suicidal tendencies and more observations
A major storm wiped out baseball on the East Coast on Sunday, cancelling games in Washington, DC, Queens and Boston. Still, there was plenty happening in the rest of the country, with two of the best teams in baseball in the early going improving their records in notable ways, while other contenders had to confront potentially significant pitching injuries and one desperate team turned to an old friend for help.
Monday was supposed to bring a matchup of Cliff Lee and Daniel Hudson in Phoenix, but both pitchers headed to the disabled list Saturday, as did Blue Jays closer Sergio Santos. Lee's injury should be minor. The southpaw felt some discomfort in his left oblique in the 10th inning of his thrilling duel with Matt Cain on Wednesday night and three days later, the Phillies decided to play it safe and keep Lee out of action for the next two weeks. Hudson's injury, described as a right-shoulder impingement, is a greater concern. Hudson went 23-13 with a 3.01 ERA in his first 44 starts for Arizona between 2010 and 2011, but he was off his game in his first two starts this season and now hits the DL after his first quality start of the season, nursing a 6.00 ERA and having allowed five home runs in 18 innings (or 2.5 HR/9IP). The good news for Hudson is that the MRI exam he had Friday came back clean, but any kind of shoulder inflammation or discomfort for a pitcher is alarming.
The same goes for the Blue Jays new closer, Sergio Santos, who had been similarly shaky in the early going, blowing two of his four save chances and posting a 9.00 ERA, before hitting the DL with shoulder inflammation of his own after giving up a run in the process of recording just his second save of the season Friday night (the replacement, Francisco Cordero, allowed a run to the Royals in recording his first save of the season Sunday afternoon). Both the Blue Jays and Diamondbacks have described the DL moves as precautionary, but as Hudson himself admitted, this is a frightening turn of events, and right now they're just hoping for the best.
Hudson need look no further than the Yankees' Michael Pineda for an example of what a little shoulder discomfort can lead to. On Friday, Pineda made his first extended spring training start since being placed on the DL to start the season. But just 15 pitches in he had to be shut down. He'll have an MRI exam Monday and has likely lost all hope of returning before June. Pineda and Hudson were expected to be front-of-the-rotation starters for division favorites, and their absences will have significant impacts.
The Cardinals' Chris Carpenter is another impact starter for a contender who is out indefinitely with a shoulder injury, but while the Cards remain eager for his return, the impact of his absence has been alleviated by the strong starts by his replacement, sophomore Lance Lynn, and the shockingly dominant Kyle Lohse. In seven total starts, Lynn and Lohse are a combined 6-0 with a 1.17 ERA. Together, the two have averaged 6 2/3 innings per start and allowed just six runs in 46 2/3 total innings, while the Cardinals have won all seven of their starts. The team is 4-5 when their other three starters take the hill.
Lynn, 24, was the 39th overall pick in the 2008 draft but was projected as little more than a league-average starter during his brief minor league career. He started his first two major league games last June with middling-to-poor results (1-1, 5.23 ERA, just 10 1/3 innings total), then spent the rest of the year in the Cardinals bullpen. Lynn's success out of the 'pen in 16 regular-season appearances and 10 more in the postseason had him ticketed for a setup role this season, but Carpenter's injury moved him into the rotation and now that he's there, he may be hard to remove. Lynn has had exceptional luck thus far, with his opponents hitting just .182 on balls in play, but he has also struck out 17 men in 19 innings against just four walks, good for a 4.25 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Lynn's fastball is averaging better than 92 miles per hour, he added a cutter this spring, and he's missing a lot of bats with his curveball, something he didn't do last year despite throwing the pitch a comparable amount.
As for Lohse, who started Sunday, despite consistently sitting below 90 mph on the radar gun, he has been one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball in the early going. In 27 1/3 innings over his first four starts he has walked just two men, one intentionally, and has yet to allow a home run. I've watched two of Lohse's starts and he's just pounding the strikezone at the knee, throwing everything with a tail or a wrinkle in it, and changing speeds beautifully between his high-80s sinker, mid-80s slider, and 80 mph changeup while mixing in the occasional mid-70s curve. The 33-year-old Lohse's 12-year history of major league mediocrity would normally leave me skeptical of his hot start (which has benefitted from a .175 BABIP and three of his four starts coming against the scuffling Reds and Pirates lineups), but he was pretty good last year, too (14-8, 3.39 ERA) and even
Lohse and Lynn will both cool off considerably as the season progresses, but they have the Cardinals off to a nice early lead in the NL Central (four games over the Reds and Brewers) and I expect them to remain solid, above-average starters for the remainder of the season.
Coming into Sunday's action, the Rangers led the major leagues in run scoring with 6.07 runs scored per game and had just enjoyed an eight-run first inning against the Tigers' Rick Porcello in Game 1 of their Saturday doubleheader. When they got the potential winning run to third base with no outs and the bottom of the order coming up in the top of the 11th inning on Sunday, Texas manager Ron Washington didn't wait for the lineup to turn over. He called for a suicide squeeze bunt and delivered his team a 3-2 victory.
In my opinion, the squeeze bunt is an underutilized tactic in today's game. Most managers call for a squeeze a handful of times at most per season -- usually less. In the most extreme example, the Yankees have called for just one squeeze bunt since 2004, per Baseball Prospectus's statistics, and that last came in 2007. I have seen too many teams get the winning run to third base with less than two outs in extra innings, disregard the squeeze, and go on to lose. True, it's a high-risk play. A broken squeeze can erase that runner and thus the scoring opportunity entirely, as memorably happened to the Angels in Game 4 of the 2008 Division Series against the Red Sox, but unlike the conventional sacrifice, which in nearly every situation reduces a team's chance of scoring, the reward is immediate. Trading an out for a base is wasteful. Trading an out for a run, particularly when that run could win the game in that inning, is more than just cost-effective, it's a direct route to a win.
Tigers fans will want me to note that Alberto Gonzalez's bunt on Sunday should have been foul, as it hit him in the back knee in the batters' box before bouncing into fair territory, something the umpires missed entirely. That's true. I'm praising the decision more than the execution here, but it's worth noting that the biggest hurdle to an increased use of the squeeze bunt, a tactic that we should see more often, particularly given the decline of run scoring in general in recent years, is the players' ability to execute it. I put that on the coaching staffs as well. Teach the squeeze, both executing the bunt and how to play it as a baserunner, and the success rate will improve, making it all the more valuable. The conventional sacrifice is still overused, even with run scoring down, but teams that can, and will, successfully execute the squeeze bunt in key late-game situations can steal several wins every season, giving them an edge on their less creative competition.
The trade that sent Cubs center fielder Marlon Byrd to the Red Sox for Michael Bowden and a player to be named on Saturday made all kinds of sense. Here you had a Red Sox team desperate for outfield depth with Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford on the disabled list and Josh Reddick in Oakland finding a solution by making their first swap with the new club of their former general manager, Theo Epstein. Byrd is off to a miserable start his season, the last on his three-year contract with the Cubs, with just three singles in 43 at-bats (.070), but he should provide a league-average bat and only slightly below average defense in center until Ellsbury can return. The cost was right. The Cubs are covering most of the money remaining on Byrd's contract, and Bowden is a 25-year-old right-handed reliever who wasn't getting any real opportunities in Boston despite the Sox's shortcomings in the rotation and bullpen. The only question is what to do with the team's sudden glut of right-handed bench outfielders after Ellsbury and Crawford return, pushing Byrd to the bench beside Cody Ross and Darnell McDonald, though that's a problem for another day.
It made even more sense for the Cubs, however. Not only did Bowden have a nice season in his first year of exclusive relief work at Triple-A last year (2.73 ERA, 10.4 K/9, 3.39 K/BB), but trading the scuffling Byrd clears center field for the team's top prospect, Brett Jackson. Jackson won't arrive immediately, as much do to service time and arbitration-eligibility issues as his Triple-A performance, which has thus far been a bit underwhelming at .239/.329/.465 and 21 strikeouts in 17 games (but 10 of his 17 hits have gone for extra bases). However, the Cubs' decision not to wait for Byrd to find his stroke this season before trying to cash him in is a clear signal that Jackson will take over center field at Wrigley this year. His arrival, along with that of Triple-A teammate and former Red Sox first base prospect Anthony Rizzo, who is flat-out raking (.368/.411/.705 with seven homers in 68 at-bats), will mark the beginning of whatever future is in store for the Epstein-led Cubs.
Losing Sunday night's Yankees-Red Sox matchup to rain was a bummer, but the consolation prize is that CC Sabathia has been bumped to Monday night's game against the Rangers in Texas, which will pit him against fellow lefty Derek Holland in what, on paper, is the must-watch game of the first half of the week. The Rangers and Yankees are arguably the two best teams in the American League. The two-time defending pennant winners in Texas have the league's best record and the Yankees, who had the league's best record last year, are just a half game behind the Tigers for the second-best AL mark in the early going. Sabathia, despite his usual slow start, is the Yankees' best pitcher. Holland, who turned in one of the best starts of last year's postseason in Game 4 of the World Series, is finally fulfilling his considerable potential and has three quality starts in his first three turns in the early going with 20 strikeouts in 20 1/3 innings.
Elsewhere, this week brings a handful of matchups that could have wild-card implications, including the Rays hosting the Angels, the Reds hosting the Giants, the Diamondbacks hosting the Phillies, and the Dodgers hosting the Braves.