Chase Utley has been horrid in the early going, but is it a fluke or a sign of real trouble? Scouts weigh in on his struggles, as well as other players off to blazing-fast or ice-cold starts.
Three weeks into the season, and we know nothing. Okay, we know that Nelson Cruz is good at hitting baseballs, that the Royals are a fired-up, ornery bunch, and that Bryan Price could use a long weekend in Belize. Other than that, we know nothing, and anyone making definitive claims about a player or team three weeks into the season, citing data samples, deserves a shakedown from the Small Sample Size Police.
That being said, it’s not too early to take note of some useful information and early trends. So we asked some scouts around the league about the players whose notable starts may or may not be real—and those whose slow starts may be signs of big trouble.
1–1, 2.30 ERA, 16 K, 7 BB (15 2/3 IP)
The most surprising American League pitcher so far? “For me, it’s Ubaldo,” says one AL advance scout, who saw Jimenez in his April 11 start against Toronto. “In the first two innings [Jimenez] made more good pitches than he did all of last year. He’s not throwing harder. What’s been eye-opening is that he made a nice adjustment: He still has all the moving parts in his rotation, but [in his delivery] he’s more upright and he’s able to get it out in front and is able to throw downhill more.” The result? “He’s much better with pitches down in the strike zone. His rhythm is right, and if he can maintain that, he’s going to have a great year. I think this is legit.”
A resurgent Jimenez would be huge for the Orioles, who have allowed more runs than any team other than the Brewers. “The thing that you wonder about is where Kevin Gausman fits now with them,” says the scout. “I think the odd man out is going to be [Bud] Norris. I used to think Ubaldo would be that guy, but—and I wouldn’t have believed this before the season—I think he becomes an anchor in the rotation.”
.265/.419/.571, 4 HR, 11 RBIs (62 PA)
Do you believe in the Renaissance of A-Rod? “To a degree, yeah, I do,” says a scout. “There are a lot of things that bode well. You haven’t been seeing him jump on the first pitch [in recent seasons], but now he’s doing that. He’s showing how smart of a hitter he is and his baseball intelligence. He still has good recognition, and he’s showing that as he’s jumping on mistakes and not missing them. Physically, his lower half is strong and he’s clearly healthy.”
Of course, the season is still young, and pitchers make adjustments. “I think that everyone read the press speculation that the bat slowed down a bit and they’ve been attacking him with fastballs, and that approach just isn’t working—but I have no doubt that the pitchers will adjust,” the scout says. “And when he’s not being fed all these fastballs, I’m not that bullish he keeps this up.”
.268/.349/.536, 4 HR, 11 RBIs, 4 SB (63 PA)
Souza, acquired from the Nationals in a three-team deal in December, exploded for four home runs in eight games after a slow start, and now he looks like a prime breakout candidate. Is he a legit 20–20 player or a potential All-Star? “It's hard not to love the size and the tools, but I think the swing-and-miss approach was a concern—a lot of people said he was a fourth outfielder,” says an AL scout. “Injuries always held him back, he had a PED suspension [in 2010] that hurt him, he got overshadowed in the Nats’ system because he’s not Bryce Harper or Stephen Strasburg or Anthony Rendon. But I always loved him. He has great bat speed and athleticism, and he’s showing it. They have [Evan] Longoria, but he’s already showing that he’s the most dangerous hitter in Tampa. He’s an All-Star.”
.474/.450/1.211, 4 HR, 12 RBIs (20 PA)
“I’m still not buying,” one National League scout says of Guerrero, who’s raking with the Dodgers, with four homers in nine games. “He’s Cuban, so people think he’s Yasiel Puig, but he’s not on the same level. He’s never been a huge power guy, and nothing has changed my opinion. I think he’s just had a really good stretch. People are clamoring for him to get more at bats, but that’s such a talented roster that I don’t blame [Don] Mattingly. [Guerrero] is terrible at second base, and I don’t know where he else ends up. Let’s remember he’s 28, so he’s not exactly a young player on the rise.”
.120/.161/.240, 2 HR, 9 RBIs, 1 SB (56 PA)
Is this the beginning of the end for Utley? “I’ve been watching him for 18 years, and this is the worst I’ve ever seen him play in my life,” says an NL scout. “He’s looked so bad that there’s even people saying something’s wrong with his eyes. The other night he came across an easy double play ball in a recent game and just dropped it. He’s taking pitches in the zone. His bat used to stay in the zone, but it’s so quick in and out of it now. You wonder if his knees are bothering him and he’s not saying anything. It’s just a shame because he’s such a stalwart—it’s as hard to write him off as a guy like Derek Jeter. But he looks so bad right now, it’s hard to believe he’s got much left.”
.190/.240/.326, 0 HR, 7 RBIs, 0 SB (54 PA)
A resurgent Beltran was always a key part of the Yankees’ plans to contend, but the just-turned–38-year-old is off to another slow start in the Bronx. “It’s time to make him a platoon player,” says an AL scout. “I really like Chris Young, and he’s just crushing lefthanded pitching, and I think he can keep it up. A-Rod has thrown a wrench into Girardi’s ability to DH Beltran, so he’s had to run out to rightfield a lot.... But this is a much better team with Young in the outfield ... and it’s time the Yankees recognize that, no matter how much they’re paying [Beltran].”
.175/.213/.298, 1 HR, 5 RBIs, 0 SB (61 PA)
Not long ago, CarGo was one of the most dynamic players in the game, but off an injury-plagued 2014, he looks lost at the plate. Time to panic? “I’m not concerned,” says an NL scout. “The big thing for me is that in the field, he looks healthy, he’s moving very well in the outfield, and as long as he’s healthy, he hits. Remember, he only played 70 games last year, so it’s going to take some time for him to get going. He’s always been streaky, and he’ll get hot one series at Coors and turn things around. Right now, he’s not walking as much as he did when he was at his best, and he’s hitting a lot of ground balls. He’s not going to his 25 home runs, but I think he’s still got 20–20 potential.”
.152/.235/.283, 2 HR, 4 RBIs, 0 SB (52 PA)
He was one of last season’s big breakouts, but right now Pearce is struggling, badly. “He’s pull-crazy right now,” says a scout. “It’s like he got off to bad start and he’s a little bit anxious now and he hasn’t found that rhythm from last year. He went through a 2-for-30 stretch where he just looked like he was pressing: He’s hooking balls and grounding out and just looks out of sync. His strike zone management is not where it was last year. [Former hitting coach] Jim Presley did a great job with him last year, but now that he’s gone, I think it’s part of it. Now Pearce is losing at bats, and there’s a chance this snowballs. The thing I’d worry about is that Buck Showalter is just going to turn to someone else in the lineup—he’s not one that will hesitate to lean on guys like Travis Snider and Delmon Young. But I do think last year was legit [for Pearce], and he’ll turn it around.”