With one month of the 2016 MLB season in the books, Albert Chen checks in with rival scouts to get their takes on some surprising early starts.
It's one month into the major league season, and what do we know? We know that Bryce Harper is good at baseball, that Billy Hamilton is faster than Bartolo Colon and that Jake Arrieta will not be guesting on ESPN's First Take anytime in the foreseeable future. Beyond the obvious? We know almost nothing, and, as the small sample size police are quick to remind everyone, it’s foolish to draw any conclusions about a player or team at this point of the season—as foolish as it’d be to try to take an extra base on Yasiel Puig ever again.
Still, it’s not too early to take note of some early trends. I checked in with some scouts and evaluators from around the majors for an assortment of impressions on the season’s first month, of players and teams whose notable starts may or may not be a spring illusion.
“Putting A-Rod on the DL might be what they need to get this team going”
The Yankees are 8-16, in last place in the AL East and tied with the Rays for fewest runs scored in the majors—and they are who we thought they were. “Age has caught up to them,” said a scout, pointing to 40-year-old Alex Rodriguez (.194/.275/.444), 32-year-old Jacoby Ellsbury (.247/.293/.366) and 35-year-old CC Sabathia (5.06 ERA through four starts).
“Last year, A-Rod was like that little puppy that gets a last spurt of energy," said the scout. "The first four or five months to the season were the spurt, and the last month and a half, he just collapsed, and this year he still can’t get to fastball.... So he goes up and cheats and tries to ambush a pitcher. That worked last year at times. It’s not working anymore. He really has to outsmart pitchers now to hit. I’m sure [the Yankees] are hoping for an excuse to put him on the DL.”
After dealing with oblique stiffness, Rodriguez left Tuesday’s game in Baltimore with a strained right hamstring. (UPDATE: That hamstring injury has landed the veteran slugger on the 15-day DL.) “They need to make tough decisions and be more open to sitting veterans like A-Rod and Ellsbury, and play matchups," the scout said. "They’ve been doing it with Ellsbury, but they need to do it more. [Last year] Ellsbury began swinging more after coming back from the knee injury, and he hasn’t stopped swinging at a lot of bad stuff outside the zone. At this point, you have to find out what Aaron Hicks can do. He’s struggled at the plate, but he hasn’t really gotten a chance for regular at bats. And he is a great outfielder. He needs to play more, once he’s over his shoulder issue. He’s a guy that actually has some upside.”
As for the rotation: “It’s a touchy subject there too, I’m sure, to put a guy like CC in the bullpen, but the reality is that he’s basically a four-inning pitcher now,” says a scout of Sabathia (1–2, 5.06 ERA through four starts). “Getting through five innings is a battle for him. He’s really struggling with his offspeed stuff. And [Michael] Pineda looks like he’s on the verge of breaking down. Against Tampa Bay [on April 24], he was basically fastball-slider, and his fastball command was zero—he would center cut a 93-mph fastball on fastball counts and they would knock the crap out of. For a guy with health problems, the early signs are not good. I’d be very concerned right now.”
The good news in the Bronx? “[Dellin] Betances, the way he’s pitching right now, may be the most unhittable guy I’ve ever seen in my life,” says one veteran scout of the Yankees' setup man, who has struck out 24 of the 46 batters he has faced this season. “The dominance he’s showing is to me almost as impressive as Jake Arrieta. The fastball is 99 mph, the curve is 82 to 86, and guys have no chance. It’s unbelievable to have him and Andrew Miller, who’s throwing Nintendo sliders, and the other guy [Aroldis Chapman] who throws 100 to 101. That’s a phenomenon that nowhere in my life has there that kind of dominance—maybe the Nasty Boys [of the 1990 World Series champion Cincinnati Reds], but this could be scarier. It’s up there as the best I’ve ever seen. You can get 12 to 15 outs from them and build the sixth inning on, and that’s something that no other team has right now. This bullpen is even better than we thought it’d be—it could be one of the best ever. And that’s the shame of it all.”
“I’m not going to say he’s Greg Maddux, but…”
He seemed like a cyborg sent from Japan to destroy major league batters, one killer slider at a time, but Dodgers rookie Kenta Maeda finally looked human in his last start, allowing four runs over 6 2/3 innings to the Marlins on April 28. Maeda did have another brilliant start going until the seventh inning, when he surrendered three hits and a run and was pulled from the game, and watched reliever Pedro Baez allow two inherited runners to score. Still, for the season Maeda is 3–1 with a 1.41 ERA over his first five starts, and he has been one of the early-season revelations in the first year of his eight-year, $25 million contract.
Even Jose Fernandez seems to be impressed.
Said one evaluator who was at Maeda’s start at Coors Field on April 23 (6 1/3 shutout innings at high altitude) and whose team was in on the bidding over the 28-year-old righthander: “We knew he was good. There were concerns about his health [and] there were some things in his physical that he sent to all the teams that raised some eyebrows. And he just wasn’t a flamethrower, so he wasn’t going to get the big bucks. [There was] uncertainty—is his command really that good, at the major league level, to make that transition?
“Turns out the command is unbelievable. I’m not going to say he’s Greg Maddux, but there are some similarities. With the way he mixes pitches and changes speeds, he’s been better than advertised. He’s replaced [Zack] Greinke—and incredibly, he’s pitched even better. He’s not going to keep it up, no way, but that signing is looking like it was a steal.”
That contract was both surprisingly cheap compared to the deals that recent pitchers had secured after coming over from Japan and laden with incentives—a right now it looks like one of the best deals of the winter. Clayton Kershaw and Maeda could make a formidable 1–2 punch, but the Dodgers' rotation beyond that is loaded with questions. With Scott Kazmir’s health concerns and Alex Wood’s struggles, Los Angeles could soon have a decision to make with 19-year-old Jose Urias, who has struck out 23 and posted a 2.50 ERA in 18 innings at Triple A Oklahoma City.
“He’s ready, and he is going to be very, very special," said one scout who has seen Urias pitch recently. "Fabulous arm, fabulous stuff. He gets a lot of swings out of the strike zone, because his stuff is so good. It’s a big curveball, though the one thing I’ll say is that those types of pitches don’t seem to be called strikes up here. He’ll have to make adjustments. But his stuff is going to play. He’s 19, so they’re not going to rush him, but if someone goes down or somebody struggles, they’re going to have to consider calling him up. And that might be soon.”
“The Ken Giles trade is even more head-scratching now”
The triple-digit fastball, the Craig Kimbrel-esque slider, the fact that he is 25 and under control for three more years: It’s obvious why Ken Giles was coveted by the Astros when they pulled the trigger back in December to acquire the young reliever from the Phillies, a deal that led to a volley of columns and articles about the value of an elite closer in 2016. The Astros had long coveted an über-reliever: at the trade deadline last summer, they had tried to acquire Aroldis Chapman from the Reds, or Kimbrel from the Padres.
“I get it—Houston thinks that he’s the guy they need to push them over the edge to get to the World Series,” said one executive. “To get that guy, they had to overpay. But at the time, they still just seemed to give up a lot—too much, maybe.”
With the emergence of Vincent Velasquez in Philadelphia (4–1, 1.44 ERA, 39 strikeouts in 31 innings) and with the Astros’ current questions in the rotation beyond Dallas Keuchel (among AL clubs only the Yankees have a higher team ERA), the second guessing over the deal will only get louder—though it will be years, of course, before we know who won the trade.
“He’s always had the stuff, and then you saw something click with him last year,” said a scout of Velasquez. “The fastball and changeup have always been standout, but it’s the curveball that’s been the difference—it’s a real weapon now. But there are some health concerns there—he had elbow problems in high school, he’s had Tommy John surgery, he had some other issues [groin and lat injuries] that limited him the last few years. So I do have questions about whether he’s going to stay healthy. If he does, well, the upside is undeniable.”
Giles’ early season struggles in Houston—he’s already allowed more home runs (four) than he did over his last two seasons in Philly—is the latest reminder of the extreme volatility of relievers. It is, though, far from panic time. “There’s no doubt Giles’s stuff is top shelf,” said the scout. “A guy like Kimbrel, early in his career, which Giles may very well be, doesn’t come along like that. And he’s going to be fine. There’s nothing that concerns me. But at the end of the day, this is still a 70-inning guy. And even if those are great 70 innings, if you look at the price for starting pitchers these days—Mike Leake getting $80 million, Jeff Samardzija getting $90 million—you wonder about giving up a guy like Velasquez, especially for a team that has some real issues in their rotation. Velasquez has top-shelf stuff. To me, he is a No. 2 starter, maybe better. And that is incredibly valuable in this market. And he’s 23.”
As for the Phillies, who have won 10 of their last 12? Suddenly, with Velasquez, Aaron Nola (who shut out the Cardinals over seven innings on Tuesday) and Jerad Eickhoff atop the rotation, they have been shockingly watchable. “They’re building something there,” said a scout, who also noted that Mark Appel, the former No. 1 pick also included in the Giles deal, has a 1.64 ERA over four starts in Triple A Lehigh Valley and may join the Phillies' rotation at some point this summer. “I’ll be honest, they’re a lot better than I thought they’d be. The pitching is pretty darn good. They’re ahead of schedule. To me, they’re the surprise of the season.”
“Freddie Freeman will be lucky if he sees five pitches to hit all year”
One evaluator who was at the Braves-Nationals series in D.C. from April 11 to 14 noted: “I don’t think they threw Freddie Freeman a strike in the four games I saw him.”
It has been a rough start for Atlanta’s franchise player, who is slashing .261/.364/.424 for a miserable Braves team hurtling toward a 100-loss season. Freeman was dropped to sixth in the order on April 26 against the Red Sox, in a lineup in which veteran catcher A.J. Pierzynski hit cleanup. Freeman has showed signs of life: He homered on Wednesday at Fenway Park, ending Atlanta's historic 15-game homerless streak, and he had a three-hit night against Boston on Thursday. But it’s going to be a long season for the 26-year-old All-Star first baseman. There have been some concerns that Freeman’s wrist issues are lingering, but the biggest factor to his early struggles are clear. “That lineup around him is terrible," said the scout. "Most of the time, people are just pitching around him, and why wouldn’t they? He’s got to learn how to be more patient and take the walk.”
We knew the Braves' offense would be bad this year. But this bad? Atlanta has hit a total of six home runs; 20 major leaguers have out-homered the entire Braves team this season.
“Kevin Gausman will be a difference maker”
In his 2016 debut on April 25 at Tampa Bay, Orioles righty Kevin Gausman posted seven strikeouts over five innings, allowing just three hits and one run and hitting 100 mph on the radar gun. Five days later, he followed up that performance with a quality start in a loss to the White Sox, giving him two impressive outings after starting the season in the minors while he rehabbed a shoulder injury. “The Orioles have not handled him great over the years,” said an executive of the No. 4 pick of the 2012 draft. “They’ve done him a disservice by shutting him back and forth from Triple A. He ended up being a nice piece in the bullpen last year, but now that they’ve defined him as a starter, he’s finally in a position to succeed.”
The difference for Gausman? “He’s added that third pitch, which is going to be key for him as a starter, and it was pretty good for him [in his first start],” said a scout. Through most of his time in the big leagues he’s relied on two pitches, but Gausman's reintroduction of his slurve may be what will help propel him to have the breakout season many have been waiting for. “This is a winnable division," says the scout of the AL East. "If they can get [Chris Tillman and Ubaldo] Jimenez to stabilize and Gausman to emerge, this is a dangerous team. The bullpen is really good. And they have a guy who looks like he’s going to make a run at the Triple Crown.”
That would be Manny Machado, who is slashing .350/.407/.660 with seven home runs. “There are stretches now when Machado looks Miguel Cabrera-like with his approach,” the scout said. “He didn’t make the splash early on in his career that [Bryce] Harper and [Mike] Trout did, but he’s there in that conversation now. Over the last 2 1/2 years, he’s battled getting his legs back under him. He's got his legs back, and it’s fun to watch.
“I saw him in the South Atlantic League when he was doing this as a teenager,” the scout added. “One night, he hit the ball over the scoreboard in Delmarva, on a 3–0 pitch, a 94-mph fastball that he swung at like he was playing pepper. I just said, ‘Oh my gosh.’ I saw him and Harper in back to back days, and I put Machado in the same category back then. And the way he’s going now, I put him right there with Bryce right now.”