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April 10, 2002

The Daily Prospectus

The Daily Prospectus: Just Riffing

by Joe Sheehan

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 There are a couple of stretches during the year when doing this column can be a bit difficult. One of them is right now. We're about ten days into the season, which is too late to be making any predictions about how things are going to go--although I do wish Dave Pease hadn't nixed my line about Eli Marrero's shot to hit .400--and too early to draw conclusions about what we've seen so far. Oh, we can throw some numbers out, and I stand by what I said the other day about the strike zone, but for the most part, the first couple weeks of the season are about watching and waiting.

I have learned a few things about letting my eyes get in the way of my analysis. It was after seeing the A's look pretty bad for two days in Arizona that I concluded their defense was going to present a significant barrier to their making it back to the postseason. The A's have opened the season 6-2, taking four of five games from the team I picked to finish ahead of them, the Texas Rangers. The Rangers haven't looked good at all, particularly on the mound, where the back end of their bullpen has cost them three games they should have won. The absence of Jeff Zimmerman has been very costly.

You know, in thinking about last season, I thought the Rangers' fate was sealed in April, during intradivisional play, and that the start to their 2002 season was mirroring that. Looking back, though, I see that the Rangers were actually 10-10 coming out of that stretch. They then went 2-13 to fall deep into last place in the AL West, never to be heard from again. On the other hand, they were 5-2 against the A's last April, and are 1-4 against them so far this year. All things considered, the Rangers are in a precarious position, and need to right themselves quickly or again run the risk of being made irrelevant by Memorial Day. Given what we've seen from their pitching staff, I'm not optimistic.

After that trip to Arizona I also suggested that the A's would be better off letting Carlos Pena open the year in Triple-A, as a means of letting him get his confidence back after a lost March. Pena had a big first week, launching four home runs including a game-winner. On the other hand, Pena isn't doing anything else: he has only four other hits in 31 at-bats, all singles, and just one walk. It still seems to me like he's not completely comfortable, and may yet be best-served by spending a few weeks in Sacramento.

We've had some surprises the first week, not the least of which has been the 5-1 Pittsburgh Pirates. As Jim Baker pointed out on ESPN Insider, though, how a team does in any five- or six-game stretch is useless in determining how that team will play all season. The Pirates are still starting just three major-league hitters, with Craig Wilson consigned to pinch-hitting duty, and the upper bound of a team like that is 65 or so wins. The spate of huzzahs for Lloyd McClendon is misplaced.

Of course, McClendon's 5-1 start will probably secure his employment for some time. Phil Garner can appreciate that, now that he's no longer the Tigers manager. My question is the same as it always is in these situations: how can a manager be the right man for the job from October through March, then suddenly become not the right man six games into the season?

I don't mean to defend Garner, who although he was dealt a lousy hand in Detroit is very high on the list of managers whose reputation far outstrips their performance. I just have to wonder what good it does to let one guy run the team all through spring training, pick the roster, set the rules, get to know the players, then dump him because the team has a six-game losing streak.

And, continuing a theme, what team doesn't have a six-game losing streak at some point? Is it somehow worse because it comes at the start of the season? We see this a lot in player evaluation, where a 527 OPS April is cause for alarm, whereas a 527 OPS May doesn't garner any attention because it follows a 1202 OPS April.

I like Dave Dombrowski, and I think firing Randy Smith is a positive event for the Tigers. I just don't see what dumping Phil Garner a week into the season accomplishes other than distracting the local media from the absolutely awful roster and bringing Felipe Alou--another reputation/performance anomaly--into the picture. 

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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