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April 7, 2004

Prospectus Today

Two Days of Fun

by Joe Sheehan

Are we having fun yet?

Since Sunday at 5 p.m., I've watched approximately 417 baseball games, or about half the number of college basketball games I watched in March. The opening of the new season has me more excited than any supposedly grown man should really be, but I can't help it: I'd missed baseball, and it was back in a big way the last few days.

So what have we seen so far? Well, I've proven that I can jinx even the best pitchers: Mike Mussina, my pick for AL Cy Young, has now been blasted by the Devil Rays in two hemispheres to the tune of an 11.00 ERA. (Completely random note: Roy Halladay won the AL Cy Young Award last year despite having an ERA of 5.13 after eight starts.)

The Yankees have shown that they will score a ton of runs, but have also seen the back end of their bullpen--a definite weakness--get touched up by what should be one of the AL's lesser offenses. Mussina will pitch better; can you say that for sure of Paul Quantrill, Jorge DePaula or Gabe White? I'll say it again: $183 million should buy more than this. The notion that the Yankees have the AL East, or even a playoff spot, cemented is just wrong.

If there's any justice in the world, Eric Wedge has a minibar in his Minneapolis hotel room. Over two nights, his Indians have played 26 innings, led for a good chunk of those, and come away with no wins. In both games, the team got good performances from starting pitchers only to watch the bullpen blow the game. Monday night's goats were imports Jose Jimenez and Scott Stewart. Tuesday, nominal closer David Riske coughed up his first lead of the season on a two-out, two-run, ninth-inning home run by Jacque Jones.

It wouldn't surprise me to see the Tribe be the first team to make a roster move designed to add a fresh arm to the staff. (Not wanting to use Rafael Betancourt, who may be the team's best reliever, after his 34-pitch outing Monday was a factor in last night's 15-inning loss.) As much as the organization likes Riske, he's nothing special; Wedge would be better off structuring his bullpen not around a closer, but around multiple-inning outings. Jimenez was a starter as recently as September and was effective against lefties as a Rockie. Stewart's career line of .254/.320/.391 against right-handers suggests that he should be allowed out of the specialist role. Jake Westbrook, who pitched adequately for 3 2/3 innings last night, has a number of similarly long relief outings on his resume.

The Indians aren't going to win anything this year, and the only capital-C closer they have--Bob Wickman, no great shakes himself--is out until at least June. Why not take a shot at doing something different with a relatively young, no-name pitching staff?

Speaking of no-name pitching staffs, the Detroit Tigers have a magic number of 161 after their second straight win in Toronto. It's not a big shock to see them with 14 runs in the two games; they'd upgraded their offense considerably over the winter, and the Jays mix a so-so pitching staff with a good hitter's park. It was a bit surprising to see them beat up Halladay and Miguel Batista, and flat-out shocking to see two decent starts and seven shutout innings by the bullpen.

The Tigers did get bad news last night, losing Dmitri Young for six weeks with a fractured right fibula. I'll defer to Will Carroll on this, but I think six weeks is awfully generous. That's a serious injury, and Young is a big guy who puts a lot of pressure on his legs. I don't think he'll contribute again until June at the earliest. In his stead, Craig Monroe will get at-bats against lefties, as will Rule 5 slugger Chris Shelton. I like the idea of playing Greg Norton at third base some against righties, with Eric Munson assuming the DH duties. Norton is a good defender and an average hitter; adding him to the infield would make it an above-average unit, important behind a staff that won't strike out a ton of hitters.

Regardless, I'm feeling a bit better about being The Guy Who Didn't Have the Tigers in Last, and eager to see if Jeremy Bonderman can continue the string of good starts tonight.

One last note about the AL Central...Monday afternoon, the White Sox allowed six runs to the Royals in the bottom of the ninth, losing 9-7. As that inning began, with the Sox up 7-3 and double-barreled action in the bullpen, White Sox announcers Ken Harrelson and Darrin Jackson were falling all over themselves to praise new manager Ozzie Guillen. Guillen, they said, wasn't going to be consulting statistics to decide which of his two nominal closers, Billy Koch and Damaso Marte, he would use. No, Ozzerroo would be going by his gut feeling, and gosh, wasn't that a great thing in this day and age?

Guillen's "gut feeling" amounted to using his bad relievers, Cliff Politte and Koch, to set up an untenable situation for his good one, Marte. Politte walked two guys, Koch allowed a double and got a strikeout, and Marte gave up a single sandwich, with two homers as the bread.

Without defending those performances, a gut feeling that involves choosing Billy Koch over Damaso Marte for anything other than a facial-hair contest needs to be treated with Pepto and some ginger ale. Guillen has only one good pitcher in his bullpen: Marte. How he uses him is going to be a big part of the Sox story this year. Marte has been amazing for two years now: a 2.12 ERA and 10.2 K/9 since coming to Chicago.

A thousand words and I haven't mentioned the National League yet. Well, there were the well-timed extensions for Lloyd McClendon and Dave Littlefield, news that broke just milliseconds after I predicted, in Monday's chat session, that McClendon would be the first manager fired this year.

I fail to see what either man has done to warrant such support. Littlefield presided over the looting of his farm system last fall, and other than watch dumb contracts expire and show an affection for third-tier free agents and one-year deals, hasn't done a whole lot to either push the Pirates into contention or start an actual rebuilding process.

McClendon has an even thinner case. He gets high marks as a leader; what exactly has he led the Pirates to? His three-year record is 209-276, with a peak of 75-87 and fourth place. He hasn't developed players; under his watch, the Pirates have seen one young player take a role, that being Kip Wells. Craig Wilson--who looks for all the world like a WWE character this year--has fought everyone but Bill Robinson for playing time while slugging .496 as a major leaguer. Meanwhile, McClendon has spent most of his time managing the veterans Littlefield keeps signing. I doubt Kenny Lofton and Randall Simon have been craving leadership.

Both men have behaved as if a .450 winning percentage and a fourth-place finish were goals, rather than signs of a franchise adrift. Hey, maybe that's the look Kevin McClatchy is going for. It's not going to lead to pennants and sellouts and actual success, though. It's just a way to avoid last place.

If McClendon has job security, can I change my pick to Jimy Williams? In just two games, Williams made a great case for turning the Astros over to Rhubarb, first leaving a tiring Roy Oswalt in to face Barry Bonds in a critical situation, then benching one of his best players in the second game of the season.

I got an e-mail or two about Williams not having a lefty in the pen for Monday's confrontation. To be honest, I don't think that was the problem; the available lefties in the Astros' camp were all pretty poor, and Bonds hits southpaws well enough that you don't bring in a mediocre one just for the sake of doing so. No, the questionable decision to me is leaving a tiring Oswalt in the game when you have a pretty good eighth-inning guy in Brad Lidge and, better yet, a dominant reliever in Octavio Dotel. Oswalt, sharp most of the game, had worked deep counts to four of the previous five hitters, and allowed singles to Ray Durham and Michael Tucker. Oswalt's low pitch count--97 before the fateful pitch to Bonds--may have influenced Williams, which should serve as a reminder that pitch counts really aren't everything.

As I mentioned in my NL preview, the Astros' overwhelming right-handedness--basically everybody but Lance Berkman--is going to be an issue for them this year. One of the few viable left-handed options the 'stros have, Mike Lamb, plays the same position a Morgan Ensberg, who might be the team's second-best hitter this season. Williams, who forced Ensberg to share time with Geoff Blum the past two years, played Lamb last night and sat Ensberg. Although he insisted after the game that it wasn't a meaningful decision, you have to wonder if Williams knows his team has a problem and is determined to fix it however he can.

Given the intractable problems of Craig Biggio and Brad Ausmus and the light bat of Adam Everett, I'd solve the problem by playing Lamb at third base against right-handers when sort-of flyball pitcher Roger Clemens and flyball pitcher Tim Redding were on the mound, and slide Ensberg to shortstop for six innings in those games. I might also do this against the Cubs and their collection of slow right-handed hitters (and nasty right-handed starters), at least on the slow infield at Wrigley.

Hey, was Shawn Estes the worst pitcher to ever start on Opening Day for a new team? I'm sure bad teams have had guys who got the gig just based on tenure, but Estes was signed as a minor-league free agent after being one of the worst pitchers in the game last year for the Cubs, and somehow ended up as the Rockies' Opening Day starter. Heck, he even won, reinforcing two of my opinions about the Diamondbacks in the process. One, they can't score, and two, Randy Johnson isn't coming back to be more than a Medium Unit at best.

All this after two days. Man, I love this game.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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