May 14, 1999
AL East Notebook
Age and Youth
Some of the biggest news in the division is being made by guys who had pretty good seasons during the Cold War. And nobody has been hotter in May than Tampa Bay's Fred McGriff.
McGriff, who posted a .284/.371/.443 in 1998, was written off by most analysts. His age, declining power and long-gone mobility all indicated that the "Crime Dog" of lore had no bite--and very little bark--remaining. A slow start didn't help: McGriff was hitting .234/.300/.422 with just three home runs in late April.
Since then, McGriff has ripped off two weeks of scalding hitting, posting a .451/.548/1.020 performance. The unexpected offense has helped the Devil Rays survive some disappointing pitching and the return to earth of Jose Canseco, keeping the team around .500.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away... (hey, it's everywhere) McGriff was a teammate--was traded with, in fact--one of the best shorstops of the 1980s. Well, that shortstop lost some skills, but he's recast himself as a third baseman and a veteran hitter with gap power and very good plate discipline.
Tony Fernandez, who turns 37 next month, is hitting .372/.470/.522 while playing an above-average third base. This is on the heels of his surprising .321/.387/.459 1998. How much longer this will last is a mystery, but Fernandez has played better in Toronto than anywhere else in his five-team career, so a season like 1998 would seem to be a reasonable expectation.
We're always emphasizing the need for teams to focus on youth, to play players with upside while cutting loose guys in their thirties who have appeared to lose a step, or some bat speed or a bit off their fastball. But as Andres Galarraga showed us last year, just because someone was born the Johnson administration doesn't mean they're completely done. Not all players follow the typical decline path; McGriff and Fernandez are two more reminders--pleasant ones--that player projection is an inexact science.
Of course, new faces on the scene are having an impact as well. As expected, the Red Sox recalled righthander Juan Pena from Pawtucket, where he'd been mowing down International League hitters. Taking Bret Saberhagen's rotation spot, Pena shut down the Anaheim Angels for six innings (three hits, one walk, eight strikeouts, just 80 pitches), displaying a four-pitch repertoire that belied his age.
Pena being called up is no surprise; we expected to see him once the Sox tired of Mark Portugal--who has been effective--or Pat Rapp, who hasn't. The Saberhagen injury just brought him to Fenway ahead of schedule. With Rapp's collapse, Pena is really the team's #4 starter.
Will he succeed? I'm inclined to think he will; the Sox' defense is very good, an asset in breaking in a young starter. Pena sports four pitches, variety that will help him the second time around the league. And the Boston bullpen is deep and talented, a combination that should keep Pena from being overworked.
Shane Spencer was recalled by the Yankees, and it appears he's going to be the everyday left fielder. The three-headed platoon was a dismal failure; going with one guy should be an improvement.... The injury to Jim Mecir's elbow reopens the door for Tony Saunders to establish himself. Look for him to return to last year's form.... Let's hope Billy Koch pitches well enough for Jim Fregosi to abandon the idea of moving Kelvim Escobar to the bullpen. Escobar has a starter's repertoire, and except for three weeks in July of 1997, has had most of his success in that role.