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March 17, 2005

Crooked Numbers

Wild Wild West

by James Click

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We're going to take things on the lighter side here at Crooked Numbers this week, dropping the math and leaving things just Crooked. I'm down in Arizona taking in the Cactus League action, having seen the Diamondbacks, A's, Rangers, Angels, Royals, Cubs, and Padres so far. For those of you who haven't been here before, the Cactus League is a little more fan friendly than the Grapefruit League, with nine of the 12 teams packed into the greater Phoenix area and several sharing stadiums. There are always several games within a few miles driving distance and rainouts are as rare as worthwhile souvenirs.

Doing my best to read some chicken scratch from notes in my programs, let's get right to it:

  • First off, the parks are big. Phoenix Municipal Stadium, the A's park, is 345 down both lines and 410 to dead center. Tempe Diablo, where the Angels play, is enormous: 340 to left, 360 to right, and 420 to deep center. The Cubs play in HoHoKam where it's 340, 350, and 410. Dan Johnson, Kevin Mench, Mark DeRosa, and Jeff Mathis all hit balls well over 400 feet only to see them fall harmlessly into the leather. Thus far in three games, only Eric Byrnes has managed to clear the fences.

  • At both A's games, Daric Barton, #9 on our Top 50 Prospects list came into the game at first. As expected for a kid who has been a catcher since high school, he looked like he was still learning the position, a little hesitant at times. With backstops Kurt Suzuki and Landon Powell ahead of him for now, it's clear the A's are grooming him for a career at first. In three at bats, he has a single and a pair of groundouts. Barton has a compact frame, but a long swing and follow-through, giving hints of power to come. He's survived the first round of cuts this week, but don't expect him in the majors for a couple more seasons.

  • Both Shawn Estes and Chan Ho Park inexplicably pitched very well, with Park facing the minimum over four and Estes throwing five shutout innings - or at least he would have if Quinton McCracken hadn't let the last out of the fifth hit him in the chest instead of the glove. Perfect through the first three and bolstered by several excellent defensive plays by new shortstop Royce Clayton, Estes took advantage of his defense and the A's surprising propensity to swing at the first pitch. Park allowed only a bunt single to Josh Paul, doing his best Ben Davis to break up the perfect game in the third. Also like Estes, the key to his performance was keeping the ball on the ground, getting eight groundball outs and two strikeouts. If he can repeat any semblance of this performance in the regular season, maybe that last $29 million on his contract won't be completely misspent.

  • With Chris Truby out with a broken wrist, Mark Teahen looks to have the inside track on the starting third base job. In the one game I saw, Teahen was 0-2 with a walk and didn't record a putout in the field, a line that already makes him one of the Royal's best hitters and fielders.

  • Dan Haren, despite a little wildness in the first inning of his outing, was very solid through four scoreless innings. Largely relying on a heavy fastball, Haren kept everything down in the zone or in the dirt. He was efficient enough to have to hit the bullpen after his outing to get his pitch count up. His motion looked a little more violent working in the pen, but while in the game, he was very smooth and consistent. The A's have publicly voiced him as the third starter for some time now and considering the shaky performances from Joe Blanton and Dan Meyer this spring, he seems to be right on track.

  • The Cubs provided one of the worst programs so far. Not only was a list of NRIs - both Cubs and otherwise - completely absent, but the provided scorecard lacked a pitching section. We all know the Cubs pitching staff is having injury problems, but is it so bad that they just want us to forget that there's a guy throwing a ball towards the plate? I nabbed a copy of the supplemental Vine Line Guide off the seat next to me; it attempted to improve on those shortcomings with a list of players grouped into Roster Locks, On the Bubble, Long Shots, and Not Ready Yet. Among the interesting notes: closer Joe Borowski is "On the Bubble" to make the major league roster and "Long Shot" Peter Bergeron "can't hit big-league pitching." Considering Neifi Perez is a "Roster Lock," apparently that's not a prerequisite for a job.

  • Darrell May struggled badly against the A's yesterday, walking four and giving up five runs in 3.2 innings. May seems to have added a slight pause in his delivery, not quite Robb Nen's toe-tap, but a bit of a hover letting his body catch up before he plants his foot. I'm not sure if it's completely new, but it certainly wasn't working today. The A's have been hacking at more early pitches than their preached patience would dictate, so walking four requires even more wildness.

  • Latest in the line of super college relievers taken high in the draft, Huston Street finished the ninth inning. When pitching from the windup, Street nearly steps off the mound with his left foot before resetting his right on the extreme firstbase side of the rubber and delivering. He walked his first batter, so he switched to the stretch and there was little chance of him falling onto first base for the rest of the inning. He certainly worked slowly, taking a full 15 minutes to finish the top of the ninth, wrapping up the game in 1:57. It's amazing what a lack of television breaks between innings does for game length.

  • Twice I've overheard fans grumbling "We're going to be seeing a lot of that." The first time was after a Jeromy Burnitz strikeout. The other was when Ryan Klesko started complaining, this time about balls and strikes.

  • With injury questions swarming around Mark Prior and Kerry Wood like Cubs fans around a beer vendor, Sergio Mitre solidified his claim on a spot in the rotation with three decent innings. Rumors that Dusty Baker sent him to the bullpen to reach his 150 scheduled pitches could not be confirmed.

  • The Ranger lineup again gave hints of how deadly they can be against righthanded pitchers this season. With switch hitters Gary Matthews Jr. and Mark Teixeira complementing lefties Hank Blalock and once-and-future super-prospect Adrian Gonzalez filling out four of the top five spots in the lineup, the top of the Rangers order knocked around Paul Byrd and Joel Peralta for five innings, notching four runs and several "just missed" home runs.

  • With Scott Hatteberg on the away squad of a split squad game, the A's elected to play Erubiel Durazo at first base while Dan Johnson played DH. Durazo looked as inadequate as ever in the field and while Johnson's no Keith Hernandez, he's also no Durazo. Johnson should be in the mix in 2006, but hopefully he and Durazo's defensive positions will be switched by then.

  • The Rangers' top hitting prospect and #21 on our list, Ian Kinsler, entered the game late on Monday, playing second instead of his usual shortstop. He's been compared to current shortstop Michael Young and it's easy to see the similarity. He wasn't challenged in the field and managed only two fly balls to left in his two at bats, but he looked about as good as you can when getting out twice and standing around the dirt. With the infield already set for 2005, the Rangers will let him work in Triple-A for this season.

  • When he was part of a group of top pitching prospects in the Oakland system a few seasons ago, the biggest knock against Mike Wood was that he didn't strike out enough batters. He struck out five in three innings of shutout ball against the full Cubs lineup before leaving to allow Chris George - who had already been having a terrible spring - to yield six runs (five earned) in a third of an inning. If the Royals hadn't nabbed Todd Walker at the plate, George's ERA for the outing would have been infinite. Instead it was merely 135.00.

While it's nice to catch the top prospects like Barton and Kinsler, sometimes it can get a little tedious constantly looking up players with numbers higher than the temperature. But today's Rich Harden-Greg Maddux matchup at the A's game should prove to be one of the best of the spring. More on that next time.

Related Content:  The Who,  Inside The Park

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