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April 15, 2007

Every Given Sunday

Drought and Despair

by John Perrotto

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On the eve of the Washington Nationals' season opener, left fielder Ryan Church made a statement that could wind up being famous last words: "We see people predicting 48 and 100-something losses," Church said. "Come on, we can't be that bad." BP was among the gloomy, projecting the Nationals to go 66-96. Before winning two of three, the Nationals had gone 1-8.

However, that was only part of the story about how poorly Washington got out of the gate. In those nine games, they managed only 21 runs and were outscored 24-0 in the first inning. They fell behind by at least 3-0 in each game. They had a lead after only one of their first 630 plate appearances, that coming on April 4 when Dmitri Young's walk-off single beat Florida. Was there a bright side? "At least we know how to play from behind," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman told the Washington Post.

Washington was fully expected to have pitching problems. After all, the Nationals began the season with John Patterson as the ace of their starting staff, though he had all of 17 career victories in the major leagues coming into the year. The rest of the rotation consists of Shawn Hill, Matt Chico, Jason Bergmann, and Jerome Williams, pitchers who came into the season with a combined 27 major league victories: 23 by Williams, two each by Hill and Bergmann, and zero for Chico.

It didn't appear that offense would be such a concern for the Nationals, though, with a decent core of hitters that includes Zimmerman, the emerging Church, right fielder Austin Kearns, and Felipe Lopez. Yet, the Nationals went hitless in their first 30 at-bats with runners in scoring position this season.

Things got so bad that first baseman Dmitri Young was moved into the cleanup spot to replace Kearns. This is the same Young who appeared in just 48 major league games last season with Detroit because of injury and personal problems, and who was without a job until Washington offered him a minor league contract--without an invite to major league camp--just before spring training began.

"We haven't held up our part at all," Kearns said. "There's no worse feeling for a position player." Kearns nevertheless believes the offense will improve. It had better, as there is little help on the farm, with Triple-A Columbus' lineup including such graybeards as catcher Mike DiFelice, first baseman Andy Tracy, third baseman Fernando Tatis, and outfielder Ricky Ledee. "If we hit the panic button after the first week, come August I guess you guys would expect to see guys hanging themselves," Kearns said.

It isn't likely to get that bad, but the Nationals might be hoping to surpass that 48-win mark.

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The season is barely two weeks old, and already the closer carousel is turning. Houston's Brad Lidge was removed from the job after blowing his only save opportunity. Florida's Jorge Julio lost his job after blowing his first two save chances, and that was just days after being acquired from Arizona in a trade late in spring training.

Lidge gave up a game-tying home run to Pittsburgh's Xavier Nady with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning on Opening Night in a game the Pirates wound up winning in extra innings. In his next outing, Lidge was rocked for five runs in 2/3 of an inning by St. Louis, which was when Houston manager Phil Garner decided to move set-up man Dan Wheeler into the closer's role.

Lidge's career has been going downhill ever since the postseason in 2005, when he gave up Albert Pujols' game-winning home run for St. Louis in Game Five of the National League Championship Series, and then light-hitting Scott Podsednik's game-winning homer for the Chicago White Sox in Game Two of the World Series. Last season, Lidge had 32 saves, but was 1-5 with a 5.28 ERA in 78 games. He then gave up 11 earned runs in nine innings this spring.

"Obviously they've been difficult and disappointing," Lidge said of his struggles. "They're not the results that I want. But honestly I feel healthy. I feel good. I need to get some work in. I need to get out there and get my stuff back to where everyone has confidence in it. I think if it's one thing right now that's lacking, obviously there's not the same confidence in me that there was. That's disappointing for me, but I understand that the results aren't there and that's why. I want to get people confident in me again."

Garner insists that Lidge can win his job back if he pitches consistently in his new role as a middle reliever in front of set-up men Chad Qualls and Rick White. "Two games in this season is not a sample to say he's done as the closer," Garner told the Houston Chronicle. "I don't feel like that at all. What I feel like is that there's a little bit of a carryover from last year. I think he's not been as sharp as he should be. I want to give him, first and foremost, more consistent work. And secondly what I'm looking for out of this is that he again approaches where I think he feels like when he comes out of the bullpen that the game is done."

Down in Miami, Julio realizes he has to also regain consistency to get his old job back from hard-throwing rookie Henry Owens, who the Marlins acquired from the New York Mets in an off-season trade. "It's best for me now," Julio told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel of his being banished to middle relief. "I need to work on my game, especially my command. I like this team and I want to help it, not hurt it. We have a lot of games to go."

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The Pirates acquired first baseman Adam LaRoche from Atlanta in a January trade in the hopes that his left-handed bat would lift an offense that finished last in the NL in runs scored, home runs, and slugging percentage last season. So far, though, LaRoche has been a drag on the lineup. In nine games, he is hitting .088 with one home run and two RBI while striking out 15 times in 34 at-bats.

"I'm sure pressing has been part of it, but that's not the whole thing," LaRoche said. "I feel good in the box. I'm not up there with my head spinning, thinking I've got to do something I'm not capable of doing. That's been the frustrating part--I can't pinpoint what it is to fix it."

The Pirates, though, can take solace that LaRoche has been a slow starter throughout his young major league career. In three years with the Braves, LaRoche combined to hit .186 with nine homers in 77 games in April.

Pirates manager Jim Tracy says he is not concerned, and points to the fact that LaRoche increased his season home run output from 13 to 20 to 32 with the Braves. "The production has been there in this guy's career and it's been getting better each year," Tracy said. "He's going to hit. I'm sure of that. I'm the least bit concerned."

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White Sox General Manager Ken Williams has taken his share of criticism for trading two-fifths of his starting rotation over the winter by shipping Freddy Garcia to Philadelphia and Brandon McCarthy to Texas in trades that netted five pitching prospects, including John Danks and Nick Masset--who are on Chicago's major league roster--along with Gavin Floyd, Gio Gonzalez, and Jake Rasner.

However, Williams has a supporter in Oakland GM Billy Beane. It was Beane who traded away two members of the Athletics' Big Three starters following the 2005 season, dealing Tim Hudson to Atlanta and Mark Mulder to St. Louis. "What used to be risky could be the norm in a year," Beane told the Chicago Tribune. "For myself, in the market place, the biggest risk is to do nothing. In this day and age, with managing payroll and the 25-man roster as it relates to potential free agents, you have to see past the horizon more than you used to."

---

Even the most ardent Moneyball supporters believe there is a specific time and place for a stolen base, such as trying to gain 90 feet with the game on the line. The most memorable example of that in recent years was Dave Roberts' steal of second for Boston in Game Four of the American League Championship Series that sparked the Red Sox' unprecedented comeback from a 3-0 deficit to beat the New York Yankees in seven games.

However, late-game steals haven't been kind to the Los Angeles Angels this season. They have already had two games end with rookie pinch runner Erick Aybar getting thrown out at second base. Yet, Angels manager Mike Scioscia has no plans to throttle back on the running. "If we see an opening like that, we're going to stay aggressive," Scioscia told the Orange County Register. "At times we'll run into some outs and obviously it stings because it's the last out of the game. But we've also stolen many more bases late in the game which have won ballgames for us. This is the other side of the coin."

Scioscia said he has talked to Aybar and told him to keep it up. "We said, 'Hey, stay aggressive. Next time, you're going to be safe,'" Scioscia said.

---

From the Rumor Mill: Houston insists that Lidge is not on the block, but among the teams already said to be gearing up to make offers if he does become available are Tampa Bay, Colorado, Philadelphia, Boston, Florida, and Cleveland... Cincinnati would gladly trade left-hander Eric Milton, who is 16-24 with a 5.90 ERA in 61 starts since signing a three-year, $25.5-million contract as a free agent prior to the 2005 season. The Reds, though, would have to eat most of Milton's $9 million salary for this season to find a taker... Jorge Cantu, who had 117 RBI as Tampa Bay's second baseman two years ago, is seeing action at first base at Triple-A Durham as the Devil Rays attempt to increase his trade value... Freddy Garcia makes his debut for Philadelphia today against Houston after beginning the season on the disabled list with biceps tendonitis. While the Phillies insist Garcia is healthy, many scouts were concerned during spring training that his fastball velocity was 8-10 mph below what it was last season... Boston left-hander Jon Lester, who beat cancer during the offseason, has pitched eight scoreless innings in two starts on his injury rehabilitation assignment at low Class-A Greenville in the South Atlantic League. While Julian Tavarez is currently Boston's fifth starter, he will move to the bullpen as soon as the Red Sox feel Lester is ready to return to the major leagues.

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John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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