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May 7, 2010

On the Beat

Friday Update

by John Perrotto

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Coming into the season, the Blue Jays shaped up to be one of the dullest teams in the major leagues. They had traded ace pitcher Roy Halladay to the Phillies, and their most recognizable player, center fielder Vernon Wells, was noted primarily for having one of the biggest millstone-type contacts in the game. However, the Blue Jays are more than holding their own with a 17-13 record. They have also been playing exciting baseball, as they are leading the major leagues in home runs, and have a young starting rotation in which many of the members are beginning to blossom.

The Blue Jays have proven that there is life after Halladay, as they are sixth in the American League in runs allowed with an average of 4.17 a game. Ricky Romero, 25, has contributed 1.2 SNLVAR and Shaun Marcum, the rotation's elder at 28, has a 1.0 mark. Both pitchers have carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning already this season, as has 23-year-old Brett Cecil (0.7 SNLVAR). Marcum, who has inherited the ace role, theorized in spring training that the Blue Jays' rotation might actually be better without Halladay only because the young pitchers would be forced to carry more of the load with their top starter gone. It is turning out that way.

"If you looked at years past, it seemed like when we went through a good stretch of games, everybody was following Doc's lead," Marcum said. "Doc would go out and do his thing and then it was like everybody wanted to one-up him, which is hard to do. Doc is gone but you still want to go out there and go deep into the game and try to take as much pressure off the bullpen as possible. Now, instead of following Doc's lead, we're just trying to outdo each other every time through the rotation. We're all challenging each other to get better."

The Blue Jays' pitching staff was devastated by injuries last season, including losing Marcum for the entire year while he recovered from Tommy John surgery. However, the injuries gave Romero and Cecil the opportunity to pitch in the major leagues, and manager Cito Gaston believes the Blue Jays are reaping some benefits from a disappointing 75-87 season.

"The silver lining to last season is that we were able to give a lot of pitchers major-league experience and they've benefited from that," Gaston said. "We knew losing Doc would be tough but it was also time for his situation to be resolved. He wanted the opportunity to pitch in the postseason and deservedly so and we all wish him nothing but the best because he is a first-class guy. At the same time, we felt we had the pitching depth to put together a pretty good rotation, better than a lot of people outside the organization expected."

Few analysts could have predicted the Blue Jays to have one of the most power-packed offenses in the major leagues, yet the Blue Jays have gone deep 43 times and are sixth in the AL in scoring with an average of 4.7 runs per game. Wells and shortstop Alex Gonzalez lead the Blue Jays with eight home runs each, third baseman Jose Bautista has six, and designated hitter Adam Lind and catcher John Buck have hit five apiece. Wells had just 15 in 630 plate appearances last season, while Gonzalez has already matched his total from 2009, which he spent with the Reds and Red Sox.

Gaston, though, is somewhat uneasy about his team relying so much on the long ball, saying, "I've played on teams that have hit home runs, but you can't just live by the home run. I think if you had a couple of guys that can drop in a couple of base hits in there too along with the home runs, it's always good. But if you live or die with the home run, that's not good all the time. Still, we're about fourth or fifth in the league in runs scored and RBI, so you can't knock it right now."

Gaston also admits that he is surprised as anybody that his team is clearing the fences so often, stating that, "It's not like everybody is going up there trying to hit home runs. I don't get that out of these guys. I just think they're up there trying to hit the ball hard somewhere, and it so happens they're home runs. They're just happening right now."

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The Orioles would take a few more home runs or hits of any kind. They rank 13th in the AL in runs scored with an average of 3.4 a game, ahead of only the Mariners (3.2). The lack of production is frustrating everyone with the Orioles, including usually unflappable president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail. In fact, he even put out an ultimatum to the Orioles' hitters this week, telling them to start producing or face being demoted.

"I'm not staying with them forever. It's not a suicide pact," MacPhail said. "They either have to start performing or they'll go to (Triple-A) Norfolk. While you can give them some allowance for the quality of pitching that we've faced, our patience isn't inexhaustible. There is going to come a time where we're going to be obligated to keep making changes in terms of offensive personnel, and they're going to get the opportunity to head to Norfolk and hone their swings because they're not doing anything to help us now.”

Among the worst offenders have been shortstop Cesar Izturis (.184 TAv), center fielder Adam Jones (.212), designated hitter Luke Scott (.215), and left fielder Nolan Reimold (.244). First baseman Garrett Atkins (.229) has lost his starting job to rookie Rhyne Hughes.

The Orioles clearly miss their second baseman and leadoff hitter, Brian Roberts. Manager Dave Trembley has been juggling the batting order ever since Roberts went on the disabled list during the first weekend of the season with a herniated disc in his back.

"What more would you like me to say?" Trembley said. "What more can I say? I don't have any magic answers. I don't have them. I'm not here to make excuses. The facts are the facts. We haven't gotten it done with the opportunities that we've had."

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Many frustrated fans in Milwaukee are calling for manager Ken Macha to be fired, as the Brewers are off to a 12-16 start. That is nothing new, as there were also questions about his job security late last season when the Brewers finished 80-82 after winning the National League wild card and making their first post-season appearance in 26 years in 2008. Macha, though, insists he is not worried about his future.

"I go back to last year, when things were 'squeezing,'" Macha said. "I come to the ballpark, prepare my (butt) off, try to be upbeat with the players, pat them on the back, do our best to win as many games as we can. I think, for the most part, guys are playing hard, maybe to the point of having their statistics suffer because they're trying too hard."

Macha also says he has not lost a minute of sleep so far this season because of second-guessing himself, saying "I haven't gone home at all this year saying, 'Gosh, I should have done this or this. Self-evaluation is maybe blind at times, but that's the way I feel about it."

Brewers GM Doug Melvin is adamant that he does not blame the Brewers' slow start on Macha. Melvin and Macha have a longstanding relationship, dating to when they played together in the Pirates' farm system in the 1970s.

"We're not performing well, but Ken, I haven't seen him swing at a bad breaking ball yet," Melvin said. "I haven't seen him give up two runs, three runs in an inning yet. I evaluate every game, every series. We're not happy with the way we're playing right now. It's a funny game. There's some strange things happening in baseball, and we're part of that."

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MLB Rumors and Rumblings: The Padres will hold on to first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and closer Heath Bell if they are as much as within hailing distance of the NL West leaders in July. … Reds manager Dusty Baker is growing increasingly frustrated with second baseman Brandon Phillips not always giving his best effort. … The Pirates are privately regretting trading reliever Jesse Chavez to the Rays for Akinori Iwamura, and taking on the second baseman's $4.85-million salary. … Rookie Neftali Feliz is on a short leash as the Rangers' closer, and could be replaced by the pitcher he replaced last month, Frank Francisco. … Astros first baseman Lance Berkman says he would be willing to waive the no-trade clause in his contract in the right situation. … Left fielder Carl Crawford said he was misquoted by Sports Illustrated when it reported that he said he would not be back with the Rays in 2011. He is eligible for free agency after this season. Rays first baseman Carlos Pena, who is also eligible for free agency in the winter, says he, too, has not closed the door on re-signing.

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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