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April 26, 2009

On the Beat

Setbacks on the Eastern Front

by John Perrotto

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The Braves have gone three straight seasons without reaching the postseason, their unprecedented run of 11 consecutive National League East titles having ended in 2006. "It still seems funny when October comes and we're sitting home," said Braves manager Bobby Cox. "When you become so accustomed to playing the postseason, it's a letdown when you don't make it."

After bottoming out with a 72-90 record last year that dropped them to fourth place in the five-team division, the Braves entered this season with legitimate hopes of making it back to the playoffs. They spent the winter bolstering their starting rotation, trying to return to what had made the organization so great in the first place. They signed right-hander Derek Lowe to a four-year, $60 million contract as the new staff ace. They also traded for White Sox right-hander Javier Vazquez, and even dipped into the Japanese free-agent market for the first time by signing righty Kenshin Kawakami, who Braves general manager Frank Wren personally scouted last summer.

The Braves are now 9-8, and though it's not a great start, Cox will take it under the circumstances. "We haven't put our full lineup on the field once all season," said Cox. "All the talk is about our improved starting pitching, but I think people forget that we will be putting in a pretty darn good lineup once we're healthy."

A potentially devastating loss could be catcher Brian McCann, who was placed on the DL on Saturday with an infection in his left eye. He has been bothered by dryness and blurred vision in the eye since participating in the World Baseball Classic last month. Neither drops nor new contact lenses have solved the problem, and he will be examined by the team optometrist on Monday in Atlanta.

McCann may need a second corrective LASIK surgery on the eye. Since no player has ever undergone that procedure during the season, it's hard to know exactly how long he might be out. While the Braves have a competent backup in David Ross, McCann would be difficult to replace; his .307 EqA was tops among NL catchers last season and second among major league backstops to the Twins' Joe Mauer (.316). "I don't think a lot of people understand that he is one of the best players in the game," Cox said. "He's a catcher who hits for power and is good defensively. I don't think there's a better all-around catcher in the game. I'll put him up there with anybody."

Left fielder Garret Anderson, signed as a free agent after spending the first 15 seasons of his career with the Angels, went on the disabled list Friday with a strained quadriceps. Third baseman Chipper Jones has been bothered by a bruised thumb, and shortstop Yunel Escobar sat out a few games with a strained abdominal muscle that he suffered while jumping up and down in the on-deck circle while trying to loosen up for an at-bat. All of the injuries have taken their toll on the Braves' offense, as it ranks 24th in the major leagues in runs scored with 4.1 per game, although they do rank seventh in the NL with a .265 team EqA.

The Braves are also counting on a rookie in center field, deciding to jump top prospect Jordan Schafer from Double-A to the majors at the end of spring training. Schafer homered in his first career at-bat off of the Phillies' Brett Myers, but he has struggled offensively and defensively. "He has all the talent to be an outstanding major league center fielder," Cox said. "We knew there would be some growing pains, and there have been. Once he relaxes and gets comfortable, though, he's going to be fine. We have a lot of faith in him."

The Braves have put most of their faith into the revamped rotation; holdover Jair Jurrjens leads the staff with 1.2 SNLVAR, while Vazquez is at 0.7 mark, and Lowe at 0.6. The Braves are 10th in the majors in runs allowed with 4.4 per game, and 13th in WXRL with a 0.60, though they've had some problems getting the game from the starters to left-hander Mike Gonzalez and right-hander Rafael Soriano in the late innings. "Our rotation has been fine," said Cox, and it has been, ranking third in the NL and fifth in the majors in team-wide rate of Support-Neutral value. "Jair is pitching great, Vazquez is throwing the ball well, and Derek Lowe is a throwback in the way he just takes the ball, goes out there, and knows exactly what pitch to make. Our problem is middle relief, but it's been a lot of teams' problem so far this season. We're trying to get it straightened out. If we do, I think we'll win our fair share of ballgames."

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It appears that the Phillies and Rays are having post-World Series hangovers. The Phillies, who won the Fall Classic last year, are 8-8, while the Rays, who went from having the worst record in baseball in 2007 to an American League pennant in 2008, are 7-11. "We've got some very professional players," said Phillies manager Charlie Manuel. "We've got some players who love the game just like they always did. But now we've also got some guys who I think kind of need to look back at how we got there and what we did to be a winning team. And I think sometimes you can get away from the fact that winning the game is the first priority."

One such player is left-hander Cole Hamels, who became a national celebrity after winning Most Valuable Player honors in the NLCS and the World Series. He's had an awful start, with a -0.5 SNLVAR after having injured his elbow early in spring training, and he admits that he failed to report in top shape because he had spent more time during the offseason making personal appearances than he had spent working out. "If it comes down to the end of the year and we lose the division by one game, I can easily raise my hand and say I [messed] up," Hamels said. "I didn't help my team in the first couple of games of the season. I should be ready, and by not being ready I'm jeopardizing the team. I pretty much didn't fulfill my end of the bargain and get ready the way I should have."

The Rays called a players-only meeting this past week to try to regain their focus. "We just wanted to get together and basically reassess and remind ourselves that we want to stay on our path," said first baseman Carlos Pena. "We were just looking at our mission statement."

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The Orioles have become all but irrelevant on the national scene following 11 straight losing seasons. They're hopeful that better days are ahead, however, after the major league debut of right-hander Brad Bergesen this past Tuesday, as he beat the White Sox while allowing three runs, only one earned, in 5 2/3 innings. "It was a tremendous performance," Orioles manager Dave Trembley said. "Great tempo. Great poise. Quality pitches. Didn't get rattled. And guys like playing behind him."

As an indication of how strong the Orioles' farm system is becoming, Bergesen wasn't ranked as one of the organization's top 11 prospects by BP's Kevin Goldstein coming into the season, even though he won the Jim Palmer Prize last year, which is awarded to the organization's best minor league pitcher. Left-handers Brian Matusz and Troy Patton and right-handers Chris Tillman, Jake Arrieta, Brandon Erbe, David Hernandez, and Jason Berken are all pitchers ranked ahead of Bergesen.

"This was a big day for everybody who follows the Orioles," Trembley said of Bergesen's debut. "This is the first step in that youth movement of guys coming up through the system and guys developing, us showing patience with them, making sure they're ready when they get here. They're not here yet. They won't get here for a while. Bergesen's the first guy. Let's enjoy him."

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The White Sox learned this past week that it's good to have fans in high places, as they received a private tour of the White House this past Monday during an offday between road series with the Rays and Orioles. President Barack Obama, of course, is a big White Sox fan.

White Sox reliever Octavio Dotel seemed to have the best time of all while meeting Obama, and he even asked for and received a hug from the President. "This is a guy I've been following," Dotel said. "It's exciting to see him. He's such a powerful man. I never met him before, and it's really, really neat to be around him. Just to be that close to him and have that chance, I saw the opportunity to ask for a hug. He said, 'of course.' That was really nice of him."

The White Sox brought Obama plenty of gifts, including a black White Sox jersey with his name and the number "1" on the back, a dozen autographed baseballs, t-shirts, and caps. The White Sox also were allowed to see some parts of the White House that aren't shown on public tours. "We got to see everything," Dotel said. "All we needed to see is where he lives. I'm telling you, it was great. He knows a lot about us. He's a big fan. I can tell he really enjoyed [the visit]."

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Major League Rumors and Rumblings: The Mets are considering sending left-hander Oliver Perez to Triple-A Buffalo. He has the right to decline the option and become a free agent since he has five years of major league service, but he would also be walking away from the three-year, $36 million contract that he signed as a free agent last winter. Meanwhile, Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen's job is in jeopardy. ... While Pedro Martinez has stepped up his workout in the Dominican Republic, it still appears that no one wants to meet his $5 million asking price, and there are whispers that his most likely landing spot is the Rangers, though the Nationals are also in the picture. ... If the Tigers are out of contention in late July, they will look to trade second baseman Placido Polanco, outfielder Carlos Guillen, and right fielder Magglio Ordonez, and are also likely to fire manager Jim Leyland. ... The Angels, desperate for starting pitching help after tragedy and multiple injuries have struck, are likely to wind up signing free agent Paul Byrd. ... Center fielder Jim Edmonds, who finished last season with the Cubs, is still hoping that someone signs him as a free agent.

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Interesting Facts:

  • Diamondbacks right-hander Dan Haren was 0-3 with a 1.89 ERA in his first three starts this season before beating the Rockies on Wednesday. Since 1983, the only other starting pitcher to lose his first three starts with an ERA below 2.00 was Juan Cruz, who was 0-3 with a 1.80 ERA for the 2002 Cubs.

  • Pirates first baseman Adam LaRoche is hitting .270 so far this season. Prior to this year, he had a .179 career batting average in April, the third-lowest by a National League player since 1900, ahead of Clete Boyer (.175), and Dal Maxvill (.174).

  • White Sox shortstop Alexei Ramirez hit his fifth career grand slam Saturday night in his 152nd career game. The last player to reach five slams faster in his career was the Tigers' Rudy York in the 1930s.

  • When the Cubs' Micah Hoffpauir homered off of the Reds' Micah Owings on Tuesday, it marked the first time in major league history that one Micah homered off of another Micah.

  • The Padres and Giants played the first game of the season that remained scoreless through nine innings on Wednesday. There were nine such games last season.

  • Reds closer Francisco Cordero became the 11th pitcher to record 100 saves in each league when he recorded his 100th NL save on Tuesday.

  • Right-hander Livan Hernandez joins his half-brother Orlando to become the third set of brothers to play for the Mets. The others are Mike and Tom Glavine, and Roberto and Sandy Alomar Jr.

  • Indians left-hander Aaron Laffey became the first pitcher since the Tigers' Les Cain in 1970 to induce double plays in five consecutive innings when he did so Tuesday against the Royals.

  • When the Giants' Randy Johnson held the Diamondbacks hitless through six innings last Sunday, it marked the 14th time in his career he has carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning.

  • Yankees closer Mariano Rivera saved a win for Andy Pettitte for the 57th time on Tuesday, tying the major league record for a duo set by the Athletics' Dennis Eckersley and Bob Welch from 1988-94.

  • The Giants drew 26,593 for their game against the Padres, the first time they had drawn less than 30,000 to a game at AT&T Park since it opened in 2000, a span of 656 games.

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Three series to watch in the early part of the week with probable pitching matchups:

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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Prospectus Q&A: Joe Ne... (04/26)
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