Arizona Diamondbacks

  • We Are So Smart, S-M-R-T: The thinking was, if the Diamondbacks lose Johnson or Schilling, they’re dead. Arizona could live with three mediocre starters behind the big two, because Johnson and Schilling are durable enough to give the bullpen its necessary rest. They only needed ordinary work out of the back three to get to October. Once they were in the playoffs they could beat anyone.

    There was no obvious Plan B. The minor league system, which for years has been scorned, had only one premiere pitching prospect, John Patterson. Patterson was slotted to break camp with the club, and the most promising pitcher behind Patterson was Brandon Webb, who had pitched only one game above Double-A. If the staff was hit with injuries, Tucson wouldn’t be the place to look for replacements. The 2003 Sidewinder rotation would have three guys–Webb, Andrew Good, and Steve Randolph–who didn’t even make our book this year.

    A lot has changed since March. Patterson made one start before being sent back to Tucson, and then Johnson and Schilling and Byung-Hyun Kim hit the disabled list. By necessity, the Sidewinders became Plan B. How many teams could survive if they lost their three best pitchers?

    Improbably, Plan B has worked so far. Going into Thursday, Arizona was 19-21, seven games behind San Francisco in the West. But consider that on April 12, with Johnson, Schilling, and Kim still in the rotation, the Diamondbacks were 2-9. Since then they have gone 16-12. Their overall Pythagorean record is 21-19. The Giants have been slumping (losers of five in a row after Thursday’s loss to Montreal), Schilling is back (complete game shutout Wednesday night), and Kim is expected to come off the DL in time for next week’s series at San Francisco. With Johnson due back by the All-Star break, the Diamondbacks appear to have survived the worst-case scenario.

  • Surprise Prospects: Webb and Good have been Spackle for the rotation. Randolph was in the pen, before going on the disabled list with a strained oblique, alongside 2002 Sidewinder Oscar Villarreal and Chris Capuano. All of them managed good numbers last year in leagues and parks that are rough on pitchers.

    Of this group, Webb is the most likely to be in the rotation next year. He’s a strikeout artist whose K-rate has survived the jump from Double-A to the majors. Good, a Tommy John survivor, had a 5-to-1 strikeout ratio last year in an extreme hitters’ park. Like the rest of these guys, he could use some months of low-leverage Weavering in the bullpen once the top three are back.

    Brandon Webb
                    ERA    G   GS   IP    H     BB     K        
    2002 Double-A   3.14   26  25  152    141   59    122
    2003 MLB        1.61   5    4   28    16    10     23
    Andrew Good
                    ERA    G    GS   IP     H    BB    K     
    2002 Double-A  3.54    28   27   178   170   26   127  
    2003 MLB       6.35     4    3    17    19    6     7

    Before suffering a torn ligament in his throwing arm last year, Capuano was Arizona’s best lefty pitching prospect, and may still hold that title. He came back earlier than expected and picked up right where he left off. He makes his first major league start this weekend.

    Chris Capuano
                      ERA    G    GS   IP     H     BB    K     
    2002 Triple-A    2.72    6     6   36     30    11    29
    2003 Triple-A    3.93    6     6   36.2   38    10    25   
    2003 MLB         5.40    2     0   3.1     1     4     1

    Villarreal, the righty, has been young for each of his leagues but has succeeded everywhere, including the majors. Randolph, the lefty, is 29 this May and just now breaking into the majors. His control has always been his defect, though he posted an ERA in the PCL’s top 10 last year despite walking 4.5 batters per nine innings.

    Oscar Villarreal
                      ERA    G   GS    IP     H     BB   K      
    2002 Double-A    3.74   14   12    84     73    26   85
    2002 Triple-A    3.36   10   10    64     68    22   40
    2003  MLB        2.63   21    1    27.1   20    18   22
    Steve Randolph
                       ERA    G   GS    IP     H    BB    K       
    2002 Triple-A     3.47   28   27    163   151   81   129   
    2003  MLB         5.28   13    0    15.1   17   11    13   

  • Upcoming Schedule: If Miguel Batista is on suspension, Good will get the start Friday against the Pirates, Capuano will start Saturday, and Webb finishes the series Sunday. The Diamondbacks can expect to get a maximum of six innings out of each of them. Plan A was to have Johnson and Schilling spell the bullpen. Instead, the bullpen has worked the second-most relief innings in the National League.

Kansas City Royals

  • Outstanding Performance: The MVP of the Royals to date has quietly been Desi Relaford, who trails only Mike Sweeney in OPS while starting at four different positions.

    Sixteen of those starts have come at second base or shortstop, meaning that the Royals have their first genuine offensive threat in the middle infield in five years. Consider these performances the last four years:

    • 2002: Neifi Perez: .236/.260/.303; Carlos Febles: .245/.336/.348

    • 2001: Rey Sanchez: .303/.322/.364; Carlos Febles: .236/.291/.363

    • 2000: Rey Sanchez: .273/.314/.322; Carlos Febles: .257/.345/.316

    • 1999: Rey Sanchez: .294/.329/.370; Carlos Febles: .256/.336/.411

    No Royal middle infielder has topped a 750 OPS in the last four years, and none has even scaled the dizzying heights of a 700 OPS in the last three.

    Relaford is currently hitting .323/.416/.490, a performance which not only towers over recent Royal history, but Royal history, period. Relaford’s batting average, OBP, and slugging average would all be team records for a middle infielder. His 906 OPS would destroy the current record of 845, set by Jose Offerman in 1998. (Frank White never posted an 800 OPS.)

  • Warning: Breakout Ahead: You read it here first: sometime in the next month, Jeremy Affeldt is going to have That Game. The game where he finally achieves national recognition–a two-hit shutout, a 13-K masterpiece, or maybe both.

    Affeldt has been the talk of the Royals since Spring Training 2002, and was the talk of baseball in Spring Training 2003. Recurrent bouts with blisters on the middle finger of his left hand are all that have kept him from pitching That Game already. But after his most recent blister, Affeldt has changed the grip on his fastball to take the pressure off the sensitive areas of skin. In his two starts since coming back, he’s whiffed 14 batters in 10 innings against just one walk. He’s allowed just one homer all year.

    A pitcher who doesn’t give up homers, doesn’t walk batters, and records lots of strikeouts sounds like a breakout candidate to me. Stratum corneum permitting.

  • Roster Shuffle: The better-than-expected performance of Kyle Snyder in his first three starts has put the Royals in a pickle. The silly experiment with a six-man rotation is, thankfully, expected to be put to rest after the Royals’ stretch of 20 games in 20 days ends this Sunday in Toronto. So who gets dropped?

    After impressing the Royals with both his performance (one run in 6.1 IP) and his efficiency (just 74 pitches) in his last start against the Twins, expect Snyder to keep his place in the rotation. The odd man out is Darrell May, who is expected to move to the bullpen, giving the Royals a left-handed relief option for the first time all year. May had a 7.88 ERA in nine relief appearances last year, but also posted a 19-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 16 innings, a ratio significantly better than he’s shown as a starter, so the move may work out best for all concerned.

  • Mr. Clutch: Ken Harvey is your typical unassuming rookie. To look at his numbers, you’d never give him a second thought–he’s hitting .254/.315/.430 as a DH/first baseman. But when the game is on the line, Harvey heads to a phone booth to change.

    He’s hit game-winning homers against Baltimore in the eighth, against Toronto in the ninth, and against Detroit in the 11th. He’s tied a game with a two-out pinch-hit single in the ninth. He started the Billy Koch death watch with a two-run, two-out single in the bottom of the eighth with the Royals losing by a run. He was accused of stealing signs after hitting a tie-breaking homer off Buddy Groom.

    In 25 plate appearances in what STATS defines as “Close and Late” situations–any time from the 7th inning on with the Royals tied, leading by a run, or with the potential tying run on deck–Harvey is hitting .500/.560/.955 with three homers and 16 RBI in 22 at-bats. He’s recorded 76% of his RBI in situations that comprise just 19% of his at-bats.

    No, I’m not implying that Harvey’s performance has any meaning other than to illustrate what can happen in small sample sizes. But every surprising team needs a cult hero. The Royals have found one in Harvey.

Philadelphia Phillies

  • Lousy Luck: Brett
    has to be feeling snakebit at this point. While he has three losses,
    he has yet to have a truly awful start. In fact he’s only had one outing that falls short of a quality start. Here is his pitching line from the three starts where he’s picked up a loss.

                    IP H  R   BB SO
    4/6 vs Pit      6  4  1   4  11
    4/16 vs Fla     7  7  3   3  4
    5/14 vs Ari     8  4  1   1  6

    Unfortunately in those three games he has had the misfortune to go up
    against Kris
    , Brad
    , and Curt
    when each of them was on top of his game. In those three games the Phillies have scored a grand total of one run in support of Myers.

    The key for the future will be for Myers to not get frustrated. Until this year he had to deal with any sort of adversity by blowing fastballs past people. This year he has been mixing in his curveball and slowly developing a changeup, and that combination of pitches has made him far more effective.

    As long as pitching coach Joe Kerrigan, Kevin Millwood, and anyone else who has Myers’ ear can drive it into his head that he shouldn’t change
    anything, then once the offense starts hitting behind him, the wins will come.

  • Wretched Performer: A key factor in the Phillies’ chances of competing for the NL East will be how long it takes Larry Bowa to realize that Jose Mesa is toast. The two most successful Phillies teams of the past 25 years (1980 and 1993) both featured closers who had a tendency to get into tough situations, but in the end managed to “just get the job done” and Mesa would seem to fit right in line with those pitchers. Still, in what’s shaping up as an incredibly competitive NL East, the Phils will need every edge they can get.

    For Mesa, the fall began last year. In particular, his control has slipped dramatically, going from 2.60 BB/9 in 2001 to 4.64 last year and 4.24 this year. While the rise in walk rate is bad enough, it has been accompanied by an increase in his hit rate (7.73 H/9 last year to 11.65 this year) and a collapse in his strikeout rate (7.61 K/9 last year to 3.71 this year). Mesa is no longer able to effectively use his curve ball, and as a result hitters are sitting on his fastball, which is not good enough to be effective without a complementary pitch.

    If the Phillies are serious about winning this year, they need to stop bringing Mesa into close games. If they want to bring him into three-run-lead save situations to try and work on regaining his stuff, that’s reasonable. But bringing him into tied or close games is too much of a risk right now. While Turk Wendell comes with a dubious track record, he has been effective so far this year. As least for the time being they could do worse than bringing him into the close games.

  • Star Performer: While some hitters in the Phillies lineup could reasonably be expected to lead
    the majors in production for their
    position, not many expected Mike
    to be one of them. In fact, Lieberthal’s production has early-season fluke written all over it. Over the past few years Lieberthal has shown a very pronounced platoon split. Between 2000 and 2002, he hit .355/.443/.592 against lefties but only .250/.319/.401 against righthanders. This season he’s batting .333/.368/.389 against lefthanders and a gaudy .347/.420/.571 against the righties. If those numbers return to historical norms he’ll still be a productive catcher, but won’t be as strong as he has been so far this year.