The defining play of the Yankees’ season–and perhaps the 2003 baseball season as a whole–is the March 31 collision at third base that dislocated Derek Jeter‘s left shoulder. Jeter, who was trying to take the uncovered bag, dove head-first into third just as Blue Jays’ catcher Ken Huckaby arrived to take a throw. Huckaby slid to block the bag and slammed into Jeter, causing the dislocation.
As bad as the injury looked at first, Jeter did not require surgery, which would have kept him out at least until the All-Star break and possibly beyond. He’s begun throwing, although he cannot field or swing a bat yet and won’t for another week or so. Jeter is currently in line for a return sometime in the second half of May, although the Yankees are being careful not to set a timetable. They have that luxury, with a 15-3 record.
Well, maybe they do. Fill-in Erick Almonte had some big hits immediately after his arrival, but he’s down to .231/.273/.327, with just one extra-base hit and one walk since abusing the Devil Rays’ pitching staff on the season’s opening weekend. The Yankees need Jeter’s bat in the lineup if they’re going to maintain a lead over the Red Sox.
Alfonso Soriano continues to hit like some freak from another planet. He’s at .373/.429/.663, with an extra-base hit every 7.5 at-bats. While on the surface his strike-zone judgment appears to have improved–five walks and 14 strikeouts in 83 at-bats–it hasn’t. Three of those walks are intentional, a side effect of the Derek Jeter injury, meaning that both his unintentional walk rate and K/BB ratio are even worse than they were last year (22 unintentional walks, 157 strikeouts). Soriano is hitting a ridiculous .449 when he doesn’t strike out, though, an improvement upon last year’s .388, in itself an impressive figure.
Whether Soriano can continue violating every known principle of hitting is going to be one of the more interesting story lines of the year. It’s hard to imagine someone possessing the skill to post a 900 OPS while striking out in 15% of his at-bats–eight times as often has he walks–but Soriano is now on month seven of doing just that.
The Yankees’ 15-3 start hasn’t come against the cream of the AL, as the team has played only the Twins, Blue Jays and Devil Rays to date. That changes immediately: Beginning Tuesday, the Yankees play 24 straight games against the American League West. The Yankees were just 17-15 against the West in 2002 while going 86-43 against everyone else, so this stretch should tell us whether this team really does have a chance of chasing the 114-48 record of the 1998 Yankees.
It doesn’t get easier after that: The Yankees follow up their run through the West with six games over 10 days against the Red Sox, the first time the two rivals see each other. We should know how the AL East is going to play out, runaway or race, by the end of the month.
The cliché about never walking off the island does not ring as true as it once did, with patient modern Latin players such as Rafael Palmeiro, Bobby Abreu, Carlos Delgado and Sammy Sosa thriving through a patient approach at the plate. But Ivan Rodriguez has always fit the stereotype to a tee, never having bested 38 walks in his career. You may have heard that Pudge walked five times on April 8, and likely passed that off as a fluke, but he now has 15 bases on balls in 17 games. Barring injury, or a Piccioloic renaissance, his career high is doomed.
The biggest baseball news in South Florida this past off-season was the inking of Rodriguez to a one-year $10 million rental. Rodriguez, 31, wants to have a big year and garner the long-term contract he could not land this past winter. As for the Marlins, well, figuring out what Jeff Loria is thinking is generally a fool’s errand. Rodriguez is a top-flight player, the best hitter the team has employed since 1997, but he might be available if the Marlins are out of contention in mid-season. He has already outlasted the other great catcher of his generation, Mike Piazza, whose tenure in teal lasted just five games back in 1998.
The Marlins publicly trumpeted this year’s team as being built around speed, defense, and pitching, which, in reality, was just a polite way of saying, “we can’t hit.” Though the offense has been solid so far–sixth in the NL in OPS through 19 games–the big story has been their base stealing, which brings back memories of Chuck Tanner’s Athletics. Jeff Torborg’s gazelles have pilfered 39 sacks, which is 24 more than any other team in the major leagues, while being caught just nine times. It isn’t just the little speedy guys; Derrek Lee, a 6’5″ 250 pound slugger, has eight steals in eight attempts. Once the team stops hitting–once, for example, Alex Gonzalez falls off from .361/.418/.738–Torborg might really have them start running.
According to Forbes magazine, the Marlins are the second-least valuable baseball franchise ($136 million vs. the Expos $113 million) and the team lost $14 million in 2002. This is the kind of loss teams like the Cubs and Braves claim, but in the Marlins case it is actually true. The Marlins likely have the worst stadium deal in baseball (paying rent to the man who raped them, H. Wayne Huizenga), the worst TV deal (outside of the Expos), and, as a chaser, no one goes to their games (29th in attendance last year, and they had to cheat to get that).
Team president David Samson recently approached Joe Arriola, the Miami city manager, saying that they wanted to build downtown on the site of Miami Arena. The Marlins originally said that they were willing to contribute only $100 million in rent payments, but were told that the city was not going to give them much help at all, outside of land and infrastructure. Although this might seem to be a large gap to bridge, the Marlins say that they want to have financing in place by the end of the year, with construction to start in 2004. The Marlins are long past the point of desperation, as the city likely realizes.
Thirty-seven runs in 14 games, a cool 2.6 runs per game. That’s Tiger Territory, and is what the Pirates’ bats have registered after tallying 33 in their opening four contests. It was silly to think that newcomers Reggie Sanders, Kenny Lofton, Randall Simon and Matt Stairs were going to transform the Corsairs into a run-scoring juggernaut, but the offense was expected to improve on its next-to-last standing of last year. Instead, Pittsburgh is but two runs away from ranking where it did at the conclusion of the 2002 season.
Most of the players in the lineup aren’t going to make Pirate fans forget Jermaine Allensworth, and based on their recent performance history, they shouldn’t be expected to. Still, the biggest problem is that the club’s two best hitters, Brian Giles and Craig Wilson, have combined for but seven hits.
In March, if somebody said that a slugging outfielder from the NL Central would be on the disabled list with leg problems in early April, you wouldn’t have batted an eye. The surprise is that the player in question is Giles, not Ken Griffey, Jr. (who has other medical woes). The durable Giles averaged 156 games played the last three seasons, but sprained a medial collateral ligament in his right knee sliding into second base. He will be out of action until at least the first week of May, and probably longer.
Besides the impossible task of trying to fill Giles’ shoes, there aren’t any changes to report. But there should be. While Giles’ injury was a cruel twist of fate, the pain caused by Craig Wilson’s absence from the lineup is self-inflicted.
Happily, the club chose to overlook Wilson’s defensive shortcomings and tabbed him as the backup catcher entering the season. However, Lloyd McClendon’s fear of being caught without a catcher in the late innings has kept Wilson nailed to the bench. Through yesterday, “C. Wilson” had appeared on the starting lineup card just three times, resulting in a grand total of 18 plate appearances.
In addition to his weekly start behind the plate, Wilson should be getting all the right-handed platoon at-bats at first base, plus a bunch at either corner outfield spot. If McClendon isn’t going to take advantage of Wilson’s sole strength–his bat–why bother having him on the roster?
Pick a pitcher, any pitcher. As much as the Pirates’ hitting has been a weakness, its pitching has been a strength, ranking fourth in the loop in ERA. That pales compared to its Triple-A Nashville farm team, though. The Sounds’ team ERA of 1.70 is almost half that of the second-best staff in the Pacific Coast League, and directly responsible for the team’s blazing 14-2 start.
After seven seasons bouncing back and forth between the majors and minors, John Wasdin spent last year in the Japanese Leagues. In his first contest back in the states, Wasdin fired the second perfect game in PCL history. In three starts, he has fanned 28 batters while walking one in 20 1/3 innings. Wasdin has had a strong K/BB ratio throughout his career, but the gopher ball has proven to be his undoing. Thus far in 2003, none of his pitches have left the yard. If that trend continues, Wasdin could be wearing black and gold when injury strikes Pittsburgh’s pitching staff. With brittle Jeff D’Amico as the Bucs’ fifth starter, that could happen at any moment.