- Big Surprise: The most shocking fact about the Red Sox season to date might be this: They lead the American League in net steals (SB-2*CS) with 11, second only to the Marlins (18), and lead all teams in stolen base percentage (81%). The Red Sox, who are usually slower that a drugged sloth superglued to a glacier, have already stolen 21 bases, and are on pace for 110 steals. That’s an amazing turnaround for a team who, as recently as 2000, stole 43 bases all season (and followed it up with just 46 in 2001). Boston has not had a 100-steal team since they did it back-to-back in 1973-1974, and have done it a total of just three times since Babe Ruth wore the uniform (the aforementioned 73-74, and in 1934 for their post-deadball record of 116 steals).
It would be easy to chalk the success up to Johnny Damon, who leads the team with six steals. But the Red Sox actually have five players with more than one steal–no other team in the AL, and only two in the NL (the Marlins with seven and the Diamondbacks with six), have more. Damian Jackson has five swipes, Nomar Garciaparra and Trot Nixon have three apiece, and even catcher Jason Varitek is getting in on the action, pilfering two bags.
- Wretched, Disastrous Performance: When Jeremy Giambi started the season hitting .158/.333/.368, the Red Sox front office could not have been happy, although they could take solace in the fact that he was still walking and hitting for power (when he did hit). However, since then Giambi has virtually disappeared, with the stathead fave hitting just .056/.190/.111 in limited playing time since then. His stunningly desolate .291 OPS over that span is less than the 2003 batting average of Rey Ordonez, Mike Matheny and the bad Alex Gonzalez. Giambi is severely under-performing even his 10th percentile PECOTA forecast. While it’s far too early in the season to worry, given his recent track record of performance, it is unnerving to see Kal Daniels as his Most Comparable Player according to PECOTA, and that of his 20 most comparable, eight have downward trends vs. just two with improving indicators.
- Noteworthy Non-Prospect:
Twenty-nine year old Lou Collier is more Triple-A-fodder than prospect, but he’s putting together a nice season, hitting .365/.451/.682, leading the International league in RBI, tied for 3rd in home runs, 7th in batting average, 4th in on base percentage, and 3rd in slugging. He did post a major-league-translated .296/.375/.475 in Ottawa last year, and .269/.328/.459 in 2000. His performance in 2003 in the major league equivalent of what Tim Salmon or Ryan Klesko has hit this year, and while that won’t continue, Collier could be a late bloomer that could help the Bosox as a utility player with some pop. Over the past three years, he’s played 30+ games at each of second base, third base, and outfield, as well as occasional appearances at first base and shortstop.
- Lineup Changes:
It’s been a little over two weeks since the Reds’ own version of the Saturday Night Massacre, so an initial look at the fallout from the moves is in order. The highest profile change occurred at the third base position, where Brandon Larson was unceremoniously sent back to Triple-A and Aaron Boone returned to his previous position. Larson’s early numbers at Louisville are a decidedly mixed bag, with him putting up the sort of power numbers that he posted last year in his return to prospectdom, but showing the relatively weak plate discipline and on-base percentage that plagued his earlier years in the minors. While the Reds would love to see the OBP come up as well, they may not wait too long before bringing Larson back because his replacements in the lineup are not playing well. Ryan Freel is proving to be about what has been expected over the past few years, namely a decent fielding infielder whose only offensive skill is working a walk. That’s mildly useful to have at the end of the bench, but not what you want in half of a platoon. Juan Castro is showing a little more pop but his track record says that won’t last long. Despite his struggles, recalling Larson before much longer is still probably the Reds’ best option for trying to salvage some form of decent lineup.
The pitching changes have worked out somewhat for the better, but given the wretched nature of the pitching staff, that isn’t saying much. Chris Reitsma has managed one strong performance against a weak hitting Dodgers team and one bombardment on Planet Coors. Since neither of these is that much a surprise, it remains to be seen just how much of an addition he turns out to be. Jeff Austin has looked somewhat better, managing to escape the giant pinball machine in Denver more or less unscathed. While at least for now Royals fans have pleasant thoughts to keep them occupied, the prospect of Austin finally reaching his potential after being dumped by KC has to be one to cause some sleepless nights.
- Noteworthy Prospect:
The Reds are desperate for pitching help these days and much attention has been focused on the group of starters now pitching for Chattanooga. The rotation of Bobby Basham, Josh Hall, John Koronka, Dustin Moseley, and Ryan Mottl would appear to be strong, with Mottl having the worst ERA of the bunch at 3.21. However there are some warning signs that all might not be as well as it looks on the face of things.
Basham came out of nowhere last year to put up spectacular numbers in the Midwest League and his 2.43 ERA would seem to be in line with that. However that ERA masks the fact that he has allowed almost as many unearned runs as earned runs. Furthermore his spectacular control of last year is not as sharp this year. Last year in 88 innings he walked a grand total of nine batters. This season in 30 innings he’s already up to eight walks. In and of itself that’s still an excellent ratio, but the rise in walks combined with a less severe but still significant drop in strikeouts indicates that Basham has plenty of adjustments still to make in the minors. That is true for all the pitchers in the Lookouts’ rotation, so while the Reds might be tempted to push them quickly up the ladder, they’d be better served in the long run by letting them get a full season at Double-A.
The Reds’ record so far has been something of a disappointment, and climbing back to respectibility in the near future will be difficult. Over the next four weeks, half of their games are against the Cardinals and the Braves. Six games against the Brewers will help, but maybe only enough to keep them out of the basement.
- Lineup Changes:
The future of this year’s Padres club definitely lies with the rotation. San Diego started the season with Brian Lawrence, Adam Eaton, Jake Peavy, and Oliver Perez as the club’s top four starters; all were coming off some measure of success in 2002 (or, in Eaton’s case, promising improvement in his performance while coming off of Tommy John surgery), and the foursome averaged less than 24 years of age entering 2003.
With Perez’s demotion to Triple-A Portland on May 1, the future has temporarily been put on hold. As the youngest player in the majors in 2002, Perez quickly became a fan favorite for the Friars. His varying arm angles, frequently overpowering fastball, and high-effort delivery are fun to watch, and the feeling that Perez is walking a fine line with his control helps make games exciting. He brought the same great stuff to the table in 2003, but in his six starts, Perez lost the struggles with control–24 BB in 27.1 innings–that he won in 2002. Fellow left-hander Mike Bynum, another young Padre pitching prospect, will take Perez’s place in the rotation.
None of the other three are in any danger of being sent down any time soon, but Lawrence, Eaton, and Peavy have had uneven starts to the season themselves. The pitcher-friendly confines of Qualcomm Stadium help boost the staff’s raw numbers, but after the team’s 1-7 rough stretch no Padre starter is above-average according to SNWL. The concurrent bullpen problems have led to lots of speculative talk about changing roles in the pitching staff, with a Perez-to-closer transition leading the way. Shifting Perez from a very promising 21-year-old starter to a MLB standard-issue 70 inning closer would be a disasterous misallocation of resources, especially considering his age and his effectiveness in a starting role as recently as last year. Luckily, there’s no indication that the club is seriously considering such a move.
A quick look at recent Padres history is a reminder that youth in the rotation is no guarantee of future success, with Heath Murray, Brian Meadows, and Sean Bergman the brand of mediocre young starter the team has optimistically given auditions to. Back to bad old Dave Eiland–the very definition of young and awful in his two seasons in brown pinstripes–and beyond, San Diego fans are wise to be suspicious of a youthful presence in the rotation. But these aren’t your father’s Padres; this is a talented young group with nowhere to go but up. Despite the mildly disappointing start, there’s no cause for worry here.
- Amazing Game:
Well, two of ’em, actually. On April 25, the Padres lost the deciding game of their three-game series to the Reds 7-6 despite outhomering Cincinnati 4-0. Just six days earlier, the team did the exact same thing, turning a 4-0 advantage in four-baggers into a 10-9 loss to the Rockies.
That’s even more remarkable than it probably seems; from 1978-2000, it only happened 37 times in the majors (including a game that Cory Snyder‘s swingin’ Indians lost to Chicago on July 3, 1987 where the White Sox were outhomered 5-0), and the Padres weren’t involved in either end of such a contest over that period.