The Sweet Scent of Spring Mailbag

Don’t Mess With Texas

AP PHOTO/THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

The 30: Welcome Back, Baseball

We're only a few days in, but we need to remind everyone not to hit the panic button and not to print playoff tickets. All that plus the rest of our MLB rankings.

Baseball is back! And so, too, is The 30, Grantland’s weekly ranking of all 30 teams.

Every Monday through the end of the season, we’ll evaluate each team based on a combination of recent play, overall team quality, and statistical analysis. Win-loss record will be considered. But so will run differential, team health, and plenty of other factors.

You can stack the caveats up to the ceiling this early in the season. The Rockies might own the best record and best run differential in the game, but we don’t yet have enough evidence to suggest they’re one of the best teams in baseball rather than a team that got hot for a few days and beat up on the horrendous Padres. The Tigers might be looking up at the Twins six games in, but the Week 1 rankings won’t reflect that. On the other hand, the Braves are 5-1 and come with high preseason expectations … but both Jonny Venters and Freddie Freeman have hit the DL, so they get dinged a bit for that. More broadly, we’ll need more time until key stats, and thus run totals and records, start to mean something. As the season goes on, we’ll start to take actual records (and run differentials, which mean just as little as records after one week) more seriously and give underachieving clubs less credit for on-paper talent and reputation.

One more thing: You’ll find the actual rankings in the sidebar on the right, with every team’s record and run differential listed. We’ll be profiling four to six of those teams per week — not in any pattern other than “some interesting stuff happened this week; let’s talk about it.” So no, I didn’t miss Jeff Samardzija pitching like peak Pedro Martinez, Jose Fernandez’s impressive major league debut, Saturday’s Upton Here show, and all the other cool stuff that happened. We’re just saving the Cubs, Marlins, Braves, and 23 other clubs for another time. Assuming my second-grade math teacher didn’t mislead us, your favorite team will get profiled about once every six or seven weeks.

Just need to figure out what the hell’s going on here, get this guy some counseling, acknowledge this guy and especially this kid, help this guy update his OkCupid profile … and we’re off.

Many of the stats and facts below are courtesy of the indispensable ESPN Stats & Info.

1. CINCINNATI REDS

The Reds are swimming in frontline talent, from Joey Votto to Brandon Phillips, Jay Bruce, Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Aroldis Chapman, and Todd Frazier. But one of the biggest reasons to get excited about this team is something subtler: Unlike other clubs, even far more expensive ones, the Reds also have plenty of contingency plans.

They’ve already exercised one of them, and it’s one that figures to result in very little downgrade for Cincinnati’s lineup. Starting left fielder Ryan Ludwick tore cartilage in his right shoulder on Opening Day, creating a hole that has been filled by Chris Heisey. In theory, Ludwick being out for the expected three months or more could be devastating to the Reds. After all, we’re talking about a player who hit .275/.346/.531 last year, with 26 homers in just 125 games. But there was no good reason to expect a repeat performance this year, not with Ludwick turning 35 in July, and not just one year removed from a replacement-level season. In Heisey, the Reds will deploy an inferior hitter, though also a player who makes up for his so-so offense with other skills: He runs much better than Ludwick does, fields much better than he does, and still has above-average power, even if his on-base skills are lacking. In a hypothetical world in which both players got 500 plate appearances this year, projecting both to be about two-win players wouldn’t be all that far-fetched. And of course if Heisey falters or another outfielder gets hurt, there’s always Billy Hamilton, whose raw speed, both on the basepaths and afield, might be enough to make him a two-win player.

The Reds have a pretty exciting Plan B waiting in the wings at another position, too. Tony Cingrani has never been regarded as an elite prospect, topping out at no. 82 on Baseball America‘s list this year. But he’s been supremely effective every stop of the way. In 203⅓ minor league innings, Cingrani has struck out a jaw-dropping 266 batters, walked 59, and given up just 133 hits and 10 home runs. Though the theme of this week’s column is not to overreact to extreme starts, the Reds certainly don’t mind that Cingrani’s first start featured six innings of no-hit ball with 14 strikeouts. If suspect fifth starter Mike Leake can’t produce, it would almost certainly be Cingrani, not Chapman as previously assumed, who would join the rotation. If 200-plus innings on the farm are to be believed, he’d have a good chance to be as good as Leake at the back of the rotation, and very possibly better.

The Reds can still drive you nuts if you stop to think about them for too long, mostly because of their manager. Dusty Baker has earned plenty of plaudits for his ability to manage a clubhouse. But as a tactician, he was, is, and probably always will be awful.

There are little, isolated incidents, such as the two sacrifice bunts he ordered on Opening Day, one taking the bat out of the hands of Bruce, the other out of the hands of Votto, who’s only one of the three best hitters on Earth.

Then there’s the bigger stuff, such as neutering the top of the lineup last year with prolific outmakers Drew Stubbs and Zack Cozart while Votto sat on the DL. There’s also his plan for the Reds’ outfield following the Ludwick injury. The optimal outfield alignment would put Bruce and Shin-Soo Choo at the corners, with Heisey, who has center-field experience and is simply a better option than Choo at that position, in center. The Reds might’ve originally wanted to keep Choo at his Opening Day spot, perhaps until they knew how long Ludwick would be out. Now that they know Ludwick’s out at least half the season, with Choo a free agent at year’s end, Hamilton a strong bet to be the Opening Day center fielder in 2014, and a legitimate shot at a World Series this year, they really should revisit this decision sometime soon.

Meanwhile, watching Chapman enter the ninth inning of Sunday’s game, up 6-3, then finishing off Denard Span with an unhittable 101 mph fastball, was a stark reminder that the Cuban Missile’s talents are being wasted. There’s real debate about whether Chapman could thrive in the rotation as a two-pitch pitcher, while also needing to pace himself through six, seven, or eight innings every five days. He also probably wouldn’t touch triple digits too often if forced to conserve his energy every time out. But giving Chapman a true fireman’s role, where he could come in with the bases loaded in a tie game in the seventh inning, douse a rally, then pitch multiple innings at a time in the vein of peak Goose Gossage, could greatly enhance his value. Fat chance of that, of course. Baker might bungle multiple, seemingly obvious tactical decisions. But when it comes to using dominant relief pitchers to their full potential, Baker’s one of 30 skippers who will rarely, if ever, break convention. He’ll just have to rely on his star-studded core, plus the team’s homegrown depth, to steer the Reds back into October.

12. TORONTO BLUE JAYS

A brutal start, capped by a 13-0 shellacking Sunday, at home, with the team’s ace offseason acquisition, R.A. Dickey, pitching. For all the suffering that Toronto sports fans have had to endure since the last time the Jays made the playoffs, they could be forgiven for getting pissed off over the team’s slow start, and especially Dickey’s.

His first start was ugly from the first pitch. That first offering was a knuckleball, up and in on Michael Bourn, that squirted away from J.P. Arencibia. No harm, no foul with no one on base, of course. But that pitch would be the first of seven mishandled by the Jays catcher that day, including three passed balls that had more than one observer running to Baseball-Reference.com for the list of most passed balls in a season.1 Though Arencibia did cost the Jays a run, Dickey dug most of the hole himself, walking four batters and ceding five hits (including an Asdrubal Cabrera homer) while needing 104 pitches to get through just six innings. Though he escaped after giving up a not-so-terrible four runs, that was enough for the Indians to cruise to a 4-1 win.

If Dickey’s first start was ugly, his second one was hideous. The Red Sox pounded him for five runs in the first, capped by Will Middlebrooks’s two-run homer (his first of three on the day). The five runs and one homer matched Dickey’s total output for the first inning … of all his 2012 starts combined. All told on Sunday, Dickey surrendered eight runs on 10 hits, with two walks, two homers, and six extra-base hits. His line after two starts: 10⅔ IP, 15 H, 12 R, 10 ER, 6 BB, 9 K, 3 HR. You might be more inclined to excuse those two starts if Dickey hadn’t also struggled this spring, both in Grapefruit League action and during the World Baseball Classic. It might seem less concerning if he weren’t moving from the National League to the higher run-scoring environment of the AL East. On that last point, competition probably didn’t have much to do with it on Sunday: Dickey missed badly with location, grooving pitch after pitch that Triple-A sluggers, let alone a respectable Red Sox lineup, could’ve hammered.

So why is it too soon to push the panic button in Toronto? Let’s start with this: If we’re going to freak out over Dickey, we have to do the same with Stephen Strasburg, David Price, Matt Cain, and Cole Hamels, all of whom got roughed up on a terrible day for aces. There’s also precedent for this kind of slow start to a season for Dickey, even if we only start counting from his successful years. In fact, in his third start last season, he posted a line very similar to Sunday’s, allowing eight runs in 4⅓ innings against the Braves. In his next 11 starts, he went 9-0 with a 1.21 ERA. Are you concerned that, based on one start, the AL East might be Dickey’s undoing? If we’re going to obsess over such small samples, we can highlight Dickey’s two straight one-hitters (with 25 combined strikeouts) against AL East opponents last June. Expanding it to Dickey’s rotation mates, should we really draw conclusions based on a Red Sox series in which Boston smacked Dickey and Josh Johnson, but got whitewashed by, of all people, J.A. Happ?

We simply don’t have anywhere near enough evidence to suggest Dickey’s in trouble. Meanwhile, unlike the next two teams featured, the rest of Toronto’s roster is in good shape. Brett Lawrie looks set to start a rehab assignment soon, and just about every other significant player on the roster is healthy. If you believe the Jays were good enough to deserve their lofty winter projections, nothing has happened that should make you change your mind.

27. MILWAUKEE BREWERS

Two on, two outs, bottom of the 11th, Brewers trailing by a run, Heath Bell on the mound for Arizona, pitcher’s spot due up. Manager Ron Roenicke looks down the bench, then signals for his best available pinch hitter: Kyle Lohse.

Here are a few legitimate reasons why this happened:

• Ryan Braun’s neck injury has forced him to the sideline, leaving both the lineup and bench shorthanded. Braun was actually used as a decoy in the on-deck circle before Roenicke pulled him back and used Lohse instead.

• Starting shortstop Jean Segura left the game earlier with a quad injury, further eating into the Brewers’ already depleted bench.

• Since Lohse signed with the Brewers right at the end of spring training, there was some concern he couldn’t go deep into games, prompting Milwaukee to carry an extra pitcher to make up for that potential lack of innings in his first few starts.

Now for the real reasons: Terrible roster construction, and a Brewers team that may, in fact, be boned.

The extra pitcher the Brewers decided they had to have gave them a 13-man staff. That is, in analytical terms, Bonkerstown. Let’s forget for a moment that 12-man staffs are already excessive, that inevitably the 12th man is some scrub who does little more than sop up empty innings when the score gets out of hand. That the days of the ace pinch-hitter have all but vanished, leaving teams with two or three situational relievers who can succeed only in very specific circumstances and in very short bursts, with few to zero useful bats available in reserve as a result. That carrying gigantic pitching staffs is even worse in the National League, where having a pitcher’s spot in the order requires a deeper and better bench, one populated by players who can actually hit, field, and run. The real killer in all this is that it’s April, the month that offers a day off in each of the first four weeks, with little to no wear and tear on the pitchers’ arms yet because, you know, it’s April. That the Brewers set up their roster this way on purpose is infuriating and flabbergasting.

A manager who chooses to run his team this way may well give away a few more games this season, if his future tactics are equally savvy. But Sunday’s game underscored the deeper problems that plague this team, and that make me want to stab myself in the eye for not ordering a blitzkrieg on Brewers Under 80½.

For starters, the starting corner-infield tandem Sunday was Yuniesky Betancourt and Alex Gonzalez. (Read that again.) Injuries to Corey Hart, Mat Gamel, and most recently Aramis Ramirez are partially to blame. But it’s hard to imagine any other team producing such horrific alternatives, even after three significant injuries, even with two of them to very good players. De facto ace Yovani Gallardo has already caused some hand-wringing with his fastball velocity dipping. Last year’s breakout rookie Mike Fiers is a ticking time bomb, given that no other current right-handed starter has shown sustained success throwing mid-to-high 80s fastballs, other than Jered Weaver … and Mike Fiers is not Jered Weaver. Nominal closer John Axford, who helped boost Wisconsin beer sales by approximately 172 percent last year2 with his terrible command and bloated home run rate, has looked even worse this year and is probably going to lose his job soon.3 Then there’s Braun, whose absence cripples a lineup already seriously weakened by Ramirez’s absence, with the specter of MLB reportedly seeking a Braun PED suspension looming over the team.

It’s one week, and things almost have to get at least marginally better after such a nightmarish few days. Still, 78 wins and a fourth-place finish might prove to be too optimistic, the way things are going.

29. SAN DIEGO PADRES

Watching Edinson Volquez get creamed by the Mets to start the season, a thought immediately crossed my mind: Is Volquez the worst Opening Day starter ever?

Turns out “ever” is a lofty standard.

Just a delightfully eclectic mix of pitchers here, headed by the legendary Steve Blass. Not familiar with the former Pirates hurler? Blass was one of the best pitchers in baseball in 1972, going 19-8 with a 2.49 ERA,4 249⅔ innings pitched, and a runner-up finish in the NL Cy Young race. The next season, the right-hander suffered the biggest collapse by a pitcher in baseball history, walking 84 batters, with 12 HBPs and nine wild pitches … in just 88⅔ innings. That 9.85 ERA season was so iconic that whenever a pitcher completely loses his ability to find the strike zone over an extended period of time, we still call it Steve Blass disease.

So OK, Volquez probably isn’t going to plunge to such depths, not even after getting pounded for four runs and nine hits Sunday at Coors Field, leaving his ERA at 10.00 after two starts. He’s also got no shot to catch Steve Blass disease, because he already has worse control than maybe any other pitcher in the game, including a league-leading 105 walks last year.

That a pitcher of such dubious pedigree would be the Opening Day starter for the Padres tells you how far this pitching staff has fallen. Injuries have played a huge role in the rotation’s Volquezisation. Cory Luebke, who’d started to emerge as one of the best young lefties in the game in 2011, made just five starts in 2012 before going under the knife for Tommy John surgery. Joe Wieland, a promising young right-hander, hit the operating table himself two months later. Casey Kelly, one of the main pieces in the big Adrian Gonzalez trade with the Red Sox in 2010, had TJ himself just last week.

If the Padres’ only affliction were a string of pitching injuries, that’d be easy to understand, given how common major surgeries for young arms still are. But there’s a lot more going on in San Diego, some of it the result of bad luck, some of it due to lousy decision-making, some of it iffy public relations. The other major piece to the Gonzalez trade, Anthony Rizzo, looks like a potential top-10 first baseman … but he’s now a Cub, having been dealt for right-hander Andrew Cashner. Cashner has an electric fastball with triple-digit velocity … but he can’t stay healthy, and he’s languishing in middle relief while the Padres rotation burns, at least for now. Rizzo was deemed expendable because the Padres acquired first baseman Yonder Alonso (and three other players) for staff ace Mat Latos … only there’s real question over whether Alonso will ever hit for power, while Latos anchors the rotation for a World Series contender in Cincinnati. The prize of the Latos deal was probably catcher Yasmani Grandal … only he’s been suspended for PED use, casting doubt over his future.

There’s much more. Chase Headley had a career year in 2012, came into this offseason as either a prime contract extension candidate or prime trade candidate … and neither happened. Now he’s got a fractured thumb that’ll keep him out for most if not all of April, and given the track record of thumb injuries for other players, could continue to eat into his value as the season goes on.5 The Padres have in fact been aggressive in signing other arbitration-eligible players to extensions, but those deals have yielded spotty results, with even Nick Hundley’s dirt-cheap three-year, $9 million deal somehow being a bust a year and change into it.

Slap a dollar sign on any Padres analysis and you can drop into a rabbit hole of financial mishaps, starting with John Moores and his partners walking away with a big chunk of the Padres’ lucrative new TV deal as a condition of last year’s franchise sale. Also, much of San Diego County can’t watch Padres games because of an ongoing cable dispute, one that froze out 42 percent of viewers in the county last year and 22 percent now. A Padres fan named David Marver made a documentary called Padres: The Sad Truth, which takes ownership and management to task for poor decision-making, promises allegedly made and broken, and the team’s perennially rock-bottom payrolls. The Padres can make several reasonable counterarguments, such as that winning tends to beget spending more than vice versa; that the free-agent market hasn’t been particularly attractive over the past couple years; or that making $17 million a year in stadium payments, along with needing to maintain an undisclosed amount of funds in available free cash flow to satisfy three different lenders, puts a big strain on the team’s ability to spend.

But even if both sides have a point,6 the bottom line is the Padres simply don’t have nearly enough good players in the majors, or even close to the majors. That’s a function of a farm system that has been terribly broken for much of the team’s existence. There’s a longer article to be written about how little top-shelf talent has been drafted, developed, and nurtured into big league stardom by the Padres, and how much moves like drafting Matt Bush over Justin Verlander (to save money) and Donavan Tate over Mike Minor, Shelby Miller, Mike Trout, and others (who the hell knows why) have hurt the team’s fortunes. Today, there’s hope in the lower minors, with a strong Class A Fort Wayne TinCaps rotation headed by last year’s first-round pick Max Fried the jewel of the system. But we’ve already established what can happen when you pin your hopes on young arms: Who knows what the big league team will look like when the highly touted next generation of pitchers finally makes The Show … assuming more than one or two make it at all?

So sure, we shouldn’t overreact to any team’s first week, not even one in which a team with the worst starting rotation in baseball somehow doubles down by scoring only 14 runs in its first six games. But when you look at the Padres’ hopes for contention, they look pretty grim. Now, and for the foreseeable future.

Filed Under: Baseball, Jonah Keri, MLB, People, Sports, Teams

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Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

Archive @ jonahkeri

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